Tuesday, October 31, 2006

REVIEW: ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell’s first book, ‘The Tipping Point’ was a perhaps surprisingly well-received book analysing social trends, and what makes them emerge, fade or become part of ongoing culture. In Blink, he looks into the power of snap judgments, and the benefits of being able to make speedy (but accurate) decisions.

There are some very good examples – a fake sculpture which fooled most experts, but nonetheless made some say hmm at first glance, and a marriage guidance counsellor who can analyse discrete moments of behaviour and make startlingly accurate predictions about the likelihood of the couple staying together. There are more examples like this, and Gladwell writes well, and yet I must admit I was vaguely disappointed with the book.

Whereas Gladwell’s previous book analysed the people and factors involved in social trends, Blink doesn’t repeat the analysis in Blink; after two hundred pages or so of discussing why it’s a good idea to try to ‘think without thinking’, he spends about a dozen pages talking about how one might go about doing this. Maybe my expectations were inappropriate, but it seemed to me that it would be a good idea to actually suggest ways that the reader might develop the skill of making snap judgments.

So it’s an interesting read, but it rather fails to reach a conclusion – or, at least, the one I was hoping for; as opposed to ‘hey, that could be something to try’, it remains slightly removed, restricted to the lives of others, and thus in the realms of ‘oh, that’s interesting’.

Which the book is: interesting. But not, I felt, fascinating or gripping. Cautiously recommended as long as you don’t expect suggestions as to how to apply the lessons of the book to your life, but if you’re looking for a pseudo-self-help title, you’ll probably feel slightly let down. I certainly did.

Put it in your dictionary

Morkish [Maw'kish] a. artificially and manipulatively sentimental; ostensibly emotional but lacking sincerity. Characteristic of the mid-career film work of Robin Williams.

Monday, October 30, 2006

LIST: A Life Of Surprises

Here, then, are some facts about me which might surprise you, but they're all utterly true. Thought I'd share:

1. I was knocked down by a car at the age of 7.
2. I was the only male in the 'Top 6' recorder group at my junior school. I was miming quite a lot of the time.
3. I've never been met at the airport by a loved one on returning to the UK.
4. My geography is appalling. I genuinely have no idea where, for example, Sweden is (sorry, Sweden).
5. I've never put the phone down on anyone in anger (yet).
6. The first album I ever owned was a tape of a Muppet Show album. A home-recorded tape, at that.
7. I have watched Dirty Dancing and Dirty Dancing 2, and think they're all right.
8. I've never walked out of a film at the cinema (yet).
9. I seem to have been genetically gifted with large lungs, but cursed with migraine headaches.
10. In relation to women, I've rebuffed far more offers than I have accepted.

Those were (some of) my truths, now tell me yours. Seriously, send in your surprising boasts/confessions to surprisesurprise@johnsoanes.co.uk, and I'll post the most knee-bucklingly staggering ones (let me know if you'd rather I withheld your name) ... that should help make this post seem less self-absorbed.

Well, perhaps.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Recycled Meat (Leaves A Bad Taste In The Mouth)

As you may know, Meat Loaf’s released a new album this month, called ‘Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose’. A quick Google search will show you that it’s not written and/or produced by Jim Steinman, the chap behind the first two ‘Bat’ albums in 1977 and 1993. In fact, there’s been a bit of backstage hoo-hahing about the album, as Messrs Loaf and Steinman have been engaged in a bit of legal fencing, it seems. Anyway, they’re all friends now (ahem), and so this new album – apparently the final one in the ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ series, has come out.

Well, I say “new”…

Okay, let me say this now, before I get into the petty criticism; I think that Jim Steinman is a remarkably gifted songwriter, and it’s an indication of his ability that his songs have a very distinctive sound; often a ridiculously overblown one, with several instrumental breaks, layers of sound piled on top of each other, and lyrics built on paradoxes and plays on words which lend themselves all too easily to parenthetical titles, but a distinct and unique sound nonetheless, and one which I like a heck of a lot. He’s a great songwriter, and in Meat Loaf he finds an ideal mouthpiece – the Hugh Grant to his Richard Curtis, if you will. But…

But the thing is, Jim’s not averse to a bit of recycling. A whole lot of it, if we’re honest, and in its way, that makes the claim that ‘Bat III’ features new songs a smidgin close to untrue. To be fair on Steinman, that claim’s more being made by the album’s label and publicists, who’ve also rather cheekily claimed that the album has been thirty years in the making (predating the original Bat Out Of Hell, inexplicably enough), but all this publicity (and even the sticker on the CD) rather suggests that Steinman’s involvement is greater than the 7 out of 15 tracks it actually is. Tsk.

And because it’s the way I think about things, I think an analysis of the man’s contributions is in order:

Track 3: It’s all Coming Back To Me Now
Does this song, Meat Loaf’s current single, sound familiar to you ? It should do, as this is the third time it’s been released. It was first released in 1989 by the Steinman-steered group Pandora’s Box, and then again in 1997 By Celine Dion. This is, however, the first time it’s been made into a duet. In all honesty, I don’t really think it works in this way, but I have a cynical suspicion that the phenomenal success of ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’ makes the Loafster feel that duets are a good idea.

Track 4: Bad For Good
Is the title track of Steinman’s 1981 solo album. The album itself was intended as the follow-up to the original Bat Out Of Hell, but disputes between Steinman and Loaf (there does seem to be a theme here, doesn’t there?) led Steinman to sing his own vocals over the recorded backing tracks. For my money, the new version’s somehow got less fire to it, and the presence of Brian May’s distinctive guitar style is actually a little bit of a distracting element, accomplished though it is.

Track 6 : In The Land Of The Pigs (The Butcher Is King)
An oddly-titled track, and even more so when one considers that according to Steinman’s blog the correct title is in the singular – ‘The Land Of The Pig’, which does more readily echo the famous quote from Machiavelli. This song hasn’t been heard before, and (bizarrely though perhaps appropriately) it was from a never-produced Batman musical that Steinman was working on. It sounds like it, too, with a more obviously operatic feel, and whilst I can imagine it might work as part of a musical, it sounds rather out of place on Bat III.

Track 10: If It Ain’t Broke, Break It
Whilst one review I read suggested that this song might be about US Foreign Policy, I have my doubts, mainly as this song has been heard before, as part of the film soundtrack Steinman prepared for a 2003 made-for-MTV modernisation of Wuthering Heights. It’s a pretty decent track, though.

Track 12: Seize the Night
Is a funny old track; Steinman wrote this song for the German-language musical ‘Tanz der Vampire’, itself a stage adaptation of the Polanski film ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’. After a pretty successful run in Europe, the musical was taken to Broadway to star Michael Crawford, where it didn’t run for very long at all. So the song’s far from new – and even less so when one considers that its opening is taken from ‘The Storm’ on Steinman’s aforementioned solo album, and that the central guitar riff is a lift from ‘Back into Hell’, an instrumental track which appeared on Bat II. Perhaps because of this, the song feels a bit like a patchwork, and doesn’t really hang together. It’s all right, but its familiarity rather undermines any ‘sit up and pay attention’ possibilities.

Track 13: The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be
Another song which has been heard before in two different versions, and another one which has been turned into a duet. This was the finale on the aforementioned Pandora’s Box album, and was also used in the MTV Wuthering Heights film. It’s a good number, no question about it, though I think I prefer the original for no reason I can easily articulate.

Track 14: Cry To Heaven
Is another track that was rescued from the aborted Batman musical. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t really go anywhere new, and I have to say that the other songs from the musical (under ‘Blog Mentioned Songs’ here) are a little more interesting, but granted they don’t really lend themselves so readily to a solo male vocal (or duet with a female vocalist).

… now, the reason I’ve even bothered to mention this stuff in such great detail is, I guess, that both the previous Bat albums were written and produced by Steinman (though 6 of Bat II’s 11 tracks were recycled, but let’s not get into that now). And so, in its way, Bat III is no more a ‘proper’ Bat Out Of Hell album than any of Loaf’s albums which have only featured a small number of Steinman contributions. Two other albums (Bad Attitude and Welcome to the Neighbourhood) have featured what are effectively cover versions of old Steinman songs, and neither of them has had anything like the success of the Bat albums, and I think the absence of Steinman is probably the link here.

So I rather feel that the marketing of Bat Out Of Hell III as an album in the series is, at best, misleading, and at worst, something of a money-getting scam. A shame, as it leaves me with rather a bad taste in my mouth about the whole thing, and I’d previously enjoyed the collaborations between the two chaps, and this feels a bit unnecessary, and has that odd effect of retroactively souring my feelings about the original works, if you know what I mean. A shame, I think, and I wanted to explain why, rather than just making an offhand sneery comment about ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)*’, which would be the easy option – and if you don’t believe me, watch just how many comedians and writers take the release of Bat III as an opportunity to dust off their old material about the meaning of that song title…

*This title is, in itself, a recycle by Steinman from an earlier work: it appears as a spoken line in the song ‘Getting So Excited’ on the Bonnie Tyler album ‘Faster Than The Speed Of Night’, which Steinman didn’t write, but did produce.

