A little bit of this, a little bit of that

Well hello there. I've got a lot of little things on my mind right now and I'm not sleeping any time soon, so I thought that this would be a good time to unload a few of them. 

 

Tell The Machine Goodnight is a curious novel that I tore through as quickly as anything I've read of late. It's by Katie Williams, and it batted around my expectations like a cat playing with a catnip-filled toy. The inside cover description made me think of a Terry Gilliam-ish dystopia, but that's not really it at all. The first chapter left me thinking I had the rest of the novel neatly figured out, but I couldn't have been more wrong. 

I'm not certain what I think of the ending, but that's true of a lot of my favorite speculative stories. It's science fiction, but it's more so in the manner of The Twilight Zone than space opera, which, I should point out, was at its best when the endings were a little ambiguous. It's also nothing at all like The Twilight Zone. It's an interesting, thoughtful book and it's a great read. 


Speaking of The Twilight Zone, we watched one of the less-famous Richard Donner-directed episodes last night: "Come Wander With Me". Nicole pointed out just how pitch-perfect the casting was, and how this was so often the case with The Twilight Zone. The other thing that stood out were the production values and, yes, the direction. I've seen films that weren't as tightly constructed as "Come Wander With Me". It's a delight to see the craftsmanship involved in telling these stories, even when the stories themselves don't always hold up. The big downside of this episode? The song is an evil, evil ear worm. Don't say I didn't warn you.


We're going to be moving to a new apartment next week, so things are a little untidy around here. We're going to be staying in the same area; I'm pretty sure the distance between the front doors is around 50 yards. The new place is a little larger, a lot newer (we'll be the first occupants), and we're hoping the management and maintenance will be a little more to our liking. 

We'll won't be on the first floor anymore, which means we won't have our garden which, for all intents and purposes, has served more as a snail sanctuary than a proper garden. That was fine, as we weren't going to eat anything we grew. This left us with a bit of a dilemma: What to do with the little creatures who depended on us for food and shelter? Simply leaving would put them in a bad situation as snails are generally considered to be pests. 

You can probably guess what we decided. 

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A little bit of zucchini, some lettuces, and a cuttlebone and our new guests seem quite happy indeed. They're marvelous little creatures, very relaxing to watching and as gentle as you could want. Given the likely result had we left them, I'm certain we made the best choice for them in bringing them in. I hope they have lovely lives.


Maybe one of the reasons that I'm not sleeping so well is that I go "on call" tomorrow. "On call" is the worst. It's pitched as a benefit to the people who are part of the rotation. No, really. The line of thinking is "At least it's only one week out of four that you're expected to be available 24/7 if (when) something comes up." That's a fiction, of course, in two ways. One is that you're expected to be available at all times anyway, at least to some degree. In addition, it's not really "if something comes up". There's no making plans when you're "on call". No being away from your computer for more than an hour at the most, so no movies, fast food if you dine out, and no real weekend. It comes with the gig, and the gig is well-compensated, but that doesn't mean I'm a fan.


I recently re-played on of my favorite old PS2 games, Final Fantasy X. It was ported, largely successfully, to PC and I've been eager to see if it lived up to my memories. It did in almost every respect. The gameplay itself is not particularly challenging and it's possible, through a little judicious grinding, to remove most of what challenge there is. It's still fun, though. The "sphere grid" system for advancing the characters is ludicrous, beautiful, and kind of delightful. The combat is 100% turn based, so once you get your head around it, it's not especially difficult to get your tactics right.

Of course, Final Fantasy games are only tangentially about gameplay, and that's as true of FFX as any of them. You're playing a story, a story that's told with beautiful art, and with some wildly inconsistent voice acting. It all makes a sort of sense that would make you sound like a madman if you tried to describe it to someone, and it's deeply, deeply sad. The pacing is near-perfect and the ending will give you feels. The only bit that was different than what I remembered is that I had a key part of the story backwards in my head. It's no less melancholy than I recalled, just for slightly different reasons. And, honestly, it's just gorgeous to look at. Worth a play (or replay) if you're in to that sort of thing.


I've been dreaming of spending some time in a little cabin, somewhere remote, somewhere rainy, and taking a week to get my head on straight. It's cruel, then, that there's been a little unseasonable rain this weekend. Not enough to do much of anything beyond make it too humid to go outside, not that we were going to do much of that. There's packing to be done. In case there was any doubt in your mind, the cliche is true: It's not the heat, it is the humidity. 100 dry degrees is a cakewalk compared to 90 degrees and moisture in the air. 

I guess that's about it for now. One of these days I'll get back in the rhythm of writing shorter posts about a single thing. That's not going to happen until after we settle in at the soonest. 

Goodnight all. Sweet dreams.

-RK

 

Why you should read Why We Sleep

I recently finished reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD, and, while I'm hesitant to use the term "life-changing" if only because I just finished it, it was certainly eye-opening. I'll go so far as to say it's the best non-fiction book I've read this decade. I'll also say that you should immediately buy it and read it. 

I've always prided myself on my ability to operated on minimal sleep when necessary. I remember staying up for 72 hours straight when working and moving to a new home at the same time. I've stayed out til near dawn and then made it to work on time more often than I can remember. 

It turns out that this was a very, very bad idea and I'm pretty mad at myself right now.

I'd always known that sleep was important, but important in a vague sense, without any clear idea of the benefits beyond "not feeling sleepy anymore". That's exactly what this book brings to the table: The benefits of sleep. And whoa, are there a lot of them. So many that Aetna pays it's employees bonuses to get enough sleep. An insurance company thinks it's important enough that they will save money by doing this. Let that one settle for a bit.

The bottom line is that you can't really be considered healthy if you aren't getting enough sleep. Your immune system is harmed, you're more susceptible to cancer (!), you don't work as well, either in terms of creativity or quantity, you're unsafe behind the wheel, you lose your memories, you can't control your emotions, and....well, it's an awfully long list. 

