Sunday, 30 June 2019

NOW FLIP, FLOP AND FLY [183]


The Sinclair ZX80 launched in 1980 as the first complete home computer available for under £100 – it also sold in kit form for £79.95. It may have been a breakthrough, with both the ZX80 and its successor, the ZX81, introducing home computing to millions in the UK, but that £100 price was achieved through compromise that leaves it little more than that first step. Infamously, it only had one kilobyte (1024 bytes) of RAM, when other computers came with at least four times that amount. Its central processor, a Zilog Z80, also generated the video display, meaning the press of a key caused interference with the picture. The keys themselves were flat, requiring you to press through a membrane to the motherboard itself. When the ZX81 was introduced in 1981, a “slow” mode fixed the flickering screen, and £20 was knocked off the price, but if you wanted more than 1K of RAM, you had to buy an expansion pack, required for most games. (By the way, 1024 bytes is the space needed to hold this paragraph, including spaces.)

The limitations of the ZX80 led to arguments that it cannot really be called a computer, even for 1980. However, comparing it against the “1977 Trinity” - the Commodore PET 2001, the Apple II, and the Tandy TRS-80 Model I all launched in 1977 – the ZX80 holds up reasonably well. The ZX80 could only produce a monochrome display, but only the Apple II was capable of colour. All of the computers have no lowercase text option except for the PET, but you cannot mix them with capitals, with only an either/or option for all text. Only the PET and Apple II had sound, a simple speaker to produce beeps, and only the Apple II had the built-in instructions to load programs from a floppy disc – the others would need to be expanded first.


The main contention over the ZX80 is the implementation of the programming language BASIC, short for Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. This language overlays the assembly code that is being fed to the processor, and is much easier to learn - even people who never used an old computer know what a BASIC program looks like:

10 PRINT “HELLO”

20 GOTO 10

RUN

The Apple II and PET computers, like most at the time, would license their versions of BASIC from Microsoft, but Sinclair would employ a software company, Nine Tiles, to write their BASIC. However, the chip that would hold it in the computer was to be only 4 kilobytes in size, restricting the number of commands it could hold. Shortcuts to the commands it had were laid across the keyboard, reducing the space in RAM needed to hold programs, but one strange result of Sinclair’s BASIC was that the ZX80 could not calculate decimal points.

You would expect a computer to divide 5 by 4 and give you 1.25, or divide 20,000 by 10,001 and give you 1.9998. In both cases, the answer given by the ZX80 is just the integer “1”, making you wonder why you didn’t just buy a scientific calculator from Hewlett-Packard instead. The instruction manual doesn’t help this: it is named “A course in Basic Programming,” cementing that this computer is only your first step into computers, but pages 36-38 provides a program for completing long division on your ZX80 to produce an answer with decimal points, like you were using pen and paper anyway.


What the ZX80 missed was the ability to run floating-point arithmetic, which is a way of calculating very large numbers. Basically (which is the right word to use here), floating-point arithmetic as used by a computer notes that the decimal point can be placed anywhere within a number, and you can use an exponent to determine where the point should lie. One answer we wanted earlier, “1.25”, can be written as 125 x 10-2 – this is because we moved the decimal point two places to the right. We could also express it as 12500000 x 10-8, if that proves more useful to a computer.

Before processor clock speeds and numbers of cores became the standard for how fast a computer is, it was previously how many floating-point operations per second, or FLOPS, it can complete – for 1980, tens of thousands of FLOPS is the standard, whereas an iPhone XS can do a billion FLOPS at least. However, if your computer can do none at all, is it really a computer?

Then again, do you need them? One kilobyte of RAM is not enough to do many things, let alone produce a display full of text, but you can make games – the software company Psion, known later for their personal organisers, fit Chess into 1K, minus a couple of rules. I have also seen the BASIC program for a type of Space Invaders game, made mostly of “PRINT” commands to draw the ships, and “LET” commands to apply values to them. Applying logic to the ZX80 is fine, and the reason most games for the ZX81 required more memory was because the games themselves were more elaborate. A popular early computing project was the “TV Typewriter” of 1973, which existed only to put text on screen, with homebrew projects adding memory chips and BASIC to them, and the ZX80, with its motherboard of mostly logic chips, can be seen as an extension of that.

Of course, the ZX81 added floating-point arithmetic to their BASIC in 1981, with the success of the ZX80 having validated the idea of cheap home computing. However, now that I know the Tandy TRS-80’s original BASIC chip was a public-domain version that had floating-point arithmetic added to it, while still fitting into the same 4K that Sinclair had, it makes me wonder why Sinclair didn’t do that in the first place – the ZX80 was inspired by Clive Sinclair’s daughter playing on her TRS-80, so it would have been worth a further look.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

HOORAY FOR SANTY CLAUS! [182]



For my birthday this month, I received a DVD box set that contained the complete “Superman" cartoons from the Fleischer studio, and a selection of their “Popeye” shorts. The third disc, however, was as random as you can get.

If it seems odd my talking about the 1964 film “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” just as summer is beginning, it must have been just as bizarre to make – to meet its November release date, it was filmed during July and August.

My copy could have been in a better condition – the film is largely in the public domain, having been abandoned once it served its purpose as an exploitation film. All Christmas films are exploitation films, hoping to take advantage of the time of year to make the maximum possible income, but what I didn’t expect was a plot that had another hallmark of the exploitation film: moral panic.

On Mars, the children are listless, watching television broadcasts from Earth, filling their minds with information. An elder is worried: “They never played, they never learned to have fun...” The children have “adult minds.” It is decided they need to learn to play again – taking their cue from the TV, they need to have a Santa Claus on Mars. Furthermore, it is decided that, “Earth has had Santa Claus long enough. We will bring him to Mars.”


My memory of this film, among the first I have heard described as the worst ever made, featuring on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and other shows, had mislaid the title: I thought it was named “Santa Claus Versus the Martians.” The idea of “conquering” makes it sound more substantially action-packed than it turns out. They appear to mean cultural impact instead, for once Santa Claus is on Mars, making toys in his automated factory, lamenting he only needs the work of one finger on his console instead of a workshop of elves, resentment grows in a few Martians, who sabotage the factory. A literal line from the film, spoken by a villain with a moustache that makes him look like Frank Zappa, is, “We cannot eliminate Santa Claus, but we can discredit him.” Fortunately, one Martian has become so enamoured with the whole set-up, they decide to dress up as Santa Claus, and becomes the new Martian version, allowing the original one to go home.

The children in this film are a little weird, and that includes the Earthlings, named Billy and Betty. They are the first to encounter the Martians when they land on Earth, and they are needed to distinguish the real Santa from all the fakes in the city. The Martians realise they must then be taken to Mars, so that no-one will know where Santa has been taken. They later become as listless as the Martians once where, due to homesickness – Merry Christmas.


It has to be said – this is inconsequential fluff, with all the production values of a 1930s Saturday morning serial like “Flash Gordon,” let alone early “Doctor Who” episodes. The Martians all wear green rollneck shirts, tights and helmets, topped with antennas that have corned beef keys at the top. The sum of its parts, and the story, can be disregarded, to savour all the individual bits that make up the feature, provided you make it more than three minutes into the film: the most well-known actor in the film, Pia Zadora, is one of the Martian children, and her watching TV is the most reproduced shot from the film, suggesting most other viewers did not get much further. Zadora was later known for being the unlucky star of bad films like “The Lonely Lady” and “Butterfly,” but also appeared in John Waters’ original “Hairspray.”

My remaining notes are as follows: “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” has the first depiction of a “Mrs Claus,” beating the Rankin/Bass animated special “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by about two weeks, but because people have actually seen the latter one, this remains a minor discovery. Once the Martian UFO is discovered, the military scramble on Earth is played out entirely in stock footage, save for news announcements on TV – I guess American children love patriotism and jets. At the North Pole, Billy and Betty are attacked by a polar bear costume. The film’s composer, Milton DeLugg, is better known for his work for television, most notably for game shows like “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show,” where he appeared with his “Band with a Thug.” The Martians’ secret weapon is Torg – “oh, not Torg,” – and is based on the stereotypical drawing of a man in a cardboard robot suit.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

COMMAND ME TO BE WELL [181]


If you are constantly told you have something wrong with you, you will start to believe it. No-one has enough self-preservation to prevent such an insidious thought from infesting their mind. This is why treatment for mental health is so important, and why a stiff upper lip is only a sticking plaster.

