Thursday, January 28, 2016

Pick of Movies Watched in 2015

I don't seem to watch as many movies as I used to. I only saw one movie
on the big screen in the whole of 2015. Until recently, I would borrow
and watch at least one movie on DVD a week, but lately it's more like
one or two a month. And I don't often watch movies broadcast on TV
either. That's in part because I've found TV shows in this so-called
"platinum" age of television more interesting and satisfying. I'll say
more about that in a future post.

Anyway, there were some movies I did enjoy watching for the first time
in 2015.

1. New Releases

* "Inside Out"
"After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San
Francisco, her emotions - Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness -
conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house, and school."

A solid return to form for Pixar. Most of the studio's movies are
technically excellent, but this one had a great and touching story as

* "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
"Three decades after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, a new threat
arises. The First Order attempts to rule the galaxy and only a ragtag
group of heroes can stop them, along with the help of the Resistance."

Like many fans, I was a bit nervous about Episode VII. I went to see it
at the cinema with a longtime friend and fellow Star Wars tragic. After
the less-than stellar prequels, we were both very satisfied with the
first release of the Disney era. Echoes of the classic trilogy are
definitely present, but it was original enough, held together well
(ignoring the questionable physics), and some cool new characters were

* "Ex Machina"
"A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking
experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities
of a breath-taking humanoid A.I."

That premise was always going to grab my attention, and overall, this
relatively low-budget movie delivered. I enjoyed it enough to re-watch
it to see if I could catch any tells.

2. Past Year Releases

* "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
"The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous hotel
from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka between the first and second
World Wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most
trusted friend."

Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, this Wes Anderson-directed
comedy entertained me. I really enjoyed the fable-like qualities.

* "Coherence"
"Strange things begin to happen when a group of friends gather for a
dinner party on an evening when a comet is passing overhead."

When I heard about this very low budget ($50,000!) parallel worlds
sci-fi/thriller, I was intrigued. I don't buy the comet tie-in with
quantum theory, but what really matters is the characters react to the
situation. At only 90 minutes long, I had no qualms re-watching
immediately to better grasp the intricate plot.

* "Gone Girl"
"With his wife's disappearance having become the focus of an intense
media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when it's suspected
that he may not be innocent."

I held off watching this, but caved due to my crush on Rosamund Pike,
and the fittingly edgy soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I
haven't read the book, and probably won't since it's all about the
twist. It held my interest throughout.

* "The Wolf of Wall Street"
"Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy
stock-broker living the high life to his fall involving crime,
corruption and the federal government."

I'd probably watch traffic directed by Martin Scorsese. I also enjoy
seeing the shenanigans and excesses of the financial world being played
out. Overall, worth watching despite the long playing time.

* "Certified Copy"
"In Tuscany to promote his latest book, a middle-aged British writer
meets a French woman who leads him to the village of Lucignano. While
there, a chance question reveals something deeper."

They had me at Tuscany, but it wasn't just the scenery and architecture
that kept me watching. It was almost like a two-person play, with the
action mostly taking place over a single day. Solid acting and complex
characters that required a repeat viewing to fully appreciate. It's
probably not for everyone, though.

3. New Releases NOT seen yet:

* "The Martian"
I've read and enjoyed the book (see earlier post), and will definitely
catch the movie on DVD soon.

* "Mad Max: Fury Road"
After hearing lots of positive responses, I was tempted to go watch this
on the big screen. Will also have to wait for the DVD.

Feel free to suggest anything else I should check out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Pick of Books Read in 2015

After a lengthy hiatus, I'm going to reboot the B-List with a series of
posts listing some of my personal entertainment highlights of 2015.
First up, books.

1. Fiction

In retrospect, 2015 turned out to be a resurgence of quality
speculative/science fiction for me. Twenty of the 53 novels I read last
year were broadly-speaking sci-fi, and eight of those made it into my
ten favourites.

