Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sustainable Transportation Forum: Swiss Hit, Swiss Miss

As a committed transit bicyclist and an occasional advocate for pedestrians in Atlanta, I was eager to attend last week's Sustainable Transportation Forum hosted by Georgia Tech and the local Consulate General of Switzerland, a 2-day public policy symposium which promised "to explore solutions to Georgia's growing traffic congestion."

I enjoy going to these kind of symposiums, and I imagine the excitement that I feel about them is in some way like the excitement my father felt at the prospect of making the trip from Atlanta to visit the City of Tomorrow at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

After attending the better part of the first day of the forum, I could confidently report that I had seen the future, and it was the Swiss national transportation network.

But like the Futurama of the 1939 Fair and similar exhibits at later world expositions, this is an elusive future, always beckoning, but forever out of reach; a tantalizing future city, draped in a facade of technological hopes but unanchored in any foundation of social and political reality, at least as far as transportation in metro Atlanta is concerned.

Representatives of Swiss rail and transportation agencies had been enlisted to introduce the "gathering of regional planners, advocates, policy makers, business leaders, and political decision-makers" to the remarkable Swiss transportation system and to highlight some of its most significant engineering and logistical achievements as the central parts of the program.

First and foremost among the featured projects was the Gotthard Base Tunnel, currently under construction and expected to open in 2018 at an estimated total cost of $8.7 billion.  When completed, at 35.5 miles in length, it will be the longest tunnel - of any type - in the world and will not only cut passenger travel time between Zürich and Milan by an hour, but also significantly reduce the amount of through-traveling truck traffic on Swiss roads.

No less impressive than how well the Swiss have built their transportation network is how well they operate it.  By manipulating the times trains arrive and depart and the speeds they travel between stops, Swiss Federal Rail is able to insure that trains leave regularly every half hour and are synchronized with not only other trains, but also buses, at some 28,000 stations around the country.  An integrated national timetable stitches together all publicly- and privately-owned transport services; everything from high-speed trains to sight-seeing ships is included in this schedule.  The level of planning required to coordinate the operation of this system, which functions as precisely as, shall we say, a fine Swiss watch, is phenomenal.

Ironically though, the most significant words spoken with regard to the reality of the future of public transportation in the Atlanta region were not those of the Swiss representatives in their technical presentations, but of Michael Meyer, Professor of Civil Engineering at Georgia Tech, a member of the introductory panel, and the person who had been asked to characterize the transportation problems to be addressed by the symposium - that is, the current and projected levels of traffic congestion in the Atlanta region - in order set the stage for the discussions to follow.

Having completed his assigned task with a few minutes to spare, Dr. Meyer struggled - out loud - with a difficult personal decision:  should he wrap up and keep his commentary within his limited charter or should he take the opportunity to say important things that needed to be said, even at the risk of offending his hosts and souring the optimistic mood established by the opening speakers.  Erring on the side of integrity, Meyer chose to speak his potentially discordant truths.  It was like watching the story of a minor "profile in courage" in the making.

Professor Meyer began by noting that he had lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years and that, during that time, he has seen many fine transportation plans come and go.  Indeed, he said that he had contributed to a number of them, and that, truth be told, had any of those plans been fully adopted, we would not be in the transit mess that we find ourselves in today.  Finally, he concluded that the sad fact of the matter was that we had failed at providing citizens of this region with a quality transit network not because of any lack of good planning or shortage of technological know-how, but because we have lacked the leadership and the political will to get the job done.

What Meyer had to say with these cautionary words was an unexpected, but an oddly appropriate, kickoff for a transportation forum that could otherwise well be described as a dog-and-pony show for Swiss good planning and technological know-how.

Interestingly enough, the better lesson that the Swiss had to offer Atlanta and, by extension, the United States, was how central the principle of mobility as a basic human right is to the success to their national transportation enterprise.  Each of the speakers touched on this point, but one in particular, Michaela Stoeckli, the general manager of the Swiss Rail Industry Association, spent some time with the issue.  She explained that, because it was long agreed among the Swiss that residents, regardless of their level of income should have access to the kind of transportation services that support them in their practical and leisure activities, transportation initiatives, even expensive ones, were routinely approved in popular referendums by overwhelming majorities.

Now, admittedly, convincing Georgians that mobility is a basic human right - given that they and other Americans are hardly persuaded that access to life-saving medical care is a basic human right - is a hard sell.  To add to this challenge, it is especially difficult for "outsiders" to participate in our national debates without being perceived as either patronizing or condescending.

But, as Professor Meyer observed, all the proposed engineering solutions for our transportation problems are for naught, absent the political will to follow through with them, and, it would seem, that progress here must start with a reorientation of our values.

In this respect, it is interesting to note that this particular forum was part of an ongoing program to promote exchanges of know-how between the U.S. and Switzerland called ThinkSwiss.  Perhaps that is exactly what we need to learn how to do - "think Swiss"  - and by that I mean recognize the benefits in store for us if we promote the right of mobility for everyone - so that we can once and for all realize the promise of the City of Tomorrow for transportation in the Atlanta area.

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Sustainable Transportation Forum: Swiss Hit, Swiss Miss by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at thoughtsarise.blogspot.com.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Game Over, "Avatar" Dude

This is the third in a series of essays on James Cameron's recent landmark science-fiction film Avatar.  Unlike the preceding posts, this one does contain spoilers.

Immediately lauded as a masterpiece of technical film-making and, simultaneously, disparaged for its lackluster story-telling, James Cameron's Avatar offers us something else to consider.

Although reviews often mention that the title is taken from the term for the character an individual adopts as a representative in a multi-user game or simulated community - avatar itself is the Sanskrit work for the descended incarnation of a Hindu deity - not much has been said about how thoroughly the director has fashioned a story that recreates many of the features of a video game.

Avatar is set in the year 2154 on the world of Pandora, a paradisaical moon of a gas-giant planet orbiting a nearby star and inhabited by race of tall, graceful, blue-skinned anthropoids, the Na'vi.  There our hero, ex-marine Jake Sully, a paraplegic as a result of a combat injury on Earth, has been tasked to control - more aptly, to inhabit - a hybrid human-Na'vi body, genetically tailored especially for him.  This "meat puppet", to borrow a coinage from William Gibson, enables Sully to pursue his assigned mission in the hostile Pandoran environment without the use of life-support equipment and to insinuate himself within the native population.

The perfect projection of Sully's consciousness into the body of his avatar over arbitrary distances is accomplished by use of what could reasonably be described as an electronic sarcophagus.  When Sully climbs into this high-tech cocoon, lies down, empties his mind, and closes his human eyes, a seamless "psionic" connection is instantly formed, and his blue-skinned alter ego opens his eyes - in a literal flash.

So begins one of many cycles of digital death and rebirth for Sully, as his avatar ventures deeper and deeper into the world of Pandora, there to refine his physical prowess, to expand his knowledge of the Na'vi and their habitat and, bit by bit, to heal his war-ravaged soul.

The correspondence of Sully's hero's journey to that of a player in a fantasy role playing game is almost exact: Sully's avatar is his character in the game; the electronic sarcophagus is his exquisitely engineered game controller; each of his excursions into the world of the Na'vi is a turn of the game, and an opportunity to acquire knowledge or a skill that is critical to the advancement to the next level of play.  Likewise, Sully's progress is marked by the kind of achievements that are the expected rewards which come with mastering a video game: the ability to travel safely through and fight adroitly in a challenging new environment, a facility with novel types of weapons, the recognition of admiring peers - and defeated rivals - leading to enhanced status within a community of worthies; and, of course, the coveted sexual relationship with the most desirable of the native females, Neytiri, who is herself an accomplished warrior.

In addition, much like an adept in a video game, as a result of his diligent striving, Sully gains access to the esoteric spiritual wisdom of his guest world.  Armed with this knowledge he is able to lead the Na'vi to victory in the climatic battle of the film and, as final reward, shake off his damaged mortal coil, leave the community of venal, small-minded humans behind, and take up his rightful place - restored in body and purified in spirit - on Eden-like Pandora among the noble Na'vi.  Game over, Dude!

What is striking in Cameron's realization of this premise is not only the way he uses his film to create parallels with on-line games, such as World of Warcraft, but also the way he suggests similarities with the cultural context in which these games are played.  In this, our ordinary world, (mostly) adolescent males, debilitated not as a result of war wounds but due to persistent coach-potato inactivity, build their own makeshift electronic coffins out of available materials - such as sofa cushions and closed bedroom doors - into which they then climb to escape the demands of social interaction and the nagging of parents or girlfriends.  With only modest exertion and the assistance of state-of-the-art game controllers, they are reborn as rampaging heroes in an alternate digital universe.

