Archive for August, 2011

iPad Accessory Round-up

Posted on August 31st, 2011 in Technology | No Comments »

As long-term readers may recall (oh, the delusion!), my primary “use case” for my iPad is entertainment on long journeys – videos, ebooks, games (music is more convenient on my iPhone). The longer the journey, the harder it is to manage two key elements, especially where video is concerned: having a long enough battery and having enough choice.

Let’s take choice first. Depending on what kind of iPad you’ve bought, you’ll have 16Gb, 32Gb or 64Gb of storage. Once you’ve installed a few apps, a few ebooks and a few videos, you may find that even 64Gb is gobbled up quite quickly. As a f’rinstance, as each Doctor Who DVD comes out, I rip it in an iPad-friendly resolution (with commentary and trivia text turned on, naturally) and stick it in iTunes to watch at a later date. I’ve got about half-a-dozen I have yet to watch and a new one comes out almost every month. Sometimes more than one, if it’s a boxed set. Each one takes up around 1.5Gb. Add some iTunes movies, some other DVD-rips and pretty soon I’m looking for external storage. Other (lesser) tablets let you plug SD cards or even USB sticks straight in but the iPad is pickier, sad to say.

When I bought my iPad I had the foresight to get the Camera Connection Kit to go along with it. This dongle plugs into the dock connector and then accepts a USB connection to a camera or an SD Card. Images and crucially videos can then be copied off the card for viewing on the iPad. Copied off, notice, so there needs to be room (but existing videos in your library can be deleted to make room).

However, the source and the files need to look exactly like they’ve come off a camera. This means a folder structure something like this DCIM » 100DICAM and then giving every file an 8.3 filename. So your copy of Casablanca needs to be renamed CASABLAN.M4V, or on a really bad day DCM_0001.M4V. Worse, this filename is not visible when you inspect the SD card from within the Photos app – all you have to go on is thumbnail, often black. And folder structures are ignored. Still, it’s a cheap solution, especially if you have some SD cards lying around, and once you’ve copied the right file over, watching from within the Photos app is fine, if a little weird – why can’t I copy it to my media library? Better still, why isn’t the “Open With” option available so I can open a video file in any format using an app like AVPlayerHD.

Other options exist. For a while, I was considering an AirStash. This is a wireless transmitter for the contents of an SD Card which works with a companion iPad app. It’s not expensive, only $100, but hard to get in the UK without the help of Bundlebox and crucially the battery only lasts five hours without a recharge (and you can’t transmit from it while it’s recharging).

In the end, I wound up getting a 320Gb Hyperdrive for $200 which has turned out to share many of the same limitations as the Camera Connection Kit option, but thankfully not all. It’s a kludge of the Camera Connection Kit software, “fooling” the iPad into thinking that it’s importing files from a camera and although it again denies you access to filenames, and tends to provide only black thumbnails, you can have folders and sub-folders on the disk and navigate through them, so I’ve just put each file in a folder which identifies it. I copied my iTunes movie folder on to it, and most movies were already in an appropriately-named folder which saves time. With TV series box-sets, it was a bit more laborious. I had to create a folder called Breaking Bad S2, and then 13 sub-folders, each called Breaking Bad 2.x, each with one episode in. Sounds tedious, but actually it only took a minute or two. When plugged in to a laptop, the Hyperdrive behaves like any other USB drive. Plugged into the iPad with a mini-USB lead, via the Camera Connection Kit – take note, it takes 4-5 minutes to copy a whole movie over, then you can unplug the drive and watch your movie through the Photos app (and delete it when you’re finished to make room if you wish).

Just before I entered my credit card details, I had a quick tour of the site and spotted this little beauty – the Hyperjuice Stand. Now, it’s true I already have a navy blue Smart Cover to prop my iPad up, but that doesn’t stop this being a really, really clever idea. It’s a rubberised stand, lightweight, but just heavy enough to securely hold the iPad in place (360g), at a near vertical angle for watching movies or a flatter angle for typing – but the space inside is filled with battery! 11,000mA of battery which will keep an iPad going for around 16 hours! For only $130 it’s an absolute steal, and because it’s got a standard USB port on it, you can use it to charge or power a great many other devices besides iPads. It charges via a mini-USB connection too, so you can use the same AC adapter as your iPhone, or charge it off your laptop if that’s more convenient.

Having watched my choice of videos, secure in the knowledge that my battery will never run out, and arrived at my destination, I don’t want now to revert to a regular laptop. However, as lovely as the iPad is, it’s hard to type anything as long as, say, this blog post on the on-screen keyboard. So my other purchase was this handsome Aluminium Keyboard Buddy Case, only $49. It pairs quickly with the iPad via Bluetooth and the battery life is very good. Typing is certainly easier than without a physical keyboard, although the keys don’t have quite as much travel as I would ideally like – however it doesn’t really work as a case. I can fold my SmartCover out of the way, but even with it removed altogether, the iPad and the supposed case never snap together securely, they just sort of lie together. I tend to carry them separately in my Troop Brown Canvas Bag.

What toys have you bought for your iPad?

The whole family

So… what did I think of Let’s Kill Hitler?

Posted on August 30th, 2011 in Culture | 2 Comments »

Back after its mid-season break, but the Moffat-Masterplan shows little sign of letting up. Within the first twenty minutes, Moffat has ret-conned an entirely new character as part of Amelia Pond’s childhood in Leadworth, revealed her to be an earlier incarnation of River Song, killed the Doctor (again!) and locked Hitler in a cupboard. And that’s before we even begin to tackle the robot Amy Pond operated by tiny self-appointed kangaroo court judges (shades of Father Ted – “I won’t be able to relax, Dougal, until the last rabbit round here is the one inside your head, working the controls”).

Despite Moffat’s insistence on giving us everything all at once, let’s try and take things one at a time.

Mels / Melody / River Song
There seems to be some controversy on the Internet about whether Mels’ identity was childishly obvious or a brilliant reveal. Obviously, if something is set up as a surprise and it fails to surprise you, then you are likely to have a low opinion of the plotting (this flawed study notwithstanding). For the record, it did surprise me, and it’s fun and it’s neat and it makes sense (knowing of the connection between Amy Pond and The Doctor, it make perfect sense for a brainwashed Doctor-killing psychopath is inveigle herself into the life of young Ms Pond) and the Leadworth scenes are fun – but it does seem a shame that among all the Leadworth supporting cast members introduced in The Eleventh Hour and never heard of again, Mels was not among them. Or is that asking too much?

However, as well as showing off Moffat’s dazzling plotting, this strategy also exposes a weakness along his flank. RTD’s take on Doctor Who aimed to make the show far more emotionally resonant and realistic. This approach is described by some as moving, by others as overwrought and still by others as hysterical, but it brought a huge audience back to a programme that (fairly or unfairly) had become a joke by the time it was taken off the air. The moment when I began to see and admire what the new “show-runner” was up to, was early in Aliens of London, an episode now derided by many on the production team as it was the first to go before the cameras and they hadn’t really ironed out the kinks yet. For the first time, the Doctor brought his companion back to her own time and place, just to say hello. And because he can’t pilot the TARDIS properly (hurrah!) he brings her back a year too late.


Rose has been missed. People who love her, care about her and are desperately worried for her safety. Her boyfriend stands accused of murdering her. Her mother is out of her mind with anxiety. Posters are still up with her face on them. Of course there are. You can’t rip a young woman (or man) out of her home and not expect her to be missed, despite the fact that that’s exactly what happened to Susan (sort-of), Barbara, Ian, Dodo, Polly, Sarah Jane, Tegan, Peri, Mel and Ace and no-one they left behind ever seemed to notice – or at least it wasn’t anything the programme-makers were interested in.

Suddenly the show had a whole new texture, a whole new reality which I for one greatly appreciated. Where Moffat often scored over Rusty was in his intricate plotting. I found that too many RTD stories ended up with a technobabble rabbit pulled out of a deus-ex-machina hat but in stories like The Empty Child, Blink, The Time of Angels, the solutions are properly bedded-in and I don’t feel cheated. However, here Moffat is asking us to pay a very high price for his narrative invention.

At the end of the last series, Amy and Rory are frantic – every bit as frantic as Jackie in Aliens of London – horribly fearful that they may never see their baby again. The maternal instinct is ferociously strong, and the limp consolation of learning that their baby was also their childhood friend and so they sort-of raised her is unlikely to do anything at all to salve that wound. Moffat punches a hole straight through the emotional fabric weaved by RTD and challenges us not to like it.

Well, it’s lucky that there’s so much else going on in this episode then, isn’t it!

The Teselecta
This is a delightful science-fiction idea, and although not entirely new, it’s new to Doctor Who, so that’s good enough for me. In fact, it’s three ideas – the murderous judge sent through time, the robot doppelganger and the miniaturisation ray (“well, there was a ray – and we were miniaturised”). Of course, this does mean another possible identity for the Doctor on the beach, although I imagine that a fake regeneration effect might be more than the Teselecta can muster. I was disappointed that the transformation effect was so Quantel-y but I suppose they have to save money somewhere.

