Where Have the Guitar Gods Gone?

Inspired by this Washington Post story, blogger Pam Mandel weighs in:

Guitar sales have dropped by a third over the past decade… Maybe it’s because we don’t have guitar gods anymore. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, that sound is — well — it’s old. And the new crop of stars don’t inspire the pursuit of guitar god status the way someone like Carlos Santana did…

Yeah, I miss the era of the guitar god too, Mandel. But seriously, no mention of Eddie Van Halen? Come on.

She continues:

Sir Paul McCartney has a similar take on the decline in the guitar’s popularity.

“The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after,” the former Beatle says wistfully in a recent interview. “So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there.”

He pauses.

“Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently,” McCartney says. “They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”

Something Edgers doesn’t address in his article? Uke sales have doubled in the same period in which guitar sales have declined… And the forgiving little axe serves well as a stepping stone to the guitar. The next generation of wanna-be guitar gods could well be out there; they’re just taking a different route to blazing, finger-blistering stardom.

I must object that the ukulele just doesn’t have the sheer attitude of the guitar. But maybe the uke is a gateway drug to the axe; that gives hope. And when the guys get older and they realize how much cooler they look slinging a guitar than playing any other instrument, it will pick up. (News flash: 16-year-old boys like to do things that help them get attention from girls.)

And the WaPo article has some more optimistic thoughts later on:

Paul Reed Smith, the Maryland-based guitar designer, says the industry is just now recovering from the recession that struck in 2009. He points to PRS’s sustained revenue — the company says they’re between $42 million and $45 million a year — and an increased demand for guitars.

“This is a very complicated mix of economy versus market, demand versus what products are they putting out…” Smith says. “But I’ll tell you this: You put a magic guitar in a case and ship it to a dealer, it will sell.”

Then there’s Henry Juszkiewicz, the biggest and most controversial of the music instrument moguls. When he and a partner bought Gibson in 1986, for just $5 million, the onetime giant was dying.

“It was a failed company that had an iconic name, but it really was on its last legs,” Ash says. “[Juszkiewicz] completely revived the Gibson line.”

Not all is lost!

The acoustic guitar is light and requires no amplifiers or other powered equipment. It’s easy to learn the basic idea of playing it and it’s very versatile. In its electric version it looks damn cool; see foregoing remark about 16-year-old boys. It’s basically the workhorse of popular music in the western world, and for good reason. Thus the quote above, “You put a magic guitar in a case and ship it to a dealer, it will sell.” So yes, the era of the Guitar God is probably over for good – that era involved technical innovations that were surprising and wickedly cool when they were new, but are now standard technique. But the guitar as an instrument in western music is not going to disappear.

A Miracle in One Hundred Years of Solitude

Was just flipping through the first chapter of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. At one point, the protagonist tries to convince his wife to travel with him by regaling her with tales that traveling gypsies have told him, e.g., of a magical liquid such that you only have to sprinkle it on the ground and fruit-bearing plants will grow.

That sounds miraculous.

And it is miraculous. And it’s true over most of planet Earth’s land surface, and the magic liquid is water.

This isn’t taking a cheap shot at a foolish character. It’s a neat way of looking at things, and Marquez perhaps did this on purpose (though it’s hard to be sure).When you phrase it that way – a magical liquid such that you only have to sprinkle it on the ground and fruit-bearing plants will grow – it sounds magical, and awesome, and a miraculous promise of immense bounty. Then you frame-shift, and you realize that is the situation! It is magical, awesome, and miraculous, and we are given immense bounty! Wheat, strawberries, watermelon, potatoes, blueberries, apples, oranges… and on and on and on and on…

What a wonderful thing Marquez does here: He makes the reader see things in a new way, a way that makes us stop taking something important for granted, to stop failing to see the miracle, and makes us appreciate the gift it is.

We live in an exotic magical world in which there’s a supply of a magic liquid – so plentiful that it falls from the sky, it literally falls from the sky! – such that you need but sprinkle it on the ground and edible plants will grow!

Review of The Forever War

The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting SF book that takes relativistic time dilation seriously, instead of trying to get around it with “hyperspace,” “subspace”, “N-space,” etc. While there are wormholes in the fictional physics, they only exist in collapsars, so are not a general way around Einsteinian physics. The time dilation effect is used well because it allows the narrator to encounter a series of increasingly alien Earth cultures, as the people back home change much faster than he ages.

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Review of The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook (The Checquy Files, #1)The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dear you,
The body you are wearing used to be mine.

So begins The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. The best things about this book are that it gets off to a good start, the setting is great (lots of interesting supernatural threats), and the amnesia plot line is handled well.

Amnesia plots have been done before, of course, so what matters in this day and age is how such a plot is executed. O’Malley executes it well, IMHO. One reason is that he handles the pacing well. That first sentence rockets you off on the journey. The second reason is that due to magical prophecies, the original version of the heroine, Myfanwy Thomas, knew she was going to lose her memory before she actually lost it. This allows her to leave helpful notes for her new self, something I’ve never seen done before in an amnesia story. You might think these notes would make it too easy for the new Myfanwy to cope with her challenges, but it’s not so, principally because she is a member of a top-secret organization – the Checquy – that deals with a bewildering profusion of supernatural threats to the UK in particular and the world in general. Dragons, sentient mind-reading mold (yes, sentient mind-reading mold), teleporters, distributed hive minds, vampires (wheat-market-manipulating and non-wheat-market-manipulating), future-foretelling ducks, etc.

A few reviewers have objected to “infodumps” that the original Myfanwy has left in the form of those explanatory notes for her future self. These notes didn’t bug me in the least, and I never had a feeling of being subjected to infodumps. In fact, it didn’t occur to me to notice any “infodumps” until I skimmed a couple of other people’s reviews after I’d finished the novel. What they really are is clues in a murder mystery.

Some minor deficiencies:

An American character who works for the U.S. analogue of the Checquy is introduced around Ch 15. She has no essential role in the story and I wonder, in retrospect, why she was included.

Also around Ch 15, the style decays suddenly and mysteriously. Dialogue suddenly becomes clunky, though this has not happened noticeably before that point. E.g., dialogue might contain unnecessary and/or silly attributions. Here’s a (made-up) example:

“I’ll hate you forever!” Jane said angrily.

The “angrily” is redundant, of course. This could simply be,

“I’ll hate you forever!” Jane shouted.

Or even just

“I’ll hate you forever!”

if it’s clear from context who’s speaking.

The verb “snapped” is also used profligately. This is an over-used verb in modern dialogue. People don’t actually snap at each other that often, and generally when they do in fiction, the words themselves, perhaps with an accompanying exclamation point, can usually convey the snapping without the author having to belabor the point. E.g.,

“Don’t touch my coffee cup!”

No “he snapped” is necessary.

Speaking of dialogue, commas that are usually present in English-language fiction are absent in much of this book. E.g., consider

“Call the police,” Jane said.

The comma just after “police” is standard in English-language dialogue. But it is absent in many lines of dialogue in Rook. So we get

“Call the police” Jane said.

which is jarring to the reader’s eye. Is this an error by an inexperienced copy-editor, or is the publisher trying to save money on ink by eliminating commas?

But overall, The Rook is a fun “summer read,” as people say, and I can recommend it on those grounds, though not on “this is a classic for the ages” grounds.


There are a lot of characters, and they have a bedazzling array of supernatural abilities. It’s kind of like X-Men meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Bourne Identity. Page 123 (of the hardcover edition I read) has a list of all the people at the Court, which is the governing body of the Checquy. I referred to that list frequently after that point, and I suggest you bookmark it when you come to it for easy reference later.

I hope that in the sequel, which I am certainly going to read, the original Myfanwy Thomas is revived and melds with her new personality. Otherwise we have a murder that is not sufficiently avenged. After all, your memories, personality and skills, etc., are you. When those were destroyed, the original Myfanwy Thomas was killed. Not metaphorically killed, literally killed. (This novel is a murder mystery as well as lots of other things.) I want not only revenge, but the original murdered girl to be reanimated to do the avenging. Here’s hoping.

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Review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

After I posted a brief review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman at GoodReads, GoodReads created some html and suggested that I copy and paste it into my web site, so I’m trying it out. Let’s see what this mysterious html does, here goes:

The French Lieutenant's WomanThe French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A rather odd novel. It’s historical dramatic fiction set in the late 19th century in England, written with touches of 20th-century meta-fiction. It seems the author was unable to decide what it is, so it ends up being neither fish nor fowl.

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Review of Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

Meh. This novel has virtues and flaws that are typical of Vinge.

Chief among the flaws is that there are too many characters. They’re hard to keep track of. Also, Vinge indulges in a fascination with technology to the extent that the plot is overshadowed. Yes, this is a standard hazard with science fiction, but for precisely that reason a professional SF writer should be on guard for it. These first two problems create a third: the pacing suffers.

The virtues I’ll get to later, but other things first.

The setting. In the future, everything is wired. You can see in the dark because the world is littered with cameras that are beaming out IR and UV and routing what they see to your wearable computer, which routes the info to your computerized contact lenses. You can see through walls in the same way. You can walk heedlessly into traffic on a busy superhighway with no danger, because every car is computer-controlled, and they, with superhuman speed, alter their paths around you. You can dance in realtime with people on the other side of the planet. Etc.

This is all very cool… if one doesn’t think about the Orwellian aspects: the government knows everything you’re doing all the time. Indeed, it’s illegal to have any IT that lacks a Department of Homeland Security monitoring/ controlling chip.

Biotech and nanotech are also very advanced, which takes us to…

The plot. As the book opens, someone – no one knows who – has invented biotechnology that lets them manipulate other people’s beliefs and behavior, as in, “We’ll rearrange their neural structures to make them believe anything we tell them.” That ain’t good.

A union of intelligence agencies in Europe and Asia traces this tech to a lab at the University of California’s San Diego campus. They want to infiltrate the lab to learn who developed this tech and, more importantly, destroy it. However, to avoid conflict – this is espionage by foreign powers on US soil – they plan to work through a cutout.

The cutout is Rabbit, a virtual presence who takes the form of, well, guess. They don’t know who Rabbit really is; they don’t even know if it’s a person, a business organization, a government actor, a consortium of several such entities, or what. All they know is that “he” has a good record of past computer thefts, pranks, etc., and he’s never been caught.

Rabbit doesn’t really know what he’s helping them to acquire, and two of the three intelligence operatives don’t either – they’re all being manipulated by the third one. The third one, a director of a European intelligence operation, wants to acquire the new tech instead of destroy it.

There is a separate set of people who live near the U. Cal. San Diego campus who are manipulated into acting as the on-scene hands of the infiltration operation. This set of people is too large to conveniently describe. They all have different desires, and are promised different things by the espionage consortium, to elicit their cooperation. This is where Vinge’s lack of self-discipline with the number of characters really hurts. I’ll spare you.

After a lot of slow development that makes it a chore to read, everything comes to a head one night on the U. Cal. San Diego campus. The espionage group executes a raid on the biolab. The group has arranged for a riot to occur that night to distract campus security and cause general chaos to provide cover for the raid.

The riot takes the form of a clash between two groups of fiction fans contending (mostly non-violently) over the fate of the campus library. The library’s fate is uncertain because all its printed material is being transferred to digital formats; there is conflict over what to do with the ’brary after the transition is complete.

There is a cool scene during the riot, in which the active stabilization hydraulics that are used to earthquake-proof the library are taken over by some hacker. They use it to make the library get up and walk. This is absurd, obviously, but it’s a cool image. Here is a photo of the UCSD campus library, described accurately by Vinge, and yeah, it would be cool to see that thing striding around, looking like an alien explorer-bot freestylin’ around on Earth until the Mother Ship lands to take it back.

In the end the attempt to acquire the bad biotech is defeated and the tech is mostly destroyed. A little of it is preserved inside the brains of lab mice, some of whom escape into the wild during the riot, but as far as we know that never leads anywhere. (20 years later: “I feel compelled to provide cheese to random mice. Why am I doing this?”)

The novel does have some virtues, to wit:
1) A few cool scenes like the library walking.
2) The rioting fictional groups, Skootchies and Hacekians. They take their costumes from various works of fiction, mostly in the form of fanciful beasts, warriors, aliens, monsters, etc.
3) Rabbit is an amusing character, who perhaps should have been given more “screen time,” but… at the end we are still unaware of what it actually is! I think this is because the two most interesting possibilities, AI and ETs, have been used by Vinge before. In True Names, he first hinted that a mysterious hacker was an alien, before revealing that it was actually (human-created) AI. So there’s an interesting pair of possibilities, both of which Vinge had already used, and he didn’t want to repeat himself. So what does he do? He refuses to solve the riddle! Gah! Vinge!

In the end, essentially nothing in this fictional world has changed. People have some fun memories of creative rioting and a walking library, but otherwise everything is pretty much as it was before.

This defies one of the principal desiderata of the novel as a literary form: that a situation and/or a character change so that in the end, the world, or at least the protagonist’s personal world, is different. Even in the “save the world from blowing up” genre, it should not be that the only thing that happens is that the world is in peril but then is saved. The hero/heroine should have learned something, or achieved something personal, along the way. Or the world should be at a new equilibrium, as in, “Double-Oh-Seven, the world has now had three narrowly-averted disasters involving ketchup, guitar strings, and snowboards, and this last one was the worst of all. This has caused us to establish a multinational Ketchup, Guitar String, and Snowboard Task Force, such that this peril will never threaten the world again! We’re safe!” In other words, the planet is in a new, better situation compared to the start of the novel.

So at the end of Rainbows End, we’re right where we started. Yeah, we saw some cool implications of a thoroughly-wired world along the way, but… that’s not really enough.

Entry for Bad Writing Contest

GoodReads has an SF/Fantasy group called Dragons and Jetpacks, which is currently running a bad writing contest. Here’s the entry I just submitted. This is the worst writing I can do. I’m actually kind of scared of this. I fear it might cause brain damage. Read at own risk.


They strolled on the parchment-spawned forest path. There was not a cloud in the redundant sky, though o’er-shadowed they were by the wings of the dragons in flight. Dragon-Sword Night-Moon looked over at RavenMoon NightTree’s profile. It must be admitted, he thought, she has a figure of attractiveness. The heat slammed into them as they walked, covering everything in a layer of heat.

“It’s hot,” observed RavenMoon. “But,” she added, “let us not think of the heat, the glistening heat. I would fain stroll here on the path, the parchment-spawned forest path, anon.”

But Dragon-Sword Night-Moon was o’ercome by lust, lust for RavenMoon. “Lust,” he rasped forth. “Forsooth, luuussssssst!”

RavenMoon looked at him. “Did you say something?” she inquired delicately, but with precision. She wasn’t sure if he had spoken, and she wanted to know if he had spoken, and if so, what he had said.

“No,” said Dragon-Sword dishonestly. “Let us look at the fruits that are borne upon the branches of the magic trees.”

“I agree, Dragon-Sword. Let us.” They examined the fruits that were upon the trees, observing the fruits’ various characteristics.

“The fruits may be nutritious if we become hungry,” stated Dragon-Sword, mentioning an important fact.

“That is correct,” stated RavenMoon NightTree, agreeing with Dragon-Sword Night-Moon. “The fruits may also be nutritious if we are not hungry, though in that case we would choose not to eat them.”

But Dragon-Sword was not unpreoccupied. He was thinking about his past. His naked, naked past.

He had hoped to end the nakedness with the pantaloons. But the pantaloons had not helped. They had done the opposite of helping: They had made things worse.

The Killer and the Healer

Read this first. This story gives me goosebumps. I bet it will have that effect on you, too, at least if you know Calc.

Inspired by that…

It was one of the bad ones. You might have heard the public version of events by e^x, and it’s all true. But this is how it looked from the point of view of us, the cops. It’s the inside story of how following a crazy lead ultimately defeated one of the most remorseless criminals in history.

We didn’t know it was that bad at first, of course. When the constants got canceled, it seemed like a targeted set of killings. Systematic. Just business.

So we logged the murders, filed them away in our mental boxes as “routine,” and moved on to the next cases…

But the next day, the linears went.

Even then, we didn’t really understand what was happening. Most of us thought it was just retaliation. The constants got whacked, so their friends went after they guys who whacked them. Only old Detective Isaac Gottfried, who’s been around a long time (some say since the 1600s) really took notice. “This seems familiar somehow,” he said. “Mark my words, this is going to be one of the weird ones.”

We nervously dismissed him as a crank.

But the next night the quadratics went.

After that, everyone knew Old Isaac was right. This wasn’t typical turf wars, gangs protecting their Cartesian spaces. Something else was going on.

We put out our feelers, and just got rumors: Someone… or some thing… called the Differentiation was operating in the area. And it was just getting started.

I’ll spare you the details. It was grisly even for those of us in police work. The next to go were the cubics. Then the quartics. The only ones untouched were e^x and the lowest of the low, 0, maybe too humble to be noticed.

Naturally we suspected those two. We put surveillance teams on them, watching them continually, but it wasn’t them doing the killing. Even when they had several undercover cops tailing them, the murders continued.

We were at wits’ end. “Track down that other rumor,” my Chief told me. “The one from years ago.”

“That’s just a myth!” I protested. “I’ve never even seen her.”

“You have a number to call, right?”

“Yeah, but I’ve never used it. The things I hear about her are… weird.”

“Look,” my Chief said, “we have no leads, except this: She comes from the same place the killer does. Word on the street is, they’re Doppelgangers, mirror images, exact opposites.” He paused, pulled the shade in his office window down, and whispered, “There’s even a rumor that she can bring the victims back from the dead.”

“Come on, Boss!” I said. “That’s just an urban legend. It’s never been verified!”

“We’re desperate, Detective,” he said. “Make the call.”

By then we had no choice. So I did it. I called in the Integration.

We agreed to meet at a local dive that evening and I got there early. She strolled in a little later, carving a path through the cigarette smoke that filled the place. She was a slinky-looking dame, with a graceful curve to her figure. It looked elegant, but at the same time kind of like a cobra about to strike. I waved her over and she sat down next to me at the bar.

“You know what’s been going on, I guess,” I said. “Everyone does, right?”

“Of course,” she answered. “And I know who’s doing it.” She said that she and the Differentiation came from the same place. When I asked where that was, she just answered, “The limit.” And that was all I could get out of her on that subject.

“Can you help us nab the bastard?” I asked.

“No,” she said, and my heart sank. But she added, “I can help the victims, though.”

“How?” I asked.

“Take me to the corpses.”

I settled my tab and we went onto the street. “The morgue’s this way,” I said, and started walking, but she grabbed my arm.

“There’s a better way to get there. Follow me.” She headed in a different direction.

“This is an odd variation on how I’d get there,” I said.

“Yeah, I’m variational,” she snorted.

When we got to the morgue I showed her the remnants of the functions that the Differentiation had gotten to. She didn’t seem upset at all, just nodded. “I can help. I must warn you, though… they won’t be exactly the same when I’m done with them.”

“What the heck does that mean?” I asked.

“Look, they’ll keep most of their original important and interesting properties, I promise. So if you can just step out of the room while I work…”

I was about to object that I couldn’t leave her alone with evidence in murder cases, but as the Chief said, we were desperate. So I just nodded and went out into the reception area.

A few minutes later, out came the constants, who had been reduced to zeros by the assailant. Now that the Integration had done her magic on them they all kinda looked the same – like the letter C – but they were alive! They walked out on unsteady legs, but who cared? They were crying tears of joy.

Next were the linears, who had been reduced to constants by the attacker, and now it was clear what the Integration had meant when she said they wouldn’t be exactly the same. They were all recognizable, alright… but now they all had + C attached to their backs, like ranks of Quasimodos shuffling through the towers of Notre Dame.

Then the quadratics. One of them was a cute little babe I’d known before the attacks, who went by the handle 3x^2 +5x –3. Now here she was, but she had a + C attached to her, like the others. “I’m more general now!” she said with what I thought was forced cheerfulness. Sure, I thought…. more general, but for that very reason she’s lost her uniqueness. But I didn’t say anything. Anyway, it was really good to see her walking again.

Next out were the cubics, stumbling out of the morgue, blinking at the light their eyes hadn’t seen in days.

Then the quartics. On and on it went, a joyous procession of re-animated functions. I saw 10th-degree polynomials, all their local extrema, which had gradually diminished in number during the horror, restored.

Well, everyone knows how it went down after that. We’ve never nabbed the Differentiation, but with the Integration in town, the Differentiation has never been able to take out anyone else. And when the Integration called in her sidekicks, Initial Condition and Terminal Condition, the Differentiation wasn’t even able to mutilate functions with those extraneous + C’s any more.

Things will never be exactly as they were before. But the reign of terror is finally over.

Loosen Up the Ole Synapses

One rule I have is no alcohol while writing (caffeine’s okay, natch). And no other drugs ever. None of this tortured alcoholic author for me, thanks.

But once a year I allow myself an exception: One beer, one cup of coffee, then let yourself rip on the word processor. The combination of alcohol and caffeine loosens up the ol’ synapses in ways that can be amusing. Readers of The War of the First Day can probably identify the one scene in that novel that emerged from this method.

Actually, while I allow myself to do this once per year, I haven’t actually done it in three or four years.

You don’t want to make a habit of this, obviously, because you don’t want to become dependent on it.