Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Mars and Earth and hoaxes

I came across the hoax email about Mars being closer to Earth than normal at a Retirement Village out in Mosgiel, where someone had printed it out and produced a number of copies for the old people. One old lady had apparently been out every night checking on Mars and its increasing size.

Of course, if you look at the picture that goes with the email, there's no way we could see Mars like this. It would have to be on top of the Earth virtually to be that visible, and of course, if it was, we wouldn't be here for long. In fact, we'd have been gone some time ago.

But hoaxes being what they are, it's easy to fall even for ones that basically make no sense. And when you did look out at the night sky certainly Mars was biggish, but hardly comparable to the Moon in size. Can you imagine Mars and the Moon being on a par with each other - now that would be incredible!

The gobbledygook in the email sounds very technical, and it's thrown in amongst the layman-type language to seem plausible: 'Mars will be easy to spot.' But Mars is always easy to spot - that's why the ancients knew about it. 'No human being has seen in recorded history.' Hmm, we have no real idea when Mars was last this close, since no one recorded it...!

And, as it turns out now, the two planets were actually closer in 2003 than they are on this trip. Oh, dear.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Education in Times of Trouble


How thankful I am that I live in a country that’s basically at peace and has been throughout my lifetime, a country where violence is mostly individual rather than general. I’m also thankful that I live in a time when, for the most part, life doesn’t consist of one political or civil disruption after another.

Certainly in the wider world there has been huge unrest and lack of peace during my lifetime. For some reason I’ve been privileged to be sheltered from this. Whether this has been good for my character or not, I can’t say, but my preference is for peace rather than war.

What made me think about this was in reading a brief history of the life of Comenius, the ‘Father of modern education,’ but more importantly, a wonderful Christian man whose life was spent in times of almost constant distress and turmoil. His first and second wife both died, along with two of their children, and, even then he married again. He wrote prolifically, much of his work was destroyed and had to be rewritten (no great joy in a time without typewriters or word processors), and he strove to maintain a sensible and not extreme form of Christianity.

I only came across his name when I was sorting out some old secondhand books, amongst which is a volume of sermons in German by Comenius. Unfortunately it’s printed in the old German font, but I think in English it’s something along the lines of Sermons for Passiontide, Easter and the Ascension. (The German title is: Passions-, Oster-, und himmelfahrts- Predigten).

Friday, August 26, 2005

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

It was a Scotland of quiet manners and reserved friendliness, a Scotland in which nothing much happened, where lives were lived unadventurously, and sometimes narrowly, to the grave. These were people with a place, wed to the very ground in which they would eventually be placed. The urban dead were reduced to ashes, disposed of, leaving no markers, and then forgotten; memory here was longer and gave the illusion that we counted for more. It was a simple matter of identity, thought Isabel. If people do not know who we are, then naturally we are the less to them. Here, in this village, everybody would know who the other was, which made that crucial difference.

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, by Alexander McCall Smith, chapter 20.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Sayers again

Dorothy L Sayers

Bad work can never be justified on the grounds that it is done by a Christian. The Christian, like any other man, is obliged to do the best he can; and in the end the work proclaims the worth of the workman. Private life is irrelevant.

Quoted in ‘Dorothy L Sayers, a biography, by James Brabazon, pg 162

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I’m nearly finished Bryson’s book, A Short History of Everything, and things don’t improve: the more we get about the history of human beings and their supposed forebears the more speculative it gets. This isn’t Bryson’s fault: he’s merely reporting what goes on. But it doesn’t say much for the so-called science that’s involved – or, perhaps rather, it should be called the speculation. Just as with the dinosaurs, where incredible beasts have been conjured up out of insufficient bones, so with the various versions of bipeds extraordinary suppositions have been made – and it gets worse when these scientists start taking DNA and claiming to work out who came from who and how ancestors we actually had, and even, in one case, in the book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, the writer (Bryan Sykes) imagines detailed personal histories, things that he can’t in any conceivable fashion know. As Bryson says to Rosalind Harding, a population geneticist in Oxford, ‘So genetic studies aren’t to be trusted?’ She replies: ‘Oh you can trust the studies well enough, generally speaking. What you can’t trust are the sweeping conclusions that people often attach to them.’ When she says, ‘people’ she doesn’t mean Joe Bloggs in the street, she means scientists.

