Archive for July, 2009

Frank Zappa: The Prog Years

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Well, that’s what I’m calling them, anyway, although it’s kind of fruitless to try to pin down the style of even one record here. This is the last group that Zappa called the Mothers (and the last group that he named after anything other than himself) and it shows; you get the feeling this is a real group of musicians creating music together and not just a bunch of session players. It’s a lot of fans’ favorite lineup and so far (I’ve actually listened through 1981) I agree.

With Over-Nite Sensation (1973), Zappa discarded the big-band jazz style of his previous two records and made pretty much straight-ahead rock music. The “pretty much” hides the fact that even in the most straightforward tunes here there is often some surprising stuff going on in the background or the breaks. When I first heard it I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t more out there but it’s grown on me a lot (you will hear this sentence again in the future).

Apostrophe (‘) (1974) is a bit more interesting, with more of the prog tendencies that I named this period after. These two albums were his biggest sellers to date, and I like them fine; a few more wrinkles would be nice, but they are really well done.

The wrinkles come out in full force with Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), a double live album with lots of overdubs (a format Zappa used a lot). Even the regular rock tunes have a bunch of twists, and there are some really interesting instrumentals; side 2, which is mostly sophisticated instrumentals, is my favorite side of his since the second side of Absolutely Free. It manages to be superbly virtuosic while still being sweaty and down-to-earth, not bloodless at all. There are a few missteps (a swollen overweight remake of “Trouble Every Day” from Freak Out typifies everything I dislike about how music progressed from the 60s to the 70s) but there’s an amazing amount of good stuff here.

One Size Fits All (1975) just about rounds out this period. It’s lots of people’s favorite Zappa album, and I can understand that. There’s a great mix of rock, funk, and prog, capped off with two versions of a winkingly pompous anthem. I certainly wouldn’t mind if he had managed to make a few more albums in this vein.

Bongo Fury (1975) was made with Captain Beefheart and is pretty much the last gasp of this ensemble. I love Beefheart, and the first track, “Debra Kadabra”, really got my hopes up for some gonzo greatness, but in general it feels like Zappa and Beefheart compromised on some common ground rather than going all-out weird. In my opinion they both made better records on their own.

Some of the musicians in this group (Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, Ruth Underwood, Bruce and Tom Fowler, Chester Thompson) made guest appearances later (and given Zappa’s penchant for using old material for new albums, more music from this period would show up), but his next album was made almost solo, and after that he picked up a new bunch of musicians and the overall style changed again…

Lev Grossman: The Magicians

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

This was a free ARC from BEA; the actual book comes out in August. It’s an interesting idea, basically an adult fantasy book that is based on the experience of having read young adult fantasy books. It silently references the Harry Potter and Narnia books incessantly in a “good artists borrow, great artists steal” kind of way. Liza thought this was kind of lame but I thought it was reasonably ballsy; if the whole point of your book is to be playing off Harry Potter and Narnia tropes, why bother to hide them through an extra level of indirection? Checking off the one-to-one correspondences did get a little tiresome, though.

The original part of it comes from the fact that it is basically half standard fantasy book, half standard tale of the lives of dissolute yuppie wastrels, a la Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney or something. At its best this makes it a hard-hitting realistic look at what might really happen if magic were real and a bunch of imperfect youngsters possessed its power. At its worst it’s a bunch of mopey twenty-somethings who vomit up fireballs instead of liquor after drinking too much expensive port.

There is a bunch of fairly interesting character development although I found it hard to bring myself to care overly much about any of said characters, perhaps because all of their flaws and imperfections are so lovingly laid bare. And the plotting and connections are mostly well done and tight; even when things kind of go off the rails, it’s clear that they were intended to by the author, although that didn’t stop me from disapproving somewhat. I do have a character development gripe in that the protagonist undergoes multiple important changes of heart within a eyebrow-raisingly small number of pages near the end, as if Grossman had sketched out a longer arc and then had to cut out most of its plot while retaining the character’s emotional journey through it.

I did enjoy The Magicians — Grossman certainly knows how to write and despite the impression I give above there is a bunch of cool original stuff in it — but I put it down thinking that it had not quite reached its potential.

P.S. Don’t read the back cover! Or read the Amazon description! Or… I guess it’s pointless; if you read more than one paragraph about this book (other than the above), you’re practically certain to get spoiled about something that is revealed well after halfway through the book. If I were an author I would hate that publishers do this.

Arika Okrent: In the Land of Invented Languages

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

After Mnemosyne reawakened my interest in Esperanto, I googled around a little and found that this book had been published just a few weeks ago and had gotten some good press. (By the way, someone has to do something about the “decent title: entirely too long subtitle” phenomenon; the full title of this is In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language. All it’s missing is an “and the Women Who Love Them“.)

