State of the musical nation

Alan Wilder (ex Depeche Mode) has written a very interesting pulic letter on the state of the music industry that makes for some good reading for anyone who loves music:

We live in a world of technology – exponentially increasing breakthroughs in all things scientific. So fast that we can’t even keep up with it. So why is it that the audio quality of music is degenerating? Music ‘sounds’ worse. We have stopped listening, we don’t have time. We only have time to be smacked in the face by the loudest, most attention-grabbing blast of souped-up noise imaginable until ear fatigue sets in and the desire to ‘change the record’ takes over. Why are the adverts on TV twice the volume of the regular broadcasts? It’s the only way to get our attention in the VOLUME WAR.

In recent years, a revolution in processing technology has instigated a change in the way albums are mastered. In order to compete, A&R men, producers, even the artists are demanding that mastering engineers, via digital compression, crank up the level so high that all dynamic range is callously sacrificed.

You can read the rest of this here on the Sideline website.

Review: The Gum Thief

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland. Bloomsbury, €15
Published November 11th, 2007, Sunday Business Post. Review by Alex Meehan.

Visiting Douglas Coupland’s smart Alec imagination isn’t for everyone, but in The Gum Thief, he delivers a witty, clever compelling indictment of modern employment while also saying something interesting about the fundamental sameness of people.

If nothing else, this is also an original book. Its structure is unique, with three intersecting perspectives competing equally for our attention and a storyline that brings together a middle-aged man with a cynical twenty-something woman who find common ground in their cynical, jaded view of the world.

First off we meet Roger, a divorced and reluctantly middle aged ‘sales associate’ at a Staples office supplies store. Roger is a barely functioning alcoholic hiding from the real world in his yellow pack job while secretly keeping a journal that details the minute detail of his non-existence. In it, he delights in writing about how much he despises the other zombie-like employees of Staples and how angry he has become at the fact that life has left him behind.

The story begins when Roger’s journal is accidentally found by his co-worker Bethany, a 26-year-old goth who wears black lipstick and lives at home with her overbearing and overweight mother. Bethany discovers that not only has Roger been writing about her and her fellow co-workers, he’s also been writing mock diary entries pretending to be her.

Disturbed but strangely compelled, Bethany writes back and a relationship starts in which Roger and Bethany leave each other entries in the journal describing each other’s jaded view of life while also occasionally writing entries using the other person’s supposed perspective.

To make matters more complicated, weaving in and out of these main diary entries are chapters from Roger’s stalled novel Glove Pond, as well as occasional notes from Bethany’s mother and Roger’s ex-wife.

We learn that Roger started Glove Pond – modelled after ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?’ -years previously when he still had serious ambitions to be writer, but since the death of his son and the break-up of his marriage, he’s stalled not just on the book also on his life.

Unlike Bethany and the other short term employees at Staples doing summer jobs or filling in time before going to college, he’s a lifer and so gets away with drinking on the job and general all-round slacker behaviour. Both Roger and Bethany delight in petty theft, and so Staples suffers while they act out their sense of outsider indignity on a faceless corporation.

Coupland has done something difficult with The Gum Thief – taking the humdrum banality of chain store, mass market parking lot life and make it larger than life. The unusual structure works quite well and contrary to what you might expect, isn’t confusing at all.

This is a clever, smart, witty and entertaining book, the 12th from Coupland since his seminal 1994 novel Generation X. The Gum Thief follows confidently from this as well as his more recent successes Microserfs and JPod, offering something new and interesting while also differing enough to show a progression.

Pictures of you

I got sent this link earlier today by a friend who knows I’m a big fan of The Cure. It’s a newly released advert from Australia about the dangers of driving too fast that uses a version of a song by The Cure called Pictures of You to show the effects on people left behind. I clicked casually on the link and watched the commercial, not really caring but just wanting to hear a new version of a song I like.

It stopped me dead in my tracks and is a very powerful powerful piece of film making – perhaps the most powerful I’ve seen online. Everyone who drives a car should be required to watch this.

