You don’t need anything after an ice cream

I was quite prepared for Adam Ant to be a bit of a shambles. I’ve been vaguely following his adventures over the last couple of years, and when I saw, months ago, that he’d be playing a gig in Bristol, I booked a pair of tickets straight away, certain in the knowledge that, assuming he showed up, he’d either be an incoherent mess or totally brilliant.

Incoherent mess would have made for good stories, at least; thankfully he turned out to be totally brilliant.

We were late arriving (stupid Bristol traffic, stupid 10-storey car park that only had spaces on the top floor) at a packed venue. I’d seen that it was sold out but wasn’t quite prepared for how full the venue was; the floor, the bar area, the staircases and the balcony were just rammed with a great of mix people – ageing punks, fortysomethings revisiting their teen pop years, kids dressed as dandy highywaymen… the works. We managed to squeeze into a space with a fairly good view just as the band took to the stage and opened with Plastic Surgery, an early song recorded for Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, followed by Dog Eat Dog.

Which set the pace for the entire gig; a perfect mix of the early stuff that he seems to love the most, and the crowd-pleasers that are the reason that the place was so completely packed. All the hit singles – barring, understandably, Ant Rap – were present and correct and performed superbly by his excellent backing band, and distributed perfectly between a mass of lesser-known classics (although I’d guess that the vast majority of the crowd knew most of those by heart as well). The only songs I didn’t know were B-Side Baby and, from the promised new album, Vince Taylor. Which turned out to be a pretty damn good, garnering proper applause afterwards rather than the polite appreciation that new material often receives.

And he still has it; the theatricality, the moves and the voice as well, hitting all the highs without having to rely on the lovely backing singers who were brought out for quite a few numbers. He looked the part without looking ridiculous, carrying off the hussar jacket and Napoleon hat and all the trimmings as only Adam Ant really can. He didn’t start reading poetry at us or lapse into rambling shouty covers of Born in the USA; he put on a blinding show, delivering blistering versions of the hits and bloody loads more besides, finishing off with a single encore of Prince Charming, T.Rex’s Get It On, and Physical. It amounted to about an hour and a half of ace, and left everyone wanting more. Which is just what a good pop star should do, right?

During his recent revival Adam’s sometimes given the impression of, let’s say a vulnerable middle-aged man being egged on, dressed up and pushed on-stage, perhaps by ambitious youngsters keen for a free ride on his coattails, with very mixed results. Last night he looked very much in control and gave an epic performance. If he comes back to this part of the world I’ll be there, and I’ll get there earlier so that I can be down the front; let’s just hope he manages to ride this high for as long as he can.

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Hello Goodbye

I had this aunt. Andy, short for Andrea, married to my uncle Alan, my mum’s brother. They lived in the village where my mum and Alan had grown up, notable mainly for being home to Acker Bilk. Once, when we visited them, I left with a compilation tape of Andy’s singles from the olden days, including Benny Hill’s Ernie, The Monkees’ I’m a Believer and The Beatles’ Hello Goodbye. When I was about 10 or 11 Alan and Andy had a son, Gary. Then when I was 12 Andy went to visit family in South Africa, where she suffered a severe asthma attack and died a few days later of heart failure.

It was one of those tragedies that a 12-year-old mind doesn’t really know how to cope with. For a few days it was this bizarre adventure, almost, with my dad, as the member of the family best equipped to take care of business, flying out to South Africa at zero notice and British Airways holding a plane on the runway for him. For a few days we relocated from the home counties to the west country, getting updates every day from the hospital, news that she’d lose the baby she was carrying, then that they were switching off life support and finally my dad bringing her body back to the UK. It was a lot to process and I sort of rode it out until the day before her funeral, when it properly hit me that she was actually dead. I didn’t go to the funeral, undoubtedly for the best. Life went on, Alan remarried a few years later, to a lovely young girl from my dad’s side of the family (go figure), Gary grew up. We don’t see each other that often, not for any great reason; it just never really happens. We met up for dinner about seven years ago when Philippa’s half-sister was visiting from Australia.

Gary got married today, at the same church where Andy was buried and where loads of family weddings have taken place: my parents, Alan and Andy (and later Debbie), my grandfather (on my mum’s side), and probably lots more that I don’t know about. Nice service, my mum did the church flowers, the bride was late (held up in traffic), the vicar was very good about it and did a splendid job of putting her at ease when she arrived. Afterwards the business of standing around while a photographer took far too long doing her thing, and it was during this that my mum mentioned putting some of the church flowers on Andy’s grave. I realised that I’d never actually seen it, so went after her and she pointed it out to me.

You know how when you’re little the world’s basically divided into children and grown-ups?

Obviously I knew Andy was young when she died, but also she was a grown-up, and that was how I filed it so that it made a modicum of internal sense. Grown-ups die, sometimes when they’re old, sometimes when they’re not quite as old, but that’s how it happens in the scheme of things.

And then today I saw Andy’s gravestone with her age on it. 27.

Barely an adult.

It span me right out. I’ve been spinning for the rest of the day, through the very nice reception in Bristol where progressive trance was pumping out of the crappy wall-mounted speakers when we arrived, through the meal, then dropping my great-aunt home and dropping my mum off at my grandmother’s flat where she’s staying for a few days because my grandmother’s got shingles in her eye at the moment, then finally home; all the while at the forefront of my mind in an image of that grave and that number 27. No age at all.

And I thought I’d dealt with it when I was 12, but you’re not really equipped to deal with when you’re that age and it’s easier to shove it to one side and carry on. And then today I unexpectedly found where I’ve shoved it, and the sense of loss feels as fresh as it was 30 years ago; more so now that I’m old enough to appreciate it.

It’s strange, and it’s sad, and that’s all.

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Going rhinoviral

I’ve had a cold. To be precise, I still have a cold. It made itself known on Saturday morning as a bit of a sore throat, became a lot of a sore throat over the course of the weekend and then really kicked off on Sunday night, damning me to most of the week spent sitting around at home, feeling grim. Yesterday I thought I’d probably be fine to go back to work today, so got up at my normal time this morning and, over the course of about half an hour, realised that I totally wasn’t fine to go back to work today.

Which was really annoying. I have a redesigned site that we launched last week, and I’d much rather have been at work, taking care of it properly instead of intermittently poking it from here. And the most annoying thing is that it’s a cold that’s been responsible.

I may need to explain. I have this theory. There are colds and there are colds. You have the colds that amount to a bit of a sniffle and not much more, which seem to come and go within a couple of days, and then you have the ones that build up for a bit then leave you feeling fairly horrid for a few days, with a full complement of symptoms in varying amounts and definitely unfit for the workplace.

What I reckon, though, is that over the years people have had increasingly tended to say that they have flu when in fact they just have a full-on cold. If you’re going to be off sick for a few days then, well, it must be flu, right? It can’t be a cold. If you have a cold, you take some of those maximum strength pills and then go to work, like it says in the adverts!

It’s the whole idiotic ‘man-flu’ (a term I really hate) thing, and it’s kind of devalued (is that the right word?) having a cold. Having been battered by full-on flu 16 or so years ago, though, I know the difference. So, you think you have flu? Here’s a brief checklist:

  • Does your entire body hurt as if your central nervous system is being sandpapered?
  • Is the very idea of moving simply too much to contemplate?
  • Is vomiting a fun distraction from the main theme of feeling entirely dreadful?
  • Have you come to the conclusion that you’re going to die and found that you’re actually quite looking forward to it?

If so, well done! You have flu. Enjoy the next two weeks of whimpering under a blanket on the sofa, try to get some liquids down you.

If not, it’s a cold. AND THAT’S FINE. Take a few days off work rather than spread it around, and when you call in sick, for pity’s sake say it’s a cold and not flu. It’s okay, we all get them (about twice a year on average) and we’d all be much happier without needing to over-dramatise them, or feeling that you’re some kind of lightweight malingerer for being off work with just a cold.

