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A City Only I’ve Visited

A City at Dusk

There’s a place that I’ve been to, a city that I may be the only person to have ever visited. This city exists and recurs only in my dreams. I visit it perhaps once every few months. I know when I’m there, and I know that I’m dreaming. I can take myself back to places that I’ve been before. Continue reading “A City Only I’ve Visited”

Useless Plotlines in Last Jedi, Force Awakens, Valerian

Valerian

I’ve noticed this trend lately in science fiction movies, and it’s bothering me. The movie’s going along at a nice clip, but all of the sudden something happens that’s completely unnecessary to the story, and the film goes off the rails. Continue reading “Useless Plotlines in Last Jedi, Force Awakens, Valerian”

Spice World – the seminal Dune story

Dune trilogy covers

Everyone knows Dune (you do, don’t you? If not, why are you here?), and if you’ve even given this blog a cursory glance, you know that lately I’ve been obsessing about Dune more than a little.

I happened to chance onto a book called The Road to Dune in a local second-hand book store (I live in Malaysia. English is not the first language here, so it was a find). Within this book, along with deleted or early draft scenes from Dune and Dune Messiah, was a novella called Spice World. Continue reading “Spice World – the seminal Dune story”

Star Trek Discovery is not the Star Trek We Need

STD(Assume that this post contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery and the first three episodes of The Orville)

1966 was a time of rebellion in America: The Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Free Love movement, were all on the rise. People were pissed — at the government, at the establishment, at each other, and at the ‘other.’ Continue reading “Star Trek Discovery is not the Star Trek We Need”

Thoughts on Passengers and Arrival

Passengers? release here in Malaysia bumped Arrival to a later date, which bothered me immensely, as I was anticipating Arrival much more. I assume that the Malaysian film industry buyers saw Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence and thought ?gold?. But Passengers disappeared quickly, and Arrival, once it arrived, gain screens (more so after it started be nominated for awards).

But it?s not fair to force these two films to compete against each other, even though they are in the same genre, Science Fiction, and were released close together. One is Earthbound, one if spacebound. One is about solving a mystery, the other about making an ethical choice. One is a deep, serious movie, one is almost a romantic date film (almost).

Both are about loneliness, but take different approaches to exploring it.

Interestingly, according to Box Office Mojo, they?ve both made just under US$100 million (but Arrival was made for half the budget, Passengers hasn?t recouped its production budget yet).

I loved Arrival. I really liked Passengers. There?s room for both of them in my heart.

Arrival is the slow-moving film that doesn?t give you all the answers. The characters work hard for their victories, and there?s that twist (no spoiler) that makes you rethink what you?ve just been watching. Passengers starts with a bang and ends a bit too rosily, compactly.

Amy Adams, in Arrival, is cautious, intelligent, confused, subtle. Jennifer Lawrence is very emotive and engaging, but not challenging. Jeremy Renner didn?t make a big impression on me in Arrival. Chris Pratt is Chris Pratt. Seeing him in anything makes me long for the next Guardians of the Galaxy. Michael Sheen, as the android bartender Arthur, almost steals any scene he?s in. He does an amazing job of making the character not human.

Both are decent original science fiction stories (as opposed to franchises). Their existence should be embrace by fans everywhere, as they add to the spectrum of good original science fiction films being produced year-in year-out (often lost in the sea of Star Wars / Marvel / Transformer films that shout louder for your attention.

If you haven?t seen either, I?d recommend both: Arrival for when you want a patient, thinking film and Passengers when you want an evening of adventure/romance with stunning sets (even if it gets ethically challenging in the middle).

Are Stormtroopers Really Bad Shots?

Poor stormtroopers, forced to wear limiting armour (you try shooting when your eye slot is so small), relentlessly teased for the inability to shot straight.

What do people know about them? They were the successors to the clone army that defeated the Jedi, supposedly inheriting a peaceful situation. Their activities tended more towards policing than large scale military action. They can?t hit the broad side of a barn.

It?s not just the stormtroopers who are bad shots

We know that Lucas modelled much of the Star Wars military universe after World War II films. Maybe the weaponry inaccuracy was also a reflection of that source. It?s not just the stormtroopers who are bad shots. So are the heroes (although the heroes are all Hollywood Grade A good shots when the plot needs).

According to one source, the US military industrial complex (if you could call it that in the 1940s) made over 47 billion rounds of small arms ammunition to be used in World War II. Chrysler alone was manufacturing 12.5 million rounds of ammunition a month, according to a different source.

This ammo wasn?t just for American soldiers. It was distributed among many allies, and there is no evidence that it was all fired, but that number, 47 billion, also doesn?t include ammunition made by any other country either. Germany had a big industrial war machine, as did England and Japan.

I think we can reasonably assume that 50 billion rounds of ammunition were fired over the course of the war.

So, how many people were killed in the war? Obviously exact numbers are almost impossible to find, but most estimates put the number at around 60 million people, or about 3% of the world?s population at that time. Not all of those people were killed by munitions – death camps, civilian casualties, starvation and other privations would have added to the toll as well, but for simplicity, I?m using the 60 million number.

Using those two numbers, 50 billion rounds and 60 million deaths, we softball a figure of 834 rounds fired for every death caused. That number rises to 926 rounds per death if we take out the approximately 6 million people who died in death camps.

A World War II era soldier would fire between 834 and 926 rounds to make a single kill.

So on average, a World War II era soldier would fire between 834 and 926 rounds to make a single kill.These numbers don?t distinguish between bullets and bombs. The destruction of soft targets like Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed amazing rates of return on ammunition used, further skewering the numbers. Obviously, the bigger the weapon the larger the potential number of victims. It could easily have been that a foot soldier would need to fire on average 1,000 rounds to make a single kill.

Now do our stormtroopers look so bad?

Let’s compare the firefight from the first film — just after Vader kills Ben — to the ensuing spaceship battle. Using the blaster, and not hindered by stormtrooper armour or helmet, Luke and Han kill all their adversaries (Luke even managed to hit the door blast door controls.) The stormtroopers can?t even hit the slow moving droids.

Minutes later, on the Falcon, both Han and Luke miss far more often than they hit when shooting at the Tie fighters. In fact even the Tie fighters, with a big fat target lumbering in front of them, don?t score a great deal of hits.

In World War II air combat, again, a source for Lucas’ combat scenes, an estimated 459.7 billion rounds were fired from aircraft. The USAF estimates that it fired 12,700 rounds for every enemy plane destroyed. Being a bad shot when both the shooter and the target are moving was a given in World War II.

This raises the question of why doesn?t a galaxy-wide, multi-species, spacefaring civilization have better technology. Maybe there wasn?t the need. Jedi had been the guardians of peace for a thousand years before the Empire rose. Military budgets may have been cut, military research left underfunded.

The ground assault troopers in The Empire Strikes Back seem to be better shots

Remember that the Imperial ground assault troopers in The Empire Strikes Back seem to be better shots that the original stormtroopers. Perhaps once the rebellion had ?gotten real’ the empire started giving serious weapons training to it?s otherwise pedestrian police force. Perhaps they?d started investing in technology.

But what happens if the technology gets too good?

One of the least believable scenes in The Force Awakens is when Po flies his X-wing (in the atmosphere above Maz’s castle) and manages about ten kills in very quick succession. Finn, watching from the ground, cheers, but those in my theatre muttered, ?yeah, right?? We?d already gotten accustomed to the idea that Star Wars weaponry just isn?t that accurate. It’s the one thing in the whole Star Wars universe that seems real.

Thank You Christopher Tolkien

My editions

Right off the bat I want to do exactly what the title says and thank Christopher Tolkien for his decades of diligent management, guidance, and protection of the legacy of his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. As you may have heard, Christopher, now 93, resigned from managing his father’s estate this past August.

Some media companies are apparently rushing to try to acquire new rights or projects from the estate, now that the man seen as ‘the biggest hurdle’ to their progression is gone.

I’d like to think the opposite. He wasn’t a hurdle, he was a guardian. It would have been easy for Christopher Tolkien to exploit his father’s works for as much money as possible. Instead, he has steadfastly protected the integrity of those works, at the expense of multiple opportunities to cash in. This is a man of integrity.

Amazon has apparently already secured the rights to make a new TV series based in Middle Earth. Frankly I don’t need a new Lord of the Rings filtered through a Game of Thrones sensibility.

Christopher Tolkien was always suspicious of those who wished to portray his father’s universe, and given the angrier, grittier times we live in and the reflection of that in our modern fantasy, I suspect he was right to try to keep his father’s works separate from the modern interpretation.

