30 May, 2008

Frozen on a tropical island

So here's the thing.

Today the season finale of Lost airs, and I cannot wait. It's been an astonishing season, driven I believe largely by the fact that Lindelof and Cuse came into the season with a firm commitment and deadline - 3 more seasons, 16 episodes a season - that allowed them to really get the storytelling going without any of the padding that they had to use when they were trying to the story without a fixed airdate. The strike may have knocked a couple of episodes off the season, but it's still going well And now we're at the finale - and if there's one thing Lost knows how to do, it's how to make a mindblowing oh-my-gosh finale.

The big thing I'm looking forward to seeing is, if the Oceanic 6 do leave the island in the finale (Lindelof and Cuse have said they do, but there is a chance they may have been referring to last week's flash-forward), how do they come together, since they're scattered across the island?

In addition, there is the question of the big codename scene. Each season, they have a major surprise scene that they give a codename to.
* Season 1 was the "Bagel" (Walt is kidnapped)
* Season 2 was the "Challah" (the Portuguese guys in the monitoring station)
* Season 3 was called the "Snake in the Mailbox (surprise! it's not a flashback, it's a flash-forward)
* Season 4 has the codename "Frozen Donkey Wheel". No, I don't understand the name either, or know where it came from. But I can't wait to find out what the scene is.

At the moment, having very carefully avoided any spoiler sites and having no knowledge of the episode beyond anything officially released, I'm fully expecting
(a) the Oceanic 6 to somehow regroup and leave
(b) Locke to then use the Orchid station to move the island forward in time, probably meaning that for those on the Island no time passes, but it's suddenly 2008, not 2004, which means
(c) time will have caught up with itself. Suddenly the present-day for season 5 on both the island and off will be 2008, starting at the point when Jack told Kate "We have to go back". The story will progress in a linear fashion from there. Any more details about what the Oceanic 6 got up to in their first few years will be filled in as flashback (although I think we've got the general story for most of the characters already). In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if season 4 was the only season to regularly use the flash-forward device.

So there we are. That's what I'm expecting to happen in Lost. Of course, I'll be entirely wrong (much as I was when I confidently told everyone that Michael travelled back in time a few years), but half the fun of Lost is trying to predict where the show is going, and then being pleasantly surprised when they do something much more interesting.

It's going to be an exciting night.

27 May, 2008


So here’s the thing.

I wasn’t really planning on writing about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I’ve decided to put a few words down quickly.

Firstly, I had a lot of fun with the film. It’s definitely the least of the series, but it has some really solid, exciting sequences, and stands on par with the Indy sequels – Raiders obviously stands separate as a work of pure brilliance and a true classic. The sequels are a lot of fun, very enjoyable, very good, but not as great as Raiders.

Brief sidenote here – I know that Temple of Doom seems to be generally viewed by most as the worst Indy, and I can understand that opinion. Certainly the supporting characters – Short Round and Willie Scott – are the worst in the series, and the story is very dark. But I enjoy the dark feel of the film – there is a palpable sense of real danger in the film that isn’t as present in the other films. (I would hate to live in the UK, where the film had over a minute edited out – including (I believe) the entire heart removal/live sacrifice scene. That is such a great scene, and such an essential part of the film, that it just isn’t Temple of Doom without it.) But the main thing is that the film feels very different to Raiders – and that’s a good thing. It's not just a beat-by-beat rehash of Raiders, but a genuinely new and different adventure. The film doesn’t start with Indy on some expedition somewhere; he’s wearing a tuxedo in a Hong Kong nightclub. While he is technically on the hunt for a religious artefact (the Shankara Stones), that is really incidental to the main focus of rescuing the children. And indeed, the fact that it revolves around a non-Judeo-Christian culture feels particularly exotic for those of us from a Western culture. Add to that the level of danger in the film, some of the best setpieces in the series (the last third of the film, particularly the mine-car chase, is just incredible), a John Williams score that is (in my personal view) the best Indy score he composed (by the way, the fact that it is not possible to buy the classic Indiana Jones scores is criminal) and I feel that it is overall a very enjoyable film. Not Raiders great, but definitely very good.

