Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Music and the environment

Let's celebrate. Let's shout out loud those times when the music we're listening to in our heads or physically chimes with our environment. 

Share the joy of when the beat of the track is mimicked by the external sound of a forklift truck reversing. Tell someone, any one, everyone, when the heavy rain starts just as the cymbal is hit.

Just as the echo chamber is released.

Just as synthesiser goes through seventeen shades of the chord A-Minor.

Or that beat you're moving to, the sound of the chain of a skip-truck making out the tink, tink, tink of a cowbell or triangle in your head.

Loop in, in your head, that is your music and the environment.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Balancing branches

It is fairly reasonable to say that Emperor Palpatine is an untrustworthy fellow. He is Gollum without the calming influence of Smeagol, Sauron and Melkor[1] combined, Vorgons if they were evil, a Bond villain that manages to triumph. Palpatine ain't no friend of yours or mine[2].

I mention this because I've read some of the 'journey to Force Awakens' comic books and Chuck Wendig's Star Wars Aftermath in preparation of the forthcoming film. I am a little excited, it is a film I'm looking forward too, and the comic books and book appeal to what I think is Star Wars, my expectations and experience.

The chance to speculate on possible themes also appeals. Upon finishing the fourth issue of Shattered Empire it occurred to me I had seen the tending to a garden training method elsewhere. In fact, it's in one of my favourite comic books, Usagi Yojimbo, in which our hero confesses to his training master that he couldn't tend his garden. His master then says the test wasn't about gardening, the seeds had been boiled, but to see whether Usagi would cheat or confess his weakness.

Shattered Empire climaxes with a high-security laboratory being broken into by Luke Skywalker and Shara Bey[3] to recover trees Palpatine had stolen from the Jedi. Luke is surprised there are two trees, and they agree to look after one tree each. Bey gets to keep one because "it should go to a good *home*." Fairly simple instruction, and yet...

The massive narrative[4] of Star Wars up until now has been binary. Jedi and Sith, light side and dark side[5], "do or do not", even when the films have touched the muddy grey-area that is closer to life it has been on good/bad terms. Binary does not work if one eliminates 1 or 0.

So, what if the two trees are binary. What if Luke knows, through the 'magical powers afforded to him through the Force', that one tree is tainted, like Usagi's seeds, never to grow properly? If Shara Bey is given a tree because her future, her home, is good; by extension Luke's future, Luke's home, is bad. And bad in this binary universe means Sith.

Aftermath deals with the Empire's 'long game' and doesn't feature any gardening (sadly). What it does feature is interesting characters that Chuck Wendig has put a lot of care into. The characters are believable, they hurt and make mistakes, they drink to forget. And not 'shoot the wrong being' mistakes, mistakes in interpersonal relationships. In this universe relationships happen, and they go wrong, just like human relationships.

There is a line in The Big Bang Theory's theme about how we attempt to unravel all the mystery with mathematics, science, and history. Culture helps us solve these mysteries; when the boy dies at the end of the book, when the singer sings about architecture, when nuclear war results in a comic book about law and order in overcrowded mega cities, all of these narratives create space for us to examine more than just what is in front of us.

A science fiction western movie, heavily based on an earlier Japanese film allows this space, just in the same way and to the same extent that a restoration comedy does. To deny one over the other is to give into the dark side.

That mystery is simple to ask and so, so complex to answer. Are my seeds tainted, or will they grow, and how can I know for certain before I plant them?

1 - I will now paraphrase Kent Brockman, 'it's in the Silmarillion, people.'
2 - 'BB-8's going to be one of the greats, it's a fact he buys rounds for all of his mates', I could keep up the Star Wars themed rhyming couplets until Arthur Dent gets his cup of tea.
3 - Bey being mother to Poe Dameron.
4 - That was a typo but I might stick with it, expect micro narrative and macro narrative to appear some time. Soon.
5 - 'You make me cry,' to paraphrase Glasgow's Urusei Yatsura.

Grand Tour Of Forfar

Before setting off on holiday I learnt my hairdresser was also going away at the same time. While she was heading to Mexico on a long haul flight, I would be heading to Forfar. For our own individual reasons we've both worked long summers, so agreed that we needed a holiday[3].

There is a lot to do in this part of Scotland, and rather than give you a break down of the top ten activities to put in your Dundee bucket list I thought I'd stick with what I normally do: write about books, music and things with 'pop culture' references and footnotes.

