May 2005

A couple of videos: Herding cats on the Range, and a hilariously cynical presentation on the biology of vampires by an unscrupulous drug company.

The vampires presentation comes from Peter Watts, a science fiction author who used to be a marine biologist. His books seem to be set in a dystopian future where environmental disasters have finally caught up with us. The descriptions on his site made me think of John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, which scared the willies out of me when I read it as a teenager. The earlier books seem to be out of print, but Watts says that he’ll be making them available on the website, Cory Doctorow style, real soon now. Should be interesting.

Moral reforms and deteriorations are moved by large forces, and they are mostly caused by reactions from the habits of a preceding period. Backwards and forwards swings the great pendulum, and its alternations are not determined by a few distinguished folk clinging to the end of it. — Sir Charles Petrie, The Victorians

This weekend, I’ve watched Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and skimmed through Melanie Phillips‘s All Must Have Prizes.

Gosford Park is an entertaining comedy/murder mystery set in an English country house, with a cast of just about every British actor you’ve ever heard of. The film is set in the 1930s, when the country houses in England had already begun their decline, and is interesting for its accurate portrayal of the relations between the servant and landed classes at the time. It’s a little long, but is gorgeously filmed. Recommended.

The title of All Must Have Prizes comes from the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, who, after a nonsensical running race in which the participants stopped and started as they pleased, declared that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”.

Phillips’s burden is the decline of the educational system in the UK, which she places in the context of a wider moral decline. Phillips herself is quite a character. During her career as a journalist and columnist, she’s made the transition from newspapers traditionally associated with the political left to the Daily Mail, a nasty right-wing tabloid. But fear not, for the book was first published in 1996, before this transition, and, on the subject of the decline in educational standards, she’s right.

What strikes me as odd is that employers and university teachers (or indeed, anyone who has looked at old O-level papers) know that GCSEs and A-levels have been reducing their content for years, and yet apparently nobody is allowed to say so because it would devalue the work put in by the children taking the exams. Unfortunately, the time spent on work isn’t necessarily proportional to how much a child learns, especially with the amount of make-work kids are given (things like project work, making posters, and often coursework fall into that category).

Phillips places the blame for this on a politicised educational establishment in the Department of Education and in teacher training colleges, who are more interested in making ideological points than in preparing children for work or university. As the title of the book suggests, she believes that their main errors are to insist that children should direct their own learning, that they should not be given work which they may see as hard or boring, and most of all, that they should never be allowed to think they have failed at anything. This leads to everyone being equally mediocre, like in that Kurt Vonnegut story.

But Mom broke up with Brad; she didn’t like craftsmen, she said, because they were too much like actual Victorians, always spouting all kinds of crap about how one thing was better than another thing, which eventually lead, she explained, to the belief that some people were better than others. — Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.

The later, and more controversial, chapters of the book link the decline in educational standards to a wider decline, characterised by an emphasis on rights rather than responsibilities and a lack of respect for authority. Phillips is especially concerned with the decline in conventional family life: while she does not make the mistake of saying that parental divorce always leads to delinquent children, she does argue that it makes such delinquency more likely. Phillips thinks of herself as a left-wing liberal, and pins the blame for shirking of responsibility on Margaret Thatcher’s “me generation”, pointing out that the name “Conservative Party” is a misnomer for an administration which was in fact dedicated to making sweeping changes.

It’s here that I part company with Phillips to some extent. She seems to have moved further to the right these days: on her website, she makes it clear that, for example, she does not approve of the Government’s moves to allow civil partnerships for homosexuals, despite the fact that people who wish to form such partnerships presumably wish to express commitment and responsibility, two of the things which she sees as lacking in modern Britain. Similarly, she laments the decline of the Church of England but doesn’t quite have to the courage to say that she supports religion as a source of social cohesion: if not, then why lament its decline? Phillips teeters on the edge of the faith-based community, somewhat worryingly for her readers in the reality-based one.

On her wider point, though, I find myself agreeing with her. As I’ve said before, people without a culture which makes value judgements are mightily screwed. The current backlash against chavs and suchlike is a reflection of a wider culture which is running out of patience (oddly enough, this entry from epsilon_moo appeared while I was composing mine). Almost everyone on my friends-of-friends list who lives in London appears to have been mugged or burgled at least once. Meanwhile the Government invests in the white elephant of identity cards (Phillips’s prediction that without corrective action we risk tribalism or facism seems quite prescient for 1996) and promises to make more laws which will not be enforced.

In many ways we are better off than we were in the days of Gosford Park, when the rich few lived like, well, gentry, and the lower classes were humble and Knew Their Place, and I know that Greek or Roman bloke also said that the youth of his day had no respect, but these days, talk of Stephenson’s phyles and burbclaves is also looking prescient (the Londoner I know who hasn’t been burgled lives behind a gate and a security guard). So, are we doomed?

