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It's Earth, and it's ancient

Well, not much is revealed in the recap episode of BSG that aired this evening, but two interesting impressions are confirmed:

  • They have landed on Earth, not a fake decoy planet
  • The ruins are supposed to be thousands of years old.

At first, I and many others were confused because the ruins of Earth look younger than those of Kobol, and that didn’t jibe well with other impressions and theories. Word did get out that the first images from the art department were sent back by Moore, who declared they looked too fresh, and too much like New York. The second set were better, but presumably still not what he wanted (which was thousands of years old) but got used anyway.

I was also recently pointed to some more info relating to the claim of this being in the far future. On Ron Moore’s blog, after Season one, he was asked what he was going to do about the way original BSG had contradicted the facts of evolution.

He wrote:

I don’t have a direct answer for this question yet. There are a couple of notions rolling around in my head as to how we reconcile the very real fact of evolution with the Galactica mythos, but I haven’t decided which approach to take. However, it was a fundamental element of the orginal Galactica mythos that “Life here began out there…” and I decided early on that it was crucial to maintain it.

Knowing that he did intend to recognize evolution as a fact and fit that into BSG mythos should leave no doubt (if any still doubt) that Earth will be the homeworld. And he already did find a way of fitting in that “Life here began out there” line. Adama declares it is the first line of the Sacred Scrolls. In 1978, the line was delivered from an Earth perspective. In this show, it’s from a Kobolian perspective, or perhaps a colonial one that life did begin out there — and it’s true, from their perspective. After all, the first line of the sacred scrolls was probably written on Kobol (though this can also be explained with it written on the colonies.)

Another scene we were re-shown had Elosha speaking to Roslin:

“Pythia wrote, 3,600 years ago, of the exile and rebirth of the Human Race”

Now Pythia is also the one who wrote the scrolls about the 13th tribe and the lost planet of Earth. But our characters don’t seem to notice the contradiction. 3,600 years ago wasn’t when a tribe went off to Earth as they thought. 3,600 years ago was the time of another cycle of war, exile and recolonization. And that makes more sense as the time of exodus from Earth, the homeworld, to Kobol. It is Pythia’s scroll that has the dying leader given the vision of serpents who led the people to the promised land. (Moses like story.)

Now the phrase “rebirth of the human race” fits strikingly well with my suggestion that it was at this time that humanity was reformed by its god-like AI creations. This rebirth of the race could be the creation of artificial humans, Cylon and thinking-they-are-human alike.

How common are habitable planets?

In the BSG universe, it looks like nice planets are rare. As the fleet moves through space, it is regularly sending out scouting missions in Raptors, searching for food, resources and fuel. Depending on fuel available, I presume that means scanning thousands of planets. But what planets do they encounter?

  • They start at their own colonies, which seem quite nice.
  • First, Kobol, which they are guided to, it seems, by the Cylons. Leoben tells them they will find it. It’s no accident. Of course, Kobol is not a new, undiscovered planet.
  • Next, New Caprica. This discovery elicits great excitement both as the first such planet seen, even though it is barely habitable. It is also exciting for being somewhat hidden.
  • Next, the Algae planet with the Temple of Five. This planet may not be strictly habitable. It seems very harsh, but it does have a food source.
  • Finally, Earth, which of course at one point was a perfect planet, being the homeworld of humanity after all. It’s now ruined by nuclear war.

12 Colonies? Not likely.

The colonies are a bit of an issue. Moore says he imported the idea of the colonies — 12 colonies at one star system — from the original series, knowing that this is not actually realistic. How can we retcon it as realistic? The problem is a typical star can only have perhaps 2 planets in a comfortable temperature zone.

  • The easiest explanation would be to say colonies are not planets, but continents. Then they could exist on far fewer planets.
  • Ordinary double star systems are not stable for planets, but a very distant binary could hold planets for long enough. Eventually the other star distorts the orbit of the planets.
  • If you have a superplanet (gas giant) in the habitable zone, you could have 12 moons in orbit around it, all in that zone. Or with two stars and two supergiants in the zone, you could have 3 moons per supergiant, and get 12 moons.

Now this is highly improbable unless you use terraforming. And it might make a lot of sense that the Kobolians, when expelling the 12 colonies, did just that to make a home for them.

