Archive for October 27, 2011

In an octopus’s garden

Here’s a fascinating article about octopus intelligence and the ways in which it’s profoundly different from ours:

As a science fiction fan and author, I’m always fascinated by research revealing that other sapient species probably exist right here on Earth — be it apes, dolphins, elephants, whatever.  And the “smarter than we ever imagined” club keeps broadening.  Now it’s grown to encompass birds and cephalopods like octopus and squid.  (And yes, the plural of octopus is octopus, octopuses, or octopodes, not “octopi.”  It’s from Greek, not Latin; -pus means “foot” and its plural is -podes.)  This article is particularly interesting to me as an alien-builder in its discussion of how radically different the octopus’s senses and perceptions are, and how different are the reasons behind its evolution of intelligence.  It might be premature to read consciousness into the octopus’s behavior, but it might be so alien that it’s hard to define what is or isn’t conscious.

Although it’s kind of heartening that, even across such a gulf, the article describes such a bond of affection between human and octopus.  Even though octopus aren’t particularly social, and often fight with rival octopus, some of them do seem to show affinity or at least interest toward certain humans.  We often assume in SF that the gulfs between different sapient species might be too great to surmount if they’re different enough (see Orson Scott Card’s Ender novels, for instance).  But I tend to think maybe the opposite might be true.  We often get along better with other species than we do with our own kind.  Like the way dolphins are famously benevolent and protective toward humans even though they’re often quite aggressive toward other dolphins.  I think it’s because members of other species are rarely our rivals in the same way that members of our own species can be, so there’s less incentive for fear and hostility.  And I think it’s because intelligent minds have a natural tendency to reach out to other intelligent minds.  At least that’s true with mammalian and avian species, whose intelligence arises from the need for complex social interaction and communication.  But this article says that octopodan intelligence didn’t come from social needs, but may instead have come from the need to be adaptable in strategies for pursuing various forms of prey, fleeing various forms of predator, and dealing with the changing environment of the sea.  So what, in that case, could be the incentive driving this form of intelligence to connect with others?  Perhaps simple curiosity.  Perhaps an intelligent mind can recognize that another intelligent mind, particularly an alien one, is something it can learn new things from.  And if a species’ intelligence arises from the need to adapt and innovate in order to survive, then surely there would be a survival imperative to seek new knowledge, new insight.  Even if we have nothing else in common with another intelligence, we may have curiosity and the willingness to learn in common.  That could be the basis for understanding with even the most alien intelligences.

In any case, this article makes me rethink my assumption that all intelligent species would be social species.  Certainly many would be, and those would be the aliens that we could probably get along with the most easily, the ones most likely to join into interstellar federations and commonwealths and leagues and whatnot.  But there could be others as well, species that evolved a less social form of intelligence.  It’s doubtful that they’d have much in the way of civilization, though, if they couldn’t cooperate and organize.  But maybe they’d find a way.  It’s certainly interesting to think about.

Categories: Science Tags: , ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S6) Reviews: “The Visitors”/”Nerves” (spoilers)

“The Visitors”: Hey, it’s Stately Wayne Manor!  The familiar location, a residence on South San Rafael Avenue in Pasadena, is serving not as the home of millionaire Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson, but as the abode of newspaper publisher Granger (Steve Forrest), whose reporter is telling him about an expose he’s planning that exposes the syndicate’s control of key positions throughout his state.  When he reveals that he has no copies of the sensitive evidence he’s brought, Granger, who’s actually in with the mob though the reporter doesn’t know it, has his chauffeur Leonard (Jack Donner doing a bad British accent) sabotage the reporter’s helicopter so he and his pilot go kaboom.  The now-familiar smash cut from a killing to a close-up of the tape player is used, and it’s the first stock tape scene of the season, reusing the sequence that was shot in the pharmacy set from “Hunted” but used in the fifth-season finale.  The tape reveals that Granger has used his power as a publisher to promote and protect mob candidates and they’re days from gaining statewide power in an election.  The mission is to expose Granger and his fellow mobsters before the election.

The plan is to take advantage of Granger’s eccentric beliefs.  He’s a fitness nut who craves immortality, and he’s believed in UFOs ever since a light in the sky led him and an acquaintance named Helen to find a boy lost in a well 25 years earlier, beginning his career as a journalist.  He’s mainly a rational, intelligent man, but narcissistic enough to believe that a higher, alien power has been guiding his rise to greatness.  (There’s a slight problem here, since 25 years earlier would’ve been 1946, and “flying saucer” beliefs didn’t begin to emerge in pop culture until the Kenneth Arnold sightings of 1947, with the term “UFO” being coined in 1952.  And the idea that “flying saucers” represented alien spaceships didn’t catch on until sometime after ’47, which is why the US military could call the crashed vehicle from Roswell a “flying disc” and then identify it as a weather balloon without there being any retraction or coverup involved — since at the time, the term hadn’t yet acquired any connotations of extraterrestrial origin but just meant “unknown roundish thing in the sky.”  However, perhaps Granger’s belief that the light represented an alien force emerged in the years following his experience — as UFO lore evolved in popular culture, his retroactive interpretation of his 1946 experience evolved with it.)

First, Barney impersonates an ex-con (adopting the record of a real, reformed felon who’s cooperating in exchange for a fresh start) and makes contact with Kellog (Frank Hotchkiss), Granger’s assistant and mob handler, seeking work.  Then the team arrests Leonard and makes it look like he robbed Granger’s safe and fled.  Kellog hires Barney to fill the job opening, and Barney wastes no time delivering a paralytic toxin to Granger via a “mutant bee” (intrinsically harmless but hyperaggressive) that he blows down the chimney into Granger’s study.  Granger’s doctor, Laurence, (Richard Bull) can’t identify the toxin so he contacts a venom center, which is actually Jim doing a fake accent and asking Dr. Laurence to send the bee remains and a blood sample.

But that night, while Granger’s paralyzed in bed but fully conscious, Barney fakes lights and smoke outside his window while Willy activates a gizmo that screws up TV/radio signals for miles around and spams the police switchboard with taped calls (mostly the voices of Jim, Casey, and Barney) reporting UFO sightings.  After Barney drove the samples to the “venom center,” he smuggled Jim and Casey in, and now they descend from the roof and suddenly appear in Granger’s room, dressed in white and carrying weird equipment.  They order Dr. Laurence to leave and Kellog makes him.  Then “nurse” Casey, wearing a raven-haired wig with a streak of white just like Helen from 25 years ago, puts weird gizmos on Granger’s chest, letting him see a birthmark on her hand that matches Helen’s.  They scan him with a flashy-light box that sounds like a Star Trek shuttlecraft interior, and Jim injects him with a counteragent using a futuristic injector gun that sounds like a cross between an ST hypospray hiss and starship-door sound effect (which, in fact, was the sound of an air rifle played backwards).  Then they “vanish” by going out the side doors and climbing back up to the roof, so nobody sees them leave.  Granger is completely recovered in minutes, and a well-timed special report on the radio (which doesn’t seem to be cued by the team but just conveniently happens) informs him of the citywide sightings.  Was he saved by aliens?

Later, when Granger’s heading for the newspaper office, Barney fakes engine trouble, and while he and Kellog are examining the engine, Casey shows up and gets in the back seat with Granger, warning him that their blood tests found leukemia and asking him to stay close to home.  He asks “Helen” how she can be unchanged after a quarter-century, but she doesn’t answer then.  Yet she’s already at his home when he gets back, and she uses oogy-woogy senses to detect the bug Kellog has in Granger’s office (which the team actually found earlier when they robbed the safe — I wonder what they did with the money they took?).  This gets Granger to fire Kellog.  Casey then tells Granger she was sent to offer him immortality, but he resists and accuses her of fraud, so she tells him they were wrong to choose him 25 years ago.  She drives off, but as planned, Kellog’s firing has gotten his mob bosses back in NY to order him to kill Casey.  He pursues her with Barney at the wheel (and they drive under a distinctive viaduct, a location I remember from season 4’s “The Numbers Game”), and Barney makes sure Kellog’s shots miss and that their pursuit is delayed long enough for Willy to rig a fake crash of a duplicate of Casey’s car.  Meanwhile, alien doctor Jim has come to Granger seeking Casey/Helen, saying she’s in danger (and this is just after Dr. Laurence called to say the “venom center” reported signs of leukemia to him).  They drive off after her and come upon the crash scene.  Kellog flees, leaving Barney behind, which is a glitch in the plan.  Jim and Granger descend to find Casey supposedly thrown clear of the crash but with a mask simulating a mummified appearance.  Jim has Granger drive them to a hidden HQ containing a healing tube that Jim puts Casey into.  The tube fills with smoke, and I assume the idea is that Casey is switching masks under cover of the smoke, but oddly, we see a film dissolve from her “mummified” mask to a hairless mask (not sure whether it’s meant to suggest “cadaver” or “alien”) before the smoke fills up and then clears to reveal Casey’s normal face.

