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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ill Esoterics: "An Earful"


A few weeks ago, I pulled a pea-sized gob of black earwax from my left ear, got curious, and wanted to know more.

It was one of those situations where I always assumed that my experience was similar to that of others because we don't talk about earwax in polite company. After I found out that earwax, known scientifically as cerumen, comes in different varieties, I decided to follow up with friends and co-workers. According to several sources, including this fascinating article on Japanese ear-picking salons, "wet earwax is most common in those of European and African descent, while East Asians have dry, powdery earwax." While hardly a statistically valid sample, amongst those I asked, the two European (Italian and Slavic) and one African descendant had dry, flaky earwax, while the East Asian's was "golden and waxy." One woman I interviewed claimed not to have earwax, which sounds like a way to distinguish human from alien or cyborg.

My doctor friend (the golden and waxy East Asian) couldn't recall learning anything about cerumen in med school, but from his personal experience had seen it vary from "flaky and white to dark brown and caked." He also pointed out that race would be a factor in the appearance because some of the wax is sloughed skin, so the skin pigment contributes, at least to the color of the wax.

The wax is produced in the outer third of the canal, and the motion of the jaw while chewing shifts the wax gradually outward, containing dust or debris that has entered the canal, and pushing it outward. The use of blunt objects to clean the ear, without the use of a scope, could push the cerumen further into the canal, impacting or blocking the ear drum. Not only is earwax migratory, but because earwax type is genetic, earwax can be used as a genetic marker to determine the relationship between migratory peoples.

I've always heard that you should never stick anything in your ear that's smaller than your elbow. Myself, I've always used pen caps--they're the perfect length to pick through the waxy mounds without venturing beyond forbidden canal territory. I've also poured hydrogen peroxide in my ears, something I once saw my drummer friend's girlfriend do to clean his ears. My sister used to work at a health food store, which sold ear candles. I have not tried these because the principles behind their operation never seemed scientifically valid--and in fact, it is disputed by any reputable source, and often condemned as dangerous. However, while we debate even sticking bits of cotton fluff on paper sticks in our ears, the Japanese once again have an ear-refutable technological advantage:

Before you get the idea that this trend emerged with the rich, ear cleaning is an Asian tradition, originally performed by a wife for her husband, then outsourced to street-side "professionals" before making a clinical leap. There are even reports of a club in Tokyo where a man can get two female otolaryngologists to clean his canals simultaneously. Okay, I made that up. I think.

Sunday, November 15, 2009



No, we couldn’t leave well enough alone.

1. In our very limited experience - limited to rap videos, pretty much - flush-with-paper rappers usually opt to make it rain in nightclubs and strip clubs. But is there any rule that prohibits ballers from making it rain while checking out in the 10 Items Or Less aisle at Wegman’s, during a family summer barbeque, or while undergoing a routine physical? What if the urge to bring the thunder struck you during Sunday service when you realized that the collection plate was just a few parishioners away? Would you heed that call?

2. Let’s say that you want to make it rain, but you just don’t have that much cash on you - if you’ve got $1,000 in $100s, that’s weak sauce - and there’s no way to break any of it into smaller denominations. But you’ve got tons of change outside in the Escalade. If you throw that change instead, are you making it sprinkle? Would you ever do that? (You might hurt some people, and the effect wouldn’t be quite the same.)

3. Is there something one shouts just prior to making it rain, like a warning or announcement or something? Or do you just sort of impulsively hurl dead presidents into the air when the mood strikes you?

4. Have you ever made it rain only to realize that no-one noticed, and that, for all intents and purposes, it never actually happened?

5. Do you ever practice making it rain while alone at home, with Monopoly money?

6. If they can put on a man on the moon, why can’t they invent or biologically engineer a Yves St Laurent branded, Eva Longoria-look-alike fem-bot to throw your money for you while you’re buying out the bar?

Saturday, November 14, 2009



Hip-hop’s storied history of “making it rain” - throwing fistfuls of cash into the air in a public venue in order to make a declarative statement about one’s extravagant, inexhaustible wealth - appears to be on the wane. Despite Gucci Mane’s recent insistence that he and his crew throw money “like we mad at the ceiling” and a confused Jim Jones naming his latest mediocre effort Prey IV Reign, the drought is apparently over and rain sticks being put away. “Niggas still makin’ it rain, and we off that,” Timbaland admonished, several weeks ago, on “Off That” from Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3. Producer/singer The-Dream joined the debate on a lament-strewn Love vs. Money cut: “I can’t even hate the homie/I am to blame/Instead of loving her, I was making it rain.” But we had some lingering questions about the practice, and because we don’t know any ballers, shot-callers, or rappers personally - let alone any who regularly make it rain - we figured we’d pose them here in the hopes that our readers could answer them or maybe pass them along to somebody who can.

1. When you’re preparing to go out for the evening, do you specifically designate a certain amount of money as “making-it-rain money,” in the same way one wad of greenbacks might be “stripper-tip money” or another might serve as “buying-out-the-bar money,” or is it all the same to you?

2. What happens immediately after the money is thrown? Do you - or an underling, perhaps - gather it up? Or can other people fight for it? Let’s say, hypothetically, you were hurling $100 bills, and some of those bills fell - sorry, rained - into a puddle of puke. Would you demand that paper back?

3. When you’re making it rain, do you throw all big bills, like $100s or $50s? Or do you cheat a little, throwing a couple big bills with a bunch of $5s and $10s?

4. Is there a gentleman’s rule about simultaneous rain storms? By this I mean, is it customary for rappers to take turns making it rain? It should be, right? Because that would cut back on disagreements about whose storm front was more formidable or dope or what have you.

5. Have you ever hired a professional counterfeiter to fabricate currency for the express purpose of this sort of showing out, only to have someone with intimate knowledge of U.S. legal tender - like an off-duty Treasury agent, maybe - pick up one or two at the spot where you’re throwing Benjamins and call you out on it while you’re hoisting a chalice of expensive champagne with your entourage? If so, how do you come back from something like that?

Sunday, November 8, 2009


The idea of a "dad-rock roundtable" is as old as the original concept for this site. It began as a lark, in which I envisioned a bunch of dudes just crucifying Wilco's Jeff Tweedy while pretending to get stuff done at work. But in practice it evolved into something honest, thoughtful, and revealing, even if the electronic back-and-forth took place in early August and it took me months and months to find time to arrange, sort, and format the results. Our inaugural "dad-rock roundtable" will run in pieces over the next several months. Enjoy, and feel free to chime in in the comments (or answer the questions posed yourself), even if you're not a dad, or even a dude.

Ray Cummings: Are you, or have you ever been, or are you about to be, a dad? What is your vocation and profession (if the two are not identical)?

Al Shipley: Hey guys! I'm about to become a dad for the first time in, oh, 2 months, or whenever the guy decides to come out. At the moment, I'm juggling a 9-5 office gig and writing freelance, although at some point I'm probably going to focus just on writing (to whatever extent that pays anymore) and other work and be a stay-at-home dad, since my wife is in grad school and her Ph.D is way more important than anything I've got going on. Still in that nervous/excited phase where I swing from optimism to pure fear on a daily basis.

Pete Gershon: Yes, I am a dad, two times over. While my perceived full-time gig is the publisher and editor (and art director, and ad sales guy, and envelope stuffer) of Signal to Noise, I am, in fact, a full-time, stay-at-home dad, having moved from fifteen-hour days of working on the magazine to sneaking in short bursts of productivity during naps and after the kids have been put to bed. Being a dad is the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I am really savoring this time with the kids, particularly while they're still young enough to enjoy having me involved in their business! I am especially excited to be taking my almost-four-year-old to his first concert this weekend ... his babysitter is an aspiring improvising flutist and she's got an early gig on Sunday night, so I'm going to let my boy stay up a little late and bring him out to the show (and show him off).

Matt Lingle: Well I guess I will start with question number one. While technically I have never been a dad in the true definition, I did go through the whole delivery room experience with a friend of mine which in my book should count for something! lol Afterwards I spent a few years living with her and her kids so I guess for this discussion I will count myself as being a dad.

