Do you think Antiques Roadshow is for your gran and that one kid at school who wore glasses, had patches on his elbows and understood the Gold Standard?
Me too.
But, what about if, instead of stuffy toffs and crap old things, we had a down-to-earth yank (with a passing resemblance to a Mitchell Brother) and oddball, but cool, collectables?
Now that is a totally different proposition.
In Pawn Stars we have a Las Vegas pawn shop owner Rick who could also pass for Vic from The Shield.
Rick runs the shop with his old man who has seen everything in the pawn trade.
Also working there is Rick’s son Big Hoss and his friend Chumlee whose role in this is to play the fool, which he seems to love.
Episodes are formulaic where random items (guns, a Harley, replica bat mobile or Kiss pinball machine) come into the shop and either gets valued straight away or for the particularly oddball items (table with inbuilt gun, New Deal bank notes) an expert comes in to value the item.
So far, so Antiques Roadshow variant.
But then Rick offers his own money to buy the item. Which is where the fun really begins as Rick and the item’s owner haggle over the price.
Sod old blokes in stuffy tweed suggesting how much to insure the piece for or how much something could get at a hypothetical auction.
Witness the auction as it happens.
Offer and counter offer. The cut away shot to earlier where the seller tells the camera what the lowest possible price they would take is, which is followed by Rick getting them to part with it for less.
My personal favourite is when they get a gambling item in, such as a roulette wheel.
Rick will do something awesome like say he’ll meet a price if they spin and it lands on the colour the seller selects.
But if it lands on the other colour, Rick only pays the price he has named. Real money in reality TV makes for real drama.
The format may be formulaic, but the show is well made and extremely compelling viewing.
A sparkling gem amongst the dross of reality TV which you can find showing in the UK on ITV 4.

Top AI in film

March 12, 2016

Following on from last week’s post about the AI movie Ex Machina, here is a list of my favourite movie AI:

HAL – the machine in 2001 A Space Oddessey. Space ship has conflicting programing with consequences for the crew.

Sonny – I Robot – based on the books of Asimov, this movie was good fun, Will Smith gave a good performance and played really well with AI debating which of them could create an artistic masterpiece.

The Terminator – the determined machine with one task, kill Sarah Connor. The special effects look a bit dated, particularly the scene with the part human part machine face, but the concept was so strong it launched a franchise of films, a tv series and some under rated comics.

The Matrix – the false world humans live inside as part of a great lie perpetuated by machines. The most interesting part of this is the discussion of the early version where everyone got what they wanted, but it failed as no one believed in it.

False Maria – Metropolis. A fake girl who changed film forever. Love the look.

Feel free to tell me your favourite AI in the comments section.

The Turing test is a concept which most people interested in computers and particularly AI have heard of. Named after genius Alan Turing of Bletchley Park fame (the type of fame which comes after your work is declassified many years later) who was finally posthumously pardoned for the non crime which scandalized his career.
Turing set the test for AI two decades before Bill Gates dropped out of college with the ambition to put a pc on every desktop.
The premise of Turing’s test is a simple one. Can a machine pass for human?
Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina turns the test into drama. His skill as a writer is evident when he explains the test in conversation between the two protagonists. The concept of the movie is one which touches on some of the fears of our age. How are those who oversee all of humanity’s internet searching using that data? Are they training AI to spot when a human lies, are they tracking an individual’s searches so they can build an AI body which matches those desires? There is also the underlying issue of once you have built a sentiment AI, is it your property? Should it be free?
Garland wrote the novel which became the excellent Danny Boyle movie, he also wrote the screenplay for another highly acclaimed Boyle movie 28 Days Later as well as penning Sunshine which Boyle also directed (as an aside, I thought the better tale would have been what happened on the first ship which failed in its mission rather than the second attempt).
The movie is well acted and Garland does get under the skin of his characters, including the AI – which in a movie about the Turing test is vital.
The special effects are at the standard you would expect, but this movie is really about the interaction of characters, human and AI.
I highly recommend watching Ex Machina.
(as a further aside Garland ends the film in a place where many would have started a film about AI. And perhaps that film in Garland’s hands would be interesting, but he has done a brave and intellectually challenging thing, making the Turing test into great drama.)

Professor River Song is among the best characters ever to grace Doctor Who.
My brother complains she is essentially a renamed Bernice Summerfield from the spin off books from the 1990s . But the on screen coup of getting Alex Kingston to play a recurring character in the series cannot be underplayed.
From her first appearence in the Library she was a force to be reckoned with. The constant use of wibbly wobbly timely wimey to show what would really happen to time travellers who cannot possibly meet in the right order.  River’s last chronological lines before she dies are that through everything they have been through he has always known how she is going to die. At that point she is basically a stranger to the 10th Doctor.
The 11th Doctor then slowly gets to learn more about her as they meet again and again all the while more mystery being revealed as we discover who River is and how she fits in to the lives of the 11th Doctor’s other friends.
The way she gets to know more than the Doctor is a refreshing change for a show which has run, with a break, since 1963. Previously the only characters who have got anywhere near him have been other timelords.
Her entrance into the 11th Doctor’s life involves some pretty awesome shoes followed by psychic lipstick and a cameo from Mike Skinner of The Streets fame.
The Weeping Angels, one of the best baddies of modern Who play second fiddle to her.
The juxtaposition of transformation is one of the funniest elements of the show in recent years. The Doctor doesn’t recognise himself when Prisoner Zero takes on his form, but the first thing River does is find a mirror.
Rule number one is the Doctor lies, which River oft repeats. But she is a liar too and this is clear when she sees Amy just after she has defeated the Weeping Angels, but much later on in Amy’s timeline.
The definitive moment of River Song is when facing a dalek in the pandorica story, where the dalek predicts she will let it live and she says: “I’m professor River Song, look me up.” It’s response after looking her up sums up why River is so unique in Doctor Who.

