Friday, 19 November 2010

Instant Water, Just Add Water

[Scene: a dishevelled bedroom, day]

Microsoft: Tom! Hey, Tom! Look!!! A shiny, fun-looking pinball game on Xbox Arcade... and it's FREE! Completely FREE!!!

Me: Wow, really? I have been known to enjoy pinball games... Sure it's not just a trial version?

MS: NO!!! How could you suggest such a thing?!? See there, where it says "Full Game", prominently, next to the title? We're GIVING you this game! We're just THAT NICE!!! WE LOVE YOU!!!

Me: Well, OK then... It's free, what's the harm?

[downloads game]

Hey, wait a minute... I have the game, but when I pick a table it tells me to "unlock" it... and to do that I have to pay! I thought you said this was free?

MS: Yes, of course it is!

Me: But the tables cost money?

MS: Oh yes!

Me: So it's free to own the game... but not to play it?

MS: Of course you can play it! Look, you can open the Options Menu... then CLOSE the Options Menu!!! Look how shiny it is! Listen to the funky music! Just like being in an arcade!!!

Me: Right...

MS: Like being in an arcade without any money, to be sure... But you could still walk around watching OTHER people play, or just admire the shininess and.... beepiness of the machines... on an aesthetic level!!!

Me: I've changed my mind. Please go away.

MS: DON'T GO!!! You haven't heard all about our new offer! How would you like... A FREE CAR?!? A COMPLETELY free car! WOW!!! Of course, you'll have to pay £10,000 or so to fit an engine, but the car is free!!! FREEEEEE!!!


[cavernous silence, punctuated only by the sounds of Microsoft HQ quietly burning to the ground]

(picture courtesy of The Honest Car Salesman)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

A Strange Serpent

If you're one of these tedious people who like to go around saying "Shakespeare wasn't actually very good" or, the milder version, "people who laugh when they see his plays just want to show how clever they are"... Kindly read the following extract from Antony and Cleopatra, then add yourself to my ever-growing Fuck Off List:

Lepidus: What manner o' thing is your crocodile?

Antony: It is shap'd, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just as high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.

Lepidus: What colour is it of?

Antony: Of its own colour too.

Lepidus: 'Tis a strange serpent.

Antony: 'Tis so. And the tears of it are wet.

Not only is it genuinely funny, but even to a few lines of throwaway silliness, he brings that familiar verbal flourish. Almost annoyingly good, really. Still, a class act.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Hitchens and India: the Moment of Truth

Finally, a perfect test of Christopher Hitchens' good faith, or lack thereof, when it comes to US foreign policy and the Obama presidency:

US President Barack Obama has backed India's ambition for permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

In an address to India's parliament at the end of a three-day visit, Mr Obama lavishly praised India's development.

His remarks will delight India, which has been lobbying for a seat at the UN's top table for years.

Analysts say it does not mean India will get a permanent seat immediately; the unspecified UN reforms Mr Obama mentioned could take years.

The US leader also said the Washington-Delhi relationship would be one of this century's defining partnerships.

For years now, he's been whining on in his Slate column about how the West bribes and flatters Pakistan when it should be courting India. I happen to agree rather strongly with this assessment, but unfortunately have to question the motives at work here. His harshest criticisms have, as usual, been reserved for the current administration and not the previous one, as though Obama were personally responsible for instigating our cynical collusion with Pakistan. It's like he feels he has to prove his independence from his former leftist allies by being extra-hard on Democrats and soft on Republicans.

Anyway, Obama has just spent three days in India making Hitch's whisky-fueled dreams come true: establishing trade ties, lavishly praising their economy and political system and now backing them to be a permanent Security Council member. If he's true to his word, we should hear something from our favourite drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay in the next couple of weeks offering, at the very least, measured praise for this development (I'll be generous and let him off this week, as this story probably broke post-deadline). If we don't, or he manages to find a way of attacking the administration on this issue? Then I must conclude, with sadness, that Christopher Hitchens can no longer be taken seriously on foreign policy issues* and should stick to subjects that bring out the best in him. Luckily for us, his loyal public, this includes most other subjects under the sun.

*Many would say this has been the case since at least 2002. I have generally found this view to be unfair, but am finding it increasingly hard to disagree.

Monday, 4 October 2010

EXCLUSIVE: World Peace Declared

The world continues to be a terrifying and violent place. The latest round of Middle East “peace” talks look to be, to no-one's surprise, collapsing before they even begin; such talks may very well be hopeless anyway. The increasingly militant and influential Jewish settlers on the West Bank, never knowingly pleasant, seem determined to throw a menorah in the works. Hamas, meanwhile, are the same gang of theo-fascist murderers they've always been.

