05/18/13

Appreciating B-Movies


Bubba Ho-TepIt drives Susan to distraction that I love B-flicks. She squirms and fidgets if I put one into the DVD player and can seldom sit through an entire movie. They get cut off mid-film, and saved for me some time in the vague future when I might have an evening alone to finish watching it and the others in the category.

Overacted, melodramatic, clumsily scripted, wooden dialogue, transparent effects, low budgets… what’s not to like? Okay, not all of them, but some fit that description. The range in B-flicks is great: from the truly abysmal to brilliancy (albeit usually unrecognized, otherwise it would be on the A list…).

Being in the B-list doesn’t mean it won’t have an appreciative audience, or achieve cult or popular status.

To me, the B-movie industry is often the most creative, most innovative and most entertaining, in part because it tries harder on a smaller budget. Having a big budget didn’t save Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Or Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.

True, a lot of B-films are knock-offs of A-list entries, and sometimes crude ones at best*, but I think of them like sports fans think of farm teams and junior leagues. These movies are where the greats learn their skills, develop their talents, and practice their art. A lot of talent emerged into greatness from training in the B-film league.

It’s also interesting – for me, anyway – to see how someone takes an idea that succeeded in another film, and turns it into their own adaptation. Nothing wrong with that – writers, playwrights, singers and artists have been cross-pollinating with other artists for millennia. Shakespeare and Chaucer did it. If it wasn’t for plagiarism, we wouldn’t have a lot of the great works of literature and art today.

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05/18/13

Little Dorrit: BBC Drama


Little Dorrit BBCWe just finished watching the 14-part BBC series of Little Dorrit. As usual with most BBC series, it was superbly cast, acted, paced and filmed. Each episode was a mere 30 minutes, and almost every one of them ended in a cliffhanger fashion that made you want to watch just one more.

You might not think of Charles Dickens that way, but much of what he wrote was for serial publication: in weekly or monthly magazines. To keep his audience hooked – and buying the magazines – he wrote cliffhangers. Not perhaps as gripping as, say, episodes of TV’s show 24, but his audience kept coming back for more.

Little Dorrit ran in 19 monthly issues, between December, 1855 and June, 1857.

Watching the series also made me want to read the book – I have read other of Dickens’ works, but not this one. Now, after watching, I can’t imagine why not. It’s a great story. I pulled it off my shelf and stared it this week.

Little Dorrit is both a social commentary and a complicated story. It has – as other Dickens’ novels have – a large cast of characters, often eccentric to the point of caricature. Mr. Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office, for example. His readers loved the characters, loved the caricatures, and understood the reality they thinly veiled.

Modern novels – your James Patterson, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell for example – are structured differently. The basic idea of a lot of popular fiction is to hit the readers over the head with a strong first page and drag them into the novel and the action right from the earliest lines.

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05/16/13

10,000 or 20,000 hours?


10,000-hour ruleMalcolm Gladwell introduced the concept of the “10,000-hour rule” in his 2008 book, Outliers. As Wikipedia describes it, “…the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.”*

Gladwell does not specifically say that 10,000 hours of practice or apprenticeship will make you an expert. Like most things on the internet, it has been altered in the transmission; dumbed down for the simplistic misquotes we love to pair with pictures of kittens or puppies on Facebook.

Rather what he said was that it will make you damned good. Way above the rest. A phenom, as Eric Dekkers said:

…he’s talking about those surprising success stories who stand head and shoulders above the elite performers in their industry. That one guy who is way better than the 31 other “best quarterbacks in the country.” That one woman who fearsomely dominates all other female tennis players in the world.

Still, the concept and the generalization behind it have not gone unchallenged. As science writer David Bradley wrote for the BBC,

Scientifically speaking, 10,000 hours is not a precise figure but shorthand for “lots and lots of dedicated practice”. Even 10,000 hours of dedicated practice may not be enough to give you the skills of a virtuoso. But whether you dream of playing at the concert hall, wielding the guitar, or taking part on the running track, 10,000 hours is a good starting point. Double that and you may even be winning international competitions.

Bradley also notes that 10,000 is a lot of time doing repetitive practice:

To notch up 10,000 hours would require about 90 minutes of practice every day for 20 years. This might explain why the typical child learning the piano will never make it to concert level. Three hours a day gets you to that stage within a decade, so start at the age of ten and you’re done before you’re out of your teens.

Imagine you’re a 10-year old starting violin lessons. Your parents make you practice an hour every school day, but give you weekends and holidays off. You might be able to get in 195 days or practice a year. At that rate, it would take more than 51 years to reach Gladwell’s 10,000-hour “expert” level.

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05/14/13

Quackery and Big Bucks Infect Health Canada


Homeopathy cartoonHealth Canada has allowed an increasing number of useless “alternative” healthcare (alternative TO healthcare in most cases) products to be sold in Canada over the last decade, despite the lack of proper (or in some cases, any) research data to prove their claims, effectiveness or safety. Most recently, however, Health Canada went further into pseudoscience and licensed homeopathic vaccines, proving that the agency has bowed to corporate pressure and given up trying to protect Canadian health.

According to the BC Medical Journal,

“…Health Canada has licensed 10 products with a homeopathic preparation called “influenzinum.”[8] According to providers, in­fluenzinum is for “preventing the flu and its related symptoms.”

Homeopathic vaccines are available for other infectious diseases as well. Health Canada licenses homeopathic preparations purported to prevent polio, measles, and pertussis.”

The author, Dr. Oppel, concludes with the reason behind this astounding act that seriously discredits both the once-respectable Canadian healthcare and the agency itself:

Natural health products are big business, and the voice of providers is never far from the ear of government. While patients are free to make health decisions, government has a duty to ensure that false or misleading claims do not interfere with consumers’ ability to make an informed choice. Nowhere is the case more clear than in the realm of unproven vaccines for serious illnesses. When it comes to homeopathic vaccines, Health Canada needs to stop diluting its standards.

Homeopathy is not medicine. It is not science. It is codswallop. It was invented by a charlatan named Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. According to Wikipedia

Hahnemann believed that the underlying cause of disease were phenomena that he termed miasms, and that homeopathic remedies addressed these. The remedies are prepared by repeatedly diluting a chosen substance in alcohol or distilled water, followed by forceful striking on an elastic body, called succussion. Each dilution followed by succussion is said to increase the remedy’s potency. Dilution usually continues well past the point where none of the original substance remains.

Get that? The dilution continues until all you have is… nothing. But “nothing” is not harmless. It can be very harmful. As in death. Wikipedia continues (emphasis added):

Homeopathic remedies have been the subject of numerous clinical trials. Taken together, these trials showed at best no effect beyond placebo, at worst that homeopathy could be actively harmful. Although some trials produced positive results, systematic reviews revealed that this was because of chance, flawed research methods, and reporting bias. The proposed mechanisms for homeopathy are precluded by the laws of physics from having any effect. Patients who choose to use homeopathy rather than evidence based medicine risk missing timely diagnosis and effective treatment of serious conditions. 

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05/6/13

Mastery: Self Help or Just Opinion?


MasteryRobert Greene’s new book has me somewhat flummoxed. It’s not at all like his previous books. The other books of his I have were all ‘meta’ books – books about what others thought on various subjects: power, leadership, war, seduction, politics.* Mastery combines biography with exhortations to raise one’s self up to the level of mastery. We are all potential geniuses.

It strikes me as an overly-intellectualized self-help book. So far, anyway. I’m still only mid-book. But the little editorial conceit of capitalizing “Life’s Task” throughout the book already annoys me. That and it’s preachy, moralizing and somewhat condescending tone.

He also writes that, “No good can come from deviating from path you were destined to follow.” Destiny is a flimsy religious concept, not a psychological, developmental or scientific one. I find appeals to “destiny” as convincing as the claims of self-described “psychics.”

I personally don’t care for the usual lot of self-help books any more than I care to share motivational pictures or inspirational quotes attached to cute pictures of kittens and puppies, as often appear on Facebook. If you can be motivated more by a photograph of people rowing together than actually doing it, you’re not really motivated at all (and I’d hazard a guess that 85-90% of all the quotations posted on Facebook are either wrongly attributed or just plain wrong).**

Maybe it’s just me; but my experience as a publisher’s sales rep selling a seemingly endless stream of insipid self-help books on every topic has made me cynical towards the genre. I’m okay with do-it-yourself guides that offer tips and hints to help you work through a project or goal. But a lot of self-help books strike me as faux-psychological or saccharinely pseudo-spiritual. Plus a lot of them are mere flimflammery: become a psychic with these easy lessons, homeopathy in your kitchen, seven steps to crystal therapy or how to cure yourself with prayer instead of medicine.***

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05/5/13

Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship


Tom Swift and His Rocket ShipI was 8, maybe 9 years old, when my parents gave me a hardcover copy of Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship by Victor Appleton II. Probably a birthday or Xmas present. I can’t recall which. I just recall how excited I was when I read this book – my earliest experience of science fiction. I soon had a couple of dozen of the Tom Swift books in my collection.

My memory of Tom Swift (Jr) and that book came back today when I wandered into a garage sale on Cedar Street and found a copy of the same original edition (1954) of that title. Fifty cents bought all those memories for me.

I don’t know if kids today have such a series – I know about the fantasy, the magic, the vampires and werewolves in their modern books, but are there books with some science in them like we had in Tom Swift? Given the audience and the times, Tom Swift Jr. was remarkable sophisticated as far as science was concerned. It inspired a generation to pursue science as a career. Or at least a passion, as in my own case. Is there anything comparable?

Finding the book also bought me the opportunity to do some research into the books, the series and the author. According to Wikipedia,

Tom Swift Jr. is the central character in a series of 33 adventure novels for male adolescents, following in the tradition of the earlier Tom Swift (“Senior”) novels. The series was entitled The New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures… The covers were created by illustrator (J.) Graham Kaye. Covers in the later half of the series were mostly by Charles Brey. A total of 33 volumes were eventually published.
For the Tom Swift Jr. series the books were outlined mostly by Harriet (Stratemeyer) Adams, head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, attributed to the pseudonymous Victor Appleton II, and published in hardcover by Grosset & Dunlap. Most of the books were written by James Duncan Lawrence, who had an interest in science and technology and was faithful to the canon of the previous Tom Swift series.

So there was no “Victor Appleton II.” I think I wrote a fan letter to him, in the late 1950s or early 60s. Never got a reply that I can recall. But it doesn’t matter. The tales helped inspire me to become a writer because I wanted to tell stories like those I read. Never did much in fiction, but the urge still boils and bubbles beneath the surface. They also encouraged me to study science.

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