State Of The Uni: ON

A picture of my college’s quadrangle from an absolutely fantastic angle that makes it look like a bucolic idyll and not on a campus crowded with many much less attractive modern buildings in the middle of a city and opposite a busy hospital.

I don’t want to speak too soon here, but… OK that is a barefaced lie. I do want to speak too soon. And so I will.

I’m going to be a scientist! Just like when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Well to be precise I’m going to have an MSc. If I complete the course. But I have a place! That’s the main thing. They actually let me back into college. After last time.

It’s an MSc in Information Systems Management. I wanted something that would seriously augment my Web design and IT abilities. I liked this because it’s extremely practical; hands-on and skills-orientated rather than theoretical and talky, an interesting mix of art and technology and… well, business.

There, I said it. Business. My greatest fear. Now I must go face to face with that which I abhor.

All right, I am in business; I’m self-employed. But that’s just a way to be an artist without getting arrested as a vagrant. I’ve had as little to do with the business of business as I possibly could. Now, I’ll be studying “business situations”, whatever those are exactly. Thinking about business problems. Using business words…

But I reckon I’ll enjoy it if I approach it in the right way. I like having problems to solve, things to fix. This is real-world problem solving, using techniques and skills I enjoy. I might actually be good at it.

It will mean getting well outside my comfort zone though. I haven’t studied anything other than what immediately interested me, sat listening for hours at a time, even slept to a regular schedule, for over twenty years.

I’m sure this is going to be very good for me.

Help.

Galaxy Note 2 – Not Bigger, Just Better

On the left, the current Galaxy Note. At right, the coming Note 2

As you know, I love Samsung’s Galaxy Note with a fervour that borders on the erotic. This is the greatest portable device ever invented. A notebook and a phone and a Web browser – what more do you need to do anything? And all in a package small enough to bring everywhere.

So Samsung’s problem now is, how do they sell me another one? I could hang onto this phone for years if they don’t offer a significant step forward. And rumours of dramatic new features have raged over the last few weeks, though I for one am glad that most didn’t turn out to be true. For example, that the Note 2 would have a flexible screen. An interesting concept, possible very convenient to carry, but how are you supposed to write and draw on a bendy surface?

The real Note 2 improves on the original in more predictable ways: Higher processor spec (quad core instead of dual, 1.6 instead of 1.4 GHz) and more RAM (2 GB, up from half that). One rumour to come true is that they went straight to Jelly Bean, the latest iteration of Android, rather than launching with the more established Ice Cream Sandwich. This is to be welcomed, as it brings a lot of smoothness and interface detail improvements.

And to go with this, there’s a significantly larger battery – 31,000 mAh instead of 25,000. We don’t know yet if it will meaningfully extend usage or if the more powerful processor will eat that all up, but I think there’s grounds for hope.

Bluetooth is upped to version 4, though I’ve no idea what real advantage that confers aside from keeping up with the iPhone. The screen will be covered with Gorilla Glass 2. Not the “indestructible” glass of some rumours nor the flexible screen, but its reduced thickness will improve the pen experience. There will also be NFC, the contact-communication technology that will allow you to exchange contacts and files, and (one day) make purchases, simply by touching your phone to things.

As for that form factor – is it “even bigger” than the original, as many have said? It’s debatable. The screen is larger diagonally, at 5.5 instead of 5.3 inches, but that is offset by a narrowing of the aspect ratio – from an unusual 16:10 to the widescreen-standard 16:9. This has been achieved simply by trimming 80 pixels from its width, so the only thing that stops the screen actually being smaller than the original is that the pixels themselves are larger now.

And therefore, their density slightly lower – which seems an odd decision in these days of retina screens, but the Note has plenty resolution to spare and it seems a sensible way to get more area without introducing weird pixel dimensions. The upshot is that the new Note is slightly narrower than the original, but noticeably longer. This may make it a little easier to hold in the hand, while giving it proportions that look more like the phones we’re used to.

So far, so comme ci, comme ça. All-round improvements, but nothing that completely sells me on it. I mean I’ll probably buy one eventually, but I’m not excited.

Until, that is, we come to the pen…

The new S Pen is a little longer, a little thicker. These things are good. But it’s now sensitive to 1,024 levels of pressure, as opposed to the original’s 256. This sensitivity means the pen responds in a more natural way, creating an even more realistic brush stroke. I already think the S Pen is a surprisingly good art tool, but this puts it on a par with Wacom’s most sensitive professional graphics tablets.

Further, Samsung have had the good idea of giving it a slightly rubbery tip instead of the normal hard plastic. This is to reproduce the natural resistance of a pen nib on paper even when you’re drawing on smooth glass (a problem I solved on my original Note with a matte anti-glare screen protector).

And there’s more… Remember how I was overjoyed that since Ice Cream Sandwich, the Note can detect the pen hovering above the screen? Samsung have really run with the possibilities now and introduced various behaviours that occur in hover mode. Using the pen, what’s more, will turn on palm rejection, allowing you to rest your hand on the screen while writing without driving the capacitive sensor nuts.

Any disappointments? Well the camera will still only be 8 Mpx. Not that the current Note’s is bad at all, but one of those rumours promised hugely increased resolution. (This turned out to be confusion with the new Galaxy Camera.) It is however said to be better and faster; we will see. And I was hoping for a more significant size increase, seeing as the giant Note went down far better than anyone expected. OK, maybe that was never going to happen. The larger it got, the more pockets it wouldn’t fit into. But as Samsung now have a 10″ tablet capable of making phone calls (you can even use this quite brilliant Bluetooth pen), maybe they’ll eventually do a 7″ one too. Yep, I’d carry it as a phone. I don’t care.

But meanwhile, I’m sold on this. While everything else may be just sensible – even conservative – technical progress, that improved pen is something I am dying to use. I will buy a Galaxy Note 2. That is, if I can afford it before the Note 3 comes out.

Apple Loses Its Cool

The iMac G4 was the first major case redesign ...
Now that was cool

Happy Car Crash

Sorry things have been so quiet. I was a little more hurt in the accident than I realised. Showering the next day I noticed I could no longer reach my left shoulder. The rare post-collision arm shrinkage syndrome, apparently. Or my right shoulder was bruised and had stiffened up. From the seatbelt, I assume.

Fine today though. In fact there’s other good news; I had better insurance than I thought. It isn’t obvious from the policy document, but I was covered for a hire car to go car-shopping in. Funny how you really need a car to buy a car; makes you wonder how the first one ever got sold. And thanks to the old car’s low mileage we got more than we expected, so replacing it won’t be a serious problem. All’s well then, and other than the fact that I might easily have died it wasn’t a bad experience. As Nietzsche said, that which does not kill me lets me live longer.

This line is often quite badly translated.

There’s more good news too, but I think I’ll hold that in until I have the details all nailed down. It’s big, so I don’t want to dilute it with maybes and looks-likes. Let’s go instead to the regular news agenda.

So, Apple Versus Samsung Eh?

Something over nothing really. Well, a billion dollars. Almost nothing. As I’ve said before, it’s a slightly spiteful lawsuit on Apple’s part. They managed to get a US sales ban on some Samsung phones for looking like iPhones. But these laws against aesthetic imitation were written to outlaw counterfeit goods, which the Samsungs clearly were not.

This is a relatively small skirmish in Apple’s rearguard action against the rise of Android. A billion-dollar fine might seem exorbitant, but I suspect that the Koreans probably think it was money well spent. Making devices like the iPhone was just a stage in the process of showing they could make ones better than it. Now they’re the biggest phone company in the world, while Apple must settle for being merely the biggest company in the world.

There are no real losers here.

That though will be very much not the case if Apple win some more of their suits against Google and other smartphone makers over things like the pinch-to-zoom gesture. If Apple were allowed to prevent others from using such basic tropes it could devastate competition in the smartphone market, leaving consumers a choice between the iWay or the highway.

Yesterday at the IFA electronics expo in Berlin Samsung announced a slew of innovative products at least one and probably two of which I will buy, when I can afford them. Apple haven’t announced a product I was determined to own since the second-generation iMac. And I still can’t afford that. If the world’s most valuable corporation uses lawyers to stop me having things I want, I’ll…

I’ll be very annoyed.

Apple Loses Its Cool

The iMac G4 was the first major case redesign ...
Now that was cool

Happy Car Crash

Sorry things have been so quiet. I was a little more hurt in the accident than I realised. Showering the next day I noticed I could no longer reach my left shoulder. The rare post-collision arm shrinkage syndrome, apparently. Or my right shoulder was bruised and had stiffened up. From the seatbelt, I assume.

Fine today though. In fact there’s other good news; I had better insurance than I thought. It isn’t obvious from the policy document, but I was covered for a hire car to go car-shopping in. Funny how you really need a car to buy a car; makes you wonder how the first one ever got sold. And thanks to the old car’s low mileage we got more than we expected, so replacing it won’t be a serious problem. All’s well then, and other than the fact that I might easily have died it wasn’t a bad experience. As Nietzsche said, that which does not kill me lets me live longer.

This line is often quite badly translated.

There’s more good news too, but I think I’ll hold that in until I have the details all nailed down. It’s big, so I don’t want to dilute it with maybes and looks-likes. Let’s go instead to the regular news agenda.

So, Apple Versus Samsung Eh?

Something over nothing really. Well, a billion dollars. Almost nothing. As I’ve said before, it’s a slightly spiteful lawsuit on Apple’s part. They managed to get a US sales ban on some Samsung phones for looking like iPhones. But these laws against aesthetic imitation were written to outlaw counterfeit goods, which the Samsungs clearly were not.

This is a relatively small skirmish in Apple’s rearguard action against the rise of Android. A billion-dollar fine might seem exorbitant, but I suspect that the Koreans probably think it was money well spent. Making devices like the iPhone was just a stage in the process of showing they could make ones better than it. Now they’re the biggest phone company in the world, while Apple must settle for being merely the biggest company in the world.

There are no real losers here.

That though will be very much not the case if Apple win some more of their suits against Google and other smartphone makers over things like the pinch-to-zoom gesture. If Apple were allowed to prevent others from using such basic tropes it could devastate competition in the smartphone market, leaving consumers a choice between the iWay or the highway.

Yesterday at the IFA electronics expo in Berlin Samsung announced a slew of innovative products at least one and probably two of which I will buy, when I can afford them. Apple haven’t announced a product I was determined to own since the second-generation iMac. And I still can’t afford that. If the world’s most valuable corporation uses lawyers to stop me having things I want, I’ll…

I’ll be very annoyed.

Another Adam

1965 ... Neil Armstrong- Gemini 8
1965 … Neil Armstrong- Gemini 8 (Photo credit: x-ray delta one)

I don’t remember the first moon landing. I wasn’t quite five. Also I was asleep. Never have quite forgiven my parents for that… But as I grew, going to the moon was something people just did. Apollo 13 I do recall; I drew pictures of a lunar command module (you knew the names of the parts of rockets) with pieces flying off. Space travel was normal – and it had only just begun.

That impression lingered for long after, with Skylab and then the Skylab-Soyuz hookup, and – after what seemed like an interminable wait – the Space Shuttle finally flying. Surely the Shuttle was a step towards Mars and beyond.

In all, we were well into the 80s before it sank in. The great age of planetary exploration had ended years before. I’d thought the future was going to be incredibly exciting. It turned out I’d been born into someone else’s exciting future, already almost over when I arrived. That’s why the 80s were such unremitting crap I guess. A decade without a future, caught between lost hope and the still undiscovered.

As it turned out, we got our own exciting future. A more sophisticated one, of data and connection, than childhood’s rocket-fuelled dreams. But I guess nothing can ever replace the simple beauty of such vast possibilities. Yes, I wanted to be an astronaut.

Neil Armstrong was the first person to do something I’ve dreamed of ever since. He walked on the surface of another world, where nothing is the same – not the light, the air, even your own weight. He was the first human to stand anywhere other than on Earth. He will not be forgotten, for as long as there are people.

In Which I Hit A Tree

As if of its own volition, the car darts to the left. A skid? I know how to deal with that. Stay calm, don’t overcompensate. And yet I am lurching drastically to the right now. My feelings are oddly not of panic and fear but puzzlement, disappointment. The steering, something I’d come to think of almost as a direct expression of my will, had suddenly decided to have its own opinion. Parents of teenagers must feel like this, as their world spins out of control.

A ditch. No wait, a tree. A slow, sickening crunch. I’m athwart the driveway, nearly facing the way I came. But I’m relieved. That tree saved me from the ditch, that’s good. I’m a whistling kettle of shock and adrenalin, but I seem to be uninjured.

So what was that sickening crunch, exactly?

I turn off the engine. My glasses have flown off in the impact, I know not where, so I get out and inspect the damage without them. Even with the glamorising effect of soft focus though I can see it’s not pretty. The right wing is crushed like foil, the water tank displaced and leaking, the wheel… doesn’t look right at all.

My glasses turn out to be under the passenger seat. So, can I drive this thing? The engine starts. The power steering does move the wheels, though the noise it makes is like insurrection at the bacon factory. I select first gear, let out the clutch and…

Nothing at all. It’s a front wheel drive car, and the front wheels don’t. That… is probably not a good omen. The damage goes well beyond one corner.

What the hell just happened? I was on the driveway to Cregg Castle, an old colonial manor house that’s being converted into an artists’ residence. It’s covered in slippery mud. The drive I mean. It’s also pocked with holes so thickly that they’re practically impossible to avoid – indeed I’d just failed to avoid one seconds before the accident. Had I simply skidded on the mud, or had the impact broken the steering? It had felt more like the latter. And indeed the two front wheels pointed in different directions now, though of course that could be effect rather than cause.

Sudden steering failure. Imagine if instead of a driveway that had been on a main road. At 95kph, with oncoming traffic. It would have been almost certainly fatal, for me and for others.

And yet I find myself hoping it is the explanation. I mean, skidding off a driveway. That’s just embarrassing.

So first problem would be getting the car off the road. I was near the gatehouse and knew the people who live there; fortunately someone was in. We couldn’t move the car between us, but soon more people came down the driveway in both directions and they stopped to help. They pretty much had to, but I’m sure they would’ve anyway. Two women tipped the balance, and we got it lined up to the point where it could be towed off the road. Thanks to James, “Lorraine Micra”, and all the cooperative people from Cregg Castle. And to the couple who were just passing by to take a walk in the woods but offered me a lift without knowing my mother’s house was only a mile away.

Now it’s the next day. I’m a little achy, though that will be mostly from trying to push the car. I await the insurance report which hopefully will tell me what happened, though I expect it will also bring the sad news that the car is a write-off. The first car I’d ever owned – and that for only about two months. It wasn’t all that much of a car perhaps. A red Nissan Micra that had been my mother’s before me, and several other people’s before that. Thirteen years old, but a tough and feisty little car. Useful, pleasant, reliable – well, it was only unreliable once. I will miss it. I may well buy another like it; I don’t think the write-off value will cover the Land Rover I really want. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if it didn’t cover the excess. But I will need something if I’m going to college next month.

And you know what’s even more annoying? Literally the day before I was full of joy because I’d finally got my resident’s parking permit, the magic sticker from the city that means I never have to pay for parking near my flat again. Freedom at last! It’s almost like receiving full citizenship; finally I was a paid-up member of Galway’s horrendous traffic problem, and could park anywhere I liked in the part of town that has no parking.

But seriously, just taking the car into town for an afternoon had been costing me six or eight euros. Having it overnight was pretty much unthinkable. So since I’d got the thing it had continued to reside at my mother’s place. Now at last I would be able to make proper use of it.

Oh well. Taking a bark rubbing with your front end is another way to avoid parking fees I suppose. But the irony, it is bitter.

In Which I Hit A Tree

As if of its own volition, the car darts to the left. A skid? I know how to deal with that. Stay calm, don’t overcompensate. And yet I am lurching drastically to the right now. My feelings are oddly not of panic and fear but puzzlement, disappointment. The steering, something I’d come to think of almost as a direct expression of my will, had suddenly decided to have its own opinion. Parents of teenagers must feel like this, as their world spins out of control.

