Greetings from South Africa, where I’ve been visiting these past two weeks. It’s a country of great beauty and cultural complexity. Besides mastering driving on the left hand side of the road, and not getting too excited when I see “ROBOT” painted in giant white letters on the road (it means stop lights ahead), I made a stop at the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. The events surrounding the real District 6 were part of the inspiration for both the title and content of District 9, the great 2009 science fiction mockumentary set in South Africa.
The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is about a group of aliens who arrive on a mysterious mother ship hovering above South Africa. Eventually the authorities send an expedition up to find out what’s going on and discover a bunch of starving aliens. They are settled in a South African township called District 9, directly below the mother ship (a squatter camp in the township of Soweto, called Chiawelo, was used for the shooting). Much of the story revolves around the forced relocation of the aliens from District 9 to District 10. Besides being confined to the township and being forcibly relocated, they suffer various other kinds of oppression very reminiscent of the ways blacks were treated during the time of apartheid. Interestingly, in this case, South Africans of all colors are united in their hatred and mistreatment of the aliens, derogatively called “Prawns” (not least because they look like supersized bipedal version of king prawns, a delicious crustacean that is often on the menu at nicer restaurants in South Africa).
It’s not much of a spoiler to say the aliens in District 9 have the snazziest trigger lock around. The Prawns, as they are known in the movie, have some strange ideas for safety, though. Their trigger lock is DNA-encoded not to keep little Prawns away from dangerous gear, but to prevent any other species from activating the weapons. (That’s the sort of detail that raises all sorts of questions about just who the Prawns were fighting that they needed this kind of security, and whether the enemy also had DNA-locked rifles.)
While the Prawns seem to have mastered DNA-detecting technology, it remains a bit beyond our reach out here in the real, human world. But that may be the next big frontier in biometrics. Because, let’s face it, the typical kinds of biometric security used in of the lairs of movie super-villains isn’t science-fiction anymore—it’s reality.
Fingerprint scan? We can do that on a laptop, or even a mere thumb drive. Palm scan? Pssh. Placing a hand on the scanner is passé. Retinal scan? Of course. Facial recognition? Voice recognition? Done and done. All of these different biometrics has been exploited by security companies trying to make money in a world where verifying authenticity is becoming an increasing problem. But the biological signature big business and national governments really want to capture is DNA. Unlike our faces and voices, it never changes. Unlike our fingerprints, it’s very difficult to fake. And except for identical twins, it’s totally unique to each individual (and it may soon be possible to distinguish even identical twins [pdf]). Because this technology would be so valuable, everyone from the Austrian national government to major corporations is toiling away (pdf) in their R&D departments to develop a DNA biometric lock.
Recently, I mentioned that I was looking forward to the new Star Trek movie because the trailers looked pretty good. I was accused of having cloudy judgement—I wanted the movie to be good, and so of course the trailers looked good. Which is fair enough—plenty of movies haven’t been as good as their trailers.
But what’s wrong with rooting for a movie? I want Star Trek to be awesome again, to be all about adventure and a future where people get do interesting things other than hide from radioactive mutants left over from the apocalypse. Sure, rooting for a movie from the get-go has led to some pretty harsh disillusionment (The Phantom Menace, the second and third Matrix movies), but on the other hand The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, and Lord of The Rings all turned out pretty well. So, in order of their release dates, here are the five movies I’m rooting for this summer: