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. Continue reading

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:

Ted Cruz Thinks Captain Kirk Would Be A Republican – He’s Wrong and Here’s Why

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Captain James T. Kirk

According to a recent New York Times interview, Ted Cruz thinks Captain James T. Kirk would have been a Republican. He’s wrong – and here’s why. (Naturally, we’ll file this is one of the more important topics I’ve written about.)

I’ll skip the pedantry of pointing out that Republicans and Democrats no longer exist in the future depicted in Star Trek. Instead, let’s get right to the heart of the matter – James T. Kirk is the captain of a starship on a mission of exploration for a socialist government, and Star Trek itself is a rosy-eyed depiction of a socialist utopia, crafted by and populated with humanists. The very essence of Star Trek should be anathema to the modern Republican.

For the woefully uninitiated, here’s bit of a primer. Star Trek takes place in the 23rd – 24th centuries, following the adventures of men, women, various aliens, and even a few androids, operating on behalf of Starfleet, the exploratory/defensive wing of a massive, centralized bureaucracy called the United Federation of Planets. Member planets in the UFP are in many ways autonomous, but are nonetheless bound by the dictates of the central authority of the Federation. Society is classless, and the economy operates without the exchange of money.

Star Trek depicts a world in which values closely aligned with progressive humanism have triumphed. The Vulcan philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” is celebrated, and collectivist phrases like “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” carry the weight of moral compunction. The motivating force behind the mission(s) of the starship(s) Enterprise is a search for knowledge simply for sake of knowledge – and at great personal risk and material cost.

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The Vulcan symbol for diversity. Spock describes it as follows: “The triangle and the circle – different shapes, materials, and textures – represent any two diverse things which come together to create truth or beauty – represented by the jewel.”

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, put the spirit of diversity that drives Star Trek quite forcefully:

Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms… If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.

One can be forgiven for thinking these are values individuals inclined toward conservatism – at least as expressed by the modern GOP – don’t really appreciate. People who think members of the LGBT community do not deserve to share the same rights as everyone else are miles away from delighting in “those small differences”. They are expressing the sort of regressive attitude that will forever keep the most plausible, most reachable aspects of the future depicted in Star Trek forever grounded in the world of science-fiction.

Likewise, Republican rhetoric is often firmly rooted in a celebration of individual self-interest and anti-establishment sentiments that are contrary to the submission of individual needs to the collective good. Nor can it be said that people who cut funding to organizations like NASA and the National Science Foundation come off as particularly big fans of the quest for knowledge.

Hell, even free market capitalism, approached with near religious reverence by the modern GOP, is portrayed as an artifact of humanity’s childish past in the universe of Star Trek. Its primary practitioners are the Ferengi, hideous aliens who are variously treated as predatory, lascivious villains and greedy, bumbling clowns. The Koch brothers, Donald Trumps, Mitt Romneys and Herman Cains of the Star Trek universe are greeted with scorn and distrust. Their motivations are viewed as sordid and puerile. But for the modern Republican, capitalism and the quest for profit is the glue holding the moral architecture of the universe together.

So why does Ted Cruz think James T. Kirk, the equivalent of a NASA mission commander working for the government of the Netherlands, is a Republican? To begin with, there seems to be a natural human tendency to paint our heroes and role-models in the subjective palette of our individual values. Cruz is projecting his ideals on the charming space-rogue that is Captain Kirk. According to Cruz, Kirk is “working class” and “a passionate fighter for justice”. What exactly “working class” means in a classless society is, and shall remain, mysterious. But Cruz is dead-on when he describes Kirk as a passionate fighter for justice. He’s just wrong in thinking that characteristic makes him a Republican. There are passionate crusaders for justice on both sides of the aisle – they just have a few differences of opinion concerning what qualifies as “justice”. I have a strong suspicion that Kirk might be a little more sympathetic to the liberal/progressive perspective on justice than the conservative one.

In the interview Cruz says that “readers of science fiction are interested and attracted to the future. And politics is a battle for framing that future.” The future depicted in Star Trek is one in which the pillars of modern Republican ideology – Christian theology, free market capitalism, nationalism, traditionalism – have been cast aside in favor of the ideals espoused by progressive humanists. Christianity is properly viewed as a collection of myths – a comfort blanket for humanity’s infancy. Economic and monetary interests have been entirely subordinated to the will of the state and the society it serves. Multiculturalism is the rule of the day and the shackles of tradition have been broken away and replaced by context-sensitive humanistic ethics.

Let me reiterate: there’s no reason the conservatively inclined shouldn’t like Star Trek. The world depicted in Mad Max is a morose and violent hellscape. But those movies – the latest entry in particular – are great entertainment. I just wouldn’t want to live in that world. Based purely on observations of their behavior and stated political beliefs, I suspect something along those lines captures a person like Ted Cruz’s appreciation of Star Trek. It’s fine from a distance, but he sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there. In fact, his political record is that of a man who works diligently to prevent it from ever happening.

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Wise words from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Seveneves

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I’m not typically drawn to the business of writing book reviews, and I’d hate for this to be the start. So let’s just call this a book “celebration”, spawned by my immense – possibly even fawning – admiration for Neal Stephenson’s most recent book, Seveneves.

I’d audiobooked Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon during some long, tedious hours spent using super-neat laser scanners to digitize archaeological remains in a creaky old lab festooned with dusty cabinets and rusty steam pipes, and was considerably impressed. Sprawling and thoroughly researched, Cryptonomicon provided food-for-thought and compelling entertainment in roughly equal measures, so I was intrigued when I read an early review for Seveneves that suggested Stephenson was tackling nothing short of the apocalypse.

The novel opens with the violent destruction of the moon, an event that will cascade into the eventual death of earth. It’s a pretty drastic event, and makes for an excellent hook. At first the sudden destruction of the moon (never fully explained, but possibly the work of a high-speed impactor) is greeted by the novel’s protagonists – mostly scientists and engineers, dynamically and idiosyncratically portrayed by a man who has clearly spent a fair amount of time hanging around scientists and engineers – with a sense of wonder and curiosity. But it quickly becomes clear that one of the more salient consequences of the event will be the incineration of everything on the earth’s surface, including humanity.

Thereafter, the story – told in three parts – deals almost mechanistically with the likely ramifications of a situation in which life on earth becomes untenable. It should go without saying that no one can predict what would actually happen in a scenario like the one at the core of Seveneves, but Stephenson does a good job of making the reader forget this little caveat and think that he not only can, but has. This is rock-solid speculative fiction, and the plot – especially in the first two thirds of the book – is driven by a practical assessment of the challenges humanity would face in evacuating earth, and how those challenges might be met within the bounds of the scientifically and technologically possible.

  • What type of vehicle is best for navigating a space filled with an increasing amount of fast moving debris? A swarm of small, semi-autonomous capsules perhaps?
  • How do you avoid getting toasted by cosmic radiation? How do you manufacture fuel? Maybe capture a comet as a partial solution to both?
  • How do you grow enough food to sustain even a small population? Genetically modified crops and hydroponics, supplemented with a bit of human flesh when times get tough?
  • Where do you go when the planet on which your species evolved and has perpetually depended for survival is unlivable? Start anew on Mars? Shelter in a large chunk of the moon’s newly exposed iron core?
  • How do you govern a population under conditions in which survival necessitates a restriction of what have come to be viewed as natural human rights? Who gets to make these decisions?

Seveneves is not, to be clear, a story about the mass migration of humanity from the terrestrial to the celestial realm. In a very real sense, it is about the destruction and reconstruction of humanity. The world’s sharpest minds come together to solve the aforementioned problems, and the solution they come up with is a long shot at best. Only about 1500 people make it off the earth before its surface is consumed in an inferno that will last millennia and render it unlivable for even the hardiest of extremophiles. In space, they face a vast array of challenges posed by the realities of life in an extreme environment, compounded by humanity’s perpetual tendency to create new problems as a byproduct of the interaction between people with different ideas, beliefs, and opinions about what is best. Stephenson doesn’t shrink from depicting the hardships humanity might face in attempting to survive in space, and the result is often brutal and harrowing. But it is never anything less than compelling.

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Seveneves author Neal Stephenson

The Martian: Sciencing the Shit Out of It

Today, 20th Century Fox released an official trailer for Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s superb novel, The Martian. Frankly, I’ve been awaiting this film with something like giddy trepidation. As previously indicated, Weir’s novel was excellent, and Ridley Scott has done some strong work in the past, particularly in the realm of science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner). Scott’s more recent work, however, has been a little lackluster. Here, I’m thinking particularly of Prometheus, a film that presented a characterization of scientists that was borderline egregious: the ranks of a crack scientific team engaged in what must certainly be a monumentally expensive and risky mission to uncover traces of alien life on a distant planet are populated with bumbling idiots and religious fanatics. Peter Weyland might easily have stocked his crew with the Three Stooges or Keystone Cops and encountered less ineptitude. And don’t get me started on the science itself…

Anyway, the point is that Andy Weir wrote a monumental work of hard science fiction. Indeed, the verisimilitude of the science gives the story much of its propulsive energy. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is put through a crucible of maddening, dangerous, and immensely practical challenges as he attempts to survive on Mars. Likewise, he and the NASA specialists on earth must find practical solutions using extremely limited resources. The result is a thrilling story, a celebration of human ingenuity and determination. Weir’s fiction builds upon the factors behind Apollo 13’s persistence as a compelling survival story, and why a film that deviated little from the historical record of the events in question worked so well. Brass tacks, I was worried Scott might find a way to inject the story with his brand of superstitious woo-woo nonsense or cloud the science with unnecessary rubbish.

Which is why I find myself incredibly relieved excited by this trailer. The cast is top-notch, and it looks like Scott and his production team have done an excellent job capturing the spirit of Weir’s book. As Damon’s Watney explains in the trailer, “in the face of overwhelming odds, [he’s] going have to science the shit out of this.” Here’s hoping the film makes good on the trailer’s promise.