Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (no spoilers)

I was going to write about Journey on the PS3 this week, but went to see The Dark Knight Rises and thought Journey can wait.

The short version of this is: go see the film. Nolan and Bale really have put on the best version of Batman on the big screen. The film isn't as good as The Dark Knight but is really worth watching. If you don't mind a few non-crucial spoilers Movie Bob has a great analysis of the film.

The performances given were brilliant. Christian Bale, Garry Oldman, Michael Cane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hatheway, Marion Cotillard and Morgan Freeman all give superb performances. I was particularly impressed with Marion Colillard as Miranda and Michael Cane as Alfred.

I thought the plot twists were mostly well executed, if somewhat predictable for anyone vaguely familiar with the Batman mythos. I have to say I was kicking myself for not putting together the three major clues for the crucial twist at the end. When it came I realised all along the answer had been right there and I'd not followed them through.

The plot did a nice job of escalating the stakes too, although with this it managed to depersonalise the situation. Now that the entire of Gotham is under immediate threat the human story gets a little lost. It may have been worth the time to see how the events reflect one specific person or family instead of focussing on how many people could be killed at the touch of a button.

I also had a problem with the fight sequences. Batman was very keen to just go into battle fists pumping. Sure this wins against crowds of mooks / underlings, but it's not a very clever way of going into battle and doesn't suit Batman who was always known for striking from shadows and out-thinking his opponents. Seriously, mooks, you have guns. Take three steps back and cover him with machine gun fire. It works in Arkham Asylum / Arkham City, it will work in a film too. The bit where Batman and Catwoman sneak into Bane's lair was very effectively done with true Batman style combat.

This was most noticeable where Batman just goes and gets into a fist fight with Bane. At no point does he try to outmanoeuvre or trick his opponent. He just lets himself get overwhelmed. This is disappointing, as it would have been a good way to show that Bane is a match for Batman's tricks. It is a very well choreographed fist fight, though.

The other major flaw with the film is in the pacing. The crux of the film (and this is really not a spoiler, because it's in the title) is that Bruce Wayne has to learn to be Batman again. The end of act two has him in desperate circumstances, and he has to remind himself what it is that made him become Batman to overcome the obstacle. That's great, but if he does act three, why does the film start with him in retirement? Why does he have to learn to be Batman twice in the same film? The film makers wanted to make the case that Gotham had largely been safe for a long time, and that Batman hadn't been needed, but integral to the Batman concept is that Bruce Wayne needs to be Batman as much as (or more than) Gotham needs Batman. It's his coping mechanism, and I felt robbed of scenes of Batman doing cool, Batman-y things.

In the end, though, the spectacle is fantastic, the characters are well executed and well written, the basic plot is solid and John Blake is awesome. Go see it, you won't regret it.

Monday, 16 July 2012

"How should we teach science?"

Earlier today I did an egosearch to check that potential employers googling* my name weren't going to find anything embarrassing.

The first page of results lists my LinkedIn profile, my Facebook profile, my Twitter feed, a page I set up about ten years ago on SoundClick with a song link I really don't want to click on and finally a post I wrote for the "How Should We Teach Science" campaign around three years ago. (No direct link to this blog, which is unsurprising seeing as "Arkady Chenko" is a pseudonym.)

While the science curriculum has changed I still think this is largely relevant, so here it is:

Link to the original.