And this is the same for what we know or don’t know about the earth’s history: huge amounts of it are speculation. Just as whole areas of evolution theory are speculation. We don’t know, because we can’t know; we don’t have anywhere near enough evidence. Science is supposed to be a game where you test your hypothesis by practical experimentation. When you can’t do this – as in the age of the earth or how humans got here – then you’re stuck, and it seems that an awful lot of scientists invent stuff to fill in the gaps. Which really makes them no different to writers of fiction. It’s all very well popularising science, as long as it remains science. It’s when it’s just popular that you have a problem.

Found an interesting quote from Rosalind Harding:
On getting a poor answer faster:"In population genetics there is usually little reason for confidence that an estimate is correct even to within an order of magnitude, but reaching it faster is definitely progress."
Reference: J R Statist Soc B (2000) Vol 62, Part 4, page 638.

More Country stuff

A friend of mine has found this much later version of the same kind of conversation on the Net, on about.com. It takes a bit of figuring some of the puns, but it's clever all the same.

Diner

Waitress: Hawaii, Mister? You must be Hungary.
Gent: Yes, Siam. And I can't Romania long, either. Venice lunch ready?
Waitress: I'll Russia table. What are you Ghana Havre? Aix?
Gent: You want Tibet? I prefer Turkey. Can Jamaica cook step on the Gaza bit?
Waitress: Odessa laugh! Alaska, but listen for her Wales.
Gent: I'm not Balkan. Just put a Cuba sugar in my Java.
Waitress: Don't you be Sicily, big boy. Sweden it yourself. I'm only here to Serbia.
Gent: Denmark my check and call the Bosphorus, Egypt me. There's an Eire. I hope he'll Kenya. I don't Bolivia know who I am!
Waitress: Canada noise! I don't Caribbean. You sure Ararat!
Gent: Samoa your wisecracks? What's got India? D'you think this arguing Alps business? Why be so Chile? Be Nice!
Waitress: Don't Kiev me that Boulogne! Alemain do! Spain in the neck. Pay your Czech and don't Kuwait. Ayssinia!
Gent (to himself): I'll come back with my France and Taiwan on Zanzibar is open.

'Country verse'

In the course of a discussion with a friend yesterday about things families say, I was reminded of a 'verse' my mother taught me, and I taught my kids. I think there may be more to it, and if there is, I'll add it at some point. Meantime here's what I can remember.

Are you Hungary?
Yes Siam.
Russia to the table
and I will Fiji.
Would you like some Turkey?
No, there is too much Greece.
Sweden my coffee
and Denmark my bill.

I had a look to see if anyone had put this on the Net but there's nothing obvious. There's a short film entitled"Are you Hungary in Greece for Turkey" by Ray DeGroote, Jr, listed back in 1998, which comes close, but not very. And there are a number of results coming up where it looks as though people don't know the difference between the spelling of Hungary as a country and hungry as in needing to eat....!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

More on Sayers

The following quote is interesting in that I'm at present in a play, and am also a long-standing member of a church. While I might not be so harsh on the church as this quote is, the words about being in a play (especially with a bunch of people from that same church) are very apt.

She sold us her vision of the theatre as the place that offered the things that a church ought to offer, but rarely did. Inside a stage door you found comradeship, charity, and most of all, a sense of common dedication to a common purpose, each individual contributing selflessly to the final result.

Quoted in ‘Dorothy L Sayers, a biography, by James Brabazon, pg 159

Monday, August 22, 2005

Dorothy L Sayers

To start with invention is the mark of a fertile mind…and leads later to the interpretation of experience; to start with the reproduction of experience is the infallible index of a barren invention.

Quoted in ‘Dorothy L Sayers, a biography, by James Brabazon.

More on trousers and plurality


Well, in a sort of serendipity, my comments about pants and shorts the other day found some answers when I picked up a short book – Max Vocab, by Max Cryer – on the derivations of some English words, and found a chapter (also short) on trousers and related words. He still doesn’t tell us why trousers is plural, or knickerbockers for that matter, or strides, or slacks, or leggings, or tights, or breeches, or pants, or shorts. Supposedly at one point in history pants did get called ‘pant’ but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it used, even in older books. Cryer talks about two ‘tubes’ as being the thing common to all of these garments, and that they were around before Christ in some form. I wonder if the ancient nomads in Asia used a plural word, or the Romans, when they adopted them (you see them in films like Jesus of Nazareth where the Roman soldiers have some kind of tubers that extend to just below the knee, like tight knickerbockers, or even to the length of plus fours – which apparently comes from extending knickerbockers four inches!). So, in a sense, I’m none the wiser in terms of my original question: why are all these words plural? And why does it sound so odd to singularise them?

from The Destiny of Man, by Nicholas Berdyaev

In the case of man, that which he creates is more expressive of him that that which he begets. The image of the artist and the poet is imprinted more clearly on his works than on his children.

