Monday, 14 February 2011

Computer and Video Games - My Odyssey

My current diet of video games consists of the complex and compelling strategy of Napoleon:Total War, and the demanding (and sometimes exhausting!) challenge of racing simulators such as F1 05 and Gran Turismo 4 on the Playstation 2.

It is a mark of the evolution of video games in the past decade that the sophistication and depth of these games is habitually taken for granted. It is all a far cry from the rudimentary nature of the first mass-market video games.

My first exposure to video games occurred one Christmas in the mid-1970s, when my brother and I were amazed to be presented with one of the first video games consoles. The graphics consisted of monochrome dots and sticks, and the sound was restricted to "beeps", but this was state-of-the-art in those days!

As I recall, there were three or four games on the console, but one of them (it might have been squash) was utterly unfathomable. The novelty of this new technology soon waned, and we instead took refuge in the more familiar childhood diversions of that era, such as Raleigh bikes, football and Action Men.

The ensuing years saw the emergence of Space Invaders machines, and my friends and I spent many an hour playing on the "Scramble" machine in a local retail outlet. We could scarcely have imagined that before long we would be able to play high-quality games in the comfort of our own homes.

A catalyst was undoubtedly the home computer boom of the early 1980s, and particularly the advent of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. A low-cost machine with excellent graphics capabilities, it encouraged the development of some classic games, which in terms of playability were the equal of any of the blockbusters of the modern era. Manic Miner, Jet Pac, Atic Atac and Ant Attack were just some of the titles which captured the imagination, and which succeeded not just because they stretched the Spectrum's power to its limits, but also because they employed the precious, and often neglected, element of humour.

As the 1980s progressed, the momentum of the home computer revolution petered out, and myself and my contemporaries reverted to mundane matters such as exams and tackling adolescence. I must confess that the period from the mid-1980s to the beginning of the new millenium was a "black hole" as far as my involvement in video games was concerned. Friends eulogised about their Amigas, Nintendos and Dreamcasts, but it all left me a bit cold and detached. I felt that the whole scene had passed me by, and I had felt no desire to change that state of affairs.

It was not until late 2003 that I rejoined the world of gaming. Almost on a whim, I purchased a Playstation 2. Rather than an incipient obsession, I regarded this as simply another tool to help fill my leisure time, and to aid in my relaxation. The sense of awe which had accompanied my Spectrum exploits was noticeably absent this time around. The digital age had conditioned us to almost take for granted the wonders of modern technology.

Initially, I concentrated on racing simulations and first-person-shooter games, not having the inclination, or the time, to engage with anything more cerebral. Later, I became immersed in the wonderful Pro Evolution Soccer series.

As I have belatedly joined the Pc and internet age, my gaming horizons have broadened once again. Strategy games very much suit me, and online gaming must also be on the agenda.

Who knows what the future will bring?   And to think that it all began with that cumbersome plastic box in the far-off days of the mid-1970s....

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Arturo Merzario

I make no apologies for admitting that the 1970s is my favourite era of Grand Prix racing. Charismatic drivers, technical diversity, competitive racing and evocative circuits all combined to produce a heady brew. A driver who epitomised that era was the diminiutive Italian, Arturo Merzario.

Thin and wiry, and often to be found wearing his trademark cowboy hat, "Little Art", as he was known, made his F1 bow in 1972 with Ferrari, having already been a member of the Prancing Horse's sportscar team. He became a more prominent feature of the outfit in 1973, and he manfully struggled on as they encountered numerous problems throughout that season, displaying more resilience than the disgruntled number one driver Jacky Ickx.

When Ferrari's racing activities were overhauled at the end of 1973, it seemed very unjust that Merzario was overlooked in favour of Niki Lauda and the returning Clay Regazzoni. The Italian's chances of a frontline F1 career disappeared with that reshuffle.

The remainder of Merzario's F1 journey was fascinating, and invariably entertaining. A year with Frank Williams' Iso Marlboro team contained some characteristically plucky drives, particularly in qualifying at Kyalami, as well as a famous Armco hopping escapade during the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. Also during the mid-Seventies, Little Art enjoyed some notable sportscar successes with Alfa Romeo.

Arturo also gained wider fame as one of those, along with Brett Lunger, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl, who rescued Niki Lauda from his blazing Ferrari at the Nurburgring in 1976.

