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Belize!

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I went to Belize!  This was a trip for Tara's dad's birthday.

This was my first international trip in almost 10 years, since I went to Eastern Europe in 2007, not counting Puerto Rico last year.  That kinda blows my mind, as I had no idea it had been so long, and I certainly hope it won't be that long until our next international trip.  (Scotland?  Istanbul?  Paris?  Morocco?)  We split our time between the interior of the country, which was the rainforest, and the Cayes along the barrier reef.

I had been to a rainforest in Puerto Rico, but that was only briefly, and this was my first major experience with it.  I was surprised at how familiar it felt.  Sure, I didn't see the usual ashes and elms and oaks that I'm familiar with from our forests here in Minnesota, but it's still hiking through lush vegetation with the possibility of seeing some wildlife.  Even the negatives of heat, humidity, and bugs felt very familiar -- just walk through Itasca in July, and it feels about the same, with different sceneray.

The highlight of the trip for me was our one-day trip to Tikal, in Guatemala.  The scale of it is unlike any other ruin I've seen.  History of comparable size and age is easy to extrapolate from areas that are still inhabited, such as Edinbugh, Budapest, or Krakow.  Similarly, there are a few ruins that are minor bivouacs or outposts left over from an early era, and seem quiantly small, like the Roman baths of Bath, or the Tibes ruins of Puerto Rico, or our own little Lakota war bivouac at Fort Ridgely here in Minnesota.  Even Mesa Verde, which is impressive in its own right, didn't compare in scope.  Tikal is HUGE and completely abandoned.

It's cliche to say about a ruin, but it is very humbling.  Just seeing the scope of the place is amazing, and they've dug up only a small fraction of it.  It stretches for miles in every direction, and nobody lives here anymore.  This was the heart of a hugely powerful civilization, the political focus point of a region, and it's completely empty now.  We know very little about it, thanks to time and with a significant assist from the Spanish colonial book-burning and cultural eradication program.  A lot of people who lived here, people who were the most progressive and powerful people of the known world, and it's all gone, with little but some poorly-understood constructions to show for it.  It's not hard to draw a line from them to us.  New York or Washington or Minneapolis could be a ruin someday.

The second part of the trip was out on an island, South Water Caye.  To call it an island is almost misleading, as it's really a glorified sandbar, less than half a mile long, and maybe a couple hundred feet across.  It sounds limiting, and it is.  But, it doesn't take long to realize that limiting also means liberating.  There's very little to do here, and the staff takes care of any creature comforts you need, as long as they have it on the island.  There was no itinerary, and nothing to make into one if I had wanted to.  It forced me to really look at where I was, and enjoy time passing.  It's a luxury that our society doesn't take time to appreciate much.  It was certainly a new feeling for me.

I'd love to go back, or even move to Belize.  Maybe after L.A.  :)

July 15th, 1983

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On July 15th and 16th of this year, my girlfriend, Tara King, presented a show.  The idea was simple.  She turned 30 this year, and for her birthday, she wanted to present 30 different dances by 30 different choreographers to the 30 top-charting singles from July 15th of every year from 1983 to the present

It was nothing short of superlative.  It took me about a week of reminating and discussing it with so many people to realize that it wasn't just me who thought it was exceptional.  I realize now that it is the best dance show I've seen, EVER.  EVER EVER EVER.  "I'm going to gush like a teenager" is the pattern for the rest of this entry, so get used to it.

I'm going to break one of my personal rules by writing about a show that was created by people I know personally, but this show was so amazing that I need a way to try my best to immortalize it in some small way.  In light of recent studies that suggest that audience memory of modern dance tends to fade extremely quickly, I want to preserve my memories of this incredibly transcendant show in any way possible. 

Full disclosure: I am biased, not only by the fact that this show is my girlfriend's pet project, and because some of my friends performed, but also because I contributed a small part of the evening by being in one dance.  More on that later.

 

The Prep

A gigantic amount of work went into this show.  Three hour shows don't just happen, of course, no matter how spontaneous and fleeting dance sometimes seems.  Not only did the dancers spend a ton of time putting it all together, but Tara and the BLB staff including Kristin Van Loon and Brian Gunsch put in a lot of planning for the show.  My conservative estimate puts upwards of 400 hours into this project.  Perhaps that's typical for a dance, but that's a shit ton of work, and it shows.

This show worked because Tara has built up some amazing connections in the dance community.  She put out the call for choreographers to roughly 60 people, and half of those people responded.  I'm sure some of the incredible response was the distributed and comparatively low stress nature of the bite-sized performances, but it still speaks incredibly about Tara's ability to make friends who will pitch in when Tara makes a request.

 

Sometimes, the Magic of Showbiz is Real

There were so many things that turned out to be perfect about the show, just by chance.  Some of this must be selection bias, and some must be simply favorable interpretation in light of the greater show, but many things about the dance seem almost fated.

Case: Maren Ward's piece on mourning and memory just so happened to follow Emily Johnson's amazing nostalgic dance about Tara's past.  Maren's piece could have followed Theresa Madaus's burlesque nun routine, or Sudha Setty and Ben Ficek's can-you-believe-this-crazy-video Duran Duran sendup, but it just so happened that it followed the one dance in the whole show which put the audience in the perfect mood for sentimentality.

Case: The music described an excellent arc, almost as if a DJ custom crafted it.  The progression was perfect, starting with rock ballads of the 80s, migrating through to east coast dance in the early 90s to soulful R&B around the millenium, and finally culminating with full-blown club dance mixes by the time the show ended.

