The Wailin’ Jennys

I’m an avid music fan, and I’ll listen to most any genre, as long as it has quality. To me, quality implies musicality and to some extent production, but most importantly it means songwriting skill, especially in the lyrics: if a group can write great lyrics, I’m almost always a fan. That being said, though, my standards for “good” are pretty high. Most of what gets on the major Billboard Top 40s makes my teeth grate. You can’t make good music out of formulaic, unimaginative music, regardless of how loud you record it, how slickly you produce it, or how often you replace it.

All else being equal I tend to listen most to high-end popular music, nerd rock, and classical. Three favorite artists? Paul Simon, They Might Be Giants, Mozart. Paul Simon because I don’t know of a better singer-songwriter alive or dead. They Might Be Giants, because, though I haven’t liked any of their later live band albums as much as their earlier accordion/guitar/synth albums, the Fathers of Nerd Rock Shall Not Be Denied. Mozart because, well, he’s Mozart. I’ve never heard any other composer able to make such incredible music sound so effortless.

I usually buy or receive on birthdays/Christmas about 10 new albums a year, and when I’m not listening to them, I listen to NPR. Car Talk is hilarious, All Things Considered/Morning Edition/Weekend Edition is just all-around excellent, and then there are tens more hours a week of stimulating, interesting, and moving programming. When I’m driving around, if I’m listening to the radio, I’m almost assuredly listening to NPR.

And sometimes, of course, A Prairie Home Companion is on. Do I wish that it was 20 years ago, and it didn’t seem like Garrison Keillor was running low on fresh ideas for the monologue? Sure, but how can you blame him? He’s been doing this for decades. And let’s be honest here; it’s still one of the best programs, in any medium, out there. It would take giga-American Idols to equal the quality in one APHC On An Off Night.

Early this year, I was driving around on a Saturday evening, turned on NPR, and APHC was on. It turned out to be a compilation show, combining memorable skits and acts from the past few years. One of which was three voices who very nearly blew me out of my seat: The Wailin’ Jennys.

The first thing I noticed (and I’m not alone) about them (Ruth Moody, soprano; Nicky Mehta, mezzo-soprano; Cara Luft (2002-2004), Annabelle Chvostek (2004-2007), Heather Masse (2007-present), alto) is their vocal harmony, so good it’s almost heartbreaking. They only sang three songs, but that I was all I needed: I was hooked. I scoured the Internet for info, bought the albums (sadly, only two so far, at least here in the US), pored over the lyrics, and listened to the songs. Lots.

And gradually it became clear that the best three-part harmony I’d ever heard was only the start of why this group is so amazing. For starters, they play multiple instruments, from guitar to harmonica to upright bass. Even better, they almost entirely write their own songs, and the songs have meat in them; you can read the lyrics and not feel like you’ve just gotten dumber. Even more importantly, it’s obvious they enjoy making music. Most importantly however, is the fact that all this is in just one group: three extremely talented individuals, doing what they enjoy, and making the rest of us much happier for it.

When I find something that I really like, it’s hard not to proselytize about it to everyone around me, and my brother, admittedly, gets the brunt of this. (He tries to get me to like bands he hears on rock stations, and I try to get him to like bands I hear on NPR. We’re sometimes forced to admit the other has a point.) Overflowing with musical elation, I told him all about the Jennys. He’d listened to them a bit before, and said they sounded good, but I didn’t hear enough zeal from him, so I sat him down to watch what I thought was most likely to convert him: a YouTube video of One Voice, a song which is an excellent introduction to their musicality, harmony, and songwriting. He watched it, and I must say he did an admirable job of not looking bored. When it was finished, I asked what he thought.

“You didn’t tell me they were cute, too.”

Sigh. Yes, Ben, they’re cute as well. :)

The Power of Images

Until now, it had only been an abstract policy debate to me. This latest cover from The Week magazine changed all that, however:

How can any nation do this to a human being?

Especially when the evidence is overwhelming that the information it elicits isn’t accurate?
Especially when every credible expert in this field unequivocally calls this torture?
Especially when that which it purports to decrease, terrorism, is only incited in the minds of those disgusted by the hypocrisy of a nation that would preach “justice” and yet do this?

We’re the good guys. We’ve been the good guys for fifty years. We still can be. But:

It doesn’t matter if the one being tortured is man or woman, white-skinned or dark-skinned, Christian or Muslim or Jew or atheist, American citizen or no. We must be better than this.

House Demolition

I watched the demolition of a house today. It was unequivocally awesome.

Two WVU students were sent to the hospital recently when the roof on which they were sitting collapsed. This focused a bunch of attention on the state of off-campus student housing, and as a result property inspectors are out in force; fines are being levied, and a few houses have even been condemned.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I walked across town this afternoon; my brain was full with stress from multiple looming projects at school, and I was in a pretty rotten and introspective mood because of it. Imagine my surprise, then, to wake up from my introversion to the sound of crashing masonry: just across the street, barely 50 feet away, a massive excavator was tearing a house apart. I walked a little further until I could find a good perch, then just watched, for almost an hour.

The first thing that struck me was the size and power of the machine they were using. I noted its model number and looked it up afterward, and what I was watching was actually a Kobelco 235SR LC Short Radius Hydraulic Excavator. You can find lots of information about it here, but what really amazed me as I was looking at it was the sheer power of the thing, especially the arm. This is what the arm did (under the skill of an obviously skilled and experienced driver): first it gripped a wall (using an opposable thumblike attachment attached to the bucket head), and then ripped it from the rest of the house. Then, the bucket obliterated everything (floors, rooms) behind where the wall was. Then, the operator used the bucket to tamp down the just-entropied materials into a ramp. Then the excavator drove onto the newly created excavator-roadway, and just by mashing the arm into the ground, raised the front of the excavator off the ground, allowing it to turn in place and start all over again.

23,200, ladies and gentlemen. From the Kobelco website, that’s the digging force, in pounds, of this arm. This means that when the arm pushes on something, it pushes on it with a force of over 11 tons. Just watching it work, it was obvious the excavator could easily flip itself over just using the downward force of the arm.

By the time I got there (at around 4:30) half the house was gone. I took these first two pictures (mmm…grainy PDA photos) at around 5 PM:


Closeup of an excavator

By 5:30, it looked like this.

Demolished house

Absolutely amazing. It was like watching my childhood Tonka truck dreams come to life. It was so cool I stayed until the house was complete rubble. A couple of other people stayed for a few minutes, but no one else stayed as long as I did. Lightweights.

The only thing that marred the whole experience was that I kept wondering if the police would stop by and tell me to move along, because even watching a public event these days feels like the kind of thing that can put one on an FBI watch list. I realize that there must be a balance between freedom and security, but the pendulum has swung too far. Hopefully it’ll swing back soon.

A Good Day

This is the middle of my sixth year at WVU. Counting summers, this starts my 14th semester. This day, right now, is probably the best first day of classes I’ve ever had.

I woke up early and worked for hours on my website, and enjoyed every minute of it. Then I packed my lunch (which I usually don’t do, which annoys me, because fast food is more expensive), and left early enough that I could just walk around the MountainLair (WVU’s student union) grab the student newspaper, and watch students on their very first day of college ever.

I was five minutes early for class, and once it started, I realized I think I’m going to like the subject matter and professor. After class, I took a nice nap, started organizing all of my scanned pictures (a task I’d been putting off for weeks) then headed down to the Rec Center (WVU’s gym). Though the spinning class I wanted wasn’t offered today (and I forgot that was the case), I still gave myself a nice hard workout on one of the Center’s elliptical machines.

After that, I headed back to the ‘Lair. When I first started at WVU, the tradition after the first day of classes was the Block Party. Thousands of students (and many others, as time went on and its fame grew), converged on Grant Avenue in Sunnyside, and tore the place apart; couches burned, fights broke out, but people had fun. When I was in undergrad (mid 1990’s): the party finally got crazy enough that someone was shot (stabbings, sadly, were already a relatively common occurrence). As news helicopters from 90 miles away (based out of Pittsburgh) filmed the crowds and fires from overhead, and the news of the violence reached the University, it was decided that the Block Party would be permanently shut down.

These days, during the first week of school, anyone who’s even on their porch in Sunnyside is asked to go inside, and no loitering in the area is allowed. In an effort to lure students to something a bit less dangerous when school starts, Fall Fest was instituted: the Lair stays open late, WVU brings in live bands, and no one gets shot. Or stabbed. Or (to the immense relief of the University) filmed as part of a “Look at those crazy WVU students” story that goes national.

