The Mammy Principle

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Even Lenin listened to his mammy.

This modest proposal has been brewing in my brain for a while. Pretty much since St. Petersburg, and that was several months ago now. It might not seem that way, but it was.

If you spend any length of time in a museum or art gallery in Russia, you’ll note a common feature to almost every room: the presence of a middle-aged to elderly lady sitting in the corner. Her purpose? To watch over the unwashed hordes who troop through her fief every day and threaten to do unspeakable things to the wonderful things that have been collected for their perusal. Her only defence against this dark threat: a stare that could reduce a hardened Red Army veteran to a sobbing wreck in only a few seconds.

I have to admit my admiration for the genius of this use of an underutilised resource. Who in Ireland does not know the power of a mammy’s disapproval? Even worse when she has risen to the exalted heights of grandmotherhood and can express her disdain over several generations at once. I shall not even speak of greatgrandmothers, lest I inadvertently draw the attention of one.

Such is the threat that these women wield that they rarely have to employ their glare: being in the same room as one, no matter how large or imposing the room, is enough to remind you of all the times when, as a child, you contemplated raiding the biscuit tin, only to turn and find yourself face to face with someone who knew what you were thinking before you did. I suspect that they only leave their seats to have a natter with one another just to reinforce the connections in their victims’ minds between those childhood guardians and the wardens of Russia’s treasures.

Perhaps, in this time of economic distress, we should seek to make similar use of the deeply-felt power of the mammy. I don’t speak of situating them in our museums, or even our banks or shops, where they would surely make any would-be thief pause in his criminality and slink away, shamefaced. No, the places where we need to situate our mammies are boardrooms and parliamentary chambers. No sooner would a captain of industry contemplate an ethically questionable shortcut to profit or an elected official dream up a scheme to enrich those who aided their rise to power than their inner guilt would kick in, they would look over to the corner to find a pair of steady eyes staring back at them over a copy of Ireland’s Own, and they would then return to find some more difficult yet more virtuous means of attaining their goals.

The price for all of this would be small: an increase in general stress levels among the powerful of the land, a few extra chairs and cushions here and there and a constant stream of tea and biscuits on demand. The rewards, I’m certain, would be many.

Hobbitual Liars

Opening the gates to Middle Earth: in your face!

Peter Jackson has just released the latest video blog on the making of The Hobbit, focusing on the technical nature of the filming, especially the 48fps digital shoot and the efforts to create a fully 3D cinematic experience. Fascinating stuff, and despite my suspicions of all things 3D in the cinema I took a look at it, continuing my ongoing efforts to spoil every possible nice surprise that the cinema is likely to offer me months, if not years, in advance.

However . . . there was a point in the video where my sceptical hackles were raised. Not because of the 3D itself, but because I was somewhere close to 100 percent sure that Jackson was having a laugh at the expense of his audience of desperate fans. Enlisted in this effort, if I’m right, were two of the most respected Tolkien artists, Alan Lee and John Howe. If you don’t want to be spoiled, jump ahead to 8:28 on the film above and take a look. They describe a rather . . . unique method of creating 3D conceptual art.

Now, as I say, I’m about 100 percent sure that this is a piss take. It’s presented in a straight-faced manner, and I haven’t seen anyone else calling it out as being ridiculous, but then straight-faced jokes are very much in Jackson’s repertoire. So can anyone tell me whether I’m just being overly suspicious here, or is Peter up to his old tricks again?

The Perils of Polish

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Google Reader on iPhone. A last bastion of how things used to be.

As much as I’m a longstanding fan of Apple’s software and hardware, I have to admit that Google has been playing a large part in my technological life for an long time. Gmail was ridiculously useful when it first emerged and has remained so, and Google Maps was repeatedly helpful during my global travels. However, the biggest Google product in my life has long been one of the company’s lesser known lights: its online RSS reader service, Google Reader. For at least the last few years, it’s been a quick and easy way for me to keep up with numerous news sources that might have taken me hours to trawl through if I’d visited each web site independently.

