Yet Another Defense of Interstellar

The Golden Globes were last night. Interstellar was not even on the radar, which I consider a crime.

There is a peculiar amount of dislike for Interestellar. It had a profoundly mixed reception from fans of science fiction and I feel like it’s unjustified. Most of this dislike appears to focus on the crazy deus ex machina ending. First of all, I do actually like Christopher Nolan in general, but I wouldn’t call myself a fanboy. I am certainly not going to make the claim that he is anywhere near the caliber of Stanley Kubrick, though I do intend to draw some comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is widely regarded as a flawless movie.

Some people think it’s slow, a perception that I do not agree with or even understand. I frequently fall asleep during movies. Even action packed thrillers. But something about this movie (and it was kind of long, wasn’t it?) had me rivetted from beginning to end. There was not a moment when my attention wandered. This film sank its hooks into me with a ferocity that I had not expected. It had everything. The realistic portrayal of a family torn apart by forces beyond their control. Indeed, it’s a story that has been told many times. It’s the father going off to war. It’s the father killed in a car accident. In this case, it’s the father who’s going off to save the entire human race. It is maybe a bit of a stretch, this “only pilot that can drive this thing” scenario. But I can defend it on the grounds that this is a world where nobody looks to the skies anymore. No one flies planes anymore. The things that are flying are unmanned drones and such. This is a world that has lost its ability to imagine what could be. And so perhaps it is convenient that he happens to live next to NASA’s secret headquarters, but it is established that he is an engineer of no small skill and it is also established that he has ties to the people that run NASA, so I don’t feel that it’s a completely unreasonable plot element. It’s a bit cliche, but I feel that it works.

The tesseract at the ending is the primary beef that people seem to have with it. There was this air of the fantastical to it that maybe broke some people’s suspension of disbelief. I feel sorry for people who had this experience, because the whole thing blew me away. Here is where I’m drawing the comparison to 2001. When Dave Bowman is transported across the space and time via the monolith in orbit around Jupiter, the viewer is treated to a hallucinatory vision as Dave is transformed into the Star Child which now gazes down upon the earth.

Here’s what Kubrick is doing. 2001, like the novel it is adapted from, is hard science fiction, all the way to very end, after which, it branches off very much into the speculative. The fanciful. But I argue that it does not become actualy fantasy. “Here is what we think science is actually capable of acheiving” says 2001 through most of the movie. Here are the things that, given our current knowledge, we think it’s actually possible to acheive in a reasonable timeline.

The end, however, is a speculation of what might be possible if we could continue to develop unhindered by whatever forces hold us back. Here is a pure imagining, a chance to say, “What if,” a moment of pure speculation. Dave Bowman is reborn as a higher form of life. We might make the mistaken assumption that 2001 is just “crazy” at the end, but if we approach the filmwith the assumption that everything that happens is entirely comprehensible to a being of sufficient intelligence and insight, we can surmise that Dave has encountered some greater being(s) which have elevated him, allowed him to transcend his mortal self to become the higher being.

Nolan does the exact same thing in Interstellar. He builds a fantastically tense scenario all thoroughly grounded in science (some admittedly still theoretical, but soundly theoretical), and it is only at the end where he departs from what we know about the universe and begins to speculate about what might be possible if only we could find a way to tap it. It’s a conceit to be sure, but it’s the kind of conceit that we should be willing to indulge. It’s the kind of conceit that we need today. It dares us to dream about what might be possible if we can only be as clever as we like to think we are.

And maybe the whole tesseract inside the black hold is impossible. Sure, maybe. But remember the black holes present a paradox in which they seem to violate some laws of physics; namely there is the black hole information paradox, which states that information disappearing inside a black hole must somehow not be irretrievably lost (through some mechanism or other).

So the whole disappearing inside the black hole and actually managing to get a message out is not irretriavably stupid. Especially if we can play with the idea of a hyper advanced race of beings (possibly even hyper evolved humans), instigating it, building the tesseract in the first place, and shunting him off into this new place where time appears like a spatial dimension.

