Friday, December 6. 2013
For me, and more than half the world's population he is probably the politician more than John Kennedy that touched us. By any sensible measure I'm middle-aged, I'm older than half the world's population and when people on the TV and radio say (as they did again recently) "Where were you when you heard the news Kennedy died?" the answer is - not even conceived. My parents were married, possibly even trying to have a baby, but I wasn't even on the way.
He touched us because he was, whatever your politics and your age, a beacon of hope for something better. I'm of the age where I grew up and he was in prison. Without debating the rights and wrongs of his being imprisoned (I have mixed feelings - he was fighting against a brutal, oppressive, unjust regime but he was sanctioning acts of violence and terror) as his prison sentence came to end, and as Apartheid started to fall apart, I was one of millions around the world who watched that 'long walk to freedom' and wondered what it might mean.
We could not really have blamed him had he followed Mugabe's example in Zimbabwe and opted to retaliate against those who had oppressed him personally and his people for so long. Instead he chose a different path, a path that looks softer but must be so much harder at every step - he chose reconciliation, to make peace, to work together, to say "we are stronger together than apart." He deliberately chose not to repeat the mistakes of the past in the opposite direction and to travel forwards into a brave new world.
And that gave those of us watching hope. Yes, South Africa has problems - every country in the world has problems, such is life. But while politicians here, there and everywhere talk about 'a new way' and then play tit-for-tat blame games, Mandela was a man who said "it's not about blame, we're not forgetting the past, but we're forgiving and moving forwards." And that model, while it was fresh in people's minds almost certainly helped shift the Northern Ireland peace process along too. Northern Ireland still has its issues too but it's probably fair to say the process wouldn't have happened without the model in South Africa that Mandela showed the world.
On top of that he seemed to be a man that was gracious and charming with whoever he met. Yes, great statesmen should have that quality - all too few of our politicians do, perhaps they're simply too young. However, I suspect part of that ability to connect is related to humility - some of that comes with age, as you tend to learn humility with failure, lost of youthful vigour and the like - but it is also hard to imagine someone who lived as a prisoner for 27 years not learning some humility as well.
I'm sure he was as human as the rest of us, and had his failings and his bad days and a temper and all the rest of it. At 95 his passing cannot really be considered a shock but today the world feels like a lesser place and an embodiment of hope has gone from it.
Thursday, December 5. 2013
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in book terms is that awkward middle book of the trilogy. The film of the book has some of those recognisable characteristics, despite splitting Mockingjay into two films.
In a fantasy setting it's easy - everyone goes on a journey to explore themselves and find out more about the world. In this particular dystopian world in which you've sort of seen the world, or bits of the world come together in The Capitol, we still have a tour - this time Katniss and Peeta's tour as the victorious tributes of the last games to the other districts.
But really that is just the backdrop to a much nastier, more grown-up story. Where The Hunger Games was engaging, good and did touch on this, Catching Fire dives into the media and politics of what it means to be a celebrity, to be a winner - whether you regard it as a commentary on victory in sports or reality TV - and the uneasy interaction between brutal power politics, panum et circenses and the necessity of both symbols of hope and a spark to convert civil disobedience and rioting into a rebellion and uprising.
Woven through this, as you might expect in a story of power politics at the pointy end, you have stories of betrayal, trust, alleigance, attempted and actual manipulation, threat, love and guilt. You have choices on the human scale about protecting yourself and protecting your loved ones and choices on the grand scale - just what is it worth doing to cling to power? This is more PG and cleaner than Game of Thrones, but the intrigue and manoeuvring are certainly in the same league.
Much though I enjoyed watching this much more adult story, in some ways it is almost a relief when the action moves back into the arena. This being the 75th games (and in an open ploy to get rid of as many of the surviving tributes as possible) all the tributes this year are victorious former tributes - which leads to some odd groupings. For example, there is one elderly woman who enters the arena to protect a much younger (but insane) former victor from her district despite having to be carried around most of the time until she dies. It also lends a different dynamic with teams within the arena from the outset - anyone who remembers the first film will remember these people all know each well and there are some life-long friends in the group already - rather than the everyone for themselves dynamic of the first game. But despite playing with trust issues somewhat, the conflict is largely straight-forward here. Hit them, shoot them, no need to wonder if you're performing convincingly enough to stop them threatening your sister for another day.
As with the first movie this one contains a lot of comments about the world of media and consumption, plus a stronger element of politics, a lot about celebrity and the like. There is that twisted mirror of good science fiction about the distorting effect of power and the inability of those in power to understand those that don't care about it and what motivates them and without any real spoilers we're going to see the build-up to, and the impact of revolution since we've now had the spark to ignite it as Katniss transforms into The Mockingjay.
This is a strong second movie. Unlike Alien -> Aliens it doesn't change genres, so perhaps this is finally that rare beast, a sequel that is as good as the first film, in the same league as The Godfather movies. It's impossible for me to fairly judge how well it would do as a stand-alone movie, because of course I've seen the first one too but I think it would do well. There are things that throw back to it that might not make a lot of sense - particularly some of the references to Rue and indications of PTSD in Katniss and Peeta - but I think there's enough there that would let you understand the film overall. It helps having strong source material of course, and while that's no guarantee, this film does have that and uses it well. It's close enough that as someone who has read the book, I recognised the story I'd read and enjoyed while enjoying watching it being told in a film. It's different, of course - different medium and so on - but it's a good adaptation and well worth your time if strong female leads and/or dystopian near-futures are your thing.
Bechdel test? Multiple named female characters. Many of them talk to each other. Most of them don't talk about boys. Some of them talk about good ways to kill boys mind... but yes it passes.
As an aside, in some ways Catching Fire gender-bends, at least for movies. Katniss is grouchy, relatively self-sufficient and not in touch with her emotions. Peeta is relatively dependent (Katniss protects him and rescues him two or three times), patient, emotionally connected and willing to reach out to Katniss. There are, of course RL couples where regardless of gender that's the way they work, and couples where they take it in turns. But in movie terms, Katniss is the bloke, and Peeta is her girlfriend. Anyone looking at their bodies is no doubt they're in the wrong body for those roles. In the book they're kind of that way too but it's not really startling (male characters in books can be emotionally open, female characters emotionally closed - it's probably not the norm but it's far from unknown) but in a major box-office movie? Kinda subversive.
And as postscript, there's one of the few real hats off surprises (as opposed to a cheap jump shot) in a movie hiding in this film. I'd half forgotten it from the book, and so it surprised me again. In the speeches before the games begin the tributes are doing their damnedest to stop the games happening. (Unsuccessfully obviously.) Some of their tactics are obvious, some should be. But one is brilliant. I won't spoilt it - but I applauded when I read it, and I'll acknowledge it here since they pulled it off again brilliantly in the movie.
UPDATE: A couple of people that have seen the film got in touch about my aside about Peeta being Katniss' girlfriend in movie terms. They added fuel to the fire. Katniss is always on top when they kiss, Peeta goes to her to offer comfort, not the other way, and she always... starts ... their intimate moments. I've gone for starts very advisedly. We need a word that I don't think English quite has. Initiates and starts are slightly too passive sounding. But I couldn't find a better choice of words that didn't make her sound like she was the dominant partner or a sexually aggressive or predatory partner and there's nothing to indicate that either. But she always kisses him. It's easy to write, to read to imagine. It's rare to see.
Thursday, November 14. 2013
Thor: The Dark World is a big improvement over the original to my mind. The reasons for that aren't hard for me to pick out.
The core story is pretty simple - the Svartaelfs want to bring the worlds back to the darkness that they lived in before the pesky upstart Gods came along. Their super-weapon to do this ends up in Jane Foster, Thor's love interest, conveniently just as Heimdall is checking up on her and he realises something is wrong when he can't see her. Thor takes her home to work out what's up. Malekith, the leader of the Svartaelfs and the few remaining of his kind try to get the weapon back and mayhem ensues. While parts of this are pure invention, a big chunk of it could basically be a lift from various sagas. If you're going to rip off a story, might as well go for one that's lasted over 15 centuries!
There is a lot of big, bold action mayhem. A lot of it is very pretty - but hey, it's deity-level beings going all out against each other without any need to worry about the scenery a lot of the time. You don't have the silliness they had in Man of Steel for example, with Superman giving Zod a pointless facial in a skyscraper for example. That could descend to silliness on the other side, although I can't think of an example right now, but they reined that impulse in too, by and large.
I would also say the fight scenes, except the climactic one of course that you know is coming, generally advance the story as well. It's not a case of showcasing a fight scene, or not just showcasing a fight scene, each of them actually does one or two things to move the story along nicely as well. That's important and to my mind has often been lacking in other films recently. And while it's a matter of personal taste I didn't think the fight scenes went on for too long. Even in the climactic scene it's nicely cut together so there's stuff for Thor and Malekith to do to each other, there's stuff for Jane and Erik to do, there's minion level baddies to chase Jane, Erik, Darcy and 'the intern' around and be a reasonable threat to them without just obliterating as them Malekith would.
Before you start thinking the film is just fight after fight, there are a number of other wonderful, small moments and nicely handled story-telling scenes as well. Odin and Thor lock horn(ed helmets) about Thor's fascination with Jane. Sif (still not golden-haired, bad Marvel, but rarely referred to by name so less grating on my nerves) and Jane exchange incredibly pointed looks that speak volumes. Encyclopedia Britannica sized volumes. I don't remember if they ever actually have even a rudimentary spoken conversation (Sif gives Jane an order) but they exchange a lot of loaded looks. Frigga on the other hand seems to like Jane.
There's various nice bits of Loki in prison at various points and reacting to various events. It could have been overdone and changed the tone badly but actually it was nicely handled, worked in organically and kept you abreast of what seemed to be happening to Loki without forcing it at any point - letting you see, and understand, his resentment festering.
There's a lot of interaction between Thor and Loki as well. I'm a bit torn about this. I really enjoyed the portrayal of both characters and large parts of the way they interacted. But everytime Thor said "I wish I could trust you Loki" I groaned inside. By and large Thor and Loki got into trouble together in the myths precisely because Thor does trust Loki - when Thor finds out he's been duped he flies into a rage, tries to kill him, then gets calmed down and soon enough they're off again. All that aside, more time with those two together on screen surely wouldn't hurt. They both seem really well cast and to have that sprinkling of old-fashioned Hollywood stardust in these roles, and together on screen it seems synergistic.
There are a number of named female characters: Frigga, Sif, Jane and Darcy are the obvious ones. It's more bloke heavy on the named characters - Odin, Thor, Loki, Erik Selvig, Heimdall, Malekith, Malegrim and I'm sure the other 3 of Thor's warrior buddies are named too. However, there are a few bits of techno-babble conversation between Jane and Darcy when they're not explaning Darcy's intern (also named), wishing Erik would answer his phone and the like. There's a really, really short (2 lines) conversation between Frigga and Jane. There's a pretty long conversation between Jane and a character I didn't catch as named at the time, but did when checking the spelling of Malekith - Eir, the Asgardian physician - that's pure technobabble and nary a mention of boys despite Thor standing right there. So lots of bits where it does well on the Bechdel test. And although there are places where it seems quite old-school sexist in tone, all the women in this movie, except perhaps Darcy, are proven to be frighteningly competent and trusted to be so. Even Frigga, whose strength's don't run to front line battle, is no slouch with a blade.
As a final note, and I'm not going to say who dies, but there is a major character death part way through the movie, along with the deaths of many unnamed soldiers. There is also an Asgardian funeral. Whoever put that together did a really good job. It was utterly different to anything I've seen but clearly inspired to some extent by a Norse boat-burning funeral. But it really worked as a believable funeral rite for a significant character and the honouring of the fallen soldiers.
Thursday, November 7. 2013
I've been both using and supporting supporting someone to use and learn the latest versions of Numbers and Pages. And I have to say I find them both delightful.
I have read reviews bleating "Oh, feature X is missing" and I'm sure they're accurate. But having looked at these apps on both an iMac and an iPad over a few weeks now through the eyes of someone who wrote a PhD thesis I have to say there's nothing missing to let me do that job. I'm not saying I'd particularly want to do the analysis and writing for a PhD on an iPad, nor a lot of analysis on an iPad (Numbers is good at the presentation and manipulating charts, less at the data entry and manipulation on the iPad although better than it used to be) but you could, and you could smoothly work between the two.
You would certainly, if you needed such things, want to add in a heavy-weight data analysis tool - R seems to be the flavour of the year, it was SPSS in my day - although Numbers certainly lets you do basic data analysis which is fit for quite a lot of purposes.
In terms of usability both Pages and Numbers (I assume Keynote although I haven't had occasion to use it yet) offer either a trimmed down view - just what you're working on and a minimal toolbar plus menus/shortcuts - or a more GUI-friendly sidebar called the inspector. If you've used Word recently this replaces the ribbon/toolbars in effect but with some important differences:
So what's missing?
My personal niggle though - you can't customise the inspector or the tool bar. I can understand that on the iPad of course, but on the iMac? I obviously write science stuff sometimes still. Superscripts and subscripts are part of my core writing. I appreciate they're not part of everyone's so, by default, they're hidden away behind a "more" button. But I'd really like to be able to drag them out into the open so they're easier to use.
However, both Numbers and Pages integrate very nicely with their better known Microsoft products, importing and exporting smoothly so far as I can tell. I still reach for Mou for routine writing, for writing this for example, but when I'm working with a student say, Pages is my tool of choice to read their essay - it works more nicely than the various OpenOffice, LibreOffice etc. options I find.
Thursday, October 31. 2013
You would have thought, particularly today with the cross-party recommendation having gone to the Privy Council and the Press having failed to stop it in the High Court, all the parties involved would appreciate that the UK has a strongly interwoven series of checks and balances on power.
Add to that the recent news from the Appeal Court, the ultimate back-stop on abuse of authority in the UK, that Jeremy Hunt can't just shut departments in Lewisham raises a certain level of schadenfreude - he is part of the party that devolved power to the local GPs and when they do things he doesn't like, he can't step in and overturn them. Well, tough!
But, equally, Sharon Shoesmith's claim for compensation for unfair dismissal, settled for an undisclosed amount, was upheld. The court agreed she was unfair dismissed after a politician stepped in, at least partly in response to her vilification in the press - and, in fairness, a report that indicated her department was at least in part responsible. However, she was sacked outside the existing disciplinary processes and however much the press and the politicians howl that constitutes unfair dismissal - and however much I think she might have done financially rather better than I'd wish from it, I think it's absolutely right that she, along with everyone else, should be protected from politicians and the press conducting a witch hunt and just throwing her out of her job. Yes, even after her department messed up.
We're seeing those in power reacting really badly, really, really badly in fact to the public demanding better checks and balances, better accountability.
I'm not particularly surprised - most people don't like controls placed on, certainly not visible ones and people who are driven to seek and exercise power really don't like controls and limits on their power, especially ones forced on them. This is both.
We're also seeing what happens when those checks and balances work to protect us, even those of us in much more senior positions than most of us will ever reach, from the abuses of those above us. And, surprise, surprise, those that vilify, those that abused power or want to be able to exert that power are 'outraged' at the protection the law offers the rest of us.
The screams and protests are becoming more incoherent and more desperate. Yesterday the fact that Private Eye was considered for contempt of court, and the police tried to seize copies on sale outside the High Court - the cover was an image of Rebeckah Brooks whose trial for phone hacking started this week (It was ruled 'bad taste but not contempt' by the way) - but the representative of the press while being interviewed tried to say this was an example of political interference that would become more common after the new regulator was set up. How? This was a judicial and legal system, no politicians anywhere near it.
And, as someone else pointed out if, in future, politicians really want to hobble the press, they ignore the regulator and simply pass new laws. You don't want press intrusion? You pass stricter privacy laws, saying it's to protect the public. It happens to protect politicians too. The press can go swing. You pass laws restricting the right of a journalist to protect their sources. The journalists will scream but its the law.
The system - any system - needs checks and balances. They have to work and equally importantly they have to be seen to work. It has been running out of control and hitting the backstop - the courts - more and more often and harder and harder. Fortunately, however unpopular some of the decisions may be, the courts to date have proven robust enough to handle the job. But we, society at large at least, are starting to realise we need more, to insist we need protection before the courts, we need checks and balances in place before that backstop. Those in power will scream and kick, or will kick and die. At the moment for the press it's looking more like the death throes.
The press in its current form is dying, outcompeted by the internet and 24-hour TV news - although both have their problems. However, both TV news and the internet lack nuances and a drive that print journalism also brings. it will be interesting to see, in the post newspaper era, an era that I suspect we will reach sooner now, thanks to this latest craziness, rises as the new checks and balances on the politicians, on big business and the like. Because although the press have abused their power too much too often, they have needed their power too, and without someone wielding it with significantly less abuse and with significantly better checks and balances on them, the checks and balances they provide to other parts of our society will be gone.
It's kind of odd to look at Rupert Murdoch and see that old man and think that he might be the most potent revolutionary the UK has seen in centuries. He revolutionised the press when he took over The Times, The Sun, News of the World and so on. He, or his annointed ones, drove NOTW into extinction, and how more of his annointed ones are on trial for serious criminal charges while running The Sun. In efforts to keep up, much of the rest of the print media have followed his path and led us to the sitation of public outrage at their antics. And given his age, without wishing particular ill to him, it will be interesting to see which dies first - Murdoch or the printed press.
Monday, October 28. 2013
Saturday, October 12. 2013
The management system we use for most things is essentially based on manufacturing. If you are working on a manufacturing line (and everything is going smoothly) it's pretty easy to say task A takes 2 minutes, task B takes 7 minutes and so on. You can time them pretty exactly and while you might allow a bit of slippage here and there you can allow for the human factor but it really can work that well.
In a chunk of other places it can work too. You can reasonably predict how long it should take to serve someone in your favourite coffee shop and the like. Yes, if you have a small black coffee and the person in front of you has five extra huge lattes with extra this and that and sauce and sprinkles and sandwiches and cakes and so on then there's a clear time difference between you and them. But, over the course of a shift, there will be a pretty clear 'average customer' and although that may change over the course of a week (midweek is probably different to a Sunday for example) you can probably get a pretty good estimate for the average time to serve a customer and start looking at reasons if there's a significant departure from that.
It's important, of course, to note that last bit and to start looking for reasons if there's an unexpected drift from the norm. Those reasons might be that the staff are terrible and need sacking because they're too busy snogging behind the counter to serve the customers. It might equally be that they're brilliant, but you have a completely unusual run of customers in - you were expecting a high turn over of customers dashing out from the office and grabbing a coffee and running back, actually you had 10 coach loads of disabled pensioners arrive and work through your lines really, really slowly. The staff in this case are more due a commendation for dealing with them as well as they did. Exactly the same change noticed, completely different reasons and outcomes.
So the system, in principle can be useful in some settings. It is, however, applied everywhere - including the UK's care system. The question is does this work, generally, there?
Don't get me wrong, there are care activities that I'm sure do fit into that 'X minutes' model. If your task is to run a bath or take someone to the toilet and back and their medical situation has not changed then your task probably does fit into a fixed time slot. Of course the chances are that their medical condition will change for many of the people in care. Not necessarily day by day, for some of them not year by year, but inevitably their condition will change (hopefully for the better but probably for the worse) and gradually the time will no longer be enough. But many situations where carers provide care to those in need are not that clear and simple, nor indeed that short or easy to delimit in time.
I'm guessing everyone reading this blog has had a serious illness or a broken limb or similar, or loved one who has. I'm going to assume it's you, because otherwise the sentences get crazy. I'm not talking about the days when you were in hospital - you're supposed to have full time care from the nursing staff after all - but when you're well enough to be at home there's days when you can manage quite a lot on your own, days when you're too sick to do much of anything except lie in bed and days when with a fair bit of help actually a walk into town, a coffee out, a bit of shopping and perhaps a bus or a slower walk home are just about right. Hopefully as you get better you get more days when you can do more on your own, far fewer when you just lie in bed, and the amount of days you need any support and the amount of support you need go down.
If you have a long-term condition needing care, you're elderly and infirm, or both then the chances are you're not going to get better. (Jokes on The Last Leg based on stupid letters from the UK's new disability assessment service aside, there are many disabilities where that's the case: you don't suddenly get not-blind, regrow missing limbs and so on.) Without going into details of a specific individual - it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see that some days the person receiving care might not need so much, or any help and some days they might need quite a lot. Some days they might best be served by someone sitting down and having a cup of tea and a chat for ten minutes, another day they might really need someone to be there for two hours. If it's a nice spring day they might want someone to walk down to the river with them. If, like last winter, there's 10cm of snow on the ground for the second week, they might need someone to go and do a big shop for them so they can eat - and perhaps collect their pension too, or help them get to the post office to collect it or similar.
If you read the training guidelines for carers they talk about meeting the needs of the person for whom you are caring, putting their self-respect first, letting them make choices about they need and the like. There's nothing here that should seem controversial to anyone - if you've looked after someone who is ill you try to help them where and how they need it but after over-mothering once or twice you pretty quickly learn to let them set the limits, let them ask for the help they need and perhaps politely offer help where you can see them struggling - or perhaps not depending on their personality and your relationship.
Good care, and lets be honest we all hope we won't need it but we should really expect to live to a ripe old age and need care for some of older years, should be something we strive to establish. Complaining when we're 70 or 80 that the care we're getting isn't what we expect isn't up to scratch isn't good enough - we need to organise now to get something done, if not to improve things for the people currently receiving care (which is a good thing to do in it's own right) then to make sure that by the time we get there it's in a good state.
And you have to wonder if the management system is the right one. The care system should, reasonably, aim to provide flexible care, responsive to the needs and desires of those for whom it cares. But how can it do that when the management system says "You have 30 minutes to see patient X and 45 minutes to see patient Y." There might be enough flexibility to let the person being cared for choose between some things, but not really the whole range of their possible needs. Of course there needs to be some management system and (for those of us in the UK some form of budgetary control on the publicly funded care system) but is a management system that insists every care appointment lasts an exact amount of time every visit really the best method? It apportions things according to some reasonable approximation of need at a given date but it doesn't allow the carers to deliver flexible, person-centred care that their training says demands they should and that we hope the system will give us when it's out turn to receive care.
We also have to wonder about that phrase I threw in so glibly 'some reasonable approximation' - I'm not trying to say that the people implementing the system are deliberately trying to game it. I'm equally not trying to say that the people that the people who developed the rules for the system tried to make it unfair or unreasonable.
But, I've already laid out my arguments that people who need care have needs that will vary. What happens if the person is assessed for their needs on a really good day and on an average day their needs would be assessed as twice as much and on a bad day as twice as much again? Even if that's 15 minutes, 30 minutes and an hour - the person needing care is in trouble on an average day.
If it's more like 2 hours, 4 hours and 8 hours then there is a really big disparity to deal with. Equally, of course, what happens if they get assessed on a pretty bad day. Lets say they get properly assessed on a day when they need 6 hours of care. So what happens when the carer is there for 6 hours on a day when, in all honesty, both the person being cared for and the carer know they only need to be there for 2 hours?
And for someone for whom the care is basically for the rest (or the whole) of their life, the chances are their care needs will increase. Sometimes there may not be a change for years, even decades, or the change may be sufficiently gradual that annual or even less frequent assessments of need might be suitably often. But sometimes - the elderly are perhaps the most obvious example to most of us but there are many other conditions where it applies too - changes can be sudden and often. How well does the management system and the assessment system cope with that? The carer will be the person plugged in to the system that sees the change - how responsive is the system to them passing a message up that "X needs more time" I wonder? It should be ultra-responsive - this is the trained person in contact with the person needing care, but I bet it's currently not at all responsive.
I don't really have an answer. There are many reasons for that - but lets start with the really obvious ones: that I can spot some big obvious questions to ask but I understand all of the questions, all of the needs and demands.
But I would suggest we do have one management model that doesn't come from manufacturing and successfully, regularly, meets challenges that aren't amenable to breaking down into small, regularly timed chunks.
In fact, it's a management system that is designed for meeting challenges that arise from dealing with people. Admittedly not exactly in a care situation, although Hollywood might suggest 'taking care of them' as a euphemism for what they do. I am, of course, talking about the armed services. The army, navy, and latterly the air force all perform operations where precise timings and plans just don't work that well - although you hope for it, 'no plan of action survives contact with the enemy' and other such quotes come into play. Things go wrong, some bits are easier (and go faster) than expected, some are harder (and take longer) than expected.
Again, I'm not an expert in how the forces operate, but strong lines of communication, flexibility of response and planning and empowerment up and down the line seem to be key elements to their success. Communication on the battlefield is obviously rather tricky - but around and about in even a rural part of the UK between phones and emails and the fact you don't need to summon an airstrike on a hostile force NOW you can probably email about "I think X needs to be booked for a new care needs assessment" tonight and, if that's what the system requires, text or ring saying "I need cover for Y in an hour" from most parts of the country without a problem.
I'm sure it's not the perfect solution - we don't want carer's advancing in cover, throwing grenades through the doorway and shooting those they're meant to be caring for - but I do rather think, although it might increase the costs somewhat, it might also start to deliver a care system that actually suggest we, as a society, do care. And we might be surprised. The armed forces are expensive yes - we pay the people we send to fight and die for us pretty well and we buy them expensive toys. We might not pay them enough and we might not buy them enough armour and expensive enough toys given how many die, how many are maimed and so on, but we don't exactly stint. But they're also not exactly the most management heavy system we have either - roughly 10% of the services are commissioned officers and I suspect that's low compared to the care system.
Perhaps, as well, a care needs assessement should have that built in flexibility of military planning: "X needs 3-5 hours care per day, at most 30 hours per week" say. This strikes some sort of balance between a controllable budget - there's a maximum hours per week figure to work with - a commitment to care based on assessed need, but also puts some choice, control and self-respect back in the hands of the person who is getting the care. Yes, perhaps some of them really can't make those sorts of decisions, and the system should recognise that and account for that. But where the person is able to make those choices for themselves are we really going to say we shouldn't let them?
Again this probably isn't the ideal solution but it seems like a not incredibly more costly approach - it puts most of the extra time at the level of the cheapest to employ people and adds choice and flexibility to the people who are meant to have the power to make choices about the care they receive and be able to adapt it to best suit their extra needs without making the whole system incredibly hard to deliver.
Surely it can't be beyond the realms of imagination to get it some of the people actually in power to start actually doing some useful things instead of talking about shocking it is when they hear about something going wrong and then not actually changing the system structurally at all.
Thursday, October 10. 2013
In the interests of writing this review I looked up the book on which this film was based - I wasn't going to read it - but I'd made some guesses about what it was like based on what I'd seen and wanted to see what else might have been going on. And actually now I just might. There seem to be a lot of unexpected changes. Some of the changes I understand - the characters that have sex have moved from under-16 to over-16 for example: relatively trivial in the bigger scheme of things but important in terms of not portraying child sex and thus breaking the law in the UK.
There are both missing and extra characters between the film and the book. Some of these are inevitable of course. But one of them is a child of the family that Daisy goes to stay with. Just written out and vanished - I don't know how significant a role that sibling has, but it seems like a rather big change. And the telepathy and animal communication talents mentioned in the wiki page for the book are hinted at, changed between the brothers, messed around and then apparently just forgotten in the film. It really sounds like a rather different book to the film.
Anyway, on to the film to itself.
The film starts off as a kiddy summer holiday movie. It's a sharply observed kiddy movie: there's some biting moments of childish honesty and childish enthusiasm nicely mixed together. There are moments of inner turmoil that don't make sense at the time but by the end you understand what was going on if you pay attention. There are sweet moments, teasing moments, a believable family of children left too much to their own devices adjusting at first to the arrival of their cousin who is really not wanting to be there and more than a little spiky at first. (The challenge of "Are you a vampire?" caused a giggle, because that was the last film we saw Saoirse Ronan in - Byzantium.)
It takes a rather sharp turn for the YA as Daisy and Eddy act on their desire for each other. It's not at all pornographic, in fact it's all rather tasteful, but it's pretty clear what you're meant to assume is going on. There's also an implied rape scene but again, although it's clearly implied, you don't see anything. At 19 Saoirse is still young enough to pass for 16, or at least not terribly beyond it, the actor playing Eddy is a bit older (21) and starting to push his luck a bit as a teen but not totally over the hill yet.
Would I have gone to see this YA family drama with love story movie? Probably not. Although the voices that represent Daisy's inner turmoil/angst are presented in such a way (and tied to her need to take a pill once a day) that for about 75% of the film we both wondered if Daisy was schizophrenic and that would have made for a very interesting film that we might have watched. (Having read a little about the book, I wonder if she's telepathic in the book and suppressing it with drugs and thinks she's schizophrenic or has been diagnosed as such?)
And then there's the whole World War III story line that added enough to pull us in. That's good in some respects. It gives a solid oomph to the story in many ways. It gives a plausible reason for the children to be alone long term, which is pretty important. It sets up a number of dramatic scenarios, including that staple of romances: the separation of the leads and the challenge they have to overcome to be together again. In fact, it neatly sets up several challenges for the romantic leads - I won't tell you in detail because that would be spoiler-laden, but if you stop to think about you can probably guess a few.
It also sets up most of my, and my viewing companion's biggest problems with the film. By the end of the film it's apparent the film is meant to be Daisy's journal. If that had been made much, much clearer from the beginning it might have worked better, although I'm not sure: too many of the moments that were shown probably wouldn't have made it into a journal, they require the third person point of view to be plausible I think.
But, from the third person perspective, and as an adult, the whole of the World War III story, certainly after they picked up and sent off the camp, lacks detail that would have made the film work to an adult audience, certainly one familiar with the UK. Particular who on earth the bad guys are. Now, if it's her journal, Daisy doesn't bother about that sort of stuff - she's focussed solely on getting back 'home' to her beloved Eddy - but the film here still looks like it's a third person narrative so we should be finding out who the invading/occupying forces are. We should find out what happens to Isaac and a few questions about what happened where he was found (I'm not going into more detail for the dread spoilers). I hypothesised an EDL take-over as the disaster, or perhaps a massive swing to the right as the response to the disaster but it lacks any internal evidence save one scene. Unsatisfactory.
And that, really, is the problem we had. If it had clearly been a diary, you'd write it off as her not caring about who the bad guys were in the bigger (to her) picture of getting home - but you'd have shot the film differently. And round and round in circles.
Oh, and for anyone that believes you can walk, even with a 12 year old in tow (the actress playing Piper is 12, her age I don't clearly remember being mentioned but I'd have guessed 10-12), for 8 days through the South-East of England (or just about any part of the the mainland UK) without finding a road or a building or ten and stay in woodland almost all the time - yeah, right. Even in the borders (Welsh or Scottish), Dartmoor, the Highlands, the Welsh Mountains and the like you'd really struggle to manage that. But in the downs? Fat chance unless you really knew what you were doing and plotted a really, really clever course. (It was shot in the Welsh Borders in a seemingly endless summer. With infinite supplies of black nail polish and hydrogen peroxide for Daisy.)
Hopefully unsurprisingly for a film where Daisy and her young female cousin Piper trek for 8 days cross-country for a good third of the film, and there's a scene between Daisy and her aunt, the film passes the Bechdel test happily and easily. I'm not sure it does a whole lot for great role models for girls or young women mind. There is a politically powerful female role model - Daisy's aunt is a significant figure in the peace process (that fails obviously) and although the film portrays her children as happy she's also an absentee mother, even when she's at home, she's locked away and can't be disturbed. All Daisy wants to do, once she's fallen for him, is live her life with Eddy. Nothing wrong with that (and by the end of the film it's a particularly admirable form of dedication in a 17 year old) but it's hardly a new concept. Piper is too young to really be given agency - her role is solely as a whiny brat. The only other named woman we meet can't grasp the reality that her son is probably dead in the war and wants to stay at home in case he comes back 'so he can find us' - even when the mysterious rebels are dropping mortar rounds outside the window.
Saturday, September 28. 2013
So the first little bits of iOS 7 are coming though for me.
And the first of those is the upswipe at the bottom of the screen for the quick control centre. I knew it was there but hadn't had cause to use it before but now I have for a few things. If you've got music playing, there's a mini-controller for that. It's not particularly useful for me, but it's nice. There's also a quick set of buttons for airplane mode and the various wifi, bluetooth etc. that again aren't important for me and how I use it, but nice again for a lot of people I'm sure. There's a volume slider - it makes sense it's there with the music and all, but why when there's a rocker switch I wonder? However, after that list of "Meh, so what?" there is one thing I really like. There's a brightness controller. I mostly have my iPad pretty dark (low brightness) but if I'm watching videos on it, I like the brightness up somewhere around 5/12 on the whole scale. Gone are the days of starting the video player, swearing, stopping it, diving into Settings, diving down to brightness and wallpaper, getting the brightness up, then switching back to the video player, restarting the video and so on. Now it's just a swipe up (actually two, because the player I watch has it's own controller that appears on the first tap and the button for the for control centre, then a swipe for that to appear, but it's still a lot faster).
There's a downswipe to search, instead of going left to homepage -1 too. But I never used the homepage -1, I don't have enough apps and things to make it necessary and I've only used the downswipe to see it's there.
And in the less important things (to me) a lot of transitions have changed too, there's a sense of tiling and tiles moving. I guess a sense of stained glass and the pieces of glass sliding in and out. I quite like it. It's not particularly subtle (it's also not particularly intrusive and distressing to my mind) it just works with that sense of it's a piece of glass you're working with. Apps expand slightly differently. We're looking at iPhones and iPads starting to become graphically quite heavy interfaces all round. It's distinct step forwards.
Monday, September 23. 2013
So iOS7 is here and after a long, long download and a migraine I've had a chance to play with it.
I should make it clear from the start I don't have, and I'm not likely to buy, an iPhone 5s so I have no experience of and no opinion on the fingerprint scanner. I can say if you don't have one, iOS 7 introduces a 4-digit pin number instead of swipe to unlock every time. I'm guessing with a new iPhone you simply mash your fingerprint on the reader instead. Thanks to the way I use my iPad, I've turned off the passcode. There are a lot (well 2 or 3) of "Are you sure?" "Are you really sure?" type messages here - but since I very rarely take my iPad outside I'm sure and it did finally let me turn it off. By the time they've nicked my iPad they've probably also nicked my main computer my actual credit cards, debit cards and so on. If I do take it out it's easy enough to turn the passcode back on.
To, somewhat pedantically correctly, use a horribly overused phrase, iOS 7 represents a paradigm shift in design. Everyone before the release was talking about it being flattened but not really talking about what that means, visually. Gone is the paradigm of the "RL button" that you press. We've moved, instead, to a more honest that it's an area of glass that you're touch and a clearer visual representation of that - that is you get something that looks like an area of glass to touch rather than a button, and when you do touch it does something. Often that's fairly intuitive, as you'd expect from Apple and their design team, sometimes it's a bit less so - the regions for uploads and downloads uses the same icon and it looks like it refers to uploading. It will become more comfortable after a while but the first time I saw it I thought it couldn't be the right button.
In a similar vein, the wobbly buttons and the red 'stop' sign to delete an app have not entirely gone - there's a white X instead - but the similar red 'stop' sign to quit an app and, indeed, the whole of the app manager system have been redesigned. Whether you access it by double-clicking home or a four-finger up swipe remains the same, but instead of a bar at the bottom with a stop sign it becomes a whole screen thing. There is a small display of the app's icon and a larger (probably half screen size) display of the last active screen. It's not instantly obvious, although I'm sure it will become habitual, but you sweep up on the large image to throw it away and quit the app.
A lot of the core iOS apps have had this sort of a makeover too. Some of it is relatively small touches, some of it bigger things. Many of the changes make a lot of sense and overall there's a strongly coherent sense of identity to what's going on and a real sense of computing with a piece of glass rather than computing with a 3D environment replicated within a pane of glass. I understand the impetus, in time I will even applaud it I think - it is a clear indication that we're moving beyond the simple replication of the external environment into taking tablet and smartphone computing as its own environment visually as well as in other terms. How that will change our development processes is not yet clear but that it will is, I think, inevitable and to be welcomed.
With my disabled teacher hat on, one of the things that we will have to see about is sudden appearance of lots of colour. I don't think it's too bad, it's a highlight rather than a sole significantor - the Reminders app for example solidly colours a circle to show the task is complete. Unless you're X-white colourblind you're unlikely to have problems - the colour coding is between the various lists you can have and I don't know that's going to be a significant problem (or advantage) particularly if you have your completed tasks hiding as I assume most people do. (It could be I guess, but I'm struggling to imagine many circumstances when it would be.) In most other circumstances the switching is also white-to-coloured and there's a positional indicator and other indicators so my initial thought is that it's likely to not be too bad however severe your colourblindness.
The most appreciable change apart from this so far, is one I've turned off. You can have your apps update in the background. (This is accompanied by a blue dot in front of the name of an updated but unopened app.) Of course regularly checking the app store for updates doesn't horribly shorten battery life but it does appreciably shorten it. I can't seem to find a way to alter the checking frequency (say every 12 hours) which might encourage me to turn it on again but I have noticed over today the battery life going down quite a bit faster than normal.
As an offshoot to the iOS overhaul a number of other apps have redesigned themselves. Some of these redesigns seem purely aesthetic - although not necessarily unwelcome it has to be said. One or two have taken the chance to fairly radically redesign the interface - it's more than a new set of flattened buttons. Zite, for example, has shifted the 'open original' page to the bottom of their précised text (which I don't particularly mind) and the close button to the bottom left from the top left, which is a bad muscle-memory switch. It's also completely changed the paging animation, the opening of a story animation and the blur effect when you open your menu options. An interesting mix and overall good, once I get used to the new position of the close story button. A little more confusing, they've changed how they display the origin of the story depending on if the story has text or a picture as its short form. That's currently quite disorienting and something I think will remain so as I have to process if its a picture or a wordy highlight and then look in a different part of that story's part of the screen to see where it came from. That I'm not so keen on - but that's not Apple's fault, that's a problem with the people behind Zite.
And that brings me to my biggest single gripe. I have a lot of muscle memory around several things, some iOS related, some in non-core apps that have been changed to suit the new iOS direction. I am, gradually, learning the new movements, the new button looks and positions. I'm not going to pretend I won't get used to them - I'm not going to stop using my iPad any more than I'm expecting to stop breathing in the next year or five. I'm wondering, though, what gains are to be expected not so much from the new look as from the new gestures we have to learn. We can learn them of course, but we do we get for relearning and retraining ourselves?
Friday, September 13. 2013
So, the government is to press ahead with privatising the Royal Mail, a step that Margaret Thatcher felt was a 'privatisation too far' we're told, and having recently abused our leaders for failing to consider the lessons of history, I thought I'd consider what the lessons of the privatisations of 3 decades ago can teach us.
Before I start I should say, although it may come as a surprise to some of you, I'm not ideologically opposed to privatising some things that are, or were, nationalised industries. I don't have an automatic reaction that the Royal Mail should be run by the government - we pay immediately and directly for the service we get. That cost is averaged nationally - so it costs the same for a stamp to post a letter around the corner in York as it does from the heart of London to the North of Scotland despite the far greater costs of the latter - but it's meant to break even on all the pick-ups and deliveries it makes. So it could be privatised, and any efficiency savings - as long as that principle of averaged costs is maintained - can be reasonably turned into profits. I'm ok with that.
History suggests projects with huge infrastructures tend to struggle - water, gas, electricity, rail, landline phones etc.
The two apparent success stories - broadband and mobile phones were both set up after the industries were privatised and certainly in the case of broadband heavily subsidised by government. Even now, they're still arguing about finally getting decent broadband into rural areas. It is getting there, but in a small village about 10 miles from where I live they struggle to get a 2Mb broadband, while I've just been offered the chance to upgrade to >100Mb again.
It could be argued, and I don't have the data to support or refute such an argument and I don't really know how to find such data, that the current problems are not inherent in the privatisation process - rather they are a failure of the regulatory process over time. The process worked for some time, then small problems started to appear and were allowed to develop into the bigger problems we see now as they went unrecognised and unmanaged. However, since this is about learning lessons from history, it seems unlikely the current crop will be able to accurately predict the changes to regulation and market conditions any better 30 years ahead than the last lot could - so it seems like in 30 years or so, the Post Office regulator could find itself struggling with something really bad.
Now, when I was starting to think about writing this, I was thinking "But the Royal Mail doesn't have massive infrastructure" - the most obvious bit of infrastructure the Post Offices are owned and run separately and aren't being privatised. However, although they don't have train lines, gas pipes and the like, they do have a rather obvious bit of unusual infrastructure: letter boxes. (Sorting offices, while somewhat unusual, are similar enough to factories/offices for other businesses that I think they don't count. They're only unusual in their number but any company starting to compete with a nationally distributed business faces that challenge of scale. Or benefit of being smaller and having lower overheads depending on your POV.)
Wherever you go in even a relatively inhabited bit of the UK (small hamlet or bigger) how far away are you from a letter box? Even in some really rural places, where people cluster but don't live, you can find them. I used to change trains on a station in the middle of nowhere. You literally couldn't see another building from it, but there was the station, a shelter and a letter box. Living in a smallish city I think I have 6 letter boxes within about a 10 minute walk. There are probably more actually, but 6 I can easily think of. Replicating that kind of coverage, even in urban centres, is going to be a nightmare for any competition. It seems there's a real chance we might run into a situation like #1 - there's no real competition, at least in most places, because no one can afford to set up and compete.
The counter to that, is that someone starts cherry-picking. London, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Sheffield say (that's the top five cities by population) get their own, internal postal services that can compete. (London can probably support that, I'm not sure about the other cities, but Yorkshire as a whole, or a 'Roses Postal Service' and a 'Midlands Postal Service') might work and they take, particularly London, a bite of the most profitable deliveries out of Royal Mail's activities. Royal Mail in the meantime is still required to provide a national service and the prices go up - and it doesn't look good.
A proposal supposed to introduce competition to the Royal Mail actually destroys a system that is actually efficient and pretty cheap and delivers (in both senses) a nationally and internationally respected service.
Granted there are challenges and changes ahead - we're certainly posting fewer letters, there are more small parcel delivery services delivering our online shopping purchases and they're not using the Royal Mail for the deliveries. How that will change the dynamics in the next 10-20 years is anyone's guess. But we're back to ideology that a privately-owned company will handle the the changes better than a government-owned service.
In summary: It's not clear to me what the government expects to gain from this save an ideological sense of achievment and doing something that their childhood heroine didn't do. It's pretty clear to anyone with half a brain that there isn't going to be a situation like broadband with a sudden need to roll out a whole new cabling infrastructure nationwide. So I suspect the likeliest outcome is we're going to have a situation in which we, the tax payer, are now paying someone's profits for running a monopoly, to which I do object. The alternative is that most of us are going to have an appreciably more expensive service and a few of us in the right places are going to have a rather limited and confusing competition available.
Monday, September 9. 2013
To my mind Riddick is the sequel that they should have made to Pitch Black, instead of the overblown The Chronicles of Riddick that they did make†. Taking its cue from the Alien to Aliens shift, Riddick is identifiably the same sort of story as Pitch Black with savage fauna that comes out to hunt you in the dark (although in this case, the darkness is caused by a huge storm rather than a triple eclipse) but just as Alien has civilians and Aliens has marines, Riddick has combat-ready bounty-hunter mercenaries. It even has a machine that goes 'ping' although we don't get a 'that means they're inside the room!' moment.
Riddick does have a little flashback to the events of Chronicles, just in case you're one of the few of us that remember any of it. But once that's out of the way Riddick fights the wildlife, threatens and predicts the demise of those foolish enough to fight him and generally proves how badass and virile he is. It has a far more significant throwback to the first film (I won't say what, because of spoilers) but they explain enough that I think you can work out what's going on without having seen it to get to grips with it. Certainly I didn't remember the details clearly enough until the big showdown which the significant events were but it was still satisfying.
It's hard for me to describe this film as anything but unrelenting, macho action. And to think it does it really, really well. It's fun, exhilarating and entertaining on that level. It's not a great movie, but rather like The Mummy and, indeed, Aliens it's a thoroughly watchable romp without any aspirations beyond that.
With only one named female character Riddick is nowhere near passing the Bechdel test. That character is called Dahl, and I really which she wasn't. Having the hardass mercenary woman apparently told "Doll, look out the window" really sounds bad to my ears. It might be meant to be a play on words but it made me decidedly uncomfortable several times. While we're in this territory I'm undecided on another issue. Dahl asserts several times "I don't sleep with men." It's not clear if that's "while I'm at work" or a more general assertion that she's a lesbian. I find myself hoping the former, because by the end she's sleeping with Riddick and I really don't like the implication that a macho-enough man can "cure" her of being a lesbian. So, lets give them the benefit of assuming innocence until guilt is proven and taking it as a defence to stop the other men (there are many, and at least one is not nice to women at all) pestering her. In that case, in the context of a macho movie, Riddick actually gives a fairly good message about how a real man (and face it, Riddick is pretty much the epitome of a real man) should treat a woman. He says (OK, not chivalrously, not even politely, but it's far from the worst possible language) he's interested and then says he'll wait until she asks him to take it further. And he does just that. As a message to boys out there about how to treat women, it's not a bad one - say that you're interested and then wait to be asked before you do anything more. We see much more misogynist messages in much more mainstream movies than this.
For my money, beyond the macho action which I've already said it does well, this film scores nicely in two places.
The first, as with the first film, is the pretty aliens. There are quite a few of them, dogs, eels, and other things and they're all nicely done and look good. I suspect, as with Pitch Black there are holes in the ecosystem - Paul Colinvaux published a book Why Big, Fierce Animals Are Rare some decades ago (1979 in fact) and the arguments still hold up - these movies ignore them completely. But hey, who cares: they're pretty and they're fun.
