June 28, 2014

Book of Happy - Sidebar: The Cover Versions

In the modern age you know your song is breaking if it's on The X-Factor and people are covering it on Youtube.  The band Boyce Avenue has made their way in the world through a deft combination of original work, live touring, and well-done acoustic Youtube covers.  Here is how Happy sounds when they play it in kind of a rock/blues style:

I particularly like this one because Manzano omits some of Pharrell's vocal flourishes.  He knows the song sounds fine without them, and it's actually very hard to sing it the way Pharrell does without sounding silly.  Overall the more minimal treatment actually makes it a little easier to hear the rhythmic tension/release that makes the song so catchy.

There are lots of other covers, of course, and of course most are bad.  I've already stated my admiration for the Pomplamoose lounge-ish mashup, which in all candor is probably the closest approximation of my interior experience ever committed to digital video coding.

But I think the first cover I heard, and the one that got me interested in the song, is also the best.  These Detroit Elementary School kids do not need Auto-Tune:

It's not a happy song, it's a hymn.

Think I'll play it again.

Labels: ,

June 26, 2014

You magnificent bastard

I have founded, co-founded and funded more than 30 companies across a range of industries—from itsy-bitsy ones like the night club I started in my 20s to giant ones like Amazon.com, for which I was the first nonfamily investor. Then I founded aQuantive, an Internet advertising company that was sold to Microsoft in 2007 for $6.4 billion. In cash. ...  I own a very large yacht.

But let’s speak frankly to each other. I’m not the smartest guy you’ve ever met, or the hardest-working. I was a mediocre student. I’m not technical at all—I can’t write a word of code. What sets me apart, I think, is a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future. Seeing where things are headed is the essence of entrepreneurship. And what do I see in our future now?

I see pitchforks.


June 25, 2014

Book of Happy - Chapter 2: The Song

There's no nice way to say this, happiness is dumb.  There's a reason we say people are "fat and happy."  Dumb.  It means they're dumb.

This is a happy song that is also dumb:

The odd thing about Happy is, it's not all that happy, either musically or in its lyrical content.  It is energetic, engaging, even defiant, but my contention is that Happy is not happy, at least not in the conventional sense of the world.  It has as little do with Herman's Hermits as the Bhagavad Gita does with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

Listen to the tone of the music:

In the ascension to the chorus, Pharrell sings "because I'm happy..." not in a major progression, but in a minor one, with a blueing whole step as the third note of the chord.  This sets up an immediate and disquieting tension between the ostensibly happy lyrics and the more ominous musical context.  The harmonies behind the chorus and the female "happy happy happy happy" background chant again are nowhere near a major key, and the voices themselves sounds strained, even anxious.

What prevents complete implosion is the positive call-and-response, in which Pharrell encourages us, through his masterful vocal performance, to clap along if...  If what?  Yeah, good question.  Here are Pharrell's koans, and you can tell me how happy they are:
  • "Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof."  For me this implies ecstasy, not happiness, and with a specifically religious connotation.  Happy has strong gospel influences (more on this another time), and Pharrell looks upward as he sings.  He is saying:  clap along if you are consumed with religious ecstasy.  Are you?
  • "Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth."  What, wait?  No one thinks that.  Keats said beauty was truth, and I thought that myself until I met some very untruthful beauties.  Socrates thought the truth arose from the acknowledgement of your own ignorance.  The Buddha thought the truth was always accessible, if one could set aside cravings and emotions (like happiness) to experience it.  But happiness is truth?  When I was in college we heard a girl say:  "my philosophy is to always be happy."  We laughed and laughed.
  • "Clap along if you know what happiness is to you."  Why am I not clapping?  Well, because that's a hard question.  What is happiness?  Who are we?  Why are we here?  When should we feel happy?  This guy is throwing stuff into a pop song that belongs in a graduate seminar in phenomenology, and moving along like it ain't no thing.
  • "Clap along if you feel like that's what you want to do."  Ok, that part I get.
So if Happy is not happy, what is it?  I believe Pharrell is singing about a state of mind far from conventional happiness, and he gives strong clues as to its nature in the second verse:
Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah,
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back, yeah,
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah,
No offense to you, don’t waste your time

...and in the earnest, imploring break:
Bring me down, can't nothin'
Bring me down, my level's too high
Bring me down, can't nothin'
Bring me down...

