Review: x by Ed Sheeran

When I was at So You Think You Can Dance one of the songs I tagged was “Don’t” by Ed Sheeran. I liked it so much that I checked out the whole album, x, and I find I can’t stop listening to it. It’s quite good.

Sheeran is a ginger-haired young man from the UK whose looks don’t exactly match up with his voice. We’re not talking the cognitive dissonance I got from Rick Astley, but it still took a lot of getting used to seeing him in pictures and videos.

The album starts out with the track “One”, which is sort of what you’d expect from a pop singer-songwriter. It’s a nice track and it hints at Sheeran’s strong falsetto. This is followed by a slightly more upbeat “I’m a Mess”.

But unlike his first effort which was more of the same, this album is a collection of a ton of different genres and styles, and this is announced fully with “Sing”. This is a track that would feel at home on a Maroon 5 album, and it introduces his hip-hop lyrical style that is prominent on my favorite tracks.

Then comes “Don’t”. It is hard for me to listen to this track without hitting repeat. It is a wonderfully constructed tune that tells the story of a relationship that goes wrong. If you listen to it as much as I have, you come to understand how complex it really is, with my favorite bit being the spoken “don’t” a beat and a half before the chorus kicks in. Despite the somewhat downer story it tells, it makes me want to bounce around.

Keeping with the “relationship gone wrong” theme comes the fifth track, “Nina”. While it would be hard to follow “Don’t”, the strong chorus of this song works well.

The rest of the album alternates between pop songs that want to make you dance and the more traditional singer/songwriter tunes that started the album. Another favorite of mine, “Bloodstream”, on the dance/pop side of things, talks about substance abuse, and if I am to judge Sheeran’s life from this album he spends most of his time off-stage with women, drinking and smoking weed. I doubt that’s true, but it seems to be a theme.

As you get to the end of the album, “Thinking Out Loud” channels John Mayer, and it finishes with a track about terminal illness called “Afire Love” which closes with a gospel choir that creates a wonderful ending for the album.

The only weakness I found is when Sheeran raps. I listen more to hip-hop versus straight rap, so that may have something to do with it, but his pure rap songs hit me more like bad spoken word than music. Luckily the only one is called “The Man” and while I listened to it a number of times when I first got the album, now I tend to skip past it.

He also sings with a bit of an accent. It’s not as bad as Passenger, but since both sing about being on the road (which resonates with my heavy travel schedule) I identify with many of the songs.

It’s a real solid album on its own, but I would recommend you get the Deluxe edition. While it adds another disposable rap track (which starts out with him claiming not to be a rapper) and a couple of okay but not stellar pop songs, it ends with “I See Fire”.

This is where the geek angle comes in. “I See Fire” was the music for the closing credits of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Sheeran wrote the song. The lyrics are pretty referential to the movie and my original thought was that someone on Peter Jackson’s team had written it and he just performed it. If the Wikipedia entry is accurate, Sheeran is a rather talented young lad. It’s worth a couple of extra bucks for this song, especially if you are fan of the movies.

This album is still under heavy rotation on my media player and I look forward to more from him. Should he tour in the US I’d be tempted to brave the crowds I so dislike just to see him work live.

Review: So You Think You Can Dance 2014 Tour

Okay, so, yeah, I like So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD).

I’m not sure how we got started watching it. I think that was back when I paid attention to American Idol and since it was the same producers we just kind of left it on.

Now, I am not a “dance guy” – I am as much a dance guy as I am a folk singer (can’t sing, can’t play guitar, do it anyway). In part is it due to the fact that I don’t speak its language. I live on a farm, have a pickup truck and (currently) three tractors. Not much call for dance around here.

When I was in college I took a class called “Film and the Novel”. I thought we would read a book and then see a film adaptation, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the course taught us conventions used in film that have parallels to those in a novel, and by learning those conventions I developed a greater understanding for the more avant garde cinema.

I’ve never had that opportunity with dance. But, the people on the show have talent, low body fat, and as I once described it, the women are all hot and the men … non-threatening.

All joking aside, I found myself really enjoying the two hours I watched the show each week. Most often my reaction was “cool” but on a couple of occasions I was moved to tears. Not really sure why, but something spoke to me.

Anyway, a couple of years ago the Season 9 SYTYCD tour came to Durham and I scored third row seats. We had a great time. We missed last year’s show due in part to non-interest but I was motivated to return because of the strong group of contestants in Season 11. Every show I watch that comes out once a year proclaims “This is the best season evah!” but they kind of meant it this year. Every one of the Top 20 dancers was solid, although I didn’t see a break out star like Travis Wall or Twitch they worked well as an ensemble.

The show was at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) and we were about 20 rows back from the stage. The tickets weren’t cheap so I was surprised that we were the only two people sitting in a line of eight seats. It really did make the experience enjoyable not sitting cheek to jowl with your neighbor. It started at 7:40pm, ran for an hour, and then there was a twenty minute intermission followed by another hour to end promptly at 10pm.

These kids work hard in this show. While the producers, judges and choreographers are presented via taped segments on a large screen behind the stage, the dancing is pretty much non-stop, with one number blending into the next. Quite frequently the dancers have to manage their own props as well, moving them off and on stage. It’s a lot of dancing and a lot of costume changes.

Speaking of hard work, this show the dancer Tanisha Belnap seemed to be in nearly every piece, especially in the first half. While not my favorite dancer of the group, she did a solid job and it became almost comical as a new number would start and there she was. I almost wonder if one of the other dancers was hurt and she was standing in to help so they could limit the stress to their body.

I also liked the music. In the television show they will display the song and artist being played but not here, so I decided to use Sound Search for Google Play on my phone. After going zero for three I switched to Shazam and it did much better. I’m not sure if it was the loudness or the occasional cheers but Shazam seemed to have a much easier time tagging the tracks, so it is my new default app for that.

While I had a great time, I did find myself obsessing over the dancers’ feet. A lot of the numbers are in bare feet, and if you have ever been on a stage you’ll remember that they ain’t the cleanest. So after a short time you could see the dirt on their feet clearly. I couldn’t help but laugh and think to myself “Welcome to the Tarheel state”.

I only saw one blatant mistake (a small fall) and the only numbers I really didn’t care for were the ones from the “Michael Jackson” night. Back when I was active on Twitter my crowning achievement was getting called an asshole by the executive producer of the show on the occasion of Michael Jackson’s death. He didn’t get the rights to perform to Jackson’s music so there was no “special” back then but they did get them this year, although the songs they used were definitely B-list.

I even think I’m beginning to understand this whole dance thing. There was one number with two pairs of dancers where the two women danced together as did the two men. They were wearing formal wear and the whole thing suggested a commentary on marriage equality. It wasn’t sexual – it just seemed to celebrate the happiness two people can feel with each other. Later, when a taped segment by Travis Wall was played, he called the piece “Equality” so I think I nailed it. Granted, it had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer but I still liked it.

Contrast this to when we went to the Sydney Opera House. Since it was my first trip to the city, I wanted to say I’d seen a performance in that building. Unfortunately, the only show we could make was a modern dance performance. All I can remember is that I liked one piece involving large ribbons, but the rest of it was lost on me. Toward the end the stage was covered in a white powder, so I started making up dialog in my head that it was a massive amount of cocaine and riffing from there.

I did love seeing my favorite dancer from this season, Valerie, as well as the one who beat her our for the prize, Ricky. Ricky is an amazing dancer and deserved to win but it would have been nice to see a tapper take the top prize.

The only other criticism I have is that while only the top 10 of the initial 20 contestants were introduced, they actually had the top 14 performers from the show. Would it have really hurt to introduce them as well? You could hear people in the audience going “wait, there are twelve up there” etc.

The final number had the whole cast (all 14) dressed up as cheerleaders dancing to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off“. Even though it was the last number, I found myself grinning. It was just plain ol’ fun, and I while I probably get more than my fair share I can always use more.

2014 Dublin, Ireland

A few weeks ago I got to go to Dublin, Ireland, for ten days. It was my 35th country visited.

Traveling to Europe can always be a little bit of a challenge as far as managing the jet lag. You usually leave the US in the evening and arrive in the early morning. If possible, I like to sleep for several hours, say from 10am until 2pm, and then stay up until a normal bedtime. If I can manage this I rarely have jet lag issues.

But, a lot of hotels don’t have rooms ready first thing in the morning. In that case you have to power through and just try and stay up, but on this trip my friend Craig was kind enough to reserve a room for the night before so I was able to check in at around 8am (unlike the ladies in front of me who were told to come back in the afternoon).

The room they gave me was an “accessible room” meaning it was designed for someone in a wheelchair. I don’t like accessible rooms. Although they tend to be a bit larger than normal, I just can’t get used to the shower. Since you can’t build in ledges or doors (easily) I just seem to flood the bathroom, no matter how hard I try not to.

For my first shower in this room I was determined to try and keep the overflow to a minimum. Like most European showers, the shower head was on a hose attached to a sprayer. Also, like most showers in Europe, there were two knobs: one to control temperature and one to control water flow. Normally, there is a little button on the temperature knob that you have to push if you want extra-hot (greater than 38C) water, but this one had a similar button on the flow knob to really get the stream going. Holding the handle so the water pointed away from me, I turned both up to high and waited for the water to warm up.

When it was perfect, I went to place the handle back in its bracket when it came off in my hand. The hose was still in the bracket, pointed straight up and this caused it to fountain off the top of the shower, which was also the ceiling of the bathroom, which was now flooded.

I just had to laugh.

I turned the shower off and was able to reassemble everything and finish bathing. I was lucky that nothing that couldn’t stand being wet was in the bathroom, so it was really no big deal except for the irony that this happened in an accessible shower.

As we went out for dinner I told the hotel staff and by the time I returned they been in and restored everything to normality.

Craig and I were meeting up with Patrick for dinner, but we had a little time before we were to meet so we decided to wander a bit. We walked down to Temple Bar, passing the Spire of Dublin on the way.

The spire is a large, steel monument that looks a little like one of those spindles restaurants used to have for collecting receipts. It’s kind of impressive but hard to get a decent picture of it. At 121 meters you’d think it would be visible from most of Dublin, but it really isn’t. It is very prominent on O’Connell Street though.

The pattern around the base, according to Wikipedia, is based on a core sample of earth and rock formation taken from the ground where the spire stands. Here’s a picture with Craig so you can see it in more detail. My guess is the stickers were not part of the original design.

Even with my nap I could use a little caffeine, so Craig took me to Bewley’s. It was cool having a drink in the same place once frequented by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

Afterward we meet up with Patrick and found a place for dinner. I can’t remember the name, but I knew I was going to have corned beef and cabbage (‘natch) with at least one pint of Guinness.

I am a huge fan of Guinness so coming to Dublin was a bit of a pilgrimage for me (more on that later). I was very excited to partake of my first real Dubliner pint.

I didn’t like it.

I mean, it was okay, it’s Guinness, but it seemed a little off, a little too bitter. I was thinking to myself that “oh no, I only like American Guinness” when Patrick mentioned that his pint seemed a bit off as well. Determined to get to the bottom of this, and solely for research purposes, I can say that the other 25-30 pints of Guinness I had during the trip were much, much better.

The next day Craig and I took the tram out to meet with the customer. Now this trip was awesome on a number of levels. First, cool customer. Second, new country for me. Third, my friend Fanny from Germany was having a birthday and when she found out I was here she decided to spend it with me. And finally, I was going to get to see my friend MC Frontalot on his new tour.

His tour brought him to North Carolina, but that week I was in England. He was in England the week after that, but I was in Paris. I had made plans to see him in Chicago, but they got canceled because I had to be in Austin for a meeting. So it was serendipitous that he was touring with Wheatus and they were coming to Dublin when I was there.

As Craig and I rode into work that first day, I was reading over his shoulder when I saw a notice about Wheatus in the paper.

Yeah, they are huge over there.

The band was to perform at CafĂ© en Seine on Thursday night, which was also the night that Fanny arrived. The four of us (Craig, Patrick, Fanny and myself) got put on the guest list for the show (which was cool). The venue was pretty interesting as well, lavishly decorated in an art nouveau style which included trees and statues. We found a comfortable place to sit upstairs (with a table for the pints of course) that didn’t give us a great view of the stage but we could hear just fine. For Front’s set I stood by the rail.

