Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Instructions from the Greek Government on the best way to eat stuff in bins

A picture from a friend of mine in Greece. The logo in the left-hand-corner is from the Greek Department of Health. The translation below is hers, as I don't speak Greek. Her comment: "No, it's not a joke. This is my country."

Directions to civilians fed from garbage cans: 1) use sterilised gloves during searching 2) wear a sterilised head cover 3) wear sterilised apron 4) try to separate recycleable materials from food leftovers, especially in night when the lighting is less 5) clean your teeth after eating. The above sterilised material will be provided by the church the local authorites and the NPO. After their use they should be returned.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Some Thoughts On 'Prometheus'...

[Spoilers abound! If you haven't seen it yet, do so while it's in the cinema; the visuals are spectacular, but the plot and characters are dreadful, so dreadful that I was moved from my normal torpor to write the following. I've only seen it once, so some of the following may be based on me misreading or misunderstanding the story (especially as, towards the end, I was growing very bored, and being reminded of Alien made me realise how much I'd rather have been watching that instead...)]
Ah, Prometheus! How foolish can one film be? Very foolish indeed, and here’s why. First, a synopsis of the plot: Millennia ago, eight-foot-tall, bald, muscular aliens (called Engineers in the film) came to Earth. One of them drinks a weird looking substance and then dissolves into a nearby river, and his DNA becomes human beings (I’m not sure how, and the film doesn’t show). Later, the Engineers come back, and teach cavemen across the globe to paint crude murals showing a group of small figures (humans) surrounding a large figure (an Engineer), who’s pointing to a group of five dots. Millennia later, in the late 21st century, archaeologists find the crude cave paintings in disparate locations, and immediately conclude that these drawings represent aliens pointing to their homeworld, as they assume that the five dots are of a star system not visible to the naked eye, and cavemen who had no idea of each others’ existence couldn’t have done the same drawing by coincidence, therefore they must have been shown by Visitors from Elsewhere. They explain this to a local trillionaire, who immediately builds, and mans with scientists, an interstellar spaceship, because he wants to meet our makers and find out if they can stop him from dying. However, after arriving on the planet, the team soon discovers that it’s not the Engineers’ homeworld; in fact, it’s a biological weapons storage facility, and the Engineers had planned to come to Earth to wipe out humanity when their own weapons turned on them, or so we think...
Hmmm, where to begin ... At the beginning, I suppose:
1) Why do the Engineers teach cavemen to draw the location of their bio-weapons storage facility? How did they know that all (or any) of the drawings would be found? And interpreted correctly? And why didn’t they just draw proper maps themselves, complete with coordinates?
2) A handful of caveman drawings seems a bit of a flimsy premise to spend hundreds of billions on an interstellar spaceship and a team of scientists, even if you’re a crazy old kook. I’m sure his heirs, and company stockholders, must have been delighted to see dear old Dad blowing their inheritance on an interstellar wild goose chase!
3) While the crew of the spaceship spend the long voyage to the Engineers’ planet in cryogenic suspension, an android called David potters around the ship watching Lawrence of Arabia and keeping things humming along. Here’s a thought: why not man the ship entirely with androids? They don’t need things like food, oxygen, cryogenic-suspension chambers, and never sleep or make mistakes. If they find something interesting, then you send a second mission with your team of scientists. If Weyland’s worried about dying before they come back, just freeze him!
4) How precisely do you operate a machine that can plug directly into people’s dreams? Wouldn’t watching them be a gross violation of privacy, and wouldn’t an employee of a major corporation prying into another employee’s dreams be ground for litigation? 
5) The ship is brought in to land on the Engineers’ planet. Remarkably (or, to be more blunt, preposterously) they accidentally land a mile from the Engineers’ base. To test the likelihood of this, try the following: go with a partner to a one-acre field. Cover your eyes, and have her place a bottlecap somewhere in the grass. With your eyes still covered, use a catapult to fire a peanut into the field. What are the odds that your peanut will land within six inches of the bottlecap? Exactly...
6) From IMDB: "During the landing on the planet, the crew analyzes the atmosphere and reported that the oxygen level is about 20% (on Earth = 23%) and 2% carbon dioxide (on Earth = 0.5%) and a human without spacesuit will die in a few minutes. In fact, humans can live for many days in atmosphere with 2% of carbon dioxide and 20% of oxygen on Earth at sea level."
7) Our team (scientists all) and the android head off into the alien base without bothering to map it or scan it for lifeforms first, despite having the technology to do so. Once within, their instruments show that the air is breathable. So the male archaeologist, Holloway, immediately takes his helmet off, ignoring the fact that an alien planet may contain microorganisms that could be lethal to an outside lifeform. Not only that, but the whole team (of scientists!) does the same! The sheer irresponsibility, not to say suicidal recklessness, of this is jawdropping.
8) David, for reasons left unknown (to me anyway), activates a holographic programme that shows projections of Engineers running through the caves, which is now clearly an alien complex, without telling anyone what he’s doing. Why 2000-year-old alien technology would still work, and where it gets power from, is left unexplained.
9) This holographic images and the body of a dead alien freak out the team’s geologist, Fifield, and the biologist, Millburn, who decide to head back to the ship. Millburn doesn’t seem interested by the fact they’ve found a dead alien, and Fifield hasn’t taken any rock samples, despite being on an alien planet. On the other hand, they could be acting quite sensibly: when you are exploring an alien complex and weird stuff starts to happen (including finding a giant decapitated body), the best course of action is to retreat back to your ship and wait until the automated probes have finished scanning for lifeforms. Bringing along a few androids as well as the remote controlled probes, and getting them to do the initial exploring, would be more sensible again.
