All posts by dwc99

Joe Bonamassa: Guitar Hero

For my second show at the Orpheum this week I went to check out Blues guitar legend Joe Bonamassa. A dramatic shift in atmosphere from last week’s lecture, but certainly a welcome one.

Unlike his last appearance in the Twin Cities, a year ago at the State Theater, this time Joe did not start slow or play any acoustic songs. The show started, stayed and ended on a heavy note. Every guitar was electric, aided by bongos, a traditional drum set, a bass guitar, couple keyboards and a horn section.

On-Stage Action

The show was lively, with Bonamassa bouncing around the stage in his signature black suit and sunglasses. Another difference from the last time he was in town was the health of his vocal chords.

Last year he started out the show by apologizing in advance for his weakened voice. This time around his voice was strong, and he was really able to take command of the stage.

There is no intermission at a Joe Bonamassa show. There is a certain frenzy to these shows — an undeniable energy to go with the smoke machines and light show. At the heart of this performance is a true virtuoso at his craft and for guitar enthusiasts, it must be just short of a religious experience to see him play live.

Inspiration for us All

Joe Bonamassa started playing the guitar as a young child. He even got a chance to perform with legends like B.B. King as a young boy. Years of work have brought him to a point where he can sell out two consecutive nights at the Orpheum.

Overall, his story is one of perseverance, hard work, dream following and brilliant brand management. What many assume came naturally, Joe often explains, took many years of dedication to the craft. A lesson for all of us in our own fields of study.

I don’t play the guitar myself, but I can respect the talent that was on display Saturday night. Besides, Joe makes it look so cool that I might just pick one up someday soon. If you have even a passing interest in guitars, the Blues, or music in general, do yourself a favor and check out a Joe Bonamassa show.

Neil Degrasse Tyson

Neil Degrasse Tyson recently held a lecture at the Orpheum theater in Minneapolis. I couldn’t have been more excited to attend.

As soon as tickets became available I bought the best two I couldn’t afford. Dr. Tyson is someone I have looked up to for a long time. The ethos and world class oratorical skills made for one satisfying evening.

Neil’s Appeal

There is a reason Dr. Tyson has become something of a “Youtube Sensation.”

Because it’s hard not to be drawn in by such an impassioned speaker. As a decorated astrophysicist, he is adept at relating complex ideas to people in a way that makes them understand it on their own terms.

He pulls this off without a sense of condescension. Just check out the TV show “Cosmos” or his series of lectures titled “The Inexplicable Universe,” both are available on Netflix.

“Cosmos” features highly produced CGI and visual effects, whereas “The Inexplicable Universe” is more of a straightforward lecture.

Neil will say something that goes over your head, and before you can raise your hand to ask for clarification, he restates the critical point without any sense of arrogance or annoyance, and you put your hand down.

Supplemental education, anyone?

Nearly a year after buying the tickets, I was excited to settle into my balcony seat and listen to the three-hour lecture.

A thought crossed my mind: “I’m spending a lot of money on tickets to a lecture.. A rock concert, sure, but a lecture?”

I shook those thoughts off as quickly as I conjured them. I spend money on lectures all the time. I am a full time college student, adding more debt each semester, for what amounts to a bunch of lectures and activities.

So I began to think of this as an investment in my education. The same way I think of any “unrequired” books I read throughout the semester. I enjoy them, but I approach them as attempts to somehow grow intellectually.

Overall, I believe people should not be afraid of creatively supplementing their education. Or at least understanding that, as students, the quality of our education truly relies on our desire to make it good.

Fox News Doctor Must be High

Of all the blog tasks given to me in class this semester, this was the most challenging. “Find something to criticize.” The sheer volume of B.S. on the internet made it hard to choose just one.

I decided to go for an easy target — Fox News. I watched my fair share of Fox News during the Bush years. It was a great place to gauge points of view contrary to my own. Like being a fly on the wall of my metaphorical political enemy’s bunker.

Running the issues of the day through my head, I wanted something current and relevant.

How about medical marijuana?

Here is an issue I clearly come down on one side of, and I base that decision on the scientific evidence available to us all.  Medical marijuana is safe and effective. I had a feeling that Fox News would take the opposite approach, and boy was I right.

I found an instance of a Fox News “Medical A-Team” member, Dr. David Samadi associating marijuana with heart attacks and crack babies. That’s right — “crack babies.”

I can only assume he means “infants born addicted to crack cocaine” but if he does, it certainly makes no sense to pin the blame on pot. Here is an excerpt of his comments:

We’re seeing in Colorado that we had 13 kids that came to the emergency and ended up in the ICU as a result of overdose from marijuana. Now we have crack babies coming in because pregnant women are smoking this whole marijuana business.

Many bloggers, commenters and journalists have already pointed out the flaws in this asinine argument. One Reddit commentator summarized the views of Fox News’ medical staff:

  • Crack babies are apparently not caused by crack.
  • Death is apparently not a good way to measure if something is dangerous.
  • Some kids OD’d on marijuana which is crazy because he’s the only person in the world they told and that also defies every experiment done in the last 50 or so years. So he should release an actual report or something.
  • Which might be hard because he’s a urologist and has almost literally nothing to do with any medical field that should actually be reporting on cannabis.

Needless to say, my conclusion matches that of the commenter above, though I may not ever be able to state it so eloquently. Let me just say that Fox News, as they often do, had someone commenting way out of their depth about an issue they do not understand.

It’s hard to say if it is ignorance, bias or some ulterior motive. When journalistic standards are so low, it truly could be anything. Consume Fox News at your own peril.

Music Lovers: Stop Stealing — Stop Buying

As competition among music streaming services reaches a boiling point, most of them now offer two experiences: one free and the other “premium.”

By 2015 many of these companies are tinkering with different models. What is free on one service can be expensive or even unavailable on another. A great time to be alive for music enthusiasts, but sorting the good from bad can be overwhelming.

A simple philosophy guides my personal streaming decision: I don’t want to pay a dime, and I want access to everything.

Piracy, Then and Now

There was a time that where the connection between sharing and stealing was less understood. Veterans of the 1990s internet are no strangers to piracy. Remember the Napster era?

Those days are long gone.

Napster was sued for millions. It had successors which catalyzed the evolution from a centralized server to a peer-to-peer (P2P) structure. Large central servers had presented an easy target for government seizure — which was an unsustainable weak point for those networks.

This new P2P method lasted a while before the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) found a way to beat the system.

These days people still pirate music, but they mostly use torrents. It’s likely that the battle over piracy will go on in perpetuity, but as technology accelerates, “stealing” music is no longer the easiest thing to do. There are so many cheap or free ways to buy it, that we do.

Great, but what about the free options out there?

Pandora

The Good: A radio service which will recommend music based on the actual musical qualities that you rate highly. Like a song with a certain type of guitar and vocal tone? You will hear other similar music.  This makes the service ideal for discovering music tailored very specifically to your tastes.

The Bad: Limit to the number of tracks you can skip. 6 per hour the last I checked. There are also intermittent advertisements.

Spotify

The Good: Think “Netflix for music.” Spotify puts a world of music, popular and obscure, on a palette from which you can compose playlists. They recently added PS4 compatibility, and already had it for Xbox One, which means you can really put your imagination to work. Want to play Pacman with the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction? Spotify can make this happen in an instant.

The Bad: The ability to play any song on demand is a premium feature, unless you are streaming Spotify through a video game console such as the PS4. There are ads. You have to be connected to the internet — you cannot download any of the music to play while you are offline.

Google Music

The Good: Google music offers access to 50,000 of your own songs. Meaning, once uploaded to Google, you can stream your mp3s anywhere and from any connected device. No ads and no hidden costs. Totally free. Have an old mp3 collection laying around? Upload it to Google and stream it at your leisure.

The Bad: If you are using the free service, it will be limited to the streaming of music you already own.

Define Your Method

I use all of these services because of the “good” they offer. It currently takes a bit of flipping back and forth in order to get everything free. But, as you see, where there is a will there is a way. In 2015 and beyond I expect our access to free music will continue to grow.

Enjoy, music lovers.

Showing Contempt for a Problem

In a college class I was asked to summarize an issue by giving a one-sentence statement of the problem. The topic being discussed was the public controversy surrounding parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.

“Parents are deciding not to vaccinate their children based on pseudoscience.” The best I could come up with on short notice.

Crickets. A couple laughs.

“Uh.. I’m gonna leave out the pejorative portion of that statement,” said the professor before scribbling the statement onto the board without the word pseudoscience. He carried on with his lesson and I wondered about that label, “pejorative.”

Pejorative: noun. A word expressing contempt or disapproval.

Parents opting their children out of vaccinations cannot be based on science, because the science shows vaccinations to be safe. Despite the lack of science, these parents often point to things like autism, which they believe can be caused by certain vaccines. Therefore “pseudoscience” is a functional part of an accurate description of the problem.

Perhaps it is a provocative description, but isn’t that effective communication? When you articulate a problem, is there an implicit tone of contempt or disapproval? Could one make a statement about global warming, for example, without contempt or disapproval?

Pseudoscience is the absolute crux of the matter when it comes to so-called “anti-vaxxers.” (Now there’s a pejorative for you.) An article I read recently, about outbreaks of the measles in Germany, really highlights that fact. Apparently the re-emergence of the disease has sparked a national debate about whether or not vaccinations for it should be mandatory.

A man named Stefan Lanka, a biologist of all things, had gone so far as to claim that the measles aren’t even real. He insisted it was some sort of psychosomatic condition. In other words, not the sort of thing to address with vaccination. He offered a $100,000 reward on his website to anyone who could prove otherwise.

Pseudoscience: noun. A collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method.

The offer stood for 4 years as a proud beacon of pseudoscience. Finally a doctor took the time to submit peer-reviewed articles rife with scientific evidence proving Lanka wrong. What happened next took everybody by surprise.

A German biologist who offered €100,000 (£71,350; $106,300) to anyone who could prove that measles is a virus has been ordered by a court to pay up.

The reward was later claimed by German doctor David Barden, who gathered evidence from various medical studies. Mr Lanka dismissed the findings. But the court in the town of Ravensburg ruled that the proof was sufficient.

Could there be a more flagrant example of science VS pseudoscience or a more appropriate microcosm for the entire anti-vaccine movement?

Famous science spokesman Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson was asked recently about measles outbreaks in the United States, and the problem of “anti-vaxxers.” He responded in an email to the Huffington Post which precisely described the problem of pseudoscience.

Not enough of our society is trained how to understand and interpret quantitative information. This activity is a centerpiece of science literacy to which we should all strive — the future health, wealth, and security of our democracy depend on it. Until that is achieved, we are at risk of making under-informed decisions that affect ourselves, our communities, our country, and even the world.

Perhaps dismissing plain statements of fact as somehow incorrectly derogatory, inappropriate or wrongfully pejorative is itself part of the problem. Can the desire to avoid offending people contribute to their willingness to base decisions on bad evidence?

Access to the wide array of data on the internet can be dangerous without a strategy for interpreting it. Many parents lack such a strategy. As a global community, we must not be afraid to embrace science, and at the same point out those who endanger us all by rejecting its findings.

Opt-in: Big Data Done Right?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but the concept of “big data” and all of the information I generate on a daily basis makes me a bit uncomfortable. That someone could mine this data to predict my future behavior or publicize my past behavior conjures images of a world I don’t want to live in.

Ever since Edward Snowden’s NSA spying revelations I swear I have heard tales of 100 different spying schemes. The differences between big government and big corporations are not clear in this regard. The details are always classified, anonymously reported or otherwise vague and tricky to properly analyze. Which is why I opt-out of everything, use fake information where possible and generally try not to leave too many digital footprints.

I have noticed that many of us who try to be “data concious” still have our blind spots. I happily let Google track my whereabouts to make predictions about traffic in places I might go. I pour my soul into Pandora in an attempt to uncover some new musical gems. And last but not least, I rate things on Netflix like there is no tomorrow. It is somehow satisfying to imagine adding IQ points to Netflix with each rating. Nobody wants to waste time trying to figure out what to watch, right?

As it turns out, Netflix is using those ratings for something more elaborate. Salon.com recently ran a piece about Netflix making use of its “big data capabilities.” One intriguing nugget really stands out. From the article:

For at least a year, Netflix has been explicit about its plans to exploit its Big Data capabilities to influence its programming choices. “House of Cards” is one of the first major test cases of this Big Data-driven creative strategy. For almost a year, Netflix executives have told us that their detailed knowledge of Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched their decision to license a remake of the popular and critically well regarded 1990 BBC miniseries.

Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. Therefore, concluded Netflix executives, a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons.

Even if this type of thing makes you uneasy, it’s still kind of cool, right? Netflix broke down our viewing habits into something modular, and then used it to rebuild (or remake) a show with the utmost confidence that we would enjoy it. If I had never watched House of Cards, this article would have me predicting it to be a contrived failure — a pseudo-artistic attempt at making some cash. But I have watched it, and the show is truly well written, acted and shot.

Critics and viewers have seemed to agree — the show is good. Considering the resounding success we must assume this will not be Netflix’s last Frankenstein. Get your popcorn ready. Although data collection remains a serious issue with major consequences and implications for society, I can’t deny that this is one fascinating side effect.

* Cool Kevin Spacey image linked from Salon.com