Because I live the London aspiring-middle-class dream, which means paying exorbitant rent for a box in a leafy suburb in Zone 6, I commute to work.  I stand on a train for twenty-five minutes, and then I stand on a bus for fifteen minutes.  I am, indeed, becoming a standing expert – carving out space in a sea of sleepy zombies, stoutly ignoring loud phone conversations, and marvelling at how so many screens can captivate so many people (while I smugly read my Kindle Paperwhite).

I’ve become conditioned to cramped commuting.  It may be painful at the time, assuming of course you manage to board the train and it does actually take you to the advertised destination and the advertised time, which is hardly guaranteed on my particular line. But at least I know that when I’m in my office I have a place and a purpose (stop sniggering at the back, there).  I can make a nice cup of tea, maybe have a sneaky biscuit, and settle in for a productive day of meetings and e-mails, and people won’t elbow me or shout “CAN YOU MOVE DOWN PLEASE!” in my ear-drum. I may not be guaranteed personal space on the train or on the bus, but at least I can in the office.

Except I can’t.  Because my office employs “hot-desking”.  Which means that having missed out on sitting on the train, and on the bus, I’m not even guaranteed to plonk my posterior down in my own workplace.

For those unfamiliar with hot-desking, those unbelievably fortunate people with desks covered with photos of their spouses and name plaques proudly placed on top of monitors, the set-up is that the office deliberately contains fewer desks than people who work there.  Already it sounds like one of Baldrick’s ‘cunning plans’ but it gets even better – you are expected, nay encouraged, to sit in different places every day. Because the desks are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis, your arrival at work is a lottery, where that colleague who bellows nonsensical inanities down the phone every thirty minutes could be your closest companion.  This may sound like a slight inconvenience, but it also means that because you aren’t guaranteed to sit in the same place from day, you have to pack up your office life every night, and unpack it every morning, storing your paraphernalia in little lockers that are sometimes five minutes’ walk away from the desks.

It’s like being hired at 9 and fired at 5, every day of your career.

Proponents of hot-desking, usually to be found in “Facilities” who have somehow managed to agree with the powers that bw that their desks should be reserved, say that because our workforce is mobile (i.e. we have smartphones and laptops) we shouldn’t need a consistent place to work, meaning that people can work equally well from home or from Homebase, and companies can trim office space selfishly allocated to their employees and save money. I agree whole-heartedly with the concept of the mobile workforce – I will be the first to suggest that in an age where desktops are fast becoming antiquated paperweights, we should be breaking from the shackles of the office and embracing opportunities to work where we can make the most impact (which may well be from our “home office”, or from the coffee shop around the corner).

But the problem is that far too often the culture that is required to maximise flexible working just isn’t embedded into the organisation.  Few companies will truly tell their employees that they can work wherever they like, whenever they like, as long as they get the work done (Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer famously instructed her colleagues to do the opposite). Managers are too scared of lost productivity and reduced line-of-sight, not to say anything about the swathes of expensive boardrooms sitting unused and unloved.  So employees are allowed, graciously, to work one or maybe two days from home, but other than that they must troop in on their uncomfortable commutes and fight like tigers for territory.

On our intranet, a question was raised about people who regularly can only arrive at 9.30am because of personal commitments, only to find all desks are taken.  The answer simply stated “teams are expected to sort this for themselves”.  Very useful, very employee-centric. Hot-desking needs to die – either promote remote-working from the ground up with properly designed offices that cater for people who fly in and fly out, or provide enough desks for your people.  I find it amazing that organisations can think that it does anything other than cause confusion and uncertainty, when employees, after their long commutes, just want somewhere to sit down.

Is that too much to ask?


10 games that helped make me who I am today

In a surprisingly unbalanced article, the BBC on Tuesday decided to weigh in on the age-old stereotype that young children’s exposure to video games increases so-called ‘violent behaviour’.  A Bradford teacher was quoted in saying that “obesity, social exclusion, loneliness, physical fitness [sic.], sedentary solitary lives” were all descriptions of children “hooked to [sic.] games”, and while I’m not going to deny that some children who play games regularly will exhibit those symptoms, such blanket statements based on what appears to be a passing acquaintance with video game culture is hardly helpful in mainstream media.

As I’ve written before in my review of L.A. Noire, violence in video games is still considered damaging and demoralising to the fragile, innocent minds of children, and while I must admit I do feel slightly worried that the teacher witnessed her children “acting out blood spurting from their bodies”, I feel I do have to stand up for gamers and protest.  Before I go on to describe ten games that I feel contributed significantly to who I am today, I want to add a few key general points that we must all keep in mind when reading these types of media attacks:

  • Like films, games are age-restricted.  Games which dwell on violence will normally be rated at the 15 and 18 level, and will certainly not be expected to be available to all children.  Even if a parent is pressed by a child to purchase a game on their behalf, guidance on the mature content in games is available from PEGI, and it is hardly scandalous to point out that just as a parent is unlikely to let a minor watch “The Exorcist” without some knowledge of its adult content, so should parents be rightly responsible for ensuring the appropriate games reach their homes.
  • The article goes on to suggest that children are playing games late into the night, which makes them sluggish and unresponsive the next day.  Of course it will.  Any prolonged late-night activity on a school-night will do that.  But why are these children being allowed to play for such long periods? My dad made playing video games a communal activity, and never let me play unsupervised after what was deemed to be my bedtime.
  • Not all games train killing, or glorify killing to fulfil objectives.  First-person shooters (FPS) are one genre, which unfortunately draw the biggest crowds, but there are so many types of interesting and rewarding games out there that are completely different.  Even FPSes (as I’ll mention below) can contribute meaningfully on various intellectual levels.

Enough of the sermon – what was I playing as a child, and how do I think those games moulded me into the adult I am now?

1. Supremacy: Your Will Be Done (Atari ST, 1990)

Strictly speaking, I didn’t play this, but I used to absolutely love watching my Dad play it (still remember him completing it).  In general terms, it’s a strategy game about taking control of a number of planets within a solar system, against a computer-controlled opponent, using a combination of economic and military resources.  I like to think it taught me the challenges of war – about ensuring your own house is in order before wading in and challenging others.  Military prowess was certainly important, but it was directed at a strategic level, and was never guaranteed to succeed.  An involving, if laughingly primitive game that could now be copied and run on pretty much any smartphone!

2. Operation Stealth (Atari ST, 1990)

Point-and-click adventure games are hardly in favour nowadays (despite Double Fine’s terrific success on Kickstarter to fund a new one) but this is the first of four on my list.  This at times hilarious parody of a James Bond film was intensely frustrating – difficult maze sections (some in the dark), obscure puzzle solutions, and a concluding scene where if you didn’t have one specific item in your inventory you were doomed.  But it taught critical thinking, experimentation, and the adrenaline rush where you finally find the solution to a difficult problem.  And yes, you could die, but that only made the adventure more tense.

3. The Secret of Monkey Island (Atari ST, 1990)

The Monkey Island series is the most famous and successful point-and-click adventure series ever.  Its fourth iteration – Escape from Monkey Island – stretched the joke a little too far, but the first three games are all brilliant, and confirmed my love of the genre.  Any game where you can ‘use file on rhinoceros toenails’ is in my book an immediate success, but the deal was sweetened further with a huge cast of hilarious characters (Stan the used-ship salesman is still my favourite), plot twists, and at times genuinely difficult puzzles.  Nowadays you can get the game on your iPhone or Xbox, so if you never played the original, go and download it right now.

4. Full Throttle (PC, 1995)

Fast-forward five years, and point-and-click adventures are still in their golden age.  Full Throttle, conceived by the genius that is Tim Schafer, introduced to me the importance of soundtrack (I actually recorded the ending credits onto Minidisc so I could listen to The Gone Jackals‘ songs at the end!), and hammered home the fact that intelligent and competent characterisation will enhance a game beyond measure.  The villain of the game, Adrian Ripburger (voiced by Mark Hamill), even gave LucasArts the chance to satirise the American corporation.  Not the most difficult of games, but certainly one of the most atmospheric, and one I continue to remember years after playing.

