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.