Archives for October 2013

The Amazing “Scale of the Universe 2” interactive Graphic.

Scale of the Universe 2.

Scale of the Universe 2.

Dara O’Briain’s Science Club had its second series on BBC2 over the summer. Impressively, he managed to keep it genuinely informative and fun without ever becoming patronizing.

Like a number of his fellow BBC2 and 4 presenters, most notably Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili, he refuses to dilute any of the science, whilst insisting on making it all as accessible as possible. And he’s ably assisted by fellow presenters Mark Miodownik, whose recent book Stuff Matters got rave reviews, including this one from The Guardian.

The BBC2 Science Club team.

The BBC2 Science Club team.

And by Helen Czerski, who gives the impression that she knows that the topic she is covering is fascinating, but is resigned to the reality that none of us will be able to follow what she has to tell us about it. Which, needless to say, makes what she has to say all the more appealing.

One of the sidebar topics that O’Briain covered during the summer was an amazing info graphic that went quietly viral about a year ago. The reasons that it generated so much interest were twofold.

First, it really is a brilliant graphic. You scroll in and out, from the smallest things in the universe at the length of the Planck Constant at 10 to the minus 35 of a meter, to galaxies, nebula and the entire observable universe. And it’s all perfectly to scale.

Jim Al-Khalili's "Science And Islam".

Jim Al-Khalili’s “Science And Islam”.

Predictably, I (and I should imagine many others beside) spent a number of hours looking things up, convinced that they’d made a mistake. But no, the Earth really is that close in size to Venus, likewise Neptune to Uranus. Have a look at the Scale of the Universe 2 here. It’s addictive.

Although of course Apple won’t let you use Flash, so you won’t be able to fool around with it if you’re using an iPhone or Pad. But you can see how the whole thing works on them here.

Second, even more remarkably, the whole thing was put together by Cary Huang,  a 14 year old school boy from – where else – California, together with his twin brother Michael. For Fun. It wasn’t even a school project. All it took was the Internet and a pair of infinitely curious minds. There’s an excellent overview and interview with them by David J. Hill on the Singularity Hub here.

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“Masters Of Sex” and the death of the Soap Opera.

Masters Of Sex.

Masters Of Sex.

The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Homeland, The Shield, The Killing, The Returned reviewed here, Top Boy reviewed here, our own Love/Hate, 24, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, House Of Cards, Six Feet Under, Lost, Game Of Thrones, Glee, Buffy, and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviewed here.

They all give us believable characters in a recognizable world that you really want to invest your time in. Because what they are all about is the relationships that are forged between the individuals who live there, and the brilliantly told stories that connect them and bring them all into conflict.

In other words, they all do what soaps used to do in days gone by. Except they’re much, much better written, acted, directed and produced.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

Which isn’t merely because they all have far more money to spend than a conventional soap ever did. Rather, it’s a reflection of the radical transformation that television had undergone over the last decade or so. It’s part of what’s come to be called box set culture.

Television programmes have to be so good today, that they demand to be seen on our ever larger and louder television sets. So that downloading them or streaming them onto your phone just isn’t going to be enough.

Not only that, they have to be so good, so remarkable, and to generate so much talk and interest, so much noise,  that you’re going to feel an uncontrollable urge to buy the box set and watch them all again. So good in fact, that when then they’re all repeated, repeatedly on cable and satellite, you’ll happily watch them all again.

On the job.

On the job.

The latest in the current line of Olympian television is Masters of Sex. Based on a revolutionary study into sexual mores and mechanics in the late 50s and 60s, it revolves around Michael Sheen as the sexually prudish but scientifically driven doctor, and the partnership he strikes up with the sexually liberated but completely unqualified Lizzy Caplan, who he takes on as his assistant.

He by the way is called Masters, and she Virginia. Which could easily have been an example of how cleverly yet simply the different dynamics of sexual politics are delved into and inverted on the show. But that really was what they were called.

In many ways, it’s little more than Mad Men lite. But it’s so well acted and written, and the stories and their arcs are so carefully and cleverly plotted, and it and they all look so fantastic – soft porn has rarely looked as plush, lush and refined – that you happily sit back, relax and let it all wash over you.

One more reason to stay in of an eve. And one more nail in the Soap Opera coffin.  You can see the Masters of Sex trailer here.

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Janelle Monae’s New Album Razzle Dazzles.

Electric Lady.

The Electric Lady.

The Electric Lady is the much awaited follow-up to Janelle Monae’s debut The Archandroid from 2010. Like its predecessor, it’s not so much a concept album, as it is one that inhabits a musical landscape in much the same way that Bowie planted himself in the world of Ziggy Stardust.

If anything, this is an even more impressive affair than her debut. Not unlike Bowie, despite borrowing and imbibing voraciously from any number of different sources, what she ends up producing somehow manages to have a remarkable musical coherence.

Bowie as Ziggy.

Bowie as Ziggy.

There are echoes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, oodles of Sly and The Family Stone, and a hint of Booby Womack. But most of all, the album nods, genuflects and embraces the figure of Prince.

Correctly – and significantly – the album kicks off with a duet with him. Before subsequent tracks see her joined by Erykah Badu, Solange, Miguel and Esperanza Spalding as she fuses and melds jazz, funk, soul and RnB with hiphop. And all of it drowned in her sumptuous melodies and soaring vocals.

“Categorize me, I defy every label.” Q.U.E.E.N.

The boys from Pitchfork gave it an 8.3 here. If it doesn’t make your end of year top 5 list, I shall eat an item of clothing of your choice. You can see the official video for Q.U.E.E.N. here.

Skip the opening 50 seconds and head for the song proper. And you can hear the sensational title track Electric Lady  here.

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Joss Whedon’s “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Shimmies and Shines.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

After the all conquering success of Buffy and Angel, everyone in Hollywood was desperately praying for Joss Whedon to fall flat on his face. And sure enough, both Firefly and Dollhouse duly bombed.

But Americans do it seems have second acts after all. As a matter of fact, all of them do. It was just Fitzgerald who proved to be the exception. And sure enough, Whedon bounced back commercially with the spectacular box office smash Avengers Assemble – reviewed earlier here. And then, on a completely different scale, with the much admired Much Ado About Nothing – reviewed by me earlier here.

The ludicrously overlooked Firefly prequel "Serenity".

The ludicrously overlooked Firefly prequel “Serenity”.

And now he’s married those twin strands and has returned to television with yet another Marvel product from their perpetually revolving assembly line.

There was really only one of two ways that this could have gone. Either it would be one more depressing dilution of what was once an interesting idea in the never-ending pursuit of pointlessly amassing impossible to ever spend quantities of pieces of coloured paper with numbers on them. Yes Star Wars, we’re looking at you.

Or, somehow, we’d get a series that managed to marry the panache, wit and exuberance of Buffy to a whole new family of characters.

Remarkably, actually amazingly, he’s given us the latter.

It’s some time in the future, and in the aftermath of a disastrous War the world has been reduced to a primordial struggle between the forces of good and evil, but a world in which the technological advances have rendered that battle all the more perilous. And fun.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy.

Impeccably structured, and plotted with the kind of confidence that produces regular surprises, as ever it’s the smart, fast and constantly witty dialogue that both propels the action forward and gives the show a gloss that completely sets it apart. You can get a good sense of all of which from the Agents Of Shield trailer here.

Whether or not they manage to maintain that dazzling quality throughout the rest of the show that they managed to squeeze in to the pilot only time will tell. But the first episode was flawless. And if you missed the Joss Whedon space age trip first time around, jump on board.

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