We Don’t Need New Ideas

Ezra Klein thinks the Democrats need new ideas.  This is of course BS.  I outlined the problems facing the U.S.A. in a previous post.  Democrats have good ideas for tackling all of them.  The issue is not ideas, it’s implementing them over Republican opposition.  Universal Health Care has been an issue since at least Nixon who proposed a law that I would classify as to the LEFT of Obamacare.  The irony is that Klein thinks Republicans have new ideas.  But no, it’s the same old supply side, anti-Keynsian, corporatist schlock.  Klein’s examples are basically Republicans saying to other Republicans “hey, maybe we should be less, you know, Republican.”

We have the macro ideas, we don’t need new ideas.  The only thing we are unclear on are the details.  We know single payer healthcare is cheaper than private insurance.  However, there are lots of other ways to cut healthcare costs we are still unsure about.  Like switching to salaried workers rather than fee for service.  Or how many tests are actually unnecessary.  Details like that matter, but they aren’t big party ideas that you can hammer on for votes.

If voters really just want repackaged old ideas, well then maybe they really are as stupid as Jonathan Gruber said they are.


The Real Origin of Serialized TV

Vox apparently doesn’t read much and doesn’t even watch much TV.  I say this because of this completely erroneous article claiming that TV started serialization in movies.  This is of course not true as good serialization has a storied past in the printed word.  Not even that, they don’t even mention the TV precursors to the current serialization trend.

The irony is that the header image for the article is from Captain America, a character from the ultimate serialization format: the comic book.  Now comic books have their roots in an even older serial format having spawned from the pulp genre where stories were usually split up among successive issues of periodical devoted to fiction.  In fact this is how a lot of classic Victorian literature was published as well.  It was a concession to printing costs, which were relatively high, and a way to keep customers hooked.

However, in earlier serials it was usually a matter of taking an existing story and just chopping it up.  That is why I think comic books are a better analogue to modern TV.  In both media you have indefinite length of air time or comic books you are trying to fill with stories about the same characters.  The parallels run deeper as both comics and TV were almost exclusively episodic for most of their history, only recently have they become heavily serialized (by which I mean a longer story arc is broken up among multiple issues/episodes).

For comic books, this change was wrought in the early 80s with the extreme popularity of Chris Claremont’s X-Men run.  There are of course earlier well-regarded story arcs, but stuff like Days of Future Past is etched in nearly ever comic readers mind.  It’s hard to overstate how popular X-Men was at one point.  A comic book is lucky if it sells a 100,000 copies now, but X-Men was pulling numbers in the millions in the 80s and that caused a profound shift in what kinds of stories were deemed likely to succeed.  The other major event was the release of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns which had broad mainstream and critical success.  For a moment it looked like comics, or graphic novels for the snobbish, might stand among “serious” literature.  Of course stories those good are rare and the rush to put out “grim and gritty” stories caused a glut of mediocre imitators and a backlash.  Nevertheless, a push toward more mature, complex storytelling and the proven success of serialized storytelling completely changed the face of comic books.  Today, one-and-done storytelling is exceedingly rare in comic books and charges of “decompression,” extending a story longer than it needed to be, are common among fans.

Now the roots of TV serialization are longer than Vox pretends as well.  I would trace it back to Star Trek and Twin Peaks, but I don’t claim an intimate knowledge of TV history.  This of course ignores the many serial soap operas.  However, considering how long soaps have been on the air, it can’t really be the case that they drove stronger serialization in TV. Star Trek: The Next Generation features to me an inchoate serialization.  Many multi-episode stories rank among the best of the show’s seven seasons, including The Best of Both Worlds which really elevated what was possible in the format.  The two episodes split between seasons were almost like watching a movie, even if the ending was slightly disappointing.  Ironically, its movies trying to be like TV now.  It also featured the Borg, an existential threat that cropped up in many memorable episodes.  Later seasons dealt with a Cardassian war as an omnipresent theme as well.  Yes, it was still largely episodic, but it always had the backdrop of these larger menaces adding flavor.  Deep Space Nine would take this even further with its multi-season Dominion storyline.  Also it is important to highlight that TNG was very popular at the time and TV follows the money.  What I find interesting is that almost assuredly the writers of TNG read comic books and TNG followed hot on the heels of the revolution going on comic books.

The other big early serial was Twin Peaks.  While it had its soap opera tendencies, it was an extremely popular serialized crime drama.  Suddenly we had multiple examples of a genre other than soap operas doing very well with serialization.

