Monday, December 2, 2019

The Mandalorian goes Seven Samurai


Episode 3 showed The Mandalorian has a heart for the vulnerable and the courage to help them; in episode 4 he gets another stab at being a saviour. From the opening scene, in which a poor farming community is attacked and their harvest stolen, we enter the world of The Seven Samurai and its Western remake, The Magnificent Seven


As usual, the poor farmers have little to offer mercenaries but our hero has his own agenda and agrees. There aren't seven, mind you, just two and a child, but they are enough.

One of the reasons The Mandalorian is such a strong show is that it doesn't try to reinvent the history of cinema, but taps into it: everywhere we look we see echoes of what has already become iconic. Star Wars is already informed by Japanese cinema and zen (think The Force, Jedi Warriors, and light sabres aka Samurai swords) so an episode modelled on Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece is an inspired choice. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Marconi Union: Dead Air review

I suspect that most people who have heard of Marconi Union first heard of them when one of their earlier tracks, Weightless (2012), was declared 'the most relaxing music of all'; my ears, though, were opened by the band's 2016 album, Ghost Stations, which is glorious. Dead Air, however, isn't like those previous masterpieces. 

I loved Ghost Stations for a variety of reasons, not all of them musical. For example, the idea of ghost stations, places that the train passes through but where no-one gets on or off, is a real part of my own personal history. Firstly there is the classic poem, Adlestropby Edward Thomas, that describes such a station; but, as a Londoner, I know that there are ghost stations on the underground. I always found passing through those stations fascinating. And of course train rhythms are in my blood. But then I also loved the drums on that album, which in places thunder and motor like a track from African deep House. Naturally, I began looking forward to MU's next release. 

In the interim, the band released live remixes of Tokyo, which I rather liked, but Dead Air is the first proper album since Ghost Stations.

Was it worth the wait? Yes, it's a gem. But... there are no drums. 

This new album resonates in different ways and hooks into different memories. There are a few train rhythms, yes, but mostly Dead Air reminds me of Bowie's Berlin work with Eno, especially side 2 of Heroes. Overall, it's a pastoral cityscape, a kind of urban ghostland, one where you can explore inner-city shopping malls when everyone has gone home. Dead Air is moody, brooding and deeply satisfying; but there are no drums. 


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

His Dark Materials: It's All About the Children Season One review

His Dark Materials: It's All About the Children

HDM poster
 I write novels, screenplays, and music, and have taught literature for 30 years but I must straight out confess that I never got around to reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.
   I knew about the books of course, I had to. But still, I came cold to this new TV show, able to assess it as a TV series without comparing it to the novels.
   And I found the first episode interesting enough to come back for more.
  These are YA novels, and they're all about the children really even though the adults dominate the posters for the show.
   As usual for this kind of show, the adults inhabit a dark and often violent world that the children--because they're children--only gradually come to understand; the story is about the children's awakening into this adult world. This perspective yields great results in a novel (for example, Shane; Roll of Thunder,  my own Temangwane) but is difficult to translate to a screen because you have to  mostly eschew thoughts (voice-overs can be cumbersome and break the flow of the narrative) and reveal emotion through action. Also, finer details of relationships can be difficult to portray in the different medium. As far as this show is concerned, the notion of characters having their own attendant daemons (animals who shape-shift, counsel and talk) is poorly explained and could have been integrated better.
   The main character is Lyra, a young girl who is obviously special but we don't know why. Learning who her father is was a surprise, but her mother not so: I twigged that early on. Lyra and her friends get kidnapped by adults but they don't know why. The gossip doing the rounds is that the children are being taken by the Gobblers (a wonderful name as it sounds on the one hand like monsters from a nursery rhyme or fairy-tale, and on the other has similarities to the old English word for demon, goblin).
   Well the children are being kidnapped and it seems as if Lyra can save them but that's only because the shape of the story suggests that outcome: in the first 3 episodes we learn she has some power but she doesn't know how to use it (this reminded me of Stephen R Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant). We also don't know what her power is either, only that she has something. The families whose children are being taken know they should protect and even hide Lyra from the authorities; the authorities, obviously, are going all out to capture her. All the ingredients for a good show!
Lyra and her daemon

   The title, His Dark Materials, is a quote from the poet Milton about the creation of worlds, and this trilogy includes parallel worlds that a few people are able to navigate between. This is useful story-stuff too, but again has been under-developed so far.
   The trilogy has already been attempted as a (rather disappointing) film, but this TV series so far has been entertaining and absorbing. It remains to be seen though how much of the rich seam of material from the novels can be utilised in this different form--there are simply some things that only work in books and others that only do well on a screen. I suspect many fans of the books already have misgivings about the TV series. If you haven't read the books then there might be some questions that go unanswered. It's the old problem of adaptability.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Mandalorian: Star Wars Goes Spaghetti

The Mandalorian: Star Wars Goes Spaghetti


Star Wars Mandalorian
The Mandalorian
Disney's made-for-tv venture into the world of Star Wars is a quick-fire, sure-fire, winner because it at once hooks into a myriad of cult classics. The plot centres on a bounty hunter operating at the fringes of the known universe.
   Firstly, there's his identity to be intrigued by. He's presented by his race--The Mandalorian--not by a personal name; ie this is tribal. He's an outsider, recognised by his armour, not by his face; and that armour! I don't know about you, but the helmet reminds me at once of both the ancient Spartans and the very modern Robocop.
   Character-wise, he's a high-plains drifter, cool, calm and collected with a smoking gun and very few words. He's good at what he does, which so far is mostly smoking bad guys and big monsters; but this is a series, not a film, and it's set in the Star Wars universe, where anything can be encountered and surprises are expected.
   Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is the appearance of a baby Yoda (we don't know yet if this is a baby from Yoda's species or even Yoda reborn). This is a possible masterstroke, since not only is the Yoda character much-loved, but everyone gurgles over adorable babies like this one--remember how adorable baby Groot was in Guardians of the Universe?
baby Groot

But there's more: baby Yoda has already saved the Mandalorian's butt, apparently through mind-control, but the baby overtaxed its strength and had to sleep for a while afterwards, thus revealing its weakness despite its strength.
   Of course it's a shoot-'em-up series and there have been a few pretty impressive shoot-'em-up scenes already. The very spaghetti-western showdown between nasty kidnappers on the one hand and the Mandalorian teamed up with a bounty-droid, is fun.

a bounty droid
The fact that the Mandalorian wastes the droid is interesting as well because he agreed on a 50-50 deal with the droid and then reneged on the agreement.

a baby Yoda
Is that because he has no morals or because by not killing the mark he's going to get a bigger reward? Or does he perhaps have feelings for this baby or curiosity about its nature? We don't know yet but it will be fun to see how it plays out.
   We can only hope that the series builds on this strong beginning. There is every reason why it should.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Eswatini: 3rd Term report 2019

Eswatini: 3rd Term report 2019

students in class [file pic]
An Admission of Failure

The recent announcement by the Prime Minister of Eswatini that English Language will no longer be a required passing subject in schools is a huge admission of failure, a throwing-up of hands, reflecting a huge decline in standards both in the national school system and in our wider society. It appears to solve a problem but in reality it's a way of saying 'Problem? There's no problem!' which is our government's favourite way of dealing with issues.

I can imagine that a lot of students awaiting the results of the recent round of examinations are smiling, saying, "Hey, it's easier to pass school now." Quite so. But will it help to get a job? No. Because there are no jobs. And lowering requirements won't help to create jobs. What is currently needed in our brave new world are school graduates with multiple language skills: I've long argued that students should be studying at least 3 languages in school if they are to be competitive in the workplace [my suggestion for eSwatini is siSwati, English and Portuguese].

The buzz words these days are entrepreneur, start-up, portfolio and e-commerce: there's a general consensus that if you really want a job you will most likely need to create one.

And how do you become an entrepreneur? What is a start-up? How do you build a portfolio?

Studies have demonstrated that a prerequisite for entrepreneurial thinking is a population that reads.  And our population mostly doesn't. (Do you remember those block-like things that have pictures on the cover, a blurb on the back, and no navigation buttons or batteries? We used to call them books.) So how will lowering language requirements and standards help us? Obviously, it won't; rather, it will exacerbate the problem--we're digging a big hole here. Of course, the rot was previously encouraged by the decision to dumb down the teaching of English by making English a 'second-language' in schools: ie, it's taught as a foreign language, which is a much easier syllabus. 

In short, the teaching of English has become a political issue when it's actually a practical one. There's a suggestion that we start learning Mandarin; it's a valid idea; but did you know that there's more English spoken in China and India than in America? And considering how important China and India are becoming in our world, that is something to seriously ponder.

It's not about English, or siSwati, or Mandarin, or French or any of our babel-tongues: it's about communicating. If you plug a printer directly into a computer, will it just work? It will work only if the printer and computer understand each other. Technically, you might say the computer needs the right driver. If the printer software and the computer software understand each other, then it will work. 

Here's another way to look at it. Recently an African e-commerce platform was launched. So you sit down, come up with a business plan, and register a website domain. You want to sell your product to as many people and in as many markets as possible, so what language will you use for your website? A sensible approach would be to choose a widely-spoken language. Currently that list doesn't include siSwati; I wish it did but it doesn't. So announcing that English is no longer a required passing subject is a political statement, not a practical one. Politicians have a habit of clouding or dodging issues. Language has always been seen as a political issue but it really isn't; it's an emotional issue, and I expect this recent announcement to be popular. But if we are to turn around our moribund economy we need to start working on it now. We don't need to make everything easier, we need to roll up our sleeves and start learning skills. We should be upping our standards, not dumbing them down.


Friday, July 12, 2019

Eswatini, mid-year report 2019

Mid-year report 2019: an insider's personal view

It's July 2019, and Eswatini resembles a boxer who has been hit with a succession of heavy punches, and is staggering unsteadily towards his corner, hoping to hear the bell that could save him.

Honestly, things are not looking good right now. Government says it is cash-strapped and needs to raise more from taxes; the few who have jobs and incomes are even more cash-strapped than government and wonder where they will find the money for taxes already levied. Almost everyone can tell you how desperate everybody is becoming.

At the same time, people are dying around us as they never did before: I don't just mean the big A but also cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes; the cost of dying rivals the cost of living these days. Nurses are underpaid, medical supplies are reportedly non-existent, and the people talk of only going to the hospital to die. And this is in a country famous for its cannabis, which could be the cash crop (as medical marijuana) to save the nation--financially as well as improving the health of those living with HIV and cancer.

There's lots more that's failing of course, but what I want to do here is suggest a way forward; this is not a quick fix. The bottom line (to appropriately use a financial term) is that we need to kickstart the economy and rebuild community. And the best way to do that is to create entrepeneurs to grow the economy.

Ramaphosa, across the pond in SA, has spoken already about entrepeneurship being taught in schools, but that's not how entrepeneurs are created. Studies have shown that countries with lots of startups and entrepeneurs have readers, artists, and musicians. Without creative persons you won't get anywhere. That's also because all of the new jobs and careers of the future haven't been created yet, they can only be imagined. Obviously creative leaders are also needed.

So, let's start with education. Our schools are clearly failing to prepare our people for a post-school future. In the first place we are still educating for jobs that don't, and won't exist. Just this week, Deutsche Bank, one of the biggest banks in the world, announced it is cutting thousands of jobs because business has largely moved online; a recent study suggested that up to 51% of jobs at present available here in Africa will disappear due to automation and the Internet. Then, of course, there will be thousands of new jobs that haven't been invented yet. One of the ironies of our present situation is that Limkokwing's courses are a lot of what we seriously need right now, but few graduates from Limkokwing find suitable jobs after completing study.