On the other hand, I tend to feel that Last Crusade, while very enjoyable (especially thanks to the father-son relationship with Sean Connery), just feels too much like a rehash of Raiders. While the opening of the film presents a young Indy, it still feels very similar to the Raiders opening. Once again he’s fighting the Nazis, once again hunting for a Judeo-Christian artefact (albeit now one that has no real Biblical basis, and one that they had to contrive a special power for – long life and healing powers – that to my knowledge had no basis in Grail mythology). We get Sallah and Brody returning, but played solely as comic relief rather than as the real characters they were in Raiders. And the whole thing feels like it is being played for laughs too much – almost like they’ve overreacted to Temple’s darkness but trying too much to lighten it up. (Although, I admit, “No ticket” is very funny.) But the whole thing feels like they’re trying to make Raiders again, only changing the detail of the setpieces, and the whole thing comes across as an inferior copy. And that’s why I prefer Temple of Doom to Last Crusade – because Temple wasn’t just a retread of the first film, and instead looked for a new and unique direction for the film to go in.

Sorry about getting sidetracked. Anyway...

Like I said, one of the problems of Last Crusade is that it seeks to replicate Raiders too closely, while Temple of Doom is advantaged because it tried to be its own distinctive film. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does a bit of both - it's built around an apparent religious artifact of great power and an ancient civilisation that worshipped that artifact, which makes it feel very much like Raiders or Last Crusade. At the same time, there is a strong science fiction element apparent from pretty much the start of the film - which is appropriate, since it is set in the 1950s, an era when science fiction was strong in the public consciousness - and that science fiction element is sufficiently distinctive from the other films to feel like it's different.

Anyway, the reason for this post was that I actually wanted to write about what the problems with the film are - because that to me is more interesting. And I think there is one major problem, above all others, with the film:

Over-development. They've been trying to get the film together for a good 15 years now, with script after script after script developed - most famously a script by Frank Darabont that Spielberg and Harrison Ford liked, but that Lucas vetoed a couple of years ago. Finally, they got David Koepp to put together a script, and one suspects that Koepp borrowed the big action setpieces from all the different scripts, and then constructed the narrative glue to connect this action scene to that action scene. (For example, have a look at this review, written eight years ago, about the mid-90s script "Indiana Jones and the Saucer-Men From Mars" - the climactic ending to the opening sequence of Crystal Skull seems to have been lifted straight from that script.) And what happens as a result is that the narrative thread isn't very strong. More so than the other films, the actual storyline doesn't flow. The action scenes are great, but as an audience member it takes a bit of thinking to remember how we got from that scene to this scene. The script is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster in that regard - it looks fine from a distance, but up close you can really see the joins.

The film also plays a particular "surprise" revelation about Shia LeBeouf's character badly. Now it could be just that I've been following the making of the film, and since the rumours about that revelation were circulating since very early on, it didn't surprise me. But I have difficulty imagining anyone watching the film and not working out the surprise almost from the first scene - so I wish they had actually laid that information out at the start rather than trying to play it as some big shock. Another character (who I won't identify) also suffers a little from seemingly shifting loyalties solely on the basis of which side the script required them to be on - again, possibly a consequence of over-development.

I was also disappointed by the level of CGI effects in the film. When the film was officially announced Spielberg talked about making the film with no CGI, only old-fashioned special effects - which feels right both as a callback to the 1950s (when those were the types of effects that would have been used) and consistent with the original films. And so I was sad to see, right from the first shot, that they were apparently using CGI. Especially since if they hadn't been using CGI, we might have been spared the worst moment in the film (the utterly unnecessary Tarzan-monkeys scene).

But despite these flaws, it is a fun film. I'm looking forward to revisiting it, and seeing how it stands up outside the excitement of seeing a new Indy film.

(And just a note – I came across an article about Drew Struzan, one of the great poster artists whose incredible artwork has been used for many films including the Indiana Jones sequels. In an age where most films just get a (usually really bad) photoshop effort for a poster (seriously, look at Mulder's face in this X-Files 2 poster), it's nice to see Struzan still working and giving us a bit of artistry in movie posters. The article is worth reading, and can be found here.)

22 May, 2008

It's on America's tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow

So here's the thing.

Last year, I watched a brilliant little BBC TV series called Life On Mars.* A great show, it revolved around a modern-day cop called Sam Tyler who is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973, working alongside a tough bastard called Gene Hunt, whose sole focus is catching the bad guy whatever it takes. So each episode works as a police procedural - a crime is committed, they have to solve it - but there's a strong element of the clash-of-different-cultures as Sam discovers just how different the world of thirty-odd years ago actually was - pretty much like in every time-travel story. In addition, there's also the obvious question, posed by Sam in each episode's opening credits - has he really travelled back in time, is he in a coma and is the 1973 world all in his imagination, or is he a 1970s madman who just thinks he comes from 2005. Although the show did drop a few hints in each direction, I always thought the answer was pretty clear - the question was more interesting as an insight into Sam's own uncertainty about who he was than as a reflection of a mystery within the show itself - and in the final episode, my belief was confirmed. The series ended, after 16 episodes over two seasons, with an ending both happy and hopeful, and terribly tragic and depressing - as a concept, the ending was a terrible thing, but emotionally it was satisfying and cathartic. A perfect ending.