The most heartbreaking parts are the sections on the effect of sleep loss on development, both pre- and post-natal and through the teenage years. And, unfortunately, you never catch up on sleep. Miss sleep and the you never get back what you've lost.

This is an informative book rather than one of "hard" science. It's accessible, and, if it gets a little repetitive with the litany against the dangers of sleep loss, it's well-written and never gets dull.  There's not very much in the way of math and the charts are pretty simple, so I didn't get lost the way I do reading, say, Hawking.

You may already be familiar with all of the information contained in Why We Sleep. I wasn't, and I bet some of you aren't either. I strongly commend this book. It has the potential to make your life better in concrete ways, and how many books can you say that about?

-RK

Gon Out Backson

It's been some while since I've posted anything here. That's primarily due to the fact that I've been enjoying my time on holiday. A sand beach and the smell of the surf are hard to compete with and...

You're not buying any of this, are you? I'll be honest this time. Watching the country spiral into darkness is taking a toll on me. I have a vague recollection of the Watergate era and this is so much worse that I don't believe I have the capacity to explain it. Breaking things goes so much more quickly than building them. We're now having to watch cherished, hard-fought victories discarded literally without a thought. 

It's not just the politicians, of course. The very worst of us feel emboldened to display their racism, misogyny, and...we need a better word than "homophobia", but you get the idea, without any sense of shame. They gave us the alt-right, gamergate, the sad and rabid puppies, and now comicsgate. It's largely the same people making the same arguments, trying to cloak their views in a poor imitation of rationality and in unscientific appeals to nature. I wrote a long post about comicsgate a couple of weeks ago and decided not to post it on account of the fact that I'm just tired of it. 

Work has managed to get its tendrils into my nights and weekends as well. I put in 4-5 hours today and likely will again tomorrow. I understand that, in part, this is because I let it do so. It's also just a matter of there being a lot of work to do and not terribly many people to do it. It happens, it's part of the gig, but it's one more thing just wearing me out.

One of our snails passed this week, too: Poor little Lucky. Lucky had a tough life, surviving unbeknownst to us outside of the tank without any food or care. He was less than a centimeter long when we found him and brought him in to the tank. Tough little guy, The snail groups warn you not to get attached to the runts because they're not going to live that long, but you don't always get to choose what you get attached to, do you? Poor guy. I hope he had a good life. 


I did manage to get a song in the can., but, appropriately, it's a 5 minute drone that's essentially one note and a fractured drum line.  It's not especially musical, but I'm pretty happy with the sounds.

I'll write more about it later, but I'm currently reading Matthew Walker's Why We Sleep and, halfway through, I'd say I've probably learned more important and interesting information that I have from any other book. The TL/DR would be: "Sleeping is important. It affects the health of your mind and body in ways you aren't aware of, and you need 8 hours of sleep every night. Yes you do. No, really, you're not special. Get your sleep."
 

Which is exactly what I'm going to do now. Good night all.

-RK

Books: Past, Present, and Near-Future

Read (past tense):

So, you love Trainspotting as a motion picture, I’ll wager that you’ll find the book worth a read as well. In some ways the film improved on the book; the cast is cut down to a more manageable level by combining the stories of multiple characters into the primary four (or five, if you count Diane and I most definitely do).

A word of warning, though: The book is significantly rougher than the film and that is a bar of significant height. Begbie is more violent, Sick Boy is skeevier, Renton is even more emo, and Spud? Well, Spud’s a mate. Sadly, Diane has but a single chapter, but it’s the one you’d expect.

The vast majority of the book is famously written in Scots’ dialect, something that could easily have come across as a distracting stunt. I didn’t find it in the least bit difficult to follow. There are some slang terms I had to look up, but there’s a glossary to help out and I imagine you’ll use it far less than you’d expect.

It’s an angry book, full of life, but it’s the life people with no futures choose to live, so it’s horrifying as well. Heroin, of course, figures heavily but you’d be missing the point if you said the book was about heroin or even junkies. It’s about how people react to a hopeless situation. I loved it, but I loved the movie and I imagine I’ll love the musical whenever Irvine Welsh decides to go for his EGOT.

Re-Reading:

I'm about 3/4 of the way through my second go round with Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing. It's a beautiful book, as much a fable as it is a novel, and featuring a good deal more Spanish dialogue than I remembered. The pacing is...let's call it stately. Elegiac? It's slow, ok? But that's the right pace for the story.

McCarthy's dialogue reads like a guy who read Hemingway and thought "way too verbose", but his descriptions of the southwestern badlands are haunting and dense. He's one of the few "western" writers who can tell a story that (and I hate myself for saying this) transcends the genre.

One interesting thing McCarthy has in common with Neil Gaiman is that some of the best parts of the book are the stories within stories within stories. It's a difficult device to pull off without taking the reader out of the story, but when it comes off, it's brilliant. 

This novel, like many of his, is a little cold, a little distant, and a lot of harsh, but it's a hell of a book. 

Going to read next:

I finally, finally found a science fiction short story collection I've been seeking for a decade or so now. I read it back in the mid-80s and there were a couple of stories in it which left an unusually vivid imprint in my memory. The problem? I couldn't remember the name of the collection, the names of the stories, or the author.

Even with the aid of the internet, I didn't have much luck. I thought it might be a collection by Frederik Pohl, so I've been combing through his collections at Half Price Books without seeing anything that seemed familiar. Grrrr. 

A couple of weeks ago I finally found a combination of search terms to find one of the stories: "The Martyr". Aha! That, in turn, lead me to the author, Poul Anderson (I was close, dammit!), and to the title of the collection: The Gods Laughed. When I saw the cover, I knew I'd found it. Huzzah.

