Acknowledging the awesome

This holiday season, you should see Avatar and read Logicomix (if you haven’t already).  I entered both expecting to wince over scientific inaccuracies and bad dialogue, and left both in a state of catharsis that few books or movies have ever brought me to.  Both break new ground, deal with big issues in a visually stunning way, have been predictably criticized as “simplistic,” and need a sequel.

89 Responses to “Acknowledging the awesome”

  1. Janoma Says:

    Logicomix definitely needs a sequel. In fact, any book about Russell and/or the history of logic in Computer Science seems to need one.

  2. Vincent Says:

    If Avatar has been criticized as being simplistic, maybe the main reason is that this movie really is simplistic.
    Nasty cow-boys vs. nice Indians, it is deja vu ( a lot of times ), except this time the Indians are blue guys from another planet.

    Plus, you have the typical blockbuster jokes, for exemple the military guy saying something like ” kill all these guys quickly, I want to be back for dinner ”

    Even if it is rare to see such criticism about American civilisation in a blockbuster, this film is ( at least to me ) a pseudo-ecological fairy tale about nice mother nature and bad western civilisation.
    Perhaps it is different in the US, but in some european countries, we are surrounded by this kind of anti-colonialist moral, so there is probably a bias ( or several ) in my review.

  3. Semanticist Says:

    Avatar is visually stunning, but the plot is predicable indeed: mainstream movie monomyth narrative trajectory, with one dude, after being awakened from his meaningless life by falling in love, single-handedly beating the American army (OK, with the help of a few flying horses/dragons) in a half-hour shootout that no blockbuster movie seems to be able to do without.

  4. Dave Says:

    Avatar is not only ridiculous, and boring, it is visually disappointing. The moves of the characters is just not realistic enough. Current technology of simulating natural walk and moves of human-like creatures is still primitive, and the body of the aliens is just not good enough to be believable.
    The landscapes of the alien planet is also synthetic-looking. E.g., the colors are too bold, too exotic. It seems like Yellow Submarine more than sci-fi.

    The plot is of course banal anti-American post-colonial propaganda at its worst.
    “Titanic” is by far better than this movie. Not to mention real narrative and technological breakthroughs like “The Matrix”.
    This movie takes the whole genre 20 years back–visually and plot-wise.

  5. Michael Nielsen Says:

    Criticising Avatar for the plot seems to me like criticising War and Peace for the poor choice of font. It rather misses the point.

  6. Dave Says:

    “Criticising Avatar for the plot seems to me like criticising War and Peace for the poor choice of font. It rather misses the point.”

    No. The plot is an integral part of the artistic creation. The fonts are not. If it’s all about the CGI then it’s not a movie, but a technological exhibition: but even as such, it is pretty bad; There are better graphics nowadays.

  7. Scott Says:

    Dave: We have extremely different tastes. I hated The Matrix. Like the movie’s Matrix itself, it deluded an entire generation of teenagers into thinking they were confronting real philosophy, while carefully shielding them from the real thing. The proof? It never once—in three movies!—raised the question of whether the “real reality” is also a simulation. (Or maybe that’s being saved for the fourth installment: “The Tensor”?)

  8. Scott Says:

    Also, I can recognize the reality that Avatar is an amazing film, without fully agreeing with its politics.

    At least the scientists come out OK in it. :-)

  9. John Armstrong Says:

    @Dave: Real narrative breakthroughs in The Matrix? Even the first movie was banal Baudrillardian bull____.

  10. John Sidles Says:

    Both Logicomix and Avatar are truly excellent!

    In this regard, my wife and I were talking this morning, about the critical role that juvenile fiction plays in making sense of war and natural cataclysm. In particular, we discussed the role of Heinlein’s twelve juvenile novels as catalysts of post-WWII optimism and prosperity.

    Obviously, both Logicomix and Avatar are juvenile narratives that were crafted with the utmost seriousness in narrative intent. As mathematicians, scientists, and engineers … what kind of future are these works catalyzing us to invent?

    My wife and I decided that Logicomix and Avatar dovetailed naturally per this 21st century pastiche:

    “In medicine and planetary ecology there is no ignorabimus. Wir müssen heilen — wir werden heilen.”

  11. gowers Says:

    I enjoyed both, but whereas Logicomix surprised me by how far it surpassed my expectations, Avatar exactly confirmed them: I was expecting jaw-dropping special effects and a weak plot, and that is exactly what I got. But the weakness of the plot wasn’t enough to spoil the film, perhaps because I haven’t been to enough SFX films to feel that I’ve seen it all before: it was only my second 3D film, for instance. One thing I did find disappointing, though it’s a disappointment I’ve experienced many times, was that the beings on the other planet were not very imaginatively imagined. They were all variants on animals that there have been on Earth: quasi-humans, quasi-dogs, quasi-birds, quasi-dinosaurs, etc. Even the songs sung by the blue humanoids seemed too directly inspired by African music. I look forward to the day when someone invents a planet that is utterly different, biologically and culturally. It would be a monumental effort to imagine such a planet, but the reward could be a truly groundbreaking film in a way that this one wasn’t.

  12. Cody Says:

    They should definitely make The Tensor—the notion that humans can be used as batteries was always a disappointing illustration of the writers’ complete lack of understanding of the most basic notion of conservation of energy.

  13. Luca Says:

    Criticism of movies for being predictable, or simplistic, always reminds me of an awesome essay by Umberto Eco on Casablanca. Key passage:

    When all the archtypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.

    Although I am afraid that Avatar, which I loved nonetheless, had only two cliches.

  14. Scott Says:

    Tim: I completely agree with your criticisms of Avatar, and also agree that they don’t suffice to spoil the film.

    On seeing the pterodactyls that can be ridden like horses, the animals that look sort of like rhinos but aren’t rhinos, the tribespeople who think and act in completely recognizable ways (even using bows and arrows) but are blue with red ears, etc., my first thought was that it all betrayed a lack of imagination.

    But my second thought was that, if the environment were truly alien, then only a few sci-fi nerds would like the movie, and it would be both an emotional and a box-office failure. So it’s better to think of this supposedly-alien world as Earth++: the result of starting with familiar ecosystems, then exaggerating them with CGI and (especially) making stuff fly.

    My third thought was that, even if you tried to imagine a truly alien ecosystem, it’s doubtful how well you could do—so maybe you might as well stick with Earth++.

    Incidentally, there have been interesting threads at Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong about whether there can be or has been “truly” alien fiction. (I can’t find the threads right now; if someone remembers where they are, please post a link!)

  15. lifeofpi Says:

    I think my favorite example of “truly” alien fiction is Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris”.

  16. Mark Says:

    Regarding truly alien aliens, I think Stanislaw Lem did a pretty good job of that in his books Eden and Solaris. The results are two fairly disturbing narratives about humans attempting and mostly failing to come to terms with un-human entities. This sort of stuff does not make for good escapist holiday blockbusters. Sci-fi doesn’t have to be about imagining what alien environments would actually be like. It can also be (and usually is) about extrapolating human tendencies in order to tell a story about humans.

  17. Mark Says:

    lifeofpi: jinx! (ok, you beat me…)

  18. John Sidles Says:

    Regarding alien fictional themes, the biologist Alice Sheldon (writing under the name James Tiptree) wrote stories such as Love is the plan, the plan is death that featured well-conceived yet alien (to us) values.

    Similarly, while viewing Aliens sociobiologist Ed Wilson is said to have exclaimed “Whoever wrote this script knew a lot about social insect behavior!” Definitely, one can imagine an audience of social wasps watching Aliens, and rooting for the queen to win over the disgusting mammals.

    And of course, humans and insects alike are repelled by the utterly alien moral values of … the lawyer Carter Burke.

    The point being (perhaps) that alien values are all around us, if we keep our eyes and minds open. Naturalists in particular know this.

    And yet it is a key element of our human nature, that alien values and thought systems are interesting to us, largely in proportion to the access to resources that these values provide … a motivation that is so deeply embedded in human cognition that (in most stories) heroes and villains alike are unconscious of it. Even in Logicomix, the dovetailing of the quest for mathematical certainty and the quest for high status within the community of mathematicians is a continuing thread (as it is in real life).

    It is a rare narrative that breaks this mold … Huckleberry Finn is IMHO among the greatest.

  19. Scott Says:

    If Solaris is indeed the best example of “truly” alien fiction, then it makes my point quite nicely, since I hated it…

  20. Michael Nielsen Says:

    John – Amusingly, in context, James Cameron is principally responsible for the Aliens script.

  21. John Sidles Says:

    I want to thank both Michael for his great blog … where gems appear weekly … and I did *not* know that Cameron scripted Aliens, for which my thanks!

    And I wish also to thank Luca for his link to that essay to by Eco, which includes near the end this passage: “In (the movie Casablanca) there unfolds … the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it.”

    Luca, that is indeed (as you said) an “awesome” quote … especially in the distinction it draws between Art and Narrative.

    Now, everyone knows that Art and Science are separate … we can be certain because Donald Knuth says so, in his famous introduction to the (amazing!) Petkovsek/Wilf/Zeilberger book A=B.

    But to whom does the power of Narrative belong? Does it belong to the artists? Or to the mathematicians/scientists/engineers? The biographies of Russel, Hilbert, Wittgenstein, and von Neumann plainly show that these four figures were alike in being similarly willing to construct Narratives, as to construct theorems … and this is of course a major theme of Logicomix.

    The results were uneven—think of Hilbert’s passing in 1943 at a university devastated by Nazism—but these four individuals shared an exemplary commitment not only to mathematics, and to philosophy, but to Narrative too.

    It seems to me that LogiComix and Avatar are alike in both affirming (as meta-Narratives) that the power of Narrative must not belong to ideologues or zealots … and neither should it be restricted to artists and philosophers … but rather, that it properly belongs to every individual, who seeks to make sense of this world … and this most definitely includes mathematicians, scientists, and artists.

    That for me is the lesson of LogiComix and Avatar: “We must tell stories … we will tell stories!” :)

  22. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Re “Regarding truly alien aliens”
    1. Obviously coming up with something totally different would be a monumental task.
    2. Most people wouldn’t be interested.
    3. E.g., upon first hearing “electronic music” in the 60′s, I had a similar thought, something like: “This isn’t very original. There is a weird noise playing the role of a bass, and, .., and …”. Forty odd years later, I have heard some “less traditional” electronic music, and guess what? Don’t much like it. I have learned a lot of nuances of many styles of music, well enough to know there is a reason the masters and the competent play or sing it that way.

    So, if you make something totally original, without familiar references, how many people are going to be interested? After all, movie makers do hope to make a few bucks.

  23. Raoul Ohio Says:

    P.S., I haven’t seen Avatar yet. My girlfriend and her daughters did, and they loved it. I must admit I had not yet heard of Logicomix. Is that a mouse that will make my writing funny?

  24. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    An imitation review of Avatar, from someone who hasn’t seen it:

    It is totally beside the point to criticize the premise, the plot, the lines, the acting, or the message of this movie. It is as irrelevant as the flavor of the popcorn. You must see this movie, because the cinematography is MIND-BLOWING.

  25. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Re Solaris: I have been a fan of Stanislaw Lem for most of my life. I really like the book Solaris. The way to appreciate Lem is as a deconstruction of science fiction rather than as true science fiction. Solaris is at least as much a book about the science of the human brain as much as it is a book about space travel. The last chapter is a letdown because Lem didn’t know how to end the book, but I still liked it.

    Unfortunately there are two failed movies made from the book. The Russian one was directed by someone who understood the book, but it had cheesy Communist production values, and austere artsy pacing. Which is to say, it was really slow. The American one had much better production values and wasn’t quite as slow. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like the American director understood the book. Or if he understood it, he wanted something else that wasn’t as interesting.

    It wouldn’t be easy to put the real spirit of the book Solaris into a movie. There are other respected books that are hard to film. Maybe the Stepford Wives is an example.

  26. Qiaochu Yuan Says:

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a flaw that Avatar doesn’t try particularly hard to imagine a truly alien world. James Cameron is a human, and he is trying to tell a story to other humans; it’s perfectly natural for that story to be set in an environment to which other humans can relate. A truly alien story would be meaningless. (I do wish there’d been more than a single-digit number of alien species, though.)

  27. lifeofpi Says:

    Just to clarify, I’ve only read Solaris and not seen any of the movie adaptations. It’s easily believable that the movies didn’t capture the spirit of the book.

  28. John Sidles Says:

    Like Greg Kuperberg, I am a big fan of Stanislaw Lem. Lem is IMHO an artist in the strictly Knuthian sense of A=B, that is to say, no computer could write the stories that Lem wrote (and this explicitly the point of stories like Lem’s Non Serviam).

    Whereas, computers *could* create huge chunks of the narrative of Avatar … and they *did*! Which is further evidence—if you think about it—that the power of Narrative is moving into the sphere of math, science, and engineering.

    I enjoyed Logicomix so much, that it stimulated me to read Morris Kline’s 1980 book Mathematics: the Loss of Certainty (which previously had seemed too dry).

    For me, Kline’s book was valuable mainly for its extensive quotes … many of which are “Great Truths” uttered by the characters of Logicomix.

    Here are a few Great Truths by famous mathematicians:

    “I know myself how humiliatingly easily my own views regarding the absolute mathematical truth changed during this episode, and how they changed three times in succession! “ (von Neumann)

    “It is one of the chief merits of proofs, that they instill a certain skepticism about the result proved.” (Russell)

    “Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things.” (Poincare)

    “The convictions of even truly great men should not be accepted too readily” (Kline himself)

    That is the best reason (IMHO) why everyone should buy Logicomix and go to Avatar …it is the very reason that Scott mentioned … namely, there is an inexhaustible abundance of material for sequels!

  29. gowers Says:

    Going against the grain a little, let me say that I’ve not read Solaris but I have seen Tarkovsky’s film of it, which, being a Tarkovsky fan, I enjoyed. However, it’s not really an example of what I am talking about. I’d be happy with a film where those who created it began by asking, “If we ran evolution all over again and it happened to give rise to an eco-system that contained intelligent beings, what might that system and those beings be like?” And it seems to me far from obvious that the intelligent beings would walk on two legs, have humanoid hands and feet, etc.

