#Writing #MusicMonday: I love you a bit… by Windpearl

23 Nov

cover(It’s the week of Thanksgiving, but this album isn’t particularly festive. There’s some darkness, some hard edges. Considering that after this, there’s going to be four to five weeks of sentimental schmaltz, I chose to do a bit of counter-programming this week.)

Windpearl is a Frenchman living in China, so I’m already prejudiced in his favor as a bit of a kindred soul.

On top of that, while he only has two albums out, they are both terribly interesting in terms of his musical taste and influences.

“I love you a bit…” is a long exploration of synth, and the title is rather a pun, as at least two of the tracks are 8-bit tunes (think “’80s video game soundtrack music”), also known as chiptunes.

Chiptunes are a thing which I don’t believe I’ve brought to Music Mondays before, actually. They’re an active subgenre in the Creative Commons, and quite possibly elsewhere, and while I mostly avoid them, I’ve heard some impressive work when I have gone dipping into that particular pool. The examples here are among the best I’ve heard.

The third track, “Nestification”, in particular, is noticeably done purely in 8-bit mode, and is very, very good.

The album as a whole isn’t dark, it’s complex, with elements of darkness scattered throughout it. It’s quite good, give it a try.

Download “I love you a bit…” free from the Internet Archive.

You can also get it from Windpearl’s BandCamp page, and send money to him at the same time, all while getting it for exactly the same license.

Creative Commons License
“I love you a bit…” by Windpearl is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 International License.

Book Review: Half Life by S.L. Huang

12 Nov

coverHalf Life is S.L. Huang’s follow up to the brilliant Zero Sum Game, second in a series she calls “Russell’s Attic” for reasons I’m still not completely clear about.

Zero Sum Game was brilliant. Half Life is “merely” excellent. Call it perhaps a half-step down from its predecessor, but that half-step is because, I think, she aimed higher and didn’t quite hit the mark she was aiming for. And I’m not even sure I can explain what I mean clearly, so keep in mind that I could be wrong.

Cas Russell, our protagonist whose superpower is that she sees the world as math, is back about a year after the previous story. She’s a little bit more human, since she’s maintaining several actual friendships begun in the first book, but it makes her (quite amusingly) grumpy at times throughout the story.

This time around, she takes on two cases. And a half. Sort of.

First, a man hires her to find and return his five-year-old daughter, whom he claims was kidnapped by Arkacite, a big evil internet corporation that his dead ex-wife used to work for. But he’s maddeningly vague about details, and when Cas gets some background from her information guru, Checker, things get very suspicious — there’s no record of any daughter. No birth certificate, no vaccination records, nothing at all. She appears not even to exist, until Cas, in her preliminary investigation, comes across someone who actually saw the girl once, exactly as described.

That confirmation pushes Cas to take the case, along with some other information she comes across, because Cas has problems with corporations, or anybody really, doing experiments on little girls. (Woman after my own heart, there.)

Secondly, Checker drops a problem in her lap. The Los Angeles Mafia is after him. He was a tutor to the niece of the Mafia’s head woman, and made the mistake of sleeping with her. Which turns out to be a bigger problem than Checker seems to realize, since the head woman wants not only to kill him, but destroy his business and business partner as well, as a lesson. And she’s not open to negotiation on the subject.

Cas, being the calm, rational, and thoughtful person she is, tells the Mafia lady they have to kill Cas first, because if anything happens to Checker or her other friends while she lives, she’s going to do extreme damage to their organization.

So, for a big chunk of the story, our protagonist is going around Los Angeles with a contract out on her head. This makes for some excellent comedy.

And here’s were I hit a reviewer’s conundrum. I hate, bloody hate, spoilers. But some of what I love about this novel is (at least, arguably) spoiler-y. The true nature of what Cas is dealing with doesn’t get revealed till a solid third of the way through the book. On the other hand, it’s also in the book’s blurb. And the major premise on which the story hangs.

So I’m going to give that away, but I’m also going to (somewhat vaguely) talk about stuff later in the book, both for why I liked it and for why some aspects of it didn’t work as smoothly for me as I would have wished.

This counts as your SPOILER WARNING. I’m not going to give everything away, but I can’t avoid giving at least some of the good stuff away, because of what I want to discuss. Ye have been warned.

When Cas breaks into Arkacite and gets to the underground lab where the little girl, Liliana, is being kept, Cas’s first reaction is to draw back in revulsion and ask “What are you?”

Turns out, Liliana is an android. A really good android, good enough, both in construction and programming, to fool people who don’t have Cas’s mathematical perception. She was the dead ex-wife’s project at Arkacite. Oh, and the dead ex-wife isn’t dead.

And, as the story goes on, more androids turn up. Huang doesn’t go into details of how they were made so lifelike, but what they are not is something you’d find in a contemporary movie, all CGI and subtlety. What a few scenes actually brought to my mind — and quite to my liking — was bad 1970s TV science fiction. You know, the shows that used the “android” conceit stolen from Westworld and Futureworld, did it much worse, so you’d have an episode of, say, The Bionic Woman with androids walking around with their “faces” removed so you could see the mechanical stuff running underneath, thanks to some really cheesy prop work.

Do I even need to say that I loved this conceit? I was grinning like a madman every time it turned up.

And I’m pretty sure it was purposeful, because there are other bits of the story that are even more knowingly bonkers, and clearly intentional nods to the sorts of older thriller stories that I love and, one must presume, Huang also loves.

Things like a plot to infiltrate humanity with secret androids, and the plot being revealed at hourly press conferences (by another android, in fact).

Things like a nefarious Japanese zaibatsu (not called that, but it clearly is) interfering in the US culture for nefarious purposes.

Things like a plot to force a supervolcano to erupt, and use that threat to blackmail… somebody.

Things like the climax taking place in a super-villain’s no-kidding underground headquarters built into a volcano resting a major fault line.

Like I said, all kinds of details in the story are utterly bonkers, all in ways I truly love.

And once again, Huang’s prose, her chapter construction, her use of suspense and humor, are all totally professional, easily as good as anything being put out by major publishers, and better than most of it. For mainstream snobs who sniff that “real” books can only come from approved “major publishers”, she’s yet another example of an indie author whose work should be putting many Big Five-published authors to shame.

Now, that said, I alluded above to the story not being quite as good as the first book, which is putting it a bit too strongly, perhaps, but let me try to get at what I mean.

First, and most vaguely, Huang uses Cas’s initial reaction to Liliana to bring up an interesting thematic issue — if something passes the Turing Test, but you know it’s not real, does its reality or lack of reality matter? Cas is grossed out by the androids, a reaction that is dramatized nicely, and never once is the phrase “uncanny valley” mentioned. You don’t get talked at about it, you just see it, from her point of view.

But as the story goes on, it is made definitively and unambigiously clear that the androids do not, and cannot have self-awareness. Their programming is mimicry, and cannot become more than that.

And between the surrender of the “what is self-awareness” thematic question, and the lack of exploration of the rich thematic vein that leaves behind, exploring the human ability to emotionally attach to inanimate objects (just imagine a three year old and his favorite stuffed animal), I was left feeling unsatisfied at the rather large number of things Huang could have explored but chose not to, in favor of her (admittedly entertaining and fun) confluence of insane thriller plots.

It feels like there was something in this thematic material that spoke to Huang, that she wanted to deal with, and then, for some reason, couldn’t. Personal reasons? Lack of room in the story after all the other chainsaws she gave herself to juggle? Just not ready for it yet? There’s no way to know. But the fact that the climax includes an action that plays directly into some of this thematic material, feeling almost like an answer to a question that was deliberately not asked, it’s pretty clear that there was more here, potentially, than actually gets dealt with.

Again, this does not at all make the book bad. It’s just a missed opportunity, a potential that went unfulfilled for this reader, and with everything else working so smoothly and satisfyingly, it rather stood out.

A second bit of the story that went unexplained for no purpose I could determine was the client’s wife’s “death”. Cas is told by her client that his wife died of cancer. She relays that information to another character, who had no idea the wife died, and feels horrible for missing the funeral. Then it turns out the wife is very much alive, didn’t fake her death or anything. After that, the matter is dropped from the story. If it was meant to tell us something about her client, which I suspect it was, it doesn’t come through. He’s not manipulative or mendacious, in some ways he’s quite pitiable. I surmise that his belief that his ex-wife died of cancer was meant to show his increasingly fragile hold on reality, and his desperation for life to make sense, or something like that. But it doesn’t really work, it just comes off as a plot quirk for no apparent reason. In fact, as the book goes on, the client basically gets moved offstage and his wife steps up to fill his position in the story. So I’m really not sure what Huang intended here, and it sort of sticks out, again, because everything else is so solid.

Thirdly, her left-wing Social Justice Warrior views intrude into the story for a short space in the middle of the book, in a way I found off-putting. I applauded the way she worked her views into the first book, Zero Sum Game, because they bore directly on the story and she dealt fairly, exploring negative consequences of her avowed beliefs. All of that was to the good. In Half-Life, it comes a bit out of nowhere and feels gratuitous. The “android infiltration” press conferences lead to demagoguing and cultural hysteria, which is dramatized in a trope-ish way, but that didn’t bother me, but all the demagoguing was from right-wing social conservatives who hate gay marriage. And this socially liberal reader was jerked right out of the story during this chapter or two, thinking “Really!? That’s the best you could do?” It just feels lazy, which, again, stands out in a book where so much attention was given to all kinds of details. But, again, it’s not a big part of the book, a few chapters or so at most, and really just part of the background to the main story.

My last quibble is simply that the various plots didn’t seem to mesh together as smoothly as they could. Certainly, Huang put them together for clear reasons, but once you get to them, they seem a bit obvious and convenient, and it doesn’t come off as perfectly coherent to me.

But again, this is largely quibbling, in the face of a second novel with greater ambition than the spectacular first, even if it doesn’t quite achieve everything it sets out to do. It was enormous fun, mostly satisfying, and has me looking forward to diving into the newly-available third book in the series, Root of Unity.

You can download and read Half Life by SL Huang for free from Unglue.It under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.

You can also buy it for a very reasonable price from Amazon. I promise you won’t regret the purchase.

Xmas Music Too Soon (not actually)

11 Nov

Boy, would I like to be her Santa Claus.

Boy, would I like to be her Santa Claus.

So I’ve been doing a thing that, when it’s forced upon me, I detest.

I began listening to Christmas/holiday music the day after Halloween.

It drives me nuts that stores start Christmas on 1 November. There are logistical reasons for it, and I get that, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

(The logistical reasons, basically, amount to: customers expect Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — to be the kickoff of the Christmas season, and complain if the stores aren’t “festive” for the day. But, with Thanksgiving right before, and businesses to run, they simply cannot do the decorating and arranging and all that just the week of Black Friday, so they do it a few weeks in advance.)

It may seem strange, but this atheist, even though he’s prone to depression, loves Christmas. Adores it. That said, two months of the thing is entirely too much.

However, in this case I can’t complain. It’s all my fault. I don’t generally plan Writing Music Mondays more than a week in advance, but for NaNoWriMo, I selected everything for the month ahead of time so I would have less reason to procrastinate on actual writing. (Not that it’s worked, but that’s a different story.)

And once I had November taken care of, I thought, “Heck, why not try to find some appropriate Creative Commons holiday music?”

Apart from weeks where I’ve skipped posting all together, in 2015 I’ve done a very good job of sticking to my personal mission with Music Mondays. Every single piece of music I’ve posted has had a Free Culture license. Which means that not only can you download it and listen to it while writing (or whatever you wish to do) for free, you can also use it for any purpose you want. Put it in a Youtube video, use it in a soundtrack for your indie film, make a book soundtrack, record a cover version, use it as a sample in your rap masterpiece — anything. The licenses are already there, so you’re covered (as long as you abide them).

As December appeared on the horizon, I began to think that I was just going to have to give it up for the final month. It might seem a bit odd, but in my experience, virtually all Christmas music in the Creative Commons is not Free Culture. Yeah, the most giving season of the year, and even free-sharing artists tighten up. Weird, right?

But, between not having a wide selection left to choose from in my personal collection, and Jamendo betraying its users in its latest redesign (and possible death-throes), I went exploring. And found lots of possibilities.

The first two weeks are set, already, and are Free Culture. One is an artist who has been releasing music to the Commons since before Jamendo existed, and his earlier work is all Free Culture. His musicality is amazing, whether he’s creating techno or piano solo work, and this upcoming holiday album is all piano.

The second was an artist new to me, but the album I’m sharing was released four years ago, and I missed it somehow.

So I’ll be able to keep the Free Culture streak going for those two weeks, at the very least.

The third week, I have an album tentatively selected that has a Non-Commercial requirement, rendering it non-Free Culture, but it’s holiday jazz, so I’m leaning toward it, even if it’s not the best ever. (If you want the best ever, go get last year’s share, the non-Creative Commons Christmas with The Believers. I’m not joking. It’s that good.)

That leaves the week leading up to Christmas itself wide open. I might share somebody else’s collection of CC Christmas music (I have a few such collections bookmarked, but haven’t really explored them yet), or I might do up a holiday collection of my own, or I might find something else entirely that works perfectly. We’ll just have to wait and see how things shake out.

The Monday following Christmas might be non-holiday–related, or vaguely holiday–related, at this point I have no idea. That one I’m going to wait and see what mood hits me.

Jamendo Lies

10 Nov

Creative Commons music resource Jamendo has done a redesign, the second since 2012 (which is never a good sign).

As with the 2012 “improvement”, the current redesign also includes the “feature” of taking away functionality from users. There is no more complex searching. You get a text box, and that’s it. No refining by tags, keywords, genres, license, country of origin, language, nope, nobody needs any of that. And those of us that used it, well, too bad, but we don’t count.