Case: The air conditioning in the theater was broken, or turned off, or otherwise inadequate, but it worked with the show instead of against it.  The show's backbone is summer blockbuster music, in the heart of summer vacation, and uncomfortable atmosphere turned somehow into an asset, with the turgid humidity of a club.

 

The Show

Here's my completely inadequate summary of each dance.  This is chronicle, not criticism.

1983 - Tom Carlson - Every Breath You Take by The Police

Tom starts off with the perfect prologue, with trumpet playing over the music track, dressed in a straight-outta-Miami-Vice outfit: hawaiian shirt, bermuda shorts and sandals, bright orange baseball cap, gigantic gold marijana leaf chain and mirrored aviators.  He then addresses the overwhelming creepiness of the song by cutting off the music and just reciting the oh-so-awkward chorus about watching every move you make.  Finally, he leads the crowd in a rendition of Happy Birthday.  You can't ask for a much better way to set the stage -- this show's going to be about the music and about Tara's birthday.

1984 - Sally Rousse with Galen Treuer - When Doves Cry by Prince

Sally enters with glittery purple cape over a full tuxedo.  As she turns around, she reveals slicked back hair and pencil-thin mustache -- this must be classic Prince costume, right.  But it turns out this is just a riff on the look -- she's actually reveals herself to be a magician, including wand, top hat, and assistant, played in this case by Galen Treuer as a cigarette-smoking unicorn.  Here's the first dance piece of the evening, fittingly performative and bombastic.

1985 - Sudha Setty and Ben Ficek - A View to a Kill by Duran Duran

I'm told that the Bond movie that this song was made for is terrible, and it's terribleness must be eclipsed only by the earnestness of the song, which in turn is ecliped only by the weirdness of the video.  Rather than try to fight with the song or video, Sudha and Ben work with it and winkingly text-paint the lyrics or the verses in their chairs. And when the chorus comes on, it's classic wedding dance move time!  The lawnmower, the sprinkler, the macarena, the vogue, and many other dances that all start with "the" all make appearances.  If James Bond ever dances, I'm sure none of the controllers of the franchise would ever let him do moves like this, which just makes the sendup even better.

1986 - Charles Campbell - Invisible Touch by Genesis

Charles creates a dance that opens in complete darkness, and he turns on one one bike light on his head when the music starts, and starts covering and uncovering the light, offering us nothing more than the briefest glimpse of his face.  Then, as the music kicks in, the light starts moving and we lose the face.  One light becomes two, and then three, one in each of his hands.  At this point, movement begins in earnest along one horizontal plane.  The lights seem to exist on their own, modern bike fireflies.  The dance is simple and straightforward, but magical in its effect nonetheless.  It's the kind of dance that makes me wish that I had thought of it.  Apparently Charles' first thought when he was assigned Invisible Touch was the time lapse photos of Picasso painting with light, and this dance is the result. 

1987 - Chris Schlichting - Alone by Heart 

The curtain opens to Chris behind a piano, with the keys hidden from our view as the audience.  Then, he leans over the piano, and cue the music, which of course is 80s style synth and is only mildly reminiscent of a real piano.  Still, Chris' straight face pulls it off, and it gets a great laugh from the audience, as does the follow up gag as Chris leans into the microphone several times as if he's about to sing, only to have the intro loop back.  And eventually he just gives up the pretense of singing and wanders out from behind the piano to reveal that he's wearing nothing below his shirt but a sparkly gold pair of hotpants.  And finally, to up the ante, he opens the back door to the BLB stage as the chorus bursts in.  (The BLB is unique for a lot of reasons, one of which is that the back wall of the stage has a door that opens directly to the street.)  As the light from the long summer night pours in, we the audience see reactions from the audience, which become the real show.  People react in all kinds of ways to a man dancing on the sidewalk in hot pants, and all of them are entertaining.  In one of the show's perfect coincidences, Charles' exercise in minimalist light was a natural lead-in to Chris' celebration of long summer days and the juxtaposition of bright outdoor light with the dark of the theater.

1988 - Laurie Van Wieren - The Flame by Cheap Trick

The curtain is closed, and a spot goes up as a cell phone comes through the curtain, playing the song very quietly.  The phone is held by a hand that stops coming out from the curtain once we see a wrist.  Then the music kicks in over the loudspeaker, and we suddently see Laurie's face appear through the curtain, concealed so that it is almost as if the face is coming out of liquid.  Laurie's disembodied face then begins looking extremely soulfully at the audience, directly into the eyes of nearby audience members, on the verge of tears.  The face and hand recede into the curtain as the music fades out.  Nothing like a little bit of soulful eye contact to accompany the last of the 80s rock ballads in this show.

1989 - Max Wirsing - If You Don't Know My by Now by Simply Red

I barely see this one, as I am starting to prepare for my own dance.  Pieced together later from the little I see and hear later, Max practices pirouettes repeatedly.  Pirouettes are notoriously difficult, and Max struggles, I think because is is having difficulty and not because he's playacting, though he's experienced enough that it's possible he does in fact know how to do a perfect pirouette.  To help him with his technique, he recruits the dance experts of Minneapolis, represented in this case by all of those present who had won the most prestigious Minneapolis dance grant, the McKnight Fellowship.  Of course, many of these artists have little to no background in ballet, so the advice runs from technical tips ("Center your weight") to inane ("Take your shirt off.").  The seeming futility of repetition provides the new take on the song.  The pirouette: "If you don't know me by now, you will never ever really know me."

