Remembering Michael Crichton

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This month marks the late Michael Crichton’s 74th birth anniversary and it got me reminiscing about Jurassic Park.

Released in 1993, the film made box office history led to many other Crichton stories being filmed (Disclosure, Rising Sun, Congo, Sphere, Eaters of the Dead and of course Lost World). I have read a significant chunk of what Crichton has had to offer going back to Terminal Man and right up to Next. I don’t care much for his work earlier work under the pseudonym John Lange though Case of Need could be interesting to some.

1994

I had just donned spanking new three strings that summer which I took to be a sign of adulthood and marked the occasion by making an earnest transition from Enid Blyton to the Hardy Boys and Three Investigators and refusing to read “comics”.

After having refused to let me see Jurassic Park in the theaters my dad came home one day with a crisp new paperback. He doesn’t really read fiction and the only non-religious books on his shelf to this day are The Tao of Physics & A Brief History of Time.

The embossed black T-Rex skeleton on the cover was inviting and I picked up the book when he wasn’t looking. I was hooked from the start. I eagerly read everything that Crichton had written until then and remember being thoroughly disappointed with Disclosure which had none of the sci-fi/action plot elements of his earlier works. (Rising Sun was at least entertaining.) I quickly moved on to Asimov, Clarke and other writers who were “truer” to the sci-fi genre and haven’t looked back since.

I did faithfully leaf through every new book Crichton came up with since but he was clearly past his prime by the early 2000s. After showing some promise with Timeline and Prey, in an almost M Night Shyamalan fashion, the quality of his work dwindled until I couldn’t force myself get to the end of Pirate Latitudes and after reading the sample of Micro recently chose not to download it on my Kindle.

But then again I came here to praise Caesar, not to bury him.

1969

After dishing out a series of potboilers, Crichton had just written Andromeda Strain, his first real attempt at somewhat “hard” sci-fi, which was yet to achieve critical acclaim. He writes a review of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in The New Republic which you can read here which opens a window into his mind. He uses the pretext of a review to lament the lack of good sci-fi that is also good fiction. He blames Verne and Wells for being romantics, berates Heinlein, Zelazny and Ballard for exploiting drug culture and accuses Kurt Vonnegut of being a charlatan – ‘There is also some business about a distant planet and flying saucers, but that does not make the book science fiction, any more than flippers make a cat a penguin.’ And then having finished this review he went on to write EXACTLY what he thought good science fiction should be for the next 30 years, making the genre both accessible and mainstream, giving millions of 80s kids a taste of it and getting them hooked for life. 

Thank you for that Michael Crichton and Happy Birthday!

And so it goes.

10 years since Scanner Darkly – CNN vs Rotoscoping

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Scanner Darkly (the movie) directed by the brilliant Richard Linklater came out in July 2006. The movie has so many things to talk about including the war on drugs (and why it cannot be won), PKD’s own creativity being fuelled by his substance abuse, how scramble suits could be the way to end racism etc.

Instead, I’ve decided to pick form over substance and talk about the animation instead because of two stats:

  • it took 18 months to animate the movie in 2006
  • with Convolutional Neural Networks it might just take a day to do that by the end of 2016 (I exaggerate highly, but read on)

Back in 2006, I was amazed by the animation technique so I tried to read up on Interpolated Rotoscoping which was the technique used to create the movie. I didn’t get very far but here is a nice 4 min video about it and some quotes from in there:

we shot the actual film and we locked … and then there was a lengthy post-production process in this case was 18 months

the animation process which is so cumulative and so slow – hundreds of hours to do 1 minute

we thought it would take 350 man hours per minute, we were pretty off on that it took a lot longer

 

Fast forward to 2015-16 we have

1. CNN and this paper

2. This Torch implementation on github

3. Ostagram becoming a big thing overnight

4. Prisma

They also have plans for video, with Moiseenkov saying their processing technique can still work quickly enough for a mobile video scenario.

“Photos is only the start. We plan to add something like the Boomerang app from Instagram. Like short cycles. We plan to add them in the near future — I think in July. And some sort of very clever filters where the quality will be superb,” he adds.

So potentially by the end of 2016 that 18 months of work and ~100,000 man-hours of effort could effectively become a day or less of work for a powerful CNN – I’ll stop there and leave you to think about that.

2112 – why the album is fresh 40 years on

rushad“We don’t want to change what people think about rock & roll, we just want to show them what we think about it.” – Alex Lifeson, 1976

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of Rush‘s iconic album 2112. 2112 was Rush’s fourth album and came out in 1976 after the modest success of Fly By Night and Caress of Steel in the previous year and changed everything for the band.

 

2112 in itself tells the tale of individuality being quelled by the establishment in a dystopian future some 50 years from now. It is very representative of the Cold War era and inspired by Ayn Rand.

A lot has been said about this, but today I don’t want to change what people think about 2112, I just want to talk about what it means to me.

In 2011, Sucker Punch came out and had a marvelous remixed soundtrack including a reinterpretation of Where is my Mind, the Pixies original of which capped off the glorious ending to Fight Club. When asked about his choice of soundtrack, the now much detested Zack Snyder says:

“If you go with the original song, you just get the moment. But if you go with covers you also get all of the baggage you bring to it. I like the baggage. It kind of resonates and rings across time, it’s not just of the moment.”

I loved Sucker Punch and its soundtrack and I loved it even more when Snyder told me why he made his choice.

Around the same time Ernest Cline came up with Ready Player One. RP1 has everything to keep you interested the Metaverse, MOOC, a young underdog protagonist, numerous videogame and pop-culture references and finally a beautiful homage to Rush that got my heart racing. The baggage was special.

The prescient Spielberg has bought the rights to RP1 and production is underway with a target release date of summer 2018. In all likelihood this will end up being some kind of 3D IMAX movie targeting young adults with strategic product placements and tie ups with Nintendo++ for all the gaming references.

But could it be more?

The Metaverse gets more real by the day and almost everything else that RP1 describes exists here and now. Forget the theaters and forget a tie-in video game (not everyone wants to play).

I am hoping instead for a world in 2018 where, wearing a VR headset, I will get a chance to emulate Parzival extracting that 1974 Gibson Les Paul-in-the-stone and playing Discovery. Wouldn’t that be something?!

Data Mining Hong Kong Property Prices

With property prices in HK finally starting to ease looks like it’s finally time to think about buying.

Fortunately, for a data junkie like me, a lot of websites, including banks like HSBC, provide detailed historic data on price trends and current bank valuations right down to individual floors and units for each apartment out there. However there don’t seem to be easily downloadable CSV files anywhere and getting hold of the data seems to involve a tonne of clicking and form filling.

After examining a few websites I found Home Price to have detailed and reliable data as well as a simple and elegant structure and well-suited to scraping.

Finally found some time this weekend to build a quick and dirty scraper (deploy at your own risk!).

Also some preliminary raw data for just one building.

Happy House Hunting!

IMPORTANT INFORMATION – I do not claim ownership of this data and I am not looking to share or profit from it – it is property of Home Price.

Addressing Existential Angst – This is Water

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I find myself coming back again and again to this wonderful David Foster Wallace speech (~20 mins) on how to deal with existential angst, that I found a few months ago. I recommend you listen to it here while reading it here.

Summarizing or quoting here would be a disservice to the original so I am going to refrain from doing that. If you like what you hear and want to know more about DFW I recommend watching The End of the Tour.

 

 

Why you should read John Brunner if you care about the future

I came across John Brunner a few years ago when I read Stand on Zanzibar . I love Brunner because his writing style adheres to some of my core beliefs of what sci-fi writing should be about. Here are three excerpts from The Shockwave Rider (1975) which is based in the early 21st century that illustrate why you should be reading his works.

FENCED BUT NOT FOILED

Inter alia the Handbook of the National Association of Players at the Game of Fencing states:
– The game may be played manually or electronically.
– The field shall consist of 101 parallel equidistant lines coded AA, AB, AC … BA, BB, BC … to EA (omitting the letter I), crossed at 90 ° by 71 parallel equidistant lines 01 to 71.
– The object is to enclose with triangles a greater number of coordinate points than the opponent…

Worldbuilding over Narrative – I am strongly of the belief that in sci-fi the context is more important than the storyline itself. A lot of excellent sci-fi has been created by taking contemporary stories and contextualizing them in imaginary worlds – a good example being The Stars by Destination, a futuristic retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo. The stock approach is to let context be implied from dialogues and monologues (diary entries being the most pedestrian of the lot) and it is pretty hard to build a lot of context quickly without boring the audience.

In Shockwave, Brunner introduces the fictional game of Fencing in a brutally efficient manner by simply including a Fencing Rulebook between chapters, abruptly and with no additional context. Contrast this with how the late Iain Banks labours through each contest in The Player of Games (loved the substance, hated the style)


“I’m a poor player myself; it would be a mismatch. But why did fencing appeal to you rather than, say, Go, or even chess?”
“Chess has been automated,” was the prompt reply. “How long is it since a world champion has done without computer assistance?”
“I see. Yes, I understand nobody has yet written a competent fencing program. Did you try it? You had adequate capacity.”
“Oh, using a program to play chess is work. Games are for fun. I guess I could have spoiled fencing, if I’d spent a year or two on the job. I didn’t want to.”

 

 

Technology but also how social values have been influenced by technological change – Brunner cares deeply about social problems of the future and how technology hasn’t done a good job of solving them.

Brunner having spent a few pages writing up the rules of Fencing, avoids the temptation of having a match-up between the protagonist and his interlocutor. Instead they talk about the value in creating an AI to “solve” it which is an important topic few people have addressed. Likewise that Brunner came up with Shockwave’s larger theme (I won’t tell you exactly what it is) 40 years ago gives me goosebumps in light of Apple vs the FBI!

