Friday, September 21, 2007

Wormholes


The wormhole journey as portrayed in Contact is a cheap thrill ride unworthy of the material.

OK... So the pod drops through the center of the popcorn machine and into a wormhole aperture. Great, with you so far (sort of)... But the red flashy-crap, followed by a star-field, followed by being sucked into some kind of funnel/vortex/tunnel thingy doesn't work.

Through a wormhole one can travel to distant parts of the universe instantly, avoiding all the fuss of relativity. More importantly wormhole nozzles do not look like funnels. Watch Cosmos again (The Edge of Forever, Episode X). A funnel in 4D space is a sphere in 3D space.

Here's how it should have gone... The machine should have been more like the one in the book where a stationary pod is surrounded by a device that generates a pucker in spacetime to which an awaiting wormhole nozzle can attach. The wormhole itself is an invasive sphere which envelopes a local area of spacetime; the space enclosing the pod when the machine reaches full power. A passenger would see her surroundings instantly change from departure point to destination without ever experiencing a tunnel. Whatever tunnel there is that connects these two points in space exists outside our three dimensional universe and is therefore invisible to us.

Yes, Sagan used tunnels in the book. But I think he included the tunnel adventure more for entertainment than scientific value. Since the entertainment value was negligible and misleading he would have done better to leave it out.

In the book the pod is completely encased, which conveniently doesn't allow an outside observer to see anything. The popcorn machine simply leaves out any telling spacial effects (aside form a cheap fireworks display). Both of these theatrical devices serve to reinforce the assumption of the flat-earth powers-that-be that the pod went nowhere and the bitch made it up. That's drama and it's good. But it only works to a point. The book answers the doubters, but the movie does not. The movie's only rebuttal is the usual, typical, predictable appeal to faith. 'I experienced a vision of the universe, a revelation if you will, that only I was allowed to see... Trust me.'

*barf*

So the term 'wormhole,' is a kind of misnomer. What's a better nomer? Oh hell, I don't know. Let me think...

How about 'Independently Spacial Relativity-not! Focusing Aperture,' or 'ISRFA' for short. No, too complicated, too abstract, and too removed from everyday life. Not to mention being far too inaccessible to the general public (from whom science funding ultimately originates, like it or not).

And besides, it lends itself to so many unflattering acronym extensions:

ISuRFloridA
ISuRFAholes
ISRaeliFatwA
ISReFerAddictive?
ImSuReFloyddidn'tsAythat
InlawsareSometimesReallyFuckingAnnoying

When generating a wormhole one connects two places that are not connected otherwise, forcing them to occupy the same location at the same time. A wormhole, therefore, can be understood as being like a screenplay... where the novel is the entrance, and the movie an exit.

But in the case of the popcorn machine, the wormhole is more akin to a digestive tract. Fillet mignon in... shit out.

The 'Popcorn' Machine


I’ll give the producers credit for one thing... representing the Machine as a large open air device was a good idea. It was visually interesting, and it implies a technology that was extra-worldly. But the details are all wrong and it is too complicated.

The novel states that the Machine is not a wormhole generator, and obviously, it doesn't have to be. The Aliens already have wormhole generators. They can fashion a hole through to us easier than transmitting the means for us to go to them. All they need from us is the destination, a specific time and place through which they can enter our space. All they need from us is a 'now.'

Thus the Machine represents the last piece of the wormhole puzzle, the final and simplest link in the functionality of the wormhole network. Its only purpose is to make a small dent in spacetime to which an awaiting wormhole nozzle can attach. The Machine is only a spacetime marker.

It could have been anything, but for proper dramatic reasons Sagan chose a device that has 'weighty energy' for his novel. And because international cooperation was a major theme in his life he also made it hard to build, forcing humanity to work together, more or less. The movie Machine satisfies these goals in some ways, but not in others.

I like the rings. They have power through shear size, and I like the way they resemble an electron shell. But the other more dangerous elements of the Machine are a transparent effort to manipulate the audience. For example, the fireworks display when the Machine fully activates is just a lot of noise. Maybe it's there to distract us from the complete lack of interesting dialog or a satisfying ending.

