The Generation Incapable of Seriuosness

For years, there have been warning signs that the younger generations are slowly losing their capacity for taking the world seriously. As time marches on, the media decays, and social discourse degenerates into a discussion of which cell phone is the best, which pop star is the most attractive, and which television show is more entertaining, the young are losing their ability to connect with or take seriously anything in their world.

I began to notice this a few years back, when I was in high school. As I rose through the ranks, from freshman, to sophomore, to junior, to senior, I gained the ability to “look back” as it were, at the younger students, to see just what the new generation of freshmen were like. I was appalled.

Something went wrong somewhere between my generation and the one three or four years younger. While I don’t claim that my generation had many noble qualities, it certainly seems that, on average, the younger one is much worse. For one thing, they all think so highly of themselves. Their egos are more inflated even than some of the athletes and pop artists that they idolize. They stride around in faddish, popular, and ludicrously expensive clothes, as if somehow their participation in mainstream consumer culture has given them the right to whatever they ask for.

The second thing I noticed about these young whippersnappers was the increasing proportion of “class clown” types among them. These are young people who not only can take a joke, but can take it so well that they don’t seem to be capable of anything else. Nothing they say can be taken seriously, and they walk around talking jokingly about everything, in their annoyingly sarcastic and matter-of-fact tones of voice.

Now, normally, I’d welcome such levity; I think that my generation and the older ones are, on the whole, in serious need of such levity. I’d welcome the refreshing lack of gravity in everything they talk about, if it did not betray such a rapidly degrading society. These youngsters don’t take anything seriously because everything is a fantasy to them. They’ve bought into, in a big way, the delusion that if they fix their hair properly, buy the perfect clothes, drive the best car, and date the most popular person, that their life will gain meaning and purpose immediately, and that everything will work out. While many in my generation have been permeated for much of their lives by the lies and false promises of the media, these younger folks have been basted in it for their entire lives. Not one waking moment has been spent without a talking box in the room challenging independent thought. Not one waking moment has been spent asking the question “Does the media really portray the world as it is?” Not one moment. This is not innocent capitalism. This is indoctrination.

Take a look at your average television commercial. Look at its gauzy, glossy, rococco illusions. Watch unrealistically proportioned, silicone-fortified, cosmetically-enhanced, over-dressed, superficial drones milling around, promoting low-quality, overpriced garbage that nobody would buy if the artificial need were not created. Look at how many of them are trying to create a need for products that nobody wants, nobody needs, and that are actually often dangerous. With all this in mind, consider this horrifying idea: the young people just a generation behind me see these commercials, and believe in them. They believe that the world should actually be like this: superficial and meaningless, based on transient consumer commodities with no real value. It’s no wonder they don’t take anything seriously.

Unreality

I read an argument some years ago explaining why it is highly likely that we human beings are living in a computer simulation. It was quite elegant, and I felt compelled to share it here. It goes something like this:

If it is possible to create a simulation of a universe with sufficient complexity to eventually contain conscious observers, then  it is highly likely that other such simulations will be built in the original universe. Even if they are not, simulations will be built within the simulated universe. Then, the original universe applies recursively to each level of simulation, until a level is reached where the simulation cannot be complex enough to contain conscious observers (this is inevitable, since any simulated universe must be less complex than the universe in which it is simulated: if you assigned one bit to each particle in the universe, the simulated universe would still only be as large as the original universe itself, setting an upper bound on its size). Still, provided a single initial starting universe, the number of simulated universes will far outnumber that of real ones, so the probability is highest that we, as conscious observers, exist in such a simulation. (Think about somebody dropped into a random universe. Which universe would they most likely find themselves in?)

There are, however, a few cases where this argument does not hold.

  1. If it is not possible for a universe to be simulated in a manner complex enough to allow for conscious observers to develop within it.
  2. Nobody ever builds a simulation in the first place.
  3. We are living in a multiverse. If there is more than one universe, then most theories hold that there will be an infinite number. Since an infinite number of simulated universes is possible in such a situation, but there is also an infinite number of universes, the maximum probability that we are living in a simulation should be (should, but I’m not great with transfinite mathematics) fifty percent.

Think about it.

Superstar: VY Canis Majoris

Now, usually in this little blog, I prefer to report the most current scientific news I can find. But I have discovered something that so shocked me that I had to talk about it, old news as it may be.

While I was wandering about on the internet, I ran across a computer-generated video that lined up all of the larger bodies in the solar system, starting from Pluto. It panned and zoomed across the line, progressing to Earth, then to Saturn, Jupiter, the sun, and so on. I was thunderstruck by the tiny scale of the sun compared to the giant star Antares. But what really knocked my socks off was the grandeur of the star VV Cephei, which was so large that the low resolution of the video actually made the sun invisible when the camera was zoomed out far enough to see all of the star. A quick consultation with Wikipedia revealed that VV Cephei, while enormous, is not actually the largest star. The red hypergiant VY Canis Majoris is actually a full ten percent larger than that!

Always having been a fan of scale comparisons, I brought up Blender immediately (Blender is by far the coolest piece of free software I’ve ever seen. It’s an open-source 3D modeling and rendering engine, and it rivals or beats anything else I’ve seen on the market. You can learn more here, if you feel so inclined.) I’ve found Blender very handy for this, since you can enter an exact numerical scaling factor when resizing an object. So I created a sphere to represent the Sun, and a sphere to represent VY Canis Majoris (which is 2100 times larger). This was the result:

Click here for a larger version of this image.

The Sun is that little yellow blotch. The enormous red one is VY Canis Majoris. The sun compared to this giant among stars is, to me, like the height of Mount Everest compared to the Earth on which it sits.

Once in a blue moon, the universe still amazes me…

More Movie Land

In Movie Land…

  • … somehow, somewhere, the tables will turn, no matter how implausible this is.
  • … the hero will either be: a cold and distant “damaged” sort, an introvert with a heart of gold, or an extremely “cool cat.”
  • … the heroine will either be: cold and distant, continually mourning her dead husband, or a sex object.
  • … somebody will own a motorcycle.
  • … everybody is a grade-A marksman.
  • … even the most clichéd one-liners are treated as profound statements.
  • … if there is glass, somebody will be thrown through it, fall through it, shoot through it, or explode it. No exceptions.
  • … a long series of pans across a lovely, bustling city guarantees its destruction.
  • … a happy exterior masks a dark secret.
  • … in a war, one side’s soldiers are human, and the other side’s soldiers are disposable, inhuman drones commanded by someone who doesn’t care about them.
  • … fire leads to explosion. No exceptions.
  • … even supposed “human-level” robots are nowhere near human level, and despite recent advances in artificial intelligence, we’re apparently still supposed to believe that they are totally logical and emotionless.
  • … someone with brain damage is never cognitively impaired. In fact, they often gain a special talent.
  • … despite the laws of physics, you can hear everything in space.
  • … stars and planets are much larger and closer together than they should be.
  • … all stars are roiling balls of activity. Solar flares are constant. This is especially true of stars around which orbit “habitable” planets.
  • … some saccharine life-saving gesture will be repaid heartwarmingly later. No exceptions.
  • … nine times out of ten, somebody, usually female, will say “Do you think you can handle it?”
  • … people have no convictions about having a conversation whilst shooting high-powered weapons. Actually, the danger lurking all around them seems to make them even witter than usual.
  • … vampires are young, attractive, and overwhelmingly female. No exceptions.
  • … wizards are old men. No exceptions.
  • … if a large structure is depicted from the ground, at some point in the movie, that same structure will probably be seen collapsing in slow motion.
  • … when the above structure collapses, no matter what had been stored there, it will all explode or go up in flames.
  • … the climax of the movie is always an explosion. Even if the movie is underwater, in space, or in another such environment not conducive to explosions.
  • … the pyrotechnics guy is a pyromaniac. Thus, fire will be used wherever possible, especially if explosives are not available.
  • … if there is a puddle of gasoline, it will be ignited somehow.
  • … a small town is dangerous in some way.
  • … an abandoned small town is a deathtrap.
  • … a young, happy couple shown early in the movie and who never undergo any character development are about to meet a very grisly demise. You can usually bet that they will be eaten by something.
  • … an asteroid will be stopped at the last minute, no matter how unlikely.
  • … no matter how bad the apocalypse, a post-apocalyptic movie will always feature at least one really well-organized faction.
  • … no matter the circumstances, if a female character demonstrates a proficiency with any sort of weapon, the hero will be amazed.
  • … most heroes are sexist misogynistic “love ’em and leave ’em” types.
  • … as the heroes are leaving after the loving, they will either look mournfully to the right side of the screen or deliver a witty one-liner.
  • … the villain always, through sheer stupidity, or out of a desire to taunt the hero, leaves a trail of clues that can be followed using sufficient logic. No information is ever missing or misleading. Ever.
  • … one plot twist is the legal maximum. Offenders are labeled “indie” films and shelved at the back of the store.
  • … either everybody is who they seem to be, or nobody is.
  • … if you are persistent enough, you can defeat any number of enemies, as long as you are rugged, good-looking, and the enemies have a tendency to stand near explosive barrels, or under flimsy catwalks.
  • … if a character is above a vat of some lethal chemical, he or she will fall in somehow, unless he or she is the hero, in which case he or she will toss a lot of other people in.
  • … truckers tend to fall asleep just as a protagonist’s car is coming around the corner in the opposite lane. They also tend to swerve the moment they nod off.
  • … if a tractor-trailer crashes, it will fall off a cliff. Even if there are no cliffs nearby.
  • … if you can only see the “dead” villain’s hand, it will twitch, signifying that he or she is alive.
  • … the battle between hero and villain goes like this: hero fights villain. They’re equal for a while. Villain deploys clever trick. Hero is nearly defeated but fights back. Villain downs hero. Hero appears dead. Hero gets up triumphantly, calls on the power of The Force (or some other such generic “inner strength”), and defeats the villain in a single blow. Optional: the villain’s hand twitches and he or she stands, possibly killing someone the hero loves. The anger give the hero the strength to kill the villain.
  • … a woman with a British accent is always tall, blonde, and attractive. A man with a British accent is either a “cool cat,” or a grizzled, sarcastic, sardonic supporting character.
  • … the protagonist never has an accent, unless that accent is British.
  • … all the scientists are late-middle-aged white males, unless they are suspiciously young, blonde supermodel types.
  • … the Doomsday Machine is always powerful and impressive, never subtle and hard-to-find.
  • … you can get very close to a nuclear reactor with no ill effects.
  • … if a building collapses on the hero, he or she will emerge just after everybody writes them off. They will be dusty, but otherwise unhurt. They usually emerge from a fortuitously-placed piece of debris.
  • … hiding in a closet only guarantees that the Evil Henchman will have to circle the room a few times before dramatically plunging his or her fists through the wall. It doesn’t provide any actual shelter.
  • … all closets are equipped with slat doors to look through. No exceptions.
  • … the crack under any normal door is always big enough for dramatic shadows to flit across it. The illumination is, of course, always suitable to allow this.
  • … if the heroes are worn down after a long firefight, one of them will eventually glance over the top of a chunk of debris, drop down suddenly, and say some variation of “There’s way too many! We can’t go in there.” The protagonist will then proceed to go in there.
  • … the hero owns a motorcycle. Or, if he/she doesn’t, they will steal one, no matter how many other vehicles are available.
  • … heroes and villains have a tendency to steal cellular phones from men in business suits who are crossing the street. These men then proceed to point ineffectually, shake their fists, and yell “Hey! That’s my phone!” They then proceed to stand there, not doing anything about it.
  • … the Final Confrontation always takes place in an area free of civilians who might get underfoot.
  • … the Doomsday Device can always be stopped and started from one single button/key/etc.
  • … the head of a multi-national corporation is always evil.
  • … the little guy is always better than the big guy.
  • … if you dive screaming into a horde of enemies, the universe graciously goes into slow motion so others can watch in awe.
  • … nobody ever sees the body being put into the body bag. You either see the bag being zipped up, or you see it once it’s already been closed.
  • … though they have a tendency to peek under the bloodstained white sheet at a grisly murder, no detective ever yells “Oh my God! That’s disgusting!” and vomits.
  • … somebody who has an outlandish theory (usually about a coming disaster or something about that nature) and is ridiculed for it by his colleagues will be vindicated in the end. No exceptions.
  • … a hero’s companion who has supposedly been converted to the dark side, will always come back in the end, usually right before sacrificing themselves to free the hero.
  • … the hero is almost invariably a very acrobatic person. They usually also have martial-arts training.
  • … despite the obvious disadvantages, the hero always matches the villain’s weapon: even if a gun is available, the hero will keep fighting with that trusty sword. And win. No matter what.

More later.

Movie Land

In the same vein as my “TV Land” post, here is the world described in Hollywood films. In Movie Land…

  • … if a black person is present, he or she will inevitably die first.
  • … in the absence of a black person, or after they have departed, any person with glasses will die immediately.
  • … if the room is dark and silent, somebody is going to die.
  • … if a silence is followed by an absentminded moment of relief, somebody is going to die.
  • … a shadow dropping from the ceiling is a surefire predictor of death.
  • … fire leads immediately to explosion. No exceptions.
  • … at least one car will explode at some time during the movie.
  • … the female companion of the villain will, somehow, some way, defect to the hero’s side.
  • … the hero will survive. Even if he is tossed out into the void of space, somehow, he or she will survive.
  • … somebody who coughs has a terrible disease, and will be dead within minutes.
  • … anybody who discovers an ancient artifact will immediately investigate it. They will subsequently die.
  • … the person who makes clever quips throughout the beginning of the movie will either be killed heartbreakingly, or become the comic relief.
  • … if the two focal characters are of opposite sexes, they will have at least one make-out scene, and probably a sex scene.
  • … a projectile depicted in slow motion always finds its mark.
  • … a one-liner is always a precursor to victory. No exceptions.
  • … the more risky a driver you are, the less chance anything bad will actually happen to you.
  • … if a spacecraft is punctured, a low-ranking person will be ejected into space.
  • … an ominous but seemingly empty planet contains some sort of bizarre killer being that’s been waiting for 2,000 years. Always.
  • … an evil villain who pretends to spare some poor weakling will kill him in short order.
  • … a religious person who has lost their faith will regain it by the end of the film.
  • … a cold, introverted, uncaring sort’s heart will be melted by the end of the film.
  • … a cold woman will defrost by the end of the film, in a big way. She usually ends up having a love scene with the hero.
  • … children are never killed, but are instead used to inspire fear and suspense that they might be killed.
  • … if a police officer catches up with the hero (or villain) during a chase, that officer will be killed before pursuing legal action. Heroes and villains do not get speeding tickets.
  • … if the camera is focused on the starter as someone turns the key, a car bomb is about to explode.
  • … a person admitted into the hospital in critical condition either recovers remarkably quickly (their eyes usually snap open at the end of the film), or they flatline while the hero is present.
  • … CPR either drags out endlessly or saves the recipient at the last possible moment.
  • … zombies cannot use weapons. No exceptions.
  • … alien creatures either speak English (often unaccented), or they speak in primal, indecipherable growls.
  • … anybody who goes to “check anything out,” will be dead quickly.
  • … a savant-ish person will either find a great use for their talent or they will become sociable by the end of the film.
  • … if it’s unlikely, if it’s foolish, if it makes no sense, if it’s implausible, if it has no bearing on the plot, it is certain to happen at least once.

More on this later…movies are definitely a more fertile ground for this than TV.

The House Comes Through

The other day, I was, as usual, listening to NPR, and somebody mentioned something off-hand that caught my attention. This February, a committee of the United States House of Representatives approved a bill that would ban any kind of discrimination based on genetics. This, to me, is a step in the right direction, and sets back what looked like a truly terrible misuse of science.

Here’s the problem: with genetic screening for common diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and cystic fibrosis becoming cheaper, more accurate, and more widespread, the insurance companies are faced with a veritable gold mine: they can insure only people who are at little or no risk of getting any of these diseases, so that less of “their” profits go towards treating people. This is clearly an ethical dilemma. Just because these people are stricken with diseases doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to medical care, and the right to live the most normal lives they can. Many have argued that something must be done about the steadily increasing possibility of such discrimination.

Enter the United States government. I never thought I’d be able to use that phrase: back when the Republicans controlled the Congress, they never passed the bills I wanted to see passed, and ever since the Democrats took over, it doesn’t seem they’ve passed much of anything. Well, assuming this bill passes, they’re coming through at last! Of course, given the Congress’s tendency to obsess about a few high-profile issues to the exclusion of all others, my hope may be premature…

First Youtube; Wikipedia’s Next

The other day, I found a need to measure the distance between Japan and California, as part of a story I’m writing. For this purpose, I employed Google Earth (which is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive pieces of software that Google has ever produced). After I’d gotten the measurement, I amused myself for a few minutes scrolling around, having a look at tiny Arctic islands and such, when I began to notice a smattering of little Wikipedia icons all over the map. I clicked on one of them, and was taken to a Wikipedia article about that particular island. This inspired in me a dreadful concern for the future of Wikipedia. Will the beloved “peoples’ encyclopedia” soon succumb to the same fate as Youtube?

Regular readers will recall that my dire predictions of the fate of Youtube’s free content after Google acquired the site largely came true. Now, with Google cuddling up to Wikipedia as well, does the same thing lie in Wikipedia’s future? Now, I’ve got nothing against Google as an idea, Google as an entity, but Google is a corporation, and is thus bound by the corporate constraints of intellectual property and copyrights. Should my paranoias be borne out, what will become of Wikipedia’s open and free content? That’s always been a fear of mine on some level, that Wikipedia could be corrupted by some corporation, and reduced to nothing more than a standard e-Encyclopedia.

As usual, just more food for thought…and I really hope this particular concern proves to be unfounded…

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