22 March 2015

Posthuman dystopia

I'd recently read Blindsight by Peter Watts after my Kindle recommended it and the content of the reviews suggested I would like it (correct and correct). It's a posthuman sci-fi novel about a small group of enhanced humans sent on a decades-long journey to investigate an alien presence at the outer regions of the solar system. Throughout, there's a sense that humanity has reached a dead end. As people with means alter themselves with enhanced abilities--man/machine interfaces, multiple consciousnesses in one person, neuro-physical updates--un-altered "baselines", without the ability to keep up against an advanced society, hook their brains up to a virtual world called Heaven. Once in, they abandon any emotional bond to those they left behind. One particularly odd aspect of the novel is that vampires exist as an extinct offshoot of humans. They have been resurrected and though there is a detente of sorts, they are so far advanced in intelligence and ability that even the most enhanced humans are like children. To trump even this level of insignificance, the aliens the crew encounter are orders of magnitude more adept than even vampires.

I've since started the sequel titled Echopraxia (which means "the involuntary repetition or imitation of another person's actions"). I'm 50-or-so pages in, but the grimness is the same. The action takes place on Earth where a group of hive mind Bicamerals push the boundaries of invention but cannot explain how they achieve it. It's another example of humans becoming so far from equal that there is no longer a single humanity. Non-Bicamerals are as threatened by them as baselines by the transhumans. Similar fears have been echoed in Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (and his even more stunning and depressing short stories Pump Six), Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief trilogy, and even somewhat in Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy. Notably, Watts is a marine biologist, Rajaniemi a mathematician and programmable DNA entrepreneur, and Atwood a developer of remote robotics.

Contrast these with Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End (read at the same time as Oryx and Crake). Though he deals only slightly with posthumanism, he shows the tension of modern, augmenting technology. Rainbows End has all of the aspects of a dystopian warning--aggressive emergent AI, near 100% surveillance state monitoring, the physical destruction of all books in order to digitize--yet he somehow offers an optimistic message in the end. Ever the singularitanist. Or maybe the realist. Still, sci-fi is not about what will happen; it is simply plotting a straight line with a few of the data points we currently have. Sometimes it's a warning, sometimes a hope.

posted by sstrader at 10:21 AM in Culture & Society , Science & Technology | tagged posthuman | comments (0) | permalink

14 March 2015

Recent movie-watchin'

Over the last month or so, Lisa was out of town so I got to watch a lot of my movies. Here:

Two art documentaries, The Artist is Present [ IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes ] and Exit Through the Gift Shop [ IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes ]. Artist was more moving than I'd anticipated. Abramovic's show from the film's title--where viewers took as much time as they wanted to sit in front of her--went, in my mind, from being attention-demanding by the artist to more an act of respect for the viewer. Many who sat were brought to tears; a Tumblr page documents some of them. Exit was interesting at first when it was documenting the various street artists and their cavalier exploits (are there any other kind?!), but its twisty hook halfway in left me cold. Maybe I just wanted a different documentary. Exit is about, as the title would suggest, the commodification of free expression. I wanted a Scratch-like history of that free expression. Oddly, I was put off by Maria's conspicuous wealth acquired via an art form that started as rebellion against the over-commodification of art (paintings as investments instead of expression), yet showing street art in galleries did not bother me. A quote from the article VISUAL ART PERFORMANCE VS. CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE for reference:

One impulse behind Visual Art Performance was the rejection of making objects for sale in favor of creating non-commodifiable, ephemeral events that were meant to critique and undermine the capitalist structures of the art market. Some artists, like Marina Abramovic, have managed to commodify that work in retrospect, completely abandoning any pretense of anti-capitalism, in fact becoming major players in it.

Re-watched A Clockwork Orange [ IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes ] after a coworker commented on it. It holds up well, but its violence has become more satirical than grisly over time. Still, Malcolm McDowell is a memorable bastard. I'd avoided reading the book since many cite it as extremely difficult because of the first-person slang used, but decided to buy a copy and give it a shot. I got the Rawlinson-edited Norton edition because it contains a glossary and various essays on the book and the movie. Haven't started, but several random excerpts have been enormously entertaining. I had gone into one weekend with the hope of watching some classic Japanese cinema. I couldn't work up the courage to watch Ran (almost 3 hours), so I scanned Mubi's list of 30 MUST SEE JAPANESE FILM CLASSICS. I had already seen Woman in the Dunes (#13), Rashomon (#14), Tampopo (#28), and Audition (#30). For some reason Funeral Parade of Roses (#16) [ IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes ] caught my eye. Their description sold me:

A feverish collision of avant-garde aesthetics and grind-house shocks (not to mention a direct influence on Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange), Funeral Parade of Roses takes us on an electrifying journey into the nether-regions of the late-'60s Tokyo underworld.

The director did interesting things with time-shifting and repeating scenes. I could see some of what Kubrick borrowed in the slapstick fast-forwarding. Experimental but actually moving at times with a wow ending.

More experimentation with The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears [ IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes ]. It wasn't until the 10th time I was reminded of Amer that I realized it was the same directors. Very style heavy but with a menace that files it with the memorable Berberian Sound Studio.

More mainstream stuff: I finally got to see Showgirls [ IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes ] since Netflix recently added it. Like not knowing what Rosebud is, I felt that a basic cinema element was missing in my education. The most unsexy sexy film I've ever watched, it wasn't as all-out horrible as was promised. Biggest surprise: Gina Gershon looking like she did on Seinfeld! The Grey [ IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes ] was stunning from start to finish. Writ as all metaphor, it maybe could have ended as melodrama but didn't.

posted by sstrader at 5:54 PM in Cinema | comments (0) | permalink

12 March 2015

Smart watch 2

Six months on, almost exactly, and the smart watch scene has matured to mid-infancy. Apple provided more specifics about their watch on Monday (starts at $350, releases on 24 Apr) and so the reviewers began assessing the potential and comparing it against Android Wear.

The Android offerings have gotten very stylish. What Caught My Eye:

Moto 360 - The first good design, still holds up.

Asus Zenwatch - The rare rectangular design that also looks good. I'm not sure why I think it looks better than the iWatch. Need to see them next to each other.

Huawei's Android watch - Just announced. See This could be the best-looking Android Wear smartwatch yet from The Verge for copious details. Better look than the 360 because the band connects in the middle of the watch instead of at the base.

posted by sstrader at 12:38 PM in Home Network & Gadgets | comments (0) | permalink

13 February 2015

Ives Concord Sonata

Several years back, I would read Jeremy Denk's blog (Think Denk!) as he was practicing Ives' Second Piano Sonata (sheet music here). It's an early modern work--though from a composer far ahead of the curve--that I should like but I'd never really warmed up to Ives and so never gave it a chance. In college I'd heard a visiting tenor (baritone?) perform Ives' song "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" (sheet music here) and fell in love with its sheer rock and roll as modernist dissonance and rhythmic cubism. It's colorful, dramatic, wide-ranging, collaged, and allows the piano to speak a separate, orchestrated story from the vocalist. Another one of those Songs I Wish I Would Have Written. Still, nothing else Ives did captivated me.

In a recent article titled "Charles Ives as Improviser", Kyle Gann examines the source material for the sonata as pulled from research for an upcoming book. The sonata consists of four titled movements ("Emerson", "Hawthorne", "The Alcotts", and "Thoreau") and was published in 1919 with a revision published in 1947. The first draft of the Emerson movement was in the form of a piano concerto (the Emerson Concerto) in around 1913, and later reworkings of the first movement to return it to its concerto-state became "Four Transcriptions from Emerson" in the 1920s. As with most composers, themes from the one work appears in multiple places. For the Concord, the themes were also shared in several of his 20+ Studies for piano (these are poorly internet-documented, but I've found reference for at least 22 studies in the set [ updated the next day ] I've updated the Wikipedia page of Ives' compositions with the list of studies. There are 27 with 8 of those being lost.). From the 1930s to 1940s, Ives went into the studio and recorded from across all of these pieces. Kyle Gann's article focuses on those recordings and their provenance in the Emerson stuff based on the transcriptions he's made from them. The article has excerpts of both the recordings (of dismal quality) and Gann's transcriptions (of excellent quality). The efforts at transcription and resulting DNA analysis of the music contained is fascinating.

This weekend shall be a get acquainted with the Concord weekend.

Ives Concord Sonata by Scott D. Strader on Grooveshark
posted by sstrader at 5:13 PM in Music | comments (0) | permalink

25 January 2015

Human VMs

Several months ago, I finished the third book in Hannu Rajaniemi's post-human Jean le Flambeur series. It's a monument of fiction of what-will-happen-when-we-can-upload-consciousness that has social cachet for today's various technological anxieties. Fantastical art as commentary on present day. While researching author interviews and secondary sources after-the-fact, I read one of the author's recommended source articles titled "If Uploads Come First", written in 1994 by Robin Hanson. One key dramatic history, revealed near the end of the Rajaniemi trilogy, was that when brain uploads happened humans became dupe-able VM workers for tasks that algorithms couldn't accomplish. What a computer can't achieve, 5K uploaded brains could be sold into slavery to achieve. The problem that computers can't do X is solved by simply having digitized humans do it by the thousands.

A few years ago, a coworker told me about out-sourced personal assistants. These are 3rd-worlders who will sell their time by the penny to organize your life remotely as best as possible. The concept was as fascinating as it was morally ambiguous, but I never took advantage. How to organize such unlimited resources? This I had encountered before--conceptually--with Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Again, not having partook, the MT offers a marketplace of people-who-will-do-anything with people-who-need-anything-done. Think 1000s of addresses to enter for fractions of pennies an address. People have time and need money, and there is work to do that would be too costly to write a computer program for.

Friday was an argument with the boss about whether a large VM containing multiple server instances was more valuable than multiple, smaller VMs of equal summed potential.

posted by sstrader at 10:53 PM in Internet | tagged posthuman | comments (0) | permalink

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