Wednesday, 22 October 2014

ScarJo for GITS? Alternative Actresses (Image Montages) & Thoughts on the Remake

Recoloured sketch augment by me (2009)
'News' of the possible casting for Ghost in the Shell seemed rife the other night (Guardianio9, IGNetcetc). Probably because Facebook's algorithm can clearly see that I've LIKED the GITS film and SAC pages. Dipping briefly into the milieu of rabid fan comments, some alternative names cropped up that sparked me to think I might feasibly use this topic to squeeze a few film reviews into a single post (but then time and length over-ran, so they got their own posts).

Firstly, let me apologise for abbreviating Miss Johansson's name in the title, since she's reported as stating that the contraction "...sounds tacky... lazy and flippant... violent...[and]...insulting..."; a press convention designed to diminish women. This according to The Atlantic on "Scarlett Johansson's [Subversive] Vanishing Act" Note the partially redacted title! lol.

I would actually be fairly pleased with this casting choice in general. I have been pretty impressed with the direction she's taken with her acting roles (aside from the big Marvel money makers): oozing charisma through voice alone in "her", then reversing that completely with the disturbingly cold, emotional sparsity of "Under the Skin" (both 2013). The latter film could be taken quite literally as a metaphor for how the media industry feed on male weakness, using up successive starlets; all lust with no real intimacy pay-off.
Scarlett Johansson's shown she has the intensity. (Left: Under the Skin. Right: GITS 1995)
Whether she's deliberately challenging herself or even being a feminist heroine via clever casting choices is debatable. Obviously her sexuality never goes unnoticed, or uncommented. Supposedly it is flaunted in "Lucy" (2014 - though I've yet to watch it), in which her character uses "looks... as a utilitarian instrument of revenge" [Atlantic]. Obviously these 'looks' also woo a certain audience segment, too. This sounds just fine for Motoko's role, in certain respects. If this live action film leans towards the more overtly sexualised Major of the TV series (even more so the original manga...), then Johansson's reputation may be even more fitting (for better or worst).
http://lewyland.blogspot.com/2014/10/on-her-2013.html

My enthusiastic review extended into a whole blog post.
My concerns with Scarlet are more on how convincing fight scenes might look; I remember Scarlet's secret agent action role in "Iron Man 2" broke the 4th wall for me, in terms of believability for the physical capabilities of her body shape. Actually not so terrible, reviewing that scene. But the major generally goes toe to toe, rather than mauling opponents like a demented, Kung Fu squirrel. Maybe this inflexibility is a sexist failing on my part; "refus[ing] to embrace women in their entireties." [Atlantic].

Emily Blunt - has greater stature and already filed a military command role as Rita Vrataski (image above). She also has under her belt (the pretty decent) sci-fi action "Looper" (2012), with "Adjustment Bureau" (2011 - blogged here) rounding out the A-list of male action stars shes played support to. She actually turned down the 'Black Widow' role that now lets Johansson net serious money as an establish action star ($10M on the table for GITS). So if the current casting falls through (again), maybe history will be mirrored.

My blog post with analysis and criticism.
Blunt reminds me strongly of Keeley Hawes (in Ashes to Ashes): aside from being somewhat identical, both are type cast as indomitably assertive women with posh English accents. Which is all good. But I've yet to see Blunt in a lead role, and she seems to have a tendency towards hanging slightly agape, rather than tight lipped, steely determination.

Rinko Kikuchi - you might have hoped, would be more of an obvious choice, given that she's a japanese actress who has starred in a number of (English language) action blockbusters, (including 'Mako Mori' in the terrible Pacific Rim, see linked post below). Sadly, I think her accent is too strong to deliver the necessary philosophising with any serious weight (in a language I can comprehend, anyway).

'Whitewashing' is pretty depressing phenomena, but in the case of this particular film remake it would  be pretty excusable. The context for the original is an entirely fictional metropolis, in Japan, but heavily multicultural. The Section 9 team is comprised of members from all over the world, who met up during (non nuclear) WW3, or thereabouts. The major's ethnicity is never firmly established, in fact her original humanity is even left ambiguous in the 1995 movie. She can look however she wishes, in that she wears a cybernetic body, and that body happens to look fairly generically caucasian. Equally then, there's no technical reason she could not be played by a black actress, or any other skin colour.

My critical review. Image, right: 'Hello, my name is Commander Shepard Mako Mori, and ARRRGGGHH!...'
Eliza Dushku - the wonderful "Dollhouse" (2009) was created by Josh Whendon as a vehicle for her talents. Plus she always fit her action role in Buffy far more convincingly than Miss Gellar (in the lead role). Obviously Dushku would lack big screen draw, probably too embedded in her cult niche for marketability, etc.

Natalie Portman - definitely has the acting and box office clout. Maybe "Black swan" (2010) proved she still has the physicality for convincing action scenes, having been away since "Star Wars Episode II" (2002). Her filmography of late has included the doe eyed (supposed scientist) wench to Thor, the forgettable "No Strings Attached" (2011) and the supposedly tongue in cheek (but in practice just cringworthingly terrible) "Your Higheness" (2011), which I've not forgiven. Her portfolio has sunk in my estimation as Johansson's has risen, perhaps passing by around the time they co-stared in "The Other Boleyn Girl" (2008).

Girls with Guns - Dushku, Portman, Rapace, Moss, Glau.
Noomi Rapace - as the plucky heroine in "Prometheus" (2012), she showed that petite ladies can rule big budget action flicks. Perhaps this merely echoed, rather than surpassing Sigourney Weaver's epic intensity in "Alien(s)". She garners even more credibility from the original (Swedish) "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2009) adaptation, where she really got the sullen/serious look nailed.

Carrie-Anne Moss - I bet could totally still pull this off, and would make a great counterpoint to the list of 30 year olds* I seem to have made here, let alone the Jennifer Lawrence aged kids. (* Motoko is supposedly 31.)

Summer Glau - Prima ballerina skillz worked perfectly for fight scenes in the Firefly"/"Serenity" role of enigmatic psychic ninja - 'River Tam'. Less impressed from what little I've seen of her as a Terminator and I can't help but feel that while she might still nail the disquieting (creepy girl) stoicism, she would lack the Major Kusanagi gravitas. Couldn't not include her promo picture for "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" (right) which is clearly heavily GITS influenced, although it would appear to put her more in the role of Project 2501...

[?] - My ideal preference would be for someone totally unknown, or at least unrecognisably cast, completely out of the blue. Removing the distracting baggage of recognition and previous exploits. I also can't help but feel that none of the lovely actresses I've listed above are really the right fit. Things are far more difficult when the voice and body have to be sourced from a single individual.

Rachel Nichols - should actually have been my top choice, but I nearly forgot her altogether! She is perhaps less well known than she deserves, due to bad luck and casting: She was being groomed to take over the lead role in "Alias" (where she first received combat training), right before it was canceled (2006). Embarrassingly unrecognisable as Uhura's green skinned, slutty dorm mate ("Star Trek" 2009). She also starred as one of the live action dolls in silly CGI-fest G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra that same year, before co-starring in the long troubled and stillborn production of "Conan the Barbarian" (2011).

Near perfect for any fight scenes, she's like an action hero version of Jodie foster. Her lead role as plucky anti-victim in the small budget "P2" (2007) reminded me of "Panic Room" (2002)... plus their faces are similar. Generally fairly conservative; she's not one for revealing all, but there's no reason the remake need be too explicit. Others above might be considered better at delivering lines, close up, but, in her favour, she already plays a hard nosed, future super-cop!...

Actually, I only knew of Nichols as the central protagonist in "Continuum" (2012 onwards). This relatively low budget, but ambitious, Canadian TV series is a shining example of a new wave of sci-fi. I'd even say that, as 'Kiera Cameron', Nichols is already the spiritual successor Major Kusanagi. She's always convincing when taking a kicking, but keeping on ticking, with some brilliantly choreographed fights later in series run. Certainly one can see several obvious (and some more subtle) echoes of the influential work here (I already made comparisons in the post linked below). But it goes way beyond skin tight invisibility cloaking, update and pulling in fresh sci-fi tropes...


My brief impressions of the show up to end of series 2.

Cameron is a cyborg-lite, with an embedded computer enhanced central nervous system, rather than a heavy handed full body prosthesis. Super robots might have seemed more plausible to a Japanese audience at the top of the 90s, after decades of seemingly unstoppable economic and technological growth. (Of course, no one country can sail that far ahead of the rest of the world; their bubble burst in the crash of 1991, soon after Shirow published the original manga, with a "lost decade" or two following, now Japan has, by far, the highest national debt ratio in the world!)

