gods and robots, by adrienne mayor

very excited to find this in the london library – a book exploring the anticipations of robots and ai in ancient mythology and literature, especially greek

i’d always thought hephaestus’ robot servants were amazing

Anyway, the book told me loads of myths I hadn’t heard of, like how Medea and Jason disposed of Talus, the great robot who defended Crete for Minos; after a load of myths mayor then intelligently discusses parallels and differences between these ancient archetypes and contemporary developments in ai and robotics

She’s interesting on the distinction between monsters which were born, and those which were made: it seems that this developed after the earliest tales – presumably as the skill of engineers made fictional artificial monsters more conceivable

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acqua alta and the abc murders

acqua alta by donna leon

there must be few detective stories like this one, with no twist, but it was ok as i recognised some of the places in venice, enjoyed the recent real acqua alta, and the novel ends quite (with deliberate ambiguity) beautifully

the abc murders by agatha christie / bbc

john malkovich as hercule poirot; pilloried for murdering a belgian accent but it sounded french enough for me what more do they want

altogether excellent – particularly the plot in fact – one of those rare detective novels where you’re fooled until the end but then kick yourself for not spotting the clues in plain sight – donna leon nota bene

How they are related

They are both detective novels. I’ve tried, but that’s as far as it goes.

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les miserables and die hard

les miserables

what is it about les mis? four brilliant tunes, an epic plot rattled through at 200 novel-pages a minute, a series of injustices and pathetic deaths ending in those of the protagonists: the baddy jumping off a bridge, and the goody going off to heaven

the guy in the toilets afterwards told me it was his tenth visit, and made darn sure he told me; this is the kind of show that brings people back

it’s growing on me, as i move from an unfortunate highbrow sneer (that’s too nasty a word but you know what i mean) to a desire to wallow in it again – the tunes are so hummable and the story so vast – it’s a kind of cross between some great epic you need years to get into and the cheesiest tear-jerking pop song: if you can take the best of these, not the worst, you’ll end up telling strangers in the toilets how many times you’ve seen it

die hard

bucket list one item shorter

what a fun movie

but how seriously anti-cop too, and not just in the incompetent-plod way, but the big cops who fly in on helicopters are really evil

one nice ordinary guy in a vest (and the one decent ordinary cop outside) against both groups of bad guys – beautiful – this is A MYTH

How they are related

They appear at first glance to be myths of very different scales, but both in fact are similar in experienced-time – if not in plot-time. Both take a couple of hours give or take, but the fun at the plaza is of an evening, not a lifetime.

Both also are ‘icons’/memes/legends/things-some-people-have-seem-umpteen-times, and both star a valiant and honourable male hero, pitted against forces of evil represented by state officials. Both heroes end as saints. And at the moment I prefer Bruce.

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a fish called wanda and brief answers to the big questions by stephen hawking

a fish called wanda

some great moments, but overall disappointing; (‘sir’) michael palin’s stutter is always a little painful, but it was the (to modern eyes) slow editing which got me – and the sexism – both made it seem surprisingly dated

we always thought this would be a great film for today’s kidz, but i’m not so sure; when you compare it to the pegg trilogy, for example, it scrubs up as closer to a bedroom farce or an ealing comedy – and less funny/imaginative/well made

brief answers to the big questions

some great moments, but overall disappointing; stephen hawking (‘cbe’) ’s smugness is always a little painful, but it was the poor editing which got me – it’s a book hastily got together before the great man died, and suffers from repetitiveness and errors (i forget what they were) – but it’s not properly edited

pretty amazing though on the time-black-holes-wow-the-universe stuff, and clearly put for the ignorant (i speak from experience)

on the god question, his argument seems to run:

  1. there are inviolable laws of nature
  2. these laws govern everything
  3. therefore there is nothing not governed by laws of nature
  4. god can’t be governed by laws of nature
  5. therefore there can be no god

premises 1 & 2 seem uncertain, and, even if sound, the argument has force only against a mechanical ‘first mover’ creator and sustainer of the universe

his argument seems to remove our free will too, yet he seems quite happy with our having that

How they are related

Apart from both being surprisingly disappointing in different ways, might there be a black hole in Wanda? Something from which nothing escapes, not even light? What is Wanda? She’s Ken’s (Palin’s) special fish, named after Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, whom Ken fancies. Ken hides the key (to the safe where the loot is hidden) in the pirate treasure chest in Wanda’s tank. Her lover gets info out of Ken by eating his fish in front of him: Ken breaks just before Wanda is eaten, so she is saved. Ken is an animal lover, and one of the film’s running jokes is how he, ordered to kill an old lady who identified his boss, accidentally kills her three dogs instead. It is all very funny. So no black hole in Wanda, but something like a black hole in Hawkings’ reductive theology.

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the song of the sea & bohemian rhapsody

the song of the sea

a chunkily animated irish folk-tale cartoon about a lighthouse-keeper, his selkie (seal-mermaid) lover, and their children; set in modern ireland, the story tells of children discovering their parents’, and their own, identities

it’s beautiful to watch, and from start to finish soaked, sunken, in irish music

bohemian rhapsody

the reviewers were right: a weak script – sentimental, sometimes cringy, and (i learnt later) not even historically accurate (e.g. freddie never left queen, to return for live aid); but – magical in its re-creation of the 70s, and of the live aid performance; ‘doing alright’ performed pre-mercury at a student gig was amazing to watch – something from the little-known first album, but containing all the elements of later queen – beautiful tune, rapid changes, hard rock

How they are related

Mercury as an Irish fairy – beautiful, vulnerable but with a deep power – mercurial? Well… Certainly both are about the power of music: in the Queen film, when you see the audiences rhythmically chanting and swaying with Freddie, particularly at Live Aid, you realise how music grabs us, and how skilfully Mercury operated those grabs.

‘[The Song of the Sea] tells of children discovering their parents’, and their own, identities’ – OK – one of the narrative frames of Bohemian Rhapsody is the move from his mother’s initial incomprehension of her son and her later proud acceptance, and some of the film’s sense is Freddie’s discovering his gay identity, and how his particular lifestyle within this killed him.

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the ape that understood the universe by steve stewart-williams and the dallas buyers guide

the ape that understood the universe by steve stewart-williams

long-windedly and irritatingly covers the ground: first Darwinian natural selection of GENES, taking an explicitly and alternately triumphant and apologetic counter-zeitgeist stance that more of human nature is biological, genetic, than we think – more nature than nurture; he’s against the blank-slate tabula-rasa brigade

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they shall not grow old & troilus and cressida

they shall not grow old

a project where technical brilliance is the direct explanation of emotional power: peter jackson’s restoration of the imperial war museum’s footage is, more than his shaping of the story and the effect of the oral-history voiceovers, the reason why his film stays with us

two moments: when the sound and colour first arrive – and surprisingly it’s the sound i remember more than the colour – the rumbling of the gun-carriages in the background of the shot; and the smiling german prisoners, accompanied by a voiceover telling us how even at the time the british soldiers realised they were in the same boat, and how both sides mucked in to help each other’s wounded

troilus and cressida

a shakespeare i’d never seen or read, though i read chaucer’s version as a student – yet this is the place where bard meets rhapsode – shakespeare meets homer: shame on me

and where did he get his plot? how had the iliad been so transmuted? how can the faint suggestions that nestor’s suggestion to patroclus to fake achilles’ return might be a lusitania, a device to provoke (were patroclus to be killed…) achilles’ real return? and how can, in this production, ulysses shoot patroclus with a revolver?

as in chaucer, troilus’ seeing cressida/criseyde with ‘diomed’ is a shock; in neither text are we given a convincing account of how her loyalty was subverted; the rsc’s talking heads before the screening tried to counter this by adding some stuff about ‘cressida is a woman who knows what she has to do to survive’, and fair enough, but that doesn’t seem to be in the play – still, at least shakespeare shows diomed’s pressure on cressida; chaucer (as far as i can remember) sees her entirely through troilus’ eyes – when she goes to the greeks she is unseen until troilus sees her in the distance with her new man

How they are related

War, war, war. As the film starts, Jackson’s voiceovers tell us that the war was the best thing in their lives, that it was what defined them as men, that is was what gave them meaning. As it ends, voices tell us, as the hobbits found when they returned from Mordor, that nobody had a clue about their experiences at the front: there was an utter cognitive gulf between servicemen and others. So perhaps we shouldn’t judge Cressida, or Diomed, or Troilus. Or Ulysses.

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getting behind…

so here’s a list of what i had intended to write up in random pairs

one day

burger (carol adams’ book on the beef-based foodstuff)

mclibel (the film of the trial)

quiddities (quine’s philosophical dictionary)

hot fuzz (pegg II)

american graffiti

the seven-year itch

vale royal

the secret life of nicholas quinn

worlds end

taxi driver


the thick of it

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denial & shaun of the dead


timothy spall’s brilliant portrayal of hitler-admiring and holocaust-denier david irving, tom wilkinson’s patrician barrister, andrew scott’s arch lawyer, and rachel weisz’s deborah lipstadt: all reasons to remember this film

it’s about holocaust-denial, of course, but in terms of genre it’s more a mixture of courtroom drama (what’s the judge going to say at the end?) and comedy of manners, as lipstadt is faced with quaint english traditions like our wicked libel system, fried breakfasts and rain

it also turns nicely on two senses of ‘denial’: irving’s denial of the holocaust, and lipstadt’s reluctant self-denial in complying with the lawyers’ wishes that she (and holocaust-survivors) don’t take part in the trial (the legal team insisted on this to deprive irving of the chance publicly to cross-examine these witnesses, and to ensure that the focus on everything was on irving himself – his racism and his deliberate distortions); it worked

shaun of the dead

my first of the pegg/frost trilogy: lovely, rich and fun; enjoyable cameos from familiar luvvies, and cleverly, ostentatiously, self-consciously, well made

insubstantial, but hey – i suppose a film purely about film has to be at least a little celluloidal

How they are related

Zombies are the easy meat of horror films; they look good, heighten the gothic, and are perpetrators of, as Mark Kermode puts it in his recent BBC minidoc on the genre, the ‘slow chase’. How they can be ‘killed’ when they’re already dead is a question of paradox and controversy – I think in Shaun it involves splitting the brain.

The Nazis’ victims, including the actually living survivors, are denied a living voice in Denial, but through their tenacious representative, and (hurrah) jolly old English legal expertise and sense of fair play, what, effect a powerful victory over those who would change the past to suit their present prejudices.

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a cuckoo calling (jk rowling) & julia shaw’s the illusion of memory

a cuckoo calling

really enjoyable – hard to put down (or a delight to pick up); cormoran strike and robyn are great characters, and the story unwinds and retangles in the manner of the best whodunnits

that’s all it is really – a whodunit – but none the worse for that; a clear love of london shines through, the unfulfilled semi-erotic tension between strike and robin is fun, and there are many ‘makes you think’ moments, particularly about what strike has had to live through and (as in a casual vacancy how the other half live (that’s both halves))
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