Posts Tagged: SciFi

“Foolproof, and incapable of error”

Saturday 21st January 2012

Whilst I was thinking about and writing the previous post, a couple of extra things came to mind which I couldn’t really fit into the post. So I thought I might as well do a follow-up with a couple of extra observations. I did intend to write this earlier, but partly I was busy (more on that in a following post) and mostly I just didn’t get around to it.

1) The previous post was not so much about aeroplanes, but more about interfaces in general. Be that with machinery like a plane, or a device like a phone, or even infrastructure or services. And it struck me that one of the few organisations that consistently manages to create things with great interfaces is Apple. Not so much with their computers (I’m really not a big fan of MacOS, probably because I’m more used to Windows), but their iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) are really good examples of things which simplify tasks through good interface design.

It strikes me that if the computing business ever starts to go slack (!), Apple could do a good business out of consultancy; imagine if they applied their UI design skills to things other than making iPhones and iPads. This isn’t as daft as it sounds; some ex-Apple employees recently set up a business to make a better thermostat. That’s a specific example of someone applying the Apple approach to interfaces to a different type of product, and I’m sure there are other things which would benefit from the same approach.

2) For some reason, I also started thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey (spoilers follow. Although, it’s a 40-odd year old book/film, so I guess most people at least vaguely know the plot. If you don’t, then go read the book and watch the film. They’re classics). The first – obvious – point is that a lot of the interfaces in that film do appear to tend towards simplicity. There’s loads of little things: the video phone booth that Dr Floyd uses near the start of the film, the tablets that Bowman and Poole use on Discovery, all the spaceship status screens look like they’re intended to be simple, and of course there’s HAL9000

On the topic of HAL, it occurred that his demise is pretty relevant too. HAL was programmed to help the crew, to convey information to them about Discovery and about the status of the mission. But before the crew left Earth the parameters of the mission were changed; this was secret, and the crew were not to be told until Discovery reached Jupiter. As the central computer, HAL knew the real purpose of the mission, but was not allowed to tell the crew. He was being asked to hide information, to lie. This ran counter to HAL’s programming – he was designed to give information, not to hide it – and because of that conflict he perceived there to be a problem. Which he then set out to rectify…

The point is, HAL failed because the people who defined his tasks for the mission did so incorrectly. The computer carried out its tasks as it saw best, but those tasks were in conflict with each other. And so the failure of the mission was the result of misuse of the computer. Now obviously the details in this and in the example in the previous post are very different, but in general, it’s the same fault: the computers behaved exactly as they were asked, the error arose from the way people were trying to use them.

And, really, how clever is that? That 40 years ago, people were thinking about how we’ll be using these ultra-sophisticated computers, and were (in a very broad sense) predicting some of the problems that we’re starting to see. Just makes me realise how great a job Clarke (and Kubrick, I think) did in writing that story, and how many ideas they’ve managed to pack into it. I’ve read the book many times already, but I really need to re-watch the film.

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Sunday 31st July 2011

In my opinion, the best science fiction is something which takes one simple idea and runs with it. When the story takes a simple concept and plays with it, to look at what can be done with it or how people would interact with it. I wrote last year about Moon, which is a great example of good sci-fi for the way it takes the idea of human cloning and deals with the practicalities and the morality of such a thing. I’ve recently watched Primer, an indie film that was produced a few years ago on a tiny budget ($7000), which does this absolutely perfectly.

The premise is that a couple of engineers have built a machine which can apparently reduce the gravity acting upon an object. But after experimenting with their invention they also discover that it has another capability, and this is what the film is about. I’m deliberately being a little vague as I think it’s best to not know more than that; the way the film reveals more detail is really nice, and works well to draw you into the film.

What’s interesting is that the film really focusses on the characters; their interaction with their invention, and also their relationship with each other as they start to use it. It’s very clever how the film has been put together to bring the viewer into it, and the attention to detail that has gone into doing that is very impressive. The actual concept that the film deals with isn’t a new thing; plenty of books and films have looked at it before, and lots of them have done it very well. But the way this deals with the manner in which the characters interact with that concept, and the effect it has on their lives, is pretty much perfect.

