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Playing Where Monsters Dwell – A Guillermo Del Toro Profile

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“You’re going from being a moron, to being a genius, to being a moron back again.”

Surviving in the hostile enviroment of the movie industry isn’t something people should take for granted. With all its ups and downs, it is a rare thing that someone climbs to the top and remains an integral part of the system for over 20 years. Especially if you are a so called aficionado of the strange and macabre genre of horror and fantasy like filmmaker Guillermo del Torro.

An industry where taking risks isn’t always rewarded, but that’s the conundrum of a craft where art and business come together.

After finishing his first movie “Chronos”, he met fellow film director James Cameron (Terminator, Avatar) for the first time, lining up for a barbecue. Cameron asked him “So I heard you shot your first movie”. Del Toro answered “Yes”. “And..”, continued Cameron. “I heard you mortgaged your house?” “Yes” Del torro answered beck. “So you know the movie is going to be a success?” added James Cameron.

Even before his first movie, when he was working at his self established special effects company called Necropia. Daytimes he would sell real estate, and after dark designing and building props for low budget Mexican horror flicks. That’s where he learned the value of hard work. But, only when it serves his own artistic desires.

At the end of the night, he is a genre filmmaker, and embraces that with every undead or paranormal fibre in his body.

“I like to connect with audiences who like what I do, even if the audience at large does or doesn’t like it. I make weird movies, no matter what size the movie is. Genre is the bastard child of prestige.”

Playing with monsters can be messy at times, and violence, blood and sometimes even gore is part of the gameplay. R-rated properties aren’t necessarily a thing big studios or big audiences seem to have an antenna for. Toning it down is a request Guillermo is all to familiar with.

“Each movie has its audience. I don’t even want a wider audience that doesn’t appreciate what I’m doing. I want ‘THE’ audience for my movie.”

Doing his own thing is Del Toro’s main drive, and maybe the main reason for his success. Doesn’t matter how someone determines success. Other filmmakers can put themselves and their skills at the disposal of a film studio. Even if that means they have to give up control, and sacrifice the very essence why they became filmmakers in the first place.

Especially today, with CGI becoming more and more prevalent, and practical effects are seen as to tedious and time consuming.

“I try to guard the art of physical make up and effects, and set constructions. I want to keep making hand made movies. I do so because i want to meet the characters I create and to be in the places I write about.”

Today he has maneuvered himself in such profitable position for himself, that if the project he is pitching for doesn’t get greenlit immediatly, it eventually will. Or he just pulls another idea out of his dark wizard filmmaker hat, and this or another studio will pick it up. A luxury most other directors and writers are only dreaming of.

Except for one of his most beloved baby projects. And maybe the one (almost) franchise with the most loyal fans behind it. Unfortunately not enough loyal fans, at least not from the point of view of Legendary Film Studios. A third Hellboy movie just wouldn’t pay off according to Legendary. Especially with all the financial demands Guillermo has regarding the final part of his saga.

“That’s why I try to do both, small and big movies. If you do a smaller movie, you may suffer from the budget, but you have complete freedom. You can do whatever you want, and that’s what keeps you alive.”

Believing in his own properties, creations and even his adaptations from other artists is the fuel for the magical engine that keeps the man going. The movie business is a wild river with many rocky streams, that turn to soft flowing shallow parts, which again turn to a wild rocky stream after some time.

Ones Picasso is the others scribble on a napkin. Although he made himself a household name in the business, he still has to pitch his ideas to the suits. Especially when he goes into uncharted territory, which is a given if you’re name is Guillermo del Toro. It took ten years for his Emmy award winning show “Troll Hunters” to see the light of day. But having that reputation, he at least gets the chance to present his strange goods to the various studios and executives. Even if they get rejected from time to time.

“You’re going from being a moron, to being a genius, to being a moron back again. You’re going up and down, that’s the nature of story telling.”

A reputation younger filmmakers just starting their career, but also older, more experienced ones would kill for. Some of whom would gratefully accept to be called moron from time to time, if they would just get as many chances to proof themselves.

There is a whole new generation out there, which grew up with movies or TV shows, written, directed or produced by Del Toro. And they all want to make their mark, slay the dragon and show their worth.

And of course these uprising movie makers want the magic bullet to make it in this industry. Especially those at the very beginning, who don’t have much to work with. Who’s salary from last weeks Burger flipping is all the budget they could muster.

“Do what you can do with what you have. If you have a middle class home, make a movie about a vampire in a middle class home. Or a movie about a Werewolf in a middle class home, and speak of your own experience.”

“Try to make movies that speak to someone else in the same fetishized way you were spoken to, by people who got high on their own supply, I know I get high on my own supply.”

THE GENETIC COLD WAR

 

Why Crispr is the new Sputnik.communism-dc-comics-red-son-desktop-wallpaper

Forget space exploration, forget military power or economics. Gene editing is the new Mcguffin for world domination.

While the arms race, and especially the development of the hydrogen bomb, were in the focus during the original cold war, the new technological combat will emerge in the form of a fierce competition for genetic superiority.

Although developed by American scientists, the Chinese picked up rapidly on this incredible new development in gene editing technology, and just ran with it. While the rest of the scientific world stands frozen on the sidelines with its shoelaces untied, the chinese produce one groundbreaking study after the other.

In November 2016, the UK has given researchers at the Francis Crick Institute permission to use the newest gene editing technology, called Crispr, in early-stage human embryos. While the team under Dr. Kathy Nikaian merely used the technology to scan the genetic code of discarded IVF embryo cells, chinese scientists actually manipulated viable human ebryo genes.

What seems as a major breakthrough, and taboo for, many in the US and Europe, is becoming the norm in the land of the middle.

In March 2017, chinese geneticists from the University of Guangzhou announced the first successfully corrected genetic defects in viable embryos. Although the success rate isn’t really high, their seem to be a significant difference between results in viable contra non viable embryos. Dr Luo Tang said ” The use of non viable genetically abnormal cells didn’t give a true picture of the state of the technology.”

The difference between viable and non viable human ebryo cells seem to be crucial for the success rate of eliminating mutations and defects from the human genome. Non viable cells are embryos which develop from an egg fertilized by two sperm cells and are therefore not able to grow to a complete human being.

This is yet another reason why many countries in the west might loose this race, due to the ethical restrains in using cells which would allow for an accurate representation of the reality of gene editing.

Each new study brings China one step closer, to maybe the biggest scientific breakthrough since the splitting of the atom.

“Germline editing is going to happen and to think otherwise is naive,” says University of Utah’s Dana Carroll. “And as to research on human embryos, whether or not it’s happening in the US anytime soon, elsewhere in the world it’s already started.”
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., concludes that trials using gene editing technology “might be permitted, but only after more research” on risks and benefits.

“They have closed the door to the vast majority of germline applications and left it open for a very small, well-defined subset. That’s not unreasonable in my opinion,” said genome researcher Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Even though it is the official position of chinese scientists to ban any implantation of genetic modified embryos in women, the range of experimental freedom on germline and adult cells, gave them more than just a head start over the last couple of years.

Due to cultural differences between China and the so called west, this rift will widen over the next couple of years, and grant China an advantage, which might be impossible to catch up with.

While in the U.S. and Europe there is constant debate on whether embryos have human rights, in China this isn’t even part of the discussion. “According to Confucius, human being is only after birth.” said bioethicist Renzong Qiu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Playing along, and making themselves subject to international regulations was never part of the chinese M.O.. Climate change and the restriction of green house gases is only one example where China went for years against international consensus. And, if they even should as a sovereign country, is another question for another debate.

And while debates are been held and moratoriums declared, Chinas gene editing machine produces on breakthrough after the other.

In Oktober 2016 the Sichuan University in Chengdu received approval to begin the treatment on an actual human being suffering from lung cancer, after only six months of review. “To get the same thing approved in the US would take dramatically longer,” says Paul Knoepfler, stem cell researcher at UC Davis.

But China isn’t the only player on the board who crosses the US’s and Europe’s unilateral declared line in the sand.

Ephrat Levy-Lahad, a cancer researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that Israel is likely to welcome clinical use of genetically modified embryos. The government, which encourages large families, already pays for parents using in vitro fertilization to screen their embryos for genetic mutations — a technique known as Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis, which is simpler than genome editing and can prevent many, but not all, inherited disorders.

