Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Starcraft (Page 1 of 2)

Rapid-fire reviews: Starcraft, Steelheart, Oscar Wao, Zootopia, etc.

I’ve gotten behind on posting reviews here, so in the interest of getting caught back up, here are some quick thoughts on a bunch of books and movies and games from the past few months!

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  • Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – I loved StarCraft when I was in high school, and I mostly enjoyed the first two parts of the Starcraft 2 trilogy, so I am disappointed to say that this one wasn’t very good. The plot was boring and lacked interesting characters or any sort of emotional range. It was like the game makers were trying so hard to make the finale of Starcraft 2 epic that they forgot how to make a good game. Instead it’s just heavy-handed and over-the-top and relentlessly epic. Also, it was very Protoss heavy. One of the things that is fun about Starcraft is the shifting alliances between the three playable races and their factions. This game seemed to have much less of that.

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  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – So apparently this won a Pulitzer? I enjoyed parts of this: the premise of a super geeky Dominican immigrant living in the city in the US was interesting, but nothing really happens. He basically mopes around about how he can’t get laid, and that’s interspersed with some flashbacks to his relatives past lives in the Dominican Republic. The reader is beaten over the head with how misogynistic Dominican culture is and how much Oscar doesn’t fit in with it. And then he find himself back in the DR and involved in a very ill-advised relationship, and then he gets killed. Maybe this one was too literary for me. Sometimes literary stuff is great, but other times it can end up just boring. I found this one was mostly in the latter category. On the plus side, I learned some history that I only vaguely knew about before.

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  • Steelheart – This is Brandon Sanderson’s YA take on superheroes. The premise is basically: What if all superheroes were evil? I am starting to think that Sanderson is just not my style of author. This book especially felt to me like he was just phoning it in. He even goes so far as to make one of the main character’s personality traits be that he is terrible with metaphors, which to me screams that the author was too lazy to think of good metaphors so instead used the first dumb thing that came to mind and made it into a running gag. It destroyed my suspension of disbelief every time. But that’s just one minor nitpick. More generally, I think my issue with Sanderson is that he is great at the craft of writing but severely lacking in the art side. Reading his books is sort of like looking at a house that isn’t quite finished. Like, yeah the house is safe to live in, and the roof doesn’t leak, but I can see the foundation and interior structure. The walls aren’t painted yet: I can see where there were plot holes that got patched with a well placed infodump. I’m actually thinking that because Sanderson’s books lend themselves so well to being able to sense the underlying structure and outline, that I should read more of them because it may help learn the craft, even if they’re not my favorites. My favorite books suck me in so well that I can’t sense these sorts of underlying details as easily. (Edited to add: Also, Sanderson is absolutely awful at writing love subplots. Some parts of this book were truly cringe-worthy in that regard.)

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  • All the Light We Cannot See – Another Pulitzer winner. I enjoyed this more than Oscar Wao, but it also reminded me very strongly of The Book Thief (not a bad thing by any means, but it made it feel less original). This book is about a blind girl in France during WWII and a German boy who is a prodigy at fixing radios. There is some lovely writing in this one, but again it moved a bit slowly for my taste.

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  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – This is a nice short book by Neil Gaiman, and I think it’s my favorite book of his so far. After reading American Gods, I suspected that Gaiman was better at short fiction than long and this book seems to support that idea. Nice writing, suitably weird, full of melancholy reminiscences about childhood and growing up, with unnerving and ominous powers hidden just beneath the surface of reality.

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  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – This is by the same author who wrote Cloud Atlas but is a much more “normal” historical fiction book. The setting is interesting: Japan in 1799. It’s about a young Dutch man who is stationed at the port of Dejima, the only part of Japan where Europeans are allowed, and who falls in love with a Japanese girl. The writing is generally very nice, but I found that there was one stylistic quirk that really bugged me (particularly because I was reading this book out loud). Almost every single piece of dialog is interrupted partway through with dialog tags. Here are couple of examples that I found by searching for quotes from the book:
    • “Don’t let death,” Jacob reproves himself, “be your final thought.”
    • “I find a certain comfort,” confesses Marinus, “in humanity’s helplessness.”

    Every once in a while this would be ok, but it really is basically every piece of dialog. I’m sure there’s some sort of symbolism or something that the author deliberately was trying to achieve here, but it mostly just bugged me. My other issue with this book was that it moves very slowly. Again, this is probably just my preference for genre fiction over literary fiction, but I can always tell a book is going too slowly when I start to nod off while reading before bed, and that happened way too much with this one. Happily, the end finally picks up pace and redeems the slow build, so overall I ended up enjoying this.

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  • A Pirate of Exquisite Mind – This is a biography of William Dampier, a guy who really should be better known than he is. The story of his life is pretty remarkable. He was a buccaneer and privateer for a while in the Caribbean and on the west coast of Panama, but also took careful notes in his journal, which made him the first European to describe many things we take for granted like barbecues and avocados and chopsticks. He circumnavigated the world three times and was one of the first Europeans to explore parts of Australia. His writings went on to inspire famous writers (Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels both draw on his writings), scientists (such as Charles Darwin), and explorers (such as James Cook). The only downside to this biography is that it did get dry at times. A lot of it is based on Dampier’s own writings, combined with other written accounts from the time, but the authors of the book paraphrase these documents so heavily that I often thought it would be more interesting and easier to read if they would just quote larger chunks from the original sources. But despite this, I’m definitely glad I learned more about Dampier.

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  • Zootopia – This movie was so good! Great animation, full of lots of jokes that kids will get, as well as a lot of them that are aimed squarely at adults. The plot is actually interesting, and the message of this story about bias and racial tolerance is a really important one, and it somehow manages to convey it without being overly saccharine or preachy. It has one of the highest ratings I’ve ever seen on Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. I look forward to owning this movie and showing it to my kids.

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  • The Jungle Book – Yes, we have been mostly watching children’s movies at the theaters lately! They’re sure more interesting than the umpteenth superhero sequel! I am still a bit skeptical about this trend of remaking classic Disney movies as darker live action/CGI movies, but there were so many great actors in this one I figured we should give it a try. It was pretty good, and certainly visually impressive, but ended up feeling a lot shallower than Zootopia despite looking much more “serious”.

How do Zerg Fly in Space? Part 1: Mutalisks

Ok folks, it’s time. We’ve all asked this question, but I’ve been putting off answering it because we all actually know the answer.

How do the Zerg fly in space?

Magic.

There’s a certain point in sci-fi or fantasy where you have to just suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, and I think that the Zerg ability to travel through space is a good example of this. That said, I’d like to take a look at one of the most common explanations that people give to justify the mutalisk’s ability to flap its wings and propel itself through space. As you’ll see, it’s completely implausible.

Now, we know that flapping doesn’t do anything in a vacuum: there’s nothing to provide any resistance, so you can flap all you want and it won’t move you forward. But what if mutalisks used their dragon-like wings as solar sails, catching the photons from a nearby star to cruise through interplanetary space? That might not explain the flapping, but it could explain how they can move, so let’s take a closer look.

The idea behind solar sails is the conservation of momentum. Even though photons of sunlight have no mass, they do have momentum. High school physics tells us that momentum is conserved, so if you have a bunch of photons with momentum being absorbed by a solar sail (or a mutalisk’s leathery wing) then their momentum must be transferred to the thing they’re hitting, exerting a force on it and causing it to move through space. So, how large would a mutalisk’s wings have to be to let it accelerate at a reasonable speed? To figure this out, we need to do a back of the envelope calculation, making some assumptions about how big mutalisks are.

In general, the sizes of units in the game are not reliable: I prefer to consider the cinematics as the authoritative source. So let’s take a look at this cinematic showing Jim Raynor’s battlecruiser being attacked by a swarm of mutalisks.
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOh1YoaPbi0&w=640&h=385]

At about six seconds, one of the mutalisks flies over the right-hand side of the battlecruiser and crosses near a long row of windows. Based on its size compared to the set of windows, I would say that the creatures have a wingspan of around 100 meters and that their tube-like body is about the same length and maybe 5 meters across. If mutalisks are like most earth life, then they are mostly water. to get a rough idea of their weight we can calculate their volume and then multiply by the density of water. A cylinder 5 meters by 100 meters has a volume of about 2000 cubic meters. That would correspond to a whopping 2,000,000 kg or 2000 metric tons!

Now, obviously that’s too big for something to fly in at atmosphere, let alone in space by flapping its wings. But lets be generous and say that maybe mutalisks are made of some very low-density material, and maybe I overestimated their size. What if they were closer to 20 tons? How much oomph would their wings give them if they used them as solar sails. Again I’ll be generous and treat the wings as a square of material 100 meters on a side.

The momentum of a photon is given by: Momentum = Energy/Speed of Light, so near a sun-like star, where most photons are in the visible range, they have an energy of 2-3 electron volts, yielding a momentum of 1.6×10^-27 kg m/s per photon. That’s not much, but a star puts out a lot of photons, so let’s see if that balances it out and gives us a decent thrust.

Let’s say our theoretical mutalisk is orbiting the sun at the same distance as Earth, 150,000,000,000 m from the sun. The sun puts out 3.8×10^26 watts or roughly 8×10^44 photons per second, but that power is spread out in all directions. To figure out how much hits our solar-sailing mutalisk, we have to imagine spreading that power out over a sphere the size of our mutalisk’s orbit with a surface area of 4*pi*R^2 where R is the radius of the orbit. That gives 2.25×10^20 photons per square meter per second.

Solar sails don't make for the most maneuverable spacecraft, and they would be sitting ducks in any sort of space battle.

With a wing area of 100 m x 100 m (10,000 square meters), our mutalisk would intercept around 10^24 photons per second, corresponding to a whopping force of 0.0004 newtons! That’s enough force to accelerate a 20 ton mutalisk up to about 14 miles per hour in a year.

Edit: An astute reader points out that the size of mutalisks is described in the Starcraft novels as being much smaller than I described. They apparently have a wingspan of 20 feet and are only 7 feet long and about a meter across. to me that seems shockingly small, especially compared to the cinematics, and it also seems quite stubby compared to all of the art depicting mutalisks as having a body that is a long tube. Still, we can scale the above results to fit these new dimensions. Given a cylinder 7 feet long and 3.3 feet across, and again assuming a density like water, I get a mass of 1.7 metric tons. If we treat the wings generously as a 20 foot square, then their surface area is 37 square meters, so the thrust on wings of that size as compared to our 10,000 square meter example above would be .0004 newtons x .0037 = 1.5×10^-6 newtons. That’s enough to accelerate our 1700 kg mutalisk all the way up to 0.06 miles per hour in a year! Even assuming a much lower density, it would only accelerate a 170 kg mutalisk up to 0.6 miles per hour in a year.

You might not have followed every step of that (admittedly very crude) calculation, but that final value should give you some idea of how ridiculous it is to say that a Mutalisk’s wings could work as solar sails. Even assuming very large wings and a small body, the acceleration that you get is miniscule. Plus, solar sails are really only good for accelerating away from the star, and Mutalisks are like fighter jets: they need to be able to dodge and weave in all directions very quickly.

Bottom line, I can’t explain how the mutalisks fly in space. Heck, I can’t explain how something that big flies in air! Solar sailing certainly doesn’t cut it, so we’re left where we began. It’s magic. This is a part of the Starcraft Universe that just doesn’t fit with the laws of physics in our own universe, and that’s fine. Mutalisks are still cool, and it’s not like I’m going to stop playing Starcraft because I don’t know how they can fly in space.

