Monday, December 26, 2016

Spy Caper Spoof

      Spy (2015) [D: Paul Feig (also wrote), with Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Miranda Hart] Mildly amusing spy caper spoof in which a CIA desk-operative Susan Cooper (McCarthy) volunteers to take on a “track and report” field mission involving an international gang of suave psychopaths who are trading in suitcase-sized atom bombs.
The joke is that Cooper is not a svelte, elegant, self-confident wonder woman, but a dumpy, inelegant, unconfident woman who’s hopelessly in love with the spy (Jude Law) she assists. But she’s smart, brave, has trained in martial arts and firearms, and gains self-confidence as she outwits, outfights, and outshoots assorted baddies. The fun comes from McCarthy’s acting, our recognition of the James Bond tropes, the above averege script (although far more F-bombs than it needed), and the care taken to make all minor characters just caricatured enough for humour. The cast and crew obviously have a lot of fun too, which always helps. Enough (semi-plausible) plot twists to keep you watching.  I enjoyed it. **½

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Wycliffe on Holiday and on the Case

     W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Pea Green Boat (1975) Part One describes how an innocent man is convicted of a rape and murder. Part Two tells how Wycliffe while on holiday takes on a current murder because a colleague has misgivings. As you will expect, those misgivings are fully justified, and the general solution to the puzzle is pretty obvious. However, Burley’s strength is character, ambience, and the slow build-up of detail and surmise until the full picture emerges. It kept me reading to the end, even though I had the answer to the central question long before Wycliffe arrived at it. Wycliffe fans will be satisfied, many of those who haven’t cone across him before will want to read more of the series. There was a good TV adaptation done in the 1990s, starring Jack Shepherd as Wycliffe. **½

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Murder in Nero Wolfe's brownstone

     Rex Stout. A Family Affair (1975) Late at night, Archie admits Pierre Ducos, a waiter at Rusterman’s, who wants to consult Nero Wolfe because “a man is trying to kill me”. A minute or two after being left in the front room of the third floor, an exploding device kills him. Things go severely downhill from there. The murderer has killed three times by the time justice of a kind is done. And that’s as far as I’ll go in hinting at spoilers. One of Stout’s best, and also the last book he published. He died a month later. I found my copy at Value Village, unread. Great find. ****

Wimsey deserves better than this.

     Lord Peter Wimsey: Clouds of Witness (19720 [D:Hugh David. Ian Carmichael et al] Awful adaptation of Dorothy Sayers’ novel. A screenplay that’s about as banal and simplistic as you can get, stretching the story over 5 parts (225 minutes). The amount of padding this requires makes it mind-numbingly slow. The characterisation is superficial, and that’s the politest way I can say it. Bland cinematography  with poor lighting and bad sound adds to the pain. The editing is strange, so put it mildly: long shots of unmoving faces are suppose to convey menace, I guess, or maybe comic fun. It all depends on the owner of the face. And so on.
     We stopped watching this mess part way through episode two. The 1987 adaptations of Sayers' novels starring Edward Petherbridge are far superior. It’s unfortunate that the two series treated different novels.  Based on my disappointment, I want to rate this a BOMB, but I guess one star is fairer: *

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Nun Solves Mystery

    Veronica Black. A Vow of Chastity (1991) Sister Joan, of the Daughters of Compassion, teaches a motley group of farm and Romany children. When one of the Romany boys goes missing, she investigates. The story builds slowly, the discovery of the murderer is a surprise (the clues don’t really persuade), but overall this is a satisfying read. Convent life is rarely depicted convincingly. This book comes close, despite its somewhat too-good-to be true ambience. It’s the practicalities of daily life (and school teaching) that create the life-like feel that we want from a novel. The title has only a tenuous connection with the plot. This is #2 of a series that reached #11. **½

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Alien language, alien mind

     Arrival (2106) [D: Denis Villeneuve. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker] The aliens finally arrive, in 12 ships scattered round the globe. They clearly attempt to communicate, so linguist Louise Banks (Adams) is recruited to learn the language. The heptapods (one less tentacle than octopi) use both whale-like sounds and a written language. Louise, with some help from physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner), deciphers the written symbols, each of which is a complex circular string of squiggles that represents a complete utterance.
     The movie, like the story it’s based on, asks and plausibly answers a number of questions. Could one  communicate with a non-human mind? Yes, if there are some common concepts to start from, in this case the difference between “human” and “Louise”. Does learning a language rewire the brain? Yes, in fact it does. Does that rewiring change the way you perceive the world? Maybe. As a bilingual, I would say yes, but not as drastically as is posited here. For the heptapods time isn’t linear: they have an all-at-once perception of past, present, and future. Their circular "sentences" can be read starting from any point and in either direction. Louise’s daughter has died of leukemia. As she masters the heptapod language, Louise's latent second sight develops so that her daughter’s life becomes present to her, as does her future with Ian, and the child she will have with him.
     The mcguffin is that the 12 ships each provide part of the answer about the heptapods’ purpose in arriving on Earth: they will need human help in the future, but can get it only if humans co-operate and become one world. Which happens, but only because Louise is able to talk to the Chinese ruler in his own language over an NSA cellphone.
     As you can see, this is a complicated movie, on many levels. Villeneuve knows how to make us engage in what for many of us would be an esoteric irrelevance or a boring exercise in abstruse academic theorising. The acting and editing occasionally confuse, that’s why I want to see it again. Is it a fault that the movie demands more than one viewing? I don’t think so. ****

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Choices, freedom, and responsibility

Many people think that freedom is the freedom to choose what one wants, to have control over one’s choices.  The problems with this idea are many. Let’s start by considering what it means to choose something.

First principle: You can choose only from what’s possible. You can’t, obviously, choose to flap your arms and fly. The laws of physics prevent that. But surely one can choose what one wants otherwise? The answer is, no you can’t.

Second Principle: You can choose only from what’s available to you. That’s a truism. Like all truisms, it has real consequences. You can’t for example choose a vanilla ice cream cone if there isn’t one there for you to choose, no matter how much you want it. That seems like a trivial example, but it illustrates a fundamental principle: all choices are made within a given context. Call it an option space. Option spaces differ in the number of options they contain, and in the type of options available. Again, a trivial example: An ice cream parlour that offers 37 flavours offers more choice than one which offers only 21 flavours. Obviously.

Inference: One measure of freedom of choice is the number of options available.

Third Principle: Control of the option space is control of choice. Continue with the ice cream example: if there is only one ice-cream parlour available to you, its owner controls your choice by deciding what flavours to offer.

Inference: Another measure of freedom of choice is control over the option space.

Suppose your village has a pub, a restaurant, and an ice cream parlour. You now have three option spaces. They may overlap somewhat, in that the pub and the restaurant may offer some of the same dishes, and the restaurant may offer some ice cream. But when you choose one of these venues you automatically limit your choices to what’s on offer there. You can’t choose the pub’s brand of ale in the restaurant, or the restaurant’s steak in the ice cream parlour. You could of course go to each of them one after the other, but at any given time, your choice is limited to what’s available at that time.

Inference: Circumstances control the contents of the option space. Hence another measure of freedom of choice is control over circumstances.

Fourth principle: Choosing is the result of wanting one thing more than another. The ice cream choice depends on what you want at the time of choosing. In fact, if you don’t want ice cream, you won’t choose it even if it’s available.

Inference: Desire drives choice. Thus ability to fulfill a desire is a measure of freedom.

That last inference is the reason people define “freedom” as being able to do what you want to do. But desire itself is a complicated drive. You can both desire and not desire something, for different reasons. For example, you may want to order ice cream for dessert, but you also want to maintain something like an attractive waistline, and so want to avoid ice cream. Which desire will win? That depends on you. How well can you curb one desire in order to fulfill another is not easy to predict. Research shows that it varies. Your emotional state, the relationship with your dinner partner, what you just talked about, whether and how much you think about the choice, all these and more will tip the balance between your conflicting desires.

Inference: Random factors that affect which desire you fulfill reduce your control over your choice.

Summary: There are several ways of considering “freedom”, but all involve choice. I think the general conclusion is that “freedom of choice” is how we feel about our choices, not about how we make them. In fact, it looks like we have no real freedom of choice at all. We have little, and often no, control over the option space. Our desires are influenced and controlled by factors we may not even notice.

So in what sense(s) can we be held responsible for our choices?

Pipelines and the Alberta economy

Pipelines are losing propositions. Oil is a dying industry. It’s only a matter of time. I object to the approval of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline expansion on both environmental and financial grounds.