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My copy of The Hobbit

I have been reading The Hobbit to my seven-year-old son. He is loving it as his bed time story and I am enjoying re-reading the childhood classic I loved. It was one of the early books I selected for myself and I whizzed through it when I was 11.
But during the bedtime re-read I have noticed something – and it is a bug bear I have with other books – the pacing.
So, the first 10 chapters cover about 200 pages, with some chapters pretty heavy going (just before the woods, the slog through those woods, the bit with the elves) but the last 9 chapters cover about 100 pages and quite quickly zip along. Short and to the point, the plot moves much faster than in earlier chapters.
Sometimes I feel like I am reading a completely different book.
Now Tolkien has form for poor pacing in my opinion, when I was reading The Two Towers at 12 years old, I was aware of the weary trek of Frodo and Sam which went on and on and on . I nearly gave up on that book , abandoning the two of them to those marshes. Much later I would laugh heartily at Clerks 2 with the comment on the film adaptations: “even the trees walked in those movies”.
But, back to my point. It feels like two different books, kind of jammed together. The long saga of The Unexpected Journey and the fast pace of the adventures at the Lonely Mountain.
How did this happen? A fast approaching deadline, perhaps? A change of editors halfway through the job.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the book when I first read it and I am enjoying the re-read with my son. If not for this book, many of the books I have enjoyed would never have happened.
And Tolkien is not alone in having pacing issues. I often find myself frustrated at books, films and tv series for this exact reason. I may blog about another more modern example at some point, but for now, feel free to tell me if you agree or disagree with my view of this legendary and much loved book.

You may not have heard of The Martian yet, but I suspect soon enough you will have.
Matt Damon is about to star in the big budget Hollywood version of the book. Trailer here.
Damon is a big name to play the role of astronaut Mark Watney. This big name actor and Hollywood movie are an indication of the immense success the novel has had.
If the film follows the book closely enough, it should be a good film and a huge box office success.
Perhaps this blog will cover the film after it is released (or perhaps not).
The novel is a rare thing, a self-publishing smash hit. Andy Weir released the ebook in 2011 and it sold and sold and sold by word of mouth alone of just how good the narrative is.
A publishing deal followed with an imprint of Random House, hardback edition followed by paperback.
The novel is really well written in the vein if your classic adventure story of a stranded man trying to survive in a hostile environment (Robinson Crusoe in space anyone?).
The pacing is superb. You roll along with Watney at a great speed bouncing from one problem to another sharing his highs and lows.
There is a fair amount of science in the novel too. The technical challenges of growing vegetable matter on Mars should bore the pants of you, but it doesn’t.
You find yourself wanting to understand the process as it is a matter of life and death to Watney. Making you care about this biological problem demonstrates Weir’s masterful writing.
Bearing in mind the majority of the text is about one man alone in a hostile environment, the narrative races along.
definitely read the novel, if you like it, try the film when it comes out too.

Minecraft is awesome – a world-wide phenomenon, loved by millions, including me.

But, there is just one small thing which bugs me about this sandbox game.

Maybe it is just how my friends and I play it, but after a while you end up with so much clutter, it starts to feel like an episode of Hoarders.

In survival mode, you’ve built a shelter from the Googlies (Stampy word) and you have mined, chopped down trees and collected all sorts of objects from gold to buckets full of lava.

What do you do with all this stuff?

You build chests to store all these things for the day later in the game you may need this item or that one.

Then you play some more, which naturally means collecting more stuff.

Then your chest is full, so you extend it to be a double chest.

Then the double chest is full.

So you make a new double chest and another and another. Soon you have so many you have to make signs to hang above each double chest to label each: “plants”; “rocks”; “food”; “tools”; “weapons”; and so on and on and on.

Each world I have played in Minecraft survival mode has been awesome until I have got to the point where I have so much stuff I have a house full of chests all full of clutter.

On some level the game seems to lead us towards the accumulation of things. At some point it flips from the basics you need to survive the harsh world to a modern problem of having just way too much stuff in your life.

The game moves seamlessly from battling to live with nothing but your wits to the world of high capitalism in its purest form.

You mine, you farm, you make, you barter, you own. You own some more.

The whole game boils down to accumulating more and more, some kind of Ferengi heaven of acquisition.

I don’t know if there is some hidden, intentional irony, in where the game takes you – the guy who built it sold the game to Microsoft for an astronomical sum.

Maybe the whole game is some kind of ironic take on human society which I am not smart enough to get.

Or maybe its a great game of battling against the elements, building unbelievably cool structures until you end up with a house full of chests full of stuff you don’t need.

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