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departure

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Thursday: after checking out from The Curtis, I took a final five-mile walk around the northern Uptown area of Denver, via the State Capitol. Not much more than a time-wasting exercise, with my flight due to leave after 7PM. A boring bagel for lunch, then the bus, then sitting around the airport, waiting for a chance to sit on a plane for eight hours.

Denver International Airport may be in a weird location, miles from Denver itself, but it was actually quite pleasant. The main terminal has a white fabric tent for a roof, an open atrium construction and plenty of glass, with the soft lighting making everything clear. I had been warned about the single security checkpoint, but there were two checkpoints when I was there, in open areas at opposite ends of the terminal, and neither was too busy. After that, however, it was boring, with mostly restaurants, and I wasn’t hungry at all. Good thing I had the laptop, and podcasts to listen to.

My flight left 1/2 hour late, yet arrived 1/2 hour ahead of schedule, thanks to tailwinds of up to 250km/h (according to the in-flight display) and a top ground speed in excess of 1100 km/h. possibly the fastest I’ve ever flown. (Without the tailwind, that speed would have been supersonic.). No sleep, but I did get to see 2-1/2 movies in the limited flight time; The Devil Wears Prada, half of The Incredibles.

The main movie was The Departed. Wow: the Boston Irish mob was portrayed in lurid detail, complete with the kind of “Irish Rock” music I detest; the violence was sparse but frankly shocking, and even more abrupt than in previous Scorsese films I’ve seen. Had I blinked at a crucial point I would have missed the death of a main character, and perhaps I wish I had; one second he is flushed with success, chattering excitedly; the next second he is a leaking bag of bones on a concrete floor. To a non-religious viewer, The Departed was a gripping vision of a Hell I hope I never visit, one that puts the kibosh on any romantic notions you might have of the Irish. (I have few of those left; whenever I hear an Irish person take credit for anything good in America, such as the Kennedy clan, I need just two words to shut them up: Tammany Hall.)

Heathrow airport was confusing and infuriating. I thought I knew it, but changes since my last visit mean that transferring there was inconsistent. Everything seemed normal on the way to Denver, but on the return the Flight Connections route, to Terminals 1, 2 & 3, took everyone through a single small area for security screening. There was a 20-minute queue to get in to the area, then another 20-minute wait to be screened. Some frantic passengers jumped the queue to try to make their flights; everyone else understood. I was fine, no problems with security or time, but I was still chafing at the delays and the rudeness of the staff. The much-maligned Transportation Security Administration in the USA were positively friendly by comparison.

Puzzlingly, the Friday flight to Dublin was completely full, with disappointed people on standby, and requests from the staff to give them large bags to put in the hold, which I acceded to for the first time on this trip. Why the crush? My pre-flight planning missed an important Irish occasion: St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The Dublin airport baggage conveyors were overflowing, Arrivals was Bedlam, and the bus back to Ballsbridge was slow in arriving, then packed to the rafters. Five girls from the Midlands of England were competing to see who was the most annoying, the winner being one from Derby, as she proclaimed to all and sundry.

That was the trip that was: I managed to go shopping, and stay up till 10PM, then crashed till noon on Saturday, and woke up with my brain, on the table next to me, asking “who are you?” Well, if it avoids jet lag, a lazy weekend price worth paying. It’s back to work on Monday, where I expect to bust a blood vessel or two before breakfast.

Written by brian t

March 18, 2007 at 3:00 am

Posted in america, movies, travel

pack animal

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Earlier this evening I set out to pack for my US trip; five minutes later I was finished. The case isn’t closed, since I want to air some shirts out overnight, but compared to my Bangalore safari last year I’m traveling light. I thought I might have to check one bag in the hold, thanks to security restrictions at Heathrow, but it’s all going to fit in my small case, and will be carried on board. If I buy anything in Denver I may need to check the bag on the way back, but a baggage screwup then will be far less of a pain to deal with – since I’ll be home.

One book for the plane there: an old copy of Carl Sagan’s Contact I picked up at a book sale, which I’ve been meaning to re-read for years. If the British Airways on board entertainment guide is accurate, there will be just one movie I care to see on the way to Denver (Casino Royale), but four on the way back, including Oscar winner The Departed and mockumentary For Your Consideration – so the book only has to get me there. Off the plane, I have e-books on my phone for slack times, and plenty of work on the Tablet PC, which I can even bring out on the plane if needed.

