Apple’s placebo

July 28, 2009

Yesterday, the worst-kept secret in technology was officially announced to the world; Apple’s “Tablet” will be released in the autumn.

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My Twitter feed immediately blew up with eBook aficionados both praising and lambasting a device that has yet to be officially revealed or to have any of its actual specifications detailed. The above image is for illustrative purposes only. Mike Cane, who has a very lively Twitter presence, immediately sang its praises from every available rooftop, whereas more conservative sources drew attention to its limitations.

Of course, it’s all hearsay at the moment. Nobody knows outside of Apple how this device will fit into any wider eBook “strategy” they may or may not have. Furthermore, if this just turns out to be a large-screen iPod Touch with no offerings beyond eBook readers already available via the “App Store” then it will be an opportunity that has wholly gone to waste.

Obviously, the “iPod moment” for eBooks is an idea that has been championed by publishers and technology providers for many months now and the fact that Apple are proposing a technology that goes beyond the eInk limitations of previous readers is cause for some excitement. I would certainly be in favour of Stanza on a device with a larger screen and with a reliable battery but for the “iPod moment” to be achieved, Apple will have to implement the successful marriage of form and function for reading that they managed with music. Given their previous pedigree, they’re certainly well-positioned to manage it successfully.

Regardless of what happens, it will be interesting to see what the Tablet offers come its release. Let’s all just try to temper the excitement in the meantime.

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Negative capability

July 27, 2009

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Right now, I am pinning all my hopes (academic, career…there are others) on the unproved theory of a 19th Century romantic poet. There aren’t many men in their mid-20s who would make this kind of ludicrous assertion.

I have, for much of my life, found various measures of success entirely by accident. Of course, this way of living has been healthily tempered by failure at almost every other turn. Even so, the number of times when I’ve felt as if I’ve walked through the wrong door and not been found out are numerous. Essentially, I’ve lived my life almost exactly like this guy.

Yet, I’m nagged at exactly how long I can keep it up. I’m currently faced with the yawning terror of an approaching deadline and there are various other fears circling around my tiny mind that keep it very difficult from focusing on this task, snapping at my heels like a particularly pernicious poodle.

It would perhaps do me good to finally shun the idea of negative capability and adopt a more proactive ideal for living. Yet it’s too late for that now, surely. Far too late.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

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I have, of late, had abominable luck when it comes to Morrissey concerts. When I saw him at the Roundhouse last year, I collapsed at the end of How Soon Is Now?, losing my jacket in the process. When I arranged to see him at the Royal Albert Hall and Birmingham Symphony Hall in May, he cancelled due to illness. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I hastily bought tickets for one of the rescheduled Brixton shows as means of a birthday present for a dear friend of mine. Beyond doubts that this show might not go ahead either, the fact that I was now myself wracked with the fever of influenza fuelled fears of further catastrophe.

I needn’t have worried. This was my fifth Morrissey gig and was far and away the greatest I have experienced.

For the past few years, Morrissey has been using a video reel for introduction which has seen a few updates over his tours. One of the most startling recent additions is that of Lighten Up, Morrissey, a new song by his idols Sparks that bemoans a woman’s infatuation with the singer (sample lyric; “If only Morrissey wasn’t so Morrissey-esque, she might overlook all my flaws”).

Clearly, Morrissey’s sense of humour is in rude health at the moment. Always a good sign.

As the video clip of David Johansen smoking a joint at some point in the 70s arrived, I knew the show was only moments away from starting. Sure enough, it ended, the screen rose and out trotted Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders to introduce to us our hero and her friend: Morrissey.

Rapture greeted him as he launched into a muscular take on The Smiths’ classic This Charming Man. Many have criticised the new sound of this version but they seem to be missing the point. It’s not 1983 anymore and a literal translation of Johnny Marr’s elegiac chimes would do the song a disservice. As it stands, it’s a fantastic opener.

There followed an excellent set made up mostly of Years of Refusal and Smiths classics, with a few classic solo tracks thrown in for good measure. Amongst many highlights for me was a performance of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. The final track from the sublime The Queen Is Dead, it was only ever performed once live by The Smiths; at their final gig, at Brixton, in December of 1986.

