Sunday, September 28, 2014

We Need a Grand Challenge

When I was growing up, in fact all during my formative teenage years, I was conscious of a great national challenge: Put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Yes, everyone understood—even a bright child such as I understood—that the challenge was aimed at the Russians as another aspect of the Cold War. But that’s not how it generally felt.

When I sat in my ninth-grade classroom and heard the piped-in broadcast describing Alan Shepard’s first suborbital Mercury flight, there might have been some mention of Yuri Gagarin’s previous orbit. But the first American manned space mission wasn’t presented so much as a national race and never as any kind of military operation. It was the achievement of the logical first step toward longer missions that would be represented by the Gemini and Apollo flights. It was something our country was doing voluntarily in the interests of science and exploration.

The problem was, “Put a man on the Moon” had no natural corollary. We landed, we walked around, then drove around. We gathered rocks in the interests of geology and science. We took pictures, did goofy experiments like dropping feathers and driving golf balls, and left flags. But by the time I was out of college, everyone could see there wasn’t much point to doing any more such missions. We walked on the Moon. Hooray.

NASA took all that expertise and then changed direction. Instead of huge rockets with one-time-use components to boost us into orbit and beyond, they decided to build a space truck with the potential for reuse and an operational ceiling of about 500 vertical miles. Any satellite intended for an orbit higher than that needed its own booster package, stowed along with the satellite inside the cargo bay. The Space Shuttle was designed to support a continuous orbital presence, represented by satellite fleets, space telescopes, and space stations. The problem was that, while the vehicle itself was technically reusable, it just about had to be rebuilt for every mission. Going into space became a whole lot less sexy and still remained prohibitively expensive.1

Space and its exploration became just something we did, like building waterworks or highways. Satellites have created huge benefits for our everyday lives in communications, weather monitoring, and scientific research. Interplanetary probes are telling us more and more about the solar system. I’m not complaining, and indeed, everyone oohs and ahhs over the latest pictures from the Mars probes and the scientists’ speculations about the possibilities there of water and signs of extraterrestrial life. But the challenge is gone. Remote, automated, probe-based interplanetary exploration is no longer, in the words of President Kennedy, “something we choose to do because it is hard.” It’s interesting but not inspiring.

I grew up believing we had a future out among the stars. I wasn’t alone, because science fiction and the popular imagination have trended that way ever since the decade of the Moon launches. Television shows and movies like Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and finally Firefly have all promised us this future. But actually going to the stars, rather than play acting on studio sets with elaborate special effects, is not only too hard but too expensive, as well as dangerous. We dream of the stars, but we make no effort to actually go out there.

I can’t imagine growing up in the current national environment and popular culture. For a young person, this is a time without vision. For my ancestors, for my great-great-grandparents and on down through the generations, the vision was “Go west”—go to America, go beyond the mountains, go to Texas, go to California. Out there to the west was where things were bigger, opportunities were greater, and futures were waiting to be made. In my youth, the vision was “Go into space”—go to orbit, go to the Moon, go to Mars, build space stations and colonies, and step off for the stars. Up there is where danger calls, where the hard things are, and where the future will be made.

Today’s vision, I guess, is “Save the planet.” Stop building stuff, stop mining for metals, stop drilling for energy, stop planting new crops, stop personally using energy, reduce your footprint, take shallow breaths. The vision is not about going someplace and discovering its uniqueness and possibilities, but about surviving on a planet that is supposedly fragile, defenseless, horribly managed, badly mangled, and turning sour with our every breath. We can only survive, can only sustain ourselves, if we draw back, turn inward, and be very, very careful. Sit quietly on the couch, play your video games, and watch actors on television pretend to explore out among the stars.

That vision won’t save us. I don’t say the Earth is running out of resources. We have abundant energy supplies, food potential, clean recycled water, and an active air-cleaning system to last us indefinitely on this planet. Clever use of our technology will make quite a nice little life for our descendants for as long as anyone now living would care. But the human psyche, which developed over a hundred thousand or a million years of endless wandering, did not evolve to settle down and take shallow breaths. We walked out of Africa. We crossed land bridges. When we came to oceans with no obvious way across, we built canoes, then boats, then ships. We became seafarers. We put our imprint on the continents. We climbed every mountain, pushed into every swamp and desert, paddled up every river, probed every cave we ever discovered. We are a restless, seeking species. We don’t live for mere survival. We want to see new places, learn new things, and take up new challenges.

