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  • Links
    These are a few of my favourite links.

  • James doesn't write much, but if I tell complete lies about him, his version will be here.
  • Prasenjit is my favourite astrophysicist.
  • Bruno is my favourite web comic.
  • Yarnharlot - even if you're not a knitter, this is one of the funniest descriptions of perfectionism from the inside.
  • LanguageLog is where the linguists go to play.
  • Earthquakes in California, and around the world, as they happen.
  • Misia is writing a book about the history of virginity.
  • Respectful of Otters - politics, HIV, getting the facts straight.
  • Making light on being a leftish science fiction editor
  • UserFriendly is my favourite geeky web comic.
  • NCBI for all your genomic sequence needs
  • Creating Text(iles) - knitting in academia
  • String or Nothing - knitting and sharing knitting resources
  • Keyboard biologist - knitting while living with a geek
  • QueerJoe's knitting blog is exactly that
  • When knitting was a manly art in the wilds of Oregon
  • And she knits too along with running a family and postdoc.

  •        
    Mon, 28 May 2007

    Movie: Malcolm X

    More DVD watching: Malcolm X. It's really long, more than three hours, but definitely worth it. Great acting, fascinating story, entirely believable levels of racism: when Malcolm and some friends, males black and females white, get caught for a robbery, the girls get short sentences and the boys, very long ones. "We were guilty of sleeping with white women."

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    Movie: The Phantom of the Opera

    Off to the actual cinema, with Sarah, her mother, and another friend of Sarah's (I think Louise?) for The Phantom of the Opera.

    I enjoyed it, but find it almost impossible to classify as a good or bad movie. It's very Phantom of the Opera; if that's what you're after, it's great, if not, you should skip it.

    I guess I could expand on what I mean: singing and Andrew Lloyd Webber's music; actors who generally looked their parts and sang reasonably well too - I feel they were somewhat constrained by having to largely sing in a musical theatre/pop style (as distinct from opera/classical style) but that's how musical theatre has to sound, I guess.

    Visually, extremely lush: goth-bohemian-baroque escapist over-the-topness. The story is essentially a fairytale, or a romance at least, and the movie looks like it. This is not a movie to be looking for realism in, because you will be distracted by almost everything on screen. I managed to get myself distracted by what Christine (Emmy Rossum) is wearing the first time she gets abducted by the phantom - white corset and stay-up stockings, not particularly covered by a long white lacy jacket thingy with train is so what I imagine innocent chorus girls wear for a quiet night in.

    There's a self-referential cuteness going on: the opera house productions in the story are of course done in a late 19th century escapist over-the-top style, so given we're watching a story of the same kind, it makes sense that it is presented in the early 21st century version of the same style.

    Minnie Driver has a great time being the pampered diva La Carlotta, and I'd happily have watched her chew scenery some more, but the story isn't actually about her.

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    Movie: Minority Report

    James and I watched the DVD of Minority Report last night, with Tom Cruise and Kathryn Morris (who is the lead in Cold Case, which it took me most of the movie to realise - the voice was so familiar but she looks different), directed by Steven Spielberg.

    I wasn't wildly impressed. The first 40 minutes or so seem very slow. The movie is interrupted for ponderous explanation of plot setup; interrupted for an action scene just so there's something happening on screen; interrupted for some more background explanation; interrupted for some geewhiz visual effects along the lines of "won't the future look stunning, and isn't it cool our effects department can do it now".

    If you're starting to wonder what actually happens in this part of the movie, as distinct from disconnected interruptions, I'm a bit unclear on that too. The movie is over two hours long but would be much better for some sensible editing, particularly of the first part.

    It all reminds me rather of the bloated late output of Eminent Science Fiction Authors who get to publish every word they write without editing. And lets the rest of us realise that their younger work is good partly because editors trimmed a lot of fat off.

    The movie finally gets into gear, and then trundles along quite nicely as your standard action/conspiracy movie. There's a quote on the back of the box: Steven Spielberg's sharpest, brawniest, most bustling entertainment since Raiders of the Lost Ark which surprised me when I first read it, but in retrospect is extremely apt. Think of it as a B-grade entertainment where our hero battles evil henchmen of a supernatural cult and uses objects of magical power against exotic backgrounds.

    Because trying to think of it as Science Fiction will only hurt your head, at least if your head functions anything like mine. It's not so much that the plot requires a magical drug which causes precognitive side-effects in children born to women taking it - I was quite prepared to suspend disbelief for that.

    It's more that the "scientists" who worked on this project don't seem to know anything about the scientific method, who think statistical uncertainty is a problem that will go away if they pretend it doesn't exist and cover up the evidence, who think they know better than lawyers how the legal system works; and the rest of society accepts their verdict and ditches the lawyers.

    It's also that, given the fact that the precogs can only pre-sense and thus prevent murders - again a plot conceit I'm willing to concede - all of society seems to live in blissful happiness knowing there are no more murders, and the only people around with any psychological damage appear to have been affected by murder. Beatings, bullying, rape, theft and burglary are totally irrelevant in this universe, which is also why there are no longer any conventionally-trained police who are familiar with crime scenes, other than the "troublemaker" who is a former homicide officer investigating the new system.

