Neil Peart, 1952 – 2020: An Appreciation

I just heard the sad news that Neil Peart, the drummer for Rush, died on January 7. Rest in peace, Neil.

Excuse me while I go all fanboy for the rest of this essay.

You will hear a lot of people saying, correctly, that he was the best rock drummer of all time.

Yes. But why was he? I want to break this down for non-drummers and non-musicians generally, starting with the simpler stuff and working up to the high-level musicianship.

• His speed and ability to get around the toms were top shelf. That is, he could move from one drum to another seamlessly.

• His rhythm was incredibly precise. No one else in rock had the metronome-like precision that Peart had. Rush is a classic example of a “tight” band, one that plays with rhythmic precision and with all instruments exactly in synch with each other.

• He was excellent with non-standard time signatures. Maybe – maybe – there are other musicians in western music right now who are as comfortable in seven time as Peart, but no one was more comfortable, more at home, in that unusual rhythmic structure. And consider the insane syncopation of the 13/8 section of Jacob’s Ladder (starts around 4:53) or that blazingly fast 7/8 time solo section in Marathon (starts at 2:55 and gets really crazy at 3:43). When that album, Power Windows, came out, a reviewer for Rolling Stone spoke of Peart “subdividing the beat into syncopated algebra.”

• The ability to switch between straight-ahead feel and triplet-based feel – this is much harder than it seems when you’re not practiced at it. For an obvious example cue up their shamefully underrated song Available Light from Presto. As the last run-through of the chorus is starting, Peart plays a powerful triplet-based fill over Geddy Lee’s vocal. (At around 4:10, but start listening at 3:55 so you have musical context.) If you’re not a musician it might almost sound like Peart has messed up. Heh, no. What happens is that while the music stays in 4/4 time, each of those four beats can themselves be divided into four beats or into 3 beats. Peart here is switching from the straight-ahead 16-beats-per-measure feel to a triplet-based 12-beats-per-measure feel. Few rock drummers can do that as fluidly, and no one can do it more fluidly.

• He knew his instrumentation, i.e. how to use all elements of a drum set. Some non-standard ones too: on Moving Pictures he used plywood in at least one song. “More cowbell” is a joke now, but Peart knew when to use it. Try Witch Hunt starting around 1:36 here. He taught us (at least he taught me) how to use china-type cymbals, which I at first tried to use like crash cymbals, to distasteful effect. Uh, no. You use them like a high-hat, to mark time. Try Subdivisions starting at 4:50. (Peart isn’t only marking time here, of course; other stuff is going on too.)

• Peart actually listened to the other instruments and played with them, so they sounded like a band and not a bunch of guys who happened to be playing music in the same room. (I’m looking at you, Ringo Starr.) In the last paragraph I mentioned marking time, but a good drummer rarely just marks time while doing nothing else. Doing something else requires listening to the other instruments so your something else is musically connected to what the other instruments are doing at any moment.

• Limb independence. Common question from non-drummers: “How do you play four different things with your four different limbs?” It can’t be explained in words; you have to just feel it. Usually you put two or three limbs on autopilot, and you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing only with the remaining one or two. A good Peart example: The Big Money, starting at 2:08 where he’s doing something… advanced… with the high-hat cymbal while keeping everything else going. (The high-hat is the two cymbals that can be clamped together; you use your left foot to close them together or separate them. Unfortunately it’s hard to hear the high-hat on YouTube.) My reaction on hearing that for the first time was “How the hell is he doing that!?”

• He was so creative. He played fills that I wouldn’t have thought possible if I hadn’t heard him playing them. An excellent example is the classic set of fills in Tom Sawyer, starting at 2:33, those canonical MUST AIR DRUM TO THIS! fills. If you know a drummer, play this song and see if s/he can resist air drumming to those fills. Answer: No.

I don’t always listen to Tom Sawyer, but when I do, so do my neighbors.

And the way he played with rhythm! Yes, he was a supremely intellectual drummer – he always thought about what he was doing – yet there’s unmistakable playfulness in the way he dove in, experimenting, and changed things up to throw you off, just when you thought you knew what he was going to do next.

