Saturday, 1 May 2010

Evolution for Dummies!

Biology is a subject that I (now) wish I'd studied more of when I had the chance. Evolutionary biology is a fascinating subject and I believe, now more than ever, that it should be a central part of education.

So, here is a list of my favourite books on evolution and the history of life. I won't really be reviewing them; just giving an overview of what they are about (you can take it as read that, to a greater or lesser extent, I enjoyed each).

Remarkable Creatures, by Sean B. Carroll isn't as heavily focused on the science of evolution as some of the others that I'm going to mention. It's really more of a history of the science. As it happens, I read this most recently of the books I'm listing, but I think it would work better as an introduction to the subject as, though it's fairly light on the science aspects of this, it does introduce many of the concepts of evolution and the people that discovered them and developed the theory.

Darwin's Origin of Species I'm sure needs no introduction. Essential for anyone interested in the origins of life on the planet. What I think is remarkable, and a testament to his genius and, moreover thoroughness, is that though there are aspects of the theory that have altered slightly, is how right he actually was. The discovery of things like DNA have actually served to enhance and further back Darwin's theory. That said, as other books on this list will attest, genius though he was, he wasn't operating in an intellectual vacuum.

A lot of people get turned off by Richard Dawkins', um, combative style. This is a shame, The Selfish Gene is a fantastic piece of popular science writing. Accessible, persuasive and often humourous, Dawkins looks at life from the point of view of genes succeeds admirably in describing the development of life. Though never overly simplistic I believe that this could (and should) be read by everyone, including school children. A fantastic achievement.

Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish, traces how the history of life on earth (and the history of human beings) by showing how various organs and body parts have evolved - for example, the similarity between our hands and fish fins. Again, this is enthusiastic and accessible writing. Great fun.

Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould (who, incidentally, played himself in the "Angel" episode of the Simpsons, I forget what it was called now) is a fascinating work. It looks at the wonderfully (and unusually well preserved) soft-bodied creatures whose imprint can be found in the Burgess Shale. There is a measure of controversy over Gould's theories amongst paleobiologists, this is still, however, essential reading. Gould believes that the creatures discovered here show "roads not taken" in the history of life.

In The Making of the Fittest, Sean B. Carroll explains, through the evidence of DNA, how the various species that exist today arose. Compelling, accessible and interesting.

Nick Lane's Life Ascending chooses 10 things that have arisen in life on earth that he believes are important and demonstrate some of the more up to date aspects of evolutionary theory and some of the controversies that are raging today. An interesting read.

Naturally, much of Jared Diamond's book (he's written many other fascinating books, by the way, interesting author) The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, looks at how close in genetic inheritance to the great apes (especially chimpanzees) human beings are. He makes the (not uncontroversial) argument that the current delineation of species which sees Humans and Chimps described differently is, in the light of genetic inheritance, artificial and incorrect. He recognises, of course, however that if we were to start seeing "homo troglodytes" in zoos there would be something of an outcry. Whatever you believe, however, this book is thoughtful and intelligent. And I like chimps.

Life on Earth is actually the first book I ever read on natural history and evolution - my grandad put me on to it. Naturally, given that it was to accompany a television series (which is still worth seeing, incidentally), this is extremely accessible, but none the worse for it. Also, I have a nice early edition hardback of this that I bought from Amazon for the princely sum of 34p.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland in 3-D!

Bit of background required, methinks.

(1) I love Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Read them many times when I was wee and still enjoyed them on a recent re-reading.
(2) I like Tim Burton's films. I'm pretty well-disposed to the man. Accusing him of making films that are style over substance (which he often gets) misses the point somewhat. I also can forgive him for casting his wife and his best mate in virtually everything that he does...they usually get things right.

So, I wanted this to work...I was really hoping that it would be good. I was, admittedly, worried it would be awful - with, I think, some justification - but I was willing to give it a chance.

Unfortunately, it was pretty terrible. I didn't think anybody acquitted themselves particularly well in it. Michelle reckons that Helana Bonham-Carter was the only one who was any good - I suppose we can give her that - so it's not a total washout. I like Johnny Depp, he's usually good value for money - in this, however, it was just a bit of "I'm mad, me" schtick (yes, yes, I know he was the Mad Hatter, it just wasn't very was, well, mugging).

