Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Goodbye, Jack Vance

Well... shit.

Nobody lives forever. But I'm saddened by every one of my childhood heroes who dies. Not long ago it was the redoubtable Ray Harryhausen. This time it's Jack Vance.

If you haven't read Jack Vance's stuff, you've got a wonderful surprise ahead of you. He worked in SF and fantasy, and for me, it was his mid-career stuff that worked best. He had a brilliant imagination, creating bizarre societies and alien races that resonated with life and vigor and verisimilitude, no matter how weird they got.

Best of all, though, was his dialogue work. Vance's characters could say and do more in a couple exchanges of dialogue than most of us can manage with a chapter of hard-worked exposition. I'm not even going to try to reproduce the kind of thing he did. I'll just say that reading Vance's dialogue was, at its best, an unmatched joy.

If you haven't read anything by Vance... well, his Dying Earth books are fairly brilliant. Cugel's Saga and The Eyes of the Overworld follow the misadventures of Cugel, who isn't nearly as clever as he'd like to think, while The Dying Earth and Rhialto the Marvellous are short story collections sharing the same setting, and occasionally some of the same characters.

His straight-up SF five-parter about a vengeful character named Kirth Gersen pursuing the so-called 'Demon Kings' of crime in an interstellar blood feud is almost as good. Yes, it's old-school, but once again: colour, movement, detail, character work and elegant dialogue lift Vance's stuff out of the realms of the pulp-pushers, and into another place altogether.

Vance was one of the genuine greats of speculative fiction, and a huge influence on me in both my reading, and my writing. Those who know me will be aware that I prefer to learn how to avoid mistakes and bad writing, rather than trying to learn how others write well. Your mileage may vary, but I find that if I read, say, Dostoyevsky, then afterwards all I can write is a bad Dostoyevsky pastiche... but if I read Dan Brown, I learn a great deal about what NOT to do in narrative, which helps me tremendously.

Vance is one of the very few exceptions I have ever allowed to that process. I was so taken with his dialogue that I read and re-read a number of his works very carefully, trying to understand how he used what often seemed like quite stilted and unlikely speech to build wonderfully flawed and intricate characters. I can't say I mastered the idea, but I learned a great deal, and I came to appreciate the value and importance of dialogue in narrative fiction as a result.

All of which is a dry, didactic little aside, when what I really want to do is simply step away, and get quietly drunk in memoriam of a man whose thousands of wonderful worlds made my childhood an infinitely better place.

Best of luck wherever you be, Jack. And thank you.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek: Into Bikinis

So I did indeed take a troop to Star Trek: People Jumping Off Shit on the weekend. And it was big, shiny, explodey fun, with people Jumping Off Shit all over the place. What's not to like?

Well, according to an increasing number of rather bitter-sounding commentators, there was that heinous sexism. It's astonishing the number of people for whom an entire film can be ruined by an (admittedly gratuitous) bikini shot.

And of course, those offended people want their pound of flesh. (Male flesh, naturally.) "I thought we were past this!" they howl. "Misogyny!" they cry. "Where are the bold female role models?"

Here I pause for a deep breath.

Hello? Which fucking Star Trek series were they remaking here?

Look, Trekkers are notoriously amongst the most nitpicky fans in the history of nits. The original series was very much a product of its time. Klingons were thinly disguised Russkies, out there among the stars to thwart Kirk and the American Way. Women wore vanishingly small miniskirts and giant beehive 'dos. Kirk's penis was pretty much permanently set on "Orgy", and there wasn't an alien babe in the galaxy who could say 'no' once he got his shirt off.

At the same time, the writers back then tried a bunch of great stuff. They tackled issues of race and politics head-on, and did their best, given the TV limitations of the time. Obviously, the show wasn't perfect -- but they went after the targets they could envision, and sometimes they nailed it.

Twenty years later, of course, along came Patrick Stewart and his merry band, and oh, look! Suddenly Star Trek had lots of female role models in strong positions, wearing sensible space jammies like everyone else. And though they were supposed to 'boldly go', mostly they went quite meekly, with frequent consultations from their Ship's Counsellor and all her touchy-feeling prognostications.

