Monday, 29 February 2016

The Academy Awards

Back in January I went to see The Revenant at the cinema. The film tells the tale of a man's desperate struggle to win an Oscar. I wrote that:

"Now [Leonardo DiCaprio, for it is he] has been nominated for an Academy Award. Who will beat him? Difficult question. DiCaprio does a tonne of physical acting but has very little dialogue and essentially no character development - there's a suggestion that he has some kind of epiphany at the end of the film, but he begins as a fundamentally decent man in a brutal world and ends that way. Of the other nominees Bryan Cranston is a television actor, Matt Damon has the same problem as DiCaprio, Eddie Redmayne has won already, and I'm done with films about Steve Jobs. Besides which I can't think about Matt Damon without also thinking about this. Perhaps DiCaprio will win after all."

I wrote those words forty-seven days ago, and forty-seven days later they have come true and Leonardo DiCaprio has won an Academy Award. Nobody beat him. You, dear reader, and all the other readers of this blog, you are all forty-seven days ahead of the curve, because I am your guiding light and only friend.

The irony is that DiCaprio won in a performance that was essentially an endurance test. The Revenant is a memorable film, but also a shallow film, and I suspect that over time it will fade from the memory, leaving behind some nice screenshots and a haunting soundtrack.

It's time to look back at the films I saw last year. I only pay money to see good films, and I have exceptional taste, so all of the films I saw were nominated for something or other. Jurassic World merely passed the time, so I didn't write about it. What is there to say about Jurassic World? Bryce Dallas Howard looks nice in a vest, and if I wore panties they would surely have been rustled by Chris Pratt.

On a superficial level Jurassic World felt like a throwback to the age of movie serials, with Chris Pratt as a big dumb sexless lunk and Bryce Dallas Howard as an old-fashioned damsel. On a deeper level the film appears to have been written for a Victorian audience. The message is that women are not suited for the world of business or indeed for looking after machinery of any sort, and that their natural place is at home looking after the kids. The dinosaurs of Jurassic World are of course a thinly-coded racial metaphor. They are violent beasts driven by animal lusts. They can be trained to obey the white man's commands, but for the most part they should be kept in cages. In the codified universe of Jurassic World the thought of a dinosaur being allowed to captain a ship or fly an airliner is absurd.

Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar win was overshadowed by a row about race which will be forgotten in two days. Should Leonardo DiCaprio be black? Lost amongst all this is Leonardo DiCaprio's voice; does he want to be black? Is he prepared to make that leap? On a metaphorical level The Revenant is just as problematic as Jurassic World. DiCaprio's character is mauled by a bear, which is an obvious racial symbol; but who controls the bear? Given that The Revenant is a Hollywood film, I think we all know which group of people set the bear on DiCaprio. You know who I'm talking about. Invisible, ever-present, off the edge of the frame; filling bears' minds with poison, and we all know who is responsible. But none of that is DiCaprio's fault. He is merely a pawn, just like the bear, driven by forces beyond his comprehension.

The Revenant won best director for Alejandro Inarritu - of all the nominees he was definitely the most committed - and best cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki, who has now won three years in a row. Over his career Lubezki has demonstrated that he can do the technical stuff (on Gravity and Children of Men) and that shorn of gimmicks and even lights he can compose a scene (on The Tree of Life, for which he should have won an Oscar, and of course The Revenant itself).

This raises the question of what he will do next. Kill himself in a fit of depression, just like Anton Furst. Or perhaps his stark desaturated style will go out of fashion and he will find himself unable to find work any more, at which point alcohol will consume him. Or he will try his hand at directing and fail badly. Or he will suffer from a debilitating kidney disease just like Jonah Lomu, the rugby player. Or he will crash his helicopter and die, killing his kids, as happened to rally legend Colin MacRae. Or he will suffocate in the depressurised cabin of his faulty LearJet as with Payne Stewart. Death has laid out several paths for him, which will he take?

The Revenant was not nominated for its original score. I would have nominated it. The winner was Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight, which was nice of them, but come on. It was a good year for ambient soundtracks - Sicario was excellent as well - and it's a shame they couldn't have given Ennio an honorary award instead. Will I remember The Revenant? Over time the impact of its visuals will fade, and I can't imagine ever seeing it again. It works as an experience but as a film it is hollow. It was nominated for Best Picture but lost out to the more obviously Oscar-baity Spotlight. Usually the Best Director and Best Picture awards are linked - films do not direct themselves - but in this case I can sympathise with the Academy. The Revenant was a mass of work, and it has something about it, but so much of it is weak.

The Force Awakens was nominated for several awards, mostly technical. It got nothing. I remember enjoying the film but obviously I was wrong. I hate you, The Force Awakens. You lied to me.

No, seriously, I can understand why it came away empty-handed. John Williams' score had patches of greatness but was generally lacklustre. The film was a visual feast, but all films are visual feasts nowadays. The Force Awakens was no more feast-y than any other film. The easy availability of computerised editing, drones, portable hi-def cameras and so forth mean that even television movies now have a cinematic look, and directors are now far more familiar with CGI than before.

Looking back, it was a well-made, enjoyable space adventure that may or may not be elevated to greatness depending on how the sequels flesh out the story. The performances were winning, Daisy Ridley is the internet's new crush, the action was exciting, and it was on the whole superior entertainment notable for not sucking. It could so easily have gone wrong. As with The Revenant I doubt that I will remember it in the future, although I will remember the experience of seeing it in proper 70mm iMax at the Science Museum.

Spectre was nominated for best original song, nothing else. It won. My recollection is that the song was dreadful; why didn't they just get Adele to do another one? I can barely remember Spectre. It feels like a dream. In my review I completely omitted the Empire Strikes Back "no, I am your father" aspect of the Blofeld-Bond relationship, because I wasn't sure if I had dreamed it.

Like so many Bond films Spectre had a number of interesting parts that stood out - the scene in which Bond visits a snowbound cabin in order to have one last chat with his nemesis, the train chugging through the desert, the strange interlude in the hotel room - but an overall storyline that made no sense capped with a finale that was both gripping and silly in equal measure.

The derring-do with M in London was exciting, but the film ends with the other villain losing his footing like a girl and Bond shooting down a helicopter with a pistol(!). Admittedly he reloads and uses several pistols, and the film tries to sell this, but still. Bond shoots down a helicopter with a pistol.

And yet if the film is so unmemorable, why am I still bitching about it a year later? Ultimately Spectre was sold as classy entertainment but it is in fact a drinking game, and as pure entertainment it works, but not as well as Skyfall.

Amy. Nominated for and winner of best documentary feature. I remember it. One moment sticks in the mind; Amy Winehouse gesturing to an intrusive camera crew, hired by her dad, who has just told her that he would never exploit her. The film's final scenes are haunting because we were all waiting for her to die, without expecting that she actually would, because stars don't just die nowadays. And then she died. We were waiting for it; us, here in the real world. It only happened yesterday.

Amy Winehouse loved music, had a fantastic voice, and enjoyed working in a studio with people she respected, but by the time she died her musical career had essentially finished. We will never know how she would follow up Back in Black and no-one has come forward to take her place.

Mad Max: Fury Road, oh yes. It won six Academy Awards, again mostly in technical categories, although unlike The Force Awakens it was nominated for best picture and so forth. Fury Road is a lot like The Revenant, in that it's a mass of viscera without much of a plot behind it, and the co-star is a lot more interesting than the star.

But whereas The Revenant tried to dazzle me with its symbolism and arty shots of the moon up in space, Fury Road just wanted to thrill me, and I respect that. The Force Awakens had a space chainsaw, The Revenant had scalpings, Fury Road had a guitar that spat flames, Spectre had a man shooting down a helicopter with a pistol and another man with a double-barrelled pistol shooting down an aeroplane. That's what cinema is all about. Women in bikinis and blood for the blood god.

Fury Road was shallow fun, but it was a lot of fun. I drank its milkshake. I was surprised when it was nominated for so many awards, because it is essentially a chase move on a grand scale, and as with The Force Awakens we won't be able to tell whether it is truly great until the sequels come along. It had no chance of winning best picture and has made less money than its most obvious competitors - The Revenant is surely the oddest mainstream film to make $400m at the box office - but I remember it, I remember it. I remember orange and blue, and slow-motion machine wreckage gracefully smashing through the air. Even today the internet remembers "shiny and chrome" and "to Valhalla" and "such a lovely day" and so on. I can't remember any of the dialogue from The Force Awakens.

No, seriously. "Leave that blaster", that's about it. Something about the other spaceship being junk.

NB several other films were nominated for awards but none of them leapt out at me. Of the Best Picture nominees I haven't even heard of Brooklyn. Some kind of Oscar bait film about Irish people, again with Domhnall Gleeson. Carol is of course a chance to see Cate Blanchett kissing a woman, but judging by the clip I have just watched on PornHub it is no better in that respect than Desert Hearts, which didn't win a thing because women kissing other women was box office poison in 1985.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Linux Mint on a Thinkpad X60s

A 12" ThinkPad X60s with a 15" MacBook Pro for scale.

Imagine being without sunlight for two years. It sounds horrible, but that is the reality for people who live in Britain. Two years ago, on a whim, I tried out Linux Mint on a ThinkPad X60. It worked! Surprisingly, it worked. It worked surprisingly well.

Now in 2016 the X60 is long-gone, but I've always had a soft spot for that generation of ThinkPad. They're small, they're still functional as basic netbooks, and they're very cheap on eBay. When an X60s fell into my hands for almost nothing I decided to see what it was like.

X60s, with an s on the end. It was the s-for-slimline model, with a slimline case and a low-voltage Core Duo. It's part of a family of six laptops, consisting of the original X60 and X60s from 2006, the upgraded X61 and X61s from 2007, and the X60T and X61T laptop tablets. The X-models all had 12", 1024x768, 4:3 screens, although the tablets had an optional 1400x1050 panel which, frustratingly, wasn't available with the laptops.

My X60s has seen better days. The case is a magnesium frame clad in plastic - I'm not sure if it's fibreglass or carbon fibre reinforced plastic. It has a matte finish. The body doesn't flex, and the screen stays at whatever angle you set, even if you hold the machine upside-down and jiggle it back and forth.
IBM sold the ThinkPad range to Lenovo in 2005, but for a very short time Lenovo was allowed to use the IBM name. Shown here is a 2006 X60s and a 2007 X61.

The standard X60 was one of the first post-IBM ThinkPads. Lenovo essentially stuck a 32-bit Core Duo into the Pentium M-powered ThinkPad X41, added SATA, and tweaked the case a bit. It was launched in the distant past of 2006. The reviewers loved it. It was expensive, but that didn't matter in 2006 because everybody had lots of money. It seems to have sold like hot cakes, judging by the plethora of used models that appeared on eBay a few years ago. A combination of economic malaise and the general competence of the Core Duo meant that IT replacement cycles slowed right down, and the X60 models had a long life (Lenovo continued making new batteries until 2011).

