Saturday, November 21, 2020

less tentacles, more doom.

 I just finished Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country, which is excellent, as is the TV series. (Ruff is a white man, and the series is done by a Black woman, and it shows.) The book ends with a delightful mini-interview.

What are your personal feelings about H. P. Lovecraft?

The story that best sums up Lovecraft for me is “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” It’s about a New England coastal town whose inhabitants have made an unholy alliance with aliens who live in the sea. A tourist comes to Innsmouth for the day, sees too much, and ends up running for his life.

All of Lovecraft’s worst traits are on display in the story: Besides the standard racist worldview, “Shadow” offers a thinly veiled allegory about the evils of miscegenation (the aliens are mating with the townspeople). But as a tale of steadily mounting dread, it works, and it’s one of the most effective portrayals of attempted lynching I’ve ever read. Lovecraft’s protagonist is white, but with just a few changes this could easily be the story of a black traveler caught in the wrong place after dark.

So for all his faults, Lovecraft was tapping into these universal themes of horror that resonate even if you’re not a white supremacist. I wish he’d been a better person, or blessed with better mentors. But as a storyteller, I can still learn from him.

There you go.

Friday, October 30, 2020

campfire vs. concert hall.

So the Variax is tons of fun, because I can pick it up and be playing one of a couple dozen different instruments, to the detriment of the Vivaldi concerto I'm learning on the violin. I plugged it in for my violin teacher, and fingerpicked a little bit on the acoustic sounds, and he squinted a little bit––the relatively few musical elements I can play on the guitar, I'm pretty good at––and asked how long I've been playing guitar (since he just picked it up, and may feel a bit like how I feel on the violin).

This is an interesting question, partly because it will be 30 years next year, and because that number means so much, and so little. On the one hand, I've been playing for so long that I can't help but feel comfortable with it; on the other, I've never really put in the time and effort to become truly good at it, playing scales, applying more than the most basic (by my standards) music theory, or generally challenging myself overmuch.

Enjoying the instrument doesn't demand that of you. It's the quintessential "learn 3 chords and now you're all set for the next few decades of playing around campfires" instrument. Or take the same 3 chords and start a band that adds so much volume and distortion that it doesn't even matter if you tune the guitar first.

Or you can put your all into it, and be Django Reinhardt, who, no joke, was a groundbreaking guitarist with the 2 fingers remaining on his left hand.

Or Tommy Emmanuel, for Pete's sake, learning how to play everything by ear on the radio, not knowing anything about multiple instruments, or guitar capos, or thumbpicks:

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I don't have that kind of dedication, but if you pick up a guitar and play E-minor enough times, it sticks.

I'm selling myself a little short here, because I do know two fingerpicking patterns that I've added variations for. Maybe this is the year I crack open that book and add a third. And I have a bunch of ebooks about playing blues, which I glance at periodically. Mostly I'm just fucking around?

The ugly truth is far worse: I'm actually a very good musician.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

how did I get here?

 (From the Talking Heads song, which I cannot recommend highly enough.)

If you remember from a previous adventure, there's a device, usually a pedal switch on the floor, called a "looper," where you start it, play a phrase of music, and then it just plays that phrase over and over. Then you can play more phrases on top of that ("overdubbing") and create textured layers of sound, even if there's only one of you, like this guy:

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Loopers, like their sibling effects "Echo" and "Delay," started out as an actual loop of magnetic tape, and while they're all solid-state now, they've mostly kept the same user interface (UI) as the original tape loopers, because...I don't know why. A bizarre skeumorphism, maybe. And I hate it! You have to tap your foot exactly right, and sometimes you need a double-tap, and the number of taps and the LED light indicators are all mode-dependent, and it's horrible. There's no need to suffer like this: we have computers! I was resigned to getting a MIDI floor switch and figuring it all out myself, but then it turns out a few other, more motivated people have had the same opinion, and did all that work already.

The switch I ordered comes with programming to make it JFW (Just F*cking Work) with a venerable and fabulous music-making program called Ableton Live, and since the looper is backordered, I've been spending some time learning Ableton, and the tools and history of electronic/computer-driven music.

This is interesting because I've listened to a lot of electronic music over the years, and the first thing to really strike me is that the essence of electronica, long songs composed of patterns repeated with small changes applied gradually, is really a function of the hardware available in the 70s and early 80s. Synthesizers that couldn't yet sound like real instruments, and sequencers with very little memory that repeated patterns (necessarily short) on the synthesizers. I think that relatively few people had a sound in their head and invented equipment to produce it; instead, they met the equipment and thought, "What can I make with this?".

The challenge that I'm seeing now: how do you use these tools to make music that doesn't sound like all the electronically-driven music I've already heard?

It's a digression, in a way, since this started by wanting to loop violin and guitar parts, but Ableton Live was written by German artist-engineers as a performance tool (hence the "Live"), and in its UI and terminology, it actually treats ordinary studio recording as a special form of performance (which it is). But I'll need to know the app to get the most out of it, in any case.

Every so often I look up and realize the kind of rabbit-hole I'm in, and it's all because I hate the restrictions of a single type of musical hardware, that most non-guitarists wouldn't recognize anyway.

Saturday, September 26, 2020


 I finished book 10 of the original Malazan Book of the Fallen series! They went down pretty smoothly, for totaling 3.3 million words. There are a few other series in that universe, but I have a backlog of other stuff I need to get to, neglected while the Malazan books occupied my brain. They are remarkable books, where the stories are really driven by a particularly gifted military, created from scratch by some particularly gifted individuals, and the underlying canvas of the plots is the complications and contradictions of those people in that situation. Can you imagine so much text about military experiences, written with unflinching honesty and empathy? The soldiers understand that they kill people for a living, but underneath that, a few are sociopaths, but most carry a load of compassion and kindness with them.

The "Book of the Fallen" refers to the book of soldiers who have died, rather than anything metaphorical or metaphysical. No disgraced angels here, just people who die, and the question of why soldiers end up in a career of soldiering, how they connect and relate, why they fight, and how they are changed by it all.

It's also a super complicated view of imperialism, because the remarkably successful Malazan Empire is dedicated to expansion, mostly by conquest, but:

  • It's unclear why it's expansionist (and it was founded within living memory of the books' events, not shrouded in distant history).
  • They administer conquered territory as integrated provinces, rather than colonies.
  • The Malazan systems of law and justice are almost universally more fair and effective than whatever they displace.
Anyway. Amazing, long, amazing books. And now they're done.

Friday, September 11, 2020

we have to run out of burnable material at some point.

As we discovered with the fires of 2018, while we live in the middle of a giant megalopolis and don't need to worry about wildfires touching our house directly, it turns out that a sufficiently large fire, at any distance, can create a barely livable environment. The AQI measurement of air quality, which is normally 40ish on a bad day, has been above 200 all day, and generally miserable for a couple weeks now.

A surprise to everyone was fires exploding in Oregon, which is hardly immune from wildfires overall, but definitely hasn't seen anything like this in recorded history. The fires are reaching towards the Portland suburbs, and one of my minions at work had to evacuate the other day. So that's all terrible, and one wonders if the West, overall, is just not habitable in the relatively near term (5-10 years), which, if true, has dire implications for our secret plan to migrate up to the Pacific Northwest once the kids turn 18 in a couple years.

Another surprise has been that while we have thought, with the pandemic, that we haven't been leaving the house, it turns out that once we are staying inside because of unhealthy air, we learn that we were, in fact, leaving the house a lot more than "never," and that has been important for our mental health. Maslow's hierarchy of needs does not specifically call out "breathable air" at the bottom, it's sort of implied, but it does turn out to be more important than food or water.

Don't get me started on the anniversary of 9/11, when we, as a nation, truly lost our fucking minds.

Maybe I can sleep until, I dunno. December? Is December long enough?

Sunday, September 6, 2020


 Okay, so I bought another instrument, but at least I made sure Anna knew about it first. What's the point of adulthood, if not to have fun where you can?

It's a weird sort of guitar I've had my eye on for a while, called a "modeling guitar" because it digitally models the sound of other instruments. Only one company, Line 6, makes such a thing, and they've been making emulators for decades. I already have a multi-effects unit of theirs, the M9, from when I bought an electric guitar, and realized I did not want to spend the time, money, or space on a billion different guitar pedals. People get very passionate about very specific guitar pedals or effects: to take one example from the list of effects in the M9, the Tape Echo effect is an echo based on the Maestro EP-3 Echoplex™, manufactured from 1970 to 1991. Do I care? Not really. I have only the vaguest of opinions about different kinds of distortion, and no opinions about quirkier stuff like phasers or reversers. I do know that my ambitions are simple and my space is limited.

I finally have the wheeled shelf I dreamed of, to get everything off the floor. The M9 is up top there. You can have 3 effects active at a time, with 6 different groupings available as "scenes," which I don't really use. For $150 (used) I get to experiment with dozens of effects, each of which individually would cost no less than $100. Behold, my complete lack of snobbery.

The M9 is not actually the height of Line 6's emulation skills. Now, the distinctive tones that have shaped every form of electrified music come from–not to put too fine a point on it–shitty hardware. Vacuum tubes and janky resistors and all kinds of elements that have nonlinear responses as they heat up or draw more current or whatever. In the higher-end Line 6 devices, they are emulating the old hardware at the circuit element level (emphasis mine):

HX Modeling accurately recreates the behavior of even the most idiosyncratic vintage effects by modeling their individual components. The Transtronic process emulates the behavior of virtually any germanium or silicon transistor diode, making it possible to authentically recreate fuzz, distortion, and other pedals once considered too persnickety to convincingly model. The Throbber is a "virtual lightbulb" that mimics the decidedly nonlinear behavior of the small incandescent bulb and four photocells inside the original 1960's Uni-Vibe pedals that are essential to their unique sound and vibe. And the Bucketier chip and Panda circuit are virtual recreations of the Bucket Brigade (BBD) chips and compander (compression/expansion) circuitry found in many old-school analog delay pedals. Accurately modeling the inherent quirkiness of vintage analog delay pedals at the component level endows HX analog delay effects with all of their lo-fi majesty.

They do it for amplifiers, too (a musician fetish I understand even less than with effects). It dawned on them some years ago that they could pull it off with a guitar: take a basic input from 6 individual strings, and output Eric Clapton's Fender Stratocaster, or B.B. King's custom Gibson ES-345, or Jimmy Page's  Gibson Les Paul.

(Trust me, those are all so radically different even I care about the distinction.)

For that matter, why not transform the signal into that of an acoustic guitar? A 12-string? A different tuning? (I mean, what you play on the strings won't be what comes out of the amp, but if it saves you from having a dozen differently-tuned guitars on-stage, that's okay.) Or a banjo, or a sitar.

Hence, the Variax, long described, quite accurately, as a $300 guitar with $600 worth of electronics on it. The previous ones were a little dodgy as guitars, but then Yamaha bought them, and put that $600 of electronics on a Yamaha electric guitar platform. This is not the world's best electric guitar; however, I already own a Yamaha so cheap they don't even sell it separately–you buy it combined with an amplifier, for like $150-200–and I quite like it.

You could accomplish something similar by using MIDI, which sends note data to a computer, which then plays those notes according to some synth it has handy, however:

  • It ties you to a computer, where the Variax is all on-board the guitar.
  • MIDI is a right royal pain in the ass, inviting an endless rabbit hole of buying packs of synthesized sounds.
MIDI is where I'll turn if I want to be able to play a guitar and have it sound like a piano. Not out of the question, but not yet.

The Variax should completely replace my current electric guitar, which I pulled down from the attic because it's a lot easier to record than my steel-string, as I'm trying to figure out how to make music by looping parts (more on that later, especially how many software UIs are replicating the controls of the aforementioned Echoplex™).

And some kid at a local school will get a pretty decent electric guitar for free.

Friday, September 4, 2020


Monday's nose surgery went fine. Not that it would have changed anything, but I may not have done all the reading, so I was a little surprised to find the pain to basically be every time I've been hit in the nose (mostly thanks to aikido), but worse. Also, since I'm pretty sure the surgery involved breaking my nose, I now know that every time in the past I may have wondered if I broke my nose...I didn't.

There is a very large and sensitive bundle of nerves just below and behind the septum, which I learned about from a book I have: easily accessible nerves are useful for self-defense, especially for people who don't have physical advantages like size or strength. This is why getting hit in the nose makes you at least tear up a lot, if not actually cry. One day in aikido my partner accidentally clocked me right on that nerve cluster while trying to do something else. Really a very solid strike with the blade of the hand. It hurt, but more striking was that my upper teeth and gums went numb. Painful, but even better from a self-defense perspective, highly distracting!

I went in to get the stitches and splints removed, and everything is fine. Never having broken my nose (clearly), I knew "splints" were involved, but I had no idea what they looked like: only that people talk about using popsicle sticks as some kind of field expedient. In yet another case of "I had no idea human sinuses were that big," these were about 1 inch by 3 inches. The first one may have been glued down by blood clots, very much being a Total Recall moment (don't click if you're squeamish).

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The unflappable surgeon was unfazed by my shouted profanity, and also unconcerned that the exam room door was open; I suppose you do want your surgeons to have focus. And he's a curious man.

Anna says even last night (with my nose mostly clogged) my breathing was markedly different; we'll see how it goes in the coming weeks and months. I guess this is how the rest of you have felt breathing through your nose, all this time? Show-offs.