Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sorry. I Can't Warm Up to 'Frozen'

"Frozen" on Disney.wikia.com
This post will be full of SPOILERS, so if you don't like having your experience ruined, go rent the movie or buy the disk and watch before reading this.

I finally got around to watching Disney's "Frozen", and I'm afraid that despite all the hype and glitz, I didn't much like the story.

Keep in mind as you read this that there's a lot to like about the show. It's got fine animation, and it's entertaining, and there's a lot of music that's sure to enthuse an American audience. For a child's movie, it's fine.

But I'm not a child. I'm an adult watching the movie from an adult's perspective. As I believe that family entertainment should be equally satisfying to ALL members of the family, I'm here to bring my adult perspective.

I did not see this in the theatre. Rather, I waited for the Blu-Ray/DVD home release. And about that release... I am gratified to note that Disney has implemented "Fast Play" here so that you aren't forced to sit through innumerable trailers. Instead you can press the Menu button at any time to get to the disk menu. This is especially appreciated on repeat views! All DVDs should be structured this way.

Also, I originally opined on this immediately after my first (and a half) viewing. A friend suggested that I'd like it better if I viewed it again. So I did.

First Impressions.

My first impression of the show was obviously informed by the trailers and by the ubiquitous clip "Let It Go", as seen on YouTube. From these I expected an astonishing soundtrack and supremely good character animation.

I was also informed by The Snow Queen, a story by Hans Christian Andersen, who is one of my all-time favorite authors. So I was interested in how they'd handle this story. I'm genuinely pleased to note that while this is inspired by the Andersen story, the inspiration is about all that remains of the original work. That's a Good Thing(tm)  I don't think I could handle another hatchet job such as the one Disney did on The Little Mermaid.

In the opening credits we're treated to a musical score consisting of traditional music, which lead me to believe that this would be a telling that is sensitive to the culture portrayed... that of the Sami people of the northernmost reaches of Scandinavia. I thought back to the overt care given to Pocahontas' portrayal of native Americans, or the Frankish Ratatouille. And indeed, it seemed at first that this is what we'd get, with an opening number involving burly ice harvesters. But it doesn't last. From that point forward it becomes a thoroughly American tale, told in American fashion, sung in American show tunes, including bizarre American ideas of royalty.

Only eight minutes into the movie, it simply stops making sense. Elsa, who is inexplicably born with magic frost powers, accidentally injures her sister Anna while playing, giving her a pronounced "ice cream headache", The King and Queen rush their daughters to some convenient Trolls, who they just happen to know well, so that Anna might be cured and have her memory wiped, and Elsa might be scared shitless for insufficient reason.

I call these "Encyclopedia Trolls" because they really aren't necessary to anything at all except to earn the title of "fairy story" and answer a few obvious questions with obvious answers. Like real encyclopedias, they don't really do anything except replace the things you thought you knew with "facts" that you never knew you should have known. But in this case they're like a bad Wikipedia edit... Anna can't rely on the "facts" she was left with. And their warnings of Elsa's power merely cause her parents to forbid her to use or practice them, thereby guaranteeing that she will never have control over them.

Keep in mind that you're never going to get an explanation for anything. In the original Hans Christian Andersen story there are reasons given. Those reasons are some of the elements you will not find here. You will not, for instance, find out why Elsa has frost powers. You will not find out why her parents think nothing of the fact that she has them, but only of the fact that no one else finds out about it. You will not find out anything at all about her parents relationship with the Trolls. You will not find out why the Trolls are as unimpressed with the fact of Elsa's powers as her parents are. You will not find out why there are Trolls in this story at all (they are a vestige of the original fairy tale). You will not find out why the ice harvesters are singing about "the frozen heart", though it is important to the story; though not in the same way, nor as effectively as in the Andersen story. [summary][original tale]

Following the accident and the visit with the Trolls the sisters are obviously and forcibly estranged. Eight minutes and thirteen seconds from the start of the first reel, you already know that Elsa's fear will be the cause of great consternation, that reconciliation with Anna will solve it, and that the kid with the reindeer will help her. Also, that the girls' parents are idiots who die young.

Now, in the original story, the Snow Queen is evil, for supernatural reasons that are explained. She is unable to see the good in anything due to shards of a mirror made by an evil Troll. In the Disney adaptation, she's not evil in the slightest, and any problems she encounters are due to her fear of her own abilities; that fear having been inadvertently planted by the Trolls and cultivated by her parents as a result of their good intentions.

