Wednesday, November 27, 2013

New Ecosystem Appearing Around Ocean-Borne Plastic Waste

LA Times

The idea of new replicators arising in man-made "ecospheres" is not new in science fiction - oftentimes the concept appears in fiction as machines self-assembling out of junk. This is the one interesting idea in John Updike's confused attempt at science fiction Toward the End of Time; there are "metallobioforms" that have appeared out of our waste. In the real world there is already a well-documented and very real machine ecology, albeit a virtual one, that has appeared around the stock market. Look for resources that are important to the tool makers, and there you will find the most advanced tools. The Pacific Garbage Patch is another entity that seems like it was made for speculative fiction, unpleasant though the reality is.

Consequently it's more than interesting that there is now a new micro-ecology detected growing on plastic waste in the ocean. This paper (gated) took waste from the Atlantic, and did some pretty interesting meta-genomics to see what was growing. I'm no microbiologist but I did scan the list for medically significant pathogens; the most concerning one is unidentified Vibrio species, concerning because they cause cholera among other things. But the analysis yielded a long, long list, which also included Moraxella (which causes pneumonia) and Pseudomonas, my personal favorite bacterium, which is kind of a jack-of-all trades in terms of what it can eat and what infections it can cause, and is already used for bio-remediation since many species can eat oil and other hydrocarbons. If you can get to the paper it's especially worth seeing their network analysis of hydrocarbon-metabolizing genes.

Artificial Slum For Tourists Prove We Live in a Science Fiction Novel

One co-written by William Gibson and Umberto Eco I think. This is in South Africa. I mean come on. Article here.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Legend of Zelda, Overworld Theme, Metal Version (orig. Koji Kondo)

I don't know which I enjoy more, these metal versions of video game themes (another one here), or 8-bit versions of metal songs. Also check out Jens Bjoern's version. (Bjoern's other stuff is worth a watch.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

World-Building: Delusions and Reference in Fiction

I'm in the middle of my interview cycle right now for psychiatry residencies, and one of my interviewers pointed me to the article that the movie KPAX was based on. You may remember this as the one where Kevin Spacey is a delusional patient who thinks he's an alien...or is he?

The movie actually annoyed me because (spoiler alert) they kept it neatly ambiguous, which I think is the lazy way out. More interesting is the true story that inspired the movie, The Jet Propelled Couch, a case study of a delusional patient which appeared in Harper's in 1954. (Since the 70s people have debated whether the anonymized patient in the article was actually science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, and they have a decent case.) The psychiatrist who was treating the patient was himself a science fiction fan, and found himself eagerly awaiting installments from the patient's delusion. Ultimately the patient was cured of his delusion in exactly this way, when the psychiatrist found repeated internal contradictions in the material the patient was providing - for instance, in the distances of star systems from each other - but instead of saying to the patient "Aha! You have been caught and must now admit this is all nonsense!" the psychiatrist would suggest ways that the inconsistencies could be corrected - maybe the navigators who made the maps were using different units, and request that the patient correct the information for the next session. After enough of this, the patient finally realized he was making it all up.

This approach intrigued me because it works as a rhetorical approach with not-fully-delusional ideologues. Try this sometime. Instead of immediately pushing back against the declared beliefs, take them seriously, and follow their direct implications "out loud" for the benefit of the ideologue. This usually leads to glaring contradictions pretty quickly. This is a tough one for the ideologue, unless they're willing to come out and say "I demand you stop taking my ideas seriously!"

Many of us science fiction types enjoy learning the details of worlds and histories that don't exist, not to mention inventing our own. Scratch a science fiction fan and you may find a reluctant world-builder. But world-building doesn't require us to be delusional. (Articles on non-delusional world-building here.) I've met some frighteningly devoted Trekkies, but not a single one who thinks that Klingons existed. Then again, as a kid I did have the following odd experience: at about 14 years old, I had created a future universe where humans encountered the Ptranians, or the "space rats" as they were not undeservingly called, for their ferocity and hardiness. These unpleasant fellows evolved on a large moon of a gas giant orbiting Algedi, a place with violent, toxic geology and worse weather, and subsequently were very difficult to kill. Physically they were bipedal, covered with green and blue scales, with no hair but rather thick bristles that ran in a long mohawk-strip from their heads to their tails. In 2691 an Earth colony at 61 Cygni - to which we were only connected by light-speed transmissions - went silent, and then in 2712, the rats were here, attacking Earth. day, in the height of my fevered imaginings, I thought to myself "well if somehow NASA were to point some new state-of-the-art telescope at Algedi, they wouldn't see this planet and all the Ptranian ships right? They're not really there, right?" And I realized that for a few seconds I couldn't fully convince myself - didn't want to convince myself - that no, if there was anything at all orbiting Algedi, it wasn't space rats. It was a bizarre feeling of my thoughts about this being blocked. That scared the hell out of me. Fortunately my mind today is unclouded by delusional thoughts, which is important for someone as powerful, brilliant and handsome as myself.

All this does beg some questions about the linguistic problem of reference with respect to fiction - how can you say Yoda isn't 6 feet tall? He doesn't exist, he isn't any feet tall! - which seems (boringly) solved by recognizing that what we're really doing is interpreting inconsistent marks on a page that cause images in people's heads, which are extended according to assumed rules. Sometimes these rules are broken by enterprising writers (e.g. unreliable narrators) but somehow the contradictions and paradoxes thereby engendered do not cause the universe to implode in a pile of contradictions.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Review: Carcass, Surgical Steel (2013)

Short version: it's outstanding. Get it and listen to it repeatedly or be destroyed.

Long version: before we get to the song-by-song breakdown, a bit of Carcass history is in order; after all, it's 28 years since they first arose from their nursery of crusted iron, cracked stone and steel. One thing that this other review gets right is splitting Carcass's work into two periods, the grindcore and the death metal periods (where grind includes Reek of Putrefaction and Symphonies of Sickness). Carcass is one of my favorite bands, period, and I have listened to each of the grindcore period records exactly once, which I do not regret.[1] What's interesting is there's really not a smooth progression from one period to the next; there's really a full saltation from Symphonies to Necroticism, without any obvious exogenous reasons like personnel changes. By the way: now might be a good time to re-visit Necroticism. This record seems to be prompting that from a lot of old Carcass fans, and if you're a new Carcass fan, all the more reason. Badly simplifying, the new record is like Necroticism with Heartwork production and some Heartwork licks.

Every time a band takes the effort and money to make a record that doesn't sound like it was made in their parents' garage, the fragile underground types of the world invariably start mumbling "sellout". There aren't many negative reviews of Surgical Steel but the one negative review I've found so far seems to hail from these quarters. The ship out of the underground sailed long ago in the case of Carcass, and I'm glad that the people who like the technical death metal version of Carcass are no longer shy about telling the neckbeards to go cry it off in their parents' basements. If indeed any such basement-dwelling obscurovores are listening to the new record, then the two most stinging insults come from this album itself, which features a) an opening with a riff from a proto-Carcass recording, now given full professional production (nice catch by Michael Nelson in the first review above) and b) a whole song directly addressing said neckbeards. This latter irony seems to have escaped the neckbeard who wrote the negative review.

Me with Bill Steer and Jeff Walker outside House of Blues, Los Angeles 2006. Bill was as laid back and nice as you would expect. Jeff was as sarcastic and blunt as you would expect, but still somehow not a dick. Amott didn't talk to the fans.

