Lightsabers Considered Insufficiently Cool

The lightsaber: an instantly recognizable symbol of all things Star Wars. A blade of pure light, capable of slicing through nearly anything, and, in the right hands, of deflecting energy blasts away from the wielder and right back at the enemy. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age. It’s pretty awesome.

But it’s not awesome enough.


Let me explain. Like many socially awkward white males with a taste for fedoras, I am fond of many Japanese television shows and video games. Among these shows and games, there are very many people with magic swords, or with magic powers expressed through swords. Consider Link, who can whirl his sword about him in a glowing cyclone of death, cutting anything close to him, or else shoot his sword forward like a bullet. Pretty handy abilities, no? And he’s not alone. Chrono from Chrono Trigger can also spin about to slice multiple enemies at once, and he can also shoot with his sword, cutting anything in his way with a slash made of wind. (See also: Jubei from Ninja Scroll and Inuyasha from, well, Inuyasha) And those are just the guys who specifically use wind to cut up their foes. Ichigo from Bleach just slashes with spiritual energy. And while I’m on the subject of Bleach, how about Ichimaru Gin, whose sword can suddenly extend forward to incredible length, putting everyone within stabbing distance? (Related: Goku’s Power Pole from Dragon Ball, and the Monkey King’s staff from Journey to the West) Or Hinamori Momo, whose sword can throw fireballs, or Kuchiki Byakuya, who can split his blade into a thousand remote-controlled razor-sharp flying petals, or… I could go on about Bleach, but I’ll spare you. The point is that all these swords and swordsmen have excellent offensive capabilities, striking down enemies in a manner and efficiency usually reserved for machine guns. When these guys bring a knife to a gunfight, the gunners are afraid.

Now compare this to lightsabers. For the most part, lightsabers have equal or better defensive powers than the swords I’ve just listed, but they fall behind in offense. When Jedi get into a firefight, they have to wait for their foes to shoot them, so that they can throw the shots back, or for their foes to get close enough to cut, so they can cut them down one by one. This is a very inefficient and vulnerable position to be in, compared to everyone listed above. And these are supposed to be superior to blasters? If the Jedi in Attack of the Clones had used blasters along with their blades, they could have cut down their foes much more quickly (and reduced their own losses). If Finn had found a blaster in addition to his borrowed lightsaber, he could have shot TR-8R before the angry trooper tasered his former comrade. So why are the Jedi putting themselves at a disadvantage? Couldn’t they carry guns and swords, like Gundams do? Or how about following Squall Leonhart’s example, and using gun-swords?

(I might also note that there is one circumstance where Jedi exclusively use blasters: vehicular combat. Whether they’re flying space fighters or snow speeders, Jedi use guns alongside everyone else, and they seem to like it that way.)

I don’t wish to discount the many things that lightsabers do well. Unlike normal blades, they are all edge and no face, so whichever way you swing it, it’s guaranteed to cut. Plus, since the blade has no mass, you can swing it about with ease and never lose control, and when you’re done with it, the blade just disappears, leaving a light and compact cylinder that’s easy to transport and store. Then there’s the way they burn and cut at the same time, for extra destruction, and they’re really, really good at defense. But I still maintain that all this is not awesome enough.

Star Wars is not a hard sci-fi setting, but it is still subject to Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And the tech in Star Wars is magical indeed; handheld objects that can shoot blazing projectiles of pure energy, defensive walls that can hold off staggering impacts while remaining invisible, mechanical golems that think and act as humans do, vehicles that can float like balloons, fly faster than the wind, soar into the vacuum of space, and then rush faster than light to traverse the vast blackness between the stars… If actual magic wishes to hold its own against such powerful techno-juju, it’s going to have to up its game. We might as well start with improving our magical weapons.

First, lightsabers’ offense should be as good as their defense; if you know how to use a lightsaber, you’ll never want for a blaster. Second, lightsabers should be more unique. Notice all the different styles of attack I mentioned above? This variety is the norm in many fictional settings, especially those that involve martial arts, and it should be the norm in Star Wars. Not only will different lightsabers have different handles and colors, but they will have different attacks. Some will fire stabbing bolts, some will throw arcs like Guile’s Sonic Booms, some will flow like long streamers or dance like arcs of lightning, and some will do other things entirely. Ideally, the style of the blade will tell us something about the personality of the wielder. But whatever they do, they will be dangerous, and when soldiers anywhere see a stranger with a saber, they’ll be very, very careful about engaging them.

It’s too late to change what has already been written, but it’s not too late to change what will be written in the future. I propose that we all incorporate this more magical style of lightsaber into all Star Wars fiction. Leave a comment to let me know what you make of my proposal, and May the Fourth be with you. (It’s 11:25pm where I’m writing this, so this is my last chance to say that.)

