Jan 13

A martial artist looks at swordfighting in the movies

I was reminded, earlier today, that one of the interesting side effects of knowing something about hand-to-hand and contact-weapons-based martial arts makes a big difference in how you see movies.

Most people don’t have that knowledge. So today I’m going to write about the quality of sword choreography in movies, and how that has changed over time, from the point of view of someone who is an experienced multi-style martial artist in both sword and empty hand. I think this illuminates a larger story about the place of martial arts in popular Western culture.

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Dec 16

The blues about the blues

Some kinds of music travel well – they propagate out of their native cultures very readily. American rock music and European classical music are obvious examples; they have huge followings and expert practitioners pretty much everywhere on earth that’s in contact with civilization.

Some…don’t travel well at all. Attempts to imitate them by people who aren’t native to their home culture seldom succeed – they fall afoul of subtleties that a home-country connoisseur can hear but not explain well, or at all. The attempts may be earnestly polished and well meant, but in some ineffable way they lack soul. American blues music and to a lesser but significant extent jazz are like this, which is all the more interesting because they’re close historical and genetic kin to rock.

Why am I thinking about this? Because one of the things that YouTube’s recommender algorithms make easy (and almost inevitable) is listening to strings of musical pieces that fit within what the algorithms recognize as a genre. I’ve noticed that the places where its genre recognition is most likely to break down are correlated with whether the genre travels well. So whatever I’m noticing about that distinction is not just difficult for humans but for machine learning as well, at least at current state of the art.

Most attempts at blues by non-Americans are laughable – unintentional parodies by people trying for the real thing. Not all; there was an older generation of British and Irish musicians who immersed in the form in the early Sixties and grokked it well enough to bring it back to the U.S., completely transforming American rock in the process. There are, for some reason, a small handful of decent blues players in Holland. But elsewhere, generative understanding of the heart of the blues is so rare that I was utterly gobsmacked when I found it in Greece.

I don’t know for sure, not being a home-country connoisseur, but I strongly suspect that Portuguese fado is like this. I have a pretty good ear and readily synchronize myself to different musical styles; I can even handle exotica like Indian microtones decently. But I wouldn’t go near fado, I sense a grave risk that if I tried any actual Portuguese fado fan would be politely suppressing a head-shaking he-really-don’t-get-it reaction the same way I usually have to when I listen to Eurojazz.

And Eurojazz players have a better frequency of not ludicrously failing than Euro blues players! Why? I don’t know. I can only guess that the recognition features of “real” jazz are less subtle than for “real” blues, and imitators are thus less likely to slide into unintentional parody. But since I can’t enumerate those recognition features this remains a guess. I do know timing is part of it, and there are uses of silence that are important. Eurojazz tends to be too busy, too slick.

If it’s any consolation to my non-American readers, Americans don’t automatically get it either. My own beloved wife, despite being musically talented, doesn’t have the ear – blues doesn’t speak to her, and if she were unwise enough to try to imitate it she would doubtless fail badly.

One reason I’m posting this is that I hope my commenters might be able to identify other musical genres that travel very poorly – I want to look for patterns. Are there foreign genres that Americans try to imitate and don’t know they’re botching?

And now a different kind of blues about the blues…

There’s an unacknowledged and rather painful truth about the blues, which is that that the primitive Delta versions blues fans are expected to revere are in many ways not as interesting as what came later, out of Chicago in particular. Monotonous, repetitive lyrics, primitive arrangements…but there’s a taboo against noticing this so strong that it took me over forty years to even notice it was there, and I might still not have if I hadn’t spent two days immersed in the rootsiest examples I could find on YouTube.

I found that roots blues is surrounded by a haze of retrospective glorification that (to my own shock!) it too often fails to deserve. And of course the obvious question is “Why?”. I think I’ve figured it out, and the answer is deeply sad.

It’s because, if you notice that later, more evolved and syncretized versions of the blues tend to be more interesting, and you say so, you risk making comparisons that will be interpreted as “white people do it better than its black originators”. And nobody wants that risk.

This came to me as I was listening to a collection of blues solos by Gary Moore, a now-deceased Irishman who played blues with both real heart and a pyrotechnic brilliance you won’t find in Robert Johnson or (one of my own roots favorites) John Lee Hooker. And found myself flinching from the comparison; took me an act of will to name those names just now, even after I’d been steeling myself to it.

Of course this is not a white > black thing; it’s an early vs. late thing. Recent blues players (more likely to be white) have the history of the genre itself to draw on. They have better instruments – Gary Moore’s playing wouldn’t be possible without Gary Moore’s instrument, you can get more tone colors and dynamic range out of a modern electric guitar than you could out of a wooden flattop with no pickups. Gary Moore grew up listening to a range of musical styles not accessible to an illiterate black sharecropper in 1930 and that enriched his playing.

But white blues players may be at an unfair disadvantage in the reputational sweepstakes forever simply because nobody wants to takes the blues away from black people. That would be a particularly cruel and wrong thing to do given that the blues originated as a black response to poverty and oppression largely (though not entirely) perpetrated by white people.

Yes, the blues belongs to all of us now – it’s become not just black roots music but American roots music; I’ve jammed onstage with black bluesmen and nobody thought that was odd. Still, the shadow of race distorts our perceptions of it, and perhaps always will.

Dec 04

The curious case of the missing accents

I have long been a fan of Mark Twain. One of the characteristics of his writing is the use of “eye dialect” – spellings and punctuation intended to phoneticize the speech of his characters. Many years ago I noticed a curious thing about Twain’s eye dialect – that is, he rendered few or no speech differences between Northern and Southern characters. His Northerners all sounded a bit Southern by modern standards, and his Southerners didn’t sound very Southern.

The most obvious possible reason for this could have been that Twain, born and raised in Missouri before the Civil War, projected his own border-state dialect on all his characters. Against this theory I could set the observation that Twain was otherwise a meticulously careful writer with an excellent ear for language, making that an unlikely sort of mistake for him. My verdict was: insufficient data. And I didn’t think the question would ever be resolvable, Twain having died when sound recording was in its infancy.

Then I stumbled over some fascinating recordings of Civil War veterans on YouTube. There’s Confederate “General” Julius Howell Recalls the 1860s from 1947. And 1928-1934: Recollections of the US Civil War. And here’s what jumped out at me…

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May 13

I saw Brand X live a few hours ago

I saw Brand X live a few hours ago. Great jazz-fusion band from the 1970s, still playing like genius maniacs after all these years. Dropped $200 on tickets, dinner for me and my wife, and a Brand X cap. Worth. Every. Penny.

Yeah, they saved “Nuclear Burn” for the encore…only during the last regular number some idiot managed to spill water on Goodsall’s guitar pedals, making it unsafe for him to play. So that blistering guitar line that hypnotized me as a college student in 1976 had to be played by their current keyboardist, Scott Weinberger. And damned if he didn’t pull it off!

Brilliant performance all round. Lots of favorites, some new music including a track called “Violent But Fair” in which this band of arcane jazzmen demonstrated conclusively that they can out-metal any headbanger band on the planet when they have a mind to. And, of all things, a whimsical cover of Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions”.

The audience loved the band – nobody was there by accident, it was a houseful of serious prog and fusion fans like me. The band loved us right back, cracking jokes and goofing on stage and doing a meet-and-greet after the show.

I got to shake Goodsall’s hand and tell him that he had rocked my world when I first heard him play in ’76 and that it pleases me beyond all measure that 40 years later he’s still got it. You should have seen his smile.

Gonna wear that Brand X cap next time I go to the pistol range and watch for double-takes.

“Nuclear Burn” by Brand X

Mar 05

All of his complexion…

Andrew Klavan has a thoughtful essay out called A Nation of Iagos. In it, he comments on William Shakespeare’s depiction of Jews in a way I think is generally insightful, but includes what I think is one serious mistake about the scene from The Merchant of Venice in which the (black) Prince of Morocco woos Portia.