That went pretty well for them. Seven or eight seasons, wasn't it? And there followed a space station with a black commander and an alien female leader of the local rebel-types. Also another Trek, but this time with a female captain and a female engineer.

Times had changed in the viewer's world, and accordingly, the writers of these new shows moved on, and gave us another vision of a future Star Trek.

But here comes JJ Abrams. And he's given a brief: revive the movies. Go back to the beginning. Show us young Kirk, Spock and the rest where it all starts. Here: use this couple-hundred-million bucks, but make sure we get it all back, right?

Pop quiz: in attempting to recapture something of the spirit of the original, and trying to do so in the face of the most quibblesome fans of all time, do you really think Abrams should have tried to make Kirk's era politically correct and fully femme-friendly? Do you honestly think Trekkers would have supported a movie that didn't acknowledge the flaws of the much-loved original series?

Just how fucking believable would a non-cocksman Kirk have been, anyway? For fuck's sake: the character has been the punchline of jokes for more than forty years now!

Personally? I think Abrams played it very, very smart. Yes, there's the bikini scene, and it does objectify the female character gratuitously. In particular, it does so by invoking Kirk's presence and his priorities. In this, it recalls the only other scantily-clad-girly sequence in the film, wherein Kirk wakes up in bed with two space babes -- a scene which provoked considerable laughter in the cinema where I was.

But away from Kirk? Well, we don't see a bunch of female admirals and leaders. That's true. But then, this is meant to be the era of Original Trek, right? Give them some fucking credit: we don't see a bunch of fucking beehives and miniskirts, do we? Go back and watch the original series again, sometime. Compare what you see in the background and in the non-Enterprise character groups with what you see in Abrams film. If you truly don't think Abrams cleaned up the 60s-era sexism pretty drastically, I think you may be wearing the wrong glasses.

So: Abrams tidied up where he could, but where Kirk was the focus (and for fuck's sake, when wasn't he, back in the day?) he acknowledged the sexism of the original. But he also did his level best to turn it into a joke, to make fun of that aspect of the series, and of Kirk's character.

To my mind, that works a shitload better than any po-faced political retconning. Playing Kirk's misogyny for yuks (in all of two scenes) makes viewers aware of that misogyny in a way that the original series never did. On top of that, it serves to make fun of the underlying attitude. It highlights this as a weakness in Kirk's character, not a strength.

No. It isn't a perfect solution. But operating under the constraints laid down by finance and fandom, it's a pretty good compromise.

Bottom line? If you don't like this element of the remake, I think that's gotta be just your tough shit. They weren't remaking Counsellor-Trek. They weren't remaking Janeway-Trek. They weren't remaking Sisko-Trek. They were remaking the original goddam Star Trek series, and the original series had some highly visible political incorrectnesses. And if you truly think that the fans of the Star Trek shows and movies would have been happier with a retrospectively corrected Star Trek universe, then I submit you probably don't know nearly as much about fandom as you imagine.

The movie was fun. If you really wanted more, you'll have to wait until they reboot Patrick Stewart.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Why Do We Bother Giving Air-time To The Rich? They're As Stupid As Anyone Else, You Know.

So -- radio headline news teaser today was "Gina Rinehart delivers warning."

Let me be honest. My first thought was that she was planning to politely let us know she was preparing to fart, just to give time for Western Australia to be evacuated. But no!

Turns out that financial genius Rinehart, who became filthy rich by inheriting a metric fuckload of mines from her father, is telling us that if we don't cut taxes AND government spending, we'll go the way of those European countries.

Er... what?

Last time I checked, Australia's proportion of debt to GDP was among the very lowest in the world. We're behind Norway, of course, and a couple other countries, but seriously? We don't have a debt issue. Further: the Rudd and Gillard governments brought this country through the global financial fuckup in a manner which is quite literally the envy of every other developed country in the world. Further: the gold-plated economic paper that showed how important it is that governments cut debt and practice austerity  has been completely debunked. A Kiwi economics student checked the math, couldn't believe his results, and went slowly up the food chain of economic researchers... turns out that yes, the original paper was shit. Lazy, biased, mathematically fucked-up shit.

