Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Upcoming Events

Given my constant complaints about the mainstream rubbish we are frequently forced to endure, it probably makes sense for me to share my thoughts on what look like some of the more interesting (though, admittedly, still fairly mainstream) upcoming films.

1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

An adaptation of John Le Care's downbeat Cold War spy thriller about a Soviet mole discovered at the heart of the British intelligence community. Financed by the French (£30 million from Studio-Canal), directed by a Swede (Thomas Alfredson, whose previous effort was the brilliant and glacial, Let the Right One In), and with a stellar British cast that includes Gary Oldman as George Smiley; recent Oscar winner Colin Firth; the best Sherlock Holmes since Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch; and soon to be Batman villain, Tom Hardy; personally, I can't wait.

2. The Ides of March

George Clooney plays a super-slick Presidential candidate to Best Actor nominee, Ryan Gosling's, image consultant and media fixer in what is being pitched as a spiky and abrasive comedy aimed at adults. When the pair fall out Gosling starts fixing things for the other guy. Based on Clooney's previous directorial efforts (the excellent Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck and the less good Leatherheads) this is definitely one to watch.

3. In Time

Justin Timberlake (recently excellent in The Social Network) and Amanda Seyfried star in Andrew Niccol's (The Truman Show, Gattaca, Lord of War) take on a hackneyed old science fiction plot, the utopian future fantasy. Set in a world that sounds like part Logan's Run, part Repent Harlequin! Said the Ticktock Man,, in which people are genetic engineered to stop aging at 25 and then have to 'earn' more life, my guess is that Timberlake and Seyfried might try to escape from said oppressive regime.

4. Contagion

An all star cast - Matt Damon (MATT DAMON!), Marion Cotillard, Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law - pursue and are pursued by an enemy that they cannot see, or taste or touch - a virus! The none-more-prolific, Stephen Soderberg, is threatening to quit filmmaking once this one is done in order to focus on his painting. I, for one, hope he reconsiders.

5. The Guard

In cinemas now! The second biggest film in Irish box office history, it has been in the UK box office top ten for the past five weeks on the strength of its Irish box office receipts alone. Don Cheadle's uptight FBI agent is teamed up with Brendon Gleeson's cynical Irish policeman in order to investigate a drug ring in the Irish Republic. Profanity and bad taste ensue! The first film from John Michael McDonagh, the brother of the man who in 2008 brought us the similarly themed In Bruge.

Please be aware this blog post contains forward looking statements. - Upcoming Events - Keyword description

The World According to Google

Ever wondered what goes on inside Google? Why would you? It is only one of the most important companies in the world right now. Well, if you have, and even if you haven't, short of getting a job at the big G, Steven Levy's In the Plex: How Google Works, Thinks and Shapes our Lives is about as close as a non-MIT, Stanford or even Cambridge graduate, such as myself, is likely to get.

Having already read a couple of books about Google (What can I say? I'm a geek), I can safely say, In the Plex is by far the best. Levy himself has some form in this area. A contributing editor to Wired magazine for nearly 20 years, he also wrote the definitive text about the early years of the computing industry - Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - detailing everything from MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club (the first people to call themselves 'hackers') to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs innovations in the home computer market in the 1980s. That's PCs young people. Ask your parents.

Levy was given unprecedented 'high-level' access to Google executives, as a result of which the book has more details about how and why certain decisions were taken than any other. It also includes extensive interviews with the triumvirate known to Googlers as simply LSE - Larry, Sergey and Eric. That is, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the computer science graduates who developed the Google search engine in a Standford dorm room while studying for their PhDs, and Eric Schmidt, the former Chief Technology Officer at Sun Microsystems and slick Silicon Valley veteran, brought in by Google's early venture capital partners who insisted Page and Brin have some kind of 'adult supervision'.

The book's description of the company's early years are some of its most interesting. Apparently, the name 'Google' arose out of a misspelling of 'googol', the mathematical name for a number followed by 100 zeros (I thought these people were supposed to be super-geniuses?) It was also during these years that the company's corporate culture was solidified, its famed 'Don't be Evil' mantra arising out of an early meeting. The image of a Silicon Valley start-up working out of someone's garage, buying cut price furniture from bust dot-coms, growing at a fantastic rate and making up rules as they went along was Google at its best and, occasionally, at its worst. Even during those early years, Larry Page's enormous ambitions and boundless cyber utopianism was a cause of conflict with those who failed to appreciate his vision and (whisper it not), maybe even disagreed with him.

