Category Archives: Writing

Data: in the eye of the beholder

A few weeks ago I was having breakfast at Primrose Cafe in Clifton. The sun was shining, the radio was on too loud, the place was crowded as usual and the conversation was almost flowing. In the midst of all this my companion made the point that there seemed to be more beautiful people in Clifton than there were, say, in Bedminster, and didn’t I think so? I looked around, and as the source of the comment was a single man, I tried to spot and remember how many young, slender, brunettes we had passed on our way.

He insisted that it wasn’t just about young women so I asked if it was related to age, are there more young people in Clifton? is it the clothes, the brushed hair, the jewelry, the make up, the colour of the skin, were there more white people? At this point he started to get a tad defensive at the suggestion that I might be calling him either shallow or racist or both. We didn’t get very far as he insisted he knew what beautiful meant and he didn’t have to explain it while I persisted with the thought that he should learn to quantify these abstract notions.

There’s always a chance that we were both somewhat wrong and right at the same time but I’ll stick to arguments that favour my own particular biases as this will be quicker.

“Nothing is considered to be beautiful by all peoples everywhere” says Desmond Morris. “Every revered object of beauty is considered ugly by someone, somewhere … There is so often the feeling that this, or that, particular form of beauty really does have some intrinsic value, some universal validity that simply must be appreciated by everyone. But the hard truth is that beauty is in the brain of the beholder and nowhere else” (pp 421-2).

Morris goes on to write of how humans are master-classifiers of information. When it comes to identifying beautiful and ugliness then he suggests that we have an internal classification and according to the properties we assign to this category we call something beautiful when it excels in those particular qualities and ugly where it doesn’t (p423).

This is where data comes into it because if we can identify characteristics it means that we can measure them and compare Bedminster and Clifton. I didn’t go ahead and measure them but I do know that when I think of people or places as beautiful or scummy or amazing or poor etc that there are plenty of biases that underline the concepts.

There are also plenty of sites which make data available on locations and which already provide categories.

Upmystreet.com is a website that uses demographic information to provide snapshots of areas. 1.4 miles separate the Royal York Crescent in Clifton from West St in Bedminster but in terms of household income, interest in current affairs and education there are vast worlds of difference.

Bedminster, West St

Family income, educated to degree level and interest in current affairs are all high in Clifton whereas in Bedminster family income and educated to degree level are medium and interest in current affairs is below medium.

I’m using demographics and upmystreet.com as examples of what data can add to meaning. There is a lot of information about data journalism at the moment and how it’s the new big thing and that can’t be a bad thing since apparently, “a lot of journalists are innumerate and a lot don’t know much about history” (CJR). What I think it comes down to is adding a meaning where facts just aren’t enough and by the way, without context, facts may be sacred by they are rarely enough.

When the Guardian advertises its credentials in promoting the West Country and suggests that Bristol featured in their [readers’] top ten UK cities in the 2009 Guardian and Observer reader Travel Awards you would probably not need help to figure out that Clifton features more than Bedminster. If you weren’t from the South West or Bristol, however, there is a fair amount of data out there that would help you figure it out and that’s the beauty of it.

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Cinnamon, Spice and All Things Nice

September brings the first touch of autumn but it doesn’t do it on the first day, it waits until the 22nd and then all of a sudden it’s there.

In the burnt sugar of a crème brûlée and the cinnamon on every vanilla latte; in the orange lights of Queen Square, the walks by twilight up Park St, the steps leading up to St George’s, the candles on the tables at the Rummer Hotel, the cocktails at Browns. Mojitos at Hotel du Vin, the steep decline from the top seats at the Hippodrome. Sitting alone at the Old Vic past an early bedtime and walking in the rain away from a folk acoustic gig at the Croft. An espresso at Pain Quotidien, an almond croissant while listening to I’d Rather Dance With You at an outdoor market in Brussels.

