Monday, November 26, 2007
They're rioting in France again.
And being French, they rebel with a certain elan. Burning cars now elevated to burning garbage trucks. Maybe not the healthiest way for frustrated youths in Ballardian ghetto suburbs to work out their boredom and rage, you say? Check out this amazing video of some Slavic immigrant kids turning the abandoned concrete shells of their banlieu into a giant skate park. You know, without the skateboards. Just sneakers and gymnastic dexterity and total commitment. Parkour. (bear with the slow start -- it's worth the wait)
Which for some reason reminds me of that obscure Kirby villain, Batroc the Leaper. From Marseilles, probably of North African origin. Maybe that's one of his illegitimate kids torching the Renault, bouncing off the housing project, and getting ready to kick Spidey's ass.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
By way of observance of this year's Buy Nothing Day, stay away from the stores, consider this wonderful James Stegall essay in Nerve concerning the sublimated homemaker eroticism of the Lands' End catalog, and use it as a launching point to crack open the rest of the glossy catalogs in your mail bin with an eye toward better exploring the covert semiotic archaeology of your mental landscape.
And then go make something of your own.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Tonight I caught the new print of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Which causes me to wonder how many different versions of this film I have seen. The encyclopedia claims there are seven versions, of which I have seen at least five. The original 1982 theatrical release, with the expository Marloweian voiceover and the happy ending driving through the pines (apparently stock footage stolen from Kubrick's The Shining). The myriad hacked up television broadcast versions. The 1991 unofficial director's cut. The 1992 official Director's Cut. And this new "Final Cut," with a spiffy unicorn dream sequence that, tied up with Gaff's tinfoil origami in the final scene, definitely resolves the issue of Deckard's status as a replicant. At least, until the next cut comes out, perhaps around the time of the movie's setting in 2019.
The media barrage over this latest edition, shilling DVDs to put under the tree of your favorite middle-aged veteran of Reagan's first term, confirms the movie's status as canonical. As did the crowd at the screening at Austin's own WWI-era downtown movie palace. A full house of wired Bohemians, many of them born after the film's release, the rest of them applauding and cheering the opening credits like some post-cyberpunk Rocky Horror experience. Make it a double feature with The Road Warrior and you would pretty well cover the cinematic zeitgeist of my late adolescence. I took my 12-year old son and his buddy, figuring at this point the thing qualifies as an educational experience. While their whispers revealed they had the plot's punchline telegraphed well before the first unicorn, the pixel-free cinematography and old school effects blew their minds.
It holds up well despite a number of viewings that approaches my Stairway to Heaven listening count. The early exposition, as Bryant explains the setup to Deckard in a baffling mandatory science fictional As You Know, Bob, gets creakier every time, but the thing sails from there, carried by style and details that dress up the pulp skeleton of the plot. Like the three-dimensional photos from 1187 Hundertwasser, Deckard's suit and tie, Roy's fingernails, Pris's airbrushed harlequin mask, Zhora's political homicide dossier, Rachel letting down her hair, the backwash of blood into a battered man's shot glass. And the city, the movie's real star, in all its smoking, gasping, damp, drizzly, dark, Adbusted, multiculti, grimy, run-down L.A. meets 1979 NYC by way of 1980s Tokyo and future Shanghai. Old school soundstage and gnomic models inventing imminent dystopia through noir lighting and Vangelized muzak flickering on a big screen: the essence of cyberpunk, like Neuromancer being written on a typewriter.
Which makes you wonder why no one has really pulled off anything similar since, in the cinematic varietal of the genre. Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic, anyone? I think I now understand the answer. Blade Runner is the only true cyberpunk film, and there need be no others, for there will continue to be infinite cuts, each with subtle variations, same wines of different vintages. Like a Borgesian Heavy Metal cartoon, its attentive custodians and itchy auteurs forever modulating the space between the panels.
Friday, November 16, 2007
This morning, I felt stressed out. This stemmed from packing to travel to Georgia to move my mother into assisted living, while having more than plenty to do in Houston. My mother might have picked a worse year to manifest the symptoms of Alzheimer's. She also could have picked a better one, as far as my own life is concerned.
Stressed out, I resorted to the very brief but exquisite order of individual morning prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Felt slightly better. Then dragged a basket of dirty clothes out through my front door toward the apartment laundry room. And saw a sundog in the southern sky.
It pushed the reset button on my outlook on life.
A sundog or parhelion is a bright rainbow patch in the sky not far from the sun. Houston is long way from Antarctica, which is the best place in the world for the sundogs, solar halos, tangent arcs, and other optical phenomena that stem from ice crystals in the daytime sky. But I notice these phenomena rather often. And they delight me every time. This morning was the first time I had a digital camera handy. Here is a sundog, above, and to the right a halo with what may be a blurred tangent arc (the brighter blob at the top of the halo.)
Oh. My. I'll give you three guesses as to why this humble blog has achieved such a high-falutin' rating (here's a hint: It's not yours truly).
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Evolution's Darling is a 'bootstrap', an AI who has achieved sentience despite frequent downgrades by its last owner. Under the laws of the Expansion, any machine that reaches a Turing Quotient of 1.0 legally becomes a person, rather than legal property - and needing to replace the shipboard computer would wipe out a year's profits for Darling's owner, Isaah. Darling is also the tutor and companion of Isaah's fifteen-year-old daughter, Rathere, and after Isaah disconnects Darling's sensors, Rathere re-connects them to save her friend, who then becomes her lover. He buys himself a humanoid body, then he and Rathere leave Earth together.
Two centuries later, Darling has become one of the Expansion's most astute dealers in artworks, collecting originals and ideas and sex-related body modifications. When a new sculpture allegedly done by fellow bootstrap Vaddum comes onto the market, years after Vaddum's disappearance, Darling and many other dealers rush to see it. While some are prepared to murder their rivals to own the piece, Darling is more interested in its origin. Is Vaddum dead? Can robots actually die? Can intelligent software be copied, and if so, is the copy a forgery or the real thing?
Evolution's Darling contains some wonderful inventions: as well as the Turing Quotient as a solution to the ethical questions of owning intelligent machines, Westerfield gives us a wide range of very individualistic robots, from the fiercely competitive hyper-intelligent starships writing anonymous academic papers on passenger service when they're not hurling insults at each other ("Number-cruncher!" "Intuitionist!"), to Vaddum, the robotic laborer turned sculptor, to the sub-Turing Wardens, cunning but rigid justice machines. I also loved the lithomorphs, alien statues on a thousand-century-long migration towards their breeding grounds. Along with this sparkling inventiveness comes a beautiful prose style: the only flaw, and that a minor one, is the erratic pacing, with two-hundred-year jump cuts and a fistful of flashbacks disguising a very simple and straightforward plot.
Aldiss and Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree defined science fiction (in part) as "the search for a definition of mankind and his status quo in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge". By this definition, Evolution's Darling is uncommonly pure science fiction, because of the questions it raises about the nature of humanity. When machines can score higher than biological humans on Turing tests, which is really human? Are two beings with identical Turing ratings actually the same person, and is the art they produce equally authentic? Is there a difference between justice and aesthetic considerations? What is alive? What is dead? What is original? What is a copy? Will any of these concepts still be relevant in a few centuries? Westerfield quotes Wilde's essays frequently - and it's Wilde the philosopher, not just Wilde the wit - as well as Wittgenstein and Locke, plus sly nods to Alfred Bester and Samuel Delany... but the book sparkles with ideas and questions, rather than being weighted down with pontification. It manages to combine character-driven and ideas-driven science fiction, and even begs the question of whether there's any real difference between the two.
P.S. Last week, I was informed that there's a Lost Books website, specializing in science fiction, formerly a tributary of Orson Scott Card's Hatrack River. It's worth checking out, though in the interests of strict accuracy, I should say that many of the books that it lists are not exactly lost: R. A. MacAvoy's Mayland Long novels are back in print (well, there goes two columns), Grimwood's Replay is a Gollancz Masterwork, and John Marsden's Ellie books are bestsellers here in Australia. Wizard of the Pigeons, alas, is still MIA... but that's another story.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Daydreaming of revolution while you sip on your latte and admire the grey carpeting on your cubicle walls? I have just the prescription: from metafictional mad bomber Doug Lain and company, issue 1 of the new zine Diet Soap, featuring work by Doug, Tim Pratt, Darin Bradley, Brendan Connell, and others. The theme: Surveillance. A feast of food for thought as you walk under the obscured eyes of the security cameras. From Doug's intro --
"[T]he cameras are there to maintain the viewers' mastery, to provide scopophilic domination, but these cameras are also symptomatic of the viewers' weakness. The fact that we are kept under surveillance means that the people behind the cameras do not consider us passive spectators of a world we did not create. The cameras suggest that they expect us, eventually, to act. And some of us do."
For a spiffy printable PDF of your own, email the good folks at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. If you are not familiar with Doug's work, it is mandatory that you get yourself a copy of his recent collection from the fine fellows at Night Shade Books, Last Week's Apocalypse.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
NASA's Genesis Discovery Mission returned particles of solar wind to Earth a couple of years ago. You may recall that Genesis had a rather hard landing. Most of the solar wind collectors broke into larger or lesser pieces. But the collectors had solar wind particles embedded in them; Genesis did bring back its prize. In so doing, it opened up fascinating questions. How do you tell the difference between genuine extraterrestrial material and unwanted contamination in consequence of a crash landing in the Utah desert? How do you document and distinguish atoms of solar wind from traces of a) spacecraft, b) Utah, or c) the residue solvents used to clean off a) and b)? Inventive NASA scientists are developing incredibly sophisticated techniques to document the contamination and clean the pieces.
Starting early on, choice pieces of collector material with embedded solar went to scientists around the world. The first Genesis science results were announced at the Lunar Planetary Conference in 2006. The last results could unfold in the mid 21st century or even later. The beauty of curating extraterrestrial material is that it's safely tucked away while analytic instrumentation evolves and the planetary science community hones new questions and approaches. The Apollo moon rocks have whispered their secrets to scientists for almost 40 years.
The Genesis samples are a lot smaller than moon rocks and the contamination issues orders of magnitude more subtle. Thus there's been a lot of high resolution microscopy. Here, courtesy of the Genesis Discovery Mission's contamination control lead scientist, are some interesting images.
1. Above and one below are two takes on a scrap of Kapton tape. At the macroscopic level, this is translucent, light-gold-colored tape that's ubiquitous on American-built spacecraft, especially securing dark gold sheets of mylar. Kapton is like masking tape for spacecraft. In microscopy in the wake of a spacecraft crash, it this is what it looks like. This stray bit of tape resides on silicon carbide collector material.
2. The blue stuff is salty Utah mud with a cementlike consistency. Cleaning it off silicon carbide is a challenge.
3. The bubbles haven't yet been conclusively identified. But they look cool.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
...is beat the crap out of all of the lawyers? Being one myself, I have to say there is something rather awesome about seeing a lawyer in a black suit lobbing a tear gas canister back at the riot police. What do you suppose it would take for that to happen here? (Earlier this year, I wrote a story of domestic revolt that featured BMWs burning in the middle of the golf course -- maybe that could still happen!)
Like a cross between Tianamen Square and an old Robert Longo print -- definitely an image with some legs.
[Image: Robert Longo, "Dancing Trio I, from the 1980s "Men in the City" series.]
Meanwhile, in other news, NYT reports on the crazy hijink's at Iraq's Police Academy.
According to IMdB, there hasn't been a new installment in the wacky Police Academy series since 1989's "Police Academy 6: City Under Siege." So here's the pitch for a perfect writer's strike scab job: "Police Academy 7: Back to Baghdad." Think Leslie Nielsen does Ahmad Chalabi.
Monday, November 5, 2007
Friday, November 2, 2007
Texas State researchers solve mystery of Cuero chupacabra
Biologists at Texas State University-San Marcos have succeeded in identifying the strange, hairless, doglike creature that gained fame throughout South Texas this summer as the mythical chupacabra.
Reality, it turns out, is far more mundane than the exotic origins one would expect for a supernatural creature: It’s a coyote.
“The DNA sequence is a virtually identical match to DNA from the coyote (Canis latrans),” said Mike Forstner of the biology department at Texas State. “This is probably the answer a lot of folks thought might be the outcome. I, myself, really thought it was a domestic dog, but the Cuero chupacabra is a Texas Coyote.”
The odd-looking beast turned up this past summer on a ranch outside of the small town of Cuero, Texas, and almost immediately people began comparing it to the bed-time horror, chupacabra.
“Not often do we have genetic material available from an animal that has been linked to a legendary myth,” Forstner said. Normally, the only evidence available consists of blurry photographs, low-light video or other “untestable” pieces of evidence. This time, a south Texas rancher, Phyllis Canion, found a dead animal and preserved the head of the beast in her freezer, creating the opportunity for DNA testing. Hairless, odd beasts have turned up before in South Texas, and this time the stage was set for some scientific work to help solve the mystery. Forstner viewed this as an opportunity, not just to solve the mystery, but also to help people understand how science answers questions.
