Category Archives: music

Road trip to Fargo

I turned 50 and, as I had long planned, I set foot in my 50th state, North Dakota, on my 50th birthday. It’s not far from Madison to Fargo, about 7 and a half hours drive, but I was a little intimidated; it’s been a long time since I drove more than four hours in a day, and I had questions about my 2001 Forester, which went from Madison to California and back in its youth but which is now, by some measures, an old car. But I needn’t have worried! Driving long distances, when you have the company of one of your kids, is not so bad. We listened to a lot of podcasts about the new MacBook Pro.

The first day, we didn’t see much; by the time CJ got home from school and we were ready to go, it was almost 4, so we drove through the familiar landscape of western Wisconsin, stopping for Culver’s in the suburban outskirts of Eau Claire, and stopped for the night at a Hampton Inn in Brooklyn Park. (Thanks to Hotel Tonight, the perfect app for road tripping, which allows you to easily book a cheap same-night hotel room when you feel you’ve got about two hours of driving left in you.) Nobody is wearing masks in Brooklyn Park, even though it’s in greater Minneapolis, not the hotel clerk, not the people in the gas station convenience store, nobody. It’s something you notice if you’re used to Madison (and we wore ours inside, without anybody looking at us funny.) The next morning, my birthday morning, we set out into western Minnesota, as the forests started to peter out into prairie. This part of I-94 is the land of pretty lakes, like Lake Osakis (the “sak” here is the same as “Sauk”)

and of unexpected roadside attractions

perhaps most notably the world’s largest prairie chicken, in Rothsay, MN.

All these pictures are by CJ, by the way. He has taken up photography. We got him a camera, an actual camera, which it turns out they still make, on the repeated promise that he would actually use it, and he’s lived up to that. He knows what all the buttons do. More importantly, I think he has a real sense for how things should look in an image. Well, you be the judge. It takes a tough man to shoot a prairie chicken.

We roll across the Red River into Fargo around 1:00. I’m now a fifty-stater, I’ve known for a while it was within reach; two cross country trips with Prof. Dr. Mrs. Q and family trips to Hawaii and Alaska got most of the hard stuff done. Then Jennifer Johnson-Leung of the University of Idaho invited me to give a seminar in Moscow and suddenly I was at 49.

It turns out I’m not the only person to leave North Dakota for last. It’s such a common thing that there’s a club for it. I’m now a member:

Large parts of Fargo look like any other low-density Midwestern sprawlville but there’s an old turn-of-the-century downtown that gives you some sense of what the place was like when it was old and rich. (It reminded me a little bit of J. Anthony Lukas’s book Big Trouble, about what was going on in Idaho — big trouble, in case you didn’t guess — around the time Fargo was being built.) There’s a building with “Kopelman’s” engraved across the top. Really? One of us, in Fargo? Really. The building now houses North Dakota’s only abortion provider. A few years ago they found that the mikveh was still there in the basement, under a concrete slab.

We had lunch with an old Ph.D. student of mine, Rohit Nagpal, with his wife, who’s a doctor there, and their extremely enjoyable two-year-old. The lunch place, BernBaum’s, is a Scandinavian-Jewish fusion deli, and it is good. Not “I’m surprised a place in a small-to-medium city in North Dakota is this good” good — good good. Why don’t Jews put lingonberries on our blintzes? Because we never knew about them, is the only explanation.

We went across the river to Moorhead, MN to see the Hjemkomst Center. So it seems that Norwegian-Americans sometimes become obsessed and build replicas of old Norwegian things. A Moorhead guidance counselor named Robert Asp built an exact replica of a wooden Viking ship. After his death, his kids sailed it from Minnesota to Norway and back. Now it’s in a museum:

A different Norwegian-American, Guy Paulson, built an exact replica of a 12th century wooden church that stands on the southern shore of the Sognefjorden.

OK, not exact; for it to meet US code he had to use nails. “But it would stand up without them,” the guide assures us. Norwegian wooden faces are thick with feeling.

We cross the river and eat schnitzel and spaetzle at a bar where everyone is watching the North Dakota State Bison demolish Indiana State, 44-2, at the FargoDome. Then it’s time to leave Fargo, because we don’t want to have the full distance to drive the last day. The sun goes down over western Minnesota

People on the internet are saying there’s a chance of seeing the Northern Lights, so we parked on the side of a dirt road in a corn field far away from any light and with an unobstructed northern view, and we stood out there freezing for a long time until it was completely dark, but the promised borealic peak never came. CJ got some good Milky Way pictures, at any rate. And we still made it back to the Twin Cities outskirts to sleep.

Sunday morning we went into downtown Minneapolis. CJ wanted to take pictures. We went up to the top of the Foshay Tower, which I’d never heard of.

Foshay was a Minneapolis industrialist who built this huge art deco obeliskical office building in the middle of town, only to lose his shirt in the crash three months after the grand opening. He was eventually convicted of wire fraud (though not before escaping his first trial with a mistrial, the one holdout juror being, it turned out, the wife of one of Foshay’s business associates, undisclosed.) But he remained a popular figure in town and it seems like his full pardon by Truman in 1947 was celebrated rather than questioned.

CJ wanted to see the new football stadium. Really? But guess what, it’s a beaut and I’m glad we walked around it

He got a picture with no people but in fact, even at 10 in the morning, central Minneapolis was already thick with Cowboys fans in full Cowboys paint, gearing up for that night’s game. We walked across the stone arch bridge, picked up some antelope tacos, sweet potatoes, and bison bowls at Owamni, and then drove down to Minnehaha Park because CJ loves taking waterfall pictures.

From there it was a straight drive home, because CJ had Halloween plans with his friends. We listened to Taylor Swift all the way. CJ is a sophomore in high school and when I was that age I was just starting to have Opinions about Records. I didn’t know that CJ had Opinions about Records, but it turns out he does — not vaguely “notice that I am alternative” stuff like the R.E.M. albums I was opining about at 16, but about Taylor Swift. I try to hold back my tendencies to want my kids to value exactly the same things that I do, but I cannot lie, it warms me that CJ has Opinions about Records. I learned a lot about Swift’s progression as a writer and I was even able to sneak in some older songs (“Fire and Rain,” “Linger”) that I felt helped situate Swift within a tradition. Anyway, I kind of knew Taylor Swift was great but I gained new appreciation for a lot of the non-singles, like “Getaway Car.”

We made it back to Madison in time for CJ to meet his friends and for me to greet some of the masses of kids walking for candy; after a year of distanced trick-or-treating, there was a lot of pent-up demand.

There was one more sunset.

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Shape playlist

I made a playlist for Shape, which is coming out in just five days!

All these songs have something to do with geometry or with the book. A few notes:

  • “Shape,” BaLonely — a great band from Spokane, a guy who plays guitar and sings and his mom who plays bass.
  • “Pythagorean Theorem,” The Invisible Cities. A terrific kinda-dormant-now band from San Francisco. The bass player dated somebody I knew a long time ago and one time I ran into the band at the Ferry Terminal Market and they invited me to a party at their apartment where there was a giant whole roasted pig on the table that everybody ate out of with a fork, and I talked to the bass player about how much we both admired the bassline on “Radio Free Europe.”
  • “The True Wheel,” Brian Eno. Sometimes I feel this to be the greatest rock song ever made. The lyric “looking for a certain ratio” appears in Shape as a section title and Eno shows up a few other times too. “Let’s get it understood” might be a kind of motto for math itself. The topologist Benson Farb introduced me to this song.
  • “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” Sylvester. Because James Joseph Sylvester appears several times in the book. Also this song can be read as a commentary on the Platonist view of geometric entities. (Is it for or against?)
  • “Feed The Tree,” Belly. There’s a whole chapter about trees, and a tree on the cover. “I know all this and more.”
  • “The Distance,” Cake. I don’t even like Cake that much but their ridiculous shtick worked perfectly this one time. The idea that you have to pay attention to what you mean by “distance” is central to Shape.
  • “Circles,” Post Malone. Once you know what distance is you know what a circle is.
  • “The Globe,” Big Audio Dynamite II. And you also know what a sphere is, and what a ball is. (“gonna have a ball tonight / down at the Globe.” “Axis spins so round and round we go” might have something to do with the quaternions.
  • “Headache,” Frank Black. A lot of this song is somehow about the book. Starts out “This wrinkle in time, I can’t give it no credit / I thought about my space and it really got me down,” goes on to “I was counting the trees” as if he’s about to invoke Kirchhoff’s theorem.
  • “Spiraling Shape,” They Might Be Giants. Unsurprisingly a band that has a lot of geometry songs (like the one about Triangle Man) but this is the one that’s specifically about a shape.
  • “Diagonals,” Stereolab. From an album called Dots and Loops.
  • “Circle,” Miles Davis. Starting a run of shapes in the plane.
  • “Triangles & Rhombuses,” Boards of Canada. More shapes in the plane.
  • “Meet Me In St. Louis,” Judy Garland. Written for the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, where a lot of action in the book takes place, and where Ronald Ross, Ludwig Boltzmann, and Henri Poincare all speak (but don’t all meet.)
  • “Perfect Circle,” R.E.M. More shapes in the plane. “A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends” seems to refer to the social networks I talk about in chapter 13.
  • “Shape of Somethings,” Moving Targets. A little punk rock right before the end of a playlist cleanses the palate.
  • “Once In a Lifetime,” Talking Heads. Co-written by Eno. Quoted in the book as a depiction of gradient descent. I listened to Stop Making Sense pretty much non-stop during the training program for Math Olympiad in 1987 and it still feels joyously like math to me. Maybe only me.

