Your Daily Dose of Awe: The Milky Way Over Uluru

Milky Way over Uluru, by Babak Tafreshi

Here's your daily dose of awe: the centre of the Milky Way hanging over Uluru, in Central Australia.

Image taken a couple of weeks ago by Babak Tefreshi, and posted as NASA's Astronomy Pic of the Day on July 30.

The central regions of our Milky Way Galaxy rise above Uluru/Ayers Rock in this striking night skyscape. Recorded on July 13, a faint airglow along the horizon shows off central Australia's most recognizable landform in silhouette. Of course the Milky Way's own cosmic dust clouds appear in silhouette too, dark rifts along the galaxy's faint congeries of stars. Above the central bulge, rivers of cosmic dust converge on a bright yellowish supergiant star Antares. Left of Antares, wandering Saturn shines in the night.

Click to embiggen!

News Briefs 30-07-2015

Only connect.

Quote of the Day:

"[...][T]he opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection."

˜Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

1959 Comic Featured 'The Face on Mars' - 17 Years Before a NASA Probe's Famous Photo

'The Face on Mars' in a 1959 Comic Book

Here's your daily dose of weird: Almost four decades ago a strange photograph was taken of Mars by the Viking 1 space probe, which appeared to show a massive humanoid-looking face carved into the Red Planet's landscape, staring back at the orbiter's lens. The so-called 'Face on Mars' would go on to become a fixture in theories about extraterrestrial alien life, though later more high-resolution photographs of the region had NASA dashing thoughts of it being an artificial creation.

Interestingly though, the idea of a 'Face on Mars' was already present in popular culture, through a 1959 comic book illustrated by the great Jack Kirby - 17 years before the Viking photograph. And the weirdness doesn't end there - see this fun article at the Secret Sun blog to go right down the rabbit hole...

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Related:

News Briefs 29-07-2015

Will different brands of 'God helmet' spawn different religions?


Quote of the Day:


Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth


William Blake

Review: Ex Machina

Caleb, Ava and Nathan from Ex Machina

One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.

The future reality of artificial intelligence seemed to edge a little closer this week with the news that Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak - along with 1000 researchers - had put their name to an open letter calling for a ban on AI in robotic warfare systems. Meanwhile, in TV and movies we’ve seen an influx of AI-themed stories such as Person of Interest, Her, the upcoming Westworld, and now the science fiction film Ex Machina.

In Ex Machina, we join Caleb, a young coder at a Google-like search engine company (‘Bluebook’) as he finds out that he has won a competition to spend a week with the genius CEO of the company, Nathan (who wrote the company’s search algorithm as a 13-year-old wunderkind). On arriving at the reclusive CEO's sprawling, wilderness estate, Caleb discovers that he has been recruited to test perhaps the greatest technological development of all time: the creation of an artificial intelligence, embodied in a humanoid robot named Ava.

If you’ve created a conscious machine it’s not the history of man… that’s the history of Gods.

However, as the week progresses Caleb finds himself to be as much of a test subject as Ava, as he is watched on closed circuit monitors while interacting with this non-human intelligence - and as Nathan’s darker side emerges, Caleb is left wondering how much of what he is experiencing is manipulation, and how much is the truth.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, author of The Beach and the pen behind the movie scripts for the apocalyptic sci-fi movies 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Ex Machina is a wonderful meditation on one of the great philosophical questions: what is consciousness/self-awareness, and are we even capable of judging it in anyone but ourselves (in Descartes words, ‘I think, therefore I am’, as the limit of our knowledge on consciousness). As such a couple of thought experiments related to consciousness are mentioned during the movie, such as the Turing Test, and the Knowledge Argument, aka ‘Mary in the Black and White Room’ - this latter in particular almost serves as a template for the script itself.

Here's the trailer:

The very small cast (basically just 4 actors, only 3 of whom have speaking roles - Caleb, Nathan and Ava) and one location may have been partly decided upon for budgeting reasons (though the elegant design and special effects certainly weren’t skimped on), but in truth these elements provide the power of Ex Machina, enhancing the feeling of close personal interaction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ intelligence, and also projecting the feeling of imprisonment upon the viewer themselves.

Because as much as Ex Machina is about what it is to be a conscious being, the storyline goes a level deeper to ask what it is to have ‘free will’, but be subjugated. And whether Garland meant it to or not, the film riffs on overarching themes of male dominance and women as objects: ‘artificial’ beings created by a male ‘god’, kept imprisoned and repressed, and used for sexual gratification (although to be fair, Nathan notes that in adding a vagina to a robot, he also added ‘pleasure circuits’ for the artificial consciousness to experience).

Another key question raised by Ex Machina is one which we may have to answer fairly soon: at what point does an AI transition from being an object - a piece of technology - to being an entity, with associated rights. Nathan is most certainly an asshole, but from one point of view (AI as a technological object) all he is doing is modifying and upgrading machines.

From the other point of view (AI as an autonomous consciousness deserving of its own rights) he is basically exploiting and, to an extent, ‘killing off’ conscious entities. It was quite interesting (and shocking) to me how easily I abandoned any human ‘allegiance’ while watching this film, and sided with the machine intelligence - to the extent that I was happily expecting a crime to be committed against a technology genius, for the ‘crime’ of upgrading his machines.

The movie certainly doesn’t break a lot of new ground, with its roots in the archetypal Frankenstein story. Ava at times seems a century-old echo of Maria from Metropolis, and any fan of Bladerunner will probably also see similarities to both the physicality of ’pleasure-model’ Pris and the elegant intelligence of Rachael throughout Ex Machina. And when Caleb gets so far down the rabbit-hole that he starts wondering if he also is a robot - with implanted memories, fooled into believing he is human - we cannot help but see some of Deckard. (Even Nathan’s use of the massive data behind search engine queries as the basis for creating the machine-intelligence of Ava was foreshadowed by the TV show Person of Interest.)

Ex Machina - Caleb checks to see if he is a robot

Where Ex Machina hits the mark is in the afore-mentioned personal (and at times, claustrophobic) nature of the film, ably assisted by a fantastic ambient soundtrack (co-created by former Portishead member Geoff Barrow ). Garland’s debut in the directing chair is an impressive one, subtly keeping the viewer in close contact with the actors’ thoughts, often through facial expression alone, as well as capable of creating some highly memorable moments (one surreal dance scene could be straight out of a Kubrick movie...see below). Ex Machina is a slow burn, which is perfect for an exploration of what it is to be ‘human’ - but if you like ‘splodey action stuff, this movie may not be for you. If you’re a deep thinker about consciousness and artificial intelligence, you’ll likely love it.

Garland doesn’t dumb things down, showing good taste in the exposition and putting his trust in the intelligence of viewers. For example, at one point where Nathan is lying, in your head you know Ava has analysed his micro gestures and knows he is lying, but a less confident film-maker might have had her explicitly say “Lie” (the way in which she responsed to half-truths earlier in the film when interacting with Caleb). Instead, Garland just has her give a little half-smile, and the viewer knows what this means.

Nathan too, while quite obviously the antagonist of the story, is still fleshed out as a real person rather than a cartoon villain....we're intrigued by him and what makes him tick beneath that dominating, alpha-male geek persona. His heavy drinking perhaps may be a clue that the things he is doing are having an impact on his soul.

The only part of the film where I noticed overt exposition was when Nathan asked Caleb to tell him what the Turing Test means - but this was probably a key enough point to warrant it, and it was done smoothly (Nathan doesn’t need to be educated; he asks Caleb to be sure Caleb understands).

Ex Machina is superbly cast, with top-shelf performances from the few actors involved: Oscar Isaac embodies the intellectually superior, alpha-male tech-bro Nathan, while Domhnall Gleeson's Caleb portrays the flipside - a compassionate, deep thinker, with an inner strength. Sonoya Mizuno was given a tough job with the line-less Kyoko, but does an excellent job in mixing subservience with her sporadic threatening coldness. And Alicia Vikander is stunning as Ava - the perfect match of a new AI's fierce intelligence mixed with a newborn innocence, brought to life with nice subtle touches through her movements and speech patterns to only *just* give the slightest hint that the character is something other than human.

There may be some who will argue that certain elements of the plot reinforce negative tropes concerning both women and artificial intelligence. This may be a warranted to an extent - however, to go in the opposite direction at these times may well have stereotyped women and AI even more so. Sometimes you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Overall Ex Machina is a beautifully designed, shot and acted film, on a fascinating topic that is certainly in the spotlight at this point in history. Highly recommended.

(Apologies for the vagueness throughout the review - just trying to avoid spoilers. Would very much enjoy a discussion of some of the details of the film in the comments section though)

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Attend the East Coast ParaCon Next Week @ Liverpool, N. Scotia

If you'd like to spend a paranormal-flavored weekend at the Maritime provinces, then I suggest you head out to Liverpool, Novia Scotia, where the East Coast ParaCon will be celebrated next week from Friday 7th to Sunday 9th.

The event will feature presentations by cryptozoologist extraordinnaire Loren Coleman, Ufologist Stan "the Man" Friedman, and psychic medium Chip Coffey, who was recently interviewed in Binnall of America --Tim is also attending the conference BTW, and I hope he plans to bring his recorder with him.

Last but not least, Fortean raconteur Paul Kimball will also be one of the speakers. Paul has not given a public presentation about the paranormal since 2011, and I'm sure MANY attendees will want to know about his involvement with the Roswell Slides Research Group, which was responsible to debunking the rather embarrassing Slidegate kerfuffle, merely 48 after the hyperbolic BeWitness spectacle of May 5th at the National Auditorium in Mexico city.

All in all, the ParaCon has a five-star lineup of speakers --aside from the ones mentioned above-- and with their scheduled late-night ghost walk and ghost hunt investigation, I only wish I was able to attend myself, and enjoy the beauty of Novia Scotia in the summer --not to mention a few of the local breweries.

LINK:

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UPDATE: Paul has told me via Facebook his presentation will not involve the infamous Roswell slides, but shall rather be focused on his ideas about the Paranormal being interpreted as an Art project, which he started to explore on his (*highly* recommended) book The Other Side of Truth [Amazon US & UK] --see? I told you he was a raconteur!

Tim sez he's going to Nova Scotia only as a vacation (yeah, right!), "(e)xpect nothing from me except perhaps a "Don't Hassle Me I'm a Local" shirt."

Folks, this demands a 'Class A' hassle directed at señor Binnall. Be merciless, ParaCon attendees!!

News Briefs 28-07-2015

Klaatu barada nikto...

Quote of the Day:

I am looking for a paranormal experience. I am looking for a miracle, I am waiting for the supernatural. I am waiting to be confronted with something I can’t explain.

Chris Carter

The Good, the Bad & the Frohike: Lone Gunmen Return to 'The X Files'

Praise the Paranoids! It really looks as if Chris Carter has been paying attention to the demands of 'The X Files' fanbase, and ensuring the upcoming revival is going to be everything we wished it to be: Our favorite trio of tinfoil hatted musqueteers, John Fitzgerald Byers, Richard "Ringo" Langly and Melvin Frohike, a.k.a. the Lone Gunmen, will be featured in the 6-part miniseries.

Details are scarce (as in 'non-existent') at the moment, but news of the reunion was confirmed by Dean Haglund --who played Langly-- on his Twitter account last week:

This makes me *very* happy indeed. Not only were the Lone Gunmen some of my all-time favorite characters in the X-Files universe --especially Frohike, for sharing my crush with Scully-- but I remember how I actually cried on the episode "Jump the Shark", in which they self-sacrificed themselves in order to contain an outbreak of a genetically-modified virus; I felt it was the perfect homage for characters which were always depicted as social outcasts, who had sacrificed any sense of a 'normal' life for their self-appointed moral duty of "fighting the Man" through their small newspaper The Lone Gunman --must be the lapsing Catholic in me.

Then again, the 'sacrifice' was only in appearance, since in the X-Files Season 10 comic book series published by IDW and produced by Chris Carter himself, it was revealed the trio of subversive Freedom fighters 'faked' their deaths so they could continue with their investigations undisturbed. Will that be shown in the upcoming mini-series? Will Byers be shown as conservatively-dressed as the good ole days? Will Frohike finally go out and tell Scully in her face that "she's hot"? Will Langly remain a "46-year-old virgin"??

Stay tuned!

________________
LINK:

News Briefs 27-07-2015

Words to the wise...

Thanks @djp1974.

Quote of the Day:

If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.

Malcolm X

A History of Aliens on Film

Digg has put together a super-cut of some of the most well-known movie extraterrestrials in 'The History of Aliens on Film', with Radiohead's "Subterranean Homesick Alien" as the soundtrack:

From their earliest cinematic appearance in Georges Méliès's "A Trip to the Moon" in 1902, our conception of life beyond Earth has changed to reflect our hopes and fears, the technology we've mastered, and our growing knowledge of the universe. Watch our depictions of extraterrestrial life change over nearly 100 films and 112 years.

Would have been nice if some of the cuts were a bit longer...bit hard to keep up at times. Any of your favourites not in there?

I enjoyed noting that some of the depictions matched reasonably closely with this half-facetious 'History of Science Fiction' graphic (posted by @neverjessie):

History of Science Fiction