Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Impact of Cinematic Futures

This is sort of a go-to topic for me, but this article on Awl, neatly sums up a lot of hunches I have about the effect popular conceptions of the future have on the actual way futures play out. Boiling the article down to its point, is our present generation of touch screen UI reflective of what actually works in manipulating a touchscreen or is it the product of design costumers expecting what looks good on film to match what works in the real world.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Quick plug for a novel

A new Thomas Pynchon novel is always welcome. A look at the internet from the alpha version of Wikipedia is something to actively anticipate.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review of m b v by My Bloody Valentine

The final track on My Bloody Valentine's classic Loveless was Soon, which in the 22 years of waiting sounded increasingly like a bitter joke. Soon, how soon? This deferred aspect to Loveless was also magnified by that particular song. Mixing Valentine's wash of distorted, trembling guitars with a stuttering dance track, Soon suggested an even brighter future direction for the band's next album, a grand unification theory of music that would span all genres and transcend all boundaries. And then that future kept receding further and further into the distance.

So what does it mean when a work of such singular promise and obvious genius suddenly gains a sequel? If this was Star Wars, we'd know the answer already: nothing good. Not everyone has the same reaction to Lucas' later oevre; some consider the prequels just irredeemably awful or, like me, you might consider them so appalling they actually subtract my enjoyment of the original work. Which is a risk of any sequel, particularly when the meaning and value of the original work comes from a kind of anticipation for something that hasn't quite arrived yet. Loveless was the call, we never heard the response.

Until now. After two decades of wait, through several consecutive movements in pop music, entire careers of other musicians, some of which were directly inspired by Valentine's work, we suddenly have this new album, titled simply m b v, which can I say right now is a kind of annoying title in that it renders useless one of the more obvious abbreviations of the band's own unwieldy name. MBV? Do you mean the band or their third album?

But that's the point, isn't it? The Valentine project, as orchestrated by lead sound smith Kevin Shields, is one of frustration over release, anticipation over resolution. Each song hangs within a constructed virtual space, inescapably present because of the furious distortion and tangible wall of sound they pioneered, but also stubbornly unfinished, unresolved.

Half of the songs on the new album end abruptly or with some sudden drop-off of sound or tempo, almost like they are breaking up on reentry. While the Valentines never had much use for conventional song structures, or the expectations of music in general, here we're confronted with music of the sort normally heard very late at night on the MIT college radio stations, music produced to deconstruct the very notion of conventional song writing. Music that asks itself what is music exactly when we don't even know what it is. Is music any sound repeated in any pattern even if that pattern is buried under washes of static and background noise. Now imagine that kind of music if it was produced with the intention of entertaining, enjoyable on some visceral, don't need a doctorate in experimental music to enjoy level. That was the amazing revelation of Loveless. On that album, i only said, takes a sampled simple melody and repeats the same sample over and over again, until the sound disappears and all of the other layers of the song begin to emerge one after the other like an aural magic eye poster or the colorful blotches as your eye tires of staring at the same bright pattern. Each pass is produced at exactly the same volume, exactly the same pitch. There is no change and yet, the song seems to build meaning through each repetition. When the song finally fades out, the loop is still continuing, going on forever, unresolved, unresolvable. During that entire time, the listener hears an entire universe of separate sounds, different textures, but these layers are never the same because they're always the same. It's our own mind choosing to hear one bit of the music over another depending on our own moods or own history.

All of the songs are required listening, a fact reinforced by the very deliberate, meticulous arrangement of the album. Many reviewers have already noticed a kind of triptych structure to m b v, with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The first trio bears the same washes of distortion and tuneful moans marking their earlier work. The middle largely ditches the guitars in favor of synths, organs and bass lines. This is the most conventionally tuneful section of the album but that is a misleading description for anything the Valentines produce. 

The most courageous attempt at accessibility, new you opens with a bouncy, almost ecstatic bass line.  The song is a curious overture to the outside, almost an invitation. Bilinda Butcher's vocals are very close to the listener, but her words still avoid meaning. The guitars are still demented, but oddly restrained, civilized. 'See, we can play this stuff just as well as the other bands,' it seems to say, 'we just choose not to.' And yet, that's not quite it either, because for all of the surface polish, the same fractures and gaps exist beneath. I've listened to this song at least half a dozen times and never heard it quite the same way twice. Distorted phantoms crowd around the edges of the song, and like the slender man photographs, once they're noticed they cannot be unseen.

The final third is what separates this album from merely failing to disappoint to genuinely contributing to My Bloody Valentine's body of work. Starting with a thundering the Levee Breaks drums, in another way sounds almost triumphant. The guitars scorch and saw into the song from the outside, but the singer remains content and anesthetized. Towering machines encase Bilinda, grinding and pulsing, but she smiles in hibernation, content to let the song rocket its way forward.

nothing is, the next song, would not be so unusual as a sonic filler if it lasted a half minute or so. One of the stranger songs on Loveless, Touched, which one former girlfriend described as whales dying, served as a useful breath of air between songs. The only difference: nothing is isn't filler. It sounds like filler, and bears all of the trademarks of a Valentine's filler song, repetitive drums, heavily processed guitars, but in listening closely, those drums change over time, building to a series of crescendos before dropping back down into the mix. The song itself last just long enough to bring the listener into this strange dream, almost a nightmare, but somehow also exciting, exhilarating. In the final seconds, the guitars suddenly shift softer, almost as though the listener has woken up, but still hears the echoes of the song.

The final cut is the stand-out, wonder 2, almost the answer to soon as well as its rejection. Where soon promises a sonic utopia just beyond all of the labels and genres, wonder 2 practices forceful assimilation. The jungle throb of propellers, and the whoosh of a passing jet plane announce the song but they don't dominate the swirling, melting guitar track that follows. The vocals here are mixed very, very far down, and yet still accessible. This is another trick, the human ear evolved to hear the human voice, no matter the difficulty, the parts of our brain slaved to communication and reception will strain through the cacophony to listen. Buffeted on either side by the mechanical sinister racket, the listener reaches out for the human voice just at the edge of hearing. 

And see, right there is the magic of the Valentines. Their music is timeless because presents this sonic mystery to the listener. You can listen to a Valentine's song a thousand times, know every moment of its layered construction, and yet be able to hear it one more time completely differently. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review of "Shh! It's a Secret" by Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel's obvious and sincere appreciation for the classics of science fiction cinema shines through his first novel, "Shh! It's a Secret." A fixture at Arisia and other SFF conventions, Kimmel's day job is a movie reviewer for a variety of magazines, dailies and blogs. I know him primarily through his moderation of a "Year in Movies," panel at Arisia, a task he handles with grace and good humor but he's also the author of "Jar Jar Binks Must Die," a collection of essays and appreciations of the science fiction genre that was a finalist for a Hugo award. It's this deep reservoir of knowledge that animates "Shh! It's a Secret," his first fiction novel, and gives it a wry, self-aware brand of humor.

Earth is contacted by an alien race known as the Brogardi (which I took as an allusion to the Golden Age of Hollywood) who offer fantastic technology and peace coexistence with humanity in exchange for…our anesthesia. Despite possessing amazing ships (basically spinning tesseracts on stilts) capable of leaping the distance between our planet and theirs, medical technology is apparently backwards on their home planet. Once humanity and Brogardians dispense with the pleasantries the world continues to spin on much as it had before. Politicians give speeches, reporters write stories, and Hollywood continues to make movies. Jake Berman, an executive for the Graham film studio, a company mostly known for a series of movies involving intrepid animatronic ducklings takes all of these disruptions in stride until one day his boss Sly "Junior" Graham informs him that a Brogardi, Abe, has come to the studio with the intention of starring in a movie. The project could easily become a massive hit for the company and a powerful step forward in human/Brogardi relations. As long as it can be carefully and covertly shepherd through intense media scrutiny to the box office, a task falling to Berman.

Some science fiction books explore the meaning of humanity under the encroachment of technology. Others grasp at the nature of reality itself. Then you have books that wonder what would happen if an alien tried to become a movie star.

Okay, so "Shh! It's a Secret," is obviously not a first contact story in the same mold as "Mote in God's Eye," or "Rendez-vous with Rama." Actually, this is not much of an obstacle as the novel is a lot of fun. Written in a chatty, confidential style, Kimmel puts his "behind-the-scenes" knowledge of the movie industry to the service of describing a different sort of alien invasion.

At its heart, the novel is a pleasant, gently comedic look at one of the oldest, if not the oldest, comedy set-ups: the fish out of water scenario. Brogardi are sufficiently anthropomorphic that they can breathe Terran air, eat Terran food, and communicate more or less freely. They wheeze when they laugh, have little trouble staying under water, and don't always get human jokes. Some of the best episodes in the book occur when Abe is clearly attempting to fit into human norms while still preserving his own unique character. An experience, one imagines, as Elmore Leonard suggested in "Get Shorty," not all that different from an outsider trying to break into Hollywood's insular and risk-adverse universe. 

The movie industry described in the book is slightly anachronistic: seedy and chauvinistic in the Mad Men mode. Actually, I feel like this book might have been better served if it was written as alt-history, portraying the Hollywood of the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe grappling with an alien actor. That would make the distress Jake expresses over Abe's fraternization with one of the movie's lead actress's a little more plausible.

A different setting would also work better considering that the titles of the movies used as chapter titles were by and large taken from movies produced during the middle of the last century, and the Brogardians themselves are a bit of a throw-back, creature design-wise. They are blue, possess gills and don't like lying. Although I typically prefer my aliens to be as extravagantly inhuman as possible, the Brogradi worked for me precisely because they seemed such a deliberate homage to the "My Favorite Martians," of yesteryear. I also appreciated the "Great Society" liberalism inherent in the story. The Brogardi represent a challenge to humanity, but one that's embraced instead of feared. Almost without exception, the conflict in this story is about how to preserve the secrecy surrounding the project rather than overcoming some great prejudice over the aliens.

Which gets into my basic criticism with the book:it could use a lot more conflict. Not of the ray guns and explosions variety but consistent tension between the characters. Everyone in this story gets along really, really well. Everyone seems to know their place within the grand scheme of things, and while Kimmel takes pains to point out the cynicism and sausage-making aspects of Hollywood, nothing really jars or disturbs. I would have liked Abe's father, a Brogardi described as being very traditional and conservative, to be more of an active foil during the course of the story. I would have liked Berman's job complicated by some intrepid but unscrupulous investigative Parade journalist. "Shh! It's a Secret" is not "Get Shorty" in science fiction drag but it would have benefited from a few Leonard-style train wrecks during the course of the story.

But none of the criticisms should take away from the basic pleasure in reading this book. There's a lot to be said of a book that sets out a few goals: describe a new civilization and form of life boldly exploring that most peculiar of Earth institutions: Hollywood.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

American Ham with Nick Offerman

Nick Offerman, probably most known for his Libertarian Parks and  Recreation Director character Ron Swanson, has begun touring the country on a comedy/inspirational monologue show called "American Ham." While Offerman doesn't perform the show in character, his own stage persona is so similar to Swanson that I can't imagine anyone leaving the show disappointed.

This is not stand-up, precisely. Although Offerman's perceptions of the world, his particular perverse approach to story-telling, are hilarious, they aren't really jokes. Instead, Offerman seems to borrow a page from motivational speakers and arranges the various topics of the show around a "10 Tips for Prosperity." Highlights of the List:

Number One: Engage in romantic love.

Number Three: Carry a hankerchief.

Number Four: Have a hobby or discipline ("The word hobby is strange. On one hand it shares many of the same letters as 'hobbit,' which is a great word. On the other it's the kind of word that grown men don't usually say, like 'buddy' and 'Romney')

Number Six: Go outside and remain.

Number Ten: Paddle your own canoe.

So this is self-help from the same universe Ron Swanson inhabits. But where Swanson is a stoic, emotionally unavailable government-hating bureaucrat, Offerman is a stoic, defiantly romantic (in the 19th century meaning of that word) progressive libertarian. In between the items on the list above, Offerman would veer between stories of his love for his wife, Meghan Mullally, profane ruminations on the authors of Leviticus, songs about handkerchiefs, and sincere advice for living a more grounded, fulfilling life.

Imagine Bill Hicks, add a guitar, subtract the misanthropy.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review of "Side Effects"

While I have not liked every movie that Steven Soderbergh puts out, personally I find his batting average to be high. In particular, I think Soderbergh has a good understanding of what makes our present  time such an a compelling, weird, and ultimately alarming moment to be alive during. From "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" onward through "Traffic," and last year's "Contagion", Soderburgh has displayed a rare journalistic approach to exotic questions of identity and virtual existence.

Side Effects is probably the most tightly focused example of Soderbergh' particular brand of dislocation and explorations of phenomenological narrative, rather than span continents, cultures, and social classes, the story hones in on just a few successful professionals living in New York City. The movie begins with an apartment that is clearly the scene of some kind of violence. Bloody footprints lead from a kitchen to living room, where a wooden boat sits upon a chair. The narrative skips backwards in time to follow Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) prepare to meet her husband, Martin (unmemorable role for Channing Tatum) in his lead-up to release from jail after spending a few years on an insider-trading charge. Emily is clearly ambivalent about this resumption of her married life, we learn that she has a history of depression. Her eyes blank and hollow, she buckles herself into her car, flattens the accelerator, and launches her car at the nearest concrete wall. Jude Law plays Dr. Jonathan Banks, a psychiatrist agreeing to see Emily following the accident. Emily hears of a new drug called Ablixia to treat depression and convinces Banks to write her a prescription. At first the drug seems to work a miracle, Emily becomes more passionate, upbeat, and the cinematography shifts from a gray wash of bleary city streets to scenes of warmth and burnished domesticity. However, Martin quickly learns that Ablixia does have profound side effects: sleepwalking. Despite her increasingly erratic behavior, Emily insists on seeing the drug through. Finally Martin returns home find Emily sleepwalking, preparing a dinner for three people. He reaches out to wake her only to have wife stab him to death with brutal efficiency.

From there the movie begins to shift its focus in ways. Banks meets professional and personal fall-out over his role in the death of Martin and eventually stripped of every last vestige of his formerly happy life he becomes obsessed to discover the truth behind the murder. Emily is committed to a mental health facility, bewildered by loss and guilt.

From even this highly truncated synopsis, you might get a sense of a movie composed of intricate twists and distractions. For about two thirds of the movie, the steady pulse of revelation and tragedy makes for  compelling cinema. Side Effects is not precisely a Christopher Nolan style puzzle box, but it does keep its convoluted plot focused on the unravelling of a series of mysteries, some of them as plausible as tomorrow's headlines, others basically impossible. Rooney Mara is fantastic in this role, adept at springing from one mental state to another: Depression becomes pharmaceutically enhanced contentment, grief becomes simmering rage. After a fairly obnoxious turn as an unscrupulous medical blogger in "Contagion," Jude Law plays a sympathetic, if flawed psychiatrist. It's hard to believe that the over-worked, harried man at the beginning of the film is the same guy as the calculating and cold-blooded Sherlock Holmes of the final reel, but Law certainly does his best to bridge the gap.

What separates "Side Effects" from other, more successful Soderbergh experiments is the degree of disbelief suspension the movie requires. In order for this film to work, we have to accept that the world is populated by exactly two kinds of people: conniving, vicious people motivated by shear predatory impulses and the hapless somnambulants functioning as their prey. Traffic and Contagion were more successful precisely because they showed more complicated worlds filled with imperfect and conflicted individuals. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review of "Seeking a Friend for the End of The World"

Before I start giving my impressions of Steve Carell's mediocre disaster comedy, I'd like to offer an explanation on why I feel it necessary to review the movie now. After all, "Seeking A Friend," come out in the summer, disappointed at the box office, and left barely a ripple afterwards. However, after sitting through a panel in Arisia looking at all of the SFF movies that came out in 2012, I was surprised to this movie didn't even merit a mention. I'm not sure how common that reaction was, but it seemed curious to me. Say what you want, "Seeking A Friend," absolutely poses a speculative question; what would happen if the world learned its end was nigh?

The movie begins with a couple pulled over on the side of the road listening to the final word on a doomed space mission to advert catastrophe from a giant asteroid called Matilda. As the radio pronounces the world's last and only hope dashed, Dodge (played by a glum and taciturn Steve Carell) watches his wife flee their car and run off into the night, never to be seen again. Meanwhile the world begins to quickly fall apart. Riots spiral out of control, the economy grinds to a halt, people start throwing themselves off of high buildings. In the middle of all of this Steve hits upon the idea of reuniting with a long lost flame. Accompanying him is Penny (played by Kiera Knightley) an eccentric young woman fleeing the conflagration of violence engulfing their city. In the true spirit of road movies, Dodge and Penny encounter odd balls and danger (mostly of the comic variety) as they slowly and predictably fall in love with each other.

The basic problem with the movie is that the strong and darkly comedic potential of the first 10 minutes or so evaporates quickly and we're left with a standard, guy meets girl rom com set-up. Romances live or die based on the chemistry of the leads and sadly, in "Seeking a Friend's" case there is almost no chemistry between Dodge and Penny. Dodge, for understandable reasons, is a complete wreck and shambles through most of the movie like he's already dead. Steve Carell does a really convincing job portraying someone bereft of hope. Knightly's Penny is more vivacious but suffers from a terminal case of stupid ray, that annoying trope in these types of movies where all of the conflict and drama stems from one character's daft decisions. KnightlyThe scenes they share are just painful and awkward and frankly unbelievable. Imagine "Garden State" with Louis C.K. filling in for Zach Braff and you'll be close to just how ill-conceived this pairing is.

Which is a shame, because if I haven't made it clear, I found a lot to respect about the movie's set-up and distressingly abrupt final minutes. This is a movie about the end of the world that goes about the task of describing the final days with admirable sobriety. I sort of wish they had scrapped the goofy road trip element and kept with the idea of apocalypse as mid-life crisis writ large.

Monday, February 11, 2013


We tend to see the future as something just like today only with shinier, niftier toys. This ignores, obviously, the profoundly disruptive influence technology can have on how a society functions or looks like. The example I've often used is that 10 years ago, if you saw a person talking to themselves as they walked down the street, blithely conversing with someone not there, you'd assume they someone in need of medical assistance. Nowadays, we assume that person is talking on a phone or a bluetooth device.

Actually, speaking of a phone, ever since texting and social networks, I've had very little need to call anyone for any purpose. I get annoyed when I see my phone app trying to get my attention with its strangely insistent notification alarm. What could be so important that it couldn't be texted, messaged, posted, or commented on?

Technology changes behavior and expectations. Keep that in mind as you examine this video I pulled from an article on the future of intersections in a future of driverless automobiles. Envision this same intersection not as a collection of 8 bit dots but a stream of one and two ton vehicles barreling through the same interchange, missing each other by what appears to be inches. Think about what sort of city that pattern suggests.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

m b v

m b v So the internets have failed me. I had no idea that My Bloody Valentine had released this follow-up (long, long delayed follow-up) until this evening. Loveless was such a beautiful record that it's easy to keep my expectations for the follow-up very minimal. It's an My Bloody Valentine record long after I had any hope of ever seeing another one. That is enough.

The Dorsia Brevia Solution

While "Green Mars," didn't include nearly as much mind-blowing speculative awesomeness as the first book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, it did include one set-piece that I enjoyed very much: The Dorsa Brevia Declaration.

As mentioned in my review earlier this week, the plot of Green Mars focuses on the approach of a second Martian revolution. The first revolution, as described in Red Mars, was a spasm of senseless violence, mayhem, and targeted assassination, accomplishing little besides the deaths of many, many important characters in the story. As would-be revolutionaries gather in an enormous lava tube named Dorsa Brevia, the central question is how would any future revolution escape the fate of the first.

The process, which I'll describe below, was very familiar to me. During the course of my path to teaching history in Middle School, I worked at an afterschool program named Citizen Schools based in Boston. Citizen Schools had its ups and downs but I always appreciated its attempt to govern itself through a system of consensus. Consensus is more than simply having the majority outvoting a minority and bludgeoning it into submission and it's certainly not a vocal and connected minority imposing its will on the majority. A consensus is something like how New England town halls were supposed to run or meetings in the old Haudenosaunee nations. Rather than forcing some singular vision on how to decide a problem, a commitment is made that everyone in a group of people will agree to certain basic actions. Everyone. That's what consensus means. If something is too contentious for consensus to be reached than no action happens.

In Citizen Schools used the technique to build consensus from students on projects and classroom rules. Students would discuss a problem, while a facilitator wrote down the various possibilities. Redundancies were acknowledged and condensed, controversies recognized but not dwelled on. When done effectively, consensus building creates minimalist frameworks that everyone within a group agrees on and can operate under. This works. I've seen even middle school age children do this.

More recently, this type of decision making appeared in the Occupy movement. In addition to building make-shift communities on parkland, the Occupy movement employed a very inclusive form of direct democracy called General Assemblies. If you participated in the Occupy movement or watched any of the footage, you've probably seen how this works: a speaker will articulate issues under discussion and have have his or her words echoed by the assembly at large. Speakers are drawn from a 'stack,' or list of people wishing to be heard. A variety of hand signals indicate the acceptance, disapproval, or procedural requests coming from individuals within the assembly. The point of the system is that the methods employed by the Occupy Movement should reflect its ultimate aims, a democratization of the economy and social structures of all communities on Earth. A worthwhile goal and an instructive example of direct democracy in action.

Compared to the reality of the Occupy movement, the vision of consensus politics described in Green Mars is somewhat more traditional and structured. Basically, once groups from across Mars reached Dorsa Brevia, the Swiss organizers (a nod perhaps to the Swiss canton system of ) facilitated a convention discussing the issues and problems facing Mars as a whole. Terraforming, economic inequality, structure of post-revolution Mars society and methods of revolution were all separate workshops within the overall convention. Robinson gives a sampling of these workshops, describing some as inspirational and others riven by pointless controversy. However, the process succeeds even where the mechanics of the system falter. A final committee simply assembles all of the areas of agreement into a single seven point declaration. The declaration does no more than collect together the areas of agreement.

What gives the document power, in the narrative, and even, I would argue, beyond it, is the weight of its simplicity. As a declaration it is general, not specific, but succeeds in articulating something different from the reality of Mars up to that point. The Declaration represents a shift, a real change. I'll reprint those points below, not because (obviously) they represent some model for a society on Earth but rather because they evoke aspirations transcending a work of speculative fiction from the 90s, suggesting values for any future progressive society.

I'm not sure if General Assemblies or the Dorsa Brevia convention could ever serve as the practical basis for a society, making decisions for an entire community. But that's not the point of models. Models are experiments, speculations on how things might work given a certain set of values. What would the world be like if every voice was heard, every attempt at participation valued?

The Dorsa Brevia Declaration:

1. Mars will be a world of different cultures and religions; none should dominate over the other.
2. All individuals should have some inalienable rights: material existence, health care, education, legal equality.
3. The Martian land, air, water are common goods and cannot be owned.
4. The fruits of an individual's labor belong to this individual; Martian human labor is part of a communal enterprise; the Martian economic system should balance self-interest and the society's interests.
5. Martian economics will be based on ecologic science and should serve the prosperity of the entire biosphere; thus the metanational order is not sustainable.
6. The environmental alterations should be minimalist and ecopoetic; their goal should be to make the portion lower than 5 km above datum humanly viable, anything above (amounting to 30% of Mars's surface) will exist as natural wilderness zones.
7. The habitation of Mars is a first in human history and should serve as a precedent for human habitation of the solar system and for human relationship with the environment; a spirit of reverence should exist towards Mars and life in the universe.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review of Zero Dark Thirty

I'm not sure I'm ready to say much about this movie, even though I saw it last Friday. I'm really troubled by it honestly, and I think while it's unquestionably an effective piece of movie-making, I think it basically operates at the same level as propaganda. Fiendishly effective propoganda. Undeniably artistic propaganda. But, at the end of the day, this is a work devoted to painting a particularly convenient view of the world.

Zero Dark Thirty traces the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden and the climatic raid that lead to his death at the hands of American special forces troops. Our guide through the gloomy, tense, and confusing world of spy craft and car bombs is Maya, a young woman recruited directly from high school, convinced that Bin Laden uses a single man as a courier to the outside world.  Each terrorist captured offers clues and names eventually revealing the identity of the courier and the ultimate night-time raid on his Pakistan hiding place.

A few thoughts about this movie. When I mentioned at my lunch table I'd seen the movie, one of my co-workers mentioned she had too and asked me what I thought of it. The first thing that popped into my head was, 'it's a movie about how things really are. What's in the movie is the truth of how the world is.' So I said something along those lines. Another co-worker piped in with the observation that a lot of the movie might not be so factual. A report from the Congressional Investigation office determined that no evidence obtained through coercive techniques (water-boarding, humiliation, etc.) actually helped in the search for Osama Bin Laden. Even on a more basic level, the protagonist of the movie, Maya, didn't exist. Her character was aggregated from a number of actual people for the purposes of narrative efficiency.

I knew all of this when I said what I said. So what was I trying to say? Perhaps this was a clumsy attempt to describe how the movie feels as opposed to what it actually is. From start to finish, Zero Dark Thirty describes the world as a dark, threatening, and morally ambiguous place populated by very serious people trained to do very serious things to this country's enemies. What lends the movie power is that it concentrates on the events of the decade long hunt for the leader of Al Qaida, rather than any of the messy motivations behind the 911 attacks or behavior of our government. This government tortured people. This government grabbed people right off the streets in foreign countries and stuck them into black sites from which, as the characters readily admit, they will never emerge. This country sent a team of trained killers into another country to kill one man. The movie doesn't really take a moral stand on any of this. Maya is initially revolted by a scene of water-boarding but then increasingly hard-nosed. By the end of the movie, she's almost inhumanly certain of her own actions. "The politics are shifting," one ex-torturer says part way through the movie, but our protagonist remains monomaniacally driven to find Bin Laden. A member of Seal questions Maya's plan to capture the terrorist late in the movie, and she retorts smoothly, "I wanted to drop a bomb on him."

It's this unapologetic look at America's "War on Terror," that could really rub people the wrong way. I know from first hand encounters plenty of people do not want to watch this movie. Some question if the movie tacitly supports torture by suggesting (indirectly) that it lead to the capture of Bin Laden. Other pointed out that even if you do make an assumption that some of the information may have lead to other useful leads, the movie should have made more of an effort to show, beyond being immoral, tortures just not that effective. People forced to talk through torment and enhanced interrogation have a nasty tendency to produce whatever information their torturers most want to hear.

Zero Dark Thirty's director, Kathryn Bigelow, would probably say these moral questions are beside the point. She uses all of the jargon, jarring interrogations and paranoia as atmosphere for a story wallowing in ambiguity. The moral uncertainty of the movie is her point. The world of Zero Dark Thirty is a dark and dangerous place necessitating hardened professionals unconcerned with ethical controversy, or the 'politics of the situation.' In many ways, this movie is a more effective dystopia than Hunger Games, grittier cyberpunk than her own near-classic: "Future Days."

To her credit, even the final raid on Bin Laden's hiding place is not really played for cheers. Unquestionably bad people meet their well-deserved fates along side a few innocents. Both are dispatched with the same professional, clinical skill the Delta Force uses to blow open doors, jump out of stealth copters, and throw horseshoes at targets. The movie depicts the quest for Bin Laden as an obsession, one with costs and implications.

In the final scene, our virtual protagonist Maya collapses into a seat on an empty cargo plane. "Where would you like to go?" a crew member asks. "I don't know," is her reply. Our last view of Maya is of her looking up to the ceiling of the aircraft, crying, a shocking display of emotion from someone stone-faced for nearly every minute of the movie. What do these tears mean? Are they tears of relief? Delayed sorrow for all those lost in the decade long hunt? Or her own confusion over what the decade meant, to herself and her country?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Images of a Future Mars

I got a great comment today from an artist creating visualizations of the technology and locations described in the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars Trilogy. Unwittingly, I borrowed a sketch of his from the Mangalawiki, the source of much of my background info on the novels. The sketch was plenty evocative, but his finished work is just amazing.

Give the website a look!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Although the second volume in Kim Stanley Robinson's War and Peace of Mars is not as strong as the original it's still very readable. While there were aspects of the first book sorely missed in the second (the journey to Mars, detailed explorations of the planet), overall the novel reaches an appropriate and interesting climax as a second revolution on Mars meets with more success.

Green Mars follows on from the events of Red Mars, although it's clear within the first few pages that quite a few years have passed since the cataclysmic revolution depicted in the closing pages of the first novel. Each section follows one of the characters as the terraforming of Mars enters a new phase, the increased surface warmth and denser atmosphere allowing primitive plant life to flourish. While the book more or less proceeds chronologically, the reliance on the different perceptions of the characters provides a fragmented and often contradictory view of Mars. The powerful multinational corporations in the first book have merged into transnationals and even metanationals, assuming direct control over nations on earth and colonies on Mars. The remains of the original 100 settlers of Mars and their descendants slowly piece together the fractious Martian underground into a force able to wrest control of the planet from the corporations, ultimately taking advantage of an ecological disaster on Earth to spark the second Martian revolution.

One of the perspectives that really resonated with me, this time around was the ardent terraformer Saxifrage Russell. As in the first book, Sax is an ambiguous figure within the novel, working towards the establishment of a human-friendly ecosystem upon the fourth planet of system, but ignoring the impulse to preserve the unique features of the planet. Sax never really gets his due in the first book, but in Green Mars, Sax attempts to leave the safety of the underground to regain a position in the terraforming efforts on the planet. He has his face altered and identity changed. Ultimately, he becomes, at least for a few chapters enough of a different person that even an enemy can't recognize him. Sax's misadventures play into a larger Robinson theme, the nature of identity and self once science radically extends the life of human beings. Like most of the original settlers, Sax has lived long enough that his original memories have begun to fade, it doesn't seem so far fetched that he would be able to (mostly) evade detection as a new person, but there is something poignant about a scientist so passionate about his work he's willing to sacrifice his own name and history. Just as human begin to construct an artificial environment on Mars, they also appear to manufacture artificial lives. While this section does drag, it also shows off Robinson' maturing craft as a writer. While I had real trouble relating to many of the characters in the first book, I never lost the emotional center of Sax's tragic arc.

The other major focus in the story, as hinted above, is the second revolution on Mars. The first revolution was less of an uprising and more of a man-made disaster. Robinson describes entire cities razed, the surface of the planet lashed with the dismembered space elevator cable, Valles Marinaris inundated with ice gushing from deep aquifers. The second time around, the revolution proceeds more  deliberately, the strategy less all-out war and more calculated decapitation. Unlike the first book, the political factions behind the second revolution are more fully realized and even though the revolution is somewhat anticlimactic (deliberately so), the ending is much more satisfying. 

Another high point is the Dorsa Brevia agreement, a very short document created by the various factions of Mars that serves as a kind of Declaration of Independence for the societies of the planet. The document's creation is a model of consensus creation and its wording contains a strange power. Something like the opening mission statement of Star Trek or the three laws of robotics, the Dorsa Brevia Declaration has the potential to transcend its source material. It's utopian in character, describing a multicultural society holding individual efforts, common space and resources, and reasonable terraforming efforts to a place of prominence. Somehow I really bought this declaration, both because of the messy, authentic, controversy surrounding its production and because the statement carries with it the power of understatement. 

Green Mars, itself, is not a work given to understatement. Robinson obviously fell in love with his material, trading long, discursive meditations upon space exploration and terraforming technology for long, discursive meditations upon future history and exotic politics. Also, not all of his characterizations were as convincing as Sax. In particular I struggled to understand Jackie Boone's role in the story. Few of the other character could stand her and yet by the start of the Second Revolution she was clearly the focus of a large cult of personality. Why? A chapter from Jackie's perspective may have gone a long way to adding conflict and urgency to that part of the story.  I had trouble finishing certain sections of the long beginning, and ultimately much of it seemed redundant. Basically Robinson decided to hold his characters in a kind of stasis until he could figure out a way to have them reemerge into the political and social concerns of the new novel. I liked the depiction of the eco-oasis of Zygote and later Gamete but ultimately it felt like sterile exposition when the topic he was so obviously cared about was the impending second revolution of Mars.

Robinson writes characters as stand-ins for ideas and points of views. He almost seems frustrated when his characters do something outside of his expectations. Enormous amounts of the book are devoted to future histories, detailed explorations of terraforming techniques and debates over various passionately held ideologies. This is a novel of ideas. If you like those ideas or at least consider the elaboration of them an interesting exercise, then you will like this book, perhaps even love it. However, fans of traditional space opera will find little here for them. The science is as dry as the red dust of Mars and the revolution at the closing purposefully and skillfully bloodless.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Thinking with Portals

For a night, I got to join the Resistance.

My friends have been playing Ingress, the augmented reality game Google launched a few months ago, nearly non-stop. As more and more of their time and attention bends towards a game that plays like a mash-up of capture the flag and geo-caching, I've become interested in the issues the game raises. And more than a little jealous that I went with an iPhone 4S in my last upgrade. But whatever.

Our raid last night began the way any clandestine effort does, a covert marshelling of forces at a local safe house, in this case the apartment of one of my friends. Two smartphones fully charged and stocked with a supply of virtual munitions, +Morgan Rushing  and +Matthew McComb  set out onto the streets of Somerville, brazenly walking up to a quartet of portals (two Zipcar lots and a pair of local landmarks) and hacked them, flipping them from green 'Enlightened' control to the blue of the 'Resistance.' These factions have somewhat different backstories within the fiction of Ingress: the Enlightened is attempting to help alien 'shapers' alter the culture of humanity while the Resistence…well, resists

The overlay isn't too important however, the point of the game being for members of the two factions to battle over these landmarks, first wearing down the defenses surrounding it before taking over the landmark. A successful hack garners rewards: experience points and various items that players might use to further control locations. The game has a simple advancement ladder, Matt is level 6, two away from the max. To me, the different levels offer differences quantitative not qualitative. A level one player has limited ability to hack and take over portals, the most powerful tools and locations out of reach. On the other side of the spectrum, a level 8 player has nearly unlimited potency within the game, able to flip portals and buttress territory with impunity. However, it's not like being level 8 offers you new powers or responsibilities: you are still in the same game, unable to bypass or change the basic set-up of the game.

Anyway, the experience of the game is what matters and here for me is really where the promise of the game materializes. This is a game that really gets people moving around their neighborhoods. Players must physically got to these locations and linger at them, usually in concert with teammates for several minutes. Buildings and obscure statues passed before in ignorance suddenly acquire real and practical significance. This locations must be claimed, controlled, and defended. In chilly February weather this is more of an ordeal that it sounds, but Ingress further encourages movement by making it necessary to hack several portals in order to take over territory. Another twist to the game is that the other faction receives an email when one of their portals flips, so they have an opportunity to come in an reclaim the location. While waiting for the hack of a Zipcar lot, an SUV pulled up on the far street, the engine idling. Was this simply someone waiting to pick up a friend from a nearby apartment or an Enlightened agent defending his turf?

Fortunately our band was reinforced with the addition of another friend +Alex LaHurreau who came fresh supplies: both virtual and actual in the form of a portable battery for his phone. Ingress uses impressive amounts of power through the constant use of GPS, animation heavy graphics, and data exchange. As our little band huddled together near the walls of the Somerville Arsenal, we eyed suspiciously the passers-by, especially those focused on their own smart-phones. Those with Android phones became possible opponents, those with iPhones, instantly invisible.

The whole experience of marching from corner to corner, tapping furiously away on hand-held devices triggered memories of my favorite show, The Wire. In season three, the most powerful drug organization, the Barksdale gang, loses its profitable turf in the project towers. As they move in on the street corners, running street battles break out as rivals gun for access to the newly ground-level market. There's something of that in Ingress. Players earn experience and equipment in hacking portals a feature of the game that encourages constant turn-over. One of the easiest ways to advance in the game is to set up a portal in enemy territory, watch it taken down by other players and then gain a bonus from reclaiming it.

This is something happening world-wide. Players have access to an 'intel map' that shows portals available across the globe, blue and green lights spreading across the continent as more and more players begin to claim virtual territory. There is apparently a movement to fund an expedition to the South Pole to claim the site. At the moment 79% of the world has been claimed by the Resistance, which either says something about the relative organization of that faction or perhaps some subterranean need right not to buck authority. 

Eventually my friends depleted their resources and body heat and we ended the raid. An entire swath of territory now belonged to the Resistance, at least until Enlightened could must enough people to reclaim the land.

Where can this game go? I watched real-time the perils inherent in the expansion of the game and a reminder more than a few bugs need working out before this gets too big. Google recently signed an agreement with Zipcar to have all of the company's lots appear in the game as portals and inadvertently triggered a game-breaking exploit. In addition to expanding the locations available for hacking, the blocks of license plates the company bought out represent in-game resources for obtaining better weapons and access keys to portals. With instructions written in English, Mandarin and Arabic, players used the liberated numbers to gain virtual rewards. I do not envy the employees of Niantic coming into work on Monday tasked with fixing a game now convulsed in a suddenly resource-rich battlefield.

After my first raid, I was left with a few more reactions to the ideas in the game. For one thing, I'd like to see more factions in Ingress: the simple duality of Enlightened versus Resistance leaves me somewhat cold. I would also like the philosophies of the factions to inform the game-play more fully. Choosing a faction should have more bearing on how the game works for a player. Also, as I mentioned, there is nothing conceptually different from a low-level player and a higher-level player besides their access to more powerful weapons and material. What if the label 'portal' was more than simply surface detail? What if by hacking a portal a player could virtually step into an alternate reality, either a horizon realm controlled by the player and his/her faction or even more exotically, the terrain of some other planet. After all, the surface area of Mars is roughly equivalent to the land area of Earth. If people are seriously considering an expedition to the South Pole to hack a portal, how cool would it be if they could conquer Olympus Mons or battle over Valles Marinaris. Why stop there? Throw in fictional worlds and players could restage the Battle of Pelanor Fields or the invasion of Hoth.