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thing of the past | thing to come

What: "Mandelbrot Set," Jonathan Coulton's fantastical tribute to mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, whose contributions to fractal geometry were only slightly less legendary than the demon-slaying versions found in the song. Here's Pisut Wisessing's brilliant video to the song, though it doesn't use the complete lyrics. For that, listen to it on JoCo's website.

Why: Nerd rock (or, sometimes, "geek rock") is a genre spawned in the 1990s by musicians weaned on art-rock bands Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo, and XTC. Defining the term "idiosyncratic" better than any other musical genre, nerd rock is played by people who are not ashamed of being smart, except when it's actually about being ashamed of being smart. Former programmer Jonathan Coulton seems to have settled into the role of the king of nerd rock, with songs featuring the themes of office politics in zombieland, extreme cosmetic surgery, and awkward love in a supervillain lair. (Among a million others. Download them all at Coulton's website.) His tour de force is about perhaps the geekiest subject of all: math. Writing for a series of lectures by John Hodgman on the topic of things named after people, Coulton brought the mind-shattering work of Benoît Mandelbrot to an audience that might not understand it, but would come to love it. "Mandelbrot Set" cast the recursive shape as a Rorschach Test on fire, a day-glo pterodactyl, a heart-shaped box of springs and wire, and, most pointedly, one badass fucking fractal. Can't argue.

Impact: Colossal, at least to the audience that reads Penny Arcade and follows Wil Wheaton on Twitter. On the list of scientific formulas known by the American public, the M-set is now #2 all time, right behind e=mc2. Like the Preamble to the Constitution, this generation can recite one of the pillars of fractal geometry theory word for word. (Also like reciting the "of the United States"-challenged Preamble from Schoolhouse Rock, we're doing it wrong. The bridge describes a Julia set, not a Mandelbrot set. Eh, it's a better lyric the way JoCo wrote it.)

Personal Connection: Mandelbrot really is in heaven now, having passed away on Friday. Here's my Wired interview with Coulton on the subject. Coulton described to me the Julia set error as an epic fail, but I think it's an epic win. Now, the youth of America knows two fractal geometry formulas.

Other Contenders: They Might Be Giants' genre-establishing "Birdhouse in Your Soul", in all likelihood the only song sung by a nightlight to a caged blue canary; The Presidents of the United States of America's meow remix, "Kitty"; Barenaked Ladies' affecting tribute to troubled musical genius "Brian Wilson"; Weird Al Yankovic's reflective "Bob"; Paul and Storm's ridiculously overlong "The Captain's Wife's Lament", here done with fellow pirate Wil Wheaton at PAX; the Boston Typewriter Orchestra's keyed-up rendition of the Surfaris' "Wipe-Out," renamed (of course) "Wite-Out".


( 16 comments — Agree or disagree? )
Oct. 18th, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
I submit Speck's
"Conventional Lover,"
, easiest the nerdiest on-disc song in Rock Band 2.

Also, if I managed to post that link correctly, I have won a moral victory over the operating system of my iPad.
Oct. 18th, 2010 10:06 pm (UTC)
It appears to be a victory, modulo an unrequested carriage return.
Oct. 18th, 2010 11:22 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that song is unlistenable. But I'm sure it's very funny if you think 20-sided dice are funny.

It's not possible to beat the iPad OS. It is only possible to coexist with it.
Oct. 19th, 2010 12:45 am (UTC)
Virtually the entire oeuvre of Moxy Fruvous -- "King of Spain" and "My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors" for starters.
Oct. 19th, 2010 05:18 am (UTC)
Loves me some Moxy, which I first heard of through Mystery Hunt peoples. I particularly like "King of Spain," which contains the only appearance of the game Crokinole in popular music that I'm aware of.
Oct. 19th, 2010 08:53 pm (UTC)
I think Moxy Fruvous is one of the few acts to outdo JoCo in terms of the emotional range of their music. I started trying to name songs, and then realized I was making a good run at reciting their entire discography, so I'll just leave it at this: if you can listen to "Lee" without fighting back tears, you're a robot.
Oct. 19th, 2010 03:05 am (UTC)
Surely Birdhouse is sung by a canary-shaped nightlite, after all, the lyric goes "Blue canary in the outlet by the lightswitch who watches over you."

And I might tap "Why Does the Sun Shine" as the ultimate nerd rock anthem, for the way it acknowledges its predecessors and then goes so much further.
Oct. 19th, 2010 05:27 am (UTC)
Wow, that is a radically different interpretation than I've had over the years. I've always parsed it as "Blue canary by the outlet with the light switch, who watches over you?" But your interpretation makes much more sense, given the lyric "My name is blue canary, one note spelled L-I-T-E." I should listen more closely.

Speaking of science, I wonder if the polar opposite of nerd rock can be summarized by Insane Clown Posse's brilliantly ignorant "Miracles". Hey, chuckleheads, this is how magnets work.
Apr. 19th, 2011 10:40 am (UTC)
Oct. 19th, 2010 03:28 pm (UTC)
My love for JoCo is never ending. "The Future Soon" is one of his that I favor. I'm surprised "Code monkey" didn't make it.. But I'm glad to see "Better" got a mention.

JoCo's "A laptop like you" is an epic song for Mac lovers.

But I find myself a little surprised on the gamer-nerd side to not have seen Five Iron Frenzy's "Wizard Needs Food Badly" on the contender's list.
Oct. 19th, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC)
As usual, these are not the most iconic members of the category, they are the most beautiful ones. That isn't one of those, in my opinion.

There are at least a dozen other Coulton songs I could have mentioned: "Chiron Beta Prime," "Seahorse," his cover of "Baby Got Back," etc, etc. He's run quite the gamut, basically by defining his own gamut.
Oct. 23rd, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC)
My favorite JoCo song - and choice for most beautiful - is "I'm Your Moon". I can see it not qualifying as nerd-rock on the grounds that the subject matter isn't nerdy enough, being something most people know and can relate to - but to me that adds to its beauty. I would go so far as to say that it's one the most beautiful love songs ever written. - ZM
Oct. 23rd, 2010 05:39 pm (UTC)
Oct. 19th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
Update: I added the Boston Typewriter Orchestra's "Wite-Out" to the list. This means that I've set a record for "number of people I know in one column," with six: Coulton, Jason Finn of the Presidents, Paul & Storm, Wil, and Brendan Emmett Quigley of BTO. (No, even though lots of people I know know BNL, I haven't met them.)

If you think this is bad, wait to see what happens if I ever do Most Beautiful Webcomic.
Jan. 2nd, 2011 10:39 pm (UTC)
( 16 comments — Agree or disagree? )


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