It was really good. I read it in about two days, laughing out loud many times, and then when I handed it to Liza she did too. It is not at all an exhaustive study of the subject; it is mostly a bunch of case studies with just enough connective tissue to link them together, and is aggressively first-person, in that she brings to the foreground her personal experience studying, learning, and meeting with the users of these languages. The actual linguistics and history were very interesting, and the personal experience of “I am really excited about this subject, but I kinda wish that the other people who are really excited about this subject were a little more mundane on the whole” resonated with me personally.

Looking around on some forums, I saw some Esperantists take a little offense to her characterization of the language and movement, but I think she is more than fair. Most of the time Esperanto seems to be portrayed either as a punchline to a joke about incomprehensibility or as a practically perfect tool that could save the world and bring about world peace if only people would take it seriously. The truth is somewhere in the middle (its user base has never grown as much as hoped, but there is an active and vibrant if relatively small community whose lives are undoubtedly enriched by the language, and a strong literary tradition), and she presents a balanced picture of it.

Anyway, this is exactly the kind of book I love: lots of interesting information on a subject I’m interested in, with a good level of lightness vs. depth and a very entertaining authorial voice. I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest in the subject.

China Miéville: The City & The City

Monday, July 6th, 2009

I have had an ambivalent relationship with China Miéville. Perdido Street Station was an awesome mess of a Weird fantasy book, with so much inventiveness stuffed into it that I could forgive its occasional failings. The Scar was just about as good, so I grabbed Iron Council in hardcover the day it came out… and gave up a quarter of the way through. It was actually boring; how can that be? I didn’t even try his young adult novel, Un Lun Dun, so it’s been a while since I read one of his books. Which brings us to the just-released The City & The City, which luckily I didn’t have to buy in hardcover because Liza picked up a free (personally signed!) copy at Book Expo America the other month.

It’s a marked change from his other work. Instead of being an adventure set in a weird fantasy city of another world, it’s a police procedural set in a depressingly pedestrian fictional Eastern European city on Earth — pedestrian except for the whole point, which I will give away in the next paragraph so stop reading now if you want to experience the novel fresh, though it’s clear pretty early on what’s going on:

OK, here we go: the city in which the novel takes place is divided in two, like Berlin was, only the whole thing is divided, practically fractally. On any given street corner you can see parts of both cities, and you’re supposed to pretend not to notice the other half. Miéville does a great job of making this absurd situation seem almost reasonable once you’ve read enough of the book. Naturally the crime being investigated ends up having political implications, and that’s as much as I’m going to say because I’ve already said too much.

Anyway, it was great. I’ve seen some people complain about where the book ends up going, but I thought it was perfectly executed; I’d love to discuss it more but I’d have to figure out how to hide text. Maybe later. Very impressive and highly recommended for people who like a little weird in their crime novels or vice versa. Miéville’s back in my half of the city.


Saturday, July 4th, 2009

I have a terrible memory. I’m pretty good at remembering processes and techniques, but very bad at remembering raw information. Luckily, I went into computer science, which is all about the former, rather than biology or something. (My musical memory is quite good, but that’s definitely an exception.) I find it very frustrating to spend a fair amount of time amassing knowledge (say, reading a history of the United States because I feel embarrassingly ignorant of it) only to have forgotten most of it a year or two later.

So last year I was excited to read a Wired article about Piotr Wozniak and his SuperMemo program. The idea is that you can feed everything you want to remember into a program that is scientifically tuned to spit out the right flashcards for you at exactly the right times. What makes it work is the principle of spaced repetition, discovered in the 19th century, which asserts that the time between reviews of a given piece of information should increase (exponentially, in fact) over time. Since facts that you start out by needing to review every day can eventually be reviewed every hundred days or more as their period increases, you can regularly stuff more facts into the database and your daily quota of flashcards doesn’t need to increase too much. The SuperMemo program handles all of that automatically, as well as doing obvious things such as reducing the period of facts that you find you have forgotten.

I didn’t do anything about it until recently, when I was reading David Carlton’s posts about writing his own SuperMemo-like system to help him learn Japanese[1][2][3][4]. I had been thinking for a while about using such a system to memorize my chess openings, and someone in a comment to his posts mentioned Mnemosyne, which is an open-source implementation of the same ideas, so I gave it a whirl.

Mnemosyne does handle images, but it’s a little painful to enter chess positions into it. I’ll put the technical details of how I do it in a postscript.  I dutifully started entering positions; my general technique is to play blitz games online, and for each game enter all the positions up to the point that I feel I should know to have a mastery of that opening (if they’re not already in the database).

