Thursday, July 31, 2008

A good polemic

I don't normally agree with everything my brother says (often just to annoy him), but I agree with every point he makes in this reasoned polemic against "Prosperity Teaching".

I'd add an eleventh one - it breeds criminality in the people who push it. Which is why so many big name televangelists are having their ministries investigated for abusing the tax system (aka tax fraud) in the US at the moment. Or went to prison back in the 80s. Or got busted hooking up with hookers.

But hey, if you can get them on the theology, that's even better.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Monday, July 28, 2008

Changeable weather

Off to a course for the day today in Bristol, with my colleagues Matt and Ruth. We ate lunch on the grass on the Cathedral Green in lovely sunshine.

When we were waiting for our train home the rain was beating down on the station roof so hard we could barely hear each other speak. When a train pulled into the station the rain sleeted off it so violently it was redirected more than six feet under the platform roof, soaking the poor punters who were waiting there. Fortunately we were far enough away to stay dry and when our train came the rain had eased a bit.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Taking the fight back to the Triffids

Six boxes (and I mean hefty boxes) later and most of our 'garden' is in skips down the 'civic waste amenity site'. It was a real slash and burn effort - on both sides. The brambles gave as good as they got, and we had to contend with hot sun too.

But in the end we cleared some significant ground, reclaimed the patio, demossed the concrete and even had time to chat to our neighbours too. Our next objective is the demolition of the slowly collapsing old shed, and maybe a full frontal weedkiller assault on the buddleia. We hope to have secured our targets before Winter, and come the Spring we will be able to control the entire area.

I don't like gardening. Which is why I think of it as war.

One neighbour, who's house backs onto ours from the next street, and who I've never seen before, was harvesting blackberries from the bramble thicket between our houses. He was standing on his shed roof to do so and asked us in all seriousness if we were just moving in, such was the magnitude of our work. I hadn't the heart to tell him we've been here 13 years less a week...

Friday, July 25, 2008

New Batmobile design revealed

If you can't wait to see what Batman's driving in the Dark Knight, here's a spoiler...

see more pwn and owned pictures

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Prepping for Batman

The Dark Knight is out on Friday (officially) and I know people who have tickets for previews on Thursday. I'm probably going to wait until next week (Orange Wedneasdays 241!), but in the meantime, in preparation, we've watched Batman Begins again tonight. My appetite is well and truly whetted now.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"I don't want to survive - I want to live!" (Wall-E film review)

I've been surprised by the core messages of a few films recently, and Wall-E was no exception.

By now just about anyone with a passing interest in films will have heard/read/worked out the gist of the plot: a cute little cleaning robot struggling to make sense of the mess the planet has been left in meets a sleek explorer-bot and falls in love. Everyone is raving about the animation (how many more times can Pixar raise the quality bar?), and the brilliance needed to write a film with virtually no dialogue for the main characters. The best description I've read so far was in the Times, which described the hero as "the lovechild of R2-D2 and ET".

There have also been plenty of comments about the 'environmental message' and the criticism of corporate consumerism, the latter being ironic in a Disney film, which is all about corporate branding and selling Wall-E toys to the masses. But there are also some human characters in the film, mollycoddled into roly-poly flab-sacks by their robot attendants until they've forgotten all about Earth.

In a sinister scene stolen from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the humans discover their servant robots are actually preventing them from returning to Earth because it's deemed too risky. But the captain realises humans need to take responsibility for their mess and sort things out. He asks whether they should do nothing, then says: "I've been doing nothing my whole life." In a face off between the sentient auto-pilot and the captain, the auto-pilot insists the humans stay off-planet, because here they will survive. The captain responds by saying: "I don't want to survive - I want to live!"

That line really made me think as we walked back to our car afterwards. We so often take our freedom for granted - Cath and I were free to go out and watch a film, which other people were free to make, and distribute, even though it contained a critical appraisal of our society's self-destructive tendencies. We had the freedom of so many choices - to drive or walk, to go out or stay in. We could do what we wanted in almost total safety. Actually, that's something many world citizens would aspire to, or dream of... or wouldn't dare to even dream of, for fear of those in authority.