He chooses poorly, fails her father’s test, and as he leaves Portia mutters “May all of his complexion choose me so.”, which Klavan reads as a racist dismissal. I winced.

I tried to leave a comment on the essay only to find when clicking “Post” that it required a login on the accurséd Facebook, with which I will have no truck.

Here it is:

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Dec 28

The blues ate rock and roll!

I’ve been diving into the history of rock music recently because, quite by chance a few weeks ago, I glimpsed an answer to a couple of odd little questions that had been occasionally been bothering me for decades.

The most obtrusive of these questions is: Why does nothing in today’s rock music sound like the Beatles?

It’s a pertinent question because the Beatles were so acclaimed as musical innovators in their time and still so hugely popular. And yet, nobody sounds like them. Since not long after the chords of the “Let It Be” died away in 1969, every attempt to revive the Beatlesy sound of bright vocal-centered ensemble pop has lacked any staying power among rock fans. It gets tried every once in a while by a succession of bands running from Badfinger to the Smithereens, and goes nowhere. Why is this?

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Oct 10

Is the casting couch a fair trade?

As I write, the cascading revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s creeptastic behavior over the last thirty years are dominating the news cycle. Platoons of women are coming forward with credible accusations of sexual exploitation, assault, and even outright rape.

Weinstein himself is not actually denying any of these accusations, so I’m going to assume that enough of them are true to define him as a criminal, a pervert, and a supremely nasty mass of noxious slime.

And yet, and yet…the libertarian and contrarian in me is balking at the quality of some of the outrage being flung around. One question, in particular, gives me pause.

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Dec 07

Spelunking the alt-right

Recently, on a mailing list I frequent, one of the regulars uttered the following sentence: “I’m told Breitbart is the preferred news source for the ‘alt-right’ (KKK and neo-nazis)”.

That was a pretty glaring error, there.

I was interviewed on Breitbart Tech once. I visit the site occasionally. I am not affiliated with the alt-right, but I’ve been researching the recent claims about it. So I can supply some observations from the ground.

First, while I’m not entirely sure of everything the alt-right is (it’s a rather amorphous phenomenon) it is not the KKK and neo-Nazis. The most that can truthfully be said is that ‘alt-right’ serves as a recent flag of convenience to which some old-fashioned white supremacists are busily trying to attach themselves.

Also, the alt-right is not Donald Trump and his Trumpkins, either. He’s an equally old-fashioned populist continuous with Willam Jennings Bryan and Huey Long. If you tossed a bunch of alt-right memes at him, I doubt he’d even understand them, let alone agree.

The defining characteristic of the alt-right is, really, corrosive snarkiness. To the extent an origin can be identified, it was as a series of message-board pranks on 4chan. There’s no actual ideological core to it – it’s a kind of oppositional attitude-copping without a program, mordantly nasty but unserious.

There’s also some weird occultism attached – the half-serious cult of KEK, aka Pepe, who may or may not be an ancient Egyptian frog-god who speaks to his followers via numerological coincidences. (Donald Trump really wouldn’t get that part.)

Some elements of the alt-right are in fact racist (and misogynist, and homophobic, and other bad words) a la KKK/Nazi, but that’s not a defining characteristic and it’s anyway difficult to tell the genuine haters from those for whom posing as haters is a form of what 4chan types call “griefing”. That’s social disruption for the hell of it.

It is worth noting that another part of what is going on here is a visceral rejection of politically-correct leftism, one which deliberately inverts its premises. The griefers pose as racists and misogynists because they think it’s the most oppositional stance they can take to bullies and rage-mobbers who position themselves as anti-racists and feminists.

My sense is that the true haters are a tiny minority compared to the griefers and anti-PC rejectionists, but the griefers are entertained by others’ confusion on this score and don’t intend to clear it up.

Whether the alt-right even exists in any meaningful sense is questionable. To my anthropologist’s eye it has the aspect of a hoax (or a linked collection of hoaxes) being worked by 4chan griefers and handful of more visible provocateurs – Milo Yiannopolous, Mike Cernovich, Vox Day – who have noticed how readily the mainstream media buys inflated right-wing-conspiracy narratives and are working this one for the lulz. There’s no actual mass movement behind their posturing, unless you think a thousand or so basement-dwelling otaku are a mass movement.

I know Milo Yannopolous slightly – he is who interviewed me for Beitbart – and we have enough merry-prankster tendency in common that I think I get how his mind works. I’m certain that he, at any rate, is privately laughing his ass off at everyone who is going “alt-right BOOGA BOOGA!”

And there are a lot of such people. What these provocateurs are exploiting is media hysteria – the alt-right looms largest in the minds of self-panickers who project their fears on it. And of course in the minds of Hillary Clinton’s hangers-on, who would rather attribute her loss to a shadowy evil conspiracy than to a weak candidate and a plain-old bungled campaign.

I’m worried, however, that that the alt-right may not remain a loose-knit collection of hoaxes – that the self-panickers are actually creating what they fear.

For there is a deep vein of anti-establishment anger out there (see Donald Trump, election of). The alt-right (to the limited and conditional extent it now exists) could capture that anger, and its provocateurs are doing their best to make you think it already has, but they’re scamming you – they’re fucking with your head. The entire on-line ‘alt-right’ probably musters fewer people than the Trumpster’s last victory rally.

It’s a kind of dark-side Discordian hack in progress, and I’m concerned that it might succeed. Vox Day is trying to ideologize the alt-right, actually assemble something coherent from the hoaxes. He might succeed, or someone else might. Draw some comfort that it won’t be the Neo-Nazis or KKK – they’re real fanatics of the sort the alt-right defines itself by mocking. Mein Kampf and ironic nihilism don’t mix well.

The best way to beat the “alt-right” is not to overestimate it, not to feed it with your fear. If you keep doing that, the vast majority of the rootless and disaffected who have never heard of it might decide there’s a strong horse there and sign on.

Oh, and a coda about Breitbart: anyone who thinks Breitbart is far right needs to get out of their mainstream-media bubble more. Compared to sites like WorldNetDaily or FreeRepublic or TakiMag or even American Thinker, Breitbart is pretty mild stuff.

All those fake-news allegations against Breitbart are pretty rich coming from a media establishment that gave us Rathergate, “Hands up don’t shoot!”, and the “Jackie” false-rape story and was quite recently exchanging coordination emails with the Clinton campaign. Breitbart isn’t any more propagandistic than CBS or Rolling Stone, it’s just differently propagandistic.

Mar 09

Bravery and biology

I just read a very well-intentioned, heartwarming talk about girls who code that, sadly, I think, is missing the biological forest for the cultural trees.

It’s this: Teach girls bravery, not perfection. Read it, It’s short

I like the woman who voiced those thoughts in that way. Well, except for the part about growing up to be Hillary Clinton; do we really want to encourage girls to sleep their way to power and then cover up for their husband’s serial rapes?

That’s not the big problem with teaching girls to be brave rather than seeking perfection, though. That’d be nice if it could be done, but I think it will run smack into an evo-bio buzzsaw.

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Jan 30

Wicked River: the movie

Some years ago I happened across a fascinating book titled Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild. If you have any fondness for Mark Twain (as I do – I own and have read the complete works), you need to read this book. The book is an extended argument that Twain’s late-Victorian portraits of river life were a form of rosy-filtered nostalgia for a pre-Civil-War reality that was quite a bit more wild, colorful, squalid, violent, and bizarre.

The river is tamed now, corseted by locks and levees, surrounded by a settled society. It was already nearly thus when Twain was writing. But in and before Huck Finn’s time (roughly the 1840s) it had been a frontier full of strivers, mad men, bad men, and epic disasters like the New Madrid earthquakes.

Random evocative detail: there was a river pirate named John Murrell who operated out of a section of the river called Nine Mile Reach and often masqueraded as a traveling preacher; his gang was called the “Mystic Clan”, and it was for years believed that he had a master plan to foment a general slave insurrection. But that last bit may have been fabrication by a con man with a book to sell. Whether true or not, it led to riots in various cities and a mob attempt to expel all gamblers from Vicksburg based on a rumor that some of them had been part of the plot.

The book is full of you couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up stories like that. And then, much more recently, I learned about Abe Lincoln’s flatboat voyage.

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May 05

Sometimes progress diminishes

It’s not news to long-time followers of this blog that I love listening to virtuoso guitarists. Once, long ago in the 1980s I went to see a guitarist named Michael Hedges who astonished the crap out of me. The guy made sounds come out of a wooden flattop that were like nothing else on Earth.

Hedges died a few years later in a car crash, tragically young, and is no longer very well remembered. But I was on IRC yesterday taking music with a friend who mentioned a harmonica and a whistler doing Jimi Hendrix in a “laid back, measured, acoustic style”, and I brought up Hedges because I remembered his cover of All Along The Watchtower as an utterly amazing thing.

Afterwards, in a mood of gentle nostalgia, I searched YouTube for a recording of it. Found one, from the Wolf Trap festival in ’86, and got a surprise.

It was undoubtedly very similar to the performance I heard at around the same time, but…it just didn’t sound that interesting. Technically accomplished, yes, but it didn’t produce the feeling of wonder and awe I experienced then. His original Because It’s There followed on the playlist, and held up better, but…huh?

It didn’t take me long to figure this out. It’s because in 2015 I’m surrounded by guitarists doing what Hedges was doing in the late 1980s. It even has a name these days: “percussive fingerstyle”, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, Erik Mongrain, Tommy Emmanuel; players like these come up on my Pandora feed a lot, intermixed with the jazz fusion and progressive metal.

Sometimes progress diminishes its pioneers. It can be difficult to remember how bold an artistic innovation was once we’ve become used to its consequences. Especially when the followers exceed the originator; I must concede that Andy McKee, for example, does Hedges’s thing better than Hedges himself did. It may take memories like mine, acting as a kind of time capsule, to remind us how special the moment of creation was.

(And somwhere out there, some people who made it to Jimi Hendrix concerts when they were very young are nodding at this.)

I’m here to speak up for you, Michel Hedges. Hm..I see Wikipedia doesn’t link him to percussive fingerstyle. I think I’ll fix that.

Jul 30

SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy

I’ve been aware for some time of a culture war simmering in the SF world. And trying to ignore it, as I believed it was largely irrelevant to any of my concerns and I have friends on both sides of the divide. Recently, for a number of reasons I may go into in a later post, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at it. And now I’m going to have to weigh in, because it seems to me that the side I might otherwise be most sympathetic to has made a rather basic error in its analysis. That error bears on something I do very much care about, which is the health of the SF genre as a whole.

Both sides in this war believe they’re fighting about politics. I consider this evaluation a serious mistake by at least one of the sides.

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Mar 13

Country-music hell and fake accents

A few months back I had to do a two-hour road trip with A&D regular Susan Sons, aka HedgeMage, who is an interesting and estimable person in almost all ways except that she actually … likes … country music.

I tried to be stoic when stupid syrupy goo began pouring out of the car radio, but I didn’t do a good enough job of hiding my discomfort to prevent her from noticing within three minutes flat. “If I leave this on,” she observed accurately to the 11-year-old in the back seat, “Eric is going to go insane.”

Since said 11-year more or less required music to prevent him from becoming hideously bored and restive, all three of us were caught between two fires. Susan, ever the pragmatist, went looking through her repertoire for pieces I would find relatively inoffensive.

After a while this turned into a sort of calibration exercise – she’d put something on, assay my reaction to see where in the range it fell between mere spasmodic twitching and piteous pleas to make it stop, and try to figure what the actual drive-Eric-insane factors in the piece were.