10) One of the team carbon-dates the dead alien, and proclaims him to be 2,000 years old. Unfortunately: “Carbon dating is a radiometric dating method that can be used to estimate the age of organic remains. Scientists know that plants take up a small amount of the naturally occurring radioisotope carbon-14 from the Earth’s atmosphere, to synthesise organic compounds via photosynthesis. The quantity of carbon-14 in a plant roughly matches the levels of this isotope in the atmosphere. When the plant is eaten by other organisms, the carbon-14 is passed on and starts to decay at a fixed exponential rate. By knowing the rate of decay, and comparing the remaining carbon-14 in an organic sample to that expected from the atmosphere, scientists can estimate the age of the organic remains. If you don’t know the atmospheric levels of carbon-14 on the alien’s planet, then you can’t carbon-date him. Heck, you don’t even know if they have plants on his world, or at this point in the movie if he even contains any carbon.” (see here)
11) Our team find a severed alien head in a huge chamber containing mysterious pots with black goo and a huge sculpture. Curiously, nobody has brought a camera to take still photos (although they have cameras build in to their suits, it would be nice to have quality pictures not spoiled by motion blur). David takes a sample (in fact, he takes an entire canister!) of the goo without knowing what it is or does. An earthworm is seen oozing around on the floor; what it survives on, in a vast tomb dry enough to preserve mummified aliens for two millennia, is left unclear. And, seeing as the team have flying probes that detect lifesigns, would they also bring handheld ones? Aside from the dead aliens, even a living alien earthworm (which suggests a functioning ecosystem) would be a hugely important find!
12) A storm comes, and the team have to retreat back to their ship. However, the panicked Fifield and Millburn have gotten lost, and are trapped in the complex, despite being experienced scientists, and Fifield (who should be used to caves!) being the one who sent out probes mapping the alien complex they’re in.
13) The female archaeologist, Elizabeth Shaw, and another woman whose name I can’t remember (this film has too many characters, for one thing) decide to examine the severed head. Why an archaeologist would be useful at an alien autopsy is not made clear. They don’t isolate it, or wear protective body suits to prevent any alien pathogens from landing on their skin and going up their noses. Why not simply freeze the head, and bring it back to a proper laboratory on Earth? They do discover that its DNA is identical to ours, which I’m not qualified enough about to make a comment, but it does set my Scientific Nonsense Detector twanging madly! Then they jam something into the neck that ‘stimulates’ it back to life (I may have misunderstood what they were doing here), which causes it to explode. At this point, they are not quarantined in case whatever caused the Engineer’s head to explode is contagious and could wipe out the entire crew.
14) The android infects Holloway with a drink containing the alien goo, despite not knowing what its possible effects might be. Why he does this is not made clear (to me, anyway). Using a guinea pig in a hermetically sealed container would probably be more sensible, but what do I know? He is essentially jeopardising the life of everyone on board, including his employers and Peter Weyland, who funding the expedition and is giving him orders. Holloway’s having a bit of a hissy fit because, in the handful of hours they’ve been on the alien planet, they haven’t found any live aliens. The aliens, of course, could be over the next hill waiting for them: if I landed a plane in the middle of the Egyptian desert I wouldn’t instantly assume that the entire planet is uninhabited; I’d fly out the next day and search for cities! Obviously, slow, steady research involving patience and levelheadedness is not his thing, which is odd considering he’s an archaeologist. 
15) On that subject, Holloway says to David that perhaps the Engineers created humans for the same reason that humans created David: because they could. I call shenanigans on that nonsense! Nobody (especially if they’re being funded) runs expensive and/or time-consuming experiments simply because they can. They do so either to make fresh discoveries about the nature of the physical world, to acquire knowledge, or because their invention/experiment will have a practical application. Making money from their invention is also a plus, which is why inventors patent things. An android like David is clearly, first and foremost, a practical and useful tool (disregarding the whole Blade-Runner-do-androids-have souls issue); he never eats or sleeps, is very strong, and does what he’s told without emotion or question. Why would an interstellar race would travel halfway across the Galaxy and create life on Earth just for the fun of it?
16) Fifield and Millburn are trapped in the alien complex overnight, and are in continuous radio contact with the ship and its captain, Janek. Until Meredith Vickers, the icy corporate dominatrix running the mission on behalf of the Weyland Corporation, pops in for a chat, at which point Janek goes off and has sex with her, leaving the two lads unmonitored in a huge, mysterious complex full of dead aliens and with a probe that’s intermittently picking up lifeforms other than their own.
17) Vickers says at this point that she didn’t travel half a billion miles to get laid. You would think that an icy corporate type like her would know that half a billion miles wouldn’t get you out of the Solar System. She might be tired, and mixing up miles with light years, of course, but it seems out of character. And the Milky Way is only around 100,000 light years across. Half a billion would take us one twenty-eighth of the way across the entire visible universe, a mind-bogglingly large distance (see here). If the planet was that far away it would have been impossible to detect, and the Weyland Corporation would need an as-yet-uninvented mode of space transport to get there, travelling at 250,000 times the speed of light. According to IMDB: “The distance to the exo-planet they are visiting is stated to be on the order of 10^14km. Since it took them a little more than 2 years to get there, they must have been travelling at more than 10 times the speed of light.” This suggests the planet is in fact 20 light years away. (Apologies if my math is wrong; it’s not my speciality.)
18) The two lads in the complex go into the chamber with the pots and the huge stone head, and out of a stream of goo rises a weird looking snake/worm (presumably our earthworm friend after being mutated). Despite being a totally unknown lifeform, Millburn tries repeatedly to touch it, and it eventually attacks him. Even on Earth there are numerous creatures that carry poisons capable of killing in seconds; on an alien planet it’s unlikely to be any different. Wouldn’t an explorer on an alien planet (with more than two working brain cells) work on the assumption that everything is lethal until proved otherwise?
19) The next morning, the team head back into the complex and find Millburn dead and Fifield missing. Holloway becomes severely ill, and on bringing him back to the ship Vickers blocks his entrance. It’s the first sensible thing anyone’s done, although nobody points out that he could have gotten infected the previous day and transmitted the disease to everyone on board, as a result of their collective disregard for quarantine procedures (also: why would a spaceship need a flamethrower?).
20) While all this is happening, David has wandered around in the alien complex and found the central command post. He then brings up a huge holographic display which allows him to learn that the Engineers had planned to travel to Earth. He was able to do this because holograms of the aliens were seen walking around the consoles and operating the buttons. At a military facility, isn’t it a bad idea to leave recordings of how to use your equipment, and access your records, available for anyone who might wander in?
21) David also finds a still-living Engineer in a cryogenic suspension tube. Clearly, during 2,000 years in an abandoned complex there have been no power failures long enough to cause his death. After all, the first question Vickers asks David after he’s awoken the crew after their cryogenic sleep is if anyone died en route, and this was on a brand-new, continually monitored (by David) spaceship where the crew were asleep for a tiny fraction of two millenia! Again, what’s been powering this abandoned facility?
22) In the most lunatic sequence in the film, Shaw discovers that she’s three months pregnant after having had sex with the infected Holloway ten hours earlier. She rushes off to a kind of automated surgery booth in Vickers’ quarters and discovers it's designed for men only, but overrides it. The machine cuts a ten-inch opening across her stomach, and a forceps lowers from the ceiling of the machine (looking remarkably like a lucky dip machine!) and pulls out a writhing blob the size of a grapefruit, which then bursts open to reveal an octopus monster. The machine stitches her stomach back together with metal staples, and she runs away. Even by the standards of this film, the scene is ludicrously stupid. Women who’ve had a caesarean section need to be hospitalised for days afterward. Wouldn’t a creature growing that big that quickly cause major internal ruptures? How could a machine designed to operate on men know about, say, the womb (where the creature is presumably gestating)? And, even if she was anaesthetised up to the eyeballs so that she doesn’t feel pain when she’s running around afterwards, wouldn’t she burst open the sutures and bleed profusely, not to mention inflicting major internal damage on herself?
23) Earlier in the film, just after our cannon fodder crew were all awoken, they received a recorded holographic talk from Weyland Corporation CEO and the man paying for the expedition, Peter Weyland. Now, at this point, Shaw discovers that Weyland has been on the ship all along. Why he pretended not to be, and wastes his time making a special recording for the expedition team to fool them, is never made clear. It’s meant to be some kind of Big Shock when we discover this, but I’m not sure why, as it makes no difference to the story. Later we discover that Vickers is his daughter; again, the effectiveness of this Big Shock is undercut substantially by the fact that we don’t really care about either him or her, and it has no bearing on the plot. Also, wouldn’t a Google search let anyone on board know this, and if so, why does nobody reference it?
24) On we go! Weyland gets David to revive the sleeping Engineer, who promptly goes ballistic and kills everyone bar Shaw. But before he does, David speaks to the Engineer in a language that he believes the latter will understand, cobbled together from various primitive Earth languages. A linguist comments: “Towards the end, one character communicates with an alien in a language that I'm fairly certain is proto-Indo-European; my reason for thinking so is that earlier in the film the same character is having a lesson in that language, as part of which he recites Schleicher's fable, and uses very similar intonation and accent in both instances.” (Source here) But: “As PIE was spoken by a prehistoric society, no genuine sample texts are available, but since the 19th century modern scholars have made various attempts to compose example texts for purposes of illustration. These texts are educated guesses at best; Calvert Watkins in 1969 observe[d] that in spite of its 150 years' history, comparative linguistics is not in the position to reconstruct a single well-formed sentence in PIE.” (Wikipedia) That an Engineer might understand this is particularly absurd, as it is based on believing: a) the language David speaks has any resemblance to what the Engineers use, as it assumes that the Engineers, in addition to giving us life, also came back and taught us their own language; b) the language taught by the Engineers to primitive peoples was not grossly simplified; c) the Engineers’ language has not changed in the millennia since they were on Earth; d) the pronunciations and inflections that David uses match those an Engineer would; e) all Engineers speak the same language (imagine, if you will, an alien landing at a US military laboratory and talking to the first soldier he sees in a jumbled, partial version of Old Chinese, a language from the first millennia BC). Of course, there’s the distinct possibility that the Engineer doesn’t understand a single word of what David says; after all, he doesn’t respond except to go berserk...
25) Seeing as 25 points is more than enough, I’ll finish with the following: how did the tiny octopus thing grow to such enormous size so quickly without any food? The only thing it could have consumed is air, which would make it as dangerous and challenging as a giant balloon...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dark Stars...

In the mid-seventies, The NME Book of Rock tersely stated that by 1972 the Grateful Dead "had become rather an embarrassment to all but their most dedicated following". The Rolling Stone Record Guide described them as "a sporadically successful big-time jam band [with a] reputation for great length and relatively little musical precision". Thankfully, the advent of the CD, and a mindbogglingly large back catalogue of live CDs and bootlegs (the Dead encouraged, rather than decried, their fans' enthusiasm for taping their shows) has rehabilitated their reputation. I haven't listened to a whole lot of their work, but recently I've been putting on various versions of their magnum opus 'Dark Star', a short song that was usually the launching pad for immensely long and abstract improvisations. The Deadlists Project lists nearly 230 versions of the piece that are known to exist as recordings, along with partial versions, and their own recommendations. It seems generally agreed that the most crucial recordings are from September 21st, 1972, in Philadelphia (available on Dick's Picks Vol. 36) and November 11th, 1973, in Winterland (only available on a 7-CD set of the complete Winterland concerts; in size, though, this collection pales before the 73-disc (!) Europe 1972 box set, which includes, I believe, every concert from the tour, retailing on Amazon US for a mere $835!) There are many others, though, and every Deadhead has there own favourite. So here, culled from the wonderful YouTube, are a few of the complete versions that are floating around, arranged in chronological order for your convenience. I haven't listened to them all yet, but I will be doing so as the week goes on. I've noted ones that tend to turn up on a lot of Top Ten lists (of which many exist online). Enjoy! 

Fillmore East, NY: 2/27/69 (Highly Recommended)

Fillmore West: 6/7/69

Winterland: 10/25/69

Family Dog: 11/2/69

St Louis: 2/2/70

Rotterdam: 5/11/72 (Recommended: this is noted as being the longest version ever recorded, but does include that most tiresome of 1970s' musical devices, the lengthy drum solo. For those, like me, who like to skip over them, it starts at around 13.30 and finishes around 19.30)

Veneto, Oregon: 8/27/72 (Recommended)

Long Beach, CA: 12/15/72

Chicago: 2/22/73

Cleveland: 12/6/73 (Highly Recommended)

Winterland: 2/24/74 (Recommended)

Minnesota: 5/14/74

Florida: 6/23/74

Miami: 10/26/89 (Highly Recommended)

Friday, February 3, 2012

One Of Those "No Way" Moments (VI)

I recently purchased a copy of Nobuhiko Obayashi's House, a film described on the back of the DVD box as "one of Japanese cinema's wildest supernatural ventures". Seeing as Japanese cinema can be pretty wild at the best of times, I am intrigued to see what this "bubblegum teen melodrama [which usually interests me not at all] and grisly phantasmagoria [now yer talkin'!]" was actually like. But what I want to share with you is a quote taken from the booklet accompanying the film, spoken by the vice-president of Toho Studios, Isao Matsuoka, when presented with the film's initial script.
"I don't understand the story at all. This is the first time I have seen such a meaningless script. But maybe it's a good thing that I don't understand. Please do not try to make it into something I can comprehend."
Now there's an attitude that's sadly lacking in cinema today*! Although the booklet does point out that it was more reflective of the studio's financial desperation than of Mr Matsuoka's visionary qualities...

*If anyone can point me in the direction of contemporary films to which the above description applies, I'd be grateful...