Avengers – Infinity War: Adventures in Innumeracy

Thanos’ motivations in Avengers: Infinity War make absolutely no fucking sense. Cast as something of benevolent maniac, Thanos wants to kill half the life in the universe to restore “balance”. Putting aside the question of whatever the fuck balance might mean, Thanos seems to be driven by the belief that overpopulation will cause more suffering for life in the cosmos than simply turning half the universe to ash with the snap of a finger. It’s a simple equation: suffering from sudden death < suffering from overpopulation.

But there are a couple of problems with this. While it is true that overpopulation can cause all sorts of problems, it rarely (if ever) directly causes extinction. In natural systems, consumer populations and resource bases fluctuate in cycles of delayed feedbacks.

Very roughly, it goes like this: The bobcats eat too many rabbits, there aren’t enough rabbits to go around, some bobcats starve. Next year, there aren’t very many bobcats to eat the rabbits, so the rabbit population explodes. The year after that, there are plenty of rabbits to go around, so the bobcat population gets a boost. Etcetera etcetera. Of course, most ecosystems have a lot more moving parts. But by and large, that’s how it works, absent some kind of catastrophe. 

Humans – and, presumably, the other advanced civilizations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – have managed to escape the constraints of fixed resource bases. Instead of following boom-bust cycles, they have engineered their agricultural systems to be more and more productive. That’s why human population growth has never led us into a Malthusian Trap where we exceed the world’s carrying capacity and experience a massive die-off as a result. Granted, our growing population has caused all sorts of ecological and environmental problems, but it hasn’t resulted in the dire human consequences some alarmists have predicted.

Still, it is possible that there could be a point where population growth speeds past a species’ ability to increase its resource base. But even in this scenario, Thanos’ cosmic holocaust doesn’t really solve anything. My humble suggestion is that he really ought to have added a mathematician (or maybe just a person who took some math classes) to his crew of Cradle of Filth cosplayers. This is the problem: A=Pe^kt. What? Gibberish? No: populations exhibit exponential growth, and that’s what that little formula captures. P is your starting population, e is a mathematical constant (an irrational number sometimes called Euler’s number), k is the growth rate, and t is the number of years the population spends growing.

The current world population is about 7.3 billion. So let’s assume that is a number that really bothers Thanos and half that number is a figure that really gets his juices flowing. He wants the world population to be 3.65 billion. Fair enough. But does Thanos think that people are going to quit fucking after his magic snap wipes out half their loved ones? If so, he’s got another thing coming.

If we assume that humans keep breeding at their current modest rate of 1.09% a year, then we can figure out how long it will take before Thanos has to murder half the universe again. That is, 7.3=3.65e^.0109t. We know everything else in the equation (e~2.71828182845) so it’s just a matter of solving for t. Which works out to about 63.59 years.

Every 64 years or so, Thanos needs to come back and kill trillions. In about 256 years, he will have caused twice the suffering he would have caused if he just killed everyone to begin with. If the dude is concerned about suffering, he has an odd way of showing it.

But maybe that’s the plot of Infinity War 2: Tony Stark sits Thanos down and does some math and the whole Marvel Universe comes to an end that would make Franz Kafka feel blue.

Granted, these are gripes about a big purple dude in a movie where a 1500 year old demigod gets zapped by something like a coronal mass ejection for a few minutes to forge a magic axe and survives. So, like the movie itself, just consider this a bit of fun – with a soupcon of criticism for a glaring failure in internal logic.

The Martian Trailer Looks Absolutely Phenomenal

My previous reservations regarding Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian are quickly beginning to evaporate. The most recent trailer looks incredible. If this is any indication, the film will be visually stunning and hue remarkably close to Weir’s book. In which case it ought to be a thrilling, emotional piece of cinema, and a strong contender for one of the best science fiction films of the past twenty or so years.

A Snapshot of What it Was Like When Hunter S. Thompson Was Still A Writer

I encountered Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at around the same time most people do – in the turbulent and confused years of self-discovery more or less directly after exiting the nest. It is, I think, a widely misunderstood book. Taken purely as a celebration of unhinged debauchery, readers sometimes miss the strong undercurrents of anger and despair that underscore the rampant barbarism of the central characters. The book is a funeral dirge, cataloging the gradual descent of the rosier ideals of 1960s into the gaping and icy maw of practical self-interest. As Thompson saw it, only the bones of mindless self-indulgence were spit out as a patrimony of future generations.

Upon reading Fear and Loathing, I was immediately struck by Thompson’s prose and have been a fan ever since. Over time, I’ve come to see Thompson as something of a tragic figure, a man swallowed by his own compulsion toward self-destruction. Even so, he was a remarkable prose stylist, and I think it a shame that he gave so much of his energy over to other pursuits. As a social and political commentator, he had the stomach to look deeply into the darker side of things and was, in that regard, capable of deploying incomparably well-honed insights. Even as he descended into drug and alcohol induced dissipation, his rare wit and wisdom would sometimes surface, as it did in the hours after the September 11th Terror Attacks.

Anyway, the somewhat belabored point I’m driving at is an introduction to a video from PBS’ Blank on Blank series, featuring an animated accompaniment to a 1967 interview with Hunter S. Thompson concerning his experience with the Hell’s Angels. The Thompson in this interview is refreshingly cogent and introspective, delivering thoughtful commentary on the sociology and psychology of the chronically disenfranchised. Thompson recognized that violent misanthropes and criminals aren’t necessarily pathological individuals, but regular people who have lost all hope for success in the civilized world and have little choice but to eke out a living on the margins of society.

Without further ado, here it is: