Thoughts on Attempting a “Review of the Year”

The Joy Collective is a rather splendid blog about music.

It tends to focus on Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, which makes a lot of sense because all three are close enough to share their gig-going crowds. Plus, truly, they are among the UK’s best cities for gigs.

Recently Will at The Joy Collective sent me some questions about my experiences of 2008. So I dashed off some answers, knowing they could never be comprehensive or definitive.

Some thoughts:

  • It’s fun to take stock of cultural things. Counting off years is a great opportunity to do that.
  • Old stuff can be good too. In fact there is much more good old stuff – because there’s more. Compare past millennia of culture to 2008, which is only one year. Of course, the old also has much more rubbish too.
  • Time CAN be a filter of quality because utter rubbish does get forgotten.
  • Old books, old films, old music can be worth the effort. While a lot of it is rubbish or irrelevant, history is rich with things waiting to be rediscovered.
  • We often don’t try to discover the old. What proportion of the books on your shelf were written pre-1900? What about, say, black and white films? (What about your computer games? I don’t play much these days but are they an exception – disposable culture?)
  • Assumptions (often false): new is “better”, new is a “progression”. Even in our digital age, these assumptions lead to a market scarcity of old stuff, or a scarcity in popular archives like libraries or databases. This deprives us of the opportunity to check the old stuff out and thus we have a vicious circle. (Examples: even iTunes doesn’t have many recordings from 78rpm era. And you can’t watch, say, Casablanca at the cinema – usually.)
  • Newness governs demand and therefore the charts, even niche charts. (Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah is definitive and better than Leonard Cohen’s original. (Discuss!) But more people bought Alexandra Burke’s new version.)
  • Over time, the significance of a particular album (or film/piece/work) can go down as well as up.
  • Annoyingly, we now have to pay huge amounts of money for originals of great things which were ignored or neglected at the time of release. This observation was annoying for the creators at the time, as they struggled to get sales. Any artform has examples of this. (Examples: Vincent Van Gogh paintings, Sun Ra or Main Source albums)
  • The cultural impact (or any other consequences) of things in a particular year will become clearer in time.
  • Just to prove a point, maybe I should post a review of the year 1988 at a totally arbitary time. Or the year 88AD. Either review could only ever be subjective and incomplete.

So there you go. Feel free to comment. You can also read other people’s 2008 reviews on The Joy Collective.

What’s the point of Twitter?

twitter google trends 2008
Google searches for “Twitter” over time, source: Google Trends

This graph shows the huge increase in searches for the word “Twitter” on Google. It could be said to roughly correspond to the service’s popularity and importance.

Or maybe, for some of the non-adopters, it signals their rising levels of scepticism and annoyance in constantly hearing about it.

After some heavy field testing, I have discovered that Twitter is not exclusively for smug fools. Actually I have even stopped coyly referring to an update as a “Twitter post” and just started saying “tweet” like everyone else. Indeed.

Yes you ARE justified in feeling a little online service sign-up fatigue, but this is not another Facebook. The tweet hype will increase well into 2009, so you may as well try it. At least to avoid that kind of feeling of being the only person not on pills at a student disco.

Here’s a decent Twitter tutorial and here’s a persuasive intro to Twitter by Tim O’Reilly, the tech publishing overlord.

Such a medium gives tiny glimpses into the everyday. So if you were ever to meet Tim O’Reilly you could ask him about, say, his horses. That kind of question is officially not weird anymore – should it be that you find yourself stuck for an opener, meekly cowering beneath his guru beard.

The existence of a communication platform based on 140-character messages shouldn’t be shocking. Text messages have been widespread for about a decade. Yet, even among tech people, some of the admittedly valid criticism of Twitter points to this issue of brevity.

Other than being the soul of wit and all that, this is a definite limitation. But every medium has features which can manifest as weaknesses.

Nobody’s suggesting this should be the optimum or dominant form of communication between you and me. It can just augment and support what already exists and fill a niche of its own, just as conventional text messaging has done. Besides, a big part of the appeal are web links which telescope off into bigger “messages”.

As you read people’s tweets over time, you build up impressions. Twitter is months of agonising smalltalk, crushed down to the basic eigenvectors.

So I am intrigued by the pure economy of Twitter communication. It reminded me of other things – its precursors, especially other technologies.

My dad isn’t on Twitter, but when we’re apart he and I often communicate by SMS. The text message he frequently sends me is:

ok

That’s it – low fat communication with no caps, no punctuation, no salutation, no sign-off. A mere two letters and with that the most commonly recognised word in the English language.

My brother gets them too and it’s become a small point of reference in conversation between the two of us. It’s one of those trivial but cherished things that families have in common.

The fact is, because of the context and who it is, these replies from my dad always mean a lot to me. The “ok” signifies several things… I am here / I agree / No problem. It’s usually in reply to a plan or proposal from me, for example an initial text to the parents saying “hi, see you sunday, will pop round” so it’s about optimism and expectation too.

It also reminds me of the ultimate succinct exchange, when the author Victor Hugo was relaxing on holiday and used the high speed technology of the day, a telegram, to send his London publisher a single question mark. Keen to get news concerning sales of his new book Les Miserables, he received an equally terse reply. The first print run had entirely sold out and the publisher’s telegram was a single exclamation mark.

We can speculate why this took place. My theory is that the author was just too exhausted to embellish the message after the long process of getting the book finished.

Did the book REALLY sell out on the first run? Or is that fact included just to spruce up the anecdote (which I first read as a boy in Reader’s Digest)? How would Victor have reacted to the West End’s frilly-costumed musical adaptation?

We need not concern ourselves with these uncertainties. What we do know is, the messages are only rendered meaningful by the “metadata” of CONTEXT, with just enough content to work. See also: the Laconians, who stripped away all the redundancy to deliver pointed, concise, laconic comebacks.

Perhaps tellingly, the second biggest adopters of Twitter have been the Japanese, where wired openness about daily life gives rise to thousands of digital haikus per second.

We should also note that English and Japanese are currently the only interface language options on the Twitter website, although client software in different languages is available. I’ll reserve that line of enquiry for a future post.

The upshot of these examples is: we’ve long known that you can squeeze a lot of feeling or intent into a message with tiny informational content, from a round of applause to a marine distress signal. So the brevity is fine.

But what about Twitter as an echo chamber of self-referential tweets and inane signalling about Twitter itself? “Hello world.”, “I’m tweeting.”, “Which client do you favour?”, “test123” and so on? Well, the channel is open, and I think this is all possibly fine too.

Socially, amateur radio was always a marginal hobby and I guess it still exists in some corners. My awareness is largely informed by the Tony Hancock sitcom episode, The Radio Ham (although I believe enthusiasts hate this term). In reality, I’m told that much of the chatter on the airwaves was to exchange callsigns, establish contact and discuss – wait for it – the newest equipment for doing amateur radio.

Young boy riding by at high speed on a bicycle shouting repeatedly, ‘I am here.’ Perhaps the central and single message of humanity.

A Year with Swollen Appendices
Brian Eno
24 February 1995 (Diary entry in Egypt)

The last time I did a precise measurement of a message’s informational mass, I was studying a module on coding theory. We learnt how to introduce redundancy deliberately, to assist error-checking when sending data signals. It was useful but a bit on the dry side. I much prefer the riffing from people-to-people – and the joy of a communication which even, at times, celebrates itself.

Discreet Disco

Here are two embedded videos.

They are identical.

I’ve posted them so you can play them both – simultaneously.

Have a play around with these identical videos. Experiment.

No rules, but some things to try: use the pause/play button to synchronise the videos as close as possible. To bring them closer, just delay the video that’s ahead by a quick pause and unpause. It helps if you’re aware of the difference in visuals and clock. You should get some nice “flanging” sound effects. Then if you stagger the videos again it will make various kinds of galloping rhythm.

I discovered this recently, marvelling at the looping melodies when I opened a video twice, by accident.

It’s easy to do in an age of multiple windows. Inside your computer should be a sound card capable of mixing inputs, like a DJ mixer or the mixing desk at the back of a gig. If you’re not viewing this on a computer it might be worth a try anyway. If it fails, try opening the video in a dedicated window, twice.

It reminded me of a similar thing with vinyl turntables. Years ago, I had two 12″ copies of a tune which I tried to beat juggle to repeat and extend passages – a technique popularised by Grandmaster Flash and other hip-hop pioneers. I was at home and I wanted to see how difficult it was. After 20 minutes I gave up this line of experimentation and took to playing the records simultaneously instead.

The “flange” noises are better with vinyl, not only because of sound fidelity but because the noises are more varied. With the videos the streams are locked. On vinyl, it’s possible to introduce slight variations in the playback which make rather splendid flanging and phasing sounds with proper whooshing and everything. You can also adjust the playback speed with the pitch control – to affect the effects, as it were. I guess this would also work on other DJ set-ups such as CDJs, Serato or Ableton Live.

(Pausing and unpausing the video should be instinctive to a DJ who’s accustomed to ordinary beatmatching – it’s similar to a pitch bend downwards, which you would achieve on vinyl by slowing the rotation of a turntable.)

For the spotters, it’s worth noting that this tune is part of a lineage of remixing and revision. The Source’s original version of You Got The Love came out in 1986. Then in 1989 the remixer John Truelove used Candi Staton’s vocal (essentially the acapella version of it) to create an early example of a musical mash-up. The result is a club anthem with a longevity far in excess of the mash-ups which came later. This took some ingenuity, awareness of musical key and a bit of cheek. The track he picked for the instrumental backing was Jamie Principle and Frankie Knuckes’ Your Love with the now familiar melody and bassline. The bassline of Your Love is, in turn, reappropriated from a fragment of an italo disco track, Feels Good by Electra. According to Discogs this came out in 1982. Confusingly, we also learn from Discogs that John Truelove eventually started using The Source name himself (don’t ask me how that works).

Incidentally here’s another version of Your Love, the one that started the dual play trick off for me. This tune’s nice because the twinkly melody at the beginning lasts for a while. Muso-boffins like Steve Reich and Brian Eno would approve!

I’m sure there are other tunes that would sound interesting with this treatment.  There may even be examples of pairs of tunes which are suitable for live mixing and mashing up. It would help if they were identical speeds (down to the precise beats-per-minute count). On that note proper remixing will have to wait. But I’m working on something along these lines…

Peace and Love, the Ringo way

Is it me or is this possibly the worst PR ever?

This clip has been broadcast today by TV and covered by loads of media – and counting.

It’s a great example of how NOT to communicate.

Whatever you think of Ringo Starr as a musician, he has worked hard over a span of five decades to build a following of dedicated fans. The breadth of his fanbase is the envy of many musicians, particularly emerging bands.

And in a succinct 44-second video clip he declares his intention to toss a great deal of that away. Well, throwing away mailed correspondance from your fans is tantamount to the same thing. Massive blunder.

This is not just about music. For “fans” substitute, if you prefer, “customers”. Except that someone who takes the trouble to write is more like a super-customer or super-fan: enthusing about you, recommending you to others, blogging about you, announcing your news for you on forums…

Through my work with musicians I have observed this kind of fan at close range. Granted, they are a little more earnest than the rest. They hang around after the gig. They might need a bit more maintenance than the average person. But they are great people to have around. You can’t afford to ignore them, let alone cut them off. Whether you’re on a small level or a big level, they are offering to help you with whatever you are trying to achieve.

This is not about privacy issues either. Ringo Starr’s website boldly announces his new album. He is an active artist, still touring. Therefore he is actively making invitations for people to embrace him as a person and get into his music. People will respond to those invitations, he CANNOT switch that off. (If he wanted to be left alone to spend some time with the family, garden or somesuch he always has the option of doing a Rick Astley and disappearing completely for several years.)

This recent speech by wine blogger Gary Vaynerchuk explores these ideas in a social media context. It’s a kind of semi-ridiculous motivational thing about building brands using social media. He does a lot of shouting… you need to answer your emails, respond, care about your users, through as many media as possible – that sort of thing. While entertaining, it’s pretty obvious stuff! Fulfilling these obligations can be time consuming. Vaynerchuk takes an extreme approach by personally responding to every message.

As a byproduct of his own success, Ringo has a bigger, more cumbersome issue with postal overload. How about hiring someone for a day a fortnight? Give them a custom rubber stamp of a Ringo-face and a stack of envelopes. Or a stack of signed postcards? While you’re at it, why not bung in a flyer mentioning the new Ringo album and tourdates?

Aside from straightforward courtesy, it’s good for business.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Heniaith

The last year has been a bit of a language learning adventure for me. I was preparing a massive post but it’s rapidly expanding into several posts.

So I want to blog about the Welsh language, for these reasons:

  1. I love it
  2. I’m learning it
  3. To offer my perspectives
  4. Recording my thoughts for a year’s time

As I’ve just started this blog, there are no posts from my first year – of doing the wlpan course, as it’s known. The learning system is based on an Israeli method for intensive teaching of Hebrew, which is also the source of the word wlpan. Other than the fact that Hebrew is also an old language, there aren’t many other parallels.

Until last year, my language learning experience was confined mainly to school and was in some ways typical for somebody born in the UK. Many people have lingering memories of frustration with languages at school and a quick straw poll of my friends echoes this. While it’s generally acknowledged that other languages can at least be useful, we can be inclined to think learning remains an academic pursuit for the dedicated. It’s formal and it involves drudgery.

Obviously there are exceptions where people have learned languages to fluency, in the school system. But they’re gifted or at least different to the rest of us – right?

Years before wlpan, I did get some experience of Welsh. I was subjected to Welsh language classes during the first three years of high school, for maybe two hours per week. Being a kid with very little life experience, I was a very reluctant learner. It didn’t interest me and I didn’t pay much attention as I never thought I’d use it.

Actually, I hated the feeling of being coerced into learning it.

The Welsh GCSE exam wasn’t compulsory until the following school year, to my relief. I would just sit it out, daydream and then move on.

Another memory was an invitation to a school trip to a residential centre in Llangranog, west Wales – for karting and exciting outdoor pursuits, plus some Welsh learning. Although some of my classmates went, I can clearly remember not taking up the invitation and staying at home for the weekend. It smelled of indoctrination and the fun stuff was quite clearly there to draw kids to the language classes. You know, to sweeten the pill.

I’d been living in Cardiff suburbs since the age of nine-and-a-half. I’d seen Welsh on road signs but otherwise assumed it to be dead, outdated, parochial, sentimental. Even if I were to visit north Wales or maybe Llangranog, there would be no monolingual Welsh speakers – they can all speak English can’t they? (These are comments which would irk me if I heard them now!)

In hindsight these were good opportunities. It was a teenage reaction in some ways. At the age of 13 nobody had really showed me any benefits to learning Welsh. I wanted to learn sciences and seemingly forward-looking subjects. Towards the end of year three of high school, I was obliged to take one modern European language at GCSE level. So I dropped Welsh for good (it seemed) and continued with French. Now unfortunately, a decade later, my knowledge of French has been remotely filed away in the cobwebs of my mind, buried by pop trivia and funny facts.

Things have definitely changed. I’m sitting in my living room in Cardiff, where there are visible signs of someone with a rampaging curiosity for all things Welsh. On my table:

  1. Y Cymro, various issues (newspaper)
  2. Golwg, Barn and Cambria (magazines)
  3. Siarc Marw and Y Selar (music/culture fanzines)
  4. Welsh Roots and Branches (extremely useful guide to words, for learners)
  5. Y Dinasydd and Tafod Elai (paperau bro, meaning ultra-regional papers listing community events, newborn babies, church and school news etc.)
  6. Welsh to English dictionary
  7. Cymdeithas Yr Iaith magazine (and other bits picked up from the National Eisteddfod, a giant cultural jamboree perfectly timed to arrive, almost at my doorstep, in August)
  8. A History of Wales by John Davies (very detailed book)
  9. Neighbours From Hell by Mike Parker (awful title, good book especially chapter on Welsh language misconceptions)
  10. Tu Chwith literary mag is not here but would be if I could track it down
  11. Print outs of essays, speeches and documents found online

An example of the latter is the rather ace transcript of English and Welsh by JRR Tolkien. He talks about his particular fondness for Welsh in some detail. You’re dealing with a guy who devours languages before breakfast, as well as inventing his own.

Back to the table of paperwork (which my friend Anwen jokingly calls the Bwrdd Yr Iaith), some of the periodicals like the papurau bro are not always immediately relevant to me, but I’m going for total immersion here! It’s helping with the language learning and plugging gaps in my political and historical awareness.

So what happened in the intervening years? If I could summarise, I would say that I was drawn to Welsh rather than being pushed into it.

Not long after I thought I’d parted ways with Welsh, it came back on the radar. It would have been when Super Furry Animals emerged on Creation records. They had a few Welsh language tracks on b-sides and then their Out Spaced compilation came out when I was doing my A-levels. I would have discovered that through BBC Radio 1 on the John Peel show. Later of course I heard about the Mwng album (possibly through the Session in Wales as it was then) and I knew that was a big achievement. I also remember hearing Patio Song by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci on Mark and Lard’s breakfast radio show when it came out, a bilingual song.

I can clearly remember a couple of situations where I overheard people speaking Welsh when I reached Cardiff University. It seemed quite exotic to actually hear it being used by real people, despite my school experience. It might sound ridiculous but it made me feel slightly uncomfortable and some internal dialogue was necessary to calm myself down. University is a great time for having your preconceptions remoulded.

In my first year of university I also got myself a Clwb Ifor Bach membership card which allowed me admission to their diverse and excellent venue on the condition I was either a Welsh speaker or had made a commitment to learn the language. Neither was the case. Incidentally, it’s very common for members’ clubs to have specific membership criteria. Clwb Ifor Bach were relaxing this policy anyway and it was revoked not long after.

Over the years I then met people who happened to speak Welsh. Knowledge of the language never seemed a prerequisite to polite conversation (aIthough I can’t say with certainty what everyone really thought of me). Of those who became my friends, I never felt any kind of pressure from them to learn Welsh.

But gradually I felt some kind of higher plane of mutual understanding was possible. It felt a little impertinent, maybe, to converse with them in English. These were people who’d write their shopping lists, get their schooling, sing, pray and do whatever else people do – in Welsh.

It’s like going to Japan and opting merely to shake hands with people. When in Japan, it’s probably better to bow – if you can.

For me, working with Welsh musicians was another little pull in the direction of the language. I was promoting sublime tunes of Welsh origin, sometimes with lyrics in Welsh. A couple of these musicians offered some gentle encouragement when I mooted the idea. I also noticed my younger brother making good progress with the language.

In September 2007 I started attending daily classes – which involved getting there for 8AM. And paying perfectly good money.

This isn’t a dig at compulsory education. I should also say that teachers do a great job. As if to labour the point, some of my friends are teachers. Education was good to me and I did pretty well in the subjects I cared about. But there are certain subjects in which it’s very difficult to instil enthuasiasm in a pupil. Languages in general are one. (For some, mathematics is another.)

How should languages be taught in school? Without any formal training in education as a discipline, I can’t answer. I’m only an expert in the literal sense of “one who has experience”. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. Or maybe it was the timing.

I might have to revisit this one. But now if you’ll excuse me, I have some homework to do.