Every kiss in front of Thekla even if there was only one. The misshapen cupcakes for my birthday, the dirty martinis and single malt whiskeys at Woods, every bottle of wine and sad love story at Zen, the opening of Colston Hall and Westons Organic Cider at the Mother’s Ruin. Warm pecan pie at the Big Chill although they don’t serve it any more. It’s mulled port with orange and cloves in preparation for Christmas. Every forehead against a bus window with rain falling outside and overcrowded carriages and porridge on the way to work.

Trees

It’s a late dinner at Bordeaux Quay and not slipping and sliding on Pero’s Bridge. Red wine and olives at the Arnolfini and subtitled cinema in the cavernous hall underneath the stairs. It’s the lights on the harbour from the windows at the Watershed and joining other writers to discuss a month of novel writing. Potato wedges and hot chocolate and not enough space to plug the laptop in to the socket. Sushi overlooking the Bristol Bridge, fuzzy dinner following a wine tasting, swans floating by the Glassboat. Cobbled streets on the Welsh Back and jazz at the Old Duke. Every new beginning, every new book in the library, the book groups that meet for the first time and course materials that are still untouched.

Unanswered text messages and meetings in the yellow lights of All Saints Lane. Dim sum at St Thomas Lane, reading a newspaper at a pub on St Michael’s Hill and deciding never again to chase Guinness with red wine. Racing up Whiteladies to catch the last of the fireworks and stopping off at most pubs on the way back. Heading home via Cotham Hill to see all of southern Bristol lit up. Crackling bonfires, slower sunsets, scarves, mittens and walking in the rain to Miles Davies.

Today is the last day of September but only the beginning of the cinnamon season. Dusty, golden and muted colours everywhere as a reminder of all the falling leaves and every haiku and poem about to be written and re-read.

Early morning from Bristol Bridge

Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Unseen Academicals is the 37th Discworld Novel by Terry Pratchett and is apparently about football although as the blurb states “the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football” (Pratchett 2009). Indeed, this book is not just about the beautiful game but instead takes its time to introduce the new characters of Mr Nutt, who even Mr Nutt does not know about, Glenda Sugarbean the amazing cook and head of the Night Kitchen at the Unseen University, a ‘likely’ lad who has a skill with a tin can and a model who shines but is not so bright.

Read more at Suite101: Book Review – Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Cheltenham Literature Festival, Meeting The Stars

The annual Cheltenham Literature Festival is bringing the stars to this South West town for the 61st time in 2010. Between 8 and 17 October, the likes of Michael Parkinson, Antonio Carluccio and Alexei Sayle will be wandering the streets and settling for an hour or so to talk about their latest work. The theme this year is Dreams and Nightmares and my suitably favourite event is Guillermo Del Toro discussing his new novel The Fall on Friday October 8. Tickets are £7 and the session is on between 7 and 8pm.

Some other eagerly anticipated sessions include Mark Kermode, Melvyn Bragg, James Ellroy, Hanif Kureishi, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Townsend, Michael Caine and Jo Brand.

You can buy tickets and browse through all the sessions at http://cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature/.

Dr Laura, Made For TV? Not Quite

Dr. Laura Schlessinger has recently resigned from her US national radio program following a rant about race and in particular after her repeated use of the ‘n’ word, as such. This latest controversy which has been widely covered by the US media and by members of the UK media, such as Roy Greenslade, is not unprecedented for this tempestuous star of radio. In 1998 she was a highly paid star with a media group paying $71.5 million for her program. The program was hugely popular and successful but also, as the LA Times stated

It can also be a very unforgiving show. An undercurrent of breathtaking anger surges not far beneath the jokes and laughter. For all the chumminess and girlish teasing, there is a drum beat of invective as Schlessinger rips into people, snarling insults at often pathetically needy callers, their friends, members of their families.

In the 1990s Dr Laura targeted another group and derided “homosexuality” as “a biological error,” “deviant behavior, a dysfunctional behavior,” and proceeded to link gay men to pedophilia and child molestation.

In 1999, the popular sitcom Frasier screened an episode called Dr Nora in which a strict, fundamentalist and judgemental new radio host is given a talk show on KACL. That character, who essentially satirized the real Dr Laura, turned out to have her own problems and rushed out of her job following a confrontation with reality in the form of her mother.

In spring 2001 the Dr Laura show was cancelled. Now nearly 10 years later the host has stepped down citing that she was pursued by angry and hateful groups that want to infringe on her right to free speech. The latest protest happened after an African-American woman called the show for advice on dealing with the resentment she felt when her white husband didn’t speak out about racist comments his friends made. Dr Laura used the n-word 11 times during the conversation and told the woman that she had a “chip on [her] shoulder.” The host also added that “a lot of blacks voted for Obama” due to race and said that the caller shouldn’t “marry out of [her] race” if she didn’t “have a sense of humor.”

The full audio is available from Media Matters for America so decide for yourself about her approach. As Frasier optimistically puts it: “I mean really, people can tell the difference between constructive criticism and outright abuse”.

The critics are more likely to echo Roz’s query to Dr Nora: “what kind of vicious, judgemental, name-calling, machete mouthed bitch are you?” Luckily it no longer matters as she will no longer be tainting the airwaves. For now at least.

Inception (3), follow up from Xen

Xen and I have been discussing Inception and this is the third part posted on Ephemeral Digest. The sequence of posts is as follows: Ephemeral Digest review, Xenlogic analysis and review, Ephemeral Digest follow-up post, reply by Xen from the Xenlogic site.

Ok, now that I’ve gotten to a proper PC, please bear with me. This is kinda long:

I thought your insights on the movie’s failures were rather deep and thought provoking. Yet, I somehow felt that they lacked a bit of sensitivity to the novelty of the material within the context it was used. For example, this:

Joanna:The idea that we find ourselves in the middle of situations in dreams and that they are circular, is not a profound one, it is merely reality (pun intended).

…would have been new to just about anyone who has not:

Joanna:studied dreams in [a] philosophy course at university and did some lucid dreaming practise at one point as well.

…which I imagine is the vast majority of Inception’s audience. It would be tantamount to me berating the Wachowski brothers for being unimaginative in how they pulled off the Matrix Trilogy (which we both seem to have a passion for 😉 ) because their cyberpunk interpretation of Descartes was just for the sake of imitating cool Japanimé special effects.

Have you seen Masamune Shirow’s “Ghost in the Shell“? Have you ever read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer“? If you had, then you’d have been equally as critical of The Matrix. None of the lines you’ve quoted from that movie were any more novel to anyone who has watched that Japanese Animation film or read Gibson’s book. All the Wachowski brothers did, was to merge two popular genres into a third one and create a whole new sub genre of Science Fiction in Film.

Chris Nolan’s Inception does exactly the same thing. In fact, you’d be surprised at how often Quentin Tarantino rips off Hong Kong cinema as he did with Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs – but I digress. I think you get the idea.

I can understand why you felt disappointed, but it hardly detracts from the quality of the film. We all have our individual influences and tastes – but that hardly means that our disappointment with the originality in a work of art means that it is any less well rendered. Wouldn’t you say?

Joanna:The scene at the cafe where Cobb asks Ariadne ‘how they got there’ is largely redundant for us because we also don’t know how they got there. We accept that in movies, fiction, theatre etc, there need to be stage breaks and we need to jump into other scenes with the same believability.

You’re missing the point of the dialog in that scene. The audience also doesn’t know that they’re dreaming – and neither does Ariadne, hence duplicating the exact same effect as if one were dreaming. 😉

Joanna:A teenage girl offering profound insight and saving the day (her name was a cheap shot) is a device found in comic books in teenage male worlds (correct me if I’m wrong but it screams of Manga more than Charles Dickens).

There are immediately two problems with this critique:

1. Most people wouldn’t have figured that the name Ariadne is significant to the plot (just as how most people still don’t realise that the name “Thomas Anderson” was significant to the plot of the Matrix) – at least not unless they Googled it.

