Haiyan and a Superstormy Future

Typhoon Haiyan, which made landfall in the Philippines on Nov. 7, is another sobering reminder of the severe weather we are provoking through climate change. It is unofficially the strongest recorded cyclone to ever make landfall, with wind speeds up to 195 mph, 70% stronger than Hurricane Sandy. Villages are flattened, and more than 5,000 people are confirmed dead (as of 11/22). Greg Laden says that tropical cyclones feed on heat energy from the sea’s surface, from seas we know are getting warmer. Haiyan was a storm that blew past the most dire classification, Category 5, which tops out at a sustained wind speed of about 155 mph. But Greg says the Saffir-Simpson scale is not really about wind speed, it’s about destructiveness, and sustained 155 mph winds are all you need for total destruction. So would it be a good idea to extend the scale to Category 6 or 7 for storms like Haiyan, or will this lead the public to feel that a Category 5 storm is less of a threat? Greg says we should focus less on the numbers and more on educating people on the dangers of cyclones, whose destructiveness will vary not only with wind speed but also with regional topology, the quality of infrastructure, and other local variables. Coby Beck on A Few Things Ill-Considered says “In addition to destructive winds, hurricanes bring storm surges and tremendous rainfall, both of which can pack a worse destructive punch than the direct effects of wind.” Coby suggests modifying the Saffir-Simpson scale with categories like 5B and 5C, which would reflect the increasing strength of storms like Haiyan without “diluting the ‘run for your life’ message category 5 is supposed to deliver.”

Posted to the homepage on November 11, 2013.

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Undead Science

On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith continues her series on the science of The Walking Dead, explaining how diseases spread and how they might cause zombiism. One thing that would be observed in any real contagion would be an incubation period— the time between when a virus (for example) enters your body and you start showing symptoms of infection. For a virus like the flu, this could be about two days during which you don’t feel sick but could still be infecting people around you—even if you don’t bite them. Tara also expresses nerd rage at the show’s “doctors” pursuing antibiotics to treat the flu, since antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.  On ERV, Abbie Smith presents interesting data on infectious killers in North America, both vanquished and ongoing. The last case of Smallpox was documented in 1977. But flu bugs, which live in “reservoirs” in other animal species, mutate all the time, and some years’ flus are deadlier than others.

For Halloween, Chad Orzel explained how to base a sexy costume on a bunch of nerdy white guys, such as Niels Bohr: “a little Brylcreem, a soccer ball, and a lot of mumbling and equivocation, and you’re good to go.” On Pharyngula, PZ Myers wondered if Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is thirsting for cheap technology is the grave, like a do-it-yourself photomicrography setup that lets you take pictures of wee beasties with your smartphone.  And Ethan Seigel pulls us back from the whole death-and-decay thing with his latest costume: Rainbow Dash from the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

Spoiler Alert: Ender’s Game

This movie was already spoiled for me because I read the book many years ago.  But the movie can’t help but spoil itself.  It’s a great film and one of the best adaptations of a novel to ever appear onscreen, but if you really know nothing about Ender’s Game, and can read at a 9th grade level, honestly go read the book first.  If you have time.

The problem is that by the time of Ender’s “final exam,” it’s hard to imagine anyone in the audience sympathizing with Ender’s shock that he hasn’t really been playing a video game; he and his tween friends have been controlling actual spaceships killing actual aliens by the billions.  The immersive, CGI photorealism of the game just looks too real; the audience can’t help but accept it as real.  The “simulation” in this film looks the same as diegetic reality in other Hollywood blockbusters!  And we have been trained to suspend our disbelief!  In other words, the photorealism of the battle simulations undermines the premise that they’re not for real.

Commanding a battle from his combination IMAX and holodeck, surrounded by his subcommanders and fighter pilots, Ender can control a disembodied point-of-view at will.  This POV has no physical or temporal limitations; it is seemingly omnipotent and all-seeing.  This suggests that within the diegetic universe, the images really were simulated from live data feeds, unless the hawkish grown-ups have a magical flying camera transmitting video by ansible.  But to the naked eye, could anyone, real or fictitious, distinguish between this graphic simulation and a live video feed?  To the genius Ender, who’s used to playing with Shrek-like graphics on his iPad, doesn’t the life-likeness raise suspicion?

Orson Scott Card, who wrote Ender’s Game in 1985, was also a producer on this film.  The film stays true to to the book without ever feeling burdened: it manages to recreate the key episodes and characters and tie them together in a way that evokes the emotion and meaning of the original novel.  The only drawback here is that things have to happen a little too fast to fit within two hours.  In the book, it comes as a shock that midway through his supposed education, he has already won the war!  In the movie, we know it’s time for a climax.

One highlight of this film is the training room, a weightless 3-d solarium with re-arrangeable blocks.  The students play a version of capture the flag with paralytic suits and light guns, thinking in three dimensions, as they would in a space battle, to beat the other team.  It would have been great to see more of these scenes and some of the ingenious tactics dreamed up by Card in the novel.  As there was recently in Gravity, there are some well-timed push-offs and counter-rotations to get our protagonist sailing toward the right aperture.  And there is one formation that Ender later uses to win the war.

P.S. If you’re wondering why I didn’t spoil Gravity, it was just too fuzzy and wholesome.  But if you want to see every space spation, shuttle and valuable piece of technology in orbit get shredded by debris travelling at 20,000 miles per hour, you should see Gravity.  Also if you believe in Murphy’s Law you should see Gravity.

P.P.S. The moral of Ender’s Game is that ants are people too, so think about that the next time you reach for a can of poison.