The show makers returned to the concept this year with Ashes To Ashes, a sequel series in which a female cop, Alex Drake, is shot and finds herself in the 1980s with Gene Hunt. The series is enjoyable, well-made, and intriguing, and I look forward to the next series, but it's not quite as great as Life On Mars was.

Which brings me to my main point. The US television network ABC is making an American remake of the show. Sam travels back to 1972 And I'm a little uncomfortable with it. I'll probably have a look at it, just to see whether it works at all - although I suspect it will probably mostly have car-crash appeal if anything. It's just not looking terribly promising at the moment. The pilot episode was made by David E Kelley - he who inflicted the "ooga-chaka-ooga-ooga" dancing baby on the world. To be honest - Life On Mars is actually a very tough violent show at times, and I'm not really sure James Spader and William Shatner smoking cigars on the balcony is quite right tonally.

Fortunately, Kelley is not going to be working on the show past the pilot. Instead, the show will be made by the showrunners behind a programme called October Road. Now, I don't really know much about this guy-returns-to-his-hometown programme, so I can't really comment on it too much. What I do know is that everyone I have read who writing about the Life On Mars remake is bemoaning the fact that these guys are coming onto the show, so I assume October Road wasn't very good. And that's not a terribly promising sign.

Nor do I know much about the cast, which you can see to the left. The only cast member I actually know is Colm Meaney, who I first encountered when he was a supporting cast member on Star Trek: The Next Generation, before the character become core cast in Deep Space 9. Now I like Colm Meaney's casting - I think he could do well with the role of Gene Hunt, a difficult role that requires him to be violent, charismatic, offensive, bullying, and charming. And I quite like him in the photo at the top of the post - he actually looks like he's got the character in that picture. (He certainly looks a lot better than in the photo to the left, where he just seems out of place, almost looking like a nervous teenaged boy going to the school dance wearing his father's suit.)

With the other cast members, we'll see how they do once the show airs. (I assume the guy with the moustache is the show's equivalent of Ray, although I think they've renamed him).

Which brings me to one of the things that really was bothering me - the fact that most of the main the characters retained the original names. We've got Sam Tyler. We've got Gene Hunt. We've got Annie Cartwright. One of the (many) good things about the US version of The Office was that the actors were clearly playing the same roles, but they each had new names. It was a nice move that allowed the new show a bit of space to be its own entity, allowing you to view Michael Scott as a different, but similar, person to David Brent. It's a subtle point, but it does allow a bit of distance between the two versions. Whereas, with Life On Mars, regardless of the merits of the new show, hearing people constantly refer to Gene Hunt and have it not be Phillip Glenister would just be a constant reminder that there is another version out there.

And then I saw the promo for the US version (which is embedded at the end of the post). And it really does look bad. Again, a lot of it could be the fault of the ABC promo department - I can understand that it would be a difficult show to sell (although surely not too difficult for the network that managed to sell Lost and Pushing Daisies). But really, with the exception of a couple of short moments, the promo makes it feel terribly light and funny - right down to that ghastly disco track that accompanies Sam waking up. There is precious little to hint at the harder tone of the original series. And that is a shame.

Still, I might have a look at it when it airs - if out of curiosity. I hope the show is good. I'm also intrigued by the fact that the showrunners have apparently got some kind of plan for extending the life of the show - the original concept did have a naturally limited lifespan, hence the fact that it ended after only two seasons and 16 episodes. I have heard reports that the new showrunners have developed some way of justifying the show having the longer run required by US television if the show succeeds. And I'm curious what that is.

So we'll see what the new show is like. I'm not optimistic, but I'll give it a chance and hope for the best.

* The show's title actually comes from the David Bowie anthem called "Life On Mars?", and while there are one or two connections between the song and the series (the line "Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy", possibly the girl in the song as the Test Card girl), the song (to my mind anyway) doesn't have a lot of connection to the show itself. It happens to be the song Sam was listening to in 2005 when he was hit by the car, and it's playing when he wakes up in the 1970s. The song is more significant emotionally - it's a powerful song, and is used at pivotal moments during the show to achieve an emotional reaction in the viewer. (Personally, I had never heard the song before seeing the show, and now I adore it - brilliant song.) So the show's title doesn't really mean anything beyond that song being the one thing that ties the 2005 and 1973 worlds together.

17 May, 2008

Buttercup's Baby

So here's the thing.

This week being Upfronts week, we're getting our first glimpse at a lot of the new shows that we'll be seeing later this year. Including the new show from J.J. Abrams (he who created Felicity, Alias, Lost, and directed Mission Impossible 3 and the upcoming Star Trek prequel).

Anyway, J.J. Abrams' show, called Fringe, looks pretty intriguing. And, judging by this poster, Christopher Guest is going to be in it. Cool.

More posters and images from the show can be seen at the TV Week blog.

16 May, 2008

It's time we're aware

So here's the thing.

I came across an article today stating that Disney is planning to change the "It's A Small World" ride in Disneyland. The change: adding appearances of Disney characters to the ride. Which is an ... interesting idea, to say the least.

Look, I've been to Disneyland twice - once when I was 10, and once when I was 25. And I was never a big fan of the ride - mostly because of the song, which I never really liked to begin with. It didn't help that they would play the song on a loop outside the ride as well as inside, so by the time you get to the front of the queue and board your boat, you're already sick of the damned song. And then you go on a ride where you just listen to the song over and over again for however long the ride is. So, while the actual ride is a great ride, the song itself really detracts. If I was to go to Disneyland again in the future, I would go on It's A Small World once - after all, it is one of the park's signature rides, so you kinda have to - but no more than that.

But the thought of adding Goofy or Donald, Aladdin or the Hunchback, José Carioca or Simba to the ride? That is just wrong. The entire concept of the ride is that a collection of children, all representing countries of the world, coming together in a display of global unity. And it's difficult to see how adding a bunch of recognisable characters actually does anything but detract from that. You're not thinking about what the ride is actually saying, you're thinking "Oh! It's Tarzan!" It' doesn't matter if they go off-model for the characters and try to make them fit in with the original design of Mary Blair, (as Marty Sklar, ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering has claimed), because their inclusion itself is inconsistent with, and surely distracting from, the original ride intent.

I see Marty Sklar, in his response to complaints over this issue, cites the recent changes to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride as an example that supports that change. But I disagree with that comparison. I have not seen the new Pirates ride, but I hope to some day. I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but I agreed with the idea of adding appearances by Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbosa to the ride. But there are several reasons for that. Firstly, I can understand why people might go on the ride expecting to see the main character from the movie, and Disney would want to provide for that. But, beyond that, it is not a significant change. They've got a ride filled with pirates, and they're adding a couple of new pirate figures. The fact that it is a more recognisable pirate doesn't make a huge amount of difference to the ride itself or its theming.

But with It's A Small World? There's no movie tie-in for people to expect to see any particular characters. And the inclusion of other characters actually detracts from the whole idea of the ride, which is "children of the world uniting for peace". It doesn't matter if the characters are placed in the appropriate country section, if Simba is in the Africa section or José is in Mexico. Because it still does not fit with the entire point of the ride.

Now, I recognise Marty Sklar's long history both with Disney Imagineering and with It's A Small World itself - he worked on the ride in its development. So if he genuinely believes that these changes are consistent with the ride as originally conceived, then it is probably worth giving the benefit of the doubt - at least until the final result is revealed. But I have difficulty conceiving of any way of incorporating the characters into the ride that is sufficiently discrete as to not distract from the point of the ride while still sufficiently noticable as to be worth doing.

Besides - it's not as if it's terribly difficult to see the Disney characters in other Disneyland rides. Let It's A Small World exist in its own corner of the park - a tribute to humanity as a whole, albeit a humanity that sings a bloody annoying song.

12 May, 2008

Bright light. Bright light.

So here's the thing.

I love the Gremlins movies. The first film is a brilliantly-executed work. The screenplay is tight, Joe Dante's direction imbues the early scenes with a strong sense of threat and danger, and when the gremlins finally break out of their cocoons and attack, the film just gets terrifying. While I'm not a big horror fan, I will happily sit through some of the great horror films - Halloween, The Shining, The Exorcist, and the like - generally pretty unfazed. But Gremlins, no matter how many times I see it, still actually kinda scares me. Pehaps it's just that I saw the film at a young age, and can still recall how those scenes made me feel, but I don't think so. The gremlins really were menacing and dangerous - and the fact that they viewed killing people and causing mayhem as being just as entertaining as watching Snow White really added to that menace. It is a genuine horror film, that gets away with so much just because they just barely lighten the mood with a few comedy scenes.

