Yeah, OK, Now Tell Us Why

Sometimes science tells us things we already know. That’s good, because as “duh!” as those things sound, it’s good to have common experience backed up by rigorous study.

A similar thing popped up the other week. Most people, if their honest with themselves, will admit that their taste in music (popular music, at any rate) is inextricably linked to their youth. What you loved growing up is likely to stick with you. In other words, you eventually become your parents and think what the kids today listen to is noise and/or garbage (and possibly unAmerican!).

Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, writing in the New York Times (via), explains how he dove deep into the dataset that is Spotify. Using “data on how frequently every song is listened to by men and women of each particular age” he learned that:

The patterns were clear. Even though there is a recognized canon of rock music, there are big differences by birth year in how popular a song is.

Consider, for example, the song ‘Creep,’ by Radiohead. This is the 164th most popular song among men who are now 38 years old. But it is not in the top 300 for the cohort born 10 years earlier or 10 years later.

Note that they men who most like ‘Creep’ now were roughly 14 when the song came out in 1993. In fact, this is a consistent pattern.

He shows this over and over again with songs by artists as diverse as The Cure, Roy Orbison, and Van Morrison.

As I said, this isn’t much of a surprise. We all know people whose musical tastes calcified in 10th grade.

Even though I consider myself pretty open minded when it comes to music, I have to admit that my sweet spot, go to favorite kind of stuff, progressive rock, is what I first got hooked on when I was a kid. Sure, my horizons have expanded over the years (ironically, part of that includes rediscovering the pop music I shunned as a kid), but I most happily fall back into the arms of the Genesis, Yes, and Rush stuff I discovered when I was young.

Now that we have some deep data diving confirming this bit of common sense, the next hurdle is figuring out why this is the case. Stevens-Davidowitz’s survey doesn’t directly address that question, although he says in passing:

This also adds one more piece of evidence to the growing scientific consensus that we never really leave middle school and high school.

But why should that be the case? Peoples’ tastes change through their lives when it comes to other things. We eat different things, read different books, and watch different movies. What is it about music that ties it so tightly to adolescence? Maybe it’s because, for most people, that’s when music is most important to them and their identity. Music later in life tends to fade into the background (and not in an interesting way). Or maybe it’s pure nostalgia (although, again, not for other things?).

Either way, the answers lie beyond my range as a humble writer and lawyer. So get on it, science! Don’t just confirm what we know, tell us why!

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Weekly Read: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

There are a lot of things to like about The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It’s set in an interesting universe where humans aren’t dominant and there are lots of interesting alien species to deal with. The characters, for the most part, are interesting and fun to spend time with. And the writing it pretty quippy and moves at a good clip. It should be a fun read and it is, but it doesn’t go much further than that.

I’ve read a lot of commentary about the book that it’s about characters and not plot. While that’s true it wouldn’t be correct to say “nothing happens” in the book. Several things – exciting things! – happen. It’s just that they’re resolved fairly easily and don’t really have any impact on things going forward.

Take, for example, an early crisis. The ship, Wayfarer, is off on the titular long trip in order to bore a new wormhole in space. Fairly early in this journey they’re set upon by pirates! A sticky enough situation, made all the more so by the fact that the ship’s captain is a pacifist and, thus, everyone on the ship is unarmed. That is a fantastic twist on a typical space opera trope. It’s not really a spoiler to say they talk themselves out of it. It’s a pretty exciting scene.

Yet it has almost no residual effect. One character has a brief bit of PTSD, but it goes away just as quickly. More annoying, our heroes escape the pirates by giving them some of their supplies – supplies which, apparently, were completely superfluous to the main mission. Thus, while there’s talk about getting reimbursed for them, there’s no complaint that it will make their job harder or require extra stops along the way. It’s a problem, it’s solved, and the book plows ahead.

The effect is kind of like an old-fashioned TV show from before the current golden age of serialized TV. Each episode is basically a standalone story, with little ongoing plot to drive things along. Thus, along The Long Way . . . we get “episodes” for just about all of the Wayfarer’s crew that all play out the same way – some crises appears, it’s resolved, and everyone goes on their merry way.

Consider Rosemary, who if not the main character of the book (it bounces POVs around a bunch), is at last our audience surrogate, the new person on the ship who has to learn how things work (our Tim Bayliss, if you will). We know from the beginning that she has a big secret in her past. If she’s not running from something, she’s at least in search of a new start in a new life. We find out why about halfway through (her father’s a war criminal, in essence) and she worries this will impact the life she’s made on the ship, cost her friends. It doesn’t, because everyone on board is so incredibly understanding – even the alien chef/doctor (another neat touch) whose species is about to be extinct due to the war Rosemary’s father fueled. A great potential for tension is completely squandered.

