I don't know what triggered it, but I decided to start re-watching all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There's something about this show that still manages to evoke certain emotions in me. Like it's hitting a part of my brain that hasn't been touched since I was a kid. Even now, the sound of that theme song makes me feel like I'm 16 again and I'm just about to sit down and watch a quick episode on BBC2 before I start my homework. I've made it through the first season, and here are some of the things I've noticed so far.
When it first aired, I remember thinking how technically impressive this show was, especially compared to the original series. The effects were great, the make-up was mind-blowing. Was I high? This is terrible! I can't count the amount of times I've watched Worf's prosthetic head-piece wobble almost completely off his head.
Speaking of Worf, who decided this guy was supposed to be a big, tough badass? So far, he's lost every fight he's gotten into.
Fuck Wesley. The majority of the episodes in the first season - especially in the first half - are solved by Wesley pulling some deus ex machina bullshit in the last five minutes.
Picard is a bit eager to pull the Enterprise's self-destruct trigger, isn't he? I think he's done it three times in the first season. In the twenty-something episodes of the first season, that means there's a one-in-ten chance that Picard will try to blow up the ship. I know this is cheating, but there's an episode in the second season, where the Enterprise is being treated like a rat in a maze, being tested by some huge cosmic being. Picard lasts all of about fifteen minutes before saying "fuck this" and engaging the auto-destruct.
How the fuck did I never realise how racist this show is? Each new alien is a thinly-veiled cipher for the writer's unique brand of xenophobia. The Ferengi alone should have warranted some kind of action from the Anti-Defamation League.
I loved where they brought in Michael Berryman, drew a line down his face with a sharpie and then suddenly they've got one of the most believable, fucked-up looking aliens the show has ever seen.
Now, some people will discredit this and call it "effortless style," or write it off by saying, "These Italians are just born with it."
But it's quite the opposite. There is nothing effortless about their style, or their look. What's unique is that they put an extreme amount of effort into their look when they buy the clothes, when they have the clothes altered by their tailor, and when they put them on in the morning.
It's true, Italians do dress better than other nationalities. Even if Rome isn't the centre of Italian fashion, and they don't dress as nicely as they do in, say, Milan, the basic level of casual dress is so much higher than the basic level of casual dress in DublinAlthough maybe this isn't saying much. Before we moved to Rome, I was living in Stoneybatter in Dublin. A place where people would go shopping in their pyjamas. In fact, I saw one girl walking down the street still wrapped in her duvet. My theory behind pyjamas-as-casual-wear is probably best saved for another post. Shirts are more common than hoodies on twenty-something men, and tracksuits are almost non-existent. And Schuman is completely right in what he says about the care that people give to their clothes here. Instead of spending €200 each on a few good-enough suits that will look ratty in a couple of months, Italians would rather spend €1000+ on one fantastic suit that will last them for yearsBut then, they do this with all of their possessions, not just clothes. Theories behind this also best saved for another post.
But there's one thing that Schuman misses. Perhaps he can't see it because it's being obscured by his enormous boner for Italian style. Yes, the men clearly spend a long time making their style look completely effortless, and their shirts are never anything less than spotlessly clean and perfectly pressed - something you rarely see in Dublin, where crumpled, uncared-for shirts are the norm - but you know what? It's not the men who are putting in the effort. Their clothes are perfect, but that's not a challenge when you live with their mother who cleans and irons for you and generally make sure your clothes are perfect for youI know this isn't true in all cases, but as George Clooney says in Up in the Air, "I'm like my mother, I stereotype. It's faster.". I see this a lot at the various functions I go to. I see men whose clothes look fantastic, like they just stepped off a catwalk, while I'm there looking like I woke up in a ditch in my suit and rolled along to crash whatever reception I just found myself at. But you can just tell that these men have no idea how an iron works. They just open their wardrobe and see whatever Mama has left for them.