Mia Wasikowska, as Alice, was an odd choice. Given that the character was supposed to be an independently minded young woman, her unconventional father's daughter, raging against an oppressive societies strictures, it seemed odd to cast someone that appeared to be such a milquetoast. Awful...just awful.

Wasn't a great fan of it visually, either. Can anybody say "green screen"? One thing that you can usually say about Burton is that he has a fairly distinctive visual style. This, however, was (naturally, I suppose) filmed with some parts which really added nothing apart from an opportunity to show off this new-fangled 3-D thingy. In spite of the attempt to splash a load of psychedelic (but world in decay) colour on the screen, it just felt dull and bland. Oh, and that stupid battle at the end reminded me of a video game (I like video games, but they are not the same thing as movies, utter cack to watch passively).

Didn't enjoy the "some time later" piss, either. I would have much rather that they stuck to the book or had the courage of their convictions and done a "based on" that was a much looser re-imagining. This just felt like a half-way there piece of nonsense.

It's not the worst film ever (that's Crank 2: High Voltage) but it is a towering disappointment. Go see something good instead like A Prophet or A Single Man. Both undoubtedly flawed films, but they at least have much to recommend them!

Never mind, dinner in the Dhabba was as good as ever!

Jefferson Airplane - White Rabbit

Monday, 8 March 2010

This is a song about a superhero named Tony!

I've been listening to a lot of proper music with words lately, instead of bands with names like Starving Weirdos that produce hours of psychedelic lyric-less drone. Not because I've suddenly gone off all that nonsense, you understand, just because I feel like a change now.

My favourite, um, rediscovery has been the Pixies. I forgot how fucking good they actually were. They also got me thinking about a couple of things.

Firstly - and I realise that this is relative - the received wisdom on the quality of Pixies studio albums is:

Surfer Rosa
Trompe le Monde

You know what? While Surfer Rosa is by far my favourite (I like the rawness of the production - pretentious sod though he may be, Steve Albini gets a lot of stuff right, his own bands Big Black and Shellac were also pretty goddamn good) I actually listen to and enjoy Trompe le Monde far more than the other two albums.

Second, it got me thinking about how music is consumed. Mp3 and media players do release one from the tyranny of the album. However, I can't help feeling that when people say that they don't like albums "because there are only 2 or 3 good songs" that this is because (a) they will insist on listening to crap music and (b) there may be an element that they aren't giving the supposed "filler" a chance. Though I like Surfer Rosa and Trompe le Monde more, there are actually very few (if any) songs on those 4 albums that I could describe as bad. Pixies were excellent, but there are plenty of bands that used to make (and plenty that still do) superb albums.

Third, I realise that the 45 minute long player came about purely because 2 sides of a 33 1/3 rpm record would take around 22 minutes of music a side and, latterly, CD albums would stretch to 70 minutes, purely because the space was there (apparently that length because the CEO of Philips had a particular Beethoven recording that was around that size...quite possibly utter cobblers that story, but there you go). That wasn't always a great time of albums of popular music - whilst Spiritualized's best album was a 70 minute beast (helped get me into a lot of other stuff, too) you'd have the likes of Metallica producing bloated turds (granted I never liked Metallica anyway...)

Although the Pixies avoided this, being 12 when Trompe le Monde came out, I didn't get into them until the albums were reissued much later. So for quite a while, Surfer Rosa wasn't my favourite of theirs - this was purely because the EP, Come on Pilgrim, was tagged on at the end. Some excellent stuff on there, but it did rather spoil the mood of the album - the production isn't the same as the later album and it does jar a little.

Finally, I hadn't really listened to these albums for a long time, it's amazing how quickly I remembered all the words and how right they all felt. This is what I worry I've lost (there is an obvious element of being older and therefore not necessarily having the pressure to be quite so tribal about music as one does at the age of 16) over the years. The quick and easy availability of music now, coupled with my desire to hear lots of new (both as in "just out" and "new to me") music means that, often, I may like something but only end up listening to it a few times, because there's something new to try out. I wouldn't like to go back the way (for one, I couldn't set up a massive playlist of roots and dub reggae and stick it on random, I know, I know - try it in summer though; great fun!) but there is sometimes a sense that it would be nice not to feel that I must hear everything ever BECAUSE I CAN! (This is my problem and I'll deal with it. Maybe.)

Currently listening: Pixies – Surfer Rosa

Thursday, 4 March 2010

I've never said anything like *this* before!

