Posts from 11th September 2003

Sep 03

It’s the kind of commonplace everyone feels safe saying

Do You SeePost a comment • 224 views

It’s the kind of commonplace everyone feels safe saying: “The industry’s in a terrible state if they’re getting ideas from computer games.” Like many too-quick assumptions about cultural hierarchy, and intelligence, and potential, it’s wrong – and the mistake contains a rather specific kind of stupidity. Time Commanders (BBC2, Thursday, 8-9pm) is a history documentary in the form of a computer wargame, and it’s a sly revelation: the contestants – ordinary punters in groups of four – direct one side in a historical battle. Tonight was Boudicca’s revolt against the Roman Occupation in 60AD. The Britons – the tribes of the Icenii and the Catuvellauni – were the computer’s to control: the group of four modern Britons, two commanders with oversight of the whole field, two lieutenants in the thick of the fighting effecting troop movements, marshalled the Roman defence against the uprising, commanding some hills near Colchester.

The modern Britons are two millennia better informed than Boudicca or her tribal sub-commanders – and the woad-painted CGI Celts wiped the floor with them. Some of the problem was just extreme unclarity of orders: the lieutenants, a man and a woman, got increasingly annoyed at not knowing what their commanders, ditto, meant by “Move your cavalry to the left” Whose left? What direction do you think we’re facing? But just as much of the error derives from semi-digested assumptions about what battles are MEANT to be like. The observing experts, – who comment on the action in another room, then come in to show what really happened – pointed out (scathingly) that the tactics adopted suited troops with muskets facing cavalry, not legionaries facing tribesmen in chariots: the participants half-knew too much about later-hence-“superior” warfare, and – after being goaded out into the open and completely surrounded by vastly larger numbers – decided that savages would all just run away if their leader was killed. So they switched their concentration entirely to chariot-chasing Boudicca and her two teenage daughters round a far corner of the battlefield, with a view to assassination, while their legionaries were massacred to a man. Boudicca escaped: but even if her troops had (computer-magically) been able to see her killed, these were hard semi-autonomous tribal units fighting for their combined cultural survival, not frightened children.

The programme set-up neatly dramatises the problems of the flow of information in a battle: if speed and precision of command aren’t there, then everything turns to rubbish. The graphics are clunky and not realistic: but this actually allows for a clearer view of the overall situation, if you have the will to keep your distance. The close-up zoom – which is what most “better” knowledge really consists of – supplants a grasp of the whole with the glamour of fascinating detail. Tonight’s group were particularly poor, disastrously losing a battle the Romans had convincingly won – but last week’s group actually improved on the historical (Carthaginian) victory. In both instances, the amateur commander had fairly swiftly intuitively grasped what the strategy ought to be: fatally for her little pixelated robots, this week’s then allowed herself to be distracted and dissuaded by her charming fellow officers (human and equals outside the game) and forgot what the various robots, on her side and not, knew and didn’t know, could and couldn’t do. A slightly different version of the same, rather specific kind of stupidity.

I had been secretly and sadly proud

TMFDPost a comment • 203 views

I had been secretly and sadly proud of holding my own in the ILX Premiership Predictions League, until I realised that my lower-mid table place is in fact the worst of anyone who’s joined in all four rounds. Despite nodding heartily along to Dave’s article on football fandom I still feel utterly unqualified for talking about or even thinking about football. On Saturday I was watching the England game with everyone else and it struck me for the thousandth time how much quicker everyone else’s reactions were; if you watch enough football (and I’ve watched a comparative fraction) you pick up the ability to watch it with a lazy, chatty, half-concentration which can snap to attentive vocal action as soon as something interesting happens. I on the other hand have to give the screen my full attention to keep any grip on the game at all.

Even then I feel pretty dim. Rooney seemed to be having a rotten time of it, he kept passing to nobody or to the other side; Lampard on the other hand looked alright, nothing awful happened after he’d got the ball. He of course got substituted and Rooney went on to get the first goal. But my perceptions of the game hadn’t been ‘wrong’ – it was just that my opinions of the play were so nascent and fragile that they crumbled as soon as a pundit (on-screen or in-pub) opened his mouth. The legacy of being picked last for games is that even though I like football now I’m still a terrified ten-year-old when it comes to squeaking up about it. If TMFD does me any good in this regard I’ll be extremely grateful to it.

MORTON FELDMAN – “Why Patterns?”

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 242 views

MORTON FELDMAN – “Why Patterns?”

Outside, construction to the new room was still unfinished. The floor was dirty with Long Island sand; the apartment, eclipse-dark. Frigid, it was always frigid, what with it being on the ground and what with my parents, upstairs, being so fond of air-conditioning. Things were in boxes.

When I came back that day, after the train-ride, after the car-ride, after an insensate stumble down to the light fixture store, the hardware store, the church…this is what I came back to. Before, when people asked me, I would say: I live…. Then I’d recognize that the weird mis-wiring of my brain was acting up again and I would say: I mean, I work in the World Trade Center. But this place, my apartment, was where I lived, both in a legalistic and a felt sense. I left it two months later to be closer to the city; two years later, almost, my parents left it, moving forty miles further east. What once was home is very gone now.

When I came back, I put this on, just before a nap. If you listen to it awake, this is music that can suck the air out of a room. Like being in a snowstorm, it can slip you into a bubble of sound where anything outside is just a shout across the river. It can infect your surroundings with its stillness, as these sounds, silences, gaps and near misses between discreet sounds become what feel like the only lasting things in the world.

But it could also unmake my concentration, if I let it. Its slowness and repetition could catalyze a surrender to the unconscious. A day or two after Kurt Cobain died, I had this crazy wish to see him in my dreams. I got Beck instead. This time, my dreams conspired with me, allowing a wish untainted by Freudian repression: a view from the north side of Liberty street, facing west, near Greenwich, an echo of a world racing away from me at the speed of time.

The Original Soundtrack

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 973 views

The Original Soundtrack is Geeta’s fine and recently revived weblog, which has a fair bit of music content and which I’m linking partly because Geeta is going to be editing the sixth (yes sixth!) Freaky Trigger weblog, on science and technology, launching at the start of next month.

That will (I think) be the last weblog, though there are all sorts of plans going on for other features and/or enhancements to the site. Hope you’re enjoying it all as much as we are (a platitude but a true one – I’ve not had so much fun writing since I started the site back in ’99.)

Damien Hirst has a new show

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 379 views

Damien Hirst has a new show at the White Cube, and Adrian Searle has the knives out for it. This is one of those bad reviews which has made me keener than ever to see the show itself. I’m not at all impressed with the last paragraph, in which Adrian addresses the already-notorious “Charity” (a giant version of a Spastics Society collection box familiar to anyone who lived through the 70s in the UK). Aside from the fact that “Hymn” was plainly not what made Hirst famous, it seems bizarre for a critic to lay into a piece of sculpture like that because its meaning is ambiguous. It seems to me that “Charity” was made in the same way as “Hymn” but to completely different effect, and what’s more, how many artists don’t refer back to their previous work? Maybe I should see the show before I allow my pro-Hirst dudgeon to become too high.

I love Hirst (partly) because he seems to me utterly and convincingly punk rock: that beguiling brand of arrogance, misery, hedonism and self-hatred, contradictions held at once to be totally unacceptable and a self-evidently good thing. He’s in it for the money and he has complete integrity; he’s taking a rise and he’s deadly serious. He knows the joys of causing irruptions, however small or temporary, in the smooth face of proper grown-up Culture. What’s more, when I look at his work I get that feeling of a sense of possibility even in the context of all that apparent nihilism. Oh and it’s generally fun. Nasty fun.

SUGABABES — ‘Hole In The Head’

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 543 views

Edward O was disappointed by this on ILX, making the point that the first singles from the Sugababes’ last two albums (‘Overload’ and ‘Freak Like Me’) were contemporary pop landmarks, and ‘Hole In The Head’ simply isn’t. But polishing the boundaries can be just as fun as pushing them, and this doesn’t dilute the Sugababes’ individuality or their gloriously grumpy brand. It’s hard to imagine another teen-pop group singing ‘Late at night when I’m feeling blue / I’d sell my ass before I think of you’ and making it work.

‘Hole In The Head’ is as catchy as anything they’ve done and works a faster, harder beat than the Sugababes generally do — a ska-tinted stepper built around chopped-up Jaxxian guitars. Perversely it’s a better vocal showcase than another moody slow number would have been — the way the girls dance cleanly and clearly around the beats oozes appropriate confidence. It may well be that this single presents Sugababes as just another pop group, but they’re a pop group with the clout to get the best songs and the skill to make them special.

KELIS – “Game Show”

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 778 views

KELIS – “Game Show”

I like to think of Kelis as an “ask Abby” for the hypermediated age. Her songs are often populated (lyrically, sonically) with bleeping, buzzing (the information age needs new onotomatopoeia) gizmos – planes, space shuttles and PDAs, all made to send us her love. On an ILM thread, someone said that “Game Show” (just such an exploration of digital love), from her essential debut Kaleidoscope, was an album low point. I respectfully disagree. Here’s why:

The melody – a caricature of, you guessed it, the game show jingle – is casio-synthetic in a way that’s actually quite nostalgic (for a child of the 80s, anyway). They don’t make ’em this cloyingly cute anymore. The tune remembers an imagined past when complicated times used to be simpler, even while Kelis longs for a break from the artifice of it all.

Helium-voiced Pharrel pitchshifting himself into the role of Kelis’s bosom-buddy in the intro.

It’s an inversion of the usual relationship trope – Kelis’s man, all hopped up on media-fed ‘dating game’ love hype- wants to get married, she wants to wait and see if this is the real thing.

The “Hold on!” of the chorus is ambivalent: don’t let the feeling go, if it’s worth it to you, it’s gonna take work to keep it permanent in an impermanent age. And also “hold on”, slow down, woah – this is her life we’re talking about!

Those blank robot voices repeating game show game show game show game show so many times that it goes beyond sense, feeling, reason. Zoot Woman’s “Living in a Magazine” done subtler and better.

In the end we’re left with these impossibly clear music box chimes – either finally delivering the clarity that Kelis craves, or another cruel simulation, another ersatz resolution.

The Hare And Tortoise, Brunswick Centre, WC1.

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 646 views

The Hare And Tortoise, Brunswick Centre, WC1.

Where do you go for comfort food? That quick pick-me-up, that stuff your face feeling. A meal that you know will always be of the same quality and will always fill you up and make you feel better afterwards. I go to the Hare and Tortoise (amusingly renamed The Hairy Tortoise by acquaintances of mine), and I eat their Malaysian Chicken Curry and Rice. Fifteen minutes later – the time it takes for them to ladle a bowl full of the soupy curry, fill a place of nice sticky, nutty rice out and fanny around pretending they have cooked it – I make an absolute mess eating it.

The presentation is simple. Bowl of curry, plate of rice – a reversal of many oriental eateries. The soup is thin, with big chunks of on the bone chicken and a few potatoes (never enough potatoes for my liking). They do give you a spoon, but this is primarily used for spooning your curry on to the rice. At which point the sticky rice absorbs the thin juice and you take your chopsticks and start shovelling. Occasionally you pause for a piece of chicken, trying to fillet it with the chopsticks (an impossible task). Later the fingers get involved, or you try and work out how much of the bone you can happily crunch in your mouth. Last night I introduced the place to two friends, who all ate as I did. Exactly. Copying my style (which for all I know is the completely wrong way of eating it). The table was left with the odd puddle of the soup after an overzealous bit of pouring, but the waitress seemed rather buoyed up by this.

I probably eat this meal every other week these days, and long gone are the days when I would eat anything else in there. The rest of the cuisine isn’t a million miles away from Wagamama’s – though I have friends who swears by their Char Siu Duck (she won’t eat anything else there) or the Zhi Zhi Chicken (ditto). I have had Malaysian Chicken Curry elsewhere, and it has never tasted this good, but then this might be as authentic as Chicken Tikka Masala. I don’t care. This is not fine dining, it is pure self indulgence, and in the concrete canyon of the Brunswick Centre is a little piece of contentment for me. Slurp away.