George Lucas is a Genius

Crossposted from Movies Schmovies

Ever since The Phantom Menace, people have been complaining about how George Lucas ruined the Star Wars series through a series of stupid plot points and plodding movies. After all, he took two of the most badass, fan-beloved characters in the series…

…and turned them into annoying, whiny bitches:

Not only that, but it introduced annoying characters like Jar-Jar Binks and then proceeded to make them central to the mythos (go ahead, try to forget about him. Try to explain the backstory of the Empire, the driving force behind the trilogy that you actually like, without noting that Jar-Jar Binks cast the deciding vote to making Palpatine Emperor). It’s really almost surprising that we weren’t treated to a shot of young Han and Lando whining at each other over a game of space-marbles or something.

But while watching bits of Attack of the Clones on Spike today, I think Jon and I stumbled onto the truth. This wasn’t George Lucas being some dumbass hack who can’t write dialogue or a coherent plot, who thinks that political discussion between two unlikable one-dimensional characters belongs in the middle of the second film of a trilogy.

No, this was George Lucas, the genius who has had to deal with legions of Star Wars fans for the last thirty years. George Lucas, the man who couldn’t escape from under the shadow of this fucking trilogy if he tried–and if he did, he’d still end up under the shadow of the Indiana Jones films.

So this is George Lucas’s letter to the fans: Hey, you know those badass characters? Those mysterious and awesome people that you’ve been pestering me about for decades? Well, it turns out that they’re whiny fucking bitches…Just. Like. You.

And man, after falling right out of Star Wars fandom, I can totally sympathize with that. Lucas knows that his fans want to identify with the characters, and so he’s thrown them the biggest bone ever: now you can identify directly with Boba Fett and Darth Vader–the fans’ favorite characters!–who have become whiny, obnoxious little shits that ruin the whole goddamn experience. It’s…it’s kind of brilliant in its spitefulness.

So good on you, George.

I Ought to be a Woo: My Brain

This is the first post in what will probably be a long and rambling introspective series on how it’s a miracle* that I ended up as skeptical as I am. First up: how my brain works.

Yesterday I was listening to a “Doctor Who” audio drama on my iPod and thinking a little about continuity–not “Doctor Who” continuity, even…I think I was considering something about Kryptonite for some reason. Anyway, my years in various sorts of fandom have taught me that I’m very good at rationalizing things. Give me any continuity error, quibbling (“Han was bluffing Obi-Wan; obviously a parsec is a unit of distance. As he showed with the Death Star communicator, he’s not always good at bluffing”) or monumental (“Due to the traumatic regeneration, which took place on Earth instead of in the TARDIS, the Doctor took on some terrestrial biological characteristics for his Eighth Incarnation; he’s ‘half-human’ on the side of his mother–Mother Earth”) and I can smooth it out with some post-hocking. I don’t even have to try particularly hard, except when I start applying this kind of thinking outside of fiction.

Moreover, I’m pretty good at drawing connections between otherwise disparate things. It makes compare/contrast essays really easy, and I imagine it’s a large part of why I’m so fascinated with Joseph Campbell. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn off. I find myself sometimes assigning thematic significance to things that happen in my life. I often hear new bands or see movies and begin describing it in terms of other bands or films–for instance, when I was riding with a friend yesterday, I described the band he was listening to as “Wall of Voodoo meets Tom Waits.” I then promptly felt like an asshole hipster and wanted to shoot myself. But that kind of thing happens all the time; I look at Xander from “Buffy” and can’t help thinking he must be Bruce Campbell’s secret love child, or I watch a preview for “P.S. I Love You” and think that it’s “Saw” as a love story. My brain is forever drawing connections.

As anyone who’s had any experience in the Skeptosphere already knows, post-hoc rationalization and connection-drawing are foundational to a variety of different types of magical thinking and woodom.

Post-hoc rationalizations require two things: first, an assumption of the truth, and second, an inconsistency between that assumption and observation. In fandom, that might look something like this:
Assumption: The “Star Wars” series is coherent and without contradiction.
Inconsistency: Princess Leia says in “Return of the Jedi” that she remembered her birth mother, who was “beautiful, kind but sad.” But we see in “Revenge of the Sith” that Padme Amidala dies in childbirth; how could Leia possibly remember that?
Post-Hoc Rationalization: Leia is Force-sensitive, and so her memories are influenced by telepathic impressions she received of her mother pre- and immediately post-natal.

See how it works? You start with your pre-existing worldview, and then iron out any inconsistencies with easy hand-waving explanations, ignoring totally the simpler, more parsimonious explanation that your initial assumptions may be flawed. For instance:
Assumption: God exists and answers prayers from His followers.
Inconsistency: Not all believers’ prayers get answered.
Post-Hoc Rationalization: They weren’t praying/believing right.

Or how about:
Assumption: Sylvia Browne has psychic powers.
Inconsistency: She told this lady that “the reason why you didn’t find him [her late husband’s body] is because he’s in water.” But the woman’s husband was a firefighter who died in the World Trade Center, not “in water.”
Post-Hoc Rationalization: Well, Sylvia was getting the water impression from the water used by the firefighters to put out the fire. The spirits, you see, they’re hard to hear, and maybe he didn’t die in the tower at all, or…

Did someone say World Trade Center? Why, I do believe that brings us to “drawing connections” (see how I drew that one? Not yet? Oh, well, wait a minute). Without the tendency to draw connections between otherwise unrelated things, there would be no conspiracy theories (get it now?), and alternative medicine types would have a much harder time hocking their wares. Connection drawing requires, in most cases, a great deal of cherry-picking, an affinity for analogies, and a tendency to inflate “connection” into “causal relationship.” It’s a boon for English majors, because it allows us to do things like literary interpretation and analysis, and pretend to have some degree of certainty.

As an example, I recently had to write a research paper on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” One of the ideas I had was that the vampires in Dracula (especially the Count himself) are 19th-century anti-Catholic caricatures. There’s the easy bits, like the fact that Stoker was an Anglican and the whole blood-drinking thing (since Catholics believe in real, not symbolic, transubstantiation). Our protagonists are largely Church of England, and are rather blasé about their faith; Jonathan Harker thinks that the Eastern Europeans he encounters are silly and superstitious, and he tries to refuse the Rosary one woman gives him. The vampires are all cowed and harmed Catholic iconography–the Host, crucifixes, etc.–which are used by our protagonists like magical spells. Only the vampires (and the “superstitious” characters) recognize any power in the icons, for everyone else, they are meaningless. This is a reference to the common characterization of Catholicism as witchcraft (and perhaps to Medieval Catholicism, where the illiterate laity incorporated those same Catholic icons in their old pagan magic rituals).

See, I could have built a pretty decent paper around that thesis, even though I recognize that it’s probably utter bullshit. I doubt that Stoker wrote his book as an anti-Catholic polemic, and if he did, then I doubt many of his readers would have gotten it. And to make the case, I have to ignore the fact that the most lauded character in the book is the obviously Catholic Abraham Van Helsing, or the various other details that don’t support (or actively contradict) my thesis. But I can cherry-pick details all day long, maybe do some quote-mining, and get a good essay out of it.

The same kind of thing is necessary for alternative medicine, astrology, or any other woo that posits a cause-effect relationship between otherwise unconnected objects. And conspiracy theories thrive on this. The phrase “do you think that’s [the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts/the government’s reluctance to release details about purported UFOs/the crash of Flight 93/the ‘expulsion’ of these ID advocates from academia/etc.] a coincidence?” is testament to that. I could offer up an example here, to match my term paper paragraph, but I’m sure you get the picture.

These are natural human drives. We are built to make connections; our ability to infer causal relationships and plan accordingly is one of the biggest survival advantages we have–it just doesn’t have a great deal of precision. And we crave explanations for things, any explanations, even ones that are pure guesswork, because that’s still more satisfying than not knowing.

When we combine these tendencies, to draw connections and iron out inconsistencies, we end up with neat, emotionally-satisfying narratives. In narrative storytelling, events must be connected or significant somehow. Everything fits together in a neat package, usually with some kind of moral center. There’s a climax and a resolution, and all the loose ends are tied up in a way that provides fulfillment and closure. We understand that kind of story; what we have a hard time grasping is reality, where things aren’t all connected and symbolic and leading to some emotionally-gratifying conclusion.

Maybe it’s hubris or shame or something that causes me to think that I’m somehow abnormal in having these connection-building and rationalizing drives in overdrive. Maybe I’m not that much different from anyone else. But it still seems amazing that I could become skeptical–heck, that anyone could become skeptical, with these cards stacked against them.

I think the first step is becoming aware of the common faults of human thought. In order to overcome the tendency toward erroneous thinking, you have to know that there’s something to overcome. It always comes back to education, doesn’t it?

That seems like enough rambling for now, but I’ll come back to this topic periodically.

Weighty questions

This post over at Bronze Dog’s place got me thinking about issues in gravity and space station destruction (read the link for some explanation). I’m going to go back to my Physics textbooks soon enough to see if I can answer some of these questions myself, but I’d like to hear what others have to think.

So, here’s the scenario: you’re in your starfighter on the surface of a space station roughly the size (1737 km) and mass (7.3477×1022 kg) of Earth’s moon (assume that any artificial gravity works inside the station only). The space station is set to self-destruct. Which is the better course of action, escape velocity-wise?

  1. Leave now, hit escape velocity, and be home free.
  2. Wait until the detonation and ride along the edge of the explosion/shockwave.

It occurs to me that we might need to know the speed of the expanding shockwave in order to do this completely.

Anyway, assuming the explosion is spherically symmetrical, the center of mass of the space station would remain in the same place. So, if you’re riding along the edge of the shockwave, you’re essentially still on the surface, except that the station is expanding, and so the distance between you and the center of mass is increasing, thus causing the gravitational force to approach zero.

What this really got me thinking about, though, is what would happen if you left after the explosion, so you were starting inside the expanding sphere. Or, more simply, what’s gravity like when you’re 20 km underground? Since we traditionally model gravity as radiating out from the center of mass (FG=Gm1m2/R2, it should get stronger as you get closer to the canter (R -> 0). And at the center? While I would have assumed that you’d be weightless, the equation would suggest to me that the gravitational force is infinite, or at least undefined. It’s an asymptote, to be sure, and it seems like the graph would show an increase toward infinity as you approach the center. And this should be true of the center of any mass.

And that seems like it can’t possibly work. So, what am I missing? Do you disregard the mass above you when you’re beneath the surface? That doesn’t seem right. Is this just one of those kinks that’ll get ironed out when we have a GUT?

Post-Potter Updates

So, I finished the book ’round a quarter to 4 today. You can see my spoiler-free reactions here. I thought everything tied up quite nicely. Rowling has said not to rule out another book, and I’m against it wholeheartedly, with one exception. Text is whited-out for the spoilerphobic: SPOILERS POSSIBLE
I wouldn’t mind a book following Ginny and Neville at Hogwart’s over the course of the “Deathly Hallows” year.
And even that should be pretty spoiler-free, but beware just in case. Other than that, I’d prefer that Rowling close the book on the Potterverse. But, yeah, great book. Possibly the best in the series, definitely the best since Goblet of Fire.

In other news, as per your recommendations, I swiped The Mote in God’s Eye last time I was at home, as well as a couple of Samuel Delaney novels. I bought Isaac Asimov’s Robot Dreams, since I’m not quite ready to jump into another novel just yet, and I’ve got quite a few other sci-fi novels waiting on my bookshelf, from Bradbury to Zelazny. I haven’t made much progress in The Color of Magic, I’m sad to say, and The God Delusion has sat unread on my desk for a week or two now, due to class readings and then Harry Potter. But I’ve got a couple of weeks coming up that appear to be mostly empty, and I’m hoping to fill them with a book or so a day. Considering I plowed through 400-plus pages in Harry Potter yesterday, and that was just between classes and for a couple of hours at night, I don’t think it’ll be much of a problem.

So, I’m declaring open thread for the comments of this post. Feel free to rant and/or rave, share your thoughts about the book, and feel free to be spoilery. From this point onward, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!