Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Theory of Everything Really Might Be

Swiss AI researcher Jürgen Schmidhuber makes a computational argument for the possibility that our universe is completely deterministic - apparently random events are not, and therefore predictions for everything (everything!) can be compressed into short strings.  I got this from the list of "higher order" conspiracy theories here.  Note that he's not making a formal argument but rather making a weaker statement that we have no evidence that our universe does not have these characteristics.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Evolutionary Algorithms Produce Music

We need to do this but with the feedback coming entirely from metalheads.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Science Fiction Movies as Old School Pulp Novels

While we're all bashing Ridley Scott.  Via Reddit. More here.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus Spoilers

[Added later:  without looking for them I encountered a number of negative reviews of Prometheus on the web, every last one of them bad.  Links to them at the end.  The one by Julian Sanchez is the funniest.  Also, someone I saw the movie with pointed out that there are fixes to some of the apparent plot holes, the biggest of which is that this is NOT the same planet as the rest of the movies!  I and most of the audience had missed that completely.]

Not only are there spoilers, but also there's me complaining for several paragraphs.  So steel yourself against the onslaught of whingeing.  I tried to keep myself from having unrealistically high expectations, and the other folks I saw the movie with seemed to like it.  The following reiew is written assuming you've seen it.  Note that if I walked into a science fiction movie and it was deep enough that it was even possible to critique it on this level, I would be very happy.  But I have high standards for Ridley Scott films.  Starting out positive:

The Good

1) The universality of meaningless struggle and violence and smallness.  In the later movies, nasty small-minded humans are trying deliberately to get the xenomorphs as weapons.  This is portrayed as a sign of the awfulness of human behavior, and yet that's exactly what these things were designed as in the first place, and in fact our wonderful creators were going to use them on us, not even for any reason that we could understand. My favorite scene in Alien is Ash's monologue on the amoral perfection of the xenomorphs, and the one that comes close here is David pointing out the disappointment of finding out the desultoriness of one's creators, but how they might in fact be one's moral inferiors.  (There are echoes of the scene in Tyrrell's bedroom with Roy Baty and his own creator.)

2) Surprises.  a) That the space jockeys are humans wearing helmets. b) That Vickers is Weyland's daughter (clearly android like in the beginning). I was expecting another android though for a while I was convinced it was the captain. (Problem, not unique to this movie: advanced technology advancing further. David is an early model android. Presumably 28 years later, Ash is better than him, and 85 years later Bishop is better still. I didn't notice that much of a difference.  More on this below)

3) Body horror:  An alien parasite results in actual pregnancy, vs. just an exogenous parasite in your stomach. The medical capsule scene got to a lot of people. Which is good.

The Bad (in roughly decreasing order of badness): 

1) Underdeveloped immortality.  The theme of the quest for immortality and its consequences was badly underdeveloped.  Show how it's a naive fantasy and the universe is at best indifferent to our dreams and values; or show how it's actually immoral or a tragic flaw, and leads directly to our downfall.  As it is, we don't know which it is, or frankly if the writers even thought about it.  It's right in the middle:  prominent enough to draw attention, not coherent enough or given enough time to matter or make sense.

2) Underdeveloped characters.  I'm certainly not the only one to notice this.  Elizabeth Shaw is somewhat well fleshed-out, as is Ms. Vickers (Charlize Theron) and David the android.  But even the well-built characters have cloudy motivations (Vickers is the only consistent one) and make decisions based on knowledge they couldn't have or at least be certain of.  Examples:  Shaw's mate and colleague mopes around the ship after finding all the space jockeys are dead, but we don't know enough about him to understand his moping.  He's just co-discovered the biggest find of all time, as he himself states!  He certainly doesn't come across as a true believer on the level of Weyland.  And when the previously infertile Shaw is suddenly pregnant (something that seemed important to her just hours before) she has no ambivalence at all about slicing out the fetus before she's even seen it, though granted she wanted to and David wouldn't let her.  Why does she so rapidly switch from awe at the creators to demanding (futilely) to ask to their faces why they were going to kill us?  David's Freudian/Oedipal "kill your parents" line came out of nowhere - yes, he's an android, but he had no character non sequiturs before that point.  And how did the captain know that those things on the ship were weapons?  And why did the flight crew so easily believe Shaw's claims that the ship was going to Earth as to commit suicide?

3) Context.  It would've helped our understanding of the characters' reactions a lot to know where humans are in terms of finding life elsewhere in the universe.  Have we already found alien algae?  Alien civilizations, or at least dead ones?  Here in the real world, we've crashed a spacecraft into Jupiter to avoid crashing onto and contaminating Europa, and here these yahoos are taking their helmets off inside an alien temple.  They're about as cavalier as you could possibly be, landing on a (previously inhabited by intelligent aliens!) alien planet for the first time.

4) Strange choice of weapons.  a) They weren't necessarily expecting an oxygen atmosphere and yet they brought flamethrowers.  b) The space jockeys must rely on weapons that come after you like giant predators and bust out of your abdomen?  Really?  Yes, those critters are nasty, but if the space jockeys are masters of biology, you'd think it would be easy to create a virus that kills us but not them, and then they have Earth to themselves.  The zombie virus that infected one of the crewmembers would be a lot more effective.

5) Continuity.  When Vickers got buried, I thought "Okay, this is why future expeditions didn't find human bodies and a pod.  Then when the space jockey comes into the escape pod to kill Shaw, I thought, "How does he end up back in the pilot's chair?"  Of course we find out in the end that there are ships all over the planet, which gets them out of arranging things like they're found in Alien - but not out of why later expeditions (and colonists!) didn't notice the temples and ships all over the planet!   Even if Scott said the hell with Aliens and later films, we need continuity at least with his own.

6) Common problems of science fiction.  The following are problems that aren't unique to this movie since they arise constantly from certain commonly used science fiction elements. 
  a) This planet was, if not one of the first interstellar systems humans visited, one of the early ones (30-odd LY away).  So in the next ~28 years before Ripley's crew goes there (apparently on the way back from somewhere else even further away), no one else notices anything odd?  Or notices the distress beacon?  But this same problem exists elsewhere; in Star Trek Enterprise we meet aliens that are nowhere to be found in later series, even though presumably these are aliens that are closer to Earth than others because we meet them so early in our first tentative explorations. 

  b) There are 35,000 year old cave paintings in Scotland.  The dead space jockey was 2,000 years old.  So is an already advanced race really so substantially similar, in appearance and technology, after 33,000 years?  Again, this is an almost insoluble problem in science fiction dealing with long periods of time in the future, when the starting point is already far beyond us technologically. 

  c) In movies that rely on a paradigm shift for the money shot - think the red pill awakening in the Matrix, or finding out the aliens are lizards in V - it's very hard to do a reboot, or frankly even make additional movies.  You're trapped into either doing something different, in which case the people who went to see the movie are disappointed, or you do the same reveal, in which case no one gives a damn because they already knew, or you do it half-assed.  (But the movies get made, because we buy tickets; you don't get a refund if you complain enough in a blog post.)  Prometheus used the third option, with things going down people's throats.  Yes, it's invasion of one's habitus but it's not things bursting out of stomachs, and it's not as good or surprising as the first time.  But we're seeing the Alien prequel, so we're expecting it.

A counterargument that was offered to my critiques is "Maybe it's a science fiction movie."  (Thanks Colin.)

Technical quibbles: 

- The language that David was practicing did appear (in my brief glimpse of it) to be proto-Indo-European. (The gh's.) Indeed there's a tradition, thanks to Marija Gimbutas and others, of imagining the ancestral Indo-Europeans as pale, dark-haired militaristic super-men who swept out of the plains north of the Black Sea and descended on the poor Basques and Dravidians and whoever else got in their way. If this reminds you of the Kurgan from the Highlander, you're right on, since kurgans are burial mounds in the Ukraine that are thought to be the remnants of Indo-European culture prior to the diaspora. The problem with the space jockeys being Indo-Europeans is that there was no written form - the first written IE language we know is Hittite, about 2000 BC - so David would have been out of luck. This will certainly be the only blog post in the world calling the film out on this so I don't think I'm going to hurt anyone's feelings.

- Most obvious, you can't see things as small as DNA, not with visible light.  Yes, this film is not a course in electron microscopy, so I took it as expressionism.  Or something.

- We don't know any mechanism that would put and keep oxygen in a planet's atmosphere, other than biology.  So they should've been very interested in that.  Maybe it was the terraforming temples, but they don't discuss this.

- They were able to determine that the space jockey was human.  Fine - but he clearly isn't any kind of human we (or they) have seen before.  Their awesome late 21st century sequencer should have seen this, and it might have made the movie more interesting to add, "He's most closely related to - Bushmen, but they've diverged for over 100,000 years."

Stuck out to me because I didn't get it:

- The reference(s) to (I believe) Lawrence of Arabia.  Maybe the crew noticed that the actor playing David bore a resemblance to the young Peter O'Toole, and that was that, but it seems this wouldn't have made it into the film.  It's hard to fit any individual or group in the film into a narrative parallel to L of A.

- The repetitive "I choose to believe it" from a woman wearing a cross.  Ironically I was seeing this movie with a few folks from the San Diego New Atheists, so this didn't go over so well, but I also don't think that Scott was saying that this is the way to go.  (Her choice of belief ended up not working out that well for her.)  It is interesting that the cross here (as often elsewhere) seems to be a symbol for abstract belief in belief, rather than "My saviour is a supernatural being who was tortured on a device like this".  Still I'm not sure where this fits into the rest of the movie.  There's no apparent link to the immortality theme either.

This movie fell short of my admittedly high expectations, and I worry that Scott has come down with Lucas syndrome - many ideas, and he's now too much of a giant for crew to challenge him on the bad or underdeveloped ones.

[As promised, more reviews here by Marshall Maresca, WhyEvolutionIsTrue, and the funniest by Julian Sanchez. ]

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Aliens Was Full of Strange Character Decisions

In advance of Prometheus no doubt, they're showing Aliens on Syfy right now.  I was obsessed with this thing when I was in junior high (as you can guess by my current obsession with Prometheus).  Re-watching it, I notice two things:

1) I can still recite most of the dialogue along with it (I'm almost doing it unconsciously)
2) It has problems.  Such as:

- Why didn't they give the marines any information about what they're facing ahead of time?  Yes, the little presentation Ripley gave on the ship before the drop is for our benefit, but there may be more plot-sensible ways to do it.

- Why such a small detachment of marines for a colony that's so valuable?  Or, to bring back specimens if that is (again) the company's real motivation?

- The whole drop preparation seems pretty nonchalant for walking into a whole colony on a planet with a known hostile species that's completely lost contact.

- Humans and xenomorphs are both facing an alien environment on this planet, yet not much is made of this.  What advantages do we have against them, especially once the terraforming began?

- Possible inconsistency:  LV426 always seemed cold, although one of the shots in the trailer shows "165 F".  Will be interesting to learn a little more about the planet.  (I'm looking forward to Iceland as a backdrop.)

- Why was the information about these mean critters lost after Ripley's initial landing? (Why for that matter after Prometheus?) Any responsible writer will identify these holes and have some explanation.

- In Aliens we find out that they didn't go look for the space jockey's ship until Burke's order sent them.  How long were they there before that without finding it themselves?  Not very good space colonists.  And if the whole idea of sending another small crew is so they get infected and bring some back, why would Burke be so stupid as to go along?

- Could it possibly have made sense for the whole crew to drop down the gravity well in these kinds of operations, even if a couple of them are in the drop ship.  (Which, yes, was one of the HK models from Cameron's Terminator, which also used Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton.)

Okay, I'll stop now.  And I don't care about the rest of the Alien movies.  One a scale of one to five stars I rate them somewhere between ass and ass prime.

The first Alien scared the hell out of me because I saw it on HBO when I was five years old.  This one kind of scared me too.  I've noticed a pattern where I repetitively watch and internalize things that horrify me.  This is similar to my experience with metal, which in my early teens also scared me, and believe it or not with power chords - because for some reason, the Peanuts theme (and several other childhood songs) also terrified me.  I've talked to other metalheads who have similar patterns of behavior, i.e. gravitating to things that initially terrified them when they were younger.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Seeing Prometheus in San Diego

In San Diego?  Planning to see Prometheus?  A group of folks from varying walks of life including med students, San Diego New Atheists, beer enthusiasts and other miscreants are going to head to one of the theaters in La Jolla either the evening of June 8 or 9, most likely to be followed by a beverage, details to be decided and posted here later.  Email me at if you're interested in joining the horde.