That’s what I hate. The innate sense of fraudulence for being off work with a cold and not flu.

Or am I just imagining it? I’m not sure, brain’s not entirely straight this week. I should get to bed; back to work tomorrow!

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The most dangerous app ever invented

Billy Connolly used to do this routine years ago, about the small ads for utter crap that you get in the back of the Sunday papers. Trenchcoats, the big slipper, incontinence pants and, crucially, the lethal-looking thing for cutting your own hair. You order it, get it through the post and find out that if you so much as put it near your hair, huge chunks fall out; that’s how lethal it is. Billy’s advice: don’t hide it in a drawer. Throw it away. Otherwise one night you’ll get home after a night on the sauce and find it, and suddenly cutting your own hair will seem like a really good idea, with the result that you end up looking like Arthur Scargill.

Over the last couple of days I’ve been playing with an iPhone app that’s a lot more dangerous than that. It’s called Zapd and it could quite easily ruin your life.

It sells itself as this brilliant microblogging tool. It boasts that you’ll be able to use it to create a beautiful web site in 60 seconds, on your iPhone. And it’s kind of right. You pick a template, give your site a name, post some words or a picture or a link, hit Publish and you’re done. You have a site, sitting in a randomly generated subdomain of zapd.co, in less time than it’s taken me to write this paragraph, and for free.

Want people to know about it? That’s fine; there’s an option before you hit Publish to send out a notification via Facebook or Twitter or email. And once you’ve made your site, adding entries is just as easy. The only thing I don’t really like about it is that there’s no landscape mode, which limits its potential for making text entries a little.

There are more themes and video posting and a few other options in the pipeline, but it’ll still be a pretty basic service. And that’s what’s so clever about it. It’s basic and it’s easy and it does the job, on your iPhone, almost instantly.

Which is pretty damn dangerous. Yeah, it’s great for getting a site online when you need it right now and all you have is your iPhone. You might be on holiday, or in the queue for the latest Apple thing, or a special family gathering. All of these are perfectly valid uses of Zapd.

Alternatively. It’s Friday night. You’re down the pub. You’ve had a few drinks, set the world to rights, banged a few tables. You’re in the sort of zone where lapses of judgement have been known to occur; where things seem like a really good idea that, in the cold light of day, probably aren’t. You’re carrying an instant online publishing and promotional tool and it suddenly occurs to you that you could make a page all about your pubic hair, with photos. That’d be really fucking funny, you know? Everyone’ll love that! Better let them all know on Facebook and Twitter. Brilliant!

Then the next morning you wake up and remember and have to kill yourself. Yes, you can easily delete your brilliant new site, but let’s face it: shit’s gone viral. From now on you’re the guy who made that site about his pubes. There’s no getting past that. Ever.

Which is what’s so dangerous about Zapd. It removes vital, life-saving obstacles between things seeming a really good idea at the time, and actually doing them. You think things can get bad if you tweet after midnight or decide to send a drunk 2AM text to an ex? Compared with the life-wrecking potential of Zapd, such shameful transgressions are trifling things.

So by all means have a play with Zapd. Marvel at how , in the right circumstances, it could be really useful, actually. Give your cat his own online shrine. Whatever; once you’ve finished playing, don’t leave it on your phone where you’ll be able to find it again on Friday night after seven pints of Amstel.

Delete it.

Better still, delete it and try to forget what it’s called, so you can’t nab it off the App Store again through a fighty Dutch lager haze. It’s the only way to be sure.

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So I bought an iPad 2

I’m nothing if not true to my word, on occasion. I avoided the actual iPad 2 launch – although I did swing by the Apple store towards 5pm to take a look at the queue. Quite large, just the sort of thing I generally try to avoid. So I went home and, as promised, went into Bath this morning to try my hand at getting an iPad 2 without the hassle.

