Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review: Left Behind and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies


 HERE'S A TURKEY for Christmas: Left Behind, the movie (2014 version). When I saw the trailer for this movie, the combination of promo and the title made me suspect it was an updated remake of the 1995 novel 'Left Behind' by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. But I mostly dismissed the idea because this movie stars Nicholas Cage. You see, I have a copy of this novel and enjoyed reading at the time it was published. It was an instant classic and went on to spawn a complete series of novels. It's essentially a right-wing evangelical church read, but written well enough to grip you even if you're not usually that way inclined. So, Nicholas Cage? Well, it turns out that Nicholas Cage is the best bit of this movie, but the movie is a turkey in exactly the same way that Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code' was a great book but a turkey of a movie. Books work in ways that films don't and vice-versa. 'Left Behind' is thin on action but OTT on its message -- from the Bible-thumping mum and the woman in the airport, to the little touches like the fish pendant in the abandoned car, to the good muslim on the plane who has (obviously) been left behind -- simply because it had to be. The trailer and the film are obviously trying to get their message through to more than just the rapturous (sic) community, but in the end I suspect it's only the faithful (sic) who will be its audience. The average parent who buys it, thinking it will be a good family movie, will wish the dvd had been left behind in the shop.  And that's a pity. However, as one character says near the end of the movie, "This is just the beginning"... as with Tom Hanks and Dan Brown's novels, Nicholas Cage and his co-stars are set up for a series here.


The BBC ran their Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies review under the headline, "Is final Hobbit movie a flop?" The resounding answer is No, I saw it yesterday and it's the most impressive use of 3D that I've yet seen -- the death of Smaug, the dragon, is particularly striking (sic) -- but the problem is that the dragon dies very early on in the movie, Of course, the book couldn't just end there, so Tolkein added the Battle of the Five Armies to follow things to their natural conclusions and tie up all the loose ends, etc; but I was rereading my copy of the novel recently and noticed that even Tolkein ran out of plot steam. After all, war is war and battles are battles; there's a limited number of things you can do with them. The entire Battle of the Five Armies (i.e., 75% of this movie) takes only a handful of pages in the book, and, since Bilbo is unconscious during most of it, it is cursorily summarised in a 'Bilbo was told' paragraph or two. So it's visually exciting, fast-paced, violent (but not Tarantino) and great to experience. But don't expect much of a story.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Heads & Tails (1.2)

Facebook has now embraced the Tor network







HUMAN LIFE is full of ironies. A friend of mine, who lives in Europe, is terrified of identity theft and religiously shreds his snail mail and deletes his email. Another friend, this time in the states, is angry at his government's Big Brother approach to citizen management. He's especially upset by the NSA's mass-monitoring of electronic communications. But of course it's a world-wide phenomenon: under the umbrella of 'anti-terrorism', governments everywhere have been inventing ways to spy on people, and been trying to control what a person can or can't do on the once-freer Internet. As an unexpected result, we are being collectively taught to think like activists and hackers.

Now private networks and the murky dark corners of the web are beginning to appeal to us all -- those of us with dark hearts and also those of us who breathe in the light.

The TOR network is not new (it already has around 2.5 million daily users) but it has been gaining popularity for a while, especially because of governmental attention paid to wikileaks, sharing sites, and the emerging acceptance of bitcoin. This morning TOR became famous (or infamous) because of the news that Facebook has embraced it.

TOR is an anonymising platform, one designed to protect you whenever you go online. Your name and details can be hidden, as well as your address and location. By address I mean not only where in the world you are, but also the mac address of your machine.

The accommodation by Facebook would seem at first to be odd, since surely the whole purpose of using social media is to be social; but there is of course a difference between social and sociable.

If you're interested in trying out the TOR browser, I suggest you download and install a complete OS that sets it all up for you: Tails. [This is why this article is named Heads and Tails (1.2); Heads is Facebook and Tails is... duh...]

Tails and the new Facebook portal work fine together. Tails is a live OS: it's designed to run from a flash drive and when you go offline it removes all traces of your online activity. Tails can be found here.


Monday, October 27, 2014

The story of Samson is a tragic one



All literature deals with the joy and the terror of what it is to be human. Joy, for example, means happiness, love, success, belonging, a sunny day, and so on; Terror is about the darkness without and within, isolation, fear, rejection, failure... Classically, joy and terror are represented by the two dramatic masks of Comedy and Tragedy.




The plots of both classical forms are characterised by a reversal of fortune: in Comedy, from low to high (the character's fortunes improve); in Tragedy, from high to low (the character's fortunes fall). But these transformations are not simply the result of pure luck. Always, the character's actions contribute to the rising or falling movement. So, for example, in Twelfth Night, Viola, through her ingenuity, charm, and skill goes from destitution to riches, getting married in the process (the play actually ends with three marriages); in the story of Macbeth, the great man of Scotland suffers a calamitous downfall through his own 'vaulting ambition'.

Following these models we can view the biblical story of Samson as a tragedy. Samson is favoured by God even before he is born, with his mother receiving instructions about him directly from an angel. He is endowed with great strength and becomes successful from an early age. All he has to do is to obey God's instruction that he lives as a nazir, that is to never cut his hair, avoid strong drink, and presumably also avoid corpses. In the biblical story he has his hair cut off, eats honey from the corpse of a dead lion, and (presumably) drinks wine during his marriage feast. But these things happen primarily through his own weakness, which happens to be a predilection for foreign women. He just can't resist their looks. It's ironic therefore that once he falls, the first thing the Philistines do is gouge out his eyes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Samson Comics




 Since I was a boy I've collected comics: I'm interested in the art of course, but also the form and the fact that they are a great way of telling stories. Recently I had an opportunity to talk about the biblical story of Samson and remembered that I had a couple of comic versions.

One of the versions is from a complete volume of the Old Testament in comic form. It dates from the late 1940s and was given to me by my parents when I was around ten years old. I always loved reading that book and learned the stories thoroughly by reading it.

The other version I used in my talk is a more recent version (you can tell from the way the panels are used that it's more recent) and it naturally gives its own spin on the Samson story.


Both are recommended. Because...











...it's still a strong story (pun intended).


Essentially, it still entices because its twin themes of violence and sex always appeal to human societies. And the subplot of Samson and Delilah is just as famous as that of Romeo and Juliet.




The full scans of both Samson comics are here and here.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Peppermint 5: I'm disappointed

I was an early adopter of Peppermint OS, and a big fan. This was in the days when Peppermint was not numbered, but known as Ice, and other innovative browsers like Flock were recognising that the mushrooming of social media sites and the emergence of cloud computing were going to take us all into regions that we hadn't even thought of. Ice had a small footprint, the Ice app, cloud-centric design, and was fast -- even on under-powered machines. I loved it. I loved One, Two, and Three as well. But then came Peppermint Four and Peppermint Four was ultimately too finicky and frustrating for me to use. I I always seemed to have problems with panels and the Chromium browser the OS was built on. Well, I was triple-booting as usual, so I just stuck to Mint and whatever else I was running as an alternative. I was sad to lose Peppermint but content. Yet I wanted Peppermint to do well.




Recently Peppermint Five was released, to some acclaim. Most reviewers wrote as if Peppermint Five was a new OS, not a revamped one, and I was encouraged enough to download the ISO and run it. The live CD worked well and so I installed it...

But for me the same problems are there. Compared to Mint and elementary Freya (my current first choices) Peppermint 5 is sluggish, crash-prone, unreliable and user unfriendly. It doesn't help that Mint (Cinnamon) and elementary Freya look better too.

I'm very disappointed, especially since I believe the real mobile revolution is not in hardware but a move away from desktops to browsers (as in Google's Chromebooks) and Peppermint could be a real leader here.

One final word. On Mint and Freya I use Mozilla's Firefox, and with the power of its add-ons, these have become very browser-centric for me and easy to sync with my android phones. Perhaps Peppermint could try using Mozilla again?


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Vehicles and Students: an analogy

[source: Times of Swaziland]
I live in the beautiful Pine Valley, just where the main road begins to sharply snake its way up the side of a mountain on its way into Mbabane.

At least twice a week, vehicles break down outside my gate; four of five times, vehicles have rolled backwards down the road and crashed through my fence; and everyday, decrepit or even glamorous-looking vehicles find the climb so tough that they either stop on the hill or move so slowly that there's a tailback behind them sometimes as far down as my house.

Whilst thinking about the traffic on this road, I realised that it provides a simplistic but useful analogy to different types of students:

the breakdowns

Vehicles break down because they are poorly-maintained or run out of petrol; in other words, the root cause is usually negligence. Negligent students are those who are seldom prepared for their lessons, who don't have complete notes, who don't follow-up by doing homework and don't learn from past mistakes. Their progress breaks down almost before it starts.

the fallbacks

The vehicles that go backwards down the hill do so because they are overburdened or develop faults or because they are being pushed too hard. These are students who have achieved some measure of success, but, for one reason or another, fail to sustain that success and build on it.

the strugglers

Most vehicles look roadworthy when the road is flat and easy, but when the road gets tough some struggle to make it up the hill. Likewise, some students start well but struggle as soon as the work piles up or the material becomes challenging.

the finishers

These are the vehicles that complete the journey, that can handle the easy and the tough, that are prepared for the road ahead. They are maintained and full of fuel. Students who are up-to-date with their work, willing to learn and creative will usually succeed.