Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The British Museum presents ‘ThouTube’

Opening this week is the British Museum’s highly anticipated new exhibition, entitled ‘ThouTube’. Running for three months, the display offers new insight into the workings of the Royal Society, the venerable scientific institution that helped the advancement of science for several centuries. Curated by Sir Warren Mitchell, ThouTube is a fantastic exhibition that will delight and inform both adults and children alike; indeed, it has increased relevance in the age of the Internet.

The Royal Society, founded in the 17th Century, has seen most of the greatest British scientists among its members, and many scientific discoveries were first presented to these people in lectures given by such geniuses as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Ernest Rutherford. A little known fact about these presentations is that attendees to the meetings were able to make comments about the presentations on small pieces of card, which they would roll up in a cylinder and put them into a tube that took them to the ‘Message Room’. All the comments would then be stuck up on a ‘Message Board’, viewable to everyone. The comments made on this ‘ThouTube’ form the majority of the exhibits on display here.

The comments left on the ThouTube give a fascinating glimpse into the mentality of the erudite British scientist. Some of the language and content on the message boards may come as a surprise, and fans of etymology and the evolution of slang will find as much to love here as science historians. Take, for example, the pride of the collection, a newly-discovered message board with comments pertaining to Sir Isaac Newton’s speech on the concept of gravity:

Bernard Culshaw: This is interesting but I don’t quite understand are you saying that apples are evil
Sir Humphrey Humperdink: FAKE! COL!!!!!
[note: according to the exhibition literature, ‘COL’ is an abbreviation for ‘Chortling Out Loud’]
Lord David Bentley: Isaac is the best I love his work on optics check it out! DB4EVA
George St John-Thomas: This is cretinous

Note from the comments how the people reacting to the theory of gravity are not unanimously praising of Newton’s work; in fact, the ease with which it’s possible to leave a comment means that people who have absolutely no idea what Newton’s speech was about are still moved to give their ha’penny worth. The full message board in the exhibition shows that of the people commenting, less than 30% have something to say that is actually relevant and useful. Now consider a later message board, with comments left shortly after a presentation on natural selection by Charles Darwin:

Archibald Twitterling: That’s all stuff and nonsense the Bible says we were from Adam and Eve not monkeys COL you got it all wrong ROFG [note: ‘ROFG’ stands for ‘Rolling on the Floor Guffawing’]
Jonathan Swift: You guys are all laymen! Darwin is great! I know him and he is a very intelligent gentleman
Jeremy Humperdink: FAKE! COL!!!!

But while the Museum’s curators have amassed a great number of message boards that were made after presentations by famous scientists, much is to be gained from the comments that were left after lesser-known scientific talks. For example, Charles De Courcey’s speech on the regularity of elm leaf size distribution in 1853 garnered the following missives:

David Warwick: If you want to see hot geologist-on-geologist action come to the Royal Institution Lecture Hall at Seven
Ian Belmington: SPAM
Sir Gordon Ramsbottom: SPAM
James Fotheringay: SPAM
Henry Humperdink: FAKE! COL!!!!!

[According to the museum’s pamphlet on the exhibition, the word ‘SPAM’ here is a call to the administrator in the message room. It means ‘Supervisor Please Administrate Messages’. ]

The British Museum are to be commended for their wonderful new exhibit. The history of science is a very interesting subject, and ThouTube shows a side of the topic that is rarely seen. The displays are well made, and the layout of the rooms provides easy navigation. My son was particularly pleased with the interactive message board on which he could leave comments after reading the transcripts of various presentations; indeed, he now believes himself to be Charles Babbage. How that will play out remains to be seen. My wife enjoyed the cafeteria, where she recommends the beef sandwiches.

Thoutube opens on Monday and will run until the week before you decide to go, at which point you’ll look at the listings and go “Oh crap, I should have gone last week!” You must be registered to comment. Remaining character count: 500. Offensive? Unsuitable? Contact an administrator.

Monday, 28 April 2008

The Imaginary Reviewer Writes a Letter: Part 1

If you're one of those people who enjoy reading the blurb to the right of the posts on The Imaginary Review, you'll know that I would ideally love to be reviewing things that actually exist. My love of reviewing things is so great that I'm content to write these reviews of non-existing objects, but I would be overjoyed if some magazine/journal/newspaper/whatever were to employ me for the sole purpose of applying my critical eye to things that are both real and not at all imaginary.

With this in mind, I have decided to take the bull by the horns and whore myself out to some local publications. Below is the first letter that I sent to the entertainment editor of our local entertainment newspaper, Now Toronto. The letter was sent more than two weeks ago, and I am yet to hear from them; presumably they're still counting all the money that they wish to offer me in exchange for writing their reviews.

Click on the pic to make it big and readable.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

DVD Review: The Best of BBC’s Turing Test Challenge

Our imaginary review copy of the DVD didn't come with a cover
so we paid someone to make this poor artist's impression of what it might look like.

The tenth season of Robot Wars, filmed in 2003, was one of the biggest disasters ever to happen to the BBC. The show’s producers initially came under fire for failing to notice that the robot created by Colin Pugh, a plumber from Chatterstoft, was not a robot at all, but contained Colin’s 8-year-old son, Mark, who controlled the machine from within. Mister Pugh’s duplicity only came to light when his creation, Attackbot IV, was defeated in the semi finals by NailGunTron, and pools of red liquid emanated from the losing robot’s carcass. Both Colin and NailGunTron’s creators are serving ten years in prison.

Added to this controversy was the disaster created in the final episode when Red BaronBot, a bi-plane robot created by students at Leicester University went out of control and crashed into the spectators’ area, killing 54 people, mostly children. Finally, house robot Sir Killalot was photographed by tabloid newspapers in a hotel with a famed topless model, adding more pressure on the show’s producers to end the program.

But the British public’s hunger for artificial-intelligence-themed game shows was too strong, and Robot Wars’ creators set about starting a new show. They came up with Turing Test Challenge.

TTC was first aired in 2006 on BBC2 and proved to be a massive hit, finishing second in the year’s television ratings (being narrowly beaten by the episode of Coronation Street in which everyone dies). The show’s formula is simple: teams create a computer program that they hope is smart enough to engage in typed conversation with a celebrity judge. The judge is also conversing with a second human in another room through a computer, and if they are unable to determine which conversation is with the computer, then the program’s creators have created an artificial intelligence. The team win a holiday to the Seychelles and £2000 in cash.

As with Robot Wars, the first season of the show, released this week on BBC DVD, is the most entertaining, if only for the honourable failures. The pilot episode, originally unaired and shown here for the first time, has Stephen Fry as the judge. The first computer program, written by a pair of teenagers from Bath fails spectacularly to converse with the erudite actor. Later in the episode, however, another team come close to winning the prize when Fry asks the human conversant what he thinks about the breeding techniques of the Southern fulmar.

Really, it is the celebrities who make or break an episode of Turing Test Challenge. While Stephen Fry and Ewan MacGregor both make excellent judges, Mohamed Al-Fayed is terrible, only asking the contestants questions about the Royal Family. Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher started well in his episode, seeing through all the contestants’ programs until he got frustrated with his task and reverted to typing scores of swear words into his keyboard, confusing both the artificial intelligence and the other human conversant.

The contestants themselves are relatively unremarkable; in some cases the programs made to simulate human language actually have more personality than their creators. The best example of this is Lingua Frank, an AI invented by Desmond Monroe, a professor of economics. Frank did so well in its test that the celebrity judge for that episode, Nigella Lawson, asked him out on a date. Also completely charming was the AI created by six-year-old Matthew from Margate, which answered every question and comment with the word “Why?”. In the end of season awards, this program was deemed ‘Most like a six-year-old’.

Turing Test Challenge is a very good DVD set, and a great gift for anyone who is interested in Artificial Intelligence, robots or nerds. And while the show is reason enough to buy this DVD, the extras are the icing on the cake, with some great out-takes, including the part when the producers have two humans converse with Ewan MacGregor as a joke, and he is convinced that they’re both robots. There’s also a great behind-the-scenes look at the show, hosted by Stephen Fry, who obviously fancies one of the producers.

Turing Test Challenge is out now on BBC DVD, available from all good former video stores and some bad ones too, probably.

Monday, 21 April 2008

The Latest Phobias Reviewed!

The American Psychiatric Association has just released this season’s big new phobias, and I got my hands on some of them. I’m going to give them all a try, safe in the knowledge that when it comes to reviewing things, The Imaginary Reviewer fears nothing!

Sinojumpiphobia is the fear that everyone in China will simultaneously jump up and down on the spot, causing the world’s orbit to change. I tried this phobia before going out to town and it was pretty scary. Firstly, any kind of shaking made me think that the Chinese government had forced the country’s population to do skipping rope practise at once. A large truck drove by and I shat myself, quite literally. While I was in the underwear shop buying replacement pants I felt a nearby elevator drop and thought I was going to die. Sinojumpiphobia is one intense new fear, and gets a hefty eight on the Stephen King Scale.

Next on the list was Metallipickuphobia, or, the fear of being in a rock concert and the band stopping the set so they can tell you that your parents are waiting for you in the car outside. This is so named because the first people to get this fear were in a Metallica gig. I tested this fear during a normal working day, and I have to say, it’s not very effective; my life was pretty unaffected by this worry. However, when I applied the phobia before going to see Death By Dry Hump at the Toronto Autobahn, I needed to leave the building each time the band stopped playing to talk to the audience. The lead singer had just said ‘Hello Toronto!’ and I had to run out like Cinderella at midnight. Terrifying.

Amimikaphobia is a very new fear, but isn’t entirely uncommon. It is the fear of being befriended by high-pitched ‘singer’ Mika. I had this phobia to a small extent already, but when I tested it, my entire life became dedicated to finding out where Mika was and what he was doing, so that I could make plans to avoid him, should he be nearby. My mind was full of the ‘fun things’ Mika would want to do when he and I somehow became friends; watching films on my sofa, making hotdogs, going to parties. I would shudder as I considered the hatred my friends would show me for bringing Mika to parties with me, not listening to my claims that he wouldn’t say no. My fear became so bad that I spent the rest of the week hiding in a hole. This is one of the most potent and effective phobias I have ever tested, even scarier than OneNightinParisPhobia, the fear of discovering Paris Hilton made a sex tape with you while you were drunk and it's now available all over the internet.

Reviewophobia was a very harrowing phobia to test. As one could gather from the name, it is a fear of reviews, and as my life revolves around them, I was incredibly distressed during this time. Each time I saw or thought of reviews, I was terrified, and this made it very hard to exist in my home, where I am constantly surrounded by reviews. For instance, the first review I ever wrote (for Treasure Island Dizzy on the ZX Spectrum) is framed on the wall in my living room. I destroyed this memento in a panicked moment, meaning I have since had to frame a copy of my second ever review (of Mayfair, June 1991 issue). Over dinner one night, my wife asked me what I thought of the meal, and just as I was about to critically analyse the stewed dumplings my fear kicked in and I spent the rest of the evening under the dining room table. A very effective fear.

For more information about these phobias, please send an email to the American Psychological Association. For more information about colon cancer, see a doctor. For more information about the Imaginary Review, see our website at

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Music Review: Your Band

I just saw Your Band playing live and I’ve got to admit, I’m quite impressed. That first song you played (what was it called again? ‘The Gits’? ‘The Grits’? ‘The Shits’? Something like that) was pretty good. The solo wasn’t much to write home about, but then again, I hear that your guitarist has only been with the band for a few weeks, so it’s probably a bit early to be judging him harshly. The chorus was really catchy, though. I was humming it all day afterwards.

Your Band are going to go places if you can get a few more songs in your repertoire. But no more covers; yes, that faster, rockier version of A Cheesy 80s Classic was pretty funny, but you don’t want to overdo it. You have a good mix of fast and slow ones, too, which I liked. It gave the crowd a bit of a break from moshing when you played a slower number. Well, when I say ‘crowd’, I’m referring to that one drunk guy who was moshing at the front. Maybe you know him? Is he related to one of the band members?

If I had one complaint about Your Band it would be the keyboardist. He really needs to be replaced. What’s with all the prog rock noodling? It doesn’t go with the otherwise flawless rock aesthetic. I don’t care if he owns the bongos, you can always buy cheap bongos at a music store. Your Band doesn’t need him.

Seriously...what were you thinking?

But you know what Your Band does need? A hot female bassist. Bands with hot female bassists always get more attention. It’s the phallic symbolism that comes from an attractive woman running he hand up and down a long bass fret board. And you wouldn’t have to get rid of the current bassist, Your Band could have two bassists. It could be a gimmick. Gimmicks never hurt. Yeah, two bassists, one of them a hot female: that would rule.

All in all, I’d say Your Band are fairly decent, but they still need to practice. The singer didn’t have much of a stage presence, either. Oh wait, that was you? Really?

Your Band will be playing in a load of dives and shit-holes until the first whiff of label interest triggers in-group fighting and you split up in a huge cloud of acrimony. Your Band’s first single is an MP3 available on the website that Your Band’s drummer’s brother made in his spare time.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Computer Game Review: The Shops

Blizzard Entertainment released the hugely popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft in 2004, and in the years that followed, the game gained over ten million subscribers. Now Blizzard are about to release their long-awaited follow-up, and The Imaginary Review has got its hands on a preview copy. From the outset it’s clear that the company are trying to attract the kind of gamer who is not interested in the Swords and Sorcery fantasy of WoW.

The Shops, as the new MMORPG is called, takes place in a vast, sprawling suburban shopping centre, called ‘The Mall of Trambluxorr’, showing that the game’s designers find it a little difficult to get used to a game in a non-fantasy setting. Players begin by choosing their class of shopper, from harassed mother of three trying to get the week’s groceries, to the sad, lonely bachelor stocking up on microwavable ready meals. You begin the game by talking to the non-controllable in-game characters, who give you quests (or, as they are known in the game, ‘shopping lists’). Your job is to get around the Mall, finding the objects that you are asked to purchase.

Being an MMORPG, the mall is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of other real-life players with whom you may interact if you so choose. At one point I found myself arguing with an Australian nanny about which of us was going to purchase the last box of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda. In the end we came to blows, but her character (a baseball-capped teen) was a higher level than mine, and she kicked my arse. I had to wait several hours before the baking soda was restocked by an artificial intelligence-controlled shop assistant.

The more you play the game and the more quests you complete, the more your character’s level goes up. Various stats govern your character’s abilities, from ‘Shop Layout Knowledge’ to ‘Thrifty Bargain Recognition’. Of course, as in other similar games, money plays a big part too, as it allows you to buy special power-ups as well as the things on your lists. Players controlling the Mother character, for example, can save their money to enable them to put their children in a day-care centre at the mall. While the computer-controlled kids are there they will learn to help their mother with the shopping, making this a highly desirable purchase. One expert player I saw had learned how to become impregnated by a computer-controlled security guard, and had twenty children doing her shopping for her.

The Shops is incredibly realistic, to the point that several beta testers were hospitalised after they confused the game with reality and were convinced that they had bought food for themselves, eventually succumbing to starvation. Well, they’re with God now. When you remember that this is just a game, it’s a fun way to spend two or three hours of an afternoon; but The Shops doesn’t currently have the same addictive nature as World of Warcraft. This could change when Blizzard release their proposed expansion pack, Food Court Hijack, next year.

On a scale of one to ten, with one being Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing and ten being Jet Set Willy, I’d give The Shops a seven.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Film Review – (I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight

New York policeman Nick Reed (played by Mark Wahlberg of ‘And the Funky Bunch’ fame) feels like the luckiest man in the world. He has just been promoted to Detective, and he has just met the girl of his dreams, the gorgeous Lucy (Kristen Bell). But when a series of murders occurs on a long, hot night, everything points to his new beau. Reed can’t seem to escape the fact that the murdered men all just died in her arms tonight. It must have been something she said….but what? It’s up to Detective Reed to find out, before Lucy strikes again!

The latest hit US thriller from director Michael Mann is about to be released in England, and it’s a chilling tale of murder and redemption. Inspired by the song of the same name by Cutting Crew, (I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight kept me on the edge of my seat throughout each heartbreaking and action-packed minute.

Wahlberg is excellent as the detective who is torn between the feelings he has for his lover and the knowledge that a lot of men just died in her arms tonight and it must have been something she said. Bell is quite fearsome as Lucy, the killer, and the actress makes it feel easy, makes it feel right, in the role.

There are some wonderfully tense scenes, like when Lucy’s latest potential victim (Ian Holm) finds himself in the bedroom where so many other men have just died in her arms. The camera slowly pans through the room, showing Lucy’s diary sitting on the bedside table, the curtains, closed, and a cat in a cradle. Whether this is symbolic, or just a bit weird, I couldn’t tell. But it’s still very nice to look at.

That’s not to say that the film is flawless. I felt myself feel frustrated by the plot at times, especially when the actions of the men who die in Lucy’s arms don’t make sense. I couldn’t understand why they just didn’t walk away. They should have walked away.

There’s a nice little twist ending to the film, too, when Reed discovers that it wasn’t something she said, but instead it was some kind of kiss that caused the men to just die in her arms tonight. I know it’s bad form to reveal the ending to a film in the review, but this was so great I couldn’t keep it a secret. Sorry!

All in all, I would say that (I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight compares well to Michael Mann’s other thrillers, like Collateral and Heat, especially given that it is constrained by being entirely based on a song by an awful 80s band. Three stars.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Book Review: World History by Mohamed Al-Fayed

In 1483, two young prospective heirs to the throne of England, Edward V and Richard, 1st Duke of York, were locked away in the Tower of London by Richard III, who had proclaimed them illegitimate and therefore unfit to rule the country. They were never seen again, and the discovery of a pair of children’s skeletons found in the Tower two hundred years later seemed to indicate that the boys had been murdered. The identity of the killer, if indeed there was one, has been disputed by historians ever since; was it Richard III himself, Richard’s right hand man Henry Stafford, or Henry Tudor, future king of England? Well at last, the answer to the riddle has been found. According to Mohamed Al-Fayed’s new book, World History, the Princes in the Tower were killed by Queen Elizabeth II, who was aided by MI6.

It may sound far fetched, but Al-Fayed has a lot of circumstantial evidence to back up his claims. A diary written by someone living close to the Tower mentions “a lady with a tiara and a faraway gaze” wandering around and looking shifty. Also, a bottle of gin has been dug up by archaeological teams near the site, indicating that the Queen Mother may also have been at the location many, many years ago. The fact that none of the current Windsors were alive at the time does not seem to bother Mister Al-Fayed, who claims that the Princes were killed by Elizabeth II “so that she would get used to offing other Royals before she killed Princess Diana.”

Despite Al-Fayed’s book being a history text that covers many centuries, the current Royal Family features surprisingly often. The Watergate scandal that rocked Richard Nixon’s presidency in the U.S., for example, was instigated by Prince Philip, according to this book. Furthermore, The Titanic was not sunk by an iceberg, but was instead sabotaged by Prince Charles, who planted a bomb in the engine room. Indeed, Al-Fayed claims in the book that the first instance of human aggression in recorded history, some two hundred thousand years ago, was by perpetrated by a hominid known as Princess Eugenie of York.

Mohamed Al-Fayed holding a copy of his new book, World History

Indeed, it is a recurring theme in World History that events – usually ones with negative repercussions – were caused by current Royals, and that they performed these actions in order to further their cause of killing Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed, the author’s son.

Some of the prose in the book is beautifully written. The life and times of Mother Theresa, for example, are conveyed with such poignancy and feeling that one is at times moved to tears at the kindness and charity shown by this modern-day saint. This clarity of feeling then turns to angers when we learn of her death at the hands of Princess Michael of Kent, who killed the nun on the same weekend as the Princess of Wales’s car crash. According to Mister Al-Fayed, this was done with the intention of distracting people from the events in Paris.

Al-Fayed’s World History really comes to life in the modern ages, when he is discussing the familiar things that have shaped our current lives. Who can forget the OJ Simpson car chase, so thrillingly described here? The writer certainly has done his homework on the subject, revealing at great length how the whole thing was instigated by the Queen, who wanted the secret service to practice chasing celebrities’ cars at high speeds. Again, his evidence for this is somewhat flimsy, saying that he was given the information by “a man in the pub in exchange for a pie.”

Mohamed Al-Fayed’s World History is a very eye-opening book. I was completely unaware that the British Royal Family had had such an influential hand in so many events, such as the fall of the Roman Empire, the invention of the Panzer tank and Ben Johnson’s gold medal being taken away from him due to doping allegations. It really does surprise this reviewer to see so many events being indirect – or even direct – causes of the death of Princess Diana, from King Harold’s death in the Battle of Hastings (when he was shot in the eye by Camilla Parker-Bowles) to the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 2001, four years after Diana died.

This book is a great addition to any history lover’s collection, and a must for those little old ladies who collect plates with pictures of the Queen and her corgis drawn on them.

Conspiracy Theory, starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, is in video stores now.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Special Report: The Most Romantic Spots in New York

New York City is widely regarded as one of the most romantic places in the world, surpassing Paris, Rome and even Duncan, British Columbia (home of the world’s largest hockey stick and puck). It’s full of beautiful locations to propose, get married, or just stare longingly at loving couples as they flaunt their happiness like peacocks strutting around, not caring one jot for your own miserable, soulless, love-free life. They’ll pay. They’ll all pay.

By way of Congratulations to reportedly recent newlyweds Beyonce and Jay-Z, we got our Imaginary New York Correspondent to file this report on the mushiest, most lovey-dovey places in all of the big apple. Take it away, Imaginary Noo Yoik Correspondent! (He hates it when I call him that)

One of the most popular places for young lovers to go these days is the Dogs D’Amour Internet CafĂ©, above the Korean Barbecue on 110th Street. Here, happy couples meet and spend hours chatting on MSN and ICQ, flirting and cooing at each other using the high-resolution webcams and leaving messages on each other’s Facebook walls. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and nothing makes the modern New York couple happier than simulated long-distance relationships. The best part is, once you’ve finished, you actually get to leave with your beau, and possibly even make sweet love to them, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Next to the Paul Smith Store on 54th Street sits the Lovery Love Love Hotel, the centre of the new craze that’s taking America by storm. Due to housing constraints and familial norms in Japan, love hotels have been popular for decades, allowing couples to rent a room by the hour and enjoy all sorts of romantic amenities such as revolving beds and vending machines full of sex toys. Now love hotels are becoming very popular in New York City, and Lovery Love is where it all began. What says “I love you” more than an hour in an anonymous room with non-stop Asian pornography on the television and a bucket full of dildos by the bed? Lovery Love even has many themed rooms, tailored to the western market, including a Happy Days room, a Laverne and Shirley room and a Mork and Mindy room, complete with replica Orson.

Romantic restaurants are ten-a-penny in New York City, but few will get you more in the mood than Jezebel’s. Located in the west side of the north end, Jezebel’s is the only eatery in the city in which couples are tied together upon entry and refused cutlery. A typical three course dinner involves teamwork, mutual feeding and a complete jettison of table manners. By the end of this experience, even the most frigid lovers will become hornier than a rhino sandwich! Unlike many restaurants in New York, there is no extra charge if you are gay, nor if you are over seven feet tall.

On the other hand, make sure you avoid taking your loved one to see Jay Leno on a date. He will steal your girlfriend. Or, if you are someone’s girlfriend, he will steal you. Bastard.