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

Monday, February 25, 2008

Broadband Lapband Lapdance (love thy neighbour)

So there I was, doing what so many of us do these days: half-watching television and browsing on the internet, toggling between three windows and watching (like some kind of slo-mo po-mo horse-race) the taskbars on the three downloads run past each other.

But it was the television that was really grabbing my attention: a documentary on Prader- Willi syndrome, which is nothing to do with acquiring an over-priced designer penis and everything to do with a chromosomal disorder that tricks your brain into thinking you’re starving. Left to their own devices, people who suffer from Prader-Willi will eat themselves to death. Yeah, real nice.

Hovering between the cover of NW, the food ads in the commercial break during the broadcast of The Biggest Loser and the open door (and locked pantries) of the eating-disorder clinic stand you and I: born in a country of hyper-abundance, the ultimate badge of mastery is the slender figure. It’s a sign that indicates (with pleasing sinew and long, lean muscle mass) a mastery of consumption, the one thing that those poor Prader-Willi sufferers (with their tricky, dicky hypothalamus) or those poor kids (with their icky, sticky sweatshop) who stay skinny stitching ‘big and tall’ size blue collars for export can't manage.

So I was thinking as I looked back at my laptop (itself part of some drive to be ‘skinny’)… but things had gone pear-shaped. Dear god no! The taskbars (not the taskbars!), which only moments earlier were stumbling over each other in an effort to be the first to offer me (the hungry, hungry data hippo), his total data dump delivery, were practically stalled.

I recalled the echo of a comment over my shoulder from five days previous: ‘We’re at 80% of our data limit”, said she. I think I was too busy downloading to notice. But now it had finally happened – what Telstra used to do to me every month as punishment for doing the one thing that broadband is for, my current provider had now done for the first time ever. My broadband had been given lapband: they’d pinched my tap; the’d kinked my hose – I’d been ‘shaped’.

‘Shaping’ is the internet equivalent of what’s called (in Newspeak) ‘an intervention’: the benevolent internet provider, who formerly allowed the data to flow like sweet milk from the endlessly pink teat of novelty, is now withholding love (until ‘further notice’, ‘you pay us’ or, if you’re lucky, ‘the end of the month’). Those of you who’ve worked in customer service call-centres might have been on the other end of this complaint. Yes, I too have heard a man of 50 reduced to blubbering whimpers (and not being able to see the man, I always imagined Harold from Neighbours’ quivering jowls) after being told that his service had been suspended. ‘But… but you… you can’t…’ ‘Oh yes Mr Popinfresh, I think you’ll find that we CAN!
‘No… please…’
‘Maybe you should learn to CONTROL YOURSELF!’

Etc, etc… by this stage, the documentary on Prader-Willi was almost over: one of the people the doco followed had been institutionalised, and had lost weight. For the other, the one trying to live his own life, things weren’t looking good…

…Three days later, and I’m in my neighbour’s pantry, stealing sweeties. Like a lot of people who live in units, many of our neighbours have wireless. And, as I’m sure the guilty among you would know too well, many of these networks are unsecured. I started off by logging in furtively, ‘just to check my email’. A day later I was reading the paper. Then, on Thursday, I cracked like an overladen plate… and downloaded three DJs sets off a blog. I was violating my neighbour in the quintessentially 2008 way – in fact, stealing wireless may be the perfect crime of the rich world’s 21st century: it’s anonymous and mostly undetectable, but still underhandedly cunty in a sneaky, snaky way, especially because the kind of people who would have left their network unsecured are the kind of people who are good, kind, sharing people who too good-hearted (or even just naïve) to suspect their neighbours of anything so dastardly. Not only that, but it puts you into this weird intimacy with the person who’s allotted share of the bandwidth you’re munching into: I mean, it’s hardly fucking their spouse, but there’s something sordid and naked about the fact that you can easily get into their hard drive; go through their photos; pinch their mp3s; even watch their porn collection. You’re right in there, and they’re lying on the bed in a kimono, just letting you… or even… I start thinking… maybe it’s a trap? Maybe they’re weirdos and they’ve been stuffing with my broadband, then just left this wireless ‘open’ like it’s a backdoor to a cooling pie in an empty kitchen, I’m the Prader-Willi sufferer from next door, and they’re waiting, breathing heavily in the cupboard, kimono gaping, with a hard-on and (improbably) a pair of binoculars…

In reality, I only made it half way through this train of thought before my binge was over: all 278 megs-worth of DJ set had downloaded. I logged off my neighbour’s LAN, feeling disgusting and disgusted, both for feeling unable to control myself and for effectively consuming the set through the data equivalent of another person’s digestive system. Then, later that afternoon when I’d listened to and been underwhelmed by the DJ set, the empties came along to hollow out the yuckies, and suddenly I felt dirty, void, and in need of new music… do I need to tell you what I did next?

Monday, February 18, 2008

How to make it as a Playlist Nazi at a BBQ party in Melbourne, 2008

‘I have a problem,’ I confessed to my friend in the backyard of a friend’s friend’s party on Friday.
‘What is it?’ they asked.
‘Well, we’re having a party tomorrow too, and I’m worried about the music…’
‘Oh, not you too!’ she said.
‘W… what do you mean?’ I stammered.
‘Another Playlist Nazi!’
‘You’re about to tell me you want to hide your iPod so that nobody can
touch it.’
‘Y… yes,’ I confessed, bashfully. Gosh, were my symptoms so obvious? My friend then explained that she’d had the same fraught, exasperating conversation with the host of the party we were at only a few hours earlier. Oh dear, I realised, I had come to epitomise the contemporary twat. She was right. I was a Playist Nazi.

When my father was a teenager, he once committed the ultimate party crime of his generation by vomiting on the record player. Hey, they were playing Jefferson Airplane, so who can blame him, but… In the 90s, by the time I’d started binge drinking in people’s backyards, things got a lot simpler: you just had your five CDs (usually Triple J Hottest One Hundred Vols I through IV and the Rage ‘Most Requested Videos’ double CD) which you left on shuffle. By the time the Cranberries ‘Zombie’ played, you were too busy holding your girfriend’s hair back while she vomited off the balcony into the cactus garden to be able to change the tune, even though it was stuck on repeat… which is enough to make you vomit on a cactus garden, repeatedly (trust me).

But these days, it almost always comes down to an mp3 player on shuffle. One little box, and the shuffle function that rules it. It’s either that, or let drunk people near your laptop, where you risk a helluva lot more than a stylus and a Jefferson Airplane LP.

So anyway, I spent most of Saturday loading up my playlist, with the ‘playlist nazi’ conversation ghosting my thoughts the whole way. I named my list (imaginatively) ‘Megamix’, with an enormous list of 6 days worth of tunes that I figured nobody could reasonably object to at a party. The strategy was to have so much good music on board that all I’d then have to do was hook the thing up, hit play, then hide the wee bastard out of sight.

But thing is, playlists are never quite perfect. The big ones are never specific enough, and even the best contain at least one song that’s ‘not quite right’, or enough to inspire a would-be John Peel with a skin full to think that a better track is only a quick jog and click away. I got cocky, basically, because I was thinking in terms of ‘gigs’, not songs. I foolishly thought that by including six days worth of favourites (with the sad, downbeat and introspective tracks removed off every album), I’d have all my bases covered. Something for everybody, and all that.

I was wrong, of course, because all that goes pear-shaped once the ‘average party intake’ reaches 7+ beers. Then you’ll have the aforementioned drunk bastard, as mentioned above. Well, I frightened him off by being a completely rude prick to the guy (and hey, whoever you are, I’m sorry, but I was being egged on by two friends who were whispering to me ‘Pete, the playlist – quickly, quickly!’).
I went up to him and said, threateningly: ‘Hey, whatever you’re choosing, it better be good.’
‘I was just…’
‘I mean, you’re going to have to take responsibility for it… you understand?’
‘I wasn’t…’
‘You have until the end of this song…’ and said, then wiggled my clipped moustache, clicked my heels, placed my riding crop under my arm, and marched off.

At the end of the song, silence. Hah, victory! Actually, I think it was through no fault of his, just a long fade out, but I used the opportunity to pounce.
‘Sorry mate…’ I said.
‘But I hadn’t chosen anything…’
‘Sorry mate, there’s a playlist and I’m happy with it.’