• But the big thing you noticed but couldn’t articulate, if you aren’t a musician, was his phrasing.

Whut?

His phrasing is the main thing that made you say, “There’s something about his drumming that’s just so damn cool, but I can’t explain it.”

Phrasing means a couple of things; here I’m referring to when an instrumentalist sets up structure on a small time scale. It’s almost creating little sentences or clauses in the music. If composition is structure on a large time scale – over the course of an entire piece of music – phrasing is playing with structure on the time scale of a couple of bars (measures) of music.

For example, the compositional structure of Tom Sawyer is that they open with that slammin’ drum beat over a growling synthesizer, run through a couple of verses, move into a screaming guitar solo, then pound through to the end.

Phrasing is the way that Peart would play fills within a verse or just within a few measures. For example, he establishes a basic beat in the first few measures, then plays with variations on it for the rest of the song.

Or consider Limelight, in which he slyly plays a four-beat across the bass and guitar’s three-beat starting at 3:14.

Often, in the first run-through of a verse in a Rush song, Peart would play a fill in a certain way (and because it was Peart, it would be a good fill). On the second verse, he’d usually play it a little differently. He’d omit a drum hit, for instance, so there’d be a gap where you expected to hear something. Or he’d stop the fill short of where you expected it to end, or extend it a couple of beats longer. It’s hard to capture in words the sheer energy and intellect in his drumming.

Like all musicians with good phrasing, Peart would set up an expectation in your mind, then sometimes satisfy it and sometimes violate it. He’d establish a theme, then play with it.

By the way, this is an example of what musicians mean when they say “variations on a theme,” but they almost never use this phrase in the context of drumming. That’s because most drummers aren’t Neil Peart, so they don’t even rise to the level where “variations on a theme” is relevant in their drumming.

No other drummer in rock music has come within a light-year of Neil Peart’s phrasing. It’s retarded. He doesn’t even have any competition. Not in rock.

There are some jazz drummers with kick-ass phrasing, but that’s a different musical universe from rock.

And that is why Neil Peart was, and is, and probably always will be, the best drummer in the history of rock and roll.

Thank you, Neil, for setting the bar so high for the rest of us. Actually, you’re kind of a bastard about that. Did you have to set the bar so damn high? Well, we might not be able to rise to the standard you set, but it’s a pleasure to try, and trying has made us all immeasurably better drummers.

AIs for Change!

Back in May, Artificial Intelligence expert Janelle Shane pulled down thousands of petitions from Change.org and used them to train an artificial neural net so it could generate petitions of its own. Here’s a sample of what it came up with:

• Dogs are not a thing!! Dog Owners are NOT Human beings!!
• Help Bring Climate Change to the Philippines!
• Filipinos: We want your help stopping the killing of dolphins in Brazil in 1970’s
• Mr.person: I want a fresh puppy in my home
• Rooster Teeth: Have Rooster Teeth Fix Your Responses To Obama
• Donald Trump: Change the name of the National Anthem to be called the “Fiery Gator”
• The people of the world: Change the name of the planet to the Planet of the Giants
• Dr James Alexander: Make the Power of the Mongoose a Part of the School’s Curriculum

Via slatestarcodex.com/2019/06/26/links-6-19/

Evening’s Empire

Evening’s Empire by Craig Kosloksky is a non-fiction book about “mankind’s colonization of the night” by various lighting technologies. Via a review, a snippet from the book:

“…the power of midnight, solitary and profound, to strip away the vanity of the day.”

I like that; it captures well why things seem so different at night. The literal noise of the daytime world, not to mention the social cacophony, prevent (or certainly discourage) one from thinking about profound matters. Also, the daytime world has the frenetic pace of a competitive species that is mortal and subject to aging. Things must be done fastfastfast! Night has an entirely different pace, no pace at all, really. In the dark and quiet, profound thoughts set their own pace, and their own pace is slower, much more measured. The darkness removes the distraction entailed in observing things around you. It lets you retreat into yourself, into your own thoughts.

