The Null Device
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Gough Whitlam, that lion of the Australian Left who shook up a sleepy, conservative backwater and made it, for at least a few decades, into a modern, forward-looking player on the world stage, died yesterday, aged 98.
Whitlam's brief period in office began in 1972, when the Australian Labor Party which he led won a landslide victory, sweeping aside the arse-end of a decades-long period of conservative rule and cruising into office under the slogan “It's Time”, soundtracked by a groovy rock'n'roll jingle. Whitlam and his party didn't slow down; soon they had abolished conscription and the death penalty, brought in free university education, state-funded health care and arts funding, recognised Aboriginal land rights, passed the world's first no-fault divorce laws, replaced God Save The Queen as the national anthem with Advance Australia Fair (which, though admittedly somewhat turgid-sounding, was at least ours), among other accomplishments. He also had a gift for witty retorts.
This spring was not to last, though, and after winning an early election with a narrower majority in 1974, Whitlam failed to get a budget passed and was dismissed by the Governor-General in 1975, in what some of the more paranoid types still say was a CIA coup. (Interestingly, the Pinochet-figure brought in to replace him, Malcolm Fraser, has, over the past few decades of retirement, drifted considerably to the left of Australian politics, and was last seen endorsing a Greens candidate in the 2013 election; or perhaps he has just stood still, with the political landscape drifting rightward around him.)
Whitlam's accomplishments, however, stuck; by CIA-installed right-wing dictatorship standards, the Fraser government was somewhat of a damp squib, and kept things much as they were, until the ALP's Bob Hawke took over keeping them more or less as they were. It was not until into the first term of John Howard, with his obsession with his idol Robert Menzies, the conservative patriarch of the pre-Whitlam Australia, and the lost father-knows-best arcadia of white picket fences and children who are seen and not heard that he had presided over, that it started to look like what we had thought of as the new, modern Australia was merely a thaw. Howard's successor, Tony Abbott, meanwhile, seems to look even further back; his model of Australia seems to be closer to the authoritarian penal colonies and military outposts of virtuous Empire than to the “relaxed and comfortable” 1950s, dangerously close to outbreaks of rock'n'roll, feminism, male long hair or similar degeneracy.
It's not yet clear which of Whitlam's achievements will be the last to be systematically rolled back by the current government; free education is on the way out, and payments for medical appointments were floated (without any economic planning to make a case for them, but that's not the point; it's the principle that counts, and, to a certain mindset, the very existence of free health care is fundamentally immoral). If Abbott succeeds in unlocking the Strong Wartime Prime Minister achievement, conscription might be on the agenda (though, then again, Australia may take a hint from the US, and eschew outright conscription in favour of, say, making university funding or unemployment benefits contingent on military service). The death penalty may be harder to sell to the public (Australia's regional neighbours threatening our bogans with it should they bring some weed with them tends to do that), but if anyone in Canberra would push for it, the current lot probably would. As for restoring God Save The Queen as the national anthem, for a government that brought back Imperial honours, that would be, if anything, too obvious.
Nelson Mandela, the South African prisoner of conscience who became the first president of the post-apartheid South Africa, has died at his home, at the age of 95. He had been ailing for some time.
Mandela was one of the few people one can say was truly great; a paragon of strength, dignity, forgiveness and wisdom, he endured terrible adversity for his cause, and when he won, he eschewed vengeance and led his country into a (relatively) peaceful new era. And here is the Onion's take.
At some point today, the world's political leaders will pay tributes to Mandela. When David Cameron, the UK's Prime Minister says his words (as he must, regardless of whether it'd be the decent thing to do), let it not be forgotten that the Federation of Conservative Students of which he was a senior member at the time called for Mandela to be executed as a terrorist.
It seems that yesterday quite a few notable people died; among them:
- Kim Thompson, co-founder of venerable independent comics publisher Fantagraphics, who championed both the publishing of new alternative voices and the translation of European bandes dessinées into English; aged 56:
- Melbourne urban planning expert Professor Paul Mees; a tireless advocate of improving public transport in a city running on a 1950s-vintage American vision of wide freeways, one car per adult and public transport as something nobody who can afford a car would use (and thus inherently unworthy of taking Your Tax Money, Suburban Liberal Voter, to fix up for the bums who use it). It's sad that he died so young (at 51), and that in his last months, he would not have seen any signs of his vision coming any closer to realisation; if anything, the signs would have pointed the other way, with the PM-in-waiting announcing that “we don't do urban rail” in Australia and pledging to double up on freeway building.
- Country singer Slim Whitman, whom your parents and/or grandparents may have had in their record collections; he was 90, and while his creative peak was in the early 1950s, his last new album came out in 2010.
- Character actor James Gandolfini, best known for his role in Mafia-themed TV drama The Sopranos; in Italy, aged 51.
Sad news: Christina Amphlett, frontwoman of post-punk rock band The Divinyls, inspiration to many, first crush to many more and arguably the archetypal Australian Rock Chick, has died in New York, aged 53. The Divinyls are best known outside of Australia for I Touch Myself, though in their career had many more hits, including Pleasure And Pain, Back To The Wall and Science Fiction, through the 1980s and until their generation was displaced by the JJJ Grunge Revolution (many of whose key players, like Adalita from Magic Dirt, were inspired by her).
It's fair to say that Amphlett lived the lifestyle. Born in industrial Geelong, she left home in her teens and spent time busking in Europe, at one point being imprisoned for three months for singing in the streets; she was born at the right time to be there when punk broke, and her artistic career embodied its values—aggressively forward, unapologetically raunchy and cuttingly honest, expressing both toughness and vulnerability; her voice certainly did.
Amphlett was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006 and breast cancer in 2010; had it only been one of the two, she'd probably had more of a chance, but apparently the MS made radiotherapy impossible.
There is more coverage, including quotes from other musicians who knew her, here
Aaron Swartz, esteemed hacker, co-creator of Reddit and inventor of the RSS 1.0 standard, committed suicide recently. Swartz was facing trial for illegally downloading a cache of academic documents from closed academic publishing site JSTOR (as pure a rent-seeking monopoly as exists, extracting lucrative sums from academic libraries and private user alike for access to academic papers which they contributed nothing to the creation of) by placing a laptop in a closet at MIT and fraudulently changing the laptop's MAC address to give it access to MIT's protected network, and apparently also for having pissed off the FBI at some point. There was no evidence of him having made any of the papers available to the general public, but nonetheless, the US Department of Justice decided to make an example of him, pushing for a sentence of 30-50 years.
- Copyfight advocate Lawrence Lessig on the disproportionate hounding of Swartz by the DoJ.
- The Truth about Aaron Swartz’s “Crime”, by computer security expert Alex Stamos, who served as an expert witness at the trial.
- Tributes from Tim Berners-Lee, and from the WikiMedia Foundation
In 18th-century England, when they hanged a highwayman, his corpse would be dipped in tar and hung in an iron cage along the side of a highway, as a grim warning to any others contemplating a career of highway robbery. From the point of view of the US Department of Justice, or more specifically, the rent-seeking corporations licensed to make money from the intellectual property system as it stands today, Swartz, with his radical views on open access to information, was the modern-day equivalent of a highwayman, an enemy of the system of intellectual property licensing and the structures of ownership and control built atop it, shoring up the stabilities of the status quo. Were he convicted (or bankrupted by the costs of defending himself), he would have served as the tarred corpse swinging in a gibbet alongside the Information Superhighway, an equally grim warning to any aspiring Information Superhighwaymen that you don't fuck with intellectual property, ever. Or, in other words: if you break the law, the law will break you. An upheld conviction, however, was no guarantee. Dead, arguably, he can serve the same role just as well, without the risk of him being released on appeal. To others, he will be a martyr for the Copyfight and/or an example of the iniquities of a system run for the benefit of corporate rentiers.
Russian singer Eduard Khil has died at the age of 77, following a stroke. Khil is apparently well known in Russia, though attained belated fame outside of Russia when a musical number he performed on Soviet television in the 1970s, in which he sung nonsense lyrics in a rich baritone over luxuriantly loungy background music, but above all with an infectious sense of good cheer, ended up on YouTube and became a meme. The song's original title was apparently “I Am So Happy to Finally Be Back Home” (in Russian, of course), though it was changed by the censors and replaced with the immortal words “Trololololo lololo lololo, hahahahaha!”, which probably contributed much to its global appeal some decades later.
