Monday, March 17, 2008

BigDog, an animoid robot

Just check it out. There are seven videos in all.

Cute li'l beastie, eh?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Movie review: Away from Her

Away from Her (2007. D: Sarah Polley. Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis)

Fiona's developing Alzheimer's results in her going into a long term care home. Grant has a very difficult time adjusting to this. At the home, Fiona starts a relationship with Aubrey, a fellow patient. His wife Marian takes him out of the home because she can't afford to keep him there without selling her house. Fiona becomes depressed. Grant comes to ask Marian to bring Aubrey back for a visit. She refuses. Later, Grant and Marian have sex. Marian sells her house, and brings Aubrey back to the home. When Grant is about to bring him to Fiona, Fiona has a lucid spell, as predicted by the nurse, and recalls that recently Grant was reading her Auden's Letters from Iceland. Grant is ecstatic that she remembers him. Fadeout. And that's the plot, based on an Alice Munro story.

Sarah Polley's adaptation of Munro's story, with its multiple layers and constant moving back and forth in time, is brilliant. The film mimics the unexpected and confusing rememberings that Alzheimer's patients are said to experience. The editing helps, with repetitive establishing shots and subtle shifts in colour, sound, and editing. The three leads are very good. The characters are all vulnerable, and it's that vulnerability that I think makes the film convincing.

Christie's performance as Fiona is wonderful. She changes from knowing that she is deteriorating, to repeating increasingly inappropriate social phrases, to being barely aware of where she is. Pinsent as Grant has captured the essence of a man used to having the supports of career, social rank, and a satisfying marriage, who realises that he can barely survive on his own, and must accept a diminished role in his own life. He doesn't realise that he has been defined by his surroundings and relationships all his life; he has believed that he was somehow self-defined. When Fiona loses her self to Alzheimer's, Grant loses his self too. He says he could not ever bear to be away from her, that's why he married her. In fact, he couldn't be himself without her; and now he must learn how do that. Dukakis as the no-nonsense wife-caregiver, who copes by pretending she is self-sufficient, knows she too needs comfort, even if only the illusion of a brief connection in bed. In the end, we have only ourselves. Those we love, and who love us, no matter how close we are, will always be apart from us.

Yet the movie isn't quite satisfying. It's a depressing story, and has its strongest moments at the beginning, when Fiona charts her own descent into non-self, and decides, while she still can, that it's time for her to go. It's Grant who can't accept the loss, who hopes that the stay in the home will be a short one, who wants to believe that Fiona is just being her quirky self, that therapy will bring her back. Towards the end, as he comes to accept that Fiona must move to the second floor (where the end stage patients are housed), we see that he will somehow survive in his new role as mere visitor. When at the end Fiona has one of those lucid times that the nurse has told Grant she will have, he accepts her embrace, blissed out by her mere presence. Is this a note of hope or of resignation? A recognition that we must accept small mercies gratefully, or the delusion that things will return to normal? Or a setup for even greater heartbreak? The ambiguities arise from the vagueness of Grant's character. The movie doesn't give us the answers, nor should it, but it should give us a clearer sense of how Grant has changed. ***

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Solar Power and subsidies

An article in today's New York times reports on thermal solar power plants being built in the SW states. Costs are high, compared to coal fired plants, and a subsidy is provided:

"The solar plants receive a federal tax subsidy, like other types of renewable energy, which makes the economics work for builders but also feeds skepticism about the technology’s long-term potential. “Unless there’s a subsidy involved, it doesn’t seem like a very attractive technology,” said Revis James, a renewables expert at the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility industry consortium."

I don't know what else Mr James said, but his comment is disingenuous. Coal and other fossil fuels receive subsidies of all kinds. The oil and coal companies receive tax rebates to compensate them for the diminishing supplies of coal and oil. The power companies receive rebates for building the plants in the first place, and more rebates for installing pollution control equipment. And everyone involved externalises the costs of whatever pollution remains after scrubbing, and of course the cost of CO2. Externalised costs are indirect subsidies. We all pay for them one way or another.

No one knows exactly what these subsidies amount to in cents/kWh, but there's no question that it's high. One thing is for sure, though: power generated from fossil fuel is not priced to reflect its actual costs. If it did, solar power would look a lot more attractive, and there would be a lot more effort to conserve power. There's not much point in increasing electricity supply if there isn't also an effort to cut electricity use.