Lenovo's next model was the X61, which was launched in 2007. The X61 had a 64-bit Core II Duo, although back in those days 64-bit computing was still very novel, and the X6X machines came pre-installed with 32-bit Windows XP Pro or Vista Business. The s-models had low-voltage processors that used slightly less battery power than the standard CPUs but more importantly they generated less heat, which meant that Lenovo could use a thinner heatsink.

Heat was one of the X60/61's big problems, particularly with the X61 models. Heat and noise, because the firmware tends to blow the fan all the time. The right palmrest in particular gets very hot because of the wi-fi card, which is crammed into the case. Lenovo put a second fan into the X61 but the problem persisted, and for this reason I often use one of those nano USB wi-fi adapters with my X61.

The X60s has a warm palmrest but the rear of the machine remains relatively cool. I had long assumed that the s-models were physically identical to the standard X60/X61, but they're slightly different. They were available with a lightweight screen, but more obviously the bottom is flat, like Gwyneth Paltrow's bottom:

On the right, an X61, on the left an X60s. Laptops used to look like this, with screws and panels. Nowadays they are sealed units with smooth, blemish-free bottoms, like Gwyneth Paltrow's bottom.
Nine years ago this pair would have left you without much change from three thousand pounds; almost a decade of depreciation has wiped away almost all of their value. As of 2016 they're an eccentric choice, because used X200s are only slightly more expensive. The X200 added a widescreen, 1280x800 display and a faster range of Core II Duos.

The two models pictured above are fitted with their respective slimline batteries. The X60s/61s has a wider battery socket - it can use X60 batteries, but you have to screw a plastic spacer onto the end. The X60/61 can't use X60s/61s batteries, and neither of them can use X60T/61T tablet batteries, so be careful which ones you buy. The X60, X60s, X61, and X61s are all compatible with the X6 ultrabase; the tablets used a different unit.

On a technical level the later X61s has three big advantages over the X60s, apart from the slightly faster CPU. It has a 64-bit Core II Duo which is about 15% faster at the same clock speed, plus a SATA II bus - you have to install an unofficial BIOS modification, but it works fine - and an 8gb memory limit, which is ample for a subnotebook. The X60s on the other hand has a hard 4gb memory limit, of which only 3gb is usable, and a SATA I interface.

The Core Duo is only 32-bit. I mention this because my original plan was to hackintosh my X60s into a Hackintosh, but modern versions of OS X are 64-bit only, and sadly the tutorials that show how to hackintosh ThinkPads with older versions of OS X have rotted away - their support files have evaporated from the internet. Linux Mint still has 32-bit support, although Google Chrome on Linux is about to become 64-bit only, leaving the 32-bit version a dead duck. Windows is also 32-bit friendly, but the cost of a Windows licence is greater than the X60s.

On an economical level the X60-era machines are not quite novelty antiques, although they are heading there. With an SSD and some extra memory they run Office or LibreOffice, Chrome etc as well or better than any smartphone, and with an infinitely better keyboard. For a lark I wrote this review of Jane Horrocks' If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me with my X60s whilst on the train, and I had no problem with it. The hardware is tough and easy to work on, and the parts are mostly still available. In the UK machines with a hard drive and genuine Windows licenses fetch £50-60-70 or so depending on condition, stripped machines slightly less. Compared to a modern laptop they're way out of date; I prefer to compare them with something like a Raspberry Pi. You get an x86-compatible machine with CPU performance on a par with a modest ARM-powered smartphone plus a keyboard, a screen, and a uninterruptible power supply for the same price as a Raspberry Pi plus the accessories.

My X60s was dirt cheap because it came without a hard drive. By coincidence I had a Toshiba Q300 120gb SSD lying around, so I decided to use that. Why was it lying around? I was going to install it in my MacBook as a second drive, but MacBooks are finicky about what goes in the DVD bay, and although my MacBook tolerates a HDD in that slot it refuses to use an SSD even if I ask nicely.

The Q300 was launched last year to general critical indifference; the drive is apparently unexceptional, and Toshiba sold it at a higher price than the competition, so why bother with it? Toshiba subsequently slashed the price, and at the £30 I paid for it the Q300 suddenly makes more sense. It's cheap, it works, it makes a very high-pitched whining sound, Linux does not wreck it. The X60s' SATA I bus limits its speed potential but there are other benefits over a cheap HDD; it's smaller, noticeably lighter, and has no moving parts. In the future people will look back with horror at the thought of laptops having spinning hard disc drives.

At this point I took lots of photographs of the installation process, all of which I purposefully deleted as an artistic statement. Did you know that pigeons see at a higher frame rate than human beings? Imagine showing a pigeon your new gaming rig; the pigeon would laugh at you. "My child", he would say, "eighty-five frames a second turns your tiny human mind ON but I can't stand it. Your gaming rig is inadequate. You fail it."

And with that the pigeon would fly away. Off the top of my head the installation process took all of eight minutes. The only tweaking I did was optional, and involved speeding up the TrackPoint (see below) and making the wi-fi light stay on instead of blinking constantly, because it was (literally) giving me a headache. You can reprogram people's brains by pulsing bright light into their eyes, very quickly, and I often wonder what would happen if the sun had a wobble and started flickering very quickly, or if a small but partially opaque cloud of dust passed between the Earth and the Sun. Would it affect our minds? Is it already affecting our minds? Scroll up to the picture of the SSD - the screw hole is off-centre. That affects my mind. It produces an effect. This is how you remember the difference between those two words.

