Thoughts on Things: Travel Agents

My wife and I went to a travel agent’s to price holidays. The process–telling the agent your requirements, them looking it up and showing you photos and costs–hasn’t changed in 15 years (on the customer side, at least). We sat there while the rep ran queries on multiple systems. To show us photos of hotels, the agent had to turn her small, antiquated monitor around, holding the power cable as she did so (and almost electrocuting herself).

When my wife and I look for holidays while at home, I’d use a laptop that I can hand to her when I find somewhere that looks promising. Or I connect to the Chromecast in my TV and show it on a bigger display.

Imagine going in to book a holiday. The travel agent notes your requirements, then, instead of you huddling around her desk, she streams relevant details to a big wall-mounted screen. It’s touch-sensitive, so you literally flick through photos and videos of possible destinations. You also browse the most suitable flight times and their prices. You capital-L Like the ones which look the best, allowing her to saves those details for you. She uses a single system to search different airlines, meaning it doesn’t take 15 minutes to find the best offers. Her sales technique fails and you’re going to leave? She can email you a link to your customised favourites.

The margins in the travel industry can’t be so tight that this isn’t possible. If they are, there would be no in-person travel agents left. This doesn’t have to involve expensive new-tech. My ‘system’ at home is a £25 Chromecast stuck into a 10-year old telly, and it’s still a better visual experience than what exists at Barrhead Travel.

There must be competitive reasons why the agent can’t use an aggregator similar to Skyscanner. But surely the percentage of holidaymakers who book their holidays by themselves online will only rise because many people won’t want to spend an hour with a travel agent.

There must be some industries where I’d want the purchasing experience to be the same as it was 15 years ago. Travel isn’t one.



Thoughts on Things: the Homeless, Homeland, and Hhhhh…Building Things


At least here in Glasgow, this winter there seems to be an increased awareness of the plight of the homeless. I wondered why this year in particular, and one theory I came up with was the decline in retail. There appear to be more closed-down shops in the busiest areas. More closed shops, more untended shopfronts, more spaces for the homeless to reside in during the day. With no one bar the occasional Police officer to shoo them away, they’re now more visible to shoppers. Reminders of the bleakness homelessness, writ large across the city centre. The drop-off in real-world retail could be a positive for the needy; an unexpected second-order effect of the existence of Amazon


Nowadays I’m interested in town/city/nation-builders–the people involved in creating places and their laws and regulations that allow us to live together without tearing each other apart.

I recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin. As one of the US’ founding fathers, Franklin was vital to the creation of the country as we know it. He saw it emerge from a group of British colonies into a fully-fledged, independent entity. He admitted that they were experimenting with politics–they had to figure it out on the go because it was all new. Imagine creating, say, a town, and watching it develop, like a real-life Sim City. Imagine being dedicated to establishing this new place, succeeding, then realising that was only the beginning. Knowing that, for all your hard work, this place will continue without you, evolvinglong after you go in the ground.

On a smaller but still sizeable scale, I also read Boardwalk Empire, about the creation of Atlantic City (and also the inspiration for the TV show). Try to imagine being Jonathan Pitney, looking at an island of trees and dirt, of few people and numerous insects, and visualising it as a holiday resort. Knowing that, if you can convince people to come, they’re going to need railroads and boats to get them there, hotels to stay in, venues and staff to feed, water, clothe and entertain them. Imagine realising how much effort would be required to do that, how long it would take, and how likely the chance of failure is, and still pushing ahead, taking the first of many thousands of steps. And sometimes I can’t be bothered even making a sandwich.


Seasons of Homeland range from good to mostly entertaining but, in general, opening episodes are boring. Season 7’s wasn’t, which was at least partly due to there being no table-setting involved. The location is the same as last year. We have to meet some new characters, but there’s no need to develop a new locale or give us a sense of Carrie’s new environment. Season 6’s surprise ending with President Keane going the full Erdogan also functions as the ‘previously on Homeland’. We know–mostly–what we’re getting into. Hopefully the show’s early episodes will be better for it.

No doubt there are many Homeland cliches (like all shows), but one is a character receiving a sudden, surprising promotion. Carrie has repeatedly gone from being in the doghouse for repeated insubordination, to leading a takedown of a terrorist leader. This time around it was almost Saul’s turn (and it probably will be soon). This season he had the opportunity to rise up from two months in prison to a senior role in government intelligence. Even in Homeland, that’s an impressive leap

Friday Links: 23/02/18



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Thoughts on: NBA contracts and trades

There are many desirable aspects of being an NBA player: wealth, fame, getting paid to play a sport instead of endlessly clicking a mouse until you go insane or die. Imagine being financially set for life by your mid-20s, and the jet-setting lifestyle might suit the younger athlete. But the insecurity of the position is an odd thing, and I wonder what that does to a player’s mind.

Let’s say you’re an average desk-jockey for a company called…Kettles Inc. You’ve been a solid worker there for three years. One Tuesday, you arrive at work and, before you get to your desk, you’re told your boss wants a word. He tells you you’ve been traded to Sparrows Ltd, a rival company 2,000 miles away. And you need to go right now, because you need to be in their office by Thursday. You quickly call your wife to tell her the news, go home and pack a few things, and get the first flight out.

Luckily, Sparrows turns out to be a good company to work for. You like the owner and the city. You take your kids out of school and bring them there. You buy a nice new house. Despite your best attempts, human nature kicks in and the place starts to feel like home. Your Sparrows contract ends but you’re offered another, with the promise that you’re part of the company’s future. A month later a journalist phones–you’ve been traded again.

Getting unexpectedly let go and having to start again elsewhere is part of any modern working life. And, of course, pro athletes have the financial safety net many of us lack. But it must be odd to work somewhere and put so much time, effort, and emotion into doing your job while knowing that, tomorrow, you could be cut or traded. In most roles, it’s likely that your poor performance is one reason why you’re leaving. In basketball it can be the reverse–giving more than expected (in comparison to your salary) can make you attractive to other teams, and they offer a lot of value in exchange for you. Or your employer might suspect you’ll leave when your contract expires, despite what you tell them, so they trade you to get something in return instead of you just walking away.

Players say they understand that pro ball is a business. “All in the game”. But there still must be some psychological issue to such an unstable lifestyle.

How Did the Arm Know?: On The Cloverfield Paradox


I was intrigued by this film for two reasons:

a) Because it being announced and released in the same day is, quite simply, cool
b) Because a review (that I admittedly only scanned) said Paradox ties the first two films together, and I wondered how that was possible (spoilers: it isn’t)

Paradox isn’t terrible. It’s fine. It’s just…fine. There’s a good performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, acceptable ones from most of the rest, and a poor one from Chris O’Dowd. It’s highly derivative, with elements of Event Horizon, Sunshine, and Poltergeist, among others, but it does nothing interesting with those inspirations. There’s a lack of taste, a misjudged sense of what’s scary, cool, interesting. Table football players spinning of their own accord? Not scary. A basketball-sized gyroscope hiding inside a person? Not sensible. Someone’s eye going squint one way then the other? Also not scary.

The Poltergeist inspiration is obvious in two places:

a) The increasing tension as Volkov inspects his eyes recalls the face-peeling scene from Poltergeist.
b) The spinning of the table-football players was like the variety of household objects in Poltergeist which move to foreshadow the spirit’s arrival. I’m far from a horror buff, but I wonder if Poltergeist was the first film to so effectively use the movement of mundane and inanimate objects as a portent for terror

Chris O’Dowd’s Mundy lacked the charisma and humour that would make his character engaging. Admittedly, Mundy was badly written; even a  superior actor would probably have struggled. “My arm helped find the Earth” is a horrible line, but O’Dowd’s delivery was worse

The disembodied arm thing was misguided and stupid. The film wasn’t fully dedicated to making it disturbing or funny, so it was neither. And the few times we were supposed to be taking it seriously, I was thinking of the ‘farewell to arms’ scene from The Evil Dead 2, which isnt what you want in supposedly dark moments.

Is ‘Parallel dimensions’ a term for ‘script any illogical madness you want’? Why did the arm know where the gyro was? How did Jensen know there was a gun? Why was Volkov able to 3d-print a gun? Because…’parallel dimensions’?

This franchise has a branding problem. Conversations around Paradox were similar to those around 10 Cloverfield Lane, with film fans wondering how the film would link to the others, if it would at all. Here’s Lane director, Dan Trachtenberg in 2016:

“10 Clover Lane and Cloverfield are two different stories. They’re on different timelines.”

“The Cloverfield universe, or “Cloververse”, is really speaking to the name taking on this new meaning, this name being this platform to tell really unique, original stories that are truly bound by that same tone, that same sensibility”

Many, like me, took that to mean Cloverfield would be an umbrella term for a mostly unrelated series of movies, a Twilight Zone or Black Mirror for films. I still imagine a parallel dimension with a series of films under a ‘Cloverfield presents’ or ‘Name: A Cloverfield Movie’ banner, with every installment a weird, pulpy, B-movie sci-fi/horror/whatever stand-alone feature. Instead, I wonder which tenuous way the latest film will try to link to the others. If Bad Robot announced, “We’re going to release lots of  ‘Cloverfield’ films and none will feature the monster”, would enough fans watch to make it commercially viable? Lol, I dunno, but Netflix seems like the ideal platform for it.

This seems kinda hypocritical, but despite just saying I’d prefer if future Cloverfield films didn’t tie into the original, I loved the final shot of the monster roaring above the clouds. Part of the monster’s outline was seen earlier in the film, but I thought I was seeing an alien ship (I rewatched the video and it’s clearly a Clover-esque beast) but then I forgot about it anyway. So, when Michael mentioned “those things”, I didn’t know what he meant. And then a beast came wonderfully into sight.

That monster must’ve been much bigger than the one from the original film. Did Paradox choose to ignore that? Or are we seeing different, bigger beasts?

It must’ve been great to watch the Superbowl live, get the unexpected Paradox ad at halftime, then realise you could watch it that same night. That’s an event movie right there.

But why did the film not go the traditional cinema route? Did Paramount just think straight to Netflix the best channel for this type of movie? Or did they think Paradox was a stinker and this was the best way to avoid losing mad papes on it through standard distribution? Maybe there’s a scandal looming about one of the cast and they wanted to get the film out as quickly as possible? Or, simply, they just thought the buzz created by same-day-release was worth it, bringing attention to a film and franchise that might not have been available another way. As far as I’ve seen, no details have been forthcoming. Maybe we’ll have to wait until an exec gets canned before we got some insider knowledge

An extra star for Paradox for using Don’t Sweat the Technique by Eric B and Rakim

Who Sleeps with the Chimp?: On ‘Noah’

Noah is a slightly unusual film in that its hero plans to kill his grandchildren and becomes so despised by his family that two of his three sons want to murder him

IMDB says Emma Watson’s character is called Ila, but I’m sure it was ‘Baron’. Weird

Escaping in films is problematic without engines. Tubal-cain and his men rush Noah’s ark. The Watchers protecting it can only form a temporary defence. So once Noah gets his family aboard and finally makes it on himself, you’re like “Go, go!”. Then you realise they’re on a boat on dry land, and they have to wait for water to rise high enough that they can float away. Bit of a buzzkill

If you’re Shem (Noah’s oldest son) you’d have to think probabilistically:

‘Noah will kill my kid if it’s a girl. So, let’s assign a 50% likelihood of murder there. But will he definitely go ahead with it? Okay, so let’s make that number 45%.

I’m willing to kill dad to save my child’s life. I could wait until it’s born so we know the gender. But then Noah is likely to act quickly, so I wouldn’t have many chances to murder him. I’ve got months on this boat with him. That’ll give me plenty of opportunities to knife him. But if I do and my kid is a boy, I’ve killed my dad for no good reason. Yet I have no way of knowing; I have to act on incomplete information. And what are the chances that, if I try to kill him and fail, he’ll then kill me?

Also, I could build a boat to escape. What are the odds he’ll let me leave?’

The above is both a perfect summation of probability and exactly the way something would think. Because I am an Expert in Things

I knew director Darren Aronofsky is an environmentalist. If I didn’t know that, would I have seen Noah as a comment on the power and beauty of nature and man’s urge to destroy it?

I’d much prefer if the animals hadn’t hibernated aboard the ark. I’d have loved to hear Noah trying to tell a serious story about the creation of the universe while chimps screeched and bears roared the background, distracting Noah and causing him to shout at them to shut up, and the chimps in response throwing shit at him

If god told me I had to build an ark, and I couldn’t buy one or hire someone to do it, then bye bye humanity

I want Aronofsky to make a sequel that addresses the incest that has to happen after the credits roll. Noah 2: Incest Island

Thoughts on Things: Movies and microwaves


(I’m too lazy to look for sources for this)

It’s easy for older film-fans to bemoan how derivative and creatively lazy Hollywood film studios are nowadays. It’s all about sequels now. They only care about the money. There probably is an element of truth there, but to use that as the only reason is to miss how home video affected the average cinemagoer. Now, sequels are seen as the most likely road to profit, a way to cash in on the audience’s fondness for the original. But, before home video, viewers had less attachment to franchises and so were less likely to watch a second installment.

Think how different your mindset would be if you went to see a film and knew that, even if you really liked it, there was a good chance you’d never see it again. Sequels back then were expected to make 50% of the profits that the original did. A studio would only make a sequel is that 50% was worth the time and effort.

Studios could have been just as focused on the money side in the 70s as they are now. It’s just that the formula for financial success was different.


Microwaves and toasters remain examples of poor design. Take the microwave in my office. It’s years old and many–including me–still don’t know how to set it to cook for a particular length of time. Seven minutes? I’ll just hit the ’30-seconds’ button 14 times. All this other tech exists that makes it seem like we’re living in the future, and some of us are still stumped by how to heat something in a microwave.

And when it’s finished, it beeps five times. Somewhere in my head there exists a rule: microwaves should only beep four times, and that extra, unnecessary beep is infuriating. Why do I have a Beep Rule, and why do I find violation of it so irritating? What’s wrong with me?

Toasters have terrible memories. I want slices three and four of my toast to resemble slices one and two. That’s why I left the setting the same. But the second lot of toast is incinerated in comparison to the first.

My toaster’s setting #4 must be something as simplistic as heat for 3 minutes and 15 seconds no matter what. It doesn’t remember that I used it five minutes ago, and so it’s already hot inside. It follows the same process that it always does, with that retained heat ensuring toast sequels get burnt.

Maybe they already exist, but surely there’s a place for a toaster with an internal thermometer so it recognises it’s already hot inside and adjusts cooking time or intensity accordingly?

I never do more than two lots of toasts. So I don’t know if lot #3 would be even worse than #2, or if max heat has already been reached. Maybe someday I should stack loafs and keep popping new bread in the moment some pops out, seeing if every new lot is increasingly more toasted, with my toaster eventually reaching a temperature never before seen outside of the guts of the sun and incinerating itself, then me and eventually the world. It’s worth it. For science.