Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Star Wars prequel trilogy

For several years after Star Wars The Phantom Menace was released, I just couldn't see what was so horribly wrong about it, and why people hated it. The subsequent two movies were quite ok as well.

Now, don't get me wrong. Back then I thought that the vast majority of people hated it simply because the vast majority of other people hated it, and it was just a hip and cool to hate it (a phenomenon I have complained about several times,) and I still think that's mostly the case. However, I have later come to realize that some of the criticism of the prequel trilogy is, indeed, valid. I have come to realize that my own appreciation of the trilogy has dropped significantly since those times.

What changed my opinion the most was the great review series done by The Distressed Watcher (who I think made a terrific job at analyzing it, and sadly has gone mostly unnoticed by the vast majority of people, who only know the review by Red Letter Media which, while funny, I don't think is as good.) He presented a lot of good points that I just have to agree with.

And still don't get me wrong: I still don't think the prequel trilogy is the worst pieces of movie that has ever been made. They are still in the mediocre category for me. Also, I don't hate Jar-Jar. I'm sorry, but I just don't.

Anyway, one of the major problems with the entire trilogy is that it's supposed to be the story of how Darth Vader came to be, of how he changed from a good person to a mass-murdering villain of galactic proportions, yet the trilogy spends surprisingly little time showing (or even just telling) about it. By far the vast majority of the time is spent on other things entirely, mostly things that have no effect on that core plot.

The problem with this scarcity of background story is that Anakin's change in the end comes way too "easily." There's very little that would explain why exactly he decided to switch to the other side, and moreover did it in such a drastic way (eg. one of the very first things he did after he switched to the dark side was to personally massacre a group of children; off-screen, mind you, but clearly implied.) With so little background leading up to this radical change, it kind of comes a bit out-of-nowhere, with no explanation. There are bits and pieces during the second and third films yes, but way too little. And what's worse, even the little there is, is written in a simplistic, even childish manner (like something that a 12-year-old would write.) This is quite obnoxious given that, as said, the core plot of trilogy is supposed to be exactly this.

Anakin in the first movie is an archetypal Mary Sue character: Perfect, pure, innocent and "cute" in all possible ways, with no flaws. While this kind of character can work when well done, it was not very well done here. He's not very likeable nor relatable, and many people could understandably even consider him annoying. By being too perfect, too innocent, too cute, what's clearly intended to be a likeable and endearing character only ends up being a two-dimensional portrayal with no depth to him at all. I'm assuming that what Lucas was attempting is making the viewers love the character, making his fall that much more shocking and sad, but he just outright fails at this.

While Anakin's conversion to Darth Vader was (supposed to be) the core plot of the trilogy, another almost as relevant plot point was his fathering of Leia and Luke Skywalker. In other words, the romantic subplot of him and Padme Amidala.

Quite incredibly, this was handled as poorly as the main plot. The romantic scenes are scarce and brief, and most damningly, extremely badly done. There's absolutely no chemistry between the two characters, and watching these scenes is just uncomfortable. As the Distressed Watcher puts it, it's like watching two people who feel absolutely nothing for each other forced to act in romantic scenes. While this is of course subjective, you just can see that their heart was not in the acting, and you feel like they are just doing their job to earn their salary. (This is something that a good director should catch and fix, by whatever means. The fact that Lucas did not fix this tells us something.)

Lucas was clearly trying to write the subplot as Padme denying her feelings for Anakin for a long time, and slowly warming up, but it just doesn't come out like that. Instead, it comes out as Padme repeatedly rejecting Anakin, who ends up looking more like a stalker with an obsession, with almost childish qualities. (Again, something that a good director ought to notice and fix.) Overall, the entire subplot is very poorly done and painful to watch.

Padme's reactions to many of Anakin's doings is also quite unrealistic. For example, when Anakin confesses that he massacred an entire village, women and children included, in a rage to revenge his mother, Padme acts like he had just told her that he lost his wallet.

And as a side note, Lucas deciding to kill the absolutely best character of the entire trilogy at the end of the first movie was just a huge mistake. Darth Maul is possibly the only character in the entire trilogy that nobody hates, and almost everybody agrees was the coolest thing. Killing him in the first movie was just a bad, bad idea. Lucas completely lost the ball with that one.

And that big "no" at the end? Yes, Lucas completely lost the ball. Completely. If people are laughing in a scene that's supposed to be extremely dramatic, something is really, really wrong.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Reverse-Aristotelian gravity

There's a rather curious misconception, or intuition, that many people have related to gravity, and this is sometimes seen in movies and TV. This misconception is that if there's a very large object orbiting a planet (eg. Earth) and it's broken up to small pieces, all of the pieces will fall down. (A related concept is that if small pieces get loose from the large object, eg. garbage or such, they will likewise fall down to the planet.)

I find this misconception rather curious. It's the exact reverse of Aristotelian gravity.

You see, in antiquity there was among some philosophers the concept that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. In this case it's the exact reverse: The intuition seems to be that lighter objects fall faster (ie. are pulled more strongly by the planet's gravity) than heavier objects. If the orbiting heavy object gets broken to smaller pieces, or it lets small pieces loose, those pieces will now be pulled by the planet's gravity (because they are no longer attached to the heavy object) and fall down.

