Friday, 30 December 2016

The Impossibility of Life in the Minds of the Dead

Contemplate the photograph. It's Audrey Hepburn posing for the press early in her career. It's not a very good photograph and no-one at the time expected it to survive beyond the immediate present, but it has survived. A few years ago the internet discovered it - the people discovered it - and now it is one of the classic images of Audrey Hepburn. The lighting is terrible and the pose is curious, but Audrey Hepburn is magnetic; the photograph is silly, slightly sexy. It endures while so much has passed from memory. There are far better photographs of Audrey Hepburn, but they lurk in the dead memory of books, where they will remain until there is a shift in public taste.

Ostensibly this blog is about photography, although in practice I find it hard to stay focused on one thing and there is only so much to say about pictures. The equipment doesn't move me any more; it's the art I care about, specifically the topic that drives all art. The desire to live beyond death. The human animal is unusual in that it is conscious of its unavoidable date with the inevitable. Death is like the end of summer. It may be many months away, but it will happen and there is no escape. Stronger, braver, smarter, richer men than I, entire societies have failed to find a cure. Nothing I have experienced convinces me otherwise; quantum entanglement, cryogenics, vitamin pills, shared consciousness, pathetic.

The inescapable laws of thermodynamics destroy our bodies, and even if we no longer needed bodies the same laws would destroy our minds, or transform us into a new form, which is also death. I take cold comfort in the notion that consciousness itself is an illusion. That we are not really conscious at all; that we do not have souls. We are just animals with a sophisticated brain that can store information, match patterns, and process audio-visual-sensory information in real time. Our consciousness is a byproduct of this. If we ascend to heaven when we die, what happens to people who have Parkinson's, or Alzheimer's? Do they spend the rest of eternity with empty minds? The idea that heaven rewinds our mental clock back to our teenage years is absurd, and if our souls are separate from our minds, which of those two things is the real us? Both of them, or neither? Theology does not convince me. It's arbitrary.

Death holds two horrors. There is the cessation of consciousness for all eternity. An eternity of endless blackness and the knowledge that this is all there will ever be. It's difficult to visualise nothingness. We are going away and never coming back, and in the fullness of time the universe itself will collapse, and not a single thing will remain. The same will happen to our worst enemies, our greatest friends, our children.

The second horror is the idea that we will be forgotten, and that our works will be forgotten. This is the curse of everyone in the long term. In the shorter term, we know our parents; we are aware that we had grandparents; but until relatively recently, at least in the West, our great-grandparents were theoretical. Photography and the extended lifespan that comes with modern living have expanded our generational horizons, but there is still a generational cut-off point. The vast, vast majority of British people cannot name their great-great-grandparents; they are shadows, and if their great-great-grandchildren do not remember them, who will? Our great-great-grandchildren will not remember us.

No-one, is the answer. Within a few generations we are forgotten. The few names that live after death survive as twisted approximations of the past. This is a theme I have elaborated upon before. It is one of the fundamental themes of all art. On an idealistic level visual art is an attempt to communicate ideas and emotions with a visual medium, and on a practical level art is also a means of self-aggrandisement and self-enrichment, and furthermore it's a viable way of avoiding having to drive a bus for a living. Some artists are driven by a desire to get out of the house; others want to see a naked woman in real life; still others want to be the life and soul of the party. It's an excuse to do cool things with computers.

The wealthy mega-artists of today probably don't care about their legacy, although "the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living" was one of Damien Hirst's early themes. The ubiquity of artists in the media has given them a form of short-term immortality but one of the fundamental principles of the postmodern movement is the impossibility of editorial control.

The people decide which things live and which things die. The establishment occasionally tries to push a thing; tries to make that thing immortal. Novels become set texts in university degrees, the works of certain photographers are cited in textbooks, artists are given government-funded institutes with which to promote their work, but fashions change, and both high and low art is subject to the whims of fashion. Even high art, once thought of as immortal, is just a record of a series of fads. The cathedrals of the past become theme parks and then ruins. Their stones are used to line pavements, which are built over with motorways.

During the twentieth century entire art forms fell out of fashion, poetry and painting most notably. Once upon a time schoolchildren were taught to idolise Tennyson and his works, but now the formerly high art form of poetry is dead. An entire art form. People still write poems, but poetry no longer establishes reputations. There are no poetic giants today. Poetry from the past is hard to take seriously; modern poetry has been obliterated by pop music.

Schoolchildren were also taught to idolise painters and their works, but although paintings are now highly-prised as safe investments, painting itself is too limited to be thought of as high art any more. Painters are no longer major figures as they were perhaps as recently as fifty years ago. As for music, when children of the future listen to classical music of our time they will listen to Philip Glass, and John Williams' Star Wars soundtrack, make of what what you will.

Poetry, painting, and music still exist; but they no longer have a hold on the public, and in any case their hold was artificially bolstered by an establishment that insisted on forcing the public to respect high art even though most people were bored silly. From cradle to grave children of the past were told that they should respect the words of Tennyson, and that if they did not, they were idiots. Now the public must find its own way, and it has. It has found another way.

During the latter half of the twentieth century it was fashionable to treat popular art with the deference that had been shown to high art, and so for many years there was in this field a correct way of thinking, just as there had been with high art. The Beatles, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, were the beneficiaries of this new orthodoxy, and then victims of a counter-orthodoxy in the punk years, and then beneficiaries again in the 1990s, and beyond fashions there are great sweeping paradigm shifts. The swift rise of hip-hop horrified the once-dominant white Anglo orthodoxy; it brought home the fact that none of us have a monopoly on legitimacy, and that for other people our lives and tastes are alien and inconsequential.

An enormous amount of popular art has sunk beneath the waves, never to return, but some of it bobs to the surface again. Some of it continues to intrigue the people; on a fundamental level popular art was created specially for them, the people. In the long term the people have power, because the people are persistent. The state establishment requires energy to function, but energy runs out, order breaks down into chaos. Individual people die, but the people remain.

Are we dead already? We are the animate corpses of our childhood selves, ghosts driven by inertia. As Epicurus pointed out a long time ago we have already been dead. For several billion years we were dead, until we came into being; we will be dead again. The problem is causality. The flow of time is not symmetrical. Our consciousness gradually grew from noting until we were self-aware. The same is not true at the other end of our lives.

Every so often the internet ponders the problem of teleportation. When Captain Kirk steps onto the transporter pad his body is analysed and destroyed by the teleporter's scanners; it is then recreated at the destination, but the recreation is not really Captain Kirk, it is instead a perfect duplicate that was brought to life in a microsecond. The original Kirk knows he is going to die when the teleporter activates. The new Kirk is presumably thrilled to have the gift of life. Before he arrived he did not exist.

It is surprising that instead of dropping to his knees at the realisation he has been brought into existence, the new Kirk instead carries on with his mission. Star Trek is a good example of popular art that died and was reborn, that died again and was reborn, and may periodically die and be reborn until we are sick of it. The original film series came to a dismal end in the early 2000s, but it has been successfully revived, and there is even a plan to expand the format into an episodic television show. It remains to be seen how well the Star Trek concept will translate to television; will it work?

We view the past as a set of blocks. Homogeneous blocks of centuries and millennia in which nothing changed, during which people lived unchanging lives. The late nineteenth and twentieth centuries still have a personality, but in time they will become part of a larger block. Everyone who lived in those blocks had to deal with the reality of death. Nobody escaped. Trillions of years of nothingness await us, and even on a human timescale we cannot guarantee that our distress flares will be seen from afar. Even if they attract attention the rescuers still have their own problems, because they are doomed too. No-one will rescue them. Another year begins.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Beatles: An Illustrated Record

"Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust", so sang The Clash in 1979. I like to think that they were irritated with Beatlemania rather than the Beatles themselves. Specifically phony Beatlemania. Let's have a look at The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, which came out in 1975 and was essentially the first good post-Beatles book about the Beatles (the next was Philip Norman's Shout! (1981) and then Mark Lewisohn's Sessions (1988), after which the floodgates opened again).