Pharrell is describing a kind of joyous freedom, one in which adverse events cannot affect his equilibrium.  It is not intoxication or madness - he is fully in control of his faculties.  He has reached a place - real or imagined - in which he is suffused with joy and cannot touched by the dirt of everyday life.  The closest analog I can think of is the Tenth Bull of zen, a description of the highest state of enlightenment, in which the bodhisattva wanders in the world:
Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; now, before me, the dead trees become alive.

The happiness of Happy is not giddy or lighthearted.  It is strong and defiant, but without anger or angst.  It is joyful in a serious way, not an insensible one.  It is happiness with eyes and heart open.  It is full of love, but informed by a deep sense that the world does not always offer love in return.

It is not happiness Pharrell is talking about, it is enlightenment.  It is love past reason.  The dissonance in the song mirrors the dissonance in our own lives, between the frustrations of our daily experience and that part of our soul that yearns to be unchained.

Think I'll listen to it again.

Labels: ,

You get nothing

Tim Lincecum, washed up and consistently disappointing this season, consoled himself with a no-hitter today, the second of his career.  With two no-hitters, two Cy Young Awards, and two World Championships, he stands nearly alone in history, accompanied only by some guy Koufax, who pitched for a different team.

When I heard that Lincecum was the only Giant apart from Christy Mathewson to pitch two no-hitters, I thought holy shit, Christy Mathewson pitched two no-hitters?!  That's amazing, really, it was hard to throw a no-hitter in them days.  Mathewson also had two championships.

C. Mathewson, ret. 1916

He'd have had the Cy Young Awards, too, but there was no Cy Young Award back then, because Cy Young was still in the League.  And he pitched three no-hitters, but I digress, this is Timmy's day.

The motivation for the post is:  with one out in the 9th inning, the Padres, desperate to avoid the extraordinary embarrassment of being no-hit by the same guy twice in three years, pinch hit the capable Yasmani Grandal, a fine young Cuban player, in the hope that he'd step in and bust the thing up.  Here is what he saw:

You get nothing, Mr. Grandal, and you are out, thank you for coming.

A moment of clarity

Lost in a forest
of delusion, I notice...
I like delusion.


June 22, 2014

Addendum on Gangnam Style

The Atlantic had a nice article on the video a couple years ago, which is here

In my opinion, it is highly improbable that a crossdressing pot-smoking draft dodger would become South Korea's King of All Media, but imagine how the rest of the South Korean entertainment industry feels.  That guy?  That's the one the crosses over?

Yup.  A fine endorsement for the Berklee School of Music as well, even if he did drop out.


June 21, 2014

Book of Happy - Chapter 1: A Successful Commercial Product

I had a game this spring that I'd play whenever the family went on a drive together.  "I'd like to hear that Happy song," I'd announce, and started pressing buttons on the radio, scanning the FM dial.  Happy quickly came up perhaps 80% of the time.  My children, not sharing my enthusiasm for the song, wished it were otherwise.

As a friend once said of Madonna, Happy is not just ubiquitous, it's everywhere.  Six months after its release, the song still plays constantly on radio.  It is a format buster:  in April it stood atop an unprecedented six different Billboard charts.  Slate noted that Happy ended a 14-month drought - the longest in history - in which no lead black artist held the number one spot on the Billboard rankings.  "Thanks to its unabashed retro-pop friendliness, Happy may be the ultimate 2014 crossover record. Or, to put a finer point on it: This may turn out to be white people’s favorite hit by a black person in a decade."  (Remember Outkast?)

Happy is starting to slip down the Billboard Hot 100, now residing at number 8, although this should not comfort those who wish to displace it:  it has already been #1 in the UK on three separate occasions.

But it's no Gangnam Style.  The official Happy video has registered 305.6 million views on Youtube, which sounds like a lot.  But Happy is not even in the Top 30.  Gangnam Style holds the top spot with 2 billion views.  Think of Happy as the USA, and Gangnam Style as China.  Slackers around the world agree that Gangnam Style (not to mention Baby and On the Floor) is a better way to waste four minutes than Happy.  Happy is a hit, but not the biggest hit even of its era - in the context of its time, a highly successful commercial product.

Think I'll play it again.

Labels: ,

The apprenticeship is over, let the real work begin

From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life.  I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention.  At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow.  If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature.  At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.  May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.

- Hokusai, postscript to 100 Views of Mount Fuji

Former Blasters recapitulate Broonzy

June 18, 2014

Meet Groot


In a world of snark, no one can snark with TPM.  This is their snarkiest hour.

