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Friday, February 27, 2015

Things I Learned in Costa Rica

Last week I was in Costa Rica.  Here's a quick (visual) run down of what I learned

This is where Costa Rica is.
No, seriously.  I didn't know until I got on the plane.

Zip lining isn't all that exciting.  Also, the outfit you wear squeezes your testicles until they are roughly the shape of bananas.
It's pretty much the same outfit you wear while skydiving.
Costa Ricans have a serious smoking problem.  These are actual packs of tobacco products (mostly cigarettes) with legally required pictures of cancerous mouths, women undergoing chemotherapy, and a few other choice images.
One form of tobacco is made of dead frogs.

"And this cigarette cures impotence!"
And yet, Costa Ricans smoke.

Special Bonus Wisdom: Cream soda is made from pineapples, bananas, lemons, and grapefruit.
It has to be true.  They wouldn't put it on the label if it wasn't!
This last bit of knowledge comes from the lollipops I gave my kids during takeoff and landing to help them deal with change in pressure.  Anyone in the cream soda (or lollipop) business want to explain how they get cream from a pineapple?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Trek Film Abrams Should Have Made

"Why don't they remake bad movies instead of good ones?"
-Someone I thought was Roger Ebert, but I can't find the quote so I'll just attribute it to everyone on the internet.  Everyone.

JJ Abrams directed Star Trek: Into Darkness, which was a terrible movie made worse because it ripped off Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  I could go on and on about how terrible a movie it was, but I already did that once.  Instead, I'm going to go on and on about The Trek Film Abrams-

Huh?  You read the title already?  Oh, fine.

While watching the beautiful snooze fest that is Star Trek: The Motion Picture I was struck with an idea; why didn't Abrams rip off this movie instead of Wrath?  He could have done wonders with the pacing and soporific nature of that movie.
And its lack of lens flares.
But Khan is such a popular character, Abrams wouldn't be able to resist using him.  What if he used both!  And behold!  A new film treatment.  We'll call it

Star Trek: Into Light
A giant energy cloud is destroying everything in its path, including planets.  It barrels through the Klingon Empire (leaving them weak and vulnerable). 

Several admirals want to take the opportunity to invade the Empire, but just as a group of starships embark, they realize the cloud is headed towards Earth.  The fleet tries to communicate, but are destroyed, leaving only the Enterprise to save the day.  Kirk is given a mission to figure out how to stop it.  He takes the Enterprise, which has a new XO he's not comfortable with (although they grow close over time) and Dr. Carolyn Markus, a theoretical physicist (whom he grows incredibly close to).
If you know what I mean.
As they approach the cloud, Dr. Carolyn Markus invents a doomsday weapon that could destroy the cloud.  The XO attempts to dissuade her, but she insists on presenting it to the captain.  The XO, revealing himself to be Khan (in the employ of rogue Admirals who want him to try to direct the cloud at the Romulan Star Empire), picks her up with one hand and throws her against the wall, killing her.

Kirk, devastated, starts a crazed investigation through the ship to find the murderer.  His behavior allows Khan (and his compatriots seeded throughout the ship) to mutiny.  When they reach the cloud, Khan successfully communicates with it, and the ship is pulled in.  He then reveals he isn't planning on directing the cloud to follow Starfleet's whims, but use it to rule the galaxy.

Kirk manages to regain the Enterprise, but not before Khan escapes to the center of V'Ger.  Khan is horrified to find that it isn't a massive weapon of war, but a machine with the mind of a child, yearning to merge with its creator to become "something with a soul."  Khan tries to merge with V'Ger, to become godlike in power, but V'Ger finds his soul horrifying.  V'Ger, its hopes of becoming something more dashed, self-destructs with Khan trapped inside.

The Enterprise barely gets away in time, but an alien probe arrives, following V'Ger's path.  They discover it's looking for humpback whales.  Kirk is forced to launch Markus's doomsday weapon at it.  Meanwhile, the Klingons have killed their own chancellor and framed Kirk for the crime.  Fearing their vengeance, he flees with the Enterprise beyond the Great Barrier.  There he finds out that God is really the V'Ger/Khan hybrid-

Too much?

Okay, not my best effort, but better than Into Darkness.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Harry Potter is a Selfish Prick

I'm going to complain about Harry Potter.  Yes, I've done it before.  Yes, I'm going to spoil the book The Deathly Hallows.  Yes, it's about eight inches long.

What?  I mean the new iPad!
Oh, sorry, what was I talking about?  Right, Harry Potter.

The focus of Book 7 is the eponymous Deathly Hallows: three unusually powerful magic items destined to be mastered by Harry.  Why?  Uh, it's never really explained.  He's just destined to be that guy.  Stop asking questions.

The magic items are:
  • A magic cloak of invisibility. 
    He uses the invisibility cloak several times during the series to (gasp) turn invisible.  Why is it so much more powerful than other invisibility cloaks?  It's bigger and it doesn't wear out.  Much like me.
  • A stone that can bring back the dead, but only kinda, so you can talk to them but that's about it. 
    He uses the stone to see his dead loved ones who help him to die in the right time and so not die because he's really a Christ figure and you're asking questions again, aren't you?  Stop it!  Stop.
  • A wand that is "unbeatable" (like mine). 
    He uses the super wand to repair his old, broken wand.  How is it unbeatable?  Well, you can't defeat anyone using it.  Except Dumbledore, who defeated Grindlewald.  How?  I don't know!  What did I say about asking questions?!

Harry decides he doesn't need to keep all the Hallows; he just keeps the cloak.

What. A. Total. Dick.
Never thought I'd be the nice one, did you?
Wait, you don't see it?  Really?  Okay, I'll write this real slow so you can follow: what if someone else needs them?

What if someone else broke a wand?  What if someone else had to make a noble sacrifice?

J.K. Rowling tries to make an excuse for tossing off the wand by saying it's a curse.  He has to hide it away in Dumbledore's grave or else people will try to kill him for it.  There's only two problems with that:
  1. Harry becomes an auror, meaning he goes off and fights bad guys for the rest of his life (because he hasn't had enough of that as a kid).  People are bound to try to kill him anyway.
  2. He tells Voldemort the secret of the wand in front of everyone at Hogwarts.  Everyone knows they can just disarm Harry and go dig it out to master it.

"Just don't tell everyone they just have to disarm me to win it! Okay?  Should I say that again?!"
In any case, he never thinks "Hm, I needed it once, what about other people?  What if I secretly gave it to Olivander so he could make everyone's wands super powerful?  Think of all the good that would do!"

That's not the worst part.  The worst part is the stone.  The magic stone brings his loved ones back to help him through the toughest decision in his life, his own death.  When he's done with it, what does he do?  Does he save it so it can be used by people trying to reconnect to their lost loved ones?  Does he hand it to someone else facing a difficult decision?  Does he think about anyone else?  No.  He throws it away, leaving it lost in the forest.

What does he keep?  The invisibility cloak.  What use is an invisibility cloak now that he doesn't have to sneak around a school?  None.

Harry just assumes he's the only one who will ever need the Hallows.  Fuck all you with broken wands, uncurable diseases, lost loved ones, difficult decisions.  He's got his cloak and can go sneak into girls locker rooms whenever he wants.

Of course he uses it to sneak into locker rooms!  What did I say?  Harry's a dick.
"Wow!  Look at Romilda Vane!"

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Blame Star Trek for the Measles Outbreak

As measles, which used to kill hundreds of children every year before we eradicated it, comes roaring back, America is trying to find a scapegoat.  Time for a multiple choice quiz.  Why aren't parents vaccinating their kids? 

Is it the fault of:
a. The doctor who published the fraudulent paper linking the MMR vaccine and autism?
b. Jenny McCarthy who publicized it?
c.  Pharmaceutical companies who failed to explain the science and necessity of vaccines? 
d. Star Trek?
If you picked d, you've obviously read the title of this post.  Let me explain why, though.

