The A-Team Formula

I can’t remember why I looked up The A-Team on Wikipedia a few months ago. Perhaps it was research for some long-forgotten game idea, or perhaps I was just really bored. Chances are it was a combination of the two. What I found, however, wasn’t just a typical Wikipedia ‘article-by-consensus’ – thorough, but long-winded and lacking critical faculties…

Well, it was mostly that, but it had one real gem in it: someone wrote a long section entitled Formulaic nature of episodes. Rather than being some high school essay, it’s both hilarious and completely spot-on in its almost scientific specificity. After all, all the episodes were essentially identical:

An episode … will start with the A-Team being hired by down-trodden, terrorized clients (often more than one member of the same family). Frequently, one of the clients will be a young woman who Face is immediately attracted to and who will serve as the object of his advances. The clients will have already passed “Mr. Lee”, one of Hannibal’s aliases, used to make sure the clients aren’t set by the military and encounter Hannibal in a second disguise, in which he’ll tell the clients they’ve “just hired the A-Team.” Just as frequently, the A-Team are on the road and stumble across someone who needed their help. The A-Team often return their fee to the most needy clients or find another way to pay their expenses.

By this time, Murdock will escape from the psychiatric hospital where he is interned with the help of Face. The mission is assessed by the team, and Face, sometimes assisted by Murdock, is sent to scam items for the team, often angering the episode’s opponent at the same time. This scene usually precedes or runs alongside to (part of) the team confronting the episode’s main opponent and his henchmen, with Hannibal delivering a warning – typically accompanied by a pithy, insulting remark – to them to give up peacefully. During this fight there is usually be a slow motion camera shot of B.A. throwing one of the bad guys over his head and onto a car hood, pile of cardboard boxes, or other such surface. The henchmen report to their boss, who quickly swears revenge.

The A-Team continue about their mission, often helping the clients in their daily routine, during which they prepare for the counter-attack from the episode’s antagonist. During this time, the clients question either Murdock’s sanity or that of Hannibal. In the latter case, one of the team members will make a reference to Hannibal “being on the jazz”, a term to denote the adrenaline rush that accompanies their adventures. During this segment the aforementioned female character (often sister, daughter or assistant to the client(s)) will give into Face’s advances, but the two are usually interrupted by a member of the team after a short kiss. A short scene showing the interaction between B.A. and Murdock would follow, often with Murdock angering B.A., as a set-up to B.A. taking revenge on Murdock at the end of the episode…

And so on. I ask, who could criticise Wikipedia when it harbours moments of brilliance like this?


If you’re making a movie that’s ‘family-friendly’ with a PG rating, then you can forget about having any real swearing in the dialogue. This is generally not hard to do, but certain dramatic or funny moments (e.g. imminent death, huge tidal wave, just finished beating up bad guys) can call for dialogue that, if it doesn’t contain any swearing, at least has a little edge to it. The solution is to create a word that sounds like a curse, but actually isn’t.

Take Evan Almighty, which I caught on a recent flight. Steve Carrell’s building an ark, and he drops a heavy piece of wood on his foot. What does he exclaim?

Motherf… ather, sister and brother!

This is a perfect example of the ‘stealth swearing’ that I’m talking about. To be honest, I thought it was the funniest part of the entire movie (which tells you how good it was). Of course, Evan Almighty wasn’t by any means the first to make a joke out of the censors.

Take Spy Kids 1 and 2. They were surprisingly good kid-parent crossover movies, and the eponymous kids had a real fondness for talking about ‘shiitake mushrooms‘. Screen It’s Parental Reviews weren’t impressed by this, singling out the following lines as potentially causing ‘imitative behaviour’:

“Oh… shiitake mushrooms,” (with a pause in the word “shiitake” to make it sound like one is preparing to say just the “s” word)

“You’re so full of shiitake mushrooms,” (said with a slight pause in the middle of shiitake)

You might very well wonder what’s the point of avoiding swearing when you’re just going to say ‘shit’ anyway, and then turn it into another word by appending a few syllables – but what’s really happening (obviously) is that films are making fun of the notion that kids aren’t supposed to swear, and aren’t supposed to even know swear words. I suspect adults get a kick out of seeing kids pretending to swear, as well.

Do you know of any other ‘stealth swearing’ examples? Please post comments with them here!

Sidestep Right Two Paces!

One of the most memorable children’s TV shows of my generation was Knightmare. Ah, Knightmare – a show that was about role-playing games, but oddly cool to be a fan of. In Knightmare, a team of four kids would try to get through a dungeon populated by all sorts of traps, baddies and dangers.

Of course, it wasn’t a real dungeon, or even a real set – instead, one kid would put on a big helmet that covered their eyes (I’m sure there was some silly reason for this) and stand in front of a blue-screen stage. The other three kids and the audience would then see this helmeted kid transported into the fantasy land, which was mostly computer graphics, but with real actors dropped in as well.

Part of the game involved outwitting enemies, solving riddles and casting spells, but what everyone remembers most are the physical challenges. The helmeted kid would frequently be placed into situations where they had to walk very carefully in certain directions, e.g. a winding path next to a cliff, a maze where the tiles are disappearing, giant scythes swinging across the room, etc.

What with the helmet, the kid would receive directions from their three friends, who would shout out things such as ‘Turn left 90 degree and then take two paces forward! No, left!’ All of this confusion provided endless amusement to the audience at home, who typically thought (erroneously) that they could do much better.

I was recently told that halfway into the show, which lasted for a whopping eight series, some kids came up with an entirely new direction: sidestep. Apparently up until this point, no-one had thought of using this specific direction, using more ambiguous terms such as ‘step to your right’ or similar, so ‘sidestep’ was a genuinely innovative improvement. What made this even more interesting was that following this development, all the teams that followed also used the ‘sidestep’ manoeuvre. It reminds me of nothing else than the development of tool use among social animals.

I suppose there are two morals to this story, if you needed any. The first is that if you give players a broad and flexible set of tools in a game (in this case, full voice control) you can get all sorts of surprising innovations popping up that change the game for everyone.

The second is that someone should really make a knock-off of Knightmare and put it on YouTube. I would sign up for that dev team in a shot.

The Secret of Christmas Lights

‘Largest’ Christmas tree lit up (BBC News):

When lit up, the giant redwood will be visible on board flights approaching Gatwick Airport.

Two electricians spent a day replacing all 1,800 light bulbs before a pair of cranes were brought in to put the lights on the tree at Ardingly.

…Conservation manager Ian Parkinson told BBC South East Today there was “no secret” to avoiding tangles.

He said: “We just put them in the box at the end of the season, and the next year, when they are in a tangled mess, we unravel them laboriously.”

Their Say

I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned how much I hate the Have Your Say section on BBC News Online (surely a forum the BBC must be ashamed of) – if I haven’t, then I’ll have to do a post about it some time. Anyway, it occasionally throws up some real gems:

Q: Should we build 600 large electricity pylons from windfarms in the Highlands to Central Scotland, or should we bury the wires underground?

Most answers: Businesses make so much money, they should pay for burying the lines / I hate Scotland / I hate England / Windfarms don’t work anyway / Climate change would blow down the pylons

Best answer: I think the pylons should be built, because they have a real charm and beauty to them. Objecting to their appearance is like objecting to railway bridges and aqueducts. Also I think they should be painted red, white and blue, to celebrate 300 years of the Union. This would add to the gaiety of the Highland scenery, and be a good post-modern joke, enjoyable on several levels. And it would provide much-needed work for hundreds of Scotch labourers.

Avoiding dress collisions

Last month, Laura Bush turned up to a party at the White House in a $8,500 Oscar de la Renta dress, which three other women also happened to be wearing. Laura Bush quickly changed her dress, but the damage was done and the story of this amusing accident quickly spread across the Internet.

I was thinking about this while dawdling in a shopping mall last week, and wondered how this sort of thing might be prevented in future. Perhaps some sort of centralised dress list might work? If all attendees to a formal function submitted their dresses to the organisers, any embarrassing collisions could be quickly detected and avoided. Of course, the obvious problem with this (from a security standpoint) is that the list is rather valuable and if it was leaked, there would be hell to pay. Even if it wasn’t leaked, there’d still be the opportunity for the organisers to get up to all sorts of mischief by manipulating the list, for example, to fake collisions in order to prevent people from wearing particular dresses.

So, how about hashing the dresses? By this, I mean taking someone’s dress and applying a hash function to the name (e.g. ‘oscardelarenta2006’). This function would then spit out a unique hash sum (e.g. ‘4FA043BD’) which could then be stored in a database. If anyone else submitted an identical dress name, it would produce the same hash sum and the collision could be detected. The interesting thing about hashing functions (good ones, at least) is that they are one-way; in other words, if you are an unscrupulous White House party organiser with access to the database who wants to sell the dress list to the paparazzi, you only have the hash sums – and you can’t get the dress names from the hash sums.

This is not really a novel idea – ‘friend-of-a-friend’ applications (FOAF) do the same job, wherein people take their email contact list, hash it, and then compare that hashed list against other people’s hashed lists. If there’s a collision, then you have a friend in common, leading to all sorts of possibilities such as friendship/business partnerships/hooking up – but importantly, you can’t figure out someone’s friends from their hashed contact list.

Given that fashion designers already maintain their own private lists of who are wearing their dresses to which parties to avoid collisions and drum up publicity (and presumably someone was fired by Oscar de la Renta), I doubt that a hashed dress list repository will ever come about. But it’s an interesting exercise.


I was idly flicking through a book someone gave me about hieroglyphics when I decided to look up the Rosetta Stone in the index. I was initially consternated and then outraged when I couldn’t find it – what sorry excuse of a hieroglyphics book was this if it doesn’t have anything about the Rosetta Stone in it? Grumbling, I shuffled back through the pages and found a section that seemed to be related to the stone, which slightly mollified me although I was still a bit bemused about the whole thing. Five minutes later, when I close the book, I glance at its title, which reads, “The Rosetta Stone – The story of decoding the hieroglyphics’. Ah.

The Night Before Launch

(DISCLAIMER: This is a personal message – it is not from Perplex City. It most definitely is not a CLOO and launch is not actually tomorrow. It’s something I wrote for the fine folks at Unforums and so may make little to no sense if you aren’t familiar with ARGs or that crowd. Without further ado…)

‘Twas the night before Launch, though all through the land,
The posters at Unforum had once thought the Project’d been canned;

Their posts were expectant, their comments excited,
And every one of them was sure they’d be delighted;

Wherever they looked, near and far and in all abodes,
Naught reached their eyes but ciphers and codes;

And Shish with his scripts, and Tanner with his plans,
Were confident they could defeat all other ARG clans;

When out on the web there arose such a noise,
That they sprang from their chairs and put down their toys;

Away to the forums they flew like a flash,
To discover that their beloved site’d suffered a crash!

‘It must be a mistake, it must be a lie,’
Said the posters to themselves with a tear in their eye;

‘For our home to disappear on such a day…
Why, we must hurry to the chat rooms without delay!’

‘Enough of this crying, let us steel ourselves visibly,
And not rest until we read ‘Connected to #syzygy’;

The ops were ready, the troops so bright and energetic,
You’d know in a moment they’d see past any trick;

‘Now, ROT! now, Google! now, reverse lookup and WHOIS!
Now Babelfish, now Enigma, now every maths whiz!’

‘Now into the web! Now through the terrible pall!
Let us find the villain, and ensure their quick fall!’

As AIs at full height, at the summit of their power,
There is no foe over whom ARGers cannot tower,

So the posters, with awful vengeance in their eyes,
For the sake of their game, assumed a fearsome guise;

Across all sites their browsers they flew,
With ‘View Source’ at the ready, and Old Nik-Doof too,

For hours they scoured the nets and combed the land,
Until none of them, not even Fi, had the strength to stand;

Their energies exhausted, their spec starting to dupe,
Who would blame them if their eyes couldn’t but droop?

And then, in the distance, a sound as of thunder,
Something was approaching that would tear them asunder;

What now, they wondered, would be their foe’s next hit?,
And yet the unthinkable happened – a disastrous netsplit!

‘Enough is enough, we will end this tonight!’ they said,
Marching off in serried ranks with Wishi at their head,

They marched through the deserts and into certain doom,
They marched for miles to reach the server room;

For how else could their adversary cause this mess,
Without the essential ingredient – physical server access?

In a righteous rage they battered down the doors,
And proclaimed, ‘You have wronged us all, and the sacred ARG laws!’

But there was not a single person to be seen,
‘Cept for the flickering of a tell-tale blue screen;

To their dismay, their enemy was but a mere bee,
It’d been caught in the server motherboard, you see!

A wonderful story, you say, but why must we still wait?
Can’t you tell us when will be the blessed launch date?

In reply, I’ll give you a wink and a smile, and in my usual way,
‘I’m sorry,’ I answer, ‘but I really can’t say!’

Still I would like to remark, before I disappear again out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all Syzygists a good-night!”