Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Peanuts Movie (2015)

     The Peanuts Movie (2015) See the IMDb information here.
     One of the charms of Schulz’s Peanuts was his line. He could put more expression into a squiggle-mouth than many artists could put into a whole canvas. He was also a great writer: it’s not easy to make a three- or four-panel strip tell a story, or imply a larger one. Unlike many strips, Peanuts had a backstory that Schulz continually developed. So although the kids lived in a timeless universe, things did happen, our knowledge of the characters deepened, and their relationships became more complex. Just how Schulz managed this with a cast of almost pure stereotypes repays careful study, but this review is not a thesis.
     When any well-loved cartoon is converted to a movie, many in the audience, including me, will watch with a critical eye. How well does the movie capture the look’n’feel, the ambience, the quirkiness of the source? The answer here is, very well. The producers decided to model the characters in 3D, but to keep their faces 2D. Their mouths and eyes and eyebrows are the expressive squiggles of Schulz’s strip. That makes the movie visually very appealing, and dialogue almost unnecessary.
     The story is simple enough, Charlie Brown falls in love with the Little Red Haired Girl that has just moved into town. But he’s too bashful to talk to her, too afraid that she will look down on his dorkiness, too much conditioned into accepting the role given him by his classmates, especially Lucy.
     There are sub-plots. We see Snoopy as the WW1 Flying Ace fighting the Red Baron, every character gets at least one scene centre-stage, kites are Charlie Brown’s nemesis, and so on. For us who grew up with Peanuts, or whose children did, the movie is a nostalgia trip. Everything ends well, there’s a preachy moment when the Little Red Haired Girl explains why she likes Charlie Brown, but otherwise the movie is a well-done riff on the perennial Peanuts themes. Recommended. ***½

Monday, November 23, 2015

Tough political decisions

Funny how "tough political decisions" always seem to be about cutting spending, and target spending on the poor, the weak, the disabled, the young, and so on.

The really tough political decision is to raise taxes. Funny how that option is never mentioned when tough political decisions are discussed.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Take Five by Dave Brubeck at Montreal in 2009

One of the great jazz standards is Take Five. Dave Brubeck made it his own. There are many versions available on line, but this 2009 Montreal Jazz Festival video is one of the bets. Brubeck was near the end of his life, and he just lets his crew take the tune to wherever they want to take it. Lovely sax, cello, bass, and drum solos. ****

Friday, November 13, 2015

[Pendon Museum]. Bringing the Past to Life (2015)

     [Pendon Museum]. Bringing the Past to Life (2015) The latest guide to the Pendon model railway, the brainchild and legacy of Roye England. Roye came from Australia to the UK in 1925. That was a time when even native-born Australians thought of the UK as Home, and Roye was shocked at the difference between his image of the country as a green and pleasant land and the reality of industrialisation and rapid modernisation. He resolved to preserve the England that was rapidly disappearing, and the medium he chose was a model railway.
     One may argue about whether the situation was as bad as Roye believed, but one can’t argue with the result: an amazing and beautiful recreation of the ambience of the Vale of the White Horse. Pendon not only fulfilled Roye’s vision, it inspired a higher standard of railway modelling. The people that gathered round him and helped him build the layout pioneered not only realistic modelling of  the railway and its setting but also realistic modelling of railway operations.
     The book includes a brief biography of Roye England, a history of the layout, and descriptions of its present state and operations. It’s worth reading merely as an account of one of the great model railways, but its emphasis on its function as a museum reminds us that we need to know the past in order to count the cost of the present and be wary of heedless innovation.  England was not as nice a place to live in as Roye believed. Working the farms was backbreaking, dangerous, and unhealthy: farmers had and have among the shortest life expectancies. The caste system that’s still a drag on Britain was even worse back then: the happy servant stereotype we like to watch in Downton Abbey was and is a fantasy. Even with railways as densely built as they then were, travel was expensive and time-consuming. There have been many changes since the 1920s. This museum model railway reminds us that not all change is progress.
     The text is brief but sufficient. A bonus is the Madder Valley Railway, built by John Ahearn, one of the pioneers of railway modelling. The pictures are well reproduced. A good souvenir and introduction to the Pendon. ***

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Caroline Graham. A Ghost in the Machine (2004

     Caroline Graham. A Ghost in the Machine (2004) I picked up this book because I like the Midsomer Murders series featuring DCI John Barnaby. As with all book-to-TV series, the first question I ask, does it work? Yes, with the usual shifts in tone, character, and ambience. The TV Barnaby is a more complex and nicer character than Graham’s, TV’s Sergeant Troy is single, not married and a randy alley cat. Graham’s characters are more black and white, so the inevitable comeuppances and changes are more extreme, too. As for ambience, TV with its visuals has the edge. Graham uses setting primarily to sharpen her character portraits through their reactions to their surroundings.
     So what about the book itself? It’s pretty good. Graham takes a long time to set up the murders. She describes Barnaby and Troy’s investigation well enough, but the solution should not surprise an alert reader (which I prefer not to be, I like the surprise). The extreme contrasts between the good and evil characters create a strong moralistic subtext. We know that the baddies will be punished, that their immoral behaviour arises from a lack of self-awareness, and that this obliviousness will lead them into the kind of stupid actions that can be lethal.
     Several plot lines intersect. Graham handles them well, we never lose track, and the alternation of the narrative snippets creates a pleasant tension. I won’t summarise, except to say that Graham likes to tidy up the loose ends, and does so satisfactorily, albeit by using a separate chapter in which the good get some consolation or reward for their sufferings, and the bad ones are or will be punished. This wrap-up is characteristic of romances, and that’s what this book is, a romance with touches of melodrama, satire, and comic-book style narrative compression. **½

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Agatha Christie. Death on the Nile

      Agatha Christie. Death on the Nile (1938) By the time she wrote this, Christie's interest had evidently shifted from mere puzzle construction towards character, and her always strong interest in romance began to trump her ruthless views on justice. Linnet Ridgeway, a very beautiful and very rich heiress, is the victim. Poirot happens to be present on the tour up the Nile because he has  has supposedly retired and is taking a holiday. (This is an early attempt by Christie to rid herself of the amusing Belgian. If he's retired, this could be his last bow.) The murder was carefully planned: Simon Doyle, the husband, and Jacqueline de Bellefort, his erstwhile fiancee, have arranged for Linnet to "take away" the man and marry him, then murder her, so that they could enjoy her lovely money. The murder depends on a double alibi, and a barely sufficient window of opportunity. Colonel Race (on the tour boat in his Secret Service capacity) and Poirot investigate, as the tour operators wish to have the affair settled before handing over the case to the Egyptian police.
    At first, Poirot is misled by the carefully staged alibi, but a couple of facts that don't fit arouse his suspicions, and he uses his usual method of looking at the facts from the opposite angle. Since he uses this method so often, and because Miss Marple does so too, I suspect this is Christie's comment on the best method for solving puzzles. Poirot also arranges for two couples to live happily ever after. The story ends with a murder suicide: Jacqueline has brought two pistols with her. Suicide as a way out becomes more common in Christie's later novels. Perhaps an unadmitted snobbishness (upper class people shouldn't be hanged), or a weakening of her pro-hanging views, or her sentimental attitude to true love (perhaps a wishful reaction to her own unsuccessful first marriage) produced this shift.
    The novel is one of Christie's masterpieces, no doubt the reason it was made into a film starring Peter Ustinov (1978). It  had a good success, but Ustinov is a bad Poirot. Despite his considerable acting skill he can't overcome the impression of general tattiness and rumpled disorder, greatly at odds with Poirot's neatness and precision. His clothes are always wrinkled – something Poirot would never permit himself, even in the humid heat of the Nile valley. The movie's simplified plot required significant changes, which IMO reduce the psychological complexity of the story. I suppose the producers couldn't afford the lengthy cast of the original story. Pity. ***

Agatha Christie. Evil Under The Sun

     Agatha Christie. Evil Under The Sun (1941) Poirot is resting his little grey cells at an expensive holiday resort. A woman who attracts men as honey attracts flies dies of unnatural causes, and none of the obvious suspects fit the crime. So Poirot wakes up his little grey cells, and shows that the crime must have been committed at a different time than initially believed, as deduced from the evidence of one of the two people who planned and carried out the murder. The widower and one of the suspects, who have know each other since childhood, will marry, which makes the man's child (who felt guilty because she hated her stepmother) very happy.
     This novel is one of the group dramatised for TV by A&E. Well done videos, albeit lacking much of the subtlety of the text. 1-1/2 hours is insufficient room for developing those nuances of character that Christies hinted at in her dialogue. The BBC dramatised the Poirot short stories (one of which uses a nearly identical plot as this novel), a wise decision, I think. The few that were based on novels were done as two- or even three- parters. But the BBC was not bound by rigid schedules of time and money. A good read. ***

How new theories grow from the old

The beautiful thing about philosophy is that philosophies die. New philosophy can then grow from the soil enriched by the dead. (Bas van Fraassen, 2004)

I think that much of what looks like radical rethinking of a theory arises from mistaken apprehension of the theory displaced by the new insights. For example, it seems that Einstein did not see gravity and acceleration as different, even though Newton’s physics tacitly assumed they were.

Karen Armstrong. The Great Transformation (2007)

     Karen Armstrong. The Great Transformation (2007) Armstrong traces the shift from tribal, localised gods, who protected and nourished their worshippers, to a wider ranging perception of gods, and eventually God as the source of all being, who requires his devotees to consider not only themselves but all humankind as members of one family. Although in the East the concept of God disappeared, the notion of a single human family, and a single moral law that binds us to each other, appeared at about the same time in all parts of the world.
     More precisely (although Armstrong doesn't say so explicitly), it appears at the same stage of cultural development: when the nomadic life of the herders gives way to the settled life of the farmers, which enables the rise of cities and states. These larger conglomerations of human societies necessitate the toleration of differing religions and world views; hence the development of the five major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam), which have far more in common than even their most enlightened followers generally accept.
      A thoroughly researched book, sometimes tedious in its detail, that reminds us that we are all the same species, and one way or another must find common beliefs and values if we are to survive what we have done to the planet and to each other. Her A History of God presents the same thesis in a shorter and more thematic form. ***

Money and Ayn Rand

     Ayn Rand and her followers worship money. But on money, her notions are such a muddled mix of insight and delusion that it's hard to know where to begin a rational critique. From the Ayn Rand lexicon 
     Money is the tool of men who have reached a high level of productivity and a long-range control over their lives. Money is not merely a tool of exchange: much more importantly, it is a tool of saving, which permits delayed consumption and buys time for future production. To fulfill this requirement, money has to be some material commodity which is imperishable, rare, homogeneous, easily stored, not subject to wide fluctuations of value, and always in demand among those you trade with. This leads you to the decision to use gold as money. Gold money is a tangible value in itself and a token of wealth actually produced. When you accept a gold coin in payment for your goods, you actually deliver the goods to the buyer; the transaction is as safe as simple barter. When you store your savings in the form of gold coins, they represent the goods which you have actually produced and which have gone to buy time for other producers, who will keep the productive process going, so that you’ll be able to trade your coins for goods any time you wish.
    Her key points are nonsense. Gold has no more intrinsic value than any other currency; its value as money is only and exactly what people believe it is. Rand falls into the almost universal delusion that money some kind of stuff. She does this despite the fact that she says money should be "not subject to wide fluctuations of value, and always in demand". IOW, that the value of gold depends on people's beliefs about it.
     The notion that money somehow buys time for future production misses the point. "Delayed consumption" is possible only when there is a surplus of goods or productive capacity. Money cannot create a surplus, nor is it needed to ensure that any surplus will be used. Humans have invented many ways of saving surpluses without money. What you need is a technology that multiplies the effect of human work, and a system of customs that will ensure the surplus will be stored and traded. Fact is, even today much trade is done without money. The basic rule of all trade is "mutual obligation".
     And like practically everybody, Rand misquotes St. Paul’s comment on money:
So you think that money is the root of all evil? . . . Have you ever asked what is the root of money?
     St. Paul actually wrote, The love of money is the root of all evil. Look it up!
     Money is a way of making trade with strangers possible, and thereby mutually dependent. A very useful invention, IOW. For example, just try to calculate how many people have been involved in producing a ball point pen and making it available to you. A stranger is someone to whom you owe nothing, and vice versa. This makes interaction between strangers dangerous. Hence, all societies have had to invent ways of making at least temporary mutual obligation possible. Think of "guest right", for example. Puzzle: Why do all those strangers work to produce and deliver a cheap pen to you? Because money makes it not only possible to trade with people you will never see, it makes it easy to do so.
     Nowadays, money trades are used to measure economic activity, which produces such incomplete, gappy data that it causes pernicious delusions. Even in our highly monetised economy, about 1/3rd of economic activity does not involve money. In pre-money times, that was 100%.
     Basic rule about money: Money and wealth flow in opposite directions.
     I think everybody needs a good introductory survey course in anthropology, to learn about all the ways humans have organised the production and distribution of goods and services. It might cure one of the notion that our current economic arrangements are somehow natural (or, gaak!, god-given.) For over 95% of our existence as a culture-creating species, we humans have had no money. Yet humans managed to produce the goods and provide the services they needed. It’s true that money, because it accelerated trade, and more importantly enabled trade with strangers, accelerated the creation of wealth. But trade, and its beneficial effects on wealth creation and cultural exchange, existed long before money. It is Rand's blindness to this fact that leads her astray.

     2013-03-11; 2014-05-23; 2015-11-07; 2016-05-12