There is such hamfisted writing here that it's as though an ISO-9000 fanatic ran around clearly labeling all of the plot devices "FORESHADOWING". I'm not the only one who noticed. Another friend pointed this out to me:


The overwhelming feeling I got here was that we were being given the bum's rush out of the backstory. The important elements are so obvious largely because there's not much artistic attempt to conceal them. Symbolism is used to ludicrous extent, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Cart Before The Horse

The ending of Frozen is actually much stronger than the beginning. This has all the earmarks of an idea that started in the middle. It feels as though they started with the big castle and a Narnia-like endless Winter and just worked out from there. Then the crappy storytelling turns into OK storytelling right around the point of the signature song "Let It Go", thirty-one minutes into the movie. Before that there are some moments, but they just don't gel.

They have a resolution for the story, but are left with an ending in search of a beginning. However, they know they're going to have to have certain elements in place. It looks for all the world like the beginning was written last merely to provide those elements, checklist-fashion. The result is rushed and wholly unbelievable, even in a fairy story. The entire beginning might have been better told in flashback. I offer that as serious constructive criticism.

Ludicrous Symbolism

We are to believe that these girls are forcibly locked, companion-less, in a giant empty castle for years, with nary parent nor regent nor governess nor servant in the picture. Yes, I know that Anna's visual isolation on the screen is symbolic of her feelings of isolation. But it's creepy as hell, and borders on child abuse. At a minimum, it's squarely in the zone of child neglect.
I know that's not what they're going for. I know that the idea is to visually depict the sisters' emotional isolation. But in an animated film, what you see is what you get. This is pretty creepy.
Meanwhile the wee village that serves as the kingdom manages to get along just fine without a government. The girls don't see each other for those many years, their sole interaction being that of Anna talking to an unresponsive wooden door, behind which her sister might very well be long dead. Anna, at the very least, has never received a lesson in how to comport herself as royalty, so she's a nervous, embarrassed, self-conscious wreck when she finally stands next to her sister at Elsa's "coronation" (I only say that because "tiaranation" isn't a word). Somehow, though, she turns into a pro from Strictly Come Dancing when it's time to waltz with a strange Mormon prince (ok, so he might not be Mormon. But twelve older siblings, and those are just the brothers? Sheesh!).

The writers pay lip-service to the folly of falling in love with someone you've known for a day, while replacing one lightning-fast romance with another much like it, save for the fact that the new guy dresses down and has a steady blue-collar job (and also multiple personality disorder... an interesting and entertaining answer to the "talking animal" meme).

The dangers of an icy or frozen heart are mentioned, but poorly. Whereas it was originally intended as a metaphorical device (Kay's heart freezes and this is reflected in his behavior toward his sister Gerda), the Disney crew didn't leave well enough alone. Rather than deal with that more difficult theme, they just decided to literally, physically freeze Anna. Not just her heart... the whole princess. Now, this might actually kind of cool if there were even the slightest hint of consequence for this. But there isn't. See, Anna just spontaneously gets over it, due to her willingness to give her life for Elsa. Now please remember that she actually did nothing of the sort... she had already been killed by Elsa, and her physical death simply took a while... but her mere willingness to die was the expression of love sufficient to thaw her out with no effort whatsoever required on Elsa's part. A completely consequence-free, blame-free, effort-free resolution. But an icy heart has no meaning at all for Elsa, who is motivated by fear of hurting the ones she loves. There is zero indication that she views anyone in the world as would one with a cold heart. But her own sacrifice... her own expression of love... that of leaving behind her home and kingdom for self-imposed exile... has no reward. Even in Disneyland, Life ain't fair. So here we have a wonderful theme introduced right at the beginning of the movie and then inexpertly squandered. (or "expertly squandered", if you consider that squandering is something that can be done in expert fashion).

On the other hand, they subvert the "true love's kiss" meme in favor of familial love, which is a fine thing to do. Sisterly love is still love. After Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, I think it's time to look beyond a romantic link-up to break a spell.

An Unnecessary Problem

When you look at the Disney politics of a Disney kingdom, all kinds of weird thing jump out at you. Here are a few associated with this movie:
  • Who was running things until Elsa came of age?  There must have been a regent, of course, but who was that, and why didn't they get screen time? Whoever it was didn't even get a mention in the credits, although "Spanish Dignitary", "German Dignitary", and "Irish Dignitary" did.
  • Remember, this happens on the day of Elsa's coronation. The reigns of power were just then being transferred. So when Elsa ran off, where was the Regent then? Surely that's where you look for leadership, and not the under-age Anna. You remember Anna, don't you? The kid who was never taught how to act like a royal?
  • Anna then runs off after Elsa and leaves in charge... the thirteenth son of a foreign king? Where was the Regent then?
  • And when the thirteenth son of a foreign king runs off to join the pursuit, who does he leave in charge? Where was the Regent then?
  • "Marriages" that are accomplished in private, without a witness, on the word of a complete stranger who just arrived as a coronation guest, and now claims to be King; are apparently legal in Arendelle, and the people and nobles (of which there are none in evidence) are OK with that.
  • In a Disney kingdom, foreign guests can be charged with treason, as opposed to sedition. For the record, you can only be a traitor to your own country. I don't expect children to know the difference, but I absolutely expect the adults who write these stories to know. And I expect that children will never know if they are not exposed to the correct information by adults who know better. And, as stated at the top of the blog, this is family entertainment and I'm here to represent the rest of the family.
On top of this is the fact that if Elsa is the queen and sovereign, particularly given the capricious politics of Disney kingdoms, she can very well declare frost-powers to be the vogue. It's her damned house. Her damned castle. Her damned city. Her damned kingdom. And with her powers she doesn't even need an army to defend it from the likes of a smarmy diplomat from "Weasel-town" (Weselton). Of course, I know that all of this is part of the point... that it's Elsa's fear that drives her into exile, and not any law, custom

Given the random politics, I think it's distinctly possible that there IS no "Queen of Arendelle". Rather, this is just a very rich, very eccentric family, and the townspeople just give them a smile and a nod because the town is pretty much financed through their taxes alone.

Picking Nits...

Failure to attend to certain necessary details make a show weak. Attention to the same details make it strong. Attention to detail makes for a multi-level performance, not just for the children watching it, but for viewers of any age. It gives the work "replay value" and prevents it from being the sort of childish thing that one can outgrow. It also lends a satisfying richness that you don't otherwise get. In this thing, it takes 8 minutes for this story to stop making sense, and by 8 minutes and 13 seconds exactly you know -- if you're paying attention -- how it's going to end and who with. When a show is more enjoyable when you're not paying attention than when you are, they're doing it wrong.

My point isn't that the show isn't superficially enjoyable. The music, for instance, is catchy and well-written if you discount it being discontinuous with the culture portrayed. The animation is usually well done except for notable instances where the directors deliberately chose to "break" their physical set. And indeed there is foreshadowing and symbolism, which is something you should find in every great work.

Nevertheless, despite being memorable, the music is culturally inappropriate ("discontinuous", "disjointed", and "jarring" are other adjectives that come to mind). Despite being well animated, the showpiece scene is broken. Despite having foreshadowing and symbolism, they are poorly crafted.
Because it has what you'd find in a great work, that doesn't make it a great work; just as an under-cooked meal isn't a great meal even though it has all of the right ingredients in exactly the right amounts.
I saw the symbolism. It's impossible not to, because a 12-year-old could have written it (although I did enjoy subversion of the "true love's kiss" meme). It's not the fact or lack of its existence that bothers me, it's the lack of attention and poor craftsmanship. They did not attend to simple things that, if attended to, would not have slowed down or harmed the movie in the slightest. Many of them -- most -- don't even require dialog to fix. Some might further the education of a child. All of them would add to the richness of the work.

I was expecting a GREAT work. I saw a GOOD one instead. Despite how you feel, *I* did not enjoy it as much as I COULD have IF they had crafted it better to take care of the blatant and glaring flaws which I specifically note, MOST of which I saw on the very first viewing.

Now, I'm not telling anyone not to see the movie. YOU are certainly welcome to like it for whatever reasons you do, to whatever extent you like it. But I'm not telling you what YOU should think... I'm telling you what *I* think.

All's Well That...

While they give a more-or-less satisfying ending, it's spoiled by the ride that gets you there. I include in that spoilage the marvelous musical numbers, which would be perfectly fine on their own, but are completely out of place here and don't pay the slightest homage to the culture from which this story is drawn. To make sure you know exactly how far they were from the mark, they include a token bit of traditional music in the opening credits.

The movie is visually stunning, but even there it has problems. For instance, in the signature sequence, "Let It Go", Elsa walks FAR out onto the balcony in the closing moments of the song. Then she delivers the zinger, "The cold never bothered me anyway," and doors SLAM shut immediately. WHERE ARE THOSE DOORS? She's hell and gone from the doorway. There are no doors on the railing... we saw it in a crane shot. But the directors wanted the moment and didn't care that they had to break the scene to get it. They were counting on us not to notice. For the most part that was correct: there are scores of reviewers that don't notice jack, and they gush and gush. It made me wonder what they're reviewing.



Like I said, not their strongest screenplay. That it won awards for Best Animated Film only goes to show how ripe this category is for improvement; and how effective a popular song and technology are at covering up a bad script.

