Saturday, December 31, 2005

Musical retrospective 2005

Is it about time for a retrospective for the musical year? No? Oh well, I really don't feel like writing anything else at the moment, so this will have to do.

I mentioned in an earlier post that a concern this year came with the lack of listening to things I bought, all in the holy name of preservation. There is now anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is in fact a continuing problem, one that I will probably have to solve by putting more worth in singles and listening to tracks in their miscellaneous glory. But even with this issue, there were some nice enough finds which I shall document for posterity's sake.

I'm often amazed by how skimp my collection actually is in terms of depth, for anytime it grows, it seems to be entirely breadth-wise. Why is that? No doubt due to my love of experimentation, eh? Perhaps it indicates that I get bored far too easily with most things, and so most artists see me obsess enough over one album so as for me to buy it, after which no further mention is made. The best example are those crafty LS boys (Lynyrd Skynyrd, doncha know). There was a time where I was hell-bent on hearing every single one of their songs on the radio so as to judge which of their many albums I should purchase. Naturally their first and most famous one would be the start, but "Double Trouble" wasn't on it, so surely there would be many more to follow, right? Haha, surely you jest! For what followed was a paltry two listens to the first album, whereupon I promptly forgot about them completely. As for a reason why, 'twas purely down to a personal whim, borne perhaps out of a disappointment over "Simple Man" or something. It's possible to listen to samples so many times that when the real thing comes on, it seems limp and somehow not nearly as good. I can't rationalize it at all, I'm afraid (after all, there are some mighty good songs on that first album, you know; "Tuesday's Gone", now that is a lost classic). And so it went that I moved on to bigger and better things in my mind...such as, say, that punk-poet Patti Smith, who suffered a similar fate after Wave failed to impress on two (or was it three? It might make all the difference!) listens. It just goes on and on from there, I'm afraid.

The other side to this is that I treat most new music with wary caution. I'll never forget "Send Me No Wine", for aside from being beautiful, it was the song that made me admit to myself " maybe these guys aren't so bad after all". I started off treating the Moodies as competitors to the Beatles (and as such constantly rejected their melodic prowess), and so with every song, there was a part of me that went "Bah, that was no good! "Day In The Life", now that's a song!". Insane, no? It's yet more prominent when music is recommended, but I think the underlying issue here is fear of some already existing idol being shown-up by someone "better" - I seem to be saying "No no no, my idol is still the best, this is just a weak imitation!". Fear! A John Cale album, and a probable reason for one of my particularly neurotic tendencies.

So what did we have this year? It's hard to believe that it started off with Unknown Pleasures, because it feels like that one's been around for a long time. This is such a consistent little album it's amazing - there are no major misses, everything is nice and to the point, and it's very hard to feel let down after a listen. Granted, I can't get into the lyrics at all, but it doesn't matter, because it's the actual music that I dig. Some see Curtis as having some of the best lyrics in rock, but me, I don't see it sadly. What he sings is often too abstract and intangible for me to be able to appreciate. The combination of the music and the lyrics works well, of this there is no doubt, but I couldn't like a Joy Division song on the basis of lyrics alone; but like I said, it's not as much of a loss, because the music is nothing short of fantastic. The emphasised bass works surprisingly well, and when the guitar takes center stage, it's usually amazing. Who would've guessed that you could make an album where it's the bass that provides the hook? Certainly one of the best bass lines I've heard in my short musical life is that of "She's Lost Control" (which, incidentally, is a nice of example of the guitar really making itself felt when it bursts onto the scene - a Kinks riff and a mesmerising bass, how can you go wrong!?!). If I had to pick a favourite, it would be "Shadowplay", if only for the intro where the bass is shattered by the guitar. What a moment, and what an album!

What to say about The Good Son? I seem to talk about it every other post. Why in God's name? Heck, who knows, but let me say that the album isn't yet one of my favourites. When I think about the individual songs in isolation, they all seem good, but every listen has left me a little, well, disappointed. As though I'm expecting some great aural revelation or something! It's unfortunate, really, because there's some great stuff here, but alas, I seem to unable to judge it for what it is, instead choosing to pile on unneeded matters of circumstance. My fondest memory of it, though, is coming home tired one evening and then, after listening to this mellow album on my bed, suddenly feeling as though I had been granted a second burst of energy. You know, thinking about "Foi Na Cruz" again just makes me wonder why I don't love this yet. There are many positive memories, but where's the love? Damn, and "Sorrow's Child", that takes a few listens, but man, that hook will reel you in. Maybe I was wrong, maybe this is a favourite, except it just hasn't dawned on me yet.

By far the biggest surprise of the year was Roxy's For Your Pleasure. When I first listened to it, I was left wondering "Where the hell did that come from?"; I didn't expect that something so amazing could come from people I hadn't heard of at all; clearly, I still over-estimate my still fledgling knowledge of rock. From the moment the main hook of "Do The Strand" hit, I could tell there was something here, and chided myself for letting this album sit in my house for a year, unlistened to. It's true, with repeated listens, you tend to pick out a few weak moments, but I miss experiences like this. I went it having no idea who these Roxy guys were, having no idea what this album was or what kind of music was played, and when the music played - damn. They don't make moments like that anymore. Funnily enough, even though the follow-up, Stranded, is easily more consistent on a song-by-song basis, it's definitely not as enjoyable to me as this one is. You can sit down to Stranded and be entertained the whole way through. "Street Life" features a pretty synth riff, and a catchy melody, and "Mother Of Pearl" is one funky tune, but it isn't quite the same. The mood isn't there - when you start off FYP with "Do The Strand", you know there is nothing else like this. And "Beauty Queen" comes on, and there is hope for the world! And of course once "Editions Of You" takes its turn, you're in space, and everything starts to make sense. Damn, I'm forgetting what I was talking about, but this is great stuff.

Skylarking gets the most rewarding whim-purchase award, what with its collection of immaculate pop songs. Loose conceptuality is something I'm always game for, but I mainly went in expecting some strong hooks, and was not disappointed. The opening combo of "Summer's Cauldron"/"Grass" is the most charming one I've heard all year (although "Foi Na Cruz"/"The Good Son" may be the one that puts me most at ease). I remember that at the time I bought it, I was a little tired of experimental and revolutionary rock. I wanted something simple and melodic, no doubt feeling the dizzying after-effects of Ram. I didn't know much about XTC, but a positive review or two was enough for me. I chanced my hand and was duly rewarded. I wouldn't say this has great (pop) songs - nothing in the vein of "Uncle Albert", say - but it is chock-a-block with many very good ones. "That's Really Super, Supergirl", for instance - the heck!?! Why is it so likeable? Ahhh, music, the most mysterious of masters...

Somewhere in between the first and second half of the year, along came Quadrophenia, making a dramatic return. I heard it late 2004, but was so disappointed that I included it on my RYM list of albums I haven't been able to appreciate, much to my chagrin. I decided to give it another shot, and I think it was a gloomy Saturday morning that I gave it another spin. I set aside a good hour to let the album sink in, and the result was fantastic. Perhaps it was just the mood I was in at the time, but the experience was like no other. My memories are too complex to be put into words, but I do remember reeling from the bass-lines on a couple of the songs, and just totally digging the synths that Townshend uses with great success. I can't say if it's the rockers like "The Real Me" or the denser numbers like the title track that I appreciate - all I know is, the sign of a great album is when it is able to make you feel like no other can make you. Sometimes, you can't even put into words what this feeling is. It doesn't make for particularly interesting reading, I'll admit, but how is one supposed to accept the burden of putting into words something so other-worldly? Let me at least say that when the crescendo of "Love Reign O'er Me" hits, I really do feel like I've been through an opera. I have no idea if this is the height of art-rock, but to me, this is as good an example as any of a rock album that is perfectly on-par with a piece of art in terms of the feelings it can get out of me.

The second half of the year belonged to Morrissey, of this there can be no doubt. There's a review of Hatful Of Hollow that is yet to be completed, but I love that the album reintroduced me to the power of the single. It's funny to think that a single album could cause so much adulation on my part, in fact I can't quite understand it myself. On the basis of this alone, I proceeded to get most of the Smiths' catalogue within the next few months. Put it down to the power of the Morrissey - that guy can write. And sing, incidentally - there's nothing quite like Morrissey crooning on "Reel Around The Fountain".

Edit: Whoah, whoah, whoah. How could I forget? Eno's Another Green World should've been the first album that came to mind when I compiled this list. This is a great album. In fact, it's one of the greatest ones I've heard in a while. Were it not for For Your Pleasure blowing me away the first time, I would have no qualms naming this the best album I've heard all year. Again, objectivity be damned - yes, like Pleasure, towards the end it loses its bite. Much as I like "Everything Merges With The Night", I can't argue that it is anywhere near the same level of, say, "In Dark Trees". Oh man, what a song. I can't think of talking very much about the songs themselves, because this is going to be my reaction. "In Dark Trees", "St. Elmo's Fire", and, perhaps most of all, "The Big Ship"? Achingly beautiful, each of them. I've never listened to ambient music, well, ever, but some of these make me want to change that. I hear it sometimes said that the pop songs are out of place here, but I lurve "I'll Come Running" - I read somewhere about how Eno mastered the pop-format by this stage, and it seems rather apt! What a perfect little pop song! I think the pop and the ambient pieces work together nicely; after all, it gives one the opportunity to go from the blissful "St. Elmo's Fire" to the gloomy yet beautiful "In Dark Trees". It's fitting that Eno played a big hand in For Your Pleasure as well - perhaps the second half of the year was Morrissey's, but the year itself was Eno's it would seem!

Who to look out for next year? Ween are very much on the top of the list, simply because of GS's reviews. I can't help myself, I have to see what the fuss is about. The Cocteau Twins, even if it's just because of "Carolyn's Fingers". Perhaps Sparks and Steve Harley, if I can find them, but at the moment nothing else seems to come to mind. Thankfully, when I'm armed with money and go inside a music shop, potentials come out of every corner, so here's hoping that the coming year isn't a dull one musically.

Bah, I can't resist, pointless list time:

Best album I heard: Roxy's For Your Pleasure. I can't help it, this album just totally overwhelmed me. Like I said in the edit, Another Green World comes pretty darn close to winning this award, but since FYP was what immediately came to mind, I'll take that to mean that I somehow have a deeper reaction to it. Objectively, it tapers off to the end, but as an experience, I can't get away from those first six songs. The last two don't grip, but I need a bit of a breather and a light let-off. Those harmonicas on "Grey Lagoons" are cool enough.

Best song I heard: I don't like this award, it's way too difficult. If I must choose, it would have to be the Smith's "This Charming Man". I have no idea why, but this song really seems to resonate with me. I haven't been able to rationally analyze it, but after a point I've just given up and marvelled at how something could affect me so. If I were to debate on whether a single can be a piece of art, perhaps this would be my choice. The opening, with the beautiful jangly guitar that seems to bring the imagery of the words to life ("Punctured bicycle / On a hillside desolate"), is one of the finest things I've heard in a while.

Then again, there is "The Big Ship". I don't even bother rationally analyzing this one, it's simply the greatest instrumental I've ever heard. Soul-cleansing.

Edit from the future: Uhm, hello, "Editions Of You"? It still is one of the most unique and friggin' brilliant songs I've ever heard. Perhaps now you see the problem with trying to choose a best song, there simply are too many of them!

Most neglected album: The Kinks' Arthur. I didn't even mention it here, even though "Some Mother's Son" was the focus of a post earlier in the year. I don't know why, but something just hasn't clicked with this. But there are moments, there are moments that make me think that there really is something great here. "Shangri-La", for instance, ooh, now that can give you goosebumps. I owe it to myself to hear this more often.

Best song by an artist I thought I knew all about: Simon & Garfunkel's "Leaves That Are Green". As for why I thought I knew all about S&G, despite only having listened to Bridge Over Troubled Water, well... A charming little song with lyrics I wish I wrote ("I was twenty-one years old when I wrote this song"...!).

Song I should love more, but don't: Cave's "The Weeping Song", no doubt. Great lyrics, catchy melody, what's not to love about it? I like it, I like very much in fact, but I somehow don't love it, and to me, this is a mystery.

Favourite Morrissey moment: Hey, the guy deserves a special place all for himself. Hard to pick, but have you heard "Panic" lately ("Hang the DJ!")? There's something about the "And I wonder tooo myself" line that I just love - somehow sad, yet the delivery cannot be matched. To quote a fellow blogger, unbelievably profound.

Song that made me wish I heard the album earlier: Strange award, but it would probably be "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side", off Cave's No More Shall We Part (review pending!). I was tentative of the album for no particular reason, but then as this opened up proceedings, I was left rueing that I doubted the Cavemeister.

Friday, December 30, 2005


Headlights cut through the foggy night
Asleep in India, awake in Tibet,
For a moment in between
I saw the golden egg.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Venus in furs

"What is there to do this afternoon?"
Thinking about this, I lay down and tried to plan something interesting.
Instead I slept, and it felt like a thousand years.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Postmodern highrise tabletop stomp

"...Yes, yet I don't quite know that you exist"
He blinked slowly. "Turn on your television, my son", he said.
"'Tis done"
"And what is it that you see?", he said.
"...Reach out, touch faith".
He smiled.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Sitting on the dock of the bay

There is a soft light that streams through the window next to me, and I feel as though there is a self-contentedness about the house. I enjoy the subdued colours that come out in the afternoon. It belies the significance of the days to come, but I'd rather not think about that right now. I feel those comforting stubs of a beard across my face, and imagine the strings of an acoustic guitar being plucked. I can't imagine doing anything now, because it would be wasted on a moment like this. Ripeness is plainly all.
When I saw there was no reply, I felt that perhaps it was going to end like it had begun. With two strangers walking away from each other..."I'll probably never see you again".

I don't think I'm mean, but I don't know how I can explain our relationship. I really didn't enjoy denying her time and time again, but really, I felt like there was no other choice. After all, we were too different, weren't we? It's funny that she should be gone now, on a plane somewhere thinking of what a low-life I am. "I don't hate you, I just can't love you. Or like you, it would seem".

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Why do some lines come off as bland and trivial when sung, yet others can come off as strange and magical? Perfect example - "...No God in heaven / Or devil beneath the sea". The intonation on the second line is what I'm talking about, you know. I don't know what exactly I'm looking for - is it a mathematical answer? Dylan used to say he made very mathematical music, for what reason I'm not entirely sure. It seems infinitely interesting to try and study the nature of these things, but I suspect that in truth, once you begin to explain it I will doze off. It's as though the interesting thing is posing such questions and then lying back and saying "Ah well, what're you going to do? No answers here!".

Sunday, November 27, 2005

It turns out A is a writer, and a prolific one at that! Listening to the talk about his work, it's almost enough to make me want to write again. But I find nowadays that there isn't all that much to write about, in part because I feel like I have read so little that my style is stagnant in the ways of old, never able to progress beyond those ruminations I made in high school. In fact, going to a bookstore these days has become a somewhat sad experience, and in many ways it reminds me of the days when I used to go to a music store and look under G (for the 'Dead), and then...that was it. Rows and rows of music, yet I would focus on six or seven CDs! I knew back then that it couldn't go on like that, and that at some point I was bound to find something new, but I didn't shake that off for a while*. What happens in a bookshop these days? Not all that much, really. Look under C (though I've only read The truth, I wonder myself why I am so fixated on Camus), F (Faulkner), maybe H (to look knowingly at Hesse, think carefully about Hemmingway, and for that odd Huxley book that has missed my eye thus far) and S (for a cheap Sarte find, and to wonder "What if" at Steinback). Egads man, 'tis shameful!

One very obvious thing that I will mention is that there isn't half the online book community as there is the online music community. For starters, there ain't no GS-like encyclopaedia of reviews! I suppose that makes the process of discovery a little more difficult, if only because I've gotten so used to finding music through purel online channels; the word of mouth is, sadly, turning into a relic of the past for me! P sometimes gives his recommendations, which are great almost uniformly, but I don't feel I've done him enough justice with the paltry amount of reading I've done. I remember a selection he made last year especially for me which to this day has gone unread. It's enough to make a man sad.

A RateYourBooks would not be an entirely foolish proposition, methinks. The lists that are generated from such sites are not entirely worthless if they allow one to come across new and interesting things. When one starts to take such lists too seriously, of course, things are bound to get ugly, but I find that intelligent lists can always be enjoyed if viewed from the right perspective.

I suspect that what I need to be reminded of is this - Camus may be no Cave, but Cave sure ain't no Camus. Yes, there are some wonderfully erudite gems I've come across over the years through song, but I would do well not to forget the magic and wonder of the book.

* The metamorphosis was slow, but I think I can pin it down to the end of '02, where old faithful S presented a selection of some albums that he particularly liked. That lead onto several avenues of exploration (like those darling Moodies), and the rest is history.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Sombre replies

I've spent a good hour wrestling with No More Shall We Part, which is surprising, because I expected it would be far easier going. At the moment, it feels even denser and more serious than The Boatman's Call, and that's saying something. Quite a few songs come across as samey-sounding, which is always a bit disappointing, and it's invariably the slower songs. Thing is, there are lots of slower songs; maybe a quarter of them are really energetic, the rest are slow piano-driven songs. I find the best songs to be the ones that really build up an atmosphere, like the brilliant "Oh My Lord", which is by far the best song here (although the first track, "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side", is strong as well).

It's definitely gloomy stuff, and Cave sounds very tired on most of them. I think it's the first instance where you can hear him straining his voice; it sounded great on The Boatman's Call, but he seems to be losing it slowly here.

Of course, just because it's dense and gloomy doesn't mean it has no worth. Enjoyable it may not be, but there probably is more to it than meets the eye.

Update: It took nearly a year for me to re-listen to it. I don't think it's as bad as the above makes it out to be, in fact the songwriting is fairly strong throughout. Dense? Hardly! I'd say it's much easier going than The Boatman's Call. Oh, and "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side" is the best thing on here, make no mistake; no offense to "Oh My Lord", but the opener could be one of Cave's finest compositions of his career. But that's just the euphoria talking...

Berlin also was tough going, and indeed set a bad precedent for the rest of the day. I found myself wading through a lot of soft, almost spoken word intonations by Reed, only to reach the somewhat uplifting "Sad Song" (which, despite the title, is anything but). I remember thinking about this album much earlier in the year, wondering whether it would be an epic tale (for some reason Hamlet came to mind). The initial verdict? Not quite! I suppose that's to be expected with really moody pieces; they really do need a lot of time to stir up some genuine feeling.

