Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Electronic Life

Back in 1983 the late Michael Crichton published a non-fiction book called 'Electronic Life: How to Think About Computers'. This was neither a cut 'n' dry home owner’s manual, of which were already bountiful at the time, nor a cutesy 'computer for dummies' type read featuring some illustrated caricature on the cover. It does incorporate aspects of both on a basic level but, in truth, the author aimed to provide readers with an altogether larger, more comprehensive understanding of the very idea of both a home computer and the possible future such commercial technology might bring, speaking from a cultural, social and anthropological perspective--yet, still managing to articulate these ideas in a common coinage easy enough for anyone to grasp. A fine balancing act. Of course, the catch here is that it was written 30 years ago; in terms of the evolution of computer technology, practically an eon.
And that, my friends, is what makes the book rather unique as an artifact shedding insight to a past age, one where the multi-media global network of today could, at the very most, only be imagined -- pipedreamed -- in rudimentary, micro-measurements. Indeed, so much of Crichton’s views expressed here are charmingly dated and naïve, but his broader philosophical bent is quite accurate, and there is perhaps even a wholesome-like core value system concerning Man and his interface with technology that one might take away from the book which has long since been cast into oblivion in favor of our current generation’s at once ultra-sophisticated savvy and dull acceptance of the digital world around us; our wisdom deficiency, if you will, on all things electronic life.
The book is loosely written in the form of a glossary via both PC terminology and more general topics about the computer revolution as perceived at the time. Some random excerpts:
Anatomy, Computer
Faced with an unfamiliar computer, experienced programmers do an interesting thing. They do nothing. They stand and look at the machine. After a moment, they make some simple observation like "Hmmm, it’s got a hard disk drive," or "I see it’s got a built-in printer."
What they’re doing is checking out the anatomy of the machine--finding where things are. This is a logical first step before trying to operate the machine. Beginners skip this step. Either they throw up their hands in horror and announce that computers are beyond them or they plop down at the keyboard and say, "Okay, what do I do?"
What you do first is nothing. Whether you’re in a store or a home or an office, first step back and look. Take your time.
...Don’t worry about any extra equipment. Notice it exist and ignore it.
Art, Computer
Radically different art would literally be invisible. I’ve often been amused to think that domestic dogs practice an art form, right under our noses. After all, a dog walking down a street behaves just like a person in an art gallery, going from picture to picture, alert and interested. There’s a whole world of fascination for dogs that we can’t participate in, because we have no comparable sense of smell.
Less fancifully, Edmund Carter tells how seventeenth century sailors enjoyed inviting aborigines aboard their ships and firing off cannons unexpectedly to scare them. But when the cannons were fired, the Indians didn’t even blink. They had no reaction at all. The loud sound meant nothing to them.
What is truly new does not create shock-–it creates nothing. If we are shocked by art, we are shocked because our expectations are not met. And that means we already have expectations based on previous experience.

If one imagines artificial intelligence programs as an art form, then many objections to them disappear (and perhaps funding). We don't complain that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is not also The Last Supper. The very idea is absurd. Art is inherently limited; we appreciate it for what it is, not for what it isn't.


The earliest designs of any new object reflect older images. The first Pulsar digital watches looked like TV sets; the first home computers looked like typewriters mating with TV sets.
External computer design is still dominated by engineers, and there are a lot of ugly clunkers around. But there’s no excuse for making a machine that looks like a toilet on the space shuttle--and less excuse for buying one. I’m constantly surprised that people who wouldn’t put an ugly stereo on a side shelf will place one of the junky boxes right the corner of their desk, as if they had no choice.
Apple, Atari, IBM, DEC, Espon, Xerox, and Olivetti make pleasant looking computers, although they’re all basically white or gray (I don’t know why computers don’t come in colors; eventually they will).
A set of instructions to make the computer do something. But that’s not a very useful way to think of a program, since instructions purely to the machine for its own use are often brief.
The bulk of many programs is devoted to helping people put data into the machine and get processed information back out again. One’s satisfaction with a program strongly reflects these areas of input and output.
People don’t understand this. When they look at a long program, they fail to recognize how much of it is directly geared to them. Don’t throw up your hands: this stuff matters to you. And it’s always the least computery part of the program.
For example, a BASIC program might begin with:
20 VTAB 3: HTAB 5
60 IF A$ = "N"THEN GOTO 20
[Now, this means in English]
10 Clear the screen.
20 Tab down 3 lines, and horizontally five spaces.
30 Print "What is your name?" and stay on the same line. Wait for something to be typed in from the keyboard. Call whatever is input N$.
40 Print this N$ back out again, whatever it is.
50 Print "Is your name correct? (Y/N)." This prompts the user to answer Y or N. Get the answer, and call it A$.
60 If the Answer is N for no, then you’ll need to start over again, so go back to line 20.
70 If the answer is not N, then the name must be okay, so print "Nice talking with you," and stay on the same line. Print the name N$, stay on the same line, and print a period (.).
Scientific Model
Human beings continuingly create models of reality. These models are always simplified and approximate, although we tend to forget that. Models are integral to our language and our tools. If we say a friend is angry, we ignore the fact that our friend is much more than just the emotion of anger. If we measure with a yardstick, we ignore the fact that the yardstick is inexact.
Because we use models consistently, and because models are built into our language, we tend to substitute models -- simplified constructs of reality -- for reality itself. In minor ways, we’ve all had the experience of seeing our models collapse, as when the furniture doesn’t fit in a room because our measurements were inexact, or when our angry friend tells a joke to his supposed enemy. At those times, we are sharply reminded that reality is more complex than our modeled version of it.
Programs, like scientific theories, can never be proved right--they can only be found wrong. The fact that a program works a thousand times does not guarantee that a bug won’t show up the next time.
Experienced programmers say, "There’s always one more bug."
Test a new program until you’re cross-eyed with exhaustion. And regard every running of a satisfactory program as one further test. There’s no way around this perpetual testing and caution.
It's the nature of the beast.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

Haywire (2011)

I enjoyed Haywire as a cool-breeze exercise in spy subgenre entertainment when I first saw it in theaters. Subsequent viewings have allowed me to better appreciate how Soderbergh experimented with his own auteur elements in tandem with said subgenre. More and more his work as a director reminds me of that classic 'falling hats' gag from Looney Tunes with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd assuming the personalities of whichever style hat that lands on their heads.
The film’s basic setup and plotline is nothing new; we’ve seen it all before involving the rouge female agent running then counterattacking those who double crossed her. Cliché. But, again, I like the way (and the simple fact that) Soderbergh is tweaking both the genre and the cinematic conventions with which it’s so often associated. Like the Bourne films, this, too, features espionage amidst exotic European locales, but the tone and style are very different. Haywire is no grim affair. Business-like, yes, but also irreverent and coolly nonchalant. For example, Soderbergh supplants the routine and often drab spy-movie musical score, à la John Powell, with a series of upbeat jazzy riffs then further paces a covert mission montage and a foot chase to the same beats.

The fight scenes are unusual. Carano performs a number of elaborate martial arts techniques that are somehow weirdly, even surrealistically, understated by Soderbergh’s detached, borderline clinical presentation, cutting at most between two or three master-to-medium-master camera positions. We’re seeing a yin and yang of sorts: the extraordinary displayed in a manner of the ordinary; the latter not negating the former, but strangely complementing it. We hear the film on the same level as well. Its sound design feels not designed, but captured, documentric. Kicks and punches are acoustically muted. A car chase through snowy woods is heard not as the typical, articulated and over-layered multi-track array of engine accelerations and screeching metal, but as one would hear it sitting in the back seat of the cab. Shots fired and bullet impacts register as *pops* and *clinks*. I’ve read a lot of complaints online that all of these elements lessen the impact of the action but I personally think it has its own quality. I also think interesting Soderbergh's approach to the digital cinematography. Haywire is not a particularly "pretty" looking film, but the gauzy soft focus and the high contrast between shifting, heavy filtered color palettes -- as determined by different locations -- does make for some arresting imagery.
I almost get the sense that Soderbergh was aiming to create a kind of direct-to-video experience, only through calculation of the medium instead of limitation in budget or via simple lack of skill. In other words, he did it artfully, elevating a lowbrow form to something uniquely expressive. A lot of people seem to look past that at what they see as a mere cheaply made film of no consequence. Well, it may indeed be of no consequence -- an unassuming January release -- but I think it works with a genuine novel style nonetheless. I dig it.

Gina Carano doesn’t appear to be all that great an actress. She doesn’t even have much screen presence in terms of personality. What she does exude, however, is a pure physical, able-bodied presence. She’s like a machine to a certain extent, and Soderbergh has effectively molded the film to her nature. His very choice in casting Carano is a clear echo of his casting porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role of The Girlfriend Experience. Centering the films on these non-actresses is intriguing in the way it challenges Soderbergh to construct storytelling as an extension of their occupations. Grey was a real life fuck toy playing the role of a socialite-specialty escort, an emotional toy for lonely corporate men seeking solace in the company of a perfect, always attentive female companion. Therapy porn.
Here, Carano is a real life MMA fighter who's playing a state-of-the-art, globally operational weapon. Grey’s character was largely internalized, reconciling the economic related stress of her fading clientele with her personal life/boyfriend, which resulted in numerous scenes of her sitting in rooms, deep in conversation, trying to make best sense of it all. Haywire is simpler in that Carano’s character is an external force with a purposeful resolve; ambushed by her handlers for mere profit, thereby justifiably pissed. Hers is a narrative almost entirely tactical: moving, fighting, evading, anticipating. Essentially, her character is her mission, whatever she is doing-pursuing from one scene to the next. And it works.

There’s also a kind of blandness to her countenance that is appropriate for the part. I dig how Carano is not some exotic waif like Jolie or Saldana or Beckinsale or any other female star in their respective action-heroine roles. Instead, she has this homegrown, common place attractiveness, while her impressive athletic bulk and remarkable utilitarian attributes is more than enough to hold the big screen. Given the right circumstances, I could watch her all day.

The surrounding cast lends the film much of its charming personality. Ewan McGregor is dastardly without being ridiculous. He’s snake oil personified, but without succumbing to a second rate Bond villain caricature. I like the way Michael Fassbender is depicted coldly in the first half of the film up until his death, then later through flashbacks conveys the slightest touch of humanity. That was a nice little narrative technique that allowed the audience to retrofit his character after the fact. Channing Tatum is a bit smarter and more likable than the usual dead weight that results from his casting. Bill Paxton does a fine job as the loyal and sympathetic father, and I really liked his brief moment of horror upon realizing just how deadly efficient of a soldier his daughter has become. Veteran Michael Douglas is good as the pragmatic and partially neutral government wise man and a laid back Antonio Banderas gets the funniest moment in the film; the crowd I saw it with gave a cheering laugh at his closing line.

Again, I enjoyed it. It really wasn’t the most dramatic action film in terms of story but the process was experimental and fun. The only thing is, I’m still not quite sure why it’s called "Haywire". Does it refer to something specific or is it just a title that Soderbergh thought sounded rad?