The 1970s wasn't a good decade for the Beatles. The band's records continued to sell - the Red and Blue singles collections charted highly on both sides of the Atlantic - and after a wobbly start all of the former Beatles released at least one good solo album. Given the fragmentation of the music market in the 1970s the band's position as the greatest pure pop band remained unassailable, but I can understand why Joe Strummer was sick of them in 1979. At the end of the decade John had retired, Ringo and George had run out of ideas, Paul was a light entertainment celebrity. The music they played said nothing to us about our lives; the radical concerns of millionaire John Lennon earlier in the decade felt utterly alien at a time when people were struggling just to get a job.

The decade also gave us the peculiar grotesqueries of All This and World War II (1976), a mixture of Second World War news footage with covers of Beatles songs by the likes of Leo Sayer, David Essex and Peter Gabriel, who should have known better, breathe in, plus Beatlemania, a 1977 tribute musical that was eventually turned into a film that nobody liked, and then Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), a disco-era musical with yet more Beatles covers, this time by Steve Martin, Peter Frampton, and (again) the Bee Gees. Steve Martin is not a bad man, but he has done bad.

It was as if the 1970s tried to express its love of the Beatles by smothering them to death. As if the decade had been created by an expert propaganda factory for the specific purpose of making people sick of the Beatles.

I was born in the middle of the 1970s so I was late to the party. By the time the Beatles split up, pop music had fragmented into lots of different genres, with the result that Beatles-esque pop became something of a novelty in the 1970s. The most obviously Beatles-influenced bands of the early post-Beatles period were power-pop acts such as Badfinger, Big Star and The Raspberries, but for whatever reason they didn't appeal to the mass market and, famously, they didn't sell any records.

Kids of the 1970s instead opted for the harder sounds of Led Zeppelin and progressive rock, or the post-modern pop art stylings of glam rock, or the ooshiness of Carole King etc Pink Floyd etc Elton John etc Slade etc David Bowie. Such was the pace of musical taste that by the end of the decade the Beatles were an oldies act, even though they had only been gone for a few years.

At the height of their powers the Beatles were on the cutting edge of popular music. They knew 1950s rock and roll like the backs of their eight hands, but they also kept abreast of the latest trends and tried to incorporate elements of musique concrète, folk, reggae, soul, even early heavy metal, all of which fell short in some way but at least came across as genuine enthusiasm rather than bandwagon-jumping. At the beginning of the 1980s however they had all lost touch with the mainstream; Paul McCartney's attempts to incorporate reggae (again) and sample-based dance music into his music felt desperate, and judging by Yoko Ono's new wave contributions to Double Fantasy I don't think John Lennon would have grasped the decade any more effectively.

In the end they all seemed to accept that the world had moved on, George and Ringo first, McCartney later and not completely. By the late 1980s the pop audience had split along generational lines; the kids who grew up with "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had become thirtysomethings with CD players, microwave ovens, and mortgages. They didn't have time to keep up with modern pop either, but they did remember the Beatles. The band remains popular today, but I have a sense that as the white Anglo majority loses its power to set the cultural agenda the Beatles' music will slowly fade. It will never die, but the flood of books and reissues will vanish and shrink. For modern audiences the band's early singles might as well be gamelan music from outer space, but their mid-60s output is substantial enough to look after itself. The band's music will always have a place in humanity's jukebox.

But what about the book? It's a 12" coffee table softback the same size and shape as an old-fashioned vinyl LP. It was compiled from a series of columns in the NME by Roy Carr and Tony Tyler. The first edition came out in 1975; my copy was reprinted in April 1976 with all the same words in the same order. It was published by the New English Library, which was more famous for lurid paperbacks about skinheads and James Herbert's The Rats. The first edition has an RRP guide on the back that reveals a cost of £1.95, about £12.99 in modern money.

The RRP guide also lists the prices in the Republic of Ireland, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Malta, New Zealand, Spain, Trinidad, and Australia, so it's a little glimpse into the twilight days of the British colonial empire. Later versions of the book don't have this - I mention it because although revised editions in 1978 and 1981 corrected some errors and added more content, they took out the Bootlegs section, so if you're buying a copy nowadays you probably want the first or second pressings. The book is no longer in print. NB It has an uncensored reproduction of the cover of Two Virgins, so technically it's not safe for work, depending on how chill your workplace is with John Lennon's penis. "Such a big fuss over such a small thing", as the writers put it.

1975. My impression of 1970s rock music writing is wrong. My impression is wrong. The problem is that British rock music writing of the pre-punk period has been lost to time. It's not reprinted today and no-one quotes it on the internet. The same is true of British rock music writing of the post-punk period. All of it, really. As a consequence my only experience of contemporary historical rock music writing is from the United States - the likes of Lester Bangs and the deadly dull Rolling Stone magazine. American rock music writing is widely available in print and on the internet, but if Lester Bangs ever wrote about the Beatles I can't recall what he said, and if Rolling Stone ever published a good piece of writing in the 1970s or ever I am unaware of it.

Before embarking on An Illustrated Record my assumption is that it would be twee, overwritten, irritatingly florid a la John Peel writing about Robert Wyatt for Sounds magazine. Also, imagine if Mark Chapman and John Hinckley had met. They never did; would they have got on? Chapman felt betrayed by Lennon and celebrities in general, Hinckley felt betrayed by Jodie Foster's unwillingness to reply to his love letters, they both tried to work out their issues by killing people.

If they had met, their twin obsessions might have cancelled each other out. The purity of Hinckley's love for Jodie Foster might have convinced Chapman not to give up on celebrities whilst conversely the disillusionment of Chapman might have convinced Hinckley that Jodie Foster was not worth dying for. It would make an interesting theatrical two-hander. Hinckley irritates me because his name is hard to spell correctly.

The book. The book. I learn that the four Beatles were 5'11" except for Ringo, who was slightly shorter, but that's okay because he spent most of his career sitting down. John was big-boned, but that's also okay because British people were unused to having access to large quantities of food in the 1950s and thus gorged themselves when fruit became available. The book opens by arguing that the Beatles ushered in a cultural revolution, which is something I'm not qualified to comment about. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, if it even existed, is nowadays stereotyped as pubic hair in Playboy and a small number of unwashed hairy people taking drugs; and some idealistic communes that failed to sustain a new lifestyle outside the context of capitalism. The vast, vast majority of ordinary people got on with life just as before.

I grew up during the height of the counter-revolution, during a period in which relics of the 1960s smartened up and went to work as advertising executives. Did the common man of 1975 believe that society had changed? Here in the UK the economy weathered a recession and a stock market crash in the early 1970s; there was mass murder in Ireland, mass strikes on the mainland, and a final acceptance that foreign people were no longer awed at the sight of the Union Jack as they had been previously. The smugness of the 1970s hippies and their dreams of a new society without money or prejudice fuelled the ire of the punk generation; the likes of Joy Division and The Jam wore smart shirts and ties rather than shaggy coats and beards, and within a few years the scruffy hippie was a stock character, a joke, epitomised by Nigel Planer's Neil from The Young Ones. The book, the book.

Never let it be said that the Beatles did not know how to dress well.

The writing is stiff, charmingly so. It uses semi-colons; the first line reads "it is popularly imagined that all four Beatles are products of Liverpool working-class backgrounds; this is not so", which is the kind of writing you don't get nowadays.

Pete Best's dismissal is treated as a group decision; later histories of the band put the blame for Best's sacking solely on George Martin's shoulders, but I think it's generally accepted nowadays that the band was never keen on Best, and that Martin's displeasure during the band's EMI audition was just the excuse they were looking for to get rid of him. The Anthology compilations included a version of "Love Me Do" with Pete Best on drums; either he was dreadful all the time or he had a spectacularly bad day that day.

An Illustrated Record covers his subsequent career in a footnote, dismissing the woeful 1966 cash-in Best of the Beatles and The Pete Best Four's "I'm Gonna Knock on Your Door", a 1964 single released on Decca Records, ironically the label that turned down the Beatles in 1962. In my opinion it's a decent albeit completely trivial pop single in the style of the Dave Clark Five - Best's drumming chugs along monotonously, there's a tuneful guitar solo, but nothing stands out. I imagine Decca were disappointed that vocalist Wayne Bickerton didn't sound at all Liverpudlian. The book also pours scorn on The Pete Best Four's version of "Boys", which was also covered by the Beatles. Again this feels unfair. Best's lead vocals aren't bad and his drumming is at least energetic.

At the back of the book are a variety of other odds and ends. The entry on "Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand" suggests that the German language is incompatible with rocking, which is not true because I have heard Kraftwerk's records in the original German and they rock. There is mention that a 1965 show at the Hollywood Bowl had been recorded for possible release as a live album; this eventually came out in 1977, two years after the book was published. There is also a paragraph about a 1970 single, "Have You Heard the Word?", b/w "Futting, the Futz", which "allegedly features Lennon and some of the Bee Gees". In fact this was just Maurice Gibb impersonating Lennon. The b-side was actually "Futting", and the band was The Fut, which suggests that Carr and Tyler had been given the information down the telephone.

Flipping back to the start, the book covers the Beatles' career in chronological order. The Beatles were exceptionally well-documented and all the familiar vignettes appear - "I don't like your tie", the sixteen-hour recording session for their debut album, Paul making irritating "air" "quotes" with his hands during the sessions for Let It Be, rumours that Billy Preston was going to join the band etc. The reviews include the catalogue numbers and release dates of the singles, so I imagine that Beatles collectors in the 1970s were thrilled; it uses the UK discography throughout, with a couple of pages at the back briefly describing the differences between the UK and US versions of the albums (in particular they slam the soundtrack-heavy US version of Help!).

As of 2016 it's essentially obsolete as a reference guide. It's worth it for the reviews, which are always engaging and paint an interesting portrait of how the band's work was perceived in the mid-1970s. As an overview of their career it's less successful. It concentrates on the records almost to the exclusion of all else, but unlike Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head or Mark Lewisohn's Sessions - which have similarly narrow focuses, at least in theory - it has little to say about the Beatles' lives or the times around them. The successful invasion of America post-"I Want to Hold Your Hand", for example, is a curiosity that happens mostly off the page. Beatlemania, the collapse of the Apple dream, the trips to India are mentioned in passing. There's more coverage of John Lennon's pre-post-Beatles radicalism than anything the other band members did while they were Beatles.

On a tonal level the writers obviously loved the Beatles, saving most of their ire for the solo releases. McCartney's early single "Another Day" "would have made a super TV commercial for underarm charm". Criticisms of the band generally arise from frustration at the lack of focus in their latter years. Lennon's instant pop art records are dismissed rather than destroyed; the cattiest turn of phrase is a quote from Alan Smith of the NME, who describes Let it Be as "a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop music", which is harsh but true.

The authors seem strangely dismissive of George Harrison, implying that the only thing driving him to write "Something" was "his well-developed financial interests", and moaning that the triple-LP All Things Must Pass was too expensive. "It has not worn well", they write from a distance of five years, citing the homogeneous production and lugubrious compositions. Nowadays the album is thought of as a classic, although I can sympathise with their position. My understanding is that it aged in much the same was as the Live Aid concerts; a massive hit at the time, an embarrassing and overblown relic slightly later, and then later still a flawed but awesomely impressive souvenir of a time forever lost. I would have hated it if I had heard it in the 1980s. It's overlong, too slow, and it's a shame about all the reverb, but it's magnificent nonetheless.

In contrast they love The Concert for Bangla Desh, although once again they get in a dig at "Something", so presumably they didn't dislike George Harrison personally. I can understand why critics in the 1970s might have been unkeen on the man. Unlike Paul, George took himself very seriously, but unlike John Lennon he didn't appear to have anything to say, and on a personal level he just didn't seem interested in being a huge star; and yet he obviously wanted people to spend their wages on his records, why bother to release them otherwise?

Elsewhere in the book the writers dismiss "Rain" with a throwaway line and, later on, describe "Tomorrow Never Knows" as "convincing flannel", although they appear to like it. "Eleanor Rigby" is "sentimental, melodramatic and a blind alley", which I feel is unfair - the track is notable for its unflinching unsentimentality, and its detached, dispassionate viewpoint appears throughout the Beatles' songbook. It was one of the reasons Lennon's post-Beatles records seemed so shocking; the gap between the ironic "Glass Onion" and the direct, unaffected "Mother", recorded just two years later, is immense.

There are some occasionally puzzling turns of phrase. Dismissing "Eleanor Rigby" as a self-conscious attempt by Paul McCartney to be taken seriously, Carr and Tyler write that "sociology, not for the first time, reared a mis-shapen skull", which immediately makes me think of the green skull on the BBC test card which unnerved me as a child. "You Know My Name" is a "couldn't-care-less example of Disintegration Blues", which makes sense on an emotional level, but what is "disintegration blues"? I don't know.

The final section discusses the possibility of a Beatles reunion, arguing that this would most likely boil down to money, and that Lennon in particular could use the cash! This may have been true in 1975 - the Beatles were famously stiffed out of tonnes of money - but seems weird nowadays. We're used to thinking of the former Beatles as multimillionaires many times over. So the story goes, the band almost reunited on a whim in 1976 for an appearance on Saturday Night Live, but from then until 1981 the stars did not align again, and then it was too late.

Famously the book championed Revolver at a time when Sergeant Pepper was thought of as the band's masterpiece (they champion Pepper as well, but Revolver is "the peak of the Beatles' creative career"). "Unlike the later Sgt Pepper", they write, "[Revolver] has aged well - it's even matured - and the wealth of musical invention, social observation and downright intuition are as fresh today as when the album was originally issued".

Nowadays it's fashionable to big up The White Album instead, because it's too easy to cite Revolver as your favourite Beatles album, but on a personal level I have never warmed to The White Album. Picking a favourite Beatles LP is a lot like playing Mornington Crescent. There are rules, but they are mysterious. When asked, I maintain that the band's peak was the US release of Rubber Soul (stereo mix), which has so far stood me in good stead; you cannot choose that album yourself because I chose it first.

Occasionally the writers' love of early Beatles turns into gushing. With the Beatles sold millions but tends to be dismissed today, but in the world of Carr and Tyler "it was a simply staggering achievement from every point of view, a landmark par excellence and one of the four best albums the Beatles ever made". That's a stretch. Presumably the other three were Pepper, Revolver, and Abbey Road.

I have the impression that The White Album was not thought highly-of until relatively recently. The review of Abbey Road is lengthy but perfunctory, essentially just listing the songs and concluding that it was too slick. "All You Need is Love" is described as "a fabulous piece of self-satire", which is fair enough.

The book ends with a page that has space for the reader to fill in "further Beatle events". I have written "Lennon dies; the band wisely chooses not to release any more singles; Free as a Bird did not happen; Harrison dies; David Bowie dies; George Michael dies; Carrie Fisher dies", the rest is silence.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Raspberry Pixel on a ThinkPad X60s / X61

ThinkPad X61, with an X60S lid.

Some time ago I tried out Linux Mint on my ThinkPad X60s. It worked!

Now let's try Raspberry Pixel, which is essentially a Debian distribution for children. It's made by Raspberry, creators of the popular Pi microcomputer. I haven't seen a single one of the Hunger Games films, but I miss seeing posters for Mockingjay on the London Underground. The advertising was ubiquitous for eighteen months during 2014 and 2015, and it will never return. Future generations will not know what it was like to see Jennifer Lawrence around every corner, wearing armoured fitness gear, surrounded by flames.

The books were written for the young adult market, and because of this I dismissed them, but isn't the same true of The Dark Knight or The Hobbit? They were written for children as well. The Hunger Games hype didn't really take off until the release of the second film in the series, Catching Fire, which confirmed that the original wasn't a one-off. The films all went on to be members of the half-billion-dollar club, and for three years the world was enraptured by a shared mythology that will probably never be rebooted or continued. And now it's all gone. Like the East German national anthem the Hunger Games films belong to the past now.

ThinkPad X60s, with an X61 lid. Every few years I clean my teacup. This is not one of those years.

Pixel - it has nothing to do with Google Pixel, which is a mobile phone - Pixel is a live-bootable image that works on PCs and some Macintoshes, but not my late 2008 MacBook Pro. I tried, but not very hard, and it didn't work. My X60s is a typical mid-2000s laptop. It was released in 2006. It has a low-voltage, 32-bit, dual-core Core Duo running at 1.66ghz; 3gb of memory; a 1024x768 screen; rubbish Intel graphics; built-in wi-fi; a SATA 1 hard drive. The specification is very old-fashioned nowadays but by no means obsolete, and in its favour it has lots of ports and a lovely keyboard. If you think about it, Donald Trump's real estate business involves borrowing huge amounts of money to build things in the hope that this will generate more wealth, which is the kind of business model left-wingers have wet dreams about. It's the opposite of austerity-era politics.

Besides which as a businessman his activities seem positively tame compared to those of Carl Icahn or the Barclay Brothers. His greatest sins in that respect are brashness and insensitivity. Most of the opprobrium aimed at him seems to be just personal animosity, and horror that such a vulgar man could be president. Underneath this is the horrible thought that, as with Rupert Murdoch, Trump is in fact more representative of society than we are. The human animal is fundamentally vile and base, but very few people are willing to accept this. Donald Trump is the political equivalent of a dog handler who thrusts the dog's nose into a pile of poo it has left on the pavement; he is a mirror of ourselves, and we don't like that.

The X60s is one of the reasons I have never bought a Raspberry Pi. The X60s has a case, a keyboard, a screen, three USB ports, a Firewire port (unusual for a PC), VGA output, an SD card slot, a cardbus slot, and a love-it-hate-it pointing device. It also has a battery and it can be used on the move. The Pi can be made to have all of those things as well, but doing so makes it more expensive than a used X60s. Besides which it has less software support because it has an ARM processor.

My X61 originally had a dull, yellowy screen; my X60s had a bright, crisp screen, so I swapped them around. The easiest way to do this was to swap the entire top half of the machine, hence the mismatched bezels.
How did I accomplish this? Lenovo has a technical manual with complete strip-down instructions.

Pixel is at the moment just a liveDVD or liveUSB stick. Raspberry suggests using Etcher to create the USB stick, which I did; I found that PenDriveLinux' Universal USB Installer didn't work. (The machine booted to the initialisation screen but became caught in a loop.) Neither Etcher nor UNetBootIn were any help creating a USB stick with my MacBook Pro, but Macs are strange beasts, besides which what's the point? OSX is already Unix. It's a lot like Linux, but with a good UI and applications that ordinary people want to use, and it just works.

Once burned to USB, the installation was easy; it worked first time. It detected and used the TrackPoint nub and the ThinkLight keyboard light. It didn't detect the X60s' Bluetooth module but that can probably be fixed and anyway I don't care, I'm never going to use Bluetooth with a laptop. EDIT: After posting this I decided to try the very same stick in my X61, and it also worked first time.

The official website shows Pixel running on a ThinkPad X40, an earlier Pentium M-powered machine hobbled by a non-standard 1.8" PATA hard drive. The X6N generation is a slightly better choice; the 64-bit X61s and X61T tablet in particular. The undervolted processors in the X60s and X61s run cooler than the conventional equivalents in the X60 and X61, and aren't appreciably slower.

A few tweaks set up the desktop. Pixel is very limited and doesn't seem to be optimised for laptops. You have to add the battery meter to the taskbar, and there's no option to standby the machine. The control panel configuration is basic and on the whole it's essentially an internet-connecting-application-launching OS with no bells and whistles. Why not. It runs quickly. The standard browser is Chromium, which makes sense on an X60s given that Chrome has been discontinued for 32-bit processors.

Within a few minutes the typical Linux UI quirks manifested themselves. Little things that mount up. Make the taskbar small, for example, and then maximise Chromium, and it leaves a little gap between the browser and the taskbar until you manually tweak the taskbar size. As with other Linux distributions there is a peculiar emphasis on fiddly things such as making the menu bars customisable - which is nice, but not something I miss in OSX or Windows 10 - but huge gaps elsewhere, e.g. the online help consists of a link to Debian's online manual. Good luck. Linux fans boast about the vast library of applications, but the package manager is just a lot of directories with a plain text search. If you want to install a star map, but you don't know that you should search for Stellarium, you're obviously a stupid lamer idiot who doesn't deserve help. And its immaterial because if you try to install anything it asks for a password, but there seems to be no user account settings.

The manual prominently quotes a developer who opines that "Unix is user friendly, it's just selective about who its friends are", which was probably amusing sixteen years ago to a small audience of Linux fans but is completely off-base today. Amusingly the same man was eventually un-personed by the Debian team, who are obviously highly selective themselves. He must have had a chuckle to himself about the irony.

See, I have nothing against Linux. It's the people I can't stand. In the future, when Linux is finally ready for prime time, they will be forgotten and their influence obliterated. No-one remembers who built the first piano, or the first piano stool; people instead remember the music, and the same is true of operating systems.

Solange is a romantic name. Saint Solange is a Christian saint who lived in the 9th century AD. She was murdered - beheaded - by the son of a local aristocrat, which ordinarily would have ended up with the family being paid to shut up, but instead she became a saint to the locals, who made up stories about how she could heal the sick. Supposedly she survived the beheading and carried her head to the local church before dying. The name Solange comes from the Latin for "solemn". In the screenshot above I am running LibreOffice Writer, one of the few applications bundled with Pixel.

Does Pixel many any sense? My general rule with Linux distributions is that if I have to open the terminal or if it irritates me in any way I rip out the CD/USB stick and never use it again. At the moment Pixel only runs from a live installation, which in practice means that if you install it on a laptop you end up with a USB stick protruding from the side. On a desktop machine there's no point because you have lots of other choices. Sadly I can't try it on my Pentium III-powered ThinkPad 600X to really test its compatibility. The fundamental problem with Pixel is that there are lots of other, more mature Linux installations around, some of which also work on basic hardware, albeit not so basic as an actual Pi.

However I suspect that I'm not Pixel's target market. For the educational sector the existence of a known, standard, low-maintenance Linux distribution that runs from a simple USB stick has an obvious appeal. Pixel allows teachers to give students a cheap USB stick which stores not only their files but also their educational environment. And of course it's a prototype. It will be interesting to see what it looks like in a year's time.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Nikon 20mm f/3.5: Pleasant Squiggles

"So come on out tonight", sang George Benson, "and we'll lead the others on a ride to paradise". There's a melancholic undercurrent to disco music. The people wanted to party forever, because the alternative was a grim day job with assholes. If your life is full of angst you don't want to listen to angsty music, you want to escape. "Don't you know we can fly", sang George Benson, to an audience of people who could not fly.

But I have good news for you, dear reader. Your life is about to change for the better, because I have chosen you - specifically you - to join me as we lead all the other readers of this blog on a ride to paradise. I have coated the words of this post with a special paste that renders them unintelligible to everyone except for you. The other readers see only pleasant squiggles.

I have chosen you because you are special; there is a starlight look in your eyes. I promise you that everything is going to be alright, and within a few paragraphs we will be flying to a place where there is nothing you do not love. The other people reading this blog are insanely jealous of you, INSERT NAME HERE. You are truly a fortunate INSERT GENDER.

But before that we're going to have a look at the Nikon 20mm f/3.5, or if we're splitting hairs the Nikkor 20mm f/3.5. It's a manual focus lens from late 1970s. It was born as an AI lens and ended its life some time in the 1980s as an AI-S lens, which is good because it will work with modern Nikon bodies without damaging them, although for this post I used it on a Canon 5D MkII with an adapter, and then later on a Nikon F-301 with some Ilford HP5, and then still later some Kodak Ektachrome slide film.

Let me test the bathtub. Laissez-moi tester la baignoire. As you can see the lens has moustache-style distortion, with a bulge in the middle and flaring at the edges. Cars go by very quickly. f/3.5 was nothing special even in the 1970s but it's less of an issue with modern high-ISO digital cameras.

It's a full-frame lens, compact, made of metal, well-built. It's important that you send me your address so that I can send you the special pills you must take. You must add me to your will as a show of faith. At the assigned time we will all take the special pills, and we will fly to paradise. There will be no more pain. On an APS-C camera the 20mm becomes a kind of slightly narrow 28mm lens. The small size is such that it's not completely unbalanced on a Micro Four Thirds or NEX camera, although the non-AI-and-then-briefly-AI 20mm f/4 it replaced was even smaller. Obviously you will never see your family or friends again. You needn't worry about them. They'll be alright. If you're not restricted to Nikon lenses, the old Olympus OM 21mm f/3.5 is smaller still:

My Olympus 21mm has seen better days. There are better days ahead. Optically the Nikon lens is slightly better in the corners, and slightly more practical - the Olympus lens needs a step-up ring if you want to avoid vignetting with filters.

What is AI and AI-S? It's a Nikon thing from the late 1970s. They changed the way that their lenses interfaced with the camera, and then they changed it again, but only slightly. The AI-S system was short-lived (only a handful of early-80s film cameras made use of it) but Nikon also took the opportunity to revamp their lens range, and AI-S-era prime lenses are highly prized today as the pinnacle of Nikon's manual focus metal-and-glass know-how. The Nikon 20mm f/3.5 is still relatively economical on the used market. Unlike other AI-S lenses such as the 28mm f/2.8 AI-S it doesn't have a floating element for close-range correction (this appeared in the later, larger, 20mm f/2.8).

Back in the late 1970s 20mm was still ultrawide. After decades of visual fatigue, particularly from playing computer games, I find that the 20mm focal length feels natural. It's not as eye-popping as it used to be. On a practical level there are plenty of full-frame zoom lenses that go wider than 20mm, but none of them are as compact as the 20mm f/3.5. Tiny wide-angle lenses are one of the killer apps of full-frame cameras; smaller formats don't have an obvious equivalent. The relatively new Laowa 12mm f/2.8, for example, approximates a 20mm field of view on an APS-C camera, but it is relatively massive.

What's it like? I was impressed. It vignettes all the way to f/11 and is slightly soft in the corners wide open, but the centre is always sharp and the edges sharpen up when stopped down. About the only problem is focusing. It has a very short focus throw. Snick...snick from infinity to close-up. It's surprisingly hard to focus on infinity, especially if you're using it with an adapter.

The full frame, a 21mp image shot with a Canon 5D MkII.

The centre, at f/3.5, with no post-processing at all. It's just fine and dandy. I'm not going to show f/8 - it's fractionally sharper but not mattersomely so.

The extreme bottom-right corner of a different image taken in the same spot, at f/11. There's a bit of CA, which is easily correctable, and it's not razor sharp in the last few hundred pixels, but this is being picky. In the rational world of sane people the lens is really good. At f/8 it's similar but with slightly more vignetting. I surmise that it peaks at f/8 on an APS-C camera, f/11 full-frame.

Does it make any sense nowadays? On a full-frame camera, yes; it's a cromulent way of getting wide-angle coverage in a small package. On an APS-C camera the focal length is a bit boring and you'll wish it was faster. On the other hand it holds its value on the used market so you could always sell it again if you get bored. It is now time for you to take the special pills. I have not written any more words after this because you will not be here to read them. The words will instead appear inside your mind, and then there will be peace. Isn't that what you want?

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Off to the cinema to see the exciting but overlong science fiction adventure film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, starring top British thesp Felicity Jones as a lady spacewoman. Sometimes I feel sorry for American men; why can't filmmakers give them leading roles? The film also features a band of Rebel scum who will no doubt delight us once again in adventures to come, plus Peter Cushing, who is dead.

I saw the film at London's The Science Museum, in glorious IMax, almost a year to the day after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the same venue. Disney is now churning out Star Wars films on an annual basis.

Back in December 2015 Disney's share price was $107 per share. Now it is $104 per share, which suggests that financial professionals have a dim view of the Star Wars saga. The Force Awakens was a commercial titan everywhere except China. It was accompanied by a huge number of spin-off products, enough to fill my review with photographs; Rogue One's marketing has been relatively subdued. It is an official Star Wars product but is something of an experiment, taking place in the Star Wars universe but only tangentially involving the characters we know and love from the original films. It doesn't have an opening crawl or an episode number. The film was held back for reshoots, and several scenes that appear in the trailers do not appear in the end result; the film's ending sequence underwent a mass of post-hoc tweaking. Despite all this the result is generally seamless and, since I wrote the first draft of this review, Rogue One has done boffo business at the b/o.

Rogue One is a prequel set slightly before the events of Star Wars, the 1977 original that began the series. Back then writer-director George Lucas tantalised fans with his vision of a "trilogy of trilogies", but after continuing the saga with the classy Empire Strikes Back and concluding it with the competent but perfunctory Return of the Jedi, his filmmaking organs deflated. There were some half-hearted attempts to continue the series - some novels, a couple of television movies, a cartoon series - but in the wake of Robocop and Predator I remember that the Star Wars films felt very tame by the end of the 1980s.

Nonetheless children of my generation retained a fondness for it, and once we were in charge of the economy the Star Wars machine came to life again with some top video games and special edition cinema re-releases of the original films. Hollywood however is slow to act, and there was still a 32-year gap between Jedi and The Force Awakens. We will never know what kind of creative inertia or financial woes prevented Lucas from revisiting his pocket universe, and alas he is no more. In his absence Disney has grand plans to make up for lost time; in addition to Rogue One there is another film in the works that will tell the story of charming space smuggler Han Solo. I worry that over time every little detail of the franchise will be explored and then it will be boring.

If George Lucas had made Star Wars prequels, would they resemble Rogue One? It's impossible to tell. Perhaps it's better that the early history of the Star Wars characters is shrouded in mystery. We do not need to know how Darth Vader came to be evil, or how the Empire came to defeat the benign Republic; we can imagine it in our dreams.

BOXOUT: 70mm
If you're going to see a film, see the hell out of it. The Force Awakens was shot with old-fashioned film; Rogue One was shot with a special digital camera that has an unusually large sensor. They were both filmed in visualised in 2D and then converted into 3D by computers. The Science Museum screened Rogue One from a 70mm film print in 2D. This is fine by me. As I have probably said before, if God had intended for human beings to perceive the world in three dimensions, he would have given us an extra eye in the middle of our foreheads, which he did not.

In addition to being a top film critic and connoisseur of vintage motor cars I am also a terrific photographer, with a keen eye, a mind for technical detail, but more importantly an artistic soul; I have shot a lot of film over the last few years, and I have come to the conclusion that "the film look" exists but is less important than the hands that wield it, because it is just raw material that is overwhelmed by post-processing. There is no special magic. Film is just chemicals. Plan Nine from Outer Space was shot with film and so was I Love Lucy - shot by people who grew up with film, who knew film, who knew nothing other than film. With larger formats grain is not an issue; perhaps the only thing that film really has going for it is highlight retention. I'm not going to talk about the issue of frame rates, suffice it to say that if God had intended for human beings to see things more than twenty-four times a second he would have made our hearts beat twice as fast, and we would have a third ear in the middle of our foreheads.

On a giant Imax screen Rogue One looked generally superb. There were some obvious sharpening halos around high-contrast images; the grain in dark places was strangely muddy. This was especially noticeable at the beginning of the film, because it starts with overcast skies and dark shadows. I don't recall it looking better or worse than The Force Awakens. The 65mm format lends itself to creative depth-of-field effects; director Gareth Edwards has a habit of exploring scenes with selective focus, which is fascinating at first but wears off. The focus puller earned his pay. George Lucas also used the same trick - notably the Cantina scene in Star Wars - but perhaps because he had slower lenses it wasn't so overt.

As with The Force Awakens, the Science Museum had special Star Wars-themed bumpers that were naff but endearing and will be lost to time. A "turn off your mobile phone" animation with Darth Vader, and a "you are watching the film in 70mm" announcement by K-2SO, a robot. Thirty years from now people will wish I had whipped out my mobile phone and filmed these bumpers. Perhaps someone else in the (packed) audience did. The screening also had a trailer for Christopher Nolan's forthcoming Dunkirk, which looked and felt like a Star Wars film set in 1940. In the trailer some implausibly good-looking British people are menaced by an unseen enemy; there was a dogfight between some Spitfires and an Me-109 which ended with bally Jerry's kite being pranged right in the how's-your-father. He dickie-birdied, took a waspie, and then caught his can in the Bertie.

Rogue One has a darker tone than The Force Awakens. The battle sequences resemble a bloodless Saving Private Ryan, and there is a suggestion that the heroes are not so much idealists as fanatics. The tone reminded me a lot of the Star Wars video games, which have traditionally been darker and more cynical than the films. The internet will probably generate floods of slash fiction involving assertive butch Jyn Erso and simpering crybaby Rey, her counterpart from The Force Awakens, but although they are cut from the same cloth they belong in different universes. On a visual level the film maintains the series' mixture of fantastical elements and environmental verisimilitude, notably in an almost surrealistic, Magritte-esque shot in which a giant starship hovers above a North African market in much the way that bricks don't.