Friday, November 25, 2005

iTunes Store Not The Answer

I came across an interesting site that explains why the iTunes music store is far more evil than it lets out to be. I have to admit, I had no idea that it was basically a digitization of the same model of selling music, wherein the artists' cut is paltry. Yet I don't know if I'm as outraged as I should be over the fact that it is building something over the same model of old; after all, I seem to happily buy CDs without any concern in the world. At the moment, there don't seem to be many good alternatives (I certainly don't think downloading a song and then mailing out a cheque to the artist directly is a feasible possibility).

But what does the RIAA have to do to cure the P2P "infection"? Clearly it seems like they have to rethink their whole way of doing business, because it seems pretty clear that when you take down one P2P system, another comes up in its place. I was under the impression that the iTunes music store was a step forward, but the above article has made me reconsider my stance, if only slightly. It's certainly positive that they have seen that you really can use the internet as a large-scale distribution mechanism, and that the iTunes store survives in the face of rampant P2P sharing suggests that when there is a convenient medium of purchasing, there are people who will come around.

As for CDs themselves, I think there will definitely be a larger number of people buying CDs when there is more physical content that is bundled along with it. I'd imagine that many people who care about music would definitely pay a reasonable price to get vinyl-style covers and artwork. I'm happy with buying CDs as they are, but even I have stopped buying the imports that you find in stores, instead waiting for the rejects to appear in one of the $10 stores. They're simply too expensive, and buying even a couple really burns up the wallet. But, if these were to include for starters the vinyl-size album covers, I would start to reconsider. If then you throw in additional artwork and the like, I would definitely start to actively consider the CD worth the money.

* Re the title: what's the question?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ode to the music catalogue

I was thinking that I would resume work on my music catalogue program at long last, but alas, it seems that it will remain dormant for a while now. After finally breaking down the very counter-productive, "real programmer" idea of not using external libraries for anything and coding everything myself, I thought that instead of writing my own AllMusic parser, I could see if some nice folks had done it all for me. There wasn't anything except an old Perl module, and so after a bit more searching, I came across some interesting information. The new terms of service at AMG don't allow data-scraping/mining from the database without a license, which would make my proposed catalogue features (like lookup and playing song samples) illegal. Granted, the program would only be for my use alone (selfish son of a gun that I am), but it was enough to make me seek out alternatives to AMG.

I went out looking for a freely searchable alternative to the AMG database, but I was a bit disappointed with the results. The ones with the most potential are community-edited ones, such as MusicBrainz and MusicMoz. The latter provides very useful XML versions of the data, while the former has album covers. But there were small things that made me think twice about the whole operation - for instance, the lack of song samples, which is something I was really keen on doing. Also, MusicBrainz doesn't seem to have an "Original Release Date" field for albums, which is what I usually use for my albums. Also, there are (understandably enough) no set reviews for most albums on either; this was something I felt I could do without, but again it is a small inconvenience.

Finally, I decided that I would seek the most sensible alternative - Excel. Yes, like the great Cap'n before me, I thought that the simplest solution would be best. It isn't as pretty without the album covers and the nice GUI, but darn it, it's good, honest stuff. Converting the old database to Excel was trivial (as you might expect, when pasting, Excel interprets a tab as the start of a new column), and so some ten minutes later, I felt the matter was resolved for the time being.

I should say however that MusicBrainz does seem to be rather active in terms of ongoing growth, which means that in the next few years it may well provide all that I ask of it. I'm torn between helping improve it, or helping improve Wikipedia's own repository on music. Perhaps this is the biggest problem with community-driven enterprises - there's too many of them!

(Yes, I realize the post title makes no sense)

History of rock

As one would expect, watching "John Lennon's Jukebox" sparked a fair bit of thought on the history of rock, and how it got to the way it is today. Fascinating stuff, really. S posed the question of who was the first to truly break away from the traditional rock 'n roll influences of the late '50s, which got me thinking a bit. It's funny, by '66/'67, a whole slew of new artists came about, but it's hard to pinpoint the first major deviation. I'd be inclined to go with Highway 61 (big surprise), which was in '65, which is funny because over the past couple of years I got the feeling that it was a lot more cramped in terms of genius around that time. Probably is, I just haven't found it yet.

On the subject, there isn't much that can hope to compete with Peiro Scaruffi's History Of Rock, which is also available as a paperback; it's as comprehensive as you could possibly want, although some of the portions are yet to be translated. He does tend to get a bit carried away with over-romanticising some things, and his view is definitely idiosyncratic. His "Greatest Albums" list is one of the more interesting ones you'll find (how many do you know of that feature Faust I closely followed by The Good Son!?!). His views are another in the line of those that are usually controversial within limits, but sometimes he loses me (case in point, it's unfathomable to not include the Beatles in the "Giants Of Rock" page, but anyway).

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The trouble with newbies

Kuro5hin has an article on that most dangerous of creatures, the newbie. As you'd expect, there is no consensus on gracefully dealing with newbies on the internet. Some suggest the good ol' RTFM, others use the "give a man a fish" analogy to encourage going deeper (matched by claims that most people don't care about going deeper, and that all they want is just a solution), and a few suggest simply answering the question or ignoring it. What do we do with newbies? I haven't got the foggiest idea, but walk with me for a bit.

My own newbie phase was fairly classical in structure, in that I displayed all the tells of a newbie with flair and gusto. To me, it is a remarkable reminder of the seemingly exponential growth in terms of technical finesse that I've made, and is always worth reflecting on when I see newbies out there on the net today. More often than not, it still shocks me that I was once very much like them, and I can't help but be amazed that some day someone else would have read my posts like I read other posts now, looking back on days past. On the rare occasions that I read technical forums these days, it's very easy to spot out a complete newbie post. Some faux pas' include dumping a few hundred lines of code and saying "Why doesn't it compile?", failing to give sufficient information (such as just saying "It doesn't work"), and of course not searching the net for other people's solutions to similar problems (which are usually out there). Some five years ago, I made all these mistakes and more, and it's really funny to read some of my posts again, not only because I'm amazed that I made them, but also because it's a miracle I didn't get flamed to the ground sooner (I did get told off eventually though; more on that later)!

It's hard to remember what my mindset was at the time, but I do know that at that point I was very much focussed on getting a game done, and quickly. Tetris was my first focus, and I unashamedly proclaimed how I was total newbie in any form of graphics programming, yet had a strong confidence that I would be able to make a strong clone of Tetris within months. What surprises me was the lack of fore-thought I displayed, but also the lack of rudimentary knowledge about programming itself. One of my posts featured a code dump with a solution that now makes me go red. The problem was an undefined variable! I couldn't figure this out from VC++'s error message. In around a minute, I gave up and posted a question, including all of my code (just to be safe).

If I were to see a newbie doing something like this now, I really don't know what the right course of action would be. It's clear that on setting my sights too high, I was neglecting a lot of deeper learning, instead focussing just on what needed to be done to get something to work, not spending any time on trying to understand why it worked. My initial reaction is to say that it would be important to tell the newbie to perhaps concentrate on more basic issues first, and perhaps try to impart a sense of why the problem has come up and how to prevent it in future. Now, the replies to my particular thread were rather direct, in that they basically pointed out that I hadn't defined a variable, and suggested where I ought to do that. I'd be tempted to try and address how this solution was derived - read the error message, figure out what it means, look at the line where the problem is, and then make the connection.

But will the average newbie care? This is the point made by some at K5. Clearly if (s)he does care, then something more will be gained that just a solution to a specific problem; there is now a simple technique of attempting to fix a larger set of problems (naturally, figuring out what terror messages mean will take some time). I can't offer a statistic of what proportion of newbies would fall into this category. As for me personally, at that stage I think I would most likely let the deeper understanding go past me, and instead focus on what was needed to make the problem go away. Sad, but true! It's clear enough now that a small sacrifice initially can lead to a big payoff down the road, especially when it comes to investing time in learning something, but I don't think I could have been convinced of this back then. (As I sit here now, I think it impossible for a similar fate to befall me now, but perhaps in a couple of years' time I will shake my head at some monstrosity from the past few months!)

Does that mean that the "RTFM" approach is the most appropriate way to deal with this type of newbie? After all, if attempts to teach him/her about the bigger picture are going to go unheeded, isn't the best way to get them to start thinking for themselves and working better? I can't say for sure, but I don't think this is the right way. I simply can't champion this style of dealing with newbies (not the least of which because of my bleeding heart), but, it did work when someone did it to me. When I was eventually put down for my online sins, it really put the fear of the flamer in me. For the first time, another of my questions that I thought to be rather innocuous was not met with any sort of sympathetic response, but rather with a good old fashioned flame that attempted to put me in my place. On reading it, I was shocked, and couldn't believe that I could elicit such a reaction from someone. And, would you believe it, I stopped asking questions. What it led me to do was what I should've done in the first place - search on Google, because most of my problems were amazingly trivial. I was forcibly pushed into this habit, from a fear of other people flaming me to high heaven.

The end was therefore a definite positive, for now I refrain from posting unless it's something I haven't been able to find a solution for even after a lot of trying. I have no doubt that it will work in other cases too, especially for those of a timid leaning, but I cannot advocate it in general. At least, not right now. It takes the tough love approach a bit too far for my liking. I'm a bit more receptive towards the terse "Google it", but even this doesn't feel wholly satisfactory.