Now convinced that the “aliens” and their healing tech are genuine, Granger asks them to cure his leukemia.  But Jim says he betrayed them by turning to crime and corruption, and refuses to help him.  Granger offers to come clean, to expose the mob-owned candidates in the upcoming election, and Jim uses a disguised phone in his super-spacey control booth to let Granger call the radio station he owns and get hooked in to make a live announcement, naming all the corrupt candidates and promising to reveal more in future broadcasts.  For some reason, though, the IMF leaves during the broadcast.  And somehow Kellog has tracked Granger here, no idea how, and he shoots Granger.  This seems to diminish the team’s victory; will just a single uncorroborated broadcast really be enough to ensure all the named candidates lose?  I suppose it could prompt investigations that would expose them, but the election’s only a day or two away.  Logically, the team should’ve kept Granger safe so that he could deliver hard proof to the authorities and the public.  Still, his shooting allows for a rather striking conclusion — as Granger lies on the floor, dying, he strains desperately toward the “healing tube,” and the final freezeframe comes just before his hand can reach its activation button.

Well, I was expecting an M:I episode about a faked alien visitation to be quite lame and gimmicky.  The fact that Harold Livingston scripted it didn’t encourage me, since his previous season 6 script, “Encore,” was overly gimmicky and unbelievable.  But while this story has some logic problems in the final act, it’s mostly a solid episode with well-written dialogue and a rather poetic conclusion.  Even the new musical score is a pleasant surprise.  It’s the only M:I contribution of George Romanis, who would later contribute my least favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation score (“Too Short a Season”), but Romanis does good work here, reminding me somewhat of the style of Ray Ellis’s music for the Filmation cartoons I grew up with in the ’70s.  All that and Stately Wayne Manor too!  So all told, this is a much more enjoyable episode than it had any business being.

“Nerves”: Criminal Wendell Hoyes (Christopher George, husband of Lynda Day “Casey” George) has stolen a canister of nerve gas from the Army and threatens to release it in a populated area if his brother Cayman (Paul Stevens) isn’t released.  But Cayman is on his deathbed.  The only hope of finding the canister is Jim Phelps, who gets the tape from a fisherman at the pier in the early morning.  There’s a timing issue here, since Wendell gives the Warden 24 hours to comply in the teaser (unless I’m misremembering), but Jim gets the briefing in the morning, and in the apartment scene, guest team member Bill Williams (Peter Kilman) says he’s been studying Cayman’s voice all night, suggesting yet another day has passed since the tape scene.  And in the apartment, Barney says the nerve gas canister is defective and the gas will corrode through in 43 hours.  (This being TV land, they can predict precisely when a material failure will occur.)  And Wendell himself is violently paranoid and unstable (so the episode title has a dual meaning).

The first stage is to put Casey in as a prisoner alongside Wendell’s girlfriend Saretta (Tyne Daly — gee, I thought she looked familiar!), cuffing them together, and then staging a jailbreak.  Casey’s getaway route is blocked by police (cooperating with the team), so Saretta takes over and makes Casey drive them to Wendell’s hideout in a winery, with Barney tracking them via a bug in the getaway car.  Wendell is suspicious of Casey and has his partner Tully (Rafer Johnson) check her out through his mole in the prison, a guard named Campbell (Ron Masak).  But the warden has cooperated with the team to fake Casey’s record, and when Cayman dies, the prison doctor agrees to cover that up too.

