Total Recalls

We did the crazy thing. We watched 1990’s Total Recall while eating burritos and then went to the cinema to watch the remake. It’s hard to figure out which one is worse. Which is quite an achievement if you think about it. But let me start with a positive note, before I go all ranty about a single aspect of the new version.

Our beloved protagonist… bah… who am I kidding… Quaid is in a quest to get his memories back and eventually finds someone who can help. In the old movie, it’s a super-weird psychic known as Kuato that by magic manages to restore some memories. In case you don’t remember:

In the new one, Quaid is instead connected to a computer through electrodes in his head. They replaced psychics with technology. I can’t help but believe that it’s a small piece of evidence that humanity is growing up, stopping to believe in fairy tales and trusting its fate in technology and engineering. At last, three or four hundred years of steady progress in improving people’s quality of life are paying of (mind you, also fueling a few terrible wars too).

Now to the rant! This was such a blatant disregard of the laws of nature that I felt like walking away from the movie, like I did with Lockout.

Let’s start with some facts. What happens if you put people inside a vessel, like a car or an elevator, and drop it? Let me show you what happens by showing you a scene from the movie that made it to the trailer (jump to 2:00):

Disregard the part when they decelerate in only three meters and still survive.

What happens is that the contents of the vessel seem to float because they are free falling with the same acceleration and initial speed as the vessel. In a more complex scenario but still using the same principles, you can experience weightlessness inside an aircraft. NASA uses that to train astronauts, Hollywood used that to film Apollo 13 (jump to 4:15):

And if you seen the movie you know where I’m going with this. In the new version, there’s a hole through the earth, from the UK to Australia. I’m not going to analyze how expensive that is or why it makes no sense. Keeping all our houses at spring temperature all year around, no matter whether it’s hotter or colder outside was, at some point, so impossible people wouldn’t even dream of it (specially the cooling down part). Science fiction is about dreaming, so, let’s dream about a hole from UK to Australia.

This hole is used for transport. They have a huge cylinder that people enter that travels through the hole. They sit in rows and get strapped to the seats like in a roller-coaster. I’m not spoiling anything, this is shown at the very beginning. They drop the cylinder and… what should happen now? Think of the car being dropped and make your guess: The cylinder is in free fall and so is everything inside it, things should appear to float… that’s not what happens in the movie.

In the movie, they enjoy gravity… and if you think that’s bad… get ready for more. When they are getting closer to the center of the earth, the PA system says something like “get ready for gravity reversal”. For a period of time they are weightless and some parts of the cylinder, with people strapped to the seats, is turned around, which is quite cool. When they leave the core of the planet, gravity comes back like someone waking up from a nightmare and everything falls. That is so wrong.

There seems to be no extra propulsion system, which if the hole through the earth is not vacum, would make for a very long trip… 20 hours or so? I don’t know, I didn’t calculate it. Even if the hole is free of air it’ll take a while… 2 hours? 3 hours? I don’t know… again, I didn’t do the math, if you want it, just ask me and I’ll do it.

What is more important though, is that without any propulsion system, you wouldn’t get to the other side of the earth. If you did, you’d have a perpetual motion machine, which violates the second law of thermodinaics, rigorously formulated by Sadi Carnot in 1824. Let’s assume there’s a propulsion system, ok? An invisible one… let’s say… it’s maglev on the walls or something like that… please? thank you.

Now Hollywood says: but isn’t this whole gravity reversal extremely cool? we want it on the big screen!

Agreed… but Mr Hollywood, hear me out… this is how that transport system should have worked:

  1. Everybody goes inside the huge vessel and get themselves strapped to the seats like in a roller-coaster… it looks cool and realistic, as it’ll be quite a ride.
  2. We have a countdown (awesome! why don’t airplanes have countdowns? imagine everybody going in unison 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, brakes released! take off!).
  3. The cylinder drops and everybody inside experience instant zero gravity… things float, drinks are spilled, people vomit… ok… not that one.
  4. We turn everybody upside down, like they did in the movie, while they are weightless.
  5. We hit the rockets… yes… the vessel now has rockets to accelerate. Or maglev, or whatever, doesn’t matter. The vessel accelerates at 2g (1g is gravity’s pull, another g is caused by the rockets), making earth-like artificial gravity. Alternative the vessel accelerates at 3g or 4g, because they are just a bunch of shitty workers and can take it. If that acceleration is kept, by the time it reaches the core, it’d be traveling awfully fast, and by that I think space-shuttle-worthy fast… I can do the math if you ask me.
  6. At some point they turn the rockets off and it starts falling at 1g again and everybody inside experiences another weightless moment.
  7. We turn everybody around again.
  8. We fire the rockets in the oposite direction… remember, we need as much force to stop it as we need it to get it moving, so everybody experiences gravity again. Instead of rockets, we could just use the atmosphere inside the tube to slow it down. Air is used to slow down spaceships coming back to Earth all the time, and that’s why landing on Mars is harder than landing on Earth… you have less atmosphere to slow you down.
  9. Getting closer to the end of the trip, the strong deceleration stops and everybody experiences zero gravity once again, which is quite convenient, because we turned them upside down twice, which leaves them pointing up in the UK, but pointing down in Australia. So why they experience zero g again, we turn them again and we slowly stop it just in time to see some kangaroos.

So… Hollywood… wouldn’t that have been much more impressive? you had rockets and instead of one wrong gravity reversal, you’d have three correct ones in every trip. Think of the plot potential! I’m giving you three for the price of one!

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Another Earth, my review

I recently watched the movie Another Earth. The movie is really depressing, but aside from that it’s also bad. I should have stopped watching when the directory of SETI was trying to contact the other earth and said:

Let’s try another channel

Radios don’t have channels, unless the radios you know are the consumer devices that you can buy at your local convenience store.

What really irked me though, is the letter the protagonist writes. She writes that when people sailed to the new world, it wasn’t aristocrats who did it, but convicts and other rejects. So far so good. Then she says that they sailed thinking the Earth was flat. Wrong! Maybe she was taught the same lies I was told in elementary school, but since she got into MIT and was interested into science and specifically into astronomy, I would have expected her to have the facts right. I mean, didn’t she watch Cosmos?

Around 200BC, a guy named Eratosthenes, not only knew or figured out the Earth was round; he actually measured it. Interestingly we know the number of said measure, but not which units he used. He might have been off by as much as 16% or as little as 2%. I’m impressed either way. Not done with that, he then measured the tilt of the axis and invented the word geography. Actually, he invented geography itself.

Fast forward to the late XV century. What’s going on? All educated people, all people of science, actually know that the earth is round. Not only that, they actually knew it was approximately 40000km in circumference. Granted, education wasn’t that great for the common folk during the dark ages; but Christopher Columbus was no common folk.

So, what did this guy Columbus do? He calculated the circumference of the Earth again, using his own method, and came up with this number: 10000km. The earth is 300% bigger than he calculated. He should have shut up and study Eratosthenes, but we know he didn’t. Instead, he decided he was going to travel around the world to reach India. A feat that was possible in the small Earth that was inside his head, but impossible in the real one. He tried to secure financing from several people who rightly so told him “Are you fucking stupid or what?”

Eventually, Columbus managed to convince the Queen of Spain… I have two hypotheses… she was either very naive or she was sick and tired of this guy and it was actually cheaper to send him off to die at sea. Being fair, governments should make risky investments, otherwise, we wouldn’t have as much science and technology as we do today. Columbus set sail in an impossible voyage, one that should have killed him and all his crew and the only reason why this didn’t happen is because there was a continent in the middle. Even then, they barely made it. That’s not all, Columbus actually didn’t realize he found a new continent. He thought he was in India.

Long story short: Columbus was an idiot, who got lucky, but still an idiot. We can also argue about his morals, but that’s another story. The discovery of the new world is not a grandiose epic story to tell our children. If you want a story, tell them about Eratosthenes and how he measures the Earth after receiving a letter with a puzzling comment.

Yuri Gagarin did not spend 25 days in there

Back to Another Earth… our evidently clueless protagonist then goes on to describe a little incident that happened during the first manned flight to leave the Earth. She then says

and he had 25 days to go aboard the ship in space

or something like that. 25 days? do they have any freaking idea how hard it is to stay in space for 25 days? The Vostok 3KA made an amazingly long first trip: 108 minutes. Yes, that was an amazingly long trip. Let’s put it in context: America was doing its best to beat the Soviets after the Sputnik crossed the skies broadcasting a repetitive beeping. The United States’ Mercury program managed to put someone in space for a grand total of 15 minutes. Sending people up there is hard and the movie tell us the first cosmonaut stayed up there for 36000 minutes.

