It's easy to fall in love with Her, Computerworld, and MIT

20-Jan-14 7:30 PM by
Filed under Films; Comments Off on It's easy to fall in love with Her, Computerworld, and MIT

This month marks two one-year anniversaries. January 12 was my departure from Computerworld, the magazine and website where I'd been an editor for six years; January 22 commemorates my arrival at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I now work on the MIT Medical marketing team. I was concerned that leaving the publishing field would diminish my value as, and opportunities to be, a journalist. Much to my pleasant surprise, the opposite has proven true, with resources and collaborations now possible that weren't a year ago.

When Monica Castillo of the Cinema Fix podcast recommended I see the movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, I sensed the opportunity for a story. Monica had previously gotten me into a press screening of Jobs, which I turned into a review for Computerworld. With Her's focus on a lonely bachelor's romantic relationship with a Siri-like mobile operating system, this film also seemed up the alley of Computerworld's readers. I sold my pitch to their news editor.

Here's the thing about writing film reviews for Computerworld: it's a publication that covers IT, not cinema. For the article to be a good fit, it would have to connect to the IT angle somehow. Past methods of doing so wouldn't work. For my first Computerworld movie reviews — The Bourne Ultimatum, Live Free or Die Hard, Iron Man, and Iron Man 2 — I paired with a security expert and analyzed that aspect of the movie's tech. But Computerworld didn't feel I needed a co-writer for Her. Jobs had plenty of historical fact to assess, but Her was a fictional, futuristic work. My editor suggested that "It would be great if we could set the context around the melding of technology and day to day life as opposed to just a straight out 'this was a good/bad movie'." I wanted to do more than that — but what do I know about artificial intelligence?

Fortunately, whatever technical knowledge I lack, MIT has in spades. Right in my own academic backyard is CSAIL, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. I reached out to the MIT News Office, and Abby Abazorius connected me with principal research scientist Boris Katz. On short notice, Katz made himself available to discuss the basics of artificial intelligence and consciousness and how they compared with the capabilities of Samantha in Her. Even though Katz had not seen the film, my line of questions based on my own viewing opened him right up. After just 45 minutes of conversation, I had ample material to transcribe.

The resulting article, "It's easy to fall in love with Her", was published on January 11 — a year to the Friday that I left Computerworld for MIT. I found it a fitting manifestation of the ways in which I can continue to be a contributing member of the Computerworld community, even more so now that I have access to everything MIT has to offer. Who knows what other stories lie about MIT, waiting to be unearthed?

WarGames: Still Alive

04-Oct-08 10:53 AM by
Filed under Reviews; Comments Off on WarGames: Still Alive

There is sometimes little difference between "sequel" and "remake". Teen Wolf 2 and Evil Dead 2 are examples of films with plots that changed little from the original, regardless of differences in context or quality. Such movies often suggest a disrespectful grab for more money based on an unexpected hit; rarely do these sequels offer anything new to please fans who want more, but not more of the same.

After watching the trailer for WarGames 2, I figured this straight-to-DVD sequel to be another such retread. For the most part, I was right: after playing an online game, a high school student is mistakenly targeted by the government as a security risk, overlooking the computer that aims to kill millions. Oh, sure, some of the details have been changed. RIPLEY (the sequel's version of the 1983 artificial intelligence Joshua) does not seem mistaken about reality vs. fantasy; "she" (as her developers constantly refer to her) seems to be doing exactly what she was programmed to. She also has access to, and control of, almost any electronic resource, including from security cameras and traffic lights to unmanned planes and orbiting satellites, and will use them for what she deems the betterment of mankind. In these regards, she is more akin to Forbin's Colossus than the malicious Skynet or malfunctioning HAL. Little else of interest plays itself out in the first hour, which follows the WarGames formula with little originality or innovation.

Shall we play a game?: RIPLEY's suite of games is eerily familiar, with one notable addition.

Shall we play a game?: RIPLEY's suite of games is amusingly familiar, with one notable addition.

It's only in the last third of the film that the superficial references to the 25-year-old predecessor that The Dead Code finally reveals itself as a full-blown homage to the Eighties. This is not WarGames: The Next Generation — no actors appear in both films, and no one is revealed to be David Lightman Jr. What we end up with is a celebration of history that will make retrocomputing hobbyists jump for joy. It's like watching the first three seasons of Enterprise only to see the show remember its roots and pay tribute to its legacy in the fourth season. I actually found myself cheering for Dead Code protagonists, suggesting an emotional involvement that's rarely evoked by big-budget Hollywood films. I was almost sorry to see it end.

WarGames 2 has some consistent failings: for example, it should be grateful this review is not part of the "Security Goes to the Movies" series, as artistic license resulted in plenty of silly technological foibles. At least the actors, young and old, do their best with a corny script. All that said, the best reason to see this movie is if you're a fan of the Matthew Broderick original. In the game of trying to best that unbeatable cult hit, The Dead Code finds its groove in conceding: the only winning move is not to play.