Meta Post – Mr. Charlton, Fake Journalist

The last post I wrote blew up over what can be lovingly referred to as “A stupid internet debate.” What started as a harmless post regarding Trump as a lousy candidate quickly turned into a debate regarding Global Warming. I’m not entirely sure how that happened, but like I said, stupid internet debate. I was challenged with finding GIS data regarding global warming. So I started digging.

Now, it really wasn’t all that hard to find a pile of raw data for GIS analysis regarding global warming. It took the sleuthing of about a thirty second Google search to produce data I could throw in a program and start making maps. In fact, the company that makes ArcGIS, the most popular GIS program on the market, has a pdf on modeling maps with climate change in mind. The information is out there, and it’s not hard to find.

But I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to know how this information was gathered. I wanted to talk to experts. I wanted to correspond with people on both sides of the argument. Everyone who chimed in on the stupid internet debate I had going was not an expert. I’m certainly no expert when it comes to climate change. Hell, I’m hardly a drafting expert and I held that position for over a decade.

The only problem with all of this, is that the job I just described, gathering information, corresponding with experts, presenting the information so that it can be understood by non-experts is a job for a journalist, and I’m certainly no expert when it comes to that. So the task I had laid out for me was another hurdle, one that kind of paralyzed me from writing about anything on this blog for the last couple of days. I sat there, writing Harry Potter / Ninja Turtle cross-over slash fiction instead. As fun as it was to have Michelangelo fall in love with Hermione and have Harry bump heads with Leonardo over leadership duties, it certainly wasn’t getting me anywhere.

I did what I always do when I know nothing about something. I got some books and I started doing some research. This means that it’s going to be a bit before I can talk about climate change and do it justice. I have to get a better handle on the science behind the theory. I have to start sending emails and I have to start making phone calls. I’m determined to do the subject justice, and who knows? Maybe I’ll find out that I’ve been blindly following a hoax, and the Earth is perfectly fine and there’s no need for alarm.

Seriously though, who reads books anymore?

Learning from some books! Like old people do!

The topic of climate change is going to be brought up again on this blog again, you can count on that. In the meantime, the Olympics are starting up next week, and it looks like it’s going to be an utter disaster. I’m certainly no expert on the politics involved in the Olympic process, but I know what a train wreck looks like.

Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton

p.s. You know what? Harry would be getting along with Raphael so much better because they’re both emotional hotheads, Donatello would be crushing on Hermione ’cause of brain, and Ron would be skateboarding with Mikey and getting into wacky high-jinks. We all know Leo would be ass kissing Dumbledore.

p.s.s GOD! WHY WASN’T IT SO OBVIOUS BEFORE?!?! NOW ALL MY SLASH FICTION IS RUINED!

p.s.s.s. Gonna try out the ol’ alt text thing. Gives people reading it on a computer just that much more of me.

Pokémon – I Promise I’ll Stop Talking About It.

Alright, so in the first Pokémon Go article I wrote, I talked about what it was, who was playing it, and the fact that I ran into a goddamn rattlesnake. Part two explored Pokémon as a cultural phenomenon. I wanted to discuss what made Pokémon popular in the first place. In this third and last installment, I want to talk about the actual game Pokémon Go, and review the game. The question I’m posing, is Pokémon GO actually a good game?

The short answer is no.

Games for mobile platforms, ie your phone, have exploded in the last couple of years. There are actually too many games for both the Android platform and the IOS platform. Thousands and thousands and thousands of games, most being lousy and poorly thought out. When people started making games for phones, companies and programmers saw that there was a large market for apps, and started going to work. We now have a berth of apps for phones, so many that even if you deliver a quality product, there’s little chance of success.

Now, there’s a reason I’m not particularly a fan of games for the phone. A lot of these games are free to download. You don’t have to pay anything to play these games! You would think that’s some sort of bonus, but most of these free games fall under the ‘pay-to-win’ category. The games are often difficult, but if you choose to spend some money, you can gain access to more of the game faster. You can get potions to heal you, or buy more rounds of a puzzle game instead of waiting, or buy upgrades for your little virtual farm.

Mobile game companies have figured out some pretty heavy psychological aspect of human beings while making these games. Video games operate on the same principle as sports, work, hunting, or pretty much anything. Move towards a goal, face a challenge, then succeed or fail. If you succeed, you get a little dose of happy brain chemicals like dopamine, and you turn to face another goal. Score a touchdown, get a dose of dopamine. Complete a task at work, get a dose of dopamine. Your brain rewards you when you achieve victory. The insidious thing about these ‘pay-to-win’ games is video game companies have figured out that the brain still rewards the player with dopamine if you pay to level up instead of achieving it.

Like most people, you probably haven’t dropped any of your hard earned cash on these free games, and most players don’t. There’s a few people that do spend some money of these games, anywhere from $20 to $100 dollars. The companies aren’t interested in those people, or the people who spend zero dollars. The people they’re interested in are what the industry calls ‘Whales’. You see, Whales will spend thousands of dollars on pay-to-win games. These people aren’t playing a game, they’re addicts who are being taken advantage of.

