Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Rave: Books can be artworks and cultural icons, too

aka Review: The Cult of iPod by Leander Kahney -- Adapted from another piece of my writing

This book covers everything iPod, from how it nearly became a Sony product (thank god their execs are too silly to see the potential, or it would be a fall-apart piece of crap that is hard to use and ugly) through the design to the ways the public are all over it and influencing the next generations though.

This book is loaded with pictures, diagrams and is written in an inherently readable almost magazine-like format (books for the iPod generation, perhaps, where one doesn't have the concentration to hear a whole album nor read a whole book, but rather the units are songs and articles).

This book is beautiful. It has rounded corners like that of the iPod, and a screen on the front cover and iPod-like copyright markings on the back cover. Underneath each page number is a battery marker, indicating how much of the book remains to be read. The font is deisgned to be similar to the proprietary Apple font. All of this would not make this a good book, though. It would make it a beautiful book, but not a good one.

What makes this book good, and the closest possible approximation of an iPod in book form, is the content. It is eclectic, from a wide variety of sources (academic, commercial, fashion, anecdotal and possibly even apocryphal), and it is entertaining and informative all at once. And like an iPod on shuffle, the information seems somehow disjointed, and yet has an odd kind of flow. Sadly, though the sources are not well referenced, so finding out more is more of a journey.

Interesting ideas and people emerging from this book are:
  • iPod Jacking, which is a new way to share music
  • Markus Gielser, who was going to publish a book called iPod Therefore I am, telling people's own iPod Stories, but the title got stolen by that twat Dylan Thomas -- Markus Giesler is still around, though, and working on iPod Stories.
  • Playlistism, the discrimination against (or for) someone in a college dorm because of what is in their playlist. I wonder how much study has been done on this?
Anyways, if you care about iPods, digital music, or anything to do with Apple's newfound success, The Cult of iPod is a great, beautiful, and easy to read way to begin your journey into the literature.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rant: And we wonder why we have trouble getting chicks to do computer science?

I was talking to one of my supervisors a couple of days ago, and she was telling me how something as simple as a programming competition had turned a kid's life around. This kid is a teenager, very, very bright, and interested in computers. Here in good old kiwiland, tall poppies tend to get their heads cut off unless they are sportspeople or religious weirdos (or both), so this kid was having a pretty rugged time of it at school, especially because computers are his thing, because you know, computers are geeky. This kid was suicidal, until he did a programming competition and met other kids like himself -- coming out of the closet now means admitting you like computers, apparently. Nonetheless, this child is, in fact, a boy. Because more than 90% of the people who are interested in doing a degree in computing in New Zealand are boys, if our first year is anything to go by.

There are lots of reasons as to why this might be, including, but not limited to:
  • The lack of games on the computer that appeal to girls (with 'The Sims' and some of the new PlayStation titles things are changing, slowly)
  • Maths and computing teachers generally being male
  • A lack of visible female role models -- we hear about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but only rarely about Helen Greiner and Grace Hopper
  • The bad attitude of some male computing instructors and students toward their female students/colleagues.
I firmly believe, though, that advertising plays a role in all this. There are four companies in New Zealand who advertise internet provision on the television. One is run by a woman, but has lame ads with her looking dowdy and using a loaf of bread as an analogy (this service also has the least uptake, I might add). One uses no people at all, graphics only. These two advertise less than the other two, though, and are not as high profile.

The third company plays on a local cultural legend, where the North Island of New Zealand was fished up by a young man sitting in the canoe that is the South Island. In this advertisement, a young caucasian lad hauls New York, Paris and London from the sea on a length of rope, "harnessing technology". Would it have been so harmful to use an image of a young girl drawing her friends closer and tying the lines of communication? I guess so.

This ad is far from the most offensive to my geeky sensibilities, however. The local telecommunication giant advertises their ISP arm, "Xtra" with a team of stereotypical geeks called the xtra-ordinaries. These guys are a team of socially inept geeks that not only contribute to the suicidal tendencies of the young man mentioned above, but leave or role model or room for a young woman to see herself as part of the technology industry.

These guys are being promoted as the image of ocmputing by the major national carrier in the telecommunications industry. They magically appear in bedrooms at night, they drive around in a clapped out van, and they have nerdy names for each other. I'm fairly confident in my own person and in my choice of a career in computing, and these guys make me a little embarrassed to be associated with the profession. What hope do I have of doing the part of my job that is encouraging young women to take up a career in computing when this is the image they, their peers, and their parents see on TV every night?

As a partially publicly funded national carrier, I would hope that this doesn't last too long, and that Telecom is asked to at least make a hot-but-nerdy-girl xtra-ordinary too. We're short if IT professionals in this country, and having one girl xtra-ordinary could make life easier for everyone who might want to pursue a career in computing. No doubt, however, Telecom thinks that poking fun at geeks is inordinately clever, and the series of ads will continue for years.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Rant: This is a self-indulgent way to ruin a perfectly good book title

a.k.a. Review: 'iPod Therefore I Am', by Dylan Jones. Adapted from another piece of my writing.

Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ, a gentlemen's magazine in the UK. Apparently he was also a lonely teenager who went on to art school and found his way in life. He is also a dyed-in-the-wool musophile, though his tastes (apart from the odd surprisingly juvenile liking for Justin Timberlake or Kelis) are fairly mainstream and pedestrian for a man his age.

Dylan Jones has also fairly recently published a book called 'iPod Therefore I Am: A Personal Journey Through Music'. It's a shame that he got to the title first because there's a guy called Markus Giesler who wanted to use it for some real research -- and now can't because this British plonker got to it first and used it for a book that isn't even really about the iPod.

You know, I might not have had such a problem with this bok if it hadn't claimed to be about the iPod. I might even have found it mildly entertaining, except that Jones has extremely average taste in music which he thinks is progressive. I might even have been able to cope with it if it were a true personal journey through music. Sadly, it can't even be said that it is really about music.

What this book is really about, is Dylan Jones. How he had a stutter and was a bit of a sad case at school, and how he has spent every waking moment since then trying to prove to himself and the world that is it okay, he really is cool. Because, you know, he was one of the first 5% to equate fashion with music. And he nearly got beaten up by Sid Vicious once. And he saw some dodgy things in dodgy bars, and Bryan Ferry remembers him. And he is a big, successful man, and the editor of GQ, and he's met loads of famous people and he goes loads of exotic places for holidays.

Dylan Jones is in fact a self-absorbed bore. This book, though it is supposed to be personal, contains more detail about who was doing what to whom in various nightclubs than it does about his wife. His children appear slightly more often, but only as a showcase for what good musical taste he has instilled in them (and, I suspect, they in him). His parents feature slightly more as the evildoers who in fact drove him to music. And the rest of the book, though it may contain brief allusions to the iPod, is a litany of Jones' great war stories and favourite music (with war stories as to why it is his favourite). His favourites include Roxy Music, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Blur, Norah Jones, and Justin Timberlake. All except for the Justin Timberlake, probably introduced to him by his small daughters, are fairly predictable for a bloke his age. In fact, not once while reading this book did I see any mention of any group that had done anything truly unusual in the past ten or even twenty years.

References to the iPod include:
  • Hearing about Jones' own anal-retentiveness in filling the thing, including some quibbling over a miniscule amount of sound quality and file formats;
  • Jones' arrogance in filling the iPods of others with his average, boring music;
  • Jones subjecting friends of his to his playlists on vacation;
  • Jones spending hours locked away from his family filling his iPod;
  • Jones being too silly to use the internet to get his track names for him;
  • Jones deciding his iPod was male;
  • Jones berating people for buying smaller iPods than his;
  • and war stories about when he saw the iPod and how he went to visit Apple and what wonderful people he knows who are hooked in to Apple.
In short, this book is Jones being an iPod bore the way he is a music bore. In fact, the only relevant points Jones makes about the iPod (and these points have already been made by real researchers) are:
  • that you can get rid of songs you don't like off an album,
  • you can make playlists,
  • and the shuffle juxtaposes really music in an unusual way.
This book held so much potential and ended up being disappointing in much the same way as a Pink Floyd song usually is -- lots of sound effects, boring, emotionless droning in the background, and no real innovation or substance, despite the promise of it being there by reputation.

In summary:
  • Jones is a pratt with boring taste in music
  • Jones thinks he's great because he saw a lot of things and got stabbed once
  • This is a waste of a good title
  • This book is not about the iPod -- don't be fooled.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Rant-Rave-Whatever: Rockstar is back.

Oh, to quote Tommy Lee, "Hell Yeah". It's back. And I kind of wonder about it, you know. Here is an earlier commentary (not long after the show started) from a secret place online where I sometimes share things like this:

Other things: some of you may remember my obsession with Rockstar:INXS last year. Because I loved that show so much I have been following Rockstar:Supernova, and while I can't stop watching it, I am cming to a few conclusions:

  • Tommy Lee is a dick
  • The talent is not as good generally, but then it doesn't have to be: Supernova aren't going to be as musical as INXS are
  • Supernova as a band are EXTREMELY likely to fail. Tommy Lee generally gives the women competitors comments on their attire rather than their ability ("baby, can I marry you?"); Gilby Clarke (of GnR fame) gave one of the women a hard time for "girnding" him when he was onstage, saying that "women in music use their sexuality too much and it was tired". This is just ONE example of the band not being "pointed in the same direction".
  • Dave Navarro has toned it down a whole shitload to hang with those idiots.
  • Many of the contestants are there to advertise their own music careers, rather than join Supernova
  • I really, really, really want one of the ones who does appear to be there to win (Dilana) not to win. She's got talen oozing out of her, she gives me goosebumps everytime I see her perform, and she's too fucking good to waste her life on a career with Tommy Lee (though she wouldn't take any shit from him).
Anyways, suffice it to say I am not loving Supernova the way I loved INXS, but I can't tear my eyes away.
So, yeah, that was my view about three weeks ago. And then there was this view of the whole thing:

Dave and Tommy moving in Mmm, Tongue me Tommy Sure thing Dave, smile for the camera now Good kiss, great publicity, baby.  Hell yeah

Yes, you have it right, that is Tommy Lee and Dave Navarro engaged in a little very, very public tongue-wrestling. And yes, Dave does look rather as though he is enjoying it. Tommy Lee just looks like he is doing exactly what I would expect -- posing for the camera to improve his own reputation, and garner some "rockstar" style publicity.

Anyways, we are now down to the last seven "rockers", and it would appear that Zayra, who was sent home this week has successfully (and fairly cynically, I would say) managed to sign a record deal already -- I would say to sing in Spanish. Because you see, that is one of the things I see as being a problem this time around -- as mentioned above, many of the people who are in this series are there purely to launch their own careers.

The other thing that happened this week is that we heard the first ever Supernova (well okay, they may still have to buy the name off a punk band) song. Cunning move, on their part, because for the world to buy in to Supernova, the world is going to want to know what Supernova sound like (particularly since Tommy Lee said in the first episode "we are not a metal band"). So, of course, there was the controversy of who would sing for them -- in their gregaroiusness, and to prove that a woman really can front Supernova, they (and the crowd) asked Dilana to sing during their inaugural performance -- foretelling things to come? Highly likely, I think. So yes, provided a woman is prepared to tolerate the presence of half naked dancing girls, she can front Supernova. And to be fair, the music was much better -- and more musical -- than I expected it would be.

So here is what really irks me about this season of Rockstar -- it isn't the mediocre level of talent accepted in some of the rockers, and it isn't even that stupid sexbot-barbie Storm Large -- it's the chauvinism.

  • Gilby had a go at Jill Gioia for grinding him, but when Supernova first performed, they had half-naked dancing girls on stage. There are two messages here -- one is that if a woman wants to front Supernova, she better be prepared to deal with this crap (okay, we knew that anyway, but nothing like making it perfectly clear, eh?). Dilana did deal with it well, actually -- she is such a commanding presence the girls were a mere distraction. The second, and more disturbing message, however, is that it is not okay for a woman rocker to use her own sexuality to sell the message, but that it is quite okay for Tommy Lee to pay for the sexuality of women to sell his message.
  • Dave Navarro, as much as I loved him in the first series, is spending too much time with Tommy Lee. That and his split from Carmen Electra seemto be spurring on some less than pleasant tendencies, including asking the crowd to "give it up for the string section, particularly the blonde, she's doing very well". Ummm, yeah. This is the same man who told MiG Ayesa that his beautiful rendition of 'Baby I Love Your Way' made him think "only about his wife".
  • Gilby Clarke and Jason Newstead, who seem to be voices of reason, actually seemed appreciative of the dancing girls (particularly Jason).
  • Storm Large is playing on her sexuality -- as of the first episode, when she said she will use it for all it is worth, and despite the fact she can't sing for ass; in fact she has done a version of 'Survive' by Gloria Gaynor that Tommy Lee referred to as "sauteed in wrong sauce"; she has not yet seen the bottom three (though Magni, who is excellent, and a real contender for the top spot, has). It would seem the fans are following Tommy's lead -- but god forbid she should use her own sexuality too much, hm? Gilby might have a go at her.
  • Let us not forget that the whole outfit is being run by a man who pleaded no contest to beating his wife, and is a serial adulterer. Do we think he may have just a little problem with respect for women (though animals are another issue)?
It seems to me like they are trying to alienate any thinking female (and no small chunk of the thinking male) fans right from the outset. Unless something gives in a pretty huge way, Supernova are never going to be anything more than a guilty pleasure for me -- I sure won't buy anything related to them, because I can't support that. I know some of you will disagree with me and say that politics shouldn't have anything to do with art, but I am a hopeless idealist, and if I don't buy Eminem because he is a chauvinist little shit, I sure as hell am not going to buy anything that will make this lot any more money than they already have -- unless I think there is something to be gained for the lead singer, and even then I will feel squeamish. Probably I shouldn't even watch the TV show, but I actually cannot tear my eyes away.

So I guess the point is I'm sad. Something that was sweet and good an populated by pleasant, talented, genuine people the first time around has been populated in no small part by sleazeballs and cynical self-promoters the second. And it has rubbed off on Dave, who, while I know he is a bit of a loose unit, I could respect the first time around. But hey, I'm just a fan, and it isn't up to me. I hope Dilana does win, though, because she might just kick Tommy Lee in the balls and thereby mean that Supernova was actually about the music.