Sunday, July 23, 2017

Saladosity, Part 10: Dry, but Good

[This is the tenth post in a long series.  You may wish to start at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

Finally we come to the last bit of shopping that we’ll need for our salads.  Today we’re going to close out our long trip1 to the grocery store by looking at the dry goods aisle.

Spices and Seasonings

This list is surprisingly short.  I don’t have anything against dried spices per se; I just tend to use them more in cooking than in salad-making.

Salt.  Obviously you need salt.  It’s difficult to make much of anything—or at least anything you’d actually want to eat—without salt.  For the most part, we’re not using any other ingredients that might also include salt, so we get to add it ourselves.  Which is nice, because we not only get to choose what kind of salt we put in our food, but (more importantly) how much we add.

In terms of kind, for my money it’s tough to beat straight up sea salt.  Whether you like it coarse ground or finely ground is just a matter of preference, but I would stay away from the crappy iodized stuff, and contrariwise I wouldn’t bother with the super-fancy stuff, like pink Himalayan salt or what-have-you.  Good old sea salt is natural, tastes good, doesn’t require a large amount to make itself heard, and it’s fairly inexpensive to boot.

When it comes to amounts, I’m a firm believer in the “pinch.”  You can have a “little pinch,” which I would define as still being able to feel the pad of your thumb with your index finger, or you can have a “big pinch,” which to me means it’s nothing but salt between your fingertips.  If you really seriously must measure, you can always work with a big pinch equal to about 1/16 of a teaspoon, and a little pinch perhaps half that, but, really: don’t bother.  Learn to pinch.  It’s a valuable skill that never ceases to be useful.

Pepper.  By which we mean black pepper.  Now, when I was growing up, I hated pepper.  What I came to learn is, I don’t actualy hate pepper ... I just hate that crappy black pepper dust that you buy for your shakers.  My dad absolutely adores that stuff.  Whereas I can’t stand it.

Now, freshly ground peppercorns are a whole different beast.  That, as it turns out, I love.  Buy whole black peppercorns (organic if you like, but I don’t think it makes as much difference for peppercorns) and get yourself a good grinder.  (We’ll talk more about that when we get to equipment.)  And, just like I don’t actually measure salt, I don’t measure pepper either.  For me, pepper is delivered in only one unit: grinds.

Of course, the truth is, how much pepper you get out of “a grind” of your pepper mill depends on several factors, most especially the size of your grinder and how much rotational freedom your wrist has.  But, here’s the thing: how much pepper you want depends on your personal relationship with pepper.  So I don’t get fussed about exact measurements for pepper, because they likely wouldn’t work for you anyway.  Just start with however many grinds I suggest the first time you make it, then adjust for taste thereafter.  I do love pepper, but I don’t put way more pepper than you can stand in anything.  Except eggs.2

Garlic Powder.  The most important thing to note here is that garlic powder is not interchangeable with garlic salt.  Remember: we want to control how much salt we’re adding to things.  Trying to substitute garlic salt when I tell you to use garlic powder is just going to end up making everything too salty.  And too much salt is not particularly good for you—not as bad as too much lots-of-other-things, but not great either—so that would defeat the purpose of eating healthy via salad.

You can buy organic garlic powder if you like, but, as with the peppercorns, I doubt you’ll notice much difference (if any).  Could you substitute fresh garlic instead?  Well, I suppose you could.  Should you?  I personally don’t think so.  There are several spices where fresh is the same as dried, only nicer: oregano, for instance, or cilantro, or parsley, or basil.  Garlic is not one of them.  Garlic powder is just not the same as fresh garlic; they’re two entirely different beasts.  But, hey: you do you.

Optional:  In the you-don’t-need-it-but-you-might-want-it category, it won’t hurt to pick out a nice taco seasoning.  It’s hard as hell to find one without any undesireable ingredients in it: most of them have corn starch, which is silly, and almost all of them have sugar, which is just annoying and unnecessary.  Even the Trader Joe’s store brand3 fails me here—they’ve omitted the corn starch, but left in the sugar.  Et tu, Trader Joe’s?  I bite my thumb at you, sir!

So get whatever you can find.  It’ll be nice to have if you want actual meat when we come to the Mexican salad.


There is huge debate over which oils are good and which are bad.  Some like canola; some spit on the ground in disgust at the mere mention of it.  Some favor flaxseed; some say it’s vastly overrated and tastes terrible to boot.  Some rave about coconut; others claim it has more detrimental effects than beneficial ones.  I’m not here to settle these debates for you.  I’m just going to give you a few options that I myself use, and then you pick what you like.

Remember: for this application, we’re not going to be cooking anything with these.  That means it’s okay to get delicate, flavorful oils, even those that have a low smokepoint.  (In fact, delicate and flavorful is desireable; low smokepoint is just irrelevant.)  Look for cold-pressed oils wherever possible; most experts agree that extraction methods that involve heat tend to destroy at least some of the valuable nutritional bits.4

Avocado Oil.  Avocado oil is my new favorite oil of all time.  It has a great, fruity taste which is ever so vaguely reminiscent of avocados, without being strongly redolent of them, and it turns everything a delightful, delicate shade of green.  It is a bit pricey, and you can overdo it; for both those reasons, I often use half avocado and half something else, or perhaps two-thirds avocado and one-third something else, if I’m feeling saucy.  But you owe it to yourself to try some, at least once.  It’s really worthwhile.

Grapeseed Oil.  This is a weird one.  Grapeseed oil has a piquant taste that can easily overpower things if you’re not careful.  I originally bought it to experiment with it as a mayonnaise base, but that was a big flop.  Then, just to get rid of it, I started using it for my cilantro dressing, and it actually shone there, so I’ve continued using it for that.  In fact, that’s now the only thing I use it for.  If you don’t want to have an extra bottle of oil lying around, you can skip this one and substitute any of the other oils in the cilantro dressing, but I like the grapeseed there.  Just not anywhere else.

Sunflower Oil.  Sunflower oil is a great neutral oil: it doesn’t have a strong taste, and it has a decent smokepoint, so you can actually cook with it as well.  For our purposes, we’re mainly going to be using it to cut the avocado oil, lest that get overpowering.  But it’s a handy, versatile oil that you can use for lots of things, so it’s handy backup.

Fair warning: some people put sunflower in the category of “bad” oils.  My personal opinion is, it’s leagues better than corn or soy, and I personally think, from my limited research, that it beats out canola as well.  But you make your own choices.

Optional: It’s hard to go wrong with a good olive oil.  Personally, I like olive oil for cooking certain things—especially Italian things—but then, if you’re going to cook with it, you don’t need the fancy extra-virgin stuff, which you do want for cold applications.5  So I end up buying the cheap olive oil to cook with, so then I don’t want to use it in dressings, and besides I think avocado oil is more interesting anyway.

Things in Jars

Probably the vinegar should have gone here, but I stuck it under condiments.  Ah well.  That leaves only one thing ...

Dill pickles.  Now you may recall that I’m not a huge fan of vinegar, which means I don’t like pickles.  Which ought to mean that I don’t like pickle relish ... except I do.  I cannot explain this.  But I like pickle relish on hot dogs, I like pickle relish in deviled eggs—and, more relevantly, in egg salad—and pickle relish is an absolutely crucial ingredient in Thousand Islands dressing, which is one of my favorite dressings.6

But, here’s the thing: sweet pickle relish is not really healthy.  It’s usually sweetened with terrible things, and you really don’t need the sweet.  Honest.  I would not lie to you.  But you can’t buy non-sweet pickle relish ... unless you go to Whole Foods and spend a buttload of money.  And we’re not going to do that.  We’re just going to make pickle relish.

Which, as it turns out, is stupidly simple.  And here’s the thing about a jar full of dill pickles: it has 0 calories, and 0 fat, and 0 carbs.  Which means the pickle relish will have 0 all-that-stuff too.  Good luck getting that with your sweet relish.

And, with that, the shopping is over!  Next we can move on to equipment.


1 Considering that our first grocery store post in this series was over 2 years ago, it’s a hell of a long trip indeed.

2 Remember that last caveat when we come to our egg salad.

3 You haven’t forgotten that I do the vast majority of my shopping at TJ’s, now, have you?

4 But not all experts, of course.  You’re never going to get all experts to agree on anything.

5 Also, if you’re going to cook with it, don’t forget that olive oil has a terrible smokepoint—worse even than butter—so you should only use it for cooking low and slow.

6 Note that, from a Whole30 perspective, Thousand Islands is completely cheating, unless you’ve found some Whole30-approved ketchup.  See the condiments post for more ideas on that.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Another lost week ...

The clock has gotten away from me this weekend and I’ve run out of time to prepare a post for this week.  I’ll continue to soldier on and claim that there’s a chance of having something up here for you next week.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Musings on the past, and on the future

I’m once again locked into that mode where I’m wrestling with a thorny problem for $work, and behind on some personal/family chores as well.  Add to that the fact that our A/C doesn’t work and the “feels like” temperature outside was 111° today, so that I spent a good deal of my weekend time in the pool, and that our middle child has a friend over for the night so that I’ve had to do a minimal amount of “entertaining,” and I just don’t have the time (or energy) to devote to a proper post this week.

Now, I know that this scenario is becoming all too common lately.  And that’s a shame, because I have no shortage of topics that I want to write about.  And, even if all of you (or I suppose all of the potential “yous”) have actually taken my advice and nobody is reading this blog, that doesn’t particularly deter me.  I like having a place that I can reference by throwing out a link to in an online discussion, or a place where I can point my family to if they want to understand me a bit better.  To expand on that last point, The Mother is a scrapbooker: she’s constantly taking pictures and making pages out of them, and our children don’t necessarily look at them ... right now.  But I’m sure one day they’ll be pleased to have all those pictures to remind them of the good times they had as kids.  Similarly, most of my family (even The Mother herself) don’t pay a lot of attention to my ramblings from week to week.  But I have faith that, someday, they may be interested to go back and learn some things about their old man that they might not remember ... or maybe even never knew.

So I do intend to keep this blog limping along, even considering the recent reductions in posting frequency.  Whether you, dear reader, will keep tuning in to read the next installment—or just to see if there is a next installment—well, that’s entirely up to you.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Thrashomatic Danger Mix I

"Dog Will Hunt"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

“Angry” music is stereotypically associated with teenage boys.  I certainly was a teenage boy once,1 and I listened to my share of angry music then.  But I never really stopped.  I find there to be something cleansing in music that you need to crank way up or else it’s not worth listening to—music to make your ears bleed, music to headbang and thrash and pogo to.  I was, in fact, exactly 26 years old when I heard these lyrics:2

No new tale to tell,
Twenty-six years on my way to hell.
Gotta listen to your big-time, hard-line, bad luck, fist fuck.
Don’t think you’re having all the fun:
You know me, I hate everyone.

Now, I certainly didn’t hate everyone back then ... but, you know, everyone has those days when they just want to say “fuck the world.”  And when those moods hit me, I mainly want to put in some music that fuels my rage—“unchecked aggression music,” I sometimes call it—because, after I’ve finished listening to that, after my adrenaline has shot through the roof then slowly wended its way back down, after I’m physically exhausted from the jumping around that is absolutely required to keep up with the beats of these songs ... after all that, I just feel better.  These are songs that (at least for me) stoke my rage, sure, then whirl it around, carrying me helplessly along, then the music stops and my rage is gone.  It washes into me, through me, and then out of me.  This is not music which makes my black moods worse: this is fucking therapy.

Of course, this is not to everyone’s tastes.  There will be lots of F-bombs (three just in the post so far), and some people don’t like that.  There will be screeching guitars, and some people don’t like that.  There will be screeching vocals too, and some people really don’t like that.  So if this mix is not your cup of tea, I can dig that.  But, if you’re open to some good, old-fashioned, “angry” music, I think you’re going to enjoy the shit out of this one (profanity very much intended).

Now, some people have a tendency to pick an angry music genre and stick with it: punk, or metal, or industrial, or grunge, or what-have-you.  I’m a bit more eclectic, so this will definitely be an “all of the above” approach.  Why limit yourself?  You’ll see all those subgenres represented below, plus more specific variations—speed metal, or hardcore punk—and other styles as well, such as nu-metal (which is not quite metal), skate-thrash (which is not quite punk), funk metal (which is not quite anything but itself), and some just plain pop that got out of control.  And whatever in that rage soup that we only brush lightly here in volume I you can rest assured will be more fully explored in volumes to come.

This volume actually started out life as a pre-modern mix.3  Most of the tracks that were on the original version are retained here, and mostly in the same order.  However, I’ve also taken the liberty of expanding it and diversifying it somewhat, to reflect my chameleon moods (by which I mean that I have many shades of black).

Let’s start by looking at what may well be my absolute favorite unchecked agression music: industrial.  Early industrial (which I generally refer to as “proto-industrial”) is not, in my opinion, very good.  It’s messy and experimental, much like no wave, only even more chaotic, if such a thing can be imagined.  This phase is epitomized by Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, and especially the granddaddy of all industrial, Einstürzende Neubauten, who were known for things like beating hollow metal pipes against the concrete walls of underpass tunnels and calling it music.  While I don’t much care to listen to that sort of stuff, I do acknowledge that I owe a great debt to those bands, because without them we wouldn’t have the great industrial bands of today.  I like to think of industrial as being split down the middle, with the guitar-based bands on one side, such as Big Black and Ministry, and the synth-based bands such as Nitzer Ebb and KMFDM on the other.  And, of course, bridging the two, the perfectly balanced guitars-and-synth-working-together of Nine Inch Nails.

For this volume, we have two entries from the life-changing NIN, including the one I quoted at the beginning, “Wish.”  I was originally going to try to restrict myself to only one, but “Wish” is just too perfect to leave off, and there was absolutely no way I was going to bump “Sin.”  Off Reznor’s amazing first album (which really did change my life, in some ways) Pretty Hate Machine, “Sin” vies with a lot of other great candidates: “Head Like a Hole,” “Terrible Lie,” “That’s What I Get” ... hell, nearly the entirety of that first album could fit here.  But there’s a special place in my heart for “Sin.”  Perhaps it was playing it at a college party once and seeing a good friend of mine really get into it,4 or perhaps it’s just the perfection of the lyrics (“you give me the anger; you give me the nerve”), but I just adore this song.  It really gets under my skin, to steal a few more of its excellent words.

But the industrial train doesn’t stop there: we also get to hear from Ministry, with their amazing “Stigmata,” and Big Black, with the insanely good “Kerosene.”  Both of these bands can be hit-or-miss with me.  Ministry has a few other tracks that I think are almost as good as this one,5 while Big Black has hardly anything else which comes close.  But these two songs are just fucking brilliant.  Again, the lyrics are a big part.  Here’s a bit of “Stigmata”:

Just like a car crash,
Just like a knife,
My favourite weapon
Is the look in your eyes ...

There’s also a line about “chewing on glass,” which is pretty much what the music sounds like, but in a good way.  And then there’s “Kerosene,” which absolutely has to be the number one most perfect song ever written about the hell of living in a small town:

Never anything to do in this town
(Live here my whole life)
Probably learn to die in this town
(Live here my whole life)
Nothing to do, sit around at home,
Sit around at home, stare at the walls,
Stare at each other and wait till we die,
Stare at each other and wait till we die,
Probably come to die in this town ...

The music for this tune is bass-heavy, menacing; it stalks you, like a kerosene fire, waiting to pounce on you ... which, eventually, it does.  “Kerosene” (and Big Black in general) was another introduction by the same friend of mine who first played me “Goo Goo Muck” by the Cramps and made me truly appreciate “Troy” by Sinead.6  She always said it was the only song that could make her dance on the table ... so naturally we played it often at parties.  But above and beyond the fondness of my personal connection, it really is just an amazing song that you sort of have to hear to believe.

Moving on past industrial to grunge, we of course couldn’t have a mix like this without throwing in some Nirvana.  My original cut at this mix included “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but it was just too obvious ... and, anyway, that’s not the best/thrashiest song on Nevermind.  I personally give that honor to “Lounge Act,” whose third verse features some of Cobain’s best tortured screaming while still being a very hooky tune somehow.  To complement Nirvana in the Seattle grunge scene, I went with a more obscure option—Mudhoney.  Who really shouldn’t be obscure: the half of Green River that didn’t go on to form Pearl Jam7 became Mudhoney, and, while they may not have been as influential in the popularization of grunge as their fellow Seattleites Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, or even Alice in Chains, honestly, they kick more ass than most of those other guys put together (and that’s saying something).  Mudhoney’s first album is their rawest, and therefore their best, and I was torn on which track off it to include here.  After narrowing it down to two, I finally went with “Get into Yours.”8  It’s a fairly short track—as are many of the songs here9but it gives you a good idea of the Mudhoney style.

When it came to Boston grunge, I could of course have gone with Dinosaur Jr, or even Buffalo Tom, but in the end there really is no substitute for the Pixies.  Of course, the Pixies were more than just a grunge band, but, if you had any doubt that they were at least a grunge band, put them to rest with the two offerings I present here.  Off of Doolittle, there is the classic “Debaser,” in which Black Francis would like you to know that he’s got him a movie, slicing up eyeballs (oh ho ho ho!).  But the grungiest Pixies album of all has got to be Trompe le Monde, from which I chose “Planet of Sound,” which is just an amazing ride that builds to a frenetic wail by the end.  It’s not to be missed.

Now, when it comes to heavy metal, I confess I’m not much of a fan.  My favorite Metallica album is the Black Album, which I gather many hardcore metalheads felt was a bit of a sellout album for them.10  But even on the original iteration of this mix I knew I couldn’t realistically put together something called “Thrashomatic” with including some Metallica, so I went to a friend of mine who was a huge Metallica-head and asked for some ideas.  After rejecting many (many) suggestions, I finally decided that “Trapped Under Ice” wasn’t too awful, and it might grow on me.  (Which in fact it has.  A bit.)  When I built this version of the mix, I also decided to throw in the one and only Anthrax song I like: their cover of Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time,” which I find simultaneously hilarious, headbanging, and almost subversive.  I’ve used it as the volume closer here.  Of course, I’ve now pretty much shot my speed metal wad, and future volumes may just have to fight over “Enter Sandman.”

Which leaves us, among the big four, with punk.  Of course the huge names here are the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, and I’ve not included either of them, which is probably a bit sacrilegious on my part.  But I did throw in a short Black Flag tune—“I Don’t Care,” which, despite being a bit macho, I still think is an absolutely great snippet of hardcore punk.  Moving from the late 70s to 1990, I next went to Sonic Youth’s album Goo, which is a fantastic album that you should run out and buy right now.  Sonic Youth is a bit of a bridge between punk and nu-metal, and they can do feedback-laced noise-rock with the best of ’em.  “Mary-Christ” is the hardest thing on Goo that I actually like; anything harder than that (e.g. “Mildred Pierce”) is a bit too angry even for me.  Finally, when looking at modern punk, you’re talking about two major bands: Green Day, and the Offspring.  While I’ve no doubt that something appropriately gnarly off Dookie is looming in our future for volume II, for this volume I chose “Bad Habit,” which is certainly the greatest ode to road rage ever written:

You drive on my ass,
Your foot’s on the gas,
And your next breath is your last ...

Looking at the choices which are a bit of a mixed bag, there’s Suicidal Tendencies, who are ostensibly a hardcore punk band, but who also evince elements of skate-thrash and funk metal.  Many people favor “Institutionalized” for a Suicidal choice,11 and, while that’s an amazing song, I fell in love with “You Can’t Bring Me Down” when I first heard it.  Probably mostly because of Mike Muir’s confrontational lyrics: not only does he advise his listeners that they wouldn’t know what crazy was if Charles Manson was eating fruit loops on their front porch, but he also points out that:

Yeah, maybe sometimes I do feel like shit.
I ain’t happy about it, but I’d rather feel like shit than be full of shit.
And if I offended you, oh I’m sorry.
But maybe you need to be offended.
But here’s my apology, and one more thing ... fuck you!

But let’s not give short shrift to Rocky George’s amazing guitar work on this track either.

I also threw in a track from the Vines—the magnificent “Get Free”—which I suppose is categorized as nu-metal, and one from the Butthole Surfers, who are generally not considered categorizable in any way.  Not all their music is angry, but it’s all somewhat mindbending, and their bizarre “Human Cannonball” is actually fairly tame for them.  But it’s plenty punky enough to warrant inclusion here.  Then we have whatever you want to call Bad Brains ... mostly I’ve heard them referred to as “hardcore.”  Now, hardcore is a term which was originally short for “hardcore punk,” and it applied to bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks.  Somewhere along the line it became shorthand for a strange marriage of punk and metal, and then it sort of became its own thing.  And Bad Brains is the hardcoriest of hardcore, as far as I’m concerned ... I can listen to very few of their songs in a row before my eyeballs start to bleed a little.  But “Soulcraft” is certainly the best of their best, and I couldn’t omit it for this mix.

Well, there are some Bad Brains songs I can listen to without physical damage, and that’s because 30 – 40% of Bad Brains’ output is actually reggae.  Not like reggae-tinged, nor reggae-influenced, nor even reggae-infused ... just plain straight up reggae.  I don’t know if there’s a word for bands that do partially thrashy-ass hardcore music and partially laid-back reggae, but, if there is, it also applies to 24-7 Spyz, who have some absolutely fantastic reggae gems on their debut album Harder Than You.12  When they’re not doing laid-back, they’re amping up with a branch of hardcore that’s probably closest to funk metal: nice strong basslines, and just a touch of hip-hop sensibility that’s hard to put your finger on.  I find “Grandma Dynomite” in particular to be an incredible piece of thrash, and there was never any question in my mind but that it would be showcased here.

Thrashomatic Danger Mix I
    [Dog Will Hunt]

        “Trust Me” by Jesus Jones, off Doubt
        “Wish” by Nine Inch Nails, off Broken [EP]
        “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” by Primus, off Sailing the Seas of Cheese
        “Mary-Christ” by Sonic Youth, off Goo
        “Human Cannonball” by Butthole Surfers, off Locust Abortion Technician
        “Bad Habit” by The Offspring, off Smash
        “Debaser” by Pixies, off Doolittle
        “Grandma Dynamite” by 24-7 Spyz, off Harder Than You
        “Dad I'm in Jail” by Was (Not Was), off What Up, Dog?
        “Soulcraft” by Bad Brains, off Quickness
        “Sunless Saturday” by Fishbone, off The Reality of My Surroundings
        “Kerosene” by Big Black, off The Rich Man's Eight Track Tape [Compilation]13
        “Trapped Under Ice” by Metallica [Single]
        “Waiting Room” by Fugazi, off 13 Songs
        “Get Free” by The Vines, off Highly Evolved
        “Planet of Sound” by Pixies, off Trompe le Monde
        “I Don't Care” by Black Flag, off Everything Went Black [Compilation]
        “Sin” by Nine Inch Nails, off Pretty Hate Machine
        “You Can't Bring Me Down” by Suicidal Tendencies, off Lights ... Camera ... Revolution
        “Get into Yours” by Mudhoney, off Mudhoney
        “Stigmata” by Ministry, off The Land of Rape and Honey
        “Lounge Act” by Nirvana, off Nevermind
        “Got the Time” by Anthrax, off Persistence of Time
Total:  23 tracks,  78:39

Genre-wise, that only leaves us with funk metal.  Again, there are two big names here—Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus—and, again, I’ve chosen only one representative.  We may see the Peppers here eventually (although honestly they’re mostly better suited for a different mix14), but Primus can thrash a bit harder when they put their minds to it, in my opinion.  “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” is the ultimate expression of that,15 and it was always on this mix, quite near the front—it may have been the original opener, in fact, though I can’t recall now.  The lyrics are not particularly angry, per se, but they are Primus-typically whimsical and, as an added bonus, they provide our volume title.

For more excellent examples of funk metal, I’ve chosen Fugazi’s not-nearly-well-known-enough “Waiting Room,” which is one of my all-time favorite bass-heavy thrashers.  It lends itself to moshing most excellently—I had some friends that had a band and they used to play a cover of this song, and I’m pretty sure it was mainly to watch me attempt to mosh to it.  And then we have Fishbone, architects of my all-time favorite party song.16  Not everything Fishbone does is funk metal, but they have a knack for it, and The Reality of My Surroundings is the album on which they achieve it most often.  “Sunless Saturday” is a vicious attack on urban decay full of power chords, a thumping bassline, and some fine trumpet work by Walter Kibbey II.

Which just leaves us with the two “what the fuck?” choices.  Our volume opener is the opener for Jesus Jones’ second and best (by quite a large margin) album, Doubt.  While the majority of this album is full of slick pop gems like “Right Here, Right Now” and “Real, Real, Real,” there are also a couple of surprisingly hard-edged tracks there as well.  There’s the sludgy “Stripped,” reminiscent of the electro-industrial of bands like Stabbing Westward or Machines of Loving Grace.  But it’s the sudden blast of “Trust Me” that really blew me away.  It sails in smoothly on a meager feedback tone, there’s four almost quiet drumstick hits, an electronic voice says “trust me: I know what I’m doing” ... and then the guitars and drums just explode.  I don’t know what you normally expect from Jesus Jones, but I bet it isn’t this.  It’s only 2 minutes long, but it’s the perfect opener.

