in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, August 27, 2007


If you’ve ever travelled across different countries in Europe, one of the most frustrating things can be sending emails home. If that sounds like a strange thing to say, well, you’ve probably never been travelling in Europe. This is simply because most countries in Europe use a variation on the US-standard QWERTY design: the infamous French AZERTY, or the just slightly less annoying AZERTZ, the standard German layout. The first few internet café sessions are hell. It’s not as if it’s impossible to get the words out, but the little differences and absences are all the more frustrating for being apparently minor. Just like cutting your thumb, you realise how often you use certain keys, and how thoughtlessly, almost automatically, your muscles are programmed to write things in a certain way, in a certain order. But given a few sessions, your neural pathways seem to re-wire themselves, and what was once frustrating becomes as natural as buttering monkeys… stay long enough, and you’ll even have difficulty getting used to QWERTY again…

Each culture/language claims their keyboard is the most efficient, but this is far from clear. What is certain in each case is that the keyboard arrangement of any given culture is a ubiquitous fact, and one that was there long before you sat down to start typing. The system precedes you, and you have to adjust to it. Of course, you could insist on using the apparently more efficient Dvorak arrangement – yes, I’d never heard of it either, until I wiki-ed it. It’s Norwegian, it’s apparently much better… and it never took off. But try demanding one of those puppies in any internet café, or when you order your new laptop. Then imagine training yourself how to use one, only to have to use QWERTY, AZERTY or AZERTZ every time you were cross office floors or borders and needed to shoot of an email or three. It would take hours for you to hunt and peck your way through an email, even one as short as this one here:

“Hey Harry,

We actually ended up receiving another review of this album that was a little more positive, so I think we're going to have to go with that one instead.

This was a great piece, and definitely insightful, but as you guessed, we do try to steer clear of negative reviews.

Hope you understand...



This is actually an exact paste of a message that my friend ‘Harry’ received just the other day, in response to a CD review he’d written of X’s new (and slightly disappointing) album. Harry had been excited to get the hook-up writing for the prestigious website, and had spent the week carefully thinking up and typing out his review, taking care to critically describe and access the relative merits of the work. I read the review – it was well written, thorough, and critical. And this was exactly the problem. After spending so long thinking exactly what to type and how to arrange it, Harry had failed to do the most important thing of all: he hadn’t read between the lines.

Just like the QWERTY keyboard he used to type his rejection, Mike (from his airy NYC loft office) was keyed into a process he, like all the magazine’s employees, were subject to, but not wholly aware of. And, unless he was one of the mag’s founders, it was a system that was already in place when he was in Harry’s position, nervously submitting his first carefully-considered review.

One of two things probably happened on that day. Either Mike submitted a gushing, effusive review of the album in question, or, if he was a little more brave or foolish, he might have submitted something less than positive… What do you think would have happened? In the former case, it probably would have been accepted without fuss, and Bob, seeing how few changes had been made to his work, probably would have ‘taken the hint’ and kept churning out reviews in the same style. Much loved and respected, Bob soon becomes an authority on his genre of music, possessing a knowledge and style that becomes the benchmark… often emulated, but seldom surpassed. Molly Meldrum is a (sad old) case in point. Just get yourself a recognisable style or look (a silly hat will do nicely) and praise everything, and you’ve got a job for life.

But what would have happened in the latter case…? Well, Bob would probably have received an email not dissimilar to the one above. You’re a young wannabe freelance writer, and this is your first hook-up with the aforementioned ‘prestigious music magazine’. What do you do? BOHICA, that’s what. This is not a kind of keyboard. It stands for ‘Bend over (here it comes again)’. If you’re in a new job and the boss is asking for your flexibility and understanding on this matter, this exactly what’s being tacitly demanded.

This is how it happens. Just like the frustrated American backpacker mashing the ‘foreign’ keys frustrating the formation of his digital loveletter to Candy back in Ohio, you either give up, reject the system, or acclimatise. You adapt, you cope. And who knows, in time, you probably even begin to identify with AZERTY and BOHICA, their easily accessible accents and exclamation points… you’ll probably defend the systems against criticism and change, and you’ll definitely install them in your office, your home, your schools… get ‘em for your kids and teach carefully teach them ‘how to’. Eventually, you even come to enjoy it. You end up loving it so much, you can’t wait to be the one who gives the newbie their initiation… and so it is with swift-moving fingers and a strange, almost nameless joy, that you shoot off the email…

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Yeah, I’d sell my soul for total control…

My parents indulged my super power fantasies for several years. This is what good parents do. Cloaking devices, x-ray vision, you name it, I lived them all. This was because my folks, knew (hoped) I would follow the ‘normal’ path of development and grow out of it eventually. In fact, half the skill of being a good parent could be nothing more than working out how to disillusion kids without shattering their confidence. You don’t bring kids up, you let them down – but you do it gently.

My parents were justified in their beliefs – my comic book hero delusions faded by age ten – well, most of them. The socially unacceptable ones, at least. But what about those who never ‘grow out of it’, like Rudolph Hess, Adolf Hitler’s number two? The one who looked like Henry Rollins’ craggly lovechild. No? You know, the one who ‘escaped’ the third Reich in a fighter plane in some hair-brained (and hair-oiled) attempt to negotiate peace. But peace was not forthcoming for Hess. He crash landed the plane in rural Scotland, where he was apparently met by a non-plussed local with a pitchfork – the ultimate reality check.

It’s hard to know what Hess thought would happen, but then again, it’s hard to know what Hess thought about anything. This is, after all, a man who thought that he had psychic powers. Apparently, he was convinced he was psychokinetic (PK). For the Deputy Führer, PK wasn’t just ‘a freshness burst that refreshes your breath,’ it was also the ability to send glasses skating across table-tops, a skill that he would practice while surrounded by his personal guards. Given what we know about the arbitrary manias of the Nazi elite, you can imagine the pressure on the guards:

‘Look!’ says Hess, ‘It moved!’

‘Yes, Herr Deputy Führer!’, says the lowly guard, quietly muttering, ‘crackpot!’ under his breath.

The infallible belief in one’s own super power is analogous to what happens to rock stars who’ve been living inside the bubble of their own success for many years – surrounded by people who pander to their every whim, and who are desparately afraid of their (David Lee) wrath, should they shake the gilded cage of illusion. As ‘parents’, these terrified employees are failing their ‘children’, but the best bet is just to nod, smile, and take the money: for the Mariah Careys and James Hetfields of this world, it’s probably too late. The only type of ‘parent’ a rock star wants is the one who’s going to let them continue to sup the warm milk of the bottle of their fantasies.

But if you’re not privileged enough to be cosseted in a world of make believe à la Axl Rose or Rudolph Hess, it’s very difficult to maintain these kinds of fantasies. If your partner is any kind of ‘normal’ adult, then the reaction to your indulgent ‘Look, I can fly, I’m a plane, I’m superman…’ outbursts is probably a cold hard dose of reality. (S)he is the pitchfork-toting farmer to your Hess plane flight. And this is why you love him/her, strange as it may seem. (S)he’s prodding you for a reason: ‘reality’ might not be really real, but as a couple it’s all you share, it’s the essence of your ‘common ground’. Either you ‘ground the plane’ of your fantasies when (s)he asks you to or the whole thing crashes and burns. It’s either that, or (s)he joins you in midair…

Super power fantasies can consume your life to the point where you find yourself faced with a pitchfork or face down on the asphalt, but ultimately they’re all inside your head. However, somewhere over the North Atlantic in 2005, a new fantasy landed… and one which is scarily omnipresent. Mixing between two vinyl records, perfectly sufficient in 2003, suddenly became an unpardonable brake on creativity, and the search to take ‘total control of the creative process’ with a transparent, all-parameter controller began to possess the imaginations of people like Richie Hawtin and Robert (Monolake) Henke. Enter the custom control surface. Richie Hawtin describes it thus: The biggest thing that I’m looking for, or hoping for, is/are new control surfaces and interface devices for computers and technology… We need a new way of human/technology interaction.”

Unlike Hess, Axl or Mariah, Hawtin et al are not the only ones living in the fantasy. The idea of total, almost magical control has swiftly percolated through the industry, so by 2007, the distinct impression I get from interviewing producer/DJs is that everyone wants a fat controller of their very own, to have one and to be one… In becoming common, the shared fantasy has formed the new shared reality of electronic music. Jazz Mutant, makers of the ultra geek-chic ‘Dexter’ controller, sing the manic hymn from their website, and they only thing about them that’s depressed is their caps-lock button:


And here you were thinking that DJing is still about mixing records? Who’s the deluded one now?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Grace Jones (versus the Automatic Telling Machine)

A friend of mine has this fantasy about his perfect night out. Well, don’t we all? But I’m going to tell you about his, because I prefer it to mine. Justifying his expensive and wasteful pursuit of folly to a quizzical homebody friend, he explained his jackpot thus:

‘I just have this idea that, somehow, I might end up at the end of the night in a hot-tub with Grace Jones’.

Gamblers (the literal, money-spunking kind) dream of their own ‘jackpot-to-come’: the one big enough so they can shout their whole family dinner at Crown. Probably a weird dinner when the day comes (if it ever does) with the family’s own dinner-set at the hock shop and everything, even the children’s toys, down at the repo depot. But go on, press the button, pump the one-armed-bandit one more time – c’mon, your luck’s bound to change. It has to, sooner or later. Right? Well? Of course not. ‘Everybody knows’ that this is impossible. Electronic pokies are programmed so that, if you play them regularly, you will lose. I know this is hardly news, but it bears repeating. Winning is statistically impossible. The ‘jackpot-to-come’… well, it can’t. Just like my friend won’t end up in a hot-tub with Grace Jones.

But I wonder though, if there was such a thing as an ‘Automatic Telling Machine’, what difference would it make? I mean, instead of just the normal ‘Automatic Teller Machine’. Picture yourself prior to the moment of folly… but instead of inserting your card, you somehow swipe yourself… like those magic 8 balls, the Telling Machine could tell you your real chances of hitting that jackpot, winding up in that hot-tub, landing that sexy dancer (with a click of the fingers, without the clap).

It would be disastrous. The only thing you need more than the cash advance from the teller machine is another blanketing layer of drunkenness to cushion and comfort your cherished illusion. In this way, a pokie machine is the opposite of a Telling Machine – the one thing it refuses to do is actually give you the whole truth straight away. And that’s just the way gamblers like it. It keeps on repeating part of the truth, over and over. And your job is just to ignore it, every time it appears. This is actually the key reason why people spend time playing the pokies, but not ATMs.

But the gambler’s mistake is not that they fool themselves, it’s that the machine doesn’t. You’re playing, but the machine isn’t. You don’t play the pokies, they play you. But they’re not playing - they’re just doing exactly what they’re programmed to do. Which is to rob you. But people are something else entirely. You can be sure that the pokie machine will screw you… but the person you’re plying with drink and chatting up – how can you tell? Fact is, there is no telling with people:

‘You never told me you were married!’

‘You never told me all there is to know about the Crying Game!’

‘I never told you about my years in the foreign legion…’

‘Ah yes, about those lesions…’

‘Did I mention I also share a bed with my axolotl?’

And you’ll never even know about the Rohypnol… But as little as we can tell (or do tell) about each other, and as dodgy as we’re capable of being, we’re still able to do something no machine can… and this is the magical, wonderful thing about people: we can bullshit ourselves. Okay, sure, so there’s no way of telling what the other person’s thinking. But then again, who knows what you’re capable of? You do? Hah! What you did the other week, that’s only an inkling. Who can tell really? Human beings are more like machines for misrecognition than anything else. But it all blends perfectly, because (while a pokie machine is a pokie machine is a pokie machine), a human being with a wad full of machine-warm cash and a belly full of liquor can convince themselves of anything, and maybe ‘him’ or ‘her’ too. Given enough to drink, you could even convince yourself that (s)he (five foot nothing, blotchy and white, with an underbite) was Grace Jones and that ‘that’ (a child’s wading pool in a cold suburban garage filled with dubiously murky liquid) was, in actual fact, the hot-tub of your fantasies. Well, you can tell yourself that’s what it was. That’s what makes you different from a machine.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Codpieceface (What did you say?)

As a child I was frightened and excited by a lot of things in Labyrinth. It wasn’t just Jennifer Connolly’s peach-fuzz moustache or the soft whorls of her unplucked eyebrows, although these things did stir a primeval longing I’m still dealing with… But more than Connolly’s budding charms, the Bog of Eternal Stench, Hoggle, or ‘Dance Magic Dance’, the thing that left the deepest impression on me as a child was David ‘Goblin King’ Bowie’s tights, and the magic lunchbox they carried. In the cinema, where I was first ‘exposed’ to its glory, that crotch was ten feet high. There was something truly monstrous about those tights, something that revealed more of their contents by ‘hiding’ them in sheer grey nylon than any kind of ‘revealing’ would have shown. All they did was cling, but with this one simple act they proved that some kinds of clothing are capable of producing something more naked than naked… a kind of supernudity.

Flashback to ‘93, and everything’s cut of a decidedly different cloth. These are days in which it is conceivable to have an undercut, an ear-ring and a goatee and still be just behind the curve of the cool. Cobain was still alive, JJJ still played interesting music, and Porno was for Pyros. In ‘91-‘92 there were Stüssy beach pants (which my music teacher called ‘harem pants’) which produced in the wearer two very pronounced buttocks and a soft whooshing effect when walking. By ’93, people were still wearing them with Doc Martens and flannies in some horrible condensation of ‘Big Audio Dynamite’ and ‘The Year that Punk Broke’, but by this stage, skate culture had already claimed more than a few hips (and cracks) with baggy jeans, which reached absurd proportions with rave-influenced atrocities like Kepper and Cross-Colours. It was a great year for those of us with stubborn paunches and stump ankles. For skinny people, it was a disaster. Whole groups of people seemed to flail in their clothing like panicked children trapped in a collapsed tent. Fat pants peaked somewhere in the Western suburbs in ’95, but the influence of their bluntness traveled down the pantlegs of the culture so that, by 1999, people were wearing skate shoes like Osiris that looked like the wearer had on a scuffed pair of Audi TTs. And looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether a whole generation were living in a fashion universe whose bagginess was conceived due the repressed trauma of seeing David Bowie in tights.

But now we’ve come full circle. In the past week I’ve seen two young gentlemen wearing pants tight and tapered enough to make David ‘Goblin King’ Bowie wince and grimace, showing his teeth in characteristic fashion. One guy appeared not so much restrained as propelled down the street by the pants themselves, as if the tightness had passed a critical threshold beyond which a constant elastic effect meant that the duds walked the wearer. He looked proud and helpless. In the 70s, Bon Scott and Robert Plant faced the daily dilemma of ‘which way to pack’, but the tightness of some of the latest pants is far beyond the old-school simplicity of ‘to the left’ – I can only imagine they require the absorption into the body cavity of a young man’s delicate parts, a technique filched from sumo wrestlers and the Russian ballet and whispered into eager ears at point of purchase. Comfy in our ‘harem pants’ in a ‘94 classroom, we tittered like pre-teen Japanese school girls at the in-class presentation of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ - we called each other ‘codpieceface’ with the confidence of total security. We thought, ‘no, it could never happen here.’ Then on the weekend, we took comfort watching a Clockwork Orange smugly imagining (from the warm, voluminous folds of our baggy trousers) that a world in which men wore tights was nothing but the crazed imaginings of film directors from a bygone era. Tights? Hah! The neck ruff seemed an equally plausible contender for ‘most unlikely fashion comeback of the century’.

But this is another century, and in 2007 on High St in Westgarth I saw a young man having to clamber onto a tram as if he had prosthetic legs and his pubic-hair super-glued to his inner thighs. Such, such was the tightness. And now the girls go one step further, and actually wear leggings. And ladies, I’d really think twice about that. If you’re white, that means you have cellulite, even if you think you don’t. In fact, unless you’re a black and field athlete or a pro cyclist, I’d recommend the following: never, ever ever wear leggings. No buts. But maybe you can’t help it, maybe it’s a similar trauma at work in your world – maybe you’re part of a generation of baby brothers and sisters who’d stood by helpless as their skinny elder siblings allowed themselves to be totally engulfed by baggy trousers and round-toed skate shoes. So now you’re imposing the revenge fantasy on their stump-legged others. Or… you don’t honestly think it suits you, do you? Maybe you need to admit that you’re the victim of something. That you’ve survived something awful, codpieceface… sorry, no it’s not just you. Maybe we’re all victims. Come to think of it, maybe it’s the experience of childhood horror like this that is the true beginning of all fashion.

© Peter Chambers 2007

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.