And so it goes. With the exception of the ship’s algae specialist (that’s what fuels the ship – don’t ask, it’s never explained) everybody gets along swimmingly through the voyage. When his “episode” comes it falls flat because we suddenly need to care about somebody nobody else does (particular shame given the issues it raises). The goal of the actual “long trip” basically disappears once they embark, only to rear its head at the very end.

I’ve seen lots of references to “imagination” in reviews praising The Long Way . . . and that’s a spot on description. Becky Chambers let her imagination run wild in creating the universe in which the book is set. It’s just a shame more interesting things don’t happen in it. In that way it reminds me a bit of The Goblin Emperor, another book with a fascinating setting and interesting characters that didn’t really amount to much.

There’s something to be said for an author who just takes her readers and drops them into a fascinating place filled with interesting characters. Ultimately, I want a little bit more than that. Others might not care so much and, so, your mileage may vary when it comes to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Still recommended, if with a little hesitation.

LongWay Cover.png

The Right Timing for Forbidden Fruit

A little while back the AV Club had a Q&A based around the question:

What’s the funniest time your parents banned a piece of pop culture from you?

Some of the answers are pretty funny (Christian rocker Carman? Really?), but it made me think of a different angle on the question. That is, does being prohibited from consuming some piece of pop culture at a young age set you up to better appreciate it when you’re older? I think it might.

There wasn’t a lot that was off limits in my house growing up. Part of that is down to my parents not being stuck up moralists fighting a losing battle against the moral decay of the world around them (or whatever turns people into censors). Part of it, also, was down to the fact that I had older brothers – one 10 years, the other 13 – who were old enough to handle just about anything, so stuff inevitably found its way to me. There must have been some control exercised somewhere along the line, but with one exception, I can’t remember any.

That exception involved, of all things, Yes.

Let’s go back to the spring of 1974. After a lavish tour for the equally lavish double album Tales from Topographic Oceans, keyboard player Rick Wakeman has had enough and leaves Yes. His replacement turns out to be Swiss ace Patrick Moraz. Equally skillful, he deploys a sonic pallet that’s a little more edgy and brings in some influences of jazz fusion to the band. His one studio album with the band, Relayer, sounds like nothing else in their catalog and is, to some (me included) the last really great Yes album.

One of my brothers had it on vinyl and, one day in my misspent youth (I was either in late elementary or early junior high school), I was recording it onto cassette. Back in those days, kids, if you were recording something like that it took as long as the music lasted. In other words, you listened while you recorded. I was in the middle of side one when my mother showed up. Somehow she figured out (probably because I told her) that side one of Relayer is an epic called “The Gates of Delirium.”

That was all my mother needed to hear. It was about drugs and I wasn’t supposed to be listening to anything like that.

And that was that. Relayer was out of my reach, at least for the next decade or so. I returned to it in college, when I discovered the progressive underground online and really started exploring music. What struck me about Relayer – all of it, not just “Gates” – is how damned weird it is.

Yes, for as much as I love them and as big a part they played in the development of progressive rock, have never been one of the weirder outposts of the genre. Even of the Big 5 King Crimson and (arguably) Emerson, Lake, & Palmer went further out there than Yes did. What Yes did was traffic in classically-inspired epics of precise arrangement and performance. It was pushing some boundaries of rock, but not all of them.

Relayer is different. It’s wooly and wild in a way that Yes albums before or after were not. As I mentioned above, the sounds Moraz generates are fuzzier, spikier, and just more rude than Wakeman. Throw in the fusion influences and much of Relayer (3/4ths of it, at any rate) sound like it’s about to vibrate up off the planet at any time. Yes hit heights during their long career afterward, but not like this.

What’s clear to me is that had I really tried to get my head around Relayer when I was in junior high I probably couldn’t have. I would have written it off as “too weird” and moved on (I nearly did that with King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk,” which I heard somewhere and thought “what’s this shit?”). So my mother’s impulse to censor probably turned out well, in the end.

As for the motive? “The Gates of Delirium” isn’t about drugs at all:
“THE GATES OF DELIRIUM,” with Yes (RELAYER, 1974): Based on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” this album-opening nearly 22-minute composition famously erupts into this lengthy all-instrumental battle scene only to finally settle into a quiet peace prayer called “Soon,” which was later edited out for a single. Recorded with keyboardist Patrick Moraz, after Rick Wakeman’s departure, Relayer has a harder, more guitar-oriented sound — something nowhere more obvious than during the cacophonous middle section. The tune, Anderson says, was constructed in tandem segments.

Anderson: I sort of wrote the thing on piano, very badly, then went in and played it for them – again, very badly – but they understood it. I told them how we would start it, then made the thundering sounds. I talked about this enormous energy, and then went into the battlefield section, then out of that we would all sing ‘Soon.’ We all worked on it together. They started working on the first section, then I would work in the second section and so on. We stayed ahead of the rehearsals. Steve and I wrote all the parts out on cassettes, and I would be listening and working on the next part so we would keep the structure. Thankfully, they got it.

Regardless – thanks, Mom! You probably helped me better appreciate a late-prog masterpiece!

Relayer

Weekly Read: The Lost City of Z

I generally roll my eyes at people who see a movie based on a book and then tut tut that “the book was better.” Even as a writer, it comes off as snobbish to me. The written word is a different medium than film, which makes adaptations their own things. One’s rarely “better,” even in a subjective sense, than the other. They’re just different.

The film, The Lost City of Z (released last year), got a good amount of praise when it was released. I’ve even seen people list it as being snubbed in the Oscar race. It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, who repeatedly search the Amazon jungle for evidence of a lost city in the early part of the last century. The wife and I put it on our list of flicks to see and, the other weekend, were able to pay per view it. My thoughts at the time was that it was a fine flick, but it suffered in comparison to such jungle fever dreams as Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

It did interest me enough to go read the book upon which the movie is based. Also called The Lost City of Z, it weaves the history of Fawcett’s expeditions in with the attempt of author David Grann to track down evidence of Fawcett’s final expedition (no spoiler alert – Fawcett’s disappearance in 1925 is one of the everlasting mysteries of the golden age of exploration). I’m glad I did, not just because the book provides more detail than any movie possibly could, but it makes clear that large hunks of the movie are complete and utter fiction.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about whether the film itself, or the book, is “accurate” from an historical standpoint. There was a lively debate at the time the movie came out with historians arguing that it portrayed Fawcett in a much more positive, progressive light than the historical record supports (also, he sucked at exploring). Naturally, the director’s response to this was, in essence, “it’s art and you can’t talk like that about it.” That’s not what I’m really interested in. However, I will note this observation from one critique of the movie version of Fawcett:

The original book, by David Grann, was much more intelligent and nuanced, as one would expect from a staff writer on the New Yorker. But everything has gone wrong in its clumsy adaptation for the screen by director James Gray, who has written his own script and then filmed it with great reverence – almost always a mistake.

That sounds about right, although “clumsy” is perhaps too kind. It’s simply bizarre for a movie based on a particular non-fiction book – it even uses the title! – to break from the book in so many fundamental ways. I’m not talking about the inevitable compression that happens to turn a biography into a movie – that Fawcett had 8 Amazon expeditions, not 3, or that he and his son had a third person on their final voyage makes sense. I’m talking about things that get the character so wrong I don’t understand why the writer/director used the name of a real person.

For example, one of the most obvious diversions from the book is the in the film Fawcett is portrayed as having fallen into exploration after being tapped by the military and Royal Geographical Society to survey a river on the border of Brazil and Bolivia. In fact, Fawcett caught the exploration bug while stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) when he fell hard for a story of buried treasure (he didn’t find that, either). He’d already attended a 1-year course at the RGS before the surveying mission came up.

Or take the depiction of Fawcett’s relationship with his eldest son, Jack. In the film Jack is shown as an angry kid, raging against his father as a failure after an expedition collapses spectacularly (bonus point – the book never mentions that Fawcett resigned from the RGS in the aftermath, as the film portrays). They’re reconnection as they plan the last expedition is a moving part of the film. But, according to Grann’s book at least (the source material for the film!), the two were always close and Jack wanted to join his father in his explorations almost as soon as he could.

But the most egregious example involves World War I. Fawcett was well into his Amazon explorations when the war broke out. He went back to England and, eventually, to the Western Front. The film portrays Fawcett leading a Paths of Glory style assault over the top (after consulting with a Madame Blavatsky type – she died in 1891) during which he’s wounded by gas. No just wounded – blinded. A doctor even tells the blind Fawcett that he’ll never see the jungle again. This is utter fiction, unless Grann decided to skip the episode completely in his book. Fawcett wasn’t wounded, much less blinded, and didn’t sit around the English countryside recuperating for years until his son convinced him to give it one more go. Why the director (who also wrote the script) decided to put it in is anybody’s guess.

Somebody could have made a really interesting movie out of the Grann’s book. Even without the modern day overlay of Grann’s own expedition, the atmosphere of doom that clung to Fawcett’s final expedition could have really worked as the backbone of the movie (cover what else needs to be covered in flashbacks). Or, alternately, somebody could have used Fawcett as the basis for a truly fictional character and played around with the details as he saw fit. The Lost City of Z the movie isn’t either of those and it suffers for it. The Fawcett of the book is much more interesting than his celluloid counterpart.

But it did lead me to the book, for which I thank it. For, in this instance, the tutters would be right – the book really is better than the movie.

lost city z bookLost City of Z film

What’s a Director Worth?

It’s awards season, which means an annual tally of the talented in the world of movies. Among the most recognized are directors, who get recognized separately at awards like the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Often, but not always, the best director nominees track those for best picture, although that’s gotten a little muddy since we have more best picture nominees these days. That being said, what’s a director worth when it comes to the finished product? Is a great film always the result of great direction?

Mike D’Angelo, over at the AV Club, goes at the issue from the other direction and asks if there are situations where the “best-directed movie isn’t among the best of the year.” The example he provides from 2017 is A Ghost Story, which he calls “last year’s most stunning directorial achievement” but involves an “unexpected turn” in the story that is “enough of a deal-breaker” to keep it from being one of his best films of the year. From his description (I haven’t seen the movie) it sounds like a good argument.

GhostStory

Nor would it be unprecedented. It’s not unheard of for a director to be recognized for doing something really different technically or structurally without the final product also being recognized as superior. In 2013 Ang Lee won Best Director for Life of Pi, which involved a lot of technical wizardry that really pushed the bounds of film. It didn’t win best picture, however, losing out to Argo (which, ironically, didn’t even get a directing nod for Ben Affleck). One could make the same argument about Gravity the following year, for which Alfonso Cuaron took home Best Director, while 12 Years a Slave took home best picture (though Steve McQueen was nominated that year).

Where I think D’Angelo goes wrong is in trying to shift, and narrow, the focus of what makes a great director:

Rather than just give up and conclude that the best films must logically be the best-directed films, I instead try to determine, when voting for Best Director in year-end critics’ polls, which movies most impressed me from a purely visual standpoint. Admittedly, there’s plenty of crossover there with various technical categories—cinematography, editing, art direction, costume design—but I generally boil it down to a simple question: ‘Who knew exactly where to put the camera?’ When I come at it from that angle, Picture and Director diverge just enough to make things interesting.

It may make things interesting, but it gives short shrift to a lot of what a director does. You don’t have to be an auteur worshiper (D’Angelo labels himself a “softcore auteurist”) to recognize that a director is the one person most responsible for how a film winds up. Not the only one, certainly, but unless they are overrun by studio dipshits directors have what Bill Bruford, in listing his credits for a solo album, called “final say.” The buck ends with them.

To give one example where a film is shaped by the director’s “vision,” but not necessarily his camera techniques, consider Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. It’s a coming-of-age story shot, essentially in real time. Over the course of eleven years, Linklater filmed sequences with the same cast, including the central character, a boy who literally grew up on screen. The entire setup was his idea and he stewarded it through to completion.

Boyhood

Which is not to say identifying a talented director takes no more effort than finding a list of the best movies of a particular year. Sometimes they bring something so different to the table that the end result isn’t that important. More often than not, though, it is. It’s just really hard to quantify. It’s the Potter Stewart situation of the film world.

We All Need Some Light

The other day at work I was doing some research at a different end of the West Virginia Code that normal and came across a provision that made absolutely no sense to me. It’s WV Code §2-1-2, titled “Ancient Lights” for those playing at home:

The common law of England in regard to ancient lights is not in force in this state.

The background for this is that the prior section (WV Code §2-1-1) adopts English common law “except as altered by the general assembly of Virginia” before June 20, 1863. In other words, we adopted Virginia’s law as is when we left the commonwealth during the Civil War. But apparently it was important to exclude from that this law on “ancient lights.” So what are we missing here in the Mountain State?

Turns out it’s a right to light! In some places, at least. Specifically, it’s a kind of easement, which is a property interest that someone has in someone else’s property – think of someone who has the legal right to use a path across their next door neighbor’s property. In England, if a person has a building with windows that for 20 years have received daylight they can prevent someone else from building in a way as to obstruct the light.

Thus, you have things like this on some old English buildings:

Ancient_lights_signs_Clerkenwell FULL

Pic by Mike Newman via Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, West Virginia isn’t alone in not adopting this doctrine, so very few Americans actually have an enforceable right to light. Which is a shame, since, as the song says, we all need some light.