Articles Irish Times

An Irishman’s Diary – The Silicon Valley

Monday, August 26, 1996

Most areas exist in two places at once. They have an actual existence on the ground, and an imagined existence in the minds of people that think about them. People who have never been to London can tell you about Big Ben and red buses.

And people who have never been to the Silicon Valley in Northern California can tell you about the hot-shot computer companies that are based there.

Of course there’s a gap between the truth and the perception. Most people’s ideas of London are correct but stylised – like the Underground map, which shows the right stations, but skews the distances between the stations.  When you visit London, it’s not exactly how you imagined it, but the things you thought you’d see are there somewhere.

So what about Silicon Valley? This small area is exerting an ever-increasing influence on our lives, and even the names of its hi-tech companies bring to mind gleaming visions of the future – Oracle, Sun, Netscape, Electronic Arts, Informix, Cirrus Logic. Surely the place itself must be something to see, that it should be a home for such creativity and endeavour.

In fact, the gap between the idea of Silicon Valley and its reality is immense. The first obvious problem is that the Valley doesn’t really exist – look on a map, and you’ll see Santa Clara County and the towns strung along the 101 highway from San Francisco to San Jose: Foster City, Belmont, Redwood, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino. This is Silicon Valley, but because it isn’t marked as such, even finding the place requires an act of imagination.

It’s not much of a valley either. The peninsula that arches round the Bay and ends at San Francisco is largely flat. Silicon Freeway might be a more accurate name, because Interstate 101 cuts straight through the area, and highly-paid computer experts spend a frightening amount of time sitting in traffic jams on it. At least this gives them the chance to examine the large number of personalised license plates on display – how long before people’s e-mail addresses start appearing on their cars? From the highway you can see very little else, except a succession of signs telling you the names of the invisible places you’re passing through.

Once you get off the freeway, the sense that this place is not really there still prevails. Take Netscape Communications, for example, the current darlings of the Valley. Last summer, having reached the ripe old age of 16 months, they were launched on the stock exchange in a share offering that at the end of the first day’s trading valued the company at $1.96 billion. Overnight, Marc Andreessen, their 22 year-old vice president of technology became worth more than $50 million personally.

Yet drive past their nondescript Mountain View offices (no mountains, no view), and try to imagine what could be worth $1.96 billion inside the closed blue blinds. Even if the Netscape buildings are filled to the ceiling with gold bars, that still might not account for all the money. Somehow it should all look different.

Although on reflection, it’s very appropriate that there’s nothing to see. On a hillside near the airport is a huge sign declaring, ‘South San Francisco – The Industrial City’. One of the characters in Douglas Coupland’s recent novel Microserfs has a more appropriate suggestion: ‘If they changed it to “Post-Industrial City”, it might be meaningful.’

Very few of the companies here ‘make’ anything in the old sense. Previously, a site of industrial innovation would leave an indelible mark on the landscape, but instead of dark satanic mills there’s manicured grass, and neat two-storey offices. Future archaeologists will be hard-pressed to work out what was going on here; the best they’ll be able to find will be a few Snapple bottles and Coke cans left over from the free supply that most companies give their programmers.

The 4000 or so high-technology companies in the Silicon Valley generate $200 billion in revenue annually by rearranging ones and zeros to create software. They don’t even make silicon chips here any more – too messy and dirty. The companies’ products are shiny ideas, and their assets go home in the evening and watch Melrose Place and Friends.

Intellectual property, not real property, is the important thing. You’re closer to visiting the real Valley when you’re downloading the latest software over the internet from your flat in Cork than you are actually standing outside Sun Microsystems, or driving along Infinity Loop on Apple Computer’s ‘campus’.

However, one company does seem to acknowledge the intangible quality of their business. Oracle Corporation’s buildings are huge cylindrical structures situated beside the bay. They look very curious until you realise that Oracle’s main work is in database software, and in computer documentation a database is commonly shown as a cylinder. The buildings are a physical representation of an insubstantial idea. Perhaps this is the information age’s version of High Gothic architecture, where cathedrals soared upwards to represent the idea of the heavenward urge towards an approachable God.

Aside from the Oracle buildings, though, it’s very hard for a visitor to reconcile the power and reach of the area with the reality of driving the freeway and walking on the grass. Even when you’re standing right in it, Silicon Valley seems hardly there at all.

(first published in The Irish Times, Monday August 26th, 1996)

Posted by David in • Irish Times

Articles Film Irish Times Technology

Apple’s Mission Impossible

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

Computers in movies have come a long way since the nerdy Matthew Broderick in War Games. In the current hit Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum saves the world by dialing up the alien invaders from his laptop, and in Mission:  Impossible Tom Cruise uses his computer to defeat the nasty double-crossing spies.

With hi-tech movies all the rage, the opportunity for product placement has not gone unnoticed by the computer industry. While Microsoft might look to have the real world sewn up, in the neverland of tv and cinema, Apple reign supreme – and it doesn?t cost them a penny.

On TV, Chandler in Friends, Scully in The X-Files, and the casts of Melrose Place and Beverley Hills 90210 all use Macs, but it?s in the movies that computer product placement really gets big.Steven Spielberg is credited with starting the trend with the film ET in 1982. The lovable alien was seen gobbling Reese?s Pieces sweets, and sales increased by 66 per cent.