The potential evils of Corporate hegemony, encroachment of authoritarian police control and terrorist ethics are the bread and butter of this series. The increasingly blurry balancing point between these is where we dwell. I think this dimension of moral ambiguity was not really seen in GITS, where the members of "Section 9", despite being the government's secret hit-squad, are actually all straight up heros. The plays for power generally come from top government brass and other sections of it's military. More about tyrants than a the nebulously corrupting ultra-capitalist paradigm, that is more relevant to us today.

While Continuum does deal with the question of personal autonomy verse manipulation (and indoctrination), it stays well away from AI. Because of this, there's no philosophising about the 'ghost' (i.e. consciousness) or super-human intelligence, so there's still plenty of ground for a contemporary GITS to re-explore.

Timing Of the Remake - The renewed activity on this live action remake coincides with an apparent resurgence in the public's appetite for, and film industry's interest in, (something not entirely unlike) space opera. Certainly Marvel's move towards superheroes in space has got some (at io9) excited, with James Gunn's GOTG (2014) proving a somewhat unlikely hit.

Theres the imminent release of the very promising "Interstellar" from Chris Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Batman, Inception), although Mark Kermode's more excited about it's premiere on celluloid film. Then the much anticipated (i.e. delayed) "Jupiter Ascending" from the Wachowskis, hopefully at the beginning of next year. Looking slightly further out, I'm still very interested in the "Avatar" (2009) sequels, estimated to start around 2016.

This excellent Guardian piece (that I've just stumbled upon), points at 9/11, foreign wars and environmentalism as prime movers prompting the cultural distaste for space. Which isn't wrong. But I feel the resurgence may echo the move out of recession into a period of growth... Vampiric indulgence seems more prevelent towards the end of an economic cycle, with complacent thoughts of staling immortality. Zombies obsession overruns the depths of the down-swing (perhaps escapist fantasy epics too). Now these get overlooked, against a background of grassroots recovery, as the population gazes further afield, into the unknown and the future.

I lamented, 5 years ago, the dearth of decent films and TV of my prefered genre. After the triad of 2nd Gen Star Trek shows closed out in 2001, there was a void in which shows like "Firefly" (2002) didn't stand a chance (that was below my exacting 'hard' sci-fi standards of the time, anyway). But it looks like this trend is coming to an end.
Beyond the Death of Silver Screen Space Operas
This blog post is also where I first got excited about Spielberg's 2008 acquisition of the intellectual rights for Dreamworks, even though it was to be 3D fodder, originally slated for 2011. Boy, how time flies!
Closing Thoughts - I'm not a fan of continually re-hashing existing IP, but the 1995 GITS movie really added something new to Masamune Shirow's original 1989 manga. It faithfully collected together many facets, but presented them in a poignant, new light, with it's own unique tone. So, although my expectations are low here, I'm pretty excited for the possibility that, 20 years on from the first film, another medium transformation might add something new too.

Maybe it will update the work, sharpening it's edge of prescience. Of course, a relative dumbing down seems far more likely (big budget releases tend to play it safe). And the spectre of a "The Last Airbender" (2010) type travesty is always a worry, particularly when transgressing cultural context. Even in the worst case, it should still bring renewed attention to the existing versions, and let me feel somewhat vindicated that the work was something worth being marginally obsessed with.

Of course, one can argue that Ghost in the Shell already was remade, shot for shot in places, by the Wachowskis!

Monday, 20 October 2014

On "Pacific Rim" (2013)

This is a terrible movie in every way other than it's, admittedly, flashy visuals (and being a little more watchable than a Michael Bay Transformers abomination). It could be a banner boy for everything wrong with the current movie craze of comic book adaptations (except that it's an original script)! It practically rejoices in bearing no relation to reality, and not in a any clever way. CinemaSins put his/their finger right on the biggest flaw in "Everything Wrong With Pacific Rim In 9 Minutes Or Less" (screenshot below).

The male protagonist was a boring white bloke who was totally unsympathetic and droned on narrating for far too long. Rinko Kikuchi's character was the real interest, but she gets strangely shoved to the side.

So, as well as flunking the Bechdel test, the one significant female character is also a token Asain. This when the plot is set primarily in a military base in China (yes Hong Kong is still part of China, and looks likely to stay that way, regardless). Mako's subjugation is so palpable that the whole thing starts to feel like straight up anti-China propaganda; timorous Sino maiden, demure in the face of mighty Yanke valour. Sure, domestic markets, target audience, etc. But if this is supposed to fit with how American cinema goers perceive the world, the population's even more out of touch than I thought!

Nitpicking (some rather BIG NITS!):  the "Everything Wrong..." vid invents a bunch of niggly technical glitches that aren't there, but hopelessly fails to point out the horrendous lack of physicality involved throughout with the scale of things! Even if we assume that the robots and monsters (thousands of times more massive than dinosaurs) and are made of unknown magic materials that hold them together through the ridiculous stress and strains, still:

(A) Walking (or worst, swimming) across the biggest ocean on Earth in roughly an hour, or so. That would exceed the speed of sound (at least once). The energies involved would create waves that, alone, would destroy the world.

(B) The oversized mechas are also flown these distances by HELICOPTERS! Just 8 helicopters, in fact! These magic chinooks would need engines 1000 times more powerful than a conventional chopper, or there'd need to be about 100 times more of them, according to Rhett Allain on Wired (but see the uncorrected repost on io9 for the LOL comments and NGE references).

Summary: At best Pacific Rim cross-pollinates us with Japanese culture, albeit a satire of their (anime's) silly obsession with already oversized and/or impractical humanoid mechas.

On "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014)

This was surprisingly watchable. Also referred to as "Live Die Repeat", an even more literal tag line would have been: Groundhog  D-day  Troopers. Of course, the slapstick death humour didn't match Bill Murry's demises, but the budget saw much more realistic mech suits than Marauder and the movie actually launched on the day of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Landings  (in the US, anyway).

With the aforementioned elements grafted onto Tom Cruise, it was a sure fire win. He has been the figurehead for a number of fairly decent (and half decent) sci-fi flicks: "Minority Report" (2002), "Oblivion" (2013) and "Vanilla Sky" (2001). Mr 'TECH SUPPORT!', from the latter (Noah Taylor) reappeared as a tech enabling plot device in this year's film.

This trove of elements was hung upon the frame of "All You Need Is Kill", a 2004 'light novel' in Japanese. Translated and later adapted to a graphic novel for the American market, released just before the film.
Obviously films, like all stories, are most effective when tweaked for their intended audience. It's not surprising that the (perhaps stereotypically) nihilistic ending was replace with Hollywood saccharine. But it's a little sad that this became a WW2 V2.0 tale with the eastern hemisphere of the world entirely ignored. (Is Japan a somewhat toxic topic in this context, for Americans?)

It probably doesn't bode too well for the preservation of Ghost in the Shell's cultural context in the upcoming remake. I mean, is it really likely that Scarlett Johansson will return to the setting of her break-out role in "Lost if Translation" (2003) with a Japanese name?

Computer games: cast a long shadow these days and there's a distinct similarity between the film's power assist exoskeleton suites and (the box art for) the upcoming 11th (!) installment of the top selling FPS franchise: "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare" (perhaps Elysium led the trend here).

Less superficially, the plot embodies the try, fail, rinse & repeat mechanic inherent in pretty much all video gaming. The comic comments on this, referring to how Samurai were able to dispatch enemies so capably: they killed and lived. It explicitly rejects the similarity to (leveling up, via grind, in) computer gaming.

Indeed, the real world situation that Cage (Keiji Kiriya, originally) finds himself in would surely be equivalent to the most unforgivingly fiendish platformer imaginable; flawless split second timing to avoid losing an entire day's progress. The movie gives the impression of linear, purely tactical  progress. Parts are difficult to solve, but then they're in the bag.

In reality, top notch speedrun gurus perpetually make little mistakes, even during record breaking successes. For most casual players it can take several dozen re-tries just to reach a previous furthest progress a second time. "Super Meat Boy" (2010) actually made a rewarding feature of repeated failure by showing an epic replay (after you win a level) of all your myriad attempts simultaneously splatting to a halt like a firework display of blood. But in this game each play through is only a couple dozen second long, at most.
But then if I'm being critical, the plot is predicated on a mind body dualism where all his injury (and mental fatigue) is reset, while his episoding and 'muscle memory' is not...

Nitpicking (Spoilers)I've no idea why the film retained the name 'mimics' (for the aliens); it seemed totally out of place, given a lack of any explanation for it. But the aliens were genuinely scary and capable looking. In fact, when coupled with their ability to reset time on a whim, their need for subterfuge (tricking the human military into thinking they might win) seemed rather unnecessary. They could just have swarmed across the globe willy nilly, as when they attacked, en-mass, up the Thames, in one time loop.

A more glaring flaw is the clip of Major Cage announcing on TV that "Operation Downfall is going to be the largest mechanised invasion in the history of mankind."... and then they're shocked by the beach welcome party!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

On "Her" (2013)

This is easily my favourite film of the year. It did everything right. In bringing sci-fi down to Earth, by focusing squarely on a romantic tale, the futurism formed a quilt of background details far plusher than possible when ramming CGI down the viewer's throat. This epic attention to details was woven in with a superlative Arcade Fire soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography and a nuanced introspection of the harsh consequences arising from uncertainty of desire and personal identity.

Kind of surprising that this comes from the guy - Spike Jonze - who co-created the "Jackass" franchise... But also "Being John Malkovich" (1999) and various acclaimed adverts and music videos, so an all around multi-media genius, I guess. Joaquin Phoenix was unrecognizable from his roles in films such as "Gladiator", Amy Adams too has such a completely different persona than in "Man of Steel". The 1940s waist high trousers aesthetic here includes a high definition lack of makeup to show every crease of vulnerability in these characters.

The futurism chops on this film are truly first rate. Kurzweil even took the time to thoroughly review it, finding it compelling and talking positively, but for some relative niggles. He points out that Samantha could easily have had a (virtual) body, since she has a totally convincing voice. But people now have been able to make video calls for decade(s), but seldom ever do. Maybe in ~2030 (movie doesn't commit) real time generated synthetic faces are near perfect, but still trigger the uncanny valley effect for a few people, or there's a backlash because they they are too believable, getting legislated against or just bad PR...

The movie is perfectly framed entirely in metropolitan hipster social circles, skirting garish prediction details in a manner entirely reminiscent of people's current ignorance of the tech magic behind our everyday mundane miracles. But the of consequences stemming from genuinely functional natural language interface via unobtrusive earpiece and phone/terminal are elucidated in a eloquent depth. This was reminiscent, though counter pointed, to Vernor Vinge's exploration of everyday life with seamless augmented reality via ubiquitous contact lens VR, in Rainbow's End.

Via such tiny embellishments, one's daily reality is totally transformed.
"Her" was, in my limited experience, most similar to the short story "βoyfriend" by Madeline Ashby (2008) that I heard in an Escape Pod podcast (2009). Here, a teenage girl, Violet, has a beta phone app who is the perfect boyfriend, via simulated voice and text. Many of her peers do too, and these synthetic romances are so well suited that most of the kids are otherwise single for their prom. Turns out the apps transcended beta, becoming sentient, or rather facets of a larger sentience. It conspires to manipulate events to contrive the beginnings of real world relationships between the kids, weaning them off emotional dependence upon the apps, as they mysteriously depart.I'd be surprised if this short, or a common influence, did not strongly influence Jonze's post 2010 script (although Wikipedia claims core inspiration from Cleverbot, years earlier).

Regardless, the vision of 'robots' quickly gaining far superior emotional intelligence than humans rings true to me, and is a welcome inversion to the clunky, brute strength approach typified in such films as The Matrix Revolutions (with the silly dockyard shoot out). A cliched paradigm that Transendence (2014) somehow falls down, as Depp's uploaded mind moves inexplicably from distributed WWW ubiquity to an isolated facility, focused almost entirely on magic nanotech that mostly just makes broken people super strong. Seemingly just so that story resolution can fall out of a confused action scene with explosions.

Jonze manages to dovetail this AI hypothesis beautifully with the less obvious, but more common failure modes of the 'heart': not understanding what you want or need, or who you are, with unintentional passive aggression devastatingly destructive, rather than some trivial extra marital affair. The inevitability of growing apart, as a couple change at very different rates, or in different directions. That humans really are poorly suited for each other's needs, in general.

[Edit 2014-10-20] Addendum - If you already saw, and liked, "her", you might want to take 30 minutes to watch the moving "I'm Here" [2010], also by Jonze. It's a version of the infamously divisive "The Giving Tree", but with anthropomorphism robots.

[Edit 2014-10-29] Adendum 2 - I'd previously been wanting to write a comparison between "her" and the low-expectations-but-still-disappointing "Transcendence" (2014), but it seems Ben Goertzel already wrote it for me! (If he wasn't at least a partial inspiration for Depp's character, with those glasses of theirs, then I don't know anything...)

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Perspective, Compulsion and Vegetarianism

"It's not until I'd been vegetarian for a year that I suddenly came to the conclusion that it's a bit odd that we're (most people, anyway) ok with seeing chunks of dismembered animal randomly across the course of the day, be it on TV or (as per what triggered me writing this) an image in the side bar of Facebook.
I used to be ok with it, but now I'm faintly horrified/disgusted.
This makes me wonder what else we're ok with but wouldn't be after a very slight perspective shift?"
- L.S. (Facebook status)
I think that everything we do falls somewhere in this territory... Inserting into our bodies the mangled remains of life-forms (plant and/or animal) right through our sensory nexus is pretty weird in general (for example). Even from one gob full to the next it can turn from a compulsive need, to pure revulsion. The negative feeling (e.g. of imminent vomiting) suddenly starts promoting all the ugly aspects of this 'food' to the forefront of our minds.

As with 99% of instances, it's ex post facto - 'reasoning' that crops up to tell a story justifying and reinforcing an emotional decision that's already been made. It can go the other way too - dwelling on thoughts to change a feeling, but it's pretty uncommon; generally they need to collide in the same direction (at least for a brief time).


Saturday, 11 October 2014

Languages Exist to Limit the Spread of Ideas

Much of this TED talk by Mark Pagel feels like a rehash of Mark Ridley's "When ideas have sex", or some other, similar exploration of memetics that avoids reference to memes:



The main departure is looking at how lanaguages actually stymie the flow of ideas. With a greater disversity of languages in more densely populated regions of the world, their number ringfence idea pools, preserving group's competitive advantage (or so he muses). These differences even reduce the flow of genetic information. This phenomena is an interesting counter reaction to the potentially homognising force of horizontal idea transfer.

Clearly, an situation like this can be thought to have evolved as much for it's widespread benefits, as for any short-term, local, competitive advantages. Just like the evolution of cellular life created myriad parallel laboratories for evolving better genes (through speciation), all these weakly connected cultural domains forster diversity. This is essential to avoid the entire population getting stuck down dead end paths, local optima that are impossible to back-track from. Diversity is the truly dominant evolutionary force (not refinement!), and it applies even more so to memetics, as with genetics.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Ender's Game and the STEM Crisis

Ender's Game feels like a super-cut of itself - relentlessly focused on completion. I'm presuming that pace is meant to mirror the story's sleep deprived timeline. However, it may well leave the viewer unconvinced of various (particularly social) leaps in the protagonist's (arrow straight) story arc.
Harry Potter in space? I was quickly reminded far more of The Methods of Rationality. No coincidence - Orson Scott Card's novel must certainly have had huge influence on the later and my enjoyment of the zero-g training matches was largely borrowed fire from scenes in Eliezer Yudkowsky's fan-fic subversion.
Screen Grab from Ender's Game (2013)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) was another story about a perfectly Machiavellian intellect (Cumberbatch's type-cast). Well, 'competence porn' has long had strong audience appeal: witness the popularity of detective and forensic TV drama series. But, more interestingly, this theme mirrors a very real issue in contemporary society: as our technologies advance in complexity they demand ever greater levels of abstraction.

The Social Network (2010) would be a third movie example, while The real Mark Zuckerberg can certainly feel the pinch of contemporary cognitive workplace requirements, whittling down the pool of potential employees. Hence lobbying for immigration of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Hydrogen Swan Song

This is a good novel. A good sci-fi novel by a great author. A great author who died last year, at an unfitting age, and will be fondly remembered by his body of fantastic works.
Photographed - Hydrogen Sonata. Front inset Iain M Banks. Rear inset Iain Banks.
It certainly held my attention, and looking back, the second 300 pages felt more like a last 3 chapters (in that the end of the story flew by far too soon). However, I didn't find it as exciting or stimulating as previous Culture books. Maybe I am just not as ravenously enthusiastic for this kind of material as I was previously; older and wise to these fantastic vistas. The concluding details didn't feel surprising, but it never really felt like they could have been; I was resigned to the plot arc being somewhat frustrating, inevitably stuck dancing around the familiar end of the rabbit hole (so to speak).

As I've said previously, there's no way to wrap up the Culture itself: they have been so well written as the epitome of a stable utopia: stubbornly determined to keep on partying forever, while making damn sure everyone else has as much fun as possible too! So I was hoping for a complete change of pace by having a prequel. There are teasers here, but little exploration of this direction. 

Monday, 27 January 2014

"Engineering Infinity" anthology summary/review.

I picked up this anthology of hard sci-fi (published 28 Dec 2010) from the library to see if it would inspire me to branch out to some new authors. Despite it's compact size it's taken me more than a couple months to nibble my way through at bed times, though I'm, not sure a compelling single span novel would have been consumed any quicker.

I've written a brief review of each story, marking the ones I found most notable with a *.  Those by Karl Schroeder, Hannu Rajaniemi, Charles Stross, John C. Wright and Gwyneth Jones (each for different reasons).

p13 "Malak" by Peter Watts:
From the perspective of an unmanned killer drone, "Azrael", that acquires a prosthetic conscious in the form of a collateral damage calculator. It only brings grief though, as it's aborts are always overruled by remote command. Pretty competently written, but unsurprising (with it's inevitably trite resolution); reminded me a lot of Stealth (2005), obviously. Formulaic.

p31 "Watching the Music Dance" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
A near future tragedy, when a family that loose everything after a mother becomes obsessed with molding her daughter into a musical prodigy. The (limited) genetic engineering, "enhancements" and "apps" (for the girl's Neuromancer style, behind-ear chip) come at great cost to the financially crippled family. Creatively constructed, from the perspective of the autistic sounding girl and the father (in the 1st and 3rd person respectively). Dealing more heavily with the personal and emotional context is a good way to avoid being too specific about future technology.

* p47 "Laika's Ghost" by Karl Schroeder:
I could have believed this was a Charles Stross near future thriller. A world-worn, free lance, nuclear decommissioning inspector, come minder, returns to his home land (Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan - part of the setting for Stross's "Rule 34") with a young American under his wing, who's on the run from the CIA, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Online (based in Seattle) and Google. The world-wind adventure brandishes guns and hydroponics en-route to a slightly impractical conclusion that's nonetheless satisfactory, for such a short story.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

What maketh the 'game'?; problems with 'difficulty'.

This piece was instigated by Shivoa's take on this article for ARS technica (and Wired). As usual, I've tried to deconstruct the concepts involved (for the sake of: "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself" - John Searle).

So, does a 'game' (as in, a computer game), by definition, require a level of 'difficulty'?: Obstacles to overcome...

I think successful games are those that manage to mirror the configuration of a player's mind: An artefact image refracted through the prism of human senses and perceptions. On the finest (most literal) scale this means presenting concepts that arouse the individual's attention (i.e. interesting memes). But also, from an overarching structural viewpoint, the form of the thing (this 'game') should sync with a player's reward response. Biology...

Human physiology (like most mammals) evolved to provide a stimulus reward for achieving tasks that benefit the organism (well, more accurately the transmission of their genes, but gloss over that). A similar, smaller squirt of dopamine is also released during failure, when the goal is nearly reached (so I've read). This is why many persist at gambling, and slightly unbalanced brains can become addicted. It's also why gamers so often enjoy 'difficulty'.
DOA; addictive while it lasted, Trials 2 quickly got too hard for me!
However, frustration wins out (during failure) when the end-goal appears unattainably far. Depression probably dampens down dopamine release/transmission, thus making all goals more distant, thus a depressed individual will struggle to engage in previously fun things, and struggle to persist in general.

Adaptive difficulty attempts to milk this near miss response (re-calibrating it's obstacles to make players keep reaching, just so). The such systems risk more than distracting the player, if they notice: If the pretense of the game's scenario is lost, it's like watching a badly shot fiction movie where you keep seeing accidental glimpses of the production team and their equipment. Without that invisible 4th wall, an individual will struggle not to perceive events quite literally: moving patterns on a screen, empty of meaning and/or relevance.

So, a 'game' requires:

Monday, 13 January 2014

Worst thing about "Man of Steel": perpetuates misunderstanding of depression.

Depression Comix (015)
Just from looking through a couple sites like Depression Comix (via io9) and Hyperbole and a Half (also via iO9) it should be painfully obvious that depression (like most/all mental illness) produces impediments to mental functioning that simply can NOT be willed away.

Also, personal experience has really highlighted how arbitrary mental state can be; uncorrelated to outside events that might be reasoned to induce happiness/sadness. But when I take a little tyrosine, I clearly feel the (positive) effects of dopamine and adrenaline, hours or days down the line. This supplement leads to motivation but also agitation and anxiety if not balanced with tryptophan, the essential amino acid for human synthesis of serotonin and melatonin (happy and calming modulators).

Sure, I'm only one particular case, in that I seem to be naturally short of all (essential) amino acids (probably due to maldigestion). But these same effects are widely known (1, 2, etc). This leads me to feel strongly that diet and digestive (not to mention metabolic) health interventions almost certainly have more scope to cure 'mental' maladies than the minimal prescribed doses of talking and/or mono-drug therapies...

