Thursday, 28 May 2015

to stay or not to stay

The referendum question has been decided: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”  There has been a lot of discussion on the precise wording; there has even been a suggestion we should have a referendum on it!

One reason1 for all the agonising is that having the “yes” answer allows a more positive campaign, as we’ve seen recently (even if it doesn’t always lead to victory).

So the stay-ers get the yes option:

But why should it restricted to a boring yes/no response, when there’s so many more possibilities?  Here’s an option that would suit computer nerds:

Or we could have a blast from the past:

Or there’s always:

I wonder which one they will choose?  Maybe we should have a referendum on it?

[1] Apparently another reason for agonising is the concern that not everyone knows we are already a member of the EU...

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

film review: Looper (2012)

Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been. It will be instantly outlawed, used only in secret by only the largest criminal organisations. It’s nearly impossible to dispose of a body in the future, I’m told. Tagging techniques, what not. So when these criminal organisations in the future need someone gone, they use specialised assassins in our present called Loopers. And so, my employers in the future nab the target, they zap them back to me, their Looper. He appears, hands tied and head sacked, and I do the necessaries. Collect my silver. So the target has vanished from the future, and I’ve just disposed of a body that technically does not exist. Clean.
Although well made, in a grimy dystopian noir sort of way, and fun to watch, in a mindless sort of way, the plot of Looper doesn’t hold up to even the smallest scrutiny. Let’s start with that lazy introductory voice-over: only criminal organisations use this outlawed tech? There’s no Time Police hunting them down? Given the way they can change the timeline? And the only use these master criminals can think of for time travel, instantly outlawed presumably for the amazing power it has, is to dispose of some bodies? Oh, and “tagging techniques” that could seemingly survive incineration or other 2074 disposal technology, somehow don’t raise suspicions when people keep going poof from time-machine-containing warehouses? Nope.

There’s more voice-over (why should I bother summarising this stuff when they couldn’t bother to work out how to film it?):
There’s a reason we’re called Loopers. When we sign up for this job, taking out the future’s garbage, we also agree to a very specific proviso. Time travel in the future is so illegal, that when our employers want to close our contracts, they’ll also want to erase any trace of their relationship with us ever existing. So if we’re still alive thirty years from now, they’ll find our older self, zap him back to us, and we’ll kill him like any other job. This is called closing your loop. You get a golden payday, a handshake, and you get released from your contract. Enjoy the next thirty years. This job doesn’t tend to attract the most forward-thinking people.
Anyway, that voice-over is spoken by Young Joe [Joseph-Gordon Levitt], a Looper who’s about to encounter his future self, Old Joe [Bruce Willis], sent back to close his loop. Things do not go well. We know he has to kill his older self, as we’ve seen what happens to a Looper who messes up.

First time round the loop, he does as he should: Young Joe’s contract is closed, and he gets to enjoy the next 30 years. But when now-Old Joe, a somewhat reformed character, is captured by The Rainmaker’s mob to be sent back, he manages to change things, so that when he arrives in the present, this time round Young Joe fails to kill him. The chase is on: Young Joe must find and kill Old Joe, to avoid the grisly fate of failed Loopers. But Old Joe has a mission: to kill the future crime boss The Rainmaker while he is still a young child, Cid (maybe not that reformed, then), to stop his rise to power in the future. Time lines are fracturing and the future is unsure: eventually Young Joe makes a desperate sacrifice to avoid catastrophe.

The main timelines are nicely shown in this graphic:

This graphic illustrate my first peeve with the plot. Old Joe is trying to kill Cid to make sure he doesn’t grow up to become The Rainmaker, but it becomes clear it is Old Joe’s efforts that make him the Rainmaker, so Old Joe must be stopped. But actually it’s not clear that’s what makes Cid into The Raimaker, as he existed in the initial timeline, which started all this process. (Old Joe killed Sara in timeline B, setting off the Rainmaker transformation, but we don’t know what happened to her in timeline A.)

But my main peeve is with the whole underlying premiss. We see what happens to a Looper who fails to kill his returned older self. The organisation starts chopping bits off the young version; the older version then has these bits chopped off too, but there is no other change to the timeline. Young guy looses a finger: old guy in the present suddenly notices he has a finger missing, all nicely healed up. Then another finger goes. Then his nose. Then a foot. Then a leg. By the end, there’s hardly anything left of him. Given all his wounds are healed, presumably because the younger one lives (lived? will live?) long enough to heal, how one earth does this not have any other effect on the timeline? How does the chopped up guy get to come back? Okay, let’s say for the sake of plot it somehow doesn’t change the timeline. But then Young Joe uses this technique to make his sacrifice in order to change the timeline: not just to stop Old Joe now, but to make Old Joe never have happened. WTF?

And that sacrifice is just stupid. Young Joe has no real reason to believe it will heal the timeline. He could just carry on, become Old Joe, and do something different the next time round, make things better. And if that doesn’t work, do things differently again. He’s so right: “This job doesn’t tend to attract the most forward-thinking people.”

Oh, and the reason Cid can become The Rainmaker is that he’s powerfully telekinetic. Hint: don’t add two impossible things to your SF: either time travel or telekinesis, but not both. Especially without thinking through the consequences of either.

For all my film reviews, see my main website.

Monday, 25 May 2015

my new toy

It’s been nearly four years since I got my first smartphone.  Since then it's become indespensible (although a subsequent tablet acquisition made it less so: as long as I have one of them on me, I'm fine).

However, four years is like forever in phone years.  I’ve noticed it becoming more unstable, with frequent reboots (weekly, then almost daily) needed.  Finally, it started ignoring the SD card.  Right.  Time to upgrade.

I decided to go for a Samsung Galaxy S5, for two main reasons:  Samsung, so I don’t have to learn a new style (and I know to ignore all the Samsung crud that is preloaded);  S5, because it’s got a bigger camera than the other plausible Samsung options, and I use the camera a lot.

I spent about half a day hiding all the preloaded apps, uploading the apps I use, configuring them, having a quick look at the manual to work out how to switch off various options, and generally fiddling about.  All much smoother than my previous experience, partly due to me knowing more about the system, and partly due to software/usability improvements.

So now I have a nice 4G device.  It’s a little bigger than the previous phone, so I’ll need a new case, but it uses the same power adaptor, so I don’t need to replace the several of those I have dotted about my world.

Main gripe: this is my alarm clock, and I’m used to the Smart Alarm Sparkling mist tone waking me gently in the morning, and gently alerting me to upcoming meetings.  It’s not an option the new device, however.  Why on earth remove options like this?  (I had a google around.  There are copies of Sparkling mist out there, but they are different, missing the early swoosh sound.  To get the full tone off my old phone and onto my new one seems to require rooting the devices in order to access /system/media/audio.  I’ll learn to like a different tone.)

Also, pity about that tacky chrome edging.  Gives it a sort of retro 1950s vibe.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

falling with style

I did not know this: rays leap out of the water.

It makes this Stingray leap look more plausible:

But watch how the real rays land.  Boom!  And then watch what starts happening on the video around the 2:15 mark.  Wow!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

what could possibly go wrong?

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. — David Camperon, PM
That doesn't sound ominous at all.

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Monday, 18 May 2015

my first question

I’ve gained enormous help from Stack Overflow, reading the answers to others’ questions.  But in writing my superformula app, I had a problem with mouse events and processing.js, and I couldn't find an answer there.

So I submitted my first ever Stack Overflow question.

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Sunday, 17 May 2015

book review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.
Pan. 2013

Chris Hadfield is probably most famous for being the astronaut who sang David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the International Space Station; his YouTube video of it has over 25 million hits. But there’s more to being an astronaut that singing a song in space, a lot more. In his autobiography, Hadfield recounts his life in training, astronaut in waiting for the most part, and some valuable life lessons he extracted from it.

Rather than telling a mere historical account of his life, Hadfield picks and chooses anecdotes to illustrate his lessons.

One lesson can be summed up as be insanely over-prepared for every eventuality, no matter how unlikely. This is of course utterly essential in space, where anything and everything can kill you. But Hadfield lives this back on earth: read the story of how he prepared for the vanishingly small possibility that he would be called up on stage to accompany Elton John at a concert. (He wasn’t.)

Another important lesson is essentially don’t be a jerk (which he calls aim to be a zero). In an environment where everyone is a hyper-competitive overachiever, it’s important to channel that competitiveness into the team, rather than against it. Additionally, he works in an environment where even if one day you are space station commander, you soon literally come down the earth, and end up as ground crew supporting a commander who used to be your ground crew. So aim to be a zero (someone whose presence is neutral) rather than trying hard to be a plus one (someone who adds benefit), in case you are instead seen as a minus one (actively harmful).

There’s the odd touch of self-deprecating humour. Here’s his response when asked how his work affected his marriage.
pp7-8. A lot of people who meet us remark that it can’t be easy being married to a highly driven, take-charge overachiever who views moving house as a sport, and I have to confess that it is not—being married to Helene has at times been difficult for me. She’s intimidatingly capable.
The most important lesson is probably live the journey. An astronaut spends years training for a flight that might last a few days, or might not happen at all. Hadfield set his sights on an almost impossible goal: the training and studying and ground crew work had to be themselves the life worth living, not just something to be endured or suffered through on the way to the ultimate, possibly unachievable, goal. Everything he did was valuable and fulfilling in itself, not merely a means to an end.

This is a great read. I’m not entirely sure that all the life lessons translate to more mundane existences, but there is definitely a lot of food for thought, and a wonderful insight into one particular astronaut’s life.

And, yes, I’m one of the 25 million who watched the video.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.