Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Links and quotes, March 2015

The "March" in the title is purely decorative. (Or: that's when I read them.)

(CW: Homestuck) What do Magic: the Gathering's five colours, Pacific Rim's drift compatibility, and the Houses of Hogwarts have in common? Yes, they're powerful in-universe metaphorical devices that connect character arcs to physical things, Sam Keeper of Storming the Ivory Tower writes. But more importantly, they're both structured and hyperflexible. They're given well defined rules and categorisations but aren't overly prescriptive. They're open-ended but not too open. This makes them amazing hooks for fanworks and remixes.

Philip Sandifer's A Mild Curiosity in a Junkyard is an impressive tour de force work spanning the fifty-plus years of Doctor Who's run, and its place in the greater historical and social context. Highlights include the flippant creation of central parts of the show's mythos (regenerations, Gallifrey, etc.), Hartnell's retirement as marked on-screen symbolism of end of the show's early "noble savage" era, Tom Baker's spiral into egotistic "one man show" self-centeredness, the voluminous official tie-in books produced in the 90s and 00s that later turned into some of the best post-revival scripts... It goes on and on and it's utterly fascinating.

Melissa Thomasson says that what we have combines the worst of the market and the worst of government. Markets are usually really good at controlling costs... Government can be good at... ensuring universal access... For Melissa Thomasson, she says that either extreme, a competitive market system where consumers know what price they're paying, what they're getting, which would probably drive the price of health care down, or a government run system, which would cover everyone would be better than the accidental mixture that we have today: a really expensive system that doesn't cover us all.

3D rendering of a viscous black liquid suspended inside the walls of a spiralling torus. A few lone droplets hover, perfectly spherical, in the center of the torus's ring.
Joey Camacho of Raw & Rendered has a very impressive portfolio. The above image is taken from his Progress Before Perfection collection.

Yanis Varoufakis (formerly, "that economist who did cool things at Valve", currently, "that economist who's Greece's finance minister"), explains the influence of Marxist theory on his economic work over the years. "Even my non-Marxist economics was guided by a mindset influenced by Marx, he writes." His take on Marx's work is interesting, and definitely not what I would describe as 'socialist' -- indeed, he laments that a lot of the political discourse on the subject centres on fairness and justice ("bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals") rather than a greater, causal underlying problem: that capitalism as it functions is inefficient even on its own terms, that it wastes everything, of value or otherwise.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road as worship of classical physics

Three women gaze with concern out of a car, binoculars and telescopes in hand.
Still from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

Mad Max: Fury Road is thematically rich. There's bodily autonomy (I count at least three different invocations of the motif); femininity and choice; culture and identity. But as a newcomer to the franchise, I was most struck by how raw physicality plays into it all.

Earlier this year, Venkatesh Rao (riffing on Penrose) described a trichotomy of ways reality and fiction give us affective experiences: physical, social and mathematical. Think Matthew Reilly vs. the Bront√ęs vs. Agatha Christie; Angry Birds vs. The Sims vs. Tetris. (As with most systems of classification, it falls apart quickly when interpreted as a sharp-edged "either-or", but it does provide a useful framework to begin from.)

Action movies, as you'd expect, deliver most of their gratification through the physical. But it's not just these. Interstellar, for example, achieves a great deal of its emotional highs through moments of pure physics -- conservation of momentum, torque, thrust. It's an ode to the raw mechanics of piloting a spaceship (much as The Hunt for Red October is an ode to submarine piloting).

Similarly, Mad Max: Fury Road is a panegyric to the automobile, but its homage to physicality extends beyond that.

Still from *Mad Max: Fury Road* (2015).
War culture. Ibid.

Conservation of energy

In a world without electricity, energy isn't abstracted away behind light switches. Giant pulleys are moved by human pedalling, cars are pushed out of mud with sheer grit, waterways open at the pull of a gargantuan lever. Every reaction is directly caused by an equally visceral action. This is a world without power steering.

The war drums (and war guitar, of course) embody this -- camera shots lingering on the drummers as their entire bodies swing into beat after beat, so entwined their riggings that they seem to be an extension of their war machines.

Indeed, even social power in this world is only ever a single level of remove from physical power. The characters with high standing -- Immortan Joe, Furiosa, and so on -- are characterised by martial prowess and brute strength.

This all certainly borrows heavily from the pre-feudal warlord culture the film riffs upon, but it's tangibly a part of the film's direction, not some contingent bit of stylistic afterthought. Energy and physical motion is currency.


And if physical motion is currency in Fury Road, then engine fuel is its most fungible manifestation. Fuel is the resource that raiding parties are sent out to hunt for; fuel is the bartering chip that gets the War Rig into the canyon. Unlike paper currency, its value is intrinsic -- characters count the fuel they have left, the number of days' mileage they can make on it. Even in a dystopian wasteland it can meaningfully be hoarded and stolen. And, of course, it can be destroyed.

Fury Road both depicts and embodies the worship of scarce resources. Fuel, water, bullets: everything is in short supply. Every shot fired, every extra gallon of gas, counts.

This attitude pervades the entire culture -- even the most cloistered of the escapees know like second nature how to count bullets and match them to their firearms. Water is coveted and fought for; its long-forgotten cousin, "green", spoken of with religious devotion. Human bodies are treated as scarcely more than sources of scarce commodities -- milk, blood, physical labour.

Still from *Mad Max: Fury Road* (2015).

Physicality embeds itself within the film in plenty more ways: the fetishistic cultural artefacts of the different factions; the motif of Furiosa's arm as both source of strength and mask; literal masks and exoskeletons and cyborg symbolism; telescopes and rifle scopes as an extension of the body. It's pervasive. The physical is everywhere. That's what makes Fury Road so effective as an action movie -- everything about it is written in the same dynamic language of force and momentum that underlies the genre.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What random feels like

In the pilot episode of Numb3rs, CalSci professor Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz) describes how people confuse randomness with uniformity. "You've distributed yourselves at equal intervals, while true random patterns will include clusters... [Simulating randomness] is pretty difficult."

Whether it's nature or nurture, we're really bad at knowing 'random' when we see it. This is what lets Eppes solve the case-of-the-week. This is why the Fire Emblem games badly underexaggerate their probabilities of peons hitting other peons -- because it takes 80% real odds for something to feel like 70% certainty.

Battle animation from *Fire Emblem: Sword of Seals*.
"If a unit has a 15% displayed chance... their actual odds of hitting are a paltry 4.65%... if a unit has an 85% displayed hit chance [it's] actually a more reliable 95.65%."


I recently installed TagTime for Android, a barebones app that randomly polls you every forty-five minutes on average1 to ask you what you're doing at that exact moment. It's a completely random sample of your day.

(The results are distressing. Over the last four days, approximately 1 in every 8 pings has occurred while I was on Facebook, i.e. three hours a day, give or take a generous error term. [Image link])

The thing about the 'random sample' part: it's really random. (Specifically, it's a Poisson process). The key part here is that it's totally memoryless -- you can't say "it's been nearly forty-five minutes so I'm going to do something productive now so I can write that down when the app next pings me". Nor can you say "Well, it just pinged me a second ago, so it's safe to hop onto Twitter for a few minutes". There's no gaming it (and thus no need to worry about gaming it). At any given moment, minute to minute, your odds of getting pinged are exactly the same.

As I mentioned, this really doesn't feel like how we expect random distributions to behave.

Google play review: "Randomizer is terrible I left the frequency at 45 minutes, but the actual average is about half that. Not sure what kind randomizer you're using, but it doesn't work well. EDIT: After running this for about a day, I'm uninstalling this app. It didn't ping me for 6 straight hours, now it's pinging every 5-10 minutes. This is worthless."

The reviewer in the above image, in addition to not understanding probability, gives a fairly good description of what having the app switched on feels like. Sometimes you'll get a ping from it three times in two minutes. Sometimes you'll watch an entire movie without it going off. A lot of the time it feels like I'll do a solid hour of work and then open Facebook for a minute and then immediately get pinged asking what I'm up to2. There's no predictability to it.

At any given minute, there's about a 2% chance of the app pinging me. Thus I've started to learn what "a 2% chance" really feels like. It's strange.

A 2% chance feels small but not that small. It sounds like nothing but it still manages to happen anyway, once or maybe twice an hour (and every now and then, five times).

There's perhaps a larger note about probability (fine, about independent probabilities) here: the odds of getting pinged during a given second are less than one in a thousand. And so on, and so forth. One in a thousand, one in a million... those odds may be small, but sometimes, over once an hour, even, things that unlikely still do happen.

It may be obvious on paper, but it feels a lot stranger in the real world when you first really notice it.

That seems like a good lesson to internalise.


1 For a user-defined value of forty-five.

2 In these cases I'd still say "I was on Facebook". Even if it doesn't feel fair, on average, over the course of weeks, the pings will cover a representative sample of your time.

On a similar note, a lot of the employee surveys at work come with instructions to answer the question about how you're feeling that very day, even if you're having an unusually up or down week. Across the whole sample, they assure us, a genuine picture of "typical" will appear.

Friday, May 1, 2015

“Hostile territory” (Unspeakable Things)

Most of the cultural narrative around mental health right now revolves around gender, with scientists and social theorists trying to work out whether it’s men or women who are more distressed, and whose fault that might be. Precisely who is more fucked up, boys or girls, has never been conclusively decided, but the fact that we insist on trying to work it out reveals a truth: there is something about gender right now that is deeply troubling, on an intimate level that is rarely discussed. There is something about the experience of being a woman or being a man, or of trying to be a woman or trying to be a man in the twenty-first century that many people find profoundly distressing in a way that they find difficult to speak about even in those few spaces where they are allowed to.
Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things, Introduction.
The truth is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about what it means to be a man or a woman today. Gender identity is performed, and it is performed for profit, whether social, financial or personal. That performance is an adaptive strategy for dealing with overwhelmingly hostile territory. Now we need to adapt again. And that’s what feminism is: adaptation. Evolution.
(Boldface emphasis, fangirling, etc., mine.)