Thursday, February 28, 2008

I, Spotbot

I read two robot-related news stories on Reuters this morning, and I’m not sure which is more disturbing.
  • Story onescary robots. Robotics/AI expert Noel Sharkey, among others, has warned that GPS-guided robots are already cheap and easy to build, and it’s just a matter of time before terrorists use them to launch remote attacks. The robot tech is out there, easy to get and easy to copy. Toy plane + GPS device + grenade = …You get the [ugly] picture.
  • Story twocute robots. A study released this month says that elderly in nursing homes were equally comforted by a trained therapy dog and a robotic dog. That’s right. "They worked almost equally well in terms of alleviating loneliness and causing residents to form attachments.”
OK, I have a question: Why did they do that experiment?

Are they looking into cost-cutting? Saving on kibble? Who was sitting around one day and suddenly thought, Hey, I wonder if those old folks would be just as happy with a robot dog? I realize the story addresses those questions, sort of, but still...

What solution would the heuristics of Electronic Jesus yield?

One of my favorite Douglas Adams creations is the Electric Monk, introduced in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Just like other labor-saving devices that took over tedious tasks for us, “Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.”

Will aging robots be just as happy with live dogs?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Lunch in the Zone

I hate to advertise for big media, but I can't help it this time. I must tell my geek friends: The CBS Web site is streaming, for free, all of the original Star Trek, two seasons of The Twilight Zone, MacGyver, and a few other old shows. There are a couple ads during each show, but they're short (like 15 seconds). The videos play in a 640 x 480 Flash window - pretty much what you get on a DVD. It'd be nice to play them full screen, but I can't; maybe a full version of Flash would do it.

Boy, this is really gonna help me get work done during the day!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

That Aborigine Guy

I am absent-minded. Abstracted, distracted, and altogether harebrained. Here’s an example from this morning (I never have to look far for an example). I was leaving the grocery store when my cell phone rang. It was my daughter asking when I would pick her up from her friend’s house. “I’m on my way,” I said, “I’ll be there in two minutes, so be ready.” Five minutes later, after I pulled into my own driveway and shut off the car, I realized that I forgot my daughter. I had driven right by the friend’s house, which is a half-mile from the store. This is my life.

This morning, though, I had a good excuse. I was thinking about Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, which my wife and I watched last night. The movie was released in 1977. It’s about a lawyer defending a group of Aborigines in a murder trial. But this is not "Law & Order Down Under." The trial is almost peripheral. The lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain, is having bad dreams. Apocalyptic dreams. And maybe prophetic dreams. The movie is spooky. It's not a horror movie; there’s no blood, and no overt violence, just some violent weather. It is haunting, though, and thoughtful. Watch it and see if you don’t forget a few things the next day.

The main Aborigine character is played by David Gulpilil, better know as That Aborigine Guy. He has a great presence, which has only gotten better with age. He’s been in Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Tracker, and other movies and TV shows.

Peter Weir is not the most prolific director. Since The Last Wave, he’s written and directed ten movies. I’ve seen at least seven of them, and they’re all good (Mosquito Coast, Dead Poet's Society, and The Truman Show to name three). I was quite excited when I read a while back that he was attached as the director of an upcoming production of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, my favorite Gibson novel. Weir directing Pattern Recognition is a fantasy combo. Unfortunately, it might only be fantasy. I’ve since read conflicting reports as to whether Weir is still on the project. Here’s hoping!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cap’n Bridger in Davey Jones’ Locker

Roy “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” Scheider died last week of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, according to what I’ve read. He was 75. He was best known for his role in Jaws, but in my indexed-to-sci-fi life, he was Captain Bridger of seaQuest DSV (1993-96). You know, I just noticed how that title prefigured words-squished-together-with-mixed-caps which is so common now.

SeaQuest was sort of a Star Trek of the Sea. After all, the ocean is the final frontier here on Earth, and there is still a lot we don’t know about it. I have often thought that some day, when I have enough disposable income, I’ll take up diving, largely because it’s the closest I’m likely to come to the mysterious unknown of outer space. Anyway, seaQuest had a really solid first season. It was interesting and sciencey, but it got whacky in the second season and was cancelled after the third.

