Personal website of Brian Cham — Software developer, media/software student and freelance designer.

Advertisements
Meta

Review of Interstellar

Film reviews

This review of Interstellar (2014) comes “only” one and a half years after my previous review. You can tell that I don’t have a set schedule for these.

My background

Considering all the intense feelings around Christopher Nolan that often rear their enraged heads through online amateur reviews, I must profess where I stand from the outset. I am neither a “fanboy” nor a “hater” of the Nolan brand. I prefer his work up to and including The Prestige, but not much of his work afterwards, so any overall attachment balances out. I don’t feel as if I have something to prove when watching or discussing his films.

That said, I am a science fiction fan (“fan” with a lowercase “f” if you know what I mean; don’t expect me at the next Comic-Con) so I thought this might make for interesting viewing. Lately I did some layman reading on cosmology for an unrelated project, so either I knew enough to grasp the scientific concepts in the film or I was delusional enough to believe so.

Thoughts

Not impressed.

We start off with a dry, dusty, dismal, dying future where the protagonist (played by a perpetually bored Matthew McConaughey)  struggles to keep up harvests on his family farm. We are shown (i.e. beaten on the head by) suggestions that a “ghost” is pushing books off his daughter’s bookshelf. At that point I hoped that the climax would not involve the typical sci-fi transcendence of space and time, with the protagonist becoming this “ghost” and using his new-found cosmic powers to push some books around. But more on this later.

From that point the film reveals two of its biggest flaws – bad pacing and bad characters. The family spends a long time going through exposition, bonding, baseball, education issues and hacking an Indian drone but never build much of a substantial relationship in the viewer’s mind. It just serves to repeatedly hammer in the superficial point that the protagonist is an all-American family man who loves his daughter, but not much else.

After a very long time we finally get to something related to space and the premise when the protagonist stumbles upon a top secret NASA base. The scientists all unquestioningly conclude that his finding of the base must constitute advice from magical gravity beings (what a scientific deduction) and hire him as a space pilot for a world-saving mission almost on-the-spot. Yet even after launch, the film still drags on to a degree I haven’t seen since The Lord of the Rings trilogy. What follows is more plodding filler scenes in orbit, near Saturn, in a lab and so on. Due to the effects of relativity, each hour passing on a watery planet they encounter is the same as seven years passing on Earth; due to the effects of slow pacing, each hour watching this movie certainly felt like seven years too. And this is coming from someone who could tolerate the pacing of Solaris!

At some point on the water planet a crew member dies, but I don’t remember his name, appearance or role since they were all interchangeable humans. At no point did I care about these bland, personality-deprived non-characters. This extended to the maudlin moments where the protagonist would mope over his daughter or vice versa, which just felt like shoehorned emotion without any real heart or connection. Instead of experiencing the stakes of aging, absence or the fate of the human species, I just wished for the plot to get somewhere.

The gravity of the mission never really weighs in on the audience (excuse the puns) as the characters always find ways to subsume it with their personal concerns. The protagonist never shuts up about his family and never fails to base his mission decisions on their fate only. Okay, we get it, you care about your family. Can we move on now? The primary plan of Anne Hathaway’s character turns out to be chasing THE POWER OF LOVE™. A stranded scientist played by Matt Damon jeopardises the mission and attempts to murder the protagonist to find a way off the planet. This may be intentional but it’s hard to hold any hope for humanity when these expeditions seem to be staffed by the least professional personnel available.

Near the end, the protagonist decides that he must hurl himself and a robot into the nearest black hole and send the recorded data back to Earth. He is convinced that this will work even though they establish that nothing can escape a black hole and their craft has had no success in communicating back. If the plan succeeds, the protagonist’s daughter can save humanity by using the data to reconcile General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Apparently Loop Quantum Gravity doesn’t already do that (did the science advisor believe LQG to be less plausible than five-dimensional bulk gravity ghosts?). Besides, if one end of a wormhole is a black hole, shouldn’t they have this data already?

So he executes this plan and we get the non-twist that he becomes the “ghost” from the beginning of the film, which should surprise nobody. Well, who else would it be? The daughter herself? (which was my backup prediction). Using THE POWER OF LOVE™ which transcends space and time (groan), he sends the data back to his daughter and she saves humanity. There’s an epilogue with a cheap reunion but it just fills up time.

Lest anyone think that I hate this film through and through, it does have its good moments. Even if the opening scenes dragged on for too long, they worked well to establish a dreary world where human civilisation is stagnating painfully rather than the usual sci-fi apocalypse which happens in an instant. The CGI sequences of the wormhole travel and tesseract were gorgeous and unique with interesting visual concepts like light distortion and higher dimensions. Unlike many others I found the soundtrack to be rousing and powerful rather than needlessly bombastic. It’s a shame that none of it accompanied scenes with emotion of equal intensity.

What would I do?

Hypothetically, if I could change anything about Interstellar, what would it be?

As I’m sure anyone can infer by now, my biggest problem with the movie is the pacing. There is not enough content to last for 169 minutes; cutting down to a typical runtime of 90-120 minutes would suffice. The beginning spent too long lingering on Earth introducing the setting and characters without setting up the premise. I would have majorly restructured the film so it immediately starts out in space (like Sunshine) and builds up the characters and backstory through regular, well-timed flashbacks (like Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours or LOST). These would cover all of the crew members, not just the protagonist, who would have their own distinct personalities, motivations, roles and backgrounds (more than just “I miss my father” and “I am a family man”). This would give context to their behaviour and interactions in the “present”. We should care more about these characters, who they are and whether they succeed.

At the start of the third act, the cutaways would stop going to the past and start showing the time period when the children have grown up. Until this point the messages from Earth don’t get through, so we don’t get pointless teary moments until the relationships have been properly built up for the audience.

The missions should be more coherent and less improvised. There is a proper briefing. Nobody is hired on-the-spot. The previous exploration through the wormhole used orbital and aerial robots like in Alien Planet. Who is trying to find what, where, and report it back to whom, before what deadline? Stick to one thing. Cut out the time-wasting scenario with Matt Damon’s scientist.

The general concept behind the tesseract climax is fine, though it is executed as a predictable deus ex machina. Don’t bring in ghosts, gravity messages and trans-dimensional wormhole benefactors at the beginning. That sort of mystery is on-the-nose and the audience expects it to be explained eventually, negating any potential surprise. A good plot twist should be completely unexpected. I would make any climactic time travel explain events that the audience never realised needed an explanation, but make sense in hindsight.

The time travelling actions should be more interesting than pushing books and sending data. Maybe the protagonist interacts directly with the future, or interacts with the past of a hitherto unrelated character, or something of the sort. Maybe the actions of the protagonist directly lead to human civilisation transcending space-time, so the tesseract construction concept doesn’t just come out of nowhere. It also needs to feel justified thematically. The rest of the film had a strong emphasis on physics concepts and mentioned relativity a lot, which jars with the sudden revelation of infinite cosmic bookshelves inside a survivable black hole. Starting with the same fantasy tone would make the film consistent and make the climax more palatable.

The epilogue is unnecessary. The protagonist already reunited with his daughter  through all the time travel ghost stuff, which was cathartic enough. His actions have more meaning if they culminate in an ultimate sacrifice, so he should die in the black hole’s singularity.

Some other minor changes I would have made:

  • Show alien landscapes that actually look alien, not just the ocean and Iceland.
  • Cut out the Disney-esque, New Age, hippie nonsense about THE POWER OF LOVE™.
  • Stop repeating that poem so many damn times.
  • Make the robot less annoying.

Final verdict

Pretty sights and a booming soundtrack can’t make up for dull pacing, flat characters, a predictable plot and contrived cheese.

4.5/10

The 7 most popular New Zealand flag proposals

Flag proposals

Note: This post lists the flag designs that are most popular with the general public. For my own judgement on the best proposals, see this post.

When I was thinking of designs for the New Zealand flag competition, I was curious about the preferences of the wider public. No doubt others are too. Unfortunately, polls had a limited selection of designs to begin with, and while the government gallery had social media sharing and suggestions for every submitted flag, there was no way to sort the gallery to show the most popular.

So I made a quick Java script to scrape all entries in the website and identify the most popular flags. This is measured in number of times each design was independently suggested. Ten was the minimum number to get on this list.

