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Archive for July 2005

from Heresy to the Czech Dream

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The song Heresy, from the Rush album Roll The Bones (1991), was lyricist Neil Peart’s slightly ironic take on the fall of the Iron Curtain in the previous couple of years. Now all those oppressed people had the chance to become “consumers” like the rest of us:

All around this dull-grey world of ideology,
People storm the marketplace and buy up fantasy;
The counter-revolution at the counter of a store;
People buy the things they want, and borrow for a little more.
All those wasted years…

I couldn’t help thinking about these lyrics last night when I saw a documentary called Czech Dream. Short version: In the 16-or-so years since the Wall came down, the former Czechoslovakia has turned into a consumer paradise, with some of the biggest “hypermarkets” outside the USA. A couple of scruffy film students get a government grant and turn themselves into hypermarket managers, complete with makeovers, Hugo Boss suits, and a slick advertising campaign.

For weeks they build up the hype using reverse psychology – ads saying “don’t come”… “don’t spend” – and build a huge hoarding in the middle of a field outside Prague. There’s some very funny and interesting detail about the advertising industry, market research, and the psychology of shoppers. They get a cheesy jingle recorded, complete with professional singers and a schoolgirl choir, and create prime-time TV commercials. They even follow families who spend whole days inside a frighteningly huge Tesco, to try to get a feel for shopping as a leisure activity.

Then comes the Grand Opening, with thousands of people running towards a storefront with nothing behind it… I can recommend this film both for the build-up to the opening, and to see what happened next. I can say that no-one got killed, at least. The aftermath was quite interesting, with some of the “victims” spontaneously drawing parallels with the Czech Republic’s planned referendum on joining the EU, and the Prime Minister gets involved in the debate. The filmmakers also raised the EU question, asking “are we being sold a dream with nothing substantial to back it up?”

The whole thing really happened, in 2003: you can find real news reports on the “Česky Sen” hypermarket, and none of the above is a spoiler. As always, the devil is in the details. Recommended.

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Written by brian t

July 29, 2005 at 12:48 pm

mobilism

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Yesterday I finally gave up my struggle against the mobile phone, and signed a contract with O2 Ireland. At least I found the handset I wanted, a Nokia 6021, which is almost unique in having Bluetooth, which I want, but no camera, a feature I definitely do not want in a phone.

Even if I did want a camera, my office asks that we don’t carry cameras in our building. We’re not such a high-security office that they need to enforce this tightly, and I sometimes carry my SLR camera to use on the way there and back, but that might change. Besides, why would I want a toy camera when I have a real camera?

My first cell phone was a Nokia, a model I can no longer find any details on, but it was very well-built, and survived numerous knocks and the loss of half its antenna. The 6021 is a fraction of the size, but solid with no protrudng antenna. I think I’m more in danger of losing it than damaging it. As with all these phones, the microphone lands halfway up my face when in use, but a test with the voice recorder sounds reasonable. This phone supports Push-To-Talk too, although O2 doesn’t, yet.

Not long after arriving home, last night, I had the Nokia PC Suite installed. When it works, it works, but I don’t think I’ve seen a flakier piece of software. Sometimes it locks up to the point where I have to reboot the phone and the laptop. Other times it pops up a dozen error windows saying “phone did not respond”, in the middle of normal operations. The text message facility works well, and I bet the people I wrote to are wondering how I got the full spellings and strange punctuation in there…

Written by brian t

July 24, 2005 at 12:37 pm

creative rites

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I’ve just taken part in the WritersWeekly.com’s 24-Hour Short Story Contest, writing just under 1,000 words on the topic listed on that page. I may post my story to this site once the judging is over, which should take about a month.

Since I’m studying Japanese language and culture, I tried to follow the “write what you know” idea: the topic sent me to a beach on Okinawa, a popular holiday destination that was once a war zone. An average granny takes a dip in the ocean one sunny morning, only to find her buried past reaching out for her.

I found myself staying relatively close to the prescribed topic, which should be a good thing; I suspect other entrants might get a little frustrated with its restrictions and stray too far from it, trying to be excessively clever. I would have done the same years ago, but this time I hope I found an emotional connection with the topic, and created one decent character from it, a grandmother with a past she kept from her own family.

Written by brian t

July 24, 2005 at 11:57 am

Posted in books, culture, philosophy

re-progressive

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Last week a Mojo Magazine Special Edition came out, on the subject of Prog. The title should have given the game away: as I’m fond of saying, “Prog is a style, Progressive is an attitude”. The Mojo articles, on most of the major groups, all cut off the Prog period at the end of the 70’s. With one exception: Marillion, who started off aspiring to early Genesis, had some success in the early 80’s before singer Fish left and the band moved forward.

Unusually, one of the Mojo staff involved in producing the magazine came on to The National Midday Sun, the European Rush fan forum to promote it, and has lingered to answer queries. I asked why the articles concentrated on the 70’s, and received the following reply:

We took a decision at the start to focus on the so-called prog rock era of the bands involved – when they made the music that best defined that sound, and that is in the ’70s. In the case of Rush, Crimson and Marillion you have three unwieldy careers to condense into, say, 4000-word articles. And I’d say all three acts had moved away from the typical ’70s prog sound once the ’80s were underway. We did make a point of acknowledging that these groups’ careers didn’t stop in 1979, and the recommended tracks all acknowledged material from their later careers. That was our reasoning anyway. But, sure, I take your point…

… to be brutally honest, we just preferred the hair and clothes from the ’70s, so decided to stick with that. Love Moving Pictures, Grace Under Pressure etc… but couldn’t bring myself to run those pics of the chaps with micro-ponytails, split-end mullets and baggy leather trousers.

This confirmed my concerns about focusing on Prog as a style or a sound, as opposed to a movement, and I replied explaining my position:

I don’t feel that way at all – maybe it’s because I’ve always been into the technology used to create music. The way I see it, Progressive music has always been technology-driven, starting with 4-track recording, Mellotrons and Moogs, moving on to digital recording, PPG, DX7 and Fairlight Series III. The 80’s seem to me to be just a natural progression from ihe 70’s, and the objections people have relate to how some people went too far with technology that wasn’t yet up to the job. Blame Phil for the gated reverb, that was all him!

It didn’t have to be that way as Trevor Horn and others showed, and we Rush fans certainly don’t dismiss the 80’s either. Say what you like about the way Geddy’s Steinberger bass looked, but it was a case of “form follows function” and the sound was (and still is) worth it. And what about King Crimson’s Discipline or Three Of A Perfect Pair? I honestly feel that no discussion about the progression of Prog could be complete without them.

Maybe I’m slightly overconcerned, and I appreciate what was in the magazine, but lesser rags look to Mojo for details they can’t be arsed to research themselves. Look to the tabloids for more of the usual “Marillion ended when Fish left” bollocks, and more jokes about Rick Wakeman’s fondness for onstage curry.

It’s just too convenient to make easy generalizations about, well, anything. It saves you from facing the actual complexities involved. It’s why I laugh at Radiohead’s aversion to the term Progressive, when it should be seen as a compliment. Even Rick, who should know, thinks they are. How can they argue with that?

Written by brian t

July 21, 2005 at 10:02 pm

Posted in music

weather or not

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I found out last night that one of my photos was selected as finalist #17 in a photo competition this week: RTÉ Summer 2005 Weather Photo. This is a quarterly competition for photos to use as a backdrop to the weather forecasts on the Irish national broadcaster. I’ll be getting my 15 seconds of fame in the weather forecasts of 4 August. Yee Haw!

My entry was one of the pictures I took early one Monday morning, just over a month ago, while adjusting my circadians for the trip to Paris; another from the same session, just a few minutes later, is in my wraparound blog entry. It illustrates one of my favourite things about digital photography: my winning picture was actually cropped out of a larger picture that was taken in Portrait format. Good thing I had plenty of pixels to play with. The guys at RTÉ cropped it a little further for a widescreen format, which I can’t complain about – it’s got to fit within their screen format.

