Innovating the Future: Why Science is Important

Once upon a time we had a dream that we could fly like the birds.  And we realized that dream.  Then, we had a dream that we could ascend beyond the clouds and even beyond our world.  We realized that dream in April of 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and the first man to orbit the Earth.  Later on, we dreamed that we could send a man to the moon, and President Kennedy even promised that we would before the 1960s were out.  He was right.  On July 21st, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon.

All of these things were made possible through science.

But there are a lot of people who don’t like science.  They say that scientific theories haven’t been proven, all while reading a two-thousand year old holy book with little to no historical backing.  They claim that science classes are brainwashing the kids, yet are comfortable taking a four-year old to church and telling them that their god is the only god.  They hold up faith as some unassailable idea, angrily asserting that questioning it is an attack on religious freedom.  And yet they claim that non-believers are the arrogant ones.


But I digress.  I don’t want to turn this post into an anti-religious rant.  I understand that the people I described above are not indicative of all religious folk.  But there is a point to be made in all this.  Science is still important today, and even if you are religious there’s no reason to fear or hate science.  There is nothing in science that says God does not exist.  The theory of evolution is not an attack on God or necessarily even a competing theory.  The issue does not come from science.  The issue seems to come from those who take a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Anyways, even if you don’t follow science or believe what it says, there’s no denying that it has given us many things.  Let’s look at NASA as an example.  NASA, through partnerships and experimentation, has actually been responsible for many different innovations and inventions that we use today.  Do you sleep on a memory foam mattress?  That material was originally used to insulate aircraft seats and absorb the energy of crashes, courtesy of NASA.  Do you have a cordless drill?  The cordless drill originally came from a partnership between NASA and Black & Decker.  Have you ever gotten an MRI?  NASA invented the digital imaging technique that eventually went into the creation of MRIs.

Smoke detectors, cameras, water filters, cochlear implants (for people with hearing loss), and so much more have come either directly or indirectly from the actions NASA has taken.  “Wow,” you might say, “NASA must get a lot of money from the federal budget if they’ve produced so much.”  You wouldn’t be alone in that line of thinking either.  Polls have shown that some people in the United States believe the NASA gets an inordinate amount of money from the federal budget, sometimes as high as twenty-five percent.  But that’s simply not true.  Usually the figure hovers around a measly one percent.  It was at its highest during the space race in the ’60s, and even then it was only around four and a half percent.  By contrast, our defense budget is much larger.  In 2011, defense spending accounted for twenty percent of the entire federal budget.

The point is that science experimentation and innovation has led to practical applications in our daily lives.  You may not agree with the scientific worldview, but you have still benefited from it even if you don’t realize it.  Some people attack science daily while benefiting from it at the same time, which is such a strange concept to me.  I don’t agree with religion, and yet I admire the artwork it inspired.  It seems to me that some people see science and religion as exclusionary worldviews when they’re simply not.  There’s no scientific theory that says all religious texts are invalid, nor is there any scripture (as far as I know) that says science is incontrovertibly wrong.  There is sometimes an intersection between the two ways of looking at the world that people tend to overlook.

It just seems hypocritical to be claiming that science is false while it makes your life easier and more convenient, you know?


Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post and as always, have a wonderful week!


Electronic Generational Clash: Older Video Games vs. Newer Video Games

I’ve been playing video games for a long time now, most of my life in fact.  I played Myst back when it was still fairly new (the game came out in 1993 when I was three years old so I didn’t exactly play it on release day).  The first gaming system I truly remember sitting down with was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES for short).  I played Mario, Zelda, Metroid and all that quite a bit as a child.  Video gaming is one of the main ways I have of relieving stress and having fun.

One of the most common complaints I hear among gamers my age is one of difficulty.  “Man,” I hear them say, “games these days are so easy.  They just tell you exactly what to do.  Older video games were way harder.”  Often the implication is that the older games are better because of their more difficult nature.

Now, are older video games harder?  Yes they were.  That’s not just me saying that either.  It’s actually been scientifically proven.

So the question then becomes, why were these older games harder?  And why are the newer ones so much easier?  Well I have a theory about that.  But first, we need to take a trip back in time.

(cue trippy time travel sequence)


The Arcade Age

The average age of the video gamer these days is somewhere in their thirties.  So to understand where they’re coming from, we need to travel back to the 1980s.  This was an era where the Cold War still raged on, where Ronald Reagan instituted the war on drugs which continues to this day, and where every single song was about sex (you know it’s true).  This was also the era of the arcade, a hub of video gaming where kids came to play in their spare time.  They’d step up to machines like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, plop in their hard-earned quarters, and play.

It’s been known for a long time that arcade games were designed to be difficult, even unfairly difficult.  The whole point was to ensure that someone playing it would die frequently, forcing them to fork over more quarters to continue playing.  It was how the arcades made their money.

But when people talk about older games being harder, they’re generally referring to the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES for short) and the Sega Genesis, among others.  So how do the arcades explain why these older games are harder?  Well, it all comes down to the matter of the target audience.

Who do you think was the target group for these game systems?  That’s right, the very same people who stepped up to those arcade machines and whittled away their quarters.  They were the people playing the games, so to appeal to them companies like Nintendo and Sega designed their games in a similar manner to the arcade machines.  The only major difference was that you didn’t have to spend quarters to continue playing the game.  Once you bought it, you could play it as much as you wanted.  Games like Mario were from a design standpoint very simple, but they were incredibly hard to master because the people who generally played these games had already been beaten many times by the arcades and their skills had been honed to a fine point.  It was simple supply and demand.  There was a demand for difficult games, and so the game designers supplied them.


A New Dimension

So then, why are the new games generally much easier?  I attribute part of it to the rise of 3D.  When the Nintendo 64 came out, people were amazed by it.  Nowadays it seems very primitive, but back then it was something truly amazing.  The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was and still is one of the most renowned games of all time.

But with all this amazing new technology came a new difficulty curve, just not in the games themselves.  It became incredibly more complicated to develop games due to the three-dimensional space game designers were allowed to use.  It’s easy to design a fair challenge when all you have is a flat plane and a character running left to right jumping over everything in sight.  But what do you do when suddenly that flat plane is expanded to encompass all directions?  It no longer makes sense to just design a game that goes from left to right because it’s a waste of potential.  Because of that, Super Mario 64 plays like a much different game than its predecessors.  Instead of just going left to right through a series of linear levels, you hopped into paintings inside a castle which took you to different worlds that you had to explore.  Your goal, instead of just reaching the end of the level, was to find stars that you would use to unlock the later levels.  Because of different design considerations that had to be made as well as game designers’ unfamiliarity with the three-dimensional space, the games were generally less difficult than their two-dimensional ancestors (there were 3D games around already, especially on home computers, but the era of Playstation and Nintendo 64 was where gaming truly entered the third-dimensional age).

However, this was not the only thing going on.  While there were still plenty of gamers left over from the older age of gaming, there was also a newer generation coming in at the same time.  This newer generation was not hardened as such by the hard as nails difficulty that a lot of older games possessed.  They didn’t have the benefit of being forced to play the old arcade games.  I believe that game designers made their games easier as a result to help improve the accessibility of gaming as a whole.  People who hadn’t played games on the NES, SNES, or Sega Genesis were able to jump in on the Nintendo 64 or the Playstation and still have a good time without becoming too frustrated.  And this trend continues today.  Nintendo, with the Wii, attracted an audience that had hitherto been untouched by video games.  They designed games so that people young and old, gamers new and experienced could have fun.  It was a marketing strategy that put Nintendo in a completely different space than Microsoft and Sony, who continue to appeal to the traditional gamer crowd.



There’s one final question that has to be asked here.  It is indeed true that games these days are easier than their predecessors.  But is that a bad thing?  I don’t think so.

Sure, some games are poorly designed and have absolutely no challenge factor to them.  But there were plenty of older games that were poorly designed as well.  Nostalgia is a funny thing.  It blots out the malodorous parts of our gaming past while retaining all that we thought great about it.  People remember Battletoads fondly without remembering how unfairly difficult that game could be at times.  We remember the first and third Castlevania games while only briefly touching on the second one, which is widely considered to be atrocious by any standards.

