1/5000th of a voice

June 2nd, 2003

Danny O'Brien has written a letter to the minister responsible for the consultation exercise on the introduction of ID cards to ask whether it's true that the 5,000-odd submissions made via STAND have been lumped together and counted as a single "petition", even though the individuals concerned were able to write their own message expressing their own concerns and simply use STAND as a means of transmission.

A report on the latest attempt to figure out why electoral turnout is falling suggested that there's a growing disconnect between the "Big Brother generation" and the "politics junkies." Speaking as someone closer to the latter group, I can't help thinking that the sheer cynicism engendered by an exercise like this is much more corrosive than denying the public to text-message parliament about the issues of the day.

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The Animatrix

June 2nd, 2003

When I got home from work on Friday I found that Blackstar had delivered my DVD of The Animatrix, so I spent some time over the weekend indulging my Matrix obsession. I'd already seen Final Flight of the Osiris on Channel 5 the night before I saw The Matrix Reloaded, but the other eight shorts were new to me. Some of the stories are closely linked to the events which unfold in the two feature films, but even the ones where there's not a hint of the presence of Neo or Trinity and nary a Sentinel in sight are generally worth a look.

A few first impressions:

  • Final Flight of the Osiris is the backstory to the discovery of the machine assault on Zion which drives one of the plot strands in Reloaded. Opening with a beautiful martial arts sequence, this is far and away the most impressive looking film on the DVD. The CGI animation is superb. As you'd expect, CGI faces still aren't quite up to conveying subtle emotions, but in what's essentially a short action film the film-makers can work around the problem well enough by just keeping everyone moving as much as possible. A great piece of eye candy.

  • The Second Rennaissance (Parts I & II) is nominally a two-part account fresh from the Zion archives of the story of the war between man and machine which led to the coccooning of the human race. Presented as a compilation of archival news footage supplemented by commentary from a Zion-era narrator, it contains plenty of striking images of impressive war-fighting machines but for me it falls short as an explanation of just why human-AI relations swung out of balance so savagely and completely once the question of AI rights reared its head.

    The narration strikes a weary tone, and interestingly it places most of the blame for the war on humans for having been so quick to reject conciliatory moves on the part of 01, the city state formed by the machines: guilt, or just a lack of understanding of the motives and internal politics of the AI side of the conflict? The film doesn't give much sense of whether there were different factions and beliefs on the robot side of society; was there a robot peace movement which was brushed aside by those robots who wished to reject coexistence? Which leads to a wider question: how far were the robots we saw on the field of combat autonomous units and how far were they under the direct control of their leaders? In the films all the robots we've seen outside the Matrix have been Sentinels or other types which weren't trying to communicate with the humans, so it's hard to say whether we're dealing with a Star Wars-style drone army or a Culture-style coalition of autonomous AIs of varying specialisations which just happen to believe that killing or enslaving all humans is the best/least worst/only strategy.

  • Kid's Story is exactly what the title suggests: the tale of how the annoying teenager who hero-worships Neo in Reloaded was rescued from the Matrix after Neo contacted him. It served as a nice parallel with Neo's own experience the first time he encountered Agents, except that in this instance the protagonist was being pursued by Agents so inefficient that they couldn't catch a teenager on a skateboard. I'll bet Agent Smith wouldn't have been so slipshod.

  • Program is one of the less consequential films, a vignette featuring a member of a hovership's crew who is faced with the question of whether she wishes she'd taken the blue pill. I don't have much else to say about it, to be honest. You can guess her answer as soon as the question is posed. I'd have preferred to see what would happen if someone did choose to return to the Matrix: would the machines keep their word, or would they put anyone with any knowledge of Zion into a little Matrix of their own where they'd find themselves chatting with a friend and spilling the beans about all they know of Zion, Neo and so on.

