Archive for February, 2009

R. Scott Bakker: The Judging Eye

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Well, this is book 4 of at least 6 in a fantasy series, so it’s a bit silly for me to describe this one on its own to an audience that mostly hasn’t read any of them. Anyone who did get through to the end of the Prince of Nothing trilogy probably thought it was great, and would also think that this start of the next trilogy is great too, and I am no exception – it is basically more of the same.

So what do I like about these books in general? For one thing, awesome world-building. The third book has a long (like 100 pages) appendix that is basically an abridged encyclopedia of the whole world, and if you get off on that sort of thing, like I do, you will get off on this.

I also really enjoy the premise. An Übermensch appears in the world, and everyone has to figure out what he really is. Is he the messiah, or is he a preternaturally talented sociopath? Bakker is a good enough writer that it’s hard for the reader to arrive at a definite answer, and the other characters’ reactions to him are interesting and believable. (I realize as I write this that this is probably also the basic plot of Left Behind. I guess that makes this a little less of a recommendation.)

Negative things. It’s definitely male-centric, and the main female character, though sympathetically portrayed, is a whore. Yawn. Bakker has tried to defend this by saying (paraphrased) “Just because I’m portraying this doesn’t mean I approve of it!”, but having read enough fantasy to recognize this as a standard issue, I don’t buy it. (That is, I believe that he doesn’t approve of it, but it’s still annoying.) There’s also a over-the-top association of Evil with sexual sadism that just makes me squirm in an “ick” way, not in an “ooh this is so transgressive” way.

But overall, if you are looking for a well-written super-dark shades-of-gray massive-backstory bloody-but-brainy epic fantasy, you are likely to find this up your alley.

I guess I should mention at least something about this particular book, as distinguished from the series as a whole. Well, one cool thing is that it starts 20 years after the end of the first trilogy (which spanned a year or two). A standard problem with long fantasy series is that the author can’t resist the urge to describe everything that happens in the world in more and more detail, until history slows down to a soporific crawl. It takes some balls to effectively start your fourth book with “20 years later…”, and it works well here.

I try to avoid reading series-in-progress – you don’t know how good the future books will be, or how long the author will take to write them, plus my memory is terrible so I keep having to either reread thousands of earlier pages or thrash around confusedly – but I’m confident I’m in good hands here, and I anxiously await the resolution of the multiple plot threads that are left hanging at the end of this one (grrr).

St. Germain inventions

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

When I started getting into making cocktails at home, I naturally started out with the basics: gin, rye, vermouth, Angostura bitters, etc. I didn’t buy a new ingredient (like Campari or Chartreuse) until I knew there were a few classic cocktails I wanted to try that used it; I didn’t want to spend forty bucks on a big bottle of something that I only ended up pouring an ounce from once or twice.

Because of this, my acquisition rate slowed down markedly for a while. Cherry Heering, say, looked interesting, but what was I going to use it for besides a Blood and Sand? Well, in that particular case, once I tried a Blood and Sand at the Highland Kitchen, it was clear that that was reason enough to buy a bottle of Cherry Heering, but in the general case, I was still unwilling to make a commitment to off-the-beaten-path ingredients.

What finally got me buying interesting liquors with abandon was Thursday Drink Night at the Mixoloseum. On Thursday evenings, cocktail enthusiasts from all over the country (at least) gather in a chat room and share improvised recipes, some fair and a few admittedly foul (in my defense, rinsing a glass with chili oil before adding rye seemed like a great idea at the time). Of course I have much less experience than most of the participants, but the spirit of experimentation inspired me, and I realized that there are lots of interesting drinks waiting to be discovered, and that concocting a concoction that is at least palatable is not rocket science. For example, 2 oz base spirit (rye or gin), 1/2 oz something sweet, 1/2 oz something bitter is always going to be fairly balanced, and could be quite delicious, depending on how those ingredients happen to work with each other. Which means that if I buy some crazy new ingredient, I don’t need three classic drinks that use it; I can invent some myself!

So when the local liquor store had St. Germain on sale, I finally bit the bullet and bought a bottle. It is an elderflower liqueur, which if that means nothing to you, hey, it meant nothing to me either. It turns out to be pretty sweet in a tropical fruit kind of way with some herbal notes. So, what to do with it? Here are two recipes I came up with that are both delicious, and follow the basic template I mentioned above.