As great as Italian style is, there's also something to be said for people who usually look like a dog's dinner and then suddenly put in a bit of work. Yes, Italian style is effortless, but sometimes, knowing the wearer has put in a little bit of effort can look good too.
This post brought to you with a healthy dose of Irish begrudgery.
I'm a man of good intentions. You should see my to-do list, it's full of good - nay, great - intentions. Chances are I'll get around to half of them. I start a project and lose interest halfway through. I'd like to say that it's because I'm like Jay-Z, I do one thing then I'm on to the next one. For example, I was so impressed by Brigada Creative's Life Calendar that I spent a few hours and knocked together a version in PHP. As you can see, that lasted all of nine days, before I got bored with that and moved onto the next thing.
But I think we both know that's not true. The problem is that I'm easily distracted and this affects my follow-through. With the life calendar thing, once the novelty wore off, I started to forget it was there and I forgot to update it. I could have set a reminder in my calendar, telling me to update it, but this would involve clicking "okay" to the reminder, firing up a browser, logging into the back-end, and then updating it. That's at least two steps too many for me. My browser would launch and I'd forget what I opened it for and then I'd get sucked into my Google Reader.
What I love about the Everyday App is that it's just the right amount of steps for me, for my weaknesses. It reminds me to take a photo of myself each day, and from the reminder, I can immediately take a photo of myself. It's frictionless. It's perfect for people like me.
Plus, I don't mind taking photos in my lift with its really unflattering fluorescent light just after I have gone running and when I look like a sweaty, exercising hobo. Win-win.
There's a lot that could be said about Mark Harris' recent article for GQ, The Day the Movies Died, but I'm just going to say a couple of things.
First is to say that articles like this are so regular, I think they're the basis of the calendar in some civilizations. Every year, around Oscar time, someone comes out and proclaims that movies have finally reached bottom, as if things have changed suddenly since the previous year, when they proclaimed the exact same thing. Just like the year before. And the year before that, too. These are are nothing more than trolling articles. They're designed to cause controversy, rather than to put forward a legitimate argument. In a way, it's sort of ironic: writers complaining about Hollywood's selling out the last of their artistic integrity in favour of a few extra bums in seats by churning out deliberately 'shocking' bullshit-pieces like this in favour of chasing a few extra page views.
That kind of thinking is why Hollywood studio filmmaking, as 2010 came to its end, was at an all-time low—by which I don't mean that there are fewer really good movies than ever before ... but that it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide.
First off, alarm bells should be sound every time you see a blanket statement like "Hollywood studio filmmaking was at an all-time low in 2010" without any sort of facts or figures to support it. Since it takes all of three minutes to fire up IMDb and find out if he's right, let's take a look for ourselves. I guess I'll use Warner Bros. (not counting its subsidiaries) as an example. Ignoring any shorts, or direct-to-video movies, Warner Bros. distributed 25 films in 2010, 17 of which were original properties -- i.e., not sequels, remakes or based on an existing property. In 2009, they distributed 24 films, only 13 of which were original properties. 2008 was worse still. Again, they distributed 24 films, only 10 of which were original properties. I'm not saying 2010 was a particularly great year for original films, or that it even holds a candle to, say, 2001, but we can easily demonstrate that Harris was completely wrong in saying that "Hollywood studio filmmaking was at an all-time low in 2010" - why should we trust the rest of his article?
So here's what's on tap two summers from now: an adaptation of a comic book. A reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a TV show. A sequel to a sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a young-adult novel.
While this is all true it's worth pointing out that Warner Brothers have 51 completely original properties lined up for 2012. And those are just the ones that are big enough to warrant a listing this far in advance. Also, let's just remember, that's 51 films from just one studio - I really can't be bothered going through all the rest and counting them all. Point is: yes, there's a lot of recycling, but really, nine films?
... And soon after: Stretch Armstrong. You remember Stretch Armstrong, right? That rubberized doll you could stretch and then stretch again, at least until the sludge inside the doll would dry up and he would become Osteoporosis Armstrong? A toy that offered less narrative interest than bingo?
