Retrospective: THX-1138

There are, perhaps, a handful of ‘hard’ science fiction movies in the world. By this, I mean movies whose primary goal is to challenge the viewer rather than to entertain. Movies like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” ask more questions than they answer, and this is part of their appeal. Strange, then, that one of the finest examples of a ‘hard’ science fiction movie should come from the same man who defined the family-friendly summer sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza - George Lucas.

The history of THX-1138 is a fascinating one, but one which I’m not going to go into detail about here (for a concise history, check out the THX-1138 DVD or Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"). But a quick summary: THX-1138 started life as a studen film, becomes the first finished piece of Francis Ford Coppola’s “American Zoetrope” hippy commune/production company - other films on their “to do” list included “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now”. Warners, the distributors took a look at it and balked, yanking all of American Zoetrope’s funding, re-editing THX-1138 to make it more audience-friendly ("Put the freaks up front” was their suggestion for improving this movie). Lucas bought the rights back and re-released it the way he wanted it.

Phew.

I first saw THX-1138 when I was a teenager on a dodgy VHS copy that got passed around my nerd friends like a holy relic. And to be honest, I didn’t know what to make of it. I could understand the dystopian themes, but couldn’t understand why there wasn’t an actual story - where was the needless exposition? The convenient explanations for viewers? To tell the truth, I wasn’t all that impressed. Things like “Brazil” and, of course, “Nineteen Eighty-Four", were much much more my cup of tea. Dystopian world-views with bleak endings. THX-1138’s ending was so vague as to be unintelligible.

So I completely forgot about THX-1138, except for spotting the references in other Lucas movies. To me, the film itself was more a curio for fans of Star Wars than an enjoyable movie in its own right.

When it was released on DVD last year, I decided to check it out again. This time, it was the version Lucas originally wanted to see, and more. Lucas, master of revisionism, had decided to add more bits to this movie. After killing a lot of what made Star Wars enjoyable, I wasn’t hopeful. But still, one Saturday morning, I decided to watch it.

And it started to make sense.

First of all, 99% of Lucas’ digital additions are worthwhile. They serve to enhance the movie, flawlessly working their way into the background, where you barely notice them, but help give the entire film a greater sense of scale. The major changes, for the most part, also work well. For example, they turn the completely underwhelming “corridor of people” into a truly terrifying “tsunami of people". So, in terms of not completely ruining the film with his boner for extraneous CGI, I think Lucas deserves a little respect.

But as well as these cosmetic changes to the movie, something changed within me. I finally ‘got’ the movie. I remember a similar experience with ‘2001’; years of seeing it and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” finally gave way to “Holy shit! This is amazing!” I could finally look at THX-1138 and see exactly why there’s no actual story. Why there is no needless exposition. I’m completely enamoured with this film. I love the look of the movie, the style of the movie. The sound design is incredible and unrelenting.

And now, the ending makes perfect sense to me. And it’s easily as sinister and bleak as Brazil or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps more so: he finally does escape, but to what?

It seems that THX-1138 will never really get out of Star Wars’ enormous shadow but for me, I’m glad I finally found that it is an enjoyable movie in its own right.

Resources

Manners for Men

Cleaning out some old books, I came across something I’d completely forgotten I’d bought. “Manners for Men” by Mrs. Humphry, published 1897.

From the chapter “In the Street”:

In meeting acquaintences a nod is sufficient for a male friend, unless his age or position is such as to render it advisable to raise the hat. Should a lady be with the acquaintance, any man meeting them must raise his hat. So must the individual walking with the lady. The etiquette of bowing is a simple one. Male acquaintances always wait for acknowledgement on the part of the female, as well as from those men who are their superiors in age or position. But this does not mean that they are shyly to look away from them and to ignore them. On the contrary, they must show clearly by their manner that they are on the look-out for some sign of recognition and are ready to reply to it. Shyness often interferes with this and makes a young man look away, and this is occasionally misconstrued as indifference and resented as such. The calm, quiet, collected expression of face that suits the occasion is not achieved at once. Sometimes the over-anxiety to make a good impression defeats itself, producing a blushing eagerness better suited to a girlish than a manly countenance. This, however, is a youthful fault that is not without its ingratiating side, though young men view it in themselves and each other with unbounded scorn. This sentiment of self-contempt is a frequent one in young people of both sexes. Their valuation of themselves varies as much as the barometer and is as much affected by outward causes. After a “snub”, real or fancied, it goes down to zero, but as a rule it speedily recovers itself and in most young men enjoys an agreeable thermometer of 85° or so in the shade!

