Appreciating The Crow

I have no idea how to review films – as will shortly become very obvious. However, in an effort to start writing again, I’m going to put down some thoughts. And why not start with something about why I just absolutely love The Crow? So here are 2000 words, probably rambling, largely unstructured, mainly stream of consciousness

(Oh, and if you think that I’m worrying about spoilers for a movie that has been out for 26 years… I’d look away now if I was you. In fact, I’m assuming that you have seen the film – if not, go and buy the thing on DVD, Blu-Ray, Prime Video or whatever. Then come back.)

In the beginning

The premise is adapted from the late 80’s comic of the same name. Every October 30 – Devils Night – the city is ablaze, set on fire by hoodlums, ruffians and various ne’er-do-wells. Four of those, T-Bird, Skank, Tin Tin and Funboy are in the employ of Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), the local crime boss and, um, property developer.

One particular Devils Night, the four break into the home of Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and his fiancee, Shelley Webster, who have been organising for better treatment from their landlord – the aforementioned Top Dollar. As a result of their community spirited action, Eric is thrown out of a six storey window and Shelley beaten and raped. Shelley dies in hospital, watched over by Sargeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) who was hoping he would get some lead as to who did it.

One year later, Eric returns from the dead. Seemingly invincible and accompanied by a crow, with whom he has some sort of supernatural link, he begins to take revenge upon those who killed him and his fiancee.

Comic Store Guy

I often have to remind myself that this is adapted from a comic. Now, I really don’t like comics all that much. Or rather, the sort of Marvel / DC superhero rubbish. I’ve read the odd comic – mainly some Alan Moore stuff – but I really can’t be arsed. Thankfully the film comes from a time where comic book adaptations generally were to be avoided – or at least downplayed – as opposed to firehosed across every part of the media.

Because it doesn’t take its audience for granted, The Crow has to do old fashioned basic stuff like introducing characters and back story. I tried watching Avengers Assemble and the sheer amount of knowledge that you are supposed to take in to the film is ridiculous. There are something like twenty-three of those bloody things and the expectation is that you have to have sat through most of them just to understand what is going on, let alone give a damn.

The Crow has none of that, which means it has to explain and introduce and build. Thankfully it does this largely by showing, not telling, with Eric slowly discovering why he has returned, what he is capable of and what he has to do. Good old fashioned story telling in lieu of using reams of previous background material.

What The Crow is is a good old fashioned love story. Strip away the goth elements, the gun play set pieces – this is a tale about love. About how it can affect those around you, about how it can power you even from beyond the grave. Instead of our Indestructible Heroes defending the plant Thraxxx from the threat of Garfnagle, The Crow is small scale, personal, relatable. I think this is why struck a chord with so many at the time and continues to do so.

The Elephant Crow in the Emergency Room

Obviously no discussion of the film is going to avoid the tragic events surrounding the death of its star in a horrible on-set accident. For such a dark film about loss, such an event proves that if He exists, God really does have a bastard sense of irony. It isn’t heretical to say that Brandon Lee probably wasn’t ever going to win an Oscar, I don’t find him that charismatic or that outstanding an actor but was he the guy for this role?

Absolutely.

He looks right, he had the right amount of physical presence and he carries the emotional core of the film all the way through. He isn’t super cool, skating above everything as if it doesn’t matter in the manner of a Roger Moore Bond. He can’t deliver a joke. He brings anger, passion and vulnerability. Rewatching it recently, I especially liked the bits where he had to tell Sarah that he wasn’t hanging around, that he didn’t know what was going to happen when he fulfilled his purpose, but he knew that it meant leaving his friend for good, for a second time. You can see the sadness, but the resolution that this is what had to be done. Had Lee survived, I’m not sure that he would have bettered this role.

Everyman Ernie

On the Good Guy side of the coin, Ernie Hudson has to do a lot of heavy lifting. I always felt he got the shitty end of the stick as the Ghostbuster Nobody Remembers (never even getting on the poster). He’s a great actor of the everyman, in this instance being the main relatable character for the audience, guiding without too much exposition. Plus he gets to set up the ending by providing the method to dispatch the villain – I always thought that was a nice touch rather than a simple “we’ll say he hung around the hospital at Shelley’s death bed because we need to shows that this character is good”.

Hudson gets most of the memorable lines. It’s funny that The Crow has plenty of great dialogue, but isn’t particularly quotable. This is because the lines are in service of the story and the characters and fit like a glove, which means they don’t really work out of context. You can probably extract “Victims. Aren’t we all?” out of the script and use it at a pinch. “Can’t rain all the time” was clearly intended to be a tag line but “Well, at least he didn’t do that walking against the wind shit, I hate that.”?

Always have decent Bad Guys

Where The Crow really shines is in the way that the bad guys are fleshed out. They aren’t stereotypical violent psychopaths or street hoodlums who have no depth beyond the weaponry that they wield. It is clear that Top Dollar, Myca (Bai Ling) and Grange (Tony Todd, being quietly awesome) are Very Bad People, but they are intelligent and cunning with it. You can see them thinking about the situation, investigating, considering, planning. Grange discovers Draven upstairs at the bar but he’s leading with his brain, not pointing a weapon. Top Dollar borrows a gun to finish Gideon off and then hands it back with a very professional, very polite, “Thanks”. It might be a darkly amusing aside, but it fits the situation of them being partners.

It is a tragedy to me that Michael Wincott hasn’t had the career he deserves – or maybe he didn’t want to be pinned down playing bad guys. He’s charismatic, with a voice to die for and as I said, he bring intelligence to any role. He elevates a generic Head of Criminal Organisation role to become a believable Man with a Plan. It’s not a very nice Plan, it’s just business and he’s very good at doing business.

Even the hoodlums are given a depth, none more so than T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly). In the scene where he tells Top Dollar that Tin Tin “got himself perished”, Kelly brings a gutter level cunning to the conversation. You know that he knows he’s no match for the higher ups in the organisation, he knows his place and he’s happy with it. But you can tell why Top Dollar is happy to have him as the leader of that deadly gang of four. T-Bird is a rat bastard but a smart little rat bastard. He knows something isn’t right. Standard Hollywood cliche is for the character to go blundering in to some kind of situation for the hero to beat him but instead we get that little exchange between him and his boss, not of equals, but of respect and intelligence. And quoting Milton while strapped into a speeding car (on fire! Which explodes!) is definitely showing off, in a good way.

