Archive for March 2007

The Importance of Being John Malkovich 

March 30, 2007

poster.jpgI decided to satiate my recent hankering, and watch Being John Malkovich. Mrs H agreed to watch it too, on the understanding that she would be allowed to read the Tesco catalogue for the duration. A shaky compromise was thus forged.

Let us be clear: this is an amazing film. If you’ve not seen it, do so immediately. I mean it. Don’t even read the rest of this post. We’ll wait for you to come back.

OK. That’s them gone. Let’s not wait for them. 

To start out, this film is fairly light-hearted and whimsical in tone. It is peppered with throwaway gags like those found in the Naked Gun. But it also explores a whole load of interesting philosophical issues too.

The film explores the notion of dualism, as set out by Descartes. Dualism is the view that there is a non-physical entity (e.g. the mind) that can control the physical body, whilst being separate from it. Think of it as a ‘ghost in the machine’, or a little (non-physical) person who sits inside you making all your decisions and piloting your body. It’s a bit of an odd notion, but lots of people subscribe to it. As an example, we all talk about ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ illnesses and have a good idea of what we mean by these, but are also implying that the mind and body are separate.

BJM raises the possibility that a mind could somehow be disconnected from its own body, and could inhabit someone else’s. Craig Schwartz, a struggling puppeteer, finds himself catapaulted into the body of John Malkovich, played by John Malkovich (inspired casting, that). Once inside, he can experience the world through Malkovich’s senses. Essentially, he has discovered a way for his mind to ‘ride’ in the body of another person. Later, he is able to draw upon his experience as a puppeteer to actually control Malkovich’s physical movements as well. Does this mean that he is truly Being John Malkovich?

Naturally, Malkovich has an inkling that he is not quite himself, and tracks down the doorway into his own body, located in Craig’s place of work. When he discovers that Craig and Maxine (Catherine Keener) are selling tickets for the ‘Malkovich ride’, he is understandably embittered and demands that they stop. But the door is not his property, nor is it on his property. Does he have any rights to say who can and can’t crawl through it?

What does it mean to have a mind? And can we be sure that others have one similar to ours, and that they experience things in a similar way to us? Or, as the film suggests, do we just have to ‘take their word’? And what of animals? A quick look around the menagerie in the Schwartz household reveals birds that talk. Do they have minds? Craig tells a chimp that ‘consciousness is a terrible curse’, but perhaps the chimp knows this only too well. He’s in therapy, after all.

I can only scratch the surface here,  but must heartily recommend that you watch this film as soon as possible. In fact, I think I mentioned this at the beginning. Why are you still here?


Do Not Approach This Man

March 29, 2007

I had a day off today. How do you like them apples?

In truth, there wasn’t much of the day left after all the scheduled tasks had been polished off. In the morning, I put down a little patio in the front garden. This involved taking six square slabs, and placing them end to end on the ground. Job’s a good ‘un.

And then there were two further missions. To retrieve my bus card from the Lothian Buses office on Waverley Bridge, and to get a haircut (yes, another one).

I quite like traveling down Princes Street on the bus. It’s a bit like going on a cheap safari. There’s plenty to look at, but you wouldn’t want to get out and walk about for fear of being devoured. This truth was brought home to me as I prepared myself to run the gauntlet of Princes Street on foot.

In the relatively short distance between the Waterstones bus stop and Waverley Bridge, I was accosted four times. I was exhorted to buy the Big Issue. I managed to deflect that one with a swift ‘no thanks’, but immediately found myself stumbling into the path of clipboard-wielding chugger.

chug-it.jpgVoluntary Service Overseas, this one. These scenarios call for a little more guile. You might try the old ‘Can I take some information to read over at home?’ line, at which point they tend to lose interest in you. It’s almost as if they suspect (correctly) that any information they give you will end up in the bin the moment you’re in the door.

Further exhortations awaited. ‘Can you spare 20p, mate?’ On this occasion, the truthful answer was no, as I’d used up the last of my cash paying for the bus. Whenever I try to explain to someone that I don’t have any money to give them, I have an annoying reflex of slapping my pockets to indicate that they are empty. On this occasion, the slap was accompanied by a hearty jingle, which I think undermined the message of poverty I was trying to communicate. I forgot my keys were in there, you see.

The final impediment was courtesy of a pleasant-enough-looking lady in flowing robes, to whom I explained that no, I wished to be sent neither a book nor CD about the Hare Krishna movement. Unperturbed, she asked that if I couldn’t bring myself to accept her wares, could I at least say ‘Gouranga’ for her?

‘What does it mean?’ I enquired.

‘Oh, just “be happy,”‘ said she.

‘Fine. Be happy’. I responded.

‘Go on, say Gouranga,’ she urged. ‘Look, I’ll say it: Gouranga’.

‘Thanks for that,’ said I, ‘but I’m already happy’.

And so it went on. I finally managed to extricate myself from this morass of unwarranted attention and arrived at Lothian Buses, where a kindly lady was able to hand me back my bus card. As I thought about the unlimited bus-related delights in store for me, I fought the urge to kiss it. Perhaps she saw the look on my face. As I got ready to leave, she gave me a smile.

‘There you go. You’re back in business.’

Lady, you said it.

The Pig Within

March 28, 2007

pig.jpgI’m reading an excellent book at the moment. Although having read it, I am forced to wonder whether there can be any such thing as an excellent book. Or whether I have read it at all. It’s called The Pig that Wants to be Eaten.

Essentially, it’s broken up into 100 chapters, each of which is a brief ‘thought experiment’. These imagined scenarios are set out in such a way as to highlight a philosophical point, and to prompt further ponderance thereupon.

The whole book provides a thought-provoking overview of the many different branches of philosophy, drawing on the works of noted philosophers from history whilst demonstrating the relevance of philosophy to the modern age. But it still manages to be sufficiently light and compartmentalised, such that those with the most limited of intellects need not feel excluded.

This really is the book that could launch a thousand posts, but might I lay this one on you?

Imagine a scenario in which every molecule of your body could be scanned by some hypothetical supercomputer. This computer could then transmit the information about the nature and location of every particle in your body to another computer at a remote location. Provided the raw materials were present at the other end, is it possible that an exact replica of you could be constructed miles from where you started out?

As the book sets it out, this system would provide a means of teleporting yourself. You step into the scanner at one end, and then as far as you are concerned, you step away from the constructor at the other end and go on your merry way. If the physical reconstruction was flawless, would you be the same person as you were moments before? Or just a good replica? Would there be something missing from the new ‘you’, that couldn’t be defined in purely physical terms? It’s hard to know, really.

Another potential fly in the ointment is that the original ‘you’ is still left in the scanner. Now that the new ‘you’ is present and correct at the desired desination, how should the old one be disposed of? Might they object to being killed off? As I recall, this very scenario arose in The Prestige. Perhaps the original ‘you’ should just be allowed to go home. But I imagine there would be no end of problems when the new ‘you’ also arrived home and found the original ‘you’ happily ensconsed by the fire with a cup of tea.

Having conveyed 1/100th of the book, you will understand why I’m finding it extremely involving. And all this metaphysical mumbo-jumbo has reignited a certain hankering to watch Being John Malkovich again.

The Proper Use of Buses

March 27, 2007

buses.jpgI’m a big fan of buses.  As a discerning user of this mode of transport, I always choose Lothian Buses and recommend you do the same. Especially if you live in Lothian.

There is a very convenient bus route from (approximately) my house to (exactly) the front door of my work. The buses that serve the route arrive at least every five minutes. They are consistently warm and comfortable. And being on the bus route means we can live outside the city centre, and hence find ourselves with affordable accommodation. And it’s all thanks to LB.

They’re really cheap as well. For me, anyway. I bought a student card back in the day, which they automatically imbued with a five-year lifespan. And although I am technically still a student, they have never questioned my student status. Which is nice of them, particularly now that I’m heading into that mysterious territory known only as the late twenties. When it expires in 2010, I imagine the questions will begin.

Lothian Buses are the masters of spin. I particularly liked it when they put their prices up from 80p to £1. According to the leaflets, this move was intended as a favour for passengers, who find it terribly inconvenient scrabbling around for the exact money. What better way to help them out than just rounding it up? Before I got the above card, I was quite happy scrabbling around for 80p. I would have indicated as much had I been selected for the market poll on which I assume the decision was based.

Now, until this morning, I assumed that it was pretty straightforward to use a bus, and that there was only one correct way of doing it. I recently came across an article about gender inequality in the NHS Lothian in-house rag ‘Connections’. In it, the author(s) suggested that ‘women use public transport in a different way’, which provokes all sorts of mental images. However, I assumed that, as a man, I was safe from all this bus-related tomfoolery.

And then, this morning, I proffered my beloved card to the driver by placing it on the little reader until I heard the beep, and then sought to remove it and convey it safely to my pocket. Somehow, in the journey from reader to pocket, the card was accidently deposited in the coin receptacle. You would think it could not be done, but I am happy to inform you otherwise. The receptacle even has conveniently sloped sides, to help your card on its way.

I looked at the driver a mite sheepishly, and he informed me that he couldn’t get it back until the coin box was emptied. I could see it in there, behind the little perspex screen, looking all forlorn. The driver then pulled a lever, precipitating my beloved card into an impermeable coiny dungeon, thus signalling the end of the matter for the time being.

So, in sum, I am cardless, and will have to resort to using money again. Which is terribly frustrating. The one consolation, I suppose, is that I don’t need to scrabble around for an exact 80p when a mere £1 will do.

Jazz Revisited

March 26, 2007


I was having a trawl through the archives the other day, and spotted an early post in which I conveyed a relative indifference to Jazz music. In retrospect, I think I threw a few babies out with the bathwater. For this reason, and because the Music category is a bit thin on the ground, I thought I’d write a post about this choicest of genres.

There are probably two posts in here, the first of which will be devoted to a tour of my top five Jazz albums. Of the seven that I own. In reverse order:

5. Maynard Ferguson: This is Jazz

It’s not really an album, so it probably shouldn’t register at all. However, as a compilation it cuts a good path through some of the better tunes. The proper albums tend to have the odd stinker here and there, but this is more-or-less sound. He’s a trumpet player, and a real squealer at that, but can be diverting enough if you value athletics over aesthetics. This album is one of only two products about which I’ve felt moved to write a review on Amazon UK. It still stands to this day, and its gushing illiteracy remains a source of acute, toe-curling embarrassment.

4. Colin Steele: Twilight Dreams

In our pre-marital days, Mrs H and I went to listen to Mr Steele over a warm beer at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews. Highly recommended for his accessible, Scots-infused style. Apparently, he lives on Leith Walk. I’ve never seen him out and about down that way. Unlike Shirley Henderson (Trainspotting, Harry Potter, Bridget Jones) who always seems to be there.

3. Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder

I once played in a band at university. When I joined, the tenor saxophone player took me to one side and said ‘play like this’, thrusting a copy of The Sidewinder into my hand. I’ve only just procured my own copy, but it seems excellent.

2. John Coltrane: Blue Train

First lent to me by a neighbour, I sat through this unimpressed as a youngster. I now know that the necessary jazz frameworks were not yet in place in my underdeveloped brain. Now that the groundwork’s been done, this one sits very nicely indeed. If you can overlook all the ludicrous railroad metaphors in the liner notes. “Trane rides swiftly down a lonesome track with Lee and Curtis shoveling extra coal into the boiler near the end of his solo”. Come off it, chaps.

1. Herbie Hancock: Cantaloupe Island

During one lazy jaunt to Dundee during student days, I found myself leaving the Wellgate Virgin clutching Withnail and I, Apocalyspse Now, and Cantaloupe Island. The latter has been a slow burner for me: immediately unremarkable, but a grower. Probably responsible for the development of the jazz frameworks (above). Notable for the title tune, as well as the well-known Watermelon Man. Understated, laid back, and highly recommended.

Gosh, I’ve gone on a bit. Sorry about that.

Hope Springs Eternal

March 21, 2007


OK. We’ve made it through to the first day of Spring. I wasn’t sure I was expecting to.

With the advent of Spring, thoughts inevitably turn towards gardening. Those that know me might be aware that I really enjoy gardening. They probably don’t know that I like it so much that, sometimes, I can’t sleep at night for thinking about it.

Over the past while, I’ve been thinking of planting a vegetable or two. Up until this point, we’ve settled for the odd low-maintenance shrub, mostly of the hardy perrenial variety. This means that once they’re planted, you don’t need to do anything to them again. Ever. And if they chuck out a flower or two at some point along the way, so much the better for Mrs H.

But vegetables would be a bit of a departure. I’m not sure that Mrs H is fully on board with the growing of our own food. Perhaps she sees it as a thin end of the potato wedge, and that I’ll end up wanting to buy a pair of wellies.

Of course, there was a time when the growing of vegatables was lauded as a noble and important contribution to national security. During WWII, we were told that the ideal was ‘every garden a munition plant’ and that ‘sowing the seeds of victory would insure the fruits of peace’ (although I suspect the fruits of peace were secured at the expense of much more than the odd radish).

Somewhere along the way, the language of war and violence invaded the world of vegetable-growing and set up a state of martial law. I recently found myself in possession of one of those seed catalogues, and was amused at the grandiose, world-conquering terms used to describe the different varieties of vegetable on offer. Those opting for cabbages might choose the Brigadier, whereas you’d need to choose from Gladiators, Javelins or Daggers if parsnips are more your cup of tea.

Isn’t gardening supposed to be a peaceful pastime? Perhaps I’ll give the vegetables a miss, especially if they’re going to be interpreted by my neighbours as an act of military aggression.

The Only Solution To This Intense Cold

March 20, 2007


The other day, Mrs H and I were entertaining (in the loosest sense) her parents. Despite the warm bonhomie in evidence around the dinner table, I found myself feeling cold. Far from delivering a steady stream of life-affirming heat, our radiators were sitting in a state of chilly impotence. The problem was quickly traced to the boiler, where I instigated the relevant diagnostic procedures.

When the boiler rouses itself under normal circumstances, there’s a preliminary buzzing noise, followed by a slightly louder one as the fan starts. This is usually followed by the chikachikachika of the ignition process which should, in theory, culminate in a satisfying fwoom as the relevant interior portions burst into flame. On this occasion we got only the first of the two hums, with nary a chikachikachika or fwoom to be had.

As the in-laws retreated to warmer Dundonian climes, solutions were sought to this intense cold. Cue a phone call to British Gas.

Now, the boy at BG was only too happy to send someone out, but indicated that I would need to show some commitment my end. This commitment would involve signing up for some scheme whereby I would shell out many hundreds of pounds in return for the unlimited attention of BG engineers any time I wanted. In truth, it seemed a bit overboard in the circumstances. But I was assured that it was the only way of securing BG services in my hour of need. Unless, of course, I was prepared to pay a flat fee for a single callout. Now that sounded more like what I was after. Why wasn’t this possibility aired 15 minutes ago?

It was embarrassingly obvious that this was the least preferable route to take from BG’s point of view, and their representative began his attempts to dissuade me. The rather charming arrangement they have is that there is a flat fee per fault. As it was pointed out to me, the boiler might have conked out for two simultaneously-occurring reasons, in which case I would be charged double.

Personally, I thought it was obvious that there was only a single fault: the boiler didn’t work. The single solution was also apparent: to fix it. But my friend at BG could not be persuaded.

I hastily explained to him that I would need to discuss it with Mrs H, and that no, the decision was not likely to be reached before he knocked off for the night in ten minutes time. In reality, I rather felt that my relationship with BG was progressing a trifle quickly.

Put off, I started thumbing through the Yellow Pages. In the end, we found a company called ReactFast, who sent someone round the next day, knocking off £20 in recognition of the slight delay. The chap who came round was most efficient. Despite what Rogue Traders would have us expect from heating engineers, he neither invented fictitious boiler faults, nor urinated in our plant pots. He was even helpful enough to demonstrate which bit of the boiler to poke should the problem recur.

So that’s us. We’re heated again. Until next time, anyway.