    It's also that this apparently oh-so happy, caring and loving future society allows its chief pre-crime officer to be in any position of responsibility when he clearly has untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by the death of his son something like ten years previously. And that he and his wife are estranged over the death of this son when ten minutes of grief counselling and some healthy crying is sufficient to get them back together.

    If, like James, you're computer security literate, you can also be horrified (and hey, I was, too) by iris-pattern security systems, where our hero's iris pattern is now on the wanted list and he's been scanned for all over town, but no-one has bothered to turn off recognition of his iris pattern inside the pre-crime building. I was prepared again to suspend disbelief about eye-transplants to bypass the iris-scanning (although the people who developed the system don't seem up to date with what the crims are doing to evade it) and maybe even hanging on to the previous eyes, to use the iris pattern to get through those doors that think he's still the pre-crime chief and not D.C.'s most wanted.

    But I have to admit I totally lost it when Tom Cruise is fumbling for his old eyes (in a ziplock plastic bag in his pocket), and to build up tension, he drops them. And the eyes roll off down the corridor like a couple of blood-stained ping pong balls. That's probably what they were, but is it really too much to ask the props department (or even the scriptwriter, because that's really where the problem lies) of a multi-million dollar movie to go out and get a few real eyeballs from the nearest abattoir and get an idea of what they're like?

    If I wanted to get deep, there are whole essays waiting about the movie's occasional nods at interesting deep symbolism that isn't taken anywhere at all, except to disappoint people like me who start getting the inkling than the movie might be an interesting psychological or symbological study, when it's really a B-grade action with pretensions.

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    TV show: Rejseholdet (Unit One)

    SBS just recently started screening a Danish cop/criminial investigation show, Rejseholdet, or as SBS is calling it, "Unit One". Have I mentioned how much I like living in a country which has a TV channel dedicated to showing multicultural and foreign-language TV?

    So I persuaded James to change the channel last night (we tend to be pretty glued to ABC Friday nights) and check it out. I like it quite a lot so far. I have to admit I'm a sucker for a show where the lead cop is an ordinary-attractive (as distinct from Hollywood-attractive) 40ish woman. And just to make sure they've really got their hooks in me, she's called Ingrid. James was excited, because although he still can't say Ingrid in Danish, he was having no trouble recognising the name.

    The premise is that the National police has a "travelling team" (the literal translation) that can be called out to assist with difficult cases anywhere in the country. (Denmark is small enough that this is extremely feasible.) There's a lot to appeal to me here, apart from the feminism: I'm quite fond of criminial investigation shows, I like the angle I'm sensing of focusing on emotions and relationships, I get to practice my Danish, and at least in this episode they've included some very scenic locations, and used some nice cinematography, without being gimmicky.

    About half-way through the show it suddenly occurred to me that Fischer (Mads Mikkelsen) was meant to be the show's heartthrob. He doesn't do anything for me personally, but I guessed right, because he's been voted "Denmark's sexiest man". I'm more inclined towards La Cour (Lars Brygmann) but that's probably because he's showing evidence of being the weird brain.

    Another thing that was keeping me amused was seeing how much of the swearing was making it into the subtitles. I'm not sure if the team's meant to have been recently assembled, most of them know each other, but Johnny Olsen (Lars Bom) is new to it. All the male characters recognise him, but Gaby (Trine Pallesen), who starts flirting with him as soon as she sets eyes on him (she seems to be the central organiser and keeper-track-of-stuff) gets increasingly frustrated by all the "Is that really Johnny Olsen?" "Sure" (some of it appears to be deliberate teasing), until she finally bursts out "Hvem for fanden er Johnny Olsen?" which appeared in the subtitles as "Who is Johnny Olsen?". I mentioned to James that SBS had left out the swearing, and he said he could tell. (Johnny Olsen is a brilliant soccer player whose career was cut short by injury.)

    Just to make sure they've got their hooks in me, this story does not wrap up at the end of the episode, so I'll have to watch next week. Fortunately, it appears that we don't care all that much about the current ABC show in that time slot, so we can squeeze Rejseholdet in between Strictly Dancing and Spooks. Thankfully, both SBS and ABC are good about keeping to the published times. What would we do without our government-funded channels?

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    Movie: Torque

    We're having a motorbike theme weekend and began by watching Torque.

    I had heard plenty of bad reviews of it, but I thought it might be fun to see how bad it was. And it was kinda fun, in a bad movie way. The acting, dialogue and plot is either bad or completely "whaaaa?".

    The actor who plays the hero was cast on his ability to toss his hair and make a Tom Cruise face. Our hero, by the way, is not only the bestest, fastest, most accurate bikerider out there, he is also a whiz at martial arts and seem to have spent time in buddhist temples during his recent time in Thailand, judging by his equinamity and ability to restore karmic balance to every situation.

    Motorbikes do not merely ignore the laws of physics, they seem to act like individual characters, although not as much as the guns, where the script writers seem to have not even bothered trying to come up with plausible behaviour.

