Fans are in for a surprise

I was recently at the World Science Fiction Convention (see another blog post) and attended a panel on BSG. It was a very disappointing panel, with two participants of no great qualifications, and a moderator who mistakenly felt what everybody wanted was to hear the two panelists debate the merits of 1970s BSG compared to modern BSG. Not that this isn’t an interesting thing to talk about, but the fact that there was an older, cheesier source is about the least important thing about this show.

However, at the end of the session, I got up and asked the crowd for views on various controversies. Did they feel that this was in the far future and that Earth was the homeworld, for example? Even after seeing the ruined Earth, still only a few felt that. Did they think the Final Five were thousands of years old — only 2 out of a room of 50.

Of course, if I were more humble I would take that as a sign to reconsider my strong expectations that these things are true. But since my suppositions have proven decently good at predicting the direction of the show, I take it another way — the fans are in for a big shock. These were serious SF readers, a cut above your average fan, and they have not picked up on the clues relating to this. (Discussion after indicated that it wasn’t that they had seen the clues and disagreed, but rather had not picked up on them.) Moore has hid his secrets really well.

I wonder if even the actors had not clued into these elements, since many people inside the production have written about how shocking the ending will be, but how satisfying.

I guess I should not be too surprised at this. After Tigh and the rest were revealed as Cylons, many informed fans raved for months that it must be a trick, that they just think they are Cylons. In spite of the way they added “and we have been from the start” to the script to stop such speculation, it was rampant. I still run into people who think it’s a trick, even after getting to the ruined Earth and having D’Anna reveal she saw Tigh and the others in the temple. I still regularly see people insist that this is all taking place in the past or present. So congratulations, Mr. Moore, you are going to shock them. I hope that, even if I’m right about the core mysteries, he still manages to surprise and impress me as well.

Or of course, he may just show I was totally wrong. :-)

What is hard science fiction?

I’ve just returned from Denver and the World Science Fiction Convention (worldcon) where I spoke on issues such as privacy, DRM and creating new intelligent beings. However, I also attended a session on “hard” science fiction, and have some thoughts to relate from it.

Defining the sub-genres of SF, or any form of literature, is a constant topic for debate. No matter where you draw the lines, authors will work to bend them as well. Many people just give up and say “Science Fiction is what I point at when I say Science Fiction.”

Genres in the end are more about taste than anything else. They exist for readers to find fiction that is likely to match their tastes. Hard SF, broadly, is SF that takes extra care to follow the real rules of physics. It may include unknown science or technology but doesn’t include what those rules declare to be impossible. On the border of hard SF one also finds SF that does a few impossible things (most commonly faster-than-light starships) but otherwise sticks to the rules. As stories include more impossible and unlikely things, they travel down the path to fantasy, eventually arriving at a fully fantastic level where the world works in magical ways as the author found convenient.

Even in fantasy however, readers like to demand consistency. Once magical rules are set up, people like them to be followed.

In addition to Hard SF, softer SF and Fantasy, the “alternate history” genre has joined the pantheon, now often dubbed “speculative fiction.” All fiction deals with hypotheticals, but in speculative fiction, the “what if?” is asked about the world, not just the lives of some characters. This year, the Hugo award for best (ostensibly SF) novel of the year went to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union which is a very clear alternate history story. In it, the USA decides to accept Jews that Hitler is expelling from Europe, and gives them a temporary homeland around Sitka, Alaska. During the book, the lease on the homeland is expiring, and there is no Israel. It’s a very fine book, but I didn’t vote for it because I want to promote actual SF, not alternate history, with the award.

However, in considering why fans like alternate history, I realized something else. In mainstream literature, the cliche is that the purpose of literature is to “explore the human condition.” SF tends to expand that, to explore both the human condition and the nature of the technology and societies we create, as well as the universe itself. SF gets faulted by the mainstream literature community for exploring those latter topics at the expense of the more character oriented explorations that are the core of mainstream fiction. This is sometimes, but not always, a fair criticism.

Hard SF fans want their fiction to follow the rules of physics, which is to say, take place in what could be the real world. In a sense, that’s similar to the goal of mainstream fiction, even though normally hard SF and mainstream fiction are considered polar opposites in the genre spectrum. After all, mainstream fiction follows the rules of physics as well or better than the hardest SF. It follows them because the author isn’t trying to explore questions of science, technology and the universe, but it does follow them. Likewise, almost all alternate history also follows the laws of physics. It just tweaks some past event, not a past rule. As such it explores the “real world” as closely as SF does, and I suspect this is why it is considered a subgenre of fantasy and SF.

I admit to a taste for hard SF. Future hard SF is a form of futurism; an explanation of real possible futures for the world. It explores real issues. The best work in hard SF today comes (far too infrequently) from Vernor Vinge, including his recent hugo winning novel, Rainbows End. His most famous work, A Fire Upon the Deep, which I published in electronic form 15 years ago, is a curious beast. It includes one extremely unlikely element of setting — a galaxy where the rules of physics which govern the speed of computation vary with distance from the center of the galaxy. Some view that as fantastic, but its real purpose is to allow him to write about the very fascinating and important topic of computerized super-minds, who are so smart that they are as gods to us. Coining the term “applied theology” Vinge uses his setting to allow the superminds to exist in the same story as characters like us that we can relate to. Vinge feels that you can’t write an authentic story about superminds, and thus need to have human characters, and so uses this element some would view as fantastic. So I embrace this as hard SF, and for the purists, the novels suggest that the “zones” may be artificial.

The best hard SF thus explores the total human condition. Fantastic fiction can do this as well, but it must do it by allegory. In fantasy, we are not looking at the real world, but we usually are trying to say something about it. However, it is not always good to let the author pick and choose what’s real and what’s not about the world, since it is too easy to fall into the trap of speaking only about your made-up reality and not about the world.

Not that this is always bad. Exploring the “human condition” or reality is just one thing we ask of our fiction. We also always want a ripping good read. And that can occur in any genre.

800 style numbers for unregistered cell phones

You may not know it, but any cell phone — whether it has an account with a carrier or not — is able to call 911. You can leave one of your old phones (and a car charger) in your car if you just want a way to reach emergency services.

I propose an expansion of this idea. A special set of numbers, which, like 800 numbers are free to call because the called party pays for the airtime. These exist already of course, but I want to go further and have numbers where any phone, or at least any phone which works with a participating carrier, can call the number, billed to the receiver of the call.

Then people who can’t afford a cell phone could still use one, if they liked, to call certain businesses. The first one I’m thinking of are taxis. I’ve always thought cell-phone hail makes sense for taxis in today’s world (and it eliminates the need for a monopoly but one problem was not everybody has a cell phone. Even if the cab companies can’t afford the 50 cents they might pay for airtime, it could just be added to the fare, at least in a non monopoly rates world.

This could also enable a cell-phone-hailed jitney service that replaces low-usage transit bus lines. In much of the world, jitneys are popular and cheap. A new high-tech jitney could be much better than the bus, if everybody can get a phone with which to call it.

There are other companies who might participate. Travel companies such as hotels and airlines might allow these calls. Tourists visiting foreign countries might find it useful to reach such companies but they may not want to get a local cell phone or pay giant roaming rates — or might not have a cell at home that can roam, as CDMA customers realize in the GSM world.

If they could do it in low volume, parents might even participate, allowing their kids to use an old unregistered phone to call them (at high cost) but do nothing else. Of course cell companies might not want to allow this as they may feel they get more money pushing parents to buy phones, or at least prepaid phones, for the kids.

The phones would not be directly callable, but it might be handy if the system allowed the recipients of these target-paid calls to have a temporary number which can be used to call back a caller who has called recently. That’s a little more involved. This would be handy for 911 too. And of course, if this became common, more people would have a phone which could call 911 in an emergency. There are tons of old phones out there, and they are cheap.

Companies would have to coordinate. It would be nice if a cell800 customer didn’t have to negotiate with every carrier in town, and if they could use the same number on several carriers. Most of these old phones will be subsidy locked and only able to work with one carrier.

Should we let people safely talk to the police?

There’s a bit of an internet buzz this week around a video of a law lecture on why you should never, ever, ever, ever talk to the police. The video begins with the law professor and criminal defense attorney, who is a good speaker, making that case, and then a police detective, interesting but not quite as eloquent, agreeing with him and describing the various tricks the police use every day with people stupid enough to talk to them.

The case is very good. In our society of a zillion laws, you are always guilty of something, and he explains, even if you’re completely innocent, and you tell nothing but the truth, there are still a lot of ways you could end up in jail. Not that it happens every time, but the chance is high enough and the cost is so great that he advocates that you should never, ever talk to the police. (He doesn’t say this, but I presume he does not include when you are filing a complaint about a crime against you or are a witness in a crime against others, where the benefits may outweigh the risk.)

Now fortunately for the police, few people follow the advice. Lots of people talk to the police. Some 80% of cases, the detective declares, are won because of a confession by the suspect. Cops love it, and they will lie (and are permitted to lie) to make it happen if they can.

But since a rational person should never, ever, under any circumstances talk to the police, this prevents citizens from ever helping the police. And there are times when society, and law enforcement, would be better if citizens could help the police without fear.

What if there existed a means for the police to do a guaranteed off-the-record interview with a non-suspect? Instead of a Miranda warning, the police would inform you that:

“You are not a suspect, and nothing from this interview can be used against you in a court of law.”

First of all, could this work? I believe our laws of evidence are strong enough that actual quotes from the interview could not be used. To improve things, you could be allowed to record the interview, or the officer could record it but hand you the only copy, and swear it’s the only copy. It could be a digitally signed, authenticated copy, which can never be taken from you by warrant or subpoena, or used even if you lose it, perhaps until some years after your death.

However, clearly if the police learn something in the interview that makes them suspect you, they will try to find ways to “learn” that again through other, admissible means. And this could come back to bite you. While we could have a Fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine which would forbid this, it is much harder to get full rigour about such doctrines. Is this fear enough to make it still always be the best advice to never speak to the police? Is there a way we could make it self to assist the police?

I will note that if we had a safe means to assist the police, it would sometimes “backfire” in the eyes of the public. There would be times when interviewees would (foolishly, but still successfully) say “nyah, nyah, I did it and you can’t get me” and the public would be faced with the usual confusion over people who are let free even when we know they are guilty. And indeed there would be times when the police learn things in such interviews and could have then found evidence, but are prohibited from, that get the public up in arms because some rapist, kidnapper, murderer or even terrorist goes free.

What's your travel power supply record?

I often rant here about the need for better universal power supply technology. And there is some progress. On a recent trip to Europe, I was astounded how much we took in the way of power supply gear. I am curious at what the record is for readers here. I suggested we have a contest at a recent gathering. I had six supplies, and did not win.

