I’m alive again.

Stare at my awesome new PCR machine. And tell me the darn thing isn’t cute. And ignore the carpet from the 70’s it’s sitting on.

It’s been… More than a year since I’ve uploaded anything to this blog. During that time only thing I’ve written long form were occasional tumblr posts dealing with what’s been happening in my life or some dry master plan to rule the universe through the power of science, typical student stuff.

I’ve stopped blogging on this site ever since I started working at Genspace NYC as one of its co-founders and one of the three people who actually did things in the lab instead of talking about biosafety. In retrospect I should have expected to spend a huge chunk of my life helping to plan and run a fully functioning molecular biology lab on shoestring budget, but I never really realized what kind of commitment it would be before it hit me in the face full force. During the heydays of doing projects in the lab I was spending about 12 hours per day running experiments, no weekends, no vacations. And that was while working full-time in other jobs too, since nothing at Genspace paid anything… Well, that’s not strictly true. I did earn enough here and there to get by if I didn’t have to worry about rent and supporting other people, but alas, that’s not the case for me.

Now that I look back at it I feel like I was dreaming for the past three or so years. I dreamt that I was contributing to some pioneering vision, each hour spent while almost blanking out from lack of sleep building toward something greater. Something that might even change the world into a bit more agreeable place. Now, the dream is over. It’s been over for the past half a year, it’s only that I lived in rather characteristically stubborn denial during that time, probably causing some level of annoyance to some of the other Genspacers.

I’ve resigned all my positions at the Genspace NYC lab. I’m not a board member, not an officer, and not a member of the space, though I still have to get all the books and other things I’ve built up in there out. And I think I made the right choice.

Stepping back from Genspace brought me some new perspective, some of which I’m still trying to get used to. Maybe I’ll write about some of the lessons once my head is completely cleared up… I’m still suffering from a bit of a shell shock.  Here’s a short, non-comprehensive list before I forget them later though.

  • DIYbio is not amateur biology
  • Issues of biosafety, a byproduct of initial DIYbio hype being tied to the hype about synthetic biology, completely poisoned good people and good initiatives
  • Despite the biosafety scare no constructive discussion on potential safety and other broader concerns about amateur genetic engineering ever took place. If it did I never heard about it in my three years of genetically engineering e.coli and plants in a warehouse in Brooklyn, some of them involving processes using toxic chemicals -disposed properly, of course
  • Involvement of FBI in reaching out to the DIYbio-amateur genetic engineering community was a double edged sword, in that it helped form a weird perception of hierarchy in some of the people who were in more direct contact with the FBI
  • One of the direct negative results of the biosafety scare and FBI involvement was creation of a group of amateurs whose sole responsibility, in a sense, is to tell other amateurs what to do. Coincidentally those people rarely have any projects under their belt, and are usually not very literate in lab safety practices due to utter lack of experience
  • Considering that no one really listens to above group of people anyway (except maybe reporters, grant organizations and the FBI, none of whom practices garage biohacking, to my knowledge) it’s only served to keep people who had running projects underground due to potential nagging from strangers with no valuable input
  • Despite my comments, I still give high marks to the FBI for deciding not to just tap everybody’s phone. It would have been a waste of their resources, and I view their assessment as very accurate
  • TED conference is the hip rich people’s leadership seminar camp, with some amazing thinkers and respectable individuals thrown in (unlike leadership seminar camps). Still so much better and inclusive than Davos. Perhaps even more effective
  • Maker Faires are what dreams are made of, and more places should have them
  • It’s incredibly easy to put together a minimal molecular biology lab. I just finished putting mine together outside Genspace for about a thousand dollars, including essential reagents. I also helped one of my students put his own together
  • Community lab model doesn’t work as is. Current model assumes new members to be incompetent, in a sense. At least not good enough to work in a ‘real lab.’ And current models drive managers of the community lab to have vested interest in keeping most of the members scientifically illiterate after a certain point, with a few outliers
  • Education should be done by educators. Scientists should provide the materials the educators can work with – reproducibility and clear, comprehensive documentation
  • There are more than a few high schools out there that covers genetic engineering with their students. There are a few that even covers synthetic biology
  • Despite relatively minimal PR, they tend to have worse access to equipment and reagents than most DIYbio/amateur genetic engineering labs, but have better results

I’m definitely missing a whole boatload of important points. I’ll get back to them later when it’s not seven AM with zero sleep last night.

