Scratch Pad: Soderbergh, Pushead, Painlevé

From the past week

I do this manually each Saturday, usually in the morning over coffee: collating most of the little comments I’ve made on social media (as well as related notes), which I think of as my public scratch pad, during the preceding week. These days that mostly means (especially because the Algorithm keeps kicking me off Facebook even though I’ve down nothing even remotely inappropriate). Sometimes the material pops up earlier or in expanded form.

▰ The phrase “unforeseen consequences” is generally employed by someone who has never read a science fiction novel in their life

▰ After guitar class I sometimes shoot a quick video of myself playing what my instructor had just gone over, especially chord voicings that are entirely new to (and currently befuddling) me, and my face in them always look like someone shared some sort of really shocking state secret — eyes wide, brow furrowed, mouth shut

▰ Donald Fagen needs to get Pushead to draw his next album cover just to see if the haters can resist the lure of purchasing it

▰ The best thing about a new Soderbergh movie is new Soderbergh interviews

▰ Sometimes elegant solutions are more elegant than they are solutions

▰ That explosion at 9:20am (San Francisco) on Thursday, February 9, 2023, was something else. Whew. Incredibly loud. Set the hair on my arms up and frazzled my nerves. I saw reports of sirens across the park, so I got the sense it was in the Sunset, not the Richmond District (where I live), because I wasn’t hearing the sirens here. Looks like it was on 22nd Avenue, maybe near Moraga?

▰ That thing where after playing a video game for a while you stand up and are all too aware that moving and looking around are entirely separate actions

▰ PCB designs are my visual cotton candy. (This is the 4Swing module from Gieskes.)

▰ Ooh, Jean Painlevé’s The Sounds of Science, with the Yo La Tengo score, has been added to the Criterion streaming service this month

▰ 1993: “I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.”

2023: “I didn’t know if I should use the laugh emoji or the cry emoji.”

Novels Read, 2022

And looking ahead

I managed to finish reading 26 novels in 2022. Here they are in the order I read them. The ones with a + are particularly recommended.

1: +Fonda Lee: Jade Legacy
2: Olen Steinhauer: The Last Tourist
3: Geling Yan: The Secret Talker
4: Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water
5: +Sayaka Murata: Convenience Store Woman
6: Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
7: +Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet
8: Becky Chambers: A Closed and Common Orbit
9: Julian Barnes: Flaubert’s Parrot
10: Sayaka Murata: Earthlings
11: Shion Miura: The Great Passage
12: John Scalzi: The Kaiju Preservation Society
13: Victor LaValle: The Ballad of Black Tom
14: Hervé Le Tellier: The Anomaly
15: Elvia Wilk: Oval
16: James S.A. Corey: Leviathan Falls
17: +Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad
18: Neal Stephenson: Quicksilver
19: +Peter Watts: Blindsight
20: Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending
21: +Hannu Rajaniemi: Summerland
22: Annalee Newitz: The Future of Another Timeline
23: Ed James: The Hope That Kills
24: Ed James: Worth Killing For
25: +Francis Spufford: Red Plenty
26: +Hernan Diaz: Trust

Looking ahead to 2023, currently I’m in the midst of:

1: Amor Towles: A Gentleman in Moscow
2: Carole Stivers: The Mother Code
3: Lauren Belfer: And After the Fire

More on the Deadly Silence of Andor

Vacuum tube

Head Banger: Andor’s Bix feels the noize

When I wrote about the sonic torture in the “Nobody’s Listening!” episode of the Star Wars TV series Andor back at the start of the month, I postulated that before opting for the audience hearing nothing at all while rebel-adjacent character Bix succumbs to imperial punishment, the creative team on the show perhaps might have tried “to recreate — to imitate — what Bix hears.” And of course, leaving it to our imaginations, which is where the episode landed, was the best of all possible decisions.

And it turns out that, indeed, the Andor crew did try to fill the void first. This is per an interview at, which spoke with David Acord, the supervising sound editor on Andor. Acord explained:

“When that scene came up, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, well…’ It’s daunting, for sure, that we had to come up with a sound that is, ‘What’s the sound that would literally be used to torture somebody with?’ So we came up with a lot of ideas of, “What do these creatures sound like that they’re emulating?” Or maybe it’s, we come up with a more surrealistic thing of, ‘What does the sound make the characters feel like? What is that sound?’ And ultimately, it was Tony who said, ‘No, we don’t want to hear it. The audience doesn’t hear it, and let Adria Arjona carry that scene.’”

In Acord’s anecdote, Tony is the series’ creator, Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Rogue One). Arjona (Good Omens, Irma Vep) plays Bix. And carry it — abetted by the silence — she certainly does.

Imperial Death Rattle

A sonic weapon on Andor

It’s worth noting the title of the ninth episode of the first season of Andor is “Nobody’s Listening!” Andor is part of the ever-expanding Star Wars storytelling enterprise, and it’s some of the best Star Wars to date, up there with the first couple of movies, the Rogue One film, the Mandalorian TV series, and the Clone Wars cartoons.

Part of what makes the show work is its score, by Nicholas Britell, which in its precision, its emphasis on drones, and its dramatic percussive elements, marks a stark comparison to the old-world orchestral grandeur of nearly all previous Star Wars, which bore the imprimatur of John Williams even when he wasn’t the lead composer. I don’t know if Britell’s work on Andor is memorable unto itself, per se (the most striking bit thus far may have been a moment on the all-city planet of Coruscant that sounded, purposefully, like an outtake from Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner), but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the music’s impact on the story — stories, plural, because there are so many threads to Andor.

Music sets the tone for what happens on screen. It also sets the tone for the sort of stories that can be told. By emphasizing situational atmosphere over mythical characters, Britell’s score is true to the newly democratized nature of Andor, which is not about dynastic power struggles hinging on bloodlines or about the senior members of a quasi-religious order of inhumanly powerful space wizards, but instead about near-anonymous ordinary individuals who, as part of a nascent rebellion against galactic imperialism, strike blow after blow to counter tyranny.

Inevitably, and true to the norms set by Star Wars creator George Lucas, the depiction of tyranny comes in the form of Nazi-adjacent imagery — and so it is that, when a woman with tangential connections to the rebel movement is due to be interrogated, she come face to face with someone with the pale complexion and hollow cheeks that bring to mind Ronald Lacey’s Major Arnold Toht — he of the melting face — from Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Lucas co-wrote. This interrogator’s name is Gorst — Dr. Gorst — and in the episode “Nobody’s Listening!” he delivers one of the most memorable speeches in recent science fiction — up there with Charlotte Hale’s “God’s music” rant in the fourth season of the (just canceled) series Westworld.

The episode’s title is a direct reference to a different scene, one involving the titular character, who is currently imprisoned and learning, the hard way, just how little care the empire has for human life.

Where Gorst is concerned, however, people are listening, indeed. It’s Gorst’s job, as assigned by Dedra Meero (who is from the imperial equivalent of the Gestapo), to extract information from Bix, a black marketeer who is an old friend of Andor, who in turn is being hunted by the empire. (It’s an irony on the order of Catch-22 that the empire is unaware that it already holds Andor in one of its prisons.)

Gorst stands in a dark, windowless chamber, preparing to torture Bix. He wheels over a tray, its contents out of view, shades of Marathon Man’s famed dental scene. However, it turns out all the tray contains is a box with a pair of headphones.

