June 10-12, 2015

The other day I finished Paolo Bacigalupi’s new one, The Water Knife. It’s excellent, a noir set in the blazing desert heat of Las Vegas & Phoenix a decade or three into our future, when Southwestern drought is a permanent condition, and city-states & corporate actors are at low-grade guerilla war with each other over water, and the right to use it.

This is Bacigalupi’s first “adult” novel since his debut, The Windup Girl. While I liked some of his YA stuff quite a bit, I’m thrilled to see him writing for adult audiences again. In tone (and some of its content), this reminds me a bit of Richard K Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels, which is a very good thing.

Given that it was 80 degrees when I went downstairs at 9:00 a.m. to get the paper, and we’re looking at a high of 97 today, now is the perfect time to read this one. Oh yeah, and what was the A-1 above-the-fold headline on that paper I went to get? California Cuts Farmers’ Share of Scant Water

One running gag in the book is that most of the major players have first-edition copies of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, but none of them seem to have actually absorbed its message. I don’t think I had ever heard of it; it’s a wonderfully well-written chronicle of the greening of the American Southwest via massive irrigation projects, and how the whole system is doomed to collapse. It was published in the mid-80s. Its predictions are playing out, one after another, in California this summer.

Wednesday night we went to see Alabama Shakes & Courtney Barnett at Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary. Like everything else in Cary, it’s embedded in a suburban office park. But it’s actually quite lovely – lots of trees, a big lake, nice pavilions.

It’s still a big outdoor amphitheatre, though. $7 PBRs, asshole security personnel everywhere you look, and shitloads of utterly clueless showgoers who insist on taking lousy smartphone photos every five minutes throughout the set.

Seriously: There were long moments during Alabama Shakes’ set where my entire field of vision consisted of a solid half-dozen smartphone screens. 

Courtney Barnett has garnered all kinds of excited accolades this year for her talking Aussie-accented indie-rock blues shtick. It’s fun. Americans love an Australian accent. I can’t imagine that I’ll want to pull out that record a year from now & listen to it, but she puts on a good show.

Alabama Shakes, on the other hand, put on a GREAT show. They’re touring as a nine-piece, including three backup singers, but the focus is still 100% Brittany Howard, who is infinitely more ferocious live than she even is on record. Such an amazing voice & personality. 

I had multiple [younger radio-station] friends give me shit about going to this show. I’m still not clear on why. Obviously they’re a popular band – or popular enough to play Koka Booth instead of the Cradle. (And they got popular FAST – they played a ton of small shows in their native Alabama, but by the time they made it to the Triangle, in 2013, they were already playing Koka Booth.)

But they’re still a bunch of scraggly dudes from small-town Alabama, fronted by a 26-year-old black woman who grew up on Bowie & Zeppelin, plays a turquoise SG and sings like one of the great soul shouters. They’re not some kind of prepackaged mainstream over-polished hit machine.

I dunno. Are they too “Southern Rock” for the kids? Or do we really still have a problem whereby any hint of mainstream popularity automatically taints an artist? No, don’t answer that, I know.

Last night I poked around & realized that Metacritic has a whole set of lists, including Best Recent Additions to Amazon Instant Video. Score! 

This only goes partway towards explaining why we wound up watching North Dallas Forty. What a fucked-up weird movie. I had never seen it, though I suppose I had been vaguely aware of it & had had it on a mental list to eventually watch.

In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s based on a semi-fictional novel, loosely based on the mid-70s Dallas Cowboys, and was one of the first works to really focus on the physical toll that football takes on the bodies of the players. Nick Nolte plays the classic talented wide receiver with a bad attitude, but neither he nor the game are romanticized in the least. It’s all scars, concussions, messed-up joints, and painkiller cocktails washed down with breakfast beers.

Nick Nolte is brilliant. I basically can’t stand football – and this movie did nothing to change that, nor did it try – so I had a hard time getting in touch with his character’s seemingly genuine need to feel the momentary high of making a perfect catch. But his acting is superb.

It was shot in 1979, so the clothes are insane, and everyone smokes all the time. Or nearly all the time – they all grudgingly stub out their cigarettes shortly before leaving the locker room to run out onto the field.