5. Final Fantasy VII (Playstation, 1997)

Second only to the entry below in terms of being the apotheosis of the role-playing game genre, Final Fantasy VII transcended all competition on release and set a new standard for how to capture a gamer’s heart.  It still features one of the most remarkable plot twists in gaming (I won’t even attempt to describe it in the unlikely event that you haven’t played it) and was the first game I played that had me clocking up more than a hundred hours’ worth of screen-time.  About as far removed as possible from the throwaway five-hour single-player campaigns that now cost the average gamer £50, FFVII took its time to unfurl a gloriously multi-layered world that you couldn’t help but dive into.  Filled with side-quests, off-the-wall moments and momentous set-pieces,  this taught me above all the importance of narrative and story.  Ending the lives of hundreds of collections of pixels on a screen is of no interest to anybody unless there is an emerging narrative that underpins everything.

6.  Panzer Dragoon Saga (Sega Saturn, 1998)

The finest role-playing game ever made, on one of the most under-rated consoles ever made, copies of Panzer Dragoon Saga are now so rare that auctions on eBay often see mint copies sold for hundreds of pounds. It would take years for the genre to match the atmosphere, characterisation, depth and complexity of the world of Panzer Dragoon Saga, and whilst it looks dated by today’s standards, at the time it was the most cutting edge display of console technology.  What is mainly impressed upon me, however, was how games can bring people together.  My sister and I played this over a period of weeks, breathless, desperate to find out what happened next, gasping at the next plot twist or set-piece. We still share nostalgic thoughts about it even today.

7. Half-Life (PC, 1998)

Aside from the fun but frothy Duke Nukem 3D, I hadn’t really played many first-person shooters up till now (after all they were still a far-cry from today’s multi-billion pound industry).  Then I played Half-Life, and thought that all first-person shooters were as good as this, which is rather unfair because it’s one of the best PC games of all-time.  The absolutely key thing about this game (and the entry at #10) is that the protagonist, Gordon Freeman, does not utter a single word.  All instructions and objectives depend entirely on the astonishing level design and characterisation, which combine to ensure that while you’re terrified about what monstrosity might lie ahead, you’re never unsure about what you have to do.  In addition, “bosses”, such as they are, are thoughtful puzzles rather than endless ammunition swaps, with the giant tentacled beast that hunts by sound rather than by sight still a stroke of sheer genius.

8. Deus Ex (PC, 2000)

Even though this game run on an architecture that was little more than cardboard, its depth and span at the time of creation was frankly unbelievable.  It was loaded with philosophical texts, contained a plot that would rival most modern Hollywood blockbusters, and whisked the gamer across the world to experience different cultures, beliefs, and attitudes.  You could become a marksman, a hacker, a thief, a duellist, a silver-tongued con-artist or a combination of all the above.  It was all things to all men, and symbolic of an era where the importance of allowing the gamer to play the game they wanted to play outweighed any amount of graphical pyrotechnics or flashy cut-scenes.  In a world where games take players by the hand and refuse to allow them away from set-paths for fear of allowing them to form a coherent thought, examples like Deus Ex are becoming an endangered species.

9. Metropolis Street Racer (Dreamcast, 2000)

I don’t include MSR because of the game itself necessarily (even though it was fantastic) but because this is the game that got me into indie music.  I used to play this game on mute with a copy of a compilation CD called The Album on in the background, and I gradually started paying more attention to the songs rather than the game.  My sister, who would often watch me, started listening as well, and we gradually started seeking out other records to enjoy, all ones we could put on while I raced around Tokyo or London trying to finally get hold of that Nissan Skyline that would mean I’d reached the pinnacle of racing achievement.  It just goes to show that games don’t need to be played in isolation, with all focus on the content – they can be catalysts for enjoying cultural or social pleasures too.

10. Bioshock (PS3, 2008)

Bioshock is one of the best modern games I’ve ever played.   Yet more importantly, if I hadn’t played Bioshock, I wouldn’t have read two of my favourite books – The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, both by Ayn Rand.  Yes, Bioshock is a violent first-person shooter, and no doubt that is all the Bradford teacher would see if she played it, but look beyond it and you’ll find one of the most compelling narratives of recent years, founded on an original story influenced by the philosophy of Objectivism, the ethics of the science of progress, and the self-consuming nature of power.  Ok, not every game is going to get its players to start delving into complicated philosophy, but the fact that it can is so criminally overlooked that gamers must shout these kind of achievements from the rooftops.   One memorable battle in the game (shown in the video above) is even soundtracked by Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers.

