Goodbye 2008

Another year over, a new one almost begun… So as we all face the imminent prospect of extreme party pressure it’s time to reflect on the highs and lows of the last year – Matt Hobbs stylee:

First up, the lows. The economic situation is certainly a bit of a downer, especially as we chose to go job hunting right in the middle of it. Ah, if only my crystal ball had been working – must get some new batteries for it. Heath Ledger’s unexpected death just before the release of his epic performance as the Joker also sticks in my mind – especially being a fan of Terry Gilliam, whose latest film Ledger stars in (and still is – along with some replacements such as Johnny Depp). On a personal note we got screwed over royally by the spineless sh*t who sub-let our apartment – Sonny, who trashed the place then did a runner without paying rent. If anyone sees him on the streets of Montreal, give him a good, hard kick in the nuts from us. A big up to Graham for coming to our rescue, and good luck with your job hunt in the new year! On which note, leaving Montreal was certainly a low as we both miss the place and our friends terribly (and the snow) but London is fun, and more of that in a mo. Oh, and more recently there was the huge disappointment of David Tennant not performing in Hamlet, after we’d been excited about seeing this top rated performance for three months. Ah well.

Now for the good stuff – first up, the obvious one. Obama-mania! Yep, we got swept along with everyone else on that one. It’s great to see such a positive response to an American President getting voted in – not just because we’ll all be mightily glad to see the back of the current idiot (anyone see his exit interviews? a complete absense of the decency to admit any mistakes over these ridiculous eight years – hello? 9/11 failure of intelligence? Iraq lack of WMDs? Global failure of respect for your once proud nation? Trashed economy? Grow some balls Bush and take responsibility for your actions.). Obama certainly signals a new hope for a country that needs some positive spin, both at home and abroad. Fingers crossed he delivers at least 10% of what people are hoping for right now. The only real downside of this is that the classic news based comedy shows such as The Daily Show and Colbert Report will now be lacking their greatest source of material.. sorry, writers.

Earlier in the year, after the end of a wonderful trip to Mexico with the Johnson clan, we bade our sad goodbye to our New York apartment and shipped all my stuff up into Montreal for the last time (literally just fitting in the car). Shortly after that it was packed up again and shipped over to England where it arrived safely, other than one broken bowl. Yes, the big news of the year for us was migrating to England – back in those happy days before we knew of such things as ‘global economic crash’. We arrived happy, landing into a typically grey day at Heathrow and then heading over to our current abode in Southwark. Which brings us merrily to the other highlight of our year – Mr T. T’other Matt has been our guardian angel this year, helping us sort out a place to live, wheels and many more things – as well as being a generally lovely chap. Cheers, Tully!

So we had our first London summer together, and the first one for me in six years. Wandering along the South Bank. Amazing Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre (Timon of Athens & Midsummer Night’s Dream). Fun with the nephews at Latitude Festival. Catching up with family. All interspersed with the stress of job hunting, as the economy gradually started to tank. Ug. Thankfully things started to come together in autumn with jobs at globally respected magazines for Miette, and a contract that turned into a job for me as well. Huzah!

There have been many more things that happened, and memories to recount, but for those of you who don’t regularly – just read the rest of this blog for the year (simple, init). And now 2009 rapidly approaches, under 24 hours left to go. We’re positive about the next year, even with the increasing economic down-turn. Everyone will baton down the hatches, but the world will still turn – and most people needed a good kick up the arse to stop the orgy of over-consumption we currently live with day to day. Enough preaching, on with the partying! See you next year.

Another Moment from my Geek Past

When I was younger I was fairly obsessed with my Atari ST, a classic machine that, along with the Amiga, was well ahead of what PCs offered people at the time. It was my first and only Atari, having come from a Sinclair ZX filled background. As well as offering plenty of opportunities to learn C, and other adventure game writing software, the ST also had a fine selection of games to distract me from anything productive. Remember, this was pre-internets… no sitting for hours on IM with real people, we sat for hours with ourselves immersed in code or games – unless similarly geeky friends came over to share our obsessions.

One of those obsessions was the games from the Magnetic Scrolls folks, in particular Guild of Thieves – an immensely enjoyable text based adventure with some nice pictures added on. Ah, those were the days. No worrying about the exact timing when you run through a maze of moving knives, just the constant fun of having to find the exact phrase to type to solve a problem and progress further. Many hours were frittered away on this adventure, and now you can do it again – with this wonderful site dedicated to Magnetic Scrolls’ archive. Splendid.

