Monthly Archives: March 2009

Like It Matters Here Is My Review Of ‘Watchmen’

So I went to see Watchmen in San Diego with Cassie and house-guest Martin. Of course, I’d been looking forward to it greatly, being a fan of the book and of Alan Moore’s other work. I’m not some huge Moore scholar, but I loved Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and I’ve read some issues of Top Ten (another “what if” story concerning superheroes) and Swamp Thing, and in general I think Moore is a true artist.

I loved his novel The Voice of the Fire, set as it was in a 10-mile radius around Northampton over 5000 years of personal and community history, with each story feeding a myth or legend to the next. I come from Bedford in the UK, not all that far from Northampton, which has its own long history. It makes me wonder what dark secrets hung over the Castle Mound, or the site of the old Ford that gives the town it’s name. No worse than the dark realities of the High Street on a Saturday night, I bet.

I’m well aware of Moore’s feelings about film adaptations of his work, and for the most part they are well and truly justified. But this one felt different. Artist Dave Gibbons was on board, and the shots of sets and costume sketches that dribbled out from the production all looked very hopeful.

Friend Brian, he that built these teeth for me for Halloween, had met Dave Gibbons when he was doing the special effects for the fantastic documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (video clip here), and when we went to San Diego Comic Con last year he got him to sign his copy of Gibbon’s own book The Originals, a retro-futurist retelling of Quadrophenia, complete with hover-scooters (for the faces) and hover-bikes (for the “dirt”), high-collar riding coats known as “mantles”, and of course, hard pork-pie hats. There was lots of props, toys, early trailers and so on to see at Comic Con, and hype was at its height. So I had high hopes for this production.

I was a little disappointed. I’m not worried about the retelling being “faithful”. It definitely was. I don’t want to be that guy, complaining about every tiny difference. The sets, costumes, effects, design, vehicles were all great.

I’m not too bothered about the change to the ending. The “squid” would have needed many more characters and scenes: the artist who designed it, the pirate writer who came up with the hellish visions it propagated in the people of New York, the massacre of the secret community in the bombing of the ship, and so on. It was easier to just stick with a “big bomb” SFX sequence and leave it at that. In fact, by making Dr Manhattan the threat instead of some “alien invasion”, you might say it was a neater and more plausible ending (if “plausible” can be a word you would use in this context).

The acting was variable. Malin Ackerman was a bit wooden, and Billy Crudup’s performance as Dr Manhattan suffered from the fact that he was trying to be otherworldly and inhuman, but instead it just came across as “talking in a lilting la-la voice”. Jackie Earle Haley was fantastic, and Patrick Wilson was excellent as well, both of them showing the necessary vulnerability.

I didn’t recall the book being so violent. Checking back, of course, I see that it was, and the film was pretty faithful to the number of punches and kicks thrown during the rape scene. Nasty. However, there were some extra nasty little bits that were added, in one case with reason, in others without. I wouldn’t mind, but it did seem to enjoy lingering on some bits.Lingering was the problem on the whole. Every line was an important, every frame was a freeze frame. In the effort to not miss any bits from the book, it seemed like they were trying to make sure that every line was highlighted and clearly signposted. Despite this, the actors weren’t always that good at making the line clear, so even I, that knew every line that was spoken and where it came from, sometimes had a hard time understanding what they were saying. Even the bits that were played for laughs (the ejaculatory flamethrower for example) got overshadowed by the films – dare I say it? – pompousness. The funniest bit was Rorschach’s initial responses, “Some nice flowers”, “A pretty butterfly”. That says quite a lot.

The fight scenes suffered from the current trend for slow-motion sequences. They wanted you to see every bullet, every punch, every breaking bone. I think that these superhero sequences would be more impressive if they were done in real-time. These people are supposed to be superhuman, even if they don’t have superpowers, so a fight which lasts five seconds and leaves five bad guys on the out cold floor is more impressive than a painstakingly choreographed and elaborately filmed violent ballet. The new Batman films have it right. *Biff!* *Wham!* *Whoosh! – “What was that?”.

I think overall that my disappointment is that now the film is out, there’s nothing to look forward to. Except for the Tales of the Black Freighter DVD. And the director’s cut with the other 30 minutes they shot…

You Make Me Feel Like A Technical Woman

This is my post for Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating Women in Technology, after my pledge to celebrate the inspiration and assistance that women have provided to me throughout my academic and professional careers.

When I was studying for my A-Level in Computer Science at Biddenham Upper School (formerly Pilgrim, don’t get me started, grumble grumble), the teacher was Ms Capon. It shames me to say I don’t know her full name, despite a quick search, or the proper honorific – every female teacher was “Ms” through sheer laziness I think. Ms Capon steered me through my coursework of creating a theatre ticket booking system, complete with seat booking interface, for the BBC Master System. I remember trying to convince her of the importance of having a good acronym title for the project in the style of V.I.N.CENT from The Black Hole. In this she was very tolerant, as she was when I would use my walkman to help concentrate in the programming lab. She was the first female computer geek I ever met.

The name Ada Lovelace is associated with this campaign, and it has particular significance for me in one small way. When studying at Manchester Polytechnic, one of the courses I took was Computer Programming Principles (or some such), and one of the languages we worked with (along with Modula-2, COBOL (!) and Smalltalk) was Ada. Designed for use with real-time applications such as missile guidance systems and safety-critical industrial processes, it was of course named after Ada Lovelace herself. It was a very interesting course, but after I left Manchester to study in High Wycombe, I never used Ada again, although the principles involved were of use in my early career as a PLC programmer.

In High Wycombe I continued working on my degree, and for my dissertation I did an investigation into image processing tools and principles, including writing code which would perform matrix convolution filters on a scanned image. My tutor for this exercise was … once again I am ashamed to say I have forgotten her name. Another classic computer geek. She was again very supportive, allowing me to plagiarize her QBASIC code for reading the scanner output to a raw TIFF file, which could then be filtered by my code (I used a scanned image of a friend’s roommate’s dog swimming in the dyke at the Rye). I will endeavour to find out the name – this is embarrassing. An indictment of the lack of recognition of women in technology? No, just of my Swiss-cheese brain.

A fellow student at High Wycombe also deserves a mention. Catherine was my roommate and my coursemate, and she helped me a great deal, with coursework, and with getting up on time. She got married several years ago, and we met a couple of times when I lived in London. I hope you’re well, Catherine, if you’re out there – I couldn’t have done it without you!

Bringing things up to date, I really should mention my good friend Mira, whom I miss a great deal. We’ve been friends for a long time, and she remains one of the most driven and articulate people I know, male or female. Her work with Virtual Learning Environments is fascinating, and she’s a big advocate for Open Source software such as Moodle. She’s the first person I know to have bought an e-book reader (not a Kindle!), we shared our experiences with Palm gadgets for a long time, and her intellectual and political curiosity (and sheer frequency of blog posting) put mine to shame. The breadth of her knowledge and expertise is amazing, and she always wants to know more. I guess the reason she qualifies for this post is that she wants to make the world a better place, in many different ways, but an overarching theme is that intelligence combined with technology can be a vital tool to achieving this. That’s why I look up to her.

On The Cusp(id) of 2008-2009

~ Better two months late than never, that’s what I always (have to) say. This is one of those summary-style posts that simply serve to let the folks back home know what I’ve been up to. ~ 

As is now tradition, Cassie and I started the Xmas season with a nice meal at LA Prime, at the top of the Hotel Bonaventure in downtown LA. Steak, Vodka Gimlets (Dirty Martinis) and a bit of a view, along with the cool glass elevator ride, and the Logan’s Run lobby.

Most of Xmas Eve we spent driving up to San Francisco to stay with Cassie’s brother Don and his family, like last year. They have a beautiful house out in Orinda, and as they have the large (soon to be larger!) family, they’re the holiday destination.

The 24th is Cassie’s eldest nephew George’s birthday, and he was turning 5. He got the usual shower of gifts (kids these days eh, etc) and traditionally he had his choice of dinner, which this time was sushi. Actually he seemed more into the udon soup and tempura, which left more dragon rolls for us.

Xmas Day was as you’d expect. Pyjamas, paper, gifts, food, drink, toys, music. Cassie’s Mum (Mom) Joan did another fantastic job of feeding us. She’s great. Sugary rolls and strata for breakfast, then more deliciousness throughout the day. Coffee, however, was an issue.

Over the holiday period I was recruited as the new family engineer to try and get the built-in coffee machine to work. I managed it in the end, with lots of help from family friend Renee, printed instructions from the web, and frequent breaks to build up my patience with what turned out to be an astonishingly badly designed bit of kit. You have to open it with a key and remove half the fittings to clean it, and you have to clean it every time you make a milk-based drink. The instructions were poorly written and omitted key information. You can imagine the manufacturers response, “Oh no, it can’t do that. Why would you assume it could?” If I could remember the manufacturer, I’d recommend you not buying.

On Boxing Day (which isn’t anything except “day after Xmas” here) we drove into the city and went to the All You Knead Cafe again, where we met up with Taylor, Aaron and of course Chandra, aka burlesque artiste Ruby White. After a good lunch there in the bohemian surroundings, we wandered up and down Haight Street doing some shopping. Cassie wanted a new Jerry (Garcia) Bear plush toy for Gordon, and I was needing some clothes because I’d managed to leave a load of stuff hanging in Cassie’s closet in LA. There are loads of second-hand and vintage shops along there, with some pretty good stuff, including an original Thompson Twins t-shirt, which I would have bought if it wasn’t for the fact that it was 5 sizes too small, $30 and threadbare. An amusing and incongruous meeting: while browsing in the headshop where Cassie bought the bear, we ran into my San Diego office manager and his wife, who were just browsing as well, honest. No wonder he seems so relaxed at work.

Don and family were off for an Xmas vacation on the 27th, so they left us in charge, with a short list of things to do, mainly involving Hollywood the hugely fluffy white cat, and Nora the pug, aka The Walking Meatloaf. We had to drop Nora off at the kennels, so we headed out to Clayton to Camp Four Paws, which looked like loads of fun for dogs, with large field scattered with toys and exercise equipment. On the way back, we stopped at a farm shop for something, and ended up being shown the shop’s collection of exotic birds, all chattering and squawking away in the barn. Strange little place.

In the evening we looked for somewhere nice for dinner, eventually settling on the Wood Tavern in Oakland. This had been recommended by Don and Darien, and we weren’t disappointed. They were very friendly, the food was great, the refilled cocktails were delicious, and the fact they (accidentally?) forgot to charge us for our entrees was very nice. We left a huge tip, and left quickly.

Saturday saw us back in the city at Chandra’s, for a little gathering to talk, listen to music, and experiment with a bottle of Pisco. It was also my first experience of a Sloppy Joe sandwich, which was very yummy. We started out trying to make proper Pisco Sours, but as these things often do, it deteriorated into random drink mixing. Singing about the Pisco Disco to the tune of Copacabana – “the hottest place in San Francisco” – are you proud, Petty? Really?

Back in LA on New Year’s Eve, I noticed a pain in my jaw, which grew into a huge throbbing and a swelling. I called my dentist (also on his holidays) and he phoned through some penicillin to a local pharmacist. Cassie also had a stinking cold, and she was popping the pills too. So it was that I saw 2009 in with drugs coursing through my veins, avoiding too much alcohol. Brought back memories, it did! (Not really.) It was really nice though, if quiet. Friends, decorated sheet cake, champagne, toasts, midnight kisses. Had I not been in pain and dosed up I would have been up for much more.

On New Years Day we were both fine as far as drink effects go, but we were both still feeling rotten with swollen faces and runny noses. So we ended up watching Arthur while drinking Perrier and eating leftover crudites with onion dip. Not the start of a diet, I hasten to add, we just didn’t feel like anything more. Just to add to the health kick, the next day we walked round Silver Lake reservoir with Gordon the dog, who loved getting a good trot in.

Then just before I had to return to San Diego, we had dinner at Brian and Stacy’s, where we stuffed ourselves after taking an axe to the Xmas tree and burning it in their garden fire grate. Those dry resiny needles went up like rocket fuel. One cute little treat we’d picked up at Gelsen’s was chocolate dipped fortune cookies, which had the usual mix of cold-reading nonsense (“things will change in the year ahead”) and the wrong lottery numbers, made palatable by a coating of chocolate. Talk about sugar-coating the bad news.

The cookie was right though. 2009 is going to be a biggie.

Recent Links, 20090305

» Science-Based Medicine – Comprehensive Refutation of Antivaccinationists Very good round-up of the history of the antivax movement, and why it is wrong to try and blame autism on vaccines. Anecdotes are not data. Correlation does not imply causation. Protect children from ignorance. Repeat.

» The Gourmet Depot Co. – appliance sales, parts and accessories Do you, like Cassie, have an old but perfectly functional Sunbeam hand mixer with one beater attachment missing? This online store has a huge range of attachments and accessories, so we were able to order a nice new pair. That will keep this mixer out of the bin.

» exactitudes: Many photos of people dressing very similarly. This is really cool. The photographer has gathered many people, sorted them by how they how they dress, and then given them a label. Try and find yourself! (via b3ta)

» The Frogs Archive disappeared They let the hosting lapse, and it’s gone! This stuff needs to be out there. The public need to know. Where else can I read lyrics like “Rosy Jack Man is down your pants”, or “Spare me some cock, brother?”

» Wil Wheaton: Spoiler Alert: WATCHMEN is f**king awesome. Glad to hear it. Hope I feel the same way when I get to see it.

