Not far to reach

On one of my first trips to New York, back in the early 90s, I stayed in a backpackers’ hostel in a brownstone on the upper West Side, 86th street I think. It was pretty basic, about 20 to a room, mostly young Europeans, but a good place to meet people. It had a nice big kitchen, which was down in the basement, but the building was on a hill, so the room still caught the sun through large windows which looked out on an overgrown garden.

One of my most vivid memories of that trip is standing at the stove late on a Sunday morning, frying hamburgers and eggs for breakfast, looking at the mural which occupied the whole of the wall behind the worn couches that made up the dining area. It was a seaside scene, with girls in bikinis and guys in bermuda shorts, lying on bright towels, drinking and smoking while the waves crashed on the shore, all done in a charmingly naive style, Outsider Art almost. Around the edge, forming a frame, were the lyrics to Rockaway Beach, by the Ramones, no strangers to the outsider tag themselves.

I never actually made it out to Rockaway, but ever since that day that image, and that song, have represented a platonic ideal of summer for me, a moment of uncomplicated pleasure frozen in time, out of focus, just out of reach, like a girl glimpsed through the haze of a hot day by the ocean.

This came to mind today when I heard the sad news that Tommy Ramone, last survivor of the original lineup, had passed away, another sign, if I needed it, that time keeps moving on.

That hostel is probably an upscale apartment building now, the mural long gone, my fellow travellers scattered around the world, to whatever fate life held for them. Places, people, experiences, all slip away, leaving only my memories, which will die with me. The Atlantic still washes the sand at Rockaway though, and I guess boys still listen to music and dream of days with their girl at the beach, so it’s hard to believe that those moments will be lost forever. It may be true that no one will ever stand in that kitchen again, seeing that picture just the way I saw it all those years ago, but I like to think that we are but temporary vessels for the common emotions of humanity, and that the kind of joy which rises in my heart when I remember that day will be around as long as there are people alive to feel it.

Playing History

I had planned to post a WW2-themed piece on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings earlier this month, but for one reason and another I missed the deadline. I’ve another chance today though, since June 22nd marks the start of the other great Allied offensive of 1944; Operation Bagration, the Red Army’s drive into Belorussia, which destroyed an entire German army group and opened the way for the Soviet advance to Berlin.

Watching and reading the media coverage of the D-Day commemoration, I was struck by how the Second World War is now a properly historical event, with little more immediate emotional resonance for today’s generation than the Somme, or the Napoleonic wars, or Agincourt.

It was very different when I was young. Though the conflict had been over for a quarter century it was still a part of the live culture; in the films and programmes we watched on TV, in the comics we read, and in the games we played after school. Most of the boys preferred to be British commandos in our imaginary gun battles, though there were a few who were suspiciously OK with being Nazis. I was pretty much alone in wanting to be a Red Guard, so I usually ended up storming an imaginary Stalingrad single handed. When I was a little older I had a whole division of miniature T-34s which I would pitch against my friends’ Tigers and Panthers in epic reenactments of Kharkov and Kursk.

Of course in those days there were still a lot of people around with direct experience of the conflict; both of my grandfathers served overseas for most of the duration, and while they didn’t talk about it much it was one of their formative experiences. More importantly perhaps the Cold War had frozen Europe in 1945, and it wouldn’t thaw out until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80s, finally allowing Britain to start to move on from its imperial past.

I guess kids today still play WW2 video games, but I never see boys running around the neighbourhood pretending to shoot each other with Sten guns and Lugers like it really means something. Which is for the best I suppose, but I do think a childhood without toy tanks is probably missing something…

This “Internet” thing might catch on

It’s a quarter of a century since Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for what became the World Wide Web; I got on board in 1996 via a 14.4 modem, Compuserve, Netscape Navigator and Geocities, but it wasn’t until May of 2007 that the medium finally reached its full potential with the debut of Second Life Shrink. I think it’s fair to say that there have been no significant developments in online culture since then, but we’re working on it…

Nelson Mandela RIP

I’m not going to try to summarise Nelson Mandela’s many contributions to the progress of humanity; that’s been well covered elsewhere, though it should be noted that much of the mainstream media have presented a rather toned-down take on Mandela’s politics, glossing over his more radical side. More than a few of the world leaders now rushing to eulogise Mandela have more in common with his oppressors than the man whose legacy they seek to appropriate.

