Brief Review: Lucy

Just saw “Lucy”. Good film. European sensibilities about a lot of it, which is not surprising, I guess. But it was refreshing to watch something “not Hollywood”.

The “science” was about 90% nonsense, which was a little hard to ignore, since certain tropes, like the old “you only use 10% of your brain” canard, were really central to the film’s structure (I was hoping it would just be a quick soundbite I could easily ignore, but no). Also, every time they said that life started “a billion years ago”, I had to keep mumbling “three point eight” under my breath.


Still from “Lucy”, Directed Luc Besson, Starring Scarlett Johansson

Apparently the writer felt that any sort of nonsense would be accepted if you get Morgan Freeman to say it, and I have to admit, it’s almost true.

“Lucy” is a reference to the proto-human given that name by anthropologists, as well as to the protagonist. I get the impression the “Lucy” hominid has a bigger pop-culture appeal in France, as I’ve seen references in other films. Singling her out as “the first human” is a bit silly, both because she wasn’t yet remotely human and because evolution just doesn’t work like that — there was no “first human” that you could single out.

However, if you just plug your ears and say “la la la” through the techno-babble, then it’s a moving film about trans-human transcendence. And on the level of feelings, I found the film quite effective. It left me with a difficult-to-define kind of thoughtfulness about the human condition and our place in the cosmos. And if a film can do that, then it’s a pretty good film, regardless of whether it manages to get the technical stuff right.

The action aspect of the film was disturbing on a different level. It would be a very sad thing if the first thing a trans-human prodigy should do is to kill a lot of people with a sociopathic calm. I would hope such a creature would be more compassionate, not less, although one could certainly make an argument about extreme circumstances in the film we’re given — it was certainly not a painless or controlled emergence in this story, so some violence is perhaps unavoidable. But mainly, I get the feeling that the film is using this kind of action to attract an audience for the deeper philosophical aspects which by themselves wouldn’t appeal to a broader audience.

And again, if a film can get your blood pumping and make you think, then that’s a good film.

Johansson’s acting was a challenge in this film, as it required her to transition quite far from a human personality. This results in a few moments of intentional woodenness which sometimes is very convincing, but other times seems just like underacting. Overall, though, I think it was a good job on difficult material.

Freeman’s role is nearly that of a narrator. He’s there to give voice and impact to the philosophical ideas of the film, and he fills that role well.

Other characters in the film are well-acted for their parts, though few stand out — the film is pretty closely focused on Lucy herself, so we don’t get much into other characters, except as they relate to her.

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Why Do Fans Want Artists to Make Money?

I enjoyed watching Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy a lot at the theater. It’s got a lot going for it — clever writing, interesting characters, some impressive CG (that technology has come a long way!), and more.

One thing I like about this movie is that although it focuses on a lot of violence and cynical attitudes, it also showcases optimism, idealism, and a galactic society which is probably not a bad place to live, overall. In a world of increasingly negative science fiction, with at least three dystopian films in the previews, that’s a refreshing breath of air. No surprise coming from one of the authors of Lunatics!, but clearly I like the idea of imagining futures we’d want to live in.

So I think it’s safe to call it an artistic triumph.

Lately, though, I’ve seen a lot of articles like this one:

Box Office: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Astounds With $160.4 Mil Global Debut


Guardians of the Galaxy is great. And it made a lot of money. Why do you care?

It’s easy to understand why this is exciting if you’re a Disney executive or an investor — some of that money is going to be coming to you. But I’m going to take a big leap and assume most of you reading this (like me) are NOT Hollywood insiders.

So why do we get excited reading about this?

Think about it for a minute.

We’re getting excited, because money — which you remember is hard-earned cash coming our of OUR pockets — is flowing to a production company, and ultimately to the artists who made “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

If you hang around for the credits (which we all have to do for Marvel films now — everybody sticks around for the ‘Shawarma’, right?), then you probably realize that that’s probably thousands of people (sorry, I didn’t count — but that was a LOT of names up there on the screen).

If we were short-sighted, selfish automatons (as “Economics 101” often assumes we are), then we should be seeking to minimize our costs. We should be annoyed that all of our cash is going to folks in Hollywood. But we’re not. We’re thrilled to see them making a fortune by taking money from us.

