Friday, September 26. 2014
Talk about a nasty question.
Going to war abroad has to satisfy what can be boiled down to two questions. Is it legal? Is it reasonable?
IANAL but when you've been invited in to "help" by the government of the country as recognised by the UN then there's a pretty decent chance it's legal. OK, about 10 years ago we were part of the alliance that toppled the previous government and helped establish the conditions that led to this one being elected. But countries like China and Russia didn't have to recognise this new government and have at the UN. It might not be a perfect way to judge a legitimate government but it's not a terrible one.
Reasonable is much harder - in some ways it's an umbrella question for lots of other questions. What are our aims? What will we achieve by what we're planning to do? What will it cost - that's in money, lives (both ours, theirs and civilians and the risk of radicalising people and strikes against here and so on), the risk of escalation and all the rest of it?
And here we enter a balance of judgement. Will bombing ISIL in Iraq achieve anything? The ISIL people have driven out most of the people they seemed to want to drive out, so they can disperse and return later, retreating into Syria. OK, other people are bombing Syria, so what we're doing is clearly only a token. So why bother? Fundamentally, as elsewhere, an aerial campaign against land forces won't win the war. An aerial campaign supporting a ground campaign can make it a lot easier but someone is going to have to put boots on the ground. This vote isn't about that of course. Perhaps the idea is to interdict the area by bombing raids until the Iraqi army can put their boots on the ground. Given 3 divisions evaporated in the face of ISIL a few months ago, how long is that going to take? Even then, they retreat into Syria and regroup and return. Given the state of Syria no one is going to be seriously putting boots on the ground there to drive ISIL out.
I don't have answers to these questions. But the news this morning suggests we could be bombing parts of Iraq for 3 years. They haven't said how expensive this might be. We're constantly told we're living in times of great austerity. Every month, at least, we hear reports about NICE saying that the cost of a particular treatment is too high to justify its use in the NHS. I hate that we have to have that cold blooded calculation whilst completely understanding it and endorsing the process and supporting the people that have to go through the data and make it. Do the expected gains justify the undoubted billions that flying to Iraq (presumably from airbases in Cyprus) and dropping bombs all over it for the next three years would cost?
Government is about hard decisions. There's a hard decision for you. Can we spend less and achieve more by increased diplomatic and aid efforts in the region, not drop a bomb and save some money to spend elsewhere? My inclination tends to yes. There's too many ways bombing only in Iraq doesn't seem to make sense, or seems to be a token, a stroking of male egos: "Of course we're a serious world power, looking, we're bombing with you aren't we?"
I have no doubt we will bomb ISIL. Callmedave wouldn't have called a vote if he thought there was any chance he could lose this one after he lost the vote to intervene in Syria last year. I'm not even sure it's the wrong decision. They say the adult world is one where the world isn't black and white. Here's a prime example. It's going to boil down to a binary decision - yes or no. If I had a vote (thankfully I don't) I'm pretty sure I'd vote no. 70% sure. But I have enough uncertainties that, apart from the most jingoistic of arguments I can understand why people will vote yes too.
Tuesday, September 23. 2014
Let me first off say I'm glad I didn't go to the cinema to see this. As it is, I only half-watched.
That might be unfair on the film - I've got nothing against Brad Pitt. He's easy on the eye, he's a thorough competent actor.
But compared to the book which takes both a structure and a sub-genre of which I'm not really fond and makes a smart, interesting and intelligent book (reviewed here) a very standard Hollywood action-adventure with zombies it's a shame. Heck, it takes a book that would, I admit, be hell to film as is but that is set AFTER the war and turn it into a film set at the outbreak of the war up to the (completely different) turning point that allows humans to start fighting back.
There are a few easter eggs that made me, as someone who knows the book, think there are going to be nods throughout. But then they go to Israel and completely divert. Oh well.
It would be very quick to list the ways the film is similar to the book once you get past the title.
There you go, you've read it. It has zombies, yes. But in the book they're your classic shufflers, in the film they're super-fast. The book is truly international (China, Japan, South Africa, Israel, England, Jamaica, Canada and more get there parts) the film is basically America with a diversion into Israel for a couple of scenes and so on and so on.
If I was more of a fan of zombie apocalypse movies it might be good. There are cool moments, when Brad spends all his hero points at the end and walks past the zombies. But, unless this sort of movie is really your cup of tea, I'd avoid it. For what it's worth, I also saw Zombieland recently. Much better - it's kind of silly but it's meant to be funny and it is.
Bechdel test? Yes, I think so. In the early part when I was hoping it would be closer to the book and not just share a title there are various interchanges between Karin, Constance and Rachel (Brad Pitt's character's wife and daughters). They're about asthma, pet dogs as presents, toy dogs and the like and although they're mostly not extensive they're back and forth several times - certainly long enough to count as conversations.
Tuesday, September 16. 2014
following a series of broadcasts about education reforms on the radio, I've been inspired (in part by those shows) to stop and think about what I would do, if I were in charge.
There are a couple of caveats up front:
So, on to my education policy.
School obviously starts with the very basics - reading, spelling, writing, counting and has 11 years to produce people ready to go out and (theoretically) join the world of work or to move on into further education, be that an apprenticeship or other on the job training, or some sort of education focusing on aiming them towards a university place.
I haven't done enough work with children under 14 to really comment on what's going on there in detail, but I have and sometimes still do work with adults with poor numeracy and literacy skills sufficiently to say there is an issue with how they are taught that starts under 14, under 11 even.
What do we really need to give our school leavers? I'm going to propose a list of core competencies in alphabetical order (sometimes with some jargon terms that I will explain later) and then some add on options for different groups.
My list of tracks and their skills is necessarily incomplete: there need to be tracks for, for example, technical skills for people intending to do apprenticeships (I guess that would include D&T and the like), people wanting to enter the caring and social work professions, people wanting to do artistic courses, humanities, social sciences and so on. I simply don't know what the right skill sets would be. If I were writing a real manifesto, I would go and have a consultation and fill in the details, but there is enough here to flesh out what it going on. I also don't want to make this post much longer than it's already going to be.
Literacy and numeracy are different to maths and English as we normally think of them. They're less academic and they're focused on the sorts of skills people actually use in everyday life. Out go things like sines, integration and the like, while things like actually learning about timetabling, budgeting and the like are included for example. Maths, the academic subject, appears in the science track (and there might need to be a maths track with, perhaps maths, philosophy and logic or something). The focus is definitely on the skills that are needed for adult life, the academic extras are only added for those that will need them. This is a common theme throughout the core curriculum.
Knowledge organisation and learning skills is a loose term about learning how to learn. Most of us change jobs as adults these days, sometimes several times. We will be retrained in those new jobs, we'll learn new skills as the tools we use change and so on. This is school learning to help us learn how to manage and cope with those things effectively. I learnt this, in reverse, when I was teaching people with learning difficulties, and more formally when I was doing my teacher training. It made a huge difference - about 25 years too late! I'm not suggesting 5 year olds learn about domains of learning and connectivism and other models of learning, not in a formal sense anyway, but for everyone learning about how we learn, how we connect knowledge and skills, the techniques that can help us learn new things (and the different ways we as individuals can learn better) can only help here. What I'm saying is that skills that we're assumed to pick up along the way should be specifically taught. One of the things that I think ought to be in here (possibly twice) is learning a foreign language as a conversational skill, not a formal skill, although there will be other ways to practise this as you are exposed to new skills later on. However, learning new languages to a conversational level is a useful life skill. I'd suggest perhaps two of Arabic, Chinese and Polish would be good in most communities (various other languages depending on where you live might have other priorities - Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Somali or whatever), although finding teachers for two of French, German and Spanish is probably easier in most places.
Problem analysis and solving is another set of skills that we're assumed to pick up along the way. I think we need to be taught them - a surprising number of adults don't know how to do this. This needs to cover practical things and more academic things but everyone needs these sort of skills. We'll all be faced with problems from trying to live on a budget to cooking Christmas dinner to decorating a house to fixing a car to... whatever. Actually practising the skills to help us tackle the process of solving the problem will help. (Just because you, at however old you are, think all of these things are simple quite possibly reflects practise. How easily did you manage them the first time? Quite a lot of my friends - most of them have degrees, many of them have higher degrees too, have hilarious stories of the first time they tried, and messed up, cooking Christmas dinner for their friends.) In this area as well we will add some emotional analysis and problem solving skills too. I'm not suggesting everyone learns NLP and CBT but some ability to understand and express their emotional needs and understand the emotional needs of others can't actually hurt.
Project work and team work skills are skills that, in some ways, could be taken out into a track skill. But, actually, they end up being in just about every track, so they went back into core skills simply because they're so important everywhere. One of the educators in the radio series about reforming education suggested that because cross-class project work is hard, the learning outcomes are soft and mushy we shouldn't do it, or we should leave it for only the most able students. No. We need to do it, because when children leave school, almost all of them will be working somewhere where they do these things. They need to be properly organised, properly led, properly integrated into the curriculum. Thus they're core skills. They need to start early and be properly led and integrated throughout the children's time in school so they become natural. They have to be organised in such a way that there is someone leading the project and the project isn't left for different subject teachers to try and pick relevant learning outcomes out of the wreckage. Subject teachers, for these new subjects, will contribute and extract elements of learning from the project of course, but there needs to be a project manager teacher, who guides the project and guides the students overall activity in the project as well. I agree it can be hard to learn clearly from project work. So rather than abandoning it as too hard, lets dedicate a teacher to making sure the students do learn the right things from it, and make sure the students practise the skill lots. The employers will thank us for it.
Same thing goes for team work skills. It might be that the project manager teacher can be the team work skills teacher. It might be, I suspect it will be that managing a project as the teacher for it is a very demanding job. But sorting them for a whole school would be something that I see as being done in a rotational basis, so the project manager runs one on, one off (to prepare for the next one) and is the team work skills teacher while the other project manager teacher is doing their thing and they alternate. This would seem like a reasonable plan at first look. (Again, were this a proper manifesto, we'd have a consultation, a trial, see what it looks like and adjust as necessary but at first look this seems reasonable.)
Citizenship skills contains a miscellany of social and moral education and history. Not history so much as a set of dates and events, but a sense of how the culture of Britain has been shaped. That's going to include some wars and things obviously (WWI and WWII both shaped the culture of Britain more than a little). I'm going to include into citizenship skills some odd things like basic cookery, use of a washing machine, sewing and the like. I am also going include some discussion of different religions and cultures as we find them in the UK - they are part of the culture and being a citizen in the modern UK after all, and some reading that would currently be English Literature set texts - but probably some others too. I think there is a placing for thinking about how our books, plays and TV reflect on our history and how we see ourselves as British and it should be included here. This would, if I write a joined manifesto, clearly cross-over to the citizenship exam for new citizens.
PE is in the list here but not wholly assessed, hence the mark next to it. I think PE is important to be included mostly for basic fitness and getting kids active. I have mixed memories of games lessons - I liked some of them a lot and hated others with a passion. I did a lot of sport after leaving school, and alongside school (and I'm paying for it now with bad knees and a bad back). But I think if you don't write it in to the core curriculum, it will be squeezed out. I think a system that encourages younger children to move around more, and breaks the day more with optional activity times even up to 18 would be good. Certainly with younger children, they like running around, we need to let them do that. Not all the time, but they can't sit at a desk for 6 hours a day either. This element of PE should be assessable for those who opt for it. However, PE should also contain a compulsory, assessed element of human biology looking at basic anatomy, physiology, reproductive biology, nutrition and the like. I don't care what your religion teaches, it is important that people know the basics of how their bodies work, what having sex means and leads to and so on. You can teach them out of school not to have sex because it's immoral if you choose. In school they will be taught the mechanics of how babies are made and the like.
Perhaps most dramatically, this core skill set are NOT assessed by exam. They are assessed by portfolio. Demonstrate you can do them not in an artificially pressurised situation. Advancement through school isn't determined by age, you are put into groups based on your age to some extent - to limit bullying and the like - but also your progress and your needs. The aim is that as many students as possible complete at least the core set to what we currently call level 2 by 16 (actually for most by 15 or earlier so there is space for at least one additional track). Level 2 equips them for a basic adult job. There will be people the system fails - there will always be people any system fails - but lets keep it down and focus on getting people there.
Some students will, of course, do far better than this. The school system needs to be flexible enough to cope with them too. This is the idea of these smaller add-on tracks. If you already have the skills to problem solve and to learn, if you're able in literacy, numeracy and IT skills, (perhaps if you're clearly well ahead of schedule to get to target levels by 16 alongside your core skills before you reach that level) you have the skills to start picking these more traditionally academic skills up as well. And, by and large, the more academic approach is only useful for those going to university. I'm biased (as I sit here with my PhD, my 2 teaching qualifications and all the rest) in thinking that all learning is useful. But even I wonder just how useful the Geography O-level I took was... Or the history of dreadnoughts in WWI that I vaguely remember (only because WWI is all over the BBC in the centenary years at the moment and dredging it back to the forefront somewhat).
I'm not saying that those things shouldn't be available but lets keep the learning at first to the core skills and then to the fields that interest the student, or (like Latin for science track students) are relevant (and can be shown to be so to the students). Remember here, you are probably talking to students that 13 or 14 before they are picking up these skills. They are picking up things they are interested in, engaged in. Explaining to students who want to learn sciences and are coming across all these latinate terms why understanding some latin will help them in future shouldn't be a hard sell. The most able students might pick up several tracks - and that should be encouraged - but with only one track plus the core skills you should still have a fairly rounded education.
And, again, mostly, these subjects should avoid final exams. Nobody in work actually gets tested in ways that resemble exams, so why do we rely on exams for school leavers? Research projects, paper writing - and I'm not talking about original, breakthrough science here, but you can still do good science that's been done before if you do science, you can study books that been studied before, translate standard texts, whatever - should form the assessments. We can mark these things in standard ways, we do at almost all levels after all. Why do we insist on exams still when we know they're not relevant to any actual work model?
I'm not saying there isn't a space for testing in the form of quizzes and the like that resemble current exams in a less formal setting and without the consequences for poor marks. Imparting (or sharing) knowledge, testing the acquisition of knowledge, is certainly part of education. In the early years it is probably one of the most important parts of the education system too. Quizzes in the sense of "What is the chemical formula for sodium?" or "what does le chien mean?" all have a place. They're just not the final assessment, they should be small, light-weight tests and seen as such.
But, if we're planning education properly, as we move through the system, the style of questions should change from what is, define, describe and the like, to more in depth questions where we're asking students to analyse, compare, discuss and the like. In core skills, even for those that are not going beyond that level, 16 year olds should be at that level. For those going on to higher education the basics should be able to be picked up quickly and integrated into higher understanding rapidly. You can't do manipulation of a chemical equation until you understand the symbols, but if you can manipulate an equation thanks to your numeracy core skills, adding the chemical symbols is a small amount of factual learning, a small amount of extra skills to understand what chemical equations mean (they're a bit different to maths equations) and then a fairly easy amount of extra understanding to add. There is a short phase where the define, state etc. questions are important, and you can quickly move to discuss, compare, analyse.
This approach would be a sea-change in education. It would break the form and year system apart and put the onus on the education system to actually treat the learner as an individual, rather than attempt to do within the constraints of the form and year structure. This is tricky - you would have unpredictable class sizes and, at first glance people finishing at random times through the year. End of year exams are excellent for giving you a structure where most people move along smoothly at more or less the same rate, class sizes and allocation of resources (such as teachers, school spaces and so on) are predictable.
However, with a portfolio building approach, as long as topic-groups start regularly - say every half term if we stay with the current school structure - there won't be a long gap before moving into an appropriate new group if you finish one portfolio section. This does require portfolio element groups that we expect the bulk of students to take about half a term to complete but that isn't beyond the realms of developing. For those students that miss on something, work for the next level up always includes explaining what you've been doing at this level. The time between finishing what you've just completed and starting in the next group, be that one lesson or a few weeks can be spent helping and building evidence of helping towards the next level without wasting your time. It would also usefully consolidate and help them practise their skills of course.
Alternatively, in schools all the way along but particularly as the students get closer to 16, support classes can be made available in this time. Lets assume we build a learning module which expects 60% of students to complete it in normal class time in half a term. The more able students should be able to complete early and pick and complete their core material early and pick up their extra tracks. Those students who are on track to complete some early but are struggling in some areas will be encouraged to complete some early and in their 'spare' time will get extra classes to help with the material with which they are struggling. Likewise, in the time between completing a module and starting a new module at the start of the next half-term there is time for extra work in other modules. Yes, this requires extra staff who are generalists and able to support a wide range of skills. But, equally, remember the core curriculum is now key skills rather than subject specific skills. We might not expect a languages teacher to be a great mathematician, but we should expect them to be functionally numerate and able to support a numeracy learner, certainly with a bit of help. We should expect all teachers to be literate. We should expect them all to be capable of using IT equipment. We're not, here, asking the Biology teacher to support someone learning German, we're expecting all our teachers to be more or less capable, functional adults. When learners get on to the specific tracks they will be in smaller groups, need more specialist support but should be able to get it from the specialist teachers for their subject track.
It is hard, without trying it, to say exactly how many students this extra time will pick up. I would suggest that if a module should be completed by 60% of students in the normal time, with well structured extra support like this about 70-80% of students will complete, lagging on one half-term's work or less in a year.
Given that, the aim is that the core curriculum as laid out is completed by most (the 60%) by the end of the current year 10. This, quite deliberately, gives everyone some time to learn something on a specific track. More able students might well have two years worth of learning - roughly the equivalent (although different in style) to 2 years study for GCSEs in specialist subjects but remember that is two years intensive study, more like A-level intensity. This also allows those who are lagging a little a chance to catch up still. We should find a more literate and numerate, a more IT capable workforce, while having a student body entering HE that are still well grounded in their core subjects while having a well rounded whole-person education.
This, as you might guess, gives a limit and a structure on the additional track modules. They should be generally regarded as one year learning modules, or rather 6 half-term portfolio building elements. I imagine (I have talked of more able students having 2 years of study in these tracks) a track, say humanities, and an advanced track, advanced humanities, so those that finish early can press on into the second year of material. They could also take two different tracks. Those who finish really early should be encouraged to take two or more tracks and then (if they desire) an advanced track.
Although I've limited this so far to education up to 16, we had the option to take O-level maths and AO-level additional maths. At A-level we had maths and further maths. Once I got to university it was clear that in every topic the curriculum meant that depending on your exam board you'd probably missed some topics that people with (theoretically identical) A-levels had covered, but equally they have gaps that you'd covered. The exception being, if you'd taken further maths, you'd probably covered all the same topics, you'd picked up the topics from everyone else's A-level syllabus too.
Essentially, this idea with the normal track and advanced track, and this will press on into post-16 education, is that you can gradually fill ALL the elements of pre-university learning if you have the time and the desire, before you go to university. Universities won't offer 3-A's they will, instead will list required portfolio skills demonstrated. But, rather than just maths having maths and further maths, in essence all subjects will have it.
In an ideal world this should produce a group of school leavers who are better equipped - literate, numerate, strong IT skills and able to learn new skills through life than the current school system. That's good. It will pick up the 16 year school leavers and give more of them the skills they need to enter the workplace, while not neglecting the other elements of social and cultural development and rounding and development that school also helps foster.
It will also give the more able students a solid grounding in all those skills and then intensive academic study in a group of skills for a period of time. Skills that they should appreciate and be engaged in.
This won't stop learners being stroppy and disaffected - teenagers are always going to be like that. But, to some extent it might ameliorate it because you won't be faced with "MIss, when will I ever need to know about X?" because the skills should be at least fairly related to work. Those who are more able should be studying things they have chosen to study and will therefore be engaged most of the time anyway.
Countering the obvious criticisms:
The biggest surprise I had when writing this is that, in some ways, it could be described as a return to Victorian values - a term from a political place that usually makes my skin crawl. But, actually, producing a workforce that is educated and ready for work, with those who are able to do more provided with the opportunity to do more is kind of the Victorian idea of what education should be. This is, of course, far more extensive, covers more years and so on than the Victorians ever dreamt of but that's what it actually does. it also doesn't assume that just because your parents are rich, or poor, you will do well, or badly. If you've got what it takes, you'll get the lessons you can take and the support to go as far as you can. Or, alternatively, the support you need. A return to properly minimalist, focussed education isn't a bad thing. It's Victorian values only in as much as the Victorians were really the first to articulate and deliver mass education.
Saturday, September 6. 2014
As a book World War Z would normally be the sort of book that would annoy me, if you described it in advance. It's a world-changing epic described in little snap-shots of quasi-diary pieces. I don't generally like diary or letter style books. I understand the impetus to tell the story that way but, perhaps because I'm not a natural diarist nor a natural correspondent, reading a story relayed that way usually doesn't work either.
World War Z manages to buck that trend for me. I think, mostly, because the story is just so big it's hard to imagine how it could have been told sensibly other than as it is (although I'm going to watch the movie sometime and see how they tackle it, I imagine they'll do it differently because the only approximation to a central character in the book is almost invisible). But the author very adroitly manages to make all the voices sound very different. Whether or not they sound authentic I can't really judge (although several of them that I can reasonably judge certainly do) but they all sound suitably distinct and plausible. They give insights into bits of the drama during the conflict that no single character could have had at that time and yet they're deftly woven together so they remain a personal insight into a human story while revealing a bigger piece of the strategic history.