Keep in mind that popularity does not equal quality, nor is it a final indicator of public preferences. It is affected by many factors like age, status and prior exposure of the design. This list is simply for interest of the data itself.

Flags are listed in ascending order of popularity. Each one lists the three main points of the respondents.

7. Silver Fern Flag – Kyle Lockwood’s ‘New Zealand Colours’

Silver Fern Flag – Kyle Lockwood’s 'New Zealand Colours' Designed by: Kyle Lockwood

Silver Fern Flag – Kyle Lockwood’s ‘New Zealand Colours’. Designed by: Kyle Lockwood.

Suggestions: 13

  • Similar to current flag
  • Black and white are national colours. Silver fern is national symbol. These are already recognised worldwide and have historical significance.
  • Māori represented by black

Binational Merger flag

Flag proposals

Here’s my first New Zealand flag proposal that I am re-uploading because it was by far my most popular design proposal based on the feedback of 120 people*. I personally don’t like it much anymore though. The name is especially stupid. In 2014 I submitted it to the government gallery for consideration but it got rejected because of intellectual property shenanigans**.

The flag

Binational Merger

The explanation

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci. This design is a simple and clean combination of the Māori colours (top left half) and British/current colours (bottom right half), acknowledging and uniting the two main founding cultures of the nation. The colours in common overlap in the middle to form a bar reminiscent of the Union Jack’s bars. Finally, in the black field is a striking Southern Cross, giving the design a single focus and establishing continuity with the current flag. SVG file available on request.

The construction sheet

Construction sheet of the Binational Merger flag

* That either says something about the quality of this flag design or of my other proposals :O

** Having previously entered it into the public domain, I no longer have the rights to the design, therefore I cannot transfer said rights to the crown. Not to mention I can’t prove that I was the one who created it.

Top 50 New Zealand flag proposals

Flag proposals

Note: This post features my own judgement on the best flag designs. For the proposals that are most popular with the general public, see this post.

Now that the New Zealand government has closed submissions for a new flag, I decided to go through and pick out the best. That’s right, I looked through all 10,293 of them. Don’t worry, it only took me 48 minutes to evaluate (about 0.28 seconds per flag; thank god for learning scanning techniques).

It probably helped that the whole gallery was a beautiful testament to Sturgeon’s Law (in this case more like 99% though), Poe’s Law and the futility of crowdsourcing design, making it easy to mentally filter out the crud and parodies. You wouldn’t believe the Nazi, apartheid, North Korea, IsraelPRC, Imperial Germany, Quebec (of all places), meme and My Little Pony based parodies that got through their filters. Seriously, the name “Moswald Osley” didn’t ring any alarms? Well done to the Lautaro joke for subtlety and this thing for sheer insanity though. All in all, an experience I would not recommend.

Anyway, here are the best I picked out, emulating the judges’ process of picking an initial list of 50-75 best designs. There were a lot of duplicates and near-duplicates so it’s hard to know exactly how to count and credit them (I’m sure I’ve missed a few credits, sorry!), but it should be around 50 some way or another.

The only restriction was that I didn’t include my own designs. Naturally enough I do like them, but including them would be a little biased! Oh, and I also automatically discarded anything too similar to another national flag, no matter how well designed or New Zealand-y it was. I hope the judging panel can do that, but since it has no vexillologists (flag experts) I don’t have a lot of faith.

This list is in no particular order.

Red, White and Blue Fern Flag

Flag proposals

After publishing my New Zealand flag proposal concepts in 2014, this one topped the poll by a large margin so consider it my main proposal. I have now named it the “Red, White and Blue Fern Flag”.

Update: It has been submitted into the government’s flag gallery. Share if you like it!

The flag

Figure 1. Red, White and Blue Fern Flag. Full SVG and PDF vector files available on request.

Figure 1. Red, White and Blue Fern Flag. Vector files available on request. Credit for fern design goes to Dave Clark.

[ABERIL FOOLS] Zandbergen’s Deceit: A Complete and Holistic Explanation of the Voynich Manuscript

Voynich Manuscript

Disclaimer

This article was my April Fools joke for 2015, kept here for personal history and amusement. No, I don’t believe that René Zandbergen forged the Voynich Manuscript. And don’t worry, I’m still sane!