In general this record continues in the vein of Necroticism and Heartwork, more like the former than the latter, with fewer neo-classical arrangements and more bizarre exotic melodies, bizarre music theory experiments[2] and skewed arpeggioid motifs (e.g. the odd ascending minor scales in Carneous Cacoffiny.) For those Carcass critics who don't like Swansong, there's not a lot here that is clearly an extension of that record, except maybe their greater reliance on metal's traditional major third harmony to build power (although to good effect). In many ways, Carcass's finest moments fit squarely within thrash - drum and bass synchronization with crunchy riffs, the use of exotic scales, and song structures that are generally not that complex. If I have complaints about Surgical Steel, they are:

1) that Amott is conspicuously absent from the album in all respects, including in the thank-yous. I can't imagine what would have prompted Amott not to be part of this other than something negative (wanting more money or personality conflicts). Not surprisingly, there's an absence of neo-classical bits seen most on Heartwork that most people had previously (and correctly) attributed to Amott; these made their first appearance on Necroticism, specifically in Incarnated Solvent Abuse;


2) that I was hoping to see a continued growth of Carcass's ability to develop songs, which talent Edge of Darkness on Wake Up and Smell the Carcass brilliantly demonstrates.[3] (Another example of what I'm talking about is some of the Tool song Eulogy.) But what Surgical Steel lacks in subtle thematic development it makes up for in volume of massive, smash-your-head-in, attention-demanding riffs nailed into the songs. Some find riff-fests like this to be a bit clinical (think Chuck Schuldiner) but if you're reading a Carcass review, that's probably not you.

If there is any stand-out change from previous albums it's a more personal feeling to the lyrics - more than before, you really feel this is Jeff Walker, telling you what's what, and that's fine - but more than that, the drums are impressive. There have been a number of comparisons of the guitars on this record to Dave Mustaine, but Ken Owen's[4] replacement Dan Wilding is truly Lombardoesque in the small touches he places, in particular the little fills just prior to the ends of phrases (see Mount of Execution).


1985: A relatively brief guitar intro which would not have been out of place on Master of Puppets.

Thrasher's Abbatoir: a straight-ahead Carcass song with fast amodal fast-picked fret sweeps and kick-snares, but with few stand-out riffs. The lyrics make this one. I guess they were worried about picking up fans for the wrong reasons: "Hipsters and posers I abhor, Welcome to the thrasher's abattoir/Detruncation, Termination, With no sedation/Emasculation, Terrorization, Extermination. This means total W.A.R., welcome to absolute poserslaught. Die...time to die...die in pain." Right then!

Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System: early in the song there's a nice melodic guitar riff in a kick-snare section, and then some of the unexpected sequences of open chords (see I Told You So, Corporate Rock Really Does Suck from Wake Up). Then that section goes straight into one of my favorite moments on the record, an excellent solo during a simple bass-driven 4/4 crunch riff, which is reminiscent of a section in Opeth's Deliverance.

A Congealed Clot of Blood: this is the song on Steel that's closest to being "part 2" of a previous Carcass song, in this case Necroticism's Corporeal Jigsore Quandary. Why? Because of the part where a slow massive evil riff is put on display to bring our infernal lord forth into this world. Hail His infernal majesty! Hail Him this night! Hyperbole? Judge for yourself:

When that riff begins, you know the death growl is coming before you hear it. Plus, they're insulting jihadis, and it's always a good thing when religious extremists are insulted.

Master Butcher's Apron: there's a nice major-third riff in an early bridge section, followed by an excellent Bill Steer bizarre backwards-sounding riff. Apparently about post-colonial dictators; this is a much more political album than anything Carcass has done before, but I blame this on our being in a more political world than in 1996.

