Random Easter Thoughts

April 19th, 1993 – More than 80 Branch Davidians including their leader David Koresh died when federal agents stormed their compound in Waco, Texas after a 51-day standoff.

April 19th, 1995 – A huge car bomb tore apart the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

April 20th, 1999 – Two heavily armed teenagers went on a rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, a suburb of Denver, Colorado, shooting 13 dead before taking their own lives.

If I was in America, I’d be rather nervous this week…

I have been following with somewhat bemused interest the fraught hand-wringing going on over the Hansie Cronje cricket-fixing allegations, partly because the game’s origins are firmly rooted in gambling. It was only really in the Victorian era, when the public schools took to it, that the game became “respectable” — before then, William Fennex (the man credited with devising the forward defensive stroke) wrote: “Matches were bought and matches were sold and gentlemen who meant honestly lost large sums of money.” In 1833, there were reports of a game for a prize of 1000 pounds — at a mere 4% interest, that would be almost a quarter of a million now, quite sufficient to get fixers interested.

It’s interesting to contrast the useless flapping of the cricket authorities with other sports. Baseball has been particularly sensitive since the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, which saw seven Chicago players banned for taking bribes. Since then, they’ve had pretty much a zero-tolerance policy, up to and including Pete Rose, the man who played in more major-league games than anyone else, who is still excluded from the Hall of Fame solely because of betting. I also suspect that the low wages paid to cricket players also render them liable to temptation. If you are earning $15m a year, like Los Angeles pitcher Kevin Brown, a) you have a great deal to lose, and b) it will take just as much to make you risk it.

Well, it amused me…

New York, NJ, Feb. 28 — People for the Ethical Treatment of Software (PETS) announced today that seven more software companies have been added to the group’s “watch list” of companies that regularly practice software testing. “There is no need for software to be mistreated in this way so that companies like these can market new products,” said Ken Granola, spokesperson for PETS. “Alternative methods of testing these products are available.”

According to PETS, these companies force software to undergo lengthly and arduous tests, often without rest for hours or days at a time. Employees are assigned to “break” the software by any means necessary, and inside sources report that they often joke about “torturing” the software. “It’s no joke,” said Granola. “Innocent programs, from the day they are compiled, are cooped up in tiny rooms and ‘crashed’ for hours on end. They spend their whole lives on dirty, ill-maintained computers, and are unceremoniously deleted when they’re not needed anymore.” Granola said the software is kept in unsanitary conditions and is infested with bugs.

“We know alternatives to this horror exist,” he said, citing industry giant Microsoft Corp. as a company that has become extremely successful without resorting to software testing.

Have a good Easter. There may or may not be an update next week, since I shall be deep in solemn contemplation of the death of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. For he did get nailed to a cross in order that we might stuff our faces with foodstuffs, get plastered without worrying about work the next morning, push off to foreign climes for a long weekend, and lounge around in bed all day. Nice one, JC: that’s what I call a sacrifice…

Share and share alike

I sold some shares this week. Which is odd, because I’ve never bought any. Well, not in the “here’s some money, give me shares” kind of way. I just kinda drifted into being a filthy capitalist, thanks to three lots of building society freebies and a share-save scheme at work. I should point out the former wasn’t even due to carpet-bagging: one was an Alliance and Leicester account I’d had since school, the second was courtesy of the Norwich Union life insurance policy on my mortgage, and the third (in a nicely circular way) was because the share-save account was held in the Halifax. All three thus fell into the category of pleasant surprises — it’s lucky I didn’t bin them, exhibiting my usual tolerance for windowed envelopes from financial institutions.

The share-save scheme was equally jammy: back when I signed up, the odds of me staying where I was for another five years seemed close to those of me playing football for Scotland, being awarded a Nobel Prize, or fathering a child. But while those three things are still as unlikely as ever (despite some heroic performances in goal for Dynamo TaB), I somehow managed to survive here without pissing anyone off too badly. In fact, I’ve just passed my eleventh anniversary here, which in the IT industry makes me eligible for a statue in the foyer, a blue plaque, and a Dilbert calendar.

It kinda snuck up on me; I didn’t wake up one day, look at the share price and decide to spot-weld myself to the desk. Following the share price has, however, become a daily obsession, as I watch my virtual wealth rise and fall. Indeed, rather than making me work harder (as company share schemes are supposed to), it probably had a negative impact on my productivity, given the amount of time spent staring at the screen, trying to send the price up by the power of thought alone. Every penny gain was a cause for rejoicing, every drop…hell, it’s not real money yet, anyway.

I got the first lot of shares last July, but it was only a week or so ago that I realised I’d better sell some, or risk letting the damnable taxman get his grubby hands on some of my profits. [I’m getting the hang of this capitalist-speak, no?] Now, working for a bank as I do, dealing in shares is a Byzantine process involving the filling in of multiple forms, but I negotiated the maze and sold them on the Thursday afternoon.

Which was fine, until we announced over the weekend we were buying a French bank, and the share price plummeted. Hmmmm… I should have been pleased at having saved four hundred quid, but…bank employee dumps shares two days before announcement? Can we spell “insider dealing”? Of course, I hadn’t a clue it was going to happen, but it suddenly struck me that trying to prove your ignorance of something is a strikingly difficult concept. Visions of Rogue Trader 2 flashed across my brain – at least Ewan McGregor could keep his Scottish accent for this one. Should I go on the run, and head for Rio? Lock myself up in the house and prepare to sell my freedom dearly? Set up www.free-the-tulse-hill-one.com?

Of course, I took the fourth option: meekly going to work on Monday, and the cheque duly came through, unaccompanied by a visit from the Serious Fraud Squad. I put away the flight schedules, and went back to watching the share price, with the prospect of another four months of screen-staring before the final lot of not-really-bought stocks turn up. My career as a (potential) fugitive was over. Mind you, I haven’t tried to cash the cheque yet — so if there’s no editorial next week, maybe you should take a look at www.free-the-tulse-hill-one.com…

Doomed Raider?

Today saw an announcement from Paramount, ending months of speculation, that the role of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider movie has gone to Angelina Jolie, winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar a couple of weeks back. Between this and the presence of Con-Air director Simon West behind the camera, it’s clear that it’s a film which is intended to be a serious assault on the marketplace, and given that Lara has already grossed way more than most movies ($500m in sales and merchandise), the potential is also undeniably huge.

Yet note the word potential, for what makes a hit in one sphere, does not necessarily work in the other: to take a patently bleedin’ obvious example, no-one is going to go and see Tetris – The Movie. To start with, they work in fundamentally different ways: computer games rarely achieve any genuine emotion in the player. Sure, I’ve felt the odd bit of unease playing Doom, but who ever wept over the loss of an adventure character? Death is but an irritation, countered and neutralised by the save/restore function. Any emotional punch will without doubt be diluted, because games are controllable, to a varying extent, by the user, and of necessity this means there must be distractions and side-tracks. Sales of any software would be very limited if it offered no interaction, and exactly the same experience every time. [This is unique among media: with the printed word, you naturally expect the ending to be the same it was last time!]

These may seem like simple and obvious statements, yet over the past decade or so, there have been several attempts by Hollywood to transfer successful arcade hits to the big screen. The common factor is that they have all been more or less dreadful. Anyone fancy Street Fighter? Or perhaps Super Mario Brothers? Thought not. Part of the problem is the inevitable lead time involved in movie production: this year’s hot game is next year’s bargain title. Pokemon is a rare case where they’ve managed to get it right, thanks to the Japanese animation being readily available when the craze hit the West, and the net result was a box-office opening that, among animation studios, only Disney could emulate. All too often, things like plot and characters get forgotten in the rush to market — and the truth is that a bad movie remains precisely that, no matter how hip the tie-in.

In reality, turning a game into a movie is no different to adapting from anywhere else, such as a book or comic-strip. You need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of both source and destination media, and work within them. The process is especially fraught because the target audience for your movie is likely to be the same as for the software, and if you alienate them…well, two words: Tank Girl.

Perhaps what is needed is more cross-pollination. Just as computer animation only really blossomed when it was taken out of the hands of nerds and given over to animators like John Lassiter, so maybe those whose write screenplays could work on computer game scenarios, and vice versa. The increasing complexity of the latter (and, some might say, the general dumbing-down of the former) would seem to indicate an emerging potential for co-operation.

As for Jolie, viewers wanting to catch a glimpse of ‘Lara’ in action, should go raid themselves a copy of Cyborg 2. Though let’s add, it’s the kind of film Angelina would probably rather we all forgot she’d appeared in, and to which absolutely no Oscars were awarded. Let’s hope that’s not some kind of an omen…

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Lair of the White Worm

Dir: Ken Russell
Star: Hugh Grant, Amanda Donohoe, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis

In the late 1980’s, Russell teamed up with Vestron to make a series of cheap quickies, of which Lair of the White Worm was the second, following on from Gothic, with Salome’s Last Dance and The Rainbow to follow. While the others have their Incredibly Bad merits – particularly Salome, which includes future cabinet minister Glenda Jackson as well as Wolf from Gladiators – it is to Lair that we must turn to see Russell’s loopiness taking flight in its most fully-fledged form.

However, there was a fair bit of loopiness inherent in the source material, Bram Stoker’s last novel. While Stoker wrote a lot of books, he’s best known for Dracula – largely because the rest are pretty dire. This is especially true towards the end of his life, when he was suffering from nephritis, and spent a lot of his time doped up to his eyeballs. Lair of the White Worm was written shortly before his death in 1912, and represents a compelling argument for euthanasia. It’s available via Project Gutenberg, should any reader wish to wade through all 55,000 words of it. I did, and would suggest a Shaun Hutson book instead. But who better to film a book written by a certifiable loony than Ken Russell? And fortunately, his version is a great deal more entertaining. He ties it to folklore by bringing in the Dampton Worm, a genuine legend, and addresses all his usual obsessions: religion (and nuns in particular), class, and so much sexual symbolism it seems that every other scene has a phallic object in it. Snakes, garden hoses, cigarette holders, E-type Jaguars, pens – no Freudian opportunity is passed up.

Read this way, the opening shot is of an enormous twat – and I don’t mean Hugh Grant. It’s a huge, vaginal cave, which our heroes (and heroines) will later penetrate, and sets the tone for the entire movie. Viewers should thus permit themselves a snigger when the name of the cinematographer comes up – Dick Bush. Under other circumstances, I’d think this was Ken having a larf, but it’s a real person, one of Russell’s regular cronies.

The film starts with the discovery of an ancient skull by archaelogist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi), digging in front of the B&B run by orphaned sisters Mary and Eve Trent (Sammi Davis & Catherine Oxenburg – the latter with a delightful dubbed Derbyshire drawl). When this comes to the attention of local land-owner Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), she is keen to get her hands on it, being the immortal priestess of a pagan snake-worshipping cult dating back at least to Roman times, who tends a huge snake in tunnels below her manor, to which she feeds Boy Scouts. She is keen to get her hands (as well as a very pointy dildo – the second time in three Russell movies such a device appears) on the pure & innocent Eve, for the usual sacrificial purposes. Flint and the Trents must battle against Lady Sylvia and her venomous minions, ably assisted by another local land-owner, James Dampton (Hugh Grant).

There, that’s the plot out of the way, for most of the highlights are not to be found therein, but in the execution, such as the dream/hallucination sequences. Some of these are flashbacks to ancient times, with a convent (whose nuns include Linzi Drew) being desecrated by Roman soldiers, while a giant white snake mauls a crucified Christ-figure. These video sequences are classic 80’s pop-promo stuff, redefining “lurid” with extreme colours and gratuitous visial effects. Slightly more subtle – albeit in style, rather than content – is James Dampton’s dream sequence from which entire conventions of psychologists could be sourced. This sees him boarding Concorde, where he is tied up and watches Amanda Donohoe and Catherine Oxenburg roll around the floor, cat-fighting. Oh, and they’re both dressed as air-hostesses. Here somehow seems an appropriate point to mention that you’re watching neo-royalty: Oxenburg’s mother is Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, second cousin to Prince Charles. [Appropriately enough, Oxenburg has played Princess Di on not one, but two occasions.]

The dialogue is wonderfully ripe, littered with the sort of double-entendres beloved of the Carry On series. Some choice examples:
James Dampton: “I love Mr.Flint’s hole – it’s rather fascinating”
Lady Sylvia: “Are you into any sort of banging?”
Eve: “Me spotted dick!”
But there are also plenty of non-sexual lines to appreciate:
Lady Sylvia: “That sort of music freaks me out!”
James Dampton: “I think we probably have another reptile loose on the premises.”
Mary: “She doesn’t go to church or any of that stuff – but she’s quite religious.”
James Dampton: “Put your bicycle clips on, Peters – I’m expecting company.”
and my favourite exchange of all:
Angus: “Still playing happy families at your age?”
Mary: “Not since we lost Mam and Dad, no…”

The main saving grace is that everyone realises – to borrow a line from Russell favourite Oscar Wilde – the importance of being earnest, with material of this sort. The slightest snigger and it would topple over from trash into farce; no-one slips up here at all, even Hugh Grant who delivers what Russell reckons is the best performance of his career, and I’m inclined to agree. However, it’s Donohoe who is the key to the film, and is totally brilliant, especially when spitting out lines like “Poor little virgins, masturbating in the dark.” Do you want extra relish with that, Amanda?

This helps paper over some gaping holes in the script, which leaves a lot of things unexplained. For example, Angus manages to rustle up, in short order, not just antivenin, but also a hand-grenade and a mongoose – which is not (as far as I know) a commonly-encountered animal in rural Derbyshire. Up until the final monster, the effects are pretty good, with dismemberments, fangs and death-by-sundials all coming across well. However, when we get to see the worm, we wish we hadn’t: the front of a Volkswagen was used as the frame for it, and to be honest, they could have left it at that and the result would have been every bit as terrifying.

The main difficulty is trying to work out, how much it is all intended as a joke. That it’s a spoof is obvious, yet when Russell says, “I feel I’ve added a more believable realism by making sure it’s done straight”, it’s hard to be sure. While I don’t agree with one review which said it was “D-grade horror trash”, to quote Roger Ebert, “This is the sort of exercise [Russell] could film with one hand tied behind his back, and it looks like that was indeed more or less his approach.” Regardless, its IBFS status is certain, and let’s put it this way: at his age, Ken is old enough to know better.

Libellous Rumours

This morning, I woke up with a slight hangover, but it pales into insignificance alongside the one which Demon, the ISP through whom you’re reading this, must have. For, after losing a landmark Internet libel case, they are facing a bill for damages and costs which could be around five hundred grand — not the sort of headache that can be cured with a cup of coffee and a bacon sandwich. It’s really the first time that libel laws have been applied to the Internet in this country, and the main thrust of the decision is that ISPs are now deemed to be liable for the content held by them. That cracking sound you hear is a huge can of worms being opened…

I have to say that Demon’s behaviour in this case is at least somewhat curious. Some of the messages in question were faked to make them appear as if the plaintiff, Dr Lawrence Godfrey, had written them: despite informing Demon of this, they took no action, which seems to indicate a severely laissez-faire approach. While you can certainly defend almost any content under the banner of free speech, it’s much harder to explain why you allowed forgery. In addition, having decided to rack up legal costs running into six figures, they then decided to capitulate shortly before the case went to trial.

The implications of this don’t really need to be spelled out, nor the inherent impossibilities. ISPs are now deemed liable for what they carry, but it would take a Chinese army of dedicated surfers to make the slightest dent in the volume of Net traffic. Even if they relied on responding to user complaints, the potential workload is huge: anyone who has been on Usenet will have seen the flame wars that break out. The number of potentially or actually libellous statements posted each day is no less enormous.

Much of the appeal of Usenet is its unfettered nature, but perhaps it should come with a big disclaimer: don’t believe all you read. For both the best and worst thing about the Internet is that anyone can post what they want. There is no quality control of any sort, and while there is a lot of accurate information to be found, there is also a whole load of dreck. The problem is telling the two apart, but this is really down to the surfer. Anyone who believes something just because it’s on the Net, is gullible in the extreme, and by extension, suing someone because the less rigorously-minded might accept it seems a tad unfair.

To some extent, what we’re seeing here is technofear. Any new technology will be posed as a threat to civilization, particularly when it becomes available to the masses — for an example, see the ‘video nasties’ scare of the 1980’s. This may partly because the smaller something is, the easier it is for it to slip under the wire, legally speaking, but I can’t help feeling there is something elitist here: an “is this the kind of book you want your servants to read?” thing. And particularly with the Net, they may have a point: it’s probably true to say that as the number of users increase, the average intelligence of them decreases, and with it the ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

In the early days, connection to the Net required industrial-strength computing equipment. Now, anyone with a PC and a modem can get on, and soon, even the PC is becoming more and more optional as things like games consoles come on-line. The problem with letting any idiot log onto the Net, is that there’s no shortage of idiots keen to try. Maybe we should add a healthy scepticism to the pre-requisites, alongside a working phone line.