Zac Early:
Come this September (the 11th to be exact), I will have been a dad for one year. Lucia loves Dan Zanes, the Muppets, Kimya Dawson, and Pavement. So, I think I'm off to a good start with her musical tastes.

I am an instructional specialist for an organization that provides professional development for teachers using inquiry-based methodology and technology. For the most part, I work from home. I'd like to write for a living, but I just blog and think up writing projects with friends. (There may be a children's book in my future about indie rock. No kidding.)

Tom Breihan: Yeah, I'm a dad. Been one for just over three months now. It's pretty overwhelming. I work at Pitchfork and write a lot about music. Hi.

Doug Mowbray: I have never been a father in the usual sense of the word. I am father to a cat. And I am father to a small publishing biz, twentythreebooks. And, of course, I am father to all the mistakes I have made in this lifetime, some of who are still at home because they are underage, and some have just refused to leave the nest and get jobs and become productive members of a deployed society. I am not quite the father of my successes because I have a hang-up about taking credit and accepting praise.

I work for the State Highway Administration in the Highway Safety Office. I am a grants manager and a highway safety data coordinator. Basically I manage federal highway dollars and sit at the center of a vast network of state agency databases that house data related to vehicles, roads, drivers, crashes, etc.

Thom Hawkins: I am a dad--of a little boy, 10 months. While in utero, my wife took him to hear Cat Power and Kanye West. I placed an ear bud in her belly button to pipe in John Coltrane, Glenn Gould doing Bach, and anything on Sugarhill Records. He likes to rock out in his high chair, slapping along with the music--he likes anything with a good beat, and thinks it is hilarious when his parents sing along.

I am a strategic planning specialist for an Army program.

Ray Cummings: When you hear the phrase "dad rock," what springs immediately to mind? I think "Don Henley" and "Bog Seeger" and "Wilco," myself.

Al Shipley: I know what dad rock is supposed to be, but I think like most people I view it through the scope of my dad's tastes and his generation. He was born in '50 and has the same Beatles-on-Sullivan story every kid of that period has, but most of the stuff that I really associate with his taste now and that I really remember hearing a lot growing up is what's now known by the equally played out "yacht rock" pejorative -Steely Dan, Michael McDonald-era Doobies, etc. My mom kept all the vinyl in the divorce, and when I got my first turntable I devoured a lot of it -- CSNY's probably the only thing in there I never totally connected with (my parents seemed to own every solo album Crosby, Stills or Nash ever made). Even as an alt-rock kid, I never really rebelled against classic rock or my parents' taste that much, and was probably as into Hendrix as I was into Nirvana. Even in high school when me and my friends all got into old punk and new wave, I liked the dad-rockiest stuff, like Elvis Costello or Television, the most. I don't really listen to Wilco or whomever the other archetypical bands of 'new dad rock' are, but I'm not gonna turn up my nose either -- a lot of my favorite rock records of the past 5 years (Ted Leo, Apollo Sunshine, Spymob, Sloan) are pretty damn dad rock. Maybe my boy will remember that, or maybe he'll think of all that other stuff I listen to, gangsta rap and noise and R&B, as his dad's dad rock.

Pete Gershon: Yeah, Wilco is the band I've always heard associated with the term "dad rock". I happen to love Wilco, and it's one of the bands my kids enjoy, too ... I have tried playing some far out stuff for them, but they dig a simple tune and lyrics with words they understand. We also listen to a lot of Bob Dylan together, and stuff like Elvis Costello, Pavement, the Talking Heads, David Bowie, The Beatles (my wife, meanwhile, is getting them started on Tori Amos and Erikah Badu). For me the term 'dad rock' makes me think of semi-edgy (but mostly middle-of-the-road) tuneful pop music. You know, nothing obviously square, but CMJ/Spin/Magnet-friendly enough as to be safe and non-threatening.