One month later, I’m up to a library of 200 positions (and counting). The repetitions have gotten spaced out enough that I generally have 10 or fewer positions to review on any given day (of course, the whole thing only really works if you do daily reviews, but because of the system, it’s not much of a chore, and in fact I rather look forward to it).

Has it helped? I think it’s helped a lot. My former method of remembering openings was mostly to frantically cram every once in a while. Reviewing 10 positions every day, day in and day out, is much more productive. It’s also nice to know that a program is in control of the system. I trust that it is handing out positions to me when I should see them, and that my knowledge of my opening repertoire as a whole will be maintained at a decent level without me having to cram. In fact, one of the nicest results is just a large increase in my confidence. I don’t worry, “I should know this line, but I haven’t looked at it in a while, I should probably cram it again because I’ll feel stupid if I run into that person at the club who always plays it and I’ve forgotten what to do”; I trust that if the line is in the database, I have the appropriate chance of remembering it.

Learning and remembering stuff in Mnemosyne is so much fun that I actually picked up Esperanto again, which I had dabbled with years ago, just to have another thing to memorize. (I figured it would be more rewarding in a shorter time than if I relearned French or Latin — though maybe I’ll do one of them next…) That has also been working out great, and I feel like I’m retaining vocabulary much better than the last time I tried. Even better than the short-term benefit is the supposed long-term benefit that if I stop actively studying it but keep on doing daily reviews — and remember, the time needed to do that will go down if I’m not adding material — I’ll theoretically be able retain most of it instead of letting it all go down the drain once more. If that is really the case, it would be great. We’ll see.

[P.S. Here are the gory details of the system I use for storing chess positions, for the morbidly curious who are interested in following in my footsteps. I store my opening repertoire in Chess Position Trainer, a free application that nicely handles things like transpositions. When I want to store a position into Mnemosyne, I copy the position from CPT in FEN notation using Ctrl-C and paste it into a chess diagram generator (I use this one. Then I save off the resulting image into my .mnemosyne/images directory with a name like 0187.png (the number increases every time, of course). In Mnemosyne, I make a card with that image and the correct move, perhaps with additional notes that I should remember about that position. Importantly, I also enter an annotation like “[0187]” to the position in CPT, so I know that I’ve already added it to Mnemosyne and needn’t do so again in the future. It’s slightly tedious but not enough so to stop me from doing it.]

Four more possible Spewers

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Now that I’ve started the topic, I’ve been keeping my eyes open, plus other people have contributed ideas, and since my last post on the subject I have four new potential entries for the list. Since I’m basically doubling the list here, I think it is fair to recap the criteria once more:

  • incredibly prolific
  • awesome at their best
  • but with a nonexistent quality filter
  • largely intuitive in approach, as far as I can tell
  • even the best works are big messes (in a great way) rather than tightly constructed jewels
  • apparently wide-ranging in genre
  • but with enough tics that their work is instantly recognizable

One thing I do want to emphasize here is that there is no upper limit on quality. You can be one of the masters of all time in your craft and still be a Spewer. On to the list, in approximately descending order of how obviously they belong here:

1. Stephen King. Perhaps less obviously so since he gave up cocaine, but still a pretty clear member.

2. Dave Sim. A little different in that pretty much everything he’s done is part of one 25-year-long work, and that he’s kind of insane, but I think he fits well enough that I’m comfortable slotting him in.

3. Woody Allen. Liza wasn’t sure about him when I proposed him. For one thing, his best works are acknowledged masterpieces, but as I said, there’s no upper limit on quality here. Also, it’s harder to fit these criteria as a film director; the fact that you’re directing a team of dozens of people rather than scribbling away in your attic imposes a certain having-it-togetherness that is a little antithetical to the Spewer aesthetic. But I think he fits pretty well, disgorging a film every year, often on basically the same subjects, whether they are any good or not.

4. Pablo Picasso. Suggested by Daniel Koning in the comments to my last post on the subject. I know about as much about him as any educated person would know, but beyond that am not really qualified to judge whether he fits into this category. For example, did he make thousands of works because he was an artist with a compulsion to create and no filter, or just for completely mercenary reasons?  I feel like a true Spewer must fit into the former category, otherwise we have to start including people like Thomas Kinkade.

That brings us to the following population if we are as generous as possible:

  • Writers: Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, Stephen King (I note they are all genre writers)
  • Musicians: Robert Pollard, Frank Zappa
  • Graphic Novelists: Dave Sim
  • Filmmakers: Woody Allen
  • Artists: Pablo Picasso

This is starting to get big enough to get actually meaningful! Can we get it up to ten? My next nominee: Honoré de Balzac. To quote Wikipedia: “His magnum opus was a sequence of almost 100 novels and plays collectively entitled La Comédie humaine, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815.” Sounds pretty promising to me…