Noncompliance To ASTM F 899-12 Standard: opens with an unapologetically beautiful harmonic descending riff, then blasts straight into speed-picked fretwork. (One of the strengths of Carcass - the juxtaposition of the beautiful and brutal. See Heartwork's Death Certificate or Swansong's Polarized.) The harmonic opening is possibly not an accident, because this song is one long insult against the underground. Here Walker's word play is back in top form (see Embodiment, Blind Bleeding the Blind), with the single-letter changes and oxymoronic phrases one on top of the other: "Artistically moribund, Soulless ghosts of the underground, By the past you are bound, Stunted at birth/Dulled, blunted, low tensile dearth metal, Melodists of soullessness, Harmonisers of the converse". By virtue of one excellent high-register bridge riff with bent notes, this is the most Archenemy-sounding song on the record. (Oddly, considering the aforementioned total absence of Amott.) The name is another pun, because ASTM F 899-12 is a steel alloy used in surgical instruments in the U.K.;[5] the demi-humans of the underground have apparently found Carcass to be departing from the regulations.

The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills: no I don't know what the numbers mean, but they're inexplicably cool. Walker mentions that there's a lot of dirty hard rock influence on this record and I think it's on strongest display here.

Unfit For Human Consumption: the tract against the meat industry on this album. The main riff is nice and fast and charges ahead (the kind that makes you involuntarily nod your head in time while listening). I wish Carcass would do more of this.

316 L Grade Surgical Steel: this is the most personal thing Carcass ever wrote, about a bitter failed relationship. In keeping with GCP (Good Carcass Practice) I had to look up a word ("wittol", an acquiescent cuckold). Oddly, I would be more disturbed by a Carcass veering into saccharine emotional exploration than by a Carcass that did a serious acoustic album (what that says about the genre or me I'm not sure). This is probably the song that most consciously develops a theme (listen here). There's also an excellent crunch riff.

Captive Bolt Pistol: one of the weaker songs on the record actually. I was a bit nervous when this was the first track released, but it's not representative of the other work here. There's a fast-picked guitar solo that's absolutely inhuman, but without that this would be a rather colorless death-thrash piece.

Mount of Execution: this is the one with the ass-kicking ending and in some American States is a valid defense for speeding and assault (give this some time). It also has a more traditional accoustic section than Carcass has used before. I'm not sure which particular horrible Latin American massacre they're referring to here, but it can't be a coincidence that Walker spent a lot of time in Mexico in the interregnum. This is the last song on the record and there's an outro that rubs some people the wrong way but it's just a nice big crunchy riff that didn't find a home elsewhere, so they put it here, because they're Carcass and they can do whatever they want.


[1] In fact I'm not even sure I listened to Reek exactly once. It was on a cassette and for this attempt, it was in a deck that automatically changes sides and then restarts at the beginning. So maybe I listened a little bit less or more than a full cycle. Either way it's like listening to an Anal C*nt record, there's kind of no point once you read the lyrics and you really can't tell anyway.

[2] A (non-metal-fan) friend did an analysis of Death Certificate for a music theory class and was forced to the conclusion that the fast riffs are 12-tone. I can't tell from listening to it and have never seen the music for it so I can't agree or disagree.

[3] Edge of Darkness is one of their masterpieces. How it ended up on a B-side collection rather than displacing one of the several weaker songs on Swansong like Firm Hand is beyond me. As a further aside I don't agree with critics of Swansong. Although it's about a 75 degree turn and a simplification from Heartwork, it was a focused effort that anticipated the late 90s return to neo-thrash and it showed Walker's song-writing skills; he is after all the punk in the band, so you shouldn't expect him to put together 14-movement pieces with ornate riffs.

[4] At the 2006 L.A. show, Walker's best one-liner was "Yes, I'm afraid Ken's in a bad place right now...England."

[5] I looked the titles up because my dad actually had several patents on types of surgical steel and the coolest thing in the world would be if one of them was in the title of a Carcass song, but the Brits have to be special and use their own alloys.

Abolish the Rules Made of Stone

Seen in the sidewalk at Church and 15th Avenue, San Francisco.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Comet ISON Is More Weird Than Disappointing

No, you can't really see it as brightly as everyone thought (not yet - but wait until perihelion) but it has some very unusual characteristics. Isn't it obvious? We're all doomed! Where's Derek Wildstar when you need him?