Nanowrimo

We're over halfway through October. You know what that means: it's time for my annual resolution to actually participate in this year's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! I mean, it's not like I don't have enough on my plate, what with college, radio work, design work, Italian lessons and my most thankless of jobs as house-husband. Why not try and write a novel too?

Part of what used to squash my plans in previous years is the fact that I had nothing else to do. And this is dangerous. There's that old saying about "ask a busy man a favour." The theory being that once you get the ball rolling, getting things done just becomes second nature. If you'd asked me to do you a favour before, I would have said "sure, no problem", gone back to playing Xbox, and given you a half-hearted apology two months later when you ask me why I didn't do what I said I would. I say "half-hearted" because, inside, I'd be thinking it was partly your own fault for asking me to do something in the first place.

Not this year.

The other thing that used to always catch me out was the lack of an initial idea. As romantic as it might be to go into this thing completely blind, just putting fingers to keyboard and seeing what happens across 50,000 words - automatic writing on a massive scale - I just don't think this is the way I work best.

Again, not this year.

This year, I know exactly what story I want to tell. I've got an idea that I think I can stretch across an entire novel. It's just a matter of getting it out. Quickly.

The only thing standing in my way (apart from college, radio work, design work, Italian lessons and my duties as house-husband) is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which comes out right in the middle of November. I've written before about how addicted I am to the first one (250+ hours) and I'm genuinely quite scared at what might happen when this new one comes out. Would Whitney Houston be appearing on X-Factor now if she knew that crack PLUS was going to be released in a few days? Hell no. She'd be off getting ready for her year-long crack vacation.

Who knows, maybe it'll work and I'll be able to pull it all off. I'll just have to prioritise, hard. Ask a busy man a favour? Sure, right after I finish this game.

Berlusconi Fights Back

I really don't want this news story to go unnoticed, because it is amazing.

ROME, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Italian magistrates and the opposition are up in arms after a television channel owned by Silvio Berlusconi shadowed and secretly filmed a judge who ruled against the prime minister in a bribery case.

Days after Judge Raimondo Mesiano ordered Berlusconi's holding company to pay 750 million euros in damages to a rival, the media mogul's Canale 5 channel aired a video of the judge taking a walk, smoking and getting a shave at the barber.

Dubbing the judge's behaviour "eccentric", a narrator points to him smoking the "umpteenth" cigarette, calls his turquoise socks "strange" and says: "He's impatient ... he can only relax at the barber's".
...
Some magistrates are debating a "turquoise socks" protest, while others have been collecting signatures for a letter of support for their colleague, Italian media reported.

(Via Reuters)

Wow.

I have absolutely no idea how this whole Berlusconi thing is going to play out. Will he be forced from office? Will it all be forgotten about? Fuck knows. I do know that when both sides are as completely batshit insane as this (turquoise socks protest!), the next few months are going to be very, very entertaining.

Well, for those of us who have the safety net of this not being our permanent home, at least.

Yeah, no

As you'd expect, being a stranger in a strange land, I often find myself talking to people who aren't native english speakers. I've learned that there's a definite knack to having a conversation that crosses a few language barriers. Talk slowly, taking a lot of care to en-un-ci-ate ev-er-y syl-lab-le. And throw in a lot of hand gestures, too. They always help.

What doesn't help is when you've got a verbal tic that must be incredibly confusing for the person listening to you. In my case, I have an awful habit of starting sentences with "Yeah... no." My wife pointed this out to me a little while ago and now I can't help but notice that I do it all the fucking time.

In my mind, though, it makes perfect sense. What I'm actually saying is "Yes, I hear, understand and appreciate what you are saying but no, this is not the case." And it gives me extra time to think of a proper response. But to an Italian person listening to me, I probably sound like a babbling lunatic who is deliberately going out of his way to confuse them. English is confusing enough without me throwing a spanner in the works. For example, did you know there are roughly seven different ways to pronounce "ough" in the English language?

Although I've been getting less bummed out by my tic since I started noticing how many other people have it too. You've no idea how happy I was when I heard Joe Cornish say it on the Adam and Joe podcast. Famous people do it too!

Still, it doesn't help me with my own problem. Maybe I should just start speaking Italian to Italian people.

Glee →

What does it say about me that an hipster indie film like Away We Go -- a film which seemed to be tailor-made for people like me -- completely failed to move me, despite the fact it was violently tugging at my heartstrings for the better part of two hours, whereas populist, cliched fluff like Glee had me bawling in 42 minutes?

It ends with a slow clap, for fuck's sake. I am completely powerless against the slow clap.

Eden Lake

Director: James Watkins, 2008, 91' IMDB Keywords: Lake, Young Couple, Lost In Woods, Bleeding To Death, Bicycle

Sometimes it feels like my life is just a series of stupid decisions, strung together with crippling anxiety. For example, there's the time we went camping in Tuscany. It was probably my favourite camping holiday yet - we pitched our tent on the beach. Not 'beside' the beach or 'near' the beach. We were on the beach. The waves were breaking not ten metres from our tent. It was stunning. Beautiful in almost every way. Except I couldn't get to sleep. I was a bit restless and thought that watching one of the movies on my iPod Touch would help lull me to sleep. And so, instead of watching something like The Jerk or Anvil, I decided it would be a great idea to watch Eden Lake, a horror film about a couple who go camping on a beach and get brutally terrorized by a bunch of ASBO kids.

See? Stupid decision. I didn't get any sleep that night.

It's not like it's a flawless movie. Even horror movies have a breaking point when it comes to coincidences - the screaming victim just happens to run into a cave which just happens to be the home of the big scary monster. Eden Lake gleefully ignores this breaking point and keeps layering coincidence on top of coincidence. Towards the end, Eden Lake actually felt as if it was taking the piss. Either the filmmakers didn't get the memo regarding the suspension of disbelief, or they're implying that this couple are the two unluckiest people in the world.

I'll tell you what though, they're definitely two of the smuggest, most self-satisfied cunts in the world. And this is where the film plays a blinder.

They're so overwhelmingly unbearable that I actually started to wish them bodily harm. It's a horror film, so you know they're going to suffer and so I was kind of look forward to that bit of the movie. When all the bad shit starts happening, I felt better. It's catharsis. Establish the heel, make them suffer, and everyone goes home feeling as if everything is right with the world. Did anyone go to see House of Wax to see Paris Hilton escape unhurt? No. They paid good money to see Paris Hilton get a pole thrown through her head. It's catharsis, and everyone (including Paris Hilton, I bet) knows it. But Eden Lake isn't quite like that, because it doesn't stop there. It just keeps pushing through into a new level of discomfort that few films have taken me to. The brutality is so unrelenting that it's hard not to feel bad for hating these people. I mean, I just wanted to see them get a few cuts and scrapes. Nothing that would leave any kind of permanent scar. And the film goes so much further. It was kind of like when everyone was all "Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator who should rot in hell" and then they saw the video of his hanging and then they were all "Oh." Eden Lake is like that. Only with less genocide.

And I don't think that I can finish up without mentioning Jack O'Connell, who plays the leader of the ASBOs. He really is the star of the show, completely believable and terrifying. He basically plays a more sociopathic version of the character he played in Skins, which makes me think that he's either a great actor who is in danger of being typecast as a grotty teen, or someone the police should genuinely keep an eye on.

The Lisbon Treaty

It's time for everyone's favourite hot-button topic: the Lisbon treaty. Fun times ahead!

My cousin, who occasionally reads this blog (hello!), was telling me about the reason he voted 'no' during the last referendum. Or rather, the reason he would have voted 'no' if he had actually been registered to vote.

"I'd have voted no because the government wanted me to vote yes."

It's an interesting reason, but not that unusual. Lots of people voted/are voting 'no' simply because they want to "stick it" to a government that they are increasingly mistrustful and resentful of. The Irish people feel like their government isn't actually on their side. For example, many people argue that NAMA is designed to bail out the bankers at the expense of the taxpayer. Photos from the recent Dail debate don't really help us to feel like there's any reason to doubt that. And when you get overblown, selfish and mercenary fucksocks like Ryanair's Michael O'Leary (pictured here with a personal message for you) coming out in support of the "yes" campaign, well, that just confirms people's suspicions. We've all seen his vision for the airline of the future, why should we presume that he would want anything less for the people of his country? Professor of comparative political behavior at Trinity College, Michael Marsh, points out "for some people, the intervention of big business confirms that this is not good for workers."

