Hitlers Must Die →

Cryptic Sea's No Quarter is a series of indie games described by the developer as "an album of original games inspired by arcade and console classics. Think of it like an album of music except with games instead of songs."

Quite.

Part of this 'album' is Hitlers Must Die!, a "run and gun where you play a Soviet special forces guy assigned to kill Hitler clones." Basically, a 2D shooter, with some neat John Woo-style stunts in there, like sliding backwards while shooting. But there's the question: why not just have some cookie-cutter space aliens or monsters? Why Hitler?

But the answer is obvious. Why the fuck not?

Proof that, like Philip Glass, Moonlight Sonata makes any video infinitely cooler.

Ghostbusters: The Videogame

ghostbustersshootslimer

A while ago, I talked about the way that, when dealing with popular franchises, creators are often unsure of how to introduce something new so they fall back on fan service as a way of masking their insecurity. By wrapping something new in familiar clothing, they hope it makes it easier for people (especially those all-too-fickle fanboys) to accept. Or, worse still, in trying to recreate the success of the originals, they use the originals as a actual recipe. Take a dash of this situation, a pinch of that character, two heaped tablespoons of this trusted joke and - bingo! - something similar-yet-different.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game is another perfect example of this. The first few levels are like playable deja vu. You start at the Sedgewick Hotel, you meet slimer and Venkman get slimed. You wreck the ballroom. Then you jet across to the Library where you meet the Librarian ghost and the whole thing ends with a fight against the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man. It's all so very obvious and unremarkable. It kind of makes me think of my idea for creating a sequel to a movie by just taking the original movie and cheaply dubbing in the word "again" after every line (e.g. "Zed's dead again, baby. Zed's dead again."). Otherwise known as the Rocky II school of sequel-making. In Ghostbusters: The Videogame, the first hour is filled with lines that basically follow this setup. "He slimed me again!" "She shushed us again!" And there are far too many "Hey, remember that time..." for my liking. To quote Joni Mitchell, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint a Starry Night again, man!'.

But then, halfway through the library level, something special happens. You leave the confines of the movies behind. No longer tethered to ticking all the boxes for the fans, they are free to play about a more experimental storytelling palette, and the game improves dramatically. You visit the 'extradimensional' version of the library which had the potential to be generic and unremarkable, like Xen from Half-Life. Except with Egon and Ray nerdgasming over the walkie-talkies, it feels like something that genuinely belongs within the Ghostbusters universe. It's completely believable and enjoyable.

After all, what are the main reasons why someone would play Ghostbusters: The Videogame, the things that separate it from other videogames? The universe and the characters. People didn't respond to the films just because of the kick-ass theme tune. They responded because the world was interesting and the characters were entertaining in the way they behaved within this world.

With the exception of Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, the entire cast is back, lending their voices to their characters. And the whole thing has been written by Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis, the writers of the Ghostbusters movies, so the writing even feels consistent with the movies. And there's plenty of meat on these bones, if you want it. You're encouraged to "scan" the environment, Metroid-style. This then pops an entry into "Tobin's Spirit Guide", which you can read later. Again, that's if you want it. If you want to just shoot things and cause an assload of damage, that's okay too.

I only have one, minor problem with the game, and that's the fact that you play as a no-name rookie, a new addition to the Ghostbusters squad. This would be fine - I mean, I'm not demanding that I have to play as one of the original Ghostbusters (although you can in multiplayer) - except that sometimes, it feels as if you're the only one who actually does any work. Very often, it's up to you to fight and capture ghosts while the rest of the characters stand around spouting (admittedly funny, if slightly repetitive) one-liners. It's a very minor quibble, and one that can almost be forgiven as a standard videogame trope.

First few levels aside, Ghostbusters: The Videogame is fan service done right.

B+

Cheap

Near my house is a daily street market with stalls where you can buy all sorts of things. I sometimes buy household items here. Cheese graters and slotted spoons and the like. Things I can use in the kitchen, but don't need top-class quality from.

Walking past these stalls last night, I saw the vendors packing away their things. They had a whole box of cheap, cloth dolls. Each one identical, in its little plastic bag, neatly stacked into the box. And I have to be honest, it depressed the fuck out of me.

Because, let's face it, these dolls were made in some sweat-shop somewhere. Someone was paid a bowl of rice a day to churn out these little things. To the street-vendors who sell them, they're just another product they've gotten a shipment of and they need to sell. Next week, it could be socks, it doesn't matter to them. And who would buy these things? They're not the kinds of dolls that make you stand up and take notice. They're little, cloth knockoffs that cost maybe a euro, assuming you don't fancy haggling the vendor down.

So there's two possibilties. The first is that no-one, from the person who made it to the person who bought it, cares even slightly about this little doll. For some reason, this really depresses me, but then I've always ascribed human emotions to inanimate things. When I was younger, I used to feel sorry for the toys I didn't play with as much as others, because I thought they felt left out.

The other possibility is that this doll will go to someone who will love this doll beyond any reasonable expectation, not really knowing or caring about its past. This will be their doll, the kind that gets all grotty from being dragged around everywhere and this cheap, ratty doll will get more love than most of us could even possibly imagine.

I'm not sure if this is more or less depressing than the first possibility.

But then I realised how judgemental I was being and that depressed me, too.

Driving in Rome

Before actually buying our car, we checked a lot of classified ads for second-hand cars. In a lot of the ads, you would read about cars being "properly Romanized". Which was a bit of a weird description, except when you start looking at the cars driving on the streets of Rome. The majority of them are covered in scrapes, scratches and dents. They're nothing to be ashamed about. More like badges of honour. War wounds.

When people ask me what it's like, driving in Rome, it's very difficult to answer, and so I basically give a pithy answer. "It's like the Wacky Races," which is actually closer to the truth than people might think.

For one, Romans are extremely skilled drivers. I guess it's just the culture. F1 is like a national religion (after food, football and, y'know, catholicism), but this doesn't really explain how they've got near-superhuman eye-hand coordination and spatial awareness. And it's amazing when you can keep up with them. You really do feel like a genuinely good driver.

But then there are two problems that make it less fun to drive on the roads. The first is that they have almost no understanding of the rules of the road, which means that red lights mean nothing, indicators mean nothing (this weekend, on the motorway, I drove for 10km behind a guy who was indicating to turn left - where are you turning, buddy? Into the barrier?). In fact, I have a personal theory that they flaunt things like red lights and road signals to keep the other drivers guessing.

Which brings me to the second problem: Romans drive with an almost heroic disregard for their safety or the safety of other drivers. Another example from this weekend - I was in the left lane, turning left. I had indicated the whole time, slowed down checked ahead of me. There was nothing coming in the opposite lane, so I started my turn, when a maniac whizzed past me on my left-hand side. He must have been doing at least 100km/h. Now, this was a three-lane road, there was almost nothing else on the road with me. He overtook me on the left-hand side, almost completely side-swiping me, just for the thrill of it. Overtaking me on the right-hand side would have been easy. Maybe a little too easy.

For a further example of this, there's a wonderful section of the GRA (the giant ring-road that surrounds Rome, think of it as a better, more functional version of Dublin's M50) which was only recently repaved. They haven't gotten around to painting on any of the lanes or street markers. And, to a bunch of drivers to whom "lanes" are only a suggestion anyway, it's like complete freedom. You will never see as much dodging and weaving outside of, maybe, Brand's Hatch.

All of this, though, is definitely making an impression on me. And I'm worried. At Christmas, even though I wasn't driving in Rome at the time and just sitting in the back of taxis, I still found myself driving much more aggressively than I normally would have. God help us when I do actually go back.

"Properly Dublinized"

(I'm worried about this blog just turning into another outlet for me to complain about Rome/Italy/Romans/Italians, so I'll be writing some random, inane bullshit soon, I promise)

End of Childhood

This hasn't been a great year to be a celebrity icon, especially if you were big in the 80s. First Farrah Fawcett, then Michael Jackson, then Walter Cronkite and now John Hughes. As N'Gai Croal puts it "Why does 2009 hate my childhood?" or as Street Boners put it, more succinctly, "STARMAGEDDON!"

Of all these deaths, though, I've been most affected - disproportionately so - by the death of John Hughes. I guess it's because his movies not only reflected my childhood and teenage experiences, but in a large part also helped define them. And this sadness isn't helped by the outpouring of love and tributes for the man. The more I read written both by and about him, the sadder I get - he seemed like a genuinely nice person. I mean, he was married to his high school sweetheart until his death. Also, he left the movie business behind and became a farmer because he blamed Hollywood for the death of his friend, John Candy. Think about this: he left the job that gave him fame and allowed him to, I'm assuming, live very comfortably, because of his beliefs. These are all tremendously rare

Anyway, here are some of the articles I've been highlighting in my Google Reader shared items that I think people should check out.

First, there's Vacation '58, the hilarious short story that kicked off his career and also served as the basis for National Lampoon's Vacation. But there's also Foreword '08, in which Hughes talks about the process of writing Vacation '58 and the melee around getting it published.

There's also the tremendous blog post by Alison Byrne Fields who describes her experience with John Hughes as her pen pal.

"You've already received more letters from me than any living relative of mine has received to date. Truly, hope all is well with you and high school isn't as painful as I portray it. Believe in yourself. Think about the future once a day and keep doing what you're doing. Because I'm impressed. My regards to the family. Don't let a day pass without a kind thought about them."

In the New York Times, A. O. Scott does a tremendous job of describing why I'm having trouble with all the recent deaths.

It’s a little eerie that Mr. Hughes died so soon after Michael Jackson, another fixture of ’80s popular culture locked in perpetual youth.

Their deaths make me feel old, but more than that, they make me aware of belonging to a generation that has yet to figure out adulthood, for whom life can feel like a long John Hughes movie. You know the one. That Spandau Ballet song is playing at the big dance. You remember the lyrics, even if it’s been years since you heard them last. This is the sound of my soul. I bought a ticket to the world, but now I’ve come back again. Why do I find it hard to write the next line?

On that note, someone made a montage of scenes from John Hughes' movies put to the tune of The Who's Baba O'Riley, and it fits perfectly.

Speaking of montages... okay, this isn't exactly new, but since John Hughes understood that all the best movies have at least one montage sequence (though two is always better), someone took the dance montages from his movies (and, uh... Footloose and Mannequin, but you can ignore those bits) and put them to the tune of Phoenix's Lisztomania and, again, a perfect fit.

RIP John Hughes.

Reconstructing Rome from Photographs

A group of researchers from the University of Washington are conducting a project to construct a 3D map of Rome based on the more than 2 million results on Flickr for "Rome". There won't be any real results for another couple of months (so much for their "Building Rome in a Day" thing), but they've already got a nifty video showing their results in constructing the Colosseum. You should check it out.

rome-day

But one thing that caught my eye from their video was the idea that we can also learn about the layout of the city based on where the photographs were taken. For example, this frame from their demo video shows where all the cameras were when they snapped their shots of the Colosseum, and what direction they were pointing - that long line going down to the bottom-left corner is going down Via dei Fori Imperiali. This street is only pedestrianised on a Sunday, so we as well as placing them spatially, we can also (roughly) place these in time. I've put the frame next to a screenshot of the same scene from Google Earth, so you can actually see it on a map.

But look at all the whitespace - it shows exactly where people cannot or are not allowed to go. With this information, we could construct something at least as interesting, if not entirely as whizz-bang-gee-isn't-that-nifty cool as the 3D Rome project.

So, armed with phpFlickr (to access the Flickr API), gheat (to generate the map overlay), and a couple of hours to myself, I went about constructing a heatmap showing where the most photos are taken in Rome. I did this by grabbing around 2000 photographs geotagged to within 5Km of Piazza Venezia, ranked in order of "interestingness". There are some interesting results.

[caption align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Photo heatmap of Rome"]Rome Photo Heatmap 2[/caption]

[caption align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Heatmap of Piazza Venezia / Colosseum"]Rome Photo Heatmap - Piazza Venezia / Colosseum[/caption]

For example, even without the map underneath, someone familiar with the layout of Rome could probably recognise this as Piazza Venezia/Colosseum area just from the shape of the "hot spots".

[caption align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Heatmap of St. Peter's Basilica"]Rome Photo Heatmap - St. Peter's Basilica[/caption]

I find this one pretty interesting because it's a close-up image showing where people tend to take photos within St. Peter's Basilica. They take photos right within the doorway and then above that, where the Pieta is. Then they head further in (left) and take photographs around the high altar.

I'm not sure there's a practical application for all this, but I'm still absolutely fascinated by it - being able to see the "interestingness" of a city. From a bird's eye level, you can see what parts of a city are most interesting (or at least visually pleasing), and then you can zoom in to a specific area or monument and see what's most appealing in there.

Right now, I've only got this running on my local computer, but I'll be trying to get this up and available online. In the meantime, I'll be posting stuff to my Flickr account, so feel free to check it out there.

Problems with Italian Cities

This month's Monocle includes their 2009 list of the world's top 25 most liveable cities (link goes to a frankly terrifying and ominous video run-down of the list). In the magazine, they start with an interesting article about why not one Italian city features in the top 25 cities. Here are the bits that resonated with me:

Though attractive spots for 48 hours of sightseeing or shopping, more needs to be done for their residents. Take public transport. Poorly funded and chronically late, the number of commuters on buses and trams actually fell in 2008. With most people behind the wheel, city centres are gridlocked and pavements used as makeshift car parks. Rome alone notches up 70 cars for every 100 inhabitants - Paris has just 26.

...

Shopping hours also need to be liberalised in the country's financial centre - people queue outside the few food stores open on Sundays.

In their favour, Italy's metropolises rank high for their food and cafe culture, enviable climate and wealth of cultural offerings. With more nimble public services and a better infrastructure, a few could soon make the grade.

"Enviable climate" aside (during the day it gets so unbearably hot I can barely think straight), this goes some way to describing why I have found Rome such a difficult place to live. It gets a lot of things right, but at the same time, it gets so many little things so completely, head-slappingly wrong.

For example, the post office is still the only place to pay bills and it closes at 1pm. I've been in my local post office a few times and heard tourists being told that, no, the post office does not sell stamps (stupid tourists!). For stamps, they must go out and around the corner to another post office. But the post office around the corner is actually the same post office. It's just a different door.

This is the 21st century. We are literally months away from the year 2010. We are actually, demonstrably living in the future. I mean, I've got a computer in my pocket that plays music, plays movies, takes calls, can connect to the fucking internet, but you're telling me I can't buy a bottle of milk at 3pm on a Sunday? It's time to move on.

Sardinia

Aaaaaand we're back.

We somehow managed to survive seven days in the July heat of Sardinia. In a tent.

