Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Wait - the CIA are the good guys?

For unexplained contractual reasons, or possibly just a falling out with the studio, the 2010, Iraq-set film Green Zone isn't available from our DVD rental service, LoveFilm. And given the film's blink-and-you'll-miss-it scheduling at our local cinema, we, well, we missed it. Fortunately, however, it was brought back for a single screening this evening as part of a series of films on Iraq for a Film Studies course taught at the UoS. So, being fans of Paul Greengrass' earlier films, and not averse to a bit of frenetic Matt Damon action, we dutifully attended.

The film arrives alongside almost companion pieces in the shape of the 2010 Oscar-winner, The Hurt Locker, and the 2008 TV series, Generation Kill. All three take a soldier's-eye view of "Gulf War II", the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and its aftermath, though each brings quite a different perspective to the conflict. I wasn't all that impressed by The Hurt Locker because of its pretty incoherent narrative and rather over-egged (and uninteresting) "message", but I thought Generation Kill was excellent, with a uniformly great cast, and a world-weary, warts-and-all narrative. It also had some of the most amusingly inventive swearing and taunting I've heard in a while.

Green Zone departs significantly from both films. On the one hand it's a very conventional action film aimed squarely at the multiplex crowd. And on the other, its fast-paced narrative is woven through with an upfront, and pretty angry, political message about the purported rationale for the war. But, for me at least, the mix worked really well. Since it's a sub-2 hour film with a lot to say, every second of screentime counts, so it does suffer somewhat from a sort-of bluntness in which every scene (and character) has a point to rather obviously get across. Meanwhile, the action set pieces do get impenetrably murky at times, but in part that comes with the territory in confused, urban warfare. Needless to say, the "message" of the film, that Gulf War II was instigated on spurious grounds and has left Iraq in a precarious state, was entirely up my street. I never bought the bogus WMD fictions when they were originally rustled up, and as time has passed it's just become eye-rollingly amazing to me that anyone ever did. Anyway, while this does add a rather unusual didactic layer to an otherwise barn-storming action thriller, it made me seethe enjoyably at my political bugbears, and made the film pretty winning for me. Far from perfect, but a solid, and rare, piece of political entertainment.

Grade: A- (high +2 on the Leeper Scale)

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Another Year

They don't roll around very often, but Mike Leigh's films are usually well worth catching, so we were quite keen to finally snag his latest, Another Year. Framed by seasonal chapters as the events of a single ("another") year, the film is centred around a comfortable and happy middle-aged couple, played by Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, around whom a bustle of family and friends congregate. The film's drama can largely be summarised as the contrast between this stable, central pair, and the generally lonely, desperate or miserable lives of those around them. The portrayals of these orbiting characters does make the film a bit difficult to watch at times, especially given how well-observed the details of their lives are. I think most people will recognise aspects of themselves or their friends in the characters or situations, and Leigh is quite unsparing in letting the viewer marinate in the misery. So while it's difficult to watch the film at times, it's also difficult not to admire the craft that's gone into it. Particularly the actors, who uniformly inhabit their characters flawlessly. And in painting a portrait of middle-aged isolation, Leigh makes us reflect on how this chapter of life can be poorly served by modern society. I'm glad I've got that to look forwards to!

Grade: B (+2 on the Leeper Scale)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Wordle vs. MEDUSA-1.0

Which words did I need most when describing MEDUSA?

Wordle: MEDUSA-1.0

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

I've got Iranians!

I've got Iranians! by Dr Yool
I've got Iranians!, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.

While I've certainly got a pretty solid crop of Americans over at my blog (thanks AMG!), I appear to have acquired some Iranians as well. Hurrah! Though I guess this must mean that the Islamic Republic isn't finding anything worth blocking out here ...

Nonetheless, welcome my Iranian friends to Strange News From The Plankton. I hope that you enjoy your visit to my humble blog.

In other news, it's disappointing that Firefox isn't topping the browser list these days, but at least those pesky Macs are being held at bay! ;-)

Monday, 16 May 2011

Angelic science fiction

As alluded to previously, birthday/Christmas 2010 yielded me a new Alastair Reynolds novel. In what's becoming quite common for Reynolds now, Terminal World is another set outside of his Revelation Space series, and another that creates and fills its own universe. So, what's the universe like this time?

Quillon, a doctor working in a morgue in the last human city Spearpoint, is an angel. Or, rather, he was an angel. Sent in disguise by his fellow angels from the towering, high-tech heights of Spearpoint to its lower, and low-tech, levels, he was tasked with infiltrating the humans there to act as a spy. Rebelling against his angelic masters, he was forced to disappear into the society he was sent to undermine, making a living as a coroner known for strangeness, but with an interest in the occasional angel corpses that fall from above. The delivery of one such body to Quillon, one who is less dead than he first appears, reveals that the angels above have not forgotten about him, and forces Quillon to break his cover and escape from Spearpoint. Through shady contacts made during his time in the lower levels, Quillon is paired with the business-like Meroka who acts as his guide and protector as they descend through the zones of Spearpoint and head for the surrounding territory.

But the adventures of Quillon and Merkoa don't end once they have escaped Spearpoint and the attention of the angelic Ghouls sent to kill them. Instead, in the badlands that ring the city, where technology mysteriously no longer functions, they encounter Skullboys, members of a violent and terrorising gang, Vorgs, organic cyborgs with an interest in human brains, and the Swarm, a flotilla of airships that once served as Spearpoint's military. They also encounter a persecuted mother and child, Kalis and Nimcha, who both seemingly bear the mark of the Tectomancer. This mark purportedly grants the bearer supernatural powers, and instils fear and suspicion in the inhabitants of the badlands. Quillon is more skeptical, but his attention is drawn when Nimcha saves their lives using inexplicable means.

Meanwhile, back at Spearpoint, a shift in the zones that shape the technological landscape causes disaster. Now captured/rescued by the Swarm, Quillon persuades Ricasso, their dilettante commander, to mount a rescue mission to deliver much-needed supplies. But Quillon also believes, and Ricasso concurs, that Nimcha's powers hint at connections between so-called Tectomancy, Spearpoint and the byzantine technological zones that divide their world. The return journey involves intrigue aboard the airship flotilla, tantalising hints about the history of earlier, high-tech societies, and a full Skullboy onslaught. And the troubles continue on arrival, with treacherous gangsters now running Spearpoint, Ghouls still on the lookout for Quillon, and unexpected revelations in the deep core of the city.

To answer my opening question, this universe is pretty cool. As Reynolds has shown again and again and again, he has no trouble conjuring up original and distinctive visions of alternative futures. His creation of Spearpoint is no exception, and he does a pretty masterful job of keeping it largely under wraps and only slowly letting the reader find out what's really going on. To the extent that, at first, it reads a little more like a baroque fantasy novel, with the Angels standing in for the elves, and the Skullboys filling in the role of Orcs. Until the revelation count picks up in the latter third, only the occurrence of high-tech weapons, and the appearance of the distinctively science fiction Vorgs, reminds the reader that physics rather than flimsy mythology underlies Reynolds' world.

In passing, but on the subject of Reynolds' deft hiding of details, it's only now that I've had a look at the novel's Wikipedia article that the penny's finally dropped about the actual location of the novel. There are hints throughout (where are the oceans?), but I never thought deeply enough about them to realise that Reynolds was pulling an impressive fast one with the setting. He leaves rather clever clues dotted through the novel, but I don't think that it ever once breaks cover and baldly makes the point (though, obviously, I'll be pretty embarrassed if it actually does and I just missed it). My cap is most definitely doffed.

Leaving aside Reynolds' new world, how does the rest of the novel stack up? Overall: pretty well. But much as with his last novel, House of Suns, Reynolds starts well, finishes very impressively, but rather sags in the middle. Annoyingly, he does so for very similar reasons too - an extended, and largely tangential digression, into dull detail and characters. While the Swarm are definitely an interesting invention, and come off somewhere between the RAF and an honourable band of good-natured pirates, the delving into their internal politics is almost completely beside the point. Paradoxically, it's also where Reynolds somewhat pushes fast-forward on the revelations, but he does so by introducing Ricasso, and allowing him to converse at length with Quillon on the nature of their world.

Reynolds repeats his pattern of an exponential flux of revelations near the end of the novel, also from House of Suns. In only a few short pages, the reader is shown a great deal of what underpins Spearpoint, although Reynolds still (pleasingly) leaves tantalising loose ends. This is a getting to be a bit of a habit for Reynolds' non-Revelation Space novels, but it's one that I quite like. The alternative, where the novelist lays all of the cards on the table by the end, affords some immediate satisfaction, but leaves the cupboard uncomfortably (and, arguably, unrealistically) bare of mystery. Reynolds' approach also leaves a good deal of breathing space should he ever need to clamber onto the sequel train, but thus far (and creditably) he's resisted the temptation (except, obviously, with Revelation Space). That said, I'm sure that some readers will be put out by what are really quite significant unresolved threads.

