in the reads

There are a few staple items I will always be happy to unwrap at Christmas. Socks, booze, and books. This year I got a stack of the latter and am just now starting to climb out from under the mound. I've opted to bubble sort my list from most to least pulpy for your convenience.

"Odd Thomas", Dean Koontz

My brother Vince put this one under the tree for me and while I haven't read Koontz in some time I cracked it at the start of the new year as it seemed least likely to aggravate my Jan 1st hangover. I was surprised to discover that the basic "I see dead people" premise had life in it, and quite a bit at that. I tried to promise myself I would avoid a direct comparison to that movie you are no doubt recollecting right now so I will simply say that with some heart and likable if not relatable characters and a non corrosive love back story make this tale of blurred lines between life and death much more enjoyable if not as twisty come the final chapter.

"Duma Key", Stephen King

Recommended to me by my boss, here's another pop name I haven't read since re-reading "The Stand" and "The Regulators" while my brothers were doing the King thing so we could chat about them, this book is exactly what any fan would hope for. Like a fat smooth lozenge this easy to swallow tome slides along with the expected King accessibility and pace. It avoids the standard Maine backdrop and outright horror angle of previous titles I've read but manages quite well to instill a sense of the out and out creepy with a side of terribly wrong. At no point will you find the tale terrifying, but if you can make your way through this story without a rankling case of heebie jeebies you're certainly made of sterner stuff than I.

"Anathem", Neal Stephenson

My friend Mike put this ~1000 page doorstop in my hands admitting that he hadn't plowed through it yet himself but knew I'd enjoyed his previous works and would I mind telling him what I thought when I was finished. With two kids keeping him hopping I don't blame him wanting a friend to guinea pig this book for him, as not only the mass of pages but the density of ideas contained within made this by far the longest read I've enjoyed in the new year.

I've seen the word "infodump" used in descriptions of Anathem and find it to be quite apropos. This book wanders from cosmology, to quantum mechanics, to philosophy, as well as multiple universes and some Penrosian discussion of quantum effects giving rise to consciousness. I found it very reminiscent of the Greatwinter trilogy by Sean McMullen in that it spans multiple rises and subsequent collapses of civilizations while scholars strive to retain knowledge through the various calamities.

To would be readers I suggest patience, and possibly a highlighter when you read this book. Pro tip: just as when I first read A Clockwork Orange it wasn't until I finished Anathem that I discovered after slowly wrapping my head around much of the made up terminology that it contained a glossary at the end. If you find yourself struggling with this, go ahead and flip to the back. There you will also find some "example problems" discussed by the characters in the preceding chapters. If you plan to read these, (not required to enjoy the story) I suggest you do so as soon as they are noted in the text rather than waiting till the end or you may have to flip back to remember the details of the conversation.

Overall an amazing collection of ideas and characters that I will certainly be re-reading as I have no doubt missed many things the first time through.

"Halting State", Charles Stross

I've been a fan of Charlies work since day one of phrostuff, but admittedly didn't make time for "Halting State" until he recently blogged about the strange similarity it has to the this hulabaloo about Chinese hax0rs being all up in your corporate data.

As with most other works of fiction I've enjoyed that involve ARG's, I found it to be more enjoyable than the few ARG's I've tried my hand at IRL. I'm sure real life ARG's are waiting on their Super Mario / Halo / As Yet Unnamed Killer App that will bring them to the mainstream, but for the time being stories like "Halting State" exist to stir the imagination of next gen game designers and players.

The story quickly gets complex and in a way that reminds me of my stubborn cyberpunk fanboy love for William Gibson much of the greatness of this tale comes through in what is left out as opposed to what is written in. Not only does the story require attention, it demands cognition before rewarding the reader with a complete understanding of the events laid out.

"©ontent", Cory Doctorow

When he's not surfing the blogosphere, cape clad and begoggled in a hot air baloon, it's clear from reading ©ontent that Doctorow while being vexed with blindly lawsuit hurling copyright holders, GPL violators, and patchouli-scented info hippies, has a decidedly positive outlook.

While at time soap-boxy ©ontent also showcases Cory's ability to distill complex arguments into straightforward explanations which while sometimes lossy when it comes to detail never go as far as to dismiss the pertinent issues. It also manages to address much more than the standard copyright discussions you'd expect given the title, discussing the "I don't like reading off a computer screen" arguments of e-book nay-sayers, as well as expounding on the practical issues of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy". A worthy read in easily digestible components, this is another that I will certainly be going back to for seconds.

So there be my 2010 book report. I'm now back to re-reading worthy volumes in my collection and considering what to down next. It occurs to me that I get the bulk of my fiction in dead tree format and my non-fiction in pixels which seems like a crude basis for judgement. I'm open to suggestions for new material in both camps.


how i learned to appreciate music i hate

Disclaimer first: I am not a musician. I have never taken a more advanced music lesson than grade eight instrumental. I have never read a music appreciation book nor have I had any formal musical training of any meaningful kind. In short, the way I decide what music I like is completely "by ear". With regard to the people I mention below they are all real folks I know and while I am paraphrasing their quotes due to the intervening years between then and now, I have no doubt that the words below capture the meaning of our discussions.

Okay maybe hate is a strong word.

However, I've had the very good fortune to have met and spent a great deal of time with some talented musicians who's genre of choice varied widely from my own. When I announced to these people "well I don't like (genre X) because it doesn't sound good to me", they were patient enough and interested enough to point out a few incorrect assumptions I'd made. I have since repeated these conversations to others when the topic came up, and now I assemble them here for fun and profit.

1. "I don't like speed metal / experimental rock! It sounds like a garbage truck crashing into a department store!"

Scott, an old friend of mine who was the assistant manager at the first techie job I ever worked was among other things a drummer in hard rock band, a lover of speed metal, and a Frank Zappa aficionado. Several things I cared little about when we first met. He had a binder of Zappa CD's so thick and well stocked that we could ( and did! ) listen to Zappa and The Mothers all day, all week, and never hear the same version of the same song twice in a MONTH.

"What IS this weird crap!?" I would bellow at him. I couldn't fathom what he found so entertaining about the cacophony of strange sounds, trippy lyrics, and bizarre on stage banter that permeated his collection.

What he explained to me is that the joy for him in music of this style was the technical excellence of the musicians. Frank and his crew would spend months in a studio sampling, mixing, jamming, and assembling impossible sounding musical tapestries for release as a studio set. Then they would jam and jam and jam until they discovered a way to recreate every auditory nuance live on stage for their adoring fans.

"Do you have any idea how much talent it takes to do either the studio production OR the live recreation, let alone do BOTH and do it damned well?"

I didn't, that is I didn't until he pointed it out.

Now it can safely be said that I don't have as vast a collection of Zappa on my iPod as Scott did in his binder, but when the time comes to eat some snow I always watch out where the huskies go.

2. "I don't like punk music! There's all the thrashing and the spitting and the smelly kids with tattered clothes not to mention it sounds like four idiots trying to rape their instruments instead of make music!"

Jayman, a friend and ex co-worker who taught me about overclocking, league video gaming, how to love big ugly dogs, and of course punk music spent a good amount of time talking tunes with me when we worked together. As a youth he dropped out of real life, hit the road in a van with some friends and toured around playing their special brand of punk and billing themselves as "a rockin' blues band" to the surprise of many of their patrons.

"Punk doesn't need to being melodious or even ironically out of tune", he told me. "It's about flipping off pop music and mainstream musicians. It says, look maybe I'm a years trained musician or maybe I just learned a few riffs, either way I decided 'fuck it, I have something to say too!' It doesn't need to look or sound pretty, it just needs to be a way to say what you feel with sound."

Among many tunes he played me one that stands out in my mind is "Bleach Boys" by the Dead Milkmen with the opening lines:

I've got some buddies and we all drink bleach
You know we practice what we preach
We're not a drunken bunch of frat-boys
Trashed on beers
Or a stoned bunch of hippies
With no careers
I wanna drink bleach with a Georgia peach

I decided then that punk is about drawing a circle around what you are NOT and saying nope, that's not me. It says instead; I'm this other vague, loosely defined thing over here. I'm not sure where I'll end up, but I know where I absolutely will NOT go.

3. "I don't like Jazz! It's just all this random smattering of notes and people speaking in tongues, like a Southern Baptist all full of holy fervor!"

My paternal grandfather Stu has been playing jazz on a double bass for nearly his entire life. I believe my dad once told me he started at age 11. He worked and taught at the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music, and has played live as well as recorded with an impressive number of talented artists. If you happen to find yourself on Vancouver Island no doubt you can still see him jam live with some friends of his at various festivals and pubs (check local listings :).

"What's with all the button mashing?" I asked him once while road tripping with some quite surreal jazz on the radio. He entirely missed my clever Tekken reference.

"Well music is art right?", he asked and I agreed that it was. "And some art is abstract is it not?", and again I had to concede the point. "Well jazz is the same way. Most of jazz is based on the idea that you don't know what you're going to do when it's your turn to solo. You just make it up as you go and sometimes you're feeling something abstract and strange, other times you may create something melodious and beautiful. That's what makes jazz great, you never have to hear or play the same song twice."

I thought about this for a while and then asked him, "Well okay that makes sense but what's all the jibbering and jabbering and made up words about?". At the time I didn't know there was a word for what I was describing.

"You're not listening my boy", he cheerfully admonished me. "The vocalist is 'playing' jazz too and wants to improvise just like the band, but her instrument is her voice. So she just sings any sound that makes sense to her in the moment and strings it together to describe how the music makes her feel. Sometimes you'll like it and sometimes you won't but the point is that you are there to experience the creation of something new!"

4. "I don't like Country and Bluegrass! It's just so twangy and whiney and it makes me feel like Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel!"

Umm, yeah I've got nuthin for this ...

If you have any thoughts, I'm all ears.


only in dreams

Been AFK for a while with post holiday brokeness and worming my way through the mountain of books Santa brought me this year. My thoughts on those shortly, but in the meanwhile I've had this bizarre recurring dream that keeps rolling through my thoughts that I wanted to write a few words about. But first ...

On the topic of dreams; I got into a disagreement with a friend recently who told me she believes dreams are simply our interpretations of random firings of neurons and are not to be given any more thought than any other idle curiosity. I agree with her as far as the random neurons firing go, but if random neurons X, Y, and Z fire off in my brain and the "same" ones go off in yours no doubt we will interpret them differently and that is where the value of a dream lies (IMHO). I consider a dream to be a sort of internal Rorschach test and have often found that giving a dream some thought can reveal insights about myself that ring with a resounding truth which I may not have reached otherwise.

Having said all that, mine are pretty standard first person perspectives. I've had friends tell me the are always an observing "eye in the sky" in their dreams, and even one very empathic friend told me she is quite often multiple people in her dreams, switching back and forth to carry out the roles of others from their perspective.

Me, not so much. I'm usually just me.

Beyond that though, when I am able to actually recall a dream they tend toward the unusual. Example: my toddler brother was once made of blue glass and when he tried to speak his tongue fell out and smashed on the ground. I yelled at him that he'd "better grow a new one quick, or mom will be mad!". I was also once trapped on the outside of an Earth orbiting space station trying to find something to eat because all the hydroponic tomatoes we'd grown inside were poisoning the crew. Y'know ... unusual.

So this leads me back to the recurring dream.

Abnormally, I am a floating eye in the sky this time. The scene unfolds in front of me in a sort of animated Ken Burns effect, panning right and left from different angles. I'm watching a sort of Roman feast, a large group of people, not all of whom I can see, are gathered around a table heavily laden with fresh fruit, roasted meat, and dozens of rich looking goblets of wine, all illuminated by dancing flames I can only see reflected on the dishes and their faces. I can't discern the conversation but it's very loud with lots of hearty laughter, back slapping, and toasting. The one thing that I can see everyone doing is eating.

Every conversation and belly laugh is accompanied by full mouths of half chewed food with juices freely pouring down cheeks and dribbling through beards. The fronts of robes and gowns alike are spattered with gravy, wine, greasy fingerprints and who knows what else. As I notice all this mess contrasting the finery and rich dishes laid out, the panning slowly settles on two men who seem to be the hosts. Both large, both jolly, both leading happy conversations with different groups of guests. They're just so damned happy that their eyes are practically bulging, and their roaring laughter is creeping towards maniacal.

Then, very suddenly, everything just ... tilts.

The food and the tables are gone, as are all the guests and their conversations and the dancing firelight. Only the two hosts remain, and they haven't moved from their seated positions but now they sit on the ground and they're not ancient romans any more. They're wearing tattered jeans and wife beaters in a mud floored basement lit with only bare utility bulbs. There don't seem to be any stairs or windows and it feels quite close and cramped. They're still laughing in that too hard, screw loose kind of way and still stuffing their faces and dribbling all over their shirts, but they aren't eating food anymore. They're stuffing themselves with the mud.

Just cramming it down, shoving fistfuls into their gullets while they laugh and LAUGH and flail about in the soupy muck.

Now if you think that's odd, here comes the really weird bit...

I notice that one of them has drawn a big heart in the mud and within it is written "I love unicorns", which for reasons I cannot fathom in the least sends me into a terrified frenzy and suddenly causes me to cease being the floating observer and snap into "myself" standing there with mud oozing between my toes looking down at the two hosts. They both snap around mid mouthful of mud, no longer laughing or talking and just stare at me without moving which is usually about the point I wake up.

I've woken up this way about three times since the new year and have no idea where to begin trying to determine what this interpretation of random neurons may say about yours truly other than "yo that dude ain't right in de head boss".

I'm open to alternate opinions ...