Prince, an appreciation for novices

The musician Prince died recently. As he would have put it, “Life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” A guide for the curious on how to appreciate this guy’s music:

1. Ignore the overhype. The first thing to watch out for, if you’re new to Prince’s music, is the effect of his hard-core fans, the worshipers. I once had a friend compare the Purple One to Mozart. In a word: No. The problem with these people – I love your enthusiasm, guys, it’s charming, but – is that they’re setting you up for disappointment. When you check out Prince’s music and find it’s not Mozart-level, you might become disgusted and think, “It’s all BS.” Actually it’s not all BS, but the problem is that no one could live up to the expectations his hard-cores will set up in your mind, and the disappointment will annoy you.
What Prince actually was, mainly, was a guy who wrote a lot of good pop music. Pop music is its own area of the musical universe, with clear and reasonable standards, and hooray for it. For example, one of its standards is that a person with no formal musical training should be able to enjoy it. I.e., it should be accessible. Hence “pop,” short for “popular.” (I’ve had some musical training and enjoy certain kinds of esoteric music, but that’s not pop’s bailiwick.) Pop music is not, and is not designed to be, artistically brilliant. It is unfair to a pop artist to judge him by the standards of artistic genius.
In this sense, Prince is like a less extreme case of the Beatles. The Beatles were a solid band who wrote some good pop tunes, and good for them. But due to some weird combination of circumstances which I’ve never figured out, they became feted as the best thing to happen to humanity since the taming of fire. Because this assessment is moronic – in fact, a significant chunk of their oeuvre is downright boring – one’s instinctive reaction is, “The Beatles suck!” Well, they don’t totally suck; they did have some good stuff in with the boring stuff. They just fail to live up to the ridiculous hype with which the Baby Boomers surrounded them. No one could live up to that hype. If you’re not acquainted with their music and you give it a listen, after hearing the hype, I guarantee you’ll be underwhelmed. But that’s the hardcore fans’ fault, not the Beatles’. It’s the same with Prince.

2. Guitar skill. While the alleged Eric Clapton quote about Prince being the world’s greatest guitarist is a fabrication, he was pretty good on the axe. For readers who are knowledgeable about the guitar, this will be the pleasant surprise about Prince. Remember how above I said the guy is overhyped? Well, given that, the freakin’ bizarre thing about him is how underhyped his guitar playing was. How do his hard-core fans miss this? Well, maybe they don’t miss it, and I’ve just missed their ranting about it. But seriously, listen to When Doves Cry, the opening measures and a passage from around 3:45 for several measures afterward. (You have to have the full-length version for this; the radio version and the Greatest Hits version are truncated.) I think his image as a pop god caused everyone to overlook his instrumental skill.

3. Eclecticism. E.g., the random Ravi Shankar-like sitar inserted into “7” at random moments. The combination of pure light-pop dance-y numbers like Raspberry Beret and more thematically serious material like Sign O the Times (warning: crack gangs, machine guns).

4. Humor. “‘…’cause if you don’t I’m gonna explode, and girl, I got a lot.” LOL. My understanding of Prince’s music expanded when I realized there was a lot of humor. Once you listen for it, you hear it all the time.

5. Recommended entry points:
Albums: 1999, Purple Rain.
Songs:
● 1999 (from 1999)
● Little Red Corvette (from 1999. Warning: One line of the lyrics is really gross)
● When Doves Cry (from Purple Rain. Why does When Doves Cry sound, in some undefinable way, different from most other pop songs you’ve ever heard? I’ll put the answer at the end of this post so as to avoid giving it away.)
● The title track from Purple Rain isn’t bad either. What’s that? Did I hear some hardcore in the back shout, “It’s genius, man! It’s genius!” Sit down, fanboy, and catch your breath.
● Thieves in the Temple (from Graffiti Bridge)
● 7 (from the Love Symbol Album)
● Thunder (from Diamonds and Pearls)
● Sign O the Times (from Sign O the Times).
● He also wrote Nothing Compares 2 U, and there are two (at least) performances of it, one by Sinead O’Connor and one by His Purple Majesty himself. Weirdly, O’Connor’s performance is the better, IMHO.
– – – – – – – – – – –
Why does When Doves Cry have a unique sound? The song has no bass line(!), which is very unusual for this kind of song, i.e., an up-tempo Top-40 pop tune from the 1980s. In fact, within that set of songs, it’s probably not just unusual, but unique. Apparently Prince let his bass player add a bass line was when the song was played live, but why? The song hit #1 without any bass! Give the people what they want! And let the bassist go grab a beer!