Remember when it was announced that Hollywood would be making a movie based on Facebook? Remember the jokes? "Oh, it's going to be two hours of someone sitting at a computer click "like" on things?" It turned out to be one of the best movies of the year. I'm not going to be rushing to Paddy Power to put money on Stretch Armstrong picking up the 'best picture' oscar. I'm just saying that you shouldn't write it off just because you can't see the possibilities.
So cable has become the custodian of the "good" niche; entities like HBO, Showtime, and AMC have found a business model with which they can satisfy a deep public appetite for long-form drama.
AMC? The same AMC that dropped the jaw-droppingly superb and completely original Rubicon in favour of the dreadful, painfully derivative, "zombies are popular now, right?" fanboy-appealing Walking Dead? That AMC, Mark?
I realise this is entirely personal because I lovedRubicon, and I'm still gutted that AMC killed it before audiences had a chance to discover it. And so I think that holding AMC up as a bastion of original storytelling is just stupid.
(Now, if you don't mind, I'll be over here burning candles in my shrine to Rubicon, Party Down and Terriers.)
Of all the things to not like about Crystal Skull, the thing that annoyed me most was the way Señor Spielbergo backpedalled about mostly relying physical effects, to keep it stylistically in line with the rest of the films in the series. Now, rather than having Terry Leonard actually getting dragged along behind an actual giant truck, hardly a shot went by in Crystal Skull without some sort of digital touch-up, whether it's a set they couldn't be bothered to build or a fucking monkey with a 1950s greaser haircut (really?).
All that said, here are my least favourite 16 seconds of that entire movie, the part that almost makes me give up entirely. Fortunately, they happen right at the end, so I can watch most of the movie without wanting to throw something at my TV.
Here we have a set of giant cogs closing in, destroying the only way out. Bad news, right? Except watch the way the characters react to this. Watch Harrison Ford's reaction. Everyone just strolls along, as if this kind of thing happens all the time, so why worry about itI also have a pet theory, which I don't think I've ever written about before. Watch Marion in this movie. Watch her stupid grin as she drives them over the waterfall. I'm convinced that she has somehow come to the realisation that she's one of the protagonists in an action movie and she cannot die. If it's deliberate, it's brilliantly post-modern. If it's accidental, it's a testament to just how much cocaine Karen Allen did in the 80s? Christ, I've seen people more stressed out about setting the alarm and leaving the house before the timer runs out. Where's the sense of urgency? Without urgency, where's the sense of danger?
I bet this is how it went: Señor Spielbergo said to the actors "Listen guys, I know you're all old and tired, so don't sweat it. Take your time. It doesn't matter how long you take to get across here, we'll get the ILM guys to make it so that the cogs close just behind you." Compare this to the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones is running from a boulder. Although it was only made out of fibreglass, that boulder weighed around 300 pounds. And you know what? That's real fear you see on Harrison Ford's face as he's running. That's real urgency in his movements.
Some things you just can't fix in post-production.
Boy, is my face red. I've been living around the corner -- literally a 20 metre walk -- from Roma Sparita for the past 3 years, and I never once popped in to give it a go.
To be fair, it's not like I should have expected much. From the outside, it's just another unassuming restaurant in the corner of a piazza with a menu advertising the same cucina Romana you find in on every street and every piazza in Rome. There's nothing that stands out about its menu. Plus, there are two major flags that I tend to watch out for when judging a restaurant. First, it's beside a fairly solid tourist attraction -- Santa Cecelia -- which is usually a sure sign of a shithole that doesn't care about quality (Trying to find a good place to eat around St. Peter's is like walking through a culinary minefield). Secondly, it's within spitting distance from Piazza dei Mercanti. Have you ever seen the restaurants there? One of them is decked out with a bunch of fake crap on the walls which is supposed to make it look like a ye olde trattoria but actually makes it seem like you're eating right in the Pirates of the Caribbean. The other puts on a pantomime show during the summer, with people opening the windows of the building and shouting out of them. The whole thing is like a weird, distracting 18th century Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in. Both restaurants are extremely gimmicky and going heavily after the tourist market. Not that there's anything wrong with that, and they both seem like they do great business there. But it also means that I've been painting Roma Sparita with the same brush.
