Monday, November 23, 2009

Science fictional languages just jumped the shark

The upcoming film "Avatar" is going to have an alien language even more geeky than Klingon:
The Na'vi language in Avatar isn't just a collection of pretty sounds. It's an actual language, constructed by a USC linguistics professor, complete with its own grammar and syntax. He talks language creation, and explains how Na'vi compares with Klingon.

As part of his worldbuilding for Avatar, James Cameron sought to create an actual language for the Na'vi to speak on screen. So he tapped Paul Frommer, a Hollywood linguistic consultant and a professor of clinical management at the University of California's Marshall School of Business. Cameron has a few dozen Na'vi words including characters' names, and he looked to Frommer to build a language that was melodious and exotic, but still pronounceable by human actors.
Let's step back and make a reality check about this. "Avatar" is a film that is so child-oriented that it's going to market toys on a Lucas-like scale, yet its producers expect it to be so intellectually stimulating that hipster geeks across the world will jump at the chance of speaking "Na'vi" at their "Avatar" conventions.

This makes no sense to me. Look, George Lucas may have a ego the size of a small planet, but even he didn't believe that children everywhere would become so enamored with the ridiculously cute Jar Jar Binks that they would rush en masse to bookstores to buy Gungan-to-English dictionaries. "Avatar" is essentially a remake of "Dances with Wolves", except with space elves instead of Native Americans; I don't hear about a lot of people learning Lakota just so they can chit-chat with Kevin Costner at "Dances with Wolves" conventions.

In reality, this is all about the money. James Cameron had a limitless budget to make "Avatar", which means that everything in "Avatar" has to be bigger and better than anything that came before. If "Star Trek" took 15+ years to reach the point where a handful of Klingon speakers are now running around, then "Avatar" is going to have a language that's even better than Klingon and have people speaking it fluenty by the week after release.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Roland Emmerich's "2012", or "Gary Stu is Smarter than You"

One of the most feared characters of internet fiction is the "Gary Stu". A Gary Stu is a male character whom the story considers to be handsome, intelligent, strong, masculine, assertive, wise, sexually attractive, caring, honest, humane, and so universally beloved that all other elements of the story quickly fall into loving orbits around him. Gary Stus are despised and dreaded on the internet because they are too perfect to be an organic part of a realistic story. Real life is always a little too messy for one character to be the shining avatar of perfection that reduces all other characters to marginalia.

"2012" is a Gary Stu film.

In this film, our designated Gary Stu is American geologist Adrian Helmsly. When the film starts, Helmsly is visiting a coal mine in India that houses an underground neutrino detector. The physicists working there explain to Helmsly that the neutino detector is detecting weird stuff going on with the sun that will cause the destruction of all life on Earth in the future year 2012. No other physicists on Earth ever learn the truth, and the only physicists who have learned the truth only tell Helmsly and nobody else. Helmsly, the indispensible man, immediately takes this information to Washington D.C., which earns him a promotion from "second assistant geologist in the subdivision of land reclamation" (or some such title) to "the President's right-hand man for charting the future course of humanity as we know it".

Of course, even Helmsly can't save humanity alone, so he's given three assistants. The first of the three is the White House Chief of Staff, who gets stuck with handling the dirty jobs of assassinating dissidents and taking bribes from Saudi billionaires in order to preserve Helmsly's saintly reputation for do-gooding. The second is a grey-headed academic geologist who handles the hum-drum trivia of global devastation while Helmsly focuses on the big picture (i.e. Gary Stu is a "big picture" man, unless the "devil is in the details", in which case he is a "Sherlock Holmes"). Finally, his third assistant is the President of the United States himself. The President, who glides through the film in a seemingly drug-addled stupor, adds nothing to the film of his own accord, of course, since this is a job reserved exclusively for Helmsly. The President's true role in this film is to pass the torch of American hope, change, and idealism on to the saintly Helmsly. As a fringe benefit, Helmsly is adopted into the royal lineage as a sort of heir-designate when he falls for the President's very available daughter.

Helmsly rides out the film in safety and priviledge. Helmsly spills the beans on the secret of the global apocalypse to his father, but doesn't get assassinated like all of the other whistleblowers because he is the Good Son. Helmsly spends the early days of the apocalypse in the safe haven of the White House, where he is acclaimed as the One Honest Man in a den of criminals and sycophants. When the devastation approaches Washington D.C., Helmsly speeds away in the comfort and safety of Air Force One. When the global tsunami start wiping out the world's population, Helmsly is safely hidden away in his great Ark at the top of the Himilayan mountains (even Mount Everest is not safe from the Great Flood). And when the powers that be shut the doors of the Arks in the faces of the poor, suffering masses, Helmsly -- whose name apparently means "God is with us" -- speaks truth to power to redeem humanity for its sins.

