segunda-feira, julho 31, 2017

Chess Shenanigans: "Mortal Games - The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov" by Fred Waitzkin

The K-K sequence of matches is unrivalled in competitive sport. In Portugal at the time there was much information regarding this match, but I remember following it on the weeklies chess programms with expert commentary on the chess as well as insights into all the backstage shenanigans. The introduction, playing Prokofiev's Dance of the Nights to the backdrop of snowy Red Square was unmissable and a brilliant entré to the great chess battles that followed. After the resumption in 1985, the climax came with game 16 when Kasparov paralyzed Karpov on move 16. I just had to look it up to freshen my memory. Karpov couldn't move a piece without provoking disaster to his position. Perhaps the most brilliant display of Kasparov's genius and unlikely that any grand-master has ever achieved such a dominant position in a chess championship match before or since.

The rating system in international chess (Elo, designed by Arpad Elö) is incapable of comparing playing strength between players from different time periods. It is designed to facilitate a comparing of a closed group of players. More so up until the seventies there was no rating-system in place. You also have to take into account that the rules have significantly changed over time, specifically time-limits. Training methods have been hugely improved with the arrival of computers, Gary Kasparov was himself the first world class player to regularly use computers (he was directly involved in the making of ChessBase and his copy has the serial number 0001). Any claim to who is the strongest chess player ever always has to be considered "tricky". Gary Kasparov certainly is one of the strongest in modern chess as are also; Anatoly Karpov, Michal Tal, Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres, Capablanca, Robert J Fisher, Alekhin, Bronstein, Anand, and many others.

By reading about the in-fighting in FIDE, which Waitzkin makes abundantly clear, one concludes FIDE is more corrupt than Blatter and FIFA. A couple of years ago I remember a situation when the Russian embassies around the world were actually openly canvasing/coercing for Putin's suspected bum chum Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Once again Russia had an inferiority complex that due to massive investments in developing the game there, a small country like Norway could produce the greatest chess player in the history of the game so far. I guess it is difficult for Russia to dope its chess players to get better results, unlike their athletes. Carlsen, as I understand it, is the highest rated player of all time. Looking at the current GM list, could we conclude 21st century chess is vastly more competitive than in Kasparov's day? 104 players who've achieved an Elo of 2700+, with all but 6 of them doing it this century? Is this mostly attributable to advances in theory, or rating inflation caused by the Elo system? Actually it is the advent of computer preparation which has resulted in rather robotic play and "unnatural" opening choices. The ratings have inflated a lot however it is important to know that the modern 2700 GM would beat or at least be equal to any yesteryear 2700 GM because he is armed with a lot of computer preparation.

Does anyone else know of a human activity, sex excepted (and accepted), that is as widely practised as chess but so profoundly mired in clichés and ignorance in most Western societies?

Checkmate! Just won my game, while reading this story of chess grand-masters. Will this rub off on me, so that I can puff out my chest? Nah. I've got to keep working on it...Too much time out of the game...

quarta-feira, julho 26, 2017

Android App: "Spinner Portuguese Style" by MySelfie

(If you want to try it, install it via Google App Store

Every time a new fad appears in the classroom, there are nay-Sayers saying how good/bad/whatever they are for children. Then they disappear, to be replaced quite quickly by something else - there usually seems to be a fad-free hiatus of anything from a couple of weeks to several months. Sometimes these fads, like these spinners, are related to things that have been around for ages, and can fulfill the same purpose, in this case the purpose fidget objects have for many people. But often kids have them simply because other kids have them. Then, of course, there are the adults who collect this sort of retro nostalgia stuff, with an attic stuffed full of Teenage Mutant Heroes cards, Moshi monsters, Star Wars memorabilia, and loom bands - but that's another story! Although they may be a fad for kids, fidget spinners for adults have been around for years. There is a fidget spinner database online that lists over 100 manufacturers. Many spinners are made of various solid metals (brass, stainless steel, titanium, and others) and cost many hundreds of dollars. Lots of different designs too. So, this isn't a fad!

But even if they were a fad, at least they wouldn't be as bad as bottle-flipping, which was the fad-du-jour late last year. How does bottle flipping work? Take any plastic drinks bottle, half fill it with water for weight, and then flip it vertically, with the aim being to have it land & stand on its base. The instability caused by the volume of water moving inside the container is what makes it a challenge. The downsides are that it's noisy (the water swishes in the bottle), it's visually distracting (flying water bottles aren't discreet), and as soon as one kid starts, every other kid in the classroom is digging in their bags to prove they can flip their own bottle better than the kid sitting next to them. Now, this is stupid!

When we were kids, for a while we used to go around with seriously powerful slingshots (with elastics made out of strips of car tire air tube) and we actually gave them up ourselves since they were seriously dangerous (as in: potentially deadly). Still, the pea shooters we mostly used in our local "wars" in the forest could potentially take an eye off if they hit directly (we used a kind of berry which was harder - and thus further flying - than peas). The point being that when pointed out to them, even kids will on their own do some level of risk reduction, just don't expect them to try go all the way to zero risk, since that almost always takes all the fun out of things. This was also stupid! Kids will be kids! Yes, someone will eventually be hurt. Unfortunately that goes for pretty much everything interesting in life:
  1. If you allow wrestling in the school gym eventually a kid will break their neck.
  2. If you allow kids to run in the playground eventually a kid will fall, crack their head badly and end up brain damaged;
  3. if you allow kids to climb trees eventually one will fall and break their spine;
  4. If you allow kids to play with toothpick and rubber bands eventually someone will lose an eye.
But the alternative is a childhood wrapped in cotton wool without climbing any trees or wrestling or running and that's a non-trivial price which gets paid by many many children for every one you save from some permanent injury or death. The rational way to approach the problem would be to quantify the risks in terms of QALYs (quality adjusted life years) or micromorts (each 1 in a million chance of death). A childhood that includes all these minor dangers has value it it's own right. It improves quality of life in a non-trivial way. But try selling that to the public : it's basically impossible to parade a million children who enjoyed their life a bit more than they would otherwise in front of the camera but easy to bring on the one poor kid with a shattered spine or a missing eye. I still fondly remember that I used to nick my granny's hairspray (those were the days) to make the best flamethrower in my neighborhood. Better than a magnifying glass for laying waste to small defenseless creatures; there was always some kid who said they knew someone who'd been killed when the flame backed up into the can and it exploded in his hand ("It's TRUE! I swear! I read about it. It happened in America."). Don't kids make their own dangerous 'toys' anymore? I also remember making a bow and arrow with a tree branch;  lollipop sticks with a pin tied to one end with cotton and a small nut for weight and cardboard flight at the other end made a great dart; best was a sewing needle with a bit of wool threaded through and then fire it off blow-dart style with a narrow tube, pea-shooter or even a Bic Biro with the refill removed. Great at school firing one off and then hiding behind the desk lid.

Come September, the spinners will be forgotten by 90% of kids. At this time of year, shops have to be very careful with these things, because we're only a couple of months into the summer and they need to have enough in stock to milk the so-called fad, but not have too many left by the time the school start in September. Otherwise they will stuck with hundreds of spinners that no one will want any more, and they'll have to clear the shelf of all the left over loom bands to find somewhere to put them.

Not so with my version of the Spinner. It's here to stay. My little boy has been having a ball playing with it on his mother's smartphone. He keeps on asking for it in Manelês: "Pai, quéo spinna" ("Dad, I want spinner"; sorry, I cannot give a proper translation in English, but you get the gist)...

What do I need to go about it? Find a couple of equations regarding the angular momentum and the Force applied on the spinner. The rest is just code...Link on Google Play Store above if you care to try it.

r, radius of the object's circular motion
T, The cycle of the object's circular motion

terça-feira, julho 25, 2017

Weird Ideas: "Falstaff: Give Me Life” by Harold Bloom

Published 2017.

“What makes us free? What makes me free is the capaciousness of Shakespeare’s soul. He is the knowledge of what we were and of what we have become.”

In “Falstaff: Give Me Life” by Harold Bloom

“Weird" is the word that comes to mind after having finished his take on Falstaff. We all know about his fixation on Falstaff. No problem with that. I’ve also a kin interest on Hamlet. So, what? My problem with Bloom lies on a different plane. “Weird Ideas”. That’s Bloom all over. His ideas can be interesting - and, at their crankiest (as in “A Map of Misreading”, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human and his Genius book) quite funny - but there's far too much of Bloom the frustrated bard-oracle in them, which is why they fail to stand up beyond the books in which they appear. Show him a half-decent poet and he'll construct around him a new view of human history centred on an ancient Gnostic text and full of juicy prophetic names for things already perfectly well named (e.g. "The Chaotic Age" for the 20th century). There's an element of trying to out-crazy the crazy totalising schemes of Blake or Yeats. Bloom trying to out-poet the poets, or at least match them in inspired, over-learned nuttiness. That’s why his take on Falstaff seems far-fetched. if you asked me to name some critics that I thought were provocative, well-read, and 'advanced scholarship' I would perhaps list Zachary Lesser, Anne Ferry, Andrew Hadfield, Louis Montrose, Roger Chartier, and Alexandra Gillespie off the top of my head - with some heavy bias in there for the renaissance, given my own reading. While I'd love to see their works being praised (or even read) by those outside of the academy, I'm not sure that they really deal with work, authors, or issues 'popular' enough to attract that attention. I don't begrudge a Bloom or a Vendler their success: academia is going to have to try quite hard to prove its relevance with the big changes to higher education coming. But when their work gets talked about as if they were the only one’s writing, it can get a little frustrating. Bloom wasn't much of an original thinker, borrowing heavily from Northrop Frye in much of his work and, in the case of Anxiety, a book called The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. Basically, Bloom just took Bate's book (which is primarily concerned with the anxieties felt by pre-Romantic writers) and jazzed it up with a bunch of Freudian rigmarole about wanting to kill one's father. This was not a convincing angle to take at all, but it was really the only thing "new" that Bloom brought to the table. Put another way, using his own terminology Bloom was not a "strong" critic. I think the anxiety of influence he described was probably something he personally felt as an academic. My favourite word to describe him is "weird" as stated, but we need some sort of superlative for someone who is a perverse in his judgments as Bloom: Othello never consummates his marriage to Desdemona; Orlando knows all along he is talking to Rosalind in disguise; Parolles is "the spiritual center" of "All's Well That Ends Well"; Portia, like Bassanio, is a yuppie lightweight, while Antonio is Shylock's evil twin; Kate tames Petruchio and dangles him like a puppet. Here's for "Measure for Measure": "It is difficult to decide who is more antipathetic, Angelo or Duke Vincentio. . . . Lucio is the only rational and sympathetic character in this absurdist comedy (except for the superb Barnadine)." Bloom simply announced these findings; he no longer argues; he is too Olympian for that. His notorious misogyny may be the key to many of these ludicrous sallies: Desdemona as castrating intimidator; Kate as emasculating manipulator. Bloom says that Shakespeare invented us, which implies that, as a demigod, he was too elevated to be anxious over much of anything. But surely he was stimulated by an Oedipal rivalry with Marlowe; "two competing young playwrights from strikingly similar origins egged each other on to do better, and more original, work." No, I'm sorry, they were the same age but Marlowe died in May, 1593, by which time Shakespeare, egged on by the supposed competition, had written exactly none of the plays that make him the Bard: had he died the same year, he would be about as famous today as Beaumont or Fletcher. Marlowe was quicker to attain box office success, which is the success that Shakespeare cared about, so Shakespeare copied him shamelessly. That isn't exactly rivalry or competition. Bloom, on no evidence whatsoever, pronounces "Titus Andronicus" a parody of Marlowe. A knockoff is not a parody. Such a genre did not even exist at the time. The audience wanted its pornography of violence straight up, not with a smirk, and the audience was Shakespeare's deity.

Calling Bloom "overrated" doesn't even begin to say it, but the fault is ours, not his: I wouldn't expect him to see himself as we should have seen him.

3 stars for the book due to the quote at the beginning of this post.

domingo, julho 23, 2017

A Country Without (SF) Readers: “Antologia Cyberpunk” by Editorial Divergência

Published 2016.

“O Neuromante foi publicado por mim em Portugal apenas dois anos depois da primeira edição em língua inglesa. Talvez tenha sido a primeira tradução para uma língua estrangeira. Estremeci de alegria quando o livro veio à estampa. Pensei: agora sim, agora os detractores da FC vão engolir mil sapos.
Infelizmente esqueci-me de que vivemos em Portugal. Num país sem grande futuro, nem mesmo o do Gernsback. Um país sem leitores. Trataram-no como se nem sequer existisse. Ou como se se tratasse de mais umas tantas páginas de lixo escapista. Nas livrarias, foi parar às secções de literatura infantil ou às prateleiras de estudos informáticos. Enfim, não vendeu. Nas Feiras do Livro que se lhe seguiram, foi vendido a retalho por tuta e meia, como se o quisessem oferecer a um pobre. [….] E por não ter vendido, nada de nada, foi razão mais do que suficiente para o Editor me olhar, imbuído de um triste desprezo, me dizer que eu só escolhia coisas muito más, e que por isso teria de pôr fim à colecção de FC. Meu dito meu feito.”

("Neuromancer was published by me in Portugal only two years after the first edition in English. Maybe it was the first translation into a foreign language. I jumped with joy when the translation first came out. I thought: 'Yes, now the detractors of SF must bite the bullet.'
Unfortunately, I forgot that we live in Portugal. In a country with no great future, not even Gernsback's. A country without readers. They treated the translation as if it did not even exist. Or as if it were some more pages of escapist junk. In the bookstores, it went to the sections of children's literature or to the shelves of computer studies. Anyway, it did not sell. At the Book Fairs that followed, it was sold to retail stores for nothing, as if they wanted to offer it to the poor. [....] And for not having sold, nothing at all, it was more than enough reason for the Editor to look at me, imbued with a sad contempt, to tell me that I only chose very bad things, and thus end the SF collection. No sooner said than done.")

In the foreword by João Barreiros in “Antologia Cyberpunk” by Editorial Divergência.

I've been reading some old best-of-the-year SF anthologies lately, bought on eBay, as well as this one by Editoral Divergência, a Portuguese book publishing house; it was the last one of the bunch, and in there the cyberpunk trope seems to be swimming in foreign waters, literal and figuratively speaking. While the cyberpunk stories in these anthologies are generally good, there's a distinct sense of hardening sub-genre assumptions about them -- the shared idea that computer criminals would largely be members of street gangs seems particularly far off. By the 1989 anthology, most of the authors who'd been doing cyberpunk had gone on to other things. What about 2016 when this Portuguese cyberpunk anthology came out?

It's an interesting study in how ideas quickly die and solidly as genres. There are 100s of people self-publishing cyberpunk books, but I'm yet to see one that has any intellectual edge. Just abject copies (and usually badly written as well). Cyberpunk (as a sales pitch for unconnected works, then as a prescription for How-To-Do-It-And-Sell) is rather like the late 70s 'Disco Sucks' strop. SF in the late 1970s and early 1980s was getting interesting, with women, gay writers and people from ethnic minorities bringing their world-building skills and a literary sensibility to work in synch rather than against each other.

Obviously, a lot of nerdy white boys wanted an end to this monstrous regiment and, when Gibson happened, this looked like a suitable bulwark. The self-serving mythology, mainly from Bruce Sterling, is that “The Movement-With-No-Name” (as some of them preferred to call it) 'saved' SF from becoming contaminated any further. The same way “Sigue Sigue Sputnik” 'saved' rock. Gibson and Sterling wrote 'The Difference Engine' to try and make clear what 'Neuromancer' was about, the Douglas Hofstadter stuff that everyone missed concerning Wintermute, but that too got turned into a sales-formula that ossified.

Cyberpunk was about a certain vision with a certain technological path from where we were. Once things became clear that we weren't going along that path, Cyberpunk became an alternate history, a what-might-have-been than a what-if. Cyberpunk has become part of other sub-genres such as Space Opera, examples like “Revelation Space”, “Ancillary Justice” and the “Culture” novels. Like the music field there is nothing new, just a chance to get creative and take parts from everything that has gone before.

This anthology is no longer focused on certain aspects of a certain form of cyberpunk, which undoubtedly has somewhat come to pass (yet also still looks like a potential future). The wider themes of Cyberpunk still resonate and that's why cyberpunk still exists and is being written; it just looks differently because it looks forward to the potential future with an eye to current trends. All the examples about AI, inter-connectivity and virtual worlds half exist now. They don't really in the way they do in most cyberpunk, we still are looking forward to those. We are also looking forward to the new tech emerging. Then there is the other side of cyberpunk, the literary styles and examination of the political/social aspect of the genre which doesn't go away. That's why there are so many punk sub-genres now. They explore different tech potentials with the same principles as steampunk. This anthology is a good example of that. For example, “The Wind-Up Girl” essentially looks at the roots of the current revolution occurring in biotech and uses the cyberpunk mould to explore the far-flung potential of that in the way Gibson did with networked computers (it's called a biopunk novel by some). If anything, the genre becomes more prescient, along with all SF, but specifically cyberpunk, as technological advances have exploded in the last 35 years and we begin to consider the social ramifications of these technologies as they mature.

If someone says Portuguese SF does not have any depth, it’s all about style, and has got no substance, he or she should read the short-stories in this collection. True, most of them no longer have that characteristic gritty cyberpunk 'core' so common in cyberpunk from the 80s; what these tales embody are literary games by simply using a cyberpunk aesthetic for what could be any type of game underneath. It’s not cyberpunk? Maybe not, but it’s still good SF (e.g., “Deuses Como Nós”/”Gods Like Us” by Victor Frazão included in this collection). Either way, a cyberpunk game may not be called such just because it takes place in a futuristic urban dystopia. So maybe they’re cyberpunk of a different sort. When I think about great video games forming a gestalt, I think most of them have me actively partaking in actions typical of the cyberpunk tradition; hacking, investigating, violence, and theft. Not only that, but they can also tell fantastic stories, take place in a well-developed setting/world, and have stunning art direction. Is that what cyberpunk is all about or there’s something else at play here?

NB: Reading what literary people must say about science fiction is such an aggravating bore. Was cyberpunk ever supposed to be taken seriously? William Gibson has admitted that he really didn't know anything about computers when he wrote “Neuromancer”. Cyberpunk was nothing but a style; it was not really cyber. Check out “The Two Faces of Tomorrow” by James P. Hogan. That is CYBER.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, julho 22, 2017

Beyond the Usual Alpha-Beta Search: "Deep Thinking - Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins” by Garry Kasparov, Mig Greengard

“In 2016, nineteen years after my loss to Deep Blue, the Google-backed AI project DeepMind and its Go-playing offshoot AlphaGo defeated the world’s top Go player, Lee Sedol. More importantly, as also as predicted, the methods used to create AlphaGo were more interesting as an IA Project than anything that had produced the top chess machines. It uses machine learning and neural networks to teach itself how to play better, as well as other sophisticated techniques beyond the usual alpha-beta search. Deep Blue was the end; AlphaGo is a beginning.”

In “Deep Thinking - Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins” by Garry Kasparov, Mig Greengard 

My personal experience with Go dates back at least a decade. I remember getting slaughtered every time by the free GNUgo software, just as I had been by every human opponent for the last 20 years. Never got the hang of it, though I was school chess captain back in the day. Totally different mindset. I first came across it in a little-remembered crime series called 'The Man in Room 17', with Richard Vernon and Denholm Ellit eponymously solving crimes without leaving their office, where they were always playing go. I also remember a funny little story while I was attending the British Council. Back in the 80s, a Korean guy gave me a game. After every move I played, he stifled a laugh and started a rapid fire of, "No! Cos you purrin ['put in', I presume] there, then I purrin here, after you purrin there an' I purrin here, you lose these piece" None of which made anything clearer. At chess, the first (okay, tenth) time I got mated on the back row by a rook, I learned not to leave the king behind a wall of pawns. Never got my head round the simplest 'joseki' (corner opening) at Go. Beautifully elegant game though.

When reading about the game in Kasparov’s book, I just got sidetracked. Back in the day, along with Chess, I tried to develop a Go AI engine. Sad to say, I could never build it to my full satisfaction; I was able to beat it 9 out of 10 times.  Not so with chess. My AI Chess developed in C, if I may say so, was quite good. Does AlphaGo's success tell us something about the mindfulness of its technology, or does it instead tell us something about the mindlessness of games like chess and Go? Back in the day I studied AphaGo's performance, and impressed though I was by its playing strength, I did notice that it seemed to not understand two basic concepts of Go called "sente" (seizing the initiative) and "aji" (leaving a rock in the road for the opponent to trip over later), as was evidenced by opportunities it missed. What is quite remarkable is that AlphaGo doesn't understand a single thing about Go, except how to count the final score! AlphaGo circumvents the problem of understanding the toy world of Go by using two mathematical tricks: (1) learning knee-jerk reactions and (2) statistically sensible guesswork. A knee-jerk reaction is an automatic reaction to an event that seems to match a pattern; we rely upon such reactions to avoid dangers such as the edge of a cliff or a fire. Such reactions are essential for survival, but they are also unreliable because what we think we see is not always what is there. A pretty face does not necessarily imply a pretty mind. Anyone who has used Google's search engine will know that whereas it is superb at finding information, it is also somewhat clueless as it pulls up a wastepaper basketful of irrelevant snow as well as the one or two nuggets you were looking for. Because Google doesn't speak English. It knows nothing about the world we live in so relies instead solely upon statistical pattern matching to find its answers, much the same as IBM's Jeopardy champ "Watson" does. Jeopardy and document search are tasks well-suited to mindless association-seeking. AlphaGo is of the same breed as Google search and Watson; there are nuances of difference in their pattern-matching algorithms, but the underlying principle is the same: they all search for matching patterns, without troubling to understand what the patterns mean in terms of an ontology of cause and effect. In AlphaGo's case, the patterns it looks for are ones it has inferred by using an artificial intelligence technology called an "(artificial) neural network" that has had some success in learning to recognise a specific object in photographs - most famously, whether there is a cat in a YouTube video.

A Go game in progress is nothing more complicated than a very simple digital photograph, made of just 19x19 pixels, each of which can have just one of three colours: black, white, or empty. So people thought that what works for seeing cats in videos might also work for seeing good moves in Go.

And it does.

In convolutions of artificial neurons, information flows both ways through a stratified network. They are capable of learning patterns more complex than simple one-way networks - although perhaps it would be better to say that they can learn probable patterns, since the mathematics they use creates a probability spectrum of possible identifications. And that is just what's needed to play Go against people, for not even a Go grand-master can say unequivocally what is the best move in the middle of a game. AlphaGo's neural network was trained by showing it what good players did in over 30 million positions taken from a database of expert-level games. It produces a spectrum of knee-jerk reaction good move possibilities, but it doesn't stop there. It goes on to imagine what might happen in the future. AlphaGo's future-guessing methods are different from those used by Deep Blue to defeat chess champ Gary Kasparov, but both their methods are essentially brute-force techniques, relying on sampling millions of possible sequences rather than examining a few pertinent lines by goal-directed knowledge-based search.

AlphaGo can do one thing that Deep Blue could not: it can learn. Right now, it is learning to improve its stockpile of patterns by playing itself every day and teaching itself which moves worked out well during those experiments. However, the rate of improvement of a convolutional neural network reduces over time, so there is every reason to doubt that AlphaGo will become strong enough to beat Lee Sedol.

Nevertheless, both Deep Blue and AlphaGo have reached a game-playing ability higher than 99% of those of us who have also tried to play chess or Go, so we humans should perhaps hang our heads in shame at being so incompetent at reasoning that an unreasoning machine can better us at games we thought to be intellectual challenges requiring sophisticated strategy and tactics! However, although computers can now beat us at board games as well as see a cat in a video, we need not fear that they are about to take over the world and turn us into their domesticated animals. The 0.1% have already won that game.

NB: I closely followed the match between Deep Blue and Kasparov at the time. The 6th (last) game was especially unfathomable. I remember thinking how could Kasparov play into a well-known opening trap in the Caro-Kann. WTF? When a world champion plays like a beginner, there is not much to be said, and much to be sad about. It wasn’t that Deep Blue “outmaneuvered” Kasparov, it was that Kasparov defeated himself. My disenchantment with chess started with this specific game. This match was a travesty and I never recovered from it.

sábado, julho 15, 2017

International Science Fiction Convention at IST: Sci-Fi LX 2017 - Look Beyond

(Sci-Fi Lx: United for Science Fiction!)

A reason for Portugal's relatively low profile in the English-speaking world vis-à-vis its neighbour Spain is that -- at least not since William Beckford -- the country hasn't had as many high-profile Anglo or foreign writers celebrating it. In Spain, the rich tradition runs from George Borrow, Géricault, Richard Ford, Gerald Brenan, Orwell and Hemingway to Chris Stewart, Cees Noteboom, Ian Gibson and Michael Jacobs (leading to disgruntlement in Spain that the country is often viewed through romantic, yet ultimately foreign eyes). By comparison, the anglo writers on Portugal (Marion Kaplan, Richard Zimmler, Richard Wilson) offer decent enough insights, yet are not literary heavyweights, while Zadie Smith's “Alentejo Blue” did little justice to the Alentejo.

Likewise, while Portugal has exported footballers successfully, it has fared less well than Spain regarding cultural icons. Generally, recurring themes are anachrony, disjuncture, loss-of-glory, timelessness (Wim Wenders' Lisbon story focusing on this, António Lobo Antunes hallucinatory prose on the subject). Saramago is the obvious star, and is also the most rewarding writer to consult on Portuguese/Spanish tensions: he enjoyed a self-imposed exile in Lanzarote, occasionally courting controversy with rampant pan-Iberianism (his 'união ibérica', and suggestions that 'Portugal could only benefit from joining Spain' infuriated his countrymen!), while his marriage to Pilar del Rio was the perfect way to eschew the maxim 'de Espanha nem bom vento nem bom casamento' (From Spain, neither good wind nor good marriage will come). Paraphrasing Eduardo Lourenço, one of our leading Portuguese essayists, we suffer more from a case of excess of identity (Portugal is one of the oldest countries in Europe) than from a lack of identity. The Spanish ruled Portugal from 1580 to 1640, when they were barely the country we've came to know as Spain these days. Our problem is mostly with ourselves and with Africa. The whole decolonization process is one of the main themes of Portuguese contemporary fiction.

Portuguese writing suffered lots of influences, not so much from Spain but specially from France (XIX-early XX century). We must remember that Portugal was under the French influence as early as the French Invasions in the XVIII century. And as a country we were always very independent, even in our writing, distilling influences and allowing very little in - other than the obvious vocabulary and style influences. I think our literature remains original and set apart from the rest of Europe, and from Spain as well. Portugal has a lot of proximity, in my opinion, to a fringe of south American literature, like Borges and Marquez. Not so plush as those, but very intelligent and closed up on itself.

As every Portuguese knows very well, we don't relate to Spain at all... friendly neighbours may we be, but not brothers at heart...


Luis de Camões (16th century); Almeida Garret (romantic poet, novelist and playwriter); Cesário Verde (19th century, the Portuguese "Rimbaud"); Fernando Pessoa (20th); Jorge de Sena (20th); Sophia Breyner Andresen (20th); Ruy Belo (20th)


Eça de Queiroz (novelist, essayst, travel writer, XIX century. Good English translations); José Rodrigues Migueis (20th century, short-stories and novels); José Cardoso Pires (novelist, XX cent.); Vergilio Ferreira (existential novelist); José Ferreira de Castro (20th cent. novelist, travel books); Joaquim Paço d´Arcos (20th cent. novelist, short-story teller; travel writer)


Gil Vicente (XVI cent.); António José da Silva (Comedires, XVIII cent.); Almeida Garret (Romantic period);

NB: I could tell you about Valter Hugo Mãe, who is also a considerable poet, Lídia Jorge, with her post-colonial insights, Mário de Carvalho, surely one of the best analysts of the contemporary Portuguese quotidian, and Agustina Bessa-Luís, a classical writer who is definitely Portugal's greatest novelist. Watch out for Gonçalo M. Tavares, who only started publishing at the age of 31 and has published, in the last 7 years, at least, 22 books. He's currently being translated all over the place.

(Some of my Caminho SF books)

What about Portuguese SF writers? We have a few, but they’re only known in the portuguese SF tribe: João Barreiros, Luis Filipe Silva, António De Macedo, Cristina Alves, Carlos Silva, Telmo Marçal, Victor Frazão, Mário de Seabra Coelho, Marta Santos Silva, Daniel Tércio, David Soares, Filipe Faria, Inês Botelho, João Aniceto, Jorge Candeias, José Saramago, Madalena Santos, Miguel Neto, Nuno Neves, Sandra Carvalho, José Manuel Morais, João Paulo Cotrim, Manuel F. S. Patrocínio, etc. Why don’t we read portuguese SF? This is not a case of not reading Portuguese SF. We don’t read. Period. There’s an urban saying we the Portuguese don’t read because the books are expensive (most new books coming out now might cost at least 15 euros), but I have some difficulty believing that.  What I think is that art, and literature in particular, requires a certain intellectual maturity and familiarity with the language that can hardly be acquired without some culture and education, something that neither abounds nor has ever abounded in our secluded seafront. If wed don’t read the so-called mundane fiction can we expect a vast readership when it comes to SF? Not in a million years! I am not saying that the book price does not influence the number of books bought by those who are interested in reading, be it SF or mundane fiction. Nor do I reject that the publishers may have a net benefit with a fall in prices and a corresponding increase in the market; it’s possible, but not very likely. But the steep price is no excuse for anyone who has not read anything at all for a year. Probably most would not have read anything even if someone paid them to do so. If I were to run a poll on the street, I believe the possible answers to "why the Portuguese do not read?" would be:

A) We are terrible busy and consequently do not have time to read;
B) We don’t have any money to spend on frivolities;

No one would answer:

C) Because I'm a bit of a troglodyte.

Especially when he or she is not guilty of being unaware of his or her own rusticity.

Now, to finish off with a tangent: call me reactionary; If the only thing you read is rubbish we’re better off not reading anything at all (lots of Portuguese Contemporary Fiction is rubbish to say the least). There is nothing inherently helpful in translating scribbles into ideas, unless those ideas have some substance. To make a point, as I have already heard somewhere else, is that it is through the habit of reading Margarida Rebelo Pinto (one of our leading Contemporary writers of the lite-literature of the crap variety) that one may arrive at AntónioLobo Antunes; this is tantamount to saying that it is by the habit of hearing Lady Gaga that one arrives at Bach. That's not quite the way it works.

Most of my Portuguese SF friends (the Tribe) only read SF in English. I’m one of those cases. But I also read Portuguese SF written in Portuguese. What I don’t do is read Anglo-Saxon SF translated into Portuguese. With a only a few exceptions, most of the guys translating SF into Portuguese are not conversant with the genre conventions. Forget it! The question of the prevalence of English-speaking authors in Portugal is thus unavoidable (because we don’t read SF in translation). In my view (and I presume, in the case of those with good judgment and enough SF reading in the bag), the notoriety of many authors who write in English is mainly due to the fact that this is the language that dominates the literary market around the world. I believe that if many of these Anglo-Saxon SF authors were Portuguese, born in Portugal and writing in Portuguese, hardly anyone would hear of them because they wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of being published. Hence foreign authors (English or any other) are not synonymous with quality; at most, they’re posters of popularity (two things often confused) - Vide my review of the latest Brian Staveley. In the same circumstances, were the Portuguese language to occupy a more dominant place in the world-wide literary market, there would probably be enough names of Portuguese-speaking authors on the bestsellers' lists (of course, some with merit and others only to take advantage of the hitchhiking of the language). What about the question of the role of publishers in the dissemination of Portuguese authors (in any literary genre)? Publishers have to make money to publish, and they have to publish in order to make money. It is the vicious circle of the commercial system which unfortunately excludes national works of potential quality and commercial value. It is the financial risk and not the qualitative opposite that has the last word in the decision to publish a book (in my present perspective of the publishing market). What if the publishers were to risk more than what they do on the household names, i.e., in the almost forbidden territory of recent authors? Well, it would be almost a miracle if they just went on a limb by publishing unknown authors. Even the recent bets of two large Portuguese publishing groups of (pseudo) platforms of independent / new / unknown authors seeking to exploit this entryway to new names for purposes of mere financial gain seems stupid. These bets on new authors (digital publishing only) do not carry the same financial risks inherent in publishing physical books, and yet the business (as usual) seems specifically designed to exploit authors and draw readers near to those who pay for print books. What can I say? The absurd transcends the boundaries of ridicule.
Authors need readers, and readers need authors. Despite the explosion of independent authors in the digital market, publishers still play a key role as intermediaries in this relationship. If readers are always presented to the same authors (independently of how they are good), readers will never know new authors (equally good or better).

What happened to the Line of Science Fiction by Editorial Caminho? I discovered lots of Portuguese writers by reading all the books published in this line of SF books.

There many worthwhile discussion panels, but the real treat was the one presented under the title “Enredos inacreditáveis” (“Unbelievable Plots”) moderated by João Barreiros and Cristina Alves; they gave us SF book plots and the audience had to guess the book title and author. All of my sweet spots titillated...

(From left to right: Cristina Alves, João Barreiros and Carlos Silva)

Some of the books we had to guess:

"The Deep" by John Crowley

 "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi

"A Bondade dos Estranhos" (aka "Se Acordar Antes de Morrer") by João Barreiros (A Kindness of Strangers/aka If I Wake Up Before I die)

"Perdido Street Station" by China Miéville

"Dark Universe" by Daniel F. Galouye

NB: This was the only book I couldn't guess the title and author... I've got to read it.

"City of Stairs" by Robert Jackson Bennett

"Tales of Pirx the Pilot" by Stanislaw Lem

Also worth mentioning was the first presentation of the book  "Anjos" (Angels) by Luis Filipe Silva.

(from left to right: Divergências book editor, Carlos Silva and Luis Filipe Silva)

(Anjos' book blurb by Ana Filipa Ferreira)

(Anjos' book blurb by Luis Filipe Silva)

On another registre, Isaque Sanches' presentation on "The Bullshit Art of Game Design" was also quite interesting:

The full programme:

SF = Speculative Fiction.

quinta-feira, julho 13, 2017

Smart-Alecky SF: "Skullsworn" by Brian Staveley

“’If I wanted you dead, you would be dead’?” He sucked some blood from between his teeth, then spat it onto the cobbles. “What is that? A line from some mid-century melodrama? You heard that onstage a few nights ago?”

In “Skullsworn” by Brian Staveley

Reasons to avoid some Fantasy:

1. Trilogies - a story seldom needs 3 volumes, nobody wants to read the 'excluded middle' of tosh, let alone wait for the third volume when they have forgotten the contents of the first - strike George R.R. Martin;

2. Sequel proliferation. Ditto objection 1 squared - strike Eddings et al;

3. Formulaic - It's often better to re-read Tolkien, skipping some of his embarrassing attempts at females than read the whole thing again with different silly names - strike all sorts of piffle;

4. Silly names - countries; cities; people. How about concepts; recipes; politics - invent something - move to include Iain M. Banks 'Culture' - or does invention have to belong to THE science fiction part of SF?

5. Written by die cast. Surely much is the product of hashish and D&D - this you can make up for yourself;

6. Poor writing - to wit the obviously much beloved Staveley - whilst his books were entertaining they are limited by his repetitive vocabulary; why can't his educated characters master the conditional subjunctive…?

One of the common failing of most fantasy fiction is that the morality and emotional conflict of the antagonists is never explored or it feels gimmicky. We get a lot of stuff wherein the good guys become less good, and the bad guys stay smart-alecky. Characters tend to be stupid. It’s how an author can impart information to the reader that the character themselves haven’t picked up on yet. It’s also an engagement tactic: did you guess, right? May as well read the next chapter and find out, you stupid reader. What else? Ah yes. Strong romance...check, Romance the focus...check, World Without Plenty of magic...check, some clichés...check, Some semi-explicit stuff...check. All genres of books have many poor and average writers and some great ones - fantasy writing is just as good as any other kind of writing and the best fantasy provides some excellent analysis and criticism of reality as well as imagining coherent alternative realities and managing to be both funny at some points and gripping at others.  I despair of so much fantasy fiction. There is a lot of landfill quality stuff out there; but also, too many multi-volume epics with formulaic plots. How many more times will that downtrodden turn out to be the heir to the kingdom? (feel free to substitute “ploughboy orphan” by “Assassin that has ten days to kill ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including ‘the one you love / who will not come again.’” or by any other input placeholder you wish).

I don't know why I bother reading crap like this. Staveley no more...

SF = Speculative Fiction.

terça-feira, julho 11, 2017

Dark Underbelly of Utopia: "Use of Weapons" by Iain M. Banks

From the moment I picked up the Culture books eons ago they changed the way I viewed the natural world around me, adding a layer of mysticism to every tree, every rock and every hill; along with a wonderment of what untold stories each has born witness too. I think it's often a combination of the book itself and the moment it comes into your life. I was one of those textbook cases - I had read just about everything by Enid Blyton in English as a child, and had never managed to make the jump (and what a jump it was!) to anything else, with a very tiny vocabulary. Then when I was 16, an older friend who I thought was super-cool (and would have done anything to impress) said that I should try Heinlein. I promptly got “Have Space – Will Travel” and read it, not really understanding what I was reading but at the same time fascinated and excited by the twisted tale. It was at that point, I realise now, that I vowed to try and find out what literature was all about. Many years and many hundreds of books later, I'm still on that wonderful journey, and I'm thankful for having come across him at just the right moment in my life. It was this fact that allowed me, many years later, to “discover” Banks. It was just happenstance; without that I wouldn’t be here writing these words.

So much going on in this one. With Sma, we see the Culture in all its high-minded liberal splendour. Then through Zakalwe we see the gritty, grubby reality of what the Culture's interventionist ideals demand. Add to that one of the more charismatic drones, a dual narrative and one of the most gut-wrenching twists I've ever experienced and you've got yourself a Big Book.

"Use of Weapons" is not a 'gung-ho boy's own adventure', or if you read it that way, you missed the point. It's a pitch-black, bitter satire of every gung-ho boy's own adventure ever, the tale of the indefensible at the service of the supposedly enlightened, the dark underbelly of utopia. It's vicious and cruel but it draws us in because we are so used to this being the way of things especially in military SF: this is the anti-Niven.

To hijack an old axiom - it's 'The Use of Weapons', stupid. TUoW is the 'ur-Culture' novel. It's the one where Banks' trick of basing mind warping, giga-death scale interstellar stunt plotting around a simple, 'man done wrong' storyline built around a relationship between two central characters works best (mostly because of the sting in the tale). “Phlebas”, “Excession”, 'Inversions' all do the same, but not as well as TUoW. Plus, Zakalwe is, arguably, the definitive M. Banks bad-ass hero (and, arguably, the human blueprint for the “Mistake Not”). You know there's a reason why he reappears at the end of “Surface Detail”. Lastly, missing Iain a lot just now. I happened to glance at my book shelf at the weekend and looked along the spines of my Banks collection and thought, "I wonder when the next one's due out?". Then I remembered. Among other things, I never got to ask him what his thing with 'The Wasteland' was all about - ". . . Phlebas" and " . . . Windward".

Reading “Use of Weapons” was a life-changing experience, and Zakalwe is a precious character, his mind a brilliantly messed up the labyrinth of desires and pains.

domingo, julho 09, 2017

Multidisciplinary Show in Lisbon: "Once Upon a Time" at Maria Matos Theatre by LX Dance Group

Just as a cats brain appears to be tickled by certain types of movement, so the brains of many humans appears to be tickled by beauty - giving us a sense of pleasure that I tend to think once served some primordial purpose. Perhaps it still does.

I've also noticed that not everyone appears to share this sensation; humans divide themselves in many ways and one quite striking division is between those who think we ought to survive at any cost, however cramped and crowded, ugly and distasteful the world becomes; and those who prioritize the quality of human life and the life of all other flora and fauna. For the former, beauty appears to me to be a lesser consideration. For the latter, it is of paramount importance.

So if you have beauty in art, for me, you need no other excuse. If you 'deprioritize' beauty and dismiss it as 'sentimentality' you do need some other excuse.

Art for art's sake is an understandable reaction against overbearing ideologues and political activists of every stripe, but beyond that I suspect art cannot separate itself off completely from life. However, the idea of it being useful for any purposes misses the real point of art, which is precisely that it is not useful. Pure science is not in itself useful either, but it might become useful when it influences human practical activities. I think the same applies to art (Dance, Music, Painting, Literature, Opera, Theatre, etc.), although perhaps in a different way. It can help shape our responses to things. Think for example of Hamlet, after Horatio has said, "So Rosencrantz and Guildenstein go to't." and he replies, "Why man, they did make love to this employment. / They are not near my conscience. Their defeat / doth by their own insinuation grow. / 'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / between the pass and fell incensed points / of mighty opposites." Such lines have a kind of application in practical life, even though they are contained within a play and their validity depends on how well they fit into the play's fictional context. There are two aspects here. One is purely aesthetic, while the other one is connected to the world outside the play as well. And, ultimately, the one can't be divorced from the other.

There are several examples of how things we humans do with the most beautiful of motives can so often end in an ugly mess when we sacrifice beauty for practicality or other excuses (waking up everyday to go to work for example). Oscar Wilde could have chosen the practical route, hidden, lied, recanted, done and said anything to save his own skin but he didn't. He wasn't prepared to sacrifice beauty and that's probably why he is remembered and revered. I'm mainly seeking to illustrate the differences between the pleasurable beauty of the aestheticism, derived, as it was, directly from nature (all art - even an accurate portrait - is strictly speaking an "abstract painting", since it is abstracted from nature) and other kinds of beauty we're more familiar with since the 20th century.

For example, that rational, pared down, minimal "machine for living", function before form, detail-less beauty for detail-less minds, empty white box and concrete cube type of beauty. Or the "ugly" beauty of the chaotic - detritus as art, melted carnage, etc. Or "banal" beauty - the mind-numbingly mundane in an art gallery, potted cacti, Tupperware, a recreated 50's living room, that kind of thing.

For me, the one 'abstracted' from nature, is a purer kind of pleasure. The one abstracted from excuses of our own invention not only lacks nobility but also smacks of self-justification.

For those who questioned the (im)morality of his "ethics" Nietzsche would presumably echo Whistler. Nietzsche's master was truth; beyond good and evil; telling us what morality was/is/could be, not what we wished it was/is/could be. 

Telling us that God was absent; that we're on our own in an indifferent universe; that life in general was a momentary minuscule fluke of nature. That we created our world and died failing to sustain it; what a futile act of doomed defiance! But laughing and dancing all the while as he pointed to the paradoxical contradictions in all he said, in all our efforts to find wisdom, to learn, to gain knowledge, to live a good life.

Part of our modern (in a general sense) understanding of "art," allows for considerable social status for the person who makes it, if the maker, or what is made, can persuade someone of its value. That value, of course, may be very transient. The status that society allows an artist is also historically and culturally variable. The ideal of creative freedom is far from universal, but it is true that most societies acknowledge that "artists," in whatever medium, can access a peculiar power.

However times and places define it, "art" as we now rather vaguely understand it, is culture created and presented in a visible and audible form. It can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, from its creation onwards, and it's neither good because it was made/collected by someone with the noblest motive, nor bad because it was made to advertise a corporate product.

Perhaps a better and shorter way of saying this, is that certain things are not quantifiable, because you are dealing with the qualities of something as it impacts on us. There are certain things which happen below the level of language - and understanding - even when words are in question. In this sense, Shakespeare is no different from an abstract dance artist like Fátima Veloso or a composer like Bach, as anyone who has tried to understand what Hamlet's about might tell you.

I think we remember all kinds of art & artists - depending on our personal likes & dislikes. And not even that - every artist of merit should be noted for "his thing" as 'twer - whether you take to the work or not - the artist at least expressed themselves creatively. And isn't that what art is for? For people to express themselves - if the public like what they're doing that's a bonus - if not then "sei's drum".

NB: This show will be presented on the 12th of July by my friend Fátima Veloso, LX Dance's director. The "Nossa Senhora do Amparo" sacred music choir to which I belong will also make an appearance. Yours truly as male tenor will also sing his heart out...

sábado, julho 08, 2017

For the Love of the Game: "Lions vs. All Blacks - 2017 Series - Third Game"

(Owen Farrell goal kicking)

Series tied 1-1 (third's test score: 15-15).

What a game, the Lions put on a defensive effort. I don't think any other country or countries could have withstood the All Black onslaughts, so good and heavy was the defense that I have never seen the All Blacks drop so much ball. At one stage the All Blacks had 78% possession and whilst the Lions never looked like scoring a try they continually repelled the All Blacks.

I don't think the All Blacks tight 5 have received enough praise, they virtually dominated the scrum and negated the Lions platform over the advantage line, something they could do in the 2nd test although with a man advantage. I was slightly perplexed with some of the penalties given in the latter stages of the game by Poite to the Lions that evened up the possession somewhat. Warburton was fantastic at breakdown and stole or slowed down so much ball, with Johnathon Davis a colossus in the mid field.

The question asked earlier in the tour who of the Lions players would make the All Blacks team, currently I would say Davis and Warburton, whilst Itoje is the flavour of the month in the press, I still don't believe he could oust Retallic and Whitlock. I was skeptical with Hansen calling in Laumape and Barrett for their first run on debuts however they were both fantastic, I am not saying Smith and Crotty could have done better however we will never know. It was also good to see the fridge running over people as is his want, with himself and B Barrett making incredible running metres along with the Lions Williams.

Both Hansen and Gatland showed their collective coaching nous and in the end finished with one apiece. I would however be fearful if I was teams in the upcoming Rugby Championships as they now can see what they are up against in this new look All Black team. The Lions can go home with the knowledge they have dented the mighty All Blacks in way not seen since 1971 and all players have finished way ahead in so far as many pundits had given them credit prior to the tests.

I do believe the NZers are in long-term decline. You can feel a drop-off in self-belief after McCaw's departure. They are jittery in possession when subjected to sustained pressure against sides who are fit enough (i.e., most sides now) to make front-on tackles and scramble defend for 80 minutes. The captain Read has no instinct for bargaining with referees. Carter used to convert the goal kicks that mattered. Your current kicker (as well as the other candidates) is flaky to say the least. They are no longer able to get away with head shots on pesky opponents (viz., Williams' and Kaino's sending-offs), something they relied on during the McCaw era as a way of subduing opposition. You can tell also that Hansen has been in the job too long, is too cosy with his favorite players, and cannot see what is going on objectively any more. Moreover, I sensed that having beaten the Lions in 2005, he wasn't desperate enough to do the job this time. Instead, he has been spouting his naff homilies about how rugby is just a game and we'll all have a chuckle and a beer over it later. That is a loser's mentality.

A draw’s a fair outcome of the series, a series dominated by the All Blacks and showed by scoring tries and not allowing the Lions to score a try in the last game, however the style of play by the Lions was the conduit to force the All Blacks to play different styles, styles they have not had to play for a long time, so end in the end it was fitting that a draw is what the game amounted to. A cricket draw is often a slow buildup of mutual respect in terms of skill and mental fortitude Football, basketball, tennis and others are interesting peaks on a cardiogram that soon enough return to a spell in bed and some warming soup. Rugby though, played across a series like this, is something else. The staggering physicality, the mental pressure, the ballet of contradicting genetic attributes and the absolute inherent base respect, conjour a unique cauldron that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Fair play to both teams; they created history by winning nothing. They made more rugby fans proud than if either side had dominated. They walked a path that even those of us who have played at any level, have never walked.

I think rugby is the only sport in existence where a draw can elicit the feeling that this series did. It's just an unmissable sporting spectacle. Bit like the Ryder cup, it's not about the money or fame. They're playing for the love of the game and it's great to see. From my armchair, it seems that this series breathed life into the spirit of rugby. Both sides honoured their shirts on and off the pitch.

sexta-feira, julho 07, 2017

Fragile Cromwell: "Wolf Hall" by Peter Kosminsky

NB: I have not read the novels yet, but I'm afraid I'm going to be a little negative.

I had a “couple” of problems with this drama: firstly, I thought it felt a little 'empty' in terms of atmosphere. The camera-work, lighting and (to a lesser extent) the art-design was, for me, rather 'plain' - as if they were going for a very orthodox, no-frills adaptation of the novels. Likewise, I also thought that the soundtrack was rather dreary and 'safe' - although 'Tudor Pop' admittedly isn't my cup of tea. It would be nice - in general - if TV dramas would take more of a risk with their soundtracks: in the last week, I have re-watched Paul Thomas Anderson's “There Will be Blood” (with Jonny Greenwood's superb, experimental soundtrack) and then saw Birdman (which has a soundtrack almost solely composed of avant-garde jazz percussion) and was struck by how much these films were enhanced by a more original approach to background music.

Secondly, I'm not sure about Mark Rylance as a TV actor. I saw him in several Shakespeare productions and he took my breath away but, on TV, I find him somewhat nondescript and 'static' - which may of course be how they were trying to portray Cromwell... a man who stuck to the shadows and didn't make a name for himself, at first. And, as I suspected, I thought that it showed how much more experience and screen-presence Damien Lewis has during their short scene together - although I also thought that this was Rylance's best scene also.

I thought the decision to cast Rylance was odd when I heard it (appropriate for the fragile David Kelly, but not the bruiser in Holbein's portrait) but presumed the director etc. had something special in mind, because they decided to delay production to get him. I haven’t read the books as I said, but I was still looking forward to this, but I was really disappointed. Rylance is wrong for the role, and he's on screen constantly looking world-weary and sad and old, with his tired eyes and croaky flat voice - not dynamic, not convincing as the former soldier, merchant and lawyer with the vim and brains, social skills and physical presence to rise though the Tudor court. Jonathan Pryce, a better screen actor, looked beaten throughout (even with the time-jumping, I didn't get a sense of 'fall from power'). Half the time I couldn't work out if Rylance wasn't just little startled and a little confused at everything.

I think “The Wire” changed the dimensions on how you introduce a character in a television series. Leave out the exposition and let the viewer gather clues based on their actions. I think in this it was suggesting that Cromwell, now devoid of his emotional grounding, was beginning to shift in character to something more calculating and ruthless. I think the problem with this first series is that they just don't have enough time to cover everything from the books, so they're just diving into the thick of it, with only brief flashbacks to give a feel for what had happened earlier. Especially for those who haven't read the books like myself, it does mean I don't get a real understanding of what made Cromwell who he is, and how he is so very different from all the toffs at court.

I wish the budget had stretched to 8 or even 10 episodes. The Tudors needed 20 episodes to cover roughly the same time period of the books. The scenes have to hang together or cut against each other. They have to relate both in sub-text and plot. This was lacking. Most scenes were isolated little dramas, without any lead in. There was no through-line. Not really. Just a character wandering through each scene. There was also no direction or rhythm to the dissemination of plot and story.  
Rylance is a wonderful actor but physically wrong for Cromwell: he'd have been a ringer for Thomas More, however. And I thought the time-hopping was a bit clunky, relying on wordy captions which weren't left on the screen for long enough.

Bottom-line: At times I was bored to the core of my being; I love history but this was dimly lit, Mark Rylance walked around like a man who was hit in the face with a kipper, Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn) as a woman who had changed the world was portrayed as plain looking with no wit and poor dress sense (Joanne Whalley as Katherine of Aragon was lovely though); the plot jumped more times than a kangaroo; I would rather watch repeats of Scooby Doo; it's worse than “Jamaica Inn” and that’s saying something; I could not watch this to the end; I was losing the will to live; utter drivel.