Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Danger After Dark 2010
The Philadelphia film scene has been going through some rough times of late. In early 2009, the two primary driving forces behind the festival had some sort of hissy fit. The Philadelphia Film Society and TLA Video decided to part ways. TLA vowed to put on the regularly scheduled Spring festival, now dubbed Cinefest, while the weakened PFS decided to relocate to the fall (since last year was the first, it was a bit small, but I actually had a much better time at the 18½ Philadelphia Film Festival than the earlier Cinefest). Quite frankly the details of the spat between PFS and TLA escape me, but it does seem to be putting the hurt on Philly film culture...
Earlier this year, TLA canceled the 2010 Cinefest, citing financial woes. The PFS stepped in and put together a 3 day free event, but that doesn't really qualify as a full fledged festival. Due to the last minute nature of the event and the fact that it was free (plus the fact that the featured films didn't seem all that special), I decided to avoid the crowds and wait for the fall festival.
In the meantime, my favorite part of the TLA festival seems to have broken off on its own. The Danger After Dark series made a name for itself by featuring all sorts of crazy horror, gangster and exploitation cinema. This year, they're piggy-backing off of the Philly QFest, a GLBT festival (though the themes of the DAD films don't seem to have anything to do with GLBT). 11 movies, 11 nights. Unfortunately, the schedule doesn't seem to inspire me very much, though there are some interesting films featured:
I'm hoping at some point that TLA and PFS can kiss and make up or something, because this used to be a pretty great film town, but things don't seem to be looking up of late. I guess we'll see how the fall festival goes (after all, I did really enjoy the 18½ Philadelphia Film Festival last year), but maybe it's time to branch out and take a trip to Toronto or Austin (for Fantastic Fest)...
Posted by Mark on June 30, 2010 at 08:34 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
The Clockwork Orange Fallacy
I've been reading a science fiction novel called Diaspora, by Greg Egan. The novel is initially set about a thousand years in the future, which is enough time to allow Egan to postulate all sorts of things without really having to explicitly delve into the morality of gene-splicing or consciousness transferral, etc... However, those sorts of questions emerge anyway because we, the readers, are still living our contemporary lives, where these issues are as relevant as ever.
The novel begins in a "Polis", which is basically a network of artificial consciousnesses. Some of these are humans who have uploaded themselves, others are entirely artificial. Alternatively, there were apparently a lot of people who transferred themselves into human-shaped robots called Gleisners. Regular human beings are still around, and they're referred to as "Fleshers" (for obvious reasons). At this point, there are tons of genetically altered humans, to the point where many of the variants can no longer communicate with one another (another class of humans, calling themselves "Bridgers" have been bred specifically to solve the problem of communication). Humans without any sort of genetic tampering are referred to as "Statics", and don't seem to be doing well.
In the story, the industrious but apparently suspicious gleisners have discovered an odd astrophysical event which could prove disasterous to Earth (at least, to its fleshers). Two of the characters go down to the planet to warn the fleshers, but they're met with paranoia and disbelief. One of the characters, Yatima, is a completely random mutation from a polis (he has no "parents", even artificial ones), and he (or, I should say "ve" as they seem to be quasi-asexual, though even the artificial pronouns sometimes seem to have a gender connotation, but that's a different discussion) is having some trouble understanding the objections to his suggestion that anyone who wants to can upload themselves to his Polis. In the scene below, he's speaking with a static human and Francesca, who is a human bridger.
He gazed down at them with a fascinated loathing. ‘Why can’t you stay inside your citadels of infinite blandness, and leave us in peace? We humans are fallen creatures; we’ll never come crawling on our bellies into your ersatz Garden of Eden. I tell you this: there will always be flesh, there will always be sin, there will always be dreams and madness, war and famine, torture and slavery.’The reference to A Clockwork Orange was interesting, as this isn't a novel that's been filled with pop culture references, but the concept itself is a common theme in SF (and, for that matter, philosophy). It's not hard to see why, especially when it comes to something like a Polis. What does morality mean in a Polis? A consciousness living in a Polis is essentially living in an entirely virtual environment - there are minimal physical limits, property doesn't really exist as a concept, and so on. The inhabitants of any given Polis are modeled after humans, in a fashion, and yet many of our limitations are not applicable. Some polises have a profound respect for the physical world around them. Others have retreated into their virtual reality, some going as far as abandoning the laws of physics altogether in an effort to better understand the elegance of mathematics. Would it be moral to upload yourself into a Polis? Or would that be the cowards way out and represent the evasion of responsibility that free will provides? Would one still have a free will if their consciousness was run by a computer? Once in a Polis, is it necessary to respect the external, natural world? Could anything be gained from retreating into pure mathematics? Egan doesn't quite address these issues directly, but this sort of indirect exploration of technological advancement is one of the things that the genre excels at.
Strangely, one of the things that seems to take on a more dangerous tone in the world of Diaspora is the concept of a meme (for more on this, check out this post by sd). The way ideas are transmitted and replicated among humans isn't especially well understood, but it can certainly be dangerous. Egan is pretty clearly coming down against the humans who don't want to escape to the Polis (to avoid disaster), and he seems to blame their attitude on "a virulent family of Palestinian theistic replicators". This sort of thing seems even more dangerous to an artificial consciousness though, and Egan even gives an example. These AI consciousnesses can run a non-sentient program called an "outlook" which will monitor the consciousness and adjust it to maintain a certain set of values (in essence, it's Clockwork Orange software). In the story, one character shows Yatima what's happened to their outlook:
It was an old outlook, buried in the Ashton-Laval library, copied nine centuries before from one of the ancient memetic replicators replicators that had infested the fleshers. It imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving ... including explicit renunciations of every mode of reasoning able to illuminate the core belief’s failings.I find this sort of thing terrifying. It's almost the AI equivalent to being a zombie. If you take on this outlook, why even bother existing in the first place? I guess ignorance is bliss...
In case you can't tell, I'm very much enjoying Diaspora. I'm still not finished, but I only have a little more than a hundred pages left. It's not much of a page turner, but that's more because I have to stop every now and again to consider various questions that have arisen than lack of quality (though I will note that Egan is probably not a gateway SF author - he certainly doesn't shy away from the technical, even in extremes). I'll probably be posting more when I finish the book...
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2010 at 07:52 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Internalizing the Ancient
Otaku Kun points to a wonderful entry in the Astronomy Picture of the Day series:
I think it’s impossible to really relate to things beyond human timescales. The idea of something being “ancient” has no meaning if it predates our human comprehension. The Neanderthals disappeared 30,000 years ago, which is probably really the farthest back we can reflect on. When we start talking about human forebears of 100,000 years ago and more, it becomes more abstract - that’s why it’s no coincidence that the Battlestar Galactica series finale set the events 150,000 years ago, well beyond even the reach of mythological narrative.I'm reminded of an essay by C. Northcote Parkinson, called High Finance or The Point of Vanishing Interest (the essay appears in Parkinson's Law, a collection of essays). Parkinson writes about how finance committees work:
People who understand high finance are of two kinds: those who have vast fortunes of their own and those who have nothing at all. To the actual millionaire a million dollars is something real and comprehensible. To the applied mathematician and the lecturer in economics (assuming both to be practically starving) a million dollars is at least as real as a thousand, they having never possessed either sum. But the world is full of people who fall between these two categories, knowing nothing of millions but well accustomed to think in thousands, and it is these that finance committees are mostly comprised.He then goes on to explore what he calls the "Law of Triviality". Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved. Thus he concludes, after a number of humorous but fitting examples, that there is a point of vanishing interest where the committee can no longer comment with authority. Astonishingly, the amount of time that is spent on $10 million and on $10 may well be the same. There is clearly a space of time which suffices equally for the largest and smallest sums.
In short, it's difficult to internalize numbers that high, whether we're talking about large sums of money or cosmic timescales. Indeed, I'd even say that Parkinson was being a bit optimistic. Millionaires and mathematicians may have a better grasp on the situation than most, but even they are probably at a loss when we start talking about cosmic timeframes. OK also mentions Battlestar Galactica, which did end on an interesting note (even if that finale was quite disappointing as a whole) and which brings me to one of the reasons I really enjoy science fiction: the contemplation of concepts and ideas that are beyond comprehension. I can't really internalize the cosmic information encoded in the universe around me in such a way to do anything useful with it, but I can contemplate it and struggle to understand it, which is interesting and valuable in its own right. Perhaps someday, we will be able to devise ways to internalize and process information on a cosmic scale (this sort of optimistic statement perhaps represents another reason I enjoy SF).
Posted by Mark on June 23, 2010 at 08:30 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Yet Another Link Dump
Apologies for all the recent link dumps. Time has been short. More meaningful content to return shortly. In the meantime, enjoy:
Posted by Mark on June 20, 2010 at 08:50 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Some more interesting stuff:
Posted by Mark on June 16, 2010 at 09:47 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Animovie Double Feature
A couple more quick reviews of Anime movies I've seen lately.
Posted by Mark on June 13, 2010 at 06:40 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
This set of charts plotting the ratings of various film franchises is rather interesting. Some of them are just about exactly what you'd expect. For instance, the original Star Wars trilogy is very highly rated, and then if falls off precipitously when the prequels start. From there the series begins to climb again and surprisingly begins to reach the heights of the original trilogy.
There are a number of series that have even more pronounced and steady declines (Jaws, Planet of the Apes). Other series have a more chaotic progression. The even number rule for the Star Trek series is reasonably pronounced, except for part 10 (the reboot is not included, though I imagine it would be higher than the last two). The Indiana Jones series has a similar progression, except it's the odd number movies that are the best. I'm a little surprised at how low Die Hard 2 is in the series (it's at least as good as the other sequels). It's also a bit strange to see the latest Rocky and Rambo installments being so high. Perhaps that's because the source appears to be IMDB, and ratings there tend to favor newer movies for a while (after time, these movies tend to level out to more reasonable ratings). Interestingly, the Lord of the Rings trilogy features the most consistent ratings. There are a lot of series that have solid first and second installments, but the third movie is almost always a big decline.
Of course, the listed series are not comprehensive, so I took a few stabs at the missing series. Here, for instance, is the Friday the 13th series:
I have to admit that I'm a little surprised that parts IV and VI, which seem to be the fan favorites, are as low as they are. Of course, they're pretty high compared to most of the films around them, but still. I expected them to be a bit higher. Also, part 2 and the recent reboot seem extremely overrated. The reboot will most likely come down as time goes on (again, I think newer movies benefit from IMDB's system), but the love for part 2 confuses me. I suppose part 2 does have probably the best final girl in the series (and maybe of all time), but the story is crap and the ending is nigh incomprehensible. And Jason isn't even close to becoming an iconic character in that movie.
More series in the extended entry, including the likes of Halloween, Evil Dead, Dirty Harry, Bourne and more! And so we might as well continue the 80s slasher series, here's Halloween:
Mostly unsurprising. The one major outlier is part 3, which makes sense because that was the one that didn't feature Michael Myers.
This series is surprisingly stable. However, I think that the second one is a bit underrated, while the fourth through sixth might be a bit inflated. Also notable is the seventh installment, which rockets back up near the original. I'm not a big fan of New Nightmare, but it's definitely more interesting than most of the films in the series and the return of Wes Craven translates pretty well to higher ratings...
Another extremely stable series, though the second installment is clearly the best.
A pretty clear and definite decline in the series. Notable in that it's one series that hasn't really had a reboot (not that I want one - totally unnecessary).
Interestingly, this is the only series in this post to feature a third installment that has better ratings than it's predecessors. I have to admit that I'm a bit surprised by that. I really like Bourne Ultimatum but I wouldn't put it as that much better than the previous two installments.
Well, that's all for now. In other news, Flyers lost the Stanley Cup tonight. I'm glad they put up a good fight, but what a terrible goal to lose on... In any case, congrats to Blackhawks fans.
Posted by Mark on June 09, 2010 at 09:01 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 06, 2010
A busy weekend and the Flyers storming back in the Stanley Cup finals means less time than usual, so here's a few links that I've found interesting lately:
Posted by Mark on June 06, 2010 at 05:07 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
About a week ago at the SF App Show, an alpha version of something called The Mongoliad was presented. The description shows promise:
The Mongoliad is a sort of serialized story, created by Neal Stephenson, and written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, and a number of other great authors. It will be told via custom apps on iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and Android, and will be something of an experiment in post-book publishing and storytelling.Besides Kaedrin favorite Neal Stephenson, the project also seems to be attracting some other high profile talent like Greg Bear. The use of New Media apps to deliver the stories gives pause, and I have to wonder if this is being optimized for the form factor of the medium, or if it's just because that's the hot new thing to do... Details of the project are a bit scarce, buy you can find some info at the Subtai Corporation page as well as their Facebook page. The overview on the Facebook site gives a little more info on the setting and the plan for populating the world with stories...
The Mongoliad is a rip-roaring adventure tale set 1241, a pivotal year in history, when Europe thought that the Mongol Horde was about to completely destroy their world. The Mongoliad is also the beginning of an experiment in storytelling, technology, and community-driven creativity.Still not sure if the New Media route is the best way to distribute this sort of information, but it at least seems like a better medium than the standard dead tree novel. The other piece of info that's come out about the project is that it will apparently be seeking fan submissions:
Very shortly, once The Mongoliad has developed some mass and momentum, we will be asking fans to join us in creating the rest of the world and telling new stories in it. That’s where the real experiment part comes in. We are building some pretty cool tech to make that easy and fun, and we hope lots of you will use it.It's an interesting concept, and not something I can think of seeing before. There have been various experiments in serialized novels being released on the web, but I can't think of anything massively successful and nothing quite this ambitious has been tried. Stephenson's involvement pretty much guarantees that I'll be trying this app out, but I have to admit to being a bit skeptical about the fan-fiction aspect and the post-book ambitions. I think it's a worthy effort though, and I'm glad to see people of this caliber willing to experiment with new forms like this.
Another funny note about Stephenson, from Subutai's team page:
He is also the Company’s armorer, in charge of developing and producing helmets, gauntlets, and other such protective items as may be required.Heh. Other members of the team seem to have their own funny quirks as well. If nothing else, it's an interesting idea, and I'm looking forward to it...
Posted by Mark on June 02, 2010 at 10:58 PM .: link :.
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