More recent films

March 22, 2008

One in a very occasional series, in which I share some thoughts about films I have watched in the not-too-distant past. This time, 2 highly acclaimed films, each with their own very distinctive aesthetic and visual style.

First up is No Country For Old Men. I’m going to nail my colours to the mast, and say that I thought this was the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, combining all the tension and suspense of their thrillers such as Fargo, with cinematic flair comparable to someone like Terrence Malick, as well as enough jet-black humour to leaven what is a pretty uncompromising plot.

I won’t go into the plot here, which is actually a fairly standard story of a drug bust gone wrong, followed by a pursuit, albeit told in a pretty oblique fashion. What really make it stand out are some astonishing performances from the lead actors. Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are suitably wry and laconic as (respectively) the protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, basically a decent, resourceful guy in way over his head, and the old-time but astute Sheriff Bell, whose reflections on events provide a suitably terse voice-over narrative.

The real stand-out (and worthy Oscar winner) is Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurrh. Chigurrh is the assassin put on Moss’s tail after the aforementioned drug deal gone bad. To call Chigurrh simply an assassin doesn’t really do him justice, though- he’s more akin to a force of nature or perhaps a personification of evil, being as he is implacable, remorseless and inhuman. Inhuman is perhaps not exactly the right word- he does turn out to have a warped code of honour, although this doesn’t really go any way towards lessening the bloodshed of what is a pretty violent film. There’s a particularly uncomfortable scene during which he torments a gas station attendee for an innocent remark, and all the while you can tell that while Chigurrh might kill the man, doing so would mean as little to him as not bothering.

While the film has a definite ending, it doesn’t really tie up a lot of the loose ends, which I appreciated- so many American films seem to be scared of ambiguity. Also ambiguous was the moral of the story, if any. Sheriff Bell seemingly retires because of the terrible things he has witnessed, although [SPOILER ALERT] I thought it might have been suggested that he had in fact been killed by Chigurrh, and that Bell’s last few scenes were in some kind of afterlife. Chigurrh manages to stagger off at the end, unbowed and no doubt ready to commit more acts of violence, should more contracts come his way. He seemed in some way symbolic of the forces unleashed in the early eighties (the film is set in 1981) by the likes of the proliferating drug trade, the trauma of America’s disastrous war in Vietnam, and the brutalising effects of the move away from the New Deal consensus towards Reaganomics.

Anyway, ill-formed politico-cultural musings aside, the movie is brilliant- it works as a super-tense thriller, a meditation on the old West and the nature of the frontier in the American psyche (oops, there I go again) and as an exemplary exercise in acting from its excellent cast, and film-making from the back on form Coen Brothers.

The other film I’m going to write about is Anton Corbijn’s Control. This is a biopic of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, who committed suicide at the age of 23. I’m a big fan of Joy Division, and indeed of all things relating to Factory Records, and Manchester music generally, so I was looking forward to seeing this.

The good stuff first: the cinematography and period detail were both excellent, evoking the grimness of the 70s in Macclesfield and Manchester. The cast’s performances were very good, managing to equal those in the great 24 Hour Party People.  In particular, Sam Riley is uncannily similar to Ian Curtis, and even manages to pull off his slightly upsetting semi-epileptic onstage performances.

What I found lacking, however, was any kind of narrative tension. I guess this is partly because I’m familiar with Curtis’ sad life story, but I don’t think that was entirely it. Anyone watching the film is likely to know that Curtis ends up taking his own life, so the film then has to hold your interest when you already know its ending. Unfortunately, mine waned, and I ended up wanting him to put on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and then do the grim deed just so I could finish watching. Probably worth watching for the cinematography or if you’re interested in post punk, though.

I was also going to blog about There Will Be Blood, but I’ve repeatedly failed to go and see it in the cinema, but hopefully I’ll manage that soon.


1000 posts!

March 6, 2008

A landmark, of sorts- I just posted my thousandth link to, a service that allows you to save URLs and then refer back to them as and when you need to. As well as this, it allows you to tag things you save, thereby building up a folksonomy.

You can view my links here– they are a real mish-mash of stuff, running the gamut from web tools to libraries to politics to film to sport. For the record, my thousandth post was an interview with Carl Wilson at the AV Club, talking about his new book about Celine Dion in the very good 33 1/3 series, and it was tagged with my most popular tag, music.

Thoughts on the iPod

February 13, 2008

Yes, yes, I know, I’m about 5 years behind half the people in this country on this, but I finally got an iPod this Christmas, and I thought I would note some of my thoughts on the ways in which it has changed my listening habits.

First of all, it has really made me think about my unwieldy collection of CDs. I must have burnt only a fraction of the total number, and this begs the question: how many of these CDs do I actually really want to keep? I mean, it’s conceivable I might want to listen to a track off that Bentley Rhythm Ace  album I have, for some reason, held on to for the last 10 years, but in all honesty it’s not going to happen. So maybe a CD purge is in order.

On a related note, burning a whole load of CDs has made me realise how weak parts of so many albums (including a lot of albums I like) are. One of my favourite albums of the 90s is Royal Trux’s Accelerator, and I still really like it, but could probably live without hearing half the tracks ever again, which made me think twice about burning the whole album. This is where compilations come into their own, since they provide perfect iPod fodder, and you can easily delete tracks without feeling guilty for dismembering a cherished album (a rockist idea anyway, I know!). Mix CDs are also great in this respect, since if done well they are unique in providing the cohesion of an album with the variety of a good compilation.

And the perfect medium to hear new mixes is in podcast form, which really has opened up a whole new world of (free!) music to me. The two I have subscribed to that particularly stand out are Resident Advisor (check here for a mix by the always excellent Optimo DJs) and the Beats in Space radio show coming out of NYC. As these choices indicate, another side-effect has been that I am listening to lots more dance music than previously, which is perhaps also to do with the fact that dance music tends to work better on headphones from an MP3 than, say, stoner metal.

It has also made me think about my small to medium sized collection of LPs. One the one hand, I kind of wish I had them available in a format that was easily transferrable to computer, since many of my favourite albums are in this format. But then, on the other hand, I picked up a copy of the gatefold edition of Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, which features  some truly great artwork, making me remember why I enjoyed buying vinyl in the first place.

Finally, owning an iPod has brought home the need to buy myself a decent laptop, over which I have been prevaricating for years. I can’t continue to clog up Jude’s computer with my (to quote her) “funny bleepy music”!

Did anyone find their listening habits changing in the ways I describe when they first got an MP3 player? Or perhaps in other ways? Leave a comment!

Collaborative blog!

February 5, 2008

If you want to see what law librarians talk about when they get together, have a look here. It’s a new collaborative blog about all things law library!

The Wire

January 30, 2008

I know everyone and his uncle has been going on about the greatness of The Wire, and they’d be absolutely correct. I’ve just finished watching season 2, and it just keeps getting better and better- more complex, more nuanced, more emotionally engaging, and more funny (incidentally, the humour is not something many commentators seem to have picked up on). The addition of the docks and union politics to the interplay of cops, drug dealers and city hall has created a whole new series of interconnections and facets that will no doubt be elaborated on in the next season, to which I am greatly looking forward.

Here are some links to interesting Wire things on the internet:

Enjoy- please post further links of interest in the comments below!

Facebook and the neocons

January 18, 2008

First off, apologies for blogging again about Facebook, but the recent Guardian article on the politics of the people behind the site is well worth reading, arguing as it does that there is something of an agenda behind the bland exterior of social networking.

Whether you buy this is, of course, a matter of opinion, and the always-interesting Potlatch has taken the article to task for the sloppy use of the term “neoconservative” as a descriptor for Facebook’s political philosophy. On the other hand, little things discusses Facebook in the light of the likes of John Gray and Aubrey De Grey, and comes to the conclusion that Facebook should probably be steered clear of.

Interesting stuff. I was sounding off in the pub last night, as I do, about wanting to shut down my Facebook account, the only drawback being the lack of online Scrabble, although it looks like that option may soon be gone anyway!

Web 2.0 and the surveillance society

January 8, 2008

This post brings together a number of themes that I have been thinking about recently. It was prompted by Privacy International‘s recent report on Leading surveillance societies in the EU and the World 2007. In it, the organisation gave Britain a damning write-up, stating that Britain is an “endemic surveillance society”, on a par with China, Russia, and the USA in its lack respect for individual privacy. This came as something of a surprise to me, even though I keep up with data protection and privacy law to a certain extent, and that it’s fairly well known in these circles that Britain has the most comprehensive CCTV network of any nation on earth. I assumed that the UK’s democratic process was robust enough to cope with these challenges, but apparently this shouldn’t be taken for granted.

