Hidden Gems: Fashion Nugget by Cake

This week’s Hidden Gem is a deep cut from 1996 by the relatively obscure band Cake. If you don’t recognize the band, you might recognize one of their most popular songs, I Will Survive. To most people, Cake is a one-hit wonder, which might even give them more pop culture credit than they deserve; however, I’ve recently rediscovered their work and won’t hesitate to say that they are grossly underappreciated. Cake is the perfect combination of humor, experimental musical ideas, and genuinely good instrumentation, all of which are perfectly displayed in their sophomore album Fashion Nugget. Each track on the album is a unique experience with its own personality, but all related by the charming charisma of the band’s aesthetic.

The Distance was my first introduction to the band and immediately became one of my favorite songs. It starts out with an incredible intro: the lead singer gives an intense and understated vocal delivery as a throbbing bass drives the song forward. Then the drums and lead guitar come in, simple yet effective, perfectly accenting the lyrics and atmosphere. There’s an incredible buildup, an awesome drum fill, and then a heavy strumming guitar that is absolutely brutal and driving. Brass accents are sprinkled throughout, giving the song a dramatic and charismatic feeling. The plot of the song is extremely interesting and well-written, with a central character who is racing even after the race is over and therefore “going the distance”. These lyrics summarize the theme of the song the best:

The sun has gone down and the moon has come up
And long ago somebody left with the cup
But he’s striving and driving and hugging the turns
And thinking of someone for whom he still burns

Cause he’s going the distance
He’s going for speed
She’s all alone
In her time of need

These words really resonate with me; I can understand what it’s like to be pursuing something to the ends of the Earth when it’s actually in reach the whole time, but is neglected in the heat of the pursuit. It’s easy to extrapolate these feelings to important things in life, like love, success, and happiness. The theme of the song is incredibly tragic, in that the protagonist aspires to some unreachable, yet noble ideal. It’s easy to think that they’re misguided and over-ambitious, but if you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you can recognize and appreciate the narrow-sighted drive to “go the distance”. I think the song is surprisingly interesting to say the least, and the high quality instrumentation and charisma make it a great example of what Cake does well.

There are a lot of other songs off the album that are similarly exciting, with some of my favorites being I Will Survive, Friend Is a Four Letter Word, and Nugget. Each one drips with the same charisma, while also showing off the different aspects of Cake’s musical talent. They dabble in every genre of music with a surprising amount of success, which makes this album a thrill to listen to from start to finish. The entire album is a perfect mix of classic alternative rock and more experimental and odd ideas; none of the songs take themselves too seriously which prevents them from sounding pretentious or overbearing. Overall, Fashion Nugget is the prime example of a hidden gem: it’s underappreciated and overlooked, but full of surprises that make it an incredibly unique piece of art.

Hidden Gems: Man Alive! by King Krule

Michigan winters are the roughest time of the year for me; the lack of sunlight, the cold that bites to the bone, and now recently being stuck inside due to the pandemic. I get as much fresh air as I can, but as a solitary person who spends too much time on the computer, I find myself hardly leaving my apartment unless I have to. One of the things I miss most about the usual college experience is walking to class, even when it’s freezing cold, because it’s one of the only times where I’m not working and I can just live in the moment by enjoying the sights and listening to great music. I’ve discussed in the past how closely music can be related to certain times in life, and I find that’s especially true with the passing of the seasons. For me, winter is a time of melancholy music, albums that reflect the bleakness of winter days and the never-ending nights, songs that are dismal and depressing, and music that perfectly expresses the cold solitude of the season. Whether or not it’s good for my mental health, I just love how well certain music can complement the season, and I bask in the utterly dismal emotions that the pairing brings.

On that happy note, let me introduce you to my current winter favorite, the musical artist King Krule. I don’t know much about him as a person, as he’s pretty mysterious and relatively unknown, but I know that his music is incredible. I discovered his work last winter, almost exactly a year ago to the day, and it resonated perfectly with what I was feeling at the time. The first album I listened to was Man Alive! which was released on February 21st of 2020 and was welcomed with critical acclaim by the music community. It was a unique experience for me; I hadn’t heard anything like it before, and the slow, dark, and heavy tone of the album was a complete surprise. Every note of every song is hauntingly beautiful and perfectly placed. The vocals are understated and delivered with such melancholy that it’s almost seductive. It’s a kind of depressing that’s relaxing in a way, because it’s so calm and simple in it’s sadness. All of the songs blend together into one long experience of self-reflection and the lack of distinct separation creates the feeling of falling down a dark well and never hitting the bottom. The album is a rabbit hole of abstract despair, with nothing solid to grasp, just fragments of coherent thought strung together with flawless instrumentation. It’s somewhat comparable to Pink Floyd’s The Wall at times, with dismal chord progressions and lyrics that portray a character going mad in solitude. For all of these reasons, I found Man Alive! to be the perfect album for winter, and even as I write this post I’m soaking in the relaxing despair of the album. I can’t recommend it enough, especially during the strange times we’re currently living in. King Krule will single-handedly define the last two winters for me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hidden Gems: The Null Coalescence Operator

