Why Transformers 2 is not a terrible movie

Or: Roger Ebert takes himself too seriously.


On my old blog, I wrote an analysis of the original Transformers movie in light of memetic theory. It bore the title, “Do you really think we can trust the Decepticons?”

It was common in eighties action cartoons, like Transformers, to have an episode where the “good guys” and the “bad guys” team up to defeat a common foe. It happened in He-Man. It happened in GI-Joe. It happened in Transformers. One could presumably imagine a conversation, not necessarily with Captain Picard and Jeff Goldblum (who is not quite dead yet), in this episode of Transformers. The penultimate line in the image, the dramatic crux upon which the entire exchange rests, would be delivered completely without irony. As a child, I would have been too caught up in the drama to notice this lack. Or even to understand that there probably ought to be a snicker or a guffaw.

I read Roger Ebert’s review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen after I saw the movie. Though I suspect that if the order were reversed, I might have made a concerted effort to enjoy it even more than I did. In fact, in light of some of the reviews, I find myself looking for reasons to like the movie. I don’t know why I dislike Ebert so intensely. I mean, it’s obvious that he’s not seeing eye to eye with me ever. I mean, can everyone agree that he’s utterly incorrect about Star Trek?

Everything Ebert says is true: the plot is nonsensical, the characters are vapid and shallow, the movie is loud. The question: what’s wrong with that?

I guess it’s a question of expectations. I was expecting something on par with the first movie. What I got was something that actually corrected several of the problems with the first movie. I went to the film expecting (and desiring) a 2.5 hour robot slugfest. And you know what? Michael Bay delivered. This shit was crazy!

In the first film, it was difficult to see much of the action. In this new iteration, he did a few things to make the action more intelligible and i applaud him for it. First of all, he chose his environments with more care. The scene where Optimus dukes it out with Megatron and Starscream in the woods was great because the camera could sit farther back, and the robots stood out against the vegetation. It was easily one of my favorite scenes in the film.

His use of slow motion was nice as well. This gave us an opportunity to see, in detail, the results of some of these blows. I mean, a giant robot has to put some pretty tremendous power behind a punch. I could barely contain myself when Bumblebee stripped that dog robot down to its spine, or when another robot got its face ripped in half.

A friend of mine pointed out afterwards, using the word “Cronenbergian,” the use of fluids and ichors and sinus invasion with some of the robots. It was seriously that creepy in spots.

I liked the look of the robots. In particular, his use of very small robots was cool. Hordes of tiny robots are to giant robots what hordes of scorpions are to grizzly bears. They are all terrifying, but for very different reasons.

There are obviously a ton of plot holes and problems with this film. It’s not a “great” film. It’s not even a “good” film. But it certainly isn’t terrible and it’s for this reason that the film manages to succeed. It has excellent pacing for it’s length. There was always something happening and I wasn’t bored. I was looking for a particular type of entertainment and I got it.

This movie shows that a movie doesn’t have to be great in order to deliver on a promise.

The question of why this movie is far superior to the Wolverine movie of earlier this summer is much more complex. They both appeal to the same primitive emotions. They both aim at the same goal: a re-imagining of an old franchise. But somehow Wolverine felt like it was written by a fourteen-year-old. Transformers 2 felt like it was written by an adult for the fourteen-year-old in all of us. Except Roger Ebert.

Look at that old pretentious fuddy-duddy:

Assumed to be fair use.

Assumed to be fair use.


Population size linked to intelligence, culture, cancer, and one of my favorite movies


As you may well know, I hold firm to the idea that science is profoundly important to humans, though it’s sometimes a difficult thing to articulate exactly why. And so, at the risk of beating the proverbial horse, I’m going to take another crack at establishing some of philosophical reasons for scientific research.

One of my favorite movies is Hurlyburly. It’s a little obscure, and my reasons for liking it are a little tangential and not necessarily relevant to this discussion, and so I hope that the connection I wish to draw does not come off as pointlessly esoteric.

Anyway, Sean Penn’s character is this totally self-absorbed Hollywood casting director, a low-life bottom feeder of the film and entertainment industry. He is essentially a member of a vast machine that pumps out entertainment to the masses and the part that he plays in this machine is utterly insignificant in the general scheme of things. This–and a lot of drugs–put him in the state of mind of always questioning his place in the world and how he is to relate to the world. He continually asks when presented with some outside information that is not directly relevant to his life, “How does this pertain to me?”

On the one hand, he is just being utterly self-centered. But on the other, I think he’s asking a valid question. Many things happen in the world that have no bearing on our day to day lives. But are we going to make the claim that starving children in Africa are irrelevant? Are we going to say that the potential for revolution in Iran is not important? These things don’t affect me directly, but as Anna Paquin’s character points out in the film, everything pertains to everything else in the sense that everything is part of the same “flow,” as she puts it.

I’m not trying to be mystical about this. These things that happen in the world always pertain to us because everything pertains to us. Even the most insignificant detail, like the fact that I’m sleepless in a hotel right this very moment because my flight home was delayed until tomorrow morning, is significant. It might, say, affect your decision to book a flight with Northwest Airlines–now Delta–in the future. It might affect your decision to decide on a connection at the Indianapolis Airport (I don’t recommend it).

To move on, there were two new studies that struck me as profoundly relevant, not only to our lives, but also to each other. I will point out that they will not necessarily affect how you live your life, but they definitely pertain to you.

First of all, researchers at the University of Missouri have shown that, as humans evolved, there is a strong correlation between brain size and population density. In other words, they have shown that brain size is directly related to social competition. What this means is: our brains are bigger because we compete with each other, and not with other species. This is pretty serious stuff.

And now some research out of Georgia Tech suggests that the fact that our brains are bigger is the reason we have higher cancer rates than chimps who are much less susceptible to cancer.

So let’s look at this. We–not necessarily willingly–gave up a relatively cancer free existence for our intelligence. That intelligence evolved as a result of competition within our species.

Interestingly enough, it seems that population density is also directly linked to culture. So there is a tension that exists when humans are together. But this tension can be utilized purposefully. It stems from competition (since that is the nature of the world) but it in no way means that we are incapable of transcending our natures and working together. We can do great things when we work together and if it means we’re more likely to get cancer, well, I think it means we have all the more obligation to use our brains.

Gute Nacht.

Why Going to the Moon is Awesome


I want to make it perfectly clear that I am, in fact, totally pumped that we’re finally getting back into legitimate space exploration. The thing is, there are perfectly justifiable reasons for going to the moon aside from the obvious intrinsic merit–the “cool” factor that I’ve talked about in the past.

It’s all a test. If we as a species wish to survive more than a few thousand more years, we need to get off this planet. The only way to do that is to learn how to survive in the absolute harshest of situations: the moon. If we can establish a permanent base on the moon, Mars should be a breeze. If we can do Mars, then I don’t see any reason why future technologies like the “ark” ships of science fiction aren’t reasonable.

What I’m talking about is pushing the limits of what humans are capable of.

Athletes are interesting because they push the limits of what a single individual can do. Tremendous feats of physical prowess. Competing over hundredths (thousandths) of a second. Scholars, poets, writers, and intellectuals push human thought to its extreme limits. They tear apart the tiniest ideas and expose their inner workings, oftentimes giving us insights into the world and ourselves that we never thought of before.

The great monuments of the world are testaments to what the combined human effort is capable of. Nobody considers what the Colosseum cost to build. Or the pyramids. The cathedrals scattered about Europe. We value these things beyond their price tags.

The Apollo program was a testament to what combined human effort is capable of and maybe, to this day, stands as perhaps the greatest human achievement outside of art. And so going back is a matter of course. We must go back to the moon because if we don’t, we are, in essence, stuck in a rut. Absorbed in our consumerism, our trite and meaningless wars, we can look at our current world situation as a symptom of a sort of species-wide depression. We did something amazing 1969 and it didn’t last long. And it’s over. And we’ve been trying to best it since then. We’ve discovered incredible new things, but we haven’t taken the next step. We haven’t gone to the next level.

My only problem is, as I’ve said in the past, just how damned slow it all happens. I’m just glad that something’s happening. I’ll be even more excited if they find the ice they’re looking for.

On the plus side, sun spots are back!

Au revoir.

Why Apple Computer is not what people think it is.


The biggest problem with Mac’s “I’m a Mac” ad campagin with Justin Long and John Hodgman is that John Hodgman is so much more charismatic. I mean, is there anyone out there that likes Justin Long? Anyone that doesn’t think he’s a totally obnoxious ass?

They make a lot of claims in these ads about Mac’s superior security, stability, and performance. I’m sure there has been endless debate on all three counts, with PC users vehemently defending their machines, cobbled together from parts made by twenty or more different companies–reminiscent of the Road Warrior, the electronic version of a rat bike–while Mac users sit back with their user-friendly, cute-as-a-button, yuppie machines. The fact remains that a computer is only as useful as a user is able to make it.

There are a few things that I’d like to say that might level the playing field as far as Macs are concerned and the first involves a story about a virus. One of the Macintosh’s selling points is the fact that they never get viruses. The reason for this, of course, is not because they are more secure. It’s because they have a far smaller market share than Windows. About 90% to 10%. The danger is that as Apple’s market share grows (and it is currently doing just this) it will attract many more hackers.

Imagine you’re a hacker and you want to write a virus. Your primary goal is, of course, to infect as many computers as possible. The best way to do this, would be to write a virus for the most ubiquitous platform: Windows. That’s why PC-users get more viruses and why Mac-users suffering from malware are few and far between.

I suppose it’s interesting that this new Mac virus was found primarily to be haunting popular porn sites. Presumably the people suffering from attacks from this virus are Mac-users who happen to have a penchant for the naughty. And perhaps even more interesting is the fact that, Mac-users, inexperienced at dealing with viruses and with fewer bits of free software to rid themselves of these viruses, are having a much harder time cleaning their systems.

I really feel for them. It’s like forcing a five-year-old to oversee the merger of two large corporations. They are simply ill-equipped to deal with this.

I wonder if you are familiar with one Alan Turing. He was a cryptographer during World War II and his story is fascinating. Most importantly, he is considered by many to be the father of modern computing. His “Turing Machine” was a thought experiment that is the basis for modern file systems and, while modern computers aren’t directly based on it, the “Random Access Stored Program” machines that today’s computers evolved from Turing’s original ideas.

And this brings me to a point that has always struck me as bizarre about Apple Inc’s logo. You see, Alan Turing was a homosexual. This was illegal in England at the time and this was eventually discovered by the powers that be. He was stripped of his security clearance and convicted of the very same crime that Oscar Wilde was. He avoided jail time by submitting to chemical castration. A horrifying atrocity.

I’m not sure if this lead directly to his death or not, but the fact remains, he was found dead with a half-eaten apple next to him. The autopsy revealed that he died of cyanide poisoning and it was ruled a suicide. That’s right. The official theory is that he killed himself with a poisoned apple.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to draw a connection between Alan Turing’s death and the Apple logo, but that doesn’t make it any less odd, especially considering that the Apple logo has a single bite missing, implying that the apple is only partly eaten, just like the one that killed Alan Turing.

Is this deliberate? Apple Inc’s Wikipedia page says that the logo was inspired by Isaac Newton and the apple that inspired the theory of gravity, but that seems like a ludicrous idea with only a very tangential connection to a modern home computer, whereas the apple that killed the father of modern computing seems far closer.

It just strikes me as odd, that’s all.

Anyway, while the Macintosh is in many ways a superior machine to most PCs, it is definitely not what the ads sometimes make it out to be. They are just as prone to glitches (I’ve operated some seriously glitchy Macintoshes) and, as we shall see, just as prone to viral infection as their more versatile counterparts.


Element 112 Discovered!! … thirteen years ago


So a team of scientists first created element 112 back in 1996, but it was only recently that they have been given credit for the discovery.

There are a lot of interesting things to look at here. First of all, it was created by smashing zinc atoms into a target made of lead. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that, when it comes to physics and chemistry, one of our most robust and useful techniques for studying small particles is the simple act of crashing them into one another. Of course, it’s far more sophisticated than a toddler in a sandbox crashing toy cars into each other, but the motivation is largely the same: to see what will happen.

It’s interesting to note here that it took thirteen years for credit to be awarded. That’s thirteen years of data analysis and experiment replication. Thirteen years of deciding whether the data collected constituted clinching proof that one or two atoms of this “unubium” were created. And it’s not like these atoms stick around either. They don’t exist in nature and so, you have to manufacture them.

This is closely linked to what I was talking about just the other day. Pure research. The knowledge that unubium exists has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on life. It’s not like this element is going to find its way into the components of a microwave oven. There is utterly no use for something that has a half-life of a handful of milliseconds–though according to Wikipedia, there’s an isotope of this element which has a half-life of 29 seconds!

Which brings me to my final point about unubium: it’s a stupid name. And, truth be told, it’s apparently a placeholder name while the team that discovered it comes up with a better one. So what is a bunch of scientists going to do? They’re going to name it after a famous scientist. And as good an idea as that is, I think I have a better idea.

As many are aware, a great man has passed away recently. The man who made kung fu a household word. He also died in a way that might be considered classy if you have a certain personality type. And since he had absolutely nothing to do with chemistry or physics, but managed to open many minds up to a wider world of mystery and intrigue and mysticism, and since he managed to die right around the time when this discovery was made official, I propose that this new element be named: Carradinium.

au revoir