Sunday, April 30, 2006

MICF - Sidetrack: It's A Mother!

Everyone loves their mum. Some more than others. For many young Greek boys and girls, the love of the mother knows no bounds. This is the central idea behind a sensational series of sketches, It's A Mother! At times bittersweet but always affectionate, It's A Mother! puts Greek mothers on centre stage, paying tribute to the role the have played in bringing up generations of children.

The show is put on by the Sidetrack Performance Group, a veteran Sydney group who are performing the show for the first time in the Athens of the south. The cast of three, Alex Blias, Elena Carapetis and Natalie Alexopoulos work tirelessly to create rich, believable characters with depth and subtlety. A team of writers have written the sketches and the ideas are tied together by the sure hand of director Don Mamouney.

The sketches present a variety of Greek mothers, all neatly fulfilling the expectations of motherhood. One of the most hilarious 'mothers' is Stavroulis, a well-to-do Greek Dame Edna who is eagerly seeking a partner for her beloved son. What follows is a hilarious commentary on the social taboos that a conservative Greek mother perceives in a potential daughter-in-law. The old are out. So are the ugly. And the frail. And the Catholic. Indeed the one who makes it almost through to the end finds the ultimate downfall to be food: the potential bride might be a better cook than the doting mother.

Usually the mother is the subject rather than the object, actively asserting her authority over her children. In one very moving scene, an elderly mother is alone in an aged care home, seemingly dead to the world. As her loving son sees her in this decrepit state he agonises over her, desperately seeking to please her despite the mother's obliviousness. The scene is simultaneously pathetic and uplifting, showing that even in a state near death a mother is the ultimate authority.

Some of the sketches are side-splittingly funny, whilst others are warm and contemplative. All of them, though, make you ache for a Greek mother of your own.

MICF - Greg Fleet: Word Up

When he's good, he can very gut-achingly hilarious. When he's off, he's just tough to stomach. On balance, Greg Fleet's latest stand up effort Word Up is more of the latter than the former. Admittedly, the night I saw him might not be all that representative of what Fleet has to offer: at the start of the show he announced that he had recently split from his girlfriend. Recently, as in within the hour. If true, it's sad to hear, but if played for laughs, then it failed.

The premise of Fleet's show is solid: that language is an important part of our lives, yet we continually savage it with our various bastardized versions. Or as the promo material put it more succinctly "Greg Fleet's show takes us on a journey through all things languagey". Throughout Fleet has a series of flash cards that announce the various themes as we progress through the show. Some are straight forward, some are slightly strange, and some are downright bizarre. As it should be.

Some of the best work is the stuff that seems to have been snitched from his radio days, or at least heavily inspired by them. The GayAway infomercial is hilarious, as is his rap song and a cute little piece of theatre on the new sedition laws. A duet at the end with Kieran Butler - a promotional campaign to replace the Bloody Hell effort - is also a winner, although the intro to it is both overdone and factually incorrect, giving credit/blame for the Tourism Commission's effort to Qantas. It's interesting to note that the stuff that works best is the stuff outside the format.

These strong parts, though, are buffered by too many pedestrian moments. It's a telling sign that Fleet's hour show comes in close to 90 minutes after heading down a few too many comedic cul-de-sacs. He's a damn fine comic, but he needs to work out what he wants to say, and then get out there and say it.

MICF - Michael Connell and Dave Wiggins: A Yank Down Under

Every festival there are a few hidden gems to reward the punter who ventures beyond the big names and the major venues. Dave Wiggins is one of those gems. Tucked away in the cosy student common room at Victoria Uni on Flinders Lane (a room which, incidentally, deserves the award for comfiest couches of the festival), Wiggins spins his stories with deceptive ease.

Wiggins is an antipodean American. From Maine initially, Wiggins made the move to New Zealand a few years back after he married a Kiwi girl. Now he's doing a stint in Melbourne with warm up act and buddy, er, mate, Michael Connell. Wiggins' material is based heavily on cross-cultural comparisons between the US, Australia and New Zealand. Having spent a decent amount of time in all three countries, he is well placed to get below the surface and understand the idiosyncrasies of each culture.

A lot of the humour comes from the lay back, dare I say very Australian, style of Wiggins. Though playing to a smallish crowd, he's not desperately eager to impress. He's a bloke having an Australian holiday, and telling a few gags while he's at it. Some of them work, some of them flop, but all the way through Wiggins is clearly enjoying himself. You'd be a sad sad person not to enjoy yourself as well.

Wiggins is the master of planting seeds. Not in the "lock up your daughters" sense, but in the sense that he loves to drop in an innocuous line early on, only to come back to it at the most unexpected of moments. It's a devise he uses to great effect.

His warm-up act Michael Connell is also worth a big mention. Unlike Wiggins, Connell is a local, a proud of it. He shows particular affection for Frankston and Nunawading, two of this city's most memorable suburbs. There's something very authentic and unpretentious about Connell's delivery, telling it like it is, including some very clever observations on gender that take a familiar topic and give it a new slant. Connell is definitely one to watch, and acts as the perfect lead in to Wiggins.

MICF - Wolfe Bowart: LaLaLuna

Take all the angst, tension, violence and hate that there is in the world, scrunch it up into a ball, and nonchelantly toss it over you shoulder. Open yourself up to a world of magic and whimsy, where nothing is as it seems and anything in the world can be achieved if you only wish for it. This is the world of Wolfe Bowart, one half of the Shneedles, who is performing solo in a show that's one of the hits of the Festival: LaLaLuna.

LaLaLuna is a sublime piece of performance art. The premise is simple: our scatterbrained lead has seen the light in the moon disappear, and takes it upon himself to correct this astronomical malady. Along the way, our man encounters balls to juggle, suitcases to climb, balloons to enter, whoopee cushions to play, inner-selves to communicate with, chickens and giraffes to impersonate and audiences to thrill.

Bowart is the ultimate physical performer. He has a breathtaking self-awareness of his own body, and glides effortlessly across the stage with balletic skill. His sleight-of-hand is magnificent and fits in so neatly that you sometimes barely notice that its there, which allows the audience to be swept away in the dreamy mystique that Bowart seeks to create.

A recurring theme in the show is that the ordinary can become extraordinary. Much of the magic derives from ordinary household objects. A basket of laundry is soon a ticket to an imaginary universe, whilst a garbage bin is a place to retreat from the outside world. One of the most incredible is a full-bodied balloon, which creates the Freudian image of a man re-entering the womb. And dancing once inside.

LaLaLuna is a show for all ages. Whilst kids will delight at the sight gags, adults will enjoy, well, the sight gags as well. But from a slightly taller vantage point. And possibly with facial hair. This show is sheer brilliance. It's a travesty that it isn't playing to a full house every night.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

MICF - Jim Lawson is Jim Jones MP in What’s New Peter Costello Whoa Whoa! (politics is showbiz for the ugly)

Sometimes political satire can get a bit tiresome. Depressing as it is, we get so used to seeing the same familiar faces satirized with the same familiar characteristics that we can become immune to it after a while. Take the Prime Miniature, and use this handy political satirist checklist: he’s a liar; he’s socially conservative; he’s a cricket tragic; he sounds like a high school maths teacher. All absolutely true, but after ten years of hearing it, most of us are bored with it.

Political satirist Jim Lawson has realized this as well. And so he’s making a start on the next generation of political leaders. As the title suggests, Howard’s deputy gets a going over, and so does Mark Latham, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Most of the satire isn’t outrageously funny, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see what characteristics are most ripe for the picking.

Jim Lawson plays Jim Jones, the fumbling stumbling t’riffic member for Kalgoolie, although he lives just outside his electorate. On the Gold Coast. We are witnessing an historic day, as Jones addresses his faction (that’d be us) in his new role as leader of the Labor Opposition. In this role, Jones isn’t so much a satire of somebody but of everybody. He’s a generic, try-hard, baby-kissing, cliché-spouting politician who would dismember the corpse of his own grandmother for a vote.

Once this set-up is established, Lawson freely drifts in and out of character without the usual theatrical niceties. One minute he’s Jones, the next he’s a veiled Iraqi Marilyn Monroe and the next he’s a wise-cracking sports coach. Some of the characters are mildly interesting, but too often they’re crude and brash. The justification for their existence within the plot is also weak and makes the show appear a little slap-dash.

Still, full points for trying something different. And Lawson does have a tremendous singing voice that he occasionally lets rip. It’d be nice to hear more of this, especially paired up with some cleverly written satirical songs, rather than the very pedestrian banter of Jones which sometimes fills the stage. The show has its moments, although it needs some sharper writing to be truly memorable.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

MICF - Corrine Grant: Faking It

Corinne Grant will probably play to full houses most of this festival. Which is a shame, really, given the lackadaisical show on offer. It’s a breezy hour of stand-up about, y’know, airlines and shopping centres and B-Grade celebrities and stuff.

Whilst most performers will use a Comedy Festival show as a chance to develop a theme, Grant has not. Instead there is a patchwork quilt of bits and pieces with little or nothing to link them together beyond the occasional segue. According to the listing in the program, the theme is Faking It.

To give credit to Grant, there are some genuinely funny moments in the show, in the form of a few stories that strike a chord. Her anecdote at the end of the show about Richard Branson is particularly illuminating. Grant has been performing for a while and has a good sense of timing and rhythm and seems to genuinely enjoy her time on stage.

As performers become more experienced, there is an expectation that they’ll move on to move difficult terrain, challenging themselves and taking their audiences with them. Everyday observational material is okay for a short stint on stage at a pub with an audience that needs to be quickly impressed or it’ll lose interest. A Comedy Festival crowd is a bit different, though. Punters have invested their time and money in seeing a show, and want to get something more substantial out of it. An new idea. A layered joke. A point.

Over the past few years Grant has done very well for herself. As a regular on both Rove and The Glass House, Grant has become a household name with a legion of fans. Her appeal lies not so much in her sense of humour as it does in her friendly, knockabout nature. She could be your older sister, your best friend, or your Chaddy shop assistant. There’s an obvious sincerity and warmth to her. It does mean, though, that the few forays into political material seem heavy-handed.

Grant is a talented performer. This show, though, is a low risk and low reward effort.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

MICF - Damian Callinan has Spaznuts

Mark it down now: Damian Callinan’s show is the best show at the Festival that involves testicles. You know, family jewels. Aggots. Googlies. Clag bags. Or in his case, spaznuts.

Callinan may be playing in one of the cosier rooms within the monolith that is the Melbourne Town Hall, but he is also a class act. Callinan is not afraid to get personal and draw us into his own life and experiences, and reveal his own weaknesses. This show is about Callinan’s battle with infertility and the effect that this had on his life. Along the way he had his masculinity challenged, split from his wife and received the sneers of people who confuse the worth of a person with the swimming ability of the contents of their scrotum.

Rather than opt for the relative safety of an hour of stand-up, Callinan has taken the road less traveled. The show is a piece of one man theatre complete with all the theatrical devices of an accomplished performer. The storyline takes us through Callinan’s experiences at MISTER, a self-help group for infertile men. With flashbacks aplenty, Callinan’s story is slowly revealed, much of it within the theatrical confines of a sperm sample suite. Callinan brilliantly moves from one character to another in telling his story, effortlessly changing accents and mannerisms. Particularly good are the cast of characters in the self-help group: the gay man, the blokey-bloke and the Enya-loving group leader who are all full of anxieties.

One of the highlights occurs before the show has even started. While waiting in line we are greeted by a sperm clinic nurse who’s there to take a sample, complete with little sample jars and the occasional big one. Callinan makes a damn fine nurse, even if the sight of him in a matron’s outfit is more likely to result in shrinkage than a sample.

Callinan and director Aidan Fennessy have done a sensational job in telling a difficult story in a way that leads to pride rather than pity. Spaznuts is probably not the funniest show at the festival, but it’s certainly one of the most thoughtful and intelligent.

MICF - The Wrong Night

Some comedians avoid The Line. Others go right up to The Line and dip their toe on the other side. And a few comedians completely ignore it, merrily dancing the Cha Cha as they cross over it. One show dedicated to crossing this line is The Wrong Night, a weekly collection of late night silliness which allows comics to perform their most crass, cruel, offensive and tasteless bits of material. In a circus tent.

Comedians have long needed to self-censor their cruder material. Last year the film The Aristocrats revealed the dark side of many mainstream comics. In this hilarious documentary, comics told, discussed and analysed the ultimate dirty joke, each with their own sickeningly brilliant twist (no, you won’t find out what it was here, go and see the film yourself). What The Aristocrats showed is that within each nice, clean cut Jerry Seinfeld is a devilish Amazing Jonathan itching to escape.

The Wrong Night is the Comedy Festival’s The Aristocrats. Each Saturday night a selection of Festival comics combine with the three members of The Six (subversive mathematics goes with their subversive comedy) and take to the stage in the tent at the Umbrella Revolution at Federation Square.

There’s nothing inherently funny about rude and offensive things. You cannot simply walk on to stage and say shitfuckcunt and expect to get laughs. It aint funny. The usual rules of comedy still apply, with big laughs going to skilled story telling, unexpected twists of logic and clever observation. Even when the boundaries of taste are removed, the boundaries of what is funny still remain. Many comics would do well to keep this in mind.

Despite persistent rain and a late start, the first night went off smoothly with Justin Hamilton as the sexually repressed MC. Highlights of the night included the rising star Sammy J, the classy standup of supernova Eddie Perfect and the sketch comedy of Aurora Australis-like The Six. With a different line-up each Saturday, though, this info is about as useless as bathers at the Yarra. Check it out for yourself. Just leave Grandma at home.

MICF - Michael Chamberlin: The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments is not known for its comedic potential. All that coveting, adultering, killing, cursing and general sinning seems very old fashioned. In the hands of Michael Chamberlin, though, there is plenty of fun to be had. Chamberlin has decided that that old list of Ten needs a bit of modernizing, and he’s the man for the job.

The Ten Commandments is merely a frame on which Chamberlin can hang his reams of quality material. He’s not afraid of moving quickly off topic, with only the most modest of fig-leafs to cover his embarrassingly small, er, segue. Some of his best material is absurdist stuff that links only tangentially to his theme: material on Angelina Jolie went down well, as did his bizarre rock-star dream.

Chamberlin is at his best when he goes full throttle in the telling of a story. As his jugular emerges from his designer t-shirt, the beads of sweat slowly begin appearing on his forehead and Chamberlin is bursting with energy. He has a tremendous ability to take the audience with him, both with the narrative of his story and its emotional pitch. This is demonstrated superbly in the last ten minutes of the show, when he plays the part of Jesus in a lecture to the disciples. It’s classic stuff, and Jesus has never been funnier.

In an era or heightened religious sensitivities, it’s a gutsy move to take on the subject head on. Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt has already attacked Chamberlin’s show as Christian-baiting, but it’s nothing of the sort. Chamberlin has a Catholic upbringing, and shares stories of his religion with affection. Far from condemning organized religion, he is seeking to make it relevant in the modern world. His gentle satire on Jesus and God would be appreciated all the more by the devout, and certainly compared to the other subjects that are given a grilling in the festival this is hardly worth getting hot and bothered over. At least this now gives Chamberlin an excuse to get stuck into Bolt, and get stuck in he does. Amen!

MICF - Sam Simmons: Tales from the Erotic Cat

Sam Simmons has a funny body. Not funny in an "awkward in the bedroom" sense, but funny in an "I love slapstick" sense: a supple, malleable body with just a hint of Buster Keaton in his ancestry. Though the stage at the grandly titled Regent Room at the Town Hall is a pokey, claustrophobic place, Simmons uses it to full effect, filling the space with his expressive body and even more expressive props.

During his hour long show, Simmons gives us a hint of his awesome performing talent. He moves with aplomb, he sings with a brilliant operatic voice, and seems to be a fine character actor. The frustration is that these things are just hinted at. Too much of the show is spent in the valleys between these peaks, with some rather slow and ponderous moments slowing the pace.

The show is a collection of loosely intertwined sketches, songs and stories. For greater effect, the show needs to have fewer 'filler sketches', and more time spent developing the sketches that already show promise. Wandering out afterwards, I was desperate to know more about Simmons' bizarro childhood, a world obviously from another time, and possibly also from another planet.

Simmons and his director Alan Brough have worked hard to get the most out of every creative element on offer. In a Festival with plenty of one man/one mike/one spotlight shows, it's refreshing to see something different. Simmons works with a small warehouse of lovingly crafted props and shows some talent as a visual artist with his unusual reinterpretations of everyday objects. He dresses with panache, has a boppy sound track to boot, and has a face you can't help but laugh at. It's lucky he's a comedian and not a funeral director.

MICF - Mark Watson: 50 Years Before Death and the Awful Prospect of Eternity

There are few comics in this year's festival who have a section of their show devoted to administration. Mark Watson is one of them. Watson is a comic who likes to keep his audience on their toes, letting them know that they are not just passive absorbers of comedy, but are active participants.

Being in the audience is serious business: at the end of the night a Most Valuable Player award is given to the best audience member. And the best audience member for the festival? A spot in his will. That's one hell of an incentive to laugh.

Still, it'll probably be a while before Watson's will becomes much of an issue. He's only 26, and by his calculations (well, Google's, actually) he's got another 50 years ahead of him. With this simple arithmetic in mind, Watson is set to take us on a journey through the stages in his life, beginning with all that has happened so far and ending with his inevitable death.

Watson is a comedian who is often interrupted. By himself. As he works through his material, he is deliberately scanning the room for a distraction, any distraction. He'll happily cut himself off mid-story, even mid-sentence, when something more comedic comes along. It is here that he thrives, superbly constructing a back story to all sorts of random events, including a quarter hour devoted to a mysterious couple who walked out abruptly midshow.

It's only early on, but Watson would have to be in the running to be the nicest bloke at the Festival. He's relaxed, unpretentious and damn funny when he's on the fly. At only 26, and with a published novel and stints all over the UK to his name, he's something of a comedic child prodigy. However his style of organised chaos makes him seem like a seasoned veteran. Make sure you catch his show before he becomes a superstar. Or drops dead. You might just end up in his will.

MICF: Tim Minchin

Musical comedy has enjoyed a renaissance recently. First it was Paul McDermott fronting Gud, then came the middle class angst of Eddie Perfect, and in the latest batch are ivory-ticklers Sammy J and Tim Minchin. This group has a lot in common with their musical comedian ancestors, performers including Victor Borge and Tom Lehrer. These performers are all highly accomplished musicians, but stand out for their remarkable verbal dexterity and the ability to fit the surprisingly complex requirements of comedy into the rigours of musical convention.

In a short space of time Tim Minchin has established himself as one of the best. Minchin intuitively understands what makes funny funny, so every second line of his brilliant compositions is a laugh-out-loud punchline. The set-up for each song is quite simple, but the ideas are mined sensationally for comic effect. Take Minchin’s song warning of the dangers of fat kids, a set up which then leaves him open to widely and hilariously speculate on the consequences. There are few things funnier in the world than Tim Minchin on a roll.

Minchin is as comfortable in front of the microphone as he is at his beloved piano. The format of this year’s show is just a little looser than his past two outings in Melbourne, which gives him more freedom for spontaneity. When he heard the cry of a newborn from the back of the room, Minchin went with the flow and was wonderfully successful: just what was a newborn expected to get out of the show, anyhow?

Minchin’s stage persona is oddly charming. Though the black trenchcoat, heavy eye makeup and gravity-defying hair might suggest an angry goth, once he opens his mouth Minchin is friendly and engaging. There is a touch of nastiness to some of his material – taking on thalidomide kids, cot-death victims and the morbidly obese (who, incidentally, would make a sensational wrestling team together) – but it’s all said with a smile.

Later this year Minchin is moving to London, so chances to see this musical genius in action might be limited. Catch him while you can.

Aboard the Comedy Festival gravy train

The start is a little later than usual, but finally it's Comedy Festival time for another year.

Though most years I see more than my fair share of shows, this time I have a professional excuse to: I'm writing reviews for both The Program and for Beat magazine. Lucky bastard.

To maxamise bang for my buck, I'll be cross-posting reviews here, just like last year. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Transport, tax and the environment

Finally we're getting somewhere in tackling Melbourne's congestion. Though there are still some infrastructure fetishists who are pushing for longer and wider freeways, more thoughtful minds are realising the power of pricing to change motorist's habits.

Here's how The Age covered the release of a draft report by the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission (I'd never heard of them either):

Motorists could pay higher peak-hour tolls
By Stephen Moynihan
April 6, 2006

MOTORISTS could pay more to use the city's toll roads during peak periods under options being considered to ease Melbourne's congestion woes.

Under the proposal, CityLink and the operator of EastLink would charge drivers more during the morning and evening peaks but less in off-peak times.
An increase in peak period pricing is an option discussed in the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission's draft report for managing transport congestion.

With an e-Tag on just about every car, it's not a big stretch to see charges on all of Melbourne's freeways and a CBD congestion charge as a means of allocating access to a scarce resource. Of course, this can all be revenue-neutral if it's coupled with a reduction in annual registration fees on vehicles.

Last year I wrote a paper on this very subject for my Economics of the Environment class. I think my findings are particularly prescient, so I've published my synopsis below:

Transport, tax and the environment


Why is motor vehicle use a problem?

Two reasons:

1. Environmental impact:
 Vehicles emit large quantities of local and global pollutants, such as ozone, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide
 These chemicals can be harmful to both environment and human health
 Problem is a product of petrol emitted by vehicles

2. Social impact:
 Congestion becoming more frequent in large population centres
 Occurs when number of vehicles overwhelms the infrastructure to support those vehicles
 Decreases quality of life

Taxation regimes can be used to address problem through altering commuters’ behaviour by closing gap between Marginal Social Cost and Marginal Private Cost

Three methods to be tested:

1. Registration fees on vehicles
2. Excise tax on petrol
3. Space tax, such as parking charges and toll roads


 A fixed cost charge levied each year on each vehicle
 Fee may vary according to vehicle type, but is same regardless of frequency of use
 Fee acts as a sunk cost to the motorist, and so does not effect each marginal decision to use vehicle
 May even act as an incentive for marginal use of vehicle, since this decreases average cost
 Theoretical possibility of decreasing total number of vehicles on road, but this requires registration fee to be high

Conclusion: Not likely to have significant effect on number of vehicle trips per year, and only acts as revenue raising for government.


 A tax on petrol, levied per unit consumed
 Has effect of adding to private marginal cost, thereby discouraging each marginal use of vehicle
 Also has added benefit of encouraging development of non-petrol powered vehicles, whose fuel would not attract excise
 Limitation of excise tax is inability to apply discriminately in time and place
 Tax is effective at discouraging use, so long as petrol is a necessary input

Conclusion: Excise tax works effectively at internalizing negative externality, but may be ineffective in long term if reliance on petrol declines


 Space Tax is a catch-all term to cover congestion charges, toll roads and parking charges, all of which tax the ‘space’ occupied by the vehicle
 Is reliant on technology for compliance, such as e-tag
 Has an effect on each marginal decision to use vehicle
 Can be adjusted according to needs at different times and places, eg peak hour toll charge or cheaper rural parking
 Effective regardless of fuel type used for vehicle

Conclusion: Space tax is effective at discouraging vehicle use and smoothing peaks and troughs in use of vehicle space.


 Ideal tax arrangement combines petrol tax with space tax
 Petrol tax encourages use of alternative fuels, hence addressing environmental problems
 Space tax discourages use generally, and also directly addresses congestion problems
 Registration fees an ineffective way of altering behaviour.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Tell us what you really think

If you haven't done it already, head over to Hack, Triple J's glorified BTN, and have a listen to these sensational goof tapes of Alan Jones from his 2UE days.

Hack have run the audio clips under the banner The Closet Recordings of Alan Jones, which seems to be hinting at the same thing that this listing in Wikipedia refers to:

In December 1988, Jones was arrested in a lavatory block in London West End. He was initially charged with two counts of outraging public decency by behaving in an indecent manner under the Westminster by-laws.

Old news, I know.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

AIJAC @ SourceWatch

Speaking of Pro-Wrestling (see previous post), there's a bit of intellectual biffo going on over at SourceWatch, and thankfully this one's not rigged.

On one side are the folks at AIJAC (Colin Rubenstein, Jamie Hyams and Ted Lapkin) whilst on the other are the authors of Jews and Australian Politics (Philip Mendes and Geoffrey Brahm Levey). At issue? Well, not much really, but a dispute over a conversation between Levey and Lapkin.

Check it out. And wait for the cage match.

I gotta get a life

Passing the hours away at work this afternoon, I found myself surfing through the dregs of pop culture.

I stumbled across this Wikipedia entry for the XFL, the shortlived sports league that aimed to combine pro-wrestling with American football:

The concept of the league was first announced on February 3, 2000. The XFL was originally conceived to build on the success of the NFL and professional wrestling. It was hyped as "real" football without penalties for roughness and with fewer rules in general. The loud games featured players and coaches with microphones and cameras in the huddle and in the locker rooms. Stadiums featured trash-talking public address announcers and very scantily-clad cheerleaders. Instead of a pre-game coin toss, XFL officials put the ball on the ground and let a player from each team scramble for it to determine who received the kickoff option, which unsurprisingly led to the first XFL injury. This type of "coin-toss" has since been referred to as the "injury zone".

It folded after one year. Which makes it about the world's only example ever of an idea failing because it underestimated people's intelligence.

Then there was this website, for IFOCE - The International Federation of Competitive Eating. Here's a snippet from their 'About' section:

The International Federation of Competitive Eating, Inc. supervises and regulates eating contests in their various forms throughout the world. The IFOCE helps to ensure that the sport remains safe, while also seeking to achieve objectives consistent with the public interest -- namely, creating an environment in which fans may enjoy the display of competitive eating skill.

...and amongst it's objectives (sorry, mandate):

• to compile, categorize and make available to fans of the sport a complete history of competitive eating along with an archive of photos and other historic material;

Sport. I shit you not.

For a while I was leaning toward satire, although on balance I suspect this is genuine. Sadly.

Check out the remarkably slender folks who have scored themselves an 'Eater Profile'. Perhaps it's a weight-for-age event.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

New look Hotmail and dud ideas

A few years back, Google entered the web-based email market with its product "Gmail". Though not formally offerred for public use, invitations to join its Beta testing became so widespread that it might has well have been a free-for-all.

Despite all this, and numerous offers to join Gmail, I stuck it out with my Hotmail account, one that I have had since 1997. There is no doubt in my mind that Gmail is the superior product - more storage space and a search function see to that. For me, though, the switching cost (well, effort really) of moving my contacts and stored emails from one to another, as well as informing all and sundry of my new address, made it too much effort. Besides, I concluded naively, the free market should surely dictate that Hotmail would have little choice but to add on the services that Gmail was offering in order to stem the tide of Hotmail refugees.

Yesterday upon logging in to my Hotmail account, I thought for a moment that my patience would be rewarded: I was invited to participate in a Beta testing for a 'new and improved' Hotmail (nothing particularly exclusive about it, since I presume participation is open to all users). Finally, Hotmail was making it's move.

Alas not. The new Beta-testable Hotmail is a regression from where Hotmail was previously, and involves a misguided attempt to merge Microsoft Outlook with Hotmail. The web-based Outlook is slow, clunky, and cluttered and barely usable. The problems with the new version are so fundamental that there is no way that this product could become the mainstream Hotmail product without severe reengineering. Or starting again.

Whilst the weaknesses of the new product are several, I think I'll start with a top five:
1. Inability to move multiple emails from one folder to another, or to mass delete them.
2. The strange attempt to search through my address book each time I type an address in the "To:" field, a process which slows down the entry of data to about one character per three seconds.
3. The massive tower ad and banner ad which occupy 40% of the screen.
4. The inability to include a standard 'signature' in each outgoing email.
5. The constant "Working on your request" message each time a simple request is made.

After less than 24 hours I've reverted back to the old-style Hotmail (which itself is a long way from perfect). If this is the best that the collective minds at Microsoft can come up with, I think I'll do my best impression of a West Papuan and head out on the boat.

Anyone else have any thoughts on the email war?

Sunday, April 02, 2006

It's the Vibewire e-Festival!

The guys at Vibewire have been doing interesting things for young writers online for a few years now, and here's their latest venture. Sounds like it's well worth a look: :: April 4-8

Mark it in your diary now, 'cos you're invited to the second annual e-Festival of Ideas – a conference with a virtual, democratic twist.

It’s free, it’s on 24 hours a day, and you can join in from anywhere in the world!

It's an opportunity for everyone - expert and non-expert – to share perspectives and insights on issues that matter to you, from global poverty to climate change to identity, the media, art and travel. These nine lively panels will feature guests including -

Peter Garrett - Federal MP & musician
Courtney Gibson – Head of Entertainment, ABC TV
Sean Williams – bestselling sci-fi & technology author
Ryan Heath – Author, 'Please Just F* Off, It’s Our Turn Now'
Megan Spencer - Resident film geek, jjj
Erin Free – editor, Filmink
Mary Mycio - Environmental author & journalist
Alan Kay - Software guru
Andrew Charlton - Co-author, ‘Fair Trade for All’
David Ransom – Editor, New Internationalist