Why the laptop computer is unlikely to catch on

“It would be much simpler to take home a few floppy disks tucked into an attache case.”  In 1985 The New York Times announces that a recent invention is struggling to find users:

The limitations come from what people actually do with computers, as opposed to what the marketers expect them to do. On the whole, people don’t want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper. Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension to their fingers. It just is not so.


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Does London need a new concert hall?

For classical music, that is. I can see why the Albert Hall is less than ideal — I’ve had many an awkward night there myself, even though I love the look of the place — but is it really necessary to invest millions in a state-of-the-art venue? The Telegraph’s Ivan Hewett has written a response that deserves to be read in full, arguing that acoustics aren’t quite as important as some people think. And he makes the equally important point that London already swallows up far too much of the country’s arts funding. 

There’s something odd about pleading that London ‘needs’ a new concert hall, and in the next breath boasting that it’s one of the top two or three cities in the world for classical music. We can’t have it both ways. London’s eminence could not have been achieved, if the deficiencies of the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall were really as terrible as their detractors suggest. London’s fabulous musical vibrancy is a reminder that we shouldn’t get hung up on bricks and mortar. The same lesson can be drawn from the other arts in which the city has excelled. Whatever the factors were that made London a great crucible of theatre in Elizabethan times, having ‘state-of-the-art venues’ wasn’t one of them.

Great art and music is created by people, not buildings. There is also a touch of the ‘vanity project’ about the proposal for a new concert hall, that should make us wary. Spending many millions to build a hall get a few more seconds’ reverberation time, and show that we’re keeping up with Paris, Copenhagen, Lucerne etc is an indulgence we just don’t need in straitened times. Londoners live in a great musical city already; their political masters don’t need to make an expensive gesture to prove it.

On An Overgrown Path has more on concert hall acoustics.

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Regent Street, last night

regent st bus

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In reality, everyone was simply searching for an excuse to look away from the crimes all around.  Soon a growing indifference began to spread even among declared opponents of Hitler. To a not inconsiderable degree it could be put down to the innocuous vocabulary of the regime. My father was “cut back”, that was the euphemism; others were “provisionally” retired; arrests were called “preventive custody” – what was so terrible about that?

Joachim Fest, “Not Me: Memoirs of a German Childhood”.

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Frank Sinatra at his best … & worst


Sinatra gets harder to appreciate the more you know about him,” says Philip Collins in today’s Times [£]. He tells an old Vegas story about the comedian Jackie Mason, who, back in the 1960s, was reckless enough to treat his audiences to a joke about the singer’s marriage t0 the much younger Mia Farrow:

Mason received a threatening call and three shots through the door of his Vegas hotel. Undeterred, Mason fearlessly said on stage that he had no idea who fired the shots. All he had heard was someone in the background singing “Doobie, doobie do”. A few weeks later, Mason was attacked and left with a broken cheekbone.

I heard Mason recount that story on-stage not long after Sinatra’s death. He wasn’t exactly grief-stricken – in fact, he ended the segment tap-dancing, metaphorically speaking, on his old enemy’s grave, It wasn’t a particularly edifying moment: a brilliant stand-up, Mason is never quite as funny when he lets things,  including his politics, get too personal. But it was eloquent all the same.

Although I’m a fan, I belong to the generation that never saw Frank Sinatra at his peak. I think I heard him perform four times in all. The last occasion, late in 1994, was easily the most interesting. Along with a Frankophile friend, I’d driven from Manhattan to Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut so that I could add some colour to a piece about the “Duets II” album (which I enjoyed more than almost everyone else, as far as I remember. It’s certainly better than the first volume.) Professional curmudgeon Don Rickles was  the support act, ritually insulting the Japanese businessmen who made up a fair proportion of the audience. Some of his routines were witty; others, the racial riffs mainly, just made me cringe. When it was his turn to perform, Sinatra wandered on with the minimum of fuss. His voice, inevitably, wasn’t in the best shape, but there was still authority to spare on the likes of “At Long Last Love.”

Still, a strange thing kept happening. Even though he had a couple of autocues at the edge of the stage, he forgot the lyrics on two or three songs. The band came to an embarrassing halt each time, then automatically moved on to the next number. At one point, in a mixture of confusion and embarrassment, Sinatra began snarling at the conductor, his son, Frank Jr. It was an horrendous moment. Yet because we were so grateful to see him in such an intimate setting (Foxwoods was an enormous, soulless cavern of a casino, yet the theatre itself seemed tiny compared with, say, the Albert Hall) everyone in the room pretended it wasn’t happening. And once he’d recovered his composure, the old man went through the rest of the evening without another hitch.

A memorable night, all in all. But how I wish I could have seen him at the Festival Hall in 1962. The concert footage from that evening – previously unreleased – makes up the essential portion of the new box set “Sinatra: London“, which I recently reviewed in the Sunday Times. Most of the material on the CDs – including the studio sessions from the LP “Great Songs From Great Britain” – is really for completists only. The RFH show, on the other hand, is mesmerising.  Sinatra was supposed to be in poor vocal form on that particular world tour, yet he sounds completely at ease. And to hear him with just a jazzy sextet for company is a revelation.

As hardcore admirers will know, there’s a fine Paris recording from the same trip. Unfortunately, it contains  an awful lot of Sinatra being a sour wiseguy, muttering about the effects of the onion soup he had just eaten and inserting lame jokes into the songs. “That’s French,” he snarls after that famous line in “I Get A Kick Out Of You” about “fighting vainly the old ennui”. Worse still, after flooring his audience with a heart-stopping version of “Ol’ Man River”, he quips something along the lines of “That’s one for Sammy Davis’s people.” Real Jekyll-and-Hyde stuff, in short. How can an artist who sings with such sensitivity be so boorish? In London, by contrast, apart from a throwaway line about dropping cigarette ash on the stage, he’s pretty much on his best behaviour. Was that because Princess Margaret was in the audience? Maybe. Whatever the reason, you can only envy the people who got to hear him that night.

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marilyn monroe

Photos by Milton Greene, 1953. Via @RPanh.

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A brief history of “mistakes were made”

James Fallows ponders those weasel words.

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In the land of Putin

While watching hours and hours of State-controlled Russian TV  — it’s a weird but productive sociological experiment — American writer Gary Shteyngart recalls an encounter in the country of his birth:

On my last visit to Moscow several years ago, a drunken cab driver from a distant province drove me through the city, nearly weeping because, he said, he was unable to feed his family. “I want to emigrate to the States,” he said. “I can’t live like this.”

“You should try Canada,” I suggested to him. “Their immigration policies are very generous.”

He mock-spit on the floor, as he nearly careened into the sidewalk. “Canada? Never! I could only live in a superpower!”

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The world according to Instagram

Instagram exhibition nyt

Adela Sanz Fernández’s contribution to “the largest mobile photography exhibition ever organized by a museum.”

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Facing the end

Oliver Sacks, eloquent and clear-sighted as ever, on learning that he has terminal  cancer:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight…

There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.  This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever.

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