Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why I'm Not a True Fan of Anything

A friend of mine is a huge fan of Doctor Who. He's watched every single episode ever made that still exists (and, since he's rather determined when he's enthusiastic, so have I), and has produced extensive lists and reviews of every story, along with a series of summary clips and videos to take people through the 40 year history of the show.

He is however, not a true fan of Doctor Who, though, by his own admission, this is not something he wants to be.

Why is he not a true fan?

Because he's perfectly willing to admit that a lot of Doctor Who stories are a little bit shit, being firmly of the opinion that Doctor Who is a show that started great, really great (Hello William Hartnell) and then started to slowly decline, rose up again to near it's former glory (Hello Tom Baker), but then, inevitably, began to sink once again into the turgid, volatile swamp that was 80s television, until only a pale, embarrassing shadow remained (Hello Sylvester McCoy).

A true Doctor Who fan, he has explained to me with an air of exasperation, loves Doctor Who. But not just that, they love each and every frame of every show that has ever been made. It can't be bad, they say, because it's Doctor Who. The reverence they hold for the show as a whole overcomes many things. Obvious plot flaws, painful and frustrating intercutting, bad design decisions, poor special effects, and, worryingly, a general sense of logic and common sense.

No, he is not a true Doctor Who fan.

By the same token, I am not a true Beatles fan.

I bring this up, as I have just finished listening to their collected albums, a set I purchased roughly a week ago. The Beatles is something that I missed a little. Yes Sam, you patiently explain. This is because the Beatles broke up 15 years before you were born. Fair point, I respond. But that's not what I meant. So shut up.

When I say I missed the Beatles, it was not for lack of opportunities. I did hear a few songs over the years, my dad had a cd of some of their singles, and a friend of mine was absolutely mad about the Beatles, so I heard some more through him, though I never really got into them. (Some more things my friend was absolutely mad about that I failed to get into: Bike Riding, Socialism, Carbohydrates, Yoghurt Making, and Getting Mugged.)

In all honesty, as a child and teenager I thought the beatles were rather dull. Some nice songs to be sure, but nothing amazing, you know. (This is before I knew what harmony was, and that harmony was awesome.)

I also knew that The Beatles, to put it mildly, got a little weird after a while. I was (and am) a very big fan of songs that had clear melody you could hum along to, and some of the psychedelic era songs I had heard were very hard to hum along to (if you don't believe, me try humming along to the crescendo at the end of A Day in the Life. See I told you so), and just sounded like "a lot of noise."

But over the years my knowledge and understanding of music began to expand, and as I heard more of their music, I began to realise just how accomplished and proficient musicians they were (a love of George Harrison's solo career certainly helped), and decided that I really should give them another shot, and so saved up and lashed out on the newly spiffy and remastered collected set.

In some ways I was pleasantly surprised.

In other ways I wasn't unpleasantly not surprised in the least.

One of the biggest surprises is how much I enjoyed their early work. It's very different from their later years, and is comprised almost entirely of simple, uncomplicated poppy rock tracks, generally about a girl, or a guy who's got a girl, or a guy who hasn't got a girl, or paperback writers and other typical stuff like that. (wait...)

But it's a refreshing kind of simplicity, full of wonderful harmonies and no aspirations of greatness. There's no "we're bigger than Jesus" here, there's just a love of music and desire to play for people.

Around the time that the Beatles stopped touring (no small conicidence), their music changed dramatically. There was a lot more experimenting, a lot more trying new things, a lot more trying to be original. And, as many, many artists have discovered over the years, when you try something new and different, it could turn out to be not very good.

Don't get me wrong they wrote some excellent tunes during their studio years, but on every album their were always some rather dull tracks as well. For every Hello Goodbye or Back in the USSR, there's generally a Within You/Without You or Wild Honey Pie hiding in the tracklist somewhere. This started with Sgt Pepper, continued into Magical Mystery Tour, and peaked with The White Album.

Oh yes, the White Album.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this album, for while it has some of my favourite tracks out of all the Beatles compositions (USSR, Prudence, Guitar Gently Weeps, Birthday) it also has more tracks that I'd prefer to skip than any other Beatles album. It also has the somewhat dubious honour of having the only Beatles track that I really, genuinely, and truly hate.

I am, of course, referring to Revolution 9, a track that takes my earlier "a lot of noise" comment and lives it out in it's full literal horror.

I will not refer to it as my least favourite Beatles song, as that would be an insult to music in general. For those of you who have not heard this track, it is 8 minutes and 22 seconds of random sentences, looped snippets of music, backwards recordings, and general cacophony and screaming.

In short, it has nothing in it that could even be generously be referred to as 'a song'.

At this point I would like to dramatically proclaim that this was it, the point of no return, the one step to far, the proverbial straw that hit the proverbial camel with a crowbar (proverbial or otherwise), and that the Beatles never recovered from the depths to which they had sunk.

The only problem with that is that their next two albums are actually quite good, in fact, Abbey Road is probably the best of the lot, and Let it Be isn't far behind. They hark back to the earlier melodies and simplicity of their early years, while maintaining the technical proficiency and skill they had developed, as well as the improvements in studio tools that they had been using in their studio years as well. It is, in short, the best of both worlds.

So while I am definately a Beatles fan, and consider them one of the greatest, if not the greatest bands of last century. But I'm perfectly willing to admit that some of their songs are a little bit shit.

You'll notice that in my musings on the Beatles I haven't mentioned their recreational drug use, the friction between the band members, and the eventual breaking down that drove the members apart and into their solo careers.

This is because I do not care.

What has their friction, their arguments, and studio politics, or indeed what they ate for breakfast got do with their music? Some would say everything, I would say nothing. Surely, the only thing that matters when you're listening to a Beatles song (or indeed watching a film, or reading a book) is: Is it good to listen to? Am I satisfied, and entertained?

For this reason, I am not a true Beatles fan.

But, on the whole, I'm rather glad I'm not.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Have you tried turning it off and on again?

The crumpet I'm currently eating (see previous post in regard to being most productive when all senses are engaged) advertises itself as "99% Fat Free" on the packet. This sounds all well good, and a jolly healthy snack to be having, until you consider that crumpets are dry and brittle and can only be rendered tasty if drowned in butter. So while factually true, it's a bit functionally misleading, rather like having a rifle with a special tag saying "100% Bullet Free!". Still, it's not as baffling as the sign on a packet of airplane peanuts that warns me that it "may contain traces of nuts." One would hope so.

To get back on point (or rather, to get on point, since I arguably haven't been on it in the first place), I have a reputation with computers at the office. Some people have a reputation where any piece of technology they pass will mysteriously break down. Mine works a little differently. Any piece of technology I walk past seems to mysteriously start working.

A common conversation at the office:

Agent: Sam, my login isn't working.
Sam: Ok, show me what you typed.
*agent does so*
Sam: Ok, let me try.
*Sam types in identical login. Computer loads perfectly.*
Sam: It seems to be working now.
Agent: I hate you.

This happens frequently enough to satisfy most criteria for scientific testing, and is a little unsettling but mostly amusing to me, but a little frustrating to the agents, particularly because I find it a little unsettling but mostly amusing.

When my mysterious powers fail me, or I'm too busy to be able to walk past their computer and have it spring back in to life, for most problems I offer the reliable but incredibly annoying advice: "Try restarting it, and see if it happens again."

Try restarting it, and see if it happens again.

This is by far the most baffling advice you could give for almost anything, and we seem to accept it for computers, when really we shouldn't. It doesn't apply to almost anything else. The book is missing a page? Close it, and open again and see if it's still missing. Your leg has broken? Lie down for a bit, then stand up and see if it's still broken. The milk gone sour? Put the cap back on, then take the cap off and see if it's still sour.

These are of course extremely ludicrous. The book will still be missing pages. Your leg will still be broken (unless the 'lie down for a bit' was six weeks). The milk will still be sour. Try them and you will feel silly, in pain, and sick, respectively. So why do we accept it for computers?

Because, damn it, it works!

It makes no logical sense, but it does. My more tech savvy older brother assures that there is indeed a logical reason for this, and goes into a detailed description of heating issues, airflow, and memory access and allocation, until I politely ask him to stop.

My less tech savvy younger brother hits the TV when it's not working. Unfortunately this, also, bafflingly, works. At least when he does it. It doesn't when I do, and I secretly think this is because I don't hit the TV hard enough.

Me even less tech savvy younger younger brother just wants to know when the tv will be working so he can watch my star wars DVDs again, and will tell us this multiple times, just to make sure we fully understand the gravity of the situation.

My friend uses this as an opportunity to point out why PCs are terrible, and why his Mac is ever so much better. This plan has slightly backfired as recently he's been screaming at iMovie and iWeb for not doing what he wants them too, and because the new OS update broke his brightness settings.

I just find the whole situation amusing, and decide to write up a blog entry about it and go and make another cup of tea.

Unfortunately the kettle doesn't always work properly, so sometime I have to turn it off and on again before it will boil.

Go figure.

Monday, September 14, 2009

What Centrelink and Advertising have in common.

It was a payroll Monday today, which generally means I take a late lunch and treat myself to some takeaway (Generally McDonalds because a) It's about the only close takeaway and b) Subway doesn't count as takeaway because it's actually vaguely healthy).

Half-way through my first bite of my Mighty "totally not Mc" Angus Burger I remembered I'd have beef for lunch and so really should have ordered chicken but half-way through that I was distracted yet again by the advertising slogan for what I was eating (just in case I'd forgotten and had needed to look at the box to remind myself): "A little bit fancy."

It struck me as a very odd slogan in most respects, and rather lacking in commitment. It seemed to be telling that the burger I had ordered was special, nicer than the usual common fare one might find in a take away franchise of this calibre. But not too much. Just a little bit. Cause, you know, some people don't like fancy food (potentially quite likely if you're eating in a McDonalds), and we wouldn't want to alienate them. So it's a little bit fancy, possibly, if that's ok.

Sometimes I kind of wish that advertising would shed it's pretence of sophistication and just get down to the actual message, so instead of slogans like "A Little Bit Fancy", we would have "Everyone should buy this right now," or possibly more interestingly "Buy it or I'll break your kneecaps."

It was about this point that I nearly choked on the half bite of burger that my flight of whimsy had prevented me from swallowing, and drew a very odd look from the lady sitting next to me. I considered telling her I had been philosophising, and asking her if she liked food that was a little bit fancy, but I doubt it would have improved matters.

After I got my breath back I remembered an ad I had spotted a couple of weeks earlier that had struck me in a similar nature. It was for a bank, and had the catchy but incomprehensible slogan "Savings - It's the new spending."

No, no it's not.

Saving is the new spending is about the same as saying that Aardvarks are the new Potatoes, and makes about as much sense, although the thought occurs that I found a bank that had the slogan "Aardvarks are the new Potatoes" I would probably sign up based on the novelty alone. I did a brief google search to see if there was a bank named Tatervarks, but for now it looks like I'll need to stay with my current Financial storage facility. I would also sign up for a bank if it had the slogan "Bank with us - Or We'll Break Your Kneecaps" but fortunately I haven't found one of those either.

On my way back from my fine dining establishment my mind decided to bring up the oft-told but still amusing tale of the first (and for obvious reasons, only) time I applied for youth allowance from the government. I can't find much of a connection between advertising and youth allowance except a) they're both mired in bureaucracy, and b) they're both just plain weird.

Anyway, I was 18 at the time, freshly graduation from high school, and had decided to take a year off before going to university to get a job and living a little. I did this by not finding a job and sitting at home being bored. May arrived, the job hadn't, and I decided in the meantime I should head down to my local Centrelink and get myself some spending money. I looked around on their website but couldn't find any form of online application, so decided to head down and apply in person.

