March, 2010

Arsenal 5 – 0 FC Porto

Arsenal v Porto-5
I don’t often talk about football on the blog, but Arsenal’s 5-0 demolition of Porto last night is worthy of recording. The photo above shows Nicklas Bendtner finishing his hattrick from the penalty spot in the 90th minute. But goal of the night must go to Samir Nasri’s superb individual goal as he beat three players, dancing around them before scoring from a tight angle.
Arsenal won the tie 6-2 on average aggregate.

The Eerie Silence

Given where I work, there really is no excuse for me not to go to more of the Royal Society’s public lectures. So back in January I attended an interesting sounding lecture entitled “The eerie silence: are we alone in the universe?”
The room where they hold the lectures was absolutely packed, and I was glad that I’d turned up in plenty of time. Attendees that I noticed included Jon Ronson (for reasons which will become clear), and Dallas Campbell of the BBC’s Bang Goes The Theory. I expect there were a few scientists there.
This year the Royal Society is celebrating its 350th anniversary, and there’s a lot going on, so I will try to do more.
But back to the lecture. Professor Paul Davies works at the University of Arizona and is very involved in SETI which of course, is the organisation that searches for extraterrestrial life in the universe.
Is this a mug’s game? What’s the likelihood that there is someone else out there. Before this lecture, there’d actually been a formal discussion meeting examining what would happen as a consequence of finding extraterrestrial life.
Davies rattled through a lot of the things that we need to consider when searching for life. In some respects, the chances seem very good, but in others, the odds are disappointingly long.
Frank Drake, who founded SETI, came up with the Drake equation designed to determine the number of civilisations in our galaxy. The problem is that to fill it in, there are quite a few unknown variables. And since they represent a probability between 0 and 1, they fundamentally affect N, the number of life sustatining civilisations.
Davies entertainingly quotes Donald Rumsfield in this matter: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”
The lecture is available to watch onlineat t he foot of this page.
Davies’ book itself digs in significantly greater detail into all aspects of possible extraterrestrials, from the sheer likelihood of them existing, to how we might determine their existance, through to what we should be looking for, where we should be looking, what they might be saying and in what medium. The main problem for all of this is that everywhere is so distant, that communication is rendered nigh on impossible.
Davies even gets into how the news might be broken – basically it’s not something that governments have thought about – and what the message might be. He even worries about the effect the existance of life might have on the world’s major religions. I’m not sure that the effect would quite be the blow he thinks it would be theologically.
He refers a lot to Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, which of course was later made into a pretty decent film. Sagan took plenty of liberties of course, but the basics are pretty decent.
I really enjoyed the book. It’s not too long, and its pretty encompassing. The one area Davies doesn’t spend a great deal of time, is the idea that the aliens are already here. This question came up to an extent at the lecture, and Davies doesn’t waste a great deal of time examining it, since the proof just isn’t there.
Overall, well worth reading.
The book is getting a lot of coverage all over the place. The Times’ relatively new monthly science magazine devoted the better part of a whole issue to Davies, SETI, and alien life in general. In particular, there’s a chunky extract online to be read (or at least until the paywall goes up). And Jon Ronson, who was at the lecture above, writes about meeting Davies in the pages of The Guardian’s Weekend magazine.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

One of my favourite series of novels of recent years has been Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I’ve read all three of the novels in hardback no less, having read interesting things about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ahead of its English language publication in January 2008.
By October last year, the final volume of the trilogy had been published and I’d read it apace.
In the meantime, I’d heard that Yellow Bird, the same people who’d produced the recent Swedish version of Wallander, were filming the trilogy. From what I heard, the initial idea was that the first film would get a cinema release, while the second two novels – effectively one big story – would follow as a mini-series on Swedish television.
The success of the film’s release in Sweden meant that they re-thought that idea, and instead released the two subsequent films in cinemas too. I believe, but may be wrong, that the eventual TV screenings in Sweden will be extended versions of the films.
Anyway, this is all a long way around of me saying that I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film for quite some time. When I was in Stockholm briefly last autumn, the first two films were already on DVD, but didn’t come with English subtitles, and the third film was opening in cinemas. So I’ve been impatiently waiting for the UK release.
This weekend, that release is finally upon us after several festival screenings over the last six months or so. This has all probably worked in favour of distributor, Momentum, as the books are now mainstays in the paperback fiction charts. The final book in the trilogy gets released in paperback in just three weeks’ time.
So my credentials and the back story out of the way: what should we make of the film?
Well it’s actually really done very well indeed. The books are chunky and there’s a great deal of plot and backstory to be found in them. So any film adaptation has to, of necessity, cut down on the book a great deal. But this is very faithful to the overall feel of the book.
Key in all this are two strong pieces of casting in Michael Nyqvist as “Kalle” Blomkvist, and especially Noomi Rapace as the mixed up Lisbeth Salander – the eponymous “Girl” of the books’ titles.
As the film opens, Blomkvist is personally responsible for libelling a major Swedish industrialist – something that sees him getting a prison sentence no less. But before he has to serve it, he hands his resignation from Millennium magazine and takes on a private commission to look into the background behind incidents that took place over forty years earlier amongst the Vanger family – one of whom may well be a murderer.
The film may seem long at the outset – at two and a half hours – but it speeds along at a fair pace, and is tightly directed. The revelations come thick and fast, and the central relationship is interesting. Salander, in particular, is such a fascinating character, that you want to learn more about her. There are plenty of hints about her background and life that won’t be opened up properly until later films. Yet the film works on its own too.
In terms of feel, something of the brooding feel of the Kenneth Brannagh Wallanders is present, and if you’ve enjoyed those excellent films, then you’ll love this.
If you’ve read the book, then you’ll certainly want to see this. If you haven’t, then you’re missing out on an excellent series of books anyway, and as a whodunnit, it’s a cracking story.
I can’t wait until I see films two and three…

Vincent Price and The Horror of The English Blood Beast

Here’s a turn up for the books – me talking about something on the radio that you have more than one day to listen to!
Vincent Price and The Horror of The English Blood Beast is an excellent play based around the making of Witchfinder General in 1967.
If you’ve never seen Witchfinder General, then after listening to this, you’ll almost certainly want to (indeed it’s a shame that BBC2 or BBC4 didn’t schedule a screening of the film in parallel with this play). Vincent Price crossed the Atlantic to play the title role of Matthew Hopkins, who genuinely was the Witchfinder General in the 17th century during the period of the English Civil War.
The play is set against the making of the film as the audaciously talented director Michael Reeves battled with Price who at the time was a waning force having relied on a series of hackneyed performances in cheap US films.
Nickolas Grace plays Price with gusto as he arrives on an East Anglian set and slowly begins to realise that he’s going to have to do something a bit different to his usual autopilot persona. And Kenneth Cranham is excellent as the sleazy Soho producer, Tony Tenser, who’s having to deal with his artistic and bull-headed director, his problematical star, and the sleazy expectations of the people he’s pre-sold the film to. In real life, as well as things like London in the Raw (recently released on DVD by the BFI in their Flipside series), Tenser worked on two of my favourite early Polanski films, Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac.
The film was to be Matthew Reeves’ last, and it’s a shame that he didn’t live on to make many more films.
Matthew Broughton has obviously done a fair amount of research in writing this piece. Anyway – go away and spend an hour with this terrific play.
When you’ve listened to it, you really will want to get the excellent DVD which is very reasonably priced, although at time of writing it seems to be proving very popular.

Radio Times 5 March 2010

Radio Times 5 March 2010
The weekend’s nearly here, and I’ve put this up early so you can plan your Friday’s viewing.
This time around, I’ve used the medium of multi-coloured Post-It notes!
As ever, best viewed large.
PS These images on Flickr seem to get far more views than anything else I put up. So please do comment here or on Flickr if you’re a regular reader because, aside from a few friends and colleagues, I’ve really no idea who’s looking at them.

Daily Star: Britain’s Most “Successful” Newspaper?

I was unfortunate enough to catch a TV advert for the Daily Star last night. I think it must have been after the football which I saw a few minutes of. I can’t imagine another programme I might have been watching which the Daily Star might want to target me in. At least it wasn’t in the middle of The Daily Show on More 4 where the Daily Mail was recently found to be advertising…
Quite why anyone would read the Daily Star I’m really not sure. My lack of understanding of the Star is dwarfed by the reason anyone would read the Daily Express. I just don’t understand why anyone would read that rag whatever your opinions. I don’t particularly like The Sun, The Mirror and certainly not the rabid Daily Mail. But I can appreciate that they all do their respective job well, which is why I fail to understand why anyone would read the inferior versions offered by Richard Desmond’s business.
That’s all as maybe, but I was intrigued by the ‘el cheapo’ ad which basically featured a Daily Star logo and a voiceover. The advert was persuading you to read the paper on the basis that “The Daily Star is Britain’s most successful newspaper.”
Goodness. Who’d have thought?
At the bottom of the screen was a source for the data:
“Source: ABC. Based on circulation increase Jan 09-10.”
This is true. Well at least it’s true that the Daily Star (cover price 20p nationally) is selling 10,842 more copies than it did in the same month last year, whereas The Sun (20p in the southeast, and northern England) and the Daily Mirror (45p nationally) have both lost sales. And, to be fair, the Star is – remarkably – the only newspaper of any quality to record a year on year circulation increase.
But that’s an interesting definition of “successful”.
Here’s how the last year’s sales look:

Source: ABC
So despite being a cheaper product, the paper is still firmly rooted in third place amongst the popular tabloids.
Is the advert misleading? Surely not…


As everyone looks forward to the new Tim Burton take on Alice in Wonderland, and I wonder whether I can be bothered to see it in 3D, the BFI has put its newly restored version of the first ever version of Alice on YouTube.

Running at just under ten minutes, it’s a remarkable document dating from 1903, and one that had very nearly been completely lost.
Read more at the BFI’s website which has some detailed background about the film’s origins.

Cashing Gold

How badly do minor celebrities need the cash? Quite badly if the Dale Winton Cash My Gold ad is to be believed. It’s mercilessly ripped apart in Saturday’s Guardian Guide. Ironically, when I viewed this piece online, the Google ads below served three gold-cashing services up including Cash My Gold itself. £150 for a laptop indeed…
These ads are vile. They prey on the desperate. They’re not really just hoping for Elizabeth Duke and TV shopping channel fare. They want your heirlooms. Then they’ll send you a cheque with a measly offer knowing that cash in the hand works so well, that in most cases you’ll cash the cheque and accept the deal.
In my local shopping centre there’s a gold cashing “booth” which is essentially a stand peopled by a couple of surly looking late-teens/early-twenties who sit in front of a laptop staring at Facebook. I’d love to know how much training they’ve had in basic jewellry valuing. Perhaps they just pop the items in a bag and mail them off themselves?
I was also really disappointed to see that WH Smith has done a deal to place a pile of envelopes outside some branches of its outlets ready for customers to grab.
Gold prices may be quite high at the moment, but what I do know is that you’re not getting the best prices from these guys. Survey after survey has shown that you’re better off elsewhere. Probably your old-school pawnbroker.
I thinking the gold cashing people have just become my most hated advertisers, just after the loan consolidators and ambulance chasing lawyers (who featured in a fascinating, if shallow, Cutting Edge last week).