In trying to make science more vocational, more applicable to the real world, we only patronise those who really want to do it.
Arkady is currently studying for an MPhys. at University of Sheffield.
I was blessed at my local all-boys comprehensive school with some exceptionally good science teaching, and some exceptionally bad. I was fortunate that the good outweighed the bad but, as you will read, many very intelligent people were sorely let down by bad science teaching.
TEACHER A The bad teaching was based on a misconception. The idea was that the class generally misbehaved because we didn’t understand the topic. The real reason was because we were bored (I should state that despite use of “we”, I didn’t personally take part in the misbehaviour, although I was very bored). The teachers response was to cover the topic again, but we’d understood it - and found it simple - the first time. We were the top set in a large school. The teacher, when he took over the class, decided to keep things elementary and simple and take it slowly. We found this patronising, and he didn’t realise when we told him “this is simple, sir” that we were telling the truth. So he kept taking things at an easy to comprehend pace, and we got bored and restless. Imagine, if you will, leading a maths professor through a second order inhomogenous differential equation, stopping to integrate from first principles every time, and you’ll get the idea. This led to a vicious cycle, where even the most teacher’s-pet type students got up to some sort of mischief at some point.
TEACHER B In contrast, the physics teacher we had immediately before this train-wreck was superb. She saw we were all top set and assumed that we’d all want to do A-levels in her subject (which was mostly true until the teacher in the previous paragraph took over). In her lessons we would fill pages with equations and worked examples and notes. She took us through topics in a level depth that we didn’t really need for the SATs she was preparing us for, and which stood us in excellent stead for GCSE. As a top set, she assumed we’d be able to keep up, and that those who couldn’t would either seek her out for further help - which was not unusual - and those who did neither didn’t show enough interest and would be dropped into lower sets.
While not everyone understood everything on a first pass, because we were doing real science and getting to the meat and bones of the physics, not one person had to be dropped a set. Furthermore, even the most troublesome of boys (to most teachers) were quiet, attentive, and would only speak out to ask intelligent questions. The major troublemakers of the school were model students because they were actually faced with material that they didn’t find patronising, but that they found challenging. They weren’t troublemakers because they were stupid, but because they were clever (in top set, at least). We didn’t mess around looking at practical situations where you have to calculate torque, but instead at exotic/esoteric situations where the torque was tricky to calculate.
I fear that the Governments constant move to making science more accessible by making it more applicable to real life all the time will have the effect that teacher A had. Furthermore, students with a real interest in science will find science teaching unstimulating and uninteresting. Teacher B showed me that if we want more people to take science to A-level and University, we must make it challenging and forget about real world applications. Very few major physics break-throughs have many obvious real world applications. But, to quote a Nobel prize winner “physics is like sex. Sure, it gives practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” We do it to satisfy our curiosity and to see what the limits of things are. The greatest scientific achievement of the century was launched with the words “we do this, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
The students we want doing science at A-level and beyond are the students who do it because it is hard, because they want to challenge themselves, and because they are interested in it. In trying to make science more vocational, more applicable to the real world we only patronise those who really want to do it out of the subject.
I would suggest, then, making science GCSE significantly more mathematical, more practical based, and also teach students about the history of the philosophy of science (i.e. empericism, the idea of submitting falsifiable theories and then throwing out those which do not stand up to testing) at a much earlier age, because it is my belief that the single must useful thing a non-scientist can learn from science is how to tell the difference between an excellent idea and an eloquent con.
Anyone interested in teaching standards should also read Michael Rosen's excellent (and far more regularly updated) blog.

* When does a brand name become a verb? When you no longer feel the need to capitalize it.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

LOCOG force Mount Olympus to change its name

Note: Inspired by articles in the Spectator and in the Financial Times.

It has been reported today that the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics are forcing the Pantheon at Mount Olympus to change the name of their home and to cease referring to themselves as "Olympians".

"We feel the name 'Olympus' is likely to cause confusion," said a spokesperson for the legal team at LOCOG, "and that they are using a variation of the good Olympic name to profit from tourism. They are clearly in breach of Article 3, paragraph 1(b) of the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995.

"Furthermore, by referring to themselves as 'Olympians' they give the misleading impression that they were legitimate athletes at a prior Olympiad, but the records show this simply isn't true."

Asked whether he felt an ancient Greek mountain was within the LOCOG's jurisdiction he gave a tight-lipped smile and told me the Olympics were a timeless, worldwide phenomenon.

The news did not go down well at Mount Olympus.

"They're doing WHAT‽" Thundered Zeus. "They should know better than to whip up a storm with me" he warned, twirling a lightning bolt menacingly.

Poseidon was a little more measured in his response. "This is earth-shattering news" he said.

"For the first time in over a century, I won't be blessing the victors" said Nike.

Even the usually lovely Aphrodite was livid. "They've got too far," she raged. "It was one thing to force me and my Adonis to delay our wedding because we mentioned 'rings', but this..." her voice cracked holding back tears, "they might as well evict us."

More on this as it breaks.