Friday, September 21, 2018

Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars (book review)

An Augean non-place (Alice in the rabbit hole)

Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars is a huge novel, larger than its word count would suggest. 

It's an account of a man whose thoughts are ruled by the works of J G Ballard, the writer whose novels and essays explored the effects of changes in technology, environment and suburban development on human psychology. He encounters UFOs, thugs, strangely belligerent ferrymen, barflies, computer-game avatars, a dwarf on a bicycle, and much forbidding architecture. Several people are eager to give him drugs, one of whom is a doctor. His burning desire is to figure out how Ballard’s work ties this accelerating madness together before it all crashes to a halt.

Applied Ballardianism arrived in an ordinary, expected Amazon bubble wrap envelope, slipped under the gate. It had been loosely bagged with an order of Silverfish bait in a carton that had dented the corners of the pages. I’d ordered the baits because a population explosion of Silverfish is assailing the house. If you’re not sure what these are, they’re little silver robot-looking bugs that are to be found all along book shelves, chewing at pages and leaving ragged holes in the texts. They also favor living inside household picture frames, consuming the images and dying under the glass like self-mounting museum pieces.

A silverfish, yesterday

Applied Ballardianism's genre is described as ‘theory-fiction’, which was new to me. I had to dig for definitions. It’s a construction from philosopher and wordsmith Jean Baudrillard. DeBoer says of Baudrillard’s theory-fiction, “Theory must abandon production for seduction and revel in the ecstatic supersaturation of its own linguistic nature. Baudrillard does not have to theorize with the intention of affecting a 'reality,' but can let his theory stand as fiction or literature that persistently draws attention to its own lack of grounding.” In the book, Sellars points out the word ‘Baudrillard’ surrounds and subsumes the word ‘Ballard’.

(Picture by LH; index is not in book)

Theory-fiction is credited (by Wikipedia, and of all things, Urban Dictionary) as being pioneered by philosopher Nick Land, whose work has been described as speculative realism in which formalism and representation become continuous with respect to one another, wiping out the real object to which they ostensibly refer. “The collapse of the signifier/sign/signed triangle in semiotic theory into a duality of signifier and signed.”

This definition seems to me to be a case of having had too much to think. Just like little Jim Ballard in the movie of Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.

More simply, according to Wikipedia, Nick Land’s version ‘is noted for its unorthodox interspersion of philosophical theory with fiction, science, poetry, and performance art.’ In other words, it’s just theory – philosophy or literary theory – mixed with fiction. There’s a list of theory-fiction here, which seems to agree with Wikipedia’s definition, but even as I type that I realize I am getting caught in the Baudrillardian lobster pot of multiplying words and hoping it will help.

So, to recap, we have some theory-fiction, by Simon Sellars, which will either explain a theory by using fiction or will collapse the semiotic triangle into a duality, or both.

(Picture by LH; index is not in book)

Now I come to think of it, I’ve read theory-fiction of this type before. Valis, by Philip K Dick, which I’m not going to summarize here because we don’t have all day, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, and probably less well known and a surprise to Sellars, The Man Who Killed Mick Jagger, by Richard Littlejohn.

ZATAOMM is the writings of a man on a long motorcycle trip with his son. He remembers he used to be someone else, and his pre-breakdown self is still inside his mind as an alter ego. As the trip progresses, he remembers that his previous self, an adjunct professor, broke down from “thinking too hard” about the philosophical concept of Quality. He now champions a different way to work on the problem of Quality, rationality, which he illustrates and practices via motorcycle maintenance. His mind begins to heal. He even works out why he sometimes dreams his son is on the other side of a glass door- it’s an analog of the door between them in his old mental hospital.

TMWKMJ has stuck in my memory since the day I read it, in 1979. As I recall, it recounts the maturing of a philosophizing, unlovable failure as he does a Grand Tour of European Culture and frets constantly because the modern world refuses to live up to the glories of his beloved Medieval Art. A run-in with violent thugs does not help matters. Having been subjected to enough philosophy to harm himself, he has internalized Nietzsche. He’s different, the superman. He must clean up his civilization. He begins with the idea of killing Mick Jagger, onstage, at the Oakland Coliseum, and he ends there as well, as his jump to make the attempt is the last line of the book.