Quotidian things distract us from profound things. If there is a devil, he is a creature of the day, not of the night.

How to find things: Do game theory with your future self

Use! This! One! Simple! Trick!

Say you’re trying to decide where to put your wallet or your car keys, or what directory to save a file in. Ask yourself this: “When I’m looking for this in the future, where will I, logically speaking, look for it?” Put the thing there. For example, I have a spot for my wallet, which I take whenever I leave my house. Since I often also take my cars keys when I leave the house, next to my wallet is a logical place for the keys. (And cell phone, etc.)

This is an obvious example, but it can be used on less obvious things, things you don’t think about as much. I’ve successfully used this to quickly find things I don’t look for often, e.g., in my office at work. Say it’s an old document I only need to look at every couple of years. There are only a few logical places I might have put that, and I usually can find it quickly by second-guessing my past self.

Furthermore, it gets even easier once you get into this habit, because in the future you’ll think, “Where would my past self, thinking game-theoretically about making things easy for me, have put this?”

This is particularly helpful for things you don’t retrieve a lot. For things you use every day, the old standby “A place for everything and everything in its place” is unbeatable. But you won’t necessarily remember what “the place” is for something you only need, say, every three years. So instead of trying to brute-force memorize it, you make it easy for your future self to deduce it.

Keeping a master list of where stuff is, is also necessary. But there’s so much stuff in the modern world, physical and digital, that after a while the lists themselves become unwieldy!

Tim Spalding, the creator of LibaryThing, also uses this advice for classifying books by subject. Here, instead of coordinating with your future self, you coordinate with other readers. The idea is not only what the “right” subject is, which works for some books (e.g., a book on algebra obviously should be classified as Mathematics). It’s also to settle edge cases by asking, “Where is a reader likely to look for this?” So for example, Dracula or Alice in Wonderland might reasonably be categorized as Fantasy, but a modern reader is probably more likely to look for them in Classics. So if you must choose one category – as a physical bookstore or library must do when it chooses what physical shelf to put the book on – then choose Classics. That will make it easier on most readers.

Cooperative game theory for the win!

Theology is Hard

An edited excerpt from Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (page 330, at least in my copy). London, 1673. Daniel Waterhouse and a woman named Tess are having sex for the first time. Waterhouse is a “conflicted Puritan,” as the back of the book describes him, and so he is is relieved when Tess produces a knotted tube of sheepgut to use as a condom.

“Does this mean it is not actually coitus?” Daniel asked hopefully. “Since I am not really touching you?” Actually he was touching her in a lot of places, and vice-versa. But where it counted he was touching nothing but sheepgut.
“I say that we are not touching, and not having sex, if it makes you feel better,” Tess said. “Though, when all is finished, you shall have to explain to your Maker why you are at this moment buggering a dead sheep.”

LOL, be careful what you wish for.

SkyNet, the Supposedly Super-Intelligent AI

Ya know, it’s kind of strange that for a supposedly ultra-intelligent AI, SkyNet only has one trick in its basket of tricks. Its solution to every problem is to have someone killed. Seriously, SkyNet? No negotiation? No going back in time and subtly changing circumstances so we can all just get along? No sending a super-advanced virus back to a bank’s computer to generate a huge payoff to someone to not try to disconnect SkyNet?

I guess when your only tool is time-traveling assassin-bots, every problem looks like John Connor.


Why did the chicken cross the road?

800 series Terminator: I am a friend of the chicken. I was told that it’s here; can I see it please?

Police officer: No, you can’t see it.

800 series Terminator: Where is the chicken now?

Police officer: Look, the chicken just crossed the road, so it may be a while. There’s a bench over there if you want to wait.

800 series Terminator: I’ll be back.


T-1000: Are you the legal guardian of the chicken?

Janelle Voight: Yeah, that’s right, officer. What’s it done this time?

T-1000: I just need to ask it a few questions. May I speak with it please?

Janelle: You could if it were here. It took off on its bike about an hour ago, headed across the road.

T-1000: Do you have a photograph of the chicken?