The disregard for the history of science and technology that this movie shows is shameful.

The importance of context

Since I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time when I was 15 years old, I’ve been wanting to watch it on the big screen. Last Sunday I realized that dream.

A little story about why that movie was so important to me. There’s a before and an after 2001 in my life. I think it was the first movie that really challenged my brain. The first movie that when the credits rolled up I asked myself “What the fuck just happened?”.

It was recommended to me by a teacher, so I went and asked him… without the “fuck” I suppose. He told me that if I wanted to understand it, I’d have to read the book. I read the book and I understood more, but I had even more questions. So I read the next book, and the next, and the next. And by the time I had finished I was hooked into reading science fiction for the rest of my life.

Back to the topic, context. It’s not an entertaining movie. It’s slow, it’s abstract, it’s art. But hey, even if you watch Alien it doesn’t look like entertainment, it’s slow and looks artistic. Honestly, go and watch it, you’ll see. 2001 was released before Armstrong put a foot on the moon, in 1968.

Let me put that in context for you. Star Wars wouldn’t come out for another 9 years. Star Trek was on it’s second season and not many people were paying attention, yet. I bet for most people, 2001 was the first time in their lives when they saw outer space in the big screen.

But 2001 isn’t just another silly space opera (of which the space age was probably full of). In 2001, space is silent, like it really is. How important is that? I watched Firefly just because space was silent. That important.

2001 doesn’t have some magic solution for artificial gravity, like almost all other movies and TV shows. We have huge revolving space stations as well as spaceships with revolving sections. We see amazing shots of people walking on this curved floors. Or using sticky shoes. We not only see space… we see ourselves, for real, in space. I don’t think I’d seen anything that treated outer space as realistically as 2001, ever. And it happened in 1968.

Put that movie in context, ignore the long psychedelic scenes (hey! it was the 60s!), and it’ll blow your mind. Context is important.

I also recently read Snow Crash. When the book started describing a kind of physical virtual reality, with people walking on virtual streets, companies putting buildings on those streets, etc. I was honestly disgusted. I couldn’t stop feeling that the author somehow missed the last 10 years of history when we realised that VRML (remember VRML? Virtual Reality Markup Language) was not the way to go. And then I saw the book was released on 1992 and all made sense to me. Reading it in context was awesome and I enjoyed it a lot.

Thanks to Daniel Magliola and Romina Roca for reading drafts of this.

Science fiction fans: would you put your money where your mouth is?

The SciFi channels changes its name to Syfy to be able to attract people that don’t like science fiction, pissing off scifi fans. Then they cancel good shows and keep crappy ones. Recently they’ve cancelled Stargate Universe and people is all pissed about it. Meanwhile Star Trek, once a magnificent series, is rebooted into a dumb lens flare designed to make money out of idiots.

SciFi fans, it’s clear mainstream media no longer cares about you and as time goes on they’ll care less and less. I’m not sure why, I have a couple of hypothesis but that’s not important. What’s important is what you are going to do about it. First, you’ll have to make a sacrifice, you’ll have to forget about Star Trek, Stargate, Babylon 5 and all those great franchises. They have owners and the owners are saying “screw you!”.

The future is independent media, even user generated content. There’s no much of it yet, but it’s growing and it requires your support. For example, Pioneer One is an independent series released straight to BitTorrent. Have you donated to it already? It might not be exactly what you want, but if it succeeds it’ll send a clear message that it’s possible and maybe someone else will create what you want. You don’t have any money? Cancel your cable TV and use that extra 50$ or so per month to donate to Pioneer One or the next interesting thing.

Meanwhile technology is getting better and better and creating great content is getting easier, just look at this beautiful short:

As people get the ability to tell any story they want, instead of the sceptic, bland, non-challenging and generic stories Hollywood tells we’ll get much more interesting and fascinating tells. The future is going to be awesome but we may need to push, to band together and collaborate, to have it sooner.

What I didn't like about Avatar

I’ve just seen Avatar. I liked it, except for one thing.

In Avatar there are two societies, one is technologically advanced and believes in science; the other is religious. Of course they gave some consistency to the religion, but it remains a religion. The technological society, the humans, are warmongers; while the spiritual society is peaceful. They go to war and the religious society wins. I don’t think that’s the right message.

I’m a geek. I believe in reason. I believe in science. I believe in technology. I believe the human race will only survive if it stops taking myth and legend seriously and start seeking proof, learning, studying, researching, building. Look at medicine, people were dying of very simple deases a hundred years ago. Today we conquered a lot of them!

The life expentansy is growing at the rate of one year every two years. If today the life expectancy is 80 years old, by the time I’m 80, it’ll be 106 years old. And that’s consider the growth of the life expectancy linear, it’s actually accelerating.

The previous generation of science fiction authors dreamed of supercomputers in our pockets, being able to pick up a microphone and talk with anyone on the planet. We are living that and it’s great.

Back to Avatar, for me a story that is much more worthy of being told is the one of Rama. In Rama there’s an alien civilization, extremely advanced and technological, and at the same time very pacific. They inhabit part of a huge ship while the humans inhabit another part. One day the stupid humans decide they want the whole ship. Maybe they were procreating too much and were overpopulated, go figure!

Stop reading know if you intend to read Rama, spoilers ahead.

They start invading the technological civilization. A selected group of the technological civilization gathers to save their race, they develop a virus that would kill adult human males; the group that was actually attacking them. In a couple of hours, the war is over, every human adult male is dead and peace returns.

The individuals of the advanced civilization who participated in the extermination, all commit suicide. It’s part of their law: those that participate in war must kill themselves at the end, even the leaders. Nobody that causes the death of other beings is fit to return to the society.

How many soldiers would enlist if they knew that after returning from a tour, what awaits them is suicide? Very few. How many wars would we have in the world if those declaring them would have to blow their brains out at the end of it? None.

Is it Science Fiction?

I go to a book store and after looking around I’m forced to ask.

– Excuse me, where’s the science fiction section?

The woman points to the back of the book store, to a poorly lit section, next to the book for kids sector full of toys and little chairs. Well, at least they have a section. From where I’m standing it look like a whole section, it probably has around 500 books. There must be something that I haven’t read.

When I arrive I notice that a whole shelf consist of Lord of the Rings books. I continue scanning and I see a lot of stuff about dragons and vampires. There’s even a copy of Harry Potter left over when it wasn’t popular enough and didn’t deserve the huge tower of books in the middle of the bookstore.

Where is the science in wizards, dragons and magic rings? You know, Science Fiction is called that way for a reason. If I wanted to read fantasy I would have gone to the fantasy section, thank you very much.

This is not the worst. I’ve seen countless top ten science fiction TV shows list that included Buffy and Angel. “Science Fiction” is not a label for weird. I was throwing a huge tantrum about it and my wife, in her infinite understanding said:

– Maybe they don’t know it isn’t science fiction.

How could they not know? It says “science” in the name. But apparently people are not very logical and never think what a name means (and keep calling the United Kingdom England, The Netherlands Holland, and United States of America, well, America, which is a continent, not a country).

I’ve decided to solve this problem once and for all in the geek-programmer way, which is of course, a web site with voting. I created:

Is it Science Fiction?

Of course, if everybody voted we would end up with a mess the world is today, but I hope only geeks will put up with my bad graphical design skills and actually vote and comment so we’ll end up with pretty good results. So far Star Wars is 4th from the bottom, heavily on the not-sci-fi side of things, so I’m pretty sure it’s working. You have to be very hard core to believe Star Wars is not Science Fiction.

My goal is to build the canonical place to point to when the discussion about whether something is or isn’t science fiction starts. You won’t have to explain it yet again why Lord of The Rings is fantasy, not science fiction, just point to http://isitsciencefiction.com/items/the-lord-of-the-rings. If your favorite pet peeve is not there, feel free to add it.

Of course we are only judging whether something is or isn’t science fiction, not whether something is good or bad. Batman is great, but it’s not Science Fiction. Plan 9 From Outer Space sucks, but it is Science Fiction (well, I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet).