Archive for April, 2010

Top Ten Progressive Rock Bands

Progressive Rock, or prog, is the most technically demanding sub-genre of rock that exists. Prog bands offer feature concept albums, extended songs of ten minutes or more, and lengthy sections of instrumental improvisation. With a few brief exceptions (mostly the early seventies), prog never really broke through in terms of mass popular appeal. This is a shame; while the music is certainly incompatible with the norms established by pop music, the pieces are intended to be revisited, and re-examined. The music is not meant to be enjoyed passively, but it offers great rewards for those willing to take the time.

Here are my picks for the ten best progressive rock bands of all time. I have made all due attempt to disregard personal favorites and instead list in order of artistic merit. Enjoy.

Peter Hammill/Van der Graf Generator

Van der Graf Generator is perhaps best described “proto-prog;” part blues, part psychedelic, part progressive. Formed in 1967, Van der Graf were ahead of their time, no doubt. Their lineup was never stable, and they broke up and reformed at least once before their studio debut, plus a handful of times since then.

Inseparable from the music of VdGG is the music of their front man, and only consistent member, Peter Hammill. When describing an artist’s career, the word “prolific” is frequently used in exaggeration, but Hammill certainly deserves it, averaging an album every 1-2 years since 1971. Hammill has never described his music as progressive (or any specific genre, for that matter). Still, their influence is undeniable, especially to the #2 entry on this list.

VdGG’s choice of instrumentation is unorthodox, even for prog fans. The organ is certainly not unheard of, but the saxophones can seem a bit foreign. Additionally, Hammill uses his voice as an instrument in every sense of the word. Hammill and VdGG’s sound occasionally dives into cacophony, and their range is so varied that one never really gets “used” to the sound. Nothing prepares the listener for what the next song may sound like… including familiarity with the existing catalog.

Symphony X

“He got metal in my prog.”

“He got prog in my metal.”

Easily the heaviest band on this list, Symphony X effortlessly blends two of the most demanding musical styles seemingly effortlessly, and to marvelous affect. They turn techniques often used as gimmicks—such as double bass pedals, growling vocals, and pinch harmonics—into an impressive and effective arsenal. This band knows how to make a piece “epic” without necessarily padding its running time into the double digits. Not that they can’t make a well-crafted extended song; check out the title piece from 2007’s The Odyssey.

Symphony X certainly has a niche for the concept album… the titles of the albums themselves make it fairly obvious that they draw much from “classical” material, often used and misused in popular culture. Somehow, this band consistently manages to bring a fresh approach to it, if for no other reason that their musical approach is undeniably modern and (forgive the tautology) progressive.

Historically, prog is filled with techniques… or possibly better described “side effects” that are off-putting to many listeners. Examples include awkwardly-arranged lyrics, vocals in the banshee range, seemingly endless solos from the lead section, etc. To an extent this reputation is deserved, but, Symphony X serves as an effective counterargument. Their music moves with a sense of purpose.

Recommend Listening: V: The New Mythology Suite (2000), The Odyssey (2002), Paradise Lost (2007)

Emerson, Lake and Palmer

Formed in 1970 as a supergroup, this band is somewhat odd to the genre in that they lacked a dedicated guitar player (Greg Lake occasionally played acoustic guitar). Keith Emerson, quite possibly rock’s first true keyboard virtuoso, more than made up for this. Listening to him play can range from humbling, to trance inducing, to physically exhausting. Some of Emerson’s more esoteric live antics included stabbing keys with knives, beating a piano to produce feedback, playing while a gyroscopic apparatus took him and his instrument through wild aerial acrobatics, and pressing more buttons on his Moog synthesizer than would be necessary to launch a space shuttle.

Not that Lake and Palmer would stand idly by in the meantime. Occasionally one wonders if the three truly made up a band, or just three soloists often playing at the same tempo and in (mostly) the same key. Their musical range included the ballad (“Lucky Man,” “Still…You Turn Me On”), the ridiculous (“Benny the Bouncer,’ “Hoedown,”) and prog’s primary staple, the half-hour concept piece (“Tarkus,” “Karn Evil 9”).

