29 September 2007

Australia's 'Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader' reviewed

Australian television has recently hit a new low with the first airing of the Oz version of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader. That the show lacks any form of originality can be seen merely from the title—in Australia, the terms ‘Grade 5’ or ‘Year 5’ are used, rather than the American ‘5th Grader’. Channel 10 is obviously low on talent, so they have stuck Rove McManus into the hosts chair, a man hailed by more eloquent critics than I as “the least funny comedian in Australia’. Indeed, Rove is true to form—he talks a lot and only manages to raise a smile on his own face.

As for the show itself, it’s inane, clich├ęd nonsense of the highest order. The premise of the title is stupid, as obviously the comparison alluded to is not one of intelligence but knowledge. Even then, the premise turns out to be false, because there is no competition between the Year 5 students and the adult competitors. Rather, the kids are there to assist the adults in winning money—they’re all on the same team.

The questions are ridiculously drawn out, in the style of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and Rove insists upon borrowing from that show’s host, Eddie McGuire, by constantly describing the simple act of answering a simple question as “locking in your answer”. A piece of advice, Rove—if you are the least funny host on Oz TV, Eddie is no funnier, and a whole lot less likable, so perhaps he’s not the best person to be emulating.

The first episode only managed to maintain a semblance of entertainment by virtue of its supporting cast. The kids were generally bright, chirpy, enthusiastic and likable, and the first contestant, Elka was a good looking blonde with a range of quirky facial expressions that were passingly entertaining. And although she was forced to look at the camera at the end of her stint and admit “I’m not smarter than a fifth grader”, she didn’t look very depressed by this admission because she’d just won $100,000 for a few minutes easy work. Assuming that the kids didn’t walk away with the same kitty, then who was the smarter?

Australian Quiz shows are generally pretty pathetic affairs, in which half-literate hosts grin their way through stupid questions fired at largely dumb contestants for huge amounts of money. Even long-running classics like Temptation have got dumber over the years. The ABC’s Spicks an Specks is a lone oasis in the wilderness, but where are the truly cerebral programs like the BBC’s exceptional QI, or the old ABC classic Mastermind, which actually celebrated the intelligence and knowledge of intelligent, knowledgeable people?

Today’s quiz shows on Australian commercial TV are clearly aimed at making couch potatoes at home feel smarter. This one will do that, and may even boost the ego of the family dog, cat or goldfish.
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13 September 2007

Why isn't 'dipslay' in the dictionary?

Come now, Messrs Oxford, Webster, Collins et al. Why isn't the word 'dipslay' in your dictionaries? Anyone who has worked as a tech writer would be extremely familiar with this commonly used word. And although it's not to be found in dictionaries, almost everyone would know what it means. I have often used the word in conversation with other tech writer friends, appreciating its clumsy yet beguiling naivety. I'm clearly not the only one, as a quick Google search shows 18,000 occurrences of the word on the web, despite the fact that spell-checkers tend to insidiously target it.

So how can you have a word added to a dictionary? Unfortunately you can't just send it in to Merriam-Webster and have them list it. To quote from their website FAQ:

...the selection of which words to include in the dictionary is not based on personal preferences or popularity-contest-style votes; it is based on usage. Simply put, to gain entry to the dictionary, a word must be widely used in a broad range of professionally written and edited materials over an extended period of time. Any word that has sufficiently widespread use in such publications is eligible for dictionary entry.

On that basis, dipslay is surely a shoe-in. It occurs in a gazillion professionally written and edited manuals, several of them, no doubt, written and edited by me.

So, esteemed fellow travellers in the blogosphere, let's help raise dipslay to its rightful place in the dictionaries by using it as often as possible. Perhaps it can become the first typo officially recognised as a word in its own right, a title it surely deserves more than the much more commonplace but rather vulgar 'teh'.
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1 September 2007

If you wanted to play critic, there’d be a lot you could criticise about The Bourne Ultimatum. There’s not really that much story that we weren’t privy to before; several situations are borrowed from the second film, which, coupled with the obligatory and always annoying flashbacks may be a good hook for first-time viewers but falls flat for fans; Bourne repeatedly walks into situations of peril that he could just as easily have walked away from; neither dialogue nor performances will grip you; and there’s still that lingering doubt about that ‘nice young man’ Matt Damon playing a tough guy assassin.

But action flicks are ultimately about suspending disbelief. The most successful of them encourage us into just the right amount of suspension. Too little and we’ll be picking the film to bits before the opening titles have faded. Too much and we’ll have forgotten the experience before the closing credits.

Judging by the looks on the faces of those who watched it with me, The Bourne Ultimatum gets it just right. As the last scene faded no-one was dissecting the plot. Instead they were recovering their breath, laughing in that particular way that indicates a mix of cheer and release, or just forming their lips into the shape “Wow!”

Because when all is said and done, The Bourne Ultimatum is a roller-coaster ride into absurdism, which manages to also keep some hold on reality, or at least that variant of reality that occupies the continuum between our fantasies and paranoias. It’s a frenzy of hand-held camerawork and tight, choppy editing which occasionally pauses long enough so that you can hear the pounding in your temples, before careering headlong into the next sequence. Along the way, we are treated to some scenes that will doubtless become cinematic classics—perhaps the most exciting car chase sequence ever (move over Ronin), and the absolutely gripping early scene in Waterloo Station.

This was undoubtedly the most exciting two hours I have ever spent in a movie theatre, which makes any form of quibbling rather pointless. Instead, I’ll just join my “Wow” along with the others and urge you to see The Bourne Ultimatum. Firstly because it’s fun, and secondly because every future film in the genre will in some way be measured against it.
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