Tuesday, March 4, 2014

guilty pleasure SF movies

SF movies that have big flaws but I liked them anyways:

Judge Dee and the Phantom Flame
I have never met another person who watched this movie. I found it on Netflix.

Willow
There just wasn't a lot of high fantasy in 80s films. It's uneven (The whole tavern scene should go), but the great moments make up for it.

Tron
Badly paced, weird costumes, incoherent premise, but I adore it.  I have an elaborate story in my head filling in everything wrong or strange about this.

Red Dawn
I had enough friends who believed that this day was coming that it was a real pleasure to see it put on film.

Independence Day
The special effects, the music, the bizarre speech by the president were all great. And I thought the resolution of using a computer virus was actually very reasonable. My biggest problem with the movie was the telepathy and the line "1/10th the mass of the moon."

What Dreams May Come (except the ending)
I just thought it was really different and imaginative. I thought the paintworld was dumb, and the golden city heaven seemed bland. My real problem that ruined the movie for me were all the endings. They just got worse and worse.

Flash Gordon
I loved the rockets, the skies, Hans Zarkov, the Hawkmen, the Queen soundtrack. I should note I saw this first at age 7 before I had any concept of kinkiness.

War of the Worlds
The 60s version was pretty good too, but I'm talking about Spielberg's one. It's long and a little weird, a horror movie with a happy ending, but I thought it was really interesting to watch. 

Big Trouble in Little China
It was funny and really weird.

Lost in Space
I can't even justify this one.

Neverending Story
The only things wrong with this movie are the synthesizer soundtrack and the outdated special effects. The child acting is great, the story is perfect, the deeper themes are epic, and the whole thing is like the best kind of flying dream.

Edward Scissorhands
I think this is my favorite Tim Burton movie. Although I could be persuaded on Beetlejuice (minus Beetlejuice himself who I thought was disgusting) or Nightmare Before Christmas (which kind of drags, but has a lot to love)
 
Explorers (until they enter the alien ship)
This was basically wish fulfillment fantasy. I felt betrayed by the filmmakers with the comedy aliens at the end. D.A.R.Y.L. is also good. I think it has the same actor as Neverending Story, actually. 

12 Monkeys
It's very sad, but it has a solid time travel plot and Bruce Willis.

Scott Pilgrim Saves the World
I really liked the video game style battle at the end.

Deep Impact
I felt moved by the characters' difficulties, and it was not bad on the science. Contrast with Armageddon, the dumber, more expensive asteroid show that came out the same year.

Dante's Peak
The grandmother's death scene was really stupid, but overall it was a good disaster film and it was not bad on the science. Contrast with Volcano, the dumber, more expensive volcano movie that came out the same year.

The Avengers (the 90s spy show)
The bit with the teddy bears is especially boring, and there could be more real wit and action but I liked the actors and a few of the surreal scenes are brilliant.

here are a few SF movies that are just terrible:
The Core
Armageddon
Bicentennial Man
The Seeker
Green Lantern
Superman IV
Highlander II
Batman and Robin
Dungeons and Dragons
Inspector Gadget


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Bull

The earliest stories we have of the minotaur, from the Minoan civilization on Crete, are quite different from the story told by Ovid. Even in Ovid's version, the minotaur is simply part bull and part man; the bull-headed man was not a settled image until the Rennaisance. In older stories he was a man with the powerful shoulders, back, and neck of a bull-- a strong giant of a man. He was also said to have been companions with a bull, though unlike Ovid's version the relationship seems to have been one of friendship, similar to the relationship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The bull was described as "sky-colored" which has traditionally been interpreted as white, but could also mean blue, as in this sculpture.
The minotaur was a traditional Greek hero similar to Herakles, accomplishing various feats. Hecataeus of Miletus, when describing the ocean as a river encircling the world, recounts that the minotaur traveled on a raft around this river. In another tale, it is said that his words were frozen into solid form as he spoke them, perhaps a reference to the invention of writing.
In Minoan imagery, the minotaur is always associated with a two-headed axe. The island of Crete is largely bare of trees; the minotaur is said to be responsible for clearing the island with his axe.
The Romans called the minotaur "Paulus," meaning small or humble-- an ironic name similar to "Little John" in the Robin Hood myth. The minotaur was usually depicted wearing cloth with a red and black pattern, similar to a checkerboard or a scottish tartan.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Beginning Calculus for Pirates

Let's say you want to download a perfectly legal, uncopyrighted 1.2GB file using bittorrent. There is a graph at the bottom of the screen in your downloading software that shows the number of MB per second downloaded. When the download is going well, the graph line is up high, meaning you're downloading a high number of megabytes every second. When the line is near the bottom of the screen, that means you're not getting very much data each second and it's gonna be a long time before that file is downloaded.
With me so far?
Here's the big question: what is it about this graph that shows how much, total, has been downloaded so far?
It's not the height of the graph at any one point; that's showing how fast data is coming down the pipe.
Suppose you were getting 5MB per second for 100 seconds. Then you would have 500MB downloaded. Or you could get 1MB per second for 500 seconds, and still end up with 500MB total downloaded. A little bit per second for a long time, or a lot per second for a short time. You just multiply the height (MB per second) by the length of the graph (seconds) to get the total downloaded (in MB).
In other words, you calculate the area under the graph to get the total amount downloaded.

The area under the graph of download rate gives the total amount downloaded.

The area under the graph of the rate gives the total.

That sentence is what calculus is all about. "Taking the integral" just means calculating what the total area under the curve is at each moment in time. Newton's big insight was that the graph of the rate and taking integrals were related in just this way-- If you want a graph of how much total has been downloaded so far and all you have is a graph of how much is being downloaded each second, you can "take the integral."
All of the rest of first year calculus is just tricks and methods to calculate this more quickly, or to go in the opposite direction and get the graph of MB per second from the graph of how much total has been downloaded at each point. That's called "taking the derivative."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Angry Birds, Audubon Style

John James Audubon was a naturalist who, in the early 1800s, traveled the Americas painting all kinds of birds. These were made by cutting and pasting bits of his watercolors.



Friday, December 6, 2013

The Origin of the Super Robot Genre

During the century leading up to World War II Japan had, over a remarkably short period of time, gone from a feudal society to an industrial one. The shock of a foreign civilization with superior technology arriving on their shores had spurred a rapid rise into an industrial power.
The boys growing up in Japan during World War II were fed a steady diet of propaganda about the might of their country's war machines. For kids fascinated by strength and technology, it was an easy sell. The destruction of cities at the end of the war only reinforced the message of the awe-inspiring power of technology for destruction.
One of the directions this took was a story about nuclear side-effects bringing to life a prehistoric monster that proceeds to devastate the cities of Japan. Godzilla's name comes from the Japanese word for whale (kujira) as a giant sea monster, and the word for gorilla (gorira), bringing to mind King Kong as another giant monster that devastated cities. His skin was deliberately modeled after the keloid scars of Hiroshima survivors. This film spawned an entire genre of Japanese movies about giant monsters.
Those giants will come into the story a little later. The stories about technology took a decidedly more personal turn.
Osamu Tezuka published the comic book Metropolis in 1949. He was 21 years old. A lot of the tropes we associate with Japanese manga and anime are already present in this work: the large eyes (he was influenced by the style of the Mickey Mouse comics popular at the time), the influences of technology for good and ill, shifting gender roles, the young protagonist, a person with the potential to explode with power, and most importantly, robots. A young child discovers that he is not a boy at all, but an artificial creation, with the power to destroy or remake the world.
Soon after he wrote Astro Boy, about another robot who was treated as human until he finds himself cast out. In this story, like Metropolis, there are many robots of all different shapes and sizes. Some, including ones Astro Boy faces in combat, are gigantic.
A lot of American films including robots from this time treated them as something to be feared, but in the Japanese stories a robot was usually associated with the hero. I think part of the reason might be the Japanese attitude about spirits. Shinto teaches that all kinds of things-- waterfalls, mountains, trees-- have spirits or kami of their own. So the whole idea of a robot being a person, someone with emotions and a point of view and personal worth, was not as hard for them to accept as it has been for traditionally Christian societies, which see a wide gulf between the spirits of humans and all other things.
In 1956, Mitsuteru Yokoyama wrote Tetsujin 28-Go (which translates as Ironman #28). The name may have been influenced by the names of American warplanes, like the B-29. This story is of a boy who has a remote control for the giant robot of the title. A few years later he wrote Giant Robo (a television version was broadcast in the US in the 1970s as Johnny Sokko and his Giant Robot), another story about a boy who has a giant robot that responds to his every command.
In 1972, Go Nagai wrote a comic called Mazinger Z (the animated version was broadcast in the US as Tranzor Z in the 1980s). For the first time in this story, the robot is not self aware or remote controlled, but piloted from within the head. This was the beginning of the super robot (スーパーロボット) genre of Japanese cartoons. Mazinger Z battled mainly against people transformed into giant monstrosities-- similar to the sort of monsters that showed up in Godzilla movies. The popular toy version was made of heavy die-cast metal, and could fire off its fists as launched weapons.
During the 70s and 80s, many super robot comics, cartoons, and toys were developed. A lot of these we would call mechs or mecha, which is actually a generic term for anything mechanical in Japan. The AT-ATs and AT-STs from Empire Strikes Back (a film very heavily influenced by Japanese imagery) are examples of these, as are Gundam and Mechwarrior.
One of the more interesting developments was transforming robots. The Microman toyline (so-called because the toys were much smaller than the 12-inch Gi-Joe size action figures the company had been selling previously-- in the US these were called Micronauts) featured what may be the first transforming robot in 1974. Some later toys from this series were rebranded in the US as Bumblebee, Megatron, and Soundwave, some of the first generation of Transformers toys. These were not actually meant to be giant robots, originally-- the Microman toys were said to be from from another, smaller world, and disguised themselves as toys on earth, either life-sized toy guns and cassette player, or miniature toy cars.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

sonic vision for the blind

The vOICe system allows blind people to get a representation of the visual world through sound. But our brains already have a way of mapping sound to space, and it works pretty well. So why not make use of the already existing system? I'm picturing some kind of pleasant sound tracing around the outlines of objects and walls, playing as if the sound were actually coming from the true point in space. Or a path might be marked out by a series of different virtual windchimes, so that the safe path to walk can be heard as increasingly faint sounds. One couldn't make everything in the environment emit noise-- it would be a cacaphony-- but you could easily have dozens of noise sources placed around in space if they were different enough from each other. The particular sound made could be tied to the meaning of the object.
Do you see how this would make so much more sense than mapping pitch to height and volume to brightness? The sonar clicking method also requires a lot of training. The method I'm suggesting is something we all already know how to do, the brain wouldn't need to be remapped at all. Plus, the sounds wouldn't be so awful as pure tones, they could be as pleasant as we could invent.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Academic Genealogy

This is my academic genealogy, which my brother David kindly went to all the trouble of researching for me. It traces back from my PhD advisor, to his PhD advisor, all the way back to Gallileo. Since that's about when Francis Bacon more or less made up the crazy game we call science, this really gives a picture of the whole enterprise.
It's fun to trace back the names you recognize, and see how they're connected. Fermi (father of the atomic bomb), studied under Max Born (who introduced matrices to quantum theory), who studied under Carl Runge (who invented the Runge-Kutta approximation method, taught in Freshman calculus), who studied under Karl Weierstrass (who put a solid foundation under calculus), who studied under some guy who was taught by Carl Gauss himself. So that goes from math to nuclear physics, and looking at the abstracts of the next few names down you can see how an interest in imaging quantum phenomena developed into an interest in imaging astronomy, and then turned into an interest in image processing, which turned into a study of computer vision.   It was also interesting to see that Ken Perlin, my advisor when I was working on my Master's degree, was the grad student of David Lowe, who invented SIFT. His advisor Thomas Binford built the ACRONYM system, which did the same kinds of things I tried to do in my dissertation, except way back in the 1970s! Of course before that there was no such thing as computer vision; his dissertation was also in physics.
Originally (beginning in the Middle Ages), a Doctorate meant that you had performed scholarship in libraries, rather than creating something new. It wasn't until the 19th century German universities added a requirement for original research in a dissertation that the degree of Doctor of Philosophy became what we know today.

(To read the names on a larger version, right click on the image and choose "Open Link in New Tab.")