Closer to home, the fragile peace in the Six Counties seems to be fraying at the edges. First Minister Peter Robinson, a man who knows a thing or two about troubled unions, recently described the increased threat from dissident* Republicans as ”worrying”. “Worrying”, while admirably understated, isn't quite the word I'd go for. “Heartbreaking” is more like it. For those of us who grew up with the conflict as a fact of life, only to witness the ecstatically surreal sight of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley sitting together as partners in government, the very idea of a return to the Troubles is monumentally crushing. It's yet to come to that, but you'd be a fool to think it impossible.

Pakistan, China, Iran... Humanity's long spiral into entropy seems only to accelerate. BUT FEAR NOT. Our salvation is at hand, for the bringer of world peace is here to grant the wishes of beauty queens everywhere. I give you...

...THE SMOOTHIE OF PEACE!!! Can't you just feel all the hatred inside you melting away? Sense the calcified chains of grievance loosening, freeing the human race to frolic together in the golden meadow of tranquillity with the sheep of fraternity? You can't? WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU? Perhaps this stirring message from the godlike fruit-collaters themselves will defibrillate your cold, dead heart:

”We had no idea that 21st September was an international day of global ceasefire and non-violence but after learning more about it and the inspirational story of its founder, Jeremy Gilley, we decided we wanted to do what we could to help. That's why we're helping spread the word of Peace One Day on our limited edition peaches and raspberries recipe and via the innocent Wall of Peace.”
YOU SEE? They didn't even know the day was coming up, but they still heeded the call and came through for all of us, dammit!

Regrettably, I have been unable to add my contribution to the Wall of Peace as my tears of pure, utopian joy have drained my body of all fluids, reducing me to a small pile of cured meat.

*I'm with Hitch on this one: “dissident” is altogether too noble a word for these knuckledraggers. I use it here only because the world (read: the media) seems to have decided that's what they're called, and I don't want to cause confusion.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Poverty and Politics

Fraser Nelson of the Spectator Coffee House has a great post today with the latest on the coalition's benefit reforms – go read it, please. As a rule, FN is somewhere to the right of General Pinochet, but on this issue I find myself agreeing with him to an almost worrying extent. Welfare dependency is a true modern evil.

Living in Cardiff, we don't get exposed to the real, grinding misery of long-term unemployment, but take a train up to the valleys sometime. The most recent Welsh Assembly data available defines almost one in five Welsh households as “workless”. For the most deprived local authorities, such as Merthyr Tydfil (see photo) and Blaenau Gwent, this figure climbs to 24%. Something is deeply wrong here. You can feel it just walking down the street in certain towns; some vital spark seems to have been knocked out of the community.

The coalition's radical proposals will take the better part of the next decade to see through. As with all progress, there will be endless failures, setbacks and betrayals, and after all that, it's possible these reforms will turn out not to have been the best solution. Still, they deserve credit (Universal Credit, haha) for taking this problem seriously. This was yet another area in which Labour failed to effect positive change on what is supposedly their home turf: the eradication of poverty. Perhaps recognising this, senior Labour sources* have hinted that Ed Miliband may lend the government his support on this issue. I hope he does. With bipartisan backing, change would be nigh unstoppable. Things can hardly get worse, at any rate.

Whether Labour get behind it or not, I will be fully supporting Iain Duncan Smith in this noble experiment, and so should you. That is not a sentence I ever expected to type.

*One of those curious journalistic phrases that could mean anything from the party leader himself to an eavesdropping pizza delivery boy.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Pop Culture Overthink #2: Smalltown Boy

I couldn't tell you exactly what it is about this song and video that sends a tingle up this straight, big-city boy's spine every time, but it still does:

Just look at the understatement. In the early going, it doesn't show his parents being abusive, or trying to force women on him; it simply shows an awkward breakfast in an old-fashioned council flat and manages to say it all. The video is composed entirely of little moments like this. You never see any actual sex or violence. It's all coded in the way the characters look at one another and reinforced by the recurrent railway motif.

Another quiet flourish worthy of note comes during the first iteration of the "run away, turn away" refrain. It plays over images of black-and-white photographs depicting a provincial, conservative upbringing, magisterially capturing the bittersweet nature of the Smalltown Boy's decision to leave it all. The images, including some of a very heterosexual wedding, emphasise what he's running away from, but also convey some sense of security and innocence. The familiar is always a kind of safe haven, after all, whose leaving is none the easier for being absolutely necessary. While the gay dimension certainly amplifies the mingled sense of tragedy and catharsis, this story has meaning for anyone taking a leap into the unknown (or anyone who ever has, for that matter).

Now to the song itself. What is it about that voice? Jimmy Somerville is one of a tiny handful of vocalists (Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Thom Yorke also come to mind) who really do seem to have been sent to us from elsewhere, such is the otherwordly manner in which their music cuts into you. It's the epitome of vulnerability, resilience and deep, deep pain, all at once. The rest of the track is just about perfect, too. Like Eurythmics, Bronski Beat knew how to wring warmth from the machine.

In conclusion: if the Christina Aguilera cut I posted about earlier is a textbook example of how to make a dance-based track and video, Smalltown Boy does the same for narrative-based efforts. Take note, aspiring musicians and directors.