2. A black man providing profound insight (as is in The Matrix) is not exactly Shakespeare either (forgive me for not using “Dickens” in the same context). Have you ever heard of a plot device called “The Magical Negro“? (a la Spike Lee) The Wachowskis exploit this wantonly and indiscriminately. So did Robert Redford in The Legend of Bagger Vance. That it’s a plot device from other material doesn’t mean that:

Joanna:Nolan’s storytelling is weak and his devices are weaker.

It only means that the storytelling recycles plot devices – which every great movie / novel / story is guilty of – every single one of them.

Joanna:I liked that one although in the context of the movie it becomes a cheap didactic shot at the idea that we try to escape reality to find happiness or at least Cobb is doing so.

I respectfully disagree. It only appears to be cheap because it lacks novelty. I too am familiar with the quote, but I would hardly berate Nolan for his choice. For while it does ring a bell for me, the film doesn’t lose its intrinsic effect of selling to the audience that it’s all a dream. The director needs the audience to make that connection for the movie to have its desired effect, whether or not we’re familiar with the source material. I see movie critics make this kind of mistake all the time. No one has ever done a movie like this and used that quote in the way it was to achieve the effect it was designed for – and thus, the effect achieves its goal, whether or not we’re scholars of the source material.

Joanna:So dream / reality distinctions aren’t that hard once you start along this path although it was a nod towards the same argument that Descartes uses in his Meditations.

I agree – ONCE YOU START ALONG THIS PATH – which is the KEY distinction here. How many people seeing Inception even know that such a path exists? Hmm? 😉 If you don’t know the path exists, how do you know where you’re going in the first place? You can’t know that you’re going somewhere unless you know where you’re going. It’s a catch 22 – and that’s precisely why the plotwise design achieves its desired effect.

Joanna:I didn’t believe it then because I know you can tell the difference.

True, but the point of the film is that Cobb can make this distinction up to a point. The idea behind Inception is that once you’re deep enough, you can accept a reality such that it becomes reality, because you no longer remember what the key distinctions between dreaming and reality even are.

Joanna:However, in movies like the Matrix, the storytelling doesn’t have to worry about ignorant fears such as ‘oh no, what if I’m stuck in a dream’, it realises that there are bigger issues such as the reality in which we are dreaming. What if that is fake?

AAH! But Inception asks that VERY same question! That’s what the final shot was for! 😉

Joanna on The Matrix (1999), Morpheus:What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can hear, what you can smell, taste and feel, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

By the same opening logic of your post, I wouldn’t call that profound. I would quote that as Rene Descartes! See where I’m coming from? All of the other profound quotes you used suffer from the same fallacy. By this reasoning, we are inadvertently rendering what is “profound” as being synonymous with “novel”!

I will admit though, Joanna, Agent Smith had some really good lines. 😀 My personal favourite:

Agent Smith:I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.

Now that, my dear, is AWESOME!

Joanna:Nolan seems to ignore the storytelling rule of “show don’t tell”.

That perception may only be a function of exposure. For if that were true, then how do you explain why so many people were confused about what the final shot meant? It was pretty blatantly obvious to me (and to you as well). But most other folks were like “WTF?!” LOL! Do you think if that final shot wasn’t there, that you’d have re-examined the rest of the film and thought it was all a dream?

Joanna:He wrote weak dialogue and weak characters on purpose?

OMG! And yet you forget that last scene in Limbo where Cobb says that his projections of his wife, Mal, are only a shadow of her former self? C’mon! Don’t tell me you missed that! That’s a key part of the puzzle! 😀

Joanna:Excellent point that the totem at the start of the movie doesn’t fall down but then we know that it’s a dream because the children are there.

The children weren’t in that scene. The children were shown very briefly as a part of a series of flashbacks near that scene. I think you DO need to see it again! 😀

Joanna:Not sure that his subtle foreshadowing works well alongside the obvious one of ‘who would want to be stuck in a dream for 10 years’.