The illustration used to help the reader understand the potential of solar thermal power is also interesting: "A megawatt is enough electricity to run 1,000 room air-conditioners at once." One of the things that struck me when I visited south Texas some years ago was the lack of insulation in most of the homes. Proper insulation would cut power consumption for air-conditioning by a third or more. The use of ground effect heat pumps would cut the remaining power demand by 75%. These two modes of conservation should be heavily subsidised. The payback in dollars for each installation would be ten years or less. The payback in energy savings would be substantially less.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Book Review: Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen

Piper, H. Beam Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1964)

Calvin Morris, a Pennsylvania state trooper, is slipped sideways in space-time, into a medieval version of vaguely Greek "Aryans" who moved east instead of west and ended up on the eastern side of N. America. He of course takes over, what with his superior knowledge of warfare, honed both in a history classes and in combat in Korea, etc, and so on, and so forth. The local Prince not only takes him in, but promotes him, and eventually subjects himself to him! Kalvan also gets the girl, the Prince's daughter Rylla, but apart from some comradely joshing (she's good with a sword, and very, very smart), and a reference to how nice (!) it is to be married to her, there's no hint of sex. Calvin/Kalvan's predicament attracts the attention of the Paratime Police, who decide to leave him be, and study what happens when a disturbing factor is inserted into a time stream. Academics disguise themselves to blend in and insert themselves into the same "level". One of them becomes a commander in Kalvan's army! A typical adolescent nerd fantasy, IOW. Fun, and in a couple of places very funny, too.

The book reads very much like a novelette that could eventually be expanded to novel length. It has a number of dangling plot lines, and the characters feel unfinished rather than merely two dimensional. The Paratime motif is not well worked out. Presumably, some of the Level Five people who operate the Paratime Police will be seduced into staying in this primitive but exhilarating culture. There are hints of this, but the loose ends stay loose. The social and political consequences of Kalvan's arrival feel like sketches towards a more thorough treatment. The locals accept Calvin too easily -- there should be more resistance to his reforms and changes, not because people disagree with them, but because they are new. But pulp fiction moves fast.

Piper takes a good deal of trouble describing the battle formations and developments, which sound like description of real battles. Has he used actual Civil War battles as his models? I don't know enough to decide. He also tosses in all kinds of tidbits, such as the local word for mother: madh. He clearly despises anything that smacks of theocracy, or domination of state and society by a religion. He likes strong men, and clearly believes that strong men (and women, I suppose) make history, not the other way round.

The book belongs to the alternative history genre, which since the 1960s has developed into very sophisticated and much more carefully thought out stories. I've started reading a couple of these, and find that compared to this swiftly moving pulp fiction, they are boring -- too much attention to making the alternative history academically plausible, and not enough interest in character and plot. Many of them read like the fictions based on games: the rules constrict and constrain, so that the stories feel more like puzzles and calculations than fictions. But I liked this novelette, it's unassuming and designed to entertain. The hints of deeper themes and nuggets of fact are a bonus, just the kind of thing that feeds a nerd's yearning for insight.

This was Piper's last book. He suicided shortly after finishing it. Pity. **-½

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

9/11 Conspiracies

     Try the following link: Prison Trains

     Funny, eh?
     Then look at the comments. While most people see the humour (such as it is), a few earnestly propose or point to what they believe is the truth: that 9/11 was "an inside job", conceived to provide excuses for the reduction of civil liberties and engagement in foreign wars.
     Well, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade centre did provide those excuses, on which the Bush administration has acted with too many signs of glee. Not that they wouldn't have used some other excuse if 9/11 hadn't happened. They have been trying to find an excuse for a pre-emptive attack on Iran (also a former ally in the Middle east, by the way), citing Iran's nuclear weapons program as reason enough. A number of factors, which I needn't enumerate, have prevented them from acting on this excuse.
     I don't think there will be a strike on Iran in the foreseeable future. The next President, Republican or not, will have enough problems to deal with, without adding a gratuitous one.
     The ancient Chinese are said to have cursed their enemies with "May you live in the most interesting of times." We do live in the most interesting of times. But then, we always have.