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Stephen Hawking Lets Loose

May 18, 2011 Leave a comment

This week, Stephen Hawking (a.k.a. “that smart wheelchair guy”) made the following statement in an interview with The Guardian: “[Heaven] is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” The timing couldn’t be better—the Rapture is scheduled to take place in four days’ time.

So, of course, some people find this shocking and controversial. I suppose people with high profiles are expected to toe the line. After all, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be suspected of having independent thought than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

But I don’t find Hawking’s comments surprising (or offensive) at all. Indeed, I can relate to them all too well.

I’m also a wheelchair guy (though “smart” may be pushing it). Like Hawking, I’m involved in science and technology in academia—my field is computer science, however. And, like Hawking, I seem to be living on borrowed time, with some doctors in the past predicting my demise would occur about 22 years ago.

If you’re a scientist with a death sentence always hanging over your head, you quickly find that there’s no solace to be found in easy answers and pleasant fictions. Not only is there no evidence for an afterlife, the dualism of a mind (or soul) independent from a body makes no sense in a modern scientific context. Unlike the White Queen, I can’t believe six impossible things before breakfast. Read more…

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A Ledge in Tron Raped My Childhood

May 4, 2011 1 comment

What was I saying about geeks being traditionalists?

A couple of days ago, I watched the original Tron on Blu-ray. It’s the first time I’d seen it on that format, and the first time I’d seen it on a (relatively) big screen. I’m intimately familiar with the film, however, having owned it on Beta in the late ’80s and then buying the original DVD and the 20th anniversary DVD as well. This is the film that inspired me to move into computer science.

And yet never had it seemed so vibrant and immersive as it did on Blu-ray this week. It was as if I had the chance to time-travel back to 1982 and experience it for the first time in the cinema. However, I knew that writer/director Steven Lisberger had made some tweaks, so I was curious to know what the changes were, even though nothing jumped out at me.

Later that day, I did a search to find out exactly what alterations were made. Apparently, the flickering due to an original production error had been reduced, though not enough for anyone to notice. That’s interesting, but not exactly a big deal.

No, the big deal was an addition that strikes at the heart of debates about director’s cuts. Like Jabba the Hutt in the Star Wars Special Edition, a digital ledge has been inserted into a scene in Tron. Or in one shot, anyway

Yes, a ledge was added to one shot. The horror. The horror. Read more…

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Geeks vs. Hipsters

April 26, 2011 10 comments

Hipsters and geeks are both nominally outsiders, and both often find pleasure in similar things. Indeed, both tend to enjoy that which is “retro”. Yet there seems to be a fundamental difference between the two groups. In order to examine that difference, you first need to look at fashion…

Fashion and fads are, by their very nature, fleeting. We live in a disposable culture where what’s “in” one day is “out” the next—if you’re not playing the game and following the crowd, dahling, then you’re simply never going to make it!

Some people enjoy this pop culture rollercoaster, which is almost a kind of dialogue between producers and consumers. The trick is always to track the crowd’s tastes and both predict and define the trends, which are then dutifully followed by the public at large. It’s a feedback loop that is chaotic on the micro scale yet cyclical on the macro scale.

My personal observation is that fashions go through three phases in a cycle: in-fashion, out-of-fashion and then ironically-in-fashion, before becoming fashionable again. Think about flares for a second, if you don’t agree.

It’s the third phase of fashion where hipsters come in. Read more…

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Our New 3D Overlords

April 18, 2011 4 comments

James Cameron wants 3D technology everywhere, it seems—making the highest grossing film of all time be a 3D extravaganza just wasn’t enough. George Lucas is currently converting the Star Wars saga into 3D, starting with The Phantom Menace, which will hit theatres next year. And then there’s Peter Jackson, who is planning on shooting The Hobbit at 48 frames-per-second in order to make the 3D more immersive.

Where will all of this end?

I loved the 3D in Tangled, finding it incredibly effective; Tron: Legacy, too, made great use of 3D, particularly in an IMAX setting. I may be alone in this, but I found the post-conversion work on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland strangely satisfying in a trippy way, even if the film itself was an insult to Lewis Carroll’s legacy.

But I don’t want everything to be in 3D. Seeing Iron Man 2 in 2D was, frankly, a relief. Do I want Dexter to be in 3D, or Breaking Bad, or Burn Notice?

To borrow a phrase from the recently emasculated Cookie Monster, 3D is a “sometimes food”. Read more…

Is Star Wars Science Fiction?

April 12, 2011 21 comments

It’s a common opinion amongst geeks: Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. It’s the sort of statement that appeals to pedants and prescriptivists alike (and geeks are usually both); furthermore, it allows for a convenient defence against claims that the science in Star Wars is poor or non-existent.

I’m not unsympathetic to that point of view. At heart, George Lucas has crafted a modern myth, and mythology relies on metaphor and poetic imagery, not rational explanations and plausible events. If science fiction must necessarily be plausible from a scientific perspective, Star Wars is out the window.

However, if science fiction must necessarily not contradict contemporary scientific understanding, what else gets crossed off the list? Try Star Trek, the Alien films and most other popular entertainment with a technological setting, at least on TV and film. Even Contact, a film based on a book by Carl Sagan, implies that radio waves travel much, much slower than the speed of light. Or what about Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) from 1902, widely considered to be the first science fiction film… and yet we have the classic “man in the moon” as part of the visuals—preposterous even 100 years ago.

What does this mean? Are we going to reduce science fiction cinema to a handful of films? Or should we accept that maybe the genre is broader than us geeks will admit? Read more…