I’ve been listening to the same music every night when I go to sleep 10+ years now. Weird endorsement; I’ve listened to it with more attention plenty of times too. But it’s particularly good for going to sleep; calm, interesting, and comfortably familiar.
That music is GAS, Werner Voigt’s ambient techno project (Bandcamp, Youtube). The primary collection is Nah und Fern, four albums that were made over 1996–2000. In 2017 he released a new GAS album, Narkopop. Followed in 2018 by Rausch and 2021 Die Lange Marsch (a sort of remix). I like the first four most.
Ambient music is pretty hit or miss. For every brilliant work like Music for Airports or Aphex Twin’s early music there’s a zillion gormless electronica and “earth fart” recordings that fail to inspire. Furniture music is supposed to be in the background, sure. But still high enough quality to be appreciated.
GAS succeeds. It has just enough of a beat (sometimes) to make time flow without being overwhelming like regular techno or something rhythmically complex like Autechre. The sounds are richly textured with a bit of fuzz and noise to make it organic. And I like the slightly broody or sinister tone. Not scary, but they make me happy I’m snug in my home under the blankets.
Ken and I just got back from a 23 day trip exploring most of Austria. We had a lovely time although we did get a little worn out and ready for home after a couple of weeks. Along the way we stayed in Vienna, Graz, the Wörthersee, Zell am See, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Hallstatt, Linz, and Dürnstein. A nice mix of cities and countryside. I tweeted a bunch of postcards, easily viewed here and here.
My favorite places were the town of Graz and the countryside in the south from the Wörthersee through Zell am See to Innsbruck. The drive over the Grossglockner Alpine Road was a particular highlight and the lush green alpine valleys of Styria, Carinthia, and Tyrol were just a delight. Salzburg was also a very good visit. Linz was an industrial disappointment and Hallstatt was tourist hell; skip it unless you are very interested in the archaeological story.
We ate very well on this trip; Austrian cuisine is more interesting than the schnitzel-and-boiled-beef that was my stereotypical view. Lots of fresh fall ingredients. The pumpkin cream soup was particularly good. Enhanced with Kürbiskernöl, pumpkin seed oil that's deliciously nutty and green tasting. And of course plenty of fantastic sweets; the French call pastry viennoiserie for a reason. The single best meal we ate was at Pfefferschiff in Salzburg.
Drama in #PlotterTwitter this week: someone cloned Lingdong Huang’s generative art project to sell as an NFT, without permission. (Website screenshot here). The code had an MIT license so this was technically allowed but there’s something obviously wrong in selling an artist’s work without their agreement. The artist denounced the NFT as a sham. The community also condemned the appropriation. Fortunately the NFT creator cancelled the project with a thoughtful explanation. So the crisis is over but it’s left behind some complex questions about open source licenses, commercialization, and computer generated art.
Generative art code is different from other programs. With art the output of the code often has more value than the code itself. Run the program and get an art piece: it’s the art piece that is the focus. Art code is often one-off and specific, not a reusable component like a database or math library. But the source code can be valuable as a teaching aid or as a basis for someone to remix and make their own art.
The generative art world is also full of library components that artists share. Perlin noise is a great example, a random number function so famous it won its creator an Oscar. The Perlin noise algorithm was published for free reuse and there are many open source implementations. I believe no one thinks artists should pay Ken Perlin royalties or even explicitly credit him in their artworks. But we are all grateful to have access to his tool. Same goes for more technical libraries like font renderers, shape drawers, or code that renders SVG or drives a plotter. They are useful tools for making art but they do not make art by themselves. Open source licenses handle this kind of utility code pretty well. The problem is for code that itself creates art.
Of course releasing code at all is the artist’s choice: what’s the goal of an open source release? I think many artists do it mostly out of a sense of it being a public good to share methods. There was an interesting discussion about how this does not necessarily require full code: "People are forced to learn by re-implementing, and discovering their own style, rather than copying mine." I feel that strongly myself when I look at other people’s art code. There’s little joy in just reproducing someone else’s art, the creativity is in making your own. But it can help to have working code to run and modify, borrow ideas from.
Unfortunately there’s money in appropriating someone else’s art code. The NFT market has greatly accelerated the commercialization of generative art. And while that can be good for artists it also attracts cryptohucksters with divergent ethics. I’m still hoping the whole idea of NFTs (and cryptocurrencies) blows up and disappears but until it does artists should be thinking about how to protect themselves from unwanted and aggressive exploitation.
So where do we go from here? My problem-solving nature wants to create a new software license that lets artists feel safe releasing their code. Existing open source licenses don’t protect against exploitation, the open source world has firmly rejected the idea of non-commercial licenses. The CC-NC license family is good for artistic works like photographs and written works but they are not recommended for software. I think we’d need a new license. Even if the code license works it’s not clear you can copyright the output of code. So that’s a problem.
One easy thing to do now is have more discussion about how the generative art community thinks about others reusing their work. There’s a nice essay about open source hardware community norms, I’d like to see something similar for art code. I know enough about open source licenses and art to participate but the conversation needs to be driven by working artists.
I think there’s some value in exploring more of how generative art code is unique in that it creates art, but is not just a tool nor is it the art itself. Generative art has always been full of unresolved tension about authorship, now doubled down with complex algorithms like VQGAN and CLIP. Commercialization is an aspect of the authorship question.
Thanks to the Drawing Bot Discord for thoughtful discussion that informed this blog post.
Subnautica is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. It marries a good narrative with excellent gameplay and a rare balance of complex game systems. It’s beautiful too and a nice mix of the pleasure of a well scripted game embedded in what looks like a complex naturally generated world. The rest of this post has lots of spoilers. It’s been five years since the game came out but if you haven’t played it yet I urge you to consider stop reading this post and play it instead.
My first comparison for Subnautica is Firewatch. Yeah, it’s a weird comparison, but it’s more than just a similar rendering style. Both games have a very strong narrative arc, a beginning to an end. Both games plop you alone in the middle of an unknown world with mysteries to explore. And both rely on a sense of wonder, occasional fear, and beauty. But while Firewatch is a great story it’s barely a video game, it’s the quintessential walking simulator. Subnautica manages to deliver both an excellent scripted story and have great gameplay.
The primary gameplay loop in Subnautica is survival crafting games. It’s often compared to Minecraft, Don’t Starve, No Man’s Sky. It’s a fair comparison, a lot of your time in Subnautica is spent finding resources and using them to progress along a tech tree so you can explore more dangerous and rewarding parts of the game. But those other games often end up becoming very resource heavy, rewarding collecting enormous amounts of materials for mass production. Subnautica’s crafting game is much tighter. You only need a few items of each type to build something and you typically only build one thing of that type: one weapon, one upgraded oxygen tank, one Seamoth. You do end up making a lot of food and water but even that is nicely constrained; about a third of the way through once you get one planter full of Marblemelons you’re basically set for life.
I love the subtlety of the tech upgrade tree, how awkward the advanced items are. Most games give the player a power fantasy, by the time you get all the best gear in Minecraft you’re god-tier power. But in Subnautica you never get anything very powerful. You basically never get weapons or armor that let you feel safe from the sea monsters, you are always running or hiding from them. The big crafting achievement in the game is the Cyclops, the big submarine. But it’s fantastically clumsy to manoeuvre and strangely vulnerable to attack. You end up spending the second half living in the Cyclops but it always feels like such an escape to jump back out and just swim free or use the Seamoth.
Exploration in the game is greatly improved by the balance between generated and scripted world. When the game first came out a lot of people thought the game was procedurally generated; that was the hot topic (thanks to Minecraft and No Man’s Sky) and the world is so beautifully detailed. But no, in fact the whole world is static, it plays the same for everyone. Not great for replayability but excellent for game design. The orderly progression through biomes and depths gives them a game a lot of story telling structure. You never quite feel led by the nose but you work your way through signposted encounters: the Aurora, the Degassi bases, the Lost River, the very deeps at the endgame.
That exploration is also where I had a little trouble. The game deliberately is disorienting; you’re never given a map and the mini-map like sonar images are not useful for navigating. All you get are beacon landmarks you place yourself. And the game is a 3d underwater maze, with the second half of the game entirely in cave systems! I finally gave up and used a fan-made map of the Lost River because I’d gotten a little stuck and confused. That was a big help to me. Getting lost is a big part of the game, I don’t mind that being a gameplay element. But video games are such a limited medium we don’t get to use our real-world navigation skills much. That’s why games always have HUDs and minimaps, they replace your innate sense of direction. I felt that lack a little here.
Being lost in the depths of the ocean is part of the fun of the game, the occasional fear. But what really accentuates that is the sound design. The creature noises are fantastic; you’ll be cruising along picking up quartz crystals and thinking you’re safe when you hear the most terrifying moan off in the distance. Stereolocated, and you can hear it’s getting closer. Such terror! Being in the Cyclops and hearing all the creaks of the hull, the thumps as fish smack into your ship. It’s a trick as old as Das Boot but it works remarkably well in the game.
Last note of appreciation for me, the end of the game. Most games like this by the time you reach the end both the player and the game designers are worn out. They’ve shown you all they have and you’re grateful just to read the final boss fight and end screen. Not Subnautica. First there’s no boss fight, that’d be totally wrong for a game with basically no fighting. Instead you have a boss… communion? Final crafting challenge? It’s great. And then, at least the way I played it, there’s a wonderful anticlimax. You’ve solved all the mysteries of the planet and are finally ready to escape but you still have to craft the rocket and take off. Which means one last trip to the surface, one last crafting challenge. I really enjoyed the feeling of scavenging my existing base and submarine for materials to use. That shield generator was hard earned and essential to my submarine survival but now I wouldn’t need it on the planet any more, time to reuse it for the rocket ship to escape. And even that rocket ship had a lot of grace notes; an elaborate launch sequence and the ability to create a time capsule. A very thoughtful farewell in a place most games would just have a single "you win" button to press.
Subnautica really is a masterfully crafted game from start to end. Depth, complexity, beauty. A good story and great gameplay systems to support it. Quite an achievement.
I continue to be obsessed with Orville Peck. The new pleasure is his video of "Jackson" with drag queen Trixie Mattel. Compared to other Peck numbers this one is way more upbeat and light. They also play perfect homage to a classic pop and Western song while gaying it up in a fun, non-overt way. It fits right in with Peck's career of playing classic country with love and respect but making it his own.
The song is from the 60s. Written and first performed by Billy Edd Wheeler as a straight up, fairly slow country song. The Jerry Leiber lyrics are great, too, a puffed up rooster bragging about how he’s gonna cheat on his wife and her just being completely unimpressed by his strutting.
We got married in a fever / Hotter than a pepper sprout
The lyrics get modified a bit and the song gets spunkier in the best known version by June Carter and Johnny Cash. Still a country song but now played with a lot of uptempo spark. But my favorite version might be Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood looking like recently deprogrammed cult members. It’s not the best arrangement but there’s something just so authentically late 60s about it. Also it’s the B-Side for Nancy Sinatra’s Bond title song and how weird is that?
Anyway, Mattel and Peck do an excellent version of Jackson. The costuming for Orville Peck in particular is fascinating; I can’t stop staring at his ankles twisting in those amazing gold boots. In the Behind the Scenes video they say "We just really look like if neither the North or the South won. The gays won." I’m not very familiar with Trixie Mattel but I’ve come to appreciate her outlandish makeup and look. She’s perfect performing the wife in this video, just the right touch of mocking and sass.
I’m back to playing World of Warcraft. I picked it up back in March starting with the Covid lockdown. (I’m far from the only one!) Partly for something to do, partly to play with a family member. It’s been great!
I quit playing WoW in 2009. Coming back the main feeling is it’s very much the same game. Compelling mix of basic MMO RPG power growth, lots of fun side activities, social raiding, PvP. It’s all there and all just about the same. It’s a credit to Blizzard that they’ve kept the game more or less on an even keel all along and it’s comforting and familiar.
The big improvement is the game is way more casual-friendly. In the old days you’d level up to max level and then all that was really available to you was raiding, big serious events with 25 or 40 people. You really had to be in a raiding guild. Over time they added more activities; PvP seasons, reputation grinds, etc. But the real game (and real gear) required raiding.