Looking back, this was probably a bit of a cavalier adventure. I mean, something you learn very quickly is that the best way to survive a Roman summer is by spending all day under an air conditioner and only moving when you absolutely have to. What did we think we were doing, going somewhere even hotter than Rome?

Our first night was painful. We pitched our tent in the last spot in the campsite. We realised why this was the only available spot - it had absolutely no shade. We got everything set up, inflated our air matresses and headed off. Except - and here's something we've learned - when air matresses are in near-direct sunlight all day, those things get hot. And they're designed to release this heat slowly. So that was, by far, one of the worst night's sleeps we have ever had.

Did I mention that Sardinia was also suffering from a freak heatwave?

The next day, we got up completely drenched in sweat, having gotten a total of about fifteen minutes of uninterrupted sleep. We felt sorry for ourselves, had a bit of a whinge, asked ourselves "What would Ray Mears do?" ("Kill himself," was the response. "This would be too much even for him.") Then we set about reorganizing our camp. There was still no other pitch for our tent, so we went to the supermarket and bought a load of string and pegs. We ripped out all the bedsheets and blankets we'd brought and, with the tarp that we had intended as a groundsheet, built a badass bedouin-style tent camp. It was all very impressive.

The camp, too, was impressive. We were staying in Porto Sosalinos, which seems to be run by ex-hippies. Their restaurant is all vegan this and organic that. And the whole thing is much more community-focused than other campsites I've been to, with communal fridges and freezers to keep your food in and a huge 'common area' with free wi-fi and a load of plug points where you can sit and relax while charging your electronics.

Oh, and I didn't finish either Infinite Jest or Anathem, but I did manage to finish Foucault's Pendulum, a book I only threw into my bag at the last minute. Go figure.

Anyway, normal programming resumes now.

We're All Going On A Summer Holiday

We finally picked up our new car yesterday. A Fiat 500, naturally. so today we're grabbing a ferry and heading across to Sardinia (a place that is actually closer to Africa than it is to Italy, trivia fans).

We have absolutely nothing planned except to chill on beaches and maybe do a little snorkeling. And since we've got a car and I won't be breaking my back carrying luggage, I'm bringing all those huge doorstep books that have been clogging up my "to read" list, like Anathem and Infinite Jest. If I don't manage to finish at least one of those, it's God's way of telling me I was never meant to read them.

Back in a week. Peace out, suckers.

Cooking Italian Food

In The Pedant in the Kitchen, Julian Barnes asks

How many cookbooks do you have?
(a) Not enough
(b) Just the right number
(c) Too Many?
If you answered (b) you are disqualified for lying or complacency or not being interested in food or (scariest of all) having worked out everything perfectly. You score points for (a) and also for (c), but to score maximum points, you need to have answered (a) and (c) in equal measure. (a) because there is always something new to be learned, someone coming along to make it all clearer, easier, more foolproof, more authentic; (c) because of the regular mistakes made when applying (a).

He then goes on to give a list of ten things to consider when buying any cookbook - avoid books with too wide or too narrow a compass, never buy a book because of the pictures - and I would say that most of my cookbook collection falls prey to those things he says to avoid. If only I'd discovered him earlier, because I fall squarely into (c) and I would say that most of the cookbooks I own are complete bullshit. Nowhere is this more clearly highlighted than when they start talking about Italian food.

Now, for those of you that haven't been to Italy, let me explain something about Italian cuisine: it's simple. This sounds stupid, but the sheer simplicity of the food here came as a huge shock to someone raised on Nigella, Delia and Jamie's ideas of Italian food. Nigella (my favourite scapegoat when it comes to over-complication of cooking) seems to think that to achieve an 'authentic' Italian flavour, you have to raid your spice rack. In fact, you're going to need a whole new spice rack. Preferably, like hers, hand-made by a merchant in Morocco and stocked by naked eunuchs who softly whisper and coax the herbs and spices to voluntarily leap into the jars. But I suppose, in a pinch, regular Schwartz will do. Her 'basic' tomato sauce will invariably contain some combination of nutmeg, star anise and turmeric. Tomatoes play second fiddle.

No.

In Italy, a tomato sauce will contain tomatoes. Maybe some garlic, if you're lucky.

So, based on the things I've learned while cooking in Rome, here's a few tips if you want to cook better Italian food.

  1. Keep It Simple, Stupid

Like I was saying, in Italy, cooking is really about 'less is more'. Why complicate things with 15 ingredients when 4 will do? At a certain point, you're actually not making a difference to the flavour. Most of my favourite pasta dishes are shockingly basic. For example, Cacio e pepe is really just pasta, oil, cheese and pepper. That's it.

  1. Break Up Your Dishes

This is tied into the previous one. Italians love to divide things, compartmentalize them so that they're all doing their own job and have clear, distinct boundaries. If you're Irish, chances are you think that pasta sauces must, by definition, have some meat in them. Fuhgeddaboudit. In Italy, pasta is usually one course (primo) and you get your protein in another course (secondo). Rarely will you get a meaty pasta sauce. And it's just as well - it means that the pasta is less heavy, and also extends your meal by another 45 minutes, which means you can talk more and drink more wine, too. It's a win-win situation.

  1. Choose The Best Ingredients

This is the first real secret to great Italian food. Rather than overloading with ingredients, just make sure that the ingredients you do choose are of the best quality you can afford. Spend just that little bit more on things like olive oil, cheese and vegetables. The lower-cost ones won't kill you and might not taste bad, but when you use the expensive stuff, you can really tell the difference.

  1. It's All In The Cooking

If you take nothing else from this post, please listen to this: good ingredients are one thing, but when they're cooked badly, you may as well have used the cheap stuff. Italian food is all about cooking things just right. It's all about timing. For example, when you're making a tomato sauce, first chop your garlic and cook it slowly. Actually, so slowly you're barely straddling the line between "cooking" and "warming". Take the lowest heat you can, and then only put half the pan on the heat, if that's possible. The garlic will give up all of its flavour this way and it completely changes the taste of a tomato sauce then. Likewise, when cooking pasta, it's about timing, except this time, it's all about getting the pasta out right before you think it's ready, so it's still al dente. Admittedly, this one is a lot harder to pull off, but when you get it right, the difference is phenomenal.

  1. Buy 'The Silver Spoon'

Remember when I said that most cookbooks I own are complete bullshit? Not The Silver Spoon. It's a gigantic book and may well cause your bookshelf to bend under the weight, but what it doesn't know about Italian food isn't worth writing down. Seriously, with this one book, you can ditch all of the other 'Italian' cookbooks in your collection. It's also one of the few cookbooks I have absolutely no problem in giving to foodie friends as presents. I can't think of any better recommendation for a book than wanting to give it to other people too.

Of course, there are other things too, like understanding the difference between the different types of spaghetti and knowing which one is appropriate for a particular dish, but that's just nitpicking. If you can manage to follow the four guidelines I just mentioned, you'll be well on your way to cooking better Italian food.

Golden Age of TV

A while ago, Ira Glass said that we are living in a "golden age of television", citing a bunch of 'actually great shows' that were current at the time: House,The Wire, The West Wing etc. These were (and I guess they still are) all great shows, no argument there.

In Everything Bad is Good For You, Stephen Johnson argued that modern TV is more sophisticated than TV of twenty or thirty years ago. He compared the plotlines of things like Starsky & Hutch to modern police dramas, and showed that the new shows are more dynamic and challenging to the viewer. Again, no argument there.

But having spent the past few weeks picking the scant meat from the bones of Summer broadcasting, I seriously believe that we may be actually returning to the 'old' ways of doing things. Popular TV is pushing the limits of Johnson's argument. In some cases, it feels as if the wave of these 'actually great shows' has broken and rolled back and we are regressing back to the 70s and 80s.

Castle, for example, is just one giant throwback to older, high-concept shows. It's about a crime writer - Richard Castle who helps the police solve crimes. A Murder She Wrote for the noughties. Except it's got complex plot-lines, fast-talking characters. It would be easy to see how Stephen Johnson would defend this show. He would argue that it is demonstrably more sophisticated, clever and knowing than Murder She Wrote. The first episode features Castle playing poker with James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell, two real-life crime writers, giving a knowing wink to the audience, acknowledging a world that exists outside of the show's universe. Plus, it stars Nathan Fillion, my #1 man-crush, so it could be just an hour of him staring at the camera and I'd probably still watch it.

Similarly, The Unusuals is heavily indebted to older shows. Unlike other modern police procedurals, such as any of the Law & Order shows, which feel very much rooted in modern sensibilities, The Unusuals feels like a giant anachronism. It comes across more like an updated version of Hill Street Blues than some contemporary cop drama. But at the same time, it does have some kind of modern feel to it. It actually feels like some unholy Frankenstein's monster of the procedural stuff in The Wire whose genes have been spliced with the comic nostalgia of Life on Mars. However, even Stephen Johnson points out the narrative complexity of Hill Street Blues compared to earlier shows. As he says, Hill Street Blues is generally regarded as the start of "serious drama" on television. It may be a bit of a step backward, but if The Unusuals is going to imitate something, then it may as well choose something that's so highly regarded.

But Burn Notice is where it really starts to go downhill. There's an overarching story taking place across the entire series - Michael Weston is a spy who gets 'burned' and tries to figure out what happened and why - but this is only taken care of at the beginning and end of each episode. The actual action that takes place is more basic and formulaic: people who are in trouble come to this spy and he helps them using his 'specialized' skillset and his little spy-friends. In other words

a crack commando unit spy was sent to prison 'burned' by a military court shadowy extra-governmental group for a crime he didn't commit. He promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade deadly situation to the Los Angeles Miami underground. Today, still wanted by the government shadowy extra-governmental group, he survives as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire the A-Team Michael Weston.

I suppose I wouldn't mind if the whole thing was handled with a little more grace, but it bothers me that each episode is bookended by the 'wider' story. It's as if the makers are contractually obliged to put in these pieces in somewhere, but couldn't be bothered to find a way to work them into the "villain of the week" story. It means that if one was to use Johnson's methodology and chart the narrative of Burn Notice, it would look remarkably like the one he generated for Starsky & Hutch.

So what now? Does this mean the 'golden age' of television has passed, and now we're going to look back on the the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, as Ira Glass points out, like we look back on the 1920s as being the 'golden age' of Jazz? Maybe. Or maybe this is just part of the normal ebb and flow of television programming. Summer being filled with the weakest of the lineup, and everything will get better when shows start returning in September. Because frankly, if I look back in 20 years time and realise this is as good as it's ever going to get, I'm going to be extremely disappointed.

Fan Service

I finally (finally!) got around to checking out Watchmen this week. Now, let's get something straight from the start. This film was always going to disappoint. It was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Except in this case, the 'rock' is a seething mass of rabid fans, and the 'hard place' is another seething mass of rabid fans. There was almost no way that the filmmakers could pull this off without angering someone. If they stuck too closely to the book, they'd make a dull, unsurprising film. If they changed it too much, the fans would accuse them of blasphemy and the filmmakers would be stoned to death.

So, they went with the lesser of two evils and stuck very close to the book. If you've read Watchmen, then you've essentially seen the film, and there's very little to draw you in. Which isn't the worst thing you could say about a film, but when it's something you've been looking forward to, it's just a little disappointing.

This got me talking about some of the other things that have disappointed me recently. Like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That wasn't necessarily a bad film. It definitely had some really terrible moments. Like the infamous 'nuking the fridge' sequence. Even as a massive Indiana Jones/George Lucas/Steven Spielberg apologist, I can't defend this. It was stupid and unnecessary. But they followed this scene with a shot of Indiana Jones standing on a ridge, silhouetted by a mushroom cloud. This was a beautiful, iconic image - Indiana Jones had entered the atomic age. Just ignore the fact that he got there in a fridge.

Part of what I didn't like about the new Indiana Jones movie is that it spent so much time trying to pander to its fans. Yes, it was giving them something new, but it was like it was so insecure about its independence that it grounded almost everything in references to the past movies. For example, they couldn't just have any old warehouse, they had to have the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, for that matter, they couldn't leave the warehouse without a quick glimpse of the Ark, in its broken crate which, in no way, benefited the story. They even dug up Karen Allen again (the film's actual maguffin, not the skull). There were dozens of these references scattered throughout the movie and none of them helped push the story along at all. They were just there to remind us that, yes, we were watching an Indiana Jones film. Like the filmmakers were saying "it's been so long that we're afraid we've forgotten how to make an Indiana Jones film, so we'll toss in all these throwbacks, just in case."

You know what the end result reminded me of? Fan fiction. Actually, worse than that: badly-written fan fiction.

On a slightly related note, Telltale Games launched their episodic reboot of the Monkey Island franchise yesterday, called Tales of Monkey Island. Check out the gameplay trailer. Fans of the series will probably recognise most of the jokes in the trailer because they're almost all references to jokes in previous games. Piranha poodles, "You fight like a...", the root beer. There's very little in the trailer that's actually new, and that's why I'm not particularly keen to check out the new game. If I wanted to hear those same old jokes, I'd just play the old games (and that's why I'm currently playing Curse of Monkey Island.)

It understand that it's daunting when you're dealing with an established story or franchise. You want to develop it while remaining true to the original ideas, and that can be a difficult thing to pull off. It's a lot easier if you have a crutch to lean on, like established jokes and tropes. At the same time, though, anyone who comes along and doesn't really bring anything new to the table shouldn't really be surprised when they get such mediocre reviews.

Enough is Enough

Checking my multiplayer stats in Call of Duty 4 has become a terrifying reflection on my addiction. Two hundred and twenty-eight hours. On a single game. This isn't even close to the top of the CoD4 leaderboard though. That guy has something like eighty-three days logged. That's one thousand, nine hundred and ninety-two hours. And that's not even the highest! The person ranked number 14 in the world has three thousand, one hundred and ninety-two hours. If you played this game for eight hours every day, it would still take you over a year to get that kind of play-time. Can you imagine?

The worst part is that I'm not even enjoying it any more. I've gotten to the stage now where most people who would be at my 'comfort' level of skill have all moved onto something else. Gears of War 2 or Call of Duty: World at War, maybe? And so what I'm left with is people that are beyond my skill-level, and just don't make the game any fun. (I often accuse them of playing unfairly, but I think this is just my way of not having to admit that I'm not good enough to play with them.)

My achievement score has suffered too. I used to love my gamer score, and took great care to nurture it. Now it's getting neglected. While I could be finishing other games that I started playing (like Dead Space, or Rainbow Six Vegas 2), I'm more likely to ignore them and fire up CoD4. To make matters worse, my Call of Duty achievement score is rather pathetic too, not at all reflecting the hours I've sunk into it.