It’s very sad, and to my mind much more effective than the shock ads that are shown on TV here depicting people torn up in accidents. I don’t know about you, but I just change the channel when those come on TV. The truth is that the carnage of a road accident is temporary and is seen by very few people, whereas the emotional aftermath is long-lasting and devastating. Road safety authorities all over the world should watch this and re-examine how they try to build awareness of the dangers of driving too fasts.

www.picturesofyou.com.au

One day, on top of a mountain . . .

So the family unit decided to take a jaunt up the Sugarloaf in Wicklow on Sunday.

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Now, we don’t have real mountains in Ireland, in the Everest/Pyrenees/Apennines sense of the word but we do have some pretty hills, and so off we set. It’s more of a climb than it looks from sea level, but it’s nothing that can’t be done in a few hours.

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This is the view from close to the top.

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Bob approved in particular of the day’s activities.

He told me so.

Somewhere over the Russian tundra . . .

I shot this out the window of a Boeing jet on the way back from Japan recently.

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The flight passes over Russia, and gives you a good idea of just how big the world is. You can look out the window, and see nothing but a snowy wasteland as far as the eye can see – take a nap for five hours and look out the window again. You’ll still see a snowy wastelane as far as the eye can see. Savagely beautiful.

Review: Death Message

DEATH MESSAGE. By Mark Billingham, Brown, €15.00.
Published September 9th, 2007, The Sunday Business Post. Review by Alex Meehan

When it comes to creating fictional detectives, there are some basic rules of thumb that the majority of authors adhere to. Generally, fictional crime fighters should be middle-aged and, thanks to their love of coffee and junk food, a bit on the porky side.

They should have difficulty dealing with authority figures, and should always be prepared to go their own way when it comes to investigating crime, even if it means bending the rules to breaking point.

Finally – and this is imperative – they should find it virtually impossible to sustain a successful relationship due to their workaholic tendencies and the fact that underneath all their macho bravado, they are essentially tortured souls.

It’s a tried and tested formula that has worked brilliantly for authors like Ian Rankin (John Rebus) and Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse), and now English author Mark Billingham is staking his claim with Tom Thorne. Death Message is Billingham’s seventh Thorne novel; the first, Sleepyhead, was published in 2001.

It can take quite some time for a crime author to build up a large fan base – this is one of the most saturated of all literary genres — but the payback is that when they do, these new fans will generally buy up their entire back catalogue. On the basis of Death Message, there are some few readers who will probably do just that, although others may still require some persuading.

Billingham has taken the title of his book from the term used by police who have to break the news to families that a loved one has been killed, and the novel opens with three policemen doing just that to Marcus Brooks, a convicted killer who is two weeks away from being released from jail.

Fast forward a few weeks and Tom Thorne receives a message on his mobile phone containing a photograph of a recently murdered man. Another photo follows shortly afterwards, but it’s with the third message – video footage of an as yet unharmed fellow cop – that the plot really picks up pace and Thorne finds himself drawn into Marcus Brooks’ unrelenting but meticulously planned quest for revenge.

Brooks is easily the book’s most interesting character and through him Billingham provides great insight into the mind of a man for whom the loss of his partner and son has proved unbearable.

Unable to sleep for longer than two or three hours each night – and then only in ten to fifteen minute bursts – Brooks spends his nights walking the streets of London, taking comfort from the simple mundanity of putting one foot in front of the other.

In a series of letters to his dead partner Angie, he recounts tales of his new life, interspersed with reminiscences about their time together and his current mission to avenge her death. In time Brooks takes Thorne increasingly into his confidence, eventually claiming that he was framed for his original crime by a fellow copper.

There’s no doubt that Mark Billingham has produced a well-paced, exciting crime novel with plenty of twists, but with the exception of Brooks many of his characters are unsympathetic and uninteresting. In particular Thorne’s girlfriend Louise is difficult to warm to, while his best friend Phil Hendricks, a gay pathologist, doesn’t really feature enough for us to us to get to know him very well.

In Tom Thorne, Billingham has the makings of a great crime detective, but he will need to pay more attention to character development before he joins the ranks of Rebus and Dexter. However there’s certainly enough merit in Death Message to suggest that it may not be too long before he does so.

Speed cabling – nice . . .

I had to laugh when I read this. I’ve just finished re-cabling my office (to take into account a newly purchased 500 gb external hard disk I’m now using for backing up my work archives and records) and so have spent a nasty dusty messy and frustrating hour untangling the rat’s nest of cables behind my desk.

A new “sport” based around unravelling the mass of wires that can typically be found beneath computer desks the world over is taking off in the western US.

The first “speedcabling” competition took place in an art gallery in Los Angeles and was won by LA-based web developer Matthew Howell.

A good 30 per cent of the cables behind my desk weren’t actually connected to anything at all! Anyway. There you go. I bet you feel intellectually richer for having read that, don’t you?

Bringing out the big guns

I’ve just checked my blog stats for the last few days, and as a result of me posting my guns piece below, there has been a massive increase in visitors over the last few days – with 180 people visiting today so far.

Neat or slightly freaky? I don’t know – maybe some of you could leave some comments and let me know why you’re searching wordpress blogs looking for references to the word ‘Gun’, ‘Guns’, ‘GUN’ or any variant therein. Is there some tie in to a news story concerning guns in the US or some other reason why people are doing this search today, but not yesterday?

Enquring minds want to know!

EDIT:Please? A further 222 people have viewed this page since I put this up (on top of the original 180) and not one comment? Come on, put us out of our misery – why are you searching for the word ‘gun’ on the internet? You don’t work for the CIA do you?

Frozen Grand Central

Thanks to Liam F for the link and the good people at www.improveverywhere.com  for the video. This is a very neat piece of performance art. Excellent stuff. You can check out more of their stuff at the address above – I particularly like the one where they got 111 guys to go into Abercrombie and Fitch and then take their shirts off. Very funny.

I was Lost (season three) but now am Found (season four)

Yeah, Lost is back tonight. I can’t wait. A generous Christmas present and a recent long haul trip abroad left me with both the time and means of re-watching the entire third series of Lost so I’m stocked, primed and ready to go.

Not only have I watched the first, second and third series all the way through, I’ve watched the extras and special features on the box sets, listened to the podcasts and carefully combed my way through the fantastic and encyclopaedic (literally!) www.lostpedia.org in order to get my plot lines and conspiracy theories in order.

Will it be worth it? The season finale in Season three got me excited and re-engaged with the story, so I’ll be tuning in tonight and I’m hoping to revisit an island that’s given me some of the most engrossing storylines and fantastic writing of the last ten years worth of television.

It’s may not be as good as the Sopranos (and on that matter, I feel another blog entry coming along any day now) but it does scratch my sci fi/fantasy/thriller itch in a way not much has recently, and that’s good enough for this viewer.

EDIT: Right, I sat down last night in plenty of time for the season premiere and even had the patience to live pause it for ten minutes so I could fastforward through the ads when they came on. Was it worth it? Absolutely – vintage Lost. I loved it and can’t wait to get more.

The writers look like they may have done it again. For Lost fans, series one was all about the crash and the mystery of the island, its monsters and of course, the horrror of The Others. The series ended on a massive cliff hanger with the discovery and opening of the mysterious hatch. Rarely have I shoved a DVD into my player as fast as I did disk one of the second series, and series two did not dissapoint – more excellence as we learned more about the Others and the Dharma Initiative.

This series did dip a little at the end, but came back from another cliffhanger and Series three started with the excellent scene of the Others’ camp at the time of the crash and the revelations regarding Jacob, the ‘magic box’ that produces whatever you want it to, and the story arc concerning the submarine and Ben’s tumour. Truthfully though, this series didn’t grab me as much as S1 and S2 – I think possibly because this was the first series I watched as a series – one episode a week.

The previous two series I’d watched on DVD and so got a different sense of pacing. Three dipped a little, but things are looking up for Series 4. For starters, we now know we’re going somewhere – the writers have announced that there will be another three series (including 4) of 16 episodes each and then it’s finished. The problem with Lost is the lingering suspicion that there’s no end and the makers are just making it up as they go along, but the end is in sight, so it’s go to be wrapped up in 2010.

This first episode has me more excited about Lost since I have been since the end of series 1 – the writers have introduced a totally new story arc and it looks like it’s going to work. A totaly new group of people are coming to the island and through the new technique of flash-forwards, we now have a story being told in three time periods, the past, present and future. Presumably these will all come together as the story is resolved. Bring it on!