Monday, 30 November 2009

Best of the 2000s: TV Edition

This has been a great decade for TV. And I love TV. Interestingly enough, I haven't really watched broadcast TV since about 2005, something that wouldn't have been possible until recently. Paradoxically, this 5 years of TV-less TV has been easily the best TV watching of my life. No Adverts, no waiting for the same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel, it's all been there in front of me on DVD or YouTube. So, without further ado, let's countdown (and, no, Countdown doesn't make the cut):

5) The Wire. Superlative cop show for people, like me, who don't really like cop shows. manages to turn all the worst bits about policing (wiretaps, politics) into something that isn't just gripping drama, but is also a multilayered and generally critical look at where the US is today. Thematically incredibly strong, and the theme is this: we all get screwed by the machines we work within.

The boys use some technical police language while examining a crime scene.

4) Arrested Development. The traditional sitcom is something which has very little appeal for me. Arrested Development is the exception. Though it's packed with more jokes per minute than anything else out there, the show's real strength is its characters. Unlikeable and devious to a man, they are still incredibly, well, likeable. Did that make any sense? No? Well watch it and you'll see what I mean.

3) Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Office, as the Office would be if instead of being about Slough, it was about Hollywood. And instead of being about office wage-slaves, it was about incredibly foul mouthed media execs. In a word: Gold.

2) The Venture Bros. This one is not so familiar to a British audience, but it's by far the best cartoon on television, and, I think, among the best the medium has to offer even without caveats. Populated with the most amoral cast of losers (the theme of the show is definitely failure) ever to grace screens, the show nevertheless imbues them with a sense of pathos that is hard to find even in the most serious and well-written drama series. Not forgetting that it is hilarious. Unmissable.

1) And finally, The Sopranos. This show was enthralling from start to ambiguous finish. Top points for letting the viewer decide on their own ending, continuing the theme of documenting, but not judging, the main characters' often illegal actions. Sadly, it seems it's a bold move just to let people think for themselves.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Long Form Journalism

Today I want to highlight a couple of interesting examples of long-form journalism. The internet has made it a lot easier to find this kind of writing. Before you would probably have been limited to the stories appearing in the papers and magazines you usually bought.

The first is a story from the New Yorker about Caster Semenya, the South Africa athlete. The piece touches on some very interesting territory: Exploitation of celebrities for political capitalism, post-colonial politics, what the real difference is between male and female, the politics of sport, and the possible routes out of poverty.

The second is an article from the Guardian about the drug gangs and the favelas they control in Rio. It's amazing to read about how the city is basically a loose agglomeration of independent states, each with their own standing armies and legal systems. Even the state police (military in this case) are in on the deal, controlling territories in the form of militias. Welcome to the future, it's looking pretty grim.

Intra-links- A long-form article on zombies.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Albums of the Decade: At the Drive-In: Relationship of Command

Is that a Trojan horse on the cover? I like to think so. The new millennium started with a year of awesome, spine-melting, rock-punk; Queens of the Stone Age broke into the big time with Rated R, superficially a loud, stupid cock-rock album, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead released Madonna (technically late 1999, but who's counting when there's a point to make?), superficially a punk album with proto-emo overtones and a side of snotty teenage rebellion, and, best of all, At the Drive-In dropped Relationship of Command, superficially the loudest, most drum-intensive thing ever to bleed out of your speakers at maximum volume. Of course, these dirty surfaces are deceptive: QOTSA are secretly very sophisticated, they create an stoned-desert atmosphere so thick it's like treacle, and Rated R contains a couple of Mark Lanegan's greatest vocal performances. ...AYWKUBTTOD have a real emotional bedrock, subtly underscored by the off-kilter music (see Mistakes and Regrets). But the biggest Trojan horse of all, of course, is Relationship of Command. Secretly, instead of the hammer it appears to be, it's a scalpel. A rocket-powered scalpel.

I remember seeing an At the Drive-In performance on Jools Holland (thanks, internet!). If they never did anything other than elicit the look of horror (sadly not on that YouTube clip) that crossed Robbie Williams' face when he realised that he would have to follow that crazily overpowered performance, I would love them. Happily for me, and also for people who missed that show, ATDI give use plenty of other reasons to love them. Firstly, RoC has, by far, the best opening 30 seconds of any album ever (featured below). Tribal drums plug directly into your animal instincts while a weird, super-treated, grinding guitar wobbles out an almost synth tone, shot through with feedback, but then, crucially, it stops. A lone bass bangs out a single note a few times, is answered by quiet piece of feedback, and then plaintively calls out again. This time the bass is answered more emphatically and is joined in its call by the guitar and the drums. It's like a non-pansy-assed version of Peter and the Wolf. Then all hell breaks loose.

If this sounds awesome to you, get the album. If it sounds awful, I'm probably not going to convince you with talk of texture-clashes, impressionistic sci-fi lyrics, virtuoso playing and Iggy Pop guest appearances. But I wish I could, because in many ways this kind of music set the tone for the decade, sadly setting the tone for Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, but happily informing the work of crossover angular dance-punk like Bloc Party and the weird rock voyages of the Mars Volta. Overall, I like it because it makes me want to jump up and down.

Christmas Reading List

This year my family is no longer buying books for each other that will never be read. Now we provide each other with reading lists from which the relations can select titles to buy as presents. Sensible? I think so. Here's mine:

"Nausea" - Jean Paul Satre
"The Crack-Up" - F. Scott Fitzgerald
"The Butterfly and the Tank" - Ernest Hemingway
"Endymion" - John Keats
"The Last Tycoon" - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Poems by Christina Rossetti
"Phaedra" - Jean Racine
"The History of Love" - Nicole Krauss
"Don Quixote" - Miguel de Cervantes
"Birdsong" - Sebastian Faulks
"Embers" - Sandor Marai
A biography of Richard Burton

So, who does this list make me?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Albums of the Decade: Jim O'Rourke: Insignificance

Over the next month or so, I'll be highlighting some of the albums that I think are among the best of the decade. There will be no order to them, I'll just put them up as they come to me. Maybe I'll rank them at the end, but I don't think so.

Looking at you reminds me of staring at the sun,
And how the blind are so damn lucky.

These charming words are just a small example of the heartfelt lyrics you can expect on Jim O'Rourke's Insignificance, an album where the vitriol of the sentiment is only matched by the prettiness of the arrangements.
O'Rourke is probably best known, if at all, for his work as a producer with some of the biggest names in indie music (also, and this is an extremely interesting fact, he co-wrote the songs for the actually quite good Jack Black vehicle, School of Rock). He's no slouch as a performer, though, as this album demonstrates. A charge could be leveled against it that it is just a work of pastiche, simply retooling some crusty '70s rock stylings. This would be missing the point, I think. The album's classic sound (and it is incredibly well produced), is used to lull the listener into a false sense of security while O'Rourke pours bile over various, thankfully, unidentified people.
The lyrical concerns range from loneliness (on the gorgeously understated Good Times) to break up fuck yous (All Downhill from Here) and back, making brief stops at bondage (Life goes off) and, best of all, wanting someone he knows, and presumably hates, to be told it's his last night on Earth, and then, when he has taken a girl home to comfort him in his last hours, finding out that he is paralysed and can't even kick the girl, who has gone to sleep because she has work in the morning, to stop her from snoring. Cute.
Enjoy this track, I couldn't find one without the movie picture. I'm thinking Jim isn't much of a video guy.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Best Job in the World

According to some kind of study, the best job in the world is the one which the authors of this blog scrambled so hard to avoid, mathematician. You can even see their methodology here. It's obviously flawed, because everyone knows the best job in the world is Neal Stephenson, followed closely by wildlife photographer where you get to do amazing things like get taught to hunt penguins by enormous leopard seals. Observe:

Saturday, 21 November 2009


May each depression that I make in this paper be the mark of your feeling, the impression that you made... when you loved me.

I have this vision of love as a sort of constantly revolving revelation, a kaleidoscope by which to gaze into the mysteries of existence.

Looking deep into her wide, inky eyes I saw youthful adolation and wondered: could I do it... again?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

America's Recession

I'm going to point here to another example of information visualisation elucidating an otherwise fairly abstract idea: the current recession in America.
It is clearly a public good to allow these visualisations to be made. In order for that to happen stakeholders in any given dataset should be granted access to this data. Amazingly, given its recent form on copyright infringement proposals, the British government is planning to do just that with the public release of 2000 data sets, including, brilliantly, the Ordnance Survey map data. Democracy in action, and something that should have happened a long time ago considering this data has been collected using public funds. We can expect to see a lot of interesting use being made with this data, with a very definite net gain for the citizens of Britain.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Found in Space

In pushing out from our natal world, reaching for the unknown and the unknowable, we expected to find nothing. In prodding at our own boundaries, we expected confirmation of our uniqueness and privilege. Decade by lightning decade we sent magnificent ships, and when they returned, much later, they were full of stories of nothing, of dead worlds and chemistry. With the Great Return, though, we have moved beyond these childish times, this infancy of our species. We have seen beyond knowing, yet we think not on what we have found, but on what we have all lost.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure

I believe that every boy who grew up in the '80s was obsessed with Choose Your Own Adventure books. If they weren't, I was certainly obsessed enough for all of us.
This site is a brilliant analysis of the way that these books worked, and includes some really quite beautiful diagrams of the paths that the various narrative threads took through the story-space formed by the pages. Obviously, kids have computer games to fill their interactive narrative needs these days, but there are very few games which offer such comprehensively branching stories. Mostly, what seems like a non-linear adventure is really a main linear story with optional side-routes. It's hard to see that changing; content costs money, and if you create 10 different endings for a story, most people are going to only see 10% of that content. Unfortunately (economically at least) we don't live in a universe where people are prepared to pay for potential entertainment, and most games are too long for people to keep on playing until they've seen it all.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

National Poetry

The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors
And the boys try to look so hard
The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist
I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight
In an everlasting kiss

The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive

It's clear from those lines which country we're in. In the video game Civilization, one of the wonders of the world was the creation of a national literature. And with good reason: Ancient Rome sought to legitimise itself by commissioning Virgil to pen the Aeneid in the mould of Ovid's epics. America has been extremely successful in forging its own modern-day mythology around emptiness, pioneer-spirit and pointless, focused rebellion. The question is, can you think of anything written in the last 50 years which evokes an identity for Britain? The closest I can think of is the work of the Arctic Monkeys. What does that say about us?

Facebook Flash Fiction

The other day, in the pub, some friends of mine said that it'd be lovely to just think of a girl's name and then magically find a girl with that name to date. I told them to do it. The result is Facebook Flash Fiction:

1) Invent the name of a girl.
2) See if that girl really exists on Facebook.
3) Send that girl a message provoking some kind of response that isn't: 'who the hell are you?' or 'get away from me you freak'. An easy answer was FFF - write a 100 word story about that girl based only on her name and picture, then suggest to her that she write one about you, if she so feels like it, as though it were a type of chain game or something...
4) Hope that the girl in question doesn't Google 'Facebook Flash Fiction' (which you've put in the title) and discover this site, blowing the whole thing and getting you arrested for some kind of bizarre stalking offence...

Wish me luck, I'll update you on my progress with Sophia _____ (like I'd make it even worse for myself!).


According to classical Greek historian Herodotus, 50000 Persian warriors were killed in a sandstorm while crossing the desert in Western Egypt around 2500 years ago. The Bedouin in the area have maintained that in a certain place in the desert, and under the right weather conditions (dry, presumably), one can see the 1000s of skeletons belonging to that self-same army. Amazingly enough they have now been found by science and documented. I assume they will now jerk to life, Harryhausen-style, and wreak a horrible revenge on the living.

In case you're wondering, that picture is of a dragon skeleton made from whale bones and placed as an installation in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. Why? To sell this sword, obviously.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


I think that everyone understands that witches were an actual, factual part of medieval Europe, and that they were, in fact, the continuation of a centuries old herbal healing and spiritual tradition. Kind of like an old-age new-age healing factory.

The interesting thing is that these witches were probably just on an awesome psychedelic bender. A recent book has exposed and explicated the strange mind-journeys which the witches (you try spelling that when you've had a couple) went on. I could spend all day quoting from this article, but here is one:

The boundary between the town or village (“civilisation”) and the wilderness beyond was freighted with dread meaning in Medieval Europe. Jackson points out that Saxon tribes referred to the night traveller as haegtessa, the “hedge-rider,” for she could traverse the mysterious “hedge” (boundary) that divided the worlds of the living and the dead.
I will just leave you with the quote that has forever ruined Bewitched for me:
Harner emphasises the importance of the greased broomstick or similar flying implement, which he suggests served as “an applicator for the atropine-containing plant to the sensitive vaginal membranes as well as providing the suggestion of riding on a steed, a typical illusion of the witches’ ride to the Sabbat.”
Typically, British children are taught the religions/philosophies of a wide range of countries and traditions, but are taught the spiritual past of their own nation simply in terms of the coming of Christianity. I think that it's a shame to rob them of this colourful and interesting part of their heritage. Read the whole story here.

On a similar note (in terms of physicality, not spirituality) a study on female sex toys at Duke University has come under fire from its own Catholic Center. Not for encouraging promiscuity, but for not "promoting relationships", as it will encourage them to "sit around and masturbate." Enjoy.

Monday, 9 November 2009


Zombies are pretty hot right now. Movies, games and comics are all being produced about their crazy, undead antics. However, the best thing about zombies is that they're real, and actually fill an important role in the unofficial power structures of Haiti. In this brilliant article, Mischa Berlinski follows the story of a hunt for one such zombie:
About a month after I arrived in Jérémie, a rumor swept through town that a deadly zombie was on the loose. This zombie, it was said, could kill by touch alone. The story had enough authority that schools closed. The head of the local secret society responsible for the management of the zombie population was asked to investigate. Later that week, Monsieur Roswald Val, having conducted a presumably thorough inquiry, made an announcement on Radio Lambi: There was nothing to fear; all his zombies were accounted for.
It's like another world.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Answer and a Blast from the Past

The answer to yesterday's question was A) Yes. The idea is that if Anne is married, she is looking at an unmarried person, and if, on the other hand, she is unmarried, she is being looked at by a married person (in a most chaste way, presumably).
Apparently, smart people who are able to optimise their thinking to allow more efficient cogitation, are loathe to consider both of these two possible scenarios, and therefore answer that there is not enough information.

On an entirely different note, this video of London in colour from 1927 is absolutely amazing. It's almost the same, but with a touch of the cities of SE Asia about it; lots of handcarts and street vendors. Enjoy.

Saturday, 7 November 2009


Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

A) Yes.

B) No.

C) Cannot be determined.

Answer tomorrow. Apparently 80% of people get it wrong.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Time Travel Tips III

"I know! I'll learn some of the timeless songs of the Beatles, and become the greatest bard the world has ever seen!"
I'm sure that you're expecting adoration instant and unreserved love from all, as soon as you get through the first 3 bars of Love Me Do. For the record, I think this one is actually a fairly good plan, with only one significant drawback: People in 1960 thought the Beatles were "out there", imagine what the people in 1360 will think. I propose that rather than swimming in pools of peasant girls, you will instead be burnt alive. On a stake. Plus, where are you going to find nickel-wound strings in the 14th century?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Justifying Objective Morality and Population

I read a sad story in the news today. A mother and a father are at odds over whether or not their child should be kept alive. The baby is on serious life support and cannot live without it. The doctors say he will live a painful and pitiful life.


The father has a video of himself interacting with his son and hopes that this will show the baby recognises him and is aware of his surroundings. He believes this is enough and that one day an operation may improve the condition and give this baby a chance to live.


The mother, with whom the doctors agree, simply says that this baby experiences intolerable suffering and should be released from artificial life support and allowed to die peacefully and 'with dignity'.


Now, the way I see it, there are two ways of looking at this situation: subjectively and objectively.


If that were my son I'd be like the dad. I'd want my child to have a shot at living. I'd think that any chance was worth taking and that, the baby being a baby, he should at least be given a few years to develop ideas of his own.

I once wrote an entire blog about the (existence) of objective morality. I don't intend to repeat it here, but it was fun. *My* idea of objective morality in this case (oh, the oxymorons!) is that this baby should be allowed to die. The world is massively over populated and natural selection should not be so completely thwarted.

Now you may have opinions on any of this, but to me, today, the most interesting question is this: Do we have a right to make objective decisions (supposing they are agreed by the majority to be correct, for a simple take on 'objective') even though we acknowledge that our decision would be different if we were involved?

Can the higher good be pursued at the expense of hypocrisy?

William Gibson: No Maps for these Territories

Last week, when I was browsing in the library's DVD collection, I found a documentary about seminal cyberpunk author William Gibson. I took it out, hoping that it would be an interesting look at how the future looked in 1999 and that that would provide me with some cheap laughs. I was disappointed on the laughs front, and there is no good excuse for putting Bono in a film, but the film was a thoughtful and entertaining look at writing and, more specifically, about writing about the future. Gibson says that he and, he thinks, most people are happiest living 10 years behind the bleeding edge of progress. I think that as things start moving faster and faster, the number of years will increase until most people think that they would be happiest inhabiting a time before they were born. And perhaps they'll be right. Check out the movie on IMDB.

Monday, 2 November 2009


I'm currently studying Information Visualisation as a part of my degree, so I was happy to see that today's XKCD was a good hook to hang a little of my current obsession on.

The comic itself strongly resembles a key work in information visualisation, Charles Minard's graphic depicting Napoleon's advance and fall back from Russia. Edward Tufte, visualisation and user-interface visionary and scholar, rates it as one of the greatest visualisations of all time. I urge you to take a look at the full size version, as it tells the story of that conflict in an extremely visceral and accessible way. The graphic displays 4 variables: Army Size, Temperature, Position and time in a remarkably succinct manner. It is, in short, a masterpiece.

More currently we have the excellent Information is Beautiful blog, run by designer David McCandless. He produces beautiful graphics himself, mostly centred on current news items, and also highlights innovative work being produced by others in this field.

Finally, because I was a bit jealous of all these people getting to have all the fun, I produced (by which I mean pressed a button to make magically appear) a picture of the words we've used in our blog so far. Looks like know is in the lead, which is comforting.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Time Travel Tips II: The Boom-Stick Option

"I know! I'll get together a small arsenal of modern day weaponry and fight my way to the peak of the pyramid those savages were pleased to call a society."

In the timeless classic movie Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness, the tragic antihero Ash is transported back in time to face the forces of darkness in an Arthurian setting. He has with him a chainsaw, attached to his arm where his hand once was, and a shotgun, not attached to anything. Using his "boom-stick" he saves the day and gets the girl. Great idea, huh?

If you read yesterday's post, you'll probably know that the answer is "No, Nick. That's not a great idea, it's a terrible idea, but please explain why." I'm glad you asked! Sure it would be fun to head back in time with automatic weaponry, explode a few peasant heads, and generally act like someone with all the powers of life and death. But even you have to sleep sometime. Once the peasants work out that you're really only pressing a bit of metal, and it's not really a genuine, divine, will-of-god style power, one of them will sneak into your sumptuous palace decorated with the best that the peasants have to offer (extra-large turnips, and wall-hangings of only the really good sackcloth), and off you. Still, it was fun while it lasted, right?