Saturday, January 31, 2009

Newsweek drops the ball

What the hell, Newsweek. You act like you want to be taken as a serious journalistic source for, you know, news. And yet you go publishing this utter nonsense about a supposed re-emergence of Lamarckist theory?

The short version of Lamarckist theory is that it is "evolution via acquired traits." The article gives a good example of the theory, which is that giraffe's necks got longer because short-necked giraffes stretched their necks to reach the trees, and their offspring were born with the longer necks. This is tantamount to claiming that if a very light-skinned person spends a lot of time in the sun and gets tan, he or she will have tan-skinned offspring. The theory is obviously absurd to us today, but before Darwin hit on natural selection, the jury was still out on how exactly evolution took place (although the fact that it did take place was not generally under dispute).

The explanation of Lamarckism is about the only thing this article gets right.

First of all, what the hell is this Sharon Begley character doing writing Newsweek's science articles? A glance at other articles to her credit include "Can God Love Darwin, Too?" and "Science Finds God." I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

She starts this article with the following:

Alas, poor Darwin. By all rights, 2009 should be his year, as books, museums and scholarly conclaves celebrate his 200th birthday (Feb. 12) and the 150th anniversary of "On the Origin of Species" (Nov. 24), the book that changed forever how man views himself and the creation.

That's right. Not the universe. The "creation."

Oh, but it gets better. From Begley's biography:

Sharon Begley, widely known for her ability to break down complex scientific theories and write about them in simple prose, returned to Newsweek in March 2007 from the Wall Street Journal, where she wrote the "Science Journal" column for five years.

This woman is supposed to be an actual science writer. It would seem that by "breaking down complex scientific theories," the writer of this biography (no doubt Begley herself) means "completely misunderstanding and misrepresenting complex scientific theories, so that they can be explained simply and reach the conclusion she desires."

Though granted, I'm only going off one abysmal article. Maybe her others do better, but I haven't read them so I can't address them. Let's talk about the current article.

Some water fleas sport a spiny helmet that deters predators; others, with identical DNA sequences, have bare heads. What differs between the two is not their genes but their mothers' experiences. If mom had a run-in with predators, her offspring have helmets, an effect one wag called "bite the mother, fight the daughter." If mom lived her life unthreatened, her offspring have no helmets. Same DNA, different traits. Somehow, the experience of the mother, not only her DNA sequences, has been transmitted to her offspring.

Second paragraph in, and already she's got so much wrong. Only the mother's DNA sequences are transmitted to her offspring. Her experiences affect the expression of those DNA sequences. Ms. Begley, science writer extraordinaire, seems not to grasp the fundamental difference between a phenotype, and a genotype.

I'm not a programmer, so I can't put this into an actual programming language like a clever blogger, but the developmental process we're talking about basically works like this:

-if CIRCUMSTANCE B is present, express TRAIT A
-if CIRCUMSTANCE B is not present, do not express TRAIT A

That's the very very very simplified version of what we're dealing with here. Begley's article makes it sound like if a water flea's mother is in threatening circumstances, the offspring is spontaneously born with a spiny helmet, apropo of nothing as far as the DNA is concerned.

But the truth of the matter is quite different: the gene for the spiny helmet (TRAIT A) exists in every water flea. It is part of the genotype of that organism. The ones whose mothers were not put in a threatening situation (CIRCUMSTANCE B) simply did not express the trait, meaning that the organisms of the same genotype are of a different phenotype.

It is a well-known principle of gestational development that chemical triggers cause genetic traits to be expressed, or not. For one example, a chemical trigger applied to a human fetus at the right time will cause the fetus to express male traits, i.e. it makes a boy; if that chemical trigger is not applied, the fetus will develop to be a baby girl.1

It is also well-known that environmental factors can affect both the gametes of an organism, and the development of offspring even after the egg has been fertilized. That's why you shouldn't smoke or drink during pregnancy: it screws up the chemical processes of the body, and as the fetus develops, some important functions may never be triggered on; or some traits that ought to stay off get turned on.

I really shouldn't keep using code analogies since I'm not a programmer, but here goes: Since evolution has been a blind process, extraneous information has not necessarily been culled from the genome to keep things tidy. Each version of the software has added or altered code as needed, but not necessarily subtracted if not needed, only made it inactive. There's a lot of legacy code in our genes, some of which can be very harmful if it is re-activated.

All that to say that the existence of a life-threatening situation simply results in a particular chemical trigger that kicks in during some water fleas' gestational development, causing them to express different traits than water fleas without that chemical trigger.

It is not a level of science that is outside the understanding of a layperson, and certainly not an observation that gives those who accept Darwinian evolution "heart palpitations" as she claims. If a human woman experiences a great deal of stress during pregnancy it can affect the child's development, too. This is no different in principle, the only difference is that the water flea genome has a contingency trait should that situation arise (TRAIT A for CIRCUMSTANCE B).

Begley makes another example about the diets of pregnant mice affecting traits in their offspring, by altering the DNA of their eggs (gametes). Begley "emphasizes" that "this is not a mutation," and Begley is frankly stupid to do so. Of course this is a mutation. The alteration of DNA is the definition of genetic mutation.

Let me emphasize something in my own turn: what she is talking about are not acquired traits. The mother flea does not get a spiny helmet from somewhere else and pass that onto her kids. The mother rat does not turn brown and pass that onto her kids. They undergo experiences which alter the development of their offspring, either at the DNA level or during key stages in development, to express dormant or recessive traits. That is just standard genetics. Nothing new or revolutionary here at all.

So let's skip right to the end here:

The existence of this parallel means of inheritance, in which something a parent experiences alters the DNA he or she passes on to children, suggests that evolution might happen much faster than the Darwinian model implies. "Darwinian evolution is quite slow," says Whitelaw. But if children can inherit DNA that bears the physical marks of their parents' experiences, they are likely to be much better adapted to the world they're born into, all in a single generation. Water fleas pop out helmets immediately if mom lived in a world of predators; by Darwin's lights, a population of helmeted fleas would take many generations to emerge through random variation and natural selection.

It's true that natural selection usually moves fairly slowly. The point, which anyone with even a passing understanding of evolution would manage to grasp, is that those many generations to create the genetic code for helmeted fleas have already occurred, leaving us with the water fleas as we observe them today. The helmets are not a new trait, they are an existing trait that is either expressed or not.

It is certainly interesting that they developed in such a way that allows environmental factors to inform the expression of the trait, rather than just automatically having all water fleas be helmeted. But this is in no way an affront to the theory of evolution via natural selection, and is in fact easily accounted for as a positive survival adaptation. The fact that this article attempts to make it sound like it could invalidate or undermine the theory is not only sensationalism, it's just plain bad science, and Newsweek should be ashamed.

  1. The human Y chromosome is a modified X chromosome. This throws something of a wrench into the arguments of those creationists who would claim that scientific discoveries are only proving information that has always been in the Bible. Gestational development indicates that Adam, in fact, comes from Eve.

Friday, January 30, 2009 working again

Sorry to those of you who took my advice and updated your bookmarks only to find yourself 404'd. There was a problem with my account at 1and1 and it took a few days to fix. All good now!

Monday, January 26, 2009

I heart Scrivener

I’m a fairly disorganized person by my nature. I’m easily distracted — though I’ve never been formally diagnosed, I’m fairly certain I have ADD. My thought patterns will often skip from one thing to the next, and sometimes it can be hard to focus in.

I personally think a little mental anarchy can be good for creativity. I think it allows you to make unique and interesting connections, to synthesize old ideas into new in surprising ways (sometimes surprising even to myself, for my part). But at the same time, it’s hard to sit down and actually put things together one after the other; worse yet, it’s sometimes hard for me to keep track of where I keep all my ideas.

I have dozens of spiral notebooks and idea journals with only a few pages written upon apiece. I keep trying to get in the habit of carrying a notepad with me for when inspiration strikes, but ultimately that only results in barely-used notepads being left all over the place. I have a lot of ideas that I want to help shepherd into fully-fledged stories, but often I’ll completely forget them until I stumble across a notebook during a move or a cleaning binge. (Such a discovery will usually result in the end of said binge, as I suddenly become involved with the idea again.) Or I’ll have a great idea for a story moment that I totally forget about, but later I come across it and wonder how it’s possible to forget it since it was the solution to a major story problem.

There’s also the matter of organization. Even once I’ve got all the ideas and I think the story is there somewhere, I have a lot of trouble putting the pieces together. Like the notebooks and journals, I can’t count how many stacks of index cards I’ve bought, thinking I’d write down scenes and pin them to a corkboard and shuffle them around until the goddamn thing made sense, just like the real writers do. (I’ve even bought a corkboard, still in near-mint condition.)

But I don’t like writing by hand. It’s too slow, too clumsy. I’ve been using computers since I was three years old (and happy 25th, Apple!), I type WAY faster than I can write by hand. Cursive never took and my attempts to write that way are sheer chaos. So I prefer to work at a keyboard.

I’ve tried lots of writing tools, the ones that do the digital index cards, the ones that are supposed to help you plot the whole damn thing and have it practically ready to print when you’re done, and when it comes to writing software — really, when it comes to any software — the best program is the one that gets the hell out of your way and facilitates what you want to do. To date, the only specialized writing software I’ve really found worthwhile beyond Microsoft Word (though I’m now using Pages, it’s essentially the same thing) has been Final Draft.

I’ve been a user since Version 3, and I just love FD. Its attempts to add fancy feature sets have been spotty. The “reports” it generates can be useful, but the included auxiliary program, Final Draft Tagger, is so buggy and unreliable as to render it totally useless. But the software’s raison d’ĂȘtre, which is to conform your writing to accepted industry screenplay format, is a workhorse that never lets me down.

More importantly, for me, it’s functionally transparent. I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to pull down a menu item, I don’t even have to use hotkeys. If I’m not typing words, I’m either using ENTER to move to the next line, or TAB to change the input type (from “Action” to “Character,” for example, or “dialogue” to “parenthetical”). I forget that the software is there, and I just write.

A few months ago, some folks on Twitter started raving about a program called Scrivener. I checked out the webpage and wasn’t really convinced. To me it looked like just another word processor with a few extra but largely unnecessary features. Between Word/Pages and Final Draft, I figured I had it covered. I wasn’t sure I saw the benefit of a lot of the features, especially a “full-screen mode,” the prominent advertisement of which I found somewhat inexplicable. But people kept taking up the recommendation, trying it out, and raving and recommending it themselves, so I figured I might as well check the thing out.

Even after downloading, I sat on the demo for several weeks before yet more people’s positive tweets compelled me to sit down and go through the software tutorial, which walks you through the feature set and gives you a sense of what Scrivener can do.

Immediately after I finished the tutorial, I paid my $40 to get the full license — I still had 29 more days of the demo1, but I knew it was $40 well-spent. That was two days ago, and now here I am, coming full circle to recommend it to my fellow (Mac-based) writers out there.

And here’s why.

Scrivener is, in fact, not a word processor. It is actually a database management tool disguised as a word processor. Within Scrivener you can create multiple discrete documents — different chapters of a novel, or scenes of a screenplay, or each one can be a character bio, or each one just a little doodle of an idea — and you can view them together or separately, create as many as you want for whatever uses you want, all organized into folders as part of a “Draft.”

You can also import reference material such as images, video and audio files, even web pages. Once imported, they're kept locally within the Scrivener (".scriv") file, which means you can take the .scriv to any computer with Scrivener installed, and all your content will be there. You can choose to associate the reference material with certain documents or drafts — for example, Anthony likes to use certain songs as inspiration for certain scenes in his writing, so he could have the songs directly accessible from the relevant document. Likewise you can associate documents with one another, so that you can connect, say, a character bio to a scene including that character, in a sort of interconnected pseudo-Wiki to help you keep track of all your thoughts.

This all exists and is easily manipulated within the Scrivener interface, but if you look under the hood, the .scriv file is really an archive file, like a .zip, and Scrivener is the UI to dynamically adding, rearranging, and viewing the content within the archive. It does the work of creating a file structure and all of that behind the scenes, making the creation, addition, or connecting of content dynamic and creative rather than a lot of “housekeeping.”

I love that. I love that I can just throw everything I’ve got at Scrivener, and although it may be a bunch of different documents, different resources, it’s considered a single file by Scrivener, one which I can easily move around and be sure I'm not losing any of my work. I can shuffle and rework at will without worrying if I’ve forgotten something or buggered the organization, as I would do if I were maintaining the file structure myself.

One way Scrivener uses this to its advantage is with the “snapshots” feature, a smaller-scale version of OSX’s “Time Machine” function. If you’ve got a document that you want to try something new with, but you don’t want to lose your old version, you just create a “snapshot,” and you can call up or restore any snapshot at any time. You can have an effectively unlimited number of snapshots because in truth, the software is just doing an incremental save, and putting the older versions somewhere safe within the database. But from the point of view of the user, you can be sure you’re always working with the latest version, with the older versions right within reach. No more confusion over which version of the document is the most up-to-date.

Also, the fullscreen mode is, indeed, fantastic. As I said, I’m easily distracted, and while I’m writing it’s all too easy for me to go clicking on the Safari icon and checking my e-mail instead of getting the words down, or opening any other program and finding any other excuse. There’s so much on my computer I can be doing, I feel like I should be doing more things at any given moment.

So I set the fullscreen preferences in Scrivener to display green text on an otherwise black screen. The toolbar is invisible, as is the mouse arrow (unless I move it), and my fully-loaded laptop suddenly becomes a simple, old-school word processor.2 The psychological value of the visual simplicity is hard to describe, but try it and see if you don’t notice a difference in how much writing you can get done that way. I’ve actually written this whole post in Scrivener’s fullscreen mode, and enjoyed the experience tremendously.3

I’m not going to go into a full blow-by-blow of how to use the app, because there’s a tutorial for that. If you’re serious about writing, it will be well worth your while to download the free demo, and take 30 minutes or so to work along with the provided tutorial file, to get a sense of what Scrivener can do. Even try the demo for the 30 days before you make up your mind. I would guess you would quickly see how the program is worth your $40. For me, it's exactly what I've always needed.

  1. I discovered afterward that Scrivener's 30-day demo is "30 days of using the program." A day only counts toward the limit if you fire up the program on that day, rather than it counting 30 calendar days from first use. So if you only used Scrivener every other day, the demo lasts 60 calendar days, etc. So no need to worry about firing it up to have a play if you "won't have time" afterward -- unlike other software, the demo works around your schedule. And for the record, yes. I still would have bought the license on day 2 even if I had known.

  2. Fullscreen mode also has a “typewriter style” carriage return, in which the line of text you are currently editing is always in the middle of your screen, as opposed to most word processors where you write your way down to the bottom of the screen and stay there. It sounds like a small thing, but as with fullscreen mode in general, it’s surprising how much you appreciate it once you start rocking and rolling.

  3. There is another program which is just a word processor in fullscreen mode, called WriteRoom. WriteRoom's default scheme is the green on black, which is what compelled me to set up Scrivener the same way. If you just want the "distraction free" writing without all the other features of Scrivener, WriteRoom will get you there, although considering the pricing (WriteRoom goes for $24.95), I feel like the extra $15 for Scrivener is worth it. They're from different developers, as far as I can tell, so it's not as simple as upgrading if you change your mind.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Secular Sunday: The Case for a Creator: Chapter Three, Part 3

Picking up in Chapter Three, still in the Wells interview, we address “icon of evolution” number two: “Darwin’s Tree of Life.”

In brief, Wells makes the assertion that, while the ever-branching tree of life, where everything flows and diverges from a common ancestor, is a good representation of Darwin’s theory, it isn’t supported by the fossil record.

This is, in a word, a lie. Part of it is Wells’ denial that any “transitional forms” exist in the fossil record (but we’ll get to that when he starts in on archaeopetryx), and the other part of it is the Cambrian explosion:

"The Cambrian was a geological period that we think began a little more than 540 million years ago. The Cambrian Explosion has been called the 'Biological Big Bang' because it gave rise to the sudden appearance of most of the major animal phyla that are still alive today, as well as some that are now extinct." [page 43]

Okay, this part is admittedly not a flat-out lie. The issue is more in the presentation -- once again, he clearly expects people not to know and not to do any research.

The Cambrian has been called the Biological Big Bang, but unlike the Big Bang, it isn't theorized to have occured suddenly, at an instant in time. Wells, in using the word "sudden," makes it sound like it happened in a very brief period of time, but the Cambrian period is actually a period of about 80-90 million years. An eye-blink in geological time scales, sure; but in terms of the process of evolution, it's more than enough time for life forms to diversify.

He then states that it "gave rise to...most of the major animal phyla that are alive today." I think that he knows people will read "most of the major animal phyla" and understand it as "most of the animals."

Let's go back to high school science class, and scientific classification. The mnemonic device I learned was:


This is to help remember the scientific classifications in order, from the most general to the most specific:


See how far up "phylum" is? It's the second most general form of classification. Even today, with all the billions of named species, and billions more that are probably as yet undiscovered, you know how many phyla there are?

About thirty-five. So it's not really inconceivable that over the course of about 90 million years, life could diversify in a couple dozen ways for a start.1 Wells makes a true statement, but phrases it in such a way that it sounds like the current forms of life all popped up at once, fully formed (and if you think I'm putting words or intentions into his mouth, he makes his intentions very clear in following paragraphs, as you will see).

This is simply not the case. The forms of life that arose at that time were still very, very primitive.

Continuing his description, Wells says:

"[A]t the beginning of the Cambrian -- boom! -- all of a sudden, we see representatives of the arthropods, modern representatives of which are insects, crabs, and the like; echinoderms, which include modern starfish and sea urchins; chordates, which include modern vertebrates; and so forth. Mammals came later, but the chordates -- the major group to which they belong -- were right there at the beginning of the Cambrian." [page 44]

This quote has the same word-games, although Wells is getting a bit bolder with his disinformation. Notice he throws in the "modern representatives" of the various phyla, mixed up with the discussion of the earlier phylogenic forms. If one wasn't reading closely enough, one might easily misconstrue this statement as saying that modern animals, essentially in their current form, appeared at the beginning of the Cambrian period. The "boom!" again makes it sound like it was something that happened near-instantly, instead of over 90 million years.

He also just skips merrily over the part where mammals "came later." Where did they come from if not evolution? But of course Wells doesn't bother to answer the question. Stunningly, he doesn't even seem to realize he's raised one.

Goaded on by Strobel, Wells continues with a football analogy that really goes for broke in misrepresenting the Cambrian explosion:

"Okay," he said, "imagine yourself on one goal line of a football field. That line represents the first fossil, a microscopic, single celled organism. Now start marching down the field. You pass the twenty-yard line, the forty-yard line, you pass midfield, and you're approaching the other goal line. All you've seen this entire time are these microscopic, single-celled organisms.

"You come to the sixteen-yard line on the far end of the field, and now you see these sponges and maybe some jellyfish and worms. Then -- boom! -- in the space of a single stride, all these other forms of animals suddenly appear. As one evolutionary scientist said, the major animal groups 'appear in the fossil record as Athena did from the head of Zeus -- full blown and raring to go.'

"Either way, nobody can call that a branching tree!" [page 44]

Ignoring the fact that football fields don't have a "sixteen-yard line," this is a fairly accurate representation of the geological time scale. Richard Dawkins has a similar illustration he uses, and it goes something like this (paraphrasing from memory): if you hold out both your arms as wide as you can, and consider that the history of the universe, starting with the tip of your left middle finger and the tip of your right middle finger being the present, then life appears somewhere around the wrist of your right hand, complex life appears at about the first knuckle of your middle finger, and the whole of human history is the sliver of dust scraped off the nail by a single light stroke of a nail file.

Cosmic. The problem, again, is that Wells doesn't attempt to give any concrete numbers to the abstraction. The "single stride," the recycled "boom!" all try to make it sound like a much shorter time than it was -- an impossibly short time, in other words. And it simply isn't. Not to belabor the point, but that "single stride" is a period of 90 million years. While the reasons why the Cambrian Explosion occurred do still confound evolutionary biologists, it is not seriously considered a problem for evolutionary theory.

Skeptical Strobel makes a comeback, and this time he actually raises a sensible objection, although it doesn't really seem to follow what they've been talking about before. "Maybe...Darwin was right after all -- the fossil record is still incomplete. Who knows how natural history might be rewritten next week by a discovery that will be made in a fossil dig somewhere?" [page 45]

Wells, surprisingly, admits that it is a possibility that a future fossil discovery will "suddenly fill the gaps...But I sure don't think that's likely...It hasn't happened after all this time, and millions of fossils have already been dug up." [ibid]

What Wells -- and most creationists/ID proponents who make this argument -- seems not to realize, is that fossilization is extremely rare. A large number of circumstances must all fall into place to create a fossil. It is, frankly, astonishing that we have found the millions of fossils that Wells admits we have -- all telling the same story and aligning perfectly with evolutionary understanding, I might add. We have never found a fossil of an animal from a later period in strata dated earlier. There are no fossils of, for example, Jurassic rabbits. The fossil record that we do have it completely consistent with evolutionary theory.

And as an aside: "it hasn't happened after all this time." All this time? What arrogance!

Remember that human history has been too brief to even register as a blip on the cosmological radar. We are coming to the party several billion years late, and have only undertaken the study of paleontology at a serious level for a few hundred years. And yet if we haven't figured out the answer to every question in that time, there must not be one?

That's like walking into a friend's house, and immediately he tells you he's been looking for his keys for three days and asks you to help. Before you can even blink, he says "What, you haven't found them yet? Well, they must not be anywhere!"

"After all this time?" What is Wells smoking?

So they spend a couple of pages insisting that the fossil record doesn't support evolutionary theory. Again, a flat-out lie. That's what fossils are: evidence of the progression of life.

Strobel says, amusingly: "Protestations from Darwinists aside, the evidence has failed to substantiate the predictions that Darwin made." [page 46]

I can only conclude that when Strobel says "protestations from Darwinists," he actually means "evidence presented by people who actually know what they're talking about, but which I choose to ignore." This is another typical strategy -- ask for evidence, but when it is presented, dismiss the person giving the evidence, use that to deflect having to address their evidence, and claim that no evidence has been presented.

See also: "ad hominem."

Fuck, are we still not done with this chapter? Next week might be a long entry; I'm going to plough through as much as I can because we've barely hit the halfway mark, and I'm really tired of this clown. Wells could help me immensely by choosing not to speak in sentences that are almost entirely composed of falsehoods and fallacies, in dire need of explanation and correction, but I don't think I can count on that happening.

  1. At least, no more inconceivable than the time scale of "90 million years" is in general.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Viral Marketing -- ur doin it rite

Okay, so I lied about not posting about Watchmen no more.

But this viral piece from Watchmen comes on the tail of a disastrously failed viral marketing campaign in Australia, of which I was aware because I follow a number of Aussies on Twitter.