Stay tuned: next I’ll take a look at all the non-winged Zerg fliers!

The Color of Acid

The other day I was playing Starcraft 2 and trying to think of the next topic to tackle here. As I watched a swarm of zerg roaches attack a group of terran marines, I realized that I needed to talk about acid. Two of the new zerg units, the baneling and the roach have acid-based attacks. The baneling is a little suicide bomber that detonates, splashing corrosive acid all over nearby units, while the roach is a nasty armored insect that spews a stream of acid on its foes from a distance.

Banelings doing their thing.

I like both of these units in the game, but they perpetuate a myth about acid that has infested pop culture for years: it is bright neon green. I’m not sure where this idea originated. Maybe it goes back to World War I, when chlorine gas was used as a chemical weapon. It’s not an acid, but it is a nasty caustic chemical that is a sickly green color. Or maybe the green acid idea can be traced back to the movie Alien, where the alien is revealed to have highly acidic blood that looks greenish yellow.


The famous shot of the alien's acidic blood in Alien.

Whatever the origin of the idea, it’s patently false. Most acids are colorless in both their pure form and in solution. Sulfuric acid? Colorless. Hydrochloric acid? Wikipedia says that it is colorless to light-yellow, but I’ve never seen an example that showed any color. Hydrofluoric acid? Colorless.

I don’t know of any acid that is brightly colored, though I admittedly not a chemist. There are probably some nice, colorful organic acids, and it’s certainly possible for acid to be mixed with other colored stuff in a solution, but in the real world acid does not conveniently advertise its corrosiveness by being bright green.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the plausibility of an insect spraying acid, whatever the color may be. This is actually plausible to me. There are plenty of examples of insects that are armed with chemical-based weapons. One of the most famous is the bombardier beetle, which defends itself by blasting a nasty, boiling hot liquid at its attackers. Bee venom contains formic acid, and many ants inject or spray formic acid or other chemicals when they bite.

If we’re willing to suspend disbelief enough to allow the zerg to exist in the first place, I’m also willing to grant that they might use caustic chemicals to attack, since real-world insects do this too.

Starcraft 2 Review

Well folks, I finally beat the campaign in Starcraft 2 last night, so I finally feel comfortable reviewing the game.

In a lot of ways, Starcraft 2 is very similar to its predecessor, and I think on the whole that’s a good thing. With the original Starcraft, Blizzard hit on a formula for a compelling game that just worked, so they didn’t need to fix it. With Starcraft 2, they tweaked it instead. There are a lot of familiar units in the new version of the game, but there are also a lot of new ones, as well as new abilities for familiar units that make things interesting. There are also a lot of tiny, careful changes to the gameplay that make everything flow more smoothly.

Tychus Findlay and Jim Raynor at the bar.

For me, the campaign was always the highlight of the original Starcraft and I’m happy to report that it is excellent in Starcraft 2 as well. The story focuses on Jim Raynor who has had a make-over and is now a rugged, scarred mercenary. Instead of a linear storyline with little player choice like in the original game, Starcraft 2’s missions allow a little more flexibility: at any given time there are several missions to choose from. Between missions, you can interact with other characters on your ship. Head to the cantina and share a drink with Tychus Findlay, a rough-and-tumble ex-convict marine. Or go to the lab and see what new technologies Egon Stetman, the stereotypical squeaky-voiced, lab-coat-wearing, socially-awkward scientist has cooked up for you. Or check out the armory and ask Rory Swann – the mechanic who sounds like he belongs on Car Talk and looks like a Warcraft dwarf – to upgrade your mechanical units. Other colorful plot-related characters include the awesomely stereotyped Tosh – a rastafarian rogue ghost operative, complete with voodoo charms and a “ya mon” accent – and the idealistic young ship’s captain Matt Horner, whose clean-cut look and fancy uniform were carefully designed to contrast with Raynor’s bad-boy tattooed arms and sweat-stained t-shirt.

Tosh, the suspicious Jamaican operative. Yes, that is a voodoo doll around his neck.

This interesting bunch of characters  send you on missions following several parallel plotlines that gradually intertwine to lead to the requisite huge battle at the end of the campaign. Each thread of missions is based on that character’s personal interests, and things get interesting when some of the characters disagree on what’s the best next step. All of these interactions are done really well using rendered-on-the-fly cutscenes. Some of these cutscenes are cinematics in their own right (at one point there’s a bar fight which was very well done) but there are also a few of Blizzard’s trademark spectacular pre-rendered cinematics for key plot points.

I really enjoyed the interplay between the missions and the “down time” on the ship: each mission gives you a new type of unit, some “research points” and some cash. The new unit is then available in all future missions and the research points and cash can be used to upgrade your units and hire mercenaries to help you. This adds another layer of customization to the game that worked really well.

Jim Raynor, Matt Horner and Tychus Findlay on the bridge of the Hyperion.

I also loved the variety of the actual campaign missions themselves. There are actually very few missions where you just build an army and destroy the enemy. There’s always something more going on. In one level, lava floods the low ground every few minutes. In another level, hordes of zombies attack you at night, and you have to hold the line until daybreak, when you can take the fight to them. The “hero” levels, where you just get a handful of special units to achieve your obectives, are really excellent too.

The story itself, like the story for the original Starcraft, is passable but not great. The problem with video game stories in general is that they exist primarily to get you to the next mission, so they are often not as developed as one might hope. Compared to most video games, Starcraft 2 has a very good story. Compared to most novels, it’s pretty weak. The writing is mediocre at times as well, with plenty of cliched lines and heavy-handed character development. But it gets the job done, and the fact that there are actual characters, and that they do develop a bit, is actually a great thing to see in a game!

The cantina. You can play some sweet tunes on the jukebox, or watch the latest amusing news broadcast from the Starcraft analog of Fox News.

A final aspect that I want to mention is the overall “feel” of the campaign. There was a certain Firefly-like “space western” vibe going on that I really enjoyed. This shows in everything from the (very good) in-game music, to the characters of Jim Raynor and Tychus Findlay (roughly analogous to Malcom Reynolds and Jayne Cobb in Firefly) to the jukebox on the ship that plays down-home favorites like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “A Zerg, A Shotgun and You“.

Bottom line, Starcraft 2 is a great game. The loving attention to detail that went into every aspect of the game is obvious. The campaign is full of really well-designed missions that lead you through several strands of an intertwining story to an exciting conclusion. The ability to customize your units between missions adds a nice dimension to the gameplay, as does the ability to interact with the various colorful (if blatantly stereotyped) characters on the ship.

And of course, once you’re done with the campaign, there are limitless hours of multiplayer fun to be had. You can work your way up the competitive ladder, or take advantage of the extremely powerful map editor that comes with the game and play custom maps made by other players, some of which are good enough to be separate games in their own right.

If that’s not enough, there are two expansions in the works. The campaign in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is strictly Terran (with a few protoss missions thrown in). Each of the two expansions will focus on one of the other races in the Starcraft universe. I don’t think there are release dates set for the expansions yet, but it’s pretty clear that Starcraft 2 and its expansions will be keeping us busy for a long, long time.


Some of the pre-mission loading screens are pretty awesome too.

What is a Gauss Rifle?

A couple weeks ago I took a look at railguns, how they work, and how the ones depicted in Starcraft 2 don’t look much like the real thing. This week I’d like to look at another favorite exotic gun in sci-fi video games: the gauss rifle. In Starcraft, the marines carry gauss rifles that act much like real-world assault rifles. In other games, like Fallout 3 and the Mechwarrior series, gauss rifles are a sniper weapon, used to do lots of damage at a distance with a single shot. So, what is a gauss rifle, really? And is it anything like those depicted in the games? Continue reading

What is a Rail Gun and How does it Work?

A swarm of diamondbacks fire their "railguns" at a train.

In the Starcraft 2 campaign, there is a unit called the “diamondback”. It’s a sort of hovertank, and it is useful for hunting down other vehicles because it is armed with dual “rail guns” that can fire while it moves. In the game, the rail guns are depicted as some sort of energy weapon: they fire hot blue beams at the target. This disturbed me because rail guns actually do exist, and they most certainly don’t fire blue energy beams!

So what’s a real rail gun and how do they work? I’m so glad you asked!

Continue reading

Understanding the Starcraft AI

Apologies for the lack of posts lately. You see, I didn’t properly plan my life around the release of Starcraft 2, so instead of being able to spend the weeks after the release playing the game and blogging here, I had to go get married and go on my honeymoon. I know, I know, I need to get my priorities straight.

The results of a typical AI battle in Starcraft: Brood War. The Protoss basically dominate.

Anyway, before I launch back into the Science of Starcraft, I thought I would share this post about the Computer Science of Starcraft over at Twenty Sided. You may be good enough at Starcraft to regularly beat the AI, but I’m not. I’m just too slow. So I was interested to hear the results of this experiment, where Shamus set up a map with seven AI players and a human observer, and ran it repeatedly, tabulating the results to learn a little more about how the AI ticks. He found (somewhat unexpectedly) that the computer was by far most effective with Protoss and worst with Terrans. He also has some interesting observations about how the AI uses special abilities like the Templar’s psi-storm agains human players and computer players:

I’ve come to suspect that the AI cheats a bit and detects clusters of units which have been grouped by hotkey by human players. This is very naughty if it’s true.

Anyway, it’s an interesting look at the AI of the original Starcraft. The custom map is even available to download if you want to try the experiment yourself!

Can Life Really Survive in Space?

A zerg swarm, silhouetted against some colorful nebulae as they cross the vacuum of space.

In Starcraft, the biological, hive-minded Zerg can survive and even thrive in the vacuum of space, while the more fragile humans (and presumably the Protoss) require some sort of space suit. So that got me wondering: How plausible is it for living organisms to be able to withstand the vacuum, extreme temperatures and high radiation levels of space?

Fist of all, I’m going to set aside how the Zerg fly around in space. That may be the subject of a future post. I’m more concerned with just the idea of a hydralisk standing on an exposed moon-like surface and not immediately freezing or suffocating or otherwise dying gruesomely. Continue reading

Force Fields and Plasma Shields

I was always a fan of the Protoss: super-advanced technology, powerful units, and those awesome plasma shields protecting everything from the lowliest probe to gigantic carriers. But I always wondered: could those force fields really work?

Well… Sort of.

It really depends on your definition of a force field and what you want to prevent from passing through. Electric and magnetic fields can exert forces on charged objects, so you could call those “force fields.” If you accept that definition, then there have actually been some NASA studies of how to use force fields on spacecraft and lunar bases.

One of the biggest problems facing human space exploration (aside from the politics) is that space is a dangerous place for humans. Even if we can launch people to Mars, there is a lot of radiation out there, both from the sun and from high-energy events out in the galaxy. That’s why two studies at NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (which has, sadly, been canceled due to lack of funding) looked into deflecting the radiation with electromagnetic shields. Continue reading

The Real Science of Starcraft 2

The Overmind

Well folks, it looks like I’m not the only one interested in the Science of Starcraft! The gaming site GamePro has a very interesting article taking a look at several aspects of StarCraft science, including teleportation, zerg in space, a hive mind, and hybrid species. They cover each topic pretty quickly but it’s still worth reading. But be sure to check back here! I’ll dig into those and other topics in a lot more depth.

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