Monday, 31 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #52

It's kind of fitting that the last PotW of the year is another late one; at least it's in the right year. I'm staying with the theme of "my sister puts up far too many decorations", but at least they're tasteful. This particular decoration is on the kissing bough hanging up at just the right height for me to smack my head on it every time I walk past. We've had several adventures with these in recent years, especially as I've slept in the same room in which they hang. Many's the time that I've looked up and wondered whether I'd be able to get out of the way if this heavy ball of holly and ivy decided to plummet towards my head.

Luckily, though, that's yet to happen, so I've taken the opportunity to go Christmassy again. We may have as long as possible to go until next Christmas, and I may therefore be about to re-enter Grinch mode. So I think I'll make the most of it. Have a great New Year's Eve, people - see you tomorrow for a review of the year.

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Monday, 24 December 2007

Best if he tells it in his own words.

68Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Luke 1:68-79 (NIV-UK)

Merry Christmas.

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Sunday, 23 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #51

I know this picture's not very festive, but I have an annoying tendency to forget my camera every time I'm going off to do something Christmassy. Luckily, I think this should at least fall under the "interesting" category.

These four photos are all of the same table. The table in question is in the waiting room at my local train station, which is where I was yesterday on my way back to Oxford for the day. First up, it's a weird place to put it. There's no apparent reason why there should be a table in the waiting room - there's nothing on the table, and no chairs around it. It seems to be just taking up space. Secondly, although I'm no judge of these things it looks practically antique, and leaving it among the commuters seems like a poor idea, to say the least.

The other strange thing about this table (and I hope you can see this - the picture quality's not great, thanks to my having to use my phone's camera) is that it is absolutely covered in graffiti (see my earlier thoughts on this subject here). The cheap-looking yellowy gold paint has been systematically scraped away, regardless of the security camera that was up in one of the room's corners. Whether this indicates that the locals are psychotically aggressive towards tables or simply very, very bored is a question I'm not going to try to address, but I do think it's interesting to see what people have thought worthy of note.

People's names figure prominently - "Andre" and "Luke" both wanted everyone to know that they'd been there - but there are also celebrity names ("Bowie"), words that bored travellers had seen on their packet of sweets ("Trebor"), or just insults without any context (one of the heaviest-carved words is "slut"). The whole table is practically a work of art now. It records what was on the minds of the people waiting for their trains, who they were, and in some cases their state of mind at the time.

More generally, it's testament to the fact that no-one cares whether it's covered in graffiti. To that extent, it's a sign of mindless destructive tendencies running completely unchecked - but at the same time, the fact that no-one's gone further than simply scraping the paint indicates that there are semi-official acceptable and unacceptable levels of vandalism.

To the people who have "edited" it, it was nothing more than a way to pass the time. Now, though, it's a social document. Not bad for a cheap piece of woodwork.

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Friday, 21 December 2007

Today, a simple blog post. Tomorrow, THE WORLD!

There's been something of a glut of superhero movies over the past few years. On the whole, this has been a bad thing - comic books thrive on having short, simply-told stories in each issue, which makes it a bit difficult to both introduce the character and tell that story in the same film. (This is, incidentally, why sequels to superhero films can be better than the original. I found X-Men 3 to be much more fun than the original movie, largely because we didn't have to be walked through the interminable backstories of what felt like fifty different characters individually.)

One of the good things about superhero films is that they generally have the I-want-to-be-them factor. All it takes is for one character to have an incredibly cool ability, and suddenly the film has an effect way beyond its running time, as the audience gets to imagine what they would do with that ability. The film producers are almost certainly aware of this (it's the key to selling vast quantities of merchandise), but this doesn't explain why they always give certain types of power to certain roles in the film. There are some pretty subtle reasons for this - I'll go through them one by one.

(By the way, I'm aware that most of these creative decisions are actually made by the writer of the original comic book. I'm focusing on the films because my experience of comic books is precisely zero.)

Super-Strength/Apparent Invulnerability (Good/Evil)
Possibly the simplest type of power, this can be possessed by either heroes or villains. The difference between them lies in the way in which the power was obtained. Heroes have intrinsic strength - either they were simply born with it (Superman), or they got it accidentally (The Incredible Hulk, or Spiderman - he gets increased strength as a side-effect of his other powers). Either way, they're taking control of a power over which they had no control in the process of getting it. Villains, on the other hand, generally become super-strong through deliberate mechanical or chemical means. Bane from the Batman series is completely off his face on the Venom drug, for example; Mr Hyde (yes, this counts - see the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is another result of a chemical, while Doc Ock (from Spiderman) uses mechanical arms.

