All 38 entries tagged Culture
December 11, 2006
October 10, 2006
October 09, 2006
Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6033735.stm
So the BBC reports that the makers of Life on Mars have decided to wrap the show up completely at the end of the next, second season. They’re to be congratulated on having the self-discipline to realise that even very successful shows dilute their own success by dragging on for too long; Friends, Frasier, Ally McBeal… the list is endless.
And it’s even worse when you have a show with a clearly defined arc which, once resolved, essentially wraps the story up; shows which had such an arc and then had to invent all sorts of new stuff to justify continuing are rarely as successful beyond the initial premise: think X-Files, which all but imploded under the weight of its own ever-expanding conspiracy theories, or in the movies, the woeful Matrix sequels to a movie which was clearly always meant to be self-contained. It doesn’t take too much cynical imagination to see a third series of Life on Mars with some sort of execrable extension to the premise such as “He figured out the seventies… but now he’s back in the sixties!”.
And I imagine that there must have been a certain amount of pressure to wring some more profit out of it by extending the arc over three or more seasons, so all the more reason to applaud the decision to stop early. It puts the show in classy company; Fawlty Towers, The Office and not too many more.
October 06, 2006
Writing about web page http://news.com.com/2100-1025_3-6119043.html
“Unless there is a serious updating of copyright law to recognize the changing technological environment, the law becomes an ass,” Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, told ZDNet UK. “DRM is a technical device, but it’s being used in an all-embracing sense. It can’t be circumvented for disabled access or preservation, and the technology doesn’t expire (as traditional copyright does). In effect, it’s overriding exceptions to copyright law.”
Good stuff. Nice to see someone thinking specifically and explicitly about the impact of DRM on educational and other fair uses.
October 04, 2006
This is the front cover of the New Yorker’s special education issue. I always enjoy the New Yorker, but I generally associate it with insight and smart analysis relating to politics, arts and culture; it’s the antithesis of trendy, cool or “youth”. So I was tickled half to death by their estimate of what goes on inside an (american) teenager’s head. Of course, I have no real idea of whether they’re on the money or not; I’m just as badly placed to judge as I had presumed that they would have been. But it seems like a plausible guess to me.
July 26, 2006
Writing about web page http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/index.php?id=1397
This article in the Chronicle notes that universities which had offered their students legal paid–for music download services have not had great take–up, and in at least two cases – Cornell and Purdue – have decided to abandon the service. The problem seems to be at least in part that subscription services which lapse when you leave university are innately unappealing, which I completely understand.
Warwick briefly considered whether this was something we wanted to pursue; I'm glad we didn't (and although it's easy to say so now, I didn't think it would have been a good idea at the time, either).
In more positive news about digital music, though, Radford University in the US intends to require iPods for its music students, logically enough, so that they can listen to music. They plan to build a kind of distribution hub for their students containing the set works for the course. Funny how this is the first time the primary purpose of the iPod has been mentioned as the rationale for using it in education.
July 21, 2006
July 17, 2006
Writing about web page http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2101-2256968,00.html
This article in the Sunday Times is an interesting discussion of the concept of being "digitally native" or a "digital immigrant". Emily, who's 20, is a digital native:–
Technology is an essential part of my everyday social and academic life. I don’t know where I’d be without it.
But her mum, who's 55, isn't:–
Though 55–year–old Christine happily shops online and e–mails friends, at heart she’s still in the old world. “Children today are multitasking left, right and centre — downloading tracks, uploading photos, sending e–mails. It’s nonstop,” she says with bemusement. “They find sitting down and reading, even watching TV, too slow and boring. I can’t imagine many kids indulging in one particular hobby, such as birdwatching, like they used to.”
The interesting question is whether this distinction between people who have grown up with and always had access to some technologies and who use it continuously, ubiquitously and in a multi–tasking way, and people who are IT literate but not dependent in the same way signifies anything. Are twenty year olds in some significant sense different to 50 year olds because they're more dependent on their mobiles and they surf the web, email, text and IM, sometimes all at once? The article quotes people who think that the answer is "yes", but they mostly seem to be stating without proof:–
Something as massive as our — for many people — daily interaction with computers and video players is bound to have a significant effect.
And another suggestion is that being digitally native implies an acceptance of rapid change which is less apparent in older people. But I don't think this is anything to do with technology per se; it's just that when you're younger, you're more accepting of or enthusiastic about change than when you're older. Since technology is changing quickly, young people are more comfortable with it than older people, but it's not the technology that's significant, it's the change; you could argue exactly the same thing about fashion.
So I don't know. There's nothing in this article, interesting though it is, that seems to offer any kind of convincing evidence that digital natives are different in any substantive way to digital immigrants except in the observable sense of how they use technology. Whether it's made them more intelligent, or shortened their attention span, or made them better at responding to certain stimuli seems to be an open question. I wonder what an academic who has been teaching for many years would think? Arguments about whether the work students do at school prepares them for university as well as it used to are well rehearsed, but if you were to try and control for that in some way, would students today be observably different to how they were twenty years ago? And if they were, would the difference be plausibly attributable to their being digitally native?
July 14, 2006
Writing about web page http://www.1500videos.com/
Oh dear. 1500 videos, and not a single one of them has aged well. (Disclaimer: this hypothesis based on only a small random sample. Counter–examples welcome.)
It's just a front–end on to YouTube, but it's a very convenient way to review the entire, um, corpus of the decade.
June 14, 2006
Writing about web page http://www.newyorker.com/critics/content/articles/060529crci_cinema
I was lucky enough to get a subscription to the New Yorker last Christmas. I'm enjoying it more than just about any UK magazine or newspaper with the possible exception of Word Magazine. This morning I nearly choked on my Raisin Wheats when I read this opening to the magazine's review of The Da Vinci Code:–
The story of "The Da Vinci Code" goes like this: A dead Frenchman is found laid out on the floor of the Louvre. His final act was to carve a number of bloody markings into his own flesh, indicating, to the expert eye, that he was preparing to roll himself in fresh herbs and sear himself in olive oil for three minutes on each side.
May 02, 2006
Writing about web page http://www.apple.com/getamac/ads/
There's a great new series of adverts from Apple just out. They're called "Viruses", "Restarting", "Better", "iLife", "Network" and "WSJ", and they're simplicity itself; each advert starts out with two guys standing next to each other. "Hi, I'm a Mac" says one (the younger, more casually dressed guy). "And I'm a PC" says the other, more conservative figure. Can you guess how the dialog goes from there? Clever, understated humour.
(I want to subscribe to the Awesome Computer Review Weekly Journal.)
April 26, 2006
So one unsurprising side effect of having small children is that I end up watching a lot of cartoons. There's good news and bad news about this: the good news is that some of them are little gems; early Tom and Jerry cartoons are miniature masterpieces of beautiful fluid animation, matched perfectly to a bespoke orchestral score, with backgrounds which are sometimes glowing, luminous works of art in their own right. Bugs Bunny and the other Warner Bros cartoons are like the best screwball comedies of the same era but compressed into five minutes. Pink Panther cartoons flew the flag for surrealism, and Road Runner cartoons are like perfectly formed haikus in cartoon form, endlessly the same, endlessly different.
And the bad news? Well, there just aren't as many of them as I thought I remembered from my childhood. Within a month of my son discovering Tom and Jerry, we'd seen every episode, many of them more than once. But the really soul destroying thing is that for all the great cartoons that I've mentioned, by the mid sixties through to the early seventies, cartoons had entered... what's the opposite of a golden age? A golden trough? A plastic age? Originality, wit, artistry and creativity had all been sacrificed in favour of cost. The really galling thing about this is that my son, currently at least, prefers the low cost stuff churned out in this period – Scooby Doo, Hong Kong Phooey, Wacky Races et al – to the better stuff that came before it. And truth be told, I can't really blame him, because I have a terrible feeling that when I was his age, I did too.
So to amuse myself through this endless parade of mediocrity, I've started trying to spot the many and various ways in which you can cut costs if your goal is to make a cartoon for the smallest possible amount of money. Here's what I've spotted so far:-
- Backgrounds which repeat. Even very young children quickly spot this one. Isn't that the same clump of trees that they're driving past again and again in Wacky Races?
- Background which can be reused. The very best example of this is the Stop the Pigeon cartoon where the background is pretty much always blue sky with the occasional cloud and thus new backdrops hardly ever need to be drawn.
- Quality of backdrops. Compare the paintings of the house and the garden in early Tom and Jerry to the backgrounds in Wacky Races, which aren't so much painted as scribbled.
- Cutting away from the crash. Once you realise this is happening, you see it everywhere. It'd be time consuming and expensive to draw the detail of what happens when five cars all crash into each other, so a cheaper alternative is to cut to Muttley watching the crash; he covers his eyes, he winces, we hear the crash, but nobody had too draw anything too complicated.
- If you don't have a bystander you can cut to, the next cheapest way to show a crash is to slap a great big multi-coloured explosion or smoke cloud over the top of where the crash is happening, loop that for a few frames and then when it clears you can just have a single frame of the aftermath which you pan over for a moment.
- Cheaper still is to show the crash not by animating anything at all but instead by shaking the camera. A one second camera shake saves you twenty four frames of animation.
- Zooming into a scene. Any time there's a still scene which the camera moves into or across, we're saving money. Moving the camera is cheap compared with drawing different things.
- Character animation becomes more and more minimal. If a character is talking then his or her lips move, but no other part of their body does. Nobody else in the scene will be animated at all. Characters who run move their legs but not their arms or their torso. Since we're drawn to look at peoples' faces, especially when they're talking, this is surprisingly effective, but if you consciously look at the rest of the scene other than the speaking character's face, it's astonishingly static.
- The more you can repeat a few frames of animation, the cheaper it is. Characters who are trying to run away but whose legs spin round on the spot for a second or two before they go anywhere are very good value, and the longer you can hold them still with their legs spinning, the cheaper it is. Likewise characters who go round revolving doors not once, not twice, not three times, etc.
- It's cheap if you can reuse a whole sequence in every single episode. Every time Hong Kong Phooey jumps into his filing cabinet and shakes it around, it's the exact same sequence, and since he does it in every episode, that's about the best value for money you could ask for. Even more irritating, some sequences are blatantly the same every time even when they're ostensibly happening in a new location. When Spot the cat slaps his hand to his eyes in disbelief at HKP's latest piece of idiocy, it's the same animation against the same background regardless of where this week's story is taking place.
I'm sure there are others which I'm temporarily forgetting. I'll return and add them later, then remove this sentence and claim perfect recall on the first try.
March 05, 2006
Writing about web page http://youtube.com/watch?v=49IDp76kjPw
Love this – the Simpsons credits redone as live action.
The actors don't look exactly like their cartoon counterparts (too many fingers, not yellow enough) but otherwise the accuracy of the copy is uncanny – the bit that cracks me up is the skateboard on the roof of the car.
March 01, 2006
Writing about web page http://harvardmagazine.com/2004/05/the-way-we-eat-now.html
This is a fascinating and detailed article about the ways in which modern diets and lifestyles are thoroughly incompatible with the ways our bodies have evolved. The strapline for the article is:-
Ancient bodies collide with modern technology to produce a flabby, disease-ridden populace.
... and that’s just about right. None of this is new news, of course: fast food is bad for you, portion sizes keep going up, sugar is a shock to the system. But the statistics that are scattered throughout this article are still startling:-
- Two-thirds of American adults are overweight, and half of these are obese.
- In 1980, 46% of U.S. adults were overweight; by 2000, the figure was 64.5%: nearly a 1% annual increase in the ranks of the fat. At this rate, by 2040, 100% of American adults will be overweight.
- Today, Americans eat 200 calories more food energy per day than they did 10 years ago.
- “The best single behavioral predictor of obesity in children and adults is the amount of television viewing,” says the School of Public Health’s Gortmaker. “The relationship is nearly as strong as what you see between smoking and lung cancer. Everybody thinks it’s because TV watching is sedentary, you’re just sitting there for hours — but that’s only about one-third of the effect. Our guesstimate is that two-thirds is the effect of advertising in changing what you eat.”
- There is only one window for accumulating bone mass — during the first two decades of life. “Peak bone mass occurs at the end of adolescence,” Lieberman explains, “and we lose bone steadily thereafter. Kids who are active grow more robust bones. If you’re sedentary as a juvenile, you don’t grow as much bone mass — so as you get older and lose bone mass, you drop below the threshold for osteoporosis.”
- Eating high-glycemic foods dumps large amounts of glucose suddenly into the bloodstream, triggering the pancreas to secrete insulin. Going through this kind of physiologic stress three to five times per day may double the risk of heart attacks.
December 02, 2005
Writing about web page http://www.stellaawards.com/
This year's runners up are:-
- Jerry Williams of Little Rock, Arkansas. Won $14,500 after being bitten on the arse by his neighbour's beagle. Mr Williams was shooting it repeatedly with a pellet gun at the time.
- Amber Carson was paid $113,500 by a Philadelphia restaurant after she broke her back from slipping on a soft drink… which she had just thrown at her boyfriend.
- Kara Walton of Delaware sued a nightclub and won $12,000 after falling from a bathroom window and knocking out her two front teeth. This occurred while Ms Walton was trying to sneak through the window in the ladies room to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge.
But the winner is:-
- Mrs Merv Grazinski of Oklahoma who purchased a brand new 32-foot Winnebago. On her first trip, she drove on the freeway, set the cruise control at 70 mph and went out back to make a sandwich. She crashed. Then sued for the manual not advising her not to do this. The jury awarded her $1,750,000 plus a new motor home. The company then changed their manuals on the basis of this suit.
November 07, 2005
Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4413540.stm
This BBC news article reports that a Hong Kong man has been jailed for three months for uploading movie files via BitTorrent. Given the movie studios' relentless determination to pursue copyright infringers (even Warwick gets dozens of C&D letters a year), and the ease with which BitTorrent users can be identified, this was probably inevitable.
What's grimly amusing about the case, though, is not the jail sentence but the actual movies that were being shared: Daredevil, Miss Congeniality and Red Planet. If the three months were for a taste lapse rather than the copyight infringement then you'd have to say fair enough.
October 12, 2005
There's a fantastic new Guinness advert out, taking the concept of "Good things come to those who wait" just about as far as it will go. We see three guys enjoying their pints in the pub, then we rewind time not just to see what happened to them on the way to the pub, but to trace their evolution all the way back to the beginnings of life on earth. Along the way we see London undo itself back to a Saxon settlement, glaciers, ice ages, canyon formations, dinosaurs, asteroid strikes and much more. It's a fantastic piece, even if it's slightly out biologically (we didn't evolve from birds!) and the look on the mudskipper's face at the very end of the advert as it sips, well, mud, is just priceless.
The music's cool too; Sammy Davis Jr singing Rhythm of Life from Sweet Charity. Great match for the animation.
Watch the advert here and read about its making here. Whimsical facts: although almost all the advert is CG, the mudskippers at the end - the creature furthest away from man on the evolutionary scale - were real. And although you have to watch very hard to spot it, near the beginning of the ad the streetlamps change from electric to gas. Oh, and the name of the ad? noitulovE. Cute.
September 28, 2005
Writing about web page http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1109313-1,00.html
If you're a fan of Buffy, Firefly, Sandman, Good Omens or any of a pretty long list of great fantasy work then this interview with Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman is a good read. They're both erudite, witty people, so their views on their own work and on pop culture generally are interesting and entertaining. Joss Whedon on the upcoming Wonder Woman movie he's working on:-
TIME: You're working on Wonder Woman now, right?
JW: I am.
TIME: How's that going?
JW: In my head, it's the finest film ever not typed yet.
And Neil Gaiman on the endless rewrite process that Hollywood insists on going through when adapting original work for the screen:-
JW: I find that when you read a script, or rewrite something, or look at something that's been gone over, you can tell, like rings on a tree, by how bad it is, how long it's been in development.
NG: Yes. It really is this thing of executives loving the smell of their own urine and urinating on things. And then more execs come in, and they urinate. And then the next round. By the end, they have this thing which just smells like pee, and nobody likes it.
I can't remember whether Time is one of those magazines that puts articles online for about a week and then moves them into a subscriber-only archive, so if you're reading this in 2008 and the link doesn't work then, you know, sorry.
August 29, 2005
- Charlie & the Chocolate Factory
Whether or not you enjoy this movie will depend to some extent on how you feel about the main character from the original book being completely changed. In Roald Dahl's original 1964 novel, Willy Wonka, the owner of the eponymous chocolate factory, is a smart, mischievous, fully-realised adult, albeit one who is, as we would say today, in touch with his inner child. Here's how Dahl describes him:-
His eyes were most marvellously bright. They seemed to be sparkling and twinkling at you all the time. The whole face, in fact, was alight with fun and laughter. And oh, how clever he looked! How quick and sharp and full of life! He kept making quick jerky little movements with his head, cocking it this way and that, and taking everything in with those bright twinkling eyes. He was like a squirrel in the quickness of his movements, like a quick clever old squirrel from the park.
Gene Wilder's brilliant realisation of this description in the 1971 film of the book, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (apparently it was felt that American audiences in 1971 weren't ready for a film with "Charlie" in the title) presumably left the makers of the 2005 version with something of a problem: should they try and find someone to do a copy of Wilder's performance, or go for something quite different? Not unreasonably, they decided to do something different, but arguably they took this to extremes: Johnny Depp's Wonka is a damaged man who has great difficulty relating to other people and has that most fashionable of quirks, unresolved issues with his father. (He can't even say the word "parents".)
This changes the dynamic of the story completely. In the book, and the first film, Willy Wonka rescues Charlie, saving him from poverty and changing his life forever. In this film, Charlie rescues Willy Wonka, helping him to resolve his issues, providing him with a family life, working alongside him. It's a fundamental change, and although there's nothing wrong with this new version of the story, it's a huge leap away from the book.
That caveat out of the way, everything else about the film is brilliant. The chocolate factory is a visual feast (ha), the children are cleverly updated for 2005 but just as wonderfully obnoxious as the book and the first film had them, the dialog is smart and funny, and Depp's performance as Wonka, provided you're willing to accept that he's not the Wonka from the book or the first film, is great fun. Charlie and Grandpa Joe are both huge improvements on their incarnations in the first film (although I did find myself wanting to shout out "It's Basil Fawlty's builder!"), and it's nice that the other grand-parents and Charlie's mother and father get a little bit more time and fleshing out. A few things to watch out for:-
- The gag about the flag museum had the adults I was with roaring with laughter, and the children we were accompanying saying "What? Why are you laughing? What's so funny?"
- Wonka's father warns him that he will not be there when he returns. And he's as good as his word; When Wonka returns, his father's house is gone, ripped right out of the middle of the terrace it was standing in. Later, we see the house perched incongruously on the side of a mountain, and the absolute best thing about this terrific visual gag is that it's never explained. It's just presented matter-of-factly for you to take or leave. Brilliant.
- Where is Wonka's factory located? The film is set in the real world – at the start we see crates labelled with London, New York, Cairo and so on. But at various times with various accents we seem to be in England, America or somewhere else entirely.
- All the Oompa Loompas were played by one man – Deep Roy. He's cloned through the magic of computer graphics into dozens of Oompa Loompas, and perhaps predictably, there has been some discussion about whether or not it's fair to hire one man when the film could have given work to dozens.
- The songs have been updated, but as somebody else (Tom?) pointed out, the sound mix for the songs is rubbish; the music and the effects completely drown out the lyrics. Fun use of different styles, though – disco, west coast, metal.
- My favourite throw-away gag is when the glass elevator is flying the characters through the factory, whisking them high above room after room. The effects are a bit over-sized, even for the chocolate factory, but there's a priceless moment when the elevator zips through a room in which – very briefly – we see a bright pink sheep being sheared. Willy Wonka looks slightly shifty and says "I'd prefer not to talk about that". What can he mean?
August 28, 2005
- The Island
Michael Bay, by his own admission, makes movies for teenage boys. What this means is that in a Bay movie, you can be fairly, indeed absolutely, sure that there will be beautiful people in flattering lighting, action, guns, and plenty of stuff blowing up real good. Going to see a Michael Bay movie and then complaining about any of those things is like drinking coke and then moaning that it's a bit on the sweet side.
So there's not a lot to say about The Island other than it does what you expect. The story isn't much, a lacklustre mix of Logan's Run and Coma (Logan's Coma?) and nothing that happens isn't hugely predictable from the first five minutes of the film. But there are a couple of mildly interesting things to note:-
- There's an absolutely stupendous car chase sequence in which our heroes evade (actually, not so much evade as utterly destroy) their pursuers by hitching a ride on a big truck and then untying some enormous train axles which the truck is (conveniently) carrying. These huge axles fall off the truck, down on to the road and vehicular carnage ensues in a genuinely stunning sequence. It's a shame that this sequence is immediately followed by an incoherent, seen-it-all-before jet-bike chase which is a thousand times less well realised.
- Michael Bay has a strange approach to editing his action sequences. In films generally, and action sequences in particular, part of the point of editing is to clarify what's going on. In a chase sequence, say, you want to know who's chasing who and where the pursuers are in relation to the pursued, where the chase is going, whether the gap is narrowing, and so on. Good editing, traditionally, is one of, maybe even the key, way of helping to show these things. But Bay utterly ignores this tradition; his edits are incredibly quick, and don't attempt to do anything to establish geography or the relative positions of the characters. Instead he seems to prefer to make sure that all the images in his sequences are as striking as they could possibly be – there isn't a dull frame to be seen – and that they edit together to make a sort of action tone poem; the sequences are frequently visually stunning, but you sacrifice all narrative coherence to get them. If you can live with that, it's quite fun, but if you're used to more traditional editing it's just annoying. (Apparently old-school editors have a term for this style: frame-fucking.)
- Scarlet Johansson has an amusingly self-referential moment when her character watches the "real" (if there is such a thing) Johansson in a Calvin Klein video. Art imitating life?
- Johansson was just twenty when this film was made. How long before thirty is too old for a female lead in an action movie?