Adam Roberts on The Matrix Reloaded

July 11th, 2003

Adam Roberts has written a rather fine critical review of The Matrix Reloaded. He's particularly good on the differences between the original film and Reloaded:

[The Matrix Reloaded…] dramatises precisely the melancholia that first attends the realisation of the illusion of Free Will and the inevitability of Eternal Return. This explains not only the pervasive mood of anti-climax (and how could the film possibly have built on or extended the supreme climactic excitement of its predecessor?); it also explains the sense of deja-vu with which we, as audience, witness yet another brilliantly choreographed kung-fu display, yet another team blowing up a city building, yet another attack upon a Zion ship by the arachnoid Sentinels. This is not a failing in the Wachowski brothers' abilities as film-makers: this is an inevitable and central aspect of the whole project. And it suggests ways of appreciating the movie in ways that move beyond first disappointment: to – for instance – dwell on the present beauties of motion and grace in every moment of the burly brawl rather than asking vulgarly 'but who will win this fight?' (you always already know how this fight will end). The specificity of this film is extraordinary: the attention to detail minute and appealing, the design and form harmonious and beautiful. Watching the film a second time, and watching it again and again, means we can see these beauties as if for the first time.

Having seen Reloaded three times now I'm inclined to agree with Roberts: it's unquestionably a film which rewards a second look, and not just to make sure the Architect was saying what you thought he was first time round. Another shoot-em-up would have been boring, but there's enough going on in the middle film to suggest that the ending will be worth the wait. I could be wrong – we could end up with a 'turtles all the way down' ending – but I'm willing to bet that's not the direction the story will take.

The current trailer for Revolutions emphasises the action elements of the story, but then the trailers for Reloaded didn't hint at Neo's meeting with the Architect or the Merovingian so the absence of any hint of depth in the trailer probably doesn't tell us anything significant about the direction the film will take. The bottom line is that every time I see the trailer for Revolutions I find myself grinning from ear to ear, just as I did every time I saw the trailer for Reloaded. After two such entertaining films (plus Bound, which was a lot of fun) I'm prepared to trust the Wachowskis to give us something special in November.

(Having mentioned the Reloaded trailer, I have to ask: does anyone else find the creepy close-up of Agent Smith laughing demonically in the Revolutions trailer oddly reminiscent of a gone-to-the-bad David Fisher from Six Feet Under?)

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Synonyms: airs, aloofness, audacity, bluster, braggadocio, brass, cheek, chutzpah, conceit, conceitedness, contemptuousness, crust, disdain, disdainfulness, ego, egotism, gall […]

July 10th, 2003

This story should be getting much wider coverage.

In 1999 the Guardian asked the government for details of any conflicts of interest which had faced ministers, and what steps had been taken to avoid any problems which might have arisen. Seems like a fairly innocent question, and certainly something it's in the public interest that people should know about their elected representatives. But then the government refused to answer, leading to a complaint to the parliamentary ombudsman. Let the Guardian explain what finally happened when the ombudsman pressed for disclosure of the information:

Lord Falconer and Douglas Alexander, the minister of state at the Cabinet Office, signed a certificate saying any disclosure of information about such conflicts would be "prejudicial to the safety of the state or otherwise contrary to the public interest".

No such certificate has been issued in living memory and Whitehall sources said they believed the ministers had issued it after direct pressure from Downing Street.

Incredible! The word "arrogant" just doesn't seem strong enough.

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Internet Amish

July 10th, 2003

Cory Doctorow has just realised that he's Amish – at any rate, when it comes to the user interfaces of the devices he writes with. He just can't get over QWERTY:

People think the Amish are technophobes. Far from it. They're ideologues. They have a concept of what right-living consists of, and they'll use any technology that serves that ideal — and mercilessly eschew any technology that would subvert it. There's nothing wrong with driving the wagon to the next farm when you want to hear from your son, so there's no need to put a phone in the kitchen. On the other hand, there's nothing right about your livestock dying for lack of care, so a cellphone that can call the veterinarian can certainly find a home in the horse barn.

For me, right-living is the 101-key, QWERTY, computer-centric mediated lifestyle. It's having a bulky laptop in my bag, crouching by the toilets at a strange airport with my AC adapter plugged into the always-awkwardly-placed power source, running software that I chose and installed, communicating over the wireless network. I use a network that has no incremental cost for communication, and a device that lets me install any software without permission from anyone else. Right-living is the highly mutated, commodity-hardware-based, public and free Internet. I'm QWERTY-Amish, in other words.

I too used to think that QWERTY was the Only Way, which was one reason so many of the portable computing devices I bought over the last couple of decades – from an old Sharp pocket computer with a two-line LCD display and a BASIC interpreter to a Cambridge Computers Z88 to a Psion Series 3a to a Psion Series 5 – were endowed with a QWERTY key layout, as $DEITY intended. But then I realised that in truth I was mostly using my Series 5 to update my address book, to-do list and diary, and to read HTML and ASCII documents I'd downloaded. I defected to the Palm camp some three years ago, seeking portability and ease of use above all else, and it's been a revelation. Having got past a steep initial learning curve as I figured out Grafitti, it's been plain sailing ever since. It's been at least six months since I last needed to take my Series 5 out of the house in order to do some serious typing on the move. At home I use QWERTY, but I've adapted to using my Palm elsewhere. Perhaps Cory needs to stop thinking of his cellphone as a device for writing his next short story and use it for what it's really good at. :-)

On the wider issue of the gulf between the flat-fee, install-what-you-like, all-you-can-eat internet mindset and the centralised, billed-by-the-byte telco model which dominates the mobile phone world, I'm entirely Amish right alongside Cory. I doubt I'll seriously consider buying a mobile phone as long as the telco model persists. It might be that there's never a large enough market of Internet Amish to tempt a telco or ISP to try to cater for it, but it's worth a try.

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Nice weather they're having

July 10th, 2003

The weather on Pluto is unseasonably warm at the moment. Fascinating news, not least because until recently it wasn't at all clear that the most distant planet in the solar system actually had any noticeable weather.

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Older, Slower, Plasticky-er

July 10th, 2003

Fametracker brings us ten rejected subtitles for Terminator 3.

I especially liked Terminator 3: Since When Did They Start Making Leather Pants So Hard to Fit Into?

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Making Votes Count?

July 9th, 2003

Electronic voting is a good idea in principle, provided it's done right. That means providing the voter with a paper copy of their vote so that they can verify how they cast their vote, and it means using software which is open source: not for ideological reasons, but because if you can't have an expert go through the source code line-by-line to verify that the voting software does what it says it does and no more.

For a lesson in how not to do it, take a look at this analysis by Bev Harris at Scoop of the GEMS system, produced by a company called Diebold Election Systems, which is already in use in the United States. The first problem is that the GEMS program which receives votes from the local polling stations by modem stores copies of the votes received in three different ledgers. The problem is, if the data in one ledger is corrupted or tampered with you'd never know it because the reports the program produces – which list minor details such as, say, the number of votes cast for each candidate – you know, nothing really important – are generated based on data held in just one of the ledgers.

Now you could argue that keeping three sets of ledgers is a good idea, in that it allows for comparisons of the data in the different ledgers which might reveal tampering. Trouble is, the three ledgers are stored in the same data file, so anyone who gains access to one ledger will in principle have the opportunity to tamper with the other two. This is Not Clever. Furthermore, it's even possible to add passwords and user names to the system, and to edit the audit trail GEMS generates showing who accessed the ledgers. Secure computing is hard enough to get right at the best of times, but this is just making it all too easy.

One point which is getting far more attention than it deserves is the notion that the GEMS system uses Microsoft's Access database management system, which isn't exactly known as a highly secure system. In fact, it's not clear from the article that the GEMS system is using Access at all: all the report confirms is that GEMS stores its data in a format which can be used by Access, which isn't the same thing at all. In the run-up to the 1997 General Election I spent some time looking after a database of canvass returns for my local Labour Party, doing data entry and a little bit of database administration work – which amounted mainly to exporting the data to a bunch of floppy disks to send to Labour's national campaigns team. The program used to enter data was a custom-written DOS program, but it stored the data we were inputting in tables which could be opened in Access. It's entirely possible that Diebold simply use the Access data format – most likely because there's a wealth of add-in software which understands the format and can produce reports, charts and so on, and it makes little sense to reinvent the wheel.

It's true that at the end of the story Harris reports that "[…] we interviewed election officials and also the technicians who set up the Diebold system in Georgia, and they confirmed that the GEMS system does use Microsoft Access […]", but without seeing the precise wording of the question and the answer I'm just not convinced that an election official or even a technician whose job may have simply been to hook up a PC with GEMS installed to a phone line, would have made the fine distinction between storing data in the MS Access file format and running the MS Access executable file. I could be wrong, but the body of the story just doesn't convince me that GEMS uses Microsoft Access.

This doesn't invalidate the arguments against GEMS storing multiple copies of the votes cast in one location and failing to cross-check them, or against the voting machines failing to provide the voter with a hard copy, but it should be understood that the GEMS program isn't Access – or at least, the Scoop report doesn't prove that it is – and therefore the kneejerk 'Microsoft products are crap' reaction may not be appropriate this time round. There are plenty of other reasons to be unhappy at the idea that this system is both secure enough to avoid tampering and sufficiently transparent to be seen to be trustworthy.

[Via The Sideshow]

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Scene: University of Helsinki, 1991

July 8th, 2003

User Friendly suggests a plot for Terminator 4.

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ID Card Charging

July 8th, 2003

Not only does it sound as if David Blunkett is determined to push through a compulsory ID card, but now he's going to make most of us pay £39 for the privilege. Not that my objection is primarily to the cost of the cards, but it's a bit rich to introduce them on the cheap like this.

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Creature Feature

July 8th, 2003

Arthur C Clarke has been saying for years that the world under the Earth's oceans is every bit as strange and alien as the world beyond Earth's atmosphere. Sites like Creature Feature, put together by a joint Australian-New Zealand research team, prove the point by showing us a phenomenal array of bizarre and occasionally just plain ugly creatures.

For much more of this sort of thing, you really should seek out the second episode of David Attenborough's BBC documentary series The Blue Planet, which showed us some of these creatures in their natural environment. While you're at it, you really should watch the rest of the series. You won't regret it, I promise.

Incidentally, I see that there's a documentary called Arthur C Clarke: Before 2001, co-written and narrated by Clarke, which charts his long-standing interest in the oceans and the intersection between that interest and his science fiction writing. I'd very much like to see that documentary someday if it ever shows up in the UK.

[Creature Features site via MetaFilter]

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Is Skynet already with us?

July 7th, 2003

This is a little worrying.

[Via NTK]

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The Incredible Hulk

July 7th, 2003

The Sun has revealed rather more about the Hulk than some of us wanted to know.

[Via Ben Hammersley's Dangerous Precedent]

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'Rings' exhibition

July 7th, 2003

London's Science Museum is going to host an exhibition of costumes and props from Peter Jackson's films of The Lord of the Rings, plus some demonstrations of how the special effects were done.

London will be the exhibition's only European stop: I think I might just have to find an excuse for a trip down south some time between 16 September and 11 January 2004.

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Solar sail sunk?

July 6th, 2003

Just as the Planetary Society, NASA and the ESA are planning to deploy spacecraft using a solar sail, physicist Thomas Gold has thrown a spanner in the works by suggesting that the laws of thermodynamics mean that a solar sail won't work.

There seem to be respectable arguments on either side of the issue, so the only way to resolve the issue is going to be to launch one and see. I hope Gold is wrong: I've loved the idea of solar sails ever since reading Arthur C Clarke's Sunjammer.

[Via Yet Another Weblog – see entry for 4 July 2003]

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The Mathematics of Hulk

July 6th, 2003

In The Mathematics of Hulk, Wil McCarthy tries to quantify exactly how strong Bruce Banner's alter ego really is:

Hulk is, to put it mildly, a strong fellow. Just how strong may remain a mystery; I suspect the answer will always be "exactly strong enough to meet the challenges of each new movie, comic book or TV episode." But we do know one extraordinary fact about Bruce Banner's viridian alter ego: his standing broad jump covers an incredible three miles, more than 1,200 times the human world record. At first glance, this would appear to make him 1,200 times stronger than an Olympic-grade human, but in fact there's a bit more to it than that.


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Howard Jones

July 6th, 2003

Howard Jones on gigging in reduced circumstances:

"In 1985 I filled out Madison Square Gardens. In 1987 I played to seven people in a hall in Switzerland. The least I could do was introduce myself to each of them individually."

I wonder if his pal Jed the mime still tours with him.

[Via The Rocking Vicar]

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Dino alert

July 6th, 2003

The DinoMite Days project plans to scatter dinosaurs all over Pittsburgh. Beware the Dinosurgeon! Keep an eye out for the deeply silly-looking Tea Rex!

Goofy as some of the designs are, this is a seriously cool idea. I'd love to see someone try this in Newcastle, with a dinosaur in the middle of the Bigg Market, or one guarding St James' Park.

[Via User Friendly Link of the Day]

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Why Girls Are Weird

July 5th, 2003

This month's Bookslut features a longish interview with Pamie about her first novel, Why Girls Are Weird.

My mom has not read the book yet. She said she wanted to wait until it was a real book, until she could go to the bookstore, buy it, and tell the guy that I wrote it. But when the excerpts were coming in, I had to proof them, and I told my mom I could fax them to her if she wanted to read the first two chapters. She was deciding whether or not to, and then I realized that probably she shouldn't, because if someone at work saw them, it looked a little like porn. I had to explain to her that the first chapter was really about this. I said it's about how the Barbies you gave me, I just did dirty things with them. She got really quiet and then said, "I guess everybody did that with Barbies." My mom: very straight and narrow, but even in the 60's, Barbie was a dirty whore.

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"Sadly, it seems that some people coming into this country have been ignoring our custom of leaving these beautiful birds alone."

July 5th, 2003

"The Queen's swans are being stolen in their hundreds by gangs of asylum-seekers who are cooking and eating them." As Ben Hammersley notes, this could just be the best Daily Mail story ever.

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July 5th, 2003

James Lileks is not entirely convinced by the Hulk:

I never liked the Hulk. Stupid, brutish, inarticulate, prone to destroying things when enraged — this is not a hero. This is a French politician's view of America. Granted, he had his tragic side; Bruce Banner always woke up half-naked with a tank shell embedded in his leg, shingle slivers in his fingernails, wondering what he'd done now. It's the sort of thing that would worry a man. Someday someone's going to follow me home, and I am going to be SO sued.

Even though the Hulk reverted back to Bruce Banner after a trademark rampage, it's not like he'd be hard to find. Follow the trail of destruction, the footprints, the squealing cars, squashed housepets and sundered shrubbery, right to the guy curled up and shuddering, smoke coming from his hair. Picture the scene: […]

[Via Bookslut]

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July 5th, 2003

Dead Kenny has an intriguing theory about the climax of this year's Big Brother.

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