Sunday, April 30, 2017

Underappreciated Movies: Robocop (2014)


The 2014 remake of the much loved 80s movie Robocop wasn't very well received by critics or audiences. While I do understand some of the complaints about the movie, I also think it was very interesting in several ways, and actually has quite a few clever and thought provoking ideas, which I'd like to discuss here.

Firstly, though, let's be clear on where the remake fell short of the original. The PG rating, while allowing for a lot more than it used to back in the 80s, meant that director Paul Verhoeven's trademark over the top violence was absent, and that's a big deal. It would be like remaking a Michael Bay film and having a sensible amount of explosions in it!

The other big flaw was poorly written social satire. Verhoeven's sci-fi action movies such as Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers are all loved in large part because of their cynical satire and social commentary. The Robocop remake did attempt to include some of this, and while it worked in places (such as Michael Keaton's excellent performance), other instances such as the Samuel L Jackson satire of a conservative Bill O'Reilly-type character were forced and on-the-nose. Admittedly, this kind of satire is really hard to do well, but nevertheless the remake falling short here really cost it.

But on the other hand, the remake had an excellent cast (Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Samuel L Jackson), great special effects and production values, all things that I think often get overlooked and taken for granted in modern movies and remakes in particular. While of course these things aren't enough in themselves to justify a remake and consider it good, it is worth stopping occasionally and appreciating just how high the quality of movies is these days that we so easily dismiss as "crap".

Where I think the Robocop remake really excelled is in the interesting and thought provoking ideas that it contained, and there were quite a few. Most of these were based around AI, robots, free will, and similar topics that have evolved a lot since the original movie came out in 1987. Back then, general audiences didn't know much about a lot of these things, and probably very few even knew a term like AI. Things have changed a lot since then, and many other movies and TV shows now tackle these sorts of concepts in much more sophisticated ways than 30 years ago (e.g. Westworld, Chappie). The general public is more interested in these topics, robots and automation are an increasingly normal part of our lives, and questions about legal and ethical consequences of these technologies are no longer distant hypotheticals. It's exciting to me that topics I've been reading and thinking about for over 20 years are now actually interesting to other people!

Robots as soldiers/peacekeepers


The first big idea is the use of robots and autonomous machines as soldiers/peacekeepers. We already have autonomous drones and remote controlled robots used in the battlefield to limited degrees, but this is going to really change in the not too distant future as remote operated and/or autonomous robots become viable replacements for soldiers. The general public has an increasing distaste for human death (at least on their own side) and the taking of human lives by other humans, but we're suprisingly much less bothered by the use of machines. For example, people care much less about the innocent people who have been killed in drone strikes in the Middle East than they would if it had been squads of soldiers out there mowing down innocents.

Dead soldiers also make for bad PR back home. The less costs there are to the general public from war, the more likely they are to support it. So there are a lot of incentives to automate military forces, and this is going to keep increasing. The movie does a pretty good job of extrapolating from current technology and trends to what is plausible in the near future.

Moral Accountability


With robot soldiers (and simpler machines like drones) comes the problems related to the ethics of letting machines kill human beings. This isn't a trivial thing, and allowing robots to freely kill humans under some circumstances could be quite risky and dangerous. Any time a software bug or a hardware glitch could result in a machine being able to kill without an easy way to shut it down, that's something to be concerned about. And since a warfighting robot needs to obviously be resistant to attacks and also resistant to being hacked by an enemy, it's not clear how well that can be achieved while still retaining sufficient control in case something goes wrong.

The movie looks at this issue and the likely public concern about killer robots, and tries to gain public trust by making a robot with a human in the loop. It's not the addition of a human because the autonomous versions aren't very good, like the original movie. Rather, it's the addition of a human element in order to satisfy the public that there is proper moral accountability.

This is also one of the better cynical parts of the movie that comes close to the cynicism of the original, as a company looks for ways to appease the general public in order to get a piece of legislation about autonomous drones passed. It's entirely a self-serving motive without the company caring about any of the ethical issues that their technology raises, something that is a very real and pertinent concern in the present day.

Robocop is a Publicity Stunt


This was a great idea in my opinion, and something that I think is a story change that is much better than the original. The whole notion that Robocop is a terrible idea. They already have perfectly functioning autonomous robots, and the addition of a human element just makes one slower and less effective. The company knows this, but is doing it as a publicity stunt to appease the public about accountability.

By making this switch, the movie makes the horror of turning a human being into a big lumbering robot that can no longer live any kind of normal life a lot more real. But it also opens the door to some interesting discussions in the movie about just how much the human part should be in control, how much that human should be drugged and manipulated in order to "function" correctly and have a healthy mental state, and in what ways the human mind can be enhanced to make it work better (at least as far as being a good "Robocop" is concerned).

Suppressing Human Emotions


In order to make Robocop function better, they experiment with suppressing his emotions, making him care less about his family and former life, and more machine like. This raises interesting questions about the use of emotions in our own decision making processes, how they affect the way we prioritize our goals, and how excess emotional states negatively affect us. A lot of good research suggests that emotions are at the very core of human decision making, and if they were suppressed entirely we would quite possibly no longer be able to function properly.

Seeing the effects as they tinker with his emotions is a good reminder to us about being cautious with how much we tinker with our own emotions using drugs like anti-depressants, alcohol, and other things that can alter our moods.

The Illusion of Free Will


This was definitely my favourite concept raised by the movie, since free will is a topic that I've thought a lot about and I think it's one of the most misunderstood concepts not just by the general public, but even by many philosophers (as an aside, I highly recommend Sam Harris' short book Free Will as the best explanation of human free will that I've come across so far).

In order to achieve faster reaction times from Robocop, they come up with the idea of incorporating an autonomous AI into his system, which takes over decision making and control during combat, but when it is activated, he thinks that he's the one actually making all the decisions, and is in full control. This is a really fascinating concept, raising the issue of just how much you can be sure that you are the author of your own actions. Our minds rely on the illusion that we are making our own choices, and in general we're terrible at noticing when outside influences affect us. This is why, for example, so many people think that they're not affected by advertising, and are completely oblivious to the subtle ways their minds are being manipulated.

So to take this to the next level and effectively implant decisions into Robocop's brain such that he thinks he authored them himself is really interesting. And of course it also means that you no longer really have a human in control during combat, making Robocop effectively autonomous, and thus the whole idea of having a morally accountable agent in the loop is negated and Robocop really is just a pure publicity stunt at this point.

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I don't know if you find any of these ideas interesting, but hopefully you do, and maybe it's enough to encourage some of you to go and (re)watch the Robocop remake with fresh eyes.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Whitewashing Movies and Color Rinsing Movies



Whitewashing Movies


Do you remember the broad Asian cast that had roles in the excellent Martin Scorsese film The Departed? No? Of course that's due to the fact that it's a western remake of the also excellent Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs.

Do you remember how much western audiences loved all the obvious pandering to the Chinese market in Transformers: Age of Extinction? No? That was the highest grossing movie of all time in China, but did somewhat less well in western markets.

When an international movie like Ghost in the Shell or The Great Wall gets made with white characters in it as an obvious way to appeal/pander to western audiences, there are these days inevitable cries of "whitewashing". Without wanting to pretend that there is no history of racial casting issues in films, I feel that people seem to try and deliberately act stupid with regard to the economic realities of getting $100 million plus films bankrolled and released. This would be fine if it made no difference, but I want to write about it because I think these responses are actually sabotaging the efforts that will help move the industry in the right direction, and hurt the people that the complainers are claiming to be trying to help.

It shouldn't be controversial to say that big name, recognizable actors tend to help a movie to be profitable. Like it or not, people will pay attention to posters and trailers more when they see an actor that they know and like in it. Obviously there are always exceptions in both directions (successful movies with unknown actors, and big name actors not enough to save a bad movie), but these actors don't command salaries in the millions of dollars because movies studios are idiots with too much money to spend.

Are the Chinese just a bunch of racist assholes because the inclusion of famous Chinese actors and Chinese locations in Transformers: Age of Extinction made them go to see that movie more? Are Americans a bunch of assholes because they generally prefer the white, American version of The Office to the white, British version?

People seem to think that there are only two choices: stay authentic and use lesser known actors of the "right" race, or whitwash with some token white actors. But they forget the other obvious option: completely remove the international setting altogether and set it in a western location with well known western actors (usually white, but increasingly less so these days, like how Dwayne Johnson is in everything).

So in the case of Infernal Affairs and The Departed, it probably would have been better for Asian actors in general if an Asian movie had been made with a couple of lead white actors to appeal more to western audiences, rather than having an American version with no Asian actors, and an Asian version that most western audiences haven't seen.

A mixed version is a compromise that allows for increased box office to make the movie profitable, while still giving roles to non-white people and giving those actors more exposure, helping them become more famous and maybe eventually be able to give studios enough confidence to give them major or lead roles. At the end of the day, you can't just make audiences pay to see a movie, and so as long as celebrity sells tickets, you have to work within that framework and provide a path for non-white actors to build up that celebrity.

Take another recent movie, The Great Wall. People complained about "obvious whitewashing" with the casting of Matt Damon in the lead role. The movie has made about $300 million internationally, but less than $50 million in the US, with a budget of about $150 million. But the funny thing is, this movie was a collaboration between US and Hong Kong studios, intended to be the start of doing future collaborations, making movies that appeal to both markets. It stars several big name Asian actors (including Infernal Affairs star Andy Lau), who all could have gotten a big international boost if US audiences embraced this rather than shunning the movie. But for the cause of "fighting whitewashing" they've actually just helped prove that those Asian actors can't draw a profit, or that this joint effort simply isn't worth the risk again.

Color Rinsing Movies


What is quite funny is that the often maligned Fast and Furious franchise gets casting right. By making a generically enjoyable movie featuring action, fast cars, hot women, and just as important, a very diverse cast, you guarantee wide appeal. Vin Diesel I think is responsible in large part for this direction since he began producing the series with the fourth movie, Fast and Furious. Diverse cast and international locations have been a huge part since then. He followed the same formula with the recent XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, being sure to include a diverse cast including the legendary martial arts actor Donnie Yen, Bollywood actress and model Deepika Padukone, and even a cameo by Brazilian football star Neymar.

The fact that movies are struggling more to make profits in the box office (thanks to consumers having better options at home) is forcing studios to care more about international appeal. And this naturally makes them cast international stars to pander to those international audiences. Whether it's inventing excuses to include an international star, or giving a role to an international or non-white star that would have otherwise gone to a white star, the end result is that it's now making economic sense to give roles to non-white people.

The same forces that make studios whitewash movies are now also making them color rinse movies!

And this is a good thing we should be embracing.

Of course it can be a problem when movies get forced to do silly things to their story just in order to pander, and we should be wary of that. 47 Ronin is a good example, a movie that was only supposed to feature Keanu Reeves in a minor role (with about 15 minutes total screen time), and otherwise have an almost entirely Japanese cast, but due to it's bloated $200 million dollar budget, the studio freaked out and forced re-shoots and re-editing in order to make Keanu Reeves' role and screen time as large as possible. The end result was a mess, and the movie did quite poorly as a result.

But when a movie is done well, we need to recognize and, more importantly, support, mixed casting to encourage studios to take those risks more often. In the end it's our money that decides what studios will take risks on, and if we put them in an impossible position where they fear not enough profits if they don't cast stars, or boycotting due to "whitewashing' if they use a mixed cast, they will end up doing an entire remake in a different setting like The Departed did, which doesn't help non-white actors at all, or they will just avoid the project entirely, which also doesn't help.

We should embrace movies that have diverse casts and not always try to find the glass half full and look for shit to complain about. When Fast and Furious 7 has a great diverse cast, complaining because it also has some gratuitous shots of women in bikinis doesn't help. When The Martian casts Chiwetel Ejiofor in a role that in the book is an Indian (ignoring the fact that they actually originally wanted Irrfan Khan but there were scheduling conflicts), complaining that the role "should have gone to an Indian" doesn't help. When Ghost in the Shell casts a wide variety of different races in different roles but people complain because it's based on a Japanese anime, it doesn't help.

We have to keep remembering that, at the end of the day, if we make casting of actors a minefield for movie makers whenever they're unable to put a famous person in the role, then they're just going to say "Fuck it" and recast the whole thing in Boston and call it The Departed. If Ghost in the Shell had been set in New Chicago featuring a full white cast, that would have been of no benefit to Asian or other non-white actors. But if we support mixed casting in movies rather than constantly finding some reason to say "better but still not good enough", then maybe we can actually get the progress that we claim to want, rather than just doing a bunch of virtue signalling back patting that in reality harms more than helps.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dislike Uber For The Right Reasons


I've never been much of a fan of Uber or any of the other companies spearheading the "sharing economy". While there are certainly some positives to them, I see them primarily as a cynical way to skirt around regulations, laws, insurance and other consumer protections that mean traditional services cost more, but that consumers and employees are generally better off. Like environmental agency regulations, or drug testing requirements, these things are frequently demonized by people on the right in particular as stifling innovation and job creation, and completely ignoring the criminal actions and negligence that typically proceeds the creation of any regulation in the first place. Companies usually do the wrong thing and cause the government to create regulations to protect consumers and employees; the government doesn't generally do this sort of thing just for the fun of it.

Of course, government regulations can be stifling at times, and they can be poorly policed and enforced, creating work for businesses while not actually providing any benefits to society. And in cases like Uber, taxi services exploited monopolies in cities and didn't respond to consumer demands, making an opening for an alternative to pop up. So this can help to justify the need for a disruptive company like Uber, though it's also very likely (given the rise of all kinds of other "sharing" businesses) that they would have popped up anyway, since they now operate in cities all around the world that have quite reasonable taxi services already, and thus no obvious need for disruption with dubious legality.

Given all of that, I find it quite galling that I'm here now defending Uber, at least in a certain way. Specifically, the recent #DeleteUber social media trend that resulted from what I can only see as a completely misguided belief that Uber is supporting the Trump administration and needs to be punished. Now, separate from the question of whether it makes sense or is reasonable to punish the entire workforce of a company because of political opinions or actions of its CEO, what stuns me more is how people convinced themselves of this "fact" in the first place.

Service Pricing 101


Let's try a hypothetical.

Say you're Uber and there is some KKK rally going on somewhere. You don't want to support it, but let's say that for whatever reason, you don't want to straight out ban your drivers from doing any pick ups or drop offs near the area of the rally. How would you go about it?

Anyone who understands the Uber business model knows that when there is high demand at a particular time and place, they can't just make more people work there like a traditional taxi service could, since the drivers are all voluntary. So instead they increase the rate for rides in that area. This encourages more Uber drivers to get out and service that area, in order to make more money. The flip side of this is that when there are areas currently running at a higher rate, this is going to discourage servicing of areas with a lower rate. Quite straightforward.

So to discourage attendance of the hypothetical KKK rally, you would make sure the rate is lower in that area than in other areas, which would reduce the drivers servicing it, making waits longer. What you definitely wouldn't do is increase the rates in that area, which would increase service to it. It's possible that if you went to the extreme and raised rates to an exorbitant amount that would also reduce service in the area since drivers would show up but no customers would want to pay it.

Basically, to reduce services you either raise rates super high or make them super low.

This fact can seem counter intuitive to people who have only thought about the Uber pricing equation from the customer side, and not the driver side. So counter intuitive, in fact, that Uber has been criticized for raising its rates during times of crisis, disasters, etc, because people think that they are doing it to profit from tragedy, rather than understanding that it's how they manage supply and demand with an effectively volunteer workforce.

And as a result, Uber has had to respond by not raising their rates during times when people would see them as profiteering unfairly from other people's misfortune. The massive irony being that under those circumstances, by not raising prices they actually make it harder for people in these situations to get a car and get away!

#DeleteUber


So, we have a situation where protesters are at the JFK international airport protesting an immigration ban, and taxi drivers announce that they are going to stop servicing there for an hour in support of the protest. Uber announces, after the strike, that it will turn off its surge pricing in the area, which will result in longer waits. And this is seen by many as being a strikebreaking move, and so they decide to boycott the company.

There are so many things wrong with this situation that I feel like I'm stating the obvious in pointing them out. But here we go:

  • If Uber actually wanted to strikebreak the taxi service, the right move would have been to increase surge pricing to get more Uber drivers to the airport area. What they did was in fact the strongest supporting move they could have done short of banning drivers from going there altogether.
  • Uber was acting in order to avoid criticism for price gouging people stuck at the airport, costing themselves and their drivers profits as a result. They were putting their money where their mouths are.
  • Uber annouced the stopping of surge pricing after the strike had taken place, not during it.
  • People were at the airport protesting the stopping of people from being able to enter the country, yet completely missed the irony of forcing people to get stranded at the airport by supporting taxis halting services and boycotting a company trying to provide people with a way to, you know, actually get further into the country than the airport food court.
  • People have long been applauding Uber in cities like New York for providing an alternative to taxis and screwing up their monopoly. Yet here they selective now want Uber to support the taxi industry? If you see Uber as a welcome disruptor of the taxi monopoly then you can hardly complain if you think they are doing something that goes against the taxi industry's interests in that area. It wasn't actually the case, but people should expect Uber to act against the taxi industry, since their business model is basically trying to put them out of business!

Punishment


A final point. I believe that a lot of the support for boycotting Uber was due to an already existing unhappiness with the fact that their CEO is in the Trump economic advisory group (though he's since left due to all the negative pressure). So I think people were looking for an excuse to punish the company, and so were far too willing to interpret what happened at the airport as bad behavior by Uber, even after explicit clarification by the company as to their reasoning.

And yet, even here, it seems that people are so eager to lash out at the Trump administration that they're actually acting in ways that are going to be horribly counterproductive in the long run. This same advisory group also has Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and the CEOs of General Motors, IBM, GE, and even Disney. Unless people are actively arguing for a boycott of all of those companies too, and think that someone like Elon Musk is a Trump administration lackey, then they're really just being completely inconsistent and randomly punitive.

People complain when the Trump administration gets horribly unqualified people to advise him or appointed to various positions, but then they complain and boycott when reasonable people are put in those positions. Don't you want people like Elon Musk advising the president, rather than some uneducated, ignorant person? How is it helpful to the long term prosperity of the US to punish people who are actually trying to provide the administration with good advice so that they will hopefully make better decisions?

There has to come a time when US citizens realize that, like it or not, they actually need the Trump administration to succeed, because the government can't fail while somehow all of the "right thinking" citizens prosper. You can hate your leaders all you want, and many people do in many countries, but trying to make them fail horribly is as sensible as trying to make your employer fail while somehow thinking that you can retain your job!


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Defacing Wikipedia


We've all seen good examples of defacement or vandalism that are actually funny. People often come up with genuinely amusing and clever jokes as part of defacing something. Because of the humor, we regularly give this sort of vandalism a pass or are softer on it, compared to standard vandalism such as graffiti tagging or malicious website defacement. At the other end of the spectrum, we tend to come down extra hard on defacement that is offensive or inciting.

Recently an example of Wikipedia defacement was being passed around on social media that was fairly amusing. Someone had defaced a page about invertebrates and added a politician onto it, in reference to behavior seen as spineless by many. It's a fairly simple and funny enough joke, all things considered.

What bothered me, though, was the applauding of the defacement and sharing it around as a good thing. Because it was funny and people didn't like the politician, they were happy to cheer it on as legitimate political satire rather than try to discourage it as vandalism.

Wikipedia is far from a perfect resource. People frequently say that you should never trust it as accurate. However, given the noble project of collecting information for everyone to freely access, and allowing anyone to contribute, they do a remarkably good job of removing disinformation. When vandalism or gross misrepresentation of facts occurs, the moderators are normally very quick to restore the information. And of course they generally provide ample links to sources so readers can verify content via third party sources.

So while it might be true that when accuracy is vital, Wikipedia shouldn't be used as a definitive resource, it makes an excellent first point of research for many things, and provides plenty of information to help readers jump off from there to validate details as needed. And for many things where general background information is needed, any minor issues of accuracy are probably not really an issue. This is of course why it is such a popular resource used by so many. Anyone old enough to have had to research information the hard way without the internet should appreciate just how lucky we are to have a resource like that.

The price of this, though, is that we need to show some collective responsibility and not make the task of maintaining accuracy harder than it already is for the Wikipedia staff. In the case of obvious political satire, no one is going to be fooled into thinking it's legitimate. But when we reward vandalism of the site with attention and kudos, we encourage others to do more of the same. And because Wikipedia is normally pretty good at restoring pages quickly, this also encourages people to make more subtle changes that are harder to spot, in order to have them stay up longer for greater bragging rights. And, of course, it helps to create more of a general air of acceptance that defacing websites is okay.

There are so many places you can go on the internet to share and consume humor and political satire. Let's not ruin useful public resources just so we can have a 10 second chuckle when looking at our news feeds. It's hard enough to get reliable, true information on the internet these days. Let's not make it impossible.