OK, it’s not much, but it is “One Little Victory”, useful encouragement to go out and shoot some more. Even if that means staying up all night again, and hitting the scene at 5AM.

Written by brian t

July 19, 2005 at 4:49 pm

Posted in culture, photography

makebots

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I went to the Artbots 2005 exhibition yesterday. It was the last day, by which time the robots, and the artists, were a little frayed around the edges. I tried to ask one of them about the circuit bending nature of his work – randomly short-circuiting the RAM on a PC’s video card – but he’d clearly had enough, didn’t know what I meant and could hardly care. Other exhibits were broken or malfunctioning, or absent.

It was fun to see how few of the exhibits were actually robotic, and were more electronic in nature. Is it robotic if there is no feedback mechanism, if you are simply controlling motors from a PC? The results can be interesting, but I wouldn’t call that robotic. One good example of how it can be was the robot that drew pictures on the wall, such as a field of grass.

The workshops for kids were in full swing, with a MIDI workshop sending random bleeps and piano hits through the air. It’s great to get kids building, and there’s a related project for adults too: Make magazine, which I would get if postage wasn’t so expensive. I’ll have to make do, pardon the pun, with the Make Blog feeds in my RSS reader.

Written by brian t

July 18, 2005 at 1:11 pm

Posted in culture, science

back to reality

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My “holiday” from my normal work is over, finally, after five weeks; it was extended for an extra week, after I returned from Germany, when my boss needed some emergency NPI work done. NPI is short for New Product Introduction, which means that something new is hitting the market, and we have to figure out what it takes to support it. In this case, a new Linux-based high-availability cluster, we had already ordered the basic server hardware, but some add-on bits were missing, so I had to scrounge those up. Could be worse – actually having the primary hardware makes a nice change from the normal “muddle through” situation.

Then there was the software installation; a fairly normal version of SuSE Linux with the addition of our “bits”, supplied as a bootable Altiris image (same principle as Symantec Ghost). I say “our” in quotes because this particular Linux cluster software was not made by my company, but bought in from an OEM. First attempt to burn a DVD failed with a “power calibration error”, then I remembered that I could use the image directly by extracting the ISO to a server and printing it from there under DOS – which worked. I hardly qualify as a Linux expert, SuSE or otherwise, but this side of the product is fairly standard, and I had no problems getting the servers ready. Then the cluster software and shared storage… oh hell.

A “high availability” cluster like this – as opposed to a “compute cluster” like Beowulf – uses shared SAN disks – disks that are visible to more than one server. This is an inherently dangerous thing to do without cluster software to manage access to the disks, but it’s about the only way to provide clients with quick access to data, with little or no interruption to normal activity.

Microsoft’s Cluster Services (MSCS) is the most well-known “high availability” cluster software in general, and Linux has similar systems, such as Linux-HA. You can make analogies with the real world, such as a railway junction, or planes taking off from and landing on the same runway; without some kind of traffic control system, collisions will happen, and that’s what storage cluster software offers for shared disks. A “disk collision” means lost or corrupted data, so write access in particular must be strictly controlled.

This software has some very specific requirements for the shared storage, which are poorly documented and which took some trial and error to figure out. For example, when software reports that a disk has a negative size, experience tells me the software is written to handle disks up to a certain size only – so I made smaller ones. (You can do that with virtualized storage systems, where you can create volumes of arbritrary size from a pool of normal disks, each of a fixed size.)

Once I got past that and other humps, it went fairly smoothly, but I know what I’m doing (and have access to the people who put it all together). What would a customer do in such situations as I was in? That’s the situation I have to imagine myself in. I would not say this product is ready for the market, in the form in which I’m seeing it – yet it already is on the market, hence the “emergency” nature of the work. We just haven’t sold any yet!

Written by brian t

July 18, 2005 at 12:05 pm

Posted in technology, work