ELP’s catalog also includes a large amount of re-imagined classical pieces, most notably their live rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Unfortunately, ELP’s studio offerings often feel inconsistent, and by the end of 1973, most of their best ideas had already been realized. One of those, however, was the aforementioned Karn Evil 9, twenty-eight minutes and three movements of Prog Paradise. One downfall of many prog acts is that, while their musical ability may be obvious, once the piece is done, the listener often cannot recall any specific lyrics, melodies, etc. Not true with Karn Evil 9; the “Welcome back my friends…” section will be stuck in your head for hours. And that’s a good thing.

On a side note, Greg Lake distinguishes himself from many other vocalists on this list in that, when he sings, there is never any doubt that he is an adult male.

Recommended Albums: Tarkus (1971); Trilogy (1972); Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

King Crimson

The lineup of this band has constantly fluctuated, and the band hasn’t existed at all for years at a stretch. But when it does…

Loud, complex, unpredictable, jazzy, harsh, flashy, over-the-top… the list of adjectives could be longer than a list of former members, and also neatly sums up guitarist Robert Frip’s personality. In their earlier days, many members who departed Crimson went on to great success elsewhere (Peter Sinfield, Greg Lake, etc), and in more recent iterations, great names left current projects to join (Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, etc). Interestingly,, KC helped set another trend in the genre—relative disregard of lyrics. The lyrics themselves were brilliant… when the songs had any. In the early days, the writing of the lyrics themselves were outsourced to Peter Sinfield… and even he was replaced eventually.

Their 1969 debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, is in many ways the first “real” progressive rock album. It consists of only 5 songs, broken into “chapters,” and incorporates lengthy instrumental sections, tempo, key and time changes. Most importantly, it adds a compositional, classical approach, a method largely unknown to rock at the time. “21st Century Schizoid Man,” from the Court album, has been covered more than half a dozen times, most of those bands not prog.

In their early years, King Crimson was on several occasions surpassed in popularity and critical acclaim by projects they helped influence… see Emeson, Lake & Palmer, and our #1 band as prominent examples.

Recommended Listening: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless and Bible Black, Red (both 1974)

Porcupine Tree

This superb band began as a practical joke; band founder Steve Wilson and friend Malcom Stocks invented the band as an underground, Pink Floyd-era project, and went so far as to create demos of the supposed band’s work. Thankfully for prog fans, Wilson decided fiction this good had to be made a reality.

While most prog bands write their songs as a group effort (or group struggle, depending on the members’ relative egos), the music of Porcupine Tree is almost exclusively composed by Wilson. Thus, most of the songs are centered around a solid, singular (though not always apparent) concept, rarely meandering through unpredictable territory. The musicianship is flawless, however, and often songs grab the listener’s attention from the first chord, and refuse to let go until the outro. For a great example of this, check out “Blackest Eyes” or “Trains,” the opening songs from 2002’s In Absentia.

Wilson is every bit as much a recording engineer as he is a musician, and is involved in every step of an album’s production. This helps make the phenomena described above possible. The guitars are crisp, the drums sharp, the bass punchy, yet none ever overpowers the other. To help preserve the fidelity of the recordings, Wilson sees to it that the albums are mixed at a lower master volume than most contemporary works.

Recommended Albums: In Absentia (2002), Deadwing (2005), Fear of a Blank Planet (2007)

Pink Floyd

I must admit that I have consistently failed to “get” Pink Floyd, and would personally be ok writing them off as pure psychedelic rock. However, their influence in the genre has certainly been too significant to be ignored, both musically and visually, especially in industrial music. Plus, without them, Porcupine Tree would have been impossible.

Unlike other bands on this list, Floyd never dominated through relentless musical assault; they were, however, masters of mood, atmosphere, and could pack volumes of meaning into a simple three minute (this could in part account for their popularity when compared to their peers). On a tangent note, they were really into sound bytes, a phenomenon taken to ridiculous extremes in the eighties, by prog, synth-pop and metal bands alike.

Pink Floyd does bring a refreshing bit of accessibility to the genre; Dark Side of the Moon continues to be a best seller to this day, and even people who hate concept-albums will devour The Wall. Regarding Dark Side… many prog bands intentionally, and meticulously, include allusions, encrypted lyrical meanings, recurring themes, etc in order to make their music a part of something larger. It is ironic, then, that a large part of Dark Side’s reputation is tied to its supposed synchronocity with The Wizard of Oz (just Google it if you aren’t familiar), when the band members have consistently insisted that it is purely coincidental.

Recommended Albums: Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), The Wall (1979)

Rush

One would be hard-pressed to find any radio fan not familiar with “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight.” Both of these fairly short, radio-friendly hits showcase much of what is good about Rush, and prog itself. You’ve got tight rhythms moving through numerous time signatures, a wall of drums, wailing vocals, and lead guitar/keyboard work which instantly commands respect. Because of these songs, and their parent albums (Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures), Rush makes an ideal “gateway drug” for first-time prog listeners.

Not that Rush didn’t produce an epic or two in their day. For many fans, Rush begins and ends with “2112;” here I respectfully disagree. “Fountain of Lamneth” came first, and both are musically (though not necessarily lyrically) surpassed by “Hemispheres.” This piece offers complex, cerebral, yet undeniably rock riff, after riff… and when the song climaxes right around 15:45, with Geddy screaming “her surface splintered into…” Guaranteed chills.

While many prog bands sport five or more virtuoso musicians in order to get the job done, Rush has managed their entire career as a three-piece act, and each a legend in his respective role(s). Neal Peart boasts a 360 degree drum set, and also writes 90+% of the band’s lyrics, while Alex Lifeson handles all guitar work. Geddy Lee covers all bass, vocals, and keyboard parts.

Recommended Albums: A Farewell to Kings (1977), Hemispheres (1978), Permanent Waves (1980), Moving Pictures (1981)

Dream Theater

There are good modern prog bands today, no doubt. However, when looking at the “best” the genre has to offer, almost invariably you end up in the early-to-mid seventies. If any currently active band is worthy of carrying that flag, it’s Dream Theater. Following their studio debut 1989, Dream Theater has released a new album every 2-3 years, each offering something unique. Many local record stores erroneously stock Dream Theater in the metal section, and while they’re definitely heavier than most of their contemporaries (especially their 2000’s-era work), they are never without dynamics.

Never were said dynamics better realized than on 1999’s Metropolis Part II: Scenes From a Memory. Deriving its title and concept from a well-received song from an earlier album, Scenes tells the story of a young man uncovering the details of a past life through hypnotherapy. The album marks the debut of their third and current keyboardist Jordan Rudess, who together with guitarist John Petrucci serves dozens of instrumental duels scattered throughout the album’s 77+ minute runtime. “The Dance of Eterity,” from a technical standpoint, has got to be among the most complex pieces ever recorded, leading to the climactic, uplifting and undeniably catchy “The Spirit Carries On.”

Prog places heavy emphasis on the live performance; unfortunately, much material from the early days of prog is limited to poor-quality bootlegs and precious few “official” bits of footage. This is far from true with Dream Theater; thanks in no small part to the obsessive record-keeping tendencies of drummer Mike Portnoy, Dream Theater’s live catalog is even more extensive than their studio catalog. Also, the members of DT have historically been very active in numerous side projects (see Liquid Tension Experiment, Satrianni/G3, and Neal Morse to name a few). For new comers to the genre, Dream Theater makes an ideal starting place—you can follow the DT lineup horizontally to other current projects, and follow their influences back to the genre’s beginnings.

Recommended Albums: Images & Words (1992), Awake (1994), Metropolis Part II: Scenes From a Memory (1999), Black Clouds & Silver Linings (2009)

Genesis

Genesis can be viewed as two bands. There is the better-known (and more commercially successful) Phil Collins-led pop outfit—but first, there was the Peter Gabriel-era. Along with Steve Hackett, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and of course Phil, Genesis produced four classics in four years, culminating with 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Lamb is a concept double-album; a prog-rock opera, and while not the first offering of its type, it certainly became the archetype for future prog concept albums. While many prog bands suffer from overtly sci-fi or misapplied philosophy-themed lyrics (see our #4 entry), Gabriel’s lyrics are thick with imagery.