Finally, Vox completely ignores the many fantasy and science fiction series that would classify as serials.  Stuff like Harry Dresden which spans over 10 books, most of it with a continuing storyline, certainly qualifies as a serial.  Vox is like the people claiming Interstellar was an ambitious science fiction production when it is in fact a regurgitation of many science fiction plots and would look dated among literature from 30 years ago.  These pronouncements reveal an ignorance of the long history of their respective genres and formats.

World of Warcraft: A Retrospective

With a new expansion pack to World of Warcraft nigh, I thought it interesting to write down my thoughts about the game as it has evolved over the last decade.

Vanilla – In retrospect, this was godawful.  So many useless classes and specs, horrible itemization, terrible tuning of all dungeons and most raids.  There was no catch up mechanism for raiding so progression guilds were still doing Molten Core in Nax.  In terms of mechanics, contemporary boss and dungeon design is light years ahead.  Finally, while at the time leveling was a revelation compared to the likes of Everquest and such, with hindsight it was complete trash.  It took forever and the questing thinned out as you approached 60 such that I ended up grinding.  I still have fond memories of the original Stranglethorn Vale on a PvP server.  It was dense with quests and people and gankers and it was pretty glorious at the time.

The Burning Crusade – BC is not that much different than Vanilla except with a team that was much more familiar with their game.  All the new zones were of higher quality and great aesthetics (except Hellfire Peninsula) and the questing experience was much more coherent and complete.  Still, the class balance was atrocious for the entire expansion.  This was the era where you brought a moonkin solely for their raid buff and a shadow priest to buff your warlocks.

If you were a hardcore raider this was probably an amazing expansion.  The raid content came out in a deluge and was supposedly very good, with the possible exception of Mount Hyjal.  For us mere mortals, there was again no catch up mechanism so we all slummed it in Karazhan and Zul’ Aman for an entire expansion pack.  This is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that Karazhan was pretty freaking amazing.  In terms of 5 man content, Blizzard nailed the aesthetics but I found most mechanically uninteresting.  However, the real problem was the tuning.  They were really hard for absolutely terrible rewards.  It made no sense that Karazhan was easier than most of the 5 man heroics.

The Wrath of the Lich King – What we have here is a profound shift in the philosophy of raiding.  Blizzard realized that making raid content that 5% of the population, at most, would ever see was dumb and might cost subscribers in the future.  Thus we got a retuned Naxx, which may be the easiest raid instance ever put into the game.  Naxx is a great raid, but because it was so easy it made the long duration until Ulduar was released nearly unbearable.  I had alts with nigh best in slot gear by the time Ulduar came out.

The wait was worth it.  Ulduar is the BEST raid yet released for the game.  Everything about it is awesome: the theme, the boss fights, the achievements.  It also introduced hard modes, a first attempt to allow raids to be tuned easier while still providing a challenge to the hardcore raiders.  While future hard modes were flip a switch and the boss has more HP and damage, Ulduar hard modes usually had some kind of ingenious method to unlock them and significantly changed the fight.  The pinnacle of the instance and the hard mode concept is hard mode Mimiron.  Anyone that did this fight as progression will tell you that despite kicking your ass over and over again, it was insanely fun.

Unfortunately, after this was a stopgap raid called Trial of the Crusader.  This was a letdown after Ulduar.  Now there was just a toggle switch for hard modes and it all took place in a very bland arena.  The fights themselves were solid, but I know most people disagree with me.  However, much like Naxx it lasted far too long for its own good, especially because at the time you were probably running it on the same character up to four time a week (10, 25 and heroic mode of each).  This was ripe for burnout.

Icecrown Citadel, the culmination of the battle against the Lich King, eventually arrived and it was pretty awesome.  Not as good as Ulduar, but at least top 5 in the game.  Hard modes usually threw in one more mechanic and nearly every fight had a few interesting mechanics to them.  There were a few missteps, Sindragosa was absolutely awful and Dreamwalker a bit too gimmicky.  I also like the Lich King fight in theory, but in reality it had too many phases and was too long, much like many end raid bosses.  I don’t like having to do the boring first phase over and over again so I can learn the next phase that is 8 minutes into the fight.  ICC normal was actually tuned fairly easy encouraging a lot of pick-up groups and this was the first instance to receive a numbers nerf that grew over time.

