Saturday, 24 May 2008

Public Domain Theatre: Stunt Compilation

Any time spent browsing around Youtube will generally turn up several videos made by some kid with too much free time and very little sense of self-preservation. People throwing themselves off roofs, small buildings and ramps are very common; skateboarders and inline skaters upload videos too, apparently in an attempt to show the world that they, too, can suffer grievous injury while on wheels.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. If I were to tell you that I'd found a video online that showed people skating on top of a 16-storey building, jumping from motorbikes to cars, strapping themselves to windmills and doing all sorts of other incredibly dangerous things, you would probably assume that I was talking about something like Jackass, or one of its many imitators.

However, this being part of my Public Domain Theatre series, that's not quite the case. Instead, all the stunts that I'm talking about were carried out in 1918. And, fortunately, the news organisations of the time were around to film it in glorious, grainy, black and white silent footage.

Video and flash player provided by the very wonderful This video is public domain and therefore cannot be included under my Creative Commons licence.

Quite apart from the frankly jaw-dropping nature of some of the things being done in this film (are those people actually standing on the wing of a biplane in flight without any kind of harness?), I love spotting the things that are the same in modern culture. I'm particularly interested to see that Fox News was entirely capable of being self-righteous and pompous even 90 years ago (see the title card at 00:35), and that the "transfer from motorbike to car" stunt really hasn't changed at all since its invention. In some ways, people were doing much more impressive things back then — how many modern stunt performers would agree to be dragged down a road by a plane while they hung on for dear life?

The dedication of the cameramen themselves is very impressive. In an era when film cameras were unwieldy and temperamental — and, more to the point, required their handle to be constantly turned manually — filming from a plane, or from a moving car, was more difficult by orders of magnitude. No-one involved in making these films is alive today, and yet this work that they made is still impressive today. I think that's a pretty awesome legacy.

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Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Eight Things You Wish You Didn't Know About The B-2 Bomber

They're practically iconic now - black, triangular objects, gliding silently overhead at massive heights. Since 1989, the US military has been flying its flagship aircraft, the B-2 bomber. You'll certainly have seen pictures of it before, and you might even have seen one in the sky. But how much do you know about them? Here's 8 things I didn't know about the B2 until I started researching tonight. And I wish I still didn't know.

  1. The aircraft's full name is the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit. Northrop Grumman is one of the world's largest arms companies. Their projects range from the very small (like electronic gyroscopes) all the way up to the very, very big (the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush). And, like most major arms companies, they've been involved in a scandal or two. As for calling your enormous flying machine of death something as ethereal as "Spirit"...
  2. The US Congress had no idea what it was paying for when it funded the B-2's construction. The B-2 began its life as a "black project", a secret military program that no-one ever officially acknowledged existed. The US military carves off a piece of its (gigantic) budget every year so that the public can see how much money is being spent on these secret projects; however, that's not really much help when what is being produced could be literally anything. Having no kind of legal or judicial oversight on such projects doesn't sound like the best idea in the world.
  3. The total cost of the B-2 project is somewhere in the region of $2.1 billion per aircraft. The exact cost is known by no-one except the military, but that's probably not a bad estimate. To put that in perspective, if you laid out 2.1 billion one-dollar bills in a line, that line would reach over a third of the way to the Moon.
  4. Only 20 B-2s are active anywhere in the world. That used to be 21, until one of them crashed in February of this year. Originally, though, there were supposed to be 132, with this number only dropping when the Soviet Union collapsed. Had the whole order been completed, the average cost per aircraft would have been somewhere around $550 million, putting the hypothetical total project cost nearer $73 billion. Our line of one-dollar bills is now roughly as long as the entire road network of the European Union.
  5. The B-2 can refuel in flight, giving it a theoretically unlimited range. That's not quite true, actually — planes can only fly for a given amount of time before they really need going over with a team of mechanics. More to the point, there's no way of changing the crew in flight, so the flight range is also limited by the capacity of that crew not to drop dead from exhaustion. The crews have come up with creative ways of getting round this problem, for example by installing a toilet and the means to make a hot meal. And a lawn recliner, according to some reports, so they can take turns sleeping. That's meant that B-2s have flown missions from the US to Afghanistan and back again entirely non-stop.
  6. A maximum of 16 large bombs or 80 smaller ones can be carried on each run. And no, there's no way of restocking the bombs in flight. That means that for the mission to Afghanistan, there was a total flight distance of somewhere around 14,000 miles, or 875 miles per thousand-pound bomb. Flying the equivalent of Land's End to John O'Groats to drop a single bomb sounds a little odd.
  7. The B-2 has seen service in a grand total of three campaigns. These were Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq (the second time around). Although these are undoubtedly the three largest campaigns that the US has fought since 1989, they're by no means the only ones; it's strange that no B-2s were involved in the Gulf War, in Panama, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Iraq pre-2003, or indeed anywhere else. That may be because they weren't declared fully operationally capable until 2003, meaning that non-officially-capable (but very, very expensive) aircraft were sent into combat twice.
  8. Conventional munitions aren't the only thing a B-2 can carry. Somewhat unsurprisingly given its Cold War heritage, the B-2 was designed to carry nuclear weapons as well as conventional bombs. Despite no-one being all that likely to point nuclear bombs at the US (although the US and Russian governments sometimes seem to be trying their very hardest to restart the Cold War), B-2s are still officially capable of using nuclear bombs. The same kind of aircraft that is designed to infiltrate enemy airspace without ever being detected is also designed to drop the most destructive weapon ever created by man.

Are you feeling safe and secure?

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Thursday, 15 May 2008

My earwax removal machine (read: cotton bud and Lego Technic motor) wasn't quite such a resounding success.

Coming, as I do, from a whole line of extremely short-sighted people, it was pretty much inevitable that I would eventually need to wear glasses. I started wearing them full-time, so to speak, when I was about 14, and since then I've been through quite a few different pairs, to the point that the annual trip to the optician is like going to see an old friend.

The other trait that I've inherited from my ancestors is the habit of being unreasonably careful with money. You really don't want to go shopping with me. It takes hours and is no fun whatsoever. As regards opticians, this means that although I've had about ten different sets of lenses as my eyes have changed, I've only had five different frames (and have had about one week every other year when I go around wearing an old pair and squinting dramatically).

The last time I got new lenses was a couple of months ago, and for whatever reason the opticians kept hold of the old lenses and asked if I wanted them. And, because I never throw anything away if I have the remotest use for it, I said yes. Sadly, I didn't find any use for them; at least, I hadn't until the other day, at which point I realised that the only bits that actually matter in a pair of glasses are the lenses. Surely it would be possible for anyone to craft their own frames?

Accordingly, I spent a happy afternoon armed with some cardboard, an egg box, a stapler, a roll of sellotape and a suitably daft attitude. Here's what I came up with.

Design #1: The Mask

Perfect for the short-sighted superhero in a hurry, this wraparound design will let you fight crime, keep your identity a secret, and do a surprisingly good job of correcting your sight. (I suspect I'd be legal to drive while wearing any of the designs in this post, at least using the standard definition of being able to read a numberplate at 20m.) Although the frames do have an annoying tendency to break free from the left ear and wave around alarmingly, careful modelling of the shape of the wearer's ear should solve that little problem.

Design #2: Ze Goggles

Utilising a sophisticated "push 'em in the slot" technology to hold the lenses in place, this design is the ultimate in comfort and practicality. Well, it would be if comfort and practicality were provided by strapping bits of an egg box to your face. It is, though, probably the most stable design of the three, allowing a surprising degree of activity without sending bits of cardboard flying; moreover, the lenses are held a constant distance from the eyes, maintaining pretty good vision. And it lets you pretend to be a motorist from the early days of driving.

Design #3: Yes, It's A Box

A cynical observer might claim that this design is, in fact, nothing more than the top of an egg box, tied roughly around the wearer's ears. However, this would be a terrible slander, as it is completely untrue. Can they not see that I've also stapled a couple of bits of card under the holes to hold the lenses? This design is the most user-friendly of the three, as lenses can be swapped out in seconds. The downside is, of course, that the lenses do tend to swap themselves out at high speed if the wearer makes any unexpected head movements. Like nodding. There is also the minor inconvenience of having to look out through a hole approximately one centimetre in each direction.

In conclusion, I'm now available for business - if you happen to have any lenses that you want put in frames, I'm your man for innovative and bold new ventures. Of course, if you're after designs that actually work, you might be better off going with the professionals...

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Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Even if it is clichéd, having a gunfight on snowmobiles is pretty badass

I was watching Die Hard 2 last night with my sister (I'm slowly working my way through the quadrilogy), and we slowly realised that there really aren't that many elements in your average action film. Really, once a bunch of things have blown up, some people have shot some other people, and there's been a car chase the length of Los Angeles, you have a film that everyone has already seen fifty times, and yet is compelling viewing.

I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing — indeed, it means you know what you're getting — but it does rather lend itself to people coming up with daft things to do during the film.

In a plot twist that absolutely no-one will be surprised about, my sister and I managed to come up with such an activity, and I coded up a simple version of it today - Action Movie Bingo! Get yourself a bingo card, watch out for the recurring elements in the film you're watching, and try to get five in a row.

My implementation of Action Movie Bingo is now up on Ballpoint Banana - go and have a look (reload the page to get a new card, click an element to mark it off) and play along to your heart's content. Any comments are very welcome. Unless they're along the lines of "You have far too much free time", because I already knew that.

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Saturday, 10 May 2008

Critical commentary on this blog post is very welcome. So long as it doesn't disagree with me.

When I was doing English Literature A-level, one of my teachers told the class about the school of criticism that states that the author is completely separate from their work. In other words, you can't speculate on what the author was thinking when they were writing; equally, you can point out themes and ideas that the author didn't deliberately insert. Personally, I'm not convinced. Although it can be really interesting to draw completely unintended parallels (for example, Jan Needle's book Wild Wood re-tells The Wind in the Willows from the point of view of the stoats and weasels, turning it into a Marxist allegory, which in turn points out the unthinking aristocratic assumptions of the original), I think it's a waste to just throw away everything you know about the author.

To give you an example of what I mean, I've just finished reading Things the Grandchildren Should Know, the autobiography of Mark Everett, better known as E. E is the frontman and driving force behind the band Eels (in fact, he's frequently the band's only member), and has lived one of the strangest and most tragedy-filled lives I've ever heard about. He grew up with a father who barely ever spoke to him, and who he found dead when he was just 19; strange characters have followed him around all his life, to the extent that an entire chapter of his autobiography is entitled "I Love Crazy Girls"; and his sister and mother died within months of each other, his sister by her own hand.

I bring this up because I'm a great fan of Eels, and especially of the strange and obviously deeply meaningful lyrics that E writes, but I really didn't understand the deeper meanings behind those lyrics until I found out what he was thinking when he wrote them. The song "I Like Birds" is a prime example: it's a very simple three-chord ditty, always coming back to the refrain "'Cos I like...birds." When I played that song to some of my friends, they couldn't believe it was actually about birds, as in, feathery little creatures; they assumed, because it was a rock song, that it was about girls. The song is mentioned in Things the Grandchildren Should Know, and when you find out that E wrote it after watching little birds eating from his mother's best birdfeeder in the weeks after she died, it suddenly gains a vast amount more meaning.

It's possible, then, for an artist or author's work to be improved enormously by knowing about them as a person. Obviously, though, the reverse is also true. The comic book Cerebus began in 1977, and continued for over 6,000 pages; it's notable within the comics world as an incredible success for Dave Sim, its writer and main illustrator. (I wouldn't know, by the way, never having read it - don't expect any critical commentary here.) It also enjoyed critical and commercial success; however, things started to go downhill when Sim began to include essays with his work that were...well, let's call a spade a spade here, and say that they were disgustingly misogynistic. Again, I haven't seen all of Sim's writing by any means, but the parts that I have seen contain ideas that go right through "uncomfortable" or "plain-spoken" and go right into "complete nutjob" territory.

Is it possible to read Sim's work and not be influenced by this? Maybe it is. I do know, though, that I would find it very hard to divorce the writer from his work in that case; indeed, I'd find it difficult to buy anything that he produced, knowing that I'd in effect be offering implicit support to work that espoused ideas that I found utterly repulsive.

(Brief aside here — I think it's far too easy to dismiss repellent ideas as "crazy", when a better description would be "dangerous" or even "evil". Crazy ideas are those that are incoherent or meaningless; evil ideas are those that are terrifying because of their coherence and planning. For instance, Idi Amin managed to stay in control of Uganda for so long by carefully cultivating the appearance of being a clownish and over-important buffoon; this distracted the international community from the fact that he managed to systematically murder up to half a million of his own people.)

Now and again, it is possible to come across a piece of work where the right balance is struck — where the author's ideas are in direct contrast to your own, and that leads to a better result all round. In my case, Terry Pratchett fulfils this superbly in his book Carpe Jugulum. Pratchett is an outspoken atheist and a member of the British Humanist Association, and several of his books make gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) digs at organised religion. I suspect that he used Carpe Jugulum as something of a soapbox, mostly through the mouthpiece of his character Granny Weatherwax. Here's what Granny says to the Omnian priest Mightily Oats, towards the end of the book.

"Now if I'd seen him, really there, really alive, it'd be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched 'em like a father and cared for 'em like a mother...well, you would'nt catch me sayin' things like 'There are two sides to every question' and 'We must respect other people's beliefs.' You wouldn't find me just being gen'rally nice in the hope that it'd all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin' sword. And I did say burnin', Mister Oats, 'cos that's what it'd be. You say that you people don't burn folk and sacrifice people any more, but that's what true faith would mean, y'see? Sacrificin' your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin' the truth of it, workin' for it, breathin' the soul of it. That's religion. Anything else is just ... is just bein' nice. And a way of keeping in touch with the neighbours."

