Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Muttering Retreats w/ The Silent Years

Last night's UPB concert at the Spot was The Muttering Retreats, a local band from Lakewood, OH and The Silent Years. Pretty cool concert, and a few really neat songs, although the turnout was a little disappointing given that beer was only $1. I felt really old when one of the bands covered James's Laid and I think not one of the undergrads recognized it! :-(

Last semester, at a similar FREE  Spot concert, we had my favourite band of 2007, the Cinematics with their album A Strange Education. It's a song that totally described my year. So we get some really cool bands through. Case people: COME TO SEE THEM!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The highly symmetric Boron-80

The colloquium speaker yesterday mentioned a theoretical prediction of the existence of a stable 'buckyball' made from Boron atoms. It's like the structure of the famous Buckminsterfullerene C60 except that an additional atom is placed at the centre of every hexagon. It was publicised last year, and the paper with ab initio calculation was published in Phys Rev Lett

Is the symmetry really icosahedral? There's a question mark since some other scientists have released a preprint on ArXiv that suggests a structure with tetrahedral symmetry might be more stable (some of the atoms at the centre of the hexagons are pushed in, others are pushed out). We'll know for sure if this paper passes the peer review process.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Scanner Darkly

(I was asked by a friend to explain why I like
A Scanner Darkly)

Imagine you are arrested by the FBI and accused of being a terrorist. Despite your constant protestations of innocence, you are held in custody and interrogated. But suppose that really you are a sentient machine, moreover a walking bomb. You believe genuinely that you are innocent, and yet you are doomed to explode at some moment at the design of your creators.

The science fiction of Philip K. Dick is the reverse of the feel-good sci-fi of Star Trek, and not-so-removed from our society as the distant dystopian post-apocalyptic landscapes of such creations as I Am Legend. We as readers, as viewers, are drawn into Dick's creations because we could easily be one of his everyday characters. We laugh at conspiracy theories, but what if they were true asks the prototypical Dick story. And, most engagingly, what if we were the victim?

Despite its relative incoherence, A Scanner Darkly is one of Dick's most powerful novels, and interestingly one with the fewest elements of science fiction. Drugs as a means of social control occur in other Dick stories, most notably The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, but this theme is hidden in A Scanner Darkly until the end; the drugs instead being a source of comedy, escape and of course tragedy. The moment of revelation at the heart of the movie–that Donna is HANK–is utterly typical of Dick; the reality constructed thus far is interrupted and shown to be a falsehood, in the process revealing a new construction. The enemy thus far, the Despair Desolation and Death of Substance D, is revealed to be a tool of the greater enemy, the apparently benign New Path. 

Linklater's film (view trailer) distils the novel–it is far truer to its source than any Dick film yet including Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck–into a coherent story; gaining an intensity that the novel's extraneous subplots lacks. The rotoscoping makes the film visually beautiful. Special effects such as the scramble suits are incorporated quite naturally within the animation (this was perhaps the primary motivation of the technique) and permit unintrusive comic moments, such as the Alien that reads Freck his sins and Luckman's metamorphosis into an insect. 

As opposed to the rotoscoping in Waking Life, which was stylistically simpler and with its shifting imprecision served to invoke the sense of Dream, the rotoscoping effect in A Scanner Darkly opens a ambiguity between what is real and what is drug-related. On repeated viewings of the film our answers to such questions as at what point FRED fails to recognise that he is Arctor, how real the conversations with the psychologists were, whether Arctor/FRED's imagined family was ever real.... seem to shift.

The brutality of the sacrifice of Actor/FRED into the persona of Bruce is made so very emphatic in the movie by juxtaposing immediately before the moment of revelation the beautiful soliloquy;

"What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can't any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone's sake the scanners do better, because if the scanner sees only darkly the way I do, then I'm cursed and cursed again. I'll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too."

but it is not at all clear that this was in fact delivered or imagined. The movie concludes with the image of the recurring little blue flowers growing under the eaves of corn; the view widening and retreating to see the cornfields and the mountains. It is a  poignant and homely image of America and the underlying visual metaphor–that the drugs, terrorism, control, the rot is within contemporary American society and outside the view of the scanners–is one that is not lost on the viewer. In this way, the novel and the film diverge: the former addresses McCarthyism, communism, hippie culture; the latter the War on Terror, the War on Drugs and the sacrifice of our civil liberties for the perception of public safety.

It would be easy to conclude at that point, but there is another layer above the reality heretofore constructed: the powerful anti-drugs message of the film is to an extent illusory. Dick himself never took heroin, he merely pretended to (read the biography of Dick I Am Alive And You Are Dead for the full story). Despite the strong indication of autobiography like the list at the end, there is a falseness to the story–as in The Man In the High Castle where one of the characters meets the novelist writing the novel–we are watching fiction. We are watching A Scanner Darkly: an image that does not let us get into the heart of the characters we see and does not allow us to see into Dick himself. Does this remove the stark, bleak, horrifying ending; does this mitigate the sacrifice of Arctor/FRED/Bruce/Dick?

Explosions in Cleveland

Explosions in the Sky are coming to Cleveland on 4th April at the Beachland Ballroom. W00t!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Michael Trucco

Surprise bonus on the deleted scenes from Season 3 of One Tree Hill (yeah, I know, I have no taste): a scene featuring the very minty Michael Trucco of Sam Anders Battlestar Galactica fame in a wifebeater. How could they let this material go to waste?

*Hot* :D

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A more tolerant Britain

Encouraging news from British Social Attitudes survey (reported in the Guardian and the Telegraph with rather different emphasis) that public perception of gay people's relationships has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Fools quote unqualified statistics, but apparently:
  • 1/3 (or 1/5 – the Guardian article is a bit inconsistent on this) of people view homosexuality as being morally wrong (compared with 3/4 in 1987).
  • roughly 1/3 of people believe that LGBT couples make suitable parents.
This is emphatically good progress, but the latter statistic is quite disappointing. One of the wonderful things about the sexual and gender-conforming liberation enjoyed by the LGBT community is of course the lack of a requirement to conform to the quite restrictive model of relationship that is imposed by heterosexual society. Notwithstanding that, the lack of belief that LGBT couples make suitable parents seems to suggest that old stereotypes of LGBT relationships, such as that they are somehow less secure or nurturing are still in place. Not all LGBT people want children, but those that do are usually well able to raise them in a loving environment.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


A random difference between British and American culture is, I noticed for the first time today, the participle used to describe a loo when someone is in it. Engaged for the Brit, but merely occupied for the American. Paradoxically, the euphemism which I imagine originally occured to distance oneself from talking about using the toilet, now seems to imply the possibility of alternative uses!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day, a Federal Holiday which needs little introduction to Americans... although nationwide observance is a recent phenomenon.

How King would have viewed the gay liberation and legitimation movements is open to question; the fact he worked with and was advised by an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin is not. For my part, I have always taken the view (incidentally that also of the King Centre) that racism, homphobia, mysogeny and class-prejudice are social phenomena that can only be tackled as a whole. Perhaps for those of us within the gay community, the MLK holiday is a useful point for us to reflect on and challenge the racism, mysogeny and classism that is still very prevalent amongst gay people. 

For how can we remain intellectually coherent in our calls for tolerance as long as these remain?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Explosions in the Sky

I'm listening to Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever after a long hiatus. With Tired Eyes, With Tired Minda, With Tired Souls, We Slept and other equally superb titles... if you like to read or paint to music, this is enriching and fulfilling stuff to listen to. Pretentious? No, merely adult.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

MacBook Air

So I, and probably every other gay man on the planet, am already in love with the new MacBook Air. It may be underpowered, have inadequate graphics and unexpandable memory, but it is beautiful. Needless to say, I want one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Unseen Face of Mercury

NASA's MESSENGER mission has just sent back it's first photos from Mercury. This side of the planet has never been seen before, since Mercury's spin is locked to its orbit around the Sun (in a rather unusual way).

Nonetheless, I really do wish NASA would bother to provide scale bars on their images. Scale bars transform beautiful photography into scientific images.