Monday, 29 September 2008

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: Origin of Species done better.
If we were to ignore The God Delusion for a minute and focus on his popular science books we will find Richard Dawkins' second most famous book after The Selfish Gene is The Blind Watchmaker (TBW). TBW is a book with a purpose, and the purpose is to inform its readers what the theory of evolution is and how it works. Being that over the last year or two Dawkins has established himself as my favorite author by far, I cherished TBW and kept it safe until an occasion worthy enough comes up for me to read it (a practice that makes sense, sort of, when you consider that I have been reading Dawkins books much faster than he has been producing new ones). An occasion deemed worthy did come up lately when we flew away for a month's holiday and the choice of a book to share my travels with came up, and despite TBW not being your average travel companion - after all, this is a book that requires its reader to turn his/her mind on - I decided to take it along. You see, complexity has stopped scaring me a long time ago when it comes to Dawkins' books as by now it has become clear Dawkins is second to none in his ability to explain complex ideas in not only a simple manner but an entertaining manner, too. And I will say it hear and now: I wasn't disappointed with my choice, not in the least; in fact, I could hardly think of a better companion to spend almost a week of my life with in the closed confinement of a toilet while suffering from travelers' diarrhea. I hope Dawkins would forgive me, but the thought provoking discussions presented by TBW managed to almost make my toilet adventures a pleasant experience.
What else can I say about a book that starts off with words as immortal as "We animals"?
In a manner that typifies Dawkins' book writing, TBW starts by defining the problem that the theory of evolution by natural selection sets out to explain. Most of us understand it intuitively but, at speaking for myself I never sat down to ponder why there was a need to come up with this theory in the first place; thus I have found Dawkins' approach to be very constructive. The problem, says Dawkins, is that of complexity: the universe may be astonishingly large, but so far the most complex things in this universe as we know it are us living beings. Each of our cells is one super complicated factories, yet we have cells by the billion; how did that come to be?
Then Dawkins sets out to take us on a journey explaining, to a very detailed level, how adaptive evolution by natural selection over extremely long periods of time is not only a methodology that can explain how such a level of complexity came to be, but is probably the only way in which such complexity could have come about. Dawkins makes his points by examining the evidence we have at our disposal, such as fossils, genes, and examples for super complex adaptations such as the eye or bats' sonar like navigation. In order to demonstrate the power of adaptive evolution Dawkins utilizes computer simulations that deliver demonstrate as clear as possible just how powerful a mechanism it is. More interestingly, though, he plays a philosopher's trick and demonstrates how the idea of evolution can be arrived at as the one and only solution by doing nothing more than sitting on the sofa and thinking. No stone is left untouched by Dawkins, including stones Dawkins admits to have preferred leaving alone, as he explains not only core evolution but also stuff around its periphery such as the science and folklore behind taxonomy. Last, but not least, Dawkins compares evolution by natural selection to other competing theories, including the most popular one - the designer/creator - to demonstrate how weak these theories are and how they simply fail to explain even the most basic aspects of the complexity in our world.
Amongst others, there are two types of people I truly warm up to in this world. First there is the type that made some huge discoveries of a caliber that really changed the way this world of ours thinks of itself - people like Newton, who unweaved the rainbow (to quote from another Dawkins book) or Einstein. Charles Darwin belongs to this distinguished club and he got his ticket through the publication of The Origin of Species, a book I have read a few years ago. Read but didn't really finish, because it was hard to read, often very boring, and very unfocused. Luckily, there is the second type of people, the type that sets out to explain to the masses and to dumb people like yours truly what those sophisticated ideas are and how they imply on us. This club includes among its distinguished members people like Carl Sagan as well as Richard Dawkins with his own own selection of masterpieces. True, TBW is a rather long and often demanding book, but when it comes to explaining evolution by natural selection I find it hard to imagine an explanation that does half as good a job as TBW does. It is truly inspirational; the best compliment I can give it is that just like with its predecessor, The Selfish Gene, it ceases to become a book explaining evolution and turns to be a book on the true meaning of life.
Now there are many books out there that pretend to be dealing with the meaning of life. The one "slight" advantage TBW has over the vast majority of them is that it deals with the real thing: it is a discussion supported by hard facts and science that, for a change, can explain things and can also be used to as the basis for further delving into things. There are not that many books out there that can boast similar pedigree.
Best scene: TBW was written during the eighties, and at the time it was accompanied by a TV documentary bearing the same title. The documentary can be easily found on the web, presenting some of the book's key ideas. The highlight for me, however, was seeing a youngish Dawkins running around in short eighties style shorts.
Overall: For a book about which I have held such high expectations I can definitely say that I wasn't disappointed in the least but actually often surprised by how good it was. A rating of 4.5 out of 5 actually ill favors TBW as books are rarely as informative, eye opening and entertaining.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Night and Fog

Lowdown: A look at Nazi concentration camps.
Night and Fog is an half an hour long French documentary dating back from 1955 which has been recently released on DVD. Built from stock footage and some new footage taken shortly after World War II has ended, Night and Fog discusses Nazi concentration camps: how they were built, how they were run, and how they were to escalate into places of mass organized killing. The documentary's name, Night and Fog, comes from the code name given by the Nazis to their policy of "relaxed" prisoner handling: instead of following the Geneva Convention and its likes they came up with their own set of rules.
Despite its short length, Night and Fog is quite effective at being chilling. It shows many sights most of us have already seen, to one extent or another: starving people being ill treated, people piled up on cargo trains, piles of bodies, the shower rooms, etc. However, it goes a bit further than most in exploring the evil: There is, for example, a thorough discussion on the products made out of the victims, from clothes of human hair through human soap and human leather. However, it is at its most thought provoking effectiveness in its discussion over the responsibility for the events that took place: It shows the hierarchy that took place in the camps, with the Nazis as well as the Kapo people who were prisoners with power over the other prisoners; and it also demonstrates how well purpose designed the concentration camps were. Such a level of design requires very thorough designers, which raises questions like: Who were those designers, where did they disappear to, and most importantly - how could they do such a thing in the first place?
The result is that Night and Fog is straight and raw; this is no Schindler's List style sweetened and entertaining Holocaust flick.
Best scene: A slow pan over a concentration camp's toilets demonstrates the level of cruelty involved with robbing the prisoners' sense of identity and humanity, as well as the careful design that took place in the camps' construction.
Technical assessment:
The material's age does show. However, the most annoying thing with Night and Fog are the subtitles: as the French narration gets ahead of itself with "enthusiasm" over the material, which he does way too often, the subtitles are having a hard time keeping up and change too quickly for mortals like me to read. If a none French speaking viewer wants to watch this and not miss out a thing, they have to sit patiently with their remote in hand and be prepared to rewind and pause way too frequently. In short, what I am trying to say is that the subtitles were rather badly designed.
Overall: It's hard for me to rate Night and Fog. On one hand, it's effective, and its short length only raises its effectiveness. On the other hand, though, through the badly designed subtitles, it's rather annoying. I'll rate the experience at 3 out of 5 stars but mention that the contents itself is worth more.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Notes on a Scandal

Lowdown: All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
One of the things Aussie critics often say about Cate Blanchett is that although she is undeniably a good actress, there has been no movie of hers that has been truly memorable. Not even her role as Elizabeth makes you think of her the way one would think of, say, Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones. Notes on a Scandal sort of goes to prove this theme: Blanchett throws an excellent performance, but the result is nothing you wouldn't forget about shortly after the DVD has been returned to the rental store.
Judi Dench, who also throws an excellent performance, is a teacher at a public school in a rather poor area of London that has seen it all. Mostly, she has seen principles coming in with all sorts of sophisticated yet useless ideas on how to improve their school; coming and going. She's cynical about it all. One day, a new, young, good looking yet rather naive teacher joins the school ranks (Blanchett). Her looks means everyone is interested in her, especially the male teachers, but it's Dench that actually gets close to her as she saves her from an embarrassing situation with her students.
The two become close and Dench learns Blanchett is married to a significantly older guy (Bill Nighy) and mothers two, including a Down Syndrome child. Life is not easy on Blanchett, who seeks refuge with Dench. Then Dench learns that Blachett is actually having an affair with one of her child students. Dench chooses to cooperate with Blanchett, but she has her price.
Notes on a Scandal is essentially a story about the loneliness of modern society, where people are having a hard time forming proper relationships with one another. On one hand it portrays the hardship of forming proper relationships while on the other it shows the cynical way in which society treats those that open themselves up in search of fellowship. It all works nicely and the performances are great, but soon enough Notes on a Scandal turns into a cheap thriller that is not so thrilling on weirdos as we the audience start feeling more like were into voyeurism than we're watching a proper film. At the end it feels more like popular junk than thought provoking cinema.
Best scene: The exposed Blanchett, tormented as hell, goes out to the street and into the arms of the press photographers that wait for her to fall in their trap. The photographers are a metaphor for society and Blanchett is the lonely person seeking contact, and with her performance it works very well.
Overall: Nice but proves the point about Blanchett's inability to come up with goods that fit her quality. 3 out of 5 stars.