» Amnesty Blogs: Inaugural Emirates Literary Festival Bans A Book …and lots of authors pull out in protest. What an auspicious start. What a bunch of narrow-minded fools the organizers are.

25 Albums – New Order – Substance 1987

For the first of my 25 Albums, I chose New Order’s 1987 12″ singles and B-sides compilation, Substance 1987. Strictly speaking, it’s not really an “album” per se, but seeing as New Order always messed around with stuff like that, singles not appearing on albums, titles not being mentioned and so on, I’m not too concerned.

New Order had always been in my consciousness, with Blue Monday on Top Of The Pops in 1983 in front of Lenny Henry in an Easter Bunny suit, but it was 1987-1989 that really switched me on. True Faith is my favourite song, of all time, by any band, no question. It charted, it had a great video. Then the remix of Blue Monday came out, with the extra chipmunk voices in the background extorting me to “Wake up!” and “Get down! Get Down!”. My close friend at the time, Paul, the only person to whom I have been able legitimately to say, “I thought you were dead”, was dabbling with electronic music, and was very pleased to be able to recreate the classic inhuman drum riff. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Paul in this series of articles.

In early 1989, I went on a school skiing trip with Paul and many others to Valmorel Piancavallo in Italy. Everyone brought their walkmen, and I brought a little pair of unpowered speakers, which furnished our dorm room with choons. Over the course of the week, the speakers became covered in stickers obtained from Kinder Eggs, but that’s another story. I don’t think they compromised the otherwise perfect tone the speakers gave.

Someone in the room brought the chunky, beautifully packaged double cassette version of Substance. I must have bought 5 sets of batteries over the week, so the guy in the shop must have wondered about this English twit buying Kinder Eggs and batteries. At first I always wanted to hear True Faith– that background synth line in the chorus, the teenage angsty lyrics about a lost childhood (it resonated with my experiences with bullying), the thunderous (even over 1″ cones) bass drum and bass line. But as the days passed, I found myself listening to the other tracks, the other sides.

I loved the way the final flourish at the end of Bizarre Love Triangle gave a couple of seconds of peace before the pounding of True Faith. Then I loved the frog noises in The Perfect Kiss. Then Subculture grabbed me. Then Shellshock. Mind you, by this time I was back in the UK with my own version. I had it taped for walkman play while cycling, so that the swirling lead-out on True Faith faded into the drone and toms of In A Lonely Place.

It was the B-sides that got me into melancholic staring-into-the-middle distance stuff. Grainy black-and-white. You know the deal. Add a funeral march drumbeat to a soaring synth line, and I’m hooked. Working back through the early post-Joy Division tracks, hearing the influence of the electronics (and the party drugs) creep in, coming back to the start with the simple niceness of Ceremony, then again through to the awesome chiming “brang” guitars in Temptation, and back round to the disco hits. I could (and did) listen to this album repeatedly.

After Substance 1987, I bought Technique, the Ibiza album. Shortly after that World In Motion, the 1990 England football song, was ubiquitous and slightly embarrassing. But then Bernard Albrecht Sumner did say in an interview later that they always wanted to be more for pubgoing football types rather than spotty students. I definitely fell into the latter camp.

For a period in the early 90’s, Friend Robin and I had a stupid little game where we would drop New Order song titles into normal conversation. I know, I know. We were young.

Later, based on the solemn B-sides, I got some Joy Division stuff. I should probably drop the phrase “glacial beauty” in here somewhere. In 1992 I bought Republic, and was underwhelmed. The single Regret is great, but it hangs heavy on me because of events of that time. Plus the video made huge use of that flashing over-exposure trick that later became a huge cliche. I saw New Order live in 1993 at the Reading Festival. The video New Order Story is very interesting, and has some cool imagery in it, and some funny banter. But the egos of the group, and to a much greater extent those around them, take the shine off it, and worst of all Bono (he of the offshore tax haven) is in it.

But then, they’re only human. Despite the synths, drum machines and stark fragments of lyric which attracted me in the first place, it’s the human face and the ecstatic melancholy of this album which keeps me coming back.

25 Albums – The Reasoning

As a result of a recent Facebook meme going around, I created a list of 25 albums that I have loved over the years. They’re not in any order, and it could be said they are not my favourite albums of all time. Things, people, tastes and hairstyles change (thank goodness). But I thought it would be interesting to revisit each album in turn over the next few weeks decades, and write a little about why each one found it’s way into this list. Brace yourself for nostalgia, more information than you need or desire, apologetic defensiveness, and statements along the lines of, “Well, I like it”.

More links will appear as I go.

25 Albums