The recent film Source Code (2010) despite it’s cyber setting has at its heart the train.  The soldier played by Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up in the body of a stranger  on a train that is about to be bombed.  Using a secret program called the Source Code he is returned to the train over and over again to identify the bomber. Needless to say Source Code is just one film in a long line that have used the train as a central not just a peripheral part of the film. Indeed the origins of cinema itself have trains at there centre. For the first audiences a moving train appearing on the screen would send some running from the theatre. Over the years the car became central to American cinema and the Road Trip was born and often repeated. 

However I wish to consider only the train, that form of transport that brings so many characters together in one space where the action plays out at incredible speeds ,on the roof, underneath or inside the carriages. Can I see your ticket? thank you, lets now look at the very best films that take the train seriously or otherwise:

Narrow Margin (1990) Gene Hackman and Anne Archer hoofing between carriages in a stylish action film that harks back to the 1950’s. 

Strangers on a Train (1951) What better place to concoct the perfect murder, why the train, you’ve got plenty of time, a table and someone opposite you to put the proposal too. Not sure this film would work on a United Airlines flight to Denver.

Throw Momma from a Train (1987) De Vito’s homage to the film above  but much funnier. In this film you even get an outdoor model train set in the park if my memory serves me. Classic line when Billy Crystal’s character say to momma “I am a friend of Owen” to which the formidable Momma played by Anne Ramsey “Owen doesn’t have any friends”

Source Code (2010) I have to mention this film as it got me thinking about this blog post. The film returns to the train over and over again to replay an eight minute sequence in the style of Ground Hog Day. The opening of the film shows us other forms of transport, mainly the car but then settles on a train hurtling towards disaster.  The film is concentrated on one carriage rather than the entire train.  

Dr. Zhivago (1965)  The vast expanse that of Russia is utilised to the hilt by David Lean who uses the train as a microcosm of revolutionary Russia.  As an annex to Dr Zhivago the film by Warren Beatty ‘Reds’ (1981) has the train at it’s most visually stunning. 

Murder on the Orient Express (1974) adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie.  This version directed by the late and great director Sidney Lumet take the train and its carriages as a hall of mirrors. We enter and think we know what is going but instead the train becomes a wonderful labyrinth of mystery.

So there we have it, the mighty train in some of the best loved films of our times, please leave a comment with your suggestions, this list is far from complete.  However I want to leave you with an excerpt from one my favorite directors the irrepressible Ken Russell.  The plane has indeed been a formidable rival to the train especially within American cinema and the legend that is the ‘mile high club’ has a long tail indeed.  However the train can rival that club and more as this excerpt from Russell’s film the Music Lovers (1970) shows.  This puts the mile high club to shame with a hysteric drunken romp aboard a train overlaid with the music from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique”-Symphony




London Strollers Walking Group: How many unique visitors have the London Strollers had for their website so far in 2011? 1 answer on Quora

How many unique visitors have the London Strollers had for their website so far in 2011?

Posted by: shanedillon | April 12, 2011

How would we communicate if the Internet went down?

How would we communicate if the Internet went down? 12 answers on Quora

How would we communicate if the Internet went down?

Following on from Tim Wu's excellent talk about Information Empires recently at the RSA I had high hopes for this talk. While the talk and questions immediately after did not disappoint you were left hungry for his book The Information'. Of course in an ideal world we would be treated to a double bill with James Gleick and Timothy Wu taking to the stage. Not quite Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster but instead two Information superheroes, though I am not exactly sure what they will save us from? information overload perhaps.

Having read Wu and listened to Gleick my view is that their is some overlap; both take a historical view.  Both examine the importance of the telephone and telegraph. Both takes a historical road that arrives at the internet and in doing so remind us that the internet is just one more (albeit special) part of the story of how we communicate and disseminate information. In some respects their message is that of the historian; we must examine the past to have a better understanding of the present day internet.   However Gleick's  focus was on 'Information' and its relationship with knowledge. What is it we really want? knowledge not simply the Information. This is why the New York Times will survive because they have the skills to turn information into knowledge for their readers. Gleick reminded us that forms of knowledge are changing were once the book was central to  transporting knowledge around the world. You can see that more clearly in Melvyn Bragg's recent TV series about the King James Bible. But in today's world more and more knowledge is kept in the cloud. To access it we need not turn a page but instead turn too a search engine like Google. We search, we get information but Gleich points out this information is very impersonal. What could be more personal? well Twitter and Gleich spent some of the talk advocating Twitter not quite over Google but as being more personal. For example using Twitter we choose what information sources to follow. We follow The Guardian on Twitter which in turn delivers information to us and should we tire of that we simply un-follow thereby turning of the information tap. Gleich thinks that Google needs to and will eventually make search more personal, my view is that they will.