Overall, a very enjoyable addition to his canon. Clearly not without its flaws, but they occur in the middle portion of the novel, so are largely forgotten by the end, and aren't exactly terrible either. Just unnecessarily long-winded and beside-the-point (IMHO). So, once again, I'll definitely be waiting for his next novel. And will be wondering what sort of world he'll be creating next.

Dawn to dusk

NOC Tower 2011-05-13 a video by Dr Yool on Flickr.

More webcam action, this time a full 18 hours from sunrise (4am) through to sunset (10pm). Again, I averaged the frames down a bit (10 seconds to 1 minute), and the result is a little smoother. If only I had a better office view though!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Minstead hike

DSC004752011-05-15 Minstead walkDSC00476DSC00477DSC00480DSC00482

Minstead hike, a set on Flickr.

A nice 10 km hike through the "village" of Minstead and the surrounding portions of the New Forest. The forest portions were, thankfully, largely that - forest - rather than the blasted heath that often passes for the New Forest, and the weather was with us more than on our recent jaunt to nearby Fritham.

As the map shows, my attempt to pre-program the walk into my GPS was somewhat hamstrung by changes in the layout of the forest that don't appear in the OS maps that I have. Not enough to get us lost this time. Google also seems to have some mismatch that shifts its satellite mapping a few 10s of metres eastwards.

P.S. Further to the above, and thanks to G, I've uploaded the GPS information from our walk into GoogleMaps and created the little map below ...

View Minstead walk in a larger map

Friday, 13 May 2011

Fun with Matlab

Frame smoothing in MATLAB a video by Dr Yool on Flickr.

As my office computer comes with both a webcam (see last post) *and* Matlab, I've been able to have a little fun processing the output of the former as an input to the latter. Here's a simple example to test what frame averaging does. Not done very cleverly here, but it was really easy to do and opens the door to smarter schemes. Or endless photographic navel-gazing, of course.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Desert Island Scandal

Scandalised. That's the only word for it. Via a complicated chain of contacts, I read an e-mail today that's shaken my faith in Radio 4 to the core. Responding to a reference to Desert Island Discs, C was informed, I kid you not, that ...
Ah well, my [redacted]'s friend was on a couple of weeks ago ([redacted]), and was telling my [redacted] that you initially choose 20 records - but the final choice is made by the programmers, not you. When it comes to recording, you are essentially given a 'script' just before hand - so it may be that significance you placed on one record, which doesn't make the final cut, may then be given to another of your choices...
I ask you, is nothing sacred? Sure, I figured that the programme makers might advise against certain pieces of music on grounds of duration or decency (jazz springs to mind on both counts). And, obviously, they'd edit guests down to slip neatly into the 45 minute slot. But to so comprehensively vet musical selections, and to carefully craft a faux interview? It's unconscionable is what it is. I'm not sure that I'll ever be able to listen to the programme in quite the same way ever again.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Office time lapse

2011-05-04 office plant test a video by Dr Yool on Flickr.

My new work computer came with a webcam so, needless to say, the first task I put it to was time lapse. Here's a dawn to dusk movie of my office plant, with a bit of a view out my window. Not the most riveting cinema, but it's just a start.


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MEDUSA-1.0, a set on Flickr.

A long-standing, and much-delayed, monster has finally been birthed. Most likely to a disinterested world.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

An increase in skill?

Another return to the high-octane-low-brow science fiction of Neal Asher. But there are a few slightly unusual angles to this 2008 novel, Shadow of the Scorpion.

Split between childhood memories and his first significant mission for the Polity, the novel is once more centred around Ian Cormac, Asher's favoured (and augmented) ECS operative / hero. In the present, Cormac is sent to a world ruined during the Prador War. There, the Prador remain a threat, but a significantly smaller one than that posed by Cormac's fellow humans. In the past, Cormac's recalled memories hark back to his childhood during the Prador War. They are united by the occurrence of a forbidding scorpion-shaped AI with more than a passing interest in Cormac. But as Cormac's latter day mission spools out, the AI reappears in his life, offering both assistance and closure to issues from his deep past.