This sequence is set on a planet called Jeddah, which confused me, because Jeddah is a real place, isn't it? It's in Saudi Arabia. Beyond that the film begins with a short sequence in Iceland, which is very dark, and ends in the Maldives, which looks like a pleasant holiday destination, albeit that by the end of the film it is not so pleasant. An Imperial facility was shot in Canary Wharf tube station, on the Jubilee Line, as if to hammer home yet again the fact that in the Star Wars universe the British are the bad guys.

I've written before about the look of the Star Wars films, and I don't want to repeat myself. George Lucas wanted to show us a visually rich universe as it might seem to the locals; people for whom starships, robots, and aliens were commonplace. Rogue One's beauty shots appear just long enough for us to acknowledge them, not so long that they distract from the story. There is a strip of green in a landscape of burned rocks; an enormous fallen statue of what must be a Jedi warrior, almost too large to comprehend; a slow-motion sequence in which two enormous space vessels quietly collide with a third, generating a shower of debris reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity. The Star Wars films would not exist without special effects, but I hope that anyone who is given the job of directing a Star Wars film is told on Day One that the characters are king and effects are always a means to an end.

Beyond the science fiction visuals Rogue One gives us something else. Peter Cushing is back! And so is the 20-year-old Carrie Fisher (the 60-year-old Carrie Fisher is still with us). Which raises the question of whether Disney has a digital model of Carrie Fisher's 20-year-old body somewhere. Imagine the havoc that would arise if the model was leaked to the internet.

Daniel Craig is in films. Rogue One is a film. That's the connection. NB as far as I know Daniel Craig doesn't have a cameo in Rogue One. As far as I know.

What is the essence of a man? To what extent is Rogue One's Peter Cushing actually Peter Cushing? His vocal performance is delivered by actor Guy Henry, his face is CGI, and he is of course not supposed to be Peter Cushing - he is Grand Moff Tarkin, director of the Empire's sinister Death Star, a moon-sized weapon with a giant laser that can blow up planets. Disney owns the rights to the character's likeness but in the past this would have restricted them to churning out action figures and posters rather than full performances, and presumably Cushing himself was forbidden to dress up and act as Tarkin at conventions. All of these issues have been worked out in science fiction many years ago but it's actually happening now, to us, right now.

Alas the CGI used to generate Peter Cushing doesn't work. It almost works. It's a few percentage points from working, but it's still obviously CGI. As a human being I am genetically programmed to recognise faces; it's ingrained, it helps me survive in a hostile world, and I can tell when a face is wrong. The CGI wasn't bad enough to throw me out of the film, but from the instant Cushing appeared I was conscious that I was watching a CGI recreation. The problem is that Tarkin is a major character in the film, with more lines and I believe more screen time than for example Mads Mikkelsen's Galen Erso, who drives the plot but only appears in three scenes, or Forest Whitaker's drug-addled mood-swinging armour-wearing Saw Gerrera, who seems to be channelling Dennis Hopper from Blue Velvet. I am prepared to believe in Peter Cushing's resurrection, but not yet.

It is only a matter of time, computing power, and artistry before Peter Cushing lives again. And then, a few years later, the computing power will be available to everyone, not just Industrial Light and Magic, and we will use it for porn. Cushing will be ignored, and over time the torrents of his digital model will go unseeded, and fewer people will remember him, and he will finally die. You or I will have died long before then. Peter Cushing will outlast us. Let them resurrect Christopher Lee next. This train of thought has gone on long enough. Next paragraph. Also, the Imperial armoured personnel carrier that appears at one point seems to be based on the old Kenner Mini-Rigs. Next paragraph.

The Force Awakens was competent throughout but Rogue One isn't as good. In fact it has a couple of bits that are downright bad. Darth Vader appears again. His first sequence is superfluous and ends with a pun; Vader had a dry sense of humour in the first three Star Wars films, but he was not a comedian. Puns do not become him. It's a pointless scene that undercuts his next and final appearance, in which he is evil incarnate. It would have been far better to introduce him at the end of the film. Also, if I'm being picky, the suit looks wrong. The helmet is too big.

James Earl Jones is once again the voice of Vader, which raises the question of who will do the voice when 85-year-old Jones dies. But then again computers can simulate voices, and perhaps they have asked Jones to record all of the words in the dictionary with every possible emotion, in which case they can just create his performance in the editing suite. Vader's physical presence could have been CGI, but isn't; they used a man in a suit. Two men, according to the IMDB, but presumably not at the same time because Darth Vader is not a pantomime horse. Neither of those men were David Prowse. Of the original cast only Anthony Daniels re-appears, and only for a couple of lines. Princess Leia is credited as Norwegian actress Ingvild Deila, who perhaps only supplied the motion capture acting; the credits are vague on this matter.

Is the film any good? The Force Awakens entertained me and after a year I have fond memories of it, albeit that I rarely think about it. So much that could have gone wrong went right. The characters were winning rather than irritating, and if the film was staggeringly derivative of the originals it was at least executed well. Rogue One has a tiredness about it that upset me somewhat. The Star Wars universe is rich, deep, and wide, but with the exception of Empire, all of the films have involved a gang of commandos infiltrating a poorly-guarded Imperial installation in order to mess up the Empire's superweapon, and I'm getting sick of it. Wars, Force and now Rogue have the additional burden of introducing a new set of characters, and so the first hour is spent getting the audience up to speed.

Of course all the characterisation pays off in the longer term - after two hours spent with Jyn Erso and her chums I can't wait to see what they get up to next - but it's still a slog. This is one aspect where the Half-Life computer games are actually smarter than Hollywood; they begin in the middle of the action and slowly introduce the characters over the course of the story. Why can't the Star Wars films do that?

Rogue One tries to do this by showing us Jones' origin story and then skipping her action apprenticeship, but the film still has a very slow start. A lengthy subplot with Forest Whitaker's guerilla leader goes nowhere. He is set up as a Colonel Kurtz figure, a rebel whose methods are beyond the pale. He has a big psychic monster that gives people bad hugs. After a confusing introduction he turns into Forest Whitaker, e.g. a big blubbery sentimental guy. A similar thing happens with Diega Luna's Cassian Andor, who is essentially Han Solo as a spy; he is introduced as a stone-cold Provisional IRA type but quickly turns into a wuss and actually ends the film holding hands with a girl! I can't imagine the Provisional IRA holding hands with girls.

BOXOUT: Diversity
Beyond Rogue One's artistic qualities I am contractually bound to evaluate its cultural acceptability. Can you, dear reader, watch this film without feeling dirty and wrong? Do you need to picket cinemas that show it? As a white man I am much smarter than you, and you should pay attention to what I have to say.

The film has the standard modern Hollywood ethno-sexual mix, whereby the villains are white British people, the hero is a white English lady who nonetheless probably does not reject black cock, and she has a team of ethnic people who help her, led by a male hero from one of the major ethnicities - obviously not Chinese or Indian; in The Force Awakens the male hero was a black British gentleman, in Rogue One he is Mexican, thus satisfying both the audience of the southern United States and Spain. There is burgeoning romance between the white English lady and her ethnic friend, but of course they don't actually kiss or anything because that would be inappropriate for a film aimed at general audiences.

Thus the film manages to tick all the boxes while still being a cynical construction. Chinese people make up a large proportion of the world's human population but from Hollywood's point of view they are a tiny invisible minority that was, until recently, an acceptable target; the sheer economic power of China's cinema audience has caused Hollywood to change its ways, which is gratifying but also sad, because it lays bare the fact that in the human world power is the only thing that gets results, not goodwill or an innate sense of fair play. Furthermore the ethnic characters of Rogue One are still subordinate to the main cast, and the film's beacon of motherly wisdom is a white woman, who is in fact so white that I thought she was CGI at first. Genevieve O’Reilly plays lady politician Mon Mothma as if she had been told to literally become Bryce Dallas Howard.