Scheider was a good actor, and could play the commanding yet and likable character with ease, it seemed. It makes you wonder why he wasn’t a bigger star, but he ended up more of a character actor in the end. Most of the main actors on seaQuest have maintained solid TV careers, including the entertaining Ted Raimi (brother of Sam, Joxer on Xena, Hoffman on the Spiderman movies). Teen-aged heartthrob Jonathon Brandis, who played the smart kid role, hung himself in 2005.

Rest in peace, Roy.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Jumper Goes Splat

Despite Hayden Christensen, I was going to take a risk and see Jumper tonight, because I like big-budget sci-fi and I like Sammy Jackson. But then I read Ebert’s review. And then checked Rotten Tomatoes. Ugh. It’s not easy to get 15% on Rotten Tomatoes – a movie has to suck and blow at the same time to get less than thirty or forty percent. For pete's sake, any big studio film can count on at least ten percent from what Ebert calls “quote whores” – reviewers who praise films so studios can use their quotes for promotion. Here’s an example from a positive “review” of Jumper: …some of the most jaw-dropping stunts shot in some of the most amazing locations on earth. See? Whore.

I am nonplussed by Hayden Christensen’s success. With all the young actors struggling for roles in cutthroat Hollywood, how is it that he got in? I’m not trying to be funny here – I just don’t get it. If he were cast in a David Mamet film, and instructed to deliver his lines with no expression or emotion, he would still really suck, which means can’t even not act well. He made me cringe in Star Wars. Who keeps giving him parts, and why?

OK - enough griping! On a more positive note, I’d like to mention the great "jumper" story of sci-fi: The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester (1956). Like the Jumper characters, Charles Fort Jaunte discovers his talent accidentally. Trapped in a deadly laboratory fire, he suddenly finds himself 20 feet away from the blaze, next to the fire extinguisher. He and others develop this newfound skill, and pretty soon just about everyone learns to “jaunte” to any place on earth, provided they’ve been there once and can picture the place. The main protagonist of Stars is Gully Foyle, who is just a fantastic character. This is one of my favorite sci-fi books ever. It’s easily on my top-ten list, and is generally considered to be one of the best sci-fi novels. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m going to read it again.

They’ve never made a movie of The Stars My Destination, though I’ve read that there were aborted attempts. In 2006, Universal bought screen rights to the book, but I don’t know if they've moved on it. Gully Foyle is a complex and morally ambiguous character, and if Hollywood makes this book into a movie, I suspect that they’ll dumb it down.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Snow Worms and Robots

Today the wind is furiously whipping the snow around and the temperature should be measured in Kelvin, and my kids (7, 9, and 11) got it in their minds to get in their sleeping bags and crawl around the back yard like giant blue snow worms. This might seem like bizarre behavior on their part, and letting them do so might seem like bizarre behavior on mine. The thing is, besides the fact that they were relatively safe and warm, I really understood the compulsion. [Note to Child Protective Services: They were safe and warm at all times.]

Kids have a heightened sense of that state of mind we call “cozy.” To feel cozy, you must not only be safe and comfortable, but peril, or at least discomfort, must be nearby to provide a contrast. A cabin with a crackling fire is coziest when a howling wind drives cold rain against the window panes. So, I watched them inch and roll around in the squeaky-cold snow, and even glom up the slide ladder and slip down the other side. Too bad there’s not an extra sleeping bag…

The Leslie and Robby Show

Today is Leslie Nielson’s birthday – he’s 82. I first saw him in his hilarious Naked Gun/Airplane roles, as a sophomoric and oblivious nitwit, a part that can be really funny only if the actor has some natural gravitas.

Back near the beginning of his long career, Nielson starred as the (not funny) Commander Adams in Forbidden Planet (1956), a movie that makes almost everyone’s list of top sci-fi movies. This and The Day the Earth Stood Still are 1950’s sci-fi in a nutshell, and both are still entertaining and thought-provoking.

Forbidden Planet also featured the first appearance of Robby the Robot, a sophisticated prop used so often that he (rightfully) has his own actor page on IMDB. After Forbidden Planet, Robby (occupied by various actors) made guest appearances on a couple dozen TV shows, including The Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, Wonder Woman, and even Mork and Mindy.

Robby vs. The Robot from Lost in Space: Danger Will Robinson is right, fool.

Links of Interest


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Nylon strings, leather pants

I saw Sharon Isbin play tonight with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Where do people get off being that talented and that good-looking at the same time? If looks and talent are zero-sum, some of us are getting seriously ripped off here. In addition, she was wearing leather pants.

What does this have to do with sci-fi? Well, for one thing, Darth Vader wore leather pants, too. I wonder if he could play guitar, with the force or otherwise.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Get Your Ape On

Friday (February 8) is the 40th anniversary of the first public screening of Planet of the Apes, in New York City. (The rest of the U.S. saw it on April 3rd.) What better way to celebrate than to get some beer and pretzels and settle in with Charelton Heston and his furry friends? This movie is fantastic. Sure, there are some cheesy 60’s moments, but it really holds up, overall. The music alone is just amazing. Gerry Goldsmith’s percussive, atonal score, replete with monkey barks, was cutting edge at the time, and it’s still dramatic and stirring.
So stick it in your queue, my friends.

For more simian fun, read the original novel by Pierre Boulle. He published Planet of the Apes (La Planète des Singes) in 1963, but he’s better known for writing Bridge on the River Kwai (1966), which was, of course, made into one of the best movies ever.

The book’s ending has a surprising twist or two, but it’s not the same as the famous goddamn-you-all-to-hell-beach-pounding scene of the movie. I won’t say any more about that, because I don’t want to give it away. I will say that this is a quick and interesting read. It’s only about 200 pages, and is told in first person, as the found diary of Ulysse Mérou (George Taylor in the movie). The book is more involved and more cerebral than the movie – it’s an adventure, but it’s also a thought experiment about what it might be like to be in Mérou's position. For instance, in the book, the apes don’t speak English (or French), so the protagonist has to learn their language before he can communicate. To reveal his intelligence, he snatches away Zira’s notebook, but instead of writing “My name is Taylor,” he draws a diagram representing the Pythagorean Theorem.

This book has been reprinted lots. I have the 2000 Cinema Classics edition printed by Gramercy Press – it’s a nice hardcover that can be found for cheap in used book stores and online.

Note: Be sure you don’t pick up the more recent novelization of the 2001 movie. That is not the original story.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Pre-Trek Shatneralia

Here are a couple pre-Trek Shatner movies that you really should see. You don’t need to be a Shatner fan to like these gems – they are both remarkable movies in their own right.

The Intruder, 1963
Shatner plays Adam Cramer, a slick young racist who goes to a southern American town to whip up unrest against mandated desegregation of public schools. Shatner does a disturbingly good job playing a conniving and hateful character. The film was directed by Roger Corman, who has directed and produced literally hundreds of movies and TV shows. Corman is generally know for low-budget, “B” projects, and he’s usually not taken very seriously. The Intruder is serious. Serious enough that many American movie houses to refused to play the movie because the topic was too hot. It did play in Europe and was well-received and won awards. This is not a hammy, sentimental movie – it’s honest and sobering. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be surprised.

Incubus, 1965
Right before Star Trek, Shatner starred in Incubus. This horror movie was a pet project of Leslie Stevens, who wrote episodes of The Outer Limits, Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century, and a lot more. It is apparently the only movie filmed entirely in Esperanto. It is fascinating. It’s worth watching just to see Shatner speaking Esperanto. Just to hear an hour and a half of Esperanto. Just to say you saw a movie in Esperanto starring Shatner. The original film was accidentally destroyed, and the only known copy was found in Paris, in the Cinémathèque Française. Whew! The restored DVD has some interesting interviews and commentary. Weird, spooky, interesting.

Trivia: Incubus is playing on a TV in a scene of Blade: Trinity.

While you’re at it, go for the hat trick and see Judgment at Nuremburg, 1961. It’s a great movie, and Shatner’s good in it, although his part is relatively small.

News Flash: Encyclopedia Shatnerica Update Due Out This Summer

Speaking of Shatneralia, I was thrilled to learn that Robert Schnakenberg’s Encyclopedia Shatnerica is finally being updated. I was searching the title on Amazon to see how many used copes were out there, when I saw that a new edition is due out in June. It’s about time! The first and only edition was published in 1998, and we all know that Bill has not been idle since then. This book is a treat and a must have for Shatner fans.

