Monday, June 30, 2008

WALL*E (2008)

Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by: Andrew Stanton

The Earth, from space. (Surrounded by a thick layer of satellites.)

Music plays:
Out there
There's a world outside of Yonkers
Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby
There's a slick town, Barnaby


Long zoom in. The Earth, circa 2800. The oceans are dry, and no vegetation can be seen.

The zoom continues. Now we can make out towering buildings, teetering slightly.

Zoom in further. The music fades in and out as a tiny speck moves across the screen.

More zoom. They're not buildings, but enormous towers of trash. And the tiny speck is a robot--the last robot on Earth.

For this opening scene alone I would buy the movie when it comes out on DVD.

The robot is, of course, the movie's titular character WALL*E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), the last survivor of many thousands (millions?) of robots designed and built by the Buy'N Large Company (BNL) to clean up the Earth after it had been spoiled by humanity.

WALL*E spends its days compacting trash and collecting the few rare treasures it finds amongst the waste, until a spaceship visits Earth and leaves behind a probe called EVE, which is there to discover whether the planet has become inhabitable again. (And is, of course, the eventual romantic interest for the solitary WALL*E.)

I loved this movie. I knew I would enjoy it from the moment I heard it was from Pixar - how's that for a reputation? - but the film exceeded my expectations completely. From the opening shot described above, to the dance in space, to the cinematography, to the social and political commentary, it's a rare piece of true science fiction in film that's approachable and entertaining. (I read a review that compared WALL*E to Kubrik's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and let me say, while the comparison may be apt in terms of cinematography, WALL*E is a film I will watch again.)

The main themes of the movie are environmentalism, consumerism, conformity/self-identity and, of course, love. Love is explored through EVE and WALL*E - WALL*E's personality has developed through ages of operation, and EVE's slowly develops through its interaction with WALL*E (though there are some hints at it from its first appearance, and also in the other robots throughout the movie). I find it somewhat unfortunate that EVE and WALL*E are gendered (EVE is the aloof exotic, barely even aware of WALL*E, who is the goofy lonester that eventually wins her heart), even though it is fairly minimal overall. I understand, though, that it is done to help the movie be more approachable to a mainstream audience.

Consumerism and conformity are wrapped up together in the surviving humans and their "benevolent" ruler, the Buy'N Large Corporation. By the time the Earth is evacuated, 700 years prior to the movie's setting, BNL has taken control of the entire planet - no service provided is not touched (or offered outright) by BNL. As the refuse problem spirals out of control, BNL constructs vast space ships to carry Earth's population away; ostensibly on a 5-year cruise while the robots clean the planet. It reminds me greatly of the fiction of Frederik Pohl, particularly The Merchants' War.

Modern humanity, of a much expanded sort, continues to live in these space ships; or at least on one, the Axiom, where all needs are tended to by an army of robots as people are rushed about upon hover chairs, drinking the latest Cupcake-in-a-cup and chatting with their neighbors via the chair's screens. Unfortunately, two of these supposedly mindless creatures are pulled out of their chairs and begin to discover the world around them. The concept would be much more terrifying if they didn't, much more impactful, although it does allow the filmmaker to point out the wonders - simple and grand - that everyone else is missing, so I suppose it's not all bad.

Environmentalism is the most obvious theme, of course. The Earth has been ravaged beyond habitation. No plants grow in this wasteland. And yet, this disregard is continued on the Axiom, where garbage is fed into the bowels of the ship, to be compacted by enormous WALL*As before being jettisoned into space (can you tell the ships were designed by BNL?).

This leads me to my biggest complaint about the movie: believability. There were moments when I was cocking my head to one side and saying, "Does not compute!" The physics is not terrible, and most of it could probably be easily explained away, but some of the physics problems were: were does the gravity on the ship come from? Why does everyone fall to the side when the ship turns, exactly like on a sea-faring ship? Where do they get the energy or raw materials for everything consumed by the humans? How can humans - big, fat humans - that have spent their entire lives in their hover chairs stand up and walk at the end?

But the most important believability failure is something I've only just now realized: we are left with the presumption at the end that everything will be all right now: the humans have learned their lesson and will now become the proper stewards they should've been all along. But how? These humans have spent their entire lives not having to think about stewardship and conservation, not to mention several generations before them as well. They hadn't changed when WALL*E arrived, as evidenced by the tons of waste jettisoned each minute. While I will admit the events of the movie are certainly a life-changing experience, I can't believe they could change so drastically so quickly.

However, despite all of these nit-picks, I still highly recommend WALL*E for everyone. You won't be disappointed.

