Monday, January 14, 2008

Taste the rainbow

My next blogging subject was suggested by an article on Salon.com, entitled "The Letter E is Purple." Without even reading the lede, I knew exactly what the article would be: a first-person narrative nonfiction piece about synesthesia. I knew this because I have had similar statements bouncing in my mind since an early age, except to me, the letter E is orange.

Synethesia, as the previous links will tell you, is a state in which the mind connects the input from one sense with the felt experience of another. Being able to taste colors, see music, or indeed, associate colors with numbers and letters.

Ever since I was little, I've associated a certain color or colors with each number and letter. The image above more or less represents my color associations with the ten individual Arabic digits. Not all of the color associations are strong, and some are hard for me to pin down if I think about them. 1 and 0 are hard, especially. 3 is sometimes yellow, sometimes orange. But for my whole life, I've had a starter set of colors that I associate with numerals and with letters. Like each color has a Platonic form sitting in a locked room somewhere, a perfect Sesame Street Muppet version of itself that all other examples of the symbol is copied from.

I think that when I was a kid, I understood these colors to be universal, but after a couple arguments ("Don't be stupid! E is brown!"), I realized that my colors were not other peoples' colors. And over time, I think I realized that a) the colors were subjective and b) not everybody had the colors, so I let it drop. That has always been the extent of my synesthetic experience: each letter and numeral has a color. Sometimes words or longer numbers have colors, being combinations or sequences of others. Sometimes a color overwhelms. The letter F is green, as are the words Fred or Frederick. B and Beukema are red. Incidentally, my favorite color is blue. On an early date with my wife, I explained my experience of synesthesia to her, and mentioned that her initials went well together (MSR = blue, grey and brown, although the letters are black, blue and reddish brown respectively -- I never claimed this made any sense to me).

Years later, again in Doug Diamond's music history class (see also my second post), we talked about the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and I first learned the word synesthesia. Seems old Alex had a particularly strong case, and saw colors associated with musical tones. His composition was necessarily affected by his colors, and in order to convey his experience with his audience, he devised a color organ that would project the colors he saw for each note. The wikipedia article on Scriabin describes arguments he had with Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov about his associations. Apparently the latter had a low-grade synesthesia himself. Of course his colors didn't match Scriabin's -- I think everybody who has this has a different set of associations, formed by certain chemical connections randomly happening at some time in one's youth. Maybe I had a children's book that showed the numbers as I show them above. Or maybe "green" and "4" just landed in the same place in the primordial soup between my ears.

I've spoken personally to two other people who have had strong synesthetic experiences. One is my friend Adam from college, who, if I recall, had much stronger associations than mine, including musical ones. And I once had a conversation with a synesthete who described how she would see the colors associated with words and letters projected over a page as she read it. That's very different from and more extensive than my simple, back-of-the-brain experiences.

A Japanese video game designer named Tetsuya Mizuguchi created a game for the Sega Dreamcast and Playstation 2 called "Rez" that sought, in part, to simulate synesthesia for the player. The game is full of simple, stylized, colorfol visuals and pulsing, evocative techno music, resulting in a simulation of a rave as much as anything else. But it's a fun and easily recommendable game. Check out some video from it.

So, handful of readers, do you have synesthetic associations? Have you told anyone about them? Have you talked to others who have them? Please, do tell.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Annotated Beukemix, 2007

At the end of 2004, I considered putting together a mix cd of favorite songs from the previous year. It had, in fact, been a bumper year for songs I liked, and when Jen Scott gave me a copy of her Christmas mix for that year, I decided to go for it. Unfortunately, she had beaten me to the punch on including Cake's "Wheels" and the version of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" from the Grey Album. Dagnabit. But I put together the 2004 Beukemix, recycling a name I had used for mix tapes I made my friend James in high school. I've done one each year since then, and I am working on getting the '07 mix distributed.

Jen tends to include with the CD some background on her selections, why she likes them, where she heard them. I haven't in the past, but now that I'm in the business of blogospheric navel-gazing, YOU, dear reader, reap the dividend. Below is the track list for the Beukemix 2007, with some chatter for each song, and if possible, a link to a Youtube or other Thing you can use to listen to the song. Links may require certain plugins to listen or watch, and in many cases, I have not seen and therefore will not comment on the video. Enjoy!

The 2007 Beukemix

1. Insistor – Tapes & Tapes
The Beukemix is a mostly chronological mix of songs from the past year, so the first songs tend to be leftovers from the end of the year before that. I got the Tapes & Tapes album after hearing "Just Drums" on The Current in December '05 (they're a Minneapolis band, but got some good national attention). I ended up not using them in '05 or '06, but started loving this song just after finishing the '06 mix.

2. Born To Be Wild – Fanfare Ciocarlia
(Note: the video begins with some high pitched Japanese chatter. Bear with it for the awesomeness.) This song was in the end credits of the Borat movie, and is fantastic. If I ever go insane, I think I'll run this song inside my head all the time. I enjoy a good horn section, and for a horn section, you can't go wrong with a Gypsy Brass band.

3. Kingdom of Doom – The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Another all-star side project of Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz). Produced by Danger Mouse (The Grey Album, The Gorillaz' "Demon Days," Gnarls Barkley).

4. Feeling Good – Nina Simone
My wife became somewhat obsessed with this song early in '07, and we had many full-volume sing alongs.

5. Dreaming of You – The Coral
My friend Hetz was using my PC to dump a bunch of songs on his iPod, and he suggested I might like this song. He was very perceptive. Horn section count = 2.

6. Hold Tight – Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich
"For your information, Pete Townsend, at one point, almost quit The Who. And if he had, he would have ended up in this group, thus making it Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, Tich and Pete. And if you ask me, he should have." As discussed in "Death Proof," Quentin Tarantino's half of "Grindhouse." This video, from a British talk show in the 60s, makes me embarrassed for the band.

7. The Moon – The Advantage
The song is from the Ducktales game for the NES.

8. Kid On My Shoulders – White Rabbits
Heard this a bunch on the Current in the Spring.

9. Breathe Me - Sia
This one almost made the mix a couple years ago when it was on the radio. Made the cut this year due to its prominent use in the devastating last ten minutes of the TV show "Six Feet Under." Don't watch that second clip if you're not ok with spoilers or crying in front of your computer.

10. Knights of Cydonia – Muse
Nels recommended this on his blog a while back. It's amazing. I've spent much of the year anticipating its inclusion in Guitar Hero III. I was not disappointed, and have never had more fun having my ass handed to me by a video game.

11. Just – Mark Ronson feat. Alex Greenwald
Sweet cover of an old Radiohead track. Horn section count = 3.

12. A Martyr For My Love For You – The White Stripes
The White Stripes are a perennial Beukemix favorite. Narrowly decided on this song instead of "Icky Thump."

13. Nice Day – Persephone’s Bees
Melissa and I heard this on the Current running errands one day. It immediately made the list.

14. Tarantula – Smashing Pumpkins
This could've been on one of their albums in the mid-90s, and appeals directly to the part of my brain that loves "Siamese Dream" and about 30% of "Mellon Collie".

15. A Million Ways – OK Go
Coworker Quin recommended the OK Go's self-made music videos. They're fantastic. The video for "Here It Goes Again" is actually cooler, but this song fit the mix better.

16. Fixing a Hole – The Beatles
Melissa suggested on the way to a movie one night that I consider the greatness of this song, one from "Sgt. Pepper" that I'd largely overlooked. She's more of a lyrics than sound person, and I'm the opposite, so the greatness of the song for me is all about the echo on McCartney's vocals and the bouncy George Harrison guitar solo.

17. Can’t Tell Me Nothing – Kanye West
A late addition to the mix after I realized I didn't have any hip-hop on here. The alternate video (linked) is what got me into this song. Kanye can be kind of pretentious, but his ego is sort of a necessary component to his persona. The video featuring comedian Zach Galifianakis and musician Will Oldham nicely sends it up.

18. Junior Kickstart – The Go! Team
Several friends were super-into the Go! Team a year or so ago. Had seen and loved the video for this, too, but finally borrowed the CD from Joe in October. Now I play this when I drive recklessly in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Horn section count = 4.

19. Little Boxes – Tim DeLaughter
We watched all three seasons of Weeds this fall, and as we became convinced that Nancy Botwin is a terrible mother, drug dealer, and person, we enjoyed the all-star variations on the opening theme, a song about suburbs from the early 1960s, and the origin of the phrase "ticky-tacky." This version, by the leader of the Polyphonic Spree, is a good one. Horn section count = 5.

20. Powerman – The Kinks
Featured in "The Darjeeling Limited". Couldn't find a good link to the whole song.

21. Still Alive – GLaDOS (Jonathan Coulton & Ellen McLain)
This song comes in the end credits of "Portal," the best video game of 2007. In it, a robot, the antagonist of the game, sings a song to you, the protagonist, about how proud she is of you even though you killed her. Spoilers abound, if you think you might play the game sometime. This is the single nerdiest entry in the Beukemix, ever. If you are, in fact, a nerd, check out the works of Jonathan Coulton, who wrote the song. I especially like his acoustic cover of Baby Got Back.

22. Say It Ain’t So - Weezer
I discovered when playing Rock Band at Joe's house that I really like this song, and especially like singing along with it. The faces Rivers Cuomo makes at the beginning of the video are the same ones I would make if I could play guitar for real instead of just in video games.

If I ever write a blog more self-indulgent than this, I will be surprised.

A regular Algonquin Round Table

Was looking at Vanity Fair's year in pictures on their website. Irrespective of the photograph, this may be one of the most staggeringly head-shaking sentences in the history of popular culture:

"Kevin Federline, Pete Wentz, Steve Aoki, Benji Madden, Cisco Adler, and Joel Madden get down in Brett Ratner’s basement disco."

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Caucus and Bull Story

I went to Grinnell College in Iowa, and I caucused for Bill Bradley at Grinnell in 2000. He kicked everybody's butt in our precinct -- he so overwhelmed the numbers in the gymnasium that Democratic precinct chair and Professor of History Don Smith (pictured) said, ok, Bill Bradley people, you can leave, and we're going to count you as you go out the door. Then I guess they counted whoever was still around to see if Gore or somebody managed 15%. Grinnell the college is more liberal than Grinnell the town, which is more liberal than Poweshiek County, which is more liberal than the surrounding area. So although Bradley had this little spike in our precinct, he didn't even take the countywide majority.

To see what I'm talking about, check out the IA Democratic Party's results site, and pull down the thing below for Poweshiek County. Once you get there, look for the Grinnell first precinct (the college). Hillary couldn't even pull off 15%.

Due to the efforts of Doug Cutchins, Grinnell College's Director of the Office of Social Commitment, a blogger from Slate was liveblogging the Grinnell Democratic caucus tonight. His descriptions fill in a number of the gaps in my memory. Whenever he refers to Don Smith talking, imagine the man pictured above, speaking in a gentle Southern accent, even though he's trying to address a room of four hundred. Then imagine him teaching you European history at 8 in the morning (my own experience -- irrelevant to the topic at hand).

Interesting fact from the Slate dude: this election, Grinnell 1 has more delegates than any other precinct in Iowa, due to the huge student turnout in 2004, when the caucuses were during the semester (seriously, America, we need to re-shorten the election; I know you're eager to get on with it, but starting earlier doesn't make it end earlier). Go Grinnell.

I really want Obama to win this thing. I like Edwards, too, but am not a big fan of Hillary. Clinton's a great candidate for people who think Bush answers too many questions in a candid, straightforward manner.