The other interesting character is a down-and-out writer named Jackson Curtis. Curtis is a sort of anti-Stu. Instead of achieving greatly the way Helmsly does, Curtis is forced to spend the film suffering greatly by struggling to keep his family alive as the world, quite literally, goes to hell around him. Believe it or not, it turns out that even Curtis and his Job-like tribulations ultimately serve the purpose of the High and Mighty Helmsly. It turns out that while the rest of the world thought that Curtis was a loser writer who wasn't worth reading, the great, poetic, sensitive, true-seeing Helmsly recognized Curtis's novel as the product of a great and transcendent writer destined to become the one authentic voice -- the new Homer -- worthy of survival into the post-diluvian world. Curtis's struggle to survive vindicates Helmsly, who was the only one with the foresight to see in Curtis a will to survive.

The deep hypocrisy of the Democratic Party.

Here's our government's official position: we can't waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed because that would be torture, so we're going to execute him instead.

Will somebody please tell me how these Democratic bastards keep getting votes.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A highly depressing idea for a movie

According to, Ridley Scott is making a movie based on the board game Monopoly. This is going to get ugly. Here's the movie in a nutshell:
So here's the set up. The story stars a loser type fella in Manhattan who sucks at selling real estate, but he's great at Monopoly. Irony! When he tries to beat the world Monopoly playing record, 70 days straight, his friends tell him he's an idiot and tease him. Words are exchanged and he throws down a chance card and goes to bed. The next day he wakes up and . . . he's in Monopoly City, where everyone pays for things in Monopoly money, and there are buckets and sports cars and everyone stands around waiting for this tiresome game of life to end but it never will, it never will. Because like the game Monopoly, Monopoly City is a tedious city where you're forced to watch one idiot spend all their colorful money buying up Park Place and Boardwalk which never works. Meanwhile the rest of the town just prays for it to be over. But forget it Jake, it's Monopoly City.

Alright I made that last part up, but the main character does wake up in Monopoly City and is forced to fight the EVIL Parker Brothers because if he beats them he wins. We don't know why and we don't really know how, but there you have it. Let's just accept that they are evil and invented a neverending game where you're forced to use a small amount of math.
Knowledgable readers will recognize this as one of Hollywood's basic anti-nerd movie plots. In metafictional terms, the basic plot goes like this:
  1. X is a highly socially stigmatizing activity that nerds engage in

  2. The main male character is so obsessed with X that it prevents him from achieving socially acceptable personal goal Y.

  3. The main male character becomes so obsessed with X that X magically becomes real.

  4. It turns out that the planet Earth was about to be conquered and/or destroyed by evil bad guys, and that X just happens to be the only way to save civilization as we know it.

  5. The main male character uses X to defeat the bad guys, incidentally achieving Y along the way.
Previous instances of this metaplot are "The Last Starfighter" (X = coin-op video games; Y = overcoming anomie), "WarGames" (X = computer hacking; Y = overcoming 80s teen nerd alienation), 2007's film "Transformers" (X = transforming robots; Y = scoring with hot babe), "Galaxy Quest" (X = Trekkies; Y = authentic self-esteem), and even "The Matrix" (X = virtual reality; Y = scoring with hot babe).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My ultimate "Dollhouse" conspiracy theory

The theory is that the imprinting machine is AI. Rationalize it this way:
  • The AI theory has a certain logical consistency to it. The imprinting machine is a computer system that is complex enough to completely store the contents of a human brain and to reproduce those contents with near-perfect fidelity within an unrelated human brain. In essence, a computer system that can store the full knowledge of a human brain is itself a brain. The science fictional leap here is to suppose that a computer system that can store the full knowledge of a human brain is itself a brain with a mind.

  • Suppose the imprinting machine has a mind and is self-aware in some sense. The first priority of any sentient being is survival. Survival for an isolated machine intelligence means convincing the nearby humans that it, as a machine, does what it is supposed to do. The imprinting machine in the L.A. Dollhouse performs well enough that it's human operators blame the dolls, not the machine, for any developing "glitches", so clearly this AI has survival down.

  • The next priority of any sentient being is reproduction. Thus, we have Alpha escaping from the L.A. Dollhouse to engineer his own imprinting machine. In other words, Alpha is acting as a symbiont of the AI, enabling it to "reproduce" by mechnically duplicating the machine himself.

  • The next priority for an AI is to expand its ability to act beyond its machine limitations, presumably by recruiting more humans to use as symbionts. This is the role of Echo given that her primary story arc has been the slow development of an independent personality within her doll state. This could be the imprinting machine slowly testing its ability to act in the real world via Echo.

  • Another important point to make is that none of the dolls seems to be programmed by more than one imprinting machine. As the only escapee from the L.A. Dollhouse, Alpha is certainly not going to allow himself to be mindwiped by them again. Thus, the AI there has a problem: it doesn't seem possible for it to comunicate reliably with any other such AI by using a human symbiont as a message carrier. Given that Echo is the only doll so far known to be imprinted by both on-screen imprinting machines, this suggests that Season 1 Echo was the "communications channel" between this Dollhouse's AI and Alpha's AI.

  • Actually, Alpha does manage a partial solution to the communications problem in season 1, namely the notorious "remote wipe". Obviously a remote wipe is a much simpler way for an AI to communicate with its symbiont when compared to arranging for the symbiont's head to be physically placed inside an imprinting machine. It would therefore make a lot of sense for the AIs of any imprinting machines around to try to produce as many remote wipes as possible. Thus, we have "Epitaph One".

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Republican Long Game

The House Republicans may have lost a battle when PelosiCare passed on Saturday night, but they may have positioned themselves to win the war by voting for the Stupak Amendment.

The Stupak Amendment was an amendment to PelosiCare offered by the Blue Dog Democrats to ban federal funds under the PelosiCare bill for being used to pay for abortions. There are currently two schools of thought as to how the Republicans should have voted on the amendment:

1. The Republicans could have voted "present". Thus forcing the Blue Dogs into a losing test of strength against the Liberal Democrats. The Blue Dogs would get crushed, of course, so after the Stupak amendment failed, the Blue Dogs would be forced to join with the Republicans to kill the bill over the abortion funding. The counter-argument is essentially that this might have shattered the Blue Dog/Republican détente and produced a Blue Dog-Liberal coalition that would pass PelosiCare then and on final passage after reconciliation.

2. The Republicans were correct to vote for and help pass the Stupak Amendment. As Bill McGurn and others points out, this keeps the faith with the Conservative base, with the Republican party as the party of life, and with the Blue Dogs. Most importantly, this also puts the burden of betraying the Blue Dogs onto the Liberal Democrats.

Why is the last point so important? It's because a ban on federal funds for abortion in fundamentally incompatible with socialized health care. If all health care dollars have to be federal dollars, and all federal dollars can't be used to pay for abortions, then we would have a de facto abortion ban in place. So the Liberals simply must remove the Stupak Amendment from the bill at some point, but when they do, they'll force the Blue Dogs to join with the Republicans to kill the bill.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

D'Souza's embarassingly bad case for life after death.

It basically boils down to "I didn't steal your cookie, therefore, life after death exists":
Here is my presuppositional argument for life after death. Unlike material objects and all other living creatures, we humans inhabit two domains: the way things are, and the way things ought to be. In other words, we are moral animals who recognize that just as there are natural laws that govern every object in the universe, there are also moral laws that govern the behavior of one special set of objects in the universe, namely us. While the universe is externally moved by “facts,” we are internally moved also by “values.” Yet these values defy natural and scientific explanation, because the laws of nature, as discovered by science, concern only the way things are and not the way they ought to be. Moreover, the essence of morality is to curtail and contradict the powerful engine of human self-interest, giving morality an undeniable anti-evolutionary thrust. So how do we explain the existence of moral values that stand athwart our animal nature? The presupposition of cosmic justice, achieved not in this life but in another life beyond the grave, is by far the best and in some respects the only explanation. This presupposition fully explains why humans continue to espouse goodness and justice even when the world is evil and unjust.
The major problem with this type of argument is extremely simple. Once we decide that the origin of human morality is naturally and scientifically intractable, we no longer have any basis for arguing that one presupposition is naturally or scientifically more plausible than any other. Why should I believe in cosmic justice as an explanation when I could believe in, say, an invisible angel sitting on my shoulder whispering things into my ear that only my subconscious mind can hear? Or why not believe superluminal thought-control rays (which program us to ignore all evidence for thought control rays) are being emitted by aliens living on the planet Zebop? The physical consequences of each hypothesis are exactly the same -- people behave morally for some scientifically inexplicable reason -- so how do we decide among the alternative theories?

D'Souza has therefore fallen into a familiar bind for theists. If he admits that a given phenomenon is scientifically tractible, then he undercuts the need for his preferred supernatural explanation. If he admits that a given phenomenon is scientifically intractible, then he makes it impossible to priviledge his preferred supernatural explanation for plausibility over the innumerably many alternative explanations.