Hopefully these ten glimpses of my gaming past will show that it is quite possible for young people to play games for much of their childhood and still emerge at the other side without becoming socially-excluded demons devoid of the capability of critical thought.  I will continue to bang the drum for intelligent and fulfilling gaming, as long as the mainstream media see fit to continue to peddle tired stereotypes that are simply no longer relevant.

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Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror

Immediately after inserting the CD for Sleigh Bells’ second LP into your stereo and pushing “Play” (you do still buy CDs don’t you?) you might be forgiven that there was a mistake in the pressing plant. Starting an album with the sound of a roaring stadium crowd, with vocalist Alexis Krauss’ faux-heavy metal come-ons in the background, is as every bit as “ludicrous and completely over the top” as guitarist Derek Miller says.  While traversing the length of this terrific record, however, the opening kitsch starts to makes sense in context, because everything about Reign of Terror is based on the balance of hard and soft, of punishment and relief.  While it’s at times unrelenting, it’s a successful noise-pop experiment and one of the stronger releases of 2012 to date.

As it happens, opener “True Shred Guitar” doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it’s merely a scene-setter for what to expect from the rest of the half-hour or so of the record.  Miller packs this record wall-to-wall with gigantic guitar riffs, recorded in a reverberation room to ape as closely as possible his beloved Def Leppard, yet Krauss’ vocals, so crucial to softening the bar-chord pounding, are never drowned in the mix, and Miller’s production deserves plaudits for maintaining the balance.  On first listen, Krauss may not sound like she can pack the whallop needed to cut through the heaviness, but even as “Born To Lose” beings as uncompromisingly as “True Shred Guitar” ends, her entrance is immediately the focus point, adding poppy sweetness but never mocking the metallic sheen. The juxtaposition is simultaneously intoxicating, and a breath of fresh air, like constantly gasping for air between mouthfuls of a particularly stunning wine.

In truth, the first few tracks rather over-egg it slightly, almost defying the listener not to hit the “pause’ button, but the beautiful “End of the Line” heralds an almost unbroken sequence of effective experimentation.  Indeed, the highlights are those tracks where Miller has the courage to tone things down slightly.  “Comeback Kid” sounds like The Go! Team covering Metallica, adding layers of shiny synth over swampy percussion,  “Road To Hell” is a worryingly on-the-money pastiche of “Geek the Girl”-era Lisa Germano at her most menacing, and “Never Say Die” is the ultra-hypnotic track that Muse’s Matt Bellamy never wrote. Every three minutes or so, Miller switches styles – never lessening the pressure, but always allowing the duo’s versatility to shine – and he wisely resists the temptation to dwell overly long in any particular mode.

Naturally, the duo can’t quite sustain the quality, and it’s frankly quite difficult to listen to the entire record in one go, despite the fact it’s not excessively long by anyone’s standards.  Even the ‘quieter’ tracks, such as they are, don’t let the listener escape from the relentless pounding quite enough to provide the light and shade that top records really need, but by-and-large this is a very successful experiment.  What Miller and Krauss have produced is very much the definition of “noise-pop”, where memorable melodies and traditional harmonies lurk to varying depths within the metallic onslaught.  Fans of genuine hardcore may scoff at what they may hear as overtly saccharine, and pop devotees may baulk at the glut of power chords obscuring the melodies, but those who wouldn’t class themselves as exclusive worshippers at either altar will almost certainly find this a value-for-money purchase.  It will be interesting to see where the duo go next, but the results of their thinking will certainly be worth investing in.


Download – “True Shred Guitar”, “End of the Line”, “Comeback Kid”, “Road to Hell”, “Never Say Die”

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Ballet has never properly escaped stereotype.  Mention The Nutcracker or Swan Lake and inevitably the images that follow are ones of neatly arranged dancers in leotards and pointy shoes, watched by stuffy suited old-age pensioners applauding politely at pre-determined moments, with twee orchestration pulsing lightly in the background. Incomprehensible to all but the most learned, each twirl and leap seems nothing but superfluous fluff that surrounds perhaps three minutes of actual action – a princess wakes up, an evil magician is killed, a toy solider defeats a giant rat.  Surely ballet is simply an inhuman combination of opera without the benefit of words, and dance without the power of narrative?

