Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Two mediocre new anime series: "A.I.C.O. Incarnation" and "B - The Beginning"

I watched these simultaneously on Netflix, an episode of each a day, narrowly avoiding getting too bored of either to continue. So I thought I throw them together in a blog review, seeing as neither is quite worth a whole post.

Don't get me wrong, both have some unique styling and appeal. But A.I.C.O. was overly strung out -  if you find it's outro-sequence dull, then don't expect to be riveted by the pace and direction the remaining episodes. While both were less clever than they wanted to be.

A.I.C.O. Incarnation [Spoilers]:

It wins points for having a female lead, for a change, instead of the usual generic young male foil. But she's horrendously demure and half soaked. Plus, there's an utterly excessive amount of sharp intakes of breath from the voice acting: So much shock, so many little embarrassments, so STOP! PLEASE!

The "burst" concept has a cool ring of singularity (or the "spike" in Quantum Thief trilogy). And this has a cool opening sequence, with retrieval agents in trim spacesuits that utilise roller blades for nippy traversal of a futuristic built environment, apparently overrun by Tetsuo's overgrown arm (my little Akira reference, there). The upright palanquin style APCs with two wheeled legs are chic, as is the bigger tank. But these elements all get terribly overused, as the episodes grind their way linearly up the river of nano-engineered flesh run awry.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Why Ghost in the Shell 2017 was terrible

I was a big fan of the 1995 movie and two anime series (Stand Alone Complex), and I previously made a whole big post speculating about the casting for the major in this live action version. I had my concerns for putting Scarlet in the roll, but was somewhat hopeful. However, the issues ending up being more all-encompassing than these...

The movie aped as many superficial elements as possible, names and visuals, from the previous works, to collage a compelling trailer for fans. But it ended up just parading them around somewhat like a psychopathic stalker in the clothes of your significant other (having kidnapped you both), expecting you to love them.

None of the meaning carried over, just generic Hollywood twaddle underneath. The original movies and series were all about complex, subtle thinky material. Not female Robocop - to which it was much closer to that in substance.

The major's characterisation was totally antithetical - from being an impossibly strong, stoic, super-intelligent woman, so much so in the 1995 movie that it's ambiguous as to weather she may be entirely artificial. To this 2017 version where she's an emotional murder machine, socially isolated, with no real agency, who just tumbles along as a victim, rather than always being step ahead of everyone else.

Also, in the original her origin story is important. Important for always being mysterious and barley ever alluded too, building her mystique (explored more in the 2nd Gig, although never entirely explicit). Whereas in this movie we see Johanson's clearly biological brain, in the opening shot.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

"Ascension" [2014]

This mini-series starts out somewhat like "Twin Peaks" [1990] on a generation ship in space: a revered dead girl, with a dark secret and mystical overtones.

There's problematic child acting and an exploitation of Cylon lady's apparently nudity contract. But it was the sheer unbelievably of the setting which almost stopped me at the first episode. (But I was bored and struggling for Netflix inspiration.)

To imagine that a 600 soul ship, complete with farm animals, was launched into deep space concurrently with the first moon missions is orders of magnitude more ridiculous than conspiracy theories denying the landings.

Putting that much mass into orbit would take hundreds of Elon's BFRs (so still decades away), before you even figure out a means of propulsion that has apparently given them 1g acceleration 'gravity' for 50 years... (We're no where near even theoretical solution for that, to this day.)

But there's a twist, come episode 2 that turns all that on it's head, and makes the show even dumber...
[Spoilers below.]

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

UK Election 2017 - Why we need Corbyn's Labour (but won't get it)

Blog Post Contexts Index:

➤ Setting the Scene

➤ Inequality
➤ Xenophobia
➤ Economic stimulus
➤ Housing
➤ Shift focus towards environmental issues
➤ Stabilising financial markets
➤ Towards a Universal Basic Income (UBI)
➤ Positive Money (creation)
➤ Brexit
➤ Voting Conservative doesn't even benefit *anyone's* financial self interest
➤ Ill gotten gains
➤ Ironic hypocrisy
➤ The UK's Sanders
➤ Gentler kinder politics
➤ Think of the children
➤ Life or death (or exacerbated disability)
➤ Terrorist Attacks
➤ "1984" isn't an instruction manual!

➤ Not enough time!
➤ Biased press (the right wing legacy filter bubble)
➤ Memetics
➤ Thought free
➤ Personal appearances
➤ Lies and dirty tricks
➤ Censorship
➤ Gagging
➤ Gerrymandering
➤ Voter suppression
➤ Non-voters (in general)
➤ Party funding
➤ Dark money
➤ Dark ads and big data (I.e. the Facebook factor)
➤ Polls
➤ Committed to the big lie
➤ Terrorism
➤ Rained off
➤ Not mentioned, but not overlooked

➤ Tory majority
➤ Hung parliament

➤ Setting the Scene:

I've never voted Labour. Historically I have decried the traditional right vs left (Conservative vs Socialist) tug of war, in UK politics. It has ignored the liberal axis of debate - the need to protect the individual, our liberties (which have been ignored or actively trampled) and democracy itself. Hence railing for the Liberal Democrats in many previous elections (including back in 2010). But our politics has drifted so dangerously far to the right, now, that I feel a sizeable socialist swing is currently what's most desperately needed.

Also, the national Lib Dem party currently still resembles a smoking crater in the ground, having (unfairly) received all the blame and none of the credit for 5 years of relatively stable, but austere, government in coalition with  the dominant Tories. While the Greens (for whom I voted in 2015), are in no position to swing things (due to our hopeless electoral system), resorting to valiant tactical efforts, stepping aside to support other progressive parties, regardless.

Condensed summary of the Labour manifesto (by @LabourEoin, also here). 

Under Ed Miliband's lukewarm leadership in the 2015 election, the Labour manifesto promised an uninspiring flavour of austerity-lite, having been painted into a corner by our right-wing press and their pet government's dominant (though bogus) 'paying off the national credit card' narrative.

Thankfully, this time, there's a very stark difference between team red and blue. Labour finally crawling out from the shadow of Thatcherism, after the pleasantly surprising result of their internal leadership election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. It was pretty miraculous, given the many interventions from high profile 'Blairite' party members (and the media), branding him as unelectable. Who were bizarrely proposing that the party failed to prevent David Cameron's Tories gaining a full majority due to Labour not being 'centrist' enough.

The 2 years since has seen almost non-stop infighting, with the legacy 'New Labour' guard, refusing to back their new leader, attempting a coop and forcing a second leadership election that Corbyn subsequently won, again, with a large majority of votes. This, despite internal manoeuvres aiming to shut out his ground swell of supports from voting (by banning new members from recent months and, perversely, levying a new fee).

This mirrored the frustratingly outrageous shenanigans in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election, within the democratic party, when Bernie Sanders was stupidly shut out of the running by the party establishment in favour Hillary Clinton. Despite him polling far better against Trump. Of course this lead to the death of real hope (for me anyway) and, of course, the disastrous result.

So anyway, we're very lucky to have a candidate, here, who seems prepared to genuinely push back against some of the worst excesses of the neo-liberal consensus. Although, years of devastating press bias against him, fuelled by suicidal party infighting, means he has started from a massive disadvantage. But with Labour having shrunk the Tory's 25 percentage point head-start, in the polls, down to (perhaps) as little as 3%, there is now arguably hope for change. And this is...


➤ Inequality:

Despite the global 'occupy' protests of 2011 being a distant memory, wealth inequality has only worsened here since. Ongoing cuts and pay freezes have held the majority back, while quantitative easing (QE) has pumped huge amounts of money upwards, inflating the assets of the already wealthy. (In addition to the usual factors still ticking along.)

In 2015 Greece's radical left alliance, the 'Syriza' government, bravely attempted to battle the brutally crushing austerity handed down to them by the EU (ultimately capitulating), as their central banks effectively laundered the Eurozone debts through the country. I blogged at length about this, siting the writings of Yanis Varoufakis, and tying in many other aspects of global macro-economics, finance, debt, etc.

Must of the Western world seems to have, in fact, exacerbated inequality, rather than redressing it. Obama's initially hopeful stimulus went some distance, but he was thoroughly shut down by endless dirty tricks by the Republican dominated congress for the rest of his 6 years.

➤ Xenophobia:

I think the rise of right-wing, anti-immigration sentiment (that fuelled Brexit, for example) is a direct result of this economic squeeze on the population's living standards. At risk of being overly reductive, I imagine this link stemming from an evolutionary instinct for tribes of hunter-gathers to disperse into smaller groups when the pickings are lean (ensuring that at least some survive).

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Black Mirror - Season 3 - Episode Reviews and Discussion

I really like Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror anthologies. It seems exceptionally rare to get high concept sci-fi TV shows these days (good old Star Trek and X-Files long gone). Sure, the sci-fi setting is the Hollywood big budget movie genre default, but those are entirely different beasts: all explosions, or at least relatively little risk in terms of imagination. While space sci-fi TV series are generally quite campy, fairly low concept or very strung out with filler.

Series 3 has been up exclusively on Netflix since 21 Oct 2016.
All the Black Mirror episodes are near future fiction, explicitly examining technologies that might well soon exist and how that could change societal realities. So are generally 'hard sci-fi'. Many can also be taken as commentary on present day phenomena, particularly social media, examining our new normals via the safety of satire. As such I consider the show to be really valuable for potentially catalysing public discourse and personal comprehension of our rapidly changing world.

So I'm gratified that the show has been a success. In fact the performance of the first 2 series on Netflix was so good it convinced the new (self styled) global TV channel/network to steal the show entirely away from it's Channel 4 home (in the UK), commissioning this new season as one of their first directly funded projects.

This season perhaps wasn't quite plumb the depths of distaste or bleakness previously achieved. There episodes range greatly in overall mood, as well as themes. Humor also sometimes interjected with the grim. So overall very entertaining.

Episodic breakdowns below: me opinions and discussion on themes and related issues, with some spoilers further through...

Episode 1 - "Nosedive"

In 2016 we already quantify how much we like everything online. Amazon and Ebay sellers don't make sales unless they the top ranked seller, so they plead for customer reviews and quirm painfully under any non 5-star feedback. We seek approval from others on social media, or at least measure the worth of our creative output by how many likes, +1s, or upvotes it gets. The prestige alone is very motivating. But then we've long had more substantial metrics attached to our person: credit worthiness ratings, and the biggest one of all - bank balance.

So it shouldn't take much imagination to consider the marginal step in technology and society that would create a reality where everyone has a rating floating next to them in augmented reality, such that one need not even evaluate their physical appearance, accent, etc, to get a precise read on their place in society. Then why not have these rankings determined by each other? After all it should encourage and reward being an upstanding member of society...

This piece explores some downsides of that hypothetical development, while lampooning familiar idiosyncrasies of our current time. Like sharing photos of carefully presented, supposedly casual little meals, with twee tag lines. The millions who follow the fake, staged, perfect life styles portrayed by Instagram gurus.
"You have got a solid popularity arc here..." - Screenshot montage.
But really, it stays quite safe, offsetting the dystopian nightmare of this menace by sticking with a surreally clean, modernist, pastel coloured theme throughout. The walled off area guarded by private police, accessible only to high rated individuals (seen towards the end), is a little nod to how dark our present already is. Arguably worst, with the great popularity of gated communities (for example, in the US); society is divided broadly by race and neighbourhood of upbringing.

The story arc spells out how easy it might be to lose this sci-fi social ranking, with little hiccups easily magnified and snowballing into potential disaster. The impossible difficulty of climbing back up only gently referencing our horrendous problems with low and falling social mobility - unprivileged virtually doomed from birth.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

James Lovelock (of 'Gaia' fame) going strong at 97, but is he right to call it quits on saving the planet...?

Screenshot of referenced Guardian article.
In response to this article in the Guardian online:

Yeah, when any headline attempts to be scary by talking of catastrophic climate change consequences by 2100, I personally tune out. All bets are off anything past mid century (see "The Singularity is Near" [2005])... Unless one believes advances in computing/AI and other information technologies are all about to come to an abrupt halt. Well within this century the game will have changed so drastically that additional atmospheric carbon will just be a handy resource for nanotechnological mass fabrication, or an irrelevance.

So I personally identify with much of Lovelocks irreverence, here, regarding the meaning of climate change. Particularly the fantastically flawed ideological foundation of the Greens, which may be badly in need of a rude wakeup call: expecting anything remotely like a return to nature and balance to be plausible?! Anything less than full steam ahead exponential technological progress would be like dabbing the motorbike brakes at the point of daredevil jump takeoff. Steady state 'sustainability' is civilisational suicide. (But as a political party they've otherwise had the best policies I've seen on offer in recent times.)

I don't think that building new nuclear is viable stop-gap anymore, though, we've as good as missed that juncture already. Perhaps a big push in 2004, back when he wrote this linked article: Nuclear power is the only green solution. But by mid 2020s, when the UK's Hinkley point B comes online, it's probably going to seem even more overpriced and ill fitting. (Against the background of plummeting clean energy generation and storage installation costs.)

Coving "100 sq miles of the Sahara in solar panels" as a monolithic solution to all EU's electricity needs is obviously just a mental figure for imagination's sake, so presumably it's just off-handed remark to talk of it being too "easy for terrorists to go and bugger it up". Obvious there's a several fold efficiency benefit to that latitude and local whether. But smaller scale, more localised production will, I expect, win out, in small part because of the security/stability benefits. (Given PV price efficiency continues to improve to the point of making locational efficiency secondary.)

Spiraling out: animated gif, from here.
"A timeline of Earth's average temperature"
XKCD comic 1732.
What does worry me most about climate change is the "20 years before it hits the fan" part (which would be 12 years now, as of 2016), with regards to the truly mass migrations this will force and how politically catastrophic that's likely to be. That is, given how divisive the relatively small number (few million) from Syria, and the regional cluster-fuck, have been for Europe thus far (playing into the Brexit vote). How much war is there going to be?

A definitive end to the 'long peace' (since WWII) is a scary prospect. Even before considering all the (tactical ) nuclear weapons lying about. The horrendous suffering for countless humans (quite possibly even those of us currently living in complacency) is an aside that Lovelock's enthusiasm for the big picture fails to register. So too here, pretty much - ultimately, what matters most is only how much conflagrations might derail technological progress (or wipe us out entirely).

Last year, Venkatesh Rao wrote (in The Atlantic) of how a sufficiently coordinated, effective response to climate change would require a literal war footing, with the kind of personal sacrifice of living standards and freedoms that has previously involved. As for it being "so much cheaper to air-condition the cities [than the whole planet]" (Lovelock Guardian interview 2012) - sure, I love that kind of enthusiasm for minimal effort adaptable ingenuity as the kind of inevitable compromise outcome. ) But where will we be growing the vast majority of our crops for the next few decades? That long tail-off before true factory (vertical) farming production scales up enough? (Or more radical solutions kick in - like Kurzweil's wholesale replacement of human digestive organs.)

Finally, talking about "robots taking over" only in the context of Earth makes very little sense. We squishy, slow meatbags are already aiming at interplanetary colonization, starting in a decade (well, you know, that one guy has certainly been saying so this week). So the meager terrestrial resources that 'robots' who think "one million times faster" that us might command down the bottom of this gravity (an empire of dirt) are likely to be a pretty niche concern by comparison to what already floating around out there...

Sunday, 25 September 2016

On: "Knights of Sidonia" Anime (and Related Current Affairs)

"Knights of Sidonia" totes plenty of whizz-bang space battles with giant mecha suits piloted by teenagers repeatedly fighting incomprehensible space monstrosities that attempt to tentacle humanity to death.... But! Push past the facade of these overused anime tropes and be rewarded by a rich, engaging space opera.

Summary - Components of This Well Assembled Pastiche:

There's a strong 'hard sci-fi' undercurrent carrying the story along and underpinning a decent amount of attention to detail.

Then there's teenage awkwardness, of course, and tensions in a kind of high school-ish setting (of the pilot academy). The socially inept protagonist, chosen-one (Nagate), who alone can pull the joysticks of the legendary armour suit to it's full potential... But thankfully it's never as paralytically morose as NGE (Neon Genesis Evangelion).

It is respectably gritty, but not like the gratuitous gore of Akira. It has decent depictions of the brutal suddenness of war. This is brought home via the perspective of sympathetic characters, mostly very young, like the unlucky soldiers of real wars. But, of course, the fantastical space setting and perversely monstrous threats make it psychologically gentler (safer) for an audience to engage with emotionally.
Yuhata Midorikawa's different faces.

It also avoids being too bleak via juxtaposing the relatively low key social tribulations of the pilots, burgeoning on adulthood. Prime example of this is Yuhata. She swings between command responsibilities, gambling everyone's lives, to then be the star-struck, boy obsessed, teen girl. (Also gluing together geeky toy models kits in her spare time.)

There's a definite 'harem' sub-genre element running throughout, adding lighter notes, with support character developement and romantic intrigue. With three main contenders for Nagate's attention, there are few other females encountered who don't also make a play at some point, brood over him or have a twinkle of possible interest. These are mostly relatively subtle, making sense in context, since our protagonist is deliberately set up to be an inspirational hero who necessarily appeared mysteriously from no-where. An attractive combination, I suppose. But then this blank slate POV character with an open selection box of different flavoured lovers meshes rather neatly with the psyche of the core young-ish male demographic. Who would not love to imagine themselves as an overlooked darkhorse hero themselves? (If only they had their moment to shine or step out of themselves!)

Residential interior of Sidonia - caricature of the 
dense, hilly urbanisation of 'spaceship Japan'?
The flip side of all these female characters is that there are a whole lot of complex, strong female characters. In fact, they run the ship, from captain to XO, to commander, chief engineer, dorm mother, genius doctor/scientist. So, I suppose that even if this is basically down to the Manga artist/author enjoying drawing the female form more, then so be it. The result is good overall, although the bias towards showing only female communal 'photosynthesis' room scenes feels a little exploitative.

Also thrown into the pot are the unavoidably ubiquitous anime tropes of instant karma for (accidental) male lechery, always receiving a bloody nose, usually quite directly off a fiery female. Plus an alpha dog bully antagonist with long, grey/white hair and a massive family inheritance. But even he has an interesting story arc.

