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If you thought that the whole point of science fiction was to transport you into a world of the improbable, the impossible, and the utterly fantastical – think again. NASA has stepped into the debate about what makes good science fiction, and the answer is: good science.

The best science fiction takes us to the very edge of what is currently known and currently possible, it draws out the unforseen implications of this present knowledge, it stretches the boundaries and speculates about where we might be in a year or a millennium, but it doesn’t throw aside reason and create a world of nonsense or sheer fantasy. To put it another way, good science fiction is prophetic, it helps us see where we might be going – scientifically, technologically, even morally and politically. And it helps us see where we might not want to go.

How has NASA got involved? By joining with the Science & Entertainment exchange to compile a list of the best and worst science fiction movies of all time. Wenn.com writes:

NASA scientists have named John Cusack’s blockbuster 2012 as the most “absurd” sci-fi film of all time.

Experts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Science and Entertainment Exchange have put together a list of the least plausible science fiction movies ever made, and the big budget 2009 picture came top.

The film, which depicted Earth besieged by natural disasters, featured ahead of two more ‘end-of-the-world’ movies – 2003’s The Core and 1998’s Armageddon.

Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, says of 2012, “It’s absurd. The film-makers took advantage of public worries about the so-called end of the world as apparently predicted by the Mayans of Central America, whose calendar ends on December 21, 2012.

“The agency is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.”

Staff at the organization also compiled a list of the top 10 most realistic sci-fi films, with 1997’s Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman as space agency workers, winning the highest praise from the scientists. NASA experts also named dinosaur movie Jurassic Park and Jodie Foster’s Contact among the most realistic sci-fi films.

I’d agree with this. Part of the fascination with these three films is the idea that this could really happen, this could really be round the corner. Gattaca: a genetic underclass is created in the near future and denied certain rights and privileges. Jurassic Park: fossilised DNA is used to recreate the dinosaurs. Contact: we listen for signs of intelligent life beyond our solar system, and one day we finally hear something [but ignore the crazy mystical ending].

Here are the two lists.

The worst sci-fi movies of all time:

1. 2012 (2009

2. The Core (2003)

3. Armageddon (1998)

4. Volcano (1997)

5. Chain Reaction (1996)

6. The 6th Day (2000)

7. What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)

The most realistic sci-fi movies of all time:

1. Gattaca (1997)

2. Contact (1997)

3. Metropolis (1927)

4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

5. Woman in the Moon (1929)

6. The Thing from Another World (1951)

7. Jurassic Park (1993)

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There is a boom in documentary film-making. It’s not just because of the availability of cheap technology. It’s connected with a new way of seeking truth.

Hussain Currimbhoy is curator of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Britain’s premier showcase for new documentaries from around the world. He speaks to Sean O’Hagan.

There is definitely a new energy out there. We are living in a moment when film-makers, and young film-makers in particular, are increasingly turning towards documentary as a way to make sense of the world they live in. They are more alert about, and suspicious of, the mainstream media and eager for a form that talks to them about real events in a real way, even if that form is often rough or even low-key. It’s a very exciting and ground-breaking time for the documentary.

British director Lucy Walker shares the enthusiasm.

I really do think we are living in a golden age of documentary film-making. There is a frustration with traditional media and a hunger for documentaries that have the stamp of integrity. The week it opened, my film [Waste Land] was number one at the box office in terms of what they call ‘per-screen average attendance’. Of all the movies playing in America, a Portuguese-language documentary about the lives of people living on a garbage dump in South America had the highest per-screen average across America. That tells me that people are looking for bigger truths about the way we live now, truths they are not getting from Hollywood or the traditional media.

Walker thinks people are looking for bigger truths. But it may also be that they are looking for smaller truths – as film-maker Adam Curtis explains:

There is a sense that the grand narratives are gone and that people are now living in an age of uncertainty, and documentary increasingly reflects that. Traditionally, documentaries were part of a progressive tradition, a progressive machine. They provoked us or inspired us to do something. I would contend that, when politicians turned into managers, that system did not work any more and even big budget, well-meaning, measured documentaries, like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, leave us perplexed and helpless rather than angry and politically energised. At the other extreme, you have films like Catfish that noodle about with the intimacy of feelings. Here, people know the grammar of feelings, they know how to act on camera and how to emote formally, while real feelings, which are of course messy and complicated, are hidden.

