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.'"

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)