Finally, the art style is seamless 3D CGI. It's more noticeable in the space action scenes, when things look a little bit Tron - monochrome with neon highlights. But then it blends into a more rustic feel while inside sidonia's city spaces, with familiar cartoon stylings. The characters faces generally appear unnoticeably traditional. There's a retro aesthetic flavour, too, with the uniform outfits: almost storm trooper-esq, with stuffed up gear. There's some disconcertingly high flung, pointy boobage going on, but we'll put down to genetic engineering and/or reduced gravity, and move swiftly on...

The marriage of high tech space mecha, moving city(ies) of giant rusty pipes and cthulhu-ish space monsters is similar to, though far less gordy than, 2013's "Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet".

Original Manga vs Anime:

The anime appears to follow the original manga (comic) publications very closely. Almost shot for shot, with only some minor sequence juggling and tweaks here and there. So while I'm talking about the Knights of Sidonia (KoS) anime here, most comments apply to both.

Given that the manga has concluded already, it's a little tempting now, after watching season 2, to just read the final third (volumes 44-78, or thereabouts), rather than wait while the animation studio is apparently finishing up with a different project. It would save totally forgetting the plot details a second time.

But the video format is more compelling and I often struggle more to figure out what's supposed to be happening in the strips. It's a far more mentally tiring and different experience. At only 20 minutes per episode and a dozen per season, it's probably almost as quick for me to watch as read and digest the corresponding 20 odd manga volumes with 30 or so pages a piece. Plus you get to hear the cute Japanese voices and groovy theme tunes.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

On: Stephen Baxter's "Raft"

Trying to branch out to new authors, and potentially new series, Stephen Baxter was a name that has come up a fair bit and particularly his "Xeelee" universe novels. I took a chance, aiming to start back at the beginning, with "Raft", from 1991.

A quarter century old now, it shows it. Not so much via obsolete direct technological references, which are ducked via context. (Although there is one to a large IBM computer, which stood out). It's more the immaturity of the writing.

The setting is ludicrous in the details of it's physical infeasibility, but a fairly novel premise: what if the gravitational constant, in a parallel universe, was crazy strong, such that cosmology scaled right down to human sizes? Stars the width of towns, 'planets' a few dozen 'yards' across (not sure why he chooses imperial here). Throw a bunch of (former) space faring humans into the mix and what weird, appalling, structures might their descendants inhabit there...?

Friday, 16 October 2015

Hannu Rajaniemi's "Quantum Thief" Trilogy


The pinnacle of high-concept, hard sci-fi, space opera cyberpunk, seemingly packed with every single concept the author could find, and he's a very smart guy: physicist, mathematician, cosmologist, recently launched a synthetic DNA start-up (via his TEDx talk). Finnish, but writing while in Edinburgh, literally hanging out with Charlie Stross, it's no coincidence that he's taken up the baton of writing the most futurism-idea dense, fast-paced (show don't tell) space-romp fun. Think "Accelerando" with the breakneck pace of "Singularity Sky". Stross surpassed I.M.Banks for this crown (in my mind), with stories that made traditional (mainstream) spaceship fiction look like quaint period dramas, pootling about in sail ships.

Mind uploads, planet scale computronium and all types of Singularity as obvious givens for Hannu Rajaniemi. He imagines the consequences of massively duplicated and branched individuals, in a complex future where identity and memory are slippery constructs and inequality has been inflated to vertiginous levels. It is cyberpunk, spun out, with contemporary nationality wiped away by subcultural identities flung across the entire solar system.

References are littered everywhere, at every scale of the telling, from throw-away pop-culture name drops (of famous games, anime series, etc), to terms for Ukrainian governance sub-divisions, to politics, philosophy and the (centuries old) historical origins of transhumanism. The books are so thick with meaning that they're far bigger than themselves; overloaded; virtually all the names and terminology (while sounding awesomely fitting, also) link the reader out to explore countless Wikipedia articles and culture.

Each of the three books has it's own distinct flavour, thematic reflections: personal, social (structure), philosophical and particular literary influences. Each also converges on a different planet, so their sub-arks cohere well as separate books. But they undeniably form a very carefully pre-planned and crafted whole. Densely plotted, too: subtle elements of the very first chapter of the first book become key through to the last. So, although Rajaniemi weaves in little reminder snippets here and there, it's highly advisory to read these books consecutively, and even then it may be worth checking out glossaries and/or synopsis in between.

If you are reading my blog, then you may well be within the core audience for this story, too. It fits perfectly with everything I've aimed to write about here myself. Other reviewers have complained of these books flying over their heads. Certainly I've been compelled to re-read sections, research meaning, etc, and am still not certain of precisely what happens in the conclusion. It is, however, definitely wrapped up properly. And I've had a virtually parallel (although even less than mediocre) academic path through physics and computer science, with strikingly overlapping cultural influences to the author (being, myself, only a little younger).

