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March 29, 2009

Trying Something Once: Geocaching

The Groundspeak Geocaching Logo is a registered trademark of Groundspeak, Inc. Used with permission. We found ourselves in darkest Suffolk with not much to do, and the weather was fine, so we went Geocaching. Geocaching is the outdoors equivalent of making vegetables into smiley faces; it turns out you can get children to walk for miles and miles if they believe they're hunting hidden treasure. I think a lot of grownups do it too. The idea is that people hide containers in random bits of countryside, and note the exact co-ordinates using their GPS. You then note down the co-ordinates, and go and retrieve the container, sign the logbook contained inside, take one of the treasures contained within, enclose one of your own, wrap everything back up and put the cache back exactly as you found it.

This would, I'm sure, be fun under any circumstances. But once you combine it with the iPhone, it's unstoppable. You click a button to get a list of caches near you, pick one, and start driving/biking/walking towards it. Health Warning: that can lead you to walk off the edge of a cliff. Not, however, in Suffolk. 2/3 of the band LAU come from lumpy places; their word for the trauma induced by the flat open spaces of East Anglia is 'horizontigo'. If you were in the Lake District, you'd probably want to have decent maps with you. If you're going after 'easy' caches in a flat, dry, industrial park on the outskirts of Ipswich, the main hazard is the local traffic. And dog poo.

How many caches are there? Well, here in London, there are at least a dozen within two miles of here. Out in rural Suffolk, there were still plenty around. Worldwide, there are 3/4 of a million. Which is, well, quite a lot.

Our first cache was noted as 'tricky'; after a little while of fruitless hunting, we became discouraged, and went after a nearby 'easy' cache. We found it and were very jolly. We quite failed to be stealthy because we were too busy whooping about. We set out after another, but the iPhone ran out of charge. So now we have a plan for future geocaching; take an iPhone charger with us. I think we will also take our 'better' GPS, the Garmin 305 bike computer.

We also have a small puppy; a trackable object called Tosca the Travel Puppy. Tosca is trying to get to Windsor Castle, and as we're a lot closer than Ipswich, we're helping him on his way. Unfortunately, our weekends are in the wrong order; last weekend we were in Sunningdale Park, which is within spitting distance of Windsor Castle.

Later we went searching for a cache by the side of the Lee Navigation, but once again couldn't find it. Perhaps we will stick to easy ones. Meanwhile, the kids have walked for miles and miles, and are now sleeping soundly. Don't let them in on the secret.

The Groundspeak Geocaching Logo is a registered trademark of Groundspeak, Inc. Used with permission.

Posted by Alison Scott at 09:55 PM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2009

Another MacHeist Bundle

MacHeist BundleYes, I know I keep plugging MacHeist. That's because I love it so. This year the bundle is even cheaper at $39 (though I'm not sure that's not more than $49 was in real money a year ago) and the bundle's bigger.

There's always a contingent worrying that developers who sign up for MacHeist don't get a lot of cash in return for giving away tens of thousands of licenses. I observe that they're consenting adults; and besides, the iPhone has shown that selling your app very very cheap can be a terrifically successful business model.

So, what's in the bundle this year?

There are also three not-yet-unlocked apps, BoinxTV, 'a live-editing tool for video podcasters' (I think this is a very cool program but I'm not sure what I'll use it for; but honestly, anything that's a product of Boinx and the Coding Monkeys is likely to be fantastic), The Hit List, a task manager (I use Remember the Milk, and I've tried a huge range of programs in this space; I would struggle with anything that didn't have both a strong cloud presence and a separate iPhone app at this point), and Espresso, a web development tool (I don't do much, and when I do I handcode, and perhaps Coda or similar is in my future? Who knows). There was some considerable discussion last year about why unlocks always happen (so much so that bundles with locks that are selling weakly always end up releasing their locks early to push sales).

Finally, although the bundle is great, for me the real joy of MacHeist is the build-up, with ingenious puzzles, loads of free software (including some super programs like Fresh and Scribbles) and a great web experience. Worth the bundle cost for that alone and I recommend that people jump on board earlier next year. Anyway, you have two weeks to get the bundle. If you want.