Gorst explains why while Bix is strapped to a chair:

“The restraints are nothing to be feared. It’s much safer for you to be tethered as we engage. There’s nothing intrinsically, um, physical about this process, but we’ve had some early trials that were a bit chaotic. There’s an Outer Rim moon called Dizon Fray. There was a sentient species there — quite unusual. Extremely hostile to the concept of an Imperial refueling center that was being planned. I say “was” because they created such a stir that the local commanders were granted permission to use any means necessary. And, um, well, what’s important for our purposes here today is that the massacre of the Dizonites was broadcast and recorded as proof of mission. They make a sound as they die — a sort of choral, agonized pleading. It was quite unlike anything anyone has ever heard before. There were three communications officers monitoring the documentation, and they were found hours later huddled together in various states of emotional distress, in a crawl space beneath the ship’s bridge. We’ve taken the recordings and modified them slightly — layering, adjusting. And we found a section of what we believe are primarily children, which has its own particular effect. Doesn’t take long. It won’t feel that way to you inside. But, um, let me know when you’re willing to cooperate. Oh, and if you’re having difficulty speaking, just shake your head from side to side.”

At this point Meero chimes in with unwelcome assistance: “It’s repeat listenings that cause the most damage.”

Gorst’s speech immediately brings to mind one of Alec Guiness’s finest moments in the movie we’ve come to call A New Hope, when his Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker, “I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” That occasion is the destruction of the planet Alderaan, home of Princess Leia (this article has already gotten deep enough into Star Wars lore, so suffice to say that the connection from Andor to Alderaan is self-evident to anyone who’s seen Rogue One).

The mirror image is the thing: In A New Hope, the screams evidence the vast empathic powers of Jedi: deaths can be sensed across the universe. We witness the destruction, but the main satisfaction we witness on the part of the empire is simply that the Death Star functions: it’s a mechanical victory in A New Hope, a beta test, a violent proof-of-concept exercise. In the more intimate realm of Andor, we witness how the cries of the slaughtered can be turned into a weapon — not on the scale of a planet-killer like the Death Star, just one fragile human mind at a time. We don’t just see a mere lack of empathy — we see its cold, heartless, self-congratulatory antipode.

And to the show’s further credit, we in the audience ever don’t hear what the tortured Bix hears. Sometimes the best sound design option is no audio at all. Perhaps attempts were made by Andor’s sound production crew to recreate — to imitate — what Bix hears, but in the end we hear nothing. We just see Bix’s eyes and forehead as the alien audio’s impact hits her. Seconds pass. And then Bix screams.

(And thanks to Bruce Levenstein, who guessed correctly that I’d be writing about this scene.)

3D Render of Earbud Using Nanotechnology

Picture this

When DALL·E 2 opened the user floodgates on Thursday, I was ready with my generative visual aspirations. The New York Times, back in April, described the browser-based software DALL·E 2 as “building technology that lets you create digital images simply by describing what you want to see.” That might sound like yet another technologist’s empty vaporware promise, but as the intervening months have shown, the software actually works — which is both thrilling and, true to the modern internet, terrifying. (The same day DALL·E 2 became accessible to anyone, Facebook announced its own AI art app, a text-to-video tool called Make-a-Video.) I spent about an hour during breakfast feeding concepts into the DALL·E 2 algorithm and waiting patiently to see what might pop out. Of all the images I received, the one shown here was my favorite. The prompt I entered was “3D render of an earbud that uses nanotechnology to connect with your hippocampus.” I may share some more of my audio-themed DALL·E 2 harvest later. I posted a bunch to over the course of the day, and included some telling fails. I particularly like this result because it looks both fantastic (that is, beyond what I had myself imagined when I asked for it) and yet very much like the burnished fantasies (over)sold by technology companies. One has to wonder how much of the raw cultural material — the now hotly debated source content for DALL·E 2’s automated creativity — this is based on was no more real than is this image itself. The dreams that dreams are made of. I’ve spent the past decade sending brief music composition prompts to a growing community called the Disquiet Junto, who each week make new tracks based on carefully worded instructions. Needless to say, interacting in an adjacent manner with artificial intelligence is quite interesting to me.

Give it a go at