Applied Ballardianism follows an unnamed protagonist who is styled as ‘I’. I’m going to call him ‘Sellars’ as his life follows the broad outlines of the life of Simon Sellars, the author, with whom I’m acquainted on Facebook and elsewhere online. ‘Sellars’ was working in a warehouse in the nineties, an aficionado of the cyberculture of that time, with its transhumanism, piercing rituals, hippie boosterism and much-lauded white-hat hackers. Unimpressed by their promises of a bright future, he gravitates to the scene's more nihilist cyberpunk cellar. From his new perspective, he quickly comes to see the onrushing digital world as a “tsunami of data”. Convinced he has “Information Fatigue Syndrome”, he visits a doctor to see what can be done about it. “I’m a cyberwarrior,” he tells the doctor. “And my mind is going.” This is the first of many times ‘Sellars’ sees himself start to unravel – the scale against which he measures his mental health changes exponentially, so he’s mostly drifting around the low end of an increasingly mad world. The doctor gives him some pills, imprinted with the symbol of a dove, that have unexpectedly disorienting effects.

i-D magazine Devil Girl cover

Picking up one of the cyberculture glossies – i-D magazine, the issue with a devil-girl on the cover – he reads an interview with J G Ballard.  The writer is pictured making a sanpaku-eye gesture, challenging 'Sellars' to look more closely.

He decides to “risk it all” and read Ballard’s most famous, and infamous, work, Crash. Crash’s narrator is ‘James Ballard’, whom ‘Sellars’ describes as a “rough copy of the real Ballard, a flawed clone.” We’ll hear a lot more about ‘copies’, doubles and ‘clones’ later. This is the beginning of the end for poor ‘Sellars’. Crash “snaps” him. Head filled with theories about Ballard’s oeuvre, he enrolls in university and begins to study for a PhD in Ballardianism. When his tenuous connection with cyberpunk fails – when he learns they have embraced Billy Idol and yet have no room for him, "Sellars', at their S&M parties – he throws himself into drilling down into the source of Ballard’s apparent importance.

All this puts 'Sellars' in my bailiwick, since I had some similar experiences - I was at ACM Siggraph in 1993, when Billy Idol appeared at a party there to plug that album. That was either the year I had a press badge or the year before, I forget. On seeing what was on offer, I told my editor nothing of interest happened and I couldn't be bothered to write the article. (He did not object.)

An Augean non-place (from The Fly)

‘Sellars’’ life spins out of control. His lover repudiates him. Academia fails to hang on his every word. People keep offering him those pills with the dove imprint. UFOs are spotted. Street lights mysteriously go out when he walks by them. Almost everything that happens reminds him of a Ballard story. The few that don’t remind him of postmodern philosophers or movies. (If you have not read Ballard or Baudrillard, this is not a problem as Sellars describes each piece and how it pertains.) He gets a job as a travel writer, but everywhere he goes, he sees only the Ballardian surface which by now coats every aspect of reality. Hotels and airports, the "non-places" that aren’t truly anywhere? Marc AugĂ©, and Ballard. Dubai? Mostly Ballard, some Chris Marker. The concrete bunkers of the western Atlantic coast? Virilio, and a lot of Ballard. Back home to Australia? He gets himself his own Ballardian “hoodlum scientist” and moons after him in a very Ballardian way. He’s sure everything is connected. If only he could mentally shift things into another configuration, it would all come together and make sense.

(Picture by LH; index is not in book)

Applied Ballardianism, billed as a “memoir from a parallel universe”, is a mixtape, a series of samples set to a rhythm, a supercut. It’s autobiographical (and there’s nothing more standard than a professor writing about the colossal in-fights of academia – academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small, as they say, and for a TA they’re smaller still), it’s science fiction, paranormal mystery, a critique of consumer society and a travelogue of post-modern theory.
It’s hyperreality, where fiction and reality are blended together seamlessly, both at the level of ‘Sellars’ and his wildly out of control imagination, and at the level of the reader observing Simon Sellars, the writer, extrude ‘Sellars’, his fictional double, his portal-mirror and his off-kilter double exposure.

