Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Links of Interest

Total Eclipse Today!

The Nature of Glass
Ancient biodiversity linked to cooling seas
Liquid Lake on Titan
Thin Film Solar Cells
Termites and Biofuels
The Genetics of Schizophrenia
Rocketeer-- not quite
DIY Addiction Cures
Solar Sails
Source of Salmonella Found
Chuck Norris Proves to be Idiot

Sometimes pride is okay

A common human failing we see regularly is to infer past or other cultures as somehow inferior to our own. This can happen to the point where we view them as somehow less intelligent than we are. "We" being defined as whoever the observing culture is. Western European culture has a particularly obvious pattern here. Englishmen, secure in the center of the vast British Empire, speculated on ambiguous skull patterns as definite proof of the innate cognitive superiority of the English brain.

We do it today. Reading some of the writings from different period of human history it's hard not to say what were they thinking? And then some artifact from the past will just astound us with its sophistication and humble us into realizing that humans have been really, really smart for a very long time.

Nowhere is this more shown than with the Antikythera mechanism. Long story made short: the mechanism was discovered underwater in 1900 and dismissed as just a lump until in 1902 a gear wheel was observed in it. Years go by and studied observation determines it was a mechanism. More recently, modern research technology such as CAT scans and exotic photographic techniques were applied to it to get a true three dimensional picture of it. All of this is in the wikipedia article and more. Go read it.

Nature shows a very nice documentary on it here. A good article on it is here.

The mechanism was used to predict the timing of the Olympic Games.

The Games had to happen every four years on the full moon closest to the summer solstice. Now, let's think about that. This machine related the lunar cycle to the solar cycle-- two cycles that have no natural connection. That is, there is no easy harmonic that could be used to determine a relationship such as four to two or six to three. A solar year is 365.25 days long (remember leap year). The lunar cycle is 29.53 days. The relationship between these two is 12.3772+. This device had to figure out solstices, full moons, etc., in relationship to one another, with nothing but rods and gears. And it does it beautifully.

Now, I've been doing a little machining in the last couple of years. Mostly with a lathe. I covet a mill. The device was made out of bronze. It did all of it in an little box 13 inches high, 6.7 inches wide, and 3.5 inches deep. It was made by hand. And it was intended to schedule an event we pay homage to this August.

Things like this make you proud to be human.
Links of Interest

Cognitive Science and Moral Philosophy
Toward a Type 1 Civilization
Atheist Rapper
Darwin on the Right
Fact Checking 101
The Mechanicrawl
Zap Gun Moves Ahead
The Drinking of the Shrew revisited
A Robot Perv
Desalination Made Easy
The $10 Microscope (I want one)
Scaphokogia! (Pronounced like it's spelled)
Why elders lose memory

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Fermi Paradox

I was at Readercon 19 last weekend and on a panel regarding the Fermi Paradox.

Genius scientist and SF writer Geoffrey Landis articulated the Fermi Paradox fairly neatly in his article (quoted below on Percolation Theory) : "If even a very small fraction of the hundred billion stars in the galaxy are home to technological civilizations which colonize over interstellar distances, the entire galaxy could be completely colonized in a few million years. The absence of such extraterrestrial civilizations visiting Earth is the Fermi paradox."

Fermi pointed out the problem in 1950. If you'll recall, we had just come out of a world war, had exploded bombs in Japan and were conceiving thermonuclear bombs (testing them in 1952). The idea of a nuclear end of civilization was a very real concern. It is my opinion that Fermi's question was just as much informed by that concern than a scientific query. In addition, we were also living in a period where we considered upcoming nuclear to be too cheap to meter. It was a time of optimism and terror.

The above articulation has components that need to be discussed: 1) the probability of technological civilizations arising and 2) the probability they would desire to colonise the rest of the galaxy and 3) longevity required for them to find us.

Some of this was looked at by the Drake Equation, which looks like this as shown in wikipedia:

N = R^{\ast} \times f_p \times n_e \times f_{\ell} \times f_i \times f_c \times L \!

N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;


R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

My own feeling is that fc is a complex variable:

ft: develops technology
fr: develops technology that can be recognizable
fd: detectibility of the detectible technology by us

Not to belabor what is already in the wikipedia, but the numbers in the article gave the number of civilizations as 10. I complexified the fc variable by taking their fc value of .01 and using it in above. fr I assigned a value of .5 to give a 50% chance of detectibility and fd a value of .01 as a possibility the signal could be detectible by us. Using these numbers I get a value of .05.

Paradox? What paradox?

What's most interesting about the Fermi Paradox is that it is viewed as a paradox at all. I had a huge argument with a friend over this. The problem is we have no evidence about a situation where we have no knowledge. All we know is we have no contact of any recognizable sort. Consequently, conclusions based on this absence are meaningless. My position was that all we know is we haven't been contacted in any way we can discern. Beyond that, We Don't Know.

But human being don't like those three words. So we speculate.

The links below are fun.

Here are my possible solutions. I hope they're as much fun.

Everything about these solutions presumes that non-relativistic systems are impossible. No FTL drive. No wormholes. We just have to send signals or travel for a really, really long time.

1) We are alone

2) Mechanisms for detection are phase delayed against evolution of technology that can be detected. E.g., comm. systems we would use for detection (radio waves) become finer and less broadcasty over the evolution of the technology: spectrum is a physical limit and the real estate is expensive. Therefore, there is only a brief period where signal detection of another civilization is possible.

3) Alien communication systems do not follow our paradigm of broadcasting low frequency photons in fairly regular patterns. Cephalopods are color based and have no non-visual color communication mechanism. (Some pheromones but not much.) Therefore, intelligent cephalopod comm systems might begin as visible light and never have a non-visual component-- transmitting sound was the first basis for radio. If they jumped to chemical lasers rather than radio and based their communication on that, we would never see it.

4) The probabilities are such that we just haven't had time enough to encounter them.

5) We only think it's possible to communicate/transit interstellar space because we haven't really tried it yet. In actually, it's much, much more expensive and difficult because of inescapable energy requirements. The physics underlying possible technology to do this has inescapable costs no civilization can withstand and survive.

6) There were lots of them a few thousand years ago. There was a gamma burst nearby and they are all dead. We were fortunate enough to have Jupiter in the way when it happened and that's why life on earth survived. But now we're all alone. Boo hoo.

7) There are inescapable cultural consequences for any species to attempt such an expensive undertaking. Species evolve from their heritage of what they were not because of what they wish to be. Therefore, any species that evolves to the point of creating the technology that makes it possible to communicate/transit across interstellar distances has within it qualities that make it impossible to do so. For example, look at how well we're doing at unifying the earth just to properly distribute food.

8) Phase delay of species evolution is against detection. Presuming a relativistic universe, it's unreasonable to expect to detect extra-galactic species. The distances are too great for that level of resolution. It may be unlikely to detect species beyond our spiral arm. Therefore, we must be discussing species that are at most intragalactic and at least intra-spiral. Could be the odds of intelligent life sprouting at all/within our time frame is against us. Or the species life span is against us locally. Or virtual transhumanism. Or build undetectible Dyson spheres. Or they lose interest.

9) What we perceive as universal constants that we use to communicate, such as binary systes, are not in fact universal enough to be used to communicate. We are detecting signal but it's just noise as far as we are concerned. Video patterns based on commercial scan rate. Split of tv signals between FM/AM, etc. (The WOW signal, for example.)

10) There are other civilizations but we're not invited for some reason. (Hm. Resembles my childhood.)

13) We're the first.

14) We're in a simplified simulation of real life. What we see isn't real. (from Nick Bostrom's argument.) The absence is itself evidence of the simulation.

Stuff on the Fermi Paradox
The Great Silence
An Astrophysical Explanation for the Great Silence
Why our search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence has Failed
Fifty Ways to Find Your Alien Lover
When Aliens Don't Attack
Percolation Theory
There is no Fermi Paradox
Dyson Spheres
Fermi Paradox: Possible Solutions
Answering the Fermi Paradox
An Overview of the Fermi Paradox
Three Billion Earths
Refining the Drake Equation
Gamma Ray Bursts and the Fermi Paradox

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Heroes and Villains

I have this theory about film actors.

I think that a film actor must extend his range and strengthen his ability by playing villains. Unless he's willing to do that he runs the risk of never fulfilling his potential as an actor.

It's why I tend to respect somebody like Bruce Willis over Tom Hanks. Hanks is probably the better actor but Willis has no fear of roles. He's been a villain in The Jackal. He's played a man in a pink bunny suit in North. And he's been a complex hero in Twelve Monkeys. The closest Hanks has been to a villain is the role he had in Road to Perdition, but the perspective of the film was that Hanks was forced to do bad things because of his situation.

A good example of a superb actor that truly showed what he could do as a villain is Alan Rickman and Heath Ledger. Rickman was the villain in Die Hard, the maybe villain in the Harry Potter films and the supporting "hero" role in Galaxy Quest. The late Heath Ledger played one of the heroes in The Brothers Grimm and, of course, the superbly villainous Joker in The Dark Knight.

Playing both hero and villain shows an actor has both courage and the chops.

I think pundits have a similar bar to clear.

The equivalent role to play when you're a pundit is to ask hard questions. To attack a hard problem with clear thinking and courageous proposals. There is no courage without risk. For an actor, the risk of playing a villain is alienating your audience and injurying your career. The risk for a pundit is the same.

This is where conservative columnists such as George Will and William F. Buckley differ from people like Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter. It takes courage to speak truth to power but power can reside in different places. For actors, the power resides in studios and audiences. For pundits, it lies in the same place: the publisher and the audience.

You can tell the courage of a pundit when they go against the grain and point out something positive about the other side or something negative about their own. You can measure their chops by sophistication of their thinking and the clarity of their position.

People like Buchanan, Coulter and Limbaugh have little courage. They have an audience that likes a certain message and they deliver: over and over and over. You can predict a Coulter column by a couple of words in the headline. You can predict a Limbaugh show before he opens his mouth. They are not in the business of thought or criticsm. They are, by Limbaugh's admission, in the business of entertainment. They are in the business of reassurance of their audience. They tell their audience what their audience wants to hear and only what their audience wants to hear.

They lack the courage to do otherwise.

This is probably a good thing since they clearly don't have the chops.

Links of Interest
Watchmen Movie Trailer
The Art of Dying
Dale Chihuly Exhibit
A Place for Science
A Truman Show of our Own
A Giant Freshwater Stingray
Leopard: 1, Crocodile: 0
She may look clean-- BUT!
Biological Pedicures
Mad Jack with Butter and Lemon
Tobacco treats cancer
Drug Resistant Bacteria

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Links of Interest

We Suck
The Bhuddists of Bamiyan
The Evolution of Grunts
The Goracle and here.
The lost tapes of Doctor Who (?)
Tracing the Circuitry of the Milk Let-Down Reflex
Global Warming and Kidney Stones
Fast Organic Food
Radiohead's Cameraless Video
To Ulcer or to Asthma. That is the question.
Arnie Goes to the Circus

TED Talks

This is your brain. This is your brain in love.
The Year of Living Biblically

The Perfectability of Man

A lot of conservative babble about Wall-E has crossed my desk in the last few days. Conservatives don't like the environmental message. They don't like being told that Americans are becoming couch potatoes. That environmental issues are actually real and American obesity is a problem do not impress them. They are pursuing a higher cause and refuse to let fact impede them.

But one statement got my attention from Kyle Smith. He pointed out that Wall-E was being presented to a bunch of people eating popcorn sitting down in a darkened theater-- in short, the very couch potatoes Wall-E was criticizing. He went further to point out that the merchandising of Wall-E would produce the vast amounts of disposable kitsch the file decried. Hypocrisy, indeed.

The sort of rhetoric where you demean the credentials of the presenter in order to discredit the message is an old flaw. It denies the imperfection of the presentation. After all, if you want to get an environmental and public health message to kids, where better to put it?

Then, I realized there's an underlying myth being exercised here. The myth of the perfect world.

The myth goes something like this, using Wall-E as an example. In a perfect world, we would not be couch potatoes. We are couch potatoes. In a perfect world, the mechanism by which we would be informed we shouldn't be couch potatoes would not involve the very mechanism we use to be couch potatoes. But the world isn't perfect. The couch potatoes pay attention to the couch potato mechanism. We must use the couch potato mechanism to communicate to the couch potato and then are criticized for using the mechanism that created the couch potato in the first place.

Thus, instead of the perfect world being a goal to which we aspire it actually becomes something we have to compete with. The circular reasoning above is a good example. Using the couch potato mechanism (a movie) to attempt to get the couch potato off the couch should be, I submit, a good thing. Yet, because it does not act as if it is in a perfect world, it must compete with the perfect. The world is imperfect and therefore it fails.

We see it a lot in politics. We're seeing it right now.

It's true Obama talked about the war in Iraq sort of like this:

We need to get out of Iraq immediately! And we should do it responsibly.

And it's also true the way he speaks now is:

We need to get out of Iraq immediately. And we should do it responsibly.

If you didn't hear both sentences you weren't really listening to what he was saying. You were hearing what you wanted to hear.

Yet, Obama is getting criticized for flip flopping. He didn't. If you go back to what he said you'll hear the right thing.

In a perfect world, he would have stated both messages equally and we would have judged both messages equally. However, he's not perfect. The world's not perfect. He's compromised the tone of his rhetoric to get elected without being dishonest. In a perfect world we would say that it is a good thing he's trying to get elected by being honest. Yet, because he's competing with a non-existent Perfect Obama, he is criticized.

You see this in religion as well.

One of the interesting things that happens in some religious conversations is whether or not it's okay to compare yourself to Jesus. People do it and get criticized for it. See here and here. Being an atheist this doesn't have a big impact on me but it curious to observe.

Now you can make the argument that comparing yourself to someone remarkable, be they Jesus, Einstein, Bhudda or what, should not be used to glorify yourself or trivialize the great. That could be a legitimate problem. However, the fact of comparison itself is often the criticism. Why should that be?

Jesus (to use one of the above) represents the perfect human being. How could he not be since he's the Son of God. Consequently, his perfection is unattainable to the rest of us. But it seems to me that his very perfection and divinity should be something Christians should strive for. Pursuit of an unattainable ideal is a noble endeavor.

That is, in a perfect world.

In this, the imperfect world, we don't want to be reminded of that which makes us uncomfortable. We protect ourselves from self-examination of this sort by elevating Jesus to a very high place-- too high for the likes of us to even attempt comparison. We can't get there so we shouldn't try; the great has become the enemy of the good. The religion, the mechanism that is intended to propagate the
message of Jesus in fact propagates the person of Jesus so that his message can be safely ignored.


Links of Interest
Evolution in Action: Malaria gene increases HIV risk
Fantastic Contraption Exhibit
Fly By Night
The Bees vs. The Crows. A midnight grudge match
Skyscraper Farming: And it took them how long to figure this out?
P. Z. Myers shoots foot. Hits head.
7 Children who changed the world.
Greena: Warrior Princess
Solar Power
Alternative Moon Rocket and here.
Cheap water
The magnetic fields of galaxies
Wet Mars
Pittsburgh Droids

Monday, July 14, 2008

Selling to the Choir

I recently got on a conservative mailing list. So I've been getting missives from the like of Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan. (For the wikipedia entries on these: Coulter. Buchanan.)

I like to think I have an open mind so I've actually been reading them.

Two things immediately leaped to mind.

The first was that if you dropped liberal bashing from the rhetoric there wasn't much there. Pat Buchanan's letter about watching Barach Obama was the closest to actually having content and that was some historical references. Basically, he was saying watch Obama because it's a bad idea to underestimate your opponent.

At first I discounted this. I admit it. I'm a content junkie. If I don't see any actual knowledge being exchanged I'll discount the post.

Then, I realized that the absence of content was, in and of itself, content of a different sort.

I realized this when I received an advertisement from Coulter about stock tips. She was selling a stock recommendation service.


These missives weren't intended to impart information. The role of preaching to the choir is to reassure the choir. The role of these missives is not to impart information-- even to the point of how to respond to liberal points of view. Coulter is a particularly good example of this since about every third sentence is a quick bash to the liberals. The bash is content free-- it tells you nothing. But it does serve to reinforce the reader's point of view that liberals are worthy to be bashed.

Okay. That's interesting. Creationist discussions have the same narrative tic when they drop little comments about how scientists are trying to hide the flaws in evolution. It drives scientists crazy because all of science is based on putting your ideas out there to be tested. The narrative tics are designed to avoid test. Coulter's tics are intended to the same effect. If you bash liberal ideas enough then, by association, they are presented as not worth investigation. Again, it's a means of avoiding the testing of ideas.

I'd been reading this sort of stuff for a week or so with an increasing familiarity. Where had I seen this sort of rhetoric before? I mean I twigged to the creationist connection immediately but it wasn't congruent. I mean, sure, both are guilty of attacking their opponents personally rather than engaging in true debate. But it wasn't quite right.

Then I got Coulter's letter about stock tips.

Of course. This is the sort of language used in quack medicine. Don't listen to those official doctors. This is the stuff they don't want you to know! isn't much different from Don't listen to those lying liberals! This is the truth they don't want you to know! In both cases the rhetoric works to prevent the listener/reader from actually engaging in discussing the content of the argument by dismissing any validity of the argument.

I get a lot of liberal rhetoric, too. Most of which gets dumped about as fast as the conservitive rhetoric. I'm an equal opportunity skeptic.

There is a difference-- at least in the liberal rhetoric I receive. There is a selection bias in whose email I'm interested in reading. In the liberal rhetoric from, say, the NRDC or Planned Parenthood, the subject matter involves action regarding a subject that I can investigate such as drilling in ANWR or legislation. So, liberal rhetoric is about what to do and conservative rhetoric is about what to feel and what to think.

And, of course, what to buy.

Links of Interest
Online Hitmen
Girl, It's Time to Automate
Lilypad, California, 90120
Spain Grants Rights to Chimps
The Human Mirror
Vertebrate Gene Sharing
Missals from Iran
Really Farming the Sea

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dancing Across the World

I don't talk much about inspiration. Heck, it's a good day when I don't talk about something that's dark and depressing.

The main reason I don't is two fold: 1) It takes a fair amount of emotional energy to even write things in a blog and 2) the things that I find inspirational and uplifting aren't usually the same things as many others. After all, I find evolution emotionally comforting. We came from somewhere; we're going somewhere; it's up to us and no one else. What's not to find comforting?

Which brings us to Matt Harding, who has nothing to do with evolution. You can see Matt Harding's website here. He'll tell his story better than I can.

For whatever reason, Matt started traveling a number of years ago. At one point, his friend took a video of him doing a silly little dance in Hanoi. The video was posted on the internet and was very popular. Stride gum approached him and said go around the world and do the silly dance in interesting places. He made another video and posted it on YouTube. Matt then went to Stride, after receiving many emails in response to the YouTube video, and said one silly guy isn't so interesting. Let's do a video where there are lots of silly people dancing. Another YouTube video.

That's the one I saw.

And I was quite moved. I'm not much of a traveller. But now I'd like to be. What's interesting about all of his videos is how little Matt is actually in them. Matt's there, of course. He's dancing his little silly dance. But the subject matter of the video uses Matt's silly dance as a means to show amazing places.

The place we live is an amazing place. The people who live on this earth are amazing people.

I was so impressed that I put together a Places to Go page on my own website. It has links to all of Matt's YouTube videos as well as a list of places shown in the films where I'd like to go. Someday. Any day.

So: Don't listen to me. Go to the website and videos (use my website or others. I don't care.) and watch. Then take his video as inspiration and just go!
Links of Interest

Man Made Flying Saucer
3-D Illusions
Life in Lava. Cold Lava. And Fossils.
Clovis Live
Lopsided Voyager 2

TED Talks
Stephen Hawking at Zero G
Jennifer Lin improvs on the piano
Ben Zander on Music

Our Creation, Our Selves.

I've been listening to Newt Gingrich talking about his book, "Rediscovering God in America". It's an interesting exercise in revisionist history but that's another story. But again, as always is the case when the fundamentalists try to talk about science and evolution, he got it wrong.

He said, "But if you are simply protoplasm, randomly protected by this week's decision of lawyers and politicians..." Don't take my word for it. Listen to him here.

Gingrich is a consummate politician and speaker who knows exactly what he says when he says it. He is speaking to an audience of conservative fundamentalists in the megachurch of Dr. Charles Stanley. Stanley himself equates bathtub gin and Darwin as an indictment of the roaring twenties. Gingrich is not putting the words "simply protoplasm" and "randomly" together by accident. It's an indirect reference to evolution.

And it brings up one of the great fallacies of the fundamentalist view of evolution, that evolution is random.

let's say I take a bunch of cockroaches, some white and some black, and I put them in the blistering sun on a hot day and deny them shade. For our thought experiment, let's presume that the cockroaches are equally strong regardless of color. The black cockroaches absorb heat; the white cockroaches reflect it. At the end of the day it's a fair bet the white cockroaches will outnumber the black ones. If we breed what is left, there being more white cockroaches than black cockroaches, it's likely there will be more white cockroaches in the next generation.

Where's the randomness? Well, the white and black cockroaches, you might say.

True: but that has nothing to do with evolution. Evolution and natural selection intrinsically says nothing about how variation occurs; only what happens when variation presents itself. Even so, inheritance subtracts a lot of randomness out of the equation. After all, what survived isn't random. Therefore, after that first mythical generation the results weren't random anymore.

There are two things about evolution that make fundamentalists insecure. One is saying humans aren't special enough-- we share with other animals the stamp of our origin. Personally, I find it a comfort to say we're not alone on this planet. That we share it with animals towards which we are not only sympathetic but who are distant relatives.

The other is this randomness. I don't think people like the prospect we might live in a world where some deity isn't turning the gears. They want to see purpose in the natural world-- causes in things causeless. Maybe humans have never become completely comfortable in a Copernican universe and still want to be at it's center.

Well, as far as humans are concerned, we are. But not in any religious sense.

Sure, it's nice to be smart enough to bring down a mastodon but the brain big enough to figure out how was already in place when those spears were thrown. Evolution cannot look ahead. It plays the hand it has, not the hand it might have somewhere down the line. You can't explain how a big brain happens with how well the hunt went when it was the brain that enabled the hunting in the first place. The brain came first. Therefore, whatever favored the growth of the brain occurred before the use of the brain was favorable.

So, what makes a big brain? What could immediately favor brain size plasticity?

My guess is sexual selection. Our brains are the moral equivalent to the male peacock's feathers. Smarter guys impressed the gals. Smarter gals picked smarter guys.

What would make intelligence sexy? I have no idea. But we know some pretty strange sexual selection mechanisms in the world-- bower birds, for instance. Many bower birds have taken all the color and pomp associated with bird displays and put it in the arrangement and presentation of inanimate objects. Maybe primitive smart guys gave primitive smart girls jewelry. Maybe primitive smart girls figured out how to wear it.

Given the nature of human beings, maybe it wasn't so much sexual selection as sex selection. Smarter guys made better lovers-- she might prefer the lad who figured out how to give her multiple orgasms over the big guy over there that looked pretty. He might have preferred the inventive lover that seemed to have a rollicking good time over the one that didn't do much.

Who knows?

Regardless, these were the kinds of decisions our ancestors made. There was nothing random about them. The result, us, is the combined incarnation of their choices.

It didn't take a deity to create us.

We did it ourselves.

Links of Interest

Ancient Humans in Paris
Still More on Mercury and here.
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney: Say that one fast. And here. And here.
Fishing for Fireflies
Decline of the Orangutan

Monday, July 7, 2008

Little Heroes: Why Hancock is a Good Movie and No One Wants to Admit It

The headline is: Hancock is a lot of fun. It's not what you expect. Go see the movie.

I'm going to talk about the released version of the movie. I'm not guaranteeing I won't be mentioning spoilers.

I admit it. Stories that break the mold are meat and drink to me. I couldn't get through Lord of the Rings until I'd read Bored of the Rings first and needed LOTR to make sense of the jokes.

I also admit, freely, I will go see almost any superhero movie and am almost always disappointed with the results.

The problem with superheroes is this: the heroes are super.

Let's look at the problem. First you have a "hero"-- someone by definition outside the norm. Few of us are heroes under any circumstance. Fewer still take on the role for a career. Those that do-- policemen, firemen, etc.-- are often extremely flawed human beings. When did you last see a drama about a heroic cop that was well adjusted?

Now we add the "super" part.

We've all seen exceptional human beings: Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Eliot Spitzer, John F Kennedy. We've also seen that these human beings are flawed in their own right. Superman, Batman or anyother-name-man have powers above those of moral men. Remember the Greek Gods? And what a fine and functional bunch they were, too.

So we take what is in effect divine power and weld it to mortal man and we get hypermorality. "With great power comes great responsibility." Heck. Why should we believe in divine hypermorality when the regular garden variety morality is so hard to come by?

Why have a super hero?

The comics-- the origin of the genre-- tackle it in a couple of ways. The most obvious, and most common, method is to create villains of such a caliber and scope that it takes a superhero to handle them. It didn't take long for the Joker to show up in Batman. It didn't take long for Lex Luthor to build things to take on Superman.

But this puts the whole superhero construction into an arms race between the hero and the villain. SuperGuy is just strong enough to defeat BadDude. Then BadDude gets stronger by the eating bad plums. It's curtains for SuperGuy until he figures out by eating raisins he not only gets more regular but is able to counter BadDude's bad plum power. And so forth and so on. Until we have gods, and goddesses, universes contained by vaguely humanoid beings, guys who eat planets, living planets that eat gods and badass women who will eat both, burp politely and go on looking in a different spiral arm for their next meal.

Enter the movie Hancock.

First, and most obvious from the movie trailers, Hancock isn't about a hypermoral hero. He's sort of a hero but the morality is questionable.

Second, not obvious until you've seen the movie, there is no super villain. Hancock is super. With one exception, and she's no villain, nobody else is. So all the villains are human being.The only super that Hancock fights against is Hancock.

Third, there is redemption of a sort but it's not the "with great powers comes great responsibility". It's more, "This is the thing I do. It's better if I do it and people like me than if they don't."

You can sum all this up into this theme: Play the hand you're dealt.

If you read the reviews (with the possible exception of the New York Times review) there are two things that stand out: 1) the reviewers did not have any idea of what to expect and 2) they're pissed off about it.

Me? I'll take an honest ambitious failure over a pretentious success any day.

The reviewers wanted an adventure story. A superhero story. They wanted something they could wrap their fat arms around and indulge in a little popcorn french kiss. Superhero porn.

Hancock doesn't do that. It's funny. It's rough. It's what might happen if the guy down the street you don't like because his motorcycle's too loud suddenly got super powers. Hancock is scarey. Reviewers like things to be edgey in a way they can analyze so they don't get frightened. Hancock's not interested in taking prisoners.

There are flaws in Hancock.

All hero stories (super or otherwise) have a creation myth of the hero attached. Apparently, in the screenings of Hancock there was a lot more information presented. That's largely been cut and the movie has been improved. I would have had even more mystery attached. Why should a super really understand what or how they created them? It's a trait of a lot of this sort of fiction that we know more about what's going on in the fiction than we were ever know if that fiction were to happen in real life. Hancock leans in the direction of the characters knowing no more than we would expect if the story were real-- something I'm fond of. But in my opinion they didn't go far enough.

Some of the "physics" how things work between the Will Smith and Charlize Theron could have been made more clear. I figured it out but I write science fiction. It's easy for me to make up rubber science for such things.

There are a couple of clumsy points. Charlize Theron presents herself as a housewife of sorts but when she meets Smith later as one super to another she's wearing a Black Leather Babe outfit. Bateman's character is a PR guy who's trying to save the world and failing. Theron doesn't seem to have a job. How are they managing the mortgage on that sweet California house?

But these are nits.

Hancock is to superhero films what Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Alan Moore's "Watchmen" is to comics. What Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination" is to science fiction. It takes the trope and punches a big super hole in it so we can breathe.

Links of Interest
Hallucinogenic Heresy
Phoenix may die.
More on Mercury. And here.
HydroCars? Naah.
Reseveratrol: Not just for Breakfast Anymore
U.S. Not Prepared for Asteroid Strike: Duh.
SIDS mechanism suggested
Man (of sorts) gives birth to baby girl
Punk Robots Pogo for Science
The Art of Extinction
Jesse Helms Dead at 86
Is Fundamentalism Bad for your Health?
Thomas Disch Dead at 68