In a previous Hidden Gems post, I covered the artistic side of programming as expressed through the use of the ternary operator. Here is the original post if you’re interested, otherwise here’s a quick summary of the concept: programming relies on the use of conditional statements, where a certain path is taken depending on the value of a variable or expression, and a ternary operator is an elegant, shorthand way of writing these conditionals. In the example below, the function isItSnowing() will return a true or false value telling us if it is snowing. If it is snowing, then we’ll stay inside, and if it is not, then we’ll go outside. The ternary operator has unlimited potential, with the ability to string multiple conditions together, but must be used carefully; just because it improves readability and style in this scenario does not mean it always will.

The null coalescence operator is a slightly more nuanced version of the ternary operator, but even more interesting due to it’s use cases. Oftentimes in programming, you want to assign a value to a variable, but you don’t know for sure that the value exists. The value might come from another source and you can’t guarantee that it was received correctly or as expected. In most programming languages, trying to use a value that was never created causes a disaster (one can easily see why), and will usually crash the program. However, programmers would usually prefer to provide some default value instead, to prevent the program from crashing. Here is that exact situation presented in relatively simple, but verbose code:

This is a fairly straightforward conditional statement, which says in plain English, “if the value of temperature is known, the message will be that value, but if for some reason we don’t have the temperature, let the message be a default warning that we don’t have the temperature”. If you’ve been paying close attention, you might have noticed that this conditional is very similar to the one we explored when discussing ternary operators, and as a matter of fact, this conditional can be expressed using a ternary operator, as demonstrated here:

Notice again the power of the ternary operator in simplifying the conditional. It compacts the same logic into one statement, which reduces the number of lines and is more efficient to run. Now behold the same statement written using the null coalescence operator:

The differences may be subtle at first, but they are extremely important. Notice that there is no expression to test whether or not “temperature” exists, as it is built into the operator. Also see that it automatically assigns the value of “temperature” if it exists. Finally notice that the default message comes after the null coalescence operator, and is assigned when the value of “temperature” does not exist. A common way to read the operator in English is “reading from left to right, give me back the first thing that exists”. This use case is extremely common in programming, which is what ultimately led to the null coalescence operator being created. Personally, I was thrilled when I discovered this: after writing hundreds of the equivalent ternary versions, I had finally discovered a way to write less code while also improving the style of my code. Once a programmer is used to using this operator, it reads much more naturally than the ternary operator and saves valuable time when trying to understand the code. This operator can also be chained, similar to the ternary operator, as shown in this example, where the default string is used if both the “temperature” and “backupMessage” variables are null:

At the end of the day, the null coalescence operator may not seem like a revolutionary idea, and it isn’t. However, it is a testament to the ingenuity and artistry of programmers, motivated by a unique combination of laziness and empathy for the programmers who follow. It is the accumulation of these small improvements that evolve into the modern programming languages we have today, which are more powerful and easier to read than ever before.

Hidden Gems: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

If you’ve never heard of the band before, their name alone might cause some hesitation, but I promise you that King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard is the perfect example of a hidden gem. The Australian rock band was first formed in 2010 and has slowly grown a cult following with their bizarre and experimental rock music. They’ve been a breath of fresh air for the stagnant rock genre by exploring new musical territory with amazing success. More impressive than their musical range is their commitment to concept albums with authentic instrumentation and gripping narratives. I’ve mentioned in the past how concept albums hold a special place in my heart; they’re the perfect example of how different artistic elements can be incorporated into one project. They usually feature thoughtful narratives over multiple tracks, musical themes and callbacks throughout the album, and a unique aesthetic that is developed in every aspect of the project. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard is a master of this medium, to the point where they have developed an entire musical universe. Each album is a unique immersive experience, but with enough distinct elements that the band is consistent and easily recognizable. Since their discography is huge (and I mean HUGE, they released 5 album in 2017 alone), I can only cover some of their material, but I think these two albums represent what I love most about the band.