Scalpel from Cronenberg's Dead Ringers

For more information on postmodern theoreticians, click here. For even more information, click there again.

(Note: The 'index' is not part of the book. It's from my notes. Picture selections are my own as well.)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Carnival Nine by Caroline M. Yoachim (review) and more

This month's Old People Read New SF is a review of Carnival Nine by Caroline M. Yoachim. I am one of the old people doin' the reviewin'. Guess which one.

It's possible that some people clicking on that will be puzzled that the website name is I am, every single time, but that's because I'm old. The website is called that because noted SF reviewer James Nicoll's original project was to have Young People Read Old SF (and F) to see if it was as enthralling to them today, as current young people, as it was to us back in the day when we were also young people. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they rarely fell over each other with enthusiasm about the Old SF they were assigned to read. I did find it a bit disappointing, as many of the stories were multiple-award winners and many were repeatedly reprinted up until the present day, and I did think they had something going on. 

Shirley Jackson's The Lottery? Jerome Bixby's It's a Good Life? (Better known as the wishing people into the cornfield Twilight Zone one.) Light of Other Days? Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand? Flowers for Algernon?

And many, many more.

I read, or rather re-read, all of them before reading the Young People's views and thought that most held up well. The most common complaints, that the characters are of purest cardboard and 'women' characters are sprinkled in for decoration only, were, alas, quite true but...I guess I was used to it, back in the day. If you go looking for the stories, beware that not all of them are legally online, although most of almost all of them are in PDF form in some teacher's notes or other, and therefore googleable, if unlike me you do not have an extensive musty library teeming with silverfish.

Young People Read Old SFF is here.

Another one of James's projects is New People Listen to Old SFF. These old radio shows are available on the web, and linked before each set of reviews, so get listening and see if you agree with the young people!

Mysterious Ebbing and Flowing Well, Settle

I used to visit the Ebbing and Flowing Well at Giggleswick with my parents every time we drove past, which was frequently.  It's on the B6480 (or Clapham Road) under Buck Haw Brow (pronounced bucker brow) near Settle golf course. If you're inclined to visit, be aware the road is pretty busy and there's no pull-out for the well.

"Ebb" - to drain away. "Flow" -  a stream of water.

Humphrey Bolton / Ebbing and Flowing Well, Buck Haw Brow B6480, Giggleswick / CC BY-SA 2.0

Although it's reputed to have a grander and more folk-magic past, it is nowadays a little livestock drinking cistern by the side of the road. Regularly, it begins to fill up - mysteriously, since the flow isn't associated with rain - and then drain again, almost immediately.  The water height change is only a few inches, and you can easily spend half an hour staring at it wondering if the water is ebbing, flowing or just lying there prompting hallucinations.

If you read histories of the well, they mostly say, "the well these days has stopped ebbing and flowing".  This isn't actually true, it's just most people have the twitches from too much smart phone wrangling and don't watch for long enough.

Being old enough to have grown up without the phone twitches is good in one way, but not in others - for example, I don't have any of my own photos or videos, because cameras cost a fortune back then. So these two videos are cribbed.

The first has a description of the history and location of the well, with a time-lapse of the effect.

(From bill bartlett's YouTube)

Then there's this nice example from John Barrow's YouTube, who has disabled it so it doesn't play on Blogger. It's worth the extra click. It shows the well at a very active point - and the people speaking in the video have hit on how it works. It's a siphon, so once the water reaches a certain point down the (invisible) outlet, it will continue to 'mysteriously' empty, far below the point the where it started draining.

I'm not sure why I remembered this today, and went looking for videos. Perhaps it's just a nostalgic day - my other chase down the internet rabbit hole this morning was to follow the fate of the Bethnal Green Mulberry, which is at least 500 years old and may even have been planted for medicinal purposes by the Romans. For years it was in the grounds of a hospital, but the hospital moved out and the developers moved in.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Why I haven't reviewed Applied Ballardianism yet (non review)

I thought it would be quite easy to review Simon Sellars' Applied Ballardianism.

In fact, reading the book was quite easy - and enjoyable for a number of reasons, including the several They Live-style beating scenes.  The non-places - airports, parking lots, freeways and hotels. The Heart of Darkness/Lovecraft island of Nan Madol, which I thought was fiction at first and had to look it up.

Reviewing it is proving harder, however, because of my woeful lack of knowing who the hell Baudrillard was.  On attempting to remedy this, I hit a patch where the entire world dissolved into an unsorted pile of unreferenced signs which interfered with my ability to write anything down. In fact, I was so discombobulated, I wasn't even happy working at my Twitter mine.  I usually put my shift in pressing the "like" button and occasionally "retweet" for several hours a day but Baudrillard took the fun out of it.

You know Searle's Chinese Room? After I got to a certain point in the Baudrillard thing I realized Baudrillard thought of us as the AI in the Chinese Room, taking in signs from the left door in one language, looking up the corresponding sign in the second language and handing that word out of the right door.  Maybe a bit more, as we occasionally add a "LOL" or "AYFKM" as we hand it back out.

Except I'm not seeing an argument for us as Strong AI, i.e. all of the handling of the signs is done by an unthinking, inhuman machine. Which means I don't exist.

Of course, that may be because I'm reading Baudrillard For Dummies, but that's about my level.  I don't usually do this, but a scan of the book is available online. It's Chris Horrocks's and Zoran Jevtic's Introducing Baudrillard 1999. I have some other books in the same series - Derrida, for example - but came across the full text of Baudrillard while I was investigating whether to buy it.  I thought it would take me a day to figure it out. I'm still stalled on day 8. The relevant part starts on p 103.

French philosophers are weird. It's 28 been years since the reunification of Germany so there must be a crop of German philosophers just about ready to harvest and then we can drop the French ones.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

"To Be Read" pile - Various memoirs of the Space Age - and the inner space age

I enjoyed the Nick Butt memoir ElectricNick: No Direction Home so much that I'm currently reading the similarly-situated Roy Weard memoir, The Way To(o) Weard

For balance, I'm concurrently reading the inner-space focused Applied Ballardianism; A memoir from a parallel universe by Simon Sellars, which is positioned as an autobiography but is something much more.  I'll be writing about those two when I'm finished.

Sadly, I did find a 60's Ladbroke Grove book which did not manage to hold my interest. That was Polly Put The Kettle On by Hillary Bailey. I thought that Bailey, Michael Moorcock's wife at the time and Ladbroke Grove regular, would be of interest automatically given the date and the situation. I found that it had two issues which drew me up short. First, she uses an odd punctuation for speech, which meant that every time a character (for this is a novel, not a memoir) spoke, I bared my teeth in a snarl and had to spend a moment before I could return to the plot. Second, the events described seem a little low-key compared with the writings of the male denizens. She may have been aiming for literary, or Kitchen Sink as it was called, but for me ended up with the Eight Deadly Words.

I don't care what happens to these characters.

She didn't have the money to pay the rent and Brian knew it.
'Oh, Trevor, the tea is ready', she said, 'I've mashed it in the china pot with the pink pigs on.'
Trevor was a stocky man with a round face from Chepstow. She met his eyes half way.

(This is not an actual quote from the book.)

In contrast, the books I'm getting on with read more like this:
Zoomer made the obvious joke and so we renamed our band the Mass Debaters. We were young and pretty naive, so we hadn't realized how off-putting this name was to girls, or for that matter men, promoters and managers.
Zoomer was a man with no luck at all, but plenty of drugs. He took three tabs of the brown acid and totaled a new car by running it into a tree. He said he'd swerved to miss a giant Zebedee who had sprung out from behind it. He hadn't even bought the car yet - he was test-driving it. Funny thing is, that was the second time that happened to him. 
 (This is not an actual quote from a book either.)

Anyway, back to the reading mines.

Friday, August 31, 2018

ElectricNick: No Direction Home by Nick Butt (Kindle book review)

The Kindle-only ElectrickNick: No Direction Home by Nick Butt is the fascinating story of a young man who appeared fated to sink rapidly into homelessness and addiction after leaving his dysfunctional family, but escaped and ran through London’s Swinging Sixties and early seventies like a hippy Zelig. Everyone you could possibly think to appear in the book does so. Nevertheless, Nick manages not to come across as a name-dropper; he (and his co-writer Richard Marris) simply recount, in an unadorned and workmanlike fashion, the things that happened around him, and it turns out to be everything worth happening.

The closest memoir I can think of is Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles, but Nick’s story lacks the air of glamour and the inevitability of success that peppers Boyd’s gallivant through the upper echelons of the Hippie Establishment.

Indeed, Nick writes, without mentioning any names, “In hindsight, many of the leading figures of those times were at best self-serving and at worst exploitative and sexually predatory. Their voices and endlessly self-promoting stories dominate the history of our British version of the counterculture, while people with fresh angles and insights take them to the grave.” This comes just after a mention of his (then) recent meeting with one of the London scene ladies, where she says she now “views a lot of what she experienced in her early teens as paedophilia, somehow justified as a form of self-expression.”

But the book is in no way explicit, nor salacious, nor judgmental. It merely describes Nick’s journey, which takes him from Middle Earth (the London Club of that name), Notting Hill, through Pacific Island paradises, via clapped out hippy bus-rides through the Middle East and non-airworthy planes to Bali, to Australian communes and back. What lifted him out of the quicksand of poverty that overtook so many at the time – the traps laid for troubadours who got killed before they reached Bombay – is his uncanny affinity with the mechanical and electrical. Every time the money ran out, he met someone who needed an engine repair, a recording studio built or a demon-possessed transistor radio exorcising. And in the counter-culture territories of New South Wales, everyone needed solar panels.

Thrill to what happened to the enameled pot that came in handy initially because he had dysentery and needed to bail stuff out of the window! Find out how to explain to the highway patrol why the handbrake of your faltering vehicle is lying on the seat! Have fun with adventures like the following, which almost unbelievably happened in London, not the New Hebrides:

“One Sunday afternoon a few months later we were putting on a benefit for a group called The Tribe of the Sacred Mushroom when we were raided aggressively by the Bow Street constabulary. As they left they told the market traders that we were burning a child at the stake, which goaded them into smashing up the whole club with axes and grappling hooks.”
Delight in anecdotes such as this, which is also incredibly set in England:

“Septimus had bought it [a contraption apparently composed of batteries and CRTs] for £5 from a local farmer who maintained it was a UFO he had seen crash land in one of his fields. We later learned that a local eccentric, who claimed to be Mick Jagger's uncle, had produced it as a prototype for a spaceship. Maybe he built the real thing because he disappeared one day, leaving all his belongings behind and was never heard of again. I bought the vessel for £7 as a conversation piece but before I could collect it a chap named Scorpio smashed it up with an axe 'because it was evil'.”
Or this:
“We had dropped acid on the ferry and all seemed normal until we were confronted by the 50 or so clocks in Gabe's parents' living room and by the time we sat down for tea my sausages were breathing. My efforts to force them down weren't helped by Gabe's mum, who'd had part of her gullet removed, pulling a tube and funnel out of her cardigan and pouring pieces of bacon and egg into it.”
And did you know:
“The French were testing nuclear bombs at Mururoa Atoll, 3,559 miles of nothing but sea away and the electro-magnetic pulses from the detonations fried transistors all around the South Pacific.”
I’m not using up all the best tales here, because there are literally hundreds of them. Every page has something incredible happen, or someone incredible met. Much is funny. The first half has the 60's rock royalty. The latter half, where he and his lady build a home and garden from scratch in the Australian eucalyptus forests, is equally gripping. The middle, island-hopping tales in the Pacific, are like Heart of Darkness meets Trobriand Cricket.

