Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Star Trek Into Hackery

So the movie starts, and we see a car chase on a freeway. One brightly-colored sports car is being chased by three menacing-looking dark sedans. Gunshots get fired back and forth. Cars weave in and out through traffic. Cars not in the chase wipe out and get left by the side of the road. It's pretty clear that our heroes are in the sports car.

Then, a stray bullet takes out one of the tires on our heroes' car! It careens to the side of the road, coming to a stop. The heroes get out, open the trunk, and hop on pogo-sticks, taking off down the freeway at 75 miles per hour…

No, they're not rocket-powered pogo-sticks. They're just pogo sticks. C'mon, man, it's a movie!

So they race down the road, still exchanging fire. One of our heroes has his gun run out of ammo! He beats on it a few times with the flat of his hand and then the gun starts firing again!

No, he doesn't reload -- it's a Hollywood gun that never runs out of ammo. No, it didn't jam, he just smacks it to remind it that it's a Hollywood gun. Lighten up, it's a moooovieeee!

Then there's a barrage of gunfire from the pursuing sedans, and suddenly our heroes are in Bullet Time! Yeah, like the Matrix, only cooler. I'm just as good a filmmaker as the Wachowskis if not better, so I can pull this off, I'm sure.

So the chase continues, and the heroes reach the end of the freeway, in a construction zone that dumps out over the bay. They come to a stop, pull the peels off their banana seats…

Yes, these pogo-sticks have banana seats. Why would they be called banana seats if they don't have peels? If they look like bananas then they'd have to have peels like bananas, right?

So they drop the banana seat peels, the sedans slip on them and fly out into the bay, ending the chase. Then our heroes pull off their helmets…

Yes, they've been wearing helmets all this time. Yes, even inside the car earlier. What's the big deal?

They pull off their helmets, and it's Thelma and Louise - the long-awaited sequel!

Dude, calm down, it's a MOOOOOOOOOVIEEEEEEEEE!!

On one hand, if the above was a scene from a movie that parodied Hollywood action films, it might actually be pretty hilariously awesome -- a great way of tweaking the numerous small inconsistencies and short-cuts that go into creating any 'awesome' action sequence.

On the other hand, if the above were being played straight, and were really meant to be part of a beloved series of films, then might you not feel a bit irritated, or worse?

That's pretty much how I felt when watching the opening sequence of 'Star Trek: Into Darkness'; I knew that I was supposed to be enjoying the ride as a summer blockbuster action set-piece, but I couldn't shake the irritation that the movie that I expected to be watching wasn't 'just a movie', but one that tied into some of the greatest stories of my adolescence and early adulthood, and one that had at least made an effort toward scientific reasonableness, even if it sometimes played fast and loose with the actual laws of physics.

But this? Let me count the number of ways that this movie's opening scene alone punished me for having actual knowledge of science:

There's a volcano that's going to erupt and doom an entire planet containing a primitive culture, and the Enterprise is here to save that culture.

Cool! So the volcano is going to spew greenhouse gasses and dust into the atmosphere, causing an ice age that will make the planet uninhabitable by the pre-technological society that lives there, and the Enterprise has to clean up the mess in such a way that the natives don't notice? Shades of 'Insurrection', where the Federation is secretly observing a culture that they believe don't possess warp drive -- this makes perfect sense!

Oh, wait, no. Apparently the actual danger is that lava from the eruption will cover the entire planet (?!), and the solution is to freeze the lava with a 'cold fusion bomb'?!?

OK, for starters, having a 'cold fusion bomb' that freezes things is like having a 'particle accelerator' that you attach to your car engine to make it go faster -- it's a complete misunderstanding of what the science is behind that phrase.

Second, freezing the lava won't stop the volcanic eruption. The caldera of a volcano is not the only place that a volcano can erupt -- see the Mount Saint Helens eruption of the 1980s (I'm pretty sure the director was alive then) as a perfect example. All freezing the lava will do is cause the eruption to happen somewhere else where the local crust is weak.

Third, the eruption of a single volcano simply isn't powerful enough to destroy an entire culture with lava. Sure, primitive cities have been destroyed by lava -- Pompeii is just one example -- but those cities are just cities. If an entire culture was destroyed, it's because the culture was living in a geographically isolated area (like an island, which can be destroyed in an eruption). Look at Mars, which has a volcano (Olympus Mons) far larger than any volcano on Earth. If a single volcano could cause the destruction of a planet, you'd think Olympus Mons would have done it to Mars. Yet the volcano in this movie isn't much larger than a 'typical' volcano on Earth, which is to say, dangerous to an island, but not to an entire planet.

Then, having the Enterprise be underwater nearby the primitive village, so that it can be seen when it emerges from the water? Not only is this pointless -- there isn't anything done during this scene that couldn't have been done from geosynchronous orbit, as far as I can tell, where the primitive culture would have zero chance of detecting the Enterprise -- but it ruins the point made in the previous movie about having to take a shuttle to the Enterprise from Earth because it's being built in space because starships aren't designed to operate inside planetary gravity which is the whole reason they have shuttlecraft and transporters!

Based on other things I've read, particularly this amusing review of the film, the opening sequence isn't even the most egregious violation of either scientific realism or Trek philosophy that takes place. But watching the Enterprise rise out of the water, and seeing nothing in that but JJ Abrams whipping out his dick and slapping it on the table next to Joss Whedon's (who pulled the same SFX shot in last summer's 'The Avengers'), I decided I didn't want to watch anymore. It's one thing to say that you're flushing the old continuity so that you can tell new, up-to-date stories featuring these beloved characters. It's something else to throw out everything that makes these characters and their world beloved in order to make banal, set-piece action movies that could have been done with any backdrop, but are only going to sell tickets because they're parasitically leeching on the audience's positive identification with the property.

Seriously -- think back to the first 'new Trek' movie. Other than the destruction of Vulcan, which was the big red flag waved to show 'this isn't your daddy's Star Trek', can you remember anything of any significance that happened in that film? Did any of the other major events of that film (Scotty inventing hyperspace transportation, the near-destruction of Earth due to a lack of planetary defenses, premature contact between the Romulans and Federation) have any effect on or were even referenced during this film? No? Can't say I'm surprised.

(As an aside, think for a moment how much more interesting the movie might have been had Benedict Cumberbatch fled to Romulus instead of the Klingon home world -- Romulus still exists in this universe, and the Federation would have to deal with the political fallout of having destroyed a ship full of Romulans (albeit one led by a Romulan who was insanely bent on the destruction of Earth and had already destroyed Vulcan). The events of the first movie might actually have had some impact on the development of the story in the second, rather than just being an excuse to blow a bunch of shit up, summer blockbuster style.)

Before yesterday, I couldn't remember how long it had been since I'd walked out of a movie theater before the film was over. Thanks to 'Star Trek: Into Darkness', I now know. When it comes to Star Trek, 'just a movie' simply isn't good enough.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Kicking the Hand that Starts You

It's pessimistic to rain on everyone's "we can do this" parade, yes, but wealthy celebrities drumming up consequence-free cash for their next projects just doesn't feel like the proper use of a site like Kickstarter. Want to start a campaign to, I dunno, send a dying person on a nice trip? Sure, go right ahead. It doesn't even have to be as serious as that. Use Kickstarter to get a sports team some new equipment, whatever. But when it's used to pay production costs for a Warner Bros. movie, the system seems abused.

- "Anybody Know Of A Better Charity Than the Veronica Mars Movie?", Richard Lawson

So, Kickstarter. I'm not a fan. Let me explain why.

At first, I thought the idea of Kickstarter, or more accurately the generic concept of 'crowdsourcing' -- i.e.: using the Internet to raise funds for something that you aren't able to raise funds for in more traditional methods -- was a cool idea. As I understand it, the proof-of-concept was Dr. Howard Dean's use of internet funding, first in his campaign for President of the U.S. in 2004, and then for the Democratic National Committee as its chairman afterward. (Wikipedia disagrees, considering the Oxford English Dictionary one of the first historical crowdsourced projects, and suggests that what I'm talking about is more precisely a subset of crowdsourcing called 'crowdfunding'.)

Kickstarter launched in 2009 and received some curious media coverage when it did so. It showed up on my radar, though, when it proved its utility in the geek sphere, specifically when Rich Berlew's Kickstarter drive to reprint his out-of-print softcover "Order of the Stick" collections became the first Kickstarter to break $1 million.

At the time, I thought, "Wow, that's impressive."

Some time later, the Pathfinder Online massive multiplayer game, currently in development, launched its own Kickstarter. This time, though, one million dollars was the goal. And, confusingly enough, though many assumed the kickstarter was being organized by Pathfinder IP owner Paizo Publishing, the real beneficiary of the project was the game's developer, Goblinworks, Inc. This, too, succeeded.

I was a bit less sanguine about this success, though. First off, the amount was at least an order of magnitude higher than Burlew's -- he'd only set out to raise a bit over $50k to cover his publishing costs, and the $1 million was a windfall bonus. Goblinworks was setting out to reap the windfall right off the top. In a sense, it was reasonable -- MMO's are expensive, and Goblinworks was a development house with no appreciable experience under their belts -- their 'big deal' was that they were founded (at least in part) by Ryan Dancey, the same man who introduced the Open Gaming License to the world and who basically made Pathfinder possible once Wizards of the Coast decided to stop producing Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons. OK, guys that know each other want to work together (most of Paizo's staff also consists of former WotC staffers, after all), but the whole thing had a bit of a whiff of, well, something not entirely wholesome.

Add to this the realization that Goblinworks and Paizo, gamers all, had apparently cracked Kickstarter -- the secret was to offer incentives for high-money contributors that look cool, and that people would be willing to pay for, but that don't actually cost you much if any of your own money to provide. Examples:

  • Pledge $15, and get a PDF!
  • Pledge $50, and get the downloadable soundtrack we'll be selling on iTunes after launch!
  • Pledge $300, and your character's name will be associated with one of the drinks for sale at the in-game taverns!

You get the idea. A lot of this stuff requires minimal effort, or was being done anyway, but Dancey (who according to his bio linked above is sometimes called the 'Steve Jobs of MMO marketing') figured out how to market these things to be worth many times their cost. Great, right? Isn't that how capitalism is supposed to work?

Now, the news referred to in the quote that leads this essay. The creator of the teen-detective television series 'Veronica Mars' has decided that he wants to make a movie, and he's putting together a $2 million Kickstarter to do it. The kicker? It's already over 3/4 of the way to funded and at the time I write this, there's still a month left in the fundraising period.

Thomas has done his homework well. Consider the rewards for donating at the $175 donation level:

  • a PDF of the shooting script
  • a limited edition T-shirt
  • a digital download of the movie
  • a physical DVD of the movie with bonus documentary material on the making of the film and the Kickstarter campaign
  • a copy of the official movie poster
  • another physical DVD, but this one in Blu-Ray and with stuff not on the other DVD
  • all three seasons of the original TV show

In other words, except for the T-shirt, a bunch of stuff we already have or were planning to make anyway! You've got to get up to the $350 level to get somewhere where someone has to put in significant effort -- that's where any member of the cast (except Kirsten, who plays the title character, who's probably the person you'd most want to do this) will record a 15 second voice mail message for you -- which of course the guys at Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me have been doing for years, for free. (OK, you have to be on their show and win one of their quiz games...)

Now it makes sense that Rob Thomas, the creator, would go to Kickstarter for this once he figured out how to package the incentives -- his show was certainly beloved by its fans, but it's a three-season TV show that went off the air six years ago, and any interest in a film from traditional producers probably died within two years of the show's hiatus. Good on Thomas for finding a way to pursue what I'm assuming is either a dream, or a way to keep paying the bills for a while longer -- either is admirable.

What worries me is where this is heading. What if Marvel Studios launched a $250 million Kickstarter for "Avengers 2"? What if the $100k level had a benefit of 'hang out on the set for a day with Joss and the cast'? That wouldn't be at all popular, would it? I think that it would.

More importantly, it would do two other things that would be harmful to the whole crowdsourcing concept:

- It would eat up funds that would otherwise go to worthy smaller projects.

Turns out that not everyone agrees with me on this. John Rogers, the co-creator and showrunner of Leverage, and a guy I admire, got into a brief discussion with me on Twitter where he responded to my Avengers 2 question by saying "That assumes a finite audience. Which is ... wrong, I think." But that's not right, either -- the audience is finite, because there are only so many people. And the portion of the audience that can and will donate to projects is even more finite, because we know there are fans who don't donate. The question is not 'is the pool finite or infinite' but 'how deep does it go'? If it's not very deep, a few big-ticket projects will certainly dry it right up.

But that's only a small part of the problem -- the bigger one is this:

- It would allow 'big content' to subsume the sources of crowdsourcing and treat them as just another profit center.

Kickstarter basically gets paid based on the size of the donations. (The actual mechanism, oddly enough, is just Amazon Payments.) So say Marvel makes their $250 million goal and "Avengers 2" is funded. Marvel would love to put their "Avengers 3" on Kickstarter, too, but they're a little concerned about some of Kickstarter's business practices...

This is why my response to Rogers suggested that he could have written a kick-ass Leverage episode about where this is apparently going.

Kickstarter rewards content creators with recognizable, popular intellectual property that can be leveraged in ways that don't cost the IP owner much in order to attract attention and funding. Big Content (Marvel, Disney, etc.) can do this way more efficiently than independent creators, and Big Content has a vested interest in squishing ways that independent creators can get made outside of their gatekeeping. How long until you *have* to be doing a million dollar project to get on Kickstarter? How long until the minimum becomes $10 million?

So what, you may ask. If Kickstarter stops doing small projects, some other startup will come along and fill the void, right?

Oh, my friend, you know so little about how the real market works.

The real problem is, I'm not at all sure what to do about this situation -- it seems inevitable, like watching a cute baby gorilla slowly grow up until it's large enough to terrorize you and everyone else in your home.

Oh, well -- the Kickstarter era was fun while it lasted, anyway.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ireland Trip - Day 2

Remember what I mentioned about Ireland being an ideal country for sleeping, if you find rain relaxing? The environment was so relaxing that I actually didn't get out of bed until about 5pm, by which time Eddie and Bethany were preparing for a trip back to the UCC campus, this time for a meeting of WARPS, the wargaming and role-playing group that would be putting on WARPCon over the weekend.

We arrived a little late after a quick dinner at an Irish Burger King to find a number of games already going on. Eddie, who is still something of a Magic fiend, quickly got into a match, while Bethany and I mingled a bit, and I got to meet a couple of the folks organizing the weekend's convention. We finished up playing a game of Ticket to Ride: Marklin -- Bethany, Eddie, myself, and a shy Irish fellow with a very serious tremor but who otherwise was bright and as amiable as his shyness allowed.

Back home again -- this time without a stop at a pub on the way. Back to sleep to prepare for another day.

Ireland Trip - Day 1

Bethany and her fiancee Eddie met me at the train station in Cork, and after a short bus ride, we ended up at their cozy condominium. They showed me the guest bedroom where I'd be sleeping, then gave me the chance to clean up a bit. I'd been awake at this point for about 23 hours consecutively, but with the chance to freshen up and the fact that the sun was still up (and I was told that the sun actually being visible is a rarity in Ireland, so I shouldn't waste it), I decided to head out with them for a brief walking tour of Cork City.

We ended up at a semi-enclosed market called the English Market, which reminded me very much of International Market Square back home, except with much more 'staples'; plenty of butchers, fishmongers, and vegetable sellers abounded, with only a few touristy-type shops that sold chocolates or other delicacies. My first purchase in Cork proper was a bottle of apple juice laced with blueberry juice, while Eddie picked up pork chops (more like steaks to my eyes), potatoes, and cabbage for that evening's dinner. We stopped briefly at Tesco (the only supermarket in Cork City) to pick up some more staples and snacks, then headed back home.

Dinner was simple and very tasty, and afterward I finally indulged in sleep. Turns out Ireland is an ideal country for sleep, if you find rain relaxing -- by the next morning, a steady drizzle was falling and I ended up sleeping well past noon. Eddie headed into work at about 2pm, and Bethany and I planned to meet him later at the college's Med-Ren group (basically a re-enactment/SCA type group). Bethany took me on a more tourist-oriented walk of Cork City, showing me some of the local architecture, and we stopped in a pub for a drink to rest and wait for the Med-Ren meeting.

Med-Ren basically consisted of a bunch of college folks learning how to wield medieval weaponry -- the spear was on particular display, but some dagger training was also available. I begged out, on the pretence that since I'd had a beer earlier, I shouldn't wield weapons while under the influence of alcohol, so instead I ended up spending much of the evening talking with an amazing Irish woman named Rosheen, who'd been a practicing archaeologist for the better part of two decades and had a seemingly inexhaustable store of tales about things that happened on various dig sites and expeditions, mostly in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. She joined us on another pub trip following the Med-Ren meeting and we ended up eating dinner there (having taken it out from a nearby fish-and-chips place) and talking until midnight.

Back home, back to sleep and the promise of another day.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ireland trip - Day 0

If you've read the blog about my GenCon trips, you know that travel days can be just as eventful as vacation days. My recent trip to Ireland was no exception.

The plan started taking shape back in September, after it was finally clear that a long-promised raise was coming through which would allow me to afford the trip. Then it was simply a matter of booking the flight, applying for a passport, and waiting for the departure date to arrive. Which, eventually, it did.

I slept better than I'd expected to, rising early enough to do one last load of laundry containing the nightclothes I'd worn. Then Senior drove me to the airport -- arriving at 2:00 for a 4:00 flight, I'd finished checking my bags and passing through security in about fifteen minutes, I then discovered, sheepishly enough, that the place I needed to be to do currency exchange was back outside the security area.

The theme of the series of flights from Minneapolis to Dublin was 'early'. I was early to the airport, but karma repaid me by having my flight to Chicago land fifteen minutes early, and the flight from Chicago to Dublin not only left 10 minutes early (all ticketed passengers had checked in), but with a 70 mile-per-hour tailwind for much of the first half of the flight, we ended up landing in Dublin nearly an hour early.

How did I know we had a 70mph tailwind? Turns out international flights are cool. Aer Lingus, which I flew on, had monitors where the flight conditions flashed throughout the flight, interspersed with maps showing the GPS position of the plane. But it turns out, no matter how cool the flight is, international travel takes longer than it takes for the cool to wear off -- I am not at all looking forward to the flight homw.

Culture shock didn't really set in on arrival -- all airports pretty much look alike and are festooned with signs so that it's very difficult to lose your way. My problems began upon leaving the airport and looking for the bus that would take me to the Heuston train station. I didn't really get any sleep on the plane, and so had been up for about 20 hours consecutively at that point.

"I'm not really sure what to do," I told the driver as I climbed aboard the bus.

"First thing is, you pay me."

So I did. I had gotten 150 euro in Chicago, since the booth that did the currency exchange was convenient from the international terminal, but I wasn't yet prepared for a currency where everything below 5 euro was transacted in coins.

Riding through Dublin on a bus while sleep deprived, you get the idea that this is what would happen if some Brobdingnagian creature devoured all of human culture, then selectively vomited some of it back out over two square miles. Riding down a street with a mishmash of buildings of various sizes and colors, the bus would then turn right and drive down a stretch of two straight blocks of bed and breakfasts. Then a left turn and we were driving through a square surrounded by posh department stores. Another right, and we were driving past Trinity College and a bunch of ecumenical buildings well over a century old. It was vaguely phantasmagoric -- I almost expected at some point to see flames bursting from the roofs of tall towers like in 'Blade Runner'.

Arriving at the train station, I discovered I'd just missed a train and would need to wait an hour for the next one to leave, so I went looking for a "pub" that the person I was coming to see had said was in the station. It took me about five minutes to find it, as it was the only thing indoors in an otherwise open-air train station. It was called the Galway Hooker, and oddly enough, especially for someone now on 21 hours without sleep, it appeared to be run by Poles. The big Polish cook was waiting for me order at the breakfast buffet, but I recognized very little, and the little I did recognize made little sense. There were, for instance, beans that looked like pork and beans, but with no pork. (Turned out everything else was pork, though.) There was a pair of puck-like meat-looking things, something that looked like a boiled hot dog, a very oddly-shaped bacon-like thing that, if I'd had to guess, I'd have called a 'rasher', and a container of sautéed mushrooms. Last, and most confusing, was a bunch of deep-fried potato wedges, which I'd have thought were invented by Arby's rather than being part of a 'traditional' Irish breakfast. I let the old couple behind me go ahead while I puzzled out the offerings, and once it was my turn again, the cook took pity on me.

"Full breakfast?" he asked.

"Yes, please," I breathed out in thanks.

'Full breakfast' meant one of everything -- one each of the pucks (the darker one was 'black pudding' while the lighter was 'white pudding'), one hot dog (which was actually a lightly packed sausage), a rasher (and it was actually a rasher), a scoop of beans, a scoope of mushrooms, and the potato wedge in the middle of it all. And a fried egg and two slices of white toast. I ate it all, greedily, then relaxed for a few minutes before heading out to the train.

Trains in Ireland are astonishingly modern considering some other parts of the country. (I'd have this same weird feeling many times over the course of the trip, such as being shown a smart-chipped ATM/debit card used by pretty much all Irish banks, while walking to that bank on a cobblestone street following a patch first laid out in the Middle Ages.) They all have free Wi-Fi, and while it's not fact, it exists, which kept Sophie (my iPad) useful. I ended up sitting across the aisle from a girl who didn't look to be over 16, and who had an iPad mini and an Android smartphone, but who got off the train at Limerick with a bunch of other folks looking for all the world as though they were heading back to college. A beverage truck staffed by two attractive Polish girls rolled up and down the length of the train; I spent over 10 euro on snacks and beverages at least partly so that I had an excuse to keep talking to them.

The weirdest part of the Irish trains, though, was the restroom. Not because of the facilities - there was a commode, a sink, all the regular stuff - but because the restroom was circular, complete with a sliding door that was controlled with buttons and spoke to you to remind you to lock it.

Upon arriving in Cork, Bethany and her fiancee Eddie picked me up, and we all rode another bus back to their condo. About which, more later.