Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Buses are under-represented in both films and music. Except in Speed.

Although they have a bad reputation in this country, trains really are pretty cool. That's not just the ten-year-old version of me talking either, the one who spent entire summer holidays carefully counting how many trains he saw at level crossings and so on (the record was 20 in six weeks) and once made his entire family wait beside a railway line for about half an hour until one came past. No, this is current me, the one who lives in the least car-friendly city in the UK and who likes being able to fall asleep halfway through a journey and have a reasonably decent chance of waking up again.

I don't know what it is about them – perhaps the speed, perhaps their size, perhaps the fat blue sparks that leap off the overhead lines and make you really nervous – but for the most part, I do really enjoy train travel. It's surprising, then, that for most songwriters it's cars that get all the love.

Most genres of music seem to be oddly car-fixated. Hip-hop is the most obvious – although back in the days of Run-DMC it was fine to just rap about your shoes, nowadays that's not nearly enough, and you have to be rollin' in your BMW with blue neon lights underneath to be taken remotely seriously. (Apparently.) Cars are seen as a sign of affluence, and therefore importance – the humble train is just not cool enough.

Modern country music is heavily into cars too. Here, though, they're less a sign of wealth and more the embodiment of ordinariness. Country, as the name suggests, has its home out in the wide open spaces, where it's simply not practical to go anywhere without an engine. That means that if you want to evoke an image of space, freedom and salt-of-the-earth folk (an expression that, surprisingly, doesn't mean "sharp, gritty and leaves you with a nasty aftertaste"), you can't go far wrong by singing about beat-up pickup trucks. Trains are the things them city folk use.

It wasn't always this way. Listen to any older country – American roots music, if you like – and this emphasis is entirely missing, simply because back then the situation was reversed. Cars were rich men's playthings, the railway lines ran everywhere, and if you needed to get out of town and be free, you hopped on a train in the dead of night. This kind of atmosphere made it through roughly to around Johnny Cash, whose "Folsom Prison Blues" starts with a train a'comin' and rollin' round the bends, and even today peeks through sometimes to evoke images of distance and life passing one by (REM's "Driver 8" and Eels' "Railroad Man" spring to mind).

Film-makers, on the other hand, have no qualms about sticking their heroes on board trains whenever they feel like it. It's a ready-made metaphor for a journey through life, an easy way of throwing people from different walks of life together, and a plausible way of containing and isolating the characters from any outside influences. Oh, and they make a terrible mess when they crash, so either the hero of the piece can save everyone (or at least his cute girlfriend), or the villain can kill hundreds while laughing maniacally.

Trains even pop up when they're not the main focus in films, but this rarely happens in songs; I suspect this is to do with the relative lengths of each medium. A song, like a car journey, can be as long or as short as you want (within limits), but unless you're in a very urban environment, the train is reserved for relatively long and important trips. You take the train off to war, or to go and have a deep personal revelation, not when you're condensing a few moments of life into music.

Although there's a fair amount of exceptions to this rule, the general idea still seems to hold: the longer the format of your work, the longer the journey you can fit in it. I think that's a shame. Songs are more than capable of covering vast sweeps of time, mostly metaphorically, but also literally once you hit prog rock. Likewise, the road movie is a shamefully underdeveloped film convention, having been pushed into teen road trip movie and schlocky horror territory. Of course, sometimes their efforts won't work, and we'll be left with bizarre and pretentious experimental work. But at least it'll be new bizarre, pretentious experimentation.

All of which means that I can leave you with one of those rare things: a song that breaks the conventions, and carries it off brilliantly. Here's The Who's "5:15".

By the way, Pete Townshend screaming "Girls are fifteen, SEXUALLY KNOWING!" was a biting comment on the society of the day 35 years ago. When he did the song again in 2000 at the Royal Albert Hall, it was just creepy.

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Saturday, 26 July 2008


I was in London this afternoon, and was planning to come back the same way I usually do – getting the Tube to Finsbury Park, and catching a train from there. That didn't work today, because just as I got into the station announcements started being made about trains being delayed because a bus had hit a railway bridge.

"Fair enough," I thought. "You can't go sending trains over bridges when buses have just torn large lumps of masonry out of them." It seemed I was in for a long wait, unless I could figure out an alternative route.

Then the announcements came again. This time it was a little more specific - a bus had hit a railway bridge near Finsbury Park, so no trains could come in or out.

And then I looked up the tracks, and saw two trains sitting patiently about 200 metres away, lights on but not doing anything at all. The bridge in question was the one right outside the station.

So, in a chivalric and noble kind of way, I took part in that most ancient and beauteous of British traditions: popping outside to gawk at whatever carnage was currently going on.

Here's what I saw:

Looks rather like a boiled egg just before you dip your soldiers in, doesn't it?

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Thursday, 24 July 2008

Coming in as a close second: the smell of nightclubs

I'm pleased to say that there are very few things I hate. Obviously there are some; wars, genocide, the casual cruelty to the vulnerable that passes for entertainment among far too many people. Oh, and the hack-job that the producers of CSI: NY did on The Who's classic song Baba O'Riley. Even I have my limits.

There is one thing, though, that you probably wouldn't expect to see on most people's lists of things they passionately dislike. I find this odd, because it's an item that is incredibly unattractive, is universally acknowledged to be so, and is very widespread. It's the yellow sodium street light.

Street lighting has got much better over the years, and now the fashion seems to be for small, downward-pointing white lights. Unfortunately, every town of any size will be full of sodium lights, the steel columns shaped like droopy toothbrushes which cast a harsh, grainy yellow light outwards over the street. The first problem with these – and it's a fairly fundamental one – is that these lights don't really illuminate anything. Directly underneath them it's not so bad, but move any distance away and they do no more than slightly change the shadows.

If sodium lights do very little on the street, it seems to be because they save all their illuminating powers to light up people's houses. If you've ever lived in a house with one of these streetlights right outside, you'll know quite how horrible it is to walk into an unlit room at night and immediately be reminded of a motorway. Having such an unearthly colour projected into your personal living space is highly unpleasant.

That highlights another major problems with these things, actually: the light that they produce has qualities seen absolutely nowhere else in nature. Although the sun looks yellow, its light is very nearly completely white. Even in the late evening, it never reaches the lurid yellow of discharging electric current through sodium vapour. This light does strange things to your perception of colour. Red objects become black, light greens and yellows become indistinguishable from white, and yet because the light is so pervasive, your brain almost believes that it's normal. That gives you that horrible feeling that something is subtly but terribly wrong. It's most unpleasant.

(Incidentally, the fact that the light isn't as steady as it looks also helps to make it look strange. Spread your fingers and watch them as you wave them in front of a sodium light. You'll get the same "strobing" effect as if you wave them in front of a TV, and for the same reason: the light is flickering faster than you can detect, but not so fast that you can't tell that something's strange.)

The most fundamental reason for my hatred of sodium streetlights, though, is more social than anything. I grew up in a village which had almost no lighting anywhere. The only times I ever saw these lights when I was little was when I was either on a long car journey at night (and hence, I was tired and crabby) or in a big town late at night (and if you'd grown up anywhere near Colchester, you'd know why that would be a negative experience). Then there's the light pollution. If I went out into my back garden, I could look up at the sky and see a yellowish-pinkish glow over to the south (Colchester), one to the north (Ipswich) and one to the east (Felixstowe).

That's helped to associate the yellow, flickering light of sodium with the sense of being very small, very vulnerable, and surrounded. Add that to my being scared of most strangers by default, and I'm left absolutely convinced that I'm about to be mugged or screamed at or chased down the street by a bunch of psychopaths every time I walk down the street at night.

What can be done about it? Not a lot. Public constructions like that tend to last for far longer than they should, so we're going to see them around for a while. But perhaps eventually, someone might come up with a way of lighting towns at night that doesn't put me in mind of roving gangs of murderers. It's something to hope for, at least.

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Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Next step: buy a Bluetooth GPS receiver. And CONQUER THE WORLD.

It's amazing how wide the definition of "geek" can really be. Just this last weekend, I was with some of my old friends from school, most of whom have gone down the "Magic: The Gathering" and/or D&D geek route. At work, it's much more the "I've reprogrammed my washing machine to cook a three-course meal" type.

And me? I like shiny gadgets.

That's the newest addition to my selection of shiny things. (Incidentally, if you got the reference in that photo you're another kind of geek altogether.) The N800 is a strange beast, not quite a phone, not quite an ultraportable laptop, certainly not the size it appears to be in that photo. It's larger than an iPhone, smaller than a paperback book, has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but no phone communications, gets a better wireless internet connection than my laptop, and manages to demonstrate effectively just how badly Facebook have screwed up their page layout.

Because it's based on Linux, the open source operating system (called Maemo) is very open and extensible. Indeed, if I were the Linux brand of geek, I'd be happily rewriting the kernel right now and tweaking various options. As it is, I've been happily downloading programs that other people have made, so I now have two bits of mapping software, two media players, an FM radio (which uses the headphone cable as an antenna - nifty bit of design there), a couple of games, and all manner of other things.

Although I could be writing this blog post on it, I'm not. That's because, cute and powerful though the N800 is, its text input does leave something to be desired. It's not really their fault - entering text on a touchscreen is difficult at the best of times, and on a tiny touchscreen it's even harder. They've done the best they could; the handwriting recognition is better than most I've seen, and the full-screen finger keyboard is superb. That said, if I was going to be writing anything of any length – like this post – I'd probably either write on another computer (like I'm doing) or SSH or VNC onto the N800 and use another computer's keyboard.

That's the other thing that makes it such a powerful little machine: its openness means it can interoperate with other machines very easily. With a USB cable in the side, it talks to my Windows machine perfectly well (it simply shows up as a USB drive); any type of server with a Linux implementation can be run on it, so it can communicate in practically any way. I nearly installed an FTP server on it the other day before seeing sense.

And, of course, because it has Linux it also comes with Python, the only programming language I'm remotely good at. I haven't done any coding for a while now (when it's your job to test bits of code, doing it in your free time loses its appeal somewhat), but I have several ideas on the table. Keep an eye out for new stuff soon.

I appreciate that this entire post has seemed like something of an advert for Nokia, but you can probably tell that I'm rather excited by this new and pretty thing. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I've stopped giggling.

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Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Summer in the City: A View From The Bridge

The summer seems to have gone walkabout, to judge by the rain we've been having these last few days, but that doesn't mean I can't look back to better, sunnier days. Like two weeks ago.

That's the River Thames, as seen from Tower Bridge. I appreciate that most photos from around this point are of Tower Bridge, but with a sky like that I had very little choice. (To be fair, about two minutes later I got the standard tourist shot of the bridge as well. It really is an amazing structure...)

I've fairly familiar with the Thames anyway, as it runs through Oxford as well. Of course, there it's called the Isis (because Oxford is naturally pretentious like that) and it's also a lot smaller. Even there, though, it's a lovely river, and it's great that the architects of London have seen fit to put a great selection of awesome buildings along it. On the evening that this photo was taken, I walked from Vauxhall Bridge to Tower Bridge (closest equivalent by road), just enjoying the evening sunshine on the weird selection of structures.

Go behind the cut to see one building that gets extra weird points...

"Kevin, you idiot! What the hell are we going to do with a gigantic roll of novelty 3-metre-wide NHS-branded parcel tape?"

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Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Marc Warren is also in this film. Punching James McAvoy in the face repeatedly. Seriously, that's all he does.

Just in case any of you were considering going out to see Wanted, the new action movie starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie, please take my advice – don't.

Now, that's not because it's not enjoyable. On the contrary, it's perfect summer fare, ideal for letting your brain cells atrophy while your eardrums are gently caressed by explosions and endless gunfire. This does not, however, save it from being without a doubt the most ridiculous film I have ever seen.

