Category Archives: Art

At the End of the World

As the seas rose and the deserts grew, the wealthiest families and the most necessary crops moved poleward, seeking survivable summers and fertile soils. I traveled to the coast and slowly made my way towards the Equator; as a genetics engineer I was well-employed, if not one of the super-rich, but keeping our old ecosystems alive was difficult enough if you had hope, and I had lost mine a couple of degrees Celsius along the way.

I saw her one afternoon. I was staying in a cramped rentroom in a semi-flooded city that could have been anywhere. The same always nearly-collapsed infrastructure, the indistinguishable semi-flooded slums, the worldwide dull resentment and fear of everything coming from the sky: the ubiquitous flocks of drones, the frequent hurricanes, the merciless summer sun.

She seemed older than I'd have expected, her skin pale and parched, her once-black hair the color of sand. But she had an assurance that hadn't been there half a lifetime ago when we had been colleagues and roommates, and less, and more. Before we had had to choose between hope for a future together and hope for a future for the world, and had chosen... No, not wrong. But I had stopped believing we could turn the too-literal tide, and, for reasons I had suspected but not inquired, she had lost or quit her job years ago. So here we were, at the overcrowded, ever-retreating ruinous limes of our world. I was wandering, and she was riding a battery bike out of the city. I followed her on my own.

I don't know why I didn't call to her, why I followed her, or if I even wanted to catch up. But when I turned a bend on the road she was waiting for me, patient and smiling, still on her bike.

"Follow me," she said, going off the road.

I did, all the way through the barren over-exploited land, the situation dreamlike but no more than everything else.

She led me to a group of oddly-looking tents, and then by foot towards one that I took to be hers. We sat on the ground, and under the light of a biolamp I saw her close and gasped.

Not in disgust. Not despite the pseudoscales on her skin, or her shrouded eyes. It wasn't beauty, but it was beautiful work, and I knew enough to suspect that the changes wouldn't stop at what I saw.

"You adapted yourself to the hot band," I said.

She smiled. "Not just me. I've been doing itinerant retroviral work all over the hot band. You wouldn't believe the demand, or how those communities thrive once health issues are minimized. I've developed gut mods for digesting whatever grows there now, better heat and cold resistance, some degree of internal osmosis to drink seawater. And they have capable people spreading and tweaking the work. They call it submitting to the world."

"This is not what we wanted to do."

"No," she said, "but it works." She paused, as if waiting for me to argue. I didn't, so she went on. "Every year it works a little better for them, for us, and a little worse for you all."

I shook my head. "And next decade? Half a century from now? You know the feedback loops aren't stopping, and we only pretend carbon storage will reach enough scale to work. This work is phenomenal, but it's only an stopgap."

"It's only an stopgap if we stop." She stood up and moved a curtain I had thought a tent wall. Behind it I saw a crib, the standard climate-controlled used by everybody who could afford them.

Inside the crib there was a baby girl. Her skin was covered in true scales, with tridimensional structures that looked like multi-layer thermal insulation. Her respiration was slow and easy, and her eyes, blinking sleepily, catlike, like those of a creature breed to avoid and don't miss the sun. I was listening with half an ear to the long list of other changes, but my eyes were fixed on the crib's controls.

They were keeping her environment artificially hot and dry. The baby smile was too innocent to be mocking, but I wasn't.

"And a century after next century?" I said, not really asking.

"Who knows what they'll become?" I wasn't looking at her, but her voice was filled with hope.

I closed my eyes and thought of the beautiful forests and farms of the temperate areas, where my best efforts only amounted to increasingly hopeless life support. I wasn't sure how I felt about the future looking at me from the crib, but it was one.

"Tell me more."


Another movie space: Iron Man 3 and Stoker

Here's a redo of my previous analysis of a movie space based on The Aliens and the Unbearable Lightness of Being based on the logical itemset mining algorithm. I used the same technique, but this time leveraging the MovieTweetings data set maintained by Simon Dooms.

Stoker and Iron Man 3

This movie space is sparser than the previous one, as the data set is smaller, but the examples seem to make sense (although I do wonder about where the algorithm puts About Time).

The Aliens/The Unbearable Lightness of Being classification space of movies

Still playing with the Group Lens movies data set, I implemented a couple of ideas from Shailesh Kumar, one of the Google researchers that came up with the logical itemset mining algorithm. That improved the clustering of movies quite a bit, and gave me the idea to "choose a basis," so to speak, and project these clusters into a more familiar Euclidean representation (although networks and clusters are fast becoming part of our culture's vernacular, interestingly).

This is what I did: I chose two movies from the data set, Aliens and The Unbearable Lightness of Being as the "basis vectors" of the "movie space." For every other movie in the data set, I found the shortest path between the movie and each basis vector on the weighted graph in the logical itemset mining algorithm that underlies the final selection of clusters. That gave me a couple of coordinates for each movie (its "distance from Aliens" and "distance from The Unbearable..."). Rounding coordinates to integers and choosing an small sample that covers the space well, here's a selected map of "movie space" (you will want to click on it to see it at full size):


Agreeably enough, this map has a number of features you'd expect from something like this, as well as some interesting (to me) quirks:

  • There is no movie that is close to both basis movies (although if anybody wants to produce The Unbearable Lightness of Chestbursters, I'd love to write that script).
  • The least-The Unbearable... of the similar-to-Aliens movies in this sub-sample is Raiders of the Lost Ark, which makes sense (it's campy, but it's still an adventure movie).
  • Dangerous Liaisons isn't that far from The Unbearable.., but as far away as you can get from Aliens.
  • Wayne's World is way out there.

It's fun to imagine the use of geometrical analogies to use this kind of mapping for practical applications. For example, movie night negotiation between two or more people could be approached as finding the movie vector with the lowest euclidean norm among the available options, where the basis is the set of each person's personal choice or favorite movie, and so on.

Latent mini-clusters of movies

Still playing with logical itemset mining, I downloaded one of the data sets from Group Lens that records movie ratings from MovieLens. The basic idea is the same as with clustering drug side effects: movies that are consistently ranked similarly by users are linked, and clusters in this graph suggest "micro-genres" of homogeneous (from a ratings POV) movies.

Here are a few of the clusters I got, practically with no fine-tuning of parameters:

  • Parts II and III of the Godfather trilogy
  • Ben-Hur and Spartacus
  • The first three Indiana Jones movies
  • Dick Tracy, Batman Forever, and Batman Returns.
  • The Devil's Advocate and The Game.
  • The 60's Lolita, the 1997 remake, and 1998's Return to Paradise.
  • The first two Karate Kid movies.
  • Analyze This and Analyze That.
  • The 60's Lord of the Flies, the 1990 remake, and 1998's Apt Pupil

As movie clusters go, these are not particularly controversial; I found it interesting how originals and sequels or remakes seemed to be co-clustered, at least superficially. And thinking about it, clustering Apt Pupil with both Lord of the Flies movies is reasonable...

Media recommendation is by now a relatively mature field, and no single, untuned algorithm is going to be competitive against what's already deployed. However, given the simplicity and computational manageability of basic clustering and recommendation algorithms, I expect they'll become even more ubiquitous over time (pretty much as how autocomplete in input boxes did).