Viral marketing is hard to do right. It's hard to predict what people will latch on to and really start talking about and pass on to their friends. I get a lot of people asking for advice on how to make their video a viral hit, and there are factors you can look at. High-quality content is likely to get passed around. Content attached to some kind of celebrity will probably get passed around. Funny or uplifting usually has a better chance than somber. But beyond that, I dunno. The RvD films are a total fluke -- it's not like we planned for them to be smash hits (although we hoped, on the second one), and I'm not sure you can plan that kind of thing -- although the Ask a Ninja guys might disagree with me.

It seems you can't go wrong with cute animals acting strange. You've seen the sneezing panda? Of course you have. Everyone has. Fucking bear has 30 million views on YouTube. I don't even know how many views the frigging dramatic prairie dog/chipmunk/gopher has, because it's been uploaded about 4000 separate times -- but most of the search results have half a million hits or more.

But trying to actually make an ad badass enough to catch on? It happens. Usually when you're dealing with Superbowl spots, you can be guaranteed people are going to seek it out, and if you do other spots throughout the year like that, there's a good chance people will talk about it and they'll look it up online. But that's more word-of-mouth from traditional advertising than viral marketing, which seeks to make the audience do the work. They spread it around, they show it, they talk about it and it becomes part of the zeitgeist, at least for a little while.

Viral marketing for movies had its genesis with The Blair Witch Project. They set up a website -- when the vast interconnected community they call "Web 2.0" was only just starting to appear on the scene -- which basically asserted that the film was a real documentary about real events. The campaign was so successful that not only did everybody know about this micro-budget indie flick, with almost no real marketing to speak of, but for years afterward I would meet people who still thought it was real.

Quite frankly, I think viral marketing for a film can be a beautiful thing. In the old days, movies were more like live theatre. You sat in your seat and the curtains went up and an overture played. Like in live theatre, the overture was meant to both accommodate some stragglers who were finding their seats, but also to set the mood. If it was a musical it would give you hints of the musical themes you were going to hear. But most of all it provided a buffer zone between your real life, and ushered you into the fantasy life you were about to see on the screen.

We don't have that anymore, except in more specialty theatres. Most theatres are little boxes with chintzy decor. You're bombarded with advertisements for various products, other movies, and reprimands about proper etiquette which people seem to ignore anyway. These days movies don't even have opening credits for the most part, which means you just have to hit the ground running when the film starts playing.

Viral marketing like the Watchmen piece below help, I think, to fill that gap. It creates a whole "experience" of the film's reality, allowing you an early taste of accepting and understanding and engaging the world of the film.

When done right, the seams are invisible. For one thing, note that this video never once mentions the film Watchmen. It's not really an advertisement so much as supplemental material, about what is ultimately one of the central concerns of the story (mild spoilers): Dr. Manhattan changed the world, and no one can in that world can imagine it without him.

It sets the stage for the time period (an alternate 1980s) by being a very faithfully-produced replica of a 70s-era news broadcast, complete with "bad VHS" type degrading, which is heaviest early on.

It also frees up the filmmakers to not really have to deal with setting this up too much in the movie. The world will be different, and what we have here is three minutes of exposition which are unlikely to be crucial to the story, but create, as I said, a fuller, more immersive world.

The last "nice touch" is that the video is posted by the user "thenewfrontiersman," which is the name of a sort of widely-read, conspiracy-theory type newspaper in the Watchmen world. The kind of paper that sometimes gets a scoop but is usually just adding editorial paranoia to otherwise innocuous events (i.e. the kind of paper an unfortunate number of people, in our America as well as theirs, tend to believe). If they do more videos, we may get to become acquainted with the personality of The New Frontiersmen, as well as other characters in the film.

This kind of marketing becomes fun, almost interactive. A kind of spontaneous roleplaying has already showed up in the comments, with people pretending that this world really exists, that this news broadcast is a genuine part of our history.

"I gotta say, I miss all those costumed heroes," one says. "Sure they were reckless, but they made things a lot more interesting."

If a video gets posted about Adrian Veidt, we'll probably see comments praising his products and his humanitarian efforts, while others malign him as a sell-out and a heartless mega-corporation, probably even using anti-Wal-Mart rhetoric to give it a realistic flair. They are engaging with the movie and they haven't even seen it. They are becoming part of the tapestry of the film.

Zack Snyder and the producers have already shown a strong grasp of getting people to feel like they are a part of this film -- they held a short film competition to produce advertisements for Veidt products, the best of which would be seen as television advertisements within the film itself. When you get people to feel a sense of ownership over the movie, to feel that they helped make it what it is, you are more successful creatively (because they're more engaged), and more successful commercially (because they're more likely to come).

I'm really very excited about this movie because more than anything, it just seems like they really get it. This clip is no exception.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Secular Sunday: Or, to summarize...

Secular Sunday: Nobody believes in Zeus anymore...

Last week, toward the end of my analysis of the latest section of CFC, I spoke of something in quick and dismissive passing, when it actually deserves more focus. So before I move on today (or instead of doing so, we'll see how long this ends up being), I want to go back to it.

Strobel makes the case, sort of, that the abiogenesis of life is nothing short of miraculous. This has been addressed by better and more intelligent writers -- than myself, let alone Strobel -- such as Richard Dawkins, who points out (and I'm paraphrasing here): if the odds of life as we know it arising on any planet, the odds of all the qualities of a planet aligning perfectly to support such life, are one in a billion billion, then out of a billion billion planets, it is not only probable but mathematically certain that on one planet, life will arise. If only one planet in the universe has life, then we are the one in whatever number of planets there are -- those are our odds.

In an infinite universe, it's not miraculous that life arose here. In an infinite universe, it would actually be miraculous if life as we define it didn't arise somewhere. (Of course, if that were the case, there would be nobody to marvel at the miracle.)

But that's not what I want to address (as I said, Dawkins among others has covered it much better). What I want to address is the following quote, attributed to Walter Bradley, "origin-of-life expert:"

If there isn't a natural explanation and there doesn't seem to be the potential of finding one, then I believe it's appropriate to look at a supernatural explanation...I think that's the most reasonable inference based on the evidence [page 42].

No. And no. And NO.

I need to be very clear about this, because this is extremely important. Ultimately this is the primary failure of this entire book, the foundational misunderstanding upon which Strobel is building his eponymous Case:


Does not.

Work that way.

To make it easily apparent why I have such a strong objection to Bradley's statement, let me rephrase, to have it say explicitly what Bradley is only implying:

If something happens that we don't understand, and its reasons for happening are not immediately apparent, we should feel free to make up any explanation that suits us.

As I said, this is the fundamental departure point, the fundamental mistake Strobel and others like him make. If they don't know the answer, they make it up. Or, conversely, they decide on the answer they will choose to accept before even bothering to look at the evidence.

Any scientist will tell you that many things occur in the world that science can't answer. And scientists will have their hypotheses for the reasons that these events occur, based on a sort of triangulation of the observations that they've made ("because A, and B, and C, it seems to make sense that D is occurring").

Through repeated experimentation they will either verify the hypothesis -- in which case it eventually becomes the accepted explanation, and is considered something we "know" -- or falsify the hypothesis -- in which case they will begin searching for a new answer to test.

What they absolutely do not do is fabricate a "supernatural" and untestable "reason" that has no relationship to the evidence given, nor do they force themselves to adhere to a predetermined "explanation" for new information.

A true scientist is not afraid to say, "I don't know."

And saying that, as a corollary, is not the same as saying, "No one will never know."

Bradley's attitude is the opposite of scientific inquiry -- the death of scientific inquiry. Pick a scientific discovery of significance. Say electricity. Or antibiotics.

Until the 17th century, human beings had little to no awareness of the microscopic world. We didn't know about bacteria, which means that we didn't know how people got sick. Following Bradley's exact line of thought, those who came down with illnesses were thought to be either cursed by God/the gods, or possessed by evil spirits. There wasn't a natural explanation, and there wasn't the potential of finding one. So they pursued the supernatural explanation.