Weird guy doesn’t like science fiction

I once happened across an essay by a Hank Parnell (“The Inadequacy of Science Fiction,” 5/05/02, The Texas Mercury)), who took the delightfully weird position of being against science fiction. Imagine having a position one way or the other on science fiction; it’s like being pro-Wednesday or anti-beige. Parnell’s strange piece inspires a few remarks.

One, he’s upset that SF isn’t obsessed with death:

“Life, as the ancients knew, is inherently tragic, for we all must suffer and inevitably die. Yet death in science fiction is invariably a sort of martyrdom, when it is not cheated outright: an ersatz immortality. Science fiction is preoccupied with things that ‘are not and work not’…”

Jeez, Parnell, if you’re obsessed with death, er, have fun with that. Most of us aren’t, and most literature, SF or otherwise, isn’t.

Two, Parnell gets his own analytical perspective, Christianity, wrong. He says that the goal of Christians is to be sinless: “To a Christian, a life without sin grants the believer a moral superiority.” Say what? The point of Christianity is that you can’t avoid being sinful and you need God and/or Jesus to bail your ass out. Just FYI. If you weren’t copied on the memo please contact the system administrator; she’ll put you on the list.

Three, he buys into the common and oft-refuted error that the purpose of SF is to predict the future; he slags it for rarely accurately doing so:

“The second greatest inadequacy of science fiction is the limitations of human imagination and knowledge; and to state that human imagination and knowledge have no limits, as most SF writers/readers will [HUH?]… is to reference my first objection to science fiction. In truth, we don’t know what alien beings, if there are such, would really be like, no more than we can know what our own world will be like 10 years from now, to say nothing of a hundred.”

Of course. That’s why it’s called science fiction.

“…the flux of human culture and technological innovation is such that the world of tomorrow would bear little resemblance to the world of today.”

Quite. That’s the entire point of SF.

“A related inadequacy is science fiction’s reliance on gimmicks. A traditional SF story is a gimmick story. Roads that roll, humans that change sex from male to female and back, robots with ‘positronic brains’ – the heart of the story is the exploitation of a gimmick.”

Parnell, you can’t really slag SF writers for not paying enough attention to technological change, and then slag them for writing stories that assume technological change. And if you’re going to be wrong, at least be original. SF authors don’t try to predict the future, as many people outside SF have mistakenly thought. The point is to explore a large set of possible futures. And cultures, human and alien. And political changes associated with technological changes. Etc. A good example of this last appears in Larry Niven’s Known Space setting: organ donor technology is so cheap and reliable that voters have an incentive to implement the death penalty for, e.g., jaywalking… so they can harvest the jaywalker’s organs and thus potentially extend their own lives.

But after all this it occurred to me that maybe Parnell isn’t serious. Perhaps this essay is just an act of semantic Da-Daism. Lord knows it’s weird enough. If so, I like it. In fact I wish I’d thought of it first, and I’m joining in now. I’m hereby making it known that I’m against A-flat. Join me, brothers, in the struggle against this imperialist, high-calorie musical note! Down with A-flat!! Down with A-flat!!

Album review: Steve Vai’s Flex-able

First in an occasional series.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Vai eventually became prominent as the guitarist on David Lee Roth’s debut solo album Eat ‘Em and Smile, where Vai came out blazing. On tracks like the hilariously-titled Shy Boy (David Lee Roth? Seriously?), the notes fly out of the fretboard at about 800 per second. But hard-rockin’ though that album is, DLR was essentially a one-thing act; he wanted to do hard rock and nothing but hard rock. And that’s cool. That’s great. But. Vai evidently had broader goals, a fact that had been displayed on his earlier solo album Flex-able, an uneven but ultimately worthwhile pastiche of, uh, everything.

This is a time capsule from the era of the Guitar God [1978 (Van Halen’s first album) – circa 1993, requiescat in pace] and it exhibits most of the virtues and vices of that era. The guitar technique can be very impressive, prompting one to blurt, “How does he do that!?” But from a musical perspective it often makes one ask, “Um…why did he do that?” The ugly and pointless There’s Something Dead in Here is a good example.

Music qua music is the main stumbling block here. Some tracks, like Next Stop Earth, are just technique for the sake of technique. On the other hand, Viv Woman is a classic 4/4 blast with the distortion knob turned all the way up, and it rocks. And Burning Down the Mountain and Call it Sleep also use simple themes, but are melodically pretty, which is ultimately the whole point.

When Vai ventures into songs – as opposed to instrumentals – he often founders, at least when he tries to be serious, as with The Boy/Girl Song and Junkie. There aren’t enough departures from the cliches to convey anything but triteness. (Boys and girls often find each other exasperating! Who knew!?) But when he tosses away the attempts to be profound, and just has fun, he creates amusing confections like Little Green Men and So Happy.

Little Green Men about four-foot-two
Maybe they want to mate with you

Little Green Men about four foot
Maybe they want to kick some butt.

The governments of the world are very good at concealing the presence of these little visitors… until we are ready to enter the Age of Light Without Heat.

All of this diverting silliness occurring with interesting guitar noises in the background. Vai’s most entertaining when he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The track So Happy is pure showing off, but fun due to the novelty. The piece begins with a woman speaking about a how nice it would be if everyone could be happy all the time. A minute in, Vai starts matching her, perfectly, on the guitar. Even my son, who is in grade school and knows nothing about the guitar, exclaimed, “How does he do that?” I would love to send this track back in time to before the Guitar God era, say 1955, and watch the expressions on people’s faces.

Overall, you should definitely own this album if you (1) are interested in the guitar and the history of innovation with the instrument, or (2) have eclectic musical tastes, as this album has a little of everything.

Why you should write that novel now

At some point in the future humanity will fragment as it heads out to the stars in different directions. Our descendants will have the ability to take everything that can be encoded into ones and zeros with them. But as they get farther from each other communication will diminish. If we’re 100 light-years apart, two-way communication takes 200 years. If our successors upload themselves, as is more or less inevitable sooner or later, and then crank up the speed on the hardware they’re running on, it will seem longer. If they think a million times faster than us – and that’s a very conservative forecast – 200 years will seem like 200 million years to them. Also, as the distance rises, the power required to get a message across the distance rises. And the uncertainty about whether there’s anyone still at the other end and where exactly they are rises… etc. So inevitably, communication will stop.

A thousand years from now, a work of art created at point A will never be appreciated 100 light-years away at point B.

Those of us in the here and now are wonderfully lucky. We have an opportunity the vast majority of those who come after us will never have: the opportunity to create things that will be part of the memetic heritage of all our descendants.

Massless drive, science fiction story to end all stories on

Dedicated to Larry Niven.

In 2117 the inertialess drive was finally perfected. It had been tested in the Joint Space Exploration Vacuum Lab over a period of four years, years in which the research team had been dragged through devastating emotional lows and euphoric highs. The Consortium of Space Venturing Nations had contributed more than a trillion dollars in research funding to create the volume known, perhaps somewhat melodramatically, as “hypervacuum.” In the hundred cubic meters of the controlled facility, there was zero matter, or as the leader of the research unit more carefully put it, “Zero matter detectable to our instruments.” Even quantum fluctuations were suppressed within.
       If the experiment were successful, it would create a brutal explosion. For this reason, while the scientists controlled the experimental apparatus from Madrid, the hypervacuum chamber itself was located in extreme isolation at the North Pole.
       The vast resources committed to the project finally created the long-sought result: In the controlled facility, the inertial dampener was activated. As the rest of the team watched the monitors with bated breath, the team leader extended her finger and pushed a button. Thousands of miles away in the hypervacuum chamber, a fragile metal cylinder the size of a pencil moved forward and gently tapped the six-ton engine. An immeasurably short instant later the engine had smashed into the far wall of the chamber. No human eyes witnessed that; the violence of the ensuing explosion vaporized the video cameras instantly, along with the hypervacuum chamber and dozens of square miles of Arctic ice. The cameras showed only static, but satellite images of the pole conveyed the good news to the research team.
       With screams of joy they leapt to their feet! It worked! The engine’s inertial mass had been eliminated; there was no resistance to acceleration! A thousand-kiloton spaceship could be accelerated to just below lightspeed with a mere tap from a feather. Finally, the stars were within reach of the human race!
       After a couple of days of uproarious partying, the American members of the research unit had returned to the US to meet with the President. “Remind me what this does,” the President said. “I read the briefing a few weeks ago but I’m rather busy. What’s that thing about ‘suppressing inertial mass’?”
       A team member responded, “Basically, the object, um, doesn’t weigh anything. By suppressing inertial mass, the device allows us to accelerate any object, no matter how large, to just under lightspeed, with veritably zero energy input.”
       “And what is ‘just under lightspeed’?”
       “A few decades ago physicists discovered that time and space are quantal–”
       “Basically lumpy, right?” asked the President. “Not smooth.”
       “Exactly. So while matter can’t go at lightspeed, the quantal nature of space and time make it possible to have a speed of one quantal velocity unit below lightspeed.”
       “But what about Einstein?” the President asked. “I thought the briefing said…”
       “Einstein’s equations, it turns out, are only continuous approximations to the discrete reality.”
       “Ah, of course.”
       A few years later the first starship had been constructed in orbit. A new inertialess engine was installed. Video cameras outside the ship were arrayed to convey the momentous event to Earth. A theoretical physicist whose work had been crucial to the project had been granted the right to launch the ship. He floated near it in a spacesuit, linked by radio to the crew within. A hopeful planet stared at innumerable TV and computer screens, waiting for the dream of centuries to finally be realized.
       In the ship’s control room, the captain gave the order.
       The engineer engaged the drive.
       Outside the ship, the scientist reached out and tapped the hull.
       Nothing happened, except an annoying vibration throughout the vessel.
       Furious double-checking of the engine. No problems detected.
       “Oh, man, I just thought of something,” said the engineer.
       “What?” asked the Captain.
       “Well, this engine effectively makes the ship massless, right? So even the slightest contact with any other object, no matter how small, will provide the highest possible acceleration…”
       “Obviously. That’s why we should be headed to Proxima Centauri at just under lightspeed right now.”
       “Right, Captain,” said the engineer. “It’s just that space isn’t actually space. It contains about one randomly darting hydrogen atom per cubic meter.”
       “Oh fuck,” said the captain.

* * * * * * * * *

Notes:

1) If you’re not familiar with the good ole “inertialess drive” from various past science fiction works, suffice it to say that one of the classic workarounds to the vast distances between stars wouldn’t work, even taken on its own terms.
2) Dedicated to Larry Niven because Niven’s Laws for Writers includes “Stories to end all stories on a given topic, don’t.” Heh.
3) I don’t know how much energy a six-ton mass colliding with a solid object at “just under lightspeed” would actually have. Enough to vaporize the Earth, for all I know. But that would ruin the fun. Or anyway, that’s a different kind of SF story. In any case, tapping a million-ton starship with a feather and having it zip off at the speed of light would violate physical conservation principles – like, ya know, the conservation of energy – up the wazoo.

Seduction for Girls

In early drafts of The War of the First Day the heroine, Lilta, got a mini-tutorial on seducing a man from her mistress. I distilled the mistress’s advice from real-world experience (ah, one’s twenties) and I thought I’d elaborate on it here. While most women seem to just instinctively know this (how do y’all do that, anyway? Are you hooked into some cosmic Female Wikipedia or something?), some nerdlinger chicks could use a little help. What follows is the deleted scene, and then an elaboration for real-world practice.


I started to speak, then hesitated.
      “Is there something else, Lilta?”
      Abstinence was becoming unendurable. “Mistress, I need physical…um…”
      “I understand; take a lover then. You may go to Taxis for twenty days. A month would be better for you, of course, but even with the lull in fighting I can’t spare you that long. Remember what I taught you about preventing a child from being conceived.”
      “Do women get lost to Taxis when they do this?”
      “That occasionally happens. Almost all of them come back eventually. I am not worried that it will happen to you.”
     “The last time it was the man who did the pursuing, and I don’t know if I understand men well enough to…How does one…?”
      Again she understood. “The art of seduction can be learned; one needn’t be born with the instinct. Most importantly, dismiss those who say that seduction involves a straightforward approach. You should not frankly state your intentions to a man; that removes all the tension. Tension is necessary because without it there is nothing to be released by fucking. That means there will be no desire, and so no fucking.”
      My face was hot at this exceedingly direct speech. She noticed. Amused, she said, “You would prefer a more delicate formulation? When you decide to…couple with a man speak with him about any topic other than that. Place a hand on his arm or shoulder. This will make him wonder if you are beginning to seduce him. Let him wonder for a while.
      “After that there are few steps to coupling. When enough time has gone by–use your judgment–contrive to have the two of you withdraw to a place where you won’t be interrupted. If he doesn’t suggest this, you should. The thinnest of pretexts will do, if he desires you. When you are alone, wait. You are waiting for him to make the first overt advance.”
      “You mean attempting the first kiss?”
      “It is usually that, although it needn’t be. In any case, you should not make the first move. You want a man, not a coward. If he is too timid to risk being rebuffed, he is not good enough for you, or for any woman. If he is bold…well, then.”
      “Your instruction is relentlessly pragmatic, as always, mistress.”
      “You are welcome, Lilta. Now off you go, and don’t return until you are so well serviced that you can hardly walk.”
      “Arlu! Good-bye, mistress!”


The scene had to be removed for pacing and other reasons, but I’ve always had a certain affection for it. Writing it didn’t require intense mental effort, basically just recalling episodes from my twenties and turning the viewpoint around. Thinking about it more carefully after the scene was written, I realized that women’s seduction of men (when they want to be more subtle than getting wasted and grinding their ass against your crotch on the dance floor – not that I have any objections to that) generally falls into a particular pattern.