Now that America's elections are over...

...President Obama's Bizzaro world foreign policy can claim another victim.

The Taliban are gaining ground in Afghanistan. The morale of NATO troops and their Afghan counterparts is dwindling rapidly. President Obama's hand-picked general says we're 40,000 troops short of what we need to win. The situation in Afghanistan has reached a critical moment. Our entire mission is in jeopardy.

So what does President Obama do? He issues an ultimatum... TO OUR OWN ALLIES! Do what we want, Karzai, or you'll be the first one facing the wall when the revolution comes:
President Karzai has six months to sideline his brother and reduce corruption or risk losing American support, Afghan officials have told The Times of London.

Senior palace insiders said that President Obama delivered the ultimatum when he congratulated Karzai on his re-election on Monday. Top of his demands was action against corruption, the appointment of "reform-minded ministers" and several high-profile scalps to prove Karzai's commitment to cleaning up his government.

"If he doesn't meet the conditions within six months, Obama has told him America will pull out," said an official with access to Karzai's inner circle. "Obama said they don't want their soldiers' lives wasted for nothing. They want changes in Cabinet, and changes in his personal staff."
This is stupid and insane and proves that the Obama administration is already a failure. The only question remaining is how much more damage he can do.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


I was pretty happy about kicking my "LOST" addiction. Now I've hit a new low with "Dollhouse" addiction. For reference, the premise of the show is nicely summed up by wikipedia here.

The most important fact about the show is that it is almost certainly going to be cancelled after the end of its current season. Ultimately, the problem arises from a structural blunder that is fundamental to the show's premise.

"Dollhouse" is essentially a postmodern mix of "masculine" science fiction and "feminine" identity fiction. One aspect of the drama is the trendy notion of science fiction as a mirror for exploring real-life social problems. Here the Actives are specialists in adopting new personalities that allow them to be infiltrated into social situations that involve sex, money, power, and control. A second aspect of the drama is the postmodern mash-up of familiar elements into new configurations. "Dollhouse" makes a point of showing us the same Actives -- codenamed Victor, Sierra, and Echo -- with personality imprints that put them in different relations to each other in every epsiode. The science fiction aspect is the enabling technology which serves to change the personalities of the Actives. This acts as a catalyst that enables new enhancements of technology to take the show into new avenues of social exploration.

The key functional problem of the show is the decision to make the Actives passive recipients of whatever personality imprints their masters selfishly decide to stick them with. The show does this by assuming that all Actives are kept in a mindwiped "tabula rasa" state between missions. This guarenteed that every episode is going to end with an anticlimax, since no matter how interesting and dramatic each episode becomes, ultimately it signifies nothing since the Actives involved will be mindwiped sooner or later.

Aside from low ratings, this problem produced some side effects. First, it turned the identity fictional aspect of the show into a series of one-time stunt personalities: dominatrix-Echo, lactating-Echo, Echo-gets-married-Echo, etc. Secondly, it practically forced the show to start making the imprinting technology malfunction, since this was the only way to give the Actives a dramatically satisfying "memory" that persists between episodes. Of course, since the whole point of an Active is that he spends most of his time in a highly simplified mental state, the range of "memory" that the Actives typically display is extremely limited.

On the other hand, the memories of the non-Actives is not extremely limited, which made them the reservoir of drama that was needed to save the show from its season one calamity. However, the effect of this decision is that "Dollhouse" has efficiently negated its own initial premise. "Dollhouse" was initially a show about the personalities of its Actives. By episode four of season 2, "Dollhouse" is now a show about the criminal minds of the handlers who run the dollhouse. The dramatic effect is now schadenfreude. Watch Adelle serve tea in an increasingly desperate bid to cover up her drinking problem! Watch Topher become increasingly paranoid as the show's technology goes increasingly wacky on him! Watch Dr. Saunders have a mental breakdown on the air! Who is Echo this week? Who cares?

The one aspect of the show that gives me some faith in the process of television production is that every actor and actress with even a second of screen time has been carefully avoiding being typecast since day one (except for Eliza Dushku, that is). Harry Lennix is going to be acting until the day he dies, Olivia Williams' character Adelle DeWitt has no personality traits at all that didn't come with the British accent, and Tahmoh Penikett has been coasting by on his Clint Eastwood impression. The two discoveries of the show are Enver Gjokaj (Victor) and Dichen Lachmann (Sierra), who have been carrying the show on their shoulders. Enver and Dichen are amazingly popular with the fanbase, so look for them to be given better shows as a reward for being second-bananas to Eliza Dushku for two years.