Wednesday, 3 March 2010

I've gone and left you all alone...

It's been a while since I last posted anything here... Which pretty much means this site is dead, I'm afraid.

I've now set up shop with my own domain - - so please drop by and see what I have to offer. At some point, I'll start up another blog there. Watch that space, if you please!

Sunday, 14 December 2008

This is a rant about why I stopped enjoying going to the cinema

Yesterday, we went to the cinema to see the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still. It was, predictably, awful.

I like blockbuster films. I also like smaller budget films, and contrary to popular belief I even occasionally enjoy art house and indie films. But the price of going to the cinema has risen high enough for me now that I’ve had to limit my visits to see films that meet one very specific criteria:

Will watching this film on a big screen with large speakers improve it or not?

I don’t just pay to see a film with money. I now have to pay in time and brain space.

When a film starts at, say, 21:25, I now know it’ll be nearly ten o’clock before the opening credits roll past me. Film trailers I can deal with; they at least relate to the activity I’m participating in. But TV ads? I didn’t come here to sit through twenty minutes of car and DFS advertising. I don’t have to sit through that much advertising in one go at, where my TV is shown more or less for free.

Then the film starts, and I’m barraged with blatant spots for McDonalds and Windows Vista. This is nothing new; we’re used to this now. Iron Man went crazy on product placement, and still managed to be a worthwhile film. But it smarts when the rest of the film feels lazily put together. I, Robot is another classic example of this.

And the films do feel lazily put together. The climax of The Day The Earth Stood Still involves robot flies. Tanks get thrown around. Things explode. Problem is, I’ve already seen this in a million other films. It’s boring.

What is it about Hollywood that enables its inhabitants to take the recipe for cinema gold and turn it into lead? The Day The Earth Stood Still, based on the 1951 B-movie, has a reasonably chilling plot that was rather deftly updated to move it away from the original ‘50s nuclear paranoia into the more topical environmental theme prevalent today. The lead star – a typically deadpan Keanu Reeves – is perfectly cast as the alien protagonist. So what went wrong?

Well, a number of things, as it turns out. Surprisingly in a film that also involves Kathy Bates and the bland-but-talented Jennifer Connolly, Keanu Reeves out-acts the entirety of the rest of the cast by doing nothing more than staring into the middle distance and speaking monosyllabically*. Bates is particularly appalling as the secretary of defence. Uncertain whether to commit to being a sinister politician or a human bureaucrat, her character swings wildly from one perspective to the other.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily Bates’ fault. The director and screenwriter share much of the blame. The editing of the film is as staccato as the dialogue, which fails entirely to create any interesting or sympathetic characters. It even has a 'cute' child in it, who spends three quarters of the story being a little shit and who we are then expected to sympathise with towards the end. I wanted him to get eaten by the robot flies, the horrifying little snot.

The story – which, as I mention above, could have been easily converted into a great piece of modern science fiction – falls apart every time a character opens their mouth. Plot-holes abound like ring donuts in a police station, and it veers – like Bates’ character – between an indictment of corporate greed, a twee sub-par family drama and a quasi-religious morality tale, stopping occasionally to show us yet another shot of another city in peril from frightened looters.

Ah, yes: the montage of international locations. It’s how Hollywood lets us know they’re interested in the money of people from other countries: set the film in New York or Los Angeles, and then show landmarks from other cities that Americans will recognise as being from International and that people from International will be able to get excited about during the marketing campaign.

Because that’s how we make science fiction, isn’t it? If you find yourself with some free time, count how many times Big Ben has been featured in an American film since Independence Day. We’ve got to be in double figures by now. It’s an obviously British landmark that requires no effort for the scriptwriter.

These landmarks are now an intrinsic part of the sci-fi blockbuster formula, but they are by no means the worst part of that formula. No: that claim belongs to aforementioned marketing promotions and product placement that I have to sit through during my cinema experience. I sat through this film without even a flicker of enjoyment.

I mentioned Iron Man, another film that blew things up. The last third notwithstanding, Iron Man is exciting and witty and fun. The Day The Earth Stood Still is none of these things. Instead, it is a tragic disappointment: a good idea done bad. Worse than that, it’s an example of how cynical Hollywood is towards the consumers. We’re plagued by these films now; idiotic visions of alien attacks that we will defeat by being good and brave and American and by – most importantly – owning Audis.

* Interestingly, during a scene in which Reeves talks in Mandarin to an alien in a Chinese body, my Chinese-native girlfriend was able to understand Reeve’s (heavily accented) speech, but needed the English subtitles to understand his Chinese counterpart’s lines.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

My english is declining at very much rate of rapid

I've written enough this month already, so I'll say this with an image:

Word count = 50,151

In other news, Carnival issue #1 is nearing completion. I have eight out of eight pages, and am waiting only on a cover and a website. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Luke, I am your… wait, what?

I won’t go into details about how I found this out, but apparently the word ‘Vader’ comes from the Dutch word for ‘father’.

George Lucas has been telling us for years that he had all six films in mind when he was making the original Star Wars, but there are two further repercussions of such a fact:

1) Emperor Palpatine names Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith. What were the other options? “I name you… Darth Third-Cousin. No, wait, Sister. Mother. Brother. God damn it, Daddy-O.”

2) Dutch viewers knew the big twist in Empire Strikes Back all along. And they said nothing. The grand reveal must have been a huge let-down for them.

Also, ‘Darth’ probably means ‘dark’.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Falling far from the tree: the story of a switcher

MacBook Pro

I dislike Apple. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I hated Apple – ‘hate’ is a very strong word – but as a company they have always struck me as arrogant and anthropomorphically stuck up their own collective arse. A bit like the Guardian newspaper, with the downside that Apple products cost more and the upside that Polly Toynbee doesn’t come free with every purchase.

That said, they do make fine laptops.

Judging by the lingo used on Mac forums, I am a ‘switcher’: a convert from the perceived evil of Microsoft Windows to the greater good of OS X. There is a traditional route that ‘switchers’ take, which largely involves trying to make their Mac work like a PC, and then realising how wrong they were and letting the Leopard do its own thing. In fact, what I think happens is that ‘switchers’ just give up trying to get OS X to work like Windows.

Part 1: I own a Mac

Specifically, I was given an Apple MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB of internal RAM, a 15-inch screen and OS X Tiger. For the non-geeks out there, this is the laptop equivalent of an African famine victim being given a locked box full of doughnuts: it’s fucking awesome, as long as they can figure out how to get inside.

I decided to do some background reading. Turns out that, as far as MacBooks go, mine is pretty good. I wanted to see what it could do.


Part 2: Apple lies – Macs are not for pleasure

Tommy Tallerico, at the recent Video Games Live concert in London, got the crowd to hold up mobile phones, PSPs and DSs instead of lighters. One person held up a laptop, and Tommy asked what type of laptop it was.

“It’s a Mac,” came the reply.

“Good choice,” Tommy yelled back, “You ain’t playing any games on that.”

For a product that markets itself on being able to do cool things like make pictures and music and whatnot, Macs are curiously game-less. Sure, games exist, but they’re not exactly in abundance. For £40, you can buy a port of Civilization IV – an excellent game, but you can buy it on PC for £10 with both expansion packs.

Spore, my most recent purchase for my old laptop, plays on both a Mac and PC. However, it won’t work on OS X Tiger. It wants Leopard, the relatively new operating system.

So I visited the Apple store.

Part 3: The plastic population

The Apple store on Regent Street, London, is huge. Spread over two floors, it sells basically everything Apple makes, plus everything – pretty much – that’ll run on a Mac. Despite this, the average Game store, which you could fit into the lecture stand at the back, probably holds more stock.

No one looks happy in an Apple store. They stare at the merchandise like mechanised zombies while orange T-shirted youths with less hair than the average leukaemia ward slouch about looking superior. These are the people that are so eco-friendly that when they lose a family member they phone the council to have the corpse recycled.