I suppose that leaves the "hint" approach, wherein one does not give a full solution, but rather only gives general directions to help one work towards a solution. Now this I think might be the best way to go. Again, no numbers to back up this gut feeling; I do recall threads where "Google for [whatever]" responses have been followed up by a thanks for the original author. I have little doubt that there will be newbies who will be puzzled by such a response, instead expecting a direct answer, but I think that if one persists with this tough-love (not really, but it ain't spoonfeeding) approach, more often than not one will end up helping the dedicated newbie. I'd like to think that if I were given such responses, I would've picked up on how to improve my skills sooner, but maybe I give myself too much credit. I may well have been the newbie that says "I searched but I couldn't understand it, help!!!"!

Now, having said all this, there is a completely different school of thought in this area, one that looks at the situation from a very different angle. These people advocate that the newbie should be able to ask whatever the heck they want, and that documents like "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way" can go (you know). It's true that in some cases it's better if a human answers your question personally, rather than a detached document. I however don't think this is a very common concern among newbies; certainly I didn't mind being directed somewhere as along as it told me what I was looking for.

Like I said earlier, I have no idea what the "right" approach is. Wikis have been around for a bit, and as awareness about them increases perhaps newbies will have it easier. The whole thing is amazingly prickly, and at the moment there is no clear course of approved action. I suspect there won't be one for a while to come, either. The newbie shall live on!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

If you have a thousand minerals, ten Mutalisks you should build

This is all very funny, highly inconsequential, and as such is probably not worthy of a post. But it's a nice reflection on this day, which was a funky day in its own right.

S was definitely surprised (to say the least) when I admitted that I hadn't yet listened to The Queen Is Dead, so much so that I began to wonder why I've left it lying peacefully on my shelf (pun on the album cover?) for so long in the first place. I'm guessing he didn't believe me when I said I hadn't listened to anything in the past few months. Heck, I pretty much had to leave the room when it came up, because I had no idea what I could say. I think I nervously smiled and mumbled something about liking to preserve things, but it sounded quite funny at the time. It's always amusing when things like this happen, because "people say it's a sin", etc.* Didn't something like this happen before? Hmm, yes, with Rumours some three years ago I think. But that turned out rather strangely, with him actually forcing me to listen to it then and there. Thankfully no similar fate befell me this time, and I got away with a "The hell's wrong with you?". Haha, indeed!

I guess it's cutesy and all that to try and "preserve" things for just the right occasion, but it also places an unfair burden. I suspect that The Good Son suffered a little in this regard, because by the time I first listened to it, it was already deeply cooked inside my head. I pictured what "The Weeping Song" would be countless times over, and so the first time I actually listened to it...well, it was nice and all, but where were those fantastic drums I had imagined? Or that bit about the desert's back? I seemed to focus more on what was not there, which is precisely the kind of thing you'd like to avoid. Granted, subsequent listenings cleared this up, and I began to really appreciate it, but the whole thing bothered me a little. I far prefer the out of the blue miracle from nowhere, the sort that so perfectly manifested itself with Ram.

One of the things I've tried is cutting down on the time spent at GS's site reading reviews for things I haven't listened to. Really, the whole thing is just doomed to failure, because of the completely unrealistic image that a review can place in your head (I think I've talked about how The Fall are unfortunate victims of this, although GS hasn't reviewed them as yet). Clearly it's good to read a review to get the general idea of something, but I seem to take it further than is really necessary. What really gets to me is when I try to convince myself of why something is worth the rating GS gives it - until I heard Morrissey chide me**. Case in point, I really liked The Notorious Byrd Brothers the first couple of times I heard it, but then I started to think of reasons why it only got an 11. At one stage, I started believing that I was way off with my initial reactions, and that it really was rather lightweight. I remember reading JM's review too, where he said something to the effect of "The other songs are sort of just there". I nodded knowingly to myself, but then suddenly snapped out of it and said "Wha? Everything is just there, the heck am I agreeing to!?!". Then of course I read the Capn's review, and peace was restored.

I don't know when this preservation tactic started, though; used to be that around these parts I would feel tired by the end of the day from too much listening. Granted, those were the days when everything I heard was totally new to me, and as such I couldn't get enough of it (let it be known that those Zeppelin boys were at the forefront of this those days, so that no matter how snobbish I may seem today, these are my musical roots). It's probably another over-compensation on my part, but it is one I am rather keen to change soon. It almost seems like the thrill is more in finding and buying things than actually listening to them, which is strange enough for me to resolve to try and stop this in future.

Having a buffer of fresh albums is something else I think I ought to stop completely, because it also causes all sorts of nonsense. Primarily when any new addition immediately goes into this list, the reasoning being "Oh look! Now I have more stuff that I can listen to!". It reminds me (wait for it) of my StarCraft strategy of old, wherein I would hoarde minerals just so they were there to be used. What for? Building units, I guess. So can I build a unit now? What are you, crazy!?! We've got so many now, let's see how far we can go! Needless to say, this time around I've paid scant attention to my available resources, and as a result have managed to come up with far more interesting gameplay (whereas before it would be "Bring me 12 of your best [most powerful flying unit]", which is more or less a sure-win strategy for the single-player campaign).

So, the new plan is as follows - don't buy anything. No, hang on, maybe it's "As ye buy, so shall ye listen"***. Actually, meaningless statements aside, the only sensible thing really is to not hoard, and consume without fear of reducing some imaginary listening buffer. I'd probably do well to consume a little less per year too, since most of the CDs aren't going anywhere.

* I've become the master of including quotes that cannot be completed. In addition to being the master of tying in video games and music. Not to mention footnotes.

** Dereference that

*** I'm just blathering now. But I'm hungry, so I don't think I can make much sense.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

"It's just an album"

Two new books are out, one on 1001 albums to hear in this life, another on 1001 songs to hear. Fear not, I don't intend to go through the lists with pithy comments (for starters, I don't know what they are, since I don't have the books). But I was interested in the comments made by the author of the 1001 songs book, who claimed that his book was the more relevant of the two, simply because iPods and the like have made albums "redundant". I unfortunately can't disagree, because it does seem like the general trend is to disregard albums and go for Best Ofs.

Is there anything wrong with that? What's the matter with choosing a Best Of anyway? Well, there's nothing wrong with them, but I think keeping them exclusively can lead you to miss out. Sometimes. If I just had Skeletons From The Closet, then I would've missed out on Terrapin. Then again, if I had So Many Roads, that wouldn't be a problem, so bad example. So how about this - if I just had Wingspan, I wouldn't have "Mamunia" or "Dear Boy". Of course, then I would have "Junior's Farm"...hey, these things are looking more tempting by the minute!

I don't think there's a whole lot wrong with a good compilation. But the trouble is when one begins to identify someone solely based on their "hits" or "best" material. They're great for a first introduction, but it's best to follow them up I think. Which inevitably leads one to the state where the compilation then becomes redundant...! I feel however that most would see the albums as but collections of songs, which would make buying compilations much more logical. Again, there's nothing wrong with this, but I don't think I'd appreciate Quadrophenia say if I applied my old strategem of listening to an album once and picking out which songs were good on a first listen*.

Yet while I feel that a good compilation is a fine choice, I think it's also important not to dismiss the concepts of albums as art. This seems to be a growing risk in this day and age, but there seems to be a growing opinion that the whole concept is outdated and flawed anyway. I think one argument is that singles can be as artistic as albums. Now, I don't deny that, and as such it's probably not possible to compare albums and songs. Yet I do sense that this argument is being taken to an extreme, wherein people say "We don't need albums at all!", thus focussing exclusively on songs. A place for all means enjoy singles, indeed revere them when appropriate, but don't think they invalidate albums! (The opposite applies equally well!)

My own sins include owning not a single CCR album, nor a single Birthday Party album, save for compilations of the two. Whether owning Hatful Of Hollow over the first two Smiths ablums is a crime, I'm not sure. The Party's Hits is alright I suppose, but I'm pretty sure there's more to CCR than their compilation. Anyhow, better run through the jungle.

* I actually don't remember when I cured myself of this affliction. I remember doing this for some of the Moodies' albums, and definitely remember doing it for The White Album. I'm suspecting the seeds of change were sown when I first came across Mr. Starostin's webpage, which would probably be sometime mid-2003. Who would've guessed from the way I talk about these things? I'm really blessed with becoming elitist at an alarmingly quick rate!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Hatful Of Hollow

Album: Hatful Of Hollow
Artist: The Smiths
Year: 1984
Track picks: What Difference Does It Make?, This Charming Man, How Soon Is Now?, Hand In Glove, Back To The Old House, Reel Around The Fountain, Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
Synopsis: A good compilation that serves as a great introduction to the early days of one of the more interesting indie rock bands of the '80s

Note: I couldn't really finish this "review"! So think of it more like a musing inspired by the album rather than a guide to the album itself.

It's been a while since any talk of music here, which is not all that surprising, given that there hasn't been much music to speak of that I've listed to. 'Fact, Stranded is probably the last album I've heard, and that was at least a few months ago. However, I have rediscovered the wonderful medium that is the compilation, which I talked about previously in terms of how I was at one stage opposed to the whole thing on principle (no doubt mimicking my friend GS, who I believe said something similar, but in a different context). I think the only consistent soundtrack of these past few months has been the Smiths' Hatful Of Hollow. Even after numerous listenings, it's hard to say just what it is that is appealing with some of these songs. Fair enough question, and one that I've enjoyed trying to answer.

