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Interesting miscellany from our events & elsewhere. Earlier Posts

October 3: Tariq Trotter

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otd161003Tariq Trotter has done alright for himself. Born in Philadelphia to parents involved in the Nation of Islam (and both of whom were murdered while he was a child), he met Ahmir Thompson in high school and started playing gigs in the street and at talent shows, before they were old enough to perform in actual bars. soon, they fleshed the group out and took the name The Square Roots.

As a hip hop group that performed without DJs or samples, they were a bit of a novelty, but there was a space for them in the alt-music landscape of the early 1990s. They eventually dropped the word “Square” from their name, and released their first album, Organix, in 1993. It was their third album, 1996’s amazing Illadelph Halflife, that launched them. After that, The Roots were a going concern, and an influence on modern hip hop that extended far beyond Philadelphia.

Trotter’s stage name, Black Thought, was perfect for his demeanor. Neither shouter nor mumbler, not didactic or preachy, he feeds you his lines like he’s walking down the street beside you, telling you what’s on his mind. If you haven’t listened to the Roots before they wound up on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, I envy you getting to listen to (especially) Illadelph and Things Fall Apart. Hunt that stuff down. And after a break while they established themselves as unlikely TV stars, and which Thompson (as ?uestlove) is now the most famous drummer in America, they’ve started releasing albums again, which is absolutely ace.

September 30: Auto-Tune

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otdotd160930When Faheem “T-Pain” Rajm first started releasing singles like “I’m Sprung” and “I’m In Luv (Wit A Stripper)” in 2005, he seemed harmless enough. A reduction of Lil Jon’s cough-syrup party-freak character in Alice-In-Wonderland Mad Hatter drag, Mr. Pain is probably best known to everyone else for his turn in the Lonely Island’s video for “I’m On A Boat,” in which he’s clearly in on the joke. His almost cartoonish devotion to his schtick has meant that while no one can touch him in his métier, his reach is also limited to the occasional feature spot on other people’s tracks, which is honestly where he shines. A little T-Pain goes a long way.

t-painAside from what we can gently call “the occasional legal issue,” he’s still in the game, doing a lot of guest spots with a wide array of modern artists (Chance the Rapper, gospel star Kirk Franklin, Austin Mahone, Timbaland, Ne-Yo; he’s the rare artist that doesn’t seem to have beef with anyone, and can cross camps at will), and in ten years when he gets a Vegas show, I bet it’ll be a hell of a fun time.

While he does seem like a natural hedonist, he’s best known for his liberal and constant use of Autotune, a tool you’re probably sick of hearing about, and which probably shows up a lot more than you think. (Antares Technologies actually owns the trademark for it, although like any partway saleable idea, there are plenty of knockoffs which are varying degrees of acceptable. There’s an iPhone app that can do it for you on the fly if you like.) It works in real time, and many artists use it even during live concerts, and not just hip-hop or R&B acts; Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Tim McGraw all use Autotune in their concerts. Of course, there are purists in all genres too. I don’t know if it matters anymore; what’s the difference between the talent in someone’s actual throat and the quality of a finished song? To the listener, there really isn’t a difference*.

Cher’s producers noticed that in 1998, when they were mixing down her newest single, “Believe.” They tried the as-yet-unnamed robotic effect, and they (and Cher) dug it. It was released, it caused a bit of a sensation, and Cher set a record by being the oldest solo act to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 ever. (She’s had a hell of a career; we’ll get to her at some point.) The effect was known as “The Cher Effect” for a while, until the producers finally came clean and showed how they did it. (It’s okay, everyone got rich.)

There are tons of artists who rail against it — Death Cab For Cutie, Neko Case, Trisha Yearwood, and Michael Bublé, to name but four — but like Bob Dylan plugging in his guitar at Newport, Autotune is little more than another tool to make new music at this point. And once you see it that way, it makes it a lot easier to just enjoy the latest Gregory Brothers single. That’s how pop music works; a little innovation, a little deviation from the norm, and if you can tap your foot and/or sing along to the melody, then it’s all fine.

*But then again, I don’t always buy organic either. I’m hardly a purist in pretty much anything.

September 29: National Coffee Day

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A beverage as black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses, particularly those of the stomach. It’s consumers take it in the morning, quite frankly, in a porcelain cup that is passed around and from which each one drinks a cupful. It is composed of water and the fruit from a bush called bunnu.

So wrote Leonhard Rauwolf, a physician, who in 1583 came back from a trip to the Far East with news of this new (to Europeans) hot beverage they were drinking in the Levant (now Jordan, Syria & Northern Iraq). The bunnu bush is now mostly grown in Ethiopia, where they do know a thing or two about coffee.

java-coffee-fieldsIt’s said that shepherds from the area noticed that their goats traveled further when they ate the beans of the coffee bush. It wasn’t long before they were trying it themselves, calling it qahhwat al-bun, “The Wine Of The Bean.”

It’s everywhere, now. Or at least it feels like it here in New York City, where we drink about seven times the national average of the stuff. After oil, it’s the second-most traded commodity on Earth. It may be mostly grown in Colombia and Brazil now, but it’s prepared in pretty much every corner of the planet now, in a million different ways. And hell yeah for that.