Pokémon Go isn’t as insidious. Yet. You can still buy upgrades to make the game a little easier, but for the most part it’s still pretty balanced. But this game hasn’t even been released in Canada yet, and it’s only a week old, so there’s plenty of time to upgrade the game into something that might target these Whales.

The other issue regarding Pokémon Go, is it requires what us gamers call ‘Grinding’. ‘Grinding’ is the term used to progress your character’s development by continually repeating the same task over and over again. For hours. There’s a difficult boss you can’t beat? Go out and fight low level monsters for hours until your good enough to face the boss. In the new Pokémon Go, in order to evolve your ‘Mons, you have to catch enough of that particular ‘Mon to level it up. And that doesn’t take effort or skill, it just takes time and a lot of walking around. Some people have figured out a work around. In order to fool the game into thinking they are walking about, cheeky gamers have attached their phones to ceiling fans or stationary bikes. The game thinks you’re moving, and rewards you accordingly.

Because of this, Pokémon Go as a game fails for me. I don’t actually have a phone powerful enough to play it, and I’m not going out anytime soon to rectify this. There’s enough good games out there, that you pay for with money, that are fun all the way through, and aren’t confused with chores. Because if you’re attaching your phone to a bike in your living room, and pushing the wheel occasionally with a stick to trick the game into thinking you’re playing, well, how much fun is that exactly?

At the same time, it’s the most downloaded app. Ever. And it’s getting people out and about, getting exercise and meeting other people, even if it’s to talk about Pokémon. So in the scheme of things, even though the game isn’t for me, it wasn’t designed for me. It was made for Pokémon fans, and there’s obviously a lot of them. Who cares if it’s not a great game, it’s a great way to get in shape and meet some people, especially for those who struggle with that already.

Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton

p.s. To all game developers; Are you making a game? Or a gimmic?

 

Pokemon Go – Going to Get Bigger

I wasn’t exactly sure how big Pokemon Go was going to be. I knew it was going to be a hit with the legions of people who are already Pokemon fans. That was a given. But since its release a few days ago, I’ve been bombarded with questions about Pokemon and Pokemon Go. I’m going to clarify a few things about the craze, so the less informed can get in the know about Pocket Monsters, aka Pokemon.

The game people are playing right now, Pokemon Go, isn’t a new type of game. One of the developers of Pokemon Go, Niantic, released a similar game called Ingress for the Android and IPhone platforms a while back. If you have absolutely no interest in Pokemon whatsoever, but you’re curious to see what kind of game people are playing, then Ingress is your best bet. The game is played in the real world, with your phone as a tool. The game places you on a team, and then you’re encouraged to walk around to find items, located strongholds, and battle for supremacy. Pokemon Go is incredibly similar, but uses the Pokemon franchise as its theme.

Now, Ingress was wildly popular, and it has millions of players. I can almost guarantee Pokemon Go has already exceeded the number of players Ingress has. There was never a number of news stories running about Ingress, people weren’t playing the game at Holocaust memorials, there wasn’t anyone finding dead bodies in low lying areas. What makes Pokemon Go popular isn’t the game itself; there’s a number of games, including Ingress, offering the same sort of game. It’s popular because Pokemon is popular. So how did Pokemon get so big?

Let’s rewind the clock twenty years, back to 1996. The original Pokemon games were released for the Gameboy, the handheld portable game console by Nintendo. The game was based on the creators childhood of capturing bugs. There’s two objectives to the game. One, catch all the Pokemon and complete the Pokedex, an encyclopedia of Pokemon. Two, train a team of Pokemon that’s powerful enough to challenge the other trainers in the game world, eventually going up against the Pokemon Leagues ‘Elite Four’, the best trainers in the game.

The second part of the game is straight forward. The game works on a giant ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ mechanic. Pokemon are strong against some, weak against others. If your opponent is using fire type Pokemon, you can use water type to subdue them. Your Pokemon lineup would included matches for each Pokemon in your opponents line up. If you have a wide enough variety of ‘Mons, you can easily defeat anyone you go up against.

The first part of the game is a little more difficult. You see, in order to catch all the Pokemon and complete this Pokedex, you need to catch all 151 variety of Pokemon. The thing is, there’s two versions of the game that were released. Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue. You can’t capture all the Pokemon with just one game cartridge. You need both copies, two Gameboys and a Link cable. The premise was, if you had a copy of Red, and your friend had a copy of Blue, you could trade the Pokemon that were exclusive to each game.

The game was immensely popular when it first came out, and there was a cartoon featuring Pokemon released at roughly the same time, with a full length feature film not too long afterwards. Kids went crazy over the both the game and the cartoon, and adults who played video games found that the game play could be incredibly complex.

Pokemon-formula

You wouldn’t believe how far the rabbit hole goes.

What you need to remember is the original Pokemon video games were incredibly well thought out games with a very deep strategy system that was engaging. The other point worth remembering is that nostalgia’s a powerful thing, and we all have things from our childhood that we look back fondly.

I grew up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers and Super Mario. If you ever enjoy any of these things, track them down and give them another look. You’re going to find out two things. First, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers were absolutely abysmal cartoons. They were really nothing more than toy commercials, and the fact that my younger self enjoyed them makes me think less of six-year-old Mr. Charlton. Secondly, Super Mario still holds up. Even after thirty years, it’s still fun to play.