Nazi Germany
Not even the usual Doctor Who Ladybird Book, the third Reich becomes first a gag and then simply a backdrop against which the ongoing series-drama of the Doctor, his married companions and their psychopathic daughter is played out. They put Hitler in the title, then lock him in a cupboard for the rest of the episode!?

The Doctor’s Resurrection
Again, the solution is bedded in by Moffat, but River’s change-of-heart feels a little rushed. From murderer to suicidal sacrifice in twenty minutes? However, there’s no actual cheating here, and some precedent for this kind of thing in the series mythology (I’m thinking of the promises made by the Time Lords to the Master in The Five Doctors as well as the proposed use of the Doctor’s remaining regenerations in Mawdryn Undead – neither conclusive, but both persuasive). Furthermore, as others have pointed out, this exchange potentially paves the way for the twelve-regenerations  limit to be extended, in the Doctor’s case at least.

Thoroughly in the new-familiar Moffat style with all of his strengths and weakness on full display. There’s nothing quite as original as Victorian Siluarian and the lactating Sontaran from A Good Man Goes To War, and certainly nothing to match the depth and power of the “Colonel Runaway” scene, but we did get “So I was on my way to this gay Gypsy bar-mitzvah for the disabled, then I thought, the Third Reich’s a bit rubbish”, that temporal grace business sorted out once and for all, and the origin of River Song’s diary, so I reckon we’re about even. A good start. Four stars.

The Why of Funny #7: All-Laugh-Together

Posted on August 18th, 2011 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Professor Robert R. Provine tried applying his training in neuroscience to laughter 20 years ago at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He carefully observed thousands of “laugh episodes” in real social situations – city sidewalks, suburban malls and the like. His conclusion about almost all of the utterances which triggered laughter in these situations? They weren’t funny.

Oddly, it seems that the laughter reaction engendered in a studio audience, or a family at home watching Only Fools and Horses, has little or nothing to do with what makes people laugh socially, and therefore why laughter exists at all (after all, laughter almost certainly predates comedians by some way, and since babies laugh it obviously predates language). In all probability, modern comedians and comedy shows have hijacked a response which evolved for another reason altogether.

“Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. “We’re dealing with something powerful, ancient and crude. It’s a kind of behavioural fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.” Laughing together is a way of saying: we are the same. We’re part of the same gang. When I laugh with you, I’m saying “I get you.” That’s why we laugh more in a big audience than we do on the sofa on our own. And that’s why so many comedy shows have a laugh track.

The drawback of the laugh track is the same as discussed under Just-A-Flesh-Wound – it reminds the audience at home that they’re watching a TV show, and this may wreck the tone (and pace) of your show. But the advantage is clear to see: it can make a show seem funnier.


Asking why we laugh doesn’t really tell us what will be funny, and analysing humour doesn’t necessarily make us better “laughter technicians”, since comedy is so fragile. But here at least are eight tools to use in the creation of comedy, which have fairly predictable effects.

Comedy based on STATUS seems human and universal. Comedy based on JUXTAPOSITION can seem obscure, but can also be a great vehicle for SATIRE. Comedy based on WITHDRAWN EMOTION can help make extreme situations acceptable, broadening the range of possible topics. Comedy based on HEIGHTENED EMOTION may end up seeming silly, but can have very broad appeal. Comedy based on INSIGHT seems clever and may provoke admiration rather than gales of laughter, whereas comedy based on ANTICIPATION or SURPRISE (which includes almost all slapstick) seems more simplistic but is likely to appeal to more people. Combining these elements creates the strongest effects. Here’s an example from Scrubs which is by no means exceptional for that show.

The Janitor tells JD he is no longer pursuing his vendetta against him, and quietly returns to painting an X on the surface of the hospital car park. Later, JD drives his scooter away, not noticing the heavy iron chain around the rear bumper. Suddenly, the chain tautens, and JD is flung over the handlebars, landing exactly on the Janitor’s X, besides which sits the Janitor in a deckchair, sipping a cocktail. “Bullseye!” he cries. “We’re not done yet, are we?” asks JD, spread-eagled on the floor. “No, my friend, we’re just getting started,” remarks the Janitor, sauntering happily away.

JD’s loss of status, combines with the mix of surprise and anticipation that the Janitor has not in fact turned over a new leaf, and the twin insights of the meaning of the X and the fact of the chain. JD’s reaction to this horrifying injury is one of withdrawn emotion; we don’t believe he has been seriously hurt and so we are free to laugh.

Cultural round-up

Posted on August 1st, 2011 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

A few movies I caught up with recently.

w. Jeremy Leven, Bruce Joel Rubin, Audrey Niffenegger (novel); d. Robert Schwentke
Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingston

This soapy romantic drama I understand renders the novel fairly faithfully (I haven’t read it) but without any dash or sparkle. It’s certainly a problem determining the best order of events in which to tell your story when your two main characters experience events in totally different orders, but this movie never finds a solid mode to work in. The science-fiction details of the hero’s slipping through time never feels credible and fatally neither does the romance, with Bana and McAdams blandly competent rather than fizzing with chemistry. In the one serious deviation from the novel, the ending is muted for obvious reasons (what’s disquieting in print would be horrifying in technicolour) but at the same time it’s fuzzed and lacks clarity and punch. With no loyalty to the novel, I didn’t hate it or feel betrayed by it, but if I could go back in time two hours, I’d pick another movie to watch instead.

w. Annie Mumulo, Kirsten Wiig; d. Paul Feig
Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd

First of all, it’s absurd that a comedy with three female lead characters should be so remarkable for that fact alone. There is no reason at all why there should not be a glut of such movies. There’s no shortage of female talent, and there’s certainly an audience for movies built around this kind of cast. That said, despite many pleasures, Bridesmaids is not an unqualified success. Co-writer Kristen Wiig is fine, and Rose Byrne is very good – miles away from her dour, but equally successfully, turn as luckless attorney Ellen Parsons in the TV series Damages. Chris O’Dowd is hilariously mis-cast but charming and winning as the for-no-good-reason-Irish traffic cop and Melissa McCarthy is a real find as a sort of Zach Galafianakis with breasts. With Jon Hamm, Matt Lucas and Ellie Kemper off of The Office rounding out the supporting cast – what’s not to like?

Well, there are two problems. One is that several of the comedy set pieces seem to have been stuck in at random. One of the funniest and most sustained sequences comes bizarrely at a moment where the plot is demanding that the stakes are at their highest, yet as the sequence develops, it increasingly looks as if the protagonists are concerned only with amusing each other. Another problem is that while it has the smarts to reject many of the standard-issue tropes of the Romantic Comedy Genre (Wiig archly tells O’Dowd not to try and “fix” her, which recalls screenwriting guru Blake Snyder’s device The Six Things That Need Fixing) but has nothing with any emotional power to put in their place. Possibly connected with this is that several characters, notably Kemper’s, seem to be setups for payoffs which never arrive. Finally, and almost fatally, the central character’s actions are seemingly designed to create the greatest possible suffering and inconvenience for herself and her so-called friends. She’s a horrible friend and a demented individual with whom I found it almost to empathise.

I was never bored and I was frequently amused, but for me it was a missed opportunity.

w. Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein; d. Seth Gordon
Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx

The most completely successful of these three movies, Horrible Bosses is blessed with a brilliant central idea which allows it to coast when its comic invention runs dry, which it does from time-to-time. Among the trio of caricature employers, Kevin Spacey is given most of the screentime and most of the best lines. Farrell in particular is rather unfairly sidelined and upstaged by the set dressing in his own character’s house. Sudekis and Bateman amble along good-naturedly, allowing the relatively unknown Charlie Day many of the film’s showiest moments, and when the script isn’t quite sure where the laughs should be coming from, the director just has all three of the leads talk simultaneously, upping the chances that one of them will be saying something funny.

But the plot is properly, if perfunctorily, put together and every so often there’s something a bit special – a wonderful cameo from Ioan Gruffudd, Jamie Foxx in a very funny performance, and Bunk from off of The Wire.

The Why of Funny #6: Sounds-A-Bit-Rude

Posted on August 1st, 2011 in Culture | 2 Comments »

In Chris Morris’s Jam, a plumber is informed by a housewife that her baby is right upstairs. “Did I say boiler on the phone? I meant baby, sorry.” As the plumber’s confusion deepens, the housewife explains. “The doctor says he’s dead or something, but I know he can be mended, it’s just tubes really, isn’t it? I’m sure you could have a go… for a thousand pounds an hour.” Just daring to deal with the taboo topic of cot death in the context of a comedy show makes us giggle nervously, and the dark juxtaposition plus the shift in status occasioned by the plumber’s greed keeps this groundbreaking sketch just the right side of sick.

The previous theories have all dealt to a greater or lesser extent with structure. This time, we are looking entirely at content, for which reason Sounds-A-Bit-Rude can be added to any of the preceding elements at almost any time. The extent to which you use it depends largely on your target audience and the mood of the times. Comedy has always pushed at the boundaries of acceptability. Recently, a screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera created protests outside the BBC. In the 1970s Monty Python’s Flying Circus was prevented from presenting a sketch about an undertaker arranging for the deceased to be cooked and eaten, unless they also filmed the audience walking out in disgust. And the last word of a quiz-show contestant’s list of hobbies was cut altogether (“Golf, strangling animals and masturbation”).

In the 1960s, radio show Round The Horne delighted in filling its scripts with filthy double-entendres and then denying the fact (double-entendres of course, combine Sounds-A-Bit-Rude with Oh-I-See). Hence, Julian and Sandy (one of radio comedy’s first depictions of homosexuality), posing as barristers, could turn down a case commenting “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most our time,” without being taken off the air.

In America, however, on his radio quiz show You Bet Your Life, Groucho Marx was faced with a woman whose only excuse for her prodigious brood of children was to say “I like my husband”. Groucho responded “I like my cigar too, but I take it out once in a while.”1 The remark was never broadcast.

In the theatre, of course, there was somewhat less restriction (notwithstanding the Lord Chamberlain’s best efforts). Max Miller would walk onstage and stride directly towards the most attractive woman in the front row of the stalls, while peeling a banana and counting the peelings aloud: “One skin, two skin, three skin… here, lady, want a bite?” And no doubt the same testing of the boundaries can be found back through the ages. Swift’s A Modest Proposal also springs to mind, as do some of the easy-to-miss death jokes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“Well!” thought Alice to herself, “after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they’ll think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (Which was very likely true.)

Most comedians know this, which is why material about sex, death, disease and so on is so popular. Faced with a dog, Larry David doesn’t get bitten on the hand or the ankle, he manages (through some contrivance) to be bitten on the penis. And then treated by the gay Doctor his choreographer is trying to set him up with.

Including taboo material can make the audience start giggling even before the real comedy begins, and thus is a very powerful tool. Also, Just-A-Flesh-Wound can make it possible to deal with important issues more honestly in a comic form than in a dramatic form. Doctor Strangelove, a brilliant black comedy, tells the truth about nuclear deterrence: that in all likelihood whichever side launches a nuclear attack first will exterminate the human race. Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, a tense drama released in the same year, for all its committed acting, leaves the audience with the weak reassurance that one almighty act of contrition will bring us back from the brink. Many doctors have commented that, despite its surrealism, Scrubs is a more accurate portrayal of hospital life than the overwrought ER or the soapy Grey’s Anatomy.

However, just as surprise, bathos and surrealism on their own can lead to weak comedy, so including shocking material for its own sake can drag a piece of comedy down rather than elevate it to new heights. Constantly including taboo material has a deadening effect. If it’s the truth that your characters would swear and curse, then you should include that and hope your intended audience understands what you are aiming for. But if you think a joke about a bunch of flowers will automatically become funnier if it’s a joke about a bunch of fucking flowers, then you’re mistaken. Pushing the boundaries is about more than choice of linguistic register. American 90s comic Bill Hicks certainly set out to shock, but he also wanted to provoke thought as well as make his audiences laugh.

By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself. Just a little thought. I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day, they’ll take root. I don’t know. You try. You do what you can. Kill yourself.

Seriously, though. If you are, do. No, really. There’s no rationalisation for what you do, and you are Satan’s little helpers, okay? Kill yourself. Seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good, seriously. No, this is not a joke, if you’re going: “There’s going to be a joke coming.”

There’s no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked, and you are fucking us. Kill yourself, it’s the only way to save your fucking soul. Kill yourself.

Planting seeds.

I know all the marketing people are going: “He’s doing a joke.” There’s no joke here whatsoever. Suck a tail-pipe, fucking hang yourself, borrow a gun from a Yank friend – I don’t care how you do it. Rid the world of your evil fucking machinations.

I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too. “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing? He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market, he’s very smart.” Oh man. I am not doing that, you fucking evil scumbags! “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing now? He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. That’s a big dollar. Lot of people are feeling that indignation, we’ve done research. Huge market. He’s doing a good thing.” God damn it, I’m not doing that, you scumbags. Quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!

Hick’s refusal to release the tension here is key to the routine.

  1. This story has attained the status of myth, and every telling of it is slightly different. Sadly the tapes of the show in which it is most likely to have occurred have been lost, although as noted it would have been cut before transmission in any case.