Thursday, January 22, 2009

What We Know About Battlestar Galactica

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

The final season of Battlestar Galactica has begun and the teaser commercials have posed the question: Who is the 5th secret Cylon? While this will be the focus of the final ten BSG episodes, there are a number of other questions the series has presented that may not be resolved by the final curtain.

1. Why do Cylons’ spines glow red when they make love?
It would seem that such an obvious sexual tell would be counterproductive for a cadre of seductive simulacrums. In all the years of sexual subversion, did no human ever wonder why their incredibly attractive partners insisted on the missionary position?

We do know that Cylons like sex as much as the next automaton and that they are genetically compatible with humans. They claim to experience “Love” and they purport, at times, to having free will. One can only conclude that the glowing red spine was a feature meant to be included only in Christmas Cylons, but someone slipped in production.

2. How did Cylons develop monotheism?

BSG humans are portrayed as generally secular and polytheistic. Neither Greek nor Hebrew, but rather both and more, human BSG characters sport names or appellations like "Adama," "Apollo," "D'Anna" and for the coffee worshippers amongst us "Starbuck." Their twelve colonial worlds correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac. They say things like "Thank the Gods" and "Gods help us."

The robotic Cylons are monotheistic, fanatical and proselytizing. Despite their claim that their one god is “love,” or perhaps because of it, they bring about the destruction of the twelve human colonies, killing billions of people and then zealously pursue the few survivors. There is one chilling scene from the first season where the Cylon attack is imminent and Number 6 bends over a carriage to kill an infant. It is unclear whether this is an act of mercy or a preemptive strike.

The odd thing is that the Cylons, being robots, have already achieved eternal life. They literally cannot be killed. Or rather, we see them continually dying and then being reborn. Their reincarnation factory vessels are even called “resurrection ships.” A reborn Cylon is not a type or a clone. It is a recreation of the dead individual Cylon, downloaded from the original with memories and emotions intact. In other words, one of the core motivators of many of Earth’s religions is already an integral part of Cylon existence. The only exception to the rule is if a Cylon dies out of range of a resurrection complex. Then they truly die.

If, in spite of being formed in the image of their creators, Cylons reject polytheism, how did they stumble across monotheism?

There is a school of cultural evolutionary thought that suggests that a pre-existing condition to the adoption of monotheism is a phonetic alphabet and some degree of literacy. In a 1977 Issue of ETC: The Journal of General Semantics, in an article titled "Alphabet, Mother of Invention," Marshall McLuhan (yes, that Marshall McLuhan) and Robert K. Logan speculate on the possible origin of monotheism:

"Western thought patterns are highly abstract, compared with Eastern. There developed in the West, and only in the West, a group of innovations that constitute the basis of Western thought. These include (in addition to the alphabet) codified law, monotheism, abstract science, formal logic, and individualism. All of these innovations, including the alphabet, arose within the very narrow geographic zone between the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Aegean Sea, and within the very narrow time frame between 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C. We do not consider this to be an accident. While not suggesting a direct causal connection between the alphabet and the other innovations, we would claim, however, that the phonetic alphabet played a particularly dynamic role within this constellation of events and provided the ground or framework for the mutual development of these innovations." (Emphasis added)

While the final verdict on this Media Ecological interpretation of religious thought is still out, there surely is some confusion over how the artificial intelligence products of the pantheistic human culture of BSG could arrive at the notion of one God. Religious robots, while intriguing, remain a problem, especially self-ordained monotheistic robots.

Computer processing, as we understand it, requires at least binary notation, which would imply a minimum of two gods. I believe that the depiction of Cylons as monotheistic in the absence of human mortality or alphabetic literacy can only be seen as a true leap of faith on the part of BSG's creators.

3. Why didn’t the Cylons make their “skin jobs” better than they are?
Humanoid Cylons are stronger, arguably smarter and definitely sexier than their human counterparts. However, given the range of possibilities presented by human/android genetics, one wonders why the Cylons didn’t do more?

How about x-ray vision or invulnerability? Is a spider-like precognition out of the question? At the very least, all Cylons could have been equipped with metallic claws that pop out of their knuckles on command.

When you compare humanity’s current evolutionary state to our closest monkey’s uncle, it is clear we are far superior. Our brains are so large we only need to use 10% and often use much less. Every year some Olympian or Marathoner runs faster, jumps higher, or swims more synchronously. To your average orangutan, we must seem like the types of Super Hominid into which they’d all like to evolve. For those of us already at the summit of Earth’s evolutionary trail, where is there to go but up, as in “Up, Up and Away!”?

It may be that Cylons, while clearly superior to humans in every conceivable way, lack the ability to imagine the next great steps in humanoid evolution and the amount of spandex required.

4. Why do the Cylons want to breed half-human/half-Cylon children? Why have children at all?
Any parent who has been on the receiving end while changing a diaper, who has been involved in any school science project or who has attempted sound moderately coherent while explaining the facts of life to a pre-pubescent human child would wonder why Cylons wouldn’t design their offspring to skip right to adulthood. Would-be Cylon parents will soon discover that it is not possible to annihilate the remainder of the human race while coordinating a schedule of after-school activities.

5. Finally, who is the fifth Cylon? What’s the deal with Starbuck? And what about Earth-that-was?

I personally believe that Starbuck is Amelia Earhart and Colonel Tigh is Jimmy Hoffa. The fifth Cylon is not Ellen Tigh, he's Howard Hughes. Or maybe Walt Disney's head. Wait. Didn't he invent animatronics?

That's it! The Cylons are Disney World Character refugees, who fled Earth when Lawrence Lessig finally got Congress to approve term limits on corporate copyrights! First they evolved from singing bears and cavorting pirates into “toaster-heads.” Now they swing full circle back to humanoid approximations of perfection, but they have not been able to completely eliminate the desire to slavishly cater to the pre-adult offspring of their creators.

If this “Magic Kingdom Galactica” hypothesis is true, we should be on the lookout for an upcoming Battlestar Galactica episode that would be a dead giveaway: “Cylons On Ice”.

Corporate Tax Liabilities

Has anyone ever done a cost/benefit analysis of corporate taxes? I'm sure there are accounting tools which would let us estimate how much Federal, State and Local value a particular corporation realizes each year versus how much they pay in taxes. This would include a pro rata share of usage of public utilities, public services and public spaces. It would give us a yardstick to determine who is paying their fair share and how much their taxes should be increased.

Does anyone know of anything like this?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

DWUI-CP: Driving While Under the Influence of a Cell Phone

I was on Thom Hartmann's radio program yesterday, discussing the use of cell phones while driving. Thom's position was that regulating cell phone usage in cars was an imposition and probably unenforceable anyway. I suggested that like drunk driving, driving while cell-phoning impaired responses and may result in hazardous driving. Here is an edited clip of the transcript:

Hartmann: The Safety Council... now they want to tell you that when you are driving your car you cannot use a hands-free cell phone. You know the little Bluetooth things that most cars have where you've got the phone in your pocket and your car answers the phone and you're just talking at the windshield wipers or the dashboard. You don't even have to take your phone out of your pocket. Hands-free phones. And they're saying we should ban this. It turns out 2600 deaths, 12000 serious injuries per year, this is 6% of vehicel crashes, are attributed to people using phones. Now that's not hands-free phones, that's just phones. But included in that some small percentage of people using hands-free phones and they say "Let's make that illegal."

I say enough of the conservatives telling us what we can do or not do anywhere on earth. Or maybe we should just ban talking in the car, because their argument is that...its not just what you're doing with your hands, its that your head is in the conversation. OK, so lets ban talking to people in the car. In fact, lets even take it a step beyond that. Lets make it required that people have duct tape in their car and that when they get in and sit down not only do you have to fasten your seat belt but you also have to tear off a three inch strip of duct tape and put it over your mouth. Because how are you going to know. I mean, if a police officer's driving by and they see somebody talking, they see their mouth moving, how do they know that that person is not talking to the person next to them or is not talking on a hands-free phone?
There are researchers who have shown that using a low-fidelity instrument like a cell phone as compared to a high fidelity radio or even talking to a person in a car takes more brain processing power. Its what McLuhan called a cool medium and you actually develop a form of tunnel vision while you're doing that.

Right, but if it was Bluetooth and it was running through the speakers in your car that would not be the case, would it?

Its still low fidelity. The signal is coming from the cell carrier, not from the FM radio station.

Oh, so its the bandwidth. Now that's interesting. Now let me extend the logic on this. You're saying that the bandwidth is narrow because there's not such a broad spectrum of frequency the brain has to focus on it more intently. You know AM radio has a narrower bandwidth than FM radio. Should we ban AM radio?
Well, I guess you have to find the degree of involvement.

There's some critical threshhold there. That's interesting, Bob! I tell you, I've got the smartest listeners in the world! I thought I was bringing some science to the table here and Bob trumps me! Well done Bob!

Its not every day that I can trump Thom Hartmann! And while I did get the McLuhan reference in, I'm sorry I wasn't able to work in Media Ecology or my blog site as well.

I think the fact that using the cell phone can be demonstrated to affect perception is an excellent example of McLuhan's "Cool Medium" terminology. Like connect-the-dot drawings as compared to photographs, cartoons as compared to paintings or traditional television as compared to cinema, a cool medium requires that we "fill in the blanks."

We experience a voice we hear over the phone as the same as normal conversation because our brains are filling in the gaps. Its only when we hear a recording of a phone conversation that we become aware of the low fidelity. That the process of talking on a cell phone can result in tunnel vision is truly interesting.

So thank you Thom for having me on and for recognizing how smart McLuhan was!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Revisited: What We Know About the Joker

In honor of Heather Ledger winning the Golden Globe award for best supporting actor in The Dark Knight, I am reposting my piece on The Joker from this past July:

Ruminations about the man behind the masque.

Though this past weekend’s top performing movie is titled The Dark Knight, it might easily have been called "The Clown Prince." Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, already hailed as Oscar-worthy, owes more to Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice than it does to previous Batman malefactors. Ironically, Keaton was the first film Batman and could have played off against himself as both the Caped Crusader and the Prince of Fools.

Like Keaton's Beetlejuice, The Joker in this latest Batman-iteration is the ultimate trickster: a destroyer of worlds and a slayer of men, whose word cannot be trusted and whose motives cannot be divined.

The Joker’s wild success throughout The Dark Knight's dark nights depends on a script which constitutes a stacked deck in his favor. For most of the two hours of this latest Batman saga, everything goes the Joker’s way. He knows where mob kingpins will be meeting and gains access with impunity. He easily defeats the defense mechanisms of a high-security bank. He cannily manipulates good guys and bad guys alike seeking both a higher class of criminal and a lower class of law enforcer. He survives high speed truck flips, Kevlar-armored right crosses and highrise bungee jumps.

Though he is painted up to be an enigma wrapped in a riddle (or was that someone else?), based on evidence from The Dark Knight, we do know the following things about The Joker:
  • He is a munitions expert. He is equally at home with C4 suppositories and oil barrel chemical peels.

  • Though he is an expert project manager, at least in the bank-robbery field, he is prone to waste his resources.

  • He is empathic. He knows just what to say to push anyone over the edge of madness, and then leap in after him.

  • He is a man ahead of his Timex. The Joker can take a likin’ from Batman and keep on tickin’. He may once have belonged to a fight club.

  • He obviously was involved in covert ops in the past. He knows how to anticipate scenarios and plan alternatives.

  • He knows where to acquire esoteric weapons and how to use them.

  • He moonlights as a Mary Kay agent.

  • He has had access to Jack Benny’s joke vault.
Omigod! The Joker is Jason Bourne!