Take Me To Your Media

Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958
This is what my Media Centre PC doesn't resemble most

I’m still hiding in a happy kernel of geekery, away from a cruel and now markedly more expensive world. Much of last night was spent setting up the new old PC as what I expansively call a “Media Centre”. That is of course just fancy talk for a computer attached to a TV, worthwhile though since we got a wide-screen one. (Well, wide-ish.) My mother will appreciate this when she gets the hang of it, but things may be a bit confusing for the transition. I’d barely got her to stop calling the computer monitor “the TV”, now I seem to have arbitrarily reversed my position.

But I’m sitting here writing this on my knees. With a wireless keyboard on my knees, I mean. I’m not on my knees. And to clarify my clarification, I didn’t think that you thought I was writing this column on my knees, with a pen. I have the keyboard on my knees, but the words are appearing on the TV. Which is the sort of thing people liked to do in science fiction films. Cool. And simultaneously – as it is a fairly wide screens – I’m also catching up with episodes of QI on YouTube. (The one with Nina Conti the ventriloquist.)

Ideally the screen would have about four times the area, but this is actually pretty nice. If nothing else, it improves my work posture – from hunched over on the couch to sitting back on the couch. I feel slightly better-off already.

Spontaneous Com… edians

Speaking of spontaneous things in Galway, our own Spontaneous Theatre People have gotten together with two other comedy outfits to form a sort of improv supergroup. I’m having a lazy Sunday, so here’s their press release:

The Make-Up Artists Comedy Improv Tour – “A Tale Of Three Cities”

Hold on to your hats! If you live in Dublin, Limerick or Galway, ‘A Tale of Three Cities’ is coming soon to your City. Following an incredible impromptu ‘improv jam’ session at Electric Picnic in 2010, some of Ireland’s top improvisers decided that there was too much fun to be had to leave it it that.

Plans were hatched, and they decided a three city comedy improv tour was in order. Members of No Drama (Dublin), Choke Comedy (Limerick) and The Spontaneous Theatre People (Galway) have joined forces and become the Improv ‘Supergroup’ known as The Make-Up Artists!

Improv Comedy is an incredibly exciting form of theatre. It is energizing for the audience and performers alike, and no two performances are ever alike.

The Make-Up Artists‘ show promises to be a great night of weird and wonderful comedy antics. All the scenes and games are unscripted, and many are based on the audience suggestions. It will have you on the edge of your seats wondering what could possibly come next, and delighted when you find out what does!

Dublin – Thursday 8th December, Doyle’s Pub, College St
Show starts at 8.30pm, admission €10

Limerick – Saturday 10th December, The Belltable, O’Connell St
Show starts at 8pm, admission €10

Galway – Sunday 11th December, Upstairs @ The Townhouse Bar, Spanish Parade.
Doors at 8pm, admission €7/5

Any additional enquiries, email spontaneoustheatre (at) gmail (dot) com

President Higgins

On October 29, 2011, two days after the presid...

I’m watching the replay of the inauguration of Michael D. Higgins as President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann), a significant threshold occasion in our history. An event in my personal life too – this is after all my old Sociology professor. And, one I missed. Yesterday I had to do something to sort out the utter mess my finances had gotten into since the economy hit the windscreen.

It is moving now though, to see one of the few politicians I’ve ever had any respect for become First Citizen. What the hell happened there? After over a decade of naked materialism we’re suddenly electing a socialist intellectual, and with no intervening transition except the global failure of capitalism.

It is a bittersweet occasion though. We now have as President a man who you can say without embarrassment is passionate about equality, about justice, about actually changing society. That we esteem him enough to raise him to this position is a wonderful thing. But at the same time, it’s sad that he was raised to a position of esteem only. As President he has less power than an ordinary citizen; they at least are free to express their own opinions.

Which is unfortunate. Now more than ever we need voices like his.

Tim Minchin Live In Galway

Darkside (Tim Minchin album)
Yipee

You know this wouldn’t be a bad lecture or TED talk, on the necessity of critical thinking. Dammit, it would make a pretty timely address to the United Nations too. Imagine that – a guy with a piano on the floor of the General Assembly.

But it’s none of these. It’s a comedy show – and a brilliant one.

Tim Minchin is a stand-up. It’s just that most of his routines rhyme and scan and are set to great music. It’s almost excessive in its wonderfulness, yet unlike other ostensibly clever comedians we could name Ricky Gervais, it’s not about him being clever. It’s about reality, honesty, and where we fail at them.

But it is clever. What did we do before we had comedy this smart? We were laughing at mud and funny-shaped pebbles. More than clever though, it is wise. Insightful, humanistic, brave stuff that takes a stand against a world full of willful ignorance. Is there an audience for that? Well 400 people in a venue in Ireland just gleefully applauded a song with the chorus “F*** the m*********ing Pope”.