And it's not because Kirk has space herpes.
Science is hard.  Really, really hard.  You may think learning the clarinet is hard, but that's just peanuts to science.  Listen...*

Students doing sciency things in a science library. Science
If you want to even begin to understand science, you have to not only be smart, but determined.  There are hundreds of books on the narrowest of scientific disciplines.  That doesn't count journals, papers, conferences, and all the other little bits you have to get to understand it.  Almost nobody but the most intelligent and studious men and women go into science as a career, building up the storehouse of human knowledge.

Shouldn't they all be in yellow?
A few of them try to explain science to the rest of us.  It doesn't usually work.  Sure, you took chemistry and physics in high school, but you probably only remember a few bits of terminology here and there.

That's the problem.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing as Alexander Pope said.  I bet you don't remember him.  Ha!  Science isn't the only thing we lose from High School.  Anyway, many people think they know something when they don't.

They vaguely remember Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle and decide nobody can never know anything.  They hear about the butterfly effect and think a butterfly really can cause a storm or change the whole world.  Some scientist theorizes cold fusion and they put it in a terrible movie.

A terrible, terrible movie.
Speaking of Star Trek...

Star Trek is responsible for popularizing science to a lot of the general public.  People learned about antimatter, computers, robotics, subspace, and wormholes.  Of course, Star Trek is a fictional show and the science has to fit into the framework of the story.  Transporters, for example, will probably never be invented.  Sometimes they had to make up science-sounding explanations to justify their stories.

They invented technobabble.  Some examples:

The writers of Star Trek realized you can make anything SOUND reasonable if you throw sciencey words in.  A lot of Here's one of mine from my book, Pinhole
“Instead of using gunpowder to make an explosive charge to suddenly and forcefully propel a bullet, a gauss pistol uses a string of electromagnets coiled along the barrel. As each magnet in the coil charges, it silently pushes the bullet along, turning it, and adding velocity. When the bullet passes the last magnet in the coil and leaves the barrel, it has achieved approximately the same speed and spin as a bullet from a traditional, gunpowder-based gun, but without the noise and the smoke.”
I have no idea if any of that would work in real life.  I just had an idea in my head and threw in the words electromagnets, coil, and gauss to make it sound reasonable.

Turns out I'm not the only one who uses technobabble to make myself sound reasonable.  We have movies (masquerading as documentaries) that use it to convince audiences of their spiritual views.  We have television personalities who use it to sell snake oil.
And we have the antivaxxers.  Here's a quote from a very-well written antivax site:
"They [babies] also are born with their immune systems in a “special” mode. If their immune systems were like normal adults or older children, then their mothers’ bodies would reject them as foreign. Their immune systems don’t come out of this special mode until at least 6 months, and some think not until 2 years (and every illness or vaccination overwhelms the immune system because it is unable to react properly, which delays this switch to normal functioning, and can eventually prevent it, leaving the child immuno-compromised).  What all of this means is that anything that is injected into a small child can pass the blood-brain barrier and can potentially cause neurological damage."
Compare that to Star Trek's:
"A few months ago I was running a neural scan and noticed some anomalous protein readings. I thought there must be some mistake, so I ran an amino acid sequence to be sure. But there it was again, the prion mutation rate had spiked. I couldn't believe it. It meant the anomalous proteins had to have a strong quantum resonance."
What's the difference between these two examples?  Well, one is complete bullshit and the other was a television show.  Also, neither of the people who said or wrote them said "Is that backed up by peer-reviewed academic journals?" or "Aren't you cherry picking data and misinterpreting facts?" or "Seriously, dude, do you hear the shit coming out of your mouth?"

And that's why measles is resurging.  When the next child in the United States dies (it killed over 15 million children in 1980, but not in the US because we were vaccinated), we can write "technobabble" as the cause of death.

*42 bonus points if you get the reference.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sherlock Deductions

Life is too short to re-watch a television show.  Well, unless it's Sherlock.

If you're not familiar with the show, it's a British drama that modernizes Conan Doyle's famous mysteries.  It's brilliantly written and popular enough to make Benedict Cumberbatch famous.  I've been re-watching episodes of Sherlock over the past few weeks.  It's good to distract myself from all the working out I do.

Before and after pictures of me.
Anyway, one of the famous bits about Sherlock Holmes (that they do brilliantly in the show) is his ability to observe people and deduce things about them.  I always liked those parts, so I tried to write one.  Here goes:


               SHERLOCK, churlish, stands looking out a window at the street
               below.  WATSON sits in his chair, pretending to read the
               paper but secretly watching Sherlock.

               Finally, John can't take the tension anymore.

                         Look, is this still about the

               Sherlock turns from the window, but says nothing.

                                   JOHN (CONT'D)
                         I just moved it to a different

                         I put my scarf there every night.

                         I moved it three inches to the

                         "A place for every thing and
                         everything in its place."

                         Now you're quoting American
                         ministers at me?  You must be

                         Sometimes even the Church gets
                         things right.

               Sherlock crosses the room and sits in his chair.

                                   SHERLOCK (CONT'D)
                         You're doing this one.


                         New client coming up the stairs. 
                         You're doing it this time.

                         What?  No.

                         "Stop showing off, Sherlock."
                         "Nobody is impressed by your parlor
                         tricks, Sherlock."

                         Christ sake, I moved it one hook

               There's a knock at the door.

                         Come in.

               Chris, wrapped in a thick coat, hat, and gloves enters.  He
               has a raspy, but high voice.

                         Mr. Holmes?  (He nods.)  I'm Chris
                         Shenwick. I was wondering if you
                         could help me.  I have...  I have a

                         Do sit down.

               Chris opens his coat, revealing a large chest, but slight

                                   SHERLOCK (CONT'D)
                         No, stop.  Don't remove your gloves
                         or hat just yet.  Please sit down
                         and let my colleague Dr. Watson
                         deduce what he can about you.


               Chris smiles.

                         Oh, I've heard about this.  You're
                         famous for figuring things out
                         about a person by the way they sit
                         and the like.

                         Yes, only I'm training my assistant
                         in it.  It's much like the animal
                         trainer at a circus would teach a
                         poodle to juggle, only instead of
                         doggie treats I reward John by
                         doing the washing up.

                         You never do the washing up.

                         Which gives you some idea of how
                         well it's going.

               John crosses his arms, angrily.

                         Oh, come on, please.  I was looking
                         forward to it.

               Sherlock waits.  John gives in.

                             (whispering to Sherlock as
                              he gets up)
                         You could have just moved it back!

               John walks over to Chris.  He leans forward, examining his
               face closely, inhaling deeply.  He steps back and tilts his
               head from side to side, looking at him one way and then
               another.  Finally he backs up and sits down next to Sherlock.

                         Well?  What do you observe?

                         Chris is pale, has very little
                         facial hair apart from a wispy
                         moustache, and walks with a wide
                         gait.  His chest is unusually
                         large, while the rest of him is
                         slim.  He smells of whiskey, which
                         covers the faint aroma of perfume,
                         a woman's perfume. 

                         Good, good.  So, what can you

                         Chris hit puberty late.  I'm
                         guessing he's around 15. Judging
                         from the wideness of his stance,
                         and how much he works out his
                         chest, I'm guessing-


                         Deducing he's trying to act older,
                         more masculine.  It obviously
                         works, as he was able to buy
                         whiskey and, judging from the
                         perfume, gain the attentions of a

               Chris's eyes are wide with shock.  Sherlock smiles thinly.

                         That's good.  Very good.  However,
                         you completely missed the razor.

                         Razor?  (to Chris) You've got a

                         No, Occam's Razor.  It's a
                         theoretical concept.  In lay terms,
                         it means "the simplest answer is
                         usually correct."

                         I don't-

                         Woman's perfume. Slightly wider
                         hips.  No facial hair.  Miss
                         Shenwick, would you mind removing
                         your hat?


               Chris removes her hat, revealing a cascade of long, brown

                                   JOHN (CONT'D)
                         Oh.  Oh my God.  I am so... So

               Chris touches her upper lip self-consciously.

                         I didn't get around to waxing this

                         And that is why our dishes are so
                         sparkly clean.

                         Chris.  Short for Christine.

                             (slightly pleased)
                         You really think I'm slim with a
                         big chest?

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Future Is Now

As we all know, in the movie Back to the Future (Part 2), the main characters travel to the future to...


I dunno.  Something about Lea Thompson getting breast implants.  The last two movies were weak on plot.
Anyway, the interwebs are all aflutter with talk of what BttF2 (there's an embarrassing acronym) got wrong.  No, we don't have flying cars, holograms, or electronic Ronald Reagans serving drinks at bars.  Don't give up hope, though, we do have some pretty amazing things:

We have a permanent space station.

No, not that cool one.  This one that looks like something you'd use to till your garden.

We're experimenting with warp drive.

Although, it's based on the theory there's something called "exotic matter" which we haven't discovered or proven to exist yet.  Also, it's called the Alcubierre drive, so people will be flying around at 3 Alcubes instead of Warp Factor 3.
I'm brilliant, but have a lame name.
Yeah, not nearly as cool.  If anyone has Mr. Alcubierre's phone number, can you call and ask him to change his last name to Warp?  Thanks.

There's 3d printers and games that watch you move instead of using controllers and ubiquitous pornography and internets and cell phones.  Those aren't all that surprising.  You go back in time to the 1950s and tell them you can ask a question into your phone and get an answer back and they'll shrug and point at a library.

No if you really want to blow their minds, tell them about milk and eggs.  Yeah, go back and read that again.  Milk and eggs.

Dig this: we can store milk at room temperature for weeks and still drink it safely.  I know, right?!  Sounds crazy.  However, there are these things called tetra packs.  They're just pasteurized milk in a cardboard box, but they're still safe to drink.
Still creepy if you think about the animal it came from, though.
There's something even crazier: pasteurized shell eggs.  Yeah, the name is a little strange.  For a while, I was confused.  Are they pasteurized inside the shell?  Are the shells pasteurized but not the rest of them?  Are they eggs in pasteurized bullets?

It seems there's this one company that takes eggs, puts them in a warm water bath to kill off the salmonella and BAM!  Eggs that last 67 days in the refrigerator and you can eat raw.
Mmmm!  Albumen.

Remember when you could make a cake or cookies and lick the beaters?  You can do that again!  Without vomiting and being admitted to a hospital!*

Take that Star Trek!
Maybe the yellow cubes are raw yolk.

If you went back in time to the 1950s and tell them we can drink warm milk and eat raw eggs they'd...  Well, they'd probably take a long drag on their cigarettes on their asbestos cigarette holders and say "We do that all the time."

Never mind.

* Unfortunately, PSE's (a better acronym than BttF2) aren't available everywhere and the company's website is out of date, but if you call them they're more than happy to point you to a nearby store that sells them.  And they'll send you coupons.  They're nice guys.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Science Fiction is D&D

Something always bothered me about science fiction shows and movies.
  • No, not the fact that they only became popular after special effects improved
  • No, not because they became stupid, testosterone-fests after they became popular
  • No, not because they've lost their imaginative, hopeful, roots.
  • No, not because...
Well, yes, okay, all of those.  This week, however, I want to talk about how all the races are D&D character classes.

This might take a moment.  Bear with me.
Or, you know, bare with me.  That works, too.
Dungeons and Dragons has five basic types of characters:
  • Fighters  Big guys who like to fight. 
  • Magic UsersMagic guys who like to magic.
  • ThievesSneaky guys who steal things.
  • ClericsHoly/healy guys who help.
What I noticed after years of watching science fiction shows and movies that the alien/magical races all tended to fall into those classes.  Every show has a tough, warlike race; a mystical race with godlike powers, an underhanded sneaky race, and a peaceful/holy race devoted to others.

Below is a chart I made to illustrate my point.  I'm including Lord of the Rings because it inspired DnD, so you could make the argument everything is copying it.  I'm not making that argument, but if you want to, I Can Write Funny is here.

Magic User
Star Wars
Star Trek
Babylon 5

Dear science fiction television and film makers: come up with something new.  That is all.