Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar—Dances With Wolves Meets 2001: A Space Oddessey

Warning: This review will contain significant spoilers for the movie Avatar. Do not read it if you don't want to be spoiled.

On a purely mercenary level, James Cameron's new movie, Avatar is the perfect movie for every demographic. A visually stunning film created with 3D digital technology which didn't even exist a few years ago, Avatar is equal parts Sci-fi, fantasy, action, adventure, and cowboys versus indians space western. There's even a romantic subplot thrown in to appeal to the "chick flick" crowd. While the story is simple on the surface, there also appears to be plenty of room for a very complicated back story.

The comparisons with Dances With Wolves and this film are inevitable. A military man makes contact with the natives and works to earn their respect. He goes native at about the same time that his own people arrive—basically our own western civilization—to play the bad guys. While a lot of people might complain that this is a simplistic movie–and it is—the people who like it, including myself, simply don't care that it's core message can be boiled down to "white people bad, blue people good." There are plenty of crappy movies out there with complicated plots and I'm glad to report that from my perspective, Avatar is neither the former nor the latter.

The movie revolves around a crippled marine named "Jake Sully" who must take the place of his dead twin brother in an ambitious program in which scientists explore an alien moon called "Pandora" by interfacing directly with genetically engineered alien bodies called "avatars." They do this in order to communicate with the planets natives, a race of ten-foot tall blue humanoids called "the Navi." The scientists are working against time as the Navi's "Hometree" is right on top of a mineral called "unobtanium" which a greedy company wants to mine. And that company has plenty of stereotypical marines in its employ who are ready to kill the Navi. Sully initially cooperates with his fellow marines, giving them a run down of the strengths and weaknesses of the Navi stronghold even as he works to gain their trust. Ultimately Sully falls in love with the Navi culture—and with a Navi warrior woman.

Naturally, Colonel Quaritch who is in command of the mission decides that the time has come to show the Navi who's boss—in one particularly effective scene the colonel uses Sully's own videolog to justify cracking down on the Navi. Sully tries to warn the Navi but finds himself rejected by his new people instead. Colonel Quaritch orders an attack on the Navi Hometree which is essentially a reverse 9/11. The heart of the alien culture is destroyed in a single unprovoked attack that echoes the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center by terrorists on September 11, 2001—only this time we're the terrorists and the aliens are the victims.

This isn't the first time we've seen 9/11 echoed in sci-fi. Battlestar Galactica used the Cylon destruction of the human colonies as a metaphor for the 9/11 attacks as well but Avatar is the first time that I've seen this metaphor employed in reverse, as an indictment of our own culture and echoing the destruction of American Indian culture by our own western culture. It's a fairly potent symbol and it really is the only way we can really justify what happens next. Sully turns against his fellow marines and teams up with a hand full of scientists and a renegade marine pilot (played by Michelle Rodriguez who supplies the fairly compelling scene of a beautiful woman in war paint flying a hovercraft into battle against her fellow marines) to lead the Navi as they fight back against the marines.

The Navi retreat to the "Tree of Souls" which is essentially the nerve center of Pandora, a tree which connects all life on this moon into one giant neural network, Quaritch is convinced that the Navi will be broken if the Tree of Souls is destroyed and makes it the next target in his "Shock and Awe"—yes, they actually say that in the movie, Cameron's bluntness as a story teller is his greatest weakness but his movies are so well crafted and so action filled that it is rarely an issue. It's not an issue for me here as the movie is so spectacular and so immersive that it is almost impossible to get pulled out of it.

Sully convinces the Navi to gather all of their tribes to make a stand at the Tree of Souls which ends in a fairly predictable but nevertheless stunning fashion. The evil humans are defeated and banished from Pandora and the Navi gather at the Tree of Souls to download Sully's consciousness into his avatar body. His human body dies and Sully is fully alien now. It's a piece of wish fulfillment which reminds me of the end of Inglourious Basterds where World War II is won in Europe not by a hard long slog through German held lands which kills millions but by blowing up Hitler and the entire German high command real good. Given that this is a sci-fi fantasy movie, it's hard to argue with the film makers' decision.

But I think that there is something else going on besides a extremely well made science fiction, fantasy, and special effects. I can't for the life of me imagine how an ecosystem like the one we see on Pandora can just naturally evolve. While it is fairly common for sci-fi film makers to ignore the laws of science when they interfere with their paper-thin plots, I don't think that this is what is going on here.

Pandora is basically a giant neural network where every living thing is so tightly integrated with rest of the planet that even the fiercest of the woodland animals know to attack the marines when the Navi are almost overwhelmed by the onslaught of the marines attacking with their superior technology. This neural network is so sophisticated that it is actually possible for the Navi to download Sully's mind directly into his avatar body at the end of the movie. This download is actually attempted twice in the movie—a human scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine who is played by Sigourney Weaver, is shot and the Navi attempt to download her mind into her avatar body. This attempt fails because she's too badly injured but before the final confrontation with the marines, Sully prays to "Eywa," the Navi deity to look into Dr. Augustine thoughts and to help them defeat the humans.

The Navi even bond to their animals by connecting a long braid of hair which unravels to reveal tiny tentacles which connect to tentacles on a similar braid which is attached to these animals. It reminds me of an organic version of the human/machine interfaces you see in movies like The Matrix. There is a scientific idea called "The Gaia Hypothesis" which suggests that all life is connected and cooperates to keep Earth livable which on the surface does resemble what we see in Avatar with all of Pandora's life being linked together. But in this movie Ewya is described in a manner which reminds me more of the way that the Force described the early Star Wars movies (before George Lucas ruined the concept in the prequels with technobabble about "midichlorians").

On the surface, Avatar is expressing a very anti-technology viewpoint—love Mother Earth (or in this case "Mother Pandora"), don't destroy her with your technology. This is a fairly common theme in James Cameron's movies; but there is a deeper, more subtle theme here which is never expressed—probably because it would be boring and James Cameron doesn't do boring. Just like John Connor cannot survive to lead the human resistance against Skynet without a Terminator acting as his bodyguard, so the Navi cannot defeat the humans without the interference of Eywa. Could it be that Eywa is just a non-evil organic version of Skynet? Is Eywa an incredibly powerful supercomputer which can be accessed by the Navi?

I think that this is as good as any theory on the "science" of Avatar. It would certainly explain gravitational "flux" which wreaks havoc with the human electronic equipment and which allows the gravity defying Hallelujah Mountains which float in the air with seemingly nothing save for this mysterious flux to hold them up. If some intelligent species evolved on a world where the gravitational and magnetic fields were so screwy that an entire mountain could just hang in mid-air, it might make it hard for them to develop human-style electronics. Any technology that such a species might develop would likely be organic. It's not a huge leap to imagine that some cataclysm—like say, a self-aware organic computer wiping out the existing civilization—resetting all life on Pandora and allowing it to be remade in the image of an all-powerful artificial intelligence which directs its evolution until all that life is part of the giant self-aware computer which first paved the way for its creation. They might even give it a name and make it their deity. Intelligent design sci-fi style or more aptly in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Oddyssey, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hurry Up and Wait—Palm's Update Cycle Slows Down

Ever since Palm came out with its Pre phone, they have been updating its webOS operating system approximately once a month. Sometimes the updates have been small and sometimes they can introduce bugs. But even so, it was OK for me since there would usually be another update just around the corner. Now with their latest update which brought webOS to version 1.3.1, the update cycle has apparently slowed down. webOS 1.3.1 came out in mid-November and now we are nearing the new year with precious little word of another update. While normally a delay in updating webOS might not be a problem for me but webOS 1.3.1 has unfortunately introduced a rather serious bug which causes Motionapps' Classic emulator to be very unstable. Worse yet, just running Classic now can leave my Pre so sluggish that I have to reboot it both before and after using this program. And just to add insult to injury, apparently Motionapps has already fixed this bug but can't release the fix until Palm does its next update.

A perfect storm of incompetence. Suddenly the new Palm is starting to look a lot like the old Palm.

Classic Crash

Sunday, December 20, 2009

For Your Sitting Pleasure

There is a building in downtown Chicago which has been under construction for quite some time. While it still is under construction, several stores have opened making for an interesting contrast between shiny, new stores and unfinished ones. It also has the coolest looking bench:


Christkindlmarket (sp?) in Daley Plaza

A lot of German-American food, tiny shops selling holiday and Germanic themed trinkets, and a lot of people milling about. And also a puppet show!


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Took a Walk in the Park...

It was about 34 degrees Fahrenheit today when I took a walk through the park, just barely above freezing. Usually the water fountains of Piotrowski Park are broken even in the summer. But on the way home, I chanced upon this one:


There's just something so interesting to me about the water in the fountain wears away the ice from previous, colder days.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Textured Clouds

I like the mix of bright, thick, and fluffy clouds layered on top of dark, thin, and wispy clouds. The scene in both pictures was originally much brighter than what my phone's camera could capture but I think I like the pictures just the same even if I'm pretty sure that it's the edge of my finger at the bottom of that second picture....


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Art Near the El

I usually start my day by taking the train and there is some pretty interesting—is mural the right word?—near the station I usually use.

There is some pretty artsy Batman graffiti adorning a local parking lot:
And a more aspirational installation on the side of a church:

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Are Pink Clouds Effeminate?

I took this picture last month during the afternoon before Thanksgiving. My phone doesn't do it justice but I really liked the subtle interplay of the wispy pink cloud against the blue sky and bright, nearly full moon.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Cell Carrier Goes Underground

One of the most frustrating things about a long commute can be going into a subway and losing your phone signal. So an ad like this one can be rather hearkening:


I have T-Mobile and my G1 has been getting better coverage on the Blue Line subway in recent weeks. Unfortunately, this improved coverage doesn't help as much for data usage. T-Mobile's 3G coverage is already relatively slow to begin with and my G1 tends to drop to EDGE speeds in a subway so checking email and web browsing can be slow. On the other hand my Palm Pre tends to lose both voice and data in the subway so T-Mobile is ahead of the game here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Wherein My Obsession With a Lone Flowerpot Continues...

I guess it's another sign that winter is coming when the Chicago Cultural Center switches from weird flowers to nothing to pine:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween in Daley Plaza

This Halloween I went to Daley Plaza for "Chicagoween." The place looked great.

And there was a showing of Young Frankenstein.

Funny movie but I was a little disappointed. Last year they had live entertainment.

Then Pyrotechniq came on to the stage....

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Those Clouds Are So Red...

So I was out for a walk at sunset and the sky was an incredible color....

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Yep, Summer's Defintely Long Gone

It was actually a pretty nice day in Chicago today. But heading home I encountered a pretty stark reminder that we're well into fall and winter is coming. Granted the cold weather of a couple of weeks ago was a clue but seeing the planters at the Chicago Cultural Center—which I had previously made fun of—empty was a little sad.


XKCD Does it Again

I hate to say it, or rather write it, but yeah this is more accurate....
We live in a world where there are actual fleets of robot assassins patrolling the skies. At some point there, we left the present and entered the future.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Firefox Gets Proactive

I don't use Firefox as much as I used to. Chrome is just so much faster that I almost invariably turn to it first. But Firefox's rich collection of add-ons is so useful that when I have time and feel like some random web surfing, I'll usually fire up both Firefox and Chrome and use them side by side.

Tonight when I fired up Firefox, I was confronted by this dialog box. A bit aggressive no? Actually no. It turns out that Microsoft's Firefox add-ons expose Firefox users to malware attacks. I'd noticed this little piece of news this morning and by nightfall when I fired up Firefox, it was already uninstalling the Microsoft add-ons. That's a pretty fast turn around time for cleaning up a problem which was only recently discovered.

Now if only Firefox could identify the add-ons that are slowing it down....

In Praise of Hard Buttons

SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 21:  The new T-Mobile ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

LAS VEGAS - JANUARY 08:  A new Palm Pre smartp...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Winter hasn't exactly come early to Chicago but it is unseasonably cold right now—cold enough that I've had to break out a jacket and gloves. This kind of leaves me in a bind gadgetwise. I still love my Palm Pre and am satisfied with its little sliding keyboard but the cold weather makes it less useful when I'm out in the cold. While the Pre is a slider phone a perfectly usable little keyboard, when the slider is closed the Pre is basically all screen with a single button that does only one thing. Other than turning it on and off and changing the volume, all other interaction with the Pre is through its screen. Normally this is no problem—in fact it's normally quite enjoyable. But when you are wearing gloves suddenly it becomes impossible to interact with the Pre.

Now contrast that to my older T-Mobile G1. The most recent firmware update gave this phone a new lease on life by making it fast enough to be usable again. And now the cold weather is is making it a lot more relevant for me because it has something that the Pre lacks—real hardware buttons. The G1's trackball is very responsive and allows me to interact with the phone quickly and efficiently. The home button allows me to get to the G1's "desktop" and access my shortcuts. And finally, the back button helps me get around the phone even faster.

I've always felt that the G1 was something of a evolutionary odd duck. Not as pretty as the iPhone or as elegant as the Pre but an interesting phone because it shows the potential of Android as a phone OS. With the release of the Pre and its webOS operating system, suddenly the potential of Android doesn't fascinate me aas much as it used to. But the ability to scroll through a bus tracker web site on a cold day without having to take off my gloves doesn't need to be fascinating, it just needs to be quick and efficient.
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Today's Windows Error at a Public Place...

...comes to you courtesy of the Chicago Transit Authority's Blue Line train station at Clark & Lake. At least it wasn't a Blue Screen of Death and it's not like Chicago is hosting the Olympics.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My New Old Phone

Ever since upgrading to my Palm Pre, I haven't had much use for my T-Mobile G1. Sure, I kept it because sometimes it's useful to have a second phone but for the most part my G1 has been semi-retired. But a funny thing happened last week. Google pushed out an update to the G1's Android operating system.

I was pleasantly surprised as a rumor had been going around the interwebs that the G1's hardware was too puny for the latest Android update. More importantly, the update seems to have fixed the G1's number one problem. It has suddenly become a much faster device. It's not as fast as my Pre is on its best days but it's definitely competitive.