Here’s what the two of us had on the German trip in terms of devices. There were slightly fewer supplies, due to the fact several devices charged from USB, which could be generated by laptops or dedicated wall-warts.

  • My laptop, with power supply. (Universal, able to run from plane, car or any voltage)
  • Her laptop, with power supply.
  • My unlocked GSM phone, which though mini-USB needs its dedicated charger, so that was brought
  • My CDMA phone, functioning has a PDA, charges from mini-USB
  • Her unlocked GSM phone, plus motorola charger
  • Her CDMA Treo, as a PDA, with dedicated charger
  • My Logger GPS, charges from mini-USB
  • My old bluetooth GPS, because I had just bought the logger, charges from mini-USB
  • My Canon EOS 40D, with plug in battery charger. 4 batteries.
  • Her Canon mini camera, with different plug in battery charger. 2 batteries.
  • Canon flash units, with NiMH AA batteries, with charger and power supply for charger.
  • Special device, with 12v power supply.
  • MP3 player and charger
  • Bluetooth headset, charges from same Motorola charger. Today we would have two!
  • External laptop battery for 12 hour flight, charges from laptop charger
  • Electric shaver — did not bring charger as battery will last trip.
  • 4 adapters for Euro plugs, and one 3-way extension cord. One adapter has USB power out!
  • An additional USB wall-wart, for a total of 3 USB wall-warts, plus the computers.
  • Cigarette lighter to USB adapter to power devices in car.

That’s the gear that will plug into a wall. There was more electronic gear, including USB memory sticks, flash cards, external wi-fi antennal, headsets and I’ve probably forgotten a few things.  read more »

The Ellen Tigh Plot

With so many candidates eliminated by various clues and pronouncements, one that has percolated to the top (not counting the Virtual Being who is my current leader) is the dead Ellen Tigh. She’s not a very popular choice, since she was not a likable character, and not that major of one either.

Ellen appeared, though many won’t remember it, in the pilot miniseries. Just before the attack, Colonel Tigh pulls out a photo of Ellen (played by a different actress) and uses his cigar to burn a hole in it. In this photograph, you see he burns her a bright red, glowing eye. Well, especially to miniseries viewers, a red glowing eye has a special meaning.

When she does arrive, everybody wonders if she’s a Cylon. She says she was unconscious on a fleet ship for 3 weeks, having escaped from Picon. She’s immediately all over everybody, wants to get back with Tigh, is flirting with Apollo and very, very curious about the hunt for Earth. She is the first to be tested in the Cylon tester.

So let’s consider an interesting possible plot for Ellen as the final Cylon.

The Final Five, as I view it, are not strictly Cylons. They are former human beings who transferred their minds into AI form. They were, I think, the people who programmed and created the Cylon AIs and the first Cylons themselves, back on Earth.

As I also surmise, in order to maintain their humanity, they regularly incarnate themselves in human form, unaware of who they are. They are born, grow up and then later die or become aware, and merge themselves with the more advanced AI mind, keeping that mind more human.

So let’s imagine that two of the five are lovers. They were lovers as humans, and have had a tumultuous, 4,000 year long on-again off-again love affair. Sometimes, as is the case this time, they find each other in human form, and marry. But it’s not a fully stable relationship, in spite of, or perhaps because of its longevity.

This time, Ellen goes particularly far, and starts screwing Cavil and eventually betrays the resistance while trying to help Saul. And he has to execute her for doing this.

After he does, Ellen wakes up in a tank. Now her mind is merged with her old self, and she remembers the 4,000 year history. And sees the horrible thing done to Saul, and that he did to her. She is hungry for redemption, but it will only come with suffering.

Boy, talk about a marital spat coming up. I only suggest details here. It’s possible that if this is the real plot, Moore could develop it more. Even show flashbacks, once things are revealed, of their beginnings on Earth, and their 4,000 year long love affair and battle. Give it some real meat. Strengthen the love and betrayals. And then show how it all comes together.

To sum up, Ellen:

  • Has many dramatic clues pointing her out as a Cylon.
  • Has been around since the miniseries and season one.
  • Is a guest star, but not a brand new one. She’s well known to audiences, unless they just joined.
  • Is not in the fleet, and D’Anna may well know she’s dead.
  • Is not in the Last Supper photo
  • Is not likely to be the one D’Anna apologized to (I guess that would be Anders.)
  • Would be hungering for redemption, and gain it only in suffering.
  • At the time of Razor, she was still alive and in shadow.
  • Has been back in the show, in Tigh’s mind.

My main issue with her, aside from her non-likability, is I don’t think she’s developed enough, and she’s been out of the show since early in Season 3, except for her hallucination appearances. They would need to develop this story more to make it satisfying, but I think they could do that.

It can of course be very deep. Perhaps this isn’t the first time they have betrayed one another, or even the first time one of them has killed the other. Could the war on Kobol have been a result of their marital spat?

A privacy enabled phone-home for laptops

There are a variety of tools out there to help recover stolen technological devices. They make the devices “phone home” to the security company, and if stolen, this can be used to find the laptop (based on IP traceroutes etc.) and get it back. Some of these tools work hard to hide on the machine, even claiming they will survive low level disk formats. Some reportedly get installed into the BIOS to survive a disk swap.

This has always been interesting to me, but it seems like something that could be used to track you against your will. I don’t know how all the different products work inside — they are deliberately obtuse about some parts of it — but here’s a design for one that you could perhaps trust with your privacy.

  • When setting it up, you would create a passphrase. Write it down somewhere else, as you need it for recovery.
  • Every so often, it will make a DNS request of a magic DNS server. In the request will be embedded a random number, and an encryption of the random number based on the passphrase.
  • Without the passphrase, these requests mean nothing to the tracking company. They don’t know who made the request
  • When your device is stolen, you give the tracking company your passphrase
  • When a request comes in, the tracking company checks it using the passphrases of the devices that are currently reported stolen. If it matches, bingo.
  • In a match, return a DNS answer that says, “You’re stolen. Do the stuff you should do.” That answer is of course also encrypted with the passphrase.
  • At that point, the device can do complex traceroutes, take photos with its built in camera, record audio, you name it.

If there are a lot of stolen laptops in the database, the search could be sped up one of two ways:

  • The random number isn’t random, it’s the date. The site can then pre-compute all the codes it is likely to get from stolen laptops that day. Changing the date on the computer won’t help, as that just means a little more CPU on that particular request.
  • Include an 8 or 9 bit hash of the passphrase + date. That can reduce by a factor of 256 or 512 how many phrases you must try. This identifies you a bit but if the company has lots of customers you are fine.

Note that DNS requests tend to get through just about any firewall other than a firewall deliberately tuned to block sneaky DNS requests.

This system could be integrated into a BIOS or right into an ethernet card. However, since it is the high level OS that does DHCP etc. you need a bit of network layer cheating to do this right. I presume they already do that.

You can also run the DNS server yourself, if you are so inclined. It’s not that hard. But this system lets you trust a 3rd party as they learn nothing about you as long as they have lots of customers.

Virtual Six/Baltar as the Final Cylon

A suggestion in a comment by a reader led me to an interesting hypothesis, which eerily fits the facts.

There is a being — I have generally believed it to be the Cylon god and/or master programmer — who appears to several characters as a virtual or “head” character. Baltar sees this being as his Six, but has also seen it in Baltar form. Caprica Six sees this being as a Baltar, because Baltar was her lover. Starbuck saw this being as a Leoben. It’s possible that Tigh is seeing it as Ellen, on top of Caprica Six. Roslin may have seen it as Elosha. There might be more than one mysterious being behind these visions, but let’s posit there’s just one for now.

Let’s imagine this being is the Final Cylon. When D’Anna stepped into the Temple of Five, she saw 5 figures, one of whom led her to beg forgiveness. If the Final Cylon is the entity behind these virtual beings, in what form did she see it? It could be any form, of course, but it might well be the form of her lover, Baltar. (After all, that’s how Caprica Six sees the being, also as her lover.) And she would apologize to him, and then tell Cavil that “there are five other Cylons” which she would not do if she saw a Six or Leoben or Eight.

She thinks it’s Baltar, but it’s not. It’s virtual Baltar she saw. But she tells real Baltar “you were right” about his claim that he’s a Cylon. But he’s wrong — though he is still the chosen one. Virtual Six has told him that she and Baltar will be parents of the new race.

When she awakes, she shows the most concern for Baltar. Of course, that could be because they were lovers, but it seems like more. And then she tells Roslin “There are Four in your Fleet.” She knows this because she thinks it’s Baltar. She is right, though, there are only four in the fleet.

Now this also jibes with a lot of clues

  • Virtual Being has been around since the miniseries.
  • Virtual Being is almost always played by a regular, not a guest star. Moore ruled out Guest Stars
  • In a sense, Virtual Being is a regular, and one of the most popular characters on the show thanks to being mostly played by Helfer and Callis.
  • Fits very well with the “You have heard my voice many times but don’t know my name” clue.
  • Virtual Being is potentially not in the “Last Supper” photo, if you take the central Six there to be Caprica Six. She does look like Virtual Six, particularly in how Baltar looks at her and her dress, but this would be a clever trick. Virtual Six and original Caprica six are identical in appearance, of course.
  • It’s a shocker. But it explains things. Virtual Being is “The one who programmed us” that D’Anna talks about before being boxed. The one pulling the strings. The one who took Starbuck to Earth and triggered the four Cylons to awaken.
  • Virtual Baltar can be (a form of) the final Cylon while Baltar is still human or has another role.
  • Virtual Being has physical powers, possibly becoming Shelley Godfrey, and picking up Baltar when he’s down.
  • Virtual Being is not asleep however, so Gaeta’s song does not jibe.
  • Of all the regulars — indeed of all the significant characters, Virtual Being is the only one fans don’t suspect of being the final Cylon. We keep being told by series insiders that “nobody” is guessing right.
  • We’re also told that the ending makes it all make sense, that though they admit they wrote the ending later, it seems like it’s been planned from the start. Virtual Being has been a central show mystery from the start.
  • It does not mesh well with the First Hybrid’s line about the “fifth, still in shadow” clawing for the light and seeking redemption.
  • In a deleted scene, we see Virtual Six saying goodbye to Baltar. He won’t be seeing her any more. Would this highly popular character vanish from the series conclusion? Or does she move on to a more interesting role? She does say “other angels will light your path.”

Why don’t fans suspect it? Because they already thought of Virtual Being as a Cylon from the start, because for so long it was in the form of Six. But Virtual Being clearly is not one of the 7 Cylons in any way, but has been using Baltar for its own agenda. Virtual Being’s status as a Cylon is hidden in plain sight.

Food for thought, considering how slim the other choices, are, with Ellen Tigh currently in the lead.

Ron Moore says "I'ts not a guest star we've never seen."

At the recent BSG panel at the San Diego ComiCon, some hints dash a number of hopes for the final Cylon. You can read IO9’s article on important items from the panel.

