Books: First happy consequence of the new job: having a regular commute into work for the first time since 2005, which means I can start reading books again. Paradoxically, the first book I took with me to work was one which boasted in its actual title about how it was aimed at people who didn't have the time to read. Astrophysics For People In A Hurry (a Christmas present from The Belated Birthday Girl, so thanks for that) is a collection of essays written by Neil deGrasse Tyson, America's answer to our own Brian Cox. Originally published in Natural History magazine, they've been rearranged here into a primer for the general public on the basic principles of astrophysics. The obvious comparison point (and the original inspiration for The BBG's purchase) is the remake of the TV series Cosmos from a few years ago, which Tyson hosted. There are overlaps between the two, but it's important to note that the TV series wasn't written by him, but by Carl Sagan's collaborators on the original Cosmos, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter. The approach taken here by Tyson is more detailed than that of the TV show, as you'd expect, but it also manages to be less po-faced about it: he takes great amusement in the gigantic scale that the universe operates on, and it comes across in the wit of his writing. With at least one brain-expanding new concept introduced in every chapter, it's just the thing to give you a bit of perspective on the way into the office. (But at the same time, we have to acknowledge the existence of this.)
Movies: Second happy consequence of the new job: meeting new people and gradually learning where your interests coincide. So I was quite pleased to find myself chatting to my boss the other day about Bollywood cinema, with particular reference to the odd things that happen when India tries remaking popular films from other countries. There's a good example playing in cinemas right now: Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy, which is a remake of 8 Mile in all but name. You may not have been aware that India had a hip-hop scene, but let's face it, why shouldn't it have one? Everywhere else does. Inspired by a couple of real-life Mumbai rappers, Naezy and Divine, the film tells the story of a Muslim student Murad (Ranveer Singh), who turns his frustration at living in the slums into some wicked rhymes. The Muslim angle is an interesting one for an Indian film, and gives an extra bite to the inevitable pushback that Murad encounters from his parents. The requirement for a commercial Bollywood flick to stretch to at least two and a half hours plus intermission means that the story is spread a little thin in parts, and you can probably predict most of the main beats of the plot well in advance. But the characters keep you hooked, the visual style is impressive without being ridiculously flashy, and the music is cool as hell: mind you, I've always had a soft spot for rapping in languages other than English. The end credits number - featuring Naezy and Divine collaborating with Nas - gives you a feel for what to expect.
Music: It's been a while since I did one of these, so here's the first Audio Lair playlist of the year, in Spotify form with bonus YouTube links for people who don't believe in that stuff. It's the new shit for 2019!
1. Except, of course, this isn't new for 2019: it's I Trawl The Megahertz, the 2003 orchestral album by Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout, which has now been remastered and repackaged as a Sprout record. It didn't get the love it deserved sixteen years ago, and it's nice to see the rerelease is finally picking up interest, even if it is reducing the resale value of my long-deleted original copy in the process.
2. With five episodes to go before it finishes forever, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend appears to be on track to wrap satisfyingly: visibly moving all its characters towards an endgame, but realising that now is as good a time as any to push the envelope a little further. A song and dance number in praise of antidepressants, done as a thinly-veiled pastiche of the opening of La La Land? Sure, why not?
3. I have no idea who's representing us at the Eurovision Song Contest this year, and don't really feel the need to find out. But the Australian entry is being performed by Kate Miller-Heidke, veteran of three of my Pick Of The Year compilations, and the only person ever to perform at Eurovision who I've previously seen in the back room of an Islington pub. So I'm rooting for her. (Yes, Australia has been technically part of Europe since 2014. Try to keep up.)
4. Joe Jackson has come and gone out of my consciousness repeatedly over the last (swallows hard) forty years or so: it strikes me that roughly once a decade, he strikes gold. Amusingly, he seems to have come to the same conclusion, and his upcoming tour is focused around one album each from the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s. The most recent decade is represented by his 2019 album Fool, whose eight songs are solidly up there with his best, even if they do all tend to meander into extended outros.
5. Coming later this year from Pet Shop Boys, we have a live recording and video of Inner Sanctum, the spiffy live show they did at the Royal Opera House a few years ago. Their new four-track studio EP, Agenda, is presumably going to have to stand as their quota of new material for 2019. The satire's a little heavy-handed in parts - and my God, those rhymes - but the music keeps it all bubbling along nicely.
6. At this stage, I can say that two of the albums released this far in 2019 are solidly great pieces of work, and they're both from artists who've been going for forty years or so: Joe Jackson, and The Specials. In the latter's case, the world doesn't appear to have got much better since the release of Ghost Town, so it's not like they don't have anything to sing about. Hooray for all the fiftysomething blokes like me who got their comeback record to number one in the album charts, simply by being probably the only people in the country who bought anything on a physical CD that week.
7. The Chemical Brothers have become one of those acts - Massive Attack and Roisin Murphy are two more that spring to mind - who appear to have given up on albums for now, and just bash out great singles that they release as soon as they're ready. Like MAH, which has a suitably uplifting message for our troubled times.
8. The last time Cinematic Orchestra and Roots Manuva collaborated on anything, it was the delicious 2002 track All Things To All Men. (Look it up yourselves, I'm limiting myself to one link per paragraph here.) This isn't quite as good, but it does make you think that their respective sounds complement each other perfectly.
9. Similarly, The Lego Movie 2 isn't as good as The Lego Movie, but it's still got a lot going for it. The end credits song by Beck and Robyn gets an added boost from The Lonely Island's rap about how much fun it is to sit through the end credits of a movie.
10. The final track isn't new at all, as this is from Kamasi Washington's 2015 debut album The Epic. But we're seeing him live next week, and found this while doing some pre-gig research. I hope it's not significant that I prefer his cover versions to his original work.
Chaos Monkey is a tool invented in 2011 by Netflix to test the resilience of its IT infrastructure. It works by intentionally disabling computers in Netflix's production network to test how remaining systems respond to the outage. Chaos Monkey is now part of a larger suite of tools called the Simian Army designed to simulate and test responses to various system failures and edge cases. The code behind Chaos Monkey was released by Netflix in 2012 under an Apache 2.0 license.
The name 'Chaos Monkey' is explained in the book Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez: "Imagine a monkey entering a 'data center', these 'farms' of servers that host all the critical functions of our online activities. The monkey randomly rips cables, destroys devices and returns everything that passes by the hand [i.e. flings excrement]. The challenge for IT managers is to design the information system they are responsible for so that it can work despite these monkeys, which no one ever knows when they arrive and what they will destroy."
So there you go: Netflix have written a piece of software that simulates what it's like when a monkey starts throwing shit at your computer network. You've learned something today, haven't you?
As I mentioned earlier this week, things are probably going to be slowing down around here for the foreseeable future, but I should still be able to get a couple of posts out to you in March. The things that were in the pipeline at the start of the year are still there: a writeup of our Christmas in Cardiff, and a report of the newest London BrewDog bar (which I really need to publish before the next London BrewDog bar opens). Expect them when they happen, and feel free to drop me some notes in the comment box below while you're waiting.