Further F1 adventures with Wolf-Williams and March, and guest appearances with Copersucar and Shadow, were followed by the ill-starred decision to form his own team. This stumbled on throughout 1978 and 1979, before Merzario finally called time on his F1 career.

Arturo Merzario may never have won a Grand Prix, but he remains a much-loved figure, as one of the most redoubtable and admired drivers in a golden era of motorsport.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Formula 1 and Me

As the new Formula 1 season rapidly approaches, it makes absolute sense to make more blog posts on the subject of Grand Prix racing!

I first became aware of F1 around 1976, when I was aged six. James Hunt and Niki Lauda were embroiled in their titanic tussle for the World Championship, and I certainly recall the media coverage following Lauda's fiery accident at the Nurburgring. I recall seeing the odd race on TV,although the coverage back then was spasmodic, to put it mildly. The Tyrrell six-wheeler P34 also captured my young imagination.

Although I remained vaguely aware of goings on in F1, I did not follow it closely. A school friend was a keen fan, though, and used to show me sticker albums. I also remember Gilles Villeneuve's remarkable antics at Zandvoort in 1979

It was not until 1981 that my interest in Formula 1 was truly sparked. One Sunday afternoon I was sitting in front of the television, and there was coverage of the Monaco Grand Prix. The race was won by the aforementioned Villeneuve, and I was hooked. To my delight, Gilles won the next race at Jarama, albeit under very different circumstances.

For the rest of the 1980s I faithfully watched every race, relishing the dynamic BBC commentary team of Murray Walker and James Hunt.

After I left school, and started earning a living, I could indulge my interest further my purchasing books and studying the history of the sport. At the start of the 1989 season, with the advent of the 3.5 litre atmo formula, my level of interest went up a further notch, and I began regularly buying magazines such as Autosport.

Since those early days, I have gone through occasional periods of disinterest, or disillusionment with the sport (1994 being a case in point), but I am always drawn back by the drama, the intrigue and the personalities.

Roll on the start of the 2011 season!

Monday, 7 February 2011

An Eventful Sunday

I awoke relatively late on Sunday morning and, as is customary, switched on my computer.  News was beginning to filter through of Robert Kubica's rallying accident in Italy.  Initially, there seemed to be little to worry about unduly, as it was indicated that the Pole had emerged largely unscathed. However, as the morning progressed, it became abundantly clear that those reports were inaccurate, and that Kubica had sustained serious, and potentially career-threatening, injuries.

The latest medical bulletins suggest that Robert will have to wait a little while to find out for sure whether the damage to his right arm and hand will curtail his career. Whether or not this is the case, this is a terrible blow to this richly talented driver who, given the right car and environment, is eminently capable of becoming World Champion. His performances in a largely mediocre Renault last season were very praiseworthy, and we looked set for more of the same in the forthcoming campaign.

It was heartening to see the Formula 1 fraternity, often accused of being a cold and clinical crowd, rallying round and offering Kubica its support.

The accident is sure to have repercussions for those F1 drivers who still like to compete in other motorsport disciplines, or indeed other hazardous sports in general. Team bosses may now look at tightening contracts, to minimise their chances of being deprived of drivers under these circumstances.

Just as we were coming to terms with the Kubica crash, news came through that guitar hero Gary Moore had passed away. I was always a big admirer of his expressive and fluid style, particularly in his solo work. A very sad loss.

Later in the evening my attention was fixed firmly on America's most lavish sporting event, the Super Bowl, between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This year, I chose to follow the game on Twitter, as well as via the television pictures. What struck me particularly was the lack of knowledge, with a few notable exceptions, of the Brits on Twitter, and the amusingly cynical attitude of some Americans.

It is often remarked that the American sense of humour is different to that of the British. However, last night I discovered to my delight that Americans can display as much irony and sarcasm as we across the pond. Their disdain seemed reserved particularly for the pre-game build-up and formalities, the TV adverts and the hallf-time show. They just wanted to get on with the game!

Ah, yes, the game itself.  I picked the Green Bay Packers as my team beforehand, for no particular reason, and was therefore delighted when they emerged triumphant, although only after a pugnacious fightback by the Steelers.

