Thursday, December 31, 2009

2000-2009, we hardly knew ya!

I planned to do a "best of the oughties" but found it complicated by the fact that there are years in the oughties when I didn't read a new book, others where I didn't see a new film, and others where I didn't buy a new album. I've overcome that, though. Instead of a list of the best each medium, I'll do "what I put all my money and energy into each year".


It was all about online for me. The last decade began with the shift of emphasis from Majordomo Lists and Usenet to Yahoo! Groups in 1999. At that time I was deeply immersed in herping (keeping reptiles) and Star Wars. Yahoo Groups was a perfect refuge for those of us leaving the old style internet and applying the social networking made available on the world wide web. Teh Internets had arrived.

Jimmy and Grumpy, December 2009

I had four young iguanas, and my interests centered largely around how to keep them healthy. Controversy, arguments and bitter pre-www partisanship prevailed. My posts were filled with guff on the Linnaean classification of kale versus collard, metabolic bone disease, calcium metabolism, UV light and vitamin D3 production. But I also wrote this message in June 1999 (to a new Yahoo group which had extracted itself from Usenet (rec.pets.herps) for privacy):

I usually get these crushes on movie stars in August. It's always somebody totally inappropriate and hopeless. Mad Max, The Mariner from Waterworld, Snake Plissken, and like that. (Oh - and Krycek from The X-Files.) Anyway, this year has been different, since I managed to start out with The Matrix only a few weeks ago.

Yeah, Bad Guys and iguanas. That's where I was, going into the decade.

2000: Phantom Menace Fandom.

Boy, did I make a lot of online friends in Star Wars fandom. Some of them are still with me today.

I loved Darth Maul (bad guy!) in The Phantom Menace and joined groups, including the famous DMEB, to read fanfic and post pictures. In January 2000, someone joined one group claiming to be Darth Maul and of course we internet types, as we do, played along, asking for more details of his Sithliness and claiming undying apprenticeship. Eventually, Darth Maul, with a flourish, revealed he was actually a human! A student who was overjoyed that he'd fooled us and we'd written him love poems! And what's more, he was going to tell the other students what gullible fools we were! A DMEBer wrote me to ask what she should do in the face of this betrayal. I said, What can he say? "I went to a website dedicated to dreaming about X, I pretended I was X and they asked me to carry on doing it?" BFD. The world will fail to beat a path to his feet. His audience will break out in spontaneous snoozing."

He's probably a grown man, now. I wonder if he's still a dick?

Darth Maul, bad guy.

2001: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Can't remember a damn thing about 2001 so HPSS wins hands down. I remember wondering why it wasn't Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The British book, the original, had "Philosopher" in the title. The American edition went with "Sorcerer", which, apart from being nonsensical (what is a sorcerer's stone?) also helped incite a horde of crazies into believing Harry Potter was a primer for Satanism. For the movie, they went with the divisive sorcerer. Go figure.

2002: Attack of the Clones

Yeah, Star Wars! I bought the action figures. Also got into Ewan McGregor fandom a little bit. Watched Pillow Book. Adored Velvet Goldmine. But I still loved the bad guys. Loved Anakin (bad guy), even with the whining (like son, like father) and the bad dialogue he was forced to recite.

2003: The Little Grey Fella (MP3 player)

Jason Isaacs fandom entered my heart. The star of The Patriot, the star of Peter Pan. I joined half a dozen of his fan lists, mostly on Yahoo. Colonel Tavington was popular, and so was Captain Hook.

Captain Hook, bad guy. This is one of Char's; I didn't color it. Or mask and desaturate, more likely.

STB offered to buy me an MP3 player and I remember saying something like, "Why? When was the last time you heard me play music?" But for Christmas 2003, I was given The Little Grey Fella, which weighed about a pound and held about 5000 of my digitized CD tracks. I started listening to music again. LGF went everywhere with me. In the car, where one would normally have like three CDs and not want to play any of them, you now had all your music. Listen to one track and it makes you want to play another. Yahoo groups, with its iguanas and Star Wars and Jason Isaacs – started to shrink about this time and music went into the ascendancy. A coincidence, I'm sure. The herper group started with 800 posts per month in 1999 to 2003. Now it's down to 20 per month. Facebook is given as the reason for the fall-off. Everyone's still chatting, just not chatting with me as I didn't make the move over. The Iguana List, moved from Liza Daly's iguana mailing list (a Majordomo list) to Yahoo Groups in 1999 started out at 2,000 posts per month for a couple of years. Now it's down to less than 50. I joined Sith Chicks in August 2005, when it was still fairly active. There's hardly a single post there now. I suppose because after 2005, there were no more Star Wars films!

2004: Photoshop

I learned Photoshop. It works like a darkroom, with layers and masks and dodge and burn and if you haven't done that 4rlz, it's all foreign. The way it handles each pixel is pure maths, too, so to learn the non-darkroom tools like channels you need to understand things about color only people who make monitors ought to have to know. After maybe 100 hands-on hours it starts to make sense. But you're still limited to photomanip unless you can draw, which I can't. If only Photoshop was the magic trick people seem to think it is.

2005: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter fanfiction was really taking off now. And man, was some of that ill shit. I'm English, where pretty much all of literature is about, or at least predicated on, public schoolboys getting off with each other so the slash was no surprise. But I wasn't prepared for the outpouring of psychopathy this series brought out. Well written, though. The huge pile of Harry/Draco fics overwhelmed me. They hate each other and want to kill each other and they love each other. There are a thousand ways to write that, and HP fanficcers wrote 100,000 of them. I preferred the adult Malfoy, played, of course, by Jason Isaacs. I do love the bad guys – I've mentioned that.

2005 was also the first time we started getting good data about UV bulbs for our iguanas. Arguments about UVB and secondary nutritional hypoparathyroidism began to abate for the first time since the (Jurassic Park-inspired) iguana keeping craze began. (Iguana care)

2006: YouTube

I discovered YouTube, created the previous year. Suddenly, I could find music like the Pretty Things online. On video. This changed my habits as much as the Little Grey Feller had.

I also heard about Led Zeppelin fanfiction for the first time. Real Person Fiction? Was that ethical? It was about people and events thirty years in the past. Okay. I gave in. Not that much difference between the young Jimmy Page and the young Darth Vader. Oh, and there was Battlestar Galactica. And I started this blog.

2007: Planet Zeppelin

Coincidentally, I joined a Led Zeppelin fan club just a couple of months before Led Zeppelin announced their reunion concert on 09/12 (held on 12/07). This brought a lot of new people and new fun to my life. I also joined LiveJournal, the premier fandom networking site. Kinda late. LJ is old media. I saw Robert Plant at the Green Man in August. I didn't know the person squashed next to me, arms on the stage, at the Green Man was a PZ member who would turn out to be a fast online friend once we triangulated our relative positions in an online chat and realized we had been crushed into intimacy for a couple of hours the month before.

2008: The Raconteurs

I spent most of 2008 on Led Zeppelin boots. I have over a hundred live concerts, now. I used to think of a concert as something that existed for you only, and was supposed to be ephemeral and something only the attendee could legitimately own. After a dozen bootlegs, I was listening to them just as recordings. I feel I've lost something fundamental there, but I've certainly gained something else. In a way, it's only a small hop from the 78 to the bootleg. Maybe it's time to put away the 40K year old paradigm, that a performance is just for those who were there.

The Raconteurs, not notably bad guys AFAIK

Even several hundred discs of new Led Zeppelin weren't enough for me, so I asked my LZ friends (I started a Yahoo group of LZ friends in October) what else was out there that was good. That was the first time I'd asked that question in the oughties. A couple of people replied with the usual suspects – which I didn't like – but one person said, try The Raconteurs.

I loved them. I bought both Raconteurs albums almost immediately. "That's Jack White, that is," someone explained. I'd never heard of Jack White, or heard of the White Stripes. A trawl through cyberspace was warranted yet again. Found a lot more music, but funnily enough never really got into the White Stripes. I bought the CDs but they rarely get played.

Jack White, not a known bad guy. I did color this one. It was a multigen jpeg and I emphasized the artifacts.

2009: Dead Weather Posters

I spent a couple of months in 2009 wondering whether I preferred the Kills or the Horrors – but when they played together in LA I couldn't get up the energy to go see them play together. Hadn't been to a show for years (apart from the Green Man). More fool me. In March, The Dead Weather (featuring Jack White and Kills singer Alison Mosshart, among others) debuted at a private party in Nashville. I was all over that. Six weeks later, they played their first gig. I spent the summer chasing after the Dead Weather and, for the first time, collecting posters.

Some of my Dead Weather Posters

Yes, there is Dead Weather fanfic. They are subject to Rule 34 like everything else.

I didn't even bother to go see Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I downloaded about 20 live DVDs of bands, though.

New Year Resolution: In 2010 I will try to read a book. I used to like those.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl defiance to the stars!

Interestingly, about ten minutes after I wrote the last post, in which a note-pusher (that's the phrase used in the article) bemoaned the democratization of music, I heard this interview with the usually gorm-endowed Kills guitarist, Jamie Hince. It's at about 1:45 to 2:52 on this YouTube video.

"I think we have to be a little more fascist about art now. I think we have to say, because we're not just contending with people's concept of art, we're also contending with the fact that all the apparatus to make art is for the masses. It's for amateurs. It's like we're living in a world of amateurs, where everyone can make a movie, everybody can make a record, everybody can be a photographer, everyone can be an artist, everyone can...y'know, photomontage is one of my favorite kinds of art, and it's been completely obliterated by Photoshop. It doesn't mean anything any more. Photomontage...there's no time or effort or skill or appreciation for it anymore. I think we have to be a little more libertarian in our politics and fascist in our art and say this isn't art, and that isn't art, and not everybody can be an artist. It takes blood and sweat and tears and life and death to be an artist and it's not just a marketing concept."

This seems to rest on a few largely unfounded assumptions.
1. In the 'past' before some arbitrary time, let's say 1980 because that would privilege the speaker, all artists always magically rose to the status of artists and no artists were left behind, in a sort of artistic Rapture.
2. That the spread of cheap and readily available materials for making art haven't, as some people might think, uncovered any new artists (there aren't any, see #1).
3. People who use Photoshop or cheap video cameras have started thinking of themselves as artists.
4. That suffering makes you an artist.
5. That guitar playing is hard and mastering Photoshop is easy.
6. That "amateur" means "someone who does it badly or half-heartedly".
7. That if the title of "artist" was bestowed by fiat, our kind of people would be the ones doing the bestowing.

Amateur: a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons. Compare professional. It's not until you get down to the third or fourth meanings that you come across the concept of "someone who's no good at the activity". Amateur artists are artists. They just don't get paid.

And he seems to be well-read enough not to use "fascist" to mean "dictatorial" but he does it anyway.

Mind you, Marinetti did write that by the time artists were his age, they should be hunted down and killed by younger artists for not being fast or strong enough to keep up with the beauty, power and velocity of modern technology.

He may not know that Photoshop is actually an instrument, like the ones he uses, and just as everybody can play about 12 chords on a guitar but don't usually call themselves musicians, most people can open Photoshop and within a week be producing some altered images using the filters and automatic adjustments. But it takes years of practice, an intimate understanding of what's underlying Photoshop's manipulation of color, and innate artistic ability before you can actually get much more out of it than your uncle's photo with horns added or a dark photo forced one stop. (I may be biased by the fact that my artist friends in London almost all worked in a single field - the early days of CGI (early 80s). I used to see their showreels, attended many SIGGRAPHs, boggled at the pages after page of equations in their papers, and got some sense of the thousands of hours it took to make those creations. And no, you still couldn't actually do it if you weren't an artist.)

About an hour after reading that, I saw Sunday's LA Times had an article on what art means in today's world. Centering on an ebullient young director called Michael Mohan, the piece is positive and forward-looking. “There’s an audience for everything ... if you say I want to express myself and people will see it, yes, that’s what in 2010 you can do.”

They quote Mikel Jollett of Airborne Toxic Event. "You can get further in a month than bands used to be able to get in two years . . . now you just have the tools at your disposal and you make those decisions yourself, you can make the cover art, you can turn up the reverb. It used to be just an industry of stars and penniless vagabonds. Now, you've got artists who are making a living and they live in houses and cook on a stove."

The LA Times comment on this is that a "middle class" is developing in the arts, people who make a living at it.

Bingo! Everyone hates the middle-classes, which might explain some of the dislike shown this era of readily available materials. (And Trotsky famously pegged the Futurists as maybe he was talking about Fascist art.)

Money, That's what I want

More on how musicians earn money - or these days, don't earn money. These are taken from a long interview with Candye Kane, a blues musician, on American Blues Blog (link now dead).

You can't play in a bar:
Bar owners hire DJs because they are cheaper to manage and you only have one ego to deal with instead of five musician egos.
If you do play in a bar, there are no young people there because of America's laughable drinking age/no minors, even accompanied policy, which means the audience is greying:

Most youngsters’ first exposure to music is thru technology such as the Internet. They may never even see a live band until they are drinking age. You can see the decline of live music when there is a line around the block to get into the disco and only fifty middle aged people in the blues bar next door. We desperately need to find a way to interest our youth in live music.

The old standby, fuckin' amateurs on the fuckin' internet are cutting into my game and I actually am a [insert name of chosen trade or profession here] and they fuckin' aren't.

And the internet makes it possible for any hack musician wanna be to make a professional looking CD product and flood the market with more mediocre music. Many of these home studio musicians and songwriters have no desire or resources to get a show on the road but their CD is on the desk next to the road bands who need to do this work to survive.
As you may be able to tell, I have an allergic reaction to that one. But it is a point.

One I'd never heard of before - charging a percentage of the artist's merchandise booth.
I also see more hands out to get a piece of my income, from the guy making the t-shirts to the bars and festivals that charge an artist as much as 25% to sell their own merchandise. I recently played a club where they took 20% of my merchandise sales. That 20% would have paid for our hotel rooms that night, but instead it went to the club along with the cover charge and the bar and food sales.
Venues getting record stores to pay for a booth, which means more money for them but less for the artist:
I used to be able to play a big festival and sell tons of product. Now at many festivals, there is already a record store there with a booth and they have stocked all my titles. I will still sit there and sign CDs because I want small record stores to thrive and prosper but its one more competitor for me and one less way for me to make money on the road.
And the usual one:
The free downloads of our CD, and CD burning also affects my songwriter royalty statements and all around, the money supply is dwindling or there are more people taking a cut.
Eye-opening stuff. Really, being a musician is definitely a struggle.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It Might Get Loud 2008 (DVD)

I got the It Might Get Loud DVD last week and have been watching it obsessively. Hey, I only saw it twice at the cinema. Another ten views to go!

Look, this is Jack White's nine year old self. He brings him over to learn to play guitar. Someone asked Davis Guggenheim where he got the kid from.

WCP: Speaking of Jack, who was that little kid in the movie who helped tell his story?
That's Jack White as a 9-year-old boy. Did it throw you off?
WCP: A little bit.
Yeah. Jack said to me, “I want to teach myself how to play guitar.” And I was like, cool. And the next day he shows up in a hat and a bowtie and a suit, and in the back, seriously, was a 9-year-old kid dressed exactly like him. And he said, “Davis, this is Jack. Jack, this is Davis.”
WCP: Any idea how he found the kid?
Not a clue. I let them tell their own stories, and how he told his was quintessential Jack.
WCP: The kid was good.
The kid was good. [Pause.] How do you know it's not him as a 9-year-old?

You know, I wouldn't put it past Jack White to be able to do that.

At one point, we see Jimmy Page in a room full of old junk. But it's Jimmy Page's old junk! It's probably worth millions to collectors. He's kept everything.

Look, there's the pair of Rickenbacker Transonic cabs we last saw in June 1969. We know he stopped using the heads after the first American tour, and we know he used the cabs (and possibly heads) on Led Zeppelin II. Most of the cabs were abandoned in the US after the second tour, but it appears he kept two – for forty years! The head is a Vox UL 7120, though, not the 4120 he used on that tour.

Jimmy hasn't changed much over the forty years, either.

The DVD also contains "deleted scenes" which is a weird phrase to use about a documentary, where you're building up a visual sculpture from piles of local material, rather than a feature film, where you're producing your own material and perhaps deleting some scenes that you love later on. 90% of his footage, at least, was a deleted scene. Presumably these were the sort of short-listed scenes.

They are are split evenly between the three guitarists and are equally as fascinating as the main movie. Is Jack White wearing lipstick in the build-a-diddley-bow scene? How very Whitean. Jimmy Page playing his theremin. White teaching the others to play Seven Nation Army, Jimmy teaching the others DADGAD tuning. (If he's just teaching them it, how come their guitars are already tuned in it?) Jimmy explaining how in the sixties, before really light strings were available, they'd move the strings down one and use a banjo string as the top E. And in another moment where it could only be Jack White saying this, Jack explaining how he used to choose strings because they were elements – Copper, Aluminum, Nickel. Lots of other things, all of which seem a little bit more personal than the main movie, but maybe that's because I wasn't familiar with them before I saw them on the little screen.

The DVD also contains a long press conference Q&A and the trailer. It's not an extensive package, but it's pretty cheap. As cheap as a new CD, in fact. (And the record companies wonder why no one's buying CDs.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Story.

Since I'm still in the Christmas spirit, I've written a very xmassy story which I will now share with the world. It's here, on my sadly neglected Live Journal.

It was an easy genesis. I was chatting with someone about the word hotel - specifically the guitarist in the Kills, rather than the buildings, but I it made me remember that my parents, in an effort to eliminate the stress of cooking for three people, used to go to hotels for Christmas, usually in the coldest and wettest of northern seaside resorts, like Scarborough or Whitby. Sometimes this strategy worked out well, sometimes it didn't. Once we spent the entire weekend tiptoing around fame, as Freddie Trueman's daughter was there. Or she may have been Geoff Boycott's,I forget. Anyway, the closest to royalty I'll ever get. At those hotels, I learned to crack walnuts with my bare hands and ate more satsumas than anyone should really attempt.

The story is a thinly fictionalized version of this annual trip. I've thrown in, y'know, conflict and like, character development because that's what story-tellers do. It's short, about 2,600 words, and it's really Christmassy. Some of the absurd dishes are fictional, but probably not as many as you think.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Paid in Full

From Gizmodo, a breakdown of a musician's royalty statement.

What makes it fascinating is the writer, Tim Quirk, used to be a musician (hence the royalties) and now works for an online music service (hence understands how much is actually paid to record companies). He knows when he's been had. The comments are also interesting, with several explanations of how all this stuff is supposed to work.

I thought writers had it bad, but since writers' contracts are for one or two territories, one edition of one piece of writing, it's fairly easy to keep it straight in your head what your advance was and why, in almost all cases, you're never going to see another penny. Music publishing is so complicated that it appears no one can fully understand it.

Tim Quirk hassled the record company into actually providing him a statement for his online royalties, because, you know, they don't usually bother to send them to musicians.

So I was naively excited when I opened the envelope. And my answer was right there on the first page. In five years, our three albums earned us a grand total of… $62.47.
What the fuck?
I mean, we all know that major labels are supposed to be venal masters of hiding money from artists, but they're also supposed to be good at it, right? This figure wasn't insulting because it was so small, it was insulting because it was so stupid.

Tim's band is "unrecouped" (the record company claims to have spent more money on them than they have earned) to the tune of $395K. Unrecouped bands obviously aren't paid royalties - that money goes to the record company to pay off the up-front costs. (But not at the rate of 1 album sold = 1 album's profit subtracted from the balance - Tim discusses this.) However, if the royalty statements are incorrect, then chances are the accounts will never get in the black, so accounting has to be meticulous. It wasn't.

I asked Danny [from Royalties and Licensing] why the statement only seemed to list tracks from two of the three albums Warner had released – an entire album was missing. He said they could only report back what the digital services had provided to them, and the services must not have reported any activity for those other songs. When I suggested that seemed unlikely – that having every track from two albums listed by over a dozen different services, but zero tracks from a third album listed by any seemed more like an error on Warner's side, he said he'd look into it. As I asked more questions (Why do we get paid 50% of the income from all the tracks on one album, but only 35.7143% of the income from all the tracks on another? Why did 29 plays of a track on the late, lamented MusicMatch earn a total of 63 cents when 1,016 plays of the exact same track on MySpace earned only 23 cents?) he eventually got to the heart of the matter: "We don't normally do this for unrecouped bands," he said. "But, I was told you'd asked."

What this seems to mean is "if we aren't in the black, we don't do any work to find out if people are paying us". But if they aren't recording the payments, then the account will never get in the black!

I work with medical databases and this looks to me like the standard database issues rather than bloody-mindedness. OK, a bit of both. Big databases are always utter crap. They are only as good as the data going in (and it's often crap even at that point), and the data continues to degrade all the way through the system. Name spelled one way in one database and another way in another database? The records don't match. Do you get paid twice or not at all? I'm guessing not at all. Queried another database using a data string with a missing or extra space? Your name won't come up on their records. Got a non-alphanumeric keystroke in your data entry by accident? Could be a field terminator marker that puts the next million entries out of sync with the database fields they are looking at and nobody gets paid for anything entered that day. Someone typed in 35.7143% from someone else's contract instead of the 50% that was on yours? Who would ever know (unless you check your own statement)? Someone OCR'd a record and it was misread by the software, or the back of the record was scanned instead of the front? And so on. This is one reason why the Big National Database of The Government Knowing Everything About Everybody in Order to Stamp Out Terrorism won't work. The data is too dirty and can't be cleaned.

Still sucks to be a musician, though.

In other news of record companies' attempts to not pay anybody, artists have put together a class-action lawsuit claiming they are owed between $5M and $6B - yes billion - that record companies haven't bothered to pay. (Story at Ars Technica.) It seems that there was a change in Canadian laws in the 1980s which allowed record companies to use a song (say for a greatest hits album) without first getting a compulsory license, if they promised they would go then go out and get authorization afterwards. Of course, once they had used the song, the relentless urge to spend the time and money necessary to find the artist, get authorization and pay him or her sort of died away. The $50M figure is the estimated sum artists are owed. The $6B figure is what artists would be owed if the labels were asked to pay $20K per infringement - the figure labels try to screw out of individual file-sharers, or pirates as they are known.

Speaking of pirates:

Entertainment Industry Leaned on Los Angeles Politicos to Declare Piracy a 'public nuisance'.

UK government uses 136 survey respondents to handwavily declare there are 7M file sharing infringers.

