February 2010 Archives

Some lies that just won't go away

Macs are not twice the cost of PCs. People who say that sort of thing are not comparing like with like.

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The Daily Kos likes to talk about “zombie lies” - claims that, no matter how often they’ve been disproved, continue to be spouted by disingenuous or deliberately talentless hacks, and thus kept alive.

I encountered such a claim the other day, when a friend of mine, talking to another friend, claimed that Apple kit was twice as expensive as the Windows equivalent.

That’s certainly true if you mean “you can get a Windows laptop for pretty much bugger all compared to an Apple laptop”. That’s because Apple don’t do low-end el-cheapo stuff, nor do they make machines with anything but the latest technology. But what happens if you compare like with like?

13” laptop

Apple’s entry-level laptop, the MacBook, comes with a 2.2Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM - 2x2GB, 500GB Serial ATA Drive @ 5400 rpm, SuperDrive 8x DVD+/-R DL/DVD+/-RW/CD-RW, and a 13” 1280 x 800 screen driven by a NVIDIA GeForce 9400M.

After battling manufacturer’s websites, I went to Dabs.com, a leading PC website that’s been around for ages, sells PCs and Macs, and crucially has a good comparison feature where you can choose features and filter the initially daunting list of laptops down to a manageable list.

Narrowing down the search to 13.3” screen, Core 2 Duo, 2GB, I see the MacBook at £808.57, with exactly one machine cheaper, a HP laptop at £682. It’s got a much cheaper on-board Intel chipset (GMA 4500MHD), a slightly larger and faster drive (320GB / 7200rpm), and no DVD drive.

Other than that, the other machines listed were all more expensive - sometimes significantly so.

15” laptop

Moving on, let’s look at the introductory 15” MacBook Pro. It’s got a 2.53Ghz processor, 4GB RAM (you can upgrade to 8GB but at current RAM prices you’d be daft to), 250GB disc, has an SD slot, FireWire 800 and the screen resolution is 1440x900. You can get a version that has a second video card that takes over when you’re plugged into the mains (in cases where performance trumps power consumption), but I suspect the comparison sites will be bamboozled by that so let’s stick to the basics. Apple’s price is £1,328, Dabs’ £1,318.

Toshiba and Dell have some significantly cheaper laptops, but they have 14” screens. There are plenty of cheaper 15” laptops, but their screens are significantly more lower resolution (e.g. a 15” Toshiba which sells for £874, but only has a 1280x800 screen, slower RAM and an Intel graphics chipset). The closest that comes to the MacBook Pro’s specs is a Sony Vaio at £1,146 which is at least 50” thicker, has slower RAM, Intel chipset, and claims half the battery life. At least it has a 500GB disc, which is nice.

17” laptop

OK, surely it’s the top-end kit where Apple makes all of its margin, so you’d expect to see the top-end MacBook Pro outperformed by other manufacturers.

The 17” MacBook Pro has a 2.8Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard disc and is otherwise specced the same as the 15”. It comes with two graphics cards, an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M and a 9600M GT with 512MB. Screen resolution is 1920 x 1200, and it’s set you back £1,871 at Dabs.

Again, while you can find a number of cheap (e.g. £569 cheap) 17” laptops at Dabs, as soon as you select any three of 17” screen, Core 2 Duo, 1920 x 1200 or 4GB RAM, it turns out that it’s a three-way fight between Apple, HP and Lenovo - and only one laptop is cheaper than the MacBook Pro, at £1,732. It’s almost 2/3rds thicker, has a smaller but faster disc, a worse DVD drive, and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 2700M rather than MacBook Pro’s two graphics cards.

So: Apple kit twice as expensive as PC kit?

Not true in the slightest. With identical specs, Apple is, if anything, cheaper than similar kit from other manufacturers. And that’s before you go into build quality, or the way hardware and software go together and Just Work.

Now, it’s quite possible that if you’re prepared to buy machines that aren’t as cutting-edge, they’ll be significantly cheaper than Apple kit and not feel significantly worse - there’s a premium on new technology, as the prices for upgrading a MacBook Pro to 8GB indicates.

But it’s one thing to say “Apple don’t make the cheap machines I’m quite happy with”, which is almost certainly true for many people, and another entirely to say “Apple kit is ludicrously over-priced”.

It may well be comparatively expensive - but if you were in the market for a computer like the sort of things that Apple make, that’s the sort of money you’d pay. From anybody.

What makes a good cover?

If you're trying, a known but badly-performed song.

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“Yesterday” is the most-covered song of all time. Wikipedia says Guinness says there are 3,000 of the damn things. I haven’t listened to them all - nobody could - but I’m willing to say that they’re all shit.

Why? Simple: Yesterday is a fantastic song. Evocative lyrics, rich in chord progressions (play it one day and count them - there’s at least one every bar or two), simple but effective in arrangement (guitar, string quartet and nothing else), heartfelt vocals; there isn’t anything technically wrong that you could put a finger on; and it’s so simple, yet so effective, that you can either reproduce it badly, or paraphrase it (badly, again, because this was the Beatles, after all) into another musical genre.

And if you do that, the chords will resist you every step of the way.

Probably the best cover you could do is a 6:8 Miles Davis Someday My Prince WIll Come sort of cover, but you’d be straining really badly at the rhythm of the melody and it would sound dreadful.

So probably 30+ of the 3,000 cover versions that Guinness lists are like that, then.

What of the Beatles can you cover, then?

Precious little.

Joe Cocker famously covered “With a Little Help From My Friends” (which is slightly cheating as that was a song written for Ringo), and he pulled it off by making it radically different; he slowed it down and scored it in 3:4, amongst other things.

The Beatles Love album very successfully mashes together Within You Without You with Strawberry Fields Together, and by all means download merely that track if you’re not convinced of the idea of an entire album of Beatles-with-Beatles mashups on behalf of Cirque du Soleil.

I think “I’ve Just Seen A Face” from Help! is just right in that sweet spot of enough talent but not enough recording or arrangement savvy that it’s due for a cover.

But in general, if the artist or band you’re covering is any good, then you’d better find something unusually bad, or a really distinctive, possibly comedy, way of covering them (this means you, Paul Anka or Max Raabe - Youtube them if you haven’t heard them before, they’re comedy genius). Doing a straight cover of someone who’s better than you is doomed to failure.

What brought this on?

Peter Gabriel recently released an album of covers, “Scratch my Back” (the idea is that people he’s covered will in turn cover songs of his on a future album release). For very probably a limited period all the songs are available via a Flash player thing at the Guardian’s website.

I didn’t like the album at first, probably because the two tracks I checked out first, the ones that I knew, were the least successful. Peter Gabriel covers Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” - you remember, the intro track from Graceland that started with accordion, followed by a couple of emphatic drum beats, then an unusually up-mixed bass line, as if to say “OK, pay attention, this is not a normal Paul Simon record”. So he ditches all of that, and preserves only the lyric line, set to a random slow piano line. It’s not very good.

Oh, and he ends the album with a slowed-down and more-depressing version of Street Spirit (Fade Out) from Radiohead’s The Bends, except without the tune. Which, you know, made it bearable.

But the other tracks are much better.

How to do a decent cover, part 1: the easy way

Take a very well-written song, e.g. The Magnetic Field’s The Book Of Love, and then remember that a) you’re a better vocalist (e.g. you’re Peter Gabriel), b) the original song has a fairly straightforward chord structure without any meaningful dynamic progression, which means that c) if you slap an orchestra with damn good brass section on top, you’ll end up with something qualitatively better. Especially if your daughter’s doing some damn good backup vocals, and you can find a spot for the orchestra to do its bit.

How to do a decent cover, part 2: cover Lou Reed

Lou Reed is trickier, because sometimes he bothers to sing (e.g. Satellite of Love), and he can produce things of wonder. Even on cases where he doesn’t stick to pure notes, he’s still accompanying the melody enough that you know what note he’d have sung if he meant to.

On other songs, though, he doesn’t bother with a tune; he just randomly mumbles like a beat poet.

Now, you could argue that his intention is to produce beautiful background music while he chants in scansion (in which case his live band should be a lot tighter - compare Youtube’s idea of the studio album version with the live version).

But when it comes to something like “The Power of the Heart”, arguably Peter Gabriel deserves a co-writer credit, because he’s come up with a melody line that blatantly wasn’t there in the original. Oh, and he’s seen Lou Reed’s string quarter and raised it a bunch of extra string players and a brass section.

Also, he manages to replicate somewhat Lou Reed’s conversationalist singing style, which is bizarre, because he didn’t even attempt that when he covered Paul Simon.

Someone just made a music video of half of my RSS feeds

Or pretty much all of them if you ignore politics, weird shit and industry shills.

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I’m slightly too young to fully remember this, but after the war there were a number of films made where two things were constant.

  1. Plucky Allies defeated the Nazis something rotten.

  2. Everyone was in it.

The closest you’d come to it these days would be Ocean’s 11, but that’s in itself a throwback to earlier days. We’re talking about a film that would come on TV and you’d say “Oh, it’s an everyone film”.

Well, in this new and exciting era of the blogosphere, such a film has been made once more. It’s a bunch of Internet-famous people re-enacting a webcomic riff on a cable TV station advert. Obviously.

Backstory, Video, Cast list.

What intrigues me is how this happened: Olga Nunes is previous webelf of Neil Gaiman’s, so did she come up with the idea, Neil said yes, and then suggested to all the people he knew that they take part? Or did it start with talking to famous bloggers (e.g. Bruce Schneier), and then blossom from there?

Either way, consider how long it would have taken to organise and film this before the Internet. And how trivial it is nowadays.

Sometimes policies are intended to have consequences.

That includes hurting businesses policy-makers think should be hurt.

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UK Health Secretary Andy Burnham proposes to toughen up anti-smoking laws. The pro-smoking business lobby protests:

Christopher Ogden, chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, said the plans would “do nothing to meet public health policy objectives, but will instead impose further unwarranted restrictions on legitimate businesses and private citizens alike”.

Ahem. From earlier in the article:

Firm action against smoking during the past decade, such as banning advertising and raising the age of purchase from 16 to 18, has reduced to 21% the proportion of people who smoke. Ministers now want to get that down to 10% by 2020.

Imposing restrictions on businesses and private citizens is very clearly part and parcel of public health policy objectives.

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