Thing is, once it gets to eleven, the last thing people want is the astonishing display of breadth that you’ve provided. What they want is to dance, but not to anything that: is instrumental; has an open groove (i.e. no house, unless it’s Daft Punk); that they haven’t heard before. This really narrows things down a bit. No it doesn’t, it narrows thing down a lot. Despite spending hours attempting to make the ultimate variety playlist, I had neglected (or been living in denial of) the reality of what nearly every BBQ party becomes. I was so busy getting hung up on filling gigs with songs that I neglected to think about the right songs for the gig. I forgot the one playlist that every summer BBQ in Melbourne actually wants, and ended up having to make it happen with the clickwheel, track by track (leaning heavily on one compilation of mine from ’94 called ‘Rap Attack’). But because I’m such a nice guy (except when you touch my playlist, fucker) I’ve included the list of every single track that I’d neglected to include, tracks I thought were too clichéd, too played out, or too tired to work, but that actually constitute (more or less) the tracks that drunk people in Melbourne in 2008 actually want to dance to. Ignore it at your peril.

Deee-Lite ‘Groove is in the Heart’ (the cliché that never gets old, apparently)
Salt’n’Pepa ‘Push It’ (same as for the first)
Tone Loc ‘Funky Cold Medina’
Stevie Wonder ‘Superstition’
Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince ‘Boom! (shake the room)’
Faith Hill ‘Love like This Before’
Beyonce featuring Jay-Z ‘Crazy in Love’
Justin Timberlake ‘Sexy Back’ (or ‘My Love’)
Tina Turner ‘Nutbush City Limits’
Miss E ‘Get Ur Freak On’
Outkast ‘Hey Ya’
Jacko ‘Don’t Stop (‘til you get enough)’ [or anything off the original version of Thriller]
Prince ‘Kiss’
Parliament ‘Flashlight’ (a bit of a risk, but sometimes works a treat)
George Clinton ‘Atomic Dog’ (but it’s very long, be warned, you might lose ‘em)
INXS ‘Need You Tonight’ (might bring ‘em back after ‘Atomic Dog’)
Stardust ‘Music Sounds Better With You’
Daft Punk ‘Around the World’ (these two are some of the only house that will work)
Depeche Mode ‘Just can’t seem to get enough’
Madonna (everything off the Immaculate collection except ‘Crazy for You’, ‘Borderline’ or ‘Live to Tell’)
Soft Cell ‘Tainted Love’ (doesn't work as well as it used to)
New Order ‘Blue Monday’ (or the Shep Pettibone mix of ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’)
The Smiths ‘This Charming Man’
B-52s ‘Rock Lobster’ (and/or maybe ‘Love Shack’)
The Cure ‘Lovecats’
The Cure ‘Close to Me’
David Bowie ‘Let’s Dance’

Monday, February 11, 2008

Everything old is… you?! Again? (old bags are sooo old hat)

When I was just a wee lad, I was taken to see Halley’s comet. Remember? All through ’86 we had comet fever, not least of all because it only comes once every 76 years (and you thought Santa’s sack was big). Viewing the comet was considered the quintessential ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. For me, hearing of the comet’s tail was the first time I got my first inkling of the limited ink of the human story arc, when I realised that I might not live to see the celestial anticlimax a second time. Tragic, isn’t it.

For Halley spotters in olden times, there must have been other transitional moments: imagine being born on the cusp of the decline of the neck ruff; watching the codpiece die out; seeing the public wearing of sabres fall into disrepute. For so many of our ancestors, there must have been the sense of something slowly becoming extinct, of moments (and accoutrements) ‘never to be repeated’: monocles, pith helmets, mutton chops, moustache wax, pipe smoking… all of them, slowly fading, then gone.

But sometimes these days, it feels like we’re dealing with the death of eras in nanobits and flash memories. Four years ago, I was shooting film, playing records and thinking nothing of it. In 2008, it seems silly to buy into C-DJs or even Final Scratch when the ultimate ‘integrated mixing unit’ (with onboard flash drive) is nearly upon us. It should make me quiver in anticip…….. pation, but actually, the pace of change makes me really, really anxious. I have two wired functions to help stem the flow, but it’s more like sticking your pinky into a bursting dyke than dabbing a tear. So I ‘download’ and I ‘delete’, and between these two essential functions, I try (at least) to contain the torrent of content. As far as hardware goes, I don’t even bother – who’s got the money? Even the thought of it makes me feel so enervated that I want to lie down and give a half-arsed squeak of ennui (if I could be bothered).

Even the return of the Olympics makes me feel depressed. Leap year again?! Devil take you! Was it really four years since Athens? And eight since Sydney?! I suppose that’s why people (in rich countries) update their televisions for the Olympics. You feel sad, you get depressed, you go shopping to compensate, and you come home with something that makes you feel, for once, like you’re surfing (the safety grip of) the cutting edge, with the hard bite of the credit crunch only the distant inkling of suspected deadly masticators.

But then on Friday night a beautiful thing happened to me, something calming and energising, an event that gave me strength and hope.

You might have noticed that Oakley has sensed its wave is about to break again, with the re-release of Frogskins, the mirror-lensed Californian mutation on the Wayfarer. ‘No way,’ you say like Point Break Keanu. ‘Way,’ say I as Wayne. Go to my family photobox, you can probably find a picture of me wearing Frogskins, with a Bad Billy’s top in red acid wash, a pair of quick-dry boardshorts, and a pair of Puma Cats, the same as they used to wear on 21 Jump Street. I was the Hypercolor portrait of a pre-pubescent, flourescent knob end… come to think of it, when will they re-release Hypercolor t-shirts? Now’s the time, fo real.

Anyway, so they’re re-releasing Frogskins, just like I used to wear in the late 80s. ‘Big whoop’, as we would have said back in the day. But then, on Friday night, I came home and warmed up the family telly, an old Sony Trinitron that my dad had bought in 1988, probably to coincide with the Seoul Olympics. I have this memory slice of watching Bryan Brown get his head chopped off by the ‘Japs’ in Blood Oath, the very first night we used it. The blood spattering the sand was a much richer red than I’d seen on our old Philips (purchased when Beyond 2000 was still called Towards 2000). Suddenly, new and far more colourful violence seemed possible, and with our remote control, we could flick quickly between channels- and channels-worth of rich, vibrantly rendered horror. We were ready for the nineties.

Cut to Friday last and the colour on the old Sony now seems distinctly flat and full, compared with the positively ‘Oakley’ colour range on some of the new LCD tellies, but despite the dullness and the high-pitched whir of the old tube (and the pots and pots of Carlton sloshing around inside me), I could still make out that I was watching Meatballs… Meatballs IV, the tagline to which is: “There's only one thing wilder, crazier and sexier then last summer – this summer.” There, in a pair of Oakley Frogskins and a fluoro wetsuit (that would have perfectly matched the colour schemes of my BZ bodyboard and Peak springsuit), was Corey Feldman, doing his best impersonation of an over-the-hill manchild giving the cashteet of Goonies fame one last squeeze before checking into the world of has-beens (which, in case you’re wondering, is over the hill right next door to the rehab clinic).

‘Good God,’ I guffawed at Corey, ‘There is no avant garde!’

It all hit me at once. Last year, Amy Winehouse lost the Mercury Prize to the Klaxons. Their lead singer, who I can imagine sporting not only Frogskins but most of my ‘88–‘90 wardrobe, was quick to point out that “her record is a retro record, and we have made the most forward-thinking record since I don’t know how long.”

Now, Winehouse might not have much to look forward to given the way things are going, (get Corey Feldman on the blower, I say), but without a doubt, the Klaxon’s near future is a myth. What does it mean to be forward-thinking in 2008? If you ask me, the flipside of being in a world where nothing is old is that nothing is new (and vice versa). Constant change means that nothing changes. The other side of redundancy is the eternal novelty of rememberabilia… I’d weakly thought so for a while, but it was seeing Corey in Meatballs IV, no less than viewing Halley’s Comet, that reminded me what life has become, and what kind of world we’re living in, more a memory-go-round (or a comet’s tale) than a edgy shuffle into the never-never.

‘Yes yes,’ you say, ‘things go in cycles, in the way that Bobby Brown is just ampin’ like Michael.’ But no! We’re far beyond (?behind? ?below?) that. This year, Jacko is re-releasing Thriller as a NEW album – he’s just re-recorded it, with new guest spots. It’s the ultimate ‘guaranteed hit’ as well as the perfectly 2008 ‘new album’. Take the tip, 2008 is a year to relax: just choose your favourite combination of historical modes and roll with it, or go back to whatever you were doing and wearing then, with the self-assured pride of an Elizabethan at the height of codpiece fever. Sooner and later, mark my words, thou wilst be at the very heighth of fashion, O my brothers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Champagne for my true friends...

In every one of the world’s cultures, there exist social protocols, manners, and etiquette that guide us on how we can learn to get along without pissing each other off or making each other cry. Whole streams of literature are dedicated to people’s navigation of the rocky rump of human affairs: satires like The Office and Borat relentlessly expose the squirming nudity of faux pas within and between cultures, teabag by teabag.

And why not? Some form of shared manners, however loosely they be conceived or expressed, remain vital if we’re not to misinterpret the shaking of the sack, the kissing of the venerable digit, the blowing of the spittle and the winking of the waddle.

In any country you go to, the culture’s got nearly all the actions covered: from greetings to farewell, from births to deaths (and marriage in between) – we’ve all got some idea how to behave toward one another. Well, most of us do most of the time. Or… well, some of us do, some of the time.

But one kind of social interaction remains, to the best of my knowledge, completely off the map, a kind of quasi-global social black hole into which our best intentions and most hurt feelings are sucked year after year, without any clear idea of the outcome. Nowhere in all the world, at least as far as I know, is there a culture that has worked out the etiquette of ending a friendship.

If you think about it, it’s huge. Everybody has friends, and most people work their arses off reading between the lines and showing patience, forgiveness and care to people they don’t quite understand, who don’t quite understand them, but who put up with each other. Who inconvenience themselves for each other and who respect (or at least feign respect for) each other.

But shit happens: times change, good friends turn odd, become knobs, or test that patience of yours once too (thousand times too) often. Whether it was the slow, sorry feeling of drowning in scat, the nicky prick of the thousandth cut or the hump-splitting straw that broke the camel’s back, the time comes in all our lives where we should (if we have any self-respect), do the proper thing and tell our ‘friend’ to go fuck themselves, properly and for good.

But how? If you were having regular genital contact with your friend, this is easy… but then, they wouldn’t be your ‘friend’, they’d be your ‘boy/girlfriend’, ‘partner’ or ‘spouse’. In such a case, one part of the couple often ends by asking the other if ‘we’ could ‘still be friends’. You’re saying, more or less, ‘I want to end this habit of genital contact we’ve been having. I don’t like where it’s taking us.’ Getting to this stage in your own words is easy… well, not easy, but at least it’s possible. There exists a panoply of social scripts you can read off. There are roles to play and there are recognised code words, ones that anyone but a complete sociopath (oh, hang on) will understand exactly what you mean when you say (touché cliché), ‘I think we should start seeing other people.’ Or any of the hundred-and-one other wooden heartbreakers we deploy in such situations.

But beyond this point, the black hole opens its ugly maw. There are breakups and there are breakups, but I’m sure I can speak for most of us when I say that there were also BREAKUPS, and that, when ‘it’ happened, you hated the person’s guts and wanted to never see them again under any circumstances. Usually, circumstances intervene on your behalf – they move interstate or overseas; you’re on different tram lines; neither of you have friends (in common).

But let’s just say you’ve never had any genital contact, no-one’s moving anywhere, and the person remains part of your larger social circle? I spoke to half a dozen people about this over the weekend, and the majority (yes, well, four) confessed to being in this situation at the moment and not having the foggiest idea about what to do. Who really breaks up with friends? And how would a friend react if you got all socially experimental and blazed that trail? Last year, a friend of mine wrote a letter to a ‘friend’ of theirs who’d made their shitlist. My friend showed it to a third party who knew the ‘friend’, and the third advised (wisely, in hindsight) them not to send it. ‘Every word of it is true,’ third said, ‘but if I got that letter, I’d throw myself off a bridge.’

So my friend kept the letter, said nothing, and dribbled on with the wreckage of a friendship, without trust or hope for re-building something. Only last week, I experienced this firsthand: a ‘friend’ of mine appeared out of the past and reminded me of everything I was trying to forget about why it was probably for the best if we never see each other again… if we had been a couple, it never would have happened, but because we’re ‘friends’, we’ll never break up. It’ll just wheeze on, and in ten years they’ll wonder why I’m funny about them calling me out of the blue and asking if there’s a place they can stay (which they will, natch).

A friend of mine (and a true one) would often say: ‘Champagne for my true friends… and pain for my sham friends.’ But (like most curses), this is a toast of the powerless. What can we do in this situation? Anyone? Bueller?

The Author

[almost nothing] about me

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