1990 - Huck and Buck Wilde - She Ain't Worth It by Glenn Medeiros feat. Bobby Brown

This one I saw even less than Max's, as it directly preceded mine and I had to stay backstage to be ready for my entrance.  I saw hammer pants, and heard tell of corn and butter.  I eagerly await the video, because I heard a lot of great stuff about this one.

1991 - Paul Schulzetenberg with Trista King and Jim King - Unbelievable by EMF

First, I want to acknowledge that this was all Trista and Jim's idea.  Trista and Jim are Tara's sister and father respectively.  I certainly did my fair share to put the dance together, but they helped a ton, and her mother and stepmother all pitched in as well.

This was a vanity dance created especially for Tara.  She's one of the three members of Mad King Thomas, a superstar dance trio here in Minneapolis who collectively convinced me that dance is something I should pay attention to.  This dance is a very brief version of MKT's biggest hits, something which we prepared by doing a bunch of research and borrowing a bunch of props.  We hit a lot of MKT's most popular tropes, including cardboard hearts, sendups of high art, bicycles, and polar bears doing Beyonce.  I can't speak objectively about the quality, but the audience seems to like it, and more importantly, Tara is thrilled.

1992 - Angharad Davies - Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-A-Lot

What do you do with a song that is one of the most enduring pop culture pieces of the last 25 years?  Why, you play off the obsession with the female figure by putting an 8 1/2 month's pregnant woman up there, and she knocks it dead.  This is another piece I saw only the barest snippets of, but again, reaction was extremely positive.

1993 - Anna Marie Shogren - Weak by SVW

Anna, a Minneapolis dancer who has since moved to New York, was able to be there through a video submission.  She created a video for the song, part site-specific dance, part literal examination of what being "weak in the knees" looks, feels, and, most importantly, dances like.  This one you can see in all of its glory online.

1994 - Galen Treuer - I Swear by All-4-One

Galen goes to the source for this one, bypassing the #1 hit by the R&B group, and going instead to the country version that John Michael Montgomery came out with first.  He comes out in some Cowboy Boots, Wranglers, and a silk shirt with a western cowboy print on it, and just stands there while Evy Muench looks up adoringly.  Galen occupies the song by staring with intense manly feeling at something in the middle distance for the first minute or so, before changing it up and... shifting his weight to the other leg.  The song segues into The All-4-One version briefly while Evy produces a pair of scissors, which she immediatly uses to begin cutting up the leg of the jeans, eventually getting to the pocket, which turns out to be filled with glitter, which explodes everywhere, including all over Evy's face, which, when combined with her position on her knees in front of Galen, is reminiscent of nothing so much as a glitter cumshot.  MKT would be proud. This is the second time in the night we see notable facial expression as major focus of dance, a theme earlier examined in Laurie Van Wieren's piece.

1995 - Evy Muench - Waterfalls by TLC

Evy stays on stage for her own piece, a solo which follows the form of the music.  When the music goes into a chorus, Evy goes into a chorus, when the music does a verse, Evy does something slightly different, but thematically similar to the rest of her dancing.  It's a particularly good choice with this song, which in many ways rides on its almost hypnotic lyrics to tie its diverse verses together.  It's not a dance idea you see commonly applied outside of broadway musicals, and it's worth watching to see such a traditional idea juxtaposed with modern movement.

1996 - Emily Johnson - How Do You Want it/California Love by 2Pac

This is the only dual single on this list, though it's pretty clear that the reason it made it to the top is because of California Love.  Emily makes it intensely personal for Tara, by spinning a magical web of Tara's life.  Some of the stuff is true, some of it is straight fiction, but it interweaves to create a magical tableau.  And, in the middle, there's a surprise shot of tequila for Tara, and a bunch of Reddi whip on a plate for all to share.  This dance hits Tara pretty hard, as she's sitting there with her family and already has lots of connections to New Mexico, and the dance runs heavy on both.

1997 - Maren Ward - I'll Be Missing You by Puff Daddy & Faith Evans feat. 112

Maren perfectly dovetails with the contemplative mood that Emily put us in by doing a straight up tribute.  Maren pulls off a somewhat maudlin song by embracing the feeling wholeheartedly.  There's no irony, no winking at the audience, just an intensely convincing and personal display of emotion, dealing with grief and what it means to be left behind when our loved ones have left us.

1998 - HIJACK - The Boy Is Mine by Brandy and Monica

It's downright funny to hear HIJACK tackle such a heteronormative song.  They both embrace and mock the song by robotically repeating "The boy is mine" in time to the music, but entirely divorced from both emotion and without any regard to things like choruses.  They do this while dancing around a quadrant of chairs and barstools, all while keeping their eye firmly locked on one another.  Eventually, they dispense with pretense and veer into the absurd by changing the chant to "The chair is mine."  It's classic HIJACK -- repetitive and compelling.

1999 - Emily Gastineu - Bills, Bills, Bills by Destiny's Child

Emily comes out dressed like a 50s housewife in polka dot dress, with antiquated polished steel toaster and a couple slices of bread.  She goes to the video for her inspiration for this one, taking the mostly throwaway dance moves at the end of the original videos and structuring the entirety of the dance around them.  Throw in a very angry bread-eating and then bread-stomping demonstration for good measure, and you get an interesting reexamination of the power structure behind money and what it means to be female in a relationship.