And so, from tonight, I'm giving up. No more Call of Duty 4. Instead, I'm going to focus on other games. I've got a stack of games as long as my arm that I've been itching to play. Including (but not limited to)

  • Beautiful Katamari - barely touched

  • Stranglehold - played for an hour and stopped

  • Persona 4 - ironically, haven't started because I've heard about the amount of time people sink into this game

  • Punch Out! - I play this now and then, but haven't given it a decent run-through

  • No More Heroes - played about an hour

  • Deadly Creatures - really want to play it, but haven't touched at all

  • Condemned 1 & 2 - played them both for about an hour, really enjoyed, and stopped

And, of course,

  • Battlefield 1943 - isn't actually out yet, but I can feel my fingers twitching at the thought of playing it

So if you see me on Xbox Live (gamertag: swishypants) and you catch me playing Call of Duty 4, please, send me a digital kick in the pants. I'll thank you for it.

iPhone on Flickr →

99_graph_main_32d01074e4 According to the site's public data, the iPhone (green line) is the most popular camera on Flickr, having just passed the Canon Digital Rebel XTi/EOS 400D (pink line). It's also interesting to see how the iPhone ranks in the percentage usage among camera phones (read: it's virtually the only game in town).

I had really not been a fan of convergence, since I thought that any device that tries to be all things to all people will end up doing a piss-poor job of everything. But the iPhone is definitely making me rethink this.

Greed is Good?

I know I'm opening a can of worms here, but the more I read about the Bernard Madoff case, the weirder I find it.

The guy was a crook, and I think it's good that a white-collar criminal is being made an example of. It's refreshing to see someone actually having to deal with the consequences of their actions instead of being given a slap on the wrist.

But at the same time, I'm having trouble working up any sort of sympathy for Madoff's victims. These are people who thought they had found some sort of infallible get-rich-quick scheme. Most of them jumped onto Madoff's offer because it seemed "too good to be true". Well, it was. One of the basic tenets of investing is to understand what you're investing in. If they went through with the investment regardless of their ignorance, then it's their own fault and sucks to be them. If they understood Madoff's scheme and went through with it anyway, then they were just being greedy and, again, sucks to be them.

The worst part, though, is that these people actually make it difficult to work up any sympathy for them. Madoff's victims were mostly wealthy businesspeople who were enticed by his unusually high returns. They got burned. They want compensation, which only seems fair, right? Sure, except it's the Securities and Exchange Commission that would be paying out. Or rather, it would be the tax payer, via the S.E.C. that would be paying out. Is this fair? As Joe Nocera of the New York Times says, (somewhat invoking a modern-day Godwin), "Why should my tax dollars go to helping Madoff victims? This is not 9/11." We're in a murky, grey area of fairness now. Thankfully, we have the victims, like a fucking foghorn, warning us "here be dragons". They don't just want compensation of their initial investment. No, no. They want compensation based on the last statement they received.

Just let that sink in for a second.

They don't just want the money they lost. They want the money they had been promised by a crook. The entire point of the Ponzi Scheme is precisely that the money does not exist in the first place, but that doesn't matter to these people whose greed apparently ignores common sense. This is entirely like falling for one of those Nigerian 419 Scams, and then demanding that the government compensate you to the tune of the five trillion dollars you were promised.

Who said greed is good?

Losing Focus →

If you're taking part in Infinite Summer and, like me, find yourself falling behind or losing focus, Kevin Guilfoile has some fantastic, inspirational words:

The first ten pages of this book are remarkable. The first 100 pages are very good (if sometimes frustrating) but the first ten are amazing, and [David Foster Wallace] deliberately put them there, right at the front, in order to make you a promise. ... He could have just said this: Listen up. I have a freaking great story to tell you.

If you feel yourself getting frustrated in parts, or lost. If you feel Wallace has lost your trust, stop, go back and read the first ten pages. You’ll find a promise.

I Will Hate You Until The Day I Die

A lesson in how not to react to criticism, courtesy of Alain de Botton.

Last week in the New York Times, Caleb Crain gave Alain de Botton's new book a not particularly favourable review, in which he accuses de Botton of self-indulgence and snobbery. De Botton promptly heads off to Cain's personal blog, Steamboats Are Ruining Everything (incidentally, one of the greatest blog titles I've ever seen) to vent and unleashed a tidal wave of invectives including the incredible lines "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude."

Let me just say this: wow.

I know this sounds ridiculous and cliched, but I was a huge fan of Alain de Botton's early books. Essays in Love is an amazing piece of work, showing remarkable insight into the natural cycle of (failed) romantic relationships. How Proust Can Change Your Life was also stunning, and made me look at Proust in a whole different way. After that, though, came The Consolations of Philosophy, and the beginning of his decline. Since then, I feel his books have settled into a predictable, comfortable rhythm, usually because they are written merely as companions to increasingly generic, increasingly audience-friendly TV show. I don't think I've actually finished any of his books since The Art of Travel.

Ignoring the specifics of Crain's complaints, I feel like they could as easily be applied to any of de Botton's recent books. There is a certain amount of snobbery. They frequently do veer off-topic in favour of (slightly smug) "amusing" asides. So I'm surprised that de Botton is finding Crain's review so shocking.

Even more surprising, though, is de Botton's reaction to his reaction. He points out, rightly, that what he was trying to do is to give authors a right to reply to critics, but worryingly seems to think that the only problem here is that he wrote his comments in a public forum, thinking it had been private (although the three previous comments didn't tip him off?) In other words, he's saying that, yes, he acted like an impetulant child, but the only thing he's sorry about is that he got caught.

Again, wow.

Vatican Taking Notes from Berlusconi?

As some of you probably know, there's quite a bit of controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII, the Pope who reigned during World War II. While many catholics, including Pope Benedict XVI, wish to make him a saint, critics accuse Pius of not doing enough to help the Jews during the holocaust.

Today, the head of the Vatican Archives, Monsignor Sergio Pagano, has said that there are things in the archive that will completely vindicate Pius, and show that he did a lot to help the Jews. But he can't go into specifics.

"There will be some nice surprises, even as far as the Jews are concerned ... Pope Pius took great risks, even very great personal risks, to save Jews. I can't say more now but whoever wants to open their eyes in five or six years will be able to open them."

On the one hand, this is understandable. There are currently 20 Vatican archivists working full-time on examining millions of pages of documents regarding Pius's papacy, and it would be disrespectful, if not completely reckless, to start announcing details prematurely.

On the other hand, the first thing that popped into my head when I read this was Silvio Berlusconi who, almost two months ago, promised to release a statement explaining his relationship with 18-year old Noemi Letizia, which has not yet arrived. In fact, Berlusconi recently added his voice to President Giorgio Napolitano's invitation to the media and opposition politicians to suspend discussion of "controversial issues" (read: Berlusconi's numerous recent transgressions) until after the G8 summit.

That said, the long finger only goes so far with minor issues and, regardless of what the media from other countries believe, Berlusconi's affairs are relatively minor issues within Italy. When we're talking about the deaths of 6 million people? I doubt it.

EA Sports Active

For the past couple of weeks, I've been working on trying to get myself into shape. Or rather, some shape that wasn't just 'round'. Cutting out chocolate (except when thoughtless fucks come over to stay and bring us presents of giant bars of Dairy Milk). Cutting out fizzy drinks (except when we throw a party and the thoughtless fucks don't drink the mixers). And generally just watching what I eat. And, as a bit of an experiment, I've been trying out EA Sports Active.

I've tried Wii Fit and found it to be a total misnomer. Wii Balance might have been a better name, since that seems to be all it's concerned with. I still use it for its daily "Body Tests", which measure your weight and BMI (and also still finds a way to work "balance" into the equation), but apart from that, _Wii Fit _was a non-starter in my house.

EA Sports Active, on the other hand, has been a huge hit. It actually gets your heart pumping and I'm loving the way it feels like a genuine training session. Or at least, like a more intense training DVD. I'm halfway through my first "30 Day Challenge", and there hasn't been one time where I've thought "I can't be bothered with this", so it can definitely be called a success.

That's not to say it's perfect.

  • Enough with the fucking lunges Christ on a bike. Every session has a minimum of three or four batches of lunges. Even last night, where the trainer says "Today we're going to focus on your upper body!" had five sets of lunges. I'm sure they're great for my fitness, but let's mix it up a bit, please.

  • Why can't it weigh me? I've got a Balance Board. It knows I have a Balance Board. Why the hell can't it weigh me using the Balance Board? Right now, I do my body test using Wii Fit, get my weight from that and manually input it into EA Sports Active. This strikes me as just a silly oversight. Although it also seems like none of the Wii fitness games offer this, apart from Wii Fit. Maybe this is a Nintendo-mandated omission?

  • No abdominal exercises Weirdly for something that presents itself as a rounded fitness program, the game doesn't even try to give any abdominal exercises. Apparently, these will be coming later in an add-on pack.

  • Crappy resistance band The resistance band they supply with the game is not only light as to be almost completely ineffectual, it also is made of a crappy material that will snap if you look at it wrong. My advice would be to buy yourself your own resistance band and use that instead.

Apart from these fairly minor complaints, I'm really happy with EA Sports Active. It's not a complete workout package, but it's not really meant to be. It's intended to gently ease people into regular exercise and to compliment a broader, more comprehensive weight-loss and exercise regime.

Now I just need to stop people bringing me chocolate and I'll be laughing.

All Things Considered →

NPR's All Things Considered is one of the few great news/current events radio shows out there. That's why it's so galling that they don't have an official podcast. You can only download snippets from their website, which is generous of them, but getting these onto my iPod was such a colossal pain in the dick that I decided, instead, I'd construct a podcast myself. So I did.

If you want to subscribe, launch iTunes, go to Advanced -> Subscribe to Podcast, and paste in the following URL: http://www.lowbrowculture.com/atcpodcast.php

Usual disclaimer: This is provided as-is, with no guarantees, warranties or refunds. It works for me. If it doesn't work for you, drop me a line. This podcast is completely unofficial and in no way endorsed by NPR.