Foreward Planning

The university are doing a music festival - a week after half the students have gone home for the summer.

It seems the organisers forgot to arrange bands to play. This is normal. So today - two days before the gig - I got a slightly begging circular email asking if anyone was in a band and could play Friday.

Well, I was in a band a few months back - we formed to play fundraising gig which also had a performer related scarcity problem. But I've still got the backing tracks, and my musical better half (the talented one who sings and plays guitar) still has his chord notes...somewhere.

We've got seven songs - half an hour's worth of material to ruthlessly squeeze into a 45 minute slot. We just don't know which slot.

And no time to rehearse. Or indication so far whether there's any other bands playing.

Oh, and the singer/guitarist has a stinking cold - but wants to play anyway. I have a dental appointment on the same day, so hopefully I'll be able to feel my mouth again by the time I have to, erm, use it.

Oh, and they've arrange the gig for the afternoon when a lot of the punters can't come because they're working.


My musical better half has a really bad cold, so has dropped out. This leaves me with three songs I can do on my own - call it a twelve minute set.

And most of the bands either still haven't confirmed, or word of their confirmation hasn't filtered through to all the groups sharing/competing in the organisation. As I write, the 'festival' is due to start in six hours.

And I've been politely discouraged from performing on the, um, considerate grounds that I'm under-rehearsed so might make a mistake and get upset about it.

So I'm going to be a rat...and leave this particular sinking ship.

UPDATE 2: One final (?) cockup.

I've played a gig where the orgainisers didn't know how many bands were playing. I've played one where they didn't decide on the running order till the night. I've played several where bands didn't turn up - including one where it was the headlining band.

Now there's been one where they didn't know what week they've booked the room. Because it's not this week - it's next week. Gah!

UPDATE 3: Next week, my talented colleague...isn't in the country.

Three Stories (Part 3)

Blogger seems to be working again, and I have a phone.

Actually that's not quite true - I have a pocket sized device that plays mp3s, tunes to FM radio, works as a dictaphone, personal pager, organiser, alarm clock, text viewer, stills camera, video camera, miniature cinema and tetris-player, which also occasionally takes phone calls.

Actually that's not quite true either, because I've got two of them - one never used. The other one lives in it's box on the shelf, with charger, earphones and (because it's a Motorola) a vast array of socket-converters because (being Motorola) most of the connections are non-standard. But it was cheap and not as non-standard as the Samsung.

And that's the flipside of organising your life around a small, inexpensive, convenient, multipurpose device. If you want your life to stay organised when it dies, you need to defeat the point of a cheap all-in-one device by doubling the cost and halving the convenience - and get two of them.

These ruminations were triggered by Blogger going down for several days. I wrote them on the assumption that I'd be able to post them when it came back up.

Not if, when. Because I may be a cynic about technology and a pessimist about how humans live with it, but I still have faith that it's a good thing, that it will in general work properly, and that when it doesn't, I won't have to wait long for technicians like me to make it go again.

And like all faith, it doesn't make much sense when you think about it, but even when you realise that, you still have it.

Three Stories (Part 2)

I've been given a laptop, and Blogger has now been down for 36 hours.

I have a friend who bought a laptop two years ago. It's an AMD dual-core 2.11 GHz with a 230GB SATA drive and an x48 DVD-/+R DVD writer. All of which is prominently displayed as a selling point, aimed at customers who don't know what any of it means.

It has a design which could be called 'horrible' if you're an artist, 'impractical' if you have to use it, and 'retro' if you're a journalist. 'Retro' used to mean '20-50 years ago' - now it's 'the cutting edge of two years ago'.

It has AHCI (Advanced Host Controller Interface), which depending on how you look at it, means either it's optimised to run Windows 7 (whatever that means), or you need to switch the AHCI off to install any other operating system.

It also has a sticker marked "Windows 7 Compatible", Windows 7 pre-installed...and absolutely no way to fix Windows 7 when it goes wrong. Which it did.

That's Windows 7 all over. It's great at diagnosing and fixing its own problems, until it reaches the limit of its self-repair ability, at which point you're royally screwed. A disc for reinstalling Windows would be the easy and obvious solution - but none is provided, the assumption being that Windows 7 will never need any user maintenance.

Which is why my friend couldn't reinstall Windows, which is why they spent two weeks wages on a new laptop (with near-identical specifications but a non-retro design), which is why the old one is, in their words "scrap - it's yours if you want it". Which is why I have it. It's now working perfectly.

I once knew a man who sold his car because he couldn't get 'the smell of sex' out of the seats. I'm not sure how I should feel about that, being a contributor to the smell, but it did seem odd to spend a month changing cars instead of an afternoon washing (or even replacing) the seat coverings.

You don't throw away your coat because there's a hole in the pocket - you either mend it or use the other pocket. You might throw away your mattress if it starts leaking its stuffing - though mine is patched up with gradually increasing amounts of duct tape, and fulfills its function just fine.

Televisions are difficult and expensive to repair, so it actually does make sense to replace them when they stop working. But it's pretty simple to upgrade your laptop's hard drive or memory, plug in a USB keyboard when the onboard one gets unreliable, and reinstall the operating system when it falls over.

They're just not presented that way to the public. Personal computer development has slowed to a crawl, which means your new laptop won't be much different to your old one - but you get the new one because you're under the impression that you can only upgrade (or indeed repair) by replacing. And that small upgrades are really big ones.

A decade ago you could expect speed to double every year, now every few years you get the number of processors doubling, running in parallel at the same speed as the old ones - which is useful if you have the minority of software that can take advantage of it.

You may have 500GB of drive space instead of the 250 of five years ago, but it still accesses at 7200rpm. USB 3 may be available, but most of the devices in the shops still use USB 2.

I'm always happy to have an extra laptop. The one from my friend spent last night sitting in one corner making data backups, while this one rendered text-to-speech mp3s and ran a script to downloaded every episode of Monty Python from youtube in sequence, while I dozed on the taped-up mattress.

My old laptop is set up for general purpose email, browsing and wordprocessing. I lend it out to people whose laptops have gone wrong, to use while they're shopping for new ones.

Three Stories (Part 1)

As I write this, Blogger has been down for 48 hours.

You wake up in the morning, blearily stagger downstairs for some breakfast, flick on the kettle...and instead of a cup of morning coffee you get a loud crack, the smell of burning, and resolutely unheated water.

It's annoying, it's inconvenient, it probably means a trip to the electrical shop to get a new kettle, but you don't sink to the floor, wailing and ripping out your hair.

Instead, you grumpily punch the TV remote - because you've got a television in your kitchen that you only use for watching the morning news and the evening news while waiting for the microwave to go ping and the kettle to boil.

On the news is a story about how the local roads you drive down most days are blocked with snow. Again, it's annoying and inconvenient. Your plans for the day - maybe the week - could just have been scuppered, but once again you don't have a nervous breakdown and you don't join a doomsday cult.

Then while drinking coffee made with water boiled in a saucepan and listening to the radio news, you check your email. Or you try to, but you keep getting a cryptic numbered message about 'connection timed out' or 'unable to connect with server'.

So what do you do? Shrug and go do something else? Make a mental note to try again later? No, you keep pressing the button, trying to download the overnight spam and facebook chatter.

You realise you feel...lost without your virtual connections. Cut off, alone, disconnected and trapped in a suddenly claustrophobic world. You keep clicking the mouse, thinking the failed connection must be some silly mistake about to be immediately rectified. For the next ten minutes you're stuck in a circuit of the same actions, like a robot stuck in a logic loop.

And besides the lost feeling, there's a kind of blustering anger. Because this kind of thing is just not good enough. You pay your ISP to keep you connected at all times, and obviously the technicians in the big shiny computer centre aren't doing their jobs because it's been, like, half an hour and they still haven't fixed whatever the problem is.

Yes, it's that combination of existential panic and ranting outrage. That mixture of emotions that doesn't come from the weather re-arranging your timetable, or a cheaply manufactured household implement breaking. It's the attitude reserved for some personal technology, and in particular personal computers.

It's 0800 13/05/11 as I type, and Blogger's messageboards are overflowing with threads like 'When will Blogger be back up & running?', 'Why has Blogger been disabled for 7+ hours today (5/12/2011)? This is unacceptably sh*tty service!' and 'WOW this LONG down time! Will Blogger be discontinued?'.

Shouting, threats, namecalling, and not a little paranoia. Some are posting to say if the outage lasts one more hour they'll never use Blogger's services ever again. Others are ranting that Blogger's technicians haven't posted an estimate of how long it'll take them to find and correct the problem - because everyone knows techies have precognitive superpowers.

* 'Why no further updates as to when service will be restored?'
* 'Is this all problem with Friday 13?'
* 'We Should Have Been Warned'
* 'Why do you refuse to give an ETA for restoration of Blogger service?'
* 'Being terrorist attacked? I'm losing my readers!'

This is the modern attitude to the internet and home computers, or rather to their failure. A combination of existential horror that something fundamental and unquestionable - our virtual selves - has suddenly been cut off, and outrage the situation hasn't been immediately remedied by the authorities. Panic, and affront that the universe has dared to do this to us.

If we can't make a phone call because our mobile phone is out of range, it's an irritation and maybe a serious practical problem, but it's not like a crisis of faith. If we can't post to twitter from the same device and for the same reason, it is a little like you're a young child with a normally dependable parent, suddenly left alone and without explanation in a big empty field.

We don't even expect our gods to be on call 24/7/365 - and we meekly accept when they don't answer our prayers. But even though we know intellectually that our technology is far from omniscient, omnipresent, reliable and obedient, we still expect more from little black boxes than the creator of the universe. the woods?

I've been busy. But not the kind of busy that goes on blogs.

Even highly technical blogs don't give you detailed accounts of the several ways the writer failed to solve a problem - which in a way is a shame, because others reading it might like to know what approaches to avoid.

But if there's one thing less interesting than someone else's success, it's someone else's failure.

I eventually did solve all my problems, which were:
* How to set up a computer to automatically record a series of movies.
* How to turn a series of ebooks into a series of talking books, using a text-to-speech synthesiser that doesn't produce totally unlistenable output.
* How to generate nonsense lyrics and chord structures semi-randomly as a way to spark creative songwriting. I'll write about that one when I've got the strength.

There was also a little short story about family values.

So, I now have a growing set of subtitled classic/sci-fi/action movies with subtitles that I can show to my students (when I finally have some) instead of getting them to play stupid games all the time that supposedly help them practice their English.

I also have a set of mechanically produced talking books on my mp3 player, broken up into half hour chapters, to be played when I'm doing nothing but walking from part of town to another.

Ah, but what are the books? Harry Potter? American Psycho? How to Win Friends and Influence People?

Not quite. The acknowledged classics of marxist philosophy! Not marxist economics, not marxist history, not even marxist politics - rather, the works of Engels, Lenin, Plekhanov etc, which (so I've been assured) founded the uniquely marxist view of the universe.

I thought, seeing as I'd been calling myself a marxist for over a decade, and originally got interested in it for the philosophical aspects, which have proven elusive and baffling, I ought to read the great books. Or at least have my phone read them to me in the voice of a BBC newsreader.

And I have to say, the more I hear, the less impressed I get. Today, Frederich Engels told me that absolute zero temperature is a contradiction in terms. Yesterday it was how calculus and the irrational value of Pi can't exist - and all those silly experts who disagree just don't understand.

Don't worry, I won't be boring you with my metaphysical deconstructions of German political activists from 150 years ago. Though I have been writing essays about it, and they'll probably get a blog of their own.

But here's a non-philosophical essay which dropped out of my head a few days ago. If you've had involvement with any kind of political group, it may describe something familiar.

Is the Pope Catholic?

How many socialists believe in socialism?

Put it another way: How many committed socialists are committed to the cause of socialism (however they conceive it), and how many are committed instead to their particular party? Or to their role within that party? Or to their career within that party? Or to the party's leadership, the support network offered by likeminded comrades, or the sense of struggle?

How many would know what to do if the struggle succeeded? Indeed, how many care more for being the scrappy underdog than the vanguard of a new world?

It might seem a self-evident contradiction to say that most catholics believe in god - surely belief in god is the absolute desideratum of being a catholic?

The average practicing catholic believes in the teachings of the church and the word of the scriptures - even though they're rather vague on what the church actually teaches, and their bible probably sits unopened but prominent on their bookshelf.

The priest will have been through seminary, learning exactly how vacuous the theology is - and how to cover up that vacuity with platitudes and impressive-sounding nonsense. By the time they graduate, what faith they have remaining tends to be so rarefied and abstract it serves only to give them the assurance that they still have a faith.

Around half those who qualify for the priesthood don't enter it. Those who do, in honest moments confide to discreet friends that they believe more in the social good the church can do, than in the reasons it gives for doing it. That, and they don't have many other career options.

Professional theologins are often more able to be open about their faithlessness, while the deacons, bishops and arch-bishops are obliged to keep it firmly closeted.

It's a Kafkaesque world where those who believe don't know what they believe, and those who lead do so on the condition they never admit what they don't believe.

Socialism isn't a religion, but it is a church - complete with sects, schizms, heretics, plaster saints, holy songs, failed prophecies and a host of false popes.

There are also the lavishly published but largely unopened founding texts, and the few professional interpreters who can justify any action, any theory and any reversal by quoting them.

When we see our leaders making impassioned speeches for courses of action we later learn they oppose in private, when we see petty personal feuds disguised as serious theoretical debates, I think we can be forgiven for suspecting the higher you get in the organisation, the less you care about its alleged cause.

When we see apparatchiks barefacedly flipping policies (and lying that they've ever changed) to gain favour in the hierarchy and climb another rung - before opportunistically defecting to another party, effortlessly swapping loyalty after sometimes decades of work...I think we're justified in asking how they so easily rearrange their principles - and if they have any left.

So, is the pope catholic? Perhaps he can't afford to be.