Monday, December 18, 2006

Why do you bore me so, Mrs. Dalloway?

I tried reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I really tried. I mean, I got two thirds of the way through before I gave up on it. And I rarely give up on stuff, be they films or books (TV series are a different story). I know it's a classic of English literature and all, but I found it to be mind numbingly boring. The last time I forced myself to pick up the book before calling it quits, I realized that I was not enjoying the experience one bit. It may have been foolish of me to not have finished it after reading so much, but the truth is doing so would have been perfunctory. I wouldn't have got much out of it, and what little I did take away would have seeped out of my brain moments after closing the book for the final time. Life's just too short. At least now, I'll remember it as one of those books I couldn't bring myself to finish. And next time, I won't read so much of a book that I find so painful to read.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Catch-22 (Joseph Heller, 1961)
I'd heard about the classic satire by Joseph Heller years ago, and my first brush with it was when an English teacher in school had the class read an excerpt from the book. The excerpt was hilarious (as I recall, it was the first conversation between Yossarian and Doc Daneeka regarding the Catch-22), and I was intrigued. Strangely, I never got around to actually reading the book till now - and this despite the fact that I've owned a copy of the book for over two years!

Did it live up to expectations years later? In a word, yes. I don't usually find so-called 'funny' books to be funny, but Catch-22 is genuinely hilarious and it often had me in fits of laughter. It's a satire set towards the end of the Second World War, and revolves around events and characters in a bomber squadron based on an island off the coast of Italy. The protagonist is Captain Yossarian, a man who wants to get away from the war and all the people who are trying to kill him - this includes all the Germans soldiers (whom he's never met) as well as the bureaucracy on his own side. Unfortunately, whenever he comes close to meeting the required number of missions to be sent home, the required number is increased.

The book is an indictment of the absurdity of bureaucracy, blind capitalism, and the ability of people to selfishly rationalize their way out of what ought to be moral quandaries.

There is only a loosely held together narrative, with the book jumping back and forth in time and filling in the details of various key events that are often linked together. It features a range of idiosyncratic characters, many of whom have a quirky backstory. It's at times absurdly funny, and at other times bleak and gut wrenching. The ending, which presents a glimmer of hope, is uplifting and I found it to be a satisfying and fitting conclusion.

The book introduced the phrase 'catch-22' to the English language, and as such I think the meaning of said phrase should be mentioned here as it is defined in the book (quoting the quote from Wikipedia):
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to.

The book is fairly long and what with me being a slow reader it took me a while to get through it. The writing style is one littered with long sentences that together form paragraphs full of absurdity that are punctuated by terse sentences (which are often the lines uttered by characters). I have to confess that I was compelled to consult the dictionary on many an occasion, due to the fact that Heller has a penchant for indulging in sampling from an extensive, erudite vocabulary that overwhelms my bad word skills (sadly, I was unable to think of any appropriate words whose meanings I don't know to use in that last sentence).

All (bad) jokes aside, Catch-22 is brilliant and a must read.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dichotomy of Skills

Forgive the pretentious post name... but it seems apt.

I've heard it said that doctors aren't any good at treating themselves. Actually, I don't know if I've ever really heard it said, but somewhere along the line that idea got into my head and it stuck. I don't know if it's true of doctors, but it's true of me.

No, I don't mean I'm no good at treating myself - I think that goes without saying. What I mean is, I'm not very capable of applying my professional skills (such as they are) to my personal life.

My job sometimes involves mucking about with computers and resolving problems. Now, at work, I'll approach a problem logically and methodically with a placid temperament. I'll do whatever research needs to be done, come up with possible explanations and solutions, and determine a suitable course of action. If the problem can't be fixed the first time round, I go back and rethink things. Sometimes, the problem can't be resolved at all for some reason or another. Ultimately, I'll have to have a solution or an explanation.

Now, in my personal life, things are quite different. When I have a computer problem, I fall apart. It's hilarious thinking about it in retrospect, but it's anything but funny at the time. Somehow, I take any computer problem at home as a personal attack on me by fate and the Universe itself. It's a conspiracy designed to keep me down. Instead of approaching things methodically, I try things randomly and without thinking them through. And when things can't be resolved easily, I lose my cool in a big way. Yep, I swear at my computer (I'm not the only one, dammit!). Fortunately, I haven't smashed it yet, but I suspect that one day I will! I should really record myself so that I can look back and laugh about it, but after what happened to the Star Wars kid, it's too big a risk.

So the question is, why the hell do I suck at doing at home what I'm fairly good at doing at work? I've got a few theories:

  • Time commitment - at work, I'm being paid to do whatever it is I have to do, and the time available is meant to be spent doing it. There is no opportunity cost. At home, when I have to resolve something, it's eating away from my time, which I'd much rather spend doing something else.

  • No personal impact - if some computer's screwed up at work, it's really someone else's problem that I'm resolving. The problem itself doesn't really affect me, except in the sense that I have to attempt to resolve it. At home, the problem kicks me in the shin, punches me in the gut, and head-butts me into submission.

  • Shared responsibility - at work, I may be trying to fix something, but I won't be the only one involved. Invariably, there will be other people hovering around who can provide support, and the ultimate responsibility will fall on the whole team. At home, it's just me, myself, and my pet cockroaches (who aren't that big on helping, and will most certainly flee if and when the shit hits the fan).

  • The problem needs to be resolved - I can't just write off my personal computer problem in some report giving explanations and possible fixes and further things to look into - I HAVE to get the damn thing back, because I need it!

I'm left wondering, am I the only one? Or are there plenty of competent accountants who can't manage their own wallets, plenty of decent managers who can't manage their own day to day affairs, plenty of lawyers who... I can't think of something to say about lawyers actually.

I know from personal experience that there are at least a few people out there who suffer from the same problem. Perhaps there are many. Whatever the case me be, I can say one thing for sure. It sucks!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Movie Roundup (8th - 10th December)

Four Brothers (2005)
Another revenge movie this week, but one that's very different from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. This one's a more conventional revenge film which is constructed in such a way that you'll root for the good guys to dish out pain to the sneering villains! The plot concerns four 'brothers' (of different races) who were adopted as children by a sweet old lady named Evelyn Mercer because no one else was willing to have them - they were just too much trouble. Ms. Mercer is gunned down at the beginning of the film, and the Mercer brothers come back to their hometown to seek vengeance. Despite the influence of Ms. Mercer, these brothers still turned out to be seriously violent individuals; they engage in a succession of chases and shootouts resulting in a hefty body count by the end.

This isn't a brilliant movie, but it knows what it is, which is a no holds barred action film. Sometimes it's enjoyable to just sit back and be entertained while watching the clear-cut bad guys get their comeuppance. It's well made, with exciting action scenes, a sufficient plot, and solid characterization (for this type of film). The brothers make for an interesting and lively team. The cast that was assembled is one of the movie's strengths, with Mark Whalberg's belligerent Bobby being the standout alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor, who seems to be really good at playing menacing, despicable villains. Four Brothers may play to people's baser instincts, but that doesn't change the fact that I found it to be bloody entertaining (pun intended). Worth your while if you're looking for an action film to watch while scarfing down pizza and guzzling beer.

The Baxter (2005)
I seem to state quite often that I'm not the biggest fan of romantic comedies, yet I keep watching them. Maybe there's a lesson to be learned there - perhaps I AM a fan! Anyway, this isn't your typical romantic comedy - it's a romantic comedy about the guy in romantic comedies who always gets abandoned at the eleventh hour by the leading lady when the leading man declares his undying love for her and they run off into the sunset. The movie labels such men 'Baxters' - the nice guys who are boring but safe choices that women settle for. Elliot Sherman is a Baxter - he's been losing his significant others to more dashing men all his life. When Elliot gets engaged to the proverbial hot blond, things seem to be going OK - until her ex shows up. There's also this other woman, Cecil, (whom Elliot has much in common with) that Elliot turns to for solace.

If you can't see how this movie ends, then you haven't watched many romantic comedies. It's not the destination though, it's the journey that counts. And in this case, the journey is charming and funny - it also plays out genre conventions from a different perspective. It's a small scale, low budget film that doesn't have bellyache inducing laughs but is certainly chuckle worthy throughout. The cast is what really makes the film work - Michael Showalter plays Elliot (he's also the writer and director) as the straight man, and everyone else essentially plays off him. The supporting players are excellent - Elizabeth Banks, Justin Theroux, Peter Dinklage, and Paul Rudd all make very memorable impressions. Most memorable for me was Michelle Williams as the impossibly adorable Cecil. Essential viewing for all the Baxters out there (and perhaps romantic comedy fans as well), and worth a rental for everyone else. Viewers are advised to watch the end credits.

The Dead Zone - Season 4

The Dead Zone is one of those shows that exists under the radar - it's hardly ever talked about, yet seems to have enough of an audience (a niche audience, perhaps?) to survive for five seasons and counting. Perhaps part of the reason is that it isn't flashy or edgy and features a near middle-aged cast. I've heard the term 'comfort TV' used to describe it, and it's somewhat apt; you typically know what you're going to get because the episodes have a consistent structure. However, The Dead Zone isn't nearly that run of the mill, and it does feature darker elements and a compelling story arc that plays a major part in many episodes.

A quick recap - it's based on a Stephen King novel, and is about a man named Johnny Smith who recovers from a coma with psychic powers. In the tradition of similar television heroes like Kwai Chang Caine and Michael Knight, Johnny typically comes across people who need help and... endeavors to help them. His powers allow him to see the future or the past in 'visions' (within which he either acts as an invisible observer or takes the place of one of the participants). In season four Johnny helps solve an old murder, prevents several others, tracks down a serial killer and a rock star, and helps save a bunch of illegal immigrants, among others. He's usually aided by his buddy Bruce, Sheriff Walt Bannerman, and the Sheriff's wife Sarah. There's also the recurring story arc in which Johnny must stop a Congressman, Greg Stillson, from causing a future apocalypse.

It sounds kind of lame on paper, but it works well. The tone is always earnest, but not overly so - the characters bring an element of humour and levity to most situations. The stories, while never blowing you away, never insult your intelligence either, and are consistently well written - having only 12 episodes for the season means there's no cheap 'filler' material. The Stillson arc continues to develop in interesting ways, although I felt it took too much of a back seat this season. The strongest element of the show is the cast, who now seem to have that sense of camaraderie that you often see in TV shows when they've been running for a while. Anthony Michael Hall and recurring guest star Sean Patrick Flannery (who plays Stillson) are the standouts. The one major downside this season was the absence of character growth, which featured strongly in previous seasons. The only characterization of substance was Stillson, and that was only in a handful of episodes.

Minor caveats aside, I enjoyed season four and look forward to season five on DVD. It's well made and consistently entertaining, and while it doesn't have much storytelling ambition it does what it sets out to do very well. One other annoyance that comes to mind though - the horrible new theme music. What was wrong with the old theme?

As a brief aside, The Dead Zone was an interesting counterpoint to Tru Calling (which I'm watching right now), a similarly themed show that has a different tone and a more frenetic pace to go with its much younger cast.

Friday, December 08, 2006

So, could the Enterprise really take on a Super Star Destroyer?

I was reminded of this site by Wired. Every sci-fi geek under the sun has probably seen it before, but it's always nice to be reacquainted with it. A site that compares the sizes of different sci-fi space vessels!

It's always amusing to be reminded that the evil Empire could wipe out the Federation's puny star ships and be back at base in time for breakfast. Although, admittedly, they couldn't even catch the tiny little Millennium Falcon...

Sadly, there's no Blake's 7 or the new Battlestar Galactica. Perhaps they'll be future additions, and I'll be pleasantly surprised the next time I find my way to this site.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Movie Roundup (1st - 4th December)

I love writer / director Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium - it wasn't an original masterpiece or anything, but it was fairly well written and directed, had some unique action sequences, a strong cast (Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Emily Watson), and atmospheric locales in which its dystopia took place (filmed mostly in Berlin). Ultraviolet has none of this. Yeah, Equilibrium had absurd elements, but Ultraviolet stretches suspension of disbelief and audience goodwill way too far. The story - dystopian future society where a repressed (diseased) minority are persecuted and fight back against the oppressive regime. Violet (Milla Jovovich) is a seemingly invincible freedom fighter who steals the 'ultimate weapon' from the bad guys, only to discover that it isn't quite what she was expecting. Which leads to a lot of poor special effects and action scenes (seriously, what kind of idiots attack with their braided hair?). It may have been low budget and it may have been edited by the studio, but the film is poor at a very fundamental level. Give it a miss...

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
The first part of Park Chan-wook's 'Revenge' trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is an unflinchingly brutal and tragic tale of revenge spiraling out of control. Ryu, a young deaf mute, attempts to take care of his extremely ill sister - she needs a new kidney. Unfortunately, a deal with black market organ dealers goes pear shaped, and Ryu (together with his girlfriend) is forced to kidnap a little girl and hold her for ransom in order to get money for a kidney via legitimate channels. To say any more would be to spoil the sequence of events that leads up to the films devastating climax; characters whom we can actually sympathize with are driven by their misery and despair into committing horrific acts of retribution.

While not as memorable or as propulsive as Oldboy, Mr. Vengeance is stylishly directed and superbly acted, and is populated with both beautiful and gruesome imagery. There are lots of everyday 'real' moments, and the story flows in an unpredictable manner even though certain events have a feeling of inevitability. Which brings me to the violence - yes, there's lots of it, much more so than Oldboy. Is it gratuitous? I think it walks a fine line; I accept that is has to be brutal at some level, because these are brutal acts, and it prevents the acts of revenge being carried out from being something the audience can really get behind (which is how a typical action movie would be constructed). But... toning it down a little probably would not have hurt the film.

Worth watching, if you can stomach the violence...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Packaging of Death

I found this slashdot article to be particularly noteworthy. It's about the plastic packaging that is regularly used to encase products - the clamshell or bubble type - that is impossible to open without the help of a sharp object.

Having had many painful encounters with these bastardly packages, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. Colbert hits the nail on the head.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The importance of being earnest

A little rant.

While attending a technology conference recently, I was annoyed to see people walking out in the middle of presentations. No, it wasn't because the presentations sucked, or that they were walking out as an act of protest against what was being said, or anything dramatic like that. They were walking out because they were bored and wanted to leave early.

Here's the thing - I know with some certainty that these folks were sponsored by their employers to attend. The conference took place during working hours. In effect, they were walking out of work early. Now, I don't have too much of a problem with people walking out of work, hell I think about doing it all the time. I just wanted to highlight the fact that they were technically breaking the rules, which is just one reason why they shouldn't have walked out. But there's a more important reason.

They were at a conference - a conference where a whole bunch of folk, many from academia, were presenting their research work. Much of it was quite interesting, truth be told. Some of these people may go on to do things that affect the future of the industry, and perhaps even society. Here they are, presenting their work, and what do they see? People walking out during their presentations. One person starts it, and the rest follow in droves like some kind of domino effect, all eager to get home a little early (remember, they are still technically at work, and had they been at their offices there's no way they could have got home early).

Leaving during the break would have been bad enough, but leaving in the middle of a presentation? What kind of message does it send these people, how dispiriting must it be, when they witness people just walking out? The last presenters were talking to mostly empty seats! The fact that people gave enough of a damn to hear them out could make all the difference to them.

So, two things. These people were not entitled to leave, and even if they had been, they should have had the basic human decency to stay through to the end, no matter how bored they were. These same people would no doubt have lined up for hours to catch a glimpse of some vacuous celebrity - and that's their right. But is it too much to ask to show a modicum of respect for the intellectuals of society, to show that you attended in earnest? I think not.

Movie Roundup (17th - 20th Nov)

Working Girl (1988)
Charming but mostly forgettable romantic comedy. Melanie Griffith plays Tess, a lowly secretary with grand plans above her station. Sigourney Weaver plays her manipulative bitch of a boss, and Harrison Ford is the man caught in between them. When her boss breaks a leg while skiing, Tess seizes the opportunity to further her career. It's lighthearted and entertaining, and occasionally a little maudlin, but it's good fun with a game cast. Sigourney Weaver is the standout, and this being the late 80s, Harrison Ford still had some charm.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Clint Eastwood is the epitome of cool in Sergio Leone's much lauded classic western. Laconic, steely eyed, and unflappable even at the brink of death. Eli Wallach's rambunctious Tuco (the Ugly) is the perfect foil to Eastwood's Blondie (the Good). The third protagonist, Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes (the Bad), sits somewhere between the two in terms of personality, with one difference - he's bad to the bone (and now that song's stuck in my head). The story is, in many ways, a western road trip as the three characters travel through various places while attempting to find a loot of hidden gold.

There's precious little dialogue in the film given its runtime; it doesn't need it, as Leone tells the story so well with just visuals alone. There is tremendous imagery on display here - a true feast for the eyes. I enjoy westerns though I'm not an avid fan, but good film-making is good film-making regardless of genre. It may be slow paced for todays audiences, but I like a film that takes its time and builds up to key moments. It's all capped off with Ennio Morricone's iconic, unforgettable music (trust me, you've heard it before).

Life of Brian (1979)
While not quite as inspired as Monty Python's Holy Grail, Life of Brian is still hilarious. Lampooning organized religion, politics and political parties, and human stupidity in general, Life of Brian is, as you can imagine, about a chap called Brian. He was born in a stable next door to that famous guy who was born in a stable. Brian ends up involved with a revolutionary group that wants to send the Romans packing - the Romans who've done nothing for them except build sewers, educate them, provide security, improve health care, etc... And at some point he gets mistaken for a Messiah. Naturally. If you know and love Monty Python's brand of humour (and you should), you'll love this. But then again, if you're a fan, you've already seen it.