I sort of succeeded. Unlike last year’s iPad expedition, this time I wasn’t able to stroll in late, take my pick and be out again inside a quarter of an hour. Instead I was up and out of the house by a quarter to nine, walked into town (I fear I’m starting to enjoy this whole walking two miles to work every morning thing, to the extent that I’m now finding excuses to do it at weekends) and strolled up to the Apple store to find another queue.

Not an enormous queue; probably about 30 people, and store staff were already out, handing out allocation tickets. By the time they got to me they were down to the last few and I was forced dial down my expectations a little. No white iPad 2 for me; instead I opted for the same model as my old iPad: black, 32GB, wifi. No need for 3G, and in a year of owning an iPad I haven’t even come close to filling it up, so no call for 64GB.

It was a slow queue. Store staff had been on a three-line whip the previous night. Until midnight, I learned, which was annoying; had I known it was going to be open until midnight I’d have definitely taken a late trip into town to take advantage of it. So there was a bit of a shortage of staff this morning, and from joining the queue to paying up took about three quarters of an hour.

I didn’t get one of those smart covers; they look pretty neat but I’m not entirely sold on the idea. I did however finally pick up a camera connection kit (having ascertained that the iPad can definitely handle RAW files), which so far hasn’t even come out of its box, and I was back home by about 11. Later than I’d anticipated, but still preferable to spending a whole afternoon in a queue.

It took me a while to actually get to play with it; rather than set it up from a backup of my old iPad, I decided to run it off my main PC instead of my ageing laptop, which meant transferring apps onto the PC then doing a fresh setup. Exciting stuff! I also made a small tactical error; I had a bit of a plan to sell my old iPad but figured it would be polite to first ask Philippa if she wanted it. She has a laptop and my ancient iPod Touch; I guessed she’d turn it down. Girl tech logic. But no, she was delighted, so she gets it. To be honest it’s nice that it’s a piece of tech that she rates enough to want for herself; definitely a couple of hundred quid’s worth of nice.

So a lot of the day was spent setting up my old iPad for Philippa as well as setting my iPad 2 up, and things were slowed down even further by updating them to iOS 4.3.1, which stupid fucking iTunes insisted on downloading for each installation.

(Also, I had to go outside and chop down a tree. With an axe. Which is way, way cooler than anything else I did today. It’s okay, the tree was screwed by honey fungus and had to come down, I wasn’t being a tree-hating dick or anything.)

Finally I got to spend some quality time with the iPad 2. And guess what? It’s slimmer and faster! It strips away the ever so slight clunkiness of the original iPad, and it’s just lovely to use. Oh, yeah, there are the cameras as well, but as expected I haven’t yet had any use for them and I’m not anticipating bringing them into play any time soon. Unless someone makes that virtual Theremin app that I mentioned.

Heck, I’ve even written this entire post using the WordPress app. Which, thankfully, is considerably less completely shit than it was last time I tried using it.

As a piece of sofa tech it’s much better than the original, simply because with its flat back it sits on my lap quite happily without sliding all over the place. And it’s lighter too. Like I said: lovely. Although Minotron seems to run a lot faster on it. Which could be a lot of fun. I’ll have to investigate further.

I’d have a hard time living without it. I’ve been living with the iPad by my side on the sofa for the past year, and I’ve become used to picking it up for any number of reasons (mostly, “Who’s that person on the telly? What have we seen them in before? Oh, another episode of The Avengers.”). It doesn’t represent a new post-PC paradigm or anything like that, but it makes for a bloody good stopgap. It’ll do for now.

Did I mention that I chopped down a tree? It wasn’t an enormous tree or anything, but still, it was a tree and I chopped it down. Fuck yeah.

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Turning tricks

The iPad 2’s out tomorrow in the UK. The headlines: it’s faster, it’s flatter and it has front and back cameras so that you can Facetime on it. That’s about it.

