Sunday, May 16, 2010

Get Off My Property!

Today I’d like to talk to you about intellectual property. No, I don’t mean the law school definition of intellectual property. I’m not here to go on about copyrighting or anything of that sort. I’m talking about who has ownership and creative authority when it comes to works of fiction. I’m talking about Anakin Skywalker, Dumbledore, and Donnie Darko, and all those characters, great and small, who have found a place in our hearts and minds. My thesis is that these people do not belong to the George Lucas’s and J.K. Rowling’s of the world. They belong to us, the fans.


This is a line of thought I’ve been pondering for a long time, but Mike’s nostalgic blog entry from last month really inspired me to actually write it down. The gears had been turning for some time, but the spark that really set me off was when J.K. Rowling declared publicly that Dumbledore was gay. To appease the sensitive among us, I’ll first clarify that I don’t care what anyone’s sexual preference is, and I’m in no way homophobic. What bothered me about this revelation was that, after publishing seven lengthy books, Rowling had the audacity to simply declare something about one of Harry Potter’s major characters as fact.
I imagine a press conference room, full of blinking flashbulbs, with Rowling stepping up to the podium with a serious expression on her face, finally delivering the shocking news as reporters scribble furiously. As word disseminates to the masses, people clasp their hands over their mouths gasping, and old women descend onto their fainting couches. Once the shock has died down, people tear the familiar books down from the shelves and scan furiously through them for every subtle morsel of homoeroticism they can find.
It’s a publicity stunt.

This is big news, people!

I’m not here to propose that Dumbledore was or was not gay. You know why? Because there are seven widely beloved books full of fine material through which you can form your OWN opinion. The evidence is there if you want to find it, but if like me, you did not suspect anything in particular, Rowling’s declaration was rather jarring. Dumbledore? I’ve been through seven* years at Hogwarts with you. Why did you never tell me? Suddenly, Rowling has tried to change my fundamental understanding of a beloved character. I have formed a relationship with this character, and suddenly the rug has been pulled out from under my feet.
Bullshit. Dumbledore isn’t yours to mess with any more Rowling. You concluded your series. I saw “The End” right there in black ink. Based on my experiences with them, those Characters are MINE now- And yours, dear reader, and every individuals. The story is too big now for the exclusive control of the author.

*yes I know, technically only six.


It is the beauty of books that so much is left to our imaginations. With a few words to guide us, we paint a picture with our minds- Perhaps a landscape, or a face, or the exact sound of a person’s voice. In a similar way, movies provide room for our imagination to abound via their brevity. Two hour blocks are far too short a time for many of us to spend in our favorite fictional worlds. Well crafted alternate realities, rich in culture and detail, provide an expansive playground for our imaginations. Star Wars is a prime example. Because the original trilogy, the basis upon which all else was made, is only six or seven hours of entertainment, we spend endless time simply thinking about it afterwards. What if I was a Jedi? Or maybe a smuggler, running jobs for gangsters with an alien copilot? On and on we ponder, and from this an extended universe is liable to spring. People write novels, make TV shows, and even fan fiction. An entire universe comes to life, founded firmly on the bedrock of the original material. This unshakable source is the basis of our happy little worlds.
And then they go and change it on us. Sorry everyone, Han Solo is softer than you thought. It turns out Greedo shot first in the cantina. Also, apparently Anakin Skywalker never redeemed himself, because his “force ghost” at the end of Episode VI is him as a young man. I wish it could go back to the way it used to be, but sorry, George Lucas said so.

Wait a minute... who's that guy on the left?

Again: Bullshit.
Sorry George, but the authority left your hands long ago. The saga lives in the hearts of thousands of fans. Many years ago you provided us with the raw materials, but from them we have built more than just movies, we’ve made a facet of our own cultural identity. It’s a slice of Americana, and it is ours to own; ours to decide what to do with.


Donnie Darko has been called the first real “cult” hit of my generation. I think anyone in their early twenties has probably watched this at least a half dozen times in college. With an eerie atmosphere, a dash of time travel, emotional isolation, and nice dollop of anarchist rebellion, Darko draws you in fast. There is love, perversion, science, philosophy, a dysfunctional family, and tons of other intrigue. At the end, the unusual plot and ambiguous themes leave you asking what the hell just happened, but even if you don’t understand, you have been drawn in so totally that you want to watch again and again until you can really wrap your brain around it. Because of this, infinite dorm room discussions have been carried out into the wee hours over the meaning of this movie.
Hey, aren't you the guy from Prince of Persia!?

Unfortunately, “official” explanations of the film tend to be way more disappointing than the amazing theories you and your roommates cooked up at 3AM that night sophomore year. It boils down to something like Donnie is experiencing an alternate universe in which he has super powers. Really? That’s what it’s all about?

Know Thyself

The solution to the inevitable disappointment of “official” explanations is to simply never ever provide one. I mentioned earlier that sometimes stories get bigger than their creators, and I would posit that the best stories tap in to things which are fundamentally human. The undercurrents of society, life, death, sex, god, love, hate, and the entire human experience are present in all of us, even if only at a subconscious level. I believe it is possible for people who are uniquely attuned to these things to write brilliant pieces of fiction, without even necessarily being able to understand why they made the story the way they did. Some might call it accidental genius, but I think it’s more closely related to letting the human condition flow through you. To anyone who has ever sat in the back of an English class during a discussion of symbolism and thought “the author didn’t do that intentionally!” you may be right, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Let’s look at the Matrix Trilogy. While most people find the sequels to be inferior films, there can be no doubt that the entire series is packed to the gills with kung-fu-grade thematic punch. Religion, philosophy, the dichotomy of man and machine, and the relationship of creator and creature underpin everything that happens in these movies- and every overly-verbose monologue delivered by that Colonel Sanders looking guy. Like our friend Donnie Darko, Neo and the gang have had us up all night talking about what it is to be human, and where our place is in the world of the spiritual.

For anyone curious about the deeper themes in The Matrix, the Animatrix is an essential supplement.

In a master stroke of NOT meddling, and in the first move which I will applaud in this entry, Matrix creators the Wachowski brothers chose to withhold any “official” explanation of their tale. Instead, on the DVD commentary, they invite a panel of philosophers to discuss the meaning of the films. This was a brilliant decision. In this way, the story is still allowed to grow in whatever direction we are most happy with. If someone were to offer an explanation that disagrees with your own, you can easily dismiss it as a mere opinion. The Wachowskis have opened up a well for us from which we may drink in vast amounts of thematic speculation and pondering. If they were to have given their own definitive explanation, they would have replaced the well with a sippy cup.

So What am I Getting At?

There is in fact a point to this long ramble. Actually, there are two.
First, I believe it is important for authors, filmmakers, and other purveyors of fiction to leave their works be. Do not return to change things, and do not undermine the world you have created for the fans. Stories can grow beyond the scope of the creators control, and indeed, even beyond their understanding. After a point, their opinion is no longer more valid than anyone else’s, which leads me to point number two: Decide for yourself whose version you wish to believe. You must acknowledge that if you have found value and meaning in a story, no one can take that away from you.
Humans are story tellers, and through stories we find meaning and understanding in the real world. When you find a piece of fiction that resonates in your soul, take comfort in knowing that it is yours to own, and no one else can change your story.


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Friday, May 7, 2010

Particle Colliders and Future Tech

In today's comic we make the claim that to have a clear test of string theory you would need a particle collider the size of a galaxy. While that sounds like a ridiculous idea, we did at least do some baseline calculations, and I thought it would be good to go into it with a little more rigor.

This is all based on the wikipedia article on string theory which states:
There should be heavier copies of all particles corresponding to higher vibrational states of the string. But it is not clear how high these energies are. In the most likely case, they would be 1015 times higher than those accessible in the newest particle accelerator, the LHC, making this prediction impossible to test with any particle accelerator in the foreseeable future.
Without citing any sources, of course (thanks wikipedia contributors!), so maybe you can take that with a grain of salt. In any case, we can use this cautiously as an order-of-magnitude starting point.

Obviously when we talk about the utility of a particle accelerator for discovering new phenomena, the important quantity is the energy of the beam, not the physical size. But do the two scale together? Roughly, yes.

These data come from the list of hadron colliders that have information for both track length and beam energy on the wikipedia article listing particle accelerators. (A range is given for RHIC, so I took the maximum.) Running a trend line through the data gives us the average relationship between the two parameters, which in this case tells us:

Beam energy = 280.14 x Track length - 652.46

So if the LHC is capable of 7000 GeV and we want 10^15 times that, we're up to 7 x 10^18 GeV. (That's 7000 yotta electron-volts, for those of you keeping track.) Then we just solve the above equation for track length, and the result is roughly 2.5 x 10^16 km, or about 2600 lightyears. Of course, that's probably the circumference of a circle, so the actual diameter would be a factor of pi smaller, but you get the idea. It's big.

Maybe not as big as a galazxy, though, but hey, at this point who's counting?* It's about 26000 lightyears to the center of the Milky Way, but the Milky Way is actually pretty large among the galaxies in the Local Group. So maybe the size of a dwarf galaxy.

It would also be a terribly impractical machine. Not only because of the maintenance you would have to do along those 2600 lightyears of track, but also just the logistics of running it. If you started two beams at opposite ends of the track moving towards each other at nearly the speed of light, it would still take 1300 years for them to meet in the middle. And this all begins after you've waited 800 years for the signal to start to reach the opposite side of the ring. So maybe if you're lucky, you get one run of this thing every 2000 years, and just hope it doesn't break sometime in the middle because one of the hundreds of thousands of stars that it's lassoed up has orbited through the beam.

So in conclusion, no, it's not very realistic to build a particle collider to test string theory. If it were ever going to happen, we'd need some pretty significant engineering advancements first. But heck, maybe this is just the cost of finding the answer to life, the universe, and everything.


*I am, obviously.