Saturday, September 11, 2004

Hurricane Ivan and Tampa

I've been trying to put my education to use, by forecasting Hurricane Ivan's impacts in the Tampa area, where Dwight and Linda recently retired. They have plane tickets to flee, but need as much reliable guidance as possible before making that decision.

Essentially, there are no changes from 12 hours ago. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) is finally acknowledging indications Ivan's track will be a bit westwards: they've been slow to do so because I think they are deeply worried about lulling people in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area into complacency, and the models still haven't reached a strong consensus. NHC now shows the track having landfall at Apalachicola, in the Florida Panhandle. Still, the NOGAPS model is now showing landfall a bit farther west, at Panama City, so NHC may eventually nudge their forecast track yet farther west.

If I had to guess maximum wind speed in Tampa based upon the current forecast, just from eyeballing the plotted wind fields, I'd say about 45 mph. Uncomfortable sailing weather, and good enough for scattered, sporadic power outages, but nothing wholesale. Plus rain...maybe quite a bit!

NHC is looking at output from all models, and the models have tended to diverge after Ivan crosses Cuba, which (understandably so) tends to paralyze decision-making and make NHC quite cautious. My philosophy has been to pick one model and go with it, rather than look at everything: the man with one watch knows what time it is, whereas the man with two watches is never sure. At FNMOC, they feature both NOGAPS and GFS model output, but I've always favored NOGAPS - GFS is too, hmmm...., quick for me.

I just hope Ivan doesn't have any tricks planned.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Three Old Guys Discuss Popular Music

Over the last several days, Friend Walt has asked been taking the pulse of rock music (messages in chronological order):

This year is the 50th anniversary of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock". I've been thinking about the state of rock music today.

Its easy to detect the arrival of a new phenomenon, but its harder to recognize when something fades away. I've noticed that rap stars make headlines much more often today than rock stars; and in Italy rap is more popular than rock. The other day I listened to part of American Top 40 Countdown -- the show that Casey Kasem used to do -- and there was a lot of rap, but little rock.

So I'm thinking that rock is moribund. I don't mean that it is "creatively exhausted", or that today's rock is "low quality"; I merely mean that it is no longer very popular. Perhaps rock is yesterday's news. I asked several teenagers about it, none of whom were particularly eager to talk to me, and I got mixed results. Some said rock was ancient history, some said it was very much a going concern.

Even rap is older now than rock was when we were college freshman!!

So what are your thoughts on this?

I think one consequence of the evolution of popular music has been the development of niche markets. Rock has evolved into several genres of music, and people can immerse themselves at will in their own preferred form as they please. Rock is still very much alive, but certain forms seem reserved for old folks such as ourselves - what is now called 'classic rock.' This nostalgia is an unfortunate development, because it tends to stifle creativity (just like happened with 50's rock in the 70's). Nevertheless, certain 'classic rock' artists, like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, are getting only better as they age.

It is unfortunate that 'alternative rock' music of the 90's seemed to have died on the vine. I don't understand what led to its rapid senescence. Maybe if Courtney Love can stop making court appearances, she can rejuvenate it (she was always better than Kurt Cobain). Or maybe someone new has to come along.

Rap and hip-hop (dance-oriented rap) music goes through amazing bursts and collapses of artistry. Rap was probably at its best in 1998, when Timbaland (from Timbaland and Magoo) started producing Aaliyah's music. Wonderful artists at the time (e.g., R. Kelly, Mary Jane Blige, P. Diddy aka Puff Daddy - heck, I'll even throw in Tupac Shakur, even though I think he's overrated) took the world by storm. But then Aaliyah got killed in a plane crash and rap went into a short-lived slump. Nevertheless, wherever Timbaland goes, that's where the best rap can be found (e.g., these days he produces Missy Elliot), and wherever you hear good rap of any sort, he usually had something of one sort or another to do with it. Rap tends to appeal to the dispossessed or the alienated. It's impressive, but maybe not surprising, that it has a big worldwide following, especially among minority communities of all stripes. I understand European Muslims love rap (and rap draws, in part, on Arab musical tradition).

Myself, I was never one for nostalgia: I listen, almost exclusively, to House Music (with a bit of an industrial/pop edge). Dance music goes through its own cycles: 2003 was good, 2004 less so. But it definitely is a niche market, being much more popular overseas than in the U.S. I wonder if Kylie Minogue will retire and her ruthless sister Danii will seize power. I worry that Britney Spear's knees will force her to retire (wretched actress, mediocre singer, dancing is her only strong suit). I'm always puzzled that it is so difficult to sustain a career in Dance Music. One-hit wonders predominate.

Nevertheless, rock is alive and well, under its various guises.

I haven't really followed musical trends much over the years so I have to rely more on intuitive feelings to even voice an opinion. However, I would start by asking, "What is rock and roll?" Buddy Holly ad Elvis were among the earliest "rock" musicians but how was their music really defined? I stunned a friend a number of years ago by saying that I didn't see the Beatles as a rock band but rather as a folk band. While there are different definitions of the terms I've always liked Arlo Guthrie's view that "folk music is what the people sing". There are certainly broad categories that some music will fit into but I feel like the gray area between rock and other forms of music is now so broad that definitions are almost meaningless. Is Linda Ronstadt rock, folk or country? Or a combination of all three? What about Kenny Rogers? He's definitely country now but in the late 60's was definitely a rocker with songs such as "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)". So I see a continuum between rock, folk and sometimes rap and country and I find it easier to call the music that people remember folk music. That's probably a bit simplistic but it works for me.

Well John, you've gone and asked one of those unanswerable questions like what is art, what is pornography, what is sci fi, and when does human life begin?

For a couple weeks now I've been asking "is rock dead" to lots of people, and many reply as you did, "what is rock?" I don't answer; I let the people respond in their own way. But I've also been trying to define rock for myself, and I think there is no simple definition which neatly separates all that people call rock from all that people call other types of music. There are some features that each seem to apply much or most of the time:

1. Rock uses electric guitars more than any other type of past or present music. However, not all rock bands rely on them.
2. Any music which emphasizes acoustic guitar is not rock.
3. Rock emphasizes rhythm more than melody, and allows for much improvisation. In this, it continues the big band tradition. However, early rock had much melody; it lost favor in the mid to late 60s, when the drug scene & counterculture image took over.
4. Although rhythm is big, rock is not good dance music.

About the Beatles: I'm with you halfway. They kept their emphasis on melody all the way to 1970, in contrast to many of their contemporaries. I do not consider much of their later work rock; rather I would call it pop. My understanding of pop is that it is "Top 40" commercial music which is neither rock, country, or folk. Whitney and Britney might be pop. Anyway, the early Beatles seem to be mainstream rock for that time: Lead electric guitar, bass electric guitar, keyboard, drums.

I think much of what you call folk, I would call pop. My picture of folk is an obsolete form which was purely acoustic, with emphasis on lyrics more than melody or rhythm (like country), and consciously modelled on supposed styles & social/political agendas of the Depression and of Appalachia.

Anyway, all of these definitions are probably bogus -- its an unanswerable question.

Just for grins, I was thinking of posting our discussion on my blog and calling it something like "Three Old Guys Discuss Popular Music," identifying each of you by your first names. Is that OK?

sure-- BTW, what do you think of our ideas?

I was thinking how arbitrary some of our categories are and how poorly they reflect the amazing plasticity of music in all its forms. It takes some real sophisticated pigeonholing to get one's hands around that particular greased pig. Counterexamples can be found for nearly every assertion. For example, even though rock relies on electric guitar, acoustic guitar can nevertheless be used to effect in rock (e.g., "MTV Unplugged"). I like Arlo Guthrie's statement that John mentioned: "folk music is what people sing." But then people can and do sing all kinds of music, such as rap, that was commercially produced and is otherwise alien to folk's spirit.

I remember seeing former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson give a talk at the University of Arizona in the early 80's. Questions and answers were getting increasingly stiff, and then unaccountably, Wilson began talking about the Beatles (Wilson had once represented the Beatles' home city, Liverpool, in the House of Commons). Wilson just wouldn't shut up about the Beatles. Yammer, yammer, yammer. I decided then that Wilson must have invented the Beatles as an accountability shield.

On the weekend, Black Entertainment Television (BET) featured their Video Music Awards. It was really impressive seeing the various rap and hip-hop groups, but I found myself at a loss of language to fully describe what they were doing - it didn't seem like rock, though. No electric guitars in sight. In 1995, I saw Chuck Berry perform here in Sacramento at a blues festival, and his rock music seemed to be a simplified, digested form of blues music - the arc between the two forms seemed fairly direct. Extending the arc from blues to hip-hop seems nearly impossible, but you just know the connections are there.

No problem here with your posting my remarks. I can't really add more than what I already wrote though since, as I said, I don't follow music that much. As a footnote I might mention that Arlo Guthrie's remark was made after a concert he did in Albuquerque around 1978. A reporter asked him why he, a folk singer, performed the Beatles song "Paperback Writer" and he responded that it was a folk song because folk music is what the people sing. By that definition, since most members of our generation know most of the lyrics to many Beatles songs it seems appropriate to term it folk music--even if it also fits the mold of rock or pop.

Thanks, John. The melding and blending of commercial and folk music will give music historians fits in the future, as they try to sort it all out!

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

State Fair

Made a brief foray on Saturday, Sept. 4th to the CA State Fair. I traveled well-worn paths and didn't even get over to see the animals. I knew the DMTC crowd was going to be there, but I didn't know where, so I hung around the Counties Exhibits and the consumer product vendors, which together bend the fabric of space-time and act like a powerful DMTC tractor beam, and eventually they found me. Everything seemed pretty average - even the skanky posters on the midway seemed pretty tame.

For the last several years, the last Saturday of the Fair has degenerated into a kind of wilding at closing time. This year (and perhaps henceforth), and against NAACP protest (since the last Saturday is Black Culture Day) , the Fair closed early. I was hoping the rioting would merely be advanced earlier into the evening, to make an exciting close to a tedious visit, but nothing happened, and everyone went home safe and calm.
Possum Update

Yesterday I was cleaning the garage, and noticed that the young possum from two weeks ago was in a state of mortification in Sparky's basket. Apparently the possum wasn't so ugly that Sparky didn't mind keeping it as a trophy.