Quoted by Dorothy L Sayers, in the Preface to her book, The Mind of the Maker.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Rector's Wife

Over the Christmas holidays, on my other website, I'd started blogging, (for want of a better term), a series of randomly collected quotations, mostly from the eighties, when I was making a particular effort to note them down. Rather than carry on including them 'over there', I'm now going to include them as part of this present blog, as and when I get round to it. They serve to remind me of books I enjoyed - or at least paragraphs I enjoyed.

from The Rector’s Wife, by Joanna Trollope, pg 155 paperback edition.

Ptolemy was a quiet, snuffling child who gave the impression of having a profound inner life that he was protecting from his mother. His two elder brothers had the lugubrious sartorial appearance of impoverished Victorian undertakers, and sloped sullenly about the house, slopping endless bowls of cornflakes and muttering for hours into the telephone. They were kept deliberately short of money by Eleanor and so were to be constantly caught unabashedly combing cupboards and drawers for the latest hiding place of her purse. She seemed to think this was perfectly normal behaviour and as much an inevitable part of the messiness of adolescence as spots (which they both had) and wet dreams.

The pattern of the day was very decided, and fraught with argument since Eleanor and Robert believer in the right of every member of the family to discuss every topic from the threat of the environment down to whether Ptolemy or Gideon should be allowed the last helping out of a box of Ricicles. Breakfast happened about eight in an atmosphere of steady acrimony and then Robert herded the older boys into the car for school – this provided a wonderful chance for prolonged defiance – before he went onto College, and Eleanor walked Ptolemy to school. Anna offered to do this (Ptolemy’s eyes gleamed dully at the prospect) but Eleanor said no, because she and Ptolemy had a weekly discussion programme worked out for each term which they got through in 15-minute bursts, as they walked. Anna asked what this week’s topic was, and Eleanor said, ‘Racism,’ and Ptolemy said, ‘Boring.’

Appendices, little toes, Maori and Pakeha.

A bit more on the evolution stuff. I remembered this morning that some forty years ago, when I was in London at the Opera Centre, one of the singing students pronounced to another in my hearing that eventually we would lose the little toe and the appendix entirely, the latter because obviously we had no use for it at all, since it could be whipped out at the drop of a hat, and the little toe because we really didn’t need that extra one.

I think he may have been wrong on both counts, although I don’t personally have any proof. But I’d like to know if anyone has ever done any research on whether it makes a difference to lose your appendix: are you prone to other kinds of illnesses that those who manage to hang onto their appendices aren’t? Does it affect your immunity in any way? Is it like losing your gall bladder, where afterwards there’s less resistance to certain foods, especially fatty ones?
As for the little toe, I can remember when I was working in the State Insurance office here in Dunedin in the years before the London discussion that one of the older staff had a missing big toe. I have in mind that he’d lost it by having a train run over it, but that sounds a bit improbable now. Anyway, he limped enough for it to be a nuisance, as a result of this loss. That may have been that more than the toe had gone, but it stuck in my mind when I heard this other conversation. The young man in question, an American, full of the latest opinions, may have been right – perhaps we don’t really need that little toe. Yet I’ve always found even the little toe improves your balance in situations where you’re kind of hanging on by your toes. I suspect it has more purpose than he, with his half-baked evolutionary ideas, realised.

I’ve been reading more of Patrick Snedden’s book, Pakeha and the Treaty. It’s certainly a book to make you stop and think about your racist attitudes, not because he attacks Pakeha people particularly, but because of his gentle approach to making us see that more good has come out of The Waitangi Tribunal and its negotiations, and that we are all, Maori and Pakeha, better off because of the efforts that have been made to right past wrongs. One of his biggest criticisms is aimed at the media which tends to sensationalise all Maori issues and stories, and seldom digs into the past to see why things have come to a head. And of course they also make huge play with cases where fraud and misuse of funds occur when Maori are involved, as in the Donna Awatere trial. Such cases may be justified in getting the exposure they receive, but thinking back to the Wanganui Moutua Gardens sit-in, I don’t remember understanding anything of what was going on – or being given much of a chance to understand by the media. We heard about the violence – which was actually a minimal part of the sit-in – but nothing about the co-operation and hard work, nor about the grandmothers and great-grandmothers who came along and stayed there for days on end, in conditions that were hardly ideal for older people, or the way in which everyone who came, Maori and Pakeha, were fed by a team of volunteers who worked to no apparent roster. Anyway, it’s been a valuable read, and is most important at this time when the National Party seems to be trying to move away from Treaty negotiations and get all that stuff out of the Pakeha’s hair…