On the plus side, a copy of OS X costs £85: less than a legal home edition of Windows XP. Not that anyone has ever actually bought a copy of XP. Ever.

OS X LeopardPart 4: Fuck me, did that actually work?

I don’t remember installing Leopard. I don’t remember installing much on the Mac. I’m not telling you this to get out of explaining the process. I’m telling you this because there is no process. Generally, you click an icon, then drag it to the appropriate Applications folder. Sometimes it’ll ask you a few questions. In the case of Leopard, I think it took 30 minutes and then restarted the Mac.

By way of contrast, the average PC program – games in particular – require you to submit to a Mensa-worthy intelligence test, figuring out drivers and graphics or sound options and whatnot. They try to install themselves into obscure places on your hard disk. Frequently, they don’t work until the second install.

So the first time I installed something on the Mac, it was so fast that I thought it hadn’t worked. It took me half an hour to realise that my program – ironically, Microsoft Word for Mac – worked just dandy.

Spore worked once Leopard was installed. For some reason, I still had to meddle with the graphics settings. It was the first – and so far only – Mac program that didn’t everything automatically.

Part 5: Big cats

Leopard is a neat piece of work. For a start, the default background is a space scene. I liked it so much that I nearly kept it on my desktop. In the end, via a brief stint with the eye of HAL 9000, I settled on a view of the Earth from space. Basically, Leopard’s first impression was a good one.

Two things in particular impress me about OS X. One: the search function – called Spotlight – is incredible. No one uses the search functionality of Windows, because it invariably takes ages and finds nothing. Spotlight goes through every hard disk plugged into the laptop – reads every document, the works – and gives you every result in less than five seconds.

Time Machine

Two: the back up system in Leopard, called Time Machine, is beautiful. It’s functional too, in that it backs up your hard disk every hour and doesn’t require you to stop working at the same time, but it just looks gorgeous. It swoops onto your desktop like a pterodactyl catching a fish. Honestly, it’s more fun than some games I’ve played.

Part 6: Back through the looking glass

Leopard was wonderful for many reasons, but it lacks a certain level of functionality that I absolutely need from a computer. Firstly, the games – as I’ve already said – are rare at best. Secondly, Creative – the company who built my MP3 player – are so shit-scared of competing with iPods that they won’t release any software to make their products work on a Mac.

I needed Windows. Thankfully, Leopard comes with a program called Bootcamp, which divides your hard disk in two and lets you install Windows on one half. This process is more difficult than it sounds. Bootcamp is easy enough – just make sure that you read the instructions and don’t have any programs open when you run it – but try and find a copy of Windows XP (a program no longer supported by Microsoft) for less than £100. Even an only-technically-legal OEM copy costs £40 on eBay.

Thankfully, my dad is anally-retentive enough to keep every CD that comes his way, and had no less than three copies of XP. One of them worked fine, and the Leopard CD is smart enough to install all of the relevant drivers to the Mac. So I installed the Creative software and Dawn of War and…

Part 7: I made a PC out of an Apple MacBook Pro

…wait. I got a Mac and installed Windows? Yeah, but you have to if you ever want to play more than a handful of games. It’s sad, because the Mac is a good-looking, well-built machine with more horsepower than it knows what to do with. Spore proves that it will run games, and run them well. But no one seems to want to play them enough for the games developers to take any notice.

Part of this, I suspect, is the price of the average Mac. My MacBook Pro, when new, was worth in the region of £1,300. I would never have been able to buy one on my own; hell, you could buy four games-worthy PC laptops for that money. I would guess most people who can afford this exorbitant price either don’t have the time for games or don’t want to turn their purchase into a games machine, which is a pity because you can have a games machine that does practical things as well. The irony is, of course, that entertainment devices such as the iPod (and its DRM-happy backend, iTunes) have done more to sell Macs than any Mac-specific tools.

That said, I like the Mac. It’s quick, and its reluctance to let me play around at the back end of some of the more technical jobs is made up by the fact everything tends to work first time. I may still hate the company Jobs built, but I will confess that I like the things they make.

The human potential for laughing inappropriately at exactly the right moment

After the earthquakes a few months ago in Chengdu, a group of Russians were working with local Chinese emergency services as volunteers to dig for survivors. One survivor, when he was found, saw the green eyes of his rescuer and reportedly said:

"Ta ma de, zhe dizhen zhen xiong, ba wo zhen dao wai guo lai le!"

Apropos of very little, but it made me smile. Thanks to Yu for the story. 

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Breaking the faces of friends

Lei and Xiaoyu

I am a Tekken god. 

Seriously, challenge me. I dare you. I would put money on most people not being able to beat me at the game. Give me Devil Jin, Lee or Baek, and you're only laying a single punch on me before I floor you. Let me choose Xiaoyu, and you won't even get that punch. 

Tekken is a visceral game. It's so violent that it's poetic in form; a brutal and elegant shit-storm of a fighter that – to me – faceplants its competition into the mud and then puts in a final boot. I hate the choppiness of Street Fighter 2; it's easier to learn an actual martial art than play Virtua Fighter; Soul Caliber is just too serious about itself; Dead Or Alive and Mortal Kombat are frankly jokes. 

I first played Tekken during its second incarnation, back in 1998 – ten years ago. It was on a flatmate's PlayStation, and I was awful. I only played a couple of games, and then went back to Zelda on the N64. The following year, however, I started hanging out with a guy called Chris.

Chris was good at Tekken 3. Unlike me, he owned a PlayStation and had been playing the game since number two, and knew what the buttons did. Being a bit of a gamer, and having an aptitude for fighters, he had become something of an expert, and pummelled me into the distance. Which, with the infinitely big stages of Tekken 3, was a long, long way away. 

Ordinarily, that would have been it. Normally, I get bored with things I'm obviously bad at very quickly, which just makes it all the more surprising that I've stuck with my current job. However, with Chris, I had a conundrum. I was spending a lot of time at his flat, and we were both video game fans, and we needed a game to play together. 

After watching him play Final Fantasy VIII, action was needed. I went and bought a PlayStation of my own, and – unbeknownst to Chris – picked up a copy of Tekken 3. Then, after a few late nights learning a quick, tricksy little Chinese fighter called Xiaoyu, I went and whomped him. 

Whomped him. 

I remember Chris being speechless. Never in the ten years that I've known him have I seen him so incapable of uttering a single word. We fought a number of times that day, and he barely laid a finger on me. I was on fire. 

Not literally, obviously.

Of course, the next time we met, the battlefield had been levelled. He picked his own character to play with: Lei, a Jackie Chan-a-like. We both knew how to play the other characters, but we always came back to Xiaoyu versus Lei. Eventually, we had to turn off the game timer, as rounds could go on for four or five minutes at a time. 'Epic' wasn't the word. Half the time, neither of us would even try to hit the other for the first minute. We knew each other so well, we could actually predict each other's opening gambits. When we finally figured out reversals, we could win a fight without throwing a single punch. 

These days, we don't play Tekken very often. Sometimes, one of us will be in a room with other friends, and sometimes we'll play Tekken against them. We play and talk, only one eye on the TV. We'll usually win, but there's something missing against other people. 

Yet, every so often, when the moon is right and the mermaids are swimming, we'll break out the latest version of the game. At those times, nothing can tear our eyes off the telly. At those moments, Tekken is more than a game, it's a conversation carrying more information than mere words. It's a bond between two friends who – through the game – know each others' mood and state of mind. People watching us have accused us of taking the game too seriously, but we have to be, because the moment we let our guards down the other will break through and win. 

Chris and I have often joked that we're friends only because we've got so much blackmail material on each other that we could never be enemies. We've known each other for ten years this month, and for nine of those years we've had Tekken to translate our Big Conversations into a secret language. Happy anniversary to us. 

Postscript: Chris and I played Tekken 5 tonight, which was the impetus for this article. I beat him 8-6, but it was a close call. Even without any practice, we fucking rule.