The Null Device


Melbourne music critic Andy Hazel takes apart The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band:

Ah. "The best". According to most modern rock historians this is the greatest album ever released (give or take the odd Pet Sounds, Dark Side Of The Moon, or, if last year's BBC poll is to be believed, Oasis's Definitely Maybe). Genre-redefining, archetypal, seminal, analysed to death and hyped to maniacal lengths by fans and writers; anybody who wonders where modern rock begins is told to start here. Sgt. Peppers has been long-heralded as the last example of the band working like a team, as the pinnacle of The Beatles' musical talents, song-writing abilities and the last example of unclouded communication between the members. It's the supreme model of analogue recording by pioneering producer / genius / 5th member George Martin and an album still mined by bands claiming to be representative of today's youth - if you want to be a musical success, start studying here. This is it, the first and best 'concept album' and the greatest collection of songs ever committed to vinyl or etched into disc, end of story.
This overblown testament to pomposity and slackly-edited grandiosity is a mockery of music and self-indulgence almost without exception. With George Martin at your side, a record label kowtowing to any whim, tens of millions of people agreeing with every grunt and suggestion you make and Abbey Road at your disposal, how could you blow it? Even The Beatles themselves realised how far up their own arses they had crawled by going back to basics for their following, untitled and infinitely superior album (later called The White Album). Take, for example, the ridiculously egotistical cover in which they place themselves amongst and ahead of Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Marlon Brando in some visual assessment of the 20th Century they had to be talked into doing (McCartney preferring an acid-drenched picture by Dutch art collective The Fool). It wasn't for nothing that one of their manager's last requests was "brown paper bags for Sergeant Peppers".
Hazel goes on and builds up a formidable list of charges against Sgt. Pepper's: from the hubris of the album's cover to the unenlightenedly misogynistic way women are objectified where they are actually visible, though coming back to the insubstantial, drug-addledly vacuous nature of the "innovation" on the album, and The Beatles' (and their label's) complicity in ushering in a leaden age of bloated, self-indulgent pomp that would only end almost a decade later, when the Sex Pistols poured petrol on the whole thing and, with a sneer, threw a lighted match:
While it's true the Beatles couldn't be blamed for who followed through the door they opened, they can be seen as the instigators of record companies handing over huge amounts of money to artists and (more often than not) managers using arguments along the lines of "well the Beatles needed 129 days and 10 times the usual budget to make a number one record, so do we." The nadir of 1970s self-indulgence was, in fact, a misguided reinterpretation of this album in film and soundtrack form featuring The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and, mysteriously, George Martin a debacle that was deservedly, an unmitigated flop.

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In the US, there is a section of the population on the right who just can't stand Barack Obama or anything he supposedly stands for. The very thought of that.. man -- golDANGit! -- makes them so pig-biting mad that it cuts off the flow of oxygen to their brain cells, shutting down whatever capacities they had for critical thinking. We've already seen the results of this in things like right-wing Twitterers uncritically passing on increasingly absurd rumours about Obama's policies, and the entire "birther" movement, in which the desperate need to prove an article of faith ("Ain't no negro my President!" "Obama is ineligible to be President") leads them to build elaborate and bizarre conspiracy theories ("Obama's parents secretly went to Kenya before he was born, and paid someone to post a birth announcement in a Hawaiian newspaper just in case he ever ran for President"), buttressed by increasingly baroque structures of evasion and supposition, whilst remaining oblivious to how ridiculously implausible the whole thing looks from outside their belief system.

Of course, wherever self-induced stupidity becomes the norm, someone will be making a profit. The US health-insurance lobby, for example, are making hay out of the fact that enough people are whipped into an apoplectic rage by the fact that there's a black man in the Whitehouse that they're willing to believe anything, such as, say, that providing government-subsidised healthcare is equivalent to Nazism and that British Nobel laureate Stephen Hawking would be dead had he been British, and be motivated by it to go out and fight for their right to be bankrupted by illness. And so, once again, the turkeys march out and loudly demand their Thanksgiving.

The latest attempt at milking the enraged mob for all its worth, though, is a bit more direct: some entrepreneurs of above-average moral flexibility are offering the pig-biting mad free software that launches denial-of-service attacks against the Whitehouse web site. The software, of course, is your common-or-garden Windows malware.

The terse spam message links to a website where prospective marks are offered money for installing the dodgy "packet flinging" tool. The attackers missed a chance to make reference to a recent mass marketing campaign from the White House justifying recent healthcare reforms that some have described as spam as supposedly justifying an "aggressive response", for example.
The "DDoS Obama" spam was one theme of a larger spam run, reports email security firm Proofpoint. Other spam messages in the series offered more typical lures, such as pornography, while again pointing to the same malware download.
The spam even helpfully advised the marks that their anti-virus software might identify the downloaded software as harmful.

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Nine years ago, Canon released the PowerShot G1, a premium compact digital camera, kicking off the G series. The G cameras had fold-out screens, fast f/2.0 lenses and excellent dynamic range and low-light performance. Then, in 2006, it all started to go pear-shaped; with the G7, Canon downgraded the line to a weightier version of the consumer A series; the size was reduced, the fold-out LCD was gone, and the f/2.0 lens was replaced with a slower f/2.8 lens, of the sort typically found in consumer cameras. Meanwhile, Canon cranked up the megapixels, cramming increasing numbers of pixels into the small sensor, resulting in inevitable compromises to dynamic range and low-light performance (the latter not helped by the lens). While Canon still had their historic name to impress those who didn't look too hard, newcomers stole a march on them in the compact market; not least among them Panasonic, with the Lumix DMC-LX3.

Now it seems that Canon have seen the light and are moving back in the right direction; they just announced the PowerShot G11. The successor to the G10, it knocks down the pixel count from 14 megapixels to an altogether more reasonable 10, and reinstates the fold-out screen. However, the f/2.8 lens stays.

Which is a good start, though it'd take a lot more for me to buy a PowerShot again. I've had a DMC-LX3 since the end of last year, and have been somewhat spoiled by it: by the image quality, which is superb for a compact, the fast f/2.0 lens, and by other enhancements which are wholly innovative; the user interface, for example, consists not only of the usual MENU button and D-pad, but includes dedicated switches for focus mode and aspect ratio. (Which brings me to another feature: you can change the aspect ratio between TV (4:3, as in most compacts), 35mm film (3:2, as in most DSLRs) and widescreen (16:9) to suit your compositions.) If you push the joystick in, a pulldown menu appears, giving you quick access to common settings such as resolution and ISO mode. Cranking the resolution down gives you a nonmagnifying digital zoom, letting you zoom beyond the lens's (admittedly middling) range by cropping to the centre of the image without blowing things up as the "digital zoom" in other cameras does. The USB interface looks like a mass storage device one can copy image files from. It's little grace notes like these which make a better camera.

While Canon were away (and they were, for about three years), Panasonic came up and ate their lunch. While the G11 is a welcome first step, it'll take a lot more than that for the G series to regain its leading position.

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