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Bryson and Science

I’ve been continuing to read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything, and though it’s fascinating and full of amazing details, you have to wonder where he stands in regard to believing some of the stuff he writes. Is there just a whiff of cynicism about scientists and their superiority of knowledge which so often turns out to be not knowledge at all, but supposition and imagination? He spends a good deal of time on the way life evolved on earth – but then reminds us that most of the dinosaur exhibits in the major Museums around the world don’t consist of actual dinosaur bones at all, but are merely plaster casts of what scientists think dinosaurs looked like. And there’s the rub: we don’t have enough evidence to be sure about how these creatures looked, any more than we can really be sure from the ‘fossil evidence’ (which turns out to be immensely flimsy when you think about it) about creatures that were supposed to have existed in the past. And how do we know when they were supposed to have existed? That evidence is also based on ‘facts’ that have changed a number of times. The history of the Earth and the creatures living on it is, I suspect, still mostly supposition, guesswork that scientists have been forced to make in order to have anything to work on. Time and again in reading this book we’re told that some scientist (and not just some of the stranger ones) thought this or that explanation was the ‘reality’ about a particular subject. Time and again, they’ve been proved wrong as more information comes to light. I have this suspicion that people in the 22nd century will look back on some/much of our supposed knowledge, especially in the are of palaeontology and scratch their heads that we could be so obtuse –or so creative in our guesswork. Evolution as a theory has been attacked any number of times in the 20th century and still continues to be. As Bryson writes at one point, (pg 255),
‘proteins can’t exist with DNA and DNA has no purpose without proteins. Are we to assume, then, that they arose simultaneously with the purpose of supporting each other? Is so: wow.’

That ‘wow’ strikes me as Bryson’s way of avoiding saying: I don’t believe it, or of throwing in a dash of his frequently-appearing cynicism (not just in this book), or of saying, without saying it, I think there must be another explanation.

I've just seen an article on Arts and Letters Daily site getting all steamed up about creation science – which it mixes up with Intelligent Design – and uses as its focus the idea that creationists are wrong to ask that an open mind be kept on some scientific theories: notably evolution. This curious statement is made in the article:
"To laypeople--particularly those unfamiliar with the scientific status of evolution, which is actually a theory and a fact--the phrasing may seem harmless. But in 2005 a federal judge ordered the stickers removed. By singling out evolution as uniquely controversial among scientific theories, the stickers catered to religious biases and thus violated the First Amendment."

So evolution is a theory and a fact. Is it? It’s a fact in the minds of many scientists, but not all. The quote above follows a quotation from one of the stickers put in biology textbooks, which says,
"This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

Isn’t it curious that we can’t be open-minded about a piece of science? If Bryson's books says anything, it's that open-mindedness about ideas is part and parcel of being a scientist. And of course evolution is singled out: it’s one specific area of science that actually goes against the religious teaching as to how humankind came into existence. There’s the rub. Writers like Jerry Coyne know this perfectly well, but his article is just another in an endless series of anti-religious pieces that argue for science as opposed to religious faith, forgetting that scientists have an awful lot of faith in some of their pronouncements, and that the rest of us are expected to go along with them until something better is theorised.

I’m not arguing here for creation science, per se, because I think they’ve gone in for a form of thinking that doesn’t take into account enough of the information we do actually have. But evolutionists don't have all the information either, and they base an awful lot of their theory on faith – it might not be religious faith, but it’s faith all the same…faith that they’ve got it right, in spite of some evidence that seems to contradict their faith.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Odd pluralities

I'm sure I'm not the first to comment on this, but the plurality of trousers, and even more, of underpants, is one of the English languages real oddities.

I was reminded of this, strangely enough, because as I worked back to work this morning, I came across a crumpled pair of underpants lying on the ground. But there was only one object there at my feet.

I can appreciate that trousers might have a sense of plurality in that there are two legs involved, even though they're part of a single unit overall (well, they're not overalls, but you get what I mean). But underpants? Where is there anything double about them? Two holes for the legs, maybe, but we don't call them underholes, for all that. And since many underpants (or, if you want, shorts, in the US) are little more than a wrap-around to hold the bum and the other bits together, how is there any sense of them being more than one unit? Shorts, as a word, is just as bad. Surely there's only one short, as there is only one underpant?