2020 WoW has all sorts of progression paths. Raiding is still there, but a heavy emphasis on social tools means PUGs (pick up groups) are more viable. There’s even an automated "Looking for Raid" tool that will let you see a simplified version of the raid content very easily. There’s a path for 5 person dungeons in the Mythic dungeons, with ever-increasing difficulty levels. There’s even a solo progression in the Visions of N’Zoth. PvP also has significant progression and gear attached to it. All of which means they’ve made the high end content way more accessible to everyone. It’s a great change. (And lest you miss the old hard stuff, Mythic Raids still basically require a guild and serious dedication.)
Some things haven’t improved. Crafting is still dumb and mostly pointless. A lot of the top end gameplay is grindy, do the same thing every day for 3 weeks to increment a progress bar. The graphics are incredibly dated; partly to keep system requirements low, but also because they don’t want to re-do all the old graphics for modern systems and it’d look weird to have a mix. Which is a shame; the dress-up doll game in WoW suffers significantly compared to FFXIV.
The hidden strength of WoW in 2020 is all the depth of content. They’ve got 16 years of content in the theme park now and it’s almost all accessible. You can still go back and do Molten Core if you want. It won’t be a gameplay challenge, but it’s still fun to see and there’s rewards like rare mounts to encourage you. I’ve really enjoyed exploring all the content I missed in the intervening years, including some really great systems like the Garrison. (Why did they abandon that?!) There’s no other MMO that can boast this much content and it’s great fun to discover some old neat toy to surprise your friends with.
And that’s the other reason WoW is still compelling; friends and guildies. The cooperative social aspect of MMOs is nearly unique in online gaming and Blizzard has done a good job reinforcing it. My new guild isn’t the most hardcore or accomplished but we have some strong players, it’s mostly nice people, and we have a code of conduct that keeps the jerks out. I continue to be concerned about the shallowness of online game friendships just like when I quit in the first place, but it’s a fun way to wile away a few hours.
I’ve been greatly enjoying gay country & western musician Orville Peck’s new cover of the song Fancy. No video yet, but give it a listen, maybe before or while you read this post.
Fancy was written and first performed by Bobbie Gentry in 1969. But the song is best known as the Reba McEntire 1991 cover. Both performances are pretty similar, upbeat and with doowop backup singers. It’s a great song, but it feels a bit dated and strange.
Peck’s album version is quite different. He plays it spare and tragic. The song comes off a lot more dark and sad this way and to me, more meaningful. Worth noting this variant is unique to the EP; Peck’s live versions from last year I can find online (1, 2, 3) are more upbeat and read a lot like the Reba version.
But the real change Peck makes is in a single lyric.
Staring back from the looking glass
The original lyric is "half grown kid"; it’s remarkable Peck chose to bend it to gender-specific. It instantly recasts the whole song as a transgender tragedy. Which then gives so many of the other lyrics more powerful meaning. "To thine own self be true", "Said I was gonna be a lady someday though I don’t know when or how". "I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life with my head hung down in shame." It even gives the unlikely name "Fancy" a new entrendre as a chosen name, maybe a drag name.
A gay man singing a woman’s song in a baritone is always going to queer it up a little bit. But as the Esquire article notes Sam Hunt covered the song last year and it just sounded like a man singing a woman’s song, nothing too unusual. I give Peck’s LGBT stage persona plus his smart choice of changing that single word to infuse the song with something new. I sure hope he does a video for it; both Gentry and McEntire have elaborate story-telling videos for the song and I'd like to see him take a swing at that.
Peck’s still out on the fringes of country and western but happily C&W is pretty broad and welcoming. His big breakthrough might yet be Legends Never Die, his new duet with Shania Twain. The song’s not particularly queer but it’s great and must sound terrific on the radio. The video is fantastic and pretty gay.
Here's your one chance Fancy, don't let me down
I've been obsessed lately with Blixa Bargeld, the front man for Einstüzende Neubauten (and formerly with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds). He's aged remarkably well! The middle picture is early 80s Blixa doing his more-heroin-chic-than-Peter-Murphy look. The other two images are from his latest videos where he looks like your cool degenerate uncle. Looks much healthier with a little meat on his bones.
Looks aside the new album Alles in Allem is excellent. Taken as a whole it's a love letter to Berlin, with four songs explicitly about various neighborhoods and the whole thing having a Berlin cabaret feel. The two videos are a good place to start: Ten Grand Goldie and Alles in Allem. But the whole album is great and very listenable. If like me you mostly think of Einstüzende as the arty machine noise group from the 80s, you missed their turn to more lyricism. Still plenty of unusual percussion sources though, not to mention Blixa's trademark shriek. May they have another forty years as productive.
(CW: rape, racism). Ken and I watched Gone With the Wind this week. As if it were prestige TV, in one hour segments over four nights. It’s imminently watchable that way. And for a movie as early as 1939 it still feels very modern. It’s completely enjoyable by modern standards, no early film awkwardness of plotting or direction. Well written characters, amazing sets and costumes, there’s a lot to enjoy in the film.
It’s also a racist piece of shit of a film. And deeply steeped in rape culture. And these sins don’t just mar the surface; you can’t watch the movie and just sort of ignore them. The entire intent of the film is racist, the racism is woven throughout the whole story. It’s a Lost Cause fiction about a Gallant South, about how Georgia suffered unjustly under the evil invading Union forces. I was prepared for the racism part; the film is notorious for it. I was less prepared for the rape culture.
The center of the film is the relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. It’s excellently written and both actors are amazing, so the performance is exhilirating. It’s also absolutely awful. The first time they kiss, it’s as they’re fleeing the burning of Atlanta and the destruction of Scarett’s world. Scarlett keeps saying "no" and pushing Rhett away, hitting him, pleading him to stop. And he literally forces a kiss on her against a blood red sky. To the film’s credit she holds her ground, pushes him away and slaps him, but Rhett doesn’t even look surprised.
It gets worse with the actual rape on the staircase, a drunk Rhett violently attacking his wife, grabbing her and carrying her up the stairs. To impregnate her, after she’d already told him she didn’t want a second child and implied she wanted no sexual relations of any kind. The hideous thing is in the morning she’s shown waking as from a dream, with a smile, a happy smile, because apparently… I can’t explain it, it’s simply rape culture and it’s awful. Particularly for Scarlett. In many ways she’s a great character, a strong woman who survives no matter the circumstances, uses men and sexuality for her own purposes. To have her so violated and then shown to enjoy it is deeply offensive.
There’s nothing I can say about the racism in the film that’s not been said better elsewhere. Happy slaves, noble Klansman (barely disguised), the whole mythology of plantation life… it’s all awful propaganda. What I didn’t know before reading about the movie this week is how there were protests about the film both during its making and in its premiere in 1939. It was a hugely successful film but its hatefulness did not go unnoticed. Just most white Americans didn’t care. The Jim Crow South in particular was eager for a film that justified its continuing racism.
I don’t know what to say about the stereotype character Mammy. When I was a little kid I had a nanny like Mammy, a big caring middle aged Black woman who loved children. So this Mammy stereotype is deeply wired into me. And Hattie McDaniel’s performance is excellent. I particularly like how much latitude she has in the household, how she can speak the truth and be sassy and be respected. OTOH Mammy is only written as a character to support the white people in the movie. Nothing at all is said about her own life, or what the transition of emancipation might have meant to her, or whether she had her own children or life outside of being Scarlett’s minder. None of the other Black characters get any better treatment, the film is entirely blind to the reality of life in that place.
My mother loved Gone With the Wind. She loved the fantasy of the antebellum South, the costumes, the performances. She might have acknowledged the fantasy depiction of plantation life but would have found it unobjectionable. But I think what she really liked is Scarlett, a strong woman, a woman who survives very difficult times through grit and shrewdness and clever use of her feminine wiles. I don’t know what she would have thought about the rape culture, I think she bought into it as much as most people her age. That it was romantic for a man to ravish a woman. What an awful thing.
Next up: Giant.
I joined the Instant Pot religion. I mostly use it as a pressure cooker, but the fact you can also saute and brown things in it, simmer them, etc makes it really versatile. The cooking modes are confusing though and the pressure cooker is lower pressure than typical American electric pressure cookers.
Here’s a cheat sheet to temperatures for the Instant Pot. I believe these come from the official manual. There’s also great detail in this review.
Note that simmering means to keep the pot just below 100°C. It’s not quite boiling, but there’s still a little steam nucleation which makes the tiny bubbles. In an Instant Pot that means Slow Cook on Medium or High, probably with the lid off.