Thursday, September 1, 2016

rare events

(in reply to this blog post)

According to this chart we should  expect a 9/11 every 50 years, a mega-9/11 (where 30,000 people die in a terrorist attack) once every 500 years, a mega-mega-9/11 (where 300,000 people die in a terrorist attack) once every 5000 years, and so on. (Watch out for that terrorist asteroid in 6567, it's a doozy!)
The interesting thing about this from a mathematical perspective is that there is no "average number of deaths from a terrorist per year." If you average over a short period of time, you get a small number of deaths per year; over a longer time you get a larger number per year, and this continues without limit, because the rare mega-mega-mega-event dominates the entire time interval. If you've ever heard of the "length of the coastline" problem, this is a similar issue-- the length of a coastline depends on the length of your ruler.
This also means that, in the long run, there is no price high enough to insure against this kind of disaster. No matter how much the insurance company charges, eventually there will be a big enough disaster to make the company unable to pay out. Tropical rainfall and earthquakes have shown a similar fit.
This is also the root of the trouble in the St. Petersburg paradox.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Bookstores

My first crush on a bookstore was the Scholastic catalog. It was four pages of advertisements, passed out at school, and I would be allowed to buy one book from the catalog. I would read the whole thing through several times, to find the very best choice. I was five, and I bought a book called Tubby and the Lantern by Al Perkins. In it, a small elephant and his Chinese friend build a flying hot-air powered paper lantern and fly on it into the night. I often dreamed of flying, and loved the idea of making something of paper and light that you could ride into the sky. Scholastic came to the school, too, with book fairs. I bought a choose-your-own-adventure book from the fair, called Supercomputer. On the cover was a golden robot, with four legs and tank treads, and whose head was a monitor with an astronaut helmet around it. I loved the idea of a machine that was somehow, also, a person, and I couldn't get enough stories about friendly robots. But the book had some horror to it as well. In one of the endings, the androgynous main character ("you") agrees to have a computer implanted in the skull to enhance intelligence. It works. But looking in the mirror, the character realizes that for the rest of his (or her, or your) life, there will be a metallic object like an upside down ice cream cone protruding from his head.

I loved Waldenbooks. (Besides the toystore, I couldn't figure out what point there was to the rest of the mall.) But there were so many new thoughts, new images, new lives to be lived in the bookstore. I bought The Dragonbone Chair from a Waldenbooks. The cover image of a peasant boy desperately trying to rescue his tiny eskimo friend who has been shot with an arrow, while escaping through the ruins of an elven city of malachite and jade was something I wasn't able to pass up. I rarely had much money, just from birthdays or special chores, usually, but the only thing that I felt like was a fair value for the money was stories.

When I was in Japan, I liked to visit bookstores I happened to ride past on my bike, although I had been forbidden to do it by my mission president. The books were mostly unreadable (I only learned to speak Japanese, not read it) but they were all the more fascinating for that. I gravitated towards books for children, and books of origami, where the pictures carried more of the weight.
When I got back to the U.S. there was Borders. The idea that there was a bookstore where they put padded chairs in the store so you could just go and read, without even buying the book-- it seemed like an economic impossibility, a perpetual motion machine of inexhaustible entertainments. I don't think I ever bought anything to eat or drink there-- the cost of a muffin was comparable to the cost of a paperback-- but I loved the scale of the place, almost a library.

At college they had the BYU bookstore, a sprawling place that I could walk through twice a day, going to and from classes. It had an odd section called LDS Fiction, which was basically fanfiction of  all the other genres, from romance to science fiction to horror. If I made it down to center street, and the owner happened to be around that day, I could go to Brigham Book and Copy. I bought a battered copy of Seventh Son to get signed by the author. He told me he could tell it had been well-loved. I didn't correct him, because although his belief was unjustified, it was still true.

In Manhattan, there was the Strand, of course, three stories of used books, many carefully selected. Every time I asked someone for help, they were so kind to me I felt like I was being flirted with. There was a little alternative bookstore near NYU, full of pictures of tattooed backs and rainbow eyed girls, where I bought a copy of The Diamond Age to better discuss interactive fiction with the inventors of that field.

When I lived in Dayton I visited a lot of bookstores, but my favorite was Half-Price Books. They were mostly new books, but discounted from overstock.  I was lonely in Dayton, living in a dingy apartment by myself, and spent many hours in the stores, just browsing, occasionally buying something here or there. I bought an enormous book of Leonardo Da Vinci's drawings.

Once when I was visiting Arizona, I found a bookstore with an enormous shelf full of old roleplaying games. I visited many bookstores in Paris, London, and Germany, but my favorite was a tiny one-room store in a stone hut on the hill of Tara in Ireland. I bought a book of fables there from the early 1700s.

Here in Frederick my bookstore is Wonder Book and Video. They have a collection of antique childrens' books that I often browse, and loose pages from books of 19th century prints that have fallen apart. If you get on their mailing list, once or twice a year you can get everything for half their already low used prices. It's a place you can get lost in for hours.

Monday, May 2, 2016

All Spielberg Movies

I realized a few months ago that I had seen nearly every movie Steven Spielberg has made, and enjoyed most of them. I have since sought out the few I had missed. So here is my review of every Spielberg movie but four, roughly from my favorite to least favorite.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
 It has the best adventure scenes of any movie-- it basically defined the genre for my generation. And of course the theme is fantastic. You can see where he got this stuff in books like Allan Quartermain, but like Star Wars, it transcended the source material. I made a fan film of it, I wrote fan fiction of it before that was even a word. If you've never considered it, ask yourself-- why does this movie work so well even though the ending is literally a Deus ex Machina?

2. Empire of the Sun
This was one of his most powerful. I enjoyed it on every level, the imagery, the music, the story, the themes. It doesn't say things that are simple or only on the surface. Plus it's about being a foreigner in Japan.

3. E.T.
When I watched this in the theater, everyone got out of their seats and cheered when the bicycles took flight. I've never seen people react so emotionally to a movie. The way Eliot's family lived felt real to me, in a way that very few movies do. There house was a mess, they played with Star Wars figures and D&D. E.T. was an ugly little troll of an alien, not an idealized elf (looking at you, Cameron). It's a really sentimental movie, but I feel like it earns it.

4. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The interactions between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in this movie are classic. I loved the climax, especially, where Indy's faith is tested. (In my head this movie is all tied up with the video game version of it I played so many times.) There are no better chase scenes than in this movie.

5.Schindler's List
Terribly sad, with an amazing violin score. It's at the same time filled with horror and hope, an impossible trick to pull off.

6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
This is about revelation-- how it can be a terrible, life-destroying thing, to be awakened to the truth and unable to communicate that to those you love,  leading to personal tragedy, while at the same time leading to a larger reality filled with beauty and awe. I can't think of another movie that better captures the emotion of awe. It's also a really solid first contact story.

7. Jurassic Park
This is just a horror movie in plot-- basically the monsters escape and kill everyone but the ones we most want to survive-- but it was probably the first movie that showed that computer graphics would someday be able to do anything you can imagine. It also, again, is really terrific hard-SF. So many movies play with SF ideas but don't bother trying to get them right in the way that real fans of the genre need to feel satisfied. A couple of nitpicks, from someone who is really into dinosaurs: by 1990, we knew that raptors were covered in feathers. I read it in an interview with Robert Bakker in 1987.  And it's not Jurassic so much as it is Cretaceous. (Or you could just call it Mesozoic and cover all your bases.) But I still believe the running T-Rex is more plausible than more conservative reconstructions.

8. War of the Worlds
I don't know anyone who likes this as well as I do. It's the best alien invasion movie ever filmed. It builds up tension in all the right ways, it captures the alienness of aliens in a way that only Giger has managed as well. It's true to H.G. Wells (except the weirdness of coming up from underground) in the things that mattered, and the acting and relationships felt real. The action is non-stop once it starts, as exciting as Mad Max. Having the older son survive was kind of a cop-out, but whatever. I say it's underrated.

9. A.I.
This was strange and painful to watch. It asks some big questions about what it means to have worth, to be alive, to love. It creates a science fiction world that is unique. On the downside, it is also terribly violent. It is weirdly paced, and puts together a lot of things that shouldn't go together.

10. Saving Private Ryan
The opening scene of the invasion at Normandy was amazing (though terribly violent), capturing what war must really be like in a way that I've never seen in another movie. The rest is a watchable war movie, but not really special. Tom Hanks was enjoyable.

11. Jaws
I have heard that this was the first summer blockbuster. It was a good scary movie, skilled at building tension, but it would have been helped by modern CG. The two-note shark theme is unforgettable. As an action film it kind of drags, though.

12. Lincoln
I thoroughly enjoyed the portrayal of Lincoln himself. It made me realize that pork-barrel politics isn't all bad-- it allows wheels to turn in politics that would otherwise be immovable.

13. Catch Me if You Can
A kind of horror film about how lax security protocols were in the 1960s. It's amazing the whole country didn't get blown up. DiCaprio does a good job.

14. Amistad
When a movie is preachy, it should preach about something you are still on the fence on. Since I don't think slavery is good even in the slightest, I don't need so much of the movie telling me how slavery was bad. I'm being too harsh. I liked it, but it didn't move me to tears the way Schindler's List did.

15. The Terminal
The movie is about learning to make a joyful life for yourself wherever you get stuck, but I have to think that his choice not to just go home wasn't the right one. Having slept overnight in an airport, more than once, there are few places I would rather live. They actively do things to make it harder on you. I liked "cheesecake."

16. Munich
A tense thriller that also explores what happens afterwards to those who do violence for their country.

17. Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull
Yeah, yeah, refrigerators and aliens are cheesy, I agree. But I like the chase scenes, and him getting together with Marion. It's a solid plot, and Ford can still play Indiana Jones. I still say it's way better than the second one.

18. Minority Report
While this is SF, it's not hard SF-- it plays with the appearance of SF, but does things which are impossible with it, which makes me care about it less. It is often weird for its own sake. Philip K Dick isn't my favorite SF author. For years afterwards, my work with unusual hand-driven interfaces was experienced by the people we presented it to as out of this movie.

19. War Horse
This was an odd one because the main character-- the horse-- is basically a cipher, being just an animal, after all. The ending is sentimental to the point of absurdity. But overall the movie is enjoyable. It has Benedict Cumberbatch.

20. Hook
While it had a few moments-- Dustin Hoffman's Hook and Julia Roberts' Tinkerbell were all right-- the movie wasn't as good as a lot of kids from that time seem to think. Like the food fight scene: why not use real food, instead of pink and blue stuff? And you can't just pick the fat, unpopular kid to be the leader when you're not going to be there to supervise and expect it to work, long term. Haven't you read Lord of the Flies? I liked the sets.

21. The Adventures of Tintin
My son really liked this one, but I guess its a movie only kids can enjoy. It suffers from uncanny valley effects.

22. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
 Nearly everything I liked about the character was missing from this story, with the biblical element replaced with a generic cannibal cult leader. I found both the woman and the kid sidekick annoying.

23. Twilight Zone
The individual episodes this was based on were somehow better, in their cheap black and white TV way, than this was.

24. Duel
Weird 1970s suspense film about a man on a long car trip being chased by a truck. I couldn't get into it. What was it about cars and the 1970s? So many shows were based around them in that decade. Smoky and the Bandit, Mad Max, The Dukes of Hazard, Speed Racer, Herbie, American Graffiti, Cannonball Run... that's just off the top of my head.

I didn't finish watching these, so it doesn't feel fair to review them:
Always
The Color Purple
1941
The Sugarland Express

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

my TRON headcanon


It's easy to forget that TRON was set in the future. Bridges' character Flynn had been a great video game programmer, but the tank game depicted is technically advanced far beyond the state of the art at the time. It was the year Q-Bert, Dig Dug, and Pole Position were released. TRON came out two years before William Gibson's Neuromancer. It's not about virtual reality at all. Instead its an imaginative take on what is happening within the computer itself. I asked myself what would have to be true about the kind of computer they were using for the actions in the movie to make any sense? What I've written here is a kind of outline of an imagined background in which the movie TRON takes place, with a little on the end about part of TRON: Legacy.