June 17, 2014

That'll do, Archer team...that'll do

They should trademark that

After reading it for half a decade, I noticed Cracked really likes the construction "[verb] the shit out of" as in...
  • The women either didn't understand it or had to pretend like they didn't because, once again, their husbands would be totally at liberty to murder the shit out of them so long as Mumbo Jumbo said it was OK.  (link)
  • Jimmy Stewart loses all his money and is ready to kill the shit out of himself after realizing that life is an endless catch-22 and God hates us all. (link)
  • However, as small, unassuming psychopaths throughout history have proven, you can be comparatively weak and still poison the shit out of anyone.  (link)
I like it, it is a great tool for adding hyperbolic comic emphasis at low cost, and has the added advantage of being almost a trademark for them.  So I wondered how often they had used this construction.

According to Google the answer is: 8,720 times.

Some of those may be from the comments.  But, still.

June 16, 2014

Book of Happy - Prologue: A Crime in Teheran

All around the world people had been doing it.  From Bucharest to Bahrain to Beijing, people made "happy in..." videos, dancing in their local communities to Pharrell Williams' song, catching its infectious spirit and expressing a little bit of individualism, good humor, and even, in extreme cases, apparent existential joy.

Didn't have room for Berlin, but it's good too

Williams and the industry were caught by surprise.  Written on commission for the movie Despicable Me 2, "Happy" had no big commercial buildup, no media buy, no Twitter campaign.  Radio didn't want it.  It lost the Oscar to Disney's ponderous, anti-musical screed "Let it Go".

And then the videos blew up, and radio started playing it, and one thing led to another, and soon Pharrell found himself at the apex of the entertainment universe, crying on Oprah.  

Meanwhile, in Tehran, criminal proceedings were underway:
The women did not cover their heads with the required hijab. At times, the men and women danced together, which is forbidden and punishable under the law...  [T]he police found it offensive. Iran state media called it "vulgar."
For one tyrant, at least, this inoffensive pop ditty expresses something deeply wrong with the world.

Think I'll play it again.

Labels: ,

in re: Ghana

Mission re-accomplished

June 15, 2014

And now, a funny cat gif

June 14, 2014

So it's not all bad, then...

A Facebook attack module is reportedly in the works.


June 12, 2014

Rumpus at Point MacKenzie

While cutting the trees, the Coast Guard was confronted by a "local resident," wrote Stanley Fields, judge advocate with the Coast Guard. Thoerner said that resident was his aunt, and she challenged their right to be on the property.

"The situation escalated, and at least one local resident arrived with a firearm," Fields wrote. The Alaska State Troopers later arrived on scene but failed to remedy the dispute. Fields says due to the "tense" situation, the Coast Guard postponed its plans to rebuild the light.


[Editorial comment:  When did Alaska get so civilized and fancy-pants that we now need to append "with a firearm" to the words "one local resident arrived"?  In my day everyone over the age of six had a .30-06 and single action Navy revolver to fight off wolverines on the way to the grocery.  Most ladies kept a Walther PPK in their handbag to help keep order in town.  That's just how things were, we didn't make a big deal of it.]

June 10, 2014

Greeting from the Reality-Based Community

From Eztra Klein at Vox:
The Republican Party has a serious data problem. in 2012, Mitt Romney's internal polls were garbage. This year, Eric Cantor's internal polls showed him up by more than 30 points. Something is deeply wrong with the GOP's campaign infrastructure if the party's presidential nominee and the party's House majority leader can't rely on their pollsters.
It's almost as if the senior people in the Republican Party feel reality is whatever they want it to be, and their subordinates, eager to please them, give them only facts and data that fit their thesis.

It takes me back to the first time I read this, almost ten years ago:
[Rove] said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Despite the fact that it is directly contrary to the great tradition of American pragmatism - the crucial idea that "we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order rightly to apprehend them" - despite the grief and the embarrassments it has brought them, the Republican leadership can't quit this world view.

Because if you let reality in the door, it has to run the show.  Ideology has to take a back seat.  And at this point, ideology - however stupid, cruel, or un-American - is all they have.

June 09, 2014

Oh, you lying bitch

Carroll told the Los Angeles Times he would not have left the Trojans in January 2010, if he knew what penalties the NCAA was going to impose after it determined Reggie Bush and his family received money and other benefits from sports marketers. 

