Happy music

Starting point: Steve Backshall, Explorer, Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4 (2020-08-02).

(Side note: This is the first podcast episode I've listened to in over two months. It used to be a commuting activity, then a while-using-the-rowing-machine activity, and now that I'm still not commuting and running outside instead using the infernal indoor exercise equipment, I just don't listen to podcasts anymore.)

There was a moment about halfway through this episode that I thought was good advice—the sort of advice I've been looking for recently, really:

[15:12] I spend a lot of time on my own. I spend a lot of time in my own head. And I've become quite good at finding ways of manipulating my own mood. So I know that if I'm feeling a little bit down, then I can take myself out for a bike ride in the driving rain, or get up early to see a sunrise, or use music. I find music incredibly powerful as a way of turning my mood the way that I would like it to go, particularly if I'm feeling lonely or sad or down, I can listen to certain tracks and I can make that just go away.

I've been thinking about this quite a lot recently. Every time I make a post about some music—e.g., "Higgs Boson Blues" or "Hurt"—I can't help but wonder why I don't ever think about writing about some happy music. Surely I must listen to some... right? I went on a quick dive into my music files—which are a total shambles now, after years and years of switching from computer to phone to computer, years and years after college where we all had so much music in that short strange window when it was easily available with dubious legality—and, frankly, I don't have much happy music. My most-listened-to R.E.M. album is Automatic for the People ("Everybody Hurts", "Monty Got a Raw Deal", etc.). And there's Tom Waits ("Misery Is the River of the World", "Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own .38)", etc.). And the Beck album I have anymore is Sea Change (where did the other albums go—this is definitely a job for Midnite Vultures).

I don't have a lot of overtly sad music—but I don't have much happy music either. It's not that I don't like it, it's just that I don't like it. The closest I get to happy music is, I suppose, Ween or Camper Van Beethoven, but those songs that I'm lumping into the Happy Music box are really more like Silly Music. (Fantastic find: Here is David Lowary with an extended riff that discusses "Take the Skinheads Bowling".)

Too many words. Too many words. Especially when I know what the Point is.

If you don't like riding it out through the low spots, and you knew you could hack your own mood with the Right Song—why the hell wouldn't you do that? I'm going to rummage around in my head and see if I can find one—it must be in there somewhere.


Hanlon's Razor [1]:

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

However, don't leave out the option that something can be ascribed to both malice and incompetence:

Katherine Eban, How Jared Kushner’s Secret Testing Plan “Went Poof Into Thin Air”, Vanity Fair (2020-07-31).

I assumed that we—the United States, collectively, whatever that might mean—were going to sort out the issues vis-à-vis our coronavirus response by the end of May. I told my wife that we would definitely fumble the initial response but, when faced with a real crisis, we would get our collective act together and meet the challenge. That's what we do. Slow to react, but decisive when the deal goes down.

And yet *makes a sweeping gesture with right arm to indicate the breadth of the entire kingdom* here we are.

Looking back, there were a few moments when I realized that we were in trouble (although I didn't expect still-dealing-with-problems-in-August kind of trouble):

  1. N95 masks out of stock in February. In the first week of February, I went to five different Lowe's stores before finding any N95 masks in stock. There was an underlying feeling of "uh oh, the supply chain isn't reacting to this".
  2. During the second week of work-from-home (mid-March sometime), I went for a run in Queeny Park in the middle of the day and it was packed. Cars parked in the grass, cars turning the entrance road into a parking lot, people everywhere on the paths. While it is true that the fresh air and sunshine is good for your immune system, that doesn't account for the fact that being surrounded by people increases the probability that your immune system gets a chance to test itself against virus that spreads from person to person. I took a three-month break from running after that.
  3. Jared Kushner was tasked to lead some of the coronavirus response.

I mean… when the deal goes down, you want an expert to get the job done, or at least someone who can organize a team of experts. I mean… when you are the literal United States, you can call on the resources of the entire United States to get the job done. Instead, what happens is that you get family and loyalists called in to solve the problem. And the rest is history—which isn't even true because history is the past and we're all living weird, stilted lives while some people get shipped out in boxes in the present.

I want to say something blithe like "I hope history isn't kind to these people". But it's not even what I think about the whole thing. Our fields are all behind the same levee here. Even if it's clever to point out that your idiot neighbor's field is flooded—your field is flooded, too. And if your neighbor blew up the levee to punish another neighbor that the felt deserved it—your field is flooded, too. All that is maddening enough, but then you see your neighbor float off on a boat with pontoons filled with $100 bills.

Not all but much of this was avoidable.

[1] Not digging into the why or wherefore of the quote. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_J._Hanlon and https://quoteinvestigator.com/2016/12/30/not-malice/ are good enough for me for now, etc. For my money, Robert Hanlon is a corruption of Robert Heinlein.

A million miles away

It seems to be a new feature, borne of these viral times, that I find a song to listen to—and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it.

For the most part, this behavior is benign. It's just a song that I remember from the 90s. It's just a song that I remember from the radio that was released before I was. I mean—it's just a song, and there's no slippery slope into the abyss.

It's not always the case, though, right? All music is sound. Some of that sound digs into some emotion. Some of those emotions are connected to a root nerve that convulses when it's touched. It can't be helped.


I don't remember how this got started, but I've been listening to Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"—and watching it, too. If you listen to it, you'll hurt enough. If you watch it, you'll hurt all the way.

For me, "Hurt" was a minor song on The Downward Spiral. The disturbance in the right channel was a distraction, the last two or so minutes of noise was an indulgence. Besides, the album has "Closer" and "March of the Pigs", and, frankly, you could hit the square stop button before it got to "Hurt" with nothing lost. When you're younger, at least, before the scars feel more like persistent aches than proud markers of having lived a life.

I don't know what heroin addiction is like. I don't know what Trent Reznor's problems were like. There are enough interviews out there, if you search for them, that answer enough of the questions that you might have, if you have them. I don't have any. I don't want to know. Let him have his problems. Let me have mine. I don't think of those problems specifically when I hear these songs, but the weight is there, and the muscles in my body tense as though even they know it's time to jump for something higher, to reach for something else—for Something Else.

Are there any other original/cover duos that manage to exist together with such effect as the Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash versions of "Hurt"? Maybe—there's probably some Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen masterwork out there that I'm forgetting. But, damn—the regret that drips off of these two versions of "Hurt"... There's Trent Reznor's apologetic offering on one side, Johnny Cash's broken nostalgia on the other.


I'm trying to think of another song that gets me as close to tears as Johnny Cash's "Hurt". I had one earlier but it's escaping me now. I keep listening to Cash's version, knowing that he's only got a few months left in the world after the video, and it throws a bucket of cold water over every other thought. I don't think a man could write a final chapter of his life like that if he wanted to—it just has to happen, and be like that.

What have I become / My sweetest friend? / Everyone I know / Goes away in the end / You can have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt

You know... some dust in my eye... just a second...

I don't know what heroin addiction is like. And I'm not interested, really. I don't need any encouragement to stay away, but Trent Reznor's "Hurt" is enough of a straightarm to stay away—the song drips regret for having fallen into that hole, for having gone that direction, for having been that person. That song really does hurt. And, listening to it 25 years later, the persistent scratchy noise in the background seems less like a kitschy feature and more like an honest reporting of what it's like to live with that flavor of regret—and when that distorted guitar rips in after...

If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way

...you can hold both the regret and the possibility of redemption in your hands—even if the mass of the regret hand far outweighs the redemption hand.

But when Johnny Cash sings it, and the video zooms in when he closes the fallboard at the end... that's it.

2020... If we're going to have to live in isolation while the virus does what it does, I don't know if I can keep listening to songs like this. It's a weight to lug around. But these songs keep rising out of the background to find me. And once they find me they follow me around until another song finds me, then they compete among themselves for the privilege of following me around. The upshot of this is that I get to become more familiar and acquainted with a few songs while we walk together about the house—upstairs and downstairs and sitting and standing and so on. But why, in this neverending day, can't it be something light and sparkling. Let us all deal with our addictions and darkness later when there are more options to deal with them—who can we even offer our empire of dirt to at this point?

But if you really argued I knew it would be right

Starting point: Gene Wilder on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, 2005-04-29:

Besides what I was thinking is the obvious attraction here—it's Gene Wilder—there's something hidden in this interview that I really think makes sense.