Apple was involved in another Spielberg hit, Jurassic Park, and in films such as Forest Gump and The Firm But with Mission Impossible and Independence Day, the company has emphasized their involvement by running a series of tv commercials based on clips from the movies.

?Apple gains the benefit of being seen by millions of people in the hands of celebrities that those consumers seek to emulate,? said Suzanne Forlenza, manager of Film/TV Placement and Marketing at Apple.

?We pay for the production of the TV commercial (as we would any TV commercial we do). In exchange, we get images, special effects, celebrity endorsement, and more, for free. The quality and level of content we are able to use is incredibly high.? she said.

So how much does it cost to have Jeff Goldblum save the world with a PowerBook? Nothing, according to Apple: ?No money exchanges hands at all,? said Suzanne Forlenza. ?We provide the computers requested for on-camera usage on loan, all being due back to us at the end of the filming.?

Apple might has been criticised for not having the business acumen to match their technological innovation, but in this area, they seem to be on a winner.

While they will approach production companies, they are just as likely to have people approach them. ?Frankly, we are absolutely overwhelmed with requests. so we are reacting to satisfying the requests. The good news is we have established excellent relationships throughout Hollywood, so we have first crack, typically, at all the big films,? said Forlenza.

On Mission: Impossible, for example, part of the deal was that Tom Cruise and the rest of the goodies would use Macs, while the baddies were kitted out with IBMs. ?We have a standing insistence that we will only be in the hands of the good guys,? confirms Forlenza.

What makes Apple?s coup so impressive is the amount of money other corporations will pay to get their products in the shot. Laurie Ann Mazur is a writer and social commentator based in New York and co-author of the book Marketing Madness (A Survival Guide for a consumer society).
?Huggies paid $100,000 to outfit the infant in Baby Boom, and Philip Morris reportedly paid $350,000 to make sure James Bond smoked Lark cigarettes in License to Kill.?

Forlenza argues that they save the film money: ?A computer company is able to offer a great deal of value in the computers they provide.  It helps the production save money and offset costs. The less value a product offers, the more dollars they would be charged.?

So both computer company and movie production company are happy. But what about the audience? While it might be argued that using real products in movies enhances the film?s realism, Laurie Ann Mazur is unconvinced:  ?This practice is inherently deceptive – another kind of stealth advertising. When a celebrity endorses a product in a television commercial, viewers correctly assume that he or she has been ?bought?. But when the same celebrity uses a product in a movie, viewers are more likely to accept the endorsement, at least at an unconscious level.?

Tom Muth, a multimedia consultant based in Kansas City, agrees:
?Most people don’t understand that product placement occurs in almost every film, particularly the big blockbusters.?

It?s no surprise, therefore, that it?s becoming an increasingly important area ofmarketing for Apple. ?It?s growing in that computers are becoming standard gear for all types of people in the movies (the doctor, the lawyer, and others) and also in the number of films that have a technology sub-plot.?

So expect to see more Macs appearing at your local cinema. But only in the hands of the good guys, of course.

(first published in The Irish Times, August, 1996)

Posted by David in • Irish TimesTechnologyFilm

Articles Ireland Irish Times Technology

Ballpark figures – Irish companies playing softball

Monday, July 08, 1996

Received wisdom says that to work in computers you need only cerebral skills – rearranging noughts and ones is a singularly sedentary pursuit.  But there are a fair few IT firms in Dublin who would be pleased if you can also hit home runs or catch a fly ball out of the sun back on the fence.

The Leinster Softball League (LSL) boasts 78 teams (18 more than last year), and computer firms making up a sizeable chunk of the teams – the Claris Crusaders, Gateway Comanches, Digital Dodgers and Symantec Hackers turn out against the Isocor Angels, the Oracle Orbits and the Fujitsu Olympians. Even clubs without direct affiliations with companies seem to have more of their fair share of programmers, testers and project leaders.

?I?m not sure exactly why so many computer people are involved,?  says Paul Byrne, Director of the LSL. ?But there?s a bit of friendly rivalry between Lotus and Microsoft, for example,?

Microsoft might be able to take on allcomers software, but in softball, they?ve still got some work to do. ?No-one is particularly fussed about beating any of Microsoft’s 3 teams as it’s not much of an ambition – they’re not the greatest of teams,? says Ann Murphy, Chairperson of the Irish Baseball and Softball Association (IBSA), which oversees the sport in Ireland.

Softball has many similarities to baseball, with batters hitting the ball and attempting to get round the bases and back to the home plate.  The only major differences are that the teams are mixed (at least three women on a team of 10) amd pitchers throw the (larger) ball underarm.

The sport, which now has 1400 registered players, started in Ireland less than 10 years ago. ‘Back in 1987, Aer Lingus played Digital every week for one whole season, believing that they were the only two teams in Dublin,? says Murphy.

?One day in 1988, a team from Texaco were spotted in Herbert Park, who also knew a team who played in Dodder Park, and we now had 4 teams and nearly enough for a mini-league. Two more teams appeared from the Fairview and Clontarf area and all of a sudden we had enough to start a league.?

Now, communication is a bit more organized – the ISBA and four teams have web sites, and email keeps everyone informed. ?For us as an organisation it makes life a lot easier to have email contact with all our teams,? says Ann Murphy. ?Information is available instantly and we can also reach a lot more of our individual members than we can by doing a mail shot.