Here's the embarrassing part: it took an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations to get me to check out Roma Sparita. Or, more specifically, their cacio e pepe. Now, cacio e pepe is my favourite pasta dish. It's the one I always pounce on when I see it on a menu. Up until now, Da Augusto has been my favourite, by a long way. So my wife and I are watching No Reservations and we see Piazza Santa Cecilia and both shout 'Hey! That's Piazza Santa Cecilia!" But when they brought out the cacio e pepe, I leaned a little closer. Okay, so the whole thing is a little gimmicky, coming in a edible bowl made of parmesan. Then Bourdain started eating and his hyperbole glands kicked in. "I'm sure this is illegal somewhere," "This could be the greatest thing in the history of the world" (ACTUAL QUOTE), "In order to enjoy this plate of food, what would I be willing to sacrifice from my past? ... Catcher in the Rye... My third, fifth, seventh and ninth acid trips... my first sexual experience, definitely." You get the picture.
So we took a stroll around last night. We got there at about 8.30pm without having booked ahead, and we were the first guests to be put into the 'overflow' part of the restaurant. I started worrying that we were getting shoved into the 'chump' (read: tourist) part, but the whole thing filled up within a few minutes. It was extremely popular. For starter, I got the bresaola with rocket and parmesan, my wife got the carciofi alla romana. Both were excellent, solid dishes, and very well done. When it came time to order our pasta, the waiter didn't even wait for us to say anything, he just said "Cacio e pepe?" with a little wink. I think my defences must have been up because I wasn't sure how to interpret the wink. Was he onto us? Was he saying "You look like Americans who saw this place on Anthony Bourdain and of course you've just come for the cacio e pepe." Or was he saying "We know we knock this shit out of the park, so why would you ever want to order anything else?"
Turns out, it was the latter. It was a room full of Romans and everyone, I mean everyone, ordered the cacio e pepe. And for good reason.
That was easily the best cacio e pepe I have ever tasted. It follows a slightly different recipe - rather than being the traditional pasta covered in grated cheese and an assload of pepper with a drizzle of oil and leaving it to the eater to mix up, Roma Sparita cook the cheese and pepper sauce with butter which, in a Roman kitchen, is almost unheard of, before tossing in all the pasta and coating it all in the pan. It's a great way of doing it, and one I think I'll be copying when I make the dish myself. And then there's the parmesan bowl, the 'gimmick'. Personally, I left the entire bowl until the end and ate that as one giant crispy, cheesy flavour-bomb1.
It was a delicious blast of umami and an amazing way to finish the meal. Leaving the place, my wife asked how we were going to manage the next few months. We have so many restaurants left to try in Rome before we leave, and all we want to do now is go back to Roma Sparita and gorge ourselves on the cacio e pepe. I told her I don't think there would be any shame in that.
I also tend to eat my french fries before my burger, and then eat around the burger, leaving the pickle right in the middle until the final bite
Last week, News Corp unveiled their latest attempt to figure out this whole 'new media' thing with the launch of The Daily, an iPad-only newspaper-magazine hybrid that is published, uh... dailyLike Abed from Community, News Corp aren't great at coming up with names. It wasn't the smoothest launch ever and it has already drawn a couple of complaints from the tech community. The first is that the app itself is slow and badly programmed. Gruber timed how long it took from launching the app to actually reading a single thing - one minute and twenty seconds.
This is just a teething problem, and I'm sure it'll be fixed in later versions of the app. I mean, Loren Brichter managed to fix problems with The Daily's carousel (the thing you use to navigate the different articles) in around two hours. I don't think this is a show-stopper.
