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Posts from the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

The Big Problem with Transformers 3

I’m writing this blog post as a favor to Alex Gyr, who apparently likes it when I rant about movies.  And after all the fun commentary on my post on the Problems with the Star Trek Movie Reboot, it has been too long since I flamed a hot summer movie.

The Transformers Brand Promise

Look, I’m not going to complain about the acting, the actors, the plot, the length or the production value.  Truth be told, I don’t expect a lot from a big budget remake of a popular 1980s cartoon.  I’m in the core demographic and I’m super forgiving.

However, I do expect just two things from the Transformers.  Just two.  And they didn’t give it to me.

I want to see robots, and I want to see those robots transform

Seriously.  It’s not more complicated than that

Enough with the Humans

OK, so given the premise, let’s look at what we actually got from the movie.

First, at least one full hour of the movie, if not more, is dedicated to the drama and suspense around the humans in the story.  Will they understand?  Will they make it?  Can they fix it?  Can they save the day?

Please.  There are hundreds of movies I can go to this year to see plots about humans.  Believe me, most of them will be better.

Enough with the humans.  When I go to a Transformers movie, I want to see robots.

What Happened To Transform?

That’s not the worst of it.  For the half of the movie that does include robots, there is the second problem. They don’t transform!

I know, it sounds ludicrous, but let me say it again.

Part of the plot includes about 200 deceptigons descending onto Earth for global domination.  They don’t transform.  They just fight as robots.

Why even call them Transformers?  They are supposed to be robots in disguise, not just robots.  Let’s just call the movie: “Humans and Robots 3: All the Same, All the Time”.

Message to Paramount

Every brand has a reason to exist, and Transformers definitely has a reason to exist.  It exists to provide people with a colorful futuristic world where there are robots that transform.

If you make a Transformers 4 (and let’s be clear, I hope you do) please make sure if possible to make the movie about robots that transform.  You will get the full ticket price (3D IMAX) from me.

Steve Jobs is The Mule. Is There a Second Foundation?

This blog post could have been titled “We don’t live in the universe of maximum probability“, but that didn’t sound quite as exciting.

This weekend, I was having a friendly debate with a close friend about the state of the open web, when the now typical issue rose up: Apple, it’s support of native applications, and the resulting impact on the web.  I immediately thought about the fact that, in the 1990s, we would have never have dreamed of the technology landscape of 2010 — a landscape where Apple was the dominant force in mobile computing.  A world where we would see a massive resurgence and interest in client applications (yes, that’s what those pretty iPhone and Android apps are).  A world where Apple was the most valuable technology company in the world.

Then it hit me.  The parallel to one of the best science fiction stories of all time.  In fact, it’s the story that led to the name of this blog.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

Asimov’s Foundation is based on the future history of the Galaxy, when a lone scientist, Hari Seldon, invents a new science called “Psychohistory“, that allows him to predict the future.  This science allows him to project that the Galactic Empire will crumble and bring about 30,000 years of dark ages.  Instead, he develops a plan to create a “Foundation” to preserve knowledge, and reduce the period of regression to a mere 1000 years.  Unfortunately, his plan is disrupted by an unpredicted complication.

Check out this synopsis from wikipedia, and see if it sounds familiar:

The Mule is a fictional character from Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation series.[1] One of the greatest conquerors the galaxy has ever seen, he is a mentalic who has the ability to reach into the minds of others and “adjust” their emotions, individually or en masse, using this capability to forcibly enlist them to his cause. Individuals who have their emotions adjusted behave otherwise normally, with their logic, memories and personality intact; even if they are aware of the manipulation, they are unable to desire to resist it. This gives the Mule the capacity to disrupt Seldon’s plan by invalidating Seldon’s assumption that no single individual could have a measurable effect on galactic socio-historical trends on their own, due to the plan relying on the predictability of action of very large numbers of people.

Tell me that doesn’t sound like Steve Jobs.  You can read the full article here.

Just replace:

  • “Steve Jobs” for “The Mule”
  • “Apple” for “The Union of Worlds”
  • “The Open Web” for “Seldon’s Plan”

And I think you have a fair approximation of what’s happened in the last five years.

One of the hottest debates in mobile right now is whether to focus on the mobile web or native applications.  Ironically, Apple is the one who started this debate, since they were the first company to launch a phone with a truly modern web browser (Mobile Safari), and then proceeded to launch a simple, accessible native application platform on top of it.

In all seriousness, the reason that the native applications on the iPhone (and iPod / iPad) are such a viable threat is due to the fact that they are working.  When I say working, I mean that any company who takes their mobile web property, and then deploys a native iPhone application, tends to see a significant boost in their engagement metrics.  Apple has solved a distribution and engagement problem for mobile applications at an unprecedented scale, and it shows in the numbers.  Metrics usually speak louder than philosophy when making tactical decisions, which is why you see the incredible investment and interest in native applications for iOS devices.

In the story, the Mule is defeated by the Second Foundation, and rendered harmless and without ambition.  He dies without a successor, hence the name “The Mule”.

I think the question we should all be asking at this point is, “Is there a Second Foundation?

Avatar 2: My Proposal for a Sequel

The incredible (and somewhat predictable) success of Avatar at the box office (and the Golden Globes) has everyone talking about a sequel to Avatar.  In fact, this quote from James Cameron suggests a trilogy:

To some it’s a mashup of “Dancing With Wolves” and “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.” But James Cameron’s “Avatar” has stormed the international box office with a global taking of more than $1.6 billion and may very well be on its way for a sequel … or two.

“I have a trilogy-scaled arc of story right now,” Cameron told MTV. “But I haven’t really put any serious work into writing a script.”

Avatar is highly derivative of other stories and science fiction, and as an avid reader of the genre, I thought I could take a crack at a potential, obvious premise for the backstory of Avatar 2.

Premise: It’s five years after the first movie.  There has been peace on Pandora, as Sully and Neytiri have ushered in a new age of cooperation and understanding between the tribes of the Na’vi.  The humans have been evacuated, with the exception of a small set of scientists who have been given permission to continue their efforts to bridge the learning and knowledge of the two cultures.

However, there have been unusual occurrences on the planet.  The behavior of the flora and fauna on Pandora has been unpredictable, confusing Neytiri who utters more than once that “this has never happened before”.   Modifications of some species begin to appear, as well as completely unknown species are discovered.  The scientists can’t explain it, and Sully tries more than once to communicate with Eywa, with no answers.

Silently, a massive human invasion fleet is on its way to Pandora.  The resources of Pandora are too valuable, and once the Na’vi attacked the corporation, it justified a larger military involvement at 100x the scale of the original movie.

It turns out, however, that the biology of Pandora was too idealistic to have naturally evolved.  After all, every creature sharing a common communication link is incredibly unlikely.  10 foot humanoids with carbon fiber skeletal structures also seems a little far fetched.  It turns out that Pandora is a very special planet, because it’s entire eco-system of creatures was engineered by an advanced race.  That race left Eywa, a massively parallel organic computer, in place, dormant, to monitor the situation and ensure that Pandora progressed as planned.

When Eywa awoke, it began taking emergency measures to modify and enhance existing species against the potential threat.  And it sent an interstellar signal to its creators, to let them know that all was not well with Pandora.  That’s right.  The creators are coming…

… there.  That’s enough for Avatar 2.  Avatar 3 can then focus on what the master plan of the creator race was after all, when the Pandora experiment goes awry.

Given the evolution of the Aliens story (also by James Cameron), I actually think this is a plausible direction.  There is a parallel between the plot surrounding a single ship facing one alien in the first movie, and a massive military engagement with a massive alien force (and new creatures) in the second movie.

Please note: I have absolutely no data whatsoever about the actual direction of Avatar 2.  This is just speculation on my part, as a science fiction lover.  Any reflection of the real plot or premise for Avatar 2 is purely coincidental.

Embrace the Minimum Necessary Change (MNC)

In keeping with my theme this week of blogging observations, this one ties together a basic tenet that I learned from science fiction in my pre-teen years, and applies it to product management.

The concept is borrowed from “The End of Eternity“, one of the classic science fiction novels from Isaac Asimov.  The book imagines a future with time travel, and the guidelines that govern its use:

There is a group of people (only males) who are called The Eternals. They live outside of ordinary time and space in a man-made construct called Eternity. The Eternals can move back and forth between Eternity and Earth, entering into any time period of Earth’s history. Their mission is to make Reality Changes, changes in the course of human history that will result in an improved Reality. They try to do this with the help of computers that can predict how even subtle changes will alter Reality. There is an art to finding the minimal intervention that will result in a desired Reality Change. There is a special change called “The Minimum Necessary Change“.

I’ve been surprised over the years how often I find myself using this concept, the “minimum necessary change”, to help frame potential solutions to problems.

