All posts by Mata

The boss.

Fiona Apple album finally getting released

My taste in music is generally quite bleepy, but for many years I’ve enjoyed the dulcet tones of Fiona Apple’s two albums, which have now been released in a combined set UK link US link. Her first album, Tidal, has many great tracks on it and shows a voice with great strength and potential. Her unusual style of instrumental arrangment is very distinctive and produces some beautiful riffs that linger in the memory. A slightly more mainstream release of hers was ‘Across the Universe’, which has been described as ‘the best Beatles cover ever recorded’, and can be found on the soundtrack to Pleasentville (which is also a lovely film, and features the Fiona Apple video on the DVD UK link US link).

Anyway, back in 2003 she completed work on an album called ‘Extraordinary Machine’ which was apparently deemed too uncommericial for release. Some say that Miss Apple thought that the album wasn’t really finished, but I suspect that we won’t hear the truth about it. Fast forward to now, the album has been leaked onto P2P networks and a campaign has been running for around a year to get the album released. Finally later this year it will come out with about two-thirds of the tracks re-recorded. I’ve got a copy of the unreleased ablum, and it continues her earlier eccentric sound and puts in a few new twists. It’s definitely worth a listen and I’m looking forward to the official release and to hearing the difference the recording has made.

If you like female singers and fancy trying something a little unusual then give Fiona Apple a try.

Here’s a more formal run-down of the goings on:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/15/arts/music/15appl.html

My PC dreams of electric sheep

‘Electric sheep’ is a screen-saver that generates fractal patterns and using distributed processing to create new ones. The results are often very beautiful and hypnotic fractal flames that can be worryingly addictive to just sit and watch.

You need to have a decent-speed always-on internet connection and a fair bit of patience for the first ‘sheep’ (ie. fractal flame) to download, but once you’re started you won’t regret it.

For a long time I never bothered having a screen-saver, I found them annoying and distracting, but now I’m happy to see the sheep pop-up and help me relax into thought.

They’ve just updated the software so now’s a great time to grab electric sheep for your computer:

http://electricsheep.org/?menu=download

There’s more info in the FAQ link, so check that out if you’ve got questions.

Naughty Origami

When I was a kid I learnt origami, and even had an exhibition at my (tiny) local library. Back in those days it was hard to find any decent books about origami, and the internet was only a twinkle in the US military-industrial complex’s eye (and a few universitys’). If you were lucky you could find an old copy of Robert Harbin’s brilliant books (US link UK link) but most books had about twenty basic models and not a lot else. To this day I still make little birds occasionally, and it’s very relaxing to be able to make something elegant from something as simple as a square of paper.

Today things have changed. There are loads of origami books, reprints of Robert Harbin’s work, and models that certainly didn’t turn up in the books that I was reading when I was a kid. Today there are whole books dedicated to naughty origami (US link UK link), modelling women’s and men’s anatomy in various configurations, which may admittedly be more entertaining than a flapping bird and may prove a good talking point over a dinner with a loved one but I wouldn’t suggest trying to get them exhibited in your local library unless you enjoy giving grannies heart-attacks.

On a more publically acceptable note, there have also been some developments in the frivolous side of origami too, again working with the art as a way of entertaining other people. US link UK link

Google gets Googled

Or, more specifically, the Google boss got Googled and isn’t happy about it.

CNetNews.com ran an article demonstrating how easy it is to find personal information on Google, and as an example found some info about the Chief Executive. Google wasn’t very happy and complained to CNet about the use of the their CEO’s private information in the article and has now decided that it won’t talk to CNet for a whole year!

It’s just another case of a corporation not being happy about the way people use its tools, and I always find these kinds of things amusing.

Adobe threw a similar sort of strop a little while ago about people using ‘photoshop’ as a verb, such as ‘that image has been photoshopped’. Apparently we are supposed to say ‘that image has been altered using Adobe® Photoshop® Image Manipulation software’, and, yes, you are supposed to put those ‘registered trademark’ symbols in every time if you are typing that. Aww, poor ickle Adobe are getting in a stress that their company’s products are so good that everyone uses the name as a verb. Diddums.

I can understand that the Google boss might not want his personal information available online, but it’s the situation that the rest of the world is in because of Google, so either they need to work out a way to prevent this or they will have to learn to live with it. I suspect that it’s going to be the latter (but if it is they won’t be telling CNet about it until next year).

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/08/technology/08google.html

Next version of Windows in pre-release virus shocker*

*may not involve actual shock.

I’m quite impressed. Before Microsoft have even released their ages-in-the-making new version of Windows, previously known as the entendre-creating ‘Longhorn’ but now officially dubbed ‘Vista’, there have already been viruses demonstrating security such vulnerabilities that Microsoft has had to remove an entire tool from the software. Ouch. That must have hurt.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/08/04/vista_virus/

What sort of name is Vista anyway? Vista is suggestive of a grand expansive view to the horizon, with majestic possibilities available to you. Then you put a Window in the way of it and you can only see a tiny portion of the view and maybe you can see more if you press your nose up to the Window, but then you just leave a smudgey mark that takes ages to get rid of, and your Window never quite works as well again.