The second film is not as good, mostly because it largely abandons the horror element and focuses on the comedy - the mutated gremlins im particular lose their focus on killing and destroying, and just running around pretending to be Carmen Miranda or whatever. And there are a few too many nods to the film's existence as a film - from the shadow puppet scene to Leonard Maltin being attacked while giving a negative review of the first film (which, if I remember correctly, he genuinely disliked in real life). Plus, Gizmo as Rambo? Still, it's definitely a fun film that I do enjoy. I seem to remember hearing a few years ago that Terry Jones wrote a supposedly good script for a third Gremlins film that was well-received, but abandoned because it would have been impossible to make with puppets, and I've always thought they should think about revisiting that script using CGI to create the gremlins. I would like to see that.

And that is why I wanted to post the link to this new ad. Because it is always nice to see new footage of the Gremlins, causing collosal problems and generally being scary. (The final shot is a killer - imagine sitting at your desk at work and having that happen to you. Scary, right?)

My only problem with the ad is the music. I love the Gremlins Rag that was the theme for the films - it's a brilliant composition by Jerry Goldsmith, and is perfectly suited both to the sense of mayhem, and the fun, of the films. It's an enjoyable piece to listen to, even though it has this insane feel of mischief-making to it. And so I love that the ad makers used Goldsnith's theme, but the pacing of the track seems a little too slow, and the arrangement feels subtlely off. The end result is that the music sounds like it should be right, but it's just not.

Still, it's a cool ad, a lot of fun, and worth checking out.

09 May, 2008

"We've arrived at Act Two..."

“Who was that? It sounded like a girl.”
“Did it? Yeah. Well, sure. Because I'm listening to the radio. And This American Life is on. And so there's a girl talking.”
“Is that that show where those hipster know-it-alls talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? God.”
- Summer and Seth, "The O.C.", The Anger Management (season 3 episode 7)

So here's the thing.

There's a guy over in the States called Ron Mallett, and he is planning to build a time machine.

Now, I know what you're thinking - "The guy's obviously a kook." Certainly, that's what I would think. Except that Dr Ronald Mallett is a professor of physics in the University of Connecticut, and his findings have been published in reputable peer-reviewed scientic journals. His theories (as far as I understand them) involves using a laser to cause the empty space inside the machine to swirl around, altering gravity in the machine. Since Einstein teaches us that time is affected in part by gravity, this should twist time into a loop, allowing travel between the points of time on that loop. Something like that. He's even built a functioning model, albeit a very small model, where they can drop a molecule into the machine and follow its behaviour, demonstrating the feasility of the theory and machine.

Now what is interesting about this guy is not so much that he's wanting to do this, or even that he has accomplished what he has. What is interesting is that his interest in time travel started 50 years ago, when Mallett was 10 year old. His father died, and the young boy, inspired by a comic book version of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" and his desire to see his father again, threw himself into trying to make a time machine. His early efforts centred on building a machine through mechanical means, until he read about Einstein and started to focus on physics. Fifty years later, his entire life's work, his entire extraordinary achievement, all comes back to a 10-year-old child who misses his dad. Something so incredible born out of an emotional and completely relatable human response to a situation.

I first heard of Ron Mallett listening to an episode of the long-running radio show This American Life, which I have become obsessed with over the past few months. (The second season of the television version has just started to air over in the States, so it seemed like as good an excuse as any to talk about the show.) The show has been running since 1995, and over the past 13 years has built up a huge library of brilliant radio (almost all of which is available to listen to on the show's website).

The basic concept of the show is simple. As host Ira Glass states, each week they pick a particular theme, and present a variety of stories on that theme. So, for instance, the episode about Ron Mallett was called "My Brilliant Plan", looking at people who have big plans and ideas, that don't necessarily work out as expected. In addition to the story of Ron's plan to see his father again through time travel, they discussed a guy who planned, once he died, to use his own headstone to have the last word with the sons who hurt him deeply. They also told the story of a reporter who bought a house in Iraq as an inconspicuous place of residence for people to live while reporting on the war, and the fiasco that resulted.

