Friday, June 11, 2010


Quickie review on "Going Postal" (the new British TV movie):
It's pretty good!

Slightly longer review:

The movie is extremely faithful to the book.  It's been a while since I read (or, more accurately, listened to the book on tape of) Going Postal, but it has really struck in my mind.  That's partly because it was the first Discworld book I encountered (either that or Thud!, I forget which), but also because it's a really, really good story.

I won't recap everything that I like about GP here, and just assume that you've already read the book.  Therefore, while everything is wrapped as a


the spoilers are the same as in the book.  Which I suppose could be considered a spoiler in itself.  Sorry about that.

Anyways: The movie features Moist von Lipwig, Pratchett's most recent Discworld protagonist and probably my second-favorite, just behind Vimes.  The character lineup is the same as in the book (to the best of my recollection), and doesn't drastically alter any personalities.  It also maintains the themes of the book, a really clever indictment of monopolies, entrenched markets, and anti-competitive practices. 

It is a made-for-TV movie, so it doesn't wow as much as a Hollywood (or Holy Wood) spectacle might, but the effects are still quite good; Moist's disquieting nightmares in the post office are particularly effective.  The weakest aspect of the special effects is Moist's golem, who belongs to the same school of "guy putting on random unconvincing costume" that has previously graced time-honored British productions like the original Hitchhiker's Guide show, Doctor Who, and Red Dwarf.  He looks appropriately menacing in the dark, but fully ridiculous when walking the streets in daylight.

Most of the actors are quite good, though.  Moist comes across as a bit more... vulnerable, I guess, than I had imagined him, but it's still a good portrayal.  Vetinari is great; I still prefer Jeremy Irons' excellent portrayal in The Colour of Magic, but his replacement does a good job.  Vetinari is such a great character that, as long as you convey what Pratchett has written, it's going to be good.  The postmen also came across as I had imagined from the story.

If I have a complaint about the movie, it's that it tends to be melodramatic.  The most obvious offense is its portrayal of the villains from the Clacks.  They really chew the scenery with some of the hammiest, over-the-top acting I've seen recently.  It's one of those things that goes so far overboard that I have to laugh and assume that they meant it to be bad.


So, where does this fit in the pantheon?  As far as I know we now have three screen adaptations: Hogfather, The Colour of Magic, and Going Postal.  All have had their ups and downs.  I'd summarize them as follows.

Best original story: Going Postal
Best main actor: Hogfather (Susan was great)
Best Vetinari: The Colour of Magic
Best Visual Effects: The Colour of Magic
Best Villain: Hogfather
Best Overall: Going Postal

Anyways, that's where I see it.  It'll be interesting to see if they keep putting them out.  I'd kind of like to see a Vimes story on the screen, but at the same time, I'm pretty worried about it; the guards have such excellent characters, and it would be really hard to do them justice.  (Nobby in the Hogfather was just embarrassing; Angua in Going Postal was decent, but didn't get much screen time.)  Still, if anything they seem to be improving, so hopefully there will be more quality stuff to come; plus, it's been really encouraging to see how they've been happy to bring Pratchett's stories to life without feeling the need to muck around with it.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


I've been fortunate enough to be tapped to help write the upcoming edition of Unlocking Android from Manning Publications.  I'm very excited about this; the original book was really good, and now I get to help expand and revise it to incorporate all the great stuff that has occurred between OS versions 1.5 and 2.2.

The first piece that I wrote was a pretty long chapter on integration; it covers topics like interacting with device contacts, syncing with a back-end, managing multiple sources of personal data, and so on.  To help illustrate the chapter's concepts, I use a real-world sample application: an app that synchronizes your device contacts with your LinkedIn connections.

So, that was a lot of work but also a lot of fun.  I enjoyed poking around LinkedIn's API, which is primarily designed for web applications but, with some tweaking, can work on mobile as well.  Real apps always feel much more compelling than toy apps, and I felt a thrill when I saw my actual data getting synchronized.  Wow, a useful app!  Who would have thought it?

It occurred to me that, with a bit more polishing and some key features, the sample app could become an actual useful Market-ready app.  I checked with my publisher, then spent about a week streamlining the UI and hooking in some other Android features to handle things like automatically redirecting authorization info from LinkedIn.  I just finished wrapping that up, and published on the Market on Sunday.

So, that was a lot of fun.  This is the second Market app that I've put out.  The first, Wheeler, was one of the apps available when Android version 1.0 first came out on the G1.  It has since been superseded by other apps (including what I really wanted to make all along, a version of Google Maps with cycling directions), but along the way it was downloaded thousands of times and received some really kind reviews from fellow cyclists.  I'm glad to be back on the Market again, and hope that the LinkedIn app gets noticed.

So, if you're using an Android phone with OS version 2.0 or later, and you have a LinkedIn account, feel free to check out my app!  It's called "Unlocking Android LinkedIn".  And, if you're a developer, please keep your eyes opened for Unlocking Android 2nd Edition.  We're releasing chapters through the Manning Early Access Program as they become available, and hope to have the physical book out in the next few months.  Happy coding!

Here and Now

It seems appropriate that I would follow up a less-known book from Orwell with a less-known book from Huxley.  People generally speak of the two in the same breath, thanks to the similarities between their best-known works, "1984" and "Brave New World."  Being obstinate, I'm drawn more to the differences between the men and the (rather profound) differences between those books, but that's probably too tangential even for me to get into here.

So: "Island" was Huxley's last novel.  I thought it was pretty good.  If I had read it during high school, though, I would have thought that it was AMAZING.  It has the kind of free-wheeling, mind-expanding, thought-provoking, consciousness-expanding sensibility that I was addicted to at that time.  There's a nominal story here, but almost all of the book is devoted to plumbing the questions of practical philosophy: how a person should live, the best way to raise children, how a healthy society would behave, how we can approach life and death, and similar weighty issues.  If you've ever read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" or "Ishmael," it's very much of a piece with those.

As usual, Huxley was ahead of his time.  The book was published in 1962: before The Beatles formed, before the SDS, before the Summer of Love and flower children.  The values taught by this book completely fit with the morals of the late-60's hippie, though.  The book preaches the union of Eastern values with Western knowledge, Buddhist attitudes with English science.  It promotes (occasional) drug use as a gateway to deeper understanding (which, I'm guessing, kept this book from being included on the Junior Seminar reading list).  It's against oil exploitation, against imperialism, against multinational corporations, against military dictators, against organized religion, against any absolute doctrine.  It's for casual family arrangements, for birth control, for early sex education, for spirituality, for natural medicine.

After reading this book, I really want to go back and re-read Brave New World, which I think I last read in high school.  I kind of get the impression that Huxley changed his mind about some issues between that book, which was written about thirty years earlier, and this one.  In BNW, soma was bad, a drug that kept people docile and harmless; here, the moksha-medicine is good, a drug that empowers people to reach self-actualization.  In BNW, early sex ed seemed horrible; here, it seems rational, and its absence becomes horrible.  That said, I may be missing some distinctions or mis-remembering those parts of BNW.

Of course, I also may be missing the point of either or both books.  It's natural to assume that an author's prejudices are the same as the narrators, but that isn't always the case.  I remember my great shock at reading Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" after reading his "Stranger in a Strange Land," and realizing that those two utterly opposite moral philosophies flowed from the same mind.  BNW's morality was always ambiguous, anyways.  (Uh-oh, I think I'm sliding into that tangent now...)  In 1984, there was a very clear sense of and source of evil: Big Brother and the Party had seized power and were oppressing the people with absolutist technological control over everything.  In BNW, though, the future system feels much more organic.  There's no single villain, no overarching sinister plot.  Most terrifying of all, in BNW you get the sense (or at least, I got the sense fifteen years ago) that the people had done it to themselves... people had developed new technology, embraced the things that made life easier and more pleasurable, and ended up with that book's system.  I can point at that and say that it's bad, but from Huxley's perspective, it may have just seemed inevitable.

In contrast, the system shown in The Island is extremely fragile.  It has become self-perpetuating, but arose out of serendipity, and the islanders must guard themselves against the outside world, which has the capability to crush what they have.  Or at least to try.  The ultimate hope of The Island is that, by embracing changes in your personal life, you can change your relationship with the world; even when horrible things happen, you can save yourself from hopeless despair.  It isn't a "don't worry, be happy" sort of philosophy.  Instead, it urges people to really see, to really pay attention, to the actual, physical experiences around them.  Then, having paid attention, to understand and explain them.  Tell yourself a story that makes sense of those experiences, and so put yourself in the best possible world.

Like I said, I would have eaten this up in high school.  Now, I enjoy reading it and certainly agree with parts of it, but seriously doubt that any long-term changes will occur as a result.

Pick up Island if you're looking for some cool hippie philosophy.  Pass if you want a sequel to Brave New World.  It's a good read, but frankly not much of a story.