Excellent point! BUT, 90% of the film’s audiences didn’t get that! Where you say Nolan wasn’t subtle, they would say he was being too vague! LOL!

Joanna:A big problem I have with the story is that once we know that he is trying to escape reality (he is the only one who doesn’t want to distinguish between reality and dreams, everyone else has a totem) there is nowhere else for the story to go.

That’s amazing. Would you believe me if I told you that Michael Phillips made exactly the same criticism of The Matrix (1999)? Word for word even!

You should become a professional movie critic (if you aren’t already). No joke. I think you’re good enough for it.

Joanna:He had to escape into a dream and the story had to follow this particular arc because there was no other storyline.

Again, you’re missing the point. The audience would not have known that without the final shot. The final shot is what makes all the difference.

Joanna:I like the idea that it might have been reality but you don’t leave much room for it in your analysis.

If it was reality, then all of your criticisms of the story would be flawless and Inception would be a rip off.

Joanna:Why call her Mal though which means evil or bad?

A plot device – similar to the one where the architect is called Ariadne. But in this particular case, it was a part of a trick meant to convince the audience into thinking that she is a villain, when if fact, she is Cobb’s only hope.

Joanna:However it was quite creative and enjoyable at times.

– hence, “cleverly written“. But I concede to your point. Perhaps I could’ve worded that differently. Maybe “cleverly conceived“?

Joanna:The idea of inception itself isn’t one that I find particularly original.

…and that was the whole point of my original rebuttal and why we’re having this most entertaining discussion! 😀

Joanna:Also, one last point: how sitcom and soap opera-like were those glances that the other characters give him when he passes customs? Was that really needed?

LOL! Yes, even I can admit that was a tad over done – but only for the likes of us. The rest of the audience gobbled it up though. Remember, the movie needs to make money! If all audiences were as perceptive, Hollywood would go bankrupt! lol!

Do you do any other movie reviews? I’d love to read them. Actually, I love the way you write – period. It’s very deep, provocative and satisfying. So I’ve taken the liberty to follow you up on Twitter. I’m going to plough through the rest of your blog. Great stuff, Joanna. I love your mind. 🙂

Cheers,
Xen

Inception, a follow up post

This is a follow-up post to my review of Inception and a reply to Xen’s comments. Xen has an excellent write-up of the movie on the Xenlogic site. For a moment I almost thought I would have to change my mind and watch the film again. Almost.

To Xen: I’m not sure what your point was in reference to my predisposed attitude to movies. I freely state that I am biased towards expecting a good storyline (plot), well written dialogue and brilliant use of narrative and film-making techniques to make me suspend disbelief. I expect these elements from most movies I watch and I hasten to add that I get them from every Pixar movie so far. I paid money to see Inception because I thought it looked amazing.

The “teenage boys” comment wasn’t entirely cynical but pointed to the fact that the highest scoring audience members (according to IMDB) were males, under 18 years of age, at 9.6 out of 10. The largest number (84,109) of people that rated Inception on IMDB were 18-29 year old males. That was 86% of all 18-29 year olds that voted and 63% of all voters.

I like your attempts at profound lines but I just can’t agree. I studied dreams in my philosophy course at university and did some lucid dreaming practise at one point as well. The idea that we find ourselves in the middle of situations in dreams and that they are circular, is not a profound one, it is merely reality (pun intended). Nolan doesn’t linger on the fact that fiction is much the same. The scene at the cafe where Cobb asks Ariadne ‘how they got there’ is largely redundant for us because we also don’t know how they got there. We accept that in movies, fiction, theatre etc, there need to be stage breaks and we need to jump into other scenes with the same believability. Nolan’s storytelling is weak and his devices are weaker. A teenage girl offering profound insight and saving the day (her name was a cheap shot) is a device found in comic books in teenage male worlds (correct me if I’m wrong but it screams of Manga more than Charles Dickens). There was one clever line which I saw referenced in a Positive Psychology newsletter and that was : “It is positive emotion that makes a dream real.” I liked that one although in the context of the movie it becomes a cheap didactic shot at the idea that we try to escape reality to find happiness or at least Cobb is doing so.

Once you read up and practise lucid dreaming you realise that there are some ways of telling the difference between dreaming and reality. Writing isn’t static in dreams and getting yourself to check the time (on a digital watch) or to read something for a few seconds will tell you whether you are dreaming or not. In a dream the letters shift and the time changes. So dream / reality distinctions aren’t that hard once you start along this path although it was a nod towards the same argument that Descartes uses in his Meditations. I didn’t believe it then because I know you can tell the difference. However, in movies like the Matrix, the storytelling doesn’t have to worry about ignorant fears such as ‘oh no, what if I’m stuck in a dream’, it realises that there are bigger issues such as the reality in which we are dreaming. What if that is fake?

Some thoughts on profound lines (which may or may not be…):

  • What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can hear, what you can smell, taste and feel, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. Matrix
  • I see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, that’s not far from the truth.Matrix
  • “Until the become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”- George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 7
  • “Sanity is not statistical.” – George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 9
  • Agent Smith: You hear that Mr. Anderson?… That is the sound of inevitability.Matrix
  • Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day. Macbeth

to note but a few examples from works that questions reality.

The one part of the movie that I did like was the idea that she killed herself because she was convinced that it wasn’t their reality. There’s always that question of ‘was she right?’ and I liked the link between grief and schizophrenia. I can see how that could drive someone crazy but when we see them together in his dreams she whispers to him ‘you know what you have to do’ and this becomes tedious. It’s a short movie and I didn’t need the constant tiring repetition to remind me that he is tortured by thoughts of leaving reality in order to find his own happiness. Nolan seems to ignore the storytelling rule of “show don’t tell”.

The fact that the children are always wearing the same clothes and acting in the same way is obvious. Nolan doesn’t seem to do subtle. The notion that all the characters are two-dimensional because it is his dream and therefore this is a ploy is a bit of a get out clause. He wrote weak dialogue and weak characters on purpose?

Excellent point that the totem at the start of the movie doesn’t fall down but then we know that it’s a dream because the children are there. He also goes back into the dream later on. Maybe you are right however and the story was meant to subtly point out that ‘this is a dream from the very beginning’. Not sure that his subtle foreshadowing works well alongside the obvious one of ‘who would want to be stuck in a dream for 10 years’.

A big problem I have with the story is that once we know that he is trying to escape reality (he is the only one who doesn’t want to distinguish between reality and dreams, everyone else has a totem) there is nowhere else for the story to go. The whole thing had to be a dream. He had to escape into a dream and the story had to follow this particular arc because there was no other storyline. The ‘inception’ heist was quite shallow and cartoony so a meaningful resolution could not be part of that. Being left to question whether he did escape into the dream was at least something that intrigued but as your post points out, that isn’t an option since we know that it’s a dream from the start. I like the idea that it might have been reality but you don’t leave much room for it in your analysis.

What I hadn’t realised until I read your post was that his wife was there to wake him up and stop him going through with it. Why call her Mal though which means evil or bad?

I have to disagree that the second part was clever but distracting – I didn’t think it was ‘very well written’ at all. However it was quite creative and enjoyable at times. Also, the idea that the actual Inception was done by his wife to try to wake him up is a clever one and that would raise the movie a little in my estimation. I don’t know if it was in the story intentionally but it has more potential for interest than the rest do. His profound revelation that the idea he planted in her head caused her to kill herself wasn’t much of a twist but I can see how it would work well as a source of grief and guilt.

The idea of inception itself isn’t one that I find particularly original. All marketing, music and writing do the same thing for us. We are all a product of thoughts and notions that we pick up. Even our language is acquired from others.

Also, one last point: how sitcom and soap opera-like were those glances that the other characters give him when he passes customs? Was that really needed?

Excellent post Xen and thank you for taking the time to comment on mine. Feel free to let me know what you think. I hope it doesn’t sound too argumentative, I was feeling enthusiastic at having to rethink it.