I would never stoop to assume Morrissey gave any thought to the significance of that fact. But I can’t have been the only apostle in the audience who was touched.

In recent months, Morrissey has championed his current band and that showed in the performance. Boz Boorer, Solomon Walker and Jesse Tobias frequently took centre stage with their leader to bask in equal adulation. It seems that these days, “Morrissey” refers as much to the band than it does to the artist. This was flippantly alluded to when he asserted, “In all my years I’ve never had a stronger line-up…of shirts”. Tongue firmly in cheek, Morrissey’s real feelings were betrayed as he returned for the encore arm-in-arm with the entire band and taking a group bow, imploring, “hold on to your friends”, before launching into a thunderous rendition of First of the Gang to Die.

The night was made all the more special by the fact that my friend had never seen Morrissey before and was utterly won over. We spent the entire evening stood side by side with the biggest grins on our faces. It was an utterly joyous experience and I am certain that on my long journey home, the stars were shining just that little bit brighter. The rescheduled Albert Hall show is coming up in October and I look forward to enjoying it…in good health.

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I recently saw the film Sleuth for the first time. It’s rare that stage plays translate well to film (with a few notable exceptions, of course), yet this film is so utterly captivating that it never needs to hide its theatrical roots.

The film is 2 and a quarter hours long, featuring only 3 characters, yet it utterly flies by. The plot is almost inconsequential. It begins with Laurence Olivier inviting Michael Caine over to his country estate. It transpires that Mick is having an affair with Larry’s wife and there is much tension between the two men. However, Larry is not at all bothered by this, and hopes to aid Mick in taking her off his hands by faking a burglary that will allow Mick to keep the woman in the manner to which she is accustomed, preventing her from ever returning.

However, Larry’s character is obsessed with playing games. His mansion reminded me of J. F. Sebastian’s building in Blade Runner, full of quirky details and there is clearly something unhinged in his head. Indeed, he changes the rules of the game early on… witness this masterful little exchange between the two men as Olivier informs Caine that he, in fact, intends to murder him.

Olivier just oozes malice throughout the film. Both men do, in fact. Suffice to say, the film takes further twists from this point, with both characters constantly changing the “rules”. It’s absolutely brilliant.

If you can overlook the fact that Michael Caine plays an Anglo-Italian hairdresser, I would recommend this to anyone. It was remade a couple of years ago, with Michael Caine returning but this time playing the Olivier role. It received terrible reviews but the work is so richly open to different interpretations that I look forward to seeing this version too.

The SCUMM also rises

July 19, 2009

I should preface this with a warning; this will be one of the nerdiest things you will ever read.

I’m glad that’s out of the way.

When I was 7 years old, I had an Amiga 500+ computer. Just feast your eyes on this grey plastic beauty.

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Needless to say, it wasn’t the most advanced piece of hardware. However, it played host to two games that will forever be emblazoned on my consciousness; the first two entries in the Monkey Island series. The series has undergone various iterations over the years but the first two games, released in 1990 and 1991, remain pinnacles of storytelling within computer games and the humour therein I am sure has forever coloured my character.

Last week, The Secret of Monkey Island was released as a special edition on XBox Live Arcade and I spent several hours in absolute bliss reliving the game. It hasn’t aged at all and the jokes are as hilarious as ever.

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And just listen to this music. Fantastic.

It’s a shame that the adventure game genre fell into so swift a decline at the tail-end of the 1990s. Lucasarts (the developer of the Monkey Island titles and many other brilliant adventure games) had become preoccupied with the freshly-resurrected Star Wars franchise, leading many to dub it “the Wookiee factory”, and seemed to lose interest in new intellectual properties that could challenge, amuse and inspire. Full Throttle and Sam and Max, two mainstays of the adventure genre in the 90s had their planned sequels cancelled whilst movie tie-ins clogged the release schedules. As DOS faded into obscurity and new, increasingly ill-tempered versions of Windows were introduced, it seemed that their time had passed.

But then some bright spark developed a programme called SCUMMvm, an emulator that allows any game built on the SCUMM engine to be emulated on modern PC platforms. It’s a brilliant piece of software; despite their inherent linearity, the strength of the narrative in these games is so strong that they are infinitely replayable.

In fact, it seems that their popularity has finally been noticed. Not only has the first Monkey Island been re-released in a souped-up-fancy-Dan edition but a swathe of classic Lucasarts adventures have been added to the Steam content delivery service, available for purchase at a reasonable price, finally cutting out the need to scour eBay for overpriced deals. Could this signal a sea change at Lucasarts with regards to the genre? Probably not. Most of the writing and development talent left years ago; Tim Schafer formed DoubleFine and seems to have abandoned the genre, whereas Telltale Games now focus entirely on adventure games, with varying results.

However, these developments put these masterpieces back into the industry’s consciousness which can only be a good thing. I’d recommend anyone who enjoys puzzles, a great story and brilliant jokes to download SCUMMvm and fire up the Lucasarts games from 1990-7 (having obtained them legally, OF COURSE). They’re all fantastic and are a wonderful reminder of a more charming age.

“You fight like a dairy farmer.”
“How appropriate, you fight like a cow.”

In Moz we trust

July 15, 2009


Would you say that’s the face of a miserable man? Of course you wouldn’t.

It’s a peculiar thing, telling someone that your favourite band is The Smiths. Despite acclaim from the public and critics alike, letting another individual know this about you is akin to letting out the boniest of skeletons from your wardrobe. But why? Johnny Marr’s chiming melodies and the sheer quality of the material (I can only name one poor song by the band) should guarantee that it’s taken as a sign of good taste. Look, the songs even work when covered by an awful 80s synth-pop band!

Instead, whenever I tell anyone this, I’m either greeted with open arms or dismissed with instant suspicion.

I can’t think of a popular band more divisive than The Smiths. Of course, it all boils down to one character. Morrissey. “The Pope of Mope”, one of the most celebrated and reviled figures in modern British popular culture.

Morrissey’s depiction as a perennial miserabilist is, of course, hogwash. It all stems from The Smiths’ single release from June of 1984, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. The song itself is little more than a period piece; it’s a little repetitive and wears on repeated listening. Yet it has forever painted the singer in the popular consciousness as a right old misery and hilarious headlines continually make reference to an early single from a 26 year career. Never mind the fact that the song’s title is a pun with reference to one of Morrissey’s idols and that it’s very, very funny (name another Top Ten single with a line to rival, “What she asked of me at the end of the day, Caligula would have blushed”), it feeds the polluted press regardless.

The compelling force behind this entry is that I have a Morrissey gig on the distant horizon, rescheduled from earlier in the year. Whenever I have such a thing to look forward to it does make the world seem a little brighter. I’m always struck with a stumbling inarticulacy when quizzed on why I’m such a fervent acolyte for Morrissey’s cause. I can only recall the first time I listened to The Smiths as means of explanation. It was September 2002 and I’d moved away from home for the first time. I’d read a terrible article in Q about the best Smiths and Morrissey albums and had purchased The Queen is Dead on a whim. It was one of many confusing periods of my life and I was laying in bed with my CD Walkman (remember them?) only to hear I Know It’s Over whisper into my ears. It was a wonderful moment and I was hooked from there on. It sounds trite but as anyone who has really lived will agree, once you’ve let something into your heart, it’s in your blood and it’s there forever.

I think I will always envy anyone who hasn’t heard that album yet. Possibility is a fantastic thing. It’s also a curse, of course, but that can be saved for another time.

To finish, a couple of videos to perhaps illustrate some of the appeal. Miserable? Of course they aren’t.

This place is swiftly becoming a hoary old link dump. But this has to be seen to be believed.

Weezer haven’t recorded a song as good as either Kids or Poker Face in at least 8 years. In my terrible teenage era they were one of my favourite bands and I would exclaim with irrational pride the fact that I’d seen them TWICE. Then I had the misfortune to see them in my early 20s at Brixton. The dream was over.

This video though…it’s bizarre and brilliant (in a way I can’t quite describe). There’s a nagging feeling its entertainment value derives from the car-crash school but there’s no denying the amazement of seeing a small, 39 year-old white male rap, “I am bluffin’ with my muffin”. Incredible.