So far, so depressing, but what might this have to do with the giddy world of Web 2.0? Well, it occurred to me during one of the sessions during day 3 of Online Information conference (on the future of web 2.0) that web 2.0 actually allows us, and perhaps even forces us, into colluding with this surveillance or even into surveying ourselves. I’m not making any great claims for the originality of this thought (see for example ideas on “digital Maoism”), but there did seem to me to be a useful way of thinking about the effects of certain web 2.0 services, and in particular social networks such as Facebook or Bebo.

This is to consider the way in which Facebook and the like ask us to display a public persona, and the way in which we then regulate this persona. It occurred to me that, in this way, social networks become a Foucauldian Panopticon, in which behaviour is subject to regimes of discipline that determine and condition the ways in which we act. In this way, the personal not only becomes the political, but also the public- everything is “on show”. To put it another way, you had better not let your boss/ teacher/ lecturer/ mum know what you got up to at the weekend via those pictures posted on Facebook, or else.

One of the speakers at the conference above mentioned the interesting idea of “declarative living” as a remedy to this problem, or that apart from very personal matters, you should be willing to put information about yourself online, and then let others use this data as long as this data use is acceptable. This is an interesting idea, but also seems to me to be willing participation in the very surveillance society which we might otherwise object to, for example in the case of Britain’s CCTV network mentioned above.

Does all this actually matter, or am I just going on about some fairly dry theoretical issues with little real-world relevance? I would argue that this stuff does matter, and that these issues are thrown into sharp relief by events such as the recent Facebook Beacon debacle. Essentially, organisations like Facebook and Google make their money out of information about our lives, through advertising, data mining, selling demographic information and the like- should we then be so forthcoming with this information? And if we accept that we can give away our personal information in exchange for the undoubted benefits of social networking, should we be declarative, or should we be differentiating between our web personas and (as it were) real life?

Anyway, enough rambling, I hope this post is at least semi-coherent, and I’d be very interested to hear what people think about all this, I think it’s a very interesting topic.

Happy Christmas/ Hanukkah/ Kwanzaa/ non-denominational winter break

December 19, 2007

I think the post title just about covers it! I’ve been off work since Friday now, and won’t be blogging much prior to Christmas, so happy whatever festival it is you celebrate!

Online Information 2007, day 3, Thurs 6 Dec

December 14, 2007

So, the final day of Online Information 2007 (you can read about day 1 here, and day 2 here). As is the way with conferences, by day 3 I was suffering from information overload a little bit. Luckily, there were some really interesting sessions that proved very relevant to my work.

The first session was on “The Facebook generation”, and was once again moderated by Ewan McIntosh. Sadly, I missed Roo Reynolds talking about Second Life, and most of Ewan’s presentation. The little I did see of the latter presentation seemed very interesting, and included some good examples of young people creating their own media, including a Bebo campaign to prevent the closure of a local school. The third speaker of the session was Mary Ellen Bates, who gave a fairly standard presentation on the opportunities presented by web 2.0.

Session number two was on marketing libraries in a web 2.0 world, and proved very interesting. The first speaker was Jane Dysart, who talked about using Youtube to promote library services. She recommended the service very strongly as a way to connect with users through semi-formal channels. Despite this air of informality, she emphasised the importance of ensuring that any video posted looks professional, with sound quality being a particular issue. She also flagged up a few useful resources, including the Infotubey awards, and LibVlogs, a good example of self-produced videos that reach out to users.

The next speaker was Marie Madeleine Salmon, talking about using advertising and branding techniques to promote library services. The final speaker for this session was Dave Pattern, of he University of Huddersfield.  Huddersfield have been at the forefront of creating a truly web 2.0 OPAC- you can see the results here. All sorts of things have been done with it, including RSS feeds for searches and other aspects of updated information, suggestions of similar reading materials on running a search, spelling suggestions on entering incorrectly spelt terms, and a plethora of other features. Huddersfield is definitely at the cutting edge for this kind of stuff, but it was a real indication of what can be done with sufficient will and the imagination.

The final session was an open discussion on the future of web 2.0, between Richard Dennison, Roo Reynolds, and Matt Locke. As such, it was all pretty discursive, but raised some very interesting points. I’ll flag up a couple of these here, both of which are in relation to the politics of web 2.0. The first was the idea of open standards and transparency as an antidote (but not a cure-all) for possible accusations of bias, and accusations of web 2.0 as mob rule. Essentially, the argument is along the lines of “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” (attribution), but this begs the question who are those providing the vigilance?