Like Twitter it starts with a 'T' but the next one is the Telegraph. Gleich who spent seven years on his book, admitted that he began with the idea that telephone was more important. However his research  led him to conclude the telegraph was more important. We apply the word 'revolution' glibly to so many aspects of todays internet but in its day the telegraph Gleich reminds us; compressed time and space and played a part in the creation of world markets. More importantly in terms of the information it provided about our world people became more interested in for example what the weather was like in London. The advent of the telegraph heralded the arrival of weather as an item in our newspapers though in the UK the weather is close to a national obsession. Incidentally it was the Admiralty in the UK that created the first weather office and weather updates were sent by telegraph.

Alongside Tim Wu, James Gleich illuminates our understanding of what some people refer to as the "oil that will drive the 21st century'. Information as the new oil might sound dramatic but this is a commodity that drives some of the biggest companies of our age.  Eric Schmidt  puts it like this "When I grew up it was basically about enterprises – IT. Today computer science is really about consumers and information"

In the 19th and 20th century states have fought wars to gain control over commodities such as oil and steel. In the latter half of the 21st century if information is as important as some commentators claim then would we see conflict between states over who controls the information that ebbs and flows over the internet?

Digital communicators rely on the Internet to deliver communications objectives.  They do this in some cases using tools that we take for granted.  That Facebook discussion, a Twitter Q & A exercise or our communications goals are achieved using tools offered by Google.  However digital communicators should on occasion step back and question the industry that provides the tools they come to rely on. This is what I did recently after attending a talk by Tim Wu whose book 'The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (2010) inspired this blog post. 

Once applied, history can be something of a leveller.  Take for example the Internet which even in 2011 has the ability to astound and even hold you in awe of its power, especially in field of communications.  Where there is the Internet the word 'revolution' is never far behind.  So it was refreshing if not a bit sobering to hear Professor Tim Wu at the RSA recently, framing the Internet within a historical perspective.  By framing it in this way Wu allows the Internet to stand comparison to other media such as radio, television and films.  In their day all three of these mediums induced great bursts of idealism with grand proclamations of how they would benefit humanity.  Truth be told, they did, Wu in his talk he paints a picture of the early part of the 20th century of rank outsiders, amateurs and those who dreamt of making a fortune utilizing theseC emerging technologies.

The period was a wild west of ideas  with some unlikely innovators, for example farmers in remote areas of the U.S. who would hook up to early telephone lines not just to chat to one person but many.  Nor would they just talk but would  play music, tell jokes, trade gossip, one such farmer was Edward Burch who as part of a movement of early telephone connectors who would at pre-arranged times broadcasted to his neighbours from his telephone.  Not exactly the Twitter of its day but the keyword here 'connect' for him it was a telephone but today we 'connect' but do so over the Internet.  Running alongside and even before Burch were bigger players whose companies bear the name of what would later become giant monoliths like CBS, NBC, Fox and Paramount films.  Their founders where the great disruptor's of there day who fought against and subsequently created monopolies. They sought to control these emerging technologies. Disruptor's came in many forms and not all good, take Zukor for example whose vision for cinema was one of vertical control that allowed  Paramount to own the various layers that make up cinema; actors, studios, distribution and the the theatres.  One keyword mentioned earlier was to 'connect' the other key word that would come to dominate the information empires would be 'control'.  In Zukor, we can see a palimpsest  of Steve Jobs who is rightly lauded for innovation but is not shy when it comes to control.  Over at Slate Magazine Tim Wu produced profiles of each of the key players that created information empires starting with Theodor Vail (Telephony) , Adolph Zukor (Cinema) , Steve Ross (Time Warner)Ted Turner (TV) and Steve Jobs (Apple) all of whom are referred to as 'The Great American Information Emperor's.

What Tim Wu reminds us is that  during the 20th and the early part of this century the emergence of monopolies within the information industries of which today's internet is a major part.  The internet we learn from Tim Wu like many emerging technologies when they arrive do so with a burst of idealism that overtime incurs a relative decline. A sign of that relative decline is a lack of innovation with the technology delivering up an information products of mediocre proportions.  Today we can see Apple, Google, Facebook and to minor extent Twitter taking up what are the commanding heights of the digital landscape.  These are companies born from Schumpeterian innovation and are a  prime example of what can emerge from democratic states with capitalism as their economic model.   However over time these giant's of the information industry start to resemble monopolies that risk becoming more concerned with controlling the internet than innovating it.   They become so large that as companies they take on the role of not just players but who are instead taking control and altering the common ground that we all play on which is the internet itself, the carriage for so much of our day to day information.  

Tim Wu coined the phrase 'net neutrality' to explain what we he thinks we want to avoid and you can get a succinct definition of what he means here However it would be wrong to assume that the Internet and technology giants we know today are acting as a shadowy group, who like a Bond film are intent on taking over the Internet.  This may or may not be the unintended consequence of there dominance, only time will tell.  We as consumers are complicit in this process, why?  well we like the convenience of what Google and Facebook offer up as their version of the Internet. Take Facebook and for anyone who has seen the Social Network (2010) arose in a blaze of innovation that collated existing ideas but just delivered a better version of those ideas much as Bell did a century or so before with telephony.  As consumers we accept the limitations offered by these services in exchange for convenience.  The Facebook experience delivers up a version of the Internet that is not that different to a large hamburger and fries at the end of a drunken night. Basically it does the job and its a forgettable experience  but we do it again, log on, like page and when it asks in an Orwellian fashion 'what's on your mind' we sometimes let the cat out of the bag with our answers.  Fair enough this is a harsh and sometimes cliched characterisation of Facebook especially as it is often appended with the word 'revolution' when we talk of places such as Tunisia and Egypt.  That the Internet is utilised to a lesser or greater extent for political purposes and has generated varied opinion of which two poles are that of Morozov (The Net Delusion) and Shirky (Here Comes Everybody)

However the fact that it is used for political purposes in some cases makes it incumbent that the Internet remains open. That is the Internet as a carriage should remain open to all and priority not given to those who can pay that bit extra or who exert undue influence.  Indeed  governments who embrace the Internet giants lightly for now but who knows how tight in the future?  If the Internet giants like those before, film studios, newspapers and the automobile industry can help governments they will and often in a benign way that benefits us all.  However what the emerging monopolies fear most is regulation that would loosen their dominance over what is becoming the dominant information network of our time. How can we be sure that  monopolies are forming and to characterture the clairvoyant 'give us a sign'.  One sign Tim Wu cites is a lack of innovation with companies delivering up much the same product that has delivered so much riches to their coffers.   Google is an interesting case that seems to be guarding against this faith as it emerges as a dominant force, who reading has not used their products, not many I would wager.  An example from Google was Wave and yes it  ultimately failed but demonstrated a desire to move  beyond the status quo with an innovative product that consumers ultimately rejected.  Perhaps consumers are happy with the convenience that existing services offer or Wave was just a crap product, I of course thought the opposite .

The path is by no means set and the Internet will not necessarily follow the same path as was trodden in a 20th century that witnessed the emergence and subsequent breaking up of monopolies.  The open source movement is just one example that could in time act as a counter weight to the products that flow from the Internet and technology giants. By its very design the Internet maybe beyond control by one or a minority of the big players.  Let us hope so because if monopolies  gain control over what is termed the 'carriage' that in turn affects our ability to put freely our own information onto the Internet and have it treated no differently from others then this will have consequences in the future.  Of course the question then arises who owns that information?  so many questions and some of the answers might be over at Quora.  Innovation is far from dead.

Posted by: shanedillon | March 10, 2011

Shirley Henderson star of the film Meek’s Cutoff.


She was interviewed at the Bfi Southbank, London. She also starred in Michael Winterbottoms film Wonderland.

After seeing Never Let Me Go (2010) the word that encapsulates the film is ‘flat’.   What follows readers requires me to issue a spoiler warning but lets face it many who end up seeing this film will be those who have read the book.  However the purpose of cinema is not merely to take its source material and recreate it on screen for the amusement of others.  Cinema at its best adapts the novel to show readers and film fans alike  a different interpretation.  The plot is on the face of it dystopic and falls within the fine tradition of British science fiction.  Take for example the Children of Men (2006) which dealt with fertility issues. Imagining a world in which babies are no longer born but one women remains fertile; cue car chases, action ,conspiracy and intelligence.  The dystopia is spelt out and those who uncover it attempt to fight back.   However in Never Let Me Go (2010) the dark dystopia at the heart of the film is hinted and the victims accept their faith blindly.  The society alluded too is one were citizens can live to a hundred on the back of organs extracted from a children who grow up and have organs taken away in what are termed ‘donations’.   

The children are prepared for this fate in Halisham a boarding school overseen by guardians.  The school like most of the film hints at strangeness but is rather mundane and ordinary compared with the Brunel inspired school at the heart of Innocence (2004).  At that particular school children arrive by coffin.  At Halisham the three main characters form a bond that will connect many years later as the donations start and their demise begins.  The faith of these special children is not a million light years away from the replicants in Blade Runner (1982) They too are specially created and seek like Hailisham’s alumni the truth about their existence but where they differ is the replicants rage against their demise whereas the Halisham alumni accept or merely seek to prolong their lives by about three years.  

That the characters accept their fate owes much to the source novel from Kazua Ishiguro , literary reviewers have cited that his novels deal with conformity.  The novel has been adapted by Alex Garland and in some respects he tries to be faithful to the source novel.  The film could have taken a different take and depart from the book  becoming more not less a science fiction film.  The film hints at science fiction but instead prefers to be more of a literary drama.  Though drama is not the films strongest point and Kiera Knightly as Ruth puts in a very average performance and even when she is on her last donation and will surely die my emotions were not stirring.  Happily Carey Mulligan (Kathy) is much better and really does command presence  and had the film put more emphasis on her it might have been better.  Having survived Halisham she becomes what is known as a ‘carer’ a kind of MacMillan nurse assigned to each donor as their demise looms.   Her humanity quietly shines and in a scene later in the film as if like one of Blade Runner’s replicants she and Tommy visit their makers.  In the case of ‘Never Let Me Go’ their former teachers whom they visit in a vain attempt to extend their time on earth.  Upon leaving, one former Halisham teacher remarks ‘you poor creatures’. This alludes to their non-human status as if merely farm yard animals in a vile organ harvesting scheme that allows the rest of humanity to live longer by avoiding terrible afflictions that kill us all in the end.  

The matter of fact way that everyone accepts this dystopic reality can in one sense be applauded. Rather than pursue a science fiction plot that discovers a conspiracy and then fights back.  bred for that purpose.  However some allusion to dissent might have been warranted.  Fair enough the film chose not to go down the  science fiction route but is does not however fully replace it with drama. So we end up with a film that is neither a thoughtful science fiction film nor a literary drama.   Indeed the film relies on some voice over narration in attempt to keep the viewer on the straight and narrow or is it in place to remind us all of the literary pedigree of the film?  Lines are read out by Carey Mulligan as if we the audience have converged not at the cinema but at the Hey-on -Wye Book Festival.

In fairness to the film directed by Mark Romanek it always teases your curiosity and keeps you moderately  engaged.  In addition as the film moves from Halisham taking in the intervening if uneventful section that is their stay at the stables a halfway house before being introduced to society the final reel has emotional impact.  We can be thankful to Carey Mulligan for this achievement for a film that is worth seeing but hardly essential.   

Can location based services like for example Foursquare be used creatively to promote Human Rights issues? 1 answer on Quora

Can location based services like for example Foursquare be used creatively to promote Human Rights issues?

Can location based services like for example Foursquare be used creatively to promote Human Rights issues? 1 answer on Quora

Can location based services like for example Foursquare be used creatively to promote Human Rights issues?

Posted by: shanedillon | January 18, 2011

Why aren’t Woody Allen’s movies gaining traction?

Why aren't Woody Allen's movies gaining traction? 4 answers on Quora

Why aren't Woody Allen's movies gaining traction?

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