Posted by Alison Scott at 11:42 PM | Comments (0)

March 13, 2009

Seeing Watchmen (with some spoilery stuff further on)

Slightly revised moon landingI finally saw Watchmen at the iMax last night. Should you see it? I think it depends on your demographic group. Obviously, if you're a total Watchmen fanboi, you'll probably want to see this movie. You are likely, based on my experience and that of others I've spoken to, to feel that Zach Snyder has done a pretty decent job on the whole with the material, and it could have been a great deal worse. If you didn't think much of the graphic novel, you are unlikely to find the film to your tastes; it is at least as downbeat, and the violence is just as graphic but more in your face and it goes on for longer. If you've not read the graphic novel, then there seem to be a range of reactions. I have now seen several reports from thoughtful SF fans who are very impressed. I think Roger Ebert is the most notable of these, and I was just astonished that he hadn't previously read the graphic novel. But others find it unpleasant and unconvincing, and it's clear that many ordinary filmgoers are just bemused.

I enjoyed it. I thought the length was fine but the pacing was just a little sedate at times. Obviously much is cut but I didn't think the movie suffered too much. I would have liked slightly sharper editing and two extra brief scenes that I think are critical. The first is "Where did Rorschach get his mask from?" and the second is an establishing shot early on that shows Ozy with Bubastis and demonstrates that just as the other heroes are basically friendless, he is a mad villain who only loves his cat. The first is a nice to have, but the second is I think critical setup for Ozy using Bubastis to lure Jon into the intrinsic field subtractor.

I thought most of the changes were good. I don't miss the squid at all. A friend pointed out that the dialogue is much worse in any lines that Alan Moore didn't write, and that's quite true. My main concern about the new ending is that in the original, you are I think supposed to conclude that were Rorshach's journal to be published, the fragile peace would collapse; the question is whether it will be published or not. In the movie, Ozy's explanation for the ending is so utterly convincing that it seems to me implausible that Rorschach's journal would have any effect at all.

The one exception on changes was the final scene between Laurie and Sally, which my husband said "felt like it came from a totally different movie". That's the one thing I need to go back and search the novel for, because I know that the scene happens but I cannot believe that Moore would write any dialogue that bad.

I am a total Watchmen fanboi, so I noticed lots of places where Snyder didn't pick up some of my favourite things from the book. For example, the film is still extraordinarily episodic, but the 'fearful symmetry' is lost from that section; would it have been so hard to retain it? And the panel where the police observe that there's something in the air -- there is, and it's a giant Gunga Diner airship. In the movie the panel is there, and the airship is there, but the line isn't.

The look of the movie is very impressive. The costumes, sets, lighting and blocking are all superb. We knew from the blogs and trailers that the exterior scenes had been recreated very faithfully but I was impressed by the 80s detail in, well, everything. I also liked the use of blatantly obvious music choices; one of these (All Along the Watchtower) comes directly from the novel, and I was very sad that they didn't use "These Foolish Things", which is the song I most associate with Watchmen (presumably licensing). The costumes have been updated to reflect trends in superhero costumes in movies; I think that was a smart choice. The one area where the film fails is in makeup; the aging makeup is desperately unconvincing and the prosthetics are awful. I am not quite sure why this happened in a film where so much money was spent otherwise.

The acting was variable. Jackie Earle Haley is terrific as Rorschach, and I also liked Billy Crudup and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Malin Akerman was not by any means as bad as I had feared from other reviews, but a better actress could have got more from this part. Would a better actress have taken her kit off, though? I would have preferred to see Dan Dreiberg played by an older actor in worse shape than Patrick Wilson; he still looks far too convincingly superheroic in his owl suit. As for Matthew Goode, he has said in interviews that Ozymandias is intended to have ambiguous sexuality. Why, therefore, was he as camp as Butlins, and why the 'boys' folder on his computer? Ozymandias could have been fitter, smarter, and still most probably gay.

Everyone loves the credits sequence, and I'm no exception. But I have two questions. Why do we see Batman posters on the wall in the scene when Nite Owl I saves Bruce Wayne's parents from the mugger? And what has been changed in the Kent State scene?

Finally, one question about the real world. I have always wanted a Bubastis action figure. Surely I can't be the only one? Why is nobody doing this?

Posted by Alison Scott at 02:11 PM | Comments (2)

March 10, 2009

Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings at the Luminaire

Songs from the FloodplainJon Boden is a busy lad. He fronts folk big band Bellowhead, and has a regular partnership with squeezebox player John Spiers. But tonight, we're over at The Luminaire for one spot in the short launch tour of his new solo album, Songs From The Floodplain.

The last time I visited the Luminaire, I castigated it for being totally cut off from civilisation. I think that must have been a special TFL train-free night, because this time we had no trouble either getting to Kilburn, or getting home. In all other respects the Luminaire is a venue of utter stonkingness; small, with great sound, and with splendid signs on the wall saying things like "This is a live venue, not a pub. If you want to chat to your mates, you're in the wrong place. Please leave." I have rarely wanted to hug a wall so much.

Jon Boden has brought a band with him, the Remnant Kings; I googled it and so should you. On the album he plays all the instruments himself; tonight he has teen multi-instrumentalist Sam Sweeney, this time mostly on drums, ace concertina player Rob Harbron on concertina, Dave "not the chap who takes the photos" Angel on guitar, and Matt Grime on double bass. Boden plays guitar, concertina, melodeon, and, yes, fiddle a bit. But this is nothing like Bellowhead. The live sound is not quite like the album; less brooding, with little dribbles of folk melodies slipping in here and there. The livelier tunes are rocked up considerably in the live set; the album is very restrained by comparison.

Songs From The Floodplain is a linked set of folksongs from the future. They're all set in a world with no oil; or rather, there's a very little petrol, which we are led to believe is hoarded by the Government for unspecified purposes. Instead we have village life, and the necessary foreshortening of outlook caused by restrictions on travel. There's a new religion, the making of music, a new set of folk traditions. The little remaining plastic becomes the precious jewellery of a new age. The songs on the album do not form a coherent narrative; instead they are snapshots sung by the characters living in the world, at different times. We see people gradually coming to terms with the new world in which they live, and hear their tales of doing the ordinary things that people do, but in a different environment.

SF fans will recognise the world we are inhabiting. This is a peculiarly English vision of the future; Boden is a sublime interpreter of English folk song, and this infuses his future England. "Songs from the Floodplain" sits firmly in that favourite English subgenre of science fiction known as the "cosy catastrophe". Disaster has befallen us, but our essential Englishness survives. This is one of those worlds described by John Wyndham, or, especially, Richard Cowper. They're not so commonly written these days; SF readers are suspicious of post-apocolyptic futures where people live simply but comfortably.

Tim Chipping buys his coats at the same charity shop as Jon BodenMusically, it all succeeds terribly well. It's compelling, thoughtful but not bleak or sombre. I think it will be claimed for filk, though I am unsure whether Boden has any awareness that there's a whole genre of science fiction music out there. It is, without question, far better than most filk music. The underlying material is very well thought through, and it's performed by one of our finest folk singers at the peak of his game. The world-building is relentless, the incluing subtle, and nothing is extraneous. Boden does not join all the dots for you; he drops you in the world and leaves you to make sense of it. I just wish that there was tons of filk out there as good as this.

Back at the Luminaire, the evening was filled out with songs from Painted Lady, Jon Boden's first, very low key, solo release. Oddly, these songs felt less polished than the new ones. It was still lovely to hear favourites like "Blue Dress". Support came from Lauren McCormick with James Delarre and Roz Gladstone; a varied and assured set that ranged from Edward Lear to Marie Lloyd by way of some of the bloodiest ballads of all.

I bought the album from Jon Boden at the concert, but was far too tongue-tied to ask for a photo, or query whether he had ever heard of filk music. Luckily, heading back to Walthamstow, we made the happy discovery that Tim Chipping has the identical post-apocalyptic coat to the one that Boden wears on the album. How cool is that? Must be some special case of wearing the band t-shirt to the gig.

Posted by Alison Scott at 12:50 AM | Comments (1)

March 01, 2009

Easy Sunday brunch in Walthamstow

I've been running (watch out for a post soon on 'how to run in a very very geeky way'). This morning I took advantage of a completely free diary to have a slightly longer run, and then we did our regular habit on Sundays when we're at home of wandering down to the farmer's market to indulge our pigitarian habits by buying sausage butties from the Giggly Pig. I have just discovered that the owner of Giggly Pig has a near-perfect rags to riches story; she learnt to farm pigs while serving a ten-year prison sentence and set the company up on release.

Even better than the pig in a bun was the discovery that I can now buy raw milk on the market, from Grove Farm in Hollesley Bay. They don't even have a website. The black and white labels on the bottles have a little newsletter about the cows and what they're up to. We couldn't take a photo of the milk because we were too busy drinking it, but Syrup and Tang reviewed their milk a little while ago, including photos of the milk and labels. People remark on the colour of this milk, but I'd say it's exactly the same colour as pasteurised Jersey milk, full of cream. It's the taste we're after. There's apparently a prison connection here too; the farm used to be a prison farm, and the owners employ ex-offenders from the prison nearby.

Posted by Alison Scott at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)