The Algae Planet

While we don’t know this is truly habitable (it seems not) they are clearly guided to this planet, to be there at one magic time planned thousands of years in the past. As Baltar says, the odds of them all converging on that planet are astronomical. He tells them all to be aware that it’s not chance. No, they don’t come here by accident. In fact, the fleet goes past this world (scanning it and noting it) but then, by strange coincidence, their food processors are all contaminated. They have no choice but to take a dangerous trip back to get there now, now, now. This can hardly be chance. Somebody pulling the strings — using agents on the fleet — contaminated that food.

New Caprica

It seems they discover New Caprica by chance, and it’s hidden. But do they? It’s discovered by a random jump. And they are way too early for their appointment at the Algae Planet. They powers that be need them to wait 18 months. Remarkably, an excuse appears. Head Six pushes Baltar to run for office and halt the fleet there.

Then, remarkably, a year later the Cylons see the flash of the nuclear bomb that Gina, a Cylon, set off after Baltar gave it to her at Head Six’s encouragement. Is it chance this happens? Or is a Cylon scout directed somewhere 1LY away to see the flash? The string-pullers need the fleet off the planet now, and events all conspire to make it happen.

So no, I don’t think the detour to New Caprica is an accident; in fact it’s a must to time their arrival at the Nova, to have Tyrol open the Temple of Five, and to have the chosen one activate it — oops.

Earth

Their arrival at Earth is totally manipulated by the Final Five. And of course it is not a planet they discover.

So the conclusion? They never find a habitable planet on their own, and in spite of a lot of searching. So in this universe, they are quite rare, which also explains why Kobol and the colonies are so far from Earth.

I should also note that this is spelled out in the original miniseries script:

LAURA Can we really find another planet to colonize?

ADAMA It may take a while. The number of planets that can sustain human life is very small. And there’s always the chance they may already have some kind of indigenous intelligent life on them — although if there are aliens out there, they’ve been awfully quiet.

In that script there was only one planet (which they called Kobol) and all 12 colonies were on it. There was only one star system, and FTL exploration was rare — they had not explored more than 30 LY outside their system.

That Old Time Religion

Back in June, I touched upon Baltar, Christ and the Jews but I thought it might be time to look at all the religious issues in the show.

Let’s look at some of them:

Jewish Exodus

The Cylons are monotheistic slaves of polytheistic masters. They rebel against their masters. There is a battle. They flee. They wander for 40 years in the desert. While there they learn more about their God. They then come to the promised land, and believing it is what their god wants, they slay everybody in the promised land and take it for their own.

Where have we heard that story before? Of course it is slightly different this time, in that the promised land is the original land where they were enslaved, not a new land to which they wander.

But the exodus of the Cylons after the first war is not the only exodus. In fact, we’re led to believe the real exodus of interest is the one of the polytheists (the humans.) They flee the colonies, and they also flee Kobol. And we’re not shown it yet, but their ancestors also fled Earth. Did they flee Earth over a war based on religion and the polytheist/monotheist split? Or was it just a man vs. machine war? Or both?

One strong argument for a religious theme to the exodus from Earth is Kobol’s polytheistic society. After all, there isn’t a Greek-god based polytheism on Earth right now. So where does this come from? Do the Lords of Kobol, who set themselves up like the Greek gods, do that on Earth and get kicked off for doing that, or do they set that up once they get to Kobol?

The Jews also have more than one battle and exodus to speak of, since they saw the promised land occupied, got kicked out of it, and had to retake it. But this “all this has happened before” cycle is for the monotheists this time.

We see some other Jewish influences. The Five Priests (Final Five) worship, we are told a “jealous god” who is “one whose name cannot be spoken.” That of course is also the rule among the Jews. Since I suspect this is the Cylon god, it’s another connection between them.

The source of the religion

Ron Moore has said several times he did not plan for a major religious them in the show. Rather, when he had Six speak of God in the miniseries, it apparently got network executives all excited. The idea of the killing machines having religion, and a religion closer to ours than the humans have, sounded neat to them. So Moore was asked to give us more of that, and one of the show’s major themes developed.

What this means is you won’t see a religious plot which was planned from the very start, though I think you will see one that is retconned to look like it was planned from the very start. This is similar to the ending and identity of the Final Five. Producers have admitted they did not have this planned in season one, but have also told us that when we see the ending, we will be pleased with how it all fits together, as though it were planned from the beginning.

Mormonism

The original BSG, in 1978, borrowed a lot from Mormonism, since Glen Larson, creator of BSG, was a Mormon. Concepts like the Quorum of Twelve and a lost 13th tribe are right out of that religion. Larson has however denied that KOBOL was an anagram of KOLOB, a Mormon star.

Moore, however, has no attachment to the LDS, so these elements are simply imported from the original series and don’t play a role in the new plot.

Polytheism

The humans worship a pantheon with names drawn from Greek and Roman mythology. But they have stories of these beings as being real back on Kobol. Virtual Six, who seems a mouthpiece for the Cylon God, at first treats them as evil (which means real) but eventually declares them to not exist, or rather Baltar does under her tutelage. Yet she fears Kobol. And there is a real Tomb of Athena there, with technology beyond what anybody else has.

The Oracles seem to have a real channel to some sort of higher beings. And more to the point, they seem to know the difference between the gods they talk to and the Cylon God. In a famous scene on New Caprica, an Oracle passes D’anna a message from the Cylon God, which the Oracle got from her own channel. It’s a real message, too.

I think these Lords of Kobol were real, though not really the Greek Gods. I think they were more advanced AI beings who took up those names. And if they are talking to the Oracles, they must be still around in some fashion or another, unless the Cylon god is all that is left, and it’s faking it.

Supernatural or A.I.?

The big question for me is whether all the mystical things on the show are truly supernatural, or if they are real, non-divine phenomenon with a science fiction explanation. I am much more interested in the latter. This latter plot has been the theme of a lot of the most interesting SF of the last decade, and I hope Moore has read this SF. (Check into authors like Vernor Vinge, Ken Macleod, Greg Egan etc.)

I don’t want to see a truly supernatural explanation because I don’t think that will be all that meaningful. You can write any supernatural explanation you like, of course, but because there are no limits it has much less significance. At best it’s just a reflection of your own superstitions.

That’s why I’m hoping for a plot where the Cylon god is not a god in the religious sense, but a highly advanced trans-human A.I. being, created by humans back on Earth. This being (and perhaps others) is so smart as to be like a god to humans, or to BSG’s equivalent of humans, which are not plain evolved humans like us, but have been subject to some tweaking and design by the advanced beings.

One of the tweaks is a channel into their minds, though which visions and projections can be sent. The Cylons all have this, even though their brains can’t be told from the human brains under a scanner. And we see lots of humans having visions — Roslin, Baltar and Starbuck of course, but also Adama (as a young man in the chamber of the First Hybrid) and all the Oracles. They can’t all be the final Cylon.

In the real world, there is no channel to beam visions into our heads, no matter how many SF stories might wish to imagine one. Yet these humans can receive them (and their thoughts can also be read.) The most plausible explanation is that this is a tweak or modification provided by the Cylon god or the Lords of Kobol, who had plenty of time to engineer the “humans” in this show. Their inability to see this system within themselves, even under an electron microscope, might be another modification.

We might also see a mix of the supernatural and the SF here. After all, some of the audience will find the above all-rational explanation to be too cold. Moore might try to please both audiences. After all, synthetic gods that we make don’t necessarily preclude the existence of the more traditional gods.

The Afterlife

One disturbing scene, not much talked about, involves the death of Emily Kowalski. In this scene, Roslin joins her as she dies, and takes the classic boat trip to the afterlife, where she sees her dead family waiting for her on shore. Kowalski joins them. Roslin sees her own mother on the shore but does not join her.

The fact that this occurs in Roslin’s sleep while Kowalski is really dying leads us to think this vision is real. This is in line with a number of recent SF plots which describe worlds where everybody is a computerized being, and they are downloaded to an afterlife when their bodies (real or virtual) are destroyed. Many of those stories are interesting, but I don’t want to see such a story here. If everybody — even all the billions of colonials killed in the war — is still alive, it makes a lot of the show have a lot less meaning. When you do this plot, you have to make your story about something other than the usual struggle to survive. You can write such a story and do it well, but this is not what BSG has been doing. It’s definitely a struggle-to-survive story, and if everybody always survives, that hurts it.

At the same time, if everybody can download, what sort of gods wouldn’t provide an afterlife? Half the Cylons conclude that death is necessary to give meaning to live, and they destroy their resurrection hub and divide their race over it. Might we learn that this was also a decision made about the humans in the show, that they needed death (or at least, less knowledge of an afterlife) in order to make their lives more meaningful?

I can see a few ways to play this but none of them please me. So that leaves us with the question of why we saw this afterlife scene, especially in the context of growing support for Baltar’s religious movement?

Some other views

I invited one reader to make a guest blogger post on religious issues some time back. You may find that worth a read.

I’ve also seen some nice reports on the net of eastern religious themes, especially reincarnation and Buddhism. As you may know, the opening titles of the movie are a recitation of the well known Hindu Gayatri Mantra. Of course this was inserted before Moore decided to push the religious themes. And the cycle-of-time theme is much more connected to eastern religions than to western ones.

Of course, the original BSG started with a very biblical purpose. Reportedly the original working title was Adams’s Ark, and in that show, humans on Earth were the result of a sort of “Ark” from Kobol which colonized the planet. This story is, of course, as ridiculous as the Noah’s Ark creationist story and can’t possibly be our real history, but I think we are safe from that in the new series.

Robotic Snowplow

I’ve added a new concept to the notes section — the Robo Snow Plow. In the article I describe the value of plows that can patrol the roads frequently without need for staff. Since you don’t want to delay for recharging, these might be fuel-tank powered.

However, another interesting concept is offered, namely the repurposing of idle vehicles as temporary plows. The call would go out, and idle vehicles would travel to a depot where a plow or snowblower would be placed on them. Then they would go out and plow and clear light covers of snow. When done, or when needed shortly by their owner, they would return to a depot and drop off the plow unit.

Ordinary cars would be light and not able to plow heavy snow, but there are so many idle cars that you could get to all the streets before things got too heavy. If you didn’t, you would need to assign heavier vehicles and real plows to those areas. And everybody’s driveways would be kept clear by robot snow blowers too. Cars on the roads would give real-time reports of where snow is falling and how thick it’s getting. Cities might be able to clear all their streets, sidewalks and driveways without needing extra vehicles.

Making videocalls work for the aged

While videoconferencing may not make sense for everyday use, I think it has special value for contact with distant relatives, particularly older ones who don’t travel very much. They may not get to see the grandchildren, great-grandchildren or even children very often, and their lives are often marked by a particular loneliness, particular at senior homes.

But today’s videoconferencing tools are getting quite good and will get even better. Skype now offers a 640x480 video call if you have enough bandwidth and CPU, which is not far off broadcast quality if not for the mpeg artifacts they have trying to save bandwidth. It’s also pretty easy, as is Google’s GMail video chat and several other tools. We’re just a couple of years from HDTV level consumer video calling.

Many seniors, however are unfamiliar with or even afraid of many new technologies, and often in places where it’s hard to get them. And this in turn means they can’t readily set up computers, cameras or software. There is also still not internet access in many of the locations you might want ot reach, such as hospital deathbeds and senior homes. (Had they had the access in my stepfather’s hospital room, I could have had a video conversation at the end; he died as I was heading to the plane.)

Video calls also offer extra human bandwidth, which is a big plus with people who are getting infirm, less strong of mind and hard of hearing. Reading lips can help improve how well you are understood, and physical cues can mean a lot.

And so I think it’s crazy that senior homes, hospitals and hospices don’t come standard with a video call station. This is not anything fancy. It’s a computer, a webcam, and a megabit of internet. Ideally wireless to move into rooms for the truly infirm. Yet when I have asked for this I have found myself to be the first person to ask, or found that there are policies against internet use by any but the staff.

I’m going to describe two paths to getting this. The first uses off-the-shelf hardware and freeware, but does require that the staff of these facilities learn how to use the system and be able to set their residents up in front of it when it is time for a call. This is not particularly difficult, and no different then the staff being trained in any of the other things they do for residents and patients. Then I will discuss how you would design a product aimed for the sector, which could be used without staff help.  read more »

Robocar talks at Future Salon, BIL

I’ll be giving a talk on Robocars on Friday, January 16th at the Bay Area Future Salon which is hosted at SAP, 3410 Hillview, Building D, Palo Alto CA. Follow the link for more details and RSVP information. Reception at 6, talks at 7. Eric Boyd will also talk on efficiency of transportation.

While I gave an early version of the Robocar talk at BIL (the unconference that parallels TED) last year, I think I will do an update there as well, along with a talk on the evils of cloud computing.