No camera: I may buy one in Denver if I find the one I’m after, or a tiny compact at a good price. Toothpaste and deo in the clear plastic bag in my jacket pocket, ready for inspection, Tablet PC in its ZeroShock slipcase (which I’ve never been asked to open).

No malaria tablets or mosquito killers; no Cat-5 Ethernet cables – either I go wireless or I borrow one. I’ll need to buy a US adapter for my laptop power cable – or buy a new cable. Then there’s Denver, the Mile-High city with the Rockies on the horizon. Plenty to see and do, assuming the Homeland Security Theater Company lets me put my feet down. I may even get to see an ice hockey game, when Calgary pay a visit on Wednesday week.

In short, I may actually enjoy this trip. I didn’t want to go, but since I am going, I’m determined to make the best of it. The flights and half the accommodation are on expenses, but the rest is on me. Unlike the Accidental Tourist I won’t be wearing a charcoal grey suit; the only funeral I could possibly attend would be my own, and someone else can supply the suit for that eventuality.

Written by brian t

March 5, 2007 at 11:37 pm

Posted in america, movies, travel

flogging a dead donkey

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Sometimes a writing idea takes on a life of its own; that is what happened earlier this evening, when I read about the Contrarianism Blog-A-Thon underway at Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog. Jim is a veteran writer and film critic, whose position as editor or RogerEbert.com means he is filling in while Ebert is away recovering from illness. Those are mighty big shoes to fill, so I’m surprised he has time for this. 8)

A few hours later, my Contrarian Contribution is called jackassism: a revisionist re-interpretation of MTV’s Jackass show and its spinoffs as a modern instantiation of the Situationist International, with added Method acting.

It’s as loony and contrarian as it sounds, but reflects my overall position on modern art and culture: there may be madness in the method, but the results can transcend the expected, especially in relation to the intentions of the creator. When there is a direct correspondence between the intentions and the results, it lessens the overall effect. Interesting things can happen in the space between idea and application, between thought and deed, between question and answer.

The link is on the right, under “culture”. If you’re tempted to reply that there’s more culture at the back of your fridge, I’m not going to argue…

Written by brian t

February 17, 2007 at 2:18 am

Posted in culture, humour, movies

idiocracy and devolution

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For years I’ve been a little worried about a demographic trend that has the potential to stop “positive evolution” in its tracks. By “positive evolution” I mean the idea that evolution leads to better, smarter people. Perhaps it’s considered elitist to wish for such a thing, and I know that assuming it would be a fallacy, but one may hope, may one not? After all, we don’t have another life to look forward to, so it’s natural for me to wish for more from this one.

I’m hardly the first to wonder where the human race is heading – as any Devo fan will know – but the trend that worries me is the falling birth rate in the developed countries in general, and among the most intelligent and educated sections of society in particular.

Unfortunately, in the absence of education and intelligence, it’s back to “survival of the fittest”, in my estimation. Today that seems to mean “breed like bunnies”. In poor countries this seems to imply “have many children, because some will die, and who will look after you in your old age?”. In the lower demographic strata of Western societies, especially Europe, this is read as “have many children, because the government will pay you and do what you can’t do for them”. I won’t get in to the politics, but this is compounded by poor education and awareness of family planning, which religion sometimes plays a part in. The Catholic ban on contraception is the obvious example here.

I keep in touch with various people I’ve met over the years: many of them are not married, and those who are have families of one or two children. One friend has a third on the way, which is very much the exception. I’m not exactly “high class”, whatever that is, but my acquaintances are all professional, working people, the “salt of the earth”.

Compare and contrast that with the poorer countries of the world, and the less-educated parts of the developed countries: Africa, Central America, the US South. I was shocked to see the 2005 statistics for Afghanistan, which had a birth rate of 46.6 per 1000 per year, and a 20 per 1000 death rate, that still leaves them which a 2.67% growth rate. I have all the stats in a spreadsheet, so I can sort them by the different factors, and they make sobering reading. The poorest countries – nearly all in Africa – are growing the fastest, thwarting any attempts to improve their living standards.

In the USA, this trend has not gone unnoticed by Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, whose new film Idiocracy was belatedly “dumped” in US cinemas and has not made it to Europe yet, if it ever does. It imagines an ordinary man who spends 500 years in stasis, and emerges in to a world that has gone downhill, intellectually, leaving him the smartest person in it by far.

In my view, even if things don’t go all the way down that road, we are still facing a “cap” on the intelligence of the human race: with the smartest people the best at reading the signs all around them and having small families, while the lumpenproletariat* think only of their short-term needs and desires, and not about how their world will be affected by their profligacy.

I am well aware that talk of “improving the human race” carries all sort of negative connotations, from elitism to eugenics, and I’m not suggesting any kind of direct intervention in what I perceive as a negative trend. However, what strikes me as most relevant to this forum is the way organized religion prevents individual people from realizing their potential in many different ways. Wilful ignorance of leaders, obstructions to family planning initiatives, education sabotaged by religious beliefs… those are the areas where I hope Prof. Dawkins’ book can make a difference, perhaps eventually proving me wrong!

* I’m kidding! Please stop hitting me with copies of Das Kapital!

Written by brian t

October 15, 2006 at 11:29 am

na-na-narnia

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I was asked, today, what I thought of the first Narnia film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I read the book many years ago, and remember finding it bizarre and clumsy. What was the problem? Isn’t it a classic? I only figured it out recently, in the publicity haze surrounding the film release. I haven’t seen the film, and have no intention of doing so now – the book was enough.

The book is based on some fairly explicit Christian imagery, and was written by a devout Christian. CS Lewis, the author, found Christianity after talks with his friend JRR Tolkien, who went on to write The Lord Of The Rings. Yet Tolkien disapproved of what Lewis was doing in his books: why? The problem as I understand it, was that Tolkien objected to the clumsily explicit Christian references and that Lewis targeted his books at children. I’m fully in agreement with this, and strongly believe that children should not be exposed to religion until they are old enough to understand what they are getting in to. I’ve seen no indication that the film reverses this – quite the contrary.

I’m aware that Lewis said that that was not the intention when he started writing – see Wikipedia – but he did not fight his impulse to evangelise as he went on, in my opinion. Today, fundamentalist Christians, especially in the USA, see the film as an opportunity to “spread the word”. References: here, here, here, here. That didn’t really happen with other films that used bits of Christian mythology – for example, the “One” references in The Matrix were never taken as seriously as this is being taken, and The Lord Of The Rings has few clear references evangelists to hang their hats on, despite Book 3 being named The Return Of The King. I could mention Star Wars too – Anakin Skywalker was a “virgin birth” for all the good that did him in the end.

But I’m not alone in being annoyed at all this: see here, here, here. I know several religious people, and I don’t mind using words like “God”, “Christian” and “Christmas” in the relevant context – but I’m saddened when they drag kids to church/mosque/temple before they are old enough to decide for themselves what is believable, and what is fantasy.

I could not let this “backdoor evangelism” happen without remarking on it. I consider Narnia backdoor evangelism in sugar-coated form, just like the Turkish Delight that was the price paid for Aslan’s life in the book.

In case there was any doubt about CS Lewis’ intentions, here’s a quote from his authorised biographer George Sayer , from the following CBN article:

But the author almost certainly did not want his readers to notice the resemblance of the Narnian theology to the Christian story. His idea, as he once explained to me, was to make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life. He hoped that they would be vaguely reminded of the somewhat similar stories that they had read and enjoyed years before. “I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.”

Written by brian t

December 12, 2005 at 9:34 pm

sonification

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Wikipedia, being a user-authored and -moderated encyclopaedia, has much in common with the fictional Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate”. It seems to me that the most reliable and sensible articles are those in the mainstream, subjected to the most eyeballs, and hence the most corrections. The Sony article is such an article, and contains the following understatement:

Sony has historically been notable for creating its own in-house standards for new recording and storage technologies instead of adopting those of other manufacturers and standards bodies.

For as long as I’ve had any interest in shopping for technology, before I even had the money to indulge it, I’ve avoided Sony for just this reason. The first strike against them in my book was MiniDisc, which they tried to position as a replacement for the CD, at least partially, selling pre-recorded music on it. They repeated the pattern with Memory Stick, and recently with the UMD discs for the PlayStation Portable (PSP).

The content on these media is inevitably by Sony artists, which also sets alarm bells ringing; the thought of a single corporation owning the whole entertainment production process gives me the willies. After their takeover of Columbia Entertainment’s roster, they could sign up artists (musicians, film producers etc.), and have Marxist-grade control over the means of production, distribution, and consumption of their products. Think I’m exaggerating? OK, Sony don’t make guitars or drums, but they make mixing desks and recorders for studios, both for multitrack and mastering. They then release the content on their proprietary formats, which can only be used on equipment made or licensed by them.