This is why the idea of a Pride Month every June has become so important. People who were given no place in society, who were imprisoned if they did not live in darkness, have the right to celebrate their lives with primary colours, and remember those unable to join in.

I don’t care if businesses use rainbows in Pride Month to get the LGBTQ community to spend their money – if they didn’t think they were valid as human beings, then why appeal to them as consumers? It has become good business sense. Having said that, why take the banners down come July 1st – they should put their mouth where their money is.

This Pride Month, on Monday 10th June the Roman Catholic church waded unannounced into the festivities with a tract titled, “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” Apart from proving that the secret of comedy really is timing, the document, from the Congregation for Catholic Education, mainly deals with how to approach the subject of gender identity in education, but starts by decrying gender theory,  and questions the intentions of transgender people to the point of implying they don’t really exist – it turns out they are misguided, and are just being “provocative.”

It should be clear that what I am going to do is let the text speak for itself. I was supposed to have done this a week ago, but I stopped myself. I wanted to choose my words carefully, even if the tract I was writing about did not. I am not going to denigrate someone’s beliefs, especially if they are held and practised sincerely, but if it turns out I don’t exist because of those beliefs, I have a right to reply, even if only to repeat those words back to where they came from.

It is hardly controversial for the Catholic church to state this – anything that threatens the traditional family unit, and the order of creation, was always going to get short shrift from them. In fact, the 19th paragraph of the tract – for reference, all the paragraphs were numbered – talks about how:

“...the view of both sexuality identity and the family become subject to the same ‘liquidity’ and ‘fluidity’ that characterize other aspects of post-modern culture, often founded on nothing more than a confused concept of freedom in the realm of feelings and wants, or momentary desires provoked by emotional impulses and the will of the individual, as opposed to anything based on the truths of existence.”

I didn’t know that King Henry VIII wanting a divorce meant the Church of England was founded in 1534 on postmodern principles.

Most reporting of the tract in the following week were based on this passage, while paragraph number 25, which mentioned the word “provocative,” in reference to the “display” of trans non-binary or intersex identities “against so-called ‘traditional frameworks’”:

“Similar theories aim to annihilate the concept of ‘nature’, (that is, everything we have been given as a pre-existing foundation of our being and action in the world), while at the same time implicitly reaffirming its existence.”

I thought more would have been made of when paragraphs 17  and 18 start talking about “the values of femininity,” how women have “a unique understanding of reality,” possessing “a capacity to endure adversity and ‘to keep life going even in extreme situations,’” while their “’capacity for the other’ favours a more realistic and mature reading of evolving situations, so that ‘a sense and a respect for what is concrete develop[s] in her, opposed to abstractions which are so often fatal for the existence of individuals and society,” such as when they are being patronised.

It has been nearly two weeks since the Catholic church released their document on gender identity,  and the initial furore over its publishing died down pretty quickly – it didn’t say anything that they weren’t expected to say, and its existence as a technical document on how to approach the subject in education is actually rather sound – paragraph 49 states that “Catholic educators need to be sufficiently prepared regarding the intricacies of the various questions that gender theory brings up,” while being fully informed about current and proposed legislation, consult with people who are qualified in the area, and for there to be a balanced dialogue on the subject.

If I was to see a balanced debate on transgender rights, I would be amazed. Yells of transphobia, of stifling debate and free speech, and any calls for increased rights for transgender people becoming an attack on women’s spaces, as if there weren’t already rules to deal with that, permeate social media. I really shouldn’t need to look at this, but it serves to know what you are up against, especially from those who feel they need to let you know what is going on their heads.

All I know is, as a transgender woman, or as a woman, or as Leigh Spence, my existence is not in question, thank you very much.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

YOU LAUGH TODAY AND CRY TOMORROW [180]




There has to be a reason why I have seen a documentary film three times within the last six months – it is either that the subject is endlessly fascinating, or the subject feels like an elaborate version of the “Aristocrats” joke. What is the name of this act? Morton Downey Jr. was a radio DJ turned talk show host, whose TV talk show, which ran from 1987 to 1989, was a harbinger of the right-wing hosts found on American TV and radio today. At the same time, “Evocateur” is also the story of someone who constantly had to prove his worth in the shadow of his father and his peers, while simultaneously railing against them – as said by Bob Pittman, the original programmer for MTV, and later producer of Downey’s show, “Often, the most self-destructive people are really entertaining.”

Morton Downey Sr. was a famous singer, his son’s efforts, including a version of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (the original 1933 song), did not do well. He also had a book of poetry published in the 1960s, titled “Quiet Sounds Make the Loudest Noise,” when he was going by the name Sean. The film returns to this book on a number of occasions, only because its writer is so at odds with the self-proclaimed champion that would say, “I’m after establishing a platform for the American who has been unheard by his government.” Downey found his political voice in an anti-abortion speech in 1981, by which point he was estranged from the Kennedys, who were friends with his family, through his father. The term “evocateur” is used by lawyer Gloria Allred, the human rights lawyer that held her own against Downey in a conversation about feminism, that included Downey wondering if Allred had a tape measure on her tongue.


There are copious scenes in this film from “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” described as a “talk show with a hockey audience,” where he played the role of the “angry populist,” and where subjects had no grey area, with a clear line drawn between liberal and conservative, left and right, good and evil. His friends are interviewed, saying Downey was acting, and his daughter Kelli could not watch the show, because she could not bear that side of him. There are many stories of rages, and of prostitutes, and there is good, imaginative use of animation to match the fantasy, and to offset the shaking heads.

What would ultimately spell the end of Downey’s show was when the fantasy overtook reality, when his alleging that he had been attached at an airport, had a swastika drawn on his face, and his hair partly cut, was rejected as a hoax, due to inconsistencies in his account. By then, his show, which began in the New York area and had spread nationally, was being dropped by both TV stations, advertisers, and its guests became more like those expected on “The Jerry Springer Show.” As is said during the film, “you don’t think it’s ever going to end when you’re in the midst of it.”

Morton Downey Jr. died in 2001, after battling lung cancer – a lit cigarette was constant on his show. His show was not the sort we would see in the UK, and his personality was not either, as the more conservative point of view is the province of newspapers and online, while TV and radio has to be impartial – it is interesting to see how popular a show like his was, but, as Bob Pittman said towards the end, “so if you say what the worst thing about it is? I was associated with someone that, by giving him a forum, and by giving him a chance to be a celebrity, hurt himself.” What this film does do is make you still care about someone who had used up the goodwill he was due, and it is worth seeing for telling its story so well – but there won’t be another person like Morton Downey Jr.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

IT’S THE WAY THAT I MOVE, THE THINGS THAT I DO [179]


This article is rated “15,” or “R,” for infrequent strong language.

Sorry “Avengers” fans, “Rocketman” is the best film of 2019 so far. I did not expect Dexter Fletcher to channel the spirit of Ken Russell, director of musicals like “Tommy” and “Lisztomania,” into portraying the life of Elton John, when a straightforward biopic could have been enough. Moreover, Taron Egerton balances his portrayal of John amazingly, as both an introvert and extrovert, hero and villain of John’s own story, all while doing his own singing – you’ll believe a man can fly, while performing “Crocodile Rock.”

Elton John has lived a life of darkness and light, success and excess like few others have, or wanted, most remarkably emerging from it all, to enjoy and build on the legacy that his and Bernie Taupin’s songs have given us all. “Rocketman” could have whitewashed the sex and drugs from his life, but with its hero bankrolling the production of a “true fantasy,” as the poster says, John has taken responsibility for his past, his addictions and broken relationships, without trying to moralise on our behalf. His third-act break-up with himself, and his own rescue, is heroic, befitting a man who chose the middle name “Hercules.”

Writing for “The Observer,” Elton John explains the tone of “Rocketman” was established by videos produced by David LaChapelle for his Las Vegas show, “The Red Piano.” Most notably, a real-life half-hearted suicide bid, involving an oven in a kitchen with an open window, is reproduced by LaChapelle for “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” a song based in that time of John’s life. When much of your biography is public knowledge anyway, there is little reason to shy away from it.


The standout line from the article was this: “Some studios wanted to tone down the sex and drugs so the film would get a PG-13 rating. But I haven’t led a PG-13 rated life.” The film bounced around many studios before arriving at Paramount, and the extra clout of Matthew Vaughan’s production company Marv, responsible for the “Kingsman” series, resulted in a film rated “R” in the United States, and “15” in the UK. But it left me with a big question: Elton John apparently led an “R-rated life,” but don’t we all?

Making films is a reductive process, from choosing what aspects of real life you wish to capture, to the compromises you have to make during production on what is physically, legally and affordably possible. Until 1968 in the United States, and 1985 in the UK, that work would then be subject to censorship, to fit what was morally allowed, until it became more appropriate to provide an advisory rating instead. Yes, the UK has issued ratings since 1912 – “U” for Universal, “A” for Adult, followed by “H” for Horror, later changed to “X” as a compulsory 16+ age limit (18+ from 1970) - but the British Board of Film Censors only properly switched to classifying films once the Video Recordings Act 1984 required them to provide advisory ratings for video tapes.

What has arisen from these classifications is rather odd – when the Motion Picture of Association of America (MPAA) marked its fiftieth anniversary in 2018, it was remarked that 17,202 of the 29,791 films it had rated to that point received an “R,” requiring anyone attending a screening aged under 17 to be accompanied by an adult – only 524 films received the top “X” rating, since renamed “NC-17.” Meanwhile, the number of films receiving a “PG-13” rating is nearly as many as received a “PG” (4,913 to 5,578), even though “PG-13” has only been available as a rating since 1984.


Like the later “12” rating in the UK from 1989, “PG-13” exists as a way of showing a little more of the true grit in life than is allowed under “PG” – brief and discreet sex and nudity, moderate violence that should not dwell on detail, or have emphasis on injury or blood, and strong language can be used in context, though usually only once in practice. Some people act like they have no fucks to give, but really mean that is all they say, but what if you had only one fuck to give? When would be the right moment to deploy it? Meanwhile, I once had a nosebleed that would be rated “R,” or “15,” because I did not have a tissue to catch it, and I had no option but to dwell on it, because I had to clear it up.

Looking at a pile of films in front of me, I can see only a few that required an “18” rating – “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “They Live,” “Robocop,” and “Myra Breckinridge.” All these require violence (whether physical or sexual), blood, swearing and drug use in one form or another as part of their plots, but that use is appropriate – there is no gratuitous use of these to achieve a higher rating, and nothing that interrupts the plot to provide that kind of content. Perhaps the promotion of the “X” rating for films like “Fritz the Cat” in their advertising – “we’re not rated X for nothin’, baby!” – and the existence of the list of “Video Nasties,” horror films banned in the UK until around twenty years ago, has given the impression that a bar was set to jump over, when the numbers don’t prove that.


In the UK, films recently given an “18” include “Amin,” a French drama which includes a “brief explicit image;” “My Friend the Polish Girl,” which has a “brief strong injury detail;” and “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life,” a documentary featuring “strong sex, sex references and drug misuse” – it is a documentary about a porn star. Meanwhile, “This One’s For the Ladies,” a documentary about male exotic dancers, appears to have become the first film rated “NC-17” by the MPAA in two years – it is being marketed as the “Uncensored” version, as an R-rated version is also available.

“Rocketman” receives a “restricted” rating because the film shows restraint – it would have been possible to make an 18-rated, or NC-17 version of it. We all show restraint in one form or another – no-one can proclaim they are “uncensored,” because we consider ourselves, and consider each other. This is why censorship, taking that consideration out of our hands, stings so much, such as the Russian release of “Rocketman,” which received five minutes of cuts for sex, drug use and homosexuality – the end text no longer mentions that the film’s producer is married to the film’s subject. Even after those cuts, it still received an “18+” rating, which would have been a “PG-13” or less here. No wonder the production felt hoodwinked by it.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

BUT I’M NOT LETTING YOU OUT OF MY SIGHT [178]


Never underestimate the toughness of a Compact Disc. I’m not talking about the episode of “Tomorrow’s World” where one still plays after Kieran Prendiville smeared jam on it, because that never happened – a report on the BBC’S “Breakfast Time” showed someone doing that with honey, while Prendiville was presumably safe at home in bed.

What I am talking about is owning a CD playing as perfectly as when it was pressed in 1987, a testament to the error-correction technology built into CD players as long as forty years ago, and the record company printing instructions on how to care for it inside the cover.  

Why do I have a CD as old as this? It is because David Bowie disliked a song on one of his albums so much, it was deleted from all future releases of it, even after his death. Its only other release was a rare promo record in the US, before the record label decided not to release it as a single. 

The song is named “Too Dizzy,” and I quite like it.

When David Bowie released "Never Let Me Down” in 1987, it became one of his biggest-selling albums. Having scored a phenomenal hit with the “Let’s Dance” album, resulting in a scramble for bigger stadiums than usual to play the Serious Moonlight tour, “Never Let Me Down” needed to play to a much wider, much broader audience than would have taken in Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, and the Thin White Duke.


However, “Never Let Me Down” became one of David Bowie’s least regarded albums, particularly by Bowie himself, who described playing to the broader crowd in the 1980s as his "art-school Phil Collins" period: if the audience should be at a Phil Collins gig, then what was he doing? Like “Let’s Dance,” and 1984’s “Tonight” album, “Never Let Me Down” is less the work of “David Bowie,” which remained a stage name throughout his life, but more the fit, healthy and perfect David Jones, about to get his teeth fixed.

"Never Let Me Down" is the most commercial album David Bowie ever released, in that its polished, smoother sound could have come from other 1980s artists. Its synthesised sound dates the songs, and is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" album – “Beat of Your Drum” sounds close to “Glory Days.” Lyrics are concerned about social problems - "Day-In Day-Out" talks about poverty, while "Time Will Crawl" deals with ecology and nuclear paranoia after the Chernobyl disaster. Oh, and the actor Mickey Rourke does a rap on one song too - on a David Bowie album...


If anything, "Too Dizzy" is a welcome breeze, following the statement on Margaret Thatcher that was “87 & Cry.” A very upbeat song about 1950s teenage jealousy, and apparently a throwaway song written to see how Bowie worked with instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay, “Too Dizzy” could either be seen as a breather from the socially aware songs on the album, or a distraction from them – that Bowie was surprised he left it on the album suggests the latter.

With a sound that demands to be played on big speakers as loud as possible, ”Never Let Me Down” feels good on the surface, and is worth a listen in the mood for a hard slap of Eighties, but it doesn’t feel like a David Bowie album. Bowie had always intended to re-record the album at some point, and the group that did so in 2018, for the “Loving the Alien” box set, had been chosen by Bowie before his death. The new version of the album sounds more stripped back and folk-like, more strings and brass in place of synthesisers, which mostly benefitted “Zeroes,” a song about the music of the late 1960s – you can hear the Mellotron now. However, Erdal Kizilcay has been left out of the album entirely, including “Too Dizzy,” and was considering a lawsuit if his arrangements were used without credit or compensation.

Would “Too Dizzy” have fitted among the re-recorded version of “Never Let Me Down”? It has a very peppy sound, with lots of saxophone, so making any change to that would be reductive, even if it would make it fit more with the rest of the album. Perhaps the song could be released as a separate song, but to prevent its release in any form just seems strange.

For me, there does come a point where, if you have put something out into the world, then change your mind on how you think about it, you can't then decide it didn't happen, especially when it really isn't that bad. No wonder Bowie finished the 1980s by submerging his ego in the hard rock of Tin Machine for a while.

I still love David Bowie and his songs, but rock gods are not infallible.