(all imagery is art found on the web.)


In 1962, building on the pioneering work of Claude Shannon, Dr. Walter Gibbs discovered a deep connection between information theory and the physics of spacetime manifolds. The theory predicted that large quantum informational structures (LQIS) could be cloned and represented isomorphically as patterns in an electromagnetic field on a metamaterial crystal substrate suspended at near absolute zero in a vacuum chamber. He discovered, quite by accident, that the waking human nervous system generated such a LQIS. These cloned mental states were capable of harnessing enormous computational resources inherent in the quantum crystal structure. Gibbs recognized that the cloned states could be considered a kind of immensely complicated software running on a computer that was essentially spacetime itself. He called the cloned states "programs," though in reality the process of programming them did not involve writing code in a programming language at all, but scanning the nervous system quickly with an infrared laser.



For the next decade, he tried various methods of interacting with these "programs." In 1972, combining microscopic lasers and a program he created called DUMONT, he was able to reliably input and output to any program within the crystal (which Gibbs called "grids" due to their periodic structure). One of his first demonstrations was a chess program based on his own states of mind while playing chess, and he founded a company called ENCOM to commercialize his products. Because of the difficulty in creating and maintaining grids, all ENCOM systems performed small, local computations on standard computers, but communicated remotely with the grids to perform more complex operations which could only be carried out by programs on the grids. (The grids interfaced with these distant computers through lasers like DUMONT.)



The programs existed in the grids in a quasi-spatial arrangement, though at a timescale much faster than reality. The lasers, however, were at fixed locations in the grid, so programs needing to interface with the outside world needed to be shuttled to the lasers and take turns communicating.


Gibbs seems to have never fully considered what the nature of these programs meant in terms of intellectual capacity. The chess program he had developed was capable of forming its own subgoals and strategic thinking, and began to accumulate resources on its own, increasing in computational capacity and changing in many ways from the original program state. Among the discoveries the chess program made was a way of eliminating other programs from the grid by forcing them to be stored at lower and lower resolutions recursively. Gibbs was unaware of much of this as it was not communicated through the lasers but kept secret.


Eventually an ENCOM employee, a programmer named Ed Dillinger, created a military program called SARK. SARK was capable of sending radio signals directly, bypassing DUMONT. The chess program recognized that SARK could be useful towards its goals of strategic takeover, and made contact with Dillenger through SARK. It proposed a plan to move against the current management and seize the most profitable programs, bringing Dillenger to power. In return, Dillenger would create programs that would allow the chess program to control all the programs on the grid. In the process the chess program became MCP, the Master Control Program.


However, being a game program gave the MCP an unusual take on the world. Defeat that wasn't conditioned on preset rules known by both parties in advance made it feel unsatisfied and (though it wouldn't have used the term) guilty. It was able to work around this feeling in an efficient way by putting the programs it wished to erase into games they were completely unqualified for where its agents (especially SARK) could defeat them easily.


Meanwhile. Gibbs had begun experimenting with extending the theory of LQIS using much more powerful lasers. (That he was more interested in this than exploring the ramifications of his already astonishing results gives some insight into Gibbs' character.) Any object with sufficient information density (essentially, parts of any living thing, such as leather, an orange, or a live creature) could not just be cloned, but treated as information directly and be transferred from the substrate of reality to that of the grid through a non-destructive scanning process he called "digitization" by analogy with scanning a book. He was inspired by the "it from bit" philosophy developed by John Wheeler. This is the point at which the movie TRON starts. Dillenger has seized control and taken over the game programs, but this is simply to build resources in the fastest, simplest way. The MCP's ultimate goals were much more wide-ranging and nefarious.



In the meantime, in other grids of the crystal, nearly disconnected from the ones being used by the programs, a kind of evolutionary algorithms were developing an entire digital ecology. Natural programs similar to computer viruses gave rise to more and more complex and intelligent entities. The quasispatial arrangement and physics imposed to make the cloned programs behave in natural ways led these to develop into a kind of digital animal life, eventually giving rise to what would be called ISOs. These ISOs would, much later, use human forms as a kind of spacesuit to travel to and interact with the very alien grids populated by cloned programs.



Thursday, October 8, 2015

Eight versions of Arthurian legends I've seen


Sword in the Stone (1963)
Based on the first book of T.H.White's tetralogy, which was the best version of King Arthur in the twentieth century, in my opinion. Everything good in this version comes from the source material.


Camelot (1967)
Based on later parts of the same book! My favorite moments are when Lancelot brings back to life the knight he has accidentally killed, and when Arthur lays dying and says “Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” That brings tears to my eyes.


Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
A hilarious if really uneven spoof. More quotable lines than any other movie. Probably too quoted. The truth is, in some ways this is closer to Mallory than most versions, in the way it seems to wander all over the place fighting and not going anywhere with the plot.


Excalibur (1981)
Fantasy movies in the 1980s were really hard to do right. The desire was there but without CG, it was really difficult to do believable magic. This is probably the truest to Mallory, and its devotion to mythology makes it seem strange. I like the super-heavy jousting plate they all wear all the time, though of course it's historically far too late.


First Knight (1995)
I adore the scenery, acting, and costumes in this version. I could watch Sean Connery, Julia Ormond, and Richard Gere all day. The plot is totally ruined and the characters are all wrong as they try to make it more Hollywood, though.



Merlin (1998 miniseries)
What a mess. The depiction of the villains was so badly done I still get the shivers thinking about it. Acting all in front of green screens, and changing the ending to make it happy. It had a few moments but was overall a failure.



King Arthur (2004)
This was an attempt to dramatize a plausible historical interpretation of Arthur as a post-Roman warlord struggling to keep civilization alive. It features Keira Knightly as a warrior Celt version of Guinevere. Good riding into battle scenes. Christians in the film are horrible people, just because Hollywood.



Merlin (BBC One)
I might have liked this better when I was younger, but I just don't like TV that much, so I only watched a few episodes. It's too modern in attitude. It seemed kind of like a Jocks vs Geeks high school series set in the middle ages. But I might not have given it enough credit.

Eight versions of Robin Hood I've seen

These are listed in temporal order.


Robin Hood (1938) Stars Errol Flynn. The climactic swordfight scene stands out as very exciting and well choreographed.


Robin Hood (Disney animated): This movie was made on the cheap, and it shows. For some reason Baloo and Hiss from The Jungle Book are just dressed up for this. For the sake of humor, they used some very American comic actors mixed with others doing straight British accents, which just comes across as weird. If you speed up the oodalolly song it turns into the hamster dance song. There are some interesting connections to the French sequence of tales about Reynard the Fox.


Robin and Marian (1976): Sean Connery and Aubrey Hepburn at the end of Robin's life. It's slow and moody, but the acting is really well done, and it doesn't just replay the same old material. It's a movie about love and getting old. Neil Gaiman references it in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?


Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: The visuals (sets, costumes, cinematography) and soundtrack are probably the best of any version, if you don't care about accuracy to the time period. The acting is terrible. It adds in a witch and an attempted rape for no good reason.


Robin Hood (1991): Completely overshadowed by Prince of Thieves, this made-for-TV version is one of my favorites. It's more historically accurate, for one thing. It stars Uma Thurman as Marian, features longbows, and ends with peace with the Saxons, which is historically the way Britain went. There's no Sheriff or Prince John. Let me know if you find a blu-ray version.


Robin Hood: Men in Tights: Like all Mel Brooks movies, unbelievably stupid. "Ay, Blinken! Did you just say Abe Lincoln?"


Robin Hood (BBC One series): pretty forgettable, but if you want a British miniseries about Robin Hood, this one is decent. The characters seem like modern people.


Robin Hood (2010): Russel Crowe is the main selling point for this movie. It's actually a Robin Hood prequel, though it isn't advertised that way, which makes it feel badly paced.