Sam reviews: Samsung YP-U6AB MP3 player

by on Jan.15, 2011, under gear, Geekery, kit, Reviews

avatarI love music. I listen to a lot of music. My tastes are eclectic, running from Baroque through onomatopoaeic, quirky, more quirky and utterly bonkers, by way of some psytrance, big beat, a bit of metal and stuff I find hard to classify. And everything in between. New Age ambient, prog rock… I’m synaesthetic, and my synaesthesia affects my proprioception. I don’t like any specific sort of music. I like music that does things to me. Check out my profile and you’ll get the idea.

My MP3 player is probably the one gadget I have that would cause withdrawal symptoms if I lost it. I’ve had some form of personal stereo ever since the first Sony Walkman, back in the days of audio tape. (I find it scary that there are people alive today who might not know about audio tape.) I went from tape to minidisc to flash drive, and for the past few years have received sterling service from my Sony NW-S205F. It did everything I wanted it to do, despite the clunky and incompatible-with-everything-else SonicStage software, was small and light and easy to use while working out or on the bike, and it was showerproof.

Before any cycling chums start getting their knickers in a twist: yes, I listen to music while on the bike if I’m riding alone. No, it doesn’t affect my ability to hear traffic. As far as I am concerned if you are relying on your hearing to save you from being hit by a car then you’re doing it wrong anyway. If you wish to argue about this, please go and contribute to one of the many, many threads on CC and I will proceed to ignore you there, too. I am a big girl who has tried with and without and I have performed my own risk assessment, thank you very much. You are free to disagree but not to impose.

In the past couple of months it became apparent that my very much loved MP3 player, which was bloody expensive when I got it, was suffering from terminal battery failure. Desperate, I searched the internet thinking that maybe there was a DIY method of changing the battery, because Sony support said it was uneconomical to change the battery and it was better to replace the unit, thereby missing the point entirely because they don’t do anything similar any more. The internet said no: the design is so compact and the insides so tightly packed together that battery replacement is likely to destroy the player.

So that left me needing a new one. I looked at the various Sony products because I’ve always had Sony players. Sadly, as I said, they don’t make anything resembling the NW-S205F any more. Their sports player is this weird combination headphone/headband thing, and I don’t want my ears taking the weight, thank you very much. I find it hard to believe that can possibly be comfortable when running. The alternative is the B series, which diligent research revealed to be allergic to moisture. No good for a gym bunny/recidivist cyclist like me.

Samsung YP-U6QP

I bought the black one, obviously

After hunting around a bit more I settled on the Samsung YP-U6AB (the QP is the 2GB version) on the basis that it seemed to be exactly the same in terms of function as the lamented Sony NW-S205F, but it was rectangular and didn’t have a fast charge. I could live without fast charge.

First there was the issue with the shop losing my order, then replacing my order with one for the multimedia version (yeah, that’ll do well in the rain), then, once all that had been sorted out, sending it using an ancient, asthmatic camel that took a route via Klatchistan. I can only imagine that’s why it took so damn long to arrive.

But get here it did. Yesterday.

As the Sony had sickened to the point of me taking my old minidisc to work yesterday, you can imagine that I was impatient to get going with it. So impatient, in fact, that the lack of any form of carrying case (the Sony had come with a special armband that I have worn so much in the intervening years it has practically left a groove on my arm) only made me a little bit ranty. The software that shipped with the device wouldn’t work on the machine on which we keep most of the music. This did not fill me with joy and happiness. However, the product information indicated that it was compatible with Windows Media Player 11 and that transferring music was an easy drag and drop affair.

Now, say what you like about Sony’s compatibility and their godsawful ATRAC format, the SonicStage software did one thing very, very well: it managed music and playlists and transferred them to the player without me having to think about it. Create playlist, save playlist, drag it to player, done.

First of all I spent more time that I’d intended creating a new playlist in WMP. I meant to chuck a few songs on and get going but there were some I needed to have and then I had to make sure that they had compatible songs around them and appropriate spacing… You know how it is. Well. You probably don’t. So I was as impatient as an unruly sackperson waiting for an even more unruly sackperson to catch up by the time the device was charged, I had swapped across to the other machine and bullied Vista into network sharing properly so I had access to our whole catalogue and then constructed the aforementioned playlist.

I did the drag and drop thing, safely removed hardware as directed in the user manual, then fired up the new toy. I boggled at the small wiggly thing that appeared on the display along with the demand I choose one. What was this? An adoption centre for imps? I picked the one that looked most aggravated and fumbled giving it a name. DID NOT MATTER. NEED MUSIC. NEED PORTABLE MUSIC. GIVE ME MY PORTABLE MUSIC.

Noes!!!! The playlist hadn’t worked! All the songs were there, but they were arranged ALPHABETICALLY. What noxious effluvium of a mastitic ungulate from the nether regions of Beelzebub’s bowels was this? This is 2011! MP3 players are no longer the stupid, simple mass storage devices of old. I wanted a portable soundscape generator, not a flash drive!

