2013 music picks.

As in the past, I'm listing the songs that resonated the most with me this past year. And as with Uncle Stevie over at Entertainment Weekly, they're not all songs that came out this year - just songs I discovered this year. Because I can do that. :) Enjoy!

Note: these are listed in random order.

1. "Dead in the Water," Ellie Goulding, Halcyon

You may have heard Goulding's previous hit single, "Lights," from her debut of the same name, but fortunately her second album explores a much wider range of moods, making possible this absolutely gorgeous album closer. I am actually one day going to hang up the lyrics to the first verse and the chorus on my wall, because like the best songwriters Goulding hits on ageless truths of human experience - and she does so to unapologetically beautiful melodies. That's simply a combination I am too weak to refuse.

2. "What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?" Hans Zimmer, Man of Steel

Some of you know how I feel about Hans Zimmer, dating all the way back to The Lion King. So I won't rehash here. But he's the best. Anyway, he got to score this summer's Superman reboot and did a fantastic job (of course). John William's original theme is one of the top pieces of movie music in history, but with the darker turn in comics these days (and every villain capable of causing an extinction-level event, apparently), this new theme fits a new day in our societal evolution. There's hope even amongst the most minor chords, though, and notice that the long tones evoke a sense of flying, of scaling new heights. I hope you got to hear this via a cinema sound system while you could.

3. "Birthday," Katy Perry, Prism

Someone, who shall remain nameless, noted that this song is a lot like "Teenage Dream" - but I say, who cares. It's a slice of "eighties Minneapolis funk" that is just too infectious not to like. Perry inhabits her own sphere of technicolored happy-rotica, and when compared to artists like Ellie Goulding it's evident how much Perry holds her own self back - but you have to admit that when she's good, she's really good, and I defy you not to at least think about getting up and boogeying when you hear this song.

4. "Rock 'N Roll," Avril Lavigne, Avril Lavigne

Don't forget how much we all loved Avril once upon a time! And don't say she's not relevant - the old guard are rarely ever contemporaneously relevant but that's not what the old guard are for. There's some reinvention in her fifth studio album, mostly thanks to her marriage to Chad Kroeger, and while I can't stand Nickleback, I do admit he's a pretty solid songwriter. His stamp is all over this song, and paired with Avril's delivery it really works. It helps her get back the old vivaciousness and audacity, and puts out an APB to not give up on her yet.

5. "Wake Me Up," Avicii with Aloe Blacc, True

We all know this song. And we all like parodying Aloe Blacc's earnest delivery. And we all know this is a freaking awesome song. Too bad Mr. Blacc couldn't have been on the whole album - now that would have really been something.

6. "Young Girls," Bruno Mars, Unorthodox Jukebox

I really like Bruno Mars; I think he's got a great voice and makes some great songs. I belatedly saw his performance of this song on SNL and was totally hooked - it's really not like anything else out there right now, for which so many other 'artists' should be ashamed. Just take familiar subject matter, put it to a near-perfect melody, enrich it with multi-layered harmony, back it with a tight beat, and sing your heart out. Is that really so hard???

7. "V.S.O.P.," K. Michelle, Rebellious Soul

I don't really listen to R&B...but I love this song. As a child of the 80s who did listen to a lot of early rap with her brother, I'm always sucker for a great beat, and besides having that this song is just infectious and spirited, with a very cool old-school vibe. However, I have no idea what the title means.

8. "What Makes You Beautiful," One Direction, Up All Night


9. "Not With Haste," Mumford and Sons, Babel

I had obviously memorized the entire album less than a week after it was released in 2012 - but did not realize that this particular song was part of the Brave soundtrack until I watched it again earlier this year. (On the soundtrack version the lads play backing band to singer Birdie) I love that movie, man. And I had no idea going in that it was about a mother-daughter relationship, so of course I went with my mom to see it, and she was all, "Wait, are you crying?" Anyway, this is a beautiful and wistful song on its own, gently Celtic and such, and is as good a movie-ender as anything Celine ever did.

Well, that's it! Happy New Year!



What I'm reading: 2001: A Space Odyssey
What I'm watching: The Purge
What I'm listening to: Halcyon, Ellie Goulding
Mood: energized
Smells: clean air
Sounds: pleasant Jewish chit-chat
Temperature: 40 degrees
Thoughts: I have too many ideas and no time/money/support to pursue most of them.



Today we're going to talk (irreverently) about an always timely issue: the use (and abuse) of facial hair. As a woman, I won't tell a man what to do with his own face, but as a human being, and a citizen of this country, and an owner of two eyeballs, I must take a stand: ALL BEARDS ARE NOT EQUAL.

I think we can all agree that a nicely trimmed beard is universally acceptable. (This includes the several stages of stubble growth that precede an actual beard, which, probably more than any other style, is the 'sexiest') All things in moderation! It's already going to be a daunting task, heading into the post-chauvinist future that I foresee, getting men to understand that a polished appearance is not the sole purview of women, so we might as well start with something as fundamental as the beard.

Done right, a nicely trimmed beard puts a whole new spin on a familiar face and gives just an extra dash of masculine to a Romeo:

 photo goodbeards.jpg
Images courtesy of telegraph.co.uk, ebony.com

A great beard can also do an Eliza Doolittle on a guy only known as a nerd:

 photo beard1.jpg

Of course, it's easier to nerd a hot guy down than to beautify the less aesthetic. These cats don't get in the movies for no reason.

Now, some men, for probably a vast number of impenetrable reasons, prefer to grow their beards out way past the point of civility, hygiene, or aesthetics. More obvious reasons are personal style, cultural identification, and being stranded on a desert island. Regardless, a mangly, tangly, darn-near offensive beard always adds up to one thing: DEAR GOD WHY.

 photo badbeards.jpg
Images courtesy of austintownhall.com, nymag.com

Now, I realize I've posted a couple of extremes. But sometimes, that's the only way to make a point. Gentlemen, the word is maintenance.

I was going to post a photo of Zack Galifinakis, whom I hold as the standard-bearer for what an awful beard can do to an otherwise probably not-ugly guy. But Photobucket wouldn't resize it - it, too, could not bear the awfulness.

While we're on the subject, let me go ahead and proclaim the death of the ironic mustache. To keep it real, the ironic mustache was dead on arrival. It's not funny. It's not hip. It's not the seventies and you're not Tom Selleck. If I see even so much as one more, so help me. So help me.


Welcome to the lower-middle class.

So, apparently in order to help their employees learn to survive financially, McDonald's partnered with Visa to come up with a sample monthly budget based on a yearly after-tax income of $24,720; I (per the usual) read an article about it recently and found it interesting how some in the media find so many people's financial situations absurd. Here is what I mean:

The amount allotted for rent/mortgage is $600. The Washington Post article states, "When I lived in St. Louis, my roommate and I each paid $425 per month for our comfortable two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods. My then-girlfriend was paying less than $500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment." Um, this is exactly true for me! (It helps that I live in St. Louis) My roommate and I currently pay exactly $425 for exactly such an apartment in exactly such a location. And my last apartment, which was one-bedroom, never reached $500 in rent even with increases every year for five years.

Now, for someone living in New York, L.A./San Francisco, Dallas, Phoenix, etc., no, you will not find great apartments on the cheap - but a McDonald's worker likely has quite a different living situation figured out that has nothing to do with renting a great condo overlooking Lake Michigan, or even living alone at all. The article says quite nicely, "Gawker’s Neil Casey calls $600 per month for rent a “laughably small” figure, but Casey should spend more time outside the Northeast Corridor."

Other items in the budget are: $100 for savings, $150 for car payment, $90 for electric, and $100 for "other." The daily spending goal is $27. Matthew Yglesias, in a Slate article, says, "your $27 dollars a day needs to cover your gasoline, and minor details like food and clothing along with entertainment."

Here's the deal: once my bills are paid, I can live on $27 a day. This doesn't mean that I won't go over or that there are never emergencies; but it's the goal. I didn't spend a dime today! Didn't need to. There's gas in my tank and food in my cupboards. I didn't need anything so I didn't buy anything. And in a few days when I see something I want, I'll feel comfortable buying it because I know I've been frugal.

And what's wrong with living within one's means? We all know that in the largest cities, the cost of living is much higher, and generally, wages reflect that. But why are clothing and entertainment and dining out always considered so important? Aren't there other ways to spend one's time? Sure there are. Read a book; watch a DVD you already own and really like; go jogging; become addicted to Pinterest; start a blog; visit your elders; tutor schoolkids; volunteer at the food pantry. And on, and on, and on. None of those things cost a cent beyond the cost of gas.

There was a time when people only ate the food they had grown, wore the clothes they had sewn, and relied on each other for conversation and diversion. None of us has ever lived such a life and so we don't realize that it's possible to be fulfilled - and make ends meet - without a really nice salary and material goods.