2000 - Jim Lieberthal - Everything You Want by Vertical Horizon

Jim brings it back to the personal by focusing on Tara, and what it means to have a monument birthday, telling the story of the birthday boat.  The birthday boat, is a metaphor in this case for time, and how it passes by and we mark it by monuments that approach, coexist with us briefly, and then recede.  He then segues into the song, but tweaks it by replacing the lyrics to the chorus so that it becomes "Your birthday's what you want/ Your birthday's what you need" etc.  Finally, he pulls off his shirt to reveal a black leotard with flames, and tells Tara that no matter what happens, she's still hot.

2001 - Ashleigh Penrod - U Remind Me by Usher

Ashleigh starts with the music video.  Usher's not an easy dancer to imitate, but Ashleigh does a pretty good Usher impression.  In some ways, this is a lot like a good drag act -- there's an aspect of simulation here, but it lives and dies on the strength of its performer.  Ashleigh pulls it off.  This is one of the songs that I didn't really know that I fell in love with from this show, and a large part of that is Ashleigh's dance.

2002 - Judith Howard - Hot in Herre by Nelly

Back to Tara's past.  Judith digs out a piece that Tara choreographed waaaaay back in college, and uses it as a riff to delve into her famous closet and pull out a Carmen Miranda hat, wicked boots, and some incredible skirt.  Judith shimmies, slides, and jerks her way through an aesthetic that I remember well from when I first met Tara in college.  An excellent tribute.

2003 - Megan Mayer - Crazy in Love by Beyonce feat. Jay-Z

Mayer comes out dressed as John McEnroe, complete with all white outfit, wooden tennis racket, towel and waterbottle, and sporting the wonderful afro-with-headband look that defined McEnroe's playing career.  Then, to complement the song, a video starts playing of a Bjorn Borg lookalike, and McEnroe/Mayer starts a classic McEnroe freakout, complete with towel-throwing, shouting, and thrashing.  It's a neat spin on the pop love song, reimagined as famous sports rivalry.

2004 - Paige Collette - Burn by Usher

Paige comes out in a Sunday dress, wig, and pearls.  The curtain opens with a table on stage, and she begins addressing the crowd directly and making food, a la a cooking show.  However, it becomes quickly apparent that this is a mockery of cooking shows, as the cookies prove to be from a tube, and Paige comes to the theme of the song, and it becomes first about burning cookies, and then about vaginal discomfort a.k.a. burning.  This then begins an odyssey of a striptease, characterized by not smoothness and sensuality, but anger, thrashing, discomfort, and tearing of clothes.  The moment that had everybody talking afterwards was not when the pasty fell off, but rather when the cover up used as a replacement was... cookie dough. 

2005 - Melissa Birch - We Belong Together by Mariah Carey

Melissa Birch comes out, takes the mike stand, and gives an absolutely fantastic a capella rendition of Mariah Carey, complete with incredible range.  This takes incredible talent and bravery, and I, as a former singer, was quite impressed.

2006 - Supergroup - Promiscuous by Nelly Furtado feat. Timbaland

According to Supergroup after the show, none of them particularly liked this song, so they decided to find a different version: a smooth jazz version.  And what do you get when you smooth jazzify a song called promiscuous girl.  Why, you set the song in a nursing home and have three lead characters slowly eat jello and make out every time a chorus rolls around.  This is another sendup of pop music, and another one of those "why didn't anybody do this before?" moments that's so simple and so, so perfect.

2007 - Monica Thomas - Umbrella by Rihanna feat. Jay-Z

Monica comes out in a skimpy dress and cavorts a bit, and then it's on to reveal an umbrella, in an homage to the original music video.  And what do you do to top the video in a live setting?  Why, you go into the audience and you take their water, splash it everywhere, and basically make everybody think that music videos are for the weak, because real dancers do it live.  Excellent spotlighting in this piece sets the water off perfectly, as Monica is silouetted and the water that she steals from the audience sparkles as it is sprayed around.

2008 - Theresa Madaus - I Kissed a Girl by Katy Perry

We're well into the burlesque section of the night, appropriate as the #1 hits begin getting more and more club driven.  Theresa references both her own Catholic upbringing and her adult life as she plays a nun who just so happens to have kissed a girl and liked it.  A rosary gets eaten, Jesus is referenced as her boyfriend and at the end it's all down to some shiny gold tape and hotpants.  Just the way burlesque was designed to be.

2009 - Laura Holway - I Gotta Feeling by Black Eyed Peas

Everybody has those Saturday nights where they feel really depressed as they sit in their apartment and waste away the evening wishing that they had some reason to get out.  Holway takes the song as an exhortation, in addition to its anthemic roots.  It becomes the catalyst for her to break out of the implications of her bathrobe costume, stop eating cheetos, start dancing around, and get a whole crowd up on stage dancing and cavorting and asserting that yes, tonight's gonna to be a good good night.

2010 - Nick Lemere - California Gurls by Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg

Back to burlesque.  Did I mention the songs are all dance classics at this point?  Nick comes out in a bikini top and shorts and does a routine that simultaneously sends up Katy Perry and explores the space of the BLB.  Particularly great is the expression that Nick manages to wear the whole time, a look that says that his character is trying to be mysterious but kind of looks a bit vacant instead.  If that's not enough to say "Yo, this is Katy Perry," at the end you get beach balls attached to a bra, just in case you missed her allure.

2011 - Taja Will - Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO

This was a truly incredible moment, especially on the second night.  It just happened that Tara's uncle Bill had passed away the previous night after a long battle with cancer.  Tara gave a short, emotional speech about him, and then put Taja in a very difficult place by giving her the crown.  Taja, then, whips out an interactive Tai Chi dance.  Because, you know, what else are you going to do with this already painfully self-aware song?  Why, you fight it with earnestness!  On the second night, it was a great way to pay tribute to Bill, to the night that we were having, and to Tara. 