The Guardian Bad Science blog looks into the "estimated costs" of music downloading and finds them bogus.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights

I need the movie of The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights. Not having the money, I had an idea and sold my blood for $180 (I have expensive blood) which pretty much matched the list price of $179. I added the order. It'll be here, it says, in late March.

I'd reckoned without tax (my income tax will take 1/3, leaving me with $120) and CA sales tax (which Warner Bros is happy to take from me - and I promise I will check up to see if they actually pay to CA - WB you are on notice) of about $16, and the shipping of about $17.

So I'm actually about $92 in the hole for the DVD. What's a hundred bucks between friends? (And Third Man Records/Jack White are fast becoming friends in this sense.) The list of extras in this DVD release are awesome. It's a must-have package.

Of course, for rock and roll purposes no one gives a damn whether I can sell my blood or pay CA sales tax. Where rock and roll is concerned, the litmus test is whether 14 year old boys can get hold of it. The answer is: not at this fucking price. Unless daddy is rich - and the number of rockers who got there because daddy is rich enough to afford the product is, y'know, nil. (Corrections gladly welcomed in comments.) I'm going to love Under Great White Northern Lights, and I'm glad I have expensive blood to pay for it. But someone has to engage those fourteen year olds.

The next generation of rockers are going to learn from an album which is less spendy. I recommend The Stooges' Fun House. If you are fourteen you already know how to download that, so I won't patronize.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More Octopus

Two people sent me this one. An octopus takes up living in a coconut shell, not only using it as shelter but carrying it along when it needs to move, and using two half shells to make armor - making the octopus the first inverterbrate filmed using tools.

The man they interview is a bit annoying though, what with all his "lower life forms" talk. Nothing living today is a lower life-form - we all took the same journey and the idea that life is a ladder leading all the way 'up' to us is incorrect.

Here's the original footage without Dr. Higher Lifeform and his dramatic music.

Veined Octopus, Amphioctopus marginatus, showing sophisticated tool use behaviour. Footage shot by Dr Julian Finn of Museum Victoria.

Finn, J.K., T. Tregenza and M.D. Norman. (2009) Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus, Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 23, R1069-R1070, 15 December 2009

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Idol Chatter

The LA Times today had a piece on the Afghan version of American Idol, "Afghan Star". The Taliban banned music as sacrilegious, and music is just now peeping out of the woodwork. I'm not sure if an Afghan version of American Idol is preferable to empowering local musicians to travel around the villages playing music, but hey, better than the other alternative.

A little way down the article, we get this:

The other female contestant, a 21-year-old woman from Herat named Setara, causes the biggest furor of all. She was a controversial figure, scorned by elder views while adored by young girls for her modern fashion and Bollywood-style makeup. But at the film's end she causes a storm of controversy by letting her headscarf slip and engaging in what, by Western standards, would be considered an incredibly tame series of dance moves. It would be something of an understatement to say that all hell breaks loose.
What happens to Setara after her act of rebellion? Keep reading:
Setara has to go into hiding after being denounced by a variety of critics: her fellow contestants; the country's powerful Council of Islam Scholars; and regular viewers, including one mild-mannered young boy who says she "should be killed."

Reminds me of something. This article in the LA Times on December 4th, for instance,

The Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit public interest law firm closely tied to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia and provides legal assistance in defense of what it calls "Christian religious liberty, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family," filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission over Lambert's controversial performance at the AMAs. In it, the group called on the FCC to fine ABC for "airing such an outrageously lewd and filthy performance during a show and time period that is targeted for family audiences."
That's about Adam Lambert, of course, an openly gay performer in America and runner up on American Idol - in America.

The two stories, half a world apart, are almost exactly similar at this point. One the one hand it's nice to know that we are all the same under the skin and want the same things - in this case freedom of expression of your gender and sexuality - but other hand it's not so nice to learn that one of the other things these disparate peoples both want is to shut people up if their sexuality is not sanctioned by their religion. One hopes, and works for, a time when there more people join the first type, of whatever race and sex, and leave behind fewer of the second type.

And in case you were about to point out a difference in the two reactions: some Americans do support the death penalty for it - as Uganda is currently learning.

I wasn't going to comment on Adam Lambert because performers trying to make a splash are not the same as private citizens whose public displays of affection set off reactions in the reactionary. Setara didn't have to let her veil slip and Lambert didn't have to kiss his organist or his organist's organ, or both or whatever. Lambert, at least, knew what he was doing and knew it would kick up a fuss and he knows what they say about no such thing as bad publicity. But he's perfectly correct when he says that heterosexually-paired dancers have been doing the same things to each other for years - I was virtually traumatized by Paula Abdul's Cold Hearted Snake when I first came to this country, even though I came from the land of topless Page 3 girls. It all seemed so very naughty. I didn't form any institutions with the name "liberty" in them to get it banned though.

If she can do it, he can.

On the subject of doing what comes naturally, in the raking it in sense, I see Eminem's done what comes naturally to him and put the names of three gay American Idols into a lyric couplet that goes, “Sorry, Lance, Mr. Lambert, and Aiken ain’t gonna make it/They get so mad when I call them both fake, it’s/All these f—in’ voices in my head, I can’t take it!” where "fake, it's" can be heard as "f*ggots". Personally I'd be more upset about being called fake than gay. Being fake is definitely a lifestyle choice. And I think Eminem knows that very well.

Eminem and Lambert both know how to work the system and I guess they'll survive. Don't know about Setara, though.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

New Television

Our old TV developed some form of wet macular degeneration and the picture had begun to disappear into a distressingly central red hole. There was some debate about replacement because in the last seven months or so, we've watched approximately 8 hours of cable TV - all of which was either Antiques Roadshow or Colbert Report, and a termination of cable service is, frankly, imminent. It won't bother our provider, I'm sure, as teh interweb connexion comes down the cable too, so we'll still have to pay for all that.

Recently I bought a new laptop - which plays Blu-Ray - and the zeitgeist swung back to pro-telly. We hauled a new TV, Mr. Slim, home from a store that was doing monster business. No downturn here in Orange County, CA as far as I can see.

The very first thing we did was get Mr. Slim on the web and sign in to YouTube. I was a little afraid of telling the TV my YouTube password because who knows what it'll upload? I mean, who knows when a hacker will write the first virus for it? - but weblust prevailed.

I couldn't be bothered to type in a real search term on a remote, so STB suggested the ever popular search term "cats". Cats was entered, we selected "Funny Cats" and spent the next 2:45 with tears of laughter streaming down our faces.

I know, but cats are funny. You just have to go with it.

So in five minutes, Mr. Slim provided more entertainment than the cable box has provided in the last month. Then I discovered how to make the picture full-screen and the world of YouTube expanded to fifty inches. Then I learned to type on the remote and we achieved escape velocity.

Mr. Slim is shown above, playing a Dead Weather video streamed on YouTube. Above him, on the chimney breast, is the elegant work by SS DeRech, the 1958 "Woman Sans Bats".

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Bellum omnium contra omnes canceled, sry

Biologists studying young babies find that humans are born with an urge to help, and to co-operate with each other, says the New York Times.

From the article:
What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.
But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.
So what goes wrong? Yeah, I know - Fox News.

American Girl

A few friends of mine recently discussed Tom Petty's American Girl, and decided it's a perfect song. I think that was unanimous, or at least we ignored anyone dumb enough not to agree. Here's a couple of videos of Brendan Benson and Cory Chisel playing American Girl on Brendan's current tour.

BB is such a connoisseur of power pop that his version has all the joys of the original.

The one with the good sound:

The one where the sound's not great but you can watch BB playing a Telecaster, which just totally floats my boat. I love Teles.

Kings of Leon 'not cool'.

It's official! Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Somebody or other says they aren't cool.

You’d think Kings of Leon would be thrilled by the group's recent success, capped off by four Grammy nods for “Use Somebody,” but it's actually kind of annoying. “We definitely got bigger than we wanted to be,” frontman Caleb Followill tells Spin. “You feel like you’ve done something wrong. That woman in mom jeans who’d never let me date her daughter? She likes my music. That’s fucking not cool.”

It's terrible when uncool people like your art, isn't it? If it isn't working out for you, maybe you could get a job doing something useful, like being a miner or a mechanic, instead of running a dance-band.

The quote is from Newser, who add:

It’s gotten so bad that the band members are in “damage control” mode, refusing to promote the album.

How sad for Whossisname. If he doesn't like being famous he can give me his money and I'll keep 10% and parcel the rest out to moms for some skinny hipster jeans.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Cornucopia of Dead Weather videos

Some more than usually entertaining Dead Weather videos complete with notation on what I liked about them. Thrills, spills and the evolution of Jack White's strange new guitar tone.

July 22nd 2009, Toronto: The Bear Skull gig.

Salt Lake City, August 2009. Baby Ruthless eats the punter's camera.

House of Blues, Dallas, October: The Giraffe Head gig.

Jools Holland, October 20th. Dean gets all masterful on an intrusive cameraman.

The Dead Weather - Treat Me Like Your Mother... by RaheemBeau

Amsterdam, November 3rd. Baby Ruthless decides to embellish I Can't Hear You by grabbing Jack White by the hair.

On the same night, Baby Ruthless plays up to Dean, which totally brings out his inner guitar god – for the first time on video.

(Found it - it was Child of a Few Hours)

Brixton Academy, 10-29-09. Not a great recording, but at the very end you can watch a drunk Jack White drag Baby Ruthless offstage by her neck.

Sweden, November 7th. Jack white comes out to sing COFH in Sweden, leaving a roadie on the drums. Dean continues to rock out. Not a great success in terms of tightness but a great jam.

Glastonbury, June. Early LJ on drums for Will There Be Enough Water.

Brooklyn 11-17-09. Non-commutativity of rock: She can shove Jack or push Dean, but if Jack shoves Baby Ruthless, she ends up on the floor.

The Dead Weather, "I Can't Hear You" 11-17-2009 from StopRemembering on Vimeo.

I'm sure there's more. I'll find more.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Unusual purchases

For some reason, probably involving too much wine, I made a mystery purchase on Amazon a couple of weeks ago. It arrived today and I tore the box open in eagerness to find out what the late-night-one-click-purchasing-me had bought me - something embarrassing, I assumed - and it turned out to be Notes From Underground, by an author Amazon's packing slip gives as Fyodor Paperback Dostoyevsky.

So that's what I buy when my inhibitions are low. I've succeeded in surprising myself. I have a very vague memory that a JG Ballard fan recommended it to me, possibly because it has an alienated narrator. Since Yahoogroups' search function has never worked, I'll probably never be able to corroborate that.

But hey, it's my first Dostoyevsky. Wish me luck.


Ye gods, a man I voted for has decided to expand a war. That's the last time I vote for you, Obama. You weren't panning out anyway, and this is the last straw.

Surely it's obvious that a broke government sending young men and women to foreign countries with intent to kill people while getting shot at themselves at enormous cost to me and you with no possibility of an outcome beneficial to anybody either here or there is a...well, a flawed idea?

OK, I'm going back to posting about music. Real life sucks.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Bad Sex in Fiction Awards nominations are in...

It's very British to agonize, or chortle, or both, over sex in fiction. (I wrote sex infection there the first time. Hmmm.) The yearly Bad Sex in Fiction Awards are given to writers who have produced the worst descriptions of a sexual act. The BBC gives several examples in its write up here.

Actually, I think they're all quite good. Descriptions of sex don't start from zero, so reading any of these without a run-up is likely to produce a wtf reaction. For any scene to work, you need to know the background of the characters, what they want, what they're afraid of, what they think of the other person, animal, vegetable or fruit in the scene. Given that there's probably some reason in the original for the narrator or viewpoint of the book to portray the couple this way, this description by Nick Cave (yes, that Nick Cave) is pretty evocative: "Bunny lies on his back on the sofa. He is naked and his clothes sit in sad, little heaps on the living room floor..."

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about was this comment from Lucasta Miller:

Booker Prize judge Lucasta Miller says sex has been at the centre of most of Western literature for centuries but too much of it nowadays reads like a "biology textbook".

"A trap people fall into is an earnest anatomical description of sex. The difficulty with the anatomical is that it can read like a bit of a textbook.

"To stop it doing so, they will put in flowery metaphors from the animal kingdom, but you don't need that detail.

They put in flowery metaphors? From the animal kingdom?

Someone needs to work on their metaphors, and it isn't Nick Cave.

Read the shortlisted passages at Literary Review here.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen: It's the Rolling Stones

G K Nomelend of The Drive Byes on why the Rolling Stones matter.

It's a well-written piece - in fact it's a professional level piece. If you have to be told why the Rolling Stones matter, it's probably not for you despite its titular slant. But for an old timer, it's nice to see a history of the Stones, and why we should give a shit.
"For “Let It Bleed”, if one has to pick a song it is “Gimme Shelter”, a tune, as a wise friend of mine once noted (who runs The Dangers by the way) it the true expression of what The Stones are really all about. Life is dangerous and irrational and the only solace to be found is in sexual love. Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away, a kiss away. “Sticky Fingers” for me is the truest Classic Rock Album of all time, a collection of tunes that give us the DNA of what the genre is all about. It comes down to “Brown Sugar” as the take-to-a-desert-isle track. Dirty, raucous, a ditty the Marquis de Sade could love, it is probably the best Stones single of all time (yes, even above “Honky Tonk Women”)."

If you don't know why you should give a shit, here's a good first answer.

The Song Remains the Same.

I went to the store this evening and I saw a guy there in a Led Zeppelin 1977 Tour t shirt. He looked about ten years older than I feel. I went up to him to ask him if he'd seen the 1977 tour and he said no. He'd seen Page & Plant on tour much later, though.

I told him I'd seen Led Zeppelin in 1975 at Earl's Court and in 1979 at Knebworth. He was awestruck and mentioned his mother had taken him to a 1977 concert but he'd been in the car, too young to get in.

This tells me I need to concentrate on younger men. If men too young to see Led Zeppelin in 1977 look like they're older than me, it's time to stop being honest. I need to start cradle robbing.

I can do a good enough imitation of a White Stripes fan to pass, I think - I could probably interest the over-30 Indie Rock demographic with a few well-placed lines. God knows what would happen if I sought the Dead Weather's principal fandom. It might be legal for me to importune over-18s, but I'm not sure I'd like to try on anyone under 25.

Or I can just stay with the arrangement I've got. That works.

A picture of the future

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever."- George Orwell

It's and old joke to say that Nineteen Eighty-Four was supposed to be a warning, not a how-to book. Or perhaps it's an old warning to say that Nineteen Eighty-Four was supposed to be a warning, not a how-to book. Whatever, it's true, but the British government is still working its way through Orwell's classic with DIY gusto.

The Britosphere has noticed that the newly introduced Digital Economy Bill has a couple of problems.

It's entirely based on the assumption that copyright infractions are a form of theft (which is debatable); it puts forward a framework in which people who are accused of downloading or uploading works are automatically guilty without due process; it throws entire households off the internet (which these days is tantamount to throwing whole households off the water mains or the power grid); and it enables an entire network of spying on the internet uses of everyone in Britain - actually, it *mandates* spying, since ISPs will be forced to do it.

