January 29, 2009 at 11:48 pm (cartoon) (, , )

It was that or say "tm" afterwards.  Now that would not have been cool.

It was that or say "tm" afterwards. Now that would not have been cool.


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Batman: The Dark Knight

January 24, 2009 at 8:39 pm (thinking) (, , , , )

I really enjoyed a discussion of the Dark Knight at overthinkingit.com about a literary theory analysis of the film.  There is a really great discussion about the various ways you can classify stories – “mystery”, “action”, “symbolism” and “cultural” being the broad categories.  The author argues – successfully – that it is the way our cultural knowledge of batman and the joker combine with the films portrayal that make this film so good.  Its a great geeky read, and I love that it makes the film all about The Joker.

The classifications are quite interesting.  “mystery” is essentially the plot – its what we don’t know and what we want to find out.  For example, will Batman get the girl?  Can he save Gotham and himself?  What is the Jokers evil plan?  The “action” element is not just the visual effects, but also the satisfactory explanation of the mystery.  It makes the plot make sense.

Interestingly, these are the only elements that are actually about the film.  The “symbolism” category relies on our knowledge of the world to add interest and a purpose to the film as a work of art, rather than just as a story.  Batman is an interesting symbol of good fighting evil because he is dark and hidden himself.  Batman has two sides, as does two face, and the joker as well.  But the story is really all about the “cultural” knowledge we have of batman.  He is a superhero, and we have a lot of expectations of what that means.  As the article says,

We don’t tune in to see how Batman will handle the badguys, we want to know how the filmmakers will handle Batman.

And the big new character in this film..? We get to know how the filmmakers handle the Joker.  Heath Ledger takes our expectations and turns them into something gruesome, something terrible, into something really damn cool.  If we hadn’t seen all the other Batman films, he’d just be a weirdo in some makeup.  But he is not: he is The Joker.

Check it out.

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Farting cattle destroy the world

January 24, 2009 at 7:32 pm (thinking) (, , , , , )

It probably isn’t what most people would think of when they consider the global changes made by mankind, but the amount of livestock we keep is a big burden on the environment.  Approximately 20% of all animals alive are densely farmed, significantly reducing the amount of land available for unfarmed animals.  And farm animals are big offenders in producing CO2, and worse greenhouse gasses including methane and nitrous oxide.

To put it in perspective, a fifth of global emissions are farming induced – which is more than automobiles.  Changing from a gas guzzling four-by-four to an energy efficient prius saves less emissions than becoming vegetarian. It takes 10 times as much land to feed a person meat as the same calorie value in vegetables – and a lot of that difference is converted into global warming nasties.

I don’t think this counts as a reason to be a vegetarian, however.  This is not a matter of absolutes.  Simply cutting down on the amount of meat eaten could have a big impact on the environment.  Only in the last 50 years did we get meat every day – pre-industrial farmers couldn’t afford it, and hunter-gatherers had to make do with whatever they could get.  We don’t need meat often to get benefits from it – and vegetarian food can be just as tasty if you know how to cook it.

But imagine the wildlife parks we could have if we could reclaim nine tenths of all pasture land!  If we could give even a fraction of that back to nature, wild populations could recover, rain forests wouldn’t need to be cut down, and global warming would be significantly reduced.  Good, no?

This is a good reason to eat less meat, but there are other reasons to eat none at all.  See my post about the morality of vegetarianism for why I am a vegetarian.

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Joseph and the amazing moral lesson

January 18, 2009 at 10:56 pm (religion, thinking) (, , , , , )

We just saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat this evening, and it was pretty good.  The songs are fun and and fit together cleverly.  Its too short with many repeated songs at the end but that didn’t stop me enjoying it.

However, I wonder if there is a worse lesson commonly told from the Bible.  Its very old testament, of course, but still.

The plot: Joseph is the favourite son of Israel, better than all his other brothers.  He tells them all about how his dreams of the future make him better than them and he lords it over them.  He gets his technicolour coat, which he runs in their faces – and they get jealous.  So they sell him to slavers who take him to Egypt.

Joseph has a sucky time for a bit but his knowledge of dreams leads him to power with the pharoah by predicting and preventing a terrible famine.  The brothers come begging for food, so Joseph lords it over them.  He demands his technicolour coat, which he rubs in their faces – and they have to put up with it this time!

So what was learned in this story?

  • Don’t disbelieve people who claim to have God helping them predict the future, because they might be right
  • Its OK to be arrogant if you are in fact favoured by God
  • Things, such as a coat, are very important and should be put first over your family
  • You should forgive others if you can make them eat a really huge slice of humble pie

This is simply bizarre.  Why, for example, did Joseph not realise how meaningless the coat was, and why he shouldn’t consider himself better than his brothers simply for getting Gods help with a few dreams?  How come the brothers learned an important lesson about humility, but Joseph could not?  Why was he rewarded for being an ass and staying an ass?

I really see why Christians are a bit skeptical of the Old Testament.  Are there no better lessons to popularise than this?

May I return to the beginning
The light is dimming, and the dream is too
The world and I, we are still waiting
Still hesitating
Any dream will do.

It is mighty meaningful – although I don’t know what it means.

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Thinking through games.

January 4, 2009 at 11:57 pm (Articles, science) (, , , , )

Most games are idle distraction from reality. However, sometimes we can learn things from them. I think I’ve uncovered something very important playing Civilisation 4.

How, you might well ask? In the game, you control a civilisation from its origin through to the colonisation of another planet. Your civilisation grows from a small band of farmers to a world spanning empire. And here is the thing: it only ever gets bigger and better.

Can you think of another empire throughout history for which this is true? There isn’t one. The ancient Mesopotamian empires were very short lived. The Greeks were culturally powerful but soon lost their influence. The Romans controlled the basin of the modern world and an unmatched army yet fell within a few hundred years of their empire being established. China failed to capitalise on its huge cultural, scientific and organisational lead in the European dark ages, was repeatedly overtaken by barbarians, and later dominated by European merchants. Simply put: in history the powerful have always failed to keep their power.

Why is this – what is missing from the game? Civilisation is designed to be fun, not realistic – perhaps it misses out some key scientific knowledge. After a years worth of scientific reading, I can conclusively say – nobody knows! I find this shocking, and exciting. There is huge potential here for research – about a fundamental process that has shaped our world as much as religion, and will determine our future.

I don’t mean to say there is nothing known. There are several good books on the subject – “Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall” by Peter Turchin is a good place to start, as is “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. There are three basic explanations offered:

  1. Internal economics. As a state gets powerful, it develops various methods for doing things. These might be successful initially but eventually they cause problems, and the society can’t change as fast as some other, weaker societies. Essentially: a strong society causes problems that bring about its decline.
  2. External events, such as barbarians and other empires.
  3. Environmental change. This can be either caused by the society (so is really internally caused) or natural changes such as mini ice-ages (and thus an external event).

Clearly, external events aren’t enough on their own to explain why a big empire falls, because bigger societies have more resources available to cope with the event than smaller ones. So there must be some internal explanation, and there is little agreement about how different societies cope with things so differently.

I’ll make another blog post another time to describe some things that cause societies to become weaker, and whether they mean dramatic changes for the future of our society. But in the current knowledge there is:

  • No causal understanding of what leads to societies weakening, nor when. (1)
  • No accepted way to interpret the evidence to support or reject explanations.

What does this mean, in terms of computer games? It means there are good set of ideas of how societies might get weaker, but no knowledge of how “game rules” can be made from these. And nobody really knows which rules influenced the decline of specific empires in history.

Both of the issues could be addressed through a mathematical framework for societal change (which the game of Civilisation actually is!). So, to get a more realistic game of civilisation, we need to do some fundamental research – maybe Firaxis Games will pay my wages?

Note (1): Turchin’s book is actually the first to try to address this by using mathematical models, but he focusses more on larger scale issues such as european versus eastern influence (which he calls “World Systems”). This sort of modelling is the only way to establish that a given mechanism is really causal of society weakening, and under which conditions.

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Thought for the day…

January 1, 2009 at 9:49 pm (Humour, Not thinking) (, , , )

We do what we must
because we can.
For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.
But there’s no sense crying over every mistake.
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake.
And the Science gets done.

Yes, over the Christmas period I completed Portal. I got the cake. YAAY! CAKE!

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