That anarchic spirit is really at the heart of Google and has played an important role in its tremendous growth over what is still a very short period of time. Both a strength and a reason to give some people pause, Google's has always preferred to act first and ask questions later, to push the boundaries of acceptability before backtracking when a more cautious public alert the High Geeks that they have taken things too far.

Levy details Google's rise from singular research project to globe-spanning megacorporation with the kind of clarity and surehandedness one would expect from an experienced journalist. The algorithm begat the search engine, the search engine begat the aution-based advertising model, the auctioning-based advertising model begat a massive infrastructure, which in turn spawned Gmail, Google Docs, Google Chrome (web browser), Google Chrome OS, the Android mobile ecosystem and onwards into cloud computing, realtime voice translation, computer vision, artifical intelligence research and self-driving vehicles. And those are just the 'big ticket' items. There is also Google News, Google Maps, (the controversial) Google Streetview, Google+ (the newest social network on the block), even Google Books (an incredibly ambitious project which has so far scanned in excess of two million books, but which is now mired in legal difficulties), and Blogger, of course, where this post is hosted... I could go on. No, seriously, I could.

What the book revels in and what I suspect many people have yet to realise is just how vast Google has become. More than just a search engine? You better believe it! The numbers are mind boggling. Last year Google earned revenues in excess of US$22 billion and, though it tries to keep such things as secret as possible, it is estimated that Google now operates in excess of 24 data centres worldwide filled with over one million servers and all connected via the world's most expansive fibre-optic network. Google is believed to own more fibre-optic cable than any other company on the planet; Google is investing massive amounts of money in renewable energy to lower the price of power at its data centres; and Google recently bid on the latest next generation mobile bandwidth auction in the United States and was only narrowly beaten by telecoms giant Verizon.

The extent of the founder's ambitions (Larry Page in particular) are covered in detail, as is the much publicised corporate culture at the Googleplex, where staff enjoy free catering as well as gym, swimming, massage and games facilities - also free. Then there is the much lauded '20 percent time', wherein Google engineers are given license to pursue projects not directly related to the company's main business activities - major innovations and revenue generators such as Gmail and Google Maps apparently arose out of '20 percent time'. This, a reflection of Larry and Sergey's background in academia and their desire to run Google like a university campus, an intellectual playground for the supersmart, replete with all of the toys they could ever want to play with - every project team has access to their own server racks and Google's enormous data sets.

Not that the book is without its flaws. Ethical dilemmas with globe-spanning significance, related to information ownership, computer security and individual privacy, of the kind which Google face every day, are somewhat glossed over, Levy tending towards the not particularly salutary 'trust us, we're Google' viewpoint, espoused by the company's founders and top executives. Legitimate concerns about the scope of Google's power and influence are addressed to some extent in a long chapter about Google's troubled relationship with the Communist Party of China. But issues to do with potential abuses by governments and corporations in democratic countries are given short shrift, almost as if they are not significant. Even though recent outrage about the extent of mobile phone tracking by Google, Apple and others seems to suggest otherwise. Personally, I am quite sure that there are yet more privacy timebombs waiting to go off, once the general population is made aware of the extent of the data collection and user profiling undertaken by major internet-based companies.

Then there are the enormous amounts of data Google collects - four billion searches every day and what could possibly be more intimate than somebody's search history? - fears, dreams, desires, all confided to the magic genie of the search box in the mistaken belief that no one is watching? Meanwhile, behind the curtain, Google is performing semantic analysis of emails and search queries in order to aggregate and mine that data and deliver 'better' search results with more 'targeted' advertising. Who's interests is that in? Google is a publicly traded company after all, answerable to its shareholders, with an ultimate obligation to improve its bottom line. If that coincides with the well being of its users, all to the good, but should the interests of its users diverge from those of its shareholders, there is no telling whether or not Google will continue to do the 'right thing'.

Ultimately what the book left me thinking was just how much fun working at Google sounds. We are all confronted by the effects of some of the big issues Google is dealing with every day, but who wouldn't fancy setting the terms of the debate and the criteria to which everybody else has to respond? - The World According to Google - Keyword description

Monday, August 08, 2011

Check Mate

When the US and USSR faced off in 1972, there was more than just national pride at stake. The world looked on with hearts in mouths, waiting to discover which one of these nuclear superpowers would triumph in the ultimate test of deductive reasoning and strategic logic. I am of course talking about the contest between American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer and defending champion Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship, as depected in Bobby Fischer Against the World (now in cinemas).

Chess might not sound like the most promising topic for a feature length documentary to most people, but most people would be wrong. 'Most people' made Transformers: Dark of the Moon a global box office hit. Chess is brilliant! Chess grandmasters are intellectual gladiators, doing battle in the theatre of the infinite. There are more possible moves in a single game of chess than there are grains of sand on the planet and the number of possible unique chess games is more than the number of electrons in the universe.

Still not convinced? Bobby Fisher himself was no ordinary chess player. Winning the US Chess Championship at the tender age of 14, Fischer went on to win the tournament eight more times, before being invited to face off against Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky. The USSR had made chess Russia's National Sport and, in 1972, had won 23 consecutive World Chess Championships. However, Richard Nixon's White House was so determined to humiliate the USSR by beating it at its own game, when Fischer threatened to pull out of the match on financial grounds, Henry Kissenger himself called Fischer to tell him, 'You should go'. Archive footage from a major American news network shows the anchor announce stories about Watergate and Vietnam, before first turning to the state of the World Chess Championship in Reykjavík'.

The film is filled with fascinating insights and anecdotes such as these, Fischer brilliant but tormented, driven but self-destructive. His dedication is most evident in his apparently tireless physical fitness regime, preparing for the match as if he were Rocky, about to go 12 rounds against Apollo Creed. Harry Sneider, one-time bodyguard and trainer to the stars, recalls Fisher telling him he wanted to be able to bury the needle on his grip-metre. He then had to explain to Fischer that the world's strongest man had never achieved such a feat, only for Fischer to quip back, 'When I shake that little Russian's hand, I want him to feel it!'

The final third of the film, following his victory, traces Fischer's sad decline into anti-American, anti-Jewish conspiracy theorist. If the filmmakers are to be believed, without chess to sate his intellectual appetities, Fischer's brilliant brain started to eat itself, spiralling ever deeper into Illuminati/New World Order nonsense. Then, in 1992, Fischer made his perenial victim fantasy a reality by staging a rematch with Spassky in the former Yugoslavia, then in the midst of a bloody civil war, in direct violation of UN sanctions. The US State Department immediately issued a warrent for his arrest and called on him to return to the United States to face charges. Fischer was latter broadcast on Filipino TV on September 11th 2001, laughing at the 'big-bad empire' getting one in the eye. Fischer was, in many ways, his own worst enemy.

Arrested in Japan in 2004, Fischer was eventually granted citizenship and thereby sanctuary by Iceland, the scene of his greatest ever victory. He showed some signs of getting his life back together - he was playing chess again - before he died in 2008. The film ends with his friends' lament that Fischer abandonning chess at the age of 29 was akin to Michaelangelo or Beethoven never being given the chance to complete their masterworks. A fascinating portrait.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Revenge of the Nerd

How do you make a patriotic, pro-America action-adventure in an era of perceived American imperialism? Take the action back to World War Two, of course. Captain America: The First Avenger - named in anticipation of Marvel Studios' upcoming Avengers movie, in which El Capo teams up with Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk - is styled after the man-on-a-mission matinees of the 1940s, which once inspired George Lucas to create an archealogical adventurer called Indiana Smith (true story). The film succssfully evokes the spirit of a bygone era - a time when men were real men, women were real women, and superheroes were genetically enhanced one-time super weaklings.

That particular reversal is an invention of the filmmakers, and it is to their credit. In the comic book, even before he became Captain America, Steve Rogers was a six foot five inch, 220 pound Olympian athlete. By recasting Rogers as a plucky 90 pound asmatic with deluions of adequacy as a soldier, Joe Johnston (the director) and his cohots have wrestled the superhero movie out of the arms of the bullies. More precisely, the filmmakers have created a character, in the form of Chris Evans' shy but determined Cap, to which all nerdy boys with a penchant for power fantasies can relate. His bashful romance with British Secret Service Agent Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell) is endearingly sweet and his motives for going to war shamelessly well intentioned.

Adding to the fun-factor are a brace of talented character actors who revel in the chance to play broad. Stanley Tucci as the German scientist who developed the Super Soldier serum before fleeing to the United States to escape the Nazis; Tommy Lee Jones as the disapproving but ultimately noble General; and Toby Jones as the oddly-accented accomplace of Hugo Weaving's Red Skull - a man who is too evil even for the Nazis.

The story itself is rather thin on the ground - the Red Skull is harnessing the Power of the Gods to hold the rest of the world to ransom - and the action is a bit too predictable, but in an era of cynical cash-ins with no artistic value what so ever, it is hard to argue with the promise of two hours of jolly escapism in the company of a likeable lead.