Prescience – Brunner retains healthy realism in all his writing – he doesn’t make up overly fancy tech or aliens and he makes some pretty accurate predictions about the future. I find it fascinating that in Shockwave which is set in the early 21st Century correctly predicts AIs cracking chess and implies Go has been “solved” as well. Timely given how Lee Seedol has been faring vs AlphaGo.

 

By the time Reverend Lazarus fought his way through the maze of interlinked credit-appraisal computers and nailed the tapeworm that had just been hatched, he could well be ragged and starving.

 

Neologisms – Brunner does an excellent job of coming up with new words for things that don’t exist yet (almost none of them being portmanteaus – too contrived and easy). The bit above isn’t representative except it just happens to be perhaps the first time someone thought about self-replicating malware and decided this was an appropriate name for it.

I’ll end with this chapter-within-chapter from Stand on Zanzibar (written in 1968) that illustrates all of this again – worldbuilding over narrative, social impact of tech, prescience and neologisms –  doesn’t “acceleratube” remind you of something?

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Why everyone should download Overdrive and switch to Audiobooks

If you’ve spent any time at all talking to me about books over the past year I’ve likely hijacked a few minutes of that conversation to expound the virtues of Overdrive (of which I cannot get enough).

Here is that sermon in print:

Audio over E: If you don’t check your phone while sitting in front of the TV or stay away from Whatsapp or Facebook while reading a multi-page article on your phone, well, congratulations! You can stop reading here and go back to what you were doing earlier. Otherwise, you’ve probably seen your reading habit suffer as a result of diminished attention span. I find that audiobooks provide the necessary sensory insulation to be able to absorb content without distraction. Further if you’re spending a material portion of your day in front of a screen anyway, it helps get your eyes and neck a rest once in a while, letting your ears do the heavy lifting.

Getting over the hump: I found getting used to audiobooks very challenging to begin with. I recommend easing yourself in, either by listening to something you’ve read already or by sticking to humour – I opted to do both and dug into Bill Bryson. Persevere through at least 5-6 hours of material before you decide to give up on audio. I promise you second wind.

The voice matters:  I tend to stay away from authors who read their own books – they don’t seem to realize that reading is as much an art as writing – the exceptions to this rule are stage and radio comedians who read their books (David Sedaris is an excellent example). Hachette and Randomhouse do an excellent job of picking pleasant and appropriate voices for their publications.

Fiction vs Non-fiction: Non-fiction is significantly easier than fiction as you can afford to drift away if you like and still not feel lost. Fiction, the kind I read at least, requires high attention to detail and is harder to follow on audio though I continue trying. Whodunnits are the worst and I stick to my kindle for them.

Add Ons: Pacing, Snoozing etc: Most audiobook apps allow you to modulate pace without affecting pitch – this is a life saver especially once you adjust to the format and want to kick the speed up a couple of notches. Almost all players also come with a snooze function that lets you play audio for a chosen period of time before switching off – keeps me from staring into my phone while in bed into the wee hours of the morning.

And finally..

Overdrive vs Audible: About a year back Lifehacker did a poll on audiobook services and Audible won hands down. I’ve tried Audible and I’ve found their service to be excellent. My beef with the ecosystem though is that audiobooks are notoriously expensive vs e-books and perhaps rightly so – it takes a lot more effort to create a good audiobook and the audience for audiobooks is markedly smaller for now. Even with the subscription model that gets me a free book each month and discounts, it doesn’t make sense for me to buy books on Audible with the same frivolousness as I do on Kindle. Here is where Overdrive comes in.

Overdrive is connected to over 30,000 libraries & schools – if you have a first world library membership (such as with the NLB ) that allows you access to their audiobook collection (apart from their e-book collection) so long as you’re a library member. The app seamlessly interfaces with your library’s digital collection allowing you to sign in with your library card credentials, search and download any book you like. Getting on to Overdrive has brought me back to reading a material amount of long form content each week after trying to desperately make it work for several years. For this reason I cannot recommend it enough.

Bonus: Finally the one complaint I have with the app is the inability to view the entire audiobook collection of your library in an endless scroll without having to hit next page each time. I wrote a simple crawler for NLB here which should spit out info into text file that you can parse into something like this.

Happy listening!

 

Cannibals & Kings – Marvin Harris

A wonderful book! Gave me deep insights especially into the cultural origins of androcentrism.

Closing words are lines to live by:

In Life, as in any game where the outcome depends on both luck and skill, the rational response to bad odds is to try harder.

the anti-recommendation engine – 2

This post originally appeared on Facebook

As a first step to exposing myself to books outside my comfort zone I’ve built this basic tool – https://goo.gl/6m4h4r
This google sheet contains the nearly 10,000 audiobooks available at National Library of Singapore and randomly recommends 5 of them with helpful Overdrive download links.
The plan is to open this sheet whenever I’m on the lookout for a new book and force myself to download at least one of the 5, preferably something outside my comfort zone.
Let’s see how it goes!