Not too long ago, Google announced that they were going to update Google Reader to bring it into orbit around the company’s new star product, Google+, integrating it with the new social hub and altering its UI to make it part of the new Google “look”. I didn’t pay too much attention at the time – I had already signed up to Google+ and figured that Google would make the transition pretty painless for existing users. Well, the change went through a few days ago, and some people aren’t happy.

The least of the problems is the UI, which is part of Google’s drive for visual consistency across its products. Such things are to some degree a matter of taste, and while the new design looks polished and professional, it also seems a bit flat, with elements seeming to hang in space, unconnected to anything around them. Adding to the problem is the fact that the sidebar and header take up an unnecessary amount of space, leaving less room for the primary purpose of the service, which is reading articles. (I’ll give Google a pass on the fact that the new UI seems to slow down rendering of the page, as my four-year-old laptop is showing its age, but if I’m having problems there, others probably are as well.)

More problematic for me is the mutilation of the feature that kept me with Google Reader over the years: the ability to share articles with my Reader-using friends. The new method for sharing works through Google+ and requires you to publicly “+1” an article first. You can bypass the “+1” requirement by clicking the “share” button in the universal Google control bar at the top right of the screen, but it’s not an intuitive leap to connect that button to a free-floating article elsewhere on the page. As for people who use Reader but not Google+? It seems that I’ve been disconnected from them on a permanent basis, unless they feel like signing up.

On my part, it’s a lesson about not relying too much on one company to support your online habits on an ongoing basis. As an Apple user, I should be well versed in the notion that a company has no obligation to continue supporting a product or service that offers it no profit. After all, Reader is small beans for Google. However, for Google, the reaction from Reader’s users should be a reminder that the product from which it makes most of its money is its users (Android is making more money for Microsoft right now). Driving those users to accept a new world order based around Google+ and a new UI seemingly designed without due care and attention (something Apple users have been getting used to from Google lately) is likely to lose it users, at least in the short term. This is the internet, where there’s always another option.

For the moment, I have no intention of jumping ship from Gmail. I’ve changed email addresses before and will do so again, but for now I can use Gmail on my phone and laptop without ever going near the Web interface. I may, in my drift away from Facebook, someday use Google+ more actively. What I am doing though, is looking for a useful, speedy alternative to Google Reader. If any of you have RSS feed readers that you particularly like, I’m open to suggestions.

October Reviews

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The St. Petersburg cinema where I watched Conan in Russian.

Down to the last two months of the year now. And for me, this is more or less the first day of the rest of my life. Everyone else off at work, myself beginning the search for work. I’d say it’s going to be interesting. Still lots to deal with, but a good start made – and I’ve signed up with NaNoWriMo again, just so I’ve got that little extra spur to avoid becoming a couch potato.

While I continue to pull together my notes on life in general and my recent travels in particular, here’s my film and book reviews for August. Some old and new in both categories, mostly enjoyed during my sojourn in the U.S., which offered the time and space to make the most of both.

October Film Reviews

Sucker Punch: Zack Snyder’s stylised original piece is ostensibly about female empowerment in the face of sleazy, predatory male figures, amid a melange of fantasy dreamworlds, but the main question it raises is how far it can be said to empower its female characters as it trades in cleavage, panty shots and genre stereotypes. It doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as weave them into the heart of its very slender original story, where nothing is expected or required to make sense, and the main character never manages to portray a genuine emotion other than cowed terror. Derivative in every facet of its being, it is pretty but entirely vacant, and if Zack Snyder is the harbinger of a new wave of filmmaking that draws on comics, videogames and music videos, then the main problem is the fact that the sources he’s drawing on are already several years out of date.

The Ides of March: A top-notch cast of U.S. actors combine in George Clooney’s political thriller, which takes the West Wing notion of an idealistic liberal president and staff and shoots it full of cynical holes. Ryan Gosling is suitably unreadable as the central figure, whose idealism cracks after one bad decision, but as he falls into the rabbit hole of compromise and double-dealing, almost everyone is revealed to be hiding what they’re willing to do to win power. Focusing on interpersonal politics and the manipulation of appearance, it’s telling that it presents the most genuine characters as the ones who suffer most.

Hanna: Weaving fairy tale motifs into a modern spy thriller, Joe Wright’s film captivates as it presents a dark look at the notion of a child killer and the forces arrayed against her. The otherworldly Saoirse Ronan more than holds her own as the centerpoint of the film, even when the actors she’s caught between are as good as Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett, in the evil stepmother role. There are occasional moments where the implausibility of it all jars, but several good performances, a driving pace and an excellent soundtrack from the Chemical Brothers make for a satisfying whole.

Run Lola Run: Tom Tykwer’s 1999 hit film still has the power to catch an audience by surprise as it moves at a consistently breakneck pace through the tale of a young woman dealing with her idiot boyfriend’s criminal ineptitude. That might seem a bit harsh, but the gormlessness of said boyfriend is really the only bar to enjoying this tale of undying love driving Franke Potente’s Lola to find a way to defy fate and save the day. The use of animation, the propulsive techno soundtrack and multiple twists combine to make this a brief but utterly absorbing experience, more akin to several rides on a roller coaster than a more traditional narrative experience.

Moneyball: The American pastime of baseball gets crossed with statistics in this film, which never quite escapes its nonfiction roots. Brad Pitt is as weathered an everyman as he’s ever been and he’s surrounded by an able (and, in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s case, well-disguised) cast, but the interesting shades of his character are pushed into the shadows by a baseball plot that lacks a sense of either desperation or adversity. The result is an intelligent, well-acted and well-shot drama that lacks a beating heart at its centre and is likely to send audiences away more intrigued than uplifted.

October Book Reviews

Halo: Cryptum, Greg Bear: Taking the trope of “advanced, ancient and vanished race,” Greg Bear personalises it by telling the story of just how they came to disappear from the viewpoint of one person caught up in titanic events. Rather than being constrained by the mythos of the “Halo” games, Bear throws in a few touches to satisfy fans while building on and deepening the sketchier deep history and making it his own. The result is a solid big-ideas science fiction read, which is unsatisfying only in the fact that, as the first book in a trilogy, it has to leave many of its mysteries unexplained for now.

Dune, Frank Herbert: A classic of the science fiction genre, Herbert’s opus is a dense tome that attempts to portray the future of humanity from as broad a viewpoint as possible. Delving deeply into the motivations of its many characters, it strings them together through fate and circumstance, and although the end point of the story is obvious from the start, the author is more concerned with how the characters get there and why. Its lack of success in translating to other media is probably connected to the reason why it has aged relatively well over the decades: although it is science fiction, science barely plays a role in the book, buried as it is under layers of politics, philosophy and religion.

Kill the Dead, Richard Kadrey: With the second book in his Sandman Slim series, Kadrey ups the stakes for his hellbound hero, unleashing a plague of the dead, the loss of friends and loved ones and several mysteries all tangled together. Sandman Slim remains as appealing a central character as he was in the first book, reluctantly dealing with all that heaven and hell can throw at him, though the loss of the directly personal motivations of the first book does detract a little from the feeling of desperation. Rife with appealing twists on horror tropes, this is much more in the pulp/noir tradition and while it may not hit the high notes as consistently as its predecessor, it is still a swift and absorbing read.

American Sphinx – The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph J. Ellis: Setting out to define the character of America’s secular saint, Ellis neatly dissects Jefferson’s political thinking, exposing him as a high-minded but often naive visionary. There are a few gaps in this recounting of Jefferson’s career, but a more serious flaw is that in picking apart the Jefferson of myth it leaves few clues as to how the historical Jefferson came to be seen as a leader among a group of the most impressive intellectual figures of his day. It’s a readable and well-structured book and at its strongest when reminding the reader of the dangers of reading Jefferson’s thought in modern-day terms, but as a guide to Jefferson himself, it seems inadequate on its own.