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)

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).

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).

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 "╬▓oyfriend" 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.