BoingBoing says:

The British government has brought down its long-awaited Digital Economy Bill, and it's perfectly useless and terrible. It consists almost entirely of penalties for people who do things that upset the entertainment industry (including the "three-strikes" rule that allows your entire family to be cut off from the net if anyone who lives in your house is accused of copyright infringement, without proof or evidence or trial), as well as a plan to beat the hell out of the video-game industry with a new, even dumber rating system (why is it acceptable for the government to declare that some forms of artwork have to be mandatorily labelled as to their suitability for kids? And why is it only some media? Why not paintings? Why not novels? Why not modern dance or ballet or opera?).
So it's bad. £50,000 fines if someone in your house is accused of filesharing. A duty on ISPs to spy on all their customers in case they find something that would help the record or film industry sue them (ISPs who refuse to cooperate can be fined £250,000).

But that's just for starters.

Steven Grant of Permanent Damage calls this fascism. (Rant starts about half way down the long post):

Thing is, once this principle gets established, what else do they decide they can grant dictatorial powers over, complete with private armies to compel obedience and no legal recourse? By the way, I'm not playing fast and loose with the word fascism here; fascism is corporate government, not only structured like a corporation with orders raining down from the man on top to be fulfilled by various levels of "employees" (i.e. citizens, who in fascism are considered the property of the state, which is how British citizens have customarily been viewed by their state throughout British history) but serving the needs and desires of corporations over the needs of the citizens. The "Digital Economy Bill" is, pure and simple, about testing the reach of power, and what the public will tolerate. It's a time-tested fact that populations will become accustomed in times of "crisis" – and everything now is positioned as "crisis" – to practices previously thought unacceptable, but that once the formerly unacceptable becomes accepted, it gets applied to new contexts, on the theory that what's acceptable in one circumstance ought to be acceptable in a similar circumstance. Guess who gets to determine what constitutes a similar circumstance? Hint: it's not you or me.

Charlie Stross froths at his blog:

Want to publish a piece of shareware over BitTorrent? You're fucked, mate: all it takes is a malicious accusation and your ISP (who are required to snitch on p2p users on pain of heavy fines) will be ordered to cut off the internet connection to you and everyone else in your household. (A really draconian punishment in an age where it's increasingly normal to conduct business correspondence via email and to manage bank accounts and gas or electricity bills or tax returns via the web.) Oh, you don't get the right to confront your accuser in court, either: this is merely an administrative process, no lawyers involved. It's unlikely that p2p access will survive this bill in any form — even for innocent purposes (distributing Linux .iso images, for example).
This bill isn't about securing our creative industries. It's about fucking the little guys, depriving them of channels to reach their public, and about protecting the cartel of big media organizations who are threatened by the development of the public internet. And it stinks from the head down.

This all makes me glad I no longer live there. American politics - and general American privilege - can be a pain in the neck, but the public as a whole here is a bit less likely to roll over. The standard American way to enhance government control is to introduce a bill that's twice as absurdly intrusive as it needs to be, at which the public boils over, froths, writes its Congressman etc. and then a watered-down bill is passed which does what the government needs it to do to keep the public poor and ill-informed.

The standard British model is to introduce a bill which really is a boot stamping on a human face forever, at which the entire journalistic contingent of the nation will rise as one and write articles on agreeable wines, recipes with rocket and blue cheese, nice cars and whether $reality_show_face_1 really does or does not hate $reality_show_face_2. A thousand crusties will march on the Houses of Parliament and be roundly ignored, and then the bill will pass as read.

Friday, November 27, 2009

More fractalization

Yesterday, in The Long Tail, I mentioned the idea of fractalization - that the web, as currently configured, drives us down into our own subculture and takes us away from the mainstream culture into a mini-representation of an overall culture. It reinforces our subcultures and allows us to live in small places where everyone agrees with us.

Today, the JG Ballard group I belong to (see what I mean? That's a niche, all right) points me towards an interview with Rex Marshall, the founder of Mattress. Of course, Rex Marshall mentions JGB, or he would not have come up in the JG Ballard group's conversations. So far today, 100% of the bands I've been pointed to are JGB fans. See how this works?

And what does Rex say? "There no longer seems to be a zeitgeist. Or there are 1,000 tiny zeitgeists."

Rex agrees with me!

The article says Mattress play dystopian torch songs. I'll check them out.

The Lego Matrix

Via STB, from LegoAgentJones, a bit of Lego Bullet Time:

According to the information at YouTube, that took 440 hours to animate. Looks great!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Long Tail

There's been some debate about the effect of the web on commerce, whether access to "the long tail" would be a boon or not. Recently, thinking seems to have shifted towards the "winner takes all" theory, that the best-selling whatever, by reason of being best-selling, would find itself cemented as the best-seller by the use of search engines, user recommendations and merchandizing software that looks at preferences and suggests what to buy.

This article in Techdirt, Winner Takes All, Long Tails And The Fractilization Of Culture looks at the argument for winner takes all and concludes that things don't work that way - that winners (and tails) are fractal. A big winner and long tail for the whole world, and similar smaller winner and long tail for every niche.

Just as a fractal repeats its same pattern as you zoom in and look closer on the smaller segments, so do cultural subsegments. And those segments continue to thrive, despite the recommendation systems just pushing people to the hits. Part of that may be that once you've begun exploring those subcultures, the recommendation engines and collaborative filters drive you towards the "hits within" the subculture.
This seems intuitively true to me. Whoever's on top of music today (and I have no idea who that is - Kanye West? Taylor Swift?) will get the most hits on any generic search, but who searches generically? I'm always looking from within my subculture, and so are you.

A trainspotter, going to his trainspotter message boards and reading trainspotter sites, will always find that Mr. Big Trainspotter is more important than Kanye West in his world, and if you do furniture restoration, French polish is always going to come up more often in your searches than Miller Lite beer. The idea that search engines and preference engines drive us all into the mainstream is intrinsically flawed. The web's Killer App - search engines - actually dig us deeper into our own little world with every search.

Now, that's not to say everything's fine. In a way, that might be a worse scenario. Almost every search I do proves I'm right, because the keywords I use lead me to sites that agree with me. If I find 60 sites that agree with me on something, I have no idea whether sites that disagree number 6, 60, or six million. All I know is somebody agrees. Fragmentation of this kind looks to me as though it will be a bigger problem than homogenization.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Harlequin becomes a vanity publisher

In other news, a very, very large publishing house decides that a great "new publishing business model" would be for the writers to pay them, instead of the other way around.

Good luck with that.

Rather than rehearsing why this is a bad idea for everyone, especially writers, I'll send you over to John 'scathing' Scalzi for the lowdown.

Global Warming Oopsie

It seems that scientists don't know something businesspeople have known for years: that emails are like postcards. They can be read by anyone, and frequently are.

Allegedly, someone hacked into a server and published several thousand emails by Climatologists, wherein they argue about best way to present their data to support a warming climate, call the opposition prats and talk about a statistical 'trick' to use.

Hacked emails show Climate Science Ridden with Rancor - Wall Street Journal

I'm already getting emails quoting the stolen material, mostly from right-wingers, as that seems to be who sends me most emails. They are very, very happy about this development.

This was the first article sent to me, from American Thinker.

I haven't read all the emails, and I'm not going to, but if this is all true, it is a big blow for the scientific consensus that the atmosphere is getting warmer. The science is still all there, but the public will always remember the tone of these emails. A statistical 'trick' may just mean 'a clever presentation', not 'I'm trying to trick someone'. Many of the opposing side are prats (and sounds like some of the pro-climate change scientists are prats too). But aiming to only present one side of the story, or even looking like you want to present only one side of the story, is profoundly unscientific. That's not how it's supposed to work. As one email quoted in the WSJ says,"As for thinking that it is 'Better that nothing appear, than something unacceptable to us' … as though we are the gatekeepers of all that is acceptable in the world of paleoclimatology seems amazingly arrogant. Science moves forward whether we agree with individual articles or not."

That's correct, and it's interesting that the hackers kept that email in with the others. Perhaps the hackers have a better grasp of science than some of the scientists in the hacked group.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Empire of the Sun and Tideland

The other day I wrote about Terry Gilliam's Tideland, and said a number of unpraising things about it. STB thought it was a little unfair – he said, "I think Gilliam did absolutely nail it – seeing the world through an eight year old's eyes. But…there's a reason why eight year olds don't direct movies."

I came across this quote from JG Ballard yesterday. As many people know, JGB was interned in a Japanese labor camp during World War II, an experience which informed his novel Empire of the Sun (and the very different Spielberg movie of the same name supposedly based on it). But even before the internment, he'd been having what the audience member in this interview calls "an unusual childhood".
Audience: When you were in China, I was wondering, just how much fear you actually felt?

JGB:I never remember feeling any fear, either during or before the war. This is something which has absolutely baffled me. I brought up three children of my own. I live in one of the most tranquil suburbs in the western world, Shepperton in West London. I used to get nervous every time my kiddies ran out to buy a Crunchie [candy], I thought they would fall into the hands of some childhood rapist or get run over or I'd never see them again. Whereas, I as a child was living in one of the most dangerous cities the world has ever seen. Even before the Japanese invaded in 1937, I was only seven years old, before then it was an extremely dangerous place to be. The Guomindang forces under General Chiang-Kai-Shek even then was battling with the Chinese communists led by Mao and Chou Enlai who made their start in Shanghai. There were terrorist bombings and atrocities, the city was full of gangsters of the most ruthless kind. Yet I used to pedal my little bike all over the place, some sort of magic preserved me. I went back for the first time about two months ago. The streets were extremely narrow, how I survived, these vast American cars would roar everywhere, and there were violent gangsters who would just kick anyone out of their way, me included, giant French trams were screaming all over the place. This was a place widespread with kidnapping and God knows what. But some magic preserved me. I don't know why I'm here at all.

Audience: Were you aware at the time you were having an unusual childhood?

JGB: No, of course not, it was the only one I knew. I assumed that the whole world was like that, it was quite a shock to come here, I must say.

Twice he says "some magic preserved me". Not actual magic, of course – JGB was not known for his fuzzy pagan philosophies – but his adult self looked back and saw something strange about his own preservation.

That's the magic Terry Gilliam was aiming for in Tideland, I think, and yes, he did nail it.

Possibly one reason for my reaction to the movie was the magic. I was expecting something like Alice in Wonderland, and of the course the beauty and surrealism of Alice is based on the tension between the rabbit hole creatures and the little girl. Alice is a proper Victorian girl who has studied grammar, spelling, poetry, French and the proper forms of address between people of different status. The rabbit hole creatures are constantly violating these rules. Humpty Dumpty cheerfully states that words mean what he wants them to mean, nothing more, nothing less. This must have thrilled the real Alice – how transgressive! and of course intrigued if not irritated the fictional Alice as she has to listen to him and a parade of weird living things from walruses through carpenters mangling the poems she knows by heart and generally acting like they don't have to care about authority. But Jeliza-Rose is not coming from the same place. She's apparently never had discipline, and the only thing she seems to have learned by heart is how to cook up a fix. Bizarre creatures and the strangest things, like stuffing your relatives, are completely normal to her since she has no frame of reference.

She's more like JG Ballard than Alice.

I still can't bring myself to like Tideland. The little boy, Jim, in Empire of the Sun may be in the same circumstances as Jeliza-Rose, but his story is told by an adult. Not a writer who prides himself on plots and macguffins and chase sequences – JG Ballard never cared about any of those. But apart from the non-caricature characters of Empire, there's an adult sensibility that looks at the magic surrounding the boy without getting woolly-headed. The Spielberg movie drifts off its anchor a couple of times, but never approaches the indulgence of Tideland. There's a reason eight year olds don't make movies.

Mike Holliday of the JG Ballard Mailing List on Yahoo kindly provided a transcript of the 1992 interview with Hardcore magazine.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Dead Weather, Brooklyn

I know, it's been at least 72 hours since I mentioned the Dead Weather.

The Brooklyn show was awesome - it's already up on Dime. Go get. If you can't find, let me know and I'll set you up.

Here's a video.

The Dead Weather, "I Can't Hear You" 11-17-2009 from StopRemembering on Vimeo.

Apart from just rocking harder than any band I've heard in the last ten years, it illustrates that man/woman non-commutative thing. Baby Ruthless can cannon into Dean, or shove Jack White, and they just smile. But when 6'4" Jack White shoves Baby Ruthless, she lands hard on the floor. Hope she bit his ear off later, the bully.

Monday, November 16, 2009

To Err is Human

From NPR, an article on The Death of Rock, which will come about because people can no longer make mistakes (or human variations in pitch and beat) due to Pro Tools. There's a beautiful paragraph in there detailing the mistakes in the Beatles' song Rain, followed by the video so we can hear it for ourselves.
Now imagine what would happen if some band of 25-year-olds with radio aspirations wrote and recorded "Rain" today. That take would probably be thrown out, or at least digitally edited to fix the screw-up; even if they played it right, the drum track would get imported into ProTools and snapped back into strict rhythm any time it drifts behind the beat. The lead singer's wobbly notes, and the not-quite-in-tune bass guitar, would get fixed with AutoTune. The all-over-the-place guitar dynamics would be tightened up with a compressor-limiter. It'd still be a fine song, but the recording would be impossibly boring -- as frictionless and dull as the recordings even the best mainstream rock bands often end up making now.
Do you agree?

It seems to me that there have always been perfectionists - Queen mixing down thousands of tracks of the tiniest pieces of sound from the strangest sources, back in the days when it meant slicing tape with a scalpel and splicing it back together. And there have always been first-take bands. I think the only real change is that mediocre bands can be made to sound good by a producer armed with auto-tune and pro-tools, thus 'fooling' us. In the old days they just used to do that by kicking the band out and bringing in session musicians, so I'm not sure even that's much of an innovation.

On the other hand, I really hate auto-tune.

News from other planets

Water on the moon! Although I suspect this is mostly rah-rah from a NASA desperate to seem relevant, I love the idea that even the moon has water. It comes in from comets, apparently. No, I don't want to build a base there. Why? We've got one here. No point getting down another gravity well. Space exploration should be seeded from space, not from another rock.

Here's a photo of Mars, a much more beautiful planet than Luna, and somewhere I would really like to visit sometime.

Many more sublime pictures here at

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Today in terrible film history we watch:

Terry Gilliam's Tideland.

Spoilers below.
Neither of us had ever heard of it and it was a bit of a surprise when it dropped through the door. Presumably Netflix thought if we liked Brazil and Time Bandits and Monty Python, we'd be up for a bit more of Gilliam, an imaginative genius with a hole in his head where the other bits of Good Film Directing would normally go.

Apparently released in 2005 to mass walk-outs, it was re-released in 2007 with a plea tacked on to the front. This prolog is a film of Gilliam himself, looking seventy-ish, worn-out and whiskered, and pleading for us to understand that the movie we are about to see should be watched as if through the eyes of a child. The scary old man then goes on to say the movie helped him, Terry Gilliam, discover his inner child, and she was a young girl.

