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.'"

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.