To be fair it had me at faster and flatter. Faster’s always good. Flatter is even better; Apple did a brilliant job of disguising the fact that the iPad has a filthy great bulge in the back. It basically used the same trick that stage magicians use to make you think that you’re looking at an ordinary table when in fact it has a secret compartment that can conceal a lot of a lady, if you want it to look like you’re cutting her in half. It’s really very clever; your eyes don’t want to believe that the iPad isn’t as thin as it looks at the edges, but all you have to do is try using it on a flat table and then watch it wobble. Alternatively, get a pair of callipers and measure it. Really nicely done, there.

The camera thing, I’m not too worried about. I’m not one of the Facetime core demographic. I will never make a video call of my own volition. But I’m sure people will find interesting uses for the cameras. I reckon you could probably use them to craft a virtual Theremin app. Just throwing that idea out there for free.

Last year, of course, I did that thing where I made a point of not queuing up and instead swanned in later in the morning and nabbed one with the minimum of fuss. This time round, thanks to Apple’s latest piece of fuckheadedness, that option’s not open to me.

Seriously, this new bit of sleight of hand makes me wonder if Apple’s seeing just how far it can push its luck, and how much shit its (let’s not mince words here) fan base will take. If you want to order it online you’ll have to wait stay up until 1AM, and then you’re not likely to get delivery for another couple of weeks. So you’ll have to go to an Apple store.

Except, the iPad 2 isn’t going on sale until 5PM tomorrow. The rumour going round is that it’s because supplies are really low. I’m not sure I see the connection. I don’t think there is one. iPad 2 stocks might be low – only Apple knows for sure, and you can be sure that Apple isn’t saying – and thanks to that very possibility there’ll be queues tomorrow. Hell, even if there was a gold-plated promise of abundant iPad 2 supplies tomorrow, there’d be queues tomorrow. That’s your Apple fan base for you.

The point is that there’ll be queues tomorrow, no matter what time the damn thing goes on sale. And with another high-profile tech launch also going on, in the form of Nintendo’s 3DS, Apple needs to guarantee its place on the news. What better way than queues all day followed by a dirty great scrum in time for a live early evening news broadcast? Which also explains the reluctance to service online orders in a timely manner – people ordering stuff for delivery don’t tend to queue up when the news cameras are present.

Cynical? Me? Yeah, a bit. I won’t be playing along, though. My plan is to wait until Saturday and, depending on what I’ve heard and whether I feel like it, I might walk into town in the morning and see about getting one. And if they really have sold out then guess what, Apple?

I can honestly wait. Perhaps until iPad 3. So there.

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About Minotron

When I get round to writing my personal history of videogames it’s going to have some telling omissions that I’ll have to write around. Like the Playstation; every iteration thereof. I had a go on a few of them at ECTS 1995 and really didn’t like the controller at all. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before. Didn’t stop me working on Official Playstation for the end of its run or reviewing plenty of PS2 games for Gamesmaster; apart from that, though, the Playstation for me has been something that happens to other people.

Then there’s pretty much the entire 16-bit era. I simply wasn’t paying much attention at the time. The sequence went: Amiga and ST came out, I couldn’t afford either, I went to university and continued being unable to afford either. The only videogames I touched were the arcade games in the student union. I was sort of aware that the 16-bit era was happening, but only in the vaguest terms. The first 16-bit anything that I got was a 2nd gen Sega Megadrive, and the only actual 16-bit computer I ever spent any time with was a friend’s ST, home to Starglider 2, Carrier Command and quite an impressive mod version of Pump Up the Volume. Consequently there’s a whole swathe of gaming history that I only know about in a second-hand kind of way; thankfully the entire era seems quite short on bona fide classics that didn’t subsequently make it onto consoles or PC, one way or another.

