27 May 2016

The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret

The US military’s nuclear arsenal is controlled by computers built in the 1970s that still use 8in floppy disks.

A report into the state of the US government, released by congressional investigators, has revealed that the country is spending around $60bn (£40.8bn) to maintain museum-ready computers, which many do not even know how to operate any more, as their creators retire.

The Defense Department’s Strategic Automated Command and Control System (DDSACCS), which is used to send and receive emergency action messages to US nuclear forces, runs on a 1970s IBM computing platform. It still uses 8in floppy disks to store data.

We’re not even talking the more modern 3.5in floppy disk that millennials might only know as the save icon. We’re talking the OG 8in floppy, which was a large floppy square with a magnetic disk inside it. They became commercially available in 1971, but were replaced by the 5¼in floppy in 1976, and by the more familiar hard plastic 3.5in floppy in 1982.

Shockingly, the US Government Accountability Office said: “Replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete.”

- Guardian, 26 May 2016

22 May 2016

Petone foreshore

Sunday afternoon on Petone foreshore, near the Settlers' Museum, 22 May 2016. 

18 May 2016

Regional news highlight of the week

A band of rogue rambling roosters drunk on whiskey has been captured in Westport. Irate neighbours reported the noisy roosters who had been dumped in Westport Domain to Buller District Council's animal control officers.

"Thirteen of these fine-feathered gorgeous looking roosters were strutting their stuff in the domain," said Buller mayor Garry Howard.

"Three renegade roosters took a liking to a magnolia tree across from the domain in a residential area and our animal control staff were forced to climb the tree but it hasn't worked, the roosters are just going higher."

He said their noise was disturbing neighbours early in the morning. They then set a cage at the bottom of the magnolia tree but it was stolen.

"Some homeless Aucklander thought it would be good to steal that to solve the housing crisis and I'm sure it's now in Parnell somewhere," Howard said.

"We asked Mr Google about how to catch roosters and he came up with the idea to give them a bit of whiskey. Our animal control officer sacrificed some of his own finest Kentucky whiskey and we have laced some barley with it and we are getting results," he said.

The roosters were getting very drunk and rolling onto their sides, allowing the officers to pick them up.

- Joanne Carroll, 'Drunk roosters captured in Westport', Stuff.co.nz, 17 May 2016

17 May 2016

The Night Mail

Tonight I watched the 1936 GPO Film Unit short Night Mail, a brilliant and award-winning documentary on the Royal Mail overnight sorting express from Euston to Glasgow. And of course one of the highlights was W.H. Auden's 'verse commentary' (extract):

"Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers' declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart's outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong"

14 May 2016

James Acaster

James Acaster
James Acaster
James Acaster: 'Reset'
San Francisco Bath House
Cuba St, Wellington
12 May 2016

James Acaster, arguably the most praying mantis-like English comedian at work today, is enjoying a run of comedy festival gigs around New Zealand at the moment, testing his new 2016 show out on local comedy festival audiences before taking it to home turf later this year. It’s a good opportunity to give new material a trial run with a relatively similar audience, give or take, and for New Zealand comedy fans it’s a great chance to see one of the UK’s most popular young comedians at close quarters. (To be specific, from the front row at Wellington’s San Fran venue he was five metres away. Good thing he’s not a spitter).

Without going into too many routine-spoiling details, Acaster's show is definitely a winner, showcasing his appealing brand of whimsy and self-loathing in a show that feels pretty much complete and ready. It's great to see a comedian perfecting their timing, working in callbacks for the audience, responding to tiny mistakes (such as Acaster's lengthy multi-generational tangent to explain his use of the phrase 'you look at yourself in the kitchen mirror'), and in particular, generally fiddling about with the idea of an imperfect person standing on a stage being paid to make an audience laugh. Good standup comedy is always improved by a dash of acting skill, which helps Acaster flirt with the downcast notion that comedians might actually not be enjoying their work. The idea that delivering standup comedy for a living is meant to make everything wonderful has a great deal of comedic potential - the trick, which Acaster has mastered, is to make that exploration funny, so you're both testing what can be achieved on stage while at the same time keeping the audience entertained.

Don't get me wrong, Acaster's new show isn't a Scandinavian gloomfest - he just teases the audience with Hancock-style misery amidst all the silliness, and it makes the show a great deal more appealing. There's plenty of Milton Jones absurdism, done with the same charm and flair: a discourse on the brilliance of being on witness protection programmes ("James, you really have to stop mentioning the programme in your act, you need to work with us on this one"), a brilliant and flawless scheme taking advantage of supermarket loss-leaders, the injustice of volunteering to dig wells in Kenya when the good people of England and New Zealand could walk hundreds of miles without seeing one, and a searching exploration of why the English hate themselves so comprehensively. An extended discourse on the English tradition of wandering the globe nicking treasures and then not giving them back receives an expert analysis ("But the Elgin Marbles are so much better lit here than when you had them!"). All capped off with a big musical finale, David O'Doherty style, which was suitably daft but may well have been slightly lost on the deaf audience members experiencing the act through the game sign language interpreters at the front of the stage.

A few smaller parts of the act based on local observations will I presume not feature when Acaster takes the material back to England, such as his delight, expounded on at length, of the New Zealand phrase 'boil the jug' (instead of 'put the kettle on'), which gives Acaster the opportunity to try out his ropey New Zealand accent. (Most English comedians think they've got it, but too many episodes of Home & Away queer the pitch).

See also:
Comedy: Ed Byrne, 1 May 2015
Comedy: Josie Long, 6 May 2013
Comedy: David O'Doherty, 5 May 2012

08 May 2016


Wellington's south coast near Houghton Bay on a clear, warm autumn Sunday, 8 May 2016.

04 May 2016

Bob Jahnke: Ata

Light sculpture detail from the exhibition by Prof Robert Jahnke at Pataka Gallery in Porirua, 1 May 2016. The exhibition runs until 15 May.

See also:
Art: The enticing story of chocolate, 13 January 2014
Art: Wildlife photographer of the year, 20 January 2013
ArtThe merest hint of mortality, 26 February 2012

Mark Weldon's disastrous tenure

So the unloved chief executive of MediaWorks, Mark Weldon, resigned this morning, presumably having received strong hints from his board to fall on his sword. His departure, coming as it does in the wake of numerous high- and lower-profile staff departures from the company, will not be lamented by most of his employees, who have seen a radical reshaping of the network during Weldon's tenure and the end of many of TV3's long-standing programmes. As Duncan Greive has so clearly spelt out, Weldon never understood what makes the network tick and how that affects its relationship with viewers:

This then, was Weldon’s chief failing: that he didn’t understand either the value of news to TV3, or the importance of relationships within the whole organisation. The channel was always the plucky upstart, its culture the stuff of legend. But as waves of those who had made it so departed, at every level of the business, so that culture eroded even as flash new studios were built and new brands pioneered. And if the public hates your channel for what you’ve done to its longstanding faces, they’re going to struggle to get excited about your reality shows and your radio stations.
Ultimately, TV3's owners run a business and their objective is profit. Weldon's role was clearly to shake up the network quickly for selling on, so the vulture capital fund owners, Oaktree Capital (assets under management: US$96.9 billion), could reap a high return on their investment and move on to their next target. So Weldon's approach involved moving away from costly line items like news and current affairs and instead focusing on low-cost, lowest common denominator reality programming, preferably with plenty of product placement deals to benefit the company's bottom line.

This led to a string of setbacks for TV3 in particular, including the ending of a 25 year run of current affairs programming, the cancelling of John Campbell's highly regarded crusading nightly 7pm show Campbell Live, and last week the shock resignation of popular newsreader Hilary Barry. Weldon's brand relied on fellow traveller Julie Christie's tatty reality programming, which achieves higher profit margins but dilutes the channel's brand to the point where it affects viewer loyalty, with potentially serious long-term effects on the station's viability.

This is because TV3 has until recently held a special position in the small New Zealand television broadcasting sector. The twin TVNZ channels, TV1 and TV2, have since the early 1990s moved so far from their original public service broadcasting roots that they are unrecognisable. They offer a solely commercial mix of programming with almost no public interest content, competing in exactly the same space as the privately owned TV3. But TVNZ retains a strong and loyal viewership amongst conservative older viewers who will never shift networks as long as TV1 news runs at 6pm and Coronation Street appears in some form. The rest homes of New Zealand deliver a guaranteed captive audience to TVNZ nightly, and even the unfeasible approach of using the Mike Hosking as the vanguard of a charm offensive has failed to deter these well-trained eyeballs.

TV3, from the very beginning, was different. Starting out as the anarchic, free-spirited upstart network, it was the home of personable young news teams and the rambunctious, daring Nightline crew. Soon it won viewer loyalty by carving a niche as the privately-owned broadcaster that was simply miles better than its publicly-owned rival, and it became the place where young media wannabes were desperate to work.

Although in the end John Campbell couldn't quite bring in the eyeballs and the associated advertising revenue to sustain his nightly current affairs show, what he did bring to TV3 over many years was the hallmark of journalistic integrity, decency and personality lacking across the dial in the bland and relentlessly uninventive TVNZ. With his show's cancellation and the subsequent shift to a revamped and revitalised Checkpoint programme on Radio New Zealand - which is every bit as excellent as hoped, and fast becoming essential viewing - TV3 squandered its point of difference, both for viewers and for its loyal employees. Many other staff behind the scenes have left too during Weldon's tenure, either having jumped or being pushed in the major restructuring to cut costs.

As Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch presenter Colin Peacock points out, all this bad blood has now come back to haunt Weldon:

Mr Weldon stands accused of trashing the corporate culture - either wilfully or carelessly - that those before him had built up at MediaWorks. This was highlighted by the scrapping of well-regarded current affairs shows such as Campbell Live, and Mr Weldon's hiring of gossip writer Rachel Glucina, just after a serious breach of ethics in her now-notorious "Ponytail-gate" scoop for The New Zealand Herald. 
The long list of former TV3 journalists celebrating his resignation on social media makes it obvious how unpopular he was.
Perhaps Weldon's replacement will be given more leeway to retain some aspects of TV3's distinct culture by adopting a longer-term view. If not, history will record Weldon's disastrous tenure as the end of a remarkable era in New Zealand broadcasting.

See also:
TV: Mastermind & Peter Sinclair, 29 July 2015
TV: Competing in a market of fluff & titillation, 12 November 2014
TV: The remuneration whoopee cushion, 8 February 2013

01 May 2016

The remarkable impact of 'My Forgotten Man'

Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley's knockabout musical comedy Gold Diggers of 1933 was a big success at the time, but it also stands up surprisingly well today in entertainment terms, with its peppy dames, Broadway production numbers, and the still-popular show-stopper We're In The Money. But surprisingly it ends with a coda that's one of the most talented examples of political propaganda film-making of the 1930s.

The Warner Bros blockbuster was based on a successful play from 1919-20, but stylistic differences emerged to reflect the Depression-era context. Kicking off proceedings with Ginger Rogers singing lead on a dress rehearsal of a chorus line production of We're In The Money - a celebration of wealth with fluttering showgirls festooned in giant coins - reality swiftly intrudes when the Sheriff's office closes it down mid-number due to unpaid debts. A leggy showgirl squeals as a rough copper plucks off the giant coin pinned to her dancing shorts. Everyone, including Gold Diggers' three female lead showgirls, Polly the ingenue (Ruby Keeler), Carol the torch singer (Joan Blondell) and Trixie the comedian (Aline MacMahon), is out of a job and destitute. The three girls share an apartment but are so skint they're forced to liberate a neighbour's milk-bottle through the window to kick-start their breakfast. Potential salvation comes in the form of a new show on the horizon, but in their hearts the girls all dream of finding true love, which should ideally be found with the richest possible husband; for some, the true love aspect might conceivably be optional.

MacMahon, Rogers, Blondell & Keeler
The cast is uniformly excellent. The wholesome star Keeler, who was at the time married to Al Jolson, is the perfect foil to the handsome piano-player Brad (Dick Powell), a talented performer with a strange reluctance to appear on the stage. Blondell's Carol is impish and an enthusiastic participant in a subterfuge to dupe two wealthy, stuck-up Bostonian fellows; Blondell would go on to marry Powell three years later. MacMahon's Trixie, the oldest of the trio and by miles the funniest, is a sharp-tongued wise-cracking machine who steals most of her scenes, essaying the then-popular trope of the sassy older spinster - although MacMahon was only 33 at the time, that's virtually 66 in showgirl years. She issues forth the film's raciest lines, adopting the Groucho Marx approach in that if you keep moving quickly enough, no-one will be able to remember what they're offended about.

Rogers in We're In The Money
Rogers appears in a supporting role as a love rival for MacMahon's Trixie; apart from her big opening number, she has little to do. (Although she does distinguish herself with a flawless and tongue-twisting Pig Latin verse in We're In The Money). Her relationship as the then girlfriend of director LeRoy may have helped her casting. It was still relatively early in Rogers' career, but she had to wait only six months more until December 1933 when she was teamed up with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, which was the start of a long and richly rewarding partnership.

The film's production numbers show arranger Busby Berkeley at his best, with dozens of showgirls swirling in tightly choreographed geometric patterns, often filmed from high angle to create elaborate kaleidoscopic effects. For the Shadow Waltz number Berkeley experimented with neon-tube lighting on dozens of violins and bows to create an innovative light show. This is topped by the racy Pettin' In The Park extravaganza, which boasts suggestive lyrics, showgirls drenched in a summer downpour and getting changed behind backlit curtains, the hijinks of a mischievous 'baby' (the then nine-year-old dwarf actor Billy Barty), and a cracking closing gag about the showgirls' armour-clad breastplates. All hallmarks of Gold Diggers' status as a lively Pre-Code production, flirting with sex to titillate an eager 1930s audience. Pettin' In The Park was meant to be the film's big finale, but instead the studio was delighted with another big number and moved that to close Gold Diggers - a production number carrying a remarkable slap at the political injustice of the Depression.

Plunged into chaos by the 1929 stock market crash, the global economy was ruined for a decade. At the height of the Depression, no-one's really sure what the unemployment rate was in America, but figures of over 20 percent seem likely. (The current 2016 unemployment rates in Spain and Greece are 20 and 24 percent respectively). Jobs disappeared and the breadlines lengthened; only the economic burst stimulated by World War II in 1939 eventually pulled the world out of the economic doldrums. And in the Depression-era US, the discarded veterans of World War I often found themselves in poverty, with little government support despite the hard times. Congress had defied President Coolidge in 1924 to institute a bonus payout for veterans, but the bulk of the payouts wouldn't be made until 1945. This was no use to anyone. A small army of around 17,000 veterans and their families - the Bonus Army - camped out in Washington DC in the summer of 1932 to demand immediate payout of their bonus to alleviate their hardship, but the wasteland campsite was broken up by the US Army and two of the Bonus Marchers were shot dead. On President Hoover's orders, the US Cavalry charged an encampment of US veterans, in an incident that sealed the fate of the Hoover presidency. In November 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt was swept to power, ushering in the New Deal politics that helped to lessen the worst effects of the Depression.

Despite being a frothy, silly musical comedy, Gold Diggers ends with a performance number that taps into this rising sense of injustice and protest against the harsh fate endured by veterans. The film's companion piece, 42nd Street, which was released only two months earlier in March 1933, had no numbers like it.

Blondell's Carol dashes from backstage to centre stage to perform My Forgotten Man, an ode to the neglected and downtrodden veterans of America. Clearly dressed as a streetwalker, which is remarkable in itself because the audience is being asked to empathise with a 'fallen woman', she leans against a street-corner lamppost, and recites rather than sings:
I was satisfied to drift along from day to day
Till they came and took my man away 
Remember my forgotten man
You put a rifle in his hand
You sent him far away
You shouted: "Hip-hooray!"
But look at him today 
Remember my forgotten man
You had him cultivate the land
He walked behind the plow
The sweat fell from his brow
But look at him right now 
And once, he used to love me
I was happy then
He used to take care of me
Won't you bring him back again?
'Cause ever since the world began
A woman's got to have a man
Forgetting him, you see
Means you're forgetting me
Like my forgotten man
This is then repeated, sung by the distinguished contralto Etta Moten (famed for her Porgy & Bess performances), with vignettes of women left alone to cope without their men, and Blondell's streetwalker defending a derelict from the menaces of a policeman by pointing out the service medal inside the drunk's coat. 

This segues into Berkeley's Parade of Forgotten Men, clearly influenced by European cinema and the realism of Lewis Milestone's 1930 anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front. Marching soldiers are cheered off to war, only to return as shells of their former selves, bloodied, bandaged and limping, bearing stretchers and with their unconscious comrades slung grimly over their shoulders. In civvies, they queue for handouts of bread and coffee. Cutting to the theatre stage, a small army of civvie-clad veterans march as the music swells, surrounded by their women, with the silhouettes of dozens of rifle-bearing infantrymen carefully choreographed behind them. Finally, torch singer Blondell returns amidst them all, to sing the last verse again: 'And once, he used to love me - I was happy then...', and with outstretched arms the women and men of the chorus reach forth and sing, 'Like my forgotten man'.

Busby Berkeley's The Parade of Forgotten Men, Gold Diggers of 1933
Gold Diggers of 1933 ends there. Nothing follows this number. (At least, not in this version of the film - other edits were made for different US state and overseas censorship regimes). No snappy wrap-up, no jokes, nothing to distract from the abrupt and intentional shift from dippy comedy to hard-hitting political commentary. This was the only production number Berkeley ever made with a political theme, and it's a striking example of propaganda film-making at its most persuasive.

See also:
Movies: Ruggles at Gettysburg, 17 September 2013
Movies: Tabu, 28 May 2012
Movies: Marion Davies in Show People (1928)