July 2007


I’ve told this story a few times, so forgive me if you’ve heard it: (more…)

Have you ever watched C-SPAN? I mean, really watched it? My past attempts have always been foiled by tuning in when the senate was in recess, and thus, I grew bitter at the channel’s existence. I believed it was yet another channel to go through to get to the Food Network or Bravo. However, my brother urged me this past weekend to give C-SPAN another chance. He said it was much better when senators are actually delivering their speeches. I gave in–I mean, I have to watch something to balance out my watching of “Hey Paula!” Yikes. (And yes, I’m ashamed.) Yesterday, when I read the Democrats had planned an all-night debate on the Iraq war, I thought, here’s my chance! (more…)

No, my title is not infringing on the Paris Hilton trademarked phrase. I don’t mean that Prague is “hot,” as in trendy or hip. I mean it’s literally very hot here right now. The heat somehow combines humidity with a piercing quality that I’ve never experienced before.

As some of you may or may not know, I’m in the Czech Republic for two weeks, on a writing program called, helpfully, “The Prague Summer Program.” I’m living in one of the dorms of Charles University, also home to several other summer programs. This meant that when I arrived and announced cheerfully at reception that I was with “The Prague Summer Program” the nice man at reception asked me, “Which one?” There were a few nasty moments when it seemed like the guy had no idea how to help me, since — as I’m a late arrival — everyone else was already checked in, and the guy had no idea where my key, info, etc. was. However, with a little poking around, he soon discovered a big envelope with my name on it in all caps, and everything was well. (more…)

I visited several good friends this past weekend in DC, and we considered whether consumers have become desensitized toward product dissatisfaction. My favorite example is how I now expect delays when I fly Northwest. In the past two months, I’ve flown Northwest three times, and I’ve faced sizeable delays on each trip. Allow me to vent. (more…)

A few years ago, my cousin gave me Orchestra Baobab’s fabulous double-disc album, Pirates Choice. Orchestra Baobab was a Senegalese band in the 1970s that fused traditional and modern instruments to create a wonderfully exotic, Afro-Cuban-Caribbean sound. Their focus on intertwining rhythms is great, and for me, not understanding the lyrics actually enhances the voice as an instrument (although, I’m sure the lyrics are great, too).

Orchestra Baobab relies on traditional hand drum rhythms to form the base of each groove. Reverb-a-licious guitar lines add a second layer, with a bold tenor saxophone often carrying a melody or supportive riffs above that. The earthy, raw vocals add to the pulse of each song, resulting in an undeniable groove. Pirates Choice is their most famous album, and its good reputation is well deserved. When I heard the first fat, raw notes from the sax beckoning me to pay attention in “Utrus Horas,” I was hooked. The contrast of the subtle rhythm section with the fantastically pushy saxophone and moving vocal seems like it would create a top-heavy sound, but it doesn’t. The rhythms and melodies complement each other nicely for an even sound. Although the second track (“Coumba”) is not my favorite, it employs a light clave to hold down the pretty, floating guitar melodies. The back-up vocals take on a chanting quality that echoes the lead vocal’s lines. Personally, I rarely love happy, upbeat songs because they bore me, but Orchestra Baobab’s aren’t bad. Unlike the music critics, I prefer the first disc to the second, but the tracks from the second disc are still enjoyable. Overall, the album’s delicate balance of upbeat, happy songs with darker, more contemplative tunes is excellent.

A few months ago, I browsed through Orchestra Baobab’s other CDs on iTunes to see if they were just a Senagalese one-hit wonder or if they had other good albums. I discovered that they reunited for the 2002 album Specialist in All Styles with Ibrahim Ferrer (of Buena Vista Social Club fame) and Youssou N’dour. The lofty praise from the critics about Specialist intrigued me, but I doubted the album would live up to the hype. Especially since the critics maintained Specialist was better than Pirates Choice. Well, the critics were right, and the album blew me away.

I first noticed that Specialist in All Styles feels more urgent than Pirates Choice. The band adds in more elements to the modern drum set, notably the snare drum, which in turn, causes the songs to have more drive. Additionally, the songs seem to have more grit to them. While maintaining technical proficiency, the musicians expose the raw guts of each song. No longer is there a mellow undertone—that’s okay! The recording quality is better on these tracks, and that may account partially for the crisper sounds. In general, the band is tighter, the sound is fuller and the grooves still flow.

My favorite tracks are “Bul ma min,” “Hommage a Tonton Ferrer,” and “El son te llama.” And “Dee moo woor.” So really, half of the album. In “Dee moo woor,” the rhythm section provides sparse, fat hits that make the vocals sound naked. This nakedness is great because it highlights the talent of the singers and gives them more freedom. “Hommage a Tonton Ferrer” is really a faster and probably better version of “Utrus Horas.” Specialist in All Styles is a master class in pouring your heart out into each song. The raw emotion is moving and the energy is infectious.

If you were looking for some world music, I would definitely recommend either of these two albums. Depending on whether you’d like your music with a side dish of teeth, I’d refer you to Specialist in All Styles, but either should satisfy your need for great music with an irresistible groove.

I just returned from the five-day International Caenorhabditis elegans (tiny worm) Conference at UCLA.  I heard a lot of good talks on my research area and other fields and promise to report on some of the science in another post.

The basics: over 1500 undergrads, lab technicians, grad students, post-docs, and professors who all study or have an interest in the little, soil-dwelling nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans.  In other words, a whole bunch of nerds together.  And we definitely lived up to our bookish reputation for most of the conference.  However, on Saturday night, there was a worm art show, a worm comedy show (actually hilarious), and then a finale dance.  Complete with unlimited amounts of beer and wine.  Since the lines for alcohol were long, most people got two at a time.  Just like frat guys.  By the end of the night (according to my labmate), seven police cars were needed to break up the nerd dance.  See?  Maybe scientists aren’t as nerdy as you think.

The weather in LA was insane.  75-80 degrees, no humidity, and not a single cloud in sight.  For four days.  On Sunday, we saw one weak-ass, wispy cloud.  In other words, LA’s weather achieved perfection.  I’m thinking way back in the day, someone pulled a Robert Johnson-sell-your-soul-to-the-devil-at-the-railroad-tracks-deal.  Too good to be true.

To the three high school volleyball teams on my 6:30AM flight from LA to Minneapolis yesterday morning—next time you’re on an early flight, consider skipping the airport Starbucks for your pink, sugary, raspberry mocha frappucinos to go along with your Cosmo Girl magazines.  Please.