The pattern in a moment, but a final note first, ladies: This is the Real Deal. It is not casual flirting. This is the sequence of steps to follow if you really do want to be on your back with your heels in the air later that evening.

Here’s the pattern:

Talk, touch, isolate, wait.

Talk: Start a conversation with the man about any subject. It doesn’t matter what, nor need you seem witty.

Touch: Put a hand on his arm or shoulder as you talk to him. Keep eye contact here (I’m erring on the side of belaboring the obvious). This will make him wonder if you are trying to seduce him. Let him wonder for a while. (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. If he’s a typical dude he’ll be willing to overlook the weirdness, but ideally, whether you’re a chick seducing a dude or vice-versa, the process is graceful, fluid.)

Isolate: After enough time has gone by – it could be anything from minutes to hours, depending on various factors; use your judgment – suggest that the two of you withdraw to a private situation. Note to geek chicks: You don’t say “Let us now withdraw to a private situation.” Don’t be a dork. Just come up with some pretext. It doesn’t matter what, because if he wants you, he’ll say Cool no matter how tissue-thin the pretext is, and if he doesn’t want you he’ll say No thanks in any case. So just say, e.g., “It’s so noisy here; let’s go back to my place where we can hear each other talk.” Or you could say, “Oh, you like that band? I love that band! I’m in the mood to hear their song Fuck the daylights out of me, stud. Let’s go back to my place and listen to it.” Or: “I have some better wine than this at my place; would you like to come back with me and open a bottle?” It helps to actually have the wine if you’re going to use this, but it’s not mandatory. (Inexperienced women might wonder about the wine not actually being necessary. Won’t you be exposed if you have no wine back at your place? Ha! Silly girl, this is seduction, not wine sales. The guy doesn’t give a damn about the wine any more than you do. So when you get back to your place, just do a fake search for the wine, then slap your forehead and say, “Oh, right, I forgot that bottle was finished last week.” Or whatever. Believe me, you can improvise any old BS, because of course neither of you is actually thinking about the wine.) Or: (Looking out the window.) “It’s a really clear night. I’ll bet the stars are beautiful.” If he doesn’t suggest that the two of you get out of there and go look at the stars, then you should.

The basic point is that your pretext doesn’t have to be particularly convincing. Indeed, it might be better if it’s transparently just an excuse to get the two of you alone together, because then he can guess what you’re thinking. Nor need you deliver your line with verisimilitude that would pass muster in an acting class. Just go ahead and say it in a flat, blatantly pre-scripted monotone. It doesn’t matter! …because you’re not trying to convince him that you actually care about the wine or the band or the stars or whatever; you’re just trying to provide an excuse for the two of you to get out of there together.

Why can’t you just say, “Let’s go back to my place and fool around”? It has been done, actually, but it’s not optimal, for three reasons. First, what if it’s a twenty minute walk back to your place? If you’ve explicitly put fooling around out there, that’s gonna be a hell of an awkward walk. Second (I originally wrote “Sexcond,” which must be the Best! Freudian! Typo! Ever!), if you leave a little bit of doubt it builds up the tension, which makes everything more exciting and fun for everyone. Third, you want a man, not a wussy. Make him display his balls by making a move when he’s not 100% sure whether you want him to or not. By the way, I can assure you of two things: (1) While making a pass in this situation is nerve-wracking for the guy when he’s like thirteen and inexperienced, it’s good for his self-confidence to force himself to just do it. (2) When a man is experienced, the only thing that gets his pulse rate above 70 beats per minute when making a pass is not being 100% sure how the girl will react. This takes me to…

Wait: Wait for him to make the first overt move, which is typically going for the first kiss. You want him to prove that he has the balls to risk rejection. This is one of the burdens that we men have to bear, just as there are certain burdens that you women have to bear. Would you want to fool around with a guy who didn’t have the cojones to do it? I didn’t think so.
Note: A really experienced man might even make you wait for his move, knowing that you want him to go for it and deliberately driving you a little crazy waiting for it. This is one of the fun things about being a man who’s experienced and self-confident. Heh. Suffer, babe!

Step five: You know what step five is, you dirty girl!


Part 2 is here:

Seduction for Girls, Part 2

Space vs. Time

In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians the protagonists come across a water nymph or naiad or whatever in a river. The naiad says she cannot leave the river. Since she is a supernatural entity, she is presumably immortal or very long-lived. Thus, she is very bounded in space, but not in time. Humans are bounded in time but much less so in space.
Which is better?
And doesn’t thinking about it make you want to travel more!?