Finally, there’s the bizarre little minute-and-a-half that is “Dad I’m in Jail,” by the ever-eclectic Was (Not Was).  A lot of their music has a bit of a soul feel (such as “Spy in the House of Love” or “Walk the Dinosaur”), but they are far-ranging, which explains why we’ve seen them so far on mixes as diverse as Bleeding Salvador, and Moonside by Riverlight, which is just about diametrically opposed to this particular mix.  “Dad I’m in Jail” was a weird little snippet that I first heard in the background of Pump Up the Volumea movie which is decidedly average, but that song really stuck with me.  I had almost forgotten about it when I happened to pick up a copy of Was (Not Was)‘s What Up, Dog? in a used CD store one day and nearly hooted in delight upon perusing the tracklist.  I bought it mainly for that one track, but there are 1517 others to recommend it as well.  “Dad I’m in Jail” is a gleeful, cacophonous, discordant jumble, with distorted cackling from David Was that’s just perfect when you’re feeling a need to vent.

Next time, let’s take it way down from this energy level and go back to something much more soothing.


1 Yes, yes: long ago.  But once.

2 Primarily because Trent Reznor and I are very close to the same age.

3 Remember, that means it was originally a one-off mix tape, back in the early 90s.

4 There’s something energizing about watching someone you care about really throw themselves into a song.  We’ll see it again when we get to “Kerosene.”

5 And I’m sure we’ll see them on upcoming volumes.

6 And, honestly, I think she may have introduced me to “Stigmata” too, now that I think about it.

7 Via Mother Love Bone, of course.

8 And we’ll see that other choice on volume II, I’m sure.

9 I think this sort of music just lends itself to shorter songs.  Unchecked aggression is hard to maintain over long periods.

10 Which—let’s be honest—is probably why I actually liked it.

11 And we’re sure to see that one on volume II, because, you know: all I wanted was a fuckin’ Pepsi!

12 Which produced, so Wikipedia tells me, the first ever video to get played on 120 Minutes, Yo! MTV Raps, Hard 60, and Headbanger’s Ball.  Just to give you a taste of how eclectic they were.

13 If you just want something downloadable, you can also get “Kerosene” off of Atomizer.  But you really owe it to yourself to pick up Rick Man’s Eight Track if you can find it.

14 Which we will come to, of course, in the fullness of time

15 Again, just my opinion ... but, then, it’s my mix so it’s my opinion that counts, don’t ya know.

16 And the only exception to the No Reuse Rule.  See the series list for full details.

17 Yes, fifteen!  Quite a bargain for a single album.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Perl blog post #55

As promised and/or threatened last week, this week I’ve done a new post on my Other Blog.  It relates to some long-awaited (well, at least I was long awaiting it) updates for my latest CPAN module, Date::Easy.  If you’re into that sort of thing—Perl, and CPAN, and dates, and whatnot—you should totally check it out.  If everything I just said is gibberish to you, you may have to wait yet another week for anything sensible to show up here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day malaise

I was hoping I could get a post this week, as I’ve been pretty spotty lately.  But in the end I was defeated by Father’s Day, which took up quite a bit of time, although in a much more enjoyable fashion than recent events.  I’m hoping to put up something Perl-related on The Other Blog long about mid-week, as YAPC is this upcoming week and I won’t be able to attend, for the first time in several years.  So I’m hoping to achieve an update to one of my CPAN modules in lieu of actually being there.

Anyhow, the short answer is, you get no post from me this week, unfortunately, and next week I’m likely to just point you back to my mid-week technical Perl post, so I’ll try to get back to a more normal schedule the week after that.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Curse of the Computer Gods 2: Double Trouble

About 8 days shy of six years ago, I made a post that started with these words:

You know, the hardware gods hate me.

And it’s still as true today as it was back then.

The bulk of my weekend has been spent wrestling with reinstalling Linux on both my laptops.  So far, I’ve been mostly successful on one.  Still a long way to go.  And not enough time or attention to stop and make any nifty blog posts for you.  But, hey: at least your life doesn’t suck as much as mine.  You can always comfort yourself with that.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Saladosity, Part 9: The Rest of the Cold Stuff

[This is the ninth post in a long series.  You may wish to start at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

Coming close to being done with the grocery store—honest.  Today we’re going to pick up a few refrigerated goods (other than the meats and cheeses, which we already covered).  I’ll try to keep it brief.1


Now, I know that some nutritional tribes shun dairy (most paleo, and in particular Whole30).  If that’s your flavor of food religion, then you can just skip this section.

Milk.  I admit, I’ve taken to buying organic milk recently.  Not particularly because I can taste the difference, but I think mainly just because I’m using “organic” as a proxy for “treats their cows well.”  Which is getting dangerous these days, as more and more “factory farming” outfits try to jump on the organic bandwagon.  Of course, “organic” also encompasses “rBST-free” and “not treated with antibiotics,” so at least I’m getting those.  And a bit of research on the old Internet tells me that (at least as of 2010), organic milk must come from cows that spend part of their lives roaming around freely, and that’s really the part that I want.  But there’s no doubt that, unlike the price differential between organic veggies and non-organic choices,2 organic milk is quite a bit pricier than the alternative.  So if you’re looking to skip organic anywhere, here’s probably the best place.

Another consideration is lactose intolerance.  I personally don’t have any issues unless I consume milk in large quantities.3  However, at least one of my kids is pretty sensitive to the lactose, so we’re now buying lactose-free milk.  If they make organic lactose-free milk, I haven’t discovered it yet.  (But, if I do discover it somewhere, I’ll probably buy it.)

Then there’s the question of fat content: especially if you’re in one of the low-fat camps (like the Weight Watchers tribe), you probably care less about organic and lactose-free, and more about 1% or maybe even skim.4  I happen to think milk fat is in the category of “good fat,” but obviously opinions will vary widely.

The short answer is, get whatever milk you can get that fits your exact needs.  Maybe the only guideline that’s really useful across all the options is, buy local where you can.  Keep your local farmers in business, man.

Sour cream.  Milk is nice and all, but sometimes you just gotta have some sour cream.  It’s excellent for dressings of all sorts, plus making homemade dips out of.  Again, I’ve been buying organic lately, and the only real downside of that is that it tends to separate on you.  If that disturbs you, first remind yourself that this is one of those things you just deal with because you’re eating actual food now.  Then, get a big spoon, and stir it up.  The end.  Seriously: if separated sour cream (or yogurt, or whatever) is the worst problem you’ve got, you’re one lucky individual.


Here again, the main thing I personally look for is some indication that the chickens are being treated well.  To that end, I often favor “cage-free” over strictly organic.  Still can add a noticeable chunk to the price, but honestly I’ve come to really dig the taste of wherever my local TJ’s is getting their cage-free eggs from.  I like to buy the biggest ones I can get (the “jumbo” size, typically even larger than the “extra large”), and I happen to get brown where I live.  Honestly, there’s really no difference between brown and white eggs.  Just depends on the particular strain of chicken.  But there’s no difference in taste, or health value, or any of that.

I’ve heard it’s possible for eggs to go bad if you let them sit around long enough, but I wouldn’t know.  Eggs in our house never last that long.


Making your own guacamole has recently gotten so popular that it’s sending people to the emergency room.5  Well, I say “screw that.”  Trader Joe’s has an absolutely divine guac which comes in 16oz packages, and even Costco has a really great option which comes in even handier 8oz cups.  Sure, I could make my own ... but this series is all about easy, right?  As long as the ingredient list is good (which it is in the both the options above), and it tastes good (both do), then what more do you really need?

Besides, guacamole vacuum-packed like either of the above options will keep in the fridge for several weeks, which is way more than your homemade stuff will.  That’ll be gray in under 24 hours.  (Note: You can still technically eat the guacamole when it’s gray.  It just doesn’t look very appetizing.)

And that’s it for the cold stuff.  Next time, we’ll do our very last bit of shopping.  For realsies.


1 But, you know: no promises.

2 At least in my part of the country.  Your mileage, obviously, may vary.

3 For instance, I had to give up eating big bowls of cereal, even long before I decided to cut out most grains, because the resulting cramps just weren’t worth it.

4 Personally, I say: if you’re going to drink skim milk, may as well just add some white dye to water and call it a day.  But, hey: you do you.

5 And that was but one of literally dozens of articles I could have linked you to.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sick of too much fun

Did you ever come home from vacation only to get sick?  Well, that happened to pretty much everyone in our house this week.  On the one hand, you end up being off from work for 2 weeks instead of one (more or less).  On the other hand, it’s totally not worth it.

Let me stop right there before I give you way more information than you really want to know.  Next week should be more productive.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

80s My Way (Intro)

[This is a post relating to my series about music mixes.  It’s not a proper post in the series, because there’s no actual mix featured.  However, it provides some background for some (hopefully) upcoming posts which will be part of the series.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

While our musical tastes tend to evolve over time, there’s something to be said for the axiom that the music of our youth will always hold a prominent place—perhaps even the primary place—in our hearts.  In particular, I have a theory (unproven, true) that your favorite type of music is most often going to be the one that you first discovered when you diverged from what was handed down to you by your family.  You grow up listening to what they listen to, and you appreciate it, and maybe even come to love it.  But there always comes a time when you need to branch out on your own and find music that is uniquely yours.  When you need to prove that your musical taste is not just a reflection of someone else’s, but its own beast, capable of discernment and culture.  Whatever music it is that you latch onto at that point ... that’s your music, forever and always.  Even if you don’t listen to it all the time, even after a few decades have passed and your tastes have matured, it will always have the capacity to transport you and transform you.  First loves have power.

For me, the time of my musical discovery was the 80s.  I turned 13 just two months before the decade rolled over, and that was right around the time I began wondering if there was more music than the 50s early rock-n-roll and rockabilly that formed the majority of my father’s record collection.  Oh, sure: I loved all that stuff—Chuck Berry, and Bill Haley, and Roy Orbison, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Del Shannon.  But I was starting to discover another side to pop music: a stranger side, infused with synthesizers and riddled with surrealistic lyrics.  You see, I was witnessing the birth of what would eventually come to be called “alternative” music.  It was, back then, a giddy mix of post-punk, new wave, and synthpop, with vestiges of punk and psychedelia, and influences from reggae, swing, and even some of that rockabilly my data was so fond of.  And, jammed sideways into all of that, a second burgeoning musical movement that was cross-pollinating with alternative, each infusing the other with their style and techniques: hip-hop.  This was not my father’s rock and roll.

Now, the 80s means different things to different people.  For some, it’s stadium rock: “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, and “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, and “Juke Box Hero” by Foreigner.  For others, it’s glam metal (Bon Jovi and Def Leppard and Quiet Riot), or rap (Kurtis Blow and Run D.M.C. and Beastie Boys).  I listened to all that at the time, and still listen to much of it today.  But that is not my 80s (although my 80s will touch on all of them).  My 80s is strictly alternative, in all of its amorphous, broad-ranging and far-reaching, over-inclusive-to-the-point-of-making-a-single-name-meaningless glory.  And, when I started making the current crop of mixes, back in the mid-2000s, I knew that one of those mixes had to be 80s My Way.

And the name was obvious too.  Even though I love Journey and Foreigner and Styx and Queen and all the rest, and even though some of those songs are ultra-classic and just as emblematic of the 80s as any I would want to hear, I wasn’t going to include them.  I would include way too many mega-hits to satisfy any discerning musicologist looking for hidden gems of the period, but I would also include way too many totally obscure songs that never charted anywhere to keep the attention of casual fans looking for an injection of nostalgia.  It really is going to be a mix (a mix with many many volumes) that will probably only satisfy me.  Although I hope it has some redeeming value to others, and I certainly won’t refrain from putting it up in this blog series.

I also made what would come to be a fateful decision on how I would organize the mix: chronologically.  Now, on the one hand, rough chronological order is a fairly reasonable choice for a retrospective on a decade.  But it also presents significant challenges.  My first, crazy idea was to arrange the volumes like so:

  • volume I: 1979 – 1981
  • volume II: 1982 – 1983
  • volume III: 1984
  • volume IV: 1985
  • volume V: 1986 – 1987
  • volume VI: 1988 – 1990

(We’ll talk about the decision to include ‘79 and ‘90 in just a moment.)  I liked the symmetry of telescoping in on the middle years, where the true heart of the 80s would no doubt lie.  Also note that I graduated from high school in 1984, so this also has a good deal of personal relevance for me.  But the first problem is, the music itself just isn’t going to cooperate.  I ended up with nearly 3 hours of tracks in 1982, for instance—1982 was just a powerful year, for whatever reason.  And, unlike with other mixes, I can’t just cut songs, or defer them for a later mix: with the chronological scheme, they either have to go where they go, or they have to get gone.  And most of the songs I picked weren’t really optional: it wouldn’t be my 80s without them.  So I had to lob symmetry out the window and just let things expand to fit what they would fit.

Another big problem is that music isn’t always so easily pinned to a particular year.  There’s the year it was recorded, the year it was released, and the year it charted, and those aren’t always the same year.  And picking one of the three doesn’t help: does “release” mean when it was released as a single, or released on its album, ’cause those can be different, and can be in either order.  Or what if it’s a song by a British or Australian group, but it was released in its home country before it was released in the US, which would be when I would have heard it?  If you choose charting, do you use the date it entered the charts, or when it peaked?  Which charts do you use?  Each country has its own charts, and the US has several (the “Modern Rock” Billboard list is probably the most relevant, but that doesn’t even show up until 1988).  For many songs, it doesn’t matter which marker you choose: the year ends up being the same.  But there were several songs where I ended up with my choice of two years to pick from, and a couple of wacky cases where I had three.  In all those cases, I just stuck it where it felt right to me ... it’s the 80s my way, after all.

But the biggest problem, of course, is that doing things in chronological order like this means I pretty much have to plan out the whole thing before I can really start finalizing any of the individual volumes.  Which sucks, and it explains why I’ve been “working” on this mix for many years without making any real progress.  But lately I’ve decided to get serious about finally producing something, and the one of the first things I realized is that I have to set some ground rules.  This mix is not going to be like any of my other mixes for many reasons, and it’s going to have its own set of rules which are different from the rules I usually use.  So I thought I’d do a separate post on what those rules were so I can refer back to it when I eventually get around to start posting volumes of this mix.

Without further ado, then, the Rules of My Eighties Mix Volumes:

It’s okay for the 80s to bleed out of its boundaries a little.  Like any decade-based cultural trend, 80s music does not magically spring into existence on January 1st, 1980, and cease to exist with a small pop on midnight of December 31st, 1989.  One of the first things I realized when I started compiling songs was there were some really important “80s” songs which were released in 1979, in particular “My Sharona,” which is so utterly archetypal of 80s music that it would be criminal to omit it for the sin of being ahead of its time.  Likewise, there are a few tracks released in 1990 that were still pretty 80s, although nothing so important as “My Sharona.”  Of course, I could go back to 1978, or forward to 1991, or even further in either direction.  But I had to draw the line somewhere, so the 80s is “officially” 1979 – 1990.  At least for my purposes.

One song per artist.  This is a much more controversial decision, and I struggled with it for a long time.  But there’s just too much damn music otherwise.  Even restricting myself to one song per artist, I’ve already amassed over 12 hours of music, and I think I’m probably going to end up closer to 15.  If I started bending the rules, even if only for some of the truly prolific 80s greats such as the Cure, Depeche Mode, INXS, R.E.M., etc, this mix would rapidly get so out of control that listening to it would be a chore instead of a joy.  Which sort of defeats the purpose.  So I’m going to end up leaving out some favorite songs because I wanted to choose a different song by that artist, and people are just going to have to deal with it.

What counts as “the same artist” is entirely up to me.  Adam and the Ants is not different from Adam Ant, but the (English) Beat is different from General Public.  It’s just whatever feels right to me.

The “No Reuse Rule” is out the window.  It’s just too hard otherwise.  I tried following it for a while, but a lot of the truly great songs were immediately ruled out because I was already using them on another mix.  And that’s not what I want my 80s mix to be: a collection of 80s songs not good enough to show up on other mixes.  Still, my decision to choose a lot of the bigger hits, which I tend to avoid on the other mixes because they’re too obvious, means that I won’t be breaking the No Reuse Rule as much as you might think.  But I will break it sometimes, and I’ll just have to be okay with that.

I’m okay with going over 80 minutes.  Normally I like to keep my volumes under 80 minutes, and I very rarely break that rule.  On the one hand, 80 minutes is a bit arbitrary—it’s how many minutes you can fit onto a standard recordable CD without overburning—but, on the other hand, it’s also turned out to be a pretty unit of time for how long I can listen to one thing (or one style of thing, or one theme of things) before I start to get bored.  But I’m not going to cut a really cool 80s song just because it would cause me to blow an arbitrary time limit.

There are no mix starters.  It’s just not that kind of mix.

I’m more flexible on transitions.  Transitions are a pain in the ass for this mix.  Songs which are close together in time often start and end the same way, and the lack of variety can make it hard to find tracks which butt up against each other well.  And there are no bridges at all.  I’ve just done the best I can, and that’s the best I can do.

So those are the rules.  There will still be volumes, even if they run a bit long, and there will still be volume namers.  (In fact, the first two volumes are already named, and their names were insanely obvious once I started picking songs.  I’m hoping the others have such happy accidents as well.)  I will still order the songs within each volume by whatever order I think makes that volume work best—similar songs may go together, or I may want to choose interesting tempo variations (slow songs leading to mid-tempo leading to fast songs, etc).  The volumes themselves will be in chronological order (given the caveats above), but the songs on a particular volume will not.  And, as always, every song will be something I consider a good song.  That means that your favorite 80s artist—even the alternative ones!—may not show up, just because I never liked them as much as everyone else.  But that just because, this is the 80s ... my way.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sentiment for the Day

Mother’s Day has come around again, and I’ve found myself pondering (as I do about every two years or so) how much I have to be thankful for in The Mother.  She’s not my mother, it’s true ... in fact, she is but one of many mothers that I appreciate for their hard work and devotion.  There are mothers that I rely on at work, at my chiropractor’s office, in my children’s homeschool groups, and even at my grocery store, where I go at least once a week and everyone there knows my name.*  Of course, not all the women who work at those places are mothers, and many of them I have no clue whether they’re mothers or not.  So I think it’s safe to say that those particular mothers I appreciate for reasons totally separate from their motherhood (although no doubt their many good qualities are informed by their motherhood).

Of course, there are still other mothers that I appreciate specifically for their maternal nature: mothers of friends, mothers of my children’s friends, even The Mother’s own mother.  Perhaps especially her, as she has often been quite supportive and quite helpful throughout the years I’ve known her.  But, let’s face it: the most prominent role of these women in my life is their children, and motherhood is a lot more than just giving birth.  Many of these latter kinds of mothers have done nice things for me personally, and of course I owe them for the gift of raising lovely human beings—no small task!—but, still, it’s not the same level as The Mother herself.

And naturally there is my own mother, whom I’ve written about before.  My mother and I have a fractious relationship, mostly revolving around me telling her how much it annoys me that every time she calls me I can’t get her off the phone, followed by her apologizing and promising to do better for the next hour or so.  But that’s just the present: there are plenty of past things to appreciate my mother for.  There is no doubt that my mother played a huge role in making me who I am today.  And yet ...  You know, I’m not sure where exactly the line is, but this is just about the point in my life where the time I’ve spent in close proximity to The Mother will surpass the amount of time I’ve spent with my mother.  That’s one of those factoids that seems both weird and right at the same time.

So The Mother, out of all the mothers, is at a level all her own.  There are no other mothers—perhaps not even any other peoeple at all—that have given me as much to appreciate as this mother.  That is something truly worth celebrating, which is really what Mother’s Day is for, I suppose.

Of course, Mother’s Day is one of those holidays invented by greeting card companies, right?  Just an excuse to sell more cards, so the story goes.  Except that, if Wikipedia is to be believed, it was actually invented by a woman named Anna Jarvis, who wanted to honor her mother Ann, a social activist and Civil War nurse who herself had organized “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to advocate first for public health and later for peace and neutrality during the war.  Ann died during the second week of May in 1905, and Anna began her campaign to establish Mother’s Day that same year.  The first official Mother’s Day celebration was in 1908, in Anna’s hometown of Grafton, West Virginia; by 1914, she had convinced both Congress and President Wilson, and the holiday was official.  Granted, the commercialization (by Hallmark, among others) was not far behind: by 1923, Anna was organizing boycotts of her own holiday, threatening lawsuits against greeting card companies, and crashing candymakers conventions.  She (supposedly) said:

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.  And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself.  A petty sentiment.

So railing against the commercialization of the holiday is only a decade younger than the holiday itself, and both were initiated by the same individual.  But the point is, the commercialization is newer: not by much perhaps, but, no, Mother’s Day wasn’t invented as an excuse to sell greeting cards.  It was invented by a daughter, to honor her mother, who in turn had organized other mothers.  So, as it turns out, celebrating the many reasons we have to appreciate the various mothers in our life is what Mother’s Day is all about after all.

Right now there are potentially some difficult times ahead for our family.  Oh, there’s plenty of good things going on in our lives too: we’ve got season passes to Disney again this year, we’ve got a decent amount of money in the bank at the moment, and summer camp is coming up for 2 of our 3 human children.  But I’m particularly glad for The Mother right now, because I don’t think we could make it through the tough times without her, and we’d have none of those good things without her because she’s the one who organizes all that.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to express how much we need her.  Sometimes when you try to say it, it comes out sounding insufficient.  “I really appreciate you, you know.”  “Yeah, yeah ...”  State it too simply and it sounds perfunctory.  Belabor the point too much and it sounds overblown, as if you’re trying too hard.

But perhaps this is the one day of the year when we can say—when I can say—how much she is needed without it sounding trite or overly effusive.  Perhaps this day, of all days, I can say that, without her, we would be lost, facing a gap between what we have and what we need that would threaten to overwhelm us in its immensity.  We would all be hard-pressed to dress ourselves in the morning, much less carry on living normal lives throughout the day, without her guidance, her patience, and her love.  She gives much and takes little in return.  She puts up with an inordinate amount, but she asks for very little for herself.  She’s not used to asking for help, so she just doesn’t.  She likes to provide for us, so she does.

It is my hope that I can convey to her how much she is loved and appreciated, but I fear that is beyond me.  We may have to content ourselves with these feeble annual attempts, fall short as they inevitably will, and know that we fail, year after year, but keep trying anyway, because it’s the best we can do.  I suppose we could just assume that she knows.  But it seems poor enough thanks as it is.

One day it’s possible that the right words will just fall out of the sky.  Not likely, perhaps, but possible.  Until then, we’ll have to be satisfied with a simple “thank you.”  It may be inadequate, but it’s earnest, and it’s the best we’ve got, for now.  For now, please accept our thanks, and know that our appreciation and amazement at all you do runs deeper than we can properly express.  Even when we don’t bother to try.


* In a bizarre way, I suppose my local Trader Joe’s is like my own personal Cheers.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

GM Philosophy: Playstyle Matters

When starting a new D&D game, there are many things you want to get new players on the same page with, and other entries in this series have addressed several of them.  But perhaps one of the most important is to figure out what style of game you want to play.  Now, there are many different ways to categorize style of play, but I’ve come up with one that I think will make sense to everyone: you can either play a Conan-style game, or a Game-of-Thrones-style game, or a Lord-of-the-Rings style game.*

Now, to fully understand what those different styles mean in concrete terms, we should discuss what D&D’s fifth edition (affectionately known as 5e) calls the “Three Pillars of Adventure.”  From their online basic rules:

Adventurers can try to do anything their players can imagine, but it can be helpful to talk about their activities in three broad categories: exploration, social interaction, and combat.

Exploration includes both the adventurers’ movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.

Social interaction features the adventurers talking to someone (or something) else. It might mean demanding that a captured scout reveal the secret entrance to the goblin lair, getting information from a rescued prisoner, pleading for mercy from an orc chieftain, or persuading a talkative magic mirror to show a distant location to the adventurers.  ...

Combat ... involves characters and other creatures swinging weapons, casting spells, maneuvering for position, and so on—all in an effort to defeat their opponents, whether that means killing every enemy, taking captives, or forcing a rout. ...  Even in the context of a pitched battle, there’s still plenty of opportunity for adventurers to attempt wacky stunts like surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield, to examine the environment (perhaps by pulling a mysterious lever), and to interact with other creatures, including allies, enemies, and neutral parties.

This explicit distinction between the three different aspects of roleplaying is new for 5e.  Previous editions (and a majority of other PnP RPGs, for that matter) have been all about combat.  It’s a bit refreshing to see the other “pillars” get some love, especially if you believe as I do that roleplaying is storytelling: a good story needs some good fights, sure, but a string of constant battles glued together minimally with various other bits does not a story make.  You need a balance of all three.  But of course you can lean one way or another (or another) pretty hard.  Which brings us to the 3 styles.

A Conan-style game is all about killing things.  Recall your fondest memories of the archetypal barbarian: Conan fighting a giant serpent, Conan holding back hordes of wild Picts single-handedly, Conan using a giant sword to lop off a wizard’s head.  Oh, sure: there’s a few other bits as well—sometimes you have to fool some guards in order to get into the wizard’s tower to lop off his head, and sometimes you have to survive the dangers of the swamp where the fell beast lurks—but, generally speaking, Conan wanders around, kills things, and takes their stuff.  It’s just what he does.

Contrariwise, a Game-of-Thrones-style game is all about politics.  Think about the most iconic Westeros moments: Littlefinger saying to Ned Stark “I did warn you not to trust me,” Tyrian talking himself out of the dungeon in the Eyrie, Cersei consistently crushing her enemies without ever having to stab a single person.  Again, there will be aspects that don’t involve interaction (duels with Kingslayers, wandering around the frozen tundra beyond a giant ice wall), but mostly it’s about diplomacy, treachery, and manipulation.

Then you have the Lord-of-the-Rings style, where you know there’s going to be an epic quest with many obstacles to overcome.  The big set pieces here are things like the chase through the Mines of Moria, Sam and Frodo trying to sneak past entire armies of orcs in Moria without being seen, or Aragorn’s amazing tracking of Merry and Pippin.  In a Lord-of-the-Rings-style game, you’re certainly going to have to fight a giant spider or two, and you may have to talk some walking trees into helping you take down an evil wizard, but mostly it’s going to be about the journey and all the challenges you face along the way.

Now, one thing to note here is that each of these has a different balance among the three pillars.  For instance, say we rated the amount of each pillar in each style of game on a scale of 1 – 5.  A fully Conan-style game might be rated: Combat 5, Exploration 2, Interaction 1.  And a Game-of-Thrones-style might be: Interaction 5, Combat 3, Exploration 2.  Whereas a Lord-of-the-Rings-style might be: Exploration 4, Combat 3, Interaction 2.  At least those might be the numbers if we were trying to emulate the trope namers as closely as possible.  But of course we’re not locked into those numbers: each pillar is like a dial, and we can turn it up or down.  So, if we wanted to play a Conan-style game but with a lot more social interaction, we could change it to Combat 5 / Interaction 3 / Exploration 2.  Or say we wanted to play Lord-of-the-Rings-style but we also want to kill things more than anything else—just crank the combat up to 11, so to speak, and get Combat 5 / Exploration 4 / Interaction 2.

But now I hear you thinking, “wait a minute ... I thought a focus on combat was what defined the Conan-style.  If we crank up the combat dial on Lord-of-the-Rings-style all the way, haven’t we just turned it into a Conan-style game?”  No, not at all.  Because the focus on the different pillars turns out to be just a characteristic of the various styles; what actually defines the styles runs deeper.  The tales of Conan are a series of disconnected adventures.  Robert E. Howard once wrote:

In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.

So a Conan-style game is basically just a set of adventures whose only connection are the lead characters.  Now, they won’t “skip about” the way Conan stories do—they’ll happen in chronological order, and the characters will grow stronger and more deadly as the campaign progresses.  So, if the characters can be said to have any goal at all, it would only be personal growth: to gradually become better and better at what they do, which is mostly killing things in the classic Conan style, but could be exploration or even interaction, if we’ve twiddled the dials.

Contrast that with the Game-of-Thrones-style, where the characters have very definite goals that revolve around gaining more power and respect and influence (which is what politics is all about, really).  Most of the characters tend to do that through social interaction—Tyrian, Varys, Littlefinger, Cersei ... even Daenerys becomes quite an astute political animal as the story progresses.  Jon Snow is probably the only real exception to this rule, and even he has to learn to navigate the political waters of the Night’s Watch.  So the goals of the characters in this style of game are to gain more and more importance, eventually perhaps becoming rulers of their own kingdoms.  (Some early D&D games often focussed on this style, particularly settings like Birthright.)  Though this is most commonly achieved through interaction, you could imagine a campaign where characters amassed military might and conquered their kingdoms, or carved them out of untamed wilderness.

And the defining characteristic of a Lord-of-the-Rings-style game is the quest to defeat evil: in this type of campaign, you are assured to have an evil artifact to destroy, or an evil sorcerer to slay—or preferably both, as Frodo and the Fellowship do.  While Frodo and Sam work on getting the Ring into Mount Doom, Aragorn and Gandalf lead the main forces to Sauron’s door to confront him.  (Although note that the combat aspects of this latter confrontation are downplayed even there.)  There may be other stories along the way—one could convincingly argue that that’s exactly what The Hobbit is—but overall the entire campaign is going to seem like one overarcing storyline when you look back on it.  And that will be true even if you had to mostly kill things to defeat the great evil, or if you just had to talk it to death.

So, when we first decide to sit down and play D&D, one of the first things I want everyone to agree on is what style we’re going to play.  Are we going to go with the Conan-style, having a series of mostly disconnected adventures, probably focussed on killing things and amassing treasure?  Or perhaps we want a Game-of-Thrones-style campaign, focussing on rising to the upper echelons of nobility and perhaps even acheiving godhood, almost certainly with lots of political maneuvering and finessing?  Or would we rather see a Lord-of-the-Rings style epic quest, no doubt including solving puzzles or even crimes, wandering through or taming nature, and avoiding traps set by long-lost civilizations?  All of these things can be fun, but if we’re not all on the same page, some of us are going to be bored, and eventually disappointed.  At the very least we can set the expectations of the players appropriately: you may think constantly wandering around killing everything you encounter is boring,** but you can’t complain as much about it if you had your chance to opt out at the beginning but agreed, however reluctantly.

Thus, playstyle matters.  It matters because roleplaying is storytelling, and it happens to be shared storytelling, and all the storytellers need to be on the same page.  Otherwise we end up like those stories crafted by grade-schoolers, where each person gets to contribute a single line to the story, and the whole thing ends up being a schizophrenic mess as each narrator tries to wrest control back and force the story to go in the direction they had envisioned.  In the end, those exercises rarely produce good stories.  Because the participants didn’t agree beforehand on what type of story they were telling.  In the case of D&D, you know you’ve already agreed to a fantasy story.  But there are still several different kinds of stories that fall under that rubric, and we need to choose one.

Because, once all the players are aiming in the same direction, the net effect will be magical.


* The fact that these are the top 3 things I mentioned would be likely to be in everyone’s shared experience (when talking about how roleplaying is storytelling) is no accident.

** This practice, by the way, is sometimes derogatorily referred to as being a party of ”murderhobos.”

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Down with the sickness

I had a post planned, and even started, for you this week, but the gods of plague and infection have descended upon our house, and 2 of 3 of our human children (and 1 of 3 of our feline children) are now under their sway.  After 3 days of cleaning up a number of bodily fluids (and no end in sight, if I’m to be honest), it just doesn’t seem practical that I’m going to be able to complete and polish a full post.  So, sorry for the delay, and please tune in again next week.  You know, except for the part where you shouldn’t be reading this blog at all.  But, aside from that: come back next week.  I’ll have a proper post then.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Salsatic Vibrato V

"Love's a Big Witch Doctor"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

There are several mixes I reach for when I’m feeling happy.  But Salsatic Vibrato is almost certainly the one I reach for most often.  As such, it’s one that I’m always looking to expand on.  Here’s the latest installment.

For any mix that achieves a volume five or higher, you’re looking for the same thing: a good balance of the artists you hear from every volume, bring back some old favorites that you heard from once or twice then never again, and of course bring in some new blood to keep things fresh.  Salsatic Vibrato V does a pretty good of achieving this goal, if I do say so myself.

For the solid favorites, we of course could not do one of these without Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, who gave us 7 songs on the previous four volumes, so of course they’re back for two more.  Having thoroughly mined my favorite album of theirs,1 I’m still exporing the rest of their catalog, including returning to This Beautiful Life for “I’m Not Sleeping,” which is, despite its title, not even remotely somnolent, and going for the first time to Save My Soul, their album of New-Orleans-inspired music.  This latter album is quite possibly my least favorite outing of theirs, but even a “bad” BBVD album is still pretty damned good, and “You Know You Wrong” is a rollicking, fun tune that I couldn’t pass up.  Eight to the Bar didn’t show up until volume III, but they’ve put in a strong showing since then, with three songs in two volmes.  This time I stray for the first time past their best, Behind the Eight Ball, to bring you “Calling All Ickeroos!”  You probably don’t know what an ickeroo is.  Go listen to the song; you’ll work it out.  Similarly, Lee Press-On and the Nails showed up in volume III and have been with us ever since.  For this volume I chose one of their most upbeat tunes: “Enjoy Yourself.”  This is an old jazz standard, first showing up in 1949 performed by Guy Lombardo, and later covered by various people from Louis Prima to Bing Crosby.  LPN’s version is a pretty great one, and very emblematic of what makes them perfect for ths mix.  Plus it’s one of their few songs where it’s not either Lee or his lovely wife Leslie singing, but rather both.

Not really a “returning” artist, Lou Bega is actually pretty standard for this mix, although we did miss him last time out.  But now he’s back with opener “I Got a Girl,” which does a great job of setting the mood for the rest of the volume.  In the properly returning category, you may remember we hit the soundtrack to Swing way back on volume II.  Well, now Lisa Stansfield is back again with “Ain’t What You Do,” another old standard, this time all the way from 1939, once sung by Ella Fitzgerald (among others).  Stansfield’s version is upbeat and appropriately brassy.  And Koop we haven’t heard from since they named volume III for us, but they’re back as well.  “Summer Sun” is off their second album, Waltz for Koop, which is perhaps slightly less jazzy and more electro than the excellent Koop Islands, but also a bit more upbeat overall.  “Sun” is another fantasic Yukimi Nagano vocal,2 just as bright and invigorating as its name implies.  Meanwhile, we haven’t heard from Royal Crown Revue since volume II, mostly because they’re low on my personal list of retro-swing favorites.3  But they get a good one every now and again, and “Trapped (in the Web of Love)” is pretty hip.  (And, as an added bonus, it provides our volume title.)  Finally, ska greats Madness are back again with their magnificent mostly-instrumental “One Step Beyond.”  Despite basically having only 3 words,4 “One Step Beyond” is an awesome track, fully worthy of inclusion here.

When it comes to new artists, the real find here is Brass Action.  A Vancouver-based ska band, I first heard them in the very good movie Horns, based on the excellent book of the same name.5  “The Devil Down Below” (which is the song used in the movie, for obvious reasons) is a simply amazing powerhouse track that transcends the power-ska label and becomes something greater.  “Chicken House,” their track on the second half of the volume, is not as strong (few things are), but it’s a solid effort that really helps elevate the long run of ska tunes.

In the unsurprising category, we need some electro-swing, no?  Instead of Caravan Palace, I went with Austrian electronica artist Parov Stelar’s best effort in that vein, “Jimmy’s Gang.”  It’s a bright, poppy instrumental that really highlights that subgenre.  It’s also no shock to see Meaghan Smith here finally: after hearing her on Moonside by Riverlight, Sirenexiv Cola, and Slithy Toves, we surely knew that all that brass had to lead her here eventually.  “If You Asked Me” is one of the most upbeat tracks off the insanely good Cricket’s Orchestra and works perfectly between LPN and BBVD.

Probably the best part about this volume, though, is the combination of two runs, glued together by Combustible Edison’s half-minute instrumental break, another short piece from the Four Rooms soundtrack.6  The first, shorter, run is only two songs, but two songs of great jazzy-hip-hop.  First we have our centerpiece, the classic “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” by Us3.  Released within a year of Digable Planets’ “Cool Like Dat” and of a very similar style,7 some people think of “Cantaloop” as a bit of a rip-off.  But it was the (slightly) bigger hit, and, honestly, I just like it better.8  I follow that up with Mocean Worker, another artist I discovered via LittleBigPlanet.9  The son of a well-known jazz and R&B producer,10 Mocean Worker (“mocean” rhymes with “ocean,” by the way) is a DJ who is probably just as famous for doing remixes as for putting out original work.  Almost all of the latter is instrumental, and “Swagger” is my absolute favorite: infectious, groovy in the fullest sense of the word, and just happy-making.

Then, after the bridge, we kick off a 4-song ska run, which makes this the most ska-drenched volume yet.11  We kick it off with the hardy power-ska of the Interrupters, who seem to be desperately trying to resurrect the glory days of the subgenre, headed by acts like Rancid and Goldfinger, some 15 years later.  “Take Back the Power” is easily their best, and it’ll reach out and grab ya by the throat.  Then on through the Madness tune and finishing up with the second Brass Action tune.

And then we have “2-6-5-8-0,” which leads me to ruminate on the vast difference an ocean can make.  On one side of the Atlantic, Kim Wilde is known as a one-hit wonder for her undeniably catchy “Kids in America.”  On the other, she’s something of a mega-pop star, with 25 hits in Britain’s top 50 (17 in the top 40 in the 80’s alone), several #1 songs in France, and top 10 hits in Germany, Belgium, and Scandinavia.  She got a Brit Award (Britain’s Grammy) in 1983, and holds the record for most charted British female solo act.12  Her debut Kim Wilde is actually quite a good album, unlike some of those release in the 80’s which are 80% filler and 20% pop hit.  I’ve owned it, off and on, for probably 20 years or more.  Not one of my all-time favorites, but a nice listen nonetheless.  The track I’m using here has a kickin’ brass section and an almost (but not quite) ska feel that nevertheless earns its penultimate spot in this volume’s ska run.

Salsatic Vibrato V
    [Love's a Big Witch Doctor]

        “I Got a Girl” by Lou Bega, off A Little Bit of Mambo
        “Ain't What You Do” by Lisa Stansfield, off Swing [Soundtrack]
        “Enjoy Yourself” by Lee Press-On and the Nails, off El Bando en Fuego!
        “If You Asked Me” by Meaghan Smith, off The Cricket's Orchestra
        “You Know You Wrong” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off Save My Soul
        “The Devil Down Below” by The Brass Action, off Making Waves
        “Calling All Ickeroos!” by Eight to the Bar, off Calling All Ickeroos
        “Flame Is Love” by The Presidents of the United States of America, off These Are the Good Times People
        “Heard Somebody Cry” by Oingo Boingo, off Dead Man's Party
        “Weird to Be Back” by Firewater, off The Golden Hour
        “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” by Us3, off Hand on the Torch
        “Swagger” by Mocean Worker, off Candygram for Mowo!
        “The Earthly Diana” by Combustible Edison, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
        “Take Back the Power” by The Interrupters, off The Interrupters
        “One Step Beyond” by Madness, off Complete Madness [Compilation]
        “2-6-5-8-0” by Kim Wilde, off Kim Wilde
        “Chicken House” by The Brass Action, off Making Waves
        “Jimmy's Gang” by Parov Stelar, off The Princess
        “Summer Sun” by Koop, off Waltz for Koop
        “I'm Not Sleepin'” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, off This Beautiful Life
        “Trapped (In the Web of Love)” by Royal Crown Revue, off Walk on Fire
        “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire, off Greatest Hits [Compilation]
Total:  22 tracks,  75:23

Leading into our centerpiece is a three-song run of fairly unexpected candidates.  “Brass” doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you think of the Presidents of the United States of America—who are most well known for hardcore silliness, like “Lump” and “Peaches”—but “Flame Is Love” is a major departure for them that lands squarely in this mix’s bailiwick: it’s a kickass tune with plenty of brassy joy to go around.  Then we have Oingo Boingo, who often feature brass in their tunes, but are still not often suitable for this mix.13  “Heard Somebody Cry,” off their ferociously good album Dead Man’s Party, is probably a bit of a stretch here, but it’s upbeat enough, and plus I really like it.  Finally, Firewater, who we’ve seen on such wildly different mixes as Slithy Toves and Porchwell Firetime, can do brassy and upbeat with the best of ’em, and this one (“Weird to Be Back”) is pretty damned good.

Our closer this time is a genre I haven’t mined before, I don’t think: funk.  Not sure why it took me so long to get around to it, but, if you’re looking for happy, brass-oriented music, you eventually have to come to Earth, Wind & Fire, and so we have.  EW&F have quite a few tracks that would work well, but I decided to start simple, with “Shining Star.”  It’s an upbeat tune with a positive message, and I figured that was a perfect way to close this one out.

Next time around, it think it’s finally time to release my most hard-edged, uptempo mix ever.

Salsatic Vibrato VI


1 That was Americana Deluxe, you may recall.

2 Nagano sang background on “Forces ... Darling” from volume III of this mix as well as lead on “Come to Me,” which we saw on Moonside by Riverlight.

3 Although they’re very popular in general within that community.  I often say that they’re the most popular retro-swing band that the general public has never heard of.

4 “Basically” is a word which here means “not counting the silly spoken-word intro.”

5 In the book, Iggy Perrish’s brother plays trumpet for a late-night show’s band; in the movie, apparently, he plays trumpet for the Brass Action.

6 We saw two others of those on Phantasma Chorale I.

7 I suppose movies aren’t the only things that sometimes come in pairs.

8 Which is not to say that we’ll never see Digable Planets show up on this mix, because, most likely, we will.

9 Although we haven’t gotten around to him on Paradoxically Sized World yet.  But we will.  In the fullness of time.

10 Well, well-known if you’re in the biz anyway.

11 Which hopefully makes up for the lack of Latin influence this time out: there’s nothing even salsa-adjacent on this particular volume.  Sorry if that was your favorite part.  We’ll get back to it next volume.  Promise.

12 All info from her Wikipedia article.

13 So far we’ve only heard them on Totally Different Head, due to their strong new wave tendencies.