Khil lived to see his song belatedly become an internet sensation, and was even filmed commenting on covers of it from all over the world; one partial parody of this song was performed by the German actor Christoph Waltz on television.
Robin Gibb, one of the members of long-running pop group the Bee Gees, has died, aged 62. While they're best known for some overexposed disco-pop from the 1970s, Robin, by all accounts the eccentric of the group, was a much more interesting figure than one might believe:
"I'm also doing the musical score for a film called Henry the Eighth," he told Fabulous, "and I'm making my own film called Family Tree. It involves a man, John Family, whose grandfather is caught trying to blow up Trafalgar Square with a homemade bomb wrapped in underwear." In July 1969 the NME announced Robin was "fronting a 97-piece orchestra and a 60-piece choir in a recording of his latest composition To Heaven and Back, which was inspired by the Apollo 11 moonshot. It is an entirely instrumental piece, with the choir being used for 'astral effects'." Robin Gibb was still only 19 years old.
Age barely mellowed his eccentricity. In the 90s he left his brothers speechless when, during an interview with all three of them on Howard Stern's show, he announced his wife Dwina was bisexual and they enjoyed threesomes. He quickly said it was a joke, then changed his mind again a week later. With their cocooned, peripatetic upbringing (Isle Of Man, Manchester, Australia), the Gibbs never had an instinct for cool pop moves. And Robin Gibb's music - untutored and isolated (I can picture most of it being written on a harpsichord in a dimly lit 12th century living room) – has come out without any of the usual dulling rock'n'roll filters. Who else could have written Odessa (City on the Black Sea) about a man stranded on an iceberg, writing a letter to his wife who loves "that vicar more than words can say"? Frankly, no one.Gibb was predeceased by his twin brother and bandmate Maurice Gibb, who died in 2003.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Yauch taught himself to play bass in high school, forming a band for his 17th birthday party that would later become known the world over as Beastie Boys.
With fellow members Michael "Mike D" Diamond and Adam "Adrock" Horovitz, Beastie Boys would go on to sell over 40 million records, release four #1 albums–including the first hip hop album ever to top the Billboard 200, the band's 1986 debut full length, Licensed To Ill–win three Grammys, and the MTV Video Vanguard Lifetime Achievement award. Last month Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with Diamond and Horovitz reading an acceptance speech on behalf of Yauch, who was unable to attend.In addition to his role in the Beastie Boys (who started off as a crossover between hardcore punk and rap, taking turns to rhyme cartoonishly crude lyrics over sampled Led Zeppelin breaks, and then evolved into something more subtle though no less dynamic, even putting out two albums of instrumental loungecore grooves), Yauch, a practicing Buddhist, also made and distributed films and was involved in activism, organising a benefit concert for the rights of Tibetans under Chinese rule and, more recently, marching with the Occupy movement.
Meanwhile, Pitchfork has a piece on how MCA offered a relatable blueprint for growing up, in both his art and his life:
The Beastie Boys turned curiosity into a form of art. They wanted to know more about what was around them and learn everything they could about what wasn't. Forget about Kurt Cobain for a second: For kids like me, the Beastie Boys invented the 90s. Technology was changing fast and the world was shrinking rapidly. Between their music and label/magazine Grand Royal, the Beasties showed how to reach out and scoop up all the best parts. New York hip-hop and punk rock, Japanese pop, Jamaican dub-- all of it could be gathered and re-assembled into something that reflected who you were. This sort of cultural mixing was nothing new, but the Beastie Boys brought it to the mainstream. They were ambassadors, but their hipness didn't look down on anybody. It felt inclusive.
MCA was the spiritual center of the trio, even before he became a student of Tibetan Buddhism. There was a certain kind of Beastie Boys track that I liked to call a "State of MCA" dispatch, starting with "A Year and a Day" from Paul's Boutique. The group was known for its 70s references and corny jokes, but these MCA songs hinted at a yearning for something deeper.The piece ends with a piece of everyday philosophy from MCA:
There's an instrumental on Ill Communication called "Futterman's Rule". The only lyrics listed in the booklet say, "When two are served, all may eat." It turned out to be a reference to a community ritual that was dear to Yauch. In a later issue of Grand Royal, there was a short piece explaining that Gene Futterman was a professional chef and a friend of Adam Yauch's family. He was known for his large dinner parties and when he brought food in from the kitchen he would tell his guests: "When two are served, you eat!"
The elegance of Futterman's Rule does lend it a hint of spirituality. One eats one's food while it is hot, observing dinner as a natural continuum (instead of the top-down, "no-one-eats-until-the-chef-is-ready" hierarchical model that dominates most households). At the same time, no one eats alone (it is only once two people are served, and a social base is established for those with food, that one may begin to eat). If form follows function, the Rule is built to travel. So give it a try. And if you like it, tell a friend.Meanwhile, Stereogum has 20 Great Adam Yauch Moments.
Adam Yauch leaves behind a wife and daughter, two living parents and a world that's slightly less enlightened than when he walked on it. Here passes a true mensch.
Legendary British cartoonist Ronald Searle has passed away, aged 91. Searle had survived imprisonment in horrific conditions by the Japanese army on the Burma Railway (a fellow prisoner remarked that one would only know that he was dead if he stopped drawing) and went on to an illustrious career, creating the St. Trinian's books and the tales of the grotesque, recalcitrant schoolboy Molesworth, and also drawing for publications including Punch, Le Monde and Le Figaro. Searle apparently kept drawing right up to the end. His friend, the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe (whom you may know from his work on Pink Floyd's The Wall) has a eulogy:
Ronald had a wonderfully dry sense of humour. Once a year, he would pay the restaurant with a picture: pigs going into the kitchen looking doubtful, or snails crawling on to people's plates. We would always find pictures waiting for us at the table: Jane would have a drawing of a cat wearing a ballerina's outfit or putting lipstick on in front of a mirror; and I would have a bearded, scruffy cat, scratching his head, pens and paper laid out, waiting for his cartoon to come.There's a gallery of images here and another, of drawings he made for his wife during her illness, here.
Here passes a great man: Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslovakian dissident playwright who led the pro-democracy movement and became the country's first (and last) post-Communist President, then continuing to be President of the newly formed Czech Republic, has died aged 73.
Christopher Hitchens, incandescent polemicist, serially promiscuous believer (lapsed Marxist turned neoconservative warhawk, adherent of various religions turned outspoken atheist) and bon vivant, has died. He was 62.
Hitchens was known for his broadsides against various public figures, from villains like Henry Kissinger to alleged paragons of virtue like Mother Teresa (whom Hitchens described as a ghoulish political opportunist, feeding off and perpetuating the misery of the poor) and the Dalai Lama.
The Independent's Oliver Duggan has written a tribute to Hitchens:
For Hitch, it seems to those of us who truly admired him, was not simply an atheist, a polemicist, and least of all a contrarian. Nor was he a poster boy the left, a banner boy for Iraq, or the harbinger of the apocalypse. He was, in a small part, the 21st century’s answer to the enlightenment. He stood, first and foremost, for thought. Thought that would always – by definition – question inherited truth and inherited experts.Thought that could break the chain and cull the living flower. In fact, he can be - and often is – mentioned alongside Dostoyevsky, Voltaire, Orwell and Trotsky not for what he thought, but for how he thought.And other eulogies from Ana Marie Cox (you may remember her from suck.com), his close friend the writer Ian McEwan, and Christopher Buckley (the son of arch-conservative William F. Buckley). And here is a counterpoint:
Christopher Hitchens was a pompous buffoon, fueled by booze and cigarettes, and an advocate of an often-despicable worldview. You can dislike him for his repellant views. You can hate his loathsome behavior. You cannot pretend the world didn't just lose a one-of-a-kind voice in our culture. There's nobody left like Christopher Hitchens.I disagreed with a lot of Hitchens' points of view (his support for the Bush administration's war in Iraq, for example, not to mention his somewhat chauvinistic contention that women are incapable of being funny; anyone who has read one of Zoe Williams' columns in the Guardian will have seen disproof of this); his righteous eviscerations of all manner of nonsense, however, were a wonder to behold. Over and above this, he had integrity, and was willing to revise his views when faced with new evidence rather than sticking to an ossified dogma. When challenged on his assertion that waterboarding isn't torture, he had himself subjected to it, and then publicly recanted his previous conviction, which is something it takes a real mensch to do.
Hitchens now rests forever in the noodly embrace of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; he will be missed (it is perhaps a great tragedy that we won't see his eulogy for Henry Kissinger). For what it's worth, longform.org has a selection of his essays.
Two culturally influential Czechs have died in the past two days: Ivan Jirous, 67, who had been the artistic director of the underground psychedelic rock group The Plastic People of the Universe, which was a core of the more absurdist wing of the dissident movement after the Soviet-backed crackdown on the Prague Spring, and Zdenek Miler, 90, creator of the cartoon character Krtek (or "Little Mole").
Rapper, actor and performer Heavy D has passed away, aged 44. Born Dwight Arrington Myers in Jamaica, Heavy D made a name for himself in the New Jack Swing movement of the late 1980s and saw success during the period when hip-hop first hit the pop charts.
Yet another titan of computing has died; this time, John McCarthy, the artificial intelligence pioneer and inventor of the Lisp programming language. He was 84.
Dennis M. Ritchie (better known, as many of the ancients were, by his UNIX login, in this case, dmr) has reportedly passed away in Murray Hill, New Jersey, after a long illness. Ritchie was, of course, co-inventor (with Brian Kernighan) of the C programming language (in which a huge proportion of the world's software is written, and which influenced a lot of other languages, from direct descendants like C++ and Objective C to every language which uses C-like syntax), and co-creator (with Ken Thompson) of the UNIX operating system (originally started as a personal project, and now the architectural template for everything from the internet server which is sending you this web page to, quite probably, your mobile phone). Ritchie's influence on the technologies on which our world is built is huge.
Steve Jobs has passed away today, shortly after resigning from the post of CEO of Apple due to failing health. Jobs had battled pancreatic cancer, and had received a liver transplant, a combination which didn't do much for his odds. He was 56.
It's hard to overestimate Jobs' influence on the world; the timeline of his life is liberally scattered with world-changing achievements. The Apple II helped popularise home computing, and was responsible for a lot of people learning to program. The Mac popularised graphical interfaces. (It was neither the first GUI—that was Xerox PARC's Alto prototype—nor the most popular one—that was Microsoft's Windows, which to no small extent imitated the Mac—though it was the one which popularised the concept.) After Jobs was ousted from Apple, his next project, NeXT, was daring and beautiful, though commercially unsuccessful; however, Sir Tim Berners-Lee did create what became the World-Wide Web on one. Years later, Apple's reinvigorated Macintosh line, infused with the technical DNA of NeXT, helped to break Microsoft's stranglehold over computer standards and the leaden years of stagnation that had ensued. Meanwhile, the iPod—also not the first MP3 player by a long shot—displaced the Sony Walkman as the iconic personal audio player, and iTunes forced the hand of the recording industry. The iPhone, meanwhile, transformed mobile phones, both in industrial design (one only has to compare early Android prototypes, with their square screens and BlackBerry-esque QWERTY keypads, to the plethora of touchscreen phones which followed) and the degree of control phone carriers had over phones (which, before the iPhone, were routinely locked down to do only what the carrier saw as profitable to let its users do) and the availability of mobile internet access (which, once again, followed a walled-garden model, preserving the carrier oligopolists' profits, again at the price of stagnation). Then came along the iPad, succeeding spectacularly where tablet-shaped computers had failed for decades. And, outside of that, Jobs helmed Pixar, which produced computer-animated feature films which were not only massively popular and technologically innovative but critically acclaimed. It beggars belief to think of one human being as having had that much impact on the world, over and over again; had he had a few more decades of life, there would doubtlessly have been more.
Malcolm McLaren is dead. A committed Situationist and/or Frommian marketing character, McLaren (who grew up in Stoke Newington and dropped out of St. Martin's College) managed proto-punk glam rockers the New York Dolls, was instrumental in the creation of the Sex Pistols phenomenon (and the transformation of punk rock into a mass-media phenomenon), before going on to create Bow Wow Wow, toy with the idea of paedophilia as a pop-music marketing shtick, and bring electro-hip-hop out of the New York ghetto and into the mainstream in the form of Buffalo Gals, and then unsuccessfully trying to do the same for Puccini and equally unsuccessfully running for Mayor of London. I last heard of him talking about getting some chiptune artists together to work on an album organised by him, to be titled Fashionbeast. He may or may not have been a good bloke, depending on whom you ask, but one cannot say that he wasn't an interesting character.
McLaren is reported to have died in either Switzerland or New York, depending on which report you believe, this morning after a long struggle with cancer. He was 64.
Here is Alexis Petridis' eulogy for McLaren.
Australian post-punk guitarist Rowland S. Howard passed away today, after a battle with liver cancer. He was 50.
Two technological death notices: firstly, the latest version of OSX, 10.5 ("Leopard"), can no longer run MacOS Classic (that is on PowerPC machines; the Intel ones, of course, never got Classic in the first place). Apparently this has nothing to do with technological constraints and everything to do with Steve Jobs having decided beneficiently that the users should have moved on by now. Of course, if you still want to run that ancient copy of Fontographer or whatever, you can probably do so on SheepShaver or similar.
Meanwhile, TrollTech have knocked their Linux-based Greenphone on the head, and will be concentrating on developing their phone OS on the very hackable and (soon to be) highly commercially available (though somewhat more cheap and plasticky-looking) Neo1973 phone.
(via Engadget, /.)
Grant McLennan, one half of the core of legendary Australian indie guitar-pop group The Go-Betweens, passed away yesterday, dying in his sleep at his home in Brisbane. He was 48. His band, The Go-Betweens, formed in 1981 and reformed in 1999, released quite a few albums, had a number of hits including Streets Of Your Town and Cattle and Cane, and, with their jangly guitar melodies and thoughtful lyrics, were hugely influential on a generation of songwriters and musicians.
Bob Moog, developer of the Moog synthesisers and really cool-sounding filters, passed away yesterday. Moog was best known for the synthesisers bearing his name which he developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and which were popularised by a generation of electronic experimentalists including Wendy Carlos and Jean-Jacques Perrey. In recent years, he had won back the Moog trademark and developed new devices, including guitar pedals.
(via bOING bOING)
Veteran BBC broadcaster John Peel, who, over four decades, has shaped the face of rock and pop music, has died whilst holidaying in Peru. DJing on BBC Radio 1, Peel was responsible for bringing a great many bands, including Joy Division, The Smiths and Stereolab, to the public's attention.
Leni Riefenstahl, Edward Teller and Johnny Cash all in one week. Blimey. Someone up there must be collecting interesting characters or something.
Rock and roll artist Wesley Willis dead at 40; deprived of his everlasting life by an unknown cause, possibly related to chronic leukemia. Which is all rather sad; he'll be fondly remembered.
Perhaps we should see a coalition of artists of all stripes (from punk rockers to laptop glitchmeisters to post-post-ironic hipsters of various sorts) to get together and do a Wesley Willis tribute album to raise funds for some suitable charity (leukemia research, or possibly some mental-health charity)?
Barry White dead at age 58, and the universe becomes that much less sexy. (via Graham)
Mary Hansen, member of experimental ba-ba-ba ensemble Stereolab, died in a bicycle accident in London on Monday. She was 36. (via a bunch of people)
(Which shows (a) how absurd and fleeting life is, and/or (b) the brutally anti-human nature of car culture/speed-obsessed modern society. But, above all, is quite depressing.)
Famous paleontologist and evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould has passed away. He was best known for his theory of punctuated equilibria (which, some say, paralleled his youthful Marxist beliefs in the impossibility of reform and the necessity for sudden revolution for change, though you won't see CNN mention that for some reason). He was also a key critic of Dawkins' "selfish gene" theory. (via VM)
Obituary: Comedic legend Spike Milligan has died, aged 83. Milligan was the last surviving member of the Goon Show team (the others were Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine), and founded that very English strain of surrealistic, alternative comedy, paving the way for the likes of Monty Python, the Goodies and Eddie Izzard. Like many great comedians, Milligan suffered from manic depression and struggled with mental illness.
Obituary: Musician and film producer George Harrison has died, after a battle with cancer. He was involved in the production of Monty Python's Life of Brian, among other films, and was a member of the Travelling Wilburys, and before that, was in another band who were quite popular in the 1960s.