on Avatar

I finally saw Avatar, and left the theatre with lots of conflicting reactions to the movie.

  • cinematically gorgeous
  • amazing visuals
  • fascinating biology
  • but… why are the Na’vi simply caricatures of humans?
  • but… in a fully 3D-modeled-and-rendered world, why are the Na’vi so human?
  • why is Cameron so heavy handed in his Gaia-theory stuff?
  • this is largely just a mashup of every Cameron movie I’ve ever seen, right down to characters and gadgets.
  • what would this movie have been like had Cameron really let go of terrestrial biology, psychology, and sociology?

My first reaction, one that hit me strongly when the Na’vi first appear on screen, was: “A rasta jar jar binks would not seem out of place in this movie.”

My second reaction was to the colonial nature of the story. Big, bad, evil, greedy, corporate (white) humans travel to a new world and try to take it over. This is so much better described by Annalee Newitz. I was disappointed to not have a real story of The Other – rather just a glimpse of a (strongly humanoid) Other only insofar as it benefits or impacts Humans.

My third reaction was to the familiarity of the story threads. “Aliens 2: Na’vi in the Mist: Braveheart’s Revenge.” Carter Burke was there in full force. I’m guessing Paul Reiser was unavailable for filming Avatar, but the character was there in complete detail as reprised by Giovanni Ribisi. The robotic exoskeleton UFC championship match was replayed from the closing of Aliens. Sigourney Weaver brought back Ripley, as reimagined through the eyes of Dian Fossey. Everything in this movie felt familiar. And this completely deflated any sense of alienness or truly otherworldness.

As someone who spent a few years as an undergrad studying zoology, I had really high hopes. Here, we had an alien world, completely invented by Cameron. A world that was modeled and rendered inside a computer, free of terrestrial constraints and preconceptions.

Life on Pandora could have been truly different. Instead, it was compatible with terrestrial life – right down to the DNA. We have upright bipedal humanoids. Sure, they’re bigger (due to lower gravity on Pandora – see? they were paying attention to what life could be like off Earth), but they really just look like big humans in blue body paint. Why did the Na’vi even need arms and legs? What would life be like if they were vermiform? If they had no skeletal system? What if they were truly different, didn’t have DNA, and were not readily understandable? What if they didn’t eat? If they were able to generate energy directly from their environment? Instead, we have “aliens” with biological systems very much like our own. Where we were able to build colonial schools to teach the primitive natives to speak english so that we could improve them and rescue them from their indigenous existence.

The one notable exception is the ethernet jack woven into their dreadlocks.

Even alien sex is compatible with the human notion of it. We have a race of people who are able to directly connect with each other through the dreadnet jack, and yet their “mating for life” is making the beast with two backs. Sure, that makes for more identifiable actions on screen, and perhaps draws the audience in a bit more, but even this could have been Different.

Avatar was frustrating to me because Cameron and his team showed that they could think about biology with a bit of a fresh slate – or at least one drawn from non-terrestrial-land-based lifeforms. Many of the species shown in the Pandora forest were based on terrestrial deep sea aquatic forms. The filter feeders on the floor of the forest were fantastic. When I first saw Jakesully stumble into the field of fans, I thought “oh! those look like filter feeding tube worms. I wonder what would happen if he touched one of the tendrils…” And then Jakesully touched one, and PLIFF it retracted just as a tube worm’s fan would. Very cool. Not what you’d expect to see in a terrestrial forest. And yet still somewhat familiar.

The little lizard-like critters that could fly using what appeared to be a form of da Vinci’s Helicopter were interesting. Not sure that’d be physically possible, but still interesting. And different. Yet still familiar. Lizards. da Vinci’s Helicopter.

The seed pods from the Tree of Life were also fascinating – fluid air-borne jellyfish. These were probably the most unique organisms shown in the movie. And, still these were familiar. Jellyfish.

The official Pandorapedia has entries for a few species, but I would love to see info about the other organisms that make up the world of Pandora.

And… unobtanium? really?

I can only hope that the sequel doesn’t involve some kind of lame Star Trek notion of a universal genome, salted by a grandfather species billions of years ago. Avatar had the potential to be a game changing story of an alien world. Instead, we got a rehash of White Guilt, told through bits of every major motion picture ever made. I hope there are some follow-up documentaries, exploring the species of Pandora without the lens of human superiority and domination.

on censorship in the Apple app store

I’ve been trying to be a voice of reason when it comes to how Apple operates. I’d rather see them as generally trying to do the right thing, but struggling sometimes with some of the nitty gritty things. Like letting individuals interpret blanket policies for what is and is not acceptable in the app store.

I’m fine with Apple deciding that an app is unacceptable if it crashes the iPhone. If it hijacks the cellular network. If it leaks memory, data, or something.

I’m not fine with Apple censoring apps. They hold the exclusive entry for software to get installed on an iPhone or iPod Touch. There is no other authorized way to install apps, without going through the Apple app store. And that means Apple has a very serious responsibility to act honourably, and in the best interests of its customers.

The latest app store controversy is swirling around Ninjawords. An application that provides a slick UI on top of the online Wiktionary dictionary database.

Someone at Apple decided to test the app by explicitly and manually searching for “fuck” “shit” and a few other stopwords. The software was designed to disable text autocompletion for questionable terms, so the only way to find them is to type them in yourself. But the developers missed “cunt” in their autocomplete filter in the last version. So Apple responds by slapping the app with a restricted 17+ rating – meaning kids don’t have access to a good dictionary on their Apple mobile devices.

Apple, this is not cool. You don’t get to censor content, especially content in a FUCKING DICTIONARY. Jesus fucking h. christ.


ps. this screenshot was taken of the Dictionary.app that came pre-installed on my Mac – the same Dictionary.app that my 6 year old son has unrestricted access to.

Update: Phil Schiller responded to John Gruber as a result of his post on DaringFireball.net – the response is a good one, but John’s take is pretty much the same as mine – even if Apple doesn’t censor the app themselves, there is pressure put on developers to censor themselves to avoid age-restrictive ratings. The inconsistent application of these ratings means writing an app can be a bit of  crap shoot. But, Schiller’s email is a very good sign.

the voice of reason

It’s a really damned scary place, where I’m the one speaking calmly and acting as the voice of reason. It’s happened rather more frequently than I’m comfortable with lately, both online and off.

I don’t know if it’s “the economy”, or the shorter days, or something else, but some people seem to have collectively lost their sense of rationality and humour.

Halloween 2007 - 7If you read a post by someone online, don’t jump immediately to paint them as EVIL! if they’re saying something you don’t like or agree with. Take some time. Maybe only a few seconds. Breathe. Try to imagine what’s going on from the other person’s perspective. Do they have valid reasons for saying what they’re saying? Could they really be doing the right thing, but you perceive it as EVIL! because you don’t have all of the facts? Could they really be intending to say something else, but are being misinterpreted due to a language or context gap?

The first step toward effective communication isn’t kneejerk reactionism. It isn’t polarizing pigeonholing. It’s trying to figure out what the other person (or people) are REALLY saying, and why. Then, and ONLY then, is a productive response even possible.

I’ve seen this kind of reactionary kneejerk evilcasting so many times. Usually, it’s Apple (and Jobs) cast as EVIL! because of DRM or something else (but, seriously, HDCP in the new MacBooks? WTF? It’s really tempting to cast THAT as EVIL! but again, I don’t have all of the facts…)

But now it seems as though the kneejerkism is spreading, and it’s not productive. It’s harmful. It’s corrosive.

We all just need to chill the hell out. Breathe. Think before reacting.

I don’t get blogrolls

I’m not sure why people put miles-long blogrolls on every page of their blogs. Sure, have a “links” page. But every single page containing a list of all the blogs you read? Some apparently several hundred long? Page bloat. Just because there’s a widget for Blogroll doesn’t mean you need to use it. On every page of your site. All they’re doing is making your site harder to navigate, take longer to load, and completely messing up utilities like Google Blogsearch’s “Incoming Links” (which is part of the WordPress dashboard – now rendered useless because every site with my blog in their blogroll now lists tonnes of pages linking to my site, even when the posts have nothing to do with me or my blog.)

on the insanity of an automaker bailout

The proposed US bailout of greedy financial institutions is crazy enough, but now there’s talk of bailing out the automakers? What in hell happened to the free market? US automakers are in trouble because they build shitty products that people don’t want to buy. And they haven’t retooled fast enough, as others have. Toyota’s not looking for a bailout, they’re just making better products. Honda’s doing OK. etc…

A US automaker bailout is just the government declaring “we know our products are shit, and we think you should keep buying them, so we’re going to subsidize the morons that run the companies.”

Companies that come up with brainstorms like the 3 ton monster truck “Escalade Hybrid” (now getting 18 miles per gallon! amazing!) shouldn’t be allowed to continue existing. They need to go away. It’s sad that people will lose their jobs, but the companies are zombies already. Lots of OTHER people are going to lose their jobs, without the chance of bailouts. Why are automakers special? Because we LOVES our cars. And burning oil. That’s the (North) American way.

Spore: First Impressions

I’d LOVE to have written a post on how awesome Spore is, what a great game/simulation it is, and how I’ve been playing it nonstop since it was released.

But I can’t.

I prepurchased Spore for Mac on September 5 – 2 days before the release – and have yet to receive a download link for Spore for Mac from EA. They sent me links to the PC AutoDownloader, and PC installer. But no Mac version. So far, I’ve been ripped off by EA.

To date, all I’ve received for my money is this:

As it is, I have a hard time recommending Spore to anyone, because it means dealing with EA. And all they’ve done is rip me off and not answer my repeated pleas to give me the product I paid for.

fracking spammers

I’ve found several comment-spam campaign management applications mentioned in my blog’s referrer stats. Most appear to be from Turkey – is that the new hotbed of spam?

And, so far, all appear to be .aspx applications.

Is there a positive correlation between jackass cretin spammers, and MCSE-accredited web developers? Coincidence? Or is .aspx just the current fave platform of brainless L337 Skrypt Kiddies?

Just imagine if all of the energy spent trying to blast comment spam onto blogs, and spent trying to prevent said comment spam blasting from being successful, was instead directed toward something positive. Like curing cancer. Or feeding the hungry.

Damn you, Google, for setting up (and maintaining) an economic incentive for lowlife scumsucking douchebags to try to benefit by foisting spam across the ‘net. The amount of wasted time, energy, and karma is simply mindboggling.

on leadership in the edublogosphere

There’s been much handwringing about the “edublogosphere” not flocking to follow self-proclaimed leaders. That people are disgusted because other people don’t clamor to follow someone else’s lead because they say they are leading something. I’m not going to link, or point fingers, or name names. I’m going to keep this post short, because I could very easily devolve into full-on rant mode.

Leadership is earned, not taken. You’re not a leader just because you say so. People shouldn’t be compelled to follow you just because you make a bunch of noise. If you are a leader, people will follow you. If you’re not a leader, they won’t. Get over it.

That, and one of the beautiful things about the “edublogosphere” is that there aren’t any leaders. There doesn’t need to be a leader. It’s a community of peers, and every individual’s perception of the community is different, according to their connections, needs, and contributions.

Stop worrying about leading, and just work on affecting the change you want to see.

Update: My language was unclear, and I was (rightly) called out by James Farmer in the comments. Here’s the bit I responded with to clarify what I was trying to say:

“what I was trying to get at is that there is no set of “official” leaders – my leaders are different than yours, and they are different for every individual. There is no defined hierarchy that everyone agrees define “the leaders” that must be followed…”

earth day sucks.

There. I said it.

Earth day sucks. It’s harmful.

It provides a cop-out, marketing-based, feel good way for people and companies to feel good about half-assed lame excuses for making a real sustainable difference.

Every day should be earth day. This one-day-per-year stuff is garbage. This “oh! what did you do for earth day?” feel good crap doesn’t help. Frack off. Every fracking day is earth day. What did you do for EVERY OTHER DAY OF THE YEAR earth day?

Calgary NW Landfill - 3

Just like striving for “carbon neutrality” isn’t going far enough. We’ve got to start undoing a half century of crapping all over this planet, and these silly Hallmark™ sound bite gestures just don’t cut it.

Yeah, awareness is good. But, really, who needs to have their awareness raised? This is 2008. This is post-Inconvenient-Truth. This is not news to anyone who can or will do anything about it. Can we stop the silliness now, and just assume that saving the earth should be a mainstream, full-time activity and not some stupid annual event? The “Green” issue of Vogue. The “Green” episode of $stupidTVShow. The celebrities touting their guilt-salving charity work. Ridiculous.

As long as we have countries spending a trillion dollars on wars to secure cheap gas for SUVs, all the weak gestures in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans. As long as we have countries willing to strip mine entire provinces to extract petroleum to keep the economy booming, switching a few light bulbs isn’t going to make much of a difference.