If the UK, Europe and the USA don’t wake up soon, they’ll might need to grow a third leg in the arms race for scientific relevance.

Vaya Con Dios, or Vaya Con Voyager?

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Chuck Berry died this saturday, but the dream of space exploration has found new life.

The musical obituary list, contained within the databank of Voyager 1, is finally complete.

The last original composer on board of the spacecraft, Chuck Berry, died on march 16th 2017, at the age of 90.

In 1977, when Voyager was launched at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a hard drive containing a sample of Earths most popular music was attached to it. Among classics such “Dark was the night” by Blind Willie Johnson and Beethovens “Fifth Symphony”, was also a copy of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Good, traveling with 17 kilometers per second through the cosmos.

Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson (director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City) twitted on the death of the Rock and Roll Legend ,saying :“ Chuck Berry (1926-2017) left Earth long ago: His music, part of Voyager’s Golden Records, sent to the depths of space in 1977.“

In 1987, the late Carl Sagan wrote a letter to Chuck Berry, congratulating him to his 60th birthday. „Dear Chuck Berry, when they tell you your music will live forever, you can usually be sure they’re exaggerating. But Johnny Be Good is on the Voyager Interstellar records, attached to Nasa’s Voyager spacecraft – now two billion miles away from earth and bound to the stars. These records will last for a blillion years or so.“

That was 30 years ago. Now, in 2017, Voyager 1 is about 18 billion kilometers away from earth and heading for a rendezvous with AC+79 3888. A star in the constellation of Camelopardalis. In about 40.000 years from now it will arrive safely, 1.6 light years away from that star, and assume a position in space, orbiting the center of the galaxy.

By that time, Voyager’s batteries will be completely depleted. This is going to happen actually within a decade from now. That leaves Voyager only a couple of years to transmit its data of uncharted territory before it will simply drift throughout the vast space between the stars.

Fun fact. Since Chuck Berry’s hit single “Johnny Be Goode” was first transmitted by radio waves in 1958, signals from that transmission have already reached Voyager 1’s destination almost 20 years before it was even launched. Since radio waves travel with the speed of light, they must have arrived a year and a half later.

So if there is an alien race in the constellation of Camelopardis, capable of receiving radio signals, they might be already rocking to “Johnny be goode”, or maybe it was mistaken for an act of war, and they are now on their way to vaporize our planet.

Despite this years 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 1, and its twin Voyager 2, 2017 is the beginning of a dark age for American space exploration and science as a whole.

Though the illusion of a proud nation, exploring the space ways, was only perpetuated by the fear of Russian military and scientific superiority, it was this spirit which made the golden age of American space exploration possible.

The cold war might have ignited the engine which brought humans to the moon, but it was the dream of that generation and those to come which not only launched the Voyager into regions where no man has gone before, but all the other ambitious projects in human space mission history.

This era was about to come to an end , when we look at the alarming cuts Nasa received under the Obama administration.

In 2016 the Obama Administration has announced its new Federal budget and is proposed to cut NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget to $19 billion by carving away significant funding for deep space exploration, whereas the overall US Federal budget was actually on the rise, reaching over $4.1 trillion.

This would have killed the US’s new found ambition under the Bush administration to send the first human beings to Mars. “”The desire to explore and understand is part of our character” said former US president in 2004. Mirroring the famous speech by John F. Kennedy from 1962, when he declared his plans of sending the first men to the moon.

Despite the hiatus during the Obama era, the new government seems to be in favor for Nasa’s plans when it comes to robotic and human space travel. On March 7, 2017, Congress passed a NASA authorization bill for the first time in nearly six years.

Although cuts in science as a whole have increased under the Trump administration, and especially climate science and health have to suffer from these allocations in the budget, Trumps’s plans preserve the Mars mission and other enterprises in outer space.

Planetary science and space exploration stands to get $1.9 billion, which is significantly higher than 2017 Obama and congressional levels.

“Today’s approval of the NASA Transition Authorization Act by Congress sends a clear message to the American people and our international partners that our nation remains committed to NASA’s space exploration program.” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition of Deep Space Exploration.

The American space agency is not the only game in town when it comes to the expansion of human reach to the far regions of space. The European “ESA” or the “China National Space Administration” are also big players when it comes to create sophisticated technologies and discoveries in the race for the stars.

But (without undermining the achievements of other space faring nations) there is something special about Nasa and its potential to spark the human imagination.

“Space is a $300 billion industry worldwide. NASA is a tiny percent of that. (But) that little bit is what inspires dreams.” Neil de Grasse Tyson.

Nice night to go…….sadly! The geek world lost today one of its most iconic supporting actors, Bill Paxton.

The geek world lost today one of its most iconic supporting actors, Bill paxton.

Bill Paxton passed away, at the age of 61, due to complications after  heart surgery.

Though not a household name with regular audiences, but geeks and nerds of the movie industry know exactly where to place his talents, of which he had plenty. For the regular joe he might have been “yeah I’ve seen him in movies before”, but for us he is right up there with every big name you can come up with.

From Weird Science over Aliens, Near Dark to Predator 2, Bill Paxton is undoubtfully among the greatest losses to the geek culture and general movie goers, together with Carrie Fischer and Alan Rickman in recent history.

He was to John Carpenter what Bruce Cambpell is to Sam Raimi. Well, they havn’t been in school together like the latter film duo, but if there was an essential role in a movie (doesn’t matter how small it was), and it needed that special flavor, Bill Paxton was Camerons man to go to. They shared 36 years of  a unique professional and personal relationship.

If in the role of a sleazy used car salesman in “True Lies”, the braggartly Hudson in “Aliens” or in one of the most memorable cameos in movie history in “The Terminator”.

James Cameron on the sudden death of Paxton ” The world is a lesser place fo his passing”.

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If you ask me, it was him and him alone who might have saved Agents of Shield for me. It can’t be a coincidence, that after 13 really bad episodes, a new character gets introduced and the show kicks off to a completely new level. He must at least inspired a lot of bored show writers to do better than they did for half a season.

It’s game over people, game over for us. Last goodbeyes to the only man who got killed by an Alien, a Terminator and a Predator.

 

– Thor Sheraga

 

 

Your brain’s in the loop, so you don’t have to

If you’re a footballer, a dancer, a mix-martial artist, or a sculpturist, you all depend on a complex system of movements, which needs to be up and down, left and right regulated in order to sustain a creative pattern.

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From complex behaviors to everyday actions like scratching your nose, or picking up the phone, and even sitting still is controlled by these newly discovered microsystems in your body.

Millions of signals firing each second, billions of neurons directing those signals over trillion connections to its next or final destination. But how does the brain coordinate all those trillons of processes each day? The fancy answer is “sustained self-organized oscillatory activity in circulatory brain tissue”. This is the five dollar term for a circuitoid or a loop . Little loops of nerve tissue in your brain, which regulate an otherwise uncontrolable bombardment of signals.

Scientists from the Salk institute for biology in San Diego, California, constructed circuits of neurons from mouse embryonic stem cells. These stem cells were collected in a Petri dish and stimulated in order to grow to the type of tissue of which neurons, and subsequentaly the desired circuitoids consist of.

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https://elifesciences.org/content/6/e21540

“Circuitoids can reveal the foundation for complex neural controls that lead to much more elaborate types of behaviors as we move through our world in a seamless kind of way” says Samuel Pfaff who holds the Helen McLoraine developmental chair in neurobiology.

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– Proffesor Samuel Pfaff

Every movement in your body (except for reflexes) is a combination of neurons in your brain which initiate an action and other neurons which down regulate this action. This is how the body is able to sustain a steady pace of complex movements in a row without accidentally punching himself in the face in the process.

When a bunch of those circuits come together they are called central pattern generators (CPG’s). They work in sync, in order to create a rythmic pattern. These patterns facilitate repetitive movements necessary for running or breathing for example. CPG’s are extremely flexible. In split seconds they can adapt to the required amount of muscular effort.

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“But we think that developing this kind of simple circuitry will allow us to extract some of the principles of how real brain circuits operate. With that basic information maybe we can begin to understand how things go awry in disease.” says Professor Pfaff.

Understanding these neuronal pathways could lead to groundbreaking discoveries in the treatment of horrendous neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Epilepsy and Huntington’s disease.

-Thor Sheraga