Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Things that make you go Mmmmm (slight return)

I said I'd come back to this topic when I had a few additions and so here we go. Once more from the top, this time with feeling :

  • Proper old shops (Like Bates the Hatter on Jermyn Street)
  • Boiled eggs and soldiers
  • Old time radio serials (Tales of the Texas Rangers, The Shadow etc.)
  • An ironed shirt
  • The smell of wet earth
  • Brown wrapping paper covered parcels
  • When something new in technology 'just works'
  • Sleeping in your own bed upon returning from a trip away
  • The smell of black and white film
  • Finding the perfect song for a certain moment
  • Anything pleasingly mechanical (clocks, steam engines etc.)
  • Gerberas (particularly orange ones)

And here endeth part 2. I'll keep adding them as I keep thinking of them.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Friends Like These...

I think I must be the luckiest sonofabitch alive. There are many times when it's easy to take friends for granted but I've just had a fabulous weekend full of examples of how wonderful my friends are and how lucky I am to have them.

Had a lovely time out on Friday night ending up with cocktails at The Savoy at 1 a.m. The maitre-d in the bar demonstrated how civility and efficiency can be perfectly mixed. Not only did he allow my companion and me entry at such a late hour but positively insisted that we did not rush to finish our drinks when the bar closed and they wanted to shut up shop for night. That's service and a prime example of "the way things ought to be" and a perfect rounding off to a lovely night.

On Saturday morning my belated 30th birthday present from Jelly arrived in the post all the way from Strayaa. It was a beautiful hand bound book of photos that she took in Japan with her fiancee. As previously mentioned I am a real Japanophile and this beautiful little book just reinforces my conviction that I must visit. The pictures are beautiful, she really has a great eye and the effort and kindness that is evident in its construction made me well up a little as I sat in bed looking though the pictures with a cup of tea in hand. What a wonderful friend.

On Saturday night The Tall American hosted a beef fondue party accompanied by cocktails, much wine, and a trip to The Dolphin for karaoke. Now I should point out that The Tall American can cook, no messing, and last night's creations were well up to her ridiculously high standards. The meal was capped by the most delicious lemon curd I've ever had. There was also some excellent culinary skills displayed by The Youngest Doddling in the creation of many of fondue dips. The karaoke was (for me anyway) a purely spectatorial venture. I have the vocal range of Rex Harrison and it would probably constitute some sort of human rights abuse to inflict it on a pub of happy punters. I finally got home at about 5 a.m. after many hours of fabulous company, drink and scoff. So much fun it shouldn't be legal.

Of course I paid the price hard today for all the over indulgence but a pleasant afternoon watching the rugby wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa allowed me to recover my mental faculties, finally eat something without feeling sick, and gave me chance to reflect upon what a lucky sod I am. Friends, it is said, are God's apology for relatives, which though rather harsh does hint at the importance they have in our lives.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Economics and education

This week I was invited to go and lecture at a northern university about my day job in front of a group of BA and MA students of computer animation. Lots of people were very good to me when I was a student so I like to do what I can to give a little back. Since I'm generally pretty busy in the trenches of VFX I don't get the chance to do talks that often and the large gaps between them really shows up how the education system has changed over the last ten years or so.

I was the final year to get a student grant in the UK, i.e. my education was free. Nowadays the students pay for everything, from tuition fees through to living expenses. This is the dominant model throughout the world so far as I can fathom it and its proponents claim that it enables a freer market to flourish in the education sector where excellence is rewarded and the inept institutions fall by the wayside. That is a fair argument but there is a knock-on effect which is less beneficial to the long-term quality of education, and it is this:

If one's education is paid for it is a privilege and it is therefore behoven upon the student to do what the college and its lecturers expect. The student is not in control of the relationship and given that the lecturers have the experience you can argue that to a greater or lesser extent "they know best". Once a student is paying for everything the university is now merely offering a service to the student. If a student doesn't like something, they can (and do) refuse to do it, or take their custom elsewhere to a more amenable college . Why should they do something they don't want to? It's their money they're spending. The upshot of this, and I see this in every graduating class of students that applies for jobs in the studios I've worked at, is that their experience gets narrower every year. If someone thinks that they aren't interested in art theory and there is no compulsion to study it, then they won't. The fact that in 5 years time this lack of education is going to harm their job prospects will not occur to them (why should it, they don't yet have the experience to know?) This reversal in the relationship of student and institution is very damaging and is serving students very poorly in the long-term.

The situation gets worse when you consider that schools are also now being forced to specialize as arts, maths, language or science-centric institutions. Kids are being forced to specialize far too early before they have had a chance to explore what's out there and then their own inertia will tend to lead them to make equally if not more restrictive choices at university where their spending power renders it practically impossible for the colleges to do a thing about it.

This is a classic example of how an economic consideration is failing potentially talented students, stymying their development and producing generations of narrow-minded and under-educated youngsters who have been sold short by the system. A broad, comprehensive education that covers a wide range of study-areas and produces thinking, culturally aware individuals seems in direct opposition to the practice of turning out skilled, yet uncritical automata that current educational directives seem hell-bent on constructing. Yet another case of successive governments of all politcal persuasions knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. It depresses me greatly.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tom and Katie

John Kricfalusi, the genius behind Ren and Stimpy and all your Spumco faves has a new blog. He's done some amazing caricatures of Hollywood's most lovely couple Cruise and Holmes. He invites us to submit our own scribblings so with apologies to Leonardo here's mine...

Not sure what I think about the cartoon yet but Egads, the teeth man, the teeth...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Communication Breakdown

Communication is a complicated business. So much of it relies on the subtlest nuance, the most fleeting gesture and the crude precision of text does not even begin to capture it. I suppose one of the reasons why almost everyone likes to receive a "proper letter" is that the hand-writing can convey some of that subtlety. A slightly more flowing character here, a heavier nib impression on the paper there, all of these elements almost subliminally add richness and deeper meaning to the actual contents of the words themselves. Direct face to face speech is of course the gold standard of discourse. Telephones on the other hand give us the impression that we are conversing but once again the element of gesture is lost and thus much of the deeper meaning goes with it. We are frequently misrepresented on the telephone because we are misunderstood. Whilst we might be choosing our words poorly, we, consciously or not, use gesture a lot and we are hamstrung when we can't use that in dialogue. Personally, I also don't like that I can't look the other person in the eye; that connection says so much that words never can - it is a basic component of human communication, and yet we lose it entirely when we use the 'phone or text-based interaction.

All that said provided we remain aware of the limitations of our various outlets for expression there is much going for them. I think that's why I like e-mail. It's sufficiently new and has been adopted in that hinterland between writing a letter and a phone call that we are aware of what it can and cannot do whereas we still cling to this idea that a phone call is actually communication. And by this same rationale I don't like instant messaging much. We think we're having a chat, but we aren't. All the subtely and the majority of the subliminal meaning is lost because we are constrained by small chunks of discrete text with no direct feedback from the recipient. E-mail does not connive to dupe us in this way. We are aware that each mail is a missive in its own right, a self-contained article that may reference previous statements from sender or recipient but stands on its own. I.M. doesn't really do this and I don't feel comfortable with it. The use of emoticons is an attempt to rectify this somewhat but they are crude and often devisive since what one person sees as a friendly smile at the end of a sentence, someone else may take to mean that the sender is a bit simple or glib. There is no subtlety and the opportunities for gross misunderstandings are still massive (though we fool ourselves that the emoticons convey precise meaning). One interesting variant which doesn't suffer from this dichotemy between what we think a device can do and what it actually does is SMS text messaging. Once again, like e-mail, it does not misrepresent what it is capable of. Small chunks of text and the expectations that go with that help to modulate our response to a text-message. Misunderstandings are rarer and messages tend to be direct and explicit in nature, partly because it is hard to be expansive in 160 characters but mostly because there is a mental separation between thought and text, so we more consciously compose our SMS messages than our disconnected stream of consciousness I.M. ramblings.

There is nothing inherantly wrong or bad with these technologies; the problem lies in our expectations of what they can do and how we use them based on those expectations. I still dislike the phone because I cannot help the feeling that I am less able to express myself than I can in person and yet the other caller may not pick up on, or will find it easier to misrepresent, that which I am able to convey. The closer to, without actually being, direct face to face communication a technology is the more dangerous it is and the easier we find it to be fooled that true interaction has taken place. Caveat Emptor.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy S.A.D.

A very happy Singles Appreciation Day to all my reader. I'm actually feeling quite good about this one. I've been celebrating S.A.D. rather than V-Day for about 50% of the last ten years or so. (Note to self - must find a woman who can put up with me for more than 2 years).

Normally if I'm not attached the V-Day schtick is a bit depressing but since my conversion to kay-serah-serah-ism I'm actually not morose or grumpy this year. Stuff will happen when it's good and ready. Which is the perfect time for it to happen of course. But if anyone happens to have Monica Bellucci's phone number you know where I am.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Hooray for Hollywood

As part of my day job (as opposed to my blogging superhero alter ego) I am required to go on set when they shoot the bit of the movie to which the company I work for is going to add visual effects. We will be creating a giant for a film that is going to delight children young and old next summer. You can probably guess what it is.

Anyways today was my day of Hollywood glitz and glamour cooped up in a giant tin shed that stinks of diesel just north of London. It is a pretty strange experience when you first walk on set as you enter half another world. Everything on the ground and up to ten feet or so is a fairytale fantasy world and from ten feet to the ceiling is a mixture of building site, scaffolding and Christopher Wray's Lighting Emporium. Look down, fantasy; look up, go blind. There is a pleasing tangibility about it all though which becomes especially apparent if, like me, you earn your crust by making movie trickery on a computer (that's how we're doing the giant). It is exciting to wander around touching the surfaces and then go around the back to find that it's all made of girders and polystyrene; even so it's physical.

What's also very physical is how long everything on set takes. It's very akin to fighting a war the old-fashioned way. You sit in your trench for months ready for a frantic half hour charge over the top toward the enemy guns. Film-making is mostly waiting which is why I stopped being a camera assistant and went into visual effects because in effects you always have something to do and I'm very bad at sitting around waiting for the opportunity to do my bit. Still it was interesting to see what we'll be working with over the next year or so and I have to say that I was pretty pleased with what I saw there. I think we're going to get some excellent material to work with and do our magic on. Let's hope we don't screw it up...

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Still From My Film

I've been doing some more work on my short film, "Surface" and I've finished one of the shots toward the end of the sequence featuring a satellite above the Earth; so here it is. Now all I have to do is make it disintegrate as if it were made of paper and the extra terrestial portion is complete. Yowzers. Only 12 more shots to go...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Sushi - it's healthy crack

I love sushi. In fact that's an understatement I utterly adore sushi. It is the only food that I think in all honesty I could eat every day. And I want to eat it every day, but I fear my bank manager would call me in for a "serious chat" if I were to try it. Sushi, here in the UK, is expensive. Even cheap sushi isn't and the good stuff costs plenty. You can see therefore that sushi is completely addictive and expensive and if you were to make a serious habit out of it you could ruin yourself. In other words, it's just like crack.

I remember the first time I tried it. It was my friend, the small, blonde, dangerous Canadian from Canadia who began my slide into a sushi haze. She'd found a cool Japanese supermarket in Soho that did boxes of good sushi for only moderately unaffordable cost. And she already knew her sushi. Innocently I asked if I might try some the next time she went out and sure enough I soon had a small box of my own. I didn't immediately love it. I thought it tasted interesting and very fresh but I was apathetic. But the next time she went out and asked if I wanted some I found myself accepting at once. Strange. And as more time (and sushi) went past the worse my habit got. And so here I am 5 years later unable to turn down the offer of sushi whenever or whoever it comes from.

So what is so great about it? Tricky, as it's not really a feat of culinary wizardry; a block of rice (if we're talking nigiri here) a scraping of wasabi and a piece of fish. There is fearsome skill in its preparation, just not in the concept behind it. Actually, that's one of the great things about sushi is watching it being prepared. Chefs with knives so sharp that they split air molecules as they bring the blade down to the board cut and slice microscopically precise amounts of each ingredient and then assemble them with the skill and attention to detail of a Swiss watch-maker. So there is spectacle first of all.

Also there is mystery. I am a total Japanophile; I have never been but I love the food, the cinema, the architecture and the culture. J-pop you can keep, but nowhere's perfect, right? In my favourite sushi restaurant, which is slap-bang in the middle of soho it's as if you've stepped out of place and time. If you can't spend an hour and a half over lunch don't go, because that is how long it will take. Don't know why, it just does. I think it has something to do with different laws of physics operating in sushi restaurants but I haven't been able to quantify that yet. Then there is the menu. Most of it is written in Japanese and English but there are exciting pages at the back and boards of specials on the wall written only in Japanese. If you can't understand the language, you can't have it. I don't mind that, it just encourages me to learn Japanese, which my utter lack of talent with languages (I have been trying and failing to learn ancient Greek for a year) is going to be a pretty tall order. So the place has magic, tranquility and mystery to it, even though it is 50 yards from Carnaby Street.

And then there's the food. Perhaps the beauty is the simplicity and elegance of the food. Raw fish is so clean you can almost taste yourself getting healthier as you shove it into your face. How can food that is so good for you taste so delicious? To my normal way of thinking that's a contradiction in terms. And the other miracle of it is that if you eat sushi for lunch you feel energised for the afternoon, in direct opposition to most other lunch-time staples where you need a nap at about 2.30. How can this be? Oh, and I mustn't forget the texture. Oh God the texture. Did I realise that every fish has a unique texture to its flesh before sushi? I did not. The soft butteriness of salmon, the melt-in-the mouth fattiness of toro tuna, the exciting fibrousness of mackerel. Cooked fish hides all the distinct properties and homogenises the fish experience into just that. Not a uniquely salmony experience or tuna or sea-bream, just generic fish. That's something else sushi gives to us, a direct almost unmediated connection to that which we eat. It brings to mind the hero of Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" as he eats chunks of freshly caught raw tuna out in the ocean. There is yet more magic there.

Finally there is presentation. The way the sushi is laid out on a plate (or plates if you're a greedy bastard like me who orders a lot). There is ceremony to it. Not fussy archaic ceremony but a reverence for the food that makes the experience of receiving your plate a little more enlightened than the usual nose-bag exercise that is serving up food in most other eateries. And once you have finished you are ready to go back to the regular world, pleasantly full, bursting with renewed vitality and spiritually cleansed after a short stay on Planet Sushi.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Things that make you go Mmmmm

Last night over sushi with Shanely, the youngest Doddling raised the interesting question of "The small things that make us disproportionately happy". I said she should compile the list and stick it on the internets but here's a start...

  • Fish and chips with a mug of tea after a long day's walking (Final score on the TV is a bonus)
  • Clean bed linen
  • Wet winter afternoons indoors with a good book (or woman)
  • Early on summer mornings at Lords or The Oval just as play begins
  • Cooking yourself yummy dinner
  • Lovely draught beer in lovely non-draughty pubs
  • Tea and cake
  • Art galleries when they're quiet and it's just you and the pictures
  • Blankets
  • Dogs on the beach
  • Rivers
  • Fresh winter Saturday mornings when I have a coffee in my hand
  • Good bookshops
  • Tinned peaches
  • Beans on Toast
  • A hot bath
  • New art materials, especially Rexel 4B pencils
  • Sunlight at dusk
  • Getting dressed up
  • New guitar strings
There's a start. I suspect that this may be a theme to which I return.

The Law (Part 1)

AMr. Atrocity's First Law of Programming Languages :

"Any language in which it is syntactically legitimate to have more than 4 consecutive non-alphanumeric characters is evil".

You know to what I refer...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Saying Goodbye

There are times when you have to do something that you'd rather not but you know that for your own long-term good you must. One of the hardest for me is letting former friends or lovers who are no longer such go. I do not make good friends easily and so I tend to be very loyal to them when I do. Sometimes however the passage of time leads to an emotional separation, a feeling that, well to be honest a feeling of "nothing" when you meet up. It becomes a matter of duty not pleasure and I begin to wonder for whose benefit? It certainly isn't mine, I feel very different than I did when we first met and they seem an utterly different person to me; the difficult part is not knowing whether they feel the same way. I assume so, given the awkward pauses in conversation which frequently occur now and which contrast so utterly with the relaxed silences that close friends can enjoy together where you are so comfortable in each other's company that nothing need be said.

But as I say, time passes, and we have no socially acceptable way of saying goodbye unless we or they move away and lose touch. It is hard and I often look for the easy way out and continue these strained relationships because I don't know how to stop and although I see no friendship I don't dislike the other person and I don't want to hurt them if they don't feel as I do.

It is difficult, but I have realised that one of the things which has improved most dramatically in the last six months or so is that I have finally been figuring out what I want to do and how I want to conduct my life. I made a pact with myself to make all decisions based purely on how I feel at the time, rather than over-analysing every detail ad absurdum, as I am prone to doing. The deal is that even if in hindsight it was the wrong decision I remind myself that at the time it was the right one and therefore the consequences aren't so bad and I don't beat myself up over them. At the moment I feel I have to let this person go, I want to let them go, but perhaps I still residually worry that if it ends up being the wrong decision these breakages cannot be mended.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

One Morning Fair, I took the air, down by Black Water Side

We all have pieces of music that for one reason or other are so special. Sometimes the reasoning is obvious, it reminds you of a specific time or person. Other times it is not so clear. To have a tune, or a specific recording of a tune that speaks so directly, so vividly that everytime you hear it, it sends a shiver down the spine is a strange yet beautiful sensation. I have a lot of tunes that evoke that response and one of them is Bert Jansch's recording of "Black Water Side", a traditional Irish folk song. Being a folk song it is about love and loss and the woman coming off very badly, though in "Black Water Side" there is more resilience in the wronged woman's voice than is usually the case in folk music. The track is on "Jack Orion", Jansch's 1966 album of traditional songs and was one of the first songs that got me interested in folk music. There is a simple direct and gentle fury in Jansch's delivery that gives a force to the lyrics that no other rendition (even Anne Briggs') can quite match. This when accompanied by some of Jansch's best and most lucid guitar playing makes for an electrifying experience. The guitar playing is so good that Jimmy Page pinched it and repurposed the melody as "Blackmountainside" on Led Zeppelin I.

Why this big preamble? Last night I went to The Barbican for the last night of the "Folk Britannia" festival. I was underwhelmed by much of it, mostly large bands who failed to create the intimacy that a folk gig needs to work. But opening the show was Bert. On his own. And the second song he played was "Black Water Side". I nearly cried; he's still got it 40 years on. It was as if the intervening time had never happened and I could see why the denizens of Les Cousins and the other 50s and 60s folk clubs had been so thrilled and excited. The man has magic emanating from him and he still weaves an entrancing spell, even in a huge concert hall like The Barbican. In a small venue the effect would be devastating. It's one of the things I have always wanted to see and never thought would happen. This morning I am the happiest little folkie in the world.

Visit http://www.bertjansch.com/ and buy all his records, your ears will love you forever.

"And now, Ulla belt..."

Dear Mr Brooks,

It was with delight that I discovered that I had been made a present of tickets for your new musical, "The Producers". I was looking forward to an evening of charming frivolity, wit and elegance. You must understand therefore, my shock at the appalling spectacle through which I was forced to sit. I have never seen such consistent mockery of beliefs, races, creeds and religion in one production. The notion of making fun of The Second World War, the rise of The Nazis is astonishing and outrageous. The chorus girls in hotpants and brownshirts utterly bewildered the audience.

The idea of theatre impresarios chasing innocent pensioners to obtain their savings in order to invest in a production called, and I can scarcely bring myself to type the words, "Springtime For Hitler", is incredible. That such crassness is allowable in today's modern, caring world astonished me.

Needless to say I shall not be seeing this production any more than five or six times more.

Yours, appalled,

Ena B Bialystock (Mrs.)

(Editor's note) This is one of the best evenings I've had out in ages. This show was fantastic in every particular, hilarious and so beautifully tasteless it quite took the breath. I was a bit concerned that in the intervening years between the original film and now it would have been necessary to remove some of the more questionable content. By some miracle, not only had none been removed, Mel Brooks had even found space to add some more. Genius. And I'd like a chorus girl for Christmas please.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ubik - Use Only as Directed

Who are we? Where are we? Why are we? How are we? What are we? Who is everyone else? Where is everyone else? These are questions explored by Philip K Dick in "Ubik", the book I read this week. And although these questions are explored, played with, turned over and the maker's initial carefully scrutinized we are left at the end pretty much where we came in. Nothing is explained because it cannot be explained, all that has happened is that the inexplicability has been lovingly documented. The notions of time, place and what it means to exist are shown in full view of the reader to be whatever you consider them to be at the present moment. Application of Occam's Razor to existance yields tanilizingly little certainty. In fact the whole book is a thorough examination and explanation of Descarte's "Cogito Ergo Sum".

Many have questioned why the book is called "Ubik", when the eponymous item in the story is far from ubiquitous, it is in fact incredibly scarce. I take it that the Ubik aerosol represents our knowledge of ourselves and what we believe we are. Therefore the aquisition of Ubik is more about self-discovery and awakening to the knowledge that the only thing you can be sure of is yourself than it is about redemption as some have chosen to interpret it.

Whatever Ubik may be the notions of what it means to be alive, what it means to interact with others and how we place ourselves in the universes we create are central to much of Dick's philosophy so far as I've been able to tell in my limited reading of his work. The repeated stripping away of layers of apparent reality to be replaced by something different which also doesn't quite make sense is a much more satisfying experience than the shallow "Here's reality. Oh no actually THIS is reality" hokum of fiction like "The Matrix" films. The idea that there is an explanation of everything, that we can if we strip away enough layers find the truth is an appealing idea to a rational creature, but the problem is that we never can peel away the layers of reality because that is the place we inhabit. You cannot step away from yourself.

I enjoyed this book very much, I liked the style and the narrative but I've enjoyed thinking about the themes it raised afterwards even more than the book itself.