Except that there was a natural explanation, and eventually we found it, because despite people like Bradley, who were happy with their comforting-but-completely-unjustified "answer," some people kept looking.

Admittedly, even attempts to be "naturalistic" can and have been wrong, too. Humourism, for example, was the dominant non-supernatural theory in medicine for nearly the entirety of Western history. A theory which has now, by modern medicine, been completely discredited.

But the important component in this example is that even despite believing that they had the answer, despite having held to and operated under this theory for 18 centuries1, scientists kept looking to make sure. And when they started to make observations that humourism couldn't answer, to create alternate hypotheses that had a higher success rate of explaining and predicting related occurrences, the long-held theory of humourism was eventually discarded.

A true scientist is not afraid to say, "I was wrong."

This is the strength of the scientific method, the reason that the scientific method is the only reliable method for determining objective truth about reality. Science is not emotional, it is not entrenched, it is continuously adapting -- indeed, science is constantly evolving. Scientific discoveries in one discipline have a ripple effect across our entire understanding of our universe. If a paradigm for understanding the universe cannot accommodate objective observation, that paradigm must be discarded.

In ancient Greece Bradley would have said that obviously Zeus was the source of lightning, because there was no natural explanation for it and no potential for finding one. And at the time he would have been right that there was no natural explanation for lightning and no potential (again, at the time) for finding one. But now we know exactly the natural explanation for lightning, and while that doesn't automatically mean Zeus isn't the one making nature work that way, that's just a case of pushing the "Zeus" answer one step back. Not because there's evidence for the Zeus answer, but because its adherents can't deal with letting go.

As you all know, nobody seriously believes in Zeus anymore. And yet intelligent design is exactly the same thing. They say God did it. Once you show how nature did it, it goes back a stage to "God made nature do it like that," with no evidence to back that up, or even indicate a reason to think so. They call that lack of evidence (aka ignorance) faith, and they are inexplicably proud of it.

People like Bradley are afraid to say, "I don't know." People like Bradley are afraid to say "I was wrong." People like Bradley choose a comforting answer because it is comforting. Not because it is appropriate, correct, or even warranted. People like Bradley are not proper scientists.

Because science doesn't work that way.

As I thought might happen, this post got long enough that I think it's enough for today. But it was important. One of the reasons supernatural explanations are so compelling is that they're easy to communicate, and sometimes more intuitive than the natural explanation. One sentence of creationist claptrap takes paragraphs and paragraphs to answer in a way that is both relatively accurate and intellectually accessible to people who are not scientists.2 (Not to mention the challenge of making sure I understand it right, not being a scientist myself.)

Now I can simply point back to this post, or even use the acronym SDWTW, and you will know what I mean without having to spend paragraphs explaining myself. (Even given that, by the end of this whole endeavor, I may very well have written more words about the book than Strobel did in it.)

More CFC next week.

  1. A common defense of religion is that its longevity and tenacity somehow give it credence. How could a wrong idea survive so many centuries? My answer to that, as with humourism, is simply "because people didn't know any better."

  2. One of the creationist tactics in "debates" with qualified scientists -- and apparently one of Strobel's tactics in this book -- is to rattle off in quick succession half a dozen or more wholly-incorrect but succinctly-stated talking points. Their opponent becomes flustered by the assault, frustrated by being unable to communicate the answers clearly in the allotted time (and/or by the ridiculous nature of the claims), or winds up forgetting or not being allowed to answer one of the points, which makes it appear to the audience that s/he had no answer to give. That's why I'm taking my time going through this, I don't want to leave any stone unturned.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Last post on the Watchmen debacle

If you hadn't heard, Warner Bros. and Fox have reached a settlement over Watchmen, and so the March 9 release will not be delayed.

This means that I probably won't be posting about this project again until I'm giving my review on March 9 (midnight showing, what-what). Let's hope that after all this drama (and publicity) that the flick doesn't suck.

Thursday, January 15, 2009 -- Your Source for Whatever This Is

I've gone a long time coasting by without the professional accoutrements -- no website, no business cards, I haven't even bothered to put my professional reel together until just recently (and still haven't posted it online).

But no more! I'm working on getting my act together, and the first step is my registration of as my official site address.1 As of now, if you type that in, you will just be forwarded back here. But over time I hope to build it up to be more of a site with a portfolio and all that jazz.

It's worth updating your bookmarks and/or muscle memory, as I may also shift the blog from Blogspot to Wordpress at some point. Haven't had major problems with Blogspot, but Wordpress seems to be more customizable and have more reliable servers, both of which may matter if things start to pick up. If you get used to using the portal, then the switch from one to the other will be relatively seamless for you if/when it occurs.

  1. is being squatted on, is some country western singer, and is porn (NSFW!). Straight porn, no less.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Descendants -- the Story So Far

I keep saying that I want to use this blog to talk about my experiences in the serious-business Hollywood machine. But so far what few I have had, I've kept to myself -- mainly because they're deals-in-progress and there's nothing solid to announce yet. And I'm afraid I'll jinx it by announcing it ahead of time.

But there's one project that, with the beginning of a new year, I think it's safe to talk about, and especially since it's likely to be indicative of how things are going to be from here on -- The Descendants. I've made oblique references to the project, and people following my YouTube page have probably seen the trailer. But I want to talk about the story of the project thus far.

Shortly after we put out RvD2 -- nearly two years ago, gah -- a creative executive from Dark Horse Entertainment contacted me and Ryan, interested in meeting and discussing our plans for the future, including future projects we might want to do.

I put together a number of pitches and we met Chris, the exec, for dinner at a bar near Dark Horse HQ (or the HQ at the time; they've since relocated to bigger and better). I told him some of the ideas, and he listened to them patiently before making a counter-pitch. They had a project that they've been developing from an independent comic book they'd acquired. It was an action-fantasy story about a monster-killing mercenary named Charlie Stone, and Ray Park was attached to star.

Given that the fight with Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace is what inspired me (and Ryan) to pick up some sticks and start making lightsaber fights, it's not too much of a stretch to say that I have Ray Park to thank, to some degree, for RvD2 and all that came after.1 So the idea of working with him was very exciting.

(As an aside, I had actually met Ray once before, randomly, at an EZ-Lube. We both happened to be there for an oil change, and he recognized my shoes as martial arts shoes, which led to a brief conversation.2 When we met at Dark Horse to discuss the project some months later, and I mentioned we had met, he actually remembered. "Oh yeah, the shoes!")

At the time, the comic was three issues (another issue has since been published). I had read them and felt very excited and interested in the ideas, although I thought it could benefit from some expansion and development in a film. We discussed what we wanted to do with the film, and the character, and we all seemed to be on the same page with what we wanted. We wanted funny, we wanted a little overconfident, a combination of Jackie Chan and Indiana Jones.

Our first plan was to produce a short film that took place in the Descendants world, but was not necessarily part of the story canon that we were planning. Joey (Andrade, the creator) and I wrote a ten minute script for the project, but given what we wanted to do with it, it was too expensive for a spec project.

I also started to feel leery of it, though I liked the script -- since it didn't represent the overall story of the project, people who didn't like it would get the wrong impression. And people who did like it would also get the wrong impression. So it seemed lose-lose.

But as summer 2007 came up, a new opportunity arose: a company that will remain nameless3 wanted to develop Descendants as a possible web series. The decision was made to produce a 90-second teaser trailer for the project, which would first premiere at Comic-Con, and be some of the first content available on the new site.

The production of the teaser is a tale in itself. Summer 2007 I was in Florida shooting Sandrima Rising; we took a break in July for logistical reasons, which meant I couldn't prep before July. Additionally, Ray was out of town until the weekend before Comic-Con, so we literally only had two non-consecutive days to shoot (the Friday and Monday preceding Comic-Con), and four days for post, to premiere it Saturday.