To the initiated, obviously, no, it’s not.  But it’s understandable that those who have yet to experience ballet are probably not likely to want to cough up £50 or so to take a chance on Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky in the hope the stereotype can be disproved.  But there’s now a sure-fire performance to convince all but the hardiest of naysayers.  Because Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a spectacular subversion of the old-fashioned ballet ideals, and should be watched by everybody, right now. Part ballet, part pantomine, it’s danced exquisitely but at the same time plays like a comedy, like a university professor interrupting his lecture on applied physics to spray you with water from a Super Soaker stashed behind the lectern. Plus, you’ll never look at hedges, sausages, playing cards, frogs or mushrooms in the same way again…

The concept, dreamt up by Nicholas Wright and excellently orchestrated by Joby Talbot, lends itself so well to ballet that it seems inconceivable that this hasn’t been thought of before.  Lewis Carroll’s famous Victorian children’s novel is for the large part lifted unscathed, though the love story elements are added to not completely defy the conventions of ballet, and is brought to life quite brilliantly by a vibrant set design by Bob Crowley.  Most of the main characters in the novel find a place in the action, and not one seems out of place or surplus to requirements.  The Mad Hatter is a chaotic tap-dancer, constantly trying to trap the docile Dormouse in the teapot; the Caterpillar is an outrageously sexualised Turkish dancer just on the right side of kitsch; and the infamous Cheshire Cat is brought on in its component parts from shadowy figures constantly destroying and rebuilding its body without letting Alice lose sight of its gigantic, grinning head.  It’s intoxicating stuff, as much pantomine as ballet, with as much attention to detail paid to the hedges in the Queen of Hearts’ garden as to Alice herself.

Naturally, all the characterisation in the world couldn’t impress if the underpinning music didn’t match the magic of the stage.  Fortunately, Talbot’s score, whilst as madcap as the dancing, never extends beyonds its reach.  Carroll’s world calls for magic and mystery, so perhaps unsurprisingly a third of the orchestra is given to percussion.  Xylophones, bells and woodblocks make up the bulk of the musical patchwork, constantly shifting and evolving as Alice fights to grasp the world around her, but there is also an on-the-money waltz and a hilariously ironic Tchaikovskian love theme for the Queen’s forced dances with her very reluctant courtesans.

Recommended for all those who want to try ballet but haven’t the foggiest where to begin, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a fantastic taster for the novice.  Those who find the story too off-the-wall will find solace in the energetic group numbers and surprisingly tender pas de deux, and those who couldn’t care less aout the dancing will enjoy the comedy and drama. This is the first fully-fledged ballet to be commissioned for the ROH in twenty years, but if this is the fruits of such labours, then the next twenty years really can’t come quickly enough.


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Codecademy CodeYear Lesson 10 – Arrays and Rock, Paper, Scissors

Ah, arrays. It was bad enough with one dimension, but two dimensions? Three dimensions? This week’s lesson, which for the record I found incredibly tough but rewarding, again carried on the theme of taking a concept and running with it rather than throwing random exercises together (and dedicating the first section to revising old topics was very useful, please keep that up Codecademy!) It quickly developed into quite complex looping exercises, that generally had enough explanation to set you on the correct path without giving you the answers on a plate.

However, once the lesson started talking about associative arrays, I was lost – I definitely get the impression that these are important (in that they differ from indexed arrays because of the key/value pairing distinction) but I don’t necessarily see why.  The associate card array with rank and suit keys just didn’t gel with me – and I ended up Googling to find out more.  Try this excellent blog post if you too are struggling with the concept!

As usual, I fought through, with some liberal sprinkling of hints, and eventually managed to write the code to deal out two hands of poker:

On the bright side, the Rock, Paper, Scissors game was generally much more straightforward, if a little bit typing heavy! The !=== null option for the prompt was an interesting nugget, as was toLowerCase(), but there was nothing too difficult apart from making sure all the spaces appeared in the console.log statement as well as the programmed variables (I seem to draw blanks when it comes to “” in console.log statement!)