The drop/catch mechanism, the needless conflict over the inclusion of a chair, the goofy thing where Ellie's face peals itself off her head, the pod becoming transparent in her line of site and the child-Ellie face substitution have no intellectual justification. They are a discontinuous assemblage of unrelated nonsensicals.

Why have her drop through the machine at all? It's not dramatic as much as it is a thrill ride. This movie should be smarter than that. Couldn't she be somehow suspended in the center, thus avoiding the need for a drop/catch mechanism?

The special effects for the machine/wormhole journey are very good, technically. But how good are they really without a strong foundation in logic and storytelling?

I beg of you, make sense.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Scriptology


I've discovered a version of the Contact script dated September 8, 1995, credited to Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, among others. This script is essentially what appeared on film.

So… I guess I can no longer pin all my dislike on the director/producers. It pains me to say this, but my problem with this movie is Carl Sagan.

Many artists have difficulty translating their work from one medium into another. If you enjoy reading Sagan’s books you know this guy simply could not touch lightly on any subject. It just wasn’t in him. He had to explore everything inside and out and three days from backwards. Of course he had to make certain concessions for the popular media, but he always managed to do so with clarity and effectiveness. In the bookish freedom from practical constraints on length he could be concise in message. In book form Sagan was finite, yet unbounded.

Film, however, is a very different animal. Extraordinary films require extraordinary screenplays. The screenplay format forces you to do one of two things: write a condensed book, or write a movie. A screenplay is its own species, related to a book in DNA only. Where the book is the fossil, the screenplay is its living, animated descendant.

I think the screenplay, as a process, was fundamentally at odds with Carl Sagan. The physical limitation of a hundred and twenty pages must have felt suffocating to him. He couldn’t fit that big brain of his into that small a space. So instead of translating his work into film by penetrating its internal bureaucracy, Sagan simply gutted it.

He touched on the religion v. science conflict too lightly and with no rebuttal. He removed most of the dramatic potential by simplifying Ellie’s family structure. He took out all the good stuff: the wit, the skepticism, the cosmic perspective, and worst of all, the conclusion.

The inescapable irony is that Sagan probably would have been much more comfortable writing Contact as a television mini-series as it was originally conceived by he and Francis Ford Coppola. It could have been ten hours long. It could have been another Cosmos, and me and a hundred million other people would have loved every minute of it. (This in no way condones Coppola’s despicable attempt to halt production on Contact immediately after Sagan’s death.)

Of course Sagan was not a filmmaker. The filmmakers, however, are filmmakers, and they should have known better. They made a film based not upon Sagan’s wonderful book, but on his wholly inadequate screenplay, which in my view amounts to culpable negligence.

I doubt Foster (didn't have to), or Zemeckis (did have to) ever read the book.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The God of Hollywood


Contact, the movie, is a thing where the only standard of evidence worth noting is human emotion. Contact, the movie, is a courtroom drama, where ones embarrassing moments count as empirical evidence. Contact, the movie, is a place on a flat Earth where mental defects are messages from the hereafter to be hailed as indisputable fact. Contact, the movie, is a place where anecdotal evidence and conjecture will get you laid... Not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it shouldn’t be the end product of this story.

Contact, the movie, is a bouquet of pretty flowers, that smell bad.

Contact, the movie, is a one-hundred and fifty-three minute long version of 'The Price Is Right.' This film is a sellout to butter and sugar, popcorn and Coca-Cola.


OK, that was a cheap shot. Let's class it up a little bit. Why not 'Carl Sagan's Contact ~ The Fragrance?'


Bzzz, wrong. How about something in between... 'Carl Sagan's Contact ~ The Musical?'


(October, 2009: Yeah, they really did it.)

This movie, so called, is a slave to the industry. Its only redeeming quality may be as studio fodder. Revenue from Contact could possibly have greased the wheels of some more worthy film.

The book is filled with intrigue, history, genuine human emotion and grand motives by inscrutable, yet entirely real higher powers. It soars. It has a social conscience and a reason for being. It releases energy and comes to more than the sum of its parts.

This movie, on the other hand, comes to nothing. It’s as if the demolition crew showed up a day early and struck the set before an ending was put in the can.

The most glaring absence is of course the wonderful book ending where Ellie finds scientific proof that god exists. One might argue that this is too complicated for a movie. And I agree, but only insofar as it is too mathematical in nature. This concept only needed to be translated into the more visual medium. But instead it was simply dropped. And I do not think this is merely a case of expedient story telling. There is a more insidious force at work here, namely religion.

The faithful hijacked this film and made it theirs. This movie celebrates the peculiar religious notion that the unknowable is a form of pure knowledge. What is wrong with this film is what is wrong with religion, where the meaningless question becomes an argument from authority. ‘The bible says God exists, because God says so in the bible, doesn’t he?’ - that sort of thing. For these folks God is the irresistible force and the bible is the immovable object.

So instead of discovering proof of a higher level of existence our impotent heroine, Ellie (a.k.a., the poor little atheist girl), is left floundering in self-doubt. This is because religious people hate proof. They hate it to such a degree as to disallow evidence of their own argument. To prove god exists negates faith.

In the end the protagonist becomes a thinly veiled TV evangelist complete with very public and tearful appeals to belief. She might as well be wearing a pink, cotton-candy wig and Spackle makeup. The producers of this film have cloaked ignorance in sentiment.

And that's not all they did. Crimes against art have here been committed. In the hands of these filmmakers the term 'science fiction' has taken on a completely unintended, and loathsome meaning. It has become an oxymoronic, grotesque parody of itself. One might as well classify this movie as 'religious fact.'

'The world is what we make of it.'

Yes, it is. When we are children. But adults are not permitted the childish luxury of making it up as they go. To paraphrase Sagan, at some point we must abandon our most heartfelt beliefs in favor of cold hard reality. The universe is no fairy tale. Sagan never pandered to children the way this film panders to the childish adults who still believe the universe is just a metaphor for a struggle between quarreling super beings. He gave it to us straight without appeals to mysticism.

Science and religion are not equal partners. There is no common ground between them, with the possible exception of using science to deconstruct the evolutionary imperative for religious belief. Beyond that science destroys religion. It kicks its ass. Sagan knew it, although he hedged his bets in public. But this rotten 'movie' gives the same weight to miracles as it does physics, perhaps more. It panders to the mob in the name of Jesus and candy bars.

I often hear people say that a movie can never be as good as the book. Boloney. Kubrick, among others, could do it because he knew the formula. Here's the formula: a movie is not a book. It doesn't have to be and it shouldn't ever be. What it does have to be is original to its own unique medium. Find an element of visual interest within the story and let that be your guide to translate the entire work.

In this regard Sagan handed the producers the key to this particular enterprise on a silver platter, and still they missed it entirely. Within the last chapter of the book lay the movie. And again, the reason they left out this proof is because the truly faithful despise proof.

The subtitle, instead of 'A Journey to the Heart of the Universe,' should have read, 'Don't Confuse Me with Facts.' This film is terrible. It is a complete surrender to abject unthink.

It abandons science.

It embraces religion.

It's a betrayal.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

2 is yellow


Writing this thing is kind of a pain. It takes a long time for me to turn a thought into words. I don't think in words. I think in shapes (mostly shapes), colors, faces, sounds... And I can't not tweak a sentence or a paragraph to death. I surrender to fatigue faster than satisfaction.

Blogger is good for me because the text field where I write and the preview window where I preview and the actual blog where I actually blog all look different from one another. It's great. It overrides the 'auto-correct' feature in my brain. On Word I'll skim right over a dropped letter or missing/wrong word a dozen times before I see a mistake, if ever.

The Brave One


Jodie Foster is a fine actor. She is not responsible for her performance in Contact. She was given a terrible script and worse direction. She was stifled, cloistered, caged.

Foster was handed a character who apparently has undiagnosed multiple personality disorder, completely unfitting for the story. One minute she's a powerful, independent feminist, the next she's wallowing in self-pity and pandering to the stupidity of the mob.

And why the hell is this bitch crying?

Did you see the 'final statement' scene in the wonderful film, 'The Contender?' Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) wins because she is unyielding in her principles. Hanson's statement should have been Ellie's statement, practically verbatim, before the machine selection committee in Contact. Instead... whimper.

Instead Ellie is embarrassed by her atheism. Why? Because the last thing this movie wants is a strong nonbeliever with the courage of her convictions. The point of this movie is not science, or even skepticism; it is to buttress the weird religious idea that doubt and uncertainty are where god live.

He's there. He's waiting for you. You just have to concede his unknowability, and you'll be just as right as rain. At the end of this fucking movie reason and evidence and truth are suppressed by the inquisition. The bad guys win. And we lose.

Extraordinary movies require extraordinary screenplays.

What's a fine actor to do with a screenplay that isn't worth the paper it's written on? Answer: Cash your check and move on to something better.

Who are we?


Within the story of Contact is a framework for understanding our place in the scheme of evolution. But in this particular work I don't think Sagan took some of his previously established ideas far enough. I'm talking specifically about our impending 'singularity.'

The term singularity is borrowed from astrophysics, where it defines the center of a black hole; a point between relativity and quantum mechanics where our understanding of physics breaks down. But the newer definition I refer to is in the context of the evolution of intelligence.

Singularity is a massive discontinuity in history, a point in our near future where prediction breaks down due to the acceleration of change in our world. In other words, as evolution accelerates to infinity our ability to predict the future drops to zero. Super intelligence is one possible result. Death is another.

It amazes me that even before there was a word for it, Dr Sagan sensed intuitively what we now call the singularity. The term was coined (applied?) in 1981 by retired San Diego State University professor Vernor Vinge.

"Here I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology, and found myself precipitated over an abyss. It's a problem we face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity - a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied - and the world will pass beyond our understanding."
-- Vernor Vinge, True Names and Other Dangers, p. 47.

Sagan touched upon the notion of the emergence of a global consciousness in The Persistence of Memory (Cosmos, episode XI). So he was certainly aware of this idea when he wrote Contact. But he left it out. The concept of ultimate life v. death was a recurring theme in his public work, especially in the context of nuclear war. But maybe the specific idea of singularity hadn't quite congealed in his mind, and so he couldn't connect it to his story. At any rate, I think this is a loss that can be corrected postmortem. Singularity theory provides a motive for the aliens to contact us. (More later...)

For a far better explanation of the singularity I refer you to Staring Into the Singularity 1.2.5 by Eliezer Yudkowsky, and The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, (click on Overview). These folks are hellbent on making it happen as soon as possible. Give them money!

OK, back to us...

If you consider singularity theory carefully you will understand that humans are the end product of natural selection, but not of evolution as a whole. Natural selection (NS) has taken life as far as it can, namely to us. We can surely evolve farther through NS, but the point is we don't have to wait that long. Where before we were riding on a donkey's back, now we're ocean hopping in a Concorde.

Agent Smith from The Matrix was right in comparing us to a virus. But this demeaning insult doesn't take into account our macroscopic (compared to a virus) brains. Sure we reproduce like crazy and run riot over our environment, just like a virus. But our brains, not our sex drive allowed this to happen.

Because our brains give us a huge advantage, other large organisms simply cannot compete with us on a global level. Micro-organisms are still a legitimate threat, but we're gaining on them fast. A virulent outbreak of Ebola may yet have a chance to get us, but not a pack of wolves. (In fact the only large animal we still have to fear is ourselves.)

So we are not in equilibrium with the rest of life on Earth. We kill other species and whole environments on a par with the greatest mass extinctions of the prehistoric past. And any means we posses of destroying ourselves will almost certainly take a big chunk of the biosphere with us. NS would never, by itself, allow a species to proliferate to the point of endangering all life. So what did?

Right now on Earth 'Externally Self-Optimizing Selection' is the name of the game. Through the power of our large brains, eSOS created a global civilization. Our brain and its ability to manipulate the world outside our bodies has extended our power over matter to a point that has no equal. Wagon wheels, fishin' poles, computers (especially computers), cars, airplanes, frozen foods, nukes, mousetraps; all are evolving at a previously unheard of rate. The key point being that none of them are having sex.

Of course eSOS begs the question... What happens when 'external' becomes 'internal?' When Internal Self-Optimizing Selection, iSOS, begins to recursively self-improve our genes and our very minds (or the surrogate minds we create), singularity will be knocking on our door.

In the real world, as in the fictional world of Contact, we humans occupy an extremely narrow, and highly volatile zone between the invention of radio astronomy and super-intelligence. The way I see it there are only two possible outcomes... Give me singularity or give me death.

Does anyone else see the potential for a really great movie here?

Friday, September 7, 2007

The God of Contact


Let's face it, uber-atheist Carl Sagan's only novel contains a god.

There's nothing wrong with exploring this idea in a work of fiction; look at the Bible. And as much as the fundies of the world want it to be, this doesn't make him a true believer in his heart of hearts. It's not an admission of anything except that he wanted to consider how such a being, if she/he/it exists, might reveal themselves to us. It's a thought experiment, nothing more.

But the good scientist must also ask the obvious question... Where did god come from? In Contact, Carl Sagan, more the writer than the scientist, finds an answer. Between 'god always existed' and 'god never existed' is a vast middle ground that is ripe with story potential.

Some religions produce works of surpassing beauty. Contact, as an origin myth of it's own, can be one of them.

At first glance, the god of Contact seems more a god of Einstein in that he's the disinterested, non-interfering initiator of the universe. He set up the parameters, the perimeters and the speed limits. And then he said... so long, see you later. But Sagan added an element of true revelation to his story. Before god took off for parts unknown, he left a clear, unambiguous sign of himself; an artist's signature. He hid it in the very simplest form in nature, the circle, where it waited to be discovered. God knew that someday someone would be here to find it. Or maybe he didn't know. Maybe he's preforming an experiment of his own.

This entity, whatever he is, must reside completely outside the substrate of the universe as we know it, in a place where the most ubiquitous forms in what we call 'nature' are constructs. We can't imagine such a place. But to paraphrase Sagan, why should we expect our experience to have any relevance in this area. Our senses evolved in here, not out there. We just need to recognize the signature as a unique, nonrandom sign of intelligence. And to do that all we need is a moderately large brain and an imagination; the clear tools of our future upward mobility.

The god of Contact poses some interesting questions. Sagan stated in the book that the circle is not merely a signature, but the beginning of a message from the same extra-universal being. So I ask... if he can communicate with us, may we someday be able to communicate with him?

The Vegans sent a message down to us. In doing so they pointed the way up to a higher level of being. They gave us access to the larger universe, and a way out of our selfish fatalism. The entity who wrote the message in pi did something similar to the Vegans it seems to me. He sent a message down to them pointing the way up and out of the universe into an even higher level of reality. So as information flows down, evolution simultaneously flows up.

This is a form of revelation of the teacher.

Truth is sometimes best revealed through a veil of lies. If humans can evolve up to the level of the Vegans, and then up again to the level of the pi-being, do we not then become that which created us? In this fictional universe, do we create ourselves every time we contemplate the circle?

Through paradox one can make two mutually exclusive statements and have them mean exactly the same thing:

1) God created us, we are his children. He exists in our past.
2) We will create god, he is our child. He exists in our future.

When discussing religion I think the only useful way to approach god is to embrace paradox; but only as art, never as science. The truth is our existence is not owed to paradox. This god is no more real than any of the others.

Carl Sagan wrote a work of fiction. In fiction he could roam the universe and imprint whatever conjectures he wished upon it. His manuscript was submitted to a publisher for sale to the public for the purposes of entertainment. It was not submitted to a scientific journal for peer review. In Contact, Sagan could answer the question of where god came from in a very circular way. He combined both western and eastern religious motifs with a very original flare.

If Sagan had written a subtitle for his book it might well read...

'Contact: Or, God Willed Himself Into Being, And This is How He Did It.'