And you start to get the idea - in each episode, you get some fascinating stories, but the presentation of the stories often creates a strong contrast. The stories themselves often have little connection, other than a broadly-drawn theme. So, in one episode, built around the theme of a "Tough Room", we heard about a Thanksgiving dinner that erupted into conflict after the daughter said she thought Osama Bin Laden was "hot", we heard the writers of the Onion comedy newspaper pitching jokes, we heard about a teenager who would read tarot cards for adults in exchange for beer, we heard about a couple of Mormon missionaries trying to save Manhattan, and we heard about a couple of reporters competing with each other. All wildly varying stories brought together by one overarching idea.

Almost all of the stories are true (except for the occasional clearly-indicated piece of fiction). And for me, that is the other fascinating thing about the show. People come onto the show to tell their stories, sometimes stories they haven't ever told anyone before - it may be the most important story in their life, or just an amusing anecdote about something that happened one day at work. And there is an openness, an honesty, an intimacy to the show that is powerful. People talk about their struggles with people, with life, with the government, with God. Every facet of life gets explored in the show, not in some overarching discover-the-meaning-of-life way, but just in the experiences of individuals. Our doubts, our uncertainties, our fears, joys, and hopes, all the wealth of human experience voiced by people who have experienced it.

One of the most surprising elements of the show is the discovery that there is a story behind everything we do. In one intriguing episode, "Classifieds", they pick the classified sections from two newspapers for one day, and compile an entire episode just from the stories told. A man whose big plans are dashed after his dog is stolen. A group of people all looking for a band are brought together for one day to record a single song. Two people hunt unsuccessfully for a job. Ads in the Personals section reveal heartache and regret. Objects for sale reveal surprising stories both about the seller (who they are, how they acquired the object, why they are now selling the object) and the purchaser (what circumstances have brought them to need that object).

The show is anchored by show creator and host Ira Glass. An interesting character, Ira - how can I put this - doesn't really have the kind of voice that seems immediately suited to radio. It's not a bad or unpleasant voice, it's just the voice of an ordinary person, sort of nasal, not the type of voice you would expect for a medium that relies entirely on voice for expression. But that just contributes to the show's charm - it's not a perfect radio voice, but then this show is about people, about life, and these never are perfect. What Ira is is friendly and intelligent, inviting and personal. And that's a rare quality in broadcasting these days - giving a sense that that the person speaking into a microphone thousands of miles away is speaking directly to you. And that's a good thing, because in a show so wildly varying and surprising, it's important that there be a strong anchor, someone that you want to spend your time with.

I guess my main point of this post is to say, Listen to the show. I doubt many people reading this will have even heard of the show, let alone listened to it. And that is a shame, because it is honestly a brilliant programme, and one I look forward to listening to, not just that week's episode, but all exploring the backlog of past programmes. And the great thing is, with over 350 hour-long radio episodes, and more being made, (as well as the new season of the TV series,) I'm going to be listening to this show for years. And I can't wait.

* And, for the record - while I am a fan of The O.C. (or, at least, of the first and fourth seasons of The O.C.), I don't have anything near the knowledge of the show to be able to remember a one-off reference to This American Life in an episode I saw long before ever hearing the radio show. One of the first episodes I listened to on discovering the show's website was called "What I Learned from Television" (an episode that happens to be being repeated this week) just because, as a TV fan, I was intrigued by the show title. In that episode, Ira actually played that dialogue and talked about the experience of his show being referred to on a show he himself enjoyed. It was that episode that alerted me to the existance of this dialogue, and it seemed a perfect way to introduce this post, in part because it is such a perfect summary of the show. Ordinary people are fascinating - that's pretty much the whole point of the show.

To conclude this post, here's a piece of animation (from the new TV series) of a very funny and illuminating story that was originally broadcast in the "Reruns" episode - which coincidentally I was listening to literally last week. The animation was posted on the This American Life website. Hope you enjoy it.

08 May, 2008

This is the single greatest invention ever

So here's the thing.

I’m looking at the New York Times website, and I see this article about a cool new pen that has been invented.

If I understand it correctly, it’s a perfectly functional ballpoint pen. You can use it to write on any piece of paper you find. But it only becomes cool if you use special paper that has millions of almost-invisible microdots printed on each sheet. Because, in addition to writing on these sheets of paper like any other writing device, the pen also used the microdots to track the pen’s movement, so that it is able to actually download the handwritten information onto the computer and have handwriting recognition. Plus, you can apparently then do a normal CTRL+F search to find a particular word in your handwritten notes.

It will also record audio as you write – so you can find a particular point or word in your handwritten notes, tap the word on the page, and the pen will play the audio from the time that the words were written – very handy for notes from meetings or presentation, since you can go back and listen to exactly what was said. And you can still record audio if you don’t have any paper handy.

But the thing that pushed this device from “that could be handy” to “this is the single greatest thing ever”? The pen apparently comes with a number of sample programs, including “a music program that prompts you to draw a one-octave piano keyboard, which you can then play by tapping”.

It looks like there are quite a few problems with the pen from the review, but all of these are countered by the fact that you can draw a keyboard by hand and then play it. I can't think of anything cooler than that.

06 May, 2008

The Proclaimers walked 1000 miles, dammit!

So here's the thing.

The office is having a quiz night this coming Thursday. (In my six person team, we have pretty much the entire management of the office, right up to the very top, so that’s a daunting prospect. Must do really well.)

But one of the things I find really intriguing is the way this type of thing has really brought out the competitive nature in people. There’s still two days to go before the actual event, and already the rumours are flying. The chief rumour is that the section of the office that I work in is supposedly conspiring to dominate the quiz. This, so far as I know, is completely unfounded. There is no conspiracy to dominate, and any degree to which we may dominate proceedings on the night would be due solely to sheer force of numbers – the section that I work in is the largest, and so if we do happen to dominate it would just be because we have more people entered.

But these rumours are amplified by something that happened yesterday. Since late last year, a group of us have been getting together in my office each week, depending on whether workloads allow, and doing the Five Minute Quizzes that are published each day in the paper – we collect them up during the week, so by the end of the week we have 50-odd questions and can take a good half an hour to go through them. It’s a nice social time and one of the highlights of the week for me. But yesterday, someone from IT happened to come up here while we were doing the quiz, and heard us going through the questions. They then went straight downstairs and reported to IT that we were (horror of horrors!) practicing for quiz night. Never mind that we’ve been doing this for half a year. And that everyone in our quiz group is on a different team. The rumour of the “practicing” team seems to have galvanised the office. Suddenly I’m hearing stories about people instructing their spouses to go home over lunch and practice using the Five Minute Quiz, people apparently trying to find practice quizzes on the internet, all to try and counteract us. And it’s insane. I though this whole quiz night was supposed to be fun, bringing the different sections of the office together, but instead everyone gets competitive and determined to prove just which section is the best. Mark my words, by the time this quiz night has finished, there will be blood. The office is developing into a kill-or-be-killed, dog-eat-dog environment, and I will take down anyone that tries to beat me. I will not be defeated.

04 May, 2008

Well, that was weird

So here's the thing.

I'm at the movies today, watching I Have Never Forgotten You (an excellent documentary about Simon Wiesenthal - strongly recommended if you get a chance to see it).

Anyway, I'm at the Paramount, and the film is showing in the main theatre - not one of the small 30-seat cinemas out the back, but the main theater that seats however many hundred people. And there are, I think, about 3 or 4 people in the cinema (I didn't actually check the exact number, because the trailers were already playing when I went in, so I just went straight to a seat). Basically, my point is that the cinema was essentially empty.

After the film is has been running for about an hour, a group of three people walked in to the cinema. Now, I checked the time on my watch, just out of curiosity. The time was just after 3.45pm. The film started at 2.50pm. What are they doing coming in at that time? I did ponder whether or not they were actually going to a film in one of the small screens, and didn't realise the film wasn't on the main screen. Except I checked, and the nearest film wasn't starting until 4.05pm. Twenty minutes later. And it was No Country For Old Men, which is quite recognisably not a documentary about a holocaust-surviving Nazi-hunter. So if they were in the wrong cinema, they would have quickly realised this. But instead, they stayed for ten minutes - longer than necessary for them to realise they were in the wrong screening, but not long enough if they had snuck in to fill in time before NCFOM started.

Now, I wouldn't have noticed them coming in, being so focused on the film and all. Except that they sat in my row. When you remember that the cinema was empty, it quickly becomes clear that sitting in my row, rather than one of the many completely empty rows behind or in front of me, is a complete failure to observe common cinema etiquette. At least they had the basic courtesy to leave a one-seat gap between me and them, but still, it was appalling behaviour.

But most mysterious about these people - they were eating scoop ice creams. And when the film ended and I stood up to leave, I noticed that the person nearest me had eaten the ice cream, and not eaten the cone. Which would be fine, if it wasn't for the fact that it was a waffle cone. Really, who doesn't eat a waffle cone? What kind of weirdos were these people?

02 May, 2008

At least it’s not National Baked Beans Week

So here’s the thing.

