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Accessibility in the hardware: Coke Freestyle

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Coca-Cola, including the recent kerfuffle about them funding research that shifts the blame for America’s obesity problem to lack of exercise rather than sugary drinks. That said, I’m a big fan of Coke Zero, and since AMC Theatres sent me a free drink coupon for my birthday, I went to fill up before a showing of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. yesterday. This is my lousy photo of the Coke Freestyle machine at the theatre:

coke machine

The main interface is a touch screen that is at chest level when I’m standing, but far above my head when I’m in my wheelchair (the drink pours out at eye level then). We noticed the little wheelchair button below the drink dispenser. Hmm. I pressed it and the buttons to the left lit up, giving me a control panel at a more appropriate height. My choice was still to reach up and smack the touch screen, but I was impressed enough to snap a photo for this blog.  It’s a small detail and maybe only used by a few people, but after two months of being in a wheelchair or hopping with a walker, I’m achingly aware of the many ways that people with mobility disabilities have to struggle or are simply shut out from activities most of us take for granted. This particular theatre — shout out to the AMC John R in Madison Heights, Michigan — hires disabled ticket takers, has nice big rows for wheelchairs and companions, and has a bathroom stall that I can pull my wheelchair into and turn around. We’ve been going there almost every week since my accident because their accommodations make it an easy and pleasant trip, and I’m so very grateful. It’s not the closest theatre to us, but we go there because it’s most comfortable.

[And hey, go see The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It’s stylish, fun, and quite amusing. Both Cavill and Hammer are deadpan, so the laughs come as delighting surprises rather than being telegraphed for miles. The costuming alone is worth a viewing — the villainess’s black and white palazzo jumpsuit is to die for. Director Guy Ritchie uses mosaic montages to condense sections that might otherwise be tedious, making them exciting and having fun with the screen dividing lines in the process.]

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Posted by on August 16, 2015 in Side Topics

 

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Roundup: Ex Machina, thoughtcrimes, Con Man, personal stuff

It’s Monday and after days of being deeply involved with the conference, I need to get back to my writing.  Just a few short things to share:

Ex Machina

I’ve had mixed luck with future tech movies lately. Big Hero 6 was fantastic, Transcendence was a mess, and after reading the reviews, I couldn’t bring myself to see Chappie in the theatre (though William Gibson liked it, so I might have made the wrong choice).  My hopes are high again for Ex Machina, which hits theatres next month:

Thoughtcrimes

Gizmodo just published When Does Online Fantasy Become Criminal Conspiracy? (originally published on EFF). If you don’t know the story behind this, a very high level summary is that a NYC police officer and several other men had graphic online discussions about kidnapping, killing, and eating women. Some of the conversations moved into “plans”, though the men claim they never intended to follow through. The officer was convicted of criminal conspiracy by a jury, but the verdict was thrown out by a district court judge who said, “the nearly yearlong kidnapping conspiracy alleged by the government is one in which no one was ever kidnapped, no attempted kidnapping ever took place, and no real-world, non-Internet-based steps were ever taken to kidnap anyone.”

One of the world-changing qualities of the Internet is that it allows people with similar interests to find each other, not matter who or where they are. I’ve been online for a long time and I’ve had discussions with people whose fantasies were most kindly described as gruesome. Some of them might have been terrible people, but it seemed to me that the majority were processing something that thrilled them in what they perceived to be a safe way. On the other hand, there are people incapable of discerning reality from fantasy. For one awful example, take the current case of the two young girls who tried to kill a friend as an act of devotion to Slender Man (at their age, my best friend and I were building structures to try to harness “pyramid power”; not all tween girls are logical).

I won’t claim to have answers or even suggestions. It’s hard to tell if someone ranting online is full of hot air, serious, or unhinged. If you overheard the same conversation at the next table in a restaurant, you would have context, body language, and tone to shape the decision to roll your eyes or call the cops. Does driving fantasy conversations deeper underground give them more taboo power? Are fantasies less potent if they are discussed with others, or obsessed about in private?  In this era of omnipresent government surveillance I am much more careful about what I type and I don’t think that’s a good thing, but I can’t speak for the effect it has on others.

Con Man

Back to a lighter topic! I can’t imagine that if you’re a fan of the TV series Firefly (too soon), you have missed the news that Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion, and PJ Haarsma are making a web series. They’re crowdsourcing Con Man through Indiegogo and now have funding for twelve ten-minute episodes.  Here’s a teaser:

 

What I really wanted to mention was how these guys have shown a real understanding of fan culture. It doesn’t hurt that they’re all charming and funny and that Firefly has a notoriously enthusiastic fanbase. The perks they created have elements that many fans appreciate, like insider information, collectibles, early access, and contact with the stars. I’m a funder at a relatively low level, $25; I wanted to support them and see all the videos, but I didn’t want any physical “stuff”. I laugh at the gifs and videos they’ve released and yes, it’s fun to get a Hang w/ request from Alan Tudyk or PJ Haarsma on my phone.

The first Hang w/ I did, there were fewer than 35 people connected while Alan gave us an update, but with over 33,000 funders so far, the sessions now are crowded and they’ve pushed the technical limits of the service. I’m not the sort of fangirl who goes to great lengths to be near entertainers I admire; I’ve been a background actor in a number of movies and truly enjoyed seeing some of them work (and I will tell the story of having lunch with George Clooney until the day I die), but I don’t go to conventions or lurk outside theatres or hotels. Still, to have Alan sit back on a couch, dogs running in and out of frame, and talk to us about progress on Con Man is much more powerful to me than getting an update video now and then. I haven’t yet watched a Meerkat stream but I’m guessing it gives the same sense of immediacy and intimacy, regardless of how many people are connected. The entertainment industry has changed and I think this is one example where a producer/artist/fan partnership can be better for everyone than the network model.

Personal update

Jakob had his second round of chemotherapy for stage IV stomach cancer last week. The treatment is taking a heavy toll on him, most notably in the pneumonia, hypercalcemia, and anemia he’s fighting now, too. We’re both struggling with the fact that I’ll be there to see him in 8 weeks and our existing vacation plans include reservations for a walk-up flat in a pretty mountain village, far from his doctors. Such lousy timing.

I was forceful in pushing him out of denial yesterday. I couldn’t take any more of his insistence that he would be perfectly capable of doing everything we had planned — which include a long drive, biking, and hiking — when he gets winded from walking across a room and doesn’t know how many more cycles of chemo are planned. I’ll be traveling with my husband for two and a half weeks before meeting Jakob and his health can change dramatically from one day to the next, so I wanted a Plan B. “If we can’t go to ____, then we will _____.” From my point of view, it would be better to have plans we can go beyond than plans that are unreachable, leading to frustration, guilt, and sadness.

Confronting that was very hard for him. This is a damned tragedy, it absolutely is.  He convinced me that he needs the vacation. He’s clinging to it. … [insert sound of heartbreak] … Ok. I understand that.

I never wanted to cancel the trip, but only to have him acknowledge that we might need to change some things because of his condition. Maybe I’ll take the train to a city closer to him and do the driving from there, for example, to make it safer for both of us and less exhausting for him.  He said he’ll be less passive about his health, I’ll try not to stress about the uncertainty, and maybe we will have a burst of luck. We need it.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2015 in Culture, In the News, Side Topics, Video

 

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Wednesday film: Toffler’s “Future Shock”

I think I’m going to make a habit of posting a film — short or otherwise — on Wednesdays.This week’s submission is a 42-minute long 1972 documentary based on sociologist Alvin Toffler’s vision of the future and how he thought we would push back against it (his wife Heidi also contributed, but she was not acknowledged as a co-author). The film is wonderfully bizarre and the quality is lousy, but it might get you thinking. I’ve also included links below to some pieces looking at the book Future Shock40 years after it was published; I suggest you watch the film and form your own impressions first.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2015 in Culture

 

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Wednesday short film: HENRi

Need help getting through the middle of the week?  Enjoy this award winning, Kickstarter-funded, 20-minute film from 2012, in which a spaceship builds itself a body. It considers themes of consciousness and personhood that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

(h/t io9)

The official movie site has some behind-the-scenes production photos, too.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords, Video

 

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Chappie and the desire for emotional machines

Sony Pictures released a vastly improved trailer for the upcoming movie Chappie. The effects look good and the cast is intriguing: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, and both Yolandi and Ninja from Die Antwoord (who seem to be playing versions of themselves).

At one point in the trailer, Dev Patel says, “What interests me is a machine that can think and feel.”  Hmm.

Why is it important to us to create machines that have — or at least, emulate — human emotion?  Is it a God complex or a reproductive urge? Do we think that emotion is a necessary partner to higher-order thinking? Do we fear rationality without emotion? Do we think such machines would be more flexible or simply more relatable? Do we think this is a way to learn more about ourselves? Is there a tipping point past which a sentient and active machine seems like a slave unless it has emotion?

I enjoy the sentient and emotional machine trope as much as anyone, but I wonder about what it says about us that the good guys want emotional robots and the bad ones want rational and obedient machines. Perhaps its merely a cinematic/literary device standing in for the outsider, the person who sees things differently than the “automatons” around him- or herself, the underdog that we want to succeed and be validated. Has there been a (relatively) popular work in which the protagonist advocated on behalf of machines without emotion and the black hats wanted humanistic ones? I’m curious to explore that.

I don’t have a lot of deep thoughts or research summaries to share on this yet, but it has given me something to ponder.

Update: My husband, who has read vastly more science fiction than I have, was able to come up with a tiny solitary example so far. From The Simpsons, of all sources:

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords, Video

 

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Excuse this squeeful fangirl moment

Baymax Poster by Berkay Daglar of the Poster Posse

Poster by Berkay Daglar – http://www.berkaydaglar.com/, via io9

I haven’t stood in line for the first showing of a movie since an ex-boyfriend dragged me to some godawful Star Wars prequel. The one with Jar Jar. Yeah, exactly. Kinda soured me on the experience. But I’m so ridiculously excited for Big Hero 6 that I might have to do it.

Why? Baymax. The first superhero I can relate to! He’s awkward, slow, …generously proportioned…, socially oblivious, kind, and he’s a mess in low energy mode. We saw the first trailer and my husband and I exchanged looks. “That’s me!”  “That’s you!”

I watch documentaries every week. I enjoy a good drama. I like big dark thrillers and action films. But this year, I’m loving the feel good superhero movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and, fingers crossed, Big Hero 6.

 

I am not fast either, Baymax. Now, could someone make me a set of rocket-boosted carbon fiber armor?

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2014 in Our Robot Overlords, Side Topics

 

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Does it matter if movies feature blatantly incorrect science?

The movie Lucy opened in the US last week and it has simultaneously thrilled and enraged the geek subculture of which I consider myself a member. If you somehow haven’t seen the trailer, here you go:

See the dilemma? On the one hand, we get a superhero-type action movie with a female protagonist, directed by Luc Besson.  Win win win! (Though she’s still a sacrificial pawn in a male-dominated system, in a movie that is almost devoid of women, so maybe we’ll scratch off one of those wins.)  On the other hand, the plot emphatically repeats the myth that only about 10% of the average human brain is in use. There is plenty of hand-wringing about the lack of general scientific literacy. So, does it matter when big films present scientific errors as reality?

No:

  • Only people who know the correct science will be annoyed by it and it won’t sway their understanding.
  • It’s fiction. We disregard pseudo-scientific plot devices all the time, from radioactive spider bites to zombifying viruses.
  • It’s harmless. If the misrepresented science was important to the audience members, they would know the truth. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter in their lives.

Yes:

  • It’s offensive to actively perpetuate a myth about how we understand ourselves or the world.
  • It’s poor craftsmanship. Is it that hard for a screenwriter to Google “percentage of human brain used“?
  • OMG so stupid!!1!! <insert appropriate Internet rage here>

In the particular case of Lucy, which I saw yesterday:

  • I think this movie got slammed in some reviews because it perpetuates a known scientific myth, rather than using fantasy to extend beyond our scientific knowledge in an impossible way. It’s something we know is wrong, not just something that is exceedingly unlikely. That’s distracting, mildly infuriating, and disappointing.
  • This isn’t an absurd-but-forgivable device like gamma radiation exposure, quickly submersed in action and plot. It’s given credibility by having an “expert” lecture about it in an academic hall and after that, like an inverted countdown, is a continuous presence throughout the film. Lucy isn’t the only film to use this myth, but it declares it so loudly and aggressively that it’s hard to ignore.
  • It was unnecessary. A better effect could have been achieved with a little technobabble and hand waving. Say that the drug is causing Lucy’s brain to build faster, more extensive connections and her neural network is developing superhuman sensitivities. Is that so hard? Let Morgan Freeman lecture about instances of neural deficit and excess based on medical truth rather then give a portrayal of one of the worst scientists ever. As we walked to the car, my husband made an excellent suggestion: simply cutting out everything Morgan Freeman says in the first half of the movie would improve it instantly. His monologues make a mockery of the scientific method and what we confidently understand right now.
  • Why does the rationale need to seem scientifically valid, anyway? I suspended disbelief just fine in The Fifth Element, The Professional, La Femme Nikita — Besson movies I really enjoy — because the ludicrous concepts weren’t shoved down my throat. He can do so much better. Parts of this movie were gorgeous and the action was good fun, but trying to anchor it in science was a mistake.

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On a related note, let me give an example of pseudo-mathematics done well. The series Silicon Valley‘s first season was built around the development of an amazing digital compression algorithm. The writers consulted with a Stanford professor and one of his graduate students, who came up with a convincing technical explanation of an impossible algorithm. It was good enough that even the techies in the audience could tilt their heads and say, “Hmm, that won’t actually work, but neat idea.”  In the show, the main character’s revelation of how to structure this algorithm was inspired by a hilarious and remarkably accurate scene in which his team calculates the mean time to accomplish a particular absurd action. It’s much like an NSFW version of a What If? entry, but I swear I’ve been in many meetings that devolved this way. You can watch the scene I’m talking about on YouTube here, with a caution about language and whiteboard penis drawings.

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2014 in Side Topics, Video

 

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