Making a sustainable nest on Earth won’t save us in the long run, either. I believe the universe teams with life, and that intelligent life will eventually harness the mysteries of mathematics, the supplies of energy latent in space and time, and the mechanics of gravity to thrust itself out among the stars. When such life happens upon our little green planet with its warm skies and liquid seas, the encounter will go one of two ways. If we have bases on other Sol System planets and moons, a thriving exploratory arm, and our own starships, those intelligent visitors will likely see us as something similar to themselves. They may be friendly or hostile, but they will know they’re dealing with potential equals. But if we are living modestly on just the skin of this one planet, then despite all our protestations of intelligence and our attempts at communication, they will likely treat us as a population of bright, chittering squirrels. We might be interesting creatures, but no one to whom the space explorers would feel compelled to yield ground.

And if the extraterrestrials don’t get us, then our own solar system surely will. This planet experiences a regular rain of rocks and has endured a number of mass extinctions. Where fire from above doesn’t annihilate us, the orbital peculiarities and periodic ice ages of this planet are still a threat. People living quietly, just hoping to survive, on the skin of the planet will not be in any position to deal with these dangers. Plan small, breathe shallow—and die out in the long run. That may be what some human idealists want: to eliminate this pesky species with its untidy, rambunctious habits. But that’s not the future which a hundred thousand or a million years of wandering, wondering, and developing our huge brains and our invasive technologies have prepared for us.

We have to go on, go outward, and establish our presence in space. People talk about a mission to Mars. Well and good. But if it’s just to walk around and plant a flag, then please don’t bother. We’ll spend a few terabucks getting there, then forget it all and sink back into watching television. Mars looks like a choice because it is a whole planet and has an atmosphere, but the planet is small and hostile, the atmosphere thin and unbreathable.2 We have a small, hostile world a lot closer to home for us to practice on—the Moon. I believe we should build bases there, establish a presence, create the technologies that will let us live and thrive anywhere in space, and then step off for the other potentially habitable planets and moons in this solar system.

Just as the trappers and traders who explored the western expanses of North America had to build forts and trading posts on the plains and along the rivers, we will need to build bases outside the Earth’s atmosphere: space stations in planetary orbit, on the Moon, and at the stable LaGrange points in between. These habitats will build up our knowledge and expertise about dealing with space’s radical environment and its challenges. We have learned a lot from the Moon missions, the Space Shuttle, our satellite systems, our participation in the International Space Station, and our robot probes. But our knowledge of what it means to be a spacefarer is about where our ancestors were when they faced the broad ocean and hollowed out their first log canoes. We have a long way to go.

We need to stop spending money on stunts, on flag planting and extraplanetary walkabouts, and start making a life for humanity out among the stars. It’s where we’ll be going eventually. We really ought to start getting there.

1. To say nothing about dangerous. We lost two crews—first aboard Challenger during takeoff and then with Columbia during reentry—for simple mechanical reasons that we eventually fixed. But each time we nearly lost our nerve about going into space. We also lost a complete Apollo crew in a pad fire early in the program, but that didn’t stop the Moon launches. What we didn’t have with the Space Shuttle program was any feeling of national resolve.

2. Mars’s atmosphere is made up mostly of the heavy gas carbon dioxide, because the pull of the planet’s gravity is too small to hold lighter gases like oxygen and nitrogen. Mars’s atmospheric pressure is about one percent that of Earth, which makes it a high-grade vacuum. Take an airplane up to about 70,000 feet, open a window, and you’d be breathing the equivalent Mars atmosphere—except it would still be mostly nitrogen and oxygen instead of carbon dioxide. Mars’s planetary core is dead, so it has no magnetosphere, which means the solar wind lashes the planet with hard radiation. Building a colony on Mars would not be any simpler than building one on the Moon or at the top of Mount Everest—except that either of those places is a whole lot closer with much lower logistical costs.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Old Roman Way

I am a child of western civilization—and proud of it. I contrast this attitude with the current trend toward multiculturalism, which appears to state that all cultures and beliefs are equally valid, can only be understood by their native adherents, and cannot be judged by outsiders. To which I say, “Poppycock!”1

The cultural tradition which I follow may have had its first glimmerings in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and in Egypt along the Nile. That’s where we humans first got the basic notion of settling down to farm the rich alluvial soil of the river valley, rather than hunt and gather, or follow herds of cows and goats from summer to winter pastures. With settlements came a common language, writing for the priestly elite, and the idea of regulated authority and kingship. But the western tradition didn’t really get under way until the Greeks.

The Greeks apparently started as invaders. Their origins are shrouded in pre-classical myth. Some accounts say the Danaoi and Achaeans of The Iliad are associated with the “sea peoples” from elsewhere in Europe who raided the Aegean region of the Mediterranean and settled to found local kingdoms. Others credit the Dorian invasion, with people coming down from the north, perhaps from the Balkans or from beyond the Black Sea. Still others think the Greek “invasions” were actually a cultural uprising in place. Whichever tale is true, the lands of Greece and western Turkey were a place of turmoil during the time that Egypt and Mesopotamia enjoyed relatively stable civilizations.

The philosophical and political world view which the Greeks developed in classical times was unique: they blended myth and storytelling with abstract mathematics and geometry and placed great value on inquiry, analysis, and appeals to logic rather than to authority. They were the first to consider the rights and obligations of the individual in relation to the state and its rulers.2 They developed a form of government—democracy, or “the strength of the people”—which they may not always have practiced consistently but which was practiced nowhere else.

The Romans, who acknowledged their debt to Greece,3 apparently started as brigands making a camp on seven hills along the Tiber River. They were so poor and so ruthless that they had to raid their neighbors to find wives. To the tradition of literature, mathematics, and democracy which the Greek colonists had brought to Sicily and southern Italy, the Romans added a genius for law, military organization, and engineering. The Romans took the hypothetical and gracious imaginings of the Greeks and turned them into the functional realities of a state and army that conquered their known world, as well as systematic knowledge for building bridges, roads, ports, and waterworks which supported their imperial administration, and many of which still stand today.

For all their philosophical and political sophistication, the Greeks still got their water from local wells and rivers, bathed in a bucket, and voided their wastes in a latrine that some slave eventually had to backfill. The Romans used their engineering skills to bring sweet spring water down from the hills, across miles of open ground and intervening river valleys, and distribute it in public fountains, heat it in public baths, and use it to flush the wastes from public lavatories into closed sewers. Because of its access to fresh water, the city of Rome at its height could accommodate a million people, and many capitals in its provinces offered a level of health and cleanliness that Athens and Sparta in their prime could not match.

I admire the old Romans. They were professionals who knew their business when it came to founding a city, conquering an empire, and then running it in a practical way.4 They were remarkably free of fuzzy notions, too. To them, a civilized person, someone worth knowing and respecting, was someone who obeyed the law, spoke Latin, and bathed regularly. In country after country, tribe after tribe, if you adopted the Roman laws, learned the language, and followed proper hygiene, you could become a citizen of the empire, and your children might rise in the economy and government and eventually sit in the Senate at Rome.

Yes the Romans had slaves, but the institution was not based on racial or ethnic prejudice. Someone who lost a battle against Rome could be killed outright or sold into slavery, along with members of his family. But slaves had rights, could own property, could buy their freedom, and upon being freed could become citizens. It wasn’t good to be a slave by any means, but it was better to be a Roman slave than a slave, or even a common peasant, in many other cultures of the time.

The Romans brought their kind of civilization to the barbaric tribes of Spain, France, German, the Netherlands, and Britain. It didn’t always stick, but the memory was there, and after the Western Empire fell, barbaric local kings like Charlemagne tried to rekindle the Roman glory. In this they were helped by Christian missionaries who carried Latin and modified Roman values across Europe and into places Rome never invaded, like Ireland and Scandinavia.

I believe it was the Roman taste for the practicalities of engineering, combined with the Greek taste for hypothetical inquiry, that set the western tradition along the path of scientific discovery and invention. We developed technologies like the wheeled plow to tame the thick roots of European forests, masonry construction to build forts and strong points against invaders, the stirrup and heavy cavalry to do a bit of invading ourselves, and ship construction to conquer the seas and oceans and eventually explore the world. When this mechanically fertile mindset encountered Chinese inventions like block printing and gunpowder, we knew just how to improve them and use them to build a dominant civilization.

Without this heritage of valuing individual worth and a learned ability to explore, adapt, and combine ideas and technologies, the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries would never have gotten under way. The collaborative exploration of physics, chemistry, and biology as underlying principles of reality—rather than merely abstract ideas of interest only to scholars and aristocrats—and their communication through the printed word gave us the modern world.

Consider the world invented by western civilization as compared to the rest of the cultures that have grown up outside its influence. The modern world does not simply domesticate animals like cows, goats, pigs, and dogs. Through biotechnology, we now domesticate parts of animals and plants and their underlying proteins for medicines, research materials, industrial processes, and raw foodstuffs. We don’t simply cut wood in the forest, tan leather, or mine metals from the earth, but instead we now process these natural resources chemically to make synthetic materials like plastics, glass, exotic alloys, and polymers such as humankind has never seen before. We don’t just trade one set of goods for another or for gold, but we invent the economics of future-oriented finance, offer investors compound interest and shares of stock, and trade on the time value of money. We don’t just write words in ink on parchment or paper, but use the underlying physics of electricity and electromagnetic waves to carry messages across the world and out into space.

Other cultures have had their moments. The ancient Chinese were clever inventors and diligent scholars, the Mayans became remarkable mathematicians, and the Incas were amazing workers in stone and earth. But the cultures that have joined the western tradition not only learned, but learned how to learn, to concatenate knowledge, to blend disciplines, and to advance science across the entire frontier of the human unknown.

And like the old Romans, we who follow this tradition are not bound by fuzzy notions of race and culture. If a person will adapt to western culture and adopt a liberal, scientific, democratic viewpoint, he or she is welcome to join the club. If you obey the law, speak the language, and follow good hygiene, you become one of us.

This came home to me most forcefully one day as I was walking across the campus of Bayer Corporation’s Berkeley Biotechnology Center. I saw three people coming toward me on the sidewalk: an African-American, a woman of Chinese extraction, and a young man I knew to be a native of Pakistan. They were talking animatedly together, and I wondered to myself what people from such diverse backgrounds could be discussing. As they drew nearer, I overheard their conversation, and of course they were talking about bioreactor contamination and how to protect against it. The language of science, in this case biotechnology, was the bridge to a superculture that exceeded their individual racial or ethnic origins.5

The old Romans, ruthless as they often were, inspired this modern life by trying to bring a common culture, outlook, law, and sense of purpose to the world they knew. Most other cultures had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Roman empire. And the Roman way took better hold in the barbarian west of Europe than it did among the older Asian civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. But still, if those Roman brigands had never left their seven hills, we would not have the world we know to day.

And for that I give a piece of my heart to the emperor and his legions.

1. First, I hold it as an article of faith that humans are one species with a common biology, brain structure, inherent mental capacity, and drive toward personal relationships and the roots of culture. A writer’s business is to cast a hypothetical net of desires, intentions, ideas, and values to capture the human mind. If people were really unintelligible to one another, or could only be understood by members of their own narrow group, then I would be out of a job.
       Second, because we are one species and share a long history in the hunter-gatherer and nomadic herder stages of development, I believe that root culture has many common elements worked out over millennia by human societies. While different cultures may have singular etiquettes about where you point the sole of your foot or when it’s appropriate to belch, any socialized person will recognize and condemn acts of robbery, slavery, genocide, and other forms of taking unfair advantage. A society may sometimes condone these evils in the name of some greater good, but wise heads and sensitive hearts will still perceive their wrongness. As human bodies and brains are the products of evolution, so human qualities of morality and justice, as well as the accumulation of knowledge and advance of technology, are subject to evolutionary forces. Humans tend to become more civilized over time, and savagery becomes less tolerable.

2. The whole story of The Iliad hinges on the struggle between King Agamemnon and his vassal lord Achilles. And the story introduces the first “common man” in western literature: Thersites, a lowly soldier who in Book II dared to speak his mind during a council of aristocrats and kings.

3. One of Rome’s founding tales—there is another, about two brothers raised by a she-wolf—is in The Aeneid, which traces the path of the defeated Trojan Aeneas, who fled Ilium and settled with his shipmates and followers in Italy.

4. Sometimes too practical. The Roman practice of decimation—lining up a group of rebels or army deserters and bludgeoning to death every tenth man—was calculatedly vicious. A later and fortuitous blending of Roman and Christian values enabled those of us who inherited western civilization to live without such bloodshed. We have become softer, wiser, and more adherent to advanced legal precepts.

5. You can see this same effect in any scientific enterprise or on any university campus. Science and discovery have become a culture all their own.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Asymmetric Beauty of Baseball

As a child, I never cared for sports, either playing or watching them. As I’ve said elsewhere, I was a bookish lad, more interested in story lines than in pure physical—and in my juvenile view, pointless—action. When my father had a ball game on television, I would sit still and watch only because he expected it, but if given the chance I would change channels to an old movie or even a sitcom rerun—anything with characters and a plot rather than sports.

I started watching baseball games with some interest during the 2012 World Series when our local team, the San Francisco Giants, were playing. Since then, I’ve become a bit of a fan—and that perplexes me, because I can’t understand why baseball captures my imagination while I have no time for football, basketball, or other major sports.1

What attracts me to the game, I believe, is its basic artificiality and asymmetry. Baseball did not grow up out of the clash of armies in phalanxes, like football, or from a game of keep away, like basketball. It had to be created from scratch with a stick, a ball, and a patch of grass.2 It is a game of rules, of limits, of precision, and of niceties. It is a lopsided game which ends up being so balanced that its play is pure elegance.

Consider that in most field games like football, soccer, and rugby, or those played on a court like basketball, hockey, and tennis, the two teams are present at all times and are comparably equipped.3 In baseball, nine men from one team take the field for half an inning, while the other team sends individuals into the batter’s box in rotation to try their skill and luck against the whole of the other team.

In most other games, everyone plays with the same equipment and under the same set of personal rules at all times.4 In baseball, the batter has a stick of wood and may use only it to touch the ball, operating under a completely different set of rules from anyone else on the field. Everyone else has a specially shaped glove, designed for the position he or she plays, and may catch and throw the ball with either hand. In most games, one side may take possession of the ball from the other during play, changing the direction of the game. In baseball, the right to handle the ball is strictly limited to one team during its half of the inning.

Consider the lopsided nature of the play between pitcher and batter. The pitcher has four chances to make personal mistakes—throwing the ball somewhere outside the strike zone—before he loses to the batter and must let him proceed to first base. The batter has only three chances to hit a ball that crosses the plate inside the strike zone before he loses his turn at bat. Even then, the first two of those chances include the batter’s connecting with the ball but sending it out of play. And any of the batter’s failed chances may include swinging at and missing a ball that does not cross the plate, or declining to swing at a ball that—in the opinion of the man standing behind him, the umpire—did in fact cross the plate, despite all the subtle twists and turns the pitcher may have put on it.

Four balls for the pitcher but three strikes for the batter seems grossly unfair, but in actual play they balance precisely. And that basic play structure is supported by a fretwork of rules about things like the pitcher physically hitting the batter with the baseball, or the catcher or one of the infielders chasing down a foul ball to catch it before it hits the ground, or the batter actually connecting with the ball on a third strike but the ball’s continuing back—a foul tip—and being caught by the catcher.

Baseball is a game of specific situations and the statistics surrounding them. Not the actual probabilities, mind you—because nobody seems to care much about them—but the history! How many times has the player come to bat compared with how many times he or she has hit the ball,5 how many times has the ball gone out of the park for a home run, how many bases has this player managed to run while the ball was in play after a hit, how many runs did other players score on this player’s hits, how many bases has this player stolen while the ball was in play with another player at bat …? Each situation has its own definition, its set of rules, and a compilation of statistics for each player during the season and—for some major events like home runs—during the player’s career. The same goes for pitchers, who carry a season’s baggage of innings pitched, average number of runs “given up” during a game,6 number of strikeouts made and whether by the batter swinging or the umpire calling a strike, and—most prized of all—number of times he or she has pitched a game where the other side got no hits at all.

Back when athletes and doctors still smoked, I remember someone saying that baseball players could afford to advertise cigarettes because they weren’t much as athletes and only had to run the ninety feet between bases. Compare that with basketball or soccer players, who run all the time during a game. I actually bought into that thinking, until I started watching ball games. Yes, for half an inning most of one team sits on the bench and watches their current batter take swings. And yes, for half an inning most of the other team stands out in the field and watches their pitcher throw the ball. But as soon as the batter connects with the ball, the players burst into action: outfielders run like sprinters to get under a fly ball to catch it; infielders leap like basketball players or dive like volleyball players to catch the ball, then change hands and throw accurately to one of four bases, depending on who is running where; and the batter puts his or her head down and charges off to first base, or as far around the infield as he or she can go.

Any one of these players has about half a second to observe the state of play, make a decision, and follow through on a course of action. Missing or dropping the ball is a personal embarrassment. Throwing inaccurately or to the wrong base is an error that can count against the team. The players on the field may appear to be standing around, but they must have their minds on the game every second they are out there. That takes tremendous concentration, especially when the game is moving slowly, and tremendous athleticism and stamina to shift from standing around into that burst of action. Ball players are real athletes.

Baseball is also the only game I know of where the players do not directly, physically interact.7 Other than tagging a runner with a gloved hand holding the ball, the players are never supposed to touch one another. It’s a deceptively gentle—and gentlemanly—game where balls are hit and caught and bases are stepped on, conferring the magic of mutually observed and accepted actions upon the play and the mystical concepts of “safe” and “out” upon the player. In theory, a player cannot be injured unless by pulling muscles and taking damage from repetitive stress, especially among pitchers. But players often get injured by colliding at base, getting hit with the ball, and break fingers when catching it. It can be a dangerous sport, but with less intentional injury than football and fewer personal fouls than basketball.

Other games have lots of action, relatively simple rules, and almost no rituals or superstitions. Baseball has limited action, a ton of rules,8 and no small amount of ritual and superstition for both players and fans. Like an intricate machine full of gears and levers and balancing and opposing forces, baseball and its rules make for an elegant and sociable afternoon of play. Compared to it, football, soccer, and basketball seem overtly physical, insufficiently mental, and just … crude.

1. And I’ve tried. I can watch a baseball game all the way through and enjoy the deliberate pacing and the sudden changes of fortune. Football is too flashy, the players too anonymous behind those big helmets and shoulder pads, the action too fretfully episodic with all those short plays followed by long setups, and the coverage too distant with wide-angle cameras trying to show the entire line of scrimmage. And basketball to me is just a flurry of arms and legs in motion with the ball caught somewhere in between. I suspect my fascination with baseball is that it focuses on one player at a time, letting you look forward to your favorite player’s turns at bat and giving you a chance to think about the game while it’s still going on. Modern television coverage—with its many camera angles and closeup shots, instant replays, and color commentary—also helps you follow the action as if you were standing right down on the field.

2. Of course, baseball started out in England with country games called cricket or rounders. But aside from throwing a ball, hitting it with some kind of stick and then running to one or more bases, playing different positions on the field, and keeping score by innings, modern baseball shares little with these games. In style and play, it’s an American creation, with its own set of rules hammered out and refined over the years.

3. True, in football, one side fields the offensive specialists on the team while the other fields its defensive specialists, but both sides have comparable numbers in play at any one time.

4. True, in soccer, everyone else is limited to using feet, legs, and head to handle the ball while the goalie on either team may put hands on the ball as well, but the goalie has no other special equipment.

5. And a “hit” is not just connecting with the ball so that it doesn’t go foul. If you hit the ball fair and square but somebody catches it before it touches the ground, that’s not a hit, it’s an “out.”

6. The “earned run average”—because, of course, the pitcher is supposed to be in control of the game and able to throw the ball so that it crosses the plate inside the strike zone but twists, turns, and drops so cleverly on its way there that the batter either can’t hit it or thinks he doesn’t need to. Thinking and perceiving are a huge part of baseball.

7. Except for tennis, where the opposing players are separated by a net and get no play advantage from hitting each other with the ball. In most other games, referees may call personal fouls for hitting, tripping, holding, or gouging another player—but that doesn’t mean such offenses don’t regularly take place with calculated skill.

8. Consider the “designated hitter” rule. In baseball, everyone who takes the field defensively during an inning is also supposed to take a turn at bat. But pitchers are such specialty players that they generally are terrible hitters; so the rule was invented to give the pitcher a pass and let the manager put a better player in the batter’s box during the pitcher’s turn in the lineup. Everyone plays by this rule except the National League in American baseball and the Central League in Japan. Personally, I don’t like the rule. Pitchers should at least try to learn hitting and take their turns at bat like everyone else. An evenhanded approach to a player’s ability should count for more than scoring potential. It’s just a game.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Movie Mayhem

I watch a lot of action movies. They’re good, clean fun and usually well plotted. And I have an in-built reality sense which lets me understand that the actor who receives a theatrical gunshot, a crippling blow to the face, or decapitation isn’t really injured, that it’s all done with stop-action, fake blood, and moulage.1 I believe most people who watch these movies have this same sense, because—given the amount blood and gore that goes up every day on big screens and small—people would otherwise not become so quiet when they encounter an actual dead body or horrific accident in real life, or watch a documentary where the soldiers fall down and are really, really, you feel it in your bones, dead.2

Still, I know a bit about real life. I studied karate at the university and have kept up with it over the years. I’ve sparred, taken the occasional and unexpected full-force blow, and also handled both cutting-edge weapons and firearms. As a writer of both science fiction and general fiction, I maintain a professional interest in physics, the laws of motion, and the consequences of real actions. So I can tell you that almost every time you watch a movie fight, you are being told a pattern of subtle lies. I don’t know where and how they started, but by now these lies have become so ingrained in the art form that, to reverse them and show the way a firefight or a fistfight really happens, would seem strange and “false” to the average moviegoer.

Machine Guns vs. Pistols

Perhaps the most obvious and unsubtle lie hides the relative accuracy and effectiveness of a machine gun versus a handgun.

The hero always has a pistol. Whether it’s a revolver or a semi-automatic, it still shoots one bullet for one trigger pull. Depending on the model or the magazine capacity, it goes empty in six, seven, or ten, or seventeen rounds, and then the hero has to reload—unless the film is such a fantasy that you’re not supposed to keep count and neither is the hero. The villain or his henchmen always have machine guns. They might be machine pistols, but the principle is the same: one trigger pull unleashes a stream of bullets. And it’s a rare break in the action that you see anyone carrying a spare magazine or inserting it into the weapon.

The choice of weapon is not the lie, because usually the hero is walking into the villain’s fortress or lair while pretending to be engaged in some other business—think of James Bond calling on Goldfinger or Blofeld. Because he’s a secret agent, the hero has to conceal his weapon somewhere under his street clothes.3 The villain’s henchpeople, however, are usually on site with ready access to the weapons locker, so they can grab a large and bulky machine gun at their leisure when the mayhem begins.

No, the lie is that, even with the ability to apply 800 or 1,000 rounds per minute to the target, the henchperson can never hit the hero. Yes, the old Thompson submachine guns, because of rotation of the mass of ammunition in the circular magazine, tended to pull to one side, and the muzzle would rise with the recoil of each round fired. But these effects are controllable in the hands of someone skilled with the weapon. Machine guns are not as accurate as a rifle, say, but they still can put most of the bullets where you want them at a range of 50 feet or so.

The other part of the lie is that the hero with a pistol can hit whatever he aims at—usually with a careless, offhand shot from the hip or shoulder. He can selectively take down the henchpeople with a dead-center shot and only “wing” the villain, so that he’s alive for later questioning and the denouement of the story.

Of course, the hero is a better person than the henchpeople. He or she is presumed to be more skilled and practiced. We want him, or her, to win. And for reasons of plotting, the movie has to show her, or him, to be in desperate trouble without inflicting serious, artery-tearing, muscle-rending, life-ending wounds to the body every five or ten minutes. That’s why the men with the machine guns tend to hit everything else in sight: the ground, the flowerpots on the balcony, the fence in the foreground, and the walls and windows in the background. Exploding scenery is proof that something’s being hit.

But still, if Angelina Jolie had a dollar for every time she was shot at without effect … Oh! Well, never mind.

There’s a good reason people reach for the machine gun, despite its weight, its comparative awkwardness, and its distressing tendency to run out of ammunition quickly if you don’t fire in short, well-controlled bursts. It’s a devastating weapon. If one bullet can put you down, five or ten arriving in the same place in the space of a second or two can tear you apart. The machine gun is not necessarily the weapon of choice in all situations, but it’s a mean choice with serious intent.

If someone ever aims one at you, best be advised to stand still and put your hands up. You might duck the first bullet, but the next five will certainly catch you.

Hand-to-Hand Fighting

The other lie you see in the movies has also become so ingrained that most people take it for granted: the actual dynamics of hand-to-hand fighting. Now, not being a frequenter of the bars in certain neighborhoods, I actually haven’t had a stand-up fistfight since the fifth grade. But as noted above, I’ve studied Isshinryu karate and have given and received my share of kicks to the body. So, without having broken my nose, I know a thing or two about fighting.4

The classic punch from every fight scene in the movies is the roundhouse punch. John Wayne used it a lot. “Hit ya? I’m not gonna to hit ya,” he says as he draws his right fist ’way down somewhere back behind his leg. And then, “Oh, hell …” and he lets fly a haymaker that connects with the villain’s jaw and knocks him back three paces.

In the real world, the minute that arm draws back and the shoulder goes down, an alert fighter knows to either create space by stepping back or launch a counter—a punch to the ribs, kick to the solar plexus, or whatever comes in handy—the second that shoulder starts to come back up. Don’t worry, you’ll have a whole half a second to do something useful before the roundhouse punch arrives. And since Wayne is burbling on about hitting you or not hitting you or whatever, you’d have to be sound asleep not to know that some kind of violence is about to ensue.

No real fighter telegraphs his intentions by drawing back for a punch, and yet the roundhouse has been a staple of movies and television since before I was born.

The second mistake is hitting anyone in the face with your bare knuckles. There must be some atavistic instinct to damage or destroy the personality—represented as being situated in the human face—that guides this choice. But if the purpose of a punch is to render the opponent unable to fight by knocking him unconscious, the face is the last place you want to hit.