This is not an easy film to watch, and it definitely isn’t for everyone. The plot is very complex (even though the film only lasts just over an hour) and there is a lot that is left unsaid or that is not shown, which means that you have to think about it. I’ve watched it a couple of times now and frankly it’s still pretty confusing, but I think that’s deliberate. If you like science fiction, and films which are based around ideas, then Primer is absolutely unmissable.

Posted In: Movies Tagged: | 5 Comments


Thursday 11th March 2010

I saw Moon last night, and I can’t really decide what I think about it. Before I go further there are some spoilers here, so don’t read if you don’t want them.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the film but bits felt iffy and I can’t completely put my finger on why. I think it might be down to some of the most glaring factual errors you could think of. For instance, Moon gravity is a sixth of Earth gravity, folks! For some reason, whenever the characters were outside the base they moved much slower, as you’d expect them to in low gravity. But inside they moved normally. Hell there was a game of table tennis at one point, which struck me as particularly implausible. And also, they’ve somehow found a way to increase the speed of light, given the instantaneous communication between the Earth and the Moon.

It probably sounds like I’m nitpicking, but I don’t think I am. For a film called “Moon”, you would expect the film makers to have grappled with some of the fundamental physics of the place, and at least have come up with a reason why they choose to ignore them.

Regardless of that, it’s still a pretty enjoyable film and I really like that it’s a proper, pukka, science fiction film. Far too often sci fi just means “set in space”, as opposed to what sci-fi actually means; stories based around some sort of scientific “what if?” – for instance, Star Wars isn’t really sci fi, its just set in space. Of course, it’s another thing completely to say how good a SF film Moon is. Given that it ignores fundamentals like gravity, you could argue possibly not…

Anyway, I enjoyed it. But then I should, because it steals elements from quite a lot of other Science Fiction. It takes bits from 2001 (sentient uber-computer – Kevin Spacey plays the part, and you can tell that his brief was “sound like HAL!”), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (implanting fake memories), The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (using a catapult to sneak people to Earth, amongst other things), a sort-of allusion to Asimov and the Laws of Robotics. I’m sure I’ve read a short story by Clarke too about clones which the film echoes quite a lot, but I can’t be bothered to look through the books to find one.

It sounds like I’m being negative, but I did enjoy it and it’s well worth watching. Frankly it’s a much better film than most of the trite that gets released (mentioning no Avatars). The story may not be groundbreaking but it’s watchable, and other things more than make up for it. It’s rather nicely shot, especially the scenes which are set outside. And I also think Sam Rockwell is pretty good too as the main character(s). Kevin Spacey is ok as the computer, but it felt like he was trying to be HAL and failing – he didn’t quite get the pure emotionless tone that Douglas Rain managed in 2001. And by the way if anyone hasn’t seen 2001, you really should because (except for the first bit with the apes) it’s stunning. But then Kubrick was a great director and Clarke a great writer, so it’d be odd if it weren’t.

I think though that the best thing about the film is the soundtrack. It suits the film really well, helps the pacing and overal “feel” of the film, but it’s also just really good music. At the end I actually left the end credits run, because I was enjoying the music that was playing. It’s on Spotify so I suggest you all go listen now.

An interesting point came out of watching this. The other day I was having a discussion with a housemate about how you’d build on the moon, and specifically we were talking about concrete. We couldn’t decide whether the curing reaction needs air to work (I’m not sure it does, looking at it now), but irrespective of that you’d need to ship materials up there, which takes a lot of energy. When I was reading about this film though I ran into an article on Lunarcrete, which uses stuff found on the Moon to make a concrete-like material. I think they’ve even suggested using lunar glass as reinforcement (glass has a ludicrously high tensile strength. Concrete has very little, so thats why reinforcement is used), which is pretty cool. Apparently Lunarcrete isn’t airtight though, which is a fairly glaring flaw. And It also requires a lot of energy to produce, which is another issue. I presume the energy cost is still lower though than transporting a similar amount of concrete to the Moon.

Personally I think I’d just build underground, but then that probably also requires a lot of energy.

Posted In: Engineering Tagged: | 5 Comments

Open the Pod Bay Doors…

Wednesday 19th March 2008


Fantastic author, I can’t begin to list how many good books he’s written. The Rama and 2001-3001 series stand out though, and are well worth reading. As are his short stories.

Actually, all his stories are well worth reading…

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”
Clarke’s Third Law

R.I.P. Arthur.

Posted In: RandomTechnology Tagged: | 1 Comment