Infest The Rats’ Nest

Infest the Rats' Nest

Infest The Rats’ Nest is by far my favorite thrash album; the narrative is crushing and perfectly complemented by some of the most heart-pounding instrumentation I’ve ever heard. I’m not usually a fan of the thrash subgenre, mostly because it tends to be overwhelming and headache-inducing, but King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard knows what they’re doing. The instrumentation is clean and concise throughout the entire album, with some parts even sounding symphonic, like they were composed by a heavy-metal Mozart. Along with this, the band is not afraid to experiment with a variety of instruments: many songs feature electronic glitches used to great effect, while they also employ choirs, microtonal instruments, and heavily distorted guitars. The entire sound of this album can be summed up as an army rising up in rebellion, it’s absolutely visceral. If the instrumentation wasn’t enough, the narrative of Infest The Rats’ Nest is just as gripping. The core message of the album is environmentalism (believe it or not), with the first half detailing a science fiction hellscape that used to be Earth, which is now decimated by climate change, plague, and poverty, while the rich have left to live on Mars. The second half of the album details the perils of an escaped spaceship of refugees looking for safety in the vastness of space. Both halves are equally well written and developed, but I especially love the environmental themes of the first half and how well they’re conveyed through the music. If you want to hear more of my thoughts on this great concept album, you can read my previous post here which dives more into the lyrics.

Murder of the Universe

Murder of the Universe

Murder of the Universe is an even more obscure hidden gem, and is even unpopular in the King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard fanbase. Many criticize the spoken word passages, the overall aesthetic, and some of the more experimental parts of the album, but all of these features make this one of my favorite albums. The first third of the album is a fantasy inspired nightmare about a man transforming into an Altered Beast, and from the first notes of the first track you know you’re in for a wild ride. I think this is one of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s most developed compositions, both thematically and musically. The entire narrative is incredibly cohesive and gripping from start to finish, with the listener experiencing pure chaos as the protagonist descends into madness. I also love how the main musical theme is developed throughout this portion of the album; just as the protagonist is altered into some monstrous beast, the musical theme is altered into a beast of its own, ultimately culminating in an explosive climax on the last track of this portion of the album.

The second third of the album is just as insane as the first, but now with a story featuring The Balrog and the Lord of Lightning. Again, this is an absolutely electric part of the album, with many of the same features that made the first portion so great: incredible musical motifs, fantasy storytelling that is dark and chaotic, and an overall aesthetic that is reminiscent of Greek mythology and epic battles. My only complaint is that this is the shortest section of the album and seems to be the least developed as far as the narrative concept.

However, the last third of the album makes up for what the second part was lacking in a narrative concept. Right from the start of the introduction track you can tell that there is something different; a monotone and robotic narrator welcomes the listener to “an Altered Future”, and suddenly you’re in a science fiction horror story, detailing the murder of the universe. This portion of the album follows the cyborg Han-Tyumi as he tackles what it means to be half-human, half-computer in the most unsettling and imaginative way. I can say without a doubt that this is my favorite part of the album, both because of how experimental the instrumentals are and because of how outrageous and mind-bending the story is. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, so all I’ll say is that it is a completely unorthodox take on artificial intelligence and what it means to be human, and could only be thought up by a band called King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Overall, this is an incredible album that lives up to the high expectations of a concept album. It has something for everybody and is a testament to the versatility of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Hidden Gems: The Ternary Operator

If you didn’t already know, I’m majoring in Computer Science here at the University of Michigan and it’s been a long and unpredictable journey. I grew up with a passion for the humanities, especially art, and a large part of me wanted to be an artist. However, I was also talented in math and physics and enjoyed the problem solving required in STEM fields. Eventually I had to decide what I wanted to pursue in college, and I decided to be financially practical and pursue computer science and enjoy the humanities in my free time. Obviously this decision was completely subjective, but I want to give context as to how I approach art and computer science. Originally they were completely separate concepts, but the more I learn about computer science and programming specifically, the more I see it as a form of art. I’ve realized that I’m especially passionate about how code is written; there are no laws as to how code must be written, and style is completely subjective, which leads to each programmer having a unique style, similar to an artist. I’ve also heard comparisons between programmers and authors because both write hundreds of lines, broken up into chapters and paragraphs, which all aim to convey a certain idea. Viewed in this new light, I’ve discovered a lot of hidden gems that exist in computer science, small forms of art that go unnoticed, but are nonetheless works of creativity and intentional artistic design. I’d love to share some of those hidden gems with you, and I’d like to start with the simple ternary operator, a common programming construct found in most languages.