I think the reason for this difference is to equate "naturalness" with goodness. Bizarre though Spiderman's abilities are, the fact that he didn't deliberately obtain them is contrasted with villains who are constantly trying to become better, faster, stronger than everyone else. This is quite a weird attitude, given the American Dream ethos that pervades the whole idea of comic book heroes. I think it may be trying to suggest that yes, the aim of improving yourself is paramount - but there are things that you do not do to get there.

Increased Intelligence (Evil)
Although some heroes are intelligent (Batman is a great detective), having abnormally good intelligence is universally a sign of evil, especially when mixed with insanity. Edward Nygma (The Riddler) becomes immensely clever by draining other people's brains into his own; Lex Luthor (from Superman) is a criminal megalomaniac whose machinations would just never work if he was thick as two short planks.

Many good characters, on the other hand, go right to the other end of the spectrum. Frankly, anyone who fails to realise Superman's identity after so many years' contact with Clark Kent must surely be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic (naming no names, Lois). Superman himself, although immensely fast, usually punches his way out of trouble or brings a bigger weapon to a fight rather than coming up with a more intelligent solution. This anti-intelligentsia attitude is quite strange coming from the US of its time (you'd expect it more from a Communist country) - but it does seem oddly prescient, given some of the attitudes around today. (See this post for some more hopeful recent news on this front.)

Insanely Stupid Powers (Good)
Villains may sometimes have daft gimmicks, but with a few exceptions it takes a hero to have an impressively stupid power. Cracked (warning: text not really safe for kids) says this far better than I could...

Invisible Pain (Evil)
Yeah, sure, heroes will sometimes beat villains into a bloody pulp, but they do it in a way that's entirely visible - probably some kind of back-handed way of saying that they're honest and wholesome, although I'm not sure the villains involved would see it that way. If you want real comic-book evil, look at any character who's capable of causing immense pain without any physical contact or outward signs. This one is surprisingly wide-ranging, actually. The main person-to-person attack from Independence Day's aliens? Terrible pain inside one's head as your brain is taken over. The most painful spell in the Harry Potter universe? The Cruciatus curse, which leaves no trace whatsoever. For that matter, the Avada Kedavra curse leaves its victims unmarked, too. Even Darth Vader, the ultimate in cool villains, was capable of Force-choking someone in a completely different room.

Yes, like that.

Flight (Good)
We'll skip over using mechanical means to fly here, as that's not really a superpower per se. Being able to just fly, without apparent aid, is almost entirely restricted to heroes. Superman's the obvious candidate, but there are more recent versions, too (Nathan Petrelli from Heroes, for example). Interestingly, characters who have the intrinsic means of flight because they have wings or flying magic aren't necessarily good; look at this Order of the Stick for an (admittedly non-movie) example. This may be another example of heroes being "natural" and wholesome - flight is undoubtedly an incredibly cool power, but it has to be from the right source.

Shapeshifting (Evil)
Not a very popular power, for some reason (I don't know why, I think it's awesome), shapeshifting is almost entirely the preserve of villains. Mystique from the X-Men is thoroughly evil, as is the T-1000 from Terminator 2 (a movie that isn't based on a comic book but looks exactly as if it was). This one is at least pretty easy to understand - heroes are supposed to stand up for truth and justice, neither of which can happen if you can't be sure of everyone's identity.

Telekinesis (Evil)
Now, this one I just don't get at all. Telekinesis is undoubtedly the power I'd choose if I could, and yet the vast majority of characters with it are evil. Magneto of X-Men fame effectively has this power, albeit only over metal, and is entirely devoted to taking over the world; even he pales into comparison to Sylar (Heroes) and Phoenix (also X-Men), both of whom are murderous psychopaths. Bizarrely, when we go outside the world of comic books this doesn't apply at all - the Force from the Star Wars series has a major telekinetic component, as do many Harry Potter spells. Even stranger, the mechanical form of this power (antigravity) is not only a staple of science fiction, it frequently pops up as a good or neutral element of comic books. Quite why an intrinsic power should be evil in this case, while a mechanical one is acceptable, is very unclear.

As it happens, I don't think I'm likely to end up with any of these powers any time soon. However, if I did, the world would have to watch out - as with film characters, the evil ones are just more interesting than the good ones. Now if you'll excuse me, I just have to take a few gold bars out of the Bank of England while looking like Elvis...

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Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #50

Yes, I know, this one's very late too. The reason for this is so unbelievable that I'm not even going to bother putting it on the Internet - suffice to say that I was planning to take a photo much like this last week anyway, so I reckon it'll do.

My family would probably be very quick to tell me that I'm rather Grinch-like when it comes to Christmas. I cannot stand Christmas movies, or Christmas specials of otherwise acceptable TV shows in which everyone ends up gathered around the Christmas tree looking misty-eyed. When I was living in Oxford last year, my house had absolutely nothing Christmassy about it. Contrast that with my sister's student house, which sported a tree and little lights everywhere, and large Lego toys scattered over the floor.

Unsurprisingly, it's also my sister who's decorated the tree this year. For the past few years she's been running the operation with ruthless efficiency, stringing popcorn chains instead of tinsel and allowing nothing within half a mile of the branches unless it's either a) red, b) gold or c) vaguely rustic-looking. To top it all off, there are currently slices of orange drying on the radiator, ready to add that extra fruity note to the decorations.

Much as I mock, though, I have to admit - it does look very good. My Grinchy exterior may just be melted by the time Christmas Day rolls around.

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Thursday, 13 December 2007

Male perfumes all smell of industrial alcohol mixed with old leather, for some reason. I'm not really tempted.

The Christmas season is approaching (some would say that it's been here for the past few weeks), and it's amazing how much changes to reflect that. Obviously shops start putting up expensive yet oddly tasteless displays, and the radio starts playing "All I Want For Christmas Is You" on endless repeat, but there are some other, more subtle effects.

(Incidentally, it was around this time of year in 2005 that Madonna began following me around. Seriously, "Hung Up" was playing in every single shop I went into when on a Christmas shopping expedition. It made a bad experience considerably worse.)

One of these effects can be seen in TV adverts. For most of the year, there's a decent spread of different types of adverts. There's plenty of cars, food, clothes and so on being constantly offered for our consideration, and even if they're not very good adverts they're usually at least comprehensible.

At Christmas, however, things suddenly change, as the perfume market goes into overdrive. Apparently, it's around now that the perfume companies start to realise that they don't stand a chance of recouping all their losses over the year (don't believe me? When was the last time you bought perfume because you wanted to buy it, rather than as a gift for someone else?) and immediately hire an ad agency to remind everyone that now would be the perfect time to send a loved one the subtle message that they don't smell so good. Result: endless perfume ads, filling every advert break until the audience screams "ENOUGH with the perfume! Try to sell me a car or something!"

Perfume ads wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that it's rather difficult to describe a smell through a purely audiovisual medium. This leads to some, shall we say, inventive messages being sent to the viewer. Unfortunately, they do leave themselves open to misinterpretation. For example...

Hugo Boss: XX and XY

Intended message: Our perfumes for men and women are very different. Sexily different.
Actual message: Wearing our perfume will cause you to have a slightly surreal boxing match with your partner.

Chanel No. 5

Intended message: Our perfume suggests wealth, fame...and love.
Actual message: Go and watch this non-existent film which is suspiciously similar to Moulin Rouge!

Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely

Intended message: A gentle and beautiful perfume by a gentle and beautiful woman.
Actual message: Check it out, this woman is rich, good looking and wearing beautiful clothes. You aren't. Sucks to be you, eh?

David Beckham's Instinct

Intended message: This perfume, like its creator, is strong, impulsive and natural.
Actual message: You knew that this man was reasonably talented and mind-bogglingly rich. But did you know that he was reasonably talented, mind-bogglingly rich and extremely pretentious?

Armani Code for women

Intended message: Men will be helplessly transfixed by your beauty if you wear this perfume.
Actual message: Do you ever feel like men only want you for your warmth, charm, intelligence and personality, rather than your body and your apparent extreme wealth? We can fix that easily!

Is there such a thing as an acceptable perfume ad? I reckon there is. We start by showing a reasonably attractive-looking person spraying a little onto their wrist, then sniffing gently. Then they look up, and say "Yeah, that smells nice. Kind of flowery."

I'd buy it.

None of the videos included here belong to me, so they're not included under my CC licence. I can't see the companies involved complaining about their adverts being seen by more people, though.

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Sunday, 9 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #49

The more observant among you may have noticed that this isn't your average view-out-the-back-of-the-house photo. That's right, there's a tractor there.

Oh, and a large fluorescent yellow helicopter. More specifically, the Essex Air Ambulance. We get helicopters overhead quite a bit (I can recognise a military Chinook by sound alone), but I think this is the only time I've seen one in the field, and it's certainly the first time I've seen the Air Ambulance. There's quite a few of these around the country, and I think they're an awesome idea. They're certainly well-used - the Essex one claims to be in use 3-5 times per day, and must have saved countless lives so far. If and when I eventually start earning a regular income, I'll certainly be contributing to their £105,000 per month operating costs.