So are business deals done at the diamonds? Ann Murphy doesn?t think so: ‘Not much headhunting or networking goes on. I think people are more interested in drinking beer ‘

(first published in The Irish Times, Monday, July 8th, 1996)

Articles Irish Times Television

Future imperfect – sci-fi TV shows

Saturday, June 22, 1996

?Those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it,?  runs the famous line. That?s all very well, but now there?s a televisual corollary: ?Those who are ignorant of the future are condemned to repeat the present.?

In some ways the future?s never looked brighter. Big-budget science fiction shows are entering the tv mainstream to an extent undreamed of by the creators of the original Star Trek; even Dennis Potter?s final work for television, Cold Lazarus, was pure science fiction.

This weekend sees a Star Trek convention at Dublin City University, and next week two of the cast of The X Files arrive in Ireland to promote a new video spin-off from the hugely successful series.

The computer-generated special effects used in shows such as Deep Space 9, Space: Above and Beyond and Babylon 5 are universally spectacular, and more people than ever are prepared to admit they watch science fiction.

However, maybe the future?s not so rosy after all, as the current crop of shows are united by their pessimistic view of things to come.

The shows are all set in an uncertain future where humans are not the most powerful beings around. Old certainties cannot be relied on and, partly as a result of our own actions, our survival is far from assured.

Babylon 5 is perhaps the most ambitious of the programmes. Where the original Star Trek had a five-year mission, Babylon 5 has a ?five-year story arc,? and bills itself as a ?novel for television?.  The structure is less episodic and more linear than other shows, making it initially hard to follow, but the quality of the writing repays the effort.

The universe in which Babylon 5 is set has been carefully fleshed out by the show?s creator Michael Straczynski, giving it a plausible depth of perspective. The eponymous space station was designed to act as a floating neutral site for delicate negotiations between the humans and the four main alien races.

In these negotiations and in sporadic military skirmishes, the humans are regularly outmanoeuvred by the more powerful and cunning aliens. To complete the grim picture, a conspiracy at the highest level has led to the Earth government being taken over by the Shadows, the most powerful and mysterious aliens of all. Babylon 5 is left to fend for itself, and the prospects don?t look good.

Deep Space 9 , a spin-off from Star Trek – The Next Generation, is also set on a vulnerable space station. It too is threatened by a superior alien race, the Dominion. The show preserves the Next Generation?s commitment to politically correct concepts: the station commander is black, his first officer is a woman and there?s also room for a Klingon, a camp English doctor and our own Colm Meaney. But such matters as race and gender are shown to be trivial in the face of imminent destruction by scary aliens.

Space: Above and Beyond is similarly dark. Like Babylon 5, it draws on a complex backstory to paint a picture of the world already riven by a destructive battle against man-made artificial intelligences. The present day sees the main characters, a gallant band of marines, fighting against an alien race that is nightmarish in its brutal efficiency.

The humans are stretched to the limit, and our heroes repeatedly end up muddy, bloody and lucky to survive. It?s like the Vietnam War in space, complete with a total absence of glory and suggestions of government collusion with the enemy.

Finally, there?s Star Trek Voyager, the most recent branch of Gene Roddenberry?s tree. Here too, there is none of the customary optimism over exploring new worlds and new civilisations. With a nice twist, this show goes back to the roots of epic travel.

Like the original Odyssey, the hardest journey is shown to be the one home. In a freak accident, the crew of the Voyager are stranded millions of light years from Earth, with only their warp drive to get them home. 

All this is a far cry from the original Star Trek, where Captain Kirk brought his pioneering brand of American imperialism to benighted aliens throughout the galaxy. With a sideline in sexual conquests (?On Earth, we call this kissing?) he was in no doubt that humans would flourish and technology would save us all.

This brings us to the crucial point about science fiction tv shows – although they?re set in the future they are wholeheartedly concerned with the present.

And what the current shows reflect is a contemporary uncertainty and loss of confidence in big ideas such as progress and God. We?re not as clever as we thought we were, we?ve over-extended ourselves and now it?s all we can do to keep things together.

The X Files is, of course, also part of this trend. Although it?s set in the present day, its mixture of supernatural stories and conspiracy theories ally it to Babylon 5 and Space: Above and Beyond. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, and we are being let down by those in positions of responsibility.

The original Star Trek was a product of the Cold War certainties and 60s belief in technological advance, and the current crop of shows mirror a much more messy and uncertain present. Maybe there?s also some millennial doom setting in as we approach the year 2000.

A thousand years ago, people rushed to get their new cathedrals finished before the year 1000 to assuage their fears. Maybe we watch science fiction TV shows to do the same thing.

(first published in The Irish Times, Saturday, Jun 22nd, 1996)

Articles Irish Times

Born Curious – Interview with Jostein Gaarder

Thursday, June 20, 1996

‘To study philosophy increases your identity, giving you more strength as an individual. If we learn a little about thinking, it gives us a stronger self, because philosophy doesn’t ask questions like ‘what have you got?’, but ‘what are you’’.

Jostein Gaarder talks like an evangelist. The author of Sophie’s World, the best-selling novel that doubles as an introduction to philosophy, has an unquestionable commitment to the cause of questioning everything.

‘For me philosophy is not something just cerebral, it’s also a question of sensuality. When I ask the questions ‘who am I? what is love? what is Nature? what is the Earth?’ I’m talking about physical things. And I don’t think at all that my mind is more important than my body – philosophy includes both.’

In his new book, The Solitaire Mystery, he underlines his argument that the best introduction to philosophy is to hang on to something of you childish curiosity.

‘We are born curious. Young children ask curious questions: ‘does God exist? Why do the stars twinkle? How go birds fly?’ he says.

While the idea that adults have a lot to learn from children is hardly new, what is new is Gaarder’s assertion that it’s through such apparently childish questions that we can make a start on the more difficult work of Descartes, Socrates and Hume.

‘You don’t have to teach children philosophy, they are philosophers already. It’s more important to teach adults. As we grow up we get so accustomed to the world, the world becomes a habit.’

Gaarder, himself a boyish-looking 44, was for many years a philosophy teacher in his native Norway, where all students going to university have to take an introductory course in philosophy.

‘It’s not a coincidence that the writer of Sophie’s World is a Norwegian,’ he says. Nor is it a coincidence that the teaching in the book is set within the framework of a novel.

‘I think that the story is our mother tongue. Our human brain is made for stories, more than it’s made for storing information. A good teacher is a good storyteller, and I’ve done both. And in Sophie’s World I did both too.’

The surprise publishing success of recent years, the novel concentrates on a 14 year-old girl receiving philosophy classes from a mysterious teacher.  As the narrative develops, the reader gets a history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Sartre.

To begin with Gaarder was surprised at the success. ‘It seems as if the English word I’ve used most in the last 2 years is ‘baffled’.  When I sent the manuscript to the publishing house, they hesitated, and when they decided to publish it I wrote them a postcard thanking them for doing this completely non-commercial act.’

Now he has a couple of theories as to the world-wide success of the book.  One is the palatable mixture of entertainment and philosophy, and the other is a universal desire to find out about important issues.

‘One thing I’ve learnt out of this is that human beings are human beings; we have the same needs and ask the same questions, ‘ he says.

Asking questions is all very well, but Gaarder is adamant that philosophy has practical benefits for society.

‘What is happiness? What is a good life? What is a just society?  These are questions that don’t have a specific answer. But it’s crucial that all generations find their own answers to these questions.’

‘It’s extremely important that we encourage young people to ask these questions, because if you don’t ask the question, you have no possibility of achieving that happiness or justice.’

He also sees philosophy as a unifying force in an increasingly fragmented society. ‘All societies need to have something in common, but we’ve lost the physical meeting place in the centre of town. We now have television, and as long as we only had one TV channel it served as the nation’s meeting place.

‘But in the 80s there was this explosion of media, and we lost the common platform. There are lots of people living in the great cities of the world who aren’t part of civilisation, in that they don’t know anything about their spiritual background. For me this is a question of identity – I feel I have a wider and deeper identity than my physical body: I’m a Norwegian, I’m European, and I’m a member of the human race living at the end of the 20th century.’

One political attempt to create this ‘common platform’ is the United Nations, an organisation Gaarder has a lot of respect for. One of the characters in Sophie’s World is a major in the Norwegian contingent of the UN peace-keeping force in the Lebanon.

‘The greatest practical achievement of philosophy is the Human Rights charter produced by the UN in 1948,’ he says. ‘Statements like ‘All humans are equal’ were not taken out of the air, they were based on philosophical reflection – you see traces of John Locke and Voltaire and others.’

The Solitaire Mystery, Gaarder’s new book, has a similar story within a story framework to Sophie’s World, but there is more fantasy and no overt philosophy teaching.

‘All my books are philosophical, but Sophie’s World is the only philosophy book. With that book I had no artistic ambitions, no literary ambitions.’ he says. ‘The Solitaire Mystery is more sensual than Sophie’s World – it’s more dependent on story, and destiny and love.’

The book follows 13 year-old Hans Thomas as he travels with his father from Norway to Greece to search for his mother who’s gone to Athens to find herself. On the way, Hans Thomas finds a finds a tiny book which contains a story about a shipwrecked sailor who lands on an island inhabited by living playing cards.

The two stories are closely interconnected, with the motif of playing cards used to illustrate the need for philosophical curiosity. It’s the joker in the pack who asks the important questions about who we are and where we came from.

‘I think we are all born jokers in life’s game of solitaire,’ says Gaarder. ‘As we grow up and get used to the world we become the boring eight of clubs or nine of diamonds. But there is still a joker living in all of us, and many things in life can bring it out. For instance, we fall in love and we see the world in quite a new way.’

This ability to marvel at the world around him shines through in his work.

‘When people get old they start looking in a new way at this fantastic enigmatic fairy tale we live in. It’s sad if you have to get old or ill to see this, and here I think that literature and philosophy can bring us into contact with the joker in all of us.’

Two more of Gaarder’s books will soon be available in English – The Christmas Mystery appears in November, and Through a Glass Darkly early next year.

For Gaarder himself, after some promotional work in England this week, he’s off to a new cottage by the sea in southern Norway. To contemplate the fairy tale of life.

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday June 20th, 1996)

Posted by David in • Irish Times

Articles Irish Times Technology

The Moore the Merrier – looking for namesakes on the net

Monday, April 29, 1996

Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MediaLab at MIT, recently said that using the internet, ?information and community can be pinpointed with total disregard for geographic density and without the need to justify or qualify them in terms of a mass medium.

It?s a familiar argument that the internet creates communities of similar people that would otherwise be separated by geography. But how much of a sense of community is it possible to feel with people, when your means of communication is a computer and modem?

To test this theory, I went looking for a community of people that were just like me, or rather for people that were me – people called David Moore. (This might sound nothing more than vanity, but it?s actually not a bad name to choose: not too common and not too rare, and it?s a name that isn?t linked to any particular English-speaking country).

The first place to start was a number of search engines on the World Wide Web. These allow you to enter a subject to search for, (in my case ?David Moore?), and sit back while the engine consults its records and then brings you a list of sites that include your subject.

Lycos, one of the most popular engines, boasts that it searches 34, 617, 737 unique web pages (remember, a particular site can include a large number of linked pages). With this amount of data to sort through, a welcome feature of the engines is the way they rank their search results in the order of the closest match. So, for example sites which include the words of your query in the right order in the title of the page come first.

Most of the sites that mentioned the name were individuals? home pages – sites where people share information about themselves and their hobbies, jobs and interests. This was perfect – where better to get a real sense of what people called David Moore are like? And what a mixed bunch they are.

We had a catalogue of photographs of Honda motorbikes next to a site devoted to the Appalachian dulcimer (a rare type of stringed instrument).  Then a David Moore whose home page included links to Bible resources and commentaries, next to a scuba-diving, polka-dancing member of the ?pro-active research organisation? Childless by Choice.

The internet bias towards the worlds of academia and computing was apparent in the number of technical author and professor David Moores I came across.

Perhaps a future professor is the David Moore of the sixth grade at Rockledge Elementary School in Maryland, who made it on to the Principal?s Honor Roll for getting straight A results.

However, I was also pleased to see that there?s a David Moore writing sports journalism in Chicago, and another making bagpipes with his brother Hamish in Dunkeld, Perthshire. Unfortunately one of my number had achieved a different sort of fame. David A Moore is wanted by the police in Phoenix, Arizona for violating probation after an initial charge of supplying marijuana.  His mug shot and details appeared on the Silent Witness site – a computerised wall full of Wanted posters.

This might seem like nothing more than a hi-tech parlour game, but it does illustrate some important points. These other David Moores have been alive for years, and until recently it would have been almost impossible for me to find them. Now, with a few key presses I can be taken from the Reverend David P Moore in Amherst NY to the David Moore of Einstein?s Moon Publishing in Australia, who?s been fighting a ban on a book called E for Ecstasy.

This is at once very powerful and deeply odd. While the information I have on these people has given me a tiny insight into a variety of lives, it?s very difficult to feel a sense of community with these Davids.  At the same time as I was meeting these people, I was also completely alone.

It might be argued that this is not surprising, since I share with them nothing but the accident of a name, but even in newsgroups or chat rooms, where are people are discussing things of mutual interest, there?s still a feeling of unreality. You can acknowledge intellectually that these people exist, but they still don?t live for you in the same was as even the most passing acquaintance you ?really? know.

Nicholas Negroponte elides ?information and community?, blurring the distinction between them. Perhaps this is because virtual communities sound much more exciting than piles of disconnected information, but that?s all the internet largely is at the moment.

This is not to underestimate it – it offers some invaluable resources.  However, it also offers much more information that is largely irrelevant to you but mildly diverting, and still more that is completely useless.  It?s like a cross between an encyclopaedia and an extended gossip column, not a set of communities.

(first published in The Irish Times, Monday April 29th, 1996)

Articles Irish Times Television

The agony and the empathy – TV teen drama

Saturday, March 16, 1996

Episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 are like 50-minute commercials for a life you’ll never have

‘Yoof’ programming has had a bad press. We’re led to believe that it’s all inane magazine shows with manic audiences, and bronzed bodies on California beaches – visual bubblegum for sullen teenagers too old for safe kids’ telly, and too young for Newsnight.

American teen dramas in particular have drawn a great deal of criticism.  These escapist shows, such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Sweet Valley High, try to tell you that being a teenager is a brilliant thing because you’re beautiful, it’s sunny and everyone loves you.

However, recently a new type of teenage drama has appeared, which explores the difficulties of growing up in a much more considered fashion. More empathetic than escapist, this school is best represented by Party of Five (which won this year’s Golden Globe for best TV show) and My So-Called Life, which has just returned to Network 2.

Episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 are like 50-minute commercials for a life you’ll never have. Being a teenager is shown to be sexy, exciting and as easy as getting your rich LA parents to buy you a Merc for your birthday. Even when there is a problem, it’s a cool one, and it all else fails you can always stride off moodily across a deserted beach.

Having run for several seasons now, 90210 is beginning to show its age.  The characters have left school and are coping with more grown-up (but just as impressive) issues such as running nightclubs. However, a curious shift has happened over the years.

In the early series, the characters looked much too old to be high-school students (no wonder they found it all so easy – they were all in their 20s). Now however, they seem too young to be convincing adults – they’re caught in the Beverly Hills Triangle.

90210 feels like a 1980s soft drink commercial: lots of positive images and perfect smiles. My So-Called Life and Party of Five, on the other hand, feel more like 1990s car ads: caring, understated and attractive in a much more responsible way. However, there’s more to them than that, as both dramas show that it’s possible to make good television about and for teenagers. 