“This is fun, not scary, but if people are worried about the chupacabra, it is probably even more important that we explain the mystery,” he said. “Folks can fear what they don’t understand, and a big part of the goal in science is to explain the natural world.”
Joe Conger of KENS 5 news provided a tissue sample from Canion’s preserved animal to Texas State’s director of the Wildlife Ecology program, John Baccus, and Baccus passed the sample on to Forstner’s lab, which normally does DNA testing on a large number of different kinds of animals from bats to toads. Forstner assigned doctoral student Jake Jackson and master’s student Jim Bell to the project, who viewed this as just another lab project--albeit with a pop-culture twist.
“DNA tells a story. It allows us to determine the difference between animal species, and while I thought it was a canid (one of the members in the dog family), I could not tell from the photographs which one it might be,” Forstner explained, pointing out that KENS 5 financed the testing. “From my perspective, we were interested in providing a direct answer from the DNA, testing the best guesses of experts by using the evidence from the animal itself.
“Jake extracted DNA from the sample, then we used PCR to generate template DNA and a Beckman Coulter Automated DNA sequencer to read that sequence,” he said. “We choose a part of the mitochondrial DNA genome that is very informative in mammals, called the D-Loop. Once we had the sequence, it was very easy to make an initial ‘match’ of the Cuero sample using the online genetic database, GENBANK. We also completed other analyses, but really, that first match told the tale.”
The main mystery might be solved, but the DNA match doesn’t explain the other looming question: Why does this coyote look so un-coyotelike?
“That is the best part about science--the first answers often lead to more questions and then better explanations of the world in which we live,” Forstner said. “We’ve taken additional skin samples and we will try to determine the cause of the hair loss.
“Texas State is a great school with excellent facilities for genetic work and this has been a very... different experience for my students as they worked on this with all the media attention,” he said. “It’s been remarkable for them, seeing both the power of the media and their work on this project come together.”
No word yet on whether Jimmy Kimmel still wants a bite of "chalupacabra."
Thursday, November 1, 2007
We also had the annual infestation of spiders. Huge inflatable purple ones one with red eyes, and others that are smaller but look meaner because they're hairy. One particularly hairy black spider was artfully positioned on a weblike rope hammock in a front yard. Very effective. My crocodile brain said, no way are we getting near that thing.
One house had a nifty front yard witch outlined in green and orange lights. There was a grim reaper to keep the witch company. But upon closer inspection of the grim reaper, he was actually an extra from the Christmas light show - a Manger scene shepherd, complete with a staff, but with the addition of an improvised sickle blade on the staff. The pink lights outlining grim reaper guy's robe were a dead giveaway. So was his bland, bearded face.
But the scariest scare of the year was a yard sign with a cartoon of a vicious-looking high rise building.
It's a 23-story structure intended to be shoehorned into a Rice University-area corner where the surrounding houses are nice and old and the trees are taller than the houses. In other words, it's a monstrosity of a development that would ruin the look, feel and traffic flow of that neighborhood for blocks around. Fortunately the residents who would be most adversely affected by this thing are fighting mad about it and well-off enough to hire good PR and top-notch attorneys. And I hope they win.
Houston lacks zoning ordinances. It's the largest US city without same. As a result, development is out of control. Whole neighborhoods can lose their historic character almost overnight. Historic homes or movie theaters get razed without fanfare and replaced with highrises, pretentious commercial centers, or even pawnshops and parking lots.
Unlike most of the Halloween yard art, which looks quaint in the light of November 1, that Ashby High Rise sign is every bit as scary today as it was yesterday.
"I'm kind of touched to see these guys becoming pop stars," says Sterling, "The Difference Engine" co-author. "To me it's a sign of social health. People can look on the legacy of the past and grab it and use it. It's an industrial cut-and-paste aesthetic. And I think that the 20th century's love for 19th-century technology is going to be matched by the 21st century's love of corny 20th-century technology. We're going to see Atompunk."
Personally, I love the concept (zeppelin obsession notwithstanding) even if I haven't had much opportunity to retrofit the old Dell on my desktop. That's not to say I haven't given it much thought. I actually blogged about the aesthetic coolness that are wooden computers more than a year ago. It's not exactly the same thing, mind you, but the concepts are simpatico.