As compensation to the (mostly) real-world women cast aside by these self-exiled virtual combatants, Cameron offers this, the prospect of profound and effortless communion with their men by use of luminous bundles of exposed neural fibers which the Na'vi sport as ponytails and which function as a sort of digital biological interface for unmediated person-to-person connection.  Given the solitary nature of on-line gaming - which makes conversation with already emotionally unavailable partners effectively impossible - this is a ray of hope that the game world itself will provide relief from the frustration with the failed conventional approach to building relationships, one which relies on spoken words to communicate thoughts and feelings and states of mind.  Surprisingly, because of the appeal of this fantasy solution to girlfriends left behind, it appears that Avatar succeeds in a small way as something of a chick-flick, too.

And so, with Avatar, James Cameron has delivered not only an imagined world which is, in many respects, the realization of a video game, but also one  which is a reflection of the effects this on-line gaming phenomenon has had on contemporary culture.

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Game Over, "Avatar" Dude by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at thoughtsarise.blogspot.com.

Monday, January 4, 2010

"The Da Vinci Holmes" / "The Sherlock Code"

This is a note I first posted to FaceBook motivated in part by the recent Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes.  I am re-posting it here also so that it can appear with my other film essays. It is a commentary on a genre of insipid, hyperkinetic action-mystery movies that has - sadly - been growing in popularity in recent years.

Egad, Watson, I could write one of these movies.

Essential Ingredients
- Pick a hero sleuth, an academic or intellectual outsider who knows how to throw a punch.

- Pick a sidekick, a loyal friend or brother and / or, perhaps, a woman of mystery.

- Pick a friendly cop on the inside, someone whose superficial disdain for hero sleuth masks a burgeoning respect.

- Pick a villainous cabal led by an evil master as an adversary.

- Pick a setting, cities with recognizable / picturesque locations work best because they are compact, making scurrying (see below) very practical; large amounts of money can be poured into period recreation and location shooting and the cost of writing the screenplay can, thus, be kept to a minimum.

Once these elements are in place, set the plot in motion with some requisite crime, the murder of a tertiary character or the theft of a something of historical or artist value, and let the scurrying begin!

Scurrying 101
- Have hero sleuth and sidekick scurry from recognizable / picturesque location to recognizable / picturesque location, ostensibly to nab evil master or thwart the progression of his nefarious, yet inscrutable, scheme.

- Have scurriers arrive too late at said locations - too late, that is, to nab evil master, but not too late to avoid a dust-up with members of villainous cabal or their brawny minions, allowing scurriers to demonstrate feats of derring-do and their not inconsiderable talents at punch throwing.

- Have friendly cop, optionally, arrive at said locations even later than hero sleuth and sidekick - too late that is to help out with the dust-ups, but not too late to demonstrate growing respect for hero sleuth and, occasionally, to place him under arrest.

- Have hero sleuth surmise something or other as a result of each visit to a recognizable / picturesque location, not to advance the plot in any significant way, mind you, but to insure that the selection of the next recognizable / picturesque location on the agenda can be announced so that the scurrying can continue uninterrupted.

- Repeat.

Planning Ahead
Make sure that recognizable / picturesque locations geographically form the outline of some sort of geometrical figure or hokey religious symbol so that hero sleuth can divine - from a hastily drawn map - the last the recognizable / picturesque location to which to scurry for the climax and denouement.

Climax and Denouement
- Have hero sleuth, sidekick and, optionally, friendly cop, whose undying respect for hero sleuth is now firmly established, converge on the final recognizable / picturesque location where they engage in an urgent battle with evil master and / or members of villainous cabal and / or brawny minions as the objective of the nefarious scheme is announced and some sort of doomsday clock ticks away.

- Have hero sleuth, sidekick and, optionally, friendly cop vanquish evil master, but not necessarily all members of villainous cabal; there are, after all, sequels to be considered.

- Have hero sleuth deliver three-minute extemporaneous just-so-story speech, accompanied by flashbacks of scurrying to and from recognizable / picturesque locations, that explains evil master's nefarious scheme in excruciating scientific and scholastic detail so as to dispel any notion that magic or supernatural forces were implicated in its execution and to seal hero sleuth's reputation as the renaissance man extraordinaire who can throw a punch.

An Alternative Recipe
Invest a small fraction of the not insubstantial production budget for the film in hiring writers who can develop characters fully, can write dialog that is more than an exchange of a handful of quips, and understand that the art of presenting a mystery lies in enlisting the audience as witnesses to its being solved and not as a classroom of schoolchildren to be assembled for a final lecture.

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"The Da Vinci Holmes" / "The Sherlock Code" by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at thoughtsarise.blogspot.com.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Avatar" - Nature Blue in Tooth and Claw

This is the second of in a series of posts about James Cameron's new film Avatar.

