Being Human

In a slight departure from the usual articles, I have decide to post a poem. It was written over the past week in honour of the season finale of the excellent Being Human on BBC 3. A drama that gets to the core of what it means to be human by focusing on those who aren’t quite human any more. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Being Human

Sentenced to life
Fragile prisons bind their will
The choice of crime quite simple
To give life, or to kill 

Complex souls, free of this world
Understanding them through art
Animalistic in their nature
Yet endlessly divine in heart

But only if they choose so
The choice then, lies within
Survival or redemption
The strongest will shall win

As custodians of their own fate
Which way to turn the key
Such is the way they are
– Being human –
Such is the way they shall be

If you like my writing, be sure to check out my first published collection of poems Love: unrequited, unrealised, unconditional and lost (long title I know!) Available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats.

 

E-readers: The Greatest Advancement of the 21st Century

At the start of the year I read an article proclaiming the death of e-readers in 2011. Yes, the very same tech that saw a boom in 2010 is apparently destined for a premature death just a year later. Madness you’d think. But then again, was it? The argument you see was convergence; the idea that one device should be capable of doing many things. With tablet computing being the buzz-theme at the moment you can see why. Take the iPad; on it you can browse the Internet, play games, music and movies, all whilst tweeting, blogging and emailing to your hearts content. You can even read a book on it. Not forgetting that you can do this with a back-lit screen, so you don’t even need a torch if you go under the covers as you indulge in a little late night guilty Twilight pleasure – reading the book I mean. It’s a solid argument, why on earth would you want a piece of technology that, for all intents and purposes, just allows you to read a book.

Wait though – isn’t that just like a book? For me, the very beauty of the e-reader lies in it’s inherent simplicity. After all, they do aim to replicate an extremely simple medium that has well and truly stood the test of time. Still, it seems paradoxical to suggest that something with so little function should be hailed as the greatest technological advancement of the 21st century, but hear me out.

Books are amazingly wonderful things. They’re portable and accessible, they’re cheap and easy to use. Reading off paper is a joy that cannot be matched by LCD or OLED screens, screens that glare at you with each word. Nothing beats the look and feel of a book, people, myself included, even love the smell. There are few things more impressive or important in this world than a beautifully stocked library. The sentimentality attached to books guarantees we’ll never stop producing them.

Still, in this digital world, there is an argument that books are outdated – yet their longevity just goes to show why they are important and so hard to replace. For e-readers to be a success they needed to imitate books as closely as possible whilst at the same time giving us something very modern, something that can hold vast amounts of information – custom to the user. In my mind, there is no better example than the Amazon Kindle.

The Amazon Kindle propped against books
What we witness in the Kindle is the coming together of core technologies – connectivity, memory, display and power – in a beautifully simplistic manner that redefines the book for the 21st century. The Kindle is incredibly light, about the same size as a paperback, and one can store so many books on it that it effectively becomes your own person library. This represents what an e-reader should be.

Yes the Kindle can’t perform thousands of different functions, but what it does, it does brilliantly well. For me, books are an escape from the digital world. I spend my days either in front of a computer screen or a television, basked in the glow of artificial light. When I read, I want to be transported away from such displays. When I read the Kindle, I can easily forget that I’m holding a piece of technology in my hand – I’m just reading a book – albeit a book that happens to hold 1000s of other books. The Kindle doesn’t need a touch screen or a back lit display, arguably it doesn’t need features like the Internet Browser or even the text-to-voice system.  It just needs to allow me to read.

The thing that really excites me though is an e-reader’s potential to bring knowledge to the masses. The Internet is an amazing knowledge base that can free the world and in many ways has. But its availability isn’t yet as wide reaching as one would hope. The e-reader however, could touch every being on the planet – allowing access to the greatest literary works human kind has every created. One could create a device that has 1000s of the worlds greatest books preloaded on them, delivered in a lightweight portable device – in any language of choice. Removing some of the additional technology would lead way to a ‘dumb’ e-book that could almost be regarded as a throw-away device. It’s low power consumption means it could easily be charged by a wind-up dynamo or a simple solar cell. With no need for the Internet and very little electricity, the e-reader could give a library to every man, woman and child on this earth. Isn’t that what we all deserve? Knowledge is our very birthright. To be able to give that to so many is a outstanding prospect.

We are witnessing a major change in the printed word, arguably the greatest since the printing press. The digital and the physical word are finally combining in a way we’ll never look back from. E-readers are here to stay and they represent the day-to-day future of the book. That said, physical copies will definitely be sticking around. Because, should all technology fail, books will forever be the last bastion of human knowledge.

The Tall Ship, Glasgow – Last Chance to See

On the 27th of February the hugely successful exhibit ‘Titanic: Honour and Glory’, will come to an end at The Tall Ship in Glasgow. The exhibit will then be packed up and move on to a new home in Hawick. But it’s not just the Titanic exhibition that comes to an end on the 27th, the day also marks closure of the S.V. Glenlee itself. Fret not though! The closure is only temporary as the Glenlee prepares to say goodbye to its Yorkhill Harbour berth and set off for a new permanent home alongside the magnificent Riverside Museum at Glasgow Harbour, a move that is scheduled for March 30th.

The S.V. Glenlee
The S.V. Glenlee

It’ll be a sad day for many as the Glenlee finally casts off its moorings and says goodbye to her iconic Pump House home of 12 years. It will then make the short journey up the Clyde and take its place as the centerpiece to Glasgow’s new home of the Museum of Transport. And of course, the move is only half the story as the Glenlee goes through a massive refit, preparing itself as the Riverside Museum’s star attraction. Work began last year and will continue up until its grand reopening in May/June – I can tell you, it’s going to be good!

I was lucky enough to have a sneak ‘below deck’ peek of the ship as Learning Assistant, Fiona Carmichael, took me behind the scenes and explained the new features that will be in place for its reopening. There will be a host of new interactive features to engage visitors as well as two brand new audio trails for them to enjoy (I hear the family trail will be particularly fun!) New areas of the ship will be open to explore as well as a great new play area for the under 5’s. Fiona is particularly excited about one new feature that will have guests experiencing work on the ship,

“There is one new large-scale interactive exhibit that allows visitors to haul cargo sacks from the hold to the deck above and then push them back down a slide back into the cargo hold again – it’s great fun and really encourages team work between friends and families for it to work correctly!”

And continuing their pedigree as an excellent venue for weddings and celebrations (I once blagged my way into a graduation party there…but that’s another story…) the S.V. Glenlee will have swanky new facilities as well as improved accessibility, with a lift opening up the lower decks to everyone. It is sure to be an exciting new chapter in the adventures of Glasgow’s Tall Ship and they already have exciting plans for the summer with their living history team breathing life into the old gal as well as a brand new ‘green heating system’ to keep patrons toasty all year round.

But that’s all for the future, for now, be sure to get down to the Tall Ship and remember her past as well as enjoying the wonderful Titanic exhibition – there isn’t long left so get there whilst you still can. To celebrate there will be a “Strictly Titanic” tea dance on Saturday 26th. Visitors will get the chance for one last waltz on the decks between 2- 4pm with a short break for tea and scones. Live music will be provided by the Nova Scotia Jazz Band and short demonstrations will be provided by Fly Right Dance Co. It is sure to be a wonderful event and a great way to end the Titanic exhibition whilst enjoying the Glenlee in the shadow of the Pump House one last time.

“Strictly Titanic”  is on Saturday 26th February
Adults £10 and Concessions £8.
Tickets available from The Tall Ship reception or by calling 0141 222 2513.

The Nintendo 3DS

Everything is all about the 3 D’s these days, Sky are offering 3D football, every movie under the sun is “Something Something 3D” hell, I have a sneaky suspicion that the entire world around us will soon come in 3 whole dimensions. So when Nintendo made the announcement that their next handheld console would be 3D…some cynics would have called bandwagon jumping. But this is Nintendo afterall, supreme ‘funnovators’, the guys who took the casual gaming world by storm with motion gaming in the shape of the Wii. Sony has already introduced us to 3D gaming on the PS3, this meant Nintendo had to do something special. That something special was 3D gaming…without glasses.

Now we all have a vague idea of how 3D works, and it involves glasses. Which, to some, look silly and are an annoying distraction – even more so if you need to wear glasses under the glasses. And nowadays they’re not even red and blue so you don’t have that retro charm that made you look like Biff Tannen’s pal in Back to the Future. You just look like a guy with sunglasses on indoors, cheap plastic sunglasses. I say cheap, but that’s only at the cinema. Anyone who’s bought a 3D television will know that most employ active shutter glasses that cost a ridiculous amount of money. I digress. The point is that up until now, 3D displays need to be supplemented with glasses in order to trick our brains into seeing the 3D image on screen. The technology is there for glassesless 3D, and there are even some TVs capable of doing so. However not only are the expensive, they also require users to sit at specific positions at correct distances from the screen in order to experience the effect. Herein lies Nintendo’s genius, they took this tech and put it into a screen where there is generally only one viewer with an intensely focused, fixed, viewing position – giving us the 3DS.

The Nintendo 3DS Console, black

The only problem is – you really do need to see it to believe it! Cue Nintendo’s marketing machine under the slogan ‘Believe Your Eyes.’ In the run up to the March 25th UK release Nintendo will be holding roadshow events much in the same way it did with the Wii to help generate a buzz and give potential customers hands on (eyes on?) experience with their latest offering. This marketing blitz began, almost secretly last week, as Nintendo invited club members to special preview events in Bristol, Manchester, London and Glasgow. I went along to the Glasgow event held at the Lighthouse on Mitchell lane and I can tell you now…

The 3DS is stunning.

Even if we took the 3D display out of the equation, the 3DS would be a wonderful successor to the DS/DSi. The processing power is much improved, it’s akin to that of the Gamecube and the Wii – which on a handheld looks wonderful. That additional power also allows for vastly improved augmented reality gaming over the DSi with inbuilt games like face raiders and AR card games that will astound you. Then there’s the addition of gyroscopes and accelerometers to enhance those AR games and give you the same kind of motion control afforded to you with the Wii Remote. To top it all off there’s wifi connectivity with 2 very special features in the form of Streetpass and Spotpass. Spotpass will have your 3DS searching out for free wireless hotspots when you’re out and about so that it can constantly update game. For example, unbeknown to you, Mario Kart could be updated with a new racing challenge whilst it sits in your bag. When you’re next ready to play, the update is already there and you don’t have to worry about wasting time downloading it. Then Streetpass – this system will have your console seeking out other 3DS’ as you walk about. They will then exchange data like high scores. They can even perform automated battles between you and that user – without you having to do a thing. There’s a great emphasis on community gaming, creating new friendships and connections though your 3DS – although you won’t make many friends if you try to play augmented reality games on the bus, flailing about as you shoot down invisible spaceships. Basically though, it’s the kind of hardware upgrade you’d expect given the kind of tech we’ve been spoilt with in smartphones.

Then there’s that 3D, glassesless display – the Pièce de résistance of the 3DS. Quite frankly, magical is the only way to honestly describe it. On games where the 3D effect works well, it truly is amazing. Removing glasses from the equation draws you deeper into the effect, connecting you, almost emotionally, with the 3D world. Games come to life in front of your eyes, as though you are watching a play being performed on a tiny stage just for you. There are instances, beyond all reasoning, where you think you could actually reach into the display, or where characters just jump off it. It’s like being a child again, discovering a whole new world. We don’t think twice about the actual three dimensional world around us but years of 2D displays have conditioned us to think in a very specific way about what to expect from a screen. Then Nintendo put this screen in front of you and your mind does a back flip – you know it’s not actually real, but the effect is so wonderful it beggars belief. I think that’s why, as I looked around the event, there were so many smiles as we all shared in this magnificent experience for the first time.
Me on the 3DS
Now I mentioned fleetingly in the previous paragraph that 3D is stunning on games where it works…because on some, not many, it doesn’t feel quite right. The most noticeable being one of the launch titles, ‘Pilotwings Resort’. You’d expect a flying game to give a wonderful array of depth however the 3D effect you get is focused more on your vehicle than the scenery in which you fly. This results in a very lovely effect where it looks as though your plane is hovering over the screen, but when you really want to feel like you are up in the sky – it’s rather disappointing. There are also some concerns as to how people will cope with the 3D effect, with fears of headaches and nausia. But of course all of this is understandable seeing as this is a new machine with new technology. And one must also remember that all games can be played with the 3D effect turned off, negating any of these issues whilst taking away from some of the fun.

Back to the positives, one thing that will be magnificent on the 3DS is the prospect of 3D video and movies. Nintendo have promised that blockbuster 3D movies will be available on the console, as well as 3D sports highlights in a deal with Sky Sports as well as a host of other non-game treats. This could be the tactic that proves the winner as it opens up personal 3D experiences to the masses. If, for example, you have 2 children and they wish to watch ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ in 3D, you would need a 3D Blu-ray player and a 3D television as well as those expensive active shutter glasses. For considerably less, you’d be able to buy them a 3DS each and they could then experience the movie in, arguably, a much more immersive way.*

*plan also applicable for big kids!

Finally, I should once again mention the event that made this article possible. In true Nintendo style we were taken on a quickly little adventure deep into the world of the 3DS. We were thrown into the games with a live action Street Fighter bout taking place in front of our eyes before being escorted to safety from hordes of zombies by Resident Evil’s resident brother and sister Zombie killing team, Chris and Claire Redfield. (Unfortunately one of the zombies did get at my leg so there is a high percentage chance that I’m infected with the T-Virus. This suspicion was reinforced on my second visit when the zombies left me alone…obviously sensing one of their own. Thanks a lot Redfields!) All the staff were all lovely, friendly and enthusiastic – not to mention attractive. It is quite hard to talk to a bevvy of beautiful ladies, openly flirt and play this wonderful new machine at the same time, I managed though…just about. I’m a simple man after all – I’m weak. But, as the kids say, massive props to Nintendo for the event (what do you mean the kids don’t say that?)

Nintendo are holding more events, open to everyone, over the coming weeks. You can find out where on their website – www.nintendo3ds.co.uk. Alternatively you can find out more information on their Facebook page – because, you know, everything is on Facebook these days.

In Defence of Kanye West: a Spotify Playlist

Forget everything else, it’s all about the music

Ever since it began, Hip Hop has sampled songs to create new beats. Be it a few looped seconds or a reworked chorus, there’s no denying that samples are the life blood of the genre.

This process of sampling that has fascinated me for years now; I love the inventiveness with which the most brilliant instances of surprising songs can be used to create something entirely new. And how, with a little musical archeology, one can peel back the layers of a track and discover a whole wealth of musical genres and songs. Just like studying Shakespeare’s private book collection, by studying the samples used in Hip Hop we can gain a greater understanding of the art. Thanks to musical services like Spotify, it’s never been so easy to experience that back catalogue of music.

Herein lies the crux, the reason I write this article. Through Spotify I began creating a playlist of the samples I love, samples that shaped a generation. As the list grew, so did my appreciation for Hip Hop producers – their influences so wide and varied. Some of them obvious, like Notorious by Duran Duran. Some of them less so, Parce Que Tu Croise by Charles Aznavour, from What’s the Difference (Dr Dre) is definitely a front runner for the “Most Obscure” award. However, as the list developed, I noticed the outstanding development of a precocious young producer. One whom, over the past 10 years, has grown into the most prolific sampler in the business. I give you the Defendant – Mr West.Kanye West Performing

Now I’ll be honest, I love Kanye’s work. However, there are a lot out there who see him as an overinflated ego who’s never far away from controversy – I should point out that I started work on this article before his now infamous, and fascinating, “Twitter Steam of Consciousness” – Yes he’s made mistakes, yes he can be outspoken, but when he says sorry, he means it. Forget all that – the man is an artist (what great artist doesn’t court controversy?) – judge him on his art not his latest tweet.

Thing is, whilst sampling may be a practice deeply rooted in Hip Hop culture, it doesn’t happen in every song. Sit Kanye down with the right equipment (the Roland TR-808 perhaps?) and he’ll create something beautiful out of thin air. Knowing this, and knowing how often he chooses to sample, should tell us something about the man. Here we have someone who, in his own rights, can create greatness, but instead, is humble enough to give precedence to the work of others.

To sample is to pay homage. The mindset is not – how can I improve this song? It’s – this song has something special about it, something so special that it can enhance my work in a way I never could. Kanye has repeatedly shown respect to so many different artists over the years, always careful in the way he handles their work. With some he’ll take that glimmer of genius, a piano riff, a haunting vocal, and let it shine. Others, he’ll construct an entire vocal and beat around, so as to allow the original to take centre stage. Consider this, Diamonds from Sierra Leone is merely the room, with the perfect lighting conditions, in which to display Shirley Bassey’s masterpiece. By using Diamonds are Forever, Kanye celebrates a song he respects. Showing it to the public in a way they’ve never heard before, one that’s relevant to a whole new generation.

Kanye West respects music. We should respect him for that.

Back in 2008, when Jay-Z headlined Glastonbury, I wrote a piece for my website about his legendary performance. A part of that article dealt with the same issues as this. Therefore, it’s only appropriate that I quote, or sample, myself:

Hip Hop lives off samples of great and obscure music in equal measures. Nowhere else in the music world will you see an artist so willing to mix and play with every musical genre, from blues to dance to rock. Hip Hop values every form, it doesn’t discriminate.

Sampling stokes the fire of the classic and keeps the forgotten flames of perfection burning. Kanye just happens to be the best at following that creed.

So here, for you, I present the In Defence of Kanye West playlist. It highlights a few of the more well known Kanye samples and a few of my favorites, it’s by no means comprehensive and of course some songs aren’t available through the service. Notable absentees being the King Crimson song 21st Century Schizoid Man, which can be heard on Kanye’s latest single POWER and the beautiful Kissing in the Rain, from Great Expectations (1998) as composed by Scotland’s very own Patrick Doyle and sampled on RoboCop (808s & Heartbreak.) For those of you without Spotify, I’ve included a track listing below.

Natalie Cole – Someone That I Used To Love (Heard ‘em Say and Wake up Mr West)
Ray Charles – I’ve Got A Woman – Single/LP Version (Gold Digger)
Chaka Khan – Through The Fire (Through the Wire)
Daft Punk – Harder Better Faster Stronger (Stronger)
Shirley Bassey – Diamonds Are Forever (Diamonds from Sierra Leone)
Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up (Touch the Sky)
Lauryn Hill – Mystery Of Iniquity (All Falls Down)
Otis Redding – It’s Too Late (Gone)
Elton John – Someone Saved My Life Tonight (Good Morning)
Steely Dan – Kid Charlemagne (Champion)
Max Romeo – I Chase The Devil (Lucifer, Jay-Z)
M.I.A. – Paper Planes (Swagga Like Us, T.I. ft Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Kanye West)
The Staple Singers – Let’s Do It Again (Number One, John Legend)
Jackson 5 – I Want You Back (Izzo, Jay-Z)
Bobby Bland – Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City (Heart of the City, Jay-Z)
The Main Ingredient – Let Me Prove My Love To You (You Don’t Know My Name, Alicia Keys)
Jerry Butler – No Money Down (Dreams, The Game)
Aretha Franklin – Call Me (Selfish, Slum Village)
Alphaville – Forever Young (Young Forever, Jay-Z ft Mr Hudson)
Rotary Connection – Love Has Fallen On Me (Drivin’ me Wild, Common ft Lily Allen)

Kanye’s latest single, POWER, is out now

Inception

Spinning top from the movie Inception

Inception is a triumph. A film with style and substance. Impeccably acted. Beautifully scored. Perfectly written and visually stunning. But beyond all this, Inception succeeds because of it’s thought provoking and emotional storyline. On one hand we have a super slick heist movie, on the other – an existential quest for redemption.

At it’s core, Inception is a meditation on the self. Like Descartes in the 17th century, it deconstructed the self and questions it’s own existence. We, as the audience, question what is real at every turn as the characters struggle to maintain a grasp on their own perception of the real world. What is it that we value most in our lives? How is that we know what we are experiencing is real? What is the dream? What is reality? For Descartes the ‘real world’ could be a manipulated projection of some malevolent being so we could have no way of knowing. But for Nolan, a simple trick allows his characters to distinguish between the two. It’s sublime in it’s simplicity but this too is open to manipulation. It also questions what if? What if we knew we were in a dream, but it was of our own creation; like gods we could experience anything we want, what if we became the manipulative being? What if we became addicted to our own dreams? Why return to ‘real world’ as was? What would pull us back? Or indeed, what would keep us incarcerated?

The storyline is so beautifully crafted and complex in it’s nature that to talk about it in depth would be to deprive any readers who hadn’t seen the movie of the full enjoyment of discovery. But even going on the discussions I had with my friends on the way back from the cinema, I knew that this would be one of THOSE movies. I look forward to the coming years when Inception has permeated the general consciousness so that we can more openly discuss it’s nature; it’s truth. Inception appeals to a philosophical base within us all, the one that asks “why?” Like the Matrix before it, it does so in such a modern and appealing manner – yet one that’s more accessible than most. Being set within a world we’re all so familiar with brings a level of intimacy that enslavement by robots cannot. This connection to the audience is most important aspect of the movie. It draws us in, it makes us question our own ideas of reality, truth and existence. In doing so, it elevates Inception to the level of a genuinely great movie. At the crux of every great movie, an idea.

The idea behind Inception is not a new one, it’s one that we have held onto for 1000s of years. Therein lies the truth of the matter; what makes Inception such a remarkable film? Inception is so inherently brilliant because it captures the mind as much it captures the heart. How? By questioning reality and examining the nature of love – the very two things that drive us the most.