All in all, it was thoroughly fascinating.

June 10-12, 2015


Exciting to see this façade and building getting fixed up! (at 309 E. Chapel Hill St. Durham, NC 27701)

Oh man, are the letters coming down? I hope not. Also, does anyone know what they’re doing to the side of the building facing the Durham hotel? Last time I walked by there were long vertical scores cut into the brick.


June 5 – 9, 2015

Friday night we struggled with our Amazon Instant Video watchlist for the standard amount of time, and then wound up watching Kick-Ass, which we had never seen. It was OK. For reasons that I cannot begin to explain, we’d narrowed it down to that or the first Pitch Perfect

Hey, tiny Chloë Grace Moretz cussing like a sailor is a funny joke. As a movie it kind of struggles & ultimately limps across the finish line, but all of Nick Cage’s & CGM’s scenes, together or separate, are golden.

Saturday afternoon we went to the Carolina & saw Love & Mercy, which was utterly brilliant. It’s a somewhat unconventional biography of Brian Wilson – unconventional in that Brian in his 20s is played by Paul Dano, but Brian in his 40s/50s is played by John Cusack. Unconventional in that it essentially unapologetically skips the 70s and most of the 80s, and leaps back & forth in time a lot.

It’s not straight biography by any means – it essentially stops shortly after “Good Vibrations” and doesn’t pick up again until Brian meets Melinda Ledbetter sometime in the late 80s. But it does a remarkable job of capturing the chaos that Brian’s mental state was apparently in during the period of his great musical breakthroughs of the mid-60s, and the utterly oppressive nature of his relationship with Gene Landy in the late 80s.

And the extensive set pieces involving the writing & recording of Pet Sounds are just amazing. They went out of their way to cast the Wrecking Crew at least semi-accurately, and called out many of them by name, although Carol Kaye only gets one line, and Hal Blaine a few more. 

In fact, you’ll want to see the Wrecking Crew documentary, either before or after you see Love & Mercy. 

Having Paul Dano play young Brian, and John Cusack play old Brian, is obviously a huge gimmick – and yet it works, remarkably well. Paul is the spitting image of young Brian, and while it takes a little longer to get used to John Cusack, what you come to realize is that Cusack has completely nailed older Brian’s vocal tics & weird mannerisms. This might only make sense if you’ve seen a reasonable amount of interview & performance footage of Brian from the 90s onward, I guess.

Anyway. Well worth a trip to the theatre, if you care at all about music.

Saturday night we went on a canoeing excursion on Jordan Lake with Frog Hollow Outdoors, one of the Paddle Under the Stars trips they do with the Morehead Planetarium. It was lovely – few clouds, perfect temperature. Not too many speedboats blaring metalcore nearby.

We drove up to the boat ramp & parked & got out & discovered that the Morehead Planetarium education coordinator who was leading the trip was a woman I went to college with, at Rice University in Houston. She & I have actually run into each other off & on around town for years, but I never knew she was an astronomer, or astronomy educator, or whatever her title actually is.

I think she & I are the only members of our college class currently in the Triangle. There are more of my high school friends here – but then I went to high school just ~300 miles away from here, not ~1200.

Monday night we went to a Bulls game. It was nearly perfect – the stands were only maybe 1/3 full, so the murmur of nearby conversations wasn’t insanely distracting. The Bulls had an excellent game – they allowed 4 runs to the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, but wound up stomping them 11-4. The actual game was less lopsided than the score would suggest – most of the damage was done in just a couple of innings.

The only real flaw was that the notorious raspy-voiced peanut vendor, who has become an unlikely celebrity at the ballpark, was there – ON HIS DAY OFF. And between innings he kept getting up & doing stuff to call attention to himself. Leading the YMCA dance but singing “Y M C Peanuts.” It was kind of sad, in a small way.

I mean, it’s great that he’s having his 15 minutes – or two seasons – of fame, but he (along with, to a lesser extent, all of the other roving vendors) drives me up the freaking wall. Walk around & sell peanuts & beer. Sure. Maybe even yell out what you’re selling every so often. But nowadays there are so many vendors, and they’re so aggressive, that it’s actually hard to focus on the game.

