Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Growing Up

There is a historic site, a restored gristmill, near where I grew up.  It is a good historical site, and they often took us there on school tours.

When I was little, the place seemed massive, complicated, and very impressive.  It was an unfathomable maze of gears, machines, and tubes for transferring and processing the grain.  I understood how the simple stone-grinding for cornmeal worked, by the power from the waterwheel, but the section with the roller mills for wheat remained an unknowable mystery.

I went back last weekend.  I immediately noticed that the place seemed small.  That was to be expected; I have grown up and seen a lot of things since I was last there.  But what really struck me, when I got inside, was how simple the place was.  Within a few minutes of looking at the machines, I could understand exactly how everything worked.  The arrangement of roller mills and sifters was simple, obvious, and easy to understand.  I could visualize the entire process.

This experience was a big lesson how much the human brain develops as it matures.  Kids can only understand what is right in front of them.  No matter how clever they are, they have trouble understanding long-term consequences, big webs of causality, or large interconnected systems.  The ability to understand the 'big picture' and act according to that knowledge is a big part of being an adult.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Movie Review: Fearless

Most of the people in our family, and I imagine most people in general, have one or two genres of mindless entertainment that they prefer.  It is good to just relax and enjoy something.  My mom reads murder mysteries and watches nature videos.  My dad watches sports and reads books about baseball history.  My top two are Japanese RPG's and martial arts movies.  For example, I thoroughly enjoyed 'The Forbidden Kingdom'.  It is everything I want in a chopsocky flick.

Fearless, by contrast, was not as enjoyable.  This was mainly because the whole thing was a propaganda piece.  The film spent way too much time and effort ramming the message of 'China is great and everyone else is corrupt' down the audience's throat.  This isn't the first time I noticed this.  'Hero' had the same problem, but in a less extreme form.

Note that I watched the directors cut.  A quick browsing of the WIkipedia entry for the film shows that several of the things I am complaining about are unique to that version.  The moral is that the editors often produce a better movie than the director.

Now, the martial arts and choreography were absolutely top-notch.  The wushu moves were all well-done, and there were only a few acrobatics that strained credulity.  There were a lot of little details that were handled well, such as the ineptness of students training to show that a teacher was not really any good.  If I was willing to ignore the rest, it would have been okay.

But I couldn't.  The film actually started out with a woman giving a speech on why wushu should be an Olympic sport.  This was pointless, and ruined the feel of the movie while making it obvious that there was a Message.  The Westerners and Japanese businessmen are all portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures of evil.  The film was loosely based on a real person, but much of it was pure fiction.  That blend of history and fiction, not making it clear what is what, is always questionable, and it was used here for obviously political purposes.

For example, in history there was a Russian boxer who insulted the Chinese and who backed down when confronted by the main character.  In the film, this was changed to an American boxer, who loses a fight.  The main series of fights in the movie was completely fabricated, and quite ridiculous.  The main character wins a sword fight with a champion 'fencing master' from Europe.  The European's sword work was a joke.  I could have done better. ( Oriental martial arts may be great for bare-handed work and improvised weapons, but European-style rapier fighting is the best weapon-based martial art. )

The scenes in the peasant village, in particular, were fairly annoying.  I have never seen such a ridiculous romanticization of peasant life.  A Chinese peasant village circa 1900 was portrayed as a magical wonderland where everyone is well-groomed with clean, attractive costumes and the kids spend most of the time playing.  By contrast, the old Kurosawa samurai films accurately depict the misery and brutality of peasant life.

One of the things I like about Japanese films is that they are never nationalistic.  They never try to make Japan look good, or other nations look bad, or build up a national myth, or score points on some debate.  If anything, the historical Japanese military serves mainly as inspiration for the villains.  Japanese movies and art are clearly the work of a free people expressing themselves and selling entertainment.  Sometimes I almost wish that they were a bit more patriotic, at least enough to match the level found in the average Hollywood action movie.  Even in 'Grave of the Fireflies', a film about the horrors that Japanes civilians faced during and after World War 2, there is no hint of anger at the USA.  The message was simply 'war is hell' and most of the problems are depicted as coming from uncaring fellow Japanese.  ( Maybe they do make such things but are too smart to export them.  But I've seen a lot of fan-subtitled anime that was never meant for export, and still have seen nothing that hints at jingoism or historical grievance. )

But Chinese films are tainted by the shadow of the censor.  The influence of totalitarian politics is lurking behind the production process, shaping the result in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  And If the filmmakers did all of this on their own free will, it iwould be because their thought process has been shaped by the nationalistic propaganda that the commies keep turning out. 