Pokemon has the same nostalgia factor with people thirty and younger. My girlfriend was part of the bracket that got the full dose of Pokemon when she was a kid. So it’s really no surprise to me a free Pokemon game for the mobile platform is doing well. If you’re sick of hearing about Pokemon Go, then read below, and you’ll know how I feel.

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Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton

p.s. Truthfully, I was always more of a SimCity kind of guy, anyways.

Pokemon Go Outside

If you’ve recently seen a bunch of sweaty, pale, unfit people who look like they generally don’t go outside very often, congratulations, you’re witnessing the phenomenon known as Pokemon Go, the new augmented reality game recently released for certain mobile phone platforms. Pokemon Go is a game that combines three things. Augmented Reality, geocaching and Pokemon. Maybe I should step back and explain what these three things are.

Augmented Reality, also known as AR, is when you can use a device to superimpose games and information right over a computer screen in real time. Let’s say your phone device has it’s email setup with AR. If you look at your table, there won’t be anything there, but hold up your phone to it, and using the camera to display your table, it will also show your email lying on the table as if it were physical mail. Now, this isn’t done with your phone typically, but with Microsoft’s Hololens, that idea is now a reality. Put on the Hololens, and an empty table can now hold a virtual board game, that responds to your hand gestures.

Koffing.png

A Wild Koffing Appears! (in the car)

Geocaching is a game played outside, where people are given coordinates to locate with GPS devices. At this location there is usually a water resistant container, with a little log book. You find the geocache, put your name down on the log, then look for another. It’s been around since the year 2000. Think of it like a treasure hunt.

Pokemon is a video game franchise that has at least a couple dozen games under its belt. The premise is to search the game world for animals called Pokemon. These animals have powers, and you use your Pokemon to battle other Pokemon trainers. The goal of the game is to ‘Catch them all’. There are hundreds of different  variety of Pokemon that can be caught. It’s one of the most popular video game franchises of all time.

Pokemon Go combines all three. Using AR, it layers the game play on top of your phone , and with your GPS locator in your phone, lets you track them on a map. Unlike the previous Pokemon games, you can’t simply play it at home on the couch. You actually have to get up and go find the Pokemon in the real world. Because of this, there are a lot of Pokemon players out in the sunlight, for the first time in months. And some of them are getting hurt, mugged, and finding dead bodies instead of Pokemon.

Now, I’m not a particularly huge Pokemon fan. Maybe it’s because I was a tad old when the originals came out, maybe it was because I got sick of the idea of trying to obtain a hundred percent completion on every damn game that was out, maybe it’s because the only pet I had growing up as a kid was a cat who was an asshole. There’s a lot of good reasons Pokemon is not for me.

Enter my girlfriend, Kat. You see, Kat loves Pokemon. She has Pokemon T-shirts, Pokemon water bottles, Pokemon figurines, Pokemon hats. Not to mention she’s played every Pokemon game. I was definitely in the know when it came out on Friday, which also happened to coincide with our one year anniversary. On our way out of town for a little weekend getaway, she’s getting me to frantically check for Pokemon at the Gas Station while we filled up. I’m proud to say I caught an Abra.

After returning from our weekend vacation, where there was no cell service or wifi, which meant no Pokemon, we arrived back at home and I started to unpack. We’ve been home for three minutes, and Kat asks me if I’d like to go for a walk. I’m pretty perplexed at this point, because Kat rarely wants to go out for a walk with me. I love to walk. I walk everywhere. My body is getting old and it’s nothing to write home about anymore, but my calves look like granite wrapped in silk. I haven’t owned a car in over a decade, and it’s not unusual for me to walk for an hour to get to a destination. So I hopped at the opportunity, even if it meant we’d have to stop every once and a while to catch a Pokemon or hit up a PokeStop.

Pokestop.png

You typically find two things at PokeStops. PokeBalls and Jesus.

We head over to Lethbridge University, because there is a lot of PokeStops over there. Pokestops are a refueling point, and they’re usually a landmark of some sort. We took turns looking for Pokemon, scrambling all over the campus looking for the little critters.

Diglet.png

The fellah was right behind me.

The game play is straight forward. You walk around a map of your city, and occasionally your phone will buzz. If you look around, you’ll see a Pokemon. Touch it to engage it, and when you do that, the game will task you to throw a ball. If you hit the Pokemon, it’ll catch ’em (beware though, even though they might be in the ball, they can still escape and you’ll have to try again). If you wait too long or miss too many throws, the Pokemon will get angrier and angrier and eventually disappear.

Pikachu.png

It took us a long time to get this shot, and Pikachu was pissed.

They’re doing a lot of renovations at the University right now, so a lot of the campus was unreachable. Now, Kat is a stickler for rules, but if there’s one thing she loves more than rules, it’s Pokemon. Soon we’re hopping fences, ignoring ‘Danger – Rattlesnakes’ signs and full on bush wacking it to find Pokemon.

Did I mention the part about rattlesnakes? Because at one point, due to construction, we had to turn around and backtrack. And guess what’s in our path, the one we just walked over? A rattlesnake. He wasn’t shaking his tail yet, but he certainly was making some noise and letting us know we were in the wrong neck of the woods.