And I was struck by how valuable and precious freedom is. There's a line in a Midnight Oil song, which they've borrowed from somewhere, that 'it's better to die on your feet than live on your knees'. And, of course in America, where they take liberty seriously (and then take liberties with it!) one of the main rallying cries in the War of Independence was 'Live free or die'. Because to live in chains is to die a long, slow death.

I'm not sure the writers of Wall-E meant to inspire such thoughts. But they did. And it was a cracking film too.

Jongudmund's rating: 9.5/10 It don't get much better than this!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Film review catch up 4: Hancock

Will Smith stars as the dissolute John Hancock, an alcoholic ‘superhero’ with a tendency to cause chaos. In steps Jason Bateman as a PR agent ready to transform Hancock into a genuine hero, which includes a stint in prison and rehab, despite the dire warnings from his wife, played by Charlize Theron, that men like Hancock only break everything.

The first half an hour or so is played strictly for laughs, and includes a number of stand-out scenes. A drunken flight down a freeway after a car full of gun-toting hoons results in chaos; Hancock wraps a freight train around himself to prevent a driver being mashed while stuck on a level crossing. But then the film takes an interesting turn, introducing a metaphysical reason for Hancock’s superpowers and sudden mortality.

By the end the comedy has evaporated and the film has become fairly serious in the way it approaches themes like redemption and sacrifice. With a bit of blood and plenty of darkness in the final third, this is less the comedy the trailers promised, and more of a morality tale. And to be honest, it’s better off for that.

Jongudmund’s rating: 8/10 - Highly recommended

Film review catch up 3: Surf’s Up

A while after this cartoon hit the silver screen, I watched it on DVD this week. A young penguin from Antarctica travels to the World Surfing Championship and there discovers what it really means to be a winner. So far, so-so.

But Surf’s Up is surprisingly good despite the unthrilling premise. Shot as if it was a fly-on-the-wall documentary, there are enough cutaway jokes and throwaway comments to keep you chuckling. The animation is pretty good - especially the ocean (seen from inside the tunnel formed by a wave on occasion) - and the vocal talent is well-matched to the characters. Transformers star Shia Laboef takes the main role, but Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder, really steals the show as Chicken Joe.

Jongudmund’s rating: 7/10 - Good ‘evening in’ entertainment

Film review catch up 2: Futurama - The Beast with a Billion Backs

Bit of an odd one this. It’s the second of the four planned feature length straight-to-DVD movies, and although it’s funny in parts, it seems to lack legs. The basic gist is a horrible monster from another universe tries to take over every human being in order to breed with them, but the plan backfires and it falls in love with humanity instead. The concept of a supra-intelligent life-form trying to woo an entire species is quite clever, but after a while the plot just runs out of steam.

Even though I’m a big fan of Futurama, I could only really recommend this to other Futurama fans. If you’re new to the programme, you’d be better off borrowing the box set of the first series, and then asking people to recommend their favourite episodes form later series. (Amazon Women in the Mood would be my tip.)

Jongudmund’s rating: 5/10 – Strictly for the fans

Film review catch up 1: Prince Caspian

Although I liked the Disney Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe that came out a couple of years ago, I have to admit, it wasn’t particularly memorable. Prince Caspian seemed darker in tone, slightly more grown up, and has a couple of scenes which will definitely stick in the memory.

The first is an abortive attack on the king’s castle; a scene which isn’t in the book, but adds a bit of drama to the narrative. It also brings a main theme of the book to the forefront - Peter’s desire to do things his way, and not follow Lucy’s promptings about Aslan, result in a slaughter of heroic Narnians. The self-destruction is compounded by Caspian’s desire for revenge on the villainous Miraz, for murdering his father. There’s a definite tension between going your own way, and going the right way.

The second particularly memorable scene features Caspian and Peter being tempted to resurrect the White Witch as an alternative source of power to Aslan. This is much more emphasised than in the book, with the Witch appearing imprisoned in a sheet of ice, and captivating Caspian and Peter until Edmund breaks the spell. I’ve noticed a few commenters saying this scene isn’t in the book at all, but it is, although not as dramatic. (The dialogue of protagonists like the hag and the werewolf is actually lifted straight from the novel.)

As a scene, this develops Edmund’s character quite a bit. He was always the more interesting of the two brothers - Peter, by contrast, is a bit one-dimensional. Of course, Edmund takes the lead role in the third book written in the series, which is going to be the next film, Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Edmund has a darker side in the books - “I know what it means to be a traitor”, he says darkly in The Horse and his Boy - and this is emphasised by the way he’s the one who has seen through the White Witch and can resist her evil charms.

I had a few quibbles. The final showdown between the Narnian and the Telmarine army is overdone and is obviously still trying to outdo Lord of the Rings in terms of fantasy battles. The hinted-at attraction between Susan and Caspian is embarrassing. And some of the minor characters who shine in the book, like the Bulgy Bears, hardly get a look in. Even some semi-important supporting roles, such as Trumpkin the dwarf, are significantly reduced.

But on the other hand, Reepicheep, drolly voiced by the ever-dry Eddie Izzard is almost pitch-perfect, and there are more bits to make you stop and think than in your average popcorn-fodder blockbuster. At one point Aslan asks Lucy why she didn’t follow after him, and she says that no one else was willing to. “Why would that stop you?” is Aslan’s rebuke.

I fully expect to see that clip or hear that quote in a sermon before the year is out.

Jongudmund’s rating: 7.5/10 - Probably best on the big screen.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Confuzzled by nomenclature

I’ve been ripping quite a lot of music onto my computer at work recently. When I do, I offer my colleagues in “The Sardine Tin” (the nickname for our new office) the option of having a listen. When I offered round the Barenaked Ladies greatest hits, my friend Neil took me up on it, saying: “I quite like Barenaked Ladies.” At which point another guy who hadn’t really been listening, said “What?”

The comedy potential in the name saw another interesting exchange at home. We were heading out somewhere and Cathy was trying to decide which CD to bring along. “Would you like some Barenaked Ladies in the car?” she asked. Ah, if only…

It’s a similar problem I have when I tell people that “I love Scouting for Girls.” It makes me sound like a proper perv. Apparently when they chose the name they were parodying a book called Scouting for Boys, which sounds much worse to me. Surely they’d have picked up the double meaning there? Unless they did it deliberately in which case their claims of innocence are complete lies.

But the all-time worst band nomenclature resulted in Cathy once telling me: “I want to get Laid by James.”

Hoo boy.

Cathy has informed me that what she actually said was "How embarrasing would it be to go into a shop and say 'I want to get Laid by James'?"

As usual I obviously wasn't listening properly...

Sex or Star Wars...?

Sadly, and perhaps unexpectedly to those who know me, this is true.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fable/Parable about Power

Once a small group of powerful men ruled over a kingdom. They determined what the people should say to outsiders, and how the people should present themselves. And the people chafed under the authority and the control of the rulers.

Then the people were set free. The ruling party were removed from office and were told "Now, you will serve us, and no longer tell us what we can wear, and how we can act, and what words we can use." And the former rulers had to accept the decision of the people.

But before long, the people began to realise they had no understanding of fashion, or of decorous language, and they realised that the outside world was large and sophisticated, and unless they spoke a certain way, or dressed in appropriate attire, they would be dismissed as ignorant peasants from a backwoods country.

So they began to ask their former rulers for advice on how to speak, and how to dress, and where to travel, and who to address in the outside world. And the former rulers advised them on all these things to the point where it appeared indeed that the word of the rulers still ruled, except now they ruled because the people demanded their words and paid close heed to them.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Little things which annoy

While in America I bought my first Hellboy merchandise, a Qee Chain Hellboy figure, and a BustUps diorama of Hellboy using the right hand of doom to punch the daylights out of a ‘bat god’. Both of them are from the Hellboy animated series, and I’m quite pleased with them. I would take them into work, but having little model demons on my desk might not go down too well in a Christian charity…

(Judge for yourself)

But anyway, one annoying thing is that the BustUps model came with a part of another model. Each of the five toys in the range had a different part of a skeletal ‘graveyard demon’, which looked just like a skeleton to me. The ploy is to make you buy all the toys, so you can assemble the bonus figure, but I’d only buy the other Hellboy ones. I’m not interested in the ‘Thunder God’ or whatever else is in the range.

Other toys do this too. I bought a Zapp Brannigan figure and he came with the Robot Devil’s arms. The idea is you buy all the Futurama figures and build the Robot Devil. Except, that would mean me buying the reissued figures I’ve already got, which I’m not going to do. So, like the Hellboy bonus, I’m left with some miscellaneous action figure body parts I’m not going to use.

The thing is if the RD was released as a figure in its own right, I would definitely want it. Making you buy all the toys to get all the parts is just annoying. In fact, it’s so irksome I’m considering not buying any more Futurama toys just on principle. And, as far as the Bust-Ups Hellboy is concerned, a skeletal foot is just a waste of time. I binned it with the box.

Another little thing which annoys me immensely is when bands release CDs with ‘hidden bonus tracks’. You know the sort of thing - there’s three minutes of silence in the last track before a random new track kicks in. I’d have thought now everyone rips their music onto a PC, this would have died out, because it completely messes up your listening when you’ve got your playlist on shuffle. But, no!

When the Killers released Sawdust last year (a compilation of their bonus tracks and oddments - well worth checking out) they added a minute of silence onto the brilliant Jacques Lu Cont remix of Mr Brightside before breaking into what sounds like a drunken rugby song recorded for a laugh. I love the remix more than the original song, but that added nonsense is so irritating.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Other people's failure make me feel better

Irony Boy sent me a link to failblog. Oh how I laughed, particularly at "Satanism Fail". It's even better than Photoshop Disasters for mocking other people's mistakes.

Is it wrong that I enjoy laughing at things like this?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Road Trip Retrospective

10 unexpected yet totally memorable experiences
1. The view of Monument Valley from Muley Point
2. Seeing a white alligator in Hogle Zoo (Salt Lake City)
3. Eating chili polenta at the Red Rock Brewing Co (Salt Lake City)
4. Driving off-road through the Valley of the Gods
5. Watching wild humming birds in close up
6. Traveling along Route 66
7. Standing under Double Arch and looking up, and up.
8. Losing count of how many buffalo were in the herd we saw on Antelope Island
9. Driving over the Hoover Dam
10. Getting excited when a genuine Wild West style tumbleweed ‘tumbled’ across the road right in front of our car.

10 experiences I’d rather forget
1. Drinking prickly pear flavoured iced tea
2. Buying an out-of-date bottle of Diet Dr Pepper from a dodgy vending machine
3. Turning too soon when we were looking for Cracker Barrel and having to drive back down the freeway we’d just driven up
4. Some scary moments adjusting to driving in America
5. Making a fool of myself at an old-time petrol station in Williams, Arizona (“You, lift the handle up, Pardner!”)
6. Most of Las Vegas, especially…
7. The nicotine-heavy smoky smell of the distinctly unglamorous casinos
8. The unhelpful attitude of the Avis sales clerk at SLC airport
9. Having to unpack/repack overweight cases in SLC airport before we came home
10. Waiting for my cases to appear on the conveyor at Heathrow (they were the last ones of our group by a long way and I’ve got prior history of lost luggage!)

Best restaurant of the trip: Red Rock Brewing Co, Salt Lake City. So good, we broke our ‘no going back’ rule and ate there twice. In fact I'd fly back to SLC today just to eat dinner at the brewpub.

Worst restaurant of the trip: The other guys would no doubt say Taco Bell, but I thought the food at The Canyon Star restaurant attached to the Grand Hotel in Tusayan was mediocre, and the waiting staff were distinctly off. But at least we avoided the guy with the banjo! Cracker Barrel needs to get a decent vegetarian option onto its menu as well.

Best hotel of the trip: Metropolitan Inn, Salt Lake City. Right in the city centre, with a decent sized car park, a nice room, a pool, and free internet access in the lobby. Plus breakfast!

Worst hotel of the trip: Hmm, tough one. It’s probably gonna have to be The Stratosphere in Las Vegas. Our room looked out on a concrete wall, and was pretty small by American hotel room standards. The Strat would also have been better if there was some way of avoiding walking through the giant slot machine alley which was the casino.

Best driving experience of the trip: Rallying around mesas in the Valley of the Gods, listening to the gravel pinging off the car’s under-tray.

Worst driving experience: Escaping from the airport, and adjusting to life on the right hand side of the road. Sitting in traffic on the Las Vegas Strip was frustrating.

Biggest serendipity: Humming birds hovering outside the window as I ate a delicious egg salad sandwich at the Thunderbird Lodge. They were drinking sugar water from plastic feeders, and we could walk up to within inches of them, after we'd eaten. After the over-crowded and slightly artificial atmosphere at the Grand Canyon, and the bad-taste gaudiness and sleaze of Las Vegas, it was an unanticipated soul-refreshing moment.

Biggest disappointment: Las Vegas.

Lessons learned: Next time I wouldn’t bother leaving Utah. The Grand Canyon was less impressive than I thought it would be, and Vegas just felt sad.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Misc. Music Purchase

In addition to adding to my collection of Hip albums, while in the States I also bought the exclusive charity single by the Killers called Don't Shoot Me Santa.

It's probably the only Christmas-themed song which has a little break in it to sing about "the sweet Mojave rain". Otherwise it sounds very Killers-esque, although a gun-toting Santa reminds me of the Xmas Futurama episodes where Santa judges everyone to be naughty and sets out to kill them all using rockets, grenades and lasers.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bobcaygeon - or - music makes the abstract concrete

One of the benefits of a trip to America is getting hold of stuff you can’t get hold of over here. One of the things I most wanted to find on our recent road trip were CDs by a Canadian band called The Tragically Hip.

So, a couple of record stores in Salt Lake City later, I had managed to locate three albums, plus ‘Yer Favourites’, which has 38 songs spread over two CDs. I’ve been listening to them a lot since I got home. One of the songs I’m loving is Bobcaygeon, which includes a line about seeing the constellations ‘reveal themselves one star at a time’.

It’s a mellow song, and when I hear it, it reminds me of sitting on the edge of the desert at the back of The Desert Rose Inn in Bluff. Cathy and I were swaying on a double swing looking out into the darkness. Above us the sky was full of stars. It’s always full of stars, but it’s only when you get out into the desert that you realise it, because there’s no Earth-bound light to drown them out.

(Incidentally, I think that’s why religions seem to start in the wildernesses of the world - because only there can you look up and see out into the cosmos, and appreciate the vastness and the grandeur, and your own place in it.)

We swung slowly in the desert’s cool night air and watched the constellations glittering far above us. Then from nowhere a bright orange shooting star flared and died in an amber streak across the heavens; a picture show by the universe just for us, it felt.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Scriptural tour around the USA

Utah is known as Mormon central, but it took a bit of getting used to finding the Book of Mormon sitting in the drawer of the bedside cabinet in the hotel room. For what it’s worth, here’s my road trip record of holy books…

Holiday Inn, SLC - Gideons Bible; Book of Mormon
Sleep Inn, Moab - Gideons Bible; Book of Mormon
Desert Rose Inn, Bluff - Book of Mormon, The Qu’ran (!)
Grand Hotel, Tusayan - Gideons Bible (this hotel was in Arizona so no BoM)
Stratosphere, Las Vagas - Gideons Bible with a gold cover (probably because it’s Vegas!)
Circle D, Escalante - nowt
Metropolitan, SLC - Gideons Bible

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Jetlag Bloglag

Regular visitors to this blog will realise I've been backdating posts since I came back, but that's all stopped now. I have loads more to write about Utah and several photos I'd like to stick up, but I'll do that as time goes on.

We flew back on the Saturday, landed on the Sunday and I was back in work on Monday. I didn't feel the jetlag too bad this time, possibly because I was thrown straight back into a normalish routine.

I spent most of last week prepping desperately for the imminent youth weekend away in Pembroke. The sun came out on Saturday when we were all on the beach and I managed to get burnt on the back of my legs (ow!). It seems a bit stupid that after two weeks in nonstop sunshine, including several days out in the desert, I managed to get sunburned on a beach in Wales. Cathy says it's because she wasn't there to look after me, so it's all her fault really...