(PS I almost want to call this WALL*E: An Ambiguous Dystopia, because the contrast between Earth and Axiom remind me of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossesed: An Ambiguous Utopia. But that's probably discourse for another time.)

EDIT:
Please read UniversalCitizen's comment as well; he addresses many other troubling points with the movie.

IMSLP Returns!

So sayeth IMSLP Project Leader Feldmahler:

Open Letter

29 June 2008

Dear Friends of IMSLP, Former Users, Contributors and Supporters:

Some people have doubted that we would keep our word. Some people have questioned our competence. Some people have sworn, despite being sympathetic, that IMSLP was struck down once and forever.

I am here to prove them wrong.

It is with great joy that I bring you news of the resurrection of IMSLP. We continue to believe that the access to our culture and the Arts is a fundamental right of every human being. And holding this belief, we continue in our journey towards the goals of providing public access to the musical public domain, and the facilitation of the study of music, the understanding of music, and the enjoyment of music.

And in this spirit of openness and accessibility, I here officially dedicate the IMSLP to Ottaviano Petrucci, a pioneer whose achievements made music so much more accessible to musicians and music lovers for the past six centuries. IMSLP will henceforth be known as both IMSLP and the Petrucci Music Library. The domain name petruccimusiclibrary.org will soon (in the next few days) redirect to imslp.org.

* * *

Before I go into all the details that are involved in this resurrection, I would like to give proper thanks to several people and organizations that made today possible.

Obviously, this resurrection would be impossible without proper legal support, and I would like to thank the folks at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) and the Stanford Fair Use Project (FUP) for providing crucial support during times of crisis, and Professors Michael Geist and Lawrence Lessig for recommending the IMSLP case to the two legal clinics. Even though IMSLP currently has other avenues of legal support, the support of the two clinics proved a godsend for both IMSLP and myself personally.

In addition, I would like to thank Project Gutenberg leader Michael Hart, and GNU project leader Richard M. Stallman. Mr.Stallman has continuously helped IMSLP, even during the darkest periods and despite what must be a frighteningly busy schedule, and for which I am extremely grateful. I am also very sorry that no deal was reached between Project Gutenberg and IMSLP, but I believe that the current outcome is the best for both parties. I will, however, be very interested in pursuing a mirroring agreement, where Project Gutenberg will have access to the entirety of the IMSLP site, and which should prove very useful in case of an emergency of any sort.

I would also like to thank all the IMSLP contributors whose work was indispensable for the resurrection of the IMSLP, which included a thorough copyright review of all 16,000+ files. I greatly look forward to working with you in the future, towards our common goal.

Last, but very certainly not least, I would like to thank everyone who supported IMSLP in some form or another. You have let your voices heard, and we have answered. IMSLP will continue.


To publishers:

I am very appreciative of the amount of support given to the IMSLP by the users and contributors of the IMSLP, which could be seen directly in the volume of e-mails I received after the shutdown of the IMSLP. But a misconception of our stance seems to have arisen. IMSLP is, by no means, an antithesis of the music publishing industry. Rather, I see some of the goals of both music publishers and the IMSLP to be in many ways the same: both are interested in the promotion and dissemination of music.

Due to this shared interest, IMSLP is very much willing to collaborate with music publishers in the promotion of new music, under a Creative Commons or similar license. I know full well how little of the overall profits come from selling actual scores (and I have no evidence that IMSLP affects those profits to any great extent, if at all), and how much comes from royalties from performances. Would it not make much more sense to use IMSLP to promote new composers, instead of attempting to sue IMSLP for composers who will be entering the public domain all over the world very soon, if not already? Considering the fact that IMSLP contributors and users are made up mainly of musicians and music lovers, isn't IMSLP precisely the audience that music publishers should be working with?

I am heartened by the fact that, indeed, many music publishers have seen IMSLP as a friend, and have indeed used IMSLP in the promotion of their contemporary composers. Perhaps ironically, IMSLP's resurrection is due in no small part to the help of several of these publishers.

However, permit me to make one point clear here in no uncertain terms. IMSLP will continue to oppose organizations who attempt to limit and restrict the already much-shrunken public domain. A primary goal of IMSLP is to facilitate public access to the musical public domain, and thus IMSLP will resist strongly any attempts to shrink the public domain, and will raise the alarm among the general public should there be such an assault upon the world's cultural heritage. The reorganized IMSLP will not be so easily silenced.

But let us not end on such a distasteful note. One member of the publishing industry with whom I have recently corresponded expressed the opinion that the classical music world is too small to fight amongst ourselves. I wholeheartedly agree.


