Monthly Archives: December 2005

Dream Boogie – Peter Guralnick (2005)

Dream Boogie by Peter GuralnickAs I mentioned, the Sam Cooke revival is underway, and I just finished Peter Guralnick’s long book on Sam, Dream Boogie. For those who don’t know, Sam Cooke started as a gospel singer with a group called the Soul Stirrers in the early fifties, then moved into pop songs starting with ‘You Send Me’ in 1957. He had a string of pop hits up to his sordid shooting death in late 1964.

My takeaways from the book:
1. The look at the r&b package tours that Sam was frequently a part of is fascinating. The scene was very competitive, each performer doing their best to ‘tear down the house’ and apparently succeeding pretty often. The crowd reaction to folks like Sam, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard, etc sounds like it was often unrestrained to say the least. And the gospel tours of the early fifties did not sound like they were too much different.
2. Sam himself is rather an enigma. His pop songs are often so ‘lite’ as to almost blow away (‘Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha’, ‘Wonderful World’), and his performing style was very laid back – a lot of folks talk about how he just kind of stood there and sang. Yet he had a great voice, and apparently just had a way of connecting with people and making them ‘feel it.’
3. Sam was very popular with the ladies. Wow. (He fathered a number of children during his early gospel touring days, and had to pay off a few mothers. By the end he had apparently decided he’d prefer to pay upfront).
4. Sam had a very broken marriage, they lost a young son in a swimming pool accident (and apparently Sam had doubts of whether he was really the father), and Sam’s demise was in some ways not surprising given the way he had been living for years.
5. ‘Dream Boogie’ is a good title for this life story… on the surface a good dream of making hits, touring the country with friends, living large… yet underneath there is some dark aspect that keeps driving him to change labels, managers, to keep playing the field…

The NW Film Center is showing a Sam Cooke doc next weekend which I plan to see.

Everything Bad is Good For You – Steven Johnson (2005)

Everything Bad is Good For You is subtitled ‘How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter’ – and perhaps it’s true! Johnson first describes what he terms the ‘Sleeper Curve’ – the trend over the last 40 years or so for many aspects of popular culture to become more complex. This includes the plots of television shows (a beginning point with Hill Street Blues, to recent examples like The Sopranos), video games, and the internet in general (with the introduction of email, messaging, blogs, etc.). He says that the economics behind this trend is driven by repetition; that the most value in these areas is created when a game or show can be played many times, revealing more and more depth each time (since that’s what people want when they buy games, DVDs, etc.).

Then he shifts gears and discusses another trend, that the average IQ scores have been going up (i.e. a 100 IQ score today, still the average score, is quite a bit more ‘difficult’ to achieve than it was 40 years ago). The link between IQ scores and general ‘smartness’ is kind of hard to define, I suspect. While it does seem remarkable the level of complexity that people are willing to deal with in a video game, it’s unclear how these cognitive skills are used back in the ‘real world.’

On a side note, he argues that films are somewhat limited in the amount of complexity that they can offer, since they in general have a very limited amount of time to work with (2 hrs, as compared to a TV show that may run for many, many hours and therefore can keep many stories going for a long time). Likewise, for pop music he argues in an end note that the change there occured 40 years ago, when the long-playing album took precedence over singles. Since that time, even the introduction of the CD with somewhat longer playing times has not really changed the nature of pop music very much. Nowadays, however, it seems like we are going back to the era of the single, in that people often buy a single tune…


For months now I’ve been slowly reading the pieces in a book titled Forces of Change, published in 2000 by the National Geographic Society/Smithsonian Institute. It’s a book of essays on the natural world and our understanding of it. The essay I enjoyed most is “The Pleasures of Change” by Dorion Sagan and Eric D. Schneider; here is the intro paragraph:

The strange fact that the human mind is able to imagine eternity and its perpetual fascination with numbers, geometric shapes, and other changeless forms have had a dramatic impact on our perception of reality. For the last few centuries the timeless has been epitomized by the mathematical equations of the physicist, who has tried, ever since Newton, to discover eternal laws behind our changing natural world. It is curious that we should be so obsessed with the eternal when we live in a world of incessant change, where perhaps the most truly incorruptible, eternal, and changeless thing is our ability to even imagine such permanence!

The authors go on to discuss the way life is able to take advantage of energy gradients to keep on growing… outcome unknown. As they put it, “we do not know what happens when life originates in a universe.”


Here’s a lovely ad image from a large company selling tech products that suggests that it might be a cool thing to get a tattoo of one of their soon-to-be-obsolete laptop products on your rear (I think it was in the Portland Mercury that I saw the term ‘ass antlers’ for this tattoo design – beautiful!). Does this stuff sell computers?

Great call from 1972!

I picked up a copy of Stewart Brand‘s first book, a 1974 compilation of a couple articles from the early seventies called Two Cybernetic Frontiers. The second article is called “Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums” and it centers on the newly emerging hacker community of the SF peninsula. One paragraph stood out:

Since huge quantities of information can be computerized and digitalized and transmitted, music researchers could, for example, swap records over the Net with ‘essentially perfect fidelity.’ So much for record stores (in present form).

This was published back in Dec 1972! Only 30+ years ahead of time. Brand these days is involved with Long Now.

2005 in Review

This post attempts to pick out the highlights of my media experience over the last year… some items came out during the year, others came out long ago and I just found them… links are (mostly) to earlier blog posts.

A book that brought a lot of things together for me is called Five Billion Years of Global Change (2005) by Denis Wood. As the title indicates, it’s a type of world history, placing us today in the midst of a long ongoing series of changes in the geological/biological realm. The style is probably infuriating to a specialist, but was good for a generalist like me – it’s very chatty and informal and digressive. Also the notes are great – lots of extra material and good references to other books.

Other books that stood out in my mind this year mostly revolved around issues of how we ‘understand things’ or perhaps how our brains work. Donald Hoffman’s Visual Intelligence (1998) was very good – he describes a set of rules that we apparently use to interpret visual information (and uses plenty of optical illusions to indicate how they can ‘fool’ us into perceiving things that aren’t quite there). I also liked A Different Universe (2005) by physicist Robert Laughlin, who makes the case that reduction has gone about as far as is useful, and that there are many properties of elements that can only be found through experimentation (his work was in properties of superconductivity at very low temperatures). The book is for the layman. The idea is that you can’t use the basic laws to predict very much of the emergent behavior; you have to discover it by observation. The larger idea, for me, is that we really have still just scratched the surface of the phyical world, and perhaps that we will always find more, since we are mostly creating new mental maps and models…

On the fiction front, I delved into some of the work by Arthur Schnitzler (Viennese, died in 1930 or so). I particularly liked a novella called Casanova’s Return to Venice (1918). More recently, I thought John LeCarre’s last one, called Absolute Friends (2003), was quite good (I hadn’t read anything of his for many years, and this seemed much better than what I remembered). One more – The Hearing Trumpet (1974) by Leonora Carrington (1974), a surreal tale of a bunch of old ladies by the painter who lived in Mexico.

Finally on the history front – I found this year’s 1491 by Charles Mann to be very intriguing in its survey of the ‘new world’ prior to Columbus – apparently much more populated and complex than we had been taught! And covering more recent ground, What the Dormouse Said (2005) by John Markoff writes about the (at least partially) drug-fueled emergence of the silicon era, and Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm (2001) covers the Goldwater era and the rise of modern conservatism.

Podcasts: Two weekly KCRW shows that I’ve consistently enjoyed this year: Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment (interviews with writers, actors, directors) and Bookworm hosted by Michael Silverblatt (interviews with literary authors).

TV: I kept hearing good things about the new Battlestar Galactica, and while bad memories of the original seventies show made me hesistant, I finally gave in and watched the three hour miniseries made in 2003. I was hooked! The first season is out on DVD and it’s also good. One could see the show as an investigation of some post-9/11 concerns in America, or as an action sci-fi show, but either way it’s well-written and respects the audience.

Live Show: Most rockin’ show of the year for me was The Hold Steady at Berbati’s Pan. Great in a very different way were The Boredoms back in May in SF.

Sam Cooke Revival!

Dream Boogie

I’m now on the Sam Cooke Revival train, and it’s picking up momentum. The big driver is Peter Guralnick’s big new biography – Dream Boogie – the Triumph of Sam Cooke, which I’m just starting. I also picked up a couple re-issued CD’s which I’d recommend: Night Beat and Live at the Harlem Square Club, both from 1963.

The Tree of Knowledge (1987) – Maturana & Varela

The Tree of Knowledge is subtitled ‘The Biological Roots of Human Understanding,’ and it presents a wide ranging story of how we come to know what we know. They go through the history of life on earth as we know it, largely to make one main point, which is that “we must walk on the razor’s edge, eschewing the extremes of representationalism (objectivism) and solipsism (idealism).” Their message is that our understanding of things has a biological basis, in the sense that we process and interpret all sensory information using our nervous system. Here’s another attempt to sum it up:

What biology shows us is that the uniqueness of being human lies exclusively in a social structural coupling that occurs through languaging, generating (a) the regularities proper to the human social dynamics, for example, individual identity and self-consciousness, and (b) the recursive social human dynamics that entails a reflection enabling us to see that as human beings we have only the world which we create with others – whether we like them or not.

I’ve probably made this book look a lot ‘heavier’ than it often is; much of it is a good brief summary of the history of life. But it does define its own terminology which takes some getting used to, and I probably will need to read this again to get the full message. There are some interesting parallels with Hoffman’s book Visual Intelligence.

My Life in CIA (2005) – Harry Mathews

My Life in CIA book
My Life in CIA is Harry Mathews‘s ‘autobiographical novel,’ spinning a yarn of a time in 1973 in Paris when he decided to go along with the idea that people had that he was working as an intelligence man. It’s hard to know how to take this story – at times it almost seems plausible, and then he describes (for example) giving a lecture to a bunch of dyslexic travelers at which he tells them to only take trains that depart at palindromic times like 12:21. It’s quite a funny tale, as the narrator proceeds to get in way over his head, while also having occasional tantric non-sex dates.Here’s a short interview with Mathews.

Life as a Geological Force (1991) – Peter Westbroek

Westbroek‘s short book is a rather fascinating look at the way that living things intertwine and interact with what most of us consider to be ‘dead’ rocks, or geology. At one level is the creation of limestone at the bottom of the sea, from accumulations of tiny creatures that sink to the bottom.

But closer to the surface, in the Florida Bay (the area to the north of the Florida Keys), similar things are going on. An alga that grows on long grass ribbons in the sea constitutes a chalk mud factory (creating the conditions for their own propagation!).

In essence, the grass ribbons Philip held in his had were part of a living conveyor belt that accelerates the production of chalk mud. The vast numbers of grass leaves provide a huge surface for encrusting chalk-mud producers. They are continuously pushed up from the roots and then shed, so that they are actively replaced all the time. Of course, both components of the system – the grass and the calcified algae on them – depend on sunlight for their growth. They thrive in these shallow waters, protected from the turmoil of the open ocean, and they form enormous amounts of mud in a very short time.

Westbroek crosses over from geology to biology, and close study indicates that we are indeed linked in many ways to the planet we live on.