Outside of reflecting on what I’ve been doing for the past three years of my life, I also got a chance to get in touch with and work with lots of interesting people around the city. It turns out that the DIYbio-NYC list I founded couple of years ago was moderator locked after a group vote (that later grew into Genspace) due to potential security issues, and interested people around the city did not have a place to converse about local going-ons with each other. So I just remedied that problem as well.

Here’s a message that went out to people last night:

 

 

Good news, everyone 😉

I’ve just turned off all the moderation settings on the diybio-nyc mailing list, and renamed it biohack-nyc@googlegroups.com 

The list was dead for a while what with everyone needing permission to post on it (which was in place by group decision at the time, what with biosafety scares and all). It was also true that there just weren’t that many people out there who were working on stuff as well. 

Well I’ve been talking to quite a few number of new yorkers out there and things are happening all over the city now. And there has to be a place for people to brainstorm and meet up with each other with a little local flavor. Keeping the list moderated like in the past would have been disservice to the community at large. 

Hopefully this can serve as one of the many springboards available in NYC to help aspiring biohackers learn their trade. 

Spread the word, join up yourself, be excellent to each other and have fun! 

biohack-nyc@googlegroups.com

https://groups.google.com/d/forum/biohack-nyc 

 

 

And yes, I changed the name from DIYBio-NYC to biohack-nyc because

1) as a screw-you to people who are still scared of the term hacker

2)I keep hearing things about the term/group DIYbio that makes me feel like it’s something I can’t agree with.

Hopefully this will begin to attract some brilliant minds that I know are out there to coming out of their genetic engineering closet. And maybe some activity will spur me to write  a whole lot more as a well. God knows I really need to.

edit: before I pass out, I want to go on the record as having said that, despite personal differences, almost everything I know about biology now I learned from Ellen Jorgensen and Oliver Medvedik from Genspace NYC. And I still recommend students and hobbyists go check out the Genspace NYC lab over at 33 Flatbush ave, because, quite frankly, there’s nothing else like it.  

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Genspace Grand Opening

December 10th was the big day. NYC will never be the same. Let me elaborate: after two years of blood, sweat, and labor (only a few tears), we finally announced the birth of Genspace to the world on December 10th. The preparation leading to the big day way typical of the ragtag crew of Genspace: chaotic, intense, lasting way past most people’s bedtime, but mysteriously it worked out in the end.

Everyone showed up: art students, scientists, writers, and long lost faces from two years ago. Turns out two tables filled to the brim with food, wine and beer weren’t quite enough to accommodate the bio-curious (not to confuse our counterpart in SF crowd in the city. It’s almost funny how we worried that no one would turn up.

The entire laboratory was strewn with Christmas lights. A light box illuminated an algae bioreactor in testing at the space. Screens were set up showing videos of microscopic organisms, and on our desktop in the study a live feed of the strawberry tissue  streamed from $12 USB microscope in the lab. Even our neighbor Chris pulled out all the stops, demonstrating his  ‘animal sense’ contraption for people to try out.

We still have ways to go, however. We need to reach out to the population of the city and show them that science is within reach. We need to work ever harder to break the walls surrounding learning and practice of science, and we need to create ever more ingenious, useful, and beautiful things.

The Genspace grand opening isn’t about the past two years, it’s about the future from here on out. Let’s bring back the romance between the sciences and the public.  I am proud to be a founding member of the first community biotech laboratory in NYC.

Who knows, maybe we really will end up changing the world for the better.

Lecture and presentation

Long time no see on the blogosphere. I’ve been busy during the summer with all the usual stuff, mostly learning and working. I’m glad to say that I’ve almost finished the Exploring Complexity: An Introduction book during the summer, and I was even able to get some of the mathematics out of the way. I think I was able to model a pretty neat animation on some of the methods demonstrated in the book, and I’ll try to post it soon.

I’ve also been saving up for going skydiving before the summer’s over… I’ve always dreamed of the skies (my first choice in college education was majoring in aeronautics, never quite made it though), so it’s only natural that I do something that involves full-contact with the air up there. Living on the student budget means that I have to work some extra jobs for that though. Some a bit more crazier than the others.

