Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lost Epilogue

These Dharma employees are told that Dharma hasn't existed for 20 years, and that they've been receiving directions from an automated system for that entire time. They're offered an answer to one question each.

Neither of them think to ask, "who's been feeding, supplying, and paying us for the past 20 years?"

Again and again, LOST is a lie. Even the answers to questions aren't real answers.

PS. The two last sentences of Lost are Walt asking Hurley, "Why?" and Hurley changing the subject. How absolutely appropriate. The novice of denying information to the audience has become its new captain.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Is it just me, or is every Superman story "Oh man, it looks like Superman's on the ropes! No, wait! He's summoned the energy to win, even though he couldn't do it a second ago!"? It's particularly egregious when he's on the ropes because of Kryptonite. It was my understanding that Kryptonite didn't just make him a little nauseated, it's supposed to make his powers not work.

The worst offender of all time is the latest Superman movie, where Superman is stabbed near fatally on an island of Kryptonite, and only needs to fly off to get some sunlight before he carries the entire island of Kryptonite into space.

Good heroes do things even though it seems impossible. Superman manages this by having his power levels fluctuate wildly for no apparent reason. Maybe there's a rich vein of Superman stories where this doesn't happen, but I don't know of them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Problem

I've been raised on media that's created unrealistic expectations for me. Not just expectations about sex, looks, money, and happiness. I don't care about those things. My problem is the way that media has led me to think that one day, without me doing anything, my life will suddenly hit me. One day, I'll meet a girl, or discover some injustice, or find someone who needs help, and it will be significant to me in a way that is undeniable, and then the adventure part of my life will begin.

I know of injustices, but they're so large, and so abstract, I am paralyzed. I see girls, but I have no idea what to do on that entire scene. I know of lots of people with problems far larger than what I'm complaining about right now, but problems don't appear in the form of something visible, something palpable, something I can fight.

I assume this isn't just my problem. Most of our culture consists of false challenges, things designed to satisfy our desire to create positive change in the world, without actually requiring any effort. I love video games, both as an art form and as personal entertainment, but I would be an infinitely better person if I was allergic to them.

I think about people who have already done things when they are my age, people like Bob Dylan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein, and I suspect they didn't spend the time leading up to their work in meaningless self-indulgence.

With my current approach, I could be capable of doing something good, something meaningful, and no one would ever know.

Anyway, if anyone has a job, or a relationship, or a cause, they want to set me up with, I'm available.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Industry In A Postindustrial Population And Colonising Mars

Read this article trying to estimate the minimum population necessary to maintain a society at our current level of technology. It does require a great deal of labour and expertise; almost everything manufactured today has computers in them, and someone has to have the knowledge of how to produce and calibrate every one of them, not to mention manufacturing the rest of the product. In addition to the labour and expertise necessary to manufacture everything, you must maintain that level of education across generations, so teaching the next generation requires labourers in education in a proportion to the current population. The article also points out that we can provide all the food we need with less than 1% of our population. (This is probably the most significant change in human society ever, since it frees up about 98% of our population for non-agricultural purposes)

The estimate is based on the current population of industrial nations.  It basically says, "The population of the EU plus the US plus Japan is X, and they are roughly self-sufficient, so that's roughly what's necessary to perpetuate the technology level." The article ended with bounds of 100 million to 1 billion people, with a surprise ending insisting that any Martian colony must have at least 100 million to survive at our current level of technology.

This is wrong for several reasons. First of all, any Martian colony will exist with an Earth capable of communicating with it. With modern developments in telecommunications, automation, and manufacturing from digital instructions, the vast majority of intellectual processes could be off-shored to administrators back home. The article completely ignores the benefits of communications with another society. To meet the author on his own terms, I'll do the same for the remainder of the article. (I'll also ignore assumptions like the idea that there will be a 1:10 staff:student ratio in this theoretical society, there's no reason that it must be 1:10 instead of 1:20.*)

The central problem is his theory that the current population of the industrial world reflects (in some ratio) what is necessary to maintain the technology level**. This ignores the fact that the vast majority of human labour is unnecessary.

We live in a surplus economy, everything is produced in numbers grossly more than needed. Things aren't just produced in too-large numbers, they're also produced in too-large varieties. Our society only requires about 3-5 non-industrial automobile designs, (Small car, large car, SUV type car, truck for hauling things, etc.) but we have thousands. All this waste produces huge inefficiencies, which means that the persons responsible for producing those products could be removed from society with no harm to the technology level. We don't need people designing a new model of car every year, and we don't need people manufacturing a car for each person on the planet. If we put an emphasis on producing things that lasted as long as possible, and recycled materials aggressively, we could save labour than I can imagine.