I say "unusual" above because, while still holding to Asher's trademark fast-paced and violent conventions, this novel is rather more literary than usual. The present and past sections are interlaced with some skill, and are wrapped around a central mystery that's far more human than anything Asher's tried before. Ordinarily, I'd expect his slippery telling to obscure some super-weapon or some dull, if plot-relevant, secret. But, no, it's actually quite interesting for once. And the scorpion, the drone Amistad, is given motivations that extend far beyond use as a powerful and intelligent weapon.

All that said, this is still not Iain M. Banks (cf. his memory-based classic), and Asher's writing and characters are still largely in service to an action-filled plot. For one, the timing and content of Cormac's recollections are more straightforwardly in service of driving the mystery than a more skilled writer might have used them for. And I might just be overemphasising its better elements because it ends on them, but it is pleasing to read something in which Asher has invested a little more thought. Maybe he still has tricks up his sleeve after all?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Any Human Heart

Although it was on television a quite few months ago now, we've only just gotten around to watching the Channel 4 adaptation of William Boyd's 2002 novel Any Human Heart. While the novel was displaced from my top ten by Boyd's earlier (and more biologist-friendly) novel Brazzaville Beach, it really shouldn't have been. While not without it's flaws, the novel is a wonderfully told, enjoyable, humane and, at times, sad journey through the event-filled decades of the 20th century, as filtered through the shifting perspective of far-from-everyman Logan Mountstuart.

Anyway, the television adaptation, while also enjoyable and perfectly acceptable, provides a great illustration of the difference between what works in literature and what works on the screen. Particularly so since the novel was adapted by no less than Boyd himself, and it's hard to imagine a more considerate treatment to its pages. Further, it's also been allowed the luxury of spreading out across more than four and a half hours (= six hours subtract adverts).

The most obvious departure is that the novel's narrative structure, essentially a long succession of diary entries written by the steadily changing character of Mountstuart across the span of his life, evaporates into merely a long chain of events. Inevitable really, given the translation to a visual medium, but in doing so Mountstuart becomes less a fleshed-out character and more an alternative Zelig, with walk-on parts throughout 20th century history. Oddly, I'd argue that it still works, but more as a separate dramatic work than an adaptation.

Another departure is that, even with its extended runtime, the television series is forced to significantly abridge the novel. This has left quite a few interesting portions on the cutting room floor, but even then the portions that survive are heavily abbreviated. Not so much, or so significantly, in plot, but more in character. Mountstuart's friends, lovers and rivals, all living, breathing characters in the novel, are reduced here to brief appearances that lose much of what made the novel significant (at least to me). Almost to the extent that the critical departures of Mountstuart's second wife, Freya, and of his son, Lionel, lose almost all of their impact. Boyd does what he can to make these losses appear powerful on-screen, but there's only so much that he can do.

Anyway, as someone used to disappointment in the translation of favoured works to the screen, this is very far from disappointing. I think that Boyd has done as good a job as he could, but has wound up with something quite different to his original literary effort. It's certainly engaging enough that I'll bet it turns many people onto the novel, and that's no bad thing. In fact, should I ever diminish the vast stack of birthday/Christmas tomes, I might be one of them.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Fritham walk

2011-05-02 Fritham walk by Dr Yool
2011-05-02 Fritham walk, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.

A good solid hike from Fritham in the New Forest. The diagonal section along the top of the map was a bit blasted though - shorts didn't seem such a good idea at that point.

"Mission accomplished"?

Wow. The US finally got Osama bin Laden. Given his silence the last few years (he doesn't call, he doesn't write), I figured that he was already dead. Apparently not, though certainly now. So, Obama achieves what Bush could not ... though I'm sure the chain of events that led here stretches back years.

Can't say that I've ever thought that this long-awaited event changes a whole lot though. It's symbolically significant, of course, but it's not quite like he was a formal "leader" of Al-Qaeda - that organisation (such as it is) is more like a franchise than a centralised hierarchy. This will hurt them a bit, but it's probably more of a PR hit than anything else. And it's not beyond them to spin it into a new round of recruitment I suspect.

Anyway, all that said, it's probably net-good. Al-Qaeda have nothing to offer the modern world, so the sooner they're dispersed, the better. But there's no point in achieving this while failing to address the underlying issues that might drive successor organisations.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Strider Juno


Strider Juno, a set on Flickr.

Another delve into the Yool family archive. This time from our extended 1983 trip around the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean on the container vessel Strider Juno