Blur – The Magic Whip

Early in the jarring opening pages of science fiction novelist Ray Bradbury’s 1953 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, the author appears to catch a glimmer of the actual future. Protagonist Guy Montag comes home from work to find his wife limp and dying of an overdose on sleeping pills. Montag calls for assistance and hangs back helplessly as paramedics revive her, thinking to himself, “There are too many of us. There are billions of us and that’s too many. Nobody knows anyone.” Could Bradbury have foreseen the quiet anomie of faces bathed in smartphone light, shuttling through overcrowded cities, alone together in only tangential acknowledgement of one other’s humanity? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Singer-songwriter Damon Albarn invokes Bradbury’s sentiment on “There Are Too Many of Us”, the emotional centerpiece of The Magic Whip, the reunion album from his reconstituted flagship Blur, as he muses about an Australian hostage crisis he once spectated on television from a hotel room above it. “For a moment I was dislocated by terror on the loop elsewhere,” he admits in verse two—not horrified, just momentarily “dislocated”—as if to call into question our dwindling concern for people in places outside our cubicles of convenience. Technology has made our world smaller, but it hasn’t made us less isolated. Ease of access doesn’t equal closeness.

The Magic Whip is the first Blur album since 2003’s Think Tank, the first with guitarist Graham Coxon onboard since 1999’s 13 (Coxon was booted from the Think Tank sessions a week in and summarily quit), and the first with producer Stephen Street since 1997’s Blur. In 2013, a lucky twist of fate netted the group some downtime between festival dates in South China and Indonesia, and Blur holed up in a Hong Kong studio to workshop new material. Anyone who’s waited a decade and a half for Albarn and his songwriting foil to resume tussling over bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree’s lithe low end will find a lot to enjoy; something special happens when these four get in a room, and you can still hear some of it happening here.

The distant traveler’s conflicting sense of wonder and alienation is the running theme here. “New World Towers” gazes at the web of neon signs overhead in awe of their glow, “Go Out” details nights alone at the bar and defeated late-night self-love. On “Thought I Was a Spaceman” Albarn recasts a longing for the comforting familiarity of London as a space-wrecked astronaut’s homesickness. The Magic Whip was conceived as Albarn wrapped work on his 2014 solo album Everyday Robots, and it’s tempting to see its disaffected tourism as a sister to Robots’ shattered workaday ennui back home.

Sensibilities from Albarn’s extracurricular projects frequently bleed into the frame, especially the Gorillaz, which shows both in dubby, beat-oriented cuts like “New World Towers” and in the lyrics’ pervasive sense of Englishness-in-exile. “Thought I Was a Spaceman” could easily serve as a prequel to Demon Days’ post-apocalyptic opener “Last Living Souls” in sound and story, and “Ghost Ship” wouldn’t look out of place anchored off the shores of Plastic Beach. At times the sonic tug-of-war feels like Albarn clawing at the restrictions of a framework his ideas have outgrown.

In the moments when The Magic Whip is most interested in sounding like a Blur album, it is perhaps too interested. There’s a nod to nearly every epoch, from the synth-accented Parklife alt-rockisms of “I Broadcast” to the busy Great Escape pop of “Lonesome Street”, the Blur-ish guitar squall of “Go Out” and the winding 13-influenced electro-psych of “Spaceman”. Whip functions as a career travelogue in that sense; one wonders whether the decision to have Street, the band’s Britpop-era producer, helm the sessions hasn’t aroused a certain sense of nostalgia. Restless innovators deserve a cycle back through the worlds they’ve crafted here and there (see: the last decade worth of Prince and Beck) but it’s disorienting for a band as keenly interested in artistic recombination as Blur.

Sometimes the album veers into sleepy territory: The ambient washes and close mic’d, reverb-drenched strumming of “Spaceman” are welcome flourishes, as is the cluttered keyboard-and-acoustic bounce of “Ice Cream Man”, but both are better showcases for production than song structure. There’s also sluggish, saccharine adult contemporary on “My Terracotta Heart” and closer “Mirrorball”, though, momentum-killers in a back end that sometimes lags where it should lift. The tempo only picks up on “Lonesome Street”, “Go Out”, and “I Broadcast”; the rest of the album bobs calmly adrift. It suits the album’s geographical fixation on Hong Kong, Indonesia, and especially the beaches and waters in between, but not the band’s own sweet spot.

All these frustrations fall away when the quartet locks into its signature jangly strut, as it does on the late album highlight “Ong Ong”, a chugging rocker outfitted with a chorus of lilting la-la’s. Its sunny soul is infectious, as Albarn, who once lamented he had “no distance left to run,” professes a love no measure of forbidding space could quell. Coxon’s in the wings playing hokey luau guitar, zeroing in on Damon’s seafaring yearning and playing it up for yaks until he storms center stage as the song draws to a noisy close. Blur’s always been puckish in spirit, its greatest gift the identification and gleeful subversion of listener expectations, and in moments like these it re-emerges, untarnished by the passage of time.

Reviewed 7.0/10.0 via Pitchfork

Debian 8 Jessie Released

Debian 8 Jessie Released

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After almost 24 months of constant development the Debian project is proud to present its new stable version 8 (code name Debian Jessie), has been released which will be supported for the next 5 years thanks to the combined work of the Debian Security team and of the Debian Long Term Support team.

Jessie ships with a new default init system, systemd. The systemd suite provides many exciting features such as faster boot times, cgroups for services, and the possibility of isolating part of the services. The sysvinit init system is still available in Jessie.

Screenshots and a screencast are available.

Understanding VPN’s

VPN-Services

Understanding VPN’s
What’s a VPN service? If you’ve ever had to connect to a corporate network while working remotely, you may already be familiar with the technology. In simplest terms, you are creating a secure, encrypted connection between your computer and your company’s VPN server. This tunnel essentially makes you part of the company’s network, as if you are physically sitting in the office. All your network traffic passes through this protected tunnel, and no one in the hotel you are staying in can see what you are up to. The VPN service is essentially the same idea, except the VPN provider is not letting you have access to its network, but rather offering secure access to the Internet.

Think about it this way: if your car pulls out of your driveway, someone can follow you and see where you are going, how long you are at your destination, and when you are coming back. With a VPN service, you are essentially driving into a closed parking garage, switching to a different car, and driving out, and no one who was originally following you knows where you went.

There is a caveat to this metaphor, though. Just as the person who was following you could figure out where you went if he or she happened to be at the supermarket when you got out of the car, there are complicated timing algorithms that can figure out your activity at the exact moment you leave the encrypted tunnel. VPN services, while tremendously helpful, are not fool-proof. As with anything else on the Internet, don’t do anything stupid.

There are several reasons why you should use VPN services: to change your IP address to something else, to prevent anyone from eavesdropping on your online activity while you are connected to Wi-Fi networks, and to make it harder for online advertisers to track you. There are activists who rely on VPN services to get around government censors to communicate with the outside world. Of course, that may be against the law in countries with strict censorship, so be careful.

VPN services are very useful and we highly recommend using them to protect your online activity from malicious snoops. Yes, you can change your IP address to pretend to be from someplace else in order to access content that may be restricted on a geographic basis. But be smart: don’t ignore the company’s terms of service in order to get around the geographic restrictions for your own personal gratification. You can’t complain if you get caught.

How to Pick a VPN Service
The VPN services market has exploded over the past three years. Many providers are capitalizing on the general population’s growing concerns about surveillance and cyber-crime, which means it’s getting hard to tell when a company is actually providing a secure service and when it’s throwing out a lot of fancy words while selling snake oil. It’s important to keep a few things in mind when evaluating which VPN service is right for you: reputation, performance, type of encryption used, transparency, ease of use, support, and extra features. Don’t just focus on price.

Despite widespread agreement that VPN services are important to online privacy, you don’t actually see a lot of big-name security companies getting into the game. Symantec was one of the first security companies to dip its toe into the VPN pool, but it has since discontinued its Norton Hotspot Privacy product. F-Secure (Freedome) and Avast! (SecureLine) are among the few security companies still in the space. Most VPN providers tend to be stand-alone companies, such as Spotflux and AnchorFree (Hotspot Shield Elite), which makes it a little harder to figure out who to trust. I tend to trust companies that have been around a little longer, just because if they are terrible to their customers, then it would be easier to uncover the complaints than if the company just popped up a year ago. But your mileage may vary when looking at the company reputation.

Performance is a must when considering VPN services. When you didn’t have a lot of choices, you expected to have hiccups and lags while online. Now that there are services that still give you a great experience online while keeping you secure, there is no reason to accept slow speeds or servers which are frequently offline. We spend about a week testing each service at varying times of the day and from different locations to make sure we get a good idea of what the overall service is like. Look for services that provide a free trial, and take advantage of it. Make sure you are happy with what you sign up for, since most of them will not give you any refunds. This is actually why I also recommend starting out with a short term—a week or a month—to really make sure you are happy. Yes, you may get that discount by signing up for a year, but that’s a lot of money to lose if you realize the service doesn’t meet your performance needs.

I am not a cryptography expert so I can’t verify all of the encryption claims providers make. I do know that when I looked at my network traffic using tools such as Wireshark, they were encrypted. I verified that what URLs I visited and what data I was submitting on forms were not transmitted in plaintext. At the very least, there would be no virtual eavesdropping by the person sitting in the coffee shop. I prefer providers that use OpenVPN—it’s a standard, and it’s a lot better than the common (and older) PPTP. I am not saying do not use PPTP—it’s still preferable to not having anything at all.

Transparency is a big one for me. Is it easy to find the terms and conditions and privacy policy for the service? Does the privacy policy spell out what the service does, what it collects, and what its responsibilities are? There are companies that explain they collect some information but aren’t clear on how it is being used. Some—like HideIPVPN—tell you upfront that P2P and torrenting is not allowed, and that they will cancel your account if they suspect you of using it while connected to their service. I appreciated TorGuard’s clear explanation of how it keeps track of payment card information without maintaining any logging information. Find out where the company is based—some countries don’t have data retention laws so it is easier to keep the “We don’t keep any logs” promises.

What kind of user are you? Some people are comfortable setting up the service by downloading a configuration file and importing it into the OpenVPN client. Others just want a simple executable to download, install, and be up and running. Or you may prefer something small and invisible operating in the background you don’t have to think about.

A decent VPN service should be easy enough to use that you don’t have to worry about support. But you want help available for when things go wrong. Online tutorials and extensive documentation should be a must. Chat support and phone support are definitely useful for those times when you just need to get a person online. If the service accepts alternate payments, that’s a good thing to look at. I’ve yet to use Bitcoin to sign up for any of these services, but I’ve used pre-paid cards to sign up for some. It’s a little bit more work, but sometimes, it’s not a bad idea to keep some payments separate from your main credit card.

Finally, know what you are looking for. Do you just want a vanilla VPN service that just encrypts your connection and gives you a brand-new IP address? Or are you looking for something more? I personally prefer a service which acts proactively and shuts down certain applications if my VPN connection drops suddenly (Kill Switch). Perhaps you want the service to automatically turn on—or prompt you to turn on—if you launch a browser. Or you want some kind of network metering so that you can track your usage. Perhaps you want to block aggressive advertising trackers. If you are a heavy BitTorrent user, don’t select a VPN service which specifically says it won’t allow P2P or torrents.


TorGuard VPN

TorGuard
$9.99 at TorGuard at TorGuard The easiest way to look at TorGuard is to consider it a simpler version of NordVPN. The interface and user experience is very similar. The biggest difference is that TorGuard doesn’t have additional security features which NordVPN has. But if you are a heavy P2P user, TorGuard should be up near the top of your list. Read the full review ››