Archive | Science Fiction/Fantasy

Searching for Time Travelers on the Internet

Physicists Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson have written an article on their research searching for time travelers on the internet. This could turn out to be the scientific paper of the year! But, sadly, no evidence of time travelers was found. Slate summarizes the study here:

In a paper pre-published on arXiv, a pair of actual physics professors detail their exhaustive efforts to canvass the Internet for evidence of time travelers. Drs. Robert J. Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson of Michigan Technological University had me at the first line of the abstract: “Time travel has captured the public imagination for much of the past century, but little has been done to actually search for time travelers.” Say, that’s a good point!

They go on to explain that they approached the problem by scouring the Web for tweets, Google searches, and other online postings about events—such as a comet or the naming of a new pope—that hadn’t happened yet at the time they were posted. “Given practical verifiability concerns,” the researchers note, “only time travelers from the future were investigated.” That’s understandable: Time travelers from the past presumably wouldn’t have had prescient insights to offer.

Sadly, it seems, neither did any time travelers from the future. “No time travelers were discovered,” the researchers report, in what must rank as an early front-runner for most disappointing sentence of 2014. They conclude: “Although these negative results do not disprove time travel, given the great reach of the Internet, this search is perhaps the most comprehensive to date.”

Either time travelers don’t exist, or Star Fleet’s Department of Temporal Investigations is doing a bangup job of covering up their presence, so as not to contaminate the timeline.

Here is a link to the full paper.

On a (slightly) more serious note, the authors [...]

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Review of Peter Jackson’s Second Hobbit Movie – The Desolation of Smaug

I was thinking of writing a review of Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug. But this review by Ethan Gilsdorf makes most of the same points I would have made. Overall, I agree with Gilsdorf that the Jackson’s second Hobbit movie isn’t nearly as good as the first, which I reviewed here. Like Gilsdorf, I think The Desolation of Smaug obscures the central point of the story by adding too many unnecessary scenes and subplots (including some that were invented by the film producers rather than J.R.R. Tolkien).

I’m not a purist who believes that film adaptations of books must rigidly stick to the plot of the original. Some changes are often necessary. But several of the ones in this movie just don’t work very well. That said, the movie is still fun to watch and there are many good scenes to offset the relative clunkers. [...]

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Radagast the Brown on “The Climate of Middle Earth”

Here at the Volokh Conspiracy, we try to keep readers informed about important new academic research. So it’s essential that we link to this new paper by Radagast the Brown on “The Climate of Middle Earth.” Far from being “Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!,” as Saruman described him, or being diverted from his mission (as Gandalf believed), Radagast has actually been spending his time conducting important scientific research. For previous VC coverage of Radagast, see here. [...]

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Review of the Catching Fire Movie

My wife and I recently saw the film version of Catching Fire, the second in the series of movies based on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games book trilogy. Overall, I thought the movie was very impressive, as good or better than the first film in the series, which I reviewed here.

The plot of Catching Fire revolves around Katniss Everdeen’s efforts to deal with the aftermath of her victory in the previous year’s Hunger Games, which was accomplished in a way embarrassing to the oppressive government of Panem. Eventually, she and her co-victor Peeta Mellark are forced to compete in another Hunger Games, whose participants are selected from among the winners of previous games. The movie does a great job of getting across the pain and frustration inflicted on the characters by the tyrannical Capitol. Jennifer Lawrence again did a great job as main character Katniss Everdeen. Even though I am very familiar with the books, I really felt for the characters when they suffered unexpected setbacks, though I knew exactly what was coming. That rarely happens when I watch other movies based on stories I am already familiar with. Because the movie compresses certain events and gives you little time to reflect on the action, the world-building flaws that are the biggest flaw of the books are less glaring here.

One notable shortcoming of the movie is a problem inherent in the story adapted from Collins’ book. It is difficult to believe that it takes Katniss so long to figure out what is really going on in the 75th Hunger Games. Also, some of the world-building problems in the book do crop up from time to time in the movie. For example, it is hard to understand why the Capitol is constantly relying on propaganda, yet has [...]

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Duke Leto Atreides on Political Ignorance

I recently noticed that several of Frank Herbert’s Dune books are among the books that purchasers of my new book on political ignorance buy at the same time on Amazon. That brings to mind the following interesting quote on political ignorance by Duke Leto Atreides in Chapter 7 of Dune:

“My propaganda corps is one of the finest,” the Duke said….

“Yes, I am tired,” the Duke said. “Did you know we’re using spice residue as raw material and already have our own factory to manufacture filmbase?”

“Sir?”

“We mustn’t run short of filmbase,” the Duke said. “Else, how could we flood village and city with our information? The people must learn how well I govern them. How would they know if we didn’t tell them?”

[emphasis added]

Frank Herbert was a political activist and journalist before becoming a science fiction writer, and the exploitation of political ignorance and irrationality was one of the themes of Dune and its sequels. [...]

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Time to Stop Using “Hobbit” as an Insult

Two years ago, John McCain derided “Tea Party hobbits.” Now Tulane University assistant dean Jim Letten is using the same insult against conservative “guerrilla journalist” James O’Keefe:

Former U.S. attorney and assistant Tulane University Dean Jim Letten unleashed a barrage of verbal abuse at conservative “guerrilla journalist” James O’ Keefe and his film crew in an altercation on Tulane’s campus early last month.

“You are a nasty cowardly little spud, all of you, you’re hobbits,” Letten shouted in the video, which was released by O’Keefe’s organization, Project Veritas, on Monday.

“You are less than I can ever tell you,” continued the former-attorney, who briefly lead a prosecution effort against O’Keefe in 2010. “You are scum. Do you understand?”

Letten, who was surrounded by campus security personnel, also appeared to throw a copy of O’Keefe’s book “Breakthrough” back at him, after O’Keefe had handed it over just seconds before.

Letten added that O’Keefe was “a snail,” a “horse’s ass,” and an “asshole.”

Depending on whose version of events you believe, it’s possible that Letten has some legitimate grievances against O’Keefe. Still, he, Senator McCain, and everyone else should realize that “hobbit” is not an insult. The hobbits were the good guys in The Lord of the Rings; they destroyed the Ring of Power and saved Middle Earth from tyranny. They bravely explored the world long before humans did. If O’Keefe really is ” ‘a snail,’ a ‘horse’s ass,’ and an ‘asshole,’” that probably means he is not really like a hobbit. People who want to vilify their enemies with Tolkienian insults should try “orc” or “balrog.” [...]

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A Brief Review of World War Z

I saw the movie version of World War Z last night. Although it was mostly for entertainment, I was also conducting in-depth academic research for my article on political ignorance and the undead, my planned contribution to Economics of the Undead: Blood Brains and Benjamins, edited by Glen Whitman and James Dow! The article builds on my forthcoming book Democracy and Political Ignorance, and explores the portrayal of political ignorance in literature and movies on the undead (public ignorance and the resulting public policy errors play a major role in many such stories).

But the beleaguered taxpayers of Virginia need not worry about my charging this movie ticket to my academic expense account. That’s because Hollywood basically turned Max Brooks’ fascinating political and psychological story into a standard-issue action/horror movie. Moderately fun to watch, but barely more intelligent than the zombies themselves. I would offer a more detailed critique. But Daniel Drezner (author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies) has already done all the heavy lifting for me [warning: his article contains plot spoilers, not that the plot is all that good].

I understand that some changes had to be made in order to convert the book into a movie. For example, there had to be a central protagonist that the audience can identify with (the character played by Brad Pitt), as opposed to the melange of separate stories in the book. But it’s a shame that the adaptation process essentially stripped the story of nearly all its intellectual content, and much of its internal consistency as well.

If you’re in the mood for some relatively mindless zombie-like entertainment, the movie will do. Otherwise, stick to the book. [...]

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The Plight of Star Wars’ Droids

Erik Sofge has an interesting Slate article about the oppression to which droids are subjected in the Stars Wars universe:

George Lucas doesn’t care about metal people. No other explanation makes sense. In a kid-targeted sci-fi setting that’s notably inclusive, with as many friendly alien characters as villainous ones, the human rights situation for robots is horrifying. They’re imbued with distinctly human traits—including fear—only to be tortured and killed for our amusement. They scream while being branded, and cower before heroes during executions….

When we meet C-3PO—in the original, 1977 Star Wars—he’s a nuisance. He’s a coward aboard Princess Leia’s besieged spaceship, and, after being sold to Luke Skywalker’s uncle (as part of a package deal, with the invaluable R2-D2), he spends nearly every moment aghast or needling at his braver companions. But C-3PO’s grating state of constant terror isn’t unwarranted. When Luke discovers that R2-D2 has left his post to look for Obi-Wan, the protocol droid practically swoons. “It wasn’t my fault, sir,” he wails, “please don’t deactivate me!”

It’s a throwaway line, part of C-3PO’s responsibilities as resident comic foil. But the implications aren’t so easily dismissed. As the movies progress, we see further evidence that droids experience fear, joy, and misery (even the redoubtable R2 is prone to the occasional whimper-whistle). And yet, they’re bought and sold like property. They are property, with C-3PO passed from owner to owner, his consciousness shut down temporarily when his nattering is too much to bear, or permanently rearranged without a moment’s hesitation or apology. C-3PO isn’t (simply) craven, when he quails before his new master. C-3PO knows the score. They deactivate droids, don’t they?

As Sofge suggests, the interesting thing about the role of droids in the Star Wars universe is not that they are an oppressed class, but [...]

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Matthew Yglesias on Superman and Opportunity Costs

Matthew Yglesias has a fun Slate piece on what Superman should do with his powers:

I don’t want to offer spoilers for the new Superman movie, Man of Steel but suffice it to say that for a while in the film Superman is kind of bouncing around sporadically rescuing people from random accidents. And it’s a Superman scenario we all know and love….

And yet is this a good use of Superman’s time?

What we’re talking about, essentially, is the world’s greatest solar power cell. The earth’s yellow sun gives his eyes the ability to boil water, and his arms and legs can exert enormous amounts of force. In other words, he could be rigging up a plan to generate enormous quantities of pollution-free electricity! In the longer term, I’m pretty confident that solar power technology is going to improve the point where we don’t need Superman to play this role. But for the moment, Superman could take an enormous bite out of a world problem that’s much more significant than the occasional plane crash or factory explosion.

Yglesias acknowledges that this clever 2011 SBMC cartoon raised the same idea earlier. I made a similar point in this 2006 post:

I have to admit that one reason why I never much liked the Superman franchise is that the character seems to misallocate his efforts so severely! If you had his powers, would you spend your time chasing a third-rate villain like Lex Luthor (even if played by the great Gene Hackman)? Why not instead overthrow Kim Jong Il or stop the genocide in Darfur? Perhaps the first thing… Superman should do is take [an] economics class…. and learn about the concept of opportunity cost. If a Hollywood studio offers me enough money to offset MY opportunity costs, I would

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Review of Star Trek: Into Darkness

My wife and I recently watched Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second in the series of J.J. Abrams-directed”reboot” Star Trek movies that began in 2009. On the plus side, the film had some impressive action scenes and special effects. It also had more and somewhat better character development than its predecessor. Long-time fans of the series might like the many clever nods to the original series from the 1960s. At the very least, the movie was fun to watch, and I think we got our money’s worth.

Nonetheless, the negatives outweigh the positives. Unsurprisingly, Into Darkness has most of the same flaws as the previous Abrams Star Trek movie, which I criticized here. Both films essentially turn Star Trek into an action movie that just happens to utilize Trek characters and settings. I am far from an uncritical admirer of Star Trek as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry and his successors. Nor was I ever the kind of fanatical Trekkie who goes to conventions wearing Vulcan ears or signs up for classes at the Klingon Language Institute. But, despite its many flaws, I admired the Star Trek franchise’s willingness to take on big questions about the kind of future we should want for humanity. Abrams’ “reboot” essentially ignores all serious issues, and just ramps up the action. I don’t deny that a “reboot” may have been needed, given the poor quality of the last several old-line Star Trek movies; but not a reboot that jettisons almost everything that made Star Trek interesting and unique.

In addition, Into Darkness has huge plot holes big enough to fly a whole fleet of Romulan warbirds through. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go through them in detail. I will only note that, for the Federation to get into the [...]

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Matthew Yglesias on Star Trek

At Slate, Matthew Yglesias has an interesting article reviewing all of the Star Trek and many of the movies from the original 1960s series to the present. He especially focuses on the series’ ideology and politics, and its “utopian” vision of the future.

Despite coming at the issue from a very different perspective, I actually agree with much of Yglesias’ analysis. I think he is right that Deep Space Nine had many of Star Trek’s best episodes, that Voyager was the worst of the TV shows, and that the 2009 “reboot” movie (which I criticized here) takes the series in the wrong direction. Most fundamentally, I think we agree that Star Trek is interesting because it takes on serious issues about the kind of future we should want for humanity. That is a big part of the reason we are still talking about Trek almost fifty years after it began.

On the other hand, I have a much more critical perspective than Yglesias on Star Trek’s mostly left-wing politics, which I articulated in this Institute for Humane Studies podcast. As I explain in the podcast, I like Deep Space Nine better than the other series in part because it is more willing to question the Federation’s values, though it ultimately does still endorse them. I also disagree with Yglesias’ view that the economy of Star Trek is post-scarcity, thereby making socialism workable (and indeed the only feasible economic system). As I discuss here, many important goods and services are still limited in the Star Trek universe, including the energy sources that power starships, planetary real estate, a variety of personal services, and – most importantly – replicators. The replicator – the very technology that supposedly eliminates scarcity – is itself scarce; the Federation and its various rivals apparently [...]

