Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Science Fiction

Even Better Than the Real Thing

X-15 attached to a B-52 bomber prior to release.

We’re free to fly the crimson sky
the sun won’t melt our wings tonight
take me higher
you take me higher

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” U2

In 1996, professor Richard Bartle wrote that explorers “try to find out as much as they can… mapping [the world's] topology.” Bartle was not talking about astronauts or cavers, but gamers.  A developer of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), Bartle challenged the idea of MUDs as games in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they were complex social environments that attracted different players for different reasons: to gain points, to socialize with others , to kill opponents, or to explore the game environment.

Richard Bartle

To call a basement-dwelling, pajama-wearing gamer an explorer might seem absurd. There is difference between exploring virtual worlds and real ones. Still Bartle’s paper raises interesting questions. Is an explorer defined by places traveled, by worldly action? Or is “explorer” an identity, something that exists as a mode of personality? If the latter, does the real world matter at all? If so, how much? What is the role, if any, of simulation within the field of exploration?

This last question may seem better suited for science-fiction literature than sociology. The sci-fi world is populated by virtual travelers: Ender Wiggin of Ender’s Game, Neo of The Matrix, CLU of Tron, Henry Case of Neuromancer, and Jake Sully of Avatar. The list is long.

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix

Yet simulations exist in the “real world” of exploration too. NASA conducts a number of “analog” expeditions: in the desert, in the Arctic, and underwater to provide training and allow trouble-shooting for other missions. Says NASA:

Analogs provide NASA with data about strengths, limitations, and the validity of planned human-robotic exploration operations, and help define ways to combine human and robotic efforts to enhance scientific exploration.

They have other functions too. Anthropologist Valerie Olson points out that analog missions function as justifications for the broader idea of human spaceflight. The analog mission community tend to see these simulations as more “real” than others, authentic human programs rather than robotic expeditions or computer simulations.

The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), for example, takes pride in the danger and scientific rigor of each expedition. Says one NEEMO technician “This is a real and real shit happens.” [Quoted from Olson, "American Extreme: An Ethnography of Astronautical Visions and Ecologies," Ph.D Thesis, Rice University, p. 63]

NEEMO's Aquarius Habitat

Yet “mere” computer simulations also contribute to modern exploration in ways that cannot be ignored. X-15 test pilots such as Neil Armstrong (yes that Neil Armstrong) used flight simulators to train, preparing themselves for the difficult conditions of hypersonic travel 65 miles (100 km) about the earth.

In the end, however, simulators could not adequately prepare pilots for the challenges of flying in the upper atmosphere. At lower altitudes, the X-15 behaved like a plane, and pilots relied on wing surfaces to steer through an ocean of air. At higher altitudes the X-15 acted like a rocket,  and pilots used reaction thrusters to change direction. Moving from one set of controls to the other at the boundaries of space, however, proved extremely difficult especially when traveling 4000 mph (6500 kph).

X-15 cockpit

Engineers at North American solved this problem by placing one of the X-15 flight simulators (the MH-96) into the X-15 itself. The pilot would, in effect, fly the simulator. The simulator then translated the pilot’s actions to the aircraft. As Steve Mindell writes in his book Digital Apollo:

The MH-96 could cause the “real” X-15 to fly like an “ideal” one, which would make it behave exactly the same under all flight conditions, from the vacuum of space right down to the ground. It would automatically mix the reaction controls and aerodynamic controls, so that the pilot only needed one control stick, whether flying in the atmosphere or in space, or during reentry. [Mindell, 58]

In short, simulators were not just for practice: they were an integral part of the mission itself. As for the test pilots, they were not entirely unlike the pj-clad gamer holed up in the basement. Humans can only survive at the boundaries of space by being protected from space. While the pilot/astronaut is going to places never traveled, she is doing so cocooned within a space suit, cockpit, and environmentally controlled capsule. Says Mindell:

The X-15 was an unusual craft to fly. The pilot could not see the nose, and he could not see the wings. His full pressure suit wrapped him up tight and isolated him from the outside world. He could not feel or touch anything directly other than the suit and gloves. He could smell nothing other than the pure oxygen he was breathing. In [test pilot Milt] Thompson’s words, “I was in my own little world. I was comfortable and secure and protected from harm.” [Mindell, Digital Apollo, 54]

This is the irony of exploration technology in general, and simulation technology in particular: they allow us to go longer, further, and faster even as they prevent us from experiencing such feats directly. They take us higher into universe even as they keep it out of reach.