And that’s two nights in a row, downstairs in the Radisson as part of the Bulmers Pear Galway Comedy Festival. Which took me aback. I thought I was into something a little bit obscure here, yet even way out west, in a country where Minchin has, to my knowledge, never even been on terrestrial TV, an enthusiastic capacity crowd gave him a standing ovation.

There’s hope for our species yet.

Doing The Digital Switchover

Photo of the RTÉ News Studio
RTÉ trying to look cool

We decided to make the switchover to digital TV, a year ahead of the deadline. Not, let’s be honest, for the many wonders this new technology brings. Nor for the early-adopter cool. No, it was mainly because of stuff in the attic.

You see up until now broadcast TV in Ireland has been on both UHF and VHF.

No? My God, do I have to draw diagrams? That means you need two aerials¹. And because our attic is small these are too close together, bouncing signals off each other. So any time you move one it buggers up reception on the other. In short, trying to get a good picture on all channels was about as much fun as being repeatedly stabbed.

So after we moved the aerials to get the attic insulated, I decided it wasn’t worth going through all that again, and that we should skip straight to the new technology. It’s not expensive. You may have heard you need a new ‘digital’ aerial. In fact you just need a UHF one, so if you’re already getting TV3 or TG4 you’ve probably OK. A very nice bonus is that the all-or-nothing nature of digital makes it a hell of a lot less sensitive about position. Even though ours is so off-beam it renders analogue channels in snowy monochrome, we still get a crisp digital picture.

Nor do you need a new TV, you can buy a digital tuner to connect to your existing set for less than €100. And if you rent one, then it’s the rental company’s problem. Ours was more than happy to swap our 21″ analogue CRT for a fairly nifty 26″ flatscreen at the same rent. (It has so many inputs!!!)

 In short then, approximate cost and hassle of switching to digital = Sweet FA.

So should you rush to join me on Saorview?² Yes if you have a bad picture, in which case the switch could make an amazing difference. Otherwise, nah. For one, it’s not guaranteed to work yet. You may find it ups and disappears on you randomly. (Though if it does, you should still be able to tune in the old analogue signal.) While HD is nice and all it’s not exactly a viewing revolution, and only Network 2 is being broadcast in HD yet. There’s 3e if you’re not getting that already, which justifies its existence by showing Futurama, and RTÉ’s new digital channels, which no one remembers asking for. And that’s about it – so far anyway.

Except that this may be your first brush with owning a widescreen TV – or at least, one with a widescreen signal to match. I’d like to say this makes sense of the whole thing, but it’s still a mess. You were used to films being letterboxed on your old 4:3 TV. Now you have to choose between programmes being cropped, stretched, or pillarboxed. And you must choose, because not everything looks best the same way. And you must not choose stretched. Goddamit people are fat enough these days.

Any other cons? Well on this set at least there’s a very noticeable delay when you change channel. Maybe you get used to that. And you’ll need a new Saorview-compatible DVD player to record from the digital signal, so factor that in when calculating… well, calculating the expense the government is putting you to for as yet no very clear reason.

  1. You may prefer to call them antennas.
  2. We call it Saorview, from the Irish Saor, meaning ‘Free’, and the English View, meaning ‘Radharc’.

A Brilliant Satire Of Market-Driven Idiocy

Julian Gough. Photograph: Anne Marie Fives

Good news: My friend Julian has a new novel out, Jude in London. Here’s the first review, from the Guardian.

Gooder news: You can read it for free. If you like it, you can pay what you think it’s worth afterwards.

Julian and his publisher needed to get copies out ahead of its scheduled publication date of September 6 for the book to qualify for the Guardian’s “Not The Booker” alternative literary prize, so they sent out PDFs on the honour system. The response was so good that they decided to extend the offer, at least until it comes out officially. This “books on trust” idea could revolutionise the publishing industry more than the eBook and iPad combined. Probably not of course, but it could.

If you need to read a bit of a novel before you decide if it’s even worth downloading for free, I can recommend the excerpt The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble, which was published by the Financial Times as a short story and later converted into a radio play by BBC4 (Listen here). It’s brilliant satire of the market-driven idiocy that got us where we are today – most of it written long before the crash actually happened.

It’s All Meme Meme Meme

"O frly?", the (official) free softw...
This is a meme

Gawker have a point. (OK, I check out Gawker occasionally. I’m not proud.) Lazy television producers getting segments – sometimes whole shows – out of the latest Internet “craze”, which generally was over before the segment started and lasted about as long. The “meme“. (Whatever you think of Richard Dawkins, his concept did not deserve this ignominious end.) Here’s a rule which I think the producers needs to understand: If you hear about an internet meme via any medium except the Internet, it is already over.

These things were only really funny when it seemed like they were special, hidden from the rest of the world by a veil of shared cultural reference. But now the Internet is indistinguishable from other media. Everything blends together and becomes brown plasticine. It doesn’t feel like a separate and more mysterious world anymore. It’s as if the process started in September 1993, when the Internet was opened to the public, has finally reached completion.