It is kind of sad, really.  It hints at an inferiority complex.  Mature civilizations, ones comfortable with their place in the world, are willing to admit their mistakes and look honestly at their history.  And that maturity can only come from an open, democratic, pluralistic society.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: Dune

Frank Herbert is a good writer with a compelling artistic vision.  The world and characters he created are fascinating, and the book has that gripping quality that makes one keep turning the pages to see what happens.

The book is worth reading, but with the caveat that you should not expect a traditional story.  From the first chapter, the main character is defined as the privileged son of nobility, heavily trained in a mystic art that has changed his mental processes in fundamental ways.  He is immediately set up not as a character but as a force of nature or destiny.  There was no way for me to relate to him, even though I have had years of martial arts training that mirrors the kind of discipline he has learned.  He is just too different, too removed from humanity.  So the entire book ends up being not a story about a protagonist, but an anthropological study of events that happen in totally foreign cultures to people with alien thought processes.  I am not put off by that, but I imagine many people would be.

By the end of the book, it is clear that the main character is also not a protagonist in the sense of doing anything good or changing the world in a positive way.  He is consumed by his culture, his powers, and his own legend, becoming an empty shell of a man just like the people who blindly follow him.  He acts randomly and senselessly, tempting death for no discernible reason.  After his forces win the final battle and his victory is secure, he invites a potential assassin to kill him with poison, and then arranges a knife fight with another nobleman.

I got the sense that he was playing with his own life, testing the limits of his precognition with nihilistic abandon.  All of his visions have shown him that he is incapable of really changing anything, and they are also unable to help him navigate any of the critical dangerous moments in his life.  He has powers that are the result of 90 generations of careful training and selective breeding, and they end up being worse than useless.

Despite his earlier efforts to stop the process, he ends up promising to unleash his armies on the galaxy and create a terrible jihad, one that will make people think fondly of the brutal and ruthless actions of the armies of the emperor he has just defeated.  The galaxy has simply traded one evil overlord for another.  The whole rotten system is perpetuated, and the main character has become a copy of what he hated.

The only character in the book that I felt any connection to or sympathy for was Princess Irulan, the person who narrates the blurbs at the beginning of each chapter.  She comes across as an intelligent person with much potential, who is abandoned to a life of loneliness and neglect by a 'hero' who sees her entire existence as nothing but a tool for attaining power.  She is trapped in a brutal, decadent culture that denies individual liberty and potential, and she has seen someone who is capable of changing that but did not.

It is possible that this book is a Watchmen-style deconstruction of the epic hero genre.  If so, it is a good one.  But it is also possible that the book is a confused mess that straddles the fence between genius and madness.  I am inclined to think the latter, because there are so many things that simply don't make sense.  The plot and setting of Dune are like soap bubbles: if you poke them or just look at them too long, they disintegrate. 

Despite the fact that humans have interstellar travel and all kinds of futuristic technology, all of the battles are fought with knives.  The entire military system is built around knife fighting, and the key to political power in the galaxy is to have the best knife fighters.

The author tries valiantly to explain this and other things away with cultural and technological factors, but it just doesn't work.  A good science fiction writer starts with some technology, and then explores the consequences of that technology to see where it will lead.  Herbert attempts the reverse.  He has a vision of what an interesting world looks like, and then tries to invent a combination of technologies that produces the desired effect.  But he just can't do it, so the whole thing just ends up looking silly.

(Note: If you have never read Dune, you will probably want to stop reading now.  None of what follows will make much sense.  It is a long, detailed, geeky complaint of how the author violates various rules of science and ignores military strategy and political realities.)

The knife fighting is justified by the fact that people have invented personal shields that can stop all projectiles, but can be penetrated by a slow-moving blade.  These shields can also stop poison gases, and can presumably stop shrapnel and the concussive force of explosions.

Leaving aside the fact that it is practically impossible for anything to stop all that but be penetrated by a knife, there is the crippling flaw that the shields are invisible.  This means that they do not stop any light in the wavelengths that the human eye can see.  A laser in that range of wavelengths, of sufficient power, could easily flash-fry skin and boil blood.  And it is clear that the civilization has the ability to easily produce that kind of power.

Even without lasers, there are plenty of ways to get around the shields as described in the book.  There is no indication that they provide any thermal insulation.  If you dumped a good heat source, like a wad of burning thermite, in the vicinity of a shielded soldier, you could easily roast him alive.  A single napalm bomb would take out dozens of shielded fighters.  Even a simple molotov cocktail would probably do the trick.

And why knives?  Rapiers would work much better.  And for large-scale battles, a close formation of well-drilled pikemen, or a phalanx of guys with shields and swords, will always defeat an unorganized mob of knife wielders, no matter how good the knifemen are.

Even if you accept the knife fighting, there are other problems.  The civilization can create extremely efficient anti-gravity units called suspensors.  These are widely used, and a small portable suspensor that fits in a backpack could lift a human being.  So why is it that their airplanes use jets and flapping wings?  Why don't people always have suspensors built into their clothing, so they can fly at will, or at least jump really high?  That would be a big advantage in knife fighting or any melee combat.  But all combat stays on the ground.

Going back to the shield generators, it is repeatedly shown that when a 'lasgun' hits a shield, the shield generator explodes with enough force to destroy everything in the shield, and often much else besides.  The lasgun also explodes with enough force to kill the wielder.  This seems to be true, no matter the size of the lasgun that hits the shield.  This effect was actually used in battle, to generate a massive explosion when a personal sidearm hit a large shield.

And yet, fortreses are routinely protected with massive shields.  This means that it is always possible to destroy any fortress simply by having one man zap it with a pistol.  The guy who shoots it will die, but that is a small price to pay.  It is explained in the book that armies never do this because 'it would be impossible to prove that atomic weapons were not used' and the attacker would be therefore be destroyed by everyone else.  But what stops a random madman or fanatic from doing this?  Lasguns are not depicted as rare or expensive.  If all it took to wipe out the source of brutal repression was one martyr with one gun, then the entire power structure depicted in the book would immediately collapse.

Even without the fortress shields, this effect could easily be exploited in battle.  You could set a lasgun on a trip wire or land mine and take out any shielded soldier.  Civilian militias fearing repression could arm themselves with lasguns and shields and vow to attack any army that tried to invade them, destroying them both.  This means that a completely untrained levy would suddenly be the equal of the best combat troops in the galaxy, and the source of the emperor's power suddenly disappears.

The sandworms are equally ridiculous.  You can't just burrow through desert sand at great speed; the energy requirements to overcome that kind of friction and move such bulk would be immense.  There is no way a biological organism in a nutrient-poor environment could manage it.  They have a habit of eating both massive factory crawlers and individuals walking across sand.  Why do they do this?  Are they protecting territory, or gaining nutrition?  There is no way that a human body could provide enough calories to make up for the energy required to move that much bulk through the sand.  In real life, the only animals that match sandworms in size are whales, and they spend their days gliding lazily through a literal soup of nutritious food.  A fantasy novel can get away with creatures like this by invoking magic, but a book that devotes an entire appendix and many plot points to the science of ecology has no excuse.

And then there is the fact that spice from Arrakis is shown to be an absolute requirement for interstallar travel.  When it is threatened, the space navigators have no other option and must capitulate to the blackmail.  So how did people get around before they found this planet?  It is said that there were once many ways of traveling space.  What happened to them?

I could go on, but you get the picture.  There is just too much hand-waving for this to be taken seriously as a science fiction novel.  Herbert should have made it a pure fantasy, set on a single planet with no interstellar travel or advanced science.  Then it would have been awesome.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Health Idiocy

This article is dominated by fallacious thinking from the opening paragraph.  It implies that some salads are less healthy than fast food because they contain more calories and fat.  This is utter hogwash.  Food health is not determined by the number of calories.  That number is essentially arbitrary, and can be changed at will by altering the serving size.  The important thing to consider is the vitamin-to-calorie ratio.  If a food item is loaded with vegetables and healthy stuff, then it is far better than a pile of empty calories, even if the pile of empty calories has fewer calories.

You can always exercise to burn off extra calories, or eat less and put the leftovers in the fridge.  But if you are not getting the right mix of vitamins, your body will start to fall apart.  Yes, people do need to be aware of how much fat is in their salad.  But it is incredibly irresponsible to imply that salad can even be put in the same category as fast food, because it has a lot of calories.  It is also irresponsible to imply that the foundation of a healthy diet is calorie counting.

I remember an old ad that tried to make PowerBars look bad by saying that they had just as many calories as a doughnut, as if that was some kind of mortal sin.  A PowerBar is nothing like a doughnut, because it has vitamins and protein and all kinds of good stuff.  Besides, it has 'power' in the name for a reason.  The stuff was meant for athletes who are burning a lot of calories and need to restore energy.  They never called it 'HealthBar'.

My personal theory of food, which I have never seen any scientific evidence to support, is that your body's food cravings are based on your need for vitamins and minerals as well as calories.  If you are lacking some kind of nutrition, your body will sense that soemthing is wrong, and it will tell you to eat things in an attempt to get what it needs.  But if all you eat is empty calories, then the need for nutrition will not be satisfied and your body will still want to eat.  So the advice I'd give anyone for a diet is not 'eat less' but 'eat more'.  Eat more good stuff: blueberries, spinach, fresh fruits and veggies, brown rice, beans, oatmeal.  If all the food you consume has a high enough vitamin-to-calorie ratio, you will be able to eat all you want and not get fat.  It works for me.

Avoid any kind of prepackaged food if possible; they always lard it up with junk to make it taste better.  In that respect, the artcle is right.  But if you must eat a pre-packaged food or go to a restaunt, one of those fat-loaded salads is way better than anything else you will be able to choose.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jury Duty

An educated man is summarily excluded from jury duty.

I imagine that this is typical.  A good lawyer will reject anyone who might have any knowledge or ideology that will bias the case.  But any well-educated person will develop knowledge and a set of theories for analyzing the world.  The only way to ensure a jury that approaches the case with the idealized 'blank slate' is to choose those with as little education and life experience as possible.  No wonder that jury verdicts get so ridiculous.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Math Illiteracy

"The Progressive Caucus would prefer a single-payer system -- 99.9 percent of the 80 members have said they would vote for a single-payer system" from this article

This is ridiculous.  It is impossible to get 99.9% of 80 people.  If all 80 members vote for something, than the percentage is 100%.  If one of the members objected, then the support percentage would be 98.75%  Clearly math has no meaning to these people.  They must have thrown around that number just because they thought it sounded impressive.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Banana Technology

Some researchers have found a way to turn the waste from banana farms into a good source of fuel.  They say that it should help relieve the firewood shortage in many parts of Africa, and prevent deforestation.

I hope it works, even though I am somewhat skeptical.  You would think that if it was that simple and effective, someone would have done it already.  But it is true that in the past, there would not have been so many bananas, so there might not have been enough waste to support such a scheme.

The issue of energy poverty is one that many people don't think about.  We are so used to getting our energy instantly from a grid, and paying mere pennies for it.  But in many parts of the world, people have to consume a significant fraction of their lives just getting an energy source to cook dinner.  It is a clear example of hoe economic growth can help both people and the environment.

Monday, June 8, 2009


This is a fascinating article.  It talks about how anesthesia was once condemned as wrong and immoral, because people believed that pain was a natural and inevitable part of life.  Stopping that pain was sen as 'unnatural' and therefore immoral.

Even today, people still oppose new technologies because they are 'unnatural'.  I do believe that we should be careful with new technology, as it often has unexpected side effects, but it is madness to equate 'natural' with 'good'.  Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short.  The entire purpose of civilization is to overcome the limitations of nature and build a better life through technological and cultural improvement.