Mixed media, Saturday 28 January 2017

What can we do?

The Planetary Omnibus edition is a huge book – it literally weighs 2.5kg, and is hard to read in bed. You need to be sitting down at a table to let the pages sprad open comfortably. But it’s really good. I read my first Warren Ellis book — volume 1 of Transmetropolitan — a few years ago, and I’ve slowly been catching up on his work. His recent series Trees and Injection are firm favourites, and now I’m digging back into older stuff. (I still need to finish the whole Transmetropolitan run.)

The Planetary Omnibus contains the whole 27-issue run of the series, and three one-shot specials at the end. The story follows Elijah Snow as he gets drafted into “Planetary,” a global organization dedicated to uncovering the secret history of the 20th century. That secret history contains monsters, superheroes, and fictional characters, all warped beyond the point of familiarity, but not quite beyond the point of recognition. As I read through the book’s hundreds of pages, I found myself constantly having flashes of insight, flipping back to earlier chapters, and going “Ohhhhh!” as I saw that the hooks had been planted right from the beginning. It’s an amazingly rich and dense work, with artwork from John Cassaday that matches the story and characters beautifully. The series was published intermittently from 1998 to 2009, and keeping a story like that together over such a long timespan is a terrific feat.

Also read:

  • Vision vol 2: Little Better Than A Beast concludes Tom King’s run on Vision. He ends it in just as dark and disturbing a way as it started. Volume 2 doesn’t feel quite as strong, though. It’s pretty hard to top the emotional gut-punches he delivered in Volume 1. Highly recommended overall, though.
  • Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat! vol 2: Don’t Stop Me-Ow has one Civil War II issue with some far-ranging consequences for the story (Patsy’s best friend She-Hulk has been in a huge fight that put her in a coma), but for the most part stays lightweight and fun while it deals with smaller-scale personal issues of friendship and relationships.
  • I wanted to read The Immortal Iron Fist (The Complete Collection, volume 1) because it’s Matt Fraction, but at the same time I was apprehensive, because of the troubling race issues around the character of Danny Rand: a white American guy as the hero and saviour of an ancient mystical oriental heritage. It avoids the matter of race for the most part. When unavoidable, it focuses on Danny as just an outsider, and chooses to bury most of the hard questions with his predecessor Orson Randall. I still enjoyed it. The story twists and turns and takes some stops in the history of the Iron Fist along the way. David Aja’s art is also a pleasure.


  • The Grand Budapest Hotel: I had avoided this for a while because I thought it would be quite artificial and mannered. It is, up to a point, but the film pricks its own balloon so often that it’s obvious the artifice is a vehicle for perfectly executed comedy. Ralph Fiennes is amazing, and the whole thing is just magical.
  • The Legend of Barney Thomson is the opposite. The story takes place in present-day Glasgow, but the characters live in an highly mannered, out-of-time bubble. The dark humour never really struck home, which made the artifice just seem misjudged.
  • Crimson Peak was okay. As the lead character Edith Cushing explains, it’s not really a ghost story. It just has ghosts in it. The ghosts are a metaphor for the past.
  • Now You See Me 2 has one amazing scene (with the four horsemen passing a playing card between themselves to smuggle a microchip out of a highly secured room), and a lot of filler.
  • Sing reveals a lot of its funniest moments in the trailer. The film itself is populated by stereotypes, and I found it very hard to warm to the irresponsible Koala. It’s simple and sweet, though, and everyone gets a chance to overcome their troubles and get their time in the spotlight.
  • Arq is a tense little time travel thriller. It’s shot in a single location, with a tiny cast. The characters play out the same couple of hours again and again, each time with more of them being aware that they’re inside a time loop, and revealing different aspects of the conspiracy they’re embedded in. I liked it.

At Dave’s suggestion, I bought Doom (2016) for the PS4 over the Christmas holiday, and finished it last week. I don’t tend to play many first-person shooters, but I loved it. The action is fast and unsubtle, favouring running around and spraying demons with as much firepower as you can, rather than on carefully hoarding resources. It’s pure videogame fun. I was also impressed by how well it played on the PS4 with a console controller instead of a keyboard and mouse. I don’t think I’ll be trying my hand at the online multiplayer, though. Judging by how quickly Alex was able to zip through Rune Challenges that took me dozens of run-throughs to succeed at, I’d get slaughtered. Repeatedly.

I’ve been listening to as much of English electro-pop band Dive In as I can find on Spotify. It isn’t much, but what there is is excellent. They remind me of the Studio Killers, with a twist of The Naked and Famous. I had come across their song “Let Go” way back in 2013 already, around the time I discovered the Studio Killers as well. The new version of the song on Spotify is mostly the same, but with a few extra guitar licks in the middle. I still love it. Terribly weak music video, though. (Sorry chaps.)

Noord Holland Saturday afternoon


Yesterday was cold and clear. Abi and I went out for a drive in the afternoon, intending to have a cup of coffee and a slice of applie pie at the café ‘t Heerenhuis in Spijkerboor, but it was closed. Instead, we drove on to Purmerend. We parked nearby the amazing Melkwegbrug, and crossed it both ways. Then we had our warm drinks and apple pie in a small brasserie in the town centre.



After being in “maintenance” mode for a couple of years, App.net is shutting down completely. I quite liked the service and their ambitious ideas for enabling more than just a 140-character stream. I had a paid subscription for a while, but ultimately it didn’t pan out. The network effects never took hold, and it ended up as too small a niche to be self-sustaining.

So I’m intrigued to see Manton Reece trying to do something new in this same space. He is running a kickstarter for an “indie microblogging” service (micro.blog), and a book to go along with it. From what I can tell, it’s a re-thinking of classic blogging tools and RSS for the modern era. RSS readers were great, but nowadays people expect the simplicity of clean-looking apps and a simpler, more socially-oriented timeline. This looks like it might provide a solution along those lines, while still being rooted in the open web, and holding on to its distributed nature.

Homestly, I’ll be surprised if the service turns into a long-term sustainable venture. The niche of people who care if their social network is a walled garden or built on open standards is tiny, and shrinking. But I’m still going to back it, because I’m one of them.

Mixed media, Thursday 5 January 2017

At the start of this Christmas & New Year break, I had good intentions to get out of the house and take a walk every day. My work patterns have been making me feel increasingly shut in and locked behind my computer, and I wanted to take the time to start bedding in a new habit. It didn’t quite work out. Last Friday I got out of bed with a ferocious stabbing pain in my lower back, and I’ve been in constant pain since then. The thud-thud vibration of walking hurts. Standing still aches. Sitting down hurts. Standing up after having sat for a while hurts even more. (I’ve been to the doctor now. I have :emoji heart with manga eyes: painkillers.)

Swimming feels good. On Saturday (Hogmanay) morning, our central heating and hot water boiler died. We have a call-out contract with a repair and maintenance company. They came out on Saturday afternoon to say, “yup, it’s dead,” but they couldn’t do anything about it until Monday at the earliest. Not really what we needed at New Year, when I wanted to be spending a lot of time soaking in a hot bath or shower, but there’s never a good time for the hot water to do away. Hence the swimming. We finally got the boiler replaced yesterday. Fortunately, this winter hasn’t been really cold yet, and we have a wood-burning stove downstairs that puts out a lot of heat. Also, the teenagers rarely take showers even at the best of times.

In a way, though, this back pain has been a good thing. I have spent a lot less time behind my computer than I probably would have otherwise this holiday. Sitting at my desk is a pattern, a habit that finds a way to feed itself. Whether it’s cranking out a stack of posts on this blog, scanning old documents, or reorganizing my digital photos archives, recently I have always found something to obsess about in my breaks.

What these activities have in common is that they appear productive, but are not necessary. During the normal working week, my evenings and weekends feel so squeezed that the only time I have to tackle time-consuming projects that require continuous stretches of attention is during my part-time leave. This is a problem, because I impose time pressure on myself, and don’t take the time to relax. When I go back to work, I don’t feel rested, and I’m unsatisfied by the time off. It’s not a good pattern.

So finding myself physically unable to sit up straight for any length of time has led to me spending more time lying around (lying on my left side is pain-free for my lower back, but it is starting to give me neck pain instead), reading, continuing to re-watch Fringe, and playing more console games again. As always when I rediscover the joy of gaming, I realize that I should do more of it.

Carl Richards in the New York Times suggests that 2017 should be the “Year of Working Hard and Resting Hard”:

We can add “exhausted” to words like “cynical” and “busy” that we wear as badges of honor. As crazy as it all sounds, I have to admit to having believed it. A part of me in some dark corner of my mind whispers: “This is all true, Carl. If you don’t keep hustling, you’ll end up falling behind, and no one will listen to you. Ever. Again. Then, you’ll just be another failure, left to crawl under a rock, cold and alone to die!”

But since I’ve appointed myself King of Permission Granting, I hereby grant everyone the permission to declare the #CrushIt decade finished. January 2017 will be the official start of the “Work Hard, Rest Hard” decade. We are going to hustle, sure. But we’re also going to rest. In fact, we’re going to be as good at resting as we are at crushing things.

What I don’t want to do is go off and relentlessly pursue relaxation by taking up a new hobby, or resolving to go to the gym three times a week now that I have crossed the 80kg bridge heading in the wrong direction. I’m not going to seek out every concert that sounds interesting, just because it’s nearby. Picking up a game controller regularly is enough, precisely because there is no purpose to it other than that it’s a moment of fun, just for me.

In his annual “State of the World” address, this year Bruce Sterling writes, “I would start by strongly urging you prize your existence in 2017. Life is precious and shouid be valued, for it’s easy not to have it.”

This echoes the emotions I felt after watching Arrival, and it ties in with all of the above. (I have to find better ways of disconnecting from work outside of office hours.) Arrival is wonderful.

I saw Arrival on my own in the morning, and then later in the day all four of us went out to see Rogue One. It was okay, but I didn’t find any of the character arcs convincing. It was odd seeing Forest Whitaker in two so very different roles on the same day. CGI Peter Cushing looked like a very well-rendered videogame character, but out of place nonetheless.

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was fine, so long as you ignore the fact that Newt Scamander is the world’s worst wizard. Moana is called Vaiana here, for reasons. I thought it was fine; Fiona loved it and thinks it’s her favourite Disney movie now. Star Trek: Beyond was fine, but forgettable. It would be nice if they could find a plot that doesn’t involve a bad guy bent on destroying the Federation some day.

Comics: I’m in the middle of a bunch of them, but the ones I’ve finished most recently are Squirrel Girl vol 4: I Kissed A Squirrel And I Liked It, and Howard The Duck vol 2: Good Night And Good Duck. Squirrel Girl continues to be great. Good Night And Good Duck ends Chip Zdarsky’s and Joe Quinones’s run on Howard the Duck, and it is awful. I don’t say that lightly. Earlier this year, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky injected themselves into Sex Criminals issue 14 as an interlude. Here, Chip Zdarsky spends two whole issues on a bullshit storyline involving a couple of purple entities (“Chipp” and “Jho”) from the planet Sparkitron, who have been writing scripts for the Howard The Duck reality TV show to make it more interesting for viewers of the Mojoverse network. Turns out everything that has been happening to Howard over the last 11 issues has been their doing! It’s juvenile, unfunny, and a colossally disappointing end to what started off as a smart and innovative run.

Circling back around to the playing of video games, I finished Uncharted 4 last week, and I loved it. (So did Film Crit Hulk.) The mix of story, exploration, on-rails sections, and gunplay was just perfect for me. And although the climbing sections were obviously unrealistic, they had just the right thrilling feel for a climbing simulation. Which is not something I can say for The Last Guardian. I haven’t got very far into it, but coming straight from Uncharted 4, the climbing is much less intuitive and fluid. (The “X” button means “jump up” in Uncharted, but “drop” in The Last Guardian. This takes some getting used to.)

Also playing: Amplitude and Doom. Both of them are easy to pick up and play quicky. I’m sure they would reward long stretches of continuous attention, but they don’t demand it. That’s nice. I need more of that. Moments of fun, just for me.

2016 Concerts

My rule of live music used to be “Never miss an opportunity to see your favourite band, because you never know when they will split up, or die.” But despite 2016 being quite brutal in terms of big name musicians signing off, I’m going to be more discerning from now. 2016 was peak gig for me. Seeing 19 concerts at 12 different venues in such a short span of time (yeah, a year is short) has taught me a lot about what I like and what I don’t like in a concert.

And that’s okay. Going out to see live music should just be fun.

  1. 5 February 2016: Imagine Dragons at Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam
  2. 11 February 2016: Wolf Alice at Paradiso, Amsterdam
  3. 26 February 2016: Halsey at Melkweg, Amsterdam
  4. 2 May 2016: Melanie Martinez at Melkweg, Amsterdam
  5. 9 May 2016: The Joy Formidable at The Liquid Room, Edinburgh
  6. 20 May 2016: Bleached at Bitterzoet, Amsterdam
  7. 21 May 2016: The Heavy at Melkweg, Amsterdam
  8. 30 May 2016: Garbage at Paradiso, Amsterdam
  9. 20 July 2016: Area 11 at The Mash House, Edinburgh
  10. 9 August 2016: Indigo Girls at Mountain Winery, Saratoga
  11. 12 August 2016: Lindsey Stirling at Mountain Winery, Saratoga
  12. 11 October 2016: Marianas Trench at Tolhuistuin, Amsterdam Cancelled (postponed?)
  13. 26 October 2016: Passenger at Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam
  14. 7 November 2016: The Lumineers at Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam
  15. 11 November 2016: 65daysofstatic at Poppodium Q-Factory, Amsterdam
  16. 16 November 2016: Bastille at Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam
  17. 28 November 2016: Frightened Rabbit at Tolhuistuin, Amsterdam
  18. 3 December 2016: Deacon Blue at AECC, Aberdeen
  19. 15 December 2016: The Cool Quest at Melkweg, Amsterdam
  20. 18 December 2016: Talib Kweli at Bitterzoet, Amsterdam

My favourites: Area 11, The Cool Quest, 65daysofstatic. Would go and see them again any time.

Wolf Alice, The Heavy, Garbage, Frightened Rabbit, The Joy Formidable: would go and see them again if the venue was right.

Venues: Paradiso is still the best. Ziggo Dome: avoid when possible. AECC in Aberdeen: not even once.