In 2015, half of all new energy projects worldwide were renewables (non-fossil). 30% of new energy projects in the US were renewables. And this despite low oil prices, and coal that is dirt cheap.

Fact: Peabody, one of the largest coal producers in the world, filed for bankruptcy in April 2016. It now hopes to repay $500 million as coal prices have risen a bit. But in 2015 those prices dropped enormously. Northern Appalachian coal (usually the most expensive) dropped from about $68/ton to under $40/ton by early 2016. It’s now at around $42/ton. See Alberta Energy's website.

You’d think at these prices, energy companies would be building or expanding coal-fired power plants. In fact, many are phasing out coal. China, which has enormous coal reserves, has stopped building them, and is phasing out the ones it has.

Fact: Although oil prices hovered around $40 to $45 a barrel for Texas sweet crude (oil from other sources is cheaper), per capita oil consumption has fallen, despite increasing numbers of private cars, which are the largest single consumers of oil. (Total oil consumptiom continues to rise. Last week, the oil cartel announced production cuts in an attempt to prompt a rise in prices. That is, they hope that oil consumers will bid up the prices as supplies dwindle. That will happen in the short run (they are up to around $48 a barrel), but in the long run, oil consumers will continue to reduce or eliminate consumption.

So why has Trudeau approved the expansion of Kinder-Morgan? And why does Rachel Notley support it? Purely political. Both want to attract more votes in Alberta, especially in the rural ridings, which have more political clout than the urban ones, and where the direct income from oil is proportionately higher than in the cities. In the short run, that might improve their political fortunes in Alberta, but it merely delays the day of reckoning. Alberta has to disentangle itself from oil. It’s been a drug: Albertans are addicted to the easy money of oil royalties. They consistently undertax themselves, relying on other people (the consumers of oil) to pay their bills.

It’s time for Albertans to shift their wealth-creation to other products. That’s not going to be easy. It requires not only a shift in attitudes, but also a willingness to plan for the long haul. Food production has always been a major source of wealth in Alberta. Agriculture, energy production, services, and other raw materials make up a much larger proportion of Alberta’s economy than oil does: See Energy Alberta and Wikipedia's article.
Bottom line: the assumption that oil drives the economy of Alberta turns out to be mistaken. Oil is an important but diminishing part of the mix. I think it’s the psychology of oil that is important, not its actual value. Albertans have made economic choices assuming that oil will pay the bills, and haven’t noticed how much of their economy has diversified. A change in this psychology is difficult, but it’s necessary. The sooner it happens, the better for Alberta.

Monday, December 05, 2016

How to enjoy Shakeapeare in school

     Robertson Davies. Shakespeare For Young Players (1942) Davies loved theatre. He was a founding member of the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival. He wrote several plays, a couple of them for “young players”. His first novel Tempest Tost tells of an amateur theatre group putting on Shakespeare’s Tempest. His novels all allude to or use theatre, show business, as a central metaphor.
      This schoolbook fits in well with Davies’ enthusiasm. He takes it for granted that middle school children will enjoy acting out Shakespeare. His subtext is that this is the best method of teaching Shakespeare: the plays are scripts, not novels. His introductions to the excerpts, his notes, his directorial hints, all are designed to help the pupil have as much fun as possible. The excerpts from Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard II etc are I think well chosen: Davies argues that literature should acquaint young people with the harsh realities of life, so that they will be prepared when those realities confront them.
     The only quibble: Davies’ tone comes across as somewhat patronising these days. Long out of print, the book is still I think a model for a course on Shakespeare or theatre generally. ***

Riffing the love romance

     Adriana Trigiani. Lucia, Lucia (2003) A very New York book, reminding me of east coast movies (it would make a good one, I think). Lucia Sartori, the only daughter of an immigrant family, tells her story to a young woman living in her apartment house. Lucia is a career woman: in the end, only her family matters more to her than work. One thing after another happens in her life. She’s jilted at the altar by John Talbot, a charming scumbag, there’s deaths and marriages, but all in all she’s had a good life. Her only regret: that when Altman’s Custom Tailoring Dept. closed, quality and craftsmanship ended there.
     Well written, it draws you in. I read the book alongside several others, it wasn’t a page-turner for me. Lucia is a nice person, a little too good to be true, which can be said of all the characters, even the scumbag. Well done plausible 1950s ambience, if a little too pastel coloured. The edition I read included an interview between the author and Delmarr, Lucia’s boss, and “reading questions”, which look like they were devised by a high school teacher. It’s a riff on the love romance: the heroine doesn’t marry the handsome charming boss after all. Above average for the genre. ***