I don't know how, but somehow we managed it, and the teaser is available on YouTube.

(It's worth noting that when we made the trailer, we didn't really know what this "web series" would be about, other than vague concepts we were kicking around; the RED camera also hadn't been released yet. So although it was intended as a "proof of concept," the teaser neither reflects the expected visual quality of the project, nor do any of the events in the trailer actually appear in any finished script.)

So the trailer appeared exclusively on the unnamed site for a time. But they began to dick us around regarding our continued deal with them, and it quickly became apparent that they didn't have an actual plan to produce an ongoing Descendants series; they just wanted the traffic from the trailer. We pulled the teaser from their site and started thinking about other directions for the project.

We batted around web series, mini-series, TV pilot, and ultimately we decided that we needed a script, no matter what we did. Since we didn't know what form it would take, we decided to write it as a feature film. Joey and I started working on a treatment for the project. It took multiple drafts, but we finally got a go-ahead on the script.

And then the WGA strike hit.

Now, I'm not WGA, and Dark Horse is apparently not a WGA signatory company. But I still didn't want to risk my future ability to join the union by writing during the strike. So it was agreed that I would not be able to turn in any work that had been done until after the strike ended. And that took several months, as you may or may not recall.

In February 2008, the strike ended and I was able to finish off what I had done -- more or less. The writing of the script had opened up holes that I hadn't noticed at the treatment level, and the first draft was kind of a mess. I actually told Dark Horse that I didn't want to show them this first draft, preferring instead to repair the damage first.

This was kind of unprofessional, and if I'd been hired by a big studio I would have had to turn in that draft and would have been promptly fired, and probably blacklisted. Fortunately, the relationship with Dark Horse is more relaxed (and less official), and they understood that this was my first time writing-to-order, so Chris was willing to wait for draft two.

Like the treatment, it took several drafts and rounds of notes to get Descendants to a place where we were all happy with it. There was a lot to juggle with the adaptation, in attempting to stay true to Joey's original concept, while expanding it beyond the page and the first three issues, giving it a more cinematically-satisfying structure, and also giving us somewhere to go from there.

During this time, Dark Horse had signed a "first look" deal with Universal Studios. For those who haven't heard the term before, this means Universal has dibs on anything and everything Dark Horse develops. Before Dark Horse can take a project anywhere else, they have to take it to Universal. If Universal passes (Hollywood-ese for "no, go away"), then we can take it anywhere else.

The script gets done and Dark Horse takes it to Universal; specifically, "Uni Digital," their new media department. We are assured that UniDigi plans to read it right away -- the Senior VP is going to take the script home with him and read it overnight, which we are told he never does with other projects.

This is Hollywood-ese for blowing smoke up your ass. When you start working in Hollywood, you'll start to get this a lot. People will tell you how excited they are, how they will make your project/script their first priority, how they are taking it home this weekend, this VERY NIGHT, so that they can be sure to read it immediately and be ready to move.

Translation: don't expect to hear back for several weeks. And at that point they'll apologize, because they still won't have read it, and they'll sing you the same song then, too.

I've had the good fortune to have been involved with Dark Horse, who is a legitimate company and in Uni's good graces. Can you imagine how slow the response would be if it was just me and a script? No matter how much "heat" the script had, it'd be months I'm sure.

It probably sounds like I'm bitter about this. I'm really not. I've read a lot of books on the industry that talked about exactly this, so I haven't been taken by surprise. It's annoying, and makes me impatient, but that's how it works.

Anyway, they eventually passed.

So we've been taking it around to other places, and we've found a place that is interested in the project, based apparently only on a verbal pitch of the concept and the attachments (me to direct, Ray to star). It's essentially a foreign presale deal -- they give us the money to make the movie in exchange for the right to distribute the film overseas.

The catch: they're willing to give us $4 million. The script, according to an experienced line producer Dark Horse brought in, is a $40 million project. I feel confident that we can make a film look like much more than it actually costs. I think we could make a $4 million movie that looks like a $10 million movie. But we can't make $4M look like $40M. There are limits -- as the line producer said, "You can get five pounds into a two pound bag, but you can't get twenty pounds in."

So we were faced with a choice that had to be made:

We could attempt to make our $40 million script for a tenth of the appropriate budget. Doing so, we felt, would hurt the project and everyone involved. There was no way we could do justice to the script, or the concept, by making a film that was too ambitious for its own good. So we decided not to go this route.

Another option was to see if we could find another taker for the script. But when the script is attached to a first-time director and a lead actor who, while a great guy with geek cred, is no Tom Cruise in terms of getting butts in seats. All things considered, we figured we weren't likely to get more than $4 million anywhere we took the script.

So that left us with the third option: write yet another script, of a smaller scale, to make for $4 million. At first we thought it might be a smaller version of the existing script, but the concerns of doing it justice, as mentioned above, made us decide to develop and write a brand new script. Above and beyond any of the events in the story, what has always stood out has been Charlie Stone. His voice has been loudest and clearest and given the project its vitality. So we determined that if we wrote another story, as long as Charlie was in the center of it, we would be okay.

While I can't go into either storyline, the new script basically functions as a lead-in to the too-expensive script -- in other words, the IMDB trivia will say that the "sequel" was written before the "original." Some adjustments will have to be made if Descendants is successful and we get the opportunity to do what is now likely to be Descendants 2 -- people who in the current script are meeting for the first time will have met in the previous movie, stuff like that. I think it benefits the story in the long run, as the new script in part expands upon what was originally a side-story. Now it gets its own film, making the eventual "sequel" less crowded story-wise.

So that's where Descendants has been over the last two years, and that's where it is now. We're working on ironing out the new treatment and I'll be writing the new script, with the goal of finishing by Valentine's Day, and hopefully we'll have made a deal by my 26th birthday (end of March) for my first feature film.

And then, the real fun will start.

  1. Grudgingly, I suppose by extension that means I have George Lucas to thank for Phantom Menace. Perhaps a distasteful admission, but an undeniable one.

  2. When he introduced himself saying "I'm Ray," I barely restrained myself from responding "I know."

  3. They still exist, but I'm not interested in giving them any traffic by naming them.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Secular Sunday: Case for a Creator: Chapter Three, Part 2

So there's this asshole Christian asshole by the name of Jack Chick, who has produced evangelical tracts for several decades, but who has only come to most peoples' attention since the advent of the internets. These "Chick tracts," freely available on his site, are by turns misogynistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic, and just about any other -ist, -ic, and anti- you can think of (except, of course, atheist or agnostic).

Also, everything is Satan's fault. Chick is basically The Church Lady, except he's serious.

The tracts are supposed to be little comic-book stories that you can hand out to people, they read them, and, thoroughly convinced, they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

If that sounds a little too pat, that's apparently how easy it is in Jack Chick's mind, because that's how it always works in the tracts. This is how most of the Chick tracts go:

Unbeliever: Religion is stupid!

Believer: But Jesus died for your sins.

Unbeliever: No one ever told me! Praise His holy name!1

You think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. Go read them. You'll see.

You can tell that Chick has never met a true unbeliever -- certainly he thinks that everyone actually believes, they're just "rebelling" -- and so he only imagines, poorly, the way such people talk and think.

I bring this up not to specifically go off about the Chick tracts; they're morbidly amusing, but don't really deserve a detailed response. Most folks, even religious, can see that the arguments presented in the tracts (such as that Catholicism came after Protestantism, and is a perversion of Christianity as opposed to, you know, its origin) are absurd. And those who cannot are clearly either stupid, insane, or sociopathic, and deserve nothing more than to be pointed and laughed at.

No, I bring it up because the continuation of Chapter Three, the Jonathan Wells interview, plays out essentially like a Chick tract. Strobel has cast himself in the role of skeptic, but he has never been one, and doesn't know what the word means, and so his performance is shockingly poor.

The gist of the interview is Strobel discussing the images of evolution, presented in Chapter Two, with Wells. And it basically goes like this:

Strobel: This is evidence of evolution, right?

Wells: Nuh-uh.

Strobel: I've never heard it from that perspective! You've totally convinced me!

You think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not.

Wells presents no evidence to support his case, only dismisses the evidence Strobel presents as not being evidence, and Strobel, in the most embarassing parody of skepticism I've ever seen, immediately accepts Wells' dismissal as totally valid. As a corollary, he also immediately accepts any assertion Wells makes regarding what is true, without requiring Wells present any evidence to support it.

At this point, the best-case scenario explanation for this book is that Strobel is a credulous idiot. It's starting to seem like he keeps presenting arguments from authority because he genuinely finds them compelling -- he accepts Wells' arguments because he considers Wells an authority.

But at this point -- long since, really -- it has become clear that Strobel is actually a liar and an opportunist. It's become clear that if Strobel expects his reader to be the credulous and idiotic ones. He thinks that his declarations of being "convinced" will themselves do the convincing, in the absence of an actually convincing argument.

And of course, when it comes to his target audience, he's right. Over Christmas, a close friend's girlfriend received another Strobel book "The Case for Christ," which her brother, the giver, encouraged her to read. And the first thing out of his mouth was "The guy who wrote it was a skeptic, and then he became a Christian!"

That means nothing. It might mean he was a bad skeptic, or an idiot, or (quickly becoming my pet theory) a liar.

Not to mention the fact that if it were that easy, I could always counter that I was a Christian, then I became a skeptic, which is completely true. Have all you theists out there automatically dropped your beliefs as a result of my testimony? Does the fact that I am unconvinced mean you are unconvinced?

That's what I thought.

Admittedly, his conversion, if such it was, could mean that the evidence was genuinely convincing. But if it were, we wouldn't have to spend so much time being convinced that the fact that these people are convinced should be enough to convince us.

Arguments from authority are meaningless, and the manner by which many (otherwise sensible!) people find themselves talking about their naked Emperor's exquisite clothing.

I'm going to try not to go intricately into the poor writing or poor argumentation of this chapter as I have been doing before -- not only is this book not restoring my faith in God, it's beginning to erode my faith in humanity. Just know that it's still there under the surface. I'll be doing my best to address only the main arguments, and save my snark about Strobel's foolish conclusions and/or laughably poor writing for only the most grievous passages.

Still, I can't help this one little piece of dialogue:

"If these icon are the illustrations most cited as evidence of evolution, then I can see why they're important," I said. "What did you find as you examined them one by one?"

Wells didn't hesitate. "That they're either false or misleading," he replied.

"False or misleading?" I echoed. "Wait a second -- are you saying my science teacher was lying to me? That's a pretty outrageous charge!" [page 36]

Yes, Strobel is just shocked -- shocked -- that a man working for the Dishonesty Discovery Institute in Seattle, the sole expressed purpose of which is to promote Intelligent Design over evolution, who got his Ph.D specifically for the purpose of "destroying evolution," in the name of the glory of God (who by the way is a Korean man), should state that evolution is false.2

Like I said, most of the dialogue in this book is like that, and I will spare you. Am I not merciful?

But okay, Wells. I'm ready to have my mind blown. Gimme whatcha got.

The Miller-Urey Experiment

Wells' first argument is that the Miller experiment used the wrong atmospheric composition in its "early earth" simulation, the one which produced amino acids, which are the building blocks of life.

It is true that Miller's original theory about the composition of the early atmosphere has since been abandoned in favor of other atmospheric theories. But Wells fails to mention that most scientists agree that the initial formation of organic compounds, and even the early forms of life, probably occurred well away from the atmosphere (e.g. in the deep sea), making the composition of the atmosphere largely irrelevant.

Wells does state that other experiments have been performed which create complex organic compounds -- but points out that some of the molecules formed are cyanide and formaldehyde, which he refers to as being intensely toxic. And they are.

To humans.

But they're also necessary building blocks to important biochemical compounds, such as amino acids. Therefore in this context they are not toxins. Wells even acknowledges that "it's true that a good organic chemist can turn formaldehyde and cyanide into biological molecules," but then states that "to suggest that formaldehyde and cyanide give you the right substrate for the origin of life...well, that's just a joke." [page 38]

What? WHAT? You just said that those two chemicals can form the basis of biochemical compounds, then say that it's a joke.

In context, the punchline of the "joke" is that what you create by mixing them is embalming fluid. Which is true. But what he doesn't mention, because it would be devastating to his case, is that you can also get amino acids, which are the substrate for the origin of life. Of course, despite the fact that Wells has two Ph.Ds, neither of them is in biochemistry, so at best it can be argued that he just didn't know. But if he didn't know he shouldn't go around saying it with such finality and authority.

A simple Google search of "cyanide amino acids" brings up pages and pages of scientific studies discussing how hydrogen cyanide is a precursor to the formation of amino acids. Wells is supposed to be the expert, he's TELLING us he's the expert, and yet he can't be bothered to actually check if what he's saying has any truth?

The other option is that he has done the research, he knows he's lying by omission, and he's doing it anyway. It's not the first, nor I'm sure the last, occurrence of lying for Jesus I've seen in my life. It's probably far from the last that I'll see in this book.

In the next section he goes on to say that if you were to poke a hole in a cell and allow the insides to drain out, you could not form another cell from this material, nor expect one to form, even though "you've got all the components you would need for life." [page 39] But that's not the way cells are formed, and not the way evolution works, and Wells knows this. Evolution involves replication and reproduction, activities in which a dead cell -- especially a dismembered one -- cannot engage.

This section of his argument is just ridiculous, but of course someone who is already ignorant or suspicious of evolutionary biology will latch onto it as making total sense. And that's the alarming part, to me.

And of course, since Wells has dismissed these naturalistic explanations for abiogenesis, there must be a supernatural reason. Not because there's any evidence for a supernatural explanation, mind you. Just cuz.

So, in this section Wells fails to disprove abiogenesis -- by his admissions about the products of abiogenesis experiments, he has in fact provided evidentiary support for the theory. He lies and says it's evidence against, but being an actual skeptic, I did some research. It didn't even take me long to find all the ways he's full of shit (going by number of Google hits on "cyanide amino acids," approximately 666,000 ways. How appropriate).

Since he has no evidence of his own, he instead fills pages with straw man arguments, a clearly misguided understanding of evolution that I do not believe he actually holds (rather, he just hopes that the people reading won't know better and won't bother to check), and rhetoric that assumes the pre-determined conclusion.

I've said this before, but the correct process is: "here is the observation, what does that indicate." Not "God exists, chase observations in support and ignore/deny observations against." So far, Wells -- and Strobel -- are following the latter.

I'll finish up the Wells chapter next time. For now, no points awarded. Try again next round.

  1. That's another odd thing that Jack Chick seems to believe: that the vast majority of people in America aren't aware of the fundamental tenets of Christianity -- Christ's divinity, salvation, etc. Presumably he thinks that the only logical explanation for people not believing is that they haven't heard. Though of course "Jack Chick" and "logical" never seem to have been properly introduced.

  2. Shocked.

Introducing: Secular Sundays!

I want to keep this blog mostly a media, movies, and miscellaneous discussion, also talking about my personal and professional experiences in the biz (once I start having some). But the self-righteous religious bullshit that has recently fueled, among other things, the passage of Prop 8 has royally pissed me off.

On top of that, a number of people have approached me in the interest of creating some kind of dialogue about religion, which pisses me off rather less -- I'm all for it. But either way, the topic of religion -- and my lack of belief therein -- is starting to crop up more. Atheism is kind of the new gay, it seems like. It takes a "coming out," because people just assume you're not, and even people who are cool with it still have questions.

In the interest of not turning this into a one-subject blog, today is the establishing post of what I'm calling Secular Sundays. This keeps the topic to a fixed, predictable, and, if you feel it necessary, avoidable schedule. (But c'mon, what are you afraid of?) Plus I admit I get a kick out of the thought that, on the day most people go to church to reinforce their fairy tale beliefs, I'm doing my small part to dismantle them.

For now, Secular Sundays will mostly be devoted to completing my promised analysis of The Case for a Creator. But once that's done, or perhaps even interspersed with that, will be other posts on religious philosophy, theology, first amendment and freethought issues, and other related topics as they come up.

Hopefully one day a week will be enough.

Later today I'll continue with Part 2 of the discussion of CFC Chapter Three, with Jonathan Wells' evaluation of the Miller-Urey experiment.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

One more post on Watchmen

Or at least so I say.

Lloyd Levin, one of the producers of the project, has written an open letter regarding his feelings on the matter. I figured given the he-said-he-also-said that I posted before, it was only fair to share something that was written by someone who was involved.

I just hope this gets settled so we can see this movie.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

For Some Reason, I Watched The Happening

(Note: I actually watched the film and wrote the bulk of this entry several weeks ago, but neglected to post it. My roommate watching The Village for the first time today reminded me, and I want to start reviewing movies new and old more often anyway, so I dusted it off, and here it is.)

M. Night Shyamalan writes like a film school student.

Honestly, I wish he was a film school student, because then I could say he has promise, and be excited about the possibilities. If I saw one of the suicide scenes from The Happening in a student thesis project, I think I'd sully my drawers. This is a guy who knows how to communicate visual ideas in very powerful, visceral ways.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan is not a film school student. He is a filmmaker who has been on the radar for nearly a decade, with half a dozen Hollywood movies under his belt, all of them with budgets in excess of $50 million dollars; and for all of the power of his visual ideas, he seems incapable of even conceiving, much less communicating, intellectual ideas anymore.

The quality of Shyamalan's storytelling has decreased on an almost exponential curve since The Sixth Sense, which I thought was fantastic. I don't care if it was based on an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, it was a fine piece of genre filmmaking. But the success and praise of Sixth Sense seems to have gone to his head, and he thinks he can do no wrong.

Unbreakable was flawed, but still watchable. The payoff was a bit of a letdown, and Bruce Willis' ability to see into peoples' secrets via touch was a straight rip-off of Stephen King's The Dead Zone, but I'm still up for a go at Unbreakable 2.

Signs had tremendous promise in its premise, but was more aptly named than I think MNS realized, because it was here that we started to see the signs that he was losing his way. His cameo became a pivotal character with quite a bit of screen-time. Look, we know you think you're the next Hitchcock, but limit yourself to walking a dog in the background, okay? We started to see that he wasn't really trying anymore in terms of the story, not only creating a bizarre deus ex machina (having a little girl develop a strange, never-happens-in-real-life quirk of leaving half-filled glasses of water all over the place, for no other reason than that the end of the movie wouldn't work otherwise), but alerting the audience to the fact that it was such by having it literally communicated in a "revelation from God."

And I'm late to the party on this, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out again that these superior alien beings -- who have been observing and studying this planet for at least 40 years, and therefore must be aware that 70% of the planet consists of a substance that is lethal to the touch for them -- saw fit to land anyway, and walk around naked.1 Apparently not a single one of them could envision a scenario where that wouldn't go well, whereas I'm hard-pressed to envision a scenario in which it would.

Then there was The Village...for fuck's sake. First of all, he plagiarized another kids' story. This time a Grade 5-8 novel, Running Out of Time. Spoilers on that page.2

Did you see the trailer but not the film? About how this village bordered a forest filled with some kind of intelligent monsters, who lived a tenuous coexistence until the creatures decided that they'd gotten tired of the villagers' stupid faces and slathered red X's on their doors, in a substance suspiciously blood-like, as a warning that they'd better get the fuck out tout de suite? The tagline, Run. The truce is ending?

Yeah, the movie's not about that. At all. It pretends it is for the first third of the movie or so, but it's not. I wish like hell it was, because that is a fucking fantastic premise. But it isn't. It's about some blind girl going on a journey to get penicillin to cure her boyfriend, who got stabbed by her retarded friend. It was like Shyamalan spent $20 million dollars in marketing to get everyone in the theatres, only to RickRoll them a third of the way in. I wish he had RickRolled us, in fact, because then I might have at least sat in awe at the sheer balls of it.3 After all, a RickRoll is just a practical joke. It was clear with The Village that he actually thought he was doing good work.

And that's the real problem with Shyamalan. He thinks he's doing good and be damned to the critics. Lady in the Water made this point blatantly, with one character being a movie critic who didn't know what he was talking about (another character remarks "What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?") and another character, a writer, being the hope for salvation of all mankind (and played, I'm sure coincidentally, by Shyamalan himself).

Maybe people who respond negatively to your movies aren't idiots, MNS. Maybe you're making bad movies.

But of course, the closest he'll get to admitting that he made a bad movie is by saying, as he has with The Happening, that he did it on purpose. "It's the best B-movie you'll ever see," he says.

Okay, first off: fuck you. Don't tell me what the best B-movie I've ever seen is. I'll be the judge. Technically Star Wars is a B-movie. Likewise Raiders of the Lost Ark. And Croenenberg's The Fly. And Carpenter's The Thing. Your movie is not even qualified to lick the balls of those films, much less stand in their presence as an equal, much less claim to have surpassed them.

I'd say that he should have said it's the best B-movie he's made, but not even that is accurate. That would be The Sixth Sense. The Happening is just another embarrassment in an ever-lengthening lineage.

Secondly, that's not what you were saying before it came out. You were saying this was the first R-rated movie you ever made and you were pushing it to make it as hard and scary as you could. Don't turn around just because you failed and pretend you meant to. That's George Lucas crap.

The Happening is about how the plants decide to kill everyone by emitting a toxin that removes the human preservation instinct. Okay, a little pulpy, but I can deal with that premise. People not having the sense to protect themselves, however, is not the same as people intentionally stabbing themselves in the neck, jumping off buildings, or lying down in front of a riding lawnmower.

The premise is kind of a rip-off of Stephen King's 2006 novel Cell, in which a cell phone signal called "the Pulse" somehow shuts down the higher functions of the brain, turning everyone who uses a cell phone, from the moment the Pulse hits onward, into violently insane madmen and -women. (Also they become telekinetic. Or something. That part's not appropriated in Happening.)

It should be no surprise by now that Shyamalan is a plagiarizing hack, nor that he went after Stephen King's idea, nor indeed that Cell did it better. (Although I suppose we should give him credit for at least ripping of a book for grown-ups this time around.) The acting in The Happening is laughably shitty, the plot and actions of the characters who are not supposed to be the insane ones make no logical sense, and instead of being intense, it's intensely boring.

But from a visual standpoint, Shyamalan has promise and I honestly think he can be great, but he has to get it out of his head that he is great no matter what he does. He is only great if he does a great job, and he has to be willing to listen -- if not to everybody, then he has to find some person or small group of people who can get through to him.

And he has to stop writing his own scripts. Please somebody stop him from writing.

Because it already sounds like he's fucking up The Last Airbender, and someone needs to do something.

  1. I thought about putting a spoiler alert on this post, but fuck it. If you haven't seen these flicks by now, it's obviously not high on your list of priorities, and besides the twists are retarded. I just saved you an hour and a half.

  2. There. My conscience got the best of me on the spoiler thing. It's still retarded.

  3. I'm aware that RickRolling hadn't been invented yet. (Oh, for those earlier times.) You get my drift.