Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Reaping: another awful anti-skeptic movie

I just watched The Reaping, another tedious horror movie that goes something like this:

Act 1, scene 1

Skeptic: "Hi, I'm an atheist and I think supernatural stuff is all bunk!"
Believer: "An atheist, eh? Why, you must have had some tragic experience in your life that made you mad at God."
Skeptic: "Why yes, as a matter of fact I did!"

Act 1, scene 2

Messenger: "Hey skeptic, some weird supernatural events are happening in this out-of-the-way location, and I think you should check it out."
Skeptic: "Supernatural events? Nonsense! There is a perfectly logical scientific explanation! Therefore, I will drop everything else in my life and go check it out."
Messenger: "I thought you'd say that. Car's ready, let's go."

Act 2

(Obviously supernatural events happen.)
Skeptic: "Nonsense, there is a perfectly rational scientific explanation for all of this. Give me a minute and I'll make some up."

Act 3

Skeptic: "Holy cow, it turns out that these events were supernatural all along! I have certainly learned many things and grown as a person. So much for my vaunted 'scientific method.'"

In this case, the skeptic is Hillary Swank, eventually revealed by the exposition to be a former preacher who lost her faith in God when religious whackjobs in some third world country killed her family. Now she apparently gives lectures on why there are no miracles and no God.

As I mentioned when I talked about Evan Almighty, these kinds of movies really work hard to undermine skepticism by establishing a fictional world where the magic stuff is real. The skeptic winds up looking like a fool by clinging on to "rational explanations" long after a real person, employing the observation and deduction skills possessed by a warthog, would have recognized the existence of magic. None of this applies in the real world, though; the takeaway message of the movie is "Don't be so skeptical of magic!" when it should qualify that with "...if you're a person who lives in a fictional magical universe."

You understand, of course, that I'm not complaining because a fictional story has fictional elements in it. I'm complaining about the really bad way that the skeptical main character is portrayed, in that she is confronted with an unprecedented level of real, concrete evidence... which she blithely ignores right up until the very end.

And "ignore the evidence" seems to be the only thing that Hillary Swank ever does in her capacity as a skeptic. For somebody with such a supposedly scientific mind, she certainly doesn't bother doing any of the obvious tests that I, who am not a scientist, think of immediately. For instance, the first thing she goes to investigate is a river that has turned red like blood. (The plot of this movie involves a recreation of the ten Biblical Plagues, in order.) Naturally, she starts pontificating on the possible reasons why the river could have turned blood-red. At this point I said to Ginny: "Surely the very FIRST thing that she should do when she gets there is run some kind of test to verify whether that stuff is actually blood or not. I sure do hope that occurs to her."

Guess what she doesn't do.

Oh, she has it tested for SOMETHING, but it's not whether it matches the chemical composition of blood. After she's been in the little town fooling around for several days, some other character refers to all the dead fish in the blood river, and she snaps at the guy "Look, those fish all died because the pH balance of that water is off the charts!" So apparently, she took the time to analyze the pH balance of the stuff, but never bothered to take a little extra effort to find out if it is actually, you know, blood. (Spoiler: It's blood.)

It gets worse. When the requisite priest starts yammering about the original Biblical plagues, Hillary Swank again begins ranting about how there's a simple scientific explanation for all ten plagues. You see, first this uncommon species of algae grew in the rivers, turning them red, and then all the fish died because of the algae, which caused some disease that killed the livestock and attracted frogs and locusts, and so on, in this hilariously elaborate Rube Goldberg sequence that handily explains all ten plagues.

This explanation struck me as so patently ridiculous that it could only be dreamed up by some nitwit in Hollywood, but it turns out I'm wrong. Since I googled some stuff to see if I got her "theory" correct, I found this page at Answers In Genesis arguing against a very similar explanation written by one Greta Hort in 1957. So I guess SOMEBODY really took this stuff seriously.

It's not that this stuff with the algae and the diseases and the frogs couldn't have happened in Egypt, or even been a very common occurrence. It's just that I'm floored by the absolute cocksure way that Hillary Swank declares that This Is How It Really Happened. Much simpler explanation: it's just a story. It's loosely based on things the authors had real experience with, or on local legends. There is no need for a scientific explanation, until such time as any evidence is presented to show that it happened at all.

This whole idea that you can just make up a "logical, scientific explanation" by ad libbing stuff off the top of your head, without taking any data or evidence into account, is what bugs me about this and many other movies in the way they portray skeptics. It's quite similar to cargo cult science, because it's clearly somebody who has no idea what science is, writing a script showing what sciency people sound like.

Similarly, the whole "I'm an atheist because something terrible happened to me and now I'm mad at God" angle is a theistic fantasy of how an atheist talks. Theists ALWAYS seem to jump to the assumption that this is how people become atheists. It's the default explanation. Yet among all the atheists I know, not one has ever told me that their story was anything remotely like that.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Daily Show is back!! Well, kind of...

The Daily Show writers, who probably have nothing else to do, are producing their own mini-Daily Show, live from the picket lines, on YouTube.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Alyx Vance may be one of the best game characters ever

If you're a gamer, chances are pretty good that you are at least aware of Half-Life 2 and the recent expansions, dubbed Episodes 1 and 2. Since I finished playing Portal, probably about five times now, I've been exploring the other aspects that the Half-Life Orange Box has to offer.

Man, what a great collection of games. I liked the original Half-Life a lot, and HL2 was even better, but this is simply a triumph of great story combined with great action. In these last few days, my perception of Valve has jumped up from "A really great game company" to "Nearly Blizzard-like in their ability to consistently do everything right."

One of the major contributors to this perception is the character of Alyx Vance, an NPC (that's "Non-Player Character" for you non-gamers, although you folks probably stopped reading before the end of the previous paragraph) who stays at your side throughout most of the game. Alyx was a fun character in the first HL2 story, but she has really gotten a chance to shine in the expansions. With her specifically in mind, I present:

Seven surefire ways to make an NPC that every gamer will love!

1. Make her female. Because -- go on, it's okay, you can acknowledge it -- most gamers are male.

2. Make her kick ass. The damsel in distress is SO fifty years ago. Today's great female characters should be created in the mold of Buffy Summers, Sarah Connor, Ripley, and Hermione Granger. They aren't sitting around waiting for some man to come along and sweep them away; they can blow away armies of ant-lions on their own very well, thank you. And she does look so very stylish when she's kicking zombies in the face.

3. Make her spend a lot of time with you. Most 3D shooters are all about solo play in an environment where everything is either dead or wants you to die. Ever since Wolfenstein 3D, there has always been a distinct feeling of loneliness as you slog through level after level and don't see a single living thing that isn't evil. Having a buddy who is right alongside you nailing enemies can cause a huge difference to the mood of the game. That's why I always liked playing networked games in cooperative mode much more than I like Deathmatches.

4. Make her talkative. As a corollary to the previous point, if she's going to be around a lot, she'd better be talking because you're not going to. Having a NPC say "Wow, nice shot!" can be a tremendous ego booster, while having her occasionally say "Look out, I hear something" can make her feel like a vital trusted companion. If you're a real roleplayer (code word for "dork") then you can always talk back to her yourself and pretend she's responding to you. Not that I would ever do that. Nope. Not me.

5. Make her actually help you. If there are any in-game hints to give, it makes so much more sense to deliver them through the always-present NPC than a disembodied narration. Whether she's shooting something that just came up behind you, or suggesting "I think we should go this way" or yelling "Look out, grenade!" you need to appreciate having a friend in the game. But more than that, Alyx gets special abilities that set her apart from the player, like climbing to places you can't reach, and hacking through security systems. In the early levels of Episodes 1 and 2, she gets a gun and you don't, so you're relying on her for basic protection. Later, as you're strolling through hordes of zombies, it's just so comforting to see the laser targeting line which means Alyx has your back with her sniper rifle. And there had better be at least a few occasions where it's obvious you would be dead without her intervention.

6. Don't let her hinder you. NPC's are generally very hard to write into action games, because they get in the way and aren't supposed to die. The "Opposing Force" Half-Life 1 expansion was really bad about this. Along the way, you keep picking up small squads of soldiers who are vital to your survival. The difficulty in these sections is generally cranked up, so if you blow away your own squad with an errant rocket, you're really up a creek. NPC's in the recent HL episodes seem pretty near indestructible. You can't shoot them yourself, and the monsters don't finish them off for a fairly long time. Yes, it's cheating for a game designer to give a character near-invulnerability. But remember that the NPC is there for the purposes of story and atmosphere, and NOT as an additional obstacle to keep you from getting through the game. Nothing's worse than when you've just come to the end of a five-minute firefight, you're feeling pretty good about yourself, and then from fifty feet away you hear "Argh..." Alyx has died, game over.

7. Let her get in trouble, but only after you've established point #2. I don't really care about the data card that we've been carrying to who-remembers-where throughout the entire game. It's a MacGuffin -- supposedly important to the characters, but irrelevant to my understanding of the plot. On the other hand, I care a lot about Alyx, because her character has been established so well. So if she just took a fall while heroically protecting my life, you bet I'm not going to take a break from the game until I'm sure she's okay.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

And then, Pinky, we will try to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

I just wanted to mention that I'm fooling around ideas for promoting this blog better. I signed up for Google Analytics yesterday and I'm having some fun looking at the information I'm getting -- about 60 unique readers each day. At one point, I had hacked up my own invisible statistics reader for the blog, but it was in dire need of a rewrite, and I decided Google Analytics would be a good way to not reinvent the wheel.

In addition, my recent Master's work with Digg reminded me that I should start making it easier to recommend posts here, so I've added that little "Digg this" link that you see in the upper right corner. I wouldn't be so crass as to Digg my own posts, but I'm not above begging. So if you're a regular reader and you have a Digg account, I'd be greatly obliged if you'd skim some of your favorite recent posts and hit the button.

No, not THIS post. This post sucks. I notice that the anti-9/11 conspiracy post is popular, but that's partly because it's recent.

The button's not too annoying, is it? Let me know.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Gaming goodness

I had class this weekend, which means that only one weekend and two classes are left in total. My adviser finally got back to me to let me know that my thesis is interesting and well done, and only a few minor changes are necessary before submission. So on the whole it looks like somewhat smooth sailing from here on out, and therefore I treated myself on Friday evening to The Half-Life Orange Box.

I have not bought a game in several months, and part of the reason behind this purchase is that I had heard so many outstanding reviews that I couldn't stand to do without it any longer. This package contains Half-Life 2 (which I've played) and two mini-expansions (which I haven't) as well as some multi-player stuff that I don't much care about. And finally, there's Portal:

Many reviews have been written about Portal, but it's not the professional reviews that did it for me; it was Lore Sjoberg, a very funny guy who writes "The thing about Portal is this: it’s very funny. ...As a puzzle game, Portal runs way too short. As a comedy, it’s perfect." And it was "Yahtzee" Croshaw, whose great review of the Orange Box deserves to be watched and heard in full.

Yahtzee's a hilarious reviewer, and anyone who likes games will have a great time watching all of his regular weekly videos. He's also a very sardonic and pitiless reviewer, which is why it was especially meaningful when he said: "Lastly, there's Portal, and if you're a regular reviewer you'll understand how insane these words feel coming out of my mouth, but I can't think of any criticism for it. I'm serious. This is the most fun you'll have with your PC until they invent a force-feedback codpiece. ...Absolutely sublime from start to finish, and I will jam forks into my eyes if I ever use those words to describe anything else ever again."

Well, "sublime" is a very good description of the game. It is not only fun gaming, it also has brilliant writing, and it is alternately extremely funny and very, very, creepy and unnerving. Fun, amusing, and scary. Those are pretty much my three gold standard criteria for good games, and this hit them all exactly right.

Ben loved it too (and the scary parts were partly derived from uncertainty and the ability to read, so they weren't too scary for him). When you play the game, some puzzles require you to jump from a great height into a portal on the floor, so that you'll build up a lot of momentum before you shoot out of a wall going in a different direction. As we played together, we both started saying "Wheeeeee!" every time we jumped. Well, a minute later, the computerized trainer voice also said "Wheeeeee!" along with us.

Ben cracked up and kept laughing for several minutes. The afterwards, he wanted to know how the computer knew what we were saying. I had a hard time convincing him that it was a coincidence.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The writer's strike explained

I hate the fact that there's a writer's strike; it means that I won't be seeing new episodes of The Daily Show for a while, and Boston Legal will probably go into reruns soon. My friend Possum Momma is also affected by it directly.

Joss Whedon, whose work I dearly love in all incarnations, (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, most of Toy Story) has written a great essay that explains why the strike is good and necessary. Everything Joss says must be right by definition, for he is Joss.

Also, this video is one of the most clear and concise explanations of the strike that I've heard so far:

I'm a fan of writers. With a very few exceptions, I despise reality shows and think they are a cheap, lazy way to get around the need to write compelling content. I mean, user-generated content is great and all; I like blogs (obviously) and message boards. But give me a good, solid novel any day, or a well-written non-fiction account. Give me a TV show that's smart and/or funny, as long as it's well written. There's only so much schadenfreude I can derive from watching Simon Cowell brutally crush the egos of young idiots who mistakenly believe they can sing. (This is one of the "few exceptions." The first few episodes of American Idol are loads of fun. After the field of contestants has been narrowed down to people who supposedly have "talent," not so much.)

In other news, and speaking of Mr. Whedon, a friend recently notified me that he has a new show in the works. With Eliza "Faith" Dushku. Be of good cheer.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Two quick thesis updates

I finished the second draft of my thesis last Friday and submitted it to my supervisor. It's 64 pages, including 17 pages of "padding" in the form of indexes, glossaries, title pages, etc, which are required in the official template. I think it turned out pretty well, though I'm still waiting on feedback from Dr. Ghosh sometime this month.

If you want to see for yourself, you can take a look at the draft here. Also, you can play around with the data I collected (in a very limited way) by visiting the web interface here. The main point of interest is the graph on page 48 (though it's actually page 36 if you go by the numbers at the bottom of the page). This graph shows the emphasis given to celebrities by news sources, compared directly against the interest shown in the same topics by Digg readers. Not completely surprisingly, people are not as into sensational news as TV and print news seems to think they are, at least not according to the way I interpreted my data.

Yesterday I went to visit a journalism professor at UT, a guy named Maxwell McCombs, who invented the "agenda setting theory" of journalism that I referenced early in my paper. I explained the subject of the thesis and he seemed downright enthusiastic about it. He said "I certainly hope you're planning to publish this!" I said that I don't know how the publishing process works, not being particularly involved in academia. He gave me the names of some journals that might be interested, and then asked me to send the working draft and he would do some reading on the subject and get back to me. So, that's neat... nice to have your work validated. And if I actually get this published, maybe that will open some doors for me.