The other issue is more complicated. People like Ben Brooks complain that the biggest problem with The Daily is that its content is stale. Rather than pushing out up-to-the-minute news, The Daily pushes out yesterday's news. Is it still news if it happened yesterday?
With respect, I think that Ben is missing the point, and I'll explain why.
First, as with everything I write, I have to take you on a little diversion that seems completely irrelevant, but eventually ties back into the first subject.
There's a videogame magazine called Edge (or, if as it's called in the US, Next Gen). It's the one magazine I'm completely devoted to, and I've got every issue going back to issue 3. It's published monthly, which means that 95% of the news and reviews in the magazine have been scooped by online sites like Joystiq or Eurogamer. I've gotten into more debates than I care to remember with nerds who said that there was no longer any place for magazines, arguing first, why would people want to read stale content that's potentially a month old, and second, why would people pay for stale content when they could get the fresh content, online, for free?
Okay, so let's take a slightly more highbrow example: The International Herald Tribune. This is essentially nothing more than a reprint of yesterday's New York Times. Who would want to read that? Well, Speaking anecdotally, this is the one reliable English-language newspaper you can get in Italy. It's the one newspaper we get delivered to our newsroom (although it's used more as toilet-reading than a source of news). Less anecdotally, the IHT has a circulation of around 219,188 - not bad for a reprint of 'stale' content.
See, I think the issue isn't about how 'fresh' the news is, it's about the quality of the writing. It's depressing to see how much Churnalism there is in the world. For example, BBC News -- which is where I tend to go to for my 'breaking news' -- is mostly reprints of AP stories. It's an understandable practice: when you've got a 24/7 news cycle, you just have to get stuff out there as quickly as possible, without being able to put much effort into it. And so I'll go to BBC News for breaking news, but I tend to go elsewhere for analysis.
It's the same with Edge. I'll happily take a wobble over to Eurogamer and have a quick breeze through their reviews, to see what score they awarded a particular game, but I won't read the actual review because their writing isn't great. I'd rather wait for the Edge review, even if I have to wait the full month for it. With the IHT, yes, I'm happy to read yesterday's New York Times because it's (for the most part) still vaguely relevant and still better-written than most other newspapers.
With The Daily, technical kinks aside, I think that if the content is compelling enough, its 'freshness' doesn't matter.
(If you don't have an iPad and want to see what all the fuss is about, Andy Baio knocked together The Daily: Indexed, where you can find browser-readable versions of all the stories from the iPad edition.)
Two interesting, possibly not entirely unrelated news stories in the past week.
First is the really sad news that Waterstones is closing its two Dublin stores. I'm genuinely quite upset about this. Not only because I know a few fantastic people who work there, but also (and slightly selfishly) because I loved going into these shops. The Dawson Street branch is like a Georgian oasis of peace and quiet. I'm less excited about returning home to Dublin now that Waterstones is gone.
Then there's the news that for the first time, Amazon sold more kindle e-books than paperbacks. Amazon claim that for every 100 paperbacks sold in the last quarter of 2010, it sold 115 kindle e-books. I'd love to see the actual figures here. It could be, as Steve Jobs suggests, that people just don't read anymore, in which case the entire story is a statistical blip and not worth getting too excited about. I'm guessing it's not, and we're seeing a genuine shift in the way people read.
When I was back home in Dublin, I took a stroll around Waterstones in the Jervis Centre. I spent almost an hour browsing because, like I said, it's a nice place to take your time in. Although I had three books in my hands (Bad Science, Operation Mincemeat and The Good Fairies of New York, if you're interested), I put them back. I realised buying them would take up precious space in my suitcase for the trip back -- space that could be used for Tayto and Ballymaloe relish -- and then I'd have to find space for them on already-overflowing shelves. While I was sitting down for coffee later, I bought the Kindle versions of the three three books I had been looking at.
Now I feel pretty bad.
But at the same time, I think now is a good time for publishers and booksellers (the bricks-and-mortar kind) to tackle this problem. Because they have something powerful that Amazon, as much as it tries, can't compete with.
I love my Kindle. I love the convenience of it. I love the fact that I've got my library with me wherever I go. I love that every book I buy for it means one less book taking up space on my bookshelves, one less thing for my wife to yell at me about. I love the experience of reading on it.
But I don't like the experience of shopping on it. Or rather, I don't like the experience of window-shopping on it. It might give me the choice of hundreds of thousands of books right at my fingertips, but unless I know exactly the book I'm looking for, I'm screwed. There's no serendipity.
Retail stores, like Waterstones, have the opposite problem. They're all serendipity. Conversely, because they have limited physical space, chances are they might not have that one particular book you're looking for, especially if it's in any way off the beaten path. But that doesn't matter because while you're looking for that one book, your eye might be drawn to something else. An author you haven't heard of, writing in a genre you don't usually like. You decide to check it out and -- boom -- you have a new favourite book.
Amazon doesn't have that.
Another thing Waterstones has that I'm really going to miss are the 'Our favourites'. A curated section with books chosen by the people who work there, with a little note underneath, written by the member of staff who chose it explaining why they like that particular book. These were always great places to discover something new because their choices were always wonderfully idiosyncratic and always interesting.
Amazon doesn't have that either.
What Amazon does have are recommendations based on what I've already bought. In other words "If you liked this, here's more of the same". I'm sure it's a very sophisticated algorithm and took hundreds of man-hours to perfect, but that's not what I want. It sounds stupid, but I don't want you to recommend stuff I like, I want you to recommend stuff you like.
That's the role retail book shops play. That's the itch they scratch that online shops just can't reach. And I think it's time for them to start playing that up. It wouldn't take much for retailers to offer the option of selling digital copies of books on small, cheap USB keys, but I doubt Amazon will get the 'window-shopping' experience right anytime soon.
Beloved niche PC publishers Paradox Interactive today revealed Salem, a free-to-play MMO that wants to make sure that players take their decision-making seriously. To this end, things you do in the game are promised to have a lasting effect, while more importantly, if you die, you are dead.
Your character is gone, and all your equipment is set loose for other players to grab. There is no respawning, no retention of your name or your stats or your skills. You are simply dead, and if you want to play again, you need to start all over at the beginning with a new name and a new character.
... It's a brave decision, and one that has a far more drastic impact than in a singleplayer game, where you're the only person who cares. In an MMO, when you die, you can be mourned.
I love this idea, and I applaud the publishers for having the balls to put out a videogame that actually deals with death in a serious way, beyond the usual "LOL I TOTALLY JUST SHOT THAT FUCKER IN THE FACE." My only concern is with how they are planning on implementing this. When you die, will you immediately be able to start a new character? Will they ban your account for a period of time? Death only has meaning because of its permanence. It's the ultimate full-stop. There's no coming back. And in an MMO, the character doesn't matter, the player matters. So the idea that a player can just roll a new character and maybe even be present for the 'funeral' of his previous character bothers me slightly, like it's missing the point slightly. Why would anyone mourn a character when they know the player is still around - the same person in a different avatar?
The new port of XBMC not only makes the second-gen AppleTV one of the cheapest devices out there that can run XBMC short of a used Xbox, but it also adds some lovely functionality to Apple’s woefully slim-featured set-top box, including the ability to pump out 1080p video, play a myriad of codecs and web content natively, as well as install and expand your experience with new apps.
My original Xbox running XBMC was, hands down, the best media centre I've ever owned. It never once complained about codecs and it ran silky smooth. In fact, I still keep it hidden under my TV for emergencies. The only problem with it is the hardware itself. The Xbox is bulky, noisy, ethernet-only, and has no remote control, so when I use it, I'm forced to use the monstrously huge Xbox controller, with its cable draped across my living room.
I had been thinking about getting a Boxee box, but slightly went off the idea after reading Jon Hicks' lukewarm review. The availability of XBMC on the ATV2 nails it for me. My next toy.