Helicopters in general are very odd things, really. Aeroplanes are strange enough, but at least there's something vaguely understandable about the idea of making something go fast along so that it will also go up. I've been re-reading Conan Doyle's classic The Lost World recently, and can't help but wonder what someone unfamiliar with helicopters would think if they had been watching when the ambulance lifted itself gently off the grass the other day, spun on the spot and drifted off over the trees. Perhaps they'd have described it in the same kind of style that Conan Doyle uses to describe his protagonist Malone's first view of dinosaurs - a monstrous beast, the ferocious blades on its upper surface beating furiously as it struggles into the sky.

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Tuesday, 4 December 2007

All together now: Tooooooons. Games! EEEE-mail...

A brief word of warning: This post is going to be pretty much incomprehensible if you're unfamiliar with the source material that I'm talking about. Yes, more so than usual. Sorry.

Anyone who spends any more time than is absolutely necessary on the Internet is likely to have come across Homestar Runner at some point, even if just in passing. For a site without a vast amount in the way of content, and with zero advertising, this is pretty surprising. In fact, the entire site bucks the trend of almost everything else you'll find online - it hosts only Flash cartoons and games, all of which are created in-house, allows no user input whatsoever, and has retained the same basic design for years. Oh, and its creators make their living off it. Did I mention the complete lack of advertising?

So how does a firmly Web 1.0 site survive on a Web 2.0 internet? One possibility is that success simply begets success. HR has been running for over seven years now (for comparison, Google has been live for about eight), and consequently has a massive merchandise-purchasing fanbase. That kind of thing ends up being self-perpetuating. The other reason, and it's one that the site's fans would heartily agree with, is that the content is extremely good. Given the vast numbers of Flash cartoons floating around on the web, and their generally remarkably poor quality, it's refreshing to find a series full of well-animated and funny films and games.

The factor that I didn't mention just now is the characterisation. That's because the characters are undoubtedly the weirdest part of the site. Whether we're talking about nice-but-crushingly-dim Homestar, aloof and incomprehensible Pom Pom, or just plain disturbing SeƱor Cardgage, the HR universe is populated with people who make no sense whatsoever. That's partly because there's never been a formal character roster, with new faces being introduced as the story demands it.

You see that last sentence? The one with "story" in it? Yeah, that's where things get even more confusing. There is no story to the site as a whole. Of course there are storylines within each cartoon - usually, anyway - but there's never more than the most cursory of nods to continuity between them. Now add in the fact that the only ongoing series - Strong Bad's emails - runs at the same time as the one-off cartoons but is not related to them in any way. This leads to a huge back catalogue of minor characters, who appeared once for a specific gag and now get dragged out for an otherwise meaningless cameo every few episodes. Oh, and some of them (all the Cheat Commandos, for example) don't exist within the HR universe itself, but their own contexts are sometimes introduced to a completely different story.

Feeling lost yet? It gets worse.

As there are no humans in the cartoons (with some notable exceptions - we'll get back to them later), it would be tempting to assume that HR takes place in some kind of parallel universe, and all the weirdness is present because none of it is supposed to make sense in our context. The problem with that idea is that all the action very clearly takes place within our own world. The Strong Bad emails are real emails, sent in by fans of the site and used as raw material. Real-world people are referenced (Homestar does an impression of Ronald Reagan in one cartoon), US dollars are used for money, the internet is the same one that we know, and cars and buildings are recognisably from the human world. (With the possible exception of the King of Town's castle, but then the King is so incredibly weird he can get put into a separate category all by himself.)

Because of this duality, when humans started being introduced it produced a very strange vibe. In some cases, it was OK. The puppet videos, featuring Little Girl, were different enough to the usual content for it not to matter; similarly, the hair metal band Limozeen are so cartoonish anyway that they don't raise any hackles. It's Crack Stuntman who really sets my teeth on edge. Stuntman is supposed to be the voice actor for one of the Cheat Commandos, the show-within-a-show. Introducing a voice actor to a cartoon universe has some comedic promise, but the problem is that Stuntman apparently had to a) be a human, and b) interact with the usual cast. Suddenly the jarring strangeness of the HR universe became all too apparent - it couldn't be a colourful cartoonish alternate world if it actually was the world.

Once the idea that Strong Bad et al. exist within our world takes root, certain aspects of the characters begin to slip out of joint. Take Strong Bad's way of escaping his current life, for example. When a fan asks him whether the country of Strong Badia has a space programme, Strong Bad makes one up on the spot, creating a spaceship out of cardboard boxes and a CD player with "woosh" sound effects. Within the assumption that Strong Badia is in an entirely fictional universe, this is just pleasantly silly, but as soon as we realise that it's in our world, it becomes a child's fantasy in a world devoid of children. Strong Bad becomes either delusional or just child-like, which then jars with his generally adult-like behaviour in other areas.

Horrific though it may be for Strong Bad, the situation is considerably worse for some of the other characters. Coach Z, whose entire personality is based on his lack of any social skills or real friends, changes from a slightly pathetic comic relief character straight into a desperately lonely and depressed person. Strong Sad, supposed to be filling the "punchbag" role, suddenly seems extremely vulnerable when faced with his violent and psychopathic brothers. Marzipan (who has a great name) now seems to be trapped in a relationship with someone so recklessly stupid that he is a danger to himself and others. The list goes on, and even applies to the characters corporately as well as individually. For example, whenever a theatre of any kind is required by the storyline, the action moves to a deserted high school auditorium. Why it's deserted, who the usual students are, and why the characters are bothering to put on a show when there is no audience are all very worrying problems once we see HR in the context of our world.

In the end, does it matter? Not a huge amount. The cartoons are still funny, and frequently manage to either effectively satirise elements of popular culture or simply incorporate them into a silly story. I do think, though, that the site's owners are treading a fine line. If you haven't understood a word of this post, now imagine trying to understand the cartoons themselves; it takes a huge investment of time on the part of the viewer to get up to speed with the site's concept, and anyone who overthinks it is likely to, as I have, see the cracks in the stories and the worrying elements behind them. The creators are risking alienating new viewers, and in the process risking the next generation of merchandise-buyers.

For now, though, I'm just going to enjoy Strong Bad relentlessly mocking his viewers every week. Because really, is there any more to comedy than that?

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Sunday, 2 December 2007

Picture of the Week: #48

As you may be able to tell from the large ship-like object in the background, this photo was taken by the sea. In Harwich, to be precise, one of the busiest container ports in the UK. The large, whale-tail-like object in the foreground is something that I didn't expect to see in such a modern trade centre; it's the end of an anchor, concreted into the ground at the seafront, right next to an old lighthouse (behind me when I took the photo).

Whenever something new and exciting comes along, there's a tendency to pay so much attention to that new thing that anything before it gets forgotten. This frequently leads to history repeating itself; no-one apparently learnt from Vietnam that it's a bad idea to pour troops into a situation from which there's no obvious exit, for example.

With that in mind, I really like the way that the people of Harwich have had the good sense to put something as simple and as important as an anchor in their midst, as a monument to the past; it's within sight of the vast Chinese container ships and the towering cranes, constantly yet quietly reminding everyone there that this is where it all came from. And, perhaps one day, all that will be left.

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Saturday, 1 December 2007

Next stop, Vegas...or maybe not.

I've recently been introduced to Gpokr (a very Web 2.0 site, complete with diagonal stripes, lower case titles and a marked aversion to including all necessary vowels), which is essentially an online poker site. Now, I know that online poker is immensely addictive, destructive and illegal in a number of places. Happily, though, Gpokr doesn't use real money.

Although you might think that this takes away some of the atmosphere, I'm not sure there was very much to get rid of in the first place. Poker is the type of game that should really be played either in smoke-filled seedy bars, against people called "The Kid" or "Slow-Eye Johnson", or in exclusive Monte Carlo casinos against James Bond. Call me a purist if you like, but I don't really think you get the same feeling from clicking the "raise" button to put a .gif image of some chips onto a green oval. It's a similar story with the names of the players - I'm just not intimidated by someone called "xxxbiggCHIPwinnrxxx".

Not having real money does change one thing, of course - no-one really cares if they lose. It's not remotely unusual to see people going all-in on their first hand at a table and losing the lot, then suddenly and mysteriously appearing back at the same table with another $1,500 and doing it all over again. Having unlimited chip refills is probably mainly to blame, although the very many people with multiple accounts don't help either. It would make even the most generous person suspicious to see "sUpErPlAyEr-1" vanish, to be replaced seconds later by "sUpErPlAyEr-15"; it's the online equivalent of returning to the table with an extravagant moustache and saying "Pheel? Who ees thees Pheel? I am hees looong-loost cousin, Antonio!"

Still, it's a fun diversion for a while. It's also a great way of letting me know that I should never, ever take up professional gambling. How do I know this? Well, in roughly two weeks my total net losses have come out to $5,050.

Not a sound investment, really.

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