Sunday, December 30, 2007

Transformers

I had the movie, Transformers, thrust in front of me last night when my younger son got it out of the video shop. My initial reaction was: shall I go and do something else? In fact, Transformers turned out to be a sharp and funny movie, with some off-the-wall characters, and an ability to make an action movie interesting as well as spectacular.
I must admit I lost track of which Transformer was which much of the time, and to have the nastiest of them all, Megatron, frozen for most of the movie was a bit of a mistake I think, but I enjoyed the vocal characterizations (the transformers learned to speak off the World Wide Web) and the visuals were splendid.
But it was more of a surprise to have a bunch of actors in amongst all the technology who were interesting people. Shia LeBeouf (whom I’d forgotten until I checked I’d seen in Holes several years ago) was full of energy, wit, and verve; Megan Fox transformed a role that could have been nothing but a sex figure into something human; Rachael Taylor’s wonderful Tasmanian accent grated against all the US ones, and Kevin Dunn and Julie White as LeBeouf’s parents were superbly cast. John Turturro makes the most of a wonderfully obsessive Sector 7 agent.
And the minor characters are often unexpectedly interesting, such as the Indian telephone operator who’s more interested in the right way to make the phone call than in contacting the Pentagon for an emergency; or the crazy Black computer geek and his family.
There are times when the action’s over the top, but in the middle of it all there’s this wonderful humour, which gives the film life. It’s as if the writers decided that straight action wasn’t get this movie into the A-stream, and they were probably right. So they put some scenes in that will give the adults something interesting, and this balances the whole thing out admirably.
I should have gone to see it on the big screen – huge things cease to be huge on the small – but not having done so, I’ll have to watch it again and try and work what’s actually happening in some of the grunty fight scenes.
By the way, I watched it with comments from my son and son-in-law about who all the Transformers were, what their histories were, whether they'd actually ever had any of them as children and so on. I was rather astonished at the detailed remembering of this curious craze.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hit by a Truck? Call us!

In New Zealand, most lawyers have to have general practices, rather like doctors who are GPs. But in the States, you can specialise to your heart’s content, which is why there are so many truck accident lawyers listed. I guess because the population in the US is so much bigger there are that many more truck accidents, and seemingly it’s not easy to get recompense if you’re hit by a great thundering vehicle roaring along the highway. (Although when you look at the movies, the number of near misses and fatal crashes with trucks is phenomenal. Guess they’re that much more spectacular – and they’ve got to keep the stuntmen in work.)
The other difference between NZ and the States is that we have Accident Compensation. You don’t have to go after some huge firm by yourself: the ACC will do it for you. And though we complain about Accident Compensation Corporation a good deal, it has stopped a lot of unnecessary legal feuds.
Not that I want to be hit by a truck any time soon just to prove it…

Harper's Bazaar

This is a quote from a Harper's Bazaar magazine (June 1998) that I found in a takeaway shop:

If you only feed a man and don't love him, he is no better than the cattle in the shed; if you only love a man and don't respect him, he is no better than a household pet.

A couple of thoughts

I came across these thoughts in one of my notebooks from the late nineties:
Vandals should be given demolition work. Vandalism and demolition are the same thing under different hats. And the satisfaction level is high in both instances.

And who doesn't enjoy throwing rubbish in the tip, and seeing things smash, and get crushed by the grader?

Secondly:
Just as you can never tie only one shoe, so some tasks always have two parts, neither of which is complete without the other. Writing, for instance, needs both space for the imagination and room for the editor.

Anne Lamott

If only more New Zealand novelists would observe this point, from author, Anne Lamott:
"Nothing is more important than a likable narrator."
The narrator doesn’t have to be good but you do have to like him.
And she adds: I have a friend who said one day, “I could resent the ocean if I tried,” and I realised that I love that in a guy. I like for them to have hope – if a friend or a narrator reveals himself or herself to be hopeless too early on, I lose interest. It depresses me.’
Funny hopeless is different. and can be endearing.
I think these quotes come from Bird by Bird, Lamott's book on writing, pages 49-51.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Ode Less Travelled

I’ve just finished reading Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled. He makes an enthusiastic case for writing and reading poetry (especially reading good poetry), and for learning to understand and use long-established techniques of meter and form. Not having an understanding of these, he says, means you’ll be working on shifty sands. (My cliché, not his.)
He marches his way systematically through every kind of metre and form you could imagine or want to know, as well as giving readers the chance to read his excellent and amusing examples. He also suggests plenty of exercises to do in order to understand the way metre and form affect the words, and the use of words. He wants to show that meter and form aren’t out-of-date and useless to the modern poet, but necessary.
Without his amusing and sometimes sardonically funny writing, and his poetry (which he claims he doesn’t normally present in public), the book would probably have appealed less. But he has such a passion for the subject, and such a knowledge of it, that he conveys enthusiasm to them to get on and write. (And read, of course.)
Readers should read the poetry in the book out loud - it isn’t just Fry’s poetry that appears, but plenty of good and great examples. He knows what’s worth reading and what isn’t and sometimes isn’t backwards about saying so. His own examples can verge on the scatological (though admittedly very amusingly). Unfortunately he also decided to include four filthy pieces of poetry in order to show that filthy poetry exists. This seemed to me to be a mistake, but maybe others will appreciate it.
Fry introduced me to many poets I didn’t know, and got my poetic juices going. Though I must say I was too busy reading the book to do the examples!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Singin’ in the Rain

I watched Singin’ in the Rain again today, after my family gave me the DVD for Christmas. (We celebrated a bit early so that most of us could be together.) I remembered from my last viewing of it that it seem to come to rather an abrupt end, and that the storyline wasn’t up to much. It takes a good idea – the changeover from the silent movies, when people with nothing in the way of a voice could still be an attractive star, to the talkies, when such people either had to learn to speak or quit. That’s the storyline, and it would have been good if it had been developed still further. But it’s merely a hat to hang the songs on, and some of the songs don’t hang too well.
The songs and dancing on their own are fine – in fact there are several hit songs there (and a couple of duds: Moses Supposes, and Gotta Dance) and there is a typical ‘serious’ dance towards the end, with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse suddenly introduced into the film. This section, as these sections always were, is superbly danced -–the sequence with Charisse trailing an immensely long scarf like a cloud behind her is wonderfully handled. And of course there’s Singin’ in the Rain itself, which apart from its exuberance, isn’t all that remarkable a piece of dancing. Even Donald O’Connor’s hectic Make ‘em Laugh falls flat these days, although he works immensely hard at it. Perhaps in a full theatre with some good laugh-out-loud people it would still come off.
So in some senses the film’s something of a disappointment, in spite of all the talent involved. It treats the Jean Hagen character (the one with the shrill and squeaky voice who won’t make the talkies using her own voice) badly, making her something of a villainess by the end, when in fact she’s done little more than be in love with the wrong man, and have a voice she can’t help. I found it hard not to be sympathetic with her, for all her foibles, and even in spite of her attempts to blackmail her studio.
Donald O’Connor’s character is plain annoying; perhaps it worked much better in the fifties. There’s almost no chemistry between Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, although both of them are good, of course, and they’re not helped by a romance that’s never developed properly in any sense. It starts off well, but by the middle of the film we’re meant to assume that it’s a done thing, and the ending is a fizzer as a result.
In the end, it’s the song and dance stuff that saves the movie, from the early piece with Kelly and O’Connor in some vaudeville act, using fake violins, or Good Morning, when those two and Reynolds sail through what seems to be a never-ending house, or the long dance section based on Gotta Dance, or even the Moses Supposes scene. Fast forward through the story bits, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience still.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dreaming of Cars? Not.

I think there must be something seriously wrong with me. Other people talk about their dream cars, and programs on the telly like Top Gear seem to be very popular, but barely interest me at all. I can’t see any point in racing around a track at a speed you can’t handle. Cars, for me, are something that get you from A to B.
That said, the best car in terms of performance and economy that we’ve ever had, I think, was the Peugeot we bought while we were travelling around England. We got it at a bargain price of £900 and sold it for £500 before we left. We’d certainly got more than £400 worth of running out it. And we did a pile of running in it, which in our car at home (a Mitsubishi Chariot) would have cost us a fortune. In England, where petrol isn’t particularly cheap, it cost us next to nothing. I’d continually look at the petrol gauge and say, It’s barely moved!
So if we’re talking about dream cars, then a car that hardly uses any petrol, but still gets me where I want to go without any major disasters, is definitely mine!

Routing round the house

In a moment of impetuosity that surprised even me, I went out and bought a wireless router the other night. In New Zealand, for some reason, we pronounce this word the same as the Americans: as in router as in outer. The English, curiously, pronounce it rooter, like hooter, which isn’t a good idea, given that the word root has some very ambiguous meanings.
Be that as it may, I managed to fit the thing together (in spite of the instructions) and within half an hour our laptop ran off wireless in another room. I felt quite humbled by my own expertise.
The instructions in the book then went on to say that I should set up the security. This involved opening a certain IP address. I put the numbers in. No joy, even though the Internet was working perfectly. I did this again and again, always getting the message that perhaps the site was too busy and so on. It was only when I rang my tame geek that I discovered that they had the number wrong in the book (!). Not only that, when I did get onto the site it was nothing, absolutely nothing, not at all in any conceivable shape or form, like the instructions in the book – which had pictures of the pages I would see as I progressed through the process. Piffle.
Anyway, as I say, the thing is working, and that’s all we need until the tame geek gets here tomorrow and sorts out the security – which he will do without blinking an eyelid, or following any instructions.

Semi-enchanted

Two or three years ago, when we were in Greymouth on the West Coast, and it rained more than it didn’t, we stayed in our hotel room and caught up with most of what seemed a rather strange fairy tale movie, the name of which I didn’t catch. Turns out it was called Ella Enchanted, and it starred Anne Hathaway at her most gorgeous, Hugh Dancy and Cary Elwes, among others.
At the time I thought it was a bit peculiar: it just didn’t seem to work, and there were some very odd things about it. For instance, a number of biggish names (on the English scene anyway) turned up in it, but didn’t have much to do – or else their characters were woefully underwritten. Minnie Driver, for one, who doesn’t seem to know quite why she’s in the movie and Parminder Nagra, who turns up for a few minutes early on and isn’t seen again until she gets one shot at the end of the movie. It was as if she’d been in a lot more and then was cut out. I suspect the whole thing was originally a lot longer, and gave the actors some room to move. (As an interesting sideline, both Driver and Nagra later worked on ER for more than a season.)
The story’s quite fun, and the second time around I took the film as being entertaining but not particularly witty, although it plays the anachronistic note a good deal. Hathaway shows she has a talent for comedy, given the right sort of role, and does well with a part that isn’t always consistent in tone.
The scenery is an odd mix of real forest and locations, and studio ones: the latter sometimes being more beautiful than the real thing. You get the impression there was a bit of kerfuffle going on behind the scenes, and things didn’t work out the way they were intended.
When we first saw the movie, we’d never come across Lucy Punch before – she plays the older of the ugly sisters. Since then she turned up in the first season of Doc Martin, but for some reason didn’t stay in the following seasons, when a girl (Katherine Parkinson) who looks strangely like Punch, took over and played the role of her cousin – who basically does the same part. In fact, the two women are so similar that they could have replaced

On again off again relationship

So our famous Mr Jackson is going to be involved with The Hobbit after all. And with a sequel. A sequel to The Hobbit? What, a story squashed in between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring?
Seemingly Mr Jackson won’t be directing the movies, but will be an executive producer instead, along with his wife, Fran Walsh. Peter’s too busy with other projects to give his attention to the directing of the movies.
It’ll be interesting to know who’ll write the scripts. In the LOTR, of course, Jackson, Walsh and Philippa Boyens were scriptwriters. Jackson filled practically every other role at times, and even Walsh did a bit of directing. But if they’re too busy to do the script, that leaves the thing wide open to a different kind of movie altogether from the LOTR trilogy. Which could be disastrous.
New Line, who are involved again, have already had a fairly large thumbs-down on the first of the Philip Pullman trilogy. Some speculate that the other two stories in that series won’t even be filmed, which might be why they decided to make friends with Jackson again after the long tiff that’s been going on.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In the dog box

It’s strange how isolated moments from a long-distant conversation will stick in your memory, almost to the point that you can remember the exact words from a sentence. I was reminded of this when I came across the words dog box today.
When an artist friend and his wife were redecorating their house, they used to sleep at night above the ceiling. Now they weren’t enclosed in a loft or attic; the ceiling at this point consisted of nothing but the beams, and a bit of boarding to stop either of them falling through in the night.
My wife talked to the artist’s wife (she was an artist too, as it happens), and at one point the artist’s wife made a joking comment about sending her husband to the dog box if he misbehaved. The dog box was a couch a bit further over on the beams.
Not a spectacular piece of conversation, but I can remember the tone of good humour still, and my mind puzzling over how they coped with being in a ‘bedroom’ that was set over such a precarious ‘floor.’
Of course the dog box that I came across had nothing to do with recalcitrant husbands being sent to one, but was a place for the dog to sleep. These days dogs are likely to get classy treatment: none of your open-mesh wiring nailed to some two-by-fours, and nothing much on the floor except the earth the box is set on. No, these dog boxes are for treating the dog as though she’s some prima donna, or he’s a prize-fighter. They’re lined with a material that will keep the dog warm in the winter and cool in the summer (as duvets are supposed to do for humans but don’t, in my experience). And they’re set about with stainless steel locks and various other contrivances that make the whole thing look like a palace rather than a kennel. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut was wont to say.

