Monday, December 05, 2011

Movie Review: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1987) [D: Leonard Nimoy. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, etc, and Catherine Hicks] A mysterious and utterly alien ship enters Federation space, and causes havoc. It’s sending signals that sound like whale songs, but whales are extinct, so none can answer the call. So Kirk and crew create a time warp and go to San Francisco ca. 1980 in order to get a couple of whales. This is the most charming of the Star Trek movies, working on every level. Worth watching even in 4:3 aspect. ;-) ***-½

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Review: Dark Age Ahead (Jane Jacobs)

Jacobs, Jane Dark Age Ahead (2004) This is a gloomy book, yet reading it was not as depressing as the title its contents might suggest. Jacobs’ style is so clear, she can compress so much meaning into a small space, that the sheer pleasure of reading the book may seduce one into overlooking the catastrophic implications of her analysis.
     Note the date of the book. In her analysis of suburbia and the suburban housing bubble, she’s predicted the financial collapse of 2008/9 and its consequences. She’s predicted what became the Ford Nation in Toronto, and Ford’s antics follow precisely the script she wrote for those who believe that the car is the be-all and end-all of personal transport. Awesome.
     Yet if she is right about the cultural amnesia that is afflicting us, a Dark Age will happen. The only question is how dark it will be: Will the rising power of China and other non-Western nations off-set and compensate for the decline of the West? Perhaps. But even so, the West faces at least a couple of generations of political, social, and economic decline. As in past dark ages, there will be small (and short-lived) flares of light in the darkness. Cold comfort, that. ****
     Postscript: Here’s a link to a NYT op-ed piece about how the suburbs created by and catering to cars are dying out, and are already being bulldozed:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/26/opinion/the-death-of-the-fringe-suburb.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha212.
     At first glance, the GTA doesn’t seem to have gotten the message, though: the growth of an exurban ring of dormitory developments consisting of single family homes continues unabated. Why? Because you get about twice as much house per dollar there than in the older suburbs, those that are now part of Toronto, such as the Danforth-Woodbine Avenue area, the ones served by the original subway lines. These homes sell at a premium in part because the corner store thrives in these neighbourhoods, a varied shopping experience is available within a 20 minute walk or less, as are restaurants, libraries, parks and schools, and most of all because the nearest subway stop is no more than 15 minutes away on foot. That’s close enough to qualify for “steps away” in the real estate ads.
     So Jacobs’ point, that people prefer neighbourhoods that provide for most of their needs within walking distance, is already borne out by the GTA real estate market, and proven with a vengeance in those US cities where malls are being bulldozed to make way for medium- to high-density housing. The new suburbs north of Toronto are viable only because people calculate that the lower mortgage costs will pay for the necessary car(s). They’re wrong, of course, because they assume they would own a car if they lived closer to the centre of the city, and that transit will never compete with the car. That’s not likely: as fuel and other costs of ownership rise, funding transit will become a political necessity. ***-1/2

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Book Review: The Daughters of Cain

Dexter, Colin The Daughters of Cain (1994) Morse and Lewis are brought in on Dr Felix McClure’s murder because Det. Insp. Phillotson’s wife is dying. Many twists and turns later, two murderers have been brought to justice of a sort, and we have gained some insight into the darker recesses of the human heart, and into the occasional flashes of charity that illuminate the darkness
    The Daughters of Cain are three women who ensure that a vicious wife abuser, who is also McClure’s murderer, gets his just desserts. His wife, who killed him, will get a few years in prison. Her daughter, who was designed to be the apparent murderer, but with insufficient proof to convict, may be done as accessory. The mistress-mind who planned the diversionary tactics that almost defeat Morse will die of a brain tumor before any trial could take place. Justice has been done, but neither Morse nor the reader can be wholly satisfied, merely sad that so much pain and cruelty had to be inflicted to achieve that end.
    This is one of Dexter’s more subtle books, despite his annoying habit of signalling future events: the “little did he know...” ploy of creating narrative tension has never appealed to me. Dexter also likes sleaze a little too much, I think; or else his readers do, for he serves up a lot of it. Morse’s streaks of cruelty show up more strongly in print than on the screen. I prefer the videos: the characters are more complex, the sleaze is balanced with scenes of ordinary life (such as drinks in pleasant pubs), and Lewis less of devoted dog. **-½

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Politics : Ontario Election

    The election has exacerbated the regional differences: The Progressive Conservatives have become a primarily rural party, and the Liberals an urban one. The NDP is somewhat mixed: it's an urban and Northern party. Unfortunately, all three parties are fixated on money, as if it were some kind of real stuff. Money is merely a means to an end. It's a method of tracking trade, and that's all. It's IOUs: and like IOUs money is utterly useless until cashed in.
     The result of this strange fixation on money is that far too many people are more worried about not having enough money than about having enough food, water, housing, transportation, and so on. And the guardians of money hang onto the IOUs, thus preventiung people from honouring them. The result is insufficient work being performed, even though they are many, many people who want to work, and many, many people who want to enjoy the benefits of that work.
    It's crazy.

Monday, September 19, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey (Review)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Classic film, a creation myth. Based on Arthur C Clarke's short story "Rendezvous with Rama", and the book. Answers the question How did we become human? Clarke tended towards mysticism, see his Childhood’s End for an earlier treatment of the theme. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Keir Dullea.
     I first saw this movie in the triple-screen version, with 16 or 32 speakers, which immersed you in the experience as no other movie technology has done. It enabled multiple images, the kind of layered visual experience that the web has made commonplace. The movie just doesn’t have the same impact in Cinerama,  especially on a TV screen. Howeve, the result of the smaller screen and only two speakers was a new insight: this is a movie about technology. The tension comes from the fact that Dave and Frank have to solve an engineering problem. Dave and Frank focus on the engineering challenge, suppressing whatever impulses to panic are roiling beneath their carefully calm surfaces. Impressive. It’s rare that problem solving in itself generates such anxiety.
     HAL-9000's misbehaviour endangers their lives, but its (his?) assessment of the mission is valid: something strange will happen near Jupiter. Just how strange is still a subject of debate: what does the light show signify? It’s some sort of journey by Dave, but he’s not in control, and whoever or whatever is taking him isn’t saying what or where. The scenes in the bedroom (decorated as a French palace) don’t answer any questions; and the appearance of the star child doesn’t help resolve the questions either. Some sort fo rebirth is about to happen. Did Clarke and Kubrick envisage a sequel? There is one, 2010, which we’ll watch fairly soon.
     I think Clarke didn’t understand evolution correctly, or else wilfully forgot what he knew about it. This story, like Childhood’s End, implies some directing intelligence. Star people have some sort of soft spot for Earth and its life forms, and take a hand in directing their development. Clarke wants to believe that we humans are special after all, that our technical inventiveness denotes progress, and above all that scientific adbvances are a form of progress. It is, in a small way; but since our moral and intellectual development lags behind our technical skills, it is dangerous progress.
     One of the most impressive things about the movie is that all the visual tricks and illusions were achieved without computer graphics. Still, I give it ***

Conrad Black in Gregg & Company (TVO)

Conrad Black on Alan Gregg (TVO, 18 September 2011)

     Last night (17 September 2011) I watched Alan Gregg's interview with Conrad Black. It was recorded some time before Black returned to prison. It left me with mixed impressions. There is no question that Black is a very intelligent man, and accustomed to deference. He interrupted Gregg several times, which Gregg tolerated with good grace. Watching such a program, we have to remember that it is edited: which camera angles to show is decided after the taping, the display of facial expressions is the director's decision, and we don't see or hear a continuous, uninterrupted flow of conversation, because the interview has to fit into the 30 minute time frame. On the other hand, it is impossible to fake the connection between interviewee and guest that is Gregg's strength. This time, Gregg seemed to be more on his guard than Black.
    Clearly, Black is still outraged at what was done to him. He blames both the "prosecutorial culture" of the US justice system and the "corporate governance zealots" for his woes, apparently convinced that in Canada or Britain there would have either been no charges brought against him, or else he would have been acquitted. He refuses to accept any guilt or culpability for actions that many people could and did consider as unethical at least, and possibly criminal at worst. He knows that many other people don't accept his principles, but he's convinced they're wrong and he's right. This kind of moral and ethical absolutism is either disingenuous, or else Black has not yet achieved the level of humility that he claimed at the end of the interview, when Gregg asked him how his experiences have changed him. On the other hand, I believe Black when he says he had been unaware of how what he calls "sociological conditions" result in injustice. He seems to have made a good impression on his fellow inmates, 36 of whom took the trouble to write letters of support when he appealed his sentence. Whether his insights into how poverty is a systemic effect of mercantile capitalism will prompt him to advocate for economic or political changes remains to be seen.
     There is a good deal of truth to Black's observations about how the US justice system is focussed on convictions. Prosecutors are for the most part elected. Incumbents run on their record of successful convictions, and challengers win by promising to be even harsher. The result is an incarceration rate six to fourteen times that of any developed country. As Black points out, it is unlikely that Americans are six to fourteen times more inclined to crime than other people. But it's a bit of a jump from that to agreeing that Black's own case is one of wrongful conviction.
     Black's expressions were interesting. When he listened to a question, he showed a stony and somewhat hostile face: he seemed to be assessing whether the question was a trap, or whether he could safely answer its substance. When answering, his face was more mobile, but he never showed the kind of spontaneous enthusiasm that many of Gregg's guests have shown when they talked of principles they upheld. The only time I thought I saw genuine emotion was when Black referred to the graduates of the GED program in which he tutored fellow inmates in English. He seemed to be embarrassed that he was moved by the event, and his high praise for how the Florida Bureau of Prisons handled it seemed to me to be an attempt to hide his emotions. By praising them, he could distance himself from what he himself felt as he witnessed it.
     That's when, on reflection, I realised that Black is a very private person. His vocabulary is abstract, his sentences well formed, often with multiple dependencies, and when he referred to himself, the tone was as dryly factual as he could make it. Even his outrage was couched in terms of an abstract attack on the US justice system, and an expression of hope that others, who might not have the resources he had, would find his account of use. It's as if he were thinking about himself in the third person, with only the exigencies of English grammar requiring him to use "I".
     Overall, the interview seemed to me a carefully constructed performance. Black is a skilled actor. I doubt he would do someone else's script as well as he does his own, however.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Math: Pyramids, Prisms, and Infinity

   I like math, because you can formulate questions that you know can be answered, even if you haven't always enough knowledge to answer them yourself.
   For example:  Take a tetrahedron, a pyramid of three triangles on a triangular base. If all four triangles are the same, then it's a regular tetrahedron, the smallest of the five regular solids. Like the other solids, you can, within limits, change the proportions of its faces in some way. You can increase the height of the triangles that make up the sides of the pyramid. How much? As much as you like.
   Now here’s the question: What happens when the height is infinite? Well, that depends on how you define “infinite” in this context. If by “infinite height” you mean “without limit”, then the tetrahedron becomes a pyramid of infinite height. As the height of the triangular sides increases, the pyramid becomes more and more like a prism of triangular cross-section. That is, the edges become closer and closer to being parallel. We can say that the difference between three edges that converge on a point (the apex of the pyramid) and three edges that are parallel becomes smaller and smaller. This difference approaches zero. “At the limit” it is zero: then the pyramid has become a triangular prism.
   Does it make sense to talk about a limit here, when we are talking about a pyramid of infinite height? Yes, on the same grounds that the differential calculus uses the concept of a limit. But this question, and its answer, are beyond my ability to explicate or justify. The best I can do is to notice that stretching the pyramid towards an infinite height is the same as rotating each edge about a point (the corner) so that they become parallel.  So the pyramid “eventually” morphs into a prism. That “eventually” is “at the limit”, when the difference between converging and parallel edges has become zero. It corresponds to a pyramid of infinite height. This implies that prisms as we conceive of them (of finite height)  are sections of infinitely high pyramids.
   I don’t know whether the above line of thought is mathematically acceptable. Maybe I’m mixing two branches of math illegitimately. But it feels right. So I’ll state my conclusion as a theorem:
   “A finite prism of N sides is a section of an infinitely high pyramid of N sides.”

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Fred Moves

After much badgering and whinging, Fred has got his way: he's moved to the book case, so he can view not only the living room but also something of the outside world. For the moment, he's content. How long this odd state will last is anyone's guess. Even Fred doesn't know.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Two Movies

I like movies, and sometimes watch one twice or even three times. Here's two we watched in March of this year.

   High Noon (1952) [D: Fred Zinneman. Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly] This is one of the classics that holds up. If anything, it gets better every time I see it. Simple story of a sheriff who decides on his wedding day that he has to finish a job he started when he arrested a killer, who has been released, and is coming back for revenge. The one man who is willing to help pulls out when he finds out he’s the only one. The townsfolk back off from risking their lives, unwilling to accept that the killer and his cronies will destroy the town if they win. Cooper wins of course, and rides off with his bride, no doubt happy to leave the town to stew in its cowardice.
   The movie’s a fable, but it’s an unobtrusive one. The pace, the beautifully composed shots, the wonderful tonality of the black and white film, the use of natural sound, the haunting theme music, the conceit of making the movie exactly as long as the sheriff’s job, the desolation surrounding the town, the well-realised characters, all these combine to tell an astonishingly believable story. I’ve seen this movie at least three times that I can recall; I do not tire of it. ****

   The American President (1995) [D: Rob Reiner. Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Michael J. Fox, Martin Sheen.] A love fantasy set in the White House, where widowed president Andrew Shepherd woos lobbyist Sidney Ellen Wade, while dealing with a reelection campaign. The plot is convoluted enough that a short summary is impossible, but the main line is clear enough: Boy meets girl, boy and girl have an affair, boy almost loses girl, boy and girl wed and live happily ever after. Well acted, competently paced and photographed, with just enough cliches bent off-kilter to provide freshness: we enjoyed this movie. Romantic love always gets me. I want to believe that everybody can be happy. The political games are well handled, too, and while they avoid getting too deep into the dirt and stay well away from the dark side, they feel true enough to make us believe the threats to Andrew and Sidney’s happiness, and how they resolve the ethical questions surrounding their relationship. **-½

Friday, March 25, 2011

Politics 1

It's too bad: many of the people whom I chatted with recently think the election won't change anything. Some said they wouldn't vote. Then of course their opinion will be a self-fulfilling prohecy.

It seems the only time Canadians take politics seriously is election time. And even then, too many Canadfians have a cynical attitude. This cynicism is just right for any parrty that wants to hi-jack our government. All they need to do is ensure that all their supporters come out to vote, while stoking the cynicism of the people who are not of their party, knowing that the more cynicsim there is, the less likely it is that those others will vote.