“You see, the trouble is, I’m not actually American…”

Regarding the whole issue of the USA subjecting us shifty-looking foreigners to ritual humiliation and suspicion before allowing us entry into the “land of the free” (tee-hee!), here’s a nice little article (via Burnt Toast):

Put it this way, if you were hustled away at an English airport, fingerprinted, photographed, interrogated, bullied, harassed, and slapped in handcuffs for complaining, then told that you shouldn’t mind because it’s for the safety of your allies, the English people, because one of you Americans might conceivably be a bomber, you wouldn’t like it, would you? No, so I’m not quite clear why you think doing this to people coming into your country is not going to damage your tourist and travel industry at all. Oh, of course, silly me, because we’re protecting the American people, aren’t we?

That’s the whole problem with this ludicrous measure: it is grossly asymmetrical. US citizens are not required to pass through this catch-all security dragnet, and the US state department cries “foul!” whenever another country reciprocates. Are US citizens somehow magically exempt from being terrorists? Of course not, otherwise why would the federal government be making underhanded grabs for more yet more powers of Fatherland investigation and surveillance? So why not make all Americans give up their fingerprints at border checkpoints? Oh, might that be an invasion of privacy? Morally repugnant? Unconstitutional?

The article makes another point later on (emphasis is mine):

“Yours used to be a fine country, Mr Government Affairs Spokesman; I liked the straightforward way most people went about their business, and the ‘how can we make things work for you’ attitude. It was invigorating and I got a real buzz out of visiting. Now I’m not so sure I want to come and visit. I can stay at home and experience administrative paranoia; I don’t need to see that your country can do it bigger and better than anyone else. I feel uncomfortable trying to deal with an administration that feels so threatened, without being able to define what that threat really is, that it has to tell itself bigger, ever more bizarre stories about perceived threats in order to justify its reactions to what are now effectively pieces of fluff moving in the breeze. This is not healthy. The USA is no longer a healthy country, and this is clearly demonstrated in the way it deals with the rest of the world. 9/11 was a terrible thing, in and of itself, but so was bombing Afghanistan and Iraq because your administration thought the perpetrators might be hiding there, even though it had few grounds for thinking so, and even fewer now that weapons of mass destruction are providing elusive.”

I have been thinking this for some time now. The USA is sick. On the world stage, its behaviour is that of a paranoid schizophrenic. No, really. Take a typical description of paranoid schizophrenia from a typical mental health web site:

[Victims] often begin to hear, see, or feel things that aren’t really there (hallucinations) or become convinced of things that simply aren’t true (delusions). In the paranoid form of this disorder, they develop delusions of persecution or personal grandeur.

Yes, 9/11 was a single, enormous terrorist attack, but that does not mean the whole world has it in for the US. There’s a difference between taking all reasonable security measures, and outright paranoia. There’s a difference between hunting down the perpetrators of an atrocity, and killing thousands of people in the process of invading two countries and wildly lashing out at one’s closest allies. The whole “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude speaks volumes.

But it’s more than just America’s recent performance on the world stage. Take a look at the obscene and ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Take a look at the medical system that soaks up 50% of the world’s healthcare budget, yet leaves 15% of the population out in the cold. Take a look at the hijacking of its political machinery by corporate interests. We’re talking more than just a few social injustices here–we’re looking at an accelerating breakdown in the entire social fabric of the country, and what is the best headline its Leader can come up with to usher in the new year? A moon base. Wow. That’s really going to make people feel good about themselves when their job is off-shored, and they find themselves without medical insurance.

America, the rest of the world looks upon you with a mixture of horror and fear. And part of your problem is that you don’t see that this is a problem. As we all know from pop psychology, acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step towards solving it. So can you please get rid of Bush this year? Thanks. The world will be a safer and nicer place for it.

More evidence of Tribune’s dodginess

More hilarious antics from those wacky characters who used to run Tribune Risk and Insurance Services (from The Scotsman):

“A SENIOR director of Tribune Risk & Insurance was convicted of falsifying insurance documents just seven months before joining the board of the collapsed Midlothian insurer.

“According to court papers obtained by The Scotsman, Jack Walker was fined £1,500 by Edinburgh Sheriff Court in March 2000 for misrepresenting insurance quotations through his brokerage firm Danahy Walker.

“Although Tribune was set up by Walker’s wife Evelyn, he became a director of the company in October 2000. By the time the liquidators arrived at the company’s Eskbank headquarters, he was running the company.”

That’s interesting. When I joined the company, I was given the impression that Jack Walker had started the company himself. Evelyn Walker was still on the company books as an employee, but her importance to the business appeared minimal. Before Tribune’s web site was taken down, it had the following to say about Jack Walker’s history in the industry:

“Tribune was established in 1998 to meet the needs of intermediaries like IFAs, Mortgage Brokers and Solicitors. […]

“Tribune’s Managing Director Jack Walker has over 30 years of experience in the insurance industry as do many other members of the team including Sarah Kelly, Steve Dixon and Alan Watkins, Tribune’s Senior Account Managers. This experience is matched by Tribune’s development of new technologies and systems to drive forward customer service and ease of use for intermediaries.”

No mention of company founder Evelyn Walker. How odd! One could be forgiven for thinking that her stake of the company was merely a front for shady dealings, such as deceiving 40,000 insurance policy holders and about a hundred employees. Surely not! That would be terrible!

2003 in review: Games

For books and films, I have a full record of the ones I’ve read and seen in my Quick Reviews. For music, I have the date on which I ripped an album to MP3. For games, however, I have no such information. Which means I don’t remember if it was 2002 when I first played Ratchet and Clank, or 2003. This means my wrap-up of the games I played last year is going to be shorter and spottier than the others. Probably a good thing.

The first thing to note about 2003 is that, for me, it was a year of console games rather than PC games. I bought a copy of Everquest at the start of the year, played it for a little bit, and came away very disappointed. I suspect that’s partly because I don’t have the patience (and time) to spend weeks building up a decent character and roaming the landscape looking for quests. I like a game that gives me entertaining action right from the start, and I like a story with some decent structure. I also found the graphics to be poor, and hence distracting. I had been hoping to reclaim some of the magic of old-style text MUDs, but it just wasn’t there for me. YMMV, of course.

And that’s it as far as PC games were concerned. I upgraded my PC in the middle of the year (nForce 2 motherboard, Athlon 2500+, Radeon 9600 Pro, 1GB RAM, thank you for asking) in anticipation of goodies like Half-Life 2, Halo, Deus Ex 2, et al. But what do we get? Sod all, and rubbish, respectively.

I downloaded the Halo demo as soon as it came out, and found it to be slow, slow, slow. I’m running nearly top-end hardware, damn it. Even in 800 x 600 mode with graphical detail turned down low, the Halo demo regularly dropped down to 10-15 frames per second on the Silent Cartographer mission. Not acceptable.

Likewise Deus Ex 2. What’s with this 10 frames per second crap? I had to drop down to 640 x 480 resolution and download a tweaked settings file just to get above 20 fps occasionally. And yes, I do have the latest drivers for my video card. Quake III and Unreal Tournament 2003 time demos give me results that are comparable to other people with similar hardware. In addition to immediate action and good story, you can add the following to my list of gaming requirements: fluid graphics.

Smooth movement is key to keeping me immersed in a game, and that’s what I really want. I want to be sucked in and held tight. Graphics are to games what verisimilitude is to a novel. Verisimilitude means that the details you put in have to seem realistic, not necessarily be realistic. If an author can just make me believe that they know exactly how to run a police incident room during a major murder investigation, that’s much more important than rolling out lists of minute details to show off all the painstaking research they’ve done. In games, characters that are animated smoothly to gloss over the cracks in their polygon models beat the pants off lovingly bump-mapped environments that linger on screen like a slowed-down zoetrope.

In PC games, slowdown is only acceptable because of video card envy and hardware snobbery. If a game runs like shit, it must be because you haven’t spent enough money on the latest kit. Well, bollocks to that. This has got to be the only industry where you get less performance and quality the more money you pump into into your equipment. Want to play Halo? Buy a £100 off-the-shelf XBox instead of a £500 off-the-shelf Dell. Hello?? McFly??

And yes, I know that PCs are designed to be much more than just game-playing machines, while consoles are specifically designed to run them. That’s precisely my point. I can play DVDs on my PC, too, but you don’t see Abi and me cuddling up in front of my monitor with a bowl of popcorn on a Friday evening. PC gaming is dead; it just hasn’t stopped kicking yet.

(Phew. That was more of a rant than I’d intended. Maybe I’m just bitter about Half-Life 2 being delayed.)

So anyway, what console games did I enjoy playing in 2003?

  • Ratchet and Clank was excellent. It’s one of the very few games I’ve played through from start to finish more than once. It’s well balanced, with good challenges, and it has a goofball sense of humour. It’s fun.
  • Ratchet and Clank 2: Locked and Loaded is also excellent. I finished my first run-through of the game about two minutes to midnight on 31st December, so it still counts as a game of last year. It’s basically just more of the same as the original R&C, but that’s a good thing.
  • Metroid Prime was marvellous. Lovely environments and lush sound design gave it a sense of atmosphere to rival even something like Myst. The game was tough, but the sense of accomplishment from finishing it was amazing.
  • Tiger Woods 2004 got me through October. It has a simple pick-up-and-go game mechanic, a good learning curve, pretty golf courses, and lots of collectibles. It’s the videogame equivalent of a puppy: willing to love you no matter how little you really care for it in return.
  • Jak II: Renegade was notable in a “I’m not going to let this $*$%&!! game beat me!” kind of way. The designers took some risks in changing the gameplay so much after the original Jak and Daxter. Some of them paid off, some didn’t. It’s an interesting and entertaining game for the most part; but in places it’s almost impossibly difficult and annoying.

Games that didn’t really make the top tier:

  • SSX 3 dropped a lot of the fun characterisation that SSX Tricky had. Also, being good at SSX Tricky means you’ll be pretty good at SSX 3, too, and so it’s less of a challenge.
  • Super Mario Sunshine was pretty but unexciting.
  • Grant Theft Auto: Vice City hit the 80s nostalgia button, but didn’t inspire me enough to finish it.
  • Pikmin was a fun little puzzler.
  • Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker provided some soothing sailing action.
  • Frequency was different and fun, for a while.
  • Star Wars: Rogue Leader was likewise entertaining, but not very long-lived.

Games I didn’t care for at all:

  • Super Monkey Ball 2 suffered a rapid and catastrophic slide from harmless fun into downright annoying.
  • Maximo didn’t measure up to the quality of Ratchet and Clank, and frustrated me with its lack of camera control.
  • Herdy Gerdy was washed out and drab.

Despite everything I said earlier in this posting, I’m still looking forward to Half-Life 2 for the PC in 2004, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be the last PC game I ever buy for myself. On the console front I’m looking forward enormously to Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2, which should be shipping soon. Halo 2 might tempt me into buying an XBox. Also, there are still a few must-play games from 2003 I still need to catch up on, such as Beyond Good And Evil, Prince Of Persia, and Viewtiful Joe. I’m planning to start writing Quick Reviews for videogames, too, so with any luck next year’s wrap-up will be a bit more coherent…

2003 in review: Music

2003 has been a really light year on the CD-buying front for me. I think this is mostly because the places where I listen to music have changed substantially in this last year or two, and partly down to MP3–but not necessarily in the way you might think.

When Alex started walking, we removed our floor-standing hi-fi speakers from the living room because they were hazards to toddler navigation. We could still play CDs through our DVD player and television speakers, but that’s a bit naff. I got a decent set of speakers for my PC earlier in the year, and that has taken the place of our living room music system. However, when we are all downstairs we usually have a game or a DVD playing on the TV. When Alex goes to bed and Abi and I dive into our respective hobbies, we usually leave the TV tuned to something like the History or Discovery Channel for background processing (hello, N.A.D.D.). The only time I tend to listen to music in the living room is after Abi has gone for her bath, and I’m alone downstairs.

We have a radio in the kitchen, which I listen to occasionally while I’m cooking or washing the dishes. Alex has a radio/CD player in his bedroom, and we usually slap on a CD when I take him for his bath, and turn it down softer while I’m reading him his bedtime story. (Right now, he is heavily into Gorillaz the Foo Fighters.) We don’t have a car (yet–more news on that soon, maybe), and I am currently without a portable music player, so I don’t listen to much music while I’m out of the house. (In my old job, it was common for people to stick on some headphones while they were coding, aber was vorbei ist ist vorbei, Baby Blue.) (Bonus points for catching that reference without resorting to Google.)

Part of the lack of new CDs, therefore, is that I haven’t been exposed to much new music over the year. I love radio, and despite the fact that British pop radio is becoming more and more sterile between sunrise and sunset, enough interesting stuff usually creeps in between the cracks to give me a year’s worth of CD buying tips. Not this year. What I ought to do, of course, is develop alternative sources for new musical input.

But that brings me round to the second reason for nor buying much new music, and that is that I’m listening to a lot more of my old music. I’ve now got somewhere between 150 and 200 of my CDs ripped to MP3, and I’m about half-way through re-listening to them all and rating them with iTunes. MP3 makes it so much easier to listen to music from my whole collection. There’s no constant shuffling of discs to find the one you’re in the mood for, and finding the tracks you like from a single disc is much simpler than standing with the CD jewel case in one hand, and the CD remote in the other. I have playlists of music for different moods, and if I’m feeling completely random, I can just hit shuffle on the whole collection. And when I’m constantly rediscovering tracks from old albums, I feel less of a need to go out and gather new material.

So what new music did I like in 2003? Well, in no particular order:

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers – By The Way. Chilled out, funky, melodic, with some magnificently intense grooves, it’s a joy from start to end. Favourite tracks: “Dosed,” “Can’t Stop,” “Minor Thing,” “Venice Queen.”
  • Bleu – Redhead. I saw Bleu in support of Toad The Wet Sprocket when was in Boston in February. He rocked. The album is a genius blend of light rock and power pop. He manufactures catchy guitar riffs with ease, and blends them with off-beat lyrics. There’s a lot of the jilted lover here, but it’s done with wit and maturity rather than angst and bitterness. Favourite tracks: “Could Be Worse,” “Watchin’ You Sleep,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Sayonara” (not available on the Columbia release! Major bummer! Try to get hold of the original release if you can.), “You Know, I Know, You Know,” “Feet Don’t Fail” (also not available on Columbia), and “Dance Baby Dance,” the best song ever written about an inflatable sex doll.
  • Siobhan Donaghy – Revolution In Me. Siobhan Donaghy was one of the original members of the Sugababes back in 2000, when they had a hit with the single “Overload.” (She was the cute one.) “Overload” stuck with me because of its odd mix of the raunchy and the innocent: a menacing bassline, a shivering guitar solo, and blasé yet come-hither vocals from three teenage girls. Siobhan left the band in 2001, and Revolution In Me is her first solo offering. While the Sugababes went down the pop track, Siobhan has pursued a more experimental, indie-sounding direction. The singles “Overrated” and “Twist Of Fate” may be sufficiently pop-like to make the mainstream charts, but the heart of the album lies in darker, moodier tracks like “As You Like It,” “Man Without Friends,” and the rocking “Dialect.” Her web site may be the single worst abuse of Flash I’ve seen this year, but it does provide a streaming music player for you to listen to a generous selection of six full tracks, so you can sample before you buy the album. If you haven’t listened to Siobhan before, do give her a try. Favourite tracks: “As You Like It,” “Twist Of Fate,” “Dialect,” “Man Without Friends.”
  • Matchbox Twenty – More Than You Think You Are. Matchbox Twenty aren’t nearly as popular over here in Britain as they are in the US. Consequently, the song “Unwell” wasn’t played to death on the radio, and I still like it. The album may not be the most daring slice of rock music out there, but it’s energetic, easy on the ears, and with just the right amount of melancholy to make it the perfect soundtrack for bringing you up when you’re feeling down. This, combined with clinically dangerous doses of caffeine, got me through many bad days this summer. Favourite tracks: “Disease,” “Bright Lights,” “Unwell,” and “Could I Be You.”
  • Queens Of The Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf. Heavy and dense, this isn’t nearly as accessible as their previous album, Rated R. The snippets of mock radio scattered between the tracks are annoying, but a curiously integral part of the album as a whole. The songs themselves are a bizarre mix of grungy metal, bass-heavy screaming punk, and trippy prog rock. It’s more than an album, it’s an experience; I find it almost impossible to listen to the rest of the album outside of its own context. I reckon it’s best enjoyed when you’re “in the zone,” whatever “zone” that may be. For me, it’s sitting in front of a computer screen late at night, fingers flying over the keyboard like hyperactive woodpeckers wired directly into my subconscious. Favourite tracks: whichever one is playing at the time.
  • The White Stripes – Elephant. Stripped down and raw in all the ways that Songs For The Deaf isn’t. Everything about this album is up-front in a take-it-or-leave-it kind of way. It doesn’t grow on you, it just hits you between the eyes on first listen and goes, “Yeah? You wanna make something of it?” I love it. Favourite tracks: “Seven Nation Army,” “There’s No Home For You Here,” “I Want To Be The Boy,” “Ball And Biscuit,” “The Hardest Button To Button,” “It’s True That We Love One Another.”

Coming up in 2004: I have absolutely no idea. Any hot tips?

2003 in review: Films

I saw 38 new films in 2003. (New to me, that is–not necessarily films that were released in 2003.) Although 38 is only one more than the 37 books I read, it feels like a more substantial number. Maybe it’s the way that movies are leased into the cinema in a relatively small trickle–a couple of new films every week–as opposed to the sheer volume of books you are confronted with when you enter a typical bookshop.

Maybe it’s just that I don’t hunger for films the way I do for books. I do love the whole movie experience: from seeing a trailer for the first time, through reading advance press on the film, to actually showing up at the cinema, buying a bag of sweets, and sinking into a deep comfy chair for a couple of hours. I think DVDs are great, but there really isn’t anything like the experience of seeing a film on the big screen. The darkness of the theatre, the sound all around you, the way the film fills your whole field of vision…it’s just magical.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve started bringing Alex along to the cinema with me. He’s all about the magic. The two films we saw together were Finding Nemo and Brother Bear. In both cases he came away utterly entranced, and chattered about the films non-stop for weeks. Much of his play acting right now consists of him telling Abi and me to take on the roles of his favourite characters: “You’s-a Marlin, anda you’s-a Dory, anda I’m-a Nemo!” Whenever he climbs up on my back for a ride, he’s a tiny bear and I’m a big bear. Hello tiny bear. Hello big bear.

There are a bunch of movies I’m looking forward to in 2004, but most of all I’m looking forward to Saturday or Sunday matinées, and seeing all of the silly kids’ films I would otherwise avoid.

Looking back on 2003, though, how did the year pan out? The average review score I gave for those 38 films was 3.2 stars out of five, which is okay. There were two really appallingly bad films that merited not even a single star, and I saw four that were worth a full five stars. Curiously, I saw both of the zombie turkeys at the start of the year, and all of the five star films in November or December. Here are the ones I rated highest and lowest at the time:



I’m actually happier with those ratings than I was with my book reviews. With hindsight, the lists above really do stick out as the best and worst films I saw in 2003.

Performances that have stayed with me:

Worst performance: Christian Bale in Equilibrium. So bad it was funny…for a while…then it got worse.

Actor/Actress I most enjoyed wacthing: Colin Farrell. With highly entertaining turns in Daredevil, The Recruit, Phone Booth and S.W.A.T., he is quite simply a classic Movie Star. The publicity stills for next year’s Alexander look dodgy, though.

In 2004, I will be mostly looking forward to:

All sequels. (Well, apart from The Incredibles, of course.) Hmm. I suppose that’s why they’re on my radar already, though. I’m also rather looking forward to the extended edition of The Return Of The King. If it’s anything like the extended version of The Two Towers it’ll be a completely different film than the one we saw in the cinema.