Smarter and smarter


Just when I thought I was getting a little smarter and gaining some knowledge of fibre optic cables, along come something called HDMI cables. So, being a person who likes to find out things, I went in search of some information, and found that HDMI are the new version of DVI. Confused?
DVI stands for Digital Video Interface – in other words, in real English, it means something that can be used to connect something else to a PC or home theatre system. And because nothing stays around for long these days, DVI is being replaced by HDMI, which means High Definition Multimedia Interface). But the good news – apparently – is that you can connect a DVI to an HDMI and neither will complain.
Ain’t that swell?
I guess it’s an improvement on the usual approach which requires you to go out and buy a whole new set of cables and plugs and whathaveyous because the manufacturers couldn’t be bothered to do anything that would be compatible.
However, there’s more good news. (This post is just full of it!) HDMI have something in common with our friends, the fibre optic cables, and that is that they don’t just carry one signal at a time. Firstly they carry a digital audio signal. Then they have room to send a digital video signal along the line. And, wait for it, they have room for future bandwidth as well. This means that you can be playing computer games on your home theatre while watching a DVD movie, catching up on the latest episode of your favourite tv program, and perhaps keeping up with the sport as well.
Who said modern people were dumbing down?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I live in a world I don't understand

Fibre optic cables - or fiber optic cables – as they’re also spelt – are something that have always been a bit of a mystery to me. I know they have great advantages in speed, and lightness and so on, and if you have them in your local telephone system, then digital information will be sent faster and more clearly than along copper wire – which is what we’ve got as far as I know. (Though Telecom is gradually shifting over to the use of fibre optics generally.)
As I said, how this works or what it does has been a mystery to me. Not any more! I’ve just had a look at the How Things Work site and read up on fibre optics. I now understand the general principles. I now know that the lightness of fibre optics is ridiculous – especially as that magic prefix nano was used in conjunction with them at one point, as in “wavelength = 1,300 to 1,550 nanometers.” And I was going fine through the article until they began to tell me how the cables are made – at which point I pretty much gave up as my elementary chemistry and physics from fifty years or so ago doesn’t help me much when such descriptions are run before me.
Never mind. There are things in the modern world which I know happen but I have no idea how. And I get to the point where I don’t actually believe that they happen at all: zip backups, for instance, which are done at the speed of light (or so it seems). If we think about it seriously, we know that no computer could back up anything so quickly. The whole thing is a hoax, and since most computers are not required to produce the backed-up information at any time, they can get away with it.
Fiber/fibre optics are the same. There’s no way anything can be produced that’s that small. In reality, good old copper wire is being used, but we’re just paying less for it.
I’m kidding – you know that, don’t you?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

North by Northwest

I watched Hitchcock’s North by Northwest again the other night. I don’t think I’d actually seen most of it since it was first shown; some of it I caught up with on television a few years ago, but obviously not all of it as there were many scenes that I’d forgotten.
It’s the sort of Hitchcock movie where the plot is irrelevant; the set-pieces are what make it: the climax on the Mt Rushmore faces (very little of which was actually shot there); the wonderful sequence where the crop-dusting plane attacks Cary Grant in the middle of nowhere; the nonsense Grant makes of a very dignified auction. The film was virtually written around these sequences – it’s one of the few Hitchcock movies that isn’t based on a book. (Not that he ever stuck to the books: in most cases he took a few key ideas and made his own film.)
North by Northwest epitomises Hitchcock’s style. The suspense, you say. Well, yes, up to a point, but once you know what’s going to happen, the suspense goes out the window. No, I meant Hitchcock’s humour. Very few of his movies lack some aspect of humour (except perhaps I Confess, The Wrong Man and Psycho – and even Psycho has a few humorous moments early in the piece).
For instance, it was a nice surprise to find that in one of his earlier movies (Young and Strange, I think it was) there isn’t just the suspense, but some wonderful moments of humour – much of involving children, who often play a humorous role in his movies. Both the American and English movies have some glorious humorous sequences – North by Northwest is full of them (with Grant at his ironic best), but Stage Fright, which I caught up with again recently too, has some great moments, particularly those featuring Alistair Sim, whom apparently Hitchcock didn’t take to and objected to his ‘mugging’ – in spite of that, there’s a great deal of Sim in the movie, along with a marvellous scene he shares with the inimitable Joyce Grenfell. I still remember how delighted I was to find her in a Hitchcock movie when I first saw Stage Fright years ago.
Back to NBN. The cast is great. Eva Marie Saint – who never appeared in another Hitchcock movie – is wonderful: elusive, persuasive, romantic; a quiet surface hinting at considerable passion beneath. Why he chose to use Tippi Hendren, for instance, in later blonde roles remains a mystery, when Saint was available. James Mason does a subtle villain, and Jessie Royce Landis (only a couple of years Cary Grant’s senior) plays his mother with considerable aplomb. Cary Grant (who mugs almost as well as Alistair Sim at times) thoroughly enjoys his role, even though he was far too old for the part – but Hitchcock delighted in using him, in spite of that.
And the crop-dusting scene remains a triumph of crafty filmmaking: Grant is actually more in the studio than out of it during the sequence, even when he’s being chased by the plane; and an analysis of the scene, shot by shot, would reveal just how well planned the whole thing is – and how economically.

Alfred Hitchcock


I’ve been reading a newish book on Alfred Hitchcock over the last few weeks (yes, that long, because it’s a chunky book of some 860 pages and it’s full of detail).
The book’s called Alfred Hitchcock: a Life in Darkness and Light, by Patrick McGilligan. I’ve read books on Hitchcock before, including the Francois Truffaut book that came out years ago – it was one of the first to really focus on Hitchcock’s genius, but I’ve forgotten much of what it said. And it’s not that long since I read another one – It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, a personal biography, by Charlotte Chandler. That book is much more of a reminiscence, anecdotal book rather than one that covers the ground well. It’s interesting, because are always new angles on the backgrounds to the films, but it tends to focus on stories told by people who are still alive.
McGilligan has done his homework to a remarkable degree, and when he hasn’t got the facts before him he makes commonsense assumptions – but let’s us know that he’s doing so. When you’ve read a number of bios of Hitchcock, certain stories tend to turn up again and again, but in fact, McGilligan’s book is surprising in the amount of new material that’s offered. Furthermore, Hitchcock himself comes across as an even more complex figure than ever. Though it would seem he hardly directed at all, at times, because he knew exactly what he wanted and pretty much got it, and though we’ve heard the hoary old chestnut about him not having much time for actors, in fact he had a great deal of time for them – and for technicians and writers. He often seems to have been happiest when he was planning a movie, but there were certainly many times when he enjoyed the actual process of moviemaking.
And he was a master negotiator; he had to be, to deal with the endless restrictions and deals and undercurrents and difficulties that stood in the way of him making the films he wanted to make. That he got as much on the screen as he did is tribute to his ability to manage affairs to his own satisfaction in spite of what the producers often imposed on him.
The darker side of Hitchcock: his obsession with real-life murders, with the ways people could be mutilated and killed; his curious building-up of blonde actresses – only some of whom came up to his expectations; his sometimes petty revenges on actors who spoke out of turn; the crude jokes he seemed to revel in; his drinking and eating problems and his strange phobias are all catalogued in this book.
But so are his triumphs: the marvellous movies he did actually make; the way he could bring life to a film even when it wasn’t necessarily his choice of subject; his tireless energy that lasted well into his sixties; his imagination and inventiveness; his wonderful sense of humour; his devotion to his wife (when she became chronically ill he himself went downhill rapidly); his generosity to his family and to his many friends and his work in wartime (much of which hasn’t previously been noted).
Hitchcock was something of an enigma, something of a genius. He seemed curiously uptight in some aspects of his personality, and boundlessly free in others. In filmmaking he truly came alive, and his legacy of movies lives on and on.

Presenting the whole picture?

When I read some of the promos for drug rehab on the Net, with their pictures of luxury suites, I have to ask myself two things: just how much does it cost (and therefore who’s going to go?) and what happens when real drug addicts turn up and start making a mess in the place.
It’s fine to say that the staff have all been addicts themselves and know the problems, but presumably they also know that a clean image is probably rather unrealistic. Even people who are trying to get free of drugs are rather messy – or maybe my ideas of drug rehab are based on the film Sandra Bullock starred in called 28 Days where life was anything but clean and tidy. (Yes, I know it was about alcohol addiction, but the principle’s the same.)
All right, you can’t ‘sell’ a drug rehab place by showing the grime and grubbiness of life with a bunch of addicts. Fair enough to present pictures of beds with clean sheets and comfortable pillows. Perhaps I’d just like to see the other side represented as well.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Sock Monkey


Okay, what the heck’s a sock monkey? I hadn’t heard about such a thing (at least my memory tells me I haven’t) until I came across it today on a friend’s site. She has a Squidoo page on it, as it happens, which is partly why I got involved in Squidoo at all. I couldn’t rate her site until I’d joined Squidoo, and then once I had I was greatly encouraged to add my own site.
Anyway, my friend has given plenty of info about sock monkeys. In fact, I now know what to do with the various socks I’ve been finding since I got home that have a hole in the toe or heel. I’ll be making sock monkeys with holes.
I thought at first a sock monkey might be something along the lines of a monkey we have here in the house. It's a very flexible creature, very floppy, and it has hands that pull out of its arms. (Yes, I know, sounds grotesque.) The hands are on elastic, and if you 'shoot' the monkey off - rather like a catapult - it sails through the air with a fierce jungle monkey noise. The grandchildren love it.

More of me on the Net

After more than a year from the first time I heard about it, I’ve finally added myself to the Squidoo lens site. My page is pretty skimpy at present – one can’t do everything in one go, can one – but it’ll improve with time.
The squidoo site tells you to go ahead and make a page. Bit of a tall order when you weren’t expecting to get on with it just right then. It’s rather like a friend of mine who emailed me today to say that something had gone wrong with a mouth operation, and when it was discovered they said, “We’ve got a couple of cancellations this morning; we’ll fix it now under local anaesthetic.” No time for emotional preparation nor nothin’!
That’s a bit like it felt on the squidoo – though obviously a lot less painful.

Little things

I read somewhere the other day – it was in one of those books about doing positive things in your life – that you should take every opportunity to hold a baby, a puppy or a kitten.
Now all you macho people out there can say what you like, but I think this is good advice. In fact one of the things I missed most while being overseas away from our family was not being able to hold any babies. Of course when we got back here, the two baby grandchildren that were available had both grown up by six months. The little girl – all nine months of her – was into climbing stairs, pushing her big brother’s bike around, investigating the DVD player, dancing to the music on the telly and so on. Not quite such a baby anymore.
The boy grandchild, who’d been cuddly when we left, was now beginning to walk, and being held wasn’t quite such an option any more. Although when I did hold him he took a firm grip of my glasses and refused to let me put them back on.
At least with puppies and kittens they don’t take your glasses off, or dance in front of the telly. But they don’t stay puppies and kittens very long either.
Which I think is the point of what the positive person was saying: seize the day/baby/puppy/kitten. They won’t be any of those things for long.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Out with the old

We’ve been shifting stuff around in our house over the last week, because we’re now back from overseas and have to get everything we locked away out of storage and back into the rest of the house. (We used one bedroom for storing.)
This has involved throwing out some old furniture, because there comes a time when it’s just served its purpose, and even the borer are barely holding the thing together. (We actually tossed one item of furniture out of the upstairs window – or rather, the various pieces that made up that piece – and thoroughly enjoyed the disintegration that went on below us. Why do humans like a bit of destruction every now and then? There’s a kind of vandal in all of us, I think. I’m sure you’ve seen people at the dump/tip/refuse place/transfer station throwing things off the back of their trucks: the smashing and crashing that goes on seems to get something out of their systems.
The only problem of course with breaking up old furniture is that you have to replace it with something. In our case that’s not too much of a problem, though I wouldn’t mind swapping my very elderly computer desk (it must have come from some office at some point) for the item in the picture. It’s a piece of Bush furniture – and ain’t it grand! The only problem is it would take up the entire space in my ‘office’. Not being able to get at it to do my blogs or write music might be a bit of an issue!

Monday, December 03, 2007

HSBC

While we were in England we became customers of the bank, HSBC. They’re huge in the UK – from the moment you get into the airport you’re bombarded with their ads. They’re doing a campaign at the moment which has two photos, both shown twice. Across the two photos will be two opposite words, like ‘modern’ and ‘traditional.’ And then across the copies of the photos, the same words are shown but on the opposite photos. It’s a nifty ad idea, and works pretty well, though I’m not entirely sure what it tells me about HSBC.
Anyway, HSBC turned out to be an excellent bank, and overall we were well pleased with them. One of the best deals they offered while we were there was no interest on our credit card. In fact, if it was possible, I’d do a Credit Card Balance Transfer (as its called in bank parlance) from my other cards so I could take advantage of the no interest terms. Although it may not apply to transfers. Anyway, HSBC is good value, and their customer service is excellent. In every branch we went into we found well-trained staff who were only too willing to help.
My only complaint about them, perhaps, is that their branches are pretty thin on the ground in Europe, where I could have done with their help more than once, especially when my wallet was stolen.

Couple of clippings

Two genuine ads from a local newspaper which I found amongst my mother’s cuttings:

Wanted: Woman to assist in country home; 3 children; easy place; only odd men kept. 1557, Times.

Would person in Wakari who took delivery of Willys Back End kindly ring 83-874; urgent.

I also came across the delightful list of statements under “How to know you’re growing older.” I won’t repeat them here, as they’re on the Net in several places. The version at this link adds a couple that weren’t on my mother’s list as well.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

More on payday loans

I was checking out the post I did recently on payday loans, and discovered that the Amazon associates thingee that works on this blog (when it feels like) had added a couple of links to the post. One was for a book on budgeting, (The Simplified Personal Budget Book) which was good and sensible, but the other was to a neon sign announcing Payday Loans and costing $316US. And then I discovered that having clicked on the link, the jolly thing was now sitting in my shopping cart! How’s that for misguided budgeting?
When I went to clear my cart I found that there were two other items in it as well (!) – one the complete series of West Wing, which had been added in May this year, and the other for something called Gemagic, which my wife had seen on tv in Valencia and fallen in love with. She bought it from somewhere else in the end. And we ordered a copy of the West Wing set from one of Amazon’s dealers – and never got it. Amazon very graciously refunded us.
Payday loans are intended for emergency use only, but to my way of thinking they’re a bit iffy. I know from experience how difficult loans are to pay back (and so do some members of my family). I’d advise against using one of these, unless the dire straits were so dire that there was no other alternative. But maybe buy the budget book first!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Shrek the Third


We bought a copy of Shrek the Third today. I found it a bit of a disappointment. The old characters don’t really go anywhere, and the new ones are a bit flat. There isn’t much real humour in it, though it’s amusing enough, and I felt it had too much dialogue to be of interest to smaller children. It’s a pity, because versions one and two were both excellent, full of interesting ideas and good fun. Perhaps it’s because this one settles a lot of its time on Prince Charming, who isn’t the most exciting character in the series (no disrespect to Rupert Everett, who does his darndest with the role) and because Artie, the heir to the throne, does little that’s unexpected. We know he’s going to become a ‘man’, we know he’ll save the day, we’ll know he’ll go off in a huff – twice. This is one of the big problems with the movie: there’s little surprise.
And just for once I’d love to see a Hollywood movie in which a man who’s just been told he’s going to be a father doesn’t have nightmares about the idea. Where are the fathers-to-be who rejoice in the situation?

Stage Fright

While we were in England, I picked up a box set of Hitchcock movies, reduced from £62 to £15. The films were North by Northwest, which I haven’t seen since it appeared on television a number of years ago; I Confess, which I saw on video a couple of years back for the first time since it first appeared; Strangers on a Train, ditto; The Wrong Man, which I also have a video copy of; Dial M for Murder, which I don’t think I’ve seen since it was shown in the cinema some time after it was first released, and finally, Stage Fright, which I saw on a re-release many years ago.
I watched Stage Fright tonight. It’s Hitchcock comedy at its best, even though there’s a strong dramatic element to it. Writers on Hitchcock have complained that the flashback early in the movie actually tells a lie. Yet the lie is fair enough considering that the murderer isn’t the person we think it is, and it’s the real murderer who tells the lie. I don’t think it’s such an issue. I don’t remember it bothering me on first viewing, and knowing in advance about it this time, it didn’t worry me at all.
The film boasts a great cast, one of the best to appear in any of Hitchcock’s movies: Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Jane Wyman, and Richard Todd are the four principal actors, but there’s also Alistair Sim stealing every scene he’s in (apparently to Hitchcock’s annoyance), a cameo from Joyce Grenfell, Dame Sybil Thorndike (as Sim’s wife), Miles Malleson as an annoying customer in a pub, Kay Walsh as a blackmailing maid, and Patricia Hitchcock in a small role as one of Wyman’s friends.
Sim and Grenfell provide plenty of comedy, but so does Dame Sybil and Jane Wyman (surprisingly). Kay Walsh does a nice line in menace, even though she’s not the villain of the piece, and it’s interesting how different she is in this movie from her role as Nancy in Oliver Twist, which she made a couple of years before.
There are some wonderful moments, but probably the most Hitchcockian is when Sim tries to shoot a duck on the stall run by Grenfell, and keeps getting sidelined by other shooters. He wants to win a cupie doll so he can put blood on it (his own, which causes him some alarm), and startle Dietrich into confession. In order to do this he has a little boy scout take it up to her while she’s in the middle of a song on stage.
But it’s the humour that seems to be the element that Hitchcock most enjoys in this movie. The film bubbles along from one set piece to another, and in one of its funniest moments, the screen is covered with umbrellas, as a host of people attend a garden party in the rain.

Last movies on Korean Air

The two movies I watched (or partly watched, in one case) on our flight from Korea were Gracie and The Simpsons Movie. The first starred some non-actress who played a teenage girl wanting to play soccer in a world where soccer is a man’s sport. (Curiously it was set in America, where soccer is hardly a sport at all.). Not only couldn’t this girl act, she couldn’t play soccer either, which rather detracted from the character she was playing. The only interesting feature of the movie was that her father was played by Dermot Mulrony, who was the bloke in My Best Friend’s Wedding, with Julia Roberts. There he was a handsome and humorous character. Here he was morose and dull. I went to sleep halfway through the movie. [I missed the early part of the movie: Mulrony's son is killed, which accounts for the morose and dull aspect.]
The Simpsons Movie was just starting when I woke, and turned out to be a lot of fun, full of wit and sharp observation, and surreal moments. It was more than an extended tv episode, and had a reasonable enough plot, but it didn’t really take the Simpsons beyond their normal characters, except perhaps for Maggie, who had a bit more to do than she usually does on telly.
What always intrigues me about the Simpsons is their treatment of Christianity. Flanders is a figure of fun, but he continues to be the Christian in his community. His mistakes and foolishness don’t undermine his actual Christian life. Homer may mock Flanders, but the audience doesn’t necessarily side with Homer in the mockery. The church minister isn’t seen as particularly genuine, but many of the characters (including all the Simpsons) attend his church without fail. And much of the humour that comes out of what happens in the church is subtly done, so that Christians themselves see the humour without feeling their being mocked.
No character escapes having the rug pulled out from under them at some point - it’s by no means something that happens only to the Christians. Even Lisa, who might be seen as the force of reason in the series, seldom gets through without being shown up as rather too pedantic for her own good. And Marge, who might be seen as the perpetually sacrificing mother, has moments when she falls flat on her face. In spite of that she’s still used as the character who practises what she preaches, and what she preaches is often straightforward Christianity.

English as she is writ

Celia had an interesting idea while we were still in Korea. It was to offer to rewrite the ‘English’ that’s presented on many tourist pamphlets and signs and put it into real English. So much tourist info looks like English until you actually read it. And then you find phrases that aren’t quite what English people would write or say.
For instance, on the bathroom wall of our Korean hotel there was a sign that went as follows:
Please keep your mind
All room non-smoking
Please do not move furniture
Please do not put any toilet paper and garbage in the piss pot.

All perfectly good English words, but only one line is actually good English.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Size does matter


My niece and her husband have a large television screen. When I say large, I mean it’s like having cinemascope in the tv room. I don’t know exactly how large the screen is, but you certainly get a great picture, and watching movies on it is a vast improvement over smaller screens.
Apropos of this screen, we had it on one day when the tv in the kitchen was on as well - it was while we were babysitting the house for the family. Both tvs were tuned to the same channel, but the strange thing was that the kitchen one was a second - or perhaps less - ahead of the large screen. In other words, as words were spoken on the kitchen tv, they would be repeated on the big screen. I could dash from the kitchen to the other room in time to hear the same thing twice. I don’t know what would cause this phenomenon: whether it was that the two tvs were receiving their signals from different aerials, or whether they react at different speeds to the same signal is beyond my knowledge. It was just a strange effect.
When I say I don’t know what the size of the big screen was, it’s because I didn’t ask, or didn’t pay attention when I was told (technical things often miss my long-term memory). It’s possible it was as big as a samsung 61 inch LCD screen - I’d have to check with the owners. Suffice to say, it’s a great way for someone who wears glasses and doesn’t see movies well on a normal screen to watch them.

Bandidas

Bandidas, a movie about a couple of Mexican female bandits, one a spoilt rich girl and the other an uneducated peasant, is surprisingly lots of fun, completely over the top in places, and neatly amusing in others. There are few moments when the film seems to be heading towards a wet-t-shirt-contest type of humour, but it also has better humour in it, and that keeps it from being a waste of time. It’s had a bit of a bad press, and went straight to DVD, virtually, but that was probably unfair on the movie.
Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek comport themselves with plenty of enthusiasm, and Steve Zahn joins in the fun about halfway through. Sam Shepard fills up a cameo role with ease, and the rest of the cast contribute to the general good humour.
The two women in the story decide to join forces after both their fathers are killed by the villainous Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam), a baddie whose intentions are to swindle everyone in sight. He’s supposedly the agent for a banking group, so the girls begin systematically robbing those particular banks in order to support the peasants who have been robbed of their land. Zahn is the son-in-law (unbeknownst to the girls) of the bank’s chief manager and after being employed by the bank to use his detective skills to chase down the girls, he winds up joining them - after a scene in which he is tied naked to his bed and dealt to by the girls. It could have been a crude scene; somehow Zahn’s face keeps it in from being so.
Finally keep an eye out for the performances from the two horses: they’re a delight, and the scene in which one of them appears to climb a ladder onto a roof must have been done by a stunt horse - there’s no way they’d let the real horse star go through such a dangerous stunt.

Exercise videos

Back in the nineties my wife and I picked up on an exercise video called Oxycise! The cover of the video shows a svelte woman apparently leaping through the air as a result of the exercises. The reality was a bit different: the svelte woman went through 15 minutes of exercise with a disparate group of half a dozen bodies (her parents, husband and next door neighbours - at least that’s what they looked like) and the result should have been that they all improved their flexibility and their posture - as well as losing weight. I don’t know that the system did much for weight loss, but it certainly was good on flexibility and posture, and there are patches of time when I still work through many of the exercises.
So I interested to see a different kind of exercise video/DVD called Yoga Booty Ballet. I kid you not! The basic exercises include modern dance, ballet and yoga for strengthening and ab work. There’s a 60 minute stretch to burn calories - 60 minutes of anything will burn calories. There are hip hop dance steps, a cardio cabaret, a 7-day diet, and something called the Goddess guide (plainly this DVD isn’t geared towards men). Oh, and don’t forget the bonus squishy toning ball.
The focus of the system is that it’s fun. Oxycise couldn’t ever have been classed as fun, but it was good for you. Maybe, if I can get past the ‘Goddess Guide’ my wife and I could have a go at the yoga booty ballet. (Booty?)

Monday, November 26, 2007

TV in Korea

Korean tv isn’t any better than tv anywhere else. Ads are just as mad or bad, game shows are as awful or as good, and soaps are soaps. But there was one difference: last night we watched the latter part of The Lion in Winter, with Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart. (It’s very well done, by the way, and Close is brilliant in an excellent role.) At one point there was an ad break, an ad break to end all ad breaks. It took the form of an infomercial, but don’t ask me what they were selling. There were two utterly enthusiastic presenters, as well as other bodies, and occasional ‘dramatised’ scenes. There was a great deal of banging and crashing of numbers on the screen, and little bell noises as numbers came up. Apparently whatever they were selling was only going to cost 21,000 won.
All this would have been okay if it had been presented once, but it was presented for some eight minutes. It wasn’t just the same thing repeated exactly, but the same material was shuffled and reshuffled until it all became terribly familiar - and mind-bogglingly awful.
On the other hand, this afternoon there’s been a children’s language program on - teaching English to Koreans, and doing it very well.

Three in a row

I spent the night flight from Heathrow to Incheon (Seoul) watching movies, because I couldn’t get to sleep.
First up was the latest in the Oceans saga: yet another complicated piece in which George Clooney and Brad Pitt barely do anything except look pretty. There’s no woman in their team this time; instead the baddie has a chief executive who’s a woman (Ellen Barkin). She gets her comeuppance, of course, as does the baddie. It didn’t help that the engine noise from the plane was a constant background to the soundtrack of the movie, which is one where everybody mumbles a lot. I have no idea what most of the dialogue was about, and it probably didn’t matter. The heist was a typical convoluted affair full of improbabilities. And of course the eleven beat the baddie at his game without blinking an eyelid.
Bruce Willis barely blinks in Live Free or Die Hard either - he doesn’t have time. The body count is high, the stunts (particularly with cars and helicopters and an Air Force bomber) are over the top but magnificent, and the story of course follows the usual pattern. However, there’s a lot of humour (not too much of it directed at recently deceased baddies); a nasty character who manages to fall from a helicopter and survive; various computer hackers who talk in computerese and frequently leave Willis wishing he’d gone to computing school somewhere along the line; an extremely vicious young woman baddie (Maggie Q) who almost beats Willis by using karate against him; and a sidekick played by Justin Long. The sidekick is a computer whiz kid who finishes up being babysat by Willis for most of the film and who finally comes into his own in the last stages. Between babysitting he manages to provide a lot of the humour, a lot of (impossible) computer wizardry, and prove to be a likeable companion. As always all the computer whizzes type like there’s no tomorrow, and the insurance bill for what’s left in the wake of Willis’ doings rises into the billions. The Grapes of Wrath, as you’d expect, is as gloomy as it was when it was made in the late thirties. Henry Fonda gives a performance of considerable surliness, and a few tender moments with his ‘Ma,’ (played with great humanity by Jane Darwell.) John Ford directed it, and it’s wonderfully photographed in black and white. What makes the film still appealing are the performances: Fonda and Darwell are great, but the minor characters have a charm and even eccentricity that’s suitable to the story, and warm-hearted as well.
The distress felt by Oklahoma farmers who are pushed off their land after several years of drought is strongly conveyed, and the difficulty of getting work in California is equally well done. I suspect Steinbeck’s story has been altered somewhat for the movie version - the ‘Reds’ are seen as villains, and for once the Government is a benevolent provider (but only towards the end).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Diamond Anniversaries

In the last week, the Queen has celebrated her Diamond Wedding Anniversary. It was fairly low key, in some respects. The days of huge pomp and ceremony almost seem to be fading.
My own diamond wedding is still a long way off; in fact, my wife and I are only just over halfway there. (Ours will be in 2034!)
The Queen's Anniversary brought out a number of news stories about other couples who were celebrating their Diamond. Two couples were even invited to the Queen's celebration.
One couple that didn't go, but who were written about were the Welsh pair, Gladys and Norman Mason, who met through their mutual love of music; though with her being a soprano and him a bass player, I don't suppose they found much music they could actually perform together.
Of course the writer of the article had to drag out the usual puns: their relationship was hitting the right notes and the rather curious sentence: Norman said their love of music had ensured they stayed in tune with. I don't know whether this is a way they write in Wales, but it seems a slightly shortened sentence to me.
Apparently the Masons got married on the cheap, so it's likely there were no diamond rings (especially any that looked like the one in the picture) on the day. But diamond rings don't a Diamond Anniversary make. Love, music and humour did the trick according to this couple.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Titfield Thunderbolt

My mother used to give me presents, when I was child, of film annuals. They were geared towards kids, and mentioned only movies that kids might likely go to. I used to read them and re-read them until I know most of the articles by heart. And the photographs have stayed with me to this day. (I still have most of the books.)

So it was pleasing the other day to see part of The Titfield Thunderbolt, a movie that was in one of the books from my childhood.

It’s one of Ealing’s lesser comedies, but is amusing all the same. I think the story is about a small railway line that’s under threat because the elderly train isn’t making good time on its trips. (I only saw the second half of the movie, so I have no idea why Stanley Holloway was handcuffed to someone else all the time).

Anyway, one of the real pleasures in seeing the movie was to see the shots from the movie that appeared in the book all those years ago, and to see all those familiar faces from the English movies of that period. The actors who appeared in English movies seemed to come from a fairly small pool: you could count on them appearing over and over again. (It's one of the few films I've seen Naunton Wayne appear in, apart from The Lady Vanishes.)

Long post on movies

Yesterday was a bitzer movie day. I managed to miss the beginning of a British wartime film that had everybody and his brother in it so that the second half seemed a bit odd; I missed bits and pieces (and the ending) of The Children’s Hour, that film about lesbians that isn’t a film about lesbians; and then I saw almost all of The Talented Mr Ripley, which seemed to be a film that wasn’t quite sure what it was saying: it was almost a film about gays that wasn’t about gays.

The British movies was The Way Ahead, originally made as a training film. In it, a bunch of ordinary blokes from various backgrounds are gradually given the chance to pull together as a unit. It has a very odd ending, in which the remaining members of the group walk through the smoke of battle into….? Well, we’re not quite sure. Are they about to be shot? Who knows. Anyway, the best bit of the movie was when the troop ship they were on was torpedoed. The fire on board and the hoisting over the side of army vehicles was very well done. (The only peculiar thing about it was that the captain of the ship that rescued them was presented as a bodiless voice, speaking in a way that sounded like he wasn’t actually watching the movie, but was sitting in a studio somewhere reading his lines on cue.)

David Niven played David Niven; Peter Ustinov played a strange innkeeper; everybody else who was available at the time (even Trevor Howard in a brief uncredited role that was his first in movies) appeared: Stanley Holloway, James Donald, John Laurie, Leslie Dwyer, Hugh Burden, William Hartnell, and so on. Carol Reed directed, and Eric Ambler and Ustinov apparently wrote the script.

Seemingly the film was still being used for training (in Australia) two or three decades later. Good grief.

The Children’s Hour had a talented cast: Audrey Hepburn (not being whimsical for the most part), Shirley MacLaine (not being in the least bit daffy), James Garner (being very earnest) and Fay Bainter. Miriam Hopkins, who played the MacLaine role in the earlier version of the movie, also appeared.

William Wyler directed it in an earnest fashion too. Because of the climate of the times, the subject matter was more obvious than it had even been allowed to be in the earlier version, but it was still skirted around a good deal. John Michael Hayes, who wrote some of Hitchcock’s great films, was the scriptwriter, but he seemed hampered somehow. The whole thing had an air of keeping-things-steady, as though no one quite wanted it to get too passionate.

Karen Balkin played the nasty little girl who causes most of the trouble. It would be interesting to know what happened to her. She made only three movies and then seems to have vanished. Even the IMDB.com site has no information. (There’s a Karen Balkin who’s edited or written a number of non-fiction titles listed on Amazon. Could it be the same person?)

And finally to Mr Ripley.

What is it about Matt Damon? I don’t much like him in the Bourne films, even though he’s regarded as highly bankable by the producers. He seems to have a dullness about him that allows no subtlety to come through. It’s the same in Ripley. Sure, the character is a mystery, and is a more interesting character than Bourne, but we’d like to know a bit more about why he does what he does, and to have some idea of what’s going on in his head. My suspicion is that neither the scriptwriter nor the director nor Damon himself knew. The result is a film with a bit mystery in the middle and it’s not related to a whodunit.

Personally I think he’s miscast. And would anybody mistake him for Jude Law? Yet we’re expected to believe this for much of the second half of the movie. Changing your fringe from one side of your forehead to the other doesn’t really do the trick.

Jude Law is excellent. His character is meant to be over the top, vicious, mean, sunny, optimistic, hedonistic and various other things, and Law shifts from one to the other without blinking an eye. He’s the best thing in the movie, and when he’s murdered, the film starts to slumber.

Gwyneth Paltrow gets another one of those odd roles that doesn’t really give her the chance to do anything. Certainly she has some emotional moments, but she never affects the course of the action. She’s just there. Equally Cate Blanchett seems wasted in a role that doesn’t make any sense. By the time Damon has explained that he’s not Law but himself, (or is it the other way around?), the audience has completely lost it. You begin to think: oh for goodness sake, give it up. Nope, the whole thing is dragged on for another sequence at the end which seems just an excuse for another murder, one which in this case seems pointless.

Lastly, Philip Seymour Hoffman breaks into the movie at odd points, like a fart in polite society. His demise is another loss to the film’s momentum.

And then there’s all the hedging around the homosexual stuff. Being a superstar, Matt Damon can’t be shown to be a homosexual, so it’s all hints, and hard work. Jack Davenport, who plays a gay character, has to circle around Damon over and over to show that there’s actually something going on.

It all seems as though Anthony Minghella, who directed the movie, wanted to back off from anything that would involve his audience too deeply. I found The English Patient the same. And now I see he’s just directed The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I don’t think I’ll be going to see it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Zathura: a Space Adventure

Based on the same pemise as Jumanji, this could have been merely a remake. Instead, Zathura is more focused, has far fewer characters, and adds a couple of twists that are reasonably pleasing in terms of plot.
The two boys play their parts effectively, overall. Jonah Bobo is a gift to a director who can get the right expressions at the right time, and for the most part that’s what happens. Twelve-year-old Josh Hutcherson shows his years of experience in tv and a few movies to give some depth to the older brother, a nasty sniping character who hates his little brother, supposedly because he broke up his parents.
There’s a third sibling, played by Kristen Stewart, but she spends a good deal of her time frozen, and doesn’t get much chance to add anything to the plot (except a rather nice line towards the end that most kids won’t pick up).
Tim Robbins appears briefly at the beginning as the father, a man who’s distracted by something whether it’s his work, or his failed marriage, or his inability to communicate satisfactorily with his children we never really discover. He’s gone within ten minutes, and it’s a bit of a surprise that someone of Robbins’ stature should play such a minimal part.
It’s left to Dax Shepard to add the only other adult voice of reason – and even he doesn’t appear until well into the movie. Shepard is touted as a comedian par excellence, but he plays this role fairly straight.
The CGI is top quality, and the visual effects splendid. They don’t dominate, however, which is a good thing. The story about people who’ve got themselves into a corner and have to dig their way out is kept to the fore.
And did I mention the almost total destruction of the house? It’s a bit of a surprise that there’s anything left by the end.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Dealing with Dawkins

Logan Paul Gage, policy analyst, Discovery Institute writes in Books and Culture, in an article entitled Deconstructing Dawkins (relating to Alister McGrath's book, The Dawkins' Delusion, which in turn challenges Dawkin's The God Delusion.)

To see why Darwinism and theism are incompatible, consider random mutations and natural selection—the two elements of modern Darwinian theory. Random mutations are, well, random. By definition, random mutations are unguided. "Mutations are simply errors in DNA replication," according to University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. "The chance of a mutation happening is indifferent to whether it would be helpful or harmful." If a mutation is harmful, the organism with the mutation will leave fewer offspring; but if the mutation is beneficial for reproduction, the mutated gene will be passed to many offspring. This is the "natural" selection part. Theistic Darwinists claim that this process creates life's diversity and is also "used" by God.

While theists can have a variety of legitimate views on life's evolution, surely they must maintain that the process involves intelligence. So the question is: Can an intelligent being use random mutations and natural selection to create? No. This is not a theological problem; it is a logical one. The words random and natural are meant to exclude intelligence. If God guides which mutations happen, the mutations are not random; if God chooses which organisms survive so as to guide life's evolution, the selection is intelligent rather than natural.

Theistic Darwinists maintain that God was "intimately involved" in creation, to use Francis Collins's words. But they also think life developed via genuinely random mutations and genuinely natural selection. Yet they never explain what God is doing in this process. Perhaps there is still room for him to start the whole thing off, but this abandons theism for deism.

Non-invasive

One of breakthroughs in modern surgery has been the use of laparoscopic techniques. This is where one or more small incisions are made in the body and all the work is done through those incisions, whether it’s the use of a miniature camera or the insertion of an inflatable adjustable gastric band (as in houston lapband surgery).

My wife has had at least one bout of surgery done in this way, and it’s so much less invasive. The ‘secret,’ as it were, is in the plasticity of the skin, which stretches conveniently as required. Laparoscopy cuts down on damage to the surface of the skin, on healing times, and often allows patients to have what used to be major surgery done in one day. And you’re home in your own bed at night.

I’m not a great fan of surgery myself, and having over the years seen the huge scars left by major surgery (I went to visit a patient who was a relative stranger to me one day, after he’d had heart surgery, and he pulled open his pyjama top and showed me how one side of his front appeared to have been folded over the other, just like a coat) I’m not keen to have it either. But laparoscopy might be survivable.

For those who wonder what lapband (or lap-band) surgery is, it’s similar to stomach stapling, but again, it’s a lot less invasive. And apparently it’s reversible. Good news for those considering stomach-stapling but not keen on all the cutting and tying that’s usually needed.

Hamsters? Nah.

I wrote about the movie, Ratatouille, the other day, but it hasn’t endeared me to rats as pets I must say. (I originally mistyped ‘rats as poets’ – can’t say that would endear me to them either.)

Another rodent that frequently turns up as a pet is a hamster. I can never understand why people like hamsters as pets. They seem to do nothing but eat, and their response to the human beings around them seems to be nil. Hamsters live in a little hamster world that appears to me to be blinkered to other life forms.

The same goes for guinea pigs. What is their attraction? I need an animal that knows I exist, even if it can’t talk to me in English.

Being creative

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t tend to mention sport on this blog – much. (I’ve only written about basketball and rugby and possibly a few other suchlike.)

So writing about soccer on here is a bit of a surprise to me. Particularly as it isn’t likely to be related to opera or music, for instance, or to the arts in general. But it’s always a challenge to see if there is a connection, and the first connection I found was a bit of a cheat: it related to soccer and opera – but the opera browser, rather than opera with music.

Of course there’s this connection: soccer made Pavarotti a superstar. Yes, I can remember it doing exactly that when his version of Nessun Dorma was played over shots of the FIFA World Cup back in 1990. Honestly, who had heard of Pavarotti before that – except those opera buffs who would obviously know? Pavarotti went from soccer to the Three Tenors and never looked back.

And finally, (out of a surprising number of choices) there’s opera in a different sense again: David Beckham and soccer soap opera.

Don’t ya jus’ luv the Web? It’s so creative-making?!?!

Missing - oh, dear!

I see on the news that someone in Britain has lost two disks containing the details of 25 million persons’ private information, stuff that the Government has on storage. I presume that they’ve ‘only’ lost two disks, rather than having lost all the information, which is rather how the news likes to frame it. One assumes that no one would have such an amount of information solely on two disks.

Seemingly the disks were supposed to go somewhere in an internal post system, and managed to sail off into the wide blue yonder. Huge fears that cyber-hackers will get hold of it all and will start making horrendous use of all the info. More likely the disks will be sitting in the Post Office’s address unknown office (in Ireland, I think) and will be dealt with when all the other bits of lost postal items are dealt with. Or else they’ll be received by some decidedly non-hacking type of person - an old age pensioner, for instance – who will take one look at them, decide they’re junk mail, and toss them in the bin.

What reminded me of this news story was noticing that Martin Worldwide, the list brokers, have over 290 million consumers and 14 million U.S. businesses on their system. And that’s just so other people can send them direct marketing info. By contrast, the 25 million names lost in the post seem rather tame.

Treasure hunt

Having been using a GPS to get ourselves around the UK while we’re here, and having successfully negotiated all manner of routes without getting completely lost, and having gained confidence through having the GPS with us, I’m almost tempted to take up the challenge of doing a bit of geocaching. This is where you use GPS coordinates to find a ‘treasure’. It may not be a treasure in the sense of pirate treasure, or long lost treasure, but it will be something that’s worth chasing. Even if it’s only for the fun of doing it.

I note on the official geocaching site that there’s even a cache in Mosgiel, the smallish town near the city I live in, in New Zealand. They say that the treasure in this case is as follows: This is the original cache type consisting, at a bare minimum, a container and a log book. Normally you'll find a Tupperware container, ammo box, or bucket filled with goodies, or smaller container ("micro cache") too small to contain items except for a log book.

Tupperware and treasure in the same paragraph? (Though apparently the Queen even uses Tupperware at the royal breakfast table…!)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Pianist

I meant to mention that I watched The Pianist on DVD the other night. What a `grim piece, and how draining it was to watch.
It concerns a Jewish family in Poland who, along with thousands of other Jews are rounded up and sent off to the death camps. The pianist only escapes because he is hauled out of the crowd by a soldier who has become a policeman in order to escape death himself. After that he is on the run, gets caught up in a gang of Jewish prisoners who are made to build for the Germans, escapes again and is helped by an artistic couple, and finally is left to his own devices when his helpers are arrested, or vanish. In his last desperate days he is briefly befriended by a German officer, who, in return for hearing him play (on a grand piano that happens very conveniently to be in the house the pianist has hidden in) brings him some food, and stops him from being discovered by the other officers.
The film is full of brutal moments, sudden and unexpected deaths, dreadful beatings, utter cruelty on behalf of the Germans, corpses and the awfulness of starvation. At times it’s barely watchable. It’s beautifully photographed (by Pawel Edelman), and superbly directed. The cast, a real mix of nationalities, is uniformly good. Adrien Brophy may play on his skinny face a little too much, but he conveys well the despair of an artist, a man who would much sooner get on an play the piano than anything else.
It seems an odd choice for Roman Polanski to direct, though his own background is reflected in some of the events in the movie. I can’t say it’s a movie I’d like to see again: it’s too long, and in that curious way that audiences have of losing empathy with screen characters, we get a little tired of the lengthy stretch of time after Brody is forced to live on his own.
One curious thing about the movie is why an actor, Thomas Kretschmann, who doesn’t appear until something like the last quarter an hour of a 150 minute movie, gets second billing.

Rare coins

One of my brothers-in-law is a collector, even more so now that he’s less mobile. He has DVDs, CDs, miniature clocks, cameras, various other things - and the cutest little dog on the earth. (He acts like a fur collar when he lies on the windowsill behind your head - the dog, I mean, not my brother-in-law.)
Collecting must be a kind of natural facet of our natures: the number of human beings who collect things must be well into the millions, if not billions. I’ve had the collecting bug myself at times, from that old standby, stamp collecting, to the books of various authors (we have all the Dick Francis books, for instance). I find that after a while I get a bit obsessive about collecting, and have to pull back from it before I go crazy - or other members of my family do!
There was a bit of a crazy moment in New Zealand a while ago when it was discovered that a particular coin that might be in the possession of any and every member of the public was actually quite rare. Of course when I looked I didn’t have any of the coins, but I’ve often passed shops that advertise themselves as coin dealers and wondered about what coins are worth collecting and what are not. Like the stamp dealer, a coin dealer has to have a world of information at his fingertips. He can’t just focus on particular areas of coin collecting: he has to be a jack of all trades.
A true coin collector should focus on quality, not quantity. Chasing the elusive rare coin, and being patient until you can acquire it, is better than collecting everything in sight. Having a bit of money up your sleeve in the first place helps too!