Picking up on Al's comments, you know, my own dad listened mostly to classical music while I was growing up (the coolness of which I'm only now understanding), though he did branch out to Bob Dylan and even Willie Nelson in his more unexpectedly rebellious moments. I remember long car rides as a kid being subjected to Michael Feinstein, who as some of you might know is a really ultra-corny singer and pianist specializing in old Tin Pan Alley stuff. There was also Tony Bennett. Oh, and a lot of Pavarotti.

As for whether or not my kids ultimately pick up on my own tastes, who knows? Even if they don't, at the very least, when they hear 'Lonely Woman' in a dorm room someday they'll say "Ugh, that's Ornette Coleman, please turn that off ... my dad used to make us listen to that stuff all the time."

Ray Cummings: My dad was a classical music dude, too. But he also went in for a lot of boomer standards - Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Rolling Stones, and so on. When I think back to childhood and what he'd typically play on his super-duper cassette/vinyl record hi-fi, it was a metric ton of Sade and James Taylor.

Heh. I have a mix CD that my son and I listen to when we go to the park - hence, we call it "the park CD" - they've been a few iterations of this mix, but I have to include Deerhunter's "Octet" every time. Nodin, who's almost three now, goes nuts for that one. It's almost as though it signals the beginning of a father-son adventure - albeit a father-son adventure that will involve me chasing him around park equipment to make sure he won't get hurt because I forgot to bring toys or sidewalk chalk again!

I put some long, harsh, unreleased Lightning Bolt jam [which wound up on Earthly Delights as "Colossus"] on the latest version of the mix for the sake of variety; for a while he tolerated it, then at some point (as his vocabulary expanded) he started asking me to change to another song. Lately, he's all "I don't like this song."

Matt Lingle: When I hear "dad rock," the first thing that comes to mind is the late sixties early seventies genre. I think nothing but classic rock, only with a softer side. Almost like AM radio hits. As for specific bands, I would have to say Steeley Dan, Toto, CCR, Simon and Garfunkle, to mention a few.

Zac Early: Dad rock? I think I'm with the guys who cite classic rock. My dad was all over the Stones and Beatles. He saw the Stones in the late 60's at Hara Arena in Dayton, OH, the same place I saw Nirvana like 25 years later. He also loved all the Motown and doo-wap stuff of the 50's and 60's. We had every oldies station in Dayton and Columbus programmed to the radios in the family car while growing up. I learned to dance (for better or worse) from my dad as these songs played over the radio.He didn't know a ton about music. I taught him about Led Zeppelin. He just thought they were a great band to get drunk to. However, he did teach me to groove to the rhythm, to listen to (and eventually butcher) the lyrics, and to keep some diversity in a music collection. To this day, he still buys classic rock CD's he used to own on vinyl, but his current favorites include Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young. Now that's some punk-ass dad rock if I've ever heard it. He'd probably like Wilco, at least their more mainstream-y stuff.

Was that coherent?

Tom Breihan: I think of, like, Starsailor, but that's not because my dad listened to Starsailor. Or anything that sounded like Starsailor. Actually, both my parents barely ever really listened to music. I can remember one long car trip where they both waxed eloquent about "Like a Rolling Stone," but that's it. Mostly my dad liked really high-voiced female folk singers who he could just kinda tune out. They had a lot of records from their younger days, but they never listened to them or anything. I used to play frisbee with their old Laura Nyro joints when they weren't home, and I broke a bunch of them just for fun, but they never noticed because they never listened to the things.

Oh, and my dad liked baroque music. Lots of that. I guess baroque music was my dad-rock.

But yeah, I didn't get into music through my parents at all. It was completely a self-generated thing. Looking back, I'm not even sure how it happened. This, of course, convinces me that my daughter is not going to give a fuck about music at all, certainly not the music I like. Actually, though, all signs point to her being pretty into it. Or anyway she giggles a lot when my wife and I sing to her. Right now, her two favorite songs are Cecelia and the Kit Kat "gimme a break" song.

Doug Mowbray: "dad rock" brings to mind Jane's Addiction's "Had a Dad." I too have a few fond memories of a father listening to a bygone era of music, but my experiences are tainted by the facts of my life: divorced parents, absentee biological father; stepfather steps in, but he later dies. So, had two dads in my case. Plus, I was dumped off on my grandparents a lot when I was young, so sometimes I count my grandfather in the dad category.

My tastes therefore range from my grandfather's era, 40's and 50's, and my stepfather's (heretoafter referred to as my father), 60's and 70's, with the competing clanging of the 70's and 80's of my mom because she was the one with the radio turned up loud the most often. My grandparents would sit in the kitchen and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee and listen to stations that played Sinatra and Crosby, but they would also listen to the stations that played the Beatles and Dion. I used to ride to Ocean City with them many times a year and for 3 hours down and 3 hours back I was awash in the 50's and 60's, something I have carried over into my adult life. I really don't follow a lot of contemporary music and that's partly because there is still music to mine and discover from 40-50 years ago.

The first CD I ever bought was The Chronic by Dr. Dre. The second CD I owned was a copy of The Doors Greatest Hits I stole from my father. To this day, when I get soundly soused, a wannabe Jim Morrison comes out of my belly and throat.

My father was all about buying sound systems and awesome speakers, but he worked for the railroad and was never around so all the play they got was from my mother: Stevie Nicks, Heart, Journey, Jon Secada. 70's and 80's rock and 90's contemporary pop. Really fucking loud. With the vacuum running. Something I do these days but I am usually blasting Van Morrison or whatever strikes my fancy that day.

My father did get me into CSN&Y. I still love them today. And he was the one to introduce me, oddly enough, to The Dave Matthews Band. I was never much of a hippie lover and that's how I dismissed them (ironic considering that I love the hippie era music, though I sued to always say that had I been around then I would probably be a cokehead instead of a pothead, but in either era, always an alcoholic), but he turned me on to them proper and I appreciate their work still.

Thanks to Pop, my grandfather, I have a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your proclivity) Frank Sinatra collection. I prefer the more ballady, barroom bluesy, lost my girl and I am half-cocked numbers, but it's pretty much all good to me. I got XM radio partly because they have a Sintra station, but soon realized I couldn't leave it on indefinitely because Manilow will pop up every now and again.

Over the years I have taken on temporary surrogate fathers and my musical tastes have expanded based on that, e.g., reading the Beat Generation, moving to Colorado to trace a few of their steps, and falling in with folks who taught me about jazz. As I worked my way through that genre and my cornucopia of inebriants, I fell under the spell of John Coltrane: the early stuff for swinging, the middle period for pining, and the later stuff when hallucinogens are available.

I apologize for being a bit windy in an email, but the word 'dad' has its complications for me, and so 'dad rock' is even more baffling. In many ways, I am my own father, and so when I think of dad rock, I think of music I used to listen to (2 Live Crew, NWA, Operation Ivy, Motley Crue) that I often rediscover through some sort of iTunes/iPod shuffle. Dad Rock is something that you enjoy because it reminds you of a time a place a significant person and at some point you pretend to your friends that you hate that shite music and eventually you end up returning to it and slowly admitting that you couldn't live without it.

Ray Cummings: There's definitely some truth to your definition of "dad rock," Doug. Sometimes it just takes a lot of life experience to recognize how essential and timeless our formative musical experiences were, or are.

Thom Hawkins: Obviously "dad rock" brings to mind Wilco, but, as with others, also the things that my father listened to, and exclusively so of the members of my family. I was raised on Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, Peter Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio, and the "Love Me Do" period Beatles. My father, though, listened to Andy Williams and Julio Iglesias. I mined my father's records when making mix tapes for girls, thinking they would find me more sophisticated if I listened to Andy Williams. Some even did.

I also think of the Dad-ism "don't rock the boat," which, even if my father never spoke those words, I still associate with him. Therefore, I think of "dad rock" as music that merely floats by ... that returns from a hectic day at the office, has its dinner, takes out the trash, looks over its stamp collection, and goes to bed early. There is no hook.

I also think of the "wife voice"--that shift in tone universally applied by husbands on the phone with wives.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

ILL ESOTERICS: "Puzzle Space"


Take a grid of nine dots:

Connect all nine dots using no more than four contiguous (i.e., without lifting pen from paper) straight lines.

Most have trouble solving this puzzle upon first encounter. There solution depends upon the identification and rejection of a false assumption. The assumption itself is caused by a perception that the problem space is limited to the boundary indicated by the dots; therefore, the solution literally involves thinking outside of the box. (The usual solution uses four lines. There is also a solution that involves rejecting the assumption that a point drawn on paper is only a representation of a zero-dimensional location, rather than a two-dimensional shape the actual height and width of the spot on the paper. Further solutions reject the assumption of Euclidean geometry, or that the line itself is one-dimensional.)

In the puzzle, we can learn from a thorough examination of the puzzle space and the rules. For example, the number of lines that can be drawn through one dot and one dot only is infinite. There are only two ways (though this can be applied multiple places within the puzzle) that a line can connect two and only two dots (one up, one over; one up, two over). There are also only two ways (though, again, this can be applied multiple places within the puzzle) that a line can connect three and only three dots (one over, one over; one up, one over, one up, one over).

In addition, the lines must connect at their ends to solve the problem, because, based on the rules (i.e., not lifting the pencil), one would have to waste a line to backtrack to the middle of a previously drawn line. Any solution involving lines connecting only at 90-degree angles can also be quickly dismissed through trial and error, because so few options exist.

"Just as a solution is sensitive to the proper isolation of the problem, it is also sensitive to proper delimitation (constraints). In general, the more broadly the problem can be stated, the more room is available for conceptualization. A request for the design of a better door will probably result in a rectangular slab with hinges and a handle. Is that what is wanted, or is the problem really a better way to get through a wall?" -James L. Adams, Conceptual Blockbusting

A few factors play into our puzzle space constraint, most notably Gestalt principles of grouping:

  • The principle of closure: It is part of our perceptive mechanism to create order from disorder—thus when we see a group of dots, we connect them into shapes—e.g., astronomical constellations and connect-the-dot pictures. Therefore, when we implicitly connect the outer dots into a box, a barrier to extra-dot perception. There is, in effect, an illusory contour enclosing the box.

  • The principle of proximity: The space surrounding the nine dots makes the group of dots proximate to each other. In addition, the space surrounding the dots is not defined either geometrically, or linguistically. It is, thus, a puzzle void. One of the test subjects noted that a hint could be provided by drawing a box around the nine dots to include the space surrounding, thus defining it as part of the puzzle space and affecting the perception of proximity.

  • The principle of similarity: The dots are all the same size and shape, lending to their perception as a closed group.

Another puzzle that relies on a false perceptual assumption is this one:

How can the same smaller shapes rearranged leave a gap in the bottom version of the larger shape?

The false assumption here is one of perceptual approximation. A puzzler will measure the base and side of what appears to be a right triangle, and confirm that they are equal in the top and bottom shapes. Of course, as we know from the Pythagorean theorem, in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse will be equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. But the puzzler's mistake is that they've assumed based on the right angle that this is a right triangle—but it isn't a triangle, because the false hypotenuse isn't a straight line. When first presented with this problem, I was working with a group of engineers. When I pointed out that the "hypotenuse" in the two shapes was intersecting the grid at different points, and therefore, wasn't a straight line, they dismissed this as a poor rendering of a valid problem. In fact, I was correct, because the two triangle-like shapes in the larger shapes are right triangles, but they have different slopes; therefore, the first of the two conglomerate shapes is actually a polygon, cleverly disguised as a right triangle.

In both cases, the problem is how one can identify, and therefore validate or invalidate, these hidden assumptions. What is the process of reconciliation that takes place?

The idea that assumptions, whether valid or not, occlude our problem-solving abilities means that we must develop methods of analysis for making implicit assumptions explicit so that they can be evaluated.

When I was in elementary school, a teacher posed a problem—make ten with five nines. The answer she intended was some version of 9 / 9 + 9 - 9 + 9 = 10. I was the first to raise my hand. I drew my solution on the blackboard:

Is this answer "right"? It depends on the use. A problem without a purpose leads to a solution without a use.