They have tried all this in the Film and TV worlds too; after the failure of Betamax video – which wasn’t bad technically. Sony make video cameras of all types, including HiDef ones used for films such as this year’s Collateral. They tried to lock down Surround Sound formats with SDDS, but failed against Dolby and DTS. Now we have the aforementioned UMD (PSP only), and are fighting to push their Blu-Ray as the next-generation DVD format, to be played on Sony and Sony-licensed drives, ideally on Sony TVs.

All this means that I have informally boycotted Sony products for at least a decade now. Informal, because I just kept it to myself or to anyone who asked, and may have bought a standard CD or two released on Sony Records, such as a couple by Pearl Jam. As of this week it’s formal and public, because they have stepped way over the line in their attempts at world domination. It was discovered that DRM-protected CDs, when played on PCs, have been installing clandestine services on your computers. These have been termed as “rootkits”, but I’m not convinced that’s quite the correct term; if it really is a “rootkit”, then Sony will be able to access it remotely and get “root” (i.e complete) control over your PC.

This has hit the mainstream media in the last few days, including the BBC, yet yesterday IT news site The Register was moved to comment:

“It is alarming how little outrage there is from ordinary PC users. While Register readers are well versed in the restrictions of DRM and the dangers of malware, there’s little sign the public shares this knowledge.

Well: if I don’t sound terribly outraged, it’s because I am only vaguely surprised. The RIAA in the USA has been talking up aggressive tactics of this nature for some time now, and it was inevitable, if unethical and possibly illegal. It will be interesting to see what happens next, but Sony are completely off my shopping list for good now.

What depresses me about all this is: every time I wonder if I’m being too cynical about people and corporations, and their motives, along comes something like this to show me that I’m not overreacting. Last month it was the poor response to the earthquake in Pakistan, before that the hurricane disaster mismanagement in the US. Mix in the constant “race to the bottom” in the business world, the drive for short-term profits at the expense of all other considerations, and I have to wonder if we’ll even need a handbasket to get to Hell. We don’t need to go looking for it, it’s expanding to cover this world, encroaching daily.

Written by brian t

November 4, 2005 at 1:12 pm

Posted in japan, movies, music, technology

from Heresy to the Czech Dream

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The song Heresy, from the Rush album Roll The Bones (1991), was lyricist Neil Peart’s slightly ironic take on the fall of the Iron Curtain in the previous couple of years. Now all those oppressed people had the chance to become “consumers” like the rest of us:

All around this dull-grey world of ideology,
People storm the marketplace and buy up fantasy;
The counter-revolution at the counter of a store;
People buy the things they want, and borrow for a little more.
All those wasted years…

I couldn’t help thinking about these lyrics last night when I saw a documentary called Czech Dream. Short version: In the 16-or-so years since the Wall came down, the former Czechoslovakia has turned into a consumer paradise, with some of the biggest “hypermarkets” outside the USA. A couple of scruffy film students get a government grant and turn themselves into hypermarket managers, complete with makeovers, Hugo Boss suits, and a slick advertising campaign.

For weeks they build up the hype using reverse psychology – ads saying “don’t come”… “don’t spend” – and build a huge hoarding in the middle of a field outside Prague. There’s some very funny and interesting detail about the advertising industry, market research, and the psychology of shoppers. They get a cheesy jingle recorded, complete with professional singers and a schoolgirl choir, and create prime-time TV commercials. They even follow families who spend whole days inside a frighteningly huge Tesco, to try to get a feel for shopping as a leisure activity.

Then comes the Grand Opening, with thousands of people running towards a storefront with nothing behind it… I can recommend this film both for the build-up to the opening, and to see what happened next. I can say that no-one got killed, at least. The aftermath was quite interesting, with some of the “victims” spontaneously drawing parallels with the Czech Republic’s planned referendum on joining the EU, and the Prime Minister gets involved in the debate. The filmmakers also raised the EU question, asking “are we being sold a dream with nothing substantial to back it up?”

The whole thing really happened, in 2003: you can find real news reports on the “Česky Sen” hypermarket, and none of the above is a spoiler. As always, the devil is in the details. Recommended.

Written by brian t

July 29, 2005 at 12:48 pm