Friday, January 31, 2020

Looking Back on 2019 (Part 3)

Street art seen in Mexico City, June 2019.

A little delayed in sharing this final look back at some of the things I liked about 2019, but that gave me time to properly soak in the music that dropped later in the year. As always with this blog, my favorite new albums came out of the realm of hip hop in its purest and grimiest form.

We are now nearly a quarter century past the golden era of hip hop and the art form remains alive with a slew of newer artists arising to bring fresh blood and new approaches to a musical tradition whose forefathers they seem to not only respect but spiritually summon and pay homage to. Some established rap gods have also helped bring along the new artists. These phenomena were reflected in some of the albums and artists I dug in 2019. Here are, in no particular order, my favorite albums from last year with a few words about each.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Looking Back on 2019 (Part 2)

Books Read in 2019:

1. Harpooning Donald Trump by Tom LeClair
A short book of essays by a literary scholar arguing for the importance of literature during times of political turmoil. LeClair goes into what he calls "systems novels" here, that is, enormous novels that seek to contain everything. These can be useful guides to crazy times. He especially highlights Robert Coover's The Public Burning, a satirical novel that features a caricatured Richard Nixon as the protagonist and narrator. The book's best chapter analyzes Trump from the perspective of Moby-Dick---what LeClair calls "the only book you'll ever need"---and concludes:
And we will need literate readers---like Ishmael---to counter Trump's unscrupulous monomania. Not just literate readers but literary, which is literate on Human Growth Hormone. Literary readers do not think any more carefully than literate people, but literature trains one to care about and care for language as a sensitive instrument, not just a blunt tool for propaganda and power. I'll quote Wittgenstein again: 'The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.' The world of literature is large with possibilities of imagination and thought and feeling. The world of pre-literate Donald Trump is small, impoverished by ignorance and fear and anger. Literary responses to Trump may not bring down a president or even affect his policies, but literary artists still must continue to provide models of rigorous thought and rich expression---just as medieval monks preserved manuscripts in an earlier dark time---for great and great-minded literature is in and of itself a harpoon, a weapon against the fake 'great' and small-minded demagoguery. (p. 95)

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Looking Back on 2019 (Part 1)

Aztec Sun Stone seen at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.

The year 2019 will probably be one I always look back on as an important year in my life. While it was an extremely busy period where my work life expanded significantly and bled its way into my personal life, complex projects keeping me up nights and perplexing me on weekends trying to solve tech company conundrums, I also managed to make time to surf the waves of my passionate interests to new heights. The peak of the latter was an adventure in Mexico City where I delivered a lecture at an international literary conference (the fourth country and fifth university where I've got to share my work as an independent scholar) and visited the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacan. I also got to contribute to some meaningful projects, had my first piece to appear in a book (link below), made a bit of income from literary work, and opened up new avenues for 2020.

In 2019 we also got a puppy---a sweet, playful, and loyal pit-lab-retriever mix who has transformed my life. I'd never had a pet before, ever. Growing up, my parents hated animals. My dad only refers to dogs as "shit machines." But I've always loved dogs. Our little tank boy ROA (named after my lady's favorite street artist) is a rescue we got this past September when he was 5 months old. He's huge and he has been a handful but he's kept me grounded and brought me an abundance of joy. Dogs are the best. A new thing I've learned is that one of the most peaceful feelings in life comes from simply laying on the couch at night after a busy day and watching tv with a puppy sleeping by you. For anyone paying attention to the news in 2019, the world is sort of in shambles right now, and for people like me who dive headlong into the news for weeks at a time it can get depressing and heavy. A big, energetic, playful and sweet puppy is a perfect antidote to that. Now that I have a dog I feel like dogs are essential, that dogs belong with humans and vice versa. They're not just loving and loyal and protective and playful, they're funny. Our boy ROA, when he's super tired he sticks his head under the couch and passes out. Here I'm gonna share a bunch of pics of our new doggy that we adopted this year (his full name is ROA Haymitch Flynndrino, I also call him Tank Boy and Baby Kangaroo), then I will share some lists and expanded thoughts on the stuff I did in 2019.