Genesis was not especially “loud,” nor did they indulge much in overt “because we can” instrumentals. Rather, Genesis’ songs were compositions, filled with dual guitar arpeggiation, occasional wind instruments, and masterful (yet subtle) drum syncopation. Gabriel complimented this with a virtual library of singing voices, often using a distinctly different voice for each character portrayed in a piece. Nowhere is this more evident than on “The Battle of Epping Forest,” from 1973’s Selling England By the Pound.

No summary of Genesis’ career would be complete without special attention paid to “Supper’s Ready,” from 1972’s Foxtrot. This twenty-three minute piece takes the listener on a journey through the book of Revelation; much of the musical devices used in its 6 movements would set the standard for the prog epic. There is an extended odd-meter section depicting Armageddon, followed by a haunting aftermath section, enhanced by a false organ effect, abruptly transitioning into a sing-songy, absurdist, nursery-rhyme section. The melody and chord structures introduced in the first two movements are perfectly combined at the song’s climax, ending with something both familiar and new. When performed live, Gabriel would move through multiple costumes to compliment the storyline, ending in a glowing white robe, while a wire rigging “raptured” him off the stage. Considering this was only 1972, Genesis set the pace for future bands to follow.

Recommended Listening: Foxtrot (1972), Selling England By the Pound (1973), The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974)

Yes

Yes has had more members than most bands have had hit songs… still not quite as many as King Crimson. Unlike other bands on this list with revolving-door lineups, Yes has been more of a roundabout… most members have returned at some point. Combine that with the fact that Yes played host to no mediocre musicians, and their albums become something of a fantasy-league of instrumentalists.

The band’s propensity for being over the top and self-ingulgent can be frustrating to new comers. Consider the fact that one may purchase three of their three best albums (Close to the Edge, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Relayer) barely covering a two-year span. Each album has a different lineup, and you will have a total of ten songs. Granted, they will be scenic and sonic odysseys. Every musician is spotlighted , the music is happy, uplifting, and vibrant, yet still intense and mature. Rarely does Yes delve into darkness… and in those conspicuous exceptions (see “The Gates of Delerium”) it is still done with undeniable taste.

A great example of this musical duality is found on 1972’s Close to the Edge; the lead riff (once it’s finally introduced) is almost jubilant… but with just a bit of a byte. The vocals enter soon after, similarly presented. The piece eventually transitions into an ambient, almost lullaby-type state, only to explode back into a mature, more fully-realized iteration of the main section. Few artists could transform a lyric as simple as “I get up/I get down” into what sounds like a transcending affirmation of being.

Not every album is flawless, not every artistic decision obvious. Yes’ songs certainly take their time, but Yes challenges the listener to take time likewise. And what a rewarding challenge for those who make it.

Recommended Listening: The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973), Relayer (1974), Going for the One (1975)

A personal update from Strafe

Hi all,

Things were really busy these last few weeks, what with painting, hospital visits, career-related issues and a site redesign. I’m very nearly through the eye of the storm now. If all goes according to plan (famous last words) my regular rants, lists and occasional serial fiction will resume beginning next week.

I have been working on a new entry, which is at long last complete. It is an epic post for an epic subject. Enjoy.

I adopted a new “skin” for the site. It was canned (pre-made) but functional, and gives me some greater ease of running things from this end. Still very much a work in progress… see the “hello world” tab-test. One concern I have is that some of the text seems a bit lighter; if this causes difficulty of navigation for anyone, please comment (isn’t that kind of like printing “Illiterate? Call for help). Ultimately I’m hoping to get a very clearly categorized tab-based site going so I may group similar posts; much better than having an ever-increasing front page. In the meantime…

…thanks for all the views and comments. All the best,

–Strafe

Eleanor Rigby: A Glimpse into the Mind of a Pathological Trasvestite

Disclaimer: This was first written April 3, 2004 and originally posted Monday, December 11, 2006. While working on the aesthetics of this blog, I offer this oldie from the archives:

Ah, look at all the lonely people.
Ah, look at all the lonely people.

Lonely people indeed – it is a known fact that priests lead a lonely life, and the image of an abandoned parishioner, one “Father Mackenzie” leaves the door open for some interesting implications. Where do they all come from? Perhaps the imagination of a terminally depressed friar. Consider the following:

Eleanor Rigby sits in a church, dies in a church. Why so lonely? Father Mackenzie was not far off, or perhaps this was the problem – he was too close. After all, she does live in a dream. Father Mackenzie implicitly darned his socks in the night while nobody was there… but wasn’t Eleanor just sitting in the pews in the last stanza? How can we be sure that the “socks” aren’t “stockings?” Could this man have been so heartsick that he invented, and ultimately became his own companion? Or, as McCartney’s counterpart, John Lennon, put it a few years later: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

Another curious facet of Paul McCartney’s surreal world – the face in the jar by the door. Who is it for? All the lonely people? I think not, for when the old woman dies in the church, nobody came. This raises questions about the sermon that no one would hear… was this to be Ms. Rigby’s dirge, or eulogy? How did the father know nobody would come to hear the sermon? She wasn’t even dead yet at the time he wrote it… unless the Father decided it was time to hang up the face and lay the stockings to rest for good. The lingering image of him wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave echoes like a gavel in the mind of the listener.

One of course can argue the validity of these claims; it could simply be a ballad of two God-fearing humans who had time for faith but none for friends. A good friend of mine, one Arthur Sierras, speculated that Ms. Rigby may have been terminally ill, and Father Mackenzie wrote the phantom sermon after administering the last rites. His theory was cancer (perhaps caused by lead-based make-up), but if I had to go with the disease theory, I’d go with leprosy. It better explains why her face was in a jar by the door.

Whatever the true nature of the song, we may never know. The Beatles were ever-secretive about their true feelings of their own works, and maintained an ever-present suspicion and cynicism of the American media. However, this two-and-a-half minute masterpiece contains much more depth than the literal interpretation of the lyrics. Father Mackenzie took her down, but did she go to Strawberry Fields? Perhaps it was necessary for her to bid the world goodbye, that the Father might say hello. Perhaps we should just let it be and enjoy the music. Where do we all come from? Where do we all belong? Perhaps she alone knew. Ah, look at all the lonely people. Where do they all come from? Where do any of us come from?

Added by request, the complete original lyrics:

“Eleanor Rigby” — (Lennon*/McCartney)
Originally available on Revolver (1966). Also available on Beatles ’62-66 (1993), and 1 (2000).

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window,
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from ?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father Mckenzie
Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near.
Look at him working,
Darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father Mckenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

*Although the Lennon/McCartney writing credit is a Beatles trademark, the two rarely collaborated after 1965. John Lennon had absolutely nothing to do with the composition/recording of this particular song. The vocal harmonies are Paul, multitracking himself, and the string quartet was made up of session musicians. In fact, Paul is the only “Beatle” in the song.

Strafe Reviews: The Apple iPad

Note: In the past few weeks, I have entertained at least two personal and one professional inquiry as to what, exactly, the iPad is. In the interest of full disclosure, I feel obligated to let my readers know that I do not now, nor do I ever plan on owning an iPad. Also, in spite of my job and personal interests, this blog is primarily for entertainment purposes and not a platform to promote/condemn products, or influence purchasing decisions. And to that end…

~Strafe Presents~

His humble, called-for, and factual review of the Apple iPad

Have you ever come across a pretzel, or perhaps a Cheerio, floating in an amount of liquid? You may have noticed how, through osmosis, the object becomes bloated, and useless. Now, imagine doing the same thing with an iPhone.

Congratulations. You now understand the iPad.

From http://www.apple.com/ipad, the device is for sale “starting at $499.” Price-wise, that puts it well into the “laptop” range. Or, the “netbook plus a decent non-Apple cell phone” range. Or the “let me build a moderately-impressive desktop computer, including operating system, from scratch, and maybe have enough left over for a cheap printer” range.

And you know you could do with any of the above alternative configurations, that you can’t on a iPad? Multitask.

Yeah, that’s right. If, as you’re reading this, you have music playing in the background, or an email client, or something printing, or even another browser window (and if you got here by means of Facebook or MySpace, odds are you do), you are currently outperforming the iPad. Just to demonstrate how fundamental the concept of multitasking is to the overall concept of the operating system:

Xerox got it.

Above is a picture of the Xerox Alto. Notice that not just the monitor is in black and white… it’s the whole picture. It was taken in 1973. Nixon was president. Star Wars was 4 years away. Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” was about to come out. And that computer is running multiple applications… graphical applications, at once.

You know what else the iPad is missing? USB support. So, as you’re reading this on your multitasking machine, there’s a good chance that there is something plugged into your computer via USB. A mouse, keyboard, printer, modem, flashdrive, camera, personal music player (including an iPod/iPhone).

It is perhaps not surprising that the “U” in “USB” stands for “Universal.” And aptly so. USB 2.0 is fast, reliable, and available on almost all hardware. Including cars. It may not always be the best port for every job, but it’s a pretty good port for most.

Apple may have great Bluetooth and 3G support, and great ability to sync with other Apple products (you do own other Apple products, right?), but when you decide to skimp on support for something non-ironically named universal, the implication is that you’re just creating your own universe.

There is a podcast out there celebrating this very fact.

I haven’t even mentioned things like the ability to play CDs/DVDs, physical keyboards (that don’t cost extra), ability to run Java applets, or, heck, the ability to purchase what would otherwise be a decently-manufactured piece of hardware and put your own software on it.

Ubuntu iPad

This might make me change my mind.

However, according to Apple’s tech spec’s, the iPad boasts at least one feature, the lack of which I have railed against in a previous post: more than one button.

Coming Soon: Site Construction

I’ll be taking this week to (hopefully) customize this site a bit… at least get some info into the “About Me” section. This will probably trump any new posts next week, but fear not! I will be (re)publishing a post From the Archives.

Idiot’s For Dummies: The Certified Imbecile’s Guide to Self-Improvement

The competing (or is it complementary?) “Complete Idiot’s Guide to…” and “… For Dummies” franchises which pollute our bookstores and libraries are the only products of which I am aware that have build their respective fan-bases upon insulting their consumers. I wish I’d though of that; I’ve got to be sitting on some billion-dollar material, and that’s just for friends and loved ones.

Not to necessarily condemn the franchise(s) outright; only their ubiquity, and the celebration of mediocrity they seem to endorse. “Complete Idiot’s” books tend to end every chapter with a summary entitled “The Least You Need to Know?” Is that the goal here?

Where is “The Average Joe’s Guide?” Is that too high-brow? What about “The Handbook for the Shaky Self-Starter?” That seems to neatly sum-up much of the book-buying public. “Tips and Tricks for the Moderately Competent?” Still no takers? Come on people!

Look, if you want a complete idiot’s guide, try reading YouTube comments. I never thought I’d share such a sentiment concerning the public-at-large, but…

…I think you’re smarter than this.

But it’s not about smart. That’s the problem. It’s about creating the impression of being smart. It’s like that scene in The Departed (not that I enjoyed the movie). “Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop?” It seems a good many of us are satisfied appearing to be a cop… or a scholar. That is why, I believe, we seem at peace with the implicit implication while we stand in line to check out/purchase these tomes, we are the idiots, the dummies, the dunces and morons to which the titles refer. These volumes grab our attention from the shelves, and we think “that’s me!” And there seems to be little, if any, challenge that upon completion (or at least adequate thumbing through) of the work, you shall be any less of a dummy, etc.

