Archive for the ‘Random wifflings’ Category

Language barriers

Posted: April 30, 2014 in Random wifflings

Having English as your mother tongue is a great boon. You can go virtually anywhere in the world and someone will be able to understand you. More than that, people practically fall over themselves to chat, because they want to try out their English. It’s the international language of entertainment, trade, government, science etc etc etc.

It’s also a massive pain in the arse when you’re trying to learn other languages. Open your mouth, trot out your few faltering phrases of your newly acquired lingo, and the chances are the other party will smile at you and answer in English.

We Brits have a reputation of somehow being congenitally unable to learn other tongues. This is nonsense, obviously, we’ve got the same basic equipment as a Frenchmen or a German, but it is true that Brits struggle with foreign speech. We’re generally monolingual, the majority of people in the world are bilingual I read somewhere.

For a start, we don’t learn until too late (although this is changing in British schools), so we don’t develop the mental habits needed to acquire foreign languages. More than once in classes, I’ve seen British people attempt X language with a French accent, because that’s “foreign” to us. More importantly, we are not exposed on a daily basis to foreign languages, unlike pretty much everyone else who get to hear English day in, day out. Thirdly, we don’t have to try, for the reasons stated at the head of this piece. We are too shy, terrified of making mistakes, and it’s too easy not to try. Shamefully, this was my attitude too. I was an all round lazy shit in school, to be fair. In French and German lessons I’d think “What’s the point? I’m English.” I’d love to wallop my younger self, I really would.

Because of these factors, English has developed a reputation as “easy”, which is not objectively true. All languages are complex in their own way, and indeed the day-to-day “Lingua Anglica” is different to the form spoken by true English native speakers – speaking a language is very different to mastering it. There’s a blog post in that somewhere.

It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered my interest in languages. I did a Dutch course when I was at University for six months in Amsterdam. I got a high mark, then promptly never used it. The Dutch were incredibly critical, spoke English at me, and then complained, six months later, that I couldn’t speak Dutch. Really, I should have been braver and ignored the sniggers. It wasn’t just me, not one student out of the thirty on the course ever used their Dutch.

Now when I’m really serious about learning foreign lingo and I’m abroad, I pretend I can’t speak English.

A couple of years later, pursuing a doomed love affair, I found myself living with a Polish family in Szczecin who spoke no English, this being not long after the fall of Communism, so I did learn to speak Polish. A few years ago, I learned Swedish (because I’m married to a half-Swede, remember?)

Trouble is, I’ve begun to forget; it’s that lack of exposure again. I’ve been a bit alarmed that my attempts to speak with the Polish immigrants I’ve met have been stilted, so I’ve started refreshing my languages. I’m reading my old Polish textbooks that I taught myself from way back when, and trying to read a couple of newspaper articles a week from Gazeta Wyborcza. My Polish wasn’t fluent, but I could speak fluidly and got to a high enough level for it to ingrain itself. I’ve retained a good grasp of the grammar, so my refresh is going more easily than I feared. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this − I went for some lessons a few years ago, but they were of limited use. I hope this is more effective, early indications are good. Reading the words at my own pace, the meanings are coming back without too much encouragement.

I’m doing similar for my Swedish. I get at least get to listen to this occasionally, as the Mrs and I watch Swedish telly imports every so often, and she sometimes speaks Swedish (usually when she’s being bitching about someone, talking to the dog, or swearing). Swedish is the easiest language for English speakers I’ve attempted to learn (again, linguistic easiness is entirely relative to the speaker and the circumstances, not an inherent characteristic to the language itself). It’s close enough to English in basic grammar and root vocabulary, and the Scandinavian mindset isn’t a million miles away from ours, so speaking Swedish doesn’t require a massive cognitive step-change. Furthermore, the Swedes, bless ‘em, respond in Swedish when addressed in their own language which really, really helps. In this case, I’m more continuing to learn, rather than trying to remember or relearn. Svenska Dagbladet is my online paper of choice here.

I don’t want to give the impression of being some kind of wizardy polyglot, (unlike my frighteningly intelligent friend and White Dwarf staffer Matt Keefe, who genuinely is). My Swedish is probably GCSE grade, my Polish all over the scale. But in both languages I can manage a conversation. I can get by in French and German, survive in Spanish. And I can still read Dutch a little. I think it’s important to be able to speak other languages. It protects your brain against ageing, for one thing, never mind the obvious benefits of being able to communicate with more people, and I love that moment when people’s faces light up when they realise you’re giving their language a go. Being forced to think in a different way by a language is a refreshing exercise for the old brain. But that English problem hangs over my head. Natural language acquisition is driven by exposure. As I said before, non-English speakers are exposed to English a lot − that is why English is “easy”. If I want similar exposure, I have to work at it.

And then pretend I can’t speak English.


I’m not a great muso; talking about music makes me uncomfortable. A hangover from my younger days when what you listened to defined who you were. I was having none of that faux-tribal identity crap, and learned very quickly to hate schoolyard, testosterone-fuelled bullshit about how one couldn’t possibly like both The Pet Shop Boys and Anthrax. So much so, in fact, I just gave up.

So I never really “got into” music. I don’t know much about it. The NME musical taxonomy pub debate makes me fantasise about gross acts of violence involving a cello. Of course I listen to the stuff, it’s impossible not to, but not as often as most folks. I can’t write and listen to music with lyrics, for example, so I prefer silence. Or tweeting birds. The wind in the trees. Whalesong. Whatever it is, as long as it doesn’t lead to another tedious discourse on who influenced who when with what Moog chords.

Once, asking me about music would earn you a response only slightly less aggressive than my rebuffs to football conversational gambits. For years I pretended not to care what people think, now I (almost) genuinely don’t. I even have an Atomic Kitten song in my iTunes library. I’ll admit that. That’s how little I care. So what? They were nice to look at. (more…)

I watched The Hobbit 2 again last night, along with Mrs Haley. I enjoyed it a lot more this time. The first half of the film is better than the second, but when we get to the shenanigans in Lake Town there is more padding than in a super plush Bombur soft toy and things go downhill.

I noticed a few things this time round. Here they are.

i) The archaic phrase “but for” as in “nobody gets out but for the leave of the king” crops up three times.

ii) In a possible leftover from an earlier draft of the screenplay, Smaug talks of the men of Lake Town and “their long bows and black arrows” – in the book, the black arrow is simply that. There’s no such thing as a “Dwarvish Wind Lance”.

iii) Orcs are getting bigger. In Tolkien’s books, Orcs are generally small, some as small as Hobbits, with “Man-sized” being an adjective for a particularly large specimen. Only the great Uruks and certain earlier breeds of Orc employed by Morgoth in the War of the Jewels are as big as or bigger than men. In the Hobbit films, the smallest are only slightly shorter than men. Bolg and Azog are much bigger, which is fair enough seeing as they are chiefs, but the Orcs of Dol Guldur are enormous.

As Emma says “That all got very silly. I give it a six out of ten.”

I grabbed the chance to watch The Desolation of Smaug on Monday night. This is something my demi-Swede would like to see also, but I figured I’d happily watch it again with her. After driving back from Yorkshire I was in need of some telly time, and had been very much looking forward to the movie.

Damn shame to say, I was disappointed. I’ve read several reviews that rate this the better of the two Hobbit films thus far, but I reckon not. There are plenty of story choices I could pick apart here (Thirty orcs invade a city that becomes conveniently deserted for the sake of a fight! Smaug immediately guesses the provenance of Bilbo’s ring! Middle-earth is as easily travelled as it needs to be! The story suddenly shifts to a quest for the Arkenstone! Smaug the Golden has to be actually coated in gold! Repetition of the virtues of Athelas because we need fan-service winks! etc). I don’t want to write up a long screed that sings out “But it was different from the book! That makes it rubbish!” It does not. Cinema is different to literature. And my objections are personal, therefore their legitimacy is at the mercy of your judgment. After all, my dislike stems from one thing: The film Jackson made is not the kind of film I expected The Hobbit to become.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was, on the whole, a meticulous and considered adaptation of the source material for the screen. Tolkien’s message, though much obscured, is still present. There’s an air of painstaking art about the books, and an air of painstaking art about their adaptations. The Hobbit adaptation feels altogether sloppier. Jackson appears to want two things: Firstly, to make an action movie, secondly, to provide a prequel to his Rings films. But The Hobbit, though blessed with action, would better suit an adventure movie not an action movie format, while the presaging of events of The Lord of The Rings − which I agree with in principle − proves clumsy.

As in Jackson’s King Kong remake, there is much to admire − in this case Smaug, the elves and Thranduil in particular were effective − but like the ape epic there’s altogether too much going on, too many ideas fighting for time, too many “wouldn’t it be so frickin’ cool!” sequences. There’s plenty in the book to make two good films, not three. Sadly, even in making three, Jackson eschews the opportunity the extra running time allows for character beats, filling up his minutes with bonus orc chases and people falling off things (like, come on! What is it with you man?). There is a fair bit of material in the second section of the book that didn’t make onto the screen at all, Bilbo’s role in particular is bizarrely sidelined. Odd, given that changes to the material in the first film appropriately gave his actions greater emphasis.

The biggest addition, Tauriel, I expected. Her almost-romance with Legolas I expected. And I was glad to see that actually, she worked rather well as a character. What I didn’t expect was the weirdly reciprocated infatuation Fili had with her, coming to fruition in his surprise sojourn in Laketown (what was that all about other than a way to give key dwarfs more to do?).

It’s a movie crammed with unlikely acts of superheroic acrobatics and clownish pratfalls, whose design − while awe-inspiring in parts − takes Middle-earth nearer to the whimsy of Hogwarts than the majesty of Arda. If I were to hazard a reason for all this filmic flimflammery, it’d be this: The Lord of The Rings series had effects that were groundbreaking. Their mere execution was enough to wow, leaving Jackon’s not inconsiderable talents free to work on other aspects of storytelling. Now such magic is commonplace, Jackson as a showman seeks to bedazzle us with added… Well, added things falling off other things, mainly. Or maybe he simply has the opportunity to do MORE COOL SHIT. Either way, all good ringmasters know three elephants are better than one. A perhaps apt analogy, because, let’s put it like this, this film is Legolas surfing the Mumak over and over again.

It probably needs a second viewing, this initial opinion may mellow, but I’m not so sure that I do want to watch The Desolation of Smaug again. (Sorry Emma).

As a last minor irritation, The Desolation of Smaug really quite unexpectedly

Moving back to Yorkshire

Posted: April 15, 2014 in Random wifflings

I’ve been away for a few days in the land of my fathers (well, the ones that weren’t German or Lancastrian or southerners), where I’ll soon be decamping to permanently. That’s why no posts. There are many long periods when I do not post, but usually it’s down to work. This time it’s owing to ARGH! no! Stressssss. House move. Normal erratic service will resume sometime in May, I expect.

We’re moving back to Yorkshire from Somerset, to my home town, to be exact. More on that later, but the pertinent fact here is that my wife has gone to start her new job leaving me literally holding the baby. As I was on my own last night, and will be for some weeks, I thought I’d catch up on the last year or so’s SF, beginning with a film my wife wouldn’t want to watch. I rented Pacific Rim off Amazon streaming (I rarely get to the cinema). Oh my. She wouldn’t want to, and I wish I hadn’t. Here are some bullet points.

  • Obviously when combatting a transdimensional alien foe that is virtually impervious to all the tricks of 21st century weapons technology − from high energy lasers to bombs that can penetrate hundreds of feet of solid rock no less − the best thing to do is to build fragile, easily over-balanced giant robots so you can punch the monsters in the face. PUNCH THEM IN THE FACE! Win.
  • As around 50% of all combat with these giant sea monsters takes place in the sea, best not make the robots at all hydrodynamic. Far better to wade laboriously through water while the baddies swim rings around you.
  • Don’t use a nuclear weapon, even though these are shown to be completely effective.
  • Who needs remote piloting tech, when you can put your one-in-a-million pilots into an easily wrenchable head, rather than say, at the back in the middle behind forty feet of armour, or in a bunker a thousand miles away.
  • When piloting said robot, it makes perfect sense to go for mechanical pugilism, saving your most effective weapon, a giant sword, for when it is most dramatically appropriate rather than when it might actually save your life.
  • If the aliens start to win, the best strategic option is to abandon the one project that was working in favour of one that patently won’t.
  • Someone, surely, would have worked out the simple key to the aliens’ dimensional vortex years ago.
  • Equally, aliens bright enough to construct such a vortex might notice when a) the creature coming back through is dead, and b) it is accompanied by a six-hundred-foot-tall walking bomb.
  • As my brother Aidan says, “Any film that has to rely on a voiceover is already in trouble.”
  • The abuse of dinosaur science for a weak plot point. (Not the two brains, the other one).

Do I sound like an old fart? Probably. I know a lot of my geek chums loved this diabolical travesty of storytelling. I’m sticking to my guns. I love giant robots, I love big monsters. I like watching them beat each other up. I like Idris Elba, with his soulful big eyes, enormous charisma, and ability to simultaneously project deep intelligence and the potential for explosive violence. But I also like say, character, suspense, logic and some goddamn respect from my movies. The whole thing is carried along by a bread-and-circuses attitude of “they’ll dig the monsters and robots, so it doesn’t have to have all those other things that traditionally go into constructing an effective narrative.” The pulp nonsenses I enjoyed in the early 1990s had more integrity. We’ve seen this done before, far better, in anime. Even suitmation Godzilla films make more sense, and I’m no fan of those. There are two false starts, a completely soulless romance, cliches, and… and… GRAH!

I mean, I thought Transformers plumbed new robo-depths. But then, I’m not twelve any more.