*That is to say, its ruthless efficiency as an engine of inequality
The future is looking bright
So Joss Whedon, TV cult hero and creator of the Buffyverse, has spent most of the last five years engaged in immensely lucrative struggle with a Marvel Comics mashup franchise. Toward what end, I am genuinely not sure. I have tried to take the question seriously: I went back and watched “The Avengers” again, and now I have seen its sequel, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” also written and directed by Whedon. It’s a high-spirited, action-packed, overly long adventure movie in which the all-star team of Marvel superheroes takes on a guy called Ultron. OK, he’s not a guy, exactly; he’s one of those ill-fated creations of human genius who redounds upon his creators, after the fashion of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and HAL 9000 and so on. Anyway, Ultron is deliciously voiced by James Spader, and like every pseudo-demonic villain in this kind of discount-store mythology, he yearns to perfect the human race by exterminating it.
Yeah, we’ve been there and done that, many times over. Such is the essential and insuperable problem of the 21st-century summer tentpole movie – for Hollywood purposes, the first buds of May now count as “summer” – and such is the challenge Whedon has set himself. How much distinctive or idiosyncratic flavoring can an individual writer and director impart to a set of characters as well defined as this assemblage of Marvel superheroes, and to a story that must progress from original sin to existential crisis to redemptive action climax, with very little room for variation? There is honor to this quest, and maybe even a kind of selflessness – if work whose craftsman is paid millions can ever be called selfless. Whedon is trying to meet the expectations of comic-book fans head on, and satisfy them in full, while proving to them and to us that these movies – the fundamental economic basis of the American film industry, at this point — don’t have to be careless and juvenile and entirely bereft of psychological insight and adult emotion.
This may be a perverse response, but I enjoyed “Age of Ultron” more than its predecessor, despite the fact that it’s almost exactly the same thing. This was probably a result of adjusting my expectations: I wasn’t sitting there waiting for Whedon to revolutionize the genre, or to turn an overdetermined comic-book movie into a Noel Coward comedy. He delivers a clean and capable entertainment, with a handful of distinctive flourishes stuck to the margins. Whedon does well with the darker edges of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), an arrogant tech genius whose degree of repentance for his war-criminal past is always ambiguous. He adds sparkling notes of screwball comedy, and even tragedy, to the incipient romance between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Dr. Bruce Banner (who, like so many lovable men, has a big, green, ugly side).
Once we get to the supposedly climactic showdown with Ultron the movie is pretty boring; how many ways are there to threaten the planet with CGI destruction and then CGI-save it? Whedon’s complicated setup, however, offers intriguing hints of subtext. (I could write the same two sentences about almost any superhero movie.) I’m never quite sure how to feel about Hydra, the nemesis organization in the Marvel universe, at least as it appears in Whedon’s movies. Of course Hydra is thoroughly despicable and all, but its old-world, pseudo-aristocratic Nazi steampunk vibe has a romantic allure totally absent from the sanitized, corporate headquarters of the Avengers, who are pretty much the secret police of the capitalist world order.
When the Hydra-engineered mutant twins later to be known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch show up (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively), bearing a well-earned grudge against the Stark empire and the Western and/or American war machine, I was on their side firmly and immediately. They are too awesome not to be coerced or compelled into switching to the Avenger team ultimately, and while I understand why that’s necessary in terms of future sequels and the coherence of Marvelology, I wasn’t happy about it. There is no third way in a comic-book universe, no eccentric path that does not lead you to one or the other Manichaean pole. Resistance is literally futile.
Whether or not Whedon’s extended Marvel career bypass was worth doing – how do we even begin to answer that? “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will probably be the second-biggest Hollywood release of 2015 (after the J.J. Abrams “Star Wars” relaunch), so the answer provided by the Invisible Hand of the market would seem clear enough. But beyond the brutish fact of a worldwide billion-dollar gross, or whatever it may be, lie other facts more difficult to decode. As a cultural and commercial artifact, “Age of Ultron” represents the way that Hollywood’s role in the global economy has been altered or transformed. You could even say that its immense success, or at least the specific character of that success, tells us something about the diminished cultural role of cinema.