So. We're in great shape, in terms of debt and more importantly, in terms of current economic activity. And it's current government policies which put us there. And the "science" behind austerity (tax cuts and spending cuts) turns out to be utter bullshit. And on top of that, Gina Rinehart is not a self-made billionaire, but an heiress... so where the fuck does she come off delivering "warnings" about Australian economic policy?

Seriously: why are this person's mouth noises news? Why do we actually give a damn for her pinheaded prognostications?

Put a sock in it, Gina. Go comment on something you're qualified for... like 'how to inherit a lot of money, and then fight with your family'. I hear you're good at that.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Goodbye, Ray.

Vale, Ray Harryhausen.

Yeah. I know. They can do all that animation stuff better these days with computers. Shiny. But you know what?

Harryhausen, man. The things he did. The monsters, the heroes, the magic, the stories. I'm not even going to start making a list. So many!

If you're ignorant, at this point I'm going to tell you to hit Wikipedia. I'll just say that Ray Harryhausen was one of the legendary, gigantic greats of animation, specifically in the region of stop-motion work. His vision and his talents were the only things that made fantasy film-making possible for a span of decades. Without Harryhausen and the people he inspired, it's doubtful that the current wave of computer animation would be anywhere near as sophisticated, or as widely accepted as it is.

More, though: Harryhausen's technique is simple. Anyone can do it. It's classic animation: frame by frame, a little bit of movement each time. It's the way I taught both my boys to make movies with their toys and their lego, and the worlds of imagination they've created since all owe their inception to Harryhausen's magic touch.

Any other parents reading today? Here's a suggestion for the next really rainy day.

Give your kid access to a digital camera. You'll also need a bit of completely free software, such as Monkeyjam, a small and very simple programme that will take digital images and combine them into a basic AVI movie file. You'll also want an MP3 player with voice-recording functionality, or an iPod with the same, and a copy of the completely free Audacity software, so you can record special effects and an audio track for your animation.

So. You've got a camera, you've got an image-to-movie animation programme, and you've got a basic sound-sampling and editing programme. After that, you need two things: some very basic movie-editing software such as can be had free through Windows, or at minimal cost elsewhere.

Oh -- and you need imagination. Lots and lots of imagination.

Computer animation programmes with shiny rendering functions, and skeleton-builds, and the rest... yeah, they're peachy. But they cost a bloody fortune, and they take enormous amounts of computer power, and there's a hell of a steep learning curve involved. And frankly, you can't really see much until you're well into the process. But if you take fifteen minutes with the gear I've listed above, you can see your very own first, brief, animation take shape. Just set up your scene. Photograph it. Move the thing that you want to animate, very slightly. Repeat until you have enough images to string together. (When you start, you'll want about twelve pictures for every second of footage...)

It really is that simple. And it's bloody fantastic. Here's another thing the computer stuff can't do: it can't bring your kid's toys to life. It can't take the simple, inanimate objects lying around your house and make them dance, and sing. But with your little camera and your computer? Yep. Too easy.

When Harryhausen got started, all those decades ago, stop-motion animation was a very specialised skill that required enormously expensive equipment and training. But that was then. He lived long enough to see his art almost superceded in the cinemas... but I like to believe that he was also aware of the Internet, and the way literally millions of people have begun to follow in his footsteps.

It's easy. It's fun. It's magic. 

Thank you for everything, Ray. We'll take it from here, okay?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Private School Parenting... Again

So, we're back from holidays. And I have to deal with the private school again. Yippee.

We've managed a sort of detente with the sport people at the senior school. I met with the sportmaster and said as gently as I could that I didn't think we could commit Jake to anything more out of school hours. The school's written policy says that if you're doing some kind of sport/thing out of school hours that isn't actually offered by the school, then they will accord you some flexibility. Well, by my count Jake does two and a half hours a week of ju-jitsu (as well as taking part in the odd competition in other arts). On top of that, he does an hour a week at LYCO orchestra, playing the cello. As well as that, he has to have his cello lessons privately, outside school hours... because the school's promise to find a regular instructor during school hours fell over and did not happen.