Most telling is this line from Ron Moore:

“I can tell you it’s someone you’ve seen. It won’t be a guest-star”

This quickly eliminates a number of characters people have had under consideration, such as Joseph Adama and Zak Adama. Indeed, it won’t be anybody from Caprica. You can also count out Adar, Boxey and other such minor characters. If you want to take Moore in full TV-speak, a “guest star” is anybody who is not on the full regular cast. For example, Tigh, Foster, Tyrol, Anders, Helo, Dualla, Gaeta and many others are all listed as “guest stars” in the credits, though some of them approach the screen time of the regulars. In fact, if you combine the “Last Supper” picture which has all the regulars and a literal “no guest star” declaration, then everybody is eliminated, and you have to go to theories like “That’s the virtual Baltar in the picture.” So I take this to mean that it won’t be a new guest star, like Joseph Adama would be.

Another character, already eliminated by the declaration that there are “four in the fleet” is Gaeta. David Eick says that as they were picking who would be a Cylon in season 3, they debated for a while between Anders and Gaeta. If Gaeta were the final Cylon, that’s an unlikely debate. (One could stretch things and suggest they were debating who would be revealed and who would be hidden among these two, but frankly that doesn’t make a lot of sense.)

This does not leave fans with many workable choices. Percolating to the top now is Ellen Tigh. I will admit there are some interesting dramatic ironies to her story — two star-crossed lovers who, unaware of their nature, still find each other, collaborating with Cavil, one having to execute the other — but I just don’t see her as a satisfying final Cylon to be revealed.

I have similar misgivings for Cally, another popular fan choice. “Ah, it was her all along” doesn’t do it for me. Gaeta’s song does point to a female, but still.

Both Ellen Tigh and Cally were credited as guest stars but they are familiar to the audience. Cally got a lot of screen time. Ellen will be pretty unfamiliar to latecomer viewers, though we have seen Tigh have his visions of her.

It does make one want to believe that some of these elimination clues are just plain wrong. If four-in-the-fleet is wrong, then Gaeta’s elimination leaves us mostly with the uninspiring Dualla, with a few possible outliers like Cottle. If the Last Supper is false in spite of promises, I remain with Baltar.

Panoramas of Wyoming: Yellowstone, Tetons

Last weekend I had a great trip to Wyoming, staying in Jackson for a bit and then into Yellowstone with a Cody side-trip.

As always, tons of photos and a new gallery of panoramic photos of the area. My last trip to Yellowstone featured poor weather and a very early (low quality) digital camera so I was pleased to photograph it again.

Check out my Gallery of Panoramas of Wyoming

One thing that was different: In the bookstores at both parks there were books on how to photograph the park. This was something quite new, and is an artifact of the great rebirth of photography that digital cameras have brought. Often when I enter an area I will ask the locals for the good photographic spots. These books answered those questions, and did more — told me when to visit the spots, or where to go at certain times of day. For example, the book told me I would get a rainbow at 9 am on upper Yellowstone falls from Uncle Tom point, and indeed I did. (It must be timed for summer.)

Everybody shoots Old Faithful — here’s the crowd around it at sunset:

Pickens Plan -- switch cars to NG, electricity to wind

Last weekend I attended a small gathering in the Grand Tetons where Boone Pickens came to promote his new energy plan. The billionaire oilman is spending $56M of his own money per year on ads for this plan, and you will see them if you watch ads. Otherwise they are at his Pickens Plan web site.

Pickens’ thesis is that the most ruinous thing in energy is the 700 billion dollars per year the USA spends importing oil, a number destined to go up to a trillion. He thinks the price will continue to rise, simply because demand now exceeds supply, and that supply can’t be radically increased — ie. he believes in the Peak Oil thesis. He doesn’t seem to mind burning the fuel so much as importing it, which is giving trillions to other nations at U.S. expense. He is happy to support any domestic oil production, such as offshore, as good because it reduces the import numbers, but doesn’t think these are long term solutions.

His main goal is to get cars off of oil and onto domestic energy. He thinks the best way to do that is with LNG (liquid natural gas) or compressed natural gass cars. He says they have been far cheaper than gasoline for some time — half the cost — but that this was not enough to make people care enough to switch. Any new fuel has a chicken and egg problem when it comes to fueling infrastructure, something that Robocars solve, by the way.

To do that, he needs to take natural gas from the power grid. NG produces 20% of U.S. electricity. So he is promoting wind and solar. The wind in a high-wind corridor that runs up the center of the country, the solar in the sun-belt (the southwest and California.)

It’s an interesting plan, and he points out that whatever flaws you may find in it, at least it is a plan, something that’s been lacking for some time.

That said, some notes:

  • Getting power from the wind belt is not easy. In spite of what you may think, there is no national power grid, and certainly no infrastructure to power the coasts from the middle. This would have to be built, and would be very expensive. Pickens admits this. New technology of high voltage DC transmission could help.
  • I’m not sure that adding wind power would free up NG for cars. I think we would just use more electricity if you increase the supply. That’s what we do.
  • Indeed, from a pollution standpoint, we would be far better to shut down coal plants when the wind/solar comes online, but we won’t, because it’s cheap. Only moving cars to NG (or electric or other domestic energy source) reduces oil imports.
  • Pickens is buying a pretty old-school marketing campaign with his spare millions. We all thought he could have done it for far less with clever use of the internet and a more modest TV budget.
  • The 700 million isn’t all bad, of course. The largest source of imported oil is Canada. Saudis are #2 and Mexico is #3. Venezuela is #4, though it recently switched from from a friendly ally to an unfriendly.