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Pandemic blog 46: the end (not actually the end)

I’ve tried to make every blog entry since March be about the pandemic, but at some point one must blog more broadly. A change of number on the calendar is as good a time as any to declare an end; so this will be the last marked-as-such pandemic post, though probably not the last post about the pandemic, since while 2020 is over, the pandemic is not.

To 2020, let us say

And of course, what I listen to every New Year’s Eve: with the greatest performance of “Auld Lang Syne” there is, here’s Snail Ramp:

Happy New Year to all!

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Pandemic blog 32: writing

Taylor Swift surprised everyone by releasing a surprise new album, which she wrote and recorded entirely during the quarantine. My favorite song on it is the poignant “Invisible String”

which has an agreeable Penguin Cafe Orchestra vibe, see e.g.

(The one thing about “Invisible String” is that people seem to universally read it as a song about how great it is to finally have found true love, but people, if you say

And isn’t it just so pretty to think
All along there was some
Invisible string
Tying you to me?

you are (following Hemingway at the end of The Sun Also Rises) saying it would be lovely to think there was some kind of karmic force-bond tying you and your loved one together, but that, despite what’s pretty, there isn’t, and you fly apart.)

Anyway, I too, like my fellow writer Taylor Swift, have been working surprisingly fast during this period of enforced at-homeness. Even with the kids here all the time, not going anywhere is somehow good writing practice. And this book I’m writing, the one that’s coming out next spring, is now almost done. I’m somewhat tetchy about saying too much before the book really exist, but it’s called Shape, there is a lot of different stuff in it, and I hope you’ll like it.

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When the coffee cup shattered on the kitchen floor

As an eternal 1990s indie-pop nerd I could not but be thrilled this week when I realized I was going to Bristol

on the National Express.

Bristol, besides having lots of great mathematicians to talk to, is much lovelier than I knew. There’s lots of terrain! It seems every time you turn a corner there’s another fine vista of pastel-painted row houses and the green English hills far away. There’s a famous bridge. I walked across it, then sat on a bench at the other side doing some math, in the hopes I’d think of something really good, because I’ve always wanted to scratch some math on a British bridge, William Rowan Hamilton-style. Didn’t happen. There was a bus strike in Bristol for civil rights because the bus companies didn’t allow black or Indian drivers; the bus lines gave in to the strikers and integrated on the same day Martin Luther King, Jr. was saying “I have a dream” in Washington, DC. There’s a chain of tea shops in Bristol called Boston Tea Party. I think it’s slightly weird to have a commercial operation named after an anti-colonial uprising against your own country, but my colleagues said no one there really thinks of it that way. The University of Bristol, by the way, is sort of the Duke of the UK, in that it was founded by a limitless bequest from the biggest tobacco family in the country, the Willses. Bristol also has this clock:

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Balonely, “Stories”

Oh and while we’re talking yelpy indie from outside the coastal capitals, I don’t think I mentioned how much I’m into “Stories,” by Spokane band Balonely:

 

The band is the guy you see playing guitar and his mom, who plays bass (seen in the video emerging from behind the bar.)  It totally seems reasonable to ask “how can young people playing electric guitar and singing about Stuff In Their Life still be interesting after all these years” but I’m still interested!  I love the way this kid duckwalks.  I love the way he lays out “Okay.  Uh huh” like a young Jonathan Richman.  I love the way he delivers “You know what they say, they say…”  Here’s Balonely on Bandcamp.  Whole record is good.  Hear also:  “Shape.”

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Quad Cities (The Multiple Cat, pizza)

Once I bought a used CD because the name of the band was The Multiple Cat and the name of the album was “Territory” Shall Mean The Universe and just how could you not?  I was rewarded.  The Multiple Cat was a 1990s band in the Quad Cities (Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, Rock Island and Moline in Illinois, headquarters of John Deere and hometown of Lara Flynn Boyle.)  I’ve never been there but I have listened to this album a lot. It is not quite as philosophical as the name of the band (Schroedinger?) and the name of the album (Wittgenstein?) suggest.  But very richly weird.  My top track:  North? which starts out as a kind of burbly, groovy chat-song and then about two and a half minutes in blossoms out into, I don’t know what, major-key chippy synths start to poke in, there’s a vocal line (“Saaaaay to me”) which I think must be sampled, it becomes majestic.  Hear also: My Year As a Girl, which is not about trans stuff as far as I can tell, but is, whatever it’s about, a real indie-disco stomper from years before Franz Ferdinand was everywhere.

Anyway, The Multiple Cat faded out and songwriter Pat Stolley got involved running Daytrotter.  But now it turns out they’re back!  Have been for a few years.  Their comeback record is called The Return Of.  Not The Return of the Multiple Cat, that would be too obvious, just The Return Of.  Highlight track:  “Vampire Bats, Mall Rats.”

In other Quad Cities news, their microregional pizza sounds pretty great.  On the other hand, the last microregional pizza I made a point of investigating, Old Forge pizza in Northeastern Pennsylvania, didn’t blow me away.

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Ringo Starr rebukes the Stoics

I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius and he keeps returning to the theme that one must live “according to one’s nature” in order to live a good life.  He really believes in nature.  In fact, he reasons as follows:  nature wouldn’t cause bad things to happen to the virtuous as well as the wicked, and we see that both the virtuous and the wicked often die young, so early death must not be a bad thing.

Apparently this focus on doing what is according to one’s nature is a standard feature of Stoic philosophy.  It makes me think of this song, one of the few times the Beatles let Ringo sing.  It’s not even a Beatles original; it’s a cover of a Buck Owens hit from a couple of years previously.  Released as a B-side to “Yesterday” and then on the Help! LP.

Ringo has a different view on the virtues of acting according to one’s nature:

They’re gonna put me in the movies
They’re gonna make a big star out of me
We’ll make a film about a man that’s sad and lonely
And all I gotta do is act naturally
Well, I’ll bet you I’m a-gonna be a big star
Might win an Oscar you can’t never tell
The movie’s gonna make me a big star,
‘Cause I can play the part so well
Well, I hope you come and see me in the movie
Then I’ll know that you will plainly see
The biggest fool that’s ever hit the big time
And all I gotta do is act naturally

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dBs, Dentists

Two songs that seem very much of a common kind, though I find it hard to articulate exactly why. Maybe the high, incredibly clear vocals. Maybe that they’re songs about love that aren’t about pleasure.

The dBs, “Black and White”

The Dentists, “Charms and the Girl”

The Dentists song was one of those lost songs for me for years, something I’d heard on a mixtape some WHRB friend had made — all I remembered was that opening, the note repeated again and again, then the four-note circle, then the notes repeated, then the four-note circle, then the tenor vocal coming in: “I have heard / a hundred reasons why…” When I finally found it again, thanks to tech magnate and indie-pop culture hero Kardyhm Kelly, it was just as great as I’d remembered.  It’s not on Spotify.  Is that what we define as “obscure” these days?

Sinking Ships — The Cinema Clock

This post is to remind myself of this great 1980 release from a band that apparently nobody knows anything about.  I like the way it starts out like a Joy Division rip and then gets much bigger and more interesting (not more interesting than Joy Division, more interesting than a Joy Division rip.)

 

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