Content, not the container

I’ve decided to do away with my collection of records and cassettes. Truth be told, I haven’t listened to them in years or I’ve obtained CD or MP3 versions that I play through computer, media centre or mobile phones.

I used to be fascinated by all the old formats but reached a point where I started running out of space for them. Sorting through my cassettes last night I realised that have digital versions of three quarters of them and most of the rest I likely never will listen to again.

I find the same with my collection of video games and books. There are a few books I will like to keep in a physical form but many I will only have as an ebook, particularly one I will only read now and again, or reference books.

As there are only handful of games on each platform that I enjoy, I don’t want to have consoles upon consoles around the house.

Emulation of these systems is an ideal solution – the original games can be played on one system pretending to be another. The controllers may not be “authentic” but the experience is largely the same.

I frequently play games from my childhood using Commodore 64 and Amiga emulators, sometimes arcade machine emulators as well. On occasion, I will acquire a remake for a more recent system (in the hope that the remake is faithful to the original and not a “reimagining”). The original is often crafted to create an atmosphere that makes the best use of the host system, remakes often are a mechanical imitation that copies the look without recapturing the feel.

There is further justification for emulation as well – as equipment gets older, it starts to fail. ROMs develop what is known as “bit rot”, the chips losing or corrupting the information stored on them.

With eBooks, it pays to shop around if you are using a tablet rather than a dedicated ebook reader – even then you may be able to access books from different purveyours. Try, if you can, to source your books in an unprotected epub format. With the apparent exception of the Kindle, all readers are able to read these, along with PDF. The concern with eBooks is that the publisher may remove books from your collection without warning, apology or compensation. Of if they cease trading, as has happened a lot in Japan recently, you may lose your books when your devices stop functioning.

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Think different – Actually, just try thinking all at

I made a decision a few weeks ago to reformat my Mac Mini and, later, my Time Capsule and sell them.

It probably seems strange that eight months ago I was in in full Apple/Steve Jobs fanaticism mode, watching documentaries about Jobs and reading his biography with great enthusiasm. I had my Mac set up more or less the way I wanted it and, following a hernia repair surgery, I had two weeks off work and an abundance of energy due to a bad reaction to the pain management medication I was prescribed.

I took the time to review some of the documentaries I had accumulated in recent months, including three about Steve Jobs. One portrayed him as a genius, a visionary, one who computer enthusiasts owe a great deal to. The other painted him as an unbalanced, obsessive control freak who stole unashamedly from everyone else. The third took sections from each and came to no clear conclusion.

My reading of Jobs’ biography was mostly honest, frequently unflattering and still slightly unhinged; I began to see why so many Christians seem to favour Apple products – there seems an almost religious awe to the way they market their products. There seems to be an appeal to those who aren’t seeking God as such, but someone to tell them how they should live their lives. The public face of Jobs was a most charismatic pastor to the Apple faithful.

When I was still working at The Unnamed Computer Shop, they had finally gained an Apple dealership after several years of unsuccessful applications, though the reasons given for declining were apparently always vague and inconclusive. We had a training session with a representative from our main wholesaler – the session took some time and demonstrated some of the amazing things that the Mac and its software was capable of, but also a clear indication that the Mac was no longer the tool of the free thinking, counter culture artists but now a fashion accessory that you could not live without.

I remember being both impressed and horrified by what I saw. I walked out of the training session and back to my desk suddenly sporting a Van Dyke, beret and a placard proclaiming “Linux power!” At least, that’s how it felt. My inner Socialist was enraged.

It became clear that Apple made use of some very persuasive people – even knowing that Apple was promoted as a lifestyle choice, I managed to get caught up in the hype. I purchased a second hand Mac Mini through the local classified adverts, upgraded the memory to 4GB and spent some time tooling it up until it became my main system for everyday use. My Windows notebook, my primary system for the last six years was relegated to the machine I took with me to LAN parties, programming meetings and when travelling. And yet I was left with a continuous niggling doubt…

One things that struck about Apple is how closed they are – they provide the hardware, the operating system and many of the applications we use. Everything worked together in an impressively seamless and consistent fashion. When comparing with Windows, the latter offers much the same functionality (after a fashion) but everything seemed cobbled together – a collective product by people who had a particular goal in mind but who made no effort to communicate with each other during development. Or sometimes software purchased or licensed from third parties and just dropped into place.

The closed nature of Apple has its benefits but once you try thinking outside of that glass box, you start to run into trouble – like Microsoft, Apple like to keep external developers at arm’s length. Its not that they prevent third party developers, but you will be frowned upon in you don’t follow very specific guidelines. Whilst I found a lot of useful, free tools for everyday general use, some of the software I needed for specific tasks (such as writing DVDs with verification) required some quite expensive software – having purchased this software for Windows, I didn’t want to have to buy it again for the Mac at twice the price.

Whilst I was recovering from surgery in late September and early October, I took some time to tinker again with Linux – my notebook has a rather obscure video controller and few operating systems seem to recognise or support it properly. Various flavours of Linux would operate but I would encounter odd problems like being unable to play streaming video at full screen or the audio stalling, crackling and popping like someone burping underwater. Previously, I had worked with Ubuntu 9.04 which worked pretty well for the most part, improving somewhat under 9.10 but when I upgraded to 10.04, the whole system went to pieces. Fresh installations of successive editions never seemed to work satisfactorily.

Having acquired a three year old Hewlett Packard desktop from a friend, I thought to try again – the same issue of not having the video controller supported properly reoccured, but the issue wasn’t as bad as before; streaming video would sometimes struggle but media systems like VLC could play full screen 720p video without any trouble.

Tweaking, refining and a little bit of research allowed me to get the system up and running to my satisfaction, even to the point of taking over from the Mac as my regular day to day machine. With more memory and something like 12 times the hard disk space, I could keep all my music and photos on the same machine. Features like Ubuntu One cloud storage and the built in backup software make sure that nothing goes astray. WINE had improved enough that Windows specific tools like Irfanview operated perfectly well but if I needed to run some software that demanded something more, I could run a virtual machine loaded with Windows XP for software like iTunes (more for purchasing music than configuring my archaic iPod).

In a way, both my inner Socialist and my outer Christian selves were satisfied with the arrangement. When my brother acquired an old PC from his local technical college, I put Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on it as I felt it would be easier for him to use and safer in his inexperience). Eventually, I want to install it on my parent’s PC as well – I just need to figure out remote desktop access for them should they get into any trouble.

Show the past a clenched fist

Since I obtained my classical guitar a few months back, I’ve tended to carry it around with me rather a lot, usually taking it with me when I go to JAFWA on a Saturday night – there’s quite often shows on that don’t capture my interest.

Out of curiosity, I decided to play some songs I used to perform back in the early Nineties when I was in a band called “Cerebral Nomad”. The band didn’t last long but it showed a lot of potential.

Or so I thought.

As a four piece band – Barry on drums, Steve of lead guitar, Jason on bass and myself on rhythm guitar (though we often swapped instruments for certain songs) and we preferred to do mostly original material. If we did a cover, we played it how we thought it should be done – never mind what the original artist thought. We also split in to two songwriting teams – Barry writing the lyrics and I composed the core melody, whilst Jason and Steve would share duties. Arranging was generally a group effort.

When the band split after six months, I took my songs with me and wrote new lyrics for them. As Barry had ambitions of being lead singer as well, he had a tendency to keep his lyrics to himself. I usually had little idea how they went. Though I did do several instrumental arrangements as well (you’ll find a couple of them under the High Voltage SID Collection).

So as I sat outside JAFWA one evening fighting off the mosquitoes, I tried to recall some of the material written by the other band members, such as “Mother” or “Dove”. My parts were generally pretty easy, usually only three or four chords. Steve wrote songs to demonstrate his guitar technique, not mine. Easy but dull, so I developed a more intricate playing style incorporating different techniques that I’d picked up over the years – arpeggios, tapping, slapping and plucking (usually used on bass guitars), four note chords (when most people would use three) and using my little finger to play a melody around the chord. All of this designed to make my part of the music sound much bigger and more interesting.

I struggled to recall the arrangement of the music, but it came to me after a while, along with some of the lyrics. Its funny how the mind sometimes distorts experiences, exaggerating certain points. What I recalled as powerful, soulful imagery proved to be a whiny, immature and incoherent tirade as told by a spoiled, bratty teenager. Seriously – cheer up, emo kid.

I had a similar experience many years ago when playing back some of our recordings made at the Fremantle Music Centre – I wanted to show some of the material to the lead guitarist from my then current band (we never really settled on a name, though we had narrowed it down to “Electric hooligans”, “Hooligans with guitars” and “Fastidious rabble”). I remember playing some of my best guitar ever during that recording and yet we ended up with a ghastly cacophony of twangs, out of time drumming and squeaky, pained vocals – I only retain the tapes to stop them falling into the wrong hands (they are hidden away with my collection of Ringo Starr LPs).

So I’m thinking it might be time to walk away from the older material – put the worthy material down on disc and recycle the rest before it pollutes the environment. Whilst I still want to get a band together again, I have two main projects on the go now – the folky (or filky) concept album inspired by BlackSylph and a new electronic suite inspired by a conversation with a friend the other night (for those of you wondering what “Ybeq Rexl” was all about). And that game soundtrack I’ve been promising since 1993.

Three! Three mains projects. And that music demo that I formed Project: Synthesis for.

Four!

I’ll go sit in the corner now…with the soft cushion…

Leo Kottke looked at my guitar!

I’ve had my first out of body experience.

February 23rd, 2008, Leo Kottke performed at the Perth Concert Hall. My brother and I had been waiting for this concert for some four months, having purchased tickets in November as soon as we had heard news of Kottke’s impending arrival.

We were a little bewildered at first when two people walked out of stage – Bridget Pross and her bass player. I hadn’t been aware of a support act so I was a little surprised – first thinking that he had a support band, and then wondering if the concert had been cancelled and this was Kottke’s substitute.

Pross, a folk singer and guitarist from Tasmania had been touring with Kottke for the last couple of weeks. Six songs from her new album, “I wanted to” were performed. Now it must be said that Pross has an amazing voice, powerful and resonant, and it quite a capable guitarist. Her songwriting, however, leaves something to be desired. The melodies were quite well devised, if overfamilar (one of the last songs she played had a melody disturbingly like a song I had written back in 1992 when playing in a band called “Cerebral Nomad”), but the construct was repetitive and her lyrics were very weak. Although she might have been writing from life experiences, she hadn’t put a lot of consideration into how she was communicating the idea – and once you’ve heard her sing the chorus six times in a row, it starts to grate.

Her inexperience as a live act showed clearly as well, she hadn’t created any kind of script for introducing her songs or explaining the origins, and didn’t seem at all comfortable talking with the audience, her speech pausing often and hesitant. The word “Umm” seemed to make up the greater part of her vocabulary. Hopefully she will grow as a songwriter and entertainer in time. The CD was for sale in the foyer after the show.

After an intermission of 20 minutes for the audience to empty their bladder, or refill it at the bar, Kottke finally came out on stage at 9:30. A six string guitar in one hand, 12 string in the other. With nary a pause for introduction, he started of into three instrumental pieces on the 12 string.

It was halfway through the second piece that I suddenly realised that I was floating some distance above my own body, what felt like 15 to 20cm above the seat, so enthralling was the music. It appears that I was not the only person to have been carried away so. Amusingly, around halfway through the show, Kottke was playing a slow, moody and deeply atmospheric piece that seemed to suddenly taper off two thirds of the way through. A pause, then Kottke said “Sorry, its supposed to end more like this…” and started playing it again from the middle. Kottke had gotten so caught up in the music that he’d forgotten that he was the one performing it.

Kottke certainly puts on an entertaining and enchanting show – during the forty or more years he has been perfoming, he’d not only honed his guitar playing techniques but also his manner of communicating the audience, explaining origins of the song and telling anecdotes about the authors and artists he has worked with. Many of the songs performed required different, often very unconventional tunings and a 12 string guitar often takes some time to retune – Kottke would joke and tell stories in a manner not dissimilar to Steven Wright, even in the same, deep, dry, husky voice.

Kottke has released over thirty albums since 1969 so there was a lot of material to choose from each show, many of them previously unknown to much of the audience, although when one of the more famous and familar songs (such as “Louise”) started, the cheer rising from the audience was deafening.

The concert itself lasted a little over an hour but seemed to go on for ages. After 10:30, the concert ended and Kottke left the stage to a well earned standing ovation – the applause and cheering seemed like it was never going to end. Kottke returned to the stage for an encore, performing one more song before retiring for the evening.

I’m not sure how soon he will return to Perth but I’ll certainly be looking out for him. After the show, our group of attendees filed out of the hall into the car park, each of us with a dazed but very happy expression on our face.

Bridget Pross was still promoting her CDs in the foyer – I wonder how many she sold?

Leo Kottke official website and Wikipædia entry

Bridget Pross official website