So, in fact, as I was walking back to work, I found not a pair of underpants - what's paired? - but a single underpant lying unhappily where it was dropped. And where it was dropped is an altogether different question.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Brother Roger of Taize

Brother Roger of Taize was murdered yesterday, stabbed in the throat (of all places), three times, in full view of some 2,500 participants at a Taize evening service. What an extraordinary ending for the gentle man, who’d hardly have been thought to have been martyr material; yet how else could you class this murder, except as martyrdom?

Charade - re-viewed after 40 years

There was nothing on at the movies last night that both of us wanted to see, so we decided to go down to the Warehouse and see if there were any cheap DVDs we could buy, and watch at home. Came home, fatally, with four DVDs and a video (of Antz). Found The Princess Bride, Charade, Calendar Girls and a triple DVD with Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, To Kill a Mockingbird and one of the Hemingway stories, Farewell to Arms.

We watched Charade, which just proved again that the pacing of movies has increased extraordinarily over the last few decades. Charade isn’t slow, but it’s quite talky in spots, particularly in the scenes between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. And Grant looks rather tired – he perks up with Hepburn, but in one or two other spots he’s a little on the weary side. Hardly surprising, considering he was he was 59 when he made it, and has to do a lot of running around in the later scenes. Hepburn is lovely, and plays the scenes wonderfully. The kind of male/female dialogue seen here is something else that’s gone from movies…by the second scene these two would have been in bed if the movie had been made recently, and then they wouldn’t have had anything else to talk about. But they never come close to that, and even the kisses are nearly all on one side, because Grant has a job to do, and can’t get involved. Some of the dialogue seems almost to have been put in as a result of the two actors playing the parts – as when Hepburn asks, cutting across the ‘real’ dialogue, how does Grant shave in the cleft in his chin…?

Monday, August 15, 2005

We watched Iris again last night, this time on DVD.

Just a thought about it . While we know how the older versions of Iris and John got to be where they are, we know nothing about them when they’re younger. They just appear, ready-made as it were, with no background, no inkling of why she’s so much herself and almost none of why he’s so little himself in so many ways: he does tell her that he was a late starter and that his brother was still doing up his shoelaces for him when he was seven, but that’s it. You can build up a picture of him more easily than her. She’s just suddenly there, as though God had decided to forego the usual process of babyhood and childhood in her case and throw her complete as a young adult into the world. We hear about her former lovers, but that only adds to the promiscuity that seems so much of her youth; it doesn’t tell us anything about her, because the promiscuity seems almost a sham, in a way – her casual attitude to Maurice, for instance (even though he is a pain) seems more hurtful than anything, and there are times when she seems to look at herself through John’s eyes and wonder what on earth it is she’s playing at.

I realise that the film isn’t interested in a biography of Murdoch, but in detailing the awful downhill spiral that she suffered in her last years, and the way this contrasted with the utter life she had in her youth. And no doubt I could go and find out about her earlier life if I wanted to. (I just did.) Still it struck me as a little odd in the film itself.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Short attention....spans

One of the constants amongst Christian writers in the postmodern field is the idea that because young people have such short attention spans, we have to keep hammering away with new things all the time to keep them interested. None of your old-fashioned story-telling, or sitting them down and asking them to read their Bibles, or, heaven forbid, making them hear a sermon.

But it isn’t just Christian writers on this bandwagon.

Who wouldn’t have a short attention span when rubbish is served up - as in much popular television, or in weak and watery pop music lacking in inventive words and interesting melodies? You don’t have to be a young person to find your attention wandering with this kind of stuff.

But attention to things that are interesting – now that’s a different ballgame.

I note that Greg Sandow, in his 4th August, 2005 blog, writes some effective words on this subject, and its well worth reading.

Lange gone

Well, David Lange has gone to meet his maker only a few days after his cantankerous autobiography came out, leaving a rather sour taste in the mouths of many of those who were named in it. Not the best way to exit this world.

Anthony Hubbard’s portrait of the man is concise but not too brief, and worth reading. Lange did have his moments as Prime Minister. But I wonder how much of the his career will still be remembered in a 100 years time?

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Lewis and Pullman

Terry Teachout noted in his August 11th entries in regard to choosing to keep up with new things, or not:
C. S. Lewis said it better than I can: "If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him."

I’ve been reading a book called, Beyond the Shadowlands, by Wayne Martindale, and in the preface to it, Walter Hooper notes something along the lines of the book inspiring him to go back and read the Lewis canon over again. While this would be something of a task (a pleasurable one, mind you) because Lewis was certainly prolific, to go back and read the Narnia stories, the three fantasy-cum-sci-fi books, and some of the other titles such as The Great Divorce and the Screwtape Letters, would be infinitely better than reading many of the less well-thought-out books that currently inhabit Christian bookshop shelves. The mere thought of the last chapter of The Last Battle always makes my heart leap – if ever there was a more wondrous picture of Joy, and of Heaven, I don’t know of it.

Beyond the Shadowlands takes as its main theme Lewis’ treatment of Heaven and Hell, and it’s intriguing to see just how much his best-known books focus on these two subjects. Alan Jacobs, in a recent book, Shaming the Devil, mentions Lewis in contrast to Philip Pullman, and the latter’s theological trilogy, His Dark Materials. Pullman, who seems to loathe Lewis – I gather this from at least two interviews with him that I’ve read, and Jacob's own comments – equally loathes the idea of Heaven as it’s generally been thought of. I felt, in reading Pullman’s second and third episodes in the trilogy, that the man hated Hope, hated Joy, and felt that children’s delight should be dashed as often as possible: his inexcusable killing off of the father in The Subtle Knife nearly made me refuse to read the third book. And when I did read the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass, I was more than puzzled that Pullman could think that the spirits stuck in his version of hell - or was it purgatory? - could possibly feel happier floating off into dissolution than being given some kind of new life.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Hide and Shriek

[This blog has spoilers in it regarding the movie.]

Last night, my wife and I watched a DVD of Hide and Seek, with Robert de Niro (playing a part that should have been taken by a younger man, really) and the dreadfully, but memorably named, Dakota Fanning. It was good until about three quarters of the way through, when suddenly the father (de Niro) changed personality; up till then he’d been trying to understand why his daughter, distraught after the suicide of her mother, apparently had invented/found an imaginary friend called Charlie who was doing some devastating things around the enormous house the two of them had hired for a country break (why do American films always show people living in houses that are umpteen times too big for them – and who does the cleaning?). But at this point in the story the father turned out, somewhat ridiculously, to be ‘Charlie’ – and the daughter knew it – and it was the father himself who was doing the horrible acts.

It required a complete re-think on the audience’s part, and almost succeeded, except that the tension in the story changed tack, and instead of the mystery element being prominent, it became one of those typical chase someone around the house with a large kitchen knife sort of movies. The trouble was, at that point, that the audience (us, anyway) were left trying to figure out things that had gone on before, and lost interest in what was actually happening.

Unlike The Sixth Sense, which wisely left its denouement until the last few minutes, this one skewered our perception of the characters too soon before the climax, and we no longer believed it. And it didn’t help that a somewhat minor character turned up at this point to save the day, for no obvious reason. Still, until that point, it had been quite an effective thriller, and between de Niro and Fanning, the tension was kept very high, since they were the mainstay of the movie for the most part – the other minor characters don’t get enough room to establish themselves as anything but slightly oddball.

One of my favourite reviewers, James Berardinelli, calls the movie 'reprehensible' and he's right, when you think about it. Fanning has to play a character who may well be violent and nasty, and when this is proved to be incorrect (although it doesn't tally with some of the earlier scenes) she then has to play the victim of an extremely psycho father. Her ability to express terror is well utilised, but another acting ability - to face her father with an almost adult sensibility, as though she wasn't his daughter but a kind of midgit lover - while extremely effective, comes across as rather sick.

Horror movies, in the nature of the genre, don't have to make complete sense (although M Night Shyamalan has proved this doesn't have to be the case), but this one loses the plot, and consequently Fanning is required to do a complete about-face (not quite in the sense of The Exorcist, mind you!). De Niro is better off, since he's plainly a little peculiar from the word go.

Incidentally, this movie has one of the worst 'deaths' I've seen in a long time. Elizabeth Shue falls backwards out of an upstairs window. In the next shot, seen from outside looking up to the same window, some helpful assistant director throws the world's most obvious dummy out the window, and it falls lamely to the ground. 'Nah, George, we don't need a stuntman/woman - just grab that dummy from the props department - the audience will never notice!'

Years ago, my son and his mate made a video film using our house as the 'set'. There was a shot in which one of them started to throw the other out of an upstairs window; in the next shot, similarly taken from outside looking up, we gasped as a body fell from the window. Of course it was only a dummy, but my son and his friend proved it was possible to fool the audience with a dummy and shock them at the same time. Robert Polson, the director of Hide and Seek, doesn't seem to know quite how to do it in spite of all his financial resources...!

