Saturday, April 25, 2015

Welcome to Leith

Leith is a small town in North Dakota where land is cheap, dwellings are modest at best and residents have never heard of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Until the arrival of the repugnant white supremacist Craig Cobb who starts buying lots and rundown buildings with the intention of building an enclave of like-minded people there. Since the town's population is only 24 (including children), it won't take many new arrivals to take over the town's government. Soon a new family joins Cobb, swastika pennants are flying, town council meetings feature nasty confrontations and armed supremacists start patrolling the roads.

The townspeople clearly don't want the new arrivals, and feel deeply threatened by their presence and behaviour. They retaliate by passing an ordinance requiring all dwellings to have running water and safe sewage and indulge in a bit of friendly tire-slashing and harassment. Cobb and his pal are arrested on charges of terrorizing the town and escape long jail terms with a plea bargain.

Meanwhile, the sheriff and townspeople visit Cobbs' house with the health department's condemnation and tear it down and burn it to the ground. Ironically, as despicable as these new arrivals were, this final scene of destruction made me think of Kristallnacht.

The movie was made possible by over $60,000 raised on Kickstarter. A disquieting movie worth taking in.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hot Docs 2015

Hot Docs is officially underway. The largest documentary film festival in North America, Hot Docs has been a growing success since its launch in 1992. It's a busy ten days for documentary aficionados.

Around the World in 50 Concerts

This lovely film about Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra features simply gorgeous music, interviews with members of the orchestra and a look at the logistics, including thermal packaging, of transporting all those instruments.

What makes the movie so special - besides that gorgeous music - are the stories of audience members with a passion for music. There's the Argentinian taxi driver who can't wait to get behind the wheel where he can listen to classical music in peace. The music of Mahler brings back memories and a tear to the eye of a melancholic Russian, who survived both Hitler and Stalin. Music is the sole redeeming feature in the hard life of two poor South African girls, who play in an exuberant marimba band.

Try to see this movie!

Pleasure at Her Majesty's

This film follows the preparations, and some glimpses of the final performance in a 1976 Amnesty International benefit concert organized by John Cleese. The first part of the film showing the preparations was muddled and the sound quality made it hard to understand multiple voices speaking at once. There was some payoff in the second part with routines from the final performance, including the famous dead parrot skit. But the content of this film was not enough to make up for low video resolution and poor sound quality.

Give this one a miss.

Rolling Papers

It's 2014 and Colorado has just legalized marijuana for recreational use. The Denver Post, like all newspapers in the 21st century, is struggling to stay alive. Maybe a marijuana web site can make the newspaper relevant.

I learned quite a few interesting facts about marijuana legalization, both in Colorado and Uruguay, about the need for regulation, and how marijuana reviewers can sound like wine reviewers in their rapturous descriptions of varieties of weed. And I enjoyed the wonderful pictures of different species in dazzling close-ups. But the movie didn't have a single driving theme that pulled it all together and left me pretty lukewarm, despite the delightful pun in its title. I'm sure there will be better movies than this for your schedule.

Dear Araucaria (double feature with Rolling Papers)

Some people get an obituary in a newspaper. The Guardian made this short film as a eulogy to its long-time crossword puzzle setter. When John Graham, known as Araucaria, developed terminal esophageal cancer, he broke the cardinal rule - no diseases as answers - and included words about his disease and palliative care in the answers.  Soon informed, dedicated puzzle solvers flooded him with good wishes. This is a nice short film.

Monday, April 20, 2015

What's in a word? Thugocracy

The Economist has again proved its deftness with the English language.

In an article about South-East Asia, the article stated that ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asia Nations) had only four stable countries. Two were described as dictatorships (Laos and Vietnam). One was an Islamic Sultanate - Brunei. The last one, Cambodia, was described as a thugocracy. What a wonderful word!

Other Posts on Words:

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Busting Myths about Creativity

In 1815, a German music journal published Mozart's description of his composing process: basically, when he was quiet and in a good mood, the music came to him complete so that the only thing left was to write it down. The letter was a contributor to the myth of human creativity - a brilliant flash of insight that strikes a bona fide genius.

The trouble is, the letter is fake. Original Mozart manuscripts show many false starts and crossings out - in fact his composition process was iterative. But this myth, and Archimedes' Eureka moment and countless others, are still cited, and they have supported the notion that creativity arises when a sudden flash of insight strikes an extraordinary genius.

Kevin Ashton is the author of How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery where he debunks such myths about creativity. In a recent talk at Rotman, he argues that creation arises through a series of trials and errors, and we get to a solution through a long process of incremental steps, alternately refining the problem and the solution until a 'final' solution is reached, or at least until another problem emerges. In fact the word creativity wasn't even coined until 1926 by Alfred Whitehead. But recently, creativity has become a hot topic, as shown in this Google ngram:
(I describe Google ngrams in a previous post. Essentially, it's a measure of how often a particular word is mentioned in books.)

In Ashton's fascinating talk at the Rotman School of Management, he put humans' art of invention in a grand historic context, starting with the first human technology: the invention of the hand axe one and a half million years ago. We usually think of such inventions as the result of our increasing brain size. Humans' brain evolved to be larger as the amount of space in the skull devoted to jaws and teeth diminished. Without the hand axe, humans would have starved without those huge jaws and teeth. Ashton argues that we should think of the increasing brain being the result of our technology, which allowed us to survive with bigger brains and smaller jaws. Interesting twist.

I'm looking forward to reading Ashton's book, which I'm told is full of fascinating stories illustrating his thesis about creativity.