Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Books (Fantasy): Whispering Nickel Idols

My wrap-up post on The Ancestor's Tale got delayed a little when, over the weekend, I happened to notice that Glen Cook has a new Garrett book out: Whispering Nickel Idols. Garrett books are on my "must read immediately, then re-read the whole series" list, so everything else got side-tracked.

Cook's Garrett novels are hard-boiled detective fantasy novels -- Mickey Spilane meets Mother Goose, Brothers Grim, various mythologies, and Tolkien. Cook is better known for his Black Company series, which is good but very dark (I have to be in a proper mood to read any of them). The Garrett books are much lighter to read, but are often still dark.

I don't actually read a lot -- well, any -- hard-boiled detective novels, so I can't actually compare the Garrett books to the original genre directly. Just as I first encountered many popular songs via covers or parodies, I know noir best through imitations and spoofs. Still, the basics are pretty well known, and are all found in Garrett: the tough-but-honest, perpetually broke, skirt-chasing gumshoe; the cops who don't trust him; the crime bosses; etc. But Cook puts them in an unusual setting.

Garrett's adventures take place in a fantasy world that draws from just about every fantasy tradition out there. Just about every sort of mythological beastie can be found in Garrett's home city of TunFaire: elves (Tolkien type, not Keebler), trolls, centaurs, dwaves, pixies, and so on. The city is the most cosmopolitan part of a human kingdom which was, through the first half of the series, at war with a neighbouring country -- though, apart from flashbacks to Garrett's life as a Marine during the war, most of the stories take place within a day's ride of town.

While the genre is definitely fantasy, the time period is more pre-Industrial Revolution than medieval, with some notable oddities. There are no firearms, for example, presumably because sorcerers with overdramatic names (that Garrett likes to poke fun of in his narrative) like Stormwarden Raver Styx handle all the heavy artillery during wartime. But the most recent few books have included background stories involving early forms of mass production.

One of the most enjoyable things about the Garrett books is how each novel builds on the previous ones. Each one is sufficiently self-contained to be read on its own, but if you read them in order you can follow background story arcs which span several novels each, enriching the world Cook's inventing. Many of the stories are simply there to do just that, but some also eventually become foreground stories in later novels.

Another aspect of the Garrett books is that, in spite of the relatively frivolous-seeming genre (Sam Spade and the Seven Dwarves!), the novels can be quite dark. It's not uncommon that the solution to the mystery leaves no-one happy. Old Tin Sorrows, which revolves around haunts and zombies and introduces the character of Elenor who stays with Garrett through all the subsequent novels -- even through she was long dead by the time the novel starts -- comes to mind.

Whispering Nickle Idols (you may have noticed that the titles I've mentioned have the form [adjective] [metal] [plural noun] -- all of the titles in the series do that) is one of the more upbeat of the novels, involving infighting among factions of TunFaire's organized crime and an out-of-town cult that derives its strength from terror and dispair. But all of the recurring characters survive this volume (something that is not guaranteed in these novels) and some of the more deranged and/or miserable ones have some hope for the future.

My least favourite thing about a new Garrett book coming out is that it means that it'll probably be another three years until the next one. And Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Verkosigan books -- a space opera series I also enjoy -- don't really fill the gap.

That and the way Roc Fantasy insists on using cover art that shows Garrett in a fedora, when the books mention -- several times -- that he hates wearing hats. (In one novel, Garrett disguises himself by simply putting a hat on and affecting a limp, since he knows that those looking for him know that he never wears a hat.) For some reason, the Garrett cover art always includes both elements from the novel (in this case, pixies, Belinda Contague, and a bucket of kittens) and elements that appear nowhere in the novel at all (the fedora, and, in this case, a tentacle-haired fish-creature and a Star-Trek-alien looking guy with horns and a goatee). Read more!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Music: Friday Random Ten

  1. Hardware Store
    "Weird Al" Yankovic
    Poodle Hat

    This is one of my favourite Weird Al songs. So far as I know it's an Al original, not a parody of an existing song or band. The best part is the list of items you find at the hardware store, performed with some great harmonies:

    They've got allen wrenches, gerbil feeders, toilet seats, electric heaters
    Trash compactors, juice extractor, shower rods and water meters
    Walkie-talkies, copper wires safety goggles, radial tires
    BB pellets, rubber mallets, fans and dehumidifiers
    Picture hangers, paper cutters, waffle irons, window shutters
    Paint removers, window louvres, masking tape and plastic gutters
    Kitchen faucets, folding tables, weather stripping, jumper cables
    Hooks and tackle, grout and spackle, power foggers, spoons and ladles
    Pesticides for fumigation, high-performance lubrication
    Metal roofing, water proofing, multi-purpose insulation
    Air compressors, brass connectors, wrecking chisels, smoke detectors
    Tire guages, hamster cages, thermostats and bug deflectors
    Trailer hitch demagnetizers, automatic circumcisers
    Tennis rackets, angle brackets, Duracells and Energizers
    Soffit panels, circuit brakers, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers
    Calculators, generators, matching salt and pepper shakers

  2. The Sour Song
    The Residents
    Our Finest Flowers

    Back in my discussion of The Way We Were, I mentioned The Residents' fondness for revisiting their past over and over. One of the major examples of that was the album Our Finest Flowers, a "Greatest Hits" album in which the hits are mixed and matched into new songs.

    Shinkichi Mitsumune
    FLCL 1 - Addict

    A fairly generic piece of TV soundtarck music. FLCL was a fun series, with some not-bad music, but this one doesn't stand out much at all.

  4. Goin' Under
    E-Z Listening Disc

    Like The Residents with Our Finest Flowers, Devo made a tribute album to themselves, only instead of doing mashups, they muzakified their songs. It's more of a completist's album, though -- a side-project curiousity.

  5. Things Are Looking Bad for Santa
    The Arrogant Worms
    Christmas Turkey

    Lori hates the Christmas season, for a variety of reasons, so one tradition around our place is satirical Christmas songs (or "unChristmas Carols", as we call them). Her all-time favourite is Weird Al's The Night Santa Went Crazy (the live version, where Santa doesn't survive). We also have lots of Bob Rivers Christmas albums and we just picked up the Howard Philip Lovecraft Historical Society's A Very Scary Solstice. The Arrogant Worms' Christmas Turkey has some good songs, but (again) this isn't one of the better ones on the album.

  6. Shine On You Crazy Diamond
    Pink Floyd

    This, however, is one of the best Pink Floyd songs. I'm not a big fan of their Syd Barrett period, but their post-Barrett tribute to Barrett is an amazing piece of music. Doug Gilmore's four-note guitar entry always sends shivers up my spine.

  7. New Orleans
    The Residents
    Stranger Than Supper

    A short instrumental from the first CD released by the Residents fan club, "Uncle Willie's Eyeball Buddies".

  8. It's No Game (Part 1)
    David Bowie
    Scary Monsters

    Many of my favourite Bowie songs are the ones where he starts going off into weird harmonies and rhythms, and this one qualifies.

  9. Time
    Pink Floyd
    Delicate Sound of Thunder

    Another great live Floyd track.

A bit of a mixed bag this week. A lot of so-so tracks in the first half, but some really good ones in the second. Read more!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Books (Science): The Ancestor's Tale (Preview)

I just picked up a book that's rather thicker than the other ones I've been reading lately: The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life by Richard Dawkins. At about 630 pages before the bibliography and index, it's around twice as long as most of the other books I've talked about here. So I'm going to do a little preview post now, and follow up later when I finish.

One of the images that says "evolution" more than any other to the average person is the much-spoofed drawing of a sequence of species running from fish to humans. This image bothers many scientists because it embraces a long-discredited notion that evolution is directed forward towards something (namely, us), when it is, in fact, purely driven by contingency -- what happens in evolution is completely dependent on the past and the present, with no looking forward.

In The Ancestor's Tale, Dawkins reverses things and runs the sequence back from us through the 40 major branchings that have happened in our family tree, towards the common ancestor to all modern life -- sort of like the recent Guiness commercial that made it's rounds on the Web (though the ad has some major mistakes in the species used). Since one can look back without suggesting predestination, this makes for a less misleading perspective on evolution.

As you might have guessed from the title's form and its reference to a pilgramage, The Ancestor's Tale's structure is based loosely on Chaucer's Cantebury Tales. Dawkins tells the tales of the modern descendants from each of the 40 branch nodes in our evolutionary history (for some nodes, he tells tales for many different descendants), just as the pilgrims in Chaucer's stories told their own.

For those who are curious, the 40 cousins of ours (actually, 39 cousins plus ourselves) whose tales are told are:

  1. Humans
  2. Chimpanzees
  3. Gorillas
  4. Orang Utans
  5. Gibbons
  6. Old World Monkeys
  7. New World Monkeys
  8. Tarsiers
  9. Lemurs & Bushbabies
  10. Colugos & Tree Shrews
  11. Rodents & Rabbits
  12. Laurasiatheres (hippos, seals, etc)
  13. Xenarthrans (armadillos, etc)
  14. Afrotheres
  15. Marsupials
  16. Monotremes
  17. Sauropsids (ancestors to birds)
  18. Amphibians
  19. Lungfish
  20. Coelacanths
  21. Ray-finned Fish
  22. Sharks
  23. Lampreys & Hagfish
  24. Lancelets
  25. Sea Squirts
  26. Ambulacrarians
  27. Protostomes
  28. Acoelomorph Flatworms
  29. Cnidarians (jellyfish)
  30. Ctenophores
  31. Placozoans
  32. Sponges
  33. Choanoflagellates
  34. DRIPs
  35. Fungi
  36. Amoebozoans
  37. Plants
  38. Uncertain
  39. Archaea
  40. Eubacteria

This list is just from the table of contents, so I don't yet know what "DRIPs" are (other than that they're on page 507) or why #37 is "Uncertain". Those details will have to wait until the next post. Read more!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Music (Album): Aerial by Kate Bush

1977 was a retroactively important year in the music I enjoy.

Growing up, I never listened to popular music. We had seasons tickets to the local orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company every year, with the occasional trip to Detroit to see the Met perform at the Masonic Temple. By the time I headed off to university, I had about 60 operas under my belt. I don't know how many times I'd seen Carmen (it seems like every opera company (except Bayreuth) puts on a production of Carmen every other year).

What popular music I heard growing up (this was during the '70s and early '80s) was (I suppose) mainly the Top 40 stuff that permeates everything. Nothing really interesting going on there.

In 1986 I was in my first year at U of T, living on my own and enjoying Toronto's ecclectic art scene. I spent many evenings at Reg Hartt's Sex and Violence Cartoon Film Festival (classic Warner Bros., MGM, and other cartoons) and hitting the Toronto International Film Festival (where I encountered Zippy the Pinhead on an escalator while running to make the premiere of Comic Book Confidential).

One evening I was feeling board, and noticed an odd movie poster, and decided to watch the film. I enjoyed it enough that I went out to find some Talking Head albums (Stop Making Sense and More Songs About Buildings And Food, if I remember rightly), which (along with David Byrne's appearance on Philip Glass's Songs from Liquid Days) to Laurie Anderson, and then to Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Devo, Kate Bush, and so on.

One curiousity I noticed about many of the bands I'd developed a taste for -- specifically, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Devo, and Kate Bush -- is that they all released (or at least recorded) their debut albums in 1977 (Peter Gabriel, of course, had had previous albums with Genesis, but 1977 was his solo debut).

Curiously, each of these four bands also only had two more song albums come out after I discovered them -- at least until recently. Talking Heads had True Stories and Naked before breaking up; Peter Gabriel had So and Us before a 10-year drought that ended with Up (though he had soundtracks & such coming out); Devo broke up after Total Devo and Smooth Noodle Maps, and Kate Bush put out The Sensual World and The Red Shoes before going on a hiatus that only ended this year with Aerial (finally got to it!).

That was a long, rambling way of getting to the subject of this post. Unfortunately, the reason for that is that I don't really have a lot to say about Aerial. I've listened to it a couple of times now, and very little of it is sticking in my head. Aerial is a two CD album (the two halves are called A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey), but through the whole length only a couple of songs really caught my attention -- Pi, a song about mathematical obsession (which I can relate to) during which Bush sings the digits of pi (incorrectly, as it turns out); and Aerial Tal, which features Bush mimicing birdsong with her unique voice. Pi, however, wasn't all that memorable melodically, and Aerial Tal is all of 61 seconds long.

Don't get me wrong, the album is very well performed by Bush and her musicians. But the songs are almost all the slow, meandering type that never catch my attention. I had a similar problem with The Red Shoes, but it had songs like Rubberband Girl and The Red Shoes to liven things up from time to time. And it's not just that the snogs aren't quick and lively: Breathing is very langorous but also extremely memorable (both for the melody and the subject -- breathing in the ashes of people vapourized by an atomic blast). Army Dreamers and Infant Kiss also keep my attention in spite of their slow pace.

My favourite Kate Bush songs have always been the lively ones, though, like Sat In Your Lap, The Dreaming, Get Out Of My House, The Big Sky, Hammer Horror, etc, and the musically unusual ones, like Under Ice or Waking the Witch (or Sat in your Lap again, with it's almost purely percussive band and Bush's voice jumping all over the place). Unfortunately, except for Aerial Tal, there's nothing on Aerial that falls into these categories.

All that said, if you like Bush's slower, more sensuous songs, then you should enjoy Aerial. But I'm hoping she works something a little more sprightly into her next album. Read more!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Music: Monday Random One

Just a little big of synchronicity: the first song to come up on my iPod after I wrote the post on Soul Made Flesh was Grey Matter by Oingo Boingo. Read more!

Books (Science): Soul Made Flesh

Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain -- And How It Changed The World tells the story of Thomas Willis, a physician and anatomist in 17th Century England and the first scientist to study the brain systematically. Willis was largely responsible for doing in the Aristotelian notion of multiple kinds of souls living in various organs (the liver, the heart, etc), and was the first to demonstrate that the mind's experiences are mediated completely by the brain. He was known as the "William Harvey of the Brain" (Harvey, a friend, colleague, and inspiration of Willis's, discovered the circulation of the blood), though he faded from history compared to some of his famous philosophical contemporaries, such as Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Thomas Hobbes, and Rene Descartes (how do I get an e-acute on this thing?), who all appear and participate in Soul Made Flesh.

Zimmer writes science history the way I enjoy reading it: with lots of historical context and insights into thepersonalitiess of the people involved. All too often, science histories amount to lists of experiments, publications, and discoveries, but with little comment given to how political or social forces -- either large-scale or small -- affected the work. Zimmer does an excellent job of putting the reader into Willis's time. One of the biggest non-scientific influences on Willis's work was the Civil War and thesuppressionn of the Church of England by Oliver Cromwell, who pushed for a degree of freedom of religionunprecedentedd in England, which allowed Willis (for all he was a Loyalist) much more leeway in his research than he might have had otherwise.

Zimmer also does a great job of covering the outdated knowledge that Willis's work grew out of. At the time the idea of a gas as a state of matter was not well understood. It was Robert Boyle who discovered that there was something in air that was necessary for life (up until that point, the whole purpose of breathing was not understood), though Willis missed out on a chance to prove that air changes blood -- he did anexperimentt which showed this, but misinterpreted the results.

One of the down sides of this excellent insight into the science of the 17th Century is that you get to read about all the fun researchers had vivisecting animals. Zimmer has a detailed description of an experiment Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren did on a dog, to try to find out what the spleen is for. Not something PETA would approve of, to be sure.

The last chapter of Soul Made Flesh relates Willis's work to more modern research on how the brain functions --specificallyy, Joshua Greene's MRI research at Princeton into how the brain behaves when given moral quandaries to sort out. Reading about using the MRI to trace what parts of the brain are activated by different concepts made had me curious about what the machine would have seen while I was reading the book -- one of the problems with a good memory for comedy is that certain words and names will trigger memories of skits and sketches, and all through Soul Made Flesh I was beset by repetitions of Monty Python's Philosopher Song and Oliver Cromwell. Funny, but very distracting.

The last book on the brain that I started was Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error, which I bogged down in because Damasio's writing gets very dry and jargon-heavy at times. Soul Made Flesh is much more enjoyable to read, largely because of how Zimmer personifies the people he's writing about. A common problem with science writing is that authors don't want go deeper into the personalities or motivations of the scientists they are writing about than they can strictly justify. Zimmer, however, dives right in -- though he does have a note at the end about the limitations of the sources he had to work from, and how new historical research is always turning up more insight into these people.

Another nice touch of Zimmer's is that he includes a Dramatis Personae at the end, so that you don't get too lost trying to keep track of the many people involved in the discovery of the brain.

Given how enjoyable this book was, I'm going to have to grab a copy of Zimmer's Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea and go through that very soon. Read more!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Music (Album): The Way We Were by The Residents

Once again, The Residents have swivled their eyeball heads around and are looking back at themselves. Between re-working Santa Dog, their first single, whenever they reach a milestone in their history (four or five times now), the collection albums, the retrospective albums, the anniversary shows, and so on, they end up spending a lot of time on their history. Which makes sense if you consider them to be not just a strange band, but a continuous performance piece poking fun at the whole "music industry".

The Way We Were was a show The Residents put on in Australia as a 33rd anniversary show (or maybe a 20th Anniversary of the 13th Anniversary Show show), and it's just come out as a CD/DVD set.

I haven't watched the DVD yet. The notes say it's not the whole show, just 30 minutes plus some of the set projections. I'll post when I get a chance to watch it.

The CD covers the complete show, which consisted of a new versions of songs from all through The Residents' history. They start off diving right into the nostalgia by introducing the show with a mashup of Barbara Streisand's The Way We Were.

Many of the songs are ones which have shown up in previous retrospective shows -- Lizard Lady, Picnic in the Jungle, Coming of the Crow / Eva's Warning, Jelly Jack, etc. I was surprised not to see yet another reworking of Santa Dog, but was happy to find it hidden away in Ober. The Siging Resident sounds the same as always, making Leonard Cohen sound like Enrico Caruso. Molly Harvey is still performing the female vocals for the group, as she has on all of their recent albums and shows. All in all, it has a very familiar feel to it.

One thing they've done this time that I don't think they've done before is include one of the narrative pieces from God in 3 Persons. In the past, when they've used G3P music, it's just been the instrumental versions (released as God in 3 Persons Soundtrack).

Some of the songs are also too new to have appeared in many retrospectives yet -- some from Wormwood and Demons Dance Alone get their first reworking here.

The Way We Were has a somewhat thin sound. It's a live recording, and sounds under-miked. The orchestration was light as well -- a guitar, a synth, an emulator and drums, and not much else. It definitely sounds like The Residents were travelling light for this show. I saw their Icky Flix tour a few years ago -- another retrospective of sorts -- and the reworkings there were much richer and fuller, thanks to an Alesis AirFX The Residents were experimenting with for the show.

I'm going to have to sit down at some point and count how many different recordings of Hello Skinny I now have. Just on the iPod there are six, but those are each different versions, that doesn't count re-issues on collections. Read more!

Remembrance Day

[Pogo, Churchy, and Porkypine sit pensively in their punt]

[Long shot of them still siting, still thinking]

Porkypine: Y'know, it seems to me this is all backwards... We, ever'body, ought to keep our big mouths shut all the whole year long so's we'd have time to think of two minutes' worth of somethin' to say on the eleventh day of November.

-- Pogo

You can see a copy of the strip at the bottom of this page on Porkypine. Read more!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Photography: New Flickr Uploads

Lotsa new photos up on our Flickr site, mostly shots showing off the Big Goof (at right) and the Elegant Girl. Read more!

Friday, November 04, 2005

Music: Friday Random Ten

Another round of Friday music. Let's see how much The Residents dominate my life today.

  1. Yeti What Are You
    Manual of Errors

    Not quite another Residents tracks, but close -- Snakefinger collaborated with the Eyeball band quite often. This is one of my favourite of his songs, largely because of the lurching waltz rhythm and the overall dark tone.

  2. Thermonuclear Explosion
    The Frantics
    Frantic Times

    This is supposed to be a random music list, but I can't just skip this track. It's not one of the Frantics' better known skits, but it's a perfect example of their style. Two cops get a call to a "421" -- a thermonulcear explosion.

    That nuclear blast has really backed up the afternoon traffic. A lot of rubberneckers are slowing down to look at that five-mile crater. Then they get radiation sickness and drop dead at the wheel. Nuclear fallout is reducing visibility on the expressway, and the collector lanes are fused solid. Police advise that the lakeshore route is also slow due to construction and giant lizards that mutated when the radiation from the bomb reached the zoo. Garth Road might be a good alternate. Otherwise, traffic is fleeing well. There's anarchy, panic, and destruction this rush hour. For the good times, drink Harvest Malt Ale.

  3. The Perilous Night No. 4
    John Cage
    The Perilous Night

    One of John Cage's works for "prepared piano" -- a piano which has had various objects inserted between the strings to change the timbre of each note. It turns the piano from a melodic instrument into a more purely percussive one.

  4. Stormtrooper in Drag
    Gary Numan (covered by St. Etienne)
    Random: A Gary Numan Tribute

    Another cover from a tribute album. This is one of the best covers on the album, which (like many tribute collections) is pretty average overall. It's pretty un-Numan-esque, with a pop dance-club feel, and I tend to prefer covers that depart a lot from the originals.

  5. After All
    David Bowie
    The Man Who Sold The World

    I'm not a huge Bowie fan -- the Bowie on my iPod is mainly for my SO, so that when I'm DJing one of our drives somewhere, she's got at least some stuff she prefers in the mix. I started listening to Bowie around Black Tie White Noise, so I never had the "his older stuff is better" opinion, since I knew his newer stuff better (Earthling is probably my favourite of his albums). But this is one of my favourite Bowie songs, with its lilting, melancholy feel.

  6. Spam
    "Weird Al" Yankovic

    I grew up on classical music and classical music comedy -- Victor Borge, Anna Russell, and Spike Jones is Murdering the Classics. So it was natural that when I started listening to popular music, "Weird Al" would be included. Spam isn't one of his better spoofs, though. My favourites are the ones which play on a band's style without actually mimicking a particular song, like Dog Eat Dog (Talking Heads), Dare to be Stupid (Devo), or Bob (Bob Dylan).

  7. In the Flat Field
    In the Flat Field

    A lively little ditty. Bauhaus is always good as a pick-me-up.

  8. Immature
    Hamasaki Ayumi

    JPop dance music. I downloaded a few Hamasaki tracks from her website a couple of years back when the Molly Star Racer teaser trailer came out with her music. Nothing remarkable, just bright and bouncy.

  9. Watching You Without Me
    Kate Bush
    Hounds of Love

    Hounds of Love has some of my favourite Kate Bush songs on it -- Under Ice, Waking the Witch -- but Watching You Without Me doesn't grab me quite as much. It has some of the same interesting production tricks that I like in those other two, but the overall song doesn't really grab me.

Not a bad set -- some favourite tracks in there. One of the problems with having a huge collection of stuff you've listened to for 20 years on your iPod is that a lot of it is so familiar you don't mind skipping over it, and a relatively small fraction of it is actually "favourite" tracks. So it's nice when they turn up as often as they have this time. Read more!

Live Music and Film: Nash the Slash Performs Caligari

Nash the Slash has another Caligari gig coming up this month: Saturday, November 26th at the Bloor Cinema. Showtime is 9:30, tickets are $8. Read more!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

DVD: Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3

I've only watched a few of the Bugs Bunny cartoons from the first disk of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3, but I'd just like to remind people, as I don't think I have here yet, that the team of Chuck Jones, Michael Maltese, Mel Blanc, and Maurice Noble is one of the most brilliant combination of talents in animation history. Read more!