It’s not that it’s something we think it’s possible. It’s a sort of what-if. It’s not the “power of love” that saves the human race here. It’s the power of the imagination. Imagination is, as cheesy as it sounds, the most critical ingredient of science. Asking the question “What if?” is the most fundamental part of science. It’s the formation of the hypothesis, the first step of the scientific method.

The thing is, it is science fiction’s job to inspire the next generation of scientists, and I believe truly that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar does this more than most doomsday scenario movies which discourage inquiry and cause fear of what sorts of disasters scientists might bring on us in their hubris. And it does a heck of a lot more than the glut of superhero action flicks too (which are also designed to appeal to the dreamer/fantasizer demographic). I think in the future, we will see a whole crop of new astronomers and physicists who will list movies Interstellar and people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson as their inspiration, just as the last was inspired by 2001 and Carl Sagan.

Unobtanium a reality!

Unobtanium has been used in sci-fi more than once. And it doesn’t get old. It cracks me up every time. In the James Cameron spectacular Avatar, I believe it was supposed to be a sort of room-temperature superconductor. However, I don’t want to talk about unobtanium in the “Avatar-sense.” And honestly, I think how they used the idea of unobtanium in Avatar was a little silly considering the rest of the film took itself so goddamned seriously.

Instead, I want to talk about unobtanium the way it was envisioned in one of the single worst (and one of my favorite) disaster films: The Core. I’m talking about one of the biggest box office bombs of the last eight years. I’m talking about the movie where, mysteriously, the Earth’s core stops spinning (!) causing the Earth’s magnetosphere to stop…being magnetic. Our intrepid heroes, played by Aaron Eckhart and Hillary Swank drill to the center of the planet to set off a nuclear reaction in order to get the core spinning again.

The reason I like this movie is the fact that the “fi” to this movie’s “sci,” the method whereby the film explains itself, actually gave me the giggles for several days after seeing it. You see, whoever wrote this movie knew that the problems involved in digging through to the Earth’s core were fairly insurmountable. Mainly pressure and heat. Lots of both. And so, where films like Journey to the Center of the Earth solve this problem by ignoring it and pretending the Earth’s interior is actually populated with dinosaurs (etc), The Core does something a little different. It trades one science problem for another. Imagine a vessel capable of drilling through the hardest rock, sort of like the Technodrome, only less cheesy. The reason this vessel is not crushed as it delves ever deeper into the mantle, is unobtanium. This hypothetical mineral becomes harder and stronger the more heat and pressure are applied.

Essentially what the filmmakers did was a little literary sleight of hand. They traded one scientific problem for another, and simply ignored the new one completely. Indeed, they did us one better, they hung a lampshade on it by calling it unobtanium. Unobtanium!

And the reason I didn’t roll my eyes at this movie (while I did at Avatar) is the fact that this movie was never (I assume) intended to be taken all that seriously.

In the interests of full disclosure, today’s image is not my own joke. My wife and I both appreciate The Core quite a bit (despite its obvious terribleness). When my wife was shopping for wedding rings, she told me that she wanted to get the unobtanium rings, but the shelf was too high. I’m pretty sure I came close to crapping my pants when she said that. And so, credit for the joke goes to her.

Obviously, unobtanium is a joke. Can’t possibly be real. Or can it? Researchers at Rice University have created a new synthetic material, an alchemical blend of aligned carbon nanotubes and inert polymers, that, when exposed to repeated stress, actually becomes stiffer. I feel no shame in admitting that I almost crapped my pants when I read this article, too.

I mean, think about it. Something that I laughed at as a joke in 2003 is actually sort of possible? The hows and the whys of it are maybe irrelevant to the layperson. Merely the knowledge that a synthetic material can have properties of this nature is astonishing. I guess I do have a few questions about it, though. For instance, what happens if you stop applying stress? Does it lose some of its accumulated strength? And then if you start applying stress again, does the strength return? Does this material have an unlimited capacity for gaining strength? Will there be a point where you start to experience diminishing returns?

I guess those scientists need to get to work.

I would also like to mention one last thing: Saturn is sending us radio messages. The video is actually somewhat haunting.

bitte schön

Why “Inception” is a great film

The word “dream” in the English language is a complicated one. On the one hand, it can be used to refer to a person’s hopes and aspirations. For instance, it might be your dream to own your own business or to make out with Ellen Page. Or Leonardo DiCaprio. I suppose it’s a matter of preference.

The word “dream” also refers to the activity of the brain during REM sleep, when our unconscious mind creates a world for us to inhabit while we slumber. Both of these meanings of the word are applicable in the case of the fantastic film “Inception,” by visionary–and I do not use this term lightly–director Christopher Nolan. You might remember him from such films as “Memento” (it wasn’t as good the second time, though we all must admit it was really, really good the first time) and also, of course, “Batman Begins” and incomparably, “The Dark Knight.”

Spoiler Alert: You have been warned.

“Inception” works as a film on several levels. As a science fiction film, it is totally in the vein of Phillip K. Dick. It’s a sub-genre of science fiction which is commonly called magic-realism. We have a device, this dream machine, which is totally fantastical, and yet Nolan has deposited it into modern day, and the characters in the story treat it as commonplace. It has been seamlessly integrated into our modern world. Its functioning is not explained and doesn’t need to be. How it works is not important. What is important is that we, as the audience, can accept it because the characters do. This was a common technique in Dick’s stories. Recall the Empathy Boxes and Mercerism from Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep.

So what Nolan does with this science fiction device, by making it commonplace and not bothering to spend absurd amounts of exposition explaining how it works (a very huge mistake made in a lot of modern sci-fi movies), is open himself up to exploring the important themes of the film. And boy, there are a lot of them. First, he discusses the concept of an idea as a virus. This is something that is proven every day. I’ve discussed memetics before on my blog, but this film hits it on the head. The main character (Leo DiCaprio) is plagued by the guilt of having murdered his wife essentially by implanting an idea into her head. Her death came about as a direct result of his first attempt at the inception of an idea. An artificial inspiration which caused her to commit suicide. The idea that he put in her head is another big theme that is lightly but poignantly touched on by Nolan. Namely, death as an exit from reality. Death as a solution to a reality that can’t be verified.

What I get a kick out of in terms of theme is how Nolan integrated the idea of memory. How memory changes the way we view the past. I recently read about a psychologist who had set up video cameras all around his home with the intention of capturing all the significant events in his growing child’s life. After so many years, he was remembering his child’s first step. He remembered it as happening in the evening in the living room. When he reviewed the tapes, he discovered that the event had actually occurred in the upstairs hall in the middle of the day. This is because when we remember things, it is not like replaying a video tape. Every time you remember a significant event, you are reconstructing it. Re-experiencing it and at the same time, changing it. Every time you remember something, you remember it differently. And this is why it is interesting when Cobb (DiCaprio) builds these memory worlds where he is trying to change the past in his own mind. All he really succeeds in doing is torturing himself, because, despite his sharp memory, he cannot actually recreate the entire event or the characters in their entirety any more than he can deliberately change them. His dead wife as a subconscious projection is a shadow of the real person. She becomes something malevolent. Something cancerous in his psyche. Something that haunts him and his work.

It is also important to point out the film’s success as an action film. And if we do this, it becomes necessary (and somewhat enjoyable) to make the obvious comparison with The Matrix. I say pleasurable because I can finally drop The Matrix from my list of movies to ever watch again. Inception does everything that The Matrix did only better and in greater abundance. The Wachowski brothers took the Platonic idea of the Cave or the Brain in the Box, if you will, and made it into an action film. It took the philosophic and touched on it and used it as an excuse to make what amounts to an escapist fantasy. Then they tried to pass it off as deep when in the end, there’s nothing of real substance or value.

Nolan has done something completely different. Instead of posing the question and then never bothering to answer it, Inception continues to dig, relentlessly exposing more facets of the question of dreams and the unconscious just as the characters, Cobb in particular, continue to dig deeper, moving further and further into the meta-dream. Dreams within dreams within dreams. The thought that he and his wife spent fifty subjective years in their own world, constructed from their own thought goobers, is astonishing.

And again, looking at the action of the film, I find it to be very successful. It is not as…”techie” as The Matrix. They didn’t use as many wires or CG. In fact, there’s very little CG. Nolan likes to put stuff on film as much as possible. And he does a great job of it. The fight scenes are more believable, even if they are fantastical. The action is more exciting because the characters are more realistic. The dream-within-dream time dilation thing is incredible. That there are, at one point in the film, three different action scenes happening at the same time and at different speeds is pure magic.

It is rare to see a film so expertly plotted. And we can see echoes of this in his big breakout film. Memento was very well plotted and had the mark of something very cool. But it was, in the end, premature. I can’t watch that movie anymore. I don’t even particularly like it. I am a little nervous that Inception won’t stand up to repeated viewings, but I am cautiously optimistic about it.

In the end, I think what makes Inception successful is a sort of perfect storm of very cool things. The cast is superb. The acting and dialogue are stoic in the places they need to be, funny where appropriate, and emotionally challenging at just the right moments. The set design is immaculate. The world-building (the meta-narrative) is perfectly executed. The integration of themes, the mixing and matching of what amounts to be a sort of theme-salad, is so well proportioned, doesn’t stifle the action, and manages to flourish while nothing else suffers. It is not didactic, I mean and The Matrix is horrifyingly didactic, which is absurd considering it has the intellectual depth of a kiddie pool. Inception is magnificently plotted and paced. I was spellbound. I was entranced.

In the end, Inception did something for me that only a few films do. It affected me. When I walked out of the theater, I found myself questioning my state of awareness. Was I asleep? Was I awake? Was the world real? The idea infected me and even today, about twenty-odd hours after watching the film, I’ll find myself looking for clues that I am awake.

Zu träumen ist zu leben.

Why “Terminator Vision” is Inaccurate Terminology


This is one of the possible results of congress enacting the Terminators as Secret Service Agents Act. The world could use fewer jerks.

I found this article on BBC today. Augmented Reality (AR) is a pretty sweet concept. The technology looks very cool, totally validating years of cyberpunk fiction. But there’s a problem with the article as written. And the problem stems not from any direct fault of the journalist, but from a dramatic misunderstanding of the nature of computers and robots.

The article mentions “Terminator Vision” and it is this very concept that is suspect here. By way of explaining, let’s build a mental concept of the flow of information inside of a Terminator’s computer-mind.

In the films (and indeed, in many robot films) when we, the viewers, see from the Terminator’s perspective, it’s a sort of infrared image with a text-based overlay. A Heads Up Display (HUD). I always passed it off as an abstraction, so we could relate, in some way, to how a Terminator relates to the world. However, it never occurred to me that someone would take that as literal. Why, exactly, would a Terminator need to generate this needless text in its image field? It doesn’t need to read it. It creates an unnecessary step in its data processing.

Here’s the algorithm that would be going through the CPU’s image analysis circuit:

  1. Input image from eye-cameras
  2. Analyze image thusly: separate out faces, identify them, identify weapons, identify surrounding structures and other objects
  3. Evaluate possible threat sources
  4. Evaluate possible actions based on threats, possibility for combat, and meaningful interactions with human companions (See Terminator 2: Judgment Day)
  5. Generate text cues
  6. Output: Overlay text cues on HUD for Terminator Higher Brain to then READ and presumably respond.

Why would the Terminator ever need to read this text in order to make an informed decision? The beauty of being a walking computer is the ability to evaluate raw data and process it without forming it into words. It’s faster and far more efficient. I can make allowances for, say, Robocop, who is actually a man with human eyes who might actually need a HUD in order to evaluate incoming data. In fact, any scenario involving a human inside a machine is going to necessitate some sort of AR technology. A cyborg’s lower and higher brain functions occur in the same place (unlike in humans). A cyborg doesn’t need the raw data to be filtered through a process, evaluated, and then passed back through the eyes. It’s ludicrous. Thus, the entire concept of “Terminator Vision” as a euphemism for AR is formed out of ignorance of computer technology. QED.

As for the recent American behavior at town hall meetings: grow up America. Read your history and study other countries. This country is far more likely to turn into Nazi Germany than Maoist China if continue to allow ourselves to be controlled by corporate interests. Don’t people understand that the government is a non-profit organization (or negative-profit, as the case may be)?

I don’t understand how people can allow themselves to be so closed minded about this issue. There is a certain income discrimination going on in health care in this country, and so many people are totally willing to let it continue. I mean, we all know that poor people don’t actually deserve health care, right? Right?

Anyway, one other thing:

Presumably, they would stay in Canada. Where they belong.


A Funny Thing About Harry Potter

harry and snape

Some years ago, I wrote a post on my old blog about Harry Potter and certain moral issues pertaining to it. At the time, I had primarily been lamenting the fact that these kids at Hogwarts never take an English class. I mean, they’re growing up to be illiterate wackos with the power of the cosmos at their fingertips. Dangerous to say the least. But at the time I was also taking issue with the fact that they never learn science. It’s not like it doesn’t exist. There’s the muggle world, where tons of people are doing science every day, but the wizarding world is totally ignorant of this fact to their own detriment. Finally, I figured that the existence of magic ought to be utilized for humanity as a whole, and not just for the people who could wield it.

I was, essentially, being deliberately obtuse. Obviously I understand that nature of the narrative. I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and enjoy the films as a visualization of the stories that were so carefully told in the novels. Rowling is a wizard of a sort herself. A wizard of words, if that isn’t too cheesy for you. But it’s more than that. Her prose itself is not really that sophisticated. It’s more her ability to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later. The world in Harry Potter is actually quite stellar. It’s an entire mythos that’s very fun and engaging.

In some fictions, we get pretty generic settings. Take for instance, one of my favorite sci-fi television shows: Firefly. It’s an incredibly generic sci-fi setting that is only held together by the strength of its characters and the writing. I mean, a sci-fi western is a really cheesy idea that has been literally done to death. And yet, a stellar cast with great chemistry, great acting, and helluva decent script make the show what it is.

But in Harry Potter, we have a setting that carries its characters. Let’s face it, most of the characters are cardboard cutout archetypes, Harry Potter being the worst, most boring offender. He’s an utterly one-dimensional character who, despite this fact, we actually manage to cheer for. Who is he really? In a high-school drama, he’s the jock. Think about it. If it weren’t for that British accent, you’d have exactly the character in the above image.

I watched the new film last night and it did not disappoint. I’ll spare you the details, because they’re not relevant. Suffice to say, it is and does exactly what it’s supposed to be and do. It is satisfying in that you can watch it once and never have any pressing desire or need to ever watch it again. In a sense, it was a blessing to get it over and done with at the midnight showing.

It was fun, but the films, moreso than the book, have this thing called set dressing that highlights some of the holes in the world that Harry Potter inhabits. A lot of crazy stuff is happening left and right. Terrorist activities by the Death Eaters, right? Just what in the hell is the British government doing about it? I’m talking about the government that governs sixty million beer swilling britons, not the Ministry of Magic that oversees a few thousand (?) magic-slinging ones.

I mean, isn’t there a public outcry to, oh, I don’t know, do something? All I want to know is, how they’re spinning it. I think it’s perfectly possible for the right spin to be spun and still manage to maintain the same narrative, but there’s just this part of me that is absolutely dying to know what’s going on in the muggle world!

Is that because I’m a muggle and, thus, sympathize with them? Is it because I’m a compulsive critic who’s always looking for flaws and problems? Who knows? I invite anyone and everyone to think up headlines that might appear on TV and in muggle newspapers to explain these catastrophes and post them in the comments section.

verbotene Künste.