The second this movie does well is with the characters. A few are there as cannon fodder of course, not really for long enough to have a character. In fairness to them, even the one with the least screen time has something painted in, some attempt to portray a character. One is just unrelenting bad, although he does have moments of courage and some attempts at being funny. But most of the rest have a good job of being painted in shades of grey. They're mercenaries and bounty hunters: they do unpleasant things for money. They are presented with times when they show loyalty and times when they don't, times when they're courageous, times when they're venal and so on. Even Riddick, although he's unrelentingly driven and courageous of course, can need be overwhelmed and misjudge people. And that little twist makes the film even better. He's not a god, he's human, and sometimes what makes us special is that we work together.
There's a rumour on the internet that Vin Diesel put his house up as collateral to ensure this movie got made. Even if it hadn't been such a fun movie, you've got to admire someone for the guts to do that. When they produce a fun romp like this - I think a round of a applause is in order too.
† I should say I've recently seen The Chronicles of Riddick rerun on TV. I quite enjoyed it as a mythology-heavy fantasy film in space. It's just not a film with the elements that made Pitch Black work. I do wonder if the first two films represent movies of RPG campaigns. The first was a short-game. Perhaps an intro game to a new system. The second was a campaign proper, exploring the universe with more characters, more background and so on. The first worked well as a movie (although would have been brutal to play). The second didn't work so well as a movie (but might have been better to play, heroes against the lawful evil empire taking over).
Sunday, September 1. 2013
Sometimes I despair of the world in which I live. Sometimes that's the big things, like whoever it is in Syria using chemical weapons on civilians, certainly. That's then enhanced by the US rabble-rousing by appealing to the emotions about how terrible it is to use chemical weapons on women and children. Why is it worse to use chemical weapons on civilian women than civilian men? The world has agreed we shouldn't use chemical weapons at all. There's no messing around here.
But sometimes, and what actually started me writing this post before the news hijacked the introduction, was some of the reviews, written by adults, of City of Bones (some of those written by children too, but they might have an excuse of youth). I should make clear I haven't sought out these reviews, Zite, my news aggregator of choice, has pulled them in to the Film/TV section for me because it's a new film, so reviews are doing the rounds.
The commonest themes are "bad fanfic mashup of Harry Potter and Twilight."
Now, good or bad is a matter of taste and personal preference. I thought it was a good film, it's going to be comfortably in the top half of my films of the year unless the last third of the year is particularly strong.
However, apparently any story with young people and magic is now Harry Potter fanfic. Despite the fact it's a completely different (and ancient, well established genre) of magic, there's no hint of a magical school and the like. There's no structure around a school either. Maybe someone should summon the late Ursula le Guin and warn her that Wizard of Earthsea and the like are Harry Potter fanfic - I mean there's wizards and a school after all. (Forget details like Wizard Of Earthsea was published 29 years before Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone when JK Rowling was 3, I'm sure JK wrote it first! And I'm sure there are earlier stories of wizarding schools, I'm showing my age and experience too.) You could equally argue, this time probably with some justification, that JK Rowling is influenced by Enid Blyton's various school stories - Mallory Towers and so on. Certainly that structure is repeated here, although Harry's A-story adventures are rather less prosaic than those in Enid Blyton's books, although his growing up B-stories go along the same lines pretty much, with the slight twist of him being male. Maybe we should claim JKR is writing (good or bad as you choose) Enid Blyton and Ursula le Gwyn mashup fanfic.
A similar set of comments could be made about the Twilight books. I'm really not sure who did the first werewolf-vampire cross-over. Laurell K. Hamilton or the Buffy-verse team might have a shout for modern writers. There's classic horror films (I can't believe 1968 is the first of them but it's the earliest I can find on IMDB) but Frankenstein's Bloody Terror mashes up vampires, lycanthropes and the good German Doctor. 1971's The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman is the first clear mashup of just those two. But I'm sure somewhere in the Balkans they told folk-tales with the two before that. And someone in the gothic horror tradition probably wrote a book with the two earlier as well.
Perhaps these reviewers have never heard of the concept of artistic inspiration and genres. Why do we have Western movies, detective novels? Why did all the great Western classical composers do a requiem mass? How many great Western artists did some version of The Birth of Christ and so on? If we come more up to date, how many of you have heard of Dido? How many have heard of her because of Eminem? Staying in music, Elgar's Enigma Variations are strictly 'on a theme by Nimrod' and so on.
Artists, and authors and film makers count here, are inspired by other artists. Sometimes (50 Shades of Grey, I'm looking at you, but also The Magnificent Seven and in the opposite direction, Ran where Kurosawa nicked the plot. Mind you, Shakespeare nicked a lot of his plots too - and often pretty much says so within his plays) those moments of 'inspiration' appear much more like direct theft. That doesn't mean they make for bad pieces of art (or good ones mind you).
And working within a genre means, by its very definition, you're going to see very similar things. If you are creating a work of Urban Fantasy it is probably going to have:
Other flavours (angels, demons, zombies, magic waves, guns, swords etc.) to spice and flavour as desired. I read a lot of this sort of stuff. From the very good, the very bad. There is a broad similarity. And there are enough differences in much of it to make me choose to read on in some series, and reread them. I'm not claiming they're great literature, nor recommending them to everyone, but they are there and they're not all Twilight clones. Many of them predate Twilight for one.
You can write a similar list for a detective story. I don't read many but:
I'm sure there's more that could be added to the list. But even if we look at really similar things - CSI, CSI: Miami and CSI: New York - they took the same procedural approach, the same core concept. It would be very, very easy to dismiss these as "three copies of the same thing" and yet they ran successfully for a number of seasons. (CSI itself has been renewed for Season 14, CSI: Miami managed 10 seasons, CSI: NY managed 9). But despite that narrow focus they managed to retain a distinctive enough flavour to last that long on network TV in the US. No one would mistake the CSIs for each other, nor with Sherlock nor Sherlock with Elementary nor either of those with any of the other Sherlock Holmes film or TV adaptations, nor the original books, nor any of the new books.
Let me assume, just for a minute, that the majority of the reviewers making these comments are actually mature enough to realise these things, to understand that films within a genre are going to have similar themes and concepts. The point is not to say "Oh, look, that film had vampires and werewolves, this film has vampires and werewolves ergo they're identical" but too say "they're off a type, lets look at how they're different, what they did with the elements, what did they do that's fresh?"
And, of course, this might be why City of Bones suddenly does rather badly. Rather than address those issues, let's dismiss it as "Harry Potter meets Twilight" and hope no one considers it at all.
It is possible, as with many things of the general fantasy genre - be they books, TV or films - this is just laziness. "Oh, it's fantasy, let's just dismiss it because there's nothing serious there, it's just fantasy." Because, much though I'm bored by Game of Thrones for a variety of reasons, it's clearly not a massive cultural phenomenon of our age. "It's just fantasy."
But I suspect another reason. Before exploring that in detail, I want to quickly discuss how City of Bones is structured in terms of its plot. Obviously there's a teen-romance. But the other story that drives it along is essentially Clary's search for her mother - although that turns into Clary and Jace's search for the Mortal Cup. This sounds, at first like pure Noir/PI - Shaft, The Maltese Falcon, that kind of thing - territory, but you have to think with Jace, Alec and Isabelle, we might be more into hiring mercenaries or similar - Predator, Proof of Life although we are in a special sub-genre where the civilian hiring the mercenaries gets to come along and, at least when they're not in a fight, make annoying (and often hard to ignore) suggestions about what they should do next. That sort of blurs it towards a war/spy movie somewhat in my thinking. The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare or perhaps (judging purely from the trailers I must admit) The Fast and the Furious 6 or similar - that sort of thing where the officers make bad choices because of poor information but are still listened to, and their advice and orders are often, but always, followed, good or bad.
In any film more than about 10 years old, that makes Clary's role that of a male. Without exception. And that is important. Clary gives opinions and expects them to be listened to and considered. They aren't always, even by her allies and certainly not by her enemies of course. But they are often listened to and considered and when they aren't followed there is some reason given beyond "you're a girl." (Some of the times they're ignored they should be ignored - telling the combat specialists you've 'hired' how to fight in the middle of a battle is not smart when you're the civilian.) In other words, she's treated as, in those older movies, the important (but not combat proficient) male characters were.
In a world where film reviews that think Oblivion is OK, where all the women have no agency at all, City of Bones is clearly very dangerous because Clary has agency, and although Izzy doesn't really in this aspect of the film she's basically filling the 'exotic weapons combat specialist and disguise expert' and so not really supposed to have agency in this part of the film. She's rather dangerously competent in a variety of combat situations and again it's a role that until except in a few genre niches (Xena, Buffy, La Femme Nikita for example) are almost always still male. It isn't the most stridently feminist message you'll ever see but it's a quiet, unassuming, even comfortable expectation by both of the women that they have their place, they're equal to the men - and an equally comfortable expectation by the men that the women will be their equals and be completely competent to do their jobs. (Yes, having Izzy as the warleader rather than Jace would make a stronger feminist message but that isn't what the film is about. And having Jace and Clary fancy each other makes for the strong currency of 'Help me find my mother' then 'Oh, I'll help you find the Mortal Cup' work when the civlian can't actually pay the mercenaries in cash. It could work as a teen lesbian romance but it wouldn't be so mainstream.)
Equally, for the parents reading the reviews, and writing the reviews probably, this film is dangerous because Clary is (probably actually unreasonably) maturely in control of her desires. She has the hots for Jace. When Simon, her best friend for the last 10 years announces his love for her, she has enough sympathy to let him down at least a little bit gently. She doesn't laugh in his face for example. When she lands on top of Jace (purely by accident… honest) but the time isn't quite right for their first kiss to be perfect she makes a joke and gets up. When, later, the time is right, she kisses him. And then kisses him again for good measure. Again it's not the most strident voice of feminist power. But it is saying, calmly "Hey girls, it's ok to fancy who you want. And kiss who you want. When you're ready, not when they are. And not the safe guy you know your mum likes, kiss the totally hot one you're damn sure you mum wouldn't approve of."
And I guess on those fronts, it's a lot easier to say "It's a rubbish film. Forget all about it" than address the points it does raise in its own way.
I'm not arguing City of Bones is the best film ever. It's not the most fun film (that would be Seven Psychopaths which is in my current film year) I've seen this year and it won't be my best film of the year come December (Les Miserables and probably Django Unchained will be above it at least, maybe others.) But I do find myself wondering just how much it was lazily reviewed the way it was to save the mainstream reviewers having to write anything that might make any adults reading a review of it actually think about it and how their daughters might grow up. And I wonder how many of their daughters will grow up and demand the world changes for the better because of it.
On a side note, I hold the CSI franchises up as an example of the sexism of the US TV/Movie industry. All three have strong female characters. One (briefly) had a female head of the crime lab. But they all insist on having a male star as the main character. However, it's notable that they, show's like Grey's Anatomy, ER etc. that all have multiple strong, competent women and they all have long, long runs on US TV. NCIS too.
Friday, August 30. 2013
It seems enough of our MPs, I'm not sure about our political leaders - although Milliband did enough of the right things in the end to cause a significant stumble, it was pretty much a cross-party alliance of bank benchers that really defeated the bank benchers - have learnt the lessons, or had public opinion about the lessons of recent history shoved in their faces, ears and eyes that they learnt, heard and spoke.
Normally I'm very, very cynical about the effect of this. But this really seems to have achieved something - the UK will not be putting its hand on the dagger. For a year or two at least, we're going to think twice about pretending we're the world's policeman. Good.
Thursday, August 29. 2013
Military action, at least by the UK, against Syria has been pushed back because our politicians can't find a consensus. While I am opposed to the use of chemical weapons, as is international law, the US and UK are not the unilateral world police and I am of the opinion we should not just pile in and attack without clear evidence and an international mandate. If the Americans and others want to go for it alone, so be it.
George Santayana famously said:
Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it
It appears some of those in power can't remember Iraq and Afghanistan, ironic really since we still have troops on the ground there, and prefer to remember Kosovo - claiming the clear violation of international law makes the cases similar. And they have a point in fairness. The international community should act to enforce the laws and agreements it makes, otherwise what's the point of having the laws? However, while I agree it's most likely the Assad regime is the source of the attacks, those same laws and agreements have clauses about evidence and neutral inspectors. Striking now, in anger, seems like an act of petulance. If we're going to claim we're striking as an act of justice, surely we have to wait for the inspectors to report and assess the evidence they present - let the law run its course?
Of course the fact that in the case of Kosovo the neighbouring states were either directly involved in the war (Serbia etc.) or supporting the military action - almost exactly the opposite of the current situation and just like Iraq and Afghanistan - seems to be irrelevant. Both Russia and Iran are making very supportive noises about and towards the Assad regime.
So far Russia's moves are diplomatic and blocking at the UN. If there is clear evidence from the UN inspectors they probably won't send troops in but they will equally find it hard to continue their blocking moves. That doesn't mean they won't of course, but it starts to look more and more like unthinking support of an ally caught red-handed rather than a principled "We should not condemn them until the evidence is in. Innocent until proven guilty!"
Iran's moves might be dismissed as sabre-rattling but they're threatening, if America attacks, to attack/invade Israel. Now, I am absolutely not an expert in Middle Eastern politics and despite knowing they've just inaugurated a new president and that his name was in the news within the last month or so I can't remember it. I really can't judge the credibility of this threat. Is it bombast and sabre-rattling? Just how sure are you of that? Let's pretend you (that's you, the American military) find the stockpiles of chemical weapons and factories making them and you can target them accurately, safely and without risking civilians and you do so. Let's further pretend the mission is an amazing success and this works as planned. What chance that Iran launches an attack on Israel - be that an invasion, missile attack or whatever, and potentially the whole of the Middle East descends into war are you willing to risk for you miracle clean strike against the chemical weapons?
And remember that's a best case scenario. In this scenario Russia is convinced, there are no civilian casualties for Assad to use as propaganda and so on… To the best of my, again non-expert knowledge, precision bombing requires a body on the ground to designate the target for the smart bomb for a really accurate strike. There's definitely propaganda mileage to be made from capturing a soldier, be he (most likely) or she American, French or British and putting them before the cameras, at least until there's an UN resolution supporting the bombing. After that, there's still some mileage for it, but really only for your most fanatical supporters. While I can believe that the factory making chemical warfare munitions isn't the heart of a city it's not going to be in the middle of nowhere - there will be somewhere for the workforce and their families to live, shop, eat, or at least travel facilities and the like. They might be serving people working in a job at least part of the time producing chemical weapons but I bet the factory does other things too - medicines, fertiliser and the like. There almost certainly will be innocent bystanders, even if not many.
It makes me wonder what goes on in the corridors of power. There are, thankfully, MPs on all sides saying sensible sounding things: yes we need to condemn the use of chemical weapons, with good evidence we may consider military action but how do we guarantee we don't go into another 'limited action' that spirals into a 10 year campaign that hardens extremist opinion.
I, like many others, tend to misremember Santayana's quote as
Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.
I always took that to mean the study of history in the sense of 'before we were born' rather than history within living memory, in fact within the memory of many children. Do our political leaders really need to prove they've got bigger dicks than the last lot that they're going to forget the lessons of the last decade?
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