Inexpansive Diplomacy

A review floated across my smartphone’s News feed recently lauding the hard realism of the television series The Expanse, based on the novels of James S. A. Covey.  I’m enjoying the series immensely, but probably only because it is vastly superior to most of the SciFi fare served up on TV or even the movies.  But this blog post is to keep things realer.

If you watch any of the diplomatic scenes you should notice the same old nasty stereotypes of politicians.  Anyone who has been close to politics in real life knows that the snarky insults and jibes seen in these movie scripts is nothing like real life.  (My father was an MP and CEO, I know a bit about what goes on in boardrooms and back-rooms and select committee’s and UN conferences.)  Sure, there are always the rotten apples, the evil politicians who either have their own personal agendas or who move and shake at the behest of private donors or corporate interests, but in real politics, at least outside the USA, Russia and China, and a few banana republics, such people are rare.  Lord knows why those three super powers are infested with corrupt politicians, maybe the riches available coupled with the imperfect electoral processes combine to float the crud to the top of the political bowl.

The Earth literally cannot sustain such crud at the leadership top for too long, and I do mean “literally”, this is clear if you witness the almost existential threats we face from climate change to nuclear conflict (once thought a threat of the past, but now renewed thanks to corruption in US politics).  It is likely we will not have to wait too many decades for things to change though, either the Earth will force our politics to get more civilised and scientific, or a few countries will wake up and lead the way, through innovation and economic growth unrivalled by the corrupt countries, the corruption will be self-defeating.  Those are two likely scenarios in my view, and I think the most likely of a few other generic futures for world politics.  (A highly unlikely scenario is some benevolent dictator emerges, unlikely because social media will probably not allow such a figure to emerge, and dictatorship rarely correlates with acceptable benevolence.  Another is a gradually maturation, unlikely because of the rapid changes in the environment and technology field.)

Which brings me to The Expanse.  The diplomacy scenes do move the plot along a bit, but at the gross expense of a nuanced realism that could, I think, only enhance the prestige of the series.  My sense is that by the time frame of The Expanse technology, near 2100 to 2200, I think a more peaceful empirical, consultative world politics will have been either accepted and demanded by the general public, at least in democracies, or it will have been forced upon society out of need for collective action at highly coordinated government scientific levels to control many existential threats facing humanity and a vast proportion of the Earth’s biota and habitats, and not the least the expected and justifiably increasing demands and voice of the worlds poor, who cannot be for long suppressed in the combined weight of their voices, once the minimum poverty level reaches a state where the poor all have a means of living that afford some scant time in pursuit of justice and then eventually maybe some leisure.  Some of these things are just so inevitable they are almost laws of sociology.  The uncertainty, based on extrapolation form history, is just how long these changes will take, and whether the rise of the power of the worlds poorest will lag too much or be fast enough to reach a synergistic confluence with the worlds’ environmental problems.

scifi_TheExpanse_ShohrehA_UN_undersecrataryShohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, UN Assistant Undersecretary in the SciFI series The Expanse


Her character is a “relatively good” politician, but the type who commits vile torture on non-Earthers.

One thing that really irked me was the supposedly principled and good character, Secretary Avasarala, is depicted committing torture to the point of death on a prisoner.  You’d hope in our future no politician would even need to do such a  thing.  At the worst, you’d imagine brain scanning or drugs would do the job of information extraction.  But you’d hope they would not even need to resort to such invasions of a persons mind, just talk to them, treat them well, and certainly do not imprison them because that’s against not only their interest but your interests as well!  Enlightened psychologists know that torture and duress solicit less useful information, and make information harder to discover.

So damn!  I would love to watch an intelligent, gnarly, hard scifi series that does the diplomacy seriously and sanely, without the trashy stereotytpes.  Here’s a glimpse of what I imagine:  around the Earth-Mars diplomatic table, the participants know each other well, they do not take nasty spiteful jabs at each other, they care about their planets, they realise making peace is not only more pleasant, but economically far more sensible as well, they realise warfare is a waste, they have no nuclear weapons because no one will ever use them.  They are working to solve a new existential threat posed by the proto-molecule.  The tension is based not around Earth-Mars-Belter hostility, but based around the uncertainty about the proto-molecule and fears that insane lunatic rebels will exploit the foreign material to wipe out most of Solar civilization.  I think such a pot would be much more gripping, and certainly not as boring as watching grossly and frankly pathetically sterotyped “politicians” and “diplomats” try to stumble towards solar system warfare.





Superhero Puzzle #911 — What to do about Speedy’s bloodlust

Bloody shafts!  Is there any recent kiddult TV superhero series with worse dialogue and mindlessly repetitive character tropes as “Arrow“.  For an X-Gener like me you kinda’ have to watch some of this rubbish as a homage to your youthful reading habits. But seriously folks, I’m about ready to give up.  There is a saving grace … it gives me an excuse to write the Superhero puzzles series.  So here goes.

This post is about trying to suggest more imaginative scriptwriting.  (The situation is so desperate that I’ll even offer my services and quit my job if DC or Marvel want to employ my scriptwriting services.)

First, some more rants to set the scene.   Black Canary (Laurel Lance):  there cannot be a more impulsively driven mad women in all of scifi tv.  If there is … warn me not to watch!  It’s unbearably annoying and totally unimaginative scriptwriting.

Another character whose story arc shows anti-darwinian evolution is Spartan (John Diggle):  is there any other superhero or scifi character who is so consistently wrong in their predictions and strategies and yet so morally preachy and idiotically righteous?  I lost count early on of the number of times Diggle chews out Arrow (Oliver Queen) and then turns out to be utterly wrong and yet never seems to have to apologize.    Apart from it’s sister TV show Flash, there is perhaps no dumber superhero series that pretends to be “youth/adult entertainment” as Arrow.  The quasi-science is appalling at times, and the plot directions baffling when far more awesome stories could be built by using more physically realistic constraints.  If you want a contrast, then try watching Agents of SHIELD or Agent Carter or the short run of  Constantine,  … The Marvel television series writers are not brilliant, but they are levels above the DC franchise writers.  At Marvel they at least know when to not take themselves too seriously, in the British Doctor Who tradition, so it’s fun.

The Puzzle, the Bloodlust

So Speedy (Thea Queen/Red Arrow) gets half-killed (or fully killed? Maybe not brain dead?) then healed in the Lazarus Pit. But the dude who killed her was none other than Ras Al Ghul, who in turn gets killed by Oliver.  Thing is, if one is resurrected in the Lazarus Pit it is due to all the souls who died or gave their life force to the pit.  When you get physically healed by the Pit you give up a small smidgen of your life force, a part of your immaterial soul gets taken, you see, so the unfortunate side-effect of receiving too much healing (i.e., resurrection) is a bloodlust, a need to kill, unless you can kill the person who killed you, then the bloodlust fades.  So Thea is stricken with a  case of terminal bloodlust since Olly killed her killer, so she cannot escape the curse.

Thea Queen trying to control her bloodlust.

“Whoa there lady!  Yo’ ’bout to stab an unconscious thug!” Thea Queen trying to control her bloodlust.

The Puzzle:  instead of having a boring recurring bloodlust situation, what is a far more creative and awesome way to “cure” Thea?

The answer in a few paragraphs.

First, let’s examine a rather boring scenario.  A far more extreme bloodlust case arises when the terminally stupid and achingly boring impetuousness of Laura Lance gives her the mad idea of resurrecting her long dead sister from the grave.  She (along with Thea) transport Sarah Lance’s body all the way to Nandar Phabat to the Lazarus Pit and resurrect her, with the almost incomprehensible (but weakly defended) permission of the new Ra’s, Malcolm Merlin.   Not knowing about the bloodlust side-effect, Laurel is thrown into turmoil when Sarah awakens as basically a raving rabidly made zombie.

Guess who killed Sarah Lance?  It was Thea Queen, her friend.  Thea was driven to kill Sarah by Malcolm Merlin who had drugged Thea.  Don’t ask why.  Anyway, Sarah now has to worst case of bloodlust in the world.  She is stalking Star City killing any women who look remotely like Thea Queen.

When Oliver finds out he consults his buddy John Constantine who knows  bit of black magic.  Constantine performs a ritual and retrieves Sarah Lance’s soul, along with an appropriate amount of mystic realm histrionics.  But the ritual is not too difficult, it takes a few herbs and spices and incantations, a mystic battle and is all over in a few minutes (maybe an hour of fictional time).

OK, so why not repeat for Thea?

Guess the scriptwriters need her to hold onto bloodlust for some plot contrivances!  Lazy, lazy scriptwriters.  You make the intelligence of your characters seem like a 6 year old, probably worse, any 6 year old child I know would see the immediate hope for Thea.  But not a DC tv writer or producer.  They seem to need to insult even 6 year olds with their future plot neediness. Or are they just really dumb?   Maybe Constantine has a quota on how many times he can use a spell?  Who knows.

The Solution:  you get Constantine or some appropriate character to hypnotize Thea into transferring her bloodlust for an urge to kill into an urge to have sex.  She becomes a mystical nymphomaniac with primodial sexlust.

And before you start accusing me of misanthropy, I reckon a nice cure for the sexlust would be to get Roy Harper, Thea’s former beau, back in town.  He’s the one who gets to suffer the brunt of the impact of the sexlust.

But just imagine the hilarious stories that could result.  Sadly, DC take things way too seriously for this.  But I think in the Marvel universe it’d fly.  Whaddaya reckon?


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Superhero Puzzle #905 — “Carbon dating shows … “

From Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 episode 3: what’s wrong with this dialogue?

The scene: the agents are in the lab and Fitz as just discovered sand particles from an ancient scroll he supposed would be a clue to unlocking his love, Jemma Simmons, from the dark matter obelisk, are not what they appear to be …

  • Fitz: OK, the sand itself … not unusual. Mostly silicon dioxide particles just like on Earth.
  • Coulson: But you’re saying this sand is not from Earth?
  • Bobbi: Sir, carbon dating shows that …
  • Fitz: [interrupting] It pre-dates the Earth by a billion years.

Could it be that sand is not made from silicon dioxide particles?

Nope. Sand is quartz, mostly, and that is SiO2 (silicon dioxide) mostly.

Could it be that there is no carbon in sand?

Maybe, but that is not bad science. Silicon dioxide has no carbon atoms in it of course. But any quantity of naturally occurring sand is full of impurities, some organic some inorganic, either of which type could contain carbon.

Might it be that sand is only found on Earth? (If you thought this was the bad science you had to be kidding!)

Could it be the title of this blog post gives it way? Is “carbon dating” phony science?

Certainly not! If you attended the bare minimum of science classes at school then you should know carbon dating examines the ratio of radioactive carbon-14 to carbon-12 atoms in fossils and other artifacts.

The answer is the split dialogue, “carbon dating shows that it pre-dates the Earth by a billion years.”

Why? Carbon dating relies upon two critical things:

    1. Radioactive Carbon-14 is created by cosmic ray bombardment of naturally occurring Nitrogen-14 in the earth’s atmosphere. Nitrogen-14 is highly unstable and decays almost immediately liberating a proton and forming radioactive carbon-14.

So far OK. Plenty of other planets would also have nitrogen atmospheres.

    1. The atmospheric Carbon-14 will combine with oxygen readily to form carbon dioxide.
    2. Living organisms breath in CO2. A certain ratio of which will be radioactive CO2 due to the carbon-14. Organisms also breath in normal non-radioactive CO2 containing stable carbon-12.

Still OK. It would be entirely plausible that life on other planets also uses oxygen and carbon dioxide for respiration.

    1. When an organism dies it no longer takes in the radioactive CO2. So the naturally occurring ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in dead matter slowly decays over time at a predictable rate according to the decay rate of unstable carbon-14. This mechanism creates a natural fossil clock.

Still uncontroversial. The same natural fossil dating clock mechanism would occur on other planets.

So where is the telly bad scifi?

  • Question: How long does the carbon-14 clock work? Answer: only roughly ten to 20 times as long as the radioactive half life of carbon-14 (the time it takes half of a sample of carbon-14 to decay).
  • The half-life of carbon-14 is 5730 years. So we can only expect carbon dating to work accurately for fossils as old as 50,000 years, or at a stretch up to 100,000 years with advanced ultra-sensitive methods of laboratory analysis.

That’s the solution. Any fossil artifact older than about 100,000 years cannot be dated using carbon dating.

So either Fitz was wrong about the date of the sand quartz begin over a billion years old, or Bobbi got the dating method Fitz used totally wrong. Since Fitz is a physicist, and Bobbi a field agent and biology undergraduate, the solution is that the scriptwriters for Bobbi were brain dead at the time of typing up this episode.

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Superhero Puzzle Series #9xx — Telly Bad SciFi series

Superhero Puzzles #900 to #999 will be asking you why a certain line of dialogue or plot contrivance is serious awful science fiction. As usual, the pseudo-science in the plot does not need to be perfectly scientific realism, but if a much simpler and superior explanation or story dialogue or plot contrivance is possible then we need to ask why the writers are not employing or consulting proper scientists for more realistic hard SciFi in their screenplays or storyboards or especially their final scripts.

Hey! Real scientists can be useful!

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Here’s a v. quick post:  have you been dying to see an intelligent SciFi movie or series?  They are are few and far between right?!  One I am waiting for on DVD is The Martian (2015), I’ve heard ok reviews and the book it was based upon had very good reviews and listening to interviews with the author, Andy Weir, it seems like a quality piece of hard scifi that had some sound engineering physics thought behind it.   Hard to know whether to read the book or watch the film. Film is faster!  Life is short!  Therefore watch the film and sadly miss the book?   Too many mathematics texts to read anyway, so the film it is [sigh]!

If I’m not feeling wide awake enough for a mathematics or physics lecture during my lunch break, I might try a bit of scifi TV or read a science blog article, or sometimes find a good movie to dip into.

And I do mean “dip into”.  I eat fairly quickly, and not too huge helpings, so it’s all over in 15 minutes.  And that’s about as much of a movie I can watch in one session.  Heading out the the theatre is a rare event these days, and besides that, I like to watch a good movie in comparative solitude.

So every purple moon I might find an intelligent SciFi movie.  But I will start watching and get nervous that any moment the story will sensationalize and lapse into horribly saccharine, physically implausible unreality.  You cannot even begin writing a critique of the SciFi genre because 99% of what the film industry turns out is utter crap.  That might seem too harsh, the SFX are vastly better than in days of old, but the stories are the critical component of any good film or book.  And it is the plot, the dialogue, and the whole story structure that really sucks in just about every recent Scifi  film I have seen in the past decade or more.   (Hold on now, I am getting to a good recommendation.)

The problem I think is that the improvements in SFX have outpaced improvements in screenplays.  Older screenplays could be just as good or a lot better than modern scripts because the focus in the old days had to be on stories because the SFX totally sucked.  Take Star Trek as an example.  The modern Star Trek stories have a lot more fancy CGI and the screenplays use a lot more modern science ideas, so they seem pretty cool compared to the camp TV series.  Similar comments could be made about Doctor Who, another generation spanning SciFi series.  But if you analyse them a little more deeply, and think about the dialogue and the psychology, not a lot has really improved.  The dialogue in Start Trek Into the Darkness (2013) was fairly childish.  Whenever a cool science point could be made the pseudo-science explanations lapsed perhaps into even worse quasi-science than the dialogues from the original TV series.  They just use a few more modern science buzz-words.  The actual meat of the scifi science explanations is often a lot worse.  The logic is a lot worse, the liberties taken with reality more extreme. (Recall the “photon torpedo”? … OMG, … let’s not even go there!) The Star Trek franchise should be consulting the chap who wrote the Science of Star Trek books, or Michio Kaku, who can rhapsodize endlessly about plausible scifi science.

I could write a long essay on this, but I won’t.

Can I then get to my recommendation?

Sure dude.  Just hang on one more minute though.   The thing is, I suspect, what makes a really good scifi story is one that dials back the fantasy and aims for a lot of hard realism.  So something like the “near future” genre is always promising, but using plausible and reasonable extrapolations of current science.  Especially stories that obey the principles of conservation of energy, momentum, and the second law of thermodynamics.  Those are perhaps the most blatantly violated principles of science that bad SciFi movies in particular routinely abuse.  My point is that if you discipline your story to obey just these three principles then you will be constraining your plot.  Such constraints are beautiful things.  It forces the other human aspects of your story to be more powerful and it helps make the audience more involved and engaged, even if the average audience member is not aware of the principles.  (I lose count of the number of CGI-mediated violations of conservation of momentum in crashes and fight scenes.  Each instance just makes me more and more nauseous.  even fairly serious film makers like Peter Jackson, routinely violate conservation of momentum — both linear and rotational — in their CGI spectaculars.)

So when someone makes a SciFi film that does not even begin to worry about spectacular CGI, then I am extremely interested.  So here is the recommendation:  go and grab a copy of Robot and Frank (2012).

Robot_and_Frank_movie poster

A movie with no CGI pretensions, and a nice premise on the face of it.

I have only seen the first 15 minutes, so I am still nervous the plot will get derailed later by unrealistic physics or computer science.  But I think this is one film I can happily watch to the end based on the story premise.  Give it a go.

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I guess it is possible the artificial intelligence postulates in this movie will degenerate into implausibility, but over the next week of lunch breaks I’ll risk it. 🙂



Chain Mile Evil

When I discovered the works of China Mieville, at first through his fabulous piston-driven horrifically gnarly Perdido Street Station, I starting getting pangs of desire to start writing fiction again. Actually “Perdido” is not really horrific. It is gross, sickening, ugly, brutal and yet intricately beautiful. Even the worst of the “monsters” are beautifully described by Mieville, by which I mean his terrifying Slake Moths who feed from and drain psyches.

(Incidentally, there is a creature, called a Teller, who does something similar in Doctor Who, Season 8, episode “Time Heist“. Only it is not as avante garde a destroyer as the Slake Moth. But the Teller does melt brains! Which offers some graphic horromusement, or is it horritainment? You gotta think though, that a protagonist who renders your nonphysical psyche into an empty nothingness is much more existentially horrific. The Slake Moth sucks your soul out, your personal identity and subjective consciousness becomes the empty set.)

The Weaver - 1

A nice ethereal depiction of The Weaver, from Perdido Street Station.

A Quick Quiz

There are more sickening creatures besides the Slake Moths. But try playing a guessing game with my mind, to peer into my psyche, to see if you can tell which other monsters I am speaking of, you might be surprised which ones I am referring to.

Not his daemons. I liked the daemons. They had strong self-preservation instincts and cunning, and so would not be drawn into battle against the Slake Moths.

Not the Handlingers either. Although they were bizarre and not pleasant to read about while having lunch. The same goes for the Khepri sex and the barrage of images Mieville infects the readers mind with when describing the hapless remade criminals, sentenced to bouts of biothaumaturgical grafting and xeonomorphing and heterotyping or their body parts.

Not Mr Motley either. Motley is a cool character. Evil for sure. Ugly for certain. But partly a victim of his time and era in the fictional world of Mieville’s imagination. Mr Motley is not really crazy evil like a Bin Laden or a Ghengis Khan or Hitler or Charles Manson or Pol Pot. Nah man! Motley is merely a banal evil entity, a product of his environment, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs!! Hahahah! Seriously! Or, … well, maybe I exaggerate. Motley is perhaps closer in characters from nonfiction to, say, someone like a total dickhead like Donald Trump (maybe? Is he really evil or just a douchebag?) or one of those corporate CEO’s from corrupt organizations in the military-industrial complex, like a Union Carbide executive or a Blackwater CEO or Halliburton CEO, one of those high-ups who profit off war, government sanctioned killing and genocide and human misery.

Slake Moth - 1

Hard to find a good drawing of a Slake Moth. How can one capture their essential horror? This one is not too bad.

Do a Bit of Weaving Mr

Not the Weaver either, goddamm! I love the Weaver. Most awesome character in sifi I have come across in decades. Strike that. Most awesome character in scifi eveeeerrrr!

“Snip, snap, the gleaming metal blades sharpen the world weave and I cut the dross and flotsam and remake the  dimensions gleaming and shiny, pretty to the eye and fit template to the mind who delights. I will warp and weave and splice the sentient scenery of a million eyes swooning on the silver and coloured diffractions of the manifold glistening brightnesses. The Grimnebulin creature I will pluck! And send to slithery blistering lair of the gloomy drapers of the weave unreality who make so tortured and unpatterned havoc. We must cut from the fabric! No delightful strand remains whence those spineless wing-ed ones wreak their sloth over the yarn we have made nice.”

Or something like that! Gotta love the Weaver.

The Weaver - 2

This sketch of The Weaver is a good start, but misses out the scissory aesthetic sine qua non of the Weaver.

But there is so much that is (willfully and deliberately artistically) flawed on the ontologies of Bas-Lag (the world of Perdido Street Station) that the novel became like a typical movie for me that I wanted to remake and reinvent. But I cannot. I do not possess the linguistic thaumaturgy.

So I do not wish to write anything like Perdido. What this has inspired me to dedicate some time towards is something far more removed and ethereal. For I think there is, in the real world, as much frantic and incandescently enlightened art and science and natural wonder that surpasses everything in the supercharged fantasy world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag. But you have to dig deep into this actual world of ours to find it and make it appear more than mundane to the eyes of those who are not aware.

The Weaver - 3

A fairly literal Weaver. The real magic horror of The Weaver is his speech, not his capricious dismembering of creatures for pure aesthetic motives.

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Answer to the Quiz

The most horrific monsters in Perdido Street Station were,

  • Vermishank — the scheming academic who wanted to culture the Slake Moths for military weaponry.
  • Mayor Bentham Rudgutter — for the same reasons Vermishank is a horror.
  • David Serachin — formerly one of Issac’s scientist friends, but who betrayed Lin and Isaac to the authorities. Betrayal is the worst horrors, or one of the worst besides rape and murder.

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Ender’s Ants

Just saw Ben Kingsley playing the Maori warrior Mazer Rackham in the movie Ender’s Game (2013). Kingsley nails the kiwi accent like no other non-Kiwi actor I have seen in decades or perhaps forever. Felt moved to blog a couple of unrelated notes.

Formic Queen

Depiction of the alien Formic Queen.

Military Strategy when Fighting Aliens

The scenario: you have to fight a race of aliens so ancient and unknown that you really have no real insight whatsover into their psychology. In Ender’s Game the Formics are creatures insectoid-like, similar to giant ants.  Naturally enough their psychology would be very weird and hard to understand without close up anthropological/sociological/entomological study.

The human’s training Ender and his colleagues are running massively complex computer simulations of a possible battle with the Formics.  Do you see the big flaw?

If the human’s programming the simulations do not understand the alien psychology, then the training simulations are not going to be very useful when the real war breaks out. They might get lucky. But the premise in Ender’s Game is that the Formics battle formation patterns and movements look chaotic and unpredicatable, apart from the high energy signature emanating from the Queen.

What should they do?

Why can’t script-writers get these story details right?

A Solution — To Be Random

Maybe it ruins the later plot, but the thing to do when faced with indecision about an opponents strategy is to act  randomly yourself.

What I would love to see in the movie is a scene where Ender Wiggins is taken aside and tutored on what exactly the purpose is for the simulation games. The idea should be clearly explained to Wiggins that the simulation games are only useful for training combat readiness, troop cooperation, and execution skill. It cannot teach strategy, because the games will not be acting like the real enemy, the Formics. The simulation games were design by human’s so they will not likely have many scenarios built-in that will realistically simulate fighting actual Formic armies.

So it should be explained to Ender that when facing the real battle he will need to almost forget about any simulation game strategies, and instead think and adapt in real-time. He should be told to act more unpredictably, and to not guess about Formic battle patterns based in the game simulations, but rather to do so based upon what he gleans in the moment of battle.

This is only a brief adjustment to the movie plot, it would take a one minute scene of dialogue between Ender and General Graff, but it would make the movie so much better for a geek like me to watch and enjoy and forgive all the other terrible Hollywoodisms the film commits.

In the end it turns out this way, since Ender is sufficiently unorthodox and imaginative that he ends up doing something that was unthinkable for the adult military commanders.  So I’m not moaning and bitching.  I just think it is more awesome when a script delivers high-brow intellectualization of the characters motives and thinking.  Somehow it makes a fantasy story more immersive and believable when the dialogue and plot have a lot of detailed intellectualizations and binding logic and scentific principles applied rigrously.  For the vast majority of scifi flicks one has to give up scientific realism at so many points in a plot that injecting some really hard science inwhere possible is a very cool thing to do for the thinking audiences out here.

Totally Unpredictable but Not Perfectly Random

As a general meta-strategic point, this is your real strategy when you truly have close to zero insight into your enemy’s psychology and motive.  You would want to be completely unpredictable at times when it pays o have your opponent guessing your next actions, and yet not behave hopelessly chaotic. (Although note that Ender’s Game works as a gripping story partly because Ender Wiggins does end up understanding one of the Formic civilisation’s motives, which is their desperate need to find a world with abundant water.)

So how does one achieve unpredictability without resorting to random incoherence?

This is the bit I write for all my mathematics and science students. Readers who do not know the answer can follow along.  So the idea is that you will draw up a table (or some kid of database) which presents all the possibly non-stupid strategies available.  (An example of a stupid strategy might be the one where you murder your own army, or kill your entire species to allow the aliens to win.  So you make sure none of those types of options sneak into your database! You also would probably want to purge any options that are just silly, like  the ones where the aliens are attacking and you do absolutely nothing not even try to communicate with them or try to show them you are peaceful.)

For the sake of utter simplicity let’s sketch this on a graph, suppose your database of options boils down to choosing a number from a scale, say strategies 1 to 100.  Each strategy is weighted by a frequency which is your and your war counsel’s expert opinions on the probability or likely chance of success of each strategy.

Decison options can be weighted then chosen randomly but biased towards the more favourable options.

Example tableau of strategies you can choose from unpredictably using biases in favour of the more likely successful options.

You see the point is that these strategies are not equally favoured.  So you use a random number to choose one strategy at a particular time when a decision has to be made.  But the random number selects among these strategies in a biased way so that strategy 25 above is half as likely to be chosen by your random number generator as is strategy 30.  The strategies like option 75 here are more likely to be chosen. You get the idea yes?

This tableau will of course shift dynamically as your enemy or opponents shift their strategies.

The point is that no one can predict your decision, you have the ultimate element of surprise which is that you yourself do not even know which decision you will make.  you only have the odds of the various possibilities.  So you can say, “I am more likely to adopt strategy 75 than I am to issue the decisions for strategy 92.”

This is the answer to how you can be totally unpredictable and yet smart and not foolishly random.  You use random numbers to select among possible options in a biased manner.  You bias the outcome towards the options that have higher chance of success.  But there is still a small chance you will choose a low chance of success option.

But when would your tableau ever prevent you with a low success probability option?  Surely these would be purged from the database?  Well, not always.  This would happen, for instance, if the game or battle was at a crucial stage and all the information suggested th enemy was in a stage of trying to predict your next move.  In such circumstances it can pay off to choose a low probability of success option because your enemy will be unlikely to guess this is what you will do.  This sort of option pays off only when the enemy will suffer if they do not take steps to defend themselves against your unlikely decision.

A good example of such a scenario might be the suicide bomber option, or a chess pawn option, where you sacrifice your resources to make it appear like you are giving away an advantage, which hurts your side, but f the enemy does not see your reason for such a sacrifice they will expose themselves to a more lethal attack on your next move.  In chess you might even let your opponent capture your most powerful piece, your Queen, because perhaps if they do choose to capture our Queen you can in three or four decisive moves checkmate them.  They were blind to the secret of your sacrifice.

OK this is where my students have had their lesson and other readers can rejoin.

Would Ender Really Have Tried to “Talk”?

“But OK, that’s fine at first blush, but real military strategy has to more incisive, a good commander has to be willing to be accountable and therefore cannot just roll a dice”, you might think.  That’s true of course and there are many subtleties to fighting a war, and I am totally ignorant of most of them.  You cannot hope, for example, to wage a successful war using a textbook on game theory.

[Spoiler alerts coming!  Skip this next paragraph if you like.]

Here I must confess that although I like high quality hard scifi, I chose to watch the film before reading Scott-Card’s novel.  I enjoy movies this way.  It’s horrible to sit through a movie and constantly complain about the missed adaptation opportunities and unfaithfulness of the script.  So I ended up enjoying Ender.  I must also confess I started writing this post before watching the final battle where Ender commits genocide  [spoiler alert!] while believing himself to be playing merely a final simulation.

Ender’s Game raises this wonderful philosophical issue.  Many in fact.  [spoiler alert!] One of which is, can there ever be a threat to an entire civilisation great enough to morally justify destroying preemptively an entire planet and all life on it?

My point is that the decision to try to communicate with the alien Formic’s was a noble and moral decision that arguably Scott-Card [spoiler alert!]  wants us to believe would have happened had Ender been allowed to face the final confrontation knowing it was not a game.  (Or maybe the General would have then pulled the plug on Wiggins and put someone else in command at the last second?)

But if you were in Ender Wiggin’s shoes and were lazy and just simply choosing from a bunch of preprogrammed stratgey options this diplomatic option might not ever get selected.  So in addition to trying to behave unpredictably so that your opponent cannot easily plan to defend against your moves, one thing you might always want to do is to think freely and outside the scope of what the authorities allow.

Dammit all!  [spoiler alert!] You know I cried when I found out Ender’s last game was for real.  I really internalised the movie and let the raw emotions overcome my senses.  Even if the acting in the film was a bit atrocious, one can let in and filter just the essential emotions and intellectual content.  It make a movie worht watching when you do this artistic suspension of disbelief.   I thought of the ral world horror committed by the second Bush administration in Iraq, and the lying generals and the hapless Colin Powell who seemed to be selecting decisions from a badly written textbook full of errors.  But mostly I thought of poor fcitonal Ender Wiggins and the sickening thoughts that must have ben racing through his mind.

Of all things in the movie, perhaps the most unreal was that his character actually still has the emotional strength to argue his case philosophically with General Graff and Mazer, only minutes after the horrific realisation.  How does one avoid such things?  Such traps for the unwary?

Play all your games ethically!   Even the trashy VDO games, even if they have the most awesome hires graphics.  Refuse even to begin playing the immoral ones that have no option for morality.

Try diplomacy more!  Even if it could wipe out your entire planet!

That would be my thought for the day.


*        *        *


Spaghetti Monster with Green Ears — “We lef’ some’in’ unduhn marty”

True Detective.  Best miniseries ending ever! 😉  You have to watch the series to appreciate how misanthropic and utterly cynical Rustin Cohle was before his brief brain death after being stabbed by the serial killer.


So here is the final dialogue.

Marty (Martin Hart): “Talk to me, Rust.”

Rust (Rustin Cohle): “There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, that something … whatever I’d been reduced to, not even consciousness, just a vague awareness in the dark. I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind — it was deeper — warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.”

[Rust breaks down, sobbing.]

Marty: “Didn’t you tell me one time, dinner once, maybe, about how you used to … you used to make up stories about the stars?”

Rust: “Yeah, that was in Alaska, under the night skies.”

Marty: “Yeah, you used to lay there and look up, at the stars?”

Rust: “Yeah, I think you remember how I never watched the TV until I was 17, so there wasn’t much to do up there but walk around, explore, and…”

Marty: “And look up at the stars and make up stories. Like what?”

Rust: “I tell you Marty I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking,…”

For the last few lines I’ll use some of: Mah Lousaana ahksent spellin’ ‘sh d’librat.) 😉

Rust: “Ish juhz one story, the oldest.”

Marty “Whash that?”

Rusty: “Light vershus dark.”

Marty: “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but, appears to me tha’ the dark has a lot more territory.”

Rusty: “Yeah,… you’re right about that. …. Hey listen… hey…”

Marty: “Yeah what?”

Rusty: “W’ shyuu you point me in the direction of the car man. I spend enough of my funckin’ life in a hospital.”

Marty: “Jesus. You know what? I’d protest, but it occurs to me that you’re un-killable. You wanna go back get y’ clothes or anythung?”

Rusty: “Nah, anything I left back there I don’ need.”

Rusty:: “Ya know you’re lookin’ at it wrong… tha’ sky thing…”

Marty: “Howz that?”

Rusty: “Well, once tharr was only dark… You ashk me, the light’s winning.”

Marty: “hehehe.”

[Pan up to the stars… fade to black …]

[The drums begin … to “The Angry River“]

“The emptiness that we confess
In the dimmest hour of day
In Automatown they make a sound
Like the low sad moan of prey

“The bitter taste the hidden face
Of the lost forgotten child
The darkest need the slowest speed
The debt unreconciled

“These photographs mean nothing
To the poison that they take
Before a moment’s glory
The light begins to fade

“The awful cost of all we lost
As we looked the other way
We’ve paid the price of this cruel device
Till we’ve nothing left to pay

“The river goes where the current flows
The light we must destroy
Events conspire to set afire
The methods we employ

“These dead men walk on water
Cold blood runs through their veins
The angry river rises
As we step into the rain

“These photographs mean nothing
To the poison that they take
The angry river rises
As we step into the rain”

*        *        *