Apart from raiding, the new leveling zones were Blizzard reaching the end of the line in terms of the old-fashioned questing structure.  The next two expansion packs showed no improvement and maybe a little degradation.  Another big change was the introduction of catch up mechanisms for raiding.  Almost every tier, except Ulduar, brought easy methods to gear up to levels appropriate for the new raid.  Finally, the end of the expansion brought about the Dungeon Finder tool that automatically put a group together for you.  This has profound implications for how all future content had to be designed and was the precursor to Looking For Raid.  It proved so popular that basically every MMO since has included the feature.

To summarize, this was a huge step in the game and in MMO design.  Now you could skip raids and still get into raiding later.  More difficulty modes meant that there was an appropriate challenge no matter your skill level and for the first time a good portion of the player base was raiding.  Finally, we see that for the first time the game is putting together groups for players rather than putting the burden on the players to form up.

Cataclysm – The beginning of this expansion showcased a reactionary Blizzard that was not confident in the direction they had taken the game in the previous expansion pack.  Much like the more vocal minority of the game, Blizzard seemed to feel that they had casualized the game too much.  This resulted in much harder 5 man content and maybe the hardest tier of raiding in the game.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 5 man dungeons of Cata, my main complaint was the length of some and of course a lot of really bad players.  In terms of design, they were mostly fantastic.  These were boss fights that might have been in a raid instance of a previous expansion.  The problem here was that LFD, shorthand for Dungeon Finder, was still relatively new and was mostly used to run the trivialized heroics of WotLK.  People weren’t prepared to get thrown together with 5 random people and do fights that were actually difficult.  Furthermore, early Cataclysm was hell on healers.  Blizzard had nerfed them hard after dissatisfaction with the spammy healing of WotLK.  I like healing in WotLK and the irony was that it didn’t take much gear before healers in Cataclysm were back to spamming.  Warlords of Draenor sees Blizzard once again trying to cut back on healing spam, only time will tell if they succeeded.

The other evidence of this shift was found in the raiding content.  Tier 11 was insanely hard.  Normal difficulty was on par with heroic mode in ICC, particularly in 10 man difficulty.  Part of this was Blizzard not knowing how to tune 10 mans, but mostly it was indicative of their harsh raiding philosophy.  On top of that, the fights had a plethora of mechanics.  I really liked most of the fights, but it’s true that some had TOO many abilities and the overuse of interrupts was quite apparent.  If they had just made normal less punishing I think I would remember it more fondly.

I quit before Firelands, but revisiting it later, I found it unexciting and Dragon Soul is the perhaps the worst raid yet conceived.  Furthermore, the quantity of raiding content was minuscule in comparison to every other expansion.  The retuned ZA and ZG were fine, but the three 5-mans that came with Dragon Soul were awful and horribly easy.  It was clear that Blizzard was backpedaling furiously from their decision to make game content harder.

I can’t forget to mention the introduction of LFR with Dragon Soul.  I think this is a solid feature despite the scorn heaped upon it.  However, it is true that it influences encounter design all the way up to heroic difficulty and that can’t really be called a good thing.

The revision of the main game world was great, it was looking really dated after WotLK showed us what was possible.  I liked Uldum (I am a sucker for Egyptian themes) and Deepholme and Vashjir, the underwater zone, was great exactly once.

Mists of Pandaria – I really enjoyed the aesthetics of this expansion, however leveling was horrendous.  It was slower than Cataclysm and I can’t say I enjoyed any of the new zones.  The new 5 mans were trivial on release.  Even the relatively easy WotLK 5 mans didn’t become easy until after a few raid tiers of gear.  Since I enjoy that part of the game a lot, it was really unfortunate.

Blizzard didn’t design any further 5 mans either, instead opting to focus on scenarios.  Scenarios only have three people and no reliance on a tank or healer.  This sounded great to me in principle.  Now you have to win by doing enough dps and not standing in stuff. Unfortunately, Blizzard put absolutely no effort into any of them as far as I can tell.  They were boring and faceroll for the most part.  Blizzard also counts them a failure as they are scaling them back in Warlords of Draenor to a storytelling device.  Of course the problem is their design ability not the concept, but Blizzard would never admit that.

This was probably the expansion pack I did the least raiding in, skipping the entirety of Throne of Thunder.  However, my impressions were that all three tiers were good and there were a lot of bosses.  This wasn’t Cataclysm with its tiers of seven or eight bosses.  I do think Throne of Thunder is highly overrated and nowhere near the next Ulduar as Blizzard and some fans have claimed.  Siege of Orgrimmar, on the other hand, gets a bad reputation because it lasted 14 months.  Blizzard once again dropped the ball on the time between the last raid tier and the expansion pack, as they do every time.  Otherwise it’s actually pretty good.

The big feature introduced at the end of the expansion pack was flex raiding.  This was a new raid difficulty even easier than normal that scaled its difficulty to the number of players.  What we have here is Blizzard backing away from LFR and LFD style design and encouraging players to form their own groups.  I am a fan of the PuGs that formed in Wrath for ICC and Naxx because of their relatively easy difficulty and I much prefer them to the LFR paradigm where everything is braindead easy so anyone can complete it.  I am glad that it is continuing forth into the next expansion pack and expanding to normal raids too.


That leaves my final ranking of the expansions

1. WotLK
2. MoP
3. Cataclysm
4. BC
5. Vanilla

Cataclysm had the potential to be great, but a lackluster finish and a harsh beginning really hurt it.  Anyone that looks fondly on BC or Vanilla has some really pink shades on.


The Most Pressing Issues Facing the U.S.A.

With an exasperating mid-term election behind us I thought it would be a good idea to look at all the issues facing the nation that will be completely ignored for the next two years at least.

1.  Income Inequality/Economy – Considering that economic wealth is, in my opinion, the single most important determinant of a person’s happiness, it is no wonder I rate this first.  We have two problems here: an economy that refuses to recover and even if it does will see most of the gains accrue to those already on top of the economic strata.  The thing is, we have an easy answer for both of these, income redistribution and “unconventional” monetary policy.  I use quotes because it’s not really unconventional at all and has firm theoretical groundings among right-minded economists.

2.  Healthcare – This is actually inextricable from the above problem.  Now you may be thinking that Obamacare fixed this right?  Well, Switzerland has the second highest healthcare costs in the developed world and it has mandatory private insurance like Obamacare.  You know what works?  Single-payer healthcare.  Anyways, as long as healthcare costs take up an increasing share of the economy, it will cut into people’s wages either directly as employers stagnate wages to pay for health insurance or indirectly as people spend increasing shares of their income on medical care.  Single-payer is a great start, but lots of evidence points toward other areas we can improve such as an overabundance of testing, often without any proof of their efficacy.

3.  Housing – Hey look another problem dealing with the economy.  You see, cities are coming back big time.  This is great.  People in cities are way more productive than their rural counterparts.  The problem is, cities are fascist despots when it comes to zoning.  Republicans decry every little thing the Obama administration does as an assault on our liberties, but never seem to care that city governments are telling people what they can and cannot build on their private property.  For the most part cities seem to dislike dense residential areas and sadly, the market is not great either as most developers want to make high margin luxury condos.  This is driving up housing prices in all growing cities and pushing poorer people into long commutes into the city.  And of course commuting is essentially the most depressing activity you can engage in.  Not only this, but it’s causing an exodus to shitty places like Texas where wages are actually relatively low, but it may make economic sense if housing costs less.  The thing is, more housing benefits everyone on the economic ladder as it lessens competition at every bracket and it makes labor cheaper in the city too which will lower prices for all other kinds of goods and services.

4.  Education – I think the worries over primary education are completely overblown.  It’s doing just fine for our middle class or higher families.  It’s doing terribly for our poor minorities.  However, a lot of that would be fixed by getting the #1 issue fixed.  My concern is more with the increasing inaccessibility of secondary education.  Huge amounts of student debt are not a solution.  For-profit colleges are a hair’s breadth away from being scams.  Something needs to change.

5. Immigration – The irony of immigration is that those most fervently opposed to it probably support free trade of goods.  However, immigration is just the import of labor, another economic input.  Freer immigration is a win for our society just like free trade.  Yeah, we can’t let everyone in, but our current restrictions are ridiculous and spending ever more on ridiculous border schemes seems absolutely crazy.

As I will talk about in a future post, our political system is grossly ineffective and I would not count on any of the above issues being tackled or if they are, it will be an ineffectual compromise.

Interstellar’s Time Travel Explained?

The thing about time travel stories is that you can usually reconcile them given enough thought and energy, but in doing so you will have put more effort into logical consistency than the actual writers of the screenplay did.  So in noble time travel tradition, here is my attempt at explaining the time loops in the movie.

