Friday, October 1, 2010

Family Movies: Legend of the Guardians

After a late summer drought of family-friendly movies we're in the back-to-school season again with a few new releases. With Harry Potter nearing the end of his tenure (by the way, the trailer for The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is pretty awesome) studios and viewers alike are searching for that next big epic.

Enter Legends of the Guardians, based on the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series of books by Kathryn Lasky. It follows the adventures of Soren, a young barn owl, in his quest to join the legendary Guardian owls that are supposed to watch over the land, etc, etc.

It's always tricky to make a decent movie with talking animals, especially considering the painful CGI and live-action hybrids like Cats and Dogs or any of the comic-strip-based disasters that have been inflicted on the public in the last several years. Thankfully, Guardians avoids some of the worse cognitive dissonance by not having any human characters, or indeed signs of mankind at all.

The movie gets right down to the Epic Fantasy business, with the protagonist, Soren, being torn from his cozy family life and ending up (literally) in the clutches of some nasty, nasty Nazi-ish birds who think their particular breed (Barn Owls, like Soren and his brother) should be ruling the land (which is apparently Mythical Tasmania, based on some of the critters that show up). Daring escapes and a drastically compressed epic journey, complete with the requisite companions, ensue, and we move on to all the typical Hero's Journey stuff. The plot is pretty typical of the genre, and is no better or worse than anything else of the sort.

The movie has it's flaws, including some issues with pacing (the usual problem of trying to compress an Epic Storyline into a marketable movie applies, some parts seem far too rushed and superficial, while some seemingly unimportant bits seem to drag on a bit) and occasionally cliched Fantasy Adventure dialogue, but makes up for them with some outright stunning visuals. The flight scenes don't quite achieve the sense of motion and scale of How To Train Your Dragon, but they have some beautiful sequences. You get the feeling the animators worked very hard to on rain and feathers. The use of color and lighting is also exceptionally well done. The battle scenes were dramatic and conveyed some of the brutality of the fighting without the blood and gore.

The tone of the movie was a bit dark, with betrayals abounding and some creepy bad guys, but is probably fine for kids over, say, 7 or so. It also did a pretty admirable job of not getting too caught up on the comic relief. There were a few corny moments and several of Soren's companions have their humorous side, but the film stops short of letting it get annoying, and they all get a chance to show some heroism as well.

Overall, Guardians was well done, if not exceptional, and a good choice for a rainy day. I can only hope that if the studio decides to make any sequels they'll leave a bit more room for plot development.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Another Battle Won: Making Bicycles Fashionable

Many years ago, when middle-to-upper-class women in the US weren't expected to vote, get an education or do much of anything outside the home the advent of the affordable Safety Bicycle (the modern design which places the rider between two equal-sized wheels rather than above one large one)was seen as a great liberator. It gave women a chance to come and go on their own terms and wear (somewhat) more practical clothes. Susan B. Anthony, the de facto patron saint of Gender Equality, supposedly called the "Freedom Machinces."

Nowadays the uproar over a woman's right to wear pants is long behind us, and the roads are ruled by the infernal combustion engine, but a growing percentage of Americans are turning to the bicycle for day-to-day transportation again. Part of the opposition in professional circles, of course, has been the fact that bicycling tends to be associated with sweat, ruffled hair and practical, not fashionable, clothing.

But, according to this article that's starting to change a bit, as more celebrities, designers and trendsetters are taking to two wheels. This is a trend in the right direction, particularly as American bicycle manufacturers are starting to realize that not everyone who buys a bike wants to pretend they're going to race it some day. Bicycles designed for commuting and pleasure riding are becoming easier to get again, and providing the chance to swap street clothes for the skin-tight lycra.

While this movement is still pretty small, it's a step in the right direction. And, unlike certain economic tactics, the benefits of bicycle advocacy by middle-and-upper class commuters actually does trickle down to the poorer folks who have long relied on pedal-power to get to work. Better traffic management, better awareness and more bicycle-friendly environments benefit everyone, and cost far less in infrastructure than places designed for automobiles do.

Now, if we could just find a way to make it fashionable to wear a helmet...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hey, did you know it's Banned Books Week?

With all the furor over whether or not to burn a Qu'ran lately, it's easy to forget all those other books that people might have a problem with. But here we are, right in the middle of Banned Books Week.
That's right, people are still trying to get certain books pulled from libraries, schools and even bookstore shelves. There are many reasons, often because of profanity, sexual references or the fact that some books fail to portray homosexuals as degraded monsters doomed to eternal torment in the hottest fires of hell.
Or sometimes there are vague labels such as "anti-family" or simply "inappropriate" which could mean ANYTHING.

And yes, there may be things out there you don't want your kid to be reading. I'm a parent, I understand that (although, speaking as a parent, getting my kid to read at all sometimes takes a minor miracle), but do you want to be the ultimate authority on what you child is or isn't allowed to read, or is that for some outside agency to decide? Personally, I try to have a bit of control over our bookshelf.

I'm also worried about the concept of "dangerous ideas." Why yes, ideas can be upsetting, moving, challenging and, in a way, "dangerous," but to isolate young readers from ideas doesn't make the ideas less potent, it makes the reader less able to think clearly about them. While there should be a progression of sorts, a blanket ban on certain concepts is a clumsy way to handle it.

As Chesterton said, "Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas."

Go read some Mark Twain stories with your child (Huckleberry Finn, "racially sensitive language") or buy them the Harry Potter series (references to witchcraft) or sit down with To Kill a Mockingbird (language, uncomfortable racial interactions).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the list of books that have been challenged or banned outright is also a list of some of the most interesting reading going on. It also lines up pretty well with the list of our greatest literature.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The E-Reader's Dillemma

I'm currently sitting in a nameless Big cORporate bood DEaleR'S cafe, sipping my coffee-flavored-coffee, and two thoughts just struck me.

First, my laptop screen is REALLY dirty, you don't realize how much dust these things pick up until you take them out of your man-cave and into the sunlight. Wow.

Second, I haven't actually bought a book here in a while. I'm a pretty voracious reader, and still splurge on the occasional hardcover from my favorite authors, although I usually get bargain books, used books and paperbacks. Lately however, I've been reading primarily on my Kindle, in particular a lot of classics from Chesterton, Dickens, Wells and others that I've picked up for free from Project Gutenberg and other web sites.

Now, I don't feel too bad for this particular book retailer. They'll be OK for now, and have hopped on the eReader bandwagon (must we use this initial-lowercase format for everything electronic? That's the last time I'm going to write it that way, I think a hyphen might be dignified, as in e-reader), but I started thinking about how this would effect smaller booksellers.

Now, I don't actually HAVE a local bookstore anymore, the nearest one that springs to mind is about 30 miles away (hi Rob!) and, although it's an excellent shop, it's a bit far for impulse shopping.

E-readers have a lot going for them in terms of portability, easy access, the ability to find and read free out-of-copyright classics, and the ability to find new authors and the ease of carrying multiple books. What they lack is the human touch of shopping with a knowledgeable bookseller and the chance to support local business. (For the most part, what you DON'T miss is the supposed tactile experience of reading a book. I've found from my experience, and from talking to others, that when you're reading, you're reading the STORY not the PAPER).

But how does the local bookshop, already struggling in the shadow of Big Lit, survive in the world of portable gadgetry, let alone during the Great Recession?

Of course, the best of the small bookstores already all have one thing in common. They're not really book stores. Oh yes, they sell books, but more than that they sell the Reading Experience. They have authors in to talk and sign autographs, they have story hours, book clubs and discussions, they give you paper cups of wine when you show up, all that. They become the center of a community of readers.

How to apply that to the e-reader experience? After all, most of the folks who buy Kindles and Nooks love to read, if they simply loved gadgets for their own sake, they'd have an iPad.

