Monday, 29 January 2018

IT’S A GAME OF GIVE AND TAKE


Walking around an antiques store in a nearby village, I came across a selection of vinyl records and magazines. At the top of the display were old 1980s copies of “NME” magazine, still billed as “New Musical Express” on the cover. Working my way down, expecting another magazine, I struck gold: from 1983, I found the original “Now That’s What I call Music” album.

The “Various Artists” compilation album was the preserve of cheaper labels like K-Tel or Ronco, or for when a record label wanted to round up the best of its own releases, like the “Motown Chartbusters” series. Instead, “Now” was the first collaboration between two labels, the biggest in the UK: Virgin Records, which originated the idea, and EMI, which also pressed and printed the records. If you bought “Now” when it came out on 28th November 1983 – it eventually spent five weeks at number 1 in the charts – chances are you went to either EMI’s record chain, HMV, or to Virgin Megastore.

The name “Now That’s What I Call Music” came from an unlikely source, and one I thought had been randomly stuck to the back of the album sleeve: Richard Branson, Virgin’s founder, knew his cousin Simon Draper, managing director of Virgin Records, was grumpy before breakfast, and loved to have eggs in the morning, leading to Branson hanging a 1920s poster, used to advertise Danish bacon, behind Draper’s desk: under the caption, “Now, that’s what I call music,” a pig leans on a wall, listening to a clucking chicken, an egg lying in front of them. After listing the music labels that assisted Virgin and EMI – CBS, Epic, Charisma, Polygram, Capitol and so on – the kind permission is noted of Danish Agricultural Produces in allowing the poster to be used. The pig acted as a mascot for the following four albums.


The first “Now” album has thirty songs, arranged roughly in order of release date, eleven of which (mostly from EMI) reached number 1 when released as singles – a note in the gatefold lists the only five other songs to reach the top of the charts in 1983. In some cases, like Madness’s “The Sun and the Rain,” you are told it had reached number 9 when the compilation was released, and “Victims,” by Culture Club is listed as, “almost certain No. 1 by the time you have this LP” – I am not planning to overwrite the “1” with a “3”. However, the album is redeemed by another choice, “just released at time of compilation,” which was “destined to be a smash hit” – “Let’s Stay Together” proved to be Tina Turner’s biggest hit to date.

A wide range of musical styles are found on the album, ranging from New Romantic bands like Duran Duran, Human League and Culture Club, the big influencers at the time, to R&B, soul and rock groups, all down to including the hits – Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Wherever I Lay My Hat” by Paul Young, “Down Under” by Men at Work, and New Edition’s “Candy Girl” are all here. A 2015 scientific study, by Queen Mary University London and Imperial College London, of 17,000 pop songs revealed that 1983 was an epochal year, as synth-based music became big in the United States, led by a procession of British bands – in the same year, both Eurythmics and Dexys Midnight Runners would have US number 1 songs. However, the same study also found that the accompanying drum machines and sampling led to more songs sounding similar by 1986, before hip-hop broke through by 1991.

Some bands, or lead singers, do rather well on this album. In addition to “Victims,” Culture Club also feature with “Karma Chameleon,” the biggest-selling song of the year. UB40 also have two songs, “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” and “Red Red Wine.”  Genesis features with “That’s All,” but a solo Phil Collins had the first number 1 of 1983, “You Can’t Hurry Love.” (Phil Collins also features twice on the front cover – once with Genesis, and once by himself.) However, “Now” had more faith in Kajagoogoo than most, including not just “Too Shy” and “Big Apple,” but also Limahl’s solo single, “Only For Love” – the band broke up in 1985, having already fired Limahl earlier in 1983, but have since reformed.


Out of thirty singles, only seven come from artists outside the UK – apart from Tina Turner, you get Rock Steady Crew, with that one hit they had; “Safety Dance,” by the Canadian band Men Without Hats; and “Kissing with Confidence,” a disco novelty song, based around self-help guides, by “Will Powers,” with lyrics by an uncredited Carly Simon, who is pictured in the album with hand on hip, waiting for herself to write “Coming Around Again” and “Let the River Run.” The current Ofcom license for BBC Radios 1 and 2, the biggest stations in the UK, require 45% of the songs they play to come from UK artists, so seven songs out of thirty may have just been down to the available space on the records.

I do have a record player, and “Now” sounded exactly as I expected – a bit quiet. The premium, heavier, 180-gram vinyl found more often today means you can cut deeper grooves into your record, allowing for a louder sound, and reduced surface noise. However, these records weigh 130g each, and in jamming up to eight songs onto each side, the grooves have to be packed more tightly, and cannot cut too deeply. Strangely enough, the first “Now” album I ever bought, 1996’s “Now 35,” turned out to be the last released on vinyl – cassette sales ended with “Now 63” in 2006, digital downloads having started one album previously.

“Now 100” will be released around July 2018, cementing the series’ reputation as the hits compilation of record for the British charts, far outliving the labels that started it – EMI bought Virgin Records in 1992, but Universal Music, which joined the “Now” group in 1990, after ending their own competing series, bought EMI in 2013, with its music publishing arm being snapped up by Sony. Universal and Sony now run the show together, but give it another thirty years, and we may be saying something else again.

Monday, 22 January 2018

I AM SO SMART, I AM SO SMART


I expect my phone to access the internet, read PDF documents, show me a map of the local area, and count how many steps I walk, but I have no need to use it as a compass, calculator or spirit level, even though I could. In fact, I take some pleasure in having a small pocket calculator in my bag – I can only ask one job of it, but it does that job perfectly. Likewise, I write my articles using a word processor, not a computer.

The AlphaSmart Neo word processor was made from 2004 to 2013, the latest in a line of machines begun in 1993, from a company set up by two former Apple Computer employees. AlphaSmart’s intention was to create an affordable device for learning in classrooms, as multiple processors could be connected for tasks and lessons – the final processor in the line, the Neo 2, could also run class quizzes. However, its main function is as a digital typewriter, small and light enough to carry anywhere, but with a full-sized keyboard, for the simple entry of text onto a LCD screen, automatically saved to be uploaded via USB cable to your main computer later. With no wi-fi, cloud computing or internet to worry about, three AA batteries will last for up to SEVEN HUNDRED HOURS of continuous typing.

I bought my AlphaSmart Neo for £20 on eBay four months ago, and I am still using the original batteries. It is ready to type within three seconds of turning it on, more immediate for entering an idle thought than finding a pen and paper - because I only use the word processing program, the machine will always boot into a cursor flashing ready, provided you remember which of the eight available files you selected last time. Total memory is only 512K, or 0.0005Gb, but that is enough for two hundred A4 pages. You can change the size of the text on screen, but you cannot make it bold, italic or underlined, as you do that when you upload your work later. I can simply connect a USB cable to my main computer, open a word processing program, press “Send,” and my text flies onto the screen, like it is being typed especially quickly – watching the screen fill up with your first draft is very satisfying.


The decline of the AlphaSmart corresponded with the rise of far more flexible tablet computers, and the general reduction in the cost of computing. I have a Bluetooth computer for my iPad, and have written articles on it before, but I personally find it far too easy to flick between apps to find information from a website, only to return to my word processing app after an hour or so has passed. To have a machine that requires you to concentrate, and to keep typing until the job is done, is useful enough, but it requires the maker to forego building a device that can anticipate and accommodate possible future uses. If you don’t need that, it doesn’t matter.

I think there could still be a market for the AlphaSmart, at least in the way I use mine. A recent Kickstarter project was the Hemingwrite, later renamed the Freewrite, essentially a typewriter with an aluminium body, e-ink display, rechargeable battery, wi-fi cloud support and a carry handle, but costing around £400 – the “set your writing free” philosophy of its manufacturer, Astrohaus, is pitched more towards creative writing than to work. What would I do? Take a one-chip microcontroller device, like a Raspberry Pi, load a simple word processor program to it, attach an e-ink or LCD screen, add a keyboard, battery and USB port, put it all into a box the size of a small book, and sell it for about £60. I nearly made one myself, until I found that AlphaSmart made the perfect device years ago.

Monday, 15 January 2018

IF YOU PROMISE TO BE GOOD, TRY TO BE NICE


Sometimes, you have to look for the meaning of a word or term, especially when seeing it used in a sentence makes it no clearer. Sometimes, that term is a pejorative, perhaps aimed at you, and you still have to look it up. Putting your own effort into another person’s attempt to offend you must be infuriating, if that was what they intended.

“Virtue signalling” is often heard in social media and in newspaper and magazine articles. For example, when free schools advocate Toby Young stepped down from a university watchdog last week, last Wednesday’s comment in the “Daily Mail” said it was due to “the storm of virtue-signalling outrage whipped up by shadow education secretary Angela Rayner and the Labour hate mob,” after Twitter messages and old articles by Young, a self-described “provocateur” in his previous role, were repeated. A “Telegraph” article in the last couple of days was also headed, “The virtue-signalling British politicians snubbing Trump are embarrassing themselves.”

It has not been agreed if a hyphen is used in “virtue signalling,” but I have also seen it used as a verb elsewhere, particularly on Twitter. Its original meaning is predicated on it being two words, so the hyphen could denote the change in meaning?

Signalling theory, a part of evolutionary biology, studies communication between individuals within a species, or across species. This encompasses everything from displaying your availability to a mate, to our looking for our pet cat to purr when we stroke it. It is possible for signals to be seen as honest or dishonest, such as some poisonous animals being luridly coloured, or a peacock’s tail being directly related to its fitness. Virtue signalling, in its original sense, is observed in the ritual of religion, being seen to be doing good, and helping to foster the community; it can also be raising money for charity, helping a friend, or throwing a surprise birthday party for someone…


…and yet, being seen to be doing good means that it could be interpreted as having an ulterior motive, either looking for something in return, or to be seen as having behaved in the correct manner.

This is where, for me, the use of “virtue signalling” becomes muddied. The pejorative use of the term is, apparently, meant to criticise support of certain views in politics is superficial, or without action, as if saying you don’t like something means you have to instantly go out and protest for it to mean anything – not everything needs that. More often, the definition seems to wear down to someone holding an opposing view to what should be done about something: going back to Toby Young, he could have been given another chance, but the views expressed when a writer could have been waiting for an inevitable blowback – both sides were expressed on Twitter, and both sides were called out for virtue signalling.

“Virtue signalling” feels like another word for “political correctness,” another term co-opted as a blanket term for denigrating an opposing view without having to properly argue. The only problem is, once it gets used in the most likely place, the person using it only has 267 characters left to properly argue their point, a step often missed.

Monday, 8 January 2018

AND WE KNOW WHAT WE'RE KNOWING



With 2018 now under way, I knew it wouldn’t take too long for someone to say something that makes you want to spit, and it came from, right now, the most likely place: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.

The news sensation of the moment was Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” a tell-all book whose publication was brought forward once people interviewed for the book it began denying what they were reported as saying, especially about the mental health self-proclaimed “stable genius” Donald Trump. At a press conference, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, came out with something that made my eyes glass over:

“We’re certainly happy for people who have different opinions, but there’s a difference between different opinions and different facts… And people are entitled to an opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. And we have a problem with people putting out misleading information. Those are very different things.”

…but pieces of information proved to be true are called “facts.” I don’t know if Sanders misspoke, or the meanings of “facts” and “information” were conflated, but she had said something similar before: in October 2017, responding to Senator Bob Corker’s criticisms of the White House, she said he “…is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but he’s not entitled to his own facts.”


What may be a lesson in the dangers of creating your own catchphrases is more about the idea of narratives, and having control of them. Some time ago, I had looked at the postmodernist resistance to “grand narratives,” where a more sceptical, or even mistrusting stance is used to scrutinise who is coming up with the stories that explain everything to us, why they are doing so, why they have chosen those particular facts, and why they left others out.

At the time, I said that while critics of postmodernism take this as meaning people can say what they like, because there can only be interpretations of the truth, a greater understanding of the truth can still be arrived at through the full scrutiny of, well, the facts. At the same time, postmodernism appeared, mostly from the 1970s, as a reaction to the driving force of modernism – there is no need to progress further because we are already where we want to be, able to look across everything and make new connections, instead of seeking to replace things.

Put simply, the events described in the “Fire and Fury” book, and the White House reaction to its contents, are drawing on the same facts. Both sides are now engaged in proving what they are saying is the truth, and we must also make our own judgements based on what both sides say. Rejecting each side out of loyalty, or on knowledge of previous behaviour, is not appropriate either. So long as neither side descends into the depths of conspiracy theory, and we do get some sort of definitive answer after all our effort, we should all be fine.

Monday, 1 January 2018

AND I’M TRYING HARD TO FIT AMONG YOUR SCHEME OF THINGS


I showed 2017 the back of my hand months ago. Events, days, news cycles and realities changed multiple times daily, and questioning it drained us. Rather than try and make sense of it one more time, I offer below the choicest sentences from my last year. Happy with appearing to know what I was talking about, I hope 2018 is the peaceful and brilliant year we need – if it is not, we’ll build that lunar colony together.

*

It is not enough knowing where you can go, it’s making sense of what you find… Anyone who thinks they have it all worked out should be checked to see if they are already dead… Everything bubbles to the surface, and what a surface to pick from.

If you can put aside the usual attempts to find a rational, objective, absolute truth, and think about how truth and knowledge are constructed out of all the discussions and interpretations that led to it, then you will understand it more than just having it handed to you on a plate.

We must now also contend with the new term “alternative facts,” i.e. facts that counter the facts most unhelpful to your own cause… Failing to inform the public could even be considered as anti-social… If there is a moment to be seized, you have to make a persuasive argument. If it has been made before, then it has to be clear why it is worth making the case again.

George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” gave us the idea of “Newspeak” as a way of restricting the population’s ability to articulate itself, allowing the rulers to control them more easily – but what if the head of state does it to themselves first?


When the on-off-volume switch fell off, it was replaced by the end of a used chapstick, jammed into the hole to serve for nearly a full decade.

We rely on “Big Data” to anticipate our needs, demands, and wishes. What that means, however, is that companies can no longer be in a position to guess what people might need.

You may have always identified as a Range Rover driver before you could own one, or it could be something you have only recently recognised about yourself… My view of Range Rover drivers, and their cars, has come from prejudice, and that is only because I don’t know enough about the subject… I should be more open-minded and respectful about the life choices people make, and learn more about what leads to people wanting to drive a Range Rover.

For many, libraries are still a valuable resource that are too useful to lose, even if I find it harder to find a use for mine. Even for something delightfully obscure, knowledge should not be made harder to find and, if we going to stay online instead, nothing can be left behind.

This is not the first time I bought something because the packaging made me laugh.

If you were in a society that only spoke Newspeak, the need for slang would arise very quickly. Just as the secretive lexicons of Cockney rhyming slang and Polari arose within London in the last century, being able to speak openly is essential to be able to live, and if you need different words to achieve that, you will find them.


Freedom of speech is paramount in this world – all opinions should be able to be heard, then we can decide on their merit. I am not the type of person who tells people that the truth is being kept from them, or that they are blind to it, because I would need to have concrete evidence to prove that, unless I wanted to engage in conspiracy theory. When certain voices think they have been silenced, because one outlet decides they don’t want them there anymore, they should think whether that place has its own voices to protect, or whether they might have been in the wrong place to begin with. Every voice has its own place and, if requires, what it says can be tested, in a court of law.

I think Nick Knowles was there too.

Good debate needs everyone to speak the same language to each other, and good society allows everyone to participate without pissing about over using language to exclude people.

Donald Trump uses “fake news” like the main character of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Holden Caulfield, calls everyone “goddam phoneys.”

Does this mean that any attempt that writing something that is deliberately nonsense is doomed to be made sense of by the next person to come into contact with it? Possibly, so long as there was a reason to do it.

People can believe whatever they want, but if you do want to cut your nose off to spite your face, don’t be surprised if people happy with their own noses decide to offer you a scalpel – and if you think this will work instead, trying to sound reasonable will not work either, especially if the words are not there.

The dream that gave me the name “Dancing with the Gatekeepers” was my having recorded an album, rock and/or electronic in nature, in which one song led to my shouting “all you have are words” over and over again. Despite what others may choose to do with their words, they are all I have too.