Thoughts On Buttered Cats

One of my favorite bands is Sanguine Hum, which marries intricate song writing and arrangements with an absurdist streak derived from the original Canterbury scene (not for nothing was an earlier version of the band called Antique Seeking Nuns). A few years ago they released a pair of concept albums – Now We Have Light and Now We Have Power – inspired by what’s called the “buttered cat paradox.” Did I mention the absurdist streak?

The buttered cat paradox is best explained in this short video, where butter is substituted with jam, but the principle is the same:

The further step upon which the Sanguine Hum albums are based is the idea that if the cat will hover off the ground, rotating, that the rotational force could be capture as a form of generating power. As one song from the first album goes:

The simplest way to describe
What is lighting up the night’s sky
Is rotatory fur!
It spins through the air.
We buttered their backs
Now we have light!
Now we have power!

This is, of course, basically a joke (remember the absurdum!), but the whole idea never sat right with me. If the cat wants to land on its feet and it’s falling feet first, why on Earth would it suddenly stop and start spinning? Sadly, my education left me without a good means of figuring this out. The closest I got to science in college was a survey-level Biology class, with nary a Physics class in sight. If you need someone to explain the histiocity of Holocaust denial or expound on legal philosophy, I’m your man. How things move in the universe, not so much.

I did some poking around and someone confirmed that I was right to think this doesn’t make any sense! The long and short of it involves the much larger mass of the cat as compared to the buttered/jammed toast:

So there it is – a completely hypothetical, terminally absurd thought experiment is debunked. I do take some satisfaction in this, even as I try to always keep in mind the MST3K motto to “repeat to yourself it’s just a[n album], you should really just relax.”

Let’s do just that, then, shall we?

Now We Have Light by Sanguine Hum

Now We Have Power by Sanguine Hum

My First Web Page!

I was trying to go all Marie Kondo on my bookmarks the other night when I came across an Internet Archive link to a fun bit of my past – my very first web page!

Now, this wasn’t the original version (for one thing, it was originally 100% image free!), but this gives you a fair idea of what things were like in the days before easy-to-use blog software like our platform here at WordPress. In fact, this was current to just before I started my current job. Each of those links went to a separate page, coded in HTML (very basically) by yours truly. What was I talking about back then?

Mostly music, if I’m honest. Probably the busiest part of the site, and the one that got me some connection with actual readers, was the album reviews page. Starting when I was in law school (when the page originally went up) I reviewed pretty near every album I got. As you can see from the list of reviews, I was digging into the expanding world of progressive rock, which I’d thought died in the 1970s. I stopped doing those (around 2000, it looks like) because I wound up only being interested in writing about the stuff that was really great or really awful and ignoring the stuff in the middle (which was most of it, after all). It’s the same reason these days that my “Weekly” posts aren’t anywhere near weekly – I really don’t write a review unless I have something to say about a piece of art these days.

Aside from reviews, I had the unmitigated Millennium-fueled gall to put together a list of the “Top 100 Musicals Works of the Twentieth Century.” Holy shit, the audacity! Even though I limited it to stuff I’d actually heard, I still must have been feeling pretty full of myself. These days if I did something similar I’d put “favorites” in the title prominently, just to make clear it was all one guy’s opinion. Digging around the Archive I found the list itself, which I’ll reproduce here for the sake of posterity:

First Suite in E-flat for Band, by Gustav Holst (1911)
Lu Sacre di Pritemps, by Igor Stravinsky (1913)
The Planets, by Gustav Holst (1918)
Firebird Suite, by Igor Stravinsky (1919)
The Pines of Rome, by Ottorino Respighi (1924)
Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin (1924)
Concerto de Aranjeuz, by Joaquin Rodrigo (1939)
Commando March, by Samuel Barber (1943)
Testament of Freedom, by Randall Thompson (1943)
Appalachian Spring Suite, by Aaron Copland (1945)
Symphony # 3, by Aaron Copland (1945)
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, by Aaron Copland (1946)
La Fiesta Mexicana, by Owen Reed (1949)
Symphonic Songs for Band, by Robert Russell Bennett (1957)
Time Out, by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)
Kenton’s Christmas, by Stan Kenton (1961)
Symphony #13 (Babi Yar), by Dimitri Shastakovitch (1962)
Elegy for a Young American, by Robert LoPresti (1965)
Variations on a Korean Folk Song, by John Barnes Chance (1965)
Music for Prague 1968, by Karel Husa (1968)
Abbey Road, by The Beatles (1969)
Hot Rats, by Frank Zappa (1969)
In the Court of the Crimson King, an observation by King Crimson (1969)
Tommy, by The Who (1969)
Nursery Cryme, by Genesis (1971)
Pawn Hearts, by Van der Graff Generator (1971)
Storia di un Minuto, by Premiata Forneria Marconi (1971)
Fragile, by Yes (1972)
Close to the Edge, by Yes (1972)
Thick as a Brick, by Jethro Tull (1972)
Brain Salad Surgery, by Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1973)
Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd (1973)
Octopus, by Gentle Giant (1973)
Quadrophenia, by The Who (1973)
Selling England by the Pound, by Genesis (1973)
Red, by King Crimson (1973)
Relayer, by Yes (1974)
Electromagnets, by The Electromagnets (1975)
Katy Lied, by Steely Dan (1975)
The Rotters Club, by Hatfield and the North (1975)
Wish You Were Here, by Pink Floyd (1975)
Romantic Warrior, by Return to Forever (1976)
Seconds Out, by Genesis (1977)
Briefcase Full of Blues, by The Blues Brothers (1978)
Hemispheres, by Rush (1978)
Just A Game, by Triumph (1978)
Of Queues and Cures, by National Health (1978)
Please Don’t Touch, by Steve Hackett (1978)
UK, by UK (1978)
At Budokan, by Cheap Trick (1979)
Joe’s Garage, by Frank Zappa (1979)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Stephen Sondheim (1979)
Discipline, by King Crimson (1981)
Moving Pictures, by Rush (1981)
You Are What You Is, by Frank Zappa (1981)
All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, by Pete Townshend (1981)
The Nightfly, by Donald Fagan (1982)
Under A Blood Red Sky, by U2 (1983)
Grace Under Pressure, by Rush (1984)
Misplaced Childhood, by Marillion (1985)
The Wake, by IQ (1985)
Bring on the Night, by Sting (1986)
Cold Snap, by Albert Collins (1986)
Graceland, by Paul Simon (1986)
Tones, by Eric Johnson (1986)
Symphony #1 (Lord of the Rings), by Johann de Meij (1988)
Vivid, by Living Color (1988)
High Tension Wires, by Steve Morse (1989)
Ah Via Musicom, by Eric Johnson (1990)
Toy Matinee, by Toy Matinee (1990)
Doo Dad, by Webb Wilder (1991)
II, by Animal Logic (1991)
Live At The Apollo, by B.B. King (1991)
The Sky Is Crying, by Stevie Ray Vaughn (1991)
The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, by Frank Zappa (1991)
After Hours, by Gary Moore (1992)
Bring ’em Back Alive, by The Dixie Dregs (1992)
Images and Words, by Dream Theater (1992)
Suffocating the Bloom . . ., by echolyn (1992)
UFO Tofu, by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (1992)
Blues Summit, by B.B. King (1993)
Deus ex Machina, by Deus ex Machina (1993)
Harbor Lights, by Bruce Hornsby (1993)
Mystic Mile, by Robben Ford and the Blue Line (1993)
Awake, by Dream Theater (1994)
Brave, by Marillion (1995)
Epilog, by Anglagard (1994)
Under the Table and Dreaming, by The Dave Mathews Band (1994)
Afraid of Sunlight, by Marillion (1995)
Alive In America, by Steely Dan (1995)
As The World, by echolyn (1995)
Hot House, by Bruce Hornsby (1995)
The Light, by Spock’s Beard (1995)
Live!, by The Police (1995)
Live Art, by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (1996)
Blood of the Berry, by Timothy Pure (1997)
more once more, by finneus gauge (1997)
OK Computer, by Radiohead (1997)
Sluggo!, by Mike Keneally and Beer For Dolphins (1997)
Vertu, by Vertu (1999)

You’ll also notice a link to what I called “Random Thoughts,” which was the closest thing I had to a regular blog back then (as you can see, “Random Thoughts Redux” was a blog proper, although it didn’t last long). This wasn’t a regular thing, more of a situation where if something struck me in a certain way I’d get riled up enough to write about it – sports, politics, a little bit of law. What’s completely missing, of course, is any writing about writing itself. I was several years away from starting to write fiction, much less releasing entire books of the stuff.

Other things on the old page were links to a project I did in law school called “Practical Moral Philosophy for Lawyers,” an attempt to grapple with some practical ethical questions in a different way. In typical lawyerly fashion, it doesn’t provide any hard answers. There were also links to my play-by-email fictional indoor soccer team, Morgantown Mountaineers FC (I think we won a couple of trophies over the years, but I can’t find any evidence of that) and my autocross exploits as Legal Eagle Racing (haltingly making a comeback in the Year of the Plague).

I’m not normally one to wallow in nostalgia. Still, it’s fun to look back at this and think I’ve been on the Internet, feeding the silence on and off for more than two decades. It’s hard to remember what it was like in the days before we all had instant platforms for sharing what we think. Whether that’s a development that’s good or bad, time will still tell.

Genesis – Ten of the Best?

Prog magazine recently asked their readers to help them identify the cream of the crop of Genesis tunes. Being that Genesis is one of my favorite bands I threw in my two cents, voting for the ten “best” (actually my favorites) tracks. I thought I’d provide some explanation of my choices, as well as point out one honorable mention that I couldn’t vote for in the poll.

As I suspected, this was pretty tough. I didn’t put any particular limitations on my choices (only one song from any album, etc.), but I did try and cover as much of the band’s history as I could. Here they are, arranged chronologically . . .

“The Musical Box” from Nursery Cryme (1971)

A great, weird, story song with a thunderous climax. It’s a great example of what the band was in between Anthony Philips leaving and Steve Hackett joining, as there’s lengthy bits where Tony Banks is filling in the lead guitar slot with a Hohner pianet run through a cranked up fuzz box.

“Watcher of the Skies” from Foxtrot (1972)

Two words – Mellotron intro. Yes, the tricky rhythm that takes over for that (courtesy of Phil Collins) is great, too, but there’s nothing quite like that huge, ominous opening – possible because Banks accidentally got the Mellotron to playback two tapes at once.

“Can-Utility and the Coastliners” from Foxtrot (1972)

All that’s great about classic Genesis in an easily digestible package. Mythical lyrics? Check (the story of King Canute and the waves). Multiple solos? Check (including Mellotron, not normally a solo instrument). Symphonic grandeur? You bet. If I need to play one song to someone to show them what Genesis was like in its prog heyday, this would be it.

“Firth of Fifth” from Selling England By the Pound (1973)

The song that launched a thousand prog bands. This is the template for symphonic prog going forward – classically inspired piano intro, more mythical lyrics, widdly synth solo followed by soaring guitar solo. And a flute solo! Never better than the original.

“In the Cage” from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)

It’s hard to take one track from The Lamb . . . because they work so well together, moving from one song to another. This is the best choice to pull out and let stand on its own, I think. Another great solo from Banks. Gabriel’s vocals are particularly good, too.

“Los Endos” from A Trick of the Tail (1976)

Must have been a lot of pressure to get this right, since calling it “The End” means it’s your concert closer for years to come. Of course, they did. I particularly like the call backs from earlier in the album (from “Dance on a Volcano”) and from before (the “there’s an angel standing in the sun . . .” subdued lyrics from “Supper’s Ready”).

“Blood on the Rooftops” from Wind & Wuthering (1976)

I didn’t really get into this track until I heard Steve Hackett playing it in recent years, but it’s really grown on me. Hackett’s nylon-string guitar work sits well with Banks’ Mellotron sweeps and Collins’ vocals/lyrics have a deep melancholy to them that really stands out. Fits the grey album cover perfectly.

“Cinema Show” from Seconds Out (1977)

The studio version of this track is great, but this live version (with Bill Bruford on drums) is epic. It’s one of those prog mini-epics that hit my sweet spot (see also, “Starless” by King Crimson and “Squarer for Maud” by National Health, among others), with the delicate vocal first section giving way to a fabulous (and notably three piece) instrumental section.

“Me & Sarah Jane” from Abacab (1981)

Another weird story song, this time about a guy who makes up a girlfriend (and then mourns her departure). Proof that the band could still do interesting musical things in a shorter, more outwardly pop kind of vein.

“Domino” from Invisible Touch (1986)

While the band climbed the pop charts they kept making lengthy, weird deep cuts that really came off well live. This works as kind of a later-day “Cinema Show,” with the song-based first section and driving second section. “We’re all the next in line,” as they say.

Honorable mention

“Behind the Lines > Duchess > Guide Vocal” from Duke (1980)

The Prog poll listed each track separately, which means I couldn’t vote for this hunk that leads off Duke. The band originally toyed with the idea of a lengthy Duke suite, but wound up breaking things up over the album (they did it all together live, though). I love how these three tunes work together, so I’ll add them to my list.

Am I right? Am I wrong? Does it matter? It’s all great!

Weekly Read: Head On

One of the cool things about writing speculative fiction is building a world out of a neat “what if?” idea and playing around in it. John Scalzi did that with Lock In. Set in a world where a chunk of the population has succumb to Haden’s Syndrome – a disease that leaves them “locked in” their body, unable to move but with functional brains – Lock In used a fairly standard buddy cop storyline to play out the ramifications. The story was secondary to learning how the main character, FBI agent (and intentionally ungendered) Chris Shane, and their fellow Hadens interacted with each other and the rest of the world. I couldn’t even tell you what the central mystery was and still really liked it.

Head On is a sequel to Lock In, but it’s dubbed a “standalone followup.” Having read Lock In certainly helps understand the background of the story, but newbies should be able to jump right in, and maybe they should. With my feet firmly on the ground in the world of Head On right from the jump the story came to the fore and, sadly, it wasn’t that interesting.

The milieu for it is, though. Head On revolves around an ultraviolent sport called hilketa (SP?), in which specially crafted versions of the threeps (aka “3P0” – get it?) batter each other with the objective of ripping a particular player’s head off and using it to score a goal. It’s like rugby or gridiron football without any of the problems with head injuries, since there aren’t actual humans on the field playing the game.

Nonetheless, when one hilketa player dies during a preseason game, it swings Shane and his (non-Haden) partner into action to untangle a convoluted web of deceit and murder. Diving into that mystery allows Scalzi to explore some interesting things. The most mundane may be the impact of big money and expansion in sports, but there’s also more world-specific questions like what “performance enhancing” drugs mean for people who play a sport without their body. Most compelling is how all this is impacted by the United States government’s withdrawal of financial support for Hadens (helped, it’s more than implied, by corporations pushing the edges of the law too far). Also, there’s a cat with an interesting bauble on its collar.

MiBCat

Sort of like this one, but a different color. And friendlier. And without a galaxy ’round its neck. But otherwise . . .

But I find these background things, or sideways highlights of the Hadens world, much more interesting than the actual detective story. Shane and their partner are your typical fictional cops – always pushing boundaries, but always getting the bad person, so it’s OK. This time, particularly, that none of the several lawyers in the book are even decent people, much less competent. I was particularly disappointed that Scalzi reuses the stereotype of the public defender as an out of their depth idiot, rather than a dedicated, smart, hard working advocate stuck in a system that criminal underfunds them. To his credit, the actual solution to the mystery of the hilketa player’s death is sadly plausible for 21st Century America.

Oddly, part of what I think kept me from fully engaging with Head On is that it’s so short. The version I listened to (in keeping with the ungendered main character, there are separate audiobook versions read by Will Wheaton and Amber Benson – I listened to Wheaton’s) was barely seven-and-a-half hours long. The book moves at a brisk pace – the trademark Scalzi smart assess are present in all their glory (a good thing!) – and doesn’t really make room for anything that doesn’t drive the plot along. The decision to “lock in” the point of view on Chris, I think, limits things a bit too much. I think if I’d known more about the other people in this world I’d have cared more about the mystery in which they were wrapped up.

If that sounds negative, I don’t really mean it to be. Head On is a quick, interesting, fun read, but I don’t think it does much to improve on its predecessor. My hope is that in a future book Scalzi breaks from the crime story mold and tells some other stories about Hadens. He could bring Shane along for the ride, although it would probably help if they were knocked down a few pegs (in addition to being an FBI agent Shane is the son of a fabulously wealthy ex-NBA superstar – he’s got power and money, in other words). Regardless, I’ll probably check that one out, too.

HeadOnCover

A New Layer of Beta Readers

Here’s a dirty little secret – almost no writers sit down at the keyboard (or with pen in hand, if you’re a retro kind of person), open the channels to the muse, and let flow a stream of writing that becomes the final product. Between blank page and finished product there are a lot of stages, some of which include input from other people. Generally we call those people beta readers. They read a work in progress and provide feedback. What the writer does with that feedback varies from person to person and suggestion to suggestion.

While most beta readers are just that – readers – sometimes you might need a beta with a particular background to provide feedback on a story. Writing a sci-fi story set largely in a genetics lab? You might want to have someone who’s worked in one read through it, just to make sure the little detail ring true. Writing a fantasy story that involves a lot of swordplay? Might want to have someone who knows about such things give it a read to make sure characters aren’t treating broadswords like fencing foils (or vice versa).

So it’s not a surprise that, as writers start to concern themselves more with diversity in their work, that a new crop of betas is emerging – sensitivity readers:

These advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.

 

On the site Writing in the Margins, which launched in 2012, the author Justina Ireland articulates the goal of this new fleet of experts: to point out the “internalized bias and negatively charged language” that can arise when writers create ‘outside of [their] experiences.’

While critics may bemoan such a development as just another example of political correctness run amok, the Slate article points out that it’s really down to the oldest of Western motivations – the profit motive. Younger readers, in particular, desire more diversity in their fiction, so this is a way to provide a product they want to read.

Besides, the ultimate issue with any beta reader’s feedback isn’t the feedback itself, it’s what the author does with it. For example, one author in the article talks about how she changed some bits involving a black college student because the feedback from beta readers was that students at historically black colleges wouldn’t speak the way she had the character speaking. It’s not a matter of offense, it’s a matter of trying to portray something unfamiliar as accurately as possible.

Having said that, the very subjectivity of the undertaking makes it kind of hit or miss. That’s obvious from a distinction the author of the Slate story makes:

Some sensitivity readers draw distinctions between offensive descriptions and offensive descriptions that appear to enjoy the blessing of the author. If Lolita had been written from Dolores’ point of view, Ireland said, “it might be useful to have an advocate of children’s rights, a childhood sexual assault survivor, or a psychologist read the manuscript and give critique”; but since it was told from the perspective of a pedophile—not regarded as a marginalized group—that wasn’t necessary. Still, it’s a messy project for one reader to suss out authorial intent. While sensitivity remains a positive value in most literature, and perhaps one of the greatest priorities for young adult literature, enforcing it at the expense of other merits, including invention, humor, or shock, might come at a cost. Cultural sensitivities fluctuate over time. What will the readers of the future make of ours?

Buried in that interesting observation is the whopper that pedophiles are “not regarded as a marginalized group.” In an already marginalized bunch (criminals), pedophiles are at the bottom of the heap. Consider the ongoing registration requirements for people convicted of such offenses, the closest thing the 21st Century has to a scarlet letter. That all may be for the good (a discussion for a different time), but to say they’re not regarded as marginalized is so erroneous that it questions the entire endeavor.

Which is a shame, because I think the development of sensitivity readers is, in general, a good thing. At the very least, it’s a tool for writers who want to do their utmost to tell a story that doesn’t offend anyone. More likely, it lets writers who aren’t part of a particular socio-economic, ethic, or racial group bring more diversity to their work by providing valuable feedback about characters they might otherwise not be familiar with. Like anything else, a sensitivity beta reader is a tool for a writer to use. Whether it’s a tool wisely used is, in the end, up to the writer.

Over 70 Authors! 99-Cent Books! You Can’t Miss This!

janpromo4

To kick off the new year, I’ve joined with over 70 other writers of speculative fiction – fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc. – to spread the word about our 99-cent books.

For me that means The Water Road, of course, so if you haven’t checked it out yet this is the time. Be sure to look over the other offerings, too, because there’s bound to be something in there for just about everyone. The promo runs through January 14. See all the participating books here.

janpromo6

99-Cent Weekend!

In continuing honor of World Book Day (that was yesterday), the Kindle version of The Last Ereph and Other Stories will be on sale all weekend at Amazon!  Get yours here while supplies last!*

* OK, so, technically supplies are unlimited – it’s an eBook, after all – but that sounds so much more urgent, doesn’t it?