Stick Your High Art Where the Sun Don’t Shine!

Another blast from the past . . .

OK, not really. I’ve got nothing against what most people think of as “high” art – I enjoy quite a bit of it – I just object to the classification. Regardless of how well-meaning or merely taxonomic it strives to be, it carries an implied judgment of “low” art as being, somehow, not worth as much. By further implication, it suggests that those who enjoy or make “low” art are somehow lesser than those who deal with “high” art.

I bring this up because of a recent essay over at the New York Times philosophy blog by Gary Gutting (with an assist from Virginia Woolf) about the divergence. Along the way, he appears to argue that musical worth, at least (it’s unclear if his metrics would apply to literature, film, or visual arts) can actually be quantified and judged objectively.

Along the way, he lays down this assertion:

Centuries of unresolved philosophical debate show that there is, in fact, little hope of refuting someone who insists on a thoroughly relativist view of art. We should not expect, for example, to provide a definition of beauty (or some other criterion of artistic excellence) that we can use to prove to all doubters that, say, Mozart’s 40th Symphony is objectively superior as art to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ But in practice there is no need for such a proof, since hardly anyone really holds the relativist view.

* raises hand *

I’m not sure how many of us there are, but I for one will proudly admit to being a relativist on the quality of art. Someone’s interaction with art is so personal, so bound up in the quirks of our own experiences, that it’s impossible to convert that interaction to some kind of objective measurement. For the record, I’m not ignoring the objective fact of consensus – that I like something a majority of the world can’t stand doesn’t make them right and me wrong, but it does mean I’m swimming against the current.

Anyway, back to the philosopher, who continues:

We may say, ‘You can’t argue about taste,’ but when it comes to art we care about, we almost always do.

Well, yeah, people will argue about things that matter to them, be it art, politics, or sports. Just because we do doesn’t mean the arguments can be won on some kind of objective scale. Humans will argue about anything!

He goes on:

You may, for example, maintain that the Stones were superior to the Beatles (or vice versa) because their music is more complex, less derivative, and has greater emotional range and deeper intellectual content. Here you are putting forward objective standards from which you argue for a band’s superiority. Arguing from such criteria implicitly rejects the view that artistic evaluations are simply matters of personal taste. You are giving reasons for your view that you think others ought to accept

Several things strike me as wrong about this.

The most important one, I think, is that Gutting is conflating the manner in which someone defends a preference with the actual basis upon which that preference rests. I’ve listened to an awful lot of music in my four decades on the planet, from the most popular radio hits to the most obscure wind band compositions. A lot of those I’ve listened to because of “hey, if you liked X, you’ll like Y, too” recommendations. I’m not sure they’re worth any more than a coin flip when it comes to predicting whether I’ll like it or not. Some things move me, some things don’t. The same is true for everybody, isn’t it?

More likely, these “objective” standards upon which Gutting relies are not the considerations we have when we decides something moves us, but post-hoc rationalizations to try and explain why that thing moved us. At the end of the day, I can’t really say why I prefer Marillion to Magma.* I suppose I could dig into the construction of the various songs and come up with some reasons for it, but they’d be meaningless. Most of the time, I’d rather listen to Brave than Udu Wudu. But sometimes not, you know? I can’t really tell you why.

Gutting’s reference to “objective” standards make me think of people who argue about whether one athlete is better than another when they’re separated by decades. Yes, statistics will be trotted out to support argue that Pele is better than Lionel Messi (or vice versa), but they don’t prove anything. Too many years have passed, the game has changed, etc. Ultimately, we have our favorite in mind before the argument begins and scramble to find some justification for it. If it was as simple as “consult these objective measurements” there’d be nothing to argue about.

Another flaw in Gutter’s presentation is assuming that those things he lists are “objective” to begin with. I’ll give him a pass on complexity for now (although more of that later), but the others have not just some, but large amounts of, subjectivity inherent in them. Whether something is “derivative” is a value judgment, in the end. Any musician is influenced by other music she’s heard and is, to some point, derivative of what’s come before. What’s the dividing line for being too derivative? What if it’s a parody, pastiche, or homage, anyway? Even more untethered from objective measurement are a piece’s “emotional range” and “intellectual content.”

As for complexity, how to measure it and what it means isn’t readily apparent. “Complex” generally implies some amount of difficulty, but any musician will tell you that sometimes playing something “simple” precisely and with musicality is more difficult than playing something that’s a tangled flurry of notes. Furthermore, that something is more complex doesn’t make it inherently more likely to connect with the listener. Quite the opposite, in fact. Returning to the Marillion/Magma example, few would argue if you called Magma’s more complex, but that wouldn’t lead inexorably to a conclusion that it was superior. For some folks it would be, for some folks it wouldn’t. For some people, there is a point where there are simply too many notes.

For another thing, using complexity as some sort of taxonomic tool fails to conflate like with like. Of course a three-minute song recorded in the early days of multitrack recording by four guys is less “complex” than a half-hour long symphony written to be performed by a full orchestra made up of dozens of people. So what? How does that help us judge either piece? It’s like saying desert is less nutritious than the main course – it utterly misses the point.

Someone in the comments to Gutter’s piece trotted out Duke Ellington’s aphorism:

There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind

But even that’s not quite right – there’s what you like and what you don’t; what moves you and what doesn’t; what you want to hear and what you don’t. That a lot of people agree with you, or a consensus develops down through history that a particular work is a masterpiece doesn’t change that.

At the end of the day, as I said, art is personal. To label some of it “high” and some of it “low” throws up class barriers where none really exist. People like what they like. Sometimes, they like the same stuff you do. Sometimes they don’t. Deal with it.

* Before I get any angry letters in Kobaïan, I dig Vander’s bunch when I’m in the mood. Don’t take it personally.

This post originally appeared at my old blog on July 18, 2013


Some Validation on War and Religion

A while back I wrote a review of Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong’s lengthy (if shallow) tome about the history of war and religion. There, I wrote this:

Third, and most troubling for the entire book, is Armstrong wants to view religion’s role in violence as simply as the critics to which she is responding. If it’s not THE cause, she seems to argue, it is exonerated. She ignores (or breezes right past) the role religion can play in making killing of the other guy all right, even if the underlying cause isn’t religious. The American Civil War is an example of a war that was purely political, but both sides thought they were doing God’s work. Ever listened to the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’? It’s all about how righteous the Union cause was.

I normally wouldn’t bring something like that back up just for fun, but a recent article in The Atlantic backs me up on this, so I thought I’d pass it along.

Allen Guelzo looks at the issue of religion on the Civil War, using a pair of new books as a jumping off point. While he’s ultimately more interested in what the war did to religion (created a bunch of new skeptics), along the way he discusses a new book by Harvard’ Drew Faust about how religion fueled the war, on both sides:

Above all, it was a time when Christianity allied itself, in the most unambiguous and unconditional fashion, to the actual waging of a war. In 1775, American soldiers sang Yankee Doodle; in 1861, it was Glory, glory, hallelujah! As Stout argues, the Civil War ‘would require not only a war of troops and armaments … it would have to be augmented by moral and spiritual arguments that could steel millions of men to the bloody business of killing one another…’ Stout concentrates on describing how Northerners, in particular, were bloated with this certainty. By ‘presenting the Union in absolutist moral terms,’ Northerners gave themselves permission to wage a war of holy devastation. ‘Southerners must be made to feel that this was a real war,’ explained Colonel James Montgomery, a one-time ally of John Brown, ‘and that they were to be swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old.’ Or at least offered no alternative but unconditional surrender. ‘The Southern States,’ declared Henry Ward Beecher shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, ‘have organized society around a rotten core,—slavery,’ while the ‘north has organized society about a vital heart, —liberty.’ Across that divide, ‘God is calling to the nations.’ And he is telling the American nation in particular that, ‘compromise is a most pernicious sham.’

But Southern preachers and theologians chimed in with fully as much fervor, in claiming that God was on their side. A writer for the Southern quarterly, DeBow’s Review, insisted that since ‘the institution of slavery accords with the injunctions and morality of the Bible,’ the Confederate nation could therefore expect a divine blessing ‘in this great struggle.’ The aged Episcopal bishop of Virginia, Richard Meade, gave Robert E. Lee his dying blessing: ‘You are engaged in a holy cause.’

The problem, of course, is that once you have God on your side, the other side isn’t just wrong or dangerous, they’re downright Satanic. It makes it more difficult to view the conflict in realistic, practical terms. As Guelzo puts it, “Holy causes that can never be overcome do not make provision for surrender.”

Which is where Armstrong went so wrong. Warfare is evil, even if it’s sometimes a necessary evil. Dragging religion into it, even if only to bulk up your side’s morale, doesn’t help matters and almost certainly is going to make things worse.

Weekly Read: The Armageddon Rag

It’s hard to believe that, in an era when A Song of Ice and Fire and it’s TV variant, Game of Thrones, are such cultural icons that there was a time when George R.R. Martin was a failed novelist. Commercially speaking, at least. After a handful of short-story collections and novels (including the very good Dying of the Light), The Armageddon Rag was such a flop when it came out in 1983 that (in Martin’s words) it “essentially destroyed my career as a novelist at the time.” He went to work in television for the next several years before he returned to novels and began working on A Game of Thrones. Is The Armageddon Rag that bad? Should it have been commercial suicide? Those, of course, are very different questions.

Let’s take the second one first. It might not have been suicide, but The Armageddon Rag must have been a hard book to sell. It’s kind of a murder mystery, but it’s also a music soaked reflection on the lost dreams of the 1960s. Did I mention it involves raising the dead and a subtle kind of deep, dark blood magic? You can see the issue. It’s fantasy, but it doesn’t really have that feel, but it’s certainly not “realistic.” I can see why it sank, regardless of quality (which gives me pause, given my upcoming novel about zombies that really isn’t a zombie story – get me?).

Which is as shame, because it is pretty good.

As I said, it starts with a murder mystery, in which our hero, Sandy, starts to investigate the grisly, ritualistic murder of the former manager of a band called The Nazgul (yes, it’s a Tolkien reference – check out the graphic on the bass drum on the cover below). They were a fast-rising proto-prog/hard rock band that’s career was cut short when, near the finale of a massive outdoor concert in New Mexico, their lead singer was shot and killed.

Sandy kicks off his investigation a dozen years later. But what starts as a mystery quickly swerves into a reverie for the 60s and the dreams of that era. Sandy puts from east coast to west (in his trusty RX-7), talking with the remaining members of the band as well as a group of his college friends, each of whom represents some version of the shattered hippie dream. There’s the sellout working in advertising, the burned out college professor, etc. The most poignant is a guy who’s controlling father (an Tom Clancy-type author referred to as Butcher Byrne *gulp*) basically drives him crazy and locks him away in the family mansion.

None of this has much to do with what appears to be the point of the story, which is why Martin deserves so much credit for making this bit fly by. Sandy’s road trip was probably my favorite part of the book.

Once Sandy hits the west coast, things take a turn. Sandy meets a guy who is planning a comeback for the resurrected Nazgul, one that is about more than just an 80s guy’s attempt to cash in on 60s nostalgia. This is where the blood magic starts to creep in. Sandy is wrapped up in this, of course, and, when push comes to shove and the band is raging through the title track one more time on that New Mexico mesa the fate of the world lies in Sandy’s hands.

Pity it takes so long to get there.

The first half of the book, which could have seemed too long and too untethered to the main story, flew by. Getting to know Sandy’s old friends was interesting, as was their different attempts to deal with the loss of their dreams and stick to their principles. It also contains a fantastic dream sequence while Sandy’s in Chicago that turns the 1968 protests into a real horror show.

The second half, by contrast, drags on as Sandy becomes the PR guy for the reborn Nazgul tour. We know early on this will all culminate with another concert in New Mexico and something is obviously going on, but we get length reports of multiple rehearsals and concerts that don’t really push things along all that much. Making things more frustrating is that as we grow closer to the climax we don’t get a much better idea of precisely why all of this is happening. It’s hard to see what new manager’s end game is. Perhaps that’s why, when the end finally comes, it sort of drops like a lump.

Having said all that, it’s still a pretty fun read. Martin obviously cares a great deal for the late 60s/early 70s music scene that the Nazgul would have inhabited and that shows through. The details of the band’s history, down to a discography and lots of song lyrics, are impressive, too. And it’s interesting to think about how even if music can change the world, whether it should.


Technology Changes, Human Desire Doesn’t

I’ve said before that the War on (Some People’s) Drugs is destined to be a failure because it is, at bottom, a war on human desire. People will always look for ways to feel better, to escape the horror/dreariness/boredom of their daily lives, or to just slip away for a little while. Why else do we, as a species, keep coming up with ways to mess with our brains? See my current favorite example, the prevalence of “ether frolics” in the late 19th Century.

The same is true when it comes to technology, but in reverse. Almost anytime people freak out about how some new technological development is going to send the world straight to hell in a hand basket, chances are they’re not being very original. The same complaints have happened before when technology we now don’t give a second thought about was new and perceived as dangerous.

Amanda Hess at Slate has a good example of how, regardless of technological means, human desire is fairly constant. Riffing on a series of think pieces about the evils of Tinder, the hookup app, she goes back more than 150 years to a similar piece about the evils of a then-new technology – the private post office box:

In 1860s Manhattan, young men and women in search of some excitement could duck into a little stationery shop uptown, open the unmarked notebook on the counter, and scribble a message to all the other strangers who were in on the secret.

* * *

Beneath each note, the author had scribbled the address of the nearest post office. Now any man who found himself smitten with the writing of Blanche G. or Annie B. could send the girl a private note to the post office, where her father couldn’t intercept it.

Think of it as Tinder for the pre-steampunk crowd!

A man named George Elliot was having nothing of it. In a book called The Women of New York (which sounds like an app in and of itself) he wrote, as Hess explains:

This postal personal-ad operation, Ellington sneered, could only appeal to ‘a certain class of people of the metropolis—more particularly the classes known as the demi-monde, the fast men and the women who are inclined to a rapid life.’ Ellington hardly deemed these men worth mentioning, but he filled a 650-page volume with opinions on the women he believed were destroying the moral fiber of society with their whoring. Though these women ‘outwardly appear to enjoy their various midnight revelries,’ Ellington diagnosed their private condition as ‘blasé and tired of everything.’

The point is not to laugh at Elliot’s ridiculous notions about the place of women. It’s to recognize that technological moral panic is a recurring theme throughout history. More than likely there were people who thought Guttenberg was going to hell for inventing movable type. Certainly it’s true that similar panics accompanied the early days of the telegraph, telephone, television, and the internet.

Why should mobile apps be any different? And in a few years we’ll find some other technological gizmo upon which to fixate and declare how it, too, shall ruin society just like all its predecessors didn’t.

The Dog Days of August Sale!

In which Maia, the One-Eyed Wonder Pup, speaks to you:

It’s August – the last hazy, sticky, hotter than heck days of summer. What better way to beat the heat than with a good book!


Better yet, how about a book full of stories that will take you anywhere but where you are! That’s The Last Ereph and Other Stories, a collection of ten tales of fantasy and science fiction. Go from mysterious verdant islands to a haunted lake in the woods and to eight other places. Well, OK, there is the one about the stifling heat and brownouts and a shady salesman, but still! It’s not where you are!

Final Cover Idea (KDP)

Only 99 cents on for Kindle, now until very early Monday morning. Tell ’em Maia sent ya’!

For more on The Last Ereph and Other Stories, including free samples, click here.

The Other Side of Jury Nullification

I haven’t talked a lot about law on this blog, but I did at my old one. Here’s a post on jury nullification that I thought I’d bring back in light of this interesting discussion over at The Volokh Conspiracy.

Jury nullification is back in the news, thanks to a heavy handed (and most likely unconstitutional) prosecution in New York.  The local US Attorney has charged a 78-year-old man with jury tampering because:

Since 2009, Mr. Heicklen has stood there and at courthouse entrances elsewhere and handed out pamphlets encouraging jurors to ignore the law if they disagree with it, and to render verdicts based on conscience.

That concept, called jury nullification, is highly controversial, and courts are hostile to it. But federal prosecutors have now taken the unusual step of having Mr. Heicklen indicted on a charge that his distributing of such pamphlets at the courthouse entrance violates a law against jury tampering.

Eugene Volokh does a good job of analysing the First Amendment issues with the prosecution, but I’m more interested in the underlying issue of jury nullification.

Jury nullification really isn’t a thing in and of itself.  It’s more a side effect of the prohibition against double jeopardy in the Fifth Amendment.  When a jury acquits a defendant at trial, that’s the end of it.  The prosecution cannot seek appellate review of the verdict.  By contrast, a defendant can challenged the sufficiency of the evidence on appeal, although (as I’ve explained before) there’s little chance of success.

The upshot of that setup is that a jury can return a not guilty verdict for any reason it wants, from the state’s failure to prove its case to the jury’s disgust at the law being enforced.  Those of the libertarian/people power persuasion see jury nullification as an unfettered good, a way for the people to check the power of the state when it comes to unpopular laws or discriminatory applications of otherwise popular laws.

That’s all fine and dandy, in theory, but it strikes me as naive in practice.  After all, if we tell jurors to “render verdicts based on conscience” there’s no principle that limits it to acquittals.  Judges routinely instruct jurors both to ignore evidence that comes out in court and instructs them about the burden of proof and other legal issues.  If they are free to disregard what the judge says, it could lead to all kinds of problems.

Maybe I’m just cynical, but from my experience it doesn’t look like jurors give the weight they should to the judge’s instructions in most cases. My completely unscientific conclusion is that the presumption of innocence and beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard exist largely on paper at this point, not in the minds of actual jurors.  As a result, we already teeter dangerously close to a criminal justice system that makes convictions of innocent people too easy.  Any program that exacerbates that state of play can’t be altogether good.

Jury nullification has a long and storied history in this country, dating back at least to the libel trial of John Peter Zenger in 1733.  But that was a different era, one in which the basics of the law was much more in the grasp of potential jurors.  In the modern era, I’m not so sure that telling jurors they can and should go rouge won’t lead to more harm than good.  At the very least, it’s a problem that jury nullification advocates need to face head on.

And they’ll have to do better than some of the commentators to this article about the case over at Reason.  Asked to distinguish between jurors who acquit because they view the law as unjust and jurors who acquit for less lofty reasons (i.e., an all-white jury acquitting a Klansman who killed a black guy), the best they can do is a variant on the No True Scotsman fallacy – the second example isn’t “really” jury nullification.  Sadly, it produces the same result, so any theoretical distinction is moot.  In any case, further informing jurors that they can do whatever the hell they want would encourage bigotry and bias as much as more principled decisions.

NOTE: This post was originally published on February 28, 2011.

What’s the Point of a Review?

I’ve been writing reviews since the days way before blogs, when we had to chisel words by hand on individual monitor screens. That means I occasionally write about reviews, as in this piece from early last year. Even as a published author, I still see a need for bad reviews!

My Friday Reviews are the descendant of one of the features of my original, hand crank operated, web page I had while I was in college and law school.  There I’d do reviews of just about every album I got, as part of a regular process of listening and figuring out what I thought about it.  I stopped doing those, largely because my reviews were winding up in one of two formats – gushing praise or harsh scorn.  If I didn’t really “feel” one of those, I didn’t even write up.  I’d like to think I do better now, but it’s helpful to be able to pick and choose.

I bring all this up because of an interesting two-person article in the upcoming issue of the New York Time Sunday Book Review which asks the question, “do we really need negative book reviews?”

Now, as a struggling writer, I kind of like the idea of doing away with negative reviews. Who wants to see their work torn to shreds, after all?  But I’m not certain that would really be the best thing.

Francine Prose makes the case for not writing negative reviews.  It’s pretty simple:

Even so, I stopped [writing negative reviews]. I began returning books I didn’t like to editors. I thought, Life is short, I’d rather spend my time urging people to read things I love. And writing a bad book didn’t seem like a crime deserving the sort of punitive public humiliation (witch-dunking, pillorying) that our Puritan forefathers so spiritedly administered.

From my reading of professional critics, that seems to be the best part of the job – when they find something in need of a champion, a book or film that won’t reach a wider audience without some cheerleading.  It must be more rewarding that writing what shit the latest Transformers movie is or whatever.  So I see the point.

On the other hand, however, that seems a bit too touchy-feely, doesn’t it?  To be fair, Prose (good name for a writer!) doesn’t argue for lying about the quality of books, just not writing reviews of bad things at all.  Which, come to think about it, might be even worse – being ripped apart is one thing, being ignored quite another.

Zoe Heller makes the case for negative reviews and it is, as well, pretty simple:

most writers do not write merely, or even principally, to escape from or console themselves. They write for other people. They write to have an effect, to elicit a reaction. That is why they scrap and struggle, often for years, to have their work published. Being sentient creatures, they are often distressed by what critics have to say about their work. Yet they accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena. I know of no self-respecting authors who would ask to be given points for ‘effort’ or for the fact that they are going to die one day.

Part of being an artist, at least one who shares his work with other people, is the need to deal with criticism.  My father is a first rate grammar-Nazi.  I have him read my fiction, even though it’s not the kind of thing he normally reads, because he will be precise and vicious with a red pen.  When my mother asked if I really wanted him to do that, I said, “because editors and agents will be kind and not point out those things?”  Being criticized is part and parcel of being a creative person.

Further, as Heller points out, reviews come with bylines and, hopefully, supporting argument as to whether a book is good or bad.  Real criticism goes miles beyond “it sucks” or even “it’s great!”  Critics who are savage just for the fun of it won’t garner a lot of respect or readers.

After all, as Prose admits, trying not to write a negative review is like trying not to eat too much at Thanksgiving.  You’re bound to find something that rubs you the wrong way, doesn’ work, and compels you to write about it.  Even if, as she also points out, in the end, nobody will really pay attention to what you have to say.

These days, when I write a review, I try to have something interesting to say about whatever the subject is. That’s why there isn’t a review posted every Friday.  Something’s got to strike my fancy somehow, either by being brilliant or flawed, but I won’t think twice about saying I think something sucks.  I just hope I have good enough reasons to make somebody else think, “yeah, all right.”  Agreement, of course, is not required.

So I think the answer is yes, we do need negative book reviews.  Whether we need “bad” reviews is, of course, a completely different question.

NOTE: This post was originally published on February 13, 2014.

Weekly Listen: Ones and Zeroes: Volume 1

Since roaring back to life with 2008’s Narrow-Caster, 3rDegree has gone from strength to strength. Their 2012 effort, The Long Division, is one of my favorite albums. Does Ones and Zeroes: Volume 1 measure up and keep pushing the band forward? It’s too early to tell, but it keeps revealing great things on every listen.

The Long Division had a strong theme running through lots of it, but Ones and Zeroes goes a step further by being a full on concept album (part one of at least two, if I remember correctly). The concept revolves around a shady corporation, Valhalla Biotech, that sells a variety of life extension technology. As set forth in the band’s press release, the album “isn’t so much science fiction as it is a futurist album, expounding upon current trends in technology and leading them to their logical conclusion.” As regular readers know, just saying something isn’t science fiction doesn’t make it so. Ones and Zeroes is as sci-fi as they come, using advances in technology to explore our own humanity.