I get a press release in my email today from Heinz Wattie’s. The press release starts:

Mark 16 - 22 June for this year's Wattie's National Soup Week and take some time out for yourself to have some great-tasting bowls of soup. Enjoy the benefits of goodness in a bowl and make the most of this winter celebration.

Now, I’ve always wondered, whenever you hear that this week is National Whatever Week, or Month, or Year, who on earth actually makes this decision. And apparently there is no authority. Anyone can declare any time to be a National Week, not matter how self-serving and idiotic the cause is. I mean, is there a general lack of awareness about soup? Do people forget that soup exists? Still, it’s nice that Wattie’s want to do something nice for people.

Soup is all about warming comfort and this year Wattie's want people to do something very special for themselves as we enter mid-winter. To give people a reason to take time out, Wattie's Very Special® microwave soups will be featured in giveaways and sampling across the country.

So, basically, they’re giving away free samples of soup. Pretty much exactly the same as the free samples of shampoo, coffee, lozenges, that are given for purely promotional reasons. Except they’re justifying it by calling it National Soup Week.

Also, soup is “all about warming comfort”? Does anyone know what that even means?

And, in a very special opportunity, members of the Food in a Minute® website will be eligible to enter their own soup creation, one of which will be selected and promoted on-air, online and on thousands of recipe pads in spring 2008. If you haven't already, sign up to Food In A Minute to be notified of when entries open. Visit www.foodinaminute.co.nz to join.

Is that all that they’re doing for National Soup Week? Giving away a few free soup samples and holding a competition for soup recipes? Couldn’t they find a few more things to do to mark this all important week. Say, hold a debate to resolve the eternal question about whether soup is food or drink? Couldn’t they ... well, I have no other ideas, but surely their creative promotional people can think of something.

So I’m reading this press release, thinking how stupid all this is. And Wattie’s were clearly aware that this is all dumb, so they immediately try to make me feel guilty about dismissing all this.

In an effort to make sure even more people get to enjoy the goodness of soup, Wattie's is working with the City Mission to set up soup kitchens at the Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch City Missions during National Soup Week.

Now, I don’t have a problem with generosity and giving to the needy, and I certainly don’t want to criticise people for not giving enough (since I definitely don’t give as much as I should). But really, why only give soup to the missions for National Soup Week? Why not at other weeks during the year? I especially love that they described this measure as being about ensuring “even more people get to enjoy the goodness of soup”. It’s not about feeding people so they don’t starve to death, its about reminding the unfortunate how much they enjoy soup, so that they can miss it all the more when it is cruelly taken away from them in the other 51 weeks of the year.

The other thing I found fascinating was when I came across this different press release. Apparently this is the sixth annual Wattie’s National Soup Week. Think about that. There have been six National Soup Weeks. I didn’t think we even needed one, let alone six.

In fact, that second press release is worth reading itself. In addition to the shocking revelations that soup is New Zealand’s favourite winter food (and is most popular with flatters), and that soup is easier to prepare than other popular winter foods like roasts and casseroles, there are some shocking revelations (11 percent of people say that “making soup” is their favourite winter activity!). The press release also has a completely random section of helpful tips about how to laugh in the winter months from clinical psychologist and “registered laugh doctor” Malcolm Robertson. Did you know that a good way to laugh during winter is to “Hang out with people who laugh”? Me neither.

Do you know, I haven’t had soup in quite a while. I miss soup. I might have some soup for dinner tonight.

01 May, 2008

The greatest piece of writing ever

So here's the thing:

I'm watching The Daily Show tonight, and the interview was with someone called Robert Schlesinger, who has just written a book called White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. Given the sub-title of the book, it's unsurprising to learn that its about the way various presidents over history have used speechwriters to craft and communicate their message. And it seemed like it could actually be an interesting book. I'd like to read it.

Anyway, my reason for writing a post about this was that, at one point in the episode, Jon Stewart read a brilliant piece of media criticism. This was written by H. L. Mencken, published in The Baltimore Evening Sun, regarding President Warren G. Harding's inaugural address in 1921.

"He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Wow. There is a lyricism, an elegance, a beauty to that writing. The underpinning intelligence of Mencken just shines through every word, every phrase. Damn, that is brilliant. If I was feeling insecure about writing my blog before, wondering whether I am making a fool of myself, it's amplified ten-fold now. Because everything I attempt to write pales when compared to "the dark abysm of pish" and "the topmost pinnacle of posh".

Anyway, I just wanted to share that quote with you, just because it was so great. (The interview itself was also really good, and worth watching.)