Talk Digital: Censorship in the Gaming Sector

The Digital Hub is once again throwing an elaborate, extravagant exhibition, and once again, they’re focusing on video games. Ordinarily, the Digital Hub’s exhibitions are of little interest to me. They remind me of the time during the the dot-com boom when the company I worked for threw large cocktail parties every week, inviting all their friends around to come and get drunk for free. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves as much as they can without drawing attention to the fact that the emperor is stark bollock naked.

However, their talk about censorship caught my eye for a number of reasons, not least of which the fact that I was invited along by one of the panelists. The first, and hopefully last time I’ll ever be on an email distribution list with Ryan Tubridy.

The talk was actually quite interesting, in spite of the fact that not a whole lot was actually said. Well, there were a lot of words thrown about, but not a lot of points were actually made. This is especially true of the speaker from Trinity College who spoke for ten minutes without saying anything that hadn’t already been said. There was a lot of roundabout talk about self-regulation and the importance of classification, but one of the key issues – the one of “what have we got to protect the children from” – seemed to get lost in the discussion.

Most astounding were the comparisons being made. Karlin Lillington, a fairly tech-savvy young lady, made the comparison between parents letting kids play violent video games and parents letting kids drink alcohol. Likewise, someone else made a comparison to physical/sexual abuse of children.

I mean, let’s not get carried away here, guys.

Although, in the case of alcohol, it seems like an obvious link (giving children access to something they’re not supposed to have), neither of these comparisons hold up to any kind of critical thinking, and only serve to further confuse an already-complicated and emotionally charged issue.

Another thing that came up was America’s Army, one of the most-quoted examples of the dangers of videogames because of its primary use as a ‘recruiting tool’ for the U.S. Army. Although it certainly is a recruiting tool, it is not used to help show people how much fun it is to kill things in the army - if you weren’t already inclined towards joining the army, this game would most certainly not persuade you. Instead, the U.S. Army hope that people who are already predisposed towards this kind of behaviour will play the game, and when they finally do sign up, the recruitment office can instantly call up the player’s stats, to see how well their potential recruit did.

Towards the end, I think everyone was in agreement that censorship was the wrong way to approach this issue, and that classification and education were the way to go. A particularly funny moment came when one of the organisers found out that GTA gives you the ability to have sex with prostitutes, then beat them up and get your money back. “My teenage boys play that game, and I never knew about that.” Cue many sheepish looks when it was pointed out that this game was rated “18”, and her boys shouldn’t have been playing it in the first place. But how does one classify a game like Spore, for example, which is so completely open-ended that virtually anything is possible?

The debate about regulation raised an interesting question, and one that I’ll be thinking about for quite a while… how exactly does one educate parents? Point of sale education isn’t good enough. Part of the problem comes from the perception that “games” are the same as “toys” and, as such, all acceptable for kids. How do we convince parents that there are games made explicitly for adults?

Domestic Instiki

Since we’ve got broadband again, I’m finally getting to play with all the nifty things I’d had ideas about, but no way of executing. The first of these is a local Instiki server at home.

I use this all the time in work for note keeping and simple project management. At home, I’m finding a hundred different ways to use it.

Like keeping track of recipes.

I like to try out a whole bunch of different recipes. Nothing too fancy - I don’t make my own chicken stock or anything like that - but I do try to go beyond the simple food strategy of meat-and-a-tin-of-sauce. This doesn’t always go to plan. The most recent food-related disaster was my attempt at making a chicken maryland, which turned out squishy and odd-tasting. Live and learn.

Using instiki, I threw together a ‘web’ called “FoodWeLike”, where I’m keeping track of the ingredients of the recipes that work for us, as well as simple cooking instructions. This is mainly useful because we have a central repository of ingredients and recipes (instead of trying to remember which cookery book had what), but any web server (or file server) could do this. Instikis is particularly useful because as well as a way to easily edit these, it gives us the ability to easily categorise the recipes any way we like - for example, “We really like”, “We occasionally like”, and “We don’t like”. We’re also able to organise these into weekly meal plans. And, most usefully, plan our weekly shopping run using a page called “ShoppingList” where we can just paste the ingredients from other pages, or update as we run out of something.

And this is just one a hundred ways Instiki is useful in a domestic environment. Well, our domestic environment.

(By the way, I know this could probably be achieved using any wiki software, but I’m specifically choosing Instiki because of its simplicity of installation and also because, right now, I have a major boner for apps built with Ruby on Rails)

Bleedin' Spyware

I’m putting it down to a momentary lapse in concentration.

Esat told us our line went ‘live’ on Friday, so I spent a while trying to remember what my username and password was. I must have spent a good half hour trying various combinations (It turns out the username goes in the form of $username@iolbb, not @iolbb.ie as the salesman told me).

So when I finally did get the right combination, I was so thrilled at having broadband at home again that I left the laptop for a few minutes to go bop around the room. I must have bopped for less than 10 minutes before I realised I’d left a Windows machine connected directly to the internet.

Too late.

And so, my first few hours of broadband are being spent de-fucking my laptop. It must have five different types of spyware on there, and no one tool is catching it all. Although, loathe as I am to admit it, Microsoft’s Antispyware has, so far, been the best, having already caught four things. There are still a couple of other things left on there, if I’m reading windump and ‘netstat -ao’ right.

I hate the internet.

Tomb Raider: Legend

Eidos recently unveiled the ‘new look’ Lara Croft, which was greeted with a mixed response in the gaming community. Some cried “WHERE ARE HER BIG TITS GONE?!!” while others said “Okay, we like where you’re going with this. You’ve got our attention.” I think I was somewhere in the latter camp.

My interest in the Tomb Raider Franchise dropped off around the time they made the move to the Playstation 2. The games had lost their way, moving from a ‘Tomb Raider’ to ‘Generic Action Girl’. “Run around the streets of Paris!” the press-release for Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness cried, “Chase across roofs!", “Use stealth!". Well, yes. That’s all well and good, but there are a hundred games out there, doing the running-shooting action and stealth thing a whole lot better than a game that was famously rushed by the publisher.

I first played Tomb Raider on the Saturn. One of the few advantages to owning a European Saturn (since we missed out on all the hundreds of fantastic 2D shoot-em-ups released in Japan) was the release of Tomb Raider a full six months before the Playstation version. And it was breathtaking. Even without a lot of the graphical lushness of other platforms, it was still jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Vast levels gave a fantastic feeling of space. The action was spot-on (even if the story wasn’t), and the music was unlike anything else in video games at the time.

The recent iterations have been either a diluted mix of the things that made the first game so magical or an unmitigated disaster stemming from the developers try to ‘re-invent’ the ‘brand’. Ultimately, the original developers’ complete failure to do anything spectacular with the franchise led to the publisher (Eidos) yanking the game from them and giving the task of developing Tomb Raider 7 to Crystal Dynamics - previously known for Project Snowblind and uh.. uh.. The videogame of 102 Dalmations?

Thankfully Crystal Dynamics seem to understand what went wrong with recent Tomb Raider games and are bringing the franchise ‘back to its roots’ in Tomb Raider Legend by taking the focus off Lara and putting it back on the gameplay. So, Lara’s tits are smaller and the levels (looking suitable Tomb-y) are apparently huge and magnificent, and very reminiscent of the early games. And even more reassuringly, they have brought back the music from the original game (if the background music on tombraider.com is anything to go by).

She won’t be making the cover of The Face again (because the magazine is gone, but that’s beside the point), but there’s definitely still life in the old girl yet.

Gamestop to buy Electronics Boutique

According to Yahoo!, GameStop are buying Electronics Boutique, for “only” $1.44 billion (compared to Adobe’s purchase of Macromedia for $3 billion, this doesn’t seem like a lot).

I can’t say I’m thrilled at this. The level of competition in Dublin’s retail video game market is already virtually nil. GameStop’s arrival last year through the purchaseof Gamezone killed one of the few independent retailers left in the country. Now, since Electronics Boutique own Game, and now GameStop owns Electronics Boutique, it means that GameStop has control of 95% of retail video game outlets in Dublin.

The few places left to buy games (with some value - meaning Dixons and Argos are out) are:

  • Smyths
  • Xtravision
  • GameXchange on Talbot Street (mainly second hand stuff - snes/megadrive)
  • ??

I generally don’t like buying games over the internet. I’d like to say it’s because of the hassle of sorting out returns if the game is damaged in any way, but the truth is that it’s just because I’m an impatient little shit who can’t wait a week for delivery when he could pay just a couple of euro more to get it today.

But with GameStop’s mark-up fast reaching epic proportions, it’s looking like there’ll be no choice soon.

UPDATE

After a bit of hunting around, I found this on Yahoo:

“On January 30, 2004, [Electronics Boutique] terminated our services agreement with Game Group initially established in fiscal 1996”

So it looks like there is still a little bit of competition left after all.

Ubuntu

Every couple of days, the hard drive of the G4 I use in work starts ‘clicking’. Well, more like ‘ke-CHUNK’ing. If I’m lucky, my computer freezes for a few minutes and comes back to life. If I’m not, I spend the next half hour or so rebooting until it goes away.

Finally, I’m facing up to the fact that my hard disk is dying and until I can get a replacement, I’m without a Mac to work on. So I’m giving Ubuntu a whirl.

One of the biggest complains thrown around about ‘free’ software is that it’s only free if your time is worthless. The hours wasted getting things configured just the way you like them do add up. It’s very easy to spend an entire day tweaking your desktop instead of just acccepting what you have and getting on with your job.

The guys in Ubuntu seem to understand this - they’ve packed Debian (the smart choice of a Linux distribution) in such a way that they take all the pain out of the installation and day-to-day administration.

My personal experience is that Ubuntu has detected almost everything I’ve thrown at it - sound and video were auto-configured (and in a nice way too, any previous attempt at auto-configuring my video in the past has left me with a headache-inducing 60hz refresh rate and no obvious way to change it). Bluetooth setup was relatively painless (gnome-bluetooth and gnome-phone-manager took care of this). Today, it even auto-detected my USB keyring and auto-mounted it, putting a link to it on my desktop.

But there are also some things I dislike about Ubuntu. For example, the default behaviour for nautilus (the file manager) is a variation on the new ‘spatial’ nautilus. When you go into a child directory, nautilus closes the parent window automatically. I love spatial nautilus, but hate this behaviour. After a little bit of playing around, I found that it could be changed with the following:

gconftool-2 --type bool --set /apps/nautilus/preferences/no_ubuntu-spatial true

Matthew Thomas recently provided a fantastic round-up of other outstanding issues with Ubuntu.

Other nice things:

  • evolution has some really nice new features aimed at increasing productivity, including an ability to create a task from a message with one click
  • liferea has a ‘condensed view’ option for feeds, a feature I’d previously praised in Pheeder. Even better, this is feed-configurable, so you can set only certain feeds to use the ‘condensed view’. Liferea is still my favourite RSS reader on any platform.
  • beagle is amazing - I know that something similar is going to be available in Tiger, but… wow.

But I still miss Quicksilver. Gnome Launch Box just doesn’t cut it.

Cooking

A couple of weeks ago, on the recommendation of a couple of food blogs (101 cookbooks being the big one), I picked up a copy of Nigel Slater’s ‘Appetite’.

I think I’m in love.

I already own a few cookbooks. Standard fare like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Then things like “1000 Quick and Easy Recipes”. And “Good Mood Food”. And they have all, without exception, bored me rigid.

You see, I’m not much for following instructions. I was brought up by people who were quite happy to boil/roast the shit out of every meal. This taught me that not everyone’s palette was the same. And from this, it taught me that slavishly following recipes is no way to create a meal. Especially when you’re just cooking for yourself - how do I know my tastes are going to be the same as Jamie’s? (For the record, they’re not. His recipe for Chicken Maryland made me quite ill).

In comes Nigel Slater.

His book explains everything I knew instictively about cooking but had never heard from someone who actually knew how to cook: recipes are not gospel and should be used only as a guide. He reminds us that recipes were originally used by chefs to keep track of where the housekeeping money was spent. And as he so correctly points out, being told to “put it in the oven for 35 minutes” will not give the same result for everyone, since everyone’s setup is different, everyone’s meal is different. Everyone’s palette is different.

Another thing I love about Nigel Slater’s book is the straightforward way he presents his food. There is no trace of snobbery in his writing. In fact, he writes as elegantly about the delights of a Big Mac as he does of any of his other recipes. Lines like “there is nothing wrong with using a stock cube, not all stock has to be home-made” have led my girlfriend to refer to the book as “vidication” for all the frilly ‘domestic goddess’ nonsense being thrown about by other food writers that make us normal people who can’t spend all day reducing stock feel slightly boorish for turning to Knorr for some help.

Also unusual about Nigel Slater’s book is the way the writing lends itself to casual reading. Unlike the other cookbooks in my collection which have a brief introduction and go straight to the recipies, Slater’s book has a conversational tone, and almost half the book is given over to best practices - how to best cook a steak, how to best store food, and how to best enjoy your food. This leads to ‘Appetite’ being the kind of book you can pick up and read at any time, not just when you’re looking for ideas for something to cook.

I also can’t argue with anyone who extols the beauty of a simple sausage and mash done well.

And with that, my first attempt at a homemade ragu.

A Simple Ragu*

*“Simple” in this case meaning “made with things we had lying around in our kitchen”.

If you’re like me, you probably buy a load of ingredients with good intentions and never get around to using them before they go off. The three main culprits for me are tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. So last night, I decided to do something about this. I decided to make my own ragu.

For this, you will need

  • Plenty of tomatoes (12 or so small ones)
  • A large onion (or a couple of small ones)
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Garlic
  • Basil
  • Dijon Mustard
  • Dried Chillis

Get a few cloves of garlic (I’m fond of garlic and used 3 large cloves, which didn’t overpower the flavour of the rest of the ingredients), and slice them very thin. As thin as you can.

Then cut the onion, as thin as you can. If you’re no good at cutting onions, or want to improve your onion-cutting skills, you could do a whole lot worse than checking out Peter Hertzmann’s article on “How to cut…".

Finally, cut the tomatoes into small chunks about the size of a jellybean. Keep every part of the tomato, don’t try getting all fancy and de-seeding it. We’ll need everything.

Warm a good, solid non-stick pan and in it, melt some butter with a little olive oil to keep the butter from burning. When it starts to warm up, throw in the garlic and fry until it starts to brown. Then add the tomatoes and onions.

You’ll need to keep stirring the tomatoes until they start to get really mushy. This should take about 20 minutes. Then season well with plenty of salt and black pepper.

Right now, you have a very basic ragu. From here, it’s up to your individual taste. Personally, I was in the mood for something with a little kick, so I put in a bit of balsamic vinegar, basil and a heap of dijon mustard. I also put in a good helping of red wine. To spice it up, I crushed some dried chillies and put them in too. Once you’ve added your last incredients, you should leave it for another 10 minutes or so before it gets really sticky.

This is perfect for putting over your favourite pasta. If you want to mix in some mince, you should put your ragu through a blender first, and cook it with the meat for about 20 minutes until the meat soaks up all of the flavour.

If you do decide to try this, comment and let me know how you got on. Although don’t worry, I’m under no illusions as to how many people are going to try cooking something they found on a random website.

Wordpress spam

There’s trouble a-brewing with Wordpress.

Right now, the Wordpress site is unavailable, and I’ll bet cash money it has a lot to do the recent kerfluffle over the seedy business practices Wordpress has begun engaging in.

Since my blog is powered by Wordpress, I’m slightly disappointed in this. I chose Wordpress as much for the quality of their politics as the quality of their software. Even more disappointing is Wordpress’ unconvincing response to the criticism.

I sincerely hope this gets sorted soon.