Final game code pasted below:

I hear the next week’s back to recursion again.  Is it or me, or do we seem to just keep going back to recursion?  Oh, wait…


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Why is Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” so good?

Given that my last post on Gotye and “Somebody That I Used To Know” has become by far and away my most popular post (i.e. more than two people have read it…) I thought I’d try to make this a semi-regular feature.  Behold the second instalment of “Why is…so good?”

I first came across this song back in September 2011, appropriately enough via a link from the UK video game magazine Edge, who called it “lump-in-throat monumental“. At the time Lana Del Rey was barely a blip on the music scene’s radar, though under her real name she had already released a debut album that was largely ignored, but it was clear from those first four minutes and fifty seconds that Del Rey was offering the world something vastly different from the pop fodder that was dominating the charts at the time.  While Del Rey’s hotly anticipated debut Born To Die eventually proved to be slightly disappointing given the inordinate amount of hype surrounding this mysterious new artist, “Video Games” is, in my opinion, one of the strongest tracks of the last six months or so, and in this post, I’d like to offer a few thoughts as to why I think this is the case.

tl:dr – In summary, it’s all about balance, or more specifically, balance of tonality, balance of instrumentation, and balance of emotion.

First of all (again), the balance of tonality, or key.

Warning – this is the most technical part of the post, feel free to skip to instrumentation if you simply aren’t interested.

There’s a reason I witter on about this concept of the key of a song, and it’s because it underpins (almost) everything a song can say in its short lifespan.

As a quick reminder, the key of a piece of music is essentially the set of rules that governs what notes sounds good when played together, and (secondarily) dicate the overall mood and emotion of a piece.

To set some context, try listening, for example, to the first twenty seconds or so of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:

This famous piece starts off in the key of C minor, and C minor is synonymous with stormy, dramatic, heroic music.  Beethoven in particular loved it, always reverting to C minor when he wanted to express drama or passion.

All well and good for Beethoven, but what about Del Rey?  Well, listen to the first forty-five seconds.

“Video Games” also starts, generally, in a minor key – this time of F sharp minor.  Like C minor, this key is also fairly dramatic – it was a favourite of that most Romantic of Russian pianists Sergei Rachmaninov, but it’s also a stock key used by Matt Bellamy of Muse (listen, for instance, to Muscle Museum and Apocalypse Please).  It’s not a popular key used in pop music, but it does pack emotional punch, and it immediately creates intrigue and drama.

But wait! Listen to the piano chords that begin the piece.  The first four chords are:

  • F sharp minor
  • A major
  • F sharp minor
  • A major

I.e. two pairs of chords.  What’s interesting here is that A major is what’s known as the relative major of F sharp minor.  It’s not necessary to dwell on the technical points, but F sharp minor and A major are very closely related in that the same sets of notes used to create the song are used in both keys (almost).  It’s also the sunnier, mellower side of F sharp minor (although, as “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead is in A major, sunnier does not always mean happier!).

Now, progress to the chorus (about fifty-five seconds in).  What do you hear? The key has slightly changed – the tone is happier, brighter all of a sudden (starting at “It’s you, it’s you…).  In fact – it’s changed to A major!  We had quick shifts between F sharp minor and A major in the piano chords, with F sharp minor pretty much winning, but then A major has prevailed!

But wait! (Again…) When Del Rey sings “tell me all the things you want to do”, a sudden change occurs once more (known technically as a modulation), and that saddening, dramatic F sharp minor chord is back.  It happens again, on “they say that the world was built for two”, back from A major to the relative minor of F sharp minor.  And “baby, now you do” confirms it – we’re back to F sharp minor, to the knelling piano chords, and we start again.

Balance – between major and minor, sun and cloud.  Mature treatment of tonality in this way goes a long, long way to support the message of the song in the vocalist and the supporting instrumentation.

Speaking of which…

The balance of instrumentation.

One of the reasons that I feel Born To Die doesn’t work as a whole is that it’s fairly instrumentally flat – it relies heavily on strings and almost trip-hop percussion, with little variation.  “Video Games”, however, bucks the trend entirely.