And besides that, video games have changed greatly.  They’re far more complicated and capable of providing experiences that older gamers probably never dreamed of.  A game like Gone Home (which I talked at length about in an older post) never would have happened without the gradual evolution of the medium.  Instead of just simplistic tales of a kidnapped princess and a heroic figure rushing to the rescue, we can have incredibly intricate plots that rival those of a good book.  We may lament the loss of difficulty, but we can also welcome the depth we have gained.  Games are no longer confined to being simple little excursions to pass the time.  Games can be complicated and intelligent, brooding and thoughtful.  They can explore themes in the same way as movies and books, and even in ways that they can’t due to the one thing games have that they don’t: interactivity.  Games becoming easier isn’t a bad thing, because they have become many other things as well.

Video games will continue to evolve.  We just have to evolve our conceptions of games along with them.


Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Thanks for reading!  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week everybody!

Hard and Soft Science Fiction: The Connection Between Technology and Society

Last week I made a post comparing the genres of science fiction and fantasy.  To those who know me or follow this blog, it should come as no surprise that I am a bigger fan of science fiction than fantasy.  I find fantasy sort of boring, at least in its modern incarnation.  It’s been reduced to the point where it’s always swords and sorcery in a medieval style world.  And there’s dragons of course.  There’s always dragons (kinda like how every horror movie these days has to involve demons…but I’ll leave that for some other time…the at least five other times I’ve complained about it).

So while fantasy has never really struck my interest that much, I’ve always enjoyed science fiction.  There are, in particular, two big categories for science fiction: hard and soft.  Hard science fiction focuses a lot on scientific accuracy and technological advancement, placing emphasis on the details of the technology rather than its impacts on society.  Soft science fiction generally deals with the social sciences: psychology, sociology, and so on.  It also focuses on the impact of technology on a societal or human level.

But calling these two separate sub-genres of science fiction would be doing them a disservice.  In fact, most scholars of science fiction tend to agree that the two of them are pretty much present in almost all stories.

Let’s use a modern example.  Take Andy Weir’s The Martian (which is being made into a movie that’s coming out this fall in fact).  On its surface, The Martian is a hard science-fiction survival story.  It follows NASA astronaut Mark Watney as he struggles to survive on Mars after being presumed dead by his follow teammates.  A large portion of the story is devoted to Watney brainstorming ways to grow food, generate oxygen, generate water, and so on.  It isn’t until past the first hundred pages or so I believe that the soft science fiction aspect of the story comes into play.  It’s when (minor spoilers ahead) the people back on Earth realize that Watney is still alive that we see the more societal aspect of the story.  It’s also well represented in Matt Damon’s voiceover at the beginning of the teaser trailer.  Take a listen:



So you can see that while the story (at least in the book) places a lot of emphasis on the scientific details of survival on the red planet, it also touches on the aspects of society banding together to help someone in trouble.  As Damon says in the trailer, “if a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people coordinate a search”.

But The Martian is by no means the only place we see this intermingling of hard and soft sci-fi.  2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie well-remembered by many people, even if only for the LSD light show at the end that lasts for almost ten minutes.  Despite the incredibly metaphysical nature of the movie’s ending, there are a lot of elements of hard science fiction in there as well.  The depictions of space travel are incredibly accurate for the most part, with the shuttle docking sequence and the depiction of the time it would take for the Discovery to travel to Jupiter.  There’s another example that you can see in the book version as well.  In the book, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole aren’t headed for Jupiter, but rather for Saturn (the location was changed for the movie because they thought making Saturn’s rings would have been too expensive).  To make it to Saturn in decent time, they preform a slingshot maneuver around Jupiter, using the gas giant’s gravity to propel them toward Saturn, and all without wasting too much fuel.

Despite all this, there are stories that embody mostly one or the other type.  For soft science fiction, a great example of this would be Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, a book which takes place in a dystopian society where books are banned and everyone spends almost all their time watching television.  There are no great attempts at describing future technology and how it works.  Farenheit 451 is probably one of the closest to pure soft sci-fi.

Hard science fiction is a little harder to find.  The Martian is a great example of hard science-fiction, but to get closer to pure hard sci-fi, we’d probably have to look in the direction of the Mars Trilogy, a series of books by Kim Stanley Robinson which chronicles the colonization of Mars in painstaking detail.  I’ve never read any of the books (nor will I most likely…I never much cared for that type of story), but from what I’ve heard about them, they are mainly hard sci-fi.  There are still elements of soft science fiction in there (the books are set in a future where Earth suffers from overpopulation and an ecological disaster, which is what prompts the colonization of Mars), but the stories seem to mainly focus on the technological details of colonizing and terraforming a planet.

Like most genres and sub-genres, hard and soft science fiction aren’t mutually exclusive.  They mix and match to make impossible worlds seem plausible.  They use technology to show us a side of ourselves that we’ve never considered or perhaps wanted to ignore.  War, poverty, interstellar travel, environmentalism, and more all have a place under the banner of science fiction, which is probably why I like it so much.  Science fiction is the genre that has a lot to say, if we give it the right tools to say it.

Escapism is the main reason we enjoy fiction and literature, and sci-fi is great at it.  But sci-fi is great at revealing the truths in the world around us, even if they are not always to our liking…


Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

Worlds Collide: Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science-fiction and fantasy…the two genres of geek culture.  Sometimes it’s hard to separate where science-fiction begins and fantasy ends.  The two are often stuck together like a pair of Twizzlers (did I seriously just make that analogy…yep……there’s no going back from this ladies and gentlemen).

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the ways these two genres are different, yet similar.


The Quest

The primary difference between the two genres is the type of stories they generally tell.  When you think of fantasy, most likely one of the first things to pop into your head is Lord of the Rings, if only because of the Peter Jackson movies.  The story is pretty recognizable: young, reluctant hero is sent out on epic quest to defeat great, returning evil.  Along the way he meets a large cast of heroic figures and friends.  The hero faces extreme challenges, often questions the purpose of his quest, but ultimately rises above it all to reveal the courage he has locked away inside of him.

Fantasy stories are often built around a kind of quest, some long-term end goal that drives the heroes forward.  In Lord of the Rings, the end goal is to throw the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, thus destroying it and Sauron once and for all.

Science-fiction stories are often based around a kind of idea, a theme.  George Orwell’s 1984 was built around the idea of government power and the loss of privacy.  Instead of taking the hero on a quest to destroy some great evil, 1984 takes its main character (Winston Smith) on a journey through the dystopian world he lives in.  Ultimately, the book serves as a cautionary tale about giving the government too much power.

But this is not to say that there can’t be overlap.  Take for example, the Mass Effect trilogy of games.  While generally considered science-fiction, the story revolves around an ancient race of machines returning to destroy all life in the galaxy.  So much like a fantasy story, Mass Effect has a quest to destroy an on-rushing force of evil bent on annihilating all in its path.  Even the movie Interstellar could be said to have a quest of sorts, one to ensure the survival of the human race.

Genres are not set in stone.  Often, they mix and mingle with each other, freely exchanging tropes and ideas.



When I was still in college back in White Bear Lake (I went to Century College for my first two years before moving to Duluth), I took a class called “Science-Fiction and Fantasy”, which me and a friend later joked should have been called “Science-Fiction and The Hobbit”, because that was the only book we read in the fantasy genre for that class.  But there was a very simple reason for it.

Our teacher explained that many fantasy stories are part of a saga, or a series of stories told over multiple books.  She said that it was too difficult to talk about fantasy as a genre without forcing people to read more books than the class had time for, so she chose The Hobbit because it was essentially a self-contained story within the fantasy universe of Lord of the Rings.  The events of The Hobbit lead into the main trilogy, but the book itself begins and ends a story within its pages.

The simple way to put it is this: fantasy stories are generally told over multiple books where as sci-fi stories are usually not.

Most science-fiction stories are self-contained.  They can take place in the same universe, but the stories themselves often stand on their own.  Take Star Trek as an example.  Star Trek has a massive universe filled with different ships, crews, and alien races, but for the most part the stories told don’t interact.  Sometimes you will see characters from other Trek shows pop up (such as characters from The Next Generation guest starring on episodes of Voyager), but it is not necessary to have an intimate background knowledge of them.  You don’t have to watch the original Star Trek show to enjoy The Next Generation, and so on.  Fantasy is often dependent on the audience following the story from beginning to end, from first to last.  Science-fiction often tells one-off stories in a universe that is never revisited again.

And that’s probably a good thing.  I doubt 1985 would have been a good book.  Although…

This time, Winston Smith is back, and he’s out for REVENGE.

Okay I’ll stop.


Good vs. Evil

Often when you think of a story you tend to think of characters in terms of good and evil.  The main character is the good guy, and the people trying to stop him are the bad guys.  Fantasy stories are often set up like this.  In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and the fellowship that gathers around him are the good guys.  Sauron and his band of orcs are the bad guys.  It’s simple.  Good goes up against evil.  This is pretty much classic fantasy.

Science-fiction is a bit different.  There are often good characters and bad characters, but whereas in fantasy the evil part is usually an outside force, in sci-fi the “evil” or antagonistic force can be internal.  Take Phillip K. Dick’s short story The Frozen Journey, also known as I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.  In this story, a man named Victor Kemmings is in cryostasis when something goes wrong and he is partially woken up.  Due to how long their journey is to take, the AI of the ship keeps replaying memories for him in an attempt to keep him asleep and sane.  But Kemmings’ guilt over past actions keeps spoiling the memories, forcing reality back in.  Eventually the AI gets desperate and puts Kemmings through a loop of himself arriving at his destination so many times that when he finally gets there, he can’t convince himself that it’s real.  In this story, there is no outside evil force.

But fantasy is also allowed a little bit of leeway with this as well.  In general, fantasy often has the sides set in stone, as in this side is good, this side is evil.  But in the Song of Ice and Fire books (otherwise known as the Game of Thrones series), pretty much everyone is a self-serving jerk.  Those people who actually have a good nature are usually killed off fairly quickly.  And then there’s also the Drizzt series of books, focusing on a dark elf main character who is not exactly the epitome of niceness.

So while each genre has a set of tropes or standards that they usually draw from, there is a lot of wiggle room for them to expand and try new ideas.



While fantasy and science-fiction are considered separate genres, in reality the two mix together a lot more than most people realize.  It’s not a cut and dry “this is fantasy this is science-fiction” type of world.  There are stories that can be classified as science-fiction that have fantasy elements to them, and vice versa.  And the three criteria I used today are by no means the only ones.  There is so much more that goes into both of these genres, so many different worlds they can create.  And all it takes is a little imagination.

Imagination is at the root of all storytelling.


Well that’s all I have for you this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post and as always, have a wonderful week!

The Score: Music’s Impact on an Audience

Some years ago when I was still in college I took an online film studies class.  One of the books I read for that class had an interesting little aside about music in movies.  Apparently some in the indie community feel that music in mainstream movies is too manipulative and artificial.  They feel that it basically tricks the audience into feeling an emotion instead of letting the rest of the movie do that for them.

I suppose in a way they do have a point.  Music is definitely crafted to get people feeling a certain way, especially when it comes to movies or television shows.  Have you ever been watching a TV show where the music becomes subdued and faint?  Chances are you’re watching a horror show or at least a scene where the intent was to instill tension and suspense in the viewer.  These soundtracks are definitely meant to evoke certain emotions at certain times.  But I wouldn’t really call it manipulative.  That just makes you sound like a bitter and cynical person who enjoys sucking the fun out of things for everyone.

Let’s use the movie Gravity as an example.  The soundtrack to Gravity was strange, unique, and to some, annoying.  But it served a very important purpose.  The music uses a lot of distorted horns and other strange noises to help give you the sense of motion and objects impacting each other, because in space there is pretty much no sound.  Without the musical score, the movie would feel a lot different.  It would probably feel a lot more distant than it does.  As it stands, the music helps pull you in and helps you grasp the dire nature of the situation the characters are in.  Space is not always a beautiful place.  It is also terrifying, vast, and very cold.

Check the piece below for an example of what I mean.  This song is from the beginning of the movie, when the first wave of debris comes through (hey the song is called “debris” as well, how about that).  You can actually hear the moment in the music when Sandra Bullock’s character detaches from her harness (about two minutes, fifty-eight seconds).



Interstellar, another science fiction space movie, has a soundtrack that manages to carve its own path as well.  I’ve heard that Hans Zimmer actually didn’t score the movie in the traditional way.  Usually, from what I know, they would play movie scenes in front of the composer and the composer would craft music based on what he had seen.  For Interstellar, Hans Zimmer was basically given a list of the themes and told that Christopher Nolan wanted “something different”.  The main thing I really enjoyed about the movie’s score was the use of organs, especially during the docking scene (if you’ve watched the movie, you’ll know what I mean).  But I also appreciated the ties into the themes of the movie.

The piece below comes from a scene about midway or so through the movie.  The main characters have traveled to a distant galaxy and have landed on an alien planet searching for a team of people who came many years before them.  But there’s a hitch with this particular planet.  A massive black hole sits nearby, close enough to affect the planet with its intense gravity.  This means that while they’re down on the planet, time moves much slower than them, and actually years pass back on Earth before they manage to leave.  So they land on this water covered planet and begin searching for signs of the other team.  All the while, this little score is in the background, building up tension until you-know-what hits the fan.

Of particular note here is a strange little noise that sounds like an otherworldly ticking clock.  It chimes in every couple of seconds in a very rhythmic pattern, underscoring the fact that the seconds they spend on this planet are far longer for the people back on Earth.  It’s a very neat tie-in to one of the main themes of the movie.  Give it a listen.



It’s very effective at generating tension for that scene, because you know something’s about to go down.  You can actually feel it as you listen.  Not only does the ticking remind you of the subjective nature of time, but it gives you the sense that it’s counting down, that when the invisible clock hits zero something will happen, something big.  I won’t spoil the scene for you if you haven’t seen the movie, but I will say this: it certainly does a great job with hammering home a sense of scale.

But let’s move on to a different tack.  The examples I’ve shown you thus far are very much dependent on the fact that they want to raise your hackles, to make your skin break out in goosebumps.  The next example goes for a different kind of mood.

Sometimes, the musical score just wants you to drift away or zone out.  This is especially true in video games.  Many video games rely on pieces of music looped over and over again, music that is designed without a coherent sense of beginning or end.  These pieces are meant to immerse you in a different way than normal.  They want you to lose yourself in the game, to fade out the world around you until there is nothing but the game.

Many adventure-type video games use this kind of music, and one of the more effective scores I’ve seen was the one for Myst.  I’ve talked a lot about this game in the past, but I only briefly touched on the music.  The score in this game is meant to be strange and ethereal sounding.  I’ve sure someone with an ear trained for music could pick up on some of the instruments they use in the soundtrack, but a lot of it sounds downright otherworldly, which is of course the point.

The particular piece I want to point out from this game plays while you are in the tower on the game’s main island.  It carries the weight of mystery, with a strange, hollow chime sounding in the background during the entire piece.  It’s almost like the music itself is echoing off the metal walls as you explore the tower’s interior.  Take a listen.



It sounds a little spooky, doesn’t it?  It surrounds you with the hint of mystery as you try to work out the tower’s purpose.  It’s a very well-done piece of music, and definitely sells the atmosphere of the game.  I actually consider it to be one of my more favorite game soundtracks, because it sounds so unlike anything else.  With most games you have a fairly typical array of battle music for fighting, quiet music for sneaking around, dissonant music for tense moments, things like that.  Myst has a feel to it that I feel no other game has touched.  It’s just one of the many reason I consider it to be one of my favorite video games of all time.

Music makes us feel.  Does it do that by manipulating our brains?  Technically yes, but “manipulate” is such a pessimistic sounding word for it.  Music evokes.  Music touches.  Music creates memories that can last a lifetime.  Music is just one of the many art forms human beings use to express themselves, and when combined with other forms of expression it can become truly mesmerizing.  Not everyone will be affected in the same way by the same piece of music, but everyone feels something when they hear a musical score.  Sadness, anger, happiness, all emotions that can be stirred up by something as simple as the stroke of a guitar.

In many ways, music is pure emotion.


Well that’s all I’ve got for you this time.  Thanks for reading, and have yourselves a wonderful week!