Category: nostalgia

Five and Thirty Years

Dear John Lennon

On this very blog, five years ago, I wrote an article Manhattan 25 Years Ago. Today, it’s now thirty years on since John Lennon was assassinated in New York.

On French radio this morning on my way to work the station dedicated the day to Lennon. Aside from a few errors by some of the guests (mentioning that during Abbey Road sessions, the band played a concert on the roof when in fact it was for the Let It Be sessions) most of the guests seemed particularly knowledgeable and even mentioned that Strawberry Fields in Central Park post dates the song, which was inspired by a Salvation Army orphanage in Woolton, Liverpool – actually called Strawberry Field.

On of my first memories that can be accurately dated is hearing the announcement of the death of Lennon. My son Nathan is now about the same age as I was then. He’s now five; thirty years ago I was five.

Image credit: bloodyjohn

Michael Jackson dead at 50

Michael Jackson Graffiti, Berlin, by stylespion (Flickr)

Michael Jackson suffered a heart attack last night (European time), and could not be resuscitated. Wacko Jacko he may have been, but it’s the end of an era. Love or hate him or his music, he’s the biggest selling album artist of all time. His music, his pop videos and his dancing have influenced pop forever, just like the Beatles and Elvis before him. His collaborations with Paul McCartney (Say Say Say, The Girl is Mine) are among my favourites.

I had a copy of Thriller on vinyl, and I’ll always remember the day I was at Auntie Val’s and we put on the first side. The needle dropped on the record and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” started up… I must have been about 8 years old at the time. There goes another part of my childhood.

[update] There are a few articles around now that are covering the story of Michael’s life and death with a bit more depth; notably the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman with “This is not a Diana Moment” and an excellent article over at Urban Semiotic, “The Veneration of Michael Jackson begins“. As for the cause of death (direct or indirect) news is emerging that he may have been addicted to Demerol or Morphine.

Image credit: stylespion

Woolies is going, going, gone

Tomorrow may be the last day you can shop at Woolworths, a high street chain that has existed for nearly 100 years in Britain. It caused quite a stir at the time of the launch, with a clever marketing tactic – everything was sixpence. It opened in the UK in Liverpool in 1909 but the first stores were nickel & dime (everything 5¢ or 10¢) shops in the US which had been going since 1879.

Local mid to large-size towns where I grew up all had a Woolies, and I remember it for pick ‘n’ mix, 45s (singles), tapes, CDs and stationery. Letchworth had a Woolworths which was closed down in the late 80s, only to come back many years later, now closing again.

Possibly a victim of e-Commerce, the stores have no major draw for impulse purchases compared to stock that is increasingly available at hypermarkets. They always had a low quality, low cost aspect and the chain has perhaps had its day – indeed town centre shops in general have really changed since the 1980s when I grew up.

A visit to Woolies – in Hitchin in particular – used to be a regular thing for me when I was at school. I remember browsing records and later CDs, buying sweets and occasionally looking at the back of the shop for other household items and the occasional gadget or Christmas present. Bye bye Woolworths, my childhood shopping days are now truly gone.

If you have any Woolie(s) memories, why not share them by commenting on this post.

…I’m Just the Piano Player

I’ve been influenced by a number of piano players. My paternal grandfather and my father both played a lot when I was a child – my father still does. A few of the schoolteachers I admired played a mean piano. Billy Joel, Elton John and Stevie Wonder are musicians I appreciate who sing and accompany themselves on piano. I’ve also heard a lot of keyboard jazz from Jimmy Smith (organ) and ragtime piano from Scott Joplin.

Many times I’ve been lonely but never when I’m in front of a piano keyboard. I’ve gone out of my way to ask to play pianos in hotels in New York and Dallas when travelling in the States – the former specifically to play “New York State of Mind” while in New York, which I managed to do even though I was only there for 24 hours. I’ve played dodgy pianos in pubs and got job offers because it keeps people in the bar – I’m not that good so mostly the offers were for payment in beer.

Fewer and fewer places offer you the chance to be able to just sit down in public and play, because there just aren’t pianos around any more except auto-playing ones in aseptic hotel lobbies. I’ve been refused more often than accepted when I’ve asked to play piano in those kind of places. Then again, I’m not a virtuoso, and sometimes I’ve asked at times which might well be inconvenient for the gathered public.

For some time I’ve wanted to record a quick film of my piano playing. After learning the recorder at junior school at around 7-8 years old, my next instrument was the piano. I always loved playing keyboard instruments, and had lessons on classical organ, pop organ, and piano. The piano is one of the best instruments to play solo, because it has a large range. The 88 notes on a full piano keyboard represent the range of most instruments in an orchestra – much more than a guitar. It’s also an instrument which lends itself to playing several notes at once, to explore harmony, counter-melody and playing interesting left hand bass accompaniment to all sorts of melodies. It’s harder to accompany yourself and sing with a piano, I think the guitar better lends itself to that. But the piano by itself is really versatile and a great instrument which adds to many musical styles.

So here’s a single-take shot of me playing a piano solo of a composition I wrote when I was 16 as part of my coursework for GCSE music – it’s called City Nights. It is a little bit changed from the original version, but the melody, structure and sequence is the same. I’ve just added in a few variations in a repeated section to make it last three minutes. I passed the exam with flying colours, by the way.

The Death of VHS

VHS cassette by A. Carlos Herrera

Nobody is going to buy a video recorder based on the VHS format this Christmas. Everything will be MiniDV (camcorders), DVD and hard drive based.

In the US, the VHS format was recently declared dead. That’s perhaps a bit premature, it’s rather more of a retirement. VHS tapes will still be active for some years to come as old tapes with treasured memories or cult films will still be rewound and played through every now and then.

From the article linked above:

After its youthful Betamax battles, the longer-playing VHS tapes eventually became the format of choice for millions of consumers. VHS enjoyed a lucrative career, transforming the way people watched movies and changing the economics of the film biz.

VHS is a media which has survived 30 years, and over the years I have owned (and lost) hundreds of tapes. In the early days, the quality wasn’t very good, but improvements in image processing circuitry (VHS HQ) drove a nail into the Betamax coffin and made VHS ubiquitous.

The same kind of tension is apparent in the market now – regarding downloading films – as there was when VHS became popular. The cinema industry was frightened that tapes you could view at home would have a negative impact on their revenues. In fact, VHS became a money-spinner in it’s own right. Film downloads could be just the same, if legal download sites get their acts together. People want to get hold of DVD quality content from the comfort of their home office chairs and living rooms. They also want all the accompanying bonuses and language options. You can download almost anything illegally, but this is less of a problem than the studios make out. Just like the risk of VHS copyright infringement didn’t stop massive studio sales of popular films, or people going to the cinema. The only difference is that it’s quicker to copy a DVD than a VHS tape. But it will always take 2 hours to watch the film, which rather limits the interest of mass copying to rogue market traders and their ilk :-D.

Anyway… with no good download solution most new recordings I buy are on DVD. Those I make myself are recorded directly on a 1Gb memory card. You can get more storage on that square centimetre of media card than you used to be able to get in a very expensive hard drive. In fact that square centimetre at 1Gb can hold more information than a 3 hour VHS tape, and at superior quality, using XviD and MP3 compression.

Back when VHS was big, editing home movies together meant two VHS decks, and if you had the money, an editing console to automate the start/end points for you. With a digital source you can use VirtualDub or Windows Movie Maker and get it done for free, in much less time.

I invite you to embrace the digital age for it allows us all to do things more quickly and cheaply. It means we can be creative and share our creations with people who share our interests all around the world. It doesn’t mean everyone is suddenly a major copyright infringement case. Goodbye VHS, I have fond memories of bookcases full of tapes but I’ll stick to a 250Gb hard drive and my DVD shelves, where I have far more films at higher quality and in far less space.

Image credit: A. Carlos Herrera.

Marriage in Morocco Five Years Ago

Marriage in Morocco

It’s our “wooden” or “silverware” anniversary today. It feels like it was just yesterday.

Yasmina will get her flowers later in the morning (I hope she won’t read this first). Soon after the wedding I put up our wedding site which is still available. If you’re interested in what it takes for an Englishman resident in Morocco to get married in Morocco with a Moroccan, there’s all sorts of information there.

Today brings back all sorts of memories of my life in Rabat and everything that has happened since. I’ve lived in four different apartments since that date, in three towns in two countries with the one I love.

Here’s to another five years and more!

From a programmed sequence…

An old monitor with old login information

In 1993, a young first year undergraduate student walked down the corridor of the French department into a small room with a single computer terminal. It was a UNIX terminal linked to the campus network, and a login prompt blinked on the screen. Next to it, a note saying “login with guest as a username to sign up”.

The young man followed the instructions and was greeted with a prompt to enter his library card number and personal details. “Your username is fruex” it said, and then the screen went blank followed by an error message. So he logged back in and repeated the procedure. “Your username is fruey”, followed by the full email address and a request for a password. He typed and confirmed a password; the rest is history.

That man was me (I think you guessed), and that is how fruey came into being. A username, and the first email address that was all mine. I had an AOL screenname and password before that, but it required me to be logged in to AOL to use it – their webmail wasn’t available at the time. FR for French department, U for undergraduate, and then two letters pulled from a programmed sequence.

Once a Dream, Now Ubiquitous

Or getting a WiFi connection.

When I was still at junior school at less than 10 years old, we got our first home computer. It was a ZX81. With 1Kb of RAM, adverts at the time of initial launch in 1981 said it could run a nuclear power station. Since installing a WiFi card in our Freebox – an ADSL box which brings TV, Internet, and a cheap phone line on which I can call fixed lines for free – I can sit anywhere in my flat and be connected to the Internet sending email to friends around the world.

Following the ZX81 we had a BBC Model B, a ZX Spectrum, a Commodore 64, and then an Atari ST. Our first PC was an 8086 with just 128Kb of RAM and a single 5.25″ disk drive with 320Kb storage. Each new stage was a leap forward for home computing, but most of it (until I started programming on the PC and the Atari ST) was for games.

As I look at Nathan at just 5 months old, I imagine how old he’ll think I am. His first memories of computing will be several gigabytes of storage in your pocket on which you can watch video and that you plug headphones into. Those little gadgets have more power than that which Sinclair marketing touted in 1981 as being enough to run a nuclear power station.

Everything will be on DVD (blu-ray, probably) and cassettes and vinyl will be museum material. Computing is gradually making its way into our daily lives, whether we like it or not. Maybe we don’t have wearable computers (yet the iPod is a fashion accessory) but many of our cats and dogs have an RFID tag implant to identify them.

Once I used to dream of having a powerful computer. Now I have more computing power in my pocket than my dream computer of some 15 years ago. I used to send 3.5″ disks by post to other people in England. Now I can transfer the equivalent of 100 of those disks in about an hour, to anywhere in the world, from outside on my balcony.