Peter Jackson, for his part, did an admirable job of preserving J.R.R.’s sensibilities, portraying evil without resorting to gore, degradation, or any of the current oeuvres/ ideas on how to present evil. The archetypal evil of Sauron, Saruman, and Mordor is visceral, not physical. Let’s hope that whoever buys and exploits the newly available rights gets that.

– – – –

On a side note, a few years ago, I met Mahatma Gandhi’s son. Just stop for a second and visualize that. What do you think he would look like? For some reason, when I hear ‘son’ of a famous person, I think of, if not a child, then at least someone younger than me. Mr. Gandhi is a wise, gentle man, a peace activist like his father, but not young.

I had the same response when I heard that Tolkien’s son had retired –  he’s a son, he must be younger than me? Yeah, no. Christopher Tolkien is 93.

Valley Girl Revisited

I recently heard that they were going to remake the film Valley Girl (1983), as a musical. I remember that film well (I remember being a little smitten with the titular girl, not shown in the poster). So I decided to re-watch it. Mistake?

The acting – well Nicholas Cage is Nicholas Cage, even back then – was all short-handed stereotypes to a painful degree. I never understood the motivations of the characters, beyond the hormonal ?hey, you?re sexy! Let?s make out.?

Yet the film tries desperately and repeatedly to be seen as a modern day Romeo and Juliet. Nic Cage plays Randy, Deborah Foreman plays Julie. In case that wasn?t obvious enough, here?s a picture of them below a theatre marque advertising Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, it?s that heavy-handed.

If it?s going to be Shakespearean in scope, it needs conflict. Tommy, Julie?s exceedingly cliched ex brings that. You know he?s evil because he turns the collar of his shirt up. He?s fashionable, arrogant and reeks of what we?d now call ?affluenza.? He doesn?t so much want Julie back as he wants to prove his dominance over her and all women. He plays the sympathy card to get one of her friends to make out with him, then blames her when she asks if he has any feelings for her.

Julie and Randy?s relationship just never quite seems authentic, viewing it now. Character development is limited to pouty faces (both leads) and wardrobe changes (again, both leads). Frankly their best friends have a better, more realistic love/hate relationship. There?s also an awkward subplot about one girl?s mother flirting with her daughter?s boyfriend.

Of course since this technically about high school kids, it culminates at prom, which Julie is attending with Tommy even if she doesn?t care for him. He, in turn, plans this night as his rightful night to have his way with her at a hotel after the dance (worth noting, on this viewing I was surprised at the number of topless women – three – for a film that seems to be about a young woman breaking away from societal norms).

As you?d expect from a high school story, it ends in a fist fight (no weapons, even though this is L.A. and we?re certainly meant to believe that Randy is hat type of boy). We last see our young lovers in Tommy?s limo, heading to Tommy?s hotel room, to apparently shag each other?s brains out, totally, for sure.

Won?t Tommy want to know what happened to his limo?

Won?t he and his friends, go to his hotel room, either looking for her and the limo or to sulk off the indignation of their obviously righteous defeat?

We?ll never know, because ?happily ever after? has to end somewhere. Wait, isn?t this supposed to be a Romeo and Juliet retelling? What does ?happily ever after? have to do with this?

Sssshhhh!

Deborah Foreman didn?t have much of a career after this. When I was younger, I wondered why. Now I wonder how Nicholas Cage did manage to build a career out of playing basically this same character repeatedly. I?m not saying that he?s bad in this, he?s probably the best part. I?m just saying that this film basically encompasses every role he would ever go on to do.

There are good parts to the movie. The music certainly stands the test of time (some of it any way). I Melt With You by Modern English has certainly held up well, and I remember falling in love with Eyes of a Stranger by the Payola$ (Here with clips from the movie edited in). Both of these songs are still playlists of mine.

Thoughts?

Livestreaming the world’s wind

I am absolutely addicted to this site, Windyty.com. It shows you wind patterns live (maybe a 30 minute delay) for anywhere in the world. Above is peninsular Malaysia, where I live. Also, when you go to the site, note the controls on the lower right side – try clicking a few, like “Waves, Sea”, and see how the map changes. I’m totally hooked on this.

Here’s rhe same map, but now it’s showing waves (approximations of how rough or calm the seas are)! NOTE that you can zoom in or out in either map, or even move around, the same way you would with Google Maps.