Special Snowflake

  • 2 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz St. Germain
  • 1/2 oz Lillet

Add ice, shake, and strain.

Lillet is a fortified wine with some herbs and quinine (the same thing that gives tonic water its flavor); it’s like dry vermouth with an edge. It gives just the right kick to the sweetness of the St. Germain.

Sans Serif

  • 2 oz rye
  • 1/2 oz St. Germain
  • 1/2 oz Aperol

I shake and strain this like I do everything, but for rye drinks I think you’re supposed to stir it instead. Whatever.

Aperol is a bitter amaro, like Campari but more laid-back. There’s enough of the rye for its characteristic grain-ness to come through but the St. Germain and Aperol add a really nice complementary sweetness and bitterness to it.

Did I mention that the best part of inventing new drinks is naming them?

Emacs: dedicated windows

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Here’s something I had been wanting to do for a long time and could never find the right docs for.

When you perform some operation in Emacs, it often puts stuff (search results, some new buffer, etc.) in a window other than the current one. (I’m using window in the Emacs sense, to mean a portion of what you might call a window but it calls a frame.) But I have a huge Emacs frame, and always want to keep some buffers present in particular positions while rotating the rest of it around. In my case, it’s my org-mode windows, which keep track of most everything about my work day, but you could imagine it being some documentation reference or something. Because I have these buffers up for long stretches of time but rarely actually go to them and edit them, Emacs thinks they’re not important and is happy to reuse their windows when it has new data to display. How to stop it from doing so?

It turns out that what I want is a dedicated window (if I had realized this, I could have found the answer a lot faster). The details are in the Emacs Lisp docs or you can just put this trivial but handy code in your .emacs, and use the Pause key to toggle the dedication of the current window:

(defun toggle-current-window-dedication ()
 (let* ((window    (selected-window))
        (dedicated (window-dedicated-p window)))
   (set-window-dedicated-p window (not dedicated))
   (message "Window %sdedicated to %s"
            (if dedicated "no longer " "")

(global-set-key [pause] 'toggle-current-window-dedication)

Dream #1

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I am arrested for driving without a license. The policeman leads me to the bank of a muddy river and hands me a thick sheaf of paper. “This is a test to determine your moral character,” he says. I leaf through it; it’s just page after page of multiple-choice Planet of the Apes trivia questions.

I am upset because I know next to nothing about the subject. “How are you supposed to determine my moral character just from Planet of the Apes trivia questions?” I cry.

“Well,” he explains, “there are a lot of them.”

Levitate Me

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

In which I take all the magic out of one of my favorite songs by analyzing it to death.

“Levitate Me” is from the Pixies’ first record, the EP Come On Pilgrim, recorded and released in 1987. If you want to follow along I recommend this live performance.

It’s by Black Francis so who knows what the lyrics are really about, but to me they’re about transcendence through sex, being lifted up by someone to a higher plane.

I’ll start at the beginning. Musically, the verses are mostly about a continued attempt to leave the tonic chord, E. The chord sequence is E (for a long time,) G#, A, four times in a row. When Francis sings “Levitate me” the first two syllables are supremely dissonant against the underlying harmony; the guitar’s playing a G# chord, which includes a B# as its third, while he’s singing a B natural, creating the mother of all dissonances, the minor second. We’ll see a different minor second dissonance against a B# (or C natural) shortly.

The third line speeds up the meta-rhythm; it’s 12 beats long instead of 16, because we move to the G# after just 8 beats, not 12. At the same time it feels slowed down, as the lyrics are stripped back to “Higher place… levitate me”, and the yodel-like leap on “place” leaves him suspended on a high G# (as high as he gets in the whole song) for a whole bar, until the band finally switches to the G# chord underneath him so we can return to making progress.

In the fourth line we return to a normal 16-beat period, but the temperature is raised both because he’s singing straight eighth notes instead of the former sparse phrases and from the cross-rhythm: “Elevator lady” is 6 half-beats long against the 4-or-8 period underneath it, forcing him to throw in an extra “lady” near the end in order to end up in the right place. What is easier to notice on this line is that everyone starts really rocking out, but the structure is supporting that feeling as much as the volume.

