Sunday, February 28, 2016

Stranger Than Fiction (movie review)

This piece of fiction, a comedy, does what a lot of fiction does:  it sidesteps the implications of its twisted reality, or avoids letting us in all the way (another way of putting it).

Dustin Hoffman, the literature professor, and the novelist, hell bent on killing off her main characters, have a special relationship owing to their both understanding plot devices, common twists.   The novelist's assistant is also in on the scheme (another meaning of "plot").

Will Farrell, playing the IRS agent, is relatively out of it (clueless) himself, but comes to understand it's up to him to make something of his narrative.  Just going "by the numbers" means leaving everything to fate.  He starts to take bolder action once the reality of his own mortality really gets under his skin.

The film was made in Chicago, as "Any City" (not specifically identified).  Although a very different movie, I had to remember Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictator, another case of opposites attracting.

The "anarchist" Farrell falls in love with has a bakery that gives off a Portland vibe, radiating its proud independence and rebellion from the fragile left brain number world.

Will's is the weaker gender or "hemisphere" in this model.

I stopped the DVD player to show the Food Not Bombs flyer prominently posted on the bakery bulletin board.  Some thought went into the decor.

Shades also of Trueman Show, maybe?  How is it that others are more in on the plotting than our hero?

What's amazing is how seamlessly Will's evident psychosis meshes with the rest of reality.  As the audience of a fictional film, we get sucked in as the readers, i.e. the viewers, being initiated into an unfamiliar metaphysical setup.

But as viewers we're not omniscient (my earlier point), as we're left wondering how it all works.  But then "they lived happily ever after" is as problematic is "little did he know".  The former is more of a "fade out" convention i.e. "here is where our story ends" whereas the latter more often gets the ball rolling, plot-wise (as here).

Another reading is it all occurs in the mind of the novelist, obsessed with mortality herself, and suffering from writer's block, a threat to her identity as a writer.  She's exploring her on power to create the narrative, both her own and that of others.

I've often wondered if the higher laws or patterns of occurrence we sense, the poetic part of life, might be as physical as Newton's laws.

At the quantum level, we have a grammar, followed with no exceptions, yet might we say the principles at that level no more determine the plot than grammatical rules force the way a novel unfolds?

To commit to perfect grammar is not to surrender to fatalism or determinism, as a writer.

Having checked out this film on the recommendation of one of Lindsey's religious studies professors, we went on to review some of the camera work she had done around Occupy, and the Right to Sleep (perchance to Dream) too.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Python Versus Python

Python Versus Python

Patrick's family is the proud owner of a python, named Maya (ours is named Barry), which on occasion has escaped, sometimes thanks to owner carelessness (it happens).

Finding a missing python in one's house is no easy proposition, and Patrick was on the Internet in a hurry, the first time it happened, seeking advice.

His search terms dredged up some savvy answers, like place tin foil strategically, sit quietly in an easy chair, and listen intently.

His search terms also took him to pages about the scene in the Florida Everglades, where raccoon, opossum, bobcat and deer populations have plunged dramatically, whereas the python population has been exploding.  Is there a correlation?

How did pythons come to invade Florida? The pet industry moves exotic animals around the world, and these tend to escape, and find each other  If the surrounding ecosystem is congenial, the species becomes established.

Patrick used to work at a national lab (Sandia) and is a trained problem solver.  When BP accidentally uncorked an oil well in the Gulf, Patrick was right away building prototype solutions in his backyard, ready to jump in and help if he could.

Pythons are difficult to find.  They're camouflaged and excellent hiders  They're cold blooded, so drones using infrared are not likely to pick them up.

Empirical experiments, which Patrick shared, suggest people do not find pythons in the wild efficiently.  They're not a great food given the mercury levels.   There's not much motivation to slog through the Everglades looking for hard-to-find snakes.

Florida's wild life managers have been casting about for more ideas about how to manage the python population.  Patrick has been developing a solution:  a new model of snake trap.  He's studied the existing 12 patents for snake traps, which are mostly indiscriminate in what they trap.

John Humphrey's large reptile trap (US8407931) is discriminant for large, heavy animals.  I have something similar (not as long) that I got at a garage sale, thinking to "have a heart" vis-a-vis the attic squirrels.

Patrick wants to bring affordable AI into the equations, building a better snake trap that could provide (1) unattended mode for months (b) discriminate to catch only pythons (c) allow remote human intervention (d) provide a means of doing population research in the wild.

The trap is both tubular and modular, with a catcher up front and an attractant at the back, i.e. bait.  Patrick is looking at various urine scents, dispensed freshly.

The Python computer language is a strong player when it comes to image analysis tools and Patrick's algorithms figure out, from a snapshot in the "boudoir" module, whether the trapped animal is indeed a python or not.

Those administering the trap will decide if it's a death trap.  Rather than have the python stuck in the trap, decaying, a poison that doesn't have aftereffects, such as Warfarin (used on rats), might do the job.  After a quick injection, the python is free to leave.

Keeping the apparatus powered is a challenge in itself.  The Raspberry Pi, an off the shelf computer, is too power hungry to keep on around the clock.  An Arduino board, far lower in power consumption, is triggered by the capturing module to boot the Pi, so the photo-identification phase may occur.

A communications grid is contemplated:  the traps relay information back to headquarters by means of an ad hoc mesh network, using B.A.T.M.A.N for example.

Patrick's research continues.  He has a provisional patent and prototyped components.  He's hoping to test and refine his device in Gainsville, Florida.  He's in communication with the wild life managers.

We had a lively Q&A session.  Glenn wondered about the applicability to CRISPR technology to the python problem, a genetic engineering approach that was the focus of the most recent ISEPP lecture, which I missed. Or how about a TNR program for pythons?

Python Branding

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Devil's Eye (movie review)


We seem to have embarked on an Ingmar Bergman retrospective, with the Seventh Seal and now another religious parable, playing up similar memes.

We don't get Death this time, as a character, but the Devil himself.  Given the title, we might think his eye problem is less prosaic than a mere sty, which he seems unsure about and needs a mirror to half-discern.  The Devil, being vain, strives to see himself in his own wretched glory, and thereby hangs a tail, er tale.

The Devil is consumed with desire for the wholesome soul of a young maiden, still alive, on Earth, and thinks he has just the man to get it for him:  the corrupting Don Juan, accompanied by his likewise wily vassal.  Both are already denizens of Hell, so this offer of a foray back to Earth comes as a welcome invitation and both prove eager to rise to the challenge, plus a demon is sent after them, just to supervise.  The demon hangs out as a black cat, when not in male form.

The film portrays itself as a Divine Comedy, not unlike a midsummer night's dream, a parable with stock characters in which we may see ourselves reflected.  A naive dad, the vicar, a Ned Flanders type, does not see his daughter as a grownup, nor life in general from that standpoint.  He comes across as the clown, gent of somewhat stunted development, yet unwittingly a prime mover of events.

The vicar's wife, weary of living with such a child-like husband, is open to someone new.  The vassal senses this opportunity and his scenario plays out in parallel to Don Juan's,.  The demon goes after the vicar, trying to shake his faith in human nature.  The vicar proves to be quite a challenge, with an agenda of his own.

The happily engaged couple, the vicar's daughter and her boyfriend, between whom Don Juan's inserting himself would be disruptive, likewise have an unwitting air about them.  Everything seems so planned, so by the book, with the stock players unused to reflecting deeply, going through the motions, eager to do what's expected of them.

With Don Juan on the scene, Hell bent on hot pursuit, our female protagonist is plunged into self examination of her own values, and her cogent self assessment seems exacting enough to take some wind from Don Juan's sails.  She's inwardly loyal, or says she is.

Given Don Juan seems unable to penetrate her emotional armor, a merely physical "love scene" would seem extraneous and perfunctory, beneath his pride.  He would prefer to discover true love in his own assessment of what that looks like, a move perhaps uncharacteristic for him, but a breakthrough in spiritual maturity.  Don Juan finally up to the level of pining for someone other than himself.

The Devil is predictably upset by this outcome.  Don Juan has grown in stature and comes closer to matching the Devil himself in his capacity for despair.

Don Juan has attained a kind of proud boredom and disinterest in his own eternal abuse, which involves endlessly striving to seduce, yet always waking up at the brink of victory, in some perpetual Ground Hog Day of devilish design.  He addresses the Devil almost as an equal, as a consequence of his own most refined sense of "designer sin" and its high price tag.

Thursday, February 04, 2016


I think a lot of us are putting down our soup spoons to listen to NPR hype the future of women in combat roles, a new freedom and liberty they've long been begging to have.

Now that women have equal rights, is the premise, it's time for them to start paying the ultimate price more often.

The Selective Service must be feeling the pinch of only half the should-be-eligible population getting registered and this media campaign was long in the making.

Patriotism, common code words (they kept saying "existential"), and stellar examples of that  unquestioning attitude that makes a good soldier, get strutted out on what sometimes gets called "liberal radio", and we pause to listen, noticing this new voice of a next Pepsi generation (perhaps coached by some oldsters).

Of course the US is composed of diverse ethnic groups, not all of whom celebrate combat roles as the higher service.  Diplomacy takes a lot more skill and isn't for everyone either.

When it comes to "special operations" the military has no monopoly and what's more, never will, as thinking and acting in that unquestioning way exacts a price.  But we have real talent at the top, that's true too, so best of both worlds then?  Too pollyanna?

Anyway, those women who've been chomping at the bit to prove themselves in this all American way (since before the Revolution at least) now have reason to celebrate.  I advocated years ago we give them their own submarine (fleet?).

Whether some possible future world will have the smarts to not always be holding a gun to its own head ("weapons of mass suicide") is debatable, but we may still hope.  Submarines without WMDs are not unthinkable.  Women might prove braver in that sense, less self-destructively trigger-happy?

The spin is this is a victory for feminism.  The real question is are we seeing equal pay for equal work in a statistically meaningful way?

If women are still getting the short end of the stick in civilian society, yet are being rushed to the front lines, that bespeaks of human rights violations.  I look forward to the analysis.  Women and minorities have a long history of abuse in America.  I recommend Kindred by Octavia Butler on that score.