No Half Price in town had a copy, and it seems to be out of print, but no worries. The internet came to the rescue once more. I now have a copy and look forward to re-reading it and probably discovering that it wasn't nearly as good as I remembered. I'm willing to take that risk. 

In case you're wondering the other story from this collection that stuck with me was called "Soldier From the Stars". Funny thing: These two, along with a couple of William Gibson stories from the Mirrorshades collection, are the most haunting sci-fi short stories I've read and three of the four have a common premise: Humanity ain't at the top of the galactic food chain. I should probably ask my therapist if that means anything, huh?

-RK

Old Five and Dimers - Fathers Day 2018

Let me tell you a good story about my father. I may have mentioned this at another time, but what good is a story that's only told once? This is a good one, I promise.

My father and I had pretty significant disagreements throughout most of this century, but I never once lost my respect for him and his integrity. He was, to as great a degree as anyone is, a man of his word and would go to unreasonable lengths to do what he believed was right. I could cite dozens of examples, but I didn't even learn of the best one until he was nearly gone.

When my parents were divorced, my mother hadn't worked for several decades and, as such, her earning power was somewhat limited. The divorce decree included child support as well as alimony. The amount of the alimony was tied to mom's salary: When she received a raise, the alimony would be reduced by the amount of the raise. This, of course, meant that her earnings were capped until the alimony was eliminated.

One night, after receiving a raise and after a couple of glasses of brandy at a company happy hour, she called my father to give him the good news: "Congratulation. You got a raise." she told him in what I presume was a snide tone of voice. Dad was silent for a second and then responded by saying "You're right. This isn't fair."

I'll be honest, I'm not sure if they had the decree reworked or if they just handled it themselves, but the end result is that he agree to split any raise she received. If she received a $100 raise, the alimony would only drop by $50 and she'd also be $50 to the good. 

He didn't have to do that; the only reason for reworking the deal was his sense of right and wrong which, if I'm honest, was a good deal sharper than my own. That was my dad. This sense of right and wrong got him cheated in business more times than I care to share, but it never changed him. He was a good man in that he could invariably be counted on to act on his beliefs and you can't ask much more than that.

-RK

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley

Our annual-ish 1,100 mile pilgrimage to Marfa, way out in the middle of nowhere, the specific part of nowhere in the trans-Pecos high desert of west Texas, did not go precisely as planned this time around. In fact, the cartographically-minded amongst you might have picked up on the fact that the drive from Austin to Marfa is ~430 miles and, thus, the entire trip would fall comfortably short of 1,100 miles. Very observant of you to pick up on that. Why so many extra miles? That's a very good question.

Our car is approaching its third birthday and our battery recently died on us (I may have left the door ajar), so we thought it wise to have it replaced when we changed the oil. The folks at the shop informed us that the battery wasn't that bad. It was right on the edge of needing replacement, but when we said we were going out into the desert, they agreed that it would be prudent to make the change. 

We hit the road early, by our standards, getting on the freeway before 6:00 AM and pretty much flew out I-10. For some reason, this drive feels as short or shorter than the 200 mile slog up to Dallas. Maybe it's because we're going to our magic hideaway in the middle of nowhere, or maybe it's due to the fact that, once we hit Junction, the terrain is hilly and interesting for the entire trip. 

We wound up getting to El Cosmico well ahead of the 3:00 check-in time, so we goofed around the town and hit up our favorite breakfast/lunch spot, Marfa Burrito. It's cheap, it's flavorful, the coffee is free, and no English whatsoever is spoken. There are multiple autographed photos of Matthew McConaughey eating there hanging on the walls. It's that kind of place, in a good way.

When we returned a little after 3:00, our tent still wasn't ready. We sat in the main building, which isn't air conditioned but at least has fans and shade, bought some souvenirs, drank some coffee, and moved all our stuff to the tent when it was ready at 4:30. It was too hot to even think of grilling, so we headed off to the grocery store to get some noms for the evening, and then took some pictures of decaying buildings near downtown.

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And then the car wouldn't start. 

This was precisely what we were trying to avoid. Fortunately, a local was able to help us push start it, but we were scared to turn it off again. We drove around town a little and then figured a little highway driving would be the best way to get the battery charged up again. We headed south and passed a border patrol check-point, which meant we were gonna have to stop on the way way back. 

Heading north again, we pulled over and spoke to the shaggy teenager in the booth while Paul Blart (Nicole's description, with which I concur) circled our car with his "probable cause" dog. He saw Nicole's hair and the El Cosmico sticker, gave the dog's collar a tug, and the dog went nuts. We were asked to pull over so he could search our car. Fortunately, we were able to convince him to let us keep the engine lit. 

We sat on a bench next to a younger woman who was playing good cop to Blart's bad 'un. He asked us if we were carrying any drugs, or if I smoked marijuana (a question that drew genuine laughter from us) and went so far as to say that he couldn't arrest us if we did have any drugs. We chatted comfortably with the woman while he did a half-assed search of our luggage. The dog stayed perfectly calm since Blart wasn't tugging on his collar, and we were sent on our merry way.

We made it back to El Cosmico around sundown, parked the car, tested the starter, and..pffft. Nothing. This was precisely what we'd gone to considerable length to avoid and, I gotta tell you, it's pretty hard to enjoy a remote paradise when your car is blorked. Grrr.

The tent itself was lovely. We decided to stay in a tent for one night before moving to our favorite trailer. It was, however, more of a winter setup than a summer one. It had a fire pit, no breeze, and (obviously) no AC. We might have enjoyed it more without the specter of "what the fuck are we gonna do about the car?" hanging over our heads.