O’Hagan finishes the article by quoting director Kevin MacDonald.

 “But documentary is a generous basket that can hold a lot of different things. If you think about it, journalism, letter-writing, memoir, satire – they all qualify as non-fiction, so why can’t the same loose rules apply to documentary?”

To this end, MacDonald is currently working on the first feature-length documentary made entirely of user-generated content shot in a single day and then uploaded on to YouTube. Called Life In A Day, the impressionistic film is currently being edited down by MacDonald from 5,000 hours of footage from 190 countries. It will premiere as a three-hour documentary at next year’s Sundance festival.

“It’s amateur film-making on a grand scale,” says MacDonald. “But, because the participants are often showing such incredibly intimate things that you could not get in a traditional documentary unless you spent months filming, it is also ground-breaking in ways that we did not expect.”

In the end, says MacDonald, it all comes down to great storytelling. “The irony is that, when I make a documentary, I always feel like I am taking all this real material and trying to tell a story almost as if it was a fictional narrative. When I make a fictional film, I do the opposite.”

Documentary, as MacDonald reminds us, is essentially structured reality. “The only real breaking point,” he adds, “is when documentary actually becomes fiction, but more often than not, as many great documentaries testify, real life does often turn out to be a hell of a lot stranger than anything you could make up.”

That is perhaps the reason why its boundaries are currently being stretched – to keep up with the increasing unreality of the real world.

I’m dying to see this Life in a Day. The idea reminds me of what was perhaps the best ‘exhibit’ at the Millennium Dome – a huge collage of photographs of ordinary life in Britain, pieced together to make it look like one single image, hung around the curving walls of one of the main rooms. I haven’t seen any reproductions of it since. Do let me know if you can remember what it was called or whether it still hangs somewhere.

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I might as well post the second half of the sermon, which has its own distinctive theme: the need for all those working in the media to witness to the truth, however difficult that may be.

But there is a broader truth to the Decem Rationes controversy. It’s not just that Christians should use the media to witness to Christian truth, it’s that the very purpose of the communications media is to witness to truth. Not just Christian truth, any truth, the truth of whatever is at hand. You might dismiss this as a romantic fantasy. I’m like Toby Young in his book ‘How to lose friends and alienate people’. He crossed the Atlantic in search of these heroic New York newspapermen, whose only concern was to speak truth to power. He ended up working on the gossip column at Vanity Fair. 

It’s easy to be cynical. But my impression of people in the media is that they are still full of idealism. It’s just that the ideals get suffocated by other influences. There are the long-term pressures that you might call ‘cultural’ or ‘political’: to turn the news media into an arm of the entertainment industry; to manipulate the media for political or commercial ends, etc. But for you as individuals working in the media the challenges are probably more short term and personal: worries about contracts, budgets, deadlines; editorial pressures from above; tensions between colleagues; worrying about the present project or the future career; the pressure to dumb down, to oversimplify, to sensationalise.

The pressure to frame the story in a way that betrays its essential meaning, or to follow a story you know is trivial just because others are following it. All of this makes it difficult on a day-to-day basis to hold on to the ideals that brought you here in the first place. Difficult even to keep to the most basic principle in media ethics: to tell the truth.

It’s the same for the church, especially for her leaders and representatives. We are called to witness to the truth. Not just the truth of Christian faith, but also the truth of the present situation – including our failures and mistakes. Nothing can be gained from hiding the truth. It’s only a love of truth, even of difficult truths, that will save us, and will help others to trust us.

So what can we do? Well, here are two thoughts from the Scriptures. First, let’s keep our integrity. It doesn’t mean we will avoid every compromise, or live up to every one of our ideals. But at the very least let us not go against our conscience in the workplace, and let us make sure that we don’t cross that fundamental ethical line of speaking or writing what is not true. St Stephen was killed simply because he told others what he had seen: ‘I see the Son of Man Standing at the Right Hand of God’. He was killed for telling the truth. We may not seek martyrdom, but we can still seek the truth in the highly pressured circumstances of our work.

