Why I Can't Stand Star Wars Anymore

Posted by Whit Barringer , Wednesday, July 06, 2011 4:26 PM

Originally posted here, on my tumblr onedivinemachine.tumblr.com.

I'm a fairly pretty big nerd. I love to play video games, especially RPGs (I have a $1/hr of gameplay standard - otherwise I usually feel like I don't get my money's worth). I love Magic: The Gathering so much I've had to swear it off, and it's all I can do to keep myself from buying a new booster pack every time I pass by the "impulse buy" isle at Walmart. I like to play complicated, two- or three-hour long board games with my friends. I'm a big history nerd (it's kind of my thing). And as a child growing up in AMERICA, I grew up on and loved Star Wars Episodes IV-VI.

My fascination with the original Star Wars trilogy was more than just a love for the funny robots, the big furry monster, and the cool superpowers. I remember sitting in front of the TV one summer with a blue legal notepad and writing down things to watch for in a list on the left ("R2 Beeps," "Lightsabers," "Laser Blasts") and leaving space on the right to write down tally marks for however many times those things happened/appeared throughout each movie. It was incredibly nerdy and incredibly pointless, but I enjoyed the films enough to watch them as many times as it took to fill out my little form. I went back to school before I could really get started, but I remembered thinking I was going to be pretty cool if I could cite all of my statistics to my friends (how weird my perceptions of cool were).

I saw the entire prequel trilogy in theaters, and I had posters of Ewan McGregor and the Battle of Geonosis on my bedroom wall. I didn't like the prequel trilogy nearly as much as the originals, and I did outright dislike the third movie. Even so, I did honestly like Attack of the Clones and all of its huge battles. It was a mixed bag, but I took it for what it was and went on with my life.

My falling out of love with Star Wars really (and oddly) began in earnest with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I went and saw it with my mom opening weekend, and was utterly incensed at how inane it all was. I wasn't even upset about the ultimate supernatural force behind the plot (after God, uh, eggs, and Jesus in the first three, aliens didn't really phase me). The plot was insane, Harrison Ford was really old, Cate Blanchett's accent was atrocious, and Shia LaBoeuf swung from tree-to-tree with monkeys. The movie was so terrible, so cynical, such a pandering mess, that I couldn't get any enjoyment from it.

Once I saw the cynicism, I couldn't un-see it in Lucas's work. From the pandering of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, to the evidence that the putting the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi was a marketing decision (because cute toys sell better), to the complete disregard for continuity among the movies out of laziness, my dislike for Star Wars grew out of my disgust with George Lucas. Everything he had touched was tainted (except for Jurassic Park - that bun was almost out of the oven by the time Lucas got his grubby hands all over it).

Then I saw the devastating RedLetterMedia reviews of Episodes I, II, and III. Talk about exposing the rotting, hollow center to a series gilt in pretty CGI.  After watching these, it confirmed what I had already suspected: these movies don't make sense; they are artistically bankrupt; they disrupt the mythology, look, feel, and message of the series; and, oh yeah, they don't make any sense.

Even after all of this, I could still hear about Star Wars without cringing, and I still referenced it very occasionally in conversation. Hearing someone talk about George Lucas would annoy me, but somewhere in my heart was the little girl with her notepad, her eyes glued to the original trilogy, enjoying every scene, every minute.

Then I snapped.

I was reading an io9 review for God's War by Kameron Hurley with the headline "The heroine of 'God's War' makes Han Solo look like a boy scout." I understand that blogs run on clicks, and for io9, a nerdy sci-fi blog, putting a name like Han Solo in the title is cash money. But besides the tiniest similarities, Han Solo and Nyx, the main character of God's War (which I bought and have been reading), are absolutely nothing alike. The situation is completely different. Her status is completely different. Her behavior is completely different. The politics of the world she is in are different, and have helped make her character different, and so on. This is apples and oranges stuff.

