Banish “Interesting”

I’m trying to excise the word “interesting” from my conversational and written vocabulary, because it doesn’t actually say anything. Whenever I catch myself about to say or write the word, I pause, and try to answer the question “what specific feature of that thing or concept has caught my attention?” instead. Because that’s more important to convey.

Mixed Media, Friday 29 May 2015

Just a quick list so I don’t slip too far behind…

  • 2 Days in Paris: I like Julie Delpy, but Adam Goldberg’s character was so annoying I stopped watching part-way through.
  • A Lonely Place To Die: Tight little thriller set in the Scottish Highlands. Good, if a little predictable.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road: So much has been written about this already, and it’s all true. Excellent.
  • Tomorrowland: This was released under the inane and uninspiring title “Project T” here in the Netherlands because of stupid trademark issues. Seriously, Disney, you couldn’t come up with anything better? Anyway – I loved it. Playful, mysterious, and full of spectacle and hope. It almost felt like a Disney live-action movie from an earlier era, but brought up to date. Not a classic, but heaps of fun.
  • The Imitation Game: I’ve read so much about Turing, Enigma, and Bletchley Park, that this felt like a walk over old ground. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance felt over-the-top to me.
  • Top Five: Chris Rock plays a comedian and actor struggling to be taken seriously, and failing. On the release day of his new movie, he consents to being interviewed by a journalist (Rosario Dawson), and they end up learning more about each other and themselves than they had bargained for. It’s not a laugh-a-minute riot, and it doesn’t try to uncover deep meaning; it’s just funny and touching. It reminded me a bit of Before Sunrise, and it also reminded me that I still need to see Birdman

I was staying with Mum & Dad while I was in Edinburgh this week. I took the day off on Monday, and we went to Glasgow. We did some shopping (I bought a new suitcase), saw a couple of music videos at the GoMA, and had dinner at DiMaggio’s (their gluten-free pizza is excellent).

I had rented a car and was driving back and forth to Edinburgh. I still am not fully caught up on 99% Invisible, and so I had a stack of episodes cued up for the commute. One of them was episode 118, which features a different podcast, Song Exploder. In Song Exploder, Hrishikesh Hirway invites musicians to deconstruct some of their work, and show how they build up their soundscapes layer by layer. This particular instalment was with Jeff Beal, who composed the soundtrack for House of Cards. It was fascinating, and I think I’m going to have to listen to all of Song Exploder’s back catalogue now. Also, it put House of Cards further up my priority watch list, and Abi and I sat down to the first two episodes yesterday evening. Very good so far!

My flight back home on Wednesday evening was more interesting than usual. About 45 minutes into the flight the pilot announced that we were diverting to Manchester for a medical emergency. We banked right, and landed quickly. An emergency services crew came on board and spent some time with the passenger before taking her off the plane in a wheelchair. She did not look well, and I hope she is okay. Afterwards we spent a while refuelling and waiting for an exit slot at Manchester. The second leg of the flight was incident-free, but it was late by the time I got back. The Easyjet flight crew were excellent throughout.

To pass the time I listened to some other podcasts I had on my iPad, including a couple of episodes of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything. Eh, I can’t say it struck me right. I found the content engaging, but I don’t like Benjamen Walker’s voice. Like Adam Goldberg in 2 Days in Paris, it made me give up part-way through.

Finally, Mark dropped a bomb in the music chat room at work: Garbage are touring again in November. They’re playing the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Saturday 14th November, but I went for their gig at 013 in Tilburg on 4th November instead. They were great on the Not Your Kind of People tour in 2012, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.

Even better: the opening act will be Dutch Uncles. In my second week at work with FanDuel (HELLO, WE’RE HIRING, HARD) back in 2013 someone (I’m guessing it was John) dropped their track “Flexxin” into the shared New Music Monday playlist on Spotify, and it became one of my favourite songs of the year. (It also has one of my favourite music videos of all time.) Their last album Out of Touch in the Wild was brilliant, and I spent today listening to their new one, O Shudder and liking it a lot. Despite it being fresh and unfamiliar, the rhythms and vocals lodged themselves in my brain very quickly, and contributed to a couple of hours of actual flow at the end of the day. Wow.

Local Vexillology

Yesterday evening I showed Fiona Roman Mars’s TED talk on the design of flags:

In his closing remarks, he says:

If you see your city flag and like it, fly it. Even if it violates a design rule or two; I don’t care.

But if you don’t see your city flag…maybe it doesn’t exist. But maybe it does — and it just sucks.

Here in Oostzaan, it’s hard to avoid the city (town, village, gemeente) flag. It’s everywhere. Its design is fairly simple and recognizable:

The same elements are found on the city (town, village, gemeente) coat of arms:

Until today I had no idea what the three-pointed thing on the flag is. According to the Heraldry of the World site, the current city crest, as recorded in 1949, represents a three-pointed pitchfork, with each prong stabbing a sod of green earth. (“In goud 3 smalle dwarsbalken van azuur; over alles heen een drietandige greep van sabel met aan iedere punt een graszode van sinopel. Het schild gedekt met een gouden kroon van 3 bladeren en 2 paarlen.“)

The emblem was different before 1949. The gemeente’s arms were first officially recognized by the Dutch Hoge Raad van Adel (the High Council of Nobility, your one-stop shop for flags, heraldry, titles, and other noble paraphernalia) in 1816. At that time, they were defined as “Van goud, beladen met een drietandige vork van sabel, aan welks punten 3 kazen van sijnopel.” That’s right, the pitchfork used to stab green cheeses. This stamp from the 1930s shows regionally appropriate spherical cheeses being used:

(That stamp itself is from a fascinating slice of early 20th century history, the Koffie Hag Album of Dutch Heraldry, which was a special book for collecting the heraldic trading cards issued by the Koffie Hag company.)

This illustration of an even older stamp shows the pitchfork impaling wheel-shaped cheeses:

But although the emblem wasn’t formalized until 1816, it has an even longer history. No one even know when it first originated. One story suggests that in the time of the Eighty Years’ War with Spain, an Oostzaan buccaneer was taking part in a raid on a Spanish ship off Amsterdam. He couldn’t find any Spaniards to kill, but he found three cheeses and stabbed them instead. Way to go, buccanneer guy! I reckon this one is a drunken Pampus tale.

An alternative explanation for the cheeses being green is that they’re not really cheeses, but cabbages. The Oostzaan region used to be known for farming cabbages, and Oostzaners used to be nicknamed “Kooleters” or “Koolhanen” (cabbage eaters). That would cover the “green” and “round” aspects. But whether they’re cheeses, cabbages, or grass sods, they’re an unmistakable link to the agricultural heritage of the region. Totally unmistakable.

So now I know a bit about the Oostzaan flag. But yesterday evening I was even more more curious about the flag of Zaandam, our big town next door. The Oostzaan flag is everywhere, but I couldn’t recall ever having seen a Zaandam flag. A quick search revealed it to be this gorgeous piece of work:

Just look at that! The red, white, and blue background are the same as the Dutch national flag, but right in the middle there’s a freaking windmill carved out of negative space. The Zaan area is one of the world’s first industrialized areas, powered by literally hundreds of windmills.

Our local windmill, with its party hat on.

Here’s Roman Mars again:

I’ve seen first-hand what a good city flag can do in the case of Chicago. The marriage of good design and civic pride is something that we need in all places. The best part about municipal flags is that we own them. They are an open-source, publicly owned design language of the community. When they are done well, they are remixable, adaptable, and they are powerful.

We can control the branding and graphical imagery of our cities with a good flag, but instead, by having bad flags we don’t use, we cede that territory to sports teams, and chambers of commerce, and tourism boards. Sports teams can leave and break our hearts (and besides, you know, some of us don’t really care about sports!), and tourism campaigns can just be cheesy.

But a great city flag is something that represents the city to its people, and its people to the world at large. And when that flag is a beautiful thing, that connection is a beautiful thing.

The Zaandam flag is a gorgeous, cheeky piece of design that takes that history of the area and places it right at the heart of the whole country. With style. I can’t believe we don’t see it on every street corner.

Mixed media, Friday 8 May 2015

I watched Haywire on my flight to Edinburgh the other week. I had watched the first two episodes of the new Daredevil series on Netflix, and had been blown away by the hallway scene at the end of episode two. JWZ mentioned Haywire when he wrote about the hallway scene. I came away impressed — a nice little action film with an espionage backdrop. Lots of close-in, very personal action scenes rather than big set-piece explosions. Gina Carano makes for a great lead.

I have since watched the rest of the first season of Daredevil, and it is excellent. Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk is the very best thing about it. I’d watch it for him alone. Come for the Daredevil, stay for the Kingpin.

On the Thursday evening of that week I went out for dinner with AlanR and AlanW (gluten-free pizza at Mamma’s, accompanied by a gluten-free beer; not as bad as you might think; not as good as you might hope), and then AlanW and I wandered over to the Cineworld to see Avengers: Age of Ultron. Then when I got back home, we all went out to see it at in IMAX at Pathé Arena on the Saturday morning. My opinion of it didn’t change: too much, spread too thinly. Not great. The big action scenes felt repetitive, and there were just too damn many character story arcs for a single film. I also found the CGI for the opening battle curiously poor, but it wasn’t until the second viewing that I noticed it was all edited together as a single tracking shot. Flashy and unnecessary.

So then I was watching Kick-Ass 2 a couple of evenings ago because I couldn’t sleep, trying to figure out who the actor playing Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass reminded me of (Elijah Wood — something in the eyes), and at the end of it I was watching the credits and I saw “Aaron Taylor-Johnson” and I went “heeyyyyy wait a minute,” I know that name, he plays Pietro frickin’ Maximoff in Avengers, and then I’m all like “what, you didn’t see that coming?” He also played the character Ford Brody in Godzilla last year, who is married to Elle Brody, played by Elizabeth Olsen who then plays his sister Wanda frickin’ Maximoff in Avengers, and now I’m like “whoaaa” but it was 04:30 and I was kind of spacy from lack of sleep.

The highlight of the last couple of weeks was definitely Whiplash, though. It takes the traditional talented youngster/wise old man spurring him on to greatness narrative and digs deep to find out just how abusive that relationship can become. It is not a nice film, but oh my goodness is is gripping. It has more edge-of-your seat tension than most action thrillers. The final drum scene is a battle of wills more suspenseful than just about any fight scene I’ve ever watched. I was holding my breath. Very highly recommended.

Walk to Haarlem

I walked to Haarlem this morning, just under 24km in just under 4.5 hours — including a 25 minute break at the ferry across the Noordzeekanaal. Alex took the bus and train there (his first time taking the train on his own), and we met up at the station. We went to McDonalds for lunch, and then visited the Spellenhuis game store. Amazingly, we didn’t walk out with a new game.

Alex in front of the Grote Kerk in Haarlem

I listened to a stack more episodes of 99% Invisible on the walk, and spent some time thinking about the UK general election result. Much good (for the SNP), much bad (another five years of tory rule). There’s a direct line from last year’s referendum result to today’s outcome, but that was far from clear on the morning of September 19th. I don’t know what path the road to independence will take next, but I really hope that when we see another referendum, it will be under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership.

Walk from Oostzaan to Maarssen

On Sunday 26th April I did another marathon walk, this time from Oostzaan to Maarssen. I set out from our house at about 06:20, and finished at Maarssen Station at about 14:50. The walk tracking app I use on my phone said I’d done about 43.5km. I had taken a few short breaks to rest along the way, and had also been stopping occasionally to take some photos. Even so, that works out at an average of about 5.1 km/h, which I’m happy with for a long distance like that.

My soundtrack for the walk was a selection of my favourite songs from RWBY volumes 1 and 2 (high tempo, to get me moving), followed by the dozen most recent episodes of the 99% Invisible podcast, which has totally become my new favourite thing. That wasn’t quite enought to get me all of the way, so I finished with a couple of episodes of Answer Me This. (Roman Mars was plugging Helen Zaltzman’s new podcast The Allusionist during the promotional segments of 99% Invisible, and I think I’ll have to dive into that soon.)

Some photos from along the way:

Under the Nesciobrug on the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal
So much canal

Seriously, most of the walk was along the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal, and it was straight on for mile after mile. Good for keeping your head down and making the distance, not so great for variety of scenery. Many of the tall trees didn’t have their leaves yet, and it looked almost autumnal. Still, it was peaceful, and a nice long stretch.

My feet got sore during the last 5-10km, and I started to shift my balance around, which led to blisters. I think I can do 20-25km walks easily with no effects the next day, but a 40km walk is over a certain limit. Maybe if I’d taken a longer break around lunchtime and re-tied my shoes, or had a change of socks, it would have been easier at the end. I’ll experiment next time.