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second-best since Cantor

Month: August, 2022

Irreal Life Top 10, Labor Day 2022.

Working so hard for those clicks that I’m spelling it ‘Labor’ instead of ‘Labour,’ whaddaya think of me now. Nothing irreal about this but there’s no changing the series title now.

  1. Cherry Brown, Kailh Silver. Having made everyone’s second choice of keyswitches (Cherry MX Browns) when I bought my keyboard, and now having bad RSI for the first time in many years, I ended up switching this weekend to Kailh Speed Silvers while casting about for possible fixes. The keyswitches are the spring-loaded mechanism below the cap; you don’t see them and they’re what matters most in terms of keyboard feel. Cherry Browns are ‘tactile,’ i.e. there’s a bump in the key travel which you can feel; Kailh Silvers are linear switches, with no bump, just continuous resistance. I’m making an effort not to ‘bottom out’ or move the keys through their full travel as I type, sacrificing that incredibly gratifying THOCK sound on the altar of hand fatigue. I thiiiiink it’s working? Kailh Silvers are made for gaming so they actuate when you breathe on them, feather-light; the upshot is that I’ve moved fatigue from wrists to biceps, which is fine, and the experience gives much less sensual pleasure. It’s like I’m aging in reverse. I’ve got some Kailh Coppers coming, I think — short travel, light high actuation, tactile feel. Might not be worth it, but they’re not expensive. (I think I got 110 of them for $30, anybody need some keyswitches?)
  2. Harry Potter music. John William’s scores for the first three movies establish a soundworld on the Star Wars model (grounding fantasy doings in symphonic somaticism and familiar leitmotif) which seems inevitable in retrospect, even obvious: brass fanfares and low-string ‘mystery’ themes and the perfect ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ for initial Hogwarts impressions in the tween coming-of-age films, shading into richer darker colours as the generational story deepens and complicates. The third and best-by-a-mile film gets a very fine score from Williams, full of stark contrasts, eerie textures and shapes (the scansion on the witch-song is fucking strange), and several clever transformations and elaborations — check out the wide variations on Hedwig’s theme throughout the finale, ‘Mischief Managed!’ It’s all characteristically Williams in Spielbergian-wonder mode, though he stretched impressively for the Azkaban score. The rest of the series got a different composer every film or two, though: Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, Alexandre Desplat. Results were mixed. Doyle’s Goblet of Fire score sounds like him and like Hogwarts, though not quite like Williams (without thinking about it, my sense is that the audibly Scots-Irish Doyle seeks/gets a very different brass sound in particular; damn I used to love his Frankenstein score), Hooper’s scores go for whimsical mimesis (the best moment in Phoenix has no music, but his ‘Weasley Stomp’ is a useful reminder that Williams was very much an American tourist in Rowling’s imaginary Britain), and by Deathly Hallows Desplat conjures a diffuse melancholy hardly recognizable as Potter-related, which unfortunately fits those movies well. Unlike, say, the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings scores — which flow together into impossibly rich macrocompositions — the Potter soundtracks stand apart from one another, sonically and thematically, and I’m not tempted to throw them all on for a long day’s listen. But amidst the stupidities of the Rowling-related cultural conversation, it’s nice to be reminded of how skillfully executed these ordinary movies are.
  3. Nuns on the run. On Adam Roberts’s enthusiastic recommendation I’m reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them, the generations-spanning novel of a 14th-century English convent; after 250 pages I’m comfortable calling it the equal of any novel I’ve read in years. I keep wanting to compare it to Le CarrĂ©, his subtly barbed humour and skillful interweaving of the individual psychology of desperately focused people and their historical moments too vast to get ahold of, or even know about — only Warner writes men and women with equal mastery, which places her beyond Le CarrĂ© in at least that regard. The nunnery feels perfectly real, though the inside of that physical location is barely described (while the local countryside is vivid and clear); the women and men in the community are human beings, fully realized and empathetically, humanely rendered. Just an inspiring, perfectly executed novel. I’m sick with envy.