The first thing to realize is that there are two time loops.  There is the time loop where Coop, the main character played by Matthew McConaughey, sends a message back to himself and his daughter, Murph.  Another “outer” time loop may exist because future humanity sends a wormhole back in time and allows Coop to send a message back in time via the singularity at the center of the black hole.

Secondly, you have to enter a time loop from a reality where the time loop does not exist.  That is where this analysis will begin, in the Alpha timeline.  We know nothing about this timeline except that it eventually results in Coop and Murph receiving a message from the future and that it has a wormhole and a time radio in the center of a black hole.  If we take the movie’s word, these things never occur naturally and either a future humanity or aliens placed them there. If it is a future humanity, this causes an issue as it requires humanity to survive WITHOUT the interventions in time played out by Coop in the movie.  It will eventually gain mastery over time and, despite surviving the destruction of Earth, they must decide for some reason to tamper with their species’ past and send some sort of message or wormhole or something.  This starts the time loop.  Alternatively, there are in fact aliens and they come across the artifacts of humanity and try to save us by reaching into the past.  Or maybe aliens created it in the present and there is no time travel to set up the movie.  As viewers we will never know what the Alpha timeline is, but let us assume the movie is correct that future humanity created the wormhole and the time radio.

What we do know is that eventually someone sends a message to Coop and his daughter in her room.  Maybe future humanity does it directly or, more likely, in the timeline previous to that in the movie, present humanity discovers the wormhole and the time radio in the center of the black hole and send a message to Coop and Murph.  Maybe that was Coop, again we will never know.

What about this STAY message they receive?  Ostensibly, the only person that would send such a thing is Coop himself, but he can’t send that message unless he has already gone to the black hole.  This is where it gets really tricky, because every message that changes the past creates its own time loop and the rules of time loops are like programming loops, each loop must be completely nested in the outer loops.  So in fact, there are more than two time loops, one for every message that Coop sends into the past.  Lets see if the movie accomplishes keeping them straight.

To backtrack a little bit, someone, maybe Coop himself but it could be anyone, sends the coordinates of NASA to Coop backward in time.  Then Coop goes on the mission and reaches the center of the black hole.  When he gets there, according to the movie he first sends the message STAY to a point in time AFTER he received the NASA coordinates.  This is a problem.  Because you immediately spun off a new timeline without anyone sending Coop the coordinates to NASA so he will never leave Earth after seeing the coordinates to send the message STAY.  In order for this to work he should first send the coordinates in order to ensure continuity with the current timeline and his arrival at the black hole.  At that point he can alter the timeline.

You can of course posit that the singularity is special when it comes to time travel, but the necessity of Coop’s presence to send a message to his daughter was already tenuous; it’s even worse if we assume that future humanity has such enormous time traveling powers that they do not create a typical time loop.  Is there some other way to reconcile this?  Perhaps.  If in another timeline someone sent the coordinates first and then said STAY all would be fine when Coop shows up and says STAY first.  The problem here is that Coop is not thinking about the rules of time travel and to think he said STAY at the same exact time as needed to ensure congruity with his past is a bit far-fetched.  To reiterate, someone, not necessarily Coop, familiar with time travel had the good sense to first send the coordinates and then attempt to get Coop to stay with a message, maybe Coop went crazy and this person wanted to stop him from coming or maybe this Coop was just better at time travel.  Coop then gets to the center of the black hole and ensures congruity by accidentally saying STAY at the right time.

However, a more plausible scenario is the following: despite what we perceive, the first message was in fact STAY.  That is, Coop or someone else, in a timeline where no messages from the future have been received in Murph’s bedroom, makes it to the black hole and their first message is STAY.  It is convenient if it is Coop because we can expect his emotional response when encountering the time radio to always be to try to get himself to remain at home with the STAY message and thereby unintentionally ensure congruity with his past even when he is not thinking straight.  However, this causes another problem.  Why would Coop need the coordinates of NASA if he manages to get to the center of the black hole without them?  We must then posit that Coop saw some exigency that he thought could be avoided if he has the NASA coordinates.  Maybe his arrival at NASA earlier elides a catastrophe.  Anyway, he sends the coordinates and all future Coops realize, after their initial attempt to stop themselves from leaving Murph, that they too must send the coordinates or risk a paradox.

With those two loops out of the way, Coop could then implausibly transmit data via an old watch to his daughter to create one more timeline.  The watch avoids all these time loop problems because the message is sent last and it arrives after Coop has already left the planet and thus cannot affect him sending it.