Oddly, last term they didn't seem to think that was enough to let him out of their mickey-mouse kiddie games.

Well, add it up. That's over four hours of extra-curricular sport and music, not including the daily musical instrument practice. Now include the extra half-hour per day of commute to this school (if you compare it to the half-hour by bus to the local school), and incorporate the hour per night of (fairly pointless) homework they expect (for a twelve year old, in year seven!) -- that's an hour and a half of out-school time every day, given over simply because he goes to this shiny, shiny school. And on top of that, they want a "minor commitment" like debating, which took three hours and an extra commute every Tuesday night last term, and they want a "major commitment" to some kind of sport, to the tune of three hours per week in training plus extra time for fixtures, matches, special training sessions...

...nope. Just. Fucking. Nope.

Meanwhile, on the benefits side? They're not even trying to address his talents in English. It's all dioramas and novels for ten-year-olds. The only one doing a damned thing with the kid's abilities is me. And in his music classe? They send him off with a school cello into a room with a couple of other kids who already know a bit about music. They're supposed to play... stuff... largely on their own while the bulk of the kids who know nothing get their hands held through Introductory Rhythmic Clapping For The Morally Impaired. Oh, and aside from mandatory chapel attendance, there's also mandatory Christian Religious Education. No alternatives to either of those. Couple hours a week, there.

So: the English is a waste of his time. The music is a waste of his time. The religious stuff is crap, and actually got him into trouble in the first few weeks. But he says he's not hating geography, science, and history. I suppose that's something, right?

The primary school is better. I'll give them that. They don't demand quite such ridiculous quantities of extracurricular sport and shit, and Genghis loves his cricket, so he didn't mind the summer sport. Of course it's wintry now, so we're getting shin-guards and mouth-guards and hockey gear. (And I admit, I'm chuckling quietly. Frankly, I think that handing my incredibly competitive middle child a set of hockey equipment and putting him on a field with a bunch of unsuspecting kids who are bigger than he is will be... instructive for all.)

But now, of course, it's NAPLAN time.

I don't like the NAPLAN shit. It was patently obvious when it was brought in that schools in Australia would do what schools everywhere else in the world have done when this kind of standardised testing and curriculum were imposed. And sure enough, they've all gone ahead and started to teach to the tests. Basically, instead of trying to teach the kids, and then letting the NAPLAN system test them, the schools are trying to train the kids to do well on NAPLAN. Surprised? No. I didn't think so.

At least the local public primary school wasn't so fucking blatant about it. Sure, I understand that private schools depend on their image to attract custom. Yes, I know that they're concerned that if they don't look shiny on NAPLAN, parents may begin to ask, "Where's the value for all that money you got from us?" I get it.

Nevertheless, I think that coaching kids to do NAPLAN tests is contrary to the actual purpose of the school, and to the testing itself. I also feel that it's unethical, but who am I to judge?

However it be, I feel quite strongly that sending home with my ten-year-old-kid Genghis a four-page, fifty-question NAPLAN math test look-alike and insisting it be treated as homework is plain bullshit. You wanna coach your students to look shiny on the government's bullshit tests? Okay. Fine. Do it on your time. Don't shove it down the kid's neck when he's at home, and don't make me an enabler in your unethical subversion of the boy's education.

Let's put it another way. Whose problem is it if the school doesn't look shiny on the testing results? Is it mine? Is it the boy's?

Nope. It's the school's fucking problem. Inflicting it on my kid and calling it 'homework' is definitely unethical. And unacceptable.

In the end, we let the kid sit in front of the tube and watch old SF programmes with us, while he pencilled his way through the sheet. It was all piss-weak material anyway; stuff he mastered two years ago. They can have their finished sheet, if it makes 'em feel better. Nobody said he had to pay any fucking attention, or even ensure that he got the answers right. Frankly, for all of me he could have wiped his arse on those sheets and handed them back.

