Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Les Misérables

Yesterday my wife and I went to watch the new cinematic version of Les Misérables, which we have previously enjoyed on stage. We enjoyed it thoroughly and, as always, I was moved to tears at various points. Of course a number of changes were evident, upon which I wish to expound.
The use of close up, single filming added something to the conveyance of emotion from the actors, while the great scope of cinema for outdoor scenes increased the sense of scale from the stage production. It must be said that, although as much a musical production as ever, the emphasis was clearly more on acting than singing. This works for the screen, I think, but it does lose a certain something.

Jean Valjean - Ably portrayed, though the focus on acting above singing was I think more in evidence here than all but one other characters. The protagonist was introduced in a setting unfamiliar to those attending the stage production, but one which worked well with the opening piece and also offered an elegant hook to demonstrate Valjean’s strength.

The man’s various moments of conflict and turmoil were not only retained but, in some ways, enhanced in this medium. Hugh Jackman’s subtle portrayal of emotion in his face complimented its declaration in song in a manner that entirely assuaged the concerns that I had had going in.

Javert - Russel Crowe’s performance, in my opinion, would have been equally welcome on stage as on screen. His voice and bearing are strong enough to carry the character in any setting. It must also be noted that that character seems to have undergone a slight softening for the purpose of one scene.

Following the death of Gavroche and the defeat of the rebels, Javert finds the small boy’s body among the dead. Removing a medal from his own uniform and awarding this now-posthumous accolade to the boy illustrates part of the turmoil of turning opinion for the character. His absolute certainty seems to falter and give way to sympathy and, perhaps, respect for those he has long abhorred.

Fantine - Cinema seems to have really helped here. Changes in her circumstances which are hard to clearly portray in rapid succession on stage are illustrated clearly on screen as Fantine falls entirely from grace. Her fate as a prostitute is
more clear here. Anne Hathaway was superb.

Thénardier - Perhaps more than any other character, Thénardier illustrates the difference between stage and screen. Sacha Baron Cohen is undeniably a character actor, although he demonstrates an ability to carry a song as well. I can’t fault the choice for this role as Thénardier functions as comic relief (a necessary element in such a heartbreaking show), yet there was a certain incongruity. Alone of all actors in the film, Cohen effects an accent. It’s not a bad thing, it has comic value appropriate to the character, but it did jar at first. That said, the character’s villainy in later scenes is clear.

What seemed to me on stage the ultimate victory of the Thénardiers is mollified as they are ejected from, I infer, the wedding reception of Cosette and Marius.

Madame Thénardier - It’s been a point of some controversy, I am aware, that in the stage production Madame Thénardier seems contemptuous of her husband at a time when, in the original book, she adores him unquestioningly. In the cinematic version there is a greater sense that her mockery of her husband is in fun and used to mask their cooperation in swindling their patrons. As for Helena Bonham Carter, I consider her performance to be perfect.

Éponine - What can one say? Her character endures tragedy in poetic beauty. A true friend to Marius and a heroine in many ways. Her story is a rock to which other elements of the story can be anchored. Her portrayal by Samantha Barks, who also plays the character on stage, adds to that solidity and lends extra credibility to the film as a whole.

Young Éponine is seen far more than on stage. It appears that her father is keen to pass on his nefarious skills to his daughter. However, as we expect from the stage, she is a better woman.

Gavroche - A startlingly good choice in Daniel Huttlestone who carries the role with the strength one would expect of one far his senior. I was somewhat disappointed at the reduction of his part, having had at least one song cut short. However, the scene of the death of Gavroche could not, I believe, have been better executed. The later poignant presence of his body and Javert’s interaction therewith was superb.

Cosette - Another rock of musical narrative. Amanda Seyfried shows the young woman to suspect things beyond what Valjean had wanted her to know of him, and to truly love him as a father. Young Cosette remains a heartbreaking ghost of a child, with her haunting song of dreams.

Marius - I don’t have much to say. Eddie Redmayne played the boy well, but I’ve always felt that he’s more of a plot device than anything else.

