Blog Archive

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Matter of Money

In the next months, all big movie releases will be sequels, reboots or adaptations with extremely little original material between them, here's a suggestion for a movie that hasn't been made yet that I would like to see:
A group of Astrophysicists is working together in Reykjavík, Island on a project to determine the properties of "Dark Matter", the mysterious force whose gravitational footprint is holding galaxies together and making stars far from the center circulate as fast as the ones close to the center. The team is comprised of very different characters who each have different problems outside the project: one (played by Nic Cage) is struggling with his marriage, one (Michael Fassbender) wanted to leave the country but wasn't accepted overseas and is thus eager to prove his worth, one (Guy Pierce) is in lots of financial trouble because of his bad habits, one (Bryan Cranston) has recently lost his wife or something and is looking for a purpose in life.
The one frustration they all share that binds them together is the project (which is an allegory to Dark Matter, get it?). Their biggest concern is funding however, because the government doesn't see the benefit of Blue Skies research. So the team decides to get the money they need themselves : by robbing the three banks Reykjavík has: Íslandsbanki, MP Bank and NBI. The team goes about it in a blunt, but successful way - they each dress up as the grim reaper, rob the banks as fast as possible and escape on skateboards. Why? Because who would expect a group of middle aged scientists to be that rad, that's why. The first two jobs go successful, but the media and the police now have their focus on the "Skate or Die" bankrobber gang. For the third and final job, they are aware that they would be walking into a trap so they set up an elaborate scheme to get all the money from the vault without going in through the front door, using science.
Meanwhile, two agents from Interpol arrive and take over the case from the local police. The Islandic detective in charge is fighting the remain in control of this case which is the biggest in his career, but ultimately is forced to give up by his superiors. The four physicists manage to escape from the bank right under the noses of the security forces, but when they arrive at their safe spot, the two Interpol "Men in Black" are already there. What nobody noticed is that the local detective has tracked the crew down when they left the crime scene and followed them, so he's there as well. When the four protagonists confront the Interpol guys about how they got in there, they reveal themselves to be extra-terrestrial being that want to prevent the research from going on because it would ultimately lead to the discovery of the true nature of Dark Matter and thus the revelation of the aliens.
The foreign being allow the team to come with them, on the premise that they never get to go back. Three of them take the offer. Then the whole three and the two aliens simply disappear. The detective has recorded all of this on his cell phone and confronts the remaining physicist about this event, who simply points out that the media will consider his video recording a fake. The detective decides to finally drop the case and the remaining scientist is left with the money from the robberies. Directed by Ben Affleck.
It's not particularly good, but I think it hasn't been done before and it might attract some audiences - which is more than can be said about much of the stuff that will be in theatres this year.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Is Biotech Godzilla?

In both the consumer and the business world, mobility was the biggest thing in technology a few years ago (most businesses don't have a comprehensive mobile device management strategy though). Using smart phones and tablets as Internet- and Communication-To-Go has been everyday practice for early adopters for years while the late adopters are getting into it with the usual delay. You don't "go online" anymore, you are already there. Through mobile devices and miniaturisation, the continental drift of the virtual towards the physical space has advanced very far in a few years. Your fridge doesn't have an IP address yet and maybe it never will, but everything associated with entertainment and information does. We already rely on the latest products and shape our personal and professional processes around them. That is the status quo in early 2014. So where do we go from there?
One of the subjects that has branched from this trunk of already common tech is the interface between biology and technology. This is not about biological and genetic engineering though, its rather about how we interact with the heaps of gadgets and devices we now feel dependent on to get through our daily lives. One of the prime examples for this are touch sensitive interfaces that you'll find in both highend computers and lowend discount store junk - everybody is already used to these. Meanwhile, biometric scans of fingerprints and irises are trickling into popular devices. Products like the Jawbone UP measure your biometric information, for example how long you've slept and how much you moved throughout the day (and yes I've actually seen people use these). Whether you like Apple or not (and I don't), they certainly have an impact on the market, so when they released that they will be looking into health & fitness related hard- and software, everybody else had to jump on the bandwagon as well.

The customer base for this isn't just people who always have to have to latest toy. Imagine athletes in the extremely wealthy world of professional sports in Europe and America with tiny, weightless sensors on their bodies so their coaches can measure how well their superstar is doing physically and prevent costly injuries. The military will certainly have an interest in this field as well - medics learning about injuries before they personally get to a wounded soldier clearly has the potential to save lifes. What about civil life though?
Wearable technology that revolves around outward sensors like the camera in Google's infamous Glass has faced significant resistance from the public. Products that focus on inward sensors however are crawling into acceptance without much of a public outcry, like the Jawbone or some of the stuff smartwatches do.

The market's demand has pushed development and engineering towards making technology smaller. Twenty years ago there was a small marketshare that pushed in that direction, whereas today that share has become the vast majority. The logical next step for this is that objects that contain computers and sensors become indistinguishable from those that don't. Maybe in twenty years, you'll buy clothing and never know there was a tiny computer inside of it. Earrings with GPS in them and watches that upload your pulse to the Internet are easily within reach today. Maybe some day, we shouldn't only wash our clothes once before wearing, but also EMP them.
None of this is near-future science-fiction. All of this is present day state-of-the-art. The problem I see with this topic is not necessarily the entanglement of biology and technology itself (it isn't quite Deus Ex yet). What bothers me instead is this:
When a new branch of technology is introduced, when a new discovery is made, when a scientist or engineer figures something out, often it will develop towards entirely different directions than the original purpose. The physicists who laid the groundwork for harnessing nuclear energy never intended to build terrifying weapons. The engineers who created the Internet never intended it to be a tool for mass surveillance. Cyberpunk was a revolution from classical Science-Fiction because it took that fact into consideration and drew pictures of the shiny high tech being used for shady or downright criminal purposes instead of the idealized glorification of the future that audiences were used to. That was the real genius of William Gibson.
We're letting the biometrical products get closer and closer to us with every year that passes. We're growing more and more comfortable with having ourselves measured, categorized and filed, but we don't explore what guides these developments. Our society is entirely dependent on technology with an agenda and that agenda is formed by what our socio-policital construct allows it to be. The tech itself is morally neutral, but neither the producers nor the consumers are.
I therefore submit this question to you: Do we possess the integrity and perspective we need to use the opportunity of intertwining technology with the most intimate parts of our lives wisely and to our benefit, or are we immature, greedy and shortsighted apes that let everything get out of hand and end up more miserable than before? We could do some amazing stuff, but are we willing to do it? Does our moral and intellectual quality match the quality of our tools?

Considering the stewardship we've taken of our world and our lifes, considering the values and ideologies we teach ourselves, I think we have a lot of catching up to do before we should reach for what is laid our before us.a

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ye Mighty

It will blow your mind how terribly some enterprises are run. The way particular people in commanding positions behave in business, breaking all the rules of common sense and general decency, holding their companies back, is staggering. Yet, these persons remain in their comfortable positions because the only way they could fail is not through the judgement of others, but by the rules of the market. The machine itself has to expel failed cogs in the wheels. What bothers me to no end is how well some people live, when judging by their competency they ought to live in the gutter, dressed in rags, feeding on what society dumps. Instead they employ people more competent than them, drive expensive cars, live in nice houses and are generally well-respected by society. This is not envy; I do not long for the same status, but that theirs is in absolute measure so grand bothers me. In the words of Bill Nye : It is not survival of the fittest, it's survival of those who survive. Life is not academia.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Old Man's War

John Scalzi's "Old Man's War" series isn't exactly an insider tip, considering the accolades and rave reviews it has received. However I just stumbled upon it because I'm usually buried in old Sci-Fi while this is from 2005/06/07. I had just finished the schlock of the Dirk Pitt adventure novel Treasure and badly wanted to go back to Science Fiction.
Old Man's War, in a nutshell, is the story of elderly John Perry, who decides to join up with the Colonial Defense Forces (humanities interstellar military) due to their promise of prolonged life and his subsequent rise through the ranks. The obvious comparisons are to Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's Forever War (two books I greatly enjoyed) and rightly so. What sounds like an uninspired clone though soon turned out to be a fresh, well-written and thoroughly enjoyable novel that doesn't have to fear the two big names in the least. Scalzi not only toys around with concepts on how the space-military works and what necessities there are to survive the struggle against superior cultures, he follows them through and uses them very thoughtfully. The biggest focus is on the artificially created superhuman body the protagonist is transferred into and how this turns him from a frail old man into a supersolider that would kick Captain America's butt all over the place.
While the first novel "Old Man's War" focuses on John Perry's military career, the second one book "The Ghost Brigades" revolves around the elite forces of the Colonial Defense Forces, in particular a freshly hatched protagonist led by Jane Sagan (named after you-know-who), an important supporting character from the first book. The third installment, "The Last Colony", brings Perry and Sagan back together and throws them onto a foreign planet to colonize and ultimately defend. There is also a fourth book that runs parallel to Last Colony to fill in the gaps and a fourth one I haven't read yet.
The three books somehow reminded me of the Matrix trilogy: The first one is about a guy discovering that there is more to the world than he ever knew, his training and ascension. The second one takes a look at the extreme parts of that expanded world and introduces a lot of characters from the opposition. The third one is about defending a settlement again an overwhelming force while breaking with the previous structure.
Scalzi finds a great balance in telling his story. The mixture of presenting ultra-high-tech, tasteful action segments and the introduction to humanities competitors for the galaxy is told amazingly well from the perspective of the protagonist. The Perry character ties the story together, as to not get lost in the details and lore of the universe, a trap that is easily fallen into. There is enough action and sharp dialogue to keep you entertained - but most importantly, Scalzi comprehends what made Starship Troopers and Forever War so good - the protagonist becoming aware that the events of the story have changed his personality and how he deals with this realization. Perry lands somewhere between Rico's embrace and Mandella's alienation.
I highly recommend these books, especially the first one which can be read as a closed, stand-alone story. The next book I am going to read will probably be from John Scalzi again - considering that I usually try to vary the authors I read as much as possible, this is a big compliment. The name of the last author who did that for me was Isaac Asimov.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Thunder Roar

Deicide - In The Minds of Evil [2013] []
I've never been a big fan of Florida Death Metal veterans Deicide due to the over-the-top lyrics that mentioned Jesus in every third line and a lack of outstanding songs. I recently stumbled upon their latest and eleventh release though and was very positively surprised - while there are some kitsch moments, this records assembles a lot of very old-fashioned Death Metal punches to the face that come across way more energetic and spot-on than what I've heard from there guys before. The production is splendid and supports the power this record packs. Don't expect any experiments or deviations, this is lean-cut Tampa material at it's best. One whishes Morbid Angel would have had such a quality release in the last ten years. I highly recommend this album.

Hirax - Immortal Legacy [2014] []
Like Deicide, Hirax is a band I've never really gotten into from a genre that I adore. Because I'm sometimes very superficial, it was the awesome cover artwork that drew me in to give the guys another shot. Ten years after their reunion and thirty years after their founding, this record kicks all sorts of ass. The brand of metal Hirax still plays is the tone you would hear in 1984 or '85, when Thrash Metal was still closely tied to Heavy Metal - and then intermixed with sharp, precise elements reminiscent of recent Exodus material. The biggest flaw is probably a lack of diversity. Clocking in at just 38 minutes, it feels longer. Still, Hirax deliver a great package of Old-Fashioned Thrash that will win them few new fans, yet please old ones.

Ravencult - Morbid Blood [2011] []
Ravencult from Athens sound so very modern, polished, and technical that I hesitate to call them Black Metal. This isn't the original primitive, blunt BM material, but rather the sort of stuff bands like Tsjuder or modern day Mayhem play. That being said, it's not a bad record. What it lacks however are defining features. It's doesn't leave you with an impression of anything. It's the VW Polo of Black Metal, it's solid in all disciplines but lacks standout traits that make make it memorable. I enjoyed listening to it, but I didn't feel inclined to have another go. If you're looking for something with the label "blackened" on it, you will enjoy "Morbid Blood", but you will most likely have this album disappear into the blur.


Further listening:
Nuclear Assault - Handle with Care: 10/10 will make your neck hurt
Vicious Rumors - Digital Dictator: A few absolutely brilliant songs, lots of meh
Doom - Corrupt Fucking System: How to make yourself irrelevant in 14 songs

Saturday, February 01, 2014

High on Plants

Airlines are a huge business that will only grow bigger once countries like India or China improve their standard of living for the broad masses even further. Imagine 130 million additional Chinese people living below the poverty line today being able to afford holidays overseas.
Today, aviation is entirely dependent on kerosene. However, in the last three years first commercial flights using biofuel have taken place. "Biofuel" is an umbrella term that includes several different types, but mostly it refers to alcohol-based fuel that stems from plants. It is still very exotic and will only be found on the fringes of public transport, in showcase flights to promote the idea. However, collaborative initiatives between the big airlines, the EU and biofuel producers are gaining more and more momentum. Even the US has a similar project. Air travel based on biofuel is still far from mass application, but in three decades or so, might become a serious alternative for mass transportation.
Personally, I find the air pollution aspect, while certainly important, to be secondary to other concerns. What interests me more about having planes run on distilled plant juices is the factor that the supply will not have to stem from extremely complicated, dangerous and toxic processes like offshore oil drilling, but from plain old farming. Certainly the airlines will buy their supplies from the big industrial contractors, but they in turn will buy the crops from whoever sells the right plants for a competitive price. If the global demand for air travel will rise to new heights (pun intended), so will the demand for the fuel crops. This would mean the potential rejuvenation of the agricultural sector and potentially flood money into places that for a long time didn't allow for a good living. In the time frame this could happen, technology won't be far enough to have the plantation works be entirely mechanized (no robot slaves for you), which in turn potentially creates lots of jobs worth doing in a field of work (pun again) that for decades struggled to provide a good pay.
Running planes on plant juices is a thing I want to happen.