Jeff Minter’s Llamatron did make it to the PC, but not in especially great shape, and it wasn’t until the 21st century that I really became aware of it and got to play it (sort of) properly, on a PC emulating a balls-out, top of the range ST, with dual joysticks. It’s Robotron – a lightning-fast arcade game of destruction and rescue, risk and reward – put through Jeff Minter’s brain, taking the second-hardest arcade game of all time, putting his own stamp on it and coming up with something clearly closely related to the original but impossible to confuse with it. Robotron’s frantic, incessant and punishingly difficult, designed partly to consume lots of coins in an arcade context. Llamatron’s designed for a home context and is consequently less incessant, paced with longer games in mind. You can read Jeff’s thinking behind Llamatron here. I have plenty of time for both titles; Robotron’s great for diving into for a few random games, while Llamatron’s something that I’ll leave alone for a long while before coming back to it and putting a lot of time into recharging my skills to the point where I can complete it without using a continue and then get a decent distance into the second, much harder, round.

Minotron is Llamatron rebuilt for iOS and, carrying on the Minotaur Project theme of games with an aged console theme, it’s given a bit of an Intellivision flavour. Not the extent of Minotaur Rescue’s Atari VCS stylings, but there’s enough in there to spark long-buried memories in anyone who once owned an Intellivision, me included. It’s a gaming in-joke that most people won’t get; a coat of retro gloss on a game that’s already retro as fuck.

The name and central character have changed, but Minotron basically is Llamatron, and it succeeds despite, rather than because of, being on iOS. The controls are cleverly executed, with whichever digit first touches the screen being interpreted as movement, and anything after controlling direction of fire. The idea is that you can swap sides and ensure that your hands are never obscuring your position. I like the idea but my brain doesn’t; it’s a little more cross-dominance than it cares to handle, and instead I play it completely wrong, using my left index finger exclusively for movement and with a steadily thickening callous to show for it.

And I’m demonstrably better than you at it, so there.

So, movement feels pleasantly analogue while the firing remains resolutely eight-directional. Which is fine; it’s actually a good combination that works well. The problem is simply that no matter how clever the control system, the game’s still trying to recreate a joystick-based experience on a touchscreen, and it’s always going to come up short in that respect. It’s a matter of trying to overlay one paradigm on top of another; you can get a close fit but you’re unlikely to get a perfect one.

This leaves Minotron feeling, to me, a little unsatisfying. Unlike Minotaur Rescue it’s not an iOS-focused title that’s inspired by classic arcade titles; it’s a retread, plain and simple. One that’s bolstered by the addition of new play modes and power-ups and assists, yes, (oh, and a resume best option, which is the game design equivalent of deciding that cocaine isn’t quite cocainey enough, and inventing crack instead), but one that, if you’re familiar with Llamatron, is unlikely to surprise you at any point.

It should be an easy sell to gamers of a certain age since it’s such a close remake of a much-loved 16-bit classic. Conversely, I can’t see it appealing at all to people who don’t remember the original. Looks were never Llamatron’s strong point; it has a visual style inspired by the mid-1980s school of 8-bit games populated by wacky sprites, and this remake features almost exactly the same graphics. In the overcrowded marketplace of the App Store, that’s it fallen at the first hurdle, and that’s before you get to the fact that it can be a bit difficult at times and features a control system that assumes you’re not an idiot. Frustratingly the world appears to be oblivious to its existence, with virtually no press coverage to speak of. Go on, type Minotron into Google and see what comes up. Actually, don’t. It’s depressing. “Did you mean: monotron?” I don’t even know what a monotron is. (Now I do. To be fair that looks quite good. Gah.)

What makes this especially annoying is that despite its flaws and despite my moaning, I still think that Minotron’s better than the vast majority of games on iOS. It doesn’t sell itself at all well, and hand on heart it’s not as much fun to play as it is with proper joysticks on a big PC. It just isn’t. But on the other hand, it’s a real game with proper controls that sits well on iOS without much in the way of compromise. I can now play a close enough approximation of one of my favourite games on my iPad without leaving the sofa or having to cock around with joysticks or emulators or any of that, and it cost me just over a quid. A quarter of what the original cost in old money, 20 years ago.

For fuck’s sake. Just buy it, okay?

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