That's all for now, and best wishes to Robert Kubica.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Hermann Hesse / Today's Football

Yesterday, I finally got around to reading one of Hermann Hesse's novels, the wonderful "Siddhartha", and my enjoyment of the book is tempered with regret that it has taken this long.

Oddly enough, I first really heard about Hesse through an unlikely source. Brian May of the rock band Queen, of whom I am a major admirer, used to name-check the author in interviews, and I often saw his works in my local library, but never got around to reading them, perhaps fearing that the subject matter would outstrip the capacity of my youthful mind.

In recent months, I have become more interested in Eastern philosophies, and my research led me to discover that Hesse himself was strongly influenced by these teachings. I have therefore purchased three of his novels, the aforementioned "Siddhartha", and also "Steppenwolf" and "The Glass Bead Game".

I can heartily recommend "Siddhartha", examining as it does a man's spiritual journey of discovery. Although the novel is relatively brief, it says much more than most much weightier tomes could ever do.

Once I have completed them, I will post my thoughts on the other two Hesse novels.

Just a quick note about today's football.  A plethora of goals in the Premier League, although many of these appear to have been the result of deficient defending rather than inspired attacking play.

The two most notable results occurred at St. James' Park, where Newcastle United recovered from a 0-4 half-time deficit to salvage a draw against ten-man Arsenal, and at Molineux, where Wolves overcame Manchester United 2-1.

On a slightly more personal note, well done to the mighty Leeds United, whose 1-0 home victory over Coventry City maintains their place in the Championship play-off places.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers - The Byrds

In some ways, this album was the culmination of the experimentation which characterised the Byrds' recordings since 1966, containing as it did traces of folk rock, country, psychedelia and pure pop. That it was recorded during a period when tension within the group was at its height makes its artistic merit and cohersion mildly astounding. It is probably the most enduring and accomplished work of the Byrds' career.

The album opens with the R&B influenced "Artificial Energy", one of the tracks undeniably enhanced by contributions from outside session musicians. Michael Clarke's drumming is also impressive and punchy here.

Next up is the Byrds' sublime rendition of the Carole King/Gerry Goffin standard "Goin Back".  The pedal steel of Red Rhodes lends the track a mournful quality, and is tastefully blended with Roger McGuinn's trademark 12-string guitar, and keyboards. McGuinn and Chris Hillman handle the delicate harmonies beautifully, David Crosby having departed the group. The lyrics of the song perfectly capture the regretful feelings of the group members, as they reached a crossroads in  their careers.

"Natural Harmony" exemplified Chris Hillman's growing confidence as a songwriter, displaying as it did few of his bluegrass and country influences. Studio effects such as phasing were employed here to complement the lyrics and melody.

The following track, "Draft Morning", must count as one of the towering moments in the Byrds' career, and was perhaps Crosby's final great contribution to the cause. Unmistakably a commentary on the evils of war, and particularly the Vietnam War then raging, what is most noticeable is the restrained delivery of both the song and its lyrics. There was no need to get "in the face" of the listener;the lyrics and sound-effects were left to do the talking.

By way of light relief, "Wasn't Born To Follow", another King/Goffin number, presaged the country-tinged direction of the Byrds' future endeavours. Embellished by the glistening guitar-picking of Clarence White, and more phasing effects, the bouncy optimism of this song balanced some of the weightier fare elsewhere on the album.

Roger McGuinn takes the lead vocal on "Get to You", a pleasant if rather bland poppy song, featuring strings and more pedal steel guitar. However, like much of the album it has a tuneful and attractive quality which is hard to dislike, and like the other tracks it blends seamlessly into the whole.

Moving on, "Change is Now" is another "Zeitgeist"-related number, although not having any writing contribution from Crosby. Once again Hillman and McGuinn rise to the occasion with their ethereal vocals, and they are underpinned by a throbbing acid-rock accompaniment, which periodically dissolves into a countrified passage.

"Old John Robertson" is another country/bluegrass flavoured song, with some classical and psychedelic bits superimposed. A whimsical tale, it serves as undemanding preparation for the finale of the LP.

"Gathering of Tribes" is quintessential Crosby, with assistance from Hillman. Unusual time-signatures, with the abrupt tempo changes so redolent of this album., reflect the experimental nature of the track.