  4. Firefly. As preparation to run my Traveller-plus-Jedi RPG campaign with the lads, I threw the two-part Firefly pilot on the ol’ TV, and was reminded that Joss Whedon did the best, most perfectly realized work of his life while balancing three TV shows. Firefly is a masterwork in the classical sense, a carefully controlled showcase for every skill its chief maker had learned (though let’s not discount the contributions of his expert cocoreator Tim Minear). Whedon’s never been funnier or wiser, never worked successfully on so many levels at once. But even with inspired scripts and searching direction/production, the show might’ve fallen down without a star on the order of Sarah Michelle Gellar (or Gandolfini/Falco, Bryan Cranston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus), someone Whedon could count on to make sense of his characteristic tonal whip-pans and wild register jumps. Here Whedon lucked into a partnership with his most gifted male performer, the fucking Canadian Nathan Fillion, who gave the performance of his life in a role as rich as Buffy Summers — and then, with a sly character actor and ensemble comic (and born Western hero) at the top of the call sheet, the Firefly team surrounded Fillion with an oddball cast of equally multifaceted performers, literally any one of whom could easily have carried a spinoff. Special mention to Alan Tudyk, a comic virtuoso, and the astral projection known as Morena Baccarin, who slowly unfurled maybe the broadest range of talents in a talented cast. (Bonus points to a young Christina Hendricks as Saffron; watching her flirt with Baccarin in ‘Our Mrs Reynolds’ is one of the greatest experiences of my human existence.) The fact that this show existed at all is one of its fallen medium’s rare blessings; the fact of its cancellation is just another fucking crime. The sequel-feature Serenity is an overstuffed and hurried valedictory that boasts several classic Whedon sequences and a magnificent climactic showdown between Captain Tightpants and the impossibly charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor; it’s a nice consolation but can’t touch the original series. Few shows can.
  5. ‘Effective altruism.’ Mostly the same sort of fraud as ‘AI alignment’ and indeed ‘rationalism’ writ large, starring mostly the same sorts of people. @chaosprime definitively sums up on Twitter: ‘Weird that EA converted on a focus that is addressed by nerds getting tons of money to 1) sit in rooms thinking big math thoughts all day then 2) telling other nerds what to do’.
  6. Harvard undergrads. They neatly illustrate, by contrast, how dowdy Cantabridgians are during the sparsely populated summer months; on the other hand, they manifestly couldn’t find their dicks with two hands and a dick map.1 Harvard Square in late August is trying for those of us who find privileged teenagers not just the worst but the most boring thing on earth.
  7. Frisell. How many artists are so powerfully and equally committed to both the gentlest moments of beauty and vulnerability and the weirdest psych-sonics? Listening to his debut In Line (recorded 40 years ago this month!) is one of those improbably deep experiences, where there seems to be too much detail to permit entry, much less immersion — too much pick and prickle — yet the sound slips across and around and then opens into something deep and enveloping, a whole soundworld in less than 45 minutes. Frisell is like Fillion: confident, unassuming, deep feeling, so’s you might not notice his virtuosity. I’ve enjoyed every note I’ve heard him play, but this album (maybe not surprisingly, as it’s half solo/overdubbed tracks) feels close to the bone. And Eicher’s production is just what the young seeker needed, of course.
  8. House of the Dragon. Unnecessary — and after the catastrophe of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones, faintly embarrassing — but Fire and Blood, the mock-scholarly Game of Thrones ‘prequel’ it’s based on, startled me years ago by being a joy to read and (fannishly) contemplate. It’s central to GRR Martin’s grand project and obviously dear to his heart, and you might read it instead of watching the show. Then again, I said that about Game of Thrones itself. Then again, I was right.
  9. Provisionality. Louis CK describes his creative technique in an interview: ‘When I develop material that’s in tough places, I have a method: I say the worst version, and then usually, they don’t like it. But I listen to that. I listen to the “Ugh,” and there’s a sound in it… Either I’m gonna take that “ugh” and I’m gonna play with it, or I’m gonna find a way around it… I need to hear the dissent… Sometimes I’m like, “I don’t want to upset these people tonight.” But I know there’s a bit in this that they’re going to like. And I work on it and work on it, to the point where everybody likes it… Every bit that I have that’s a great bit, started as: nobody wants to hear it.’
  10. Oscar and Basie. Peterson was a skillful host of his variety/interview TV show, and the Count was a wonderful guest, but their wordless opening duet is something more than entertainment: it’s a privilege to see an old master simply enjoy himself in the loving company of a younger master. Peterson’s adoration of Basie is evident, as is Basie’s love and admiration for Peterson. Their relationship to one another is their relationship to the music. It’s beautiful. There’s a moment in the video when a closeup of Peterson’s astonishing hands dissolves to a similar shot of Basie’s, gently stroking the piano keys like they’re his wife’s tired fingers and hands. Not much room in noisy transient modernity for quiet moments like this with a cherished elder, listening close to his life’s music. This is one of things jazz is for. This is what it is.

  1. Metaphorically speaking. 

On Hasbro D&D.

Someone asked on Reddit:

Is every 5e adventure [clumsy and/or unimaginative]? Honestly, I’m willing to take one more chance. But then, which one should I try? Is there at least 1 good 5e adventure?

To which I’d say:

WotC/Hasbro doesn’t have any evocative writers or trailblazing designers in its stable anymore, I think. Their job is to maintain ‘IP’ and it goes as well as you’d expect. The D&D brand is carefully protected and corporate-committee-managed, therefore the Product is all boring and ordinary — but it was that way all through 4e times as well, and nearly all 3e stuff is bloated disposable crap too. (The most interesting WotC output is the design of 4e, which is superb but isn’t actually good at being D&D.)

As has been pointed out over and over, paying RPG writers by the word for big vanilla hardcovers is a recipe for disaster — which WotC/Hasbro and Paizo demonstrate, the former more humiliatingly than the latter. See for instance the Fizban’s something something Dragons book, which is an unimaginative fucking disaster.

The essential problem with 5e D&D is that it tries to satisfy customers and shareholders instead of ever actually doing something new or beautiful or weird or even just fun. The lamest LotFP book displays more courage and conviction than the best WotC product, because it’s meant to inspire creativity rather than allay anxiety. It’s childish to mistake comfort for confidence.

All this said:

  • Curse of Strahd is ‘Ravenloft with stuff’ — this is fine, the new stuff included, and easily the best 5e adventure I’ve read, though there’s no reason to spend $50 or even $30 on ‘Ravenloft with stuff’
  • Descent to Avernus has good setpieces to offer if you put in the work to connect them up and give it weight; I really enjoyed playing in our campaign but would never run it
  • Lost Mines of Phandelver is a genuinely excellent introduction to vanilla, lowest-common-denominator D&D, and also gets graded on a curve by OSR types who figured 5e would be trash
  • The Wildemount (Critical Role) book is a good example of WotC’s B/B+ aspirations: nothing about it is interesting, it’s a corporate tie-in product inspired by a TV show, but the production values are nice and it does exactly (only) what you’d expect

The single best Hasbro D&D product is, of course, the Encyclopedia Magica, a late-20C 4-volume set from TSR which renders nearly all 5e material not just obsolete but gutless.

Pursue confidence, not comfort.

There’s this idea that once you feel good about your writing tools, you’ll be able to use them more effectively. This is precisely backwards, and stupid. Once you get some experience working with a tool, you recognize what it is and isn’t, what it can and can’t do — and you feel good about knowing what’s up. Bringing your perceptions in line with reality feels good, and creates a sense of confidence (which is what people who look for ‘comfort’ actually need, much of the time).

Seek confidence, not comfort; begin by learning about your world, e.g. tasks and tools. Nothing is as comforting as realism.

Phish recommendations.

For a while in the mid/late 1990s, Phish were America’s best rock band.

Now their best music is behind them, but they continue to deliver the most rock’n’roll value for your dollar in this year of our Lord 2022. And every time out, even if only for a few minutes, they remind you that they’re still the best improvisatory rock band of all time.

Here are some recommendations for newcomers to Phish.

Note: Nothing here will cause controversy among fans.

I’m a ‘digital native’ and need video, is there video?

Yes. The IT documentary is good, though Trey is in bad shape; its concert footage is superb. Bittersweet Motel is telling but unpleasant and is mostly about the 1997-98 scene/moment. The recent Trey documentary, Between Me and My Mind, is stirring and beautiful, but not really about Phish. The film of Walnut Creek 97 features astonishing music — peak-era Phish, just a killer show. But the film’s ordinary.

I’m old and like books, are there books?


Which studio album should I hear?

Phish’s reputation rests on their live shows and specifically on their extended collective improvisations, rightly so. Their studio albums show off other sides of their musical personality with mixed results.