I walked in the front door and said I'd like to apply for youth allowance of some kind. "Certainly" replied the receptionist, "have you considered Newstart Allowance? It's a youth allowance of some kind."

Perfect, I thought, so we started the application.

"Are you over 18? Because if you're over 18 you can get Newstart Allowance, look, it says so on this pamphlet!" she said, and handed me one. It did indeed say that if I were over 18, then Newstart was the Allowance for youth like me. Perfect, I again thought. "Excellent!" said the receptionist, really getting into it now. "Then all you need to do is ring Centrelink's call centre and apply over the phone. I'll get you set up with a phone."

Behind the receptionist, Centrelink's call centre buzzed with activity.

I looked quizzically backed at the receptionist, but she didn't seem to see any problem with phoning a call centre a mere 5 metres away, and they were offering me free money, so I didn't complaint. Maybe that's how things were done. She set up with a phone and I dialled the call centre number and waited.

"Hello, welcome to Centrelink," came the voice on the line. I didn't have the heart to tell them I was already at Centrelink, and in all possibility we were in the same room, and merely requested to sign up for Newstart Allowance.

"No worries, I'll just open up our website and fill out an online application for you."

So there I was. Inside Centrelink. Phoning Centrelink. Who were opening up Centrelink's website for me.

It was at this point that alarm bells were starting to ring, but I figured it was just someone breaking into a shop next door and pushed on with the application.

"Are you over 18?" I checked the pamphlet again.

I replied that indeed I was, and that I'd heard that Newstart allowance was for youth like me.

"Oh it is," they confirmed.

I finished off the application, and was told they'd be in contact to arrange an interview. All well and good.

About two days before the actual interview my mother rang Centrelink on an unrelated matter, and mentioned in passing that her son was applying for Newstart Allowance.

"Oh so he's over 21, is he?" came the reply.

My mother very calmly said goodbye and came and found me. That's not right, I thought, and went and checked the pamphlet.

I found out two important facts. First, that Newstart Allowance was valid for anyone over 18. Second, that the pamphlet was valid for anyone reading it before April 1998.

It's worth pointing out that at this stage it was June 2002.

I went into the centre to tell them that I wouldn't be attending the interview.

"Why not?" asked the receptionist, surprised and slightly angered. I politely explained that Centrelink had offered me a cover that I wouldn't be eligible to get for another three years.

"No, I can't cancel the interview, it's too short notice," she explained. "You'll have to go to the interview and tell them you're not going."


I considered asking if I could borrow a phone so I could ring Centrelink and ask them to cancel online for me, but decided I really had lost the energy to be flippant, so merely told her "No," and left.

Doing some research online later, it turns out that my parents earned too much money for me to be eligible for any kind of youth allowance anyway.

Get a job kids, so you don't have to talk to Centrelink

Or they'll break your kneecaps.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I Learned how to Love Music from Video Games and Automobiles.

Music is not my life. I am not a musician, have no plans to become a musician, and if I were to learn to play a musical instrument/sing better (something I have vaguely considered), it would not be to become "a musician" but rather something to amuse myself in the quiet hours, or potentially to serenade women, but given that if I were to learn anything it would be the piano, and given that it's rather hard to drag a piano down the street to someone's window without alerting them and the police to my presence, the prospect seems pretty unlikely, unless it was that they were living next door, or indeed in the same house that I lived in.

So: my task appears to be, find a girl I like, convince them to move in with me on purely platonic terms, buy a piano, learn to play aforementioned piano, and then finally serenade aforementioned girl with aforementioned piano, finding out that they're really more of a violin girl, decide I didn't really like her anyway, and finish this sentence.

However, while music is not my life, it is definitely a large part of my life. I listen to music pretty much when I'm not doing anything else that requires my ears (or when the thing that does requires my ears is particularly dull). This is partially because I seem to need to keep most of my sense busy to be most productive (at this present moment in addition to typing on the keepboard and looking at the screen, I am listening to the Beatles and eating ice cream with fudge. Smell is the least behaved of senses and so gets no special treatment from me), but mostly because I've always loved listening to music, and how, more than a lot of other mediums, it can take up your whole world while you're listening to it.

I'd like to say that ever since I was born I was surrounded by lots of music and that this has somehow ingrained music upon my way of being, but frankly that would be a load of nonsense. I have no idea what I was doing when I was born (apart from the obvious). No, my first memories of music came five or six years later. They were of loud music and fast cars.

Ok, that sounds much more exciting than it probably was. My parents weren't, like, rock stars or anything. My dad is a computer programmer (though a pretty rockin' computer programmer), but he had an extremely large influence on my musical tastes.

My dad originally hails from up north, so when we were younger we made frequent car trips up north to visit various relatives. And by car trip I mean nine hours in a car. You can make stops along the way, take in various sights, make frequent requests to go to the toilet, or occasionally just stop because all three of us were fighting in the back and Dad found this just a little bit distracting when trying to drive, but in the end, it's nine hours in a car.

I was blessed with the superpower of not getting carsick when reading, but we spent most of our time looking out the window and listening to a lot of music.

There were lots of albums Dad listened to but there were three albums that I think might have been his favourites, as we listened to them hundreds of times over the years and they are now burned forever into my soul. They were River of Dreams by Billy Joel; We Can't Dance by Genesis; and, most prominently, Cloud Nine by George Harrison (Possibly my single greatest musical hero, and this album also featured one of my other heroes, Jeff Lynne, though I was not to learn this for another decade or so). These albums (with the addition of Queen, which we heard a lot of whenever we went driving with Mum), would set in stone a lot of my criteria of what made great music.

So at the very start, I was already about 5 years behind the times when it came to music.

Over the years I've acquired new music to listen to by many different means, some from my brothers, a couple from girl's I had crushes on at the time (the music stayed, the crush didn't), and random self discoveries thanks mostly to the wonder that is the internet.

The single biggest influence and repository of new music for me though, has been, without a doubt, video games.

I make no apologies for this.

Specifically, the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises, have greatly increased my love and understanding of music. From these games, whenver I found a song I loved, I would always go and do some hunting, and if the rest of their music matched, I'd buy an album or two, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I'm not sure anyone actually says that anymore.

Anyway. Thanks to Rock Band and guitar hero, (and a couple of other games) I have found:

  • Aerosmith
  • Boston
  • Charlie Daniels Band
  • Dragonforce
  • Eric Johnson
  • The Explosion
  • Fallout Boy
  • Foreigner
  • Various Video Game Soundtracks (Myst, Blizzard games, et al.)
  • Jonathan Coulton
  • The Killers
  • My Chemical Romance
  • Ok Go
  • Toto
  • Autograph
  • Weezer
  • Yes
  • And The Beatles, though that's a longer story deserving of a post all of its very own.
Now some of the above I only own a couple of songs from them, but a lot I'm now a follower, and collect their albums as they come out, or am in the process of collecting their back catalogues. What you'll notice is that a lot of the above list is, um, how shall I put this? Vintage. My mother quite frequently tells her friends that I listen to music that was cool when she was my age.

The other thing that these games have done for me is given me a better ear for music. Thanks to playing only one part (and, well, hearing which part was missing when I missed a note) I now can actually hear the different instruments in a song much better than I could previously. I can now hear the lead guitar, as opposed to rhythm or bass, pick out the drums and split the harmony parts, whereas previously it was all one big wall of sound, wonderful to hear, but unable to be separated into component parts. Actually playing along in a small way has improved these skills greatly. Who says video games don't do anything for you?

Now some people may point out that this is probably a skill that would normally be picked up from going to live performances, and these people have a point. But given I don't really do concerts (large crowds and me don't exactly mix), this is certainly a happy compromise.

There's a lot more I could wax lyrical about, the bands that have had the biggest influence on me (The Beatles/George Harrison, They Might Be Giants, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Electric Light Orchestra) but these are probably topics worthier of their own post.

Also it's 2am. So no. Later. When it's daylight.