I saw Tron: Legacy yesterday, and while I’m going to wait ’til I see the IMAX version before I write a proper review, I want to get the word out early as to how good this film really is. Ignore the critics: this film operates on levels that are both higher than they can grasp and lower than they’re willing to stoop. It will baffle anyone who is wedded to the idea that science and art are polar opposites, which is basically the bulk of the film critic community, including many online writers.
If you’re an average moviegoer who doesn’t mind the odd bit of technobabble to accompany very slick action sequences that leave you wanting more, this film is for you. If you’re involved in computer science and have great affection for the original Tron—if you feel like you’re creating new life with each piece of code you write—this film is for you.
If, like me, you were inspired by the first film to move into computer science, and now you’re doing research on genetic algorithms—where nature and silicon collide—oh man, is this film for you.
Now there are plenty of films that I love that aren’t particularly good: Flash Gordon, for instance, or Bride of the Monster. I can admit that—there’s no shame in liking a bad movie. But I’ll defend Tron: Legacy against any claims that it’s “dumb” or “silly”. It’s the greatest piece of big-budget computer science fantasy since its predecessor, 28 years ago. Sure, that’s not a large set of films, but it’s the antithesis of the Matrix trilogy, for example, letting us know instead that humanity can be discovered in the most unlikely of places. Man and machine aren’t so different after all.
Tron: Legacy is about the spontaneity of life, the magic spark that appears from within our brains when we reach consciousness. It’s about perfection and imperfection and the arrogance of youth. It’s about accepting who you are and rediscovering who you always were. It’s a continuation of the DIY hacker manifesto that was the original film.
It’s about computer science, not products on a shelf. It’s about transforming the world by experimenting on technology’s frontiers.
When I started doing my honours, I was immediately drawn to machine learning and evolutionary computation. Ever since I was eight and programming a TRS-80 (right on the heels of seeing Tron), I was fascinated by watching a creation come to life—something that only existed in your head until you translated it into programming code. You’d type RUN and then… voila! That concept in your head was suddenly flickering before your very eyes. I imagine animators feel the same way.
Once you throw a kind of natural selection into the process and point it at real knowledge discovery, you’ve got a living, breathing system that learns and evolves, adapting to the terrain of its search space. It’s a heady, fascinating mix. Where does consciousness fit into all this?
That’s the philosophy behind Tron: Legacy. The soul is both mystical and natural; it can emerge from circuitry just as much as from neurons in the brain. But it’s that stochastic element that allows life to flourish. The universe is a giant random number generator, and we’re all just programs on the Grid, products of paradox. Imperfection is perfection—that’s the beauty of life.
Today marks the midpoint between the September equinox and the coming solstice. The days are continuing to increase in length in the southern hemisphere, so there are a lot of bright, sunny days still ahead. If we count the September equinox as 0 degrees in Earth’s orbit about the Sun, then we’re now 45 degrees along (or π/4 radians, for you geeks)—we’re now hitting the stride of spring, in an astronomical sense.
In the spirit of this ongoing cosmic dance, I’ve again returned to the idea of participating in the astronomy community, this time once I complete my honours programme.
No, I don’t intend to dump computer science for astrophysics. Instead, I’m hoping for a threesome.
My current research involves data mining—that is, analysing data (via computational methods) in search of interesting patterns. In other words, we extract knowledge from raw data using methods such as clustering (i.e. “What groupings do the data naturally fall into?”), classification (i.e. “Can we construct a set of rules to classify new instances?”), etcetera. Closely related is the field of informatics, which aims to build and study information systems—indeed, a data mining component is often crucial to such systems.
Two emerging subfields are bioinformatics and geoinformatics. Bioinformatics (in practice) is primarily concerned with analysing and managing the masses of data involved in molecular biology, such as is found in genetic studies; geoinformatics, similarly, deals with analysing and managing Earth-centric data—if you’ve ever used a GPS, you’ve already brushed up against it.
Astronomy is taking its cues from both these subfields, introducing the idea of astroinformatics. Take a look at Google Sky (if you haven’t already) and you’ll immediately get a taste of the potential. But it’s much bigger than that…
Consider the planned Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). To quote Wikipedia:
Allowing for maintenance, bad weather, etc., the camera is expected to take over 200,000 pictures (1.28 petabytes uncompressed) per year, far more than can be reviewed by humans. Managing and effectively data mining the enormous output of the telescope is expected to be the most technically difficult part of the project.
1.28 petabytes is equal to 1.28 million gigabytes. Now, if you’re lucky enough to have a 2 terabyte harddrive, that’s still 600 times your harddrive’s size in raw image data, per year. So we need to design systems to effectively mine these data, because humans just can’t manage an avalanche of data on that scale.
But even on a smaller scale, astronomical data are being gathered from other sources—enough to still overwhelming the research community. Researchers must be able to effectively manage and meaningfully analyse what is already there. There’s no point in having petabytes of data if you can’t make sense of it.
So astronomy and astrophysics need computer science desperately.
That’s where I come in.
Once I complete my honours, I’m hoping to help design and develop systems that will aid the astronomy community in making new discoveries that were heretofore unachievable. With the advent of such projects as the National Virtual Observatory in the U.S., we suddenly have an amazing opportunity to understand the heavens like never before, and by applying techniques from artificial intelligence, we can allow computers to do the grunt-work while humans make the big leaps in discovery.
It’s an exciting time to be involved in the scientific community, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
Yes, it’s that time of the year again: Rocktober, that most sacred of months, where you slip-on your acid-wash jeans, grab a VB from the fridge and crank-up some Chisel, some Acca-Dacca, some Oils or some even some Crawl. Then you just LET IT ROCK!
For your enjoyment, here are 31 classic rock tracks—one for each day of Rocktober. I’ll be out in my Black Thunder all this month, handing-out Rocktober t-shirts and bumper stickers, so be on the lookout. I’ll also be giving my surf reports to keep you safe in the swell, from the only blog that triples your music: Triple WhimWham.
1. Dire Straits: “Money For Nothing”
Yes, it’s that time of the year again. Spring truly has sprung. In just over a week, we’ll be getting daylight saving time as well.
So what are the connotations to this time of year? This is the return of Persephone from the Underworld.
Persephone was the goddess of spring growth. One day, while out picking flowers with some nymphs, she happened to get abducted by Hades, god of the Underworld, who desired a wife and was given permission to forcibly take her by her father, Zeus. Demeter, her mother and goddess of agriculture, went berserk when she heard about Zeus handing their daughter over like a piece of used furniture, and decided to hold off on letting the earth produce fruit until Persephone’s return.
Zeus had no choice but to renege on his agreement with Hades. Unfortunately, Persephone had already eaten pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, and was henceforth doomed to forever descend to join her husband in the Underworld and then return again at opposing points in the year. Bummer.
It doesn’t take a genius to see how this relates to the seasons.
This is a really nice myth. Sure, it has shades of Lot and his daughters, but Demeter at least protests the arrangement between Zeus and Hades, and Zeus must release Persephone from the forced union.
To illustrate this Greek myth, here’s a Silly Symphony from 1934:
The Pope, Benedict XVI (nee Joseph Ratzinger) sort of put his foot in it last week, suggesting that atheism leads to the devaluing of human life, and that this in turn leads to such nastiness as the Holocaust and the Nazi regime:
“Even in our own lifetimes we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.
“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.”
Sure, his job involves pushing the idea that God is necessarily part of a fulfilling life—such sentiments are to be expected. But it’s something else, in my opinion, to imply that atheism leads to the kind of heinous philosophies of Hitler et al. The only way to join the dots and get from A to B is by assuming that it is only by following the tenets of the Bible (or the Church itself, which ultimately leads back to the Pope anyway) that one can be a truly moral person and not a murderous sociopath.
Of course, being involved in the protection of child abusers is a totally different matter.
This is the man who was a member of the Hitler Youth. More importantly, this is the man who, in his later years, helped to protect a known child abuser who had tied up and molested two boys in 1978. Regarding the priest’s potential defrocking (not to mention any referral to the authorities), then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote this in 1985:
“This court, although it regards the arguments presented in favor of removal in this case to be of grave significance, nevertheless deems it necessary to consider the good of the Universal Church together with that of the petitioner, and it is also unable to make light of the detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke with the community of Christ’s faithful, particularly regarding the young age of the petitioner.”
(The “petitioner” was Stephen Kiesle, the man who molested the two boys. He was 38 at the time.)
In other words, sure, we’re dealing with a child molester here, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that this man needs our protection, as does the Church’s reputation.
In 1985, Kiesle became a youth minister at another parish. It was not until 1987 that Kiesle was defrocked. The Diocese eventually reached monetary settlements with eight of his victims.
Yet Ratzinger has the gall to paint atheists with the “Nazi” brush, while there’s a general accusation of a witch-hunt mentality against the Church, likening it to antisemitism. This is demonisation of the worst kind, simultaneously avoiding responsibility for past deeds while accusing of gross discrimination those insisting the Church be held accountable. “I’m not the monster! You’re the monsters!”
Most interesting of all is the inconvenient fact that Hitler never renounced his Roman Catholicism, speaking openly about his professed Christianity. The Nazis, in fact, were explicitly hostile towards atheism. But no, let’s just ignore all that and pretend that Nazism was an atheist movement.
Given all this very ugly rhetoric directed at atheism by an organisation as backwards-looking, corrupt, hypocritical and self-serving as the Catholic Church, I cannot stay silent regarding my own beliefs (or lack thereof). 1 in 4 Australians are Catholic, as per the 2006 census, presumably taking their cues from a man who misleads his followers about the effectiveness of condoms in protecting against HIV (while en route to Africa, no less). Roughly 2 in 3 Australians are Christian. Meanwhile, concerns have been raised within churches here regarding the potential problems of having a Prime Minister who is a non-believer, as if being a Christian were a necessary condition for being moral.
Saying “I’m not really religious”—a sort of vague catchall remark that indicates general apathy—is not too controversial in Australia. But the “atheist” label is still a bit of an uncomfortable fit when facing the wider society. Until such a label is gladly self-applied without shame by those for whom it applies, such a stigma will continue.
So, I’m going to “come out of the closet” and say it: I’m an atheist.
That’s not to say my worldview is cold or heartless. I enjoy the poetry, imagery and symbolism of the Bible, as I do with many other sacred texts. I find awe-inspiring beauty and elegance in the universe, from the formation of stars to the operation of the human brain. I love life and enjoy each day.
What I certainly don’t do is round up Jews in my spare time. Nor am I involved in stigmatising homosexuality (unlike the Catholic Church, who seems ideologically aligned with Nazi Germany in this regard).
So while it’s nice to know that a man with roughly one billion followers worldwide is willing to make authoritative statements implying that my moral compass is lacking in a regard for humanity, it still irks that such a self-serving hypocrite wields so much power. It’s not Jesus I have a problem with—it’s the man who claims to speak for Him.
Most people know I’m a big Star Wars fan—it was something that imprinted itself on my psyche as a child, and I still haven’t been able to shake it.
What people don’t know is that the Superman movies were almost as important. Sure, they became increasingly bad as the series progressed, but the first film generated enough goodwill that, up to and including Superman III, I was willing to go along for the ride. I mean, I chose to see Superman III over Return of the Jedi when both were playing (though I doubt anything in Jedi would have freaked me out as much as some of Superman III‘s scenes).
But there’s no getting around the sharp decline in quality between 1978′s Superman: The Movie and 1987′s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. So what went wrong?
The short answer is that Richard Donner, the director of the first film, was fired before the second film was completed. Much of what Donner had filmed for Superman II was then reshot by Richard Lester, who completed the film and went on to make Superman III (a.k.a. Richard Pryor in a film featuring a cameo by Superman).
In 2006, a reconstructed version of Donner’s Superman II was released, 25 years after Lester’s cut. (Notably, Donner’s version is available on Blu-ray, while Lester’s is MIA.) Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut restores Marlon Brando’s scenes (which were dropped from Lester’s cut for budgetary reasons), reuses John William’s score (whereas Lester’s cut uses a score by Ken Thorne) and generally shifts the tone to be more in keeping with the first film. This is essentially a new movie, and the true spiritual successor to Superman: The Movie.
Enter Superman Returns, also from 2006. This is not a “reboot”, “re-imagining” or any other kind of contemporary take on the universe, but neither is it a sequel to Superman IV, the last in the series at that point. Instead, it’s a sequel to Donner’s Superman II—a film that had not even been released when Superman Returns hit cinemas.
Made by Bryan Singer with the blessing of Richard Donner, Superman Returns is like Superman III as it might have been, had Donner been allowed to stay with the series. Brandon Routh plays Christopher Reeve playing Superman/Clark Kent; Kevin Spacey seems perfect as a replacement for Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. Sets recall the original 1978 film, and the opening credits alone are enough to make a fan of the original gasp in recognition, complete with a rendition of Williams’ Superman theme. Marlon Brando even returns, albeit based on his scenes from the first two films. (Indeed, securing the rights to Brando’s scenes for use in Superman Returns is what subsequently made the Donner cut of Superman II possible.) And the glimpse of Krypton we see in the first few moments gives me goosebumps every time.
I’d put off seeing this film for four years due to bad word of mouth. What a mistake. I can’t rave about this movie enough.
What’s most surprising about Superman Returns is how much it feels like a film from the late ’70s/early ’80s, despite impressive CGI effects and modern camera technology. One scene in particular, featuring a car careening out of control, is totally believable as a lost scene from Superman: The Movie. Incredible.
Finally, we have a trilogy of great Superman movies that all seem to exist in the same universe. In Superman Returns, photos of Glenn Ford still adorn Martha Kent’s home, for goodness sake! This has to be the most gloriously insane big-budget sequel to ever hit screens. Who else would have the audacity to make a completely faithful sequel to the incomplete, alternate cut to a 25 year old film, totally ignoring continuity from later sequels and hardly aging the characters at all?
Even better, the film feels like a natural thematic progression from the two Donner Superman films, focusing on the relationship between father and son and the tension between humanity and divinity. The trilogy is like the comic book movie adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ.
So why don’t people like Superman Returns? Is it because it’s a film that arrived twenty years too late, feeling anachronistic and out-of-step with modern films? Is it because Reeve’s tragic demise is still too fresh in our minds? Or did the plot just not resonate?
I don’t care. I just know I love this film. It’s like stumbling upon a Beatles album recorded in their heyday that was never released. It’s the anachronism, the naivety, the innocence, the purity that makes this film a winner for me. It’s not an action film, nor should it be. It’s the heart that carries this film.
Warners won’t be letting Singer make a sequel, instead looking to Christopher Nolan to start afresh. I trust Nolan, but nothing will match the magic that Singer wove and would’ve continued to weave. X2 proved that Singer knows how to make a great sequel to his own good superhero film. In a way, Singer’s fate mirrors Donner’s.
But at least we’ve now got a trilogy. It’s not perfect—we’ll never see Richard Donner’s seamless, complete vision for the first two films, for example—but it’s 1000 times better than the series we had a mere four years ago. A project, begun in 1977, has reached fulfillment.
Sometimes I have “old fogey” moments. Remember the good ol’ days when people were freaking out over the videoclip for Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”? It all seems so innocent when the latest Eminem video features spitting, implied domestic violence and arson.
I also remember watching classic Disney shorts without fearing an impending epileptic seizure. But I guess that’s what was missing from Golden Age animation: a contempt for moderate attention spans.
So while we get beautifully restored versions of Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio on Blu-ray (geared more towards adult enthusiasts than children), the kids gets hit with this junk:
All we need is for Poochie to start rapping with Goofy about Xtreme skiing and the end-times prophecies will be fulfilled.
This is brilliant. As a fan of both Star Wars and the material Lucas was inspired by, I cannot praise this fan’s work highly enough:
But what’s so great about it? Ken Keeler, who has a doctorate in mathematics (and is probably the most responsible for the show after Matt Groening and David X. Cohen), wrote and apparently proved a new theorem in group theory in order to solve the main problem posed by the episode’s plot. Yes, I’m serious.
Even better, the proof itself is very clearly (but briefly) shown in the episode itself.
The last time I studied group theory was almost ten years ago, so I need to brush-up on it in order to fully understand the proof, but even if the idea is more-or-less trivial, it’s still incredible to see in an animated comedy show.
This should, at the very least, exonerate Keeler in the minds of many Comic Book Guys, since he also wrote the much loathed episode “The Principal and the Pauper” for The Simpsons… 13 years ago.
Being born in 1978, I’m pretty much a child of the ’80s. I grew up with the radio playing at every opportunity, loved going to the movies and couldn’t get enough of Star Wars, He-Man and The Muppet Show. (Yes, there was bleed-through from the ’70s, as you’ll soon discover.)
Each week, I’m going to make an effort to present the pop-culture events of a very specific period of time in the ’80s. Today, it’s summer ’79/’80, as seen Down Under.
This was the period when Bon Scott, the lead singer for AC/DC, died of alcohol poisoning; it was also the period when Kingswood Country debuted on Australian TV…