On Mondays, though, fewer fans mean fewer vendors. One step closer to my dream of a “throwback Mondays” thing, where they turn all the LED displays & whatnot off, and the only music they play is live organ. Some parks do this already, but just once a season. The Bulls don’t even do that, but I can dream.

June 5 – 9, 2015

May 25 – June 4, 2015

Hoo boy, that’s like 2 weeks. Not remotely coincidentally: The first two weeks of the summer internship that I manage. From an empty lab, to a lab with 16 super-bright students, who’ll be in RTP all summer, working on a bunch of really interesting projects.

But it knocks my comparatively relaxed off-season schedule all outta whack. Like I have to actually be in the *office* at 9:00, instead of just awake & online.

So my social media activities have been somewhat curtailed, at least compared to other times of the year. 

As a reasonably introverted person, the start of the summer always brings mixed feelings. I love having the interns in the lab, and I love being exposed to the cutting-edge work that they’re doing. It’s the payoff for the other nine months of the year that are spent recruiting, interviewing, and stressing through the offer & hiring process.

But at the same time, I know the next three months are going to be nonstop human interaction all day every day. 

Nights & weekends have been spent, as always, with a mix of computing projects at the radio station, reading, movies, a little bit of music.

I saw this video on someone else’s Facebook page the other day, and was thus introduced to Frazey Ford, who was in a band, the Be Good Tanyas, to whom I had never paid any attention.

This album came out last year; had I heard it then, it likely would have made it onto my top-20 for the year. She recorded it in Memphis with the remaining members of the Hi Records band, and you can tell, for sure. 

So yeah, good stuff.

Saturday night we went to Raleigh & saw Sheila E, and Morris Day & the Time, at the Red Hat Amphitheatre – probably the last time we’ll go to a show at that particular venue, at least during the summer. No trees, no shade, nothing but concrete & asphalt for blocks. There’s the gorgeous Raleigh “Shimmer Wall” depicting an oak tree, but it doesn’t cast a shadow.

Still, for a couple of Prince proteges in their late 50s, both Sheila E and Morris Day put on a hell of a show. Morris & the Time in particular: the focus was squarely on The Hits, and the choreography was sublime.

Sunday night we watched The Drop, a twisted little tough-guy crime movie based on a Dennis Lehane story, and starring Tom Hardy & James Gandolfini, in one of his last roles. And Noomi Rapace, of all people. So the acting was uniformly good, and the story, while somewhat formulaic, moved along nicely. Recommended if you like any of the words in this paragraph.

Several times a day I look at the rooster paintings we bought from Bronwyn Merritt, and every time I come away feeling happier. I think she’s showing them in Cary right now. Check them out. Seriously. (ours are here).

I finally finished the new Neal Stephenson, Seveneves. What a mess. It’s like 850 pages long, due in large part to the fact that Stephenson apparently doesn’t have an editor with any sway over him. This has been true for a while, actually – Reamde was also a sloppy mess. 

What’s frustrating is that the book is crammed with good ideas – but it’s also repetitive, and laughably badly written in places (especially the first 150 pages or so). But every time I thought I had hit my breaking point, he would pull out a stretch of 30-40 pages of great writing, or a stunning plot twist, and suck me back in. 

But when I was finished, while I was sad to see it end, I mostly felt relieved it was over. Compare that to Cryptonomicon, where I was kind of heartbroken when it was over, and seriously considered just starting again at the beginning.

My reward for finishing the Stephenson was the timely arrival of a pre-order of the new Paolo Bacigalupi book, The Water Knife, which is everything the Stephenson isn’t. Which is to say it’s short, snappy, character-driven, and just throws you into the deep end without feeling any obligation to provide an 80-page infodump of every piece of technology, and every tiny circumstance leading up to the events of the book.

It’s emphatically speculative fiction – it takes place in a near-future American Southwest, years further into the ever-worsening drought, during a time of literal water wars. If you’re only going to read one spec-fic book this summer, this is the one.

May 25 – June 4, 2015