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The Zombie Defense

In the proud tradition of the Twinkie Defense and the Chewbacca Defense, we now have the Zombie Defense:

A young transient who said he was trying to shake zombies off a stolen semi-trailer truck he was driving caused a major freeway incident in southern California that sent four people to the hospital and tied up traffic for hours, the California Highway Patrol said.

Jerimiah Clyde Hartline, 19, was arrested in connection with the theft an 18-wheeler fully loaded with strawberries on Sunday near Temecula, according to the highway patrol.

Officer Nate Baer said Hartline had been riding with truck driver Daniel Martinez since his trip started in Tennessee after being kicked out of his home. When Martinez stopped to fill out paperwork at an inspection site, he left Hartline alone in the truck, Baer said. Hartline then jumped behind the wheel of the truck, sped off and soon after crashed into several vehicles on the freeway, Baer said.

Hartline was apparently under the influence of a substance that caused him to hallucinate, Baer said.

“He thought zombies were chasing him and clinging to the truck,” Baer said in an e-mail….

Hartline has been charged with taking a vehicle without the owner’s consent and receiving known stolen property, court records said.

Mr. Hartline and his defense team will have to read up on the politics of zombies, which I blogged about here. For an appropriate fee, I would be happy to serve as an expert witness on the law and economics of the undead, as well as on the special legal rights and obligations of those who are called upon to defend humanity against them. [...]

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Scotland Considers Law Recognizing Wedding Ceremonies Performed by Jedi Knights

Scotland is considering a new law that would grant official recognition to wedding ceremonies performed by practitioners of the new “Jedi” religion:

The Force is strong with the Jedi in Scotland. A bill under consideration in Scotland would grant those who have literally made “Star Wars” a religion the power to perform marriage ceremonies.

The BBC reports that the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill would apply to other nonreligious groups such as the Flat Earth Society and the Jedi Knights Society, aka Temple of the Jedi Order.

And while it may sound like a joke to most, the Jedi religion is quite popular in some parts of Europe. In England, it is the second-most popular “alternative religion,” with more than 175,000 people listing themselves as Jedi in the 2012 nationwide census.

“Our current consultation covers not only the introduction of same-sex marriage but also the detail of important protections in relation to religious bodies and celebrants, freedom of speech and education,” a Scottish government spokeswoman said.

“At the moment, marriage ceremonies by bodies such as humanists have been classed as religious, even though the beliefs of such organizations are nonreligious….”

The Scottish government plans to hold a public consultation on the bill and, of course, not all traditionally religious groups are happy about creating a new category for ceremonies that are by their very nature, arguably, a religious practice.

“There are loads of people in a diverse society like this for whom belief can mean virtually anything—the Flat Earth Society and Jedi Knights Society—who knows?” the Rev. Iver Martin told the BBC.

“I am not saying that we don’t give place to that kind of personal belief, but when you start making allowances for marriages to be performed within those categories, then you are all over the place.”

For their

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US Surveillance Drones Aid French Airstrikes in Mali

The Wall Street Journal national security reporting team has a new article in today’s Journal on how US surveillance drones are providing intelligence and targeting information to French forces in Mali, which then use the information to direct French (manned) airstrikes.  The drone surveillance marks, according to the article, a widened role for the US in support of French military operations in Mali:

U.S. Reaper drones have provided intelligence and targeting information that have led to nearly 60 French airstrikes in the past week alone in a range of mountains the size of Britain, where Western intelligence agencies believe militant leaders are hiding, say French officials.

The operations target top militants, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of January’s hostage raid on an Algerian natural gas plant that claimed the lives of at least 38 employees, including three Americans. Chad forces said they killed him on Saturday, a day after saying they had killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the commander of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Mali wing.

French, U.S. and Malian officials have not confirmed the deaths of Mr. Belmokhtar or Mr. Zeid, citing a lack of definitive information from the field. But they say the new arrangement with the U.S. has led in recent days to a raised tempo in strikes against al Qaeda-linked groups and their allies some time after the offensive began in January. That is a shift for the U.S., which initially limited intelligence sharing that could pinpoint targets for French strikes.

The lack of French drone capacity, for surveillance or attack, was noted in a New York Times article two weeks ago that profiled the French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.  Le Drian was blunt about the need for and the lack of drones (emphasis added below):

[W]hile the French express hope that African forces

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