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We slept in about as late as we could, which is to say, until 6:00 or so, got some coffee, and formulated a plan. We called the roadside assistance that's included with our car insurance to get a jump. Unfortunately, they had to come in from Marathon, about an hour away. While we were waiting, we called Mazda warranty services. When an old battery and a new battery die in short order, and when the battery won't charge with driving, that sounds like an alternator issue, or maybe even a slipping belt. Both of those things should be covered under our warranty, so we figured we'd be better of getting to a Mazda dealership than trying to find a mechanic in Marfa or, more likely, Alpine. The Mazda folks agreed, and said that they could tow us to the nearest dealership....170 miles away in Odessa. 

Well, crap. 

When they guy came to jump the car, we talked to him about what was the likely culprit and he agreed with our diagnoses. We decided that waiting on a tow truck and then riding in the cab for 3 hours was more of a buzzkill than we could handle, so we formed a bold plan: We would drive the car from Marfa to Odessa and hope like hell the engine didn't stop the entire trip. Did we have to stop for gas? Yep! We got away with it, though, and made it to the Odessa dealership, Sky Mazda, by mid-afternoon. 

We left the car with them and they loaned us a new SUV to drive home. Let me tell you a little about the drive from Marfa to Odessa. You know how I said driving to Marfa from Austin seems shorter than it is? Well, this one seems so very much longer. Once you get north of I-10, the scenery turns to flat, scrubby, and ugly. It's interminable. There's nothing to recommend it, no highlights, just nothing at all except for the occasional oil rig. Avoid it if you can.

When we got back to camp, we were in for another fun surprise: The trailer we thought we'd reserved was not the one we got. We've been in the glorious Battleship for our two previous visits, with its beautiful writing desk and leather sofa and just general awesomeness. This time, we were placed in the Imperial Mansion, which is a similarly-sized trailer but it's a completely different feel. No desk, but instead a second bedroom in the back with a single bed. It'd be great for families travelling with a kid, but we just closed it off to save the AC which wasn't up to the task of keeping the trailer livable. It was so hot, we put towels over all the windows and ran the fans over bowls of water to try to get the inside temperature under 90.

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On the plus side, it was perfect weather for chilled soup, and Nicole had the genius idea of bringing gazpacho makings with us. She blended up the tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, peppers, and spices, and we added some olive oil, sherry vinegar, and salt, and wound up with....some awfully good soup. 

The next day was spent doing a whole lot of nothing while we waited to hear what was wrong with the car. They weren't able to even look at it until midday and, when they did, I didn't much like what I heard. The battery, the new one we'd purchased only a few days earlier, was so dead that they couldn't even test the car. We'd have to buy a new one before they could even run any tests. Yay. We agreed because, hell, what else could we do? Right before closing, we called them back and the dealership had determined that the battery was the only thing wrong. The shop had installed the wrong size battery and replacing it with the correct battery solved everything.

On the plus side, Lauren and Stuart arrived that evening and were in the (much better) trailer right next to us, the Kozy Coach. Everything got cooler, both literally and figuratively, when they showed up. We enjoyed some more gazpacho, some wine, and some good conversation before hitting the hay. We'd hoped that we could keep the loaner car an extra day so that we could just drive to Odessa sort-of on our way home and pick up our car then. That was a no-go, so we were going to have to drive to Odessa and back again on Thursday.

Not much to report regarding that second trip. Doing that trip twice in three days did not improve it in any way. I will say that the folks at Sky Mazda are nice as heck and we really appreciated their being pleasant throughout this whole mess. We got our car back, headed back to Marfa once again, got pulled over for speeding (81 in a 75), but didn't get a ticket, making this one of the least eventful trips of the week.

Thursday night was highlight of the trip, so much so that I'd even go so far as to say the whole trip was worth it just for Thursday night. We met Lauren and Stuart at El Campo where they were getting tattoos the old-school way by Slowpoke Marfa. We bought a couple bottles of wine, got a little silly, tipped the ridiculously good singer/guitarist, and had a marvelous afternoon. Then, they took us to dinner at LaVenture at the St. George hotel. It was pretty terrific, even though some drunk fool (me) left his hat at the bar.

All four of us retired back to our trailer where we just sat around in the near dark telling stories and secrets and laughing and singing and goofing around with the synth I brought (the Minilogue is absurdly portable) and more laughing. It was so good, in fact, that I somehow avoided the hangover I so richly deserved.

We packed up early on Friday and headed back. Not much to tell about that. We had breakfast at The Water Stop, which has great roasted chicken with tahini dipping sauce that will give you the foulest burps on the planet. We didn't have any cash, so we had to hit the bank's ATM to tip our housekeeper. That turned out to be fortuitous since we left shoes and several of my shirts in the trailer. Derp.

  Entering Alpine, TX from the west on Highway 67 from Marfa, a view we saw way too many times over the course of our trip.

Entering Alpine, TX from the west on Highway 67 from Marfa, a view we saw way too many times over the course of our trip.

So that was our big vacation for the year. We both felt like butt when we got home, having contracted a cold or some other, similar malady. I may have just exhausted myself trying to hold my shit together, broken down in the desert. There's certainly a romance to getting away from it all, and I'm eager to do it again. But..maybe we rent a car or take the train next time.

Genesis, Three Sides Live (10/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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A live album? And not a particularly well-regarded one? What gives? Well...we'll get to The Real Reason shortly. For now, let's just consider it for what it is: A well-curated greatest (recent) hits album with some performances that surpass the studio versions. Genesis were an unusual band in that their two live-only members (guitarist Daryl Stuermer and drummer Chester Thompson) added tremendously to their overall sound. The extended instrumental section of "Abacab" is a perfect example of this-it's a much bigger, fuller song than it is on the studio album.

The original U.S. version of this record featured a non-live side consisting primarily of the U.K. EP release "3x3". "Paperlate" was an extremely Phil Collins-ish single, which is great, but it's "You Might Recall" that really stands out among the studio tracks. The U.K. release, which is the only version still available, had four live sides, but the fourth was confusingly from an earlier tour. For once, it's the U.S. version you want.