Actually, maybe Windows Vista is the right name after all.

New T G Browning book

Many of you won’t know that a while ago I did some cartoon illustration for a chap in the US called T. G. Browning. Now, T. G. has proven to me time and again that he really is a thoroughly decent man, and more than this he is also a very amusing author.

I worked on Caught Dead & Other Catastrophes UK link US link, but he has also written two other books: Wired UK link US link and his new one Red Tide UK link US link. I’ve not read it yet (because it’s literally only just come out) but judging by his other work it will also be a great read.

T. G. is a publish-on-demand author, and I know how hard he works on his craft. I really do hope that he’ll be recognised by a major publishing house because his style is very laid-back, idiosyncratic, and definitely a refreshing change from the usual authors. Sometimes individuals produce far more interesting things than mainstream authors. Anyway, that’s enough of me plugging the books. I’m really looking forward to getting my copy, but now I’ve brought it to your attention I hope you’ll give it a try.

DS gets kinky… Perhaps

desire shook length
was had
because each blue foot reading

That sounds like something sexual to begin with, but that last line seems to definitely be going off onto something pretty unusual. Then again, maybe random-word digital poets are all into blue foot reading, and not liking it would be kinky.

I guess that opens up a whole strange world of ideas: what will AIs find kinky? “Phwoar! Look at the power supply on that Vic20!”

Digi-Shakespeare: huh?

pray using quarter laughter saying supposedto
his ye
though welcome

Apparently DS is going under the name of ‘Setsuko Cherry’ today. Perhaps the slightly garbled nature of this poem is explained by that. Maybe it was originally written in Japanese but something has been lost in the translation.

DS had been doing some good ones lately, so I’m a little disappointed with this. The reference to ‘quarter laughter’ is an interesting image though, evoking thoughts of some barely amusing anecdote, or a choked laugh. It’s a shame that image isn’t in a better context, because I rather like it.

What’s involved in doing a PhD?

I thought I might give you some background on what a cultural studies PhD course is like. There are two main things to know:

You pass or you fail all on one piece of work, a thesis that (at my university) can be a maximum of 70,000 words long

Your thesis has to be ‘an original contribution to your field of study’.

That might not sound so bad, after all, saying new stuff shouldn’t be too tricky once you’ve got to know your topic well… Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Firstly you need to choose a topic to write about. To begin with everyone always picks something big and exciting. This is because 70k words sounds like a lot and you want to make sure that you can fill the space. Your tutors, if they’re doing their job, will tell you to pick something smaller. And again… And again… Until you end up with a tiny fragment of your original idea. You will probably be immensely annoyed by this point because it will often have taken you at least a year. You then need to put this all into 500 words on something called ‘Form 1’.

Form 1 was actually created in Macedonia in the third century B.C. as a device of mental torture. It requires you to say in a tiny amount of words the equivalent of the way an acorn shows potential for becoming an oak tree. It will seem impossible, annoy you intensely, but finally you get it done.

In the UK system (I don’t know about the US one) you will begin on an MPhil/PhD course. If you are a full time student you will then have about three years to complete your course, if you are part-time you have up to six. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages. I went for part-time and, due to the PhD taking up many hours each week could only work part-time too. I started website to keep my artwork ticking over, then started selling T-shirts on it to try and make some money to keep the site costs covered and hopefully buy me some food (the profit thing didn’t really work, but at least it kept the site online). So, if I hadn’t done the part-time course I wouldn’t have this site. Like I say, there are advantages in both approaches. If I’d done it full-time I’d have finished a couple of years ago and could now be getting on with… doing something else.

So you begin writing down your ideas and grouping them into chapters. I started out with a plan for seven chapters of 10k words each, then six of about 11k, now I’m on five of 12k each, and that’s going to be an extremely tight fit… Those tiny ideas that you never thought you’d be able to say much about just stretch out into the distance in a cultural studies thesis. You focus on creating your ‘original contribution to your field of study’ and then hit a snag.

You find out that while you are supposed to be ‘original’, you’re not really allowed to be ‘revolutionary’. Every idea you come up with needs to be carefully placed in the context of pre-existing debates. You’re welcome to mix in lots of sources, from pop-culture to ancient philosophy wherever it’s justified, but you must always be referencing ideas that have been worked through by many other people before you. Finding a way to do this and still be original is very much the core of a PhD.

Any idea in modern culture is like a fractal picture. You look at it from a distance and you see the main features of the image and think you understand it all, but the closer you get, the more that you realise that everything you knew before was just a larger structure with more complexity beneath and between it. Move closer and you see this again, and again… This isn’t really the way if you are doing a science PhD, where you really can go out and find something new, but in a cultural studies PhD you are often filling in the gaps where other people have missed things.

That’s the funny thing though: you might think that, with the history of literature and philosophy behind us, there wouldn’t be many gaps or a lot to say about them, but there really is, and the closer you look at those gaps, the more detail you find. Suddenly that idea that was only going to be a quick thought on the fourth page is still being discussed ten pages later and you’re considering whether it should have a chapter to itself…

Anyway, after a few years you get to present a portion of your work to an MPhil upgrade committee. They look at your work, interview you for about an hour to discuss your ideas and then decide whether to make you a full PhD student or not. In my case I gave a great interview but my chapter had too many ideas in it and the writing style was too dense, so they asked me to resubmit six months later… Yep, there goes half a year in the blink of any eye. Time really does fly.

I’m now approaching the end of the course. I think I’m coming up for the five year mark at the end of this year. Five years… That’s a long time to stay at one job. Can you imagine working on just one essay for five years? Thinking about one thing every single day for five years? People wonder why my animations are a little odd, and so I present you with item of evidence number one: doing a thesis drives you slightly mad. I don’t think that anyone who is truly in their right mind actually does a PhD. You have to be a little odd for it to sound like a good idea to start with, but by the time you’ve finished you are then the world-expert in your field of study. Seriously, I know a lot more about William Gibson’s books than is healthy for anyone, and I am probably one of the most knowledgeable people on his works in the world. That level of obsession is bound to make anyone a little cuckoo.

Once you’ve done a PhD you’re never the same again. That which does not kill us makes us stranger, and perhaps there are few legal things in the world that warp a mind like doing a PhD; however it is something I’m very proud of. I’ve worked very hard on it, and I will be delighted when I’ve finished, but that twisting of the mind to deconstruct the world into the tiniest details sticks with you even when you’re not looking at something related to your studies. You get so accustomed to looking in the cracks of ideas and theories that you cannot go back to accepting reality the way that you would have before.

I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, it’s very hard work, and drives you more or less insane, but if you can do it then it is also deeply satisfying. There is a high you get from finding a new concept that just can’t be fully described. I guess it’s a bit like finding a hidden key and unlocking a mysterious door, suddenly a whole new space is open before you and you know that few if any have seen these things before. It’s those moments that make a PhD course worthwhile.

A reminder…

Clicking the banners at least once a day really does help me lots, especially if you’re in the UK. Basically, UK advertisers pay a lot more for their adverts than the US people. They want something in the region of 150,000 views of their banners each month for, in their words, ‘it to be worth the admin keeping our banners on your site’. Currently I don’t get that many hits from the UK each month, but I do get a good click-through rate on the banners, so this company is prepared to stick with me while this remains the case.

This is also in your interests too: if I wasn’t with this nice big company that pays decent amounts for their banners I would be with a smaller, cheaper one. The people that they advertise are also smaller and cheaper, which means far more annoying adverts… Perhaps even the Crazy Frog. Yes, it could sink that low.

So, help keep this site free of really rubbish and annoying banners by clicking the not-so-annoying ones today!

Constantine

I know I really shouldn’t be like this, but for some reason I can’t seem to help myelf… I confess that I can’t remember a film featuring Keanu Reeves that I didn’t enjoy. His acting style never really changes, he rarely emotes much more than stoicism, but for some reason he always gets away with it, even when he was Ortiz the Dog Boy, an uncredited and unrecognisable role in Alex Winter’s (better known as Bill Preston from the Bill & Ted films) film Freaked (UK link US link ). Rumour has it Reeves was covered in fur as a joke about his success being based on his pretty-boy looks while Alex Winter’s career didn’t follow the same path… But anyway…

So here’s another big film with Reeves being stoic, very cool, and saving the world. Yes, I know I shouldn’t but I really enjoyed Constantine. Some people just have style, and Reeves is definitely one of them. UK link US link

Anyone for juggling?

I’ve been going to the Crawley Juggling Festival for well over ten years now and they really are a lovely lot. This year’s festival is on the 13th-14th August in Crawley, near Gatwick. Most people turn up on the Friday night to wander, get set up for the weekend, and mingle with everyone else. They’re really a very friendly bunch, so if this sounds like your thing then maybe I’ll see you there!

More fun with the proposed ID cards

I do find the debates about the proposed ID card scheme very interesting, so here’s another link to The Register that discusses the state of play:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/07/25/id_card_goes_icao/

For non-UK people, the UK government has been proposing for sometime that giving everyone in the country an ID card will be in everyone’s best interest, stopping fraud, fighting crime, helping old people cross the road, and will also save small kittens from trees. Wishy washy liberals like myself have been asking repeatedly how exactly the ID cards differ from passports and credit cards, and how exactly uniting things into one place makes anyone more secure rather than more easy to impersonate… Without much of a decent answer.

Here’s my personal highlight from the article:

supervision of enrolment would “reduce” (sic) the likelihood of fake biometrics being successful, and details of how the Government proposes to stop this becoming a simple key to ID fraud cannot be provided “in order to protect the integrity of the National Identity Register.”

Effectively, it’s a system which by design puts all of its eggs in one basket, and is dependent on that basket being made impregnable via measures which the Government will never reveal or discuss. Trust us…

Doesn’t that inspire confidence?