For those of you who are suspicious types like I am, I wrote to Sir Schnakenberg to confirm that this was indeed an updated edition, not just a reprint. He replied, "It is an updated and revised edition. New text, new photos, all-new design." Outstanding.

Also for geeks: Last year Robert publish a book of Sci-Fi Baby Names. If either of our two sons had been a girls, we would have used the name Miriam, ostensibly because both my wife and I think it's a beautiful name, but secretly I wanted to call her Miri, after the girl in the original Trek episode by the same name.

Links of Interest:

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Flag of Gilead

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is set in a near future where radical right-wing Christians have taken over part of the US and set up their own theocratic state, which they call Gilead. They guard the borders, take rights away from women, and put gays and Jews in work camps. Most people have become infertile, and the Handmaids are fertile women who are used to bear children for elite couples who can't. I don’t remember if the book describes the flag of Gilead, but here’s a good candidate:

This is hanging for real over a Christian bookstore in my town. It has the stripes of the American flag, but the blue field holds only a white fish – the ichthus Christian symbol. I find it a little disturbing.

Sci-fi fans might have missed Atwood’s work of speculative fiction, since her name is not the first that comes to mind when you think of sci-fi authors. It was written in 1985, but it is as pertinent as ever. It’s a good yarn with a lot of interesting ideas.

There is a 1990 movie version of this book, which I have not seen. Despite having some big-name actors like Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, this movie has gotten poor reviews.

IMDB: The Handmaid's Tale

Ebert's Review of the movie

Friday, February 1, 2008


I was haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong, and somehow I was wrong about everything.

This line of Kelvin’s, and Rheya’s lines below, are the crux of the Soderbergh’s 2002 Solaris, starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. The movie is about identity, and makes us think about how well we know those around us. I can do no better than quote Ebert’s review to elaborate this point:

...Kelvin gets back not his dead wife, but a being who incorporates all he knows about his dead wife, and nothing else, and starts over from there. She has no secrets because he did not know her secrets. If she is suicidal, it is because he thought she was. The deep irony here is that all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that, even without the benefit of Solaris. We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them. Even empathy is perhaps of no use; we think it helps us understand how other people feel, but maybe it only tells us how we would feel, if we were them.

And there’s the other side of that coin: that is, are we more who we think we are, or who other people think we are? The individualist in me reacts immediately that I obviously know myself better than other people know me. After all, I’m inside my own head, and no one else is. No one can tell me who I am, dammit.

But, in some cases, how other people see us is how we are. If everyone thinks I’m bald, but I refuse to accept it, I’m still bald. I am, by the way, and I like it.

This is a trivial example of a more profound idea: we need to pay some attention to what other people – especially our loved ones – tell us about ourselves, because they might be right. Maybe you think you are a whimsical joker, but your coworkers think you’re rather bitter and sarcastic. Maybe your dry humor is coming across as dull cynicism. Maybe you like being precise, but your spouse thinks you’re nit-picky. If you want your loved ones and friends to know who you are, check every now and then that what they think of you matches what you think of you.

Tarkovski’s 3-hour, 1972 Solyaris is fantastic, but a little tiring in a Russian-movie kind of way. The original book, by Stanislaw Lem, is a good read, but gets bogged down at times in pseudo-scientific explanations. Don’t get me wrong; I like them all, but Soderbergh’s is my favorite rendering – it seems the distilled essence of the story. The film is absorbing and the soundtrack hypnotic. I have no idea why this movie isn’t generally rated higher. I suspect that many of its viewers are unsuspecting dummies looking for a space blaster movie, and are peeved at getting an evenly paced, thoughtful movie instead.

Trivia: I learned from William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (good book!) that Tarkovski filmed a Solyaris scene in the Roppongi district of Tokyo because the highway system looked so futuristic (in 1972). The cars in this scene are supposed to be driving themselves. If you look carefully, you can see Japanese highway signs. Incredibly, someone has posted the whole 4-minute highway scene on youtube. Sometimes I just love the Internet.

IMDB: Solaris, Solyaris
Amazon: Solaris – book and soundtrack
Ebert’s reviews of the 1972 Solaris and the 2002 Solaris