    What I did not expect, however, is that the thing about the movie that would keep me most entertained and prone to random giggling was the cinematography. It is awe-inspiring, and I have no idea if that's in a good or bad way. It swings wildly between totally failing to convey the intended effect, weird attempts at metaphor, and close-focus-distant-focus effects which look like someone with an over-active imagination and no sense of what to focus on was playing with a camera and digital editing package for the first time ever.

    Also, oddly, the women - at least the three-four main female characters - have the best lines and seem smarter than most of the male characters. I haven't begun thinking through the implications of this, in a movie which is clearly geared to a hyper-masculinised audience.

    it's also fun playing spot-the-style - sometimes it's a racing movie, sometimes it's a tough-guys-and-drug-deals movie, sometimes it's trying to be The Matrix, and then there are the bits that seem to be cowboy movie, or a CSI episode, or a fight scene out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, only on motorbikes.

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    Fly-by reviews

    Quick comments on books I've read the last six months or so, and one movie.

    David Bodanis, E = mc2, a Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation (non-fiction: popular physics). This didn't really work for me - I know more physics than the kind of person this book is aimed at, although I don't know all that much. I think the notes at the end are my favourite part - there's some weird trivia in there.

    Lindsey Davis, The Silver Pigs (fiction: ancient roman whodunit). This was a lot of fun, once I relaxed into it and trusted Davis' recreation of ancient Rome. There's a lot of playing around with the standard detective tropes, given that Falco, our hero, is 1800 years too early to know what they might be. And of course, forensic science, such as fingerprints, doesn't yet exist, so the crims can get away with a lot more, and Falco's got to work much harder. It's the first in a series, and I'd happily read more.

    Don George (Editor; preface by the Dalai Lama) The Kindness of Strangers (non-fiction: travel stories). This is a cute idea: get different people to write about their experiences with kindness from strangers while travelling. Unfortunately, after a while, a lot of the stories started to blend together for me, being essentially the same story in a different unfamiliar place. I really liked Carolyn Swindell's Brief Encounter, because the kindness is of a different sort, and the experience seems to have actually changed her, at least in a small way. And Jeff Greenwald's Might be your lucky day has a kicker of an ending. But it might be that neither story is as effective, out of the context of the surrounding stories.

    Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis - The Story of a Childhood. I don't know if I can come up with a classification for a series of comics, retelling events in Satrapi's childhood, growing up in Iran under the Shah and then the Islamic revolution and war with Iraq. But it gives a wonderful sense of a time and a place, and the interaction between human universals such as teenage conformity and rebellion, and particulars such as having to wear hijab and having relatives in jail for political reasons. The art is black and white, in a style that would be very comfortable in a children's book (and Satrapi has done children's books). If anything, this makes the story hit harder.

    V for Vendetta. Yet another demonstration that those escapist non-literary arts (comics, sf, fantasy, etc) can nevertheless get in there and tackle political issues. Overall, I liked this movie very much. However, it's very much mythological in feel. This might have been quite intentional, but I was left feeling that the central characters, particularly Evey, were burdened with too many symbolic values to feel human enough for me to engage with. As a result, the parts of the movie that have really stayed with me are the setting and the background characters. I thought the movie created a very believeable alternate reality, with just the right blend of gritty everyday-ness and signs of Otherness. On a slightly more meta-level, I was struck by the extreme discrepancy between the deadly homophobia of the society presented, apparently with the general approval of that society, and the movie's assumption that it would be self-evident to everyone watching it that same-sex couples had the same right to their lives as anyone else.

    Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Bookclub (fiction). This was a bit of a let-down for me; I thought the book was far less clever than it thought it was. By far the best thing about it was being reminded about Jane Austen's fabulous writing and getting the inclination to read it again. Another good thing about it is that although most of the characters are dismissive of science fiction, the book itself isn't, and I thought that balance was managed nicely. The absolute worst thing is an anonymous narrative "we" - it doesn't appear that "we" represents any member of the bookclub, and if anything, the "we" is harsher and more judgemental than any individual. I hoped for a while that perhaps Fowler was going to make some point about (female) individuals suppressing their real views in favour of some imagined collective opinion which isn't in fact representative, but she doesn't, so I was left with a really bad taste in my mouth.

    Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World (non-fiction: the SF 1906 earthquake and modern geology). I'm actually cheating a bit here - I'm still reading this one, but I'm not sure I can finish it. I had enjoyed Winchester's Surgeon of Crowthorne and Meaning of Everything, and lent them to a word-mad friend, who returned them to me because she found the writing style impossible. I hadn't noticed a problem, but boy, am I noticing a problem in this book. Too much of the material seems, although interesting, not relevant enough, and feels like padding - padding that makes the actual structure of the book hard to detect, if there is one. And his focus often seems misplaced, like he's paying attention to the wrong things. And then he repeatedly makes the lay assumption that geological history has now stopped. This assumption is also frequently made of evolution, and I'm thus particularly prone to be irritated by it, when it's made by someone who if anything should be disabusing his lay audience of it. Timescale, people, timescale.

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    Book: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

    Despite the fact that I've read several of Oliver Sacks' books, somehow I'd never read the most famous one, until Annette lent it to me recently.

    I was rather disappointed, coming from his other books (An Anthropologist on Mars, Seeing Voices, Island of the Colorblind, A Leg to Stand On). Firstly, the patient descriptions/stories are too short, too bitsy, and at the same time keep referring backwards and forwards to each other in a way I found really distracting, and left me feeling unclear about what he was really trying to do. I got the impression that many were slight modifications of case write-ups in medical journals, and feel that a lot more modification was needed.

    I also suspect that part of my disappointment is that I'm the wrong world view for this book. I think this book was written to convince people who think that there's "normal" and "weirdos" (who are lesser, inferior, and not really human), that really, it's much more complicated and interesting than that. And I know that already, and can live without some of the "gee whiz, who would have thought?" attitude.

    In some way, books like this actually make me really happy. A book written in 1985, which to me, reading in 2005, is stating the bleedin' obvious but in such a way that I can tell the author doesn't think (or doesn't think zir audience will think) it is bleedin' obvious, is a measure of progress. It gives me a pretty good idea of what many people thought about "weirdos" around that time, and I can almost measure the progress with a ruler in this case.

    I do honestly believe there's such a thing as a book which is great for its time but its success can almost directly be judged by the extent to which it stops being a great book, and it's possible that this is one. And I have say that's my best assessment; I simply cannot tell whether I would have thought this was great if I'd read it in 1985.

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    TV Series: Coupling season 2.

    James borrowed Season 2 of Coupling from Todd, and I think I may have become an enabler when I pointed out that on my recent shopping expedition I noticed the Season 3 DVD display taking up the entire window of the ABC shop.

    I continue to like the show, it's very cleverly written and painfully funny in places. There are parts that are so embarrassing James can't watch and cringes and squirms the way I cringe and squirm at Fawlty Towers.

    I wonder if you could diagnose sub-types of social anxiety by seeing which comedies a person found most funny, yet anxiety-provoking?

    The highlight of season 2 for me is most definitely Geoff's romance with Julia, a colleague. But Jane's antics in "Dressed" are just so Jane, and the incident that finally provokes Steve to propose to Susan is brilliant as well.

    And both James and I have "Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps" stuck in our brains. He hums it, I try to actually sing. I expect we're mutually reinforcing by now.

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    Movie: The Incredibles

    Ian invited James and I to join him for The Incredibles this afternoon at Indooroopilly. I didn't mind going out, since I got myself four T-shirts for $20, a purple one, a green one, and two different shades of pinky/apricot. I'm thinking of painting or otherwise decorating at least one of them - there's a lot of that sort of thing around, but most of the designs aren't to my taste.

    I enjoyed the actual movie a lot. It has all the superhero/James Bond/action tropes, including the music, but manages to be about family and relationships and keeping secrets and accepting who you are. And of course, action movies are much more involving when you actually care about the characters all this dangerous excitement is happening to.

    The plot struck me as well-thought out and tightly constructed. None of the characters do anything outrageous to keep the plot going; stupidity is plausible and controlled. I got the impression a lot of care and attention and love went into every stage of this movie.

    The animation is smooth and stylistically consistent apart from one thing. I actually found the characters' hair (and also water) too realistic. I've never seen such real-looking CGI hair before (water they seemed to manage a while back), and given the overall style isn't ultra-realistic, I actually found it distracting. A clearly cartoony character, with unrealistic proportions and features, flat skin, and no particular attention to muscular anatomy when moving should not have hair that I'd be pleased to have.

    There are all kinds of curious details, which leave me wondering how many I'm missing. For example, the fashion designer Edna Mode (who is clearly some kind of superhero, although an unusual one) appears to me to be an extremely pointed satire of Karl Lagerfeld, and she's wearing an outfit based on one he designed. But it's not the kind of detail I'd expect most of the people I think this movie is aimed at to pick up.

    I also enjoyed the end credits - they're in a sort of iconographic sixties silhouette style, and it's just as well they're at the end, because you need to be familiar with the characters to decode their icons.

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    Book: The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

    This book by Mark Haddon is published (in Australia) as teenage fiction. However, I think that's a very superficial attitude, and I'm happy it's also out as a literary novel in other countries.

    The narrator is 15-year old Christopher, who finds his neighbour's dead dog, and decides to find out who is responsible, in the style of Sherlock Holmes.

    Christopher likes maths, order, patterns, predictability and animals. He doesn't like yellow, being touched, metaphors, lies, or crowds. He is confused by most human interaction, as he doesn't pick up facial expressions or tone of voice. He is overwhelmed by new situations because of the sheer amount of unfamiliar sensory data, and he doesn't seem to have ways of filtering out what is "unimportant".

    Mark Haddon pulls off the difficult stunt of making the reader (me at least, and others seem to think so too) care about Christopher and understand the difficulty of his situation, and also hint at the emotional drama swirling around Christopher that Christopher himself isn't aware of.

    A lot of summaries I've seen start with statements like "this is about a character with autism" (or asperger's), which to me misses the point. Neither condition is mentioned anywhere in the book, and as Haddon says, Christopher tells you all you need to know himself. Christopher experiences the world differently from most of the rest of us, but it's not clear to me that that difference should be considered a condition.

    I'm quite mathematically oriented myself, so I was probably more inclined to sympathise with Christopher's view of the world than most. And as a teenager, I spent a fair amount of time around other mathematically gifted teenagers, including some who were somewhat like Christopher, if less extreme (I probably wouldn't have actually met anyone as extreme as him). And the blunt fact is, that even those of us who had social skills within the range of "normal", more or less turned them off when we were working on maths, because you're looking at the world a different way, focussing on different kinds of patterns.

    This is one of the reasons I overall found Christopher a very believable character, because he struck me as being "in the maths filter" all the time. And a reason why I don't think it's a "teenage" book despite the main character being a teenager - I think this is the correct age to depict a character like this at (certainly if you want a novel out of it) - his mathematical abilities are hinting at university, but his social skills make that very difficult. As an older character, whether he develops more social skills or not, I expect him to have embedded himself in an environment that feels safe and controllable, and likely to be surrounded by people who accept his weaknesses as the price of his strengths. (vide any Mathematics Department I've ever encountered.)

    In case it's not clear, I think this is a great book, and I'd recommend it particularly to anyone who may have had occasion to run into mathematicians and to wonder therefore how they got that way. Christopher is not typical, but once you've been inside his head, the rest of them should be easy.

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    Movie: Wallace & Gromit

    On Tuesday, I went along with James and a bunch of his colleagues to see the Wallace & Gromit feature, Curse of the Were-Rabbit. First, we had the most ingredient-heavy pizza I've had in a long time, at Tomarcos, and then headed around the corner to the good old El Dorado for the movie.

    It was really great to catch up with Wallace & Gromit again. The movie is cute and charming in all the expected Wallace & Gromit ways, and has those fabulous little bits of background filler (Gromit is a graduate of Dogwarts), of which I expect to spot more on a re-watch.

    I didn't find it quite as exceptionally breathtaking as Wrong Trousers or Close Shave. I think this is partly because you just can't cram things into a feature the way you can into a half-hour. Things need to be stretched a bit, and they felt that way.

    However, I also got a sense of trying reprise the best bits of previous W&G, and not enough new insanity. I didn't feel there was anything as completely off-the-wall as the automaton's skiing dreams in Grand Day Out, or the model train chase in Wrong Trousers, or all the Terminator jokes in Close Shave, not to mention the sheep formation.

    It's difficult, I guess, when you have a movie at least as good as most things in the cinema, and yet the obvious standard of measure is a very high one indeed.

    Some things I did like, apart from the whole concept: were-rabbit marauding the whole village's giant vegetables - were Wallace's thought transfer machine; the Anti-Pesto approach to pest control; Lady Tottington, particularly in her final incarnation as a giant carrot (which James failed to notice!); and the village vicar whose secret cupboard of spiritual secrets is full of runestones and tarot cards.

    But I also felt like more could have been done with many of these - I was really expecting more payoff with all the giant vegetables, and Lady Tottington's conservatory on the roof. I don't know what I was expecting, but Nick Park usually manages something.

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    Book: The story of V

    I finished reading The Story of V (subtitled either: A natural history of female sexuality; or: Opening Pandora's box; there are also a number of different covers) by Catherine Blackledge last week, but it's taken me for ever to get around to writing about it.

    I think the reason it's taken me so long is pretty obvious. I'm very ambiguous about this book. On the one hand, I don't like our society's coyness about sex and the general ignorance and mystery around female genitalia. So I'm really happy that those barriers are being broken in the form of books like this. Even if the coyness is reflected in the title, and the "safe" purple paperback cover, after a more explicit hardback cover.

    The coyness actually causes a curiosity: V is supposedly for "vagina", and Blackledge claims that "vagina" refers either to the passage to the cervix and womb, or to the entire female external genitalia, but I've never encountered her second sense before. I also think it leads to confusion in the text. I'd have preferred if she'd used "vulva" for the external genitals, and only used "vagina" to refer to, well, the vagina. The title would still have been apt.

    But leaving aside the cultural problems of publishing books about female genitalia in our society, I'm afraid I don't think this actual book is particularly good. I really think its market success will be entirely due to the lack of competition; I think if non-fiction along these lines was published regularly, this would be in the second-rate bin.

    This book does manage some things well - the breadth of research and related (and relevant) subject matter is impressive; she covers so much territory, from anthropology and myth, to the intricacies of fertilisation in hyenas and assorted insects, that I can't imagine anyone not learning something they didn't know from reading this.

    But, but, but. I spotted a number of factual inaccuracies; when she covered biological areas I'm familiar with (smell and the MHC, for example) I found her descriptions misleading in a way that made me wonder if she really understood what she was writing about; I thought some of her chains of reasoning were tenuous to say the least; and I had alarm bells going off left right and centre when reading her historical and anthropological material, because she was interpreting things with a very modern cultural viewpoint, with none of the sensitivity that I would expect of good historians/anthropologists for the cultural viewpoint of the people who created the material.

    This meant that however much I enjoyed all the material new to me, I was left in a great deal of doubt whether I could actually trust it to be true, or represented accurately. Which means that ultimately for me, the book was in many ways a waste of time: I may have learnt some new things, but based on the stuff I could check with my own knowledge and common sense, I'm not confident.