Still, it’s good that Pickens will get people talking about this. NG for cars is already a reasonably popular fleet fuel. New extraction technologies have opened up a lot of new sources of NG of late. Of course, burning NG still emits CO2, though not much else, once refined to more pure methane, it’s the cleanest fossil fuel.

What sort of Earth would it be, colonized by aliens?

Readers of this blog will know I believe there are extremely strong clues that BSG takes place in our far future, that Kobol is a future colony of Earth, and that there probably never was a real 13th tribe — it’s just a cover story for the true origins of humanity. (Well, I got that last part wrong…)

However, a lot of viewers still expect we’ll see a plot more akin to the original Battlestar Galactica, where “life here, began out there.” In that show, all the events took place around 1960, and Earth really was a lost tribe of Kobol. That plot turns out to be scientifically ridiculous, since there is massive evidence that we, and all the other life on this planet evolved from single celled organisms right here on this planet.

But, I have been asked, “could this be an alternate reality?” A fictional Earth, not the same as ours, in which we really are the descendants of ancient alien colonists. So I set out to explore how close you could come to our Earth in the BSG:1980 scenario.  read more »

Saw their twelve brothers

One of the most important, but confusing lines in the show was said by Starbuck in the Tomb of Athena when they turned on the 3-D projection of a simulated Earth.

“The scriptures say that when the thirteenth tribe landed on Earth, they looked up into the heavens and they saw their twelve brothers.”

Readers of this blog will know I’ve felt it has been clear since this scene that Earth is the homeworld of mankind, Kobol was a colony of Earth, and that the “13th tribe” story is a cover story designed to hide that fact.

Now this line pretty much proved it. The 12 tribes of Kobol are named after the Earth Zodiac, and more tellingly their flags show the constellations as seen from Earth. The central facet of Kobolian culture is from the Earth sky. I’ve seen tortured logic trying to explain this in the Galactica 1980 “Earth is a colony of Kobol” backstory, where Kobol colonizes Earth, Kobol Falls and Earth recolonizes Kobol and Kobolian culture thus comes from Earth. But it’s tortured logic indeed, and effectively has each planet be a colony of the other.

However, there is something odd about this line from their scripture. Why don’t the characters themselves see the contradiction in it? The myth says they saw the 12 tribes in the Zodiac when they landed. This should make no sense to people who believe that Earth was a vacant planet colonized by a Kobolian tribe. The scripture line should be followed by, “how the hell can that be?”

Among fans who still want there to have been a real 13th tribe (rather than a cover story) a theory is advanced which has some credibility. This theory goes:

  1. Earth colonizes Kobol, and Earth falls
  2. Kobol recolonizes Earth
  3. Both Kobol and Earth fall
  4. Kobol rises and recolonizes Earth
  5. Above cycles repeat as much as you like, with Earth being rebuilt, falling and recolonized in endless human/robot wars

The appeal of this plot is it allows you to have the “all this has happened before and will again” theme repeat through many, many cycles. The “basic” plot of Earth has war, colonizes Kobol, Kobol has war, colonizes 12 colonies, 12 colonies have war, head for Earth only has 3 cycles, which may not be enough to develop such a strong pattern as we’ve led to believe exists. So there is a dramatic reason for more cycles.

This makes everything vastly older — tens of thousands of years — and the ruins on Earth have nothing to do with modern Earth. It does give more background to a plot where “this is the time they break the Cycle, as humans and Cylons finally come together,” which is almost surely the plot we’re going to get.

So while I see the attraction of the “lots of cycles” plot, I still think they’ll keep it simple. And having just one extra cycle just so you can have a real 13th tribe makes little dramatic sense. Having the 13th tribe be a cover story is a much more interesting plot, a much more dramatic reveal.

However, even the addition of extra cycles of Earth falling and being recolonized by Kobol, it still doesn’t explain the line in the scripture. If the recolonists knew that Earth was the homeworld, they might have written a line of scripture like that, but only in the context of knowing it was a homecoming, not a hunt for a new home. And if they didn’t know they were returning to the homeworld, they would have said, “How can our flags be in the sky of this new planet?” So either way the scriptures are hiding the truth, deliberately.

Now as to why the characters never question this on screen? Well, that’s a bit of a writing error, but I think it’s perhaps a deliberate one. They don’t want the audience to think about this too much. They want the audience to be surprised when they learn that Earth is the homeworld, while going “Ah, of course it is.” If they talked too much about how the 13th tribe is a cover story, the audience would not be surprised, so they don’t talk about it.

Is it Earth or isn't it?

I’ve seen a lot of debate about whether the ruined planet at the end of Revelations is Earth or not, and what sort of Earth it is supposed to be. There is further debate as to whether the beach is supposed to be in Brooklyn.

Of course Roslin states it is Earth, and it’s very much painted in the show that way. What has people doubting is the absence of any fully concrete visual clue, such as even the briefest shot of a recognizable land feature, or the Moon. We saw a glimpse of our Earth at the end of the third season. We saw the moon (eclipsed) in photos Starbuck took on her magical trip. So why, when it would have been so easy, do we not get this one final confirmation?

Gaeta declares the constellations match. I presume they took photos of the Tomb of Athena and further it is said they verified those with the photos taken by Starbuck in her magic viper. If this is so, they are definitely at the star system indicated. Any other star system would not have the same constellations as Earth. Go even to our neighbour Alpha Centauri, and Gemini looks quite different, as do several other constellations. Check out “Celestia” which lets you see the sky from any star — it’s free.

So if the constellations in the Tomb were those of Earth, and they sure seem to be, they have to be here. Truth be known, given the Earth star map, even our computers and telescopes could easily spot where the Earth was with a few jumps and scans from over 500 light years away. So the fact that they needed the beacon was actually a writing error.

It being our system, they could be on a terraformed Mars or Moon, though the gravity would be much lower. I even wonder if the “Yellow moon” we heard about is a terraformed moon. But this seems unlikely.

Furthermore, while the moon is not noted, the fact that Starbuck made a big point of it and photographed it would strongly imply their navigation check would also have look for this. People should be saying “hey, where’s the famous giant moon?” if it were not there.

So that leaves two choices:

  • It’s Earth
  • It’s another planet they were deliberately misled to by the string-pulling powers who built the Tomb of Athena.

I won’t rule out the last choice, because it is odd that we lacked the confirmation, but I will attribute it instead to a desire to keep the fans guessing.

To make it worse, I’ve listened to various interviews and statements by the producers and they never go so far as to say it’s Earth, they just imply it. Again, this is odd.

A few other oddities:

  • Ron Moore got back an original matte of the ruined city, and declared it was too recent looking, “too much like Manhattan” with standing buildings. He told them to redo it, to make the ruins look older. So these are meant to be old ruins. This does suggest he did tell them to base it on Manhattan.
  • It still doesn’t look ruined enough for 4,000 years, which is what I think it ought to be — ruins of the first AI vs human war before the exodus for Kobol.
  • In particular there is exposed metal. If it’s iron or steel, that should be rusted.
  • Worse, the bridge that should be the Brooklyn Bridge in many people’s minds has steel rods sticking out. They did not use rebar at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built. They did when the Manhattan bridge, up the river, was built, but it’s all steel.
  • There are ruins in the water, implying higher sea levels. However, the image of Earth from Crossroads showed Earth with normal sea levels — a normal Florida, normal Mississippi delta
  • Speaking of which, if the Earth is ruined and the levees on the Mississippi delta are not maintained, then after 4,000 years (and even a few hundred) that delta would look very, very different.
  • Some people amusingly note the building at the end of the Brooklyn Bridge is the Jehovah’s Witness “Watchtower.” Not that the Dylan song was related to JWs at all.
  • The Geiger counter on the soil actually shows a click-rate consistent with normal background radiation, not radioactive soil. However, it’s clear from a dramatic standpoint that this scene is meant to tell you the soil is at least slightly radioactive, due to an ancient nuke war.
  • Like Moses, the dying leader is not supposed to make it to the new home. Yet Laura made it here. So the prophecy is broken, or this is not the final destination (Earth or not.)

I put many of these inconsistencies down to basic small mistakes. They used a standard image of Earth because they pulled one from the files. They did not think about how to show it with higher sea levels or a different delta. They did not think about metal corrosion etc.

If this is meant to be a recently ruined Earth, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. As it becomes clearer and clearer to the audience that all this is set in a distant future — it was always clear to me — a recently ruined Earth that is not too advanced compared to ours does not fit in.

Update: A report from Dragoncon has Edward Olmos confirming the planet is indeed a nuked Earth.

Pre-Canada Day Bring your own Fireworks Party

On short notice, we’ll be having a pre-Canada Day “BYOF” (Bring your own Fireworks) party at our Pacifica place on Sunday, June 29.

Because Pacifica has so much fog to keep it moist, they allow “Safe and Sane” fireworks at private homes, and on the beach. On July 4, many hundreds will crowd the beaches, and it’s quite a sight, but we’re going to cheat and hold it on Sunday, 2 days before Canada Day (July 1.)

We’ll gather and socialize starting about 2:30pm, order in some Pizza or Chinese and other snacks around 6:30, watch the sun set over the ocean at 8:30 and set off the fireworks sometime after 9 pm.

Ok, I’ll admit it. “Safe and Sane” fireworks are sometimes a bit underwhelming. They don’t look like the picture. But it can still be fun. On the 4th, people try to set off bigger fireworks, and they run away and the police try to get them. Cops even set up a holding pen on the beach. We won’t get that, though.

About a BYOF: Key to a good BYOF is not having too many of those “combo boxes” which have a lot of little fireworks. There are only so many different ones and you end up with a lot of repeats. We don’t ask folks to spend much money, but it’s better to spend it all on one firework (or something that’s fun when repeating like sparklers) than on a combo.

There are fireworks vendors all over Pacifica, including 2 that have set up just a short walk from the house, near Manor and Highway 1.

If the crowd is small, we’ll set off at the house. If larger, we’ll do and expedition to the beach, which may involve carpools. (There is a walkable beach, but the cops want people to go to Rockway and Linda Mar, at least on July 4.)

Weather: Pleasant. The fog is just burning off now at 2:30! This webcam will show you. Also, after about 3:30pm try the partycam which is also capturing a time-lapse movie of the day.

Traffic: Do note that due to the Gay Pride parade in the morning, there will be extra traffic in downtown SF and heavier use of transit.

The party is at 231 Manor Dr. (& Perry), in Pacifica CA. Here are maps and directions. Street Parking is plentiful.

Note: This is a vacant home recently renovated by Kathryn’s mom for eventual sale. Treat it nice please! Not much furniture, which is good for a party.

Check this page before the party for any updates. Dress Canadian (ie. a cold day at the beach.) If we go to the beach, I’ll update here, and can you call my cell (408 313 BRAD) after 8:30 for details if you are not on the web.


If you would like in on dinner food, RSVP is appreciated. It may be BYOF, but I will provide snacks and non-alcoholic drinks. You can BYOB for Alcohol. You can RSVP in one of the following ways, but please pick only one:

  • On Facebook, if you are a member at this event page
  • Via E-mail to party at
  • In the comments here, if you like

Is D'Anna lying about "4 in the fleet?"

A common question fans are asking is whether D’Anna Biers is lying when she says that there are four of the final five with the fleet, and one (the mystery Cylon) is not. They want her to be lying, because her statement rules out so many popular fan choices for final Cylon, such as Gaeta, Dualla, Cottle, Lampkin and Zarek. It also rules out choices for people who don’t buy the declaration that the final Cylon is not in the Last Supper photo, such as Apollo, Starbuck and possibly Adama, who is on Galactica when she again declares there are four.

D’Anna has her own agenda that we don’t yet know. So she certainly would have no problem lying if it suited her purposes.

But a harder question is, how would she know to tell this lie? She knows the identity of the final Cylon. But there is no reason she should know that the final Cylon is different from the other 4. The only people who know that are the 4 themselves, and perhaps the one. In fact, the four didn’t know anything back when she got her vision of them in the Temple of Five. (What the one knows, we don’t yet know, but it is strongly suggested they were also a sleeper, and may still be a sleeper, in that they are described as “still in shadow.”)

There seems no way that she could know that one is different, and thus to ask for four. Unless she knows the fifth is not with the fleet, which would mean:

  • The fifth is somebody she knows to be dead (like Elosha, Joseph Adama, Zak or some others.)
  • The fifth is somebody with her on the base star (like Helo, Adama, Roslin, Baltar or Seelix.)
  • The fifth has some other unknown attribute that lets her know where he/she is.

She knows the fifth person, since we in the audience have been assured we will know him/her.

Then there are characters who died while she was boxed, such as Cally, and there’s Starbuck who “died” while she was boxed. She would not know directly of this. For her to know, the Cylons on the base star would need to have found out about these deaths from the crew, and told her. This is possible, of course, but it seems unlikely with the distrust. Military crew should not be getting chatty and blabbing intel to the Cylons. But they might have.

But again, nothing we have seen gives her any ability to know that one is special. Which makes it very likely that she has found out through one of the reasons listed above. I don’t know what the unknown attribute could be, but of course the writers could make up something. Like her seeing the 5th in special robes, or them having a metal robot face, perhaps. Or the face of the Hybrid, though I don’t see that as likely.

I should point out that she doesn’t say that the fifth is not with the fleet. She justs states that four are with the fleet. She says nothing about the fifth. So the implication (5th not with the fleet) is strong but never exactly said. However, if the fifth is with the fleet, and she tells them she is going to collect four, it means she somehow knows the fifth is different, and won’t be coming when she goes to get the four. It’s hard to see who this fifth could be, with the fleet but not going to be coming in her view, or with her knowledge. For those of you sure it’s Gaeta, Dee or Cottle, how does she know they’re not going to be collected?

It’s really clear she plans to collect only four, no matter what she knows. She plays a deadly game of hostage-executing brinkmanship with Lee Adama, while demanding only four. In fact, she targets nukes at the Civilian fleet as part of this standoff. She tells Baltar if the 3 are executed “the whole human race dies with them” indicating she would also attack Galactica. If the fifth is in the fleet, it does not make sense for her to nuke it.

I do feel, though we as yet have no evidence for it, that it was the fifth to whom she apologized so profusely. It could have been any of them, but somehow I think it was the fifth.

A Week of Robocars

This special chapter in my series of essays on Robocars describes a fictional week in the Robocar world, with many created examples of how people might use Robocars and how their lives might change.

If you haven’t been following my essay on Robocars, this may be a good alternate entry to it. In a succinct way, it plays out many of the technologies I think are possible, more about the what than the how and why.

A Week of Robocar Stories

This ends this week-long series of postings on the Robocar essays. Though I have some new sidebars already written which I will introduce later. I realize this set of essays has been more longer than one typically sees in the short-attention-span blogosphere, but I think these ideas are among the more important and world-changing I’ve covered. I hope I’ll see more comments from the readers as you get more deeply into it.

Robocars: The end of Urban Transit

You may have seen in earlier blog posts my discussion of the energy efficiency of U.S. transit. I started that investigation because as I learned how inefficient most transit systems are (due to light loads outside of rush hour,) I realized that ultralight electric cars, enabled by Robocars, are more efficient than any transit system. Who would take transit if a fast, comfortable, efficient vehicle will take you directly from A to B? This drives chapter eight, about:

The end of urban mass transit

(This one gets the people who think they love transit, rather than loving efficient transportation, in a tizzy.)

Robocars: Deliverbots -- computer driven trucks

For part seven of my series on Robocars, I now consider the adjunct technology I am calling Deliverbots — namely robot driven trucks and delivery vehicles, with no people inside. These turn out to have special consequences of their own. Read:


Robocars: When?

For part six of my series on Robocars, consider:

When can robocars happen?

I discuss what predictions we can make about how long the Robocar future will take. While there are many technological challenges, the biggest barriers may be political, and even harder to predict.

We don’t seem to have the Jetson’s flying cars yet. What goes wrong with these predictions, and can we figure it out?