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Caprica Review (spoilers after the break)

The prequel series, Caprica, is now available on DVD and for download. Caprica is set 56 years before the first Cylon war, and deals with the origin of the metal Cylons. This meta review provides links to some of the recent low-spoiler reviews. As you will read in all of them, Caprica is very different in tone from BSG. It’s a drama set on a planet, not a space opera.

My disappointment with how BSG was ended lowered my expectations for Caprica, which is of course a good thing. You always enjoy a work more when you go into it with lower expectations. In an ideal world, one would wish for a way to get great recommendations on worthwhile things that don’t raise high expectations — you would enjoy life more. It was the high expectations I put on BSG that in part led to the ending being such a letdown.

However, the overall review is positive. If you did not know it was Battlestar, you could treat Caprica as near-future SF set on Earth. If you didn’t have the references to polytheistic religion, in fact, a viewer would be hard pressed to spot differences from a typical tv-SF depiction of a decade or two in the future. Of course, the religion is important in this show, as it became important in BSG. While the God of Galactica (Gog) does not show it’s face directly, we must wonder if it will do so later. However, the religion is fundamental to the plot in that many of the characters do very dramatic things motivated by their religious beliefs. Which is perfectly fine, of course — some people mistook my criticism of the presence of an interventionist god in BSG as criticism of religion playing a role in a story.

You will get some items from Caprica that help explain important elements of BSG. They are more subtle than normal, but there. So the verdict is to watch it, though you will also do fine waiting the 8 months for it to appear on the air. The DVD version contains a bunch of mostly lesbian makeout scenes which won’t show on TV; presumably they are there to keep the boys titillated. They occur — no spoiler here, as you see this in the first 2 minutes of the show — in a virtual reality club which is the setting for a number of scenes in the show. It may be a bit surprising at first to see the Capricans using technology far beyond what is seen on BSG when it comes to computers and robotics. Obviously the colonies had a minor Butlerian jihad after the Cylon war. This was hinted at several times during the BSG series.  read more »

But now on to the spoilers…

Proposition T: All ballot propositions must fit in 140 characters

I was reviewing the voter information guide for the upcoming California Special Election. Even though I can’t vote it is interesting to look at the process. To my surprise, the full text of the propositions shows the real items to be incredibly complex. Proposition 1C, which updates lottery laws, is over 4 1/2 pages of dense print.

There is simply no way one could expect the electorate to make informed choices on constitutional changes like these. These are closer to the “Click to agree” contracts on a piece of software from the RIAA.

In this case, all the propositions were written by the legislators themselves, in response to a budget crisis. They want a bunch of constitutional changes that are outside their own power, but they have written them like legislative bills. (Well, frankly, those are even longer than a few pages.) The public gets a book with analysis (itself many pages long) and arguments and rebuttals by those on the for and against side. They get bombarded with ads on any proposition that has strong financial backers or opponents, usually propositions that involve lots of money.

So no, while I don’t really think you can fit every amendment into the size of a twitter post, there should be a size limit. If complex things need to be done, a shorter, understandable initiative should give the legislature the minimum powers it needs to do it — perhaps even temporarily. Watchdogs will examine just how much power this really is and warn about it, one hopes.

This isn’t the only type of legislator trick. The most common one, in fact, is the “bond measure.” Frequently on the ballot we will see authorization for the state to borrow money (issues bonds) for some sort of motherhood issue. For example, they will ask for billions to “fix levees in flood zones” or “fund libraries.”

Of course, they were going to fix the levees anyway. They were going to fund education anyway. There is no way they couldn’t. By issuing the bond, they don’t have to find room in the general fund for those things, allowing them to spend general fund money on something the public would never vote for. So instead of asking the public to fund tropical retreats for legislators, they ask the public to fund libraries, leaving the money that would have funded libraries to pay for the tropical retreat.

How do we stop this, short of removing public participation? I think a more reasonable limit (like 2,000 characters — about 400 words) might help a bit. And while bond measures may be sometimes needed, it might make sense to require that for the legislators to put a bond measure on the ballot, it must be something which they themselves voted against doing from the general fund. Then the minority who voted for it could ask to put it on the ballot. What this would mean is that before they could put library funding as a bond measure, they would have to have gone on record voting against library funding. I don’t know if this would be enough, though and perhaps a stronger method is needed. Of course, the bonds mean taxes must go up in the future to pay them back. (Or, they hope, tax revenues go up due to a growing economy, so tax rates don’t have to rise, as they know they will never get approval for that.)

What’s a way to make this work better and stop these abuses?

When the cell phone rings...

We’ve all experienced it. A cell phone starts ringing or vibrating. To be clever, it slowly starts getting louder in case the owner didn’t hear or feel the initial signal. You see somebody going through their bag looking for the phone that keeps getting louder and louder. Finally they answer and it shuts up.