    Way back in the first or second chapter, I had a thought: "I wish she was my PhD student". She'd diligently gone out and collected all the possible relevant information, and had herself a first draft. Now it was my time to teach her something about checking reliability of sources, forming coherent arguments with the available evidence, structuring material in a clean, well-flowing way, and not just dumping everything in a vaguely continuous stream.

    Oh, and learning to write and edit better. I could certainly edit this book into better English.

    There is another problem with this book, which is possibly the underlying problem, and which I don't blame Blackledge for, in fact I feel sorry for her. It appears that she grew up ashamed and mystified by her own body, and researching the female genitals to death has been part of her process of coming to accept and love her own body and her sexuality.

    Like her, I sincerely wish we lived in a society where accepting her own body and sexuality was simply a normal thing for a woman to grow up doing. And I understand that she is very keen to share her new-found sense of self-love, and I guess if this book does that, maybe I shouldn't get in the way. Because maybe we need a lot more women who accept themselves and are prepared to talk about it openly before we can get onto the nit-picky details of getting the history, anthropology, and physiology of women's sexuality actually right.

    She has these charming, women's sexuality-empowering, discussions of the various terms for female genitalia in other cultures. "See, it's alright, even if we're brought up to be vaguely disgusted by our vulvas, women in other cultures aren't." But I don't care how many jade grottos or pearls of wonder traditional chinese culture was prepared to admire; it was an incredibly sexist society that profoundly limited women's social roles and powers and rights.

    See, I'd rather live in a society that gives me contraception, and equal right to education and work and pursuing my own life, and ways to avoid/escape domestic violence and rape, that hasn't quite figured out how to deal with female sexuality; than one where I'm locked into precisely one social role (and brought up so strongly gendered that I might not even realise what I'm trapped in), however well it brings up men to admire and pay compliments to my vagina.

    I think that makes me a feminist. I think Blackledge is also a feminist, but not a sufficiently critical one. Unfortunately, I've now read enough feminist literature that she seems more typical than me. It seems to be okay to ditch critical thinking and scientific rigour in the interests of cheerleading for girl-power. But I don't think true girl-power will be achieved until we can argue right back at the boys.

    I managed to learn these critical thinking skills as a girl and woman. I can confirm that they adamantly are not inherently part of the patriarchy. But because the patriarchy likes to think it has the monopoly on critical thinking (and hey, the feminist literature I've read would confirm that belief) it's important to challenge men on their own turf, and let them discover it isn't their turf at all. It's a startlingly fair playing field, once you've learnt the rules.

    Maybe I'm just ahead of my time.

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    Movie: Stage Beauty

    Sarah and I, apparently both being fans of romance/costume/shakespeare movies, dragged James off to see "Stage Beauty" last night.

    I liked it a lot. I think I'd have trouble resisting any movie with Rupert Everett as Charles II, Nell Gwyn (Zoe Tapper) as a force of nature, and Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville) recording everything for posterity. Overall, I thought it was extremely well-cast - I understood exactly why everyone was behaving as they were, and reacting to each other as they did. (I've started to notice that when I get confused about why people are doing what they're doing in a movie, it's usually because of bad acting.)

    The central story revolves around Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), who has been brought up to play female theatre roles and literally doesn't know how to do or be anything else, and Maria (Claire Danes), his dresser, who dreams of acting herself. Charles II, partly to emphasise the Restoration of monarchy, partly to please his mistress, decrees that from now on, women will play women's parts in the theatre, overturning the tradition that Ned is part of.

    They both discover that this change requires a great deal of adaptation for them - Ned discovering that this is not, as it first appears, a complete disaster for him, and Maria, that there is a lot more to being a woman acting than impersonating Ned's performances.

    I liked the fact that this was a mainstream-ish movie, essentially about sex and gender roles, that didn't seem to be preachy or moralistic or virtuous about it. In fact, it had a great air of "This is a movie about coping with change and understanding yourself, it's just that gender happens to be involved in this particular case" about it.

    I did have some anachronistic niggles about it - the final performance of Othello, which is much too naturalistic for the time - on the other hand, I'm guessing that with women on stage, acting would suddenly have seemed much more naturalistic to audiences of the time, and the only way to convey that sensation to us is using acting that we see as naturalistic.

    But it also worried me a bit that the only theatre being performed is Shakespeare - it makes sense to have the central story revolve around Othello, but I found it weird that there were not even references to other playwrights. Also, Claire Danes apparently being happy to look like Claire Danes bothered me somewhat - she looks a bit out of place surrounded by powdered and bewigged nobility, and dirty and malnourished lower classes.

    And I found the caps the actors wear to keep their hair under the stage wig really distracting. I got to the point where I didn't care if they were historically accurate, I would have preferred them to look less like they were made of nylon pantyhose. Otherwise, I enjoyed the costumes, and thought they suited the air of the times well.

    But these are niggles, and there were other things which I'm sure weren't accurate that didn't bother me at all, because they were part of the story or just plain intriguing - Charles II and Nell cross-dressing struck me as very much in character.

    Apparently this movie got an R rating in the US. We had an ongoing game trying to figure out what attracted that rating - Claire Danes' breast? The gay sex scene (although it's under sheets)? Six King Charles Spaniels wagging their tails frantically as, we gather, Nell does the thing with Charles? There's some vulgar language, reflecting the bawdiness of the period, but I'm really startled this movie was thought potentially harmful to older teenagers. I would have enjoyed it at twelve.

    James didn't like the movie quite as much as Sarah and I - I suspect he didn't have enough background to appreciate some of the historical aspects. He seems to have liked the spaniels and the sexual innuendo though.

    But what can you really say about a movie that makes me want to read Samuel Pepys' Diary and generally learn more about the time?

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    Movie: De-lovely

    I was quite surprised to discover that it was only James and myself who would be watching "De-lovely" with Sarah. Maybe we're the most musically inclined.

    The movie is a kind of musical retelling of Cole Porter's life, using his own songs. It focusses particularly on the complicated relationship with his wife, Linda.

    It's pretty clear that he does love her in some sense - he's attracted to her beauty, her mind and wit, and her belief in him and his songs, and her willingness to support him. She makes an excellent partner, in a moral support and business sense. But he feels guilty about the fact that he's not sexually attracted to her.

    They both try to be sophisticated about it, but they don't talk about it much, and there are inevitable misunderstandings and opportunities to be hurt.

    The problem as I saw it is the mere fact of homosexuality is beyond the pale and can't be talked about. Cole and Linda agree their relationship has to exist somewhere beyond the pale, but they don't agree on the boundaries. Cole doesn't seem to recognise the difference between being married to a woman and having sex responsibly with some men, with her approval and understanding, and just having sex with whichever men grab his attention whenever.

    As for the music, it is an intriguing introduction to Cole Porter's work, because sometimes it's as though the actors barely have time for spoken dialogue between snippets of Porter's songs. The performances of some songs by modern artists are at least interesting, but opinion and taste seems to vary wildly as to its success.

    I happen to rather like Alanis Morrisette's performance of "Birds do it", while Sarah found it too incongruous for Porter's style. I think the difference boils down to the fact that I don't hear her voice as specifically modern, but just her own. I think her voice might have intrigued Porter if she'd lived then, as suggested by the movie. And then I've always believed that art needs a certain amount of staying with the times to stay alive.

    Particularly in the case of Cole Porter, where we have the original movies and recordings of him singing, I don't see it as any problem if a movie tries some variations.

    I also have to drool over the costumes - the Porters were obviously rolling in it and their clothes reflect that. And James kept mentioning clothes worn by Kevin Kline he wouldn't mind for himself.

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    Movie: House of Flying Daggers

    Internode, our service provider, gave a free movie screening tonight of House of Flying Daggers for its game subscribers, so off James and I went on the motorbike, for the first time in quite a long time for me. Luckily I can still remember how to stay on.

    Another movie I can't really judge as good or bad. I haven't seen enough Chinese "action" movies to tell. I did enjoy myself, as there's a lot of very pretty things to look at in this picture.

    The cinematography is amazing, almost every frame could make a nice poster. The actors are quite attractive, and they wear gorgeous clothes. Colours are lush, and I sometimes suspected the costumes of being coordinated with the scenery. The fight scenes make most sense as a sort of ballet. Blood, leaves, and weaponry seem to be more symbols or magical than simply physical objects.

    The plot is not particularly clear, some of the dialogue (or at least the subtitles) seems inane or pointless. If you're expecting action, it is very slow. And there's some over-dramatic behaviour, which I can't tell whether simply belongs to the genre. Since it was all rather reminding me of ballet, I decided to apply my new opera standards to it, and went back to soaking in the prettiness.

    After the movie, we all trundled off to O'Malleys pub, where I mainly talked to Todd (who lent us the Couplings DVDs) and his wife Jodie.

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    TV Series: Coupling

    James was lent the DVD of the first season (six half-hour episodes) of Coupling which we've been watching a few episodes of each night.

    James' description of it as "Friends, but for adults, and funny" seems pretty accurate so far. Steve and Susan, his ex Jane, his best friend Jeff, her ex Patrick, her best friend Sally. Oh, and it's BBC, which is the reason it's adult and funny, most likely.

    A lot of the humour revolves around sex and nudity, but in a good way - it is a comedy about human foibles that is good-natured about our individual flaws. I'm bothered by a lot of sitcom-style humour because it seems to require people to behave stupidly, or like caricatures. The characters in Coupling may be extreme (for humour-generation purposes) but they seem to be real people.

    The most stereotypical character, Jeff (boy-man, obsessed by women and sex, foot-in-mouth syndrome) still has consistency, in that there's a pattern to the kind of foot-in-mouth he does, and so he isn't automatically given that role every time. And the acting required is quite subtle and is well-done.

    I think Jane is the most intriguing character for me. At first glance, she's a ditz, but on closer inspection she's so self-centred she has no conception what the world looks like to anyone else, and she is the most manipulative character I have ever encountered (including in real life, fortunately).

