Friday, May 27, 2011

Spirit, again, in the sky

When I posted a video of Norman Greenbaum's Spirit In The Sky a couple of days ago to signal the end of the world (whatever happened to that?) I didn't know that this week would mark the end of Spirit, the Mars Rover, who has done such sterling duty in the sky. NASA has been trying to contact her for a year, and yesterday gave up the ghost, so to speak.

Spirit, and her sister robot Opportunity, were only specced to last 90 days on Mars. They have both given seven years of service. Spirit was the one who found evidence that water was at one point abundant on Mars, and gave hope that there might at least at some time have been life there. Spirit eventually developed a bad wheel - she drove backwards for a year or so - and in time dust on her solar panels reduced her ability to respond to NASA. Her ground crew waited for the Martian winter to end, but she did not respond to recent signals, and NASA decided this week to let her go.

XKCD has the definitive requiem, but it is so sad I'll give the second comic, the remix version, first.

Here's a cartoon on how much fun it is to explore the Arean surface. The upbeat one.

And here is the XKCD take on it, bleak but somehow less quotidian.

RIP Spirit.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wednesday Octopus

Except this is a cuttlefish, which is the same as an octopus or a squid, except instead of playing up the Cthulu-Weird and Glittery-Alien roles, a cuttlefish just gets down to business.

A cuttlefish is the bubba of the octopus world. Sashays along, sees a prey animal, shoots it, boogies right on. I'm glad I'm not on the cuttlefish menu, as their hunting seems...lethal.

Seen via James Nicholl.

Friday, May 20, 2011

End of the World today

Well, today is the end of the world - apparently. I commend you in the arms of Norman Greenbaum, who is Jewish but scored one of the world's biggest ever Christian hits with the astonishingly catchy Spirit in the Sky.

One of my earliest loves. Not sure which of the iconic parts, vocals, bass or guitar, really sells it, although of course the guitar fill (bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep) has to be the signature motif.

"I've been asked a lot over the years how I did the 'beep beep' guitar parts on Spirit, so for any guitar players out there who would like to learn how, try the following: Using a 2-pickup Gibson, set the neck pickup volume to zero, bridge pickup volume to max, with the pickup switch in the middle position (with Gibson wiring this gives you silence in the middle position). Do a string bend, picking the B & E strings together with one hit, just ahead of the beat, then use the pickup switch to kick in the bridge pickup in triplets (6 per bar) as you let the B string bend down two frets."

That track is aural crack. I'd discuss other tracks that have transfixed me as much, but apparently the world is ending so I have run out of time.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Today's lesson: Matthew 26:52

As I was randomly following links on the interwebs, I came across a supposedly religious site discussing the attack that killed Osama bin Laden. Several posters quoted (as one does) Biblical reasons for not killing people in cold blood, but one person countered this reading, saying that Bible quotes could be used to justify anything. They suggested that killing someone who had killed other people was fine by Jesus. They quoted - I know you know I'm going to say this - Matthew 26 verse 52.

Then said Jesus to him, Put up again your sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
This one is as clear as day to anyone who has read more than one verse in isolation.

"Put up again your sword into his place."

Sheath your damn sword.

"For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."

Because if you use violence, you're doomed.

There are people out there who can read this verse to mean, "Kill him because he has killed". That gives me hives. No particular Osama bin Laden reference, just, come on, folks, if you say you're Christian give it at least a half-hearted shot.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Robert Johnson, 100 today

Today would have been Robert Johnson's 100th birthday, if he hadn't died in 1938, most likely poisoned by a jealous husband.

When I was growing up, in England in the 60s, his name was everywhere. Robert Plant mentioned him as incomparably superior to himself. Eric Clapton called him a genius. The Rolling Stones covered his songs.

R Crumb's famous drawing of Johnson

As a child with no money, it was virtually impossible to get hold of his records. Yes, in those days, if you didn't have any money, you didn't have any music. A lot of musicians look back on those days fondly, both because they got paid back then and because they think anticipation is good for people - you value something more if you are not immediately gratified. I don't really believe that in general, and I can tell you that in this specific instance it sucked.

I'm told Keith Richards met Mick Jagger when one of them saw the other standing around with a blues album under their arm, and that was actually a common way of meeting people. I remember in the 70s that you used to see a lot of men in greatcoats standing on street corners with an album under their arms, cover ostentatiously displayed, and they were waiting for like minded men to approach them. It all sounds rather strange now, but how else would you know if someone in your district was a fan of your sort of music and you could swap LPs with them? (Of course if you go back to someone's house to listen to his albums the musician didn't get paid for that either, but that has always been legal whereas swapping MP3s has always been illegal.)

I don't think I got hold of a copy of one of the King of the Delta Blues Singers LPs (I forget whether it was Volume I or Volume II) until 1974. By then my musical tastes had canalized down a rockist path. I was geeky enough to have a copy of Back Door's Walking Blues, for instance but I hadn't heard much original material at all. When I got my Robert Johnson, I could barely make out what he was saying, and couldn't get over the gulf between say, Cream's Crossroads versus Johnson's Crossroads or his Travelling Riverside Blues versus Led Zeppelin's Traveling Riverside Blues.

Through the agency of the Stones (Stop Breaking Down, Love In Vain) I eventually found a key, and through Greil Marcus' book Mystery Train - a description of Johnson's lyrics that was almost anguished enough to count as some woodpulp form of blues in itself - I learned to understand the lyrics.

By that time, I think, the CD had been invented (by Norio Ohga, who passed away recently, may he rest in peace) and reissued music was tumbling into the market like water through a broken levee. Even I could get hold of it. I got the Robert Johnson complete collection on CD among many, many other things, and could finally hear him, and the other Delta blues singers, and compare their lyrics and borrowings and commonalities and begin to understand the original blues.

It did take me until last year to learn what his line "she's got Elgin movement from her head down to her toes" meant, however. I'd seen the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum but I was sure Robert Johnson hadn't. And I'd noticed the thing they plainly didn't do was move. But the internet - now that information is free, as well as music - informed me recently that Elgin watch movements were the most prized watches of the era for a man like Robert Johnson. Mystery solved, and it's not as far out as I thought it was but I feel a little more relaxed for knowing it.

For me, it'll always be Robert Johnson. I guess for Americans it's usually Son House. A little cultural difference there. Now that music is easy to get, I've been able to catch up with House, and with the others, but it will always be Johnson. Maybe there's something in that thing about appreciating it more if you have to wait for it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Road Trip: Chattanooga

I have had the world's worst flu, and haven't been able to post for a while.

I went to Chattanooga on the Sunday after my birthday. We went for a riverboat tour sponsored by the Tennessee Aquarium - not realizing, as we booked, that the Tennessee Aquarium would be 140 miles from Nashville, where we had been staying.

After a long drive through the green and lovely southlands, we got to Chattanooga and learned that the choo choo had last departed in the fifties, as far as we could tell. Their great marshalling yard was completely abandoned and rusted, and no current choo choos were noted.

We got to the riverboat tour and learned that the boat was basically the biggest Sea Doo ever made. The endless explanations of how the boat was like a Sea Doo, but the biggest and fastest and hardest and most masculine one ever, took up most of the commentary. And truly, it was fast. The boat got up to fifty non-nautical miles per hour in a flash, and (more to their coastguard-limited point) stopped in half a second if it saw a boat go by that we were not allowed to rock with our wash.

We heard the history of Lookout Mountain, and the history of John Brown's Ferry Landing. We learned that, as far as I could tell, Chattanooga had done okay up to the early fifties, when, as did the rest of America, it took a tumble.

They flooded the river to make it less difficult to navigate, but even so, businesses died along the banks (above). Yuppification seems to have worked to some extent - hence the river tour, and the nice aquarium, but one wonders if the business will ever come back on the shore.

I was there a couple of days before the tornadoes. Chattanooga was glancingly hit, but Tuscaloosa was wiped out. My spare dollars are going, once again, to the Red Cross for the American South.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama Bin Laden Dead!

It was nice of Barack to wait until after the Royal Wedding was over so as not to steal their thunder.

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of seeing The Dead Weather at Jack's house.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Happy May Day!

It's May 1st, the day of worker solidarity around the world, and around the world people have been marching. There are some fine pictures here.

I'll just borrow this one for illustrative purposes.

The people's flag is indeed deepest red. I've always been bemused by the way the US has managed to entirely wipe out the memory of May Day (and moved Labor Day to the other end of the year), and also managed to make the word "red" mean right-wing instead of socialist. It's an impressive feat of brainwashing, but luckily the rest of the planet doesn't seem to have been affected.


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