This is what some people have said about Google+ in fact, that while it’s still in semi-closed testing (you need an invite to join) there is a standard of good behaviour and quality of discussion there that you just don’t get on other bits of the Net anymore. And as Google+ gives you more control over who you hear from and are heard by than other online social networks, there is some hope that it might stay that way.

But then you have the opposite problem. When the Internet was new it may have only been small, but it was global. Now, it’s fragmenting into a great many personal networks. By language, by country, by age, by interest, by taste. All of them separate.

And all of them of course policed – by commercial interest and by government – instead of being a self-policing community.

We need a new Internet. Anyone know anything about wiring?

The Murdoch Show – A Review

Banana cream pie.
Critical Notice

The end of an extraordinary day, says the TV man. Did anyone else think so? To me it seemed a let-down; predictable, unchallenging, frequently tedious.

What we were watching was, as reader jonolan put it, theatre. And not even good theatre, unless you count the intervention by the pieman – that at least was unpredictable. Otherwise its sole moment of flair was Assistant Commissioner John Yates’ surrealistic claim to be a postbox.

The prince came across more like a villain, and it was the king who vacillated. He wanted to apologise as profusely and humbly as possible – yet he wouldn’t accept the blame. Such inconsistency in a character strains credulity.

The best you can say for the production is that it was well rehearsed. The Murdochs delivered their lines effectively enough: News Corp is a highly ethical organisation, the News Of The World a completely inexplicable and isolated aberration. It was at least a daring conceit. And memorable – though mainly because they kept saying it at every opportunity.

Then in the last act a whole new theme was introduced. The News Of The World was revealed by Rebekah Brooks to be a crusading journal, focused only on protecting children and the rights of soldiers, a paragon of what newspapers should be. But the transformation hadn’t been justified by anything that had gone before, so it lacked conviction.

That’s what this show needs more of. Conviction. Preferably several.

Five Facts To Help You Forget How Crap Today Was

Leinster House
Little-Known Fact: Leinster House, the parliament building of Ireland, is on another f***ing planet.

Today yet another report on clerical abuse revealed yet more rape of children. The government says that child neglect is a thing of the past, but that the terms of the EU-IMF bailout deal require it to end the jobs of 200 Special Needs Assistants. That deal is supposed to get us back into the bond markets, yet following it has made these markets declare our bonds worthless. And the Euro is on the verge of collapse anyway, so it’s actually all meaningless.

However the hottest news item of the day was a personal remark about someone’s appearance made in parliament. Sometimes you just want to give up.

So I gave up. Unable to say anything meaningful about so much insanity, I went outside in the sun and painted the gateposts to match the wall.

I’ve decided that the colour is really 50% Grey – the shade exactly half way between black and white. I can like 50% Grey. (It’s probably more like 53% really, but I choose to ignore this.) It reminds me of Photoshop, and it’s a good mount card colour for black and white images. Anyway, it all looks nicer now that the walls and gateposts match. That at least was productive.

So here, instead of a proper post, are five things I learned today while drifting listlessly about the Internet:

1) There’s a company in England that sells a handmade sports car called the “5EXi”. Presumably this is a vehicle designed and built specifically for the needs of twats.

2) A disease called “nodding syndrome” is spreading in Africa. The symptoms include stunted growth, and a lack of neck muscle tone causing the characteristic nodding. No one yet knows what causes it.

3) Teapoy is a word of Indian origin meaning a three-legged table. By erroneous association with the word “tea”, it is also used to describe a table with a container for tea. So if you were stuck on today’s Irish Times simplex crossword, now you know.

4) There are now at least three people on Google+ posing as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Well I guess that should be “at least two”. One of them could be real.

5) There’s a fashion currently for women’s pants with the crotch hanging down at the knees. A friend in the States was prevented from boarding a bus because the driver considered them unsuitable attire. They call them harem pants, I think because women in harems wore them when they wanted their Sultan to leave them the hell alone.

Star Stories – 5

Liveblogging from a show. Not sure about the etiquette of this, but I’m being dreadfully discreet.

Órla McGovern is not an elderly working class Dublin widow with a naughty sense of humour, but she plays one perfectly on stage. Niceol Blue – whom I’ve mentioned before – really is a singer-songwriter born in one of those Bible-belt US States you only run away from. They make an eclectic partnership, and form the core of The Spontaneous Theatre People, a company that devises plays.

The show is about stories. About stories about stories. The actors play storytellers, playing characters. One enchanting tale, told by Zita Monahan, is of a woman who was hairdresser to an international spy. Another was about an unhappy wife who went into space, launched by… But that would give it away.

I’d tell you to come and see it, but it’s a run of one performance. You can catch it though at the Electric Picnic.

In space there’s a spaceship chip shop, that sells spaceship-shaped chips.