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Month: January 2013

In Search of Strong AI

While trying to work on my novel, my mind sometimes turns to mush and I can’t think creatively, at least not in the way that novel-writing calls for. So I began a journal with which to chronicle my thoughts and explorations as I search for Strong AI. I would love to live to see Strong AI achieved; who wouldn’t?

My short term goal, however, is to create a computer program that can teach itself to play chess (or any rule-based game) in such a way that we can observe the rules that it learns. As far as I know, no one has achieved this. Chess engines focus on number-crunching algorithms, using the computer’s ability to calculate quickly to its advantage rather than trying to simulate how a human would learn things. But if we can figure out how a human learns the game, I think the algorithms involved would be far more useful to advancing human knowledge than number-crunching algorithms created specifically for the game. I want an algorithm that creates algorithms.

Anyway, I have written up my explorations so far in my new little journal. You can download a PDF of the journal here. It’s a bit too long and clunky to post as a blog entry. I hope that as I continue to explore the subject, I will write and upload more journal entries.

Not sure anybody else out there is interested in the subject, but I’ll put it out there in case anyone is curious. Join me, and together we will rule the world.

InSearchOfStrongAI-Part01.pdf

How movies teach manhood… ?

I have a tough time understanding what this speaker’s main point is; he seems to vaguely dance around some issue, but doesn’t say what exactly it is. From what I can tell, it has something to do with him wanting boys to have more fictional female role models, because this will somehow be vaguely good.

He mentions the Bechdel test. According to Wikipedia, the Bechdel test is used to [vaguely] measure gender bias in stories by evaluating how female characters are represented. But the Bechdel test is, in and of itself, stupid. This is because characters are not meant to represent the class of beings to which they belong (whether it be females, aliens, priests, etc.); characters are meant to represent sides of the story’s goal (how they either help or hinder the main character) and/or sides of the story’s theme (how they encourage or discourage it).

This doesn’t mean criticisms of class representations in stories or films are invalid, but these criticisms assume that a story-creator was biased in his story-creating decisions, and that this bias is bad. (All story-creators are biased, culturally and naturally; the criticism must include why the bias is bad for it to be a criticism and not just a recognition of a trope.) The Bechdel test seems to assume that all females are represented by female characters, and if there aren’t enough female characters not talking about male characters, this is a bad misrepresentation of females. But female characters are meant to serve a story purpose, not a cultural representation purpose. (The same goes for male characters in female-oriented romantic comedies.) So the test is invalid, at least when applied to stories in general.

(A criticism would be: “Hey, all the females in this guy’s films are evil and manipulative. Why?” Or: “Hey, all the father figures in these American sitcoms are dimwits. Why?”)

So to say, as he does, “I think our job in the Netflix queue is to look out for those movies that pass the Bechdel test” seems rather naive. That is, whether or not a movie passes the test implies nothing about what gender views or values they will encourage. Nor does it make any sense to “nudge our sons to identify with those heroines” rather than heroes as if that will somehow naturally promote something vaguely good.

Not that you’d want to nudge them away either.

My point is simply that girls and boys being biased toward role models of their own sex (and the social roles that go along with it) is not, in and of itself, unhealthy. It seems rather obviously natural to me. So you don’t have to do anything about it. (Abusing women is not a characteristic of recognizing differentiated gender roles; it is a characteristic of depraved morals in general. One does not imply the other.)

If you have something specific to criticize about gender representations in fiction (besides story-purpose roles, such as the “damsel in distress” trope), go for it, and prepare to argue it. But this talk is too vague.

MoviePass … movie subscription?

Movies have become rather expensive these days, no? Why spend $10 or more when I can wait a year and spend $1 renting a disc? It better be a movie I really want to see.

I have argued before that a subscription service would be nice. A monthly fee for unlimited trips to the theater.

And that’s what it looks like the new MoviePass service will provide. According to this article: “MoviePass provides film enthusiasts the ability to attend unlimited [regular 2D] movies for a monthly fee.”

Oh boy!

But elsewhere they say, “MoviePass members are able to see up to one 2D movie per day.” And you can only see a film once. I think these are… gee, what are they called… limits. I would run out of movies every month.

I’d prefer it if the movie theater companies themselves offered such services. This seems a bit clunky:

Right now, the only plan they seem to have is $35 a month for an annual plan. That’s $420 a year. I’d have to see quite a few movies in theaters for that to compete with rentals from Netflix. Doesn’t really seem like that great of a deal. But currently the service is only in a “limited private beta” so perhaps their offerings will improve later on down the road.

