Exploring David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”

“Life on Mars?” has always been a favourite among David Bowie’s songs, and even more so since his death in January. Many have performed it as a tribute, not least by Lorde at the Brits Bowie tribute, Rick Wakeman (the pianist on the original) and Sarah Blasko.

A great song then; but one characteristic it shares with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, another much-loved track, is that the lyrics are fantastically obscure, particularly in the second verse.

It’s a God awful small affair
To the girl with the mousey hair
But her mummy is yelling, “No!”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is no where to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seats with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors, Fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on

Sailors …

Still, while Queen’s effort may veer towards pomp and nonsense I have nothing but respect for Bowie’s lyrical craftsmanship. I think we will struggle to make perfect narrative sense of the song but nevertheless there may be some insights to be had.

What does Bowie himself have to say about it? The back cover of Hunky Dory, the album from which the song comes, states “Inspired by Frankie”, a reference to Frank Sinatra. The contemporary advertisement for the album adds more handwritten notes on the song, this time “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”

Then there are the notes on the song for the 2008 iSelect compilation:

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

Another key reference is this interview from around 2002, specifically about the making of “Life on Mars?”

In this interview, Bowie tells the story of how he was asked to write an English lyric for a French song, called Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, “As Usual”).

The original song, entitled Pour Moi (“For Me”) was written by Gilles Thibaut (lyrics) and Jacques Revaux (music) and offered to singer Claude François. The lyrics and music were adapted by all three, renamed Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, “As Usual”), and the song became a break-up song related to the ending of the relationship between François and the young Eurovision winner France Gall.

Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love, and you can hear a snippet of his version in the interview above, but François rejected his lyrics. (Bowie adds that it was “a godawful lyric. Dreadful”).

Comme D’Habitude describes a relationship near its end; he is still in love but they see little of one another as he goes to work before she gets up (“Quietly I leave the house. Everything is grey outside. As usual”) and is in bed before she returns. “All alone, I’ll go and lie down in this big cold bed, as usual”. They make love but he is “playing at pretending”.

Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love. His version is also about a relationship gone sour, but tells the whole story, about a man who is the life and soul of the party (“a fool”), meets a girl, falls in love (“a clown and an angel so much in love”), but the joke “turns stale” and the time when even a fool learns to love becomes a “sour time”.

“The next time I heard it, it was My Way by Frank Sinatra,” says Bowie. François had rejected his lyrics, and Paul Anka had come up with My Way.

“I was really pissed off. It should have been my song. So I thought, OK I’ll write my own version. So it’s My Way on Mars,” says Bowie.

“Inspired? It was more revenge.”

“Life on Mars?”, while not exactly a relationship song shares with Comme D’Habitude a sense of discontent with life and reflection upon it.

Actually the opening lines do suggest a relationship “a godawful small affair”, one that is unacceptable to mum and dad. The girl goes out, like the man in Comme D’Habitude, into a grey and sad world. Her friend (boy or girl?) cannot be found.

Bowie’s song then departs from the script, exploding into a kaleidoscope of images as the mousy-haired girl stares at the cinema screen. Yet this does not rescue her: she sees clearly that the fantasy world of entertainment will do nothing to change the greyness of her world. Mickey Mouse is not a real friend; he grows up “a cow” and whatever that means it is not flattering.

The song becomes surreal as Bowie plays with reality.

The girl is watching the film. The girl is living the film. The girl’s life is a film. The girl, or the narrator, wrote the film. The film is being “writ again” as we are trapped in our humdrum lives. “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”

Is there Life on Mars? Wait a moment, how did Mars get into this song? Bowie is playing with us of course. Let’s look at a few shades of meaning:

2001 A Space Odyssey, part inspiration for Space Oddity, “look at those cavemen go”, and note the little quote from Also Sprach Zarathustra as the song fades. The film’s central character goes to Jupiter not Mars, but hey, it’s all space; and like Space Oddity, inner space as much as outer space. Is there life there? Maybe, but it’s pretty desolate.

Life on Mars is a B movie too, cheap sci-fi. It’s escapism but not life, not real life.