Programming is based on a few recurring ideas: checking certain conditions, using information, and providing interfaces that are easy to use. Checking a condition is incredibly straightforward, and I guarantee you do it all the time. For example, you might say that you’ll go for a walk if it isn’t raining outside, otherwise you’ll stay inside. In very loose code form (referred to as pseudocode), that conditional might be:

if (it isn't raining) {
go outside;
} else {
stay inside;

This is fairly easy to understand and it’s easy to see the pieces that correspond to the original sentence. However, it also takes up 5 lines of code. This might sound negligible, but when you’re working on a project that has thousands of files, each with over 100 lines, you quickly realize how much these small conditionals add up, and eventually how hard it is to read the code. In this way, programmers and writers differ: while a writer can spend paragraphs discussing an insignificant detail (think Charles Dickens), a programmer has to express a thought in as little words as possible, while still conveying the same meaning. The purpose is to make the code so easy to read and understand that a future programmer looking back at the code can read it like a book. I find it especially interesting how code is meant to be read by other people; I’ve heard the saying that the first programmer to write a file will only read it once, but that it will be read a hundred times by the programmers that come after them. Put in this perspective, it’s easy to see how important clean code is, and to understand the fine balance between art and efficiency when styling code. So, how can we make this 5 line conditional even more elegant? Answer: the ternary operator. Here is the same logic presented using the ternary operator:

it isn't raining ? go outside : stay inside

Breaking this single line into pieces, it says “is the first statement true? If it is then do this first thing. If it is not true, then do this other thing”, where the question mark signifies the question and the first thing and second thing are the pieces separated by the colon. Take the time to translate our example into this format and compare to the original piece of code. Now appreciate the simplicity and readability of the second form. I hope I am conveying just how fascinating this simple structure is, and how it is a small work of art in the world of programming. It is an art of elegance, conveying complex ideas in simple ways, but with a practical importance not found in most art. Hidden gems like this remind me why I enjoy programming so much, and how art can be found in anything, even when you aren’t looking for it.

Hidden Gems: The Twilight Zone

Unfortunately it’s already the last week of October, which means that this is the last post of the horror-themed Hidden Gems series. I can’t believe how fast it flew by, especially being busy with midterms and existential dread about the state of the world. I’ve really enjoyed sharing some of my favorite works of horror art, I just can’t believe how much I didn’t get to cover; there’s pretty much an endless amount of art that I could talk about when it comes to horror. However, that doesn’t mean that you won’t see a spooky post now and again, especially if the inspiration strikes or I watch a particularly good movie. For my last post of spooky season, I found it fitting to talk about a work of art that is extremely close to my heart, a show that inspired my lifelong interest in the supernatural, science fiction, and horror: The Twilight Zone.

Depending on your generation, you might already be extremely familiar with the show; it was groundbreaking when it aired it 1959, and has inspired countless knock-offs and remakes due to its incredible popularity. However, I’ve noticed that has been brushed under the rug recently; I find less and less people who have ever seen it, let alone enjoy it. Unfortunately, the show’s age has been a large deterrent to modern viewers. It is filmed in black and white, as expected for the time, and not all of the acting has aged well. Although it is certainly an old show, I would argue that it has an unmatched amount of charm, and that the intellectual ideas presented in each episode are incredibly fascinating and still relevant today.

The original Twilight Zone of 1959 lasted for 5 seasons and spanned over 150 episodes, making it an incredible catalog of science fiction. Each episode is a self-contained short story and usually features some sort of social commentary or moral. The range of the show is incredibly broad: examples of topics include aliens, time travel, beauty, living inanimate objects, and other unexplainable phenomena. The one thing shared between all episodes is the haunting and iconic introduction by Rod Serling, the show’s creator. Each introduction is unique, but they all convey the same thing: anything can happen in the Twilight Zone, a place where not everything is as it seems, but a place where any of us could end up without knowing. It’s an incredibly powerful introduction, and one of my favorite examples of how art and media can create such strong emotions in the viewer, which in this case happen to be fear and uncertainty. The black and white filming of the show is also extremely conducive to the aesthetic being portrayed in each episode. One might expect it to be a barrier from realism, but I find it to be incredibly immersive, since so much attention is drawn to the characters and the story, not so much the visuals and special effects. More often than not, the immersion is actually broken when they attempt to use ambitious special effects; on the flip side, they use clever practical effects to achieve surprisingly convincing results. Episodes like Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? are a perfect example of this duality: some unfortunate prosthetics are especially jarring, while some of the practical effects are clever and so well done that it almost beats anything that could be accomplished today. In general, all of these aspects of the show make it extremely charming and memorable. Even if not every episode is perfect, they all come from a place of creativity and attention to detail is evident in every one.

With that being said, I can’t recommend the show enough; some seasons are currently on Netflix, and it’s the perfect show to watch during the month of October. Although the show has a notable reputation, it certainly doesn’t receive the amount of appreciation it deserves, especially considering how groundbreaking it was and how much it influences horror and science fiction writers today. If you do decide to watch it, these are some of my favorite episodes, and ones that I would recommend watching first: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Time Enough at Last, The Monsters are Due On Maple Street, Eye of the Beholder, and To Serve Man.