"The truth was, an opportunity came up and it was one I couldn't turn away from," Carroll told the Times. "... The NCAA came back at the university ... 'Now we're going to revisit after five years.' I had no knowledge that was coming. We thought maybe it wasn't coming because they didn't have anything to get us with. It wasn't five days, it wasn't five weeks. It was five years. Had we known that that was imminent ... I would never have been able to leave under those circumstances. When I look back now, I would have stayed there to do what we needed to do to resolve the problem."


June 07, 2014

High fives all around

Watterson drive-by.  First new panels in almost 20 years.


June 06, 2014

Painting and high finance: why not both?

It became common for British businessmen and bankers to pose for portraits smiling and with their account books open on their desks. These portraits were a sign of confidence in modern techniques of accounting. The Baring Brothers —whose bank was founded in 1762 and folded only in 1995 because of the famed rogue trader Nick Leeson, who was also his branch’s auditor— were painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence poring over their main ledger like conquering explorers with their fingers on a map. 

- Jacob Soll, The Reckoning

June 05, 2014

Pope's not playin'

June 04, 2014

John Oliver's finest 13 minutes

“Seize your moment, my lovely trolls!” he said. And they did. On Tuesday, the FCC’s comment system ground to a halt after a trollstorm...   (link)

Never been there...although I've passed the offramp a few times

In essence, you need to be a tall, dark and handsome Vitruvian Man from a good school ... who still has wound up in a position where, in order to make ends meet, he must masturbate for money.


Spinning the radio dial in America

Drove out to Fresno and back today.  After you get through the Pacheco Pass, the Bay Area FM stations go silent and you have to hunt a bit on the FM dial for something to listen to.  With me this usually means spinning the FM dial constantly for the four hours or so I'm driving in the Central Valley.  You run into good things and bad.

  • The bad soldier
    • The talk radio stations - all of them - were selling the Bowe Bergdahl-as-traitor story.
    • One host likened the exchange to a baseball trade, said something like:  "five all-stars for a minor league washout, that's not a good trade in my book".
    • Another show had a squad leader from the area where Bergdahl served who said he was a deserter and a traitor.
    • Another show had a caller who said he observed Bergdahl crying in the back of the pickup before he was released, speculated he didn't want to leave his Taliban brothers.
      • (If I may address the caller...
        • Maybe you saw it right and maybe you didn't.
        • If he was crying...a lot of reasons why he might have been doing that.
          • Curious how you'd handle a long period of isolated captivity in an alien culture.
          • We don't leave our people behind.  PERIOD.
          • You sorry fuckers.)
    • Yet another host pointed out that Eric Holder's law firm had represented "around 20" of the "Islamo-Nazi terrorists" at Guantanamo, so naturally Obama would make him attorney general.
  • God and You
    • Lots and lots of religious stuff, as always
    • Pretty good sermon on grace vs. earned merit.
    • Also a program on how to be a good father, from Focus on the Family.  I only caught the last bit, which had some common-sense advice for a caller, and then recapitulated their four principles, which are...kind of mixed:
      • Get right with God and stay right with God (ok!)
      • Put a high priority on your family (check!)
      • Some very murky language about men acting like men and women acting like women within the marriage.  I think it meant have sex with your spouse sometimes and don't be gay. (err, ok...)
      • Raise your kids Christian.  (yeah, but...free will?)
  • Tunes
    • This was my first trip to the Central Valley, ever, when I did not hear a John Fogerty song on the radio (example here).  This is a serious concern.
    • I scanned in vain for Fitz and the Tantrums.  No luck until I was back on this side of the Diablo Range.  Fitz has yet to find his audience around Fresno, apparently.
    • There is this one station that says it rocks, but does not.  Ever.
    • Pharrell, on the other hand, has broken through with his smash hit Happy, which came up several times during the day.  More on this another time.

Also helpful with the X-Files, as I recall

June 02, 2014

June 01, 2014

Time-traveling band brings sound of the 80s to modern Los Angeles

And it's not at all bad.  I endorse Fitz and the Tantrums.  Two competent singers.  A band with horns.  Great hooks. And they're old - not as old as us, but old enough to understand they may not get another shot, so they'd better make the most of this one.  A little preachy sometimes, but musically their heart is in exactly the right place.  Screw it, I'm on board.

Supposedly the band was thrown together in about an afternoon, and Fitzpatrick was getting them  gigs after just a week of rehearsal.  If I were him and Noelle Scaggs walked in the door, I've have done the same, probably with less dilly-dallying.

The Current Hit is The Walker

Last Year's Hit was Out of My League

It Began with Moneygrabber