Thursday, April 26, 2012

TX-RX Episode 4: Jason Reid and Adam Brown

I am pleased to bring you the latest episode of the Transmit-Receive podcast featuring documentary filmmakers Jason Reid and Adam Brown, the creative minds behind Sonicsgate, the Webby Award-winning documentary chronicling the controversial sale of Seattle's NBA franchise. Also, we discuss filmmaking in the age of "free," net neutrality, advocacy and future film projects on their radar. Download the mp3 here.

But wait, you can watch the feature length documentary, Sonicsgate, right now:

Also, watch the trailer for their forthcoming piece, The Kicker.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Old Digital

An ingenious solution of the problem of obsolete digital technology:

Because of the fragility of magnetic media, data on floppy disks will eventually degrade, obviating new solutions for the archival of floppy-based data. This clever solution has a charming, Rube Goldberg-esque quality to it that I can't help but admire. However, children born in the new millennium will see the floppy disk as quaint or arcane as a horse-drawn carriage or a black-and-white tube television. They will wonder how we could ever stand such an obviously flawed, inferior technology.

I remember when the selling point for a 3.5" floppy disk is that it could fit in your shirt pocket. What's next: shirts without pockets?!?!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Hard Copy Comfort

The Encyclopedia Britannica announced last week that it will no longer be publishing a print version of their huge multi-volume encyclopedia. Their blog posted an attempt to sooth and comfort ("Change: It's Okay. Really.") those who see this as yet another omen of the imminent post-print era.

This news bookends well (no pun intended) with the discussion that my latest guest on the podcast, Katelyn Hackett, and I followed to a brief, yet unfinished, conclusion. We agreed that there remains some value to physical experience of a book, but the convenience of the technically superior eBook has a place as well.

Certainly, replacing a complete set of the Brittanica with an electronic version would save shelf space on the order of a parallel parked Winnebago, and perhaps even save you money. Their site is offering a week of a free tour of Brittanica Online, with the cost of an annual digital subscription at 70 bucks. That would save you a bundle, given that a set of the print Encyclopedia's sticker price was somewhere between $500 to $1,000 dollars. But the real question, for me at least, is whether or not a subscription to a digital Brittanica is simpley worth that much, given the much larger, more dynamic (not to mention free) Encyclopedia: Wikipedia?

The denizens of the Old Guard will make a lot of sound and fury about the defending the stalwart objectivity of the Encyclopedias written by a cabal of dedicated, well-schooled experts against a heterogeneous mob of basement-dwelling, high school dropout sectarians with a grudge and an internet connection. But, of course, it can't be that simple. Over time Wikipedia has, through the process of time and erosion, molded millions of entries on so many subjects that they could never fit in a 30 volume set. While the information within will never make for iron-clad footnotes in a graduate school dissertation, it does offer the casual knowledge-seeker a brief jolt of information (and paths to dig deeper, if they so wish). Also, there's something to be said for the temporal fix of a printed volume. Things happen, and Wikipedia can change, but your 2002 version of the Encyclopedia won't.

In addition to how the form factors work in favor of an online presence, each page on Wikipedia allows you to browse the "Discussion page" behind every entry; displaying the sometimes mundane/sometimes illuminating arguments between the page contributors and site editors about the objectivity of the information contained. From my desk, access to this (as well as the ability to join in) is invaluable. Unfortunately, with Brittanica, we never got the opportunity to sit in on their editors' meetings and take notes.

In addition to the inherent deficit of information about what Brittanica's editors chose to leave out, the very format in which each article is written influences the quality of the information within. To put it simply, you can only fit so many words in an entry. Linguist and media critic Noam Chomsky illustrates this problem of 'concision' has on knowledge:

As "gatekeepers" of knowledge, editors routinely must balance the intractable problem of what to leave in, and what to leave on the floor. Perhaps, now that Brittanica has moved online (and must now compete with the larger, more agile Wikipedia) we hungry consumers of information may benefit from this competition, and each of us can take to our role as a gatekeeper, furthering the project of the democratization of information. As someone who grew up in a world bridging the analog and digital eras, part of me mourns the death of a titan of the Old World. But, to the benefit of our civilization, the internet is no Library of Alexandria... and it can't be burnt and left a pool of ash.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Episode 3: Katelyn Hackett

It's long overdue, but I present the next podcast episode of Transmit-Receive, wherein I speak with local blogger Katelyn Hackett. A Western Washington native and daughter of two Presbyterian ministers, Katelyn has been written on topics of Seattle's burgeoning hip-hop scene, the delights of cooking as well as other Seattle-themed potpourri for, Seattle Sound magazine (now City Arts) and We touch on these topics, as well as the encroachment of information technology in our daily lives, the fate of "hard-copy" books and the problem of copyright and income for professional artists.

In the interview, I mention this TED Talk by Gabe Zichermann as well as this AMA session with Sam Harris.

Also, follow Katelyn's twitter stream here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Motivational Speaker

After a prolonged hiatus (Hawaii vacation intervened), I need some motivation to get back up on the horse, provided by none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson. When asked on a Reddit AMA, "What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?"

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation.

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.

Episode #3 Incoming...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Ziggurat and the Future of Big Ideas

In chatting with a friend about the implications of the waning of science in America (if you haven't, listen to my interview with Research Scientist Dr. Alan Glasser for more context), I happened upon a talk by native Washingtonian and prominent science fiction author Neal Stephenson. The title for his brief lecture is "getting big stuff done," a focus that fits squarely within the bounds of the discussion in podcast #2. Get comfortable and watch the author of 'Cryptonomicon' discuss the future:

Stephenson makes the case reiterated so often among today's cultural and scientific elites: we aren't focused on making manifest the promises of the future (at least the kind of utopian, high-concept future of the olden days). Stephenson lays part of the blame on IT as a siphon for America's capacity to innovate (a vortex to which Yours Truly fell prey) as well as those in the culture responsible for dreaming up the next great thing.

But, America's great popularizer of science Neil deGrasse Tyson, summarizes it so much more eloquently here:

I'm unsure if Stephenson's dream of the 20 kilometer tall building, truly a Ziggurat, is interesting, and it's one grounded in pragmatism. I'll resist the obligatory literary comparison between Stephenson's building and the Tower of Babel; I am skeptical of the moral conclusions divined from mythologies written by anonymous, bronze-age barbarians. But I digress, we have the technology.... But, both Stephenson and Tyson aren't just kicking the can down the road to the next generation of kids with agile, unbroken spirits; they are trying to lay down the cobblestones to help them find the future. This author does believe they are correct when asserting that building a dream, albeit a fictional one, is the likely first step.

As a film school graduate (and ardent SciFi fan), I am saddened that my young nephews' exposure to science fiction has been reduced to Michael Bay's infinitely-stupifying forays in the banal spectacle and George Lucas' uninspired retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth (with light sabers). Hollywood cares little for stories with new ideas, and even less for subversive or un-focus-grouped tangents. If we rest the responsibility for dream-making entirely in the hands of Hollywood, those dreams will likely be as hollow and forgettable as any creative work made exclusively for profit and by a committee well-fed plutocrats.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Presidential Hopeful Mitt Romney-R(eplicant)

The prospect of Mitt Romney as President of the United States of America makes me uncomfortable. It isn't just my aversion to Republicans (with their dogmatic, bigoted and nihilistic political philosophy), or even Romney being the current frontrunner in the primary (and hence a real possibility of being our next POTUS). Also, it is not just because of how he chooses to earn his money (by buying small companies, drowning them in debt, driving them into the ground while "flipping" them for profit), or as the lowest form of political hypocrite (passing a health care mandate in Massachusetts but campaigning in opposition to Obamacare), or even his conspicuous Mormonism (a complicated, but troubling American religion replete with secrecy, factionalization and a growing political appetite). He has another nagging problem, pundits are calling it the "enthusiasm gap." Now this phrase was originally coined to describe our apathetic electorate and the epidemic of low voter turnout. In Romney's case it has been appropriated to reflect the more anecdotal, qualitative issues that the mainstream press is broadcasting about his apparent lack of likability.

It is his cold, unemotional, even robotic character that allegedly troubles Romney's campaign. New York Magazine's profile of Romney last year brilliantly lays it out:

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he has adopted a public persona that contains no detectable motives at all, one that is buried in objectivity, in data, in process.

Of course, it has been a growing trend for presidential candidates to appear to hold no opinion too strongly or answer a question too directly. The highly calculating, finely honed nature of American electoral theater all but requires a candidate to appear devoid enough of substance to allow the voters superimpose their own desires on the candidate. If you want to be likeable, be vague. Take the case of Barack Obama.

Romney evidently plays this game very well and for the Republicans, who largely see the President's role as CEO-in-Chief rather than a legislative coxswain, his handlers and financial backers are probably very happy about his performance so far. But Romney hasn't won yet, a fact that candidate #2, Newt Gingrich, is banking on. But there is still the vulnerability of Romney's stiff persona.

The Atlantic's Brian Fung wrote recently in an article that suggests another way in which to view this dilemma: Romney as Creepy Robot. He states that Romney exhibits an "uncanny valley" quality that confuses and unnerves us. This is the relatively new idea that as we make more realistic automatons (human-like robots), the more creepy they get.

Watch the Japanese dental assistant training robot for a shining example:

Fung puts it succinctly:

Romney's problem is that he occupies a kind of uncanny valley for politicians. Just as people who interact with lifelike robots often develop a strange feeling due to something they can't quite name, something about Romney leaves voters unsettled.

You could write off this "enthusiasm gap" or Romney's weirdness as being a combination of his stilted demeanor mixed with the alien-like nature of his purported religion, or more simply that as an extremely wealthy citizen (certainly a member of the "one-percent") Romney lives in a separate social sphere then the rest of us. The true cause for the weirdness may never be solved by this kind of speculation. But this metaphorical play about humanness and automatons compels me to revisit one the great films of the 20th Century(in my opinion, anyway): Blade Runner.

In Ridley Scott's dystopian science fiction opus, the human-like robot antagonists are called "replicants," designed to mimic us in every way, except for their truncated three-year life spans and their lack of emotion. Here we run headlong into uncanny valley and the tragic cliche of the soulless, unfeeling robot. But, in this world the newest replicant models come out, the "Nexus Six," and they begin to grow their own emotions. The films action centers around a "blade runner" named Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), who is essentially a detective that hunts down and retires (read: kills) escaped replicants. Besides a powerful gun, the blade runner relies on a Voight-Kampff machine to interrogate a suspected replicant and from the lack of true emotional response, catch them.

At its core, this is an action film, so we get our expected dosage of running, brawling and shooting. But the film's lasting contribution to discourse is, I argue, its meditation on a key question: what would life mean if we could not tell the difference between real and artificial life?

The replicants are used as slave labor in the "off-world colonies," in outer space somewhere, and their function is that of a disposable work force built to do the dangerous or difficult tasks humans no longer want to do. Deckard learns that a group of escaped replicants violently overthrow their masters and return to Earth seeking... well that's what the audience wants to know. For those who have not yet seen the film, the below video is a bit of spoiler (you may wish to skip it):

We witness the violence and apathy toward human life, as the replicants kill their way to their goal. Deckard's necessity is predicated on the notion that in this world the replicants are dangerous and must be stopped at all costs. But, we slowly grow to understand that while there may be a horrifying and sadistic decadence in the way the replicants exercise their violence, that they are designed to be killers. Also, the life into which they are born, slavery, affords them only two real avenues in their short lives: to obey or to kill. We also find that they fall in love, keep photographs of one another and possess a desire to experience beauty and pleasure, and even to search for meaning.

As Deckard faces the prospect of his own death at the climax of the film, his nemesis Roy Batty, saves him with an act of pure compassion. And hence, the film creates a role reversal: which one is the real killer?

Mitt Romney, and his well-paid cadre of campaign strategists, may well be crafting a narrative for him as the good replicant who will catch us as we fall. We are certainly sung the songs of a messianic savior with all of the republican candidates, but Romney seems to have the most to prove in regards to his humanity. In November, without fail, these primary days will be lost, like tears in the rain.