Unrelated Contemplations

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Historical Analogues in Dragon Age

I've got a lot of friends new to Dragon Age, and I feel like the first thing you should know is that the Dragon Age setting is a pretty direct roman a clef of European History. Some of it is hilariously obvious, but still - it helps to understand the setting if you know some history. No spoilers, just an analysis of the setting. Take the below map and Invert it and flip it. Par Vollen is North Africa and Ferelden and Orlais are Northern Europe. Go from there.

Orlais - France, in case the accents and the cheese didn't make it obvious. Its post-Renaissance, pre-Revolution Early Modern France.

Fereldan - Anglo-Saxon England, also fairly obvious with the accents and the wet, cold, English countryside.

The Chantry - Lady Catholics and Andraste is Lady Jesus. Andraste guide us.

Apostates/Rebel Mages - Mostly the atheistic, pagan representatives but really anyone that the Catholic church deemed a "heretic" during the Catholic Inquisition fits in here. Hey, Inquisition....WAIT I GET IT

Now for the more difficult ones...

The Free Marches - Nevarra is Prussia and the rest of the City States are basically Austria or a very loosely organized Holy Roman Empire. Kirkwall has a lot of similarities to independent Cologne. Trying to remain free of religious strife and failing, etc. You can call them America if you want a more modern analogue, and if you like being WRONG.

Anderfels - Eastern Europe under the Teutonic rule. I've heard this but the Anderfels don't feature a lot in the games so I've always lumped them in with The Free Marches....which makes sense in a Holy Roman Empire way.

Elves - They're Jewish. There's a bit of Romani, Native American, and Celtic in there depending on the region but basically they're Jewish. They either live in ghettos or are an ancient race of persecuted wanderers, come on! City Elves or Dalish, I say that's a pretty damn strong analogue.

Antiva - Venice with a mix of other Italian City States, but mostly its Venice. There's some Spain and Borgias Italy thrown in for good measure but Antiva = Venice.

Tevinter Emperium = Byzantine Empire. They've lost their former glory (Ancient Rome) and retreated into a smaller territory. They have their own version of The Chantry (Greek Orthodox) and are at war with The Qun. See below.

Qunari - They're The Moors (and more) of Islamic and European history, pretty much. Fierce warriors, conquerors, and dark-skinned tacticians that the rest of "Europe" sees as strange and barbaric with a bizarre religion and social system. "Qun" isn't exactly a stretch from "Qu'ran". Strict code of ethics, convert-die-slavery system, etc. Par Vollen is their main home, but they tend to spread over a lot of islands and coastal areas like Seheron.

Rivain - I think they're supposed to be Moorish Spain, but I really haven't gotten much into Rivain. But its the battlefield between Qunari and Andrastrians so it makes sense.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street Wants

I've seen a lot of talk about how the Occupy Wall Street movement has no direction and no purpose. "What do these people even want?" Now personally I have no trouble in deciphering what the Occupiers want. Its in their name. They aren't "occupying" the White House, they aren't "occupying" the Pentagon, and they're not "occupying" any police headquarters. They are occupying Wall Street. It would seem safe to assume that their gripe is with Wall Street. In the years following the collapse of the housing market, taxpayer bailouts of those institutions, and the Great Recession - it almost seems silly to ask them "Why Wall Street?"

The 'why' of it is simple. Wall Street institutions, banks, and corporations have been at the center of every problem we've had in the last decade, and if you wanted you could look back and find those same institutions skulking around our military and economic problem for the last 40 years. Banks like Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, and Wachovia were responsible for the fall of the housing market through intentionally predatory lending practices and the trading of toxic assets. Wall Street institutions like Bear Stearns, CitiGroup, and Goldman Sachs bet on those same mortgages and when they lost big, claimed that our economy depended on their success and demanded we rescue them. Corporations like BP ignore basic safety and environmental precautions in order to drive up profit, resulting in global ecological disasters. Throughout all of this, the executives in charge of these companies get hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and absolutely no reprimand from our leaders. It would be naive to think that their 'above the law' status and the fact that they are the biggest contributors to most national politicians is unrelated. Everything goes back to the money.

That is where Occupy Wall Street comes in. They believe that if you want to improve this country, you have to fix the money. Fix Wall Street. Fix Wall Street's involvement in our democracy. Fix Wall Street's ownership of our leaders. That is what the Occupy protests are about.

"But they aren't proposing any laws or regulations! They aren't working within the system! Why don't they just vote?!" That's the point. They voted. They elected a President who promised to end or limit the power of lobbyists. He didn't. He can't. The system is broken. No political movement is immune to the involvement of Wall Street's money. No laws are written in this country without a lobbyist signing off on it. It's how Health Care Reform quickly became about mandating everyone to buy existing insurance policies instead of a public option. Its how the Clean Air Act was filled with loopholes and buyouts to allow certain corporations to pollute more. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is safe until the money is fixed.

So its easy to see what Occupy Wall Street wants in a general sense; take the money out of politics! But what about those laws and regulations that are so important to our system? We know the why, but what is the how? I've taken the liberty to come up with 5 real, actual, verifiable legislative decrees, laws, or regulations that you'd find basically everyone in the Occupy Movement would applaud.

NOTE: I realize that some in the movement say things such as, "We don't have any demands", or "Universal debt forgiveness for everybody, everywhere, immediately." Those are both, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. If you're in a protest, it has to have an endgame. If you borrow money, you have to pay it back. The following are things that any reasonable member of the Occupy movement would applaud. I'm not interested in the conservative media's cherry-picking of the fringe as a means to label the entire movement.

NOTE 2: Click on each heading to go to a link with more info on the specific law or regulation. Yes, I'm using Wikipedia links here. If you don't trust Wikipedia, google the listed laws and read them for yourself. Wikipedia is just a good starting point.

1. Reinstate Provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act
The Glass-Steagall Act, also known by its official name of The Banking Act of 1933, is a law that regulates banking institutions. In 1999 certain provisions of the law were repealed, the most telling of which is the law that separates investment banking (securities, mergers, acquisitions, derivatives, and commodity trading) from commercial banking (banks that your or I would deposit or withdraw our funds from). This led to banking institutions becoming so large and labyrinthine that their inter-connectivity assured that a failure in one sector of the economy would effect every other economic sector. This time it was the housing market, but it could have just as easily been any other commodity or security. It could happen again, and without this regulation in place it almost certainly WILL.

Another gripe among Occupiers is that we, the middle and working class, do not get as much of a say in the democratic process as the wealthiest of Americans. There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is the Electoral College. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a contract that, if enough states sign on, would mean that our President is elected by the people and not by a group of elitist Washington insiders. The details are in the link, but it effectively makes the Electoral College obsolete, allowing the people to actually elect the President instead of special interests who have the ear of the Electoral College.

Citizens United refers to the Supreme Court decision that made the absurd assertation that corporations should be allowed to fund political campaigns as if they were a citizen. It amounted to a ruling that claims that corporations count as people, as far as political contributions were concerned. This 2010 decision officially made corporate electioneering a legal, everyday practice. Corporate stranglehold on our democracy has not been this open and obvious since Theodore Roosevelt took to trust-busting. Corporations, lobbyists, and special interests now have the same rights as citizens when it comes to funding elections. They don't even have to be based in the United States. The safety net that protected us from plutocratic control over our democracy has been cut, and it needs to be repaired.

If you are reading this you may or may not know that the abuses and practices that led to the financial meltdown are, in most cases, not technically against the law. There is no definitive National law against Insider Trading, for instance. Anyone arrested for such unscrupulous practices is usually arrested for 'obstruction of justice' or 'securities fraud'. The laws that do exist to regulate and prevent this kind of financial crisis are poorly defined, bloated, full of loopholes, and effectively impossible to prosecute. They were written this way thanks to lobbying by, guess who, Wall Street institutions. While this is a broad and difficult task, here are two suggestions:
From the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act, this is a 298 page 'rule' meant to prevent federally-backed banks from making risky or toxic trades. It is 298 pages long because it includes dozens of loopholes and the ability to avoid the regulation entirely. If we don't want banks that we own a share in making toxic trades, there should be no loopholes.
The Securities and Exchanges Commission, or SEC, is the primary regulatory body for Wall Street institutions. It is a bloated, corrupt, and ineffectual organization that is filled with Wall Street insiders who benefit from a lack of a strong regulatory body. If we don't have a strong and effective SEC, Wall Street will continue to pillage our economy.

This is a law that would place a tax on corporate contributions to political campaigns, action committees, and advocacy campaigns. The wording of the bill says that this tax would be 500%, but I think any reasonably large amount would work. Again, the purpose here is to keep campaign contributions to small, personal, individual amounts. Corporations should not be able to effectively 'fire' our representatives with the threat of taking away their funding. Elected leaders should be beholden to the American people, not just those with enough money to 'buy' their own politicians.


Publicly Fund All Elections
This is in its own category because it would fix all the above problems in one fell swoop, more or less. If we remove private funding from elections we eliminate money from the equation entirely. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, it would mean creating a large public fund that each candidate could draw from, meaning that elections would be funded by the American people instead of through corporate, private, and special interest donations. With the threat of having their funding removed, politicians could act based on empirical data and facts rather than where their money comes from.

If you're at all familiar with how American politics work, you'll realize the second reason I put it in its own category - it will never pass. This is the kind of program that would cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of taxpayer dollars. With Republican Presidential candidates making a pledge to veto any tax increases, and other Republicans signing a pledge to never vote on a tax increase, funding a large new government program seems highly unlikely. Not only that, but Congress would have to effectively vote away their political advantage. They would have to vote on a law that would stop millions of dollars from flowing into their bank accounts. Once again, it always comes back to the money.

