Thursday, January 4, 2024

felt heartbreak and it's boring

In 2023 I listened to way less music than I generally do, because my life fell apart and I found it difficult to enjoy anything in earnest or feel in control of my thoughts. I still listened to some music because what else am I going to do with my lazy senses. I kind of half-assed my year-end lists though and I still haven't figured out how to be a person in society so you'll have to forgive me for regressing a bit on the armchair cultural-commentator front. Here are some more songs from 2023 I could have included. I also interviewed Tatiana Triplin and Katie Dey this year.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

on acollierastro and the science internet

I first got on the Internet (mostly YouTube) in the late 2000s, when I was in elementary school. I was a bookish kid with an interest in "science", a nebulous collection of subjects that included dinosaurs, black holes, and sedimentary rocks. As I got older and social media got bigger, a certain science-y affect started to take hold on places like YouTube and Reddit, targeted at people who shared these general interests but lacked any individual expertise in any of them -- in other words, almost everyone. Some of the most popular media in America used sleek infographics or aspirational STEMlord aesthetics to turn the wonders of 'science' into new forms of entertainment. This was the era of Vsauce, of infinite Top 10 lists about Crazy Facts You Didn't Know, or, for older generations, of The Big Bang Theory on CBS. Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku taught countless viewers who were too young to take high school physics about how there were probably a billion universes, or something. The nerdy white dudes who founded the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley were winners to emulate, because they were the most science-y guys of all; a brand-new YouTube account might quickly get recommended a TED Talk on how to follow in their footsteps.1

Pop science has always existed, of course,2 and it has its place in the conversation. But I think the 2010s Internet created a much wider, more diverse audience for pop science content, allowing for algorithmic rabbit holes that tracked and encouraged laypeople's niche academic interests. By their formal nature, YouTube, social media and podcasts are all low-density sources of information, centered on personalities and brands over ideas, and the incentives of these platforms crowd out focused learning. Even the well-sourced, accurate, high-level stuff that doesn't talk down to its viewers and is made by weird nerds with hyper-specific expertise is limited by its position in the endless scroll and its implicit framing for a general audience. Pedagogy in America is very flawed, obviously, but I wonder if there are better ways to direct people's curiosity online, too, since so many people want to spend their time learning independently about these kinds of things.

A lot of people who have curiosity about science never get the tools to recognize reliable information or know how much to trust people who have -- or seem to have -- expertise. "Science" is not a monolith, and the bodies of knowledge we call "science" don't come from nowhere. Academia, industry and the science press are all different institutions, each with their own interests and spheres of influence; those institutions are made up of people, each with their own limited knowledge and positions of relative power. And communicating science to laypeople requires a different skillset than doing scientific research.3  Unless it was to tell sensationalized stories about the things they don't want you to know, or the quirky inventors that history ignored, I rarely ever remember pop-science YouTube addressing these dynamics. There was a premium on cool, science-y novelty stuff, but few people with large audiences were actively exploring how soundbites got from labs to newsrooms to our YouTube feeds.4

Enter Angela Collier, a Kentucky-based physicist who has become my new favorite YouTuber at a time when I thought I'd aged out of having a favorite YouTuber. She reminds me of the working scientists I know, whose stories get very little shine: normal, curious people with wide-ranging interests, the wisdom to know the limits of what they know, and a hard-won understanding of how their labor actually fits into the world around them, sometimes in ways they don't like. In her videos, she approaches popular science from the perspective of someone in science, and counts herself among the eccentric patchwork of weirdos who keep it functioning. You'll learn about the different archetypes of scientist personalities, each with their own quirks and neuroses, and how their interactions shape scientific inquiry. A video about the widespread use of glass in scientific research might give an amateur rundown of how glass works, geek out over that one old guy who knows everything about glassblowing whose forum posts are cited on official research compendiums, point out that one factory that can make a crucial type of research glassware and the logistical bottlenecks that result, and wryly comment on a central debate in the field of glass chemistry that that one professor is sure he solved decades ago, even though none of his peers can read his paper because he made up his own notation system for it. Collier's videos make science seem less like a magical wellspring of inherent, universal knowledge and more like what it is: work, done by lots of different people having different conversations over long periods of time.

Some of my favorite videos of Collier's are the ones where she takes a critical look at major failures of science communication. In her video on string theory, while playing The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, she explores how this theory, which most physicists no longer take seriously, was able to gain such a foothold in the popular imagination. It's an hour-long video and worth watching in full, but the gist is that the science press overhyped an unfalsifiable theory, a few savvy scientists built platforms off of the resulting spectacle, and the resulting sunk costs have made it difficult for everyone (including Collier, who was fascinated by the pop-science narratives as a kid) to dislodge. I love this video because Collier doesn't just teach why string theory doesn't work in physics, and doesn't just call out scientists or debunk the press. She explains -- patiently, if with some exasperation -- why the incentives and inertia of these institutions caused things to snowball into such a huge issue, even when most of the people involved had understandable intentions. These stories are all so fascinating, and they're well-served by the casual, tangential rhythm of longform YouTube.

Crucially, Collier doesn't make 'video essays', which combine the relatable, un-authoritative voice of a content creator with a patina of prestige so that it becomes difficult to tell how seriously you're supposed to take them. She also isn't a "hey, guys!" vlogger or a professional infographic wizard. Instead, she adopts the tone of an effective lecturer, someone who can go on endless, extemporaneous tangents but still teach you the material and reach beyond it. There's some scripted stuff, some shoddy video-editing jokes, and lots of anecdotes; often, she's actively Googling things as they come up, but she never seems unprepared or unaware of her audience.5 Every time she speaks outside her specific field of expertise, she qualifies her statements: "I'm not a chemist," "I'm not a biologist." By avoiding the kinds of poise we've come to expect from YouTubers, Collier becomes a better science communicator, because there's none of the unearned trust that most Internet personalities end up exploiting. even if unintentionally, for a brand. Personal experience is relevant to help people appreciate big, complicated ideas, she suggests, not because you need a relatable face on everything but because those ideas are built upon and sustained by individual people's personal experiences.

This becomes important when Collier addresses issues within the fields of scientific research and academia. Her hilarious videos about crackpots in physics offer up a typology of the sorts of people who believe they've uncovered some sort of physics conspiracy that disproves basic tenets of the field. It's one of the best, most matter-of-fact exorcisms I've seen of a widespread problem these days: how do normal people get radicalized to believe in random, niche, crazy shit that makes them antisocial and often painful to deal with? "The Adjunct Problem" looks at individual anecdotes to sketch the harsh economic and professional reality of being an adjunct professor, then zooms out to recognize how much it hurts faculty, students, and the larger social order to depend on transient, underpaid adjuncts for so much academic work. By the end of the video, you come to realize that the annoying obstacles faced by one professor behind the scenes are actually everyone's problem, and see the effects of these power dynamics on the collective body of knowledge we draw from every day. Her video on the sexual assault and harassment endemic in astronomy and physics departments is similarly harrowing. In an era of collapsing institutional trust where nothing has gatekeepers anymore, I think people like Collier are particularly valuable on the internet. Experts are important, but expertise is hard to build, so it's important to learn about how we build it, and especially how we should trust it.

1 Some of these things have obviously aged better than others. Vsauce is still fun, because it leans into that crazy connecting-dots-on-conspiracy-dartboard vibe that makes crackpot science so intoxicating, but projects some substance. My personal favorite YouTubers when I was younger were the vlogbrothers, Hank and John Green, whose wholesome and eclectic YouTube videos taught me a lot. You could make the argument that the many businesses and ideas they came up with, from VidCon to Subbable to the educational channels SciShow and Crash Course, which are now part of school curricula across the country, were more important than the work of any other 'creators' in building the modern 'creator economy' (groan). To their credit, they had much better values and principles than many of their peers, and they always did their homework. More blogging about them in the future, maybe. Definitely two really complicated internet-history figures who I haven't read any serious critical analysis about.

2 Many of the early science stuff on YouTube I remember came from pop-science stalwarts with prior reputations: documentary clips of Kaku, low-quality rips of Carl Sagan episodes, the MentalFloss YouTube channel...

3 I am not a scientist, or a philosopher of science; I don't even have a bachelor's degree yet. Please do not take me as an expert on anything. I am an unemployed 20-year-old writing a blog post about a YouTuber I like.

4 Like many genres of Internet content, one emotional appeal of this stuff was that it seemed to give its viewers knowledge that your average person didn't have, and make them feel special for knowing it -- it sold itself as an easily-digestible way to get an intellectual leg up on the rest of the world.  It's no wonder, then, that the pop-science Internet often funneled people into right-wing movements like New Atheism, which twisted that curiosity into resentment and valorized a particular kind of parochial smugness that wreaked a lot of havoc on people. (Plenty of ink has been spilled about this phenomenon already.) This kind of radicalization is, I think, the real danger of any worldview that treats 'science' as an ideal in itself, without paying any attention to the power relations and ideological frameworks that underpin real scientific work. 

5 Maybe this is just a function of audience size, but Collier also has the best YouTube comments sections I've ever seen -- just more smart, thoughtful people sharing stories and knowledge where they can.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

jaime brooks interview

I interviewed Jaime Brooks for Finals. The response to this has been pretty amazing, both reinvigorating my desire to blog about music and confirming that I don't really want to do it at any super visibility-conscious or branded level again. (Not proud of most of my Finals stuff but this 2K3 interview, from nearly two years ago jesus, is a gem too.)

Guess it's time to share some more tracks!

Monday, January 9, 2023

an ethos

 "And then came the Beats!!! KABOOM!"

-Alvin Curran, liner notes to Drumming Up Trouble, 2022

new year's dissolutions

Originally I was gonna do a longer/more comprehensive list but about 85% of the way into compulsively revisiting the music of 2022 I stopped having fun, so here I've tried to condense things into a dozen songs that really resonated with me, overwhelmed me, made me happy, made me think in new ways, soundtracked my life, gave voice to my friendships, sent me down rabbit holes, or gave me a reason to keep on getting up in the morning. Maybe I'll explore the deeper reaches with some blogging in the next few weeks. 

I also sent in some year-end stuff to Tone Glow and No Bells.

favorite songs 2022

12. Sister Zo - "Jump In (Freak Shift)"

11. Glorilla - "Glorilla Flo"

10. Lay Bankz - "Boyfriend N. 2"

9. DaeMoney - "Congratulations"

8. Asake - "Peace Be Unto You (PBUY)"

7. Tomu DJ f/ kimdollars1 - "Crisis Actor demo"

6. Brent Faiyaz - "JACKIE BROWN"

5. CEO Trayle f/ Gunna & Nechie - "Bit W The Fangs"

4. Remi Wolf - "Fired"

3. Coco Jones - "ICU"

2. quinn - "short demo"

1. TiaCorine - "FreakyT"

Thanks to all of my friends, old and new. I love music.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Blow - "Go"


Pretty bonkers house track from 1988 that I found on a Virgin Records compilation called 12 Inches of Virgin lol. From Gordon Laing Matthewman aka DJ Edge, founder of Edge Records. His techno and acid experiments are occasionally really cool, and I love the transitory enthusiasm of something like "Culminatr Mix"; this other track as Blow is just as saucy as this one, if less urgent, and this bootleg remix of "Compnded" channels the frazzled-ness into another critical hit. He was also a live trumpeter at the time apparently. Was he playing trumpet on this? I want to believe.

Other Edge Records notables from later on: this nice hardcore track from Space Cube, aka downtempo guy Ian Pooley meets funky-house guy DJ Tonka, and this Mike Ink one that got an awesome Autechre remix I'd never heard before. None of this stuff is as good as "Go" but it's worth linking for rabbit-hole purposes. An '80s house V/A comp has never really steered me wrong.