So perched atop the shoulders of high-concept sci-fi past, I'd definitely not recommend this series to the genre naive! Something to build up to, even more so than advice for readers to get a feel for Culture novels before embarking upon "Excession" or "Use of Weapons". Even then, you'll probably have to just roll with punches and maybe go back to pick out more of the details later. But  worth the effort and it works on multiple levels anyway!

[1] Quantum Thief (332 pages):

The first and best of the three. There is just no way that the others could ever have competed with the addictive rush from the tidal wall of novelty this installment hits you with! Also, with so much still a mystery, the fictional solar system feels bigger and far more real; a story in a crazy place, rather than about the place itself (which is more the case as the books progress).

The main setting here is also the most compelling in its familiarity, being structured around extreme technologically enabled privacy, with surveillance and control through information, all pressing issues (much like our present). The morally ambiguous gentleman thief character archetype drops perfectly into this setting, initiating the serie's liet motif of examining imprisonment, imposed control, security, enforced uniqueness, versus theft, liberation, diversity, etc.

[2] Fractal Prince (331 pages):

Feels the most out of place with the city of "Sirr"; it's characters didn't quite fit for me, or at least they are less knotted up with the plot than most of the others (arbitrary and single use by comparison). Twaddud felt stilted. Also, my disbelief was stretched thinnest here, with a core plot mechanism that could be a satire of Hofstadter's "Strange Loop" concept.

It's probably the easiest book to get lost in, which is saying something, since there are glimpses of deeper meaning secreted in plain sight throughout the trilogy, like fractal detail to gaze upon during re-reading. But this novel's "Arabian Nights", story(s) within story(s), "Inception" like structure doesn't help, and the intermingled interludes and flashbacks gain more concrete context from reading the next installment.

[3] Causal Angel (303 pages):

Neatly ties together all the pieces, places and people previous covered. Yet it is slightly shorter than the previous two books and feels shorter still. The plot is more linear, like it is following the ballistic trajectory that was set in motion.

Perhaps it could have dwelt a little longer on certain places and people; maybe some of the developments risked feeling a little too emotionally gymnastic, or unremarked upon. Although the core characters were developed across the entire length of the ark.

Discussion (SPOILERS Ahead!):

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Audacity of Yanis Varoufakis - Understanding Global Macroeconomic Stability and the Greek Financial Crisis

Rough Contents Overview:
  • Varoufakis, a quick profile.
  • Global Minotaur book/concept.
  • Exchange rates, trade surplus issues and history.
  • China, 'Chimerica' & Niall Ferguson, currency wars.
  • Greece - historical context, specific precipitating factors.
  • IMF's ills.
  • Bitcoin and Max Keiser.
  • Piketty, inequality and Gates.
  • Referendum result and Resignation.
[2015-06-18] The ongoing Greek financial crisis dedlock has been continually misreported as if it is a simple, political tug of war: little Greece trying to barter an arbitrarily better deal from big EU lending countries. But this narrative excludes essential dimensions which have massive implications for the entire world! The bulk of this can, I think, be covered by talking about this chap's writings and hopeful approach...

He's the finance minister for Greece's latest Government, Syriza - a rainbow coalition of small, 'radical left' leaning parties. I almost wish this political agglomeration would inspire something similar in the UK, to tackle the insurmountable FPTP electoral system. Syriza united behind a popular mandate to begin rolling back half a decade of failed austerity measures, privatisations and restructuring forced upon Greece by the 'Troika'. This triumvirate comprising the IMF, EU and ECB, imposed these conditions in exchange for further, massive, unpayable debts.

Varoufakis is no career politician. Brought in by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, he's not even a party member, persay, more like a passionate consultant. A globetrotting, professional economist, no less, who has continued his blogging despite his new post. We should be so lucky! After graduate and masters studies in the UK, he fled Thatcher's 3rd term for 12 years tenure in an Australian university and a year in Texas. He recently advised Valve on growing their Steam platform globally before being drawn back to Athens and his home land. [Wikipedia-1]

With looks that wouldn't be out of place in a Bond villain, and a mellifluous cadence, he meticulously and gracefully answers any and all questions with carefully selected metaphors and examples. He is a formidable speaker in English, and someone to whom Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel economist and ex World Bank chief) pretty much defers to [New Economic Thinking Video]. In fact, Varoufakis' government position has been described as analogous to Obama appointing the well known Keynesian, Paul Krugman, or the aforementioned, world famous inequality expert, Stigltz [NYtimes via twitter].

With a father who fought on the communist side of Greece's civil war (1946–49) and having set up local (PASOK) youth movement, Yanis describes himself as an 'erratic Marxist' and preaches 'pragmatic egalitarianism'. A term I much like. With contributions to the field of game theory research, and the build of a rugby player, he must truly be an intimidating prospect for the European bureaucrats with whom he has been tasked to negotiate. So its of little surprise that he's had to, cooly and calmly as always, belay the repeated claims from 'leaks' and attacks on him via the (dodgy Greek) press, and distorting, confrontational lens of the international coverage.
The audacious part is that he appears to be out to apply his key macro-economic insights directly to where they could have the biggest, widest reaching beneficial effects on the composition of the entire Eurozone (and beyond)! A step up from the radical academics in fiction: Indiana jones or Tom Mason. I'd go as far as to hold him up besides world super-hero Elon Musk, if he succeeds at all.

Physicists - Yanis' initial interest in this degree subject, before switching to an economics degree (the lingua franca of political discourse) [1], leads me to feel an affinity with him and his approach. It was my first degree, which I chose because it seemed seem to contain the most fundamental factors for understanding everything (and for engineering the biggest changes to the universe).

Elon Musk was also a physicists, dropping out days into a PhD to make his millions on the dot com boom. He's famously talked about the subject's necessary thinking style of "first principles reasoning", "a framework of thinking that would allow understanding counterintuitive elements of reality" [BuinessInsider], that seems obvious to us scientist/engineer types, but seems regarded as a magical secret sauce by standard business types. I've already sung Musk's praises in my hyperloop post.

I hope(d against hope) that the Eurocrats can bring themselves to pay him serious attention, because he's not out to win as much ground for team-Greece as possible. The repayment postponements have been aimed at creating time for constructive dialogue. He's consistently projected far more hopefulness than the prevailing media narrative of political conflict we've heard, which has a perversely myopic focus, seemingly intent on self-fulfilling a doomsday scenario.

He's been penning, and repeatedly revising since 2010, a pragmatic "modest proposal" (with expert co-authors) that would quickly resolve the situation. It uses only existing institutions, without call for fanciful systemic overhaul. Yanis understands the hope and expectations riding on Syriza (and himself), and talk about the opportunity for Europe to "reboot". But has also stated that "we are not interested in imposing our views monolithically on the rest of Europe [Greece] is too tiny and too bankrupt to do that" [at 12:18 in this radio interview].

His ambition is to lay matters bare. Obviously he's been seen by some as rude and too strident, and I'm not sure his core ideas have even been listened to, let alone seriously considered. It feels like it may be a case like a expert employee trying to get their boss, with only qualifications in business management, to understand a fundamental technical limitation or requirement in their business, but the one in charge is blind to any reality beyond their costings spreadsheet. Does not compute and they probably even resent the impudence of their lesser rank knowing more than them. And that's before considering any influence of powerful figures who stand to profit from disaster and failures, via whatever arcane financial mechanisms they've cooked up.

Since starting this piece (several weeks back) a deal has been seeming decreasingly likely [BBC]. It was always going be a last minute compromise, at best, but it does feel increasingly like that may have been unrealistic. Despite haing to work up the details of the exit plan, Yanis is still pushing hard to be heard and save the day (as of 2015-06-19). But with talk of an all out run on their banks this weekend it sounds pretty much like game over [ZeroHedge].

Edited book cover image (from Yanis' blog).
Anyway. Varoufakis' big insight is "The Global Minotaur" - a beastly financial aspect of the United States that has stabilized the world economically (and therefore politically) via its huge, brutal consumption. More specifically, the state of affairs that existed since 1971, when America's world dominating, post world war trade surplus inverted. Instead of re-balancing, Nixon's Government decided to actively feed the country's trade and budget deficits to the max, shooting the moon. They relied instead upon attracted their exported dollars for re-investment in the American pie, vacuuming them back up via the wonders of international investments in Wall Street!

This one-sided flow of capital (goods and investment) was so powerful a sink of capitals as to neutralise the effects of national trade surpluses all around the entire world. It maintained a somewhat grim, global stability. This is comparable to the ancient regional stability fostered by the tyranny of feeding King Minos's labyrinthine bound, hybrid monster of Greek legend; a probable mirror of a real historical situation of lavish (human and economic) tributes proffered to Crete, in subordination to its dominance.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sense8 and Technological Empathy

This show has a decidedly slow, somewhat uncertain first episode or two. But stick with it for gradually evermore rewarding viewing. Part of it's virtue is in not having to justify its creation with a pilot episode and not feeling the need to simplifying it's backstory into a 18 second opening montage (iZombie, for example). Here, the viewer is asked to absorb the rich background texture as the plot is resolved, rather than marching straight into a clockwork orrery of comic book waypoints.

The international settings initially brought to mind "H+: The Digital Series", an insanely ambitious YouTube serialised sci-fi from 2012, which I really liked. I was then briefly worried by a reference to a drug "DMT", since this was (ab)used as the axiom for "Lucy" (2014).
Screen capture montage from title sequence.
But Sense8 settles down comfortably into more of a Cloud Atlas feel, with unlinked or loosely linked character narrative sections spread spatially around the world, instead of echoing through time (as in the 2012 movie). This parallel should be immediately obvious given the shared production personnel (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski) and signature acting talent (South Korean, Bae Doona). I think this series far more successful than that film, avoiding any 'yellowface makeup' [1] awkwardness and utilising a host of beautiful real-world settings from the actual cities involved (probably awesome in 4k video).

Sense8 is far more critically worthy than the silly sci-fi-action romp Jupiter Ascending, from earlier this year. Although this series similarly 'deviates from typical gender dynamics' [2], it also escapes the prerequisite blockbuster explosion festival, stilted script and cardboard acting. It achieves a distinct, waltzing poetry with punctuated by serendipitous plot alignments.

There is a heavy emphasis on exploring emotion, cultural identities and sexualities, family, close friendships and even religion. Showing the overwhelming interpersonal similarities despite great diversity. If ever a piece of fictional work aspired to present contemporary global humanity in it's entirety, this would be it.

I hope this sci-fi-lite framework will appeal more to a universal audience (i.e. feminine positive). It's great that it manages to totally drop CGI reliance. It's inspired in comparison to current typical superhero movies/series, copy-pasted comic book stylings. Far from the old sci-fi standard, white American dystopia/space-opera.

So don't expect a Heroes (2006) all action plot. This is far more reflective, mostly good for chilling out. But the threads do dance together for a triumphant peak about 2/3rds the way through, the like of which I've not experienced from the Wachowski's since the culmination of the original Matrix (1999). It is certainly watchable and gets increasingly compelling, perfect to semi-binge over a several days.

Discussion and spoilers below...

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

"Vitamin supplements can increase risk of cancer and heart disease"

 ... Says a university blog reporting on a conference talk by a guy referring to 3 old studies (and this 2012 review). My headline comes from the Guardian online [1]. It's pretty distorted (bad) reporting, but what it talks about is still very relevant:

Smokers who have already done large amounts of DNA damage in their lungs should not super-dose supplemental vitamin A (in particular). High dose vitamin E supplementation increases risk of prostate cancer in those deficient in selenium. Vitamins can not cure cancer. In fact, folate in particular is like steroids for tumours; do not supplement with this (and certain other things) if you already have cancer!

Basically, the name of the game is balanced your personal nutrition and avoiding deficiencies. Interestingly, the main reason most people on a 'standard diet' aren't deficient in most B-vitamins is because breakfast cereals are fortified with supplemental B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12 (and iron). You needn't worry that these are forced down your throat, so to speak, because these B's are all water soluble, trivially easily excreted by the body (but needed every day). B12 is a special example, that could/should be supplemented at far higher levels (particularly for vegetarians), since it's very important but commonly self-absorbed, while being super-safe (I currently happen to be on ~150'000% of RDA). Although going gluten and diary basically free means you have to insert your own supplements and/or eat liver (to avoid digging yourself into a nutritional hole).

The fat solubles (A, D, E, K) require a little more care because they accumulate in the body over time, with active vitamin A (retinol) potentially toxic at only ~80 times RDA for over 6 months (less in kids). However, these 4 (and vitamin C {and magnesium}) are the ones you standard eaters are most likely to be deficient in [1 - Chris Kresser]. But again, you don't have to sorry too much about supplementing provided there is a balance of particular vitamins. For example vit-D protects against vit-A toxicity and visa versa. So go for a good multi-vitamin (taken with foods including fat, for absorption). Vit-A toxicity is perhaps more notable because vit-D deficiency is endemic in our northern latitudes (due to negligible sun exposure and low oily fish consumption). Also note that it's effectively impossible to overdose on vitamins and minerals from whole foods (due to similar protective effects of counter-balance).


Water soluble (i.e. necessary daily) vitamin C is more variable in it's need, with an immune response potentially  using ~5 or so times more than RDA. While magnesium is so vitally essential in all enzymes involved with energy (ATP) creation that it should really be a front line GP remedy for general fatigue (given the level of deficiency, and that alcohol can double it's excretion rate, etc [2 - Dr Rhonda Patrick]). It happens to form the core of every chlorophyll molecule, oddly (hence aiming for leafy greens is good).

[2] (Magnesium Deficiency)