  • For naked chops, start with Rift. This is Phish’s pure prog album, with their most consistently well integrated instrumental and vocal material.
  • For the pure experimental mid-80s weirdness, pair Junta (their first proper album, still startling in its precocity and reach) with ‘The White Tape,’ their 1986 demo tape and a perfect encapsulation of their early cerebral-pranksters identity.
  • For a balanced mix of chops and effortful silliness, try one of two albums: (1) A Picture of Nectar. Shorter tunes, a hyperactive ‘jukebox’ album — but ‘Stash’ and ‘Guelah Papyrus’ and ‘The Mango Song’ are seriously strange showoff numbers, and the ‘Tweezer’/’Reprise’ duo captures something essential about their relationship to rock’n’roll. (2) Billy Breathes, a mellower LP with more acoustic strumming and a ramshackle feel — this was the longtime consensus pick for Best Phish Album, and it still might be. But it’s not a showpiece like Rift and Nectar. It’s just a lovely, faintly lonely rustic rock album.
  • For dreamy weirdness, pair Story of the Ghost with its outtakes collection The Siket Disc. The latter isn’t even an album proper but together these two discs offer a glimpse of practice-room Phish at their effortless late-90s peak, when intuitive groove replaced forebrain-tickle as the creative focus and primary pleasure.
  • For strange creativity in late middle age, see Fuego, which has some clunkers but also some fine pop tunes and a stirring run of three full-band compositions to close. Sigma Oasis is a surprising, at times lovely late-career effort, but you might cringe so hard at the lyrics you pull a muscle.

Which live album should I hear?

Phish’s official live releases are well chosen and are the heart of the band’s project. Like the studio albums, they capture the band at specific points in their journey. It’s important to bear in mind that post-1997 Phish often sounds like an entirely different band, for reasons (I suspect) not unrelated to the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.

Since 2003, every new Phish show has been made available through livephish.com — we’ll deal with those below.

  • The standard intro live Phish album is/was A Live One, a sprawling buffet from when they prized howling intensity above delicacy and/or groove. This is their Live/Dead, showcasing one side of their work at length, too early to capture the full spectrum of their creativity. There’s a half-hour ‘Tweezer’ full of surreal antagonism, but the real meat is the magnificent ‘Hood,’ perfectly realized ‘Stash’ and ‘You Enjoy Myself’ jams, and a pounding ‘Chalk Dust Torture’ that’s parseable for non-fans. This was the initial argument for Phish as best 90s rock band…the trouble is, within two years they didn’t sound like this anymore.
  • The official New Year’s Eve 1995 release is one of the few no-brainers in the band’s history: it’s the consensus best Phish show of its era, unrelenting in its creative drive and intensity. This was their first peak, the culmination of all their early work on a big stage (Madison Square Garden). Of all their pre-1997 shows, this is the easiest recommendation. (Niagara shares its vibes but gets weirder, darker.)
  • If you like NYE 1995, you’ll like Chicago 94, two shows from the A Live One era, showcasing the band’s fluent improvised segues. Still, there’s something a little callow about 1994 Phish at times.
  • Slip Stitch and Pass is literally the show — at a club in Hamburg — when the band transitioned from increasingly funky rock to a different sort of pleasure altogether. If you like Story of the Ghost and especially Siket, this live release will speak to you. It’s a single disc, mostly stacked with jams.
  • Hampton/Winston-Salem 97 captures an all-time classic run of three shows — but if you’re not already into Phish, the 17-minute ‘Emotional Rescue’ opener, a gag song followed by a dull funk jam, might turn you off forever. Yet discs 4-6 show the very best of the band’s funk era. This is music every single Phish fan should hear, but it’s not an ideal entry point.
  • Discs 2 and 7 of the Amsterdam box achieve sublimity.

What about the ‘Live Phish’ series?

See below.

Periodize Phish’s career for me, please


Comedy, surrealism, impatience, antagonism, audible effort1


Intensity, mastery, synthesis, aggression, clatter, independence, psychedelic noise


Groove, ambience, texture, fluidity, patience, psychedelic space (97-98 are the last years of perfect equipoise, and to me represent ‘Phish perfected’)




Rediscovery, resolution, peace, balance, second youth, rebirth (2009 tentative, 2010 longform improv experimentation, 2011 Fish’s drum chops fully back (8/15/11 is perfect), 2012 integrates, 2013-14 experimental restart esp. at Halloween)


Rebirth, integration, joy, settling in/down (Trey woodsheds for 6 mo. in 2015, kickstarting this era)

Which live shows should I hear?

The trouble with live shows is they’re unlikely to be perfect. The good thing about live shows is, they’re the truth.

What you should hear depends on what you’re after, based on the above chronology.

  • I want prog rock: Try any of the official releases from 1994-95, the peak of Phish’s technical achievement. You can’t go wrong with this era — Phish batted 1.000 for two full years. Just an insane achievement.
  • I want dark psychedelia: Same era plus 97-2000; post-97 there’s much less emphasis on attack-guitar, though cf. 11/19/97 or the final discs of the Winston-Salem box set for counterexamples.
  • i want party funk: 1997-99 has your number. Summer shows from 1997/98 are the purest dance-funk of Phish’s career. If you want to sample a single segment, try the ‘Bowie > Cities > Bowie’ from the Ventura box set, lightning in a bottle from the moment when they could play ‘Bowie’ fast and clean and dangerous and then sit back and fucking groove real nice for a while, as if those two things were the same thing.
  • I want electronic textures: Honestly, try a good recent show. Like the Dead in the early 90s, Phish have completely dialed in their sound and the band’s instrumental texture is tasty. The festival ‘disco tent’ and ‘ball square’ jams will do it too.
  • I want to drift off with psychedelic soundscapes: The six-hour millennium set is your starting point, along with my beloved Fukuoka 2000. But definitely seek out some of the late-nite summer festival improvisations: 2003 Tower Jam, 1998 ambient set, the ball square and drive-in jams of recent years, and if you can find a good copy, the flatbed truck jam from summer 1996.
  • I want haze and noise: 2003-2004 have them in spades. If you don’t need variety of form or sound, look up the June 2004 shows; avoid the August shows, they’re all shit. The peak of this era might be the August 2003 IT Festival, which showcases every aspect of Phish’s mid-career development except virtuosic showmanship.
  • I want soul-searching lyrics: This is the wrong band for that, but try Trey’s 2019 Ghosts of the Forest project — written at his dear friend’s deathbed, far and away the deepest thing anyone in the group has done, with a couple of stone classic songs (‘About to Run’ deals more directly with his nature than anything else he’s written). The Trey movie deals with this project and it’s just beautiful.
  • I want uplifting all-American music: Since 2015 Phish have been on an impressive run, moving more slowly than when they were young but playing with a depth and empathy they could never have managed at their peak. This is absolutely Phish’s (second) golden age, and any consensus top-30 show from the current era delivers every kind of rock-music pleasure, with two caveats: (1) Trey botches the written material sometimes, and (2) there’s a quality of settling and genial acceptance not only to the new songs but to most of the improv as well, meaning the generative antagonisms and arrogant aggression that added grit and spice to their early music is long gone. ‘Uplifting’ is right — it always makes me feel purely good. But there’s a difference between filling you with happiness and filling you with ambivalence you then happily clear away at the climax.
  • I want 13 straight shows with no repeats: The 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen’ is 13 concerts at Madison Square Garden, each night featuring donut-themed song choices, with no repeats. It’s the crowning achievement of Phish’s 21st-century second act, though it’s not really the best music even of its era. You can buy the whole thing on CD; it’s a better value than the Dead’s Europe 1972 box set, I think. Only a handful of pop musicians have ever put together a late-career turnaround and reinvention like this. I’m still in awe of them, after all these years.

  1. ‘Comedy’ comes first because for a long time it was central not just to Phish’s music but to their worldview. The lyrics aren’t just dumb, they’re deliberately silly surreal comedy; once you get this, the way the band mixed Zappa’s steely control and Beefheart’s mad surrealism, their early music opens up. Some of it is worth hearing, all of it is interesting experimental music — and its debt to the Grateful Dead is smaller than the band’s reputation suggests. 
  2. There’s a lot of good music from this era, and a handful of shows — 2/28/03, IT, maybe some of June 04 — are canonical. But overall it’s weak tea or worse, and bad drugs are the main reason. The anniversary run is unimpressive, the Vegas shows are bad, the August 04 run is terrible, and the farewell Coventry festival is a heartbreaking disaster. We can’t grade Phish on a curve, they deserve better. So do we, frankly — there’s too much good music in the world to bother with anything but Phish’s best. Note that they took years after returning in 2009 to reestablish themselves after Trey got clean, though a few early shows (e.g. 8/7/09) hinted at what was to come.