Film Review: Avatar

Jake Sully on patrol in his Na'vi avatar

As I went to see Avatar last week, I felt resigned. It had all of the predictors of a bad movie.

First, it cost half a billion dollars to make. This may seem promising. What film wouldn’t benefit from vast sums to improve cast, scripts, and special effects? Yet big budgets are usually the death of good films because studios become obsessed with recovering their investments. The question of “how do we make a good film” becomes eclipsed by “how do we make a film that brings in 500 million dollars of audience?” The recipe for this is well known: find big name actors, put them in a romance story which doubles as an action film, and sprinkle liberally with special effects. Toy merchandising helps too.

Second, Avatar was developed as a 3-D computer graphics film, only occasionally including scenes with human actors. While CGI has revolutionized film-making, it has often been used indiscriminately, creating scenes that are ill-conceived, implausible, or – with hundreds of moving points of animation – impossible to watch. George Lucas is the poster-child for CGI abuse. The coherence and narrative tension of the original Star Wars series was no where to be found in the prequel episodes of the last decade, as the demands of the blue-screen eclipsed plot, drama, and character development.

CGI abuse: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Third, Avatar follows two of the most cliched genres in films: it is coming-of-age movie, a bildungsroman in space, and a “going native” story where the lead, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine, finds meaning in life by becoming a member of  “primitive” tribe, the Na’vi on the planet of Pandora. This feat is made possible by the creation of a Na’vi avatar that Sully inhabits for most of the film. (To see how easily Avatar maps on to other ‘going native’ films, see these mashups here and here of Avatar & Disney’s Pocahontas)

Jake Sully tests out his Na'vi avatar

So I was surprised that I really like this movie. The millions of dollars used in production and marketing have not corrupted the soul of Avatar. Credit for this goes to director, James Cameron, who has proven capable of directing massively expensive, CGI intensive films (Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic) without surrendering plot and coherence.

As for the CGI effects, they are stunning to behold. The planet of Pandora is rendered with brilliant color and movement, texture and imagination. The ten-foot tall Na’vi – who in the real universe would already have been recruited for the NBA, move with all of the grace of real humans, or rather, humanoids. After a few minutes, I forgot I was watching CGI, or more accurately, I forgot about the distinction between CGI and “real life.” This is a clever effect since the viewer is, in a sense, recapitulating Sully’s experience with his avatar.

Life on Pandora

Most importantly, the story of Jake Sully’s assimilation into the world of the Na’vi, while predictable, is not mawkish. It isn’t hard to believe that a man who has lost the use of his legs, spent six years in space, and no longer functions within the world of the Marines, would find running and flying through wilds of Pandora exhilarating.

Indeed, it is the idea of the avatar that keeps this ‘going native’ story interesting. Other films in this genre, from Apocalypse Now to Dances With Wolves, follow men as they cut themselves off from the world left behind. By contrast, Avatar follows Sully as he moves back and forth between worlds: his avatar existence with the Na’vi and his human existence in base camp. How does one go native if there is constant access to the world one is leaving? The moral conflict which results provides Avatar with much of its narrative tension.

Marlon Brando goes native in Apocalypse Now (1979)

Finally, Avatar proves three-dimensional in another sense, by taking this theme of remote connection beyond the story of Sully and the Na’vi. The Marines on Pandora have found their own avatars of sorts, in the weaponized “Amplified Mobility Platform” or AMP (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the cargo loader operated by Sigourney Weaver in Aliens).

Wheelchair meets AMP

The Na’vi, on the other hand, are able to link, through neuro-chemical connections to other beings on Pandora. Indeed, the planet itself operates as an organic neural network. Avatars, in other words, have many incarnations and, in their most developed states, begin to emulate a kind of Gaia or world-soul. At what point does neural connectivity cross the line into spirituality? While Avatar sometimes crosses the line into a preachy environmentalism, the bigger questions that it raises make it worth the ride.

The Explorer Gene

explorer gene

In 1987, Dr. C. Robert Cloninger created the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire (TPQ). Despite its unique, Star-Trekian name, Cloninger’s TPQ entered a crowded field of personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Enneagram, and the Oxford Capacity Analysis (OCA).

Spock administers the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire

Spock administers the TPQ to Captain Kirk

The TPQ distinguished itself  in two respects.

First, it came from a trusted source within the medical establishment. Cloninger, a medical doctor and professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, developed the TPQ from clinical research.

Second, Cloninger’s test made claims about the genetic origin of behavioral differences. Specifically, it argued that important aspects of personality are heritable, that our temperament grows out of genetic factors as much environmental ones.

As Cloninger sees it, the route from gene to expressed behavior follows a path laid down by neurotransmitters, particularly seritonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.  The three dimensions of the TPQ (which measure harm avoidance, reward dependency, and novelty seeking) correspond to different sensitivities in these three neurotransmitters.

Cloninger’s TPQ, now somewhat modified, remains controversial within the field of psychology. Some studies confirm a link between personality assessment and neurotransmitter sensitivity while others do not.  In 1996, two studies in the United States and Israel found a correlation between a high proclivity for novelty seeking and a longer sequence in the D4 dopamine receptor gene.

Scientists hypothesized that the added length of the D4Dr sequence made certain individuals particularly sensitive to changes in dopamine. High levels of dopamine — secreted in moments of pain, pleasure, or excitement — would lead to an intense high. By contrast, moderate levels of dopamine would leave the long D4Dr individual feeling depressed.

Novelty seeking, then, was not simply an acting out against one’s parents or the product of a mid-life crisis. It was long-D4Dr individuals’ attempts to self-medicate: to BASE jump, drag race, and free climb their way to their next rush of dopamine.

The discovery of the long D4Dr gene in 1996 captured popular attention. Was exploratory behavior more a matter of genes than life experience?  Did Lord Byron chase maids and attack Turks because of a mutation on his 11th chromosome? Was Columbus’s discovery of America an elaborate attempt to get high?

Such genetic arguments are simplistic. Recent studies have brought the TPQ test and the D4Dr-novelty seeking link into question. Moreover, as Maria Coffey points out in her book, Explorers of the Infinite, many of the riskiest activities — such as high altitude mountain climbing – come with long periods of drudgery. If high-risk activity is the key to unlocking an individual’s neuro-chemical Valhalla, the long D4Dr adventurer would do better working as a day-trader on Wall Street or playing the $500 tables in Atlantic City.

casino_table

What’s more interesting to me is idea that “exploratory behavior” is an impulse beyond our control. This is a distinctly modern idea, though one that expressed itself somewhat differently in the 19th century. At that time, polar explorers called it “Arctic fever” a metaphor that was appropriate for an era afflicted by contagious disease. I find it interesting that late 20th century audiences have placed this impulsive, cannot-be-reasoned-with desire for danger within the human genome.

One might argue that the idea of the D4Dr is rooted in modern scientific research, that it represents something real rather than the 19th century’s metaphor of “fevers.” Still this doesn’t explain why talk of the explorer gene continues today even after the scientific evidence has left it behind.

For example, the dopamine-craving would-be adventurer can still join the D4Dr Club which bills itself as  “the ultimate social club for adventure seekers of all types.”

No genetic testing is necessary. If you have an elongated D4DR, you probably know it. Be proud of it! Flaunt it! Whatever your ‘thing’ is – Adventure Travel, Extreme Sports or if you just like an adrenaline rush.

Membership benefits include a newsletter, inclusion in studies about the D4Dr gene, and a discount on flak jackets.



the ultimate social club for adventure seekers of all typesthe ultimate social club for adventure seekers of all ty

Film Review: Up

Carl Fredricksen under attack by explorer Charles Muntz

Carl Fredricksen under attack by explorer Charles Muntz

Since the release of the Incredibles in 2004, Pixar has proven that it can run with grown-ups as well as the kindergarten crowd. Kid movies, after all, will always have multiple audiences.  The trick is to produce stories that cohere as well as engage these different movie-goers.  The Batman and Bugs Bunny of my youth did this by packing episodes with jokes, allusions, and celebrity guest stars geared to my parents.  No matter, the shows had enough fights, cliff-falls, and shotgun-blasts to keep me watching.

