Saturday, March 29, 2014

Moses (1975)

     Moses (1975) [D: Gianfranco de Bosio. Burt Lancaster, Anthony Quayle, Ingrid Thulin et al.] A spaghetti Bible epic, and not very well made. Lousy visual continuity, and nothing remotely resembling a coherent script. Anthony Burgess is credited with writing the script, but so are de Bosie (the director) and Vittorio Bonicelli, whoever he is. A mess. There are glimpses of the human story within the Moses story (and there are plenty of hints of that in Exodus, I think), but there’s no coherent vision. De Bosio obviously thought he could do a better job than Burgess. He was wrong.
     There are five or six sequences worth a look, about the Pharaoh on the one hand (he’s a complex character), and about Moses relationship to his god on the other (a prickly one). Both characters are (intermittently) presented as beset by doubts and wearied by the burdens of leadership. Both feel the conflict between their public roles and their private lives. From what I know of Burgess’s writing, I’m sure these are the remnants of his script.
     The movie holds some interest to any student of Bible-based movies, but I don’t recommend it to anybody who wants to understand the power of the epic recounted on Exodus, an epic that gains mythic power precisely because we can see in it the human struggle for freedom, from oppressive tyranny, from oppressive human law, and from oppressive superstition. Still less do I recommend it to a believer who wants to see a plausible interpretation of the Bible story. The script doctors for one reason or another did not take Exodus on its own terms.  Bomb
   Update: I discovered that this movie was edited down from a 6-hour TV series, so no wonder it\s a disjointed mess. But that information doesn't explain for the bad writing.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Silence at the Heart of Things (2009)

Silence at the Heart of Things (2009) [Documentary by E. Thalenberg, by Stormy Nights Productions]
     Oliver Schroer died in 2008, one month after his last concert, which he devised and performed while waiting for his death from cancer. I knew nothing about this remarkable man until we saw the last few minutes of this film last summer on TVO. This time, we saw the whole movie. As a documentary, it’s very well done, intercutting archival footage, interviews, and the concert. The filmmakers have a good sense of how to stitch together the bits and pieces of other people’s relationships with Schroer and his own words (and music) to give us a portrait of a great human being.
     And it’s that human being, Oliver Schroer, that stays with us. He touched many lives, I think because he never hid himself from other people, he didn’t put on the masks that most of us use to protect ourselves from intimate contact. He understood that music is more than entertainment, it’s a means of creating community, and a path into one’s self.
     At one point he talks about music as a sacrament. Yes, it can be, and Schroer shows us why. Listening to his long flowing explorations of melodic lines, I felt that the music was familiar, that it took me to places that I recognised, but could not reach any other way. Susanne Langer in her Philosophy in a New Key (1942) quotes a musician: Music sounds the way feelings feel. Yes, and music can reveal ways of feeling that we didn’t know we were capable of. Feelings are the essence of what we think of as our personal experience; they make the world we live in. Schroer says that music grows out of the silence at the heart of things. His gift was to share his music so that we can follow him into that silence, where grief and joy are reconciled.
     You can find several videos on YouTube and Vimeo. ****

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Stalking Moon (1968)

     The Stalking Moon (1968) [D: Robert Mulligan. Gregory Peck, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Forster] Army scout Sam Varner quits to work his ranch in New Mexico. On the last raid, Sarah Carver, a white woman who was kidnapped by Salvaje, an Apache warrior, is rescued with her half-Apache son. She wants to get away as fast as possible, as she knows he will come after her. Sam doesn’t want to be burdened with her, but agrees to take her to Silverton to catch the train, then offers her a job as cook on his ranch. Salvaje is a vicious killer, who wants his son back, and also wants to punish all those who in any way involved in Sarah’s escape. At least eight bystanders are murdered by him. Sam wins the showdown, of course. The final shot shows Sarah helping him into the ranch-house.
     A well done Hollywood bread-and-butter Western, the kind that provided a steady income for the studios, and later became a staple of 1950s and 1960s TV. There’s very little dialogue, which means the story has to be carried by the photography and the acting. Gregory Peck is one of those actors who can convey much with his face. It’s not just an eyebrow twitch or a narrowing of the eyes, the whole face changes. Eva Marie Saint is almost as good.
      The movie is engaging while you watch it, although a modern audience knows too much to accept all the twists in the plot. Sam is too eager to leave the ranch and go after Salvaje, a tactical mistake that costs his two friends their lives. There are touches of humour, for example in Sam’s attempt to get Sarah and the boy to make small talk during meals. The ethos and dangers of the West are nicely represented. The movie’s look and characterisations are heavily influenced by the “adult Westerns” of the 60s. Sam is not a superhero, he nearly dies in the last fight. The stage coach post is a grungy looking assemblage of poles and adobe that somehow manages to be a corral and an inn. There is more than a hint that any encounter with a stranger could be lethal. And so on. But it’s still an old-fashioned Western in storyline: the hero, strong and taciturn, is a perfect gentleman with the ladies. Salvaje represents the wild and untamed society that was being replaced by order and lawfulness, often by brutal means. The violence is necessary, even when it’s regrettable.
      For the fan of Westerns, a good couple of hours, for the movie fan, a nice example of how movies used to be made. **½

Thursday, March 20, 2014


     Last August I listened to a radio piece about Albanian feuds, which supposedly are “all about honour”. The presenter tells the story about a feud that was re-ignited when a couple of guys were drinking in a bar, and one made a remark about a feud that went back several centuries. An argument ensued, escalated, and the other guy shot him dead. This reactivated the feud, and more people killed each other.
     Which raises the question,  what’s “honour”? The word refers to different things in different societies, I mean, we generally don’t think our honour is seriously compromised when someone makes a mildly offensive remark in a bar. Here in Canada, we may even think that the person making the remark has compromised his honour, not ours, because he’s shown himself to be a boor. We also don’t have the same kind of extreme clan or family feeling that Albanians have, so a remark about dead family members usually wouldn’t bother us much if at all. But other subjects might very well rouse us to attack.
     Honour is person’s sense of his reputation. Reputation is a large part of one’s self image. It’s related to our sense of shame. We not only want to think well of ourselves, we want others to think well of us, too. “Honour” is our perception of other people’s perception of us. Shame is the feeling that comes from believing others think badly of us.
     In short, my honour is what I think my reputation is. It is always and inevitably at least partly an illusion. It is not  knowledge of our reputation, because we can't actually know our reputation. We may get some sense of what our reputation really is, but what people tell us about ourselves is usually more or less complimentary, so the dark side is missing.
     So what’s going on in a culture in which even slight injuries to one’s honour can prompt lethal rage? I think that in societies that overvalue honour, there is a tacit conspiracy to avoid telling anyone what you really think of him. The reason is paradoxically simple: by doing so you damage his “honour”. Weird, no?
     It’s even worse when honour is linked to someone else’s behaviour. Then the opinion of a person’s family becomes tangled with his reputation. “Family” can and often does extend many generations into the past. But the terrible consequence of this version of honour is that to maintain your own honour you must somehow control your family members’ behaviour. Thus so-called honour-killings and other abominations. It’s really bad when this twisted sense of honour is codified in law and custom. Then the whole community can and will do the most evil things to each other, all in the name of honour.
     However, a sense of honour can make us behave well. When we say a person acts honourably, we mean that he or she is living up to their good reputation, especially when that’s done at some cost to oneself. In the limited reference to one’s desire to maintain a good personal reputation, “honour” promotes everything from courtesy to honesty. It helps you to control your behaviour it helps you to act more morally and ethically than you would might otherwise act. It’s when reputation becomes linked to things over which one cannot have control that “honour” becomes evil.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Another show at the Algoma Art Gallery

     Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s Why the Caged Bird Sings (to April 26th, 2014) is one of those shows whose significance and import the artist thinks has to be explained. I don’t like that; I think the artist should trust the viewer to make sense of what’s presented. L’Hirondelle is song-writer, which may account for her reliance on words. There’s a large poster with lots of words at the beginning of the installation.  I wish I hadn’t read them. If you intend to visit this show, don’t read the rest of this review.
     A number of iPads connected to telephone handsets are mounted around the room. You listen to people videoed listening to First Nations music  on a public payphone. Apparently, the intention is to help us empathise with people in prison, who communicate with their loved ones mostly by phone. In this limited sense, the works are successful, but the whole thing feels more like an “educational experience” than a work of art. It’s not that art doesn’t educate, but it does so by surprising us with new emotions, and insights. It teaches us to experience our world in ways we never imagined. This installation attempts to do that, but the maker focussed too much on the message and too little on the medium. If the explanation of the work’s intention had been withheld, I think working one’s way from one iPad to the next would have been far more involving. Our experience would have been driven by a mystery which we would have had to solve on our own. As it is, the explanation raises expectations that aren’t met, which is a too common effect of talking too much about one’s intentions. An interesting and thought-provoking show, but not engaging.
       L'Hirondelle's website here. She's made a lot of art and music. *½

Two shows at the Algoma Art Gallery

     1. Tom Benner is a graduate of Beal Tech in London Ontario, and it shows. There are strong hints of the London School, both in the materials and the contents of his art works, and in the blandly surrealistic contrasts of its subject matter. He likes assemblages of graphics and sculpture using a variety of materials. This show is labelled Call of the Wild (to May 31st, 2014). I especially liked his group of fibreglass African Asses, and his group of a large copper moon (about 8ft in diameter), a copper pine tree (about 8ft tall), and a small wolf. But every work is at least interesting.
     The overall effect is the artist’s obsessiveness on the one hand, and a paradoxical calm and quiet on the other. I mean, imagine building a copper sphere 8ft in diameter, or casting and painting 16 fibreglass beavers. Even apparently more conventional works contain evidence of Benner’s obsession with getting it right: there are three prints of pine trees accompanying the copper canoe, each print has a dozen or so small flying crows cut from black paper glued to them. I liked Benner’s work; it’s public art, in the sense that it would look best in large spaces such as high-rise building lobbies or atria, or even food courts in malls. Tom has a website. ***

     2. Gabriela Benitez (to May 25th 2014) likes to paint in the outdoors, not because she wants to make pictures of trees and rocks and water, but because she feels freer to lay down the paint in grand and eloquent gestures. The results are mixed. Most of the pieces on show here clearly have significance for the artist, but not necessarily for the viewer. She has a good colour sense. I liked a couple of canvases on which Benitez has layered paint and cloth and other materials in a palette of off whites, greys, and blues, with a glaze that adds shine and glitter, making vaguely figurative images. The others were interesting, but did not move me. Her website is here. **½

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Fantastic Planet (1973)

     The Fantastic Planet (1973) [D: Rene Laloux] Animated movie about the rebellion of the Oms (descendants of Earth space explorers) against the Draags (oversize blue-skinned, red-eyed humanoids). It drags. And the minimal animation in a style compounded of Hieronymus Bosch and semi-realism doesn’t help. This tape is apparently taken from an old print of the movie; the sound quality and colour are terrible. The movie was made in Czechoslovakia, hence the highly experimental style of animation and the themes of the story. It’s not at all fanciful to imagine the Oms as the Czechoslovaks, the Draags as the Soviets, and the domesticated Oms as the puppet rulers installed by the Soviets.
     Story: An Om baby is adopted as a pet by a Draag girl; he uses the teaching/study device to learn as much as he can about Oms, Draags, and the planet’s ecology. He’s tossed out of the park, and is rescued by a wild Om female. His knowledge of the Draags persuades the wild Oms to accept him. They kill a Draag, which prompts the Draags to attempt extermination of the Oms. However, the Oms figure out how to reactivate  a couple of rockets at an abandoned rocket base, and rebuild some weapons. The subsequent war threatens to destroy both Oms and Draags, so there is a last-minutes decision to make peace.
     This could have been a great movie. I think large parts of the movie/story are missing, it's incomplete. The fact that running time is only 73 minutes is one clue. The absence of character development is another, yet character is obviously a driving force: how else could the pet boy overcome the prejudices of the wild Om tribe? There are passages that are obviously meant to explain the backstory of both Oms and Draags, but there are neither logical nor psychological links to the main story line. To say the dialogue is stilted pays it a compliment.
     Recommended only for people who are interested in the history of SF and animated movies. The story is I think very much of its time and place, an aftershock of the Cold War (which would linger another couple of decades), and an example of the highly experimental cinema of the East Bloc. *

Gravity (2013)

     Gravity (2013) [D" Alfonso Cuaron. Sandra Bullock, George Clooney] If you’re stranded in space, you need a whole lot of luck to survive. And a movie designed for a movie theatre’s large screen and 16 speakers doesn’t work very well on a TV screen.
     The story is well enough told, with very few obviously impossible or implausible events. The simulation of zero-gravity is the best I’ve seen. The reminder that in space you can hear only what’s picked up, transmitted, and generated within the space suit is excellent. We hear breathing, heat beats, dull thuds and thumps as the characters bump into the International Space Station. That the whole story is a string of very unlikely events is (I think) not noticed by most viewers. We may know intellectually that the probability of a space accident’s lone survivor reaching Earth is very, very small, but we are caught up in the movie nevertheless, it’s that well photographed, edited, and paced. We know that  Sandra Bullock will survive, and that does reduce the tension. But in a theatre with a huge screen, multiple speakers, and subsonics, that knowledge will not rise to consciousness. In a living room with a small screen and merely very good sound, that knowledge does nibble at your awareness, and much of the effect of the movie is lost.
     Still, a very well done space movie. Watch it. And think about the many space-farers that have died since Sputnik launched in 1956. ***
     Update 20140606: Neil deGrasse Tyson's list of what's wrong with the movie: . Enjoy!

Groundhog Day (1993)

     Groundhog Day (1993) [D: Harold Ramis. Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell] Beware: If you don’t get it right the first time, you may be condemned to do it over until you do.
     That’s what happens to Bill Collins, and egotistical, mean-spirited TV announcer, who gets stuck in a time-loop, and has to relive Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney over and over again. He wakes up each February 2nd at 6:00am, and remembers what the previous run-throughs were. He learns a lot of facts, finds out that he can use what he learns to change the new version of Groundhog Day. Eventually he comes to an answer to the most fundamental question: What makes life worth living? He tries hedonism; self-gratification; suicide; revenge; and other self-centred principles and experiments.
     Then he discovers gratuitous kindness and simple acceptance of the gift of joy. He catches a boy falling out of a tree, knowing the boy will never thank him, for Bill must relive that action when he relives February 2nd while the boy (presumably) continues on to the next day. He helps an old drunk, but cannot prevent the old drunk’s death, only only improve the quality of his life before he dies. He accepts that the brief moment of love with his producer is the happiest time he will ever have, because the next run-through will be different. But the spell is broken, and he wakes with her beside him on the day after Groundhog Day.
     I don’t think it’s possible to give a good impression of the flavour and charm of this movie. One factor in making the movie believable is Murray’s ability to play an ordinary, not very bright, not very nice, vain, too self-centred fellow who slowly becomes the best he could be. Another is the script, in which the stages of his experimentation, resignation, and acceptance are nicely captured in vignettes. Another is the way the other people react to Bill in every rerun of February 2nd; both the script and the acting make it clear that for them, this is a new and different Bill, one they have never seen before.
     The narrative pace and rhythm alternately slowing down and speeding up also helps. So does the ever-so-ordinary setting, a small town photographed so as to make it as ordinary as possible, with no attempt to glamourise it, no clever camera angles to divert our attention from the characters. The sound track includes music, but it never intrudes. Every character gets enough screen time and dialogue that we sense there is more there than we are given. And the utter absence of any distracting waffle about how or why Bill became stuck in the time loop lets us focus on its effects on him, and should remind us that we should never let mere factuality get in the way of truth.
     A great movie. It was one of Jon’s favourites. ****

Monday, March 03, 2014

MONEY Or: ECON-101 applied to the real world.

Or: ECON-101 applied to the real world.

Measure of value
People talk about money as if it were some kind of stuff, like wood, or apples, or houses, or bicycles. But money is actually information about values. As you learned in ECON-101: money is a measure of value. A given value denominated in a specific currency is a price. The value is (or should be) the same whether it’s specified in dollars or euros or cowrie shells. It’s like specifying a length in metres or in feet or in ells; or temperature in degrees Celsius or degrees Fahrenheit. The length and the temperature are the same regardless of the measuring units used. We expect the value of a thing to be the same whether it’s measured in dollars or euros. That’s why we want to know “How much is that in dollars?” when we buy something in a foreign country.

So money isn’t stuff. It’s a way of measuring the value of stuff. That makes it very useful for trading stuff. Before there was money, people bartered. They offered a certain amount of some stuff, say jars of oil, in exchange for other stuff, say jars of wheat. The concept of money apparently began in the Middle East when people used the seals on the jars as tokens for the jars themselves. The seals were marked to show both the commodity and the owner. They broke the seals in half, and brought half-seals to market to trade for other half-seals. Then they showed up at each other’s warehouses or barns, matched the half-seals to each other, and carried off their purchases.

Eventually, people began to make tokens of value using stuff that couldn’t be used for much else. The reason gold was used is that it doesn’t rust, and that it’s almost useless. Besides money, about the only thing you can use gold for is to make pretty things. Material tokens of value are called cash; and many people still prefer cash over other forms of money because these tokens are definitely made of stuff, so cash confirms the feeling that money is some kind of stuff.

When people began to use metal to make tokens of value, the concept of money as information was almost complete. I say almost, because many people then and now believe these metal tokens have “intrinsic value.” That is, people believe that the value of a piece of gold somehow fixed. This is the reason people want to go back to the gold standard, the assumption being that this will somehow stop shenanigans like price inflation, unbacked credit, “printing money”, and so on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. And the reason it doesn’t work that way is that money is – wait for it! – information, not stuff. People will give away goods in exchange for tokens of value if, and only if, they believe they can exchange those tokens for goods of the same value as the goods they gave away. Once they stop believing this, we have serious trouble, perhaps even runaway inflation.

Inflation will happen regardless of what the tokens are made of. When the Spanish imported hundreds of tons of gold into Europe from South America, prices measured in gold went up: people had to give more gold for the same value of goods. The reason for this is that the amount of goods had not increased. The amount of wealth, and hence its value, remained the same. There wasn’t more wheat or timber or cloth or real estate just because there was more gold. But people believed that gold was wealth. That mistake cost them a great deal of wealth: Spain almost went bankrupt.

Types of Money
We use many forms of money in our current state of economic sophistication:

a) Cash is metal and paper tokens each of which represents a certain value: a penny, 25 cents, 5 dollars, etc. These tokens were originally fixed weights of “precious metal”. Pretty soon, they became coins of fixed size and weight that represented some value. Then came paper money, which could be “redeemed” for metal coins.

b) Cheques are pieces of paper that represent whatever value we write on them. $24.95, $1200, $75,346, etc. These evolved from “letters of credit”, which a traveller would carry from one place to another. A banker in the traveller’s home country would guarantee that the traveller’s debts in the foreign country would be covered up to the amount on the letter of credit. Related to this are bonds, which are promises to pay a certain amount of money to the person who presents the bond. Letters of credit and bonds can be traded, because they are promises to pay, as can cheques, something the pay-day loan companies exploit. "Currency trading" is actually trading promises to pay.

c) Bank book, bank statement: this represents the value of money you have “on deposit”.

But most of the money we use nowadays is pure information:

d) Digital data stored on a computer storage device on the bank’s servers. These are records of the amount of money in your accounts and investments, the amount of money you owe on your loans, and so on.

e) Digital information moving to computer storage from the card terminal on which the merchant and you press buttons so that you can pay for your purchase. This money is pure information. The only way you know the payment has been made is by another piece of information: the slip of paper on which the transfer of money has been recorded.

Public spending
The use of electronic transfers makes it crystal clear that money is information. It’s not stuff. But thinking of it as some kind of stuff causes confusions that can bring down governments. Or worse.

When major public works are proposed, a lot of people ask, “Where will the money come from?” This misses the point. The real question is, “Is there enough wealth (energy, materials, and human skill) to do what we want to do?” If there is, then “paying” for it is just a matter of recording the value of the resources used. How do you that? By issuing enough money tokens to represent that value. This freaks out some people, who see it as “printing money.” But that’s exactly what private banks do when they lend you the money to buy a car or build a house. They "deposit" a credit in your account, which means that you now have that amount of money to spend. They don’t have anywhere close to the amount of money “on deposit” that they lend out. By law, in Canada they can lend up to 200 times what they have “on deposit”. What happens when they want to lend more than that? The get a loan from another bank, and “deposit” it.

Inflation (again)
If you understand that money is a measure of wealth, then inflation is a weird thing to happen. It’s as if the measure of distance changed because there are too many metre sticks floating around, and we have to make them shorter so we can use them up to measure the distance from here to there. That’s absurd. The distance from here to London is the same no matter how long or short a metre stick is. But that’s what happens when we have inflation. Briefly, inflation happens when there is a mismatch between the actual value of a country’s total wealth and the value of that wealth as measured by money, the measure of the wealth that we have. If the total value of wealth is X, and our money totals 2X, then prices will have to double to maintain an accurate ratio between value and price. This is what happened to Spain in the 15th century. In effect, in a period of inflation money embodies false information about value, and the money system won’t work unless and until people accept the new, lower value of money.

But inflation is not the same as increasing the money supply. Inflation happens when the money supply increases faster than the amount of wealth. It does so for many reasons, one being that people raise prices beyond the value of the goods and services they offer. Another is interest beyond the cost of processing the money data. That means that more money is needed for people to maintain something close to a stable trading system, and banks oblige by issuing even more money, at interest, of course.

The money supply should increase in proportion as we create more wealth. And prices should change as different commodities increase or decrease in value relative to each other. That is, these changes in the value of wealth cannot be measured absolutely, only as ratios. That’s why the price of gold increases. The amount of gold remains about the same,  because new gold mines add very little to the total amount of gold stored in places like Fort Knox. But it must measure more wealth, and the only way to do that is make an ounce of gold measure a larger amount of wealth. So the price of gold is raised.

Prices of commodities do change as their values change. In fact, most consumer goods are cheaper than they were decades ago, but inflation tends to disguise that. We have to measure prices in “constant dollars” to see the price changes. We would have “constant dollars” if the money supply were to change exactly in proportion to the change in wealth.

Prices also change in relation to each other. Sixty years ago, you could have bought about 1,000 loaves of bread for the price of a typical TV set. Now, a typical TV set is worth only about 100 loaves of bread, and it’s a better TV set, too.

We could of course insist on a fixed price for gold, in which case a dollar would measure larger and larger values of wealth. That in turn would require prices to fall. Suppose we now have twice as much wealth as we had before, but the same number of dollars to measure its value. Then what was priced at $1 would now have to priced at 50 cents. That’s called deflation, and for some reason we don’t like it at all.