Thought I'd write a little bit of nonsense about SF this evening. It's a sort of defence; that said, I don't expect to change any minds (let's be real...who ever changed their mind about anything because of something they read on the internet?)

The idea behind this post came from reading the SF Site readers poll of the Best books of 2009. Admittedly, I have no idea how wide the readership of SF Site is, and those polled in readers polls are naturally self-selecting; I also have absolutely no idea what the "average" reader of SF Site is like. However, after the savaging of the Hugo Awards last year (another reader chosen SF award) by Adam Roberts (which I'm inclined to agree with) I was struck by the quality of the books that were in the top ten of the SF Site poll.

Something that I often bemoan is the ghetto that SF tends to find itself in. There is the possibility that some of this is self-imposed, but whilst I accept that not everybody necessarily like SF (and nor should they) I do object to the idea that SF is inherently inferior to so-called literary fiction. This can probably be applied to any genre fiction, but it was SF that I grew up reading so that's my focus. Suffice to say however, whilst I may not be a huge fan of, say crime or romantic fiction, I accept that the very best that those genres have to offer may well prove to be enjoyable reads.

To put it another way, it seems to me that when SF is being judged as poor quality it is based upon the very worst aspects of the genre (poor characterisation, bad plotting, over-reliance on an idea, horrible HORRIBLE book jackets) rather than the very best that SF has to offer. If you compare Sixth Book in Turgid Space Opera Series with, I dunno, The Name of the Rose (change according to preference - I like Eco) then, yeah, genre SF is going to look pretty bad. If you compare the best of lit-fic with the best of SF (or, indeed the worst of each) the distinction in quality will seem less.

The other thing to remember about all this is that many SF tropes make their way into mainstream and socially acceptable literature. Off the top of my head, several books that are accepted as part of the literary canon but include at least some SF tropes are: Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid's Tale and Brave New World. Atwood is a good example of the problem SF faces, more of her work than just The Handmaid's Tale can be described as SF, but she refuses to acknowledge this, because it would limit the appeal of her work. This, I find unfortunate, because I really like what she does and I find that attitude upsetting.

Sometimes I find myself sympathising with Michael Chabon's idea that he'd like to have a bookshop with only two genres "good" and "crap" (wait a minute...forget the crap). That said, I do like science fiction, as I said, I grew up reading it: genre can, admittedly, be a good filter.

The one thing that I would have to confess to - and I wouldn't ask a non-genre fan to do the same - is that whilst I don't have a lot of tolerance for the truly diabolical, and I love to read quality fiction, is that as a genre fan I am prepared to tolerate some less than great writing. For example, I love Philip K. Dick, but even at his very, very best he wasn't a great writer. I have an appallingly high tolerance for his second-tier stuff...

Anyway, all this rambling nonsense brings me back to the SF Site vote. I hope that this is an indication of what we can expect over the next year in SF awards. The fact that Paul McAuley, Kim Stanley Robinson, Jeff Vandermeer and Adam Roberts all made it in there is good news indeed (they all produced fantastic work in 2009). Iain Banks, I feel is a little below par over the last few novels and Robert Charles Wilson aspires to great stuff, I think, but I'm not totally convinced he makes it there (I'm still reading The Windup Girl, OK so far, and Robert Jordan I don't know. As for Cory Doctorow, I really *want* to like his stuff, but can't quite, sorry! Mieville, the jury is out, but that's a personal taste issue).

Kim Stanley Robertson, Paul McAuley and Adam Roberts especially (Finch was excellent and Vandermeer is a fantastic writer, but I think that it is is a bit too weird (no bad thing) for a major award), whilst they all produce work that is definitely genre, have all written books that I believe would be at ease in the company of any non-genre award. Do their publishers submit these books to the Booker judges? I'd really like to see Yellow Blue Tibia on the short-list. Hell, if historical fiction can win a major literary award, I say it's time for SF to get some mainstream recognition.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Glasgow Film Festival: Whisky Mit Vodka and Pere Ubu

If you live in, or around, Glasgow and like cinema, you may well be aware that the Glasgow Film Festival is on.

There's usually something interesting being shown, and certainly plenty of stuff that may not get a great deal of attention (often unfairly). This being the case, I'm trying to catch some films over the next couple of weeks.


So, on Friday, Stripey Baz asks me what I'm up to Saturday afternoon. "Not much!" The wife was off to see The Sound of Music in Edinburgh, you see (apparently it was very good).

So, "wanna see Whisky Mit Vodka?" Why noted, nothing much else happening that afternoon. Anyway, the arrangement was we'd grab some lunch before heading off to the cinema. Oh dear. Baz was out for his kid sister's birthday on Friday (you can read all about that on his blog)...given the start time of the film, there was the distinct possibility that our carefully laid plans could all go to arse.

Saturday 13.20: "Where are you?"

"In the Cineworld queue. Will I score tickets?"

"Cineworld? I'm on my way to the GFT!", my friend, it's on at the Cineworld. Mind you I had also trekked up to the GFT, only to see that it wasn't on there. Although this isn't quite so bad as the time that we turned up at Cineworld a month early for Spartacus (and the fault there was entirely mine).

The film was starting at 13.45, so lunch was a non-starter. "OK, will I get us sandwiches? What would you like?" Obviously, as anybody that has made a telephone call in public knows, unless you are the least self-conscious person ever, it's not a lot of fun. I, anyway, have a tendency to mumble so that I don't look like one of those idiots that likes to broadcast the minutiae of their life to all and sundry (he says, writing a blog post...Oh. The. Irony!)

Anyway, this led to an exasperated and expletive laden explanation of what a ploughman's sandwich is.

Old lady with grand-kids in the queue behind me? Check!

Tickets safely stowed in my wallet, I go out to get Baz...of course, both being basically incompetent at life, we walk past each other. This, however was the last fail of the afternoon (we were late for Ubu Roi...but that was in the evening).

So, all this nonsense done with, we settled down for the Whisky Mit Vodka (Germany, 2009). If you've read the blurb on the GFF's website, you'll be aware that it's a melancholy black comedy about film, actor's and acting.

I enjoyed it - if you like black comedy it's well worth a punt.

In it, famous actor Otto Kullberg is involved in a film about a real-life love triangle in Weimar Germany, involving his character and a mother and daughter (who has a fiancee, whose actor points out that, strictly speaking, it isn't a triangle). Although Kullberg is a well-respected actor (the female lead who had been involved with him in the past pushed for him too get the gig - she is married to the director, further complicating matters) who everybody on set has respect for, there is also a sense that he is a liability. As he puts it "I drink." This had led to a previous project he was involved in folding.

When he turns up for shooting drunk at the start of the film, the backers get uppity and decide that they should take the unprecedented step of hiring an unknown to understudy him so that they have a weapon against Kullberg. For this they hire Arno Runge, a relatively unknown stage actor. He, as the rest of the cast and crew do, has a great deal of respect for Kullberg (although not extending to refusing the job!)

This leads to tension, as well as many humourous moments, although very seldom are any of the characters actually hostile to each other. There is more of a sense, by everyone, that they are being ill-used. The director for example (whom, we are given to believe, has a higher regard for the film than perhaps it deserves...) repeats the phrase "I am not a bucket for people to shit in!" several times.

We also get some kind of feel for the compromises made in films when the budgets aren't perhaps as lavish as you may find in Hollywood - the film is being made on the Baltic coast, rather than the Black Forest, where the real story happened, simply because of who was willing to fund them.

It used the (admittedly obvious) trick of using a sepia tinted filter to show when they showing scenes from the film. In general, the cinematography was good, without being is, however, always pleasant to see a movie that isn't shot and edited as if it's intended for the Ritalin-dependent.

If you get a chance to see it, I'd recommend you do. It's not a life-changing piece of cinema, but it's entertaining and sympathetic.


That evening, I went to the Classic Grand to see Pere Ubu performing Long Live Pere Ubu! The Spectacle with Craig.

It's hard to know what to say about this: I enjoyed it, but I basically had no idea what the hell was going on. As their intermission card said "you have 20 minutes, drink more and it'll make sense."

Speaking factually, it's an adaption of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (that's where Pere Ubu got their name from) featuring music by Pere Ubu and animation by the The Brothers Quay.

The music was enjoyable enough (I must confess I do still prefer their "classic" era), and the animation and acting pleasantly bonkers. There is some of this available on their website: check it out if you get a chance: Ubu Projex.

So: good, but I think I'd like to see it again....

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Social Awkwardness FTW!

Those of you that know me are probably aware that I'm an atheist. So, when we were invited to a christening today, my feelings were slightly conflicted. On the one hand, it was nice that we were invited (and I am really grateful for that) on the other, I'm really not keen on religious rituals. I'd have to say that christenings are (of those that I'm familiar with, anyway) my least favourite.

Anyway, we dutifully traipsed off to the church this morning. First thing I noticed was that I appeared woefully under-dressed in my usual flared cords and a shirt and sweater combo (for smartness, you see). So that was great. Never mind, we were hidden out of sight and far from the most important people there. As long as I could avoid heckling the minister, we wouldn't ruin the day.

I'd come to terms with the fact that the ceremony was going to be, well, religious and there'd be a lot of chat about Jesus, but my heart sank when I realised that we'd be there for longer because it's also the Girl Guides 100th anniversary.

Early on in the morning, I had a mild sense of trepidation when they marched up the aisle with some flags, one of which was a union flag (the other thing that those of you that know me are probably aware of is that I'm no patriot). At that point, not really being that well-versed in how the guides work, I thought, be fair...perhaps that's all there is to it.

So...the service could start in earnest...there was some praying, hymns and finally, the reason we were there: the christening. It was fine, passed off without incident. Although when the minister walked up the aisle to display the newly inducted Nathan, I was more than a little disappointed that the minister didn't start cackling madly and break into a sprint, clutching the child to her bosom, screaming "he's my child now" trying to make her escape, only to be thwarted by a quick thinking parishioner tripping her up and catching the baby as he flew from her arms. Bring a bit of action and heroism to the day. Unfortunately, the only place this happened was in my imagination. On the plus, I'm marginally less depressed about my impending 31st birthday. At least I still have my imagination! Hurrah!

After the christening celebrations finished, we moved on to the matter of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the guides. Sadly, my initial suspicions about all the flags were confirmed. Apparently they have to "be loyal to queen and country." Bleuargh. So, not only were my atheistic tendencies being tested, my republican (the form of government, rather than the swivel-necked mental cases in the US) instincts were also having to be forced down lest I ruin someone elses day...

Apart from all that...a pleasant morning all round!* Ahahaha.

*Really: I am a nice guy. It was nice for us to be invited.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Cary Grant at the Glasgow Film Festival.

Any Hitchcock fans among you will realise that the title of the blog is a line from Hitchcock's 1951 film Strangers on a Train. I had a vague idea about doing a blog "ages" ago and set up this profile. However, at the time I was finishing off my MSc and I'm easily distracted as it is... so I figured that another distraction would be bad.

This week saw the announcement of the Glasgow Film Festival schedule. I already knew that there was to be a Cary Grant thread to the programme this year - they'd been trailing this with a still from North by Northwest. So...for many weeks I've been saying variations on, "oh wow...will they be showing North by Northwest?" Happily: they are. Huzzah! Also showing is the excellent Notorious and the less great, but still good, To Catch a Thief (actually, don't knock it; it was parodied in that episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes a vigilante). Hitchcock is one of my favourite directors, so given the title of my blog, I thought I'd resurrect the idea with a post about Hitchcock.

I realise that I'm extremely unlikely to say anything desperately new about Hitchcock...given the sustained quality of his output and the huge influence that he had on film-making, that's nigh-on impossible. Anybody who has seen any of his films will be aware of his attention to detail, inventiveness and wit (although not terrible, Mel Brooks' High Anxiety falls a little flat because Hitchcock's films are more knowing than the mockery would suggest).

Hitchcock's films point to an opportunity that film-makers miss today. He made films there were popular (and were unashamed in their desire to reach as many people as possible) but were credible and coherent pieces of art. North by Northwest, for example, is an exciting film, it also doesn't demand a lot of the viewer. There is, just as there is a place for demanding and thought-provoking literature or music, a place for demanding film-making. Not everybody shares that view of course - I've been called pretentious on more than one occasion because of my tastes (pretentious, watashi?). However, I don't see why lighter fare should insult your intelligence (these days, usually loudly and for two-and-a-half-effing-hours). This is the space that Hitchcock fills for me. He was a master of the form, he understood the medium of film and, more importantly understood that it can be worth your while to treat your audience with a little respect. I wish that we'd see more of this today.

Currently listening:

Sonic Youth – EVOL

Can – Tago Mago