Enjolras - I found him a more sympathetic character on screen than on stage. I had previously had the impression of him as an arrogant young man who placed his ideals above all else. Here, however, he appears a more thoughtful and sincere leader of the revolution whose actions speak as well as his words. Kudos to Aaron Tveit.

Of the film’s finale I must say that, although certainly grand in scale and spectacle, I felt that it spoke less directly to the audience than its stage counterpart. Still, it at once broke and warmed the heart.

All in all I am very pleased to have seen the screen adaptation of Les Misérables with every area of production, direction and the myriad other elements executed superbly. I would gladly return to it, just as I would to the production on the London stage.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Death of a Pioneer

Neil Armstrong has died. I find this immensely sad, in that the man who took that great symbolic step onto the moon is no longer with us. What's more, he has died in a time when that feat is unequalled in current achievement and unsurpassed in human exploration.

Had someone, anyone, set foot on any third planetary body (considering Earth as the first and the Moon as the second) before his passing, it may not be quite so depressing an event in the sphere of human achievement. This having not been done, his death is a step in the extinction of humanity as a space-faring race and, ultimately, in our extinction overall.

If we as a species do not now seek to recapture that achievement and surpass it, then we leave ourselves vulnerable and bereft. We will see the Apollo astronauts and others die in their turn and, with them, witness the passing of a generation of humanity that tried to move beyond its cradle.

I do not wish to diminish the achievements of the astronauts of today, or the engineers and scientists who strive still. Great things are accomplished daily in the operation of the International Space Station and our robotic probes ─ Curiosity on Mars and Voyagers 1 and 2 nearing the edge of interstellar space ─ but humanity stays confined to its cradle. Even the ISS occupies low Earth orbit, enjoying the protection of our planet's magnetosphere. Today's accomplishments, though astounding feats of science and engineering, are cautious and hesitant.

Neil Armstrong, along with his fellows in the Apollo programme, embodied the ancient spirit of exploration. In centuries past brave men set sail across oceans whose expanse they could scarcely realise in the hope of reaching new and wonderful places. Often they were thought foolhardy, or mad, for their endeavours. Some believed the same of the Apollo programme. Today some see the human exploration of space as a waste, needless expense and unreasonable risk ─ foolhardy and mad.

The pioneers of centuries past were but the first of many and though the results of their exploration were often sullied with conquest we must recognise the optimism, bravery and accomplishment that was theirs. Neil Armstrong was one of the first, and the greatest symbolic hero, of generations whose achievements would be far greater in stature and free from the quagmire of conquest and oppression of others; there will be no natives to conquer on the Moon, Mars or other planetary bodies in the Solar system. Alas, he has not lived to see others carry the torch to new worlds.

May he rest in peace. May we not rest on his laurels.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

I'm writing a children's story

I recently learned that a friend of mine has begun writing a story to read to the child that he and his partner are expecting. I found the idea wonderful, and have taken inspiration from his example.

My fiancée and I will marry this year and are planning to start a family, so I've started writing a story too. It's quite literally a faery tale, in the contemporary setting of a family home.

At this point I am 18 manuscript pages in, which is more than I've ever written in a story before. I usually write very short stories, some of which I've released as ebooks which are now somewhere in the wild. This was before the Kindle got going, when ebook self-publishing was a bit more hit and miss. But the point is that in this instance, at 18 pages, I'm still very much at the beginning of my story.

You may well have picked up on my use of the term "manuscript pages". Like many people I have long dreamt of publishing a book in the traditional manner and, with my determination to complete this story and others that would form a series, can not help but hope to publish my current project. It's by no means vital as it is, first and foremost, a story for my own children but it would be nice to be able to realise the dream.

At the same time I wonder if its right. Should one seek to publish a story written for one's own children? It's been done before, but that doesn't make it right. I will continue to mull that matter.