In fact, if Jamendo continues true to the form of their 2012 redesign, their first explanation will be that everything is the user’s fault.

But there is worse.

Jamendo is now actively lying to its users:

Jamendo telling its users that CC-BY licensed music cannot be used in videos, which is a lie.

That is the download page for “I Will Crawl” by Jeffrey Philip Nelson. As you can see, the license is CC-BY, attribution-only. And Jamendo is telling you, before you download it, that you do not have permission to use it in a video.

The problem with that is it lacks the quality of truth. You do, in fact, have permission to use it in a video, so long as you give proper attribution to the artist.

I kicked about this the moment I saw it, complaining on Twitter and also on GetSatisfaction about the dishonesty involved. I got, as you can see, no direct response at all.

But my complaint was noticed, because the scare-language was removed.

The magically disappearing scare-language.

Note that the change also introduces inaccuracy through imprecise phrasing. “You can download this track for free.” That leaves what you may do with it after download deliberately ambiguous.

Because Jamendo appears to be run by lying corporate weasels, the scare-language was only removed from the CC-BY licensed downloads.

The lie still appears on CC BY-SA downloads:

Download page for a track from WMM album Changeover by Sim Band, with the lie that you may not use the music in a video, despite bearing a Free Culture License

And on CC BY-NC-SA downloads:

The problem here is that it’s just not true that you can’t use this music in videos. You can, so long as you abide the terms of the licenses.

Jamendo is lying to its users about the very thing on which it has built its business: Creative Commons licenses.

This is the straw that broke this camel’s back. I’m done sending any traffic at all to Jamendo. I may continue downloading music from them, but anything I share will be mirrored at the Internet Archive, and that will be the link that I share.

And I will be making great efforts to find music elsewhere, including at the Free Music Archive and BandCamp.

I’m also very open to starting a crowdfunding campaign to mirror Jamendo’s entire library of music, and setting up a site where users can find what they want, without the lies, without the abuse, without being told that they’re stupid, without any of Jamendo’s bullshit. If any database programmers have ideas on how to get that going, let’s talk.

UPDATE: Free Culture singer-songwriter Josh Woodward says on Reddit that Jamendo is now screwing over artists, as well:

[Jamendo] just snuck in a change to the licensing terms that changes the revenue share from the industry standard 50/50 split to a grossly unfair 30/70 split (which goes up a few percentage points on volume).

I begin to think that the folks at Jamendo couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel. Abusing users and artists? Morons.

#Writing #MusicMonday: Tumbling Dishes Like Old-Man’s Wishes by Jahzzar

9 Nov

CoverWhat!? Six whole months have passed since I shared some of Jahzzar’s music!? Outrageous! Let me remedy that immediately. :)

This unusually-titled album is another of Javier Suarez’s explorations of an “Americana” sound, along with previous Music Monday album Blinded By Dust, and one or two that I’ve not shared here. It’s interesting that a Spaniard does such good things with American sounds.

And not only do they sound American, but they’re fun. Cool, groovy, expressive. Lots of words apply, really.

But it’s Jahzzar, so you (should) already know that it’s really good stuff.

You have several options to download Tumbling Dishes Like Old-Man’s Wishes. You can get it free from Jahzzar’s official site, Better With Music.

Or you can get it from BandCamp, with an option to send as much money Jahzzar’s way as you see fit.

Or, finally, you can get it from the Free Music Archive.

Creative Commons License
Tumbling Dishes Like Old-Man’s Wishes by Jahzzar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

#Writing #Music Monday: Leaving Paradise by Kammerer

2 Nov

Cover[Note: I am flailing with NaNoWriMo right now, so I may not have time to rant about it, but I no longer think anybody—musician or user—should have anything at all to do with Jamendo. With their new redesign — the second in three years — they have also begun a policy of lying to their users. Outright lying. They deserve to go out of business, and the artists who use the site should flee to other services, including BandCamp, the Internet Archive, and self-hosting using the free and open source CASH Music software. So while this album was originally posted on Jamendo, I won’t link there.]

More calming, relaxed “chillout” music from Swedish composer Kammerer (or however it is properly spelled; there are at least three variations on the A). This is an earlier work, and meant to be summertime, poolside background music.

Not much to say about it, except that it’s quite good, as is most of Kammerer’s work; that it’s Attribution-only licensed, meaning you can do what you like with the music, including using it in a Youtube video without asking permission from anybody so long as you give attribution, and that it makes excellent background music for writing.

Kammerer himself says:

Some simple summerchillloungegroovestuff for the sunny ppl.

Download Leaving Paradise by Kammerer from the Internet Archive.

Creative Commons License
Leaving Paradise by Kammerer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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