may 06

Avatar Review

I went into this film expecting to see Dances with Smurfs, as South Park so wryly put it. I knew that the story was going to be derivative. I knew that it was going to be full of eye-candy of a sort I’d already seen, but bigger, bolder, and brighter. I knew that the characters would be flat. I went because it’s Christmas, and it was an opportunity to go out with my family and have some fun.

All my expectations turned out to be well founded, and yet I left the cinema with the feeling that I’d seen something genuinely important. I’m writing yet another Avatar review because I think that this significance should be highlighted and applauded, and the other reviews I’ve read haven’t done this yet.

I believe that Avatar has quality because it represents a strong environmental message wrapped up in a format that people in America’s conservative heartland might actually absorb. More importantly, it’s an environmental message that children may well internalize. And it’s been done with as much color, drama, and money as Hollywood can throw at it.

You can see this in the way that the components of the film have been assembled. The alien language has been carefully thought out. The biology of the flora and fauna have too--within the constraints of certain ‘make it cool’ movie directives, such as ‘give the creatures six legs’ etc. Furthermore, several of half-decent ideas from science fiction literature have worked their way into the premise--vegetable synapses, world-spanning intelligences, etc. However, none of this verisimilitude is allowed to get in the way of the story. Avatar clings tightly to the Hero’s Journey and draws the line at anything that might limit a young audience’s connection to the narrative, dull its message, or reduce its capacity to wow the audience. For instance, the aliens are basically human, despite the fact that nothing else on their planet shares their body plan. A nebulous ‘life force’ is invoked to bind the ecology together, and floating mountains are introduced without a hint of supporting exposition. The consequences of inhabiting the watery moon of a gas giant (tides, storms, tidal locking) are never even mentioned. (Clearly a meteorologist wasn’t hired on the design team.) However, I found it easy to forgive Avatar these flaws.

Other reviews I’ve read have complained that the movie follows the classic ‘white man hangs out with natives, turns out to be special, then saves them’ pattern that has been in use as long as white Western culture has been dominant. It’s true. However, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Avatar has this pattern because the plot is trying to achieve a specific goal, and that pattern was the one deemed most likely to achieve it. This movie isn’t about race relations. It’s about trying to put the brakes on a pattern of global corporatism that is racing us toward irreversible environmental damage. It’s an attempt to use business itself to try to rein business in. Bravo Cameron. That’s a movie-making agenda I can get behind.

If I have one concern about this film, it’s that it doesn’t make any significant attempt to shade in the personalities of the villains. Certainly it’s easier to hate corporate greed if we can cast executives and hired soldiers in the role of ‘baddies’. However, this misses the point that everyone in such a role believes themselves to be a goodie. People justify their actions to themselves in all manner of ways.
‘I want my kids to be able to go to college.’
‘I’m following orders because this is the best job I could get and I can’t afford to lose it.’
‘If I didn’t make this money, someone else would. Why should I lose out?’
‘I’m generating wealth, not destroying life. What I do here will enable someone else to build hospitals.’

Hopefully, Avatar will make a difference. However, I think the message will go further if we all remember that the people doing the damage usually aren’t evil. Most of the time they’re just over-ambitious, or desperate, or in denial. Nevertheless, none of these traits constitutes an excuse.
may 06

A Writer's Aid?

I'm thinking of taking everything I know about plotting, both from improv and from fiction, and putting it all into a piece of software. This program would be a kind of writer's aid. It'd help people build strong plots, and also diagnose stories that weren't hanging together. You'd be able to use it construct novels, short stories, screenplays and goodness knows what else, so long as it obeyed the rules of story. There are already some tools that do this, but might would be cooler.

Anybody have any opinions about this? Do they think it's a lovely idea. Or do they think it'd be a waste of time. If you're anything other than indifferent on the topic, please let me know.
may 06


Where are all the writers of intelligent adventure fiction? I’m not talking about the people who write spec-fic with literary aspirations. I’m not talking about the people who write space opera with bits of slightly edgy physics thrown in. I’m talking about fiction that follows a heroic arc, but in doing so takes you somewhere truly unexpected. Writing that doesn’t sit well in any well-defined genre, including ‘new weird’, because it’s boldly going somewhere we haven’t been before. Boldly, brightly, confidently, without taking time out to stare at its navel.

I ask because IMO, this is what spec-fic does when it’s at its finest, and there’s not enough of it around any more. Alfred Bester did this. Jack Vance did this. Philip Dick did this. More recently, Dan Simmons has done this too, (at least, I think so). But now it seems the whole genre has seem to have lost touch with the thing that makes it most beautiful.

As genre writers, we appear to be a divided camp. On one side, there are those who want to write fiction that fits into established sub-genres that they love, do well at it, and then make some money from it. On the other side are writers who want to produce something unique and inspirational that has its own voice and mood, and reaches a subset of the population who will understand how they feel. These writers would like to make some money too, but not if it gets in the way of their self-expression. This division is a gross generalization, of course, as many people have a bit of both, but it’s still what I think I see.

The problem is that neither of these directions makes for great, genre-transcending writing, IMO, and therefore neither is likely to generate much of the desired cash. The sub-genre enthusiasts are sort of like string-theorists. They’re improving an existing paradigm because they believe in it, but without any concrete evidence that that paradigm is going anywhere, or ever will. Meanwhile, the fan/sub-genre markets will continue to shrink. (I believe this is also true of those contemporary ‘flash-in-pan’ sub-genres like paranormal romance. My strong suspicion is that they will die as fast as they arrived.)

The voice/mood writers are people who I feel have caught ‘Great American Novel’ disease to some extent, while still loving spec-fic. By measuring themselves against a literary yardstick that doesn’t have anything to do with the genre, and frankly *hates* the genre, they cripple their own potential. They end up sort of like limping Thomas Pynchons, often only reaching tiny, truncated markets regardless of the quality of their work.

I believe that our genre is at its most beautiful and different when we grab hold of our audience with the familiar, the fun and the truly accessible, and then carry them, kicking and screaming, into the unknown. Yes, screaming. It’s a glorious, inspired form of bait-and-switch that *educates* while it entertains. And education is important, whether it be physics, psychology, anthropology or whatever else. Great spec-fic broadens the mind in a way that sticks with you whether you like it or not.

I don’t believe that this kind of writing can be set in a Tolkien-style universe, or a space-opera universe, or any other familiar kind, unless it radically departs by the end of the story. I don’t believe it can be done in a universe that is staunchly magic-realist either for the same reason. Or one that is deliberately moody and dark and full of body parts and shadows things that are ‘vile’ or ‘strange’ or ‘mysterious’ with no apparent logic.

I *do* believe that there is a large number of very talented writers in our field who are selling themselves absolutely short if they continue to write in these flavor spaces without taking real risks. And what do I mean by risks? I mean, do they find themselves doing research in fields that they don’t understand in order to write their stories--research that makes them experience mild panic and self-doubt? Do they find themselves shivering as they put material onto the page because it touches some part of them that *hurts* even though they want to share it? Do they deliberately push the envelope with the things that they write, including motifs and devices that they’re not sure they can actually pull off? Motifs and devices that worry them, even as they write? If we don’t, then I fear we are being hobbyists, not writers, and it’s a bloody good job we haven’t quit our day jobs, because we’re not fully committed.

I say all this in part to be controversial and inspire comment--particularly given that very many dear friends of mine fall into one or the other of the categories I mention, and sometimes I do too. However, I want to know how people feel about this, and whether from that I can glean some sense of where speculative fiction is going, and how we can keep it alive. Because from my perspective, right now, it appears to be dying, and I believe only things that are going to save it are innovation and passion.
may 06

Political Uncertainty

So the other day I think I worked out why we're getting so many closely run elections these days. I'd been looking the patterns of recent political events and had decided it was mighty fishy that so many large public decisions were so perfectly weighted.

At first I wondered how the politicians were pulling it off. After all, when an election looks perfectly balanced, it's easy to tip the scales in the direction that our cohorts of corrupt social bullies would like it to go. However, as my wife so accurately pointed out, this constitutes a conspiracy theory, and a rather large one.

Still, after two transparently forced Bush wins, a close-run election in Mexico and the recent Hilary/Obama stand-off all practically back to back I was unwilling to let the idea drop. Then it occurred to me--the politicians don't have to make this happen. The media does it for them. There's still a conspiracy of sorts going on, but it's a distributed one, and it comes out of that oldest and most predictable of motives: the desperate desire to keep one's job.

Journalists can get more mileage out of a close-run, 'exciting' election. Furthermore, underdog articles read well, and journalists are having a tough time in this world of increased webbishness. So when a candidate lags, they bolster them up. In any situation where there might be conflict, gossip, or a close finish, they help create it so that they can sell papers/air time/whatever.

The problem with this is that the media ends up creating a perfectly fertile breeding ground for corrupt political practice, simply by virtue of doing their job too zealously. We appear to have reached a situation in which the media, as well as adding scrutiny to the political arena, is disturbing the phenomenon it seeks to observe. It's a political Uncertainty Principle in action. Werner Heisenberg shakes his head at us wearily from beyond the grave.
may 06

More Digitized Spacetime!

The other day I met a guy in a café and got talking about my crackpot theories of the universe. He challenged me to answer some pretty simple questions about what I’m interested in, and why I’m so obsessed with digitized spacetime. I thought they were good questions, so I’ve repeated them here, along with the answers.

Question: What is the basic assumption your work seeks to explain?

Answer: My hypothesis is that physical events as described by quantum mechanics do not require statistical methods for their explanation, even though such methods are required for their prediction. I propose that only discrete, deterministic methods are needed to explain all physical phenomena.

Question: How and why is your approach is the best approach with which to accomplish the proof of your assumptions?

Answer: My method seeks to approximate the behavior seen in actual quantum mechanics experiments using simple, discrete, deterministic, computational models.
I believe this to be the best method to prove my hypothesis because without successfully describing known quantum effects in computational terms, any attempt to equate the behavior of the universe with computation fails. That makes my method the shortest, most direct route to illustrating that physics can, and perhaps should, be done differently.
I also choose this route because it is the only approach to proving this hypothesis that falls even remotely within my current skill set.

These answers of course say nothing about why I think the hypothesis is important, or how my work relates to anything anyone else is doing, but hey, that’s for later.

I’m impressed at how comically hubristic these statements look on the page!
may 06

Lose Weight, Achieve Your Goals, How To Do Anything

Yesterday, Jenny pointed me at an article in the New York Times.

It describes a system for making yourself do the things you can’t bring yourself to accomplish—getting more exercise, losing weight, paying taxes, etc. In short, you take a bet against yourself, so that if you fail to achieve your goal, you have to pay a forfeit. I have been using and recommending this system for years.

I find it an interesting reflection on my own lack of capitalist zeal that someone’s built a website around this idea now, even though they don’t have the refinements that make the technique truly effective.

For a start, the fiscal and social incentives described in the article work a lot less well than ones cued into the part of your brain that handles discomfort. This is not necessarily the same thing as embarrassment or financial loss.

I helped a relative lose wait using this system by agreeing to be her ‘forfeit broker’. If she didn’t lose the wait she wanted to lose, she had to call up and apologize to an old friend who in her mind had behaved horribly. I ensured that she’d have to carry out the forfeit if she didn’t keep her promise to herself. The weight fell off like magic.

The person entering the system has to choose the forfeit themselves, and ideally chooses one that accesses the ‘cringe point’ in that person’s value system. The ‘cringe point’ almost always relates to charged issues in someone’s interpersonal relationships and sense of justice.

The system has to be used carefully though. First out from the gate you need to set very easy goals. Otherwise, agony ensues. You also have to be brutally honest with yourself about your cringe points. Nearly cringy forfeits just don’t cut it.
may 06

Digitized Spacetime

For years now I've been quietly obsessed with Digital Physics, and the work of such great thinkers as Konrad Zuse and Edward Fredkin. Over Christmas, I decided to start getting the experiments of my own that I've carried out in this field into some kind of shape. So this is me committing at least some small part of my work to the web. Hopefully more will follow.

The video link below shows the action of a simple algorithm that I crafted. The idea is to illustrate that it is possible to replicate some of the behavior seen in quantum mechanical systems without resorting to statistical methods, or even physics dependent on continuous mathematics.

At the start of the video, the 'particle' is distributed randomly throughout a closed box containing a network of randomly linked nodes. Over successive iterations of the algorithm, the particle automatically coheres itself into a single body and takes on the property of straight-line motion, even though the network it traverses contains no straight lines. When obstructed by distortions in the network, it occasionally bifurcates, appearing in two places at once until the pull of the algorithm forces it to re-cohere to a single location.

It's my hope to use methods like this to replicate the two-slits experiment in a totally quantized system, and illustrate that what we see as rigidly uncertain behavior enforced by Heisenberg's principle can arise out of computation. There is a cost, of course, we must be prepared to adapt a few of our more cherished physical concepts, such as the definition of locality.

But more on that later, presuming I get round to it.

may 06

More outrage in Denmark

In Denmark, Muslims are unhappy again at the reprinting of cartoons of Muhammad. Their religion forbids depiction of the prophet. Okay, fair enough for people who choose to be Muslim. But what I don't get is why a rule for people in one religion is supposed to apply to people who aren't even members of the same faith.
And if we say that they do have a right to be outraged by what non-Muslims do, why is it happening now over this one event? The West has had representational art for centuries. Isn't that also an outrage banned by the Koran? Westerners eat non-halal meat, let their women go uncovered, etc. etc.
I suppose what I'm really saying is that it's ridiculous for anyone who holds an arbitrary belief system to try to impose it on others out of sheer indignation, be it Islam or Christianity or anything else. In fact, it's pretty much the only thing I'd consider an outrage.
may 06

Super Tuesday

Today is Super Tuesday. Everyone in Santa Cruz is voting for Barak Obama. I don’t have a problem with that. I think he’s a good candidate. It’s just that many of them are doing it for all the wrong reasons and that worries me.

Bad Reason One:
He’s less polarizing than Hilary, and unless people vote for him, a Republican might get in.

Why It’s A Bad Reason:
The Republicans aren’t going to get in this time. They don’t even want to get in. They’ve deliberately held back their best candidates. The backers who run the Republican party have funneled more money into the Democrats this time on purpose. They’ve even put up a set of candidates designed to analyze and refine the Republican formula without risking an election victory.
They’ve done this because the next four years are going to be a disaster and they don’t want to be held responsible. The purpose of ‘The Surge’ was not to win in Iraq but to defer the problem so that it belonged to someone else. An almost inconceivably vast bill is also about to be delivered to the American people. It will inevitably result in a tax increase. The Republicans want someone else to be responsible for that too.

Bad Reason Two:
Barak Obama represents ‘hope’. He’s a symbol that America can do things differently. He’s a symbol that the American people demand change.

Why It’s A Bad Reason:
The reasons are similar to those above. The next for years are not a good time for outright optimism. They’re a time for America to put its head down and weather the storm. Whoever gets in is going to be demonized within two years because of the awful things their office will force them to do. They will seem to be a terrible disappointment though they won’t even have options. America has been presented with a carefully staged choice: demonize a woman or a black man. In other words, business as usual.

I like Barak Obama. Had I a vote, I might vote for him myself. After all, he’s the candidate who’s accepted no money from Washington lobbyists. However, Hilary Clinton is used to having her head kicked and is still standing. From my perspective that makes her look like an excellent woman for the job.