I would write all day, and then he'd come over after dinner and look and, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, OK, now we need a villain, the Burgermeister isn't a good enough villain, we need a real villain. And one night he came over and he looks at the pages and he says, "You tap dance to Irving Berlin in top hat and tails with the monster?" He said, "Are you crazy? It's frivolous." And I started to argue, and then I argued for about twenty minutes 'til I was at least red in the face, I think it may have been blue, and all of a sudden he says, "OK, it's in." And I said, "Why did you put me through this?" He said, "Because I wasn't sure if it was right or not, and if you didn't argue for it I knew it would be wrong, but if you really argued I knew it would be right."

You know... listen. I hate confrontation, really, despite how often I get involved with it. I'm not a "go along to get along" type of guy. It's not my style. What often happens is this kind of oscillation—push the issue with a forearm to the facemask, retreat into shame about having used the forearm in the first place, return to the forearm after the issue that resulted in the forearm occurred anyway after the retreat. And so on. Set your watch to it.

I love this passage with Gene Wilder because it gets at an underlying truth. Maybe a person is just advocating for something because it's their idea, because it's easy to do so, because it's a defense of the status quo. But if that person, when confronted, when they're engaged in the clinch, pushes back and says, no, no, no, this is how it should be, there's a reason, and there's a right way to do it and we should do it that way—you don't have to do it that way, but there's got to be a valid reason to push past that resistance. And that resistance might be based on knowledge, on experience, on intuition. But it's that resistance or friction that leads to the better solution. Without it, it's just a bunch of weak-ass yes-men approving the next instruction from on high, for good or ill. (For ill.)

Including the scene with Dr. Frankenstein—Frankensteen—and the monster dancing was the Right Decision:

Can you feel my heart beat

Can't remember anything at all

I've been listening to "Higgs Boson Blues" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on repeat for about a week now. I recommend especially this version from Austin City Limits in 2014:

Who cares— / Who cares what the future brings?

How many times have I played this song on repeat now? Dozens and dozens and dozens of times. Looking for the secrets. Interpreting the signs. Holding the threads in my hands, trying to braid them back together.

He's got the real killer groove / Robert Johnson and the devil / Don't know who's gonna rip off who

I've invested time—consciously and unconsciously—thinking about this song. It floats back there in my mind, droning and droning. Nick Cave floated into my consciousness by way of Tom Waits on Pandora—and it makes sense to me. These aren't your prototypical band leaders—and yet, what hill wouldn't I follow either of them over, as they growled whatever it is that they were growling.

Take the room with a view / I see a man preachin' / In a language that's completely new

On repeat. On repeat. On repeat. On this loop, this phrase catches my ear; on that loop, another one instead.

There is a Led Zeppelinesque feeling of depth to the song that evaporates, Led Zeppelinlike, with a few quick hits of a spade. Nothin' but dirt under there. But that title and introduction—physics—and the nonlinear story afterwards—mystics—wrap themselves around me like a vine. What were you doing peering into a song for meaning anyway? Like a vine, you can chop it off, and it grows back anyway.

Drivin' my car / Flame trees on fire

What does it mean? Does it mean...

Can you feel my heart beat? / Can you feel my heart beat?

It's at this point where the music has mostly trailed off yet

Can you feel my heart beat? / Can you feel my heart beat?

there is still a current pressing forward.

I don't get Nick Cave's stage presence at all. It's got a cult fervor to it—and go ahead and count me among the cult's members. I'm not sure you'd see me up there in the front row offering my hand to his chest while he

Can you feel my heart beat? / Can you feel my heart beat?

offers himself to the crowd—but I can't exactly say that I wouldn't be there either. It's awkward if you analyze it, but if you just float and float and float and feel it, the rises and falls and short bursts and long lulls all pull you downstream.

Drivin' my car / Down to Geneva

At some point the float trip has ended, slowly, the current spread amongst the delta mud, and who's to say what has transpired along the way?

Three minutes

I'm working on a case about Bill Miller in finance class this week. To supplement the info in the case I've been looking for some other articles about him, his investments, etc. Naturally, I fixated on the references to other books and people in the articles—it's what I do. Follow the graph, etc.

In this 2020-Q2 newsletter from Miller Value Partners is a great line from A.E. Housman (about whom I knew and know nothing):

Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.