This is a pretty exciting development. The G1's problems had soured me on Android but now with its latest update, I'm starting to de-sour.

Classic Takes One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back

There is something of a compromise these days between gadget and software makers and their users. They put out incomplete gadgets and software and we put up with it because we think it's part of the price for getting to play with the latest and greatest. Witness the Beta label which clung to GMail for years. And it's not just with software. It took years for the iPhone to get a basic feature like cut and paste.

Similarly, Palm was able to release the Pre without certain features, like video recording, and with few native apps, asking its users to trust in its ability to update their phone. And certainly Palm has been good about updating the Pre with updates coming on a monthly, sometimes even weekly, basis. And they smartly made sure that one of the first third-party apps available for the Pre was Motionpps' Classic, an emulator which allows its users to run PalmOS apps.

For me, Classic essentially sealed the deal and made me get my Pre simply because I have used PalmOS apps like SplashMoney and HandyShopper for years and could now use them on my Pre. And while Classic isn't perfect, sometimes it crashes and freezes up and it has even crashed the entire phone on occasion. But generally it has been improving through updates.

Until now. With the recent 1.2 webOS update, Classic gained the ability to Hotsync to a desktop computer over wifi. A second update added the ability to sync over Bluetooth. And yet, I still haven't figured out how to make this sync work even though I frequently used both Bluetooth and wifi to sync my older Palm devices. This isn't too bad, I'm willing to be patient with MotionApps as they have promised to put up a FAQ to help users sync to their computers. But the thing that really bothers me is the fact that ever time I start up an app in Classic it pops up the following message:

Great, a nag screen for all my older apps. Perhaps MotionApps think they are helping users. Perhaps it's trying to cover itself legally. Or perhaps they just want them to badger software makers into joining Classic's certification program.

Either way it is annoying. It gets in the way of my work. And worse yet, it reminds me of Microsoft's obnoxious User Account Control in Vista. Sure it only runs the first time I run an app inside Classic but unless I keep Classic running all day long—something which given Classic's stability problems is not realistic—I will wind up seeing this message hundreds of times a day as I start and stop Classic and apps within Classic.

Another new addition within Classic isn't quite so bad as the nag screen but it is puzzling. I give you full screen mode:

Not much to look at right? All it does is hide the Pre's top bar, giving you exactly zero extra pixels because it merely replaces it with its own considerably less useful and less informative top bar. Now if full screen mode would collapse the virtual d-pad and buttons and give you full use of the Pre's 480x320 screen, it would be something which I've wanted since the Pre debuted. As it is implemented now, Classic's full screen mode is both pointless and useless.

For the first time since I got my Pre I'm an unhappy user. Ever since updating to version 1.2.1, my Pre has been slow and buggy and I can't pin-point the reason why. Classic is getting in the way more than it is helping. And at a time when Palm is ramping up its efforts to get more apps onto the Pre, webOS doesn't want to load more than fifty apps at a time.

Are these just growing pains for a young platform with a bright future or is it a sign that Palm has reached the limits of its ability to create something good and useful for its users. I deeply hope that its the former and not the latter.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jedi Dog

It's probably a bit late to be jumping on the Animals With Lightsabers bandwagon but this video is too cool.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Microsoft Brings the Cute But Will Windows 7 Really Bring the Happy?

I'm very pleased with Windows 7 and I have it on most of my home computers. But as the release of Microsoft's latest OS draws near I can't help but feel this impending sense that Microsoft will somehow screw things up ruin Windows 7. Well, Microsoft must have sensed my concern because they've deployed one of the cute kids from an earlier ad campaign to calm my fears.

You have to hand it to Microsoft, no one uses cute kids to peddle their wares better. The kid is adorable and I get a huge shock when she starts playing a video she's created mashing up the positive reviews which Windows 7 has received with pictures of bunnies and unicorns and Europe's Final Countdown. I've always loved that song—so much so that I use it as my ringtone—and I'm fascinated by the way it's used by the media. Arrested Development used it to great effect during GOB's magic act. And now Microsoft is using to juxtapose extreme cuteness with the idea of happy future using Microsoft software. Watching this ad is downright addictive.

I'm impressed. And a little terrified.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Best Barney Episode Ever!

I noticed this on Cracked. There is something so satisfying about seeing something like this after a long hard day. I just had to laugh.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Urban Moon

Yeah, they're crappy phone-cam shots and they don't do their subject justice but nobody said that the expectations are high when you blog. My point with these pictures is something that can't easily be expressed without them. Typically, in a large city like Chicago, the glare from street lights obscures the night sky. But here the low-hanging, full moon in these shots holds its own quite nicely with the glare of the lights of downtown Chicago. A mere phone-cam can't do justice to the beauty of a full moon but it is a lovely sight that has to be seen for itself to be appreciated. And it can be seen every month. Just look up.