Famously Mike Tyson kept pigeons. He kept pigeons even before he was Mike Tyson. When a thug killed one of his pigeons he vowed that no-one would ever kill his pigeons ever again, and with an iron will he became Mike Tyson. From that point onwards his pigeons slept safe in their beds at night.

The pigeons paid him back; whilst training to become Mike Tyson he taught his pigeons to throw punches at him. At first he couldn't block them, because the pigeons were so much faster, but over time he learned to overclock his mind until he saw the world at a pigeon's furious pace. Only when he could block their punches did he step into the ring, and the rest is history. Tyson is nowadays stereotyped as a big slow punching machine, but he was in fact extremely fast. Without pigeons he would have been nothing.

Imagine that I am installing Linux Mint.

I settled on Linux Mint because it has worked in the past, it worked on my 600X, I like the name, and it is a favourite of Bulgarian crooks, who are a discerning lot. But before leaping in I tried out Android-x86, a port of Android for the x86 platform. From a live USB it worked, badly; it didn't install properly to the hard drive and I wasn't minded to put any effort into it because I just couldn't be bothered. Android was originally developed for keyboard-equipped smartphones but that was long ago. It is intended to run a single, full-screen, touch-enabled applet, and on a laptop it's an odd fit. At this point I would include some of the screenshots I took, but I can't because I deleted them.

I then tried Debian, which I have read about. It is the hardcore Linux for hardcore Linux nerds who live in the real world. NASA uses it on their ThinkPads so it must be good. It is Linux with a text-mode installer and a pile of old-fashioned-but-stable packages. Debian has a conservative design philosophy and is often tricky to get working properly on modern hardware, but that's not a problem with an X60s. Does it make sense as a toy OS on a laptop? Not really. It's aimed at enterprise users; the kind of people who set up their machine in a secure location and then remove the keyboard and monitor and leave it running for years thereafter, administered via a terminal.

I used the single-CD-but-on-a-USB-stick stable version, which loads a basic system and then grabs the rest from the internet. It installed, but only after a bit of bother with sources.list. (When I tried to run apt-get Debian asked me to insert the CD that I didn't have, which can be circumvented by editing sources.list. I'm accustomed to using sudo for this kind of thing, but the basic installation of Debian doesn't have sudo, and of course sudo apt-get sudo doesn't work.) It's a trivial thing but it made me question the wisdom of proceeding; I just don't have time to learn a new set of habits. Still, Debian worked, it connected to the internet, it downloaded and installed packages etc, it is perfectly feasible as a desktop OS, it just feels wrong. Ultimately Debian reminded me of why I have never bonded with Linux. Outside of certain very narrow contexts - within which Debian is undoubtedly fantastic - Debian is Linux for people who enjoy tinkering with Linux so that they can install Linux, and that doesn't appeal to me. I want to use Linux to do something else.

Eighteen months after writing this blog post I tried Android-x86 again, version 4.4-r5. From a live USB stick it worked, although I noticed that the animated screensaver was very slow. Unfortunately the stock browser crashed whenever I touched the location bar. Via the Google search bar I could load the BBC's home page, but again it crashed. I'll try again in a few years.

It also seems to be the distribution of the stereotypical Linux-Nerd-with-an-elderly-relative. You know the type. They have set up Debian for one of their elderly relatives in order to save them from Windows, which in the story is presented as the only alternative. Now the elderly relative has a computer running Debian, and they are happy as lambs. This story pops up again and again. It's supposed to illustrate the ease with which even an old person can use Linux, but it just gives the impression that Linux nerds enjoy having power over elderly people. I imagine the same nerds flying into a screaming rage if the elderly relative asks to use iTunes or play games or turn off the password prompt. And the story is so widespread I often wonder if the elderly relatives are just fictional, whether this is a story that has been given to Linux nerds to put out. What is their goal?

Debian was founded by a man called Ian Murdock, who named it after himself and his wife Debra, who must have been flattered. They subsequently divorced. Ian left the Debian project although he continued to be a leading Linux nerd. This led to an odd situation where in 2006 he was forbidden from using the Debian name for his Debian Core Consortium project, despite the fact that half of the name was his actual name. That must have stung.

Ian died at the end of 2015. After being approached by police in the street whilst drunk he appears to have handled the situation badly; in his final Tweets he came across as one of those "don't you know who I am" types, irritated that despite making $1.4m dollars in his final year on Earth - he mentioned that in one of his tweets - the police had the temerity to arrest him instead of a poor person. Then he killed himself, and so Debian continues without either of the people it is named after. The lesson is that if you are a leading expert in a hermetically-sealed subculture, you are still just a nobody as far as the outside world is concerned. Enough of Debian.

Later ThinkPads - two generations hence - dropped the fantastic keyboard in favour of a calculator-style chiclet model. As you can see, the X60s' FN and CTRL keys are swapped, and of course there's no trackpad, but otherwise the keyboard is excellent. The keys feel smooth, they don't wobble, they have just the right amount of travel, the font is legible etc.

I used Mint 17 with XFCE, which installed without a hitch. In one respect it was better than Windows - it detected and set up the X60s' middle mouse button, which acts as a scrollwheel. You hold it down and nudge the TrackPoint back and forth to scroll. Windows does this, but the behaviour feels better with Mint, more intuitive. After a bit of tinkering I got the ThinkPoint to behave just right, and beyond that I didn't need to do any tinkering.

I don't care about the operating system. I just want it to get out of the way and run the applications I want. I bought an Android phone specifically for mapping application OsmAnd and some other things, and I bought a MacBook Pro specifically for top music sequencer Logic. Linux-on-the-desktop fans seem to assume that people will flock to Linux just for the fun of running Linux, which isn't going to happen.
Here the X60s runs long-dead-but-still-functional universe simulator Celestia (slowly, but it works), plus the ultimate home computer killer app - the world wide web. The X60s has built-in 802.11g wi-fi. With wi-fi and the screen dimmed slightly it runs for an hour and a half, which isn't bad for an old battery.

The X60s is of course very old. Nine years old. Twenty years ago nine years was an eternity in computing terms, but recently computer years have started to align with normal human years. Crysis is nine years old, but feels far more modern today than Doom did in 2002, if you get my drift. NB the X60s cannot run Crysis.

In its day the low-voltage 1.8ghz Core Duo in the X60s was state-of-the-art. Each core was on a par with one of the later Pentium 4 CPUs, with a fraction of the Pentium 4's power consumption and heat output, and the Core Duo had two cores. In the early 2000s there was a race for speed, and Intel didn't care much about low power consumption or efficiency; but the rise of mobile changed all that, and nine years later the X60s is still roughly as powerful as a cheap modern Windows tablet, at least when it comes to number-crunching. Modern Windows tablets are however much better mobile devices. They run for three times as long in a package roughly the same depth as the X60s' lid.

Here with a Linx 10, one of a breed of compact x86 tablets that emerged in late 2014.

Furthermore the Linx 10 in the picture above has a decent graphics chip that can run mid-late 2000s games, whereas the Intel GMA950 in the X60s was unimpressive even when it was new. In terms of basic functionality the X60s' only real advantage is the mass of ports and the keyboard, although it is a very nice keyboard.

The X60s' 1024x768 screen feels more spacious than it is because it has a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it's still only 1024x768. It's also dimmer and less contrasty than a modern screen. The X60s has three USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, an SD card slot, a PCMCIA/Cardbus slot, and Firewire 400, which makes it one of the few PC laptops with a Firewire port. The X6 ultrabase is widely available on eBay (Lenovo made loads of them) and adds parallel and serial ports plus a bay for a second hard drive, a CD/DVD writer, or a tiny extra battery. There was also a very rare "slice" battery that plugged into the bottom of the X60s.

What of the other Linux distributions? Shortly before installing Mint on an X60 I tried several other modern distributions on a much older ThinkPad 600X. A 500mhz Pentium III with half a gigabyte of memory. A few of the distributions even worked, Mint among them. At the time I concluded that Linux distributions are much of a muchness; my assumption is that if Linux Mint installs and works on a relatively modern X60s, the rest of the Ubuntu family should work as well. I haven't tried FreeBSD, but this chap did and got it working, in 2006! Puppy Linux of course works on everything, including the human brain, and I know this because I've tested it.

Is there a reason for all these distributions any more? As the world transitions away from the misguided old white male desktop hegemony to a trans-positive, zero-waste, multiethnic cloud-enabled mobile era, the desktop versions of Linux are fighting for slices of an ever-diminishing poke, which is a type of Hawaiian fish salad. I don't want to write pie because pies are too reminiscent of the misguided old white heteronormative male hegemony. Slices of an ever-diminishing loaf made with ancient grains. Furthermore even the most basic x86 tablets sold in the local supermarket are good enough, so there's much less reason for the lightweight Linux distributions to persist.

It is a perverse world we live in. The first thing I ever spent more than £1,000 on was a computer, and it was painful to spend that money but necessary for my job; that was a long time ago and I have not spent £1,000 on a computer ever since, or even half that. It's as if the world economy has concentrated on bringing the price of computers down to the exclusion of all else, and so while the economy collapses and the Middle East is engulfed in war and periodically there is a virus scare - currently Zika - we in the misguided old white male hetero-hegemony have no shortage of cheap internet machines. What will stop us?

Monday, 8 February 2016

David Bowie: Zeit! 77-79: Anthems of the Mind

Seeds, angles, ghostchests. It's been a long time since I bought some physical records. Zeit stood out because it's a cheap way of getting digital copies of some albums I have on vinyl. It has roughly 3.5gb of data spread across five CDs for £14 or so. It's cheaper than buying the individual albums on iTunes and you can use the discs as physical backups, or you can sell them on eBay for $800 MINT L##K BOWIE RARE to cash in on Bowie's untimely death. The Berlin Trilogy has been compiled once before, back in the 1980s, as an LP boxed set called Portrait of a Star, but it was only available in France as a limited edition, so this is the first time that these albums have been widely available as a set outside of France not as a limited edition on compact disc with Stage as well stop newline newline.

You already know about David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy. A thousand years from now history will record that the emaciated, cocaine-addled walking corpse of David Bowie fled Los Angeles for Berlin, where he teamed up with heroin-addled bipolar rock beast Iggy Pop and cerebral balding jacket-wearing boffin Brian Eno, and together they went to lots of decadent parties leaving Eno behind in the studio with his synthesisers - he was happiest there - and then they recorded two classic albums and Lodger in Berlin's Hansa Studio while East German guards peered at them through the windows. David Bowie wore a black leather jacket and it was always snowing and everything was black and white. He shopped in normal shops like a normal person, for peas and coffee and it was awesome, like a spy movie.

The details aren't correct but you get the gist. That's what history will record. It will be forgotten that the albums were actually produced by sonic wizard Tony Visconti, and only "Heroes" with quotes was recorded in its entirety in Berlin. Visconti's name is in the album liner notes, but people in the future will assume that Tony Visconti was a pseudonym or a misprint, or they will simply refuse to believe the written record. There were other musicians besides Bowie and Eno, and they recorded more than three albums together. The trilogy began with Iggy Pop's The Idiot, which was recorded in France and Munich and then touched up in Berlin, and in between Low and "Heroes" the gang put out Pop's Lust for Life. On the way home Eno stopped in Cologne to record Cluster and Eno. They were very busy.

David Bowie was a more attractive woman than many women

The trilogy wasn't a complete musical break from Bowie's previous work. Bowie's music gradually evolved, even when his personal life was marked by abrupt shifts. Low feels like a development of Station to Station, and Lodger feels like a set of demo recordings for Scary Monsters. To my ears Bowie's run of Station to Station-Low-"Heroes"-Stage feels of a piece, followed by Lodger-Scary Monsters and then a break before Let's Dance and then the dread 1980s.

As a thing unto itself Zeit is perfunctory. The only thing going for it is the price. You get four albums in a cardboard slipcase. The studio records were remastered in 1999. No bonus tracks. Low's cover image has been tampered with. On the original vinyl it's obviously a normal photograph of Bowie cut-and-pasted onto what looks like a fiery hellscape; for the CD they've treated Bowie's face so that it looks orange, and they've used the clone brush to extend the background a bit. It's very poor. For the sake of completeness the CDs appear to be 2014 repressings made specially for Zeit; the packaging is very subtly different from the standalone pressings. Stage is a two-CD set that was remastered and expanded in 2005. It has liner notes from Tony Visconti, who reveals that he tried so hard to make the album sound like a studio recording that reviewers assumed it was a fake, like Kiss Alive or Thin Lizzy's Alive and Dangerous, coincidentally also produced by Tony Visconti.

Stage is the stand-out for me because I've never heard it before. It's a recreation of Bowie's 1978 world tour, cobbled together from three dates in the United States. There are tracks from Low and "Heroes", plus a short set of songs from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Etc for the old folks in the audience. And "Fame" because it got to number one in the States.

Bowie only released two live albums, David Live (1974) and Stage (1978). There was also a video album of the late-80s Glass Spider tour. Nobody liked any of them. Stage gets a bum rap for being too slick, for sounding like thinner recreations of the studio tracks with faint audience noise. The original release had the tracks presented in chronological order, which meant that the double-vinyl went Ziggy - Station to Station - Low - "Heroes". Unfortunately the Ziggy tracks are only okay, and the Low tracks are mostly instrumentals, which meant that sides two and four were much better than sides one and three. Also, the original studio version of Low was a sonic masterpiece; the songs were excellent but the overall sound and atmosphere was just as important, and in a live setting that doesn't come across as well, so what's the point?

The 2005 remaster fixes the sequencing, which means that the instrumentals are spread out. The band is incredibly tight viz "Stay". Bowie deploys an early version of his big 1980s voice, but here it's subtler, and of course the material is a lot stronger. "Heroes" doesn't quite have the same squalling force as the original and I'm not convinced by the extended version of "Breaking Glass" - the band just drags out the ending - but on the other hand "Station to Station" is easily as good as the album version and the likes of "What in the World", "Blackout", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Hang on to Yourself" are great fun. "Stay" culminates in a fantastic jam that could have gone for half an hour easy I wouldn't have minded no guvnor. Rumour has it that the band slowed down the tempo for the recorded shows so that they wouldn't make any mistakes, which - if true - means that the rest of the tour must have been fantastic. In my opinion music can't be too fast, the faster the better.

The Ziggy suite doesn't move me but then again neither does the original album. It's an alien relic from the days of blues-based guitar rock. There's a funny thing about the Ziggy songs. On "Heroes" and Scary Monsters Bowie worked with asshole guitar wizard Robert Fripp, but for the 1978 tour he had Adrian Belew, who was like a nicer junior version of Fripp and less of an asshole. Belew was one of those late-70s-early-80s stunt guitarists who was on lots of godawful albums by assholes such as Frank Zappa and David Byrne and Paul Simon etc.

Belew's thing was elephant noises. He made elephant noises with his guitar. This wowed people in the early 1980s. He makes elephant noises on Stage, but not during the Ziggy suite, where he seems surprisingly restrained on what were originally guitar-heavy tracks. The original version of Ziggy's title track is built on a distinctive guitar riff, but on Stage the riff is done with synth horns, and overall the Ziggy songs feel like an afterthought. As a straightforward rhythm guitarist Belew doesn't really stand out. No, tell a lie, there was a third Bowie live album, Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, which was recorded a year and a lifetime before David Live. I haven't heard it.

Elsewhere on the record Belew's solos are generally a mess, neither as rock-flashy as Eddie Van Halen or as technical-flashy as Robert Fripp; he plays a lot of notes but my impression of Belew on Stage is of a wibbly trebly forgettable mess. He also performed on the studio version of Lodger, where again he managed to be flashily extroverted and anonymously forgettable at the same time. The only guitary thing I remember from Lodger is Carlos Alomar's choppy two-note rhythm solo from "Look Back in Anger", which in contrast was a model of restraint.

Some bands benefit from having a technically gifted guitar wizard, but Bowie operated best with musically inventive people rather than manic soloists. That was the fundamental problem with Bowie's career in the 1980s and during the Tin Machine period. He worked with producers who could engineer a mean gated snare sound, and musicians who could play perfectly to a click track, but the result was a run of bland records because there were no worthwhile musical ideas.

Lodger. I used to have Lodger on vinyl. The first half of side two is pretty good. "DJ", "Look Back in Anger", "Boys Keep Swinging", that's a good run. Add "Alabama Song" and "Fantastic Voyage" and you would have a decent LP side. Not a great one but decent. I don't think Lodger can be saved. In an ideal world Bowie might have released "Anger" and "DJ" as a double-A, holding back "Boys Keep Swinging" for Scary Monsters, where it would fit right in. Lodger was reviewed poorly when it was new and inevitably there has been a concerted attempt to rehabilitate it since then, but it's nowhere near as good as Low or "Heroes", in fact it's not good at all. "Red Sails" sounds like a 12" b-side, the rest of side one is rotten in different ways.

The irony is that during the height of the New Wave, Bowie suddenly found himself being outsold by electronic T Rex riff-rock throwback Gary Numan, and out-smarted by twitchy nerdy proto-world-music man-drummer woman-bassist Talking Heads, whose Fear of Music would have been a better Lodger than Lodger. Brian Eno is in theory on Lodger, but his soul had already defected to the Talking Heads camp so only his body was present, his unimpressive weedy balding nerdy body. With Talking Heads he went on to make Remain in Light, which was awesome but could never have been a David Bowie record, so perhaps this is Brian Eno's story after all.

In a neat touch the albums were the right order in the slipcase. See what I mean about Low's cover art. It's not a bootleg, there's even a page about it on Bowie's official website

I haven't heard Lust for Life all the way through. I do however own Pop's The Idiot. It's terrifying that Bowie had all these great songs and just gave them away! Imagine if "Heroes" and "Lodger" had been bulked out with the best of The Idiot and Lust for Life. They would have been two-fifths and nine-tenths better respectively. And at the same time it's great that The Idiot exists. It's sludgy, decadent, bitchy, robotic, mean, scary, hilarious, menacing, toasted sesame seed oil, "multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles"; it sounds more Berlin-y than Bowie's own Berlin records, although the bulk of it was recorded in France, before they left for Berlin. "Tiny Girls" is a bit weak, especially coming so soon after "China Girl", and "Baby" is only okay. "Mass Production" is a super idea that would have benefited from better production. The rest of the album is golden. If Bowie's Berlin Trilogy was a massive influence on the likes of Japan and Ultravox etc then Pop's voice-of-doom on The Idiot was the template for Joy Division, Bauhaus, Echo and the Bunnymen and so forth.

"The first time I met the Dum Dum Boys I was fascinated. They just stood in front of the old drug store. I was most impressed. No-one else was impressed, not at all."

Low is my favourite of the lot. At the time the critics were unsure if it was a one-off novelty or a serious career change; forty years later it's still a breath of fresh air. Side one has seven concise little songs, each of which has at least one and sometimes several clever ideas. There's the flu-flump at the beginning of "Breaking Glass", the beautiful little electronic melody at the beginning and middle of "A New Career in a New Town", the Pac-Man noises in "What in the World", the way that "Sound and Vision" feels like one very long extended verse, the clanky piano in "Be My Wife". Taken individually the songs are fascinating, but they flow well as an album; unlike "Heroes", none of them overshadow the others.

The record is often stereotyped as a downbeat bummer, but "What in the World" has a giddy hysteria to it and "New Career" is quietly hopeful. It sounds exactly like the title, which is clever given that it's an instrumental. It starts off tentatively and then becomes a harmonica-laden road song, as if the subject of the song was embracing life on the road; it becomes tentative again, as if he or she was wistfully recalling their past life, and then the harmonica returns. We are driven into the future whether we like it or not. "Be My Wife" is sad and desperate but at least the singer is honest. Low spans the gamut of human emotions from deranged hysteria to paranoid madness via deep melancholy, but it never becomes a Goth cliché. "Warszawa" begins with a doom-laden piano but eventually soars to the heavens. It is the anthem of a country that only exists in the mind.

The electronic instrumentals are reminiscent of Brian Eno's Music for Films, but with a thicker production and stronger albeit simpler melodies. I got into Bowie via side two of Low; I grew up with ambient electronic music and was curious to hear this apparently excellent album from the past that I had read about. Compared to the likes of Future Sound of London and The Orb, Bowie's ambient experiments sound old-fashioned, analogue, slightly cheesy, but I have grown to love them. "Warszawa" and "Art Decade" have one-finger melodies rendered with a distinctive mixture of Mellotron and simple analogue synthesisers. Many years later Philip Glass fleshed out the orchestration with a symphony orchestra, but the extra complexity didn't really improve them. I wonder how "Warszawa" would sound as a solo piece for viola, performed in an underground tunnel at night.

I have the impression that critics in the 1970s disrespected David Bowie for the same reason that critics in the 1980s disrespected Madonna, the same reason that critics occasionally bash Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch; there was a feeling that Bowie wasn't a real musician with ideas of his own, he was just a copycat using a session band to assemble parodies of other people's music. Low is both a good counterargument and a bad one. The instrumentals sound like Brian Eno solo compositions with Bowie singing on top - Eno worked on several of them while Bowie was in Paris dealing with a lawsuit - and for the rest of the record Bowie would turn up to the studio and ask his band to jam while he improvised lyrics. Furthermore there was a huge infrastructure of musical and studio equipment plus Tony Visconti working the machines, but ultimately the only thing that matters is the end result, and in the case of Low the end result is a fantastic record, and as Bowie demonstrated during the 1980s there is an art to picking the right influences, the right collaborators.


I've left "Heroes" until last. It's a synthesis of Low and Lodger and Stage, good but not great. It has the slick performances of Stage, the experimentation of Low, and some of the... well it has almost nothing of Lodger but quite a bit of the 1980s, because the rock songs would have fit perfectly in that decade. The production sounds more modern than 1977. Visconti pioneered the big drum sound of the 1980s with a different technology; he used slapback echo and a pitch-shifter instead of gated reverb. The result is very similar, a big thwacking drum sound with a sharp, very short reverberation. It's all over Low, more restrained on "Heroes" (it comes to the forefront on "Joe the Lion"), very subdued on Lodger. As a result the likes of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Blackout" have an odd mix of early-mid-80s drums, late-70s disco bass, and the kind of inspired guitar experimentation that doesn't belong to a particular era.

The problem with "Heroes" is that it feels a bit phoned-in. Every track on Low earned its place and had something interesting about it. "Joe the Lion" is fine, an excellent second track, but it feels anonymous. "Sons of the Silent Age" feels like an out-take from one of Bowie's early-70s records, and the instrumental tracks skirt the boundary between inspired minimalism and just plain unfinished. "Crystal Japan", which was recorded for a Japanese TV commercial as a kind of last-gasp of the Berlin period, would have improved the record slightly. "The Secret Life of Arabia" is stuck on the end like an advert for Lodger, and I'm not just cribbing that from Pushing Ahead of the Dame, I came up with that idea independently, by myself. The ambient pieces are a bit too successful, in that they blend into the background.

"Heroes" is also thrown off-balance by the title track, which I have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy. It's huge and domineering. The tracks on Low work as individual pieces but they also flow coherently into an album, whereas "Heroes" feels like the title track plus a set of excellent singles. Imagine if Bowie had given up on albums and just released "Heroes" and Lodger as a set of singles, with perhaps a double-album compilation in 1979, a la New Order's Substance. That would have been awesome.

As a kid I was disappointed with the Berlin records, because I expected them to sound just like Kraftwerk, totally synthesised with electronic drums etc. I have always loved the sound of records, the precise clockwork sound of electronic music, the lush beautiful sound of electronic music, and to my ears Low was just boogie-rock with old-fashioned-sounding synthesisers. In reality I just had a very limited exposure to boogie-rock. It's impossible for one man to appreciate all the different flavours of music that the human animal has devised. I would have to be a master of Chinese and Indian classical music and the oddest electronic experiments of Stockhausen in addition to all forms of Western music past and present. I have to specialise in a narrow field, and it just happens that boogie-rock is tangential to that field. There comes a point in a man's personal development when he realises that his culture is not the sole, dominant, objective world culture, it is just one tiny petal on a vast flower, no more important than the others.

The future of media - it will change the way our brains work

To what extent was Harold Shand doomed? Could he have cut a deal and saved his life, if not his empire? After demonstrating that they could accurately hit a target the size of a missile solo, wouldn't it have been a better idea for the superpowers to simply ban solid-fuel missiles, in favour of liquid-fuelled designs - which would then be stored unfuelled, question mark? It would have greatly reduced the chance of an accidental nuclear attack whilst retaining a live nuclear deterrent. Ballistic missile submarines would have complicated matters, but both sides had nuclear submarines, and they only had a limited strike capability; there would have been a separate deal limiting the numbers of missile submarines. Yes, the Russian submarines were technologically inferior, but the Russians would never have admitted this.

The Berlin Trilogy will slowly fade away. Most people are unaware of it. Whenever a pop culture thing from my youth appears on Imgur or Reddit - very rarely, because I'm British - the comments reinforce the fact that my culture is not as widespread as I instinctively believe. Nobody's culture is as widespread as they believe. Periodically Imgur revives Bob Ross and Mr Rogers, who I know only from the internet; the predominantly teenage white male American commentators recognise them, but not from television, instead they recognise them from the last time they appeared on Imgur. Even American culture has been turned into a set of reposts. When Bowie died he briefly lit up the internet, but he was overshadowed a few days later by Alan Rickman, who had been in the Harry Potter films. Rickman meant more to the kids of Imgur than Bowie. The young Americans that Bowie wooed in the 1970s still remember him, although probably not his Berlin records; the audience he gained in the 1980s had moved on by the middle of the decade, and although he tried hard to woo their kids in the 1990s and early 2000s, by and large he failed.

It's not my past, but over a long enough timescale nothing is anybody's past. The present overwhelms it and the future is agile. Surviving after death is like playing a game of chess where you have to write all your moves down in advance. That might work if you are navigating the oceans or the depths of space, provided that there are no storms, and it might work in a game of noughts and crosses, but chess is too complex, there are too many imponderables. You have to react, and in a game of pre-programmed chess you are at the mercy of the other player. Still, if there's one thing I've learned from David Bowie, it's that once you have a name and identity, it is stuck for life and you can't change it. Unless you decide to.