“Snowpiercer” as an Allegory

March 23, 2014

Snowpiercer still

Warning: Heavy Spoilers! You should really go and watch the excellent movie first!

Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer must be read as an allegory. While it might be plausible for Earth to enter a new Ice Age because of geo-engineering gone awry (which was actually meant to combat global warming), there is just no logical explanation for why the remaining few humans would go around the planet on a train at breakneck speed instead of just parking it at a nice station—except for the fact that it makes a nice allegory: “The train is the world”, as voiced by our reluctant hero. The world is complete with the underclass at the tail, specialized production sections in the middle (a prison wagon, a garden wagon, an aquarium wagon, a school/propaganda wagon, a sushi-bar wagon, a sauna, etc.), and a self-absorbed elite towards the head.

Yet at the very front of the train is the (economic?) engine pulling the whole thing—the ultimate objective of our revolting party’s bloody struggle for freedom and/or control. After wagon for wagon has been taken, the remaining three revolutionaries finally arrive at the engine where the infamous dictator and designer of the train invites our protagonist to dinner and explains in a malthusian argument that this and all preceding revolutions were planned all along to periodically kill off the over-boarding population of the train. Furthermore, he offers that his job as the lonely head of the train is no easier than the workers struggle for survival at the tail and that ultimately all parts of society need to work together to form the functioning whole. Finally, as he’s an aging dictator, he wants our protagonist to take his place.

Understandably confused at first, our protagonist finally declines the offer of taking control at the front, and instead chooses freedom for everybody by helping the two other remaining revolutionaries (a girl and her father) to blow up a door at the side of the train. The explosion causes an avalanche, derailing and crushing the entire train and—literally—train-wrecking everything. It appears the only survivors crawling out under the wreck and stumbling innocently out into the endless snow are a young boy and the teenage revolutionary girl.

As eloquently expressed by Acid Cinema:

While movies like In Time or Elysium admit that the system is broken, they also offer reassurances that it can be fixed (in Elysium’s case with the laughably literal push of a button). Snowpiercer, on the other hand, argues that perhaps the system is broken beyond repair, that the only way to fix it would be to scrap everything and just start over.

While starting anew with a clean slate is appealing on an emotional level, personally I still prefer to believe that the system can be fixed without destroying everything.

The Top Seven Movies I watched in 2013

December 22, 2013

The top seven movies I watched this year, in no particular order.

  • La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013) is an homage to Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, an homage to Rome and its celeb- and nightlife circus. Beautifully shot and set to intoxicating dance tunes as well as timeless classical music, the movie follows a disillusioned 65 year old author (who wrote one bestseller and stopped after that) in his search for the true beauty in his life.

  • There are few movies that are as surreal yet at the same time ring as true as Holy Motors (2012). (Maybe Terry Gilliam’s Brazil comes close.) I guess at the core of Holy Motors lies the question after why we get up every morning and go to work and how much we should give for “the beauty of the act”.

  • The Tree of Life (2011) consists of scenes in Jack’s (Sean Penn) adult live, memories of his childhood in the 1950’s Midwest with his stern father (Brad Pitt) and kind mother (Jessica Chastain), as well as lots of footage of nature and the beginning of the universe – all set to mesmerizing music and filmed with an ever-searching camera, posing implicit questions of spiritual nature. If you liked Kubrick’s 2001, you’ll most probably like The Tree of Life.

  • Set in London after World War II, The Deep Blue Sea (2011) is an intimate portrait of Hester (Rachel Weisz), a woman who breaks out of a passionless marriage to pursue an erotic relationship with Freddie, an energetic but troubled former Royal Air Force pilot. We experience first-hand how Hester loses her heart, and also her head, so fully that when she realizes that she and Freddie aren’t compatible, it is almost too late.

  • Before Midnight (2013) is the third part in the trilogy started with Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Each shows us one night (or day) in the relationship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) with nine years passing in between, just as the actors have also aged nine years between the making of each movie. The chemistry and the long dialogues are as great as ever. And even though the couple is married now, often Jesse still seems beautifully amazed of Céline and that she is in fact his. It’s simple: if you liked the first two, you’ll like the third part in the trilogy as well.

  • The Past (Le Passé, 2013) is the story of an Iranian man who reunites with his estranged wife in Paris to finalize their divorce. It’s a powerful movie, but the number one reason to see it is definitely the dignified performance of Ali Mosaffa. (Disclaimer: I haven’t yet watched A Separation, the previous film by Asghar Farhadi, which some say is even better.)

  • In Violet & Daisy (2011), two teenage assassins accept what they think will be a quick-and-easy job, until they end up in a heartfelt conversation with their target. While the film is neat, it’s the jaunty performances and the chemistry between Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel that make it a pleasure to watch.

Working for Donations

December 7, 2013

Let me start by saying that I really like the premise of effective altruism. Namely:

  • I believe that logical and evidence-based reasoning is the worst form of thinking, except for all the others (to paraphrase Winston Churchill). So yes, being effective is great.
  • And about the altruism part: I think there is just no way to be truly human and to have a fulfilling life without being altruistic.

But as always, the devil is in the detail. And as far as I know, a seizable part of the effective altruism movement is about making donations. So let me talk about that in this blog post.

The movement is insofar critical of charities in that it demands the donations to be as effective as possible. Often, the metric of “number of human lives saved” is mentioned, or the more fuzzy metric of “reducing suffering”. Let me be clear, everything else being equal, I fully support donating to charities. But I cannot help but wonder if it wouldn’t be even more effective to forego donations altogether, and take a more radical approach: changing the system.

Let me pick the example Peter Singer mentioned in his TED talk of a guy called Matt Weiger who’s gone to Wall Street and is now giving a six-figure sum to charities. I think it might be entirely possible that his investments for the bank (or hedge fund or whatever financial institution it is he’s working for) caused considerably more harm to a lot people in Africa than what he’s able to recoup with his ~$0.5M donations. Think about it, how much money did the bank earn through his actions? Maybe $10M? That doesn’t seem too unrealistic if you google “profit per employee”. And how much of that profit was achieved through speculation on food (raising food prices when people are most in need), investments in companies that make a profit by depleting the planet’s natural resources (destroying the livelihood of small farmers and future generations all over the world)? So is Matt “actually trying” or only “pretending to try” to improve the world?

The truth is, we don’t know Matt’s case that well. But my point is that I’m far from convinced that working in the system and then donating some of that money to (effective) charities is the most effective way to be altruistic. I’m not into conspiracy theories and we can debate what exactly “the system” is and how much “the market” or “the state” is to blame for the current state of affairs.

However, I think we can all agree on that the current global capitalist system – which is basically supported by every nation state on earth – favours rising inequalities and is responsible for us being on the best course to wrack the planet. I’m not denying that capitalism has brought major improvements as well. I’m not against modernity or think the industrialisation was a mistake. The western world, however, has been fooling around with its newfound powers for the last two centuries. But now it’s time for humanity to use those powers to create a fair and sustainable world without unnecessary suffering – after all, it’s no longer a primarily a technological problem, but a socio-economical one. It may be the first time in human history we’re technologically capable of doing so – but if we don’t hurry, it might have been the last time.

New game by Myst-creators: Obduction

November 11, 2013

Yay! A new game by the creators of Myst and Riven. I loved those, so I’m quite excited. You too? Then please support their Kickstarter and share. Only 4 days to go! (And if you haven’t played Myst and Riven, do yourself a favour and do so!)

John Searle wrongs Computer Programs by denying them the Possibility for Consciousness

July 24, 2013

This is a great talk, go watch it first. I agree with everything John Searle says, except for his point that a computer program without special hardware can never claim to be conscious.

At 5:10, he says: “All of our conscious states, without exception, are caused by lower-level [...] processes in the brain, and they are realized in the brain as higher-level or system features.” He continues: “[consciousness is] the condition that the system is in.” And I agree. But why does he think the same cannot be true for computer programs? Isn’t software “the condition (the state of the bits) that the system (the hardware) is in”?

At 11:00 he goes on claiming that a computation (i.e. manipulating symbols) is only about syntax, while consciousness is also about semantics. It seems that he defines semantics as what arises when symbols are interpreted by consciousness, and I’m fine with that. This however, leads to a circular argumentation when claiming that a computer program cannot have consciousness since it doesn’t possess any intrinsic semantics. Let’s say that semantics arise when symbols are interpreted by a consciousness. Who is to say that a complex computer program cannot do that interpretation just as validly as a human mind can? In a way, he wrongs the computer program exactly in the same way as the materialists wrong him when they tell him: “we’ve done a study of you, and we’re convinced you are not conscious, you are a very cleverly constructed robot.” The computer program might reply, just as he does: “Descartes was right: you cannot doubt the existence of your own consciousness.”

How to compare people, or even nations?

June 30, 2013

How should two different entities relate to each other?

What do I mean by “entities”? People, organizations or even nations. And what do I mean with “different”? Obviously, that they are not the same, which implies that they are “unequal” in some way. What we think are the important ways to measure, to compare two entities, that’s what determines everything.

