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" <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/inside_out_2015/> <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2096673/> "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 well. * "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/star_wars_episode_vii_the_force_awakens/> <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2488496/> "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 introduced. * "Ex Machina" <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ex_machina/> <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0470752/> "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" <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_grand_budapest_hotel/> <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2278388/> "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" <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/coherence_2013/> <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2866360/> "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" <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/gone_girl/> <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2267998/> "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" <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_wolf_of_wall_street_2013/> <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0993846/> "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" <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/certified_copy/> <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1020773/> "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.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Posted by Bruno at 7:36pm
Tuesday, January 26, 2016
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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20518872-the-three-body-problem> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18007564-the-martian> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/334176.The_Sparrow> 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 Shelley <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18490.Frankenstein> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5954.Narcissus_and_Goldmund> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18373.Flowers_for_Algernon> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/226378.A_Hero_of_Our_Time> 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 1800s. * "Ancillary Justice" by Ann Leckie <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17333324-ancillary-justice> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17934530-annihilation> 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 satisfying. * "The Water Knife" by Paolo Bacigalupi <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23209924-the-water-knife> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/66321.Finding_Flow> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18222747-collection-of-sand> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14059030-how-to-find-fulfilling-work> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13629711-dreamland> 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 does. See Goodreads for ratings.
Monday, October 6, 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38447.The_Handmaid_s_Tale> <http://www.amazon.com/The-Handmaids-Tale/dp/038549081X> 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 "unwoman". 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 leaders. 2. "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9969571-ready-player-one> <http://www.amazon.com/Ready-Player-One/dp/0307887448> 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 <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17707600-smarter-than-you-think> <http://www.amazon.com/Smarter-Than-You-Think/dp/0143125826> 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
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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19322249-tigerman> <http://www.amazon.com/Tigerman/dp/0385352417> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16158596-lexicon> <http://www.amazon.com/Lexicon/dp/0143125427> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16101143-you-are-now-less-dumb> <http://www.amazon.com/You-Are-Now-Less-Dumb/dp/1592408796> 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: <http://youarenotsosmart.com/all-posts/> 4. "Mind Over Mind" by Chris Berdik <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13588409-mind-over-mind> <http://www.amazon.com/Mind-Over-Mind/dp/1591846579> 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
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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58372.Whatever> <http://www.amazon.com/Whatever/dp/1846687845> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12930.Messenger> <http://www.amazon.com/Messenger/dp/0440239125> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10954979-the-swerve> <http://www.amazon.com/Swerve/dp/0393343405> 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 <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19311677-the-undercover-economist-strikes-back> <http://www.amazon.com/Undercover-Economist-Strikes-Back/dp/1594631409> 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": <http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/thpop> 5. "Think Like a Freak" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17331349-think-like-a-freak> <http://www.amazon.com/Think-Like-Freak/dp/0062218336> 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: <http://freakonomics.com/radio/>