The first problem you have is trying to characterize some of these songs. Post-punk? A bit later than most post-punk bands, but even so, it's more New Wave, yet not quite. After all, where are the Beatlesque pop songs? Hmm, so what is it? At first, I hesitated to call them pop, because you don't usually get pop songs that start off with lines like "All men have secrets and here is mine / Let it be known". But musically, they really aren't all that complex, and so I think the best way to describe most of these songs is introspective (some may say egotistical) guitar-based pop.

If that doesn't sound all that exciting, I don't blame you, especially considering that in terms of melodies, the band isn't supremely gifted - and to many, that is the most important thing for a pop band ("What else is there?"). Now, sure, there are some very strong melodies, don't get me wrong, but all I'm saying is that these guys are no Wings. No, the emphasis is definitely more on the feeling; that wallowy, mopey feeling...and here's where Morrissey comes in.

Morrissey may be one of the most grating performers of the last 25 years to some, but to others he is one of the most talented lyricists. A Morrissey love song is really quite unique ("William, It Was Really Nothing"), but so is a Morrissey put-down (I don't know why, but I just love "You shut your mouth" for the sheer helplessness it conveys). I don't think it's possible to name anyone to be the "best" at anything, but I will say that I consider Morrissey to be one of the most unique lyricists/songwriters in all of rock (which is saying something, given how many talented lyricists there are).

Granted, uniqueness doesn't mean quality. After all, the mere fact that no-one has written anything quite like "How Soon Is Now?" doesn't make it good, now does it? Clearly, you need to be doing something of value to boot, and that he does. The Oscar Wilde of rock? Spot on, for all I know. His reputation for being mopey is most certainly deserved, but that's not all there is to the guy. The romantic side of Morrissey is definitely worth knowing, after all it produces such gems as "Why pamper life's complexities / When the leather runs smooth on the passenger's seat?". I hesitate to say that his style was unprecedented, but I can say that I haven't heard anyone write quite like him, no sir.

As with all "love him or hate him" performers, I think it's best not to take everything he says too seriously. I don't blame you if you find "How Soon Is Now?" unbearable; it's perfectly understandable to see it as mere self-pity and pointless ego-stroking. But take it from a slightly more distanced view, and I really think you can see it as an amazingly confessional song. I really don't think there was anyone who was as startlingly naked in saying "I am the son and the heir / Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar / I am the son and heir / Of nothing in particular".

This brings me onto Johnny Marr. It's no surprise that he was often overlooked as Morrissey took center stage, but man the guy is good. Oh, if only I had continued my studies in music theory, for then I could try to explain something behind the Pedia's statements that his sense of harmony and counter-melody were ahead of its time. All I can offer is the pedestrian remark that it all sounds great, but what stands out is how it's often something very simple, which makes it all the more interesting. Kind of like some of those Robbie Krieger riffs on some of the Doors' songs like "Wild Child" and "Five To One", so simple yet so effective.

What about them songs, then? Well, they're mostly good, sometimes great, at worst tolerable, and that about sums it up. As a compilation, it's pretty good, although clearly since the band had only the one album out when this was released, the songs aren't able to cover as wide a variety of styles and moods as one would like (nothing humorous, for starters).

You know, there was a video for "This Charming Man" on TV today (yes, there is a video!), and on seeing it I began to wonder "Wait on, if I was channel surfing and came across this, would I even pay a second glance to it?" Perhaps I was in bit of a critical mood at the time, but the point is that on analysis, it seems perplexing to me to try and pin point what makes this song as likeable as it is. My initial response is of course to say the lyrics, but really, after the intro ("Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate"...see, I'm swooning already, and I don't know why!), there's far too little to totally satisfy. I end up wanting more of "Why pamper life's complexities" and the brilliant "This man says it's gruesome that someone so handsome should care". Then it hits me that there's Morrissey, and that voice. You might hate it, but I dig it; so emotive, and so fitting with the mood I feel. The Hatful version is actually rather different to the original album one. Going by the video, the original is even shorter, and I find it to be far too quick to be effective. This one tries to gently squeeze out the quality, and gives the song a far more deserving platform I feel.

I've already referenced "What Difference Does It Make" more than a few times these past few months, so I don't know what more there is to say about it. It rules, for starters. "Yet another catchy Marr riff and some interesting lyrics" doesn't really say enough, I fear. Heck, is this pop? Well, I guess so. Friggin' good.

My other favourite would have to be "Reel Around The Fountain", which I think risks being forgotten seeing how it is buried late in the track listing. There are some very memorable lines here, but it's also Morrissey's little vocal tricks that I really like. The content might be a bit...risque, though you wouldn't think as much listening to the music.

I don't think the Smiths were really an album band - they really did put a lot of effort into singles, and so compilations like this are an excellent representation of the bad. Since it was my introduction to them, I of course think it is a great first album to get, though I suppose The Queen Is Dead would be a good choice though. Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable compilation - not endowed with killer material from start to end, but it certainly has charm in spades.
Oh my, the second anniversary of this blog completely passed by me; it seems like only yesterday that I made a silly post heralding the first birthday. Anyhow, I don't think I'll offer any reminiscing on the good times, there's been enough of that sort of talk throughout this year. Just what is it that I do here anyway?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Lordy, was that a mess. I can't even argue that I learnt anything about validation, so perhaps I'll deserve what I get this time. I suppose I have to rely on my old friend scaling once again. Sigh, looks like there's no escaping one truly bad effort every semester.
There have been some good comedy finds this year - Curb Your Enthusiasm at the very start was brilliant when it all clicked together, and provided a couple of months that recalled the first days of my Seinfeld exposure. More recently, Arrested Development came along*, and the first season, for me anyway, is easily the best thing since Seinfeld. But, you know, I think I've found something better. The Andy Milonakis Show was on late at night a few days ago, and on seeing it, I gotta say, Andy Milonakis is a genius. His show is the future of television, and I only wish that I had taken the opportunity to pursue a similar path. In my younger days, I feel I might have been able to match his material, but now I must admit defeat, for he has me beaten. Well done, Andy.

Unfortunately, it also seems like the show is only ever on really early in the morning, meaning that the one glimpse I had of it may well be the last, at least until the DVD comes out. Those thirty minutes were easily the greatest I've seen in the last ten years of television**.

* Briefly, it would seem. I can't believe this, but Arrested Development has been cancelled. Wow. Time for another fan to express incredulity. Apparently, the show doesn't rate so good in the US. That's fine, but to think that someone could see it and say it is worse than even 30% of shows out there at the moment is...unfathomable. No prizes for guessing that I think it's one of the funniest shows to have come up in the last five years. I can only hope that someone has the sense to pick it up and give it a home, because lord help me, if it really does slip away forever, it will be the end of my faith in television. Let me end on an elitist note and say that it's sad that shows like Survivor and Big Brother seem to cruise ahead unimpeded, but shows like this get cancelled prematurely.

Incidentally, the hell is this petition on about? Hope things don't decline with season 2, because after seeing the first season, it's honestly inconceivable more than a handful could hate it (dislike, maybe, but not hate).

** Maybe not, but goshdarnit, the sketch with the people in the couch who protect you from monsters is the funniest thing I've seen all year. The Monty Python lads are the only ones who can compete with it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Firefox and the future

I just thought I'd make a personal note to myself on how fascinating the growth of Firefox is turning out to be. I'm not sure what future lies ahead for Firefox, but it does seem like its path is tied in deeply with that of the open-source movement itself, and its adoption by the general public. Microsoft will respond in due course with IE7, but will it offer anything new (ah, but it doesn't have to, since it is the choice by default)? Right now, it seems unclear how Microsoft will be able to respond strongly; I think the current popularity of Firefox as a flagship among the OSS community means there's little danger of it losing steam over the next few years. I doubt that MS will be able to speed up development times too, at least without compromising quality.

I guess the flip-side is that it will take a lot for some people to change, and that MS need only take a user to a comfort-zone in terms of usability and functionality to prevent "conversion"! For instance, I'd imagine most people would be comfortable with XP; even some techies, like me (at the moment, going back to Ubuntu is a no-no, since it has too many memories of the project)! There's less of an initiative then to try and choose to go against the norm for the average user. But in the case of Firefox, it seems like lots of people are advocating its use for the user at large, certainly more so than people who advocate the use of Linux to the general public. Heck, even at the Psychology department at uni, students are told not to use IE! Who would've guessed!?!

Now, if it takes a lot for someone to change, does that mean it will take a lot for me to change back to IE? Or is it "it takes a lot for someone to change to something new"? I remember an old friend saying that he would ditch Firefox the day IE came out with something that had tabs, and better security features. I can't say I'll do quite the same, but if IE7 does indeed have everything Firefox does, I'm not sure what I'll choose to do. In all likelihood though, by the time it is out, Firefox will be at 1.6, with some small new enhancements over the current versions. Which means that we might see MS forced to play catch up!

Since the majority of my project involved looking at OSS (game development) tools, I feel like commenting a little on my experiences. One worrying observation was the number of tools I checked out, only to find that they had been abandoned early on in development, either because the developer changed his mind about the philosophy, got bored, or, well, just left. No doubt this is a point that is made by people in the closed-source movement; I'd be interested to read statistics on project completion rates. Of course, the fact is that there are just so many developers out there that some projects are just bound to go through (it's understandable if this intuitive notion is just not good enough in the real world). The most successful projects I came across garnered a large base of users and developers, hopefully securing its lifetime for the forseeable future (or until some strange new techonology comes along).

The lack of structured documentation is still my biggest complaint. Quite a few projects saw it fit to include the Doxygen files as being enough of a reference, which I don't agree with. Yes, of course it's possible to look at them and then struggle to a solution, but surely the goal should be for simplicity from the user's point of view? Even if the tool is aimed at programmers, it seems a stretch to suggest that it then doesn't need documentation. Programmers are human too! I was however heartened by the number of Wikis I saw, where the users of the tool contributed to help improve the documentation on installation and usage. The ones where this was present proved to be the best ones of the lot. Wikis are just so cool.

But as for the long term prospects, I'm not entirely sure. It certainly seems as though OSS will be here to stay, and in fact it also seems as though it will grow very powerful. I think the successful projects are most likely the ones where there is a lot of internal structure. Single-person projects of any sort of non-trivial scope tend to be the ones most likely to fail; probably because the developer is the one that undoes himself. I suppose tools like BugZilla are a very good mechanism of control and structure, but what about working towards a picture of an overall extensible design? Strict reviews and moderation of commits also seems essential. It is of course difficult to give a structure to an OSS project where the team is situated all around the world, but I think it's probably the key to the movement taking it up to the next level.

Interesting times ahead.

Aside: Of course, I will still dislike computers. My favourite experience of the last few weeks was when I accidentally removed a PPT (yes, I'm a sinner) file for my final presentation when I was trying to remove a PDF file. What's better is that I was removing the PDF file so that I could commit to SVN and keep a backup of the PPT file, in case something nasty happened. Like, you know, accidentally deleting it. Sigh.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

(Prelude to) Gaming's future

Too much time at the codex, I fear. The previews for Oblivion (which I talked about a fair while ago) are out (at IGN), probably for a while now, but I've only just seen them. And I have to say, I was a bit disappointed.

Of course, it looks good, and yes, the physics system looks downright amazing, but there was just something I got out of the videos that didn't seem quite right. I think I raised an eyebrow when they mentioned having two-hundred dungeons...err, right. And I think there was something about them cutting back on dialogue, and just letting the player get on with it. It being going to another dungeon, I suppose...sigh. Viva Planescape! (I am quite mad)

All that was before watching the final two chapters. On seeing them, I'm entitled to change my mind (only slightly). The world dynamics seems pretty interesting, especially with the NPC interacting with her dog. The guy says it's all done real-time, but whether the results are as impressive, I'm not sure. But it has made me regain some of the enthusiasm I had for this game a year ago.

Of course, I can't completely discredit the points I made after chapters 1-4. In truth, it may well turn out to be a step in the Diablo direction; the two-hundred dungeons thing still sounds pretty bad (and only four hundred books! Tsk, tsk). But the saving grace is that I won't be able to play it anyway, since my computer will need an upgrade. So everybody wins!

I'm fairly certain that whatever Oblivion does, it will be very closely watched by the major players in RPG development. I'm actually interested in what the game will turn out to be, because I don't doubt that it will have a non-trivial impact on the future of RPGs. Is there one anyway!?! The advent of MMORPGs suggests that perhaps the days of the single-player epic RPG campaign will go the way of adventure games. The sad (for me, anyway) reality is that there seems to be far more interest in dynamic, online environments than in lengthy solo expeditions. If Oblivion does go the way of Diablo, it will be a painful blow, but not entirely unexpected. After all, they're eventually going to want to go down the road where the money is! I can't honestly imagine them making sometime with such impressive graphics and physics, and then settle into a niche market. No, in all likelihood, they're going to try to reach out to as many people as possible, which means hello dungeons.

Speaking of the Codex, I must say I've come to find it a bit tedious of late. There is so much infighting and elitism that it's just not funny. There are some very clear pariahs (most notably Bioware, and of course Bethesda and Morrowind) that are savagely attacked with nearly every posting that is made about them. Obviously the future of role-playing games is important to them, and that's fair enough, but the immaturity there is sometimes far too much for me. The one positive has been that it inspired me to get Planescape and Fallout, or at least it provided that final push that inspired me to get them (I always knew that I owed it to myself to play them someday, but I kept feeling as though they would magically appear in the shops someday*).

* Hmm, strange that I should be able to walk into HMV/JB/Borders and get any album of Neil Young's (the first artist that came to mind) from the last 40 years, but games stores go back a couple of years at most in their stock. I doubt you could even find Half-Life in most stores here. I guess most of them aren't published anymore, but in turn I wonder why that is. I can understand not shelving, say, Soldier Of Fortune, but the original Baldur's Gate saga, or StarCraft? Let's hope they see the light sooner or later.

Incidentally, I call this a prelude because it doesn't do justice to the topic of gaming and its future. Perhaps the real deal will be written in the distant future, but this ain't it.

Monday, October 31, 2005

It's true, the project is over! And all it took was failing everything else. In seriousness though, it is a bit disorienting not having to sit down in front of Ubuntu anymore, switching furiously between Eclipse, a Wiki, message board, Jabber, and SVN log. I'm actually contemplating continuing work on it, just for the sake of it. Then again, it's easy to say something like that, but given some of the torture I've gone through just because it was assessible, I dare say that I may find myself giving up trying to tame some of the complexity.

But it should go without saying that the experience has given me the drive to finally go ahead and make a proper game (maybe). I can say that if this does happen, you can be darn well sure that I'm not going to be using DirectX or OpenGL; those days of being a "real programmer" are behind me. It's PyGame all the way now! It's remarkable, actually, that it took me so long to actually figure out that there were better ways to do things than trying to wrestle with DX/GL, at least for the things I was aiming to do. I've been continually amazed what growth I've seen in my whole approach to thinking about programming these last three years, and it makes me feel as though there's a chance I will rise above being merely mediocre as a programmer. I guess the life of a JN is not for me, but being an FD is equally good.

Before work on any future games, I have to make sure that the project is carried on, to make it the DX-Ball killer we all know it should be.

"Beautiful maiden," answered Candide, "when a man is in love, is jealous, and has been flogged by the Inquisition, he becomes lost to all reflection"

Saturday, October 29, 2005

I think 42 has been bandied about just about enough; so much so that I believe I shall take to refraining from using it for the next few years. It seems, unfortunately, to have become some sort of secret handshake, the kind I don't care for (of course I have participated in such handshakes over the years, but what of it?).

The last time I heard it referenced, it was by someone to one of my lecturers. It was actually very similar to how I used it some three years ago to one of my teachers. Perhaps I'm just feeling a delayed embarassment? Anyhow, if you ask me what six times nine is, you can be pretty sure I'm going to say 54.

Friday, October 14, 2005

I was standing about nervously, shifting from side to side, taking deep breaths every minute. It felt as though my mind was physically blocked, and I really can't remember if I was worrying about anything in particular; it was more a fear of this invisible, looming notion, really. But hey, enough of that, that's all nonsense anyway.

By comparison, he was standing mostly calmly by my side, and was actually whistling out loud. Nervous for me? Hardly! Maybe it was just him trying to put me at ease, but I think he genuinely did not feel any anxiety. "How many of these has he seen!?!", I wondered. He said he been doing it twelve years, but it never really struck me at the time at how long it really was. I couldn't imagine it, going through the mechanics of something that must seem so obvious, so fundamental to him, day-in and day-out.

I noticed he then looked into his notebook, seeing where he had to go next. I saw names filling the entire page, for the whole week. I immediately felt very sad; as though I could see that once I had finished this, and the celebrations were done, he would have to leave, and go to another student. And so it goes!

But no, I said, no, there is more to it than that. This peak shall live on. It's nice to have the ability now to say that the success I achieved was just for him. I probably wasn't thinking of him when I got told I made it, but I'd like to posthumously dedicate it to him. After all, I really couldn't have done it without him.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I'd forgotten those warm, subtle touches of genius that only Bobby is capable of. A couple of times today, I found myself actively amazed at how good some of the the stuff sounded. "Jokerman", for instance, I haven't heard in a good three years, and on hearing it again today, it was like meeting an old friend again, and finding that nothing had changed. I think I was starting to feel as though maybe my initial idol-worship was due to a lack of exposure to other artists more than actual talent, but heck, I was so wrong, oh, I was so wrong.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Yes, code is art

Taking the Cavemeister's argument of rock being something of worth if only for the reason that it can make him angry (which I mentioned a long while ago), I think one can very easily see that code is of high artistic merit, because simply reading bad (inelegant) code can really make one's blood boil. Oh my God, it is frustrating to the point of parody; really, the only way to deal with it is to close one's eyes and then delete it all, and start over from scratch. Unfortunately, with deadlines breathing down my neck, that doesn't seem to be an option at the moment; woe is me!

I'm exaggerating, of course, but it is true that the frustration that comes with managing/maintaining a piece of bad/inelegant code can quite easily give way to full blown rage. Oh, that I could have recorded the moment a few seconds ago when the straw broke the camel's back, and I actually took to getting up and screaming (very softly, mind you).

Make no mistake, it may be just a pattern of bits, but it is pure evil.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Hey now! John Cale picks Highway 61 Revisited as one of his favourite albums in the regular Rolling Stone page on artists' picks. He even goes on to say how Lou Reed and him would sit down and listen to Dylan on the radio, wondering how his increasing aggression would pan out (culminated, he says, by "Positively 4th Street"). God knows what all that stuff I read on the net about the intense dislike the Velvets had for Dylan was going on about (things which I wailed about here and here, for instance). Actually, Reed probably did say all that stuff in '76, he's one wacky fella.

Why the continued fascination on other people's opinions on Dylan? I have no idea, to be honest. I don't know why it should bother me even if Lou Reed dislikes him to the day (wouldn't explain his appearance at Bob's 30th anniversary special, though!). I guess at heart it's a curiosity of whether two people I respect don't appreciate each other (actually, I've never heard Dylan say anything about Lou), and if so, why that is the case. I guess at some point one has to give up, and put it down to personality mismatches. I mean, hey, this is Lou Reed we're talking about, after all!

I don't know what I want the truth to be - that these guys should have had more of a Beatles-Stones relationship (rivalry on the surface combined with goodwill underneath)? Ah heck, this is all so trivial! But alas, it's hard to let go! Surely time is better spent on more important matters; like, say, finding out what really went on between Morrissey and Robert Smith.


He is on his way home on the last day of a long week, and looks forward to a couple of days of breathing room, where he can do things at his own pace. He looks forward to having only the aroma of his morning coffee forcing him out of bed, and sighs.

She is waiting at home, eyes lit up as she seems him reach the front door. Times have been hard for her as well, because for the past few weeks he has hardly noticed her. Sometimes, she feels like he doesn't care, but she knows that isn't true. Still, she wishes he would smile more often, and that she could be told how he felt, rather than just having to know it. That will all change soon, she thinks, as she gleefully imagines his face as he walks into his room.

He feels drained, and wonders how he has mustered the energy to get through this day, where everything has seemed to go against him. He sees her as he comes in, and notices she seems more upbeat than normal. "I'm not in the mood for good-humoured people", he thinks, but immediately feels bad about it. He greets her with a weak smile, and provides monosyallbic responses to enquiries about his day.

She understands, of course, what he is going through, and so doesn't feel all that bad that he is uncommunicative. She pretends to walk away innocently to the kitchen, but in fact lies in waiting, looking for just the right time to catch him in his room.

He goes into his room. The lights are off, and it is dark outside, but he can still make out something on his bed. He squints, and sees that it is a shirt. A flick of the light switch reveals it to be a most beautiful shirt, the kind he only saw on other people, but never on himself. He realizes it is a gift from her, and beams to himself. Perhaps this day will turn out ok after all, he thinks.

She catches him in the room with a great big grin on her face, searching for some sort of reaction from him. He gives a modest smile, and she feels validated - she would have preferred a word of thanks, but no matter. Such things are of little value to her in the grand scale of things, and so she gladly takes the smile as being thanks enough. She implores him to try it on, so that she may comment on how nice it looks on him.

For some reason, he does not take to the idea too well. He feels the strain of the day again, and it makes him want far more to just drop down on his bed first. His mind slowly wanders to other things, and he temporarily forgets the value of the gesture she has made. He says he will do it in a little while, little aware of how brusque it sounds.

She is taken aback, but does not show it. "How busy he must be", she says to herself, but she doesn't quite convince herself. In fact, she is more than a little hurt, for she had so dearly hoped that he would indulge her. "It's the least he could do, right?", she begins to ask herself, but she cuts herself short, and reminds herself of how busy he must be. She nods as though sympathetically, and leaves him to his thoughts.

Tired though he may be, as the minutes go by he starts to wonder if she might have taken offence at him. He slowly comes around to trying it on, but while doing so begins cursing the rest of the world for his troubles. "Fie upon them all", he says, "for without them, my mind would be free to see and act upon such things". He picks it up, and thinks that it might in fact be a bit small. He slips it over his ill-defined body, and his fears are confirmed. He can tell that it is far too tight for his liking.

She wanders in later and sees him in it. "The colour really suits him", she thinks, and tells him as such. But she notices that he does not seem to enjoy it as much as she had hoped. She studies it closely, and notices that it is perhaps not as loose as it could be. She mentions as much, but adds that this is the new trend of the youth of today. She feels happy that she has for once made him fit in with the trends of the day; she has been growing weary of seeing him walk around in some of the stuff he wears. She begins to feel even happier now that she has done him this huge favour.

He, however, has not eaten for a while, and begins to feel it. He does not think straight, and as such does not think about her feelings when he says it is too tight for him to wear, with a tone of finality. He looks at himself in the mirror, each glance confirming his conviction.

She tries to tell him that she doesn't think it looks awkward at all, and that all the people she knows wear things like this all the time, but he hears none of it. She begins to get irritated at his lack of trust in her judgement, but she still tries to keep it in check. She ends up pleading with him, imploring him to give it a try.

He can no longer remember why he did not listen to her then. He instead gives a sigh of defeat, and says that he will take her advice, but does so in the most unconvincing tone possible. His manner suggests that he feels like he is making a huge accomodation for her. She cannot believe it.

She walks away with a mixture of untapped anger and intense sorrow. She begins to wonder why she even bothered to go through the hassle of doing something nice for him. "When did he become so ghastly?", she sobs to herself later that night.

After his hunger is satisfied, his mind comes back to him. He begins to realize what he has said and done, and wonders how he could have been so blind and ungrateful. His mind goes back to the times she has gone out of her way to stick up for him and get him through all manner hardships. He begins to blame it on his work, but wonders if it was his true nature that was on display for her to see.

He knows that he should probably apologize, but he doesn't have it in him to be so direct. Instead, he goes over to her later in the night and tries to be affectionate. She politely lets him explore her hair, but is passively unreceptive. Dejected, he leaves her to her peace, and he laments the coming weekend.

The next day, as they see each other, there is no hint of what passed yesterday. He hardly remembers it, until he sees the shirt again when he opens his cupboard. She notices it as well, and says she will return it. There is no hint of bitterness or irony in her voice, nor is there any to be found in her heart. He sheepishly thanks her, and they share a smile.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Elegance in software

Should software be written elegantly simply for the sake of it? I thought the answer would very much have to be a resonding "Yes!", but of late, I have come across trying to convey my belief to other people in an actual project, where time and productivity are measurable and very much not on our side. This experience has led me to question the extent my own stance, in terms of how much it compromises the overall worth of the software - I still can't help but think that the answer is still yes, but I wonder what we can say about the software in question - if one takes the artistic approach and look at the grand, sweeping notion of "generalized software", then the question is, I think, the same as asking whether art should be beautiful for the sake of it. But if one looks at the dark, grimy (no, I'm just being facetious!), practical component of software, then things don't seem so clear.

In the wonderful software project I have wasted my last few weeks on, we have come towards the finishing stages, which, given the somewhat unusual nature of our project, meant that we had to in essence "throw away" (Brooks all the way!) three of our four code bases. We were faced with a seemingly simple decision - go with an approach that offers structure over trivialities (again, half-serious) such as actual features, or go with one where there is considerably more that can actually be done, in terms of viewable output, but where the structure was definitely of secondary importance (which, as it goes with these things, led to a relatively weak structure). Two guesses which way I wanted to go! (Although, I have a tendency to wax lyrical about anything, so it should come as no surprise that I fear that I have lost any shred of respect among my group well before the ensuing discussion)

The others thought it better to proceed with the tool that looked like it could do more, and I thought it would be simple enough to try and convince them of why I thought that wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea. But, as I proceeded to do so, I realized that I wasn't getting anywhere - my arguments were being countered on the basis of pure pragmatism. After all, who cares what's down underneath, as long as it works, right? The "do whatever makes it work" idea, which I am not a fan of.

I initially thought it to be all too easy to demonstrate why this was an unhealthy approach, but it wasn't working. I slowly started to imagine myself as a passive observer of my own comments, and they started to strike me as hopelessly idealistic - not that that's a problem as of itself. No, the problem was that I started to see things clearer from the other point of view, and it became worrying that the more pragmatic view began nullifying my arguments. After all, with my head-in-the-clouds approach, searching for the lost pattern and the house of four doors (pick up that reference - go on, try!) and what have you, the very pertinent question is this - with the finite amount of time available, and with the very real hurdle of assessment at the end, what can this approach produce that is of directly observable value? Hey, hold on, this can't be - they were starting to make sense here...!

The key here is how exactly its worth is measured - classicist or romanticist, you take your pick. I think I somehow feel it is being measured by no-one in particular, as though there's some fundamental spirit to whom we owe elegance to be strived for. But hey, is that any kind of talk you can make to a group of normal people!?! In the hum-drum world of assessment, unfortunately, more worth is invariably placed on what can be seen. It's very much the practical side of software that is stressed on, which is good, since otherwise they wouldn't be doing their job. But what I see to be the more interesting side of it is somehow deferred, as if it is either of little importance, or it is somehow intuitively obvious. So, knowing this, it seems pretty fair to say that the logical choice is the one where more can be shown, right? Ahhh, but if only you knew what was going on below the surface...! As you can see, I haven't fully wrestled out this problem.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was in a discussion with people who have completely different - but, surely, equally valid - views about software than I do - people who, quite justifiably, take the more utilitarian view. Functionality over form. (Not to suggest that form is entire meaningless to them, but rather, given a choice between the two, functionality takes precedence)

Thing is, both views seem to have their place, in different contexts. The safest answer seems to be that one must strike a balance between the two, but one can't really strike a balance between choosing one of two options (which is quite literally what we had to do - this is no false dichotomy, so there is no way we could reject the choices as being incomplete!). But really, I am beginning to worry that the practical concerns are much larger than I had anticipated. Can one really justify taking the artistic view to the software as a whole (not restricting onesself to a single module or anything) where there is an actual client waiting for something (s)he can see do whatever is required?

How funny that this allegorical divide for two different approaches to software should rear its head at a time where I began to wonder if there is any resolution between the two!

I'm probably taking it all too seriously ("That's the story of my life / That's what Billy said / Both those words are dead", etc.). After all, I don't know that they would say the same thing had we been given all the time in the world (and, for some reason, decided to work on this very strange project...!). They're just being pragmatic, right? Well, yes, but I still can't come to terms with the attitude - alas, I seem overly fixated on these pristine notions, which probably have no place in practice.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

"Open-source won't last for long anyway, I don't see how people can stand it". I don't think I've read a funnier statement (in the context of things) in a long time - it was so deliciously mad that we were in the middle of something that seemed to go to great lengths to actively promote the open-source model, and show that it was in fact viable. All the hours spent researching tools available, scouring on SourceForge, compiling source, ...then, from nowhere, this! Ahh, simple pleasures.
James, what happened? There is no Zen, no Tao, no anything with what you're doing anymore; is it just me? Without something underpinning it, there is little hope for a subject to be taken seriously by me in my current state of mind, overworked and always in the mood for a rant.

With my limited experience in teaching, I've often stood at the front of the class and thought to myself "They must think all this pointless, but I'd have loved for someone to have told me this when I was first learning all these things". I suspect that's what he thinks as well - it's so sad to see him rest his chin on his hand in between lectures, and I sometimes presume to know what he must be thinking. He strikes me as someone who knows a great deal, and is an invaluable source of information on just about anything related to the magic world of software, but is forced to preach to people who perhaps don't appreciate it all so much. Starting off the way I did with this post, I'm probably one of them, eh?

Sunday, September 25, 2005

I have to say, for an experimental game, Facade sure seems well known. I found out about it through (who else?) dear old Oluseyi, care of the GameDev forums. For the uninitiated, it's an attempt at an interactive drama, where you are in an apartment with two old friends whose marriage is breaking up (it's a facade, hence the name). The "goal" is pretty much to try and make the situation have some sort of resolution, be it them splitting up, or getting back together. I've been surprised by the number of reviews that I've seen on the net of this game (I have to admit, I initially thought I would be among an elite few of people who had even heard of it), but that's actually a good thing - games like this should get some sort of exposure.

You're going to see a lot of these people

My initial reaction is one of slight disappointment, although this just means that like many, I love the idea, but feel that the execution is somewhat lacking. I am reminded, strangely enough, of my experiences with Ultima IX - I wanted to love the game, but the technical frustrations proved just too much. I was initially taken in by some of the comments I'd read about the game, not the least of which being that it was "probably the most important game of the last ten years". In terms of a statement of intent, that very well may be the case, but it's hard to love the game in its current form.

It's frustrating at times to try and get a word in - invariably, when I said something, one of the characters would start off on another topic, and I would cut them short, making my reply seem like it was to something totally different. Also, the interpreter is still a ways from being truly impressive - it seems far too keen to spot keywords, and as such some things can be horribly misinterpreted.

What is nice is that the dialogues are mixed around a bit, so playing the game five or six times in a row is not as much of a pain as you might expect. However, there is still only so much you can do in one sitting - after a point, I simply get too frustrated to continue.

In a lonely apartment she dwells...

As one can make out, the graphics don't by any means push the boundaries of modern computing hardware, but really, that's not the point of this kind of game. All that syrup can no doubt be poured on later, once the real meat is filled in over the next decade or so. The characters, though simply drawn, do show a range of emotions on their faces, so it's easy to pick up their mood, and hence to pick out when it's a bad idea to talk about something potentially touchy. However, you do get used to them interpreting what you say in a completely different way to what you mean, and so it's not uncommon for innocuous questions to be greeted by wide eyes and nervous sammering.

This is where I tried to say nothing at all - but the kind folks got worried that something was wrong (and subsequently kicked me out for being a bore - go figure)

What's sad is that the technological limitations actually make me empathise less with the characters - heck, I want to be drawn in, and I want to actually care about helping them, but sometimes it's hard. At times when I ask what I think is an appropriate question, but get told something like "We already talked about that", I just get frustrated. Pretty soon, I start playing the game in crazy mode, injecting meaningless nonsense in my dialogue ("So, how are you?" / "I believe there is room for one, maybe two computers"). This just devalues the whole thing, and I feel guilty and quit.

I guess it's one of those that may well be important, but it may not be something that is actually likeable - I can admire it greatly for what it is trying to do, but I can't see myself actually liking this. Hey, maybe White Light/White Heat was the start of proto-punk, but that doesn't mean I have to listen to it! Games probably have a ways to go before they can truly become pieces of serious artistic worth, but every little step counts.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

I remember that terrible, suffocating day, where I lay at the mercy of the heavens, sitting still on my living room floor as the phone rang. There was no electricity in my house that day, and the summer heat was making things seem twice as bad as they probably were. Minutes later, my head in my hands, I remember the sinking feeling that there was no solution to this, and that I had started something I could not stop. All the while, I kept thinking that there was something else that was the cause of all this; I thought it all to be some madness that only summer could bring. It was like Meursault said - the Sun killed him.

It is quite hard to convey just how bad things were getting. Of course, they are all trivial when sufficient abstraction is placed, but most emotional turmoil can be reasoned away, no? By far the worst thing was the feeling that no-one was understanding me, and that something said in good intent could be (unknowingly) twisted so as to have its meaning totally altered. A feeling that there was no-one to turn to, you say? Well, something like that. But it was also accompanied by a worry that I had a serious flaw in the way I conducted myself, and that perhaps all my interactions were doomed to some sort of failure due to an off-hand remark by me, most likely in jest.

It is now a memory, one that I remembered so vividly today, as the heat slowly made itself felt. I remember afternoons spent where my mind was literally withering away, and where I thought that just some time away and I could conquer this madness...and yes, that was the one true thing in this affair. Time spent stepping outside my small world helped bring in a new perspective, and, would you believe it, most things worked out for the better. What of the lessons learned from the experience, one might ask. They are sufficiently personal so as to be omitted here. But yes, it happened, and will forever be.

Friday, September 23, 2005

This Charming Man

Oh Morrissey, if you are racist, you're the most charming one I know. It's hard to get a clear picture on what the truth is in this matter, helped in no small part by Morrissey's own delight in maintaining ambiguity. With no straight answers from him, I guess we are left to find out for ourselves, as the man put it - he probably feels that we either just believe that it can't be true, and go with that, or we think it is true, in which case he doesn't care anyway.

My personal opinion is that he isn't racist, but it is motivated by little more than gut feeling, and selective snippets of interviews I've read ("All lies and jest", etc.). Overlooking all this is of course that it's oh-so-hard to separate the artist from the person - "How can you write "How Soon Is Now?" but have such views? No way!"* It is truly hard to read "Bengali In Platforms" and say unequivocally that he is not projecting his views in the song - even as I write this, the "It's hard enough when you belong" line comes back and gnaws away at me. What does he mean? Is it, as some have put it, a unique attack on racism itself by trying to speak through the eyes of the enemy, so as to speak? If so, I don't think it's particularly successful, and at best it is a horribly misdirected effort. Is it just something that is meant to be indicative of a particular point of view, one that was growing in popularity in the '70s? Possibly, but it seems uncharacteristic for there not be something underneath it all. Or, is it (as I believe Morrissey said) about people who simply can't fit into society, no matter how hard they try (make the song more a consolation than anything)? I think this last one is probably closest to the intended meaning, but as for how far he takes the idea, I'm not sure. Comment on society though it may be, I think it was very dangerous to record something like that and hope that people would just "get it" (assuming of course there's something to get), and not to take the lines at face value.

It seems so very Morrissey-ian of him to not have gone and tried to flat out deny it - I remember reading somewhere that he thought it would have made no difference at all, and that it was all a smear campaign led by people who wanted to bring him down from the very beginning (an interesting set of posts by someone claiming to be a staff member in NME at the time of the incident can be found here, but of course, like all things, it's hard to discern its authenticity).

As pointed out here though, it was mighty dangerous to flirt with these things and hope that people would get the "true" message (I'd like to think his union jack incident really was him "reclaiming" the flag - but who knows apart from the man himself?). Some say it's possible that he purposely lets it go on because he thrives on things like this, but I can't (don't want to) believe that (if this is the case, then he doesn't have no "shyness that is criminally vulgar", I'll tell you that!). But considering how long the other debate about him has been going on (I'm not touching that one with a ten foot pole!), I don't think the man will ever be free of some sort of controversy. Oh, but put on "Back To The Old House" once more - we're not talking about the same person, are we?

On a side note, it's almost a year since I encountered the guy, what with that strange post quoting "I Know It's Over". I wonder how things would have turned out if Morrissey had filled the gap Morrison did at that point - hmm, for starters, I think my first words on staring at the moon and the night sky would have been "You're the one for me, fatty", say what?

* I had the same problem with Rudyard Kipling, incidentally. And, would you believe it, Eric Clapton. Sigh...