Academic Awards

ac·a·dem·ic (adj.):  Scholarly to the point of being unaware of the outside world.

Opening Monologue

This Sunday sees the eye of the worlds instantly perishable media turn to the annual Hunger Games, taking place in Hollywood California for the 86th (and hopefully final) time. For a variety of reasons (chief amongst them the desire to drive traffic from Twitter to this blog) here I present my own views on this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. While it is hard to argue against the view that the winning of an Oscar has little to do with the quality of a movie or performance, I actually do believe that this year is very strong year for movies, and this is reflected in the Best Picture nominees discussed below. I will justify this blog post at the end, if you stick around that far. And so, here is the list, in reverse order of my preference.


6. American Hustle

Plot: Christian Bale and Amy Adams have some kind of scam going, they get caught, and then have to work for the FBI.

Rant: There were a lot of things wrong with this movie, but what was most unforgivable was that the plot just really wasn’t as exciting as it thought it was. American Hustle is your typical ‘rise-and-fall’ movie, where the main characters meet, become successful, then too successful, and then run into trouble. See Goodfellas, Casino, Blow, and countless others. The problem with American Hustle is that the trickster duo of Christian Bale and Amy Adams never became that successful, and certainly not successful enough for us to care about them losing it all. The innovation in the formula is that since the central pair are professional con-men, they will have a trick at the end to take them back to the top (well, back to the middle, actually). That, and giving Amy Adams the sexy role while leaving Jennifer Lawrence to rumble around a kitchen complaining about microwaves for a total of about five minutes mean that there is something very frustrating about the whole experience. American Hustle looks great, and it is obvious they went to a lot of trouble to recreate the travesty of late-70s style and decor, but this added to its plot troubles and miscasting mean the whole thing adds up to a lot less than the sum of its parts.

Oscar Chances: The ladies could well take both the female acting awards. Has a chance at Best Picture

5. Captain Phillips  

Plot: Tom Hanks is captain of a freight ship that gets hijacked by Somali pirates.

Rant: Somewhere in a Hollywood movie studio, data analysts are hard at work crunching the numbers of past Oscar success in order to come up with a perfect formula for surefire Best Picture success. If Captain Phillips is a product of that initiative, I would be of the opinion that not the research is not far off the mark. It  has: a) Tom Hanks as b) an everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances,  it is c) based on a true story, it is d) set mostly at sea, and e) it goes on for ages. These factors should combine to make Captain Phillips a Best Picture favourite, but unfortunately for the data analysts, competition this year is too great and in this case what has worked just fine in the past is not good enough. That is not to say the movie is bad, as the director Paul Greengrass creates real atmosphere and tension from what could have been a typical American-saves-everyone story.

Oscar Chances: Best Supporting Actor

4. 12 Years A Slave


Plot: The true story of a free black man in pre-Emancipation America that gets kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Rant: I have visions of director Steve McQueen and the cast of 12 Years a Slave this time last year, watching Quentin Tarantino on the Oscar circuit for Django Unchained. Tarantino waxed lyrical about how his movie was the first to show slavery as it was, rather than how it was abolished, and about how this made American audiences very uncomfortable. McQueen and his cast would have looked at each other and probably hoped that Tarantino at least prepared America for what they were about to present later in the year. While Django was shocking and ultraviolent, 12 Years A Slave is calmly yet brutally horrific. Much was said last year of Leonardo Dicaprio’s maniacal slave owner in Django, yet he fades to a shadow compared to Michael Fassbender’s sadistic, tortured portrayal of essentially the same character in 12 Years. It’s a terribly hard movie to watch, and would be higher in this list if it didn’t make me feel bad by just thinking about it.

Oscar Chances: Outside bets for Best Actor, Director and Supporting Actor

3. The Wolf of Wall Street

Plot: Leonardo DiCaprio is a finance whizzkid who flies too close to the sun.

Rant: I was not impressed when I heard a few years ago that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were making a movie about a former Wall Street millionaire who lost everything and lived to tell the tale. I felt that we all had seen this movie before, and that the two of them could be doing something better. I was wrong, as they managed to put a new spin on the traditional rise-and-fall movie. I referred to the rise-and-fall format earlier with regards to American Hustle, and my problem there was that they didn’t really rise high enough to justify us caring about the fall. This is not the case here, as DiCaprio’s character does pretty damn well for himself in a few short years. The best thing about Wolf is that it is so entertaining. I will go out on a limb and say that this is the most consistently entertaining three-hour movie ever made. This movie is laugh out loud hilarious at times, which is not something you can often say about a movie in the running for Best Picture. A lot of this is to do with DiCaprio, and I look forward to reading his autobiography in a few years when he tells us how he prepared for a movie where he is on cocaine in every scene…

Oscar Chances: Best Actor.

2. Her

Plot: Joaquin Phoenix develops a mature relationship with his new Operating System: A highly sophisticated ‘learning’ platform voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Rant: I just mentioned that it is unusual for Best Picture nominees to be funny, yet I will discredit my opinion here by saying that Her is one of the funniest films I have seen in years. I have talked to my girlfriend about this, and she disagrees, but I firmly believe that Her is a comedy. And a great one. The looks on Joaquin Phoenix’s face when he receives news from his love/operating system are just priceless. The casual societal acceptance of developing relationships with OS’s are also hilarious, as suddenly the whole world decides that all anyone really needs is an omnipresent voice that stores our information, runs our lives and learns through experience. I will not give away the ending, but Her also presents one of the greatest ripostes to the idea of The Singularity that I have ever seen.

Oscar Chances: If this doesn’t win Best Original Screenplay then there is something seriously wrong.

1. Gravity

Plot: Sandra Bullock gets lost in the Earth’s atmosphere. She tries to return home.

Rant: Gravity is probably the only movie I have ever seen that had me hooked from the first second until the closing credits. The tension created by director Alfonso Cuaron is at times unbearable, and for that I will forgive any criticisms of moot melodramatic plot points that crop up during the middle. My only regret is that I did not see this in the cinema, in 3D. One thing I learned from discussing this movie: lots of women hate Sandra Bullock.

Oscar Chances: Strong contender for Best Picture, Best Director.


The Unseen: Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska.

Philomena and Nebraska, I am sure you both are very fine movies, you are just not for me. I have been meaning to watch Dallas Buyers Club, but will probably never get round to it either. None of them will win Best Picture, which is probably a good way to close this paragraph.


Closing Monologue

I won’t be watching the Oscars, I don’t see how anyone could enjoy the pompous back slapping of a room of extremely rich and self-obsessed people, to be honest. I do pay attention to the Best Picture, Director and Screenwriting winners and nominees  every year however, as they can be a good indication of what type of filmmakers will have power in the coming years. Hollywood movie studios respect two things in filmmakers: money and awards. An Oscar nomination gains a Christopher Nolan or a Spike Jonze the leverage to make the movies they want to make, for appropriate budgets, and with full creative control. For this, and only this, I still follow the Oscar nominations each year. This year in particular, there are some highly creative voices included in the nominations, such as Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron, and this can only be good for a Hollywood system that is suffocating on its own vomit of Transformers and Avengers. In essence, the Academy Awards are about acceptance, and while the awards ceremony itself is excruciating, it is no bad thing that a lot of very talented filmmakers have been invited in this year.


Anyway, that’s enough from me: what do you think, which one would you vote for?



In Defence of Ignorance: Greetings From Mount Stupid

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis will have come to the conclusion that I am a very knowledgeable, highly intelligent person with thoughtful, watertight views on a wide variety of subjects. After all, this is the entire point of this exercise: convincing the world how great I am. It may therefore come as a big shock to all of you to discover that most of the time I am writing here (or even talking in real life, or even in my inner monologue) I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, I just know a few pieces of information about a topic, which I convince myself are the most important things anyone needs to know about the given topic, which then gives me the right to go on a big rant about it and act like I am an expert. I doubt I am alone in acting like this, as the good people at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal produced a classic graph (pictured below) that relates the willingness of a person to talk about a topic with the amount of knowledge that person has about the topic. As you can see, there are two peaks in the graph, meaning that two different types of people will be interested in ranting about a given topic: those who know a little about it, and those who know a lot about it. The graph designers coin a phrase for this first peak: Mount Stupid. I am here today in defence of the brave souls like me who scale its’ heights as part of their daily lives, and prove that we can contribute actively and productively to any debate, anywhere, on any topic.


Firstly, unlike so-called ‘experts’, residents of Mount Stupid like myself are unburdened by the weight of extensive background literature that combine to produce the understood facts about a topic. These ‘facts’ are often entrenched within the mindsets of the overeducated elite, and rarely questioned by the experts themselves. The oft-quoted phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”, in reference to the continually moving glacier of scientific progress is relevant here, as in order for science to progress properly, the validity of each giant (and the stability of his shoulders) must be assessed and  verified constantly. This verification process must not come from those within a given discipline, but from those on the outside, with fresh eyes and ideas untainted by years of brainwashing within the given scientific discipline. In truth, I would say that in order to argue truly about a topic, one must know as little as possible about it to begin with. Facts and knowledge should not be allowed to get in the way of a good argument, and I believe I have adequately demonstrated that this is to the benefit of humanity as a whole. Therefore the negative connotations associated with Mount Stupid are entirely undeserved.

Tied in with the previous point is of course the environmental aspect. If less information is needed about each topic, it naturally follows that the demand for books will fall. Less books means less paper, which immediately results in more trees. While you may argue that most publishing houses plant at least one tree for every tree felled, the paper industry is about more than deforestation. With processing felled trees, transporting them to and from refining plants and other aspects of their journey to the library, books are responsible for a lot more pollution and terror than you would think. My personal statistics would estimate the average carbon footprint of one felled tree to be almost 60 tons. Many reading this may also argue that nowadays most information is processed online. While this does save our precious environment from the burdens of the tyrannical paper industry, there is still the issue of processing power to energise connected devices. Google alternative Blackle shows in stark terms how much energy is wasted through needless Google searches, often in pursuit of useless entrenched knowledge. Therefore not only are those who frequent Mount Stupid actively saving humanity, we are also saving the planet. Forego the facts, and save the environment.

Finally, and most importantly, the world would be no fun without Mount Stupid. Isn’t it much more entertaining to see a squirming politician, way out of his depth, live on TV, arguing his strong views about the economy rather than a University Professor from the London School of Economics? Isn’t it funnier watching Katie Hopkins trying to convert inane thoughts about British immigration into policy advice on a chat show rather than an actual person? Would you rather the mayor of Sochi had been an intelligent, competent public servant, rather than swearing that there were no gay people in his town and that he didn’t know what the fuss was about? Anyone who wants intelligent, informed people commenting on important topics are only out to spoil everyone else’s fun. This also translates to the private sphere. Imagine you are at a party and, within a group of friends, bring up an interesting article you read about Kim Jong-Un. Nobody else present has read the article, and therefore no one feels comfortable discussing the topic, and immediately awkward silence ensues. In this case, there is a dramatic need for someone to simply spew every single thing they know about the young dictator into the conversation, in order to avoid this awkwardness. Social gatherings need Mount Stupid.

I think I have mentioned in a previous blog that when someone asks me a question, I always try and answer it, regardless of whether I know the answer or not. I would have to say that a large part of that is stubbornness and vanity, and that the rest of it is my academic training, where we are supposedly given the tools to deconstruct any problem and therefore attempt to solve it rationally. This is why you will never hear a university professor admit to not knowing something. Also, I am the guy at the party who meets someone from Belarus, and immediately says everything he knows about that country, which consists entirely of Minsk, Alexander Hleb and Lukaschenko’s moustache. I would have a heated argument anywhere, anytime about the diamond industry drawing  entirely on information gleaned from me having watched the movie Blood Diamond, repeatedly listened to the album version of Diamonds of Sierra Leone by Kanye West, and half-remembered drunken anecdotes from a Zimbabwean friend of mine. This is the pinnacle of Mount Stupid, and it feels damn good when no one notices it.

Hard F***in’ Data

If, like me, you work in the technical end of the professional spectrum, for the past two years all you will have been hearing about is the advent of big data and how it can be used to change our lives for the better. Even if you have no idea what big data exactly is, the countless news articles and opinion pieces on the subject that were forthcoming once Edward Snowden revealed to the world that each individual has personal data, and (if you have ever had electronic contact with someone in the US) that this ‘metadata’ flows directly to the NSA definitely gives you an idea of the concept. So basically we as a society are big data, and through the maintenance of online profiles and social media we contribute towards the biggest dataset in history, which unfortunately for us consists mostly of #neknomination videos, filtered pictures of food, and declarations of love for One Direction. I doubt even the processing power of quantum computing will help us even broach the sociological implications of how people live their online lives, but of course that job belongs to the NSA: they wanted it, let them organise it. I have followed studies on online behaviour closely for the past decade, and have never really been impressed with any results that have been published. That is, until this week when I saw that PornHub released an interactive graph that showed the responsiveness of online porn traffic to major global events.


I tried vigorously to embed (giggity) the full interactive graph here in this post, but unfortunately this is not possible and you will have to click here and visit the graph on the PornHub blog if you want to play around with it yourself (ooh sir!), or maybe you will be fully satisfied (I will stop soon, I promise) with my discussion of the results here and not wish to seek any more knowledge on the secret lives of others. Anyway, I would highly recommend checking out the full thing for yourself, the results are fascinating. Firstly, by major global events, I mean cultural benchmarks that bring people together en masse, and in this situation specifically they target sports events, holidays, news events, and American TV schedule lynchpins. If you are disappointed with that definition of major global events, I am sure there is a less depressing world out there for you somewhere, but in the meantime I will move on to the data.

Starting in South America, you can see below the graph showing PornHub traffic during the Copa America final in Summer 2011 (it says 2012, but the PornHub guys are American so don’t know about football), where Uruguay played against Paraguay.  Overall in South America, there was a 6% drop in porn consumption, while the figures from the individual countries are much greater. Paraguay showed a drop in 20%, while Uruguay reduced their porn needs by just 12%. Uruguay were heavy favourites for the game and indeed went on to win comfortably, which might explain why the Uruguayans went back to their normal schedule sooner than their optimistic, and ultimately decimated neighbours.

PornHub traffic variance during Copa America final

This is to be contrasted drastically to the following years European Cup final, where Italy played Spain. If you look at the individual countries, it is obvious a fair amount of people were watching football instead of going about their usual PornHub routine. What is interesting first is that the drop in porn consumption is much greater during important football games in European countries involved in finals than in their South American counterparts, which might have implications about how comfortable Uruguayans are watching sweaty men on one screen, and sweaty men and women on another simultaneously. What is more interesting about the European data is that overall porn traffic is up 7%, which means that not only are the other European nations (who didn’t reach the final) watching more porn than usual during the highlight of the football season, but that they are watching so much that it actually compensates for the loss in a third of the Spanish/Italian market. Who says European integration is dead?

PornHub traffic deviance during Euro 2012 Final

There are so much more priceless nuggets of information contained in that infographic, so much that I would go so far as to name it the best infographic of all time. The release of the first iPad coincided with an upturn in porn traffic of 9%. The Christmas period sees a big downturn for PornHub, except in Japan, where Christmas Day sees a spike. Environmentalists, beware, as Earth Day (where people should use electricity and therefore internet-enabled devices sparingly), sees no change in porn consumption whatsoever. I said 18 months ago that Felix Baumgartners space dive was a pile of wank, and the data confirms it: +4% worldwide. And finally, nothing kills a good porn buzz like the Jewish High Holidays and New Years Eve, which each inflict a traffic loss of over 40% in assorted territories. Check out the full graph, there is something there that will surprise you, I promise.

What is important about all of this data and the subsequent findings is that it is actually trustworthy. PornHub is a virtual platform and therefore operates within a two-sided market, which means it earns revenue through gaining user hits that contribute to its advertising revenue (I assume: I am not familiar with such base sites, however I did write my Master’s Thesis on the theory behind how such a business would operate, which I blogged about incessently here). PornHub gets paid for each set of eyeballs that view their site, and therefore they need to be very aware of how many eyeballs they possess at any given time, as this data is needed in order to set prices for their advertisers. PornHub will charge advertisers more for an ad running during a potential apocalypse (see data in the chart about the Mayan Apocalypse in 2012), and lower for an ad on New Year’s Eve. Although I assume the New Years Eve crowd would be a much more niche group and therefore there would definitely be some targeted marketing opportunities. Anyway, the point is that no matter the source, the data itself is pure, and therefore the results are open for analysis.

The reason the results from this dataset are so interesting for me is that they describe deviance from a normal schedule (yes, in this case deviance means “abstaining from watching porn”). It therefore tells a story that direct actions or statements from the general consumer would never capture: let’s face it, no one would admit to turning off PornHub just to watch news coverage of Osama Bin Ladens’ death. The PornHub traffic data captures revealed preferences, rather than stated preferences, which is the economic theorists dream (yep, I have blogged about this subject  before, here). In economic theory, what people reveal willingly about themselves is not as important as what their unconscious behaviour reveals, and this information is hard to come by (yep, a final sex joke). The PornHub data reveals that there are instances and events in our shared cultural history that cause a marked deviation from normal behaviour, and this is interesting on many levels. This years’ World Cup in Brazil will prove the benchmark in such a data analysis, as it will involve viewers from all over the world as spectators, but with an emphasis on the two countries competing in the relevant game. PornHub will release the data on this, and I actually do think that more than a few social scientists should be interested in using it for their research. I will leave you with this other excellent graph from PornHub, which shows the online porn-watching exploits of fans resident in the areas home to the two teams involved in last weeks Superbowl: the Denver Broncos and the Seattle SeaHawks. The SeaHawks had won the game by halftime: see how fast the Denver Broncos fans got over the loss and got back to their normal ways?

Superbowl PornHub Traffic: Denver v Seattle

It Means Nothing To Me?

January just changed into February, and this being 2014 means that I have now lived in Vienna for exactly three years. In the last week of January 2011 I took a train across the Brenner Pass and through the long landmass of Austria towards the city that I was ready to settle in and call my home for the foreseeable future. Before then, I had spent the previous year and a half in Northern Italy. Before that (interspersed with periods at home in Ireland) I had lived for half a year in Barcelona, 18 months in The Netherlands, 9 months in Taiwan, and over a year in London. When I was in my early 20s I had made a challenge to myself to live in as many different countries as possible, to always keep moving onto the next new experience. Yet by the age of 27, I was worn out with all the moving, tired of not being able to consider anywhere a home, and ready to dedicate a considerable amount of time to really get to know a city, rather than just passing through.

When I saw an advert for the chance to complete a PhD in Vienna, I didn’t really have to think much about it. I had been to Vienna twice before, once in 1998 on a school trip, and once again InterRailing in 2005. On that trip in 2005, I had promised myself that at some point in my life, I would come back and live here. I had learned German in school so the language barrier was not an issue, it was a medium size city so would not be very stressful, and crucially for anyone on an academic scholarship: the price level was reasonable. So I applied for the position, got it immediately, and moved here in the last week of January 2011. That I have been here for three years means that it is as close to a home as I have had in my adult life, and many of you who have hit the three year mark in a relationship will know that it is a very good time to take a step back and evaluate the whole goddamn thing.

I think it’s fair to say, uncontroversially, that Vienna is beautiful. Vienna is beautiful, and clean. Vienna is so beautiful and clean that when I go to another city, I always think it’s dirty and ugly. I went to Berlin last year and couldn’t get over how dirty the city was. Same with Palermo, and Dublin, and Frankfurt, and (I would mention Sofia here, but I would get into trouble). Vienna ruins you for other cities, as the city centre is just immaculate: The buildings so grandiose, the scale so imposing. Vienna is not an important city, yet what the city centre screams at us is that, by god, once it was the centre of an empire that thought it could rule the world. It’s impossible to live here without learning the history of wherever you are. Vienna in the early 20th Century was a world city, seat of the Hapsburg Empire and home to the scientists, philosophers, psychiatrists and political deviants that would go on to create the world in which we now live. In the city centre, every cafe has an association with famous figures, and more is learnt throughout a stay in the city. Only last week I learnt that the modern shape of football teams was devised through ongoing post-match post-mortems in the various Kaffeehausen around town. History and mystery seep through the entire city, from the fin-de-siecle Golden Age, to the Cold War spy-rings and even the  present day international incidents that occur as a result of Vienna being one of the major headquarters for the United Nations.

As mentioned above, Vienna is also clean, very clean. This is just a facet of the exemplary public infrastructure that exists in this city. After three years here, if I have to wait seven minutes for an U-Bahn, I am enraged about the delay. Vienna Works: it should be their slogan. The Viennese authorities know how to organise things. The local Viennese complain all the time about the city government, yet anyone who has lived anywhere else knows that as far as city service goes, this is heaven on earth. The entire city is served by dedicated bike lanes, and the city will even tune up your bike for free at the beginning of spring. There are free CityBikes available if you don’t have one. They also organise countless free concerts and festivals throughout the year (they are all shite but even a cynic must admire the attempt). As well as that, the pursuit of individual freedom is actively encouraged. On the Danube river, there is an entire island of reclaimed land dedicated to the pursuit of leisure, the Donauinsel. It is mostly populated by fat naked men, but if they didn’t have that then they would be wandering around the centre of town, disrupting the tourist trade. Better out of town, than in. On the Danube Canal (within the city centre), graffiti artists are actively encouraged to redecorate the empty spaces on a regular basis. If you have a dog, you can bring it with you into a restaurant and have it sneeze on other peoples food. You are actively encouraged to smoke wherever you are: non-smokers are the downtrodden majority. Compared to other European countries, there is hardly any tax on alcohol, meaning it is very cheap to drink yourself to an early grave. Early on in my time here, the image of the suited businessman on his way to work at 8.30am drinking a can of beer on the metro while reading the financial news struck me as a icon of Vienna’s commitment to the freedom of the individual. Vienna’s strengths in my opinion, are its history, its public services, and its commitment to allowing you the freedom to kill yourself in whatever way you wish.

The main negative thing that I could say about all this is that it’s very boring. Expecting things to work and observing that they work perfectly fine, time after time, does not bring much excitement. If a train is late in Ireland or Italy there is a story to tell for at least a week, leading to curses against the government and bitter recollection of the incident come election time. The unpredictability of life has been thrown out the window, leaving dulled senses and a yearning for disappointment, just to feel something. This dull monotony of Viennese life is punctuated by the authoritarian opening hours maintained by shops around town. If you need something from the supermarket after 19:30, you are in trouble. You are in trouble because you obviously do not have a valid structure to your life in that you do not have all your possible business transactions completed before dinnertime. Your life is a mess, and you are greeted by doors that do not open, to an empty shop with the lights turned off, which is of course a metaphor for your whole disorganised existence. The only actual excitement in Vienna comes from the weather, which varies more than any other place I have lived. In February 2012, the temperature dipped to -20 degrees, while the following August we endured 40 degrees. This is a 60 degree swing, which I find ridiculous since I come from a country that fluctuates from 0-20 degrees throughout the year. The unpredictability however is tempered by the fact that we know there will be a week in February where the cold swing occurs, and the heatwave will be in August. Both of these weeks are horrible, and make every resident of Vienna question their life choices to that point.

There are many other things I could say about Vienna’s faults, failings and overarching triumphs, but such a rant was not conducive to the limits of a single blog entry of less than 1500 words. The structure of this post was that the main strengths of Vienna as a home were also responsible for its weaknesses. The simple truth is that Vienna is a very easy city to live in, but it is a city that nobody loves. There will never be a Wien, Ich Liebe Dich where a variety of famous residents tell their stories about what they love about Vienna, in the style of Paris, Je T’aime and New York, I Love You or even the forthcoming Rio, I Love You. Vienna just is not that type of city. It is a place where people live and go about their business, largely ignoring those around them. Apart from the City itself, which is obligated to provide every public service imaginable, at an impeccable standard. The fundamental point would be that Vienna is a very easy place to live, and therefore would be a very difficult place to leave.