Yet today’s new phones are all featuring accelerometers. This gives them to chance to know we are fumbling for them. Yes, if you’re out jogging it won’t be able to spot the new level of activity in fetching out the phone, but if you’re sitting in a quiet room, and the phone’s been still and it starts moving about shortly after starting ringing, the phone can know you’re aware of the ring, and start getting quieter. (It might switch back to vibrating or flashing to help you find it.) A ringing phone could also be listening to its microphone, and waiting for you to say commands to it, such as “getting it” to “voicemail” to “speaker” rather than have you hunt for the button. How often has a call gone to voicemail before you could find that button? When you are getting it, the phone could answer (to avoid going to voicemail) and then play a message to the caller about how you are still getting the phone and will be with them shortly. If you can hear the phone, it can hear you.

In fact, phones need to understand more when they are sitting on tables or on our persons. Movement is one way to know this. Temperature is another. Capacitance is a third. Hearing “master’s voice” in the microphone reveals something else, like the fact you’re in a meeting. Is the conversation half-duplex? You may be on a landline. Many phones know when they are being charged and change their ring behaviour. They can do more.

And here’s a second feature for cell phones ringing in the home or office. Let the customer, at that moment, call a special magic number from a prearranged land-line. This number would be put in the speed dial of the land-line, and the land-line would send caller-ID. A call to that number would grab the call going into the cell phone and transfer it to the land line. Ideally the cell phone company would bill these minutes at a lower rate, though I doubt it, since they don’t do that for call forwarding set up in advance. This is call grabbing, the way many PBXs can do.

For security there would be a bank of 100 numbers arranged for the purpose. A stranger could not grab your calls unless they knew which of the 100 numbers is the one for you on that landline. Many false attempts would disable the feature, which would be a form of DOS attack but not a very exciting one, as you can just grab the cell phone in that case.

For the user, the UI is simple. You hear your cell phone ringing in the charging station. You pick up a land line, hit a speed dial, and it answers and you are connected.

Of course, the real answer is that phones should never ring at all in most situations.

Understanding Mitochondrial Eve

(Advance note: Is there a reader who has video editing skills who might want to put together a short and amusing BSG-based parody video that I have conceived of? Contact me if so. Or if you have a complete collection of BSG videos or DVDs and are willing to find some scenes you could also help.)

Because it turns out that Moore decided to turn the entire plot around the idea of Hera being Mitochondrial Eve (MTE), I thought it would be good to add some information on just what this means, and why it was not a great choice as a plot fulcrum. The desire to have Hera be MTE placed the story 150,000 years in the past, and mandated a number of its less consistent elements.

First of all, people should understand that MTE is not “Eve” (mother of us all) nor is she the most recent common ancestor of us all — that person lived far more recently. MTE is an artifact of some simple genetic math. She is the most recent common ancestor calculated only through female lines. I pointed to this article about MTE before and it’s worth a read to understand why she exists and why she is less important than imagined. There is a “Y Adam” too, who is the most recent common ancestor calculated only through male lines, who also lived much more recently.

Everybody is descended from MTE, but everybody is descended from almost everybody who lived at that time. She is actually not particularly special. In fact, we are all descended from almost everybody who lived about 15,000 years ago. It would be more recent than that if human genetic lines had not been isolated for long periods in Australia, the Americas and a few other islands. Be clear: Just about everybody who lived then was ancestor to all of us. The only ones we are not descended from will be those whose lines died out quickly — they left no children or grandchildren. Once you start have several great-grandchildren, your contribution to the world’s genetic pool is all but assured, barring extraordinary events. Go a few more generations and your line is very hard to kill off, especially if it spreads a bit.

So while Moore wanted humans to be descended from Cylons, in fact that could have taken place 15,000 years ago. And if, as shown in the show, populations were distributed to the different continents, it could have been done even 4,000 years ago, or any point in between such as 40,000 years ago for the “great leap forward” when technology and agriculture and language started to really flourish. Australians isolated themselves from the rest of humanity about 50,000 years ago, however, when seas were low they got more recent influxes keeping them related to the rest of the world.

The next thing to understand is mitochondrial DNA (MTDNA) itself. MTDNA is special, in that it is only inherited from your mother. It does not change due to sexual DNA mixing like the rest of our (non-Y) DNA. Instead, it stays mostly the same. However, from time to time, it gets a small mutation that is not sufficient to kill the organism. So while our MTDNA is identical with our siblings, mother and our cousins who share a female descent line, it is very slightly different from other humans. The less related they are to you (ie. the further back your common great^n grandmother is,) the more slight differences there will be. It is precisely because we know the rate of mutation and can look at how different the MTDNA of different humans is that we can calculate when MTE lived, approximately. Estimates get debated, and you will see rates quoted at one mutation per 300-600 generations down to one every 40 generations.

But we don’t just share our MTDNA with our fellow humans. We share it with all the complex life on Earth. We share it with mushrooms and of course with chimps and monkeys and lemurs and mice. We’ve all got the same basic MTDNA, derived from an ancestor long ago that did a symbiotic “deal” with some bacteria to incorporate their energy processing engine into our cells.

Just as you have the same MTDNA, with minor changes, as an Australian aboriginal, you have the same MTDNA as a chimp, but with more of the small mutations. That’s because your common ancestor lived perhaps 50,000 years ago with the Australian, and 6 million years ago with the chimp. There will be 120x as many small differences. They are quite small so that does not turn out to be that much.

And thus we see the problem with how BSG used this process. On the BSG Earth, the chimps and the early humans would have shared fairly common MTDNA. But then Hera’s MTDNA replaced the human MTDNA. On BSG Earth, human MTDNA now bears no common ancestry with the chimps, or all the other animals of the Earth. This is quite different from the real Earth.

Now, we might consider that in fact they are not different because the God of Galactica (Gog) did a little intelligent design on both the evolved Earth life, and Cylons so that they would have the same MTDNA. Or rather that the difference between them would match what the genetic mutation clock says it should match based on the time back to the common ancestor proto-ape. And yes, when you invoke miracles, you can pull off anything, I suppose. But if so, it means the two sets of MTDNA were largely identical. In which case what’s the point? What is the meaning of Hera’s MTDNA supplanting that of the native humans if the two are identical to begin with?

If they are not identical, if there is a real, meaningful difference between Hera’s MTDNA and that of the rest of Earth-life, then this would have been big, big news in BSG-Earth’s National Geographic a decade or two ago. That’s because geneticists would have published stunning papers revealing that human MTDNA was not the same as that of apes or any other Earth life. This would have turned the scientific world upside-down. It would have have been strongly touted as hard evidence by the creationists. It would no longer be the world we live in.

This is also true for the rest of Hera’s Cylon DNA. Unless that DNA is impossible to tell from ours, or unless none of what she had was passed through to us, our genetic sequencing projects would have revealed the fact that we aren’t related to other Earth life, in some subtle way. We would have proteins and genes not found in any other Earth-life. But we don’t. We share all our genes with our animal cousins. For those, like Moore, hoping to draw a connection from the alternate history BSG Earth and ours, you must either say that none of the Cylon DNA made it through, or that it was so identical as to not make a difference.

Of course, there is an answer, discussed on this blog before. If the story had been written to say that the Kobolians came about through the abduction of primitive humans from this Earth some 6,000 or more years before the events of the show, then of course everybody is still related as they should be. The colonials, in this version, are just a lost branch of Earth-kind come home. But alas, this was never suggested in the show.

The miracle of aliens who can breed with Earth-life is indeed impossible without divine action. But it’s more than that. If there was a miracle, it created creatures so alike that in the end they contributed nothing new to the genetic code of humanity on Earth. In other words, a somewhat pointless miracle.

Now you may think that this is a somewhat subtle point, not known to the ordinary viewer who has no grounding in genetics. But this is no minor issue in the show, it is the single element upon which the entire ending, and indeed the entire plot was chosen to turn. Such a fulcrum deserves special attention. And it is also a sign of just how hard it is to try to write an alternate history which you can claim could be our real history. Something is going to catch you up. This is why many viewers never expected Moore to do something so foolhardy as to date the show in the past.

Connecting untrusted devices to your computer

My prior post about USB charging hubs in hotel rooms brought up the issue of security, as was the case for my hope for a world with bluetooth keyboards scattered around.

Is it possible to design our computers to let them connect to untrusted devices? Clearly to a degree, in that an ethernet connection is generally always untrusted. But USB was designed to be fully trusted, and that limits it.

Perhaps in the future, an OS can be designed to understand the difference between trusted and untrusted devices connected (wired or wirelessly) to a computer or phone. This might involve a different physical interface, or using the same physical interface, but a secure protocol by which devices can be identified (and then recognized when plugged in again) and tagged once as trusted the first time they are plugged in.

For example, an unknown keyboard is a risky thing to plug in. It could watch you type and remember passwords, or it could simply send fake keys to your computer to get it to install trojan software completely taking it over. But we might allow an untrusted keyboard to type plain text into our word processors or E-mail applications. However, we would have to switch to the trusted keyboard (which might just be a touch-screen keyboard on a phone or tablet) for anything dangerous, including of course entry of passwords, URLs and commands that go beyond text entry. Would this be tolerable, constantly switching like this, or would we just get used to it? We would want to mount the inferior keyboard very close to our comfy but untrusted one.

A mouse has the same issues. We might allow an untrusted mouse to move the pointer within a text entry window and to go to a set of menus that can’t do anything harmful on the machine, but would it drive us crazy to have to move to a different pointer to move out of the application? Alas, an untrusted mouse can (particularly if it waits until you are not looking) run applications, even bring up the on-screen keyboard most OSs have for the disabled, and then do anything with your computer.

It’s easier to trust output devices, like a printer. In fact, the main danger with plugging in an unknown USB printer is that a really nasty one might pretend to be a keyboard or CD-Rom to infect you. A peripheral bus that allows a device to only be an output device would be safer. Of course an untrusted printer could still record what you print.

An untrusted screen is a challenge. While mostly safe, one can imagine attacks. An untrusted screen might somehow get you to go to a special web-site. There, it might display something else, perhaps logins for a bank or other site so that it might capture the keys. Attacks here are difficult but not impossible, if I can control what you see. It might be important to have the trusted screen nearby somehow helping you to be sure the untrusted screen is being good. This is a much more involved attack than the simple attacks one can do by pretending to be a keyboard.

An untrusted disk (including a USB thumb drive) is actually today’s biggest risk. People pass around thumb drives all the time, and they can pretend to be auto-run CD-roms. In addition, we often copy files from them, and double click on files on them, which is risky. The OS should never allow code to auto-run from an untrusted disk, and should warn if files are double-clicked from them. Of course, even then you are not safe from traps inside the files themselves, even if the disk is just being a disk. Many companies try to establish very tight firewalls but it’s all for naught if they allow people to plug external drives and thumbsticks into the computers. Certain types of files (such as photos) are going to be safer than others (like executables and word processor files with macros or scripts.) Digital cameras, which often look like drives, are a must, and can probably be trusted to hand over jpegs and other image and video files.

A network connection is one of the things you can safely plug in. After all, a network connection should always be viewed as hostile, even one behind a firewall.

There is a risk in declaring a device trusted, for example, such as your home keyboard. It might be compromised later, and there is not much you can do about that. A common trick today is to install a key-logger in somebody’s keyboard to snoop on them. This is done not just by police but by suspicious spouses and corporate spies. Short of tamper-proof hardware and encryption, this is a difficult problem. For now, that’s too much cost to add to consumer devices.

Still, it sure would be nice to be able to go to a hotel and use their keyboard, mouse and monitor. It might be worth putting up with having to constantly switch back to get full sized input devices on computers that are trying to get smaller and smaller. But it would also require rewriting of a lot of software, since no program could be allowed to take input from an untrusted device unless it has been modified to understand such a protocol. For example, your e-mail program would need to be modified to declare that a text input box allows untrusted input. This gets harder in web browsing — each web page would need to have to declare, in its input boxes, whether untrusted input was allowed.

As a starter, however, the computer could come with a simple “clipboard editor” which brings up a box in which one can type and edit with untrusted input devices. Then, one could copy the edited text to the OS clipboard and, using the trusted mouse or keyboard, paste it into any application of choice. You could always get back to the special editing windows using the untrusted keyboard and mouse, you would have to use the trusted ones to leave that window. Cumbersome, but not as cumbersome as typing a long e-mail on an iPhone screen.

Powered USB Hub in my hotel room, and more

What should be in a good hotel room?

Well, one thing that’s easy to add to the list is a powered USB hub, with as many as 6 ports and a 3 amp power supply. Toss in some mini-USB cables (possibly just built into the hub) as they have become, for better or worse, the present-day universal charging standard. (At only 2.5 watts, USB is a bit anemic as charging standard, but it’s what we have for now.) A mouse would be nice too, but is a security risk.

Alas, we can’t have a keyboard on it, as nice as that would be, since that can’t be trusted. It might have a keylogger put in it (even by the previous occupant of the room) to grab passwords.

Now this is a fairly cheap item (under $20) and like many other hotel items, it could also be available at the front desk, though it’s so cheap I don’t see a reason for that. While you could not be sure it would be there at every hotel, it would still be useful, since it can add to the charging you bring, and most laptops can be a charging station if you are willing to leave them on overnight. It’s also useful as a hub. Indeed, have two, one on the desk, and one by the bed for cell phones.

We’re almost ready to not need the hotel phone unless you are coming from overseas and pay ridiculous roaming charges. But they still need it to call you sometimes, and I don’t want to have to hand over my mobile number at check-in.

Most hotel rooms now are getting a flat-screen HDTV. That’s great, but rarely do they offer up the VGA port that many of these TVs have, or a cable to plug it in. I recommend a 1080p TV for each room, located in such a way that it can be an external monitor for my laptop. As such there should be a VGA cable connected or handy. The TV could also be connected to the USB hub, and use a video over USB protocol for devices that have USB out but not video out. (This usually needs a driver and has some limitations.)  read more »

Digital cameras, embrace your inner eBook

Lots of people are doing it — using their digital camera as a quick way to copy documents, not just for taking home, but to carry around. Rather than carry around a large travel guidebook (where most of the weight is devoted to hotels and restaurants in other towns) we normally just photograph the relevant pages for the area we will be exploring. We also do it even with portable items like guides and travel maps since we don’t really want the paper. We also find ourselves regularly photographing maps of cities, facilities and transit systems found on walls. We will photograph transit timetables: take a ferry out, photograph the schedule of ferries going back. In countries where you can’t write the language, photographing the names of destinations, so you can show it to cab drivers and locals is handy.

Yes, I have also seen copyright violation going on, with people taking a temporary photograph of somebody else’s guidebook, or one in a library or hotel. Not to save money, but for the convenience.

While I still think a dedicated travel device makes sense when doing tourism, cameras should embrace this function. Some travel guides, such as Lonely Planet, will sell you a PDF version of the book or chapters in it. Perhaps being able to read PDFs is more than a camera wants to do, but these could be converted to PNGs or some other clear and compact format. A very simple book browser in the camera is not a tall order, considering the level of processing they now have. Though there seems to be a lot to be said for the simplicity of the camera’s interface, where you turn a wheel to find a page and then zoom in. If there’s a browser it had better be easier to use than that.

However, even simpler would be a way to tag a photo as being text (indeed, many cameras could probably figure out that a photo is dense with text on their own.) Such photos would be put into their own special folder, and the camera’s menu should offer a way to directly go to those photos for browsing.

I realize the risk here. Forced convergence often results in a device that does nothing well. In this case people are already using the camera for this, because it is what they are carrying. There is already pressure to make camera screens bigger and higher resolution, and to give them good interfaces to move around and zoom in.

In time, though, travel guides might deliberately make versions that you store on the flash card of your camera. Of course, you can already do this on your PDA, and I read eBooks on my PDA all the time. And sometimes your cell phone/PDA is your camera.

The story of the BSG god. (Gog)

As is obvious to any reader here, I was quite disappointed with the god-did-it ending of BSG. However, we’ll need to examine this god a bit more because in some way, it’s the only other character, besides Young Bill Adama, who we will see in the upcoming Caprica series.

The god appears to some extent, as an underground monotheist cult exists and 2 of the 3 initial Cylons are patterned after its members. It has to be assumed it is from here the Cylons got their own monotheist religion.

The first question concerns whether the monotheist religion is indeed related to the Gog (God of Galactica). Did Gog appear to its founders, or is this simply a human-invented religion that hits upon something true by accident.

The second question is just who is Gog, and how does it relate to the Lords of Kobol? Moore’s podcast comments say that on Kobol, man lived with the gods, and then became like gods when they created their own artificial life (the 13th tribe Cylons.) So the Lords of Kobol were real, and lived with humans. How does this make sense in the context of Gog? Is Gog one of the Lords of Kobol, or does it predate them? If so, why did it tolerate them and who were they?

Gog has at least two angels who are independent beings, who I will call H6 and HB. Possibly more than 2. We don’t know if Kara’s Leoben and her father were manifestions of those two. Likewise Roslin’s Elosha, of the Final Five’s messengers. If the messengers were independent, it seems there are at least 5 of them. These angels appear to be mostly incorporeal and immortal. They talk about Gog as a distinct being, but also as a force of nature. However, Gog has likes and dislikes, and a plan for both humanity and individual humans.

For a long time I was supposing that Gog was a very advanced A.I., as were the Lords of Kobol. However, it’s meant to be supernatural. It is a big strange to have a story where there are both false gods, who exist (the Lords of Kobol) and a real god as well.

Gog is described as beyond good and evil, a force of nature. It certainly moves in strange and mysterious ways. For most of Kobol, colonial and 13th colony history, Gog allowed the polytheist worship of the Lords of Kobol to thrive. We are told that in “Caprica” the story involves a banned monotheist cult, from which the first Cylons arise, thus giving them their religion. But prior to this, if there has been monotheism, it is not very common. The Final Five were polytheists. Kobol was openly polytheist, and the gods lived with the humans. Baltar was rather taken aback by H6’s preaching about Gog.

H6 is not a cylon of course, but appears to Baltar as one. The god she preaches about appears to be the Cylon god but we can’t be completely sure of that. She is in touch with the real thing. Yet the Cylons who speak of god believe that it was god’s will that they destroy their “creators.” Did that come to them from Gog, or is it a result of the way Cavil reprogrammed them to forget about their actual creators and upbringing. The Cylons see the Final Five in the space between life and death — is this a repressed memory, or is this something Gog sends them? We presume that Gog is the master of the space between life and death, and Gog is the one who called Starbuck into it.