Introduction

In 2008 I became interested in the Voynich Manuscript and have been reading about it ever since. Over time I read many theories and went through different theories of my own, but one thing always got in the way – it just didn’t make sense. Like the mythical hydra, solving one issue would just raise more. Basically: the more you know, the more you don’t know. How could we possibly explain this artifact where no theory covers everything and the facts can contradict? Every now and again I felt a nagging gut feeling that something just didn’t add up. Something is just fundamentally wrong about the situation that I can’t put my finger on. It’s something that everyone here is thinking but nobody wants to say. We aren’t just on the wrong track, we are in completely the wrong field.

Eventually I gave in to these intuitions and started afresh with a blank slate. I cleared away all speculation, binned my previous work, disregarded the big names and ignored any assumptions and preconceptions that were holding me back. It was time for the bare facts, and the facts only. I built these basic truths into a new explanation without trying to prove any theory, trying to gratify myself, or considering what theories were popular. The result surprised and disappointed me. But the truth is the truth, it just is what it is, and it doesn’t change to comfort anyone. If you can’t face opposing viewpoints and prefer to hide within your own comfortable theories, I warn you not to read further.

I tried so hard and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter. In short: The Voynich Manuscript is a modern forgery by René Zandbergen.

Minerva mysteries

Voynich Manuscript

Recently on the Voynich Manuscript mailing list there has been a kerfuffle over a supposed Athanasius Kircher booklet find in Minerva Auctions’ catalogue. You can find the details summarised here in Ellie Velinska’s blog (don’t worry, the April Fools’ joke at the bottom is on her part, not Minerva’s). I’ll continue with what I’ve dug up.

Who are Minerva Auctions?

Minerva Auctions is a real auction company with real location, events (where people have the catalogues on hand) and items; you can see photographs of these. So it is not just a website like eBay stores (don’t trust those!). Their turnover in 2012 was 4.6 million Euros.

They were founded in 2006 as Bloomsbury Auctions Italia, a branch of Bloomsbury Auctions. They were acquired by Dreweatts in 2011, but as part of an agreement they remained Bloomsbury Auctions Italia until 2012 when they were rebranded as Minerva Auctions. Their location and staff have remained constant throughout.

Minerva Auctions has featured in numerous articles in independent sources (more links, more links, more links, more links, more links, more links, more links, more links, more links, more links, more links, and at least 30 more about l’Infinito by Leopardi). None contain any complaints or controversy.

Their auctioned items have included works by Andy Warhol, Orlando Itello Griselli, Carlo Collodi, Andrea Doria (16th century, letter sold for 15,000), Benozzo Gozzoli (1452 letter, sold for €18,750), Mario Giacomelli, Pietro Donzelli, Elio Luxardo, Eda Urbani, Ghitta Carrell, Teddy Killer (what a name), Aloha Oe (the street artist), Omino71, Mr. Klevra, Biodpi, Zuk Club, Giacomo Balla, Giulio D’Anna, Renato Bertelli, Alighiero Boetti, Renato Guttuso, Franco Angeli (the artist), Mario Schifano, Merino Mazzacurati, Piero Dorazio (sold for €118,750), Mimmo Rotella (sold for €25,000), Robert Indiana (sold for 10,625), Giacomo Leopardi (independently verified), a previously undiscovered painting by Luigi Rossi (the Swiss painter; it sold for 10,625), Tazo Secchiaroli, Berengo Gardin, William Klein, Carlo Mollino, Giovanni Boccaccio (1555 century book edition,  sold for 13,750), 17th century Jesuits (sold for €27,500), Carmelo Bene (sold for €6,250), Giacomo Durazzo/Prince Albert of Saxony (sold for €25,000), Giuliano de Medici (sold for €10,250), Giorgio de Chirico (sold for €112,500), Capogrossi (sold for €20,000), Carla Accardi (sold for €15,000), Luca Giordano (17th century painting), Renato Mambor, Joseph Hooks (the sculptor), Alfro Basaldella, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Renzo Vespignani and Massino Campigliall without controversy. They claim to check items before accepting them, with international-level specialists with experience in Christies and Bloomsbury.