2012 - Trista King - Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen

Trista wanted the last dance of the evening.  She brings the show back to the beginning by coming back to Tara's childhood.  She dances in a bunch of Tara's old competition dance outfits with moves straight out of competition dancing, and pictures of wee little Tara on the projector.  At the end it turns into a group dance as everybody gets on stage and then dances around a bit before the show ends triumphantly.

 

There's a lot of reasons this show was incredible.  It got a lot of dancers to go outside of their usual styles in a way that encouraged some very fresh ideas.  There just so happened to be a really neat arc of songs and dance that started with contemplative and light 80s pop rock and ended with bombastic 2000s dance club hits.  There was an obvious personal investment, as I had a lot relying on this show.  But more than anything else, it was the people that made it, all giving their time and effort to put together a once-in-a-lifetime dance show that really, truly, is better than any other dance show I've ever seen.  

This is, by far, the easiest 10 star rating I've given on this blog.  Way to go, Tara.

star star star star star star star star star star

DrupalCon Portland 2013: A Big Sloppy Love Letter to Drupal

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I went to Portland for my third DrupalCon this year, having previously been to Chicago 2011 and Denver 2012.  They continue to get better every year.  This was the convention for Drupal 8 hype, something which I wholeheartedly buy into (just as Drupal 7 was worlds better than 6, and 6 was better than 5).

But I don't want to write a convention recap.  Rather, I want to take a moment to discuss the touchy-feely side of why I use Drupal.

I don't use Drupal for its technical side, or rather I do, but that's not the reason that I love it.  Drupal does have some amazing technical pieces -- the module system is insanely flexible, and allows it to scale up from very small mom-and-pop business sites all the way up to sites like whitehouse.gov.  It's also amazing how much stuff is prebuilt by the community.  Odds are, if I want to do it, somebody already has, and it's only a matter of configuring it to get it to work for me.

I stick with Drupal for the community.  I don't mean I have tons of friends there, but rather that the community's values align with mine, both professionally and personally.

1. Drupal is open source.  Not only does this mean the software is Free as in Beer, this means that the community generally aligns with my philosophy regarding software design.  Software is better with more people, as more people mean more ideas, and better code.

2. Drupal is accessible.  It's possible to go up and talk to Dries, the founder of Drupal, at DrupalCon.  Just wander up there!  Say hi!  Other big name Drupal developers I've seen are the same.  I've never had a developer refuse to talk to me, no matter how big they are in the Drupal world.

3. Drupal is modest.  Just because Dries founded the software doesn't mean that he pretends to know all of it.  He's freely willing to admit that he doesn't know everything and that's okay.  Somebody else will know it, because that's how open source development works.  At the code sprint, Dries committed some code to Drupal 8 for demonstration purposes, and when talking about some version control flags, he said something to the effect of "I don't know exactly why I do this, I only know that if I don't do it, everybody will get angry with me."  That's a level of modesty and dependency on other people's work that a lot of developers are way too insecure to admit.

4. Drupal is inclusive.  There's a strong ideal in the Drupal community, one that says everybody should be able to engage with Drupal.  And this doesn't mean just young, white, straight men, as is the frustrating culture of startups and Silicon Valley.  No, this means everybody.  Not that Drupal is a perfect multi-culti software paradise, but I feel that there's an understanding of the problem and an interest and willingness to break boundaries that is missing in many tech communities.  This is the same Drupal community that called out Michael Lopp's use of the computer-dumb mom as the lazy stereotype it is, and devoted one of the very first sessions of its biggest conference to how we can increase diversity in our community, just so we'll have that idea in the forefront of our mind as we go through the rest of the conference.

5. Drupal is not for-profit.  There's a huge number of non-profits, educational, and government institutions that have used Drupal.  They, in large part, are willing to give back to the community, and adopt a worldview that is not profit-maximizing.  This is a big deal in a wider tech culture that is largely focused on economic exploitation.  I'm not anti-business, and neither is Drupal, but I get tired of things being constantly framed in monetary terms, as if life was just a giant zero-sum game.

That's it.  Those are the reasons I use Drupal.  I love it.  Come join us!  If you are local, come to DrupalCamp Twin Cities.  If you're not, check out drupal.org or just contact me.

A Rebuttal to Michael Lopp's "The Engineer, the Designer, and the Dictator"

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I just got back from DrupalCon Portland. I loved it, as I've loved every DrupalCon that I've had the good fortune of attending.

This year, as with every year, there were a couple of keynotes by big-name speakers outside of the Drupal community. This year, the speakers were Karen McGrane, who was great, and Michael Lopp (aka Rands) who was... definitely somebody who spoke at this conference.

From what I saw on Twitter and heard throughout the conference, I'm not the only Drupalista who was less than thrilled. But I also heard some attendees express that they felt that he had good ideas, and that we as a community should pay attention to them.  To that I say: What good ideas?

Briefly, Lopp's thesis states that there needs to be somebody in three different roles in order for any project to be a success, and these three roles are the titular engineer, designer, and dictator. The engineer brings order and solves problems, the designer humanizes the project, and the dictator provides vision and keeps the project on track.

The talk itself contains a lot of misleading rhetorical tricks and sloppy stereotyping, but I want to focus on what bothered me the most: the third role, the Dictator. The Dictator is the person who imparts vision to a project, gives it coherent direction, and basically makes sure that all parts of the project stay focused on basic goals. It's not hard to draw a line between this fictionalized role and the role of the CEO in the business world. Lopp himself does this. Bill Gates, he says, was a dictator. Steve Jobs was a dictator. I can follow Lopp this far. Those two were extremely visible CEOs of companies that came out with revolutionary products.

But Lopp also provides a bunch of counterexamples. He comes up with a bunch of companies and CEOs which he claims don't have dictators. Following Lopp's own logic, these are the companies that don't have successful products, because they don't have dictators.

Steve Ballmer's Microsoft is first up.  Since Bill Gates left Microsoft, everybody's favorite evil empire has gotten significantly less sexy, but they continue to put out solid numbers and good products.   Windows 7 was a critical and sales success, and Windows 8 has even jumpstarted a graphic design trend. Even Lopp himself allows that the Xbox was a good product, though he handwaves that away by saying that there must be a Dictator somewhere else in Microsoft which sounds an awful lot like affirming the consequent to me.

Oracle, IBM, and HP are next for non-dictator companies. According to Lopp, these companies' success (or non-success, in the case of HP's fallen valuation) is due to them using business models, not creating products.  I'm not sure what Lopp thinks that IBM and Oracle's enterprise offerings are, but they are most assuredly products, and they are definitely successful.

But the absolute most perplexing examples that Lopp uses are Facebook and Google. According to Lopp, Sergei Brin and Mark Zuckerberg are not dictators -- they're engineers masquerading as dictators. These are the companies behind some of the most successful products of the last 20 years. Facebook's platform drives the social web and has enormous success, and Google's mail, mapping, and mobile devices are assuredly successes. 

And finally, the category that Lopp never brings up (until the Q&A, when he quotes some factually inaccurate figures about Drupal) is the open source model. The various distros of Linux have quietly eaten the server world, and open source languages, frameworks, and databases like php, Ruby/Rails, Wordpress, Drupal, and MySQL run most of the web. None of these companies have anything that can be qualified as a Dictator. The open source model is, in fact, inherently opposed to the idea.  And yet it has proven to be an enormous success.

I understand the conception of Dictator, and I understand why Lopp separates these companies into Dictator haves and have-nots. But how on earth does this arbitrary distinction prove any kind of a point about product success? How does he point at all kinds of successful companies and insist that they don't have successful products?

This brings me back to my original point: What good ideas, exactly, did this keynote have?

The best argument in favor of Lopp's keynote is that the roles he describes aren't meant to necessarily map to a single person, but that there exists some kind of generalization about a project which both allows one person to fulfill several roles and allows one role to be filled by multiple people at the same time.  But, then why does Lopp only use single-person dictators in his examples?  And what's the point of the model, then? Is the model really saying nothing more than that every successful product has a cohesive direction? Isn't that's embedded in the definition of successful already without us having to be spoon-fed that at a keynote?

In the end, it was a keynote that used weak, anecdotal evidence to reinforce lazy oversimplifications, and then overgeneralized those ideas beyond any kind of useful application.  This is really just masturbatory executive self-justification of the Big Man theory.

Sports media that doesn't suck

Hi, my name is Paul, and I am a sports fan.

It may seem odd to word that as a confessional, but the pervasive culture of sports is one of talking heads, empty non-analysis, pining for the old days that never actually happened, and casual misogyny.  I am proud of none of these things, and yet I like sports.  Why?  Partially because I love the competition, spectacle, and physical wonder of it all, but also in large part because I can tune out a lot of the really terrible sports media.

The thing about sports media is that it's not all bad, it's just that the easiest stuff to find is bad.  Almost everything on ESPN is atrocious, in-game commentary is usually full of platitudes, and the commercial culture surrounding sporting events is mostly a competition by advertisers to sell the best substitute for manhood manifested as beer, trucks, or hardware.  But the thing about sports media is that there's so much of it, that if you dig a little bit, you can find intelligent commentary and analysis.  I know when I started looking for this type of stuff, I despaired of ever finding it.  Here's hoping this list will save some people some time.

 

Hang Up and Listen
My favorite source of sports analysis, by far, is a weekly podcast put out by Slate.  It's run by a Slate Editor, a longform writer (who'll make another appearance in this list), and a contributor to NPR.  This is the best source I've found for focusing on sports as a lens for society.  There's frank discussion of race and gender, as well as plenty of harsh critique for sports media when they revert to peddling the same stale storylines.  If you track down one thing from this article, make it an episode of Hang Up and Listen.

Sports Illustrated
The august old sportsweekly is still one of the best sources for analysis of sports news.  While the internet has stolen some of the thunder of breaking news, SI has gracefully made the move to editorial voice and investigative reporting.  The Scorecard section is a wonderful summary of the past week's events that you may have missed, along with some great contextualization of those events.  The feature story at the end of the magazine, too, is almost always worth reading.  While not focused on current events, the writings of Gary Smith, S.L. Price, Grant Wahl, and others tends to be some of the smoothest writing out there.

A Whole Different Ball Game by Marvin Miller
I can't overstate how much change this single book brought to my viewpoint of sports.  Marvin Miller was the leader of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, and he was the driving force in the change of sports labor, and had a huge role in creating sports as we know them today.  He was also the man who had the nerve to rock the boat and point out that sports were business, and that the owners were pocketing all of the profits and stifling innovation.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton
A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis
Out of Their League by Dave Meggyesy
North Dallas Forty
It never fails to amaze me how much the athlete is treated simultaneously as hero and commodity.  These three books and one movie each talk about what it means to be a professional athlete.  It's easy to forget how hard you have to work to be a professional athlete, and it's easy not to realize how merciless it is as a profession.

30 for 30
Much as I don't like ESPN, they are the genesis of the 30 for 30 series.  It was originally created to chronicle 30 important moments in the 30 year history of ESPN, though it has since gone into a second series.  If you follow this blog, you already know that I watch these a lot.  The nature of the series (different director and creative team on every film) leads to hit-or-miss filmmaking, but generally this series is worth watching.  There are some stories I know, some I don't, but most of them are more than just the regurgitation of the dominant myth.  There's more thought put into this than most sports media, and it shows.

Honorable mentions:
Grantland has a good mix of news and number crunching for the hardcore fan, despite the fact that it's owned by ESPN.
The Classical covers sports with a literary bent.
The Best American Sportwriting anthologizes great longform writing for the past century, and every year since, just in case you missed it.
Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram did a lot to make me realize that my distaste for certain sports had more to do with my unfair biases and less to do with the sport itself.

Why spoiler warnings need to die

You probably know what spoilers are. Plots are advanced by the narrative use of plot points. Any virtual or in-person conversation that reveals a plot point too early is deemed a spoiler.

Spoilers can apply to movies, TV shows, books, video games -- pretty much any story-driven media. For simplicity's sake, I'll stick to discussing movies. Reviewers have learned to compensate for spoilers by treading very carefully around plot points. Too carefully. The care to avoid spoilers has reached levels such that it leads to overly careful wankery like this.  Or like this. Or this.  

It's all wrong. If you're still concerned about spoilers, you shouldn't be. They're bad for critics and bad for viewers, bad for analysis and bad for plot.

 

"Spoilers" almost never spoil anything

Most things labeled as spoilers don't qualify for the moniker.  Only plot points that radically change the viewer's conception of the story can be truly spoiled.  Knowing that Bruce Willis is a psychiatrist in The Sixth Sense isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he talks to Haley Joe Osmont isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he is actually is dead the whole movie is.

But it still doesn't matter, because...

 

People will forget spoilers by the time they encounter the original plot

Some of you are probably angry that I just ruined the ending to The Sixth Sense.  Look, it's time we had a heart to heart. If you haven't already seen that movie, you are never going to. "Planning to see it eventually" doesn't count. And if you ever do see it, even an insightful masterwork like this post will be unlikely to stick around in your memory long enough to interfere with your enjoyment.

Art that has been released recently is a bit more difficult. If you're the type of person who keeps up with TV shows, for instance, you are probably watching that show within a week of its release. Of course, then avoiding spoilers is easy -- just don't read any article that purports to be a summary within a week of its release. If you don't have the self-discipline for that, then what makes you think that a silly little spoiler warning is going to stop your craving for instant gratification?

 

There is no such thing as "unspoiled"

Unspoiled art is pure art, art untrammeled by expectations, and uninhibited by context. It's also impossible. The moment that you can conceptualize a piece of art enough that you know you want to experience it, you have already gained context, and thus lost the spoiler battle.

Art cannot be experienced without context. You put art in a white room with white walls with soft ambient lighting, or you can put it in a dark room projected on a screen from behind you, or you can listen to it using the most expensive headphones you can find, but even those approaches still don't eliminate context, they only minimize distractions. Aside from that, you as the viewer bring your own emotional baggage. Are you sleepy, content, nervous, or distracted? Are you overfull from a just-finished meal, or are you hungry? Did you have a long walk to get to the gallery, or did you saunter over to your couch and turn on the TV? These and innumerable other factors change your art experience.

A lot of smart people figured out that context matters in the 20th century, and it led to relativity in physics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, and contextualization in postmodern philosophy and art.  It's not a brand new concept, and we are doing ourselves a disservice to pretend that art is the one thing that can be experienced without context.

In fact, some of our most treasured media institutions are designed to bring context and spoilers.  Postcards, flyers, and advertisements are meant to get people to see art, but they also spoil the purity of experience.  The very purpose of movie previews is to be bombastic spoiler machines.  How are these spoilers so good if all the other spoilers are so bad?

 

Spoiler warnings are distracting and decrease signal-to-noise ratio

Up to this point, every point I've made has been about how spoiler warnings are irrelevent or ineffective. Time to shift gears and point out how they are actively bad.

Spoiler warnings are annoying, hamper usability, and generally make discussion a chore. When I see some variation on "Don't read further if you want to avoid spoilers," I am no longer thinking about the point of the piece I'm reading, but instead I'm thinking about my process of reading. This is like watching Life of Pi and having a sign flash on halfway through the first act that says "YOU ARE WATCHING A MOVIE WITH A CG TIGER." Thank you, fictional sign, but I already knew that.

 

Spoilers actually increase viewing enjoyment

It's true, you will actually like something better if you get exposed to spoilers beforehand.  Science says so.

 

Spoiler concern eliminates valid discussion

This is the Big Kahuna, the real reason I hate spoilers, and the whole reason I'm writing this blog post in the first place. Have something to say about a movie? You better make sure you get signed forms from all people in earshot waiving their rights, in perpetuity, for them to object to hearing what you want to say.

But, you know, just don't say it, right? Wrong. Completely wrong. That viewpoint is the information wants to be free argument turned on its head. Understanding is gained through analysis and discussion, and there's no surer way to quash discussion than by putting the onus on the speaker to make sure that his audience is ready to hear what she has to say.

Let's give everybody the benefit of the doubt, and say that nobody wants to be rude and ruin a plot for anybody. (For our example, it doesn't really matter, as rude people are unlikely to care about spoiler warnings anyway). For every person who has something to say on Twitter, Facebook, on a blog, or in person, if they have to check with their audience before revealing a possible spoiler, what are they likely to do? Are they likely to ask everybody if they can talk? More likely they don't say it.

But that's what the spoiler warning is for, right? It's there to give people the opportunity to share without injuring the poor precious virgin ears that are unready to hear it, right? Still wrong. Not only does it provide a frustrating hoop to jump through whenever you want to talk about art, it means that readers who would otherwise engage on a deeper level with the art instead choose not to read further, in the name of some fallacious "pure first experience" that is as impossible as Jesus riding up on a Unicorn with a briefcase full of war bonds.

 

It's time for our art discussion to give up our spoiler obsession.  Not only are they annoying non-content, they actively reduce the quality of our critique.  Join me in the rallying cry: Death to spoiler warnings and shame on those who use them!

Rembrandt in America

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After geeking out on Dutch Masters at the Getty when I went to LA this Summer, I figured I should go see the Rembrandt exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  After all, I might catch a glipse of Gerrit Dou, he who is the painter of one of my absolute favorite paintings, Astronomer by Candlelight.

There wasn't any Dou (although there was a mention of him), but there was a lot of both Rembrandt and the rest of his studio.  The idea behind the exhibit was a holistic this-is-by-Rembrandt, this-isn't show.  There were a lot of paintings here that were shown in the context of "This used to be thought a Rembrandt, but now it isn't anymore" or vice versa, or even unconfirmed one way or the other.

We now have a different understanding of what it means to be a Rembrandt.  After all, when he was alive, most anything that came out of his studio was marked with his name and sold as one of his paintings, even if his involvement was slim.  Rembrandt was more of a style, and less of an attribution to the specific artist.  Of course, being individualist Americans, this is not something that we are okay with, and so there is this whole frenzy around the art world of trying to judge and mark officially X is a Rembrandt, Y is not.

Most troubling is probably the qualitative arguments for being a Rembrandt.  Many of the arguments about the paintings seem to be not in scholarly work or digging through sales records and the like, but rather an aesthetic judgement about the quality of the work.  Many of the justifications for being a Rembrandt were qualitative judgements: this painting must be a Rembrandt because it's really good, while this other one can't be because it's got a few awkward parts about it.  Perhaps this was a curation issue, but it does beg the question: Did Rembrandt ever do anything that wasn't perfect?  It seems a little bit too simple to just divide the paintings along skill lines.  Even Michael Jordan misses a shot every once in a while.

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Review: Opening a box of 1992 Fleer Baseball Cards.

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Target had a box for $10. It was worth the $10, but not for any kind of monetary gain.  (For readers who may be laboring under mistaken assumptions: any card after 1985 is almost certainly worthless.) I figured it’d give me a nice big shot of nostalgia, and it definitely did that.

Even rose-colored glasses can’t help this set very much, though. First of all, the graphic design is atrocious. Who had the bright idea to make the main color of every card an artificial metallic green? Were we going for a verdigris look here? The color inevitably clashes with any team colors or natural colors in the photo. And cards are miscut all over the place. My box has many cards that are cut too-small or two large on one dimension or another. Finally, the sets that are not individual cards are very dumb features that pose one or more atheletes from different teams together for who knows what reason. There’s one card of Bo Jackson, Frank Thomas, and two no-name Orioles who are grouped together because... they all went to Auburn. Um, what?

But I will say, I did get to see a satisfying number of very large glasses and pushbroom mustaches. Who said that stuff went out with the 1980s?

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Event review: Mill City Museum

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With my newly-discovered interest in history over the last couple of years of my life, I made it a priority to finally see the Mill City Museum, the closest thing we have to a Minneapolis history museum.

The museum is a great experience. There’s a lot of content there, and it feels fresh and new. The exhibits are well put-together engaging, and even the introductory video to the museum is pretty classy. This place clearly has some major funding behind it.

But, with the money comes a leeetle bit of whitewashing. There’s quite a bit of juuuust a bit too corporate feeling around it. Sure, it’s kind of a novelty to take your picture in front of a gigantic Wheaties box, or eat free baked goods from the Pillsbury “Research Kitchen,” but a lot of it smacks of corporate dollars.

I’m not complaining too hard, though; I don’t need every museum to be made by Howard Zinn or anything.

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What Netflix has done for my TV consumption

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This is going to sound like an advertisement, and I really hate being a whore for large corporations, but sometimes what I get is so good, that I can't help myself.

Netflix is an amazing service.  It was a good service back when they used to deliver DVDs to your door whenever you finished the last one.  But now that they've added the instant watch service, I've become a shameless convert.  Sure, not everything is on instant watch, but a lot of it is.  I'm on the one DVD plan with instant watch, and the simple fact that I can have easy access to something that I want to watch, when I want to watch it, without having to leave my house is a fascinating thing.

But Netflix really changed my life by teaching me that TV doesn't suck.  Oh, sure, most of it still sucks, and sucks hard.  But Netflix got me watching television series as serials.  I know that some people experienced this with their DVRs, but for me with my ancient TV, my revolution came with instant watch of series on Netflix.  And now, I don't have to buy a series on DVD to watch it, and I am able to be very selective to see it.  I even get to see series that I missed.  In short, TV no longer is bound to the horror that is channel surfing.

So, Netflix, besides being a great way to watch a lot of good movies, also opened up a whole to medium to me.  And for that, I salute it.  I'm not going to cancel my subscription anytime soon.

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