Finally we move up to the dominant harmony, B, for the “If all in all is true” section. (The structure of a piece of classical music is, at its most general, a long move from the tonic (I) harmony to the dominant (V) harmony and back. Rock music is of course a lot less academic than that but this song happens to follow that pattern.) Here we’re in groups of 6 beats (a Pixies trademark) except for the fourth line, which now lengthens the period out to 8 beats to increase the anticipation of the resolution of the dominant to the tonic just that much longer.

The arrangement also opens up a lot at this point – everyone drops out except for the rhythm guitar. Combined with the increased tension of the move to the dominant, the effect is to keep us suspended in the air, waiting for the rest of the band to join back in for the return to the tonic.

On the second line of this section, Joey Santiago on lead guitar throws in a repeated C# that’s dissonant against the B harmony. The rest of the band gradually rejoins the party, and we return to the tonic in a classic F# (V of V) – B (V) – E (I) progression, with a C chord thrown in between the F# and the B, giving it a little minor flavor. Joey’s sustained C# finally makes sense than before when the band moves to the F# chord underneath him, then immediately makes even less sense when they proceed to a C chord (same pitch as that B# earlier), making a grinding dissonance against his note.

The same dissonance keeps occurring in the refrain; the harmonies are repeating C – B – E, continuing to emphasize the C natural, while Joey’s riff goes E-D#-C#-B against it, continuing the C against C# friction.

So that’s halfway through, and it’s time for another trip through the basic structure. This time it’s even more stop-start than before; the instruments stay in suspended animation while Francis’s utterances become ever more gnomic before proceeding to each G# – A – E conclusion. Meanwhile, Joey spends the whole verse sitting on the low E (the lowest note on a guitar) in a menacing tremolo.

The high point of the whole song for me (just beating the awesome Sprechstimme of “Come on pilgrim, you know he loves you” – listen to the Live at the BBC version if you really want to feel your heart stop) is in the second “elevator lady” section. Without warning, in the very middle of it, two extra beats are inserted. All the pitched instruments drop out as the drums throw in an out-of-nowhere ka-POW!, and then everyone picks up right where they left off. Meanwhile Francis has continued to barrel through with his repeated mantra, and because of the extra two beats, ends up in exactly the right place without having to insert an extra “lady” this time. The total effect is like motoring at top velocity through a speed bump, experiencing a second of zero-g while flying through the air, then landing with authority and speeding on with no one the worse for wear. I will never tire of it.

After that amazing moment it’s basically just a long slow return to earth, repeating the moves of the first refrain. There are a few extra cycles of the C – B – E pattern, performing a harmonic deceleration to accompany the tempo deceleration as we arrive at our destination. But boy, that was a pretty good two-minute trip to get there. Wanna hear it again?

Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

One of my projects this year is to read a bunch of the books sitting on my bookshelves that I have heretofore ignored. I never buy a book I don’t intend to read, but often something else takes precedence and I never get around to reading it. Until this year, that is, I guess.

I read At Swim-Two-Birds, “O’Brien’s” (it’s a pseudonym) most famous work, around a decade ago, and didn’t really get it. As I recall it’s very postmodern (far ahead of its time, in 1939), with stories within stories and various fictional and mythical characters careening back and forth between them. I read the whole thing in kind of a daze and nothing about it really stuck. But a friend with whom I share many tastes said I had to read The Third Policeman, and so I bought it, and now have finally read it.

It’s pretty weird too, though easier to take in than At Swim-Two-Birds; at least it has a linear plot. An unexceptional (except for having a wooden leg and being a murderer) man suddenly finds himself in an odd environment with at its center a police station whose inhabitants seem to be interested in pretty much nothing but bicycles and the afterlife. When I put it like that it sounds kind of odd, and you know what, it is. He has a bunch of strange adventures and strange conversations, and the book actually sort of goes somewhere in the end, which was kind of a surprise after the first 180 pages.

Halfway through it I realized “Hey, this reminds me a lot of Alice In Wonderland”, and apparently I am smart, because this is what the scholars say too, although because they have Ph.D.s in literature they seem to say “Menippean satire” instead of “Alice In Wonderland”, or so I gather from a brief jaunt through the web.