From here we back out to the possible future humanity time loop.  This future humanity appear happy with the trajectory of humanity, but knowing the rules of time travel, they must make sure to send a wormhole back and create a time radio for Coop to send his message or risk creating a paradox where they never come into being.  Or maybe they are not happy and the timeline we see is just one timeline on the way towards a stable timeline.  For that matter, future humanity might be stuck in someone else’s time loop, including an even more future humanity.

To conclude, I summarize the most plausible sequence of events with the assumptions of the movie that this is an attempt by future humanity to save present humanity.  Humanity survives the apocalypse without help from the future and gains the ability to tamper with the past and does so.  An indefinite number of timelines proceed without any paradoxes erupting that leads to the first timeline we can speculate about where present Earth discovers a wormhole to a time radio and then someone, very likely Coop, sends the STAY message to Coop and Murph in her bedroom.  This branches another timeline off where Coop again goes to the time radio and sends STAY but then realize he can avert some disaster by telling himself the coordinates to NASA.  This branches another timeline where Coop uses the time radio to send three messages; STAY, the coordinates and the observational data.  This creates another timeline, the one we see in the movie.  This averts the destruction of the human race.  The new future humanity remembers Coop and Murph and realizes that in order to avoid a paradox they must send a wormhole and a time radio back in time for them to use.  At this point they could leave the past well enough alone or try to alter it again to be different than the events we saw in the movie.

This also provides a much better interpretation of the movie than that Coop and Murph are special and that future humanity needs Coop’s love of Murph to save humanity.  Instead, what we know is that future humanity creates a wormhole and a time radio.  They do this because they don’t know enough about the past to change it and instead give present humanity the tools to save itself.  Once present humanity starts creating time loops, future humanity is essentially locked out until they stop doing so.  Coop’s interpretation of events relayed in the black hole is then wrong, it was just chance that brought him there and the fact that all he sees is Murph’s bedroom is an extension of his own mind.  The rules of time radios inside of black holes are of course unknown, especially to Coop.  In this way we can ignore the terrible love motif.


Interstellar Review

It pains me a little to trash this movie as it actually has a lot of very good parts and it’s very mainstream for a science fiction movie trying not to be fantasy.  What is becoming abundantly clear is that Christopher Nolan has lost his way since The Dark Knight.  His movies are bloated, uneven and often a little boring.

Before I complain about plotholes and science, let’s talk about some of the more technical flaws of the movie.  Nolan once again seems to have no aesthetic sensibility.  This was clear in Inception where he did nothing visually interesting with the fact that the entire movie was set in someone’s head.  Space is ripe for some awe inspiring visuals and the characters here aren’t even stuck in our solar system so you could literally do anything.  However, none of the imagery of the movie is going to stay with you because Nolan seems content to just leave his camera on the characters.  This might have been less noticeable if we didn’t have Gravity a year earlier taking just an orbit around Earth and making space seem vast and engulfing.

The sound effects and music were too loud compared to dialogue and apparently that isn’t just my opinion, but a fairly common comment on the internet.  The music itself is very organ heavy and inspired by 2001, i.e. it’s not doing much of anything new or innovative.  But by its omnipresence and volume it actually intrudes into the viewing experience.  Any time I actually notice the music you are doing it wrong, and that music was constantly getting on my nerves, oftentimes just because dramatic organs don’t fit every type of scene, but that is all we get here.

At an emotional level, this film works very well for the most part.  In particular, the drastic effects of relativity on a family were very well done and touching.  When the main character goes through 23 years of backlogged messages and sees his family growing up and giving up on him, it’s heartbreaking.  Even the breakdown of Matt Damon’s character is fairly convincing, though underdeveloped in an already long movie.  The lone exception is the whole love motif, though I hesitate to call it that when Nolan bludgeons us with it.  First we get an absolutely cringe-inducing speech from Anne Hathaway’s character about love, universal connections and something that can’t be quantified by science.  Of course it’s the useless female character, a scientist no less, that has to make this emotional appeal.  Then this idea comes back at the completely nonsensical end.  Apparently this was not in the script 6 years ago when this project was started.  It sounds like something recent Nolan would cook up, because it fits his recent movies that also favor forthright attempts at meaning and philosophy rather than using subtext and subtlety to convey them.  Whoever was responsible we will never know, but it was a really stupid idea.

With that out of the way, lets talk about the plot and the science fiction, so the following assumes you have seen the film.  Now, I have no problems with fantasy scifi like Star Wars and even Star Trek.  Right now I am watching Eureka which cares little for the facts of science most of the time.  Which is great, until they get close enough to science that it tweaks the scientist in me.  Usually the problem is merely that there was no need to butcher the science to get the desired outcome, but they did anyway.  You just know they have a science consultant too, so why take the liberties when you don’ have to?  I guess there aren’t many of us who will ever catch the problems.

So here is a list of crap that bugged me.  When they leave Earth to go through the wormhole they take a multistage rocket.  However, later they leave planets with higher gravity than Earth using just their futuristic Ranger craft.  This is like if the NASA space shuttle could take off like an airplane and reach orbit.  It was a jarring inconsistency to me, but required to make the film work.  However, if you have that technology, you could probably save most of humanity pretty easily, there would be no need for this “gravity” equation that Michael Caine’s character claims he needs.  Speaking of which, why did Matthew McConaughey’s daughter in the film, Murph, need to unite quantum mechanics and gravity in order to save humanity?  At the end of the film humanity has done nothing more than build a space station around Saturn and near the wormhole, not even colonizing the other side.  But if you can build a space station that large then you can save humanity without quantum gravity.  Don’t even get me started on how you fund NASA “secretly” on a devastated Earth that can’t feed itself.  Also why did they just leave Hathaway in the wormhole for decades by herself?  The ending of the movie suggests a lone person in a spacecraft could have contacted her at any time, but humanity seems to enjoy sitting on its butt in their new space station too much.

The treatment of relativity is also extremely shifty.  One planet they want to check out would require time dilation such that one hour for them would be seven years on Earth.  This suggests the planet is very near the event horizon of the black hole and I mean strikingly close.  This causes a lot of technical issues, such as how to descend to the planet and then leave.  Worse, how did they receive any communication from the planet considering the massive red shift of light this implies.  The characters posit that you could somehow stay unaffected by time dilation by staying above a certain radius, but time dilation is a continuous phenomena, it doesn’t just stop.  How did nobody realize the implications of the time dilation on the veracity of the information coming from the planet’s surface?  At the end they are going to throw a probe into the black hole and just hope it can send data out against all known laws of physics.  All of this is particularly appalling because Kip Thorne, who literally the wrote the book on gravitation, was an executive producer for the film.  I do give it credit for the accurate depiction of falling into a black hole.  It would be no different than any other falling until the tidal forces ripped you apart.  However, I don’t believe you would find your daughter’s library shelf at the center.

Finally, why did future humanity need Matthew McConaughey’s character to send a message to his daughter?  Oh right “love.”  This was perhaps the most ridiculous thing in the entire movie until the next moment when he sends observational data of a black hole via Morse code on a broken watch.  The bit rate of Morse code has to be approximately a Hz, but we are talking at least a megabyte of data if I were being extremely generous by which I mean really funny because no it’s probably orders of magnitude more.  But lets say it is.  It would take 80 days, with no breaks, of tapping out code and reading it.  This was not depicted in the movie for sure.

Still I have to give the title of worst moment in the movie to Hathaway’s love speech, followed by the quick explanation that love is needed to reach Murph with the observational data and that is why humanity tampers with time to bring her father into a black hole.  Yeah, that makes a ton of sense.  Anyways, my next post will be about the time travel paradoxes.  I should point out that for the most part the movie is engaging for its entire running time, but the bottom line is that never ascends to greatness.  It’s a workman-like project with a big budget it doesn’t use well.

Evaluating Materials for Cooking

Serious Eats has run numerous articles about the effectiveness of materials for various cooking purposes; in particular, woks and baking pizzas.  I find their analysis usually very close to correct, but not quite.  Thus, I am going to write a somewhat technical piece on my understanding.

Now there are three types of typical heating: convection, conduction and radiation.  The former is mostly irrelevant for cooking.  Convection is the transfer of energy by fluid flow, but in most cooking applications there is very little exchange of fluids.  The exception might be deep frying as hot oil penetrates and cold water leaves, but I don’t yet know enough about deep frying.  Convection ovens are technically speeding up conduction because they make sure there is hot air continually close to the food.

That leaves conduction and radiation as the major sources for cooking your food.  Lets tackle the first.  Obviously the conductivity of your cooking material is important for conduction, as the name would imply.  However, how it factors in appears a bit vague to most people.  It’s effect is better encapsulated by the thermal diffusivity and the thermal effusivity.

The thermal diffusivity measures how quickly a volume of material will reach thermal equilibrium or in other words how fast the entire thing will reach the same cooking temperature.  The thermal diffusivity is proportional to conductivity, because we expect energy to be transmitted throughout the material quickly with higher conductivity, and inversely proportional to the volumetric heat capacity (the amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of a unit volume of the material) because higher heat capacity means it takes more energy to heat up.  However, this term is relatively trivial for most cooking if you are preheating your pan.  It just affects how long you have to wait.  The exception here is probably baked goods where the vessel containing your goods starts at room temperature with your food.  Conveniently, we usually bake in aluminum which has a relatively high diffusivity.

Conductivity also enters into the thermal effusivity.  This is a measure of how easily a material exchanges energy with another material with which it is in contact, i.e. our food and the cooking surface.  It is proportional to conductivity and volumetric heat capacity.  The typical example is touching metal surfaces and how they “feel” cold.  Your body sense energy fluxes or transfers, not temperatures, and so the high effusivity of metal, it’s ability to leech energy from your skin, makes it feel cold.  Metals have high effusivity because they conduct well, obviously, but also because they have high heat capacity which means they can suck or spew out a lot of energy without changing temperature much and the difference in temperature of two objects is also a major factor in energy transfer.

When it comes to food what we need to do is compare the effusivity of the food to that of our cooking surface.  This can then be used to compute the temperature at the surface of contact.  At that point the problem is governed by the heat equation, an equation that basically tells you how the bulk of a material heats up if one side is at a given temperature and is based on the conductivity of the food, not your cooking surface.  The thing is, the effusivity of your typical cooking surface vastly exceeds that of your food.  Water probably contributes most to the effusivity of your food and even it has an effusivity 20 times lower than your typical cooking metal such as aluminum.  Thus to a first approximation the contact surface is the temperature of your cooking surface, regardless of your material.

So did I write all that out to say that your cooking material does not matter?  Well I am ignoring one thing which is the actual heat capacity of your cooking surface.  The above is only true if adding food to your surface does not appreciably alter the temperature of said surface.  This is why people use hefty cast iron because it has a high thermal mass so once you preheat it the addition of food barely lowers its temperature.  So cast iron is best, yes?  Actually, if you look at the volumetric heat capacity, the product of the specific heat capacity and the density, all of your typical cooking materials are about the same.  It’s just that for some reason they make cast iron pots and pans much thicker than pots and pans of other materials.  The outcast here is actually aluminum.  It has twice the specific heat, but a third of the density.  This means you need a pan that is 1.5 times as thick as other materials to get the same heat capacity.  The flip side is that said pan will actually weigh half as much as the pans made of other materials.  Thus, in the ideal world we would all be using thick, but light, aluminum cookware.

Finally, a quick word on radiative heating.  This is actually a very important source of heating that seems highly neglected.  Your broiler mostly cooks via radiation and we know how quickly they can work.  Anyone that has done a lot of baking can tell you that dark pans bake goods significantly faster than light pans.  This is because dark pans absorb radiation easily, thus heating up faster, and emit more radiation at a given temperature than a light surface.  Usually this is given by the emissivity or absorptivity which quantifies how much the material is like a true black body that absorbs all incoming radiation, with a factor of 1 meaning it is a true black body.  Radiative heating can warm the interior of food faster than conductive heating, which must start from the contact surface, because it can actually penetrate the surface before being absorbed.  Unfortunately, information is not readily available for me actually quantify the approximate ratio of conductive to radiative heating when cooking food.  In terms of cooking technique, tasty reactions like the Maillard reaction that occurs when browning food is due to conduction whereas radiation cooks like a microwave.  Still, if you want to cook more quickly, then go with dark cookware.  If you want more even heating, such as with baking, a light pan will make sure the exterior does not burn before the interior is finished.

A few other considerations are needed as well.  One, thick aluminum is not readily available despite being a relatively cheap material.  Secondly, aluminum is highly reactive and should thus be clad in some other material of lower reactivity.  Lastly, sometimes you have specialized needs that aren’t covered by the criteria above.  For instance, maybe you would rather have a wok that reacts much more quickly to changes in heat (like taking the wok off the burner for a moment), then you would not want a high heat capacity wok.