So why would my cousin vote 'no' a second time (again, if he was on the register)?

"I'd vote no because I really hate that thing of 'You got a referendum and you MADE THE WRONG CHOICE. Now try again.'"

It's true that the referendum is basically the same as it was the last time. What's changed is the fact that Ireland has secured a number of legal guarantees regarding a number of the core issues that caused people to vote 'no' last time. It means that the Lisbon treaty does not and cannot affect Ireland's constitution on the subjects of security, defense and right to life. Ignore these militant (read: demented nutball) anti-Lisbon groups who say that, no, this is not the case and that these "guarantees" are "as useful as a politician’s promise, and just as easily broken." Coir still insist that Lisbon would introduce abortion laws. On the other hand, the Irish Bishops say that this is not the case, and Irish people can vote either way in good conscience. Now, which group would you turn to for your moral guidance?

A 'no' result would fuck us. And we're talking the terrifying hard pounding of a prison rape, not the gentle, tender feathery stroking we've experienced in the last year. But as well as the effect it would have on Ireland and its economy, imagine what it would do to Europe. Everyone's favourite little megalomaniacal midget, Berlusconi, has been once again throwing around the idea of creating a 'two tier' Europe, where some animals are more equal than others. This from a man who threatened to block all EU business unless Commission spokespeople STFU about Italy's immigration policies. Can you imagine what happens if there's a 'no' result and Ireland takes his place as the red-headed stepchild of Europe? Ouch.

The other reason lots of people voted 'no' in the first referendum was because they said that it was too complicated. In a way, this is a fair point, I've always believed in the idea of not signing my name to a contract I don't fully understand. But it's been a year since people first became aware of the Lisbon treaty and this isn't a viable excuse any more. If you don't understand the contract, you owe it to yourself and the person whose contract it is to go off and figure it out. As Owen Corrigan put it in his article in the Tribune, this made last year's 'no' result "less a triumph of democracy for the voters of a ruggedly independent state, and more a triumph of ignorance in the face of reason, rationality and responsibility." (Seriously, if you read nothing else in this whole campaign, I urge you to read this article.)

In the end though, I guess a lot of people will vote based less on the issues and more on ridiculous external factors, like who is encouraging you to vote what way. Sure, Michael O'Leary wants you to vote 'yes,' but David Icke, the 'I am the son of God and the world is ruled by giant lizards' guy wants you to 'no.' Think about that.

You Say Toe-May-Toe...

I just watched the Toby Young/Michelle Bernstein spat on this week's Top Chef regarding the pronunciation of "paella" and - weird as it is to say this - I totally agree with Toby Young. Unless you're actually Spanish or in Spain, you should be pronouncing it with hard Ls. Pie-el-la.

But this argument made me realise that after watching four seasons of Top Chef, it's time something was said:

IT'S PRONOUNCED RIZ-OT-TOE*. NOT RIZ-OH-TOE.

I mean, you're chefs, for fuck's sake. This should be sorted out by now. Every week, someone does a risotto. Every week, my wife and I facepalm at the apparent inability to pronounce this word. I think at this stage we're actually dealing with willful ignorance instead.

This week, one dickbag chef decided to go one step further, pronouncing saltimbocca as 'salt-im-boe-ka.' PRO TIP: you're wrong.

Update: Likewise, when I'm back home in Ireland, I'd be more likely to be understood if I asked for a "broo-shet-ah", versus what I'd say in Italy, which is "Broo-sket-tah".

  • Like the 'paella' thing, this is the standard 'international' pronunciation. If you're Italian or in Italy, it's more like "ree-sot-toe".

Happy Birthday Elite!

Screen shot 2009-09-23 at 09.04.26

Hard to believe, but Elite came out 25 years ago this month. Twenty-five years!

This makes me feel very, very old. Still, Elite has held up really well over the years. That must mean I have too, right? Er...

The first time I played Elite was on my cousin's Commodore 64. I was barely out of nappies and for the life of me, I couldn't wrap my head around the whole space-trading thing. Having to keep track any number of variables is kind of difficult when you've got the attention span of a sparrow. I had no idea what was going on and understood maybe every second word in a sentence. "What is 'narcotics'?" "Drugs." "What is 'drugs'?" But I loved the game's 3D engine and the feeling that you could go anywhere, do anything. All this in a game that took up less than 22K of memory - that's less than an average email. And I still count my first successful docking with a space station as one of my videogaming high points.

If you fancy playing a bit of Elite right now, grab a copy of Oolite, which runs on almost anything.

Crank 2 DVD Commentary

Remember when DVDs first arrived on the scene and everyone was gushing about how great it was that they could record their own commentaries for their favourite movies? How did that work out?

Not so good, huh?

Know why? Because most people are boring as shit. When you get them talking about movies they love, they're even worse. I'm not saying I'm above this. Put a microphone in front of me when I'm watching Kickboxer you'll just get me either rattling off the entire screenplay or not saying a word because I fucking love that film so much.

Over on the AV Club, frequent commenter and the world's biggest fan of ownage, Zodiac Motherfucker, has recorded his own commentary for his film of 2009, Crank 2: High Voltage. This is decidedly not boring. Imagine the forgotten love-child of Andrew W.K. and Kanye West screaming at the TV, swearing like a docker and whooping for blood, and that's his commentary. Stupid and puerile? Sure, but so are the Crank movies, and that doesn't stop them being some of the most entertaining movies of the last few years.

Either way, there's no-one better to watch Crank 2 with than Zodiac Motherfucker.

Are Apple Products Badly Engineered?

There's a lot of brouhaha about the failure rate of Xbox 360s. In the same week, I saw three different news stories citing three different failure rates for the 360 (54.2%, 23.7% and 27.3%, if you're interested). And everyone gives them shit because they're, y'know, Microsoft.

Having spent the morning fixing a dying Macbook, I started thinking about what my failure rate with Apple hardware has been. And to be perfectly honest, it's been pretty shit. In the past five years, I've owned (or co-owned) an iBook, two Macbooks, an iMac, a 60GB iPod, two iPod nanos and an iPod touch. Let's see what's happened with these.

  • Wife's iBook ate its own display cable
    Putting a teeny-tiny display cable into a hinge that gets used all the time? Great idea.

  • Macbook case cracking
    This happened on both my own Macbook and my wife's. If you see how the Macbook is assembled, it's easy to see why this happens - you have to bend the entire keyboard plate slightly to get it to connect. Bending it weakens the decorative plastic 'lip'.

  • Macbook case discoloration
    I got this on my white Macbook. Got the keyboard plate replaced, started happening again before I got rid of the Macbook

  • iMac logic board meltdown
    Brand-new iMac died within 8 hours of getting it because the logic board wasn't connected properly, half the fans didn't work and melted the graphics card

  • Dead headphone adaptor on 60GB iPod
    This was probably my own fault. I like to use headphones with strong cables and very little 'give', forcing the headphone jack to bend slightly. Still, this wasn't exactly 'heavy' use. Managed to replace this via parts on eBay

  • Random lines on 60GB iPod
    No idea where this came from, but it's like my iPod had a stroke or something. Turned it on one day and there was a strong black band going across the LCD screen. They've slowly started fading away now, going back to normal.

  • Dodgy connector on one iPod nano
    This both comes from and affects the Nike+. I plug in the Nike+ adaptor and it doesn't detect a receiver. Works fine on the other iPod nano. Doesn't affect normal connection to the computer.

  • Dodgy Nike+ on iPod touch
    My iPod touch will only randomly choose to see the Nike+ adaptor in my shoe. Usually after I do a complete reformat and restore, and even then, it only lasts for about a week.

  • Broken DVD drive in Macbook
    About a year after my wife got her Macbook, the DVD drive stopped working. It was hardly ever moved and rarely used. Still, it means that OS upgrades are a pain in the dick and I can't run the hardware test utility any more.

  • Broken LCD backlight on Macbook
    This is what I've been dealing with today. After a random crash, the backlight no longer works. I can see the display on the LCD, but there's just no backlight. I don't even know where to begin with this

  • Update: Fraying on Macbook power chord
    Joanne's comment reminded me about this. About a year ago, power on the Macbook was a bit flaky. We turned over the power chord and noticed that near the connector, the cable had burned almost completely through. We were lucky that we were in the house when it happened, this could have been a lot nastier than the €80 it cost to replace the chord.

