When you want to go to a console today it is a matter of pressing ctrl+alt+a function key (e. g. f2; or alt+f2 if your not coming from a console running X). But in the olden days this was what a console actually looked like.

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Angelic Upstarts

The Angelic Upstarts formed in South Shields (England) in 1977 and released their debut single “Murder of Liddle Towers” in 1978. Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 produced their first album “Teenage Warning” (1979). Their songs express the widespread feeling of anger and frustration of the British youth during the early Thatcher years: Wind me up like a ‘Clockwork Orange’ / then you hide the key to my destination / no satisfaction — its all frustration.

Deeply rooted in the working class the Angelic Upstarts never held back with their opinion. Their origin in the Oi! scene made them popular with both punks and skinheads. Like The Clash and other bands with punk origin their music was influenced by Reggae music (“I understand”).

The Angelic Upstarts also acquired an unwanted following of racist skinheads. When the National Front and others of their ilk tried to adopt their music for their purposes they were tought a lesson in violence. The Upstarts did not only speak out against racism, join the popular “Rock against Racism” campaign or write songs. They quickly found that holding “I hate Nazis” signs and talking about it were not very effective. Instead they took up the fight on the discourse level of their oponents. Attacked by racist skins at their concerts they choose to retaliate — with their fists. Most of the time the racists kept their opinion, but lost their teeth.

The lyrics of their songs and public statements — especially by vocalist “Mensi” (Thomas Mensforth) — were often controversial. Using the vocabulary and symbols of racist and right wing politics they challenged their audience to deconstruct the semiotics of hatespeak. Often misunderstood and seen by many as contradictory, their display of patriotism, adoration the Union Jack or even pride in their skin colour (“I’ve got nothing against niggers but I’m proud to be white.”) was challenging, provocative or even offensive — depending on where you stand. Mensi and the Angelic Upstarts played with the ambiguous nature of signs. A dangerous game in a linguistic environment that is quick with labels and prefers naïve correspondence of signifier and signified to careful textual analysis and close reading.

Find out more by reading these interesting interviews:

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Fred Gallagher: Megatokyo

Megatokyo by Fred Gallagher is a webcomic (now also available in paperback). Whilst the drawing style and elements of the story are influenced by Japanese mangas, the two main characters — Largo and Piro — are Americans. Despite this Piro is quite knowlegable about the Japanese culture and language. A strong link to the computer gaming scene is expressed by the use of l33t speak and the frequent allusions to computer games in the story.

Also drawing (cartoons) and manga play a major role in Megatokyo. Cases in point are the self-referential discourses about the four panel format (in later episodes mostly abandoned), and the discussion of a previous episode reviewed by characters during a visit to the cinema.

A major attraction for fans is the humour based upon the circumstances Piro and Largo find themselves in after stranding in Japan. They are gamers in their early twenties, preferring the world of cartoons and computer games to their desolate and frustrating life. Their inability to act appropriately in social contexts, paired with their escapist approach when it comes to problems of the everyday life, makes it easy for many geeks to relate to their experiences. Both Piro and Largo are intelligent enough and capable of getting a job, earning money and performing the social rituals of mating, but they prefer dating sims (a game genre popular in Japan). They know that there was a Sim game about this kind of middle-class, suburban utopia and it sucked — ’nuff said.

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Matt Beaumont: e

Incompetent executives, scheming secretaries, anal accountants and creative teams consisting entirely of people who never grew up — all part of one mad advertising agency trying to win Coca-Cola whilst blundering from one fiasco into the next. Spiced with sex and condensed into two weeks of company email. That is “e” by Matt Beaumont. And is it any good?

Well, it isn’t entirely bad. In much the same way that a boring car isn’t bad if you just want to get from A to B. The book is quick and entertaining to read, likely to apeal to a wide yet undemanding audience, and inoffensive even where its creator sauced things up. So the whole thing is an epistulary novel in email, but it wasn’t avantgarde — even when it was new.

Still like to grab the book? Do so by all means, I’m sure it’ll entertain, but I also think it’s likely to be forgotten in much the same way as a ride to the supermarket.

Matt Beaumont: e. Plume Books. October 2000. ISBN 0452281881.

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The Lore of Pixar

Check out this article on the history of Pixar (the company that brought you ‘Toy Story’ and all those lovely names for your Debian releases). What struck me most was the following sentence: “… he was given a position at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where he got a reputation for being peculiar.” What? Peculiar in Xerox PARC in the 1970s? I was instantaneously impressed.

The person called peculiar is Dick Shoup who grabed and manipulated video footage when the people around him were trying to invent an office suite. Xerox PARC must have been one of the most creative places in space and time ever. Every time I sit on a bean bag I try to imagine what it must have been like there back then.

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Vernor Vinge: True Names

When “True Names” was first published in 1981 home computing was just in its infancy. Whilst the BBC tried to educate the public how to load BASIC programmes from cassettes Vernor Vinge presented us with a fully developed vision of cyberspace. Preceding Gibson‘s “Neuromancer” (1984) and Stephenson‘s “Snow Crash” (1991) it was one of the earliest cyberpunk novels.

The Other Plane — Vinge’s equivalent to The Matrix and the Metaverse — is a world-wide information network incorporating and grown on top of the older ARPANET — much like the internet actually did. All kinds of government services are accessible through this network, especially wellfare. Vandals / warlocks exploit these services by manipulating the software that has widely replaced written records, laws and conventional governmental administration. However, they must hide their true names — hence the title — and keep a low profile in real life or else the government (“feds”) will track them down. Remarkable is also the advanced interface used to access the net — EEG like equipment permitting a very direct form of input/output. Procedural programming is also replaced by much easier and interactive EEG programming.

“True Names” contains some of the most concise and spot on metaphores for experiences often hard to relay to those who have not felt them: the machine / network truely being an extension of ones body / person, the difference between processing time and real time, or the relative ease of using a language with a higher level of abstraction compared to low-level programming. Astonishing is also how well the effects of limited bandwidth, caching, interpolation, and the time needed for the signal to travel are woven into the story. The way data storage and processing facilities are available in the story reminds me of and goes beyond some of the most advanced concepts of grid computing or the Plan 9 operating system.

On top of that the story is good as well. An avatar in the form of a teletype (!) called the Mailman because of the long delays of his responses… But best read yourself. “True Names” is a pioneering work of the cyberpunk genre and still very clever and thought-provoking. In 1981 it must have looked more radical than the stealth bomber that incidentaly flew the first time that year.

Vernor Vinge: True Names. In: Marvin Minsky (Ed.): True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier. Tor Books. January 2002. ISBN 0312862075.

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Unix As Literature

“Mastery of UNIX, like mastery of language, offers real freedom. The price of freedom is always dear, but there’s no substitute.” – Thomas Scoville: The Elements Of Style: UNIX As Literature.

For over three decades Unix is known as a powerful and flexible operating system, technically superior to most of its more popular rivals. The larger the network, the more important the task, the more it shines. So why is Unix still not everybody’s favourite? OS X, KDE and Gnome have made Unix systems more accessible for the masses, but Unix is still quite remote, hidden under a layer of GUI. It’s like a novel competing with omnipresent glossy magazines, adverts and TV. It will always be apreciated by the savvy, but the majority will simply fail to even notice let alone understand. It is not only that Unix lacks marketing. It is that Unix is demanding. To use Unix you have to read and be capable of abstract thought. This will take some effort on behalf of the user. On the other hand people who lack numeracy and reading skills will always find plenty of opportunity to fail where others succeed.This may seem like the arrogant Unix geek drivel that puts people off, but at the core of the matter lies the fact, that being smart is quite a good thing — or why does everybody insist on telling children to go to school? If you made it this far, you might want to read some more.

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Commanding Heights

Recently a friend recommended the documentary Commanding Heigths — The Battle for the World Economy to me. The good news is that it is available for viewing online. Based on a book by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw it tells the story of two of the most influential economists and how thier ideas shaped the economic policies of the twentieth century: Friedrich August von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. The former being an advocate of free market capitalism and the latter the founder of modern macroeconomics and a devout believer in anti-cyclical government intervention to counter the most devestating effects of unreined capitalist market forces.The tone of the series is mostly pro free markets and pro globalization and critiques have pointed out the political bias reflected by the corporate sponsorship of the programme. However, Yergin and Stanislaw do not fail to address the problems of the new global economy (Russia, Asian Crisis, Argentina,…). They remain cautiously optimistic about the link between free market capitalism and freedom. Certainly it is more a trip to the market than a work indicative of a third way. This is probably not so much a shortcoming of the authors, but founded in what seems to be the unanimous success of free markets at the beginning of the twenty-first century and the failiure of viable alternatives to emerge.The question remains, how the cause of liberty can be served best under the current economic conditions and with terrorism and counter-terrorism raising the stakes for those interested in defending the idea of a free society. Some of the answers given seem too simple. Is freedom in Chile really a result of the forces of free markets? How does China’s model of capitalism with free markets without freedom for its people hold up? Is it just a transitional phase of capitalism or indicative of a failure of free markets to fulfill Hayek’s promise? Have free markets failed to emerge in Russia — as Yergin and Stanislaw suggest — because a (post-)soviet culture of theft triumphed over entrepreneurial spirit?

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John Lanchester: Mr Phillips

The working class of the industrial age had its heroes or at least we all know the iconic images of coal miners flexing their bulging muscles. Mr Phillips — the main character of the book — is an accountant or rather was an accountant, because he has been made redundant. The blue-collar vs. white-collar issue reflected in the fact that Mr Phillips’ father was an electrician and invites the reader to reflect on social progress in the context of the transformation of English society, of how what was once called “The workshop of the world” turned into a post-industrial society.

Having had the same job with the same company for years, Mr Phillips, now in his fifties, wanders through London on a monday — his first day out of work. He failed to break the news to his wife or family. Trying to grasp what happened to him, thoughts about his own situation, about things he sees in the streets, people he meets, memories and obsessions come to his mind and to the readers attention. It is a drama which happens every day to some extend in our own minds — even if we are not downsized.

Issues like social class, the labour market, consumer culture and the media are present on almost every page, but through the medium of the most inner and kept-to-himself thoughts of Mr Phillips rather then the usual pretentiously impersonal style of the news or text-book. Mr Phillips’ conscious theorising adds depth and complexity to the story including the peculiarity of using his accounting skills to make sense of his world. The annual number of naked women in newspapers and magazines, the demographics of people lying on the floor of a bank being robbed and the odds of winning the lottery are treated to number crunching. The effect is often comical and at the same time insightful.

In Mr Phillips’ own way I give the book a eight out of ten.

John Lanchester: Mr Phillips. Faber and Faber. 2000. ISBN 0571201717.

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