Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Boy meets Girl, Thomas Nagel (again!) and the difficulty of specifying gender

MG has asked me to point out that he left off at least two in his list of omissions in his last hi-jacking of MY blog; The train keeps a rollin' by the Yardbirds (with Jeff Back and Jimmy Page on dual leads) and Sunshine of your love by Cream. I'm happy to put the record straight. I'm even happier to add my own; Crossroads by Page and Plant in a manic performance on, of all places, a 'Top of the Pops' special commemorating the 1970s!

Well. hello daddy, hello mom, I'm just a. . .  cherry bomb!

I do not know what it is but there's something about Thomas Nagel's paper, What is it like to be a bat?, which draws me back time and time again but, as Daniel Dennett once wrote, it is the most widely cited and influential thought experiment about consciousness. I was reminded of this while I was watching a new, half-hour BBC sit-com about gender-transition (yes really); Boy meets Girl. If it is quite impossible to get inside the head of a bat (or a penguin), how much more difficult is it to understand someone who inhabits, as they see it, the wrong body, whether it is male or female? What defines us in our own minds and the minds of others? How can gender be determined or defined by anything other than the biology of our bodies?

As a penguin, I little more think that I am not male than Fricka thinks that she is not female but it is quite clear that some humans perceive themselves to be other than the raw biology deems them to be. Why should this be so? Undoubtedly, the extreme levels which human consciousness attains, its ability to grasp inchoate and nebulous concepts with ease, surely plays a large part as does the moral relaxation which post-war society drags in its wake. Humans, in the West at least, no longer vilify difference or non-conformity as in the past.

Women are treated equally, or at least as equally as a still-patriarchcal society will allow; being gay no longer condemns one to prison or to a life of secrecy or subterfuge; having a different skin colour no longer, in the main, damns one to be a second-class citizen; bi-sexuality is a now-accepted feature of the human condition. However, and perhaps because it is very hard for the average human, whether gay or straight, black or white, to imagine being in the 'wrong' body, that transgender people still are the almost-forgotten outcasts of human society. It is almost as though human society cannot function unless it has someone to persecute or at least disparage, although at the moment it appears that the Muslims take centre stage in that respect.

For my money, although I have none, the BBC is to be congratulated on daring to broadcast such a programme, even if it does, in one sense, trivialise the issue by presenting it as a simple rom- or sit-com  with all of its attendant ephemerality, stereotypes and farce-like situations; casting a transgender female actor*, Rebecca Root, in one of the two lead roles is also to be applauded. (She is, by the way, at least according to MG, hot as in hot! However, I think that it is only because she reminds him of an erstwhile boss.)

The first episode in which boy meets girl due to happenstance, (does it ever occur otherwise?) to the second 'date' in which all is revealed over dinner in a restaurant is writing and performing of the highest order, although MG points out that the boy seems just too sanguine at the admission that his date 'used to have a penis'. However, as I pointed out in my book, still unpublished, human mating rituals are far more complex than a penguin understands and seem to revolve around how much the person, that you imagine him or her to be, attracts you; physical intimacy only comes later.

Only three episodes have so far been broadcast and physical intimacy has yet to be broached (will it?), although the details of an operation to turn the male genitalia into female genitalia has.  However, the boy's reaction is to pass out, in an art gallery, which is surely farce-like in the extreme; much better was the eventual recapitulation in which the boy's jacket-sleeve was turned inside out which prompted the 'killer' one liner: it's not tartan is it?

It is a fact of the natural world that a species exists only because it is able to replicate; to produce offspring, in the main, like itself. Humans, in part due to bigger and more conscious brains, transcend this undeniable truth about life in a sexual, as opposed to an asexual, life cycle. (I have no truck with supposedly homosexual relationships in other species. Males and females  will fuck anything that moves, or in some cases anything that doesn't move, irrespective of whether it leads to reproduction; all that counts is that the males or females do achieve some measure of reproductive success. What they get up to in their spare time, and lets be honest sex is highly pleasurable and satisfying, is of no concern.)

However we are still faced with the conundrum. What defines male and female. It seems that for humans, as in most other things, it is what goes on inside your heads that is the most important. How else to begin to understand transgender transitions?

* This is no way a judgement; it is merely that actress has fallen out of favour in recent times, at least in print, as a moniker with which to label female thespians.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Riffology, Charles Edward Anderson Berry and how, contrary to Don's assertion, the music did not die.

MG writes:

I have just watched a BBC programme about the 'story' of the 'riff'.  While it may trace its roots back to  Beethoven's fifth, Wagnerian Leitmotivs and Tchaikovsky's 1812 and through the figures of boogie-woogie piano and 12-bar blues, it owes its beginnings in 'popular' music to the guitar of Johnny B Goode and the awesome talent of one Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Who would have thought that a blending of the 12-bar of T-Bone Waker, the honky-tonk of the singuar Johnnie Clyde Johnson and country music woud herald the dawning of a new age in music? Music that was entirely geared to the aspirations, hopes and preoccupations of white, later black, affluent American, later European, teenagers. Although I came late to Berry, I was only born in 1955 and first ran across him when I was about seven or eight, who could ever forget Johnny B Goode, dedicated to his  long-suffering pianist, the same Johnnie Clyde Johnson, No particular place to go, Maybelline, You can't catch me, Roll over Beethoven; even 1977's My Ding-a-Ling, backed as it was with the live, unexpurgated version of Reelin' and Rockin' not the sanistised Bill Haley version, could not queer the patch of his brilliance.

If there are aliens out there somewhere, I hope that they have a better system of communication than we have. To find that the 'Voyager' Berry track, just about beyond Pluto's orbit despite being launched in 1977, means that it will otherwise take another four or five thousend millennia before they can listen to more; that would just be too hard to contemplate.

Most of the usual suspects were there, all of which appear in my own collection whether on vinyl, CD or a download fron iTunes. Some of more obvious.  Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry and its awesome polar counterpart, Link Wray's The Rumble; a instrumental so menacing, with its overcranked and distorted sound, that it was banned from US radio. Nothing would be heard like it until the birth (or is that the spawning?) of Tony Iommi. Apache by Hank Marvin and the Shadows and its a-few-years-later antithesis, the Kinks You really got me, for which Dave Davies had, perhaps unknowlingly or perhaps not, stolen Link Wray's idea of cutting the speaker cone on the amplifier to get the distortion.

The opening track of Black Sabbath's first LP, which so gobsmacked me the first time I heard it, cranked to 11 on the little record player that we had in our common room in the Sixth Form annexe, that I was prepared to believe the hype about the band's satanic origins. Strangely, the programme then took a minor, or major, diversion into the realms of Robert Fripp and King Crimson. Undoubtedly 21st Century Schizoid Man is a great 'riff' and they showed a glimpse of the 1969 Hyde Park concert in which KC 'blew' the Stones off stage, but King Crimson were never about riffs. Strange phrasing, recursions, variations around a motif, bizarre time signatures every fourth bar, yes;riffs no!

We had the Runaways, with Lita Ford and Joan Jett, with Cherry Bomb and Heart's Barracuda, although no I love rock 'n roll; Nile Rogers and Chic with Freak Out and the hit that spawned hip-hop, Good Times. (I could almost kill Nile for that!) And then, Michael Jackson's assault on MTV; Steve Lukather's awesome riff to Beat It, a video almost as good as Thriller and an Eddie van Halen solo in the middle which, at the time, melted the knobs on your TV.

As synths began to usurp the dominant position in 'lead' instruments and the rock riff got further and further up its own arsehole, when spraying your fingers with WD40 seemed like a good idea, the riff suddenly hit back in Johnny Marr and the Smiths (all jangly like the Byrds), My Bloody Valentine, Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth and the Pixies (all apocalyptic by design and often unlistenable to in my opinion) and finally Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, who, with Smells like Teen Spirit, reinvented the sounds of the fifties and sixties and then the seventies for the nineties.

Quite obviously, the producers of the programme turned off about where I did; I thought Nirvana were enormously overhyped. Only the White Stripes got a mention after that. Still, any guitar and drums duo that can get a football crowd to chant the riff to Seven Nation Army has to have something going for it.

Omissions? Well, it all too easy to criticise, especially in a 60 minute programme, but why on earth did they choose Communication Breakdown instead of Whole Lotta Love in which to frame Page's mastery of the riff. No Keith Richard's Satisfaction or Jumpin' Jack Flash; no Spirit in the Sky; nothing from the entire punk era least of all John Ford's Nice legs shame about the face; no Rezillos and Top of the Pops, just a very brief glimpse of the Clash; no Stuart Adamson and Big Country; no Slade or David Bowie (with Mick Ronson, of course); no Metallica, Enter Sandman, at least; not even Pictures of Matchstick Men or Adrian Gurvitz's tour de force, Race with the Devil.

I have perhaps left the best until the very last. Not because they didn't include it because they did, about half way through, but because somewhere in the world at this very moment, someone is trying to play it. Of course it's Smoke on the Water. (Just remember, guys, and gals, it's plucked; they are not power chords.) Just about the one riff any guitar player must be able to play; most I suspect learnt that first in preference to any other if you took up the guitar in the seventies. At once blindingly simple yet nonetheless capable of awesome power. You didn't have to be Joe Satriani, Carlos Santana, Gary Moore or Johnny Winter; if you could master that riff, in the comfort of your bedroom with a Strat copy and a second hand Vox AC30 cranked to 10, you believed you could be a rock star!

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Unanswered questions, hypothetical questions and the nature of being

It is interesting, don't you think,  to play around with history? What might have happened to Britland if the Germans had taken the risk and invaded, despite the difficuties, in the late summer of 1940. Without a staging ground, the US would have been forced to watch from the sidelines; it is doubtful if Ireland would have given succour to US troops. What might have happened at Waterloo if Blücher had not arrived in the nick of time or that the Spanish Armada have not been so wildy torn apart by the British weather. Or even what might Britland have become if the shield wall had not lost all of its discipline at the battle of Senlac Hill and tried to chase down the Norman calvary intent on the very response which ensued. Would the Falkland Islanders now be under Argentinian rule if Margaret Thatcher had not taken the  (in my view bold) step to send the fleet and chase the Argentinian troops away. There are many such instances of good fortune, blind luck or good or bad tactics at a single given point in time affecting people in profound ways; even to affect entire nations or groups of nations.

And so it is with the cosmos. The initial starting conditions were so finely tuned to provide the universe that we see all around that it is often difficult to think, or believe, that these came about by pure random chance, which as an atheist I must do, although perhaps I should spell that as Atheist to put it on a par with Islam, Christianity, Jainism to name but three 'belief' systems.  Did it have to be that way? Could the emergence of life, so inextricably bound up with those initial conditions, only happen in our kind of universe? And what is life anyway? What might have happened if the electro-weak force was marginally less strong or the strong force marginally weaker? Would the universe be a sea of quarks and loose electrons and photons? Such questions lie at the root of our thinking about the universe and our place in it. Yes, we have gravitated towards thinking in purely scientific terms but we have been pondering these questions for millennia.

Why are we here? Who or what made us? Do we have a purpose? Is there some force or power that guides us? Does fate exist or are we, as many believe, driven by pure chance or happenstance. Essentially, these questions can all be boiled down to a single question; are we the inevitable product of a universe so dependent on its initial conditions? And if so, what made those initial conditions just right for life, whatever it may be.

Of course, the universe may just be an endless and infinite cycle between Big Bang and Big Crunch and the laws do not fundamentally change from one cycle to the next; each Big Bang uses the same laws and rules of engagement as the previous because there are no, can be no, other laws. However, if quantum mechanics is even half right about the way the universe works, then the likliehood of a repeat and exact performance from one Big Bang to the next seems unlikely. Perhaps the God, or Allah or somesuch, that some choose to believe in, is simply infallible and any universe that He brings into being has to abide by His rules and so the universe is entirely suited to life and sentient life at that.

It is considered that the early universe, the first 500,00 years or so, was conposed of only hydrogen atoms, with possibly a few helium ones. Hydrogen atoms are the simplest to make, and nature always seems to produce the very simplest things at the beginning; just 3 quarks coming together through the strong force and a captured  electron 'orbiting' in a shell around them, although no-one, as far as I know, seems to have a cogent explanation of why exactly energy seems to condense in this way and, perhaps, why it does so in a practically, but statisticlally predictable, way. Why does energy even bother to condense? And why did only some of the energy in the early universe take the form of matter? And why, if matter was easy to form given the right circumstances, are there only 92 elements in the observable universe? Why would the universe stop at Uranium? Humankind doesn't. Or perhaps it didn't and anything 'larger' than Uranium just decays so quickly that there is noting now left for us to observe.

It is thought that the density of hydrogen atoms in the early universe, perhaps only one, or maybe two, in each cubic metre of 'space' would be insufficient for gravity to coelesce those atoms together in a high enough density for nuclear fusion, and therefore solar 'burning' to take place.  But, and it's a big but, if molecular hydrogen, two atoms of hydrogen bonding together, were to form in sufficient quantity then this might be enough in the presence of gravity to initiate fusion and thereby begin the cycles of the process of star formation, burn and nova and supernova to create the all of the 92 elements in the observable universe. It is all rather convenient; don't you think.

The universe, however many there may be, we are told is approximately 13.5-14.0 billion years old; the furthest that we can see with our telescopes is about 13.5 billion light years away, which means that the light has been travelling for that amount of time but that is only the limit of our vision; it may be that more powerful telescopes will extend the range of the 'observable universe' beyond a timescale of 13.5-14.0 bya. However, the oldest star in our own galaxy appears to be slightly older as a spectral analaysis seems to indicate a lack of heavy elements; merely hydrogen and a little helium, calcium and carbon, which would seem to imply that it is possibly a 'second or third generation' star, one in which 'supernova created' elements heavier than iron are not present.

And what of dark matter; dark energy? Is the rate of expansion of the universe really accelerating? Not moving at a constant rate, or slowing down, as one might  expect? Is there such a thing as 'anti-gravity' which might explain such acceleration?  Why are there so many more particles of matter than there are of anti-matter? Might anti-matter and dark matter be one and the same?

These are questions to which humans have found few answers. Perhaps they are fated never to find them or perhaps humans wil one day find them because the universe is genuinely anthromorphic; the only observable reality is the one that humans observe. Perhaps aliens would perceive a different universe operating under different laws. Will humankind ever find a workable solution to Islamic terrorism which does violate essential freedoms which humankind has spent the last three hundred years enjoying?

I am, perhaps perversely, optimistic  that mankind and womankind will eventually find satisfactory answers to its many questions; there will always be answers, however bizarre. Only one question will remain unanswered, however long your species remains alive; why are you here? That question is unanswerable; there is no reason!

Friday, 11 September 2015

Embryo research, genetic engineering and unscrupulous physicians

"A worldwide network of science and ethics experts, the Hinxton Group, has said gene editing of early stage embryos would be of 'tremendous value' to scientific research and could have practical applications." (PA, 10.09.2015)

That's a no-no; right? Designer babies? Brave New World? Bene Gesserit breeding programmes? I touched upon this very early into my blog, (here) , but seven years on, I think, maybe, I should revisit it, although my opinion has not fundamentally changed except that I may have softened my attitudes to certain elements of the human race. (Although I have not softened my attitudes towards the murderous bastards who seem to have a rabid desire to thrust their views on the entire world through the medium of terror and slaughter - you know who you are!)

Humans appear to have an instinctive reaction to genetic manipulation; be it cloning, GM crops or 'designer babies'. This is, in part, understandable providing one accepts that it is only recently that 'science-based' manipulation has become possible and, one day, practical on many levels. But to do so misses the point; humans have been genetically manipulating animals and crops for millennia.

How much relation does a domestic dog have with the wolf? Where do Friesans or Herefords come from if not from wild cattle, oxen or aurochs? In what many ways is domesticated wheat different from wild wheat grasses? How many different variaties of rose are there and how are they related to the wild rose whence they came? Humans have purposely, though not necessarily scientifically, been manipulating nature for at least ten millennia and certainly not to ensure the 'survival of the fittest' (in the 'fitness landscape') but simply to make them more docile, more amenable to farming or from pure, unaldulterated convenience. Gene manipulation at the 'genetic manipulation' level simply speeds up a process which mankind has been engaged in, by way of selective breeding, for as long as they stopped being hunter/gatherers.

So, despite protests, there are few grounds for dismissing genetic manipulation by scientific means, gene splicing or replacement, out of hand, although that is what many people do; it is just a faster way to do what humans have always done. But humans? Can you gene splice a human embryo?

There are certainly many religious grounds for asserting that such gene splicing is immoral; God, the god or gods, made man (and woman) and to tamper, at best, shows a lack of respect and due worship and, at worst, is likely to draw down divine retribution for man's temerity in seeking to amend 'God's' will and his perfectionist creation. While many people in the 'West' reject religion and, by extension, religious teachings, much of Western thought, culture and philosophy is founded on Judaic, Christian and Arabic thought by a process of rational rejection or acceptance. Most humans, I would propose, would reject gene replacement or splicing on ethical or moral grounds; it would be simply 'wrong' in their view, much like murder, incest or rape is considered 'wrong' among most in a population. But I would argue that if it were possible to provide a 'cure' for Sickle Cell disease, Cystic Firbrosis, Down's syndrome and all of the other inherited diseases of humans due to 'defective' genes, most people would agree that, in the words of Sellars and Yeatman, this would be a good thing. So why are people so resistant?

Why? Because people fear their very own selfishness and greed! Humans have long known of their genus' inherent, intrinsic, illogical and instinctive selfishness; I am worth more and can do whatever I wish! They know that selective breeding on the lines favoured in cattle or dogs or wheat do not seem to produce a human which is any 'better' than random pairings; two geniuses do not necessarily produce another genius, largely because humans don't actually know what it takes to produce an Einstein, a Michaelangelo, a Feynman or a Rodin.  But gene therapy could be of such use and benefit to those afflicted with awful conditions but, at the very bottom line, humans don't trust other humans to abide by the rules; there will always be somebody who tries to cheat!

Game theory predicts that cheaters will never prosper in a group providing, and only providing, that the others in the group are able to spot the cheaters. The danger to the other individuals in the group arises when they cannot either spot the cheater or have no way of 'punishing' him or her or his and her behaviour. Whether in an evolved, naturally selected group or whether in a human society, there are usually ways to 'punish'. Whatever the ethical decisions that humans take about the ill-wisdom of 'designer babies', would they ever be able to 'punish' sufficiently severely to effectively outlaw and thereby eradicate the practice by default. Most humans, I would hazard, would think this most unlikely. There would always be some unscrupulous physician, politician or scientist who would go against the common concensus; whether from belief or, more likely, profit.

This is what frightens people. The emergence of a genetically engineered race of haves and have-nots, a race of superior and inferior, a race of Morlocks and Eloi, which was not 'natural' but engineered for political, economic or 'social' purposes and which would deny the fundamental rights which humans deem to be of paramount importance and have fought so hard and long to win. A future in which there was a possibility of improvement, of affecting the status quo, of bettering one's status, of finding love in the most unlikely of places. That the human race, or at least a significant part of it,might be consigned to the same genetic restrictions as apply to every other animal on the planet? To be consigned to such a fate with consciousess is probably a human's worst, imaginable nightmare. And so people oppose any chance of alleviating potential suffering in their own species!

Me? As a penguin, I am more sanguine. Let the researchers have a longer leash; let them develop the technology to make 'designer babies', while putting in place ways in which, as far as possible, 'designer babies' cannot be born and trust in humanity's acquired wisdom, scant though it may be.

The atomic bomb was developed at the end of the second world war; Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated its efficacy. However, in the intervening seventy years, there has not been a single case of a nuclear weapon exploded in anger or in conflict, even a small one. This might change, India and Pakistan, North Korea and South, China and the USA, Russia and Europe but I seriously doubt it; wisdom and good sense have long since prevailed. And so I think it will be with human genetic engineering. The mass of people will rise up and overthrow any perpetrators of an attempt to genetically engineer an advanced 'race'; but only because it will be in their interests to do so. Humans are, after all, selfish in the extreme; it's in their genes!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Multiverse in less than 750 words, crazy ideas and why we should embrace them all

So, as promised a few days ago, some ruminations on the multiverse; the current buzzword in astrophysics. I must confess to being a little confused about why some astrophysicists would be concerned with multiple universes outside of our own; humans don't understand this one at all well let alone the possibiity of understanding others which might be  so totally alien as to be beyond human understanding. However, be that as it may, what is science fiction today might become science fact in the future; just not in my lifetime!

If I understand the big bang theory correctly. this universe originated in a singularity, a point but not a point, which 'exploded' a vast but finite blast of energy which rapidly expanded to form among other things light of multiple wavelengths and 'coalesced energy', matter,  although no-one, as far as I know, has been able to work out exactly why the 'rules' or 'laws' that govern the interactions between matter with itself, matter and energy and energy with itself happen to be the way that they are; they just are! The only thing which can be stated with any certainty is that life, as we know it Jim, would not exist, either here or anywhere else in the universe, if the laws governing interactions were not as they are or at least seem to be. Another issue which seems to await a resoution is how this explosion of energy seems to have created time and space all by itsef, which it seems to have done, although time may be a totally human construct which has no 'reality' in so far as anything appears to be real.

When it became clear that there was nothing particularly special about the star we orbit, among so many type G-type stars, or anything special about the galaxy, among the millions of spiral galaxies in the universe, that we inhabit, the trend was begun which prompted the question; is there anything special about our universe? Quite clearly, to all intents and purposes, it seems unlikely if the answer to first two statements is that there is nohing special about our universe outside of the fact that we are in it. And so was born the idea that our universe might be merely one of many. That 'somewhere' out 'there', there might be other singularities performing their own pyrotechnics and forming their own time and space and which we, in our universe, might never see or experience as they are occluded by the very nature of the differing times and spaces which each big bang would engender but which might still exist in some form.

Such ideas don't lend themselves particularly well to evidence-based science but that hasn't stopped some scientists endlessly speculating on the whichness of the why, just look at string and 'M' theory, and some astrophysicists started to wonder about the ramifications of a supersition of states in a quantum mechanical  universe.

Supersition of states is merely the property of a quantum 'particle' to behave in such a way as to be only predictable in a statistical manner; as though it has a limitless potentiality which can only be realised when the state is actually measured in some way; and what happens when the quantum particle is not 'measured' and so retains its limitless potentiality? This led some physicists to postulate that there might be an infinitely expanding multiverse in which all of the multiple bifurcations inherent in a quantum particle might be realised in actual physical states; Borges' 'Garden of infinitely forking paths'. Each time the quantum particle is measured, the measurement causes the potentiality to be released creating multiple universes similar to our own but not quite the same; mind-boggling stuff, huh?

Of course this lends itself no better to evidence-based science than does its precursor but it is tantalising stuff nonetheless. That there might be multiple copies of ourselves with different pasts and different furtures but forever inaccessible to us is surely a captivating idea and one in which there is a rich seam of 'story' to be mined, although I know of only one book, Robert Anton Wilson's 'Schrödingers Cat', which has considered this worthy of regard. (There well may be others but I am not an avid fan of sci-fi and usually restrict myself to the more well known and 'golden age' writers like Asimov. Dick, Herbert et al.)

So there you have it; the multiverse in less than 750 words! Is it all poppycock? Does the lack of achievable evidence make it a waste of time? Is it time to stop spending public money on so much rotten tripe? Is it about as useful, or practical, as investigations into a perpetual motion machine? Undoubtedly yes, but 'pure' research or speculation with no real long term goal can often lead to new insights or new techniques which can have a more practical value. I am sure that neither Newton nor Kepler thought that their theories would one day provide the mathematical wherewithall to land a man on the moon or an unmanned probe on Titan no more than Faraday or Maxwell would have considered that their pioneering work in electromagnetism would lead to the iPad or iPhone.

So, to all you scientists and would-be scientists out there; keep coming up with crazy ideas. These are the stuff of dreams and everyone knows that, sometimes, dreams can come true!

Monday, 7 September 2015

A-Ha, Michael Jackson and the nature of ephemeral promotion

I caught a programme on the BBC last night, subtitled thank God, about the multiverse and I was going to write about the concept today, but in touting through the various folders on this machine in the station that I use, I came across a copy of iTunes which some newbie had loaded; presumably to fuel his iPod or iPhone to alleviate the tedium of watching us all day.

I have mentioned before that the staff around here don't go a bundle on security but I was thwarted in my attempt to 'crack' the password to access his account; I really must load a copy of the TorBrowser and get a handle on the 'Dark Net' and download a useful 'password cracker'. However, while the newbies insist on being so blasé about keeping their password secure, perhaps I don't need to bother. I found a spreadsheet, not even encrypted would you believe, which listed all of the sites which he, or she, is privy to, complete with usernames and passwords! I have just spent a few glorious hours downloading and watching the music videos which MG has long recommended that I should see; from a-ha to Z Z Top.  I also managed to delete the notifications from Apple concerning the payments made and I hope that he, or she, will not notice what I have done; give me a break here people. If I had money I would buy, but since I don't, needs must!

I decided to purchase, and play, them in alphabetical order. So, first on my list was a-ha's 'Take on me', which, while the music is too 'poppy' for my sensibilities, it is one of first 'pop' videos to feature 'rotoscoping'* and must rank in the top five of any list of the 'best of'. Blending live action with pencil drawings of the two primary characters, it is a masterpiece of plot and artistic interpretation; Morgen Harket (pronounced Mochten Hårctett, I think) is an added bonus for the ladies!

Next on my list was Billy Idol's 'White Wedding'. I'm afraid that wiggling bottoms on leather clad females and a curled lip, à la Rick Pilchard, do not really do it for me but Godley and Creme's directorial pièce de résistance, Duran Duran's 'Girls on film', deserves to be ranked alongside 'Thriller' in the global 'video stakes'. It's very naughty (read lotsa bare breasts on nubile young 'Page 3' models) but encapsulates the very essence of the song!

Sinead O'Connor's 'Nothing compares 2 U' and Imogen Heap's 'Hide and Seek' (which owes a great deal to former) are little gems of a minimalist approach to film-making; just a face for the most part singing the song but done in such a way as to mesmerise; you just can't look away!

A quadrilogy of Michael Jackson, back in the days when he was good, 'Billie Jean', 'Beat it', 'Thriller' and 'Bad', bear witness to just how good an ephemeral, throw-away piece of self-promotion can be. The seventeen minute version of 'Thriller' is still the standard by which all music videos will be, and should be, judged; and most come up very short indeed. Yes, a ludicrous, over-the-top budget does help but one cannot but marvel about what Landis and Jackson (and Rick Baker) came up with; who will ever forget the transformation sequence and the 'zombie' dance? MG is quite proud of the fact that he waited until midnight one evening, in high expectation, for the first showing on UK television, the video was released simultaneously around the globe, and how it was the talking point around the 'water-cooler' for days after; yes, it was, at the time, simply awesome! Nothing like it had ever been seen before in support of a 'silly' 'pop' song.

Strangely, perhaps, there was now a large gap in my alphabetical listing. No Led Zeppelin, I purchased the complete video recordings a long time ago; no Iron Maiden, the 'Powerslave' tour is all that you need; no Mike Oldfield, 'Incantations' should be all you could ever want; no Rainbow. Would you ever want anything else but the definitive band live in Munich?

So, I came to the end of the alphabet. U2 and 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'. Bono might be (now) a complete arsehole but 'Live at Red Rocks' is a band at the height of its power; it's a pity that they waited so long to release the full concert. (Concerns about the sound quality, I understand). Paul Young. With a voice like his, he doesn't need videos, although I noticed in one that the 'girl' is the same one as in the a-ha video; she obviously got around!  There was a little shot of the 'fabulously wealthy tarts', surely the most inept of backing singers, but SO perfect; their backing vocals to 'No Parlez' were SO off-key but so sublime. Paulo Paladino is surely the best bass player of his generation, isn't he? And, finally,  the trio of Z Z Top videos featuring 'the car' and the 'keyring'; 'Legs', 'Sharp dressed man' and 'Gimme all your lovin'. Masterpieces of misogynist, degrading eighties personifications of women but so true to the age. (Has it ever occurred to you that Frank Beard, the drummer, is the only one of the trio who doesn't have a beard?)

My only regret is that I was not able to find a decent video of Big Country at the time of their 'Without the aid of a safety net' tour.  I did find something on Amazon but it was a poor copy of a VHS tape and they wanted £90 (new) for the DVD!

*Rotoscoping: the process whereby a digital representation of the object, or person, is 'deleted' from the frame of film and can therefore be replaced, digitally, by another object or person. A highly skilled and valued job in the SFX industry. I certainly couldn't map the exact contours of a shape with a mouse, although, perhaps, they use graphics tablets; still tricky, nonetheless.

Has anyone else noticed how fucking good Paula Cole's first album is?

Friday, 4 September 2015

Princess Di, the nature of fame and why you should eschew it

So, a little late but, 31st August; the anniversary of Princess Di's death in an automobile accident. Who cares? Seemingly, the media think that many do. Why?

One reason is the outpouring of collective grief over her death; the reasons for which I am still trying to fathom. What was so special about her because she as sure as hell was not special.  Bred, raised, by a 'socially-climbing'  family to be a consort to the royals, whatever the level,  she was as ignorant as a sink-estate adolescent; barely qualified at 'O' level and about as vacuous. (No disrespect to the sink-estate adolescent, who often rise above their socially-imposed limitations.) A consort to a pseudo-intellectual Prince of Wales? No, you are having me on! She didn't even have big bazongas!

No, she was just a socially acceptable womb for an heir to the throne, after Charles. The Royal family despised her but she was a convenient, and willing, progenitor to the line of inheritance. She was all sweet and innocent, although was not, and so the media portrayed her. Butter would not melt in her mouth, although, in truth,  aluminium might have.

She was all that a 'fairy-tale' princess might be; according to the media. However, she was not. She became, or already was, the same conniving, duplicitous, finagling, lying and deceitful individual that the royals, like most in the political arena or most people, have ever been, despite the 'Purdy' haircut. Can someone be so corrupted by those around her? Perhaps, perhaps not. I happen to believe, disagree with me if you will, that she was already the bitch that she became before she ever entered the royal, or political, arena. She was a conniving, manipulative individual before she ever laid eyes on Charles; because that was she was brought up to believe was to her advantage!

She always played to the advantages that were inherent in those initial photographs and impressions  of her; the innocent 'girl', the gauchely naive, the 'Purdey' haircut. Even in later photographs, the face was always slanted, in a coy-like, demure way, in innocence, as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. And it was all a lie! Simple advertising. Di washes whiter than white; kills 99.9% of household, and third world, and minefield, germs! And it was always a complete and utter lie! I doubt that she was innocent, although I accept that she might have been forced into it; what 80's chick, and she was seriously hot,  at 19 was a virgin?

Her death was a tragedy but no more than a death in similar circumstance might be deemed a tragedy. She courted publicity wherever she went, whether she was the Princess of Wales or not, and can scarcely complain about the paparazzi's attention wherever she chose to go just because at that particular instant, she didn't want it. Those who court publicity must be prepared for it throughout one's waking life and to endure it with good grace; it is the nature of the beast.

I am well reminded of one of the most influential guitarists of the twentieth century; J J Cale. Not heard of him? Not surprising. He eschewed fame, and the trappings, to pursue his own musical 'vision'. But he inspired countless guitarists with his 'laid-back', minimalist style and is surely the most sublime and rewarding instrumaiists outside the classical genre that you should ever encounter. ('After midnight' people on YouTube, or 'Live at Leon Russel's studio' if you want the full monty!) He renounced fame and all that comes with it for a 'normal' life. Di did not not and she paid the price. Not in the same way as Janis or Jimi or Jim via drugs but nonetheless still in pursuit of that fickle fate; fame.