A ‘Fond’ Farewell

Our old sofa

Last night we finally got around to putting the old, character laden (and spring free) couch out on the sidewalk ready for the lovely, heavily unionized Montreal garbage collection folks to deal with. As we live in the middle of a tourist zone, this all has to be done in a ‘tasteful’ manner and without blocking any walkways – pretty tricky after 15cm of snow with sidewalks that are pretty thin to start with. Still, after much heavy lifting, and some furtive glances (what is it about putting old furniture and junk out on the street that seems so wrong, even when you’ve phoned the council to ask?) the couch sat around the corner from us – loaded with old bits of wood and the like that were too trashed to be reused in any meaningful way.

So at 2am this morning the dulcet tones of a trash cart reversing woke us up (again) and we imagined that our dear old friend was safely on his way to a new home. Turns out we were wrong – this morning at 9am he was still there, same place, with nothing moved. I guess he must have been really trashed for noone to come pick it up! But then after wandering to the bread shop, picking up some more blank DVDs for backups and a few other bits and bobs – the couch was gone. Nothing other than a couch shaped indentation in the snow to mark his passing.

Farewell old friend. We’ll miss losing entire body parts into your failing springs, and worrying about more deep gouges in the new flooring from where your wires break loose. We’ll miss the clouds of dust you gave off when we sat down, and your particular odour of many years of smoking, sitting and possibly other things that shouldn’t be mentioned on a family blog (not by me I hasten to add – I value certain body parts too much to lose them in a freak sofa accident). Every time we sit on our new, cheap but comfortable, bland IKEA sofa we’ll miss your almost trendy stripes and faded glory. Only for a moment mind, there’s probably something good on the telly that we can now watch without fear of being swallowed alive. Lovely.

The Monty Python Appreciation Society

Many years ago back at school I founded ‘The Monty Python Appreciation Society’, which impressive as it sounds was in fact just an excuse for a gang of us to borrow the school video and watch episodes of Python at lunchtimes. Ah, the joys of being a geek. To be fair we had more reason than many people, as Terry Jones used to be Head Boy at our school, so there was a tenuous link which was exploited to full, lazy effect.

Now thanks to my birthday present from mum I get to relive those school highlights, since I now have the complete box set of Monty Python to enjoy. Amazingly, aside from a few sketches, it stands the test of time admirably and still makes me laugh out loud. Plus there are the quotes. Mmmm… quoteage.

Learning Stylee

According to the online DVC Learning Style Survey my primary learning style is ‘Visual/Non-verbal’ (Visual/Nonverbal 34 – Visual/Verbal 26 – Auditory 18 – Kinesthetic 14). Based on this they recommend:

“You learn best when information is presented visually and in a picture or design format. In a classroom setting, you benefit from instructors who use visual aids such as film, video, maps and charts. You benefit from information obtained from the pictures and diagrams in textbooks. You tend to like to work in a quiet room and may not like to work in study groups. When trying to remember something, you can often visualize a picture of it in your mind. You may have an artistic side that enjoys activities having to do with visual art and design.”

Learning Strategies for the Visual/ Nonverbal Learner:

  • Make flashcards of key information that needs to be memorized. Draw symbols and pictures on the cards to facilitate recall. Use highlighter pens to highlight key words and pictures on the flashcards. Limit the amount of information per card, so your mind can take a mental “picture’ of the information.
  • Mark up the margins of your textbook with key words, symbols, and diagrams that help you remember the text. Use highlighter pens of contrasting colors to “color code” the information.
  • When learning mathematical or technical information, make charts to organize the information. When a mathematical problem involves a sequence of steps, draw a series of boxes, each containing the appropriate bit of information in sequence.
  • Use large square graph paper to assist in creating charts and diagrams that illustrate key concepts.
  • Use the computer to assist in organizing material that needs to be memorized. Using word processing, create tables and charts with graphics that help you to understand and retain course material. Use spreadsheet and database software to further organize material that needs to be learned.
  • As much as possible, translate words and ideas into symbols, pictures, and diagrams.

I’m not sure if that’s all true, but some of it definitely is. When I was doing my GCSEs & A Levels I used to learn best by starting to revise about 10pm each night when it was dark and everyone was heading to bed, and by writing out my notes again neatly in new books, condensing it as I went. All of this was text based rather than using diagrams and visual aids, but then maybe I missed a trick.

Apple’s Evolution

Edwin Tofslie has put together an amazing graphic depicting the evolution of Apple computers from their first desktop, literally made out of an old school desk it appears, to the iPhone. Very cool indeed, and a trip down memory lane as although I’ve been going on about my current defection to being a Mac user, it’s not the first time I’ve used Apple products...

My first exposure to Macs was with the Apple II, with its classic block graphics. A friend of mine had one on which we used to play text based adventure games. Then at school our forward thinking computer teacher, Mr Michael Bawtree – writer of The Student’s Calculator Book, fitted our computer room out with a selection of Macintosh Pluses, alongside the traditional BBC Micros. The Macs were generally used by the more literate students to publish their respective fanzines, and it was my first exposure to DTP (Desktop Publishing) which I would continue on my Atari ST at home.

At University we tended to use bog standard grey PCs, installed with Fortran and other Physics simulation related software. Then later during my MSc we had access to more advanced PCs with UNIX terminals to carry out more advanced C++ coding – not a Mac in sight. That was until I started work at Quidnunc in 1996, where Macs were quite common – we had a PowerBook 500, Newton and some LCs floating around from the early days when the original Quidnunc programmed the first Mac Email for Microsoft. Later, as we expanded our in house graphics capabilities, the more visually orientated employees used a mix of PowerBook G3s and PowerMac G3s for their desktops. Ah, the memories.

25 Years On

This month is the 25th Anniversary of the launch of the ZX Spectrum. Although this probably won’t mean much to American readers of this blog, I’m sure all my male Brit friends are now looking up in fond rememberance of their first ‘real’ computer. The computer that set many of us on the path of increasing geekdom.

On reflection it’s interesting how social activities flourished around our computers when we were younger, in the absence of an ‘internet’. When I first got my Spectrum I created a ‘limited run’ fanzine (trans. about 20 photocopies) that used to take me every spare minute to write, draw the illustrations for and send off for free games to play. I mean review. I also used to try and create the next greatest spoof adventure game with other friends under the company name ‘MattSoft’. Then later myself and a few other guys from school created an Atari ST fanzine together that again, had limited exposure. Now all that work would probably get noticed with minimal effort it can take to put up certain sites and then run if you know what you’re doing. One of these days I hope to come across one of my old fanzines – I’m sure that will be ‘interesting’.

Personal Music History

Tonight seems to have turned into a review of some of my personal music history, in the form of rare albums from my childhood.

First up, Jean Michel Jarre. When I was younger Jean-Michel Jarre, the ‘godfather of techno’ and then proud owner of a dash in his name, was one of the regular artists played by my dad as we drove off on family holidays (along with Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and Joan Armatrading – oh and the Imaginations and/or Reflections compilations). Oxygene, Equinoxe and Magnetic Fields formed most of my childhood soundscape and along with the amazing Concerts in China I still listen to them regularly today.

Recently I recalled the ‘lost’ Jarre album, ‘Music for Supermarkets/Musique pour Supermarche‘, a single pressing of an album Jarre created that was sold at auction for a large sum of money. This album, created and sold in 1983, was at the peak of Jarre’s powers, as his later albums never quite seemed as strong as the earlier ones before this time. Of course noone would ever hear this album, except for the unknown person who bought it at the auction. A shame indeed. Or at least it would have been a shame except for the fact that Jarre played the album once and once only on Radio Luxembourg, with the introduction ‘Pirate it!’. Back then this simple cry meant that a few people would whip out their 8-tracks and record the AM broadcast for personal use, nowawdays it means something very different indeed.

So it was with great joy that some web searching turned up this missing album as a low quality mp3. Finally, after almost 25 years, I got to listen to an album I’d never heard, that was never part of my childhood even though it kind of was. And how is it? Wonderful. Even with the hisses and bad quality, the music is from Jarre at the top of his powers. Simple, catchy, organic. Using the analogue ‘digital’ instruments he excelled at, rather than their newer digital replacements. If you didn’t know how old it was you could easily believe it was from a modern band.

Flush with this success I decided to track down a later piece of my musical development. In my mid teens myself and a group of friends got heavily into The Stranglers, creators of the classic track ‘Golden Brown’. As well as good solid rocky songs there was a connection that the bass player had gone to our school, expelled for reason that were the stuff of legend (‘he’d ridden his bike through the corridors!’, ‘he’d hit a teacher!’ and so on – after a gig at Guildford civic hall Burnel said to my friends it was because he’d burnt a pile of school caps on the headmaster’s lawn). This apparent connection meant that all of us were avid Stranglers fanatics, collecting piles of their old vinyl at every opportunity until Hugh Cornwell left the band and they were never quite the same.

I still have my vinyl – a pretty complete collection of UK singles and first pressing albums – but one single I don’t have. In 1980, just before fellow Frenchman Jarre would create Music for Supermarkets, JJ Burnel pulled the release of a single from his upcoming solo career. This single, Girl From the Snow Country, then became one of the rarest singles in the UK as only a few copies had been saved from destruction. With this in mind I just did a quick search, and found that a copy of the single just sold for £580.00. Wow. Not sure I want it that much, but still. Just goes to show that my vinyl might still be worth something (assuming my cat hasn’t gotten too friendly with the pile of plastic).

You gotta love the internet sometimes.