And I Couldn’t Even Get the Math Right

October 18th, 2010

I heard first through Twitter, but later through many of your emails and comments that Benoit Mandelbrot died on Thursday at 85. I can remember stumbling across his book “The Fractal Geometry of Nature” in my high school library, reading it and not really understanding it, but finding it mind blowing nonetheless. To me, that particular brand of hazy understanding feels like the correct way to think about a lot of things – fractals, electron clouds, cats in boxes waiting to be poisoned – the natural world is really too complicated and beautiful for any of us to fully understand, and that’s OK. That’s in fact what makes it so beautiful.

Many of you have asked if I’m planning on changing the lyrics or retiring the song. I’m not sure yet, but I don’t think I’ll do either of those things. I like the song and it would be a shame not to play it anymore, so retiring it is extremely unlikely. Changing the lyrics, I don’t know. On the one hand, the song is now factually inaccurate. Of course that hasn’t stopped me before. As many of you have pointed out, my description of the Mandelbrot Set in the song is at best incomplete, and at worst plain wrong. This failing of mine is even mentioned in the wikipedia article about the set, so that’s great (although if you look at the Popular Culture section of that article you’ll see that Arthur C. Clarke seems to have gotten it even more wrong than me – just saying).

On the other hand, that’s the song. It’s how I wrote it, and it was true then. It’s a snapshot of a certain time. I’ve never fixed the math error and it never bothered me all that much because you know, close enough. In the Times obit Mandelbrot is quoted as saying that he didn’t really like to prove his insights, he mostly liked to make crazy conjectures to make everyone think about stuff. That sounds about right to me. I like to think that Mandelbrot in particular would appreciate the “close enough” nature of my description. (And just to answer another FAQ, I know he’s heard the song: he talks about it briefly in this Big Think Interview.)

Not to get too heavy on you, but truth itself has a kind of fractal component – you can be right at one scale, but then zoom in and discover you had it all wrong. I stopped trusting people with absolute opinions the day I understood the answer to the question “How long is the coast of Britain?” is “It depends.” Not coincidentally that was the same day I discovered Mandelbrot. That was the question that led him to invent a new branch of mathematics by creating a way to quantify and discuss this kind of weirdness, and it changed the way we think about all sorts of things.

I’m leery of writing this post because I wouldn’t feel right about becoming the artist with the Official Mandelbrot Mourning Song. But it’s true that I still get a little misty when I sing those lyrics and remember what they mean to me – that everything around us is at least a little weird and unknowable and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

That caveat aside, I leave you with one of my favorite fan videos, chalkboard animation made a few years ago by some Cornell students. I’m grateful to geekdad for reminding me that it existed.

Thing a Week Redux

September 27th, 2010

Five years ago this month I was newly unemployed and had just started Thing a Week. An awful lot has happened since then, and it feels very strange to go back and look at what I was writing and remember how I felt. I get a lot of credit now for figuring out how to do the internet musician thing, but as I keep telling everyone, I’ve never really had any idea what I was doing. Over the course of that year there were a lot of successes and failures and mood swings and it felt like the greatest idea in the world and at the same time it felt like I was making a terrible mistake.

Five years later here I am, going into a studio to work on an album with one of my heroes that I never imagined I would meet, let alone work with. And it turns out I have to write a lot of songs very quickly again. It feels harder now, there’s a lot more to live up to than there was when most of my web traffic came from my Mom. But it’s instructive to remember what it was like to just write and not care because nobody was listening – good stuff comes from those circumstances. So I’m doing my best to continue not caring.

Anyway, I’m re-running Thing a Week in real time if you’d like to ride that roller coaster again. I have set up a Tumblr for this purpose. So far two weeks have gone by in secret, I hope the 9 followers who somehow found it have been enjoying it.

Go look: thingaweekredux.com

The Princess Who Saved Herself

August 16th, 2010

Look everyone, Len made an image for a new Jonathan Coulton song! That hasn’t happened in about 50 years it seems like. For those who don’t know (is there anyone?) Len Peralta is the talented visual artist person who made an image for each Thing a Week song way back when. Above is the image he made to go with my new song.

I was asked to contribute a new song to this CD of kid’s music called Many Hands, the proceeds of which benefit the Haitian People’s Support Project. It’s an amazing list of artists – Dan Zanes, TMBG, frigging Pete Seeger – so I was honored to be invited. I wrote a song called “The Princess Who Saved Herself” because my daughter is obsessed with princesses, so I am forced to think and talk about them a lot. None of them really kick ass as much as I hope my daughter kicks ass when she’s all grown up, so I made up one that does (she ate a whole cake!). All recorded at home old school style, with a little assist from my sister in the comedic harpsichord bridge.

It’s for charity, so I’m not going to give it away here, but you can listen and buy at iTunes and Amazon. The song is exclusive to this CD, and the CD itself is a fantastically large and delicious collection of family music, so you should probably buy the whole thing anyway.

AND, question for the parental section of the hive mind: what are your top five family friendly tracks of mine? What’s a hit with the kids and also guaranteed not to embarrass you in front of other parents? Radio stations are asking and I’m not sure what to tell them. Not First of May, right?

Cruise Contests

August 13th, 2010

Hey, what’s this, a blog?

The world has caught JoCo Cruise Crazy Fever! Not the entire world, but at least some of it! I’m gratified to see so many people signing up for a good time on a boat with me and my famous entertainer friends. It’s going to be so off the hook that the dial tone is going to stop and it’s going to start making that fast busy signal sound and then a recording is going to play that says “Please hang up the phone and try your call again.” I AM SERIOUS!

If you share my excitement then probably you’ll want to know about these new JoCo Cruise Crazy contests. Here are the things you can win:

1. Cruise Giveaway: win a free cruise for two!
2. Video Madness: win free awesome things from ThinkGeek!
3. Monarch of the Seas: win a fake royalty title that we made up and be forced to wear a dumb crown or something!

All the details can be found on this page right here. And I can assure you that these are not the kind of contests where when you win you get sent to a mysterious island with a smoke monster. The smoke monster will be on the boat (hint: the smoke monster is John Hodgman).

Flansburgh Produces JoCo

July 21st, 2010

I talked about this in an interview already (and before I was supposed to) so some of you may have heard, but the thing that makes me most excited about this new record is that John Flansburgh is producing it. And yes, that’s THE John Flansburgh, who might be a giant. I opened for them a few times in the Spring, and that’s when we hatched this crazy plan. Of course I’ve been a fan for a long time, so I’m thrilled and flattered and all that stuff. I also think he’s going to bring some fun, edgy weirdness to the sound of things, and I’m hoping he’ll prevent it from being all slow songs about dead dogs in space.

Just yesterday we went into a real, like, STUDIO studio and recorded ourselves running through the set of new songs so we could hear how we sounded and make some arrangement tweaks. We sounded pretty good. This is going to be fun.

Thursday: Iron Horse in Northampton, MA
Friday: Somerville Theater in Somerville, MA
Later: More