Party of Five concentrates on a brother and sister growing up in affluent but not excessively rich San Francisco. The shift from 90210’s Southern California to the Bay Area is telling – to people in LA (if to no-one else), Northern Californians are serious, introspective and sensitive types, and the show deals with convincing teenage concerns in a considered way.

My So-Called Life is produced by the creators of thirtysomething, and it shows. Following the story of 15 year-old Angela Chase (played by the excellent Claire Danes), the show accurately reflects one of the great ironies of teenage life – at the time when every week brings a new milestone, you’re impatiently convinced that nothing’s happening.

‘Haven’t you ever waited for anything?,’ asks one of Angela’s friends.  ‘Yeah,’ replies another, ‘for my life to start.’

While in 90210, the big crises are always obviously big, My So-Called Life delicately captures how crucial apparently minor events can be. Angela’s father happens by while she’s on her way from the shower towel-clad and dripping, and the new awkwardness of their relationship is shown immediately.  ‘Sad but true,’ reflects Angela, ‘My breasts have come between us.’

The characters are given depth and clarity, and there are impressive performances from the (convincingly) young cast. You might on a bad day envy the characters in the escapist dramas, but you know people aren’t really like that. In contrast, the cast of My So-Called Life are likeably real; they’re intelligent, self-aware and blessed with a sense of humour. 

Occasionally they sound a little too wise for their years, and the show perhaps tries a little too hard to flesh out the characters of Angela’s caring but troubled parents. Everybody all being sensitive and understanding all at once can get a little uncomfortable for buttoned-up Irish people.

Nonetheless, My So-Called Life certainly shows there’s more to teenage drama than bronzed hunks and nascent modelling careers. But if you like the show, you’d better make the most of it while you can – despite critical acclaim in the US, ABC cancelled the show after 2 seasons, citing only moderate ratings and doubts over Claire Danes’ willingness to star in another season.

While the protests over this are still going on (there are web sites on the internet devoted to the show and its longed-for return), perhaps it was appropriate that it didn’t run and run. It was, for example, spared the slow decline of Beverly Hills 90210.

As it is, My So-Called Life fittingly reflects the years between 15 and 18: sometimes difficult, but rewarding and too quickly gone.

(first published in The Irish Times, Saturday March 16th, 1996)

Articles Film Irish Times Technology

Garbage in, garbage out – technology in movies

Thursday, January 11, 1996

Bullock’s character still has to defeat the leading bad guy by hitting him over the head with a heavy object

Suddenly our movie screens are about to become computer screens, as Hollywood releases a crop of films about the Internet and virtual reality. Just when you thought the cinema was the only place you could escape from the media hype, it appears that swords and kilts are yesterday’s news.

The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, started the process here last autumn.  Johnny Mnemonic (starring Keanu Reeves) is due next month, and Virtuosity (with Denzel Washington) is on its way. These are big-name stars, and the films have the budgets to match, but their directors and writers insist they are thoughtful and timely examinations of how technology is changing our lives.

‘I see it as a fable for the information age,’ says Johnny Mnemonic’s writer William Gibson. ‘The film is a cautionary tale about how technology can expand our minds and horizons and how it can also reflect the worst of what we’ve become,’ says Brett Leonard, the director of Virtuosity.

However, there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip and these films are not topical and interesting explorations of identity and humanity but familiar action thrillers with unconvincing depictions of computers threatening to conquer the world. More jumping on the bandwagon than surfing the new wave.

The Net is set in the present and shows how dependent we all are on information about us held on computers. Criminals wipe out all trace of software expert Angela Bennett (played by Sandra Bullock) when she receives a floppy disk containing secret information. Angela’s ability to run her life without leaving her computer (including ordering a pizza over the Internet) makes her particularly vulnerable to such an attack.

The film, directed by Irwin Winkler, depicts her sheltered and high-tech life convincingly, but when she leaves her desk, she leaves the best part of the film behind her. We get a depressingly familiar list of chases and car crashes – there is even a chase scene in a fun fair – and despite her technological prowess, Bullock’s character still has to defeat the leading bad guy by hitting him over the head with a heavy object.

The biggest problem, however, is that for all its pretensions, the film has a very confused approach to technology, The Net is full of holes.  It sets out to raise valid questions about the role of computers in our lives, but then distorts the truth about this for the sake of the plot.

The studio argues that The Net describes a world in which good hackers can log into remote computers and alter any information they choose: flight plans, top-secret government information, even someone’s identity. Of course, there are files containing information about all of us stored on computers but there is no way any of these confidential files can be changed using the Internet.

Just because computers got clever doesn’t mean the people looking after them got stupid. Most organisations charged with storing personal data just don’t allow any dial-up access to the computers containing the records.

The film plays on people’s fears of computers. The audience is given what has come to be the cinematic party line on computers – they’re smarter than we are, they’re no substitute for real life, and sometimes even pulling out the plug won’t stop them.

In their Hollywood incarnation, computers make excellent bad guys in action films, except that they don’t wear black and they don’t move around a lot. Virtuosity overcomes this by bringing a database of serial killers to life. One American reviewer commented that the film resembles its computerised villain – all flash and no flesh – and certainly the closest it gets to virtual reality is in being virtually the same as many other technological chase and kill movies.