Hearing the grizzled geezer describe himself as a young girl gave me that shock of sexual horror that only the very, very best horror films can ever produce. It took me five minutes to recover from it. Gilliam's lucky he nailed it right at the beginning because over the rest of the 17.5 hour long borefest (subjective time) he never again reached that height of emotional involvement.

The film itself starts with Jeff Bridges, an older and even more slacker version of the Dude from The Big Lebowski, and his wife, Jennifer Tilly, as a caricature of all that is female and poor in films, a fat, bon-bon stuffing Methadone-using addict, and their eight year old daughter Jeliza-Rose, who is adept at preparing her parents' fixes. The wife, a giant of sexist and classist film-making, dies early on and Noah and Jeliza-Rose take a Greyhound for the family homestead, a little house on the prairie (the amber waves of grain being the tideland of the title). The house is utterly abandoned, except for sentient squirrels, and about to fall apart. Little Jeliza-Rose gets down to cooking some H for dad, he shoots up and dies peacefully. She's alone.

Anything can happen now, and in a proper film, most anything would. There's a rabbit-hole she falls down - but we don't get to see the absurdist creatures who live there. There are talking squirrels, but they don't tell her anything useful. There are neighbors, a beekeeping woman whose protective costume makes her look a bit like a witch, and her brother and lover, a retarded young man (his operation for epilepsy having gone wrong and left him with the mind of an eight year old).

The possibilities inherent in a character who has been eight for twelve years and would make a great guide to the girl are not explored. The witch aspect is not explored. Instead, they plod along as a Texas Chainsaw Massacre couple seen through the eyes of Jeliza-Rose. Finding her sitting on her dead dad's lap as his bloated corpse farts and belches from decomposition, they show her how to stuff dad and keep him in her bed, as they have done with their mother and a number of other people and what appear to be the contents of about three traveling circuses. The young man tells her he is a submarine captain and informs her in irritating slow motion (because his speech is affected by his brain damage) how much he hates the shark (the train that thunders through the fields each day). The young girl puts on makeup and plays boyfriend and girlfriend with the young man. I think it's here that people really walked out in droves in the cinema showings. It's filmed as perfectly innocent - they are both eight after all - and although there's always the adult fear at the back of the viewer's mind that his mind may be eight but his testicles are twenty, this could all end in tears, it actually doesn't.

Nothing else happens for about five hours. Jeliza-Rose, played excellently by Jodelle Ferland, gets to give us her inner narrative by having conversations with her dolls' heads (which she uses as finger-puppets). It's not a very interesting inner narrative. The slow young man has eternal, draggy, hesitant conversations with her that go nowhere. Dad turns black and rots a bit more. The squirrels giggle.

Eventually (spoilers) the young man manages to knock the land shark off its rails with a stick of dynamite he had sequestered away. In a very Brazil scene of wreckage, Jeliza-Rose is picked up by a survivor of the crash and the implication is she'll be adopted by someone and live a more normal life.

The film got off on the wrong foot with me by starting with such broad and insulting stereotypes. As an English northerner, I'm very sensitive to regional stereotyping and whereas I can stand, say, Deliverance, a great film with an actual plot, or at least great chase sequence, I couldn't bear the caricatures in this one, which isn't really set in the south and gets its Texas Chainsaw Massacre tropes turned up to 11 even though we appear to be in Idaho or somewhere. Jeliza-Rose's name and accent aren't really explained and I was just left on my own to develop the theory that everyone who shoots up, gets fat, eats bon-bons, stuffs people and marries their own sister is an honorary southerner. I realize that watching movies set in America through the eyes of an English class warrior is probably not the only, nor even the best, filter, but I couldn't help it. The pigeonholing was too strong to ignore.

I think it's funny the movie ends in a train wreck. It's almost like he knew.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

London, in color, 1927

Astonishing color film of London, shot in 1927 using the "Friese Greene Colour Process". This is the closest thing to time travel I've experienced. Clocking up the similarities and differences between London today and London in the film occupied the whole ten minutes. Guards - the same. Embankment - the same. Majority of vehicles horse-drawn - not so much.

I'll embed it but it's worth a double-click as the picture is larger on YouTube's site.

(Seen via Making Light)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Fandom Menace

Fandom takes time.

This weekend we bought a poor and rather faded poster of M. Seurat's seminal Les 'olly'ocks Formee Avec Blobs, in a nice frame for ten bucks. It was exactly the right size for a poster I have.

It wasn't the first time the frame had been repurposed. The ghostly blue hollyhocks were stuck in with electrical tape, which required careful handling. I needed the mat to be clean of glue, obviously, for an archival poster. Stamps and writing on the back of the paper suggested that it had originally held a picture of a model house plan for a nearby housing development. Well, a frame's a frame. Bye bye hollyhocks, hello picture of man burying a corpse in a copse, courtesy of my brother's recent shipment of The Dead Weather posters. This one is from Newcastle, U.K. and comes with the entry ticket.

I still haven't located anywhere near enough space for the rock posters I already have, but a few are up.

The Yorkshire sheep and the Yorkshire landmark of Penyghent are still up next to them. (These don't count as poor art, by the way. I love the sheep photo and the watercolor is by Jeff Money, a friend of my parents'.) They may end up crammed into some sort of Yorkshire room, though, when I build the new wing for the rest of the collection.

While we were out buying the frame, we found a wonderful addition to our art collection, Power Station at Night from the illegible artist's Lots Of Paint Period. Half price art day, fifteen bucks. A tremendous bargain.

Although taking a frame and mat apart and redoing it takes time, that's about ten percent of the time I used for fandom activities this weekend, which included finding and supplying a rare file for a collector and helping organize a sync watch of some music videos. You'd think getting four women on two continents all to watch a video at the same time would be easy (once you'd worked out the time difference) but in real time it was quite a handful. Have you ever tried to get four people to play an MKV file at the same time? First VLC won't handle it for one person, and then KMP freezes for another and necessitates a reboot and then someone's husband needs something and then everyone needs coffee...

Actually we never did get to watch the MKV file. I'm leaving it as a project for later. We didn't fare much better with what should have been a standard DVD (vob) file, either, since we could all play it but only on machines we weren't actually in front of at the time. We fared much better with the WMV of The Dead Weather live at ACL and after that sought to amuse ourselves with YouTube videos which pretty much anyone can always play.

I also spent some time making covers for downloads of live music, which don't always come with covers. The standard is for them to include a text file of the set list, and that's that. With a flac file, since the chances are you're going to burn a CD, it's better to have a jewel case cover or at the very least a slip, and that means a 9.7 by 4.76 inch, or 4.7 by 4.7 inch picture that sums up the music inside, with the setlist incorporated into the picture.

I love this stuff.

I started this decade not listening to music to any significant degree. I'd burned out on Techno, which was the only music that really moved me, rap and hip hip having imploded earlierand rock music having hit the bottom by the turn of the century. I was watching movies and TV and joining societies and message boards like crazy. Now those accounts are abandoned and it's music all the time. I think I'll make this into a full post sometime, but briefly: I joined a Led Zeppelin group about a couple of months before Led Zeppelin announced their reunion concert in 2007. I didn't know it was going to happen at the time, it was serendipity. I met so many wonderful people on line and learned so many new things, that music switched to my primary focus. And I used to be a science fiction fan of the moderately active sort, even before the internet, but that's faded too.

I do fannish things because I'm just a born fan.

Thank you, all the people I'm a fan of, and thank you other fans.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Dead Weather in Amsterdam

Excellent video of The Dead Weather in Amsterdam.

But this is why I want to marry Baby Ruthless

circa 2:21

I don't know if assaulting the boss is a good idea, but in this case, it seems to work. Amazing freakin' rendition of the song, anyway.

On the other hand, she treats Dean Fertita the way one normally treats a guitar god.



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