Ok, so why is this album so important to me? This was the, um, genesis of my love of the sound of synthesizer-based melodies, especially with huge drums behind them. "Behind The Lines" and "Dodo" blew my mind, but it's the medley between "In The Cage" and "Afterglow" that still gives me chills:

The life-changing bit starts right at 8:00 but hey, it's all good. 

This album sent me down a long, expensive, frustrating, but ultimately thrilling path of "trying to learn to play synthesizers". I'm still not good or anything, but that's not really what it's about. I love playing with these marvelous toys, and it's all because of this album.

P.S. If you think I'm stopping at 10, you don't know me very well, do you?

Ambulance LTD, LP (9/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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If there's one album on this last that you take the time to listen to, this is the one I'd recommend. I'd never even heard of this band when I went to see a SxSW showcase at Red-Eyed Fly. I was there to see Stellastarr*, who were excellent, but it was the band who went on before them who really blew me away. They played a spectacular set and closed with an instrumental that built into a locomotive of guitar-pop goodness.

Based on the band order listed on a sheet of paper, I assumed I'd seen The Unicorns. It wasn't until I found a band listing in a newspaper and checked out the music on...was it YouTube then? I'm not sure, that I learned the band I'd seen was Ambulance LTD. Bought the album the next day and it's been in heavy rotation since.

This is, start to finish, about as close to perfect as any album I've ever heard. Every song is wonderful (assuming you like indie guitar pop). It wanders between dreamy, folksy, straight-ahead rock and even a hint of post rock with an ease that shouldn't be possible on a debut album.

Unfortunately, it was also their last. Label troubles ensure that we would get only one more EP out of Amulance LTD (the good but not perfect "New English") and then nothing more. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist Marcus Congleton can't perform as Ambulance LTD or use the band's name for promotional purposes. He's currently a member of Drug Cabin, along with ex-Pretty Girls Make Graves' Blake Thelen. Every now and again, you can hear some of that Ambulance spark in the music, but it's not LP. In fairness, nothing else this decade is.

New Pornographers, Electric Version (8/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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Another early-2000s albums that received great reviews but no radio airplay, Electric Version was a revelation to me. I finally got to hear it for the first time on the jukebox at Casino El Camino and fell in love instantly. Everything that made me happy about music is contained the the first four songs. Power pop, soaring harmonies, delirious lyrics, and just plain giddy fun. 

Wasn't music always fun? Well, no, not really. Grunge was not fun. Industrial is not fun (except, of course, for PWEI). I love me some Radiohead, but OK Computer and Kid A are not fun. I loved all that stuff, but wasn't even aware of how little joy there was in the music. 

Electric Version, for me, brought back the sing-along choruses and hooks-upon-hooks that first made me love the rock and the roll. That's the primary impact. The unabashed fun of it. Oh sure, Dan Bejar wanders in and delivers "Testament to Youth in Verse," the most gorgeous paean to teen celibacy you'll ever hear. Bejar, (whose solo band, Destroyer, is also one of my favorites) brings a loose and cynical voice to the proceedings, keeping it from becoming too...not twee, but too....much? 

Love this record so, so much, in case you couldn't tell.

Ted Leo + Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak (7/10)

 

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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Welcome to the 2000s (for now at least)! In the early years of this strange, new millennium, living by myself in a new town, I had more time on my hands than I had music to fill it with. Radio was (and remains) an unproductive place to look for new music. Fortunately, I has Spin magazine and the MUCH music channel. Between the two of them, I found more great new music than I had during any other period of my life.

That brings of, naturally, to Mr. Leo and his Pharmacists. Hearts of Oak was an album I bought on the  basis of great reviews and a ton of mentions on end-of-year best lists. None of that gave me any sense of what to expect with how it would sound ("dancing about architecture" indeed, and I understand the irony of what I'm doing now). What it sounds like, in a nutshell, was brilliant.

I was intrigued by the intro, "Building Skyscrapers in the Basement", but it was the riff that starts "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" that made me start giggling like a loony alone in my apartment. I didn't just like this album; I loved it from the first listen. It's guitar rock with a nod or two to Thin Lizzy and The Jam, heart-on-the-sleeve sincere with a complete lack of hipster irony (so, of course, hipsters loved it). 

I like Ted Leo so much as a person that I'm sure my bias affects how I hear his music. That may matter when it comes to giving recommendations, but from the point of view of my own enjoyment, I see no reason to separate them. Hearts of Oak is great, in no small part because it restored my belief that great music was still being made, I'd just stopped looking for it.

Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet (6/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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Fear of a Black Planet closes out an block of albums from 1989 and 1990 on this list. I remember the first time I heard it, at Stefan Boyle's apartment after work. He knew I was in to Nine Inch Nails and he couldn't wait to play the PE record for me, figuring I'd like it. I did, and would up buy myself a copy the next day. 

The first word that comes to mind when trying to describe Fear of a Black Planet is "challenging." I wasn't especially in to hip-hop, primarily because I wasn't impressed with most of the backing tracks. "Welcome to the Terrordome" just blew me completely away. It was immaculately produced, in your face, with a deft use of sampling that put most industrial acts to shame. And Chuck D's lyrics and delivery on that song? I'm not exaggerating when I say I don't know that I've ever heard anything that powerful.

Fear of a Black Planet gets up in your face and dares you to call rap frivolous, defies you to say that it does anything but rock. In hindsight, I'm not even sure that it's a better record than It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, but it's the one that introduced me to the hard rhymer. Did it have an impact? Yeah, you could say that.

 

 

 

Park Life

I will return to my list of "10" albums shortly, but we've done some camping recently and I wanted to share a few photos before too much time passed. Last weekend we spent a couple days at McKinney Falls State Park which is in southeast Austin, and Garner State Park, about an hour west of San Antonio.

  Here's our basic camping setup when we're prepared for rain. It is a good thing we ready, too, as it would have  been pretty uncomfortable without it. 

Here's our basic camping setup when we're prepared for rain. It is a good thing we ready, too, as it would have  been pretty uncomfortable without it. 


Garner is a pretty special place. Apparently, I'm late to the game on this one because everyone I've mentioned it to has said it's their favorite of the Texas state parks. It's in the middle of the hill country, that little bit of Texas that isn't flat and covered with wheat or grass that looks a lot like wheat.

The first full day we stayed there, it misted all night and stayed foggy until the sun burned off the clouds in the early afternoon.I'm a sucker for "water drops on things that don't normally have water drops on them" photos, so there many, many more than I've posted here.  

The fog makes the hills seem a lot taller than they are, but an 1800' peak is pretty tall for central Texas, particularly when it's rising out of the Frio river canyon. The camping space we had backed directly up to one of the taller hills and I bounded (note: "bounded" is an absurd exaggeration of the level of spryness I exhibited that morning, but it felt distinctly bound-y) out of our campsite and up, up, up. We took a couple of the more remote trails, including one that was the old road into the park, letting the mist keep us cool.

When the sun broke through, we were treated to an altogether different park. We left the hills and hiked down to a trail down by the river. The Frio was true to its name; cold, as well as swift and clear. We were lucky enough to have booked our trip during the 15 minutes between winter and summer when the trees are at their peak. We couldn't have planned it better to get those bright green leaves intermingled with the darker, older live oak leaves. 

The funny thing is that, while we had a fantastic time, we didn't even do some of the most popular activities at the park. The Frio is dammed at the southern end of the park, set up for tubing and, just below the dam, is the park's signature hill, Old Baldy. We missed out on that, as well as the food trucks, the miniature golf, and the dance hall. Guess we'll have to go back, huh?

P.S. Yes, that's a picture of a turkey. The Rio Grande turkey is abundant in the park. 

McKinney Falls doesn't have the same abundance of water features and topography, but it's a nice park, nearby, and it's where we got married, so it has a lot going for it. In case you were wondering, late May is a dodgy time to camp in Texas. Sometimes, its lovely, but it can be very hot or very wet. Or both, as was the case last weekend.

It's still well worth the trip. Nicole was clever enough to get us one of those tents that is all mesh above 30" or so, so we had a little breeze at night. We didn't really move around much except at dusk and dawn, but as it turns out, those are great times to take pictures. You may notice a picture or two where, lacking a proper polarizing filter, I just put my sunglasses over the lens. Worked a treat, too. 

The blue-tinted photo is a weird one. I took that one at night. We had little blue LEDs strung over the edge of the umbrella, and the fairy lights were reflecting off of the flashlight's lens in a really pretty way. It was better in person, but I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.
 

Funny thing: I didn't really enjoy camping when I was a kid. There were some good times, but it was mostly something to be endured until I could get back home to my...well, we didn't have computers or video games or anything, but I'm sure there was something I was eager to get back to. Now? I get it. We can take off on a Friday afternoon and spend two nights at a park and it feels longer and more relaxing than a month of weekends at home. I'm a lucky SOB in that Nicole not only enjoys it, she enjoys it in much the way that I do. Oh, and we can camp-cook like nobody's business. 

Hope you enjoyed the pics. This is my first time to use the slideshow function, so...will it work? Let's find out!

-RK

They Might Be Giants, Flood (5/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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Oh, They Might Be Giants. What would I do without you? I've seen TMBG 14 times so far (I think), and they never fail to delight. I was already a fan when this album came out. Both They Might Be Giants and Lincoln were in heavy rotation on my cassette player, but it was Flood that turned the band into a life-long obsession for me. 

The first two records were quirky, awkward, and not quite fully-formed. Flood was a silly masterpiece from start to finish. It's a confident album, with some of the rough edges of their earlier work smoothed out, but with just as much (if not more) giddy glee. 

Fandom was weird back in those pre-internet days. The only way to find out which songs would be fan favorites was to go to the shows and see what the fans reacted to. "Particle Man" was a huge favorite of mine, but I had no idea how loved that song was until I saw the Arcadia Theater bouncing up and down to it back in 1990. 

There's a personal reason for loving this album, too: My mother used to sing a silly song to me before bed when I was a wee one. The song was "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", so when I first heard it on Flood, I couldn't believe it. I love this band, and this album in particular, so, so very much.

Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine (4/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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Pretty Hate Machine was always going to be on here, wasn't it? There was a pretty long period of time where it was almost the only thing I would listen to. It was the first album I was aware of that successfully merged industrial with dance with rock with the kind of "feeling sorry for yourself" that would have made Morrissey blush.

I first heard "Down In It" at the Dallas dance clubs in the summer of 1989, but the album didn't come out until November. The intervening months gave me plenty of opportunity to blow my expectations sky high and, somehow, Pretty Hate Machine exceeded them. There wasn't a song on the album I didn't love, a feat that wouldn't be matched until....sometime later in this list.

NIN never made another album anything like this one. Adrian Sherwood, Keith LeBlanc, Al Jourgensen, John Fryer, and Flood all worked on the production, which sounds like it could be a mess, but it all came together in a seamless whole with slinky dance groove underpinnings. Subsequent albums tended to be more aggressive and/or abstract, which is great, but wildly different in texture to the debut.

Did it make an impact? Lordy, yes. Pretty Hate Machine was a lifestyle for me; it was an identity I didn't know I was looking for. I wouldn't stop talking about the damned thing. I went through more Rit black dye during this era than the rest of my life combined. It was an absolutely glorious time.

Pop Will Eat Itself, This Is The Day...This Is The Hour...This Is This! (3/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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This is the album that Sigue Sigue Sputnik wish they'd made. It still sounds like an artifact from the future. Imagine the impact in 1989, 6 months before Pretty Hate Machine hit the shelves. I don't know that any album ever took the cut-and-paste approach to making music to this extent. 

It shouldn't work, but somehow it does. Melding rapping to samples of metal guitar riffs and industrial beats, chock full o' pop culture references both in the lyrics and the samples, it careens out of of control like a car that's lost its brakes and is always this close to crashing. 

Sadly, I never got to see PWEI. They were set to open for NIN but left the tour two weeks before the show in Dallas. In a sense, that might be for the best. Day/Hour/This was a revolutionary album, but the collage approach may not have worked as well in a live setting. 

Was it influential? Enormously so. This was the album that brought hard rock into industrial for me, and hey, can walk talk for a moment about the aesthetic of the band? Look at that album cover. All of their merch was just as immaculately put together. *sigh* At least the singer is doing pretty well with his PWEI career.

Bad Religion, Suffer (2/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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A co-worker at the music store recommended this album to me...well, ok, that's not strictly true. He recommended an album by Christian Death and I mis-remembered what he'd said and picked up Bad Religion instead. I'm glad I did, too. I'd never really taken punk seriously prior to hearing Suffer. I liked punk music, but I wasn't cool enough to really "get" it. 

This, though, I was something I could dig my teeth into. I'll freely admit to having to whip out a dictionary, but c'mon, who uses "obsequious" in a song? BR get a lot of criticism for having clear vocals and tight harmonies ("that ain't punk!"), but those were the things that appealed to me. 

Did this album influence me? You could say that. It turned me into a shameless fanboy. I've seen Bad Religion over a dozen times now, and I own (and have read) all of Greg Graffin's books and solo albums. Suffer opened the door to a bunch of other bands I now love (NOFX, Dance Hall Crashers, et. al.). It's lean, it's mean, and it's nerdy-smart and it's still my favorite punk album (although Punk In Drublic) comes close.

Jerry Jeff Walker, Viva Terlingua!​​​​​​​ (1/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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I was raised on 60s musicals and 70s country and western music, which is to say, I wasn't really that into music until I heard this album. 1970s Nashville-sound country was suffused with big string arrangements, maudlin lyrics, ultra-slick production and maybe a steel guitar or a slight twang that would identify it as "country." 

So, when my dad brought home this album, it was a bit of a shock. It was recorded live, with fiddles instead of strings and production so rough that you could use it as a chainsaw. I'd never heard "country" music with this kind of energy and musicianship. Hell, I've never heard it since. 

In terms of "made an impact", this one completely changed my understanding of what music was. This album was (and is) as rebellious as anything this side of Public Enemy (I mean, that's a high bar). It was the antithesis of what the Nashville establishment wanted country to be and it's all the better for it.

 

Date Night In April

Last night I came home to a wunnerful surprise. We were going on a pic-a-nick. Nicole had already packed up all the grilling supplies, so we were ready to head off to the park as soon as I got off the train. We picked Northwest Park here in Austin because it's a little more forest-y than the other parks with grills and the sunsets are prettier, too. 

One of the things I love about Austin as opposed to, say, Dallas, is that the parks get a lot of use. While we were making the fire and prepping the veggies, there were four competing sounds vying for our attention. The PA announcer at the baseball field next to us, the "country and 80s mix" the crossfit instructor was using for a class on a nearby hill, the clacking of the fake swords of honest-to-god LARPers by the tennis courts, and the children laughing on the playground. It was a pretty good mix that sounded more "alive" than "dischordant." 

We (I) may have gone a little overboard on the coals, but we were cooking ears of corn, baked beans, a poblano, bacon, and burgers on a small park grill, so we needed a little more width to our heat than normal. This also resulted in a lot more heat than I usually get, so everything cooked relatively quickly and we were eating before sunset.

The other activities died down a little so we dined to the sounds of some French cafe jazz on the iPad. Accordions, acoustic guitars with nylon strings, you know the sound, right? Everything came out well and, after packing up, we decided we weren't quite ready to leave yet. So, we wandered over and caught the last inning of the baseball game, a playoff between the underclassmen at two local high schools. 

The game ended and half the people were super excited and the other half weren't and we decided that was enough for the night and headed back to the car and then home. No photos since we were focusing more on enjoying the night than documenting it. Damned if I know what I've done to deserve such a lovely Tuesday evening but all I know is I want to keep doing whatever it is because this is way better than the life I thought I'd be living. 

-RK

In which I find myself wondering "What did I just read?"

Have you ever read a book that kept you turning the pages mostly because you wanted to finish it so you could talk and write about it? I stole my own thunder by writing a short review of Gerald Murnane's Border Districts - A Fiction on Goodreads without realizing that it would cross-post to Facebook. Oops. Here it is, because it's a good start to what I want to talk about:
 

Damned if I know. The disturbingly precise use of language, the fact that it's almost certainly not a fiction in any accepted sense of the word, and recursive nature of the images that collapse into a heap by the end...this is one of those cases where I can recognize brilliance without completely comprehending it. That's a lot for a book that clocks in at 120 or so pages. I get the sense that I would benefit from reading this book multiple times; there's a circularity to it that Grant Morrison would admire.

That's all true, but it fails to capture what it's like to read this truly odd book. When I read Naked Lunch, it didn't strike me as truly odd as Murnane's book. It was weird, sure, but it was weird in an messy, disorganized way. Border Districts - A Fiction is on the other end of the spectrum. Take this passage for example:

"Today, while I was writing the previous paragraphs, I seemed to arrive at my own explanation for the intimacy between a reading boy and a remembering man on the one hand and on the other hand a female personage brought into being by passages of fiction. (I do not consider the boy and the man fictional characters. I am not writing a work of fiction but a report of seemingly fictional matters.)"

There are hundreds more like it, self-referential to a dizzying degree. He refers to previous paragraphs constantly, and images recur in different contexts throughout its entirety. Murnane doesn't have stylistic tics; he has stylistic spasms. You will probably never see the term "so-called" used so often in a book of any length. 

Oh, I guess I should talk about what the book is about, huh? Ostensibly, it's about a man who moves from the capital to a small town on the border of a neighboring state, and he spends the entire novel describing his memories. What it's really about is Murnane ruminating over mental images. He considers their origins, their accuracy, their persistence, and how they will overlay one another, so that the mental image of one thing can be the image of something else slightly modified to suit the new thing or idea. 

Which is to say, it's pretty abstract. So, you have a writer who discusses abstractions with incredibly precise language. Try to imagine Bertrand Russell and Cormac McCarthy co-authoring a book in a "things you might see in a small Australian town" and you're not too far from it. It's genuinely fascinating, even when it's not always a sprightly read, and I suspect it's a better book than I have the ability to appreciate. 

-RK

To Live and Watch Robots Die in L.A.

Note: There are linked videos of BattleBots fights in this post. They are all from last season. There are no spoilers for the upcoming season, which will be on the Discovery and Science Channels this starting this May.

Some vacations are about visiting friends and family. Others are about going places you’ve never been, taking in the scenery, the food, the feel and the air of a distant city. Still others are just about getting away from everything and taking a break from a routine.

This vacation was not about any of those things. This vacation was about watching robots kick the ever-loving crap out of each other. It was about fire, and noise, and saws, and hammers, and mower blades.

This vacation was about BattleBots.

Warhead vs. Complete Control in what I regard as the greatest fight in the history of all fighting sports. I am biased.

Nicole introduced me to BattleBots a year or two ago and I was instantly hooked. It has far more violence than any sport I’ve seen, but no one gets hurt. It rewards tactical thinking, the ability to design, the skill to build, and the quickness of wit to face a foe bent on the destruction of your bot. In a better world, it would be more popular than any other sport.

So, when Nicole saw that tickets were on sale for the taping of season 3 (or 6, or 7…BattleBots has a difficult history), it was a no-brainer to grab a pair to the final frickin’ show. This was one of those items you don’t realize is on your bucket list until the opportunity presents itself.

Hypershock vs. Warrior Clan. Please marvel at Hypershock's non-traditional choice of weapons.

We looked at the timing and the finances and decided that, rather than make a vacation out of it, we would make this trip a short one and focus on the single event rather than trying to “see L.A.” We flew in Saturday evening and we’re on our way home on right now (“right now” being 8:00 AM Monday morning; I’ll be posting this later as the idea of buying in-flight Wi-Fi by the hour does not appeal).

The upshot is that we have very little to report from a tourist standpoint as we spent most of our time near our hotel (near LAX and Inglewood) and in the part of Long Beach that doesn’t show up in the brochures (unless those brochures are for things like “shipping containers” and “small commercial airports”). Mostly, we saw a lot of the 405, which looks a good deal like other freeways.

Chomp vs. Captain Shrederator. The Captain's builder expressed disdain for Chomp prior to this fight, calling the bot "over-engineered." 

Food-wise, we decided to try a well-reviewed Mexican joint within walking distance of the hotel called Casa Gamino. If you’re from Texas, I would advise you to avoid this. The food was plentiful, but bland does not begin to describe. Wait, that’s not true. “Bland” is a exceedingly accurate description of the chiles rellenos and red chile plate.

Lunch the next day was more successful but not without a little difficulty. We tried a place called Panang Thai, literally next to the hotel, which shares a building with a Thai massage place and an aquarium. The food wasn’t spicy, but it was flavorful, well-prepared, and plentiful to a fault. The appetizers were entire meals on their own, and, due to what I hope was a language problem, I was served a bowl of chicken curry instead of the Thai fried rice with chicken I’d ordered. Or, we thought it was “instead of,” as ten minutes later, it turned into “in addition to” a plate of beef fried rice.

Then, it was time for the main event: BattleBots! We drove to a hanger in Long Beach and, through some unlikely bit of luck, found ourselves in the front of the line for the group filling one side of the arena. I got some serious chills when we walked in and saw the set for the first time. We picked out an optimal spot and then we waited.

Minotaur vs. Warhead in a battle of two of the most outrageous powerful weapons in the tournament.

If you’ve ever been to this sort of an event, you already know that there’s a good deal of waiting involved. Carting the bots into the arena, cleaning up after a particularly vicious fight, getting the announcers and the judges into places, doing alternate takes (of which there were surprisingly few; the entire crew were pros at this), but it was all worth it.

I’m afraid I can’t discuss the content of the battles until after these episodes air, but I can tell you this: It was worth it. Television does a great job of capturing the violence of these fights, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The sounds inside the building are much louder than they seem on TV, and when something unexpected and incredible happens, everyone in the building laughs and screams even the old pros seem to be delighted by the spectacle. There was one moment in particular; you’ll know it when you see it, that had everyone from the stage crew to the other teams to the on-screen talent lining up to take photos.

After a generous number of undercard fights, we finally got to the final. Obviously, I can’t say anything specific, but what I can say is that you’ll want to see it. Last year’s final, a battle between Tombstone and Bombshell, was a bit of a dud and was over quickly without much in the way of spectacular action. That is not the case with the final this year.

Tombstone won the tournament last year. This is not the final because the final wasn't very good. Most fights against Tombstone are not very good. Ask Counter Revolution.

We had an absolute blast. Would we do it again? Of course! My voice is absolutely shot and we must have sweated off half a dozen pounds over the course of the evening. One of the most fun, ridiculous things we've done. 

But who won?

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Looks like it was me!

-RK