Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ex Machina vs. Westworld

I just finished watching Ex Machina last night, and while I thought it was an interesting exploration of themes like free will and the ethics of artificial intelligence, I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the ending.

Oh, but first, let's trot out our old friend:
To be honest, today I'm spoiling not just Ex Machina but also Westworld, so consider yourselves lucky!

Now, jokes aside, the first thing to say is that both Ex Machina and Westworld deal with humans encountering artificial intelligence. While the Turing Test is explicitly mentioned in Ex Machina, there are scenes in Westworld that also play into it - for instance, when William appears in the second episode and asks the woman who greets him whether she's one of the robots or not. Her response is along the lines of, "If you can't tell, does it matter?"

Both works also ask the question of who owns the artificial life, or if it has the same right to self-determination that a human intelligence does. In Westworld the question comes down to the power struggle between Anthony Hopkins's character and the Evil Corporation who funds the park, whereas in Ex Machina it ends up being slightly more subtle, as the AI, Ava, appears to make common cause with Domhnall Gleeson's character, Caleb, in order to escape the Evil Corporation.

I think the problem I have with Ex Machina is that it ends up being a lot more straightforward than it could have been. Caleb wins a week at the estate of his reclusive boss, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (who really seems to be everywhere these days); when he gets there, he has to sign an NDA and then meets Ava, for whom he's supposed to be the interlocutor in a set of Turing Tests. Caleb discovers some unpleasant stuff about Nathan, plots to break Ava out, and then when he does so she locks him and Nathan in the compound and escapes.

I'm not going to go into all of the stuff to unpack about the movie (but you can read the AV Club's review to get an idea). But that ending...

I think the problem with the movie is that as soon as you meet Ava you know she's going to escape. Or more accurately, as soon as you see the glass enclosure where she lives, which has impact fractures. The minute you meet Nathan, you know he's going to be evil and sociopathic. Both assumptions are accurate, and while they don't have to be proven wrong for the movie to work, the road there is disappointingly straightforward.

But there's no indication of why it had to be Caleb - there's some business about him not having a family or girlfriend to miss him, but while it works in Ava's favor, there doesn't seem any reason for Nathan to care about that - unless he was planning on killing Caleb, but we never find that out.

Ava's escape is also overly simple - she stabs Nathan, wraps herself in other the other fembots' skin and clothes, and leaves via convenient helicopter. The pilot takes her away without asking why some woman he's never seen before is leaving the place, or without asking what happened to Nathan or Caleb. From interviews and comments I heard, I'd assumed more twists and reveals.

It all felt rushed, which is why I'm hanging this post off a comparison with Westworld. That's another kind of flawed work, in a lot of ways, but it has the advantage of teasing its ideas out over ten hours, rather than just two. I suspect Ex Machina could have worked better with more time to explain Caleb, Nathan and Ava - to say nothing of all the other fembots that Nathan built over the years.

Instead the viewer is left feeling a lot like Caleb, trapped in that compound and not knowing why things played out the way they did.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

5 Things I've Learned About Writing

Writing is such a personal thing that it's hard to come up with a list that'll work for everyone, or for every type of writing. Some people plot things out exhaustively, for example, and others have to feel their way through a story.

I was struck by this a little last night while out with a friend, and he was surprised that I make lists of 10 or 20 things that happen in each of my stories as a way to plot out where I want them to go. I've seen this mentioned in various places, although I haven't used it for every story I've worked on - but my friend was a little skeptical about the numbers.

So with that in mind, I thought nevertheless that it would be useful to list five important things I've learned about writing, or at least my own working habits over the years:

  • I need to plot, or at least have a general idea of where I want to end up.
    • As I mentioned above, I'm one of those writers that needs to plot stuff out. The extent to which I need to plot depends a little on the length of the story, of course - a novel's so much more complex than a short story, and a movie treatment is somewhere in between.
    • Oddly, I'm plotting the hell out of a short story right now, mainly because it's a pretty complex idea and because I'm adapting it from an idea I was turning into a movie script last year. The plotting has taken a number of forms, from the axiomatic list of 10 things that happen, to simply writing down a bunch of questions that I feel I ought to know the answers to, even if I don't resolve them in the story. 
  • Walking does help to jar ideas loose. 
    • While banging my head against that story last weekend, I went out for a quick walk around the block twice, and found that on both walks I resolved a question that had been bugging me. In doing so, I was able to move ahead with it, and get to the impasse I'm at as of this writing. Success!
    • More seriously, it's probably a cliche, but it's also true that letting your mind drift to some other topic, or at least changing your setting, can dislodge ideas. It's similar to when you have something on the tip of your tongue while talking to someone, but you don't remember the term you wanted until much later.
  • Stuff you learn writing one type of story does transfer to other types.
    • This relates mainly to how I've transferred ideas about three-act structure from my movie ideas to prose, but it's gone the other way too, in that my technique for proofing a novel has proven kind of helpful in proofing short stories and (perhaps to a lesser extent) movie scripts.
    • But it's also a deeper point, in that good writing is good writing, and practice in one type of writing helps in others. Writing poetry helps with word choice and concision, prose helps with visualizing a scene, and movie writing helps with dialogue.
  • It's helpful to know my own style of productivity.
    • By style of productivity, I mean how long I can devote to a task, and what kind of environment I need for it. When I'm writing prose, music is great but podcasts aren't, because the speech distracts me from what I'm writing, and vice versa. If I really need to focus, something instrumental, or even ambient is perfect. Or for a hit of perfect productivity I'll listen to a binaural beats video on YouTube.
    • Time-wise, I've found it helpful to devote an hour each night to writing, from 8 to 9, during which I aim to get something done. It has to be a concrete goal, like finishing a certain number of words or pages, and if I accomplish that in less than an hour, I have the option of taking the rest of the hour off, or forging ahead.
    • The one caveat is to not use this as an excuse not to be productive. Maybe I've messed around for twenty minutes and am sitting down later to write? Maybe I'm spending too much time looking for something to listen to? It's not very fashionable but at a certain point you need to sit in your chair, open whatever you're working on and do the work - your brain will rationalize why you shouldn't, but sometimes you need to shut your brain out.
  • Writing stuff by hand is helpful, except for when it isn't.
    • To be honest, any of these points could come with this caveat, but it feels most relevant to put here, because it really doesn't seem to work every time.
    • Specifically, I was listening to a podcast where Joe Hill talked about how he keeps a notebook to write in, by hand, which allows him to work out the story and then create a second draft automatically when he transfers it over to the computer. I tried it out a little with the story I'm working on now, and in this case I've found it pretty hard to make it work.
    • Of course, that's probably because I didn't plot the story out as well as I could have. Again, detailed plotting isn't always necessary for a short story, but it seems to be with this one, and writing by hand might be easier if I'd had a better sense of where I needed to end up.
This list isn't exhaustive, of course. I've learned a number of other things over the years (e.g., writing workshops are good in small doses, but if they become a commitment then they take away time from your own writing), but some of them have been covered elsewhere (get good beta readers, learn to revise a story) or are so axiomatic as to be unhelpful (do it every day, or keep a journal, or whatever). But these five are the big ones for me, which I've road tested over the years.

That said, they're always in flux, too. I've developed these habits over the years, and I expect them to evolve as I get more practice. But that's fine too - you can't expect to approach writing (or any endeavor) the same way you do at 37 as you did at 27 or at 17. What I look forward to is seeing how my habits change once I become a professional - here's to 47!

Monday, 6 February 2017

Super Bowl 2017 Is Not the 2016 Election

Like a lot of people, I was watching the Super Bowl yesterday, and like a lot of people, I was having a hard time separating the action on the field (or screen, in my case) from the results of the election. After all, we all know about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick supporting Donald Drumpf, and the MAGA hat that Brady has in his locker, etc etc.

In the end that was fine, it was a bit cathartic (except for the Patriots winning, of course), but I hope nobody was taking the "narrative" too seriously. Is Belichick awful? Sure - but we all knew that long before the endorsement, and frankly, we knew that long before Deflate-Gate. Is Brady a douche? I think Bridget Moynihan has a privileged viewpoint on that.

To be honest I couldn't find it in my heart to be mad at Tom Brady about that hat. I don't know if he's a racist or not, but I can imagine he's met Donnie a couple of times, someone gave him the hat, and he just held onto it. Who knows or cares how Brady voted in November? America's pretty great for him whatever happens, isn't it?

I guess you could say that the Falcons didn't have it in them to hold onto the win, but it's also true that the parallel with Hillary Clinton ends there - she didn't have the lead in the election at (hardly) any point. And we can't blame third-party candidates on the Falcons losing, either (though it would be funny if someone could have blamed the Raiders for last night).

The point, in the end, is that the country's definitely fractured, and in a dark place. I arrived at my friend's house early enough to catch this week's episode of Saturday Night Live, complete with that Sean Spicer impression by Melissa McCarthy. More to the point, we had ads constantly assuring us that corporations like AirBnB, Coca-Cola and Budweiser don't share the ideals being espoused at the moment by this "administration". No matter what happens on the field, that shows that those of us who don't choose this dark path aren't alone.

And let's be honest, I like the idea that those ads offended all the people who like to throw around the term "snowflake" as if it were an insult. We're a long way off from seeing Coke come out in support of Black Lives Matter, but seeing supporters of the "President" following his example and throwing tantrums at the thought that not everybody agrees with them is pretty satisfying.

So let's all have a Bud, or a Coke, depending on your poison. Let's all enjoy some guacamole and stay at AirBnBs and remember that it was just a football game. If the Falcons had won, we'd still have woken up to the same people occupying the White House and the legislature. We don't get the moral victory, but we do get to keep working for the world we want - and the opportunity to do so is even better than a Super Bowl ring for Matt Ryan.