Then there's still a prevalent 'white-collar' mindset that needs to be dismantled: we really do need people who are unafraid to get their hands dirty: not those guys and ladies with long fingernails that proclaim their owners don't do manual work. Sorry folks, but office jobs are disappearing because offices are disappearing; we can work from home these days. When you have a cellphone, and data in the cloud, why do you need an office? That's just unnecessary expense. Just as banks have been shutting doors and touting online banking, so the entire CBD of cities and towns will also shrink drastically.

Banking is an important sector to consider, actually for a variety of reasons: firstly, the banks have long been seen as a source of secure jobs for school leavers; obviously this is no longer true since banks are downsizing due to automation. But there's more. What of drivers in an era of driverless taxis? What of cashiers in cash-free shops and waiters in self-service restaurants? Cash-free shops? Yes, there are plenty. Amazon even has cash-free supermarkets now. Amazingly, ATMs are now over 50 years old but they needed big data and the Internet to really take off--we now have paypal, mobile money, and ... cryptocurrencies. Traditional banks are beginning to talk seriously about 'paper-free banking' which not only uses the cloud but also removes paper money and coins. This is not as far-fetched as it seems.

Think of it like this: a few years ago the municipality installed parking meters in the centre of town and people were coming up to me and saying, "Hey, we finally got first world status here at the car park!" Apparently people were excited by this innovation. I replied, "Yes, but what about school leavers who will no longer be able to get a job working at the car park?" In the same way, mobile money, ATMs and internet banking have removed the need for so many bank tellers, cashiers and physical business branches.

In fact, human societies underwent a seismic shift in 2006-2007, and the repercussions are still growing, rippling outwards from the innovations of that year. What happened in 2006-2007, you ask. Well, here's for starters:
  1. iPhone
  2. cloud data
  3. facebook
  4. twitter
  5. git hub
  6. youtube
  7. Android
  8. Kindle
  9. Airbnb
  10. AI
  11. DNA sequencing
  12. Intel achieved a major chip breakthrough
  13. the Internet reached 1 billion users
  14. increasing adoption of linux systems
Recognise any of these? You wouldn't have noticed most of them at the time, but we all know them now, some quite intimately. This is our brave new world.

To suggest that we must invest heavily in traditional schooling is pointless; to chase only an IT education is reactionary, a knee-jerk reaction to what is already here. What we need to do is to start talking and create a present that can ensure survival in the future. We must not blindly rush in where fools are afraid to tread and not all be gung-ho for a situation that cannot work for us. In particular, we must remember to build community into all our equations and machinations because the bottom line is that we are all people and need each other. Truly, we must value each other as unique resources. The promise and potential of a nation (as a wider community) is its people.



Monday, June 25, 2018

Peppermint 9 review

Peppermint 9: June 2018

A new Peppermint release is always welcome; we've all been at this for a while now.

I began my linux adventure with Linux Mint Bianca [back in February 2007] and dual-booted with Peppermint Ice [2010 https://www.geek.com/…/peppermint-ice-a-faster-lighter-clo…/]... now we're up to Peppermint 9. Great stuff.

Is it any good?

Well, yes, it is. It's fast, lightweight, reliable, and (so far) works straight from the box. I haven't yet found a problem with this release (3 days now) but there will always be something to fix when you're updating distros. Which, paradoxically, is actually another advantage of Peppermint and its big daddy, Mint, on which it's based (Mint, in turn, is based on Ubuntu). Linux is all about community and sharing, so there's a large, worldwide, usually friendly and helpful bunch of people willing to help if you have a problem and are prepared to ask.

I use my distros for lots of things, like most people and, like most people, I have my favourite programs so there's always a bit of setting-up that needs to be done with any new installation. I'm a novelist, editor and musician so I always add programs like Mixxx, Calibre and Sigil, SoundConverter, Handbrake and FocusWriter to whatever is already there. I did that, installed and ran the programs, and everything was and still is hunky dory. Using Mixxx I created a new smooth jazz mix for Mixcloud; with Calibre I turned an epub into a mobi [I'll tweak it with Sigil]; with Handbrake I converted an old DVD movie into an mkv file; and I wrote the first draft of this article using FocusWriter.


As you can see from this screenshot, connecting to the net and downloading from the repos was straightforward; the connection was strong and fast.

Peppermint differs from Mint in more ways than one. It's not, and never was intended as, a cut-down version; no, Peppermint was conceived as a cloud hub back in the early days of big data and the promise of cloud computing. Originally the OS was called Ice after the little site-specific cloud apps that are Peppermint's characteristic feature.

An Ice dialog. This is where you add the URL for your SSB app. Once set up you will see your app listed in the menu.

Cloud Apps

Peppermint comes pre-loaded with useful cloud apps like Google's Drive, Calendar, and Mail; Microsoft's online suite of Office tools, including Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Skype; graphic editing is handled by Pixlr, etc. Obviously the included apps are only a suggestion and because Peppermint is based on Mint, based on Ubuntu, based on Debian, etc there's an incredible wealth of free software available for download. With Peppermint, customisation is only limited by your imagination and skill.

Verdict

Peppermint 9 is a winner.

A highly-recommended instalment in an ongoing series, it can do most of what you want with considerable ease.

{Ken Rowley}

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Dirty Dancing 2017 is a reworking, not a remake or reboot, and it's ok

Do you remember Michael Bolton's Timeless: The Classics album? And do you still cringe? There's a reason why classics are classics, and the golden rule is, Don't remake a classic unless you do something different. For example, The Four Tops' original Reach Out, I'll Be There is a classic and unless you're going to do what Joe Cocker did with the Beatles' With a Little Help From My Friends or what Jimi Hendrix did with Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower, i.e, rework the original so that you create a new classic, you probably shouldn't bother. With cinema a good role model here is Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. The film is a stone-cold classic of cinema, legendary in its influence and impact. It inspired 'seven swords' books and films of course, but one reworking went on to achieve classic status of its own: The Magnificent Seven. The reworking meant that most of Magnificent Seven's original audience had no idea at all that it was based on Kurosawa's original. 

Both of these classics suffered remakes. The point is, Don't remake a classic, don't reboot a classic either. If you want to touch a classic, rework it.
Dirty Dancing, the original, is seen as a classic of its type, partly for its story, partly for its soundtrack, and partly for the on-screen charisma and energy of the film's two leads, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.

If you've seen and loved the original, then Dirty Dancing 2017 can't be considered an outstanding success; but it's a worthy attempt--not a remake but a reworking--not a reboot but a reworking--and a lot better than the critics allow it to be. 

It appears to me that most of the critics were simply looking for a reboot and as I've said above, you can't reboot a classic and you shouldn't even try.

At the very least, Dirty Dancing 2017 tries.

It had something to work with for in truth, there were always two stories in Dirty Dancing. There was the story of Baby and Johnny; but there was also the story of Baby's family. In the original, the family's story was a backdrop, but in 2017 it's developed and brought forward. The reworking is a full 30 minutes longer than the original, and the characters of Baby's sister, father and mother are fleshed out. This fleshing has also become part of the soundtrack, with one song--'They can't take that away (from me)--even being reprised. This is sung in the film by Baby's mother, and then, later, her father. The other song, an early Dylan great, is claimed by Baby's sister. So the screenplay was reworked extensively.

But the soundtrack was reworked too. The original OST sold more than 32 million copies, so even using it was a big risk. The producers of 2017  decided to neither just replay the original nor create a new setlist but used newer, different artists', versions of the original songs. This choice has been applauded in its own right.

So the 2017 producers knew what they were risking and knew also what they were doing. This is a reworking. As a reworking it does, I think, a very watchable job.

The Mandalorian goes Seven Samurai

Episode 3 showed The Mandalorian has a heart for the vulnerable and the courage to help them; in episode 4 he gets another stab at being a s...