Info Freako. During my first trip to Dundee I found Groucho's Records tucked away. We'd visited the Discovery Centre and had been on the lookout for something to eat and there it was. This time round the plan had been to eat in Madigan's Food Emporium amongst the bountiful book supply (they do cakes as well), though they were shut for a private occasion[1].

No such problem with Groucho. I had a good look through the records and CDs and came away with Liquidizer by Jesus Jones. I've never owned this before, I've had copies and streamed versions, and there was a nice, takes-me-back-to-1990s-shopping-at-CEX offer for me to inspect my disc. I checked and it looked nothing like Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation.

Sadly I didn't bring my record player with me to listen, I'll wait until returning home. Next month is my birthday and I will be taking my player, along with a selection of lps[2].

Luckily the holiday cottage has a DVD player and I've been able to watch Star Wars Episodes IV- VI. I've also watched the final, official trailer. I am excited, though possibly I am embracing the dark side of caution too. My ticket for the big show is for Friday morning, enough time to comfort myself against any possibility of it being a dud film[4].

It was a galaxy far, far away. Both Star Wars and Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy put forward the idea of there being a duality of bright centre and dull to a galaxy. Both also forward the concept of a drive that could propel a craft across the width of the galaxy, though in H2G2 this is considerably more difficult that in Star Wars[5]. I will be spending more time considering galaxies as I bought John Gribbin's A Very Short Introduction: Galaxies in St Andrews's Topping & Co.

St Andrews is the birthplace for Scotland, though it is unlikely there will be a feature film featuring Jet Li extolling this fact. On a late October Monday university students were engaged in RAG activities, which involved foam and literary costumes (well, Lewis Carol playing cards and wizards of the Potter world). St Andrews is an interesting, university town overseeing the North Sea. There is history here, not the recent, coffee shop comings-and-goings of coming-of-age princelings[6], but longer, further back in time history. The coast around here, Northumbria northwards, is carved by the last ice age, the rise and fall of hill and mountain caressed and stroked by the movement of a retreating ice sheet. There is a tender seduction by the ice sheet, enveloping the landscape with a lingering embrace that leaves everyone changed afterwards.

From Toppings I also purchased Frank Furedi's The Power of Reading. This is part of a wider Ilkley Literature Festival experiment, with The Art of Asking also purchased (this one from Dundee).

Another ongoing experiment is examining intercontextualisations with Monkey: Journey To The East. Hermann Hesse wrote Journey To The East (purchased Bouquineste, Aberdeen), and having read Siddhartha and noticing similarities with Monkey, there's high hopes for Journey. Alongside these book versions, there's also the Enslaved: Journey to the East video game, Damon Alban's 'rock opera'. Where do these text diverge and where do they align? Aside from the central theme, what do they include?

Television is a visual medium where a lot of information has to be delivered quickly. It wasn't until I read a story featuring Jessica Fletcher that I realised her late husband was called Frank. I have two Jessica Fletcher books now, the first novel in the series and the sixteenth (my latest purchase). Unlike other series where I get a little (slightly impossibly over-the-top) obsessed about reading in order, because of the random nature I watch Murder, She Wrote I don't mind so much reading the books out of order.

Out there in a different universe there is a lot of disorder because of chaos. Sorry, because of the powers of Chaos. Warhammer 41k is universe of war, the playground for strategy games and stage for role-playing. I've never really played Warhammer, mostly because I am not great at miniature figure painting and because I don't know many gamers around Leeds. My engagement with it comes through books, and the books I enjoy the most have been written by Dan Abnett. I think this is more Abnett than Warhammer, having read his stuff in comic books, other stories, and 2000AD, there is a noticeable style to his writing. One almost wonders if, like the Pixar films that are self-referential, do Abnett's books across all universes interconnect? Would Eisenhorn come save the inhabitants of Wild's End[7]? Either way, I have a new Dan Abnett book (Xenos).