    I also think that it would be possible to create an extraordinary science-fiction film that wasn’t strange and slow in the highly uncommercial Tarkovsky way, but rather created a completely different world that one would gradually get used to and by the end of the film come to understand to some extent. And perhaps one could have aliens that were neither 100% hostile nor innocent victims of wicked humans, but something in between: as bemused by us as we were by them. The main point I’m making is that I think there is a vast unexplored and potentially very rich science-fiction territory and that we now have the cinematographic technology to explore it. I’m not saying that films that don’t explore it are all bad — but I do always leave them with the feeling that an opportunity has been missed: we don’t seem to have made all that much conceptual progress since Dr Who and Star Trek.

  30. MattF Says:

    Off-topic: Computational complexity has hit the big time.

  31. John Sidles Says:

    MattF, that interview is interesting because Rong Ge’s theorems are messing with a key social narrative: “Free markets are efficient and just.”

    That narrative is foundational to several ideologies (Reaganism and libertarianism, to name two). Over on the Wilmott Forum, they understand this perfectly well. This is yet another indication that advances in math, science, and engineering (and even complexity theory!) are directly impacting key social narratives.

    That is why (IMHO) your post is not off-topic at all. Hopefully, Michael Nielson’s coming book The Future of Science will illuminate these tough issues.

    I have a personal interest because our QSE Group is working away (very consciously) on the emerging narrative(s) of quantum systems engineering. The construction is tough because math, science, engineering, and morality all impose constraints. Yet even after all constraints are satisfied, there are plenty of remaining degrees of narrative freedom (as Avatar and Logicomix both illustrate).

    Good luck and best wishes, Michael! :)

  32. Raoul Ohio Says:

    1. MattF: Great lead. BTW, it refers to “Computational Complexity: A Modern Approach” by Arora and Barak. I own a copy and have read the first half. It covers lots of material in an easy to read way. I am not qualified to remark on accuracy, etc., but highly recommend it.

    2. Here is another dimension to the Avatar discussion. What are independently evolved worlds and civilizations likely to look like? It might be the case that there is a “sweet spot” that we are pretty near. Or not, who knows.

    As a kid, I read a discussion, perhaps in “Intelligent Life in the Universe” Shklovskii and Sagan, a discussion of things like why two eyes will likely be common. Or something like that.

    Here is my guess. Smart, semi wimpy chimp like beings that team up with carnivores that hunt in a pack have a good chance to take over a planet.

    In the not too distant future we

  33. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Going against the grain a little, let me say that I’ve not read Solaris but I have seen Tarkovsky’s film of it, which, being a Tarkovsky fan, I enjoyed.

    To be fair, the Tarkovsky movie is interesting and does capture some of the spirit of the book Solaris. My son liked it, and in context his opinion could be less biased than mine. But it is slow — uncommercial is a good word for it — and I would only recommend it with a disclaimer.

    And it seems to me far from obvious that the intelligent beings would walk on two legs, have humanoid hands and feet, etc.

    I’m convinced by actual biology that they wouldn’t. I can think of at least two examples of animals that could plausibly have evolved sentience. They are not sentient of course, but they have certain computational powers that are better than those of people. One is talking parrots (and actually many species of birds), and the other is octopuses and squids.

    I remember meeting a pet African gray parrot at a hotel in Oregon once. I had seen parrots before that sort-of talked, but I was not prepared for this. The parrot was a tape recorder with feathers.

    As for octopuses, see this video and also this video.

  34. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Re: “I’m convinced by actual biology that they wouldn’t. I can think of at least two examples of animals that could plausibly have evolved sentience. They are not sentient of course, but they have certain computational powers that are better than those of people. One is talking parrots (and actually many species of birds), and the other is octopuses and squids.”

    If you buy that developing technology greatly enhances intelligence, living in water and/or not having hands is a major barrier.

    In the category of of terrestrial animals, mobility is pretty important. The many evolution trials on our planet indicate that less legs is better, with most advanced models having four. Learning balance, enabling repurposing two legs for wings, certainly opens up some new niches. But repurposing two legs to arms to manipulate tools enables technology; check out the last couple million years on Earth. My guess is that two legs and two arms will be common in technological beings.

    It might be more fun to speculate what part of their math will be the same as ours. I think any system would need the integers and rational numbers, plus “something beyond”. The real numbers are mostly designed to be convenient for proving theorems. Multiple precision IEEE 758 floating point numbers would work just as well. I look forward to finding out how this has been dealt with elsewhere.

    Or; how common will “approximate right/left symmetry” be in whatever passes for animals elsewhere in the universe? It probably has a lot of advantages.

  35. Koray Says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, but if the following by Semanticist is true, I’d have to be paid to see it: “… one dude, after being awakened from his meaningless life by falling in love, single-handedly beating the American army (OK, with the help of a few flying horses/dragons) in a half-hour shootout that no blockbuster movie seems to be able to do without.”

    I think I got most of this from the trailer itself.

    Nice mother nature? Please.

    Evil powerful gov’t, megacorp, etc.: you’d need at least two more hours to show how there are decent people in these evil organizations and their struggles, the pawns and the betrayals, the intricacy and complexity of the situation, etc. Otherwise it’s compressed into a mere cliche.

    Love is so powerful: I think the divorce rate is around 50%. I’d try to remember that if was going to go up against an army for love.

  36. Qiaochu Yuan Says:

    Now I remember what actually annoyed me about the biology of Avatar: every species except the humanoids is six-limbed. You’d think either there would be a greater diversity of body plans or the six-limb plan would be sufficiently successful on this particular planet that it would manifest in the dominant species as well.

    Gowers: have you seen District 9? I’m told it does some of the things you’re looking for.

  37. John Sidles Says:

    Scott’s great topic has led me to a most wonderful article in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History … which is a journal perhaps not many CS researchers read … but hey, it turns out to have at least *one* article that may be interesting to the Shtetl community.

    That article is Peter Marshall’s Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus: The Intellectual Origins of a Henrician Bon Mot … of which I encourage the history-minded folks of this Shtetl to read the abstract … since otherwise the rest of this post will make little sense … heck, it might not make much sense anyway. :)

    What logical path leads from Avatar, Logicomix and Shtetl Optimized to theological jokes of Henry VIII’s court in 1545? Well, there is a certain inexorable logic to it, as follows.

    We begin with Avatar’s emphasis on regenerative healing … my own professional passion. Like all transformational narratives (especially juvenile ones), Avatar rests upon solid foundations in engineering … which rest upon solid foundations in science … which rest upon solid foundations in mathematics … which are (of course) the topic of Logicomix.

    This intimate link between narrative and mathematics is characteristic not only of Avatar, but of every narrative that is possessed of sufficient optimism and realism to describe (credibly) a peaceful, prosperous, and reasonably just planet with ten billion people on it. If the resulting narratives have an element of fantasy and science fiction to them … well … we haven’t much choice in that, do we? And so we had better craft our narratives carefully.

    Examining the roots of Logicomix leads us to Morris Kline’s Mathematics: the Loss of Certainty, which is a compendium of Kline’s (IMHO rather weak) philosophical arguments, which very fortunately are buttressed by immensely many wonderful quotations from all the protagonists of Logicomix.

    Examining the roots of Kline’s work leads us to an absolutely scathing … oh goodie! :) … AMS mathematical review by Raymond Ayoub, which asserts: “It is unfortunate that he [Kline] indulges in hyperbole with such persistence and even mumpsimus”.

    Now, a mathematical barb like that tells you that whatever the word mumpsimus might mean, it’s *got* to be a word that’s worth knowing … and this leads us to straight to the court of Henry VIII … and Henry’s immortal bon mot that “some be to styff in their old Mumpsimus, other be to busy and curious in their newe Sumpsimus”

    For this to be relevant specifically to Avatar and Logicomix, we have to do an extended pullback, from the ecclesiastical challenges of Henry VIII’s 1545 court … through 464 years … to the urgent medical and ecological challenges of our 21st Century.

    Fortunately, this five-century pullback is natural, because the challenges of mumpsimus and sumpsimus are with us today, as they have been been through all of those 464 years. For example, my own research focus might be called The Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus of Quantum Systems Engineering in which the old mumpsimus is that quantum system dynamics are generically hard to simulate, as contrasted with the new sumpsimus that (in many cases of practical interest) quantum systems are easy to simulate.

    More broadly, and wholly in the spirit of Avatar and Logicomix, it is evident that there has never been a better century than the present one, in which to conceive lectures in mathematics, science, and engineering whose title is The Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus of <Insert Your Favorite Math/Science/Engineering Subject Here>.

    The point is, that we are now about 10% of the way through a new century, in which (IMHO) one of the main challenges for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, is to jointly grapple with the residual mumpsimus of the 20th century, and jointly craft a workable sumpsimus for the 21st century.

    The concluding words of Marshall’s article are, however, sobering: “It would perhaps be difficult to find a more perfect encapsulation … of the complexities and ambiguities of the reforming processes he [HenryVIII] initiated; processes which, in 1545 he was trying, and failing, to bring under control. It is sobering that issues of mumpsimus and sumpsimus are no easier to grapple with today.

    —-

    @article{**, Author = {Peter Marshall}, Journal = {The Journal of Ecclesiastical History}, Number = {3}, Pages = {512-520}, Title = {Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus: The Intellectual Origins of a Henrician Bon Mot}, Volume = 52, Year = 2001}
    —-

  38. Joe Shipman Says:

    Logicomix was very good, and its focus on Russell was the right choice from a dramatic point of view, but it gives an overly pessimistic view because it slights the key work of Zermelo and Tarski, as well as Godel’s Completeness theorem, leaving the impression that the foundations of mathematics are in bad shape when they are largely a success story.

  39. alex Says:

    To gowers:

    You might be interested in this monograph, which argues that features like eyes, hands, brains, and so on, are actually inevitable products of evolution.

  40. Ed Says:

    A probably dumb question on one technical point in the film:

    Those floating mountains. Were they supposed to be a consequence of complex gravitational interactions among the moons and planet?

  41. John Sidles Says:

    Ed, on the scientific level, Pandora’s mountains float via the Meissner effect (the levitation of superconducting unobtanium minerals in Pandora’s massive magnetic field).

    As a literary device, floating mountains reach all the way back to Jonathan Swift’s 1726 “flying island of Laputa, a kingdom devoted to the arts of music and mathematics but utterly unable to use these for practical ends.” Hey, Laputa was magnetically levitated too! Sound familiar? :)

    The explanation in terms of sociobiology is strongest, however … the flying mountains of Pandora are magical versions of Earth’s sand-isles of Oceana … as I learned from being marooned there for awhile.

    The point being, that human evolution prepared us to instantly grasp the ecology and sociology even of Pandora’s flying islands … and building upon these foundations in human nature is part of the storytelling genius of Swift and Cameron.

  42. John Sidles Says:

    Oh yeah … just to state the obvious … our planet’s addiction to carbon-based energy, threatens to destroy the Outer Islands of Oceania, as surely as addiction to unobtainium threatened to destroy the Hallelujah Mountains of Pandora.

    That is one of those sobering realities that is a whole lot easier to contemplate when sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater … watching James Cameron’s thrilling scenes of technology, battle and romance … than when standing upon an eroding beach in the Outer Islands, looking at the rusting wreckage of a WWII Zero, on an island where more than than a thousand cut-off soldiers (does their nationality really matter?) starved to death.

    There is a memorial to those soldiers on that island; it stands atop a fane in which their heroes’ bones are heaped. That memorial stands on a beach that is being eroded; already the memorial is tilting perceptibly.

    That is why I could not watch Avatar with unalloyed delight … because it was not obviously fiction.

  43. Ed Says:

    John: Thanks! I think that’s the most complete answer I’ve received to a question in some time.

  44. John Sidles Says:

    Thank you Ed. Out of respect for those now-forgotten heroes, I took no pictures of their bones, but if you would like to visit their fane, then you may use Google Earth to fly you to our planet’s own version of Pandora’s flying mountains, located at 7°22’5.38″N, 143°54’25.36″E.

  45. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

    I admit I tapped out on Avatar when the protagonist went native, and it started to lose me with the Star Wars-esque chase scene through the jungle. My friends tell me all this was very early in the movie. That’s too bad because I thought the build-up to that point was very clever and coherent, much more than anything in Star Wars for example since of course Empire Strikes Back.

    The last excellently plotted sci fi movie I recall is Sunshine. My favorite is probably 12 monkeys. I thought Terminator 2, Titanic, and The Abyss by James Cameron were all excellent, although I’m not a big fan of Aliens (I thought Alien was fantastic).

    It’s not fair to judge The Matrix on its sequels, the first one was excellent.

  46. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

    Kind of on topic, I’ve been going back and watching all the old (including very old) Cronenberg films which I highly recommend (its been alleged that the Alien franchise stole its best ideas from him).

  47. John Sidles Says:

    Well, apropos of nerdy attention to detail, it is interesting that the magnetically levitated “unobtanium” in Avatar looked (to me) like pyrolytic graphic … which happens to have the highest specific diamagnetic constant of any material.

    So it *would* be physically possible to levitate an Avatar-sized chunk of graphite — for real, not as a digital effect. However (as a Fermi estimate) a magnetic field of order 2-5 Tesla would be required, which would necessitate a superconducting dewar under the desktop. This would be non-trivial to arrange! Is there a movie/physics nerd who knows how Cameron achieved this effect? Was it *real* magnetic levitation? That would be fun … and ironic in a movie otherwise full of digital effects.

    Also, Colonel Miles Quaritch’s “kill-the-all” orders regarding the Pandorans was precisely the opposite of todays real-world USMC generals … whose orders of the day are more likely to echo Sigourney Weaver: “First of all, do no harm”, “No better friend, no worse enemy”, and a strict requirement (which is not easy to live up to) that Marines in the field sustain “Undiminished chivalry to the innocent.”

  48. Super Train Conductor Says:

    The year 2154…humans are mining unobtanium on a distant moon to build…quantum computers!!

  49. John Sidles Says:

    As a followup, I found this close-up of Avatar’s desktop levitation technology. We observe that “unobtanium” exhibits both the lustrous grey color and cleavage planes of graphite, and that the magnetic pole faces—which are emblazoned with the RDA corporate logo—are correctly shaped for diamagnetic levitation.

    A Fermi calculation shows that magnetic fields required are quite strong, of order 2 Tesla. Thus the magnet under the table is either water-cooled or (better) superconducting; in either case a considerable engineering achievement … and in either case interesting because the levitation (apparently) is real, in a movie in which much else is fantasy.

    For me, Avatar’s levitation effects are interesting mainly as a case study of the (too slowly) narrowing gap between real-world narrative needs and real-world capabilities in math/science/engineering. This gap is (IMHO) the single most interesting aspect of Avatar, and of Logicomix … and of the QIT/QIP blogosphere too.

    Because it is in the inter-twined fields of QIT/QIP, information theory, and medicine—the triptychal focus of Avatar—that this gap is narrowing most rapidly. Mr. Cameron’s artistic and scientific instincts in this regard are sound IMHO, as are those of the Logicomix team of Di Donna, Doxiadis, Papadatos, and Papadimitriou.

    By the end of the 21st Century, how much of Avatar could be real? That question has been been around for a long time. As Jonathan Israel asks at the end of the first chapter of his most recent history A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy:

    The emancipation of man via forms of government promoting the “general good” and life in a free society that accords protection to all on an equal basis, argued d’Holbach in 1770, is not an impossible dream: “if error and ignorance have forged the chains which bind peoples in oppression, if it is prejudice which perpetuates those chains, science, reason and truth will one day be able to break them” (si l’erreur et l’ignorance ont forge les chaines des peuples, si le prejuge les perpetue, la science, la raison, la verite pourront un jour les briser).

    A noble and beautiful thought, no doubt, but was he right? That perhaps, is the question of our time.

    It is IMHO good to see Avatar and Logicomix posing that question again, which for centuries has been, and remains today, central to the enterprise of mathematics/science/engineering.

  50. Stas Says:

    Just watched Avatar today. IMHO, the main shortcoming of this movie is how they played with the consciousness transfer between two bodies. They were so close to playing with the consciousness split, which could have brought the plot to a much higher level, but alas, it didn’t happen. After Jake-avatar got lost in the jungle, I did expect to see his human body waking up without bringing down the avatar, and then we could have seen Jake-avatar facing Jake-marine in the final battle scene. That would be something interesting (possibly even new) to explore in SciFi – someone gets the consciousness split into two beings, then the beings undergo different experiences developing conflicting views, possibly even becoming enemies, and then they face each other to resolve the conflict.

    The way they showed it in the movie it looked really stupid – why would the avatar pass out each time the human body wakes up? Is there any consistent model of consciousness that would make things work that way? Does it mean the avatar can’t go far enough from the human body – there must be a direct link between them instantly transferring the state of being conscious. :)

  51. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmm … just to agree with Stas (and to maintain some vitality on this very interesting thread) … the question of a “consciousness split” is likely key to what Scott asked for … namely, a sequel to both Logicomix and Avatar.

    But I will respectfully suggest that the most interesting split relates to (what became) the foremost interest of Logicomix protagonists Russel and von Neumann, namely, the split in narrative intent. It is well-known that after WWII Russell became an ardent advocate of nuclear disarmament; the extent to which von Neumann took the opposite path is less well-known, but is thoroughly (and engagingly) documented in chs. 29–36 of Neil Sheehan’s recent A Fiery Peace in a Cold War.

    Needless to say, precisely this same split is evident in Avatar, between the (low-ranking) Corporal Jake Sully and the (high-ranking) Colonel Miles Quaritch—this IMHO establishes a “natural isomorphism” between the mathematical, technological, and moral themes of Avatar and Logicomix.

    Because Avatar is a Cameron movie … in which death is never the end of the story … we can hopefully look forward to further “discussion” of this duality among Doctor Grace Augustine, Corporal Jake Sully, and Colonel Miles Quaritch … not least because James Cameron’s own younger brother is a Marine … and the real-world Marines are grappling with these issues also. And the same reason, we can anticipate that the sequel to Logicomix might also address this same mathematical, technological, and moral “split”.

    It is less clear (to me), however, that a sequel to Logicomix could reach a satisfying conclusion, for reasons that Doron Zeilberger has articulated better than I can. Because if we ask, “Who are the modern heirs to Russell, von Neumann, and Turing?”, the answer according to Zeilberger amounts to (in the famous phrase of Maurice Gamelin) “Aucune!” (there are none). Is Zeilberger right about this?

    Nonetheless, we can all hope (as Scott does) for sequels to Avatar and Logicomix that will inspire us all … including (most especially) the Russells, von Neumanns, and Turings of the 21st century.

    —–

    Appendix for techno-nerds: Inspection of the Avatar trailer shows what appears to be (and is otherwise inexplicable) a helium fill-cap next to the “unobtanium” levitator … consistent with the hypothesis that the levitation is *not* a CG effect … but rather is real.

    James Cameron has a well-known passion for showing only technologies that *could* be real, so it is highly interesting (for techno-nerds anyway) to ask, what *other* Avatar technologies are real? One obvious candidate is the heads-up displays … and a little work turns up US Patent 5189512 – Helmet integrated display system, held by James F. Cameron.

    Of course, von Neumann and Turing shared a similar passion for turning abstract mathematics into physical hardware … it is perhaps a great tragedy of the 20th century that neither von Neumann nor Turing lived and worked to the great age of Russell.

    Needless to say, the preceding elements all relate directly to my own main professional interest, that being the accelerated dovetailing of the narratives of mathematics, engineering, and medicine … hence the preceding remarks are written (literally) off the top of my head … with their integration yet to be accomplished even to my own satisfaction.

  52. Job Says:

    I’ve noticed that i can only consciously focus on one sense at a time, i don’t consciously see and hear concurrently. I switch back and forth, like a single thread alternating between disk and network.

    Also, when i’m deep in thought, i’m not aware of any senses at all, my conscious is momentarily blind, but it’s not noticeable because the main thread is busy.

    When i’m not doing anything i just cycle between the senses, polling. Sight, hearing, sight, hearing, thought, taste, sight, hearing, thought, sight. I don’t use the nose alot, unless it’s throwing alot of interrupts.

    Why is consciousness so single threaded?

  53. wolfgang Says:

    >> i don’t consciously see and hear concurrently
    did you ever consult a doctor about that issue?

  54. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmm … modern neurology has solidly established that cognition (like all aspects of neurophysiology) is a multi-threaded activity … in humans and in all other creatures too.

    Because who hasn’t hummed a tune, or tapped their fingers, while solving a problem?

    The answer to Job’s question is therefore blindingly obvious: “Consciousness appears to be single-threaded for a purely physiological reason: humans have only one mouth.”

    Sounds dumb … until you reflect that having only one mouth means that humans can tell only one story at a time. So it is the human capability of narrative that is single-threaded.

    If humans had five mouths … so that we could explain ourselves on five channels simultaneously … would we still perceive ourselves as single-threaded creatures?

    Developing this idea, we might conceive a human culture that communicated solely by playing the banjo … a culture therefore not disposed to conceive consciousness as single-threaded … and in fact Jack Vance’s classic 1962 story The Moon Moth describes precisely such a culture.

    Marvin Minsky’s 1986 Society of Mind develops these same ideas in-depth … but (as often happens) writers like Jack Vance got there first! :)

    When a string quartet is playing, are there four threads of consciousness present, or only one? Aren’t string quartets beautiful precisely because both answers are apt?

    These are reasons why narrative is a more subtly human capability than consciousness … and why narrative is single-threaded (in many but not all cultural settings) while consciousness is not.

  55. John Armstrong Says:

    Job: I’m so sorry you miss out on the wonder that is Laser Floyd.

  56. John Sidles Says:

    … and to continue John Armstrong’s line-of-thought (with tongue-somewhat-in-cheek), it is instructive to compare Laser Floyd’s nuanced multi-channel narrative with von Neumann’s 1954 computer narrative (short audio and long audio).

    Certainly Laser Floyd was *not* the computational narrative that von Neumann (and the US Navy and IBM) had in mind back in 1954!

    It is by studying the roles of narrative that we come to understand more clearly why machine translations ubiquitously fail—even translations of the mathematical and scientific literature. For if a translation program has correctly identified the definitions of words and their logical connectivity, the resulting translation will nonetheless be grossly inadequate, until such time as translation programs are able to grasp the overall narrative structure, and craft a translation that respects it. And this grasping of narrative is not a low grade of artificial intelligence, but arguably the highest grade.

    Stated succinctly: machines can translate definitions, and even verify deductive logic, but they are very far (at present) from grasping narrative structure.

    This helps us appreciate why, as technical disciplines mature, questions of narrative move to center stage.

    And this is of course a central theme of both Avatar and Logicomix … which are alike in being are narratives-about-narrative … specifically the interface of math/science/engineering with narrative.

    Thus, the heroic Logicomix protagonists Russell, Turing, and von Neumann share with Avatar’s Grace Augustine the sentiments of Thomas Jefferson:

    “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions.”

    Obviously and soberingly, “the enormities of the times in which we live” are not less than those of the 20th century: they are in fact, far more challenging. Unless we are very diligent—and very fortunate too—the passions of our 21st century will not be the “boisterous” ones of Jefferson’s 19th century, but instead will prove to be disastrously destructive for our entire planet … which is what the protagonists of Logicomix feared and those of Avatar battled.

    That is why the young Russells, Turings, and von Neumanns of our 21st century—and especially the young Jane Goodalls too (who is for me the 20th century’s Grace Augustine)—must receive all the help and encouragement that we can give them. And this will be (explicitly) a central organizing theme of our UW/QSE seminar this coming quarter: So You Want to Be a Quantum Systems Engineer.

  57. Job Says:

    I didn’t mean perceptively, i meant consciously. Naturally, data is continuosly coming in, i’m just not focusing on it.

    I can’t focus on sight and hearing at the same time, i can only jump back and forth very fast. I have one consciousness to split between the senses.

    For example, i can’t concurrently read german and hear italian as well as i can read german and hear italian separately. I have to interleave the two at some cost (some of the data is lost) because i can only focus on one at a time.

    Is that unusual?

  58. Job Says:

    Wolfgang, i guess your single-threaded media player can’t playback Laser Floyd either, what with having to concurrently play audio and video.

  59. Job Says:

    My previous reply was meant for John Armstrong. This is what happens when you’re multitasking, multi-threaded as one might be.

    Pertinent question, how many threads does a normal person have?

  60. John Sidles Says:

    At the 50th ENC, one of the plenary speakers showed amazing EEG data, from close-spaced meshes of electrodes on human brains, demonstrating that auditory recognition of individual words—sufficient to distinguish a known word from a nonsense word—involves dozens of independent neural processes, having frequencies in excess of 100 Hz, and spatial localization below 2 millimeters.

    The point being that there are thousands (at least!) of more-or-less independent neural processes involved in even the simplest aspects of cognition, such that introspection (necessarily) is a wholly inadequate guide to the physical processes of human consciousness.

    On the other hand, the narratives that result from conscious introspection are generally (and unsurprisingly) simple and comforting … and so they provide a necessary (and popular) framework for our narratives about ourselves and the universe.

    As Ed Wilson summarized it: “Much of the history of philosophy, from Descartes and Kant forward, consists of failed models of the brain.”

    Ouch! But true enough to be uncomfortable.

  61. Job Says:

    John, i was describing my conscious experience of the senses through introspection, relating to Stas’ mention of split-consciousness, not building a biological framework of the human brain.

    By the way, each hardware component in a computer also requires N sub processes to function, and yet that doesn’t mean that every software program is multi-threaded.

  62. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Speaking of Russell, anyone out there who has actually read “Principia Mathematica”? All the way through, and understood it? I checked it out as an undergrad and found it to be pretty scary.

    I read somewhere that about 500 pages into PM, there is a footnote to the effect that the last theorem proven leads to the fact that 1 + 1 = 2. The same book referred to PM as something like “The greatest math book that has never been read by anyone”. Can anyone prove otherwise?

  63. John Armstrong Says:

    Job: processing language is orders of magnitude more complicated than processing basic sensory input. And phenomena very frequently involve two sensory modalities at the same time. The McGurk effect is one of the most famous repeatable experiments that illustrate this point, possibly second only to the experience of eating a fine meal with a head cold.

  64. Avatar Fan Says:

    Anyone who didn’t appreciate Avatar is either:
    a) A capitalist pig
    b) A colonial expansionist
    or c) A Republican

    It was epic.

  65. Anonymous Says:

    Avatar – A Very Atrocious, Tortuous And Ridiculous Movie.

  66. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Anyone who didn’t appreciate Avatar is either

    Am I allowed not to see it?

  67. Akash Kumar Says:

    Avatar was really a nice movie. Most of those do not like it say the movie lacked plot and that the movie partitioned the dark side and the white side in totality leaving no shades of grey.

    While there is certainly some truth in that statement, it is not enough -in my opinion- to outweigh the consciousness connection the movie shows. True, this is certainly far from the actual consciousness model – but its a (okay, false) start.

    The Narrative is Compelling and as Scott pointed out, While my opinions certainly stem, as you might say, from my bias. Nonetheless, the movie is stunning and will certainly go down as a great movie in the list of movies ever made.

    On a different front have you checked out this book – A certain Ambiguity.

    I found it an interesting read.

  68. John Sidles Says:

    Yesterday my wife (who is a talented nature writer) told me of her afternoon … watching a flock of American Wigeons feed and forage along the shore … and of a Bald Eagle male who caught a wigeon … flew into the sky … flipped upside down … and passed the wigeon to his mate … who flew to their nest and devoured it.

    Now today—in my memory—I can hear and see those wigeons and those eagles, so vividly as to match any of my “real” memories.

    Mathematically speaking, this episode illustrates that narratives have extraordinary informatic capacity. My wife encoded for me—within a few kilobytes—memories that are as vivid as any that reality can provide.

    Provided that Dr. Grace Augustine was a master of narrative encoding—and being a scientific hero, she was a master—it follows that Jake Sully’s two-way link to his avatar need not have been high-bandwidth … perhaps a link as low as (say) 100 baud would have sufficed.

    The same applies to the (excellent) book A Certain Ambiguity that Akash Kumar recommended. If we encode that book in (say) one megabyte, and read it in (say) four hours, then the required channel capacity is (again) about 100 baud.

    So what channel capacity is required to support human consciousness and memory? Movies like Avatar and books like A Certain Ambiguity encourage us to guess that it might be as low as 100 baud—provided that we have a sophisticated avatar … and (very importantly!) a sophisticated natural environment too … to assist us with the decoding.

    This line of reasoning helps us to appreciate, that if we humans destroy the natural ecology of our planet, we will all become stupider … as Colonel Miles Quaritch did … because we will be unable (any more) to fully process our own thoughts and memories.

  69. Stas Says:

    @Avatar Fan:
    Anyone who didn’t appreciate Avatar is either:

    or c) A Republican

    Haha, isn’t Fox (who produced the movie) the ultimate “Republican propaganda machine”?

    On a separate note, is there any studies proving that 3D glasses are safe? I had a slight tickle sensation in my eyes while watching the movie. The focusing distance for clear 3D image feels pretty short (though I have no idea what it actually is), and the shorter the focusing distance, the more the tension for eyes…

  70. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Haha, isn’t Fox (who produced the movie) the ultimate “Republican propaganda machine”?

    Sometimes it is, but its real agenda is more pernicious than that. Fox sees many opportunities to make money with great production values and debased ideas. They aren’t necessarily crass just for the sake of being crass, but they clearly see high-mindedness as a competitive disadvantage in their business.

    In the case of Fox News, why not be biased as all hell, make biased claims of objectivity, and throw around accusations of bias. If hypocrisy draws people’s attention, what’s the problem.

    The politics of the other branches of Fox doesn’t have to be the same as that of Fox News. In fact, overall ideological consistency is just another distraction from the business model. The Borat movie is a good example of the principle. It was a progressive movie, but not really. It was original and funny, and so what if it was also crass, dishonest, and bullying. People bought tickets for it.

  71. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Noting how some contributors strongly liked or disliked “Avatar” reminds me that I sometimes get a strong dislike for a movie. Upon reflection, it is often because I was expecting something else.

    For example, I am impressed with attention to historical detail, so that you can feel like you are there without being jarred by obvious blunders. An excellent example is “Atonement”, where typically a crowded theater is dead silent from beginning to end. On the other hand, once you realize a movie is a cartoon, say “Pulp Fiction”, then details and politics don’t much matter, because you are in on the joke.

    A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I chose a movie (“Crank”) because it was about to start, and was over when we had to pick up her daughter. Ten minutes in, I was bummed out because it appeared to be another example of Stallone/Willis/Seagal type superhero buffoonery. Fortunately, it turned out to be a parody of SWSTSB, and I was able to switch mental modes and enjoy it. The followup, “Crank, High Voltage” is so over the top it is hard to imagine how they could get a third installment.

  72. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

    My tastes run more to Starship Troopers and 12 Monkeys. This movie helps me realize two things: (1) the “perfect physical specimen” connection between fascist and noble savage iconography, and
    (2) that Arnold Schwarzenneger action and scifi movies might have been enjoyable because his contextually inappropriate austrian accent and hyperhypermusculature (when hypermusculature at most would have sufficed) turned any project he wa in to at least a partial Veerhoven-style nonwinking satire of the tehno-action form. Perhaps the Cameron Terminator movies wouldn’t have been as enjoyable without this self-satirizing element. And maybe that’s what was missing from the part of Avatar that I watched.

  73. John Sidles Says:

    Lot’s of folks are mentioning elements of Avatar and Logicomix that are amusingly transgressive and mildly subversive … but only mildly so … being no more transgressive/subversive than many other popular entertainments.

    C’mon … why would Shtetl Optimized highlight these two entertainments … if there weren’t deeper elements of transgression and subversion present? Can’t we find some themes in Avatar and Logicomix that are extravagantly transgressive and subversive?

    My wife and I came to the point-of-view that Avatar and Logicomix are all about the construction of narrative … a construction that is conceived as a transgressive and subversive act. For example, many of the mathematician-philosophers of Logicomix, in the end, forsake theorem-proving for narrative construction … including the ultimate narrative construction, which is hardware/wetware design … because they come to realize that at the end of the day, tautologies provide the necessary scaffolding for narrative, but not the foundations.

    So what *are* the foundations for narrative … if axioms and theorems do not serve? An enjoyably transgressive way to watch Avatar is as an extended meditation on coding theory and communication channels. Here the idea is that “Pandora” is constantly transmitting to humans and na’vi alike an encoded information stream … and the main challenge is to decode it.

    To use complexity theory nomenclature, Col. Miles Quaritch is a non-adaptive fixed-depth circuit … a human FPGA if you will. Although rational, he is unable to decode Pandora’s message, except at the most rudimentary level: “These natives are *very* hard to kill.”

    As scientists, Doctor Grace Augustine are rule-based AIs, running on (adaptive) Turing Machine hardware. Alas, although it is conceivable that *some* set of rules might exist that would decode Pandora for these scientists, they are never going to *find* those rules … because heuristics for constructing those rules fail, necessarily, given that the task in NP-hard (and this same theme appears in Kafka’s An Imperial Message, and in Borges’ Averroe’s Dream, for example).

    Everyman Jake Sully has far less internal computational power than either Grace Augustine *or* Miles Quaritch. But Jake is the first to grasp that human cognition is not a wholly internal process, but rather, cognitive capabilities are largely determined by the external environment … which is a theme that Logicomix heroes Russell, von Neumann, and Turing all embraced (implicitly or explicitly) in their later careers. As the first to embed his consciousness in the world of Pandora, Jake swiftly becomes far smarter than either Grace or Miles.

    Thus, a take-home message of both Logicomix and Avatar is that if we humans imprudently destroy the natural ecology of our planet … or if we unwisely attempt to construct our narratives wholly upon axiomatic foundations … then we surely will all become stupider … no matter whether a proof of P≠NP is engraved upon the tombstone of our planetary civilization, or not.

  74. PSPACE is edible Says:

    To everyone who feels like debating the originality of the Avatar plot, I direct you to the following

    http://failblog.org/2010/01/10/avatar-plot-fail/

  75. Still Anonymous Says:

    Despite the opinions of so many respectable people here, I still feel that Avatar was really horrible.

    I admire Logicomix like anything – no confusion about that. But connecting Avatar with the stuff that relates to the heart of Theory, to me, seems like an ugly crow-barring.

    I mean – come on – even Cameron would not have thought about these issues.

    Which brings me back to the story’s plot. It was indeed horrible. I have to agree – avatar was a long, atrocious, tortuous and ridiculous movie.

  76. John Sidles Says:

    There *is* a tendency to regard Logicomix as a serious intellectual work for adults, whereas Avatar is merely a juvenile entertainment for kids. David Brooks has written a scathing critical review of Avatar along these lines.

    Whereas, IMHO they *both* are serious intellectual entertainments that are accessible to juveniles … as that wonderful Umberto Eco essay that Luca posted discusses (for which, thank you very much, Luca).

    As with any works of art … what you get out of them depends largely on what you read into them. It was my experience that Logicomix and Avatar can each help us read more into the other, in that the light of each illuminates the darkness of the other.

    Hey, you can’t ask for more of art than that! :)

  77. Raoul Ohio Says:

    From today’s “Good Morning, Silicon Valley”:

    Q U O T E D

    “Virtual life is not real life and it never will be, but this is the pinnacle of what we can build in a virtual presentation so far. It has taken the best of our technology to create this virtual world, and real life will never be as utopian as it seems onscreen. It makes real life seem more imperfect.”

    — Psychiatrist Dr. Stephan Quentzel tries to explain why some people are afflicted by a lingering depression after seeing the beautiful world of Pandora in “Avatar.”

    http://naviblue.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=196&sid=59a6ef6797d5613141f6f8171e5c92cd

  78. Raoul Ohio Says:

    More about how Avatar is changing the world at El Reg:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/01/12/avatar_blues/

  79. Jan Says:

    To John Sidles about the Bald Eagles capturing and passing over the captured Widgeon. My theory is that you can so vividly imagine that whole scene from a few bytes of description only because you have already seen similar scenes, either in reality or on TV (nature documentary).

  80. John Sidles Says:

    Jan, you are right … those two eagles are personal friends … I walk by their nest on the way to work … and have watched them (successfully) fledge two young eagles, in each of the past two years.

    Absence this shared experience (these two eagles watch me as closely as I watch them), my wife could not have communicated so immensely much to me, in so few bytes.

    That is the common-sense reason why, as our natural world becomes poorer, we humans are at-risk of becoming cognitively impoverished.

    Unsurprisingly, there is strong cognitive science literature that makes the same point … that in humans, cognition is not solely about algorithms and logic; it is equally about physiological brain growth and a stimulating environment.

  81. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

    Professor Sidles,
    I think there may be an element of truth in your “our ecological heritage helps our cognitive optimization”, but I think you render it cute to the point of unhelpful myth, unless there’s some straussian underpinnings that you carefully worked out with a committee of experts that I don’t have access to.

    My model of optimized cognition is that which is persistence optimizing for the cogitating system — I don’t see why that’s inherently the state of our ecology for the year 2010, or some previous, pre-diminished year.

    I could see a diversified experimentation model, where some of our cogitating elements are in current ecological conditions, and some are in variant ecological conditions -but to act like there’s no trade off analysis between environmental preservation and resource consumption seems to me to be a descent into feel-good fantasy.

  82. John Sidles Says:

    LOL … there definitely *is* a “committee of experts” to whom I have access … it’s the ad hoc committee of (say) Jane Goodall, Steven Pinker, Ed Wilson, Frans de Waal, Marvin Minsky, and Jonathan Israel.

    Of course, *everyone* has access to *this* committee. :)

    I sometimes wish that nowadays there were more mathematicians and physical scientists serving upon it … von Neumann and Wiener both served with distinction.

    Am I overlooking anyone?

  83. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

    Professor Sidles,
    That’s probably an appropriately superficial response to my post. You’ve got a real job and we’re all probably better off if you use whatever I write as a mental break rather than as invitation to deep critical thought.

  84. John Sidles Says:

    Seriously, Hopefully Anonymous, cognitive scientists and artists alike know that troubling issues oft-times require a humorous touch. A great many issues that {Goodall, … , Israel} discuss seriously (and at interminable length) are touched upon briefly and humorously in Colin Adams’ column in the December 2009 Mathematical Intelligencer; this particular column is titled The Adventures of Robin Caruso.

    If you’re the kind of person who thinks “If only someone would write an essay likening Willis the Volleyball (who co-starred with Tom Hanks in Cast Away) to Whitehead’s yellow book classic Elements of Homotopy Theory” … well … your long wait is over.

    As Adam’s sidebar says: “Relax. Breathe regularly. It’s mathematical, it’s a humor column, and it may even be harmless.”

    And I will say seriously, that the preface to Whitehead’s yellow book contains what is my personal favorite quote in all my database: “The order of development is to a certain extent historical. Indeed, if the order in which the results presented here does not strictly correspond to that in which they were discovered, it nevertheless does correspond to an order in which they might have been discovered had those of us who were working in the area been a little more perspicacious.”

    What Whitehead is asserting (and justifying by action) is that inventing deeper-and-better narratives about the past (is this what Logicomix does?) is a necessary step toward inventing deeper-and-better options for the future (is this what Avatar does?).

    As a specific example, it’s fun to develop both the narrative and the mathematics of QM/QIP along lines that would have been natural had …

    Erich Kahler (1906-2000) lived before David Hilbert (1862-1943); Andrey Kolmogorov (1903-1987) lived before Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961); Vladimir Arnold (1937-pres) lived before Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976); and Felix Berezin (1931-1980) lived before Paul Dirac (1902-1984)

    In this world (for example), string theory might not have been, as Daniele Amati characterized it, ‘part of 21st-century physics’ that fell by chance into the 20th century, but rather, the natural evolution of QM to field theory.

    From this “Whiteheadian” point-of-view, mathematics and historical narrative are wholly compatible subjects, in which the former (surprisingly!) conditions the latter.

    That’s why (IMHO) Scott’s linking of Logicomix and Avatar was an inspired topic. Thanks to everyone!

  85. Anders Says:

    Thank you for a great and educational site! I was entertained by the same works this holiday season, Logicomix and Avatar.

    Mathematical foundations has just been a private interest for me. Therefore, can someone confirm that the “Incompleteness Theorem” entry in the Logicomix notes is erroneous? Their description of completeness as used in the completeness theorem seems a bit off the target and then they imply that a formal system that can support arithmetic has to be second-order logic. This is incorrect, right?

  86. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I figured that there was a good reason that I haven’t seen Avatar.

    The New York Times has an article that Avatar can cause motion sickness. I had forgotten all about this. I always get motion sickness at IMAX theaters; i usually have to walk out and take a break. Also our kids were playing Legend of Zelda for the Wii some months ago, and that also gave me motion sickness. It got so bad that I started to feel sick just reading the 50-page hint sheet that our son found on the Internet.

  87. Gowtham Kumar Says:

    Its true indeed that Avatar did not receive the praise it deserves. People are more interested in unpredictable climaxes and entertainment than in appreciating the beautiful concepts and imagination of the director.

    How many people can conceive of an ecosystem where members can communicate to each other via wired links? We know that the capacity of wireless links (voice) is limited. The wired link enables greater communication between the connected organisms.

    I liked the concept of Gaia as discussed by Asimov in Foundation series. Only problem is that a centralized solution is impractical in real life, and one would prefer distributed computation. In many situations, a game theoretic solution with the right incentives in the form of taxes can lead to an optimal solution (call that independent thinking). Cooperation always enables a better solution but is limited by the communication bottleneck: Our brain works real fast but our voice can get the information across only so fast. A direct link connecting the organisms together and forming a network is indeed a lovely dream. I wonder how many people noticed this new concept in the movie. All they want to notice are the romantic/military concepts (which are of course banal as always) and the lack of unpredictability in the plot (caused by too many movies having the same plot sequence with the bad guys always losing).

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