Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thing Explainer - as simple as possible

book review

Book: Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words
Author: Randall Munroe

A few years ago — in November 2012 to be precise — an instalment of the webcomic xkcd featured the Saturn V rocket, the vehicle that supported the Apollo programme for lunar exploration. In the elegant infographic titled ‘Up Goer Five’, cartoonist Randall Munroe detailed the workings of the “flying space car” that took people to the moon, explaining the rocket’s mechanism using only the thousand most common words in the English language. That conceit has now spawned the book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, a simplified look at how things work.

The book features “annotated blueprints” that show the structure and function of a varied selection of devices and apparatus, mostly focusing on topics that fall in the categories of physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy.

Munroe looks at items that range from relatively simple (like pen and pencil, padlock, and a tree) to fairly complex (like a nuclear reactor, jet engine, helicopter, submarine, and many more), covering everything from the human body to Martian rovers and the periodic table in the process. The author doesn’t refer to most things by their actual names, instead creating descriptive titles for each object using his list of “ten hundred” simple words. The International Space Station, for instance, becomes a “shared space house”; the Large Hadron Collider turns into the “big tiny thing hitter”; a submarine is a “boat that goes under the sea”; while animal cells and the human torso are titled “tiny bags of water you’re made of” and “bags of stuff inside you” respectively.

Each object usually takes up one page of the book (although some are expanded to multiple pages); its workings are generally explained using a central diagram that illustrates its structure, with descriptions detailing the main parts or component of the item and what roles they play.

The result is an informative, and often amusing, look at many of the things we come across or hear about in our everyday lives but don’t necessarily know much about. Thing Explainer is chock-full of interesting trivia. This is a volume both children and adults can enjoy; it’s impossible not to learn something while reading it. The illustrations are absolutely terrific and are pretty much the heart of the book. Munroe’s (enviable!) intelligence and thorough grasp of his subjects is palpable on every page as he creatively communicates the ideas, putting things in a unique perspective and presenting topics in ways you might never have thought of before. Plus his humorous asides make sure you stay amused.

Trying to present complex theories in an accessible way without getting bogged down in technical jargon is a commendable idea, and Munroe deserves a pat for conceiving this project and trying to make scientific principles easier to grasp for the layperson. But it turns out that relying on the most frequently used words to explain things doesn’t necessarily make concepts less complicated. At times, the use of simple words just makes things even more confusing, as the explanations are too vague and imprecise to give readers a clear understanding of what is actually going on. The statements become more and more convoluted as Munroe substitutes simple words for terms that would have elucidated the procedure more concisely and elegantly. Sometimes the descriptions even start to feel like clues that don’t mean much if you don’t know the answer to the riddles that are embedded in the text.

The proper names of components have not been used in the book, which makes the learning process less effective. The weird, whimsical names that are used instead might be amusing but rarely serve any purpose. Mentioning the actual terms in a separate little box on each page or in an appendix at the end of the book would have been a useful addendum and made Thing Explainer both clearer and more educational.

Also, the items in the book aren’t sorted by categories or organised in any way, and the contents jump from topic to topic. Putting items that fall under the same subject together would have helped things complement each other and made the book feel more orderly.

Overall, it feels as if sticking to a contrived conceit took precedence over being as informative as possible. The 1,000 word limit is too restrictive, and that is primarily why Thing Explainer isn’t a very effective “thing explainer” on its own. The book requires either constant googling or prior knowledge of the subject matter — these simple explanations will make a lot more sense if you find the proper descriptions elsewhere, or are already familiar with the mechanics of what you are reading about.

Perhaps the reason why the book feels a tad disappointing is that the American author (who is a former NASA roboticist) has repeatedly set a high standard with his delightfully nerdy work, and the depth of Thing Explainer falls a little short in comparison to his previous endeavours. Munroe has already proven his ability to communicate interesting ideas in an offbeat, refreshing style over and again. His terrific comic xkcd — in which stick figures explore the world of “romance, sarcasm, math, and language” — merges science humour with observations on life, and has been amusing geeks since its inception in 2005. And his previous book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions delved into the world of the impossible, unravelling absurd conundrums by applying scientific principles, and turning the ridiculousness into a learning opportunity, proving that you don’t need to be restricted to a certain set of words to discuss difficult concepts in a way that makes them easily comprehendible.

Still, it is obvious that the author clearly had fun putting this book together, and that a lot of work went into its pages. Randall Munroe’s illustrations are all very impressive and informative, and while Thing Explainer may not always be very clear and comprehensive on its own, the project is sure to add to your knowledge while rousing your curiosity and making you seek out more information about how things work.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 14th August, 2016 *

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Suicide Squad - a confused mess

movie review

Suicide Squad

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, and Cara Delevingne
Directed by: David Ayer
Tagline: Justice has a bad side.

A number of television dramas and films have proved, time and again, that antiheroes can make compelling protagonists. The shades of grey that colour these characters make them fascinating, while their stories offer a blend of touching, amusing and poignant adventures. Expect none of that, however, from Suicide Squad, DC Comics’ disappointing attempt at assembling a super villain ensemble who are assigned the task of saving the world in a film that degenerates into a confused mess.

After the events of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) comes up with a contingency plan for protecting her country: assembling a team of incarcerated criminals and coercing them to carry out dangerous missions. Dubbed Taskforce X, the group – we’re told in a lengthy roll-call – includes hit-man Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s (Jared Leto) deranged girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), pyrokinetic gangster El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and disfigured crook Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). But a potential recruit, ancient sorceress Enchantress who takes over the body of an archaeologist (Cara Delevingne), turns into the story’s villain, summoning an army of monsters and threatening the world. It is up to the aforementioned group of assorted lunatics and convicts to stop her.

With a plot that seems like a jumble of incoherent twaddle, Suicide Squad marches into a marsh of dullness and sets camp there for its overlong, two hour running time. Overcrowded with more operatives than necessary, the film doesn’t bother to develop most of its characters into anything beyond one-dimensional stereotypes, and its collective of the “worst of the worst” neither seems particularly menacing, nor possesses enough depth to be intriguing. Its villain, in particular, is a complete embarrassment. Enchantress feels more like a Ghostbusters reject than a baddie who has any place is a superhero movie; the character is made all the worse by Cara Delevingne’s grating attempts at acting which predictably fall flat.

The movie’s biggest crime, though, is that it wastes opportunities and lets down characters that have the potential to be fascinating. The primary example is Harley Quinn – Margot Robbie nails the part and this zany psychiatrist-turned-psychopath deserves to be in a better movie. Will Smith also gives a competent performance as Deadshot, although his character doesn’t have anything particularly memorable to do here. Jared Leto’s Joker is weird in all the wrong ways and feels extraneous to the adventure. Most of the other characters fare worse though, as they are simply forgettable.

Not even marginally as funny or exciting as Marvel’s terrific misfit-ensemble outing Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), DC’s Suicide Squad is about as compelling as Fantastic Four (2015), only louder and with a better lead actor (Smith) and actress (Robbie). Director David Ayer has created a choppy, predictable movie with a distracting pop soundtrack, and has failed to instill it with the humour or suspense that would make it entertaining. Ultimately, what we’re left with is characters we don’t care about doing things that aren’t interesting in a world that isn’t convincing.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 13th August, 2016 *

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Shallows - shark attack!

movie review

The Shallows

Starring: Blake Lively
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Tagline: Not just another day at the beach.

Hollywood’s fondness for revisiting familiar territories once again takes us to shark-infested waters in The Shallows, a survival thriller that doesn’t bring anything new to the table but does offer some suspense once it finally gets going.

The protagonist is Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), a medical student who makes her way to the same secret, secluded beach in Mexico that her late mother once visited. The American meets a couple of locals, and after surfing for a while, notices a whale carcass floating near her. As she catches the next wave, a shark bumps into her surfboard, knocks her into the water, and bites her leg. Alone and injured, Nancy manages to make her way to a small rock and tries to MacGyver her way out of her predicament, but her great white nemesis refuses to leave and menacingly circles her tiny outpost. Nancy must figure out how to make the short but dangerous journey to the shore by somehow beating the predator, and then get to safety.

The movie’s primary concern isn’t realism; how things unfold, especially towards the end, isn’t entirely plausible, but director Jaume Collet-Serra does, more or less, succeed in his mission of creating a gripping (albeit uneven) thriller. The Shallows loses some of its intensity because of its slow pace, especially when it starts to feel like the writers are struggling in their attempts to turn this tale into a full length film and stretching the plot a bit too thin in the process. You have to first watch Nancy doling out her ham-fisted back-story, even though her character didn’t need the background baggage to be more compelling; the proceedings would have been more intense had they just relied on the primal horror of her situation. Then you have to see her wading and surfing, waiting for something interesting to actually happen. But once the immense (although seemingly a tad inconsistent in size) shark surfaces, the film-makers successfully build the tension and amp up the suspense.

Lively remains at the centre of the adventure and carries the entire film by delivering a commanding, athletic performance, as she surfs, swims, screams, and grimaces for much of the movie’s one-and-a-half hour running time. Her main (and very charming) co-star is Stephen Seagull, a wounded bird that lands on the reef beside her, becoming her version of Wilson the volleyball and quickly turning into the only truly memorable element of the project.

Ultimately, The Shallows doesn’t bring anything new to the survival thriller genre. Once it finally kicks into gear, the movie does take you on a gripping, engaging ride, although, as with most such films, your enjoyment of the proceedings requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. While the movie can’t quite sustain the tension during its entire length, The Shallows does benefit from competent direction, beautiful cinematography and a (surprisingly) strong performance by its lead actress.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 9th August, 2016 *

Monday, August 01, 2016

Star Trek Beyond - the franchise races on

movie review

Star Trek Beyond

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, and Idris Elba
Directed by: Justin Lin

The continuation of the voyages of the USS Enterprise, by way of a prequel reboot, has yielded an interesting new arc in the science fiction franchise that Gene Roddenberry created in the 1960s. With J. J. Abrams at the helm, the revival has impressively bridged the gap between the old and the new, with the first film – 2009’s Star Trek – in particular doing a terrific job in re-establishing the beloved franchise. For the third chapter in the reboot series, Abrams has vacated the director’s chair and passed the baton to Justin Lin. The result is Star Trek Beyond, an instalment that boldly goes where Star Trek has gone before but still manages to be quite entertaining.

Led by Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine), the crew of the Enterprise are three years into their five-year exploratory mission when they are assigned the task of rescuing a ship stranded on a planet in uncharted space. But the rescue turns into an ambush as the Enterprise comes under attack by the evil Krall (Idris Elba) and his forces, which are after an ominous alien artefact. With no option but to abandon their ship, the crew finds themselves separated and stranded on the foreign planet. They must then regroup, figure out how to defeat Krall, and find a way to get off the planet.

There is a certain degree of predictability that is inescapable in franchises such as Star Trek, so the viewer is never in any doubt about which side will eventually emerge victorious. But the action-packed execution of the film still makes the journey exciting. The movie’s minutiae may not stand up to scrutiny, but the special effects, as always, are impressive, and there are action sequences (some of which evoke Lin’s Fast & Furious style) that are interestingly conceived and well shot.

The film does, however, seem more reliant on action than character development. Krall, for instance, doesn’t exactly make the most fascinating or menacing villain; the writers don’t do a very convincing job with his back-story and don’t convey his motivations with the necessary believability and impact. The supporting characters, on the other hand, just run around frantically while exchanging witty banter. The movie does spend some time helping us connect with its leads though. The struggle Kirk feels in finding continued meaning in the mission brings depth to his character. But ultimately, it’s Spock (Zachary Quinto) who gets the most poignant storyline, with a touching farewell to the late Leonard Nimoy weaved into the tale.

The movie’s style harks back to the old Star Trek television series as it pays homage to its origins. While the basic plotline feels familiar and the script isn’t as sharp as one would have hoped, there is enough wit and thrill to make Star Trek Beyond an entertaining ride. Yes, it doesn’t quite match the inventiveness and exuberance of the 2009 film that started the revival, but if you’ve enjoyed the reboot series so far, then you are very likely to enjoy this one too.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 1st August, 2016 *