The most eagerly-awaited film in the incoming wave of computer films is Johnny Mnemonic, adapted by William Gibson from his own impressive short story. Gibson coined the phrase ‘cyberspace’ in his novel Neuromancer and might be expected to produce something thoughtful. ‘Johnny Mnemonic is phrased as an action-chase piece, but our real agenda is a little more serious than that,’ Gibson has said.

Unfortunately, this agenda seems to have been lost in the $30 million budget and curious cast. Keanu Reeves stars as the man who has had his memory removed so he can act as a human courier for computer data, and he is supported by rock singer Henry Rollins, rap artist Ice-T and musclebound Scandinavian Dolph Lungren. On its release in America earlier this year, it received only moderate reviews.

What is so frustrating about these films is that they are wasted opportunities to examine more deeply the issues they only touch on amid the chases and fights. There are good films to be made on the problems of identity in such an interconnected world and attempts to explore how our lives will be changed by technological advances would be very welcome.

Perhaps the action thriller genre employed by The Net, Virtuosity and Johnny Mnemonic just isn’t the right one to discuss this material. One wonders if studio bosses thought, ‘we have to make films about computers to cash in on all the Internet hype, but because computers are inherently boring we’d better throw in some explosions and shootings.’

Hollywood thrillers can hardly be said to reflect real life, and it’s in everyone’s daily life that the real impact of this technology is being felt. There’s a computer programmers’ acronym that is appropriate here:  GIGO, standing for ‘garbage in, garbage out.’

If you make a basic error at the start, you’ll get nonsense at the end.  If Hollywood still gives us the old cliches about computers, then its films will fail to address an important area that could really do with some artistic interpretation.

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday, January 11th, 1996)

Posted by David in • Irish TimesTechnologyFilm

Articles Irish Times Technology

A blast from the past – retro gaming

Monday, November 27, 1995

Nostalgia has arrived in the hi-tech world of computers. Normally so concerned with bigger, faster and newer, it now appears that the next big thing could be smaller, slower and older. Remember those Atari videogames from the eary 80s? Well, they’re back.

As part of the current taste for retro-chic, people who grew up with Defenders, Space Invaders and Pac Man are now looking to play these games again.

Old and new are coming together in a rewarding way, with the internet being used to help enthusiasts swap information on retrogaming. Now you can use your Pentium-driven PC to visit websites and newsgroups devoted to consoles and home computers that could only muster 48K of memory, 16 colours, blocky graphics and tinny sound.

But this is more than just the internet allowing nostalgic members of a minority group to talk to one another – the trend is entering the mainstream.  The System nightclub in South Anne St in Dublin has a selection of classic videogames, and Lily’s Bordello nightclub in Dublin has also recently installed an old Space invaders arcade game for their 80s night on Mondays. 

‘We were looking for three tabletop machines, so we could have competitions,’ said Patricia Roe from Lily’s. ‘We could only find the one stand-up machine, and it’s proved very popular.’ Especially as they’ve taken the coin slot out, so it’s free to play.

The Amusements videogame arcade on Eden Quay provided Lily’s with the machine, and it has other classics such as Hypersports, Gauntlet and Defender which continue to draw the punters.

The charm of playing these games is manifold. Firstly, if you’re of a certain age, playing Defender makes you suddenly 12 years old again. You remember spending summer days inside with the curtains closed so you could see the TV, your Mum bringing you and your friend orange squash and Penguin biscuits.

There is also a rewarding irony in being deliberately old-fashioned.  Home computers have now been around long enough to have a past worth mining, and reviving machines that were supposed to have died 10 years ago gives the lie to built-in obselescence.

However, perhaps the most persuasive reason for the renewed interest is that the games are excellent. Restricted by simple graphics, and slow processors, their programmers had to make the games themselves addictive.  Among gamers, this elusive quality is known as ‘playability’, and the classics have it in abundance.

While modern games are falling over themselves to render 3-D graphics more and more accurately, the old console and home computer games just make sure you’ll keep playing. As Philip Roe from the Amusements arcade points out, ‘Most of the modern games look great, but you can only play them so often before getting bored. And the new ones are mainly just versions of the old ones anyway.’

This is most true of the many ‘beat-em ups’ such as Mortal Kombat and Virtua Fighter. which are flashier but no more entertaining reworkings of 80s games such as Yie-ar Kung Fu and Way of the Exploding Fist.

Padraig Nallon, a reservations agent for a hotel company in Dublin, has recently started playing on an old Atari 520ST home computer. ‘Marble Madness is the hit at the moment,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t mind a new console, but the games on this thing really get you hooked.’

Jason Browne, editor of the UK videogames magazine Edge, is sure this nostalgia kick could be the start of something much larger: ‘The growing interest in retrogaming is a poignant reminder of how many older games still outshine the latest releases,’ he says. ‘It has evolved from what has so far been little more than a niche interest into a bankable concept.’

Proof of this bankability is the interest shown by games manufacturers.  Classic Atari and Activision games are now available on CD-ROM for the PC, but so far they’re not proving popular in Ireland. ‘We had the Atari pack in, and sold maybe 1 in three months,’ said the manager of the games department in the Virgin Megastore in Dublin. ‘No-one wanted to know.’

Luke McBratney, a classic games enthusiast from Portadown, explains what could have been the problem. ‘Part of the attraction is using the old computers or consoles themselves. Sitting on the floor in front of the TV just feels much better than playing the games at your desk on your PC.’

But if you can’t get your old Spectrum to work, and playing on your PC doesn’t feel right, then the remakes for the new consoles might prove attractive. Retrogaming is proving to be a factor in the cut-throat battle between the Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn and 3DO consoles.

The Playstation driving game Ridge Racer starts up with a perfect version of the 80s game Galaxians – clear the screen and you’ll get more cars in the main game. Also in the production line for the Playstation from games giant Namco is a Museum Piece CD , containing a selection of its arcade classics.

This could prove to be a smart move. Parents can buy the machines, telling themselves that it’s for the children, while being secretly delighted that they get another chance to clock Pac Man. However, they’ll also have to make sure they buy some new games for the kids, as it seems people under the age of 20 are immune to the postmodern attraction of retrogaming. 

Alison Dinsmore, 14, from Co. Louth, was unimpressed with my offer of a classic Atari 2600 with 5 games (price $30 including shipping, from a US enthusiast advertising on a newsgroup). ‘No way,’ she said. ‘Those old games are rubbish. For Christmas I want a Sega Saturn with Sega Rally.’

How long before that game becomes a classic?

(first published in The Irish Times, Monday November 27th, 1995)

Articles Film Irish Times

Newt’s Knights – the real meaning of First Knight

Tuesday, July 18, 1995

. . . if Ben Cross is Saddam Hussein, then (and I hesitate to say it) Richard Gere as Lancelot is Newt Gingrich

It’s a cliche that history books say more about the time they were written than the time they describe, but the recent crop of medieval-based films have shown that the same is true of historical films. You go for swashbuckling and damsels in distress, and end up with a discussion of big government versus the rights of the individual.

Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s latest film, and Mel Gibson’s forthcoming epic Braveheart both describe the little man fighting for freedom against the English military and political machine. First Knight, despite being a reworking of the story of King Arthur, shares this uneasiness with government intervention into individual lives, however well-meant.

All three films are surprisingly secular. The setting might be the distant past, but there is no hint of magic or mysticism. This is in contrast with the sword and sorcery films of the 1980s, such as Highlander, Legend, or Excalibur. In all these, destiny and magic are important, and the worlds on show feel very different from our own. With the recent films, however, we get contemporary political concerns dressed up in armour and stuck on a horse.

First Knight show this most clearly. There is no Merlin or Mordred, and Arthur is portrayed by Sean Connery as a well-meaning liberal. The Knights of the Round Table are ‘members of the High Council’, and the carving on the Table itself declares, ‘In serving each other we become free’. 

It all sounds like democracy not feudalism, and it doesn’t take much of a leap to see Camelot as America. We’re told that having won a prolonged war, the kingdom now looks forward to peace and prosperity. Camelot also offers protection to smaller nations which share its values, such as Guinevere’s Lyonesse. Arthur is a Bill Clinton figure, stressing his belief in law and the responsibilities citizens owe to one another.

King Arthur certainly means well, but we are shown that all is not as it should be. Malagant, the compulsory English bad guy (played by Ben Cross), repeatedly describes Camelot as a dream, and his actions question how realistic Arthur is being. “People don’t want brotherhood, they want leadership,” Malagant explains, plausibly.

Despite Arthur’s attempts at diplomacy, Malagant conquers Lyonesse, and Camelot’s response is the medieval equivalent of Operation Desert Storm – an impressive show of force with an inconclusive result. Malagant is beaten but not destroyed, and you start to wonder if Lyonesse has any oil reserves.

Malagant is the Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic of the piece, showing that things would be fine for the Kings of Camelot or the White House if everybody played by the one set of rules. Malagant points out, ‘Other people live by other laws,’ and Arthur falls back on the suspicious defence that “What we hold to be right and good and true,” must be right and good and true for everyone else as well. Which sounds a lot like, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”.

However, if Ben Cross is Saddam Hussein, then (and I hesitate to say it) Richard Gere as Lancelot is Newt Gingrich, and he poses the real threat to King Arthur’s big ideas of big government.

Lancelot exemplifies the fashionable idea that you don’t need much government at all – people do much better when left to their own devices. Described in the opening titles as ‘a wanderer who had never dreamed of peace or justice or knighthood’, he knows what he wants and how to get it – twice he rescues Guinevere single-handedly where all of Arthur’s well-drilled troops had failed.

Richard Gere keeps his American accent – the only one heard in the film – and Lancelot’s brand of rugged American individualism is seen even after he has become one of Arthur’s knights. In battle, he leaves the ranks of helmeted horsemen to fight on his own, with his head uncovered.

Malagant and Lancelot have little to do with the existing Arthurian material, and the ending of the film is also more Malibu than Malory. Arthur dies idealistically and foolishly, and Lancelot is left as the new ruler of Camelot under instructions to ‘look after’ Guinevere.

There is some justice to this, as Sean Connery always looked too old for Julia Ormond, but Arthur’s death underlines what we should take from the film.  His idea of beneficent big government is a dream, and he dies with his eyes open, having been woken at the last by the realisation that people (even those you love) just can’t live up to the ideal.

So we are left with the independent Lancelot in charge, who, like Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson in the other historical summer releases, won’t be told what to do by anyone. With his dying breath, Arthur tells Lancelot, ‘you’re the future’, and in a worrying way, maybe he is.

(first published in The Irish Times, Tuesday July 18th, 1995)

Posted by David in • Irish TimesFilm