Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bleeding Edge (Thomas Pynchon): a fast paced but disappointing detective story about NY's 2001 tech industry

I can't remember who or what tickled me into buying Bleeding Edge (for Kindle) but I'd love to go back and interrogate them.

The basic story [culled from the back cover to avoid too many spoilers] is set in 2001 and the dot com bubble has burst. Maxine runs a fraud investigation business in New York and starts looking into the finances of a computer-security firm hashslingrz (always lower case) and its CEO Gabriel Ice. She is dragged through the 'Deep Web' and an unsavoury Big Apple underworld. Oh, and she stumbles across a video of men practician on a rooftop with a Stinger missile launcher that may link up with the 9/11 bombings ...

A much-quoted Washington Post reviewer described Thomas Pynchon's novel as "totally gonzo". I'd prefer "totally bonkers" or "totally disappointing". The story rips along and you can basically speed read it at any pace to keep up with the unfolding narrative, though you may miss the joy of some of the rich-in-vernacular conversations. Unfortunately the ending comes when the book runs out of paper - or the Kindle version runs out of screens to swipe - rather than when the story is complete or any of the loose plot threads are tied up. How terribly post-modern, with the emphasis on 'terribly'.

The book is well researched, and there are some lovely concepts like hacking a Furby to give it a wireless connection to spy on confidential conversations from an office shelf. And many corporate office workers will smile at the reference to the Disgruntled Employee Simulation Program for Audit Information and Review (or DESPAIR)!

There may yet be a gap in the real-world market for a "Darklinear Solutions" brokerage that maps out unused dark fibre in empty office buildings and matches them with technology clients. The idea of using a vircator to generate an EM pulse to disrupt data centres may not on Anonymous' anarchy list given the amount of power required, and the concrete walls that protect data centres together with the long distance they are set in from public roads?

There's a page-long rant about IKEA which includes the observations that "an entire section of the store was dedicated to replacing wrong or missing parts and fasteners, since with IKEA this is not so exotic an issue" [not true in my experience!] and "exits are clearly marked but impossible to get to". Good stand-up material that is sure to get a few laughs, but it sits awkwardly in the middle of this 500 page book.

The Stinger missile storyline has potential, albeit threaded into the narrative slightly more than half way through. However, rather than becoming the driving force for the rest of the novel, it surfaces every now and again before fizzling out rather than helping to draw the book to a satisfying conclusion.

If Thomas Pynchon has written shorter books, I'd be interested to read one to compare and contrast with the style and lossiness of Bleeding Edge. Perhaps it's a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. The technological/Matrix-style cover didn't translate into a technological detective story, but instead remained a mundane and overall disappointing tale about a very mixed up fraud investigator who should turn her magnifying glass on her own ethics before being set loose on others.

If you've read Bleeding Edge, let me know what you think.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline) - a superb retrospective blast through 1980s gaming and culture

Ready Player One is a both a cracking tale and a much appreciated dredge back through all that was good about growing up in the 1980s.

When the co-creator of a vast virtual world OASIS dies, he sets enthusiasts the challenge of solving his puzzles in order to take over control of the company that runs the software. Think Second Life on steroids with 3D goggles and haptic suits. Total immersion in an online environment that freely educates children reduced to living in stacks of caravans in the modern day favelas of 2044.
The OASIS quickly became the single most popular use for the Internet, so much so that the terms "OASIS" and "Internet" gradually became synonymous ... Before long, billions of people around the world were working and playing in the OASIS ever day. Some of them met, fell in love, and got married without ever setting foot on the same continent. The lines of distinction between a person's real identity and that of their avatar began to blur.

Not that far fetched!

Wade has very little of value in real life except his wits and an ability to learn. In OASIS his avatar Parzival starts of with few artefacts or special powers. His gamesmanship together with his friendships help Wade grow into a powerful player. Like an enormous multi-round adventure game, Wade and his other high-scoring searchers uncover many of the secrets. But a commercial army of Sixers are determined to use brute force and murderous tactics - both online and in real life - to solve the giant easter egg first. In a world of fake identities and virtual relationships, who do you really know and who can you really trust?

References to WarGames [what a great movie and book] abound, along with Zork, phone phreaker Cap'n Crunch [aka John Draper], a DeLorean car, a spaceship called Vonnegut, Serenity, 80s music references, and countless home computer machines, gaming platforms and arcade games. It's a total geekfest - male and female - and will tickle everyone who borrowed and devoured the copy of Hackers Handbook in their local library (the original 1985 edition, not the later more populist and sanitised Steve Gold-edited versions).

Written by Ernest Cline, published in 2011 and sitting on my bookshelf since Easter 2013, I brought the book on holiday ... and its 374 pages lasted less than a day and a half. I'm looking forward to the stories he creates in his forthcoming new book.

Recommended for 40 somethings who've seen a TRS-80 or played Dungeons & Dragons, or spent too long in an arcade or at home trying to get the perfect score in a game they've already completed. £3.95 on Kindle or £6.29 in dead tree format from Amazon, and no doubt available from all good local (second hand) bookstores too.

Friday, August 15, 2014

1 million page views ...

Sometime on Wednesday, this blog received its 1 millionth page view. Traffic comes and goes depending on how often I post (not as often as back at the start eight years ago) and the vagaries of the Google's PageRank algorithm.

A minnow in the blogosphere compared to many other local blogs, but at least I've made it to 1 million (and 2155 posts) without giving up!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Punk Rock - dark teenage school days brought to life in the Lyric Theatre (until 6 September) #LyricPunk

While the open stage in the Lyric Theatre has always put audiences up close to the action, the isometric perspective set, tiled floor, individual metal-legged tables, and wood-covered walls mean that audiences for Punk Rock walk into the school of their childhood rather than a theatre. However, much deeper memories are stirred up in audience as the troubled lives of the seven troubled sixth-form students unfold on stage during the first act.

The play is set in late 2008. Lilly (played by Lauren Coe) is new to this Stockport fee-paying grammar school. At first bright and breezy, she has the audience’s empathy wrapped around her little finger very quickly. The first fellow pupil she encounters is William (Rhys Dunlop) who knows every detail of the school’s layout: he’s quite manic, wandering around with a lollipop in his hand, talking too much, giving too much detail.

The cast is full of characters you know from school. A girl (Cissy, Aisha Fabienne Ross) who struts around like a peahen, subservient to her bully of a boyfriend (Bennett, Ian Toner). A boy (Nicholas, Jonah Hauer-King) with the designer gear uniform. A girl (Tanya, Laura Smithers) who prefers to sit at the edge of the group, watching rather than leading. And the amazingly smart, well-mannered, socially awkward anoraked boy (Chadwick, Rory Corcoran) who knows more about theoretical physicist Paul Dirac than his classmates want to hear. At times it all becomes a bit pretentious, but in a terribly believable teenage way.

Simon Stephens’ play is very televisual and modern, with different conversations allowed to overlap, jump cutting between weeks and months, with the audience catching up as a scene develops. Between the terrific soundscape and the special effects, at times it’s like watching a live-action episode of Utopia.

It is quickly apparent that initial heroes can turn into anti-heroes. The audience is constantly asked to re-evaluate who’s good and who’s bad. Honesty is buried deep amongst the layers and layers of image. The characters match their endless outward observations with internal self-examination. Scene by scene their lives become more and more complicated as the tension in your chest builds towards the interval.

Warning: Punk Rock has the best interval cliff-hanger in the history of theatre!

At the end of each scene the lighting freezes the action, taking the colour out of the stage and reducing it to black and white snapshot. The actors reset the stage, dancing along to a snippet of a punk track that belts out over the PA. (Watch out for the spinning wall clock!)

The seventeen year old world portrayed in Punk Rock is a dark one with issues of family bereavement, self harm, mental health and depression, body image, and identity struggles alongside the normal academic pressures of sitting mock A-level exams. There is strong language, violence and scenes of bullying that make you want to shout out from your seat to intervene.

Punk Rock isn’t an easy play to sit through, and a few people seem to escape at the interval. Its mood lingers the next morning. There is little of joy to cling on to from the shocking climax.

It’s great theatre, and it’s really well acted … but be warned that the characters and their emotions will live on with you as you review and rehearse the memories of your own teenage demons.

Punk Rock plays in the Lyric until Saturday 6 September. (Student concessions available for £10.)

Sunday, August 03, 2014

FILM :: The Purge: Anarchy ... a dystopian vision of what happens when laws are relaxed for 12 hours

This sequel to 2013 film The Purge – though I didn’t know it was a sequel until afterwards – is written and directed by James DeMonaco. A bickering couple on verge of separation are driving home to see family. A waitress is hoping for a pay rise that will help her afford the medicine that would help her ailing father.

As everyone heads from work, they say their goodbyes with “Stay safe”. It is 2023 and it’s important to get home to wait out the annual “purge”, a twelve hour period when the relatively new US “regime” suspends most laws and allow citizens to take the law into their own hands with no comeback. For twelve hours the emergency services are withdrawn and it’s every woman and man for themselves.

Supposed to “deal with the epidemic of crime facing the nation”, the purge instead seems to create a yearly cycle of revenge and opportunistic murder, mostly at the expense of the working class who can’t afford to secure themselves from vigilante gangs.

Of course, when the regime suspends lawfulness and grants citizens license to “purge”, what’s to stop the government joining in with impunity?

As visions of dystopian societies go, The Purge: Anarchy is promising. Anarchy fostered by the government, and the makings of a citizen-led revolt to upset the rich-favouring purge.

Unfortunately the philosophy is quickly laid to one side and becomes drowned in the brutal scenes of killing on the streets of Los Angeles. [A bigger scale than Channel 4’s Utopia, but significantly less artistic.] You’ll need to suspend disbelief and not ask whether hospitals are safe and staffed during the 12 hour purge, whether prisons turn into convenient sanctuaries, and what other states and the UN have to say about America’s annual call to arms?

The film quickly shows it true colours as an action adventure that revolves around the gun toting Lea, a man driving through the lawless streets in an armoured car on a mission to avenge his son’s death. Along the way he ends up with the bickering couple, the waitress and her daughter to look after. Will he turn out a hero or an antihero?

If your stomach lasts until the end of this brutal film, you’ll hear the haunting refrain from America the Beautiful breaking through the credits. Perhaps it’s from the second verse?
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

I can’t help wonder whether the producers were making the point that when the federal government takes the law into its own hands abroad, what is there to stop it entertaining similar measures on its own shores?

Ultimately The Purge: Anarchy is a disappointing film, with an ending the ill-befits the characters. However if gang warfare and families settling scores permanently is your thing, you'll find it showing in cinemas right across the UK and Ireland.

FILM :: Mood Indigo (L'écume des jours): melancholic surrealism where not all is as it seems (QFT until 14 Aug)

Colin lives in Paris in a parallel universe. Played by Romain Duris, he’s terribly French and feels that his solitude is unfair. A solitude that includes a live-in cook Nicholas (Omar Sy), and a vegetable-growing mouse who scoots about the house – itself a train carriage lodged between two buildings – in a series of tubes, and occasionally a car! But a solitude that lacks a significant other.

At a dog’s party, Colin meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou). [Watch out of the Amélie red dress!] Soon they are on cloud nine travelling across Paris in a cloud-shaped vehicle with a dome windshield. This was the point that reminded me of The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves), a film I dragged an un-convinced colleague* to in London seven and a half years ago. And sure enough Mood Indigo and The Science of Sleep are both directed by Michel Gondry. [* Norwin blogs at Destroy All Onions]

Themes and common imagery abound: typesetting, clouds, beds and angsty love. Just without the cardboard cars this time. Instead there’s a pianocktail created by Colin that makes a drink based on how you tickle its ivories.

After a cross between a ghost train ride and a religious ceremony, the happy couple go on honeymoon. Chloé falls ill and Colin’s world visibly shrinks as his true love weakens. While the disease and its cure are equally surreal, the declining health takes its toll on Colin’s soundness of mind and dwindling finances.

Mood Indigo is let down by less than three dimensional characters who remain flat and limp throughout the largely surreal and constantly imaginative scenes. The spark between Colin and Chloé is not terribly bright. Perhaps the most vivid person is Alise, the long-suffering girlfriend of Colin’s buddy Chick (who compulsively collects anything connected with the writer Jean-Sol Partre).

Ultimately, while the props and effects are mesmerising, and the fantasy world is intriguing, I left the QFT screen after ninety five minutes unfulfilled by the melancholic love story at the centre of the plot. Bittersweet but shallow.

Yet quirky Michel Gondry films are few and far between, so for that reason – and also for the near-Monty Python moment near the end at which the audience erupts with inappropriate laughter – it’s worth going along to see Mood Indigo at the Queen’s Film Theatre between now and the 14 August.