Is there life on Mars? is a question of yearning, because there is no life on earth, or it seems that way in our most desolate moments.

Bowie tells us that this kind of interpretation is not too far off. In 1998 he was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC, in a kind of follow-up to Yenton’s earlier documentary Cracked Actor.

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David Bowie telling Alan Yentob about Life on Mars

“She may be an ordinary girl,” says Yentob, “but isn’t she as alienated as any of your other characters?”

“I think she finds herself let down,” Bowie replies. “I think she finds herself disappointed by reality. I think she sees that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality she’s been told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it. It’s very hard to think back to one’s state of mind 25 years ago. I guess I would feel sorry for her now, I think I had empathy with her at the time. That’s probably the difference.”

When asked in the 2002 interview referenced above about whether the song is about alienation, he says:

“A lot of it is. One’s interior kind of isolation as well. It doesn’t just mean one’s social isolation, it can mean how you get in contact with your own feelings. It can be quite personal in that way.

“My subject matter hasn’t really changed over the years. I’m still in a way writing about life on Mars, all these years later. (Laughs). And the man who sold the world … the way that I present songs has changed a lot. And the style for each album has changed considerably. I’ll often try new rhythms and kinds of arrangements. It’s like, I want to keep writing about the same subject but my approach, it’s like I’m trying to get into it, like finding a different door each time I approach that same subject.”

Can we go further, and examine the lyrics with more precision? It is difficult because the song is deliberately surreal; yet there are intriguing connections which may or may not be intended. Is it Lennon (“Power to the People”) or Lenin who is on sale again? Bowie with his love of word play likely intended both meanings.

What about “The workers have struck for fame?” In 1941, there was a famous strike by Disney’s (“Mickey Mouse”) animators. One of their grievances was lack of credit for their work:

“To add insult to injury, the animators weren’t featured in the credits of the film, with all credit going to the owner of the studios himself, Walt Disney.”

says this report.

Bowie however did not want to explain everything. Mick Rock, who worked with Bowie on a video for the song, says:

I would not be so presumptuous as to try and put any meaning on it. Certainly David Bowie never has as far as I know. I don’t know what it means. But it means a helluva lot to me, it’s like a poem by Rimbaud, say, what does it mean? Intellectually it is very hard to define. You can only say, I love it.

I would not go so far as Rock; Bowie has given plenty of clues about his intent in writing the song. At the same time, he enjoyed leaving room for the listener’s imagination and participation, referring to the French painter Marcel Duchamp and approving in this interview with Jeremy Paxman:

The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle.

However you look at it though, it is a pretty gloomy lyric. Why do we like it? Well, it is witty, it is evocative, it is mysterious; and the music absolutely soars, complete with unexpected key changes and a near-octave leap from “on” to “Mars”. Like all the best music, it takes us out of ourselves to another place and makes our reality a little less grey than it was before.

Thanks to members of the Steve Hoffman Music Forum for assistance with puzzling out this song, and to author Nicholas Pegg for the source of the quote from the Yentob interview, which he also references in his book The Complete David Bowie.

Raspberry Pi does Audio at the Wigwam HiFi Show 2016

The Wigwam Hifi Show is an unusual event, in that most of the exhibitors are not vendors with their latest and shiniest, but enthusiasts showing off their own systems. It is a lot of fun, with plenty of exotic and/or old equipment that you will not see or hear elsewhere.

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I have exhibited at the show in the past, and try to do something a little different each time. This year I thought it would be interesting to contrast the many multi-box and expensive systems with something at the other end of the scale. I was impressed when I reviewed the IQAudio Pi-DigiAMP+ for issue 36 of the MagPi magazine, so I took it along.

This unit is a board that plugs in on top of the main Raspberry Pi board.

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It is very simple, the only external connectors being power in, and left and right speaker terminals. It includes a DAC and a class D amplifier, based on the Texas Instruments (TI) TAS5756m chipset. The DAC is based on a Burr-Brown design.

I assembled my unit using a Raspberry Pi 2, the above board, and the matching case and power supply from IQ Audio. The power supply is the XP Power VEF50US15 which means I get up to 2x20w; if you use a VEF65US19 you can get 2x35w (both available from the IQAudio site).

Here it is in the room at Scalford Hall, home of the Wigwam event.

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The speakers shown are the Cambridge Audio Aero 6, though we also had a pair of Quad 11L and tried them both.

The way things work at this event is that you sleep in your room the night before, and the next morning the bed is removed and it becomes your exhibition room. Having tried the system with the bed in place, I was distressed to find it sounding markedly worse (bloated bass) once the bed was removed. With no time for proper experimentation we dragged the mattress back out of the cupboard and leant it against the wall, which improved matters; we also used foam bungs in the speaker ports to tame the bass. Not ideal, but shows the difficulty of getting good sound at short notice in small hotel rooms.

The Cambridge Audio Aero 6 speakers I would describe as a good budget choice; they sell for around £350. Philosophically (as with the Quads) they are designed to be clean, detailed and uncoloured. The choice of floorstanders rather than small standmounts was deliberate, as I wanted to demonstrate that using a tiny amplifier does not necessarily mean a small sound.

Having said that, we also put the Quads on from time to time, which are small standmounts. The sound was not radically different, though bass extension is less and to my ears the 11Ls are a little less precise than the Aeros, with a warmer sound. I preferred the Aeros but as ever with loudspeakers, tastes vary.

The complete parts list as shown:

  • Raspberry Pi 2 £26.00
  • IQAudio Pi-DigiAMP+ £57.99
  • IQAudio Pi-CASE+ £15.60
  • 15v Power Brick XP Power VEF50US15 £25.50

If I were buying today, I would recommend the new Raspberry Pi 3 and the more powerful 19v power supply which increases the cost by about £10.00.

So that is between £125 and £135 for the complete device, and then whatever you choose for the speakers.

For the demonstration I brought along a router with wi-fi, to which I attached a hard drive with lots of FLAC files ripped from CD, along with a few high-res files. The router lets you attach a USB drive and share it over the network, so I configured Volumio on the Pi to use that as its source. In a typical home setup, you would probably store your music on a NAS device and use your existing home network.

Where’s the amplifier?

There was a steady stream of visitors from around 10.00am to the close of the show at around 17.00. The goal was not to be the best sound at the show, but rather to be the smallest and still deliver decent sound quality, and for many visitors I think we succeeded. We stuck the equipment list on the wall and lots of people photographed it with the intention of looking into it further.

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A demo under way: spot the mattress leaning against the wall and the smaller Quad speakers alongside the Cambridge Audios.

A number of visitors knew of, or were even using, a Pi for streaming, but the idea of having the amplifier included on a small board was less familiar; it was fun when people asked where the amplifier was, or whether the speakers were active (they are not). Some were really astonished that you can get respectable sound quality from such a small box.

Volume was more than sufficient for a room this size and frankly plenty for most home situations though of course not for huge rooms or loud parties.

Note that despite playing loud throughout the day the amp board did not get warm at all; this is because a Class D design delivers almost all the power supplied as output to the loudspeakers.

A few early comments from the forums:

“The super small Raspberry Pi based system by onlyconnect was a brilliant demo of what can be achieved by something tiny and low cost.”

“I wouldn’t have thought it possible if I hadn’t have heard it… To boot, completely taking price out of the equation, it was one of the better sounding systems at the show to my ears, I enjoyed that more than some far, far more expensive rigs.”

“Highlights. Onlyconnect’s raspi based system, honestly why pay more for music around the house?”

“Onlyconnect’s Raspberry system was impressive and wins the GVFM award.”

“Onlyconnect’s mini/budget system – just amazing how good a £125 raspberry pi setup containing streamer, dac, preamp and 35w per channel amp could sound. I can’t forget how flabbergasted another listener was to discover the total system cost  -” I’ve obviously doing it all wrong all these years”

“I spent a while looking for the amplifier, following the cables etc like everybody else. I was impressed by the sound coming out of the Cambridge Audio speakers, I would certainly put this in the top 40% of rooms based on the sound quality, maybe higher.”

Reflections on QCon London 2016 – part one

I attended QCon in London last week. This is a software development conference focused on large-scale projects and with a tradition oriented towards Agile methodology. It is always one of the best events I get to attend, partly because it is vendor-neutral (it is organised by InfoQ), and partly because of the way it is structured. The schedule is divided into tracks, such as “Back to Java” or “Architecting for failure”, each of which has a track leader, and the track leader gets to choose who speaks on their track. This means you get a more diverse range of speakers than is typical; you also tend to hear from practitioners or academics rather than product managers or evangelists.

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The 2016 event was well up to standard from my perspective – though bear in mind that with 6 tracks on each day I only got to attend a small fraction of the sessions.

This post is just to mention a few highlights, starting with the opening keynote from Adrian Colyer, who specialised in finding interesting IT-related research papers and writing them up on his blog. He seems to enjoy being contrarian and noted, for example, that you might be doing too much software testing – drawing I guess on this post about the art of testing less without sacrificing quality. The takeaway for me is that it is always worth analysing what you do and trying to avoid the point where the cost exceeds the benefit.

Next up was Gavin Stevenson on “love failure” – I wrote this up on the Reg – there is a perhaps obvious point here that until you break something, you don’t know its limitations.

On Monday evening we got a light-hearted (virtual) look at Babbage’s Analytical Engine (1837) which was never built but was interesting as a mechanical computer, and Ada Lovelace’s attempts to write code for it, thanks to John Graham-Cumming and illustrator Sydney Padua (author of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage).

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Tuesday and the BBC’s Stephen Godwin spoke on Microservices powering BBC iPlayer. This was a compelling talk for several reasons. The BBC is hooked on AWS (Amazon Web Services) apparently and stores 21TB daily into S3 (Simple Storage Service). This includes safety copies. iPlayer was rebuilt in 2013, Godwin told us, and the team of 25 developers achieves 34 live deployments per week on average; clearly the DevOps stuff is working here. Godwin advocates genuinely “micro” services. “How big should a microservice be? For us, about 600 Java statements,” he said.

Martin Thompson spoke on the characteristics of a good software engineer, though oddly the statement that has stayed with me is that an ORM (Object-Relational Mapping) “is the wrong abstraction for a database”, something that chimes with me even though I get the value of ORMs like Microsoft’s Entity Framework for rapid development where database performance is non-critical.

Then came another highlight: Google’s Micah Lemonik on Architecting Google Docs. This talk sadly was not recorded; a touch of paranoia from Google? This was fascinating both from a historical perspective – Lemonik was involved in a small company called 2Web technologies which developed an Excel-like engine in 2003-4, and joined Google (which acquired 2Web) in 2005 to work on Google Sheets. The big story here was the how Google Sheets became collaborative, so more than one person could work on a spreadsheet simultaneously. “Google didn’t like it initially,” said Lemonik. “They thought it was too weird.” The team persisted though, thinking about the editing process as “messages being transferred between collaborators” rather than as file updates; and it worked.

You can actually use today’s version in your own projects, with Google’s Realtime API, provided that you are happy to have your stuff on Google Drive.

I particularly enjoyed Lemonik’s question to the audience. Two people are working on a sheet, and one types “6” into a cell. Then the same person overtypes this with “7”. Then the collaborator overtypes the same cell with “8”. Next, the first person presses Ctrl-z for undo. What should be the result?

The audience split neatly into “6”, “7”, and just a few “8” (the rationale for “8” is that undo should only undo your own changes and not touch those made by others).

Google, incidentally, settled on “6”, maintaining a separate undo stack for each user. But there is no right answer.

Lemonik also discussed the problem of consistency when there are large numbers of contributors. A hard problem. “There have to be bounds to the system in order for it to perform well,” he said. “The biggest takeaway for me in building the system is that you just can’t have it all. All of engineering is this trade-off.”

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I have more to say about QCon so look out for part two shortly.

re-examining Song for bob dylan by david bowie

I’ve always liked this song, which appears on Bowie’s 1972 album Hunky Dory, but never fully understood it. Recently I’ve given it some further thought and music forum discussion. Here are the lyrics:

Hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words in truthful vengeance
Could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
Put the fear in a whole lot more

Ah, Here she comes
Here she comes
Here she comes again
The same old painted lady
From the brow of a superbrain
She’ll scratch this world to pieces
As she comes on like a friend
But a couple of songs
From your old scrapbook
Could send her home again

You gave your heart to every bedsit room
At least a picture on my wall
And you sat behind a million pair of eyes
And told them why they saw
Then we lost your train of thought
The paintings are all your own
While troubles are rising
We’d rather be scared
Together than alone

Ah, Here she comes …

Now hear this Robert Zimmerman
Though I don’t suppose we’ll meet
Ask your good friend Dylan
If he’d gaze a while down the old street
Tell him we’ve lost his poems
So they’re writing on the walls
Give us back our unity
Give us back our family
You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Ah, Here she comes …

In a full-page advertisement for Hunky Dory at the time, Bowie offered some handwritten notes on the songs, and for this one he wrote “This is how some see B.D.” – perhaps distancing himself a little from the song.

I am a big Dylan fan and for me the song represents a kind of interaction between two heroes, albeit one-sided. The phrase “a voice like sand and glue” seems to me a neat summary of how some hear B.D. and the ability to get past that into the beauty of his songs and performances is a kind of shared secret among Dylan fans.

I also like Bowie’s vocal performance which captures something of Dylan’s nasal, scratchy voice but without descending into full-blown parody.

That said, there have always been things that puzzled me. Who is the “painted lady” and why does she “come on like a friend?” Since this is the chorus, it is emphatic, but I didn’t have a clue what it was about. And why do we not want the “sanity” of “every nation’s refugee” in the last verse?

An aside on critiquing Bowie’s work

As an aside, its worth noting that although Bowie has attracted reams of prose about his work, very little of it examines such puzzles. In general, pop lyrics are not treated very seriously, and if a song does not quite make sense, most of us just shrug if we even think of it at all.

Bowie himself used a cut-up technique for some of his work, in which words are rearranged to make new texts, and you might reasonably conclude that that the resulting output is unlikely to make sense in a conventional manner.

Despite the above, it seems to me that Bowie took great care over his lyrics and I am constantly finding new shades of meaning in his work. He also loved word play, as noted by his friend Brian Eno after Bowie’s death:

“I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’.

"I realise now he was saying goodbye."

I do believe therefore that the lyrics deserve more attention than they usually receive, even though it means digging into Bowie’s interests in the arcane and occult, for example, which can be both demanding and uncomfortable.

Two writers deserve a shout-out here for doing a lot of this spadework. One is Nicholas Pegg, author of a book called the Complete David Bowie (now being revised) which is full of excellent research.

The other is Chris O’Leary, whose song-by-song site Pushing Ahead of the Dame and associated books are also thoughtful and full of insight.

Song for Bob Dylan

Back on point: what is this song about? It is part tribute and part open letter to Dylan, the central thought being that the man who once effortlessly created “words of truthful vengeance” has gone off in a different direction – and we need him back.

Bowie I suspect knew this to be a rather narrow view, hence his note “this is how some see B.D.” allows for other perspectives.

Dylan began his career as a folk singer, with songs of “protest” that spoke out against injustice, racism and war. He went electric in 1965, escaping the “protest singer” box but not without backlash. Then in 1966 he had a motorcycle accident and went into a kind of retreat, emerging in 1967 with gentler-sounding albums like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, more country than folk or rock. Dylan’s ill-received 1970 album Self Portrait used his own child-like painting of himself on the cover; “your paintings are all your own.”

In 1971 then, when Bowie was writing Hunky Dory, Dylan seemed to have lost all interest in reforming the world as well as settling for a less energetic style of performance, losing it seemed the incandescent power he achieved on albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

The stage is set for Bowie’s song. The first verse is straightforward, setting the scene; but then we get the painted lady. Who is she?

A “painted lady” is slang for a prostitute; but as Pegg observes, this is also a reference to Athena, the goddess of war (among other things) in Greek mythology. The 5th century BC Greek poet Pindar writes:

"from the cleft summit of her father’s brow Athene sprang aloft, and pealed the broad sky her clarion cry of war"

There are also other references in Greek mythology to Athena being born from the forehead of Zeus and emerging fully-clothed.

Athena, in other words, was born from the brow of Zeus, god of thunder and ruler of the Olympian Gods, the “brow of the superbrain.”

In this context Athena seems to represent mankind’s sad tendency to be seduced (“painted lady”) by war and to “scratch this world to pieces”; Bowie appeals to Dylan to “send her home” by returning to his potent songs of protest.

Bowie is always inclined to the apocalyptic and the idea that “troubles are rising” and the world being “scratched to pieces” is nothing strange to him.

Bowie plays with identity in the last verse, addressing Robert Zimmerman, Dylan’s proper name, and asking him to bring back the Dylan persona. Bowie knew all about personae, “David Bowie” being in some ways a creation of David Robert Jones, his own proper name.

What about the final couplet:

You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Dylan may not be a refugee as such, but is on the side of the refugees, that much makes sense. But where does sanity come in?

Bowie’s view of sanity may not tally with our own. His family had a history of madness, his brother was in an asylum, and in his earlier song All the Madmen he explored the idea that society’s division between sane and insane may be arbitrary. “I’d rather stay here, with all the madmen, I’m quite content they’re just as sane as me”.

Sanity then is not necessarily better than insanity; but the couplet is still odd. One suggestion I’ve heard is that “their” could refer to the nations, not the refugees.

I’ve found three performances of Song for Bob Dylan, one on Hunky Dory, one a rehearsal for a John Peel session where it is sung by Bowie’s friend George Underwood, and one from a 1972 live performance. In all three cases the word “their” is not clearly articulated. It could be “our sanity” or even “insanity”. Printed lyrics are not always correct. If it is “our sanity” it might mean, don’t leave us with the sanity that drives us to war.

Final thoughts

Song for Bob Dylan is a good song but not wholly satisfactory. Dylan stopped being a protest singer way back in 1964 or thereabouts and there is an uncomfortable sense that Bowie is inviting another artist to regress; perhaps this is what made him hesitant about the song in his notes.

I still like the song though. I can’t think of any better songs about Bob Dylan.

Microsoft SQL Server is coming to Linux. What are the implications for Windows Server?

Microsoft is porting SQL Server, its popular database manager, to Linux. According to Executive VP Scott Guthrie:

Today I’m excited to announce our plans to bring SQL Server to Linux as well. This will enable SQL Server to deliver a consistent data platform across Windows Server and Linux, as well as on-premises and cloud. We are bringing the core relational database capabilities to preview today, and are targeting availability in mid-2017.

Why do this? The short answer is that like any other software company, Microsoft wants to sell more licenses, and porting its premier (and excellent) database manager to Linux extends its market and helps it compete more directly with the likes of Oracle and even MySQL.

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However that begs a second question, which is why has Microsoft not done this before? After all, SQL Server has been around forever. The first release was in 1989, jointly with Ashton Tate and Sybase, and was for OS/2. The first Windows release was 1993. There was a significant leap forward in SQL Server 7.0, in 1998, which I think of as the beginning of the product as we know it today.

Microsoft in the nineties and in the first decade of the new millennium was all about Windows. Dominant on the desktop, the idea was to build synergies between Windows desktop and Windows server so that running server applications like Active Directory, Exchange and SQL Server was the obvious choice. The Visual Studio development environment pushed developers towards Visual Studio in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Some programming language innovations like LINQ to SQL (a form of Language Integrated Query) only worked with SQL Server. It was not quite lock-in, it was always possible to use a different database engine, but SQL Server was always the default, used in all the examples and documentation, and the best understood when you needed support.

Today Microsoft’s circle of dominance is breaking down. Windows still has desktop dominance, but the importance of the desktop is less, thanks to mobile devices which mostly do not run Windows, and a move away from desktop applications towards web applications that do not care which operating system you use. Active Directory is still important, but cloud computing giants like Google and Amazon are encroaching on that space.

“Only on Windows Server” has become a liability rather than the key to keeping customers locked to Microsoft’s platform.

You can see this in the company’s development strategy, which is migrating towards a cross-platform implementation of .NET as well as embracing iOS and Android via the recently announced Xamarin acquisition. You can also see it in the Azure cloud platform, and Microsoft’s partnership with Red Hat for Linux on Azure. The company is happy to take your money whatever operating system you choose.

It is early days though, and Microsoft is still a Windows-centric company. SQL Server on Linux, expected sometime next year, will probably not be feature-complete compared to SQL Server on Windows – I am guessing, but things like .NET Stored Procedures may be tricky to get right, as well as features like in-memory databases that are tightly integrated with the operating system.

It is worth noting that cross-platform is actually a burden as well as a strength and may involve compromises. It will be fascinating to see how performance compares on equivalent hardware.

Microsoft is now betting than opening up new markets for SQL Server is more important than keeping customers hooked on Windows Server – especially as that last strategy is failing in the cloud computing era.

Finally, there is the question I posed in the title of this post. How does moving key server applications to Linux impact the appeal of Windows Server? After all, Linux licenses are generally cheaper than Windows Server and in some cases free. The answer is that it is one less reason to buy Windows Server, presuming SQL Server works properly on Linux.

You can see this as a process of commoditizing the operating system so that in time expensive server operating system licenses are a thing of the past. This is probably not a good trend for Microsoft. It can still prosper though if you rent your virtual infrastructure from the company and use its cloud services, like Azure and Office 365.

Another way of looking at this is that there is more pressure on Windows Server architect Jeffrey Snover and his team to make Windows Server better than Linux, so that you want to run it because of its merits, not because it is the only way to run SQL Server or Exchange.

Bowie’s sublime blackstar: why you should buy the vinyl

I was broken-hearted when David Bowie died in January; but grateful that he left us with one of his finest works, the album called Blackstar or possibly just ★.

I had pre-ordered the CD but soon realised that I would have to get the vinyl. The cover design is different. The CD has a black star on a white background.

blackstar-cd

The vinyl on the other hand has a black cover with a cut-out opening onto the black vinyl inside.

blackstar-vinyl

The cutout hole is like a wound, no coincidence. The fragmented star symbols below spell Bowie. Great work from designer Jonathan Barnbrook.

As a piece of art it is beautiful and powerful, as an album cover it is highly impractical. The cutout star shape is easily bent when you shelve the record, and the transparent plastic inner sleeve is not ideal for protecting the vinyl.

I have even heard it suggested that this is deliberate, the fragility of the package echoing the fragility of life.

In addition there have been quality control issues. Some reissues have a horrible soft PVC inner sleeve that clings to the vinyl and seems to damage it, causing swooshing noises. Others are just rather noisy. You are doing well to get one that plays perfectly on both sides.

I am on my second copy and it is not perfect, but what I found most surprising was how much better it sounds than the CD.

Play Lazarus: the vocals are more real, the bass more dramatic, the wind instruments more sonorous and eerie.

I am curious about such things, and made a 24/96 digital copy of the track. It still sounds better than the CD, though something is lost in the copy. One reason – probably the main reason – is that the CD is “brickwalled”, that is, compressed for maximum loudness at the expense of dynamic range. Here is the view of the Lazarus track on CD in Adobe’s Audition CC:

image

And here is the vinyl:

image

That CD waveform is tragic; all the wide dynamic range of which CD is capable wasted for no good reason.

The vinyl is better in part for technical reasons; you cannot max out vinyl in the same way.

It is also intriguing to see frequencies above 30K in the vinyl (not that you can hear them).

Still, the bottom line is that it does sound better, especially if you hear the vinyl directly.

Recommended, despite the fragility and imperfection of the medium.

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