Their customers are many, well versed in the items they procure, from around the world, and have included the mayor of Montefalco. However at no point could I find an article, review, blog post or social media post with any dissatisfaction or allegations of fraud. Nor could I find any evidence of legal troubles. Their one online review as Bloomsbury Auctions Italia has 1 out of 5 stars but the text itself has nothing negative.

You can see their (presumably) TV ads below:

The Kircher booklet

I’ll just briefly summarise some of the following discussion here to keep you up to date. Hypotheses fall into these categories:

  • Digital forgery. No item exists.
  • Item exists as modern forgery.
  • Item exists as historical forgery.
  • Item exists as historically genuine booklet.

Forgery could be a scam, PR stunt or prank, and it could be on the part of the seller or Minerva Auctions. Some details of the image are suspicious (diagram made by Rich SantaColoma who was the first to suspect a digital forgery with evidence) but those points could have been attributed to bad digital resizing and restoration of a genuine image (David Jackson). Some say the Latin is incorrect (“Cronolandensem” for example), the printing is sloppy and the year 1669 is far too late as the printer Hermann Scheus was no longer active for Kircher (or even in general, note how his last known work was in 1653) and Marci was already dead. Also as they admit, the booklet does not feature in any Kircher bibliographies, libraries or museums. The previous owners mentioned could not be found in ancestry records. The description sounds suspicious with enticing mentions that Kircher was onto something, and possibly PR related to a book.

So far there are only two mentions of the booklet (in the auction itself and an article from 2nd June 2013), and only one image. No other publicity or marketing could be found.

Update: That article now displays an “updated at” date of 11th January 2015, just after our discussion. Odd.

(side note: I wonder what would happen if someone tried to bid for something at the auction if it really only existed as a digital image in their catalogue? Sounds like an excellent way to get convicted of fraud and/or false advertising, and I’m sure they know it)

The other Kircher booklet

Out of five Kircher items at the auction, three books sold and two booklets did not. I will mention the other unsold booklet, Arcanorum Theatro, because it has interesting similarities to the main booklet in question.

Frontispiece of Arcanorum Theatro. Click on image for full size.

Frontispiece of Arcanorum Theatro. Click on image for full size.

Translation of description (using Google Translate, sorry, I don’t know Italian):

339. Kircher, Athanasius – Of Lodovico Locatelli once again impressed on some observations of mysterious Theatro in Venice recently proposed by Athanasius Kircher Rome, from the printing of Louis Grignani, 1670. In 8th. 30 pp. Frieze chalcographic the frontispiece, title page in red and black, three incisions in the text, light gora the first paper and small wormholes to the back plate of the binding, missing the final white, Full parchment coeval, with the back piece to the title in gold. Bookplates chalcographic Pauline Elson Bright (Boston).

3500 – € 4500

Lot not sold

The first edition of the Handbook of alchemical Locatelli was engraved in 1644 by Giovanni Pietro Ramellati. In this rare dissertation Kircher, not present in any bibliography consulted and absent from the rich funds of alchemical-hermetic Joost R. Ritman Library” in Amsterdam, the British Library and the Bodleian Library, the Jesuit takes but strangely examined only the second edition of the Handbook of Locatelli, printed in Venice in 1667 by Paolo Baglioni.

It’s also very short (only 30 pages), could not be found in any libraries, and the previous owner doesn’t seem to appear in ancestry records. The similarity in style and image is uncanny. It even has exactly the same flaws/artifacts in the full digital image (here’s the link to Rich’s analysis of the original booklet again), and more.

Photoshop guidelines previously embedded in the image file, showing up as soon as I opened it for the first time.

Photoshop guidelines previously embedded in the image file, showing up as soon as I opened it for the first time.

When I opened the original image in Photoshop, to my surprise it already had guideline metadata embedded in the file. You can see them above; they align with the top and bottom of two of the text lines. (actually I was more surprised that JPG files could store that, but that’s beyond the point 😉 )

Text suddenly going blurry in Arcanorum Theatro.

Text suddenly going blurry in Arcanorum Theatro.

The text suddenly goes blurry at the end of the word “Arcanorum”, why?

Upper left corner of Arcanorum Theatro with cut-off area indicated. Click on image for full size.

Upper left corner of Arcanorum Theatro with cut-off area indicated. Click on image for full size.

Zooming into the upper left corner, there is a weird rectangular area where the dots just cut off.

How the clone stamp was used in the corner of Arcanorum Theatro.

How the clone stamp was used in the corner of Arcanorum Theatro.

Viewing it at medium size makes the situation clear. The cut-off boundary aligns with the very upper-left corner. The shape of the stain was simply duplicated, and both copies overlap with each other. Appears to be a bad application of Photoshop’s clone stamp tool.

Identical bush emblem in Ars Magna Sciendi (left) and Arcanorum Theatro (right).

Identical bush emblem in Ars Magna Sciendi (left) and Arcanorum Theatro (right).

Lastly, the bush emblem is perfectly identical to that in Ars Magna Sciendi, which is known to be real, and possibly La Chine Illustrée, if that indicates anything.

Well if it’s a scam or PR stunt, it has a decidedly unsexy description. If it’s a joke, it’s not very funny. Whatever’s going on, I think it’s related to the main booklet in question. I talked to Ellie about this and we compared the two booklets.

Both Kircher booklets compared

With all of that in mind, looking at both unsold Kircher booklets together reveals a very strong connection.

Stains in the Kircher booklet with shapes outlined in red. Click on image for full size.

Stains in the Kircher booklet with shapes outlined in red. Click on image for full size.

It turns out that all of the stains in the booklets are the same shape, just resized and rotated. You may point out that the one on the left in Arconarum Theatro doesn’t fit, but looking closer, we can see why.

Close up of stain in left of Arcanorum Theatro with shape (red) and cut-off boundaries (green) indicated.

Close up of stain in left of Arcanorum Theatro with shape (red) and cut-off boundaries (green) indicated.

There are more boundaries where the dots cut off too cleanly. When they are traced out, we can see that the “stain” was originally in the same shape as the others, but parts were erased.

Comparison of the footers of the Kircher booklets. Click on image for full size.

Comparison of the footers of the Kircher booklets. Click on image for full size.

Looking at the footers together, we can see that the horizontal lines (including the supposed printing flaws) are identical, only resized a bit. “ROMAE” and “SVPERIORVM PERMISSV” also look suspiciously similar.

Comparison of the backgrounds of the Kircher booklets, with one flipped upside down. Click on image for full size.

Comparison of the backgrounds of the Kircher booklets, with one flipped upside down. Click on image for full size.

Last but not least, putting the booklets side-by-side makes it abundantly clear that the “paper” of both are exactly the same background image, but one was turned upside-down! Now you cannot unsee it! The only difference is that it has a light blue tinge on the right in Arcanorum Theatro.

Conclusion

From my investigation and discussions, I think I can safely conclude that both booklets have always been modern digital forgeries. Yet I have also found that Minerva Auctions has a clean record. So who is behind it?

The most likely scenario, according to David Jackson and I, is that the forgers produced physical items from their digital files and attempted to sell it through Minerva Auctions. The forgers submitted the original files (not knowing the JPG would retain the Photoshop guidelines) instead of taking photos of the items. Minerva Auctions got suspicious after consulting the experts and libraries, figured out the fraud and blacklisted the seller. However by then the items were already printed in the catalogues so they couldn’t just purge it from their records. So now they just say “this item was already sold, stop asking about it anymore please” to cover that they accepted and nearly sold forged items.

However, the scenario does suppose a bizarre (and perhaps implausible) lack of competence on the part of both the forgers and the evaluators of Minerva Auctions. Also if Minerva Auctions discovered the fraud, it would have been far easier to just delete it from their website and say “sorry, the seller changed their mind and withdrew this item” at the auction. It is just a hypothesis so take it with a grain of salt and please don’t bother anyone about it!

(of course, if Minerva Auctions was telling the truth that they sold the booklet about the Voynich Manuscript, that means they actually have sold forged items…)

UPDATE (April 2015): Ellie says “After being confronted by several experts Minerva Auctions admitted that they themselves created the two ‘possible’ Kircher editions. They explained that there is a long tradition of ghost editions in the auction catalog and the two entrees are in line with this tradition.”

Well that certainly backfired!