Second, let’s preserve our Christian faith. St Stephen only managed to endure this ordeal because he was filled with the Holy Spirit and because his gaze was fixed on Heaven. I don’t mean that you should fall on your knees and gaze into the heavens whenever you have a tense moment in the newsroom. But you need to be rooted in something deeper than the immediate demands being made on you each day. You need to be rooted in your faith. This involves the simplest of decisions: to practice your faith, to pray each day, to speak about your Christian faith with others — if the moment arises: that you are a Christian, that you are a Catholic, that it matters to you. These aren’t obligations or burdens, they are the foundations that make it possible for you to stay steady during all the madness of the working week. They are the same foundations that gave St Edmund Campion the passion he needed to print his illicit text, and the courage to endure his martyrdom.

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Radio - 92/365 by morberg.

This is so funny I had to post it:

On Good Friday 1930, the journalists on BBC radio news did not know what to put in the evening bulletin. The country was on holiday. The world economy appeared to be recovering after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Few guessed that the revival was a suckers’ rally that heralded a global depression. Europe was quiet — Adolf Hitler was still an obscure opposition politician — and although Britain ruled a great empire, nothing much seemed to be happening there either.

Stumped by a slow news day, the BBC delivered the most honest broadcast in the history of journalism. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight,” proclaimed the announcer. “So here is some music.”

There is a serious point to Nick Cohen’s article “Curmudgeons of the world unite“. He is writing about how news stories today have to be reported with the same intensity – whatever the subject. The ‘frame’, quite literally, is always the same (my image not his): the border of the newspaper, the edge of the TV set, the casing of the computer screen. So that every piece is flattened or heightened to the same level, given the same spotlight. [Too many metaphors…]

Deceit in the modern Radio 4 — and in the rest of the media — does not always lie in journalists’ biases. The pretence that there is always news worth reporting can be equally deceptive. Whatever has happened — or rather, whatever has not happened — the Today programme must always run for three hours, the news pages of the press must always be filled and, like Old Man River, the rolling news channels must keep on rolling along.

The result is media without discrimination in which a parochial argument about the allocation of resources in the NHS on one day is put on a par with the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Haiti the next.

Broadcasters deliver every lead story at the same tempo and pitch. However bold they are, you will never hear John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman admit, “We’re leading with this piece because we haven’t got anything better to air. On normal days, we would never have bothered you with such a trivial item.

He goes on to sing the praises of Radio 5 Live for being the only station that is ‘suicidally candid’ enough to tell you that the matter in hand (usually a football game) is abysmally boring and not actually worth listening to. He encourages even those who hate football to tune in so that they can savour this experience of journalism in its purest form.

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A new generation of lie detectors is being developed (see Prospect, Oct 09, Lie Detection by Ian Leslie, p66). Remember the scene in Meet the Parents when Robert De Niro wires up his future son-in-law in the basement and interrogates him. This was the old-fashioned polygraph, which works by monitoring stress levels – blood pressure, heart-rate, etc.

wewilltestyourlies by sugarfreak.

The new models work by scanning the brain. When we tell a lie, even if we keep the stress levels down, an extra burst of mental energy is required. This energy is released in the areas of the brain responsible for reasoning and self-control. So if the scanner suddenly spots us thinking hard and carefully as we answer a progression of simple yes or no questions, then we are probably lying.

It could be bunkum. Many neuroscientists question its effectiveness. And a woman in India who was convicted of murder on the basis of evidence from such a lie detection test had her case overturned because there was no material evidence connecting her to the crime.

Supreme Two by YaniG.Why is the thought of an infallible lie detector so unsettling? It’s not because we are all inveterate liars terrified of being exposed. It’s because it makes us appreciate that the truth of another person is not just something that can be ripped out of them and put on display for all to see. Knowledge, when it has to do with another human being, can’t be separated from a relationship.

In ordinary friendships, it is the journey of coming to know someone that is more important than the actual knowledge we come to possess. As I heard in a recent film, the words ‘I’ve never told anyone that before’ are even more important than what was actually told. 

We let someone in gradually. We choose how much to share, and when to share it; and this depends on how much we trust someone, and how much they trust us, and how far along the road we have come together. It’s not that anyone has a right to lie. But we do all have a right to disclose ourselves gradually, on our own terms. Discretion and reticence are the background virtues that allow intimacy and friendship to have any meaning.

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