Friday, December 02, 2016

Five marriages

     Phyllis Rose. Parallel Lives (1983) Rose describes five Victorian marriage. Her aim is to understand how the Western ideal of marriage, which crystallised in the 19th century, worked out in practice. Her subjects are writers, not because they are a privileged class, but because a) writers leave more complete records of their thoughts and feelings; and b) they tend to be outliers, and so more aware of how conventions and ideals constrain life.
     Three of the marriages were sexless: Ruskin’s because he was disgusted with his wife’s body (he apparently expected her to look like a Greek statue); the Carlyles, because neither was much interested in sex; and John Stuart and Harriet Mill, because Harriet didn’t like sex, and Mill didn’t want to impose himself on her. Dickens was a highly sexed man, and after getting a dozen or so children on Catherine, became attracted to a much younger woman, whereupon he constructed a narrative that made him the victim of a dull and boring union. George Eliot (Mary Evans) and Henry Lewes weren’t legally married at all, yet Rose believes they came closest to the ideal of a union of equals, enjoying each other’s company, working together, talking a lot, and having good sex.
     A very interesting book. Rose examines marriage at a time when the focus changed from a social and commercial contract to a personal relationship. Mill, among others, argued strongly for this view, seeing the older version as imposing severe legal and personal burdens on women. Carlyle opposed it. Dickens celebrated it in the scenes of domestic bliss in his novels. Ruskin expected his wife to serve his genius as his parents and he thought he deserved; his marriage broke up quickly. Eliot and Lewes spent their life together thoroughly enjoying each other.
     Rose doesn’t examine how and why the concepts of marriage changed. Her narratives focus on the effects of the new ideals on these ten people. She believes that heterosexual marriage can be a good thing. She believes it’s good to disentangle marriage from the legalities that burden the partners with unequal powers and obligations. She defends what she knows will be seen as an extended gossip, because gossip is the only way in which we can get a general grasp of a community’s beliefs and values. Gossip not only enforces these values, but also raises the issues that change them.
     The result is a book that fascinates. I pitied and admired these people, who all except Ruskin worked hard to make good lives for themselves and each other. Even the Eliot-Lewes union, which was such a happy one, was encumbered with Lewes’ continued support for his wife and children. We can see how our current notion of marriage as a supremely personal relationship not only has made divorce mandatory when that relationship breaks, but has also made same-sex marriage inevitable. For if the essence of marriage is freely assumed obligations and rights, than any arrangement in which people adopt them is a marriage.
     The book also confirmed a couple of impressions I’ve had from reading Victorian literature. I don’t like Ruskin, I think his aesthetics nonsensical. He did not understand art as the product of imagination, he thought it was entirely about feelings in response to "nature", condemning art he could not understand, and writing bosh to justify his opinions. I didn’t like Carlyle’s hero worship, which entails contempt for ordinary people. His break with Mill (Carlyle didn’t believe in the equality of women) confirmed what I saw as self-satisfied pomposity. He had a strong intellect, but a limited imagination.
     Rose prompts questions. Why did the concept of marriage change as it did? Dickens’ promotion of domestic, familial bliss did not create that ideal: Dickens was a genius at expressing the as yet unarticulated ideas and ideals of his time. Mill’s writings about politics (guided by Harriet) affected the legalities surrounding marriage. But argument for legal changes won’t be accepted if it’s too far ahead of already occurring shifts in people’s thinking and feeling. Roses’ book is a wonderfully insightful and insight-prompting book, worth reading as much for the questions it poses as the ones it answers. ****

Another Lam and Cool caper

      A. A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner). Traps Need Fresh Bait (1967) Donald Lam and Bertha Cool agree to investigate a want ad asking for witnesses to an accident. Turns out it’s part of an elaborate plan to find a patsy for a murder. The usual mix of pretty girls as occasions for Lam’s chivalry, evil but respectable seeming perps, greed, subterfuges, and tetchy relations with the cops, etc, makes for an easy, entertaining read. The solution to the puzzle will occur to the reader before Lam explains it to Bertha. **½