Muse: Black Holes and Revelations – with “Exo-Politics” video cover

Muse - Black Holes and RevelationsPart 8 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me

Before delving into the utter craziness that is this album, let’s talk about the final track, “Knights of Cydonia”, shall we?

I don’t even mean the crazy sci-fi video, a mashup of Firefly-style gritty space Western with robots and mustaches and plenty of other cult movie references. Or its thematic and auditory segue into the first track of the following album, released three years later.

Nope, it’s the fact that the song changes key about a zillion times without a single hint that it’s happening.

When many pop songs change key, or modulate, it’s one step up preceded by measures and measures of buildup. (See the overwrought ends of songs by belters like Michael Bolton and Whitney Houston in the ’90s.) “Knights of Cydonia”, on the other hand, just goes at it in the middle of every single verse. It’s in such a state of constant modulation that it’s hard to notice.

Think the first (instrumental) verse resolves on the same chord it starts with? Nope! It’s two steps down, from E minor to C minor. The end of the second (instrumental) verse and beginning of the third (first vocal) verse is two more steps down, G sharp minor. It takes another two steps down at the end of the third verse to get us back to the original key.

It’s so seamless, partially, because there are regular liberties taken with using the “proper” chords for each key anyway – but never in the first line of each verse, which is always perfectly straightforward, resolving to the major third of the minor key.

Don’t believe me? The two sections of “Ahh ahh”s are indeed the same key: listen at 0:19 and 2:41. That’s the same key as the start of the first verse at 0:56. Doesn’t sound the same as the beginning second verse at 1:31, does it? Or the third verse, where lyrics finally come in, at 2:06?

(Yes, that explanation works better without auto-playing ads. Load the vide0 once and scrub around to those times yourself. It’s kind of crazy. Also very frustrating should you, say, try to re-edit the song into an instrumental for some kind of procession. Hypothetically.)


It’s not an exaggeration to say that Black Holes & Revolutions changed the kind of music I listen to. I originally picked up the album because I happened to start dating a big Muse fan right before it came out. On the very first listen, the pure electronic buildup to explosive guitar and drums of “Take a Bow” blew me away with its fury and passion. The immediate transition into “Starlight”‘s romantic melodrama sealed the deal pretty much immediately: I was now a Muse fan.

The rest of the album doesn’t disappoint. It finally takes a break from hard rock at track 5, “Soldier’s Poem”, and again gets contemplative at track 10, “Hoodoo”. That song contains the most resonating, haunting lyrics at its close that I’ve ever heard:

I have had recurring nightmares
that I was loved for who I am
and missed the opportunity
to be a better man

I’m not sure there’s supposed to be any coherent narrative embedded in Black Holes and Revelations, despite my linking all its songs with a space opera/psycho-political thriller plot. If there’s a movie to be written about a low-ranking interstellar serviceman demanding personal vengeance against an Earth leader who fakes an alien invasion to seize global power, though, it would make an excellent soundtrack.

Your IQ Test Thinks You’re Smart Because It’s Dumb

Your IQ is ... ?

The latest viral pandemic spreading across social media is a test proclaiming how smart you are. Perhaps I have particularly brainy friends, or anyone with a supposed IQ beneath genius level is too ashamed to share their score, but I’ve come to the scientific conclusion that the test is utter bunk.

It’s not entirely the fault of the test’s creator, Memorado. They’re just trying to make a buck doing what looks like the exact same thing Lumosity does: show people quick puzzles that make them think briefly and tell them they’re smartening up. Sure.

But the whole idea behind IQ tests – or at least the common perception of them – is flawed. They measure a certain type of intelligence, at the day and time the test is taken, when proctored by a professional. They tend to correlate with academic achievement. They do not measure aptitude for a wide variety of tasks, professions, or skills. In short, there’s a lot they don’t tell you.

A portion of any standardized test assumes the taker can just about read the test creator’s mind. Typically this is in the language portion, where words are reduced to bland signifiers with one and only one relationship to each other. Memorado’s test is no different.

Which word doesn't fit?

The test’s very first question is among its worst. Just three of the possible groupings are labeled. One grouping depends on the meaning and context of the words, while the others analyze the makeup of the words themselves. Which is the intended grouping? Probably the first, excluding “Smiling” from three of the traditional five senses, but the other groupings are perfectly valid.

Which word doesn't fit?

Again, the different groupings I’ve highlighted are depend on whether you’re concerned with the meaning of the words or the construction of the words. You could also say that paintings, poems, and flowers are beautiful things you appreciate by looking at them while you listen to a song, or that the word Painting is the only one without an O in it (or the only one with the letters I or A).

Coffee is to cup, what cake is to...


I’ll not try to argue that you can pick up a piece of cake with a napkin and bring it to your mouth (although you totally can), but using a napkin instead of a plate? That absolutely happens. All the time. Birthday parties, especially in offices, never have enough plates, if any.

And of course you don’t slurp up your cake directly from the plate. You grab a piece of the cake with a fork and put that in your mouth. The coffee cup, on the other hand, is both the storage medium and the conveyance. This analogy is so bad it almost soils cake for me.


Okay, fine, that’s hyperbole. Cake is amazing.

The Who: Tommy – with “Christmas” video cover

The Who - TommyPart 7 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me

By far, Tommy is the oldest album on my list. The ’70s and ’80s are entirely unrepresented, but this rock opera from 1969 was always an obvious one for me to include.

The reason? Story. Every album I listen to, I try to tease out a storyline, even if one clearly was never intended. The idea that a collection of songs should be more than that, should be bound together and greater than the sums of their parts, undoubtedly stems from hearing Tommy in my childhood.

That might not be the case if Tommy actually told its story a little better. There are plenty of gaps to be filled in by the listener; official movie and musical versions of Tommy even interpret some events differently. What exactly happens that prompts the titular deaf, dumb, and blind boy to suppress his senses? What is the actual mechanism behind his eventual cure? What is it he does afterward that earns him a throng of followers?

Because of that, of course it seemed like any other album could be just as narratively rich – you just had to fill in the gaps. The lines between rock operas, concept albums, and plain old everyday albums can be a bit fuzzy. Shoving songs onto a record together simply because they were the ones you had recorded recently? Ugh. Lazy.

Musically, Tommy is an impressive set of compositions. The five-minute “Overture” introduces just about every theme you’ll hear – you know, like overtures generally do – and instrumentals “Sparks” and “Underture” reiterate them. The breakout hit “Pinball Wizard” was famously written to appeal to a single critic, but for my money, the album reaches its peak charm with “Sally Simpson”, a complete story in itself. After getting injured basically throwing herself onto a stage where Tommy is preaching, the rest of her life is summed up in two lines:

Sixteen stitches put her right and her Dad said ‘don’t say I didn’t warn yer’.
Sally got married to a rock musician she met in California

How could you hear that and not take up guitar?

What? It’s July. It’s the 25th. Roll with it.

6 Rules for Writing NBC’s Chuck

My latest streaming TV binge: Chuck, the 2007-2012 show starring Jim-from-The-Office lookalike Zachary Levi as an underachieving computer technician in a big box electronics store who gets the CIA master database loaded into his brain.

That’s not a spoiler; it’s the series concept. Plus the show ended two and a half years ago. Spoilers are below, however.


To say Chuck was formulaic might be a little unfair. Part of its charm was remixing action and comedy tropes with a bit of a wink. However, there were definite ingredients that showed up with extreme consistency. The frequency of requirements noted here is a bare minimum.

Once per episode

Slow-motion pan of female character

Chuck appeals to guys. Dweeby guys, presumably. An ordinary dude suddenly becoming super-important is a common fantasy and even more common story. And of course this ordinary dude eventually wins the badass hot girl.

On Chuck, the prize is the main character’s CIA handler, Sarah Walker. As such, she is frequently the subject of quarter-speed beauty shots, hair blowing around her, drop-everything rock music accompanying her every stride, camera caressing her from the feet up. Occasionally she got a break, though, to let Chuck’s sister or some other guest star enjoy the ogling spotlight.

Prominent placement of sponsor logo and/or product

Did you know that Subway provided what is euphemistically called in the industry “promotional consideration”? That means they helped fund production of the show in exchange for being seen on it. It actually can help add some realism if it’s done subtly enough; why wouldn’t employees of a retail store regularly grab lunch from the sandwich shop nearby? Why wouldn’t the onsite computer techs of Buy More’s Nerd Herd drive practical, inexpensive, reliable Toyotas?

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

My blog has no such arrangement, so here’s a picture of a sandwich I made myself.

On the other hand, why wouldn’t Chuck work for the Geek Squad of Best Buy, after which the setting of the show is clearly modeled? Mixing fake and real brands makes both stand out all the more obviously.

Once every 2-3 episodes

Character lovingly describing sponsor’s product

…especially when it’s more than just a logo here and there. At one point, a character anticipating becoming a father extols the virtues of the Toyota Sienna minivan to his wife, exactly as naturally as is done in commercials. And way more than once, the ingredients of a Subway sandwich are performed like poetry.

At the end of the series finale, Subway straight-up purchases the Buy More, for some reason. Along with Greendale Community College in Community, it makes for quite a bizarre real estate portfolio.

Truly skeezy and criminal behavior passed off as humorous

Fellow Buy More employees Jeff and Lester provide “comic relief”, defined as “using consumer spy equipment to watch women without their knowledge” and “literally licking their lips and touching themselves when hitting on female customers as soon as they walk in the store”. This is cute, not creepy, because gosh, boys, right?

Jeff and Lester being creepy

Yes, in fact, this is a job interview.

For a bonus round, Lester finally faces some consequences when he’s actually arrested for piping car exhaust into the store’s break room. The reasoning behind this plan is too stupid to go into, but he ends up nearly killing someone. Since that wasn’t his intent, though, the victim declines to press charges and he’s out of lockup tout de suite. I’m pretty sure that’s not how attempted murder prosecutions work.

Once per season

Stunt casting for major roles (preferably with obvious referential quote)

Timothy Dalton was undoubtedly Chuck‘s biggest recurring ham, but for winks at the audience, it’s hard to beat lines the writers gave to Linda Hamilton and Scott Bakula, Chuck’s mom and dad, respectively.

Linda Hamilton saying Come with me if you want to live on Chuck

“Come with me if you want to live.” – actual quote

Scott Bakula in Chuck saying Oh Boy

“Oh boy.” – actual quote

Bakula survived four years as the hapless captain of Enterprise without uttering his Quantum Leap catchphrase. Fans begged those writers to put it in. They threw in holodecks and Borg and Ferengi but they resisted cute quotes. Sarah Connor didn’t even SAY that line.

Also, be sure to completely waste Ben Browder’s talents and nerd cred in the third-to-last episode of the series.

MacGuffin given to somebody else (but not a woman if you can possibly avoid it)

The big CIA database is called The Intersect. It’s originally loaded into Chuck by showing him a rapidly-changing series of images, displayed on a computer screen after being sent to him via email. Later versions are loaded via computerized glasses.

Turns out, the human-installable version of The Intersect was invented (and used) by none other than Chuck’s father. Other long-term human Intersects included ally-then-baddie Daniel Shaw; ally-then-baddie-then-ally Hartley Winterbottom, a colleague of Chuck’s father who was turned into the evil Alexei Volkoff for years before the Intersect was removed; and Morgan Grimes, Chuck’s goofy best friend. Noticing a pattern?

Human Intersects in Chuck

Remember the little flip-out doohickey R2-D2 used to hack into the Death Star? That only works for robots.

Aside from a brief test in one male and one female agent, the only woman to ever become a human Intersect was Sarah Walker, and it took until the final few episodes of the series. Oh, and it wiped her memory so it was like her whole relationship with Chuck never happened, but after a day or two she’s all “Kiss me anyway!”

Chuck final scene

Because love is mysterious and eternal, or some crap.

Pride and Prejudice vs. Star Trek Original Cast Movies: Epic Six-Part VHS Battle!

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that space is the final frontier.” – Captain Elizabeth Bennett, U.S.S. Longbourn

Rummaging through my basement and garage recently, I uncovered two relics of the 1990s. One predicts the 23rd century while the other documents the turn of the 18th and 19th.

Pride and Prejudice vs. Star Trek

Illustration by the 20th century.

Both of these formidable entertainment juggernauts feature six VHS tapes, numbered with elegant Roman numerals. Both also star remarkably curly-haired men with lavishly pointed sideburns: pre-famous Colin Firth and between-acts William Shatner. Both Star Trek: The Movie Collection and A&E’s Pride and Prejudice make compelling cases for being the one item you bring to a desert island that is miraculously equipped with a VCR, television, and electricity.

But which video release is truly superior? Only an off-the-cuff, ludicrously uninformed listicle of specious comparisons framed as a pugilistic competition could possibly decide.

Round I: Mildew Resistance

Neither collection has survived two decades unscathed. With time and moisture come spreading fungus, and cardboard is particularly susceptible. While Pride and Prejudice showed less prevalent infestation than Star Trek, it had also been stored in a less humid area. Therefore, it is difficult to make a fair comparison.



Winner: Draw

Round II: Packaging Art

On one hand, we have the bedroom eyes of Jennifer Ehle and the aforementioned Colin Firth. On the other, we have a starship bursting out of a supernova or something. If that were the whole story, Star Trek would win easily.

But it goes even further than that. Flip each tape around and the image they form is all planetty and moony and stuff:

planetty and moony

If that is a supernova, those planets probably shouldn’t make any long-term commitments.

Not only that, the supernova burst wraps around each individual tape sleeve. It’s shifted on each sleeve so that everything still lines up. Bravo, illustrator. Bravo.

Winner: Star Trek

Round III: Packaging Shape

In a sane world, this wouldn’t even be a category. But someone had to go and be creative.


Not smushed.

Yeah. Videocassettes are rectangular, so Pride and Prejudice takes the sensible option of putting them in a box that’s, you know, rectangular. Star Trek goes all parallelogram because THE FUTURE or something and screw your media shelf. No.

Winner: Pride and Prejudice

Round IV: Playing Time

Sorry, but yes, length matters. Each Pride and Prejudice tape is a mere 50 minutes long, for a grand total of 300 minutes or 5 hours of playing time. That barely gets you between coconut salad lunch and mashed coconut dinner on your desert island.

On the other hand, just watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture and falling asleep during the eighteenth shot of Kirk and Spock marveling at V’Ger’s glorious expanse can take up a whole day. All told, the six movies are 11 hours and 20 minutes long, not counting the time in between films shouting “KHAAAAN!” and “nuclear wessels”.

Winner: Star Trek

Round V: Promotional Bravado

Star Trek: The Movie Collection wastes little effort on pretending it is anything more than, well, a collection of Star Trek movies. Whatevs, Trekkies’ll buy it. But Pride and Prejudice is bold.

200th Anniversary Edition

Genuine four-color reproduced wax seal.

Now, it’s 2014, and Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, but this is not last year’s Blu-ray. This is the VHS release from 1996. According to Wikipedia, Jane Austen wrote the original version of the novel “between October 1796 and August 1797″. The 200th anniversary of when you started a rough draft is totally a thing, which means folks will be celebrating my one-page nonsense stories smashed out on a surplus typewriter in a mere 170 years.

Winner: Pride and Prejudice

Round VI: Trademark Assertiveness

Nothing affirms artistic achievement like the awarding of a registered trademark. Say something pithy, creative, and unique? Lock that phrasing down!


Or, uh, pretty much anything. Like a fictional ship that was named after a real-life ship, right down to initials that make no sense in their fictional context. Sure.

Winner: Star Trek

Overall Winner: Star Trek

It’s a close score, but Star Trek: The Movie Collection ekes out a 3-2 victory over A&E’s Pride and Prejudice. With good graphic design, copious content, and rigorous intellectual property protection, anything is possible. Take note, Hollywood.