In addition to the comparison being completely inaccurate, no matter the qualification, comparing Nyx to Han Solo in the first place is boring. Again, I know how blogs work, and contrast is a legitimate way to frame something readers don't know about. But are we so unimaginative that Han Solo, who, in retrospect, was a pretty tame idea of a rogue with gray morals, is the only archetype people can understand? Why are we still using Star Wars, when so many great sci-fi films have come out before and since that fill out archetypes much better? Is it because we credit Star Wars with the invention of the archetypes? Because even that's not quite the whole story, though it may get close.  The review wouldn't have annoyed me even half as much if the reviewer had mentioned even one other cultural item. But it's as if drawing the throwaway comparison between Nyx and Han Solo was enough, the work done. And really, it was - the whole point was to get some extra clicks. I admit, I clicked for that very reason.

What bothers me about this isn't that Star Wars still has cultural currency. By all rights, it should still have purchase, because it changed a lot in cinema. It's not that it doesn't deserve its dues. It's that, to paraphrase Patton Oswalt in his recent Wired editorial, we simultaneously live in a culture that places special importance on creativity and originality, but also in a culture that places pride in planting a flag on something that has come before. Geek culture is a snake eating its own tail.*  Geek culture is masturbatory. Geek culture is fiercely territorial for things it claims but does not create. It depends on a wide and (sometimes) deep library for its cultural references, and it depends on the same library to understand it. It is self-referential, self-important, and self-congratulatory, and it isn't concerned with creation that does not include recycling bits of other people's work.

The io9 review, as benign as it really is, flipped my switch from "tolerate and sometimes participate in" to "loathe and cringe at the sight or sound of" Star Wars and large swaths of geek culture in general. The idea that something that has been proven, through analysis and the words of its creator, to be creatively bankrupt in dozens of ways and can still command the respect that it does, even knowing what we know, makes geeks, nerds, "enthusiasts", and whoever else falls into that category, stubborn and sheltered. The switch io9 flipped (again, it's still very benign) has changed how I see the references to Star Wars or to The Legend of Zelda or to Batman. It's all part of the same recycle and reuse that fuels entire industries which run on nostalgia and fear of disappointment in the new.

This isn't a hipster argument. This isn't about the mainstream making nostalgia and obscurity into commodities. This really isn't even an argument, as I'm trying to express, not convince. The point I am trying to get to is that I am of the opinion that Star Wars (among myriad other geeky icons), as stunted in growth, commercial in sensibility, nostalgically revered, and crassly cynical as it is, has infiltrated and modified our cultural assumptions for the worse. We are constantly comparing apples to oranges to Star Wars or to some other famous tidbit, when the degrees of relation are so distant they can't even be considered to exist in the same plane.

Walker Percy once used the analogy of the postcard experience. People travel to see the postcards image of sights and landmarks. But what they don't realize is that the trip is never going to be fulfilling, because they are going to see exactly what they and millions of others have seen before. Going to the Grand Canyon and standing at the railing, looking down at millions of years of formations, isn't experiencing something new and personal - it's experiencing 1/n^nth of the full experience. Going off the beaten path gets you closer to the 1/1 experience, and gives you the chance to be fulfilled by your adventures. Star Wars is a 1/n^nth experience. It saturates our current pop culture, being the go-to for references, archetypes, etc., so much that it makes people lazy, expecting or desiring nothing better. Those movies are everywhere. When I finally started to notice, I couldn't help but feel nauseated and unfulfilled.

I understand my opinion is largely impractical. There really hasn't been in a time in history when the present isn't scouring the past for inspiration, if not outright recycling, and I am not under the illusion to the contrary. I am also aware that I am just as much a participant in the nostalgia machines and nothing-new industries, and that I am just as responsible as the next human being for giving people like George Lucas my time, devotion, and cash - making this a self-indictment and not just an opinion. I also do not begrudge anyone for loving this culture and claiming it as their own. It simply isn't for me, and everything I've expressed here applies to how I see the culture and isn't an attempt to interpret anyone else's experience. But maybe, just maybe, I can break some of the cycle by refusing to keep participating in what I see as the mindless repetition, the knee-jerk references, and the tired cliches of Star Wars that have seeped into our culture.

But likely not.

*I do disagree with Patton that Star Wars was ever uncool or not mainstream (have you seen those box office numbers?) and that one group can own or even has the right to own any part of pop culture. People are territorial about all sorts of things, but that doesn't mean they have any right to it.

Image via.

Impossible Summer Reading List Review: Joe Haldeman's The Forever War

Posted by Whit Barringer , Tuesday, May 31, 2011 12:46 AM

As with all discussions of books read from my Impossible Summer Reading List, this will be unabashedly spoiler-rich. Proceed at thy own peril.

The Forever War (1974) was suggested to me by a friend, not by premise, but by a half-amused half-serious teaser that resembled the following: "They smoke pot and have sex a lot in it. So it's awesome." Yet The Forever War, for all of its divining of a dystopian future, feels heavily weighted by the past.

First, a (long-ish - sorry) summary: William Mandella (which, in an odd aside just pages from the end, is revealed to be a corruption of "Mandala") is drafted as part of the Elite Conscription Act to fight in a space war against the Taurans, a never-before-seen alien enemy. The monotony and strangeness of space war is immediately shown through the casual sex amongst crew members and smoking army-issued marijuana.

The novel focuses intensely on the day-to-day brutality of space. The first major stint of the novel is spent with Mandella's platoon in training exercises on Charon, where many soldiers die simply from the environment and equipment malfunctions. When they finally meet the Taurans with the impossible order to capture one alive, the alien force lines up for the gory slaughter, apparently never having encountered the human variety of combat.

When Mandella's group finishes its first campaign, they are allowed to go back to earth, but not without a harrowing description of Earth as a place so violent and repressed that peace doesn't have a meaning anymore. They will barely recognize their home, they are warned. The earth has grown twenty years older during their two year tour, an effect of star speed relativity. This is all told to them by Captain Siri, a homosexual man wearing makeup (more on this later). Instead, they could reenlist and get double, triple, quadruple pay, depending on their assignments.

Mandella decides to go Earthside anyway, and finds just how much of a mess the earth is in. His father dead, Mandella moves in with his mother. He buys a gun, learns how the new currency (kilocalories) works, and decides to blow his pension on an airship ride around the world with Marygay Potter, the only woman in the service with whom Mandella felt any connection. While they're on their tour, they stop in Britain; while there, Mandella sees a gang of boys try to rape a young girl, and shoots and kills one of them. Deciding that they shouldn't risk going to mainland Europe, they both fly back home. Mandella goes home and finds his mother's "friend" Rhonda in his mother's apartment and quizzes her about their relationship. He finds out that Rhonda and his mother are lovers, and that Rhonda is actually his earth age (as opposed to his twenty-years-younger relative age).

This proves to be too much for Mandella, who goes out west to Marygay's parents' collectivized farm (because a dystopian future wouldn't be very dystopian without a dab of communism). While staying with Marygay, the farm is attacked by Mad Max-ian ruffians who kill both of her parents. The two reenlist, and, in a double-crossing by the military, end up in a completely different assignment. The two are severely injured on a mission, and, after convalescing, are promoted to different commands and separated, knowing full-well that the light speed relativity would likely kill one or the other before they can reunite.

The last stint of the novel follows Mandella in command as a Major Mandella, a long way from his humble beginnings as Private. Instead of showing the difficulties of leadership over a crew not much younger than he (he had only four years of relative service, but he had been enlisted since the beginning of the war in 2007 and the mission would end somewhere in the neighborhood of 3143), the focus shifts to the cultural difference between Mandella and his crewmembers - the main one being that they, through a eugenics program back on Earth, were all programmed to be homosexuals, and Mandella was not.

The book ends with Mandella finding that Marygay, long thought to be dead, has survived through tricks of relativity. Oh, and the war with the Taurans was a complete misunderstanding, and no one really knows who shot first. And humanity is not really a species anymore, rather than a bunch of clones based off of one set of genes, all named Man. Man has established some heterosexual breeding planets in case this is a genetic mistake, and Mandella finds Marygay on one of these. Happily ever... something.

Now, my thoughts: The Forever War is thought by most to be a meta-narrative of Joe Haldeman's time in Vietnam. In the book's most brutal elements, from the senseless death to the soldiers' reactions to death, from the hatred of the government to the feeling of the nation's best and brightest being wasted on a useless war, this does come through.

But what about The Forever War as a science-fiction novel? The science is certainly there, with tachyon lasers, microton grenades, and, most importantly, light speed relativity. The following is from the teaser on the back of my 1991 copy (pictured above):
SPACE WAR IS HELL... Especially for Private William Mandella, drafted into a brutal interstellar conflict that raged millions of light years from Earth. But battling a savage alien enemy was not the hard part. Nor was fighting alongside a promiscuous co-ed cadre of misfits who considered Mandella a degenerate.
The real test would be coping with the astonishing changes the Earth would undergo during Mandella's tour of duty. For while the loyal soldier aged mere months... his home planet was aging centuries.
A very compelling teaser, and an idea that sparks the imagination. This teaser drew me in and was the reason I decided to commit to the book so fully.

It took me until about the second act (right before Mandella went back to Earth) to figure out I wasn't going to like this as a novel. The reasons range from the substantial to the technical. A short list of my worst grievances:

The dystopian future looks like a 1970s evangelist's apocalyptic laundry list. Dope-smoking in the military? Check. Promiscuous sex between co-eds in the military? Check. One world currency regulated by the United Nations? Check.

Most prominently throughout the second half of the book is the specter of rampant homosexuality, employed through government brain-washing to keep people from having children. The only thing that truly horrifies Mandella is the homosexuality, and it seems to be mostly due to the lack of partners for himself.

Several times throughout, Mandella thinks that the war can never end, because as bad as everything is on Earth, the entire economy would collapse, and things would be even worse. In other words, the Space Military Industrial Complex had inserted itself into the world economy, making violence and military power a prerequisite to have a barely stable society. There are nods to the power of the UN, not necessarily as a one-world government, but as a force that is able to single-handedly plunge the world into a war with an unseen alien race in space. These messages are powerful, both as warning and commentary, but they are shunted aside to focus on the looming threat of government-sanctioned homosexuality. Which brings me to the next point:

The muddle gets messaged. The government pulls dirty tricks, kills off the best and brightest, begins wars that have no meaning, and makes moral depravity the norm. The first three are blatant lessons from Vietnam, and I have no issue with them. But moral depravity represented by joints and cohabitatin' co-eds seems far from the worst that could happen in this world.

This is only exacerbated by the situation with Mandella's mother. When Rhonda tells Mandella the truth about her and his mother, Mandella thinks, "I felt very hollow and lost." Later on in the passage, Rhonda berates him for the way he feels. "You think, because your mother is sixty, she's outgrown her need for love? She needs it more than you do. Even now. Especially now." A cogent point. Even so, Mandella leaves for Marygay's farm, seeking to leave his mother and never return.

Or maybe none of this is the point, and it's just about a soldier who returns home to find it's not his home anymore, and that he can never truly find home again. This is likely the actual message, but there's a lot of interference with the frequency. Regardless, something obviously resonated with people more versed than I, as its Hugo and Nebula awards show.

And let me be clear, I am well aware that I am an alien from the twenty-first century. Saying "what's the big deal?" shows my bias in ways that are just as obvious to me as they are to anyone who reads this. Even so, sex and drugs, as bad as they can be, are not nearly as heavy as death, war, destruction, and greed. For Haldeman to focus so completely on the former rather than the latter seems like an opportunity missed.

Haldeman is not Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway knew how to understate profound truths with beautiful simplicity, but even a fan of Hemingway knows that the staccato rhythm of his works can wear down the most determined and interested reader. Haldeman aims for this profound simplicity; instead, he writes passages that simply do not work, and his characters - even Mandella, the voice of the entire book - are paper thin. They speak similarly, and conversational exchanges couldn't be read without backtracking to understand who was speaking. Combined with the sometimes exhausting technical conversations, Haldeman sounds less Hemingway and more Clive Cussler.