Rattlesnake.jpg

Look! A wild goddamn rattlesnake appeared!

The really, really strange part was the Pokemon gyms. These are strongholds that can be contested by anyone playing the game. You take one of your Pokemon, pit it against the person who’s at the gym, and if you win, the gym is now yours. Other players can come to that gym and dethrone you if they beat your Pokemon. At every gym we found, there was at least two or three people, all a little out of shape and with pale skin, battling over these gyms. You’d walk up and they’d say “Pokemon Go?” and you’d nod your head. You’d see packs of video game nerds walking in the park, all of them staring at their phones.

This is the new reality of video games. Virtual reality is around the corner, so video games won’t always be the favored activity of couch potatoes. This is great because it’ll get dorks out of the house and interacting with other humans in the flesh. My girlfriend will actually go out on walks with me, as long as there’s enough Pokemon in the area. If you are out there, Pokemon trainers, just keep your head up. The real world has vehicle accidents, creeks to fall into, and occasionally, rattlesnakes.

Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton

p.s. I’m not joking, rattlesnakes are scary.

p.s.s. There’s a Pokemon gym right by our apartment. There’s now at least three fat dudes with Fedoras there at all times.

Tasty, Tasty Lab Meat

Meat grown in a lab is something that scientists have been working on for a long time, and rightly so. Meat is expensive, taking up a huge amount of resources including time, energy and land. Factory meat is typically a terrible place for the animals themselves, usually corralled into small cages, fed poor diets, and treated poorly. There’s a number of videos that show people just how cruelly some of the animals are treated. Chickens with beaks cut off, cows being beaten, that sort of thing. Videos like these have changed millions of peoples minds, including a number of famous celebrities like musician Paul McCartney, director James Cameron, and actress Michelle Pfeiffer.

Not only is meat expensive, there’s some health issues as well. Cattle are fed hormones to make them grow fatter, pigs are fed a steady diet of antibiotics to prevent them from falling ill, and chickens are given Prozac to deal with the existential issue of being a chicken. Not only that, but you have to remember that meat comes from animals, and animals defecate on a regular basis. Although current practices tend to keep most of the shit off of your burger, you have to keep in mind that if you’ve eaten a steak or a drumstick, then you’ve definitely ingested some poop at one time or another.

There’s only one problem though; meat is really, really delicious. I mean, it’s amazing. Meat is simply a treat to prepare. Due to its protein cellular structure, it reacts much differently than grains, fruits, roots or vegetables. You can’t roast a potato the same way you can roast a roast. And this is coming from a guy who loves potatoes. You cant slow cook broccoli in a smoker for several hours. Vegans and vegetarians have the luxury of their choice because of the knowledge we have gained as a species in regards to plant diets. Hundreds of years ago, if you wanted to survive, you’d need meat protein.

Right now though, our meat consumption is not sustainable, and the world is demanding more of it. What if you could grow meat the way you grow vegetables? What if, under certain conditions, you could grow a lamb shank or a pork shoulder? Would that change the game, and would we be able to eat as much meat as we’d like without having to pen cattle and coup chickens up in cages?

Many vegans and vegetarians aren’t forgoing meat because they don’t enjoy it or they have certain dietary restrictions. They’re choosing to skip the steak because they feel bad for the animals. If the meat is grown in a lab, then no animal is actually harmed. In this light, lab grown meat could be considered ‘vegan meat’, and not that tofurkey nonsense. This would actually be meat without any cruelty or hormones or farm factory practices. If meat is grown in a lab, then you can control every aspect of it. You could control its fat content, whether it was more like beef or veal. In the future, you could have a mixture of meat grown to your specifications, like chickenfish, or quailmutton. The possibilities are endless.

Well, a group of people at Memphis Meats are working on those sort of things as we speak. They are growing meat, and it actually tastes like meat. They’re using animal cells to create meatballs  It’s better for the environment, it’s better for people, and you can certainly better for the animals. Synthetic meat is certainly something we’ll all be hearing about in the near future.

Would you eat it though? For a lot of people, even the idea of meat grown in a petri dish is a turn off. Would people become snobbier about food than they already are? Would restaurant advertise that they serve animal meat instead of lab meat? But what if you couldn’t tell the difference? Would a black market form, an secret underground meat market, where high powered cartels test meat the same way they cocaine?

What will happen to the farm lands of the world? A monstrous portion of our land is devoted to the production of meat, whether directly, or the vast amount of grains they consume. Not only would farms that dealt in livestock be affected, but the huge amount of land that would suddenly become unnecessary. Just as driverless cars are coming and will change the way we use transportation, synthetic meat is coming and it will absolutely change not only our diets, but our farmlands as well.

Would I eat meat grown in a lab? You can certainly bet I would. I’ve eaten plenty of weird things, and I plan on eating more weird things. There’s only one caveat; meat should be prepared to order, and this man likes his steaks rare as the dickens.

Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton.

p.s. I once had a can of silkworm larvae once, I brought to a party. No one, including myself, could actually eat one. They smelled absolutely nasty.

Silkworms.jpg

This was a horrible idea.

 

 

Tetris – The Movie

I’m not certain I even need to describe Tetris. It’s considered by many to be the greatest video game of all time. It has sold over a hundred million copies since it’s debut back in 1984, from it’s humble beginnings in mother Russia. Players manipulate puzzle pieces called ‘tetrominoes’ on a screen as the pieces fall to the bottom. If the player is able to create a horizontal line without any gaps, then the line vanishes, points are distributed, and the game continues. If the player fills the screen with pieces without creating lines, then the game is over.

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I shouldn’t have to explain Tetris.¹

It’s hard to fathom exactly how far the cultural impact of Tetris is felt. Everyone I know has played Tetris at some point. There’s been hundreds of puzzle games that owe their concept to Tetris. The famed Tetris song, which is actually a Russian folk song called ‘Korobeiniki’, is instantly recognizable. Studies have been done that suggest that the mind is more efficient after playing Tetris, and this is even referred to as the ‘Tetris Effect’. Tetris truly is a video game masterpiece.

Here’s what the original song sounds like.

And they are making a movie about it.

Wait, did I say one movie? Because now they’re thinking about expanding the movie into a Trilogy. The story I’ve linked states it’s pretty much a done deal, but I’m still reeling over the fact they are making one Tetris film. A movie, about Tetris. There is going to be a movie based on a puzzle game where the objective is to create lines with geometry shapes. I am literally scratching my head right now, as the idea of basing a movie on the Tetris franchise is making my scalp itchy and bothersome.

Now, it would be absolutely fascinating if it told the story of the developer of Tetris, one Alexey Pajitnov. I mean, here’s a guy who built this little game for the Academy of Science of the USSR, and it exploded into the phenomenon it is today. A game created and released just before the end of the cold war. The man went on to work for Microsoft. That would make for an interesting movie, a Russian man who left his legacy on the world with Tetris going on to work for the largest software company on the planet.

But the film we’re going to see is apparently a Action Sci-fi Adventure picture, shot in China in 2017, with a budget of $80 million dollars. They really do seem bent on making a trilogy of it, too.

I’m more than a little hesitant, because:

A) Hollywood typically doesn’t handle movies based on games very well.

B) The Hobbit, the masterful book by J.R Tolkien, was a stretch at three film.

C) It’s a game about solving a puzzle.

Now, movies in the past based on games have done well in the past, and they’ve also done miserably. Clue, released in 1985 with Tim Curry, was a great example of a board game turned into a live action movie. It was funny, well written, and featured three different endings, with different endings playing in different theatres. Battleship, released in 2012 with Liam Neeson and Rihanna, was a bad example of a board game turned into a live action movie. It wasn’t very good, and was panned by critics.

Video game movie adaptations have fared much worse. There’s not a lot of good examples of great movies based on video games, in fact, most of them are terrible. Actually, I’m certain every single one of them is terrible. Here’s a list from Wikipedia. Fun fact, not one of them managed to get over a fifty percent rating on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. Not one. There’s movies based on gaming that are a novel, well thought out approach, like Tron and WarGames. But if your movie is going to be based on an actual game with the intention of a theatrical release, then the odds of it being actually good is slim. Out of the 29 movies made based on a video game, zero of them were actually worth watching.

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Even at ten years old I knew this was bad.²

Video games are great at being video games. They are terrible at being movies. Tetris as a game is worth playing and challenging. If you’re wondering how the movies are going to turn out, I might be able to help you solve that problem. They are going to be atrocious.

Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton

p.s. I lied. Price of Persia scored a 50/100 on Metacritic, and Mortal Kombat scored 58/100.

p.s.s. Don’t sit here and tell me that Mortal Combat was good. It wasn’t. Go watch it again and find out I’m right.

¹ Picture taken from Wikipedia.

² Picture taken from thepunkeffect.com

Where No Man Has Gone Before

I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek recently with my girlfriend. No, not the new action packed movies that star Chris Pine and Simon Pegg and some other actresses and actors I can’t remember off the top of my head. I’m not watching Enterprise, Voyager, or Deep Space Nine, I’m not even sure if I’ve actually watched a full episode of any of those knock offs. It’s not The Next Generation, which does kick major ass with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard. My eyeballs are getting stuffed with the sweet old school, super colorful, groundbreaking original series created by Gene Roddenberry, featuring the all start cast of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, and James Doohan.

The original Star Trek television serial is one of those shows I believe everyone should watch at least once. The acting is sometimes terrible, the special effects were amazing for it’s time and budget, it deals with themes that are still valid today, and the fight scenes are incredibly cheesy and poorly shot. This may not sound like much of a pitch, but I promise you, it’s definitely entertaining. The show has had such an influence on our culture that watching all 79 episodes is a history lesson on a number of television tropes that are still popular today.

Star Trek start airing in 1966, a time when the two most powerful countries on the planet were toying with the idea of mutual self destruction. The United States and the USSR were locked in a cold war, and both nations were stockpiling nuclear arms. The idea of Star Trek was to show a future where humanity has succeeded at achieving peace on Earth, and was now traveling the stars with other alien nations, with a crew made up of various ethnicity working together for a common goal. It was the first television series to feature a black woman, Nichelle Nichols, in a prominent role. It featured the first on-screen interracial kiss. On the bridge Walter Koenig played Chekov, a man with a heavy Russian accent.

Star Trek took the world as it was, when black people were fighting for civil liberties and two nations teetered on the brink of war, and showed us there was light at the end of the tunnel. That people were better, and could be better, if we worked together. Many of the episodes had plots that revolved around war, racism, tolerance and working towards peaceful resolutions. Asking questions came well before shooting.

The series was grounded in science. The researchers for the program were phenomenal, and many of the devices that were branded as futuristic are used today. The communicators are the best example, today we call them cellphones. The warp engines were based on the physics being studied at the time, the medical tricorder that was often used by Dr. McCoy are slowly becoming a reality, and Star Trek at it’s core is about space exploration. With government agencies like NASA and private enterprises like SpaceX, it looks like space exploration is becoming popular once again. Sure, the show featured time travel and parallel universes, but Star Trek still tended to focus on hard science fiction ideas.

William Shatner, as Captain James Tiberius Kirk, is a damn treat to watch. He’s not a particularly great actor by any stretch, but he’s a character unto himself. His speech pattern is strange, his presence is enormous, and he eats up the scene in every shot he’s in. Every time he’s in front of the camera, I’m pretty much glued to the screen. William Shatner is the best when he’s playing William Shatner (although apparently he’s a accomplished stage actor, which is a different beast all together).

The reason I’ve decided to talk about star Trek is, firstly, I’m watching a ton of it right now. That is something that is going on in Mr. Charlton’s life at the moment. Secondly, it was a vehicle used to talk about a lot of moral and social issues at the time, and it can still apply to the issues our society faces today. The coolest thing about Star Trek is Gene Roddenberry ideal future landscape, where humanity has overcome it’s differences to explore the stars. The show was about scientific discovery, locating and documenting new phenomenon, and how rationality and logic would prevail over ignorance and fear.

So, if you’re in the mood for low budget, cheesy, thought provoking science fiction, with weird choreographed fight scenes and bizarre acting, you can’t go wrong with Star Trek – The Original Series. Definitely one of my guiltier pleasures.

Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton

p.s. My girlfriend actually will sit down and watch it with me, and I believe that’s a testament regarding the shows entertainment value.

p.s.s. Start with ‘The Arena’. Classic.

The SpaceX Race: Part Two

Five hundred dollars. That’s the price point Elon Musk has decided on to get a pound of material into space. To get the average human being into space, you’d be looking at somewhere in between $60,000 to $100,000 dollars. Although that might seem pricey, if the ticket was a one way to another celestial body, we’re looking at a future where passage to the moon or the planet mars is affordable for you or me. Space is the final frontier, and unlike the New World explorers of the 15th and 16th century, there’s no boundary to space and there probably isn’t anyone already living on most of those planets.

There’s one issue. Right now there is a gate to space. The gravitational field surrounding the Earth not only requires an extraordinary amount of energy to leave, but any debris left in this orbit makes every subsequent journey much more difficult. The orbit around Earth doesn’t need to just be tidy, it needs to be relatively spotless. Bits of dust become bullets, and nuts and bolts become missiles.

Although there’s already people working on a solution, most of the ideas are still theoretical. There’s lasers, laser brooms, small robots getting sent out as futuristic little garbage men. One of the most promising ideas being put into motion is a joint venture from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Nitto Seimo Co., a company that, believe it or knot, makes some of the world’s fishing nets. What they plan on doing is sending up a rocket with the net. Once in orbit, the rocket deploys this net, a wire trap that is roughly seven kilometers long. It will orbit the Earth, picking up rubbish along the way. As it picks up space waste, it will become magnetically charged, which will draw it back to Earth, burning the net and the refuse in the process.

The question remains. Do we want corporations to head the exploration of this uncharted territory? Do we want economic prosperity to drive the adventurers of the 21st century? Honesty, the drive to explore new places and travel uncharted waters was always for economic reasons. When the Old world sent ships to the Americas, it was to discover a new trading route to India. These souls who risked life and limb weren’t in it purely for the thrill of adventure and excitement, their reasons were grounded in the pursuit of financial gain. After the United States landed on the moon, people got bored with space exploration. There didn’t seem to be anything useful up there. The last lunar rover to land on the moon was the Chinese Yutu, and they’re looking to mine the lunar body for Helium-3, an energy source.

Even though Elon Musk’s plans for space exploration aren’t as altruistic as some people would have you think, there is something admirable about a man, outside of the regulatory bodies of international governments, who wants to go to Mars. He’s even expressed the desire to die on Mars. At the price point that he’s trying to achieve, there may come a time when many people end up leaving Earth for redder pastures.

I’m not against corporations putting the first foot forward. I remain caution, as the Earth’s orbit remains the only boundary between humanity as a star-faring people, and the humanity which would be doomed to face our extinction on the rock where we were born. If we don’t venture out to the stars, and venture soon, then we may unfortunately never grow outwards and realize a greater potential as a species. If a company makes a mistake, then we could be grounded on Earth.

Space exploration should be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. We all should be extremely excited to see people, from whatever nation or company they happen to be from, make the leap for mankind. For some reason, we’re not. I’d love to see people cheer on a mission to Mars, but I fear it could end up like the lunar missions. I’m hoping that one day, we not only land on our neighbor, the red planet of Mars. What I’m really hoping for though, is we find a reason to go back.

To wrap it up, I have a question for everyone. If you were presented with the opportunity to leave the planet, to leave your family and friends, knowing full well you may never return, for the chance to live on another world? Honestly, I’m not sure I actually could. But I’m hoping some of you would answer with a resounding ‘Yes’.

Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton

p.s. Well, I’d be a lot more inclined to go up there if they’ve got a solid Wifi connection.

p.s.s. Did you notice the ‘knot’ pun when I was talking about fishing nets? Funny thing, Nitto Seimo was the pioneer when it came to ‘knotless’ nets. Go figure.

The SpaceX Race

Elon Musk is shooting for the moon. Not literally, mind you. He’s shooting for Mars. Elon Musk and his venture, SpaceX, represents the first of what will soon be many; a private industrialist’s foray into space exploration. Up until recently, the exploration of space has been limited to governments. While the funding for NASA was high during the cold war, it tapered off afterwards, as the two competing countries had little to prove. This has changed in recent years, as countries like China and India make their way into space. People are becoming interested in space again.

Normally, during the launch of a rocket, the primary booster is jettisoned and discarded. To lower the cost of sending things into space, SpaceX is trying to reuse these boosters by landing them of at sea. SpaceX has managed to successfully land three reusable rocket boosters back onto platforms out at sea.

You might be one of those people who are wondering why we’re even still bothering with space. Right now, you’re rolling your eyes, saying “Mr. Charlton, there is nothing out there in space.” Pardon me if I come across a little rude here, but I’ll tell you what is in space. The Goddamn rest of the Universe.

There’s energy to be harvested, heavy metals to extract, light metals for those who prefer a more classic sound, water, and maybe even the possibility of life. Not to mention there is one monstrous thing waiting out there for the first person who decides to get there first. Money. With all of these resources out there, completely untouched and untapped, the first person to get their hands on that treasure would be untouchable. There’s trillions of dollars worth of resources out there. Space mining may create the first trillionaires.

Wrapped up in mask of someone who has humanities best interest at heart, whether it’s with space exploration or electric cars, you have to remember that Elon Musk is a business man, first and foremost. He’s known for SpaceX and Tesla, but was the founder of PayPal, the giant online service that handles billions of dollars of web transactions. I’m not suggesting that what Elon Musk is doing is less than admirable or without merit to humanity. He’s changed the way we do business with PayPal, he’s changing the way we drive and commute with Tesla, and he’s changing the way we look at space with SpaceX.

The only thing concerning me is he want to get other companies up into space. Governments, minus the occasional ‘Star Wars’ idea of putting nuclear devices in space, have so far been respectful of space. Would corporations be as respectful of the stars as they are of my space down here?

The last thing I want to see in the sky is a massive space billboard, a digital projection across the ionosphere, saying ‘Today’s sunshine brought to you by Coca-Cola’. You can be absolutely certain some cretin in the Coca-Cola marketing department would read this and think to themselves “You, know what, if we could do that, that would be great. Wouldn’t you want to see that? A friendly reminder to our customers that, hey, if your feeling parched, there’s always the refreshing taste of Cola-Cola to quench your thirst.”

I kid. Realistically though, there is another issue, and it still has to do with corporations entering space. It’s the debris. As you read this, there are roughly 29,000 bits of trash larger than a cantaloupe, 670,000 pieces of trash bigger than a marble, and there’s 170 million pieces smaller than that. Even something like a fleck of paint can do damage when it’s traveling at kilometers per second. Should an error occur, and a commercial rocket ends up accidentally hitting a satellite, then the results could be catastrophic. The two object could break into thousands of pieces themselves. This debris could impact other satellites, causing them to get destroyed and become trash as well. It’s called the Kessler syndrome, a runaway of space collisions, rendering our ability as a species to leave the planet impossible. Simply put, if there’s too much junk in orbit, we as species will be unable to leave and be stuck on Earth.

Should we be worried about corporations leading the pack regarding space exploration? Will they be able to handle their own due diligence in our orbit? I’ll be talking about that tomorrow.

Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton

p.s. It’s a big enough topic for two posts, so I’m going to milk it when I can.

p.s.s. Although I’d be annoyed with a commercial, projecting a movie from space would be an interesting way to bring the world together.

 

 

AlphaGo

He turned to face the machine. “Is there a God?”

The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without a clicking of a single relay.

“Yes, now there is a God.”

Fredric Brown – “Answer”

Five games of Go took place between the 9th and 15th of March. The game of Go is a Chinese strategy board game, created over two and a half thousand years ago. Even though it has simple rules, it is considered more difficult than chess, as the board is much larger, giving the players a wider scope in which to play. Games can last up to six hours. Professional ranking are 1st dan, the lowest ranking,  to 9th dan. Those five games in March were between Grandmaster Lee Sedol, a 9th dan from South Korea, and AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence developed by Google DeepMind. AlphaGo ended up winning four of the five matches.

You may be asking yourself what the big deal is.

Go is a notoriously difficult game with a staggering number of board positions and outcomes. There are so many permutations of the board that there are less atoms in the universe than there are Go board layouts. Because this number is so high, a computer can’t brute-force it’s way to a victory, the way it has in the past with chess.

Computers aren’t very smart. At their very core, they are only able to answer yes or no, one or zero, or in actuality, whether there is current passing through an electrical gate or not. It’s referred to as binary. What a computer excels at, thanks to seventy years of electrical engineering innovations, is answering yes or no millions of times in less than a second. Consider a password four digits long. If a computer wanted to crack the code, it would stand at the gate, bang it’s head against the door and yells “0000” and waits for a response. If this is the correct password, great. The computer grants you access. If it’s not the right password, it bangs it’s head against the door again, yells “0001” and again waits for a response. This is how a computer would ‘brute-force’ a solution.

There are roughly ten to the power of eighty variations of the Go board. Here’s what that looks like written out.

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

No computer has the ability to brute force a number so large. AlphaGo had to learn how to play. It did so by first playing and studying human opponents, and when it became proficient enough, AlphaGo started to play against itself. Within a short amount of time, it played more games than any person alive. With that knowledge, it was able to defeat Lee Sedol. Not only defeat him, but AlphaGo made uncharacteristically inhuman moves, some that were so baffling that Lee Sedol had to get up from the table and take fifteen minutes to regain his composure.

The game of Go represented the last milestone of Artificial Intelligence in the arena of board games. When DeepBlue beat Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997, a machine victory for Go was considered a hundred years away. Five months ago, experts said it would be another ten years before a computer would be able to play at the Grandmaster level. What does that mean for tomorrow?

Here’s some music to begin tomorrow’s celebration.

Computers ability to replace human beings for tasks once thought too complex to be automated are becoming increasingly realistic. Cars that are able to drive themselves are just around the corner. Many jobs consisting of manual labour will be replaced. There will be a technological revolution that will dwarf the industrial revolution.

Where exactly do humans have the edge? What if a machine becomes self-aware, and decides that it’s so much better at work that humans are obsolete? Would it put humans in people zoos? Would it wipe humanity out?

There is one thing a human being has over all artificial intelligence; it’s emotions. One of the necessary things needed to make a decision, specifically an irrational decision, is emotions. If you give a rational task to a computer, something like “Learn Go”, it can do that. A computer isn’t a biological organism though. The human will to live, learn, strive and become better isn’t a logical process, it’s a biological one. It’s the desire to propagate the species genes further onwards.

There was a study done by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. He studied people who had brain damage, specifically the parts of the brain where emotions were controlled. His test subjects had lost the ability to feel any emotion. What he found is they had no way of making irrational decisions. If they had a choice between chicken and fish for dinner, there was no real rational method of choosing between the two. They knew they had to eat, but became stuck when having to make a choice that had no real impact on the outcome of being fed. As a result, they were unable to come to a decision.

Teaching a computer to play Go is incredibly challenging, but we’ve proven that the human race is capable of that. What may be an impossible task is to give a computer curiosity, drive, ambition. We might be surprised that the first question an AI asks is “Now what?”. At it’s core, no matter how good the computer gets at analyzing a problem, it still will more than likely need to be asked to solve the problem in the first place. A computer, even with intelligence, isn’t driven by a need to be better. I’m not convinced it ever will be.

The terrifying aspect of AI isn’t the artificial intelligence itself, but who happens to be at the helm. AlphaGo made moves out of the scope of human thinking. An AI isn’t bound by any human sense of regulation or morality, unless we program it to. If someone with a lack of foresight asks the computer a question, the computer might come to a solution that is potentially illegal, immoral, and even disastrous. This has already happened, when a online shopping bot, after being given $100 in bitcoin, purchased illicet drugs. Asking an artificial intelligence to “Make me the richest person alive” may result in the computer coming to the conclusion that the easiest way to do this is wipe out every person with more wealth. We have to be very careful about what we ask of a machine that has the potential to do anything. Humans, once again, are at the mercy of our own hubris.

The robot apocalypse is coming, and it won’t be a fight for your lives, it will be a fight for your livelihood. This shouldn’t be a bad thing though. Computers were created to make lives easier, so that people would have more leisure time. This, for many people, hasn’t been the case. The idea of capitalism and the rules of supply and demand, is one that is slowly becoming obsolete. In the digital age, the rules are changing, and the idea of ownership has been challenged for the last decade and a half. “You wouldn’t download a car, would you?”, which is often the cry of anti-piracy legislators. If someone had the resources to do so, you can be certain they would.

To put things bluntly, if we manage this paradigm shift correctly, it could usher in the greatest renaissance the planet has ever seen. If we don’t, the inequality of the world could be gigantic, separating classes of people so thoroughly that they may as well be two different species.

If they do actually create an artificial intelligence, one capable of real, rational thought, then I’m not sure how forward I’m looking to that. The last thing I want to do is deal with my toaster having an existential crisis when I want a bagel.

Sincerely,

The Illustrious Mr. Charlton

P.s. the only reason people think that Judgement Day would happen is because humans either subjugate or eradicate every other species on the planet.

P.s.s. once again, the real enemy is MAN!

p.s.s.s. I took some leaps here, but would love to discuss it with anyone in the future.