This is a gigantic movie, by anyone’s definition. It cost something like $250 million to make and should deliver a handsome return on that investment. It has a passel of stars playing archetypal figures: Downey, in what may (or may not) be his final turn in the Iron Man suit, Johansson and Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Captain America and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, who gets a whole bunch of screen time that doesn’t quite pay off. It will be the No. 1 box-office hit in virtually every country that has movie theaters and diplomatic relations with the United States. People in Iran and Yemen and Somalia and North Korea will watch pirated copies on the Internet if they possibly can.
To some extent, the presence of a well-respected and high-integrity auteur like Whedon mitigates the ambivalent atmosphere of calculation, condescension and cynicism that surrounds so many nine-figure Hollywood productions. The “Avengers” franchise is more than a huge cash grab aimed at the collective Id of the world’s 17-to-24-year-old males. It’s mythic; it’s “ambitious.” No one involved needs to apologize to their artsy friends, or to feel that the renovated hillside mansions and terraced swimming pools and BMW 6 Series convertibles of Los Angeles County were paid for with slightly dirty money, the way they might after a Michael Bay movie.
But this is a big movie whose cultural ripple effects are very small. Much of the anticipation for “Age of Ultron” is meta-anticipation – how big will the opening weekend be? – and I feel no coming groundswell of media thinkpieces or social-media debates or doctoral dissertations in embryo. I don’t dispute that lots of people around the world will flock to see this movie, and I imagine most of them will have fun. I had fun myself, except for the whole thing about realizing that I was not-so-secretly rooting for Hydra and basically concluding that the Avengers are a fascist front group disguised by so many ideological switchbacks that we lose track of their core identity.
No doubt there are circles where every detail of Whedon’s augmentation to the Marvel canon, or his heretical departures therefrom, will be earnestly discussed. But for most people there isn’t that much to talk about, after you’ve seen “Age of Ultron,” except how cool it was and which jokes maybe fell a little flat and whether giving Renner’s character all that oxygen felt more like a dutiful setup for the next chapter than anything else. The text of the film, if you’ll forgive the phrase – its story and its themes and its succession of scenes – is deliberately unsurprising and largely irrelevant. We’re a long way from the kind of Zeitgeist-engorged Hollywood spectacle that appears to distill or refract a larger cultural moment, the way that Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” or Sam Raimi’s post-9/11 “Spider-Man” or Christopher Nolan’s first and second “Dark Knight” films did. This movie is fine, honestly. I rather liked it
Even Joss Whedon, an undoubted pop-culture genius, cannot create that kind of significance from whole cloth, at least not after two dozen or more generally similar superhero movies have worn out the cultural resonance of the form. It would be foolish for me to sit here in a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows and proclaim that the era of the comic-book movie is coming to an end. That’s not happening anytime soon (and anyway I threw that jacket away). It might be accurate to say instead that superhero cinema has reached a decadent plateau, a long-term steady state of self-nourishing bigness and reverberant meaninglessness. Whedon moves on from the Marvel empire not as its Augustus or its Spartacus, but more like one of the later, non-terrible Christian emperors who won some battles, made some reforms and convinced everybody that the glory of Rome would endure forever. Was it worth doing? That depends on what you think of Rome.
Quantum computing could make complex calculations trivial—but it’s currently fraught with problems. Now, though, IBM has solved one of the biggest, allowing it to detect the internal errors that could otherwise render quantum calculation useless.
One of the many problems exhibited by the breed of future computers is that they exist in the delicate and fuzzy quantum world, using not bits but qubits—quantum bits. Each of these qubits can represent a 0, a 1, or—crucially—both, providing the ability to dramatically bump up computation speeds. When both exist at the same time on the quibit, they are related by what physicists call a phase relationship.
But in real quantum computers, errors can occur when a qubit holds both states: they can flip to being just a regular 0 or 1 (known as a bit flip), or the phase relationship can change sign (known as a phase flip). While there are already techniques in existence that can detect both errors, so far it’s been impossible to detect them both at the same time. That’s not much use, because you needed to be able to detect all errors for a quantum computer to work reliably. But researchers at IBM have cracked the problem. PhysOrg explains how:
The IBM Research team used a variety of techniques to measure the states of two independent syndrome (measurement) qubits. Each reveals one aspect of the quantum information stored on two other qubits (called code, or data qubits). Specifically, one syndrome qubit revealed whether a bit-flip error occurred to either of the code qubits, while the other syndrome qubit revealed whether a phase-flip error occurred. Determining the joint quantum information in the code qubits is an essential step for quantum error correction because directly measuring the code qubits destroys the information contained within them.
It’s a seemingly simple solution to what’s been a huge problem in the quantum community. IBM reckons it should be enough to introduce this kind error detection in the larger arrays of qubits that researchers hope to create in the future. We sure hope so. [Nature Communications via PhysOrg]
Image by Service for IBM
Updated on April 30, 2015
As protests formed in a handful of major American cities on Wednesday night, a leaked police document offered a new and controversial theory as to what might have happened to Freddie Gray, the black Baltimore man who died in police custody last week.
What the Document Says
The document, obtained by The Washington Post, features the alleged testimony of an anonymous prisoner, who rode in the police transit van with Gray for the final five minutes of his half-hour ride. According to the document, the prisoner said Gray “was intentionally trying to injure himself” by “banging against the walls.”
As David Graham noted last week, the circumstances of Gray’s death are unknown and mysterious; he died in police custody a week after he sustaining a spinal cord injury, either during his arrest or during his ride in the police van, after which he was found unconscious. While the police document offers a possible glimpse into what might have happened, it also raises more questions than it answers.
What the Document Doesn’t Say
- The identity of the prisoner, which was intentionally left out of the police document as a condition for its release.
- The identity of the officer who took the statement from the prisoner.
- Whether there is any additional evidence that would corroborate this account.
- Why Gray would have intentionally tried to injure himself after being arrested for a minor crime.
- The name of the officer who leaked the report, and why he chose to do so.
Jayne Miller, a reporter for WBAL-TV, disputed the prisoner’s claims on Twitter. She argues that Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts told her the second prisoner in the police van said Gray had been “mostly quiet” during the ride and there had been “no evidence” of Gray banging his head against the van.
“We disagree with any implication that Freddie Gray severed his own spinal cord,” added Jason Downs, a lawyer for the Gray family. Downs also contended that previous police reports suggesting that Gray had been arrested “without force or incident” were questionable.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Baltimore Police Department announced that the results of the investigation into Gray’s death would not be made public.
On Thursday, police officials announced that the department had concluded its investigation and would relay its conclusions to prosecutors. As The New York Times reported, one new development centers around the discovery of a fourth, previously unknown stop made by the police van carrying Gray following his arrest.
“We discovered this new stop based on our thorough and comprehensive and ongoing review of all C.C.T.V. cameras and privately owned cameras,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. “In fact, this new stop was discovered from a privately owned camera.”
Since the police department’s findings will not be made public, it’s unclear whether any details or context will ultimately accompany this disclosure. The state’s attorney office is now set to incorporate the police report into its own investigation, the details of which may not be released for some time.
Demonstrators Gather in Baltimore and Beyond
Following Monday evening’s chaos and Tuesday evening’s relative calm, crowds in several American cities took to the streets to protest Freddie Gray’s death. In Baltimore, gang leaders and religious and civic leaders reportedly joined together to protest. While over a dozen people were arrested in mostly peaceful protests on Wednesday night, roughly half of the 200 people arrested in Baltimore earlier in the week were released without charges.
Last year, NASA’s advanced propulsion research wing made headlines by announcing the successful test of a physics-defying electromagnetic drive, or EM drive. Now, this futuristic engine, which could in theory propel objects to near-relativistic speeds, has been shown to work inside a space-like vacuum.
Illustration: “Dreamscape IV,” by jamajurabaev, via Deviantart
COMSOL Magnetic Field Surface Distribution (NASA Eagleworks).
The EM drive is controversial in that it appears to violate conventional physics and the law of conservation of momentum; the engine, invented by British scientist Roger Sawyer, converts electric power to thrust without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves within a closed container. So, with no expulsion of propellant, there’s nothing to balance the change in the spacecraft’s momentum during acceleration. Hence the skepticism. But as stated by NASA Eagleworks scientist Harold White:
[T]he EM Drive’s thrust was due to the Quantum Vacuum (the quantum state with the lowest possible energy) behaving like propellant ions behave in a MagnetoHydroDynamics drive (a method electrifying propellant and then directing it with magnetic fields to push a spacecraft in the opposite direction) for spacecraft propulsion.
The trouble with this theory, however, is that it might not work in a closed vacuum. After last year’s tests of the engine, which weren’t performed in a vacuum, skeptics argued that the measured thrust was attributable to environmental conditions external to the drive, such as natural thermal convection currents arising from microwave heating.
The recent experiment, however, addressed this concern head-on, while also demonstrating the engine’s potential to work in space. (Image: NASA Eagleworks.)
The NASASpaceflight.com group has given consideration to whether the experimental measurements of thrust force were the result of an artifact. Despite considerable effort within the NASASpaceflight.com forum to dismiss the reported thrust as an artifact, the EM Drive results have yet to be falsified.
After consistent reports of thrust measurements from EM Drive experiments in the US, UK, and China – at thrust levels several thousand times in excess of a photon rocket, and now under hard vacuum conditions – the question of where the thrust is coming from deserves serious inquiry.
Serious inquiry, indeed. It’s crucial now that these tests be analyzed, replicated, and confirmed elsewhere. A peer-review and formal paper would also seem to be in order lest we get too carried away with these results. But wow. Just wow.
It’s still early days, but the implications are mind-boggling to say the least. A full-fledged EM drive could be used on everything from satellites working in low Earth orbit, to missions to the Moon, Mars, and the outer solar system.
EM drives could also be used on multi-generation spaceships for interstellar travel. A journey to Alpha Centauri, which is “just” 4.3 light-years away, suddenly wouldn’t be so daunting. An EM drive working under a constant one milli-g acceleration would propel a ship to about 9.4% the speed of light, resulting in a total travel time of 92 years. But that’s without the need for deceleration; should we wish to make a stop at Alpha Centauri, we’d have to add another 38 years to the trip. Not a big deal by any extent of the imagination.
Much more at NASASpaceFlight.com.
At age 21, I was handed control of a million-dollar company with more than 250 employees when I was named editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, the independent student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The only reason I ever came to the University of North Carolina was to work for this newspaper. On my first visit to campus, I could see it was brave and compelling. It reflected every journalistic ideal I aspired to one day possess.
Being the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel this year was an incredible learning experience.
My editorial team was a powerhouse. We investigated tax fraud. We published a front-page editorial demanding change from the NCAA. We helped our community cope with the loss of the legendary basketball coach Dean Smith. And we kept up with national news outlets to cover the shooting death of three Muslim students in our tiny North Carolina town.
The sad thing is that, for many of my peers reading this article, it will probably be the first time they learn about some of our progress this year.
In some ways, it’s humbling to realize that the newspaper I spend so many hours working on isn’t really beloved by my peers in the same way.
That’s because we don’t read news the way our parents did. We never will.
This year didn’t teach me that. Professors have been squawking that at me for many years now.
I’ve long been told that print is an expensive product to love. Publishers and editors must figure out a profitable way to get their news into readers’ heads.
What this year taught me is the intricacies of this problem.
My peers are interested in reading news, but they have no loyalties whatsoever about where it comes from. You can be the greatest columnist in the world, but it will be tough to garner a strong following from millennials.
Even some of my closest friends refused to pick up the newspaper I spent dozens of hours on each week. They’d rather get the day’s news from many different sources by scrolling through their Twitter feed.
Second, millennials want reporters to clearly state why a story matters to them. This is the selfish side of millennials we hear so much about. But it’s a good idea for reporters to understand to keep readers engaged longer.
Local news is not dead. Rather, there’s a demand for hyper local news in real time, which is why Facebook pages like Overheard at UNC are incredibly popular. They’re a home for citizen journalists to curate and present content.
Finally, there is not a strong appreciation for opinion writing. My peers would rather be given the information and formulate an opinion on their own. They turn to their peers for help, not the local opinion editor.
As a caveat to that, the news industry’s efforts to keep opinion separate in the newsroom and in print is completely lost on readers close to my age. They don’t care if you have a special font that you only use for editorials. They can’t tell the difference. They don’t care if opinion is on the front page. That’s not how they organize the news in their mind.
But there are many questions we still don’t have answers to.
In my time at UNC, my classmates and I didn’t come to a conclusion on the importance of accuracy. In our class discussions, people said they value it but then they also seemed to prioritize speed of delivery over everything else. And those two values aren’t always in sync.
It’s when journalists are tripping over each other to get a story out that everyone makes mistakes. And I’m not sure we fully unpacked that.
I never did learn what triggers an international news cycle.
The tragedy of the Chapel Hill shooting was complex. But I don’t know if the overwhelming response to it came from the fact that three Muslim students in Chapel Hill were killed or from the fact that local media weren’t calling the killings a hate crime.
That distinction matters.
I still don’t know where this country will go with privacy. We put so much of ourselves out there on social media and I do worry that my peers don’t guard their personal details carefully enough.
And the big one. After many classes with some of the journalism school’s best minds, my classmates and I still couldn’t figure out a definitive way to make news profitable.
But the journalism school sure did send me away with a lot of ideas for how to get there.
We unpacked so much and we were given the tools and the knowledge to tackle many other issues facing the journalism industry.
It was really a privilege to get to speak with some of the brightest minds from our field for a few hours each week.
Going forward, I know I’ll never have a job quite like this one. What makes college newspapers great is the fact that they aren’t run by journalists. They are run by students who love journalism.
Instead, I will work in a place that has all the snarkiness and wit of a great newsroom that is struggling to understand how to turn a profit in a world where everyone believes information should be free.
It’s kind of scary to think that I’ve spent the last year training for a job I’ll never have. But this is the first time I haven’t felt terrified about that.
I feel empowered.
In 1994, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer finally got what was coming to him when fellow inmate Christopher Scarver beat him to death in a prison bathroom. And which of Dahmer’s many crimes finally pushed Scarver over the edge? Being too damn good at pranks.
From the New York Post:
Christopher Scarver — who fatally beat the serial killer and another inmate in 1994 — said he grew to despise Dahmer because he would fashion severed limbs out of prison food to taunt the other inmates.
He’d drizzle on packets of ketchup as blood.
It was very unnerving.
“He would put them in places where people would be,” Scarver, 45, recalled in a low, gravelly voice.
Of course, the jokes get a little dark when you consider the fact that Dahmer murdered, molested, and (in some cases) ate 17 human, non-prison-food men between 1978 and 1991. But then again—if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?
Apparently, Dahmer’s prison-mates and guards couldn’t handle his (actually pretty funny!) jokes. Scarver believes the guards, who were fully aware of how much he hated the serial jokester, intentionally left him alone with Dahmer.
At which point, unable to resist the opportunity, Dahmer pulled the ol’ “poke a dangerous criminal in the back and pretend it wasn’t you” routine. “I turned around, and [Dahmer] and [fellow inmate] Jesse [Anderson] were kind of laughing under their breath,” Scarver told the Post. “I looked right into their eyes, and I couldn’t tell which had done it.
Scarver then proceeded to beat Dahmer to death with a five-pound metal bar.
Oh how he suffered for his comedy
Image via AP.
Contact the author at [email protected].
Vin Diesel is a witch hunter. Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones) is a witch. Michael Caine is a priest. Together, they fight crime! Wait, no. That’s wrong. They fight evil witches!
This movie looks amazing and ridiculous and I think I’ll have to marry it. It tells the story of an immortal witch hunter — Diesel, naturally — who teams up with a powerful witch to stop a gathering of New York City covens hellbent on unleashing a deadly plague on the world.
Contact the author at [email protected].