This monochromatic story-telling is most insufficient when Haldeman means to portray emotion. I did not understand until the word "love" showed up over halfway into the book that I was supposed to care about Marygay Potter, or at the very least understand that Mandella did. He says, more than once, that he cares for Marygay more than any other person in space or on Earth, but when Mandella mentions "love" (he never actually says that he loves her, just that he possibly could, perhaps maybe?), I was still unconvinced that I should give a damn about their relationship. At one point, Mandella meets with a sex therapist (when all of his shipmates are gay and he's the "Old Queer"), who tells him love is fragile and doesn't last, and that Mandella is a romantic for still caring about Marygay. Reading the conversation was one of the least convincing moments in the entire book. Even when Mandella and Marygay were together on their first missions, they were sleeping with each other and everyone else. At one point, Marygay was one of quite a few options for Mandella. That she became the object of his half-hearted affections seems arbitrary (perhaps that the character shares the author's wife's name was a nod to how it would all end).

After all of this, there's still the problem of telling, hardly ever showing, with paragraphs upon paragraphs of detail about minor things that are dropped and never mentioned again within pages (the absorbed, mind-numbing monologue Mandella's mother gives about the kilocalorie system and how to get a job on the black market is one such grueling example). Before the sci-fi aficionados sweep in and berate me: I'm well aware that it is a long and storied tradition in sci-fi to come up with something completely original about the future and explain how it works in intimate detail, no matter how small the thing is. I also know that it's a rare gift to pull it off without coming across as a mad man mumbling nothings to no one but himself.

Final Thoughts: There's a heart to this book that is below the science-fiction frame and the dystopian visage, and that is, at the center of it all, you can never go home again. The passage of time sweeps away everything familiar and leaves nothing untouched - even the one thing you stubbornly hold on to. The importance of Marygay, if we simply accept intent rather than attempt, is that she is, through her own determination and the power of her love, the one thing time could not erase.

Mandella's name is a corruption of "mandala"or circle. More than once, Mandella speaks of cycles of war and peace. In the end, his life is a cycle with Marygay, as he begins and ends with her. However unartfully illustrated throughout, it is a beautiful sentiment - one that might just be worthy of the teaser on the back.

Grade: C+

Time Out

Posted by Whit Barringer , Tuesday, November 30, 2010 1:47 AM

If you can't tell by my intermittent posts, I am drowning in the amount of work I have to do. I will be back to normal next week for sure, but until then I'm going to have to drop off the face of the planet.

To tide you over, here are two of my favorite moments from Absolutely Fabulous, a British series that I recently acquired and have started from the beginning.

Don't forget you can ask me shiz at formspring.me/adamantfire. I will have enough time to respond to questions starting next week, so now's the time.

"The Night the Stars Fell"

Posted by Whit Barringer , Monday, November 22, 2010 11:22 PM

As most of you know, I have been reading part of a collection of nineteenth century daily journals written by an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister as part of my grad school historical research class. [For a better introduction to the work, here is a podcast I recorded with some background.] When I get passed the fact that I'm drowning under the work and the volume of work that still remains pushes me to the brink of my mental faculties, I have to admit that there is a lot in these journals that really interests me. The little glimpses into the life of a rural family and neighborhood in mid- to late- nineteenth century Mississippi can shed a lot of light on the history of our present customs, problems, and ideas, as well as show what we have lost, for better or worse. Subtle references to the present that only a historian can really grasp (e.g. referring to William Jennings Bryan, a very important figure in late and early nineteenth century political history, only as "Bryan," etc.), as well as referring to the writer's recent, local past (which in turn is the distant, obscure past to the modern reader).

One such reference occurred a journal from 1899 that I've been writing on. When eulogizing a man who died, Sam Agnew (the minister) referred to the fact that "Jim" was born "9 years before the Stars fell, which makes his birth year 1824." When I first read it without fully understanding it, I thought it was a Civil War reference. Of course, the Civil War began in 1861, but the connotation with "Stars," especially in that capitalized form, is political. When I came across it again, I decided to simply google the phrase and see what came up. What I found really caught me by surprise.

"The Night the Stars Fell" is a reference to the Leonid Meteor Shower that occurred in 1833. The shower was apparently so intense and awe-inspiring that it became a cultural phenomenon as well. The song "Stars Fell on Alabama," though written in 1934, is actually about the meteor shower. If it's important enough use as a landmark for births and deaths, it is fair to say that the event was a truly spectacular one and very important to nineteenth century Americans.

Here's a link to the song as sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on iTunes, as well as a link to a more complete story about the details of the shower itself.  The picture below comes from the description of the event.

Into the Mind of the Puppet Master

Posted by Whit Barringer , Friday, November 12, 2010 5:24 PM

Here is Jim Henson's Academy Award nominated short film Time Piece. Very weird, very creative, and, at times, very fun. It's nearly 9 minutes - well worth the time.

Happy Friday!

Listicle No. 1: Favorite Animated Features

Posted by Whit Barringer , Thursday, November 11, 2010 12:20 AM

A long time ago over on VDCC, I decided to come up with a Top 30 animated films list. I didn't actually make it all the way through, not by a long shot, but that's because I have trouble finishing anything I start. I've decided to finally right my wrong and, 2.5 years later, provide the full list here sans commentary. I would disagree with some of my decisions now (for instance, I don't even like - spoiler! - Ratatouille), but the list belongs to a slightly younger, more cultural criticism-minded me.

Without further ado, in descending order.

Stages of Emancipation

Posted by Whit Barringer , Monday, November 08, 2010 11:00 PM

At this very moment, I am not filled with dread.

Which is saying something, considering I have been been bouncing between apathy and dread, quiet and fear, for a few months now.

Why? Oh, for different reasons. A few months ago, it had more to do with a heavy phase of anxiety and a swirling depression I could not pin down that stemmed from self-doubt and a serious reexamination of who I am as a person. Now, I am looking into my future - the act alone being enough to make anyone pause.

I have two paths before me. One has a job, the other a child's dream.

Ever since I was a little girl, when I made my future job list on wide-rule notebook paper and Scotch-taped it to my wall in my bedroom at my grandmother's house, I knew I wanted to go as far as I could on any route my education took me. "Go until it ends," I hear the voice in the back of my head say. "Go until there is no more path."

But the voice that says that is also the voice of a little girl who is reluctant to understand how the world works, and doesn't want to admit to herself that maybe following a dream for its own sake isn't really an option. Even if I knew how the path turns out, the decision would not be any harder to step off of it and potentially terminate all further progress to the end.

It's the cliche which we all know. You stand in a room, facing your former, younger, more precocious self. She looks at you and asks, "What happened?" And all you can say is "Life." She calls you a sellout, you tell her that you didn't understand how it was when you were her, and now things are different. She says you are nothing like her, you protest but inwardly agree. Then she says she's disappointed, and you can do nothing but shrug.

The road has diverged in my yellow wood, and I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not going to choose the road less traveled by. Yet I see more divergences in the road I am probably going to choose, and I see a diverse life ahead of me on this path. I see an opportunity to be young for once instead of the adult I've always been forced to be, and that's more exciting than any other prospect at the moment. A chance to be free and cultivate the relationships I've had to let sit and wither on the vine. A chance not to be a cynical angry person that my scholarship has almost forced me to be. A chance to work towards change instead of accepting how things became how they are now as a function of my degree.

That's just looking forward, though. Looking back, I see some of the darkest moments of my entire life. The moments when I've felt most alone, most betrayed, most inept. Not all of that was because of the actual pursuit of my degree, but it has all in some way or another been triggered by my being here. There are a lot of moments I can't take back. There are a lot of words for which I can't apologize. I have lost so much ground so quickly, only to clamber back up the path to get to where I stand, and even now where I stand isn't safe. Going forward, and away from this, seems like the only sane option. Yet running doesn't erase the past, and the suffocating memories that I associate with some of my time here have not destroyed me. Even before I step forward, no matter my decision, I know I have to make peace with myself, lest I regret whatever decision I make.

I don't have to be damned if I do or damned if I don't, but it's hard to see exactly how to go on without regrets. Making each step a sure one takes time and effort and patience, and I feel so short on all three. I feel like a tightrope walker. While I've never had a lesson, every step has, in its own way, been practice.

I have not gotten to the point of being able to look my former self in the eye and honestly say, "This isn't a compromise. This isn't cynicism. This is the best." Until I get to that point, I will still be an off-and-on ball of anxiety. But I think I'm getting there, which is the best I can ever expect.

Wikiventures!: 20 Different Abstracts, 20 Different Illustrations

Posted by Whit Barringer , Friday, November 05, 2010 6:52 AM

Recently I was looking up the word "raconteur" when I came across the Wikipedia article for storytelling. The picture used to illustrate the article was Millais's The Boyhood of Sir Walter Raleigh, which depicts a seafarer or sailor telling Raleigh tales about the sea.

This is something that is in general taken for granted, but is actually a really interesting and cool thing that Wikipedia does. If asked what I would use to illustrate a concept like storytelling, it might take me a while to come up with something half as good as the Millais painting, but because of the power of crowds, an illustration was found that really struck at the heart of what storytelling means.

So I decided to perform a little experiment. I came up with a list of words, random at first, then increasingly thematic, and tried to answer the question "What illustration was used to best evoke the epitome of the abstract concepts at hand?" In each case, I have used the first picture displayed next to first summary text on each page. The results are below the fold.

Annotated iTunes No. 2: Sounds of Studying

Posted by Whit Barringer , Thursday, November 04, 2010 1:14 AM

I almost always listen to music while I work. It breaks the silence and blocks out white noise. If I'm alone, it makes me feel not so. If I can't get away from other people, it makes me feel not so crowded. It's the best aid I've found for my wandering focus (that gets worse whenever I'm near anything electronic).

I have many study playlists in my iTunes that fit different needs. Only specific types of music go into each. Here are some incomplete lists of the artists I listen to (it would take me a helluva lot more time to write down everything) in certain scenarios. My hope is that a) you'll see new music and b) be inspired to try adding some new music to your routine. If neither (a) or (b) happens, then I've still done another Wednesday post, and all is not lost.

1. Reading/Writing - Soft music without words.

Artist Examples: Arms and Sleepers, The American Dollar, Tycho, Boards of Canada, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, Sparrows Swarm and Sing, Instrumental Soundtracks (e.g. Heavy Rain, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Incredibles, UP, ), anything covered by Vitamin String Quartet, Apocalyptica, and some classical music (Delius and Gerswhin make appearances).

Specific Songs: "Blue Orb" from W <3 Katamari.

2. Editing - Soft music with words.
Artist Examples: The Fray, Little Dragon, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes,

Specific Songs: "Tea Leaf Dancers" - Flying Lotus, "Aqueous Transmission" - Incubus, "Duvet" - Boa, "The Rat" - Dead Confederate, "Disintegration" - Lewis and Clarke (cover of The Cure).

3. Composing (gathering sources, outlining, etc) - a mix of soft/hard music without words.
Artist Examples (in addition to everything listed under #1): Flying Lotus, Loné.
Specific Songs: "Make Love" - Daft Punk.

4. Time Crunch - hard, fast, or trance-inducing music without words or with repetitive word sounds.
Artist Examples: Daft Punk, MSTRKRFT, Flying Lotus, Junk Culture.
Song Examples: "Pjanoo" - Eric Prydz, "The Falling" - Sparo.

5. Creative Work - a mix of genres that follows no particular rhyme or reason, but has a lot of intense creativity in the music (the philosophy being that that creativity inspires creativity).

Artist Examples: Broken Social Scene, Coheed and Cambria, Passion Pit, Florence + the Machine, Tokyo Police Club, Drive-By Truckers, Hold Steady, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson, RJD2, Panic! at the Disco, Frou Frou, Imogen Heap, Radiohead, Phoenix, Sufjan Stevens, The Dear Hunter, The Wombats, The Felice Brothers, Mos Def, Matchbox Twenty.

Specific Songs: "Kingdom of Rust" - Doves.

6. Repetitive Mindless Work - Set to random and hope for the best.

"Drunk" is probably a more apt descriptor than we truly realize.

Posted by Whit Barringer , Monday, November 01, 2010 10:28 PM

I'm too bogged down to do anything meaningful tonight, but I do have some ideas for the next time around. For now - my favorite of the Drunk History videos on YouTube. There are a good handful on there. If you decide you like, my suggestion is to start from the first (with Michael Cera as Alexander Hamilton) and work your through.