It’s FallFest right now. I’m now sitting in the middle of the Lair, surrounded by students, probably most of whom are freshmen. It’s been raining and thunderstorming all day, and the live bands were rained out, so they’re all in here. 1000 people? 2000 people? It’s difficult to say. But they’re all talking, and laughing, and having fun.

And almost therefore by proxy, so am I.

A great ending, for a great day.

Ben’s Best Man Speech

My brother was married last month; I was the best man. I wanted to give a really good toast, so worked long and hard writing it. I think it came out well; here it is:

Hello, everyone; for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Jonathan, Ben’s brother. I’d like to tell you a story about how Ben asked Lynn to marry him, and what happened afterward.

When he first proposed, it was incredibly romantic. They were at Blackwater Falls, which for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a beautiful forest-and-river park near here. They were watching a waterfall, and when Lynn turned around, Ben was down on one knee with a ring in his hand. Water rushed through the falls on one side of them, warm July sunlight filtered down between the leaves on the trees on the other, and Lynn burst into tears and said yes.

Unfortunately, the rest of Ben’s close family (me, and our stepfather Charlie) didn’t find out about all of this for a full nine days. And when we did, it was in a way we never expected. At the time, I was living in Arizona, and Ben and I stayed in touch by calling each other around once a week. We were actually talking about something completely different, and then Ben said, totally offhandedly, “Oh, yeah, by the way, I’m engaged.”

“What?!” I said. And then, of course, I wheedled all the gory details from him: when, where, how, sunlight-filtering, water-falling, etc. And after that, I called Charlie and told him the great news. But I was still in shock. Ben! Engaged! And a week and a half ago!

I was very surprised he had waited so long to tell us: he knew we’d be fully supportive, and we all thought he and Lynn were great together. Why, then, the delay? To this day, Ben himself tells me he’s not sure. Here’s what I think, though: after long months of plotting and planning, Ben had just proposed marriage to someone, and she had said yes! At the time, then, he probably had more important things on his mind than telling his family about it.

So in the end, I was glad he had waited to tell us. Personally, I like to think of the delay in telling us about the proposal as a testament to the resulting wedding’s importance; its “rightness”. Please join me, then, in a toast to the marriage of Ben Mack and Lynn Harden, in hopes that he’ll wait to tell us things like this for many years to come.

Congratulations Ben and Lynn. :)

The Awesomest Formula of Them All

(I wrote this a few weeks ago to practice html formatting tags. It originally went in a “Miscellaneous” portion of the site (now removed). Since it can’t go there any more, it goes best here.)

The awesomest formula of them all.

After four years in aerospace engineering school, one as a math major, 1.5 as a working engineer, five as a helicopter pilot, and 1.5 (and counting) as a computer science graduate student, I know a lot of mathematical formulas. But what, you may be asking, what is the awesomest formula of them all? I humbly submit to you that it’s this one:

e = -1

How can this be so amazing? Think about it for a second: e is the base of the natural logarithm, an irrational number, approximately 2.718. i is the square root of -1, a number which is so mindbendingly impossible (since you can’t take the square root of a negative number) it forms the basis for a class of numbers that are called imaginary numbers. π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, another (and perhaps the most famous) irrational number, at approximately 3.14159. So. Take e, raise it to the power of i times π, and what do you get? -1. One of the most boringly normal numbers out there. And, oh yeah: no matter to what number you raise a positive number (like e), you cannot get a negative number.

Like -1.

Awesome, huh?

A Belated Beginning

Welcome to my site! This website exists for two reasons. The first is that, as a graduate student in computer science, it would be shameful to graduate without knowing html, CSS, MySQL, and php. Since (to my continual amazement) my department offers not a single class in web design or these languages, it’s my job to learn them, and the best way to do so is by practicing them.


The second reason is so the world has a window to me. Once the site is fully operational, it should have employment information for those interested in hiring me for engineering, helicopter piloting, or computer science. It should also have what any good personal website should have: pictures, blog entries, quotes, links, and other cool stuff.

All in good time…

For now, only one thing is needed:

A beginning.

And here it is.