Unconsciousness comes when the brain is accelerated against the inside of the skull by the impact of the blow, resulting in concussion. A blow to the forehead, temple, or any other part of the skull would be effective here, because the force of the blow is immediately transferred to the braincase. The face, on the other hand, is protected and cushioned by nose cartilage, eye sockets and cheekbones, sinus cavities, lots of movable and breakable little teeth, and the hinge of the jaw. All of these features act like the crumple zones of a modern sedan to absorb and redirect the shock of the blow. In addition, the hard parts—the teeth and jawbone under a thin layer of muscle and skin—will almost certainly hurt your unprotected knuckles. Proper fighting requires that you hit the opponent in places and ways that render him unable to respond. Hitting him in the face is almost always a bad idea.5

So far, I’ve been concentrating on untrained fighters or those using western-style techniques based on boxing. But you also see impossible bloopers when the fighting style comes from the mysterious East.

Popular in martial arts movies is the roundhouse kick, which like the roundhouse punch starts somewhere “back there” and proceeds with a full-body, 360-degree turn to land a foot somewhere near the opponent’s head. The same physics apply to the kick as to the punch: if your foot has to travel seven or eight feet in a wide, sideways arc, your opponent has time to see the attack, interpret it, prepare for it, and counter it. Such kicks are impossible to land unless your opponent is either drugged or tied to a chair.6

Similarly useless is the flying side kick, where you launch yourself from across the room, take two or three steps, leap into the air, and proceed with your foot stuck out in a static kick.7 During my karate training, our sensei showed a movie clip from the national karate championships of that year, back when Chuck Norris was in competition. Someone launched a flying side kick at Norris’s head. With all the time in the world, he took a half-step to the side and threw a short block against his opponent’s outstretched leg. The attacker spun sideways, tumbled, and fell on the mat in a heap.

If all these fighting techniques are so pointless, why are they still shown in movie fights? Because these fights are meant to be watched by a third party—you in the audience—rather than to be won or lost.

A real fight is short, sharp, and too soon over.8 The punches come from the level of the belt, never involve the shoulder, travel the shortest possible distance, and end in the solar plexus or ribs, too fast for the opponent to react. ’Way too fast for the audience to see what’s coming, enjoy their anticipation of the blow, and have their expectations fulfilled by the graphic result. If the studio filmed a real fight, audience members would get confused and would constantly be asking each other, “Huh? What happened? Why is that man on his knees gasping for breath?” And so, for the sake of good storytelling, the hero always telegraphs his punches and spins around in elaborate, kicks worthy of the ballet. And the henchmen always shoot up the scenery to show how the hero is in so much danger. It makes for a good action movie.

Just don’t try any of this the next time you’re on the street in a rough neighborhood.

1. Sorry, that’s a technical term, meaning horrific and realistic-looking injuries made out of molded rubber and lots of makeup.

2. And maybe this reality sense has simply grown up in me and my generation, from a childhood where fountaining blood and exploding guts were not a necessary part of the storytelling. I saw plenty of cowboys get shot, clutch their stomachs, fall forward, and roll on their backs to show not a mark or a smear of blood. It was called acting—and we let our imaginations supply the visual consequences.

3. For the purposes of discussion, we’ll assume the hero is male. Female heroes are common, too, although in these types of movies they usually have fewer clothing options for concealing a high-powered pistol or a weapon of any kind.

4. As my lapel button says: “I don’t like violence, but I’m very good at it.”

5. Not to mention the fact that the eyes are located in the center of the face. Sight is the main sense used in a fight, so it’s best to target areas where your opponent won’t immediately see the blow coming.

6. Isshinryu karate is noted for its compact, direct, in-line movements. I remember a sparring match we once had with students from another dojo, where one of theirs launched a perfectly executed roundhouse kick. Our contestant easily ducked under the flying foot and returned a straight kick that won the point. The other side claimed that their man should have won because his roundhouse kick should have landed. “Yes, except our man ducked,” we said. “Well,” they replied, “that’s only because he had no choice but to duck to avoid the kick. Otherwise, it would have gone in.” You just can’t teach some people.
       And please don’t get me started on the Brazilian martial art known as capoeira, where people dance around on their hands and perform roundhouse kicks with their feet. It’s graceful, lovely, inventive … and falls apart with one solid block and counter.

7. I guess the intention is to put all of your mass and a lot of kinetic energy behind the kick.

8. Probably the most realistic physical action—at least to my eye—was in Liam Neeson’s movie Taken: immediate response, short moves, straight lines, and not a word spoken.