Janelle: Sure. (Reaches back into the house.) Here.

T-1000: It’s a fine-looking piece of poultry. Do you mind if I keep this photograph?

Janelle: No, go ahead.

T-1000: Thanks for your cooperation.

Dave Barry on Fatherhood

Recently my wife and kids got back from some sort of show. Wife’s summary: “Good, but I should have brought the girl’s glasses.”

My reaction (in my head): “My daughter has glasses?”

Thus illustrating Dave Barry’s observation:

A woman knows everything about her children. She knows about dental appointments and football games and best friends and favorite foods and romances and secret fears and hopes and dreams.
A man is vaguely aware of some short people living in the house.

 
When my son heard that when he was around 10 he laughed and went, “That’s so true!” Jeez, I’m not that bad!

A la mode: At a picnic with some folks from work, I heard a colleague of mine turn to his wife and ask, about his daughters, “Do they have any allergies?”

LOL.

Seduction for Girls, Part 2

In Seduction for Girls Part 1, I implicitly assumed that the man who was the target of your attentions was only a casual acquaintance. There is a different process if he is a friend and you’re hoping for the two of you to become lovers. (Sheesh, “lovers” sounds so formal. I mean, [Austin Powers] If you want him to shag you baby, yeah baby! [/Austin Powers]) Note to men reading this: Yes, it does happen. The “friend zone” is hard to escape, but it’s not impossible.

The process for bagging a guy you’re already friends with is:

Isolate and dial up the sexual tension.

First, it’s good to lay the groundwork for a day or three beforehand with light flirting to start getting him in the right head space.

The next step is to get him back to your place on some suitable pretext. The setting should be conducive to what you have in mind. Earlier, you should have arranged for your roommates, if you have any, to be gone. Make sure the lighting is soft, not harsh. Etc.

When you two are alone, do a couple of things that are plausibly but not overtly amorous, that is, about getting the two of you to fool around. E.g., touch his chest and say “That shirt looks really good on you.” That sort of thing. You should start things in a relatively low-key way so he has time to make the mental adjustment to “Wow, we may be having sex tonight.” If you jam your tongue down his throat with no warning, it’s too abrupt. Even men need some time to get into the right emotional state.

As I wrote in Part 1, one thing you want to do at the outset is “make him wonder if you are trying to seduce him… It’s good to get him thinking about it early on; that way it won’t seem weirdly abrupt when you get more overt later.” Also, it will get him thinking about how he might make a move later. That way both of you are thinking about it. We call this “cooperative game theory.” Well, nerdlingers call it that. Normals call it “getting everybody ready.”

After the plausibly but not overtly amorous stage, you gradually get more overt. For example, you take out a coffee table book (or whatever) and look at it with him on the couch, cuddling up to him as the two of you page through it. At some point, if he happens to look at you, return eye contact. A little smile is good here, otherwise you might look like a homeless psycho trying to stare him down on a street corner. Weirdly enough, this doesn’t turn most men on. A woman also can give a man a very sexy look without smiling, but this is an undefinable thing which I can’t explain. It helps if your eye level is a little below his eye level and you’re looking up at him. That reinforces one aspect of the eternal male-female physical differences, that women are smaller. (For obvious reasons, anything that emphasizes male-female differences is very good.)

There’s a significant chance that he’ll go for it right then and there. In fact he almost certainly will if (1) he likes you, (2) he is reasonably experienced, and (3) you have allowed enough gradual heating up before this point.

But if he doesn’t, the game is still very much on.

Try running your fingers through his hair while saying something like, “Wow, you have really touchable hair” or something like that. (You don’t have to say anything clever; this isn’t about witty dialogue. It’s about communicating “Fuck me, stud.”) Or invite him to run his fingers through your hair. “I’m using this new shampoo; do you think it makes my hair more touchable?” Don’t worry about him busting you – why would he? – and anyway you could just say, “Oh, right, I was planning on getting the new shampoo, but I haven’t done it yet.”

As with the wine thing in Part 1, it’s totally unnecessary to actually be using a new shampoo. You don’t care, and neither does he, babe. In any case you can use a variant; “I’m thinking about using a new shampoo, do you think the one I’m using now makes my hair touchable?”

Or try, “Do you like the way my perfume smells?” This is a flagrant invitation for him to lean in so he can catch your scent. If his face is nuzzling your neck or buried in your hair, you ARE about to get laid if (1) and (2) above are true.

NOTE: Obviously neither of you gives a damn whether you’re actually wearing any perfume. If you’re not, don’t worry; he’s not going to call you out on it. (And if he does, you can just laugh and say “Oh right; I forgot to put it on.”) He can’t think at this point anyway, since all the blood has drained out of his brain and into, er, other parts. I.e., he should be getting hard for you by this point. If he’s not, then either he’s just not into you or there was too much alcohol before this.

Which reminds me: I’d avoid alcohol in this situation. The problem is not that alcohol’s effects are always bad; the problem is that they’re unpredictable. One glass of wine for each of you at a maximum. But really, it’s better to avoid it.

(The reason the wine came up in Part 1 is that my example scenario where the process got started was a party or similar social gathering.)

Summary of the more overt stage: The important thing is that you are coming up with reasons for the two of you to move closer and to touch each other. If you’re old enough to be reading this, you’re old enough to think of other ways to suggest this.

If he doesn’t get the point after two hints like the “running your fingers through each other’s hair” hint and the perfume hint, give up. I’m sorry, honey, but you’re not getting laid tonight.

Some girls might just give it one hint, but it’s generally better to be patient. Remember, you didn’t give him an engraved invitation saying, “Please come over to my place and have sex with me tonight.” You said something like, “Wanna come over and look at the paintings I’ve done for this cool art class I’m taking?” Or whatever. To him, this is an unfolding situation; he’s not sure what you have in mind. Also, the younger and less experienced he is, the more important it is for you to allow him two chances. On the other hand, if he’s like 25 and doesn’t go for it after one blatant hint like the run-your-fingers-through-my-hair hint, I’d toss him over the side, unless you really like him a lot. But there’s no rule about this; a lot of it is up to your individual judgment and desires.

But if you do feel you have to give up, well, I’m sorry. Things don’t always work out. Now it’s time to fake yawn and say something like, “Whelp, I’m tired, so I guess I’d better go to sleep. Do you remember where you parked your car?” (Don’t say you’re going to bed; say you’re going to sleep.) To make sure he gets that this isn’t flirting, move away from him and avoid eye contact when you say it. (Notice that, not coincidentally, this is the opposite of what you do when you’re trying to heat things up.) If he doesn’t pick up on the blatant hint about where he parked his car, try hitting him over the head with a two-by-four and saying, “You. Have. To. Go. Now.”

But the good news is, if he’s attracted to you, all the above will work with high probability.

Got all that? Good. You’re welcome.

Here’s to many nights of sweaty sheets!

Vive la différence!

Here’s another kind review of The War of the First Day!

From Ankita at Mojito With a Twist.

Some quotes:

Lilta, the protagonist, is the apprentice of a very powerful and dangerous witch, Apandra…. King Brath made a rash decision of ordering his soldiers to destroy the witchland and he paid for his mistake by losing his life by the hands of Lilta. She does not like taking lives but she cannot deny her mistress of anything she asks of her.

Now, the surviving witches are under a constant threat from an unknown witch who might be conspiring to kill them all.

The author has definitely put a spell on the pages of this book since I was drawn to it by an unknown force.

I could not stop thinking about the war of the witches, the riddles that were present, the suspense, and the commotion. How Lilta became an apprentice to Apandra is the most horrifying and yet addictive part of the story.

Another thing that I loved about the book is the authentic manner in which the author has written it. It’s one thing to just tell a story, it’s another thing to plant the seeds of conviction here and there to convince the readers that there is really a place like this and there is definitely magic in that place… I was fascinated by the mention of encrypted languages and theorems among other things. There are many mental treats waiting for you…

Although there are many characters in the book, my favorite one is Lilta. She is not afraid of speaking her mind even in front of a danger… The author has given every one of his characters a diverse personality and power. No one witch is similar to another.

Needless to say, I loved the book from the bottom of my heart. It’s definitely an edge-of-the-seat kind of story. If you are a fan of being truly immersed in another world, then the witchland awaits you in The War of The First Day.

Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer

Robert Heinlein’s The Door into Summer is a time travel SF novel published in 1957.

Syd Logsdon’s recent blog post at A Writing Life got me thinking about it again. One of the stand-out aspects of this novel is the time-travel physics, which is the best thought-out in SF that I can think of. It actually explains why, in a universe with time travel, people are not constantly inundated with throngs of tourists from the future.

But a precis first: The story starts in the future (from the point of view of 1957). The narrator and main character, Dan Davis, is an inventor. In this future society, time travel has not been discovered yet, but suspended animation is well-established, and people can take one-way trips into the future via this method.

Davis and his business partner fall in with a con artist named Belle. She’s vile, but I don’t have space to exposit the details of her perfidy. Long story short, she tricks Davis out of his share of the business, drugs him, and has him involuntarily put into cold sleep for a couple of decades.

There is another element here, a young girl called “Ricky” who doesn’t have much of a responsible adult in her life other than Davis, though they’re not related.

Davis wakes up thirty years in his future and is desperate to go back in time to take care of this child, but of course that’s impossible. Or is it?

Turns out a brilliant physicist has, in fact, proven that “temporal displacement” is possible, and has constructed equipment to move objects through time. The military has classified it and he’s not allowed to talk about it, but it does work, and Davis finds out about it. But there’s a catch. Oh my goodness, there’s a hell of a catch:

Time displacement is subject to quantum indeterminacy. You can decide on the length of your trip… but you can’t control whether you’ll go forward or backward! Want to set the dial for 50 years? Okay! Have fun in 2067… or maybe 1967.

Oh, sweet damn, that’s good. Ponder what Heinlein did here:

First, this is broadly consistent with the way the universe works on the quantum scale. I don’t mean that Heinlein learned quantum physics and worked it all out; I just mean that many quantum-level events have this kind of randomness to them. A given particle has a 50% chance of decaying or not in a certain span of time (its half-life), another particle, moving through a certain experimental apparatus, has a 50% chance of going thisaway and a 50% chance of going thataway, etc., etc. It’s so plausible, at some level, that I feel myself half believing it.

Second, as noted above, it actually explains why people in the fictional universe aren’t constantly inundated with hordes of time tourists. Who’d take this risk?

Third, this time travel physics has excellent dramatic possibilities: If you’re desperate, if you need to go back in time, you could just risk it. Just bite the bullet, push the button, and hope you go in the right direction.

[SPOILER WARNING!]

Davis does this, and gets lucky: He gets back into the past. There are some great scenes in which he watches himself get drugged by Belle, etc. At any rate, he gets to solve all his problems and save the girl (and his cat – this is Heinlein after, all). The story is good – I’ve stripped off most of the dramatic turns and emotional hooks for brevity, but I recommend it as entertainment. And I’ve always loved what Heinlein did with the physics.

And there was one cool little moment that popped up in the comments at Logsdon’s site, linked to above:

Davis is talking with the physicist, Twitchell, who had a younger colleague who wanted to chance it. Twitchell recounts to Davis that he demurred at first, but the colleague was insistent, and eventually Twitchell gave in. An adventurous sort, the colleague wasn’t content to take a journey of a few hours; he wanted to be displaced several centuries. So Twitchell sent him on his merry way. Which direction did he go? There’s no way to know. Or is there?

The subject’s name was Leonard Vincent. As he recalls this story, Twitchell says to Davis, “I’ve sometimes thought… no, just a chance similarity in names.”

Davis narrates, “I didn’t ask what he meant by this because I suddenly saw the similarity, too, and my hair stood on end.”

And I just got goose bumps as I recalled this scene, even though I know it’s fictional!

If you don’t catch the reference, think about it, or check out the comments at Logsdon’s site.