Saturday, November 05, 2016


The latest go-to genre for TV and films commissions looking to fulfil their 'thoughtful sci-fi' quota is artificial people. Westworld and series 2 of Humans follow the movie Ex Machina into probing the 'how will we all get along?' and 'who's exploiting whom?' questions that have been asked, at least, since Mary Shelley penned what is arguably the greatest science fiction story of all time. Actually her 'monster' has proven to have very big shoes to fill, and its re-creations have rarely done as good a job of highlighting the pain of both creator and creation. Sometimes an opening batter is so good that the rest of the order pale by comparison, and, unlike other sf genres (think space travel and aliens), this one has changed remarkably little over the generations. Presumably, because the end-product is so specific - not necessarily physically (you could make much the same argument for artificial intelligence even when embodied in all sorts of objects) - but we really only know how to imagine human consciousness and emotions.

There is a split between the original 'one of a kind' and mainly more recent 'we are legion' approaches, but it all boils down to one question: what makes you one of us?

When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, European colonialism was at its height and the slave trade was still booming, Darwin had yet to come up with Origin of Species and experimental psychology was still in its infancy. Yet the criteria for being human are remarkably consistent throughout the two hundred years since then: to be capable of love and empathy and have a need for them, to seek some purpose to life and find a place in society. The limitation of the genre is both a strength and a weakness; a strength because by examining something trying to be a human we examine the foibles of humanity; a weakness because, being human, we just can't seem to empathise with anything which doesn't have human feelings and therefore we just keep regurgitating the same model over and over.

It is an assumption, within this theme, that humans will want to create replicas of themselves, and there is good evidence that, with the available technology, we will indeed do just that. The purpose is usually to create slaves, although there are exceptions - Data in Star Trek for example and Bishop in Aliens, and the conflict between releasing ourselves from hard graft and danger versus our unease at treating entities which appear like us as inferior and disposable. It is, of course, exactly the moral argument which raged about slavery in post-enlightenment Europe, which ironically provided an excuse for another wave of brutal colonial oppression ostensibly to prevent Africans owning and selling other Africans. 

Humans doesn't quite achieve that complexity, but, after a cutely parochial English first season, there is a distinctly international flavour to season 2. Where it takes this remains, at time of writing, to be seen. The artificial people in Humans are refreshingly diverse in outlook, and this is linked back to nuanced experiences in their past. Depth of character is Humans' best feature and, given budget limited special effects and choreographed scenes, is front and centre of the presentation. In fact, it almost feels as if the writers had a tick list of kinds of relationships: old master and faithful servant dying together - tick; extra-marital affair - tick; same sex metrosexuals - tick; work colleagues - tick; children, teenagers - tick tick. It is impressive that all these characters are thoughtfully portrayed with depth and subtlety while still dragging along an over-arching jeopardy plot. The trick, as always, is to make the creations human-like, but recognisably different. This is achieved via both the fairly traditional: enhanced speed and abilities, coloured contact lenses, fixed facial expressions, and via some nice touches: plugging in to charge at the end of the day like a smart phone, a condom down the throat in order to wine and dine and fit in. Humans is ambitious, from its teaser trailers presented as pure info-mercials for owners of 'synths', to its attempt to incorporate disparate threads: hacking, law and order, sex-work, families. There's even a dilapidated cyborg in case the pure synths were too shiny and slick for our taste. 

By contrast, Westworld looks like its had the budget of a small nation thrown at it. Everything about it is big, bold and glossy - but soulless. This shouldn't be the case - Ex Machina has a similarly sterile setting to the cellars where Westworld's automatons are endlessly patched up before sending up to the themepark to be shagged and shot by visitors, yet the film managed to create an air of menace and intrigue to which the series aspires but has so far fallen short of. While Alicia Vikander's Ava made herself desirable to her male counterpart with understated emotional vulnerability, the artificial females in Westworld indulge in dead-eyed sexual activities with male visitors who look like they're pretending to enjoy themselves while secretly wishing they could get the hell out of Dodge. It's not the sex itself that's the problem - the sex in Humans is used effectively to show the different ways humans and machines could relate to each other - but rather the lack of vulnerability. Since you know that each day the protagonists can be mended, scrubbed clean and sent back out, it quickly ceases to be shocking what happens to them. There is a clear gender divide too, between artificial females who are slowly waking up to the hell in which they find themselves and male visitors who are so repugnant that the attempt to introduce a genuine black hat style villain falls flat since we're relieved someone's actually taking the time to properly torture the inhabitants. 

And there's the nudity. Not a problem in itself, but really, if this is supposed to echo the horrors of concentration camps in our collective conscience then it's way too clean and perfectly made up. It also loses its potency because it is so ubiquitous and everyone seems completely oblivious to it. Anthony Hopkins admonishes an employee for covering up one of the artificial people: "They don't have modesty." he says. I, for one believe him. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Fridge question

In a physics lesson at school we were asked whether a working fridge with the door open in a sealed room would increase, decrease or not change the temperature of the room. I answered that it wouldn't change but the teacher told me that it would increase.

I now think I was -  if not right, exactly - not wrong anyway.

If this experiment is taking place in an idealised universe then there is no reason that the fridge cannot be 100% efficient and therefore it will cool by exactly the amount it heats. In which case I would be right, there would be no change in temperature in the sealed room.

The teacher was treating this as a real life fridge which would then be less than 100% efficient and would produce more heat than cooling. But if this is the case then there is no such thing as a perfectly sealed room either. Some of the heat gain will be dissipated through the walls even if they are insulated. How much is unknown and could be less than or more than the amount generated by the fridge. So the answer is unknown in this situation.

So the answer is: either no effect or any of the options.

So there.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

global vote

Global democracy seems to be necessary for global policies. Clearly some things like climate affect everybody no matter where they live so it is only fair that there should be a system for everybody to have their say. Living in a democratic country, we are used to the idea of spheres of influence and accountability. We vote locally for people who make decisions that are more or less limited to our local area, then there are larger regions (in the UK these are devolved control of Welsh, Scottish & Northern Irish policies, the USA has states etc.) Then we have national government who have the most far-reaching control and European elections which give a glimpse of international democracy but really just a toe in the water (they are still British MEP's in a British political party).

But imagine international political parties campaigning on a global scale, trying to get votes from all round the world to build a concensus. They would stride over national differences, appealing to broader human beliefs. Of course, they would be just as susceptible to the power of the media as national parties and the problems of creating such a global democratic system would be considerable;bbut even the process of trying to set up a fair system which allowed everyone on the planet potentially to vote would involve a new way of working, requiring collaboration beyond anything previously attempted. Imagine a UN vote, but not by government representatives from each nation, by the populations of those nations. At the moment the UN isolates people from power such as the Palestinians because of their non-nation status. This would bypass that completely.

We have - as the intro to Six Million Dollar Man, would have it - the technology. We just need the will to distribute the power it brings evenly.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

let's go again, from the top

Time travel in movies has broken out of its original niche as a specific branch of Science Fiction and become a respectable narrative device in different genres. This blog wonders whether this reflects something in our attitude to the world and our current society.

To be clear what we mean by time travel here: it is one specific interpretation that is being exploited, which could be summarized as 'another chance'. The pattern was first popularised in the public imagination in the 1980's by Back to the Future. Where earlier stories used time as a warning (The Time Machine being the obvious example), Zemeckis' story is wish fulfillment writ large and delivered with a panache that made it irresistible. It is escapism in its most literal sense: the facility to break out of the situation which constrains us and re-create the world to deliver our desires. Two things are important about this approach to the subject: first, that delivery and retrieval to the past are constrained; and second, that the present returned to can be changed from the one that was left. For an engaging narrative, these two things are vital and have become universal plot foundations.

Science Fiction has taken over from the Western in the cinema as the tool for delivering low brow mass entertainment action to the young masses. Like westerns there are a set of established rules that are generally accepted within sci fi movies, although they are arguably much looser. There are white hats and black hats and the white hats ultimately win - we would expect nothing less. What sci fi inherited from westerns is that nothing is without cost and this is where time travel becomes problematic. Back to the Future, in its complete trilogy, is a 'lesson learned' yarn, following a cocky naive young man through his adventures which teach him humility and the importance of family. The point is it matters what he does, there is a right and wrong thing to do and there are consequences if he gets it wrong.

Another pillar of the genre is Groundhog Day which again delivers escapism and the promise of seemingly endless chances to get it right, but still, like the video games that were becoming popular, to progress to the next level you do have to get it right in the end. Groundhog Day is not science fiction - there is no mechanism for the time travel and nothing physical is transported. You could treat the whole thing as a psychological condition within Phil Connors' head; he can only break the cycle by becoming cured and living the perfect day. Edge of Tomorrow, dubbed Groundhog D-Day, followed the exact same structure but somehow (and you really might not want to read the end of this paragraph unless you've seen it) seems to pay a disservice to the sacrifice of the real D Day veterans by letting them all get out of it unscathed. What was learned? How to cheat basically.

Away from the silver screen, Audrey Niffenegger's novel The Time Traveller's Wife (as well as a sub-plot in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkhaban) offer a fatalist view of time travel, ie. without being able to change anything. And it is dark. Obviously too dark for mainstream cinema which failed to do any kind of justice to the breadth and depth of Niffenegger's story. The Harry Potter films remain a monolithic exception to the status quo - how much so is only becoming clear a decade on.

With the millennium moving from future to distant past, suddenly second chances are everywhere. The Men in Black franchise needed new life breathing into it: how about a back story, but attended by a current character? Why not? Reboot Star Trek: the fans won't like it - ah but this is having your cake and eating a doughnut at the same time. Time Travel means never having to choose which version you prefer. Same deal with X Men, wheel on the oldies but let the youngsters do the stunts. Hollywood has found the perfect tool to deliver to two generations at the same time without all those cringy 'nudge nudge wink wink' innuendos in family films that became so popular in the 90's: deliver them two generations of actors at the same time. Looper is Die Hard: The Next Generation as well as the last.

Meanwhile, away from superheroes and aliens, we have... vampires and werewolves. (spoiler again) the final battle scene in Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 is presented as happening and then the protagonists have the chance to walk away. Woody Allen brought out Midnight in Paris, a kind of Nostalgia-ception: a golden age within a golden age within a golden age. The Butterfly Effect and Frequency continued the idea that once changed the past is a bugger to get back in its cage.

There's a sense of searching for a better today by learning lessons yesterday, as if it is already too late to learn them now. For the generations that grew up in the last half of the 20th century, the millennium was the event horizon and now that it's past, there is a longing to get another crack at it, as if history ended at that point and anything we do now is like clutching at straws when you're already drowning. Technology seems to offer a tantalizing taste of having more than one chance: once you wrote something down and it stayed written down, now you can re-record as often as you like. Once we had to suspend our disbelief on the narrative of a film but there was a clunky reality to objects and people, now everything is liquid, a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes that have no physical existence. We feel like our life is in need of post-production work to knock it into shape. The world, we try to convince ourselves, is a green screen waiting for us to project a better scene onto it. 

Quantum mechanics has become practical science and like electricity or computers have done before, it appears to offer a panacea for all the world's ills. There seems something disjointed about seeing famines in a world of instant global communication, as if an outbreak of Scurvy laid low the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Perhaps the millennium that we dreamed of as children got interrupted when it was only half downloaded; after the wristwatch TV's, videophones and bionic limbs but before the hovercars, fusion power plants and food generators. People used to talk about future shock because everything was advancing so fast but now there's a frustration that the really stubborn stains just aren't shifting. We still sit in queues in transport machines that burn oil - surely that was last century? We're arguing about building a railway - surely it should have been built half a century ago?

It's true I am older now than ever before but I see a trickle of the same cynicism in younger people too. When they surface from their virtual universe, they tend to look at the news and ask "How did it come to this? Why did you let it carry on so long?" If it's this fucked up, they seem to say, maybe it would be better just to hit control alt delete and reboot the whole thing. 21st Century 2.0 Despite the fact that everything always goes wrong as soon as anybody jumps into the past in any movie, I'm quite sure that, given the chance, we just wouldn't be able to resist.

Monday, March 18, 2013

questions of god

It is possible (even likely) that the question "Does god exist?" has no objective answer. This redefines agnosticism from being on the fence about god's existence to a more powerful position of pointing out the absurdity of the theist/atheist argument.

In the same way that there is no objective answer to where the centre of the universe is or whether a colour exists, the question of the existence of god may only be answerable from a particular subjective standpoint.

Friday, January 25, 2013

lossless compression

Seems to me there can't really be such a thing as lossless compression of data. Any system of compression must involve some assumption or prior knowledge of the information that is important in order to discard the rest. This is supported to my mind both philosophically: there is no redundant information in the universe; and empirically: no system of audio or video capture and replay ever looks or sounds like the original and they all differ from each other. There is not even a general movement towards 'better' as more advanced technology is involved. This is because one person's background noise is another person's atmosphere.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

corporate control of media

Corporations are anti-government control and regulation, they own the media so the media encourages the idea that politicians are corrupt and untrustworthy so that people reject control in favour of open market capitalism.

So the implementation of the Leveson Report (or not) is not about free speech: it's about counter-balancing vested commercial interests which have editorial control of the press. And I don't believe for a minute that it will inhibit investigative journalism: there are more opportunities for publishing than ever before and a story that's worth hearing can be sold. The editor of the Independent was moaning that his paper had done nothing wrong and was still going to be regulated along with the bad tabloids. Well, isn't that how the law always works? We're always being told that if we do nothing wrong we have nothing to fear but in reality we are restricted in every aspect of life by regulation.

The problem is that these publications call themselves NEWSpapers despite the fact that what they mainly do is push a point of view. All of them - tabloids or not. Consider the last election: even the Guardian openly supported a political party. They are targeted at a market sector and they put out whatever supports the prevailing view of this sector otherwise people would switch to another paper. So the Daily Mail puts out scare stories about immigration because white van man and tea shop lady are scared of immigration. That has nothing to do with news or free speech, it's just reinforcing people's identity as part of a group by reminding them of the boundary between 'us' and 'them'.

The other thing they do is to try and perpetuate their existence. So politicians are the common enemy. It helps to undermine the potential power of government by increasing people's perception of it as a bungling bureaucracy made up of weak, greedy, ignorant members. Tax is a good weapon because nobody likes paying tax much and the idea of unfairness in the tax system drives people to distraction (rightly) but the emphasis is less on making things fair and more a pincer movement on criticising high taxes and reduced services without pointing out the one is a consequence of the other.