There is one small catch, however: this sample budget assumes that the fast food employee has another job. Because you know they're not making $13 and $14 flipping burgers. Which opens up a whole other conversation: if McDonald's knows that they don't pay livable wages, why even put on the pretense? Why insult your workers by saying, 'Here's how to live well financially - but work another full-time job.' Perhaps they're presuming their workers live in a two-income household??

Anyway, I found the sample budget (minus the second job assumption) to be quite realistic and normal, and also something that those above lower-middle class obviously find hard to comprehend. This is the reality, folks. This is the majority now. The middle class is disappearing; the depth of greed to which businesses and corporations have sunk since 2008 is absolutely mind-boggling, and affects every one of us even if not directly. It's time to simply start living within our means and learning to find fulfillment beyond the dollar, because the country's situation isn't going to change any time soon.

Editor's note (hee hee): obviously the above scenario is not ideal for those with children or those with more than their share of credit card debt. Or both. There are plenty of situations, in fact, in which the sample budget falls short, but the point of the blog post is living within one's means.


Robert Pattinson has a black twin.

Although technically, Chiwetel Ejiofor is not black, he's British; I heard recently that 'black' is a distinctly American designation.

So, British Robert Pattinson has a twin in fellow Britsh actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. I submit the following evidence:

 photo RPattsandCEj.jpg
Images courtesy of www.collider.com and www.fanpop.com

Notice the similarity in the nose, the general face shape, the low eyebrows, and the eyes themselves. As if you have to look that hard. It's even more obvious if you see a live version of Ejiofor - which you can this fall, in the movie 12 Years a Slave.

In my long history of noticing how some people look eerily similar to other people - of different races - I typically get a response along the lines of, "No they don't!!!" Some folks, who shall remain nameless, actually appear offended at the idea. Which frustrates me. It's one thing to clear-headedly explain why they don't see the similarity, but another to have a knee-jerk reaction. In exactly what manner will the world end if a white person has to share facial features with a black person, or a Hispanic, or an Asian, etc.? Isn't race just a social construct anyway?

Besides, something like 60 billion people have lived on this planet. To assume that not a single person of one race has ever just randomly looked like a person from another race is a little naïve. You don't even need science to back that up.

My one regret is that I've never kept a list of people who I've found to look so eerily similar to each other. I just happened to be watching Love, Actually for the first time last Christmas, in which Ejiofor's character marries Keira Knightly's character (gasp), and I was all, "OMG, who does he remind me of?!"

So, when I happen upon another set of twins, I shall blog about it here. Sans rant. :)


Who wants to live forever?

Doesn't matter. Futurists, scientists, and multimillionaires are hard at work finding ways to ensure that a pesky thing like the life cycle becomes obsolete. I read with much interest an article on livescience.com about the Global Future 2045 International Congress held in New York this past June, during which much ado was made about uploading human brains so that our minds can live on well past our 'best by' date.

I will quote directly:

[Martine] Rothblatt introduced the concept of "mindclones" — digital versions of humans that can live forever. She described how the mind clones are created from a "mindfile," a sort of online repository of our personalities, which she argued humans already have (in the form of Facebook, for example). This mindfile would be run on "mindware," a kind of software for consciousness. "The first company that develops mindware will have [as much success as] a thousand Googles," Rothblatt said.

But would such a mindclone be alive? Rothblatt thinks so. She cited one definition of life as a self-replicating code that maintains itself against disorder.* Some critics have shunned what Rothblatt called "spooky Cartesian dualism," arguing that the mind must be embedded in biology. On the contrary, software and hardware are as good as wet ware, or biological materials, she argued.

The title of her talk? "The Purpose of Biotechnology is the End of Death."

The concept isn't startlingly new; in this summer's Man of Steel, Jor-El is no longer a hologram in the Fortress of Solitude by way of a crystal - he is his actual consciousness uploaded into a ship's mainframe (via pretty much a flash drive). The father that Clark Kent interacts with is a three-dimensional digital clone, with Jor-El's memories, personality, and love.


By 2045, "based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain, we'll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold," [Ray] Kurzweil said.

[Dmitry] Itskov and other so-called "transhumanists" interpret this impending singularity as digital immortality. Specifically, they believe that in a few decades, humans will be able to upload their minds to a computer, transcending the need for a biological body. The idea sounds like sci-fi, and it is — at least for now. The reality, however, is that neural engineering is making significant strides toward modeling the brain and developing technologies to restore or replace some of its biological functions.

So, if someone wishes to surpass their mortal limitations - or even if perhaps they are paralyzed and somehow medical science is not quite up to par yet - they can upload their mind and live in a computer. Or something.

I'm no Luddite; this stuff sounds pretty cool. But I do have two main contentions.

Regardless of the speed and complexity that computers achieve in the future, how can we leave biology out of the picture and still believe that total replication of the human mind is possible? It has been incredibly helpful to describe brains in computational terms, but brains are not only computers, and they are not digital, and they certainly weren't created by man. Any mind clone will only ever be a cold calculation, a shadow of the person it claims to be. If people are okay with that, fine; pull up that creepy avatar of your grandmother and shoot the breeze.

Shakespeare's Hamlet said that death is the undiscovered country "from whose bourne no traveler returns." Ultimately we fear death because we have no idea what truly comes next - or because the idea of total annihilation is unacceptable. We will always try to find ways to cheat death, but is that really the answer? Sometimes things are the way they are because that's the way things are. Death is awful - but it also gives live all of its meaning. Perhaps if we focused more of our energy on living correctly and preparing for the end, facing it instead of running from it, we wouldn't be so scared.

But, I could be wrong. In 2045, or later, mind clones might be beautiful digital copies of loved ones we otherwise would never speak to again. In the year 2525 my consciousness just may be tooling around in a digital neighborhood with my digital consciousness friends, reminiscing on the days when most of the population still lived on Earth instead of scattered across the Milky Way.

Only time will tell.

*as opposed to, say, an unborn child


You can only pick 2 books.

I was cleaning out my inbox the other evening when I came across an old article that I'd saved, entitled "What Two Books Would You Donate to Classrooms?" Of course I love a good challenge, and it reminded me of the end of The Time Machine, when the main character (named H. George Wells) returns to the far future with just three books.

I think with such a short list, you have to think less about 'what are the classics?' or 'how can I be as subtly subversive as possible?' and more about, what is it that I want schoolchildren to learn, and which books embody those lessons best?

I'll go ahead and get my first selection out of the way, because it's so automatic for me: The Giver, by Lois Lowry. I first read it as part of the curriculum in my ninth grade English class, and since then it has been my number one favorite book. Sure, it's for kids - but see, it's not. No other books outside of the philosophy and sociology books in my collection have given me so much to think about. Utopia is a tricky business that can't exist without a dark side, and Hollywood depictions, especially, mainly focus on the dark side ('see what evil lurks beneath the facade?!'); unfortunately that wipes away any chance of wrestling with a concept that we, tellingly, keep coming back to.

As contemporary readers, older schoolchildren can ask, what things in my world were done away with to create the Community, and why? Do I agree that they were negative enough to warrant this, or not? What would the Community be like if they had allowed just this one extra thing, or that one? Is it possible to achieve utopia without prohibiting individuality, spontaneity, choice? Why or why not?

Ultimately I think the world of The Giver opens up the opportunity to think about the realities of today, and what is and isn't good and/or necessary for a society that benefits everyone.

(It's highly likely this book is already on the shelves, but...oh well. Just in case)

My second choice has been more difficult. I've been on a kick lately wherein I'll lament to the nearest person that 'kids these days' don't read books that are even half as difficult as the ones I read growing up, or the ones my parents read; really, the print just gets smaller and smaller as you go back, contrarily the books actually get longer, and the prose is more complicated. George Orwell convinced me years ago that language is the key to human reasoning, and the more complex the language, the greater one's ability to not be stupid use reasoning to elevate her or himself.

So I can't very well then go and pick an easy book as my second choice.

It will, then, be Great Books, by David Denby. I ran across this book in a summer college course on teaching literacy in the content area, headed by a great old guy who encouraged us to bring a few books to class each morning to share. This is one that he actually brought, and I borrowed it and devoured it, and then bought my own copy later on.

Succinctly, Denby took two classic literature (Western Civilization) courses at Columbia as research for his book, and his observations coupled with commentary from the actual professors and students make for fascinating reading. The works range from Homer to Sophocles to Machiavelli, to Locke and Hume, to Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Woolf.

I know earlier I said my criteria was not going to include 'what are the classics?' I will clarify and say that I was not interested in choosing one classic book. With that said, Great Books is a perfect choice for two main reasons: it helps direct the reader toward thinking more critically about not only literature but life, which is my wish and goal for all students; and it's an excellent survey of the classics if you haven't read them and a course is not available. (Also, the print is small and it's almost 500 pages)

All right then. There you have it. Now what two books would you choose?