Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Year: 2009 (page 3 of 5)

Films and Food, Wine and World Domination

Terminator SalvationFor an entirely unplanned weekend, it ended up becoming rather alliteratively full as our title suggests, with two films, two meals out, four friends and a spot of casual world domination. Rav decided that we needed to see Terminator Salvation, a prospect to which I was not wholly averse, while being vocal in my confusion as to why exactly we need another Terminator film. The third, to refresh people’s memories, was a largely neutered teen-friendly product with the sole saving grace of its unexpected ending in which, despite the protagonists’ best efforts, Judgement Day occurs anyway. This time around we rejoin John Connor in the middle of his near-future war against the machines in what would prove to be an even more unnecessary film than the third. It has virtually no plot to speak of, nor does it advance the overarching mythos or universe. What it does do is throw up a series of amusingly careless gaffes — the apparently recoil-free shotgun which a teenager can fire one-handed with perfect accuracy or the inexplicably redundant glassy touch-screen text-based user-interface in the machines’ HQ. Overall the action is competent and the film is perfectly watchable. I’m just not sure what the point was.

Following that, a good curry and a great bottle of Malbec at Indian Moment in Clapham and then back to Rav’s for drinks and warmongering in a protracted mission-based session of Risk. I haven’t played for many years, but if ever a game were designed for me, this is probably high on the list. I was pleased to see I still haven’t lost my ruthless touch. Equally important as martial strategising is the technique of naming any lone soldiers defending remote outposts of the empire. Invaders soon learned to fear the venerable one-man armies of Chuck Norris and Quentin Tarantino. The best defence is a good offence; the second best defence is a good name. Waking late on Sunday we had an early afternoon brunch (I am reliable informed by Maurita that it’s still brunch until 4pm, at which point it becomes brinner) at Aquum.

Synecdoche, New YorkFilm #2 was Synecdoche, New York from Charlie Kaufman, his first outing as a director as well as writer. Frankly trying to form an opinion on it after a single viewing is almost an exercise in futility. Rav encapsulated it rather well in his first comment, “the decade was nearly over without a Twelve Monkeys.” The difference is that while logic and time are fluid concepts, given free rein Kaufman has produced something overambitious and rather self-indulgent which doesn’t necessarily hang together. There is much to enjoy and appreciate within smaller scenes or sections of the film but it will certainly take repeat viewings to decide whether it is less or more than the sum of its parts. It could be art, it could be bad storytelling without another director to make sense of his script. Time will tell.

And lastly, two great t-shirts from Despair Inc., which seems to be branching out from pessimism into general social commentary.

What Else Happened In Tennessee?

Jeff's dinner: lambDell will be sending out an engineer to replace the screen on my laptop. In the meantime hooking it up to a monitor has let me extract the remaining photos. I’m hoping to go through them swiftly but with nearly 900 from the trip (excluding those already deleted) I’m not even going to try estimating. Instead this post will give you a few final photos before the full gallery is prepared (and in the meantime check out the set on Facebook). Jeff cooked a great meal one evening and since Jenna has been exploring food photography recently, I decided to try out the new 50mm lens on gastronomic imagery. Some of the results are below, along with scenery from the trip.

One of the other issues with the Mammoth Cave tour related to the tour guide himself. On being asked the age of the caves he explained it was around 8000 years old, before following this up with a response on their formation that geologists believe it took around 2 million years to form. Anyone else notice a minor discrepency there? It didn’t bother me since he was pretty open about his obvious bias, although one could feel the entire room “start to squirm” as Jenna put it. Perhaps more worrying is that he backed up his own view by explaining he used to teach geology in school for many years. That’s Kentucky, I guess.

Taffy machineAlthough it is traditional to bring chocolate back for the office, there’s no way I was going to buy Hershes or American chocolate in general for that matter. This left a void which I decided to fill with taffy. For those unfamiliar, taffy is a generic name for chewy sweets like Starburst or Chewits that are stretched to make it “fluffier” before being rolled and cut into pieces. The store in Gatlinburg actually handmade it on-site, allowing visitors to view the process (and giving out free samples which always helps make my mind up).

And in other news it appears Telltale games have now picked up the Monkey Island franchise. For the most well-known adventure game title to fall into the hands of the most successful current developer in the genre could not be more fitting. The first episode lands July 7. I suspect I’ll be insult swordfighting all week to celebrate. General comments on E3 news once it’s new, but suffice to say the return to its previous over-the-top glory is certainly warranted.

What Happened In Tennessee?

As you may have picked up from other sources, a screen failure in my month-old laptop prevented updates in the second half of the trip. Hopefully getting it repaired won’t be too stressful. Having returned I only have access to around half my photos at the moment, so a full gallery may take a little time. I have put a fairly comprehensive set of smaller images up on Facebook.

SkyliftSo what happened once we reached Tennessee? Aside from hanging out in our 3-floor, 5-bedroom cabin the mountains, we went on several hikes, explored the nearby town of Gatlinburg, and embarked on a couple of longer road trips to Nashville and Kentucky. Nashville included a bizarre recreation of the Parthenon and the country music spectacle of the Grand Ole Opry which featured some fantastic performances and was quite an experience. Kentucky was primarily for the Mammoth Cave (although an obligatory stop at the original KFC was a given). While the huge caves are a beautiful sight, the way the place is run makes it difficult to recommend. A strict no-bag policy will confound photographers who wish to carry multiple lenses, and the whole tour felt rather rushed, being generally picture unfriendly. Alternative tours such as an introduction to caving might be better options.

Karleigh blowing bubblesA couple of nights in, we decided to dust off the outdoor hot tub and spent several hours soaking, drinking beer and chatting. Jenna’s unforgivably early departure clearly required retaliatory action. Knowing that the simplest punishments tend to be the most effective, she inherited the nickname, radio callsign, and every conceivable conversational reference to “Quitter” for the remainder of the trip. She finally escaped the title only after staying up with me until 3am on our last night together, as we shared photos and watched several hours of British comedy.

Carjacked

Cobra 2-way radioThe trip to Tennessee proved to be the typically fun and eventful roadtrip that these extended family undertakings always promise. With 12 of us on this trip we split into two vehicles for the journey, the bulk in the 15-seater van, back seats loaded with luggage, and just two in the more intimate car, which had been packed like a mule. Communication between the two was facilitated by two-way radios I bought to equip each vehicle (during a traditional midnight trip to Wal-Mart with Jenna). Jeff and I took the car, sharing music and chatting for several hours until the first stop.

Energy drinksAt this point, realising it had been several years since I last had an energy drink, I decided to make things interesting. Meanwhile Dwain decided to make things even more interesting by jacking our car when Jeff inadvertantly stepped away with the keys in the ignition. Initially a hostage, high on a range of American-strength energy products I swiftly switched sides and we ended up hurtling down the highway in our “jacked” car, blaring Shania Twain in some bizarrely twisted parody of the Southern criminal.

Karleigh playing poolOur woodland “cabin” is more lavish than most houses I have seen recently, and on arrival Caleb and I cracked open the beer and played pool. Karleigh became curious and asked about the game so I explained the rules. Despite the fact there were no cues even vaguely small enough to fit her comfortably, she threw herself into the game wholeheartedly. Her persistence suggests with practice we could have the makings of a great pool hustler (who’d say “no” to such a cute girl?) so frankly I view the time spent as an investment.

Foam Weaponisation

This post is primarily to share more photos from the last few days, since the summary of what I’ve been up to is basically “hanging out with Jenna, Jeff, Karleigh and Clark”. In pretty much equal amounts this trip, which has been nice. Last night, Nic, Jane and her boyfriend Nick came over for dinner which, as it got later, gradually degenerated into a fun, wine-fuelled session of friendly insults and ribaldry.

We spent today running through a list of errands Jenna had compiled that needed to be finished prior to the Tennessee trip. Naturally I felt the need to contribute to this list of goals. World domination seemed appropriate. In practice that meant buying a replacement belt for mine which broke a few days ago. As Che Guevara said, “you can’t have a revolution if your trousers fall down” (okay, he probably didn’t say that, but I’m sure he’d have agreed with the sentiment).

Nerf BlasterWhile shopping I came across the Weird American Product of the Day (WAPotD?). The Nerf N-Strike Switch Shot EX-3 is a dart blaster into which you can also slot in a Nintendo Wiimote to turn it into a peripheral for the console. Because foam weaponisation is clearly what the Japanese had overlooked. Which is sort of surprising. Incidentally this picture is top-secret evidence smuggled out of Wal-Mart after I was accosted by security guard for photographing a couple of their products. I understand they may be wary of undercover documentaries, but the store wouldn’t even have earned a mention had they not felt the need to interfere…

“What’s In Natchez?”

In any case, we live in different times, by different standards, and we have different hopes for our children. They will learn to be afraid of Everything, which is pitiful. Life in the Fourth Reich will not be easy, for most of them. They will ride fast motorcycles and have a lot of sex, and that will be just about it.

-Hunter S. Thompson, Foreword to Boys on the Bus

CoralAfter an uneventful, relatively comfortable, 10 hour flight with Continental (my only complaint being their choice of meal times which left room for improvement), we arrived in Houston, Texas. Encounters with US immigration officials, often unfriendly and occasionally borderline xenophobic, are not something I typically enjoy. This trip was a pleasant exception. “What’s in Natchez!?” he asked cheerily, clearly perplexed as to why tourists would arrive in Texas only to head to a tiny town in Mississippi. “My sister,” explained my dad, to which Romina added, “and not much else.”

StarfishSo far most of the holiday has been spent travelling. It took a six hour drive to get to Natchez, followed by one and a half to get to Baton Rouge. And the road trip to Tennessee is still ahead of us. In between, I spent a while photographing the beautiful coral tanks my uncle and aunt have spent months building up and maintaining since my last visit, along with the dogs. There’s small gallery below. I’m certainly getting comfortable with the 50mm lens now and the plan is to shoot most of this trip with it, after which I’ll go back to alternating generally between it and the 28-135mm.

While Twitterage will likely be limited, I’ll aim for a continuous stream of short posts (ideally with photos) here since I’m unlikely to have time for anything longer or more in-depth until I return.

Coraline in 3D

Coraline posterCoraline the book is a magical, creepy children’s story from Neil Gaiman about a girl who finds a hidden doorway in her house that leads to another world. Coraline the film is both a wonderful translation to the screen, a work of art, and another proud testament to the fact that stop-motion animation, while dying out, is far from gone yet. I’m going to start out with a request: please do yourselves a favour and go see it soon while it’s still in 3D screens. This will be quite unlike the gimmicky effects to which you are used, with “this is the 3D bit” moments. Instead the entire thing was shot with stereoscopic cameras so it’s all just… 3D. As if that were totally normal. The difference is that it generally adds depth by moving into the screen rather than trying to burst out of it, which is when the illusion tends to break.

Given the couple of 3D trailers preceding the film, this is a tipping point. Ice Age certainly seems to have embraced it just as fully and naturally. In fact the 3D view confused me at first, my eyes straining as I struggled to take everything in at once as I normally would with a film. Instead you should look around the scene unfolding before you, focusing on one layer at a time, just as in real life. However I’m not about to start saying that this is the future for all films, because you’re losing something too: the vibrant colours do appear washed out through the polarised glasses and I suppose you lose that big screen spectacle where you can take in everything at once in a detailed 2D shot. Not to mention the unnecessary surcharge for the privilege of 3D, a bit steep for glasses they’re collecting up afterwards (okay, and a digital two-level projector, but that’s an investment).

Coraline Set DesignThere is far more to the film than this effect, of course, and more than enough to make a 2D viewing worthwhile. Stop-motion always offers something tantalisingly different from the now-standard digitally animated fare, though it is often hard to put one’s finger on. And the calibre here is the very highest, directed by the legendary Henry Sellick who also helmed The Nightmare Before Christmas (despite the fact it tends to be Tim Burton of whom people first think since his writing and design permeates much of it). The painstaking process of shooting and adjusting in individual frames is almost impossible to imagine, but the result is somehow more grounded, with more precise movements and a sense of weight. It is truer here than in Corpse Bride where, arguably, the pursuit of smooth visual perfection resulted in something that looked digital. The love and care from the team at Laika often permeate the world on display before you which is a joy to behold. As their marketing revealed, these guys are artisans. And so it is that what really sticks with you from the film are the stunning environments even moreso than the characters and story which meander through them.

Coraline - breakfastI won’t bother dealing with the “controversy” of scaring kids, since you know my thoughts. Young kids will undoubtedly be frightened from time to time by the strangely dislocated other world which Coraline discovers. The Other Mother is suitably creepy incarnation and a perfect realisation of Coraline’s adversary. Bottom line is: it’ll probably scare kids and they’ll love it. I must admit I was perplexed, however, by the Sellick’s choice in the corpulant geriatric mild nudity of Spink and Forcible’s act in the other world. While there is much for adults to enjoy, Coraline is still clearly a kids’ film so it feels awkwardly out of place. On the other hand kids may not even notice.

Dream Jobs

A couple of days ago Lily twittered a question that resonated with me, partly because I was unhappy with the answer I gave. She asked:

Are you doing your dream job? How did you get it?

The first part was pretty easy. It’s no secret that I love my job — I’ve wanted to be a lawyer for years and I’ve been incredibly lucky with the firm at which I’ve ended up. My answer to the second part, however, seemed overly simplistic and a little facetious:

The hardest part is working out what, in practice, it is. Then I just had to ask.

What did I mean? Well dream jobs tend to be something productive, for a start. While we all initially imagine we’d love to paid to sit around at home all day, most of us would find it gets dull pretty fast. Secondly, it’s likely to be something that plays to our skillset already. In theory your dream job is probably something you’re perfectly suited to do already (or with a little training) which is what I meant by the fact that once you work it out, you just have to ask: almost by definition you ought to be ideal applicant for the job you should have (or at least good enough to make the cut anyway). You can swing things in your favour through interview technique, etc., but really that’s just ensuring they see you and your skills properly.

In my case there was one other thing in the back of my mind that I really wanted to do: write. I’m certainly out of practice now but I used to write a great deal, some of which is available via this site, but a lot of the fiction (in the form of short stories or sometimes snippets of prose) was only ever read by a select few people. Eventually I decided to take the legal route. It would be easy to see “professional writer” as the dream job I discarded but I think it was more than pragmatism. The legal life does seem better to suit my overall skillset, even if much comes from my ability with the English language. However it still gives me time to devote to books, writing things like this blog, and even something more substantial should I choose to in the future.

Other hobbies have arguably taken over these days, with photography, film and technology being among them. My job is able to support my lifestyle in terms of these, providing both money and adequate time to enjoy them (both being equally crucial). The fact the firm specialises in technology, with a wide range of clients from that sector, further tightens the link. So the job choice wasn’t solely dictated by my interests, but my firm selection partly arose from them, making it easy for me to sell myself as right for the role.

I think it’s also important to note the difference between the freedom of a hobby and rigidity of a job. For example, while I enjoy photography and in the past have even received small jobs through it, I doubt I would enjoy the life of a professional photographer at all. The lack of freedom in commissioned work would feel stifling by comparison to the freedom I have of taking my camera into the wild (well, the City normally) and shooting whatever I like. It’s very definitely something I want to continue to explore as a hobby and not as a job. Should the opportunity to exploit the results financially occur later on, I am always free to do that.

So there are a lot of potential “dream jobs” that in practice really aren’t. Selecting the right one really might be the hardest part of getting there. Not that you have to get it right first time, of course. Or that there’s even just a single dream job for you out there. Life can be short or long but always should be varied and interesting. Isn’t that the dream? This post has meandered a bit, but hopefully answers a fairly loaded question a lot better than I could in Twitter’s 140 characters.

Please Release (Candidate) Me

First off various bits that I’ve been meaning to share:

I have not said a great deal about my experience with Windows 7 since installing the beta a while ago. The reason is pretty simple: it’s just been incredibly smooth with very little to report. The general interface has undergone minimal change since Vista, with most of the changes under the hood. Subtle changes like the new Super Bar and AeroPeek are well-implemented evolutions of the Aero interface, but hardly revolutionary. Unlike the experience of early adopters of Vista, most software will already be fully compatible, particularly since most vendors now support 64-bit releases (yes, with 4 gigs of RAM in the laptop I’m using a 64-bit version of Windows 7). The result has been a very stable operating system that acts just as it should: generally stays out of your way and lets you get on with what you want to do.

So when the Release Candidate arrived earlier this month I didn’t jump at it. In fact, my experience with the beta has been so hassle-free that I probably won’t upgrade before my trip to the States either, since reinstalling all that software will be time-consuming. In fact my chief reason for switching to the RC will be to take advantage of its generous trial period, lasting until March 2010 (full expiration is technically June 2010 but forced shutdowns every 2 hours essentially render it useless in that period).

X-Mini Max: Small Package, Big Sound

X-mini Max capsuleEvery now and then I come across a product so intriguing that I have to give in and impulse buy just to see if it actually works. The X-mini Max speakers are a perfect example. Portable speakers that fit in the palm of your hand that amplify to fill a room with sound. Crazy.

The interesting part is their ingenious design. The capsule shaped unit is first split in two, as the two separate speakers are held together by magnets (the original X-mini speaker was mono, even though several could be daisy-chained together: the Max is a big improvement with full stereo).

X-mini Max deployedBy twisting the top of each speaker, it expands upwards in an accordion fashion to reveal the resonator. This gives it a significantly larger volume of air inside which results in a deeper, richer sound. Unsurprisingly they still sound a little tinny, and they are never going to come close to my Shure earphones while travelling, but they certainly beat the hell out of any integrated speaker. 2-3 hours charging from a USB port is supposed to give about 7 hours of playback time, which I haven’t been able to test yet. The volume and reasonable quality from such a small unit really is surprising, and they’ll make another great addition on the US trip. You can pick up a set for about £25 via Amazon.

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"Luck is the residue of design."

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