I guess we’ll see where it goes… with their current offerings, I think I’ll pass.

Precise probabilities do not imply intelligence

It annoys me when characters on TV shows, especially sci-fi shows, are portrayed as being super-intelligent by being able to ramble off precise probabilities, as if probabilities of natural occurrences are some precise science. “The chances of succeeding are only 34.56 percent!” No, they are either 0 percent or 100 percent. The mathematics of probabilities are a compromise; probabilities provide a way for us to make decisions based on insufficient knowledge. They are not real-world measurements just because we use the word “percent” when talking about them.

“I am 53.45 percent done reading this book.” That’s a real-world measurement.

“There is one bullet left in this gun, so the chance of me shooting you is 16.6… percent.” That’s a measurement of imagined futures based on not knowing which chamber a bullet is in. The bullet is only in one chamber. There is only one possible future.

Truly intelligent characters do not compute precise probabilities in their heads. It is a completely impractical way to go about thinking or making decisions.

This annoys me as much as the idea that emotions and intelligence are somehow naturally at odds, and the price for higher intelligence is the ability to feel emotions.

The Cabin in the Woods ending made no sense

cabin

Since I talk about the ending of the film here, this post contains SPOILERS. It probably won’t make any sense to someone who hasn’t seen the movie anyway.

The Cabin in the Woods was funny, clever, and quite innovative. But, overall, it did not hold up for me because I didn’t understand the ending. As the end approached, it seemed as if the main characters were getting deeper into the heart of horror stories, even if metaphorically. They were discovering why horror stories were told, why the tropes were upheld. I thought the film was going to give us some sort of interesting insight. But I think the writers got it wrong. They either ignore the themes of horror stories, or simply refuse to accept them.

“They didn’t just want us to die,” a character says near the film’s end, as they discover their horror story experience was all part of some elaborate scheme much bigger and more important than themselves. “They wanted us to be punished.”

“Punish us for what?”

“For being young,” another character says.

So, we want young people to be punished in horror stories because of their youth?

Not in the real world. Youth has nothing to do with it; horror stories work with characters of any age. Youth just makes it easier for a character to be believably immature.

The horrible punishments horror story victims receive is actually for being hedonists. For being somehow morally flawed. Just like the Willy Wonka victims. It’s for believing in and pursuing empty pleasures. Horror story monsters are the embodiment of the spiritual emptiness of the characters’ pursuits or world views, whether it be lust, anger, pride, etc., or something more subtle.

In the film, these youthful deaths are rituals made to placate mysterious ancient gods in the underworld.

In reality, the rituals (in other words: horror stories) are for us humans, to serve to remind us of these lessons, of what is morally right and wrong. Casting our consciences into a pit of giant ancient evil gods makes very little sense. (Unless you are a moral relativist, I guess?)

The tropes of horror films become “tropes” not because they are actually devoid of merit or spiritual meaning, but because they become so recognizable and guessable that, together, they lose their ability to remind us of their meaning. This doesn’t mean the tropes were always actually empty silly nonsense, or that we should discard them.

Movies watched in October 2012

I’m three months behind on this, so I’ll split it up into three posts.  So here are the movies I watched for the first time in October 2012:

antitrust

Antitrust

This 2001 corporate thriller stars Ryan Phillippe (remember when he used to be in movies?) as a young way-to-cool-to-be-an-actual-nerd genius programmer and Tim Robbins as an evil Bill Gates-type of boss.  Ryan is hired by Tim to work on a secret project, but it becomes clear that Tim and his secret thugs are stealing code!  Some very clear anti-Microsoft sentiments here.  But all the action comes off as unbelievable and laughable.  The film features characters briefly looking over a screen’s worth of code and saying “Wow, this is really incredible!”  Those must be some mighty fine algorithms!  I suppose the filmmakers were depending on viewer ignorance, because I can’t imagine any real coder being impressed with someone else’s work after studying only one little chunk of it, especially without even knowing what the whole program does.  Anyway, Ryan must figure out how to stop his boss from using the secret project to take over the world or something similarly sinister.  Overall, the film is just too ridiculous.  Maybe one of those movies to have on in the background while you eat a midnight snack.

sworddoom

The Sword of Doom

This 1966 Japanese film directed by Kihachi Okamoto and starring good old Tatsuya Nakadai tells the story of an apparently amoral samurai who . . . does a bunch of things.  It’s rather all over the place.  He kills people, joins some kind of justice group, kills more people.  It all seemed a bit too random for me to follow very closely.  It seems they were hoping to make sequels, which they never did.  The film ends with a sort of cliffhanger, leaving storylines unresolved.  How annoying.

et

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

This classic Steven Spielberg film from 1982 tells the story of young Elliott who, while trying to cope with his parents’ recent divorce, befriends a little ugly lost alien.  My siblings and I used to watch this film back in the early 90’s on VHS (the tape with the green top!), but I had forgotten much of it, including what exactly the overall story was about.  The film played at the local theater for one night (through “Fathom Events”), so I went to see it.  Unfortunately it looked like they were projecting it with a DVD’s resolution; for some reason the image looked terrible.  However, the movie was great, and I was finally able to piece together the story that I didn’t quite understand when I was seven or whatever.  Great film.

searchers

The Searchers

This 1956 Western directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne tells the story of a man who goes searching for his niece, who was kidnapped by Indians.  It’s considered a classic and was supposedly quite influential for a lot of filmmakers.  It left me rather unimpressed, dare I say, after having been spoiled with the fast-paced action film’s of today.

avengers

The Avengers

This 2012 action film directed by Joss Whedon tells the story of all the Marvel comic books superheroes (Iron Man, Hulk, Guy With Crossbow, etc.) getting together to defeat the villain Loki.  While the writing was refreshing for a superhero movie (though Nolan’s Batman films still stand supreme), the overall story seemed a bit ridiculous to me.  The overall tone seemed a bit muddled among the wide variety of characters; there was something imbalanced about the character dynamics.  Maybe I just don’t like Iron Man’s character enough; it’s like he tries too hard to be hip and cool and rogue-ish, and it doesn’t seem genuine.  Fun movie, but when it comes to superhero movies, I prefer Nolan’s Batman, and when it comes to Whedon’s work, I prefer Firefly.

jumpstreet

21 Jump Street

This 2012 film stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.  Its based on the TV show of the same name from the 1980’s and tells the story of two bumbling police officers who, because they are just so incapable, are put undercover as high school students to investigate a dangerous drug ring.  Whoever in my family rented this probably didn’t realize how raunchy it was.  Funny film, but really stupid.

jedgar

J. Edgar

This 2011 film from director Clint Eastwood stars Leo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover and tells the story of Mr. Hoover forming the FBI.  I don’t know much about the real Hoover, but the film turns him into a somewhat paranoid power-hungry control-freak who can’t figure out his love life.  The problem with most biographical films is that turning someone’s entire life into a story always has to grossly oversimplify a person’s personality and life events, and make guesses at his motivations, desires, and insecurities.  Sometimes they can pull it off with elegance, as in Gandhi.  Sometimes it seems like a hodge-podge with little actual story, as with this film.

kes

Kes

This 1969 British film from director Ken Loach is based on the British novel A Kestrel for a Knave.  It tells the story of a young man who just don’t get no respect at home or at school.  He copes with the loneliness by adopting a kestrel and learning how to train it.  The film is very observational, with the filmmaker not trying to dictate your emotions as much as in modern Hollywood’s films.  This does risk alienating some audiences, as do the characters’ accents.  They speak English, but with such thick accents and some weird slang that I had to turn captions on to understand them.  Any of the film’s political messages are lost on me, but, perhaps because the the filmmaker’s more observational approach to the filming, the actors and conversations did seem much more realistic, and when that happens you may find yourself more emotionally involved than when you’re subconsciously always viewing everything as part of a movie.  For example, if you ever watch the news and see violence caught on a surveillance camera, you may notice that you have a much more visceral response to the images because you know that they’re real.  Movies like this (which are usually foreign) can have the same effect, but the trade-off is that you cannot put yourself in the characters’ shoes as comfortably.  I don’t know; it’s something I’ll have to think about.  Anyway, good film, even though any of its “cultural significance” is lost on me.

hoteltransylvania

Hotel Transylvania

This 2012 computer animated feature from Sony Pictures Animation was directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, known for his cartoon Dexter’s Laboratory (of which the second season still isn’t out on DVD – come on, Cartoon Network).  The film tells the story of Dracula, who runs a hotel for monsters, and his relationship with his daughter, who is eager to explore the world beyond the hotel.  But Dracula is a humanist (if putting “ist” on the end of something implies prejudice against it).  He blames humans for the death of his wife, and therefore wants his daughter to have nothing to do with them.  To complicate matters, a human stumbles into the hotel and Dracula’s daughter falls in love with him.  I thought the film was surprisingly charming, summoning the good old feelings of watching Saturday morning cartoons without trying to be all trendy and sophisticated.  Of the three Halloween-themed animated features this year (the other two being ParaNorman and Frankenweenie), this one was my favorite.  Fun movie.  I’d love to see Genndy direct more animated features if he gets the chance, especially this sort of cartoony stuff.

road

The Road

This 2009 film, based on the book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, tells the story of a father and son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.  There wasn’t much in the way of story.  It was just a bunch of random incidents exploring what issues people might deal with when society crumbled.  Rather boring.

infernalaffairs

Infernal Affairs

This crime thriller from 2002 from Hong Kong was remade in the USA as the Oscar-winning The Departed.  The story tells of a cop who goes undercover to work for a crime boss in an effort to take him down.  But his progress is complicated by an undercover criminal who is working for the police.  So begins the two-way cat-and-mouse game.  This original version does less character development, so the ending is, in my opinion, a bit weaker than the American version, but it makes up for it in just about every other way, from the cinematography to the music to the writing.  Even though I could guess what would happen after seeing The Departed, the film had me on the edge of my seat.  Overall, I thought it was better than its remake.  Great film.

mimic

Mimic

In my effort to watch all Guillermo del Toro’s films, I watched this 1997 horror film directed by him.  It tells the story of scientists fighting against giant human-eating cockroaches who have mutated some weird anatomy that allows them to mimic the human form, thus making it easier for them to catch their human prey.  Overall, quite ridiculous.

dogs

Reservoir Dogs

This 1992 bloody crime thriller from Quentin Tarantino tells the story of a diverse set of criminals trying to figure out how their diamond heist somehow went wrong.  It features Tarantino’s usual flare for mesmerizing dialogue, some great acting, and great twists and turns throughout, despite its vulgar language and violence.  Great film.

grave

Grave of the Fireflies

This 1988 animated film from Japan, written and directed by Isao Takahata, tells the story of how two children, a young man and his little sister, die of malnutrition during the firebombing of Japan during World War II.  This is perhaps the most tragic film I’ve ever seen.  Very powerful.  It doesn’t try to manipulate you into empathizing with the characters.  If anything, it makes it very clear that the main character is making bad choices that you know will result in starvation.  And it doesn’t try to portray the little sister as all innocent and cutesy, as filmmakers often try to do.  Still, you can feel the love and trust between the siblings, which makes the descent into tragedy just devastating to watch.  Great film.  Not great in the sense that you walk away feeling very good, but in that it’s quite a powerful film.

frankenweenie

Frankenweenie

Based on his original 1984 short film, this stop-motion animated feature from 2012 from director Tim Burton tells the story young Victor Frankenstein who brings his dead dog back to life with the use of lightning.  (I haven’t seen the original short, but I’d love to get my hands on it sometime.)  While the film started out funny and interesting, it seemed like about halfway through they ran out of material.  The second act was a chaotic uninspired nonsensical mess.

nextthreedays

The Next Three Days

This 2010 thriller from director Paul Haggis and starring Russell Crowe tells the story of a man who firmly believes his wife, convicted of murder, has been wrongly imprisoned.  When he can’t solve the problem in courts, he sets out to free his wife from prison with a prison break and a dash out of the country.  Fun movie.

My 2012 favorites

A bit late posting this, but I was too busy celebrating and spreading Christmas cheer earlier.  As I say each year: I hate to compare things I love.  But for the sake of a more interesting blog post, I’m going to anyway.  In real life, I don’t really like playing favorites, because different books and movies and stuff all have their own spirit, and are ultimately incomparable.  But let’s disregard that for a few moments.

For books, the nominees are books I finished reading for the first time this year, regardless of their release date.  Movies, TV shows, and film scores must have been first released in the USA in 2012.

Year’s best live action film:

lesmis

Year’s best animated film:

arrietty

Year’s best TV show:

house2

Year’s best film score:

hobbit

Year’s best nonfiction book:

infinity

Year’s best fiction book:

reamde4

Best whatever else:

Year’s best book on writing:

storybeat