Friday, 26 June 2009

Tribute to Jacko

When I were but a wee lad, I happened to hear the first broadcast of Michael Jackson's Black and White, amidst much fanfare, on BBC Radio 1. Immediately afterwards, the show moved to a phone-in quiz, and the DJ asked the first caller what he thought of Jacko's latest song.

'Pretty crap,' the caller replied, and so the DJ hung up on him.

As the web collapses under the weight of Jacko's passing, I think that it is worth pointing out that there are still far more important things happening in the world right now. And, with no callousness intended whatsoever, that there were always those who thought he was, well, pretty crap.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Jethro Tull @ Festung Mark, Magdeburg

I've been a Jethro Tull fan almost as long as I've been a music fan—practically speaking, that's since the late '80s, when I heard 'Living In The Past' while camping out in a tent in the garden. Since then their output has dwindled, releasing only four albums of original recordings, although singer and flautist Ian Anderson has also released four solo albums in the same period, often including songs in the Tull set-list. That was not the case last night (13 June) when the band played the Festung Mark in Magdeburg; celebrating a 40-year anniversary, the vast majority of songs were from the very earliest part of their career.

By 'vast majority' I mean that 11 of the 17 songs in the set were from the first two albums, 1968's 'This Was' and 1969's 'Stand Up'—eight songs from the latter album alone. Maybe the band had just become fed up with playing the set-list they've been touring since March, or maybe they knew that the Magdeburg crowd would be, shall we say, unresponsive at best, but this seems to have been a fairly unique move. Gone were 'Cross-Eyed Mary', 'Sweet Dream', 'Mother Goose' and 'Living in The Past', replaced by minor songs such as 'We Used To Know' and 'Back To The Family', which Anderson described as being the worst song he'd ever written, but great fun to play live. There were grumblings in the crowd, as this wasn't the greatest hits package they wanted—after the show I heard people comment that they could have just come for the last couple of songs (the obligatory 'Aqualung' and 'Locomotive Breath').

I was having fun, though. After seeing a somewhat lacklustre performance by Deep Purple last year, I really didn't want a band reminding me of how great they once were, but aren't any more. By playing so many minor songs it was possible to just listen to Jethro Tull, rather than comparing the latest live performance of a classic to the original and countless other recordings that have been made over the years. The band were clearly playing songs they wanted to play, and having fun doing so—and that was what I wanted to see them doing. Hits be damned.

Anderson's voice has clearly lost something over the years, but it never had as much to lose as, say, Ian Gillian, so the effect is less disturbing; and his flute playing is still excellent in any case. Martin Barre remains one of the most underrated guitarists in rock; and Doanne Perry may have only been with the band for 25 years, but his drumming is as as solid as ever. Then there were two other guys who I've not seen or heard of before. They did what they needed to and no more, which was also fine, as I'm really at a Tull concert to see Anderson and Barre anyway.

In the end, a somewhat controversial performance, which I can say that I enjoyed while understanding the frustration of others. And 'Stand Up'—a great album in any case—has acquired a new level of meaning for me. I saw it played live, after all.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Some thoughts on Opera 10 beta

Spent a couple of days with Opera 10 beta, and I have to say it's looking good. A few observations:
  • The new Mac theme is serviceable—and therefore a vast improvement over the old one—although it helps if you switch the colour scheme to anything except 'None'.
  • The built-in mail server works fine, almost to the point of tempting me away from my current client of choice, Postbox. If only I could figure out how to set up some rules…
  • The integrated spell-checker is an essential addition; the lack of one has turned me away from Opera more than once.
  • The graphical tabs are nice, but the screen estate they take up renders them almost useless to me—in contrast to OmniWeb's implementation, which places them more efficiently on the left or the right.
  • I haven't yet managed to achieve full marks on the Acid3 test, on 99%. Not sure what I've got set wrong, but there you go.
  • As billed, facebook runs very smoothly.
There are so many things I love about Opera: integrated ad-blocking, mouse gestures, speed dial, the ability to reopen closed tabs, and even the mail, but in the end I always end up going back to Safari / Webkit. Opera has just never felt particularly Mac-like, and that's always been disconcerting, a friction between myself and the internet. The missing dictionary was a case in point: when every single app can access the Oxford dictionary built into OS X, an app which has no dictionary access whatsoever feels unbelievably crude. Opera 10 beta has gone a long way to overcoming this, and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Snow Leopard: Thesaurus

Snow Leopard includes the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus second edition. New features help differentiate between easily confused words, find the right shade of meaning, provide context to select the correct word, and give you background on words through the voices of well-known authors.
As a teacher, this is one of the things I'm looking forward to most in Mac OS X 10.6. The first edition—which is already included in 10.5—is pretty cool, but this sounds awesome.