Another goal of mine is to share the story with friends of ours who have children. I want to share the story once I've finished my first draft, to get feedback from my friends as I value their opinions very highly. Obviously there is an element of free editing in that process, but I would do no less for my friends. Besides, published or not, if my friends like what I write I would gladly share it with them.

Is that big headed? Or selfish? I hope not.

Besides, I am not a great optimist. I do not really believe that I would be particularly likely to win over a publisher. Nor am I comfortable the expense of literary agents, professional manuscript review or other services sought in so speculative a manner.

So, either I could self publish, through vanity publishers like Lulu or by releasing an ebook, or I could simply keep the story for myself and give copies to friends if they were interested. The first option would go some way to satisfying my dream of publication, but the latter options may be of greater integrity.

But the thing that's most pleasing is how little all of that matters, despite the time that I clearly spend considering it. Because what really matters is that I create a story for my children, and for their children. A story of friendship and family with adventure and action and a basis in comfort and safety. I think I'm doing quite well, I hope my future children agree.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Dealing with the Mobile Webspace

Where to begin? There are W3C standards, there are User Agent vendor woes and there are the conflicting interests of various content creators. These three things contribute greatly to a subject which, just lately, has become irksome to me.

Web Design and Mobile Devices.

The Problem

I believe that it's an important area, one that should have the attention of every web designer whose work is not limited to office intranets and other dens of iniquity. It is a widely accepted fact that content is increasingly consumed through mobile devices, some have even questioned the long-term prospects of desktop computers for casual users. This makes it all the more frustrating that designing for the Mobile space is such a patchwork.

I always work to published standards (or reasonably stable drafts), as I believe all designers and developers should. I miss the xhtml2 project, but I do like HTML5. CSS3 is a dream come true, or at least it should be.

Since CSS2.1 the standard has included 'media queries' that should allow a designer to specify certain sets of rules depending on the display media in use. Considering what a boon this could be, I wonder why it does not find better support in the mobile space!

In point of fact, I have come across an excuse or two. The one that seems to really explain the behaviour that I have seen is the problem of poor implementation by designers: It seems that up until now many of the few designers who bothered with handheld styling at all were so lackadaisical that the results convinced mobile browser developers that the handheld rules were best ignored. I dread to think how badly they must have been written.

Many mobile browsers, notably Opera Mobile, now render non-handheld styles by default. So ingrained is this behaviour that the browser engine actively chooses '@media screen' as distinct from '@media handheld'. I have read that the reason for this is to provide users with a better browsing experience based on the more supported screen styling.

It probably works for some websites, even on a mobile phone. On a tablet it's likely no problem at all. But, for a layout that tries to be artistic, that spreads itself against the available screen width (note: It's important to make sure that a layout will resize to suit the widest possible range of displays.) it can be simply silly! Especially with a page designed for a landscape aspect ratio and accessed in portrait.

So it becomes necessary to replace certain rules. A browser that's ignoring handheld styles robs us of the obvious, most standards-compliant route. There is a pretty good solution though, so long as we have support for other media queries allowing the use of different rules depending on screen width and other features.

We can then use those media queries to activate certain features for large screens and others for small screens, but we shouldn't have to. It is especially troublesome because various mobile service providers supply their own browsers on smartphones, leaving open the possibility that theirs might not support either handheld styles or media queries.

What's more, the disuse of handheld stylesheets encourages developers and designers not to use them, increasing the momentum of this particular downward spiral. The mobile web space moves further from the ascribed standards; standards that many have worked so hard to improve and spread.

Some situations call for targeted styles vastly different from each other. Treated badly this could lead to unwieldy use of dimensional media queries, but there are solutions.

The Solution

A relatively easy solution is to import different stylesheets, in whole, depending on the media queries. It's standards compliant and avoids bloating the served files, but unfortunately there are UAs out there that do not select media queries and may ignore any import directive served with one. A default file can be served, but it rather negates the benefit of the technique.

We can handle the issue on the server side, attempting to determine the user agent based on the HTTP header. It's a nice approach in theory, where PHP or similar technologies serves only appropriate content. Unfortunately it isn't reliable, as the user agent string can be readily altered.

The best thing to do, then, is combine techniques. Write forgiving style sheets, use media queries for both device and dimension based differentiation and employ user agent detection on the server. It's a patchwork solution to a patchwork problem.

A lot of people won't bother, but I (and hopefully others) think that it's important to properly employ web standards. These methods allow us to target mobile devices; if the practice spreads it will be noticed by UA vendors and they will move back to standards based handheld style implementation. After all, if handhelds are the future of the internet, then the internet needs to be designed for them.

The Future

Why is it so important to support standards like this? Because we're going to need a solid foundation to build the internet of the future upon.

e-Readers are feasible, increasingly popular devices now. Some of these have, as will more in the future, network connectivity. Knowing this, people will want to use their e-Readers to access the internet. But how should that be handled? Should they follow the current trend and default to screen rendering, or should they use handheld or print styles?

They are handheld devices.
They share the portrait aspect ratio with mobile phones.
e-Readers (esp. with e-Ink) don't handle multimedia well.

e-Readers tend to have pretty good resolution.
Again, printed v. rich media issue.
e-Readers have relatively small screens.
e-Readers are usually in portrait aspect.

e-Readers are designed to simulate printed media.
Print styles are designed for clear reading, like a book or newspaper.
Print styles aren't likely to include multimedia content.
Traditional print media wouldn't support hyperlinks, whereas e-Readers could.

I'm sure there are other pros and cons for all three of those media types, but I think my point is served; it's going to be a contentious and confusing issue when it gets attention. Some will see it as a new way to serve literature or news, others as another e-commerce vector, countless other opinions will abound. What matters is what becomes most commonplace, which may be a new media type and a matching set of style trends.

In order that that most commonplace approach may be smoothly identified and implemented it must be supported in standards. Only a standards based web, in both the desktop and mobile space, can give us the groundwork for that.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Steampunk: my Philosophy

Today I happened upon a post to The Steampunk Workshop, written in August, talking about Steampunk Philosophy. Copied (and lightly edited) below is the (long winded) comment that I posted there.

My post

I've found that different people have very different specific reasons for appreciating Steampunk, but there are certain things that I find quite widespread. I'm going to focus on the relationship between Steampunk and industrialism.

As we can all agree. the genre takes a great deal of inspiration from the nineteenth century in the forms of literature, technology, fashion and other elements. We often talk about taking the technology of the time to its extremes, but in some ways that is exactly what we don't do. It is real history that did that, if one considers that modern electrical power stations run on steam and that today's factories are directly descended from the steam-driven mills of those supposedly halcyon days.

The truth is that the Victorian world (perhaps particularly England and her empire) was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, which I consider to have reached its height in the nineteenth century (feel free to correct me). The revolution came with billowing smokestacks and pulsating steam cylinders, fine clockwork and precise machining, great dreams and hopes for the future of mankind! Oh yes, these are the things we choose to remember in our genre, the best of the industrial revolution.

But ours is an era of contradiction, as this genre reflects. In the modern world we are subject to, benefactors and victims of, an industrial commercial complex that straddles the globe. People today know luxury and opportunity beyond the dreams of our ancestors, carried onward by matching technology. Still, there is much discontent. We are disenfranchised, the individual a small piece of a larger machine. Few of us are able to fully explore the opportunities that the world claims to offer, we live in the shadow of commercial industry, fed by it even as we are imprisoned.

This too links to the Industrial Revolution. Before those advances in technology, production was achieved largely by means of cottage industry. In that era, individual craftsmanship was the norm. Resources and products were scarce and expensive, without the mass production of later times, and life was hard; yet, in that dog-eat-dog world, every person had the chance for individual accomplishment. Well, more or less.

Steampunk, it seems to me, reaches back into the heart of the Industrial Revolution and tries to undo the damage that was done; we embrace the power of technology and its potential to fulfill our dreams, but we recoil at mass production and the ruination of the craftsman. It is more than an aesthetic, more than literature, it is a deep-seated urge to restore the finest of craftsmanship. This is no easy task, but is served well by the Maker culture and is, it seems to me, becoming more widespread beyond either of these subcultures.

I am well acquainted with the presence of those whose interest is purely out of fashion; there is no wrong in that, such people provide an outlet for the creatives. Similarly, there are those whose interest lies solely in Steampunk literature and art, which may speak to them of who knows what. Still, for those of us who find hope in philosophies like (or unlike) that which I have outlined or those which others have, there is the whole.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Remembrance day

Now is the time that we are encouraged to remember and honour those who have fought and suffered for our freedoms, or for the follies of our government. It is a valuable time for civilisation; a moment to stop and think so that we may never forget, so that we may hope to learn.

But if we only remember them now, when we are prompted to do so, then we do them a disservice. A lesson given, heard or recited once a year is a lesson not taken to heart.

Since time immemorial people have fought for us, for others, for their kin and most of all for their comrades. The fallen, the injured and the survivors are held up as heroes and so they are, for their will to sacrifice their all for the good of others.

Those left behind to tend the hearths of the nation, to keep society warm, we also must so herald. In the darkness left by the absence of their loved ones, countless millions have fought the odds to ensure that their heroes had a home to which they might return.

Those who refused to fight, out of a sense of honour or respect for life, or for any reason philosophical, often also have performed acts heroic. To stand against the pressure of those who would call them cowards, and the many who served to save and comfort those who fought, they too are heroes.

All of these men and women, their mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, each and every person who has ever had to face any of the multitude of war's horrors, should be remembered and honoured not only now, but at all times. We must never forget their service, their sacrifice or their suffering.

Whenever we goad to conflict, small a great, when anyone shows intolerance for the philosophies and rights of others, it is a slap in the face of someone who has faced horror with honour. When the leaders of nations allow their squabbles to escalate unchecked, they dishonour those who have suffered at the call of those who went before.

Remember the dead and remember the living, but most of all remember the lesson. The world has called enough heroes.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

In which I Go

I think I mentioned that I've decided to teach myself Go, Google's new programming language. I've been doing just that, reading tutorials, style guides, tips and package documentation. It's good stuff, I'm very impressed by the design of this language.

I particularly like its clear support for concurrency, as well as the typing system. I feel that I'm learning fast, although interactions on the golang-nuts mailing list help me see that there are still some concepts that I need to learn or brush up on. I think this comes of spending the last few years coding mostly in PHP.

Now the thing about Go is that it lends itself naturally to use on servers, having some nice libraries for common server operations. That being the case I foresee using it in that context, so I set out in search of a database library.

That's one area where the core libraries seem oddly lacking so far, although that may change. However, a Go community member has developed a package called GoMySQL, which I believe will suit me quite well. I've forked the project on GitHub so that I can make any changes I need as they come up, as well as additions.

I'm an Object Oriented programmer, by education. I studied C++ mainly where I became fond of creating classes to represent concepts in my code. Go doesn't have classes, but it is object oriented. It's a departure and an interesting one, in which structs are used where we need data types, but where we need types that offer a clearly defined interface that is exactly what we write, an interface.

It serves to separate the two aspects of a class, its members and methods. Both exist in Go, but they're not so tightly bound. The same methods may apply to structs with different sets of members. A single struct type, with a single set of members, may implement multiple interfaces' methods.

In practical terms this frees design from the tyranny of type hierarchy. A type may be defined that is equally a Reader and a Writer, these being predefined interfaces. It's not a Writer derived from a Reader, or vice versa. It doesn't have both Reader and Writer as parent types. No, it simply is both, as much one as it is the other. It's smooth.

There's a lot more to it, with slices and channels and goroutines. It's all pretty cool stuff, but those are the bits that I felt like mentioning. There may be more as I continue to learn.

I have to say, as well, that I think I probably will work on that game I mentioned. It'll be slow, occasional effort, but Go looks well suited to the server portion of the system, so that's something I intend to do.