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Superheroes Round 5: Batman

2013/01/21 6 comments

Holy Plot Holes, Batman!

Since I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises (on a plane!) I’ll be hitting the full Christopher Nolan trilogy for this one.  Naturally… here be many epic spoilers.

This is not Batman.  And, now that I think about it, I don't remember seeing this particular view in the film.

This is not Batman. And, now that I think about it, I don’t remember seeing this particular view in the film.

Super Medical Bills

I hope Bruce Wayne has good health insurance.  As we’ve discussed before, being a superhero is hard on the flesh and bones.  This is emphasized to at least some degree in all the films.  We see Bruce Wayne stitching up his own dog bites in the second film.  In the third, he starts out walking around on a cane, and has a doctor advise him against heliskiing due to the fact that he’s got basically no cartilage left in his knees.  Of course, he gets a powered exoskeleton to compensate for that and add to his strength…

The part in the Dark Knight Rises where this doesn’t work well happens after Bane breaks Batman’s back.  In the absence of medical care, one character hauls Wayne up into a standing position, and kicks him to “push the vertebra back into place.”  And then Wayne gets better.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, KIDS.  Or anywhere.  Even if you’re not kids.  Spines don’t grow back like that — if a vertebra is so far out of place that you’re paralyzed, and you don’t get immediate medical care, you’re going to be paralyzed for life.  And probably even with good medical care, depending on just how bad the nerve damage is.  Plus, kicking the vertebra back into place would probably just cause more damage.

Maybe Batman is related to Wolverine, who has super-healing powers… and they do have similar on-the-job voices.  Interesting.

On a more positive note, Alfred expresses honest concern about not wanting to bury another Wayne, and dreaming about his charge settling down to a nice, safe, happy life where crazy people aren’t going after him.

Villainous Motivations

Back many years ago, there was an animated Batman TV series.  My favorite villain from that show is Mr. Freeze.

He was the well-intentioned extremist, the hero gone wrong.  All he really wanted to do was save the life of his wife… and what made him a villain was his use of any means to reach his ends, and not his ends themselves.  The audience empathizes with his singular goal, even while being horrified by his methods.

The villains of Nolan’s Batman films?  Ra’s Al Ghul.  Destroying the city in order to save it?  Wiping it out like a modern Sodom or Gomorrah?  Talia and Bane’s motivations in the third film are similar.  The Joker, of course, just wants chaos everywhere because he thinks its funny, which doesn’t seem that different in effect from the Al Ghul plots.

These villains are very difficult to see as sympathetic.  Ra’s Al Ghul is probably the closest, being consistently portrayed as concerned about Gotham’s corruption.  Removing the cancer by destroying Gotham by drugging everyone with panic-inducing toxin… is a bit much.  Perhaps understandable from a very warped perspective.  Talia Al Ghul and company have similar motivations, but they’re not as well explained.  Plus, they evidently don’t mind going down when the city burns.

And the Joker… well.  He may not make much sense, but he is very effectively scary.

I would have loved to see a Mr. Freeze-like villain.  The fact that the destruction he causes is merely collateral damage, rather than his actual goal, makes him more interesting in my mind.  For instance, there actually exists a possibility of negotiation.  The villains we actually get just don’t really work.

Somebody Fell Asleep in Nuclear Physics

In terms of physics, I feel the urge to rant about one serious science problem in the Dark Knight Rises specifically.

The reactor.

What.

WHAT.

Nuclear reactors don’t work that way.  And, for bonus points, the best fusion we can do these days doesn’t work that way, either.

Problem 1:  Nuclear fission reactors that can power a city are not really portable.  They’ll be sitting in a nice big building, with lots of coolant and shielding.  There will also be a moderator, which slows the neutrons released by radioactive decay so that they can hit more nuclei and trigger more decays, and control rods made from a neutron poison (or absorber), which catch loose neutrons.  These two things are used to control the chain reaction and the amount of power.  The control rods in particular are important for shutting the reaction down if stuff goes wrong.  These all take space.

Reactors used to make medical isotopes may be smaller, and the reactors that power submarines and some larger vessels such as air carriers are obviously portable.  But those are big ships.  Anything that makes a Gotham City-sized quantity of power (Gigawatts) is going to be too big to fit in a truck.  And there will be some issues if you disconnect it from its sources of coolant.  And I didn’t see anything that looked like control rods.  But then, it sounds like this isn’t a nuclear fission reactor…

Problem 2:  Fusion?  Really?  The current state of nuclear fusion is something like what’s done at the National Ignition Facility.  The basics setup is to use a bunch of really big lasers to compress a very small target until the target atoms fuse.  It’s a huge, non-portable facility, with a target smaller than your fingertip.  It definitely consumes power, rather than producing it.  And, for bonus points, as of September 2012 (according to Wikipedia), it hasn’t been able to confirm “ignition” — the start of a fusion chain reaction.  There are other designs that involve magnetic confinement to force nuclei together (such as ITER) which at least break even in terms of energy.  ITER itself should produce power on the net, but it won’t be finished until 2020 and costs €10 billion for only 500 megawatts of power.  (A typical nuclear fission plant that produces 1 GW will take a few billion dollars to build, and is probably less expensive to operate.)  As yet there’s nothing really suitable for power generation, particularly relative to the nuclear fission plants we already have.

Problem 3:  Plus, if it’s really fusion, there’s another thing… why will the core randomly explode a few months later even if not triggered?  For NIF and other fusion ideas, the fuel in the typical teeny-tiny target consists of a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two different isotopes of hydrogen.  Deuterium is stable, and won’t undergo radioactive decay.  Tritium is unstable, but has a half-life of about twelve years.  After five months, only about 3% of the tritium will have decayed into helium.  The decay is very low energy, so the radiation isn’t dangerous unless you’ve actually eaten the tritium.  So it won’t go off just by sitting there.

To make a fusion bomb (better described as a thermonuclear weapon or H-bomb) out of this anyway, you need a fission bomb to set it off.  Otherwise, you can’t get high enough temperature and pressure for fusion.  Plus, it requires other engineering specifications to get the fusion to happen (detailed at that second link), such as lithium deuteride rather just a mix of deuterium and tritium.  Regardless of those details — who would build a fusion reactor with a fission bomb right next to it??  And let’s not even get into the regulatory aspects that apply to nuclear reactors, or how Wayne is keeping the success of the project and the reactor’s existence secret.

Problem 4:  Okay fine, it exploded.  Where’s the fricking fallout?

The largest bomb detonated by the US was the Castle Bravo test, a thermonuclear device set off at Bikini Atoll in 1954.  It was equivalent to 15 megatons of TNT, more than twice the expected yield, and resulted in an impressively nasty case of fallout contamination.  The crater alone was over a mile in diameter, and the fireball was larger by a factor of a few.  Some sailors on a nearby US carrier received burns from the radiation alone; a few nearby Japanese sailors received significant doses as well from the fallout.  More seriously, islanders living in the area received doses from the fallout moved around by wind and water.  And that’s not even the biggest bomb ever set off.

Gotham should have similar issues with fallout, depending on the prevailing wind patterns.  Maybe they got lucky, and the fallout was all blown out to sea.  That said… assuming the explosion is roughly the same size as Bravo, to avoid both the fireball and the prompt radiation exposure to Gotham, Batman must have taken the reactor-bomb more than a few miles out over the ocean.  In the few seconds left on the clock.

Then again, it was on autopilot, so for once we don’t have to worry about the g-forces on Batman while the day is getting saved.

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SciFi Round Four: Dreaming About Inception

In case any of you haven’t seen it yet:  Inception is Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly-filmed scifi heist film.  Dominic Cobb leads a team of thieves who break into the mind of Maurice Fischer to disrupt his business strategy, looking very cool while navigating a mind-twisting plot through carefully constructed dreamspaces.

The main cast of Inception, standing on the street of a folded dream-city.

While Inception is an incredibly well-made film  (the soundtrack and wire fu are particularly impressive), there are a lot of problems with the plot and world-building – to the point that we were having trouble deciding if we should call it scifi or fantasy.  One way to explain away all of the following is to say that the whole movie is Cobb having a lucid dream.  This is left deliberately ambiguous.  But if we assume that the uppermost level of the nested levels of perception in the movie is intended to be real and to correspond nearly to our world, there are serious problems with the technology, the plot, and the society.

Shared Dreaming

The fundamental technology of the film is dream sharing.  Anything between one and twelve people can be plugged into a device providing fast-acting timed sedation and blends of specialty compounds that allow all of them to experience the same dream.  One, the ‘dreamer’ is lucid-dreaming to the extent that they can build anything, including things that can’t exist in Euclidean space: Arthur likes to make Penrose stairs; Ariadne folds up Paris into origami; Cobb has a dream elevator that takes him from one set of memories to another.   The others, the ‘subjects’, populate the dreamscape with ‘projections’ – sub-personas representing sections of their minds; and with their personal secrets stashed in apparently secure parts of the map.

The first problem here is the interface: everybody is simply plugged into the machine by what looks like an IV drip into their wrist.  There is no way for that to connect to somebody’s brain: the drips don’t even connect to a peripheral nerve, to say nothing of the comprehensive read of the central nervous system and high-bandwidth connection that would be necessary to figure out what somebody was seeing in their dreams and convey that information elsewhere.  And then there is the problem of feeding back the information into somebody’s brain.  While rapidly changing strong magnetic fields can induce effects on the brain, and so can dosing somebody with neurotransmitters, neither technique is specific enough.  Making somebody experience something in their dreams that’s the same as what somebody next to them is experiencing without waking them up would mean tricking their entire brain on almost a synapse-by-synapse level – and in a way that would be very different for each subject.  It’s not something that three guys can do with a briefcase of gear in a Green Car compartment on the Shinkansen.

The next problem is time compression and nesting.  Depending on the particular version of the chemicals Cobb and company are using, subjective time within a dream runs between twelve and twenty times faster than the reality outside it.  Then when they set up a dream-within-a-dream, subjective time becomes faster still – by the same factor.  That is impossible.  There is no time compression in real dreams, but some level of compression might make sense for a lucid dream: the dreamer can just skip over the boring bits.  But unless you’re spending all of your dream-time commuting across town, a factor of ten or twenty compression is implausibly high.  And the still-faster nested time doesn’t work: at some point, bandwidth limits come into play.  Neurotransmitters only diffuse across synapses so quickly.  There is no way to run up the clock speed of a human brain without frying things.

So the technology of Inception is impossible.  But if we take it as a given, what problems remain?

Plot Holes

The first problem I have with the plot is a bit subjective: is Cobb a heroic figure?  All heist films rely on the thief-protagonist being a sympathetic figure and on their victim being much less so.  Cobb is wrongfully accused of the murder of his wife, which is a good start, but he is at least guilty of assault,  depending on how we count his hacking into her mind to free her from the endless dream of Limbo.  And his means of getting back is to assault people and rip information from their brains, leaving them with vaguely-remembered dreams of being shot or ripped to pieces; and for Fischer with an entirely re-defined sense of self.  Perhaps the ambiguity of Cobb’s morality is part of the point.

Other plot holes are less ambiguous: Saito, one of Fischer’s largest business rivals, funds the job.  His presence on the flight when the job takes place can be explained to Fischer by “He bought the airline, and offers you his condolences on the death of your father.  No charge for this flight.”  But in the first level of the dreaming, when Fischer is convinced that he is being held at gunpoint in a Los Angeles cab, why doesn’t he realize that it is Saito holding the gun, and start asking the relevant questions?

And why don’t the subjects of a dream all remember it?  Saito obviously remembered the dream that Cobb and Arthur forced him to have – as he said, “your deception was obvious”.  Why doesn’t Fischer wake up on the airplane, remember the dream of being kidnapped and having to defend himself against extraction, check his wrist for a needle mark, and recognize the people around him as his attackers?  If that seems a bit much for a man who has just watched his father die, remember: Fischer has had the same training as Saito for preventing people from invading his mind.

As a final plot hole, consider one of the film’s most iconic special effects: changes in gravity.  Suddenly dropping someone wakes them up, either back to the world or up one level in the dream.  The dreamer’s head tilting causes the gravity to shift.  This is most obvious with Arthur: he is dreaming the second-level dream while being driven through a car chase on the first-level.  The van rolling side over side over one second becomes the hotel spinning slowly around.  It flying off of a bridge makes the hotel be in zero gravity.

But these effects are inconsistently applied: the other sleepers in the van may not wake up when it falls off the bridge, since they’re another level down, but why doesn’t Arthur wake up?  He just got dropped the length of the hotel hallway.  And since he is the dreamer for that level, wouldn’t the dream then collapse?  More serious: Arthur is out in the hallway, fighting Fischer’s defenses with impressive wire fu as the gravity spins around.  One of the goons dies from falling down the hall.  But what would be happening in the room where everybody else is dreaming?  We see them peacefully floating in space, motionless.  But why weren’t they bouncing off of the walls, ending up in a tangle with half of them dream-dead from the trauma of repeated dead-weight impacts into hard surfaces?

And even if that wouldn’t have dropped them all into Limbo, why aren’t the gravity shifts on Eames’ head in the hotel in the second-level dream reflected in the mountains in the third-level dream turning end over end and collapsing?  Perhaps we can excuse that by saying that the gravity shifts are slow enough in subjective time for Eames to not notice them, but that doesn’t apply to the whiplash from his hitting the walls of the hotel room.  Nolan has certainly taken poetic license with his premise.

The Society

But the biggest problem with Inception is the similarity between the society in the movie and our own.  Simply put: a world where dream-sharing was available would not look anything like what we’re familiar with.  In the movie, dream-sharing is described as having been developed for infantry combat training.  This makes a certain amount of sense: conditioning for hand-to-hand may take only a few months, but it takes much longer to develop the reflexes to deal with all possible attacks in an effective way and you obviously can’t do unrestricted sparring in training, or there would be a serious shortage of fighters.  Double-level dreaming then becomes the equivalent of the uploading technology of The Matrix.  Spend ten hours asleep and accumulate thousands of hours of sparring practice – “I know kung fu”.  A week of double-level dreams equals five years of fighting for three hours per day.

But if dream-sharing can be used for sparring practice, it will be used for other things.  Have fighter pilots sleep for a night with a dreamer who keeps the physics real and they get the equivalent of a thousand flight hours and you save the cost and time of simulators.  Then the commercial pilots will want in.  And if pilots can do it, why not surgeons and lawyers and every person who wants a driver’s license?  Why not every high school and undergraduate student?

There are side effects to excessive dream sharing, so use would need to be limited, but even one night of double-level dreaming is the equivalent of six months of lived experience and one night of triple-level is 10 years.  And dreaming is cheap.  If a chemist working in a low-rent shop in Mombasa can mix up enough of the compounds to support a dozen people a day (granted, that was for single-level dreaming), the cost is down to perhaps ~300 USD per person per dream – and that’s assuming that the people doing the dreaming were paying about 100x the median Kenyan daily wage.  The lower-limit cost of dreaming is likely far lower, but we should allow a large margin for the salaries of the architects who design the dream.

This makes dreaming a low-operating-cost and extremely profitable industry.  Which would you chose?  A five-thousand-dollar night of dreaming or four years worth of college at ten thousand dollars per year?

Very rapidly, everyone in the world could have the equivalent of a college education by whatever is the youngest age for safe shared dreaming; and accumulate a decade of extra experience every month or year thereafter.  The limit will be having sufficient teachers to dream the classes – but they can spend twenty subjective years training and still be ready by Tuesday.  What would such a culture look like, besides having whole industries based around people getting together and dozing off, and a new social problem in the form of dream addiction?  I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be anything like the world we live in or the world Cobb and company run around in.

As part of an effective education, everyone in that world would have their subconscious trained with mental firewalls, to prevent extraction or inception.  I suspect there would be some changes in public etiquette as well: falling asleep in public would leave you even more potentially vulnerable than it does in real life.  Perhaps people learn to wear armored wristbands?  For the upper-end of security, trusted bodyguards would keep watch while their bosses were asleep.  Cobb would have known something was up when Saito by himself on the train; and Fischer would not have flown alone.  Either way, the plot of the movie wouldn’t work.

What sort of story could Nolan have told, set in a world where dreaming is mainstream?