End of Childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP John Hughes.

Reconstructing Rome from Photographs

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

rome-day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems with Italian Cities

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

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

...

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

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

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

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

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

Sardinia

Aaaaaand we're back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, normal programming resumes now.

We're All Going On A Summer Holiday

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

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

Back in a week. Peace out, suckers.

Cooking Italian Food

In The Pedant in the Kitchen, Julian Barnes asks

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

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

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

No.

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

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

  1. Keep It Simple, Stupid

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

  1. Break Up Your Dishes

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

  1. Choose The Best Ingredients

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

  1. It's All In The Cooking

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

  1. Buy 'The Silver Spoon'

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

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

Golden Age of TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fan Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough is Enough

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

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

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

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

  • Beautiful Katamari - barely touched

  • Stranglehold - played for an hour and stopped

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

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

  • No More Heroes - played about an hour

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

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

And, of course,

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

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

Greed is Good?

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

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

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

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

Just let that sink in for a second.

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

Who said greed is good?