So, of all the Apple hardware I've used in the last five years, the only thing that hasn't given me an issue is one iPod nano (I've also got an Apple IIe from 1986 at home that still works fine). Which leads me to wonder if Apple products are badly engineered, or am I just extremely unlucky?

Lady Gaga is My New Hero →

I've always had a lot of respect for Lady Gaga. She's completely batshit insane, but unlike most of those self-consciously 'quirky' artists out there, she's actually has the talent to back that up. You have to admire her courage. Or, at the very least, her ability to keep a straight face.

But her appearance at the MTV VMAs was so amazing that she's now become my personal hero. She was, by far, the most entertaining person on there. I mean, who else could sit behind Beyonce and completely steal the spotlight? That takes some balls (no pun intended).

2lt4hao

Flavorwire have a great article deconstructing Lady Gaga's VMA ensembles. My favourite is the Carrie/Burger King one.

Normal Service Will Resume Shortly

I'm heading back to Ireland for a few days and deliberately using the time to step back from the computer. Here's a few links that should keep you entertained until I get back.

In Praise of the Sci-Fi Corridor

A Mugging on Lake Street - a reporter is mugged and writes a thoughtful article about the incident.

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

Bruce Handy on Mad Men - if you can get over the fact that Vanity Fair's site is a pain in the dick to read (PRO TIP: hook yourself up with Readability), this is a fantastic article about the show.

Good Novels Don't Have to be Hard Work - interesting thesis: Stephanie Meyer and the like represent the real postmodern novel

In Which Wes Anderson Tries To Game Pauline Kael - actually, I could have chosen any article from ThisRecording.com, but this one -- about Wes Anderson screening Rushmore for Pauline Kael -- is particularly nice.

The Sopranos: Definitive Explanation of the End - This is an old article, but it takes a while to get through. Even if you're not a big fan of the show (like me), you have to appreciate anything that can get this much of a discussion going.

The Trouble with War Games - no, not the film.

The Actor Believability Index - I find Christian Bale implausible as anything but a self-obsessed yuppie.

Back next week!

Batman: Arkham Asylum

For a license with so much meat on its bones, it's a little disappointing to see all the Batman games that have been made, all laid out. The majority are lazy movie tie-ins, knocked out by South Asian sweat shops for a bowl of rice per game. And it shows, you know? Check out the SNES version of Batman Forever and tell me if you think the developers had even heard of Batman when they started working on that game. "What-man? Forget that noise, Jack. Kids today love their Mortal Kombat. Give them some _Mortal Kom_Batman."

Thank goodness, then, for Rocksteady Studios. Here are a bunch of hardcore, unrepentant Batman geeks who get it. Working very much from an "If it ain't broke..." mentality, these guys called in the pros. Rather than trying to write their own story and ending up with some fanboy claptrap, they instead hired Paul Dini to write the story. He may not have written the book on Batman, but he certainly wrote the cartoon, as well as the truly amazing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. They also hired a lot of the main voice actors from the cartoon too, like Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin. Even ignoring the rest of the game, the story and voice-acting are pure Batman.

But, thankfully, they didn't ignore the rest of the game. Having a great, authentic Batman story would be nothing if they didn't completely understand what makes Batman such an interesting superhero. Apart from a few gadgets (which are all present and correct), the best thing about the character is that he's a brick shithouse who moves with fluidity and grace. He can hide in the shadows, picking off his enemies one by one, making each remaining enemy progressively more terrified. It also means that he can handle himself when he drops into the middle of a group of thugs and decides to take them on all at once. The developers are proud of their combat engine here, even going so far as to offer a bunch of separate "challenge" modes where you fight groups of increasing numbers of enemies. Kind of like Gears of War 2's 'horde' mode, but with fisticuffs. And they're right to be proud - this game has the best combat of any game I can think of. It's simple, it feels natural and it produces devastating, cinematic results. If there's any film that can offer a more spectacular, perfectly choreographed fight sequence, I'd love to see it.

Okay, maybe that one sequence from Tony Jaa's The Protector comes close.

It's not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. It cogs so heavily from Bioshock that it falls foul of the same criticisms that could be thrown at that game -- lazy fetch-quests to artificially pad out the game's length, inconsequential upgrades that make very little difference in the gameplay -- but for all it gets wrong, it gets other things very, very right. The world is almost perfect. It's an open world that you actually want to spend some time in. You're encouraged to explore, and rewarded for doing so. Through the 240 'riddles' hidden throughout the island, you'll learn more about the mythology of the place, or characters that don't actually make an appearance in this game, like Catwoman and the Penguin. British Gaming Blog nails it: "After hunting 200 god-damn pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV last year, I decided to make a pact – make them enjoyable to hunt, or I just won’t bother. Guess what? My Xbox 360 gamercard holds an achievement for solving 240 riddles in Arkham Asylum."

I'm slightly disappointed that the game didn't lift a little heavier from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. It's a genuinely brilliant comic that explores Batman's own psychological state in relation to the so-called lunatics locked up in the asylum. Having read the book, I was hoping this was a theme that would pop up in the game, but it only really appears in passing. Though I suppose beggars can't be choosers. I guess I'll have to be satisfied with it only being the best Batman game ever made.

Oh well.

Toxoplasmosis

Rome has a cat problem.

The Ufficio dei diritti degli animali (Office of Animal Rights) estimates that there's about 300,000 stray, feral cats living around Rome. I live near Largo di Torre Argentia, a massively interesting set of ruins that contains one of the many places in Rome where Julius Caesar (him of the salad fame) was allegedly killed. Except you wouldn't know it to look at it, because with so many ancient ruins dotted around the place and so many cats running wild in the streets, the council - understandably - threw up their hands and said "balls to this malarky, let the cats have it." Now the square is probably more famous as a cat sanctuary than as an actual historical monument in its own right.

The point is, Rome has a lot of cats. With me so far?

One of the many parasites carried by cats is toxoplasmosis. It's a parasite that thrives in cats. It can live in other organisms, but it can only reproduce in the intestines of cats. So, in rats and mice, the parasite effects the brain by making cat piss smell amazing. This draws them to the cat and makes them more likely to be eaten, so the parasite will make its way back to cat intestines. There's also a theory that it does much the same for people. This is the parasite that causes people to turn into crazy cat ladies - without knowing it, they surround themselves with cats to increase their chances of being eaten. (And for the record, if you die and there's no-one around to feed it, your dog will usually wait a week or so before eating your body. Your cat, on the other hand, might wait a day, if you're lucky. More proof that cats are mean-spirited little fucks.)

Listening to this week's Radio Lab, I discovered another potential side effect of toxoplasmosis in humans: it makes them worse drivers. Someone infected by toxoplasmosis is two and a half times more likely to die in a car accident than someone who is not infected.

So to sum up: Rome has an abundance of cats, and cat parasites make you a reckless driver.

Just sayin'. It's not like I'm suggesting these two points are linked.

Poetry of Twitter Spam

As a rule, I tend to block Twitter spam-bots as soon as they start following me. But the new generation of spammers are a bit more subtle. Their posts don't actually contain the spam - that's hidden behind a tinyurl address in their profile. Instead, their posts are just snippets of text lifted from around the internet. Read together, with a little bit of added punctuation, they are like amazing stream-of-consciousness poetry.

She puts her palms out
on low-viscosity rayon.
"Why not have two?"
We've got it sorted
-- Wir haben fünf Millionen Deutschmark
Three days, and not one.
Peace.
What's with this Al Capone shit?
I love you OK?
Frank...
Sweetheart, you don't need law school.
"That is unbelievable."
Tits Pervert,
avec une vue de la mer.
Hey!
As soon as he gets on the motorbike,
-- it's not like I expect anything
... Yeah.
Squeeze too hard and you kill it, not hard enough and it flies away.

I've actually started hunting out these spam-bots and reading their twitter feeds, because maybe, just maybe this is the start of the singularity, and these are the bad teenage poems of a vast, angst-ridden technological super-intelligence that is feeling a bit bummed out because it's capable of solving a bajillion problems in a second but, instead, is only being used to scam money out of idiots.

The Italian Gender Gap

Rather than subscribing to any particular ideology, I like to think that I can rely on my common sense to guide me. As a great man once said, "A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself." Now, the problem is that I wasn't blessed with an abundance of common sense and it does occasionally take a sharp smack across the head for me to understand the various sides of an issue. My wife, for example, would count herself as strongly feminist because this is an issue that obviously effected her and she thought about a lot. I, on the other hand, just never gave much thought to gender and sexism and thought the world had pretty much solved that issue. I guess that's a privilege of being born with a penis. This has changed now (not the penis part though - I still have a huge mickey). I've read my Simone de Beauvoir.

The point is, it took me a while to come around to being able to understand the various arguments in the sexism debate, but I got there in the end. Living in Italy definitely helped. From the philandering Prime Minister spashed across the headlines to the casual sexism you see in the street, it's nearly impossible to miss.

Actually, it's kind of worrying how deep-seated the gender gap is in this country. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, Italy ranks 67th out of 130 countries in terms of the gap between men and women. I'll just say that again, because this number floored me: 67th. This puts it behind places like Israel and Mongolia and far behind the other major European countries like France (15), Spain (17) and the United Kingdom (13).

Although, to be fair, this beats its 2007 ranking of 84th. Improvements are being made. You can even feel it. I guess it's most obvious in the slow backlash against the behaviour of Silvio Berlusconi. The various scandals didn't receive nearly as much media coverage in this country as they did in the international press, no doubt helped by the fact that Berlusconi owns a large part of the media here. But the very public denouncement by his wife and her filing for divorce was pretty hard to miss. During the recent G8 summit which took place in L'Aquila, there was a call made by female Italian academics asking the wives of the leaders to boycott the summit (although they didn't exactly explain what they wanted Angela Merkel's husband to do). And this is having an effect. For the first time since taking office in May of last year, Berlusconi's approval rating dropped below 50%. A small amount, sure, but still significant, given the way that many Italians worship him as a hero, a self-made man (although with hair that bad, I'd say he's all thumbs - ZING! TAKE THAT, BERLUSCONI). Even the Catholic Church has expressed concern at his behaviour, saying "people have understood the unease, the mortification, the suffering that such an arrogant abandonment of a sober style has caused us."

Although it doesn't help anyone when you get ditzy celbutards like Celia Walden wading into the situation and muddying the waters. In her article, "Someone like Silvio Berlusconi will always pinch my bottom," she talks about the psychology of the Italian male, suggesting that institutional sexism is, if not entirely excusable, it is at least understandable. In fact, it's almost adorable. I mean, after all, isn't that what Italians are all about?

From when I was a student in Siena I have a strong memory of a man slowing his car down and throwing his wife, in the passenger seat, a sidelong glance before reaching out and giving my bottom a pinch. I didn't know whether to abuse or salute him.

The new Gender Gap report is due out on October 29th. I'll be interested to see what effect - if any - the past year has had on its ranking.

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box

layton

The first game, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, was an interesting addition to the DS library. Rather than a straightforward Japanese puzzle game like Planet Puzzle League or Picross, Professor Layton was more like a French cartoon - think Belville Rendez-Vous with the occasional sudoku puzzle thrown in. It was a cute conceit to begin with, where everything and everyone you saw lead to a puzzle. But as the game progressed, this got really, really annoying, as Penny Arcade managed to sum up perfectly. On top of this, the puzzles got painfully repetitive, and once you figured out that the game was actually a smug asshole who tried to catch you out all of the time and 90% of the puzzles were actually trick questions, it became less a matter of working them out and more just a question of donkey-work. Still, I battled through and finished the first game, just don't ask me what happened in the story, since I had long since given up and would just tap rapidly on the screen whenever an exposition sequence suddenly came up.

With Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, I had hoped that the creators would fix some of these problems. Maybe they integrated the story a bit better? Maybe they came up with new, interesting puzzles?

Did they fuck.

The game is essentially the same as the first, in slightly different clothes. In another way, it's actually more frustrating than the first game, since the entire thing has a lot more hand-holding to help newcomers to the series. The puzzles are almost exactly the same, and the characters are still the same bunch of puzzle-wielding cunts. I mean, what kind of Maitre d' would ask you to solve a puzzle for him while you're waiting for your table? "Welcome to El Bulli. I'm terribly sorry sir, your table is not ready yet, but in the meantime, here's a book of crossword puzzles."

Maybe I've just gotten incredibly curmudgeonly in the year or so since the first game (I hear that happens after you cross the big three-oh), but I've been trying to decide what I find particularly wrong about this game. If they took out the random puzzles, I wouldn't care for the story, or the way it's told, with you as a completely passive detective who just clicks through screens as the story unfolds for you. If they took out the story and just presented it as a list of puzzles, I'd be annoyed at the frequency of repetition.

If you're new to the series, or if you really liked the first one, give this game a go, you'll probably like it. For me, however, this is one of the few games that has made me think that life is too short for this kind of bullshit.

Fuck it, I'm going back to Picross.

5 Movies Guaranteed to Make You A Better Person*

  • Not an actual guarantee, obviously

I've got a friend in Rome. He's a smart guy, funny, very well-read. But there's a problem. A big problem. Are you sitting down? He has not seen The Goonies.

I know, it's totally fucked, right?!

In fact, he hasn't seen a lot of movies. I think he was raised Amish or something. Whenever I catch myself saying "Did you see that movie…?" I remember who I'm talking to and say "Of course you didn't. You haven't even seen The Goonies." I don't know why, but the fact he hasn't seen The Goonies really bothers me. I guess it's because I love that movie to a ridiculous degree. That and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. When I was 10 or 11, I would get up extra-early before school, just so I could watch one of those movies. I did this every day for more than a year. I can't explain it. OCD or autism, maybe. I dunno. Either way, the idea that someone hasn't seen The Goonies just stikes me as ridiculous because that, to me, is an essential movie. I will say right now, on a stack of bibles, this movie made me a better person.

So, here are the movies that I can say will make you a better person.

There Will Be Blood

Let's start with some hyperbole. There Will Be Blood is, by a long way, the best film I have seen in the past ten years. It's the kind of film that, when I think about it, I realise how glad I was to have been able to see this film in the cinema, in the same way as I'm so incredibly bummed that I wasn't born to see Apocalypse Now when it came out first. It's a huge, virtuoso film, and the fact that the filmmakers managed to contain it perfectly still shocks me. In short, it's the 2001: A Space Odyssey of our generation. Yeah, I went there. If you haven't seen it already, you should stop reading the rest of this article and just go watch it. Right now. There, was that enough hyperbole for you?

The Fountain

I feel sorry for The Fountain. Stuck in development hell for ages, finally limping out of the gate a couple of years later with a quarter of its original budget. It got completely overlooked. I saw it as part of the Dublin International Film Festival, and the cinema was maybe half-full. After the film, most people went home grumbling about it being a load of old bollocks. Except it's better than most people give it credit for. It was clearly a labour of love for Aronofsky. A deeply personal film about appreciating the moment instead of worrying about the future. What could have been a throw-away piece of cheap sentiment (not that I'm against cheap sentiment) suddenly blossoms into one of the most striking and moving films about mortality that you'll be likely to see.

Evil Dead 2

Rob: Let's just say that I hadn't seen it and I said to you, "I haven't seen Evil Dead II yet", what would you think?
Barry: I'd think that you're a cinematic idiot and I'd feel sorry for you.

Koyaanisqatsi

Yes, I know I already wrote about this back in 2005 and I probably sound like a broken record, but it's still breathtaking. I said at the time that it was the most extraordinary movie I've ever seen and one of the most beautiful films ever made. And I stand by that (even if the rest of my writing then was more than a little up my own hole).

Big Trouble in Little China

This might not be John Carpenter's greatest movie. It might not even be John Carpenter's greatest movie with Kurt Russell. It's an absurd, over-the-top romp through Carpenter's id. All flashy neon and high-flying stunts. But it knows how ridiculous it is. It enjoys the juxtaposition of "a reasonable guy" experiencing "unreasonable things". In other words, it's trying to say: don't take things too seriously. Or, as Jack Burton says, "Like I told my last wife, I says, 'Honey, I never drive faster than I can see. Besides that, it's all in the reflexes.'"