Sunday, June 28, 2009

Iran protests and MJ mashup

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson performing at the Superbowl.
His death brought the internet to its knees.

For half an hour this morning, Google responded to what it believed was a denial of service attack - as millions of fans around the world Googled to find out if the rumours of the death of the King of Pop were true.

Twitter ground to a halt and went down as the rumours flew, and the gossip websites TMZ and Perez Hilton crashed under the weight of requests.

I wandered over to Amazon while writing this blog post, thinking I should get a Michael Jackson DVD to add to my collection, and it's pretty clear that rather a lot of other people have had the same idea. His DVDs currently hold the positions 1 to 7 in the Bestsellers in Movies & TV rankings.

From Wikipedia:

In the hours following Jackson's death, his record sales increased dramatically. His seminal album Thriller climbed to number one on the American iTunes music chart, while another eight have made it into the top 40. In the UK, where Jackson would have performed less than three weeks after his death, his albums occupied 14 of the top 20 places on the sales chart with Off The Wall topping the chart. In the UK iTunes store on June 26th, 25 of Jackson's songs were in the Top 100 best selling songs list.

I was never what you'd call a massive Michael Jackson fan (although I do confess to having a bunch of Jackson 5 tracks on my iPod), but I've spent this evening watching his top 15 music videos on MTV, and I've developed a new-found respect for the man and his art. Perhaps it's having the rare opportunity to watch so many of his videos together that brings home just what an incredible talent he was.

I remember how awed I was when I first saw the video for Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody on Top of the Pops in 1975, and how that one video defined the music video genre for an entire generation. It was clear to me this evening as I watched one MJ video after another, that Michael's work redefined the genre in a whole new - and extraordinarily creative - direction.

There are so many common themes and emotions running through his videos, and I felt an enormous level of pent-up tension in all of them - it was like watching a tightly-wound spring ready to explode.

Bad is a perfect example...

It's not just the subject matter, it's the choreography, the sound effects, the snappiness of the moves... everything. Amazing. The video featured 18 professional dancers and 35 real gang members recruited for authenticity. UPDATED 28/06/09: Oops got my facts wrong - the video for Beat It featured 18 professional dancers and 80 genuine gang members (from the Crypts and Bloods, apparently!). Anyway, even without the authentic gang members of Beat It, Bad is still a very cool video.

Michael at his most beautiful (IMHO) - if only he'd stayed at that point and not continued his journey into self-parody under the surgeon's knife.

Here's the very wonderful Billy Jean performed live at Motown 25 - including the moment when MJ unveiled the moonwalk for the first time (listen to the screams!):

...and here it is again re-created (to the uncontrollable delight of the audience) in 2001 for Michael's 30th anniversary special. This one made me weepy, for some reason:

I found myself thinking back to Fred Astaire at his perfectionist best, or Gene Kelly dancing round the lampposts in Singing in the Rain. Perhaps it isn't until you see all the videos together - and particularly right at this moment - that you realise what an incredible body of work Michael created, and what a genius he really was.

The choreography is stunning - and I can only imagine how long it took and how hard the dancers worked to get every move exactly spot-on. The massed dance section that characterises so many of his videos just blows me away, every time.

There's a level of intensity and aggression in many of his later videos which goes beyond the simple subject-matter. The sexual moves are more overt, and in some, The Way You Make Me Feel, for example, there's almost an underlying sense of anger within the sexuality.

But there's also an innocence too. At the end of TWYMMF, when Michael gets the girl, they don't dive into a passionate embrace, tongues akimbo - instead she walks into his arms and he simply holds her.

The street fighting themes of Bad, Beat It, The Way You Make Me Feel or even Thriller to some extent, are so reminiscent of the dance sequences in West Side Story, and the contrast with the sheer joy and exuberance of the earlier Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough is quite striking:

It's hard to reconcile the many different facets of Michael's life. The obsessive perfectionist blessed with a beautiful singing voice and stunning dance and choreographic abilities doesn't jibe with the Peter Pan "Wacko Jacko" that many in the media and beyond preferred to focus on, and yet they are found within the same man.

This is a man who has given away millions of dollars over the years - and was listed in the book of Guinness World Records in 2000 for his support of 39 charities, more than any other entertainer or personality. He's also a man who can blow $6 million in one shopping spree in Vegas on tacky oversized pots, gewgaws and sparkly tat that no-one would ever actually need (and which, by the look of them, only he could ever like).

How do you get your head around understanding someone whose relationships with children, and young boys in particular, certainly raised many eyebrows, and may well have been inappropriate on occasion; and how does that relate to a man so obsessed with his appearance and so lacking in understanding of how others perceive him that he spent 20 years having bits of his face lopped off and re-sculpted in an attempt to - what? - become someone else?

Knowing what we now know about Michael's early life, and his abusive relationship with his father, helps to put his childlike behaviour as a man into perspective, even if it does not excuse it. Perhaps he was attempting as a grown-up to recreate the childhood he never had - and as a re-created child, he related most easily to other children.

Perhaps, as at least one psychologist who testified at his trial believes, the man was so damaged by his father as a child (and by 40 years of living in the intense spotlight of superstardom) that as an adult he regressed back to being a 10-year-old boy, complete with the emotional and developmental limitations of a child of that age.

Here's Michael with the Jackson 5 when he really was a child in 1969, with I Want You Back. I find it delightful and sad at the same time:

Here's another couple of variations on a theme. The first is the official "Brazilian" video for They Don't Care About Us, which I absolutely ADORE because it was filmed in a favela in Rio and features the completely awesome Brazilian group Olodum front and centre, accompanying the song with a strong samba reggae groove. - and you'll know if you read my blog on a regular basis that Batucada is something that's very dear to my heart.

I also love this video because it's obvious that Michael is having the time of his life making it, and again I think it gives us another glimpse into two contradictory aspects of Michael's personality. Look at how strong and self-confident and aggressive he is in this video - and then think about his shy retiring breathy press conferences where he looks like he'd fall over if you sneezed on him. I find it fascinating to compare the two:

And here's another version which also kind of sums up the dichotomy of Michael Jackson. It's a (much faster) remix of They Don't Care About Us, with a remixed video to go with it. The video is a mashup of both the controversial and violent "Prison" video and the exuberant and joyful "Brazilian" video - and it's completely awesome.

Let's close with something that again epitomises the weirdness that was MJ - or perhaps the weirdness he inspired in others - the famous Cebu Prisoners version of Thriller - where 1,500 plus CPDRC inmates of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, Cebu, Philippines, do the complete dance routine from the video. 23,633,154 views on YouTube - and counting...

I would absolutely hate to be famous. I wouldn't last 5 minutes in the spotlight, and I'd no doubt end up becoming an eccentric recluse somewhere. Imagine what Michael's life has been like the past 40+ years. No wonder he ended up so divorced from reality.

Rest in peace, Michael. I think you deserve it. Thank you for everything you gave us. You'll be sadly missed.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Poem for the rooftops of Iran - June 19th 2009

Poem for the rooftops of Iran

Friday the 19th of June 2009
Tomorrow, Saturday
Tomorrow is a day of destiny
Tonight, the cries of Allah-o Akbar
are heard louder and louder than the nights before.

Where is this place?
Where is this place where every door is closed?
Where is this place where people are simply calling God?
Where is this place where the sound
of Allah-o Akbar gets louder and louder?

I wait every night to see if the sounds
will get louder and whether the number increases.
It shakes me.
I wonder if God is shaken.

Where is this place where
so many innocent people are entrapped?
Where is this place where no one comes to our aid?
Where is this place where only with our silence
we are sending our voices to the world?

Where is this place where the young shed blood
and then people go and pray?
Standing on that same blood and pray...
Where is this place where the citizens
are called vagrants?

Where is this place? You want me to tell you?
This place is Iran.
The homeland of you and me.
This place is Iran.

Tehran Street Photos -- On the Brink

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

No hot water, oh my!

Crikey! We're halfway through June already and I haven't written a single blog post this month yet. Time for a catch-up...

A couple of weeks ago I'd just arrived home from bookclub, and was doing a bit of washing up when I heard the sound of flowing water in the laundry. "Weird," I thought to myself, "I don't remember hearing that sound coming from there before... maybe it's just the hot water cylinder re-filling..."

...went outside for a cigarette a couple of minutes later and could hear running water outside as well. Uh oh. On investigation, I could see water pouring out of a overflow pipe coming out of the wall from the hot water cylinder cupboard - which was flowing out all over my back yard as the pipe didn't actually point down the drain. Doh!

Ran back inside, opened up the hot water cupboard - to see water absolutely POURING out of the bottom of the cylinder, all over the cupboard floor, under my lovely wooden tool shelves - everywhere! EEEK!

It being 12.30am by this point I thought twice about calling the very wonderful Marcus the Emergency Plumber, but I rang him anyway. Well what would you have done? He was awesome (even though yes I had woken him up!) and talked me through how to turn the water off (and the gas to the cylinder) and gave me the name of a gasfitter to call in the morning.

Turned out my hot water cylinder (which was about 17 years old) had rusted through and a great lump of cylinder had fallen out of the bottom of it, causing the flood. No way to fix it, have to get a new one - or a new something else...


Marcus mentioned this thing called an "Infinity" water heater - as something I could ask Mike the gasfitter about, and which I might like to investigate as an alternative to replacing the cylinder.

So I did - I love The Google - and I liked what I saw. This particular piece of technology has completely passed me by until now, but I have to say it's pretty awesome.

Instead of having a massive hot water cylinder which has to heat up 150+ litres of water and then tries to keep it hot until you use some (or until the water temperature goes down below a certain level), at which point it fills itself up again with cold water (if you've used any) and then has to heat all the water again (VERY energy-inefficient!), an Infinity is a brand of Gas Continuous Flow Hot Water systems made by Rinnai, which doesn't use a cylinder at all.

When you turn the hot tap on it sparks up the heater (which is a small metal box attached to the outside wall of your house), the gas heats up the water inside the box and hot water flows through the pipes and out of the tap. When you turn off the tap, the heater stops heating and the energy expenditure ceases.

Much more efficient - in fact they reckon the Efficiency model (which is even better than the standard Infinity) delivers 95% energy efficiency! Crikey! Great for the environment and great for your power bill, too.

Did you know that water heating can account for about 40% of your household energy costs? And that if, say, your old cylinder cost $496/year to run, the Infinity would cost $120 and the Efficiency a mere $102/year? Wow - that's a big saving!

OK - I'm convinced - I need to get me one of these things.

It turns out that getting an Infinity is about the same cost as replacing a hot water cylinder, which is good - but of course being such a greenie I had to go with the even more efficient Efficiency, which costs about $500 more. No worries! I'm saving the planet one appliance at a time! :)

They don't keep stocks of the Efficiency in Welli, so Michael the gasfitter had to send off to Auckland for one, which meant that I had a day or so longer without hot water. 5 days in all - and the lack of it certainly makes you appreciate hot water when you finally get it back. Probably makes anyone you came into contact with during those stinky 5 days with only one shower (thanks a million Ofer for the use of your hot water that day!) quite relieved as well...

Three and half thousand dollars later (ouch!) I could finally take a shower in my own bathroom again (hooray!), and it's really rather nice.

It's not instant - how could it be? The water has to heat up from completely cold, after all - which means I have to run the shower or the hot tap for a few minutes longer at the start than I used to do with the cylinder hot water - but really, that's a small price to pay for water heating that's almost five times as efficient as the system I was using before.

I'm just mightily relieved that the cylinder decided to do its meltdown act when I was actually home, and actually awake! Imagine if it had been a couple of hours earlier, or a couple of hours later! I would have returned home (or woken up) to a flooded laundry at best, a flooded rest-of-the-house at worst. Shudder!

Thanks a million to Marcus for being woken up in the middle of the night and for still being nice to me, Michael and his brother Lance for fitting the Efficiency so - efficiently - and thanks to my lovely electrician Bruce for coming over at short notice to wire the whole thing up. You guys rock!

And thanks also to Rinnai for inventing the thing in the first place, and who say on their website:

Inspired by Kyoto

The inspiration for Rinnai Efficiency came from perhaps the most famous environmental forum ever.

In 1997, following the conference on Global Warming in Kyoto, Rinnai Japan dedicated its Research and Development team to creating a new and better way to produce hot water for both commercial and domestic customers.

The focus was on energy efficiency, cost savings and reducing overall environmental impact. Now the Rinnai Efficiency delivers on that vision and brings greater performance and environmentally-friendly features that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and electricity demand.

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