I tried installing the software that came with it. It crashed my machine, leaving me with the horrible decision to switch everything off manually to get it unfrozen, even though the U6 had the “Do not disconnect while transferring” warning on it (which was a lie, because I wasn’t transferring anything).

My wrath was mighty.

With a grim determination that could only end up in the MP3 player doing what I wanted it to or someone dying a vicious and brutal death, I rebooted my computer and hit the internet. A seven stage iteration of search terms later I had learned about MSC and MTP and also that the Samsung U6 is one of the very few players on the market that’s still MSC. I spat the dummy at that point and was about to go into full-on berserker mode, but then I found this thread on anythingbutipod. Only the Korean release is purely MSC. In Europe the U6 can be switched to MTP. Once I’d found that I hunted down the instructions to do so because, guess what, it’s not in the user manual.

Success! With MTP enabled the U6 accepts drag and drop playlists from WMP with barely a shrug of the shoulder.

Sound quality seems good enough, although I’m using the Phillips headphones that I had already rather than the nasty-looking things that came with it. It’s not as user-friendly as the old Sony and I doubt I’ll ever use the sports function (I didn’t use it on the Sony, after all) — I only wanted a sports model because they tend to be more robust. The decision tree is more along the lines of Frood‘s creative than the play-all/play-album/play-playlist options on my old Sony. I’m not fussed about playing by genre, artist or whatever. The only option I’d ever want other than album or playlist is bpm. There’s a user-assignable button on it, although I have no idea what I might use it for. I’m sure I’ll think of something.

It’s a subtle, understated little thing in the black option, about half again as long as my thumb. The metal finish gives it a reassuringly robust feel. Now that it’s doing what I want I’m pleased with my purchase, especially as I got a 4GB player for less than half the price I paid for my previous 2GB one. Around forty of your Earth pounds is a pretty good deal, I’d say.

But, really, I shouldn’t have to spend an evening becoming even more of a geek than I am already in order to do something as simple as transfer a playlist. The device should come in MTP mode from the factory, but, failing that, at the bare minimum this should be discussed in the supplied user manual. Samsung, I like your hardware but you need to do some serious work on ease of use.

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The Lapins Crétins

by on Aug.07, 2010, under games, Reviews

avatar I’m a Playstation girl. I’ve never been one for the cutesy Nintendo games and so have not been tempted by one of their consoles. My gaming platforms have evolved from Pong (ohgods, that shows my age) to the Atari 2600 (Pitfall and Enduro Champion badges in 1984, thankyouverymuch) to the ZX Spectrum and thence, with a gap of some years, to the PSOne and its descendants.

I succumbed to a DS in March, after buying one for my mum, because I enjoyed the Brain Training on hers and had a hankering for some Syberia type action. Then, when I was over in Galway visiting Splinister‘s household in July, they introduced me to their Wii. More precisely, they introduced me to Rabbids Go Home.

You see, Splinister knows me very well, probably better than anyone else on the face of this planet (barring Frood, of course), and considers me to be a serious gamer: a serious gamer with a bizarre fondness for really odd, quirky, stupid games like Katamari, and an intense liking for crazy, mischievous critters like Stitch and sackpeople. Splinister also knew I have an injured foot that I’m supposed to be staying off as much as possible, and I suspect she calculated that a game that pushed all my buttons might induce me to keep my arse on the sofa instead of running around chasing the dog.


Rabbids Go Home is a game in which you have a trio of mutant rabbits, one of which is in a shopping trolley, one of which is pushing the trolley and the last of which is inside your wii remote. The aim of the game is to drive around a world ruled by the legions of Greyface, shouting at people to make their clothes fall off and nicking all their stuff to build a pile big enough to reach the moon because the moon is big enough for all the rabbids to sleep on at the same time. It’s like Katamari done by French Canadians. It is, quite simply, TEH AWSUM.

There are plenty of reviews out there that claim it is too easy. The same could be said of the various katamaris and that doesn’t mean the game is awful, far from it. It’s certainly straightforward, and the learning curve is shallow — you’re only driving a shopping trolley around, after all. On the other hand, the single player game requires that you drive your trolley through each item of stuff you want to collect, and that gets pretty damn tough in the later stages, when you’re pushing a cow with a ticking bomb on it around herds of spiky cactus or bouncing a highly infectious patient in an isolation bubble around high-rise construction machinery and homing grenades.

What makes this game, however, is the humour. It’s the sheer glee that has gone into it. Everything — the way the rabbid you have selected for abuse inside your remote stares at the live electrical socket with nervous, desperate, impatient anticipation while you dangle it in front of his eyes, or the way he giggles delightedly when you beat the crap out of him with a giant glove; and the crazy Moldovan Gypsy music — is bubbling with effervescent joy. The attention to detail in the rabbid behaviour is worth the price of entry: one of my favourite touches is the way he sucks in his breath and stands very still for you when you wield the tattoo stamp, and there is possibly nothing quite so funny as a pair of rabbids with a pneumatic drill.

Occasionally a game comes along that casts a console (or an accessory) in a new light. Little Big Planet did it for the PS3. (Antigrav did it for the EyeToy, and I will never understand why development on that ceased.) Rabbids Go Home, for me, did it for the Wii. On the pathetic justification that I will be off training for a few more months at least, I went and bought a console just so I could play this game and the sequel, due for release later this year.

That’s about the highest recommendation I can make.

Got a sense of humour? Get Rabbids.

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by on Jun.27, 2010, under Reviews

avatarI haven’t spoken much about Dr Who this series. There’s a reason for that.

I was unimpressed, generally, with the last series. It felt too contrived, with a soap opera plot squeezed in there sans lubrication. It felt the way the X-Files did after the series stopped being about Fortean events and became Fox Mulder IS Whitley Streiber’s lovechild!

There were a couple of episodes written by Steven Moffat I really enjoyed, notably Blink. I was therefore as happy as the next person to see Mr Davies hand over the reins. I was less happy to see David Tennant depart, as I’d particularly appreciated his depiction of one of British television’s most iconic characters.

That said, Matt Smith has been brilliant and I’ve come to like him even more, which makes it inutterably sad that the writing this series hasn’t lived up to his talent.

I wish I knew why. It reminds me, in a way, of Stephen King: limit him to a short story or a novella and he’s a fantastic writer. Give him the leeway of a full-length epic and he becomes overblown and loses focus about halfway through. Or Sam Raimi, who shouldn’t be given lots of money because he works best when constrained and forced to use his talent rather than his budget.

The first episode of the current series was promising. It sort of went downhill after that, most notably because they spent so little time doing anything other than running around Earth meeting historical characters, reinventing history without so much as a by-your-leave, and then hand-waving it all away with the oft-repeated refrain “time can be rewritten”. So, you know, don’t worry about the non-existent Van Gogh paintings, or all that stuff about Amy’s childhood being responsible for the appearance of the soldiers when the Romans invaded Britain. The Pandorica (um, surely?) is honestly a real thing, and its resemblance to Amy’s history book is, well, never mind. That was a recursive plotline that we couldn’t be bothered finishing.

I watched, entertaining myself wondering where all the little loops and tricks were going to lead, building a mental cat’s cradle of knots and switchbacks and finding solutions that would tie them into one beautiful whole that would have had me jumping up and down crying “All is forgiven!”

And, briefly, I thought we were going to get it.

But no. Moffat gave us a paradox loop in order to provide a recursive plot-thread that might as well have had Amy waking up saying it was all a dream and all the loose ends were destroyed in Big Bang 2 so none of them matters any more.

How did the Doctor escape? The same way Bill and Ted got the keys to rescue their history project from gaol. Why was Amelia Pond so important? For the same reason that Zaphod Beeblebrox survived the Total Perspective Vortex.

I’ve tuned in each week so far because I love Matt’s Smith’s Doctor so much. I’ll continue to tune in for the next series for the same reason, and hope that River Song gets more time on screen. Maybe the resemblance to the original Romanadvoratrelundar is not entirely coincidental.

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Weapon of Choice

by on Jun.05, 2010, under games, gaming, Geekery, Reviews

avatarThere are a couple of games that have stayed with me as I have progressed through the various ranks of consoles I have owned and enjoyed throughout my time as a gamer (and I’d betray my age if I told you my first console was Pong). Nothing from the old Atari 2600 has survived the various upgrades, although I first played R-Type on a ZX Spectrum, when a dodgy joystick meant the only way to progress was for us to play in pairs, with one gunner and one pilot. By gum Frood and I rocked that game.

As far as I know they are not planning on releasing a version for the PS3, which is very sad. But I’ve kept my PS2 so I can still play R-Type Final.

The other reason I kept the PS2 was so I could continue to play the other game that I’ve bought every time I’ve upgraded my console: WipEout. WipEout Fusion is, in my opinion, the best of the various WipEouts. Sadly it’s one of the few games that doesn’t port properly over to the PS3 — after a certain number of tracks are opened up the game starts crashing.

Of course I have WipEout HD, and there are some features that are great improvements. The screenshot facility is great, and I have gone into geeky paroxysms of obsession trying to get the perfect picture (and so far failing, but enjoying the process). The ability to import your own soundtrack is also fantastic, as previously we had a complicated setup involving a Sony stereo system with a games function that allowed us to connect the audio output of the PS2 to the stereo, where it would be mixed with whatever CD happened to be playing. Turn down the in-game music, turn up the sound effects, stick some Crystal Method on the multichanger and you’ve got yourself a thumping race soundtrack.

Sadly, however, the tracks don’t live up to expectations and I do miss the pitstops. I’ve spent most of my life living in shared households with friends and we had our own language and terminology, some of which was game based. “Jeopardy” was taking a three-lap race with only one pit stop. “Double jeopardy” was taking a three-lap race with no pit stops at all. In the current WipEout you regain ship energy by consuming weapons, and it takes some of the risk out of it: skipping a pit-stop commits you to flying your socks off to cross the line before you crash and burn. They’ve also got rid of the shortcuts, which is really sad. I’ve spent many a happy afternoon sending my ship down strange side-roads in an effort to find the shortest (and therefore fastest) route round a course.

Then again, the head to head mode in the current version is much better, and I like that you can select which tracks you want for a multi-race challenge against a friend. I haven’t tried the online version, so I can’t comment on that.

Still. I miss Mandrashee.

Perfection, of course, would be importing the tracks from WipEout Fusion into WipEout HD. Then we could get a picture of Munky falling off the moon.

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Sam reviews: Sherlock Holmes

by on May.30, 2010, under movies, Reviews

avatar I’m coming to this party late, as per usual — I should review Iron Man 2, if I want to be current, but I haven’t decided what to make of it yet. So, in lieu of that I shall review another Robert Downey Jr flick: Sherlock Holmes.

This is a fairly standard pseudo-occult, looks-like-magic-but-isn’t Holmesian adventure that those familiar with the character will recognise instantly. Conan Doyle is famous as a debunker of charlatans: his Fortean interests ranged from table-rapping and Spiritualism to the Cottingley Fairies, the latter of which he ardently supported and hoped would encourage a wider acceptance of paranormal phenomena:

The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.

I’ve always thought it either ironic or tragic that someone who wanted so much to be convinced about the objective reality of mysticism had his most famous character so frequently unmask the apparently supernatural as no more than a midget with filed teeth (or a dog covered in phosphorus) in a dénouement that has since been dumbed down into Scooby Doo’s janitorial miscreants.

The Baker’s Street Irregulars as pesky kids, indeed.

Assuming storytelling can be seen as a writer’s way of living out his fantasies, I wonder what Holmes’s debunking of the occult said about Conan Doyle’s feelings about what he had gained from Spiritualism.

Sherlock Holmes movie poster

RDJ was pretty good, though

But back to the film before I ramble off on some convoluted discussion of Thesophy and the history of British Occult practises. I’ll end up on Elizabeth St. George and voodoo lemons if I’m not careful.

The settings are reminiscent of From Hell, in a manner that manages to be slightly less grubby despite the apparent squalor in which this Holmes seems to live — I suspect that this dirt and untidiness is supposed to indicate Holmes’s preferred bachelor state of existence, or a focus on ‘higher’ things.

But this is Lock, Stock and Elementary, My Dear Watson, full of explosions and witty one-liners and fake homoerotic tension. We’re encouraged to infer that Holmes is threatened by a woman who wants to take Watson away from him and his own feelings for the American adventuress and criminal who is dangled as the poisoned bait throughout.

Robert Downey Jr does an excellent job playing Robert Downey Jr with an English accent, demonstrating that it’s not only Tony Stark he can make behave like an arrogant asshat. I found Jude Law to be engaging in a way that, for me, is unusual. Rachel McAdams was competent enough as the beautiful but dangerously able Irene Adler, even if she did end up having to be rescued by the men (there’s a suppressed rant in there) and Kelly Reilly was sadly forgettable, although I don’t think that was her fault. Mark Strong appeared to be asleep — I know he can do better and if he’s playing Sinestro in the new Green Lantern he’d better or he’ll upset the fanboys. Eddie Marsan gave the sort of understated, underused and quietly plausible performance I’m used to seeing from British character actors…

It’s not really very Holmes, though, is it?

I had watched Shore and Attanasio’s House for some time before Frood pointed out the obvious. What amused me the most about Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was that he resembled House more than he did Holmes. The effect was a rather like taking a sample of text, running it through Google’s translation engine to turn it into Icelandic and then reversing the process.

The recognition of the existence of material Jolt twentieth century note with great ruts in the mud and their will to make it recognize that it is a glamor and mystery of life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to recognize the spiritual message supported by physical incident that has already been submitted to him.

It’s still recognisable but it’s possible to see traces of the process.

Sherlock Holmes is a film based on a series of stories and books by a Scot of Irish descent writing about an Englishman, flavoured strongly by a TV series based in principle on the same tales in which an American is played by an Englishman, and which itself stars an American playing an Englishman.

There’s something delightfully silly about this.

Having said all that, Guy Ritchie’s take on the titular character is not one that necessarily invites any level of analysis. It is possible to take him as he is presented: Holmes meets Tyler Durdan; a man with the mental aptitude of a genius and the personal inclinations of a street thug, his refined aesthetics reduced to tuneless plucking of an abused violin and passing sartorial judgement on his best friend’s choice of waistcoats. The fiendish plots and inductive reasoning originally used to demonstrate the genius is here replaced by the false Chekhov’s Gun that is showing Holmes calculating entire sequences of fight moves followed by performance of the same, and a tan line upon a lady’s finger. The exotic and esoteric machinations of the evil-doers become misdirected unrequited love and a widget with a superfluous arc generator that doesn’t even spark.

House relies on an esoteric knowledge that we, the audience, can’t possibly hope to match. Ritchie’s Holmes relies on flash-forwards and withholding basic information until it’s time for it to be explained to us as if we were blind children.

I wonder what Conan Doyle would have to say about that.

If you want a good re-imagining of Holmes, I can do no better than recommend —highly— The List of Seven by Mark Frost. Yes, that Mark Frost.

I’m re-reading it myself right now.

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Sam reviews – Afro Samurai (PS3)

by on May.10, 2010, under games, Reviews

avatarI shouldn’t really be reviewing this. Not really. Frood is playing this one and I’m just along for the ride.

The thing is, though, that while I’ll play some games that are okay, great even, and won’t bother reviewing them because everyone else has already played them or there are so many reviews out there another one won’t tell anyone anything (e.g. Bioshock), every so often we find a game that needs to be brought to the attention of the masses, whether because it’s several levels of awesome drenched in awesome jus, or because gamers should flee in horror rather than wasting any money on it.

Afro Samurai happily falls into the former category.

Afro Samurai poster

Hey! Afro!

Based on the manga series written and illustrated by Takashi Okazaki, this third-person brawler follows the exploits of the titular protagonist as he goes in search of the number one headband. I think. I’m a bit hazy on which headband he has.

It doesn’t matter though. The game is sumptuous, apparently based on the Prince Of Persia engine, with the same semi-realistic scenery overlaid with characters that are more drawn in look, reminding me of Samurai Jack. The fighting is graceful and stylised, although Frood reports that Afro can be a bit unruly: it suffers a little from the standard gaming issue of the camera motion interfering with the movement of the character. In operation it is button-mash with a little finesse, offering hit, heavy hit, kick, and several slowtime focused attacks. Every so often there’s the option to play bodypart poker.

The soundtrack is excellent, reminding me very much of Ghost Dog, but what makes it is the character of Ninja Ninja, who appears to be an invisible friend in the manner of Drop Dead Fred, only funnier. And more helpful. Ninja Ninja is played by Samuel L Jackson, and his dialogue has had us creased up in fits of laughter.

“You spent so long chasing justice, you forgot how to chase pussy!”

“Someone’s been praying to the god of ass, and he’s just answered!”

Yes, the characterisation is taken straight from the 70s, with shades of both Shaft and Huggy Bear, but Jackson plays it somewhere between Jules and Zeus and it really works.

Right now this game is on offer for less than a tenner at Amazon. If you are one of those gamers who likes to leave things alone for a couple of minutes to find out what the bored behaviour is (best yet: The Flash in Justice League Heroes, closely followed by Deadpool from MAU), don’t mind seriously bad language and can forgive linear gameplay, then don’t wait. Get one.

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Gear review – Finis PT paddles

by on May.04, 2010, under gear, kit, training

avatarI have argued on numerous occasions that I am not a geek. Except, let’s be honest, it’s a lie. OK, so I don’t go into orgasmic quivers over the latest mobile phone OS, and the iPad release left me utterly cold. The thought of playing Arkham Asylum in 3D doesn’t give me goosebumps and I can turn off The Gadget Show as easily as I can turn off Iron Chef.

And yet, at the same time, I spent about half an hour obsessively comparing saddle-mounted hydration systems only last week and I have a shelf full of books that go into painfully anal detail about everything from wheel building to running technique.

I confess. It’s way past time. I’m a sports geek.

Not a nerd, not the sort of person who can recite which teams won what in which league in which year from the relative safety and comfort of an anorak: the sort of geek who makes it her business to know the latest thought on technique and performance and kit and gets excited about training aids that other people can’t even identify at first glance.

(I also like computer games, and I don’t mean Nintendogs. I mean The Darkness, Wolverine, Bioshock… you know. All those girlie games.)

So it will come as little surprise to those of you who understand the performance sports geek mentality to hear that I like my swim training aids. Of course I have the everyone-has-those pullbuoy and kickboard, but I also have other things, things that most people wouldn’t recognise. I own a pair of fist gloves. How geeky is that?

The latest toy to take my fancy was a set of the Finis PT paddles. PT stands for “Perfect Technique” and the aim is rather similar to the fist gloves: they are designed to force the swimmer to learn to use his entire body rather than just his hand for propulsion:

PT Paddles are shaped to deflect water around your hand, effectively removing the hands from the swimming equation. By removing the hand as a paddle, swimmers have to find other methods of generating propulsion.

Because your hand can no longer ‘grip’ the water, your body will need to adjust your stroke. The elbow is positioned higher, the hips roll a little further, and the forearm is activated earlier, allowing you to catch and pull yourself through the water.

Wearing the PT Paddles overtime increases your body awareness and muscle memory. Then when you swim normally without the paddles, you will feel stronger and faster in the water.

Finis PT paddles

I thought I’d take to them like a duck to water (ahem), being a veteran user of the fistgloves. What I wasn’t expecting was for them to be buoyant, nor the effect of the additional weight. While fistgloves are not too dissimilar from simply making a fist when swimming, and make your hand slip through the water with alarming lack of resistance, the PT paddles somehow manage to keep the feel of arm speed through the stroke the same while still removing the hand from the propulsive effort. They are also an additional weight to carry through the recovery part of the stroke.

I didn’t find them as tiring as the fistgloves, which makes me think that I’m floundering less in the water and making better forward progress, despite the feeling that I’m not. That in turn tells me that the PT paddles are more about feel and I think that might work for swimmers who can’t cope with the loss of propulsion that comes from fistgloves. They might, indeed, be a worthy intermediate step for someone training on his own, without the benefit of coaching, who wants to try some of these more advanced techniques without resorting to fins.

In terms of construction they are fairly soft, so you might get away with them at the local pool, especially as they seem to be contained within the area of the hand. Adjusting the straps is a bit fiddly, even more so than normal swimming paddles, and it took quite some time to get them to the point where I felt they were workable. Comfortable is still some way off. They are certainly more robust than fistgloves (I’m on my third pair). Of course they are also good for anyone who has a latex allergy.

For what you get they are expensive, and I’m not sure they are worth the price. On the other hand, fistgloves are almost a tenner and are as fragile as a fragile thing called Little Miss Fragile from Fragiledonia, so if you’re as tough on gear as I am and want to try teaching yourself to use more than your hands for propulsion, give them a go. Or take a couple of squash balls into the pool with you — just don’t let go.

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Sam reviews Pandorum

by on Mar.22, 2010, under movies, Reviews

The other film I watched this week was Pandorum, on loan from my mum. I had wanted to see it at the cinema, but Frood and I tend to be a little disorganised about going to the cinema unless it’s something that I’m desperate to see, so we missed it.

Pandorum, for those of you who were not paying attention to the adverts, is supposedly about… Let me just copy what it says on the box:

Two astronauts (Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster) awaken in a hyper-sleep chamber aboard a seemingly abandoned spacecraft. It’s pitch black, they are disoriented, and the only sound is a low rumble and creak from the belly of the ship. They have no memory of who they are or what their mission is, but one thing they do realise very quickly is that they are not alone.

This is pretty much utter rubbish. Do not pay attention to what the blurb on the back says. This is Alien meets 28 Days Later meets Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and don’t let anyone try to persuade you of anything different. You do not need to know anything more than that. This is the story in a nutshell, and if you have seen both this and Mad Max III, please do not tell me that the bit with the dude and his pictorial creation myth was not ripped straight off the kiddies and their Captain Walker story and expect me to believe you.

We had huge issues with the lighting. For the first third of the film I could barely see what was going on. Then the strobes started and I couldn’t watch at all. I could see glimmers of a really good film in there, and spent the entirety of it waiting for them to turn into something more substantial.

Oh, and oh! Seriously. Girlie has been surviving on her own for months, and yet as soon as our hero turns up she becomes incapable of even climbing out of a hole by herself? What is it with movies? A woman who has been independent and has the skills and ability to look after herself does not become weak and useless the moment a guy makes an appearance. She should have been looking after him, not the other way around. She had the skills and the experience, he simply had junk in his pants.

While I’m at it, the Earth just vanishing? Was that for real or did I lose interest before they explained that this is impossible and hadn’t really happened it was just the space madness and/or the mutagenic food cubes?

Oh, the science rawked, dude! I haven’t seen drivel like that since Sunshine!

OK. Enough. I wanted to like this film, I really did. But at first I watched but couldn’t see, then I couldn’t watch, and when I could watch what I saw was derivative and disappointing.

There’s a particular sort of disappointment that comes from seeing a good idea poorly executed. That’s the flavour of Pandorum.

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Sam reviews Hannibal Rising

by on Mar.22, 2010, under movies, Reviews

First off, I know that I’m way, way, way behind. I do have my reasons.

You see, back in the day I read Red Dragon and fell in love with the character of Will Graham, a man whose ability to get inside the mind of monsters was so profound the FBI thought he might be psychic. The question of whether he was or not remained unanswered by the end of the book, and I liked that it was left up to the reader to decide whether Graham’s power came from something unexplained by science or his own tamed monster. Red Dragon was the first book I read to suggest that the state of being monstrous was not necessarily something to be shunned; neither was it something that could necessarily be seen or explained.

I liked the original film, too, and got on okay with Silence of the Lambs in both formats. The problem was that it was the character of Hannibal Lecter that attracted all the attention — he was the more obvious monster, but a charming and handsome one, which made it fine to indulge in the thrill of having a secret crush on him.

So then we had Hannibal, which, for all its Mediaeval Memory Palace references and culture, for all the attention it gave to the titular monster, didn’t really become monstrous until the end. I’m not talking about the part where he serves up Krendler’s brain as an appetiser, either. The truly monstrous part was the romantic interlude, and they left that out of the movie.

I found it an incredibly strange decision however I think it was because Lecter’s popularity was fuelled by the same romantic notions that have led to sparkly vampires and werewolves that don’t smell of wet dog. Lecter being in love with Starling from a distance was romantic. Lecter actually making Starling his beloved companion, who shared his sense of aesthetics as well as his life… Well. That’s a bit like Dracula marrying Mina Harker and undying happily ever after. Serial killers don’t get happy endings. That would be amoral. Most people don’t like amoral romance to find fulfilment.

People don’t like amoral.

But, see, that’s the point. That was the thing I always liked about Lecter: the idea that he arrived fully formed, monstrous only because his moral stance was at odds with that of society: a man whose sense of aesthetics was impeccable and who set the highest of standards. For everyone.

Lecter as played by Brian Cox was cunning and intelligent but obviously insane, prone to petulance and self-absorption. Lecter as played by Hopkins was an educated sociopath and aesthete making the most of enforced asceticism. He also understood the nature of passion.

Hannibal Rising purported to tell the story of what made Lecter what he was: a childhood experience so dreadful that his heart died, taking his soul with it, and leaving a monster in its place. The entire film is about making him somehow lovable, about making him intelligible, about putting the viewer in a position where he feels he might understand how it is possible for Lecter to exist as he does.

For me that ruins it. Never mind the ridiculous and completely unwarranted martial arts training shoe-horned in there —presumably we need the “martial arts give you superpowers” trope because a fine sense of aesthetics and a predatory drive can’t possibly explain keen senses and reactions, oh no— I don’t need or even want to feel that Lecter exists because of something that could happen to anybody. That, to put it bluntly, is pretty much what this film says. Rather than Lecter being, in his own way, a unique and exquisite piece of art, he is just some poor kid whose sister was eaten by soldiers and who vowed to take revenge.

The Lecter of Hannibal Rising resembles Creepy Thin Man from the Charlie’s Angels franchise more than he does the Lecter who could and would take a woman apart and put her back together again so he would have someone fit to sit at his side while attending the National Opera.

When I first encountered the work of Thomas Harris it was Graham who interested me. More accurately, it was the monster that might live inside him that interested me. It was the monster in Lecter that I came to admire, living by his own rules and his own standards, which were, despite his capacity and tendency towards murder, so much higher than those of the population at large. He killed a viola player to improve the sound of an orchestra — and I can assure you, as a one-time orchestral viola player myself, that there are plenty of violinists who could understand that sentiment.

Lecter as explained by this prequel is no more than a disturbed child who went and got himself a good education. He’s no longer a one of a kind, never-to-be-repeated flash of lightning in a clear sky.

We don’t always need reasons. Some things are the more beautiful for their absence.

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Sam reviews… The Wolfman (2010)

by on Feb.12, 2010, under movies, Reviews

The Wolfman movie posterHaving something of a thing for vampires is common enough. Stoker and the many monsters he has spawned, from the rabbit-toothed Nosferatu to the sparkly Edward Cullen, has a fanbase of people from academics to Whitby goths.

Me, I’ve never been a vampire person. They don’t interest me all that much. Dracula always struck me as the Victorian way of writing a story about rape and it was possessed of a boolean morality I found off-putting. Modern vampires are even worse: they’re pretty much super-powered people who don’t die and would be equally at home in the Marvel Universe, inexplicable attractivenes and everything. The only vampire who interests me at the moment is Being Human with a ghost and a werewolf in Bristol.

Werewolves. Now they’re another matter entirely. Werewolves are the vampire’s poor cousin, and that’s not entirely the fault of White Wolf and Vampire: the Masquerade, although I have a history of ranting about how the RPGs are responsible for so much misinformation out there.

Hollywood hasn’t been kind to werewolves, presumably because they don’t result in young women swooning over the thought of being swept off their feet. Vampires are sophisticated, elegant, mesmeric — much like one supposes Mesmer himself was — or at least capable of behaving that way by virtue of the experience conferred upon them by their immortality. Vampires hit the mature, experienced man button that many women find attractive.

Werewolves, on the other hand, tend to be disturbed, slightly unhinged individuals who, once a month, turn hairy and smell of wet dog. In mainstream movies only The Howling ever really looked at the erotic side of lycanthropy, spawning a plethora of sequels that were absolutely appalling and might as well have ended up as Emmanuelle In Fur. Only Wolf has done the romantic side of lycanthropy, with both Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer turning in surprisingly good performances. I don’t count Ladyhawke in this field because it’s not really a werewolf movie, although it is one of my favourite films of all time.

There have been notable exceptions to the “werewolf movies are rubbish” generalisation, although there are a few that are cited as being examples when they aren’t really. Brotherhood of the Wolf is an interesting film, based loosely on actual events that happened deep in the superstitious 18th century French countryside; however, for reasons I won’t disclose for fear of spoilers, it doesn’t really belong in a list of werewolf movies. Wolfen, although described as a werewolf movie and being a good film, is not about werewolves. You can take or leave the Underworld and Van Helsing contributions: they may, arguably, have been successful in what they were doing but I would argue that their depiction of werewolves suffers from the traits that make them, while potentially enjoyable action movies, bad werewolf movies.

American Werewolf In London is, of course, probably the best werewolf movie ever made, and I suspect you would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees, despite the appalling sequel. In the Company of Wolves is an excellent, mythic take on the legend, melding proper, gory fairytale with some genuine folklore. Dog Soldiers brings some humour to the genre (and can thus be forgiven the standard werewolf model) but aside from those, you’re really struggling. There just isn’t much out there. Ginger Snaps, while critically acclaimed, didn’t do it for me as a werewolf movie because the metaphor was just too blatant and, in my opinion, stopped it being about werewolves at all.

One film that has always stuck in my mind is the only Hammer venture to tackle a werewolf as a titular character: The Curse of the Werewolf. It struck me for several reasons, not least of which is that it is one of the very few films — if not the only one — to depict someone who is a werewolf not from being bitten by another werewolf, but because he is the product of a rape. The usual method of becoming a werewolf implies that it was avoidable: if the victim hadn’t been there then it wouldn’t have happened and thus, in a way, it’s partially his own fault. “Don’t go out on the moors!” In The Curse, the protagonist could not have avoided it. The events that occurred to cause this happened in the act of his conception. This gives a different slant to the story, and perhaps thus permitted a different way of approaching the werewolf protagonist. In that film the disease, if that’s what it is, even goes into remission for a significant portion of the character’s life, when he has spent some time learning to control himself in a monastery, and is only resurrected by the stirring of animal passion as he becomes a man. Love is both his undoing and his saviour, albeit that the resolution is, as is apparently usual in lycanthropy cases, terminal.

I confess that I was a little confused when I sat down to watch The Wolfman, for I thought that it was a remake of The Curse, and was excited to see, at last, a good lycanthropy film made with modern effects. It’s not, of course: it’s a remake of the 1941 film with Claude Rains. The plot, briefly, is that estranged son Lawrence Talbot returns home after the death of his brother (by werewolf), gets bitten, falls in love with girl… You can guess the rest. Still, it started quite well, despite Anthony Hopkins portraying Talbot Sr as a Welsh Hannibal Lecter on sedatives. The period setting was nicely done, with shades of Hounds of the Baskervilles and plenty of moody lighting. The first encounter with the beast rendered him as possessed of shocking speed and power, running through his victims with all the brutal care of a steam train covered in samurai swords. Briefly, I thought this film might have given us a good werewolf.

Let me just qualify my position here. I have issues with the bipedal, man-with-big-teeth-and-hair style of werewolf. That’s not a wolf. Just because early movies lacked the capacity to do either animatronics or good creature effects, and had to make do with spirit gum and paint, it doesn’t mean we should be left stuck with werewolves that are basically men with fur and extravagant dentistry. Landis got it right, from every bone-cracking, pain-etched twitch and contortion of the transformation sequence to the massive, four-legged brute that ended up stalking the streets. I even preferred the approach of Wolf, which almost avoided the transformation altogether and had the character turn into an actual wolf. I detest the creatures that are more lemur than canine, and it is beyond me why we are still forced to suffer under the pretence that werewolves are men with fur. The clue is in the name.

The transformation sequence in The Wolfman borrows heavily from Landis, and so I was on the verge of being happy. Then it stopped, far short of where I thought those elongated feet were taking me, and there he was. More hair, bigger teeth, the yellow eyes, the big claws and the ruffled shirt.

Er. What? Ruffled shirt? Oh, right. This is the 21st century, where you can rip someone to shreds and eviscerate him in full, bloody detail but daren’t show a nipple for fear of censure. He has to be a well-dressed werewolf.

It went downhill after that. Benicio Del Toro, for whom I have a severe soft spot as a result of his performance in Fear and Loathing, couldn’t quite deliver the pain and torment of a man who has been cursed to slaughter by a ravening beast inside him. Even the scenes in the asylum, complete with the 19th century answer to waterboarding, failed to produce the sense of a man in agony. The occasional face-on shot of him charging at full speed on all fours provoked a giggle rather than a sense of awe. And, finally, the inevitable long big punch up. What is it with Hollywood and their constant desire to have werewolves fight like chimps? They are canids. Canids do not fight by chest-bumping. Apes do that. A transformed werewolf is no longer an ape. He is a canine. Can we please try to remember that? Wolves do not launch themselves through the air and bump chests. Why would werewolves?

OK. Werewolf-fanatic gripes aside, the performances were lacking in sparkle (nothing to do with the aforementioned Cullen). None of the actors, with the possible exceptions of Emily Blunt and Art Malik, seemed all that invested in what he was doing. Hugo Weaving’s performance was oddly off-key, almost as if he were in another movie with a different script reading lines that coincidentally made sense in this one. It was, overall, somewhat dull, and that’s a terrible thing to have to say about any film. I’d rather hate a film than find it tedious.

On the plus side, the film was nicely paced and mercifully restrained in terms of length (although the IMDB entry puts it at 125 minutes, it started at 21:35 and we were out at 23:15, leading me to wonder what they cut for the UK release). I enjoyed the depiction of an aristocratic family in ruins and the device of hallucinogenic flashbacks to reveal the surprise would have been a nice touch if I hadn’t spotted the twist some time before.

If you like werewolf movies, it’s worth watching, but don’t be upset if you miss it at the cinema. It won’t lose much for being seen on DVD, apart possibly from the hilarity of having the main character come barrelling towards you like an angry baboon who has just crashed through a haberdasher’s, larger than life and three times as ridiculous.

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