On the topic of starship hull design

I know you were all waiting for this post. There’s just not enough distractions in the world to take away from this gnawing question you have about starship hulls and how they should look.

The 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the new Star Trek movie, the return of the original Enterprise’s model at the Smithsonian, the announcement of a new Star Trek TV show, and the resurgence of Star Wars has brought starship hulls front and center to my brain.

All of the Starfleet, Imperial, Rebel, Firefly, and Babylon 5 ship hulls have one in common. They are composed of gray metal plates. Starship hulls across many science fiction properties have become very similar. Almost indistinguishable.

Odd, because real-life spaceship hulls tend to be mostly white, with a little black, or orange because white paint adds extra weight. (Our old space shuttle resembled a space panda and its successor even has orange in it.) Even our airplanes have continuous metal skins that are sleeker than the nu-Trek Enterprise. And they are painted multiple colors, too!

So, gray metal plates riveted or otherwise fit together. In the 2009 Star Trek movie, the CGI hull of the USS Enterprise was actually purposefully made to look slightly uneven to resemble separate hull plates.

Why do our visionary creators think these futuristic FTL starships will be wrapped up in square/rectangular metal sheets? Because, I submit, of the origins of the starship Enterprise. Gene Roddenberry based the ship on the USS Enterprise and other World War II aircraft carriers (such as the Yorktown). He was a WWII vet (Army Air Force). Those famous, iconic, beloved ships had thick slabs of gray, metal armor. Starship = aircraft carrier, in case you didn’t catch on.

Star Wars has the same design element. Star Destroyers are covered in gray metal. The Millennium Falcon and the X-wings had some racing stripes or splotches of color here and there, but otherwise, guess what? Gray metal plates. Beat-up ships have rusted, damaged plates and new ships have gleaming, shiny gray metal plates. (Some of this may have to do with kit-bashing to make spaceship models and then coating them in gray paint.)

I think that the gray metal plate approach to starship hulls doesn’t make sense any more. Starships won’t be assembled from stitching together squares like some kind of metallic quilt. (If iconic starships were designed in H.G. Wells’ time, they would probably have brick hulls and wouldn’t that look weird.) Here’s what I think would be less archaic starship hulls for future science fiction properties:

  • Colored patterns (imagine if Vera Bradley designed starship hulls)
  • Different substances like rock, fiber, fungus, cement, ceramic, plastic, bark, wire mesh, or even diamond
  • Illumination, not just running lights, but hull panels or sections that glow.
  • Formed or poured hull segments (with 3D printing, composite materials, materials science this is not far-fetched)

To get your head churning, think of a starship hull that is made of:

  • Irregular 3D printed sections rather than square plates
  • Pastel stone, like a Gothic, Caribbean cathedral flying among the stars
  • Small iridescent hexagons on a black composite hull
  • A giant video display
  • Patterns of translucent gems
  • Simple non-gray colors: gold, copper, brass, green, red, blue

Book review: Owning Our Future (by Marjorie Kelly)

Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution

Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution by Marjorie Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Marjorie Kelly since I read The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy. This book, Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution, takes you on her mental journey from her thinking in Divine Right (reforming capitalism before it destroys itself) to highlighting emerging changes that could be capitalized on to stop capitalism from destroying the planet as well as society. (And no, she’s not advocating socialism, communism, or nationalization of the banks. Her ideas are all aimed at building successful, for-profit businesses.)

The bottom line is that extractive finance is dangerously unstable and unsustainable, to capitalism, to the market-based economy, and to the entire planet. Rather than solely maximizing financial profits, at which Wall Street has become destructively too efficient, businesses can become for-profit businesses that do more than simply boost short-term shareholder equity.

This is the book to read after Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, when you’re wondering, okay, what the hell do we do now? I highly recommend it.

(cross-posting my Goodreads review here. For you sci-fi fans and writers, I’ll add that she reports on real-life examples that provide great raw material for making up futuristic corporations.)

View all my reviews

Signal boosting against sexism in entertainment

I read something this week that made me think, that’s enough of this crap, I need to blog about this. As a man and a creative I feel obligated and honored to boost the signal on the recent evidence of just how sexist our entertainment industrial complex is. On top of general, unacceptable pay inequality, there is a string of abuses that need to be exposed to the searing light of the sun. So I’m following what I’ll call Stewart’s Law of Privilege for Progress.

