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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Keith Richards and The Search For The Lost Chord

For someone who was in the Top Ten Rock Stars Most Likely To Die for ten straight years, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones shows remarkable resilience, considering his rock-star lifestyle.
The music magazine New Musical Express (NME) put Keith Richards (or “Keef”) on this list way back in 1973. They finally removed his name when, after ten years, the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist showed no signs of slowing down, either in his music, or in his work-hard-live-hard way of life.
1973 is forty years ago; it’s 2013, and he’s still about, and had just finished a 50th year anniversary (!) tour with his band, The Rolling Stones—arguably the greatest rock and roll band there is today.

Keith Richards may be among rock and roll’s greatest guitarists, and the undisputed King of the Guitar Riffs, but he (and the rest of his band) did not start out at the top.
In his memoir Life (written in collaboration with James Fox, published 2010), Keith Richards recounts that he started out as a blues fan, trying to emulate the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, and other old time blues legends. The Stones were among the first true “rock stars” (with all that title implies), but they also put in a lot of hard work to hone their skills, scrounging around for what gigs they could find, and to learn, learn, and learn some more. Talent and desire helped Keith Richards get started, but hard work carried him the rest of the way—along with all the drugs and alcohol he can ingest. Which was the reason why he was in that list, for ten years—apparently, the amount of drugs and alcohol that passed through his system was enough to kill any other mortal; but of course, Keith Richards is not an ordinary mortal.  
Keith Richards (2006)
When the Stones get to tour in the USA (their first, in 1964), and get to meet their idols, Keith Richards have this to say:
“We’d been playing this music, and it had all been very respectful, but then we were actually there sniffing it. You want to be a blues player, the next minute you fucking well are and you’re stuck right amongst them, and there’s Muddy Waters standing next to you. It happens so fast that you really can’t register all of the impressions that are coming at you. It comes later on, the flashbacks, because it’s all so much. It’s one thing to play a Muddy Waters song. It’s another thing to play with him.”
The Stones’ music is deeply rooted in the blues. The band was initially formed by the members’ mutual passion for the blues in its purest and rawest form. Keith Richards lived and breathed the blues; he listened to every blues record he could find, him and Mick Jagger, until he absorbed their mighty teachings. Adding his own, he created something new and wondrous. This is what makes the Stones’ music distinct—Keith’s guitar riffs, along with Mick Jaggers’ vocals.
Keith Richards in his early years tried to emulate the playing style of one his blues heroes, Jimmy Reed. His description of how he tried to emulate his hero sounds very much like hard work:
"But to dissect how he played, Jesus. It took me years to find out how he actually played the 5 chord, in the key of E—the B chord, the last of the three chords before you go home, the resolver in a twelve-bar blues—the dominant chord, as it’s called. When he gets to it, Jimmy Reed produces a haunting refrain, a melancholy dissonance. Even for non–guitar players, it’s worth trying to describe what he does. At the 5 chord, instead of making the conventional barre chord, the B7th, which requires a little effort with the left hand, he wouldn’t bother with the B at all. He’d leave the open A note ringing and just slide a finger up the D string to a 7th. And there’s the haunting note, resonating against the open A. So you’re not using root notes, but letting it fall against a 7th. Believe me, it’s (a) the laziest, sloppiest single thing you can do in that situation, and (b) one of the most brilliant musical inventions of all time."
The book also recounts the bands’ touring days, from touring in a van to a major commercial endeavor, a massive corporate machine involving private jets, a small army of roadies, technicians, engineers, lawyers, reporters, hangers on and other personnel.
And groupies, as well as all sorts of drugs and booze to cope with the demands of being on the road. To hear Keith tells it, it is extremely difficult for a band on a tour with just coffee or soda and enthusiasm powering them up.
Johnny Depp, a long-time fan of Keith Richards, has stated in interviews that he modeled Captain Jack Sparrow after the Stones’ legendary guitarist. 

Keith Richards as Captain Teague Sparrow, Captain Jack Sparrow's father in the film franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean"
He counts Keith Richards as a friend.

In the book, the Stones’ guitarist says that Johnny Depp was just this timid, quiet friend of his son, Marlon, who always hangs around their house. He mistook him for a drug dealer. When his son explained things to him, he exclaimed to the famous actor, when he next saw him, “Edward Scissorhands!”
It turns out that Johnny Depp has always been in awe, and has always idolized, Keith Richards. He had just finished a documentary about the life of his idol, a film four years in the making.
Speaking of Marlon Richards, it is quite remarkable that the son of a rock and roll god and a famous model, brought up in a household with two heroin-addicted parents with an unorthodox lifestyle, could grow up as normal as he did. While other people in similar situations self-destructed, Marlon Richards grew up with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Growing up, he was often left alone, which he did not mind, “…because it was exhausting with Anita [Pallenberg, his mother] and Keith.” Marlon, a father of three, is a gallery curator, graphic artist, and a photographer. He lives quietly in a farmhouse with his family, a life vastly different from the days when he, as a six-year-old kid, accompanied his father on tours.   
Keith Richards is for many years now sober, and has given up hard drugs. He is grandfather to four kids, a rock legend, with a body of work that would be remembered for as long as humanity listens to music.
Wih wife and two daughters

The autobiography is extremely entertaining, with enough anecdotes and vignettes from various stages of Keith’s life to make rock fans happy. 
The tone of the book makes you feel as if you are right there with him, drinking beer, you listening slack jawed, while Keith Richards, strumming absent-mindedly on his guitar, rambles on about his life, his music, his band, the people he loves (and has loved), and what it means to be Keith Richards.

“It is impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were,” he says.

Now go read the book.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

So You Think Evolution Is Just A Theory?

Many people have been told that evolution is just a theory, and that it is, at most, a hypothesis, or even a guess.

A scientific theory, however, is different from the theory the general public is familiar with. Many of us equates theory with hypothesis, which is erroneous. To a scientist, a theory is an explanation of a phenomenon. A scientific law, on the other hand, is a description of a phenomenon, and can be proven by a mathematical equation.

To illustrate: Newton’s law of gravity describes how gravity works, which basically means that things fall down if you let go of them. His theory of gravity, on the other hand, is an attempt to explain why this happens (although modern scientists accept Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as a better explanation of gravity). Newton’s and Einstein’s theories will always remain theories, because they are explanations, and different from a law, which describes things. 

A scientific theory therefore does not graduate into a scientific law, as many misinformed people seem to believe. A scientific theory meets these three requirements: it should be supported by evidence, is testable and falsifiable, and can be used to make predictions.
It is common to hear people say, “Oh, it’s just a theory. I’ll believe it if it becomes into a law.” They think that a scientific theory, if backed by further evidence, “graduates” into a law. This is not the case. To reiterate, a scientific theory does not become a law. It never does.

(Read: 10 Scientific Laws And Theories You Should Know About.)

Moreover, a theory should not be confused with hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess made by scientists as an attempt to explain the cause of an event or phenomenon. They then rigorously test this hypothesis through experiment and observation, and if enough evidence is found to support it, and it repeatedly passes various tests it is subjected to, then it graduates into a theory. The theory of evolution, in more than a hundred and fifty years of study, experimentation, and observation, passes these tests with flying colors. It has never failed any crucial test. It has never been seriously challenged, only refined, and an overwhelming amount of evidence has been found that supports it. Evolution, in fact, is the basis for biology, without which biology and medicine wouldn’t make sense.
Someone who dismisses evolution as just a theory probably is just confused, and is unaware of what a scientific theory means. But if this someone is a figure of authority, like a pastor, or a teacher, they probably mean to confuse you, or even mislead you, and are letting their beliefs and prejudices cloud their judgment.

Many Christians (and other religionists) think that evolution is anti-God. This is not true. The Catholic Church, in fact, accepts evolution as a valid scientific inquiry.
Read this quote from Pope John Paul II's address to the Pontifical Academy of Science (1996), in which he reaffirms the Church's position regarding evolution:
In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points.... Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.
Pope Benedict, in fact, calls the conflict between "creationism" and evolution absurd:
Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called "creationism" and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.

As the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it,Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun.

Unfortunately, most of those who deny evolution have already made up their minds, not because of some scientific reasons, but because their faith would not let them have the idea of a universe not put in order by some Creator.

“The way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason.”

--Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

“If We Evolved From Monkeys, How Come There Are Still Monkeys?”

This question is a favourite among creationists; they often ask this to dismiss the Theory of Evolution. Although this probably dates back from the time of Charles Darwin, many creationists, when engaged in a discussion (especially in an online discussion), act as if they had just discovered this particular zinger. They believe this is irrefutable, an argument that would surely reduce those smug, know-it-all evolutionists into blubbering idiots trapped in an existentialist despair. If you see this question in an Internet discussion board, this is usually followed by “HAHAHA,” which tends to make the impression that creationists are raving lunatics.
This caricature of Charles Darwin with the body of an ape was used since the late 1800s to ridicule him and his ideas about evolution

To be fair though, there are people out there who ask this question out of genuine curiosity, maybe because they were told (and taught) all sorts of misinformation and fed lies, deliberately or inadvertently, about science, particularly evolution—of which many have a serious misunderstanding.
It is also interesting to note that the website “Answers in Genesis,” a creationist site that advocates the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis' account of creation (“Creationism”), discourages their followers from using this as an argument. They had probably realized that this is one of the dumbest things a person could ask, when attacking evolution.

And here are the reasons why:

Nowhere in the theory of evolution does it say that humans evolved from monkeys. What evolution shows (among other things) is that humans and modern apes (including monkeys) descended from some ape-like creatures millions of years ago. Humans and the modern apes share a common direct ancestor that existed 5 to 8 million years ago; the species diverged into separate lineages, one of which developed, ultimately, into apes, and the other evolved into early humans called hominids that became the ancestors of modern humans. 
There have been a number of different hominid species; many are close relatives. Most of these species became extinct without giving rise to other species. Some of these species that we know today through fossils are almost certainly Homo sapiens’ direct ancestors. We may never know the exact number of hominid species that existed and their relationship with each other, but our knowledge increases as new fossils are found.     
The “monkey question” also assumes that ancestral forms must disappear as evolution takes place, which is not the case. It is important to know that it is possible for a species’ direct ancestor (that is, the species itself, not the individual) can exist for a long time without evolving. If for example the species became isolated from the rest of the population, and there are no environmental pressures for the species to evolve, then they can go for millions of years with no (or very little) evolution (see living fossils). In these conditions, the species would have no biological imperative to evolve. This means that evolution does not have to occur, if there are no reasons for it.
If however part of this species’ population migrates into a habitat with a new set of conditions, (e.g., new food source, presence of predators, etc.) then there is pressure on the species to evolve. The species may evolve into a new one over time, while the ancestor remains relatively unchanged.   
Charts like these are misleading, for it suggests that humans developed in a linear and progressive manner, from monkey-like to human-like. This is probably one of the reasons that inspired the monkey question.
Creationists do not acknowledge that evolution have happened, and is still happening. Evolution takes a multitude of paths, and not through a process in which species progress up a sort of “stages” or “ladder” in a linear manner. Evolution is not random; rather, random factors affect evolution, and the species that had the best results from those random factors survive.

Next: So You Think Evolution Is Just A Theory?  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Neil Gaiman On the Importance of Reading, Libraries and Daydreaming

"Well meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading - do not discourage children from reading because you feel they're reading the wrong thing. There is no such thing as the wrong thing to be reading and no bad fiction for kids." - Neil Gaiman
(The following is Neil Gaiman's speech during the The Reading Agency's annual lecture held on October 14, 2013)

It's important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members' interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I'm going to tell you that libraries are important. I'm going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I'm going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.
And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I'm an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I'm biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.
And I'm here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.
And it's that change, and that act of reading that I'm here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it's good for.
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't read. And certainly couldn't read for pleasure.
It's not one to one: you can't say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.
Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it's a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it's hard, because someone's in trouble and you have to know how it's all going to end … that's a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you're on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
I don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian "improving" literature. You'll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

So Long, Mr. White

So long, Mr. White.
It is a very strange thing, when the defeat of a “monster” like Walter White—meth king, murderer, child-poisoner, destroyer of lives—evokes regret in us, the viewers. We feel sorry that his “empire,” his life, his world as he knows it, goes up in wisps of smoke like burned-off crystal meth on a strip of aluminum foil.

It’s to the credit of everybody involved in the production of the TV show Breaking Bad—the writers, production staff, directors, show creator Vince Gilligan, and of course the actors—that this show can make us empathize with a man like Mr. White (played by Bryan Cranston, who was ridiculously, stupendously good in portraying the rise of timid, beaten-by-life middle-aged high school teacher into “Heisenberg,” the brilliant, efficient, resourceful, brutal meth kingpin, and his descent into his own purgatory—eschewed by his own family, hunted by the whole world, hiding, planning his own brand of "redemption," desperate for one final defiant act that would validate all his “hard work”).  

"Say my name."

If you haven’t watched “Breaking Bad,” then you’re in for a treat, you lucky bastard. Schedule a whole weekend to watch the whole thingYou won’t regret it.
That last episode is hailed by many as one of the finest hours in TV history, although frankly, I think the episode “Ozymandias” (third from last) could also serve as the show’s last.
I like Walter White to somehow survive the whole thing.

Speaking of monsters, it’s interesting to note that George RR Martin (author of A Song of Ice and Fire, from which the TV series “Game of Thrones” is based) says that “Walter White is a bigger monster than anyone in Westeros.” Now that is saying a lot—King Joffrey (a character in Game of Thrones) does not in any way inspire sympathy—he is just a straight-up monster, through no fault of his own. After all, his mother is Cersei.  (Warning: Game of Thrones spoiler ahead) His death made me feel something akin to “unholy glee.”

Also, now that Mr. Martin has finished watching TV, maybe he can now finish writing Book Six of A Song of Ice and Fire.  
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