Lack of logic

One of my pet grips as a bookseller is when I go to a supplier and ask for a small quantity of items and they tell me, "We can't send those at the moment because we have a minimum order, and your order isn't big enough to qualify."

While it isn't the fault of the customer services person, she's usually the one who cops any complaint about this issue. But no amount of arguing avails - and if I insist on getting this pitifully small order from them, I am charged a small order charge. In the most recent instance, this was $10 - not a large sum, but enough to reduce my margin on the items.

I compare their approach to selling to mine: if I was to say to a customer walking in the door that they couldn't have what they wanted (say a $20 book) because it didn't fit my criterion of a minimum purchase, and that they had to buy another book - say at $30 - in order to walk out the door with the one they really wanted, well, I can imagine the kerfuffle.

Yet somehow this quite straightforward logic doesn't seem to occur to the supplier.

Contrast this to the suppliers who will send out books straightaway and will have them in your door the very next day - without even charging freight.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Foot-stomping

The one time in my life that I purposely stomped on a bloke’s toe (he’d been rude to me) was the time that he had an infected toenail. Which of course I didn’t know about until he started leaping round the office.

The one time I danced with my wife barefoot and accidentally stood on her toe, was the time she’d not long since dropped a heavy tool on it. (That’s not the worst thing she’s had on a toe: a horse stepped back on her big toe once.)

I’m not given to treading on people’s toes; I prefer not to, if I can help it, since I dislike confrontation - of the face to face, or toe to toe kind - at the best of times.

For instance, I received a bullying email from someone the other day, telling I really should do something that I don’t want to do – am not in any way obliged to do – and I’ve been stewing about how to answer this person ever since.
Unfortunately ignoring a bully doesn’t entirely seem to work – except in terms of putting off the day of reckoning. And so far I haven’t come up with the right bon mot to put him in his place.

Maybe tonight – in the middle of the night – I’ll wake with a start and the right word, or solution, will suddenly be there. Let’s hope I can remember it till the morning.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Holmes and Lange

Well, it’s happened, just as all of us tall-poppy-chopper-downers expected: Mr Paul Holmes has had his show dumped on Prime television. Oh, dear, and it only cost Prime $3 million to woo him from his old slot on TVNZ. They’re making lots of noises about keeping him on and doing lots of interesting things with him (‘a one-hour special on August 30 featuring Prime Minister Helen Clark and Opposition leader Don Brash’ – that sounds like a load of laughs - see my last post) but I think the day Paul left TVNZ the die was cast.

The peculiar charisma he supposedly had on TVNZ must have had something to do with TVNZ itself. It certainly hasn’t translated over onto Prime. But what on earth did Holmes have? He was an embarrassment to watch, always outclassed by anyone with any degree of dignity, celebrity or nonce, and his flutter-stutter approach when speaking to the camera was like some ancient actress playing a ‘dear old maiden aunt’ in some long-forgotten play in a repertory company touring the provinces.

With all the money he’d made over the years, he should have retired and enjoyed himself and left the pressure of television behind. Sadly, he didn’t seem to be able to do it.

And then in the paper this morning we have more lack of dignity: our former Prime Minister, David Lange, who has always been regarded as a notable ‘wit’ by everyone (except me, apparently), has published his autobiography and filled it with venom and spleen. And precious little of his famous wit, if we are to believe the reports in the papers. Even the title – My Life - shows a considerable lack of originality, let alone humour, least of all wit. Couldn’t he have called it, In Weightier Times? Or, Rogering Roger? Or, perhaps, Will There Be Anyone At My Funeral?

Not after they’ve read this book, it seems.

Michael Bassett, a former Health Minister, who gets slam-dunked in the book, noted:
"I can't think of anybody who has done more destruction to their own reputation than David has done with, by the look of it, that book."

Enough said.

David Farrar mentions Lange's wit on his blog, but his examples don't strike me as being remarkable. Obviously you had to be there. Tom Scott gives some better examples in an interview that appeared in The Listener back in 2004. Perhaps Lange's wit shone out in vivid contrast to the general lack of it in Parliamentary circles - I mean, when did the current Prime Minister last crack a joke, spontaneously, that made us fall about laughing?

The Bright People

It was with some amazement today that I read Gina Piccalo’s article on atheists – she published it back in July, but I only just caught up with it in our local World Focus supplement.

I get the feeling she was controlling herself strongly when writing this article – so that she wouldn’t laugh. Do people really class atheists in the same category as paedophiles? Are American politicians really concerned to garner the atheist vote? Can an 8-year-old realistically call herself an atheist? Can a group called Godless Americans separate church and state – isn’t that some kind of oxymoron? Are atheists truly living in a perilous climate?

Maybe I’m just na├»ve when it comes to atheists, but I don’t see them coming under attack. And they seem to have forgotten that the most outspoken atheist of the 20th century, Madalyn O’Hair, had no qualms about attacking – and viciously, at that. Seems the boot’s on the other foot, according to these rather more wimpy atheists.

I think, however, the moment of high hilarity in the article comes when we read that rather than being called unbelievers, or the godless, or atheists, these people want to call themselves ‘Brights.’ Brights? What the heck does that describe? Are we going to have yet another solid English adjective taken over and given a completely different meaning (and turned into a noun at the same time), in order to satisfy a minority, as ‘gay’ was?

I note that one of the Brights’ major aims is: to educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals. Maybe I live in a different part of the world to these much-maligned American Brights, but here in New Zealand, where the majority of those in power don’t seem to believe in anything much at all in the religious or supernatural department, pretty much the last thing an atheist has to suffer is fear of persecution.

Monday, August 08, 2005

You have to wonder how long Don Brash would survive as Prime Minister of New Zealand if by some remote chance the National Party got in this time.

He has to be the Party’s worst feature, in the sense that almost everything he does proclaims him as the most inexperienced MP in the House. The Party keeps trying hard to proclaim him as the right man for the time – but they’d have to, wouldn’t they? It’s like the office junior being given a managerial job in a large firm, and everyone knows that he’s the wrong person for the job, but the deed having been done, they have to make the best of it, since it’s so difficult to fire anyone these days.

My mother, even though she finds politics of no immense interest, keeps pointing out that Brash was only a List MP, which means that he was never voted into the job in the first place by the electors, and it’s extremely weird to find that he’s somehow managed to wind up with the top position. She may not know much about politics but she does know how people ought to mind their ps and qs, and in this instance the ps and qs haven’t been minded very well at all, she feels.

And what skills does Brash bring to the role of Prime Minister anyway? The only reason everyone knew him before his sudden appearance in politics is that he was always being trotted out in his former position as Governor of the Reserve Bank, where he seemed to have a real issue about letting inflation go over a certain point. Whether he ever thought about anything else besides inflation no one would have known. Week after week, Don Brash, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, would be in the news, with a face of glum determination, telling us that inflation was being kept under a certain figure - as though somehow he had achieved this personally.

But keeping inflation down is hardly a skill required in the day to day running of the whole country.
However, there’s a worse thing. We’ve had two or three terms of Helen Clark (yes, it must be three because it seems like forever) and her sour face pronouncing on everything under the sun. She tries to smile, bless her heart, but it comes out looking as though somehow deep inside she thinks better of it just as the smile is about to start and the poor thing gets scrunched into something closer to a grimace.

But Don Brash’s face is worse: he can’t even pretend to smile. Like John Howard in Australia, who seems permanently about to burst into tears, Don Brash looks as though the thought of a smile is something entirely alien to him, at least in public. I suspect in private he’s a really nice bloke, and that his wife would tell you that he smiles a lot when bouncing around the living room with the kiddies, or when he’s out growing kiwifruit. But in public Don takes the view that smiling and politics don’t mix, and New Zealanders out there ought to get the idea of smiling right out of their little heads!

Well, I guess all we can hope for, if the Nats get in, is that someone does what they’ve done before and stabs poor old Donnie in the back, replacing him quickly with someone who really appeals to the public. It happened to Mrs Shipley, it happened to Mike Moore (although he at least didn’t deserve it); maybe it’ll happen (I’m really sorry about this, Don) to the former Governor of the Reserve Bank.

Getting Started on Blogging Again

Just came across an article by W. Caleb McDaniel on Arts and Letters Daily about blogging, and it inspired me to have another go at this 'art'. McDaniel talks about a writer from the 1800s who wrote in his journal daily about every sort of topic, and in this, McDaniel claims, he was a forerunner of the typical blogger.

I've just checked back at the last time I got into blogging - and kept the results. It was back in 2002. I had another go at it after that with a blogging site called TypePad, but they wanted money out of me after the first month, and so I didn't keep it going - nor did I keep a record of the blog on the Net (though the stuff is still in my journal).

So whether this lot of blogging will keep up or not is debatable.