  1. What set me off recently: the female villain in Iron Man 3 was turned into a man, according to the director. The director and screenwriters wanted a couple of women to have prominent roles, but Isaac Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Entertainment, nixed the villain idea and they had to scale back how much women were on screen. Thank the heavenly mother that Perlmutter is moving out of the picture at Marvel. (Too slowly, but maybe exposing this crap will hurry up his exit.)
  2. The lack of female characters in sci fi and superhero stories, toys, movies, etc. Black Widow is the kick-butt female Avenger, but was replaced in Avengers toys that depicted her exploits in the film. This kind of thing is not an accident or unconscious bias: it’s a deliberate corporate directive.
  3. Unequal pay for female actresses (against which Robin Wright and Jennifer Lawrence have fought back publicly)

Why am I focusing on the cultural stuff? I know there is tons more sexism going on in every single walk of life, and this year it seems to be rearing to the fore in the ugliest of ways. And I know I have only barely grazed the tip of the iceberg in entertainment (lack of women in directing and producing, treatment of female characters, treatment of female cast and crew, etc.) Because this particular angle of sexism is primarily responsible for forming/reinforcing/shaping our entire society’s attitudes toward girls and women. The cultural stuff has a much bigger multiplier effect and it is more sensitive to be smacked down by people inside and outside the industry. I think that striking a blow against it on this issue will help in every other arena.

I want to lend my voice to those saying that this crap really does happen, it should not, and to applaud those on the front lines of fighting it.

A Lego Star Destroyer with the Vader canteen scene INSIDE

I aspire to build custom Lego sets and so I am triply in awe of those who can do so. And when someone builds a mammoth Star Destroyer that is more than just a shell, I’m completely blown away. Behold the bestest Lego Star Destroyer that will probably ever be built. When I saw this, my brain turned into thousands of red 1x1x1 bricks and were blown out the back of my head.

I don’t even know how Lego figured out how to build the official Ultimate Collector’s Set. For those who have built Lego sets before, these things are really coolly engineered from the inside out. When I start building a set, I have no idea how the first page of instructions leads to the finished product. This guy, Doomhandle, goes and does it bigger and better. It has rooms, hallways, walkways, even a bacta tank. All the photos are here.

And for those of you in the know, the non-canon Death Star canteen bit by comedian Eddie Izzard is classic. For a Lego reenactment to accompany his bit, check out this video. This Star Destroyer even has that canteen, with a ton of detail. Just imagine what Vader finds on his tray.

TV Pet Peeves

In the vein of my previous ranty-rant about the stubble bubble, I have more issues to get off of my chest about some silly conventions in entertainment.

  1. The Shoulder Wiggle:

When actors deliver lines, 9 times out of 10 they do this shoulder wiggle thing. Maybe it’s because they can’t step off of their marks and it’s their only way to express body language. But it’s disconcerting. Their shoulders never – wiggle – stay – wiggle – still. Each syllable seems to come with a wiggle.

Tom Brokaw used to wiggle and lean like a broken animatronic newscaster when he was heading NBC News. Has he started an acting school for actors who can’t bend at the waist?

The worse the show, the more the wiggling. Once you notice it, the rest of the acting just disappears. All you see are the -shoulder wiggles-. I’ve found that the more still and quiet an actor is, the more drawn we are to what their mouth and their body language are saying.

2. Three Layers of Clothing Rule:

Never mind that women are chronically under-dressed on TV. Most male characters, especially the supporting characters, seem required to wear three layers of clothing on their chest. T-shirt, button down-shirt, then a jacket or coat. Even indoors. Especially in California. Comedies do this more than dramas, because dramas have figured out that the tough guy in a open-collar button down shirt with a sport jacket looks bad ass and casual.

In reality, men generally wear one layer indoors in a temperature-controlled climate. Two if they’re outside. Three if they’re outside on a mountain. You guys spend a lot of money on set design and lighting but then dress the men like they are about to go skiing.

3. Villains Who Need to Relate:

“You and I are not all that different, really,” says every bad guy these days during the first or the final confrontation with the hero. It is the lamest, laziest line a villain can say. Do villains have some compelling need to relate to their enemies, especially right before they try to kill them? Are they lonely outcasts trying to fit in? Do writers fail to realize how lame that line is? Do I need to explain it? I do?

  1.  It’s a verbal mustache twirl that makes the character cardboard thin. This does not make the villain the hero of his own story. It makes him a tool in the writers’ story.
  2. About half the time, the villain is wrong because the writers want the audience to disagree with him and root for the hero. This is the equivalent of tying the damsel to the railroad tracks or Force-choking subordinates for honest mistakes.
  3. About half the time, the villain is right because the anti-hero is really just another bad guy but his puppeteer is just pulling the strings in different directions to shove the plot forward.
  4. It makes the villain look stupid and ignorant when the hero is completely different. And any hero response that isn’t along the lines of “Do you even hear yourself?” then the hero is just as stupid. And possibly the writers too.
  5. It wrecks any kind of verbal realism. It’s not dialog any more, it’s a cliche contest.

 

Batfleck delivered in Batman vs. Superman

I just saw Batman vs. Superman and since I have opined about this movie before it came out, it seems like I should report back. Here are my quick impressions:

Ben Affleck was very good as Batman, pretty good as Bruce Wayne. I had heavily doubted he could do it, but oh boy, was he Batman. How does he compare to Bale, Keaton, and Kilmer? He is all of them and then some. There were moments I couldn’t tell which Batman I was seeing, which is a good thing. In sum, I was wrong, wrong, wrong about this casting choice. However, some of the story beats he was given were not well thought out, but that’s not Ben Affleck’s fault.

Gal Gadot did great as Wonder Woman and didn’t have enough screen time. She towered over the other two men in both of her identities. She should have had a much bigger role in this film.

Henry Cavill (Supes) and Jesse Eisenberg (Luther) both did a good job, but in each case the job each one was given was junk. Eisenberg’s Luther is just poorly conceived: like the Joker and Tony Stark had a love child. I think Wonder Woman had more dialog than Superman did. She emoted a lot more, despite the emotional center of the movie being Superman and Wonder Woman having maybe ten minutes of screen time. Who’s to blame for this? Not Cavill, but this next guy…

Zack Snyder is both a genius and a disaster director. He is weak on story, character narrative and emotional depth, but great on visuals, Wagnerian opera, and fight scenes. This movie could have been so much better with better story development and smarter editing. He should have not dipped so far into the freakish Frank Miller source material and done more original story telling. The performances were there, the conflicts were there, but between plot holes, shallow character development, and useless dream sequences, he’s to blame for the film’s shortcomings.

Critics vs. fans: Rotten Tomatoes shows a widely split decision between these two groups. Critics hated it, fans liked it. Critics hated it because Snyder skirted with James Cameron/Michael Bay-esque mediocrity in the movie/story department, and the DC Comics stuff was lost on them. When a movie has story and editing problems, the special effects and action sequences stick out like sore thumbs. Fans liked it because Michael Bay films are entertaining and because it is definitely a DC Comics movie.

Marvel vs. DC: This was such a DC Comics movie that it’s hard to compare to a Marvel film. DC Comics are dark and operatic, more of a less nuanced-superhero storytelling world. This is superhero wish-fulfillment that is not tongue-in-cheek. Props to DC for not trying to mimic Marvel.

At the end, I was excited to see the next movie, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman.

Economics’ Death Star Problem

Around the time that Star Wars Episode VII came out, an idea picked up steam among wonky economics circles that destroying the Death Star would bankrupt the galactic economy. Or, as economist Zachary Feinstein concluded, when the Rebel Alliance won, it lost because the economy was in deep trouble that it couldn’t fix.

Here’s Feinstein’s argument: the financing needed to build two Death Stars would have been so immense that when the Empire fell, its staggering debts would wipe out the banks that had loaned it the money to build them. And unless the Rebel Alliance could bail out those banks to the tune of about 15-20% of galactic GDP, the galaxy would go into a gigantic depression.

Here’s why that argument is full of holes:

  1. No military power can ever outspend its resources. It can become highly leveraged in a fight for existence, but even that has limits. From Louis XIV to Washington to Napoleon to Lincoln to Churchill, every war-time leader faces hard limits on how much money he/she can spend on a war effort. There are only so many loans the government can have, and economic damage it can incur, before it goes broke and the state’s economy collapses. Even taking on these loans is economically risky, as it pushes the economy into an inflation spiral. If the government pushes past that limit, it goes broke and literally becomes unable to continue the fight: unpaid soldiers desert, suppliers refuse to do business with it, etc. The United States, for instance, nearly went completely broke in the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II to varying degrees. World powers that crumbled because of war-incurred debts include colonial Spain, seafaring Netherlands, Napoleonic France, Germany (WWI), and England (post WW2).
  2. Whether the Death Stars were never built, or blown up, or lasted a hundred years doesn’t matter. The important financial fact here was that the money was already spent when the Death Stars became fully operational. The Empire was on the hook to pay it back, if it had to. And it didn’t matter that the money was spent on Death Stars. The Empire could have built 100 Star Destroyers or raised an army of 100 million stormtroopers. It wouldn’t matter if the Death Stars blew up, or the star destroyers flew straight into a star, or the stormtroopers all died of dysentery. Unless…
  3. The Empire didn’t need any loans to finance construction. It was a dictatorship: it didn’t have a typical relationship with the banking sector of the galaxy (the Banking Clans, for those in the know). Dictatorships tend to treat their financial sector as their own personal debit account. Those banks didn’t really exist as separate and independent businesses from the government. (China may be a better example than the US in this regard.) If the Emperor wanted all those quintillions to build the Death Stars, he could have dictated terms to the bankers: maybe he pays them back, maybe he doesn’t, maybe he pays no interest or makes payments when he feels like it (“pray I don’t alter the deal any further…”).
  4. Even if the Emperor allowed the banking sector to operate as a normal, independent industry, his fall wouldn’t necessarily cause those banks to fail. Banking sectors survive the downfalls of dictatorships and governments all the time without massive bailouts, collapsing, or going out of business. They write-off bad loans, take the loss, and move on. Some individual banks may fail (generally those propped up by the dictatorship to begin with), but not the entire sector. There have been enormous defaults of both public and private debt by developing countries for decades and the American and European banking sectors didn’t collapse each time.
  5. The aircraft carrier analogy is deeply flawed. The US military has 1o Nimitz-class aircraft carriers with two more under construction, compared to the Empire having one Death Star at a time. A Nimitz may be the equivalent of a Super Star Destroyer rather than a Death Star as far as the role it plays in the force structure. A better comparison would be one Death Star is equal to 10 Nimitz aircraft carriers. Or, use a smaller country that only has one or two carriers (UK, Russia) instead of the US.
  6. Finally, Feinstein overlooks an economic disaster that would be much, much worse than the loss of the Death Star ‘investments’ or even the fall of the Empire: destroying the planet Alderaan. Consider everything that was destroyed on Alderaan: real estate, industry, goods, information, ships, the workforce, consumers, raw materials, knowledge, financial assets, and a major galactic trading and transit hub. Add to that the sheer psychological trauma experienced by the rest of the galaxy from the loss of an entire planetary system and its population.

Consider the modern day equivalent of planetary destruction in a galaxy with over 1 million settled worlds: the destruction of a sizable portion of an American city. In the United States, the Chicago fire of 1871, the Boston fire of 1872, the 1906 Baltimore fire and San Francisco earthquake would be roughly equivalent. (Since there are not a million cities in the US, a disaster that levels part of a city is a more apt proportion than an entire city’s destruction.) In all of these historical cases, at least part of a major city was destroyed, wrecking the local economy and damaging other cities’ economies. The dual 1906 disasters threw the country into a recession. The Great Chicago Fire and the Boston fire contributed to the 1873 depression by stressing the financial reserves of banks.

While this is all fun speculation, there’s a more serious problem. Feinstein was not just joshing around – this is no Onion article and the press treated this paper at least half-seriously. The author used entirely ‘defensible’ but erroneous economic assumptions and a ton of simulations to make his case. His result was transparently arrived at and he showed his work in some detail. But his estimation of the economy of a (lightly-described) fictional universe highlights common problems with economics research today:

  1. Making poor assumptions that meet the relatively easier ‘defensibility’ test and just so happen to drive what sounds like a pre-determined, too-cute conclusion (the Rebels were doomed by victory!).
  2. Using sophisticated math-driven simulations that are built on unsophisticated assumptions or data that creates the illusion of rigor.
  3. Not accounting for the political economics of how financial sectors interact with governments that are not prosperous democracies with private market economies. This would seem critical to an economic analysis.
  4. Not accounting for the history of how a finance sector functions during wars, coups, revolutions, invasions, and civil wars. This would also seem critical to an economic analysis.

 

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