17 January 2008

NPR's Crappy, Credulous UFO story.

Yesterday my daughter and I were driving to the store and listening to NPR. One moment the airwaves are full of the typical sober coverage I've come to depend on (it was after all the nationally aired NPR and not that bullshit interconnect from Oxford) then suddenly it was like I was listening to Art Bell. For those of you who don't know who Art Bell is he has had a radio show in which he credulously and breathlessly reports on any paranormal anecdote as if that were evidence for said paranormal claim.

My NPR! What the hell? A silky voiced reporter, a bit of the gloat in his voice, told the story of a small texan town in which several citizens witnessed UFOs. Allegedly the reports of the citizenry were independent. Maybe they were, but in a town with only one reporter, doesn't the possiblity that witnesses communicated bear at least a little skeptical investigation? Our man on the scene, Wade Goodwin never seems to ask, or want to ask what meterological experts might have to say about the sightings? What about astronomers? What do they think? Wade never mentions common observer errors made by laymen when looking at the sky. As a reporter he is content to take the story at face value, and bask in the absurdity of it all.
"I tell ya, the lights were moving, and banking faster than any jet." Said one witness.
"There were these yellow lights hovering....maybe 3000 feet up. Then they disappeared and a bit later there was yellow light."
There were other accounts, that may or may not be true. What's important to me is that the quality of the reporting was so lacking. In fact it was worthless.

Humans are not terribly good observers of phenomena with which they are unfamiliar. Much of the literature describeing UFO sightings boils down to observer error. That is when it isn't outright fraud. That NPR decided to report so sloppily on this is somewhat disheartening because it will do a great deal to reduce rational discussion.
And phrases like, "eerily reminscient of" other accounts have no place in a sober report. More than this the intrepid reporter Wade Goodman (doesn't that sound a name that belongs to a 1950s sci-fi movie) credulously reports that no one came forward until after the initial article in the local paper came out. Surely no one could inspired to make up up a sighting after such a story. Goodman doesn't even mention this. Then he goes on to say that all the witness accounts were the same. However in the report the accounts are not the same. The first witness sees a fiery red glow, then his son says red lights, then white lights. Every account reported by the less than industrious Mr. Goodman is different from the one that came before it. There was a red glow. No the next story reports white strobing lights, then another says yellow strobing lights.
All of this adds up to well lighted bullshit. I'm shocked that the reporter couldn't be bothered to even try to find a more prosaic explanation for what some of these people might have seen. What atmospheric phenomena might be accountable for the effects describe. Exhaust the known before jumping to the novel, and implausible.

It seems incredibly likely that life exists on other planets in this galaxy, and almost certainly in universe. The math is simply on the side of such a possiblity. The ubiquity of the raw materials of life, and number of planets on which life could evolve seems to staggeringly great to be over come. A brief reveiw of the numbers might help. There are about 10^11 galaxies in the universe, and each one has an average of 10^11 stars in each one. Thats 10^22 stars in the known universe. Given the ease at which we can induce the production of self-replicating molecules from raw materials, it seems-as a thought experiment- that the probablities favor life existing elsewhere. Almost no matter how conservative your estimate is it is bound to come up with a Universe that is teeming. So why haven't he been asked to join the United Federation of Planets yet?

Space is a damn big place and there is as yet no reason to suspect that we have been visited by the little green men, or -sadly- transforming alien robots, or any other of our screen imaginings. For starters how would they find us? Our oldest radio communication can't be greater than one hundred years old. That gives any signal we've given a distance of one hundred light years. Not a sufficiently great distance given the vastness of space. The oldest television broadcast of any real power is about 80 or so light years distant. That is less distant still for a signal to have alerted any of our alien neighbors. But even if we did alert them how would they get here? And how soon could we expect them?

The signal's I'm talking about got where they are at the speed of light. This is a very fast speed, but it isn't infinately so. More than that, it seems as if it is the maximum allowable speed in the universe, and never mind the warp drives.

You see the problems in this don't you? First the aliens have to pick up a signal (not an easy task) then mount an immediat expedition. If the aliens are just picking up the signal, it would take them at least 80 years (if they are watching Hitler rant on a tv broadcast) to get here assuming they could travel at speed limit of the cosmos, for our purposes 300,000,000 m/second will do. with out recieving an signal there would be no reason to come at all. We live in a peculiar backwater of the spiral arm of the Milkyway and our planet orbits an unremarkable star. What is the draw for a species looking out at us from the inner Milkyway too distant to have recieved our earliest electromagnetic transmissions? I can't think of anything. Of course my guestimations here depend a great deal on the technological capablities of the alien recieving it, and the prevelance of intelligent life in our galaxy.

We ought to be deeply skeptical of the UFOologists, UFOs and reporters who have left their brains at home when reporting on them. Not only is it unlikely when we examine our universe and local galaxy. It is unlikely such visitation would go un-noticed by the army of ametuer astronomers that go out nightly around the globe. It is that army of ametuers that puts the lie to the vast number of conspiracy theorists that cry cover up. There are just too damn many people outside looking up. There are also no small number of professional astronomers whose careers, and reputation could be made by the discovery of aliens. Why is it that the professionals, and the very able amateurs (who are always discovering things like comets, asteroids, nebulae and other phenomena) can never find these alien visitors?

15 January 2008

One of my favorite songs.

Hope you like this folks.
I always dug the chick rock. I used to like to blame that on elizibeth, but is it unrealistic to think I would have discovered this good music on my own? In defense of the independence of my good taste I discovered Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Kristin Hall and Ani DiFranco on my own.
Who knows though? If I hadn't been introduced to the indigo girls.....

14 January 2008

I am Legend: a movie review

I am Legend
By Max Driffill II
There are only two types of movie reviews that lend themselves to easy writing. Those types are either the very good, or the very bad. I’m not sure if that is an axiomatic but it really ought to be. Writers or readers of movie reviews will either already know this or have deeply suspected it. Harder to write are films that exist somewhere in the middle of that distribution of quality, the almost good or the almost bad. Quite unmysteriously the worse the film the easier the review. I am Legend is closer to good than bad. In fact until an unfortunate, unexpected, and sadly unjustified turn of narrative in the final act I had been about to add it to my list of good science fiction movies of which there has always been a paucity.
I am Legend differs markedly from other screen versions of Richard Matheson’s story but manages to be just as flawed as those other treatments (Vincent Price’s equally passable Last man on Earth and Charlton Heston’s dreck Omega Man). That the film has succeeded is more a testament to what is good about it rather than what is not. And its first two acts are engaging. In fact the first two thirds are a testament to the great actor that is the heart of the film. The dog that pals around with him is quite a capable thespian too. It is these two leads that make the film watchable, emotionally moving, and tense. It is the film’s final act which turns the once magnificent edifice into a shaky façade that crumbles under the weight of questions any thoughtful viewer will inevitably be forced to ask.
Before that terrible turn the film is worth watching for everything that it does right. I am Legend tells the story of the end of the world from the perspective of Lt Col. Dr. Robert Neville, military virologist who even after the end has come and gone continues to work on the cure for what ails it. A disease, the unintentional by product of a miracle drug, has decimated humanity. The pathology of the disease is some strange cross between zombiesm and vampirism. Affected humans seem much less bright and have a zombie’s inelegant fashion sense (one may wonder that any clothing would last three years with the kind of wear these creatures put on it) but they like to eat more than brains and become positively beastly at the smell of blood. They also sunburn easily. This is all fine and good. It is a monster movie after all, and done quite well. Where the film really succeeds though is in its vision of a world without us. What would happen if humanity were to suddenly vanish? It is a question the film answers in its stark vistas of an empty Manhattan. Empty streets dominate a city that is rather rapidly being reclaimed by forests and marshes (the island was itself home to numerous rivers and that history still bedevils the city that now stands on the island). White-tail deer roam the car choked streets, birds other than House Sparrow’s and Rock Doves flit and sing. It isn’t a wasteland unless you are the only human survivor left in the city, and, gregarious primate that you are, crave human contact and interaction. This is all terribly compelling. It is an exercise in good choices. Will Smith’s portrayal of one human’s descent into the madness of loneliness is wonderful. Neville’s experience is hard to describe as miserable, but it seems deeply unfulfilling at the same time. Were it not for the dog and Neville’s deer hunts it would be a decidedly joyless exercise in survival. Neville talks to mannequins at a video store that he has obviously arranged, and he seems genuinely to have forgotten this fact. Were they people he once knew? It is a question that is never answered, nor is any answer needed. (Some morons in front of me in theater thought this was the comic relief and not an utterly sad statement on the man’s mental state.) There are scenes in which Smith essays terror better than any actor I’ve seen in years, perhaps ever. His frustration at being unable to find a cure is seen clearly as an extension of his loneliness.
Underneath all this is the important work of composer James Newton Howard who is fast becoming my favorite screen composer. A lesser composer would have scored everything. Howard wisely held back. Most of the film lacks a score. It was an excellent choice. It adds to the stark experience of Neville’s life. Music is often used to heighten a viewer’s emotion. What is often forgotten is that music also consists of the silence between the notes. Someone, I can’t remember who, has said this silence it the most important part of all great music. Howard has learned this lesson well.
The film doesn’t begin to fall apart until its similarity to a better film, Signs becomes utterly apparent. It is the final act and involves two other people. It isn’t that is poorly acted. It isn’t that the action is un-engaging. On both counts it’s really quite good. But there is, I think, an unjustified turn in the narrative. I won’t reveal what that is. I’m no spoiler. I will ask a couple of questions though.
Why does the author of the universe tend to speak in such obscure language? Why all the codes and easily missed clues? Why do so many people have to die for the completion of said being’s designs and games? It seems inelegant and inefficient not to mention capricious, perhaps malicious and certainly stupid. Why didn’t the writer of this script pay more attention to Neville’s math in the key argument?
To tell me what you thought of this movie
Email: beltopurple@gmail.com
Or add to the comments on my blog!