From The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cinematic Symbolism, by Martin Scorsese

But this is not a just a rant for the sake of itself—I would like to issue a bold statement… and a challenge.

You are most likely not an idiot. If you are, my sincerest apologies, and they have federal programs for that sort of thing. But for the rest of us: dare to be something more. If you must learn something, learn it well. Make it a goal to learn a subject at least one level deeper than you feel would be necessary if you only wanted to “appear” to be knowledgeable. Take note of topics brought up by friends and coworkers on which you know nothing, and set aside some time to learn something* about it. If the above situation simply never happens in your usual social circle, then my challenge is to expand your circle.

A multimedia approach is quite helpful. My non-print starting points are almost invariably
Wikipedia and YouTube, as was the case for my recent Higgs Boson installment. If you have the time and resources to access Facebook (and if you’re reading this, you do), then you are literally seconds a way from a handful of great, cost-free starting points. But don’t stay there. Follow links. And their links. Hopefully you’ll be referred to a book or two. Pick a subject. Learn something. Post it in the comments. I’ll be waiting.

*I just might have to eat those words and learn something about hockey.

Coming Soon: Today I showed (or attempted to show) some rarely-seen optimism towards my peers. Tune in to watch that shatter completely as Strafe reviews the Apple iPad.

The Uncertain Adventures of Higgs Boson, pt. 1

Many of us are at least peripherally familiar with the media-induced controversy surrounding the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The main purpose of this, the largest, most-expensive machine has has ever built, is to detect the Higgs Boson, also known as the “God Particle” (despite the preferences of the scientific community). In Particle Physics, the Higgs Boson is the last holdout—the only elementary particle which has yet to be directly observed. Sounded to me like a good character.

Chapter 1

My name is Higgs Boson. I lead a lonely life.

It wasn’t always this way. There were 5 of us Boson brothers… 6 if you count Graviton, though we were never quite sure about him. He just never seemed to follow the standard model. We played by our own rules; occasionally interacting with the Lepton cousins, and the Quark family (when we had to). For quite awhile things were really going our way. If I had to guess, I’d say it was the first 14 billion years or so… but really, that’s a meaningless figure without an Observer.

It was around that time, when the Observers came, that things started to break down. Electron went first. We warned him about falling in with that Hadron crowd; it was like he was just begging to be noticed. But he was stuck in an orbit he just couldn’t escape. None of us blamed him though. When he was on his own he was just so… negative. Those protons really just balanced him out. I attended mass with them a few times; they were good people. As for the neutrons, I personally had no feelings toward them one way or the other.

Some of us blamed Neutrino. We couldn’t believe it when they found him—he could fly through the earth and not hit a thing. He said there must have been a man on the inside, to be spotted like that. Most of us didn’t believe him.

I did. I think it was the quarks. They always loved the fame… especially Charm. He and Up just couldn’t get enough of it. And when the Observers realized that, not only were they right about the quarks, but they could manipulate them as well, the rest of the Quark cousins went quietly. They went for the Leptons next. Then the Bosons.

It was around this time I decided I needed to take a stand. I’m all for knowledge, and truth, and understanding. But some matters should just be kept private. That’s when we decided to start the Agency. Tauon Neutrino (not to be confused with his two-faced brother) and I set up shop in late 1995, in the wake of Top Quark’s (he was a hell of a drummer!) funeral. Our mission was simple—promote discovery, curiosity, and above all, truth. As long as it threw them off our trail. There’s plenty to learn out there, and I always believed that, if they truly knew why we shouldn’t be found… why the Observers are far, far better off without sharing burden of the secrets I’d carry, they’d be better off not knowing.

In the meantime, I needed a new face. An identity I could show to the public. Tauon would handle the paperwork, the legal bit. Meanwhile, I’d be in the field. I needed a job that would let me get out, take me all over the world, and allow me to influence the who’s-who’s in the various communities. Most importantly, I needed to be easily forgotten. Overlooked. I needed to a position in which people would hesitate to look me in the eye. For awhile it looked hopeless, but then, I found it; the perfect cover for a socially evasive professional with a hidden agenda.

I became an insurance adjuster.

If you’d like to see more of Higgs in action, leave a comment, either here, or on Facebook.

Coming Soon: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dummies

Job Security, or, “The Blindness of Strangers”

For those of you who’ve known me less than 7 minutes, I work tech support. I primarily take inbound calls from users of the proprietary software my firm offers to investors and traders.

We take some weird calls.

Now, much of this is our fault (if you can call it a fault). You see, in much the same way In-N-Out Burger will make almost anything you ask for, including the fabled 100×100 burger, we have developed a reputation of answering pretty much any question you throw at us. Our work cannot be summarized with statements like “to enable that setting in our program, open ‘x’ menu and check ‘y’ item,” and “I see, well, let’s restart the computer and then clear your temporary files.”

We’ve been known to take octogenarians through virus scans, Windows Updates, Service Pack installations, registry edits, and advanced theoretical physics–all on the same call. We’ve done basically everything you can to a computer short of a complete operating system reinstall, and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, at some time, has done that too.

bsod

I can help you with this

Keep in mind, we’re not Dell or HP. We’re a brokerage firm with a strong emphasis on electronic trading. This is like trying to get the cable guy to troubleshoot the trajectory of the satellite that’s delivering his company’s product.

But occasionally, you get a call that’s so far out there, so beautifully awkward, so speechless-rendering, that it must be immortalized in a blog. Calls like:

“You’ve reached [name of firm] tech support, this is Strafe, how can I help you?”
“Yes, could you please give me the number for the Ohio State Medical Board?”
I gave it to him. You can find anything on Google.

[end of call with a Swedish gentleman] “Is there anything else I can do for you, Sir?”
“Yes, vhat’s dee English vord for dee bird, not a svan, but bigger than a duck?”
Turns out it was a goose. By the way, “goose” is a Germanic word, and is essentially the same in English and Swedish.

“Thank you for holding for tech support, how can I help you?”
“Well, you see, I went on a naughty site, and now the CD to let me install my Norton won’t run. And I keep getting these weird messages.”

“I brought my computer into a shop and they say they need to reformat, and I’ll lose all my data. But my golf buddy says you can do (insert tedious lay-descriptions equivalent to that of a plumber trying to describe quadruple bypass surgery) to save it instead. What do you think I should do?”

Once again, BROKERAGE firm. Try to get car maintenance advice from your local bank, because, you know, you had to DRIVE there to talk to them. And while we’re on the subject of misapplied semantics:

“Well, that’s not really a technical question–”
“–yes it is, because [get ready for it] technically he should be able to do it!”
This wasn’t a customer. This was another employee.

“You’ve reached Strafe in tech support, how can I help you?”
“What is Open Office? Should I uninstall it?” [That’s kind of a personal thing for me because I’m using Open Office to type this document].

[the following is a paraphrase of a lengthy conversation]
“So it sounds like you’re on a Mac–”
“No, no, I have an Apple.”
(eye roll)
“I see, well, when was the last time you restarted the computer?”
“Well, it did that when we had a storm last month.”
“OK, well, we’re going to need to at least restart it.”
“What do you mean? I can’t do that! It’s just always… on.”
“Sir, when you bought the computer, it came in a box. It was not plugged in. I promise you it was off then, and had to be turned on. And we can do it again.”
(I swear I heard mental gears grinding at this point)
“I think you’re right!”
To be fair, have you seen an Apple recently? There’s one button, and it’s on the back. I don’t necessarily think Apple users are blithering idiots. But Apple sure does.

Just sit back and relax. The Apple will know what to do.

And finally, an encounter on a outbound call I made to a customer:

“Hi, is Mr. Smith there?”
“No.”
(after several seconds) “OK, may I leave a message?”
(sign) “I guess so.”
“This is Strafe, calling about the issue with [our product]–”
“Oh! This is Mr. Smith!”
Apparently I interrupted one of those three-minute identity crises I’ve heard so much about. Actually, I can see that coming in handy.

Coming soon: The Uncertain Adventures of Higgs Boson, part 1