Is it wealth? Is it happiness? Is it age? Is it intelligence or technological progress? Without considering the problem of how exactly to define those terms, comparing people or nations with each of these measures gives vastly different results. But irrespective of what measure is chosen, one entity is always inferior when compared to the other. When choosing to measure in “wealth”, a rich CEO or an industrialized nation is “higher up”, or “more advanced”, when compared to a lowly construction worker or a so-called developing nation. But when choosing to measure in “happiness”, it might just be the other way around.

So, back to the question of how two entities should relate to each other, i.e. what nature their relationship should be of. Depending on the measure chosen to compare the two, there will always be inequality. Now, very often inequality is considered to be a negative phenomenon. It is used to point out that something is unevenly or unfairly distributed. But we wouldn’t want all people to be exactly equal to all the others, either. We wouldn’t want all nations, irrespective of the measure chosen, to be the same: the same climate, the same food, the same population density, the same level of energy consumption.

The key appears to be to rigorously define in which measure we want which entities to be equal, or at least to be more equal. And then demand for more equality in that measure. I some cases this may indeed be possible and even desirable. Although it is important to be aware that by choosing someone else’s measure, you invariably agree to play their game. As an example, by demanding “a career” (in the traditional work-a-lot-and-then-get-promoted-sense of the word), women agree to play the game of fighting for promotions. Alternatively (or at least additionally), they could demand less full-time stressing-out jobs for everyone.

Either way, there are a hoist of cases where it isn’t straightforward at all to settle on a measure for comparison. For example, when choosing a country to live in, or a person to marry, you might want to consider both the wealth of the country or person, and how happy you are going to be (among other factors). So you might be tempted to set up an equation to determine the “ultimate value” of each scenario p:

value(p) := λ1*wealth(p) + λ2*happiness(p)

where λ1 and λ2 are weighting factors you need to determine for yourself. For example, if you set both to 0.5, it means wealth and happiness are equally important to you.

It may be worth to point out that by combining the measure of wealth and happiness into one, what we have done in effect, is simply created yet another measure. I’m sure there are some economists or psychologists that have come up with a model like that already.

But now there are many more combinations of how very different entities can end up having the same value. Like a person being very rich but totally unhappy having the same “value” in that measure as one being very poor but extremely happy.

In order to form a balanced and constructive relationship where both entities can learn from each other, it seems important to choose the weights λi such that the value of both entities ends up being equal. That way, neither one appears more advanced in any absolute sense, and neither one is being looked down upon by the other.

It is easy to make the mistake to choose large weights for precisely those measures where you yourself already score high. That way, you’ll never be the loser. But it has the opposite effect as well: without noticing, you will end up behaving like a hegemonic empire. And both entities lose out.

iOS 7′s Redesign

June 12, 2013

When the iPhone debuted, it set the standard for a lot of things, among them the GUI of a touch-based mobile operating systems. But that was in 2007, and the design of iOS has gotten a bit stale and heavy by today’s standards. Some even say that “iOS is the Windows XP for mobile devices” – its familiarity is loved by so many that it’s going to be hard for Apple to make radical changes. But yesterday, Apple did just that: it introduced iOS 7 which finally brings a clean redesign of the whole GUI, while keeping all the elements at their familiar places. So, is it any good?

iOS_7

I don’t care much for the new App icons, the rounded corner radius is too large and the Safari icon in particular is just gross. Also, the default home-screen image is reminiscent of some 70s bling, which turns especially awful when seen through a translucent panel; fortunately that image can be swapped out by the user.

But other than that, I like the redesign. It really shines in the Apps as well as the Notification and Control Centers: no visual clutter or heavy chrome, a smaller and crisper color palette, and carefully chosen whitespace and typography. The translucent navigation areas place them clearly on a layer above the content (when scrolling in Safari or playing a movie, they even slide unobtrusively out of sight). The Apps in turn are above the background image, on which the parallax effect is used to form a sort of three dimensional box to peek into.

index_mail_posterframe_2xindex_airdrop_posterframe_2x

The new design is not “flat” (whatever that means), but it’s streamlined. And while removing visual clutter always comes at the risk of harming discoverability, I think iOS 7 didn’t go too far. Buttons may be gone, but the interaction elements are at the familiar consistent places and if it’s blue text (or in some Apps red, but always looks like a link) or a wireframe icon, the user knows it’s save to tab.

Everyone should choose a better home-screen image, Apple fix the icons, and then iOS 7 is a solid foundation to improve upon.


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