There is going to be a great deal of discussion at the end of this academic year in the Flinthart household. Unless I see something genuinely fucking revelatory from this oh-so-fucking-shiny school in the next three terms... I think I'm going to have to start pointing out to my wife all the things we could have done with the cash that went into that fucking place. And that would include hiring goddam tutors for the kids, if she really doesn't trust the local schools. Shit, if she wants to pay me what it costs to put three kids through that school, not only will the money go to better purposes, but the kids will actually get an education on top of it.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Windows/Mac/Linux -- Philosophies of Running A Computer

I'm a Windows user. I didn't intend to be one. If I could have afforded it, I would have bought a Mac when I started.

I'm glad I didn't, though.

I wouldn't mind being a Linux user, mind you. But I'm not ready for that kind of learning curve and commitment. I don't have time.

I don't really like a lot of Windows software, and I readily acknowledge the wonkiness of a lot of what Windows does. But there's a quality to it I've come to like - and that quality I'd call 'tinkerability'.

You don't tinker with a Mac. Any applefanboi will tell you: you just plug it in, turn it on, and, you know... it just works. That's Mac propaganda, verbatim. It just works.

Anybody who knows me well will tell you that's a big, big assumption around me. I have a well-known, longstanding knack for making things go wrong. I'm also quite curious, and I'm interested by the things I work with. Apple doesn't want someone like me. Apple wants someone who's happy to be a seamless end-user, willing to do things the Apple way until that rare moment when it all comes crashing down, and you're forced to stare at a dead Mac. (Then you send your dead Mac away to be renobulated. Or something.)

Windows isn't the same. It's there, a platform, widespread, worldspanning. And Cthulhu alone knows how many software developers - enormous, large, medium, small, tiny - work with it. But with the advent of the Internet, Windows had become the very avatar of moddability. You could call up and download all manner of bizarre software, load it into your machine, tweak it, get it running. Most of it was crap, yeah. No doubt a lot of it was riddled with malware. But some of it is pure gold.

I'm still doing a lot of my writing under a thing called Yeah Write, because the interface is fantastic, and the file storage system is breathtakingly brilliant. (Clue: it sets up an interface that looks like a filing cabinet. With drawers you can label. And in each drawer, you can put document folders that you can label. And obviously, each document folder can contain documents. It literally mimics the intuitive structure of a real-world filing cabinet. Very, very easy to keep track of your work.)

I know. There's plenty of oddball independent stuff, these days, for the Mac as well. But Apple always laid a heavy hand on what could be created, and if they didn't like your stuff, they wouldn't support it. Windows? Fuck it: if you can code something that'll work on Windows and dump it on the Net, what the hell do they care? You already bought their OS, right?

I know. Windows is buggy and crashy and prone to malware. But you know what? I can fix that shit. I can reboot. Clean stuff out of the registry. Get the system running again when it doesn't want to. I can get under the bonnet (hood, to you Yankee types) and I can pull things out, put them back, reconnect them and reconfigure them. No, I'm not a hardcore, highly trained Windows tech, but I guess I'd probably qualify as some kind of 'power user', I suppose.

And I like it that way.

Unfortunately, I've just been playing with Windows 8 on Genghis' new machine. (He needed one for school.) And I really, really fucking hate it.

The Microsofties have built a new look. They're trying to integrate the touch-screen/app bullshit, and in order to do so, they're going to great lengths to conceal the places where you can pry the system open for yourself. File extensions? Hide the fuckers. Directory trees? Huh. Old school. Hide those too. Just make it touch and point and click and open. That's all they want, man!

Problem is, I don't want that at all. I actually want enough access to configure the system to suit myself, thanks. If I wanted a seamless, join-the-dots process that led me by the nose from go to whoa, I would fucking well buy a fucking Macintosh. 

Windows releases are funny. They're like Star Trek movies. Every second one sucks rabid donkey rectum. Windows 8 is one of the rectum-sucking releases. Hopefully, I can just keep working with 7 until they come to their senses and provide something more useful in Windows 9. But if they fuck it up, and try to make the whole thing ever more Mac-like or mobile-phone-touchscreen-applike...

... I guess I'm actually going to have to swap over to Linux. Because if I'm going to spend a thousand bucks on a computer, I want more control and choice, not less.