08 December 2008

Happy birthday Photospace!


Photospace gallery had its tenth anniversary celebration last Friday, with a non-themed group show. Also, a new venture began with the opening of Gilberd Marriott Gallery. Basically, James Gilberd and Mark Marriott are expanding the gallery to other art media, although photography will also be featured. The opening exhibition is series of paintings by Shane Hammond, Spirit of Now.

Highlights of the group exhibition for the anniversary included Siren Deluxe's latest work, which gave me a chuckle.

27 November 2008

Question for John Campbell

I emailed Campbell Live a variation of the following:

The lead story in Campbell Live tonight was about the annoying, unpleasant, but essentially obvious and uninteresting fact that sometimes dodgy stuff gets in our food.

Someone found some pre-maggot stage fly eggs in their Tegal chicken. The expert the show spoke to all but acknowledged it was virtually impossible to stop the occasional fly egg from getting where it shouldn't, and in this case the eggs were harmless even had they not been detected. There was no suggestion of a systemic problem.

The next person found a blow fly on his Pizza Hut hot and spicy. Again, it was acknowledged that this would have been difficult to prevent, and it wasn't the fault of Pizza Hut that the fly got in to the oven just at the moment it must have. It was a poor job it wasn't picked up, but Pizza Hut apologised and attempted to make amends.

Both situations would have been very unpleasant for me too, and I don't blame the people concerned for being put off those foods for a while at least. But you'd be kidding yourself if you think that this doesn't happen occasionally, including with other brands.

This is my question to John Campbell: Why was this lead story material? This shouldn't have been a lead story on Fair Go, a show which specialises in this kind of thing. There's nothing about these particular instances that warranted that treatment on a supposedly leading, prime time current affairs show. Is this even 'current affairs' at all? Is the so called 'silly season' coming early? Or has Campbell Live always been this inane, and I just haven't noticed?

To date, I have not received a reply. Quelle surprise.

06 September 2008

The Venus you

Say it’s the same taste taking down the same kiss
Say it’s the same you
Say it’s the same you and it’s always been like this
Say it’s the same you

-- The Cure Labyrinth (from "The Cure" 2004)

It is often perceived that philosophy provides no answers, only more questions. One reason for this perception is covered by Nicholas Fearn in his excellent book Philosophy: The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions.

Bertrand Russell once compared the branches of human knowledge to a filing cabinet, in which the material discussed by philosophers was found in the department marked 'Don't Know'. [...] Sir Isaac Newton wrote the Principia and Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations as philosophers, but they are now remembered respectively as a physicist and an economist. The contemporary thinker Noam Chomsky is described as a philosopher as well as the founder of linguistics, but the former half of his title will one day be dropped from encyclopedias.

In other words, once an area under philosophical discussion becomes sufficiently resolved or systematised, it gets categorised as another discipline.

Another reason is that, due to philosophy’s concern with the why and how questions, it’s almost always possible for someone to add a further “but why” or “but how” to an issue under discussion. This can go too far. A friend once observed (in regard to some art students' approach to art theory) that this one-upsmanship is reminiscent of the perpetually unsatisfied child questioning all the received wisdom of their parents: “But why, mummy?” … “But why?”

Fearn’s take on this is once again worth quoting. Writing on the problem of free will, Fearn covers the compatibilist response to the problem many see posed by determinism. Determinists believe that human activity and the human mind is subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the universe - subject to cause and effect - and therefore any sense of free will is an illusion. Compatibilists say that free will is campatible with a "cause and effect" universe run according to scientific laws. In his conclusion to this topic, Fearn writes:

...most philosophers who work on the question of free will are incompatibilists, while most of those who do not are compatibilists. The former camp often ridicules the latter for their unfamiliarity with the latest arguments and texts on the subject. But perhaps compatibilist philosophers have better things to do than reoccupy secured ground. [...] We might also ask how non-theologians can regard the matter of Mary's virginity as settled, or how people who are not UFO fanatics can consider the alien abduction question settled. The answer, of course, is very easily. The last twenty years of free-will debate have produced a strong line of anti-compatibilist thinking. This, however, is what one would expect in a field that has been vacated by philosophy's regular armies and left to partisans who refuse to accept defeat.

I would say the free will problem is one area in which philosophy has delivered what counts, as near as matters, to a resolution. I may discuss this more in another post, but basically the time has come to wrap the debate: either accept compatibilism as the solution to the problem of free will; or admit you think free will is an illusion; or admit you hold to some tenuous mystical explanation that satisfies you but is hard to place within a rational framework. (I’m basically in the first camp.)

Another issue I think has been resolved is one that is often put as a thought experiment. It is the future, and practical matter teleportation has been invented. We have the technology to ‘beam’ you from Earth to a newly terraformed Venus. The transporter chamber on Earth will scan your body and deconstruct it totally, atom by atom, leaving you completely disintegrated but perfectly recorded in terms of everything that went into your form. It then transmits this information to a counterpart on Venus. This chamber reconstructs the exact form of you that was just disintegrated, down to every last detail at an atomic level. You reappear, functional and feeling yourself. You are now on Venus. Or are you?

The Venus you has been perfectly recreated, to the point of having the same personality, same memories, and same body. ‘You’ sure feel like you, and you remember stepping into the Earth transport chamber. You are confident you are the same person, and with a continued psychological identity and completely identical physical form, it may be hard to see why not. But consider: if you were zapped by a ‘disintegration ray’ (a form of weapon not uncommon in science fiction stories) you would be dead. Not temporarily dead, or ‘pending’ dead, but dead as in dead. In the case of the matter transporter, are you not still killed? Is the new Venus version of you not exactly that: a new version of you, but not the same you?

My answer to this thought experiment is another thought experiment: say the matter transporter on Earth could scan you without needing to deconstruct you. Now say it malfunctioned and transmitted the scanned snapshot of you to Venus without disintegrating you at all. The Venus chamber doesn’t know any better, it just recreates the structure it was sent. And hey presto… You Live!
But, umm… You also live. The real you, back on Earth.
The new you is a real being, no doubt; a real self-aware person that honestly believes it is you, and really does have all your memories. But it isn’t the ‘you’ that is standing back on earth. The Venus version of you is more akin to a clone - it's no more “actually” you than a clone is, anyway. The person that walks into the transmitter on Earth is not the same person (the same continuous identity) as the Venus-you that gets created in the receiving transport chamber, as evidenced by the fact that you are still standing on Earth wondering why the heck the transporter didn’t work.

I’ve not heard a convincing argument - indeed, any argument at all - why this would not be true even if the transporter successfully disintegrated you on Earth before transmitting the replication signal. The Venus you doesn’t become you in terms of continued identity any more so just because the real you is killed by disintegration. The two phenomena are independent, as my version of the thought experiment shows.

Of course, we’re a long way off having an actual matter transporter anything like that portrayed in Star Trek. But the thought experiment and its resolution raises questions around what constitutes our identity, in the most intrinsic sense, and the matter of our sense of identity remains a puzzle for philosophy and science. (Maybe more on this another in another post.)

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan is infamous for killing the fan-beloved character of Mr Spock in a sacrificial act at the end. But truth be told, all the Star Trek characters were effectively killed the first time, and each time, they were beamed anywhere. New versions of them were created; versions that had all the same abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and the same memories, as the originals. Versions that honestly thought they were the same person. But they were copies. By the time of Khan’s wrath, Spock was already dead.

As far as we can ascertain, getting into a matter transport device (at least one that functions in the way they are generally portrayed as functioning) would be nothing short of suicide, however painless.

The taste is dry - the kiss is thirst
And it’s not the same you
It’s not the same you

10 August 2008

Laziness without Fear

Well, I haven't posted for some time. I was distracted by a move from one Wellington suburb to another, and those moves sure take a lot out of me. I'm pretty much allergic to moving. Then there was a small matter of becoming employed full-time again. I love not working (in a regular job, that is), but eventually my savings would have run out, so I took the opportunity that came up, and now at least my ongoing income is one thing I don't have to worry about.

But I really, really liked not working. My new favourite book is Hello Laziness by Corinne Maier. You can't go wrong with a book that has chapter titles like: "The idiot on your left", and "Laziness without fear". Yes! Them's some inspiring words.

Anyway, I should be posting a bit more regularly now.

In the meantime, I'm trying one of those polls that Blogger offers [poll now closed]. I always thought it was generally better to have hypertext links open in a new window, so you can keep reading and just refer to the new article as suits. But some argue for links navigating to the new page, seeming to believe that having your links open a new window is, well, a bit rude. I find that notion baffling. (Anyone feel disrespected when they clicked on that link?)

Blogger's default is not to open a new window, so I have to add a bit of code every time I want to make the hyperlinks act how I prefer. It's annoying, and virtually all websites I frequent go with the 'new window' option. Is blogger just behind the times in this regard?

24 May 2008

A blog by any other name

Just for the record, this is not particularly a book review site.

So why the name "Booksmart" I hear you ask. (Hear/made up in my head - same thing.)

I didn't want to dwell too long on what to call the blog, so I just went with a phrase that had been stuck in my head since I heard it used on the NBC television show Scrubs. I was aware of the phrase "booksmart" (or "book smart", or "book-smart" as you please) before hand, but it got in my head after a Scrubs episode which featured the following dialogue:

Elliot: What's wrong?
Carla: It's personal.
Elliot: Why won't you ever open up to me? I came to you when I thought I had a broken tailbone and it was just a really bad pimple!
Carla: It's a sex thing, okay?
Elliot: You mean like a gender issue or like intercourse? Because I'm book-smart on both!

Anyway, I like the sound and look of the phrase, both aesthetically and thematically and it just stuck with me - so there it is.

04 May 2008

Exit wounds

OPERATION FILMMAKER was the last film I caught in the recent short film festival. It's an odd documentary that I’m not sure what to make of. Muthana Mohmed is an Iraqi wannabe filmmaker who was seen on MTV by actor/filmmaker Liev Schreiber. Liev, who was anti the Iraq war, apparently feels guilty about Muthana’s situation and offers him a job as an assistant on the Prague set of Liev’s movie Everything is Illuminated.

Nina Davenport is given the task of documenting the endeavour, which is presumably meant to be a nice inspiring little story about a deprived victim getting a foot in the door and making good. Muthana is less than impressed by some of what is expected of him, seeing it as too menial. When he is given some greater responsibility and the chance to learn some editing, he blows it because he gets distracted by his friends, and ends up going out partying. He undermines one of the film’s producers (I think he is) when the producer makes it clear he’s anti the Iraq war, and Muthana says that he is in favour of it and then proceeds to praise George Bush. (Muthana seems to change his attitude to the US invasion later in the film.)

A lot is made of this sort of thing: any comparison or reference possible to the wider situation in Iraq has much made of it. Muthana turns out to be less passionate about filmmaking as it was thought, or maybe he’s just less grateful to the western helping hand he was extended than was it was assumed he would be. Things don’t really work out on the set of that film, but he manages to get further work on DOOM, and Nina keeps making her documentary.

He eventually gets into a London film school (he desperately wants to avoid going back to Iraq), but he can only afford to go to because of the generosity, and perhaps naivety, of DOOM lead actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnston (also from SOUTHLAND TALES, see previous post).

Muthana is needy and demanding; he borrows money from Davenport and others, and in London he pretty much refuses to get a job (even though he’s still asking for money). He has a falling out with Davenport when he starts blaming her for things not going so well - even though it's likely the documentary is responsible for the decision of Johnston to fund his studies. To be fair, partly he was probably sick of being tailed by a woman with a camera for so long, and it must have seemed like nagging to him. But, as is often the case, it seems mostly to come down to someone realising they are to some extent dependant on another, and becoming resentful of that fact.

The film is really about the relationship between filmmaker and subject. The parallels with the Iraq venture are weak, though. Davenport says in the end, with an inter-title: "I started out looking for a happy ending. Now I’m just looking for an exit strategy."

Sure, this comes after yet more snotty demands from Muthana, even though he had previously told her to piss off. But as she made clear herself earlier, she really was able to exit beforehand, but she wanted to wait for an opportune moment: She felt the need to keep making the documentary until something good happened to finish on.

Muthana can be charming, likeable and smart. And he can be needy, petulant, selfish and na├»ve about what the world owes him. In another words, he’s much like many other people his age and demographic. (He and his friends and family back in Iraq all spoke English well, which my friend told me was an indication that they were middle to upper-middle class.) The message of this film may be no more than teenagers are alike, no matter where they’re from.

The film is interesting as a look at the relationship between filmmaker and subject, and how documentary makers try to construct a satisfying narrative around their "real life observations". I’m not sure that it is anything more than that, though. Although, considering how much I’ve just written, that was obviously enough.

30 March 2008

I'm There!

The World Cinema Showcase is usually the more minor of the two general film festivals in Wellington. It's the warm-up to the International Film Festival, which gives us something to do in the depths of winter. However, this year's line up is stronger than usual, in terms of having films with a lot of cinema-world hype or notoriety. Films include: I'm Not There; The Diving Bell & the Butterfly; 4 Months, Three Weeks & 2 Days; Across the Universe; Margot at the Wedding; El Topo; Redacted; Tell No One; Helvetica, and Southland Tales.

I went to the opening night showing of The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, directed by Julian Schnabel and scripted by The Pianist writer Ronald Harwood. It cost $20 ($6 more than any other evening session), so a mate and I decided that we had to drink more than the difference in the free wine and beer that was on offer for us cinephiles. We succeeded admirably, but unfortunately the last 20 minutes of the film were less than comfortable, for reasons unrelated to the movie. Still, it was worth it - an excellent movie. Diving Bell is about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the Elle editor who suffered a stroke which paralysed virtually his entire body. Adapted from his memoir, it's a hypnotic and visually arresting film - and it certainly doesn't hurt that you spend a lot of time looking, from Bauby's viewpoint, at attractive French women hovering over him, listening to them talk in a sexy accent. (My friend said the French accent isn't particularly sexy when spoken by men, but she agreed it works from women.)

There was no sense of being guilt tripped into feeling bad for the "successful go getter" who had everything taken away from him. Not that it wasn't tragic for him and his family, or that the movie has no sense of this tragedy or sadness, but it wasn't just an artful tearjerker (which is pretty much how I felt about Oscar-nom Atonement). It’s ironic that a film about such a devastating event, and such a limiting ("locked-in syndrome"!), disconnecting condition, should end up being a fairly warm, rich and human experience.

That's pretty much the opposite of Richard Kelly's satirical epic Southland Tales. Well, it looked warm, set as it is in sunny California (it never rains, but man it pours). Actually, it looked fantastic. Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster made “Southland” look sumptuous. The movie is not exactly a success, but it sure isn’t boring. There’s always something pleasing to look at or listen to, or often both; and while its craziness comes across as a bit manufactured, it can be damn funny. The car advert, the redundant blood-squibs, much of the dialogue (“Who am I?” “That’s none of your business”) are great stuff. And there’s something oddly cool about watching Justin Timberlake, with the cheeky look of Bam Margera, burst into a drug-induced sing-along of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done”. (Plus there’s a Pixies song in the soundtrack; more films should use Pixies songs – there oughta be a law.)

Does it work overall? Not really. It’s derivative, forced, peopled with characters that only superficially hold your interest, and sometimes a little embarrassing (however much the awkwardness is supposed to be deliberate). As a good few commentators have said, it’s a train wreak. And as a good few have probably gone on to say: It’s as fascinating as watching a large scale automotive collision in progress, in slow motion, knowing that no people were harmed during the making of this mess.

Like Natural Born Killers before it, Southland Tales tries to tap into and comment on the ‘MTV Generation’, CNN, E! channel zeitgeist by at once mimicking, referencing and satirising it. In this, NBK was slightly more successful, in a limited kind of way, for its time. However, there's less reason to get past NBK's triteness and stylistic clumseiness. Southland Tales is the more interesting, ambitious venture, and it doesn’t get tired nearly as quickly. In fact, it gets more enjoyable as it goes along - a bit like a musical where, once you get used to its artifice, the ride is more fun.

15 March 2008

Every man and his blog

"As of December 2007, blog search engine Technorati was tracking more than 112 million blogs."

That's from Wikipedia's entry on blogs. So I guess Booksmart is somewhere above the 112, 000,001st web log. It seems every man and his dog has a blog. I'm late for this party.

But what do people do with these things anyway? A web log is such a strange beast. It seems to exist simply because it can; we blog because it's there. But what is "it"?

The word "blog" is a portmanteau of "web" and "log". The "web" is... well, this here URL, and the ones I link to, and the ones they link to, and any other downloadable images, documents etc, that are weaved together by hypertext, and accessible through the internet. It's a phenomenon that distinguishes the 90s and 2000s from the backward decades of the early, middle, and all-but-latest 20th century.

A "log" (as the word relates here) is derived from a diary used for nautical purposes, relating information about a journey, much of it fairly quotidian.

The resulting neologism, "blog", is basically a word for a world wide web based diary; an individual's commentary or journal of some sort, recorded as a series of distinct entries on the net, and displayed in (reverse) chronological order.

But wait, the web is accessible to anyone in the world, as long as they have the necessary internet access. Yet a diary is traditionally seen as something that you are meant to keep private. Isn't it kinda bizarre that what was once kept under your bed to hide it from your sister is now meant to be shown to the entire planet?

Not that anyone is likely to read such a web log as this one anymore, at least without a specific reason. This ain't cutting edge any longer; we aren't Brad Fitzpatrick. As I noted, there's over 100 million other blogs out there, why are you here?*
Why am I? Before I get too existential, the point is: why does anyone think to add to the plethora of blogs in cyberspace? Well, "because I can" seems to be my thinking. I like to rant about things sometimes. Other times, I like to wax philosophical. I'm generally happy to discuss my thoughts with anyone, so why not make my diary public?

So that's what you'll see here, for the most part: a rant about this, a waffle about that. A gripe about some current affairs issue, or a delineation of my thoughts on some random philosophical matter. As much as I can, I'll try and wed the two.

* But thanks for reading.