So a large fraction of industry could be eliminated, but this is nothing compared to the vast swathes of our society that produce nothing at all. First, let's kill all the lawyers. Not really, but let's get rid of most of them in our theoretical society. Also into the dustbin of history can go products of fiction, like advertising, "alternative" medicine, real medicine that deals with superficial ailments, most people in the "news entertainment" industry, self-important bloggers, art, and any product that serves as a status symbol.

Even larger than our producers of nothing are our producers of marginalia. There are endless products in our society that technically serve a function, but could be effortlessly removed without a loss to society or technology. A glance around any room in America should confirm that thought instantly.

Inefficiencies are rife in our society. The article cites the civil aviation industry as requiring half a million persons to maintain. This ignores the fact that a well planned society wouldn't need one, and even if it needed some aviation, it certainly wouldn't need as much as we have now. All transport of persons in planes is unnecessary. Eliminate all personal transport from the aviation industry, and I think you'll find it doesn't need anywhere close to 500.000 people to maintain. Additionally, on Earth, planes may, arguably, be necessary to transport rare materials to manufacturing centers, but of course there are no oceans to cross on Mars, and rail could reach any place on the planet with equal ease.

I could go on about how our urban sprawl and distributed manufacturing centers create waste at every level of society, but this post is already too long and boring.

Instead, check out this reaction to the same article.*** It seems to be against reducing the world's population, but doesn't summon up much of an argument, "If 85% of the world's population disappeared, leaving only 5 million Nigerians, but everything else in the world's economy society was exactly the same, Nigeria wouldn't have as good an economy to export minerals to the industrial world!" This is a bad argument for two major reasons. First, it's absurd to assume that trade with other nations would be the same despite a world population drop of 85%. Second, Nigeria isn't a very good example of a "very poor nation" It has a "middle income status" according to the Worldbank, and has many industries and exports****. If you want to find an economy that wouldn't suffer from reduced population, try anywhere that has subsistence farming, like Europe before and after the Black Death.

Before the Bubonic Plague, Europe's population was so large that labour was incredibly cheap, which meant that no one would bother to invest in technologies to make labour was more efficient. Inefficient farming meant that farmers couldn't produce much more than enough to feed themselves, and farms had to spread into marginal territories, where farms were even less productive. With the death of 1/3 of the population, it was no longer necessary to cultivate marginal farmland, and the value of labour increased to the point where improved ploughs and farming techniques were rapidly adopted. This enormous loss of life resulted in an unprecedented improvement of every measure of well-being for the succeeding generations.

*Come to think of it, that 1:10 faculty:student ratio is a big variable. Of the 100.000.000 people in this minimum society, about one in eight will be a student in K-10, which means that one in 80 will be educating them, not to mention college level education. Tweaking this number even a little creates huge changes.

**After writing this, I looked back at the article to discover that the lower bound, 100 million, has no justification whatsoever. Only an allusion to the number of people necessary to maintain a civil aviation industry. I can't hope to rebut an argument through assertion, but I'll leave the rest of the article up, since our society is still worthy of analysis.

***An interesting detail about this article, it jumps from "maintaining our level of technology" to "maintaining our standard of living". Of course, they're not even close to being equivalent. After all, we could eliminate all subsistence farmers from the planet without harming our level of technology, and resulting in a net increase to our standard of living. To be fair, he may be changing the subject, not saying that they are the same thing. Also, "standards of living" and "quality of life" often are treated as the equivalent to "money spent on my benefit". So long as you're out of crushing poverty, money has very little relationship to happiness.

****Thanks, Wikipedia!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The "Ground Zero Mosque"

Since the beginning of the War On Terror, even George Bush was canny enough to repeatedly announce that we are not at war with Islam. No one is going to war with Muslims, or their faith. It's insane to say that Islam is responsible for 9/11, even if you think it's true; it alienates all Muslims, where we need all the Muslim allies we can get.

This is why the reaction to the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque*" is completely insane. When people object to building any Islamic building because it's associated with Terrorism, they are saying that the War on Terror is actually a War on Islam. They're saying that all Islam is responsible for 9/11. It's like objecting to building a Catholic Church near the site of a Baptist Evangelical White Supremacist lynching.

Let's be honest. This is another political controversy. There's no way that anyone seriously believes that this is a problem. The Republicans have adopted this attitude of vaguely complaining about it because they know they can score points. There's no attempt to make this building illegal, or to do anything other than complain. They know Fox News will broadcast every criticism of the President even on something this meaningless and ephemeral.

So if the objection isn't real, then why does it matter?
  1. The news can only focus on one thing at a time. Every moment dedicated to this nonsense is a moment taken from actual problems
  2. It needlessly antagonizes people who know that Islam isn't a monolithic culture, and weakens our ability to form alliances with Islamic countries and peoples.
  3. It makes a mockery of the liberties that we want to "export" to other countries. If we want to have liberty in other nations, we should show why the liberties are so good here.

*Which is not at Ground Zero, and is not a Mosque.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Science Fiction Clichès I'd Cut

I've been thinking about Science Fiction, and what I would like to cut out from it. (Un)fortunately, someone else has already written the list that I had been thinking of, with only the choice of words being different.

I don't think that Forerunners are a terrible idea in and of themselves, I'm just sick of them through overexposure. I don't know of a Science Fiction saga that doesn't have forerunners that left artifacts around the galaxy, not one. It does have negative effects on the story as well, it lets writers break the rules at a whim because someone can always find an artifact beyond our comprehension. If another species already came and invented everything, there's little use for our protagonists to do anything with technology, which is too bad, since Science Fiction is inextricably bound together with its technology.

Personally, I don't mind hearing explosions in space, I always figured that it was the sound local to the explosion, so we're hearing the sound that the people on the ship were hearing. I do agree that strategically using soundlessness would be a great way to add atmosphere (tee-hee) to a space-based story.

Absurdly Human Aliens is a problem for television, but I don't see why video games or fully animated programs can't have non-bipedal aliens. Let's be honest, there's infinitely more variety in mammals on our one planet than in a galaxy of science fiction races. I've developed an easy system with aliens: rate how human they are in appearance from 1-10. If they're 8 or above, they're probably going to have a romantic interest with one of the human crew. Come to think of it, I don't recall a single science fiction romance between a human and exotic alien. This might seem natural until you recall "deviant" sexual activity on our planet is far more expansive than to our one species. A species that actually had the intelligence to co-operate and reciprocate romantic feelings is far more approachable than, say, a horse.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Game Morality Systems

Lots of games try to model ethics, but I don't think any of them have really nailed it, mainly because ethics aren't formalized rules for most people.

The system I like the most is Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade system, but it's not really a system of ethics so much as a scale of Friendliness/Politeness - Brusque/Selfish. It works really well with the game, since it still makes sense to follow the mission if you're really Renegade, where it wouldn't really work if you were Chaotic Evil. Games that let you be Evil, then still force you into the same story as someone that is Lawful Good, inevitably end up with characters politely ignoring the fact that you just killed someone just for the fun of it.

Everyone knows about the D&D system of Chaotic/Neutral/Lawful and Evil/Neutral/Good. I'll just mention that it's rather silly. It also has the dumbest philosophy of all time: Druidic True Neutral, whose practitioners will join whichever side is losing to help even the odds. Apparently the writers didn't realize that this philosophy will lead to the Druid only being able to rest when every single non-Neutral person is dead.

A much more obscure one is the system for In Nomine. It does a good job of summarizing "goodness" without being sectarian about it. It defines "good" as Selfless, and "evil" and Selfish. I think a lot of people would agree with that idea, at least in general terms. Of course, when people are being "Selfless" for a religion, they're generally not being selfless at all. Consider someone who gives a thousand dollars to a bank, only to withdraw it later with interest. Both the bank and the person get a benefit out of the arrangement, but no one's going to say our investor is being Selfless for giving the money to the bank, he only did it because he was expecting a larger return. In this same way, religious people aren't selfless, they're investors. When Mother Theresa went to the poor to teach them about Jesus,* she was simply investing time in this world with the expectation of greater returns in the next. When In Nomine says "Selfless", it only means selfless in this world.

*She didn't have the time to teach them about what food was like, you have to prioritize. Religion tells us that it's alright to let children die, so long as they've been converted to whichever sect you believe in.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

War Polling

It's funny how pundits deal with polling about the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. There's an understanding amongst the media that the occupation is necessary, and any opposition to that is outside the mainstream and irresponsible to discuss.* This makes discussing polls difficult, since polls have indicated that a majority of Americans are in favor of abandoning our Middle East adventure today. If polling got to determine our foreign policy, we'd have left both Iraq and Afghanistan years ago. We wouldn't even leave a government** in our wake; Every American soldier would just pack their bags and get into the nearest plane, with no concern whatsoever for the people left behind. The American people simply don't care about the people of the Middle East. Or rather, they care far more about their taxes, their family, and their friends that have involuntarily recalled back to a country that they hadn't heard of ten years ago.

Maybe that position is irresponsible, maybe we can't afford to leave either Iraq or Afghanistan in that state. But it's simply disingenuous to pretend that people support "Obama's policy" or "The Republican Policy". The only reason they say they support either strategy is that they weren't given the option of the "Let's Just Get The Hell Out Of Here Policy".

*This doesn't mean everyone has to support it, they just can't seriously voice the opinion that we should leave immediately.
**Or a occupation Vichy-esque government, which is what we have now in Iraq and Afghanistan