In Part 1 here I'll discuss the things I wrote and the places I traveled to in 2019. In Part 2, I'll share the list of books I read this year and Part 3 I'll discuss my favorite new albums from 2019.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Al Pacino & Robert DeNiro in Epic Conversation

Two of the all-time greats sit down to discuss their friendship and careers. I had no idea they both grew up in Manhattan and their acting careers essentially began in the coffee shops and bars of Beat-era Greenwich Village. Incredible how much artistic talent arose from that neighborhood during that period.

Whenever I hear about Greenwich Village in those days I think of one of my favorite authors, David Markson, who was a fixture of the Village during that time. Markson shared some colorful stories about his experiences during that era in an interview here.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Hauntology of The Gold Room by Sadhugold

From the wikipedia page for Hauntology:
A derivation of Derrida's hauntology idea informs a style of 21st-century music exploring ideas related to temporal disjunction, retrofuturism, cultural memory, and the persistence of the past. Hauntology often involves the sampling of older, "spectral" sound sources to evoke deeper cultural memory. Common reference points in hauntological music include vintage analog synthesisers and cassette tapes, library music, old science-fiction and pulp horror programmes (including the soundtracks of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), musique concrète and found sounds, dub and English psychedelia, and 1970s public informational films. A common element is the foregrounding of the recording surface noise, including the crackle and hiss of vinyl and tape, calling attention to the decaying medium itself.

According to Nature Sounds, the new instrumental album The Gold Room by Sadhugold was "conceived as the score of a prequel to Stanley Kubrick’s classic film The Shining" but it also feels like a perfect embodiment of hauntological music. An instrumental homage to a classic ghost story film that creates a spectral vibe of its own thru dusty, lo-fi analog elements and distorted, mutating melodies that feel like they're emanating out of a haunted jukebox. Or the analog dispatch radio in the office of The Overlook with the call letters KDK12.

I've been very impressed with this album, captivated by Sadhugold's chunky kicks-and-snares and the way he toys with and distorts each beat. Also interesting to me is how this is a straight instrumental record, no vocals at all, not even any kind of clips of voices from The Shining. Through the track titles and the movements of the song, though, Sadhu creates audio spectral visions of the themes of the film. One of the best examples is on "Dull Boy" where the melody, an absolute banger of resonant organ keys, gives the sense of a spiraling descent into madness and chaos, confirmed by the track title referring to that iconic scene of The Shining where Jack Torrance's wife discovers every page he's written says "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

Kubrick's 1980 film is one of the greatest cinematic puzzles ever devised, a labyrinth with a life of its own, springing forth elaborate subjective interpretations, theories, and homages from creative souls who become allured into its layers. I've gone thru my own phases of obsessing over Kubrick and The Shining and written about it in this space. That film seems inexhaustible, a classic in every respect, and while it has inspired a whole subculture of devotees (including previous attempts at hauntological musical renditions) this new project from Sadhugold was an ambitious idea that he executed with a mastery worthy of the filmmaker he's paying tribute to. The whole album is a banger that can stay on repeat, revealing new ripples and distorted spectral disturbances with each listen.

(Thank you to my friend Angelo for putting me on to that concept of Hauntology, a word combining haunting and ontology.)

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Indelible Sensory Imprint of Mexico City and the Pyramids of Teotihuacán

PQ perched on the Pyramid of the Moon overlooking the Pyramid of the Sun and the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacán, Mexico.

"In this twilight age of all the disciplines, in which beliefs are dying and religions are gradually gathering dust, our sensations are the only reality left to us. The only scruple that need concern us, the only satisfactory science, is that of sensations."

That's Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet describing the sensations of living in the city of Lisbon (a place I got to visit in 2014). Pessoa's poetic detailing of the sensory world of a modern city explored throughout The Book of Disquiet rung resonantly with my experience of Mexico City on a 10-day trip this past June. Looking back on that trip, it's the sensory experience that sticks out to me. Mexico City is such a vast, bustling, densely populated, and beautiful place. The experience of being there brings so much to bear on the senses that you end up filtering so much of it out so as not to get caught up in focusing on every little thing. As I've continued to digest the experience of being there, certain things that I overlooked or forgot about come floating back up in my memory.

Little details return, like the way the sunlight comes down through the trees. Mexico City felt like a metropolis inside of a jungle while surrounded by mountains on every horizon. It's a gigantic place with variation across each neighborhood, but the parts we mostly stayed in (La Roma and La Condesa neighborhoods) were so full of lush green, tall thriving trees that there was often a canopy for the sunlight to creep through. There were so many miniature parks with jungles of trees and plants alongside old statues and fountains. Giant, lush bougainvillea vines climbed lampposts and hung on electrical wires. Palm trees clustered together. Many of the buildings had porches full of plants like this place:

Saturday, September 7, 2019

(Video) RZA Shares the Wu-Tang Secrets, Takes Us Thru the Martial Arts Film Chamber

Thank you for this, RZA. Thank you, Vanity Fair. Thank you to everyone who made this video happen. One of the coolest Wu-Tang clips you'll ever see.

Sunday, June 30, 2019


Freddie Gibbs ft Yasiin Bey & Black Thought
Produced by Madlib

I'll take Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) over dusty Madlib beats all day. Black Thought rhyming on a Madlib track sounds fresh too. And the Madlib sounds remains as gloriously lo-fi and cassette tape fuzzy as always. Which reminds me, it seems we've heard less and less from Madlib the last few years. Need to get back to that ten album per year pace he was maintaining for a while. You know he's got the material. 

(Video) How Art Arrived at Jackson Pollock - by Nerdwriter

Great video covering vast territory in art history in a brief amount of time with extraordinary clarity, highlighting one of Jackson Pollock's finest pieces. This guy Nerdwriter really does fantastic work. Watch this fullscreen.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Evaluating the 2019 Mets at the Halfway Point

The last time I posted on this blog was back on March 30th, three months ago, where I offered my predictions for how the National League would shape out in the 2019 baseball season including an exceedingly optimistic take on the New York Mets. Since we're now just about at the halfway mark of the season (the Mets played their 78th game today) here's how this frustrating, underperforming team stacks up. (Edit: I wrote this right before all the drama of the Mets' excruciating loss to the Cubs that Sunday at Wrigley Field and the subsequent Mickey Callaway blowup against a reporter that has seemingly sent the Mets deeper into a tailspin ever since.)

2019 Mets
37-41 (4th in NL East, 9.0 games back)

Overall their standing looks pretty bleak for a team that had boasted about contending this year. New GM Brodie Van Wagenen made a bunch of moves in the offseason and spent a chunk of money, but his moves haven't amounted to much. Everyone he added to the roster has been either injured or disappointing with the sole exception of J.D. Davis, a minor leaguer acquired from the Astros who has been a solid corner bat for the Mets but who is also the worst defensive player on the team. That's been a theme for this squad. Even though their season has been a massive disappointment thus far compared to expectations, the Mets have actually been a pretty solid ballclub in most facets of the game, except their bullpen has been shaky at times and bad defense is killing them.

According to Fangraphs' wRC+ metric (which takes all offensive production into account and adjusts for league and ballpark), the Mets offense has been 13th best in baseball, solidly average. Their 101 wRC+ also ranks 5th in the National League, behind only the Cubs, Brewers, Dodgers, and Braves---that is, three first place teams and the Brewers who are 41-36. Led by a quartet of reliably effective homegrown hitters in Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, and Dominic Smith along with the aforementioned J.D. Davis and a resurgent Todd Frazier (who is batting .302/.417/.512 with same number of walks and strikeouts since May 25th), the Mets offense has been surprisingly good. Their only glaring problem on the offensive side is that they run into outs on the bases way too often; many a Mets rally has been stifled by over-aggressive base-running. Also, they've gotten very little from Robinson Cano, Amed Rosario, and Juan Lagares at the plate, all of them with OBPs below .300. If any of them start getting on base more consistently, the depth of this offense could carry the team through rough stretches.

Starting Pitching
While the overall production of the Mets' starting rotation has seemed very disappointing with a collective ERA of 4.37 that ranks 17th in MLB (just a bit better than both the Braves and Phillies), their fielding-independent numbers are actually pretty strong. Their FIP (fielding-independent pitching) of 4.02 ranks 9th in baseball and 6th in the NL. So, despite the rotation failing to meet expectations thus far this year, they've still basically pitched better than all but five teams in the National League. The pitchers have been hurt by a shaky defense. Noah Syndergaard and Zach Wheeler especially appear to have suffered from defensive ineptitude. Another big factor affecting this rotation has been the long ball. Home runs have skyrocketed league-wide because of a juiced ball, but the Mets have been especially hurt by this environment---their presumed top four starters (Jacob deGrom, Syndergaard, Wheeler, and Steven Matz) all have sky-high rates of home runs per fly balls allowed that are above their career norms. Somehow, soft-tossing lefty Jason Vargas, who Mets fans all wanted cut from the roster not too long ago, has given up the lowest HR/FB rate on the staff and helped stabilize a free-falling team recently (this before blowing up at a reporter like an asshole and not apologizing, helping throw the team into its worst stretch so far).

Here lies the source of Mets fans' greatest fury and disgust this season. The bullpen has been ghastly, with a collective 5.28 ERA that ranks 28th among in MLB. More advanced metrics show the Mets bullpen among the worst in the league. They have had some excruciating, heartbreaking losses where they've blown leads late. Stuck in my memory are the Edwin Diaz meltdowns against the Dodgers and Cardinals, in the latter game the Mets had a 2-run lead with 2 outs in the 9th and still ended up losing. Bad fielding has hurt the relievers a bit, but mainly they've just pitched poorly. Free agent signings Jeurys Familia and Justin Wilson were supposed to shore up the late innings, but Familia has been an abomination (7.81 ERA with almost 7 walks per 9 innings) and Wilson appeared in just 10 games before getting injured. This bullpen has also given up a ton of home runs, superstar closer Edwin Diaz is currently surrendering 1.52 homers per 9 innings, more than double what he allowed last season. The only reliable arm out of the bullpen has been Seth Lugo who has a 2.23 ERA and has mostly kept the ball in the yard, but is a somewhat limited relief weapon because he can't pitch on consecutive days. I should point out that scrap-heap pickup Wilmer Font somehow has a 0.69 ERA, though he's pitched only 13 innings of mostly mop-up work. Right-hander Robert Gsellman has been ridden hard, throwing the most innings out of the bullpen so far, even though he's pitched terribly with runners on base: with the bases empty he's allowed a .244 batting average and a 4.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio, with runners on he gets hit for a .297 average and the K/BB ratio drops to 1.75.

The Mets have shifted some things around in attempt to help the bullpen (including putting $60 million relief arm Jeurys Familia on the injured list twice to basically get his head straight) and recently fired both their pitching coach and bullpen coach. With talented arms like Diaz, Lugo and Gsellman at the back end, they can't possibly be this bad for the entire season. As I mentioned in my team preview, they need to be open to using Diaz more often. Gsellman is no fireman. Lugo has limited availability. Diaz has fallen apart at times, but his stuff remains elite and one way to get him back on track will be to bring him in to pitch more often. Among all NL relievers, Diaz is 43rd in innings pitched (for comparison, Gsellman and Lugo are in the top 10). He's been the 20th most valuable relief pitcher in the National League by WAR but has pitched fewer innings than anyone in the top 20. The Mets aren't lacking for high leverage innings late in games. It's time to start using Diaz more flexibly, and approach every game like it matters down the stretch.

This has been the great weakness of this Mets team. Even when the offense performs well and the pitching holds it together, they have often been undone by a bad defense. It's going to be very hard for this team to compete when they've got one of the worst fielding shortstops in the league in Amed Rosario (who's been horrible in the field by any metric and by the eyeball test) and, according to Baseball Prospectus' catcher stats, one of the game's worst defensive catchers behind the plate in Wilson Ramos. You just can't succeed with abysmal defense at vital up-the-middle positions. The Mets rank second-to-last in MLB in defensive runs saved. Even with an improved bullpen, this kind of inability to turn balls in play into outs will sabotage a season. Is there anything they can do to address this issue? News that the Mets are considering moving Rosario to center field is promising---he can be replaced at shortstop by Adeiny Hechavarria who's a solid fielder and has even hit a little bit. They will need to stop using J.D. Davis at third base because he's completely incapable of handling the hot corner. Otherwise, they're kinda stuck with this bunch. Ramos was just signed long-term and he's been a bad defensive catcher for a while now. I guess they can spell him for backup Tomas Nido more often but Nido is a zero with the bat. The overall verdict is that this is an extremely flawed roster that needs a highly creative, adaptable manager pushing the buttons in order to succeed and they do not have that. Something's going to change sooner than later. Either they bring in a more creative decision maker or they keep playing badly and the team gets dismantled. Unfortunately, the latter is more likely.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

MLB 2019 Predictions, Part 2

Brodie Van Wagenen and the Mets' newest stars, Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. And that other guy. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Whereas picking the American League winners is a little boring because the difference between the haves and the have-nots is so stark, the National League in 2019 has the potential for all kinds of surprises. Besides the Marlins, Giants, and Diamondbacks, every team has some potential playoff to be in the playoff mix. The October 2019 standings in the NL Central can be scrambled any which way looking at it from now. Same with the NL East (leaving aside the Marlins). It's tough to make a final determination on how things will end up here but this entire exercise is completely meaningless anyway so let's have fun with it.

(PECOTA projections from here)

National League

NL East

1. Mets
PECOTA: 87 wins
My pick: Over

Hiring a former agent with no front office experience to be their new GM initially seemed like an odd, potentially disastrous move for the Mets. When he immediately pulled off a huge trade adding two superstars, then built up an impressively deep and versatile roster, I became a believer in Brodie Van Wagenen. (His hiring of renowned stats guru Russell Carlton away from Baseball Prospectus officially confirmed my faith in Brodie.) The Mets had found a GM who clearly understood the urgency to win right now with this team in New York. The core of this team is ripe to win now. Jacob deGrom is in his prime, his historically dominant 2018 season took place at age 30. Thor is 26 years old now. Zack Wheeler is 28. Their homegrown hitters like Michael Conforto (26), Brandon Nimmo (26), and Jeff McNeil (turning 27) are all in the sweet spots of their aging curves. Supplementing that core with the additions of veterans Robinson Cano, Jed Lowrie, and Wilson Ramos, a trio that would form a solid middle of any lineup, was the kind of bold, exciting front office wheeling and dealing Mets fans hadn't seen in a while.

The GM Brodie openly boasted about his team often this offseason, feeling certain that the new-and-improved Mets were the favorite to win the NL East, a division where the Phillies just spent truckloads of money adding All Stars, the young Braves just won the division after laying a fucking clobbering on the Mets with 13 wins in 19 games last year, and the Nats had also improved and had been clobbering the Mets for years now, too. In what's being called "the division of death" this year, these four teams could potentially all win 90 games. Nothing is going to come easy in this division. Despite so much competition, I believe Brodie that the Mets are the favorites here and not just because I'm an overly optimistic Mets fan (although I definitely am that). I think Brodie correctly identified and acted on the urgency of now, while the Mets have perhaps the best rotation in baseball, to bulk up the lineup with both star talent and versatile depth,  and to bolster the flagging bullpen. The addition of Edwin Diaz to anchor that pen was an enormous move for the Mets. They also brought back Jeurys Familia who has been by far the Mets' best relief pitcher the last few years, but take a look at Familia's and Diaz's numbers next to each other and you start to understand the magnitude of how dominant a force Edwin Diaz is.

Familia, 2016-2018:   25.4 K%, 10.8 BB%, .220 opponents' average, 3.35 ERA 
Diaz, 2016-2018:       38.9 K%, 8.2 BB%, .189 opponents' average, 2.67 ERA

Diaz struck out 44% of batters last year, the 7th most in a season ever. It's going to be interesting to watch how the Mets opt to deploy Diaz, whether they stash him for just the 9th or bring him in for high leverage situations. The division is definitely stacked and every win will matter this year. As a diehard Mets fan I'm thrilled as ever with the way the team has been constructed, especially in the bullpen. Edwin Diaz is Aroldis Chapman without the walks. And he could be the deciding factor in the NL East's tightly competitive four-team battle this year.

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