The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

I have vague memories of one of my childhood friends being very enthusiastic about The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, it was around the time when the song Video killed the radio star came out. I never saw the movie, time passed and I forgot. One day the word popped in my brain, and thanks to internet I watched the trailer online and ordered the DVD.

Buckaroo Banzai is a top neuro-surgeon, rock star, but also a test pilot. He drives successfully a car through a mountain and across dimensions bringing back some creature from the elsewhere. The newly discovered capacity of dimension travel attracts the attention of other aliens and cold-war earth ends up embroiled into a cross dimensional feud.

Buckaroo Banzai is a typical product of the eighties: a mix of early pop-style, cheesy science-fiction, positive attitude (despite the ongoing cold-war) and low level stuff: labs are small, equipment cobbled together. Buckaroo Banzai has a rock band and a adventurer group, yet the bus that acts as his base is probably smaller than the one used by today’s rock stars (who are certainly not neuro-surgeons).

Title The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
Director W.D. Richter
Writers

Despite the absurd scenario and the crappy special effects, I found the movie quite fun, there is certainly a certain amount of nostalgia, but the movie’s raw nature mean that the story has some pretty unpredictable parts, in particular when you are used to the formulaic movies of today. Some of the ideas are quite quirky, like the fact that all aliens are called John. Quite a strange watch, in particular when you realise that the male characters are way cuter than the only lonely woman in the group – like all science movie of that time, it includes Jeff Goldblum. Add a nice satirical bent to the mix, and you have a fun watch.

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Arrietty

Arietty

The movie only yesterday was a really good surprise, so I’m slowly watching other studio Ghibli productions. The next on my list was 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (Kari-gurashi no Arietti), usually titled just Arietty in European languages. Arietty takes an English novel from 1952, , and adapts it to the Japan of 1960. So, a sick child of a divorced couple is sent to this house to get some rest, by chance he meets Arietty, one of the borrowers, one of the small people living in the house.

Title Kari-gurashi no Arietti
Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writers (novel),
, and (screenplay).

As usual with Ghibli studio movies, the graphics are amazing, the level of detail of the house, the vision from the small people’s perspective is outstanding. The characters are interesting, but I found the story too formulaic and completely predictable (if logic). Each character is bound by the rules of his side, their brief relationship brings destruction and chaos and flight is the only resolution. I suppose this is something to be expected from a British book from the 50’s, but I’m not sure this is the best message for a kids movie.

While this movie is not bad, some parts are actually very nice, it suffers in my opinion of a weak story…

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Consciousness and Aikidō

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Consciousness is a fascinating subject, and the subject of many contradicting theories. A recent article entitled How the light gets out, generated quite some buzz (meaning: I saw it in multiple social network streams). The article is quite long, but presents some interesting ideas, notably that consciousness might not just be a side-effect of our brains, but a specialisation of our attention and help projecting ourselves on other beings and even objects. I like the idea that consciousness is not a bug of our intellect, but the model of our perception of the universe.

While consciousness is a defining feature of humanity and something useful, it is not without side-effects. While we spend a good part of our childhood and our studies learning consciousness and thought, the fact of the matter is that we humans are really efficient went that consciousness is toned down, nearly anything can be killed by over-thinking.

So we strive to get back to a more natural state of mind, the flow, which is basically the state of a young kid playing, but this is the one thing we were never taught, during one’s study courses of non-thinking are rare, I was lucky to get some yoga while in high-school, but that was pretty exceptional in those days. Generally we were taught to think more, not less.

While yoga was interesting for me, I felt it was too passive, and I need some form of sport and so I settled on Aikidō. I tried other martial arts, shōlin-ji kempō while I lived in Japan, and some karate at work. My main problem with theses arts was that they rely a lot on ( kata ). A kata is a sequence of moves that you learn, a mock fight against an invisible adversary. Because there is no adversary, the moves are not linked to any external input, except maybe somebody counting, so you body has to learn the full sequence, in the correct order, without switching sides.

Aikidō has few kata, in my dōjō they are mostly about body moves (and short) and some sword techniques. For the rest, you do the technique with a partner, an uke so the techniques are about something you body can feel and react to: your partner. What technique you should do is pretty implicit in the context, and if once in a while you do the wrong one, people are very gracious about it. Even when doing shōlin-ji kempō, an aikidō technique would slip out, the teacher’s comment was insightful: 体が覚える (kara ga oboeru ) – the body remembers.

The notion of not consciously doing a technique, but just let the body do the right thing is far from new, Musashi mentions it in the book of five rings as the technique of no-technique. Many martial art teachers have repeated to me the same concept in one form or another. A key aspect of martial art techniques is that they are supposed to work even when I’m busy panicking, thankfully I never had to verify this in a fight, but when falling from the bike, they just happen. This is why I think that mock fights, 乱取り (randori ), are important: this is the moment when the brain must switch off from the tactical problem and learn to think in strategical terms, i.e. figure out where the adversaries are, and not concentrate on the techniques.

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Iron Man Ⅲ

Iron Man 3

I was really looking forward to Iron Man 3, I got quite attached to the character of Tony Stark, in particular the way he evolved in the Avenger Movie. Joss Whedon did a great job juggling with a group of characters, some of which completely absurd, but this movie clearly concentrated on only one of them. The trailer was also promising more development around Pepper, so this was a movie I started watching with a very positive outlook.

Iron Man 3 (2001)
Director: Shane Black

Shane Black did the obvious thing, demolish the character to make him more human, but forgot to have an actual plot for this – if you pretend to make a character grow-up, you need a plot that does not have holes a five year old kid could see. I would also help if the better human was actually vaguely interesting. The basic premise of the movie is already sketchy: Tony Stark has psychological problems following the New York events depicted in the previous movie, and picks up a fight with a bad guy called the Mandarin that blows up random stuff in the US and personally threatens the US president, and the Avengers do nothing: they let a guy they considered unreliable before he went through an alien wormhole, and the government that was willing to nuke New York to get rid of the aliens handle the crisis.

I’m not completely sure what kind of film this was supposed to be, it felt like some cinematographic Frankenstein had assembled parts of various movies:

  • The flashback set at the end of the XXth century felt some James Bond like thriller.
  • The episode in the Tennessee felt like Spielberg had redone a weird version of Rambo, cum cute kid.
  • The Florida episode felt like some cheap TV show, or maybe the movie Charlie’s Angels.
  • The various fights scenes in between felt like some Transformer knock-off, with some vague reminiscence of Adam Warren’s Iron Man ideas, badly understood.
  • I don’t even want to talk about the beauty pageant / hacking part.

One of the strengths of the previous movies was the quick wits of Tony Stark and the bickering between him and Pepper, here we get none of that: Jarvis, the computer, and Harley, the cute kids are the only entities smart enough to hold a conversation with Tony. Were in the previous movies there witting banter about technology, we get lame jokes that could only come from a committee or a person with no love or understanding for technology. The conclusion of the movie says it all: Stark’s technological heart is removed and he ditches the Iron Man suit.

The end really felt like something rushed, after the final fight scene, major plot elements are kind of put back into place with a few seconds of screen time and the off-screen voice, I suppose this was for contractual reasons, it did not make much sense to me, but then again, at that stage, the movie felt completely hollow, as even the plot holes had their own plot holes. The movie would nearly have made sense if Iron Man would not have come back to earth from his wormhole voyage, but instead to an alternate earth modelled after Idiocracy. The end credit confirmed my Frankenstein feeling, as they are done in style reminiscent of the TV shows of the 80s, including images from the previous movies.

Without a doubt, this was the worst Iron Man movie of the Marvel franchise, the plot is a bad as a Transformer movie, the film style inconsistent and boring, and done with no love or interest in the subject. I can be avoided without any hesitation.

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Wabi-sabi electronics

wabi sabi electronics

There used to be a supermarket at the nearby tram station. Besides the obvious groceries, that place would also send random stuff, discounted wares of unclear origin. One day they sold a weird set of LED lamps, three soft eggs that could run off their own batteries, rotating between colours. The would recharge on a triangular support. Clearly this was cheap electronics, the switches to turn them on and off were hard, and the electronic controlling the colour shift was pretty imprecise, each egg would change colours at a slightly different rhythm. I bought them on a whim, as a prop for the end of year LARP we did that year.

While I liked these eggs, I would not turn them on so often. The soft shells have slowly turned yellow, somehow fitting it better in a room floored with tatami mats. During the last cleaning, one of the eggs fell off and the switch broke, it is always on, and rotates between colours until the battery dies. The charging board, like most of electronics in my living room, is slaved to the TV, so it only recharges when the TV is on. So I now have a ghost lamp that slowly dies after I turned on the TV.

侘寂 (Wabi-sabi) electronics…

Today’s Kanji:
Kanji Kun ON Signification Henshall
わび (wabi) (TA) Subdued taste, proud, lonely
さび (sabi) ジャク (JAKU), セキ (SEKI) Patina, antique look, loneliness, mellow 1345

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The day mobile phone will have spectrometers…

schematic plan of the voyager probe

It has become common-place to say about modern smartphones that they are fully fledged computers that fit in your pocket. I don’t think this is a good analogy: first phones don’t fit in normal pockets, expect if you are wearing really baggy clothes, second mobile phones are much more than desktop computer, they have sensors. Think of it, the most basic smartphone has a rich array of sensors, some of which are not commonly found in computers: microphone, camera, accelerometer, GPS, compass and some internal thermometers.

Each new generation ads new sensors, either as a feature (fingerprint reader) or to improve the usability (infrared detector to detect if the ear is against the device), and many apps use these sensors in interesting and innovative ways. Even parts of the device that are not technically sensors can be repurposed as sensors, the wifi antennas can for instance be used as a radar, and because they are lacking a filter, some camera phones can be used to detect infrared light.

Bright infrared spot on a remote control

So more than computers that might fit in some pocket, mobile phones are increasingly similar to space probes, small computers hooked up to an array of sensors flying around (and sometimes crashing hard). The only thing missing is a set of propulsors and even that is looked into. Adding more sensors to mobile phones makes sense for manufacturers, they are cheap, enable original apps and a healthy ecosystem and are generally a good market differentiator; better than processing power and its game of cheating in benchmarks.

Do not expect laboratory equipment: that stuff is expensive, but nowadays, one can do impressive measurements with a large array of sensors and some processing. Mobile phones, by their sheer number and the cumulative computing power they host could do some interesting measurements. Thanks to their ability to scan barcodes, mobiles phones are already disrupting the supply chain, end-consumers reading and measuring the data intended for the retailers and their providers. Now imagine a world where mobile phones have radiation detectors or spectrometers.

We are provided with a lot of information: that this wood comes from that region, that this food contains that ingredient. This comes from an authority or another whose structure and allegiances can be pretty obscure, and who never checks the goods completely, samples and spot checks are the typical operating procedure. Now imagine that every person could run some checks on the same goods, and validate the information. Radiation levels can be used to check the age of vine or wood, spectral analysis can reveal the presence of various substances in food or water. The benzene in the Perrier bottles in 1990 was not found by some health organisation, but by a lab testing out a new spectrometer.

A good crowd-sourcing platform, and you get way higher sample rates and the raw data, not some legal criteria of safety that changes when you cross the border. Each phone owner could, at a small scale acts as a small health inspecting bureau, with the additional benefit of being in the leaves of the distribution network, so correlating the source of bad things will be much easier.

Edit: here are some instruction to build a spectrometer.
Edit: an article explaining how to build a spectral imager out of a camera.

The Voyager spacecraft structure – schematic diagram – public domain

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iOS7

ios7 screen capture – notification center

The new version of the operating system for Apple’s iDevices came out while I was traveling in Ireland. I was in no hurry to install, I don’t like changing my system while away from home, and in my many cases it is wiser to wait for version x.x.1, which fixes the usual bugs that plague the first massively deployed version of software, in the present case, screen lock security issues.

Still in installed iOS7 on my iPhone 5. The most striking difference is certainly the new look of the UI, closer to what Android and Windows 8 look like: flat surfaces, thinner fonts, more geometric and abstract look. There were a lot of discussion about skeuomorphism and Jonathan Ive’s style, for me this is just the logical step for devices with high-screen resolution: try to use those pixels as efficiently and clearly as possible. This is probably a general trend in design those days.

I found this change refreshing, it gave me the impression that the screen had been replaced with a cleaner one. Under the skin, there were not so many changes, mostly incremental changes, which is fine for me. I appreciated the new control center, which follows Android’s lead but add some common used tools: calculator, torchlight and timer. I use the timer a lot for cooking or the laundry. The new notification center is also a nice improvement, less a fighting place for rowdy apps, more a synthesis of what is going to happen during the day. I like the fact that the information from the alarm clock are merged, so I know that I’m going to be woken up at 8:00 with a first meeting at 10:00. Nothing ground-breaking but nice, at this stage I don’t really want the way I use my phone to be change, but small improvements in my daily routine task are always welcome.

Siri voice dictation also seems to work much better for me, the various speech recognition softwares always seemed to have trouble with my weird accent, I was able for the first time to dictate an e-mail in english an send it using voice commands. More than ten years after I had my first fixed phone that claimed to be able to recognise my contact’s name and dial the correct number, this technology is finally becoming mature.

Under the hood, it seems most of the improvement in iOS are related to games: game controllers, spriting API, etc. Not immediately useful for me, but we will see how games use these, I certainly use my phone more often for gaming than my PS3, and I certainly will not buy a PS4, so I’m curious to see in what direction Apple will push gaming.

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