P.S. I suggest that this same kind of change (making something more powerful and more individualized) should also be made to Force powers. Even without a weapon, a Jedi can wield the Force, and if it’s powerful enough to levitate X-Wings, it’s powerful enough to deliver deadly punches, and range attacks too. (Why should only the Sith get ranged attacks? Ryu’s a good guy, and he gets to throw fireballs.) And we’d never put up with a group of superheroes who all had the same powers, so why put up with it from a group of Jedi? Everyone should have different strengths and weaknesses, and some way of using the Force that’s uniquely their own.

P.P.S. While researching for this piece, I came across a fascinating item: the gun axe. The world is full of wonder.


Wasted Metal: Why is there so much Isaiah in the Book of Mormon?

The following analysis is probably not original to me, but I’ll share it anyway because I haven’t heard anyone else say it yet. If you know of a similar analysis, please share in the comments.

Among the many topics it discusses, the Book of Mormon covers these two points:

  1. Writing on metal plates is hard
  2. Great are the words of Isaiah

Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of these (the first is an obvious fact, and the second is a popular viewpoint with some merit to it) but these points actually come into conflict within the Book of Mormon, in a manner that calls into question the Book’s authenticity.

First, let’s consider the business of writing on metal plates. This is not an easy task, and as you might expect, the writers in the Book of Mormon write frankly about the troubles involved. Jacob mentions how hard the actual engraving on metal is (but also mentions the advantage that plates have over less durable writing surfaces) and Moroni appears to talk about it, too. Jarom mentions that the plates themselves are small, as do several other writers, including Amaleki and Moroni; this is separate from the difficulty of engraving, but still a real problem with metal plates, because you have to get the right kind of metal, and you have to get enough of it, and you have to pound it into sheets, before you can engrave anything. To alleviate the space problem, the writers employed a special compact writing system that they call “reformed Egyptian”, which saves space at the cost of clarity (it’s debatable whether this reformed Egyptian exists at all, but for the time being, we can acknowledge that giving up writing quality to save space is the sort of exchange that any writer might make if they had to do all their writing on metal). The message is clear, consistent, and realistic: writing on plates sucks.

Then there’s the business of Isaiah. According to this source, there are 20 complete chapters of Isaiah that are included in the Book of Mormon, with minimal alterations and no abbreviations. The text itself explains why: Nephi chooses Isaiah to persuade his brothers to believe in Christ, Jacob reminds us that Isaiah had a special message for all of the house of Israel (including the Nephites), Abinadi quotes a chapter to chastise some wicked priests, and Jesus himself is quoted as saying that “great are the words of Isaiah”. Everyone values Isaiah as a mighty prophet, revealing Israel’s future and persuading all to come unto Christ.

But why did they go to the lengths of quoting entire chapters of Isaiah?

No sensible person can dispute that it’s hard writing on plates; it takes more time, more effort, and more precious material than nearly every other method of recording data. In the face of such difficulties, you take every measure possible to reduce the amount of writing you have to do, including getting rid of all redundancy. And here, the conflict arises, because all the writers of the Book of Mormon had to know that they would be adding redundancy by quoting Isaiah. Nephi, and all his contemporaries and descendants, had access to the brass plates, which included the writings of Isaiah. When Jesus arrived, he commanded the people to search the words of Isaiah, confirming that the people still had them. Mormon and Moroni might be excused for including some Isaiah, in case people in the future no longer possessed the prophet’s writings, but Moroni claimed to have seen our day by the power of God; didn’t he see that we would have the complete works of Isaiah, so that he and his father wouldn’t have to transcribe any of it? Remember: the Book of Mormon gives us no new writings of Isaiah, nor even an improved translation of existing writings. So why did the writers waste their time, stress their hands, and squander their metal on preserving something already well-preserved?

If we take the Book of Mormon at its word, we can only conclude that the writers were very, very stupid. But there is an alternative explanation: the writers of the Book of Mormon were not writing on plates.

I previously linked to an analysis that disputes the existence of “reformed Egyptian” (all the Egyptian writing systems we know of are less compact than Hebrew), but the analysis also discusses other characteristics of the Book of Mormon that are inconsistent with writing on plates. There are very many repetitions that do not seem to add any information or clarity. Consider Alma 21:19, that ends with “serve him, or be his servant“. Did those four words tell us anything new? Or consider 3 Nephi 11:37-38: it is not an exaggeration to say that those two verses have the exact same message, so why bother writing both? Then there are incredibly wordy passages (the critic takes one passage of 423 words and reduces it to 79; judge for yourself if any information is lost). Anyone engraving on metal would have to be very stupid and very stubborn to subject themselves to such useless effort. But someone writing on parchment, or dictating, would not have the same difficulty. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the text in the Book of Mormon was never written on metal plates.