Even Skank gets a decent characterisation. Off his face most of the time, Angel David plays him as a hyperactive idiot. Not necessarily a bad person (though not a particularly good one) he’s just easily led by bad people and wants to be accepted. He gets to be relatable – when in front of Top Dollar and all the bigwigs, “I feel like a little worm on a big fuckin’ hook.” Who hasn’t ever been in that situation? Skank is fully aware of his role, of his limitations and that he’s fully deserved what is coming to him because he can’t think more than two minutes ahead.

Homage

It’s surprising how influential the film has been. For a start, the biggest wrestling character outside the WWE lifted his gimmick lock, stock and feathered friend from the film.

There is the argument that without The Crow you don’t get Heath Ledger’s Joker. I’m open to it.

This is the End

After Draven makes his way through the gang of four, I’d love to see the meeting where the end came up. “So, how do you kill off the bad guy? Shoot him? Toss him off a building? Blow him up?”

“Actually, I think I should do some kind of mental transfer.”

But that “30 hours of pain” moment is just perfect. Because like I said, this film, despite it’s dark trimmings, the shootouts, the explosions, is a tragic love story. It’s about a man who finds himself coming back from the dead and filled with anger and vengeance because of the pain of his loss. So no final quip, shocked freefall or huge explosion, the bad guy is going to die because he gets to feel the loss that the good guy has to live with. It’s about the power of emotion. That’s clever and – that word again – intelligent.

Then we get the coda, where Eric crawls to the grave of his dead wife to die for a second time. And she comes as an angel to take him to the afterlife. Call me an incurable romantic, but that’s the right ending. For Eric to simply disappear, having avenged his death but without being reunited… that feels off. Even as a fan of unhappy – or rather uncliched – endings, The Crow needed that moment where Shelley reappears. Otherwise, it’s a vital piece missing, like the end of The Shawshank Redemption without Zihuatanejo.

This is where The Crow differs so much from modern comic book movies. I’ve tried watching the Marvel Universe or whatever the hell it is called and I find it so gorramed hollow. An endless series of invulnerable characters having big long stupid fights featuring little more than CGI ping pong balls which only end because the plot demands it moves to the next big expositionary set piece. And because no-one can die in the MCU – heaven forfend that they aren’t around to appear as accompanying Funko Pops for the next sixteen movies of this crap – there is no peril. Shiny, loud, empty calories. Style over substance.

Not with The Crow. Smallish budget, a central cast of three, maybe four characters. Set over two nights, three or four locations. Very little fat – not that there was a chance for excess, obviously. Story starts, story continues, story ends.

(Apparently there are sequels. That can go right into a bin.)

End Credits

The Crow is by no means perfect. Bits of the acting are ropey, there is some judicious editing to cover up the loss of its star, the effects can be a little low rent.

I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack yet, which still sounds reasonably fresh for an early 90s film. Nine Inch Nails covering Joy Division and the only song from The Cure I really like.

Ultimately I love the film because it is smart and clever and a lot of thought and love has gone into it. Thought into the writing, thought into the characterisation, thought into the staging. I’d love to have been in the room at the moment when everyone involved realised “We’ve got something here” because you can feel that in every frame.

It’s a deeply personal story. Having done a little bit of research, apparently the original comic was written after the author lost his fiance to a drunk driver. You can tell that the loss depicted on screen is rooted in a real experience – it isn’t something that you see that often.

For me The Crow is lightning in a bottle. Individual cast and crew may do better work, but they’ll not do better work together. Every component fits precisely as it needs to and the result is something that I adored from the moment I saw it in the cinema.

TLDR; The Crow. Brilliant, innit?

The Labour Party election – a guide

There is currently an election for the new leader of the Labour Party. There are four candidates.

Jeremy Corbyn – The favourite, who will prove that his views are totally unappealing to the ordinary members of the public electorate by getting the most votes from ordinary members of the electorate.  According to his rivals, and the newspapers, his policies of social inclusion, anti-austerity and most controversially of all “um, maybe talking to people” are possibly the most dangerously Left-leaning policies of any Labour politician since Ed Miliband.

Liz Kendall – Who believes that if the Labour Party is more like the Conservatives, then the electorate will vote for the Labour Party and not the Conservatives.  She plans on standing on a platform at the next election of being George Osborne, but in a dress.

Yvette Cooper – a former Minister in the Labour Government of 2005-2010 and the wife of the former Shadow Chancellor who represents a complete break from the past.

Andy Burnham – another former Minister who considers some issues so important and worth fighting for that he will do anything to stop them, up to and including abstaining from any vote.

There has been an influx of new members into the Party. This influx of new members has reinvigorated the debate and brought much needed money into the coffers of the Party.  Obviously, as a democratic Party who are pro-business, these new customers are the wrong sort of people.

These members look like they will be deciding the vote, therefore the new rules brought in because the Other Wrong Man won last time need changing because it seems that the Wrong Man will win again, showing that the process is flawed and has twice been not democratic enough.  The Right Man who should have won the last election left Labour politics after defeat.  Helpfully, he has thrown his opinion into the ring and conclusively proved that he was the Right Man by expressing his preference for the candidate who has performed completely disastrously and has no chance of winning.

Obviously, being a democratic and free and fair election, carried out using a voting system that the Party put in a place and also recently refused to support being extended to General Elections, various people have been weighing in with their views.  (Though none of the new members, obviously.)

We had Tony Blair, telling members how to win elections and reminding him that he managed to win three in a row by losing 4 million votes behind the sofa in 8 years.  He pointed out that the members should not vote for Corbyn but for one of the other three candidates.  He didn’t express an actual preference why you should vote for any one of them, because they are all different from each other but it doesn’t matter which because he approves of them all because they are different and you should take your pick based on those differences.

Gordon Brown, the former Chancellor and Prime Minister has appeared to ask members to consider the economic policies of the candidates.  He did not express a preference, but indicated that he felt people should support three of the candidates who have never tried to refute the notion that the global financial crisis is his fault.  What Gordon Brown says members definitely shouldn’t do is vote for the one guy who says “the global financial crisis wasn’t Gordon Browns fault”.

Peter Mandelson, renowned throughout the Party as a political strategist so incredibly astute that he only had to resign twice, has cleverly suggested that the only way to prevent the Wrong Man winning is to twist the rules of the election in such a way that he wins anyway.

But what must not happen is that Labour should not be a) a party of protest and b) adopt a more Left-leaning, publicly anti-austerity policy.  After all, being a party of protest hurt UKIP so much that they grew their vote by nearly 3 million.  And the anti-austerity, Left-leaning policies of the SNP are a disaster because they failed to win every single seat in Scotland.

Members should vote for one of three candidates who can instil the discipline needed and the only ones who can unite the party.  They are the candidates of the broad church, who, if they lose, will openly refuse to serve the new Leader and will plot against him in the name of uniting the Party.  Should they successfully unite the party by splitting it in two, they will go off and form a new Party, called New Golgafrincham Ark B.

Something wicked this way comes…

OK, so there was some interesting news in the Mancunian ice hockey world this week. And the fact that I’m roused enough to write some thoughts about it gives you an idea of much I am surprised about how passionately I feel about it.

Some very simplified background: From 1995-2002 there was an ice hockey team called the Manchester Storm. They played in the MEN Arena in front of crowds of anything from 12,000 (at the start) to 3,000 at the end. They won the league title and the B&H Cup. I was a season ticket holder, wrote a website about them, travelled all over the country to watch their games, had some behind the scenes discussions about working with them and then they went bust.

From that formed the Manchester Phoenix. The club was well named because it was largely run by volunteers and fans like me. Initially playing out of the Arena, then when that wasn’t financially viable, they went off and got a rink built in Altrincham. I worked behind the scenes again, building the first iterations of the website, and also took a more visible role including being the Match Night Announcer. That stopped in 2008 for many reasons, the biggest by a long way was that I simply didn’t have the time required to dedicate to it. As is my way, I’ve not been back since. I’m not over-emphasising my role in the history of the Phoenix, I was a very tiny cog in a very big wheel.

In the very simplest of terms, the Storm was being a fan and the Phoenix was a job. Equally enjoyable for very different reasons and I wouldn’t have swapped either for the world.

In the last few weeks, the owners of the Phoenix have fallen out with the owners of the Altrincham rink and been kicked out. The rink has now announced a new club to play from next season and called them the… Manchester Storm.

Now, right up until that last word I didn’t really care all that much. Hockey politics is a hornets nest, clubs come and go while the faces stay the same. (Another reason I quit, to be honest.) Indeed, only the day before the announcement of the Storm, the Hull Stingrays finally gave up the battle to keep playing.

But the fact that the new club is called the Storm irked me much more than I thought possible, and I’ve been wondering why. Initially, I thought it was because the name was so clearly a land grab and claiming to be the Storm “reborn”. If there is one thing guaranteed to annoy me, it is someone pissing on my back and telling me that it is raining.

Because let me be clear. Anyone who is thinks that this new club has the slightest thing in common with the Storm apart from the name is being fooled. It has no more in common with the ISL club than if I formed a band and called it The Beatles. There are people out there who know this, yet are willing to go along with the fiction. If you are one of those people, then you are, frankly, a deluded moron. To be unwillingly duped is unfortunate, to happily enter into a con and take others along with you in the pretence makes you culpable. The bell has rung and like Pavlovs dog, you’ve come salivating.

(It is telling that the new club themselves have not made this link – instead leaving it to some fans to fool themselves. So maybe they aren’t a successful Pavlovian experiment, but perhaps one of his earlier goes at it, where the dog heard the bell, got confused and started humping the gramophone.)

Calling the new club the Storm is a cheap, ill-thought through and crass stunt. If, in a few years time, someone says “The Storm. Oh, they were in Altrincham for a couple of years”. I’ll have to sigh and explain that they aren’t the same thing at all. It is ironic that the Phoenix were so named because the new organisation really didn’t want to be associated with the Storm name, it was pretty toxic at the time.

But that isn’t why I’ve been so roused about this new club. I think it is because the Storm were such an important part of my life. When you are young, everything is cool and shiny and you fall in love with the experiences you had. As you get older, you stick to those experiences. Looking back on it, the Storm were one of the major things that shaped most of my life and – selfish and odd as it may seem to anyone else – that is why this gets to me.

That seven years of the Storm were amazing and didn’t just give me sporting highs and lows I can never forget, but it gave me many other things. I wrote my first web site, teaching myself HTML on the way and that is now my career. The contents were my first proper attempts at writing, and the popularity and success of it still surprises me. It taught me I’m quite decent at writing for fun, can’t draw and badly need an editor. It also encouraged me to turn my hand to other writing which led to me doing standup for a while – which gave me the confidence to do my dream job of Match Night Announcer. Even more importantly, I made long and continuing friendships with people all over the world. And most important of all, it was the place where I fell in love with a girl.

So that is why I’m annoyed at the revival of the Storm name. It takes an amazing roller coaster ride – not just mine, but in many peoples lives – and takes a huge great dump over it

The nuStorm is just a marketing stunt by people who understand little about what happened then and care even less. Not content with alienating a fan base that has built a rink and kept hockey going for a decade, not content with urinating all over the corpse of the Hull Stingrays without even letting it get cold (the Storm was announced the very next day) , above all else they had to take those people who had a great time back then and screw around with them too.

Not bad for a first day at the office, chaps, can’t wait to see what you manage by the end of the week.

So, yeah. Thanks for that, Manchester Storm 2: Storm Harder. Thanks for trying to feed off my memories and nostalgia for fun and profit like a vampiric Peter Kay. For being clueless about the “iconic” thing you are attempt to piggyback on. And for sidling up to some of the best memories I ever had and gone “hey, they look pretty good – I’ll take them.”

Sorry, but you’ll never be my Storm.

Wise fwom the Gwave!

I plan on getting myself back in the saddle of writing again, trying to pump out at least one blog entry a week. Of course it will be meaningless gubbins, throwing words into the Ethernet, but considering I really need to reset things after the madness of the last six or seven months, this seems like appropriate therapy.

Not that anything has gone badly – quite the opposite in fact – just that things got a little too busy and hectic, what with my work, my wifes work, doing shows with her and so on. No downtime. All part of the “fun” of being self-employed – you don’t stop, because you only have yourself to rely on to get things done, so a regular 9-5 schedule is out of the question. It always amuses me when people say they envy me heading off somewhere on holiday for a month. Especially when they have more holiday days in the year, and they get paid for them.

And when I did have an idea for a blog entry, I was sent a link which showed it had been done. And it was basically an excuse to call Benedict Cumberbatch as many variations of his name as possible. “Bendybip Poopyplop”. “Cumbersome Bandersnatch”. “Cliftybiff Boobynuts”.

We’re in for interesting times this year. If I do pull off this one a week thing, then undoubtedly it will be dominated by the forthcoming election. Although I hold strong views on politics – and if you go back through this – I don’t bother to hide them – I’m interested in politics in general. Who is doing what to whom, and that is what I hope to comment on.

For instance, I was fascinated by the Scottish independence vote. As I am English, I didn’t have a dog in the fight, it was just interesting to see how it played out. About a year before the vote, the “No” camp were 70-30 ahead and then, well, then the big guns of the Conservative and Labour parties got involved and the finest political minds managed to turn it into a close-run thing. It was quite astonishing to see how utterly inept and out of touch they were, after three years of planning a campaign, reduced to “if you don’t know, vote No”. Also fascinating to see the clash between new campaigns, using the internet and social media to engage with younger people with the old ways of using the print and broadcast media to spread fear amongst the traditional voter. Truly, May will be won by those who can pull off the trick of running the campaign deemed to be least shit. We’re in for a depressing time. I may be reduced to swearing.

Anyway, I went quad-biking this weekend. Part of a stag do and an opportunity to catch up with old friends that I haven’t seen for far too long. Apart from being a reminder that we really are getting too old for this shit (“lets face it lads, when someone asks us at about 10.30pm tonight what drink we want, some of us are going to want to reply ‘Cocoa’?”) it was tremendous fun.

It took place at Catton Hall Shooting Grounds, just outside of Frodsham. Excellent facilities, staff and thoroughly recommended as a venue. I just smiled to myself at being in a place that is clearly a bit upper class – among the activities on offer are the tradition sports of shooting, archery, falconry and… quad-biking.

Clearly quad-biking has a long and historic tradition that I am not aware of. Relaxing in the cafe afterwards, we couldn’t help but overhear reminiscences about “the time in 1927 when Lady Grantham ran over a manservant with a Honda. A terrible scene. There was gin everywhere.”

Notes from a small holiday

I’ve just come back from a months holiday.  I’m lucky, in that I’m self-employed, so I can choose when and how long to have as a break.  On the other hand, I’m unlucky in that I don’t get paid and have to fit it around client commitments.  What this usually means is I end up working for 11 months a year and then taking one big break instead of two weeks in summer, a week at Easter and so on and so forth.  Anyway, this years trip was to Vancouver, then up to Alaska, before returning to Vancouver via Seattle and Victoria.  Some thoughts, in no particular order.