As an opener his set was rather short, about 30 minutes. While I’ve seen him perform a number of times, I was happy to finally hear “Stoop Sale” live, and he also did “Two Dreamers” which is my favorite track off the new album. He was joined on stage by Miss Eaves who did backup vocal duty as well as one of her own songs that I thought was pretty good.

Then Wheatus came on. While still somewhat unknown in the US, their song “Teenage Dirtbag” hit No. 2 in the UK and a cover of “A Little Respect” hit No. 3. While this was back in 2000 they are still well regarded in the region and now that One Direction is covering “Teenage Dirtbag” on tour they are seeing a resurgence of interest. And while I rarely look at Youtube comments, this one on the cover made me chuckle.

I enjoyed the show, but didn’t get to see much of Damian until the end when I saw him and Miss Eaves over in the roped-off area of the balcony. I went over and said “hi” and he told me we had a few minutes to chat before they were to rap on “Dirtbag” and that we could hang out a bit after the show by the merch booth.

By this time is was pretty late (Patrick and Craig had taken off earlier so it was just me and Fanny) but it was fun talking to Damian about the tour. The schedule was pretty tight, a show a night for six nights in a row in Ireland alone. They had come over from Wales on a ferry over extremely rough waters, but now that they were back on dry land things were going smoothly. He told me that having someone else to drive made things nice, and even though it was a busy tour it was a nice gig.

While some venues have showers, this one didn’t, so they all had to share one in a hotel room after the show. Then they would get into the bus and head for the next town, usually chatting or watching movies. Then they sleep and get up for an afternoon sound check, and then they are pretty much free until showtime. Rinse and repeat.

He gave Fanny a copy of his CD as a birthday present (it was now Friday), and I did get a picture with him and an awesome photobomb from Miss Eaves.

The next day was my last work day and I met up with Fanny afterward to take her out for her birthday. She chose a restaurant called Rustic Stone. The meal was good, their “thing” is that a lot of the dishes are served partially cooked and you finish them on a hot stone tableside, but the evening was made awesome by Florian our waiter. He was great and I started referring to him as “Emperor Florian”. He didn’t know there was a historical Emperor Florian and I wasn’t sure why I remembered, but it could have been that he only lived for 88 days as emperor before being assassinated by his own troops. Not so good.

For the weekend we spent a lot of time walking around Dublin. While it is not a large city, it seemed pretty crowded. It’s not particularly dirty or remarkably clean, although on the weekends there can be a lot of evidence of overconsumption on the pavement (no further details warranted). I did like the area around the River Liffey.

Saturday morning we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I have my first real camera (i.e. not a point and shoot or the one on my phone) and I am still climbing the learning curve on how to use it. I did think this shot of a stone staircase in the cathedral turned out well.

That afternoon I got to visit the Guinness St. James’s Gate Brewery also known as the Guinness Storehouse.

The line was a little long but moved quickly. The tour walked you through a series of exhibits on how they make their iconic beer. It’s starts with the water, which does not come from the Liffey but instead is sourced in the Wicklow mountains (where we would be going on Sunday).

You work your way up through the building, ending in a round glass room called the Gravity Bar, which offers a 360 degree view of the city.

It was packed, so after making a circuit and taking some pictures, we took our “complimentary” pints down a floor to find a place to sit. On the wall behind our table was a picture of some of the workers from years ago, and I couldn’t help but notice that one of the women looked just like Mr. Bean. When I pointed that out, a guy next to us said, “Great. Now I can’t un-see it.”

On Sunday we took a train south to the Wicklow mountains. It was a beautiful day and we wanted to visit the Powerscourt Gardens. Powerscourt is a large country estate that has several acres of landscaped gardens (voted No. 3 in the world by National Geographic). I had come down with a cold by this time and so wasn’t the best company, but the day was wonderful and the view spectacular.

All in all it was a very nice trip. I saw some old friends and made some new ones, and my cold didn’t last all that long. I’d welcome the chance to go back.

Review: Interstellar

Note: When I review things, I do my best not to spoil them. However, purists (and you know who you are) may want to skip this.

With the advent of Blu-ray and cheap large screen televisions, I tend not to go to the movies. When I do, it is almost always IMAX (not lieMAX) because a normal theater experience just isn’t worth the price.

I don’t own many movies. I like movies but rarely do I see a movie that I want to see twice. My small collection does include four Christopher Nolan films (Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception) so I was excited to hear that he was coming out with a tale set in space.

Apparently a large number of people were as well, as the Saturday night shows both sold out. Luckily, a friend of mine bought tickets in advance and we were able to get decent seats.

The story is set in the near future. Climate change has wrecked havoc with the Earth, and a blight has developed that is taking out the food monocultures. Wheat had disappeared a few years ago, and okra (!) has just been hit, which leaves corn as the main staple crop, but people are worried that it may be next. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a NASA pilot who is now a farmer. There is a reference made to some accident with a spacecraft that he was in that ended his career with NASA. We spend some time watching his life as a dust bowl farmer, although the dust storms depicted here are on a much larger scale than you might see today.

Flash forward a bit in the plot and Cooper meets up with a team that believes it has the ability to save Earth. It involves traveling through a wormhole on the quest of finding a habitable planet. Cooper leaves his family in the hope that he can save them.

I didn’t care for this movie. Although IMDB currently has it a 9.1 out 10, I’d probably give it a 6 or a 7. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a more believable 73%.

The cast was, if you will forgive the pun, stellar. In addition to McConaughey you have Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, Ellen Burstyn – the list goes on. I thought they all gave solid performances. The visuals were stunning, and while it runs nearly three hours I didn’t look at my watch once.

No, where the movie fails is in the story. I did like the fact that this is one of the only big budget Hollywood movies that treats relativity seriously, and thus this becomes a time travel movie, but other parts of the film are so incredibly derivative that you can’t believe they were able to green light the thing.

When I first started hearing about the movie, I read that it was based on a letter Christopher Nolan had written to his daughter, and at its heart this is a story about one father’s love for his little girl. I thought Mackenzie Foy did an amazing job in the role, although she resembled more of a young Anne Hathaway than a young Jessica Chastain (but it worked).

My favorite part of the movie was the blocky robot named “TARS” (for obvious reasons). There are three such “marine robots” in the film, another being known as CASE. At one point in the film, Cooper asks CASE why he didn’t talk much, to which he replies “TARS talks enough for the both of us”. The laughter came a little too loud from my companions.

Will Interstellar be joining my collection? No, I really don’t see myself sitting through it again. Is it worth seeing? Yes, but I hope the next effort from Nolan is a little stronger.

William Gibson

At lunch on Thursday, Seth casually mentioned that William Gibson was going to be in Durham on Friday night.


I was getting ready to graduate from high school when Gibson’s Neuromancer was published. It was amazing. Instead of focusing on space ships and aliens or knights and wizards, here was speculative fiction that was truly speculative. Set on Earth in a future probably fifty to sixty years away, he introduced the term “cyberspace” and described an interconnected world that we are well on our way toward creating. While his characters “logged on” via biometric interfaces, which isn’t quite a reality, a lot of the topics he explored are relevant in today’s world.

Neuromancer was the first in a group of three related books, and this was followed by Virtual Light. This was set maybe ten years from now and about thirty years from when it was published, and again, introduced things we take for granted, such as augmented reality. It too, was the first in a series of three connected books. His most recent fiction work started with Pattern Recognition which was pretty much set in modern times, and yes, the world he created spanned three books.

Gibson was in town to promote his latest novel, The Peripheral. Sponsored by the area’s largest independent bookstore, The Regulator, the cost to attend the event was $30 but included a copy of the book, so it was basically free. I bought a ticket as soon as we got back from lunch and eagerly awaited the talk.

It was held at the Motorco Theatre in Durham, which is in a newly gentrified area of town and across the street from the Fullsteam Brewery. I like the area because a number of really good food trucks tend to congregate there, but this time we decided to eat at the Motorco, which has a “Parts&Labor” bar area that serves some pretty nice small plates (we had veggie samosas and artichoke beignets). I was eager to get a seat so I wolfed mine down and then found a place in the front row. While I didn’t think there would be a lot of people from the number of chairs they had put out, the place was standing room only by the time he went on.

The first thing that struck me about the man is that, while he looked like I expected, he is now 66 years old. While he looks young for his age you have to remember that I started reading his work 30 years ago and I still think of myself pretty much as I did then. Too bad everyone else is getting older.

He is soft spoken and to my ear his voice still has a twinge of southern drawl (he was born in South Carolina) although he has moved around a lot and now lives in Canada. The evening started out with him reading from The Peripheral, and at first his voice sounded weak, but that was fixed when they swapped out his microphone. After that his voice, although still soft, was clear and full of emotion as he read the dialog he had written.

If you have ever read Gibson you know that he kind of throws the reader into the deep in the pool and it is up to you to swim. It takes me about 75 to 100 pages to start to understand the world he is creating, so there really aren’t that many spoilers to be had from hearing an early chapter or two.

The Peripheral is a time travel book, apparently, crossing between a time possibly not too far in our future to a time 70 to 80 years beyond that. He read from a long-ish chapter from the earlier time period, and as usual his dialog was well written and at times funny. Then he read from a short chapter set in the future time frame. You didn’t get much out of the content but it was cool to hear the man himself read his work, and as I have already started the book I’ll review it soon.

That took about 30 minutes, and then he opened the floor for questions. Being the shy and withdrawn person that I am, I got to ask the first one, which was “You seem to like trilogies, is this new book Book One?”.

This earned me an eye-roll as he explained that he doesn’t write sequels, he write a “loosely connected series of books” that just tend to number three. When he was starting out, his social group of fiction writers had a disdain for sequels since they viewed it as one book that was made into three in order to sell more of them. The term “novel” means “new” and each book is supposed to be different. It is the greatest “genre-cheese” to spread a story out over multiple books, and he tries to avoid it.

He then acknowledged, almost with a wink, that he had kids to feed and so sometimes setting a “totally and completely different” story in the same world can make producing another book easier, and that there is a strong temptation to write sequels. He added the last line in Neuromancer (“And he never saw Molly again”) in pen on the final galleys to make sure he wasn’t tempted. When he writes, he told us, his job is to “keep the cheese out.”

He took questions for another 30 minutes or so. One was a slightly different take on “where do you get your ideas?” but along the lines of does he start with the characters or the world. He said he actually starts with a particular object, in the case of The Peripheral it was a 1977 Airstream trailer covered in spray-on insulation foam, and the characters and world build out from there.

Gibson was also one of the first speculative fiction authors to write about Japan, so one person asked where he would recommend going on their first trip to Tokyo. He admitted that he hadn’t been to Japan in a long time, since before the tsunami, so a lot may have changed but he would recommend the Golden Gai. This is a series of very narrow alleys that feature lots of tiny bars. It provides a look into Tokyo’s past, and while it looks run down it is not a cheap place to drink. The real estate is very valuable and so it may not be around in a few years. While I was in Shinjiku, I did not see this on my trip to Japan.

He ended the session with a comment that he was losing his voice on this book tour, and if he was to have anything left it was probably best if he started signing books. There was a bit of a mob so I decided not to get my book signed, but I did end up finding Seth in line (he showed up late). As I was waiting for my ride I decided to grab a beer and people watch, and when it was time to leave about 30 minutes later Seth hadn’t moved much. He was in the middle of a line that reached back to the door. I’ll ask him how it went on Monday.

It was a fun evening and while I’m only one chapter into the book, I like it. Thanks to the Regulator for organizing it and Seth for letting me know.

Honda TypeR Concept Video

Michael Tiemann pointed me to this new Youtube video from Honda.

It is actually two ads in one. Pressing the “R” button in the ad switches the story from a suburban dad picking up his kids during the day to the same man pulling an art heist at night. If you watch it a couple of times you can see how they relate (things from the night scenes are referenced in the daylight scenes, etc.).

This reminded me of an ad campaign I wanted to do for Toyota. The letters “A T O Y O T A” are mirrored around the “Y”. So I wanted to do an ad where the point of view would start with a screamingly loud Toyota performance car ripping around some twisties and then switch into the interior which would be all luxury and quiet. This would happen a number of times until:


would appear on the screen and then slowly rotate, demonstrating the palindromic nature of the letters. Then the voice-over would say “Any way you look at it, it is still a Toyota”.

Not as cool as what Honda did, though.

Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

I have yet to decide whether or not Patrick Rothfuss is an asshole.

I know that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I have my reasons which I’ll get to soon.

I was introduced to Rothfuss through his first novel, The Name of the Wind. Since that can get tedious to type, allow me to abbreviate it TNotW.

TNotW is the first book in a trilogy. It concerns a near mythical figure named Kvothe, and it is one of the best novels ever written in the fantasy genre, or any genre for that matter.

In TNotW Rothfuss introduces his magic system. In the best fantasy there are rules that both empower and limit the characters, and I really like his. Called “sympathy”, magic in his world requires three things: a link, a source of energy and strength of will.

For example, suppose you wanted to move an iron skillet off of a fire through magic. First you would need some way to link what you wanted to move with something you could easily manipulate. In this case the best thing would be a small piece of the skillet itself. That would form a very strong link. Barring that, you could use any piece of iron, but that link would be weaker. Weaker still would be a non-ferrous metal, etc.

So let’s assume you have a small chip of the skillet in your hand. You would then need a source of energy. The bigger the magic, the more energy you need (i.e. rules). In this case you could probably use the heat from the fire itself.

Finally, you would need strength of will to connect your piece of the skillet to the whole thing. This is the hard part, as you basically have to imagine, with the full weight of reality, that the small part of the skillet you hold is the skillet itself, so when you move your piece, the skillet will move.

I’m oversimplifying but you get the gist. In TNotW Kovthe starts to learn about sympathy and is admitted to The University, a place where its principals are studied and taught. Out of them comes a form of engineering, a form of medicine, a form of chemistry, etc.

However, in addition to this sympathetic magic, there is a more primal, raw form of magic based on names. It is a common theme in fantasy that by knowing a thing’s “true name” one can control it. Names are powerful, which is why I obsess over them more than most people. In the world that Rothfuss creates, the pursuit of “Naming” is magic in its truest sense, but it is also the most dangerous. One of my favorite characters in his stories is Master Elodin, the Master Namer, who is quite bent.

In any case, Rothfuss is the rare author who inspires a certain type of rabid fandom. Anything he posts on his blog is almost always met by a chorus of fawning comments. It’s not that he isn’t talented, quite the contrary, but this type of fandom ends up rubber stamping everything he does as “great”.

For example, the second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, did not resonate with me like the first. I came close to actually disliking it upon a first reading.

Now, granted, once I set it on the shelf for awhile and then took it down and re-read it, I liked it more, but still, it didn’t affect me like the first book. I look on it like Tolkien’s The Two Towers where “things happen that must happen” but it acts like a bridge between the first and last books of a trilogy. I eagerly await the third book, tentatively titled Doors of Stone to see if he can pull off the magic of TNotW.

And this is where the asshole part comes in. I have some friends who have met Rothfuss and spent some time with him and some of their comments tip the meter toward “asshole”. Some of the stuff that he writes on his blog rub me the wrong way, thus re-enforcing the thought. But I guess I am mainly upset because I just want him to work on that third book instead of all the other stuff he does. This is very selfish of me, because some of the stuff he does is very worthwhile and makes the world a better place, but at this point I am emotionally invested in the story of Kvothe and I want to know how it ends.

Which brings me to a sobering point: I know almost nothing about Patrick Rothfuss. One of the fallacies of the Internet is this illusion of intimacy. The thought that I can read a blog or a twitter feed or an interview and think that really gives me insight into who the person is is ludicrous. To paraphrase Silent Bob, what I don’t know about Patrick Rothfuss could just about squeeze into the Grand Canyon.

But I do know one thing without a doubt: he loves words.

I like words. I like my ten cent words and my five dollar words. But to me they are a means to an end. I like how a certain word can convey just the right feeling or evoke a particular response. But I don’t love words.

Rothfuss loves words almost as much as his family (which, if you read his blog, he loves a lot). He dotes on them. He caresses them. And I’m almost certain that he stays up nights obsessing over finding the right word.

Which brings me to his latest book, The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

This is a tiny book, around 150 pages. It’s even shorter than Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He warns on both his blog and in the forward that many people won’t like this book. Heck, it only has one character in it, Auri, the mysterious girl befriended by Kvothe in TNotW.

I loved it.

This is a love song to words. He uses them to paint pictures and to compose symphonies. It is a three ringed circus of adjectives and adverbs, nouns and verbs all coalescing to create an experience if not exactly a narrative.

Auri is a woman of unknown age. She is very small, about the size of a child. She lives in a complex of tunnels and forgotten rooms called “The Underthing” that exists beneath the grounds of The University. While Rothfuss has never told us straight up her history, I’ve always imagined that she was a great student at The University who studied Naming and went crazy. She decided to “make herself small” and hid herself away. It is one of the characteristics of Kvothe that he was able to befriend her. He even gave her the name “Auri” which inspired Master Elodin to instruct Kvothe in Naming. But don’t expect to see those characters in The Slow Regard of Silent Things. It is all about Auri and can stand alone from the rest of the series.

If you haven’t read any of his books, then you won’t know what I’m talking about. Heck, I’m not even sure I know what I’m talking about. All I know is that I feel like a better person from having read it.

It covers several days in the life of Auri. And that’s about it. Pretty easy not to spoil. She has good days and bad days but to her they are just “days”. The narrative focuses a lot on her drive to put things in their proper places and in some cases, give them names.

One of the world philosophies that I strongly identify with is Taoism. Now I’m certain that a true scholar of the Tao will be horrified, if that is possible, over how I’m about to describe it, so my apologies in advance.

The Tao is all things and how they are connected. There is no “good” or “evil”, there is just the natural cycle of things. When one lives in tune with the Tao, this we call happiness. When one struggles against the Tao, sadness ensues. It stresses a very low impact existence and an acceptance of the way things are, but still manages to get a lot of stuff done, which sounds a little like an oxymoron.

One of the best books on the subject is The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. In it he demonstrates the principals of Taoism through the stories about Winnie the Pooh. It works, and it is one of my favorite books. It sits next to me at my desk in case I’m having a rough day and I need a reminder.

As I was reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things I couldn’t help but think that Auri was a Taoist master. Here is a quote from toward the end of the book:

That meant you could move smoothly through the world without upsetting every applecart you came across. And if you were careful, if you were the proper part of things, then you could help. You mended what was cracked. You tended to the things you found askew. And you trusted that the world in turn would brush you up against the chance to eat. It was the only graceful way to move. All else was vanity and pride.

Seems very Taoist to me.

I once saw Kurt Vonnegut give a lecture. He was talking about “the shape of stories” and the normal Western narrative and how it has these huge swings in mood. The example he used was Cinderella. It starts off pretty bad. Her parents have died and she’s living with her evil stepmother. Then it gets really good. She gets to go to the ball and she meets the Prince. Then the clock hits midnight and things are bad again. Then the Prince finds her and all is well. He drew this on a white board in the form of a big sine wave that swung from bad to good.

He compared that to Native American stories. Usually the mood is very flat. We walked in the woods. We saw a deer. We caught some fish. We ate. We went to sleep. That sort of thing. There really isn’t this whole process that we expect from our stories. On his white board he drew a straight line, pretty much neutral between good and bad.

Then he examined Hamlet. Hamlet is not a happy story. Things start of bad and remain that way. As Vonnegut talked through the plot he drew another straight line. Granted, this was firmly on the “bad” side of the chart but it had a lot more in common with a Native American narrative than a traditional one, and Hamlet is one of the greatest stories ever told.

Heh – I just decided to take a stab at the premise that “everything is on the Internet” and I found a page talking about this very thing.

I don’t think that The Slow Regard of Silent Things is one of the greatest stories ever told, but it is a very good one. It, too, has a flat narrative arc. I will reread it a number of times. While I think a lot of his fans will be put off by it, and he knows this, but the fact that he created it and felt strong enough to see it through to publication moves the needle, at least for me, back firmly into the “not asshole” side of the meter.