Reflections on Living in Namibia

It?s been three years since I left Africa, possibly, but hopefully not, for good (and six years since I lived in Namibia). Time gives distance, perspective, a chance to appreciate the value of what you?ve experienced.

I came to Africa, more specifically Namibia, through a non-profit called WorldTeach. I was assigned to teach English at a rural secondary school in the north of the country. My town, Ohangwena, had a population smaller than the population of the school I was assigned to, a government-run boarding school with its own population of around 900 students. There were textbooks, but nowhere near enough for the 40+ students I had in each class. There was electricity most of the time, but no lightbulbs for the dark classrooms, a photocopier that worked about three hours a week. However, there was a large dose of institutionalized apathy.

I taught English at a rural secondary school in Namibia.

One of the hardest aspects of working there was the fatalism. It?s frustrating to repeatedly be told that something can?t be changed or fixed because ?this is Africa.? But what can be worse is when the locals buy into the naïve optimism of the foreigner. 

Study hard and you?ll get accepted into university, we told them, and they believed us. But with great grades, acceptance to university still wasn?t guaranteed ? political, familial and tribal affiliations could derail any promising, hard working young person. How can you not be a fatalist when your doors are closed as soon as you?re born?

In northern Namibia, a young woman isn?t truly an adult until she?s had a child of her own. This pressure drives even some of the most promising out of education, out of a career path and into a cycle of poverty

It?s too easy to look at the foreigner with their ideas and enthusiasm and dismiss them as not understanding or of imposing western ways. And sometimes they are correct. Why did my school burn all of it?s own garbage instead of composting and using the compost to grow a small vegetable garden? It seemed like an obvious and simple change that would have positive impacts ? less pollution, more food. How does that not work? It doesn?t work because (often venomous) snakes are attracted to the steady heat of the compost pile, and there are enough problems with students getting bitten by non-venomous lizards without inviting killers into the grounds.

As it was, I had an encounter with a black mamba, a very aggressive, very deadly snake, on the school grounds. Foolishly, I took pictures of it before a passing teacher saw the snake and started screaming. I was fortunate to walk away from the encounter. The snake became someone?s dinner.

People live a lot closer to death.

In much of Africa (definitely in what you probably picture of as ?Africa?) people live a lot closer to death. If there?s going to be any kind of meat with dinner ? chicken, goat or, occasionally, cow ­?­ then someone in the family will have looked it in the eye and killed it.

People also seem to die more frequently. A government minister coming to visit our school died when his car hit a kudu (large deer); a co-worker fell sick and died within a week; another co-worker passed out in class, died without ever waking up. Cholera, meningitis, malaria, and tuberculosis were all common and deadly. HIV/AIDS was responsible for one third of all deaths in Namibia in 2010 (and over a quarter still today). In comparison, road accidents, of which there are plenty, only accounted for five percent.

These are a people who generally don?t live long enough to die from cancer. Even prostate cancer, the most fatal cancer in Namibia, only ranks twenty-third as cause of death, and accounts for six tenths of one percent of all deaths annually.

(All stats from here)

But let?s not paint an image of a countryside waylaid by death. It isn?t. Much of the Africa that I saw, mostly in the south and east, is tamed. The roads are paved or at least maintained and everyone?s favourite toy is the cell phone.

There?s innovation going on here ? in cell phone money transfers; in checking the expiration and validity of medications; in microfinance and micro-entrepreneurship.

There’s innovation going on here.

Most Africans I met were quite good at spoken languages, no matter how poor their schooling may have been. Many spoke three or four languages and could understand dialects derived from them. In the south, most people spoke English and Afrikaans as well as their own traditional language. In much of the continent, there are imported languages that transcend national boundaries ? English, French, Arabic, and Portuguese ? as well as few African ones, notably Swahili and Yoruba.

The people I met generally knew what the world thought of them, and mostly it made them angry. They weren?t looking for hand-outs (with a few exceptions). They were looking for a fair shake, and honest chance, or as they got more cynical with life, a dishonest chance, to get ahead.

Living in Namibia taught me, more than anywhere else I?ve been, that people are the same, no matter skin colour, economic condition or education. Everyone wants better for their family. Parents worry about children. Adult children worry about their parents. Some people are nice, some are not, and some would be nice if they could get ahead that way.