Reflections on The Martian

(Why doesn’t WordPress allow italicizing in the title?)

About 48 hours ago, I watched The Martian. I almost cannot express how immensely I enjoyed the film.

Some of you may know that I have three favorite movies, of which I can’t really decide which among the three I appreciate the best (the one to which people respond “Yessss.”, the one to which people respond “Ooooohhh.”, and the one to which people respond “What?”). The Martian is in a place where I’m unsure if those are my favorite movies anymore and instead The Martian singularly takes that place.

I was actually pretty sure that was where my opinion is ending up through the first half of the film, and felt its quality slightly tapered as it neared its end. Now, I think there’s still a good chance it actually is my favorite film, but I need to wait to see if it remains that way in my opinion in a few days, since I could still be surging on just-watched hype.

What was I not that much a fan of later on in the film? I found that the plot went through too many incredible heightenings of tension. I don’t have a very high tolerance for suspension of disbelief, and get disappointed by lack of acknowledgement of probable realistic outcome when too many things go wrong and things end up actually going well without a good explanation. Many action movies have their plot enter too improbable a state for the good outcome to happen, and especially when one is reasonably anticipating a good outcome, this generates, at least for me, not excitement but incredulity. The latter portion of this film poked a bit far into this territory, though I’d acknowledge it could have been a lot worse.

The video-diary-like entries were curiously reminiscent of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Quality humor helped solidify a dubious but piquing connection. Does Matt Damon look that much like Neil Patrick Harris? No, although I’m more face-blind than most people. Okay, so I can be fairly sure I’m not just using physical comparisons and there’s something connecting things on a deeper level?

I approve of the care to get substantial amounts of science right. There were still questionable and incorrect aspects, and I wish they didn’t happen, but the respect for science in the film was definitely appreciable. I also think this film exhibits a rare case of relatively approvable portrayal of nerdy people.

Here’s a big thing I appreciated: minimal romance. I find that far too many films decide that a romantic plot is a requirement for a good movie, and push romance into a storyline that could have been perfectly nice (and sometimes better) without.

There was one thing that bothered me, though, and it’s analogous to one of the things that bothered me the most about biographical film Theory of Everything. The letter board with colors presented to Hawking in the film grouped Y and Z in one square and put more letters in other squares. This is quite easily recognizable as suboptimal: squares with fewer letters should have more common letters, to optimize efficiency of selection by reducing number of actions needed to communicate intent. In fact, I’m pretty sure that at the number of different squares that board had, E should’ve had one square all to itself, because E is so common that it ought to just take that short of an amount of time to express it.

Likewise, when Watney chose to set up the signs around the circle in hexadecimal, he solved a problem with arc length being too small, but my hunch is that the letter groupings by hexadecimal weighted by frequency are not even, and thus it is questionable whether hexadecimal is the right way to compress the alphabet in that communication medium. With 17 signs around the circle like Watney had, it would’ve been substantially more efficient to dedicate one entire sign to characters like a space, e, t, and s, and to either group very rare letters together since it’s probably easy to guess which one fits, or have a sign that’s like a shift key for the next character that chooses among rarer letters redistributed over the signs.

But hey, this is just a you-could’ve-done-better. Major props, Mr. Watney, for surviving as long as you did on Mars.

And overall, big thumbs up to this really great film.

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on The Martian

    1. None of them have all five vowels in the title, but two of them have four. The one which doesn’t have four has no vowels in one of its words.

  1. I think optimizing the letter distribution on Hawking’s letter board (disclaimer: I haven’t watched that movie) makes a lot more sense than optimizing the nybble distribution on Watney’s circle. With such a low-throughput communication channel, there is already a lot of room for optimization after getting it to work. I think the 17th sign was probably suboptimal, but it’s possibly useful for indicating error in transmission.

    In highly compressed, telegraphic speech, I am skeptical that giving special status to the letters you mentioned would actually be more useful. Many spaces and vowels can be omitted without harming comprehensibility; you don’t need the space or the E to parse “HOWALIV”. In general speech, the articles “the” and “a” are prime candidates for omission; some others like “to”, “are”, “and”, and “at” are readily shortened into “2”, “R”, “&”, and “@” using ASCII symbols (even perhaps if they occur as substrings or phonetic substrings of other words); forms of the copula can likely often be replaced with “=”. I’m not sure what the letter frequency is after these substitutions, but it’s quite possibly not the intuitive one. And you can actually get around spaces entirely if you CamelCaseYourMessages. (…now I’m disappointed they didn’t do that.)

    In fact, if you want a strong variable-length encoding that optimized for common letters, the nybbles A and E were already available; since the high bits of ASCII characters aren’t set, it wouldn’t be ambiguous to parse either a byte below 0x80 or a single A or E.

    The point is that this mode of communication, while probably suboptimal, is not easy to optimize and premature optimizations run the risk of actually making things worse. (“Root of all evil” and all that sound familiar?) And since the communication channel would never have been used for a long time and had a time-critical purpose, any fixed costs incurred (time spent) in optimizing the encoding matter. I don’t think they necessarily should have tried to improve the protocol.

    1. Presumably, Mark could use some sort of Huffman code, but deriving one and accurately relaying to to NASA is probably beyond the expertise of a botanist-mechanical engineer. I would also point out that sticking to hexadecimal ASCII increases the chance for NASA to figure out what Mark is trying to do. In the end, simplicity probably trumps the marginal speedup of a more efficient encoding, especially when “readable by a human” is an important criterion.

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