Monthly Archives: September 2010

Pilgrimages

Scott Pilgrim versus The World is unquestionably an Edgar Wright movie, in the style we know from Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Background treats! Easily missed visual and aural gags! Pop-culture references! But no Simon Pegg or Nick Frost. It’s an Edgar Wright movie without the usual suspects: but is it a Carry On Columbus, notable only for the cast not present?

Happily not, matron, oh I say, hwahwahwah, etc. In fact it’s the closest I think I’ve seen to a comic-book-slash-graphic-novel in live-action movie form. I have yet to read the books on which the film is based – mainly due to the incompetence of the Home Delivery Network, a rant for another time perhaps – but, like Watchmen before it, I have the distinct feeling that many of the scenes are lifted substantially unchanged from the source material; storyboards barely required. But perhaps I do Wright a wrong; I’ll see.

The film’s flaw is also what makes it great, for me: as well as being a film-o-comic it’s a film-o-game. Video games and gaming culture are at the core of the story. Those not steeped in the lore may well emerge bewildered – if they stay to the end of the film, which three people at my screening did not. However, gamers should love it: it’s the first mainstream, big-budget film I’ve seen to get the essence of gaming culture right, to feel like it’s been made by someone who has actually played a video game, rather than portraying a hackneyed, Hollywoodised variant thereof. It’s like the first western to include a horse.

I’m a fan of Michael Cera, who plays Pilgrim. Or rather, I’m a fan of the character Michael Cera played in Arrested Development, George Michael, which is no more than a smidge different from the character he played in Juno, and barely an insect’s toenail from his portrayal of Pilgrim. I presume he can play other characters, but in this case I’m glad he didn’t.

But it’s Edgar Wright’s film. Now: please can we have the third in the cornetto trilogy? kthxbai.

Avaragado’s rating: assorted power-enhancing fruit

Last Friday His Holiness Stephen Fry graced the Corn Exchange with his wise and illustrious visage for ninety minutes of chatter and readings from the new volume of his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles.

Fry is of course a national treasure; not quite at Thora Hird levels but then she did have the stairlift. In the talk he told how it nearly didn’t happen – two ‘hinges’ in his life, as he put it, that might have swivelled differently and led to a very different personal history. This is true of everyone, naturally – we are each the sum of our decisions, both micro and macro – and I can identify a couple of hinges in my own life, similarly seminal in moulding the modern me. One of them was undoubtedly the chance meeting I wrote about recently that set me along the computing path. I occasionally wonder how different my life might have been had that meeting never happened. In a parallel universe I might very well be an HGV driver with an intimate knowledge of overhead camshafts.

Fry’s retelling of his first meeting with Hugh Laurie at Cambridge, how they started writing together with virtually no preamble, no getting-to-know-you stage, was fascinating. Almost like love at first sight, he said. It made me want to read the autobiography, which was after all the point of the evening. And it made me want to write more, which most things seem to do at the moment.

Attendees were granted individual audiences with Stephen post-show, assuming they had crossed the palm of the man from Waterstones (Gary) with silver and bought a book to sign. A health-and-safety worryingly large number of people did so; it was impossible to distinguish queue from non-queue. The call of B Bar proved stronger and we high-tailed it out of a side door.

It strikes me that the blessed Stephen’s life is ripe for a BBC Four drama-documentary someday. It’ll happen, mark my words.

Avaragado’s rating: bon-bons

Oh, and the Pope popped in for a visit.

I’m not a fan.

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When Harry Secombe attacks

Living in the future is amazing until you have to visit the past. In the past, people had to arrange to meet in advance. Only buildings had telephones, even though nobody wanted to talk to a house or an office. News was disseminated either by dead tree or by Kenneth Kendall at 9 o’clock. Everybody dressed oddly. The music was, though, much better. Songs had words, now it’s just noise, etc.

Walking into a bank brings back that Eighties feeling – just whitewashed with nicer hair, shrubbery and Helvetica Neue. Worse, there’s still a sense that the back office is ruled by a fat man with mutton chops, perhaps played by Harry Secombe, inscribing all transactions using the world’s featheriest quill in a ledger bound with the skin of an entire parish of cows. “Mr Hardworthy? I should be obliged were you to release funds to the value of 3/- to allow Mrs Blenkinsop, a fine and upstanding gentle-lady the size of Wigan, to purchase an ugly hat.”

Mrs Blenkinsop was ahead of me in a bank queue a few weeks ago. The bustle gave it away. She was using it as a parcel shelf.

I’d ventured into the past to close an account that was earning a massive 0% interest and move the money into a new account that would earn me a much better rate, like 0.5%. A simple job, you might think. You might reasonably expect some kind of precedent for this task, perhaps even a well-tested procedure.

And you’d be right. I was attended to courteously and efficiently by a gentleman evidently of a similar nature to myself, deft with the mouse and familiar with the hellhole of cascading popups that seems to constitute banking systems. Account closed, money transferred. Now please sign this piece of paper.

Head office, it appeared, needed some physical authorisation: my presence in a branch, one might even say my biometrics, apparently being insufficiently physical. Two-factor authentication – my card and its PIN in my head – ignored in favour of the single-factor analogue scribble of my signature.

The Time Warp, from Rocky Horror, started playing in my head. It seems Harry Secombe worked at head office instead.

Ah well. Processes, eh? Pfft, tch, etc.

And then a few days later a letter arrived from the bank. “Some important news about your recent letter to us,” it began patronisingly. My signature, I was told, didn’t match their records. I hadn’t sent any letter to them: everything was done in-branch. The scrawl on the form apparently didn’t match the pristine, young person’s signature I’d invented on the spot when opening my first bank account with them aged 16. Not altogether surprising. I was annoyed, though: I’d been in the branch, authenticated by card, pin and gay. Was that not enough?

I returned to the same branch a few days later, The Time Warp now on brain-repeat. I waved the letter in front of a man, who apologised and scurried about making copies of things. It’s just a jump to the left. And then a step to the right. All done, he said. OK: that was easy.

A couple of weeks later a short conversation with a cash machine led me to believe all was not as it appeared. The account I’d supposedly closed used to regularly suck money from my current account into a savings account; the new one didn’t. But it was obvious from my balance that money had been recently sucked.

My first thought: it’s gone into a black hole. They’ve closed the account but not the suckage. If not that, then they haven’t closed the account at all.

I went to the branch again. Helpfully I spoke to the advisor who’d tried to close the account originally. He remembered me. With your hand on your hips. You bring your knees in tight. We went through the account closure process again – the sucked money wasn’t in a black hole, thankfully. I signed the form again. We tsked and pffted about processes and head offices again. It was Groundhog Gay.

And then a few days ago, I received a letter from the bank. “Some important news about your recent letter to us.” I was shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover that – you’ll never guess – my signature didn’t match their records.

Three attempts so far to close an account. Several weeks doing lengths in the custard pool, unable to overcome the drag of Harry Secombe’s sideburns.

Later today I’ll make another trip into the past, to queue with Mrs Blenkinsop, her bustle and her new ugly hat, to discover what excuse they’ll offer this time. I could threaten to withdraw all my money and go elsewhere, but I’d only get another letter failing to recognise my signature. This time I have a secret weapon: this time they get the pelvic thrusts.

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What’s past is prologue

The queue pushed and swayed, a dozen or more excited school kids chattering about what lay behind the door. It was early September 1980 – the first or second week of term, my first term of secondary school. I queued with a friend from many years before who I’d bumped in to again a few weeks earlier. He’d told me then that he’d been learning about computers. I’d never used one; they sounded interesting. The queue was for Computer Club.

Behind the door, eventually, we found two computers: a Research Machines 380Z plugged into a large black-and-white TV on a trolley and with a keyboard seemingly made of wrought iron; and a Tandy TRS-80 with a green-screen monitor, an altogether sexier beast. Model I, Level II BASIC, 16K RAM. Pixel resolution of 128×48. Tape storage. No lower case characters. Awesome. The potential! The thrill!

We sat on the playing field afterwards, the school dozing into silence for the evening but the two of us buzzing.

“I want to learn how to program,” I said.

“I’ll lend you a book. I’ve written some programs already. Easy really.”

“What do they do?”

“One does hangman. In theory. It’s only on paper, but it looks right.” He didn’t have a computer yet.

“You going to sell it?”

“Not this one. I have plans though.”

“Breakout? Space Invaders?” The TRS-80 wasn’t capable enough for Defender, that much was obvious.

He paused, and rubbed his face all over in that way that he had. “Tell me about the future.”

“The Space Shuttle!” Columbia’s maiden flight was due in a few months. It had already been delayed several times. I was a little obsessed.

“An evolutionary dead end.” A wave of the hand, dismissed.

“A flight a week, NASA says, and–”

“Not gonna happen. They have to say that to get the money. But I’m talking about computers. What will they be like in five years, ten years? Thirty?”

I was eleven. Five months was a long time. Five years? ‘O’ Levels, I guess. I’d probably have a girlfriend. Ten years? Thirty? No idea. Oh – I’d have a family, and a moustache. That’s all I knew. A thought struck. “Positronic brains. The Three Laws of Robotics. ” Asimov was another obsession. “C-3PO, human-cyborg relations.” And Star Wars.

“So compared to the TRS-80?”

“Much more powerful: smaller, faster, intelligent.”

“Smaller, faster, but not intelligent. And add ‘cheaper’.”

“Smaller, faster, cheaper. Is that it? No robots?”

He paused again, longer this time. It was getting chilly. The tall trees bordering the playing field caught the breeze and danced. He turned towards me, pivoting his whole body on the grass. “Let’s talk about evolution.” I hated it when he changed the subject like that. “What happened when the first life evolved to survive on the land?”

“They took over. They had the place to themselves. Plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, rarrrrgh!, birds, mammals, Thatcher.”

“Wave after wave. More sophisticated species replacing or dominating or eating less sophisticated species. More or less. A food chain. Symbiosis. Co-evolution.” I barely understood the words he was using. I realised he’d been learning about more than just computers. “Bees and flowers, hunter and hunted, even humans and dogs.” He was excited and gesticulating now, eyes bright in the gathering gloom. “All it took – all it took – was a foothold. A trailblazer. A simple species making an adventurous leap.”

“I see.” I didn’t see.

“That TRS-80, that 380Z.” Back onto computers again! Christ! “They are the trailblazers. The algal scum clinging to life at the edge of a Paleozoic pool.”

“Oh, I see!” I saw. And I wished I could talk like that.

“They are the… the quantum leap. In five years much more sophisticated species of computer will exist. An explosion of architectures, of forms.” He spoke too fast for his mouth, flecks of spittle leaping free. “Faster, smaller, cheaper. Colonising homes like lichen, moss, plants, flowers. And where you have plants, you have pollination – and eventually pollinators, like–”

“Bees!”

“Which in computer terms, means…”

“Taking pollen from one computer to another. Moving stuff around. Computers that talk to each other!”

“Exactly. Exactly. And we already have those. Heard of Prestel? And at airports, they type your name into a terminal that’s connected to a central computer. Universities have these networks too, linked all over the world.”

This was news to me. “The bees are already here.” Buzzing indeed.

“Simple bees, yes. Wait a few years – ten at most – and they’ll be faster, more agile. Then eventually birds, swooping and soaring, the networks going faster even as the plant computers grow more powerful.” That glint again. “Ever more connected, through wires and radio waves, and located by satellites. Millions of times more powerful, millions of times faster, everywhere in the world. And they all merge – the bees and the birds and the mammals including us humans are all computers too.”

The analogy exploded in my head. “But what do you mean, humans? Bees and pollen, networks, yes. Humans?”

“Simple designs but complex, cascading, unpredictable effects. Bees do a couple of things well, birds more, humans much much more. You reach a point where it all grows exponentially, the sophistication of huge brains interconnecting over what is really a very simple system. At its core, deep down, we’re all just hyper-mega-intelligent cylinders of flesh.”

“Ah, right! Of course! So this global network of the future, then, is really just an enormous, interconnected… series of tubes?”

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