And of course, there’s always the DIYBio NYC. I’ve been trying to come up with some decent ideas, but everything I can think of at the moment mostly revolves around the kind of project that would require some sort of dedicated labspace. All I can do at the moment is to prepare for that inevitable day when we’ll obtain access to a labspace through independent studies. Some of the things I’ve talked about the members during a recent meeting regarding the state of the group and the processes that are involved in constructing artificial vesicles were very enlightening, and I intend to do a full-length post about that some time in the near future.

On to the main post…

During today’s twitter and identi.ca browsing I happened upon some interesting resources for scientists and potential scientists.

The first one is a collection of links and documents on how to prepare a scientific presentation. I haven’t had the time to read through it yet, but I know some of the posts on the list, and if the rest are like the ones I know, they are definitely worth a read, especially for an aspiring scientist like me. It’s amazing just how many things are involved in preparing a half-way decent presentation, and how most people are just plain terrible at it. I’ve sat through my share of lectures/symposiums/conferences and there’s nothing more painful than a horrible presentation with irrational powerpoint.

The second resource I want to share with you is osgrid. It’s a virtual environment tool like the second life except that it’s opensource. It’s relatively simple to download the environment and run it off your own servers, though it also means that you ‘need’ to run it on your own server for the whole thing to work. I’m really interested in finding out how this environment can be used for scientific research. Perhaps virtual laboratories running off university computer clusters? Open educations tool like a virtual university? A method for scientists to interact with their own 3D datasets in clean and intuitive manner? There are plenty of possibilities out there.

… I can also think of a few ways to utilize some of the stuff for the DIYBio community.

Life during summer and consilience notes

I should definitely to a decent post some time soon, but it seems that I’m in middle of severe drought of ideas and writing abilities. Hopefully this is just a passing phase… Someone should definitely develop a drug against writer’s block I think.

A few things I’ve been working on so far between all the jobs I have to run to pay my rent. I’ve been studying the Exploring Complexity by Gregoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine since the beginning of the summer. Studying as in tearing through every bit of reference mentioned at ends of each chapters and working out all the equations, making up some of my own for practice. The progress has been slower than I would have liked but it’s still coming along nicely. I’m upto  the randomness and complexity chapter where they begin describing Markovian processes and different types of entropy. I’ve been trying to come up with some cool graphics describing some of the stuff in the book using Mathematica but couldn’t really find the time to get around to it, with all the other coding projects on my hand at the moment, but I’ll definitely have something to show for by the end of the summer.

I’ve also been reading up on some bioinformatics literature, beginning with the eponymous ‘For Dummies’ book on the subject which is surprisingly well written, or at least comprehensible (well, considering the title it would be hard to write a book on the subject that is incomprehensible). It’s part of my attempt at coming up with a decent diybio coursework aimed at 14 and above, centering around the kind of projects the laymen would normally find out of reach, like designing a biological circuit and putting it together in a wetlab. With so many computerized tools and advent of abstraction in biological sciences brought on by synthetic biology, I think it is possible to empower the citizenry with end-user scientist toolset. The average computer user don’t code in assembly or the machine language yet many of them are perfectly capable of coming up with useful high-level softwares and beautiful works of art (it still takes effort and mastery but what doesn’t?). In order for the biological sciences to become user-friendly I believe we need a tool to familiarize them with the higher level abstraction in molecular biology and computerized tools associated with it. In my experience the best way to break down an intellectual barrier is to make people do the impossible easily and cheaply. The first step of breaking down the biology barrier would be teaching people how to design genetic circuits using extremely high level abstraction symbols. Theoretically it should be possible to put together a very simple circuit on a napkin using symbols and diagrams using unified ‘visual language‘ of synthetic biology. Once the individual becomes scientifically fluent enough to visualize these molecular circuits within his or her head, and feel a real want for building something in real life, we can easily transfer the design into computerized tools for specification and optimization. After that it would be a simple process of transformation using mail-order kits (or using diy tools if you’re so inclined), which DIYBio NYC have already demonstrated to be easy and straightforward.

By then, maybe I’ll try to pitch my not-so-secret ambition of coming up with diy-minimal/synthetic cell ::evil laugh::

As you might have guessed I’ve also been spending a lot of time reading through E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge again. It’s amazing just how much of the book resonates with me, not necessarily in solutions but in problems he outlines as something fundamental that needs to be resolved if we are to further our understanding of the universe.

-From pg.93
…the U.S. federal high-performance program has upped the goal to a trillion calculations per second by the end of the century. By the year 2020, petacrunchers, capable of reaching a thousand trillion calculations per second, may be possible, although new technologies and programming methods will be needed to reach that level. At this point the brute-force simulation of cell mechanics, tracking every active molecule and its web of interactions, should be attainable- even without the simplifying principles envisioned in complexity theory.

The continuing battle (if there is one) between raw computing power against elegant universal systems like the kind proposed by some of the complexity scientists is interesting. For one thing, would we need raw computing power the world has never seen so far to replicate human-like intelligence? Or can it be done in smaller scale using some aspect of the logical system that gives rise to emergent trait we refer to as intelligence? Classification of life/intelligence as a type of physical system that very closely resembles phase transition due to complexity is an intriguing possibility that will need to be examined in detail… I’m especially interested in intelligence as not something that computes but as something that creates. Why am I sitting here writing down this stuff when the weather outside is so great? Why do people strive to create this stuff and ideas when it’s much easier to sit on their collective asses and eat chips? To some the activity of creating get to the point of destructive obsession. Am I alone in sensing that the society at large tend to be envious of those kind of people?

Curiosity is not a rational trait. It’s crazy and sometimes suicidal, and doesn’t serve any kind of immediate need for survival or propagation. It is the very picture of irrationality. So where does it come from? What aspect of the molecular system that we refer to as living beings gives rise to such weird behavior? And what’s with this crazy unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences? Isn’t it weird how questioning the nature of mind, life, and human behavior so often leads us to the questions on the fundamental nature of the universe itself?

-From pg.93~94
In 1994 editors of Science, celebrating the inauguration of developmental biology by Wilhelm Roux a century earlier, asked one hundred contemporary researchers in the field to identify what they considered the crucial unanswered questions in the discipline. Their responses, in rank order of attributed importance, were:
1.The molecular mechanism of tissue and organ development.
2.The connection between development and genetic information.
3.The steps by which cell become committed to a particular fate.
4.The role of cell-to-cell signaling in tissue development.
5.The self-assembly of tissue patterns in the early embryo.
6.The manner in which nerve cells establish their specific connections to create the nerve cord and brains.
7.The means by which cells choose to divide and to die in the sculpting  of tissues and organs.
8.The steps by which the processes controlling transcription (the transmission of DNA information within the cell) affect the differentiation of tissues and organs.
Remarkably, the biologists considered research on all of these topics to be in a state of rapid advance, with partial successes in at least some of them close at hand.

Above questions were written around 1994 according to the Consilience. It’s been over a decade, so I wonder how many of above questions had been answered definitely and conclusively….

Also, it’s rather interesting that most if not all of above questions are in some way related to study of complexity sciences. It’s almost as if the whole field of complexity science is biology fused with mathematical abstractions.

From Consilience:the Unity of Knowledge

“The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage, and disinterested love of the truth of the most gifted thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel. Their age is one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind.” – Isaiah Berlin

There is a book titled ‘Consilience: the unity of knowledge‘ by E.O.Wilson. Buy it, and read it. It’s worth more than a hundred iPhones, unless the said iPhones have copies of the Consilience on it.

The book had such profound impact on me when I was growing up, I really think I should do a review/post on the book and some of its themes one of these days. It came out years ago yet the prescient insight of E.O. Wilson rings true to this very day in many fields of human endeavor. I had the chance to listen to his talk live in the closing event during the wonderful World Science Festival in NYC, and I should say he still seem to retain that certain edge even after all these years. I guess that’s what we Koreans call No-Ik-Jang for you. If only I wasn’t so shy to ask him for an autograph on my copy of the book. I feel like a kid who lost a winning lottery ticket.

Now that I think about it I should also do a post on the World Science Festival while the memory’s still fresh… So many things to write about, so little time to write them.

DIYbio NYC meeting: Apr. 15th

Okay, here we are, the fourth meeting of the diybio nyc group. As you can see the meeting was on the April 15th, almost a week ago, so I’m a little late in writing this post. The week had been a little crazy (I’ve been saying this a lot lately), so I really didn’t have the time to get around to it… It didn’t help that I had a bunch of class works that were already overdue and I had to spend the whole of Saturday and Sunday with bunch of UN/Google/open-source people related to the openeverything conference/bar-camp, which I will have to write about soon.

The April 15th meeting was a discussion meeting wit no lab session involved. It was held in a restaurant downtown called Veselka, an Eastern European restaurant serving some good pierogi (never had one before). While the food was good, the atmosphere wasn’t the most ideal to have a complex discussion though. It’s more of a family place, with lot of people coming and going, everyone talking at rather loud volume and etc. It was a refreshing change of pace from sometimes pretentious NYC food world… But I’m not really about to write a review on the restaurant am I?

The situation worsened due to the fact that a reporter from the New York Times Magazine was planning to show up. Some people in the group had experience with journalists (one of them is a published journalist actually), so we were afraid that something we say might be used out of context. There’s a lot of scaremongering out there in regards to the possible dangers of diybio, and it’s something we really have to avoid at all costs. And then the new members showed up. Total of three. All of them came from very unusual and interesting backgrounds but the venue and the circumstances weren’t very ideal for personal introduction between the old and the new members, especially owing to the fact that the ambient noise was to such an extent that we could not hear people from across the table. I would have loved to talk to them a bit more but didn’t really get much of a chance in between trying to hear what other people were talking about and trying to get actual work done in regards to the mission statement, identity and direction of the diybio nyc as a whole. One of them came from biotech background and I’ve been keeping in touch with him for a while now, through IM and twitter. The other person came from art background, working with a type of bio-art club/collective called the Grafting Parlour, which is kind of like the SymbioticA, pursuing the techniques of biotechnology for artistic pursuits. The last person to show up was from computer sciences background with interest in film making, who seemed a little surprised that she’s the only one with computer sciences background in the whole diybio nyc group (quite frankly that surprises me as well, considering that the whole concept of biohacking came along with the advent of computer sciences and biology’s increased dependence on variety of computerized techniques). I’m afraid that some of us (including myself) might have seemed a little distant to the new members of the group. I will have to try to remedy that somehow later on. DIYbio is about the spirit of openness in science and it would contradict the implicit founding spirit of the group to make new members feel out of place. I’m especially looking forward to talking more about the activities and purposes of the bio-art movement. I believe the whole concept of bio-art itself is replete with incredible possibilities that only art can dare to explore, though the group would have to find a compromise between ethical and scientific constraints and the spirit of exploratory arts… Even finding that fine line between arts and sciences sounds intriguing to me, to be honest.

The basic agenda of the meeting was on drafting the mission statement, establishing the main short term and long term objectives of the group, and finding a way to realize those goal within realistic budget and time constraints. Whenever we talk about doing some sort of project one problem gets in our way. Any biological project of even moderate complexity requires a dedicated lab space that’s not located within residential address. We might be able to pull it off within private residential setting like those people trying to build a bio-lab within their closet, but it won’t do for any long term experiments or groups, since there are just too many legal hoops and hurdles we’d need to workaround. And the last thing diybio as a whole needs in this age of terror-related scare-mongering is questionable legality and dubious safety measures. A member of our group experienced in operation of biotech laboratories is strongly pushing for strong safety protocols comparable to those applied to commercial labs, and I agree with her point. It might sound a little bothersome right now but it will go a long way toward the group being a fully pledged biological lab space.

The problem in obtaining a real lab-worthy space in the city is that it’s just too expensive. We would need a way to raise some funds, by ourselves or with cooperation with other educational institutions in the area like one of our members suggested. We can do a lot of those things if we decide to keep things hush hush and work under the table, but again the risks are just too great. In the nightmare scenario what we do wrong might effect the diybio movement as a whole, pushing the public opinion toward opposition. It’s the group’s implicit agreement that we can’t take that kind of risk at this very crucial time. Compared to finding the space, obtaining real lab equipment is a child’s play, and we’ve already made a lot of progress in that area thanks to one of our member’s generous input.

We need to find a path that would work toward to solving the space issue, and at the moment that happens to be working toward obtaining a legal status for the diybio nyc. It’s our collective belief that having an actual legal identity will help us toward raising funds, cooperating with existing lab spaces, and establishing supply relations with bio-companies we would need to contact in order to get perishable experiment resources. The ideal legal status for a group like diybio nyc would be a registered non-profit, whose tax-exempt status would afford the group with some negotiable leverage when it comes to financial negotiation and support. Drafting mission statement and by-laws for the group would be first step in establishing legal and ideological identity of the group.

All this sounds like a lot of financial and legal talks for a group supposedly dedicated to bringing science to the open. Experiments cost money and requires space, so it can’t really be helped for the moment. At least we do have an actual wet-lab session coming up this Tuesday. It’ll be an experiment to introduce GFP plasmid vector into K12 E.Coli chassis (the E.Coli chassis in this case is completely harmless to human beings. You can actually drink it and it’ll pose no threat to you. It’s a special, non-toxic strain of the E.Coli we all know and fear, that’s been used in laboratories for about a century, as well as variety of high school biology classes). It’ll be a first experiment that would actually allow us to observe and experience the process of introducing plasmid into a bacterial chassis with visible results, so saying that I’m excited about the prospect would be an understatement.

There’s been a lot of trials and tribulations for the group, and I’m sure that there will be more to come. But we are going somewhere with this, and it’s really good to see so many people interested in learning more about the techniques and science of biology outside the traditional medium.

Synbio interview

Spent most of the day outside today. It was a good chance for me to browse through the textbook ‘biotechnology for beginner’. I did most of reading in the quiet of the central library, though I did spend the early morning relaxing with some coffee in the Bryant park (before going off to a lecture for a while). Actually relaxing is not an accurate description of what I was doing. I was sending off emails and calling people left and right trying to arrange interviews for the diybio nyc peeps. I’ve never done anything like that before so things were getting a little chaotic, with last minute announcements and schedule changes. Mistakes and misunderstandings were plenty, and I was beginning to think that I was making some horrible decisions on the spot.

Well I was able to get one of the members onto an interview with the reporter (who I mistakenly thought was a man, and working for a school newspaper. She was neither), and arranged another one for myself in the evening. The whole process involved a whole plethora of trials and tribulations that happened due to my characteristic over thinking preparation and careless execution. After the whole planning and calling stuff I met up with a friend and had some much needed lunch at the cafe Zaiya, which was overcrowded as usual.

The interview is done for the day and I’m in a bookstore trying to cool off my nerves with some adventures of the Feynman kind. My portion of the interview was interesting. The reporter lady was quite friendly, and was patient with my answers that sometimes turned into something of a rambling (I knew I should have taken that public speaking elective in high school). During the course of the interview I had to frequently ask her to repeat her questions though. For some reason my ears were picking up a whole torrent of background noises… Either I was nervous or I really need to get my ears checked out.

We spoke about the reason for my interest in diybio, along with the difficulties involved in getting a group working together. The topics moved onto interest in science itself, and I gave some lazy answers on that one. I feel very passionate on the issue of the nature and utility of the sciences in general but I couldn’t find a way to put it in short eloquent statements… Not to mention that I felt disclosing such intense emotions would have been rather embarrassing…

All in all, this had been my first experience in arranging interviews for a group (or arranging anything for a group for that matter). I keep on feeling that I should have been better prepared, but I guess beating myself over it won’t change anything. Time to give the Feynman book a little pause and arrange yet another interview for the valued member of our group. Just hope this one turns out to be better than mine.

Coraline

I feel a little guilty about posting on Coraline when there are dozens of science write-ups sitting in the draft corner of the webpage, but I think I might as well place emphasis on the recent event. Of course, it also helps that I’m a hopeless fan of works by Neil Gaiman.

I saw the Coraline at the Ziegfeld last night, a late night sojourn that ended with me coming back home around 2:30 in the morning. The film was marvelous, and I’d suggest anyone who was on the fence to go ahead and give it a try. It’s very much like the Nightmare Before Christmas, basically dolls captured scene-byscene composed into a whole film. The film Coraline is based on the novel Coraline written by Neil Gaiman, though there were few differences that anyone who read the book should be able to pick out. You would be relieved to know that unlike most other Hollywood book-to-film adaptations, I got the feeling that certain elements of the story were edited in order to best fit the medium rather than some insane rating criteria, and on the whole it works very well. Neil Gaiman always had that fantastic flare to his writing that weren’t quite fantasy yet fantastic enough to be unreal, very much like how Stephen King had a knack for turning the usual into unreality and explored the changes in human psyche within the metamorphosis of the world (personally I consider Neil Gaiman to be a much better writer than the Stephen King, if only in terms of the ingenuity of the imagination t work behind both writers’ works). Coraline definitely has all the trappings of a fairy tale. A little girl lost in the woods, the haunted house, mysterious old woman, evil stepmother, and the circus of jumping mice. The film as a whole feels as if it was a modern juxtaposition of all the elements of the conventional fairytale throughout history, a mish-mash of all the archetypes that we all knew and loved regardless of the individual cultural background (which would also mean that the film will not appeal to you if you don’t have the taste for the fantastic, but if that’s the case what are you doing in the Coraline theater in the first place? Go watch ‘he’s just not that into you’ or something, not that there’s anything wrong with the movie). And surprisingly enough, it works well. For the duration of an hour and a half (was it longer or shorter? I lost my sense of time during the film, I still can’t figure out just how much time I spent in the theater) I was lost in the fantastic yet familiar world of the Coraline, sympathizing with the cute-as-a-button main character and being awed at the visual tour-de-force of all the dolls being lighted up and blooming into living breathing beings.

Now, you should take Coraline for what it is. If you are looking for the kind of ‘seriousness’ present in the indie film like the Pi you will not find it here. There won’t be any philosophical discourses and debates on the divinity or the holy moment in crafting film (as it was in the case of the Waking Life, another indie film which I suggest anyone with even a remote interest in movies to find and watch immediately, it might be a life-changing experience… It was for me, and despite all the heavy philosophical discourses in the film I’d say that it was also another form of fairytale distilled to the modern tastes). What you will find, however, is a very honest treatment of a little girl living and sometimes getting lost in a world where good and horrible things can happen when you open a wrong door (or should it be the correct door? Since if she couldn’t find it the story would never have taken place) in an old house. The film Coraline never tries to be what it isn’t. It’s just good at being what it is, and what it was intended to be. And shouldn’t that be mark of a good film?

The version of Coraline I saw was formatted to be watched using a 3D glass, the kind you frequently see in the IMAX theaters with all the whales swimming around and weasels poking their nose into you face. Anyone with decent theater going experience should know what the whole deal is about. On the whole Coraline works well with the given medium. If you are looking for some sort of thrilling experience with hands and eyes popping into your face you are rather unlikely to find it, but if you are looking for a beautiful 2D experience with some added flavor the current version will do. I must add that the 3D versions of the film Coraline will not be in the theaters for the duration of its run, and whatever the theater that carries Coraline will revert back to normal 3D glass-less film in a week or two I think. I especially loved the garden scene in the movie. The 3D flowers lighting up and blooming into full shapes were very beautiful to watch and brought a smile to my face… A little side note on the matter of 3D glasses. Despite the message at the beginning of the film telling you to return the 3D glasses after the film, I think the Ziegfeld theater in Manhattan (about the only place that runs Coraline right now, oddly enough considering the hundreds of theaters in the city) actually gives you the glasses as a souvenir, which I found out only after returning the glasses and walked out of the theater.

Another thing to watch out for after the film. If you are patient enough to sit through to the very end of the credits, the film will display a very special message. It’s a password. You can enter that password into the Coraline movie website to enter into a random drawing of special hand-stitched Coraline sneakers, and they even have adult-male sizes! (so it’s not just for kids) I don’t think I should tell you what the message is, but if you can’t find the password page on the Coraline website (I spent close to ten minutes clicking on everything), the nice rock given by the ladies Ms. Forcible and Ms. Spink will help immensely in finally figuring out where to enter that password (which I promptly entered at around 3 am). Will I be able to win the shoes? I have my fingers crossed. I’m definitely in need of some new pair of shoes (though it’s very unlikely that I’d actually wear the Coraline shoes even should I win it).

Fairytale always fascinated me. Fairytales are what we end up with when the gods and heroes pass away with their myths, the fantasy of everyday lives. Unlike what some people seem to think, fairytales are rarely if ever childish, unless the the creators of the fairytales actively try to sanitize it. The one word to describe the essence of fairytale would be ‘shadow.’ Exploration of the hidden motif beneath everyday events, an act that is inevitable as long as the humanity is capable of conscious thought and emotional response.

Fairytales are ever present within the very fabric of human society, because the essences of fairytales are far beyond the simple archetypes of old witches in forests, locked doors and scary things roaming in the dark. Fairytale is the last resting place of any idea that once lived in the light, that’s been aged and killed with the passage of time and lapse of civilizations. That aspect of fairytale as a graveyard of once widely held beliefs that had been relegated to the flow of time is most obvious in cultures that had been more or less taken over by the so called ‘western ideas’ in relatively recent years after the demise of their indigenous culture. Japanese and Mexican fairytales and the like are the most coted examples, but we needn’t even go that far in search of exotic locations. We can simply look beneath the stories of cross-studded stories of kings and knights in Europe to find the most unexpected beliefs sustaining their meager life as fairytales in minds of the populace.

Once that grace and grandeur of the original myths had been stripped away with time, the old stories remain with us in its cold and naked forms since nothing holds them upon distant pedestals anymore. It descends to our level and stares into our eyes, whispering things into our ears that we have been so far away to hear in the past. When myths become fairytales they be come feral. When myths speak of the giant monsters in the dark it speaks of the pantheons of gods and individual tidbits and family affairs of the whole clan complete with intrigues and jealousies. When the same myth becomes a fairytale it only speaks of the huge thing standing in the dark, it has no name, and it has no family. At that moment we realize that while we were busy counting the number of fights the gods went through in their shining armors during their heydays, the thing in the dark had been staring at us all along, silent and waiting. The moment of that realization is the moment that we realize the true depth and value of fairytales, and that is the moment we begin to understand ourselves as not just animals born a few decades ago, but human beings with thousands of years of history behind us, with hearts too deep to fathom.

The Sky Crawlers screening

Just got back from nyc Sky Crawler’s screening. I’m a little burned out, so let me just jot down a couple of points for further recollection tomorrow.

1)The screening opened with a recorded message from the venerable Mamoru Oshii himself. He said that the movie was about people who stopped/refused to grow up, and drew a parallel between the immortal pilots and the mindset of the current generation. Despite being spoken in Japanese, his words felt well thought out and serene. He obviously gave a lot of thought into this.

2)The basset hound, the major Kusanagi look-alike, gothic architecture in part of the film, strange machinery possibly playing music, lot of thoughtful dialog, and reference to the Albert Camu’s the stranger. This film has Mamoru Oshii written all over it, and that’s a good thing.

3)Everybody smokes a cigarette. Seriously, I think I saw someone lighting up practically every five minutes (the film was two hours long). It’s definitely intentional, but to what end? I think I know what Mamoru Oshii wanted to say, but won’t write it here since there’s a spoiler.

4)Lot of daring here folks. Remember that the main characters are immortal teenagers that must be killed through violence. These teenagers don’t shy away from adult situations, and Mamoru Oshii might have done some intentional dare to the censorship system. I like the realism, but some people might have issues with it. Of course, nothing perverted here. Nothing we wouldn’t expect teens in kill-or-be-killed situations to do.

5)The movie was two hours long, and in typical Mamoru Oshii style there’s a lot of philosophizing dialog, blank stares, and silent scenes. Amazingly though, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. And the characters, despite not saying very much, felt very alive and understandable through their facial expressions and motion. This movie isn’t boring. If someone does find this boring, they will probably find anything that has thoughtful dialog to be boring.

6)This is a movie adaptation of a novel and it shows. Time to time I needed to glean a lot of information from a simple scene or two, the kind of things the novel might have spent a chapter describing. I think the overall transitions were done masterfully, but it is noticeable.

7)The musical score is done by Kenji Kawai (who also did the Ghost in the Shell soundtrack), and it’s beautiful. I know I’m hunting down an ost for this one.

Will I get a DVD once this comes out? Yes. Definitely. Do I expect this movie to make full theater circuit in America? Unfortunately, that’s very unlikely considering the subject matter. As stupid as the censorship is, it’s not going away anytime soon, and this film has a few things that might make your normal High School Musical lovers feel uneasy (not that there’s anything wrong with liking High School Musical).

I think I had a couple of other points I wanted to make, but my brain is all mushy right now. Gotta go to sleep for tomorrow’s lab session.