It's understandable that it's unintuitive that the falling speed, and thus the orbit, of an object does not depend on its mass. It doesn't matter if what's orbiting the Earth is a tennis ball or a mountain-sized rock: The orbital speed and altitude will be the same for both (if their initial conditions are the same.)

Moreover, breaking up the mountain-sized rock to small pieces isn't going to change anything. The pieces will still orbit the planet in the same way.

Now, if the breaking up was caused by a large explosion, this changes things a bit. However, it does not cause all the pieces to fall down (which is the most common intuition, and depiction in fiction.) Some pieces may fall down, others may be ejected from the system, but the majority will remain in orbit, albeit many in different ones from the original.

This is related to another misconception that many people have, and that's the concept that orbits are extremely "fragile", and that even a slight nudge will cause the orbiting object to plunge to its destruction. That's not so. In fact, it's actually pretty hard to make an orbiting object fall down. You need a rather precise force in a rather precise direction for a rather precise amount of time for the new orbit to hit the planet. Most other directions will simply make it take a different orbit.

(If the orbit gets so close to the planet that the object starts skimming its atmosphere, that changes things, because the atmospheric drag will start to slow down the speed of the object, making it fall down eventually. However, the majority of orbits are not that close.)

In the case of the exploding heavy object, many of the orbits will be unstable, meaning that they will eventually fall to the planet or be ejected from the system. However, in many cases "unstable" means that it takes years, thousands of years, if not even millions of years, for that to happen. Not the few minutes that it takes in movies.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

How to make shams like homeopathy sound more plausible

Homeopathy is most certainly not the only snake oil salesmanship out there that's a pure sham, but it's probably the one that makes the most money worldwide. (There are other shams that may make more money than homeopathy, but they are usually not related to selling supposedly medicinal products.)

Homeopathic products are 100% placebos, pure and simple, yet it's taken really seriously among many people, and many claims of successful clinical studies and efficacy abound. There are published papers and lots of positive experiments that claim that homeopathy fares much better than placebos in properly-conducted double-blind trials.

But how can there be, given that homeopathic products are just placebos? It's not hard to get such results. There are some simple tricks that can be used for this. For example:

  1. When conducting an experimental trial, minimize the amount of test subjects. For example, rather than testing on 500 people, test on 20.
  2. Engage in confirmation bias: Highlight individual cases where the result was favorable to the homeopathic test, and belittle or ignore the cases where it was unfavorable.
  3. More effectively, though, perform many trials, and publish results for only those that gave a clearly positive result, while ignoring those that did not (in other words, engage in publication bias.) If you perform, for example, 50 trials, just by statistical probability you are going to get at least two or three that seem to indicate that homeopathy has a significantly greater effect than placebos (while the rest of the trials will show no difference, a few even showing a negative correlation.) Take the results of those two or three and publish them; ignore the rest.
  4. Publish your results in a publication with low standards of quality but a big name among homeopaths.
And there you have it. Several publications of "properly conducted" trials that clearly show that homeopathic remedies have a better effect than placebos. Now homeopaths can argue their position with "credible" references to "peer-reviewed" publications of clinical trials that "clearly" show the efficacy of homeopathy.

And when actual scientists perform the same clinical trials and see no difference to placebos, just claim that it's them who are biased, and that they are just trying to attack homeopathy because they want to eliminate competition and retain the monopoly. This is an easy claim to make because nobody will actually go through the trouble of finding out if there's any truth to it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Freedom of speech is a dying right

One common sentiment that many people express goes something like this: "Your freedom of expression ends immediately when you hurt someone." It's sometimes described with an analogy: "You are free to wave your arms around, but that freedom ends immediately when you hit someone with them."

This is a rather deceptive sentiment because it's so easy to agree with, when you don't think about it too much, yet it's quite hideous.

There's a big difference between hurting someone physically and hurting someone's feelings. The former is an objective and universal thing. Hitting someone on the face will hurt every single person in existence, and it's not a question of opinion, education, culture or personal preference. It's quite an objective thing.

Hurting someone's feelings, however, is completely subjective. It depends completely on one's personality, background and a ton of other things. What hurts someone may well not hurt someone else. And that's why the analogy is completely flawed.

I'm sorry, but freedom of speech trumps hurt feelings. Your perceived right to not get offended does not trump freedom of speech.

An opinion "hurting" someone is such a subjective thing that if we wanted to limit what opinions are allowed or not, it would come down to subjective opinion. There's no objective measurement stick that can be used to determine what should be banned and what not. More problematically, everybody gets offended by something (and not offended by something else that offends others.) If we started banning everything that offends somebody, quite soon we will have no freedom of speech of any kind.

Moreover, it would transgress to other rights as well. For example, if a world view offends some religion, should that world view be banned? What if a religion offends some group of people? Should that religion be banned? If a political view offends someone, should that political view be banned?

No, just no.

As Evelyn Beatrice Hall once wrote, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." That should be the core essence of human rights. That's the exact opposite of "your freedom ends when you hurt someone." No, it doesn't.

Sure, some people will end up saying very heinous things. On the other hand, other people will end up saying things that change the world. History is full of people who did not shut up because of the fear of hurting someone, and who made the world a better place to live. People with unpopular opinions and who were not afraid to express them. This is something that should be encouraged, not stifled.