I’ve discovered an exciting new thing while perusing LiveJournal. No, not the goth bisexual polyamourous bondage furries: I knew about them already. Rather, it seems, not content with all that fan fiction, people have started making fan videos. With the advent of stupidly fast Internet connections and cheap video editing software, it’s become possible to devote large amounts of time to producing cuts from your favourite TV programmes set to appropriate music.

sdwolfpup has a large collection of videos from Joss Whedon’s work. My particular favourites are the funny settings of scenes from the final season of Buffy to La Resistance (from the South Park film) and scenes about Spike and Buffy to ABBA’s Take a Chance on Me. On a more serious note, I liked the scenes about the redemption of Spike and Faith set to Tracy Chapman’s At This Point in My Life.

I also liked sol_se‘s setting of the Ariel episode of Firefly to Great Escape, which you can find on their site. It seems you score points in this game by matching the video to the lyrics of the song, something which this one does very well.

It’s not all Joss Whedon, though. Over on doctorwho, they’re all getting very excited about whether the Doctor and Rose’s relationship is entirely platonic (the hardcore, largely male, fans from way back want it to be, the new crowd don’t, so there’s some amusing friction if you’re into fandom wank). I thought _projectgalem‘s take on it was quite sweet. Those two do hold hands a lot, don’t they?

I do wonder whether the people who own the copyrights on this stuff might look a bit less favourably on people using video than they do on people just writing text about their work, and may chose to pwn them, but we can hope that the TV companies will recognise the value of a fanbase.

It’s been a geeky evening, where I’ve watched both the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, and the latest Doctor Who.

<lj-cut text=”HHGTG – contains spoilers”> I thought the film was entertaining, but I can see why some of the fans are annoyed. First, the bad things.

  • The language has been simplified, which spoils the rhythm of some of phrases and makes them less funny. For example, in the book, Paula Nancy Millstone Jenning’s poetry “perished with its creator in the destruction of the Earth”, whereas the film says it “was destroyed when the Earth was”. Ouch. Some of the extended sequences which play with language have been cut (Arthur’s rant ending with “Beware of the Leopard”, for example). The film is less erudite than previous incarnations of HHGTG.

  • I didn’t object to the Arthur/Trillian love interest in itself, since we’ve always known he fancied her. But it was overplayed in places, especially in Arthur’s speech about what the important questions were. The speech was American self-help babble, not the sort of thing a nervous Englishman would come out with. (Weren’t you glad when the mice interrupted him to continue their attempt to cut out his brain?)

  • I wonder what someone who had never seen any other members of the mighty HHGTG franchise would make of the film. There were several unexplained nods to the earlier works (such as the jewelled crabs on the planet Vogosphere). Not a bad thing if you’re a fan, though.

  • The sub-plot about Zaphod’s rival for the presidency was irrelevant and largely unfunny. They could have ditched that and had some of the actually good bits from earlier versions, and set up for the Point of View gun (which was funny) some other way.

  • Similarly, what was the vice-president actually for, other than to distract Zaphod from Trillian so that everyone (except Ford) gets the girl at the end?

There were good things.

  • The film made good use of visual gags which weren’t in the previous works but which fitted with the tone: how the dolphins left earth, for example, or the people in the pub lying down with paper bags over their heads just before the Earth was blown up, or the visual effect for the effect for the Improbability Drive jumps.

  • Stephen Fry is a good Book.

  • The factory floor scenes on Magrathea were really pretty.

  • Trillian was a cipher in the radio series, TV series and first book, a product of Adams’s self-confessed inability to write women. It was good to see more being made of the character in the film. Some people have complained that it wasn’t made clear in the film that Trillian is an astrophysicist, so she just looks like a thrill-seeker, but there are hints that she’s educated (dressing as Charles Darwin at a fancy dress party and carrying a beagle, muttering “so much for the laws of physics” as the Heart of Gold does an improbability jump).
  • The film is energetic and good natured and, silly speeches aside, very English.

Overall, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an enjoyable adaption. While I still liked the other incarnations more, and can think of ways it could have been better, it is certainly not deserving of the OMG! sacrilege! stuff which was coming from some of the fans. It’s worth seeing.

<lj-cut text=”Doctor Who – likewise contains spoilers”> So to Doctor Who. This week’s episode was the first one where I’ve felt that the programme was being made for grown-ups. The Doctor, who we now know is probably the last surviving Time Lord, encounters the last surviving Dalek. Both are refugees from a cataclysmic battle which destroyed their races. The story played with the the idea that we become like our enemies, with the Dalek starting to show compassion, and the Doctor determined to exterminate it.

There’s still room for some humour. Line of the show: “It’s downloaded the Internet. It knows everything.” Haw!

Further to my last posting, Penny Arcade has Serenity spoilers (or rather, not).