There is good reason to suspect that the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century document. There is also good reason to suspect that Joseph Smith was capable of writing it. These reasons become more compelling when we see that the Book’s official origin story is virtually impossible; we would have to accept that multiple generations of prophets of God were utter morons who wore out their hands and used up their gold for nothing. Rejecting the Book’s declared origin may lead you to frightening conclusions, but for the sake of honesty, you have to face them. To quote P. C. Hodgell: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” You owe yourself nothing less.

The Bullet Hole: Thoughts on the necessity of God (or lack thereof)

I have recently been rereading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’ve found an argument of his that, in my opinion, nicely illustrates the divide between theistic thought and atheistic thought. Here is is, from the end of chapter 3:

There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.

Dawkins’s question here is: if life, the universe, and everything could not exist without a creator, then how can their creator exist without an even greater creator? After all, if order and complexity cannot exist on their own, then how did our universe’s creator (who must be orderly and complex in order to design such a universe) come into existence? In my opinion, it’s a good question, but a theist might see it as missing the point. I shall explain with an analogy.

You are examining a crime scene, and you discover a small hole. You examine it closely, and you conclude that it is a bullet hole. If it is, then you can strongly conclude that a gun fired that bullet, and someone pulled the trigger on that gun. Now, this conclusion actually raises more questions: What kind of gun was it? Who made the gun? Who fired that gun? Why did they fire it? Where did the shooter come from? Where did the gun maker come from? And so on. But even if we never get an answer to any of these questions, we can still conclude that a human fired a gun, because we have the bullet hole, and there’s only one way to make such a hole.

The theist position is that our existence is like that bullet hole, and the creator is the one who fired the bullet. Questions like “Where did the creator come from?” are interesting, but even if we never get an answer to such questions, we still know that there is a creator responsible for our universe. Ignorance in one area does not refute knowledge in another area. (For another example, consider abiogenesis and evolution: even if we know nothing about how life got started, we can still know that life evolved)

This is not to say that theists do not try to answer questions about the creator. Indeed, most of them are quite preoccupied with the question of the creator’s motives. Consider Rick Falkenstein, who became a creationist last month. After concluding that something created us, he asserted that created things have a purpose and set out to find that purpose, rather like a crime scene investigator trying to figure out a shooter’s motive. Both of these are smart choices, if we grant their initial assumptions. Wouldn’t it be good to know why our creator made the world, just as it is good to know why someone made a shot? Of course, even if we never get answers to these questions, that doesn’t change the conditions that prompted us to ask the questions in the first place. The bullet hole is still there.

But what if the hole was not a bullet hole?

Fake bullet holes are available for purchase. Holes that look like bullet holes can fool the untrained eye, just as this hole did (and this hole as well). Forensics textbooks insist that it takes “training and experience” to properly distinguish bullet holes from similar marks. With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine an unskilled investigator trying to determine the motives of a shooter that never existed as they examine a hole that wasn’t actually made by a bullet.

Now go back to the subject of creation, and you can see the point I’m trying to make: our reality looks like it was created, until you examine it more closely. Creationists have made many arguments, some of them quite sophisticated, and scientists have refuted them all. The design that Falkenstein sees is simply not sufficient to prove the existence of a designer. No bullet hole, no bullet, no gun, no shooter. It’s that simple.

Millions of people have looked at life, at the earth, and at the stars, and have concluded that someone must made all this. Some being, however strange, must have laid out the order we see. But our instincts fool us; great minds have sought that being, and have not found it, bringing back only evidence of order arising by itself. Many have desperately tried to prove a creator’s existence in the face of this evidence, but sound minds have rejected their offerings. It appears that our tendency to see a creator’s handiwork is simply part of our tendency to see patterns that aren’t there. Bullet holes, man… they’re everywhere.

We really shouldn’t go on like this. Endlessly looking for things that aren’t there does us no good, whether we’re looking for gods or guns. If anyone can offer sound evidence of a great creator, then let them come forth and do so, but as it is now, when I look at life, the universe, and everything, the only bullet holes I see are the ones we’ve made ourselves.

Apple vs. FBI – The Spy Draft Marches On

Apple has sent out a letter declaring the need for encryption, and lots of people are talking about it, and fortunately for us, some of those people are intelligent and moral. Check out Bruce Schneier’s post, especially all the good posts he links to, like Julian Sanchez’s editorial and the EFF’s summary of the situation. Schneier doesn’t link to Techdirt’s takedown of the DoJ, but I won’t hold that against him.

As Schneier so aptly puts it, people are seeing this as “Apple privacy vs. national security”, when really, it’s “National security vs. FBI access”. To quote Julian Sanchez:

These, then, are the high stakes of Apple’s resistance to the FBI’s order: not whether the federal government can read one dead terrorism suspect’s phone, but whether technology companies can be conscripted to undermine global trust in our computing devices. That’s a staggeringly high price to pay for any investigation.

Once again, government forces are pushing for measures that will make all of us less safe. And once again, they’re forcing people and companies to cooperate with them. It’s spy draft 2.0, in which you must not only hand over information, but also perform labor, and build a world where infiltration and surveillance are permanently easy.

This must not stand. Do whatever you can to oppose this. Support organizations like the EFF and EPIC that fight against this. If you buy Apple, let them know that you love what they’re doing, but that you and your dollars will leave them if they give up the good fight. And tell your elected officials to make the FBI (and every other three-letter agency) stop fighting against real security in our technology.

This is a fight worth fighting. Resist the spy draft.

Muchas gracias, Eliezer Yudkowsky – an open letter

Dear Eliezer Yudkowsky,

I wish to sincerely thank you for the works that you have written and published, most especially your magnificent work of fanfiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It is an enjoyable and engrossing story, and my wife and I found happiness reading and discussing it together.

But that’s not really why you wrote that story, is it? Entertainment is all well and good, but what you really want is to educate people, so that we can actually know and apply those methods of rationality you mentioned. Well, it so happens that your book worked; I did learn something from Harry’s adventures, and I used it to improve my own life.

Earlier this year, I went down to Nogales (the Mexican half) with a friend, on a mission. I was there to have a good time being a tourist, and also to obtain six bottles of Mexican vanilla (my wife wanted some for herself and some to share with family and friends). I had brought with me 20 American dollars. My wife assured me that this would be enough to cover any expenses I would encounter.

Well, as my friend parked his car in Nogales (the American half) and we approached the border, I thought about that money, and wondered if it would be enough, and I remembered Chapter 6: The Planning Fallacy when Harry gives that little lecture about being sufficiently pessimistic and reveals the gold he secretly swiped from his vault. I decided that I, too, wanted to have enough money to buy what I really wanted, and withdrew 40 more dollars from the nearest ATM. I then followed my friend to the moneychanger’s office, where we converted our dollars to pesos, and we crossed the border.

I spent every last centavo, and it was great.

I bought some chocolate in brand names that I’d never seen before. I had a strange and lovely meal in a very authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I bought a locally-knitted jacket for my daughter, and I probably overpaid because I have no experience bargaining, but I could afford the loss. I bought a little silver bracelet for my wife. And I bought six of the largest vanilla bottles I could find. My trip was a complete success.

So, Mr. Yudkowsky, if you ever lie awake at night, wondering if you’ve ever actually succeeded at helping anyone be more rational, remember that you helped me, at least a little. Even now, there sits in our kitchen a vanilla bottle as long as my forearm, and it wouldn’t have been half as big if not for you.

Thank you again, and good luck to you,

Disconnected and Loving It

A few days ago, I was cut off from the Internet. I could not send or receive mail; I could not read or reply on blogs or on Facebook. I lost my favorite way of learning about the outside world and of communicating with other human beings.

I loved it.

It was a huge relief to not have so many things to stress over. No longer could I inundate myself with bad news and endlessly obsess over the feedback of strangers. I could pick up a book and contemplatively read it – or monomaniacally pore through it and finish a whole novel in an afternoon, something I hadn’t done since the last Harry Potter book. I could speak face to face with people and enjoy the whole range of feedback you get that way. Or I could be alone – truly, willfully alone – and not care about anyone’s opinion, if only for a little while. It was bliss.

Now, some of you are probably reading this and thinking, “So what? I have no problem doing all those nice things, even when I do have easy access to high-speed Internet. What’s your problem?” Well, simply put, my problem is that I am not you. You can hold your liquor, but me, I had to go dry. It wasn’t by choice at first, but I’m glad it happened, and I intend to remain this way as much as possible.

For a while, I was considering getting rid of my smart phone and getting a dumb one; I finally realized that I can dumb down my phone and call it good. I’ve turned off my phone’s Wi-fi and mobile data. As for my computer, I’m rationing my time on it. I can’t avoid the Internet forever, but I can push it away as much as possible, leaving myself free to enjoy life and humanity the way God intended.

So, if you are like me, and you spend too much time in cyberspace, I suggest that you cut yourself off and spend a little time in meatspace. Look up from your phone – you’ll be glad you did.