Story of my life right there.

Doing a little digging around, the line comes from the introduction (p. xi) of his edited edition of Juvenal's Saturae, available here from the Internet Archive.

More rigor does not mean more process, more process does not mean more rigor

I got really pumped up to die on this hill (again) today, but managed to back off at the last minute. It might be aerospace or technology esoteric, it might not be—I don't know.

"More rigor" does mean "more process". And "more process" does not mean "more rigor".

I worked ever-so-briefly in a software quality assurance organization with some respectable and respected engineers. Here's what happens when you value—abstractly value—process: you get more process. My analogy for it was always something like this. What does Lebron James get paid for? Making more baskets. What do process engineers get paid for? Making more processes.

Not bettermore.

More process works for a while—until it doesn't. There's a sort of inverted-U of usefulness. There's Wild West on the left side where you're just slappin' things together—great for the garage and the protoshops, less so if you want build things that people use, especially to put themselves in at tremendous speeds and altitudes. There's total lockdown on the right side where you don't move don't think don't breathe don't achieve [1].

The sweet spot is there in the middle somewhere. It's never a stable optimal point—the people change, the technologies change, the requirements change, the certification authorities change, your understanding of the problem will change, and so on. But the answer is not more unless you're flat-out missing things. In fact, as you add more, you are at some point begging for steps to be missed or mangled, for process steps to fall behind reality, for malicious compliance out of frustration.

[1] Too much is not enough / I feel numb

Diamond League

I have achieved my [checks notes] only stay-at-home accomplishment so far: made it to the top league in the weekly leaderboard on Duolingo (kirkkittell).

As I've mentioned somewhere around here, it hasn't been easy to focus the last few months. That's hardly a controversial thing to say—is anyone focusing? Send detailed instructions if you are. I don't know how people with kids are managing it. Running through a few lessons on Duolingo in the morning is one of the few things I've been consistent about—I'm on a 102-day streak now. I've been slowly walking up weekly running distance to 30 km/week and pushups to 220/day—bumping them up every week (recently) by 5 km/week and 10 pushups/day. The increase will eventually collapse under its own weight, but in the meantime I'm trying to grab onto the things that I can and fix them in place, then build something around them.

There is a feeling of the days being lost to routines like this—do this in the morning, do that after work, do this before bed, repeat repeat repeat repeat, where did the month go? However. I've lost plenty of days to irredeemable low spots, so if Chinese lessons and running and pushups keeps the world on track, I'll go with it.

Despair of not doing

I watch Li Ziqi and I despair.

The latest one involves turning scrap wood reclaimed from a barn in the forest into a fence around a pond, breaking rocks to repair the top level of the pond, planting hundreds of seeds and starting them in a greenhouse (a self-made greenhouse, but there's really no reason to point that out because everything on this channel is self-made, and it's almost jarring when something pops up that isn't self-made, like the drill used to set the wedge in the rocks), then screencutting through a few seasons to show the seeds becoming seedlings becoming fruit-bearing plants, and the fruits and vegetables and leaves and seeds being turned into several courses of food.

I could do that.


[sip some water]

[look nonchalantly away from the screen and notice something else in the room, anything else in the room, hoping no one saw me having that thought, because it's the kind of thought that should result in an action or, in the case of Li Ziqi, should result in about 40 actions, many of them chained together but in overlapping sequences that cover minutes and hours and days and seasons]

There is—scarequotes inbound—"more time" now because I don't have to drive to work. There should be time available to start, execute, and finish projects at home. Where does that time go?

Ah—that's the wrong question.

Thoreau, Walden, "Excursions": "As if you could kill time without injuring eternity."

It comes down to principles—... I'm not sure how to finish that one. The principle isn't about filling the time, or about Getting The Most Out Of Your Life, or... I'm not even sure it's about principles now. It's just fun to have ideas and make them real. It's not fun to infinitescroll through social media—you get the dopamine while doing it, which is like fun I suppose, but then the shame hangover, which is certainly not like fun. It's more comfortable to stay inside than to go outside where it's hot and humid; it's more comfortable to stay inside and read some junk articles and to stay inside and finish calculating the material list for the backyard steps.

What to do about it is obvious. Decide to do what needs to be done, and do it. There is no magic.