Wednesday, 16 April 2014


More music, this time from 2003 or so, lurking on my hard drive. Off the top of my head I used Cubase VST five point something or other, with some very simple software synthesisers and the hilariously jerky Supatrigger; and from what I remember the distinctive whooo-eeeee noise was produced with GMedia's ImpOSCar, a simulation of the culty, financially unsuccessful OSC OSCar monosynth.

Composition-wise it was a conscious attempt at minimalism - the melody sounds like a broken machine, it doesn't change throughout the song, which is based on a simple four-chord pattern. There's enough development to keep it interesting for three minutes and the production is nice. If I say so myself.

The OSCar was an anachronism - a monophonic analogue synth launched in the early 1980s, with MIDI. It resembled an Oberheim 4-Voice and was generally shunned in favour of the Yamaha DX7 and slightly older polyphonic analogue synthesisers such as the Prophet V and Oberheim OB-XA. The concept sounds interesting today (a Roland SH-101 with more oscillators, and MIDI!) but it was very expensive even when it was new, and musicians wanted to play several notes at once. If it had been cheap, it might have taken off.

Sunday, 13 April 2014


Off to Herculaneum, which is essentially Pompeii for hipsters. It's conceptually similar but less famous and thus more fashionable. Which is why I went there, instead of Pompeii. Fewer tourists; fewer me.

Herculaneum was buried in 79AD by the same eruption that engulfed Pompeii. Back in the superbad seventies the Roman Empire reigned supreme; Emperor Titus came to power, and he finished up the Colosseum, which I remember from this MST3K skit:

Writing in 1884, W Cope Devereux mentions the place only in passing. Literally so - he bypasses it on the way to Pompeii, because there wasn't much to see. The buried town had been rediscovered in the 1700s and had been excavated sporadically until 1875, but in Devereux's time it was overshadowed by Pompeii. Herculaneum was harder to excavate, which will become apparent six paragraphs from now, after I have finished writing about Spider-Man and the limits of human knowledge.

Work at Herculaneum restarted in 1927. The dig was one of Mussolini's prestige projects, and was intended to make Italy great again. The excavations have continued at a measured pace ever since.

I think it's a reference to SSC Napoli, which was founded in August 1926.

The ancient Romans weren't particularly fussed about resettling Herculaneum. The new town that slowly emerged was called Resina, but just like Spider-Man's black suit the name failed to catch on, and so in 1969 the residents voted to revert back to Herculaneum. Which is Ercolano in Italian.

Vesuvius is still an active volcano, which raises the possibility that the modern Herculaneum might one day be buried in ash. Archaeologists of the future will no doubt think that we all drove Fiats, and that our favourite film was "Banco di Credito Popolare".

Wonky education, or a fiendishly clever code? You decide.

If you think about it, the black costume makes sense, because spiders are black, aren't they? They're black and covered in fur. Why shouldn't Spider-Man be black... and covered in fur?

The black suit was introduced in the mid-1980s, as part of a general wave of "darker and edgier" makeovers that were fashionable at the time. It's often assumed that Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns (1986) was the spark that lit the fire - it had the word dark in the title - but although Knight was very influential it was really the culmination of a general trend rather than its genesis. Miller's story postdated Alan Moore's dystopian V for Vendetta, and Moore's work on Swamp Thing and Captain Britain, for example. The brutally unsentimental Punisher dated from the 1970s, at which point it reflected the generally downbeat, anti-heroic tone of films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish (in the UK, Judge Dredd had been directly inspired by the Eastwood film).

Batman himself had adopted a more gothic tone in the 1970s, and the big multi-comic Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity reboot was published while Miller was still working on his epic. Nowadays The Dark Knight is almost universally praised, but the "darker and edgier" trend it amplified is not remembered fondly. In the cinema dark-and-edgy became hip in the late 1980s but fizzled out in the 1990s; modern superhero blockbusters generally take place in a world where there are a few good men, if only a few.

Does this mean that modern superhero films and thus modern society in general have become trivialised and incapable of critical thought? My impression is that the dark tone of 1970s Hollywood grew naturally from the themes and stories that contemporary filmmakers wanted to explore, whereas the cynicism of (say) Predator 2 or Last Action Hero was essentially an affectation, an optional component akin to the cosmetic spoilers on a car. But it is impossible to write about films without considering the society that produces them. During the years in which R-rated action films were replaced with PG-rated action films there were several bloody wars; and when I think of the supposedly pussified modern world I think of fat Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sitting on the face of a prostitute, farting into her mouth, while she is being filmed for sex tape that will be leaked to the press in order to publicise her reality TV show, for which she will be paid seventeen million dollars. I think of that all the time. Rob Ford is us; we are Rob Ford.

Ultimately I believe that it is not possible to draw a picture of society from its media; that once you dig far enough, there's nothing there; and that instead of actual history, we remember a construction. The traditional view of history as a set of dates and names is oftentimes mocked for its simplicity, but what is the alternative? Human society is an enormously complicated system that moves through time, and we are unable to view it objectively because we are part of it, and a static slice would be as dead and cold as a slice of a human brain. By the time we have passed through history the details are forgotten, and there were so many things we reacted to unconsciously that even a mass of research - as in David Kynaston's Austerity Britain, for example - cannot fill the gaps. Over time, humanity has learned that there is more to the universe than can fit into a single human mind. How can we advance human knowledge in a universe that exhausts the limits of human understanding? Not just the understanding of one intelligent human being, but that of the entire collective intelligence of the human race. Before we can solve the problem of total understanding we need to build a machine which will surpass ourselves... and at this point have I just spewed out the plot of Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Adams' book is a mass of clever wordplay, but at its core is a profound philosophical concept; how can we understand a concept that simply cannot be translated into a form small enough for the human mind to grasp?

This was the last that roll of Fuji Acros; I put in some colour film and shot the image a few paragraphs up a few seconds later.

At its worst darker-and-edgier was cowardly, easy. Nihilism requires no effort or critical thought. Reading through it again, it strikes me that Dark Knight Returns is remarkably nuanced; it isn't a bludgeoning overdose of brutal violence and defeatism, it has a human core and ends on a hopeful note. The (spoilers) deaths of the chief villains are treated as a tragic waste and an empty hollow void respectively. The world of Dark Knight is bleak but capable of goodness, and its society's major deficit is a lack of empathy. The problem with "darker and edgier" is that, once it is escalated to a point where all of society and all the people and everybody and everything is darkly cynical, what next? There can be no tragedy in a world of tragedy. With no contrast, the backdrop simply becomes a bland wash. Real life is complex, evil is almost always undramatic, and quite often it exists only in the eye of the beholder.

But Herculaneum, eh? It's on the regional line from Naples, a short walk downhill from the train station. There's a taxi firm just outside the station that will take you up to Vesuvius, which was cloudy when I went, so I didn't go. I would have ended up with a lot of photographs of mist and rocks.

Herculaneum was originally by the sea; the eruption moved the coast, and in the following image you can see how deeply it was buried:

In theory you could walk quickly around the location in half an hour or so, and it's possible to do a whistle-stop tour of Pompeii and Herculaneum if you rush, although you'd find it difficult to squeeze Vesuvius into the itinerary. One of the advantages of living in Britain is that Continental Europe is only a short, cheap plane ride away, rather than eight hours and eight hundred dollars. But the ruins have survived for almost two thousand years, they will be waiting for you next year and the year after that.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Rome: In Color

In 1884 W Cope Devereux described Rome and Italy as "an empire once so mighty, the Mistress of the World; then for so long desolate and entombed, a city of ruins; and now, phoenix-like, rising rapidly from her ashes, and preparing as "Young Italy" to take her place as a power among the other nations of Europe, many of whom have already welcomed her as a sister" (from Fair Italy, which is available at Project Gutenberg).

In practice the other nations of Europe seem to have regarded "Young Italy" as a pesky gypsy beggar girl rather than a sister, and the country had a pretty sad century ahead of it.

On a geographic-economic level Italy is a bit like Great Britain turned upside-down; the monied landowners are concentrated in the north, the poor tenants live in the south. Millions of Italians emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and although many of them returned to Italy, many did not. Italy was on the winning side in the Great War, but got nothing out of it, and the country's decades-long experiment with Fascism left it worse off than before, if Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves is to be believed.

The aeroplane flew so high that it crashed into the sun. There followed decades of darkness before it could be relit.

Or Bicycle Thief, depending on how you translate the title. The film is called Ladri di Biciclette in Italian, which is awkward to translate. It literally means "thieves of bicycles", which could be rendered in English as Several Thieves of Several Bicycles, or less austistically The Bicycle Thefts, albeit that this doesn't make it explicitly clear that there are several bicycles. It's hard to get across the plurality of the thieves and the bicycles, and after pondering the problem for a while I wonder if perhaps of is the key to the problem. Of Thieves Bicycles Of. SMASH DRAGON DO.

Nowadays Italy is one of the PIIGS. One of the swine, one of the stars on the firing line. The country is famous amongst people of my generation for The Italian Job (1969), which might easily have been called Mini Thieves ho ho.

They do steal the Minis, don't they? They steal all the other cars, and go to Italy to steal Italian money, because in 1969 Britain was running out of money. Nowadays Italy's space agency wipes the floor with ours, their trains are much cheaper than ours and work just as well if not better, and there are worse places to be poor. Of the Thieves, Bicycles? In Italy The Italian Job was released as Un Colpo all'Italiana, which as far as I can tell tries to preserve the ambiguity of the original English title (which could also mean "the job that belongs to the Italians" as well as "the job that takes place in Italy"), and you can tell that I've run out of things to write about Rome because I'm padding.

"mostly in color"

The most obvious day trip from Rome is the Lido, which is the local beach resort; Italian men go there to drive their lowered Fiats back and forth along the seafront.

I went in March, which meant that I had the beach almost to myself, because March is too cold for Italians. And so I stood alone on the beach and imagined that a gigantic ringed planet was rising on the horizon, behind towering clouds of ice. On the way to the Lido there is a miniature Pompeii called Ostia Antica which I ignored because it was baking hot with direct sunshine and I was tired.

Naples-Herculaneum-Pompeii and Florence are both fairly expensive or slow train rides away from Rome, very and very in the case of Florence unless you book far in advance. Anzio is much closer, has a beach, and feels more pleasant than the Lido. Venice is just possible as a day trip, albeit that with a return ticket costing around €160 per person it's an expensive day trip.

And that was Rome. It has been around for some time and will still be there next year, the year after, a thousand years from now. All of the shots on this page were taken with an Olympus XA using a mixture of Kodak Ektar and Fuji Superia, except for the shots taken with a Holga, which were taken with a Holga.