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

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

November 9, 2014

Sundays are ultra-predictable for the most part:

Like literally I could cut/paste that list every Sunday & it would be accurate.

Reviews this week: Jenks Miller & Rose Cross NC at Hopscotch, and the brand new T0W3RS record. Sorry, not going to paste those reviews here – they’re “reviews” for WXDU meaning they’re mostly intended to provide a small amount of context, a wee bit of insight into which songs sound like what, a list of any bad language, and a ranked list of fave songs to play on the air. They’re highly utilitarian & by longstanding tradition aren’t published outside of the station.

Anyone who has ever done college radio will likely know what I’m talking about – it’s a tradition that transcends.

Dinner at Geer Street, which was wilder than usual on a Sunday night. 

Tried to start reading the new Paolo Bacigalupi, but 10 pages in it was just unbearably YA, much moreso than Shipbreaker/Drowned Cities. That’s partly because it’s set in something much closer to the present – it was a Banksy reference that finally made me put it down in disgust. It was done in that facile, covertly condescending way that makes me hate Cory Doctorow’s books.

Paolo: More flooded future-world speculative fiction, fewer insta-dated popcult references, please!

In that moment of weakness I went ahead & bought the new William Gibson. I had persisted through the Bigend trilogy but was so nonplussed by the time I reached the end that I hadn’t really even paid attention to the press around the new one.

But hey, so far, 30-40 pages in, it’s pretty darn good. Not remotely as glib as the Bigend books. I’m sure I’ll report again as I progress through the thing.

November 9, 2014