Friday, November 13, 2015

Math & Science: Five to One

I’m a teacher in my real life—or is it the other way around?  And one thing I hate, that makes me squirm with embarrassment is when teachers try to teach by co-opting popular songs and parodying the lyrics, or the video, to bring home their curricular goals in a way the kids “will really understand.”

It’s just embarrassing, in the same way your parents were embarrassing when they yelled at you in front of your friends or tried to get down on your level by dropping a bit of slang. You know, to show you they were on your level. Ugg…it’s like every mom is Marge Simpson, too clueless to have a clue, or Homer; too dumb to know how dumb he is acting.

Teachers love parodies, love trying to really reach the kids in ways they will understand. Hey, why don’t we take Shakespeare and rap the lines. Shakespeare would approve—after all, he was just using language in new ways, too…Oh, I know it well: desperate to reach these twitter net numbed little vacant oxygen abusers, we resort to making horse’s asses of ourselves. But, for a phenomenal paycheck…ahhhbullshitchoo!

Point is, school and…almost anything else good in my life never mixed. Strange, in a cosmic way, that I became a teacher. But, I still get the chills when a teacher ditches their dignity to teach a lesson to kids in language they can understand…just reminds me too much of that disaffected little Walkman and MTV numbed oxygen abuser I was not so long ago.

OK, I’m whining…Here’s a case in point, though I have to admit: If any of my teachers looked like this, I might have given the whole school thing another chance…

Annnnndddd.....then, there’s this….


Stop…just stop. You might grow up, but you never grow up too much to not be embarrassed.

Yeah, OK…I’ll stop…

So, this month’s theme is math. Math. The subject I struggled with the most all the way up until I graduated…from college. Math was my preeminent anxiety from grade school on—I had tutors, I failed courses, I did summer school. Once, on the SAT, I did so poorly on my math that my Math score was 100…this was when the top SAT score was only 1400. I got an 800 total…That’s…pretty bad.

In high school, I liked music, and writing, precisely because they were as opposite of mathematics as could get: freedom minus rigidity, enjoyment divided by anxiety equaled a shitty GPA and lowered expectations. The last day I ever had to take a math class was one of the happiest days of my life. I remember walking out of Rawl Hall at East Carolina University, thinking: I will never take another f#$%ing math class again. It was a great feeling, like I’d suffered something for longer than I thought I could and walked out with all parts—limbs and sanity—in tact. I had worked really hard, to be honest and at the end, I knew I wasn’t going to let my relationship with mathematics end with my slinking away to nurse my wounds and regret the fight I hadn’t put up. I worked hard that semester, harder than I’d ever worked and ended the semester with a B-…the highest grade I’d ever scored in any math class. F#$k math. I’d won.

What does this have to do with music? Nothing, other than hating the sciences and the numbers was probably the catalyst for my love of music, and if it was nothing else, it was a precious escape.

One of the first bands I became truly obsessed with in my alternate, music-oriented education, was The Doors. It makes sense in many ways: The Doors are kind of a “gateway” band into serious music for a lot of teenage boys; Morrison was an incorrigible class clown, in school and out (I know this—part of the right of passage of being a Doors fan was to read No One Here Gets Out Alive, Danny Sugarman’s bio); the music was dark enough to be an antidote to a lot of the classic rock that got spun as voice of the generation stuff; and on a personal level, Morrison, much like me at the time, wanted to be and considered himself above all, a poet. I wasn’t a student when I was 16 and 17—I would have accepted any label other than that. Poet was good—the idea was cool and writing poetry got me more than a few girls. Playing guitar helped, too. I suppose that is an equation that still works.

The Doors were a great band to get into—there was plenty of mythology to dig, a real fabled aura around the shamanistic Morrison, and musical sound that was often a dark opposite to the flower power, ‘come on people, smile on your brother’ stuff that was a primer for the 60s rock explosion. Hendrix did it better, of course, but he was solo artist, in a sense. The Doors were a group and thus presented a more unified system of disorder. And while Morrison in particular can be almost cringe-inducing when I go back and listen (L’America?) some tracks, like their first hit, Break on Through, and others— The Whiskey Song, Love Me Two Times, When the Music’s Over— cook with some kind of other spirit, blues-influenced, incendiary, dark and magisterial—when the Doors were on, they were stunningly good—rock n roll dredged through the dirt. I loved that sound when I was young; it represented a true rebellion, an antidote, if you will, to all the forces in life working to keep me stifled in a classroom.