Batman_and_Robin_TV_show

Pixar’s strategy, however, has been more ambitious: to produce films that pull in adults by compelling stories rather than sophisticated jokes.

The Incredibles (2004), for example, broke with a tradition of  scripting superhero movies as bildungsroman, coming-of-age stories for teens with mutant powers. Instead it told the story of superheroes as they are getting soft, wrestling with the demands of family life, middle age, and lost ambitions. While there are plenty of explosions and chase sequences, the real action of The Incredibles is in the livingroom, when Bob Parr (Mr Incredible) spars with his wife Helen (Elastigirl) about life’s priorities.

The Incredibles (2004)

The Incredibles (2004)

Up boasts no superheroes or spandex, but it follows The Incredibles‘ lead by creating a protagonist, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), widower and would-be adventurer, who has seen brighter days. When we meet Carl, he is grieving the loss of his wife Ellie (Ellie Docter). After a court pressures him to sell his house and enter a retirement community, he uses his balloon expertise to turn his Victorian house into a helium dirigible, sailing aloft and out of reach of contractors and nursing home attendants.

up2

He decides to steer his craft south, towards the mythic South American land of Paradise Falls, a place he dreamed of visiting with Ellie since they formed an adventure club as kids. Only after lifting off does Carl realize that he has a passenger, Russell (Jordan Nagai),  a Wilderness Explorer trying to earn an “Assisting the Elderly” merit badge.

Russell

Russell

What inspires me to write about Up here? Because the film is about exploration in the many senses of the word. From its opening shot, Up creates a backstory for Paradise Falls, a lost world which was explored by wealthy adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plumber) in his dirigible, The Spirit of Adventure. Muntz returns claiming discovery of a large flightless bird, meeting with ridicule. With no proof of his discovery, he is stripped of his membership in the National Explorer’s Club, and leaves on The Spirit of Adventure (with a large pack of dogs) vowing to return once he has proven his claim to the world.

Charles Muntz, explorer of Paradise Falls

Charles Muntz, explorer of Paradise Falls

Muntz’s exploration of South America borrows much from Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 book, The Lost World, which also tells the story of a South American expedition (led by Dr. Challenger) who is ridiculed for claiming the discovery of living dinosaurs.

lostworld

Yet as a wealthy explorer with a keen sense of technology, Muntz also resembles Howard Hughes, piloting the H-4 Hercules (Spruce Goose) in 1947, and Walter Wellman, who steered the dirigible America toward the North Pole in 1906.  He also reminds me of Frederick Cook, whose claims of discovering the North Pole in 1909 eventually brought about public ridicule and expulsion from the Explorers Club the following year. (As for Muntz’s dogs, trained to perform human tasks and provided the power of speech, I couldn’t help but think of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells).

Walter Wellman aboard America

Walter Wellman aboard America

As for the giant flightless bird of Paradise Falls (named “Kevin” by Russell), it could be an allusion to Doyle’s dinosaur, but it also made me of the most famous description of a South American flightless bird, Charles Darwin’s discovery of the Rhea in 1833, a find that had serious implications for his theory of evolution.

Kevin, flightless bird of Paradise Falls

Kevin, flightless bird of Paradise Falls

Rhea Darwinii

Rhea Darwinii

More compelling than these historical and literary allusions, however, are the deeper questions Up raises about the idea of exploration. As children, Carl and Ellie bonded over the idea of exploring Paradise Falls, a dream that was never realized during Ellie’s lifetime. It fuels Carl’s quest to reach the mythic locale after her death. Yet once he reaches the Falls, Carl opens up Ellie’s childhood “My Adventures” scrapbook to find that the pages after “Paradise Falls” are not empty, but filled with pictures of Carl and Ellie through the happy years of their marriage. Adventure – Ellie knows – is where you find it, and discovery, as William Goetzmann points out in Exploration and Empire, is almost always a question of  re-discovery, finding new things in places already traveled.

Ellie and Carl

Ellie and Carl

Most of all, Carl’s insight into the idea of adventure reminded me of Philip Carey, protagonist of Somerset Maughm’s novel Of Human Bondage (1915). Although Carey nurtured a lifelong dream to travel, he eventually decides to shelve this plan when he falls in love, seeing a different path to discovery:

What did he care for Spain and its cities, Cordova, Toledo, Leon; what to him were the pagodas of Burmah and the lagoons of the South Sea Islands?…He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect?

Charles Muntz is the most traveled character of Up. He is also the least enlightened by his travels, scarcely touched by his experiences of Paradise Falls except for his obsessive quest with finding the flightless bird. Ellie, by contrast, never leaves the suburbs and the zoo where she works. But she understands that exploration is a state of mind as much as a plan of action, an experience that does not require talking dogs or dirigibles.

Call Me Starbuck

Guy Waterman

Guy Waterman

On February 6 2000, Guy Waterman drove his Subaru Impreza to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, hiked up Mt Lafayette, and in the windy -16 degree night, let himself die of exposure.

Waterman was a man of many gifts and torments, a climber, writer, and environmentalist who lived for thirty years with his wife Laura Waterman  off-the-grid in Vermont.

Of these torments, which drove him into deeper and deeper isolation, Waterman said little. Yet he wrote about them through the characters of literature. He was Shakespeare’s Ariel battling the witch-child Caliban. He was Milton’s proud Satan. He was tragic Prometheus. He was Melville’s Ahab.

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Prosper and Ariel, William Hamilton, 1797

Ahab.  As I read Laura Waterman’s spare, graceful memoir, Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage , it seemed an appropriate metaphor for Guy Waterman.

Then, this morning, reading Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Ahab surfaced once again.  Near the summit of Everest in 1996,  David Breashears and Ed Viesturs come across a body near the Hillary Step.

They found [Bruce] Herrod’s body clipped on to fixed ropes with a figure-eight rappel breake. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears later wrote, “lashed to his white whale.” [Coffey, 118]

It made me pause. One hears different many different literary metaphors for explorers and adventurers, but rarely Ahab.

mobydick

Successful explorers find comparison to Odysseus, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Confined to the scurvy-ridden cabin of Advance over the long winter of 1854, Arctic explorer Elisha Kane would keep up the spirits of his men by reading them Alfred Tennyson’s Odyssean poem “Ulysses”) Those explorers who perish are commonly portrayed as Icarus, a boy whose joy with altitude overcame good judgment, causing him to fall to earth.

Both of these are figures are imperfect but bright of heart. Ahab is a different creature, a man of darker spirit, a figure turned in upon himself. Ahab’s travels to the ends of the earth bring no discovery or enlightenment; he sees only the white whale. Ultimately his obsession brings tragedy to all, not only Ahab, but to those who follow him.

Is Ahab the true spirit of extreme adventure? You would not think so reading most adventure literature. While these books reveal some of the dirty laundry of expeditionary life, they mostly chronicle struggle and attainment, heroism and transcendence.  Indeed, elite climbers often speak of the transcendent moment as the Holy Grail of high-altitude climbing, that thing which brings them back, time and time again, to the most dangerous mountains in the world.

Yet transcendence, going beyond oneself, is the opposite of obsession, a psychic tunneling-in so extreme that it diminishes or excludes everything around it: Golem’s ring, Ahab’s whale, Herrod’s mountain.

Grim metaphors indeed. Perhaps the legions of 8000-meter peak baggers and Seven-Summiters should read Moby-Dick, digest the moral of Ahab, and then turn their attention to the Ahab’s Quaker First Mate Starbuck:

[H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him … from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. [Melville, Moby-Dick]

If this seems too tame or Quakerish for the modern climber, perhaps they’d learn more from a more modern Starbuck, the character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Gallactica. Thrace is a woman of many demons, of violent appetites. Her thirst for transcendent experience has no limits.  But ultimately she channels her dare-devilry into objects of common interest, the search for Earth, the return home.

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) of Battlestar Galactica


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