Let's start with the basics (and I am going to spoil pretty much every major plot point here, so if you must go and see it don't read on). The film is ostensibly about an ancient society of assassins, their quasi-mystical powers, and their mysterious machinations to do with our hero, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy). Poor Wes is a mess, with a dead-end job, a horrible boss, no money, no life and no prospects. It therefore doesn't take very long before he's happily training away as a super-mystical-assassin.

...wait. What? His life sucks, so therefore he's going to go and kill people? I have to say, pleasant though my life has been so far, I cannot imagine any circumstances in which I would prefer to be a merciless hitman. Now, it's just about possible that if I had the right motivation – say, if I was told to hunt down major gangland bosses or something, for which I would be given vast amounts of cash and matching amounts would go towards alleviating child poverty in Africa – I might lean towards perhaps being persuaded. Let's see what motivation our Wes has, shall we?

Morgan Freeman shows him that cloth that he's just woven on a vastly oversized mechanical loom has a secret code with the names of people that he needs to go and kill.

Yes, that's all. Not only does the plot require us to believe that the ancient mystical society were bright enough to discover a binary system of encoding text in the weave of cloth, it also requires us to believe that they were stupid enough to take it seriously. Oh, and the massive, gaping plot hole? The one where Wesley should just have turned round and said "So who actually supervises the loom in this room that only you are ever allowed into?" The one where it should be painfully obvious that someone is deliberately encoding these names themselves?

Yeah, that one just swishes right past. So Wesley ends up on the roof of a train, curving a bullet through the window of an office block to shoot some poor businessman in the chest.

What's that? "Curving a bullet?" Oh yes, didn't I tell you about that? About halfway through his training, Wesley is taught how to make bullets swing round in curves. Now, I know that this is physically impossible. That's not a problem – people do impossible things in films all the time. The problem is that the scriptwriters were clearly too lazy to come up with a way of explaining this, handwaving it away as "using your instincts". In practice, that means that apparently, if you take careful aim with your gun, you'll have pretty good accuracy, but if you pull the gun out from behind your back, swing it wildly in the general direction of your target and pull the trigger, you'll pull off a perfect shot even if Angelina Jolie happens to be in the way.

Even this would be manageable, if it weren't compounded by some of the most jaw-droppingly silly stunts ever seen. Observe, as The Daily Show's Jon Stewart introduces a clip of one of the more ludicrous moments.

Do watch the rest of the interview as well. Obviously I disagree with Stewart on this one – I thought the film's silliness didn't manage to redeem the fact that it also sucked – but you really can't dispute that merely watching that clip made you marginally stupider.

Moving on, although the semblance of a plot rattles along fairly entertainingly, it goes completely off the rails at roughly the same time that an entire train also goes off the rails and plunges into a huge canyon in a blaze of spectacular but rather unconvincing CGI. Partly because Wesley is inside the train and somehow survives with little more than bruises, but mostly because it's at that point that the film reveals its Major Shock Twist™, which would be more shocking if it hadn't been stolen from The Empire Strikes Back. This leads into a denouement that, although brash, loud and violent, is also meandering and unconvincing.

At the end, there's a last-ditch attempt to convince the audience that the film was actually all about standing out from the crowd and making your life mean something, but unfortunately this is little more than a too-small figleaf on an ending that is actually surprisingly bleak. Rather than the violence (which is very graphic) having at least led to something important and worthwhile, the audience is left with a nasty taste in the mouth, and a feeling that this violence was more of an end than a means.

There are some good things about the film. McAvoy is excellent, especially in the accent department (I'd forgotten he was Scottish until I saw the interview above), as is Freeman, and Angelina Jolie at least makes for a pleasant viewing experience, even if she's a little stilted. And, as I said before, it is fairly enjoyable, most of the time at least.

The reason I would advise against going to see it, though, is that you really don't need to. You've seen the violence before in other, better films. You've seen stunts as daft as this, if only in a Looney Tunes short. And you've seen all of these actors in much better films (with the possible exception of Jolie, for whom this is a major step up). Most importantly, though, you need only wait a couple of years, and this film will end up where it really belongs - at 9pm on a Wednesday evening on Channel 5.

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