Once Casey’s bona fides are established, Wendell tries to force himself on Casey, to Saretta’s displeasure as well as Casey’s.  But Saretta’s evidently used to his turbulent ways and is good at calming him and reassuring him of her love and devotion — which one senses is a skill she had to learn as a defense mechanism, because he’s violently unstable.

When Wendell calls the prison, Jim plays an official empowered to release Cayman (actually Bill in disguise) in exchange for the canister, but Tully pulls an expected double-cross, driving off with Bill/Cayman and leaving Jim in the lurch.  (Cayman is Paul Stevens’s fourth M:I role, and every single one of his characters has been the subject of a mask impersonation by an IMF team member.)  The team has now infiltrated two of their own into Wendell’s organization, but they’re still no closer to finding the nerve gas.  So when Wendell tells Bill/Cayman that he plans to sell the gas to a terrorist, Bill tries to convince him that he’s going too far and should keep his bargain with the government instead.  But Wendell accuses Bill/Cayman of going soft and vehemently insists on doing it his way.  Saretta and Tully agree, so Bill and Casey have no choice but to play along and hope Wendell will take them to the canister before it ruptures.  But when they go out to get the canister, Wendell’s in no hurry.

Worse, the corrupt guard Campbell has discovered the real Cayman’s body in the morgue, and though the absence of cell phones in 1971 impedes his efforts, he eventually manages to notify Tully (who’s stayed behind due to car trouble) of the deception.  Jim, Barney, and Willy follow Wendell, Bill, and the women (whom Wendell intends to kill later, feeling he only needs his beloved brother) to the Griffith Park Observatory, but Tully’s close behind, and soon warns Wendell that his brother’s dead and he’s brought an impostor.  Wendell takes Bill to the crate that held the canister, but it’s empty.  Wendell attacks Bill and then orders Tully to shoot him, and since he was a bit player I was wondering if he might actually get killed, but Jim arrives just in time to save him, shooting Tully in the shoulder (which, of course, does virtually no damage — see “Encounter” earlier this season). Wendell runs for the canister, determined to set it off and make Them pay for killing his brother, and when Tully tries to stop him (afraid for his own life), Wendell shoots him, but Tully shoots back and wounds him.  Wendell then climbs up into the observatory dome and starts shooting at Jim and Barney from that high vantage.  We’re in the final two minutes of the episode and the team still doesn’t know where the nerve gas is hidden.  But just before Wendell succumbs to blood loss and falls dead, he fires several shots that Jim realizes weren’t aimed at him.  He and Barney climb to where they hit and find the canister. The last scene of the episode is the team watching as the canister is encased in cement.

Well, this was a very effective episode, written by Henry Sharp and Garrie Bateson.  All too often in M:I, the team is on top of the situation from the start and there’s little doubt of their success.  But here, they go through virtually the entire episode without any real sense of gaining ground toward their goal — not because of any shortfalls on their part, but because the situation is so heavily stacked against them.  M:I capers rely so much on predicting the behavior of their targets, so their methods can fall short when dealing with someone as unstable and unpredictable as Wendell.  And the exposure of Bill in the last act added even further to the already effective suspense.  The script didn’t make it at all easy for the team to achieve its goal, and up until literally the last minute of the episode, there was an effective sense of uncertainty that the team would be able to succeed.  Of course it was a given that they would, but it wasn’t at all obvious how they would.  The episode is further enhanced by an effective new score by Robert Drasnin, who gives Wendell a suitably edgy, staccato leitmotif, counterpointed by a softer flute motif for Saretta.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Humans are getting less violent!

October 27, 2011 2 comments

I’ve read a couple of articles lately about a new book by Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker, who’s done research showing that, contrary to what a lot of people and a lot of dystopian science fiction tends to assume, human society has actually become less violent over time.  Here are some excerpts from an article in New Scientist:

I was struck by a graph I saw of homicide rates in British towns and cities going back to the 14th century. The rates had plummeted by between 30 and 100-fold. That stuck with me, because you tend to have an image of medieval times with happy peasants coexisting in close-knit communities, whereas we think of the present as filled with school shootings and mugging and terrorist attacks.

Then in Lawrence Keeley’s 1996 book War Before Civilization I read that modern states at their worst, such as Germany in the 20th century or France in the 19th century, had rates of death in warfare that were dwarfed by those of hunter-gatherer and hunter-horticultural societies. That too, is of profound significance in terms of our understanding of the costs and benefits of civilisation.

How do you explain the decline in violence?
I don’t think there is a single answer. One cause is government, that is, third-party dispute resolution: courts and police with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Everywhere you look for comparisons of life under anarchy and life under government, life under government is less violent. The evidence includes transitions such as the European homicide decline since the Middle Ages, which coincided with the expansion and consolidation of kingdoms; the transition from tribal anarchy to the first states. Watching the movie in reverse, in today’s failed states violence goes through the roof.

Do you think commerce helps too?
Commerce, trade and exchange make other people more valuable alive than dead, and mean that people try to anticipate what the other guy needs and wants. It engages the mechanisms of reciprocal altruism, as the evolutionary biologists call it, as opposed to raw dominance.

What else has contributed to the decline?
The expansion of literacy, journalism, history, science – all of the ways in which we see the world from the other guy’s point of view. Feminisation is another reason for the decline. As women are empowered, violence can come down, for a number of reasons.

I’m not entirely sure about all his points.  I’ve gathered that pre-agrarian, hunter-gatherer societies tend to be fairly peaceful on the whole, the idea being that it’s when we settle down and don’t need to hunt for food as much that our predatory instincts go unfulfilled and get misdirected into war, conquest, oppression, rape, etc.  Also I wonder if he’s reading too much into percentages — the percentage of the population touched by violence may be declining simply because there are so many more people around.

Still, I think there’s a lot of merit to his position, at least with regard to the period since civilization began.  I’ve had the same impression myself for a long time: that states and societies in the past were far more prone to resort to killing, torture, and the like, and that these things are a lot less acceptable now as we’ve developed better alternatives, more ethical justice systems and bodies of law.  When people in the past would resolve disputes with duels to the death, today they’d resolve them with litigation or smearing their opponents in the media.  Either of which can get ugly, but it’s better than the alternative.

What’s nice about this model is that it’s nonpartisan.  It says government helps reduce violence, which should make lefties happy, but it also says commerce and business do the same, which should satisfy those on the right.  Which fits what I believe, that it’s a healthy balance between the two institutions, government and business cooperating and curbing each other’s excesses, that works the best.   Both can certainly be abused and mishandled, but both have the potential to do great good with the right approach.

So why does it seem to us that the world is so much more violent?  Pinker says that as violence becomes more uncommon, those acts of violence that do occur stand out more and are more shocking.  They don’t blend into the noise the way they once would have.

Pinker says the changes are more likely social/environmental than evolutionary, which makes sense, since it’s only been a few thousand years since civilization began, hardly a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.  Still, it seems to me that if a society has come to see violence as unacceptable, then that could influence evolution, because people more prone to violent behavior could come to be seen as less desirable mates.  Not to mention that people leading more violent lives might be more likely to get themselves killed off, or locked away without access to prospective mates, and thus would make less of a contribution to the gene pool.  So it might not be a factor now, but if civilization continues along these lines for long enough, then it could affect our evolution over the next few millennia or so.  (Which also says something about alien civilizations in science fiction.  If they’ve been civilized for tens or hundreds of millennia, they could also have evolved to be less aggressive.)

This is heartening for me to read about, since it reinforces what I’ve always believed about humanity’s potential to improve.  It makes the optimistic future seen in Star Trek, and the one I seek to depict in my original fiction, more credible.  Maybe it will persuade other SF writers to explore more optimistic futures as well, or at least not be so quick to default to dystopias.  And who knows?  Maybe if people in general can recognize that civilization is heading in a positive direction, it will inspire them to work for further improvement.

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