The book is actually frequently hilarious in a verbal Monty Python kind of way. You will perhaps understand my comparison when I inform you that much of the humor involves the attempt to have logical conversations with policemen who are unable to understand any concept unless it is framed in terms of bicycles. I found the funniest parts of the book to be the narrator’s ongoing earnest attempts to relate his situation to the life and writing of the fictional de Selby, the most moronic philosopher who ever lived, complete with extensive footnotes detailing the history of scholarly investigations of his work. Your mileage may vary.

As usual when reading classic novels, I totally enjoyed it on the surface, while undoubtedly missing a lot of the interesting stuff that lurks beneath. I could tell that a lot of what was going on was probably referencing and making fun of contemporary scientific and philosophical fads, but as the “contemporary” in question was 70 years ago, it was less pointed to me than I’m sure it was at the time.

P.S. When I finished this supposedly obscure book, I headed over to Amazon to read what I figured would be 3 or so reader reviews. There were 79. Apparently, a couple years back one of the characters on Lost was reading it, so all the fanatics had to immediately buy it and scour it for clues. Hey, if it gets people to read classic postmodern literature, I’m all for it.

Songbook: Bucket

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

I thought it would be fun to write about some of the songs I’ve written. (I should point out for those coming to this cold that I’m the principal songwriter for Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives). I’m going to start with songs from our latest record, Third Time’s the Charm. If you don’t have it, you can at least listen to a chunk of each song at our CD Baby page .

“Bucket” started because I felt that we had a dearth of songs in 3/4 and I wanted to remedy the deficiency. And what do you think of when you think of songs in three? Sea chanties, of course! The one-note-to-a-bar chorus is meant to be bellowed with your arms around your fellow men as you sway back and forth. It comes in groups of 9 bars, which doesn’t subdivide easily – the idea was kind of to just keep you swaying, bar by bar, without having that overall structural feeling of “okay, now we’re halfway through”.

The verses are mostly in groups of six bars, keeping the ternary idea going. Originally the guitars followed the bass as it went C – C – F – Bb – C – C, but it turned out to work out better to offset them slightly and ratchet up the tension a little – they pretty much go C – C – F – F – F – C over that bassline, which makes it feel like the bass is pulling them reluctantly along through the chord changes. We don’t prog out much in general but I totally gave into those tendencies with the unison break at the end of each verse. We drop one beat during it for extra proggy cred.

The lyrics are pretty silly. “Tomatillo” was a just a space-filling word I was using for the chorus, and it stuck. It took me a long time to come up with bridge words I was happy with – for a long time the bridge ended with “I’m a telegram” instead of “if you telegram”. If they mean anything at all it’s a general sense of leaving the quotidian trivialities of everyday life behind and achieving transcendence, which, hey, rock music never hurts in the pursuit of. “Hale-Bopp” from the first record had a similar basis.

The form is Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Bridge, Chorus. Originally there was another chorus before the bridge but it made the whole thing too long; by the last chorus you were just waiting for the thing to end instead of being swept away in a final flourish. It’s a little unusual to head into a bridge after hearing just one chorus, but the end of the verse is enough of an event that I don’t think you feel like you haven’t had enough resolution points yet.

We started out with everyone just coming into together, then we decided to give our drummer Bill a couple bars of intro, then one rehearsal he played a full eight and it was awesome. Which made it a clear album-opener as well.

There’s some Hammond organ starting in the bridge that I really like; it adds to the balls-out atmosphere I was looking for. I wrote the part in less time than it took to perform it. One take and it’s good to go!


Sunday, February 1st, 2009

I just finished watching Bruce Springsteen perform at the Super Bowl halftime show (and I’m not a big Springsteen fan, but that was a pretty great halftime show). Anyway, it got me thinking: Bruce Springsteen has sold millions and millions of records, and he has a ton of cred as an Important Artist and all, but I can’t think of any major bands that follow in his footsteps. It seems very weird for someone so big both commercially and artistically to not have a slew of imitators.

Am I wrong? Is it more common than I think for an artist of his stature to stand so alone?  Or am I missing a big group of Young Springsteens?