    So far, the major weakness (if it is that) is that the series seems to centre on Steve and Susan and their relationship, and the other characters are not as well developed, being more there for jokes.

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    Movie: Batman Begins

    Last night, Dell provided a free screening, complete with popcorn and a drink, of Batman Begins to, I guess, their faithful clients and all the geeks who passed the offer around to each other. So it's not surprising, given that James and a lot of his workmates were in the audience, that I was too.

    The movie seemed to go down well with most of the audience, but it didn't quite do it for me. It's certainly got a lot of Batman stuff, and it's not remotely the farce that Batman and Robin was, but I didn't click with it.

    One problem I had was that there seemed to be too many fight scenes, that were too dark, busy and quick-cut. I find it hard to get interested in fight scenes when I can't really tell who is who and how everyone's doing. I don't think the purpose of fight scenes is to have me sitting around twiddling my thumbs, waiting for it to be over so I can find out what actually happened during it (Batman won).

    And I am well and truly over climatic fight scenes in which the goodness of Our Heroes and the random cruelty to innocents of the bad guys is demonstrated by a laser-like focus on one innocent kid being protected by one of Our Heroes. I mean, it's very nice that the kid survives, but I'm afraid that the measures employed wouldn't have stretched to saving very many other people, and I'd rather see Our Heroes do other things during the fight that might actually save a significant number of innocents, even if that kid carks it in the process.

    I realise that on this point, I am completely in opposition to the dogma of Hollywood screenwriting, which is to get up close and personal with individuals to symbolise larger actions. While there are good reasons to humanise a larger point with specific individuals, this dogma has now gone too far, and it's time to swing the pendulum the other way a while.

    Another problem was that there seemed to be a bit too much of an effort to pour coolness into the movie. When a Batman movie also has to include mystical orders of Tibetan world-order-stabilising ninjas, James Bond-and-Q style scenes, Star Wars flashbacks (Liam Neeson more or less recaps his role from Phantom Menace and the batmobile makes sounds that I last heard pod racers make), and the odd Bladerunner-style urban-decay-in-the-rain scene, I think something is not quite right.

    My final conclusion, mainly based on this something-not-quite-right, is that Hollywood has finally figured out that cynical exploitation of the geeks-and-special-effects market is not working. So we now have movies that are genuinely, earnestly, trying to provide all the things the geeks-and-special-effects market wants.

    However, something is still missing. And that, I think, is the fundamental urge of human beings to communicate something that really interests and excites them, to other human beings. It is what drives good art, and good teaching, and good writing, and probably some other things I can't think of right now.

    I'm not writing this review because I think I have an audience who I can please by writing something amusing about my reaction to a movie. I'm writing this review because I think I had an interesting reaction to the movie, and I'm trying to convey that reaction to someone who isn't me.

    I want my geeks-and-special-effects movies to be made by people who have the urge to communicate coolness, not simply try to provide it. It's the difference between "This is so cool", and "We hope you'll think this is cool, we do". But it is progress from "You'll think this is cool, so we can make money off you".

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    Movie: Bridget Jones II Edge of Reason

    To keep up some momentum before the weekend, when I will hopefully figure out how to add photos to my blog so I can show off my knitting and the cat, here's my impression of the movie I saw last night.

    I was invited by James' friend Sarah, who seems to attend every movie released and asks everyone she knows to come along. Certainly it appears to be common for the other attendees to know less than half of the rest of the crowd, and "I think we met about six months ago when Sarah asked us to see..." was typical conversation. The people involved were Bruce and Karen, Angela, Jackie and John, and Gail.

    As a brief aside, I'm quite interested in networks, graph theory, and the whole scale-free network thing. I read a report somewhere that in a scale-free network, it's not how many people you know, but whether you know someone who is a hub, i.e. who knows a lot of people. I read this report after I met James, and so of course believed it. Now I've met Sarah, I'm even happier.

    Ah, yes, there's a movie to be talked about. Overall, I thought it was okay. I found many parts, particularly near the beginning, cringeworthy rather than funny, but that's what often happens with me and social embarrassment humour. Less of the "Bridget in bad clothes", "Bridget saying wrong thing in socially uncomfortable situation", and "Bridget and Mark failing to communicate because neither seems to have a clue how to talk about how they feel" moments, please.

    Either the movie improved or I lightened up, because I enjoyed the Thai section. More Daniel being a sleaze, foreign food encounters and more development of the friendships in the Thai jail, please. I suspect the director was afraid he couldn't milk the Madonna joke much further, but I think it had another round in it.

    And I absolutely adored the final revelation of Rebecca's secret. I don't think it was set up quite right, but I'm prepared to buy the idea that previously we were only seeing Rebecca through Bridget's eyes. This does mean that cinema needs to be able to distinguish between omni and tight third viewpoints, because there were definitely parts of the movie that seemed omni to me.

    To finish, we got more of the clothes, saying wrong thing, and Mark and Bridget failing to communicate, leading me to suspect that the directors thought that was the point. Obviously I would have made a different movie, but I think that can be taken for granted.

    As often happens, I forgot to drink enough water and ended up a bit dehydrated. Maybe if I blog about it, it'll help me remember in future.

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