To IMSLP users and supporters:

As you probably have noticed after a quick walk through the site, many things have changed. I have tried to make everything as intuitive as possible, but I do welcome all discussions and questions about new or preexisting features. Official documentation for some of IMSLP's new features is still in progress, but do feel free to seek help on the forums for questions, or simply to leave comments and suggestions for improving the usability of the IMSLP.

And some of you may have noticed the opening of the International Music Database Project (IMDBP). IMDBP is an offspring of IMSLP that is still very much a work in progress (just started I might add), and you can find more information about the goals and time line of the project on the IMDBP main page. There is no major change in the submission process for IMSLP due to the creation of the IMDBP, besides having to click on one extra link, so former IMSLP contributors should find the new system fairly intuitive. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you think the submission system can be improved in some way; this is one of the high priorities on my list.

There are also discussions of major collaborations between other organizations and IMSLP underway. More news on the specifics of a discussion will be posted as soon as the plan is solidified, and both the other organization and IMSLP are ready to make the discussion public.

I have started a backup system for anyone wanting to keep a portion of IMSLP usable offline. A significant amount of files will be available via this system, and anyone interested should take a look at the corresponding page. Due to a variety of concerns including privacy, we are not able to offer public backups of the text on the wiki at this time, but, as I mentioned near the beginning of this letter, we would be very willing to have a mirroring/backup plan with Project Gutenberg, which would include the text.

I have also noticed people asking how they could donate to IMSLP. I have set up a page explaining the ways to donate to IMSLP; some even without actually donating money, though money donations are obviously welcome.

The forum is still where it was before the shutdown, and a blog is well in planning. If someone is feeling generous and is willing to donate a chunk of a server for a Moveable Type blog (Perl based), I would be very grateful.
* * *

Welcome back everyone, and by all means, enjoy your stay!

Yours,
Edward W. Guo (a.k.a. Feldmahler)
Project leader
Contact: feldmahler {at} imslp.org, or leave a message on my talk page.

P.S. This open letter, like the first open letter, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. Please do feel free to translate this letter, and post the translation on this wiki or the forums, so that an IMSLP admin can integrate the translation into this page.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Code Criticism

If you're a professional programmer, expect your code to be criticized.

Expect it on your worst code (because everyone writes crappy code sometimes).

Expect it on your best code (because there's almost always room for improvement).

Expect it to be helpful (because everyone brings a different perspective, talent and experience to the team).

Expect it to be worthless (because some people will want to bring you down or will just plain be wrong).

You should be worried if your code isn't criticized, because it means that either no one cares or no one is brave enough. Neither situation is good for the project.

What are little Pentapedes made of?

Carapace and mud,
And fangs covered in blood.
That's what Pentapedes are made of.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cory Doctorow's AV Club Interview

The Onion's A.V.Club has an interview with Cory Doctorow up, and it's really, really interesting. You should read it. :-)

Some excerpts:

I was going through a season of summer blockbusters, and as a science-fiction prose writer, I go see a lot of science-fiction movies so I can feel bad about the fact that those movies make much more money than I do. So I would go see these techno-thrillers, and the technology was totally wrong. You wouldn't make a movie about ancient Rome in which people were driving hot rods, unless you're Mel Brooks or something. It just doesn't make any sense, right? If the movie is a historical film about Victorian England, you wouldn't egregiously stick a bunch of televisions in the background. But there are all of these movies that are putatively about the technology we all use. In all those Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movies and so on, there's technology that we all use. And presumably, from the last word of the screenplay being written to the last cut of the edit being made, hundreds and hundreds of people look at this film who use computers every day. And none of them seem to know that computers actually don't emit a soft chime every time you type.


I was reading some golden-age science fiction, and a recurring theme in golden-age science fiction is lifeboat rules. It's nice to be democratic and all, but eventually, you find yourself in a lifeboat, and you're floating in the middle of the ocean, and someone has to be captain. And the person who goes crazy and decides that the lifeboat would be better off if he stabbed it with his penknife, that person needs to be thrown overboard. And you can't give that person a trial—the captain just needs to do it. ... The problem with this is, you end up in the land of 24, where you contrive these scenarios in which something morally unthinkable is required, and once you admit that there are situations in which morally unthinkable deeds are not only permissible but necessary, then it becomes really easy to just start shoveling inconvenient situations into the "desperate" category. ... And it seems okay on its face—obviously, if there's someone chasing a guy who's planning on blowing up the city with a dirty nuke, we wouldn't want a cop to have to go to a judge to get a warrant to find the information. But when we actually give people those powers, they end up using them for totally trivial things. In the UK, here, we have RIPA ... that's supposed to be exactly that, for catching terrorists. And it turns out that the number-one use of RIPA powers is local councils who use it to acquire the video-camera feed from private video cameras, to catch people who let their dogs crap on the sidewalk.