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Dec. 12th, 2016 10:28 am
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It's not that unusual for me to dream about music, or for me to wake up with a song running through my head. However, this is the first time in a long time that I've woken up with a song running through my head that as far as I can tell isn't a song I've heard before.

Annoyingly, I can really only remember the chorus. It's a super-chirpy girl-group pop song, with a chorus that goes, "But oh no!/ What about that?/ Ain't nobody gonna care about that! Oh oh!"

A google search does not bring up any song with those lyrics. It's entirely believable that this is just my brain coming up with inventive ways to get me to chill out, but if you happen to recognize this song as something that actually exists outside my head, please let me know.
Lacuna Coil recorded a Christmas song. Hah.

I've been slowly working my way through an audiobook of The Kalevala as my accompaniment to chores and errands. This morning, I was thinking about the phrase, "the dismal Sariola," which occurs quite frequently. Honestly, it doesn't seem that dismal unless you go wooing there, which is, of course, what everyone does in The Kalevala. Anyway, while I was picking out produce, I found myself idly wondering if Sariola were an identifiable place, and if one could visit it while in Finland, and what it would look like these days. I pictured a run-down gas station staffed by a single surly attendant in a little shop that carries beer of dubious vintage, a much dog-eared guide to pike fishing in the river of Tuoni, and T-shirts that read, "I made the Sampo for Louhi and all I got was a lousy betrothal."

It was something of a relief to discover that Sariola has no identifiable location and so there is no reality to contradict that mental image.
I can't remember whether I mentioned it here before, but I bought a new phone recently. I got an iPhone SE - I was pretty happy with my old iPhone 5 and I probably wouldn't even have bothered to upgrade for a while except that the screen was falling off. When I bought the iPhone SE, I was pretty much expecting to get an iPhone 5 with more storage and a somewhat better camera, and I was happy with that.

However, on Monday, I went to a concert at the Oakland Metro, and I discovered something that completely blows my mind. I took some video of the headlining band, because I wanted to show Daniel a little bit of what the show was like. Now, most cell phone videos taken at concerts sound like crap, because the music is just so loud that it overloads the sound inputs and you get tons of clipping. So, I was very pleasantly surprised when I played the video back and it sounded like this:

Somebody in Apple marketing is missing a trick somewhere. Because if someone had told me, "Get an iPhone SE and you can record listenable concert video even in the second row at the Oakland Metro," I'd have upgraded ages ago.
In a fit of idle curiosity, I just had a look at my listening statistics from for the past year, to see what I've been listening to.

In the past year, my account recorded 15,139 "scrobbles" ('s term for a play through of a track), or an average of 41 per day. Those scrobbles were spread across 5,013 unique tracks on 1,397 albums by 894 artists.

My top 10 artists of 2015 were:
1. Paradise Lost
2. Katatonia
3. Vallenfyre
4. The 69 Eyes
5. Moonspell
6. Rotting Christ
7. Amorphis
8. Bloodbath
9. BBC Radio 4 (Er, one of these things is not like the others)
10. Lacuna Coil
(If you drop the non-musical "BBC Radio 4" off the list, then the next artist on the list is My Dying Bride.)
That makes 3 artists from the U.K., 2 from Sweden, 2 from Finland, and one each from Portugal, Greece, and Italy.

My top 10 albums of the year map pretty closely to the most recent releases by my top artists. My top songs of the year, on the other hand, are all ones that feature on the "soundtrack" playlists I put together for the role-playing game I'm playing in.

Here are the top 10 songs:
1. The 69 Eyes, "I'm Ready"
2. ムック (MUCC), "Fukuro No Yurikago"
3. Paradise Lost, "So Much Is Lost"
4. Woods of Ypres, "Wet Leather"
5. Moonspell, "The Last of Us"
6. The 69 Eyes, "Love Runs Away"
7. Vallenfyre, "Splinters"
8. Tiamat, "Whatever That Hurts"
9. Twilight of the Gods, "Destiny Forged in Blood"
10. Katatonia, "My Twin"

After Spotify's Year in Music thing last year made it painfully obvious that I listen to metal, and metal, and also metal, I did actually make an effort to broaden my listening this year. I do feel that I succeeded, although clearly not in any way that made a dent in my top 10. (And besides, there are 3,353 Finnish metal bands listed on metal-archives, and I haven't yet heard them all.)
I have just been introduced to the delightfulness that is Saffire - The Uppity Blues Women, and I've gotta share with y'all.

First up is a song that we all need sometimes: "Bitch With a Bad Attitude"

Second is a song that is the best reclaiming of the term "Thunder Thighs" since this: "There's Lightning in These Thunder Thighs"
Nooooo! It's not exactly a surprise that Apple is discontinuing the iPod Classic. But I'm still dismayed at the lack of any suitable replacement. I have hopes for the Geek Wave when it comes out.

Tackling the problem on the other end, I might be willing to be less fetishistic about carrying my entire audio collection on one device if there were software that made it easier to ensure that the things I actually wanted to listen to were on the device at any given time. (I suppose I could probably manage this with a collection of smart playlists in iTunes - ideally I would like something like: fill up the iPod with a) music I've purchased recently, b) stuff I've been listening to a lot lately, c) unplayed podcasts, d) the next few unplayed Doctor Who audios from Big Finish productions, e) fill any remaining space with a random selection of music. I think that most of those could be done in a smart playlist, although I don't think that iTunes really understands the concept of a sequence of audio plays.)

Of course, my current iPod Classic is still going strong, despite my having partially backed my car over it some time ago. So it may be some time before I have to worry about replacing it.
The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything...Fast (Audiobook)The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything...Fast by Josh Kaufman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a start, I don't recommend getting this book on audio. It's well-narrated, but the chapters on learning programming and learning to play go would benefit a lot from visuals. (All the visuals are available from the book's website, but since I usually listen to audiobooks when I'm not sitting in front of a computer, that didn't do me a whole lot of good.)

This book is an interesting mix of how-to and memoir. The how-to part starts from the now-famous assertion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill…and then makes the happy assertion that it only takes about 20 hours of focused practice to get competent at a skill. Kaufman then lays out a check list of what you should do to maximize the results that you get out of your first 20 hours of practice. The principles seem to me to be good ones- some are things that I already do when learning something new, and some are ideas that are new to me.

The second and much longer part of the book is a kind of memoir of how Kaufman applied these principles to learning several different skills: yoga, programming basic web applications in Ruby, relearning to touch type, learning to play go, playing the ukelele, and windsurfing. I think it's probably a rare reader who will find all of these equally fascinating. The chapter on learning programming was fascinating, but if I weren't already half-competent at Ruby myself, I'm not sure if I'd have followed along at all. The chapter on relearning to touch type was actually unexpectedly fascinating. I found that the chapters on yoga and go dragged a bit.

Overall, this is a great read for relentless autodidacts everywhere, but get a paper or ebook copy so that you can skim the parts that you don't find as interesting.

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Doctor Who: Army of Death (Big Finish Audio Drama, #155)Doctor Who: Army of Death by Jason Arnopp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't have high expectations of this going in - the "army of the walking dead" concept didn't really excite me. I was pleasantly surprised by the first half, which is a tense, fast-paced political thriller. I loved it. (Though I might also have been riding on the high of having just seen "Night of the Doctor", which had me basically bouncing around going, "Eight! Eight!! Eight!!!" for approximately 72 hours after viewing.)

I thought the second half let things down a bit. Act 3 has a lot of plot by convenient bad timing, while Act 4 suffers from a big baddie who apparently studied at the Brian Blessed School of Dramatic Subtlety.

I also had mixed feelings about the Mary-falling-in-love-with-the-Doctor subplot. On the one hand, it was handled in a way that I thought was both very character appropriate and the way I've always pictured many potential Doctor/companion "romances" resolving: Mary realizes that she's falling for the Doctor, confesses her feelings in an awkward conversation with the Doctor, and then comes to her own realization that Ancient Space Aliens Who Routinely Decide the Destiny of Civilizations Do Not Make Suitable Boyfriends. On the other hand, I think it's a unfortunate that this story happened to be written during an era of Doctor Who in which we seem, on the whole, to be vigorously making up for all those years that we spent denying the possibility that any of the people who traveled with the Doctor might have had other than Platonic feelings for him. And so the whole subplot feels just a tad obligatory.

Anyway, I'm very happy that they've left the door open for more adventures with Mary Shelley, because she is a really fantastic companion.

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Doctor Who: The Cold Equations (The Companion Chronicles, #5.12)Doctor Who: The Cold Equations by Simon Guerrier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the previous story in this trilogy featuring newly-created companion Oliver, this really captures the feel of Hartnell-era Doctor Who. The meticulously worked-out details of zero-gravity navigation even evoke some of the show's original purpose as education television, without getting tedious.

I continue to really enjoy the relationship between Oliver and Steven, and this play does a lot to showcase it, since the second half is mostly a two-hander featuring the two of them. They present a nice contrast to each other: Oliver is shrewd, slightly devious, but very much out of his depth in the realm of time and space travel. Steven is much more open and plain-spoken, but comes from far in Oliver's future.

We also get to find out what Oliver's secret is. I think they made a smart choice to reveal it now rather than trying to string it out for suspense. I'd had my suspicions about what it was, and they happened to be correct. Oliver's confession and Steven's reaction to it were pitched just about perfectly.

I'm very much looking forward to the next installment in the trilogy.

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Doctor Who: The Witch from the Well (Big Finish Audio Drama, #154)Doctor Who: The Witch from the Well by Rick Briggs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had decidedly mixed feelings about this one. Some of the pluses: Mary Shelley continues to be just about the perfect Doctor Who companion, demonstrating an ideal blend of curiosity, resourcefulness, and fearlessness in the face of the unknown. I wish she could be a companion on the TV series. I enjoyed the two time-zone nature of the story. I know that lots of listeners have complained that it deprives us of Doctor/Mary interaction, but on the flip side, it gives Mary a chance to shine. I also quite enjoyed the characters of Beatrice and Agnes, who could both have easily been stock characters straight out of central casting, but who, thanks to some combination of the acting and the writing, really come alive.

Some of the minuses: The plot is only sustained by our heroes being idiots at key moments. It starts with the Doctor's willfully ignoring the signs that anything odd is going on with the twins. Not only is this rather at odds with his usual attitude towards new people, but you'd think that the Doctor would at least pick up on the hint that he's crossed his own timeline. When you write an 8th Doctor audio, you really don't get to pretend that he's unfamiliar with how time travel works. And then there's the long stretch of time during which the Doctor and Mary are separated in two different time zones, during which the listener is wondering when it will finally occur to her to use the fast-return switch which was carefully explained in episode 1.

On the whole, the pluses just outweigh the minuses for me, making this a reasonably entertaining if imperfect story.

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Doctor Who: The Silver Turk (Big Finish Audio Drama, #153)Doctor Who: The Silver Turk by Marc Platt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, I'm still loving the fact that a throwaway line in an early 8th Doctor audio play about the Doctor meeting Mary Shelley eventually led to a whole set of plays featuring Mary Shelley as a companion. And, of course, it's thoroughly appropriate that Mary Shelley's first proper adventure with the Doctor should involve her encountering a Cyberman.

This is an atypical Cyberman story, being set in 19th century Vienna, and featuring a pair of Cybermen from Mondas who have crashed on Earth and been badly damaged. Like the author's previous story, Spare Parts, this story highlights the individuality of the Cybermen much more than most stories that feature them, bringing out hints of the human personalities still lurking beneath their cybernetically enhanced exteriors. In lots of ways, this makes them more horrific than when they're portrayed as a mass of identical emotionless near-robots. The story also does a great job of integrating the Cybermen into a story that very much has the feel of 19th century literature of the uncanny. It feels period, while incorporating futuristic elements.

Mary Shelley makes a great Doctor Who companion - she's smart, courageous, and not afraid to take the initiative. Platt strikes a good balance in showing her adjusting to the concept of time travel and the strange things that she encounters without bogging down the story. The scene where she first speaks to a damaged Cyberman is pitch perfect - she sympathizes with and tries to help a creature that everyone else sees as a monster.

I have a few quibbles. I could do with a few less jokey references by the Doctor to Mary Shelley's future books - after a while, it not only feels in-jokey but rather careless on the Doctor's part. Admittedly, these stories are set before the 8th Doctor's most traumatic experiences with the Web of Time, but it still feels like he should be a bit more careful.

Still, if the remaining Mary Shelley stories live up to this one, I'll be very happy indeed.

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Because this is just as goofily upbeat as the original, and approximately 500% more rockin'. Rough Silk covering ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me":

So, back when I was a teenager, something that was very important to my music appreciation was the concept of the Album of Imminent Suck. Basically, if a band released an Album of Imminent Suck, which was was itself usually not a bad album, then one of two things would happen: either the band would break up or everything they released thereafter would Suck.

Each new album release by a favorite band was therefore an occasion for some anxiety, as it had to be scrutinized for the varied and subtle signs of imminent suckage. I can remember the rush of relief I felt on hearing Soundgarden's Superunknown for the first time and feeling absolutely certain that it was not their Album of Imminent Suck, and the equally crushed when I heard Down on the Upside, because despite containing some of Soundgarden's best tunes, it was the clearest example of an Album of Imminent Suck I'd heard in some time. The band proved me right by breaking up not long thereafter.

Of course, now I've reached the age at which dearly beloved bands of my youth that succumbed to Suck decades ago are now reuniting. And I find myself cautiously excited. Is it possible that my 18-year-old self did not know everything about the creative lifecycle of bands, and there might be a path back from the pit of Suck?

Soundgarden have released "Been Away Too Long", the first single from their upcoming new album, and on the basis of one listen, I'm prepared to say it doesn't suck. I wouldn't quite call it a home run - the lyrics are a little self-referential for my taste, and it doesn't have the sheer grandeur of my favorite Soundgarden tracks. But it's got a nice chuggy little guitar riff, somewhat reminiscent of "My Wave" from Superunknown.

You can listen on Soundcloud: (They've disabled embedding, alas.)

Of course, there are also bands that just defy the simple pattern of the Album of Imminent Suck altogether. My Dying Bride have seemed like they were going off the rails a number of times during their 20+ year career, but always seem to find their way back to equilibrium. They have an album coming out in a couple of weeks, and have released a preview track called "Kneel 'Till Doomsday".

It doesn't suck either, although I have an unreasonable fondness for violin played over downtuned guitars (a combination that, as far as I know, is unique to My Dying Bride), so I'm predisposed to like it:

Sherlock Holmes: The Tangled SkeinSherlock Holmes: The Tangled Skein by David Stuart Davies

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is basically Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula, and how you react to that capsule description will tell you most of what you need to know about how you'll feel about the play. My own reaction was more or less, "Well, the two don't really seem to belong in the same universe, but it could be fun."
Very minor plot spoilers, but I'll cut just in case )
I like Nick Briggs and Richard Earl as Holmes and Watson, and I thought the more traditional Holmesian parts of this were quite good, so I'll definitely be checking out other titles in Big Finish's Holmes range.

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In Conversation With An Acid Bath Murderer (Drama Showcase #3)In Conversation With An Acid Bath Murderer by Nigel Fairs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nigel Fairs plays John George Haigh, one of the twentieth century's most infamous serial killers, who dissolved his victims' bodies in acid in the belief that a murder conviction was not possible in the absence of a body. The play is largely a monologue delivered by Haigh from his prison cell just before his execution, looking back on his life, although key scenes in his recollection are dramatized by a full cast.

It's certainly an acting tour-de-force by Fairs, who manages to portray Haigh as the outwardly charming and smooth-talking fellow that he had to be in order to win the trust of his victims and evade suspicion for as long as he did. Ultimately, I have to say that it wasn't quite my cup of tea - I read a lot of true crime stories, but what tends to interest me is the detective work and forensic science involved in catching the criminal, and there's not much of that here.

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Doctor Who: RobophobiaDoctor Who: Robophobia by Nicholas Briggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were to force me to pick my single favorite televised Doctor Who story, I might well choose Robots of Death. First, because it actually seriously engages with a science-fictional idea (albeit one largely stolen from Isaac Asimov). Second, because of its visual design, especially of the robots, which perfectly illustrate the idea of the uncanny valley, being just not-human enough to be creepy. And third, because Leela's in it.

So, I wasn't entirely sure how I'd feel about a direct sequel done on audio featuring a companionless 7th Doctor. It does engage with a science-fictional idea, but it's basically the same one as Robots of Death. And it has no visual design and no Leela.

On the plus side, though, I do tend to love the solo 7th Doctor stories that Big Finish does. For one thing, they offer the opportunity to see the Doctor introduce himself to a new proto-companion. I enjoy the ritual of seeing the Doctor introduce himself to a new person and gain their trust, and it's particularly fun with McCoy's doctor because his Doctor somehow combines the bizarre mercurialness of Tom Baker with a certain gentleness.

This audio also has the 7th Doctor at his most enigmatic. I suspect that if I listened again with a more critical ear, I'd find moments where his stringing along of the other characters seems counterproductive in retrospect, but on a first listen, it helps build the tension nicely.

I was kind of expecting the storyline to be "Robots of Death 2: More Robots, More Death", but writer Nick Briggs has come up with a few twists that make it more than that. And the cast give excellent performances - I actually got a bit teary during one of Toby Hadoke's later scenes in the play. And here I thought the man was merely a funny comedian, gifted writer, nice bloke, and walking encyclopedia of Doctor Who trivia.

My only niggle is that rather than seeing this in the visual style of the original Robots of Death, my mind's eye insists on picturing something much more utilitarian and functional looking. The cast just don't sound like they're swanning around in garish eye-shadow and silly hats. The robots sound perfect, though.

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Doctor Who: Rat TrapDoctor Who: Rat Trap by Tony Lee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought this was good solid fun, though not mind-blowing. I think it suffers a bit from having the regular cast get split up and paired off with various guest cast members, leaving a lot of separate threads to keep track of. Although on the flip side, it had some very strong guest characters, and some quite emotionally touching moments near the end.

The science does annoy me a bit - as in a lot of Doctor Who it's very hand wavy ("I made a cocktail of amino acids and proteins and synthetic strings that, when injected made a radical advancement in rat genetics.") and major breakthroughs happen implausibly fast. I should just let this stuff go, really, but I can't quite. But the setting is well-realized and the action is vivid.

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Doctor Who: Kiss of DeathDoctor Who: Kiss of Death by Stephen Cole

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I thought it was really nice to give Turlough some extra back story, I found the play as a whole didn't grab me. I thought it dragged a bit in the second half, and rather unusually, I found the alien Morass really unpleasant to listen to. (Am I implying that I find Daleks pleasant to listen to? I probably do, if only because I'm conditioned to it. The Morass were both difficult to understand and sort of made my skin crawl. I think one or the other would have been acceptable.)

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