Monday, February 27, 2012

Contraband (US, 2012) - confounding the critics

I have to admit, I tend to agree with film critics in their judgements on films.  Broadly.  I often differ by degrees, but concur in the overview.

Contraband is one film that gives the lie to that.

I read some lukewarm to bad things about this film before I saw it.  So I was expecting a bit of incoherence and Hollywood shallowness - and I was quite pleasantly surprised.  You can read quite a few of those negative comments on Wikipedia - the sort of works that encourage you think it's not really worth bothering.  But I can only disagree with them.  There is really no doubt: Contraband is a definitely a good film.

The core plot involves an ex-smuggler whose family obligations compell him to do one more round, on a cargo ship picking up goods from Panama City.  In the process, he has to navigate a number of competing forces, none of whom are entirely ethical.

What did I like about Contraband?  Its complex plot, its gritty but telegenic cinematography, its taut direction, its view of a few worlds that I had not seen before (namely, freight shipping and Panama City), and some realistic characterisations - to name a few.

I like a complex plot, but a film that has plot holes is simply irritating.  Contrary to one review, I found it scored well on both counts.

In particular, there was a dizzying array of competing sides - numerous individuals and groups that had their own agendas: by turns collaborative then at odds with other parties.  Such a swirling script is epitomised by Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which takes several viewings to sort out all the nuances.  I believe I was on top of the shifting sands of this film, but it wouldn't do any harm to review the convolutions a second time around.

And that's a good recommendation: that it bears watching again.  I can't understand why those reviewers seemed to be watching a totally different film.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Rubbish opinion polls and media beatups

There's been a real beatup in Australia's media in the past few weeks.

Part of the problem is opinion polls.  The standing of Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been poor for a long time.  Correspondingly, that for the conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott has been comparatively strong - for a long time.

Enter Kevin Rudd, who was deposed as PM by Gillard, but still served as foreign minister - until recently.

The stir factor lies in the fact that Rudd does well in opinion polls - better than Abbott, even.  And so he resigned his post and the leadership's up for a vote tomorrow.

But Rudd was quite unpopular at the time he was deposed.  And Gillard fared better in the polls.

I think opinion polls have a lot to answer for.  When you aggregate people's opinions, they often get contradictory.

I remember back in the 1980s in New Zealand, when the government had an anti-nuclear policy.  As a result of the US "neither confirm nor deny" stance on whether their warships had nuclear weapons, the NZ government felt obliged to refuse access to NZ ports to those warships.  In retaliation, the US threatened to exclude New Zealand from ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, U.S.), which was NZ's most important military alliance.

Opinion polls? They firmly affirmed the non-nuclear stance, but in contradiction strongly desired to keep the ANZUS alliance.

The point being that when you aggregate people's opinions, you can easily get rubbish.

On the basis of past experience, should Kevin Rudd become PM again, I'm quite sure his poll ratings would plummet after a few months.

In any case, the numbers are clearly against Rudd.  And the numbers that count are the ones that vote: those in the parliamentary caucus who will vote tomorrow for their leader.  Rudd doesn't stand a snowball's chance.  In large part this is because past experience has taught them that Rudd is particularly difficult to work with as a leader.  Authoritarian and micro-managing.

But the media has been in overdrive on the matter.  They don't care that the outcome is clear: media outlets are driven by the desire to be popular and to fill space with content.

But there have been people who have been media junkies around this stoush - one person even deviated from his usual Sydney Morning Herald diet to buy a Murdoch as well, to get additional field.  Despite the outcome being tantamount to pre-ordained.

Lessons: beware contradictory poll results; pay attention to the real signs - and really, that's no reason to buy a Murdoch.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Gravity and the narrow confines of life

Life on Earth has evolved within a very fine set of parameters.  We are going to find it a challenge to survive outside the sheltering cocoon of this planet, not the least because our atmosphere protects us from several types of radiation, not the least from our friendly sun.

Now there's another limitation.

Our body's physiological processes are to a great extent governed through the triggering of gene expression, which generates proteins that affect metabolic pathways of chemical reactions.  Translated, this means chemical signals trigger the unwrapping and copying of genes (sections of our DNA blueprint) that in turn generate proteins that... make our body work.

For that to happen, amongst other things we need... gravity.

On the one hand, one might intuit that gravity shouldn't be an essential part of our processes.  But we are generally pulled in a single direction: towards Earth, the largest mass at hand.  From an evolutionary perspective, that amount of gravity is an intrinsic part of the environment in which so many successive iterations (generations) successfully mutated and survived.  Our environment tempered the direction of successful mutation.

So it makes sense that our metabolic processes could be so finely tuned that significant change (ie, to zero gravity) could disrupt some of these processes.

And that's what's been found, as reported in New Scientist this week (4 February 2012).  Specifically: "weightless conditions... could disrupt the activity of 200 genes linked with immunity, metabolism and heat tolerance."

There is a slight caveat on that: the study used flies, and simulated weightlessness through magnetic fields.  Still, the researchers are confident of their results, it sounds plausible, and doubtless the result will be tested by others in other experimental contexts.

Still, just as science can bring the science fiction of space travel crashing to Earth, surely technological solutions will be developed.  After all, science fiction has already imagined simulated gravity.  It just hasn't filled in the details.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

word of the day: Pareidolia

We all know this phenomenon: pareidolia is the perception of significance in vague/random images or sounds.

Courtesy of the wonderful Flea Snobbery website: