127 Hours

Based on Aron Ralston’s book “Between a Rock and Hard Place”. Leaving aside the point that someone who did something unimaginably stupid (tracking off into the back-country without telling anyone where he was going) now commands $30K + to give inspirational speeches, this is a very compelling true story about how Ralston was trapped in a narrow crevice with a large chock-stone rock pinning his hand against the side, for 5 days. He had no cell phone or personal locator, only a small amount of water, and a dull knife. He had not, as I pointed out, told anybody where he was going. [Note Ralston’s not the only failure to cash in on his own stupidity. Click on the line to read about the commander of the Greeneville, who crashed into and sank a Japanese fishing vessel while essentially taking guests on a joy ride.]

As the world knows, Ralston eventually had to cut off his own arm to escape, and was rescued a few hours later by some Dutch hikers. Not much actually happens in the film, other than the obvious, but Boyle imbues the story with stylish flourishes, exploring Aron’s memories and feelings as his predicament becomes progressively grim. It’s well-filmed, at the exact location it happened.

I guess I missed the part where this is an “uplifting” paean to the human spirit– he made a stupid mistake and, like any sentient being, wanted very, very badly to survive, and that’s what the movie shows us. How you morph this into the theme of a speech so that everyone rises and applauds at the end is a mystery to me. We’re supposed to learn that we want to live. We’re supposed to be incredibly pleased that he did something so stupid he had to pay for it with part of his arm. So when you are out there thinking that you just want to die, think of Aron Ralston, and be inspired by his example: you want to live.

For my money, “Into the Wild”, about a not dissimilar situation, has far greater insight into the issues involved, distilled, at one moment, (in the film) into the sadness of Hal Holbrook’s face as he realizes that Chris McCandless is about to do something precisely that stupid. If you missed it– a far, far better film than “127 Hours”– “Into the Wild” is about a young man named Chris McCandless who was a bit of an adventurer (like Ralston) and a non-conformist (he gave away his college money to travel, penniless, around the country, hitch-hiking and camping out), who makes the reckless decision to try to survive on his own in the wilds of Alaska, hunting and fishing, and living off the land. The older adults around him can’t really try to stop him, but they know just how crazy and foolish he is, and they still like him, and try to discourage him.

The difference is that “Into the Wild” offers some thoughts about the idea of just running off like that, taking large risks, without the slightest thought for the loved ones you are possibly leaving behind. “Into the Wild” raises the suggestion that there is something self-centered and willfully naïve about that attitude. We still admire McCandless, and the adults he met on the road certainly found him likable– but that was precisely why his fate was so poignant. It wasn’t necessary. What was the upside to the risk?

In short: if you saw and admired “127 Hours”, please, please get yourself a copy of “Into the Wild” (2007), and think a lot about the differences.  “Into the Wild” shows you what happened– like “127 Hours”– but it has a lot more wisdom to offer.

“127 Hours”, like “Slumdog Millionaire”, is a film that tries to give you the feeling that you’ve been through a bracing, intense, authentic experience, without having to actually have the authentic experience.

Which is not to say that watching an enlightening film enlightens anybody:  really awful discussion IMDB.

Why is there no name for this syndrome of young men who admire the courage, the grace, the beauty of self-immolation?  But we know about them.  That’s where we get our killers from, whenever we need an army.

FYI the scene with the two girls at the idyllic pool in the cavern… yes, pure Hollywood. Didn’t happen. But you probably didn’t need to be told that, right?

In a film that is otherwise quite respectful of reality, I guess the producers couldn’t resist. I’m not sure I blame them entirely.

They also couldn’t resist going a little over the top at the end… you’re desperate, damnit! You’ve been trapped for five days! You think of your dear mother! So you push yourself on and on but your body gives out and you collapse! You’re delirious. Look delirious. More delirious!…

Or the audience won’t get it.

Robot Love

More on Robot Love

Am I right? Consider this: would you enjoy watching a TV show in which contestants competed to solve complicated math equations as quickly as possible? Now, would you be excited to see a computer compete against the humans in this contest? I didn’t think so.

Yes, computers can crunch numbers. In fact, in essence, that’s all they do. The natural language used for the questions in Jeopardy are broken down by the computer into bits and bytes and then processed. Very quickly.

From the computer’s point of view, all of the questions are nothing more than math equations to be solved with speed.

It’s a Binary World
Now this one really bugs me: “KG Blankinship” writes in a letter to the New York Times that “of course we can build machines that exhibit purely random behavior by exploiting quantum mechanics as well”.

But before that he says something even more absurd: “Self-awareness and the ability to adapt creatively can also be programmed into a computer”. The statement is self-contradictory but he hits on a truth: “can be programmed” into a computer. Next, he’ll tell us that a computer can program itself. As if the program that told it to program itself could ever be something that was not, no matter how many steps down the chain, the product of human intervention.

Can a computer’s behavior ever be truly “random”? Or is the appearance of randomness merely the irreducible fact that the human’s have hidden the schedule for the behavior from humans by employing elaborate and obtuse mathematical formulae? Yes, always. And it’s always ultimately math. And the computer is always ultimately binary, which means it can never not be math. And if someone jumps up and shouts “yeah, but sooner or later they will find a way to integrate organic cells…” I say that on that day the organic cells will be self-aware or random, not the computer.

Why does it matter? Because sooner or later someone is going to tell someone else that something is true or must be done and can’t be contradicted because a computer said it was true or must be done. No, the programmer said it was true or must be done. The computer is only doing what it can only do: parrot the input of it’s master.

It occurs to me that some of the people defending the idea that computers can “think” like humans operate under the assumption that the human brain is binary in function, that is, that neurons are all either on or off, with no meaningful in-between state. (I suppose you could also argue that a very, very large number of computer chips could attain a level of virtual analog operation, where there are so many simulated “in-between” states that is operates like a human brain.)

It’s an intriguing line of thought. I don’t believe the human brain is binary in that sense. I believe that human beings are an integrated system in which any particular state of virtually any part of the body has an infinite range of values, which, combined with every other part of the body having an infinite range of values, produces an organism that can never be matched by any device that is, by definition, at its fundamental level, always binary.

To believe that human brains are also binary is to impose a reductionist view of biology onto an organism.  You can only believe it if you choose to see only the binary functions of the organism, and ignoring the organic non-binary aspects of the brain.

After the Performance: AI

There has been a bit of noise this week about the IBM computer that supposedly defeated some of the top human Jeopardy Contestants. I have rarely heard such unmitigated bullshit in the past few years. Consider this:

The computer was allowed to store the IMDB and several encyclopedias including Wiki on it’s hard drives. The human was not even allowed to use Google.

The computer did not express the slightest desire to play the game or win. The IBM programmers did. They cheated by having the IMDB and Wiki with them when they played while the human contestants, of course, did not even have a dictionary.

Some of the observers were dazzled that the computer was able to understand a rhyming word– what animal living in a mountainous region rhymes with “Obama”? They were surprised that the computer had been programmed to “know” that llama rhymes with Obama? You are indeed easily impressed.

The odd thing is that the computer’s performance hasn’t even been all that impressive, even if it was actually a “performance” in any human sense of the word. Apparently, it is offered the question in text rather than verbally. 25 IBM programmers in four years couldn’t do better than that? And why does it get a bye on the verbal questions? Human contestants can’t ask for a print out of the question before they offered verbally to other contestants.

This is a scam.

The bottom line, of course, is that computers can’t “think”. They will never think. All they can do is process data. The data and the processing are constructed by humans. The computer contributes nothing but the illusion of autonomous operation.

People who think computers think are staring at the puppets at a puppet show and wondering what they do at night after the performance.

America Gets a Brazilian

Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.

Contrast this with the United States, where from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent of earners. (Wee this great series in Slate by Timothy Noah on American inequality.)  Productivity among low and middle-income American workers increased, but their incomes did not. If current trends continue, the United States may soon be more unequal than Brazil. NY Times, January 17, 2011

That is a very striking statistic.

The most remarkable political achievement in United States history has to be the way the Republicans took money from the rich to run negative campaigns to get elected to reduce the tax burden on the rich, eliminate regulations, increase opportunities for corporate profit, and even hand over money directly to them in the form of tax breaks and rebates and outright gifts (like the airwaves for cell phone signals)… and yet were able to convince Joe Six-pack to vote for them because they stand for traditional families, prayer in schools, a strong military, and guns. It was positively ingenious. It was brilliant. The coup de gras? Deliberately creating and enlarging deficits in order to convince their supporters that government cannot be entrusted with tax dollars. The penultimate expression of this achievement– senior citizens yelling at “town hall” meetings that Obama better not touch Medicare because they don’t want the government interfering in their lives.

The Democrats have not been able to match it. That’s partly by choice. They just don’t seem quite as willing to screw the entire country on behalf one constituency. And that constituency, rightly or wrongly, believes that government should help the lower classes.

There is a legitimate debate somewhere between those who feel our lives are better if the government stays out and those feel our lives are better if the government stays in. It’s not unimaginable to me that the our nation might be more prosperous, in the long run, without government interference.

The trouble is, that’s not what the Republicans do. What they do while claiming to stay out is to jump in with both feet and hip-waders, handing over goodie after goodie, whether in the form of tax breaks, lax regulations, extensions of copyright, and so on, to the rich. Private enterprise did not create the internet– you and I did, brother, through our elected government. So where did Google’s wealth come from? And eBay? And Amazon? Where did Exxon’s wealth come from? Has Exxon ever actually paid a penny for the environmental damage they did in Alaska? Will BP ever actually pay? How much do the oil companies pay for the oil they extract from the earth? Who said the oil was theirs to extract in the first place? How do the banks get away with balloon payments and second mortgages and credit card rates in excess of 28%? Who allowed fructose into practically everything we eat, or advertising during children’s programs on TV– children’s programs! Corporations demanded and received the right to try to brainwash your children by luring them to the tv with animated cartoons and them bombarding them with ads for junk food! They are allowed to do this? Are you people mad?

They also seem to think that the government intruding on your basic right to privacy in order to address crime or terrorism is a reasonable compromise, which seems to me to be rank hypocrisy– if that’s a “reasonable” compromise, why isn’t “Social Security” a “reasonable” compromise on the idea of free enterprise?

I might, in fact, be willing to accept privatized social security if we dismantle the CIA and NSA and Homeland Security. I mean, completely dismantle them. What, you say? Crazy! There are real enemies out there! Absolutely. And some of the real enemies are old age and poverty. And you can have your CIA if I can have a vigorous, strong, and sustainable Social Security system and health care.