Despite being almost the polar opposite to Pratchett in terms of religion, I wholeheartedly agree with this speech, and knowing that he is an atheist makes this even more important; the standard that Granny speaks about would, presumably, make her re-think her position if she ever actually encountered it. Far from simply trashing faith, it's a call to true faith, and gains great value.

There's no one "best" way of approaching a piece of writing, or music, or any other form of art — indeed, when one form of criticism dominates, criticism as a whole suffers. I do think, though, that it's something of a waste to completely ignore the author. After all, they do know more about their work than almost anyone else.

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Monday, 5 May 2008

Now, videogame sequels are a different kettle of fish. But then, the story does tend to take second place to blowing stuff up.

Spoiler warning: I'll be going into quite a lot of detail about a number of films in this post. Basically, as soon as you see that film's title mentioned, bear in mind that I might well reveal key plot points. Fortunately, most of the films I'll be talking about either don't have major plot twists, or they really, really suck. Be warned, though.

It wasn't that long ago that the cinema was dominated by major trilogies of films. The Lord of the Rings movies stormed the box office throughout the first few years of the new millennium, around the same time as the Matrix films, and action series like Die Hard and Terminator have had new instalments reasonably recently. In some cases, these are pretty good; in many more, they just suck. So why the variability?

One of the major reasons has to be whether the original film was meant to be part of a trilogy. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, there was already a three-part narrative structure in the books, and although it didn't lend itself perfectly to film adaptation (interleaving the stories in The Two Towers was the most obvious structural change in the films), the story was so clearly mapped out that Peter Jackson simply didn't have the option to do much in the way of sweeping changes. Or take Kill Bill, which was, to all intents and purposes, a single film cut in half because audiences don't like sitting still for four hours. The sequel works because it continues precisely the same story.

In contrast to this, take a look at The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers claim to have planned all three Matrix films ahead of time, but production didn't go ahead on the second two until the first one had been a popular and critical success. That meant that The Matrix had to stand by itself as a coherent story without its sequels, making it that much harder to blend in new elements later on. It's worth mentioning that having no overarching structure isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as the later films are sufficiently different - for example, Terminator 2 is an excellent film, despite being a sequel, because it tells a new story in the same universe.

Another of the keys to successfully pulling off a sequel is not to go overboard with whatever made the original film a success. The Die Hard films tend to work because they don't change very much - John McClane gets into a bad situation, fights against overwhelming odds, and shows just how much of a maverick he is by blowing up lots of stuff and swearing at authority figures. If a Die Hard film tried to push the formula too far — made McClane save the entire world from a terrorist ring who had kidnapped his eight-year-old niece, for example, à la Commando — the audience would reject it because it simply doesn't fit the formula, and pushes McClane's character past what we expect of him.

As before (and, sadly, somewhat typically), the way not to do it is typified by the Matrix sequels. It happens with a lot of elements (Neo's somehow able to control machines in the real world thanks to some bizarre explanation that makes midichlorians look reasonable? Seriously?), but the most egregious is the Christ analogy. These were present in The Matrix, but they were treated a lot more subtly — Neo dies, only to come back with considerably more power, and proves himself to be the saviour of the humans. It's not a hugely obvious parallel to draw, and it won't do more than just gain a bit of emotional resonance with the audience.

In The Matrix Revolutions, however, the analogy is drawn well past breaking point. By this time, we've met the Matrix's "father", who gave rise to the One, we've seen that he is aware of everything that happens throughout the Matrix, and we've seen Neo die again (because the first time clearly wasn't quite enough). And at that point, a gigantic golden cross explodes out of his chest.


In the end, the audience gets incredibly tired of the scriptwriters hammering the same bits of symbolism into their heads again and again, and it detracts from the film. Coming after two entire films of bad philosophy and insufficiently awesome fight scenes, it's just too much to bear.

It's not just the characters that have to be maintained throughout sequels — the entire concept of the films must be preserved, too. This is related to my first point (because films planned as trilogies from the word go have an overarching structure anyway, and therefore keep a consistent set of underlying assumptions), but films without this structure are perfectly capable of maintaining ideas. The Batman films, throughout their many variations, always manage to preserve the basics — Batman is a secretive crime fighter, who always tries to do the right thing, and doesn't kill if it can be avoided, while Gotham City is a mob-run den of villainy.

On the other end of the scale, we have Terminator 3. What made Terminator 2 so good was that, despite the sense of the weight of the future, there was always hope, and a possibility that maybe the future war could indeed be averted. All three films constantly mentioned the "no fate but what we make for ourselves" slogan. And then Terminator 3, for no apparent reason other than to get the audience really depressed (and, of course, set up another sequel in the future), made the war start anyway. All that hope, the tiny spark that meant that maybe that slogan might just be true after all, gets crushed for the sake of the effects department getting to show off their ability to do mushroom clouds. The film itself isn't that bad, but as part of the Terminator series, it's about as awful as it could get.

One more key to making a successful sequel: know when to stop. Alien was great, Aliens was good, and Alien3...wasn't. At all. I haven't even seen Alien: Resurrection, mainly because the very idea of it is enough to scare me off. Toy Story 2, contrary to expectations, was really good, but I'm holding out precisely no hope for Toy Story 3. And the less said about the apparently endless Lion King straight-to-video sequels, the better. Sadly, as long as someone thinks that the franchise can be milked just that little bit further, the never-ending sequel factory will continue churning out some of the worst films ever to grace a cinema screen.

Gives me something to complain about, though...

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Friday, 2 May 2008

I particularly love her sense of quiet desperation...

It was with great reluctance, about a year and a half ago, that I bought a mobile phone. I just don't like being reachable at every hour of every day, and it really is such a drain on your bank balance if you use it more than the very slightest bit. What's more, having never really liked answering machines either (if it's that important they'll call back, for goodness' sakes), I've ended up with one of those too, thanks to the miracles of voicemail.

It is, however, sometimes worth it. This morning, when I switched on my mobile (having left it to charge overnight), I was greeted immediately by the strains of The Who's "Baba O'Riley" as my voicemail called me (what? It makes a great ringtone) to let me know what I'd missed. And what had I missed? Click the play button below to find out.

(If you don't have Flash installed, that won't work - right-click here to download the MP3 instead.)

Sorry about the interference, by the way - my laptop didn't enjoy trying to record that.

Bear in mind that my voicemail message is not just a standard "I'm not here, leave a message." Oh, no. For in a rather poor attempt at comedy, I had recorded a long and rambling message in which I claimed to be my own personal assistant, eager to take down any message that the caller might give me. That means that this confused woman, whoever she is, had plenty of time in which to realise that actually I wasn't who she was expecting, and to hang up.

But no. Instead, I got what might well be one of the strangest ways to start the day, when a woman you don't know starts speaking into your ear, telling you that she's going mad. So, Nicky Bailey, if you happen to be reading this:

  1. Sorry, and;
  2. Give out your number more accurately in future.

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Thursday, 1 May 2008

And if you live in London, for the love of mercy, go and stop Boris...

The first and most important thing to say is: if you live in the UK, and live in an area that is holding council elections today, go out and vote! Not only is the process of democratic elections one of the most important things this country can give you, your vote really matters.

In general elections, when each seat is chosen by several thousand voters spread over a wide area, it's easy to think that your vote will be lost in the noise. Given our rather odd first-past-the-post voting system, in which all votes that weren't for the winner are effectively counted as "not for the winner" and nothing else, that's got a certain amount of truth to it, and in certain areas (such as mine, where the Conservatives hold a massive majority) it is very difficult to get excited about voting.

These local elections, though, are a very different animal. The last time my local councillor was elected, the turnout was somewhere around the 54% mark and the winner took 79% of that turnout. That means that there are easily enough people in the ward to change the result. When you factor in that, because of the small area of the ward, this 79% represented only 991 votes, it suddenly becomes entirely possible that there could be a change.

The weather should help too - it was hailing earlier this morning, and the dark clouds are still sweeping overhead. Usually, bad weather favours the minority, as the weather is more likely to prevent people who don't really mind about the results from voting (being part of the majority makes your vote seem less important).

That factor cuts another way, too. There are a number of small parties whose supporters may not be numerous, but they are fanatical. I'm talking, of course, about everyone's favourite ultra-right-wing nutjobs, the BNP. If you know that one of these idiots is standing in your local election, it is extremely important that you go and stop them. It may be raining, it may be thundering (it's just started here), but your vote is vital if you want to stop the lunatics taking over the asylum.

I think you get the picture now. So you'll get a bit wet. So what? Go out and vote!

UPDATE: Good result all round. Yeah, my vote didn't change my local councillor (still a gigantic majority), but the council itself is no longer run by the Tories, there was practically no BNP support anywhere, and the Lib Dems are in second place by national vote share. I'm happy enough with that.

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