After a while a curious and interesting pattern emerged…

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Mar 23

Michael Meets Mozart

I love classical music. It was my first musical vocabulary; I didn’t start listening to popular music until I was 14. When I grew up enough to notice that I was listening to a collection of museum pieces and not a living genre, that realization made me very sad.

But go listen to this: Michael Meets Mozart.

Now, if you’re a typical classical purist, you may be thinking something like this: “Big deal. It’s just a couple of guys posing like rock stars, even if there’s some Mozart in the DNA. Electric cello and a backbeat is just tacky. Feh.”

I’m here to argue that this attitude is tragically wrong – not only is it bad for what’s left of the classical-music tradition today, but that it’s false to the way classical music was conceived by its composers and received by its audiences back when it was a living genre.

Mozart didn’t think he was writing museum pieces…

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Sep 10

Not Eliminating The Middleman

So, we’re at a some friends’ place for barbecue this afternoon, and friends say “We know you don’t watch much TV, but you need to see this…”

“This” turns out to be the pilot of The Middleman a peculiar and unusually intelligent TV series that ran for only 12 episodes in 2008 before being canceled. The protagonist is a tough-minded female art student who gets recruited into a sort of “Men In Black” organization that deals with exotic problems – mad scientists, invading aliens, supernatural threats, that sort of thing. Yeah, I know, yet another spin on Nick Pollotta’s Bureau 13 novels – but this version has a sharp, surrealistic edge and the kind of script where no word in it is filler or wasted.

The writing style of The Middleman kind of got into my head. Here’s how I know this: afterwards, we’re disrobing to go to the hot tub, and I looked at my piles of clothes and stuff and thought this:

“I carry a smartphone, a Swiss-Army knife, and a gun. What kind of problem do you want solved?”

Aug 17

A flash at the heart of the West

I have just seen something lovely and hope-inducing.

It’s a video of a performance of Ravel’s Bolero by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra – manifesting as a flash mob at a train station. Go see it now; I’ll wait.

What is truly wonderful about this is not the music itself. Oh, the Bolero is pleasant enough, and this performance is competent. What was marvelous was to see classical music crack its way out of the dessicated, ritual-bound environment of the concert hall and reclaim a place in ordinary life. Musicians in jeans and sweaters and running shoes (and one kettledrummer with a silly fishing hat), smiling at children while they played. No boundary from the audience – there were train sounds and crowd noise in the background and that was good, dammit!

And the audience – respectful, but not because the setting told them they were supposed to be. Delight spreading outwards in waves as the onlookers gradually comprehended the hack in progress. Parents pointing things out to their kids. Hassled businesspeople pausing, coffees in hand, to relax into something that wasn’t on the schedule. It was alive in a way that no performance from a lofty stage could ever be.

But there was an even more beautiful level of meaning than that.

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May 09

The Uses of Cliche

I’ve done a lot of writing for the game Battle For Wesnoth. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and now teach others, is this: genre cliches are your friend. Too much originality can badly disrupt the gameplay experience. This is so at variance with our expectations about ‘good’ art that I think it deserves some explanation and exploration.

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Jan 09

Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries

Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers. It’s an interesting indication of how popular culture has evolved in the last quarter-century that the scope and boundaries of these terms are now of increasing interest to people who don’t think they belong in any of those categories — from language columnists for major newspapers to ordinary folks who have relatives they suspect might fall somewhere in the Venn diagram those terms define.

I’ve been watching these terms shift and move in and out of prominence since the early 1970s. Over time, distinctions among them that were once blurred have tended to sharpen. This is not happening at random; it accompanies the changes in “mainstream” culture that I noted in The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well. As groups who were one marginalized erupt into mainstream visibility, everybody’s functional need for language that puts a handle on their social identities becomes more pressing.

Here’s a report on the state of play in early 2011, with some history intended to illuminate it.

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