Mandela’s passing has reminded me once again what a long time ago the 1980s were; looking back at some of the political questions that seemed so important to me in those days – the fight against apartheid, the Cold War, the war in Ireland, and no doubt others I’ve long forgotten – it seems like another planet. On the other hand, the fundamental injustices that underlay the struggles we were involved in back then are still around today; some of them in new forms, but others depressingly familiar.

It can seem that the fight to make a better world is endless, and that our foes hold all the advantages, but the greatest lesson that Mandela taught us was the necessity of taking the long view; it may take decades, and at times things might seem hopeless, but history is on the side of progress, and we will win in the end.

First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait

Sad news about Lou Reed this week. I have to admit that I’ve never been a great fan of Reed’s post-Velvets work – I have a copy of Transformer of course, but it’s on vinyl, so I haven’t listened to it for years – but The Velvet Underground & Nico is still one of my all-time favourites. I’m especially fond of I’m Waiting for the Man, which always reminds me of the one and only time I bought dope in NYC (at Washington Square Park rather than uptown), when I managed to score $20 worth of the city’s finest cardboard.

Break On Through (To the Other Side)

Sad news today of the death of Ray Manzarek. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I was a big fan of The Doors as a young teenager. Like many another adolescent boy I initially styled myself after Jim Morrison, but it wasn’t long before I realised that I wasn’t really cut out to be a Dionysian love-god, so I adopted Manzarek as a role model instead. I had the glasses, the long hair, and (in my mind at least) the cool intellectual demeanour, but not, alas, the musical talent, though that didn’t stop me contributing dodgy organ licks to various teen garage bands.

I fell out of love with The Doors in my later teens, as I grew up and realised that Morrison was actually a bit of a dick, but in later years (probably fuelled by nostalgia) I have gotten into them again. I’m not sure that the shaggier blues and psychedelia of their mid to late period really stands up today, but their early numbers still sound fresh and exciting, underpinned, as the obituaries have noted, by Manzarek’s snaky rhythms. I can clearly remember the first time I heard The Doors, on a cassette a friend gave me, taped from his old man’s vinyl, and listening to it now takes me back to the days when the right music could promise a glimpse into a seductive world of adult possibility. Of course I know now that what seems deep and profound at the age of 13 is generally less so when one reaches some sort of maturity, but it’s nice to be reminded now and again of how fun life was before the cynicism of age set in.

Lunar Requiem

Back in 2009 we ran a piece marking the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, which noted wistfully that the vision of widespread space travel promised by the Apollo program had never been realised. We returned to this theme on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s maiden space flight, by which time our regret had expanded to cover the passing of the whole concept of progress through rational planning.

The news that Neil Armstrong has passed away is another reminder of how much the world has moved on since the days when flying to the moon was the peak of human aspiration. In a few more years an era in which there exist living men who have walked on another celestial body will have passed completely, with no sign that it will ever be repeated, a thought which I find almost unbearably sad.

Of course the Space Race of the 50s and 60s was driven by Cold War tensions, and it’s hard to argue that the threat of global thermonuclear destruction that hung over that period was a price worth paying for the dreams of space exploration. Nevertheless, I think our culture has lost something important since then; the sense that we could go ever onward and upward, replaced by the generally gloomy feeling that our best days as a species are already behind us.

All hope is not lost though; we’re still sending robots to other planets, and the information they send back may inspire another wave of space enthusiasm. I might yet make it to Mars after all…

God save your mad parade

I know that at least a million other bloggers will be posting this link today, but I’m hardly going to let the occasion go by without taking the chance to simultaneously state my republican sympathies and revisit my punk rock youth.

Wasted Youth

Today (or actually yesterday, since, in true slacker fashion, I haven’t got round to posting this until after midnight), was the 30th anniversary of the launch of the ZX Spectrum. Unsurprisingly, the internet has been awash with articles by 40-something guys fondly recalling long hours spent honing their programming skills on the iconic machine, and pitying later generations, who may have iPads and Twitter and what have you, but missed out on the character-building experience of wrestling with a rubber keyboard to produce the 8-bit classics that founded the video-game industry.

I have to admit that I was one of those sad cases who spent too much time alone in my bedroom typing code, when I should have been out engaging in healthier youthful pursuits, like smoking, drinking, or committing acts of petty vandalism. It doesn’t seem to have done me any harm in the long term though, as long as you don’t count my ongoing tendency to stay up all night blogging about obsolete computers.

Planned obsolescence

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with cutting-edge technology; in theory I am in favour of keeping bang up to date, but in practice I find myself hanging on to old gadgets long after they should have been consigned to the recycling bin.

It’s only fairly recently that I got an LCD TV, after spending years squinting at a vintage 14-inch Sony Trinitron, latterly augmented with a digital tuning box (and an RF-modulator, since it didn’t have a SCART socket) when they turned off the analogue signal. I would still have it today, but it stopped working, and I couldn’t find anyone willing to even look at it, never mind fix it, though it was probably a simple enough job.

This state of affairs is mostly due to a combination of laziness and stinginess – I’m driving around right now in a car with two broken mirrors and a busted heater, because I resent paying the inflated fee the mechanic would charge me for swapping a couple of parts, but I can’t be bothered going down to the scrapyard to get the bits myself – along with a high tolerance for imperfection; if something isn’t actually going to kill me I can usually put up with it. That’s not the whole story though; despite being avowedly anti-conservative there is a large part of me that is resistant to change. Jobs, cities, relationships; I’ve stayed in them all long after it would have been sensible to leave. This is probably down to a subconscious fear of death or something; I should perhaps try to work through it in therapy, but I guess it has saved me a lot of money over the years.

All this is a roundabout way of explaining why there hasn’t been much in the way of Second Life content in this blog recently. When I last downloaded an updated version of the viewer (which was a while ago, so it’s not even the latest one), it had the not entirely unpredictable effect of slowing my venerable desktop box to a crawl, making my SL experience even more tiresome than usual. I suppose that I should try using some nimble third-party viewer, but the task of identifying one that is both reliable and linux-friendly seems like too much of a drag right now, and anyway the Lindens seem to be freezing out the TPV developers, so it would probably only be a temporary fix.

Thus I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that my trusty 12 year-old 1.6 GHz P4 has reached the end of the line, and that I need a new computer. The simplest solution would be to buy a ready-built machine, but I want to reuse as many components as possible, and the case, keyboard, mouse, monitor, hard drives and optical drive are all perfectly serviceable, so I think I’ll go down the DIY route.

I’ll need a new motherboard, processor, RAM, and a graphics card (I’d keep my not-too-ancient nVidia Ge Force 7-series, but it’s got an AGP plug). I’d really like an Intel I-7, but they are rather expensive, so I’ll probably settle for an I-5, which should do me for a few years; processor/motherboard/memory bundles can be had for between £200 and £300. Add in a GeForce 500 card at about a ton, and that’s a fairly nifty system for under £400.

On the other hand, who uses a desktop computer these days? I could take the money and buy a new iPad, which would do for 90% of my computing needs, pretty much everything except Second Life in fact. I do like to have a big hard drive to keep my data on, since I’m far too paranoid to trust the cloud, but I don’t need a fancy new processor or graphics card for that.

Still, I guess my inertia will keep me from wholeheartedly embracing the new paradigm of mobile computing, and I probably will end up trying to rejuvenate my old desktop. I doubt I’ll get round to it much before the summer though, so this blog will remain misleadingly named until then at least.

 

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