The penultimate track on the original album, "Dolphin's Smile", can be seen as emblematic of the nascent ecological movement, a recurring theme indeed throughout this whole work. Featuring some startling sound-effects, and the Byrds' customary blend of chiming guitars and harmonies, this song has an airy feel, and the obligatory middle-eight "freak out" section.

The closing number, "Space Odyssey" is a curious blend of folk and futurism, illustrating McGuinn's preoccupation with science-fiction and the group's willingness to embrace new technology, in this case the Moog synthesizer. It is an appropriately peculiar way to conclude the album.

The CD re-release featured the unreleased and haunting Crosby composition, "Triad".

In summary, "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" concludes the first phase of the Byrds' career, not just continuing their exploration of what was often dubbed "Cosmic Cowboy" music, but also etching out its own distinct identity. It was probably less influential than some of their other albums, but as a piece of work it holds together better than anything else in their discography. It stills sound fresh and relevant to twenty-first century ears. A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Recent Reading

Over the past year, I have probably done more reading than I did in the preceding ten years. Much of this was prompted by personal circumstances, but I feel that it has enhanced my knowledge and understanding of history and also politics and philosophy.

The majority of my reading has been non-fiction, although fiction is beginning to play a more prominent role. I just thought that I would share my thoughts on a few of the books which I have been reading.

Perhaps the most momentous of the tomes which I have read was Winston Churchill's "The Second World War", in its condensed version. An intimate account of the conflict from the great leader himself, following most of the crucial decisions, deliberations and conferences which helped determine its course. Reading the work, I felt almost as if I was staring over Churchill's shoulder at meetings or negotiations, witnessing important events.

The book pulls no punches in its withering assessments of the reasons for the outbreak of the war, Britain's failings and those of her allies, and some of the unrealised ambitions. Churchill's account of the close of the war is particularly poignant, as his efforts to preserve democracy in Eastern Europe were apparently neglected by the Americans, followed by his loss in the 1945 general election. I emerged with a much greater admiration for, and understanding of, Churchill's personality and achievements.

Another notable read was "The War of Wars", by Robert Harvey, which is a reasonably comprehensive chronicle of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, focussing largely on events concerning Britain and France.

For me, the book succeeds because it examines the domestic, social and economic trends on both sides of the Channel which led to the conflicts, and which influenced their course.  The author eschews a mere chronological account of battles and tactical manoeuvres, preferring to put these events into their proper context.

A fairly unflinching account of the French Revolution occupies much of the first portion of the book, followed by the almost parallel rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. These passages contain much information which should prove quite revelatory to the casual observer.

Praiseworthy also is Harvey's devotion to covering some of the more obscure episodes and characters in the Revolution, and also some of the relatively unheralded theatres of war, such as Egypt. His description of the French retreat from Moscow is especially powerful.

Anyone looking for a detailed but accessible account of this period in European history should look no further.

In some respects my most enlightening read of recent months has been "Inside The Third Reich" by Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's architect and Armaments Minister, which was originally published shortly after the author's release from prison.

Working my way through this historic piece of work gave me greater insight into the nature of Nazi Germany than any amount of previous research which I had undertaken. Speer comes across like a semi-autonomous member of the entourage, able to observe and comments on events from a partially detached perspective.

I was particularly struck by the relative ease with which Speer became seduced by the Fuehrer's charisma, and thus gained access to the inner circle. Hitler appeared willing to trust Speer more readily than his other associates, who indulged in incessant infighting. Speer remained essentially loyal until the closing year of the war, when he became conscious that Hitler intended to take Germany and its people down with him into a pit of destruction. Speer dramatically recounts his efforts, in co-operation with others, to help prevent further loss of life and elimination of Germany's infrastructure.

Although Speer is open and frank about his involvement in exploiting forced labour, this issue, and that of the concentration camps, is not touched upon as frequently as I expected beforehand. That said, he makes no attempt to conceal his complicity and guilt in some of the excesses which took place.

The book is unusual in that it features little detail of specific battles or campaigns, but it vividly reflects their effects on the home-front and the regime, and the sense of despair which overtook the Reich in the latter stages of the war is palpable.

Overall, "Inside The Third Reich" is an essential read for students of World War Two and the Third Reich.

More blogs on books will follow shortly!