The second interesting idea was that of “declarative living“, or making all those aspects of one’s life, except those one holds to be strictly private, available via the web. This is a form of personal transparency, and a statement of intention (to quote the site linked to above) “this is what I am interested in, and if you want to play nice with the data then you can use the data.” Very interesting, but this brought to mind for me Foucault‘s ideas on the Panopticon, a prison in which prisoner behaviour is regulated by the mere fact that all prisoners know they are being monitored. The only difference here is that, with declarative living, one arguably becomes a willing prisoner of the Panopticon.

A philosophical way to end the conference. This was appropriate, since overall it was an interesting mix of fairly vague speculation on the meanings of web 2.0, along with some very practical hints and tips on exactly how web 2.0 can be harnessed.

Online Information 2007, Day 2, Weds 5 Dec

December 12, 2007

So, after once again slogging my way across London (sorry to go on, but it really was a bit much!), I found myself back at Online Information, for day 2 of the conference (you can read about the previous day here).

The first session I attended was on the hot topic that is e-books, what with the recent announcements from Amazon about their not-so-good looking, but potentially market-creating Kindle product. I’m going to blog at some length about this session for work reasons, so please skip the next few paragraphs if you’re not interested!

The session started with an overview of the current state of play, which made it very clear that e-books are the coming thing. This was backed up by David Nicholas , the director of SLAIS at University College, London, one of my old university departments. His usage statistics at UCL demonstrated a trend of growth in the use of e-books, but from a low base.

The final speaker at this session was Jill Taylor Roe, from Newcastle University library. She highlighted some of the key problem, from an academic librarians perspective. They were:

  • Lack of availability of textbook content.
  • Difficult and/or wildly excessive pricing models.
  • Lack of standardised usage data.
  • A number of different platforms on which e-books are provided.

She noted that both students and academics are now driving demand, which wasn’t the case a few years ago. She also noted a couple of useful resources: the JISC national e-books observatory project, and the COUNTER project, which monitors the usage of e-books. She went on to say that the next step was for publishers to provide more materials via e-books, and to experiment further with pricing models that were currently dampening demand. This seemed to me the fundamental issue- that until publishers make their pricing models more reasonable, and see e-books an opportunity rather than a threat, growth will continue to be more sluggish than it might otherwise be.

The next session, on Tools and Eresources for librarians, was something of a misnomer. The session was actually looking at usage statistics, a worthy subject in its own right perhaps, but not strictly what was advertised. The first two speakers had done some incredibly detailed research on accessing journal articles, which, while a worthy endeavour, wasn’t that relevant to my line of work.

The third speaker was Ian Rowlands, another SLAIS person. He presented on research he had done into the so-called “Google Generation”, i.e. those young people born around 1990, who essentially do not know a world prior to the internet. His findings were revealing. Contrary to much popular belief, and indeed some of the stuff talked about during the conference, these young people are not necessarily the intuitive internet users they are often assumed to be. Rowlands noted a sense of continuity between generations, and no radical break. He noted that many so-called “silver surfers” were in fact more tech-savvy than teenagers, that many teenagers were “digital dissidents” in actively choosing not to use the internet, and that teenagers conceptions of the web were essentially “horizontal”, insofar as they saw the internet as basically Google and all the stuff “contained” by Google. His conclusion was that there was generally an over-estimation of the effect on the internet on teenagers, and an under-estimation on other demographics. All this was a welcome corrective to a lot of the stuff that web 2.0 evangelists like to tell you.

The last session I attended was on services innovation in libraries. The first speaker, David Clay of the University of Liverpool library, gave an interesting talk on bibliometrics, and the way they can be used to provide support for academic staff and faculties, and to provide another area in which the library can prove its expertise. Bibliometrics seems to be the coming thing in certain library circles.

The next speaker was David Ball from the University of Bournemouth, who explained how that institution’s virtual learning environment (VLE), called eRes, was allowing the library to innovate in terms of service provision.  This was nothing new to me, having been involved in the development of a new VLE for student use last summer. Finally, a similar presentation from Niels Jorgen Blaabjerg, from Aalborg University Library in Denmark, explained a similar VLE implementation at his institution.

Wednesday’s sessions were drier than some of the more speculative stuff of the previous day, but contained some really useful, practical material that will be food for thought.