Supply and demand
Economists tend to talk as if the economy were some kind of natural phenomenon like the weather.  It is of course no such thing, but a human invention. The “law of supply and demand” demonstrates this nicely. It is considered to be a description of how prices behave when particular commodities become more or less abundant. It is actually a description of human psychology. It describes how humans behave when they believe something is scarce or abundant.

When something that we want appears to be in short supply, we will offer more of what we have a lot of in order to get the scarce commodity. This is how it works in a barter economy, and it works exactly the same way in a money economy. Advertisers know that making a product appear to be scarce will enable them to charge more for it. Perceived scarcity explains bubbles. Actual scarcity can cause revolutions and wars.

The easiest demonstration that this “law” is an abstract description of human behaviour is to observe what happens when somebody has nothing to trade for what they want, or else doesn’t want to trade. If they have the power to do so, they just steal what they want; and if the owner of the wealth objects, they beat him up or worse.

Robbery instead of trade illustrates the truth that trade both requires and builds the rule of law, that is, civilisation. You can’t trade with people who’d rather steal from you. And once you start trading, you have to have some rules, or else you or the other party will revert to stealing.

2012-09-04 & 2012-03-03

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Grammar Notes 1

Some time ago, the denizens of a news group sidetracked themselves into a discussion about grammar. Here’s part of the exchange, between "Richard" and myself, slightly edited for clarity.

"Richard" posted this example of a bad sentence:

“Me and him went to see the dog wag it's tail.”
How many errors in that sentence?

I replied:


"Richard" also offered this as the corrected sentence:

“He and I went to see the dog wag its tail.”

I continued:

But there are no grammar errors whatsoever. (And that's a complete utterance, albeit not a complete sentence.)

a) Its/it's is a spelling error, not a grammar error. Just read the sentence out loud, and you'll hear why that's so. (1)

b) "Me and him" is a usage error. Not acceptable in "standard" usage, is all. "Standard usage", like any other, is in constant flux. That's why an earlier observation is spot on: "for Sue and me" is beginning to sound down-market. (2)

Want to see real grammar errors? Look at (and speak) this:

c) "He and I see a dog its tail wag went to."

Only one phrase in c) is in its correct position, and two phrases are in correct sequence. Also, all phrases are correctly formed, so (oddly enough) most native speakers of English can and will figure out what the speaker intended to say. (3)

Here's the same string of words ordered by two non-grammar rules:

d) "A I he to and dog its see wag tail went"

At this point, there's no grammar there, so it would be somewhat pointless to talk about it having errors of grammar.

     (1) The focus on the written language that shows up in a newsgroup is understandable, but it leads to subtle and not so subtle errors. Writing is of course not merely a record of speech, because it has inherently fewer codable features than speech. But speech is primary, and forgetting that can cause even very clever people to make serious mistakes. For example, Noam Chomsky's positing a "surface and deep structure" to account for ambiguities is pointless. In speech there is no ambiguity in the examples he gives, because intonation, which shapes the syntax of a sentence, disambiguates what in the written language is not (and cannot) be indicated.
      The primacy of speech is the reason that so-called “computer languages” are not languages: they are written codes, with strict rules, which are necessary precisely because these "languages" are actually codes. We use actual words and conventional math symbols to make it easier for humans to decode. One could just as well replace the terms and symbols with colour terms. Or coloured shapes.

(2) Another example: For me, pronouncing "herb" as erb is a solecism. But in US  usage it's correct, and herb would be judged down-market. Unfortunately, Canadians are adopting US usage. Sigh.

(3) When we hear fractured utterances, we automatically correct them as we interpret them. Most of what we speak and hear is fractured, more or less badly. Speech formed of complete and correctly formed sentences sounds odd. When my wife first heard a colleague at the University, she said, "He sounds like a book."

Gary Ryan. The Lucky Elephant Restaurant (2006)

     Gary Ryan. The Lucky Elephant Restaurant (2006) Ryan lives in Calgary, and makes that city the setting for his books. This is a police procedural with a social conscience: D.I. Lane is gay, and has an extensive social/family network, which to some extent interferes with his police work. His partner Arthur’s sister is dying of cancer, so they will have to adopt her son Matt. Jay, the prime suspect's brother, has been hiding from her, but finds a substitute family in the Vietnamese community. Because Matt is enrolled in minor hockey, Lane becomes a ref, and tangles with a hockey parent who’s a jerk. And so on. These vignettes extend the story to book length, and plotwise delay the action enough that it takes some time for Lane and sidekick Harper to close the case. They also intersect with the actions of the prime suspect, who is attempting to get the case closed quickly, and if possible eliminate Lane as well.
     Plot: a man and his daughter are found dead in the foothills bush west of Calgary. There are “anomalies” that suggest murder. The ex-wife/mother is a suspect early on. It’s pretty obvious that she done it, so the plot turns on how Lane and Harper will get sufficient evidence to make the case, and whether they'll be able to do so before she does more damage. In the end, she over-reaches, attempting another arson, but is caught in the act, and shot when she attacks the police who are guarding Lane’s house.
     Ryan handles the various levels of ignorance and knowledge, lies and truth, past and present skilfully enough that the narrative tension keeps us reading. In style and structure, the novel is cinematic: chapters of varying length, jump-cuts and montage-like snippets of scene, miscellaneous information, dialogue, sidelights on character. It wouldn’t take much to turn this book into a script; I think it would make a good series. Like many late 20th/early 21st century crime novels, the mood is elegiac and dark. There is hope and joy in family life and friendship, but these treasures must be jealously protected from attacks by bigots, egotists, jerks, power seekers, and other social riffraff.
     All in all, an above average example of the genre.**½ (2012)

Model Railroader, June 1950

     Model Railroader, June 1950 I rescued this issue from the trash at the club. Apparently it was too out-of-date to interest the members. But it’s a fascinating look at the state of the hobby in 1950, by which time the post-war boom had prompted innovations that with surprisingly few additions and enhancements are still with us. The major change since then is the miniaturisation of electronics and the improvements in plastics, both accompanied by large reductions in costs. The price/quality ratio of model trains has improved by at least an order of magnitude.
Income has also improved since the 1950s and 60s, so that real prices are much lower than back then. For example, at minimum wage, I would have had to work about four hours to buy an Athearn boxcar kit. Now, an Accurail boxcar kit costs about 1½ hours. And it comes with metal wheels, a KD compatible coupler, and more and better details.
     Skills have also improved, for although there’s proportionally much less scratch-building and kit-building than there was back then, the quality is higher. The biggest visible change is in the look of the models and the layouts. Modellers these days expect scenic realism and take prototype fidelity for granted, so much so that they carp at minor discrepancies that wouldn’t have rated even a passing comment in 1950.
     The how-to articles took a lot for granted. An article on building a S scale hopper consists of two photos, one large and two small drawings, and text to fill up 5 columns of a two-page spread. It includes instructions such as “Spot and drill No. 67 holes for the grab-irons.” The drawing calls out the dimensions of the grab irons, but not their positions. A knowledgeable modeller might be able to place the grab irons correctly, but clearly accuracy was not a major concern.
     The lead article by Frank Ellison discusses where to locate industries. This and many others he wrote where gathered into a book in 1954. I still have my copy, much worn, and rebound to protect its precious pages. Ellison was a pioneer of operation. His articles did a lot to help modellers operate their trains in a railway-like manner. The second major article shows how to super-detail a Yard Bird switcher (made by John English). Lots of advice, and several photos from different angles with the details called out. The author has obviously taken care to research the details to be added, something that also helped improve modelling skills and raise the bar on prototype fidelity.
     Most of the articles are short, and consist essentially of collections of workshop tips. They show that at the time modellers wanted to know about ways of adapting whatever was available to make better models as cheaply as possible. Hobbies were still a somewhat suspect pastime. Improvements in leisure time and disposable income would eventually create the craft and hobby industry that we know today, but back then money and time was supposed to be used for more useful pursuits, such as renovating kitchens.
     I enjoyed re-reading this old magazine. ** to *** (2012)

Stuart McLean. Home From the Vinyl Cafe (1998)

     Stuart McLean. Home From the Vinyl Cafe (1998) The 2nd Vinyl Cafe collection. It includes Dave Cooks the Turkey, probably the most requested of the Dave & Morley stories. The seasonal arrangement gives the effect of an episodic novel. As before (see Vinyl Cafe Unplugged), I found reading the stories more of a pleasure than hearing Stuart McLean read them. Recommended. *** (2012)

Stephen Hawking. The Theory of Everything (2002)

     Stephen Hawking. The Theory of Everything (2002) I like reading Hawking. His disability makes writing tedious and slow, and encourages an economy of words that makes for astonishing clarification of difficult ideas. The style also shows that these ideas are difficult only in that they are unfamiliar and often counterintuitive. Simplicity is more difficult to grasp than complexity. Hawking has a playful and sometimes mordant wit, which adds to the pleasure.
     The book outlines the current state of cosmology, reminding us how tentative such theories must be. The result is a vision of the Universe as a grand drama, whose plot we discover as we live through it (at least in the minuscule scenes in which we play a part), but which has no purpose beyond its own existence. As recently as the 1990s, that existence was guessed to be limited; time would eventually have a stop. Now, it’s not so obvious what may happen. The latest theories suggest that the Universe is much larger than what we can or could observe, though what “larger” means in this context is somewhat less than clear. Highly recommended, but if this is your first excursion into this realm of ideas, you will have to read the book at least twice to make sense of it. **** (2012)

John Toland. Hitler: the Pictorial Documentary of his Life (1978)

     John Toland. Hitler: the Pictorial Documentary of his Life (1978) Well, it’s a documentary, and a good one for giving an overview of the man. Toland begins each chapter with an excerpt from his biography, and captions round out the narrative. The book is apparently intended for an audience of students and the casually interested, and for them it fulfills its limited purposes.
     However, by presenting a chronicle rather than a story, the book may encourage deeper study. It raises questions. For example, why and how was Hitler able to achieve his goal of political power and domination of Germany? This question unanswered tends to perpetuate the popular misconception that he used some kind of force (never specified in this story, however). For us, the most important lesson is that Hitler ensured that at every step he had at least quasi-legitimate justification for what he did. Legality mattered.
     The political images are almost meaningless without knowledge of the events they portray, but the private, personal life is intelligible to anyone aware of his own milieu. The overall impression is that Hitler’s personal life was that of a man with limited taste who yearned for the apparent sophistication of the moneyed classes. An odd miasma of lower-middleclass respectability hangs over it all.
     The reproduction of the photos is average. Many original photos were of poor quality, or apparently exist only as poor copies of the originals, which doesn’t help. ** (2012)

Wendy Northcutt. Darwin Awards II (2001)

     Wendy Northcutt. Darwin Awards II (2001) Another collection of confirmed and unconfirmed reports of people voluntarily removing themselves from the gene pool and so reducing the stupidity quotient a minuscule amount. There are also a number of urban legends. Good if gruesome fun. One wonders how the families and friends of the fools reacted. My usual reaction to stupid avoidance of safety rules is anger. **½ (2012)

Omer Lavallee & Ronald Ritchie. Narrow Gauge Railways of Canada (2005)

     Omer Lavallee & Ronald Ritchie. Narrow Gauge Railways of Canada (2005) Since Lavallee wrote the book, much additional information has been found about Canada’s narrow gauge railways. Ritchie provides some of it, and many added photos. Most interesting are the obscure, short, and short-lived lumber and mining railways in the Maritimes. It’s a pity that for many of these all that’s known are a few written references or old maps; no pictures. For some (eg, the Kaslo & Slocan) I have data in my clippings collections, which I will insert. A well done book, a pleasure to leaf through, a pleasure to read, and a pleasure to consult. *** (2012)

Saturday, March 01, 2014

John Mortimer. Charade (1947)

     John Mortimer. Charade (1947) Mortimer’s first novel, reissued in 1987 around the time the Rumpole TV series peaked. The plot concerns a young man who is given a job with a documentary film unit charged with making a film about soldiers training for the assault on Europe. The boy thinks an accident that kills a disliked sergeant was murder, but it’s left up to the reader to figure out the answer, if any. Cryptic hints about prior relationships may be clues, or then again maybe not. It’s possible that Mortimer avoided details that might have made the characters more interesting. The book is loosely based on his experiences with the Crown Film Unit, and too much detail might have allowed identification of the innocent.
     If you know only Rumpole of the Bailey, this book will confound you. It is not nearly as well written, with thin characters, and insufficient background and backstory to clarify motives. It does generate enough mysteries that I kept on reading just to find the answers to the questions. There were precious few, however. ** (2012)

Michael Macrone. Brush up Your Shakespeare! (1991)

     Michael Macrone. Brush up Your Shakespeare! (1991) If you like compilations of odd facts, you’ll like this book, even if Shakespeare’s not your favourite playwright. It’s a dictionary of Shakespeare quotes. Macrone gives you the speech, the context, original meanings of words, how we’ve misunderstood or misappropriated Shakespeare’s words, and occasionally puns or other witticisms. He also reminds Shakespeare and theatre lovers why they keep returning to this most archaic of story-telling modes. There are a few typos of the kind that spell-checking software misses, but they don’t detract from the score: *** (2012)

Ursula Leguin. Orsinian Tales (1976)

    Ursula  Leguin. Orsinian Tales (1976) Leguin’s tales sketch an outline history of Orsinia: a central/east European country at the mercy of its more powerful neighbours to the east and west. Leguin’s skill at evoking a whole culture makes these more like documents than fictions, and like documents, we are somewhat distanced from the characters. In this, she reminds me of Mavis Gallant, but Gallant’s stories have the ring of experienced truth, while Leguin’s feel more like case histories. But both exhibit a certain ruthlessness: both external and internal forces construct a person’s fate. There’s no Hollywood-style happy endings here. ** to *** (2012)

Jack Womack. Terraplane (1988)

     Jack Womack. Terraplane (1988) Womack wants us to take his dystopian future seriously. He uses a version of English as he imagine it might evolve, but his sense of linguistics is laughable: the dialect is impossible. The setting is late 20th century US with a few gadgets thrown in. The story is basic gangsterism and thuggishness, with some kind of multi-national spy-thriller plot tossed into the mix. I read the first 20 or so pages, and lost interest: maybe if I were 50 years younger I’d find it intriguing, but I’ve read too much of this stuff. I sampled a dozen other pages here and there, which merely confirmed my first impression. The cover blurbs praise the book, I don’t. * (2012)

Jay Ingram. The Science of Everyday Life (1989)

     Jay Ingram. The Science of Everyday Life (1989) Jay Ingram hosted CBC’s Quirks and Quarks for many years. Here, he’s written a number of essays on questions that a curious mind might ask about its immediate surroundings: walking, cocktail parties, asparagus, swarming insects, yawning, and so on. The essays are clear, explain what can be explained, and indicate what’s not (yet?) understood. Bite-sized chunks, ideal for casual reading; I enjoyed this book, and read it faster than was likely good for my appreciation of the universe’s enduring mystery. **½ (2012)

Peter Ustinov. The Old Man and Mr Smith (1990)

     Peter Ustinov. The Old Man and Mr Smith (1990) God and Satan decide to take a fact-finding tour of Earth, which gives Ustinov the opportunity to poke fun at various nations. He uses, abuses, and blows up the stereotypes, which allows for humour, satire, sentimental cliche, and wry wisdom. The kind of book that could be used in a certain kind of college “humanities” course. Worth reading, but I found it best taken in small doses. **½ (2012)

Berke Breathed. Bloom County Babylon (1986)

     Berke Breathed. Bloom County Babylon (1986) Ah, Bloom County: a place where all the American stereotypes live together in more or less happy harmony. If only real life were like that. This book is now 26 years old, yet almost all of it could be written today. The only clues to its age are the pop-culture references (eg, Star Trek instead of Mad Men) and the technology (the Banana computer looks like an Apple IIe). I have most of the Bloom County books, my children and grandchildren like them too, and we reread them at intervals. **** (2012)

Ellis Peters. The Hermit of Eyton Forest (1987)

     Ellis Peters. The Hermit of Eyton Forest (1987: #14 in the Cadfael chronicles). Three plot lines: a cruel master hunts for an escaped villein; a fierce matriarch wants to marry her newly orphaned grandson to a neighbouring squire’s daughter in order to consolidate the land; and a bloodied horse indicates the murder of Queen Maud’s messenger. Peters interweaves these with her usual skill, showing how human frailties, vices, and virtues threaten injustice and worse. Cadfael’s skills and his friendship with Hugh Beringar help these plots come to satisfactory conclusions, wherein justice is tempered with mercy, and the law yields to justice. As a puzzle, the mystery ranks low; as a visit to Cadfael’s world it ranks high. We fans of the soldier turned monk and physician like the (somewhat sanitised) version of late medieval history that Peters serves up. *** (2012)

Edmund Cooper. Transit (1964)

     Edmund Cooper. Transit (1964) A nicely conceived variation on the cast-away motif: Richard Avery finds himself transported to an alien place, along with three others, who like him are failures. There’s Tom, a public school man who is incapable of a human relationship; Mary, a clerk who thinks of herself as plain and plainly useless; and Barbara, a TV personality who has retreated behind a mask of glamour. Richard himself still grieves over the death of Christine many years before. He’s hardly able to decide to get up and perform the chores needed to enable him to do his job as an best accidentally competent teacher. These four must not only mature and become the people they were meant to be, they must also compete against four other humanoid beings who have been placed on the same island as themselves. Why? Because the immortal beings who placed them there want to know which of the two races should be nurtured as their heirs in the business of guarding and guiding this sector of the galaxy. The humans win, of course, but just barely.
     Cooper’s conception is better than his skill in conveying it. He’s a writer who tells rather than shows. What he mostly lacks is the ability to do much more than sketch his characters, but the sketches are convincing enough that we care for them, and are pleased when they reveal themselves capable of change and growth. They must all find that they are not only capable of loving but deserve to be loved. They must learn how to forge a community. And of course when the test comes, they must be willing to risk death in order to save their community from destruction by the competitors. **½ (2012)

Lyn Hamilton. The Etruscan Chimera (2002)

     Lyn Hamilton. The Etruscan Chimera (2002) The narrator, Lara McClintoch is looking for an extremely rare antiquity: a bronze Etruscan sculpture of a chimera. After various machinations, which have apparently advanced her to favoured buyer status, she returns to the chateau where the owner keeps the treasure, only to find him dead, apparently having fallen into an underground strong room.
     It was at this point that I stopped reading. The writing is competent enough, but the tone too cutesy for my taste. The characters are shallow, both as narrative devices and as persons. The whole thing feels too much like a lightweight TV drama, of the Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) type, albeit updated for early 20th century consumption, with hints of sex, alcohol, and other vices. I don’t mind fluff, but it has to be fluff confected to my taste, which this wasn’t. I’m sure there are people who did enjoy this book. The novel is labelled “an archeological mystery”, but the setting is actually the antique business. Hamilton appears have a following (this is one of a series) and a reputation: the cover blurb announces that she’s been nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award. I won’t hold that against her. *½ (2012)

Debra Jean Moncur. Winter Treasures (1997)

     Debra Jean Moncur. Winter Treasures (1997) A collection of paintings featuring winter. It’s not quite clear why this book was assembled, nor exactly who the intended audience is. The artist bios include references to art galleries that represent them, which indicates that the book was at least in part an attempt to drum up some trade. The pictures range in quality from quite good (three examples) to Sunday-painterish (far too many) to plain kitsch. A few convey the sense that the subject and its handling meant something to the artist, most look like what they are: more or less competent attempts to paint a picture by people who have some notion that an artist’s job is express some feeling. It isn’t. I agree with Dr Johnson’s opinion: the purpose of art is to make familiar things new and new things familiar. Or, in this case, to make us see what we’ve always seen as if we hadn’t seen it before.
     The introduction is laced with solecisms and vaguely romantic assertions of the significance of nature to the artist. I happen to have strong feelings about and for nature, too, but I’ve never understood why revealing that I have them should somehow make my work better than if I expressed, say, a preference for soot and mortar. * (2012)

Robert Darnton. The Great Cat Massacre (1984)

      Robert Darnton. The Great Cat Massacre (1984) Subtitled And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. A collection Darnton’s essays on the subtitle subject: academic, and apparently intended for a reading list in French history. (My 2nd-hand copy has blue highlighter marks throughout). The cover blurb quotes Newsweek’s opinion this is a “brilliant work of popular history”, a somewhat excessive judgement. The essays are interesting, but not, I think, to most of the public. I learned a lot, mostly along the lines of how hard it is to recover the mind set and unspoken assumptions of our ancestors. Visiting the past entails a culture shock.
     I have some experience of culture shock, having been taken to England in 1945, and spending time alternately there and in Austria until 1954, when we emigrated to Canada. This perhaps makes it easier for me to imagine a different way of thinking, but there is still an impenetrable barrier, which no amount of reading of historical documents will remove. But Darnton does make me aware of just how much of a difference in worldview there must be.
     The essay on a reader’s response to Rousseau, which quotes and interprets an enthusiast’s letters to his book seller, is probably easiest to apprehend: we all know what it’s like to enjoy or endure an enthusiasm for a particular author, and fantasise about what (s)he is really like: to believe that one has somehow come to know a person intimately whom we can encounter only through their printed words. In this case, I found myself once again irritated by Rousseau, who I think has much to answer for. He made sentimentality respectable, no, worse he encouraged people to believe that having the right attitude was more important doing the right thing.
     Oh, about the title essay: Darnton re/de-constructs a cat massacre, and shows us that it was a not too veiled attack by the workers on their master and mistress, whom they despised as not only taking a large profit from their work, but also as less than qualified in the metier. One of the things that we have difficulty understanding these days is a society in which the middle and upper classes not only thought of the lower classes as below them socially, but hardly thought of them as human beings. It’s no wonder that resentment triggered brutality of a type we can barely imagine.
    Overall, a book worth reading, but I recommend reading it one essay at a time over several weeks. **½

K. C. Cole. Mind over Matter (2003)

     K. C. Cole. Mind over Matter (2003) Cole wrote a column about science for the L. A Times for many years. This book collects a number of them. She writes well, explains clearly, and ends almost all her columns with an implicit question: How does this bit of science affect you? The answer often is, Much more than I ever realised. It’s clear she loves to think about science. I liked this book a lot. It’s like eating potato chips: once started you can’t stop. I’m not sure how well her explanations will resonate with people who are not already “entranced with science”, since any explanation assumes some prior knowledge in the audience. I know too much to be able to judge how much is needed to read Cole well. Nevertheless, I recommend this to any one who wants to spend a few hours in the company of a delightful mind. It’s difficult to choose a sample, so I’ll just find one at random
     In terms of the energy required, there’s no difference between accelerating and decelerating.... This is a good thing to remember the next time you’re struggling to break a bad habit. Whatever energy you put into creating the bad habit is the amount of energy you will need to push it out the door. Which implies that because we want to break the habit faster than we acquired it, getting rid of it will feel a lot harder than getting it.
     Good book. **** (2012)