A ditch. No wait, a tree. A slow, sickening crunch. I’m athwart the driveway, nearly facing the way I came. But I’m relieved. That tree saved me from the ditch, that’s good. I’m a whistling kettle of shock and adrenalin, but I seem to be uninjured.

So what was that sickening crunch, exactly?

I turn off the engine. My glasses have flown off in the impact, I know not where, so I get out and inspect the damage without them. Even with the glamorising effect of soft focus though I can see it’s not pretty. The right wing is crushed like foil, the water tank displaced and leaking, the wheel… doesn’t look right at all.

My glasses turn out to be under the passenger seat. So, can I drive this thing? The engine starts. The power steering does move the wheels, though the noise it makes is like insurrection at the bacon factory. I select first gear, let out the clutch and…

Nothing at all. It’s a front wheel drive car, and the front wheels don’t. That… is probably not a good omen. The damage goes well beyond one corner.

What the hell just happened? I was on the driveway to Cregg Castle, an old colonial manor house that’s being converted into an artists’ residence. It’s covered in slippery mud. The drive I mean. It’s also pocked with holes so thickly that they’re practically impossible to avoid – indeed I’d just failed to avoid one seconds before the accident. Had I simply skidded on the mud, or had the impact broken the steering? It had felt more like the latter. And indeed the two front wheels pointed in different directions now, though of course that could be effect rather than cause.

Sudden steering failure. Imagine if instead of a driveway that had been on a main road. At 95kph, with oncoming traffic. It would have been almost certainly fatal, for me and for others.

And yet I find myself hoping it is the explanation. I mean, skidding off a driveway. That’s just embarrassing.

So first problem would be getting the car off the road. I was near the gatehouse and knew the people who live there; fortunately someone was in. We couldn’t move the car between us, but soon more people came down the driveway in both directions and they stopped to help. They pretty much had to, but I’m sure they would’ve anyway. Two women tipped the balance, and we got it lined up to the point where it could be towed off the road. Thanks to James, “Lorraine Micra”, and all the cooperative people from Cregg Castle. And to the couple who were just passing by to take a walk in the woods but offered me a lift without knowing my mother’s house was only a mile away.

Now it’s the next day. I’m a little achy, though that will be mostly from trying to push the car. I await the insurance report which hopefully will tell me what happened, though I expect it will also bring the sad news that the car is a write-off. The first car I’d ever owned – and that for only about two months. It wasn’t all that much of a car perhaps. A red Nissan Micra that had been my mother’s before me, and several other people’s before that. Thirteen years old, but a tough and feisty little car. Useful, pleasant, reliable – well, it was only unreliable once. I will miss it. I may well buy another like it; I don’t think the write-off value will cover the Land Rover I really want. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if it didn’t cover the excess. But I will need something if I’m going to college next month.

And you know what’s even more annoying? Literally the day before I was full of joy because I’d finally got my resident’s parking permit, the magic sticker from the city that means I never have to pay for parking near my flat again. Freedom at last! It’s almost like receiving full citizenship; finally I was a paid-up member of Galway’s horrendous traffic problem, and could park anywhere I liked in the part of town that has no parking.

But seriously, just taking the car into town for an afternoon had been costing me six or eight euros. Having it overnight was pretty much unthinkable. So since I’d got the thing it had continued to reside at my mother’s place. Now at last I would be able to make proper use of it.

Oh well. Taking a bark rubbing with your front end is another way to avoid parking fees I suppose. But the irony, it is bitter.

Scarlet Fever

Cover of "The Fever (Evergreen original)&...
Cover of The Fever (Evergreen original)

I can recommend Wallace Shawn‘s play The Fever. I recommend it this way: Want a really harrowing time? Go see Wallace Shawn’s The Fever!

Another moving performance by Jerry Levy, but wow – this play is a lot more intense and depressing than Marx in Soho. Good though – in the way heavy theatre can be. Cathartic. Though I’m never sure about catharsis. Is it not just the feeling of pleasure you get when someone stops hitting you over the head?

And The Fever hits you over the head repeatedly. It also punches you in the kidneys and kicks you when your back is turned. It concerns a wealthy Westerner going through a crisis of conscience while suffering a fever in a Third World hotel. In fast succession, his unfastened personality swings from tortured liberalism to fascistic rage as he both realises that his pleasant life is a root cause of injustice, torture and death in places he once avoided even knowing about, then pities himself for being burdened with this  knowledge.

No, we’re not really expected to like him.

But is this dream a moment of clarity? In his febrile vision, the world is a giant zero-sum game where wealth only exists because it is wrested from the poor by violence, where every surplus means someone else goes without a necessity. You can draw different conclusions from that. One of course is that the only possible solution is a radical, total equalisation of humanity.

Another is that there is no solution, and all you can hope for is to be on the winning side. And fight tooth and nail to keep your advantage because the alternative – that the poor and oppressed might someday get to exact their revenge – is too horrific to contemplate.

Or maybe that’s just me. The Fever is a rambling play for sure, it loops and leaps, and yet there seem to be patterns in it. A Rorschach blot – Shawn spills the ink but leaves conclusions up to us. And you will see yourself in this play. Just perhaps not the best of yourself.

Marx Sells Out

Cover of "Marx in Soho: A Play on History...
Cover of Marx in Soho: A Play on History

A moment before he walked on stage I was gripped by an unexpected fear. Can professors of sociology actually act?

Sure, they can act in the sense that they can get things done; the guy who lectured me is President now. They can certainly talk – well, the good ones can. But playing a role is a whole other proposition, and the notion of an actor-professor suddenly seemed very incongruous. Were we about to sit through a thinly-disguised lecture on a dry historical figure?

I worried needlessly. Jerry Levy is an actor, and Karl Marx – in the script by Howard Zinn at least – a warm, living, mischievous human being.

And, just a man. A thinker, a writer, an honest man angered by injustice of course. But no colossus and no antichrist, not the towering figure envisaged by both his followers and his detractors. A person, by turns kind and foul-tempered, drunken and diligent, who achieved much yet whom we might hardly have heard of if he hadn’t befriended Friedrich Engels or fallen in love with Jenny von Westphalen. Zinn’s play, among many other things, illuminates the fact that great lives are really just ordinary lives with unusual consequences.

Marx In Soho is in a lot of ways a simple play. You could almost call it predictable – until you remember it was written in 1999. Back then it would have seemed overly pessimistic to say an unchallenged capitalism would become less constrained by democracy, ever more greedy and unjust. Now that seems obvious.

But this was almost a passing observation. The larger point was that the divisions between people are mostly false dichotomies, artificial distinctions drawn between countries, religions, classes, ideologies, even right and left. The only real division is that between justice and the absence of justice. And there is no justice where people do not have the basic things they need to live.

In the second play of the double bill – The Fever by Wallace Shawn – we go from the broad and theoretical to the immediately personal. How do you live in an unjust world? 8.30 tonight in the Town Hall Theatre. Book nowMarx In Soho sold out.

Marx In Soho

Want to see a play about Marx? I’m serious. It’s time to look again at capitalism’s most famous critic. Was he onto something? Clearly it has its faults – the main one being, the way makes all the money gather at one end. But does Marx offer any solutions?

On the face of it, his approach to the problem hasn’t worked out well. Any country that called itself Marxist seemed to end up being a pretty crappy place to live; authoritarian and restrictive. On the other hand, these states bore not the slightest resemblance to what Marx envisaged. There’s only one major one left now, and somehow we all owe it money. On yet a third hand, the stateless workers’ paradise he did predict seems to be taking its time materialising.

With a track record like that, you might fairly wonder why anyone still pays him any attention. Was he just an eloquent guy with a compelling vision and a terrific beard? Maybe so. But he was an interesting guy.

What’s more, he’s being played by an interesting guy. Actor-director Jerry Levy is a sociology professor back in Vermont, but at an age when most would be retiring he began touring the world with Howard Zinn‘s “Marx in Soho”, a one-actor play on the idea of Marx returning to see the modern world.

It’s on today Thursday in the Town Hall Theatre Galway, and will be followed tomorrow with Wallace Shawn‘s “The Fever”, a darkly comic piece about the pitfalls of owning a conscience. Both shed moving, humorous light on the times we’re living in. See you there?