How does that square?

Well, obviously, we’re not just short-sighted, selfish automatons. We’re also not being irrational. But we do have a sense of fairness (most of us figure those people working on the movie are very talented people, working hard at what they do, and they deserve to get paid for that) and we also figure that if they don’t get paid, we’re not going to get more exciting films like this to watch. So we’re making a very rational choice to pay for that. And for most of us, it does not take force to make that happen.

New free-culture business models are looking for ways to capitalize on that desire — to make it easy for fans to support the artists they like, without relying on trying to force them:

The insight here is that fans want to pay artists for their work.  And of course, you’ll find other examples, such as the success of Kickstarter and IndieGoGo crowd-funding. And now we have Patreon, which is oriented toward recurring, series works, rather than one-time barn-raisings.

Putting it to the Test

And that’s what we’re using on our Lunatics! project now:

Will we be successful? It’s hard to be sure. Some people insist that the old studio system is still essential for marketing and start-up costs. Or that you need it for investment. They argue that the new models work for special niche cases — artists who made their names on proprietary works, but now choose to free their work (and some see this as a betrayal which steals money the promoters earned).

With the Lunatics! project, we’re all pretty much newcomers or outsiders to the media industry. We’re intimately familiar with free-culture and free-software tools to make it, but not so much with the Hollywood business environment. We’re still learning that — and in some ways that’s a good thing, because switching to a free-culture model involves a lot of filtering and reconsidering old models and techniques. It’s a whole new paradigm, and it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

So the fact that we’re rebuilding it from the ground up as a brand new studio anyway is actually very helpful. And that’s not that uncommon — real change to an industry usually comes from outsiders like us disrupting the status quo. People comfortable with the old way of doing business are usually the last to adopt a new approach.

On thing I have learned is that for an original work like Lunatics!, we are going to need to do some marketing. The “free stuff will market itself” idea doesn’t really work, except for an extremely narrow band of “fan works” which are tightly bound to some existing market (you could argue that the marketing for the primary work made that possible, so the fan works are free-riding on that). With this in mind, I know we’re going to have to spend a little on marketing — Sheri Candler, who’s had a fair amount of experience marketing low-budget productions suggests we should at least figure on 10%. I can live with that.

And that makes sense to me — there are cases of great original works which had little-to-no marketing, which I did discover on my own. Sometimes I discovered 10 or 15 years after they were made — and of course, at that point, my new love for the work is not going to result in any follow-ups, because the artist has moved on (either to new works, or they’ve left the industry forever because they couldn’t make any money at it). A little bit of marketing would have been to my advantage as a fan, had it been done back at the beginning.

But, but, but, but,…  what about PIRACY?!

Now, of course, there’s always going to be free-riders. Do you buy all the crap that is advertised on TV to pay for the shows you watch? Probably not. That’s part of every business model, not just movies — you can’t convert everything to cash.

But Hollywood tries pretty hard to do that. They think of every time somebody sees the film without paying for it as a “loss”, rather than perceiving the gains when people do. This causes some faulty mental accounting.

For example, suppose a torrent of Guardians of the Galaxy gets leaked onto the Internet (as it inevitably will). Suppose 50 people see this particular copy. A bean-counter in Hollywood will likely account this as 50 times the cost of a movie ticket (say $10 each)  being lost.

But would those 50 people have gone to the theater to see it? Probably not — not if they’re willing to settle for a download on their computer. But let’s be generous and figure, okay maybe one of them would’ve taken the trouble to go, buy a ticket, and see it, if they hadn’t been able to just download the video.  So that’s a loss of 1 times the ticket price — still a $10 loss, right?

But now, what happens if the movie is good? Did you want to see the movie a second time? I did. And if all I had seen was a crappy bootleg, I damned sure would want to see it on the big screen.

Let’s imagine that just 5 of those 50 people reacted the way I did. Then they go and spend 5 times the ticket price ($50). We subtract the $10 lost, and voila: what the bean counter registered as a loss of around $500 to “piracy” was actually a gain of around $40.

That’s faulty accounting.

And this bears up to observation – the evidence is that “piracy as marketing” generally works:

We also ignored what it would’ve cost to stop that torrent from being published.

Anti-piracy measures have significant costs. The most obvious is that any enforcement process is expensive. Clearly, for small studios and individuals, there’s little if anything you can do about it.

But the most powerful costs are against society as a whole — suppressing copying, fair use/fair dealing, and the transformative uses of creative output suppresses a great deal of creativity. It crushes freedom of speech directly, and through so-called “chilling effects” which is basically the degree to which creators are terrorized by the enforcement measures to the point where they self-censor.

The need to track and control media transmission and find “pirates” also gives an excuse to track any digital activities that the powers-that-be would like to track. Namely any sort of political or social dissent.

Allowing media to gain total control of the transmission of information over the Internet for capitalist goals will have the same impact that controlling real-world transactions to further communist goals did in the 20th century. It provides the apparatus and the excuse to CRUSH individual freedom.

And in my humble opinion, that would be really, really bad.

That’s why, as a creator as well as a fan, I don’t want that future, and I’m interested in finding better alternatives. Because creators are not short-sighted, selfish economic automatons, either.

In the end, we — creators and consumers of media — are in this together. This is our society, and the mechanisms that prop up intermediaries and petty tyrants are not in our best interests, even if they can offer us short term gains. So let’s have more experiments and learn how to build a future we all want to live in.

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Movie: “Desk Set” (1957)

We watched “Desk Set” with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy last night. I’m pretty sure I had added this to my Netflix queue on a recommendation from a film director, although I’ve lost the source on that. It does look like a film a director would like.

"Desk Set"

Publicity photo for “Desk Set” / Public Domain (from Wikimedia Commons).

Briefly, it’s a romantic comedy about the women who work in the reference department of a major media company, dealing with the arrival of office automation, which they all fear will steal their jobs. Hepburn is the “real head” of this department, although the nominal head is her boss with whom she’s had a protracted and stagnant romantic involvement. Tracy is a representative for the computer company.  Despite the romantic entanglements, the themes of work, automation, and human and machine competencies are actually a pretty big theme. For those who are interested, the film also definitely passes the “Bechdel test“, since a lot of the women’s discussions are about their jobs, rather than their love lives (although there’s a lot of both).

It is a very well-made movie. The flow from scene to scene is just really fluid, and there’s some nice on-screen composition. The scene when all the women get ‘pink slips’ looks a lot like the “Where do we go from here?” shot in “Once More with Feeling” (the Buffy musical episode).

It’s also both illuminating and amusing to look at the 1957 idea of what a “computer” looks like. Not a big surprise after watching other work from that era, but this wasn’t a “science-fiction” computer, but the pop-culture idea of what a contemporary computer would look like.

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Pacific Rim – Kaiju + Mecha + LiveAction – done pretty much perfectly

Yesterday, I went to see Pacific Rim with my offspring (ages 10, 15, and 17). We’re pretty much all fans of anime and Japanese pop-cinema in general, so we’re pretty familiar with the “Giant Mecha” genre and the “Kaiju” genre. This film is both, and it’s very much a genre work. So if you hate these genres, you probably won’t like “Pacific Rim”. However, for those of us who do like the genre, this film absolutely rocks. And if you’re not certain, I’d suggest you give it a chance and go in with an open mind.

It is not particularly original — the main originality comes simply from the perfect live-action-style realization of the genre. The story contains pretty much all of the tropes you’d know from the genre, but it’s big and flashy, and it feels really real. This does for the Mecha genre what the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeves Superman (1978) did for Superman — it makes you believe it, at least for the two hours you’re in the theater.

From an engineering perspective, of course, the whole idea of giant mechs is preposterous. Even if giant animals like the Kaiju could exist (and they can’t — they’d collapse under their own weight), trying to do martial arts with these giant robots would be an incredibly dumb way to fight them. You’d be far better off with a computer-guided tactical nuclear missile. This was a thought that occurred to me more than once during the film, because I am a hard-science-fiction fan, and currently engaged in a hard-SF film project of my own (Lunatics!), and so I like to think about things on a literal plane like that.

But forget I said that. Because it’s not the point. Mecha stories, like superhero stories, are best understood metaphorically.

Unlike the superhero, the mecha is fundamentally artificial and it’s the product of a group of people acting as a team. Although by this, we include the entire support group as well as the star “mecha pilots”, it’s a common trope of the genre that even the pilots have to operate the machines in teams (pairs in Pacific Rim) — operating in perfect synchronization. It’s a very Japanese concept of teamwork, and Pacific Rim really takes the spirit of this idea, and makes it palatable to American audiences.

The “kaiju” of course (basically “giant monster” — Gojira/Godzilla being the prototype of the genre), is the same as the dragon in Western mythology — a monstrous beast which represents an abstract problem to be overcome (whether it’s the threat of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, or giant corporations). The mech is the monster we have to build to defeat the monster (the opening narration in Pacific Rim even makes this analogy) — possibly a corporation or a team or an organization of some kind, but fundamentally more human that the kaiju that must be overcome (but also borrowing a little of its shape, threat, and intrinsic dangers). This is why the mech has to have the shape and behavior of a human, despite the impracticality of its scale — it symbolizes humanity augmented to enormous proportions to overcome problems of enormous proportions.

Inherent in the metaphor are all the dynamics of this situation we often find ourselves in in our lives: the need for teamwork, the danger of becoming as bad as the things we’re fighting, the need to stay human in the face of it all.

Pacific Rim is not stellar in terms of progressive values — it’s pretty much consistent with the mech genre from which it derives. And the characterization is simple and mostly visual. Nevertheless it works. You pretty much come away liking all of the characters, and feeling good about the human race. Even Hannibal Chau — a Hong Kong gangster who trades in Kaiju remains — despite being clearly untrustworthy is presented as an almost likable scoundrel. The scientists are presented as geeky/quirky stock “mad scientist” types, and perhaps are the least appealing to me, but even there, you come away with a sense of respect, and that’s part of the beauty of this film — it creates stark contrast and compelling conflict without strongly siding or demonizing anyone. That’s a challenge to do. The hero characters – Raleigh and Mako – are strong and satisfying as protagonists.

So I’d say that, despite not having a whole lot of complex dialog, Pacific Rim is well-written. Which is becoming a rarity for big-budget sci-fi films these days.

The soundtrack is stirring in an unabashed way that I haven’t heard in quite awhile. It’s almost corny that way, but I never had the chance to feel self-conscious about it — it just kept working.

Other minor points: there are a lot of subtle genre tropes and cultural references if you’re paying attention. Mako even has red shoes (“Akai Kutsu“) in her flashback/back-story. I was a little worried about my youngest, because I thought the story was pretty scary and emotionally intense, but my 10-year-old daughter (who also loves superhero movies) thought it was simply awesome, so I guess it wasn’t too intense.

Relating it to my own project

Of course, working on a film project myself, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons and be a little bit intimidated by something that works as well as this movie. I did think about both the similarities and differences with what we’re trying to do with “Lunatics!”: both stories are very human-positive and progressive, with an aspect of the “grand human endeavor”. Our story in “Lunatics!” is mostly meant to be taken on a literal plane, though, with attention to the real science and technology of spaceflight integral to its identity.

And in one sense, the scale of our story — about two families living on the frontier — is a lot smaller. On the other hand, just doing that on the Moon gives it an adventure aspect.  “Lunatics!” is not a war-story or even really an adventure story as such, so it’s certainly not as intense that way.  I like to point out that our “body count” in “Lunatics!” is extraordinarily small for a science-fiction series — if I remember correctly, there is only one actual death in season one, although there are quite a few scrapes.

But then, part of the point of the story is that the danger of space is over-hyped — if you are properly prepared. And our characters are extraordinary in that they are the type of people who are prepared for the dangers they face. Nevertheless, simply living on the real space frontier without sweetening it with fantasy or hyperbole is adventure enough for real people, and that’s what “Lunatics!” is about.

And of course, I have to say that the sheer audacity of trying to create a production like “Lunatics!” as a free-culture / free-software project, coming completely from the outside, with an entirely different production culture, collaborating over the internet to get it done, and basically having no budget to speak of (even if our Kickstarter does succeed, let alone if it doesn’t*), does makes me feel a little overwhelmed. It’s a good feeling to see the humans succeed against the monsters up on that screen — makes the real tasks seem a little more possible.

*Yeah, that’s a plug. I regret nothing. We really could use some help getting off the ground, so please come check it out. 🙂

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Them and Us

Getting anywhere and doing anything of significance in this world requires cooperation, which implies the need for consensus and – to some degree or other – compromise. We don’t have to agree on everything in order to work together.

I really dislike the idea of creating categories of “them” and “us” and deciding that anyone who falls into the “them” category – or even socializes with them – is an “enemy” or that anyone who falls into the “us” category is necessarily always going to be a “friend”.

This tribal war attitude is fundamentally contrary to the needs of peace, and peace is fundamentally necessary to the progress of mankind.

We are complex creatures, and progress is found by a complex system of alliances and partial trust, however disconcerting that might be for the absolutist mindset.

Even if such a mindset comes naturally to your psychology, you owe it to yourself to overcome it and recognize that there is no “them”. There is only “us”. Broken, damaged, corrupted, or just plain wrong — still “us”.


And no, this isn’t apropos of any incident, nor is it all that new. It was just a waking thought.

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A Brief Reflection on the “Consent of the Governed”

We are far more protected by good will and human decency than by governments or police. This is an aspect of human nature that is vastly under-appreciated. When government collapses temporarily — such as in a time of disasters, what generally happens is that people help each other and are basically decent.*

This isn’t quite enough to hold civilization together (which is where I disagree with anarchists) — at least not in the long run (perhaps this is related to the transition from “System 2” to “System 1” thinking as described by Daniel Kahneman) , but it proves the absurdity of statists who are convinced that “more police” and “more surveillance” are the answer to all “crime”.

We also need to draw a line between “crime” and “dissent”. When 1% of the population is willing to shoplift to cheat the economic system to their own advantage, that’s “crime”. Police and the justice system are likely to help with that.

When 50% of the population decides that it’s not a fair deal to block copying of files, and therefore make and share personal copies of media with each other — that’s “dissent”. Policing is very inefficient at stopping this — it takes a ridiculous amount of enforcement, and the solution quickly becomes worse than the problem.

Other examples include: keeping illegal organisms (from marijuana plants to pit bulls), recreational drug use (the most powerful example being alcohol, as demonstrated by Prohibition), and the possession of small firearms.** Yes, you will find populations of people who either agree with or accept these limitations, but they are completely unacceptable rules to a large population of people, and they simply won’t cooperate.

Continuing to press on these points really doesn’t have any impact on the incidence of these  “crimes”, it simply oppresses the dissenters, and they respond by becoming ever more resolute in their reaction. Indeed, if you want a revolution, this is all you need to do — just keep it up, and eventually, a revolution is what you will get. What happens is that the perceived moral authority of the government gets more and more tarnished until finally, the people (or a large fraction of them, anyway), no longer accept the legitimacy of the government.

In an ideal democracy, of course, there would be no dissent, because the government would always follow the collective decisions of the people. But that is of course, not much like any real government on Earth. But our response to massive dissent needs to be to improve the government, not to oppress the people.

* Minor point: this is frequently misrepresented in fiction, whether by intentional agenda or just through the ignorance of writers too sheltered to have direct experience of it. But there have been enough real-life examples of this phenomenon in recent years. We have to remember that governments basically only exist because humans are basically inclined to self-organize.

** In the USA, at least, there is a very broad consensus that citizens have a right to some kind of small firearms, although the debate rages on about just how large and what type. Intriguingly, this is one of the few issues that people do not line-up along the left/right or Democrat/Republican party lines in the USA.

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Economists and the ‘As If’ Argument

Really nice post from “Unlearning Economics”.  We should model our ideas of economics on the behavior of real humans, not ideal economically-rational automatons:

Economists and the ‘As If’ Argument.

I would add that, most of the time, when natural intelligence violates the assumptions of artificial intelligence, natural intelligence WINS.

That is to say, we are like this most often because we actually work better than the naive theory in the AI.  Evolution will do that for you.

Which means that, even if we could coerce/train people to behave with more “economic rationality”, it probably wouldn’t  be a good idea. Some of the most economically interesting developments of our time — free software development, free culture, open hardware, crowd-funding — operate precisely because people routinely violate naively-rational economic thought (but in context, operating in a system with other economically-irrational humans, these behaviors turn out to actually yield rational / optimal results).

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