Friday, April 27, 2012

Dumb Design in Daily Life

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
                                                                                 -Hanlon’s Razor

Easy is difficult. The evidence is all around us. Computers that we spend more time trying to make work than working on. Phones that stop us from reaching out and touching anyone. Shower faucets that scald us or freeze us as we fumble, in our most vulnerable state, to decipher them. The puzzler about such things is that every one of these impediments, and many more, were designed by somebody.

Over half the world’s population lives in urban areas. In Canada, about 85 percent live in such areas. We spend most of our lives in built environments. Most of our daily interaction is with manufactured objects and geography. Even those residing in the countryside have substantial interaction with the built, whether it be their houses, their roads, or their Blu-ray players.

There are undoubtedly many instances of Dumb Design in Daily Life. The washroom at my work is one. The building was erected in 1966.

The first head-scratcher is the location of the  washroom. It is in the stairwell. Not next to it, but in it. To use the washroom, I must enter the stairwell, cross the landing, and enter a combination on a keypad on the door. This is to pee, not to get access to nuclear launch codes. To be fair, however, the lock has kept the washroom free of hobos and ninja. Infestations of hobos and ninja are common in insurance company washrooms, so maybe it makes sense.

What doesn’t make any sense is what happens inside the washroom. If one uses the urinal and then, like any civilized adult, goes to the sink to wash his hands, he will then find that there are no paper towels anywhere near the sink. Where are they? Back at the urinal! The paper towels are back at the place you just came from and in the opposite direction of the door out. Either you wipe your hands on your pants or head over there, hands dripping, disturbing those who have yet to finish their urinary adventures.

Way over there, not near the sinks, are the paper towels

Urinals on the wall opposite the paper towels
These paper towel dispensers are the only ones in the washroom. If you have a couple of guys who have washed there hands and somebody at a urinal, you've got a small convention squeezed over in the corner there. I think somone just thought they simply must have a couple of those keen dispensers in a wall with the trash bins recessed in underneath and that was the only wall where the things would fit. Never mind that it doesn't make sense, going against both logic and the traffic flow in the room. Remember, this building was constructed in 1966, which means it's been like this for 46 years, without anyone thinking about moving the paper towels, or it has been renovated at some point and somebody thought this was an improvement on what was there before. I'm not sure which is more puzzling.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

From the Beginning

“The Weight” makes a great first impression. The recent death of Levon Helm did one good thing: it got thousands of radio and TV stations to play that classic song by The Band. Hearing it again got me thinking about what it is that gives a song a strong start.
A good first impression gets a foot in the door. After that, you’ve still got to close the deal, but that first step can be a tough one. Sometimes it’s with a guitar riff. "Smoke on the Water", I’m looking at you. Maybe it’s a graceful piano intro. "Let It Be" comes to mind. Whatever it is, you hear it and you’re gone. You’re committed to listening to that song. For me, as a writer, I like engaging lyrics, especially an opening line that catches me and makes me want to find out what comes next. With that thought in mind, here are a few of my favourite opening lines. I define “opening line” in this context as being a complete thought, so it may actually be a couple of lines of text.
The Weight – The Band
Since it inspired this post, it’s only fair to give this song the lead. “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half-past dead,” says so much and sets the stage in a way you wouldn’t think possible in fewer than a dozen words. I hope to write ten words that good someday.

Kick Out the Jams - MC5

Rock and roll is all about making old people uncomfortable. The opening, full-volume command to "Kick out the jams, motherfucker!" must have done that in 1969. It may not be as eloquent as some opening lines, but it let's one know that you're in for a total sonic assault. For some reason, this YouTube entry continues with dead air after the song is over, but it's the beginning that matters.

Anarchy in the U.K. - The Sex Pistols

"I am an antichrist! I am an anarchist!" With that opening, in 1976, The Sex Pistols set out to make old people uncomfortable. It worked. It earned the Pistols attention and opprobrium. Many years after the release, I remember the woman I was seeing at the time, a former Catholic schoolgirl, being so uncomfortable with that line that she'd frantically twist the volume knob down when that song began playing on the mix-tape I'd made. I should have taken that as  a sign things weren't going to work out.

Werewolves of London - Warren Zevon

Many Warren Zevon fans are unhappy that "Werewolves of London" is the only song by the artist that most people know. For a time, Zevon himself didn't play the song in his concerts. While it may be frothier than most of his work, the lyrics are still quite clever. "I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking through the streets of Soho in the rain," certainly paints a picture and makes me want to know what happens next. Hint: bad things.

Underwhelmed - Sloan

"She was underwhelmed, if that's a word. I know it's not, 'cause I looked it up," kicks of this jangly-guitar rocker from Sloan. It's the tale of a grammar-loving pedant who falls for a woman who is his opposite. I can relate to it fully, though it is no longer an issue. I'm fortunate in that  my wife is tolerant of my pedantry. All I need do is act as her spelling and grammar checker from time to time. This song should be on every single pedant's playlist as a reminder that, sometimes, you've just got to loosen up.

Certainly a very personal list, I grant you. I invite my ones and ones of readers to offer their own suggestions in the comments.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

State of Flux

How much are we who we were and how much are we who we’ve become? That’s the question that “State of Violence,” the latest film from director Khalo Matabane (Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon), addresses.

Bobedi (Hotel Rwanda’s Fana Mokoena) is a high-flying businessman, at the top of the new South Africa. He and his wife, Joy (Lindi Matshikiza), are living the good life. It’s a world totally removed from the violent apartheid-era township in which Bobedi was raised. The crimes he witnessed and the crimes he committed are old memories, decades in the past. When Bobedi and Joy are attacked by an intruder in their home, one who hints at knowing Bobedi’s past, it becomes clear that what’s done is rarely fully done. Joy is murdered by the masked-gunman, leading Bobedi to commence a search for the killer. His literal search for the killer runs parallel to his figurative search for himself.

Unfortunately, “State of Violence” doesn’t deliver on the promise of its premise. If ever there was a country where questions of past actions and present identity resonate, it must surely be South Africa. The transformation of Nelson Mandela from terrorist to respected statesman shows that simple answers don’t exist but that there is some way forward. The film does not delve into these questions with the depth or skill required to make the picture a meaningful commentary. We must content ourselves with one man’s story of revenge, but there, again, the picture fails. As a detective film or thriller, the plot is too pedestrian and straight-forward to give much satisfaction. It’s too broad to be a satisfying as a mystery and too shallow to be a satisfying social examination.

To be fair to Matabane, his star may have let him down as well. Mokoena’s face rarely gives much insight into what is supposed to be happening in Bobedi’s head. While Bobedi does undergo a journey, we only see it happening in the character’s actions, we don’t see it happening on his face or in his mind, so it is not convincing. Presley Cheweneyagae (star of 2005’s Best Foreign Language Oscar winner Tsotsi), as Bobendi’s brother, Boy-Boy, delivers more emotion, breathing some life into his flatly-drawn character.

The film is competently shot, though Matabane’s shaky camera-work leads more to distraction than a sense of urgency. One great chase scene, where such shooting would have really stood out, instead gets lost because of all the jitter in the scenes that could have been more stably shot. The director uses the township where Bobedi grew up, as a character in the film and does it well. What could have been voyeuristic comes across as real and not exploitative.

The film might have benefited from an extra twenty minutes to develop either theme in greater depth. Whether it is as social commentary or a mystery thriller doesn’t matter. Either would have been a better choice than this hybrid that delivers as neither. Much like its protagonist, “State of Violence” starts down an interesting path, but gets lost when it comes to a fork in the road.

Rating: 2/5

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Wishes and Choices

Kesenia Rappoport and Filippo Timi in The Double Hour

Second chances can be rare, difficult to recognize, and hard to grasp. “The Double Hour” (La Doppia Ora), by director Giuseppe Capotondi, explores what second chances mean to us. To do this, he brings together two lonely souls, Guido, an ex-cop, and Sonia, a half-Slovenian, half-Italian hotel chambermaid. They meet at a speed-dating evening in Turn, where Guido is a regular. Sonia, who was present at the suicide of a hotel guest earlier in the day, is shaken and finds her first try at speed-dating overwhelming, one man after another trying to make an impression in just a few minutes before moving on to the next woman. Her suitors range from dull to profane. Guido’s guileless gloom touches something in her. The two are immediately drawn together.

Guido (Filippo Timi), widower, failed cop, and, it is hinted, alcoholic, is marking time, unable to connect directly with anyone. His hobby is sound recording; he uses a shotgun microphone to record sound, distancing him from the world around him while lending him some illusion of connection. The film’s name refers to a superstitious game he mentions to Sonia. When the hour and minutes of the time match (this works much better if one uses a 24-hour clock, as in Europe), it’s a “double hour” and one can make a wish. Sonia asks him if it works. He answers “no” with the certainty of one who has tried it innumerable times. Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport), left Slovenia when her mother died, trying to live with her father and his new family, but moved on when that didn’t work. Both are rootless and tentative, seeking a shelter in the broken places they both inhabit. Chance intervenes, however, with further loss.

It is at this point that the film addresses the question of how we deal with loss. Rappoport’s Sonia reels, effectively, between depression and mania, trying to work out her connection to Guido. Does the double hour hold power? Can it bring us back to a time and place we wish to be? Sonia finds herself in a world where the familiar seems alien and the choices we make carry more weight than our wishes to undo them. Timi’s Guido is more taciturn and restrained. He knows that wishes are not granted, however much one would hope. All we can do is choose to rebuild with the broken pieces we have, if we are brave enough. If we get our wish, what will we do with it?

The world Guido and Sonia inhabit is well-photographed but never showy. It captures the mood well, imparting a slight sense of longing, hinting that there is just a little something more we can’t see, a connection waiting to be made.

Loss, longing, love, hope, and fear drive so much of our lives, whether consciously or not, that The Double Hour should resonate with anyone who has had a moment of doubt or introspection. When the double hour comes, it will be our choice what to do with it.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Small, Inconsequential Work of Fiction

“I know what you did last summer.”

“I know, Ted. I’m the one that sent you the postcard, remember?”

“I’m not talking about the trip you took to Vancouver. I’m talking about you and Jenny.”


“Don’t play dumb, Dave. I guess you thought I’d never find out about it, but I know you had your way with her while I was at the manager training course at Hamburger University.”

“I just went over there to look in on her and make sure everything was fine. You asked me to keep an eye on things while you were gone. I don’t know what you’re talking about, ‘Had your way with her.’ What is that supposed to mean?”

“You took her out, got her all warmed up and just kept pumping her–“

“What are you–“

“I found your student ID under the seat, Dave. Now the plugs are fouled and I’m going to have to tune her up.”

“All right, I took your car out for a drive while you were gone. I didn’t think it was a big deal”

“Not a big deal? This is a numbers-matching 1969 Camaro Z28. She’s a finely-tuned work of art. I can’t believe you’d betray my trust like that.”

“I had sex with your girlfriend while you were away too.”

“Don’t try to change the subject.”

“In the Camaro.”

“You son of a bitch!”

This was just a small exercise, starting with the given line, "I know what you did last summer," and working from there. The aim was to tell the story entirely through dialogue and in less than 250 words. I came across it buried in a forgotten corner of my hard drive and got a smile from it.

Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Promises to Keep

“Eastern Promises” is typical David Cronenberg. To some, that may sound like an insult. Others might suggest that there is nothing “typical” about the man who directed “Rabid”, “The Fly”. and “A History of Violence.” Both would be wrong.

Cronenberg consistently explores themes of identity and the layers of self we possess and project to others. Underneath, when all those layers are peeled away, lives something base and animalistic. How we control it, how we live with it, and what happens when it gets loose, is the source of drama in Cronenberg’s films.

In “Eastern Promises,” Cronenberg drops Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a London hospital, into that city’s Russian underworld. The daughter of a Russian immigrant father and an English mother, she is thoroughly Anglicized. She is unable to read the Russian entries in a diary found on a young pregnant girl brought into the hospital.  After the girl dies giving birth, Anna is determined to find the girl’s family. Her late father’s brother, Stepan, refuses to translate the diary for her, saying she should, “bury her secrets with her bodies [sic].” Unfazed, Anna visits Trans-Siberian, a Russian restaurant, after finding its business card in the pages of the diary.

The Russians at Trans-Siberian, both patrons and staff, are immigrants, old and new, who are deeply connected to their Russian roots. Anna finds it all fascinating, especially Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the proprietor, who agrees to help her with the diary. We also meet a couple of shady characters hanging around the Trans-Siberian, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), Semyon’s son, and his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As the story unfolds, layers are stripped away from each character. Much more about the plot can’t be discussed without spoiling what lays beneath those layers. Suffice to say that Cronenberg’s love of brutality, both psychological and physical plays out here, the former dominating the latter, though there is a scene of extraordinary viciousness that will likely be discussed by cineastes for decades to come.

The performances of Watts, Cassel, and Mortensen are all excellent. Mortensen, in particular, is outstanding. You never believe Nikolai’s repeated claim, “I’m just the driver,” knowing there is much more to him. Unfortunately Mueller-Stahl, as well as Sinead Cusack as Anna’s mother Helen, and Jerzy Skolimowski as her Uncle Stepan, are weaker. Cusack and Skolimowski don’t have that much to work with, having limited screen time. Mueller-Stahl, on the other hand, has plenty of screen time but comes across as a little too unctuous from the start, rendering Semyon too readable, too soon.

The film is very nicely shot by director of photography Peter Suschitzky. In keeping with Cronenberg’s theme of horror beneath banal facades, he shoots the world of the Russians in such a way as to show that it may be in London, but it is separate and distinct. It tends to the closed and claustrophobic, attaining a level of intimacy often not associated with a large metropolis.

Cronenberg has managed to craft a film about gangsters that neither glorifies them nor belittles ordinary people. It is compelling and horrifying and emotionally engaging, some of the characterizations are slightly lacking. When it comes to delivering a look beneath the surface of things, “Eastern Promises” lives up to its promise.

 Rating: 4/5

Monday, April 16, 2012

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
Dante Alighieri, Inferno
One of the marvellous and exciting things about the English language is its malleability, the way that words are minted, used, stretched and changed to allow us to communicate ideas. Unfortunately, this means that some words are stretched to the point of unrecognizability. “Hero” is one of those words. It is a word that is used to describe people who are merely victims or who show courage in the face of adversity. It can be used to describe those who merely do what they should be doing, however admirable or brave it might be. Like a sweater that fit well thirty pounds ago, stretching a word to cover everything that wasn’t there before results in the original design being lost.

It is time to remember that true heroes have walked among us. April 15th was the birthday of Hugh Thompson Jr., a true hero.

As a Warrant Officer flying in Vietnam on March 16, 1968, Hugh Thompson and the two crew members of his helicopter, Specialist Glenn Andreotta and Specialist Lawrence Colburn, intervened in what is now called the My Lai Massacre, to save the lives of civilians. A U.S. Army unit was killing indiscriminately during its operation that day and Thompson, who was flying reconnaissance, seeing dead children, women, and old men and no weapons, voiced his concern. At one point, he landed his helicopter to stop troops from attacking a group of civilians, ordering his crew to fire on the U.S. troops if the troops attacked the villagers. After rescuing the civilians, he filed an official report. He participated in Pentagon inquiries when the scandal broke and also testified for the House Armed Services Committee. As he became known to the public, he received hate mail and death threats.

Dr. Philip Zambardo, a psychologist who studies the nature of heroic action, has identified what constitutes heroism:

Simply put, then, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward.

Thompson exhibited true heroism on that day, recognizing that, even in war, there is a line that should not be crossed, actions that are impossible to justify. He had nothing to gain from his action and much to lose. He did what needed to be done because it was right and he was there. He would not stand by. He was haunted by what happened until he died in 2006, but how much worse could things have been had he not intervened?

Thank goodness there are heroes among us. Thank goodness the word still has meaning.

Further information:

Hugh Thompson talks about My Lai

Photo: Public Domain