Well, there's the hardware business, for one, e-readers are expensive, but unfortunately they're mostly too proprietary to let the local shops carry them, but that could change. But people who carry e-readers also like to have nice little cases to protect their investment, and book lights, and all the swag you can clip onto the darn things. That might be a possibility.

I've also mentioned that when I really like an author, or think the book is worth hanging on to, I'll lay out the cash for the hardcover edition. I'll keep it on my shelf and re-read it from time to time. Now, I wouldn't say booksellers should focus exclusively on new-release hardcovers, but they definitely have a certain cachet even among e-reader users.

How about this? I tend to listen to my music digitally, but often what I'll do is buy the CD, then rip it to my computer to listen to on the go. Then I always know I have the CD on my shelf to go back to later. What if booksellers had "premium" books, that included a free digital download of the text in the purchase price. The nicely bound hard copy could sit on your coffee table or bookshelf, and the weightless digital copy could travel with your gadget. To take it one step further, what if there was a better way to notate page numbers on digital copies, so you could read at home in your book-book, and then find your place in the e-book on your lunch break?

I'm not really sure what the best way to go with all this is, but I don't think the increasing popularity of e-reading must or should spell the end of the local book shop. In my perfect world, there'd be a way it could actually be GOOD for them.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Can we fix it? Yes we can.

Let me apologize in advance if this rambles a bit, it's Monday morning, after all.

Two items struck me this week, first off this article on building passive homes
in the New York Times (homes that use super-efficient insulation, sunlight and convection for low- or no-energy climate control) and the fact that the Maker Faire happened in NYC this past weekend (wish I could've afforded to go!).
Put these two items together in my mind and the thought process runs a bit like this:

-It's possible to build comfortable homes that use little or no outside energy
-There's a whole bunch of smart people dedicated to building and modding stuff themselves
-It's difficult and expensive to get materials to build passive homes in the US
-There's a whole community of people who like to build stuff for themselves
-It's possible to build low-or-no-power homes
-Why aren't there pre-fab/kit/whatever passive power homes all over the place?

The answer is that, of course, there are passive homes all over the place, just not usually in "modernized" areas. Brick, stone, earth and straw-insulated houses can be amazingly energy efficient, and homes built in caves or partially underground keep stable temperatures in a lot of conditions (and earn bonus points if they have round doors and a gardener named Sam).

But modern, high tech passive homes that meet urban building standards are almost unheard of in the US. Why?
Well, for one thing, the morass of zoning and codes required to build anything more complicated than a flower bed in most areas makes it hard to legally building anything novel, and two, because they can be more labor intensive, they're more expensive to build, and most contractors don't have experience in building them.

But, as the saying goes, if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we make affordable, super-efficient housing a common thing? What about combining passive homes with the concept of "tiny homes" to create low-cost, low-impact modular homes? Homes that could be built cheap and either by skilled labor or by DIY homeowners?

Materials are one issue, but if there's a demand for the building materials, somebody will sell them, and with enough demand, prices will get reasonable.

Another big obstacle I see is zoning legislation. How do you regulate non-conventional housing (well, for one, by making energy efficient housing conventional, but that's part of the long game), how about by getting a competent legal team to draft model housing laws that could sent to local governing bodies to help them adapt to the new process.

My Utopian ideal would be to have pedestrian friendly "cottage parks," which, like contemporary trailer parks with common sewage and water hookups (although those can probably be modernized as well), and dozens of modular, affordable, efficient homes that would provide the satisfaction and security of home ownership to the multitude of folks who can't even dream of it in this economy.

Yes, we'd have to get over the ideas of "I want a big house or no house" and "where am I going to put my stuff" but if you sell it right "better a small home as long as it's MY home" can win out. Plus, the added benefits of easy maintenance, the ability to customize and ridiculously low energy bills should appeal to those of modest means.