At first listen, the song seems little other than piano and strings, but gradually extra details reveal themselves.  The tom-tom rolls in the percussion, the martial drumming that provides almost a funeral aspect (perfectly compatible with the F sharp minor tonality alluded to earlier).  The beautiful descending plucked strings that fill every pause as Del Rey dreams of wild bars and old starts.  More than any other song on the record, Del Rey creates an atmosphere.  Great songs are full of detail – compare Gotye’s xylophones and tribal drums – and Del Rey pays attention to the detail in this single.

Of course, such analysis completely discounts Del Rey’s voice, which is as much as instrument as the harp or the piano.  The mountain of detail built up by the carefully constructed instrumentation would fall flat without a supporting story, but Del Rey’s performance here is stellar.  Technically speaking, Del Rey would probably be classed as an ‘alto’ singer – the lowest female voice – and there is something about the lower register of a female’s vocals that is incredibly alluring, partly because the lower register lends itself to sultry, sexy whispering (try singing a low note really loudly, compared to a high note – it’s quite difficult).

Simply put – in your head, try to replay the song in your head, but play the vocals an octave higher than on record.  Instantly, the effect is lost.

Finally, the balance of emotion.

If you had to write a sentence that summarised the message of “Video Games”, what would it be?

When I first listened to it, I genuinely thought that it was the story of a happy relationship, a successful co-existence where Del Rey lost herself in dreams of jive-bar swinging and whisky drinking while her man preferred the company of his console.  But it could easily be read as a sarcastic farewell to a man who ignored her quest for fulfilment and couldn’t bring her dreams to reality.

I still think that’s it’s somewhere between the two, and that’s mainly due to the subtle balance of the song. It refuses to be tied down – over dark F sharp minor tones, she “leans in for a big kiss” and “puts his favourite perfume on”, but over the happier A major tones, suddenly “I tell you all the time” smacks of being ignored and fighting for recognition.  Del Rey refused to tell us the whole story, preferring to use her majestic alto voice and exquisitely poised instrumentation to keep the listener guessing. We enter her world, twirl and twist with her emotions, than exit without much more of a clue than we had when we entered, but somehow it doesn’t matter.  We’ve seen snippets of a dreamy, dazzling world, and in the end it doesn’t really matter whether her video-game-playing man stayed the course or not.

We just want to listen to her story.

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Codecademy CodeYear Lesson 9 – Review of OOP

I don’t mind admitting that I found this’s project one of the most gruelling and ultimately wearying examples in the entire Code Year curriculum so far.  I can imagine that the author struggled to come up with a simple concept that would test recursive functions, but using Javascript to program a cash till to decide what change is required after a purchase seemed massively over-wrought.

I frequently scratched my head during this project, desperately trying to decipher what was being asked of me, and at the time I felt my Javascript learning journey was at its lowest ebb.  A couple of days after finally earning that badge, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to start investing some time in repeating these projects. Quite rightly, the course has moved from simple exercises to teach fragmented techniques, to proper projects to hammer home these incredibly important tenets of object-oriented programming.  Simply passing the exercises, through luck or judgment, teaches only how to repeat answers parrot-fashion, not drill the creativity required to ultimately solve difficult problems through accurate code.

Nevertheless, I do have code to show you – below is the solution to the final exercise (although of course most of this was provided!):

That said, the lesson on reviewing OOP also present this week was much more fun – it was great to have the opportunity to practice inheritance/encapsulation/prototyping. The acceleration/deceleration inheritance exercise was probably the most interesting, so I’ve included the code for that exercise too:

Apparently, HTML and CSS are not far away.  It will be fantastic to learn these languages as I’ve always been interested in learning webpage design, plus it will be nice to have a break from Javascript as well!

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Codecademy CodeYear Lesson 8 – Blackjack II and FizzBuzz++

Slightly later than usual, apologies!

I’ve found in the last few weeks of Code Year  that the lessons that revisit old concepts and build upon them are often the most effective.  It’s all very well completing seemingly random exercises involving penguins and cash tills, but give me the good ol’ Blackjack and FizzBuzz projects and I’m instantly back in my comfort zone.  That’s probably why I think Week 8 (wow, two months already have passed) has, for me at least, been more successful than the last couple of weeks.  The course curators are now happy to trust us with more advanced topics, and can re-engineer some simple concepts and add further layers of complexity.

This week was just two projects, rather than a specific course, so we could dive straight into enhancing the Blackjack program from week 4 to allow it to recognise suits, and, crucially, add a second player to play against.  We can still only deal two cards (I imagine we’ll move onto asking the player whether they want to continue with a for-while-break loop in the not-too-distant future) but it’s still remarkable that a couple of objects and a couple of functions can form the basis of what could be a rudimentary gambling game.  Final code (without any of the extra credit tweaks, I’m afraid) below…

And then, back to FizzBuzz, this time writing code to (for some reason) compute the average of the sum of all the FizzBuzz numbers between 0 and 100.  Fair enough, but I’m once again transported back to the evil parent who was forcing their young children to play FizzBuzz at their birthday party back in week 1.  This turned out to be one of the easier projects for a while, once I got over how to keep a running total of a variable, but I have the feeling that a decent Javascript developer could probably rewrite the my entire code with half the space and twice the functionality!

But anyway, my final code for the FizzBuzz++ project below:

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Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra’s Urban Classic at the Barbican

If you didn’t listen to the Urban Classic concert last night on BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra, then I strongly suggest you seek it out on iPlayer (assuming you’re in the UK of course), particularly if you would class yourself as a classical or urban music purist.

I found myself listening to it last night and was impressed at the balance of the event.  What could have been a lame attempt to convert younger listeners to classical music, or temper the edge and energy of modern grime and R&B with syrupy orchestration, was actually a finely tuned and creative event.  The BBC Symphony Orchestra supplied pitch-perfect arrangements and accompaniments to the likes of Devlin, Ms Dynamite and N-Dubz’s Fazer (who turned out to be a dab hand at the piano) as well as providing exuberant versions of John Adams’ “Lollapalooza” and Alexander Mosolov’s “Iron Foundry”.  The former piece was a particularly inspired choice – based on the rhythms of its title, it showed that contemporary orchestral music can riff as effectively on the metre of language as modern rap and grime music.

This is exactly the kind of event that is needed to demystify orchestral music, far too often dismissed in secondary school education as fit only for twee Classical symphonies and choral pieces. It was hugely telling that all the performers on the night stated how amazed they were to be performing with a 75-piece orchestra, and rightly so, but ultimately it was their own talented song-writing that shone.  After all, orchestras are merely vehicles for a composer’s ideas, and if that composer is willing to include ideas from the old as well as the new, the results will be all the more powerful.

I don’t think that the audience at this gig will immediately start listening to Brahms and Beethoven (though anyone wanting to listen to more classical music should ideally start with Beethoven), but if they’ve become more open to those kinds of sounds in their preferred music choices, then this concert has definitely done its job.

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Codecademy CodeYear Lesson 7 – Loops II and Return of the Killer Dice Game

Anyone else starting to feel the heat of Codecademy ratchet right up?

This week we revisit loops, with a spoonful of arrays and conditionals thrown in for good measure. I don’t mind admitting that at times I was utterly perplexed but I don’t think this week will rank as Code Year’s finest.  Some of the exercises seemed just incredibly elongated ways of teaching something entirely random (the exercise to print out the contents of a table was a particularly bad example of this, quite poorly explained and thrown in with almost no warning), and this new concept of hiding detailed instructions within the hint box really needs to stop.  I don’t mind using the hints, but I want there to be a balance between setting a multi-step exercise without any kind of guidance, and resorting to hints to find everything explained in detail there.

Still, I can’t deny that I’m really starting to learn some great stuff now, and let’s remember that this is just seven weeks in.

The project for this week, an extension of the dice game, was a really quite challenging concept.  Normally I would past code to show proudly how I managed to reach the final solution, and whilst the code below does satisfy the requirement of the exercise (i.e. I have my badge) there are still some things wrong, namely:

  • Need to print something out to the user to show they have rolled a double and hence the game ends and they have zero (currently the code just returns zero)
  • Need to sort out the ongoing score for each role – the code at the moment insists that the individual score for each roll is zero, but the total score still increases or decreases.
  • Need to add commenting and tidy up the formatting

But then that’s the point of coding, isn’t it? Constant iteration!

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