Now, just because I think that Frozen could be better than it is doesn't mean that I thought it was garbage. As I said before, I thought it was good. In fact, if I didn't mention something, it's pretty safe to assume I either liked it or didn't mind it. For instance, although we know as soon as Kristoff arrives that there's going to be something wrong with Prince Forgettable, I like that the actual moment of that revelation is difficult to predict.

I also really enjoyed Kristoff's subversion of the "talking animal" meme. As he's talking for his reindeer, he strikes me as a borderline nutcase, and the thought of a "Disney Princess" falling for a "Loony Toon" appeals to me. I also like the fact that the closer he gets to Anna emotionally, the less he employs that affectation. At the end he drops it entirely, even though it's clear what "Sven" would say. It's really the only indication that this is an affectation, and Kris isn't non compos mentis. I almost wish he were. Has there ever been a genuinely mentally ill Disney hero before? I dunno.

Likewise, I don't mind Olaf the Snowman, which surprised my kids. Yes, he's rather transparently there to toy with you emotionally, but that's the nature of comic relief. and he gets to say the obvious and occasionally pithy things, including this observation on sacrifice: "Some people are worth melting for."

That's a nice line. Let's end with that.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Anti-Life Equation

I often take time on this blog to rag on pseudoscience... what I term "junk science". The comments and emails I receive are typically heavily populated by New Agers who take me to task for always siding with the "establishment" against their wide-eyed acceptance.

Well, the truth is, I don't always side with the establishment. There are fads in science, and I recognize those, too. In fact, I'm going to do it today. I also reserve a little bit of space for my own "wide-eyed acceptance."

The topic is the Fermi Paradox.[1].

OK, ok, so this post has nothing to do with Darkseid. But he's always searching for the "Anti-Life Equation", which is never actually defined, but which I think is a pretty good alternate name for "The Great Filter", which seeks to explain why the observable Universe isn't teeming with Life. So I've appropriated it as the title of this post.
Sorry if I suckered you in here.
Every so often the topic of extraterrestrial Life raises its head, and at those times various equations are offered to demonstrate the likelihood of that occurrence. It happened again today in a post on ArsTechnica.com. Titled "Habitable Planets are Bad News for Humanity," it postulates that if there's life on newly discovered exoplanets, our chances of killing ourselves off may increase in the future. But that's a pretty big leap... let's back up a step.

Where are they?

Let's start from the ground up. In the 1950s some scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory were discussing the probability of there being extra-terrestrial life. Enrico Fermi did some "back of the envelope" style calculations and determined that ETs should be fairly common. Realizing that his expectations didn't match his observations, he shouted, "Where are they?" A decade later, Frank Drake came up with what became known as "The Drake Equation", which ran along the same lines as Fermi's. However, Drake had the distinction of sharing his equation [link]. It takes into account such things as the rate of star formation, the percentage of stars having habitable planets, the chance of life of any sort arising on those planets, the evolution that life, and the chance that it invents technologies (such as radio) that we can detect).

You should know that there is nothing whatsoever useful or scientific about the Drake Equation. It is nothing more than a collection of unknown and unknowable assumptions strung together using the language of mathematics. Its main value is in stimulating conversation on the topic.

However, that doesn't stop most people from treating it with the same sort of respect they give E=mc2, although that respect is wholly unearned. Using some optimistic assumptions, no less than Carl Sagan suggested that there might be as many as a million technologically advanced, communicative civilizations in the Milky Way alone. Some scientists dissent, but a fair number nod their heads and echo, "Yep, there must be."

This is a comforting fiction to a scientist, because it falls well within the danger zone we call "confirmation bias". You can look that up yourself, but basically, that's the tendency of human beings to favor information that confirms their preconceptions, and to discard information that does not. Anecdotes and confirmation bias form the basis most of the pseudo-science that irks me, so I'm not about to let Carl Sagan slide. Scientists aren't immune. I'm going to indulge in a little speculation myself, and point out that there's a well-established tendency toward atheism among modern scientists. Among atheists, it's rarely enough to disbelieve in a God... those who believe in a God must be shown to be wrong about... well... nearly everything. And since a basic principle of most religions is that Man is special in the cosmos, then that must be wrong, too. In television programs like "Cosmos: A SpaceTime Oddysey", great pains are taken to illustrate how small, insignificant, and utterly un-remarkable we humans are in the immensity of the Cosmos (Some Christian apologists are having fits over it).

Nevertheless, there remains the Fermi Paradox. Where is everybody?!?

It's not a glib question, and it's not an easy one to answer. The Universe appears to be around 13 to 14 billion years old, to the best of our observations. Our star is relatively young by comparison; only about 4.5 billion years. We humans are younger still; a mere smattering of thousands of years old. And yet we stand on the brink of space travel. In all the billions of years of prior existence, if there were only one technological civilization, it should have pretty thoroughly colonized the Milky Way within 100 million years or so of gaining the ability of interstellar travel, even at sub-light speeds. Everywhere we turn an antenna we should be receiving radio signals. Perhaps they would carry the voices of long-dead entertainers, just as The Lone Ranger is still galloping across the galaxy, having first left the paddock called Earth in the 1933. Even if life were far less ubiquitous than we thought, it should be common. We should detect it's presence along the densely populated plane of the Milky Way.

In fact, we have heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. Despite deliberate attempts to seek out what scientists believe should be commonplace, we've come up completely, utterly, and embarrassingly empty. There just doesn't seem to be anything out there, and this is called "The Great Silence", which is just a way of saying, "Fermi's got a point... where is everybody?"

I would go so far to say that if it weren't for confirmation bias and anti-religious pre-conceptions, every scientific investigation into extra-terrestrial life thus far has indicated that we are special. The scientists among you should understand that this isn't some Young-Earth Creationist rant. We are... so far as we can tell... entirely unique in this Universe. The exceptional-ism of life on Earth is one thing that Religion appears to have gotten right. Whether we decide to take a leap of faith or invoke the Anthropic Principle, that rarity isn't something we should lightly toss aside. Every known example of every living thing in the history of Time is on this ball of mud we call home.

Obviously somebody is wrong.

OK, so somewhere along the line, something is wrong with one or more of the assumptions in that Drake Equation. We not only don't see as much life as predicted, we don't see any. None at all. Why?

One easy solution to the problem is to simply declare that civilizations are a lot harder to come by than we thought, so the Drake Equation needs to be really pessimistic. But as far as speculation goes, the "good stuff" centers around a concept called "The Great Filter",

The Great Filter basically pre-supposes that the Drake equation isn't terribly bad... Life surely must be everywhere, despite what we haven't seen... but that civilizations kill themselves off before we get a chance to pow-wow. Naturally, that's an over-simplification, but it contains the guts of it. Some speculative reasons include that other civilizations are too aggressive, too self-destructive, too far away; or that they arose too early or too late for us to detect, or that we're just not listening properly. None of this speculation is terribly optimistic. Remember, we've heard absolutely nothing. This implies that every time that civilization has ever been attempted anywhere, by any species, it has ended in disaster (unless the successes are so far away that the evidence hasn't reached us).

Indulgence in this line of thought would indicate that the Last Days aren't just idle speculation. Sorry, couldn't resist, but I'm serious. So far, we can only believe in extra-terrestrial civilizations through blind faith, for there is no other evidence. And if we take it on faith that they existed, and take it on faith that the lack of evidence is because they cease to exist before we can detect them; then it would seem that for lo these many years, religions have been completely right to warn against final conflicts like Ragnarok, or Armageddon, or Frashokereti, or Yawmid Din, or Acharit Hayami, or Pralaya, or what-have-you. Maybe the details are up for debate, but it would seem that these scientists are siding with Bronze-age priests to argue that every civilization faces a terminal conflict. In truth, we know of none who have survived.

Except... maybe... us.

We could be the very first civilization to make it this far. The possibility is real enough that some science-minded people are fervently hoping that we never find extraterrestrial life. This brings us back to the ArsTechnica article. You see, since we know of exactly no extra-terrestrials with sentience and technology, the fact that we ourselves have attained both is extremely good news. We've gotten farther than anyone else, and we haven't died yet. It is therefore possible that we have beaten the Great Filter, and will live long, happy lives into a bright Utopian future[2].

but But BUT....!

If we find just one more civilization like us (so the reasoning goes), then we're back in hot water. For then we're not unique in the Universe, and we are back to explaining why we've detected absolutely no one else, without the comforting possibility that we're the first to make it this far. That increases the chance that our disaster is yet-to-come, and there will be an Armageddon. We may yet see astrophysicists standing on street corners wearing sandwich boards that read "The End Is Nigh".

My opinion

I am religious. That is the space that I've reserved for my "wide-eyed acceptance". However, I'm content to know nothing of the "true nature" of God. If God is God, that would be a futile exercise of hubris. There are a lot of conflicting religions in the world, and not everyone can be right. Those that are right can't be right about everything, for some of what they teach conflicts with Nature. I am, therefore content to interpret the "books of revelation" as being figurative and the "book of nature" as being literal with respect to physical matters. There is only one book of nature, and we are all subject to natural law irrespective of our beliefs.

Forget the rest of the Universe for a moment, and let's narrow our search for intelligent life to just one place... the only place we know life of any kind to have arisen... the planet Earth.

Evidence indicates that Life on Earth arose some 3.7(ish) billion years ago. That's rather early in the existence of this planet. However, it took a billion years for a singular event to occur... a bacterium invaded a cell and rather than get digested, it took up residence. It became the fore-runner of mitochondria. All multi-cellular organisms are eukaryotes, descended from this union. And animals that we'd recognize as animals (jellyfish)...? They've only been around for about 570 million years. Homo sapiens have been around less than 200,000 years, or about 0.005% of the total. Humans lived without any durable civilization for all but the last 10,000 years or so. Nearly all of our technological advances have occurred within the last 150 years. Furthermore, evolution doesn't favor intelligence. There is no "evolutionary ladder".  Even if every condition is right for intelligent life, it won't arise if there doesn't exist the need for it and the mutation to take advantage of that need, at the same time[5]. Even on a planet as supremely hospitable as Earth, with myriad species for raw material, plenty of competition, and billions of years, technologically advanced creatures have only appeared once.

Let that sink in. Even if Life itself is common, simply getting to multi-celled organisms is hard. Getting those organized is harder still. And even when you have all the intelligence you need, technology doesn't necessarily follow. It took us a long time to get there. But when a breakthrough happens, it happens fast.

The Earth has a number of truly unique features:
  • Ours is a "Population I" star. Its components were gathered from a dust cloud that contained a rich amount of heavy elements such as uranium. These elements were formed in the explosions of supernovae from previous generations of stars. Because Sol is a Population I star, the planets that surround it (formed from that same dust cloud) also are rich in heavy elements. The presence of radioactive materials could have had a hand in promoting mutations without burning us up. Certainly, our body chemistry depends on elements that are heavier than iron[3]. Chemistry like ours could not have existed in the early Universe, and Earth contains enough precious metals to plate the planet to a depth of 4 meters.
  • Our planet has a molten core of iron, that enables it to generate a strong magnetic field, shielding us from cosmic rays. A little radiation is good for evolution, but a lot of it will yield a barren rock. Look at Venus, Mars, and the Moon... all in the habitable zone.
  • Ours is a double planet. Our abnormally large Moon causes tides that would have encouraged the evolution of amphibians and land-dwellers. Without tides it's less likely that animals would ever have left the seas. Our Moon was much closer in ancient pre-history, and the tides much stronger.  "Missing your bus" when the tide went out wasn't a trivial matter. Also, the Moon stabilizes Earth's rotation. Earth's axis wobbles, but not erratically as it might without the Moon.
  • We have a lot of water. This stuff is practically a miracle liquid. It dissolves most substances, exists in solid, liquid, and gaseous forms within a narrow range of temperatures (and at the same temperature!), and is necessary for organic chemistry.
So we're on a planet with stable rotation, at the right temperature, shielded from cosmic radiation, having just enough heavy elements of the right kind, and having liquid water seas with strong tides. I can count on one finger the number of planets we've found that fit that description[4]. You're standing on it.

The fact that we're not orbiting a first- or second-generation star is significant, in my opinion. Chemistry like ours could not have existed in the early universe, so I think it's -- not entirely, but somewhat -- misleading to offer up the age of the Universe as a variable. Properly, it would be the availability of Population I stars with rocky planets in the habitable zone.

In any event, with these factors in mind, I have no problem at all with the idea that we may be among the first sentient, technologically advanced lifeforms in the observable Universe. There may be others, for if the time is ripe here, it may be elsewhere; but it wouldn't surprise me that their radio waves haven't reached us yet. Our own have only had time to spread some 90 light-years.

And if we do find others? What then? Well, I wouldn't cringe with fear of the Anti-Life Equation (the Great Filter). No. If we're "among" the first, then so would they be. Somebody has to be in the first class. At the very least, when science confirms the possibility of a global conflict predicted by religion, it's probably a good idea to get our houses in order so our fears don't become self-fulfilling prophecies.

And speaking of prophesies... science nerds, this is one area where you owe the "religious nuts" a bit of respect. They have the cajones to admit they believe in the exceptionalism of Mankind and an impending battle at the End of Days on faith. If you're proclaiming that the sky is full of aliens that we can't detect because they've offed themselves in an inevitable conflict, you're doing the same thing.


[1] I link heavily to Wikipedia here. This is not a scientific treatise or term paper (I used a picture of Darkseid, for Pete's sake). The links are for your benefit, not mine. Wikipedia is generally clearly written, and if it isn't then there are folks (like me, occasionally) who go in and fix it. It's also well-referenced. Wikipedia is not the end stop in a quest for references, but it's can be the beginning of a discussion. If you need more than a cursory understanding of a subject, dig in to the references there until you're satisfied. Really, folks, if you're complaining about the use of Wikipedia, it's an extremely strong indication that you don't know how to use any reference, and shouldn't be on the Internet without adult supervision. 

[2] Presumably our Utopian future will be just like Star Trek, only without aliens in the Federation, or warp drive, or transporters, or particles-of-the-week, or subspace radio....

[3] Elements heavier than iron that are required by the human body include Cobalt, Copper, Nickel, Zinc, Selenium, Molybdenum, and Iodine. Arsenic is also required in trace amounts, but we don't know why. We do know, however, that completely removing arsenic from the diet of test animals caused them to become ill..

[4] I know what you're thinking... "What about Europa?" Keep in mind we're looking for technologically advanced civilizations, not algae or fish. Europa has more water than Earth, and we think it's kept liquid by friction from the tidal forces exerted by Jupiter and its other moons; but it's also bathed in severe amounts of ionizing radiation. For life as we know it to remain stable, it would have to live beneath that thick ice sheet, which means no fire, and therefore no metallurgy, and therefore no technology that we could recognize.

[5] It is distinctly possible that sentience is the result of sexual selection and is only incidentally a survival advantage. As sexual selection is arbitrary, even if all conditions are perfect and the opportunity and the mutation present themselves, it won't do any good unless somebody thinks a big brain is sexxxy


Sunday, April 06, 2014

How Language Works

My infographic on communication was misunderstood by some.

Fortunately, it was not universally misunderstood. In fact, most people "got it". Nevertheless, I'll expound on it, because that's what I tend to do.

An expert will tell you that there is a difference between language and communication... that language refers to the vocabulary and the grammar that we use to express concepts; and that communication refers to the sharing information. You can have communication, for instance, by non-verbal means. My cat is perfectly capable of telling me when she's hungry, or when she wants out. She doesn't need language for that, any more than you yourself need language for basic communication.

But language requires communication if it's to work

The Basics of Communication:

If you don't have all of these, what you have is
a failure to communicate

So let's take a few moments to look at communication. Over the years there has been some disagreement over what comprises effective communications, but here are the four parts as I have learned to see them:
  1. The SENDER 
  2. The MESSAGE
  3. The RECEIVER
  4. FEEDBACK
If you don't have all of the above, you're not communicating. Keep in mind as you read this that I'm talking about the simplest case of a single message. In dialogue, there are multiple senders and receivers, transmitting multiple messages and feedback criss-crossing each other, sometimes asynchronously. Dialogue can be complicated, but in every case, with every message, it's composed of simple message loops.

Keep that in mind: a message loop is simple. You can make some very impressive structures using only the simplest Lego bricks. Likewise, even Albert Einstein was a collection of single cells.

Who's talkin'? 
(the Sender)

Let's say you are the Sender, so we're aligning this discussion with that graphic. As the Sender, you're the one who owns the message. It originates in your head. You are the one who knows it in its entirety. Since you own the message, you have the responsibility for phrasing it properly. No one else. And you hold the responsibility for failing to do so.

The receiver doesn't know the message. You can't depend on him to "fill it in" for you. He doesn't have it. He lives in a different skull. He can try to fill in the message from his experience, but he's not obligated to, and that's prone to failure anyway because it is basically guesswork. You cannot depend on someone else's guesses to accurately communicate your message. That's the reason we need feedback, which we'll talk about shortly.

Are you talking to ME? 
(the Message and the Receiver)

The message can be almost anything. It can be a stop sign, an advertisement, a verbal sentence. In its simplest form it is the transmission of one thought. Multiple thoughts require multiple loops. 

Now in my previous post I noted that "when your words are universally misunderstood, the failure lies not with the listeners. YOU used the wrong words." That's 100% right. You don't have to take it as an accusation either... it's merely factual information you should use to refine the message. 

I also called it "Rule #1", putting it before even the definition of communication. Why? Because it's essential to the creation of the message. You should begin and end every conversation with this question: Who's my audience? It matters because the identity of your audience is tied to the placement and construction of the message. For instance:
  • If you're an adult talking to a child, you should use words a child can understand. Specifically, you should use words that your target child can understand.
  • If you're writing an ad intended for Mexican consumers, you should write it in Spanish.
  • If you're writing Business Requirements for a computer program, you should avoid technical jargon.
It's actually a little broader than words. Far more things go into a message than you might think, particularly if it's delivered in person. Your demeanor, your dress, your grooming, your mannerisms, your facial expressions, and even your past statements all define the context for your message. And it's important to remember where your audience is. That's why I don't list the medium (or channel) separately. The medium and the message are one. Try looking at it this way: neither the message nor the medium is the thought. Each is intended to convey the thought, and each answers the same question: "How will I say this?". 

As for the message I sent above, I did not publicly identify the receiver. That was deliberate. In part, it's because embarrassing the recipient was not part of my message. In part, it's because I feel the message is broadly applicable. In part, it's because I wanted to see if the receiver recognized himself. Judging from emails and private messages, a number of people thought it applied to them enough to say so. I got the feedback I was looking for, and in the case of the intended recipient as well as others, the message was understood.

Do you understand?
(Feedback)

Have you ever tried talking to someone who doesn't even acknowledge your presence? Frustrating, isn't it? Feedback is a necessary component of communication. In the case of a blog such as this, or radio, etc., the feedback can be delayed or indirect. For instance, I get feedback in the form of comments, emails, and analytics that count the number of visitors, their geographic locations, and referring sources. A radio station may get feedback in the form of listener calls, letters, and emails, and advertising sales. But it has to exist.  

Of the four components I'm describing, feedback is the least recognized. Nevertheless, to a castaway on a deserted island, a message in a bottle is merely an attempt at communication, whereas a rescue defines success. 

Now, you don't have to feel bad if 100% of your audience doesn't get the message at first (unless it's an audience of one). In every crowd there will be someone who doesn't follow the conversation. And you don't have to feel bad if those who do comprehend the message do not agree with it. "Agreement" is not what feedback is about. "Understanding" is.

Let's look at our original infographic again. How do you know that your words were misunderstood? Only through feedback.

The Fifth Element
(Iteration)

Feedback is necessary because it not only tells you whether the message was received and understood, but because it can tell you more about your audience than you knew at the start. This allows you to refine your message, choose the right words. and try again.

Feedback is only useful if you act on it, which is why I'm mentioning "iteration" as the "fifth element" that doesn't appear on my diagram. Just as communication is dead when you have no feedback, it's likewise dead when you ignore the feedback you have. In more complicated communications, such as conversations, the other person talking isn't to give you an opportunity to rest up. It's for you to pay attention.

And that's what my infographic is really about. By listening to feedback you can choose the right words and get your message to the receiver intact. It's not an accusation. It's advice.

So why did I bother to post this when so much has been said by so many about communication? One big reason is that although the Wikipedia article on Communication says, "Feedback is a critical component of effective communication," it only mentions the word two times (one of which I've just quoted), and for further information links to an article on feedback in engineering contexts that have little to do with communication. I wasn't kidding when I said feedback is the least recognized component. That's no way to treat something that's critical.



This post utilizes graphics adapted from those contributed to Wikimedia Commons by user East718

Raising Pyramid Stones with Levers and Ropes

Popular Archaeology has an interesting report on some work done by Roger Larsen of Columbus, Mississippi to demonstrate how large stones can be moved by only a few people with simple ropes and levers. Larson has put video of his method up on YouTube.


One of the nicest bits of tech showcased here is the "Isis Knot", as Larsen calls it. Rather than being a complicated fastening of multiple lines, each line terminates in a very simple, very solid knot. The central winch line has similar knots along its length, and the lines are connected by a smaller bit of twine wrapped around them (see illustration). The purpose of this knot is to allow the levers to gain purchase further down the rope while steady tension is always maintained by either the winch or the levers.

Larsen's "Isis Knot"

The majority of the force of pulling is vectored along the winch rope, causing the knots to interfere and brake the load.a very small bit of force is exerted by the wrapping twine to make this happen. Larsen mentions that those who used such a process regularly would doubtless be better at it, and I agree. For instance I can immediately see where his procedure can be easily streamlined by putting a knotless loop in the center of the wrapping line, passing both loose ends through the loop, and pulling it tight. A number of other quick fasteners could be used.

Larsen believes that this method would allow the sides of the pyramids to be used as ramps (though I favor Jean-Pierre Houdin's  speculation about an internal ramp. It's important to remember, though, that it's not necessary for all of the blocks in every tier of a structure to be raised by the exact same method.

As with my own conjectures, the purpose of relating Larsen's experiment here isn't to say this is how the Egyptians did it. Rather, it's to demonstrate that it's possible for them to have done it, in response to the terribly unimaginative few who would discount the native ingenuity of our ancestors in favor of wild speculation about aliens and magic. Basically, these people can't think of reasonable, workable ways to complete a task, so they resort to "it must be magic" when genuine consideration fails them. I don't find such thinking to be terribly smart, by any measure.

BTW, you can see more about Houdin's investigation into an internal ramp on YouTube.