Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film

It’d been years since I had seen Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent science fiction film, and I watched it last night. For a science fiction movie, Stalker is certainly an oddity. Released in 1979, loosely based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and directed by Tarkovsky, the masterful Russian director who lived too short a life, it tells the tale of a part of Russia that has been visited by an odd event. It may have been a meteorite that fell, or it may have been an alien visitation. But the event created the Zone, a dangerous area which was cordoned off by the police, and where few could go.

A Stalker – a sort of guide who takes people through the traps in the Zone – meets up with two men who want to visit the Room, a place where wishes come true. One is a Professor, a man of reason, and the other a writer, a man of inspiration. The Stalker is a man of belief. Very little happens in the movie, which lasts more than 2 1/2 hours, except for their trip to the Room, and their discovery of what they want from it.

Stalker is science fiction only in its premise; there are no aliens, no magic, nothing that would be noticed as science fiction. It is a slow movie; very little happens, and some of the shots are several minutes long. It’s a science fiction movie as it would have been written by Samuel Beckett. Yet it’s a brilliant existential examination of the desires of men and women.



At first, the film begins in sepia-toned black-and-white, but once the three characters reach the Zone, the film changes to color. Just as Oz was in color, so was the Zone. The Zone is located outside an industrialized city, and is full of the detritus of modernity. Yet Tarkovsky films these banal, cast-off items with the plastic beauty that he showed in all his films. Some of the shots are breathtakingly haunting, yet there is nothing special in them.

In a prescient shot, near the end of the movie, the Stalker can be seen returning to his home with his wife and daughter, and, across the river, a nuclear power plant is seen. The Zone could be the area surrounding Chernobyl. There is no devastation, simply signs of nature taking over some human artefacts.

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Apple’s Touch ID: I Want It Everywhere

As I check my iPhone from time to time during the day, I’m occasionally reminded of how efficient Touch ID is. Instead of typing a passcode, my fingerprint unlocks my phone. Granted, the passcode is only four digits, but with Touch ID, I’ve set my phone to lock immediately, instead of having the security risk of leaving a few minutes before it locks. If I lose the phone, there’s no longer a several minute window for someone to access it.

I notice Touch ID more when I use my iPad, because that device does require a passcode. I use the iPad much less, though, and it’s less of a bother. And I can’t forget my Macs; I have them set to lock and request a password when my screen saver goes on, after just a few minutes of idle time. That actually bothers me more than the iPad, since I have to type my password on a keyboard.

So I hope that Apple will expand Touch ID: first to third-party developers of iOS apps, then to the iPad and iPod touch, then, hopefully, to the Mac. It would be great with the iOS apps I use which are password- or passcode-protected: the two I use most are 1Password and Dropbox, though there are others that occasionally ask for a password. I’d like to be able to get access to my passwords on 1Password with a touch, instead of entering my (admittedly strong) password, as it’s just annoying, now that I know there’s a better way.

I also hope Apple brings Touch ID to the Mac. I can imagine a Magic Mouse and/or Magic Trackpad with a section to use with Touch ID. It would need a special sensor, the same kind that’s on the iPhone, so it most likely could not work with the entire touch surface. But looking at my Magic Trackpad, I can see that if it were in a corner, it would be usable, and not get in the way. (The same would be the case on a laptop.)

As Apple often brings out a new technology first on the iPhone, then moves it to other iOS devices, or on the MacBook Air, before bringing it to other Macs, it’s obvious that they’re planning on rolling out this technology at least to the iPad in the future. Hopefully this will coincide with an SDK for third-party apps, and perhaps availability on the Mac as well. Touch ID is one of Apple’s technologies that saves a lot of time, and makes life easier. I want it on all my devices.

Update: Shawn King, of Your Mac Life, suggested on Twitter that one might use an iPhone to unlock a Mac. There could be some sort of “remote” app on the iPhone, which would let you then unlock your Mac. This might take longer, though, because you’d need to unlock the iPhone, launch the app, then unlock the Mac. But it would mean that the Touch ID would be able to interface with other hardware.

Is Blu-Ray Audio the Next Big Thing for Audiophiles?

230px-Blu-ray_Disc.svg.pngIf you hang around in audiophile circles, you may have seen that the latest way to deliver music is Blu-Ray audio, or BD-A (BD, or Blu-Ray disc, is the standard abbreviation for such a disc). These discs can only be read in Blu-Ray players, but can offer high-resolution audio, in both stereo and surround mixes, up to 24-bit 192 kHz. The BD-A is seen as a replacement for SACDs, which never really took off in the market, despite their having even higher resolution audio.

If you follow this blog, you’ve certain/y seen that I’m more interested in music than sound; I don’t have the audiophile itch to try and get better and better sound through expensive, incremental improvements to my listening equipment. I have a very good stereo, very good headphones, and, while I may splurge in the future for a pair of Grados, there’s no reason for me to spend more.

I’m not sold on high-resolution audio, but I can understand that some people may be. Whether it’s simply a placebo effect, or whether the music actually does sound better, I can’t say. Perhaps you need a stereo that’s much more expensive than mine to hear the difference.

But BD-A is simply the latest step in marketing audio to those who are willing to pay more. Writing at MusicWeb International, Dan Morgan asks whether it’s a gimmick or game changer. He outlines the history of BD-A, and points out that it’s another step in the format wars, with different record labels choosing different ways to present the audio.

The concept of BD-A is interesting. Many such discs not only let you listen to high-resolution files on your stereo system, but also let you copy them from the disc to your computer. However, this copy process is not simple. You need to find your Blu-Ray player’s IP address and connect to it over a network from a computer. While this is not problem for me, this isn’t a simple task for many users. Part of the reason for this process is the copy protection on Blu-Ray discs; you can’t simply pop a Blu-Ray in a computer’s drive and copy its contents (though there are apps you can buy that will crack the copy protection and let you copy movies).

Also, BD-As have different types of menus, and require that you have a TV set connected to your Blu-Ray drive. Many music listeners don’t have this; they may have a listening room with just a stereo, making it onerous to play BD-As (they need to buy a TV set just to be able to operate the BD-As). Compare this to CDs: you can play any CD on any CD (or DVD or Blu-Ray player), navigating only from the device’s display. This is essentially because the Red Book CD format was agreed on and universally accepted, ensuring that all CDs would be playable on all players. While there is a more-or-less accepted standard for movies on Blu-Ray discs, this is not the case for Blu-Ray audio.

And this, in my opinion, is why BD-A will fail. By making these discs complicated to operate, and by having vastly different systems on different labels, only the most dedicated users will bother buying more than a couple. It’s not enough to provide music in good quality; the listening process has to be user-friendly. BD-As often look like they’re designed for experienced computer users, and, given that the average age of the classical music market is that of people who didn’t grow up with computers, many users will be frustrated.

The music industry will continue trying to come up with new formats to get us to buy our favorite music again and again. There are only so many times that people will do this in a lifetime. When we moved to CD, we got an easier-to-use product, with arguably better quality sound. (Certainly, some early CDs sounded terrible, but not having pops and clicks from LPs makes a huge difference.) Self-professed audiophiles will buy BD-As, but I can’t see them catching on, unless an international standard is developed for them. And it’s unlikely that will happen any time soon.

New Release: Miles Davis, The Original Mono Recordings

51jghBW5KkL._SL500_AA280_.jpg I spotted a recent release that will interest many jazz fans: a 9-CD set of the original mono recordings of Miles Davis on Columbia Records. It contains the following albums:

  • ‘Round About Midnight
  • Miles Ahead
  • Milestones
  • Jazz Track
  • Porgy And Bess
  • Kind Of Blue
  • Sketches Of Spain
  • Someday My Prince Will Come
  • Miles And Monk At Newport

By from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store.

As you may know, for these albums, as for other music of the time, the original mixes were made in mono, with the stereo mixes being often rushed out afterwards. Since very few people had stereo playback equipment, mono was the standard. Other artists have released similar sets in recent years: Bob Dylan (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and The Beatles (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

It’s interesting to hear these mixes, because they do often have a more refined sound than the stereo mixes (though many stereo remasters are far superior to the original stereo mixes). It’s also a bit of nostalgia: of a time when a record player was a simple device; when you didn’t worry about bit rates and dither; when all that mattered was the music.

If you’re a fan of these artists, you’ll want these releases to compare with the stereo albums you own. You’ll find that, in some cases, the tracks are from different takes, and you’ll certainly find that the music sounds different, because of the way the instruments are prioritized on a one-channel mix.