So, in honor to my wayward days, my wasted youth, all the tests I failed, all the desks I carved “The Doors” into, all the dreams I had about blowing it up and blowing it out, I choose The Doors, “Five to One.” This explosive chant and stomp reads like a child’s rhyme, but it burns with a controlled fury that takes aim at the listener or anyone who might not dig what Morrison was pushing. I love John Densmore’s pounding, military drums; Robby Krieger is at his bluesy best when he rips off the solo, and Ray Manzarek’s fuzzed out keyboard line fills in as a static-infused bass, crackling with serious mojo, far advanced and way modern for its time. As for Morrison—he says it all here. Talking about hippies crawling across the floor, flowers in hand, he sets himself in firm opposition to the flower power ethic of peace and love, then goes on to engage in what, to me at the time, was as a pure a middle finger in the face of my teachers, the cops, my folks, as many authority figures as I could find to be pissed off at:

The old get old
And the young get stronger
May take a week
And it may take longer
They got the guns
But we got the numbers
Gonna win, yeah
We're takin' over

A little light on the true rebellious capital, I realize, but at the time, that was all I needed: a little stomp, a lot of anger and either a stepping stone to something better, or just a nice, fist sized stone through any ready window.

Rock on, Jim…I might make a little fun of you, but deep down, you’re my first and always rock n roll hero.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Math & Science: Π

Kate Bush: Π

As I wracked my brain for another topical track to write about, I discarded a few ideas, mostly because I didn’t have anything personal to write about. I looked at lists of songs, but none called out to me. So I decided to find a song that had an interesting story, and I remembered that Kate Bush had written a song called “Π.” This being a Math & Science theme, I decided to do a little research on the song, to see whether there was anything there.

I remember when the song came out, hearing that it consisted of Bush singing π to some large number of digits. But that’s not all it is. It is actually a song about a mathematician who is obsessed with the number, somewhat irrationally (sorry), and Bush, a notorious musical eccentric with a remarkable voice, does sing many digits of π in a way that is not at all boring.

But if that was all I found, I’d probably be looking for another, meatier topic. Instead, guess what? A couple of math types posted stuff about the song.

Let’s start with the less strange. Chris McEvoy, a self-described “rabble rousing programmer who hates technology but loves people” pointed out in a blog post on November 11, 2005, that Kate got it wrong. As he wrote:

All was well for the first 53 decimal places but then Kate sang "threeeeee oneeeee" when she should have sang "zeeeeeeerooo" instead. She recovered for the next 24 digits but then it went to hell in a handbasket when she missed out the next 22 digits completely before finishing with a precise rendition of her final 37 digits. (Note—McEvoy later amended his statement, agreeing that she said “zeeeeeeerooo" and not "threeeeee oneeeee").

Which led to a bunch of somewhat hostile comments, because apparently π, and Kate Bush, are not to be trifled with. On the other hand, there’s also a positive comment from someone identifying as “Kate Bush,” but it’s the Internet, so you never know.

On March 14, 2006, McEvoy took to the blogosphere to point out that while that day is considered “Pi Day” in the United States, in countries that use a “Month/Day” system, “Pi Day” should be April 31 (31/4), a date that doesn’t exist, so he suggested May Day as the solution. Also, he cited to a number of British newspapers and radio programmes (as he spells it) that referred to his π digit “Gotcha!” Apparently in England, Kate Bush and π are big deals.

Now, let’s discuss Steve Luttrell, who has a degree in “theoretical physics and [a] PhD . . . in quantum chromodynamics (QCD).” Luttrell was convinced that Bush’s “errors” were actually a deliberate creation of a number puzzle. He put together an entire website devoted to this puzzle, A Great Big Circle, which sadly appears to be gone, but discussed his findings in a series of blog posts, here. In essence, he “solved” the puzzle, to find the exact location of an “artefact built out of stones to resemble a steam locomotive.” And, of course, “The locomotive theme is part of an extended metaphor that runs throughout π, consisting of tunnels, columns, chimneys, mine shafts, and generally anything and everything to do with sex.”

Me, I’m more of a fan of Occam’s Razor, but not in the way that Luttrell interprets it. Although I don't have a PhD in quantum chromodynamics, which according to Wikipedia is is the theory of strong interactions, a fundamental force describing the interactions between quarks and gluons which make up hadrons such as the proton, neutron and pion.  I still don't know what that means, but I did wedge a little more science into this piece.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Math & Science: Tom Lehrer Again!

purchase [Tom Lehrer: the Elements]

Yes, it's not "pop". But it once was.

I hadn't planned this ahead, but - digging around - I recalled that Tom Lehrer (in his total output of 37 songs) not only covered the field of Math, but also got around to Science. No surprise - math ... science ... it's all greek to many of us.

As he says at the end - if you can listen all the way through: "Life was much simpler in those days."