In Conclusion...
That is why people are in the streets. They want the money out of politics. They tried voting. They tried writing their elected officials. They tried petitioning their government. Now they are exercising their rights in the only way they have left - "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar: Review and Analysis

This is going to be a long rant. When I make an argument I try to cover all my bases, so that even if you disagree with me you can understand where I’m coming from. As with most of my blog posts, its more about collecting my own thoughts than it is about writing something that anyone would actually want to read. However, I’ll try to break it up into categories to make it easy to skim for the 3 of you that may actually want to read this.

First of all, I know I’m going to get this response: “Why do you care so much, it’s just a movie. Either go see it or don’t.” So I’ll counter that now, before I get started. One day I hope to work in science-fiction and fantasy. I hope to write novels, short stories, video games, and maybe even movie scripts. It’s very important to me where trends in genre-fiction lead, and if people start to abuse science-fiction and fantasy as something that is only a good excuse to make a special-effects movie, that is a very bad thing for me and my chosen career (not to mention the genre of fiction I enjoy the most).

On 3D:
This is a separate criticism I have that isn't really about the movie so much as it is about the "intended medium", but it seems that it’s impossible to discuss Avatar without mentioning this elephant in the room. So, here goes. 3D is pointless. It doesn't add anything to the movie. It's a gimmick intended to entertain children, which is why it’s usually only featured in kid's movies. The sad part is that Avatar didn't need this. The visuals were wonderful without shoving things down my throat every few seconds. James Cameron has said that the ‘new 3D’ solves all the old problems of 3D - eye strain, bad projection, a drop in visual quality, etc. This was not true in my experience. The glasses are dark and even with the new technology the picture is still blurry, and after the first hour my eyes and head started to hurt. The fact is that the technology isn't there yet. We still have to put on ridiculous glasses to try and fool our eyes into thinking that the picture is not in 2D. Maybe 3D will work as a medium if they ever develop a means that doesn’t involve the glasses, but until then I'm just not interested. It hurts, its blurry, it’s too dark, and more than anything else it’s a meaningless distraction.

That's my biggest problem with 3D.
It was constantly distracting. When I should be focusing on the characters and the scene, I'm instead watching the 3D effect that is protruding into my face. There were many, many scenes when I was drawn out of the movie and forced to look at some peripheral piece of scenery that was drawn into the foreground with a 3D effect. If I'm looking at the back of a fern instead of the characters on screen, something is wrong.

It changes the way a director shoots a movie. Instead of shooting a scene in a way that would enhance the storytelling, you're inevitably going to shoot every scene in a way that maximizes the 3D effect.
You're going to create set pieces, locations, props, and characters just for the sake of their impact in 3D rather than for their impact in the story. This happened throughout Avatar - monitors, holograms, floating mountains, flying insects, floating seeds, unnecessary foreground pieces, etc - were all added in for the sake of 3D alone. I bet the movie would be 20 minutes shorter if they took out all the scenes that were stretched just to milk the 3D gimmick.

Nobody talks about the real reason directors are pushing 3D film-making. We don't have 3D television sets. We don't have 3D computer screens. We can’t get 3D movies on Netflix or DVR. They're making movies in 3D to force people into the theater that wouldn't normally go, because that's not something we have at home, at least not the kind they’ve been showing in ‘new 3D’. Also, you can't pirate a 3D movie. If you want to see a movie in 3D, you have to buy a ticket. If you enjoy it, that’s fine, but
don't let them fool you into thinking this is about anything but money.

Good Points:
First of all let me say that Avatar blew away my expectations for its CGI characters and settings. This was the first time that I’ve seen CG characters in any medium that looked truly convincing. I knew I was in trouble when I caught myself thinking that the main female Na’vi was actually sexy. It’s better than anything we’ve ever seen, and frankly I hope that George Lucas is damn embarrassed by how good it can be done. However it’s not universally convincing, as we still have a ways to go with facial recognition and animation before we’ll have 100% believable characters, but the moments I was drawn out of the movie due to bad effects were few and far between. Mostly this happened when they smiled awkwardly or tried to exhibit a more complicated emotion than the facial recognition seemed capable of duplicating. It certainly helps that Cameron chose to make the Na’vi different enough from humans that we won’t be spending the movie thinking about how wrong they look. Still though, they never really attempting to hide the fact that everything was CGI. They put characters in locations and situation that made me shake my head and say "no, that's just silly".

There were a few characters in the movie that I relished their screen time. One of them was the Colonel, played by Stephen Lang. He chewed up the scenery and spit it out like a true gritty, warmongering Colonel should. He was a stone cold badass, and completely dedicated to killing everything that got in his way. It was over the top and I loved every minute of him.

Sigourney Weaver also did very well, though she wasn’t on screen as much as I would have liked. All-in-all the acting for Avatar was really pretty well done, and the only actor I felt didn’t really deliver the goods was Giovanni Ribisi as the head of the corporation. I don’t blame him for this though, I think he was miscast. He was too young and squeaky for the role. Really though, pretty good performances all around, considering the one-sided characters that they were given.

Bad Points:

So if the movie had good effects, good characters, and good acting - why didn’t I like the movie?

My problem with Avatar is all in the plot and the writing. Let me summarize the basic premise of Avatar for you.

A human corporation and their private army of mercenaries go to a foreign planet and battle with the natives in order to control the planet’s resources.

So the first question anyone should ask when reading the above is “where is the human government?” From the start of the movie it seemed like they were setting up to answer that question. The following three lines take place in the first 20 minutes of the movie:

"Back on earth these guys were army dogs, marines, but up here they're just hired guns."

“I served three tours in Nigeria, not a scratch”

“I pulled your record, Corporal. Venezuela, that was some mean bush.”

The movie is telling us a few things about the setting with these lines. We know that there is a Venezuela and a Nigeria. We know that there is a Marine Corps, and therefore a United States government. The movie is saying that it takes place in our timeline and little has changed about Earth’s international politics 200 years in the future.

So if they’re all Americans, where is this American government? Why is this un-named corporation given free reign over an entire alien world? This is the only alien world that exists, as far as the movie has told us. Where are the diplomats? Where the politicians? Where is the government agency that would most certainly be in charge of this expedition? The movie never makes any attempt to explain this, and that was my first problem.

But that question only lead to more unanswered questions. How did this one corporation secure the rights to the entire planet of Pandora? Did they buy it? Who did they buy it from? Wouldn't there be many corporations, governments, people, and organizations competing for land and resources on the planet?

So who’s in charge of securing a relationship with the alien race? The corporation? According to Giovanni Ribisi’s character, the only thing stopping them from killing every single Na'vi that gets in their way is “bad press”. Bad fucking press? Who are these people that they can get away with goddamn GENOCIDE and the only thing that's stopping them is that it won't look good in the papers? Why is none of this ever explained!?

I’ll tell you why. The movie relies completely on humanity, and more specifically Americans, being a greedy bunch of stupid warmongers that are only interested in profit. If there was a government organization stepping in, as there certainly would be, it makes it so much more difficult to lecture us about how evil and greedy we are. Bringing the government into the picture would allow for some gray area, and James Cameron has no time for ambiguities in this movie. Americans are almost universally evil in this movie, and that’s that.

This brings me to the Na’vi, who are universally good. The only aggression the Na’vi show are a few arrows in the giant skyscraper-sized bulldozers that are tearing down their homes and sacred spaces. Most of the dialogue before they head out into the forest implies that the reason they’re so well armed is because the native animals are dangerous, not the Na’vi. This is another point in which the movie's symbolism falls apart.

We get it, okay? You aren't exactly being subtle here. Hell, you took subtlety, raped it, set it on fire, and threw it at a camera. Na’vi = Native Americans. We've cracked your code. If we didn't get it from the facial construction, constant references to 'savages', bows and arrows, horse riding, tribal society, white oppression, accents, spears, shamans, braids, beads, hairstyles, or connection with nature - then having them whoop and yell like they're in a John Wayne movie isn't going to help. When I heard this movie had a plot similar to Dances with Wolves I didn’t think it was literal. The Na’vi aren’t a metaphor of Native Americans, they ARE Native Americans. They just happen to be tall and blue Native Americans.

For that matter, why does no one make this connection? This isn't an alternate history; this is the future in our own timeline. Why doesn't anyone say "you know this is awfully similar to what we did to the Native Americans. In fact, they even look and sound almost exactly the same. Isn’t that weird?" For a movie so invested in white guilt, it completely ignores the real world effects that white guilt would have on this exact kind of situation. This is where the government that the movie completely ignores would come in. WHERE IS THE GOVERNMENT??? This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that the entire movie relies completely on the corporation representing all of humanity and having complete control over our interaction with the Na’vi.

The Native American metaphor does not work in this situation. You see, while most of the Native Americans were peaceful, there were many that did do horrible things to the American colonies and people. In much of the American West, stepping a few feet away from the nearest fort would earn you a tortured death at the hands of several different Native American tribes. I’m not trying to say anything white Americans did to Native Americans was justified, but atrocities were committed by both sides. That’s what largely justified treatment of Native Americans to white Americans at the time. It wasn’t just racism, Americans thought of the Natives as violent because some of them were.

However at no point in the movie do the Na’vi do anything even remotely violent towards the humans until provoked by mass murder. Even then, the chief of the Na’vi specifically tells his warriors to only attack if the humans attack first. There is no provocation; the humans just do it to get them to leave so they can drill the oil -- sorry "Unobtainium" -- from underneath their homes. Yeah, you thought you could sneak in a metaphor for the Iraq war in on top of the Native American thing, didn't ya? You might have gotten away with it if you didn't use phrases like "shock and awe campaign", "winning hearts and minds", "our only security lies in pre-emptive attack”, and "fight terror with terror". Very subtle, Mr. James Cameron, very subtle indeed.

