Book Review: The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin

I posted about this book earlier, noting that it was surprisingly hard to get into, particularly for someone such as myself who, while not majoring in physics in high school, has always been curious about science and particularly interested (since a young age) in the concepts surrounding quantum physics. Boy, what a difference the last half of a book can make.

Smolin’s approach to the organization of information in his book might make sense to him, and – if I had an undergraduate in physics – it would to me also. He begins by stating five fundamental unsolved problems with our understanding of the universe, not already explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity (governing big stuff) and quantum physics (governing small stuff). He then goes on to discuss the idea of string theory and how it was posited as a candidate for a unifying theory which might possibly go to explain these unresolved problems (along with the effects of gravity). After laying out the details, he then discusses the Continue reading

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The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics

I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.

Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.

The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.

What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Continue reading

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Social Media Hall of Mirrors

Aside

Social media is a hall of mirrors. Your every movement, every action, every outburst is echoed and refracted off of hundreds of other movements, actions, and outbursts.

You cannot be an individual online. We move as one, or so it seems. It is a disjointed unison.

If I share someone else’s viewpoint, I am intentionally or unintentionally giving that viewpoint power and substituting my voice for someone else’s. I am, in effect, voting for attention to be placed on the viewpoint I’m sharing in lieu of my own. I am choosing not to develop my own idea of something but rather to vote for something which seems close enough to what I think I might want to have an idea about.

I vote for x. So should you (otherwise why would I be sharing it). That voice, promoted, its potential popularity – a signal boosted – shaped by my endorsement. Reflected across mirrors so that it’s effectively origin-less. Bright ideas like lights bouncing. A light show in a nightclub.

(You cannot be alone on social media. It requires a priori dependence on signal boosting – recognition – through others. A Facebook user with no friends still requires a Facebook account, which implicitly petitions belonging and external connection.)

 

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Connectedness, Social Media, and Syntheticism

If there’s something to be said about going on a vacation – whether that means renting a car and driving two hours away from your town, or buying a plane ticket and flying six hours away from your country – it’s that it provides something crucial: distance. Physical (and, one should hope, subsequently mental) distance.

When I go away I take that idea of “distance” seriously. I don’t check Facebook, I don’t check Twitter. I don’t even check voicemail (unless it looks important). My only transgression is occasionally checking newspaper headlines to make sure that the world isn’t on the brink of collapse (which it often seems to be).

Upon returning, I find myself staring at my computer (or, more often, my BlackBerry) and wondering: what’s the point? Sure, I’ll go back to checking email, scheduling things, occasionally making sure the world isn’t on the brink of collapse, but re-entering the world of social media is another question. A daunting one, to be honest. I respect social media, yet, against its purpose, I often find it paradoxically alienating.

It started with Facebook, which began as a unique way to stay in touch with friends without relying upon email – a communal sandbox with multimedia extensions. With time (and popularity) came the inevitable mediocrity of a lot of people (along with the watering-down of “friend”-ship) without a lot of ideas posting a lot of crap that I found myself more often than not skipping. Continue reading

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Chaos Cinema

I posted this for my Humber College students on their blog. I posted this on Facebook and Twitter. As such, I should probably post it here.

If you are a film lover who feels increasingly unable to understand or orientate yourself watching action movies made in the last decade, I implore you to watch this video essay about what the author calls chaos cinema.

Bad Boys 2It describes quite succinctly what has frustrated me as a film viewer: action sequences (or entire films) are becoming little more than jagged-edged stimulation devices and not the shared experiences that they should be (see: chase scene in Batman: The Dark Knight)

Essential viewing.

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We Seek To Remain Unscathed

The more I read about mutuality – the art of affecting and being affected by another, particularly within the context of a therapeutic environment – the more I realize that the online world is a place (or a thing) which appears to function this way, yet in practice is typically abstinent and unilateral.

With the Internet (as much as I hate using that word so generally) we have a vast infrastructure – insert plumbing/transit/Tower of Babel metaphors – whose sole purpose is the nearly instantaneous transmission of information. Yet, the ways and methods that we — its users, managers, and architects — have managed to communicate with each other have not evolved in-step with the technological state-of-the-art.

This is not to say that we cannot experience mutuality via internet communication, but rather a) current technological interfaces do a better job of anonymizing the personalities of its users rather than accentuating them, and b) the interpersonal efficacy of this technology has not progressed past what was available in 1996, since the advent of full-duplex sound cards. Continue reading

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The Skinny on Stereoscopic Films, or, What’s Up With 3D?

This is one of those moments where I find myself on the inside of a phenomena which (increasingly) arouses strong opinions from members of the public. In this case, stereoscopic filmmaking – or 3D, for short (even though it’s not really 3D and tramples on a term which is used in animation for both stereoscopic and non-stereoscopic work).

I’m currently working on a 3D film in an age (or, more precisely, over the course of a year, starting with James Cameron’s Avatar) where 3D technology is being pushed as the next in-thing. And yet there are many detractors, some of whom have some good ammunition for their opinions.

As someone who has been intimately involved with a 3D production, from beginning to end (well, almost – we’ll be in theatres in October) I find myself more and more a spokesperson for the technology, if not for the studios who currently are trying to cram every release into a 3D format, whether or not they were meant to be that way.

Let me begin by saying that I enjoy the notoriety of being the resident expert on 3D technology at parties and barbecues whenever the subject arises. Now that I have that out of the way, allow me to bitch…

Everyone keeps asking me: is 3D here to stay? The answer is a conditional “yes”. The condition being that film studios understand two things: First, that you can’t take a 2D movie and make it 3D using brain-dead rotoscoping software and expect it to be a success; second, that you can’t continue charging more for 3D films and not deliver a product that is both a good example of 3D and a relatively good film to boot.

To elaborate:

1)  Since the release of Avatar, there seem to be just as many films released in theatres boasting 3D which were never shot in 3D, nor even envisioned in 3D prior to production. Some examples would be Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. These films were taken by the studios after completion and put through a 2D-to-3D conversion process, using software to rotoscope the 3D effect, frame-by-frame, a process unsupervised by the director.

This process, while handy for converting short bits from 2D to 3D for films which originate in 3D, ignores a very large consideration for those producers and filmmakers who shoot in 3D from the outset: you have to plan to shoot in 3D from the start. You cannot take a script or a shot list for a 2D film and superimpose it onto a 3D film: your set design, your camera lenses, your blocking, your picture editing…so many things change as a result of switching from 2D to 3D. When you simply take a 2D show and auto-render it in faked-out 3D you get something which most viewers – critics and plebes alike – will say isn’t necessary. At worst, you get Clash Of The Titans – the current poster child for anyone with an axe to grind about 3D in general and post-converted 3D specifically. Not only was it a weak remake of the original (from what I hear), but the 3D post-conversion was done in two weeks. Two weeks. From what I hear, the subsequent “3D” is ridiculous to view.

2)  Considering that theatres charge a premium for 3D films (about $3 more than usual depending upon where you go – sometimes more), when a poorly rendered post-converted 3D film is released it damages the viability of an already vulnerable new technology. It’s one thing if a film is bad, but when it’s bad in two dimensions, bad in a crappily-rendered pseudo-third dimension, followed by the sucker punch of having to pay MORE to see it…you get my point. I hope. Movie audiences can be forgiving, but there comes a point of revolt which I can see happening if there aren’t enough 3D films released which originate on 3D. Furthermore, the studios do no service to themselves if they don’t make a point of clarifying this to audiences: why can’t they say when a film is originally shot in 3D? Isn’t that a selling point? Likewise, why not be honest and say when a film has been post-converted? If it’s a case that no one wants it to be known that their film was post-converted…then why post-convert to 3D in the first place? There’s certainly no audience I know that is clamouring for blocky cut-out shapes which look like they were poorly separated from the background using Photoshop. To summarize this point, content is king: the quality of content, not the volume of illegitimate content.

Up until Avatar (and god knows how I long for the day when another film takes its place as the “gold standard”), the greatest accomplishment in 3D technology was the few seconds of the guy in House of Wax, standing outside a theatre with a ping-pong mallet, knocking the ball directly toward the camera. You could imagine people ducking for cover at the time. That was 1953. From that point onward, 3D technology didn’t change, largely due to the format never winning over audiences: the films were oft-times gimmicky and there were never enough 3D films at any given time to make it feel as if the aesthetic was going anywhere. With the recent advent of digital cinematography, 3D is much easier (logistically and technically) to achieve. And while I would love someone to make “art” (are you reading this, Wong Kar Wai?), I’m happy if, for the time being, the format stakes its territory in the ghetto where its strengths have always been: action/sci-fi/fantasy – hey, if it works, why not? I don’t hear anyone clamouring for a 3D Terms of Endearment

Technicians and filmmakers are doing their part: they are taking a risk and trying to push forward innovatively with something daunting and new. Is 3D here to stay? Again, a conditional “yes”. What we need are studios and theatre chains to be honest with the audience and not do irreparable damage to the very thing they are hoping to profit from.

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Ryeberg

I should note that I’ve contributed a few pieces of work to an innovative website, called Ryeberg. The conceit of the site is user-contributed curated YouTube videos, narrated by personal essays on a variety of topics. I am in revision-mode currently, but when my stuff gets posted, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, feel free to visit.

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Honesty, After Dark

A continuous problem I have throughout the social media spectrum, the main culprits being Facebook and Twitter, is that – once you get to the point where you have your sister’s husband as your “friend”, once the guy you barely talked to in high-school is “following” you – you are no longer able to be, well, honest anymore. You cannot post as a status update “Gary is an asshole” without, ultimately, answering to Gary (or his pot-smoking live-in partner, or your co-workers who are largely idiots). You can’t even be vague: “Some guy I know is being an asshole.”. People will know who you’re talking about – context leaves clues people can find. Gary will get mad and want answers.

Oh, you can be honest, alright. You can lay it on the table all you want, but with the inevitable consequence of offending people and getting in trouble for it. In other words, there’s nowhere to hide online. This is why I wish there were Bizarro social media sites like, say, Facebook After Dark and Undercover Twitter. Places where you can say the things you really want to say about the people you’re “friends” with, the people you “follow”, without fear of recrimination. I think we would all be happier as a result.

You reading this, Gary?

(P.S. There is no “Gary”, in case anyone is wondering. I don’t really have co-workers either) – ed

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