  • World Record demonstrates that in certain highly stressful situations an individual within the Matrix can become aware of his situation and "wake up", and shows that the Agents are very much aware of this possibility and will do their best to prevent it happening. I didn't really take to the drawing style used in this episode, nor to the implication (which also shows up in the next film on the DVD) that in fact people within the Matrix can find themselves faced with glitches and bugs which reveal that all is not as it seems. I suppose it's a cousin of Persephone's explanation of "werewolves and vampires" in Reloaded, in that it suggests that paranormal phenomena are what human senses make of glitches in the system, but I'm suspending judgement on that element of the storyline until I see if it's fleshed out in Revolutions.

  • Beyond is a simple tale of a young girl looking for her cat who encounters a "haunted house" which we realise is actually a corner of the Matrix where a bug has made physics work a little differently for a little while. I couldn't help but wonder why those who encountered the phenomena were allowed to retain their memories of the experience: given that it's possible, why wouldn't the Matrix or its Agents wipe all memory of such anomalies?

  • A Detective Story looks suitable noirish, and features a brief guest appearance from Trinity. It hints at how difficult it is for someone in the Matrix to track down a legendary hacker like Trinity or Morpheus, which is an interesting idea from the first film which I'd like to see explored further. It's not just that Trinity is hard to find, it's that those who try seem to end up dead, disappeared or deranged. Is this a result of whatever it is Trinity does to discourage pursuit, or a side-effect of Agents intervening if they think they're close to one of the "terrorists" who have escaped the Matrix?

  • Matriculated is the most intriguing story on the DVD. Out on the blasted surface of Earth, a group of humans are trying to catch machines which they then jack into a new, human-designed Matrix. The plan appears to be to encourage machines to come over to humanity's side, though the process is interrupted so we don't see quite how this is to be achieved.

    What I found fascinating about this story was the implication that the machines are open to persuasion and have free will, since as I noted above the general view we've had of machines outside the Matrix has been that they've been implacable hunters and destroyers of humans. Also, the ethics of trapping the machine inside a human-designed Matrix in order to persuade it to help humans who are trying to free humanity from an AI-designed Matrix are just a wee bit dodgy.

Wow, that turned into a much longer post than I'd planned.

All told, this is a pretty high-class piece of spin-offery. It may or may not turn out to have much direct relevance to the events of the final film in the trilogy, but it's a tribute to the depth and breadth of the universe the Wachowski brothers have created that so many interesting vignettes could be created.

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Adieu

June 1st, 2003

Michele bids Concorde adieu.

The awe was not just my child's; it was mine as well. The sleek shape of the jet, the way in which it cut through the sky like a rocket, the noise and tremors it caused all took my breath away. How far technology had come, I thought, to create something so beautiful, so powerful. Not many people can see beauty in a plane, I know. But there was something about the Concorde that made me view it as if it were art. The downward nose and the outstretched wings and yes, the idea that there were rich, important people flying in that piece of modern art certainly gave it part of its appeal.

[...]

For the record, I don't find it at all hard to find beauty in an aircraft myself, whether it's the cheeky Harrier hovering and bowing farewell to the audience at an airshow before zooming off over the horizon, or a Spitfire banking to display that glorious elliptical wing, or an Avro Vulcan persuading you against all reason that yes, something that massive really was capable of defying gravity, or even a Lightning pointing its nose skyward, turning on the afterburner and making a beeline for the clouds. But then, I was a teenage aircraft nerd back in the 1970s, so I spent a lot of time watching the RAF's finest at air displays.

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Dougie Donnelly's Revenge

June 1st, 2003

A fun rock star anecdote, courtesy of The Rocking Vicar:

DIFFICULT INTERVIEWEES

Parishioner Tom Morton: "Costello and the Attractions, in full, amphetamine-fuelled, raging contempt mode, appearing post-gig, early 80s on a late night Radio Clyde show hosted by Dougie Donnelly. Yep, the Dougie Donnelly noawadays spied on telly wearing Pringle sweaters and interviewing snooker players, carpet bowlers and dodgy golfers; then, he was Glasgow's Moderate Voice of Rawk. Anyway, Elv and the boys treate Dougie abominably, gurning and giggling at their own hyper coolness. Until Dougie, extremely pissed off, opened the phone-lines and his guests up to the tender mercies of Glasgow after closing time.

My favourite caller was the first. "Hey Elvis, can ah ask yi a question?"

"Yes, that's the idea."

"How did yi play that fantastic guitar solo on "Way Down"?

Silence. Then Elvis, puzzled: "I don't think…we have a song called "Way Down".

"Aye yi do" came the response. "Yi recorded it just before yi died."

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Criminals or Customers?

May 31st, 2003

The Disney Corporation has found yet another way for Big Content to treat its paying customers as potential criminals: hiring security guards to use metal detectors and night vision goggles to spot members of the cinema audience who might be taping the movie. I'm sure that people do tape films, and that other people do watch them, and that some of those viewers of second/third/fourth generation copies fail to show up at the cinema to pay their dues to the Disney Corporation. I'm also pretty sure that if I find myself waiting in line twice as long because some usher has to check me over with a metal detector, then go through a metal detector again after my PDA sets it off first time round and I have to explain that no, it isn't a digital camera (and woe betide me if I'd bought a Zire 71, which has a still camera built in, instead of a Tungsten T), I'm going to be visiting the cinema a lot less frequently.

I have a horrible feeling that the only bar to Disney insisting that cinema patrons are strip-searched on entry is that the cinema chains would balk at the prospect of losing a couple of screenings per day to the time spent strip-searching customers.

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Let The Game Begin … Again

May 30th, 2003

Online game Shadowbane was hacked this week. In a big way:

The population of an entire Shadowbane town was forcibly moved to the bottom of the sea, where they drowned. City guards turned feral and attacked town residents. Mobs of never-before-seen superpowerful creatures, seemingly spontaneously spawned from the ether, began to prowl the streets unchecked, killing characters in the most painful way possible.

It sounds like life in Sunnydale during an average Buffy season closer, when the Big Bad lets loose. Except in this case the mess was cleaned up by the system administrators, who reset the game to its pre-crisis position, rather than the Scooby Gang kicking evil butt.

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Eating her words

May 30th, 2003

Jo Walton finds sustenance in every word she types.

[Via Electrolite]

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"And not only have I left my Galactus costume at home. I never made it."

May 29th, 2003

Having attended a science fiction convention with a considerable emphasis on costumes, Danny O'Brien notes the importance of being true to your inner geek.

I was tempted, as is my wont, to quote an excerpt, but you really should read the whole thing. It's not the sort of tale that lends itself to being mined for a one-liner.

Especially recommended if, like me, you're sometimes inclined to be a tad half-hearted in your geekery.

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"Shire dreams, ripped at the seams / but oh, those Shire nights…"

May 29th, 2003

Further to yesterday's comment on the prospect of a stage musical of The Lord of the Rings, I see that Max has come up with an all-too-perfect piece of casting. What the show really needs – nay, deserves – is Troy McClure!

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"I Stole This Card"

May 29th, 2003

John Hargrave's Credit Card Prank demonstrates just how little attention shop assistants and checkout operators pay to the signature on the credit card receipt they've just asked you to sign.

Next time I bought something that required a signature, I considered just creating a rectangle of solid black. Then I thought a grid might be weirder:

[Photo of receipt showing a hand-drawn grid where a signature should be]

Only the most Matrix-obsessed fanboy would actually use a grid for his signature, but the chick at the Cheesecake Factory didn't look twice. I mean, I didn't even have on a trenchcoat.

That was one of Hargrave's earlier efforts:as the week progressed he got sillier and sillier: hieroglyphics, writing "I stole this card", you name it, he tried it. It's a funny piece, until you consider what it implies about the fate of your credit card balance should your card end up in the wrong hands.

[Via Krisalis]

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Cordelia's Arc

May 28th, 2003

In the midst of some (spoiler-filled for UK terrestrial TV viewers) comments on recent developments in the Buffyverse, this remark from Joss Whedon casts Cordelia Chase's character arc in Buffy and Angel in a whole new light:

I once said that I finally got to tell the story of Buffy that I tried to tell in the movie, and I did it with Cordelia. Which was the story of someone who was completely ditzy and self-involved becoming kind of heroic. But the way the series was different from the movie was that I didn't know where you go from there.

I don't think the correlation is quite as neat as all that, since part of Buffy's burden from day one was that she had to deal with being a superhero. Cordelia's first few years were essentially a story about a perfectly normal young woman living in a very strange town and falling in with some odd friends, and it was only halfway through her story that she got some powers of her own to deal with. Which is not to say that Cordelia-as-movie-Buffy isn't an interesting way to think about the character's development.

Just think, in a parallel universe where Sarah Michelle Gellar got the part she originally auditioned for, it'd be her performance as Cordelia Chase we'd be talking about now. But then, in that universe we might not have had Alyson Hannigan as Willow, and that would have been a terrible pity…

[Via Dark Horizons News - see entry for Tuesday 27 May 2003]

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"Now we're into the realm of demonology…"

May 28th, 2003

Grant "New X-Men" Morrison has his suspicions about some of the world's more prominent celebrities:

Are These Suspicious Celebrities Secretly Mutants Too?

Justin Timberlake

"Definitely a pure mutation – and he's trying to push his powers in a more evil direction. I think they inject all of those Disney kids, like Britney, with something when they're young. One minute, they're singing about mice, and the next, they're riding motorcycles and fisting each other."

[...]

Kylie Minogue

"Tricky, but she's more of an android, like on Star Trek. They look perfect, but they've got strange plastic skin, and if you scratch them, a clear liquid flows out. She can be used for good or evil – like the bomb."

[...]

[I wonder how many extra search engine hits this site is going to get because of the combination of the words "Justin", "Kylie", "Britney" and "fisting" on the one page?]

[Via linkmachinego]

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Lord of the Rings: The Musical

May 28th, 2003

Coming soon to the London stage: The Lord of the Rings: The Musical.

Presumably they won't leave Tom Bombadil out of this version.

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"I have a better idea…"

May 27th, 2003

James Lileks is feeling let down by his evening's video viewing:

Years ago I caught the end of a sci-fi horror movie on TV, and I was riveted – it seemed as if the producers had hired every single actor in Hollywood and paid them fifty bucks to play dead. I'd never seen so many dead people. They were heaped in the subway, piled on the street, strewn in the churches. Big thick heaps of pockmarked, sallow-faced, zombified dead people. A cast of thousands! I never quite figured out what the movie was about, only that the final apocalyptic scene was like nothing I'd seen. And it had spaceships, too. I'd never caught the entire movie, so when I saw it at the video store this weekend I thought hey, this should be good!

Then the credits start to roll, and you see the words "Based on the books 'The Space Vampires'" and you think perhaps I have overmisunderestimated this one. The movie was 'Lifeforce,' and I have a crick in my neck from ducking the chunks it blew. Everybody in the movie was miscast, except for the woman who spent the entire film walking around naked, and for Patrick Stewart. You can't miscast him, because he always plays Patrick Stewart. The credits should just be honest, and say:

Prof. Patrick Stewart . . . Patrick Stewart

I remember Lifeforce very well indeed. On the plus side … well, the lead actress spends pretty much the entire film walking round stark naked, so for slightly more than half of the potential audience the evening's viewing can't be counted a total loss right there. At any rate, until you take into account the number of brain cells you'll kill off trying to make sense of the plot. Even good actors like Frank Finlay and Peter Firth were unable to do more than try not to look embarrassed on camera – and, no doubt, ponder how best to take revenge on their agents for getting them into this mess.

Lileks goes on to have a little fun imagining the meeting where the space vampires devised their cunning plan for taking over the world.

Space Vampire #1: "So when the astronauts come, we will spring from our suspended animation, feast on their delicious life force, assume their forms, strap protective armor around our most vulnerable spot, and return to earth to spread the contagion."

Space Vampire #2: "I have a better idea. Let's send Bob down here in human female form. Naked. He'll probably end up in some heavily guarded military facility, but if he escapes they'll all be like, whoa, a naked human female, and he can walk right out."

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Eye to the London Sky

May 27th, 2003

Olya's eye to the london sky is a striking night-time view of the London Eye.

It's the contrast between the various reflections of lights on the river and the overwhelmingly reddish tint to the clouds in the evening sky that makes the picture for me. Well, that and the bloody great Ferris Wheel in the foreground.

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Cool Antarctica

May 27th, 2003

Cool Antarctica was created by a member of an Australian expedition which spent 2002 in that part of the world. There's a fair amount of information about the local wildlife, as well as the history of the various early exploratory expeditions. However, the best part of the site is the photographs. In particular, this shot:

+100°C water meets -32°C air

A fun thing to do in extreme cold is to throw hot water into the air. Take a flask and fill it with boiling water to warm it up, pour this away and fill it again. Take the full flask outside, take a cup of this hot water and throw it all up into the air. As the +100°C water meets the cold (in this case -32°C) air, it instantly vapourizes. Most of it is turned into a cloud of steam that drifts gently away and some of the droplets that stay together are instantly turned into small pieces of ice that can be seen streaking down towards the bottom left in this photograph.

It's very weird to throw water into the air but none of it ever actually landing. Also seen in this picture is a solar halo around the sun formed by the ice crystals in the air.

[Via The Internet Scout Report]

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Other People's Stories

May 27th, 2003

Other People's Stories does exactly what it says on the tin: it's a repository of tales, some of which may well be a tad on the tall side. To quote from the site's About page:

Every story on OPS is a story a contributor heard from someone else. These stories have been overheard and misheard, told and re-told and sometimes refined over time. They do not shy from hearsay, gossip, myth or guys we knew in high school. OPS is dedicated to the time-honored tradition of stealing other people's material and we therefore recognize our debt to those from whom we've stolen and acknowledge that these stories do not belong to us.

I didn't have time to read more than a sample of the stories, but I particularly enjoyed Three Stories Girls Told Me by John Hodgman.

[Via MetaFilter]

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Rejected Google Holiday Logos

May 26th, 2003

FARK's Rejected Google Holiday Logos contest is a hoot. My favourites are miles behind in the voting: Salvador Dali Day has attracted just 113 votes as of the time of writing, whereas Return of the King Day can only scrape up a mere 79 votes.

[Edited to add a link to FARK, rather than back to this page. Thanks to Zed for pointing out my omission.]

[Via Amygdala]

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Alfredo James Pacino

May 26th, 2003

Fametracker lauds the genius of Al Pacino. And, along the way, reveals that he was offered the role of Han Solo:

Now take a moment to imagine this: the young, pouchy-eyed Pacino reclining in the captain's seat of the Millennium Falcon, enjoying a moment with Chewie. Or the young, pouchy-eyed Pacino shouting "Hoo-wah!" as he zips like a frenetic elf up the ramp of the Falcon, trading blaster shots with attacking stormtroopers. Or the young, pouchy-eyed Pacino flying in like the cavalry in the film's climactic battle and, just before sending Vader's TIE fighter spinning madly into space, screaming, "Shay jello to my wittle vrend!"

Now, we're not saying that this would have been a better movie. But it sure would have been a more interesting one.

The article also notes the surprising fact that Pacino has appeared in just 36 films. Which sounds like a lot, until you consider that Ben Affleck has made 28 in the space of his first decade on-screen.

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It's true! Honest!

May 26th, 2003

User Friendly applies an old slogan to new(ish) technology.

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