Nick and his co-writer seems to have been working from diaries, because they seem sure of dates, names and number of appearances. Which is interesting, because Mick Farren told me the Deviants had never played with Led Zeppelin (only with the Band of Joy) but Nick says they did, and describes the event. I guess that’s the advantage of keeping good records.

An excellent companion book to more famous memoirs by people who may have had an interest in whitewashing their sixties exploits.

Edit: Nick provided the proof!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What's Upside Down, Tiger Lily?

When I was a lass, What's Up Tiger Lily was the epitome of this sort of thing. Wait, not the epitome - the only example. Taking a whole visual text, and re-imagining it with a new, absurdist, soundtrack

Nowadays the kids - in this case, Bad Lip Reading - hit it out of the park on a regular basis.

This one takes Stranger Things and makes it suffer a sea change into Something Richer and Stranger Things. It takes on a new life, with new characters, new motivations and faint echoes of meaning.

A surrealist riot.

The songs are:

Glitter Job's Ice God of Hungary

And Seagulls' Stop It Now

Both of which are Bad Lip Reading again, just doing to songs what they do to movies.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Killing in my home town

Great, now the Sheriff's deputies are killing people in my home town of San Juan Capistrano - in fact, just after the person ran out my favorite breakfast nook, Mollie's Cafe. I saw a lot of police lights there on Monday evening but had no idea someone had died.

NBC4's official write up here, with their video.

Bystander video (not graphic):

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Verizon Throttled Fire Department's "unlimited" Data During California Wildfire

So many news items these days read like sarcastic dystopian stage plays. To me at my age, Spike Milligan (e.g. the Bedsitting Room) always comes to mind but I'm sure people still write them.

This item isn't about "net neutrality" per se, it's about throttling data when you go over an arbitrary limit on your "unlimited" plan, i.e. for we the people, the amount of data you can download is unlimited, but after a while it downloads so slowly that there is a de facto limit on how much data you can download...Catch 22. 

For the fire department, who were not simply trying to stream a bootleg of Crazy Rich Asians, but trying to coordinate ops to stop the whole state burning, it became an emergency during an emergency. 

But Verizon doesn't have an emergency department, just their offshored procrastination service. Can you imagine being a firefighter in full gear next to an all-consuming blaze, hanging around on hold with the 'supervisor' (the guy in the next cubicle who is brought over when you ask for the first guy's supervisor) going through these hoops:
"Verizon representatives confirmed the throttling, but rather than restoring us to an essential data transfer speed, they indicated that County Fire would have to switch to a new data plan at more than twice the cost, and they would only remove throttling after we contacted the Department that handles billing and switched to the new data plan."

(On the one hand maybe you shouldn't buy your mega-ops-truck just one phone line, but on the other hand maybe ten people from Verizon should be selected as enemies of the state and executed, pour encourager les autres.)

Monday, August 20, 2018

Jack White, August 18th 2018, Rabobank Theater Bakersfield

I am, shock horror, not an OG White Stripes fan. I gave up on rock music by the late eighties, and although I moved to the US at around the same time, where I could be expected to ride the grunge wave, I didn't. Ending up close to LA, where the scene was pay-to-play Sunset Strip hair metal, I wasn't persuaded that things were any better. (I didn't have a lot of exposure to Orange County punk, otherwise things might have been different.) So, from 1990 to 2008 I was just listening to hip-hop and EDM and that's it. About then, late oughties, I asked a friend from a legacy Led Zeppelin group, newly energized by the 02 reunion, if there was anything equally exciting in the world today, and that's how I heard about the Raconteurs.

I really dug the Racs. They had the power-pop sensibilities to write the hooks and melodies and yet had the attack of a hard rock band. By the time I was turned on to them, it was already too late for new music from them, but when the Dead Weather formed in 2009 I was all over it. I forget how many times I saw them - 6 or 8 - and I unambiguously loved them. In some ways, I thought of them as LARPing heavy rock music, but in an affectionate and very accurate way. The Raconteurs were vastly different with their Tin Pan Alley hooks, but equally effective. The common denominator was I bought all the White Stripes albums. I liked them but they've never been on my heavy rotation playlist.

Although I bought the subsequent Jack White solo albums they haven't, to me, alway had that savage attack and hard edge I prefer in music. For every High Ball Stepper there's a plaintive ballad. For that reason, I hadn't gone to any solo shows, until yesterday.

But, it was a sojourn. Bakersfield is a long drive for us. It was enlivened by a truck full of tyrannosaurs racing us from Irvine to LA in heavy traffic.

Once through LA and the byzantine single-lane mazes the I5 takes, it was straight sailing up the Tejon Pass and through the Meth Desert to Oildrillerville, stopping only to briefly get lost in Valencia, home of Six Flags Magic Mountain.

(That picture of Six Flags wasn't taken yesterday - it's from December, taken by a colleague at one of my previous work places in Valencia. The hills were on fire at the time.)

The hotel we'd chosen actually attaches to the Rabobank Theater. So, although it was 106F out, the rest of the evening was the most civilized experience I've ever had at a gig. There were Yondr people there to intercept and redirect the foolhardy who did not have a paper ticket and could have locked their phones in their Yondr bag prior to getting in. The will-call people were polite and organized. We had seats. There were ushers with flashlights to get us to our seats. The beer queue was manageable. You could drink beer in the seats. (You were specifically enjoined not to bring in "cans or other projectiles" but apparently cans bought inside the venue are not potential projectiles.) The lights went down at almost at the advertised time.

The pre-show music was all hip-hop, which was fine by me. Toes were tapped. The lights went down and the man in front of me, who I swear was Jerry Garcia, lit up a joint. How he did it without an open flame I'll never know, but there it was. (Folks, he bogarted his joint. Maybe it wasn't really Jerry.) The support act was William Tyler and I'm sorry but no. The music - unaccompanied guitar - was pretty good and would be stellar on the player if you're painting a room or having a nice garden party or something, but as a warm up act for Jack, it just cooled me down. I'm convinced he played Led Zeppelin's Going To California eleven times, sometimes on acoustic, sometimes on electric and once in a slightly ragtime way. He was a very polite, humble southern gentleman and did not overstay his welcome.

He cleared off and a large number of what I've called Homepride Flour Men

arrived, prompting STB to wonder out loud what Jack's trilby budget is for the tour. A few minutes later, the screen behind the stage started showing the countdown clock. Every now and again the silhouette of Jack would turn up and wind the clock back or move it forward. This clock is great - nothing is as engaging as a counter, as anyone who has written or seen one of those movie scenes where "it's a race against time!" can attest. As soon as anything is "on the clock", whether it's disarming a bomb or getting to the hospital while in labor, a timer automatically generates interest and excitement. I nominate Countdown Clock for support act of the year.

Then the band arrived and started jamming, leaving us in suspense for a minute or two before Jack White appeared. I was prepared for the band to know the new, solo music inside out. To be perfectly rehearsed and yet able to jam. To follow the bandleader's cues and yet be loose enough to shine. And they did all that perfectly. I wasn't prepared for them to accompany Jack as he did some of the hardest, quietest, rawest and most emotional of his tracks, old and new. He sung his heart out with You've Got Her in Your Pocket and I'm a Martyr for my Love for You. The band stayed out of the way while still supporting Black Math and I Think I Smell a Rat. The gentle Humoresque was a jaw-dropping experience. Jack seems so vulnerable singing some of these songs that it often seems he's lonely even with all these people behind him and all the audience in front of him. The White Stripes songs that seemed abstract to me on the old albums came alive - I could finally see what the long time fans see in them.  I don't ever recall going to another show where the artist seemed so open and truthful. And rocking and banging and heavy, and light and ethereal.

Because I'm me, I'm going to catalog some irritants. The LED blue lights are too blue. It's overwhelming. If you pay good money, you expect to have the whole spectrum or at least cyan, magenta and yellow.

Second, the stage set up. The semi-circular enclosure that lifts the other musicians above him bothered me. It looks much steeper and deeper than in the official photograph (above) from my Section E Row OO. At first, I spent several songs thinking it privileged him over the other musicians, which might not be surprising given he's the headliner, but separating the band members is not rock'n'roll. It's odd to see the guitarist literally on another level from his band and I kept thinking it made him look like a diva, a Shirley Bassey or Beyonce, divorced from his backing band.

After a while, I thought it disprivileged him. It made him look like he was the slave in the arena in the coliseum, left to battle lions alone while the freemen and nobility sat in the tiers above, absolved from responsibility to fight.

Thirdly, the picture of the coliseum floor looks universally blue in the photo. It doesn't look like that in real life. In the moment, you can see that the fretcloth of the antique amplifiers is not blue, but a greyish beige, a faded 60's color. The LED blue surrounding it emphasizes the workmanlike mid-century look of the little pile of amplification inside the curve of the band's risers. It looks like a museum piece, a diorama featuring a critically endangered Homo rockus in his natural habitat. That bothered the hell out of me. I'd prefer the amps to be behind, where they're supposed to be, rather than showcased with Jack. They're superannuated, and even if they're essential for the sound there's no reason to foreground them in 2018. The White Stripes are, genuinely, over.

It did occur to me that the steps up to the band only exist because Jack has so much energy that he'd boil and blow up like a steam locomotive if he didn't have flywheel steps to run up and down at critical moments.

Up there with the greats. 12/10 would go again.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Disease cheese

The tomb of Ptahmes, a 13th century BC mayor of Memphis, Egypt, contains the world's oldest cheese.
A large teracotta jar filled with a white substance rests on its side on some large bricks/stones in the desert amid rubble
University of Catania and Cairo University

It's lucky the archaeologists didn't eat it, as scientists found it was made with sheep or goat mixed with cow's milk that contained traces of Brucellosis.  They found this by chemical analysis, so scientists are all agog to see what DNA sequencing might tell them about the evolution of the bacterium over the years. (It's still a concern in cowherds.)

The rest of us are just happy to make jokes about Sarcophagus Juice pairing well with Egyptian Tomb Disease Cheese.

Edit: More on the cheese (which apparently isn't the world's oldest) here at Buzzfeed, including a very informative answer in the comments.

A website that will draw your dreams

This website houses an AI which will draw pictures based on your description. You just write a caption and it draws as you go.

It's not as accurate as, say, Jim'll Paint It, but it does some lovely images. Here are my suggestions to it.

That link again:

The elephant of Celebes

Europe After the Rain

Nude Descending a Staircase

The Persistence of Memory with a soft clock

More information on how it works at AI Weirdness.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Old People Read New SF - Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar (review)

I'm one of the old people, and this is a new sf.  My review, among all the other old people's is here, at James Nicoll's site.

I had to cut down as my  initial review was way outside the guidelines.

What do you think about modernizing fairy stories? Does it work?

Sunday, August 12, 2018

More Koningrooibekkie in SJC

Here are a couple of better pictures of a San Juan Capistrano Koningrooibekkie taken last week in my yard. 


Astonishing little thing, it appears at sunrise and then makes itself scarce.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Video tour of Tower House, with Jimmy Page

Channel 4 has screened a wonderful tour of the epic Tower House, Jimmy Page's home since 1972, designed by William Burges as a showcase of his architectural and decorative talents.

Jimmy points out a crack in the plaster

London is currently undergoing an epidemic of basement-building, or "undergrounding", as rich people with limited property sizes and listed facades dig deep under their houses in order to expand. Page's neighbor Robbie Williams is digging such a basement and the vibration and possible soil movement is threatening to damage Tower House. The neighbor on the other side is also having soil work done. Page is a very private man and I'm positive he wouldn't invite cameras in otherwise, but this is the third or fourth piece I've seen on his attempt to stop the possibly damaging "improvements" going on around him.

For us it's a rare opportunity to see this intricate and ornate castle-sized artwork. It's disheartening that we might be seeing it for the first and last time if the threats materialize. I can't imagine what it's like to live here. Page must not be able to smoke, or cook or do anything that will damage the more than a century old paint. I know he can't play music there, as the vibrations can crack the mouldings and carvings.

I can't embed the video, but it can be played on Channel 4's website, here and is definitely worth the click.


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