  • The town of Ketchikan, AK, receives on average 142 inches of rain a year.  I was there for a day, and got sunburnt.
  • If you get the opportunity to see a Lumberjack Show, take it.  It is great fun and incredibly skilful.  Yyyyo-ho!
  • In the interest of furthering the good name of the UK around the world, I sat and had formal talks about trade and tourism with Mayor Stubbs of Talkeetna, AK.  I think they went well.  Obviously, in high level politics, the signs are subtle, but I think sitting, mewling and licking his leg indicated good progress.
  • I would like to congratulate Dodge, Inc of the USA for designing an automatic gearbox which is almost, but not quite, all of the time in the wrong damned gear.  And also for including a feature where the amount of time between mashing your foot to the floor and through the firewall and the ‘box responding by kicking down a couple of gears can be measured on a sundial.
  • GPSs ruin holidays.  Thanks to not having them, we missed a couple of turns.  This led to us:
    • Standing at the end of Anchorage airport runway having a good chat to a very fine fellow, while taking photos of Antonovs, the Boeing Dreamlifter and then the awesome sight of a Dakota DC-6 taking over right over our heads.
    • Finding a fantastic little cafe in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. Coastal Kitchen Cafe, Port Renfrew, BC.  If you do the Pacific Marine Drive from Victoria, it is the perfect place to stop off for lunch.
  • Alaska is impossibly beautiful.  Photos and videos cannot do it justice.  If you ever get the chance to see it for yourself, grab it with both hands.  We only scratched the surface in a week.
  • Obviously this is from a UK perspective, but if you walk into a quiet bar in a small town in the middle of nowhere, on a sunny afternoon, proudly displaying your pistol in a holster for everyone to see, that says more about your attitude to other people that it does about theirs to you.  Of course, Alaska is quite right wing, and to be honest, having a shotgun in the house is kind of a sensible move in a place where the wildlife can kill you, but a move like that in a public just marks you out as a bit of a twat.
  • There are many words to describe being 7000ft up in the Denali National Park and standing on a glacier.  They include “awesome”, “incredible”, “unforgettable” but most of all, “silent”.
  • Stopped off in Wasilla, AK for ten minutes.  There must be something odd about the place, as scientific tests showed my IQ dropped 4%.
  • Listened to about 15 minutes of right wing Talk Radio.  Still haven’t decided whether it is the most incredibly clever manipulative bullshit I’ve ever heard or just the most utterly moronic discussion ever to hit my ears.  For 15 minutes, the topic was complaining about the Alaskan Senator voting with President Obama 97% of the time.  At no point did they say what the votes were for, so I’m not sure whether the Senator was voting to give all Alaskans $100,000 a year or to knife all babies in the womb.  It never actually got to that level of detail.  Just “the guy votes with Obama a lot.  What is with that?”  I genuinely don’t know whether that is an impressively stupid person on that show (in which case, I amazed he can tie his own shoelaces, let alone host a radio show) or a manipulative genius behind it all.
  • Exposure to US television makes you really miss the BBC.  And fear for what people are trying to turn it into.
  • A fairly neutral British accent can still snap US knicker elastic at 20 feet.  Canadian elastic, less so.
  • Whittier, AK, is one of the oddest places I have ever been to.  Accessed only by the longest combined rail/road tunnel in the world, it is a town of less than 200 people, most of which live in the same building.  There is also another building, the Buckner building, where they all used to live before is was damaged in an earthquake.  It is difficult to demolish the Buckner Building, so it stands there, derelict.  And someone has graffitied “the cake is a lie” on it, which is wonderful.
  • The sight and sound of a glacier calving into the sea has to be experienced at least once in everybodys life.
  • Alaska Highway 1 to Glenallen and Port Renfrew, BC to Lake Cowichan are two of the great drives in the world.
  • There is a huge difference between being ignorant and being proud of being ignorant. Painting your truck with a picture of the exploding Twin Towers and and the slogan “Everything I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11” is most definitely the former. One day I’ll win the lottery and park a truck on his lawn. It will be painted with “Everything I need to know about white, male Americans I learned from the Oklahoma Bombing, Sandy Hook, Columbine and various massacres and wars around the world” and see how he likes it.  Well, he won’t, but the point will be made.
  • The Red Dog Saloon in Juneau, AK is one of those cheesy re-hashes of old time saloon bars. There was a pianist doing ragtime songs and mixing up lyrics in an amusing way. Totally set up for tourists, totally cheesy and great, great fun.
  • Never forget what a mountain can do.  On the day we drove to Paradise, WA, and had the most perfect view of Mount Rainier, six people died trying to reach the summit.
  • Whilst wandering around Vancouver, I was stopped in the street and interviewed by CBC on the Bruins/Montreal Game 7 result.  Which I think, officially, makes me the British NHL hockey correspondent for CBC.
  • Sat watching a spectacular sunset from Prospect Point, Stanley Park, Vancouver, a guy on a bike rode by and shouted “Wow! Beautiful BC, eh?!” This is possibly the most Canadian thing ever said.
  • I’ve always wanted to go to the Yukon.  I’ve glimpsed it a small bit of it now, and I want to go back.
  • The Klondike Gold Rush was insane.  People were taking on some of the harshest environment in the world, dragging a ton (quite literally) of provisions along with them.  And if you stepped off the narrow path, it could be hours before you would find a place in line.  We went past a place called Dead Horse Gulch, where the horses, bought by the Gold Rushers would literally collapse and die under the strain.  The prospectors would simply turn around and get another one.
  • Navigating around Anchorage without GPS is really easy.
  • Navigating around Vancouver is impossible without GPS and blind luck.
  • Navigating on Trans-Canada 1, at night, through roadworks, is terrifying.
  • It is incredibly difficult to get your head around the concept that the major form of transport in some areas for people is not a car, but a float plane. Juneau is the State capital of Alaska.  There are no roads in or out – everything you see, trucks, cars, building supplies etc arrived either by ship or plane. Therefore, people in the more remote communities hop in a float plane and spend a day in the big town. If they can’t get home due to weather, they can’t get home.
  • We went to Hoonah, which is the third largest city by area in the entire United States.  Population: 800.
  • Alaska is the largest State in the US. Twice the size of Texas and covers about a fifth of the land mass of the Lower 48. In fact, I think they should not call it The Lower 48. They should say The Upper 1.
  • After getting away with it on several massive trips, the Bad Luck Gods caught up with us and took it out on our technology.  Currently broken: Fuji HS50 camera, a HTC phone and a Kindle.
  • God, I wish I could watch NHL hockey, live on a TV every night, at a reasonable hour.
  • Since July 1st last year, 262 moose had been involved in car accidents on Highway 1 in Alaska.  We almost made that 263, slamming down from 60mph+ to a halt to avoid one that decided it might want to wander across the road at some point in the near future.  Once we had come to a halt, it decided, “yep, right now, in fact”.
  • Despite this, moose are awesome.  Very gentle.  They will carefully eat apples or pears out of your hand, but offer them a banana and it will follow you home.  Across water, if necessary.  I wanted to try if I could get one to follow me onto a plane.
  • Speaking of animals eating, one of the more amusing things was seeing the interaction between a brown and a black bear at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre.  Brown bears are predators for black bears and we were lucky enough to be there for feeding.  The two were fenced off but one brown bear was trying to threaten a black bear, who was having none of it.  I now know the bear noises for “give me the food or I’ll kick the shit out of you” and “Do you think I am stupid?  There is a bloody great big electric fence between us, so do me a favour pal and piss off.”
  • The one thing the US and Canada can’t get right is a decent cup of tea.  Once I got home after four weeks away, I immediately headed for the box of Yorkshire Tea with a look on my face that was a mixture of lust and murderous intent.
  • There is a general store/pharmacy chain called “London Drugs”. This is never going to be not funny.
  • Vancouvers Marine Building is a beautiful example of Art Deco design.
  • We always try to find one weird world record on holiday – last year the World’s Biggest Artichoke. This year, we saw the World’s Thickest Totem Pole.
  • Lake Hood in Anchorage is the best place in the world to photograph floatplanes.
  • In Victoria, they had closed off a street and were showing off brand new fire engines. They looked gorgeous, glinting in the sun. Turns out it wasn’t an exhibition, but a trade show. A trade show… for fire equipment. One slogan for a company selling equipment was “for serious firefighters”. Which is unfortunate, as it implies that some firefighters are just kind of messing around a bit for a laugh. Putting holes in the fire hose, letting the tyres down on the truck, that sort of thing. Firefighter japery, it is possibly a thing.
  • Number of variations encountered of “Where are you two from? “Manchester, UK”. “Cool, Manchester United fans huh?”: 17.
  • Number of variations encountered of “Where are you two from? “Manchester, UK”. “Cool, Manchester City fans huh?”: 0.
  • When you see a queue of people 20 deep waiting for fish and chips to be served out of a hole cut in a shipping container, you have got some of the best fish and chips in the world.

History is written by the winners

I was reading the tributes to Tony Benn, who died yesterday.  One of the most famous voices in British politics for 50 years, a fantastic communicator and orator and always ready with a quick quip or quote.  Benn represented two things that modern British politics has successfully removed from its system, a politician of conviction and principle, and a man who could speak without preparation, notes and sticking to a line to push.  Benn believed in devolving power to the people, no matter how lowly or poor.  To Benn, the people who had nothing mattered much, much more than those who had it all.

Now Benn is gone, who is there to speak for those 8.45 million voices?  (Anyone who replies George Galloway can go stand in the corner and think about what you have done.)  There is no-one.  The major voice of protest in this country, the one standing against the malicious, spiteful treatment of the poor, the disabled, the one person who could speak out and reach an audience of millions to protest as a bunch of overprivileged cunts smash up education and the NHS like alcohol fuelled on a Saturday night bender is… Russell Brand.

Jesus wept.

One thing that many people mentioned was the 1983 General Election.  Labour went into that election with a manifesto dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”.  It contained, among other things, unilateral nuclear disarmament (at the height of the Cold War), leaving the EEC and renationalising British Telecom, British Aerospace and the British Shipbuilding Company.  Coming off the Falklands War, and a country still bearing the scars of 1970s battles against the unions, it was no surprise that Labour lost, and lost heavily.

We are often told that Britain is a conservative (small ‘c’) country.  What is interesting to note is that what is undoubtedly the most socialist manifesto ever produced by a major British political party, managed to gather 8.45 million votes.  To put this in some kind of perspective, that is 200,000 votes less than Labour got in 2010, 100,000 less than the Conservatives got in 2005 and a shade under 100,000 more than the Conservatives got in 2001. 8.45 million people voted to protect the welfare state, workers jobs, union rights and the NHS.  Yet here we are, with no party standing for those things.

I hate you. Please stay.

I’ve been following the Scottish independence campaign with a detached sort of interest. Because I don’t have a dog in the fight, and no real opinion either way (not my circus, not my monkeys) so I’m just watching both sides in their attempts to win the debate. And I have a question, which I’ll phrase by stealing a quote from elsewhere:

How exactly is “Be a complete fucking dick to Scotland” supposed to persuade them to vote to stay part of the UK?

On the one side, the Yes campaign is led by Alex Salmond.  Opinions vary on him. The leader of the SNP is, to his enemies, a scumbag, a slimeball. Satan incarnate. Now, when I read that sort of thing, it always comes across as shooting the messenger and ignoring his message. It doesn’t help that every time Salmond heads South of the border, he wipes the floor with whichever Westminster idiot is put up against him. He’s even able to deal with the hectoring of Paxman or John Humphries.

The “No” campaign just seem to be throwing mud at anything and everything, trying to turn Salmond into a hate figure along with a side order of unfounded scaremongering. The key question for me as a interested observer is around finance – how will Scotland cope, fiscally, if granted more independence. Opinions on this vary, from Yes in the Yes camp to No in the No camp to… er, Depends, and We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Come To It by anyone knowledgable who has actually written a report on the subject.

Salmond has recently-ish maintained that Scotland would not be dropping the pound. (I say recently-ish as he was batting eyelids at the Euro a while back, before that imploded.) However, the latest tactic is that all three Westminster parties have said that they might take the pound away from Scotland and “where would you be then Salmond, eh? Eh? Answer that you pooey bumhead.”

Which got me thinking.  What, ultimately, is The Pound?  To me, it is a currency, a coin.  Like most financial instruments, it is a construct of trust, an item of agreed value.  Since when did the pound become some kind of actual real thing? I know the Tories elevate the pound to God like status, but then they worship at the altar of money above all else – read any pronouncement from a Tory and you’ll see the word money in the first three sentences. Hell, even some of their objections to gay marriage were fiscal. But it has got a bit ridiculous.  The No campaign seems to treat The Pound as some kind of trophy, wrestling over it like who gets custody of the kids in a divorce. But recently, and to far too many people, The Pound has stopped being a financial instrument and taken on a mystical quality. George Osborne is The High Priest Chancellor, consulting The Great Golden Coin on matters financial. The Pound must be Defended. The Pound is Sacred. The Pound is Holy. Gaze upon The Pound and fear Its mighty power.

It is a bit… weird really. Fetishistic at times. William Hague tried a similar tack in the 2001 General Election, declaring that Britain had “only x days to save the Pound“, as if there was any realistic possibility that Tony Blair was going to remove the Queen from bank notes. It is the same sort of fetish that they have about Work. You must Work. Education is Preparation for Work. Life is Work. You will not retire, you will Work. If you do not Work, you are not a valid human. Work makes you Free.

To be honest, I don’t think people don’t really care about the pound. I know I don’t. I do like the idea that my coinage is called a pound, has the Queens face on it and not a dollar or mark, but then other countries have pounds and other countries have photos of Liz too. Perhaps we could have a cooler name, like Baht or Colones. I have to admit that sometimes I look at the other peoples Dong and get jealous. But when it comes to it, as long as I can exchange an amount of them for goods or services, I don’t care if they are called pounds, euros, groats, magic beans or Magnificent Metal Discs of Awesomeness.  What I do know is that for something so valuable to the very core of the Tory party, they don’t half treat The Pound like shit.

The No campaign is weird. One minute, it is all “Don’t leave us Scotland, we need you as much as you need us” and the next minute it is “You’ll regret it, you bitch, you’ll see!” While Salmond goes about his business, organising meetings, answering questions, the No campaign is running personal attack pieces on supporters in the Scottish Daily Mail and when it does campaign, it campaigns South of the border. Even if I was prepared to believe David Cameron, I can’t vote in the referendum, why are you trying to persuade me? And if you are trying to reach out to the Scots, why are you doing it from a lectern in London and not one in Edinburgh? (Cameron gave the above “don’t go” speech from the Olympic Park in London.)

As I write, the Yes campaign still is likely not to gain a majority. It has gained momentum though and I think that by the time of the vote there is a strong chance it could be Yes. It is typical of the three Westminster parties that they are approaching the campaign all wrong – and all speaking with the same voice

I’ve often said that current politics is about, well, playing politics than actually solving issues or making the country better. You only have to look at Michael Gove’s pathetic attempts to be Machiavellian in education (who cares, Govey boy, it is only the future of an entire generation that you are fucking around with like a teenager deciding who they want to be Bestest Friends with today). The Tories lurch to the Right to appease a party full of ignorant morons with absolutely no MPs. Clegg does whatever Clegg does (which is hopefully look into the mirror and weep at what he has become).

The No campaign feels like it is doing, just, well, fucking about playing politics. No real campaigning on the issues, no boots on the ground canvassing. Just a veiled threat here, a suggestion to a newspaper editor that they could do with an attack piece there (oh yeah, how is that for a fine example of the independence of the Press?). No problem lads, I mean, it is only an issue that has ramifications for the United Kingdom as whole, not really a biggie.

It reminds me of the 2008 US Election. On one hand you had the Republicans, all money and attack ads and slogans and soundbites. And on the other, Obama managed to mobilise armies of volunteers on the ground, young ones who were offered the opportunity to believe that there was a guy who listened to and spoke for them.  The Republicans and the No campaign are playing old style politics, where independence and peoples lives are an abstract notion, pieces on a chessboard to be manoeuvred and nudged and played with. Obama at times seemed to not only be using a different board, but playing a different game altogether.  Time has, of course, proved this trust to be misguided, but the lessons in running a campaign seem to have passed Westminster by – but Alex Salmond seems to have noticed.  Independence for Scotland is a real change and real change always comes from the grass roots.

Not that we can look to Labour to provide an alternative.  Ed Miliband is utterly incapable, presumably because that part of his source code, along with the module that gives him a fucking spine, is still in beta.  He’ll just keep saying the same repeated soundbites in order to avoid upsetting people who will never vote for him while completely pissing off those who would. Maybe they need to put more than 16K of RAM in him or something.

(Addendum: I wrote that yesterday and today we have the interesting prospect of Westminster taking the Pound away from Scotland and ignoring a Yes vote. It neatly shows what I was trying to say. The idea of the Pound being taken from Scotland is ridiculous. It isn’t the Stone of Scone or the Elgin Marbles. It isn’t a Real Thing that can be locked away in a cupboard under the stairs of the Treasury. It is an idea. An idea with currency (oh-ho!) but an idea none the less. Westminster can no more ban Scotland from using The Pound than it can ban it from going on the Playstation before doing its homework.

By threatening to simple ignore a Yes vote, then it justifies the absence of proper campaigning and debate on the issues. Modern politics is thus – if you don’t like what people say, then just pretend it never happened.

Apropos nothing

Triggered by a discussion elsewhere about geeks and nerds, some (slightly spiteful) rubbish I have had kicking around my head for a while.

(It is not about anyone in particular, just a trend I noticed and was kind of bugging me. But absolutely not about anyone specific.)

–––––––

Isn’t it cool, standing up there with your acoustic guitar and your sweet smile. A fashionably scraggy cardigan and your mittens. Mustn’t forget your mittens.

Singing your twee little song, fantasising about Professor Brian Cox and killing your useless boyfriend, using a recipe you learned at Science Club.

Because, don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. That you were on a different stage, in the same cardigan and the same mittens. Singing your twee little song, fantasising about Russell Crowe out of Gladiator and killing your useless boyfriend using a method you learned from Spooks.

Ride that bandwagon hard and cling to it for all you are worth. Your hands won’t hurt.

Because you didn’t forget the mittens.

Society of Trolls

I’ve been following the recent stories about Twitter trolling with great interest. Leaving aside the fact that it is curiously timed just as the Government needs to find a way to justify spying on everybodys online communication (and who didn’t see that coming? To find the needle in the haystack, first you must gather the entire haystack) it reminds me of, of all things, football hooligans.

First, a quick disclaimer. I’m not attempting to justify the horrendous abuse meted out to Stella Creasy and others. And I do make the distinction between that and people calling abuse or trolling on others because they don’t like having their opinions challenged. Happens to me all the damned time. What I’m wondering is not whether it happens, but why does it happen.

There is a fairly famous quote when football hooliganism was at its height in this country in the mid 1980s. The head of the FA, Ted Croker, was summoned to a meeting with the Prime Minister. She asked him outright “And what do you propose to do about your hooligans?”. To which he responded “Not my hooligans, Prime Minister. The product of your society.”

This discussion is reflected in the Twitter trolls debate. It seems to be up to Twitter (or Facebook, or pick your social media of choice) to police the behaviour of people. Now, I’m not defending the company to the hilt – like most social media, they have ignored, accidentally or deliberately or a mixture of both, the potential problems with their platform, but trying to say that the phenomenon of anonymous abuse (misogynistic or otherwise) started with them is wrong.

For some reason, people think that it is OK to try to hide behind anonymous handles and attack people from behind a keyboard. And that is a societal problem, not a technical one. You can’t install some kind of scanner to make the problem magically disappear. (Hang on a minute, that seems a familiar idea.) It raises questions of education, society. The discussion can be expanded into areas like marketing and consumerism, the drip drip drip of messages sent to the population every single day.

But then this is complicated. Politicians don’t like complicated. They like easy answers and quick fixes. And, they don’t like being told they are wrong.

After all, I’m sure that is merely a coincidence that Ted Croker remains the only FA Chairman never to have been knighted.

From the Vaults – XBox Achievements

Introduction: I was clearing out my Google Drive when I came across the following.  I had typed it so long ago (September 2010) that I had forgotten completely about it.  I even stared at it for a couple of days wondering if it was mine.  I figure it is, as it contains a couple of my repeated in-jokes and I think it was put to one side while I created the graphics.  Having found it and re-read it, I found I quite liked it.  So here for reasons best kept to myself is a massively out of date blog entry.)

(A quick aside for non-gamers. Every XBox game has a Gamerscore, out of 1000 or 1250. Points are awarded for completing specific tasks in each game, called “Achievements”, so you might be awarded an Achievement worth 5 points for completing a level and one worth 50 points for completing the game. You can also earn Achievements for performing specific tasks, such as killing three enemies with a single shot. Developers can pretty much make anything an Achievement, they are individually named and are awarded with a little noise and an “Achievement Unlocked” message and the points added to your own personal Gamerscore. At time of writing, I have a Gamerscore of 3900.)

I have a bit of a love/hate thing going with XBox Live Achievements. On the one hand, it appeals to the challenge side of gaming, a way of tracking progress that reaches beyond merely a high score or reaching a certain level. Gamerscore can show how far you have got into a game or just how good you are at it, in a way that a traditional high score tables sometimes can’t. Also they appeal to that slightly OCD sense that many people have and stuff like Pokemon rely on – though they are a bit short of being a Skinner Box.

For every pro, there is a con. Gamers can be a teeny bit obsessive, in the same way that Katie Price is a teeny bit attention seeking, and there has been an entire cottage industry set up around Achievements. For a subset of gamers, Gamerscore is the only true measure of how good a player you are – it doesn’t matter than you have mastered a difficult, intelligent puzzle game when you can rack up 10000 points in a single day. And of course, some people prefer not to actually work for anything, think the world owes them and cheat like absolute lunatics.

I’ve recently been playing a couple of games that get Achievements right and also horribly wrong, Deathspank and Lara Croft:Guardian of Light. Both are well worth the money paid for them, full of content, intelligence and in the case of the latter, some really well thought out puzzling. Having had my Funsquare Super Plus for about six months now, though actually playing it for far, far less of that time, I’ve started to get to the end of games and noticed a few things about Achievements. Basically, they can be broken down into the following categories.

Good Cheevos

Get The Girl, Kill The Baddies

The most obvious achievement type of all – reward for progress through the game. Beat the bad guy, get a reward. Fair enough. Never quite as high as I would like it though – if I’ve ploughed 30 hours into something, I want more than 5% (50G) for the effort you tight wad bastards. DeathSpank is the best example of this I have come across – all but two Achievements are gained naturally through playing the game – and one of them is more likely than not (though see later).

Lateral Thinking

A particularly satisfying reward is one where you come up with what you think is an ingenious idea, only to find that the developers are a step ahead of you. This can be solving a puzzle in a novel way or simply utilising the game environment. The wonderful “Dastardly” Achievement in Red Dead Redemption is a great rewards for a bit of lateral thinking. All I’m saying is it requires a woman, a rope and an oncoming train.

Open to Abuse

ocd

I think the first widespread use of collectibles was in Grand Theft Auto III, where there were 100 packages in various locations around the city. For every ten you were awarded an unlimited supply of a certain weapon. Collect all 100 for a special prize. It was a tough ask, but do-able.

Games have built on this idea – Forza Motorsport 3 wants you to own a car from every manufacturer. A big ask, but possible especially as cars are awarded to you as you progress through the game. The act of playing gets you closer to the goal.

Unfortunately, in this industry of “same as that, but MORE!”, this collectible idea has got out of hand. Take Crackdown 2 for instance. The collectibles list is 500 Agility Orbs, 300 Hidden Orbs, 15 Driving Orbs, 15 Renegade Orbs, 42 Audio Tapes (break down). As mentioned, collecting Agility Orbs powers up your character Agility stats, which is all well and good until you discover that you will be maxed out by about the three hundredth Agility Orb. So another 200 or so to go and worst of all, you have no idea what you have collected and what you haven’t. Crackdown 2 helpfully displays a map of all the orb locations, but with 800 it is impossible to figure out where to go and what to do next. You are left to sit there, painstakingly making your way from one building in 1000 to another, hoping to stumble across that vital item – and when it gets down to the last 20%, you never [i]find[/i] these things, you just happen across them. Just reward the player by updating the map once they hit a certain level or something.

slapbass

Rewards for reaching a certain character level, again, pretty obvious stuff. It is possible to beat a game without reaching certain stages – in RPGs you can generally defeat Xxrath the Infernal God of Cliche without maxing out any of statistical categories. It just takes being close enough to the requirements plus a bit of luck. However, reaching a stage of character development can rewarded as long as one isn’t reduced to endless grinding, repeatedly killing baddies just to get to a certain level – Deathspank, I’m narrowing my eyes at you right now, because Mr Tough Guy was (holds fingers a small distance apart) this close to being a grinding pain.

Bad Cheevos

gordian

There are some Achievements that you read the requirements for and just say what? I’m telling you, 20G is not worth rounding up four mates at a specific place, at a specific time to do an insanely complicated task.

moron

At the other end of the spectrum (oh-ho) there is the Achievement that is insanely, mind numbingly, patronisingly simple to get. Case in point Forza Motorsport 3 gives you 5G for merely playing the game. What kind of Achievement is that?

“Hello sir, I wish to spend £40 on your new game.”
“Why thankyou, have fun!”
“Fun? Why would I have fun?  I do not intend to play this my good man, merely to gaze upon it from afar.”

There is a naughtier kind of Moron Achievement – Lara Croft:GoL has 5G for simply playing in co-op mode. Which on XBox Live requires a paid-for Gold Membership. And for you to come back to it a month after release when the co-op mode is actually made available. So, basically, it costs you to get this one and you can’t get it on day one anyway when everyone else is playing.

wacky

Ah, dear Deathspank. You get so much right, but the Menu Hero Achievement is a kick in the nads. 10G for setting some option sliders. I mean, come on. Achievements are supposed to be for accomplishing something, not for pissing about in a sub menu.

swallow

One of the worst things about modern gaming is that many of them seem so endless. Way back in the day, a game would be done and dusted in a couple of hours. Now, any game worth its salt feels it must provide 20, 30, 100 hours of stuff. And boy, are those developers going to make you see it.

(Incidentally, this need to pad out storylines is largely why plots in games are so laughably bad. Stanley Kubrick did the evolution of man from ape to Star Child in two hours 36 minutes. Metal Gear Solid 4 has nine hours of cutscenes. The plot eventually becomes a twist, which is a twist, which has a betrayal, but then a triple cross where they give you the thing that in a twist they… um… would have given you anyway? I digress and this guy does it so much better.)

A variation on this is in Rock Band 2, where to earn the Bladder of Steel Achievement you have to play all the songs consecutively, without a break, without pausing and without failing a single song. 8 hours. I’m sorry, I have a life. And a need to go to the bathroom occasionally. And an aversion to RSI.

chaining

Ugh. Tying Achievements together, so that completing one Achievement cascades into others. Again, to take Crackdown 2 as an example, you have an Achievement for collecting all Agility Orbs, for all Hidden Orbs, for all Driving and Renegade Orbs. And then another one for doing all three.

ladyluck

The worst type of Achievement above all else, relies on sheer, outrageous luck. Nothing is more frustrating that setting up the conditions to accomplish something and then be foiled by something utterly out of your control. I’m going to cheat slightly and use an example from Lara Croft: GoL. The “Hole in One” reward in the Temple Grounds requires you to put a ball, which is spinning on a pole into a flame pit. To do this, you set a bomb at the right point and then time the detonation so that the ball flies off in the right direction.

Except…

At this point, the game materialises enemies at you. One of which explodes. The upshot is that you spend five minutes battling to a certain point, set everything up perfectly and then fail to complete the task. Then spend another five minutes getting there and fail again. Repeat and repeat through no fault of your own.

I want to be the one that determines the success of my actions. If I stack up 1000 dominoes and they fail to fall, at least let it be through my own mistake. Don’t let me set up the dominoes and then come in and kick half of them away.

Obviously, when I rule the world then I’ll allow on Achievements that are sensible and rational. Hardcore gamers will get a free kick in the head. I’ll even award them I’ll add 100G onto their Gamerscore and award an Achievement. I reckon they would be queuing up.