As Luke Skywalker might say, finding fault with the science in science fiction films is about as challenging as bull's-eying womp rats from a T-16 back on Tatooine.

Yes, every now and then a science fiction film takes as a central premise an intriguing theory and expands upon it using plausible extrapolations of current technology and scientific knowledge.  The movie Contact (1997) and its treatment of the search for and discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life shines in this regard.

More often, the science of a science fiction film serves as a device used to transport a conventional story to a dramatically different setting, where, stripped of the distractions of our everyday world, its themes can be amplified and so stand out in starker relief.  This kind of borrowing is as old as the visionary 1927 silent science fiction masterwork Metropolis and its "scenes from the class struggle", set in a near-future urban dystopia.

It would be fair to say that Avatar falls squarely, and respectably, into this second category.  Its narrative is so similar to Kevin Costner's 1990 Academy-Award winning film, that I began to refer to it as "Dances with Avatars" after only seeing the theatrical trailer.  Director James Cameron re-situates this story of the American West, itself many times retold, to the Eden-like world of Pandora, where the encounter of a rapacious, imperialistic human culture with a noble indigenous people, living in harmony with their ecosystem, unfolds, in part, as a work of contemporary political commentary and, in part as cautionary environmental tale.

Science enters the picture, so to speak, in several ways.

Cameron has gone to some length in the early scenes to fashion a realistic spacecraft to be used to transport his human characters to Pandora, a moon orbiting a Jupiter-like gas giant planet of a presumably nearby star.  The passengers, themselves, have been placed into some sort of cryogenic sleep, the better to endure the apparently lengthy voyage. Echoes of the technologies of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) are quite vivid here, and they remind us how diligently Stanley Kubrick labored - 40 years ago - to imagine realistic long-duration space travel.  It makes the scientifically-minded among us wistful for the days before the invention of warp drive.

The Macguffin that drives the human plunder of Pandora is a mineral named - in the best self-mocking science fiction tradition - unobtanium.  We are told little about other than that it is extraordinarily valuable, and that its mother lode lies directly beneath the arboreal habitat that is the hub of the community of the tall, blue-skinned, anthropoid natives called the Na'vi.

Although it would be hardly sensible to send a ship into deep space to obtain a "precious" resource that - given the technological advances that would make such a mission feasible - could be manufactured much more cost-effectively here on planet earth, this plot device has become such a fixture of the science fiction canon that it was long ago exempted from being considered a threat to the suspension of disbelief.

Oddly enough, Avatar's significance not only as a science fiction film but as a science film has little to do with technological gimmicks, like interstellar travel and a rare superconducting mineral, and everything to do with the unprecedented detail with which Cameron has crafted the biology - both flora and fauna - of the hypothetical world which serves as the setting for his film.

As the credits rolled at the end of Avatar I turned to my friend Carol Potter, a high school biology teacher in Gwinnett County, Georgia, a state not known for holding Darwin in particularly high regard, and said, "if it weren't for all the tall, lithe, athletic, semi-nude blue bodies, this movie could make a great addition to your curriculum on the theory of evolution." *

By that comment I did not mean to endorse Cameron's wide-eyed vision of an alien biosphere so interconnected that it behaves as though it were a single organism (in accordance with the speculative and widely-criticized Gaia hypothesis), but to point out that the director had sketched the outline of an intriguing version of an alternative Galápagos, a world in which familiar ecological niches are occupied by strange and exotic creatures related, mostly, by common descent. **

Unfortunately, the scientists of Avatar - exoanthropologists, one might call them - are consigned to secondary roles.  What a difference it would have made had James Cameron seized the opportunity - in the very year that marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species - to position a scientist-explorer, and not a disillusioned imperial soldier, front and center as the hero of his movie.  With more artistic daring this recycled tale of thwarted neocolonial conquest could have been replaced by a bold re-imagining of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. Avatar could have taken its place as not only a technical tour de force of film production but also, by making a scientific adventure the center of its story, a work of science fiction of the highest order.

* Depiction of the naked human form, I imagine, is even less welcome in Georgia classrooms than the notion that we, as a species, are descended from apes.

** I say "mostly" here, because the humanoid Na'vi have 2 arms and 2 legs, unlike the 6-limbed creatures with whom they share Pandora.  This concession to commercial necessity - that the Na'vi appeal to general audiences - is best captured by a quote from an interview with James Cameron in Playboy  in which he says of the native heroine Neytiri that he knew from the start, “she’s got to have tits.”

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"Avatar" - Nature Blue in Tooth and Claw by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at thoughtsarise.blogspot.com.