The plot of Avatar is just another stock white guilt story meant to make us feel bad. The only difference being that in Avatar, the white characters have to literally step into the body of the natives before they can feel anything but greed or bloodlust. Lord knows they couldn’t have characteristics like ‘sympathy’, ‘compassion’, or ‘spirituality’ as white humans. If the movie wasn’t so stuck up its own ass lecturing us about how horrible Americans are it would be a really remarkable film, and it might have been one of the greatest science fiction movies of the last several decades.

Ask yourself this: If you took away the 3D and you took away the special effects, would you walk away from the movie thinking it told a great story? I don't think you would, because the storytelling and the script are so basic and derivative that you should probably be a little bit insulted. However, this all depends on why you go to the movies. If you go just to be entertained for the 2 and a half hours you're there, I think you will be. If you go looking for something to make you think a little, or to tell you a compelling story, the movie falls flat on its face.

For me, it’s just a spectacle. The characters and acting aren’t phenomenal, but they aren’t distractingly bad either. The effects are spectacular, but not good enough to redeem the bad premise and nonsensical world that the movie takes place in. To me, that’s the most important thing in a sci-fi movie; to make a believable setting. Avatar failed at this.

The following points are ridiculous, but weren't really my major problem with the movie. They just added up to create one of the least believable worlds I've seen in Science-Fiction in quite some time. It's more or less just a list of bullshit this movie shoves in your face and yells "ACCEPT THIS!". This is a big problem if you're vying to be a Sci-Fi masterpiece. Your world has to make logical sense without the viewer stopping, getting drawn out of the movie, and mouthing the words "what the fuck?" at the screen.

USB hair

A ponytail is a collection of thousands of single strands of hair tied or braided together to have the appearance of a single bulk of hair. The biological tentacles of the Na’vi make no goddamn sense being at the end of their ponytails. Think about what kind of construction their hair would have to be. Are the individual strands of their tentacle tied in with the braided ponytail itself? Is there a central structure that the hair is wrapped around? Why did it have to be hair, when every other creature in the entire movie has some kind of head tentacle? And it's not as if the connection is a male/female connector and the Na’vi are the only ones with 'male' ends - all of the connections are the same strands of pink bits that intertwine. The only reason the ponytails exist is because Cameron thought tentacles would make the Na’vi look too 'alien'. Unfortunately hair USB plugs, even in the context of the movie, makes no sense. Should've just gone with a tentacle appendage, since you established that was the norm.

Floating Mountains

"The legendary floating mountains of Pandora? Heard of them?" No, I haven't fucking heard of them. You can't pass off floating mountains like it’s blasé. If you're going to rely on 3D gimmicks, you could at least give us the courtesy of not making them important plot points and pivotal settings. Here's how Sigourney Weaver explains it: "there is something really interesting going on in there, biologically." Wait, what? You can't just wave your hand at something and say "biology did it". You might as well say "a wizard did it". Biology is not Geology, and neither one explains the physics at work for floating magic mountains. Even if you get us to accept that there is some kind of 'flux vortex' that causes the mountains to float...where does the water in the mountains' waterfalls come from? One or two more lines about magnetism and electrical fields probably could have made this at least passable - but as it is it just insults us by basically telling us that we're going to believe it and like it because they said so. Sorry but this doesn't happen except for on Heavy Metal album covers.

Unobtainium? Are you fucking serious with this shit? Do I even need to explain why this is ridiculous? I literally laughed out loud when I heard this in the theater, and then I realized that the characters were serious. They kept saying it. It made me sad.

The problem that occurs if you aren't properly explaining things and silently telling us to "just accept it" is that you're basically saying "it's just a stupid sci-fi movie, don't ask too many questions, nerds". You cheapen your own movie when you do this, and at worst you insult your audience. Sometimes you pick enough nits and the whole movie can collapse.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar: Pre-Movie thoughts

Consider this my review, not of Avatar, but of the hype surrounding Avatar. I'll be seeing it in the next few days, but I wanted to get any bias I may have out of the way so that when I make statements about the movie AFTER seeing it, you know where I'm coming from.

I'm consistently being told that Avatar is the next greatest science fiction epic of our time. I'm told that it will 'change the game'. I'm told that seeing it in theaters will be like seeing Star Wars for the first time. I have a problem with all of the above, and I'll explain why in an easy to follow point-by-point discussion.

1. "Avatar is the next greatest science fiction epic of our time!"
This is something that is consistently spouted off not just by the marketing from the movie itself, but by reviewers who are enamored with the idea of Avatar before even going to see it. What gives it the right to have this title before most people have even seen it? Is all that it takes to award someone 'greatest sci-fi epic of this generation' impressive special effects? Is it just because it was directed by James Cameron? Let's look at the greatest genre-fiction movie of the last generation. Star Wars was popular not just for its effects, but because it told believable story with depth and meaning in a wholly fleshed out setting. The special effects just made it convincing, they are not what made it great. To be great it has to really make me believe in the setting, and to do that it has to have good acting with interesting and deep characters. Ultimately it has to tell a relate-able human story in a new and interesting way. I don't care if it's just the plot of Dances with Wolves in a sci-fi setting. Star Wars was just 'The Hidden Fortress' in Space when you break it down to its base elements, but it told the story in an entirely new and interesting way and was different enough to be distinct.

2. "Avatar will change the way special effects are done in movies (it will change the game)!"
This is one that everyone seems to agree on. Why? Do you know the price tag for this movie? Do you think every producer will shell out $500 million for special effects? Of course fucking not. That's more than all three Lord of the Rings movies COMBINED. Nobody is going to be making movies like this for a very long time, and when they do every single one will be for movies that are advertised like Avatar - based on special effects alone. When a movie is advertised as just expensive eye candy, I get suspicious. That's how the Star Wars prequels were advertised. That's all that the Star Wars prequels were. If we're entering an age of expensive special effects movies with no heart then you can count me the fuck out. If you have a $500 million price tag, fine. But you damn sure better do something meaningful with that money. James Cameron if you turn down the path of the dark side, as Lucas did, consume you it will.

3. "The special effects are such a leap forward that seeing it will be like seeing the original Star Wars for the first time!"
I hate computer generated characters in live-action movies. I am yet to see a movie with characters created entirely by CG where I'm convinced that they exist. I'm not talking about the odd monster or robot, I mean fleshed out full on characters with speaking roles and meaningful dialogue. I don't think the technology is there. Every single one of them has either been laughably out of place (Jar Jar Binks, Watto) or purposefully disturbing (Gollum, Davy Jones). Basically they fell into the Uncanny Valley, a concept of which I will remind you of with this helpful chart:
The question with Avatar is: where do the N'avi fall on this line? I have yet to see a computer generated character that I felt was on the 'good' side of the Uncanny Valley. Looking at the previews, I'm still not convinced. While it does look like a step forward from, say, the Star Wars prequels - it's only a tiny step. It is not a huge leap forward from what I see in the previews. It's still obviously CG, it still lacks believability, and it's still not across the valley.

Now, all that being said I reserve the right to have Avatar change my pre-conceptions. But it better be damn impressive if it wants to achieve the title of a great sci-fi epic of our generation, let alone the greatest.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Do You Believe Aliens Exist?

Now at first this seems like a simple question. It's been boiled down to two stereotyped and polarized ideas that are completely ridiculous. Either you're a nutcase that believe little green men visit Earth and probe our rednecks in inappropriate places, or you feel that the Earth is the center of the Universe and God created man in his own image and not little green men. There is no in-between, there is no logical argument, there are only ideologues. And so we're reduced to back and forth "uh huh!", "nu-uh!" bickering or totally ignoring the subject matter.

So with the prompting of a renewed interest I've developed in Carl Sagan, I've done a lot of thinking about my belief in alien life. What have I determined?

It is scientifically impossible for alien life to not exist.

Okay, let's step back a bit and let me preface the 'aliens' question with another one; do you believe in Evolution and Natural Selection? If you answered "no" to this question, just give up now.

Evolution is scientific fact. It doesn't mean there is no God, it doesn't mean atheists were right all along, it just means that all species on Earth slowly mutated and evolved from small microbes over millions and millions of years. You can easily adapt your spiritual beliefs to accommodate this scientific fact. Christians have done it for centuries with each new scientific revelation. The Earth is round, the Earth is millions of years old, the Earth isn't the center of the Universe, and Earth's species evolved to their current state through the process of natural selection. None of those Genesis-based debunked religious beliefs destroyed Christianity, neither will Evolution.
Okay now that we've all accepted Evolution as scientific fact (and don't we feel better?), I've also subsequently convinced you that aliens must exist. Allow me to use an unreasonably large amount of text to explain. Hopefully you don't give up on me too soon in the TL;DR filled version of the internet.

Mathematical Probability of Life on Other Planets
(skip to the bolded bits if you aren't interested in numbers)

We live in a galaxy called the Milky Way. There are anywhere from 100-400 billion stars in our galaxy. At least 100 million of those stars are exactly like our Sun. They produce the same amount of energy through fusion, emit the same light, etc. There are somewhere along the lines of 100 billion galaxies in the Universe as far as our current technology allows us to see.

So 100 billion galaxies with 100 million stars that can produce the same life-giving effects as our Sun, would equal to a rough possibility of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 Earth-like planets, given one such planet per star.

Okay that's not likely. Additionally let's say that, like the Solar System, each star has the potential for many planets; but
in order to support any kind of life it would have to be at the correct distance from its star with the same kind of orbit as Earth. Let's cut that down, let's say that only 1/9th of those planets that surround a life-giving star is at the correct distance to support life. That means that only 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets have the potential to support life. Whew, we really cut our potential planets down there! I was beginning to worry.

Now I'm only talking about the potential for life here. That means a planet that exists within the 'temperate' zone; just close enough to its star to draw energy and yet far enough away to not freeze or turn into a gas giant. Life also needs water, which is essentially a combination of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms. Well Hydrogen, Helium, and Oxygen just happen to be the most abundant elements in our galaxy and probably the rest of the Universe. All it took on Earth was an unknown combination of chemical reactions to create the spark of life.

So of my estimated million trillion planets that could support life in the Universe (at least life as we know it on Earth), let's say it takes a little bit of random chance and luck to create real living organisms. The planet would have to be free of a mega catastrophe like an asteroid or comet (bigger than the one that hit our planet and killed the Dinosaurs but allowed humans to evolve). That unknown chemical reaction and whatever sparked it would have to occur, possibly a well-timed comet strike or a particularly impressive solar flare. So let's say this only happens in 1% of those planets.

That's still a thousand trillion planets that, in my imaginary calculations, would support some kind of life. But life can exist in many forms, as it has on Earth. It can also exist in many stages. It could be nothing but microbes, or maybe as advanced as a very aggressive badger. But what about intelligent life? Thinking, tool-making, speaking, constructing species that we would be able to interact with on an intellectual level? Again, let's say that in 99% of the cases of life in the Universe, life never gets much furthe
r than predator and prey of varying sizes and simple fight or flee intelligence. To hell with it, let's go a step further and say that only .1% of those planets can create intelligent life.

.1% of 1,000,000,000,000,
000 is 1,000,000,000,000. That's one trillion planets, on what I think is a pretty conservative set of calculations, that would likely produce intelligent forms of life.

And you know what? That's only life that follows the same pattern as our own. For all we know life could exist on planets like Jupiter and Mercury with a completely different biology that we can only speculate at.

Do you get my meaning? The universe is so immeasurably vast, and every star and every planet must obey the same scientific laws that we do in the Solar System and on Earth, that even the tiniest chance of life evolving means that there would necessarily be thousands upon thousands of different forms of life in the known Universe.

So Where Are The Aliens?

So let's say I'm not just making up random numbers and there are 1 trillion planets that support intelligent life. Why have we never seen these other species?

The Problem of Distance

Because 1 trillion is a tiny, minuscule, and negligible number in terms of cosmology. Like I said above, there are 100-400 billion stars in our galaxy and there are probably 100 billion galaxies that exist as far as our current technology can see. Each galaxy contains somewhere between 100 million and 500 billion stars. By most estimations, that's 10 to the 22nd stars in the known Universe. 10 trillion trillion stars that we know of. That's would mean that only .00000008% of the Universe is inhabited by life.
Even if there are 1 trillion advanced and intelligent alien civilizations out there, they're so sparse that we'd never come into contact with them.

I mean the observable universe is 93 billion light years across. That's a lot of space to search for intelligent life. We'd have trouble even locating any evidence of life at all, let alone meeting up and shaking hands or exchanging laser fire.

The Problem of Travel

In order for us to be able to interact with another intelligent species, one of us would have to be able to travel a great distance in some kind of space-faring vessel.

This vessel would have to be fantastic indeed. The closest star system to Earth is Proxima Centauri, at 4.37 light years away. Think about that seriously for a moment. That means if somehow it was possible to travel at the speed of light, the fastest speed we know to be possible for anything to travel, it would still take over 4 years to get from one system to another.

What would fuel such a spacecraft? How would the occupants survive? The type of ship that could accomplish interstellar travel would have to defy all the laws of physics that we know to exist. It would have to have some phenomenal source of propulsion that could get it to reach light speed. It would have to have a small or non existent source of fuel that could be contained aboard the ship. It would also have to have some way of avoiding interstellar debris while traveling. We can't even accomplish this kind of speed/fuel/maneuverability perfection in our cars, how would we do it in space?

Even a world based on Einstein's Physics would have trouble with such a thing. This is where the famous Theory of Relativity would come into play. It's a little too complicated for me to really wrap my head around, but it essentially means that if a ship travels at the speed of light time stops for those on the ship, while the rest of the world would advance in normal time. So 4 years on the spaceship traveling between planets may equal several hundreds, thousands, or millions of years for everyone else. So they may arrive at their destination to find a burnt out husk of a planet destroyed by its star, or a collapsed star.

What I'm basically saying is that such travel isn't possible in any stretch of our current scientific imagination, not even to the star system closest to us. Any interstellar travelers would have to invent an entirely new mode of travel, such as utilizing wormholes.

The Problem of Time

The Universe is estimated to be 15 billion years old. This is a number that we can't really grasp, so scientists (Carl Sagan, again) have helped us comprehend this by created a 'cosmic calendar'. It's a calendar of all time, condensed down so that the beginning of existence is 12:01 am on January 1st and the present day is 12:00 Midnight on December 31st. Here's an image showing this concept:

Intelligent life as we know it didn't exist until around 10:48 pm on December 31st, and that was the simplest communicating ancestor of man. Our ability to travel in space didn't exist until a few milliseconds ago on this scale.

In a cosmic sense of time, we are barely a blink. So it stands to reason that the same would be true for any other form of intelligent life. It would take billions and millions of years to evolve from single-celled organisms into an intelligent being no matter what planet you're on.
For us to be able to interact with another intelligent species we would have to exist in the same brief blink of time. If they were any cosmologically younger than us, they wouldn't be intelligent and they'd think we were Gods or Demons and the whole trip would be wasted. So its more likely that they would be much older than us, especially if they were somehow making contact. But how much older than us can a species actually grow to be?

The Doomsday Problem

Well let's say we, or a specie
s like us, continues to evolve and invent. We run into another time related problem. Is it possible for a species to live and evolve long enough to invent and utilize interstellar travel? Looking at our world for the past 100 years or so, how many times have we come close to a global war that would ultimately destroy civilization? Has the world become any more peaceful since the end of the Cold War? It may be a less common fear than our parent's generation, but the threat of global nuclear destruction still looms on the horizon. And think about it, even our first explorations into space were spurred by warfare. What happens in the future? If we develop a new kind of technology to travel to other star systems, do you really think that's what the governments of the world would use it for? It seems more likely, given our past history, that they would use it to create a weapon even more terrifying than a nuclear warhead. There's no reason any other species out there would fare any differently than us. With intelligence comes fear, ignorance, and suspicion. So the Doomsday question is, can a species survive long enough to create interstellar travel before they ultimately destroy themselves?

But that isn't even taking into account outside forces of planetary destruction. Such a cataclysm doesn't need to destroy all life on Earth, it just needs to hit us hard enough to stop scientific progress. The same kind of doomsday scenario can happen a dozen different ways even with a perfectly peaceful species. An asteroid or comet could hit, the magnetic poles could reverse, Global Warming could create a world-wide environmental disaster, some kind of super virus could wipe out most of the world's population, our technology could turn on us in some kind of Y2K thing, etc. The scary thing is that half of those terrifying options are part of the normal, cyclical nature of a planet's life. They WILL happen, the question is when.

Creating the technology for an interstellar spacecraft would be a massive undertaking, and doing it just for the promise and possibility of life would not work. It would likely take a collaborative effort of the entire species, at a time when most of the world's problems have been solved. We'd have to have figured out how to stop global warming, end world hunger, achieve world peace, eliminate disease and poverty, and work together to create such a thing. Do you see this happening in the near future?

Essentially acquiring the technology for interstellar travel is a race against time, we would have to travel and colonize other worlds in order to survive the inevitable destruction of this one. The same goes for any other species on any other planet in the Universe.

In Conclusion

So to sum up in one sentence:

Alien life (even intelligent alien life) has, does, and will always exist in the Universe outside of Earth; but you and I will likely never get to see it or interact with it.

Evolution, natural science, and mathematical probability tell us that intelligent alien life exists. Unfortunately the laws of Physics, Space, and Time tell us that we'll probably never find any.

On the one hand, I'm excited by this thought. I see no reason why anyone who reports to believe in evolution and the laws of nature that govern the Universe would not believe in alien life. The only argument against the existence of extraterrestrial life is a religious one. If you believe that the creation of intelligent life was an accident, and not something that occurred due to the natural laws of nature, then you are basically saying that fate, chance, or complete randomness created life. To me, those are all just weak words for some kind of creator God
. That's perfectly fine, as long as you understand that by saying that life only exists on Earth you are saying that you believe in some kind of God, some kind of force that decided that life should only exist on Earth.

your belief in evolution and scientific truth necessarily means that you believe in the existence of life outside of human beings. And if you factor in probability you should also be able to admit that intelligent life on Earth can't possibly be a unique phenomena. In any planet where life exists the natural progression of evolution is towards an intelligent, thinking, communicating being.

But on the other hand, I'm saddened by the knowledge that although life must necessarily exist outside of Earth - it is highly doubtful that we will ever come into contact with it. I would really like to know what any such creature would look like. How would it communicate? What would its technology be like? Would it have a religious belief system? What kind of other species would have evolved alongside it?

I guess it's time to read some serious Science Fiction. If you read all this babbling, thank you. I will reward you with a great summary of my thoughts, in song and video form. Enjoy!

You'll Find No Games Here

Instead, here I'll collect all my thoughts, musings, and ideas that are not related to video games and gaming. Again, this is just a tool for me to organize my brain in a way that I can access at a later date when the Alzheimer's finally takes me.