It's hard to try and give an example that doesn't give away a spoiler - but, for example, K9 units became important because dogs could smell the zombies. So there's an interview with a K9 trainer. It's much more about him and what the training and missions were like and how that's what than dry facts and figures about the use of the K9 units against zombies. It explains the use of dogs in the bigger picture without going away from the intimate, the personal.
World War Z won't change my general opinion about epistolary books and diaries and if you don't like zombie films/books I'd avoid it too. But actually, while it's not a jolly little read it is a good book.
Tuesday, September 2. 2014
There's no doubt that in Rotherham the police failed to protect children. Not just one or two police officers, it lasted over 16 years and had hundreds (over a thousand by some reports) of victims. The police are rightly being taken to task. There are suggestions that it's more than just a cultural failing - institutional sexism - and that there may well be something beyond negligence verging into wholesale corruption going on here. Doubtless we will see in the fullness of time.
On the other hand, the parents of Ashya King apparently absconded with their critically ill son, without the means to keep him alive and keep his life-support machine charged and stocked with nutrients. Acting on this information, the police swung into action, searching for him, and when it appeared they had taken him to Europe sought and were granted an European arrest warrant. It is possible the police have misrepresented both in court and in statements the information leading to their actions. It is possible the hospital staff have lied to the police about what they knew. I don't see a benefit to either group to do so. We would pillory, figuratively at least, both the hospital and the police if the parents or someone else had taken the child and not made the arrangements that his parents had made to transport him safely to Spain. He would, after all, have died two or three days ago and it would be a hunt for two people that had killed (whether the charges were murder or manslaughter would be determined by someone else) a five year old.
We expect, we demand, the police protect those who cannot protect themselves. They should act more like they acted in the Ashya King case and not like they acted in the Rotherham case.
There does need to be some common sense. There needs to be someone that looks into just why communication between the parents and the hospital went so pear-shaped that the parents took the child without talking to the hospital, if that is what happened. That seems the likeliest explanation and has no one telling lies. It is clear, despite the genuine and reasonable fears for Ashya's safety before he was found, his parents did take due care and attention and the warrant should be allowed to lapse and they should be released. People are arrested for other things and released when it is clear they have not committed a crime after all.
Monday, September 1. 2014
It is very clear, by the end of the film, that it is, when all said and done, French.
Parts of it are excellent. Parts border on genius even. Parts are deeply annoying.
There is, as you might expect from a Luc Besson film, a chunk of good visual imagery, some stylish fight scenes and so on. When Morgan Freeman isn't, for my money, wasting his significant screen time spouting nonsense Hollywood pseudo-science and illogical, poorly constructed Hollywood-Paris psuedo-philosophy-of-science there's a good story that transitions nicely from a start that looks like Korean gangster movie or maybe a French take on Kill Bill to an end that's much more a French variant on the end of 2001 in a natural way that really doesn't need Morgan Freeman along for the ride and pulling me at least out of my suspension of disbelief into an annoyed, nearly seething by the end, viewer.
As we discussed after the film the actual premise for how Lucy gets her superpowers makes more sense than, say, Peter Parker and Spiderman. I won't say what it is because that would constitute spoilers. However, in Spiderman there isn't a quarter or more of the film spent discussing the impact and mechanism of these changes in a pseudo-scientific (and just wrong) fashion. Morgan Freeman has more than enough time to get the core science right. You could build a movie on "what would happen if we started to use more than 10% of our brain at once?" - and while I think the outcomes and breakpoints would be rather different quite a lot of the things might be similar, at least at first. The spinning off into the fantastical for the story would be more forgivable too, at least in my eyes.
Despite almost criminally wasting Morgan Freeman's screen time, at least as far as I'm concerned, there is a lot to enjoy here. Some of it is very subtle but some less so. Lucy's awareness of the danger she is in, right at the start, and the way that is cut with images of cheetahs hunting antelopes isn't at all subtle but you can't really imagine many directors trying to pull it off and I can't think of many beyond Besson pulling it off so well and consistently. Some of the special effects are equally nicely done. There is one that isn't a spoiler in my book, since it is in the trailer - Lucy is able to see mobile phone conversations and sort through them. That could be horribly, horribly confusing but it's nicely set up, nicely handled and the scene makes sense all the way through. It leads from there into a car chase so the superpowers and the action scenes are often well interwoven as well.
There is an idea, buried in the nonsense that Morgan Freeman's character spouts, that as we use more of our brains, we will lose our humanity. It's not clear why... but it's there. All of the character's ideas are, of course, proven true, in a non-reproducible fashion. Quite a lot of the touches of Lucy losing her humanity along the way are nicely done and they're nearly always little touches. Occasionally some big ones just to remind you but mostly it's the little moments that really bring it home.
It will be interesting to see where this film ends up at the end of the year in my review. At the moment I'm frustrated. It's very annoying and very good. With four months distance I wonder which memory will be stronger.
Bechdel test: Yes. I'm not sure "Mom" counts as a named character, but it's not "woman on bus" so it probably does. There's a long conversation between Lucy and her mother that's largely not about men (although Lucy's dad is mentioned a couple of times in passing). Even if it doesn't there are a couple of shorter conversations between Lucy and Caroline (her flatmate) one contains bits of chatting about men, but bits of not. One contains no talking about men.
Sunday, August 31. 2014
In case you haven't seen it, Jenny and Madame Vastra, a married couple, share a kiss in the first episode of this season of Dr. Who. Purely in the interests of saving Jenny's life. There are far more flirtatious moments.
6.8 Million viewers watched the show in the UK live, in an early evening slot, and if you were wondering how things have changed in the UK when it comes to accepting gay and lesbian couples, the kiss between a woman and a female lizard (it wasn't raunchy or otherwise inappropriate for the timeslot) generated a total of 6 complaints to Ofcom. A decade or so ago I dread to think of the numbers but more like 600,000 would be my guess - mostly from people who hadn't actually watched it of course.
As a rather wonderful further indication of how things have changed this is Ofcom's official response:
Ofcom can confirm it received six complaints about a kiss broadcast in an episode of Doctor Who on Saturday 23 August.
I would love to know when that changed. But definitely a result.
Tuesday, August 26. 2014
Although the spaceships, fight scenes, explosions, the inclusion of a WWE star in the cast and the like might make you think otherwise, structurally Guardians of the Galaxy is really a comedy. There's at least one running gag. There are a multitude of other gags, some clever, some not so clever. They run from quite painful puns to high-octane slapstick (albeit slapstick with cgi and explosions) to some quite extended and sophisticated wordplay that wouldn't be out of place in a radio comedy. Being a comedy there were a few occasions where I thought the plot seemed stretched certainly close to breaking point in pursuit of the gag. Whether or not you will find it fun is up to you but I think there's enough different beats there that you're likely to find parts of it funny.
Having said it's a comedy and the plot is subsidiary to the gag doesn't mean there's not something that I consider a decent sci-fi action flick here too. The start didn't seem too promising to me. There was a confused scattering of too many people with different colour skin chasing our very pale-skinned hero. OK, when I say different colour skin I mean green, blue, red and all kinds, but still. Gradually, however, the various factions settle down, some truces are made and instead of trashing around the plot starts to move. This period of thrashing around did serve to introduce the titular Guardians to each other, even if they didn't appear to be the force for good you might expect. It's not a common method for introducing characters to each other in a film, although I can see how it would work in comic book series and I've certainly read books where it's been used successfully. As someone that didn't know the comics it didn't work that well for me, although it wasn't that bad either.
In some ways the fact that the film is a comedy lets them include darker, sadder beats. I won't mention what they are in detail because they constitute spoilers but there are significant moments of grief, some heavy assessment of life goals and the like - things you don't normally see in a movie unless it's a biopic. Here I think they fit nicely into the overall plot and with the overall light-hearted mood they make a good emotional counterpoint heightening their impact in some ways without dragging your mood at the end of the film.
One thing that was fun, Gamora in another film would clear have been set up as the sex interest. In this film, when Quill makes his inevitable move, she whips out her knives and declares that she will not be bewitched by his pelvic sorcerery. This doesn't stop them working together and their relationship developing into trust even as the film continues. That's pretty unusual in any film.
We actually saw an Irish-licensed cut of the film rather than a BBFC one. I don't know if that made a difference but there were points in several action scenes where there were fairly obvious cuts to get the rating which was a shame.
Overall though, it was a fun film.
Bechdel test. Yes. There are at least four named female characters (Gamora, Nebula, Nova Prime and The Collector's slave whose name I can't remember). Gamora and Nebula converse and snipe and I think it's not all about men, although there are some serious Daddy issues in there. Gamora and Nova Prime also have a short conversation.
Friday, August 22. 2014
Every now and again I bitch about a film, or more rarely a TV show being a poor adaptation of its source material. This time I'm going to do the opposite, despite, on a rational analysis, the two being actually a long, long way apart.
Orange is the New Black is the book and the show. Technically I suppose it's a streaming show not a TV show. And I'm going to remain as close to spoiler free as possible.
Both are based on the experiences of Piper Kerman, who voluntarily surrendered to federal custody after being indicted as part of the war on drugs for carrying a suitcase of cash for her girlfriend some 10 years previously. They have since split up, Piper is engaged to Larry and living in New York in a comfortable, liberal lifestyle.
After that, the two part directions quite radically.
The book remains a memoir, basically showing how Piper remains more or less sane through her time in prison while showing to some extent what life was like - how it was safe to ask surname and how long someone was in for, how the guards behaved and the like. There's a fair amount of polemic about what the war on drugs is doing to the prison population and how it is unfairly targeting women. If a dealer brings drugs into his girlfriend's or wife's house she gets sent to jail too.
The TV series is more like a cross between a soap opera and a series of character vignettes. While it remains true to the way the shows the characters not asking more than name and how long they've got, and it does show the various indignities the guards inflict on the inmates and it shows some of the other things too the soap opera elements basically come from the way the events bob along. It could be Albert Square or Coronation Street and watching lives there, it just happens to be lives in a prison instead. The really big change though is the character vignettes. Not every episode, but most, turn into an in-depth examination of one inmate. Who she was before she got here, what she did to get here and the like. It doesn't break the rules about how the inmates interact, it uses the TV flashback to show you rather than the inmates telling each other things because they're answering questions they'd never actually ask.
So it's structurally very different. Which helps, because honestly much though I liked the book, it wouldn't have made the 28 hours or so of quality TV we've had so far (although it might have made a brilliant art house movie).
It is also notable that events and names are very different. Even Piper's surname has changed. Some of the stories that have been worked in are issues about events in prisons that I think have been added as political issues that need to be brought to the public's attention. They aren't presented as crusades just stories, things that happen, but they're shown and in our consciousness. Some story lines have remained, without the anger and commentary, again they're just stories.
If you read and watch you'd be in no doubt they're related. But if you sit down and try to analyse how they're related you'd end up that Piper's crime and sentencing is the same. So is her first name and her finance's first name. There are a few other bits. There are characters that are identifiable between the two as well - although they have different names. Stretched like crazy. Stretched about as far as you can. But both brilliant.
Wednesday, August 20. 2014
While I think the people who use the bible to promote their homophobic views are guilty of very selective reading to support their own prejudices sometimes you come across a piece of double-think so amazing you wonder just what they're on.
It is worth a read. Just to see if you can wrap your head around it. There's a very glib statisticians answer to the elision he's performed: correlation does not imply causation. But... how pray (and I use the term very advisedly) do you think the sight of women breastfeeding in public makes people more gay? It so revolts the men that they suddenly find other men attractive? It suddenly makes women realise that sex with men might mean they have babies and so they decide to turn into lesbians?
I certainly wouldn't join his stance against abortion, I'm too firmly pro-choice. But that's by the by. I'd find his rhetoric offensive I'm sure but I think he's perfectly within his rights to campaign against strip clubs. Heck, I've listened to debates against strip clubs and while he might have all the wrong motives I'm not sure he might not be doing the right thing on that cause.
But criminalising breastfeeding in public? That's body-shaming of the worst kind. Linking it to destruction of marriage and promoting homosexuality... I'm left wondering if the good doctor doth protest too much.
Thursday, August 14. 2014
Hercules is a surprisingly hard film to review without some level of spoliers because its very handling of the myth in a hugely spoiler way is what makes it better than you might expect.
So, the limited spoiler-free review is: fun fantasy romp. A strong, capable, female character who is not there in any way, shape or form as a love interest. Another female character who is there as a love interest, but is also a strongly drawn character in her own right and doesn't end up with the man and they're both OK about it. There is, as I've already said, a take on the Hercules myth that I found interesting and a good story to be told. There are enough clues I didn't find it challenging to work out most of what's going on but, like some other fantasy films I still found it satisfying fare - it has that level of comfort of an familiar story where the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad and you know they're going to fight each other, although there are moments of ambiguity. Robin Hood and Prince John have managed for a few centuries on the same basis in the UK.
There are fight scenes on all kinds of scales from the very small to pitched battles and I thought there were all nicely done. Dwayne Johnson, as Hercules, was certainly very believable. I don't know who else you could have cast and got away with it - but he is this really big, muscular guy and he is just believable in the role.
There's a decent level of banter and humour between Hercules and his companions. It feels pretty natural - these people risk life and limb together, live together and although I've never been in that situation I have been in teams where we've worked long hours together. The banter felt right to me.
I also thought there was decent dialogue between the other characters. Sometimes it was somewhat hammed up but within the tone of the film it works and the worse of the hams either undercut it with cynicism in other moments and their hammier moments get played well for laughs or they were foreshadowing their pantomime villain hubris.
It needs to be said that the history purists will be up in arms - my Thracian arms and armour isn't great, but I'm pretty sure it didn't include heavy cavalry and Atalanta's bow was definitely out of place - but it made for a good fantasy film. And as the Amazon archer she went and found high ground from which to shoot people. Amazing!
Bechdel test: I think it's just a fail. Atalanta and Ergenia talk as part of a bigger group but the conversation is about Hercules.
The story overall makes Hercules a pretty sympathetic character for reasons I can't go into fully here. I think some of that is probably Dwayne Johnson's warmth but some of it is the way the story is structured. Hercules is all too often another unkillable, self-righteous, pompous arse. In this film he's certainly combat-hardened and a heroic leader but he just wants to get away and settle down. He's haunted by bad dreams and more. It makes him a much nicer character.
Want to know more? Read the spoilery bit of the review below.
Continue reading "Hercules"
Wednesday, August 13. 2014
I was watching the latest (for me) episode of Orange is the New Black while chatting to a friend in gChat. It's always a slow thing but doubly slow yesterday as she's decorating and it's bursts of chat between painting and the like.
Anyway, when it got to the point she had to go out, I switched from chatting to her and watching on the iPad to sitting in a different chair. I could, of course, have carried on watching on the iPad. I could have used AirPlay to watch via my AppleTV and the TV screen. But, not entirely by chance, when I started up my AppleTV and flicked the TV over to the HDMI input, there was OITNB on Netflix. And, more impressively, the episode I'd just paused on the iPad was showing as partially watched on AppleTV. So I hit play.
Now, obviously I hadn't paused it mid-word, or even mid-sentence. But it picked up as far as I could tell exactly where I'd left off and I smoothly went from Pennsatucky talking to Healy to Red putting the family back together. (If you're not a fan, that's meaningless. If you are a fan, that's almost certainly not a spoiler, it's either meaningless or way in your watching past.) I know they stream from their servers to my devices but I have to say that's impressive. And it really is how it should be done. So Kudos, Netflix - I don't subscribe to other streaming video services but if they're not this good they're really not doing it right.
Tuesday, August 5. 2014
Although I didn't know about it, Colorado has been undertaking a very interesting social experiment in public health for the last five years.
A rich person donated a huge sum of cash so that teenagers could get free birth control (mainly IUDs) in some parts of the state (via 68 family planning clinics). Although the data suggest there would have been a small fall in teenaged pregnancies anyway, there has actually been a dramatic fall (about 40%) over the period of this support, and three-quarters of this is due to the free birth control.
Although not all the data is in, for the last financial year it is fully available (2010) it saved the state $42.5M. Rolling that forward over 5 years... you're looking at around $250M saved by the state in caring for mothers with unexpected pregnancies. It's not clear from the data - although there are a number of individual stories of women who are the first in their family who didn't drop out from school, went to college and graduated and entered skilled professions. They are presumably contributing quite a bit more to the state's economy too.
You can read the Governor's Press Release or, if you're a subscriber, the full scientific paper.
There are two obvious conclusions to draw from this. Far too obvious for politicians to actually draw them I expect.
Monday, August 4. 2014
Or The Great War, the War to End all Wars or whatever you want to call it.
Unless you're an American of course, and think it started in 1917...
Our glorious leaders wanted to have a celebration of the history of World War I. Fortunately someone nobbled them and kicked them where it did some good. The Great War devastated a generation in this country in a way that had never been seen before - one measure of the impact is the Thankful Villages (a term coined in the 1930's) for the villages that lost no soldiers during the war. Throughout the UK (which at that time included the whole of Ireland as well as England, Wales and Scotland) there were only 53 such villages.
Another way to think of it is to say that 888,246 soldiers died during the war or in the immediate aftermath of their injuries. But that's an incredibly high number and kind of hard to wrap your head around. So these two images are of an art installation with 888,246 poppies apparently pouring from a window in the Tower of London and sweeping around the moat to commemorate the dead. Suddenly it brings it home. And, of course, the poppy is a potent symbol of the British dead in World War I, and has been used to commemorate those who die in service ever since.
UPDATE: It turns out this is not the finished piece of art. There's actually only about 100,000 poppies here - they're still planting them! That's about 1 poppy for every 9 dead British soldier. (Yes, I know there were deaths from a lot of other countries, but this is showing only those deaths.)
Thursday, July 24. 2014
Gosh, talk about disappointing. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a clever movie that, although it was building towards the inevitable conclusion, went out and told its own story. To my mind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes decided to ignore that model and head off down the well-worn route of action block-buster with relatively little story.
That might have been OK if it had really committed to it. It wouldn't have been what I'd gone in expecting but I can enjoy a decently done action block-buster. I still rewatch and enjoy The Mummy for example. But before they got to the set piece battle (I suspect because it was so expensive with all the apes being CGI obviously) they had various bits where I felt they messed around trying to say apes can be good, and bad, and humans can be good, and bad, too.
The trouble is, we known humans can be noble, venal, self-sacrificing and selfish, and that's often all in one person. There were a few of those: one of the human leaders was somewhat nuanced, a couple of the followers had good and bad moments too. But most of them were painted in strong extremes with no shades of grey. The person who came across to me as constantly the bad apple is a redneck who blames the apes for everything that's wrong with the world. Although it's not quite a quote, he more or less says 'It's simian flu after all, so it must be the apes' fault.' There were moments before this where I was uncomfortable that this movie was straying into lazy racism - more on that later - but when the redneck comes out with that and later practically ruins the rapprochement between the 'good' humans and the 'good' apes it's hard not to think that if you just changed ape to the N-word, or Arab or Muslim or whatever your favourite hate target of the moment is you've really got a recipe for a hate movie here.
So, on to the bits where I was already uncomfortable. We see quite a bit more of ape culture than human-survivor culture. That would have been OK by me except we're in show not tell and there's no explanation and no sense made of anything, no coherence to the culture that we do see. For example, it's notable that in the early part of the film the apes converse in sign language while later they largely converse in spoken English. While I'm not sure why that happens except it helps the action scenes keep going it also helps make the film feel longer (which it really doesn't need). But there are odd glimpses where female chimps, possibly only high-status ones since it's only about 5 of them out of hundreds of apes we see, wear veils. Why? It's totally impractical, unnecessary and so far as I know bears no resemblance to any great ape behaviour. It does bear resemblance to some primate behaviour though - certain human cultures like women that wear veils. And it's a group of cultures that, broadly speaking, the American culture (actually the Western Christian culture) is not friendly towards. The fact that by the end of the movie the apes have won (yes, there's a hook for a third movie so it's not total victory yet) could be considered as a hook into Islamophobia - "Look guys, these former savages who make their women wear veils are going to beat us!" - and the nascent but present (I'm led to believe) American fear of the decline of the US on the world stage. With a slightly more subtle awareness - one I'm pretty sure the director and scriptwriter don't really deserve - the closing speech by Gary Oldman's character basically saying "they've overrun a group of civilians, but the military are coming to kick their butts" could be seen as an anti-terrorist statement. Of course it's wrong in this movie's future, we know the apes will win. But the statement is possibly still giving hope to the US audience if they see it that way. Even if they don't consciously catch it.
On top of that I'm sure there's a subtle, nuanced, father-son element in there somewhere. It's hard to be sure because there were so many screaming huge ones that dropped in there with the subtlety of a SWAT team gate-crashing a wedding breakfast and destroying any momentum that the script was trying to build up. I get it was meant to build sympathy between Caesar and Malcolm, the ape and the human most interested in seeking accommodation and a peaceful coexistence. But I really found it massively intrusive and disruptive rather than sympathy building and useful.
Overall, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes just comes across as a mess in my eyes. I'll go further than that: it's a bad film. It's a botched action movie. It's a botched culture clash movie. It's a botched chance to continue what was a brave, interesting story. It's even so heavy handed it's a botched exploration of the universal nature of the father-son bond. One to avoid. Such a shame after the first one.
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