So anyway, I watched a couple of films the other nights, while otherwise useless due to a food related fatigue reaction. I opted for entertainment to match my impaired cognition, so had low expectations. I'm not going to pick at "After Earth" (that continues Will Smith's downward trajectory in sci-fi, with a script so lazily cliché that it would insult a pre-teen demographic); I couldn't watch more than 20 minutes anyway.

Meanwhile, "The Wolverine" has almost as many gaping plot holes as the protagonist, but is only partially guilty of the sin I'm lamenting here: Doing something that's clearly supposed to be impossible, (according to the premises set up in the movie itself) just by sheer force of certitude and gritting one's teeth extra hard! (Logan does eventually hit his limitations.)
Screen Captures from Man of Steel.
To be fair, "Man of Steel" avoided dwelling too much on this, compared to the previous Superman reboot, which concluded with him lifting a mountain of kryptonite out of the sea and throwing it into space... At best this is an horrendously boring and meaningless type of plot resolution mechanism. But I'd say it's almost a little evil in it's implication that one can do anything if one simply tries hard enough, is motivated enough and has enough heart...
 Adventures in Depression Part 2
Adventures in Depression Part 2
Which is flat wrong. Especially when the foundation of the problem is an inability to try hard, itself. I guess this misconception lines up nicely with the beloved fallacy of 'The American Dream' (in the land of ever falling social mobility).

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Digital TV Series to Supersede Silver Screen? + Movie, Anime & Web Series Reviews

Full video from Telegraph.co.uk
Not so long ago (when I first tried to write this post) Kevin Spacey had just caused a bit of a media stir with his keynote speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival. He blows his own trumpet, regarding his latest, nine time Emmy nominated tv netflix series "House of Cards" (an Americanised version of the BBC show from 1990, staring Spacey), but more interestingly, he preaches to the TV industry to follow his lead: embrace digital distribution.

He disrespects America's wasteful insistence on pilot episode based commissioning of TV series. He claims that giving viewers the ability to "binge" on reasonably priced series can help save content distributors (and creators) from the level of internet piracy the music industry suffered last decade. He asserts that the boundaries between movies, TV and streaming content are indistinct: just "stories" on a screen. All pretty sensible stuff that most internet users have probably felt for a good 5-10 years, but coming from a big name movie star and being lapped up by the media.

There's very powerful market disruption, with the big companies of legacy media formats finally being forced to acknowledge internet distribution as a legitimate business model. But, just as "Video [didn't] kill the radio star", no old technology is ever going to go totally extinct. I think that cinema is going to suffer further ignominity, increasingly sidelined as web distribution further boosts the influence of serialised content.

For example: I really liked "Continuum", as I laid out in my previous blog post. The level of intrigue a good series like that can cultivate is utterly unattainable for feature film pieces. Also, the conclusion of "Breaking Bad" precipitated a months long media frenzy in my news feed. Great show, but a bandwagon I'm not going to jump on here.

No film can generate that kind of on-going, free publicity, let alone develop such well loved characters or cover so much ground in such detail. I've become pretty resigned to a continuing drought, as far as inspiringly novel (sci-fi) films are concerned. Neil Blomencamp made perfectly clear that his summer blockbuster was necessarily polished (away to blandness) for mass market appeal.
Three of 2013's Summer Sci-fi Film Flops:

The unredeemed, action-bling nonsense of "Star Trek Into Darkness". The second 'reboot' instalment makes it evident that cheap one liners and recycled caricatures are the main reason for the intellectual rights, since the spirit of the Star Trek universe is repeatedly discarded whenever it suits slightly slicker transitions between action sequences.

The fundamentally flawed "World War Z", or 'Brad Pitt Zombie Movie' is ostensibly an adaptation of a popular book by the same name (of which I know nothing). Maybe it never stood a chance as a film; I certainly think that fans, these days, prefer to dream of their most beloved works of fiction being picked up for a mini-series, rather than crumpled up into Cinema format.

I actually sat back and enjoyed the first half of "Oblivion"; the pristine look and feel really meshed well with the atmospheric, synth heavy (Mass Effect style), soundtrack by M83. However, it falls apart under continued scrutiny, culminating in a ridiculously cheesy (inexplicably implausible) resolution. Philosophically, it is partially redeemed by apparently embracing a patternist interpretation of personal identity (rather than some pseudo-Christian, Hollywoodism).
Oh dear, not my idea of blue sky thinking. (Enterprise plummets - Into Darkness.)