* "The Three-Body Problem" by Cixin Liu
Lots of interesting ideas: astronomy, mind-bending physics, some
information theory and contact with an alien civilisation. All this
starting with the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a historical prologue.
It's the first book in a trilogy, and after the initial contact produces
an unexpected response, humanity is left with a long and anxious wait
for the arrival of the alien fleet.

* "The Martian" by Andy Weir
When a mission to Mars goes wrong, the crew is ordered to evacuate and
leave behind a critically injured astronaut. He survives and has access
to food and other supplies, but faces a long wait until the next
scheduled mission. There's lots of detailed science-based problem
solving, with dashes of humour as he deals with a hostile environment.

* "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell
Astronomers discover what appears to be evidence of intelligent life on
a planet orbiting a nearby star. With the help of its financial and
scientific supporters, the Jesuits beat the rest of the world in
launching an exploratory mission. When they get there, they struggle to
reconcile their humanity and faith with the realities of the alien
societies they encounter.

* "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" by Mary Wollstonecraft
This is a classic, and arguably the first modern science fiction story.
It holds up well, despite being written almost 200 years ago.

* "Narcissus and Goldmund" by Hermann Hesse
This novel describes contrasting life journeys of two former residents
of a monastery in Medieval Germany. Narcissus is a dedicated and
knowledgable monk who devotes his life to teaching. Goldmund is a former
pupil who abandons monastic life in search of passion and adventure.
Weighty themes are covered, such as true friendship, discipline, and
finding one's life purpose and meaning.

* "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes
After successfully increasing the intelligence of a mouse (Algernon),
scientists experiment on a mentally challenged man in an attempt to make
him "normal". Early results are encouraging, and the beneficial effects
of the treatment continue. Soon Charlie's IQ goes beyond genius level.
He also starts remembering and understanding his childhood for the first
time. Old relationships are re-evaluated and new ones develop. But when
Algernon's condition unexpectedly deteriorates, Charlie fears the worst.

* "A Hero of Our Time" by Mikhail Lermontov
A classic from one of the pioneers of Russian Romanticism. The
adventures and stories of a not-so-loveable rogue, recounting abduction,
drunkenness, cheating and duelling in and around the Caucasus during the

* "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie
Following an act of treason destroys a starship, the artificial
intelligence controlling that vessel inhabits one of the soldiers in its
crew (Breq). S/he (gender is neutral in this advanced culture) joins
with other survivors and tries to find those responsible, and uncovers a
plot to overthrow the Radch Empire. First instalment of a trilogy, the
followup wasn't as impressive. Hopefully the concluding book is better.

* "Annihilation" by Jeff VanderMeer
Area X has long been isolated from the rest of civilisation. Many
expeditions have been sent there, but few of participants return. Those
who do return suffer fatal mental or physical problems. The latest
expedition is sent with the names of the members intentionally
suppressed. They refer to each other only by their roles. Will this help
them deal with the psychological challenges of the mission? Also the
start of trilogy, but I didn't find the remaining two books as

* "The Water Knife" by Paolo Bacigalupi
In the near future, access to water in south-western USA becomes a legal
and political minefield, attracting criminals. When various interested
parties get wind of a "game-changing" document in Phoenix, ruthless
types converge on the surrounding area, endangering the lives of its
struggling and unsuspecting inhabitants. Another competent eco-thriller
from the author.

See Goodreads for ratings.

2. Non-fiction

Last year wasn't such a memorable year for non-fiction: of the sixteen
books read, only a few left a lasting impression.

* "Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life"
  by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
This book argues that by doing something challenging yet achievable
given your skills and ability, you can attain a state of mind which
leaves you fully engaged. More than mere happiness, consistently
entering this "flow" state when working, playing and engaged in other
activities provides a sense of fulfillment. The author uses extensive
real-world studies to support his case.