LINKS : Writers of very few words, and a man who lets his actions speak for him

The cliché is that brevity is the soul of wit, which is probably why so many of the stories here strike me as so amusing. Clever stuff.

And you’ve probably seen this this news story before, but I wanted to share this version of it - love the way that a rampantly silly story is rendered all the more ridiculous by the headline.

Lookee, I've mastered putting the links in more elegantly! Yee!

With, of course, hilarious consequences

Those of you who know me will be all too aware that things often happen to me which are usually confined to sitcoms or farces.

And so, without going into enormous amounts of detail about it (I’ve done that several times already in the past twenty-four hours), I’ll just say that there was no surprise – and indeed there was a general air of sickening inevitability about it – to my Saturday night, when I was babysitting the young daughter of a friend.

It was, of course, only right that when I put a pizza in the oven, and nipped off to the bathroom for a quick slash, that the bathroom door lock completely and utterly seized, leaving me trapped on one side of the door, and my infant charge on the other side.

No, I’m not kidding.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

LINK: I'm gonna need you to go ahead and print this out...

... okay, so that title's pretty meaningless if you haven't seen the film Office Space, but this is a good opportunity for me to recommend you do so.

Anyway, I'm fortunate in that I currently work with decent folks in a decent environment, but I know what it's like to suffer from lousy management.

And that's why I've created the item at www.johnsoanes.co.uk/cbaward.pdf for you to print out, customise as necessary, and hand on to a rubbish boss.

Please note: You may want to use an internal mail system, or sneakily slip into onto their desk when they're not looking, if you dislike the boss but enjoy receiving a salary.

November: no more is NaNoWriMo a no-no, it's a go-go

... which is to say that this year, I've decided to have a go at National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo).

Granted, I'm about halfway through a novel already, but that's been the case for too damn long, and it's time to get that story all finished so I can get on with the next one, which is niggling away at my mind like the thought of a friend I really ought to spend some time with.

So I've signed up at www.nanowrimo.org, and so like a sizable number of people (it's more international than national, really), I'll be endeavouring to get 50,000 words done during November. Many of them are starting from scratch, but I'm using the communal aspect of it to motivate me to get 'Coming Back To Haunt You' finished (or at least its first draft). I shall no doubt update you as next month progresses, but if you know for a fact I'm skiving off when I should be doing some writing, I respectfully request you send me a harrassing e-mail at getworkingskiver@johnsoanes.co.uk. I'll probably make excuses at the time, but I'll thank you for it really.

And if you feel like you might want to join in, why not visit the NaNoWriMo site and sign up?They say that everyone has a book in them, after all...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

LINKS: One strange, one painfully obvious

There are so many strange elements to this story, I'll let it speak for itself...

Whereas this link - http://www.chortle.co.uk/news/2006/10/23/4590/all_you_need_is_spoof - must win the day's award for stating the bleeding obvious, and therefore needs comment; of course George was a fan - he appeared in the film, for goodness' sake. Sigh...

Friday, October 20, 2006

LINK: Our man knows…

Armando Iannucci has produced some very decent comedy over the past couple of decades, and so I think he knows a lot about the subject of comedy and satire.

And at http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,,1924846,00.html, he shows his insight also covers the media and politics (especially in the paragraph that begins “I found myself hungry for narrative in the build-up to the war in Iraq…”).

Worth your time, I feel.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I can resist everything except the temptation to tempt fate

So, I'll push my luck: my Broadband connection appears to be working (yay), and all because I've been given a new modem, which I suggested was the problem sometime back in August (tch).

Anyway, assuming it doesn't die on the stroke of midnight or something, posts should be much more frequent now.

Dammit, there goes my excuse, eh ?

Oh, everyone always exaggerates everything

Granted, this is quite old now, but I thought this frankly insane turn of phrase on the part of the ever-rubbish Evening Standard was still worth mocking.

Maybe it’s just me being over-sensitive, but do you think that the word ‘hijack’ could be seen as slightly inflammatory, as well as being untrue (he interrupted his speech)?

I can't imagine a world without Stray Thoughts

1. Now, from my deep and thorough political research (that is, watching 'Team America: World Police'). I'm aware that Kim Jong-Il is a decidedly odd fish, and not really the sort of chap that one wants to have access to nuclear capability. However, given that Iraq is so obviously the new Vietnam, does it really show any sense of learning from history for the USA to be making noises about military action in Korea ?

2. I've been quite enjoying 'That Mitchell and Webb Look' on BBC2. One of the refreshing things is that it's a show which has different sketches each week, and fewer recurring characters than is currently popular. Shows like Little Britain, Catherine Tate, and Swinging tend to remind me of the oriental proverb that one should 'be wary of the artisan who claims to have twenty years experience - he may simply have one year of experience, twenty times over'. In the same way, these catchphrase-based shows feel like one 30-minute programme rehashed six times.

3. It's not too late to donate/sponsor for my recent weekend of torturing my feet - you can see the glass walk picture on my previous blog entry at http://johnsoanes.blogspot.com/2006/10/bottle-and-glass-as-we-say-in-london.html, and the timings for the 10 mile run are at http://www.herculeswimbledonac.org.uk/wimbledon%2010%202006.htm (I'm very low down at 119th, but in my defence I got held up on the tube and ended up starting 15 mins or so after everyone else). Impressed by it all ? Great, grab a credit or debit card and get thee to http://www.justgiving.com/agonyofde-feet - and thanks.

4. There's a Prince song ('New Power Generation', if memory serves), which features a line to the effect of 'I hope they bury your old ideas/The same time they bury you'). Over the weekend, a good friend of mine told me that my secondary school (http://silverdaleschool.org.uk/) is to be knocked down and rebuilt, and in relation to that I would heartily echo the purple man's words. Some people might want to go back and say farewell to the place, but for my part I'd cheerfully volunteer to drive one of the bulldozers. But I'm not entirely unsentimental about it; I'd make sure they got the kids out first.

5. Am I the only one who thinks that people are currently a tad too ready to resort to threats of violence when someone says something they don't like or disagree with? People of various religious shades seem all too ready to threaten (or worse, carry out) violent acts, often when someone's done something like ...er, suggest that their religious advocates violence or intolerance. The irony is almost overwhelming, but that seems to be missed. I can only hope that atheists don't decide to take offence in a similarly touchy fashion, and start burning down all places of worship, or picketing religious events. Though atheists don't tend to do that sort of thing, do they? Probably for the best.

6. On occasion, I wonder if the Krankies' stage act is just a bedroom game which got horribly out of hand.

7. In London, there are currently two free evening newspapers, and the distributors positively clog the pavements. One of them, the recently renamed London Lite, is owned by the folks who own the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, and the newcomer, the no-capitals-no-spacedly-named thelondonpaper is, I think, owned by News International. It's quite a heated thing, I gather, though given that the papers are free (and, like the Metro in the morning, essentially padding and piffle), I think they'd be daft to think that commuters are in any way going to develop any sort of loyalty to either title. However, since the 'circulation war' will have a loser, and it'll either be Associated Newspapers or News International, I like to think that whoever loses, the world at large wins in a way.

Fry on Friday

As I may well have mentioned at the time, I recently went to see a recording of the TV programme QI, hosted by Stephen Fry. The episode in question will be shown this Friday (20 October) at 10pm on BBC2.

Wisely, in editing down the 90+ minutes of material, they've decided to omit Rory Bremner's earlier attempts to shoehorn political impressions into the format (which he sensibly dropped as time went on, and instead demonstrated some rather impressive general knowledge), and left many of Ronni Ancona's funny replies in (I draw your attention to her lengthy answer about 'obscurity').

Anyway, as ever with QI, it's funny and makes one think, which is an appallingly rare feature of TV nowadays as far as I'm concerned.

QI, incidentally, has its own website (and a shop and a club, intriguingly enough), and lo, the following link shows I'm not alone in appreciating the show:

Very impressive, I think you'd agree. Whether it makes people at the BBC think twice about the programming on either side of the timeslot in question is, of course, another matter entirely...

Monday, October 09, 2006

REVIEW : Spamalot

Yes, this is a review whilst it's previewing, but rather than being a bit previous, I like to think I'm ahead of the game, okay ?

As you may know, this is a stage musical based on the film 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', which has the blessing of the remaining Pythons, though it's mainly (and when you see it, pretty clearly) an Eric Idle-steered item. It's done well on Broadway, and now it's transferring to the West End of London, as is Tim Curry, who plays King Arthur.

So, what's it like? Well, it's a mix of bits from the film and new bits - a few new songs, expanded versions of favourites like the title song, and new plot-type bits. Overall, it's pretty good, but it doesn't truly hang together as a story as well as the original film does.

Notably good are some of the new songs, especially 'This is the song that goes like this', a great parody of the big romance numbers that all big musicals seem to feature, and the song about needing more Jews involved to get ahead in musicals (though this feels considerably less relevant in the UK than I'll wager it did in the USA). And the sets are very good, and there's quite clever use of Gilliamesque animated bits (the picture above is the animated 'Trojan Rabbit' which appears on the interval curtain, for example).

Less good is ... well, the thing is, because there are whole scenes which are lifted directly from the film, Python fans will be used to hearing them performed in a particular way, and whilst it's perfectly understandable that the cast want to make the parts feel their own, or to vary them when they're doing so many performances, bits like the Knights of Ni, Constitutional Peasant, the Black Knight and French Taunter are so well- known and well-loved (and rightly - for my money, Holy Grail's one of the funniest films there is), that hearing them performed by other people, with different emphases and inflections just feels wrong - like overhearing someone reciting Python in the pub or on the train, if you know what I mean. It has the unfortunate side-effect of making it feel almost like a student review version of the material, and that's not really what you want from a West End show.

That said, there are some nice jokes, the staging's really very good, Curry holds it all together well, there are enough in-jokes to keep Python fans happy, and there are new audio bits from Idle (introducing) and Cleese (as the voice of God). I have to accept that (my ongoing quest to spot the Pythons notwithstanding), this is probably about as close as I'll ever get to seeing Monty Python live, and as it's a fun night out, I'd cautiously recommend it; cautiously, as you have to accept it's NOT the Pythons, but once you do that, it's really pretty good.

Of course, as it's currently in Preview, it may well be that the critics will slate it when it opens 'officially' (after all, the member of Python are revered throughout the western world, but particularly in the UK, so there might be cries of 'what have they done to our Python?' or the like), so it might close quickly and you might not get a chance to see it, should you so choose. Or, it might be hyper-well-received (as I gather it was in the USA), and so tickets will sell out well in advance, so you might not be able to get tickets before 2008... now do you see why I decided to go to the Preview?

Who said that meetings are a waste of time?

I mean, I recently managed to doodle THIS!

And to think, my Sixth Form Head said I was shallow...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bottle and Glass, as we say in London

This is a picture taken at the glass walk I did last Saturday. Yes, that's a walk on bits of broken glass, laid down on tarpaulin. And then the next day I ran ten miles.

I know, I know, doing such things in close succession is plain stupid, but of course that's part of the appeal. Then again, I do it because it's in aid of Phoenix House, a charity which helps to rehabilitate people with drink- and drug-related problems, and you can sponsor me or donate at the following page : http://www.justgiving.com/agonyofde-feet - this page gives more details about the charity, and also how your donation can be worth even more to them, without you having to pay an extra penny.

Please? Pretty please with sugar on it? Oh, thanks...

LINK : Director hits back

This made me laugh: http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/Movies/09/25/moviedirector.boxing.ap/index.html

I mean, I have a really sceptical view of the importance or relevance of critics, professional or otherwise, but I don't think one should necessarily take it this far.


A far from gruntled customer

Since there's absolutely nothing more gripping than hearing about people's utility hassles, just to say that I've lodged my complaint about lousy service with the higher echelons of Talktalk, and they're looking into it, allegedly. Be interested to hear why the company hasn't called me back (as they promised to do in late July) or sent me a replacement CD (over a month of waiting now) in order to get me the broadband I've been paying for.

So, if you're thinking about signing up for TalkTalk's package with the 'free' broadband, I strongly suggest that you don't, as - in my experience - their customer service is atrocious, and the broadband doesn't work. You know, I rather miss my dial-up with its usual connection speed of way below 56K, as that was infinitely faster than none at all.

If you have a Broadband deal which doesn't costs a lot, and includes calls (ideally evening and weekend, but I'll make do with the latter), please let me know, as unless Talktalk pull something rather remarkable out of the hat (and as I cc-ed my latest e-mail to their MD, maybe they will), I'm looking to change interweb provider... please e-mail your suggestions to me at mybandisbroaderthanyours@johnsoanes.co.uk.

And of course, until this is sorted out, updates will continue to be sporadic... yes, I'm as tired of that refrain as you are.