On the album that deals mostly with the question of what it means to be human? More particularly, what does it mean to be alive? If, as we hear over and over again, “life is needing more,” then the ultimate goal is to extend life forever. Along the way Valhalla goes from stocking “elixir centers” that extend “expiration dates” to realizing the dream of Ray Kurzweil – the uploading of the human mind into a computer where it could, theoretically, live forever.

Along the way, the band explores the various issues that would arise in this situation. There’s concern that this expensive tech will further class divides (there’s a voice over about the world’s oldest man watching his son die of old age) along with the idea that this might all be allowed under the theory that somebody will get there eventually (the Chinese, most likely), so “we” (whoever “we” are) might as well get there first. Most hilariously, the idea of a megacorp in charge of all this leads to the fact that, in “Life at All Cost,” the company tries to sell upgrades while peeling apart and scanning a client’s brain.

All in all, I get a strong Blade Runner vibe from Ones and Zeroes. Valhalla reminds me a bit of the Tyrell Corporation, whose motto, after all, was “More Human Than Human.” Is that where we are at the end of Volume 1? Seems that way. In addition, the need for more life echoes the demand of replicant Roy Batty that he “wants more life” as he kills his creator. So the concept has a lot of areas to explore and I’m sure I haven’t touched them all (I’m notoriously bad at sussing out album concepts).

But this is an album after all and none of that matters if the music is subpar.

Good thing that the music is up to 3rDegree’s usual high standards. The band has always walked a fine line between melodic accessibility and prog complexity, a mixture they’ve refined over the years. The result is a group of tunes that are instantly appealing but reveal depth and interesting details upon further listens. Believe me, once you’ve heard “This Is the Future” it will stick in your head (I dare you not to sing the backup vocals in the chorus!). Not to mention it makes the cheery yet disturbing voice overs of “We Regret to Inform You” go down easy!

If you look at the credits you’ll see no fewer than three guitarists were involved on this album. Lest you fear it’s an onslaught of power chords and shredding six strings, they’re actually fairly restrained. In fact, I’m not sure all three of them are brought to bear on any one track. There are some nice acoustic spots and George Dobbs gets plenty of room to lay out some nice synth solos.

There’s nothing on Ones and Zeroes that jumps out at me the way a few tracks did on The Long Division. But it works better as a whole, as befits a concept album. It’s a mess of awfully good music wrapped around an interesting idea. And the best thing? It’s only the first part!


How Is This Not Yet a Major Motion Picture?

Last week I was talking about ideas and how they’re everywhere. Over the weekend, I came face to face with a great idea that I’m stunned nobody has (apparently) jumped on.

My wife and I took a weekend trip to Lexington, Kentucky, and wound up at the Kentucky Horse Park. It’s a pretty neat place, sprawling through horse country with lots of interesting stuff to take a look at. One feature is the Hall of Champions, where several horses who won big-time races are housed. We met a couple of Kentucky Derby winners, but the one that stood out was this guy, Da Hoss:


Da Hoss (not to be confused with this ditty) won the Breeders Cup Mile in 1996. An impressive enough accomplishment, given that American horses are rarely the best on grass, the surface on which that particular race is run (British horses run more regularly on grass). More impressive is what came after.

For two years, Da Hoss battled injuries and didn’t race, but came back into form in time for the 1998 edition of the Breeders Cup. He won a preliminary race in Virginia, but it was against lowly regarded opposition so nobody gave him much notice.

Then in the 1998 Breeders Cup race this happened:

Notice how the announcer basically gives up on Da Hoss as they come through the final turn (he says the horse is “stopping”). Nonetheless the horse comes through in the end, winning by a nose. It’s one of the most exciting races – horse or otherwise – I’ve ever seen.

My first thought upon seeing the video and the horse was “how is this not a major motion picture yet?” Given the success of Seabiscuit you’d think a tale of animal powered redemption that had the convenient trick of being true would be an easy sell. So many sports movies manipulate the truth to arrive at the final Big Game that I’m stunned nobody has taken up one that wouldn’t need that kind of trickery. Maybe it’s out there in development hell somewhere, but it doesn’t seem to be.

Damn shame I don’t write screenplays (or sports stories). This one practically writes itself.