In some ways, it’s a fairly obvious outcome of a scientific education.  Occam’s razor demands that, all things being equal, we bias towards the simplest explanation.  It’s not a far stretch to morph that concept into a bias towards the simplest solution to a given problem.

Seasoned product managers are also familiar with another, related concept, the “minimally viable product”.  The MVP, of course, is the minimal number of features necessary for a product to be successful at achieving it’s business & product goals.

Today, at LinkedIn, I was in a fairly intense meeting discussing potential solutions for a product that we’re trying to roll out in the next few weeks.  A fairly significant issue has arisen, and the team has been debating solutions.

It’s very easy for product managers and engineers to sometimes get caught up in “redesign fever”.  An unexpected issue or constraint arises that wasn’t expected.  Immediately, smart people will retrace their steps back to the beginning, and imagine a radical new design for their product that incorporates that new issue.  The problem is, there are always new issues.  There are always unexpected constraints.  Redesign fever can and will prevent products from converging, and prevent teams from shipping.

I’ve found that the best way to resolve these types of issues is to clearly define the problem, brainstorm potential solutions, and then way the pros/cons of each.  Not rocket science.

However, make sure as part of the exercise that the “Minimum Necessary Change” is one of the solutions that is part of the decision set.  It helps frame the costs (and benefits) of more elaborate solutions.  In fact, the intellectual pleasure of finding a simple, elegant solution to a complex problem can turn into a highlight for the entire project.

If you believe in fast iteration, in shipping product quickly and frequently to incorporate real user feedback into your designs, then more often than not you’ll find that the Minimum Necessary Change is your friend.

Problems with the New Star Trek Movie Reboot

Before I get into this, let me just warn that this post contains spoilers.  Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the new Star Trek movie.  Or at least, don’t read any further and then complain to me.

First off, I know that the movie is doing really well.  I also know that almost everyone seems to really like it.  So I don’t expect this post to be popular.  Still, there were a few small things (and one large thing) that bothered me about it, and it seemed blog worthy.

The big issue is the premise of the “reboot” logic.  This movie was explicitly designed to appeal to a whole new audience, and as a result, it deviates in many ways from the previous “canon”, ie, the character & future history established by the other movies and TV Series.

Unlike Superman Returns, or The Dark Knight, however, this movie tries to explain away the differences with a plot device.

The plot device is as follows:

A Romulan captain of a mining ship, in the late 24th century, witnesses the destruction of Romulus.  Infuriated, he blames Spock for failing to save the planet (and his wife and child).  He attacks (old) Spock, falls through a black hole and ends up in the early 23rd century.  As a result, the timeline is forever changed, because the first thing he does (almost) is kill George Kirk, James T. Kirk’s father, putting him (and Starfleet) on a different path.

Ugh, it sounds worse when I write it.  It felt pretty par-for-the-course in theater for a Star Trek time-travel plot.

Here’s the big problem. The last two years of the Star Trek series Enterprise were literally based on the Temporal Cold War.  (In fact, this was an extension in some ways of the “Relativity” episode in Star Trek Voyager and the “Trials and Tribble-ations” episode of Deep Space Nine.)  Without descending into a geek singularity, the basis premise is that in the future, time travel technology is mastered, leading to a set of accords among governments to “protect” the timeline.  Some people violate those accords (“The Temporal Accords“), and thus there are future Federation people and ships whose purpose is to help apprehend these criminals and restore the original timeline.

I’m not talking about one or two flaky episodes here with a minor inconsistency.  I’m talking about dozens of episodes and a major timeline of future history with key events between the 20th century all the way to the 31st century.

In any case, in order to believe this plot reboot, you have to believe that somehow with all those time ships and policing, Agent Daniels, the USS Relativity, and all those others just let a random mining captain from Romulus rewrite the history of the Federation without correction.  They go to huge lengths to save Captain Archer, but not Captain Kirk?

Sorry.  That doesn’t work.

I think what I’m more disappointed about is that the movie didn’t even try to explain it away.  For example:

Old Spock from the future, for example, could have added 30 seconds to his explanation to either New Kirk or New Spock to say that this timeline is permanent, or why it won’t be fixed.

Spock: “In general, major timeline changes in the past have been corrected by the Federation in future centuries.  However, we had been warned that the use of “red matter” could leave us vulnerable to untrackable temporal events.  In my rush to save Romulus, I have put the entire future at risk.”

This really wouldn’t bother me if the movie was a clean reboot of the series, like Battlestar Galactica.  But J.J. Abrams is trying to have his cake and eat it too.  He clumsily and awkwardly brings everyone together for the new Enterprise crew (exactly how unlikely was it that Scotty would be on that one base on that one moon…)  In some ways, the half-hearted attempt to maintain continuity with the time travel device is worse than just doing a straight reboot, no questions asked.

Now I realize I fall into a very tiny minority of people who even watched Star Trek Enterprise (or Voyager for that matter).  And I realize I fall in an even smaller fraction who liked Enterprise.  (1 in a million?)

Still, if they wanted to hardball ignore the series, they could have just asserted something early that made it clear that the series Star Trek Enterprise didn’t exist in this universe (ala Superman III/IV being axed in Superman Returns).  For example, they could have just asserted that this was the first human starship with the name Enterprise.

The most ironic element to the reboot plot device is that the one series it doesn’t change is Star Trek Enterprise, because that series takes place before the federation was founded!  So in this timeline, we don’t know whether there will be a Captain Picard, a Deep Space Nine, or a Captain Janeway.

But we do know, of course, that Scott Bakula was captain of the NX-01 Enterprise.  Rich, rich irony for fans who hated that series.

Don’t get me wrong – I liked the movie enough to see it again, and I think it achieved its goal of reaching out to people who have never seen Star Trek before (or didn’t watch much of it.)  I was actually surprised to see so many “wink wink, nudge nudge” moments in the film – references to other characters, catch phrases, moments, etc.  When Spock gives the transwarp transport formula to Scotty, I half-way expected some reference to transparent aluminum (Star Trek IV).

Maybe that’s what bothered me the most – they clearly put some effort into lining this up with canon in minor ways that didn’t really matter, but then ignored the big gaping hole around time travel.

Anyway, just for fun, here are some other small nits that bugged me:

  • There is a canyon in Iowa?
  • Was the Nokia placement really necessary?  Did it even make sense?  There are still private companies in the future?  They still operate?
  • Wow!  The Enterprise is really big now.  Huge.  How big is the crew?  That Romulan ship must be immense.  Kirk can just run around and find his way?  It must be miles long!
  • Captain Pike decides to make a not-quite-graduate with 3 years in the academy First Officer.  Really?  Maybe they know more about nature vs. nurture in the future.
  • Sulu carries a sword around with him?
  • Movie jumps the shark when Kirk crash lands on the ice planet/moon.
    • First, he plays Empire Strikes Back with the native wildlife (unnecessary).
    • Second, he just happens to crash within a few miles of Spock?
    • Exactly how close is this moon/planet to Vulcan, so that it appears huge in the sky of this world?
    • Spock is placed within walking distance of a Federation outpost, and is waiting for… ?
    • Scotty just happens to be stationed at this outpost?
    • Spock doesn’t go with Kirk because he doesn’t want to hurt the bonding experience for Kirk & Spock?  Seriously?  He’s really taking this new timeline thing in stride.
  • “Red” matter?  That’s what they went with?  “Red” matter?  Was this sponsored by Bono or something?
  • Flagship of the fleet goes to new graduate.  I know there isn’t supposed to be a lot of politics in the future, but I have to think someone got passed over here and is kind of pissed about it.

Looking forward to Terminator Salvation (which deals with timeline inconsistencies better), Up, Transformers, GI Joe, Harry Potter…

The Fifth Cylon as a Traffic Driver

I know I posted on this topic last week, but I thought I’d add an update after the big Battlestar Galactica debut this past Friday.  Interesting to see how frak parties everywhere translated into traffic.

So far, despite the debut on Friday, it looks like my traffic may have peaked yesterday, on Saturday.  5380 hits to the blog that day, with my most popular BSG posts taking the top 5 slots for article popularity.

Why?  Check out the top 10 referring searches from Google, Yahoo, etc:


Notice a pattern?  I’ve discovered that my blog post is the number one result in Google for the search “fifth cylon”.  At least, it is today.

Battlestar Galactica Hits My Blog Stats… Again

Can you tell that Battlestar Galactica starts its final season in just ten days?  You can if you look at my blog stats…

Blog Stats

Over 200 hits to the post “The Fifth & Last Cylon” yesterday alone.

I’m even getting referral links from O’Reilly!  Love it.

No matter how I try to diversify this blog, ever since my first Battlestar Galactica post in 2006 (which still gets comments regularly), I continue to get massive traffic at key points in each season.

The only thing I think will be greater than the excitement for the series finale is the empty realization afterward that there is, in fact, no more.

Now for the ultimate spoiler…

… I am the fifth cylon.

January 16th, 2009


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