* "Collection of Sand" by Italo Calvino
This is a collection of essays and articles on a wide-range of topics.
Calvino is my favourite Italian author, and he always manages to find
interesting angles and observations on any subject, from Japanese
gardens and temples, to the collection of sand referred to in the title.

* "How to Find Fulfilling Work" by Roman Krznaric

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people hate their job. Since we spend
arguably the best hours of our weekdays at work, you'd think it would be
worth spending a bit of time trying to find a job we actually like
doing. This book aims to help readers do that.

* "Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep"
  by David K. Randall
This book looks at another activity which occupies about a third of our
lives: sleep. It features research studies and anecdotes, covering the
various stages of sleep, historical references, sleep-related
conditions. A couple of controversial findings: "high-quality"
mattresses don't materially improve sleep, and sleeping alone apparently

See Goodreads for ratings.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, September 2014

Reviews of books read last month: two novels and a non-fiction book
about the benefits of using technology.

1. "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

This dystopian novel was published in 1986 and is set in the near
future. Religious fundamentalists have staged a coup in the United
States, forming the Republic of Gilead. The new regime introduced
an extreme patriarchal society, overturning many of the rights
gained by women. There has been a dramatic reduction in births, so
leaders of the regime are assigned "handmaids" if their wives are
unable to have children. Before the coup, the narrator used to be
an working woman with a husband and daughter. She was forcibly
separated from her family, and assigned as a handmaid to a Commander
in the regime. Her name was changed to "Offred", signifying her
relationship to her master. She describes her daily life as a
handmaid, which affords her some specific privileges, she has very
few freedoms compared to her previous life. As long as she has the
ability to conceive and stays out of trouble, she can at least
avoid getting banished to work in the colonies and be branded an

Dystopian novels can be heavy going, and not everyone's cup of tea.
I seem to like reading cautionary tales like this one, which reminds
us to be vigilant against the reactionary rhetoric of our political

2. "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline

Thirty years in the future, the real world has become a bleak and
rundown place. Mounting debts have weakened governments and
corporations, making conditions difficult for ordinary people.
Fortunately, the infrastructure of the information age has remained
mostly intact. Children can get an education online, and it's
usually safer to do so than in the real world. More generally,
people can escape the drudgery of everyday life by logging into
OASIS, a massively multiplayer online virtual reality environment.
An added incentive is that the founder of OASIS, James Halliday,
left some "Easter eggs" in the system, and whoever finds all of
them will inherit his vast fortune. But this provides an opportunity
for Halliday's bitter corporate rival, Innovative Online Industries
(IOI), to send its own agents into the system and to try to usurp
Halliday's business. Halliday was a child of the Eighties, so the
egg hunters ("gunters") believe there are clues in cultural
artifacts of that era. "Anorak's Almanac", an electronic book that
compiles Halliday's interests, is the go-to guide for the gunters.

This novel delves deeply into the computer games, music, movies and
television of the 1980s. Readers unfamiliar with these nostalgic
cultural references may find the story harder to follow and
appreciate. Most of the action takes place in the virtual world, so
in-game avatars can provide alternative insights into the real-life
characters. Overall, I found this an enjoyable page turner.

3. "Smarter Than You Think" by Clive Thompson

The author of this book challenges the view that over-reliance on
technology is reducing our powers of thought and making us less
intelligent. For example, tailored search results can lead to filter
bubbles, where we are only present with information that confirms our
biases. Easy access to search engines can lead us to rely less on our
own memory. Multitasking and highly distracting social media can lead
us to be "shallow". The author acknowledges that technology is not
always positive. However, he argues that, when applied wisely, it can
make us smarter. We can use technology as "outboard memory", freeing
up our minds to concentrate on the actual problems at hand. Technology
provides the ability to quickly search and cross-reference large
collections of data. It facilitates increased collaboration across
cultures and national boundaries. Computers can be used to do a lot
of the low-level calculations necessary to work on complex problems.

The use of technology has been an area of debate and controversy
throughout history. For example, Socrates lamented that, compared to
interactive conversation, books were an inferior medium to conduct
intelligent debate. The author does a reasonable job of explaining
how technology can take a load off our minds so we can work on big-
picture problems. But we should remember that technology can make
constant surveillance, creepy advertising and other invasions of
privacy easier.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, August 2014

Reviews of books read last month: two novels and two non-fiction books
on how our minds play tricks on us.

1. "Tigerman" by Nick Harkaway

Mancreu is a former island colony of Britain facing an environment
catastrophe. The island is a formerly dormant volcano, which has
started discharging toxic vapours. Black marketeers, drug pushers
and other shady types are taking advantage of the island's remoteness
and precarious state. Middle-aged Sergeant Lester Ferris has been
appointed to look after British interests, with a brief to merely
observe and report. The brutal murder of Shola, his friend and local
businessman, spurs Lester to defy his orders to "sit tight". With the
aid of a street-smart and comic-obsessed local boy, he decides to
find out why Shola was killed. Inspired by the boy's love of comic
book heroes, Lester even wears a costume and takes on a superhero
identity, Tigerman. The boy makes clever use of the internet to
spread the mystique of Tigerman around the world.

As I've come to expect from this author, some clever things going on
here. The villains and supporting characters spice things up. While
I did find the story interesting, it didn't quite work as well for me
as the author's earlier novels. Maybe comic fans would enjoy this
book more?

2. "Lexicon" by Max Barry

In the near-future, almost the entire population of Broken Hill is
wiped out by a mysterious incident. There are lots of conspiracy
theories, but few people know what really happened. The lone survivor,
Wil Parke, has been living in the US for a a couple of years. A secret
society, who call themselves the Poets, has located him and want to
interrogate him so they can find out what happened. The members of
this society have learned how to use words as weapons. Certain words
go beyond persuasion and can actually kill. Emily Ruff is also on the
run from the Poets. She was one of the brightest alumni of the Poet
training program, but she chose love over a career as a secret agent.

This is another novel with some interesting ideas, but which didn't
follow through in my opinion. If the writing style had included more
humour, as in the style of Jasper Fforde or Douglas Adams, I may have
been better able to suspend my disbelief. "The Rook" by another
Australian author, Daniel O'Malley, did a better job of portraying a
supernatural secret society.

3. "You Are Now Less Dumb" by David McRaney

The author continues his examination of cognitive biases and self-
delusion. Research studies and historical anecdotes are used to
describe psychological phenomena such as the halo effect (your
overall impression of someone impacts your feelings and thoughts
about that person), the Ben Franklin effect (doing a favour for a
rival makes you like them more), why hard to change minds of others
(the backfire effect), ego depletion (self-control and willpower can
run down, leading to lapses), enclothed cognition (the clothes you
wear affects how you think and act).

A worthy follow-up book to "You Are Not So Smart". By accepting our
susceptibility to biases and self-delusion, we can learn how to
overcome them. If this subject matter interests you, check out the
author's blog and podcasts at:

4. "Mind Over Mind" by Chris Berdik

Research shows how expectations, assumptions and predictions can
play a large part in shaping what happens to us, both good and bad.
The placebo effect was observed in medicine as early as WW2, when a
shortage of morphine lead doctors to give some injured soldiers
shots of saline instead. By making these patients believe their
pain would subside, the onset of potentially fatal shock was
prevented for many of them. There are various factors which
determine whether or not placebos work. The book also looks at
several other facets of life, including penalty kicks, wine tasting,
phantom limbs, economic bubbles and gambling addiction. For example,
being convinced that food is high in calories (when it actually
isn't) can make our bodies respond as if we've eaten something
fattening - in effect, food can have "placebo calories".

I found this a very eye-opening and though-provoking book. By taking
into account the importance of expectations, we can find new
approaches to deal with problems and challenges. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, July 2014

Reviews of books read last month: two short novels, two books on
economics, and a book about the man who recovered the manuscript
that allegedly launched the Renaissance.

1. "Whatever" by Michel Houellebecq

This short novel is set in the 1990s in France. The narrator is a 30
year-old IT worker. He's single, and unhappy with both his job and
life in general. He doesn't have a lot of nice things to say about
his co-workers or his clients, either. Mid-way through the novel he
confesses: "I don't like this world ... The society in which I live
disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke."
Unfortunately, he does not seem to provide any alternatives.

Described as "L'Etranger for the info generation", this is a book
you'll either love or hate. I'm afraid I fall into the latter
category. I had hoped it would at least provide a glimpse at what
it's like to work in IT. Alas, no. It could really be about any
clerical/office work, in any era.

2. "Messenger" by Lois Lowry

This is the third book in "The Giver" Quartet, which are all set in
a post-apocalyptic future. This story picks up a few years after
"Gathering Blue", and describes life in the Village where outcasts
from other places have been welcomed and appear to thrive despite
their disabilities. Unfortunately, this idyll is falling apart due
to the greed, vanity and selfishness of some of the villagers. The
central character, Matty, is now a teenager and acts as messenger
between the Village and nearby towns. Until recently the living
Forest allowed him free passage, but that seems to be changing.
When the Villagers decide to close themselves off from everyone
else, Matty decides to get her friend Kira to come to the Village
to be reunited with her father before it's too late.

The series is aimed at younger readers, and that probably made the
plot a bit simple and predictable. But I still found it enjoyable.

3. "The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began" by Stephen Greenblatt

Poggio Bracciolini was an ex-Vatican official who became a successful
book hunter in the 15th century. A colourful character, he served as
an official for seven popes, eventually rising to the post of papal
secretary. Mid-way through his career, power struggles in the papacy
forced him into temporary exile. He embarked on a search for ancient
manuscripts scattered in various remote monastery libraries around
Europe. He is credited with recovering many classical Latin
manuscripts. The author argues that one manuscript in particular,
"De rerum natura" by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, was the
key to the development of Humanism. Its rediscovery kick-started the
Renaissance, and influenced French rationalism, the American Founding
Fathers, and our modern world.

I mostly enjoyed reading about the book hunters of the early
Renaissance. Poggio comes across as a bit of an Indiana Jones type
of guy. Unfortunately, the author's strong anti-religious sentiment
somewhat distorts his argument. He focuses on the negatives without
giving credit for the positive influence of the Church on art, for
example. Other reviewers question the validity of the author's
thesis, in light of the findings of other historians.

4. "The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run - or Ruin -
    an Economy" by Tim Harford

This book looks at economics at the macro or national level. It is
written in a conversational manner, answering questions from a typical
person-in-the-street. It guides the reader through monetary policy
(money and interest rates) and fiscal policy (taxes, spending and
welfare). It examines effect of policies on unemployment, productivity
and growth. These are heavy and complex topics, which the author
manages to explain in an accessible way.

This book should should appeal to anyone with an open mind and an
interest in the various approaches to managing economies. It should
also make readers wary of any politicians who claim to have a simple
solution for a country's economic problems. The author has written
other good books on economics, and recently released a series of
short podcasts, "Pop-Up Ideas":

5. "Think Like a Freak" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This is another book about economics, but with a focus on the micro
level: how individuals make decisions in their everyday lives about
things such as money, work, love, crime and education. This book
expands on the themes of the authors' previous books, Freakonomics
and SuperFreakonomics. Key ideas include making sure the right costs
are considered (forget sunk costs but acknowledge opportunity costs),
how to frame incentives, applying game theory, and accepting that
it's okay to say "I don't know" or think like a child.

The authors use entertaining case studies backed up by relevant
research to provide advice on how to "think smarter about almost
everything". Many of the topics have been covered in their
Freakonomics podcast: