Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes

Lowdown: A heist tale in a world of swords, sorcery and politics.
I’ll be honest with you. The only reason I started reading The Palace Job is because its author was one of the writers of my favorite video game ever, Mass Effect. I wouldn’t have heard of this book in the first place if it wasn’t for me pushing my nose down every nook in search of stuff to help me recreate the Mass Effect experience again, to one extent or another. [That same type of nose pushing got me to learn of the existence of a TV series called Chuck, but that’s another story altogether.]
Other than that link to Mass Effect, The Palace Job has a lot going against it. Its author, Patrick Weekes, is not someone about whose literally skills I have heard in the usual places sci-fi fans go to. The Palace Job also happens to be a fantasy book of the swords & sorcery type, which I used to like as a teenager but grew fed up of as I grew up and started appreciating substance. I mean, I’ve been finding it quite hard to find good fantasy books that would justify the time spent on their reading. Still, Mass Effect means a lot to me. I gave The Palace Job a go.
Things didn’t start out well. Adding to my suspicions were a multitude of characters my gold fish of a memory found hard to deal with. Big mistake, this one, I thought, but continued reading. 10% through I decided I’ll labor on. 20% through I found myself thinking this is actually not too bad. 30% through it was obvious I’m quite enjoying myself. 35% through I realized I was obviously hooked. And by 50% through I was ready to have Weekes’ [metaphorical] children. Turned out The Palace Job was undeniably great through and through.
It wasn’t just simply great; it was Mass Effect great. So, what does it take to render a book that is so massively good? I can identify three factors.
First we have the plot. The Palace Job is set in a world that seems on a perpetual brink of war. It is also a world of upper and lower classes, literally: the lower classes live on the ground, while the upper classes live on some island that’s floating up there in the sky through magical powers. Magic made possible by the effort of prisoners who work hard on polishing the lenses that help the sun energizing magical things. Prisoners like Loch and her the man always at her side, Kail.
We start things off with the story of this couple’s escape from prison. What follows next is the story of this couple plotting to set things right by stealing an elfish artifact from the country’s equivalent of a president. But getting up there in the sky and breaking in to that president’s safe will take more than just door knocking, especially when one's hunted down as an escaped prisoner. Thus our gang of two assembles a proper party of many a weird character they mysteriously happen to stumble upon. And that party sure is eccentric, made of a wizard that's been cast off magic school, a unicorn, a safe cracker, an acrobat, a death priestess, a talking hammer, and a (male!) virgin. The rest of the story is a very Ocean's Eleven type thing with our group going through cycles of outsmarting the baddies only to be outsmarted by the baddies (and let us be clear, there are some pretty nasty baddies about in both this world and the next). It is a very clever affair put together very cleverly.
The plot was the first massive thing about The Palace Job. The second are the characters. As stated, there are a lot of characters about; the thing that is so special about them is that without exception, they are all very well developed. The Palace Job is not your regular case of one round character accompanied by a few NPCs. Instead, this is a case of a few very well rounded characters accompanied by many fairly round characters. When you add the story line of a group of special people led by one hell of a leader to perform the improbable, this rings a loud bell: this is exactly what us video game players did when we played Mass Effect 2 through. And just like Mass Effect, there is a whole lot of liberalism about these characters of ours: there are roughly equal numbers of males and females. Indeed, just like the better option of Mass Effect has the player playing a female character, The Palace Job's lead character is a woman. Not only is she a woman, she is also black. The amount of praise that's to be bestowed on Patrick Weekes for this matter alone is virtually endless: I doubt I ever read a book before where the main character was a black female. Oh, and one last Mass Effecty thing: there is plenty of humor and sexual innuendos about as our character interact with one another.
I am down to the third and last massive factor going for The Palace Job. That factor is politics! Yes, you read it right. Because The Palace Job is not just your simple Ocean's Eleven trick upon a trick kind of a story; The Palace Job has a very specific message to deliver, and that is the need for us to be aware of what's taking place around us if we are to consider ourselves good citizens. We need to pay attention to the news, be inquisitive and ask questions. It is no coincidence the world Loch is set in is a world that smells a lot of today's America, with its War on Everything and citizens kept in a state of fear on one side as well as a widening gap between the slight few that have it all and the vast majority of others that don't. Weekes is clearly trying to tell us something here, which is exactly why his book goes far beyond the simplistic realm of swords & sorcery most fantasy books are stuck at.
Now add all of the three ingredients together and you have yourself a book that I found to probably be the most entertaining work of fiction I read in years. A worthy creation from the house of Mass Effect if ever there was any.
Overall: Good fantasy books are truly hard to come by, but Patrick Weekes sure did it. The Palace Job is both entertaining and thought provoking. I pity Weekes being virtually unheard of in the fantasy/science fiction arena as a book writer, but then again - as long as he promises to write more stuff of The Palace Job's quality, I'll live with that. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
P.S. Just the other day BioWare announced Weekes will be one of its team member to attend July's PAX Australia gaming expo at Melbourne. I am looking forward to potentially meeting him in the company of my six years old gamer. It's just a pity he cannot sign a copy of my ebook!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Fair Game

Lowdown: A wife and husband stand up to the Bush administration and the lies it used to justify the war in Iraq.
Our video libraries are full to the brim with movies telling us to distrust government and authorities, portraying those that stand against them as heroes. However, only a relative few of those are based on true cases. Only a handful portray the human story behind the heroes, the tale of their life before and after they turned heroes. There are not that many that deal with recent affairs, and there are even less dealing with what is probably the biggest government lie of this century thus far: the justification of the war on Iraq through the argument for weapons of mass destruction.
Fair Game, however, fits into all of the above criteria. It may not be a film that takes the art of cinema into new realms and it may not feature much we haven’t seen before, but it does tell the recent story of an American couple with kids who stood up to the government on a matter for which the death toll is probably in the millions by now. Not that it helped them, or us, much; the people up there know how to take care of themselves. But it is a start, and it is the moral thing to do.
Valerie (Naomi Watts) is, to her friends, a typical working woman and mother of two. However, behind the charade she is a secret CIA agent who manages all sorts of international activities that probably shouldn’t take place in a decent world. Her husband, Joe (Sean Penn), knows about her activities and often covers for her at home. He is also an ex American ambassador to an African country and thus knows Africa well.
The two happen to separately face work issues related to Iraq. Joe is sent to Niger in order to investigate rumors of uranium mining for Iraq, while Valerie investigates precision tubes ordered from China by Iraq. In both cases the chase up leads to nothing: no uranium is sold to Iraq from Africa, and those tubes are cases for conventional ordnance. Seems like two open and shut cases, only that someone refuses to let go: it becomes clear people up the food chain, people of the White House, are interested in using these unjustified rumors as justification for war. And that is when Joe decides that he cannot stand by and allow it to happen, thereby publishing an article in the New York Times. What follows is the story of the war fought by America against this couple that stood up for the truth and for the true America.
There is not much to say other than express my appreciation for these two, particularly Joe. Like others I got to know over the years they show how standing up for the truth can take severe personal toll, but it is also the only thing a decent person can do. That said, Fair Game thoroughly explores the question of what personal sacrifice is justified when fighting those of authority. After all, was this incident to take place in China, I doubt anyone would complain if the couple chose to keep quiet.
As expected, Watts and Penn play their characters immaculately. Regarding Fair Game’s authenticity, the fact the movie is out there and hasn’t been sued to death clearly indicates the truth in its claims. The fact only minor players suffered the consequences while the death toll rises does tell us a lot everyone needs to know about today’s USA (and the fact its ex president won’t leave the country for fear of prosecution). It is therefore a bit annoying that this otherwise well made film chose to use cameras too quick on their axis to shoot with; then again, director Doug Liman does have Bourne lineage.
Overall: An important story that should act as a role model for the rest of us. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013


Lowdown: Two couples confined to one apartment argue one another to the point of collapse.
The first thing one needs to know about Carnage is that it is a Roman Polanski film. The second is that other than the short opening and closing scenes, the whole movie takes place inside a New York apartment where two couples are locked: Penelope (Jodie Foster) and husband Michael (John C. Reilly) together with Nancy (Kate Winslet) and husband Alan (Christoph Waltz). And the third thing you need to know is that what follows is a direct result of the former two: An unmistakably Polanski film that allows the talents of its four stars to shine through, theater style.
The premises are simple. The opening scene depicts a public park where a gang of kids picks on a single child who defends himself with a stick. Next we’re at said apartment, where the parents of the boy with the stick came to see the parents of the boy at the wrong end of the stick for a conciliation visit. What starts off well moves through cycles in which one couple is primed to charge the other, intermixed with cycles where the males have a go at the females and vice versa. It’s hard to pick a core theme here, although if forced I will go with a philosophical discussion on the foundations of ethics.
More to the point, what we have here is an open ticket for some fine actors to offer their product in a generally entertaining way. They all sail through with good performances, even if the premises of the four “stuck” in an apartment doesn’t really make sense and occasionally feels artificial.
The end result is mildly amusing and entertaining; mostly, it is unique. In this age of digital special effects and such, it is hard to find movie so heavily reliant on nothing but the actors and their dialog. Thus while Carnage may not shatter the cinema art world, it definitely stands out as an interesting creation.
Best scene: The final scene, going back to the park, puts the whole preceding hour and a half inside the apartment into perspective. A lovely perspective.
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars. Not the best film ever, but if you’re ready for a unique experience then Carnage is definitely worth having a go.

Sunday, 19 May 2013


Lowdown: Old school Bond is back to save an M he may no longer be able to trust.
Daniel Craig is back to his James Bond shoes for the third time, but is he going to be third time lucky? His first Bond, Casino Royale, was a solid performer; the second, which I commonly refer to as Quantum Menace, has been a disappointing and quite a forgettable flop. So how will Skyfall fare? More interestingly, how will the Bond formula receive its revival this time around?
The answer is provided via M (Judi Dench). Skyfall starts with the usual highly explosive James Bond opening scene, this time taking place around and on top of the roofs of Istanbul. At the end of it Bond finds himself at a stalemate with the baddie of the moment, and with the clock ticking M orders another agent to take the shot. That agent misses and hits Bond, who is then presumed dead. Yeah, right: haven’t they seen enough Bond movies to realize the impossibility of this particular hypothesis?
Back home in London, with Bond now “dead” and the mission lost, M has to face the political witch hunting that comes as a result of the mission’s failure. She has to answer a set of politicians (including a Ralph Fiennes playing a character whose last name starts with an M; just saying). She repeats her stand that good old espionage is the only answer to a world of hidden baddies (as opposed to old style threats such as the USSR). However, she is not doing too well at that, particularly not when a new villain (eventually turning out to be Javier Bardem) seems to have set his particular sights on M as he manages to hit her at M’s most vulnerable – MI6’s headquarters. Have no worries, though: Bond may have been betrayed by M, but he’ll be back to defend country and heavily milked up tea. And although Bardem offers a particularly nasty and scary Bond villain, Bond will travel across the world and back to save the day for the homeland.
Plot usually takes second stage role with James Bond flicks. That is not the case in Skyfall, though. Sure, it has its high octane action scenes, but the main event is the clash taking place around M. It’s the clash of tradition, doing things the old way, the M way, as opposed to doing things the new way. That new way is represented in the film via the Internet coupled with modern technology and is personalized through the new Q, a computer geek that is made to look more like IT Crowd’s Moss. Q and Bond do not see eye to eye, with Bond standing for the good values of tradition, covert operations and zero transparency. In Skyfall, those old ways win the day for Bond and for the Union Jack, but am I really expected to accept the statement this movie is making in favor of tradition, the mockery it is making off us latte sipping folk hooded over our smartphones to read the latest news in Twitter? Well, F you too, Bond; if tradition was so good it could have solved our modern day problems as effectively as Skyfall is trying to claim, then we would have never had to refer to it as “tradition”; we would have just done it. But no, your tradition and backroom dealings in order to save us from the hidden baddies of this world have brought us pleasures such as the war in Iraq.
My problem with Skyfall’s arguments in favor of tradition and against technology go further than this film. All too often I find myself in defensive positions, accused by people stuck in the Stone Age of spending too much of my time in front of computers and my smartphone in particular. What they fail to realize is how mountains can be moved through these smartphones, a failure they make because of their inability to grasp the potential of having the bulk of human knowledge accessible in people’s pockets. Sure, the Internet alone won’t solve the world’s problems, and there are bad people out there to be dealt with; however, mocking the Internet and standing up to tradition for the sake of tradition will not help, either. In other words, does anyone seriously think the world was a better place before Wikileaks came out with its piles of American cables, giving us a glimpse of the corruption taking place behind all those doors closed in the name of state security?
The other problem I have with Skyfall is more cinematic in nature. On one hand this is a very polished production, directed by Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame and shot by the guy who is probably the most proficient cinematographer out there, Roger Deakins. On the other, and perhaps because of the former, I have found the action scenes suffering: they are over the top, which is normal as per James Bond standards, but almost all of them peak at some stupidly unbelievable moment that stood in contrast to the rest of this film’s seriousness and general level of polish. For example, I’m talking a scene where a couple of tough goons find themselves dragged to their deaths by lizards. Indeed, gone is that hard but authentic edge Casino Royale’s action scenes had.
Funniest scene: The end credits say that Adele, who sings the title song, appears "courtesy of [some record label name]". Yeah, right. I'm sure Skyfall's producers had to beg the label to have Adele sing their song.
Overall: One can enjoy it for its almost two and a half hours of rollercoasting action, but at its core Skyfall is compromised by corrupt ideology. 3 out of 5 stars for this technophobe's delight.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Lowdown: An unlikely pairing of man and woman taking place when a Yemeni sheik decides on salmon fishing at home.
Perceptions of director Lasse Hallström have been pretty much fixed since his 2000 movie Chocolat. And rightly so: this romantic tale of an unlikely coupling sporting some high class actors sported many a charm, including a good spirit of rebellion that anyone can identify with. I had felt Hallström was pretty much trying to reproduce that same experience with his films since; perhaps in 2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen he manages this to the highest fidelity.
Our starting point is the actors, and in this tale about previously coldish and closed British folk the stars are Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor. Both, I have to say, are personal favorites of mine (despite the latter taking a major role in a certain abysmal trilogy). Blunt plays Harriet, a posh employee at this high class London company that arranges for things to be done for rich people, while McGregor plays Dr Jones, a Scottish scientist whose entire life is about fish and almost nothing to do with his wife. The two meet when Harriet raises a request on behalf of a Yemeni sheik to receive help in arranging salmon fishing facilities at Yemen, but at Dr Jones’ advice the request is dismissed. Poor feasibility is sighted.
A diplomatic incident in the Middle East raises the initiative’s profile, with the British PM’s media advisor (an excellent Kristin Scott Thomas) picking up on the potential PR here. Dr Jones and Harriet are forced to cooperate, but before they can deal with fish they need to deal with personal obstacles. Like, for example, Harriet’s army boyfriend going MIA. Or simply the general antagonism between the two. [Might I also add the age difference between the two, a point Hollywood likes to ignore?] However, there is nothing like the warmth of Yemen to heat things up until the inevitable sweet conclusion.
The main deliverable here is sugar, in mass quantities. Note I am talking about sugar, not artificial saccharine, because I did find the whole affair positively entertaining. Sure, this is not the most original or thought provoking affair ever – it is just a tale of an unlikely romance that occasionally borders with romcom territory – but it is very well done. How can anything go wrong with such actors? The movie had me right from the start with its repeat introductions of Dr Jones.
Best scene: Dr Jones saves the day (and the sheik) from the clutches of a terrorist from afar using his bare fishing rod.
Overall: Don’t look for depth here and don’t look for anything you haven’t seen before. Just seat back enjoy on a cold winter night. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Shure SE215 Headphones

Lowdown: In-ear headphones with a twist.
Having recently went through the ordeal of some very long flights, so long it became intolerable, made we more determined than ever to put my fist on the table and say never again! Never again will I tolerate the noisy airplane environment without taking active measures to avoid it!
The question turned into the how department. Noise cancelling headphones can be effective (the Bose are certainly reported to be), but their sound quality tends for the mediocre; I would feel stupid forking out so much money (Bose's sell for $300) for something that I rarely need, regardless of how badly I need it when I do fly. Fully enclosed headphones are nice, but their sealing’s effectiveness is not enough to make one’s day on board of an airplane. And in-ear headphones? They keep falling off! Or do they? Shure’s ones are different, and with the SE215 model selling for $100 I decided they were worthy enough of me having a go. I’m happy I did.
The most obvious feature of the SE215s, as well as the other three in-ear headphones in Shure’s series, is their construction. The SE215s consist of replaceable rubber ear plug tubes that you play with using your fingers in order to shrink them a bit, then stick them in your ear where they gradually expand to form a tighter fit and provide sealing. These rubber tubes are connected to the headphones themselves, which reside in your ear’s cavity and are therefore of this weird shape. Then there is a wire that you need to wrap around your ear, a wire that leads all the way to the headphone jack (no microphone or volume control for your smartphone are provided).
It is therefore no wonder it took me a while to put the headphones on. It is also no wonder at all it took numerous attempts till I was able to put the headphones on and actually be convinced that I put them on properly, with them secured tightly around my ears and without wires forming some sort of a modern art impression around and on top of my head. I actually had to use a wonder of modern technology, my smartphone’s front facing camera, to help with this learning process (yes, I know, a mirror would have worked just the same). Even then there have been doubts on whether I was using the right size ear plugs, but luckily these are replaceable and Shure provides several sizes to try with the headphones.
I do have to add that I am still dealing with a sort of a rite every time I want to put my SE215s on. Sure, I know the technique and I don’t need a mirror anymore, but telling which of the two earpieces needs to go into which ear is not that trivial an affair. It could probably escalate to nightmare levels for those of us who are far sighted.
Want the positive side of this take of ergonomics? These Shures don’t fall off.
Once I did manage to put the SE215s on, the first thing I noticed about them is that they’re loud. Much louder than my default headphones, the open back Grado SR80i, and even louder than the sealed AKG K-450 I occasionally borrow from my wife. Allow me to add I do not necessarily consider loudness a virtue; I was born fully capable of reaching my player’s volume knob. If anything, being overly loud could be a disadvantage when I find that even the quietest possible volume setting is too loud for me to use (which does happen from time to time, especially at work). Take the loudness whichever way you, though: it is an important characteristic of these headphones. Remember, though: When comparing headphones and speakers, we tend to think the louder ones are the better ones. We are easily fooled!
The second thing I noticed about the Shures is just how quiet they made the world around me. Wearing them reminded me of wearing earplugs for shooting: they SE215 conspire to truly separate me from the world around me. As far as I could tell they work much better than noise cancelling headphones, with the added bonus of not only blocking noise away but doing so without damaging sonics. I haven’t tried them on board of planes, but I can attest to the SE215s allowing me to enjoy audiophile recordings properly on board trains, at train stations, and in busy streets. Sure, if you take them to a football stadium you shouldn’t expect an uninterrupted session with Bach by your side, but they work well enough to require heightened awareness when attempting daredevil acts such as crossing a road. Actually, they separated me so well from the world that if I wear them while walking I could hear the insides of my body at work: the inside noise of my feet walking, my heart beats, and – annoyingly so – the headphone’s wires rubbing against my clothes. The latter can be easily sorted, the former – probably not.
The third thing I noticed was the sound. And it was good and I was happy! The SE215s are proper headphones for the audiophile on a budget, not the fashion statement crap that passes for headphones with most of the crowds. Comparing them to my Grados again, the SE215s sport much stronger bass and lesser treble. That, however, is not a problem at all for me: the Grados do have thin bass as well as a well established reputation for being overly bright. Between the two, I would say the Shures deliver an experience that is much more like that of listening to normal speakers while the Grados deliver a "headphone experience". The Shures are also much easily driven by my iPhone 5, whereas the Grados cause it to struggle all too often. On the other hand, soundstage wise the Grados are the clear winner, probably through the aid of their bright nature: while the Shures make it sound as if the music is playing in your head, the Grados allow the music to express itself outside the head, too. I do have to note the Shures are very sensitive to how well you stuck them down your ear; better placement means significantly better sound.
I would say the Grados are still the best headphones I know for $100 or less, but I would also say the Shure SE215 are just as good and are well worth buying to serve at noisy environments. Not to mention the Grados' poor portability. The Shures are less comfortable when sitting down, though: at the office, for example, being interrupted by a phone call or such requires going through the whole ritual of sticking the headphone back in afterwards. Not to mention toilet breaks. The Grados, or any other normal headphones? Just take them out and put them back on.
Being that I am perfectly happy with the Shure SE215s’ musical capabilities given their $100 price tag, I will end this review stating that I do have a single reservation with recommending them. It is simple: If the SE215 is such a fine model, should I have spent $315 to put my hands on Shure’s top model in-ear headphone, the SE535, instead? Sadly, because of the personal nature using such headphones involves (as in, sticking them into the ear, with all the goo and stuff that’s in there), I have been unable to test the SE535 and witness their claim to fame. Thus until I have north of $300 to throw away I’d have to settle with the SE215s. I can live with that.
Overall: Fine musical performers if a bit cumbersome; most importantly, nothing can equal them in value for money if used at noisy environments. 4 out of 5 stars.

Image: Shure

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Lowdown: The Hobbit gets the Lord of the Rings treatment.
There aren’t many books out there that had as much influence on me as The Hobbit does. I still remember it staring at me from the window of this bookshop I would pass by as a child. Up until, that is, I went in and bought it – still a child. It turned out to be something truly special: in retrospect I can say I do not think it as good a book as The Lord of the Rings turned out to be a couple of years later, but it was damn good! The type of book I found myself reading again and again with no pause. What I am trying to say is, children books – or, as the current terminology goes, YA books – do not come any better than The Hobbit.
I can thus determine that Peter Jackson did have a huge load upon his shoulder, at least in the expectations department, when it came to him doing Hobbit films. More so than he had when he did The Lord of the Rings, because back then he did not have that stupidly high benchmark to be automatically compared to, did he? It is therefore almost natural for Peter Jackson to treat The Hobbit the way he treated The Lord of the Rings. And that, my friends, is The Hobbit’s downfall. Instead of delivering to us The Hobbit, the relatively innocent tale that ended up serving Tolkien as the prelude to The Lord of the Rings, we have been served with The Hobbit, a trio of movies delivered after The Lord of the Rings and clearly aimed at complimenting their predecessors on the big screen.
Usually this is the point I provide a short account of what the movie is about. Other than say the film takes us through the early steps of a group of dwarves’ quest to resurrect their ancient kingdom, aided by an unlikely hobbit chosen at the whim of wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen back to his most recognizable attire), I will not do it this time. If you haven’t read The Hobbit then, my friend, you have severely wronged yourself (but lucky for you, matters can be mended truly easily and relatively quickly). That said, one of my bigger gripes with The Hobbit is that the movie adds too much to the book – the opposite crime of what most book to movie adaptations do – but in doing so, and very much by doing so, provides us with a film that is lesser than it could have been.
I would say The Hobbit’s biggest problem is its length. At close to three hours we could live with The Fellowship of the Ring being as long as it was, because it did come out of quite a thick book; the same, however, cannot be said about The Hobbit. It comes from a normal if not thin book (by today’s sci-fi standards), and yet Jackson & Studio, in their infinite wisdom, chose to depict it as three separate films out of which at least the first is close to three hours long. Remember the problems people had with the seemingly everlasting finale of The Return of the King (I didn’t; I thought these were necessary and well made)? Well, The Hobbit feels like a three hour long ending to The Return of the King. There is nothing memorable about it.
Combine the timing with The Hobbit wearing Lord of the Rings attire and this movie’s ultimate crime becomes obvious: backstabbing its origins: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Voyage is far from being a piece of work aimed at children. Unless, of course, you aspire to possess your children with nightmares.
Best scene: The drama that takes place when our hero, Bilbo the unlikely hobbit, and Gollum upon their first meeting down a dark cave is undeniably good. Martin Freeman is clearly one of my favorite actors and one of this world’s best comedy talents.
Worst scene: Magic users convene in a scene that brings back characters portrayed by Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett. Alas, this blatant attempt to put some of the big Lord of the Rings names on the same frame is not only blatant but also boring. Totally redundant.
Technical note: Given the film earned attention at the cinemas by virtue of its higher rate of frames per second, I will note the Blu-ray we had watched sported the usual 24 frames per second.
Overall: What a disappointment! 2.5 out of 5 stars. I certainly hope the sequels do better, but I doubt it.

Friday, 10 May 2013

iWoz by Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith

Lowdown: The autobiography of the nice person behind the PC revolution.
I suppose I could say that growing up at the time I grew up, there to watch computers invade the home, makes me a lucky guy. Hey, it’s much better than running in and out of caves with no running hot water. Seriously: even though I may have not realized at for quite a long time I, love computers. Learning to program them in various ways was one of my teens’ highlights. Today, both my mortgage and my favorite activities of leisure owe a lot to those experiences of yonder. And although I didn’t know it at the time, those privileges put me in debt of a small group of people, the people who made this all possible. Chief amongst them is the guy that singlehandedly brought the computer home, properly: Steve Wozniak (with a little help from another Steve).
I knew enough about Wozniak to know that I wanted to know more about the man. The guy reminds me of myself, to one extent or another: loves computers and tinkers with them, has a reputation for being shy and reclusive, and is working on his application for a visa that would allow him to move to Australia. More importantly, Wozniak, or just Woz, has a universal reputation for being a nice guy; not that many people manage to get to the top and maintain such a reputation. Surely, the guy is special. Surely I will find learning more about him interesting. Thus when I found that option was available to me since 2006 in the form of iWoz, his autobiography, I put it high up my reading list.
Told using very simple language, out of what seems to be oral interviews with Gina Smith which were later put down to paper, iWoz tells us the way things were in first person. Much like Steve Jobs’ biography, this autobiography portrays the image of a child lucky to spend his childhood at a certain location and in certain circumstances that made him what he now is. Also, by the way, a child lucky to live with loving parents. Things hot up pretty quickly as we learn about the events that led to Woz’ big bang, the design and creation of the first Apple and then the Apple II. Later we follow up on Woz’ version of his relative distancing from Apple, his marriages and breakups, his career as the producer of musical events, his accident, his kids, and much more.
The historical importance of Woz’ feats is undeniable. Through his personal design breakthroughs he got us the computers we now take for granted: computers connected to a keyboard on one side for an input and a screen on the other for output. A color screen at that! Not to mention other breakthroughs, such as the floppy disk drive. It would have all happened, eventually, but it happened faster than otherwise possible through the genius of one man. Being able to hear from that man’s mouth about these historical breakthroughs is one reason iWoz is well worth reading.
I would suggest, however, that the most important contribution iWoz makes is in letting us know, both in fact and opinion, what it was that allowed Wozniak to come up with his brilliance. He talks a lot about his parents and his school career, but at the book’s conclusion he lays it there for all to see: innovation was possible because he worked on his own and he followed his dream; it would have been effectively impossible were he to do the same type of work at a large company, in a team, and while following company protocol. Innovation requires passion, and organized work murders that passion. I very much agree; and I also think this insight has plenty of implications on the way we should lead our lives to their maximum potential and the way we should educate and raise our children.
Philosophical insight aside, reading iWoz one can clearly see how Wozniak acquired his "nice guy" reputation. It is simply amazing he managed to keep this state of mind through the highs and lows of his life (and the inevitable comparison with that other Steve tells us a lot there). He’s not only nice, though: he’s a man of his word and quite the philanthropist. I think what I’m trying to say here is that long before I finished reading iWoz I felt like I want to seek me Wozniak out so I could give him a hug.
Overall: This personal tale of one of the Information Age’s pioneers is both interesting and fun to read even if it is not written to Christopher Hitchens’ level of English mastery. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

11/5/2013 update: Oddly for yours truly, I neglected to mention Wozniak's professional career as a producer of electronic gadgets started with a device to hack the phone system and make free calls. In other words, Wozniak is a hacker; a more or less ethical hacker, according to his account, but a hacker still. A hacker that by today's standards would probably spend a lot of time in both court and jail.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Mass Effect: Paragon Lost

Lowdown: The story of James Vega’s coming of age as a marine facing the Collectors.
The first ever incarnation of Mass Effect on the big screen, and all we get is a movie about James Vega? And a Japanese anime (manga) at that? I have to admit, that’s a bit of a let down. I would have much preferred something dealing with one of the more popular characters, say Garrus or Liara; not to mention FemShep. And although I have nothing against anime – quite the contrary – Mass Effect has the potential to blow crowds away with a live action movie. Still, on the positive side, we have ourselves a Mass Effect movie. Hooray!
Complaints aside, I actually enjoyed this one. It’s a simple, entertaining animated action flick; as long as you don’t expect the galaxy, it should prove fine entertainment.
We follow Mass Effect 3’s James Vega during the rough period of Mass Effect 2. That is, before we got to know him in the games. Vega is a fresh marine, sent with his squad to ward off mercenaries attacking a human settlement. Pulling off some heroic tricks, he manages to beat some Krogans and win the day. That, however, ends up as nothing more than a prelude for the real thing that comes up next: the Collectors and their arrival in order to, well, collect the settlement. In true Mass Effect fashion the never a boring moment plot has Vega’s team going on a suicide mission, and at the end of it all he has to make one of those Paragon/Renegade like key decisions that Mass Effect is famous for.
Indeed, the connection with the Mass Effect games is made very clear throughout. Without it Paragon Lost would be lost, just a meaningless collection of animation scenes. This is perhaps why the name of Shepard keeps on getting invoked by Vega – often annoyingly so. There is even a guest visit by Liara thrown in, although she is not voiced by Ali Hillis but rather by some "imposter". Talking about the voices, as far as I could tell only Vega was voiced by his original gaming voice, Freddie Prinze Jr.
Then there is the problematic area of how well Paragon Lost integrates with the Mass Effect canon. The token female character here (token, at least by Mass Effect standards) explains why Vega is not romantically interested in FemShep; however, that female character is far from original. In the same way that Vega serves as some sort of an inferior Garrus type companion in Mass Effect 3, that character is an inferior Liara. More importantly, Paragon Lost sheds some light over Vega’s background story, as hinted at in Mass Effect 3; only that if you insist then you will find some inconsistencies with the venerable game.
However, as I said, if you turn the blind eye and relax yourself, you should be able to enjoy Paragon Lost as the simple action movie it is. Simple, and just like the plot, almost a fifth wheel to the real thing - the video games it follows.
Overall: I can’t help falling for anything Mass Effect, enjoying Paragon Lost 3 out of 5 stars much. However, I do suspect others will like it much less, whereas those unacquainted with the Mass Effect universe would find absolutely no reason to watch this.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Lowdown: Our children need an environment of freedom in order learn; our current education system provides the opposite, thus damaging them.
I am a parent riddled with guilt feelings.
During the bulk of the nearly two decades of my life I had spent under some formal studying environment I have suffered and complained. I did not enjoy school, I did not enjoy university, I was bored shitless most of the time, and I felt like I was wasting my time. At sixth grade, when I wrote in a school project that I do not think school managed to endow me with any worthwhile values, I was invited to a polite chat with the authorities. By university time my colleagues and I stopped beating around the bush: we were not studying for the purpose of learning, we were studying in order to maximize our grades (personally, my fear of failing gave me that extra push to get even better grades). There were no holds barred in that quest for the grade, a crusade that was beneficial to both us students as well as our teachers whose reputations were driven by the success of their students. It all felt like one foul, gigantic con.
What kept me going throughout is the knowledge that at the end of this borefest I will receive some sort of a certificate that would, later on, open up various doors for me and allow me to live a comfortable [remainder of] life. Is that justification good enough? I do not know; what I do know is that this year is my son’s first year at school. Although far better than the school I have attended at his age, I can clearly see him going through the same torture I did; in some respects he already is. There lies the source of my guilt: what crime did my son commit that I am sending him to his own decades of frustration?
Along comes Peter Gray, and in his book Free to Learn he tells me I am not alone. He had to deal with a far more serious school related affair his son went through, and in the process he learned a lot about the education of children. Essentially, his main point is that children learn best through their built in motivation, driven by their own curiosity. He finds support for his point in anthropological studies of hunter/gatherer societies and the way they conduct themselves. Further, play is the best teaching aid at our disposal, a point further made through anthropological studies as well as personal experience gathered through years of unsupervised play as a child (an experience I fully concur with, by the way).
Yet what are we doing with the education system we have erected over the past few centuries? We are doing all the wrong things. Our schools are the historical leftovers of institutions designed to break and mold children into obedient, god observant creatures. Our institutions regards play as wasteful. And for various financial reasons, our streets are now devoid of playing kids; unsupervised play, the best tool for children to learn to cope with others, is all but extinct, replaced by ultra-supervised activities. These, according to the author, are actually harmful to the development of our children. Thus, in effect, the only good educational time our children have, a time when they truly learn, is recess. The rest of the time, the “quality” time, only serves to switch off their enthusiasm about anything and everything, producing children that never practiced getting along with one another who will thus have a hard time orienting themselves in society when set at large.
Gray argues there are things we can do for our children, though. He spends a lot of his book reviewing the way one special school, Sudbury Valley School, conducts itself, and he recommends parents try and emulate that school’s experience for their children. Alas, although by now there are numerous schools emulating the Sudbury way, none operate in Australia (although some of my readers would be interested to know there are a couple working in Israel).
As you might have gathered by now, I generally agree with most of Gray’s arguments. For example, his arguments about the value of unsupervised play between children rang a strong bell with me: I remember how I got along with both children younger than me and older than me to, for example, play football. I also remember how, as Gray mentions, we had our set of unwritten rules: no one did anything to deliberately hurt someone else playing, no one kicked the ball too hard so as to potentially harm another player. Even when we fought one another we never let it all out: there was never any hair pulling, never scratching, and hits were always held back. Compare that to, say, adult supervised football training: a player that doesn’t give it all when tackling an opponent is automatically branded a loser.
Where I had problems accepting Gray’s arguments is where my own personal experience lacked. For example, I accept his evidence regarding the virtues of education in hunter/gatherer societies; however, can we really tell whether their free play would work in today’s complicated world? I do not know. I would love to agree with Gray that kids will find their drive to learn, particularly through examples set by older kids, but I just do not have enough evidence at my disposal to be able to confidently accept Gray’s claims. Further, at one stage or another children will have to face testing of sorts, at least until Sudbury style universities come about; and while Gray claims Sudbury kids do well, or even better, when their time comes, I – again – need further evidence.
This Free to Learn gave me lots of things to think about, but mostly frustrated me in the sense of it illustrating how my son is very much doomed to follow where I have trodden before. I do hope, however, to be able to provide sanctuaries along the way: to create, for examples, unsupervised play opportunities; or, and that's much easier for me, to allow him to have the alternative of video gaming available. Regardless, Free to Learn indicates how valuable the freedom my son had at kinder was; it's just a pity that experience cannot continue throughout his school years.
Overall: An important, thought provoking book, of the type I wish more would read so as we can start improving our society towards evidence based policies - this time in education. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Local Hero

Lowdown: A representative of an oil company is sent to a remote Scottish town in order to secure its purchase quietly so an oil repository can be built in its stead.
My Local Hero story is as personal as an affair with a film can get. I watched this 1983 movie several times decades ago and never really took to it, but I always held a warm place for the Mark Knopfler soundtrack. Newcastle United may be using his movie theme for its home games, but I always play it in my head upon a homecoming.
Recently, as chance would have it - or rather, as Spotify's random play turned out to be not so random - we got to listen to the soundtrack several times in succession. My wife asked me what this piece of music was, and I told her: I told her who wrote it, I told her what it was written for, and I told her what the movie was about, I told her I didn't find the movie to be that great, and I also added it was one of my best friend's favorite films (or at least used to be). The die was cast: we had to watch Local Hero. In retrospect, I am grateful for Spotify's inherent lack of randomness.
Local Hero starts of at the headquarters of a giant Texan oil company. Ruled by an old tycoon (Burt Lancaster) that is losing it so badly he hires a therapist to shout at him because no one else would, the company determines the only way to secure the delivery of its North Sea oil is by building a giant repository on the Scottish shore. And the only viable place for that repository happens to be this peaceful, remote, tiny village. They send one of their bean counters (Peter Riegert) to secure the purchase of the land quietly and peacefully from the villagers, before anyone knows what is really going to happen and just how valuable the area has become.
So our guy journeys all the way to the village, which - he finds - is somewhat similar yet very different to the company he represents. The local lawyer he's meeting to coordinate the deal with (Denis Lawson, of Star Wars fame) happens to also be the manager of the hotel he's staying at. And the cook. We continue to witness, through Texan eyes, the transformation going over the local residents as they realize they are about to become millionaires; we also witness the transformation in the lookout of our Texan as the little village grown on him.
This little gem of a film, this tiny production, turned out to stir me much more than any other recent film I watched. It may be a small budget film from Britain but there is a lot to like about it: the whole story it tries to tell about capitalism and humanity, for a start. The satire on corporate culture, the stupidity of which we tend to witness in person and in the news all too often. And, of course, the whole thing about what is truly important in life. Yet what touched me the most was the way our giant oil company representative fell in love with the place he was visiting, a place he did not have much expectations of. It reminded me of someone I know going through the exact same transformation.
Best scene: Our hero goes back home to Texas, has one look at his flashy yet empty inner city apartment, and realizes he went back to the wrong home. Cue in Knopfler's theme, one of the best there ever was.
Overall: I might not have liked it before, but now I certainly have a lot to identify with. Local Hero gets 4.5 out of 5 stars from me.