Look, we know these manufactured holidays are all about commerce, but when they celebrate something so close to home, then I feel a little better pretending they’re legit. Not that I’m hooked. I can quit at any time. Hey, Teddy Roosevelt drank a gallon a day and he turned out alright. In fact, there’s no right (or wrong) way to drink the stuff. It’s nature’s perfect drink. It fends off the effects of Alzheimer’s, it keeps you awake and focused, and its very existence makes your life better, especially if you know me and I have some.

September 28: Hilary Duff

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Hilary Duff might be most famous as the teen star of Lizzie McGuire, or for the multiple albums she’s released, or for the novels she’s written, or for her six-year marriage to an NHL star, or for her activism against paparazzi taking pictures of celebrity kids, or her clothing & fragrance lines, or for singing the theme song to Laguna Beach, or any number of other things, but Hilary Duff has actually done all of these things, and what amazes me about her is that she seems to have reached adulthood without going completely nuts (as far as I can tell) or (as far as I can tell) having her reality distorted to the point where she can’t possibly function without a bubble of handlers spoon-feeding her every minute of the day. Which makes her stronger than me; if I was a child star who became suddenly famous at 13 for starring in my own sitcom, and immediately branched out into music, movies, books and who-knows-what-else, I’d have lost my damn mind.

But Hilary has stayed out of the gossip rags, for the most part, and seems to have something meaningful to say, even if it’s not in the standard Disney fluff that made her famous. We can’t all be Tolstoy, fergodsake.

Born to a convenience store magnate in Texas, Hilary (and her big sister Haylie, who you’ve possibly also heard of) got into showbiz very early, and the family moved to California when Hilary was six. From there, the usual grind of auditions and bit parts didn’t wear the kid down. It’s possible that she didn’t know any better, but still, I think of that kind of life, and of the friends I know who are in it & still trying to make it at twice her age, and I shudder. Good on her.

hilary-duff-lizzie-mcguireLizzie McGuire came in 2001, when she was 14, and it was more or less an instant hit. The animation-to-live action sequences, the breaking of the fourth wall, the tackling of actual issues, all connected with preteens immediately, and Duff became famous nearly overnight. She started dating Aaron Carter, and then Joel Madden, because what else does a teen idol do, except date other teen idols? You can’t exactly meet someone during chemistry class or lunch period like everyone else does. Besides, she was busy. She sang a few songs as a goof, which turned into a Christmas album, Santa Claus Lane, in 2002, and then three more albums in the next five years, all while starring in Lizzie McGuire, the Cheaper By The Dozen film series, Agent Cody Banks, and a slew of other smaller films.

Eventually, she turned to writing, which makes sense — she’d succeeded at basically everything up to that point in her life, and she had the work ethic. Her first book, Elixir, a paranormal romantic piece, got decent reviews from YA people, and the sequels, Devoted and True, seem to be plenty popular enough as well.

I don’t want to go too much into her personal life — she had a six-year marriage to former Edmonton Oiler Mike Comrie, and in showbiz terms, six years is plenty — but it’s worth mentioning that the current crop of pop stars — Miley, Ariana, Selena — all shout her out as an example of how to get through teen stardom properly.

Is she going to win a Nobel Prize or complete the EGOT? Not a chance. But she does what she does, she has a charm, she’s nobody’s fool, she works hard for the money, and you know, her music was often pretty catchy.

September 27: Googol

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otdotd160927Ten Thousand Sexdecillion. It’s not just the name of the some huge monster army from a future episode of Game of Thrones, it’s one way to describe the number 10100. And although the reason you might know it comes from a site that officially went live 18 years ago today, the name “Googol” was first thought up in 1920, by a 9-year-old kid.

The mathematician Edward Kasner was looking for a number to describe something incredibly large, but not infinite. There’s nothing special about 10 to the hundredth power for mathematicians; it’s just a nice round big number. It’s supposedly the number of years we have left before the heat death of the universe, it’s the number of atoms that are estimated to exist, it’s a decent yardstick for the biggest practical numbers that most people (even most astrophysicists) will ever really need to use.


Milton Sirotta, Krasner’s 9-year-old nephew, came up with the word googol when asked for a nonsense word. It’s stuck ever since, especially among casual math nerds like yr host. Actual mathematical types might go with the abovementioned, or “ten duotrigintillion” or the oddly alluring “ten sexdecilliard,” but when Sergey Brin and Larry Page were looking for a name for their new search engine to indicate that you could find a near-infinite amount of information through their website, they chose a more-standardized version of Milton Sirotta’s nonsense word.


Edward Krasner, 1907. He was the first Jewish person to become a faculty member in the sciences at Columbia University. And I like the moustache.

And now, of course, the compound in Mountain View, California, where their empire has taken root, shares its name with the number that is 10 to the power of a googol, or 10^10^100, or a Googolplex. That wasn’t the original definition, though. According to Krasner’s notes:

It was suggested that a googolplex should be 1, followed by writing zeros until you get tired. This is a description of what would happen if one actually tried to write a googolplex, but different people get tired at different times and it would never do to have [then heavyweight boxing champion Primo] Carnera a better mathematician than [Albert] Einstein, simply because he had more endurance.

Sirotta died in 1981, so he never lived to see his most famous word reach its zenith of fame, but we’re all grateful for the fact that it’s such a great word. I mean, if Google (the name) never existed, then what would we call it instead?

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