The Force Awakens had a charming homosexual romance between Poe Dameron and Finn, but Rogue One does not attempt to engage with LGBTTQQIAAPO issues at all. Saw Gerrerra has a big fat slobbery pet monster that is presumably supposed to be a woman, but I'm not sure what the acceptable modern attitude is regarding women so I can't pass judgement on this. Obviously women who have not undergone a transition from male-to-female cannot understand LGBTTQQIAAPO issues and are thus the enemy - they didn't choose to be women, and so they are actually less valid as women than people who did choose. But then again women were our friends until recently.

K-2SO is written as a sardonic black slave, but he is sexually unthreatening on account of the fact he is a robot and thus does not have a penis. He does however rape another robot - in the head - and I imagine that C3PO would ejaculate buckets of robot cum all down his leg if they ever met. The presence of Forest Whittaker raises a separate issue that I like to call Peak Black. In the past, Hollywood was all-white, and then it become monochrome; black actors were allowed to have major roles from the 1950s onwards, culminating in the first two Lethal Weapon films, which killed off anti-black racism forever and made our two races one big happy family of brothers. However the other races were still treated as novelty jokes. I am old enough to remember the sword-waving Arabs, clumsy Indians, and zany middle-Europeans of Jewel of the Nile, Short Circuit, and Beverley Hills Cop, most of whom were played by Caucasians with hair dye.

But Hollywood has increasingly come to rely on international box-office receipts, and the economic power of foreigners has done far more to quash racism than the goodwill of do-gooders and left-wingers. If a thing is not taken with force it is not yours to keep. As a result of all of this, Hollywood is now prepared to give leading roles to the other ethnicities, which has had the effect of reducing the amount of roles that exist for black people. The hero has to be white, of course, and the villains are white British people because everybody hates us. I am British and I hate the British. We hate ourselves. Black actors are no longer an automatic pick for the white hero's ethnic friend, or the companion who dies first; they now have to share space with Chinese and Indian actors. Furthermore there is an uncomfortable truth at work. China is notoriously unkeen on black people, which gives Hollywood a choice between doing the right thing, or following the money. And it is a business.

NB Dunkirk is also problematic. The filmmakers take pains to highlight the racial diversity of the British soldiers but the fact remains that every single one of them was an evil racist, and furthermore they were probably Brexiteers. They were leaving Europe, after all. The problem with Dunkirk is that the subject is ideologically unsound and my recommendation is that Christopher Nolan is prosecuted, or at least forbidden from entering the UK.

Rogue One picks up after a slow beginning. The action sequences rely on implausible coincidences whereby our heroes end up in the same place as the villains, but this is par for the course with the Star Wars films. The Empire has access to the latest technology but its surveillance and security computer systems are less advanced than our own; time and again our heroes sneak into military facilities that are guarded less well than a modern-day data centre. In fact they end up sneaking into a military data centre - the Death Star's plans are stored on a Quantum Bigfoot hard drive - by essentially causing a distraction and dressing up as Imperial soldiers.

While I'm listing the film's implausibilities, why does the Empire need a tower of hard drives given that the same data is later shown to fit on a Toshiba SmartMedia card? The Empire seems amazed by the city-busting destructive power of the Death Star's laser, but surely they already have city-busting hydrogen bombs? Was the blind Jedi actually a Jedi, or a quasi-Jedi? Was there a contractual reason that no-one besides Darth uses a light sabre? Etc.

Dot dot dot does however pick up. The film builds to another one of those multi-stranded land-space-face-to-face battles a la Jedi, where there is a battle in space, a fight on the ground, and some character drama. It's a formula; a good one. As befits the film's darker tone the Rebel victory is bittersweet, but this just makes the climactic events of Star Wars seem even more satisfying.

Will they ever remake Star Wars? It has aged well, and the makers of Rogue One have tried hard to ease the transition from their film's final moments to the beginning of Star Wars, which takes place only a few minutes later. A few minutes for the characters, thirty-nine years for us, during which the language and technology of cinema changed dramatically. Rogue One throws in the crude CGI and cel animation of Star Wars, and of course the X-Wing fighters and Star Destroyers still look awesome, but some gaps cannot be smoothed over. The post-modern wipes, relatively static camerawork and stiff fights of Star Wars belong to a different era, as do the zooms, the 1970s-style sound recording, and the middle-aged actors. They all betray the gap between the two films.

Star Wars was also notoriously lily-white - even in racist 1977 people complained that there were no non-white characters. Even the whiteness has aged. The white people of 1977 were old-fashioned white people, tanned and weathered-looking; in contrast the white people of modern-day Hollywood are increasingly picked for their whiteness, and so although white people are no longer the overwhelming default race in Hollywood films, the white people that remain are if anything even whiter than the whites of times gone by. Does that make sense? Compare the weathered, gnarly white people of Jaws or Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia or The Wild Bunch with the pristine, soft white people of modern Hollywood - the likes of Jennifer Laurence, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and so forth. Casting directors are increasingly asked to provide white actors (rather than just "actors"), so they naturally gravitate to the whitest of white actors. This paragraph should really have been in the box-out above. I'll edit this review later on.

John Williams does not do the music this time although the score uses some of his old cues, notably the Imperial March. Given his uninspired work on The Force Awakens it's no great loss. I assume he is busy working on the next instalment in the series proper. The music was instead by Michael Giacchino, who was given a month and a half to write it after original pick Alexandre Desplat pulled out, which raises the possibility that Desplat has an alternative score lurking somewhere on his hard drive. Giacchino's main theme is generic but the incidental music is fine. None of it stands out - it doesn't even feel particularly Star Wars-y, but in my opinion this matches the grim tone of the film. A set of heroic action cues would have felt inappropriate.

My generation likes to believe that everyone has Star Wars in their blood, but generations of children have grown up without caring for the original films, and now we live in a world that has other countries such as China and India. They exist now, they are a thing, and over there in otherwheresville Star Wars was never a major cultural event. Rogue One itself has Chinese actors in two major roles, perhaps because The Force Awakens was not a great success in China; fifteen years from now there will be essays from young Chinese writers who decided to follow up their screening of Rogue One with Star Wars and Empire etc, who then became hooked on this mysterious world, or conversely were disgusted by it. As a white man writing in 2016 I am conscious that the future no longer belongs to me, that it will belong to others, and so on forever until we are all dead.

TL/DR Rogue One takes a while to get going. Howard Hawks said that a film should have three good scenes and no bad ones; Rogue One has one good long extended action sequence, lots of competent sequences, and a couple of stinkers. It is notable perhaps for its attempt to make the series even more gritty, although unless Disney decides to be brave and make an R-rated Star Wars film this idea is probably going to be a dead end. The film nonetheless answers one of the questions that has tormented Star Wars films for decades; who would win in a fight between X-Wings and AT-ATs? If X-Wings would win, why didn't the Rebels use X-Wings at the Battle of Hoth? Why didn't the Rebels put X-Wing guns onto their Snowspeeders? Conversely why don't AT-ATs have ack-ack? Does the Empire have self-propelled AA guns, or do they only use AT-ATs in situations where they have air superiority? If a portable rocket is capable of badly damaging an AT-AT, why don't the Rebels have more of them? Hmm? Hmm?

Nonetheless I eagerly await the further adventures of Felicity Jones and her band of chums. After building them up for two hours I can't wait to see what they do next, this happy band of survivors. What exciting missions they get up to in the next film, when they reappear, as inevitably they will after being in Rogue One. What will they do next?

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Long Dark

Imagine you are trapped in Canada. It's freezing cold and you're in danger of being eaten by wolves. You have to eat mushrooms to survive. You are forced to break into people's houses and search through their drawers for cans of lighter fluid. Eventually you go mad and gnaw off your own legs, all because beer is very expensive and everyone is polite all the time.

This nightmare is a daily reality for millions of Canadians, and now the rest of us can experience it thanks to Hinterland Studios' The Long Dark, a new video game set in Canada. I say new; it's been around since late 2014 and is one of those early access alpha titles, a bit like DayZ, but because it's from Canada it's a lot nicer. Your biggest enemy in The Long Dark is your own stupid self. You could have stayed indoors a few hours longer; you didn't have to climb all the way up that rope in one go; you could have avoided that bear instead of shooting him in the arse.

The Long Dark is a survival game that takes place in the great open wilderness. Unlike DayZ it's a lot more focused, a lot more polished, and it doesn't have zombies or any other players because it's a single-player game. There's just you, some rabbits, some wolves, some bears, some deer, some crows, some fish, and that's all the living creatures there are in the game, not counting plants. There are no zombies unless you pretend that the wolves are zombie wolves, or the frozen corpses you find frozen in the frozen wilderness are frozen zombies. You can't wake them up by lighting fires next to them. I've tried. It doesn't work.

The emphasis is on surviving against the elements, mostly the cold. The survival mechanisms are simple and easy to understand - the interface shows you which items you need and what you need to do, and for the most part you just click a button to implement them - but at the same time the game is broad enough that it doesn't get boring too quickly. You can survive for a long time just by searching empty cars and buildings for food. You can also supplement your loot by crafting things yourself, although once again a lot of the materials you need can be found lying around, at least initially.

Alas the loot generally doesn't respawn - matches seem to be the weak link - and so there's an upper limit to how long your man (or woman) can survive, but the same is true of real life. You, dear reader, have a finite lifespan. You are going to die. And then wolves will eat your body, and then they will die, and eventually everything will die. That is Canada in a nutshell. There is no hope for long term survival in Canada. The people who live there are fools for trying.

The Long Dark is an unusually attractive game. It has a distinctive visual language that can best be described as chunky. The interiors have a bold-brush painterly style reminiscent of point-and-click adventures; the snowy exteriors often come across as large blocks of flat colour, as if the textures were turned off. The measured pace and blocky graphics put me in mind of the likes of Driller or Lords of Midnight from the 8-bit era, or Midwinter from the 16-bit era, but much more colourful.

The game models a day-night cycle plus fog and blizzards. It is often breathtakingly beautiful, knocking spots off DayZ in this respect. The visuals are complemented by a Revenant-esque soundtrack that plays in short bursts, although for most of the time the sonic environment consists of ambient sounds and occasional narration from the player character. Unlike for example Half-Life's Gordon Freeman, the player character has an identity distinct from the actual player. He is deliriously happy when he finds food, angry when he fails to light a fire, surprisingly chipper when confronted with dead bodies and the seeming end of humanity, and I felt quite sad when he died.

At first I thought I had missed. He died out on the ice.

Death walks beside us in life as in The Long Dark. The game has several difficulty levels. At first I played on "pilgrim", the easiest, in which the wolves run away when you approach. The developers are at pains to point out that you should not go around shooting wolves, deer, bears, fish in real life, presumably unless you have a permit or they're eating your livestock. Don't shoot fish.

I still died, on day six. My man fell through the ice and despite my best efforts to warm up by the fire the blizzard did him it. Sadly the game does not retain your frozen corpse, which is a shame because he had lots of gear. Can you reload and try again? No, dead is dead in this game. Harder difficulty levels introduce bear and wolf attacks, which adds a whole new level of tension; the snow deadens the sound of animals and the rifle you find is surprisingly inaccurate. The wolf AI is uncanny - they howl in the distance and sneak up on you, and in general I felt a lot more scared of the wolves than I did of the zombies in DayZ. Harder difficulties also seem to give your man kidney disease judging by the amount of water he has to keep drinking to stay alive. This my major dislike. The act of drinking seems to make your character thirsty. It just adds a rigmarole whereby you have to boil water every time you light a fire, and after sleeping for eight hours your character wakes up on the verge of dehydration, so you have to drink, then boil some more water etc. It's not fun. I can understand why the game is like that - originally it was much smaller, with only two maps, and there was less emphasis on exploring. Now that it's larger I think the player character should have more endurance. This paragraph has gone on long enough.

I don't want to continually compare The Long Dark with DayZ; they are very different games. DayZ is a fast-paced military shooting game that takes place on a single enormous map, with a player base made up of obnoxious turds; the world of The Long Dark is split into relatively small chunks, but because your player trudges through the snow slowly and has to explore every nook and cranny the maps feel larger than they are.

At the moment there are only half a dozen maps, and with a week of intensive playing I imagine a dedicated player would see all the game's sights, but then again it is only £7.49 (at the moment; it's on sale). It feels stable and there's a lot more to do than in e.g. The Eidolon. The "story mode" has not been implemented, and the basic survival story is very sketchy - a geomagnetic storm has wiped out Canada's electricity and you must survive, that's it. At the outset of the game you are the sole survivor of an aeroplane crash caused by the geomagnetic storm, so presumably it happened only a few minutes ago, in which case why is the landscape so devastated? Is Canada covered in burned-out houses and frozen corpses ordinarily?

Still, this is nitpicking. Let's imagine that Canada in particular has been covered by a bubble of anti-electricity, and you are a pilot sent to investigate, but your aeroplane is hit by a freak lightning bolt and no-one can rescue you because the same thing would happen to them. Or you're an astronaut whose capsule comes down in the midst of a magnetic storm, leaving you trapped in the middle of nowhere (as happened to the real-life Voskhod 2). Hinterland Studios can have those ideas for free, although I admit that the first one is basically Village of the Damned but with wolves instead of creepy blonde schoolchildren.

Village of the Damned ends with a middle-aged man blowing up a room full of precocious schoolkids, which is presented as a happy ending; John Wyndham's original novel was published in 1957, and I like to think of it as a thematic ancestor of A Clockwork Orange. Both stories deal with the older, wiser generation's profound distrust of the brash mod-rocking Baby Boomers who replaced them. Would the world be better off today if Wyndham's solution to the Baby Boomer problem been implemented? There would have been no MC5 and no pubic hair in Playboy magazine, but at the same time we wouldn't have to put up with old people today.

The game models interior spaces as separate levels, with loads between the outdoors and indoors. It doesn't really break the immersion. Most indoors spaces are safe from animals. NB the shot of the windows is what really warmed me to the game; I staggered into the room half-frozen in total darkness, but as I watched day slowly broke through the glass, and I was saved, at least temporarily. It was the most beautiful thing.

How does The Long Dark fare on a symbolic level? You can choose to play as a female character, but The Long Dark is, as with The Revenant and, fundamentally a masculine space. The theme of surviving against the wilderness whilst wearing a beard and a check shirt is one of the few non-offensive outlets for modern masculinity, albeit that The Long Dark subverts this because of course the player isn't really out there in the wilderness, he's a big fat immobile lump sitting in front of a computer playing a game.

On a racial level the wolves and bears are all black, thus reinforcing the idea that black is bad, but on the other hand the snow is even more threatening than the wildlife, and the snow is white. So I suppose the game is okay in that respect. The fog is green, I have no idea what that means.

It is developed by Canadian people, which automatically gives it a +5 progressive modifier. I hereby declare that, despite some reservations, The Long Dark is acceptable. It would be a cool thing to teach in schools, and on a whim I imagined an education-friendly version of the game with more detailed cooking recipes and a more forgiving difficulty level.

Perhaps in future you can run the heaters. The game doesn't have enough passable road to actually drive anywhere.

Difficulty-wise it depends on how quickly you can find shelter on the first day. You can die very quickly before you die slowly.

There remains the worry that the developers will never finish it. I paid £7.49, which is on a par with a full-price 8-bit title back in the 1980s. The Long Dark has already given me a lot more enjoyment than Into the Eagle's Nest, slightly less than Arkanoid. Unlike DayZ, however - sorry, it's that game again - it is only two years old but feels like a finished budget game rather than a giant buggy mess; the developers have a coherent vision and I have faith that they will deliver something. And with the weather suddenly drawing in - it is forecast to be minus four metric celsius in the UK tonight - The Long Dark also works as an objet d'art.

What would be nice? The game's clock runs at twelve times normal speed; it would be nice to slow it to realtime so that you can, if you wish, leave your man resting by the fire while you actually rest by a real fire. Also, a bigger map, more things to do, don't bother with cars, and perhaps add an end goal. Make it so that you have to spend the first part of the game gearing up for a huge long trek across a frozen wilderness, and perhaps have it so that the endgame involves wandering into the nearest bar, where everybody gasps in amazement as you nonchalantly order a beer. "In a dirty glass."

It sounds like a cliché, but The Long Dark really did make me feel cold, and then warm again.