1 - If I lived up near Dundee I would not hesitate to have my private functions here as often as possible.
2 - I will be thirty nine, and plan to mark this birthday with a copy of the Beatles's White Album.
3 - There is a Franz Ferdinand lyric off their first album, one that I think is imprinted in my mind as a way to approach a healthy work/non-work balance. Also, my hairdresser had a few suggestions on how I could achieve a plan to dye my hair after my birthday.
4 - This is the same reason I am not seeing Spectre straight away, and (whisper it so the fanboys don't hear) why I've still not seen Avengers Age of Ultron.
5 - There is a very well-known instance in Star Wars where distance and time were mangled. I won't talk about that, I will though highlight scene in Episodes IV (where Han Solo discusses 'travelling the length of the galaxy' as a significant distance) and V (where a short period of time is said to have passed for the Millennium Falcon to be 'the other side of the galaxy by now').
6 - Princelings, next to younglings, all slaughtered by Vader's fair hand when he carried out Order 66. Of course in reality there is no way we would herald in a republic by trusting the generals of an elite of clones coming from the Eton system.
7 - As I have been waiting patiently to finish reading the first part of Wild's End, this eventuality might happen, and I so hope it comes about.

Date night for shop assistants

There is a shopping assistant in Dundee who had a date on Saturday night. There is two colleagues in Forfar who have experienced the same nuisance caller in their shop. There's lots of these kinds of things happening between shop assistants across the country because shop assistants are human and have human relationships[1].

Anticipation of Saturday's date was high, though expressed in a non-committal way. She will 'see what happens,' 'not expecting much to happen' though can't decide what she will accept as acceptable activities. This was all relayed to me as I wandered around the charity bookshop she worked.

So, where might it have gone? I'd roll a D12 and check out the results against the Date Outcome Table. If you score 13 it will be an amazing date.

While I was in Dundee I spent a lot of time pondering whether to buy the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Pack. I've often thought about doing this, just don't really know a great deal of people[2] who might be interested in learning/playing.

Most of my role-playing has been a singular activity via books and video games. On my Android Hudl I have some chose-my-own adventures, and I've play a lot of rpgs on so many consoles (I rather like Zelda games, but my favourites would have to be Golden Sun and FFVII[3]), but physical, game master and players around a table has alluded me.

What do I think I am missing out on? During the question and answer for Frank Furedi there was (rather reactionary) questioner who suggested 'books good, video games bad' to which Furedi replied that video game play was not wholly bad as it was play. For me I think it is the social aspect of role-playing that I have missed, as I have quite an active imagination[4] already.

1 - There is a shop assistant in _ whose primary relationship is with their PDA, but she doesn't talk about it much as she's catching up "on some things."
2 - I could end the sentence there.
3 - There is not much chance of me completing FFVII without the help of my brothers. There's not much chance of me ever completing most video games without their advice.
4 - Very imaginative at three in the morning listening to the noises of a creaking house move as it cools and reacts to the weather outside and the wind alongside the exterior walls.

The art of handling talking about books

I have to be careful about how I talk about books, there are certain ways one has to discuss reading. Likewise, music is a subject that requires considerable thought, listening is similarly to be revered. It is only by turning these activities into something "splendid and worthwhile"[2] that you, me and everyone can discuss books. Only those who read worthwhile books, listen to only pre-approved 'good' music, whose reading elevates their daily life, whose collection contains absolutely no 'guilty pleasures', they are the only people who are privileged to talk about books and music.

What poppycock, what utter nonsense peddled by the lazy and those who wish to keep a sense of us and them. As much as I try to be progressive in my life there is nothing that "just gives me the impulse to be complete reactionary"[3] more than the person who says there is a worthwhile book or record, by extension there are unworthy books and records.

I will try to refrain from writing this only a handful of times in this but THERE ARE ONLY BOOKS AND MUSIC AND HOW PEOPLE INTERACT WITH THEM.

On Monday 12 and Tuesday 13 October I attended two more events at the Ilkley Literature Festival, Frank Furedi: The History of the Remember, and Treasures of the Brotherton Library. Three events in total[4], my first proper convention (though three out of everything Ilkley has to offer is not that much). My overwhelming desire is to do more next time, and take the opportunity to ask questions and talk with the other bloggers and commentators there.

The three events managed to take me through all the aspects of books that I love and dislike, from celebration to dismay, with the discussion of the panelists or guests to the questions of the audience. There is a discourse happening here, which is to be encouraged, though generalised, lazy, disingenuous discourse should be avoided.

There were some aspects of Frank Furedi's talk that impressed me considerably, and there were other aspects that drove me up the wall. Furedi has written a book on the power of reading, and I need to read that before properly being able to comment on it.

That said, there were the occasional comments that I'd like to pick up. Furedi discussed his own reading experience as well as those that lead him to start his book[5], which appeared to be a number of students at the university he teaches at not reading handouts or recommended text. This lead to a lot of research as to the role of reading thorough history.

Reading is good, books are one of the most amazing things humans have ever created. And not just book as in two covers and paper between them, book as in document that represents fact or non-fact, fiction or fictionalized. All that which can be at one's finger tips.

Yet there is a tendency to be negative about books and reading, from society at large and from booksellers in particular. Jen Campbell mentioned that booksellers could be doomsayers even when book sales were up for the first time since 2007[6]. Furedi discussed how reading seemed diminished as something that people enjoy, making suggestions about how reading is taught and the decline of public libraries.

And underneath it all, that spark of people reading, enjoying, sharing the connections between books. There is an issue with reduced library number but it is not solely a reading issue, libraries have always had a central role in communities, once they are removed, closed, shut, they remove, close, shut a community hub[7].

There is an issue in how people talk about books, and I think this is where I need to read Frank Furedi's book before commenting. I do not think there is an unworthy book, and we should celebrate that there is fanfiction just as much as there is Milton[8]. If someone enjoys any given text let's celebrate rather than berate their choice.

It is possible to construct a way to talk about worthwhile and splendid books. How, you ask? Really, you need me to show you, oh, you do?

Well, firstly, I suggest there is a value for every book. Every book, taking note of what I said earlier. Now, if one takes all the differing values everyone places on books, it's quite hard to correlate them. One needs easily definable values, such as monetary or rarity. The bonus of using these these kinds of values is that it replaces the conservatives' 'good/unworthy' equation with one that they really like showing off, money. This book X and Y like, you see, Y likes it more because they bought a rare first edition copy that cost more than reasonable because every other third word is misspelt.

The value of books is in the reading. Value can be found in how reading then spurs on to further reading and connecting with other readers. Money plays a part, either in the transaction to purchase a book or the financial underpinning of public libraries, but monetary value is not reading. A first edition of The Hobbit is still just an edition of The Hobbit if it is untouched.

1 - The title had originally been a quote from a book about reading.
2 - Starting early with the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy quotes, this one from the very first radio episode from the 1970s.
3 - Super Furry Animals, The International Language of Screaming, 1997
4 - Reading And Writing In The Digital Age being the first, or third, if this were a list.
5 - It all started after a comment piece in the London Times, that home of free press behind a pay wall online.
6 - Is this the triumph of print? The Bookseller, 26/09/2015 
7 - Hub is not a bad word, and it is a useful way of describing those places were communities gather.
8 - Both Paradise Lost and Fifty Shades Of Grey were mentioned during Furedi's talk, one 'good' and one 'bad' example of books.


Let's talk about expectation, let's talk about you and me, let's talk about all the good things and the bad things that can be, let's talk about it[1]. Expectation lies at the heart of almost every interaction, and it can go wrong as much as it has the tendency to go right.

In mid-September I was asked to give a presentation at work, and I had been tempted to discuss managing expectations in terms of customer service. Customer service is one of those falsely negative phrases that can be used badly to make a point; if one wants to ignore customer service they will raise issues of cost, value, expenditure.

Customer service goes wrong if one approaches it with the view 'computer says no', or argue that customer service is only needed in shops. Customer service goes well when one explains their actions with transparency[2], when one listens to the end of the sentence, when one focuses on the other.

Across Leeds there are a number of shops where good customer service can be found. This isn't about the best price (lowest financial transaction usually leads to the lowest level of customer service), more about the care those organisations show to their users. Got a question, seeking a recommendation, ask and talk, it's easy.

My expectations are different from other service users. And that is the real issue, if one's expectation is to treat all customer the same or give them what they want the organisation will become unstuck. If one's expectation is to listen, give customers what they need, it is more likely to work.

1 - Let's talk about sex, Abe Simpson-style: "I first had sex in the April of 1925, when the autumnal colours were strong and Fall was known as Decline in reverence to Edward Gibbon, we would all go running about with our tongues out trying to catch snow flakes and wondering why we never propagated, though we all behaved properly..."
2 - One doesn't have to reveal the whole process or the magician's secret to explain an action that has happened.