Gog is highly interventionist when it suits it. It may have triggered the Cylon destruction of the colonies. It certainly allowed it to happen. Gog speaks directly to various characters to make them do things. When a being of this level whispers in your brain, it does so knowing exactly how you will react and what you will do, and says the right things to attain the desired results. A god whispering in your brain is like the control a computer programmer has over a program, or the ability of an owner to trick a pet.

Gog may or may not know the future. The angels H6 and HB don’t appear to know it, other than what they are told by Gog. Gog sends a vision of the Opera House chase to various characters. Is this knowledge of the future, or a vision that Gog plans to bring about? Is Gog outside of time and watching its plan unfold, or is Gog making its plan unfold? If so, it’s making rather fine-tuned control, orchestrating the final confrontation, making sure the F5 will be up on the balcony and so on.

Let’s look at some of the things in Gog’s plan

  • Billions of years earlier, breeding two planetfuls of life with genetically identical humans.
  • It probably inspired the sacred scrolls.
  • It knew of the war on Earth-1 and sent the angels to the final five. It must have put the song into Anders’ head, including an opening line which, when translated to numbers, will be jump coordinates for use 2,000 years in the future from the singularity to the Moon.
  • It modified the Temple of Hopes to be the Temple of Five, a chamber where the Final Five could be seen when the star explodes.
  • It presumably timed the arrival of the Final Five to the first Cylon war.
  • If behind the monotheism, it’s also behind the rise of the Cylons on Caprica and what personalities were uploaded into them.
  • The placing of Tigh and Tyrol on Galactica, and of Foster and Roslin there at the start of the war.
  • It put the song with Earth’s coordinates into the head of Starbuck’s father, and various compulsions into her brain, such as the mandala.
  • It was probably behind the destruction of the colonies. And the survival of the Pegasus, and of course the Galactica.
  • It manipulated Baltar in all sorts of strange ways, causing him to act strangely, sometimes helping the Cylon cause, sometimes the human. A rewatch is necessary to get a list of all the things H6 manipulated Baltar to do.
  • It probably put in Shelley Godfrey to cause Baltar to be suspected and then cleared.
  • It made sure Baltar would keep his Cylon detector results secret. (When Boomer is figured, H6 scares him into keeping it quiet.)
  • It arranged for a nuke for Gina, and for Baltar’s election, and thus for the halting of the tribes on New Caprica
  • It probably arranged the jump glitch which found New Caprica, and the Cylon detection of Gina’s nuke.
  • It arranged for the Cylons to recapture Hera, sending a message to an Oracle.
  • It probably arranged the circumstances where Ellen would die and be recreated.
  • It talks regularly to the Cylon ship hybrids and the first hybrid to manipulate their activities.
  • Likewise it appears to talk to oracles from time to time.
  • It contaminated the food to force the fleet to the Algae planet.
  • It arranged the meeting of the forces at the Algae Planet. Did Three’s activation go with Gog’s plan or against it?
  • It exploded the star at the Algae planet, or timed the meeting perfectly to match it. Now that’s interventionist!
  • It gave compulsions to Starbuck to kill herself, which she did.
  • It then planted Starbuck’s dead body and Viper on Earth
  • It then created a brand new Viper and put Starbuck in it, over Earth
  • It probably directed the Cylons to the Ionian Nebula, as it planted clues to send the fleet there.
  • It probably disabled the fleet at the Ionian Nebula, to force the battle, recognition of Anders and Cylon civil war.
  • It gave various visions to Roslin and Sharon and Hera, as well as the regular ones to Baltar and Six.
  • It put the music into the heads of the final five at the Ionian Nebula, and then let them remember they were Cylons.
  • It teleported angel-Starbuck to the Ionian Nebula, with compulsions in her head about finding Earth.
  • It probably lead Leoben to Starbuck, and Starbuck to the region of space with Leoben.
  • During the standoff, it compelled the Final Five to check out the Viper. It made the Viper show a tracking signal for the crashed original Viper on Earth
  • On Earth, it made the Final Five regain a few more memories.
  • From there, a long series of events were necessary to create the Opera House scene including:
    • Sam getting shot, regaining memories and then becoming like a Hybrid who can be hooked into Galactica on the balcony.
    • Boomer’s return of Ellen and capture of Hera
    • Raid on the Colony
    • Various tactical elements of raid on colony leading to standoff in the CIC.
    • Circumstances where Starbuck has to program an escape jump
  • The abandonment of technology, and interbreeding
  • The complete loss of Colonial culture and knowledge.
  • All of modern Earth history.
  • Further repeats of the cycle, until one day some civilization breaks it after enough repetitions. That too is part of god’s plan.
  • Once our Earth arises with dominant monotheism, it no longer likes to be called god.

That’s a lot of intervention and complexity if you consider the result: All colonial civilization and knowledge is lost, and all that remains is a bit of synthetic DNA from Hera/Athena present in the gene pool on our Earth. The same could happen just by teleporting Hera and some others directly here.

Gog certainly does work in strange and mysterious ways.

Or rather, the writers do. For they did not have most of this plan laid out in advance. Yet everything on the list, and in some way everything that happens because of it, is a result of the intervention of Gog and its angels. And this lays out another reason why you don’t want real gods in your fiction. It’s too much. In some sense it’s everything in the show. No longer a result of our characters and their natures and motivations, but the result of divine intervention. But if I wanted to see “Touched by an Angel” I would watch that. I prefer a drama where the characters have some control over their destiny, if they have a destiny at all.

What is most meaningful?

If readers have wondered why I’ve been so silent, it’s because just after the final episode I took a great trip to the middle east, and there is not much time for blogging on such a trip. To re-open discussion let me examine some issues raised in comments and also add more with the perspective of time.

Many fans liked the story, of course, and say that critics such as myself are putting too much focus on the science and on science fiction. BSG, we’re told, was always meant to be a character drama, and the SF was just incidental, a vehicle for that drama. This may be right, though if so, I still find it disappointing. I seek good SF and encourage its production. If people want to just use SF as a vehicle, then they may do so, but I find this less interesting than a real attempt at good SF. But BSG was not simply that. It contained a lot of good SF. Its creator, while he dropped the ball on wrapping it up, is a talented creator who should be encouraged, through valid criticism, to do even better. We are disappointed with the final revealed story because it had more potential for greatness than the vast majority of TV SF produced. TV SF has a poor history, and anything that appears capable of greatness is of particular interest. It’s why I got so invested. The failure to deliver hurts what came before, but does not destroy it.

I continue to feel that if a story is going to be religious fiction (ie. the major plot points will be resolved through divine intervention) then this is not something to keep secret from the audience. I am much less interested in such fiction, but even in cases where I would watch it, I think it’s better for the audience to not give them false expectations. You can tell me to expect a religious (or scientific) ending without spoiling the ending in any way. But if you let fans expect a scientific ending and give them a religious one, there is a great risk — which was realized here — of disappointment simply over incorrect expectations. I think it is incorrect to say that this was not an SF show, and not simply because it was set in space and on the Sci-Fi or SyFy channel. It started off doing what SF tries to do — explore the consequences of science and technology, in particular the conflict between man and machine.

What’s a more meaningful connection?

Moore seems to feel that by setting the show in the past, he has provided it with a connection to us. That by making Hera be our ancestor, it makes the message of the show stronger. I could not disagree more. Most SF is set in the future, of course, and I think there is a good reason for this. SF set in the future, if done well, is saying, “Here is something that could really be our fate.” SF set in the past is saying “here is something which might have been our origin.” The problem is that when the SF set in the past does something wrong or stupid, that connection is now dwindled. It becomes not just imaginary, but impossible. Because we know that another race of humans able to breed with us would not evolve on another planet, we know that aliens were not our ancestors. So this “connection” is meaningless. It is surely false. A future connection however, is much more real. That’s because it is not yet known if it is true or false. As such it could be true, it could be real. A story of man-machine war in the future can be a lesson for us today, as long as it paints a plausible future. Painting a plausible secret past is so much harder to do, and if you fail, you lose the relevance you were hoping for.

Of course, since many fans are willing to let the impossibility slide, or accept the divine explanation, they don’t see it this way, and for them Moore attained his goal.

Many fans are considering the “alien abduction” plot which I laid out in an earlier post, or variants of it, as a way to have the ending make logical sense. And I agree, it is the best way to do that. However, sadly, this is not entirely a fanwank. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good fanwank, an effort to invent a backstory which is better than what we saw on screen. I’ve done it with many bad SF movies and TV. Before the show ended, this was fun to do because we could imagine that it might really work out that way. Like SF set in the future, it was a plausible future. But now that all is said and done, it is just wanking to imagine the author had a more plausible story secretly in mind.

It’s not that anything in the show contradicts the idea that long ago aliens or the Lords of Kobol took humans from our Earth and transplanted them to Kobol to create Kobolian society. Indeed, it is the only thing that makes sense. The problem is there is no hint of this in the show, and it would have been so simple to include such a hint — even in the podcasts and other off-air material. Much as we might like it, this is not the story that was delivered.

Collective Unconsciousness & Expectations

I also am quite bothered by the use of the concept of “collective unconsciousness” to explain why the colonials would sing All along the Watchtower, or use quotes from Shakespeare. This is a fantastic concept. While I have seen various explanations put forward, to me this is a writer’s explanation with no basis in reality. It’s one of those psuedoscience concepts that has no basis in good SF. It’s beyond technobabble as a means to explain things. In reality, the only way to explain the existence of elements of our culture in theirs is to set it in the future. Any rational examination would demand it, and it’s upsetting to have a non-rational explanation used instead.

I’ve seen SF use this concept but it makes more sense as something you put in at the beginning, not something you pull out of a hat at the end. SF that is not hard SF often breaks the rules of reality, but the general rule is you lay out your rulebreaking at the start, so that the audience can suspend disbelief at the beginning. You don’t want the audience to have to suspend disbelief at the end — that’s far too late a time to ask this of them.

In many ways good fiction and good SF is about managing expectations. If you start a show by saying “they have FTL drives” you can get away with it because the audience has no expectations yet. If you write a show in a hard SF universe, and then on the last page have the characters escape in their FTL drive you’ve done it wrong.

Another way they mismanaged expectations was with all the hype about the ending. All the press about the ending had show insiders talk about how everybody cried over the sadness of it, but were wowed about how awesome it was. In fact it wasn’t awesome (though of course some will argue with that.) And while it contained several sad elements, it was certainly no more tear-jerking than many other endings we’ve seen in our time.

The religious ending was also a case of badly managed expectations, as I explained above. It’s not that the show wasn’t full of references to religion, and not that it wasn’t clear that somebody was pulling strings behind the scenes. The mistake was making this a mystery until the end, opening up, in some fans, an expectation that it was not just going to be solved by divine will.

Hunter Gatherers

Many have been discussing an essay by Jared Diamond that outlines an argument that the shift from hunter/gatherer lifestyle to agriculture was humanity’s greatest mistake. Even accepting all of Diamond’s arguments that agriculture hurt the lot of the average human, I don’t agree with the conclusion. From my modern perspective, the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, devoid of the great intellectual stimulation available to us today, is not appealing. I think that today we don’t just know more. By training our brains from a young age, we are actually smarter than our ancestors. A lot smarter. I knew this when I found that in class as a child I could readily, on my own, come up with discoveries that had been the work of history’s greatest minds. I could do this because of the training and stimulation I got as a child, not simply because I was led down the garden path. And I don’t see giving up being smarter for the supposedly more carefree and simple existence.

Diamond’s analysis really talks only to the species average. One might be a happy hunter/gatherer, but that bliss quickly ends if you encounter, as I have, the need for modern medicine. When my appendix got infected in my late teens, I was quickly treated. In any other society, I would not be happy, I would be dead. (Yes, I understand there are arguments that perhaps modern diets lead to a higher incidence of appendicitis, but the main point stands.)

So I still don’t buy for a moment the complete (and nearly unanimous) decision to throw away all the technology, even after reading all the justifications presented online for it.

Graphics team apologizes

Fellow blogger on Galactica Science issues Michael Hall must have been bitterly disappointed to see a blog post by post-production CGI team member Darth Mojo on the stars in the backgrounds. They were, as I eventually concluded, just the result of pressed-for-time work by a post team that didn’t imagine anybody would pay that much attention to the stars.

I understand this attitude but I think it’s one that now belongs in the past. People discuss shows on the internet too much now, and so something found by one person will quickly be told to many others. You can’t expect to get away with something that only a few will notice.

He says they were not being deliberate about it. To me that was surprising. With Orion, which is probably the 2nd most recongizable constellation in the sky, placed so prominently in many shots, it was correct of Hall and others to assume that this meant something. It is highly unlikely that it would happen by accident. Particularly because they switched from random to real, and used random at the 13th colony. But unlikely is not impossible, and Mojo says that happen by accident it did.

This was one of a few of the show’s mistakes which led science-oriented fans astray. The Tomb of Athena constellations, also an acknowledged mistake, were an even bigger false clue, because they were shown in one of the show’s big “reveal” moments. It turned out to be incorrect to rely on this scene to understand the show. Relying on the stars was more risky because they were not presented as important.

Correct your mistakes

I will go further here. I think if a show makes a mistake that is likely to cause the honest viewer to have very wrong expectations, the show should try to correct it, either on-screen or in the online media. So the graphics team should have released a note that “the stars don’t mean anything” and Moore should have released a note that the Tomb of Athena arrangement was not properly thought out.

He did this with Daniel. When fans started thinking the mention of Daniel was central to the show, he released a note to say they should not expect more about Daniel.

Now I do realize that a correction on the Tomb of Athena would have led many of us to then realize the show was not going to be set in the future, as it was the more clear clue regarding that. So that may be why they never corrected it. But if you make mistakes, fixing them may have consequences but it’s better to fix them.

I’ll have photos of Israel up in the main blog in the future.