Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Why religion?

Why religion?

Good question, and one that I don't have a good answer for. I suspect that there is no single answer, that the varies from culture to culture, from religion to religion, and naturally for individual to individual.

One problem that we have in discussing religion is that our mental model is overwhelmingly based on the one (and rarely two) religions we're familiar with: in the West, Christianity or Judaism. But while popular, the great monotheistic religion of the desert (judeo-christian-islam) is only one religion out of many.

At Dangerous Intersection, Erich Vieth warns against accepting uncritically simple explanations for religion that are based on stereotypes or outright falsehoods. For example:

The claim: Religion allays anxiety
Why it’s not true: It generates as much anxiety as it allays: vengeful ghosts, nasty spirits and aggressive gods are as common as protective deities.

Monday, July 30, 2007

More revelations about Pat Tillman

One year ago today I wrote about Pat Tillman, football star, who gave up his career and volunteered to join the army to defend his country, and died under suspicious circumstances.

One year on, and the story is darker, murkier and a lot more suspicious than it was back then.

  • Army doctors who examined his body suggest he was shot at close range in the head three times, probably by an American M16 rifle. Their attempts to have the death investigated were railroaded.

  • Army attorneys passed around emails congratulating each other for avoiding a criminal investigation.

  • A three-star general, who initially deceived the public about Tillman's death, told investigators seventy times that he couldn't recall details of his actions.

  • Tillman's personal diary has disappeared instead of being returned to his family.

  • His body armour and uniform was burnt.

  • And most suspicious of all, the Whitehouse has refused to release documents regarding the death of Tillman, claiming Executive Privilege.

If it were just an innocent, tragic case of friendly fire, why would the Bush administration make the documents secret?

The "forgetful" general was punished for his role in deceiving the public about Tillman's death: his retirement package, estimated at $10,000+ per month, was cut by $900 a month.

Was it an accident? A fragging of an unpopular atheist officer? It has been suggested that perhaps some of the men in Tillman's unit were involved in the opium trade, and he was killed because he wouldn't go along with it. Or was it more sinister?

Tillman made a great American Hero, the poster boy for the US Army: football star and patriot, he didn't wait to be drafted, he gave up safety and a massive salary to volunteer. With his chiseled good looks he could have been a real life Captain America.

Pat Tillman
But this Captain America was known to oppose the Iraq occupation, and was planning to campaign against President Bush in the 2004 elections, and had arranged to meet with Noam Chomsky as soon as he could leave Afghanistan. Instead of the poster boy for Bush's war becoming a political embarrassment, he became a hero to be buried. What a lucky coincidence that was for Bush Co.

More about Tillman on the DailyKos and on Wikipedia.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Feet of Clay versus Thud

If you pick two examples of genre fiction, it is usually not hard to pick out certain similarities. This goes especially for crime fiction, where the rules (or conventions, if you prefer) of story-telling are especially strong: there must be a crime, it must be investigated, and there must be a resolution of some sort. (Can you imagine a crime novel with no crime?)

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series includes a series of books about the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork and their evolution from a gang of drunken has-beens and never-weres, the laughing stock of the city, to something approaching a real police force -- in fact, something better than a real police force. (This is a fantasy series, after all.)

As the Night Watch sub-series has developed, the stories sometimes follow the conventions of the crime genre (although always with Pratchett's unique touch): they begin with a crime, or a series of crimes, which is investigated, and finally a resolution of sorts found.

Over on the Chronicles Network, a forum for science fiction and fantasy fans, the discussion turned to Thud!. One fan commented that the blurb seemed "very familiar" and that it seemed that Pratchett was just churning out the same story repeatedly, which led another fan to reply that it and the blurb for Feet of Clay "start exactly the same way."

That comment caught my eye. Exactly the same way? Judge for yourself.

    Koom Valley? That was where the trolls ambushed the dwarves, or the dwarves ambushed the trolls. It was far away. It was a long time ago.

    But if he doesn't solve the murder of just one dwarf, Commander Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork City Watch is going to see the battle fought again, right outside his office.

    With his beloved Watch crumbling around him and war-drums sounding, he must unravel every clue, outwit every assassin and brave any darkness to find the solution. And darkness is following him.

    Oh...and at six o'clock every day, without fail, with no excuses, he must go home to read Where's My Cow?, with all the right farmyard noises, to his little boy.

    There are some things you have to do.

    * * *

    Feet of Clay
    Who's murdering harmless old men? Who's poisoning the Patrician?

    As autumn fogs hold Ankh-Morpork in their grip, the City Watch have to track down a murderer who can't be seen.

    Maybe the golems know something - but the solemn man of clay, who work all day and night and are never any trouble to anyone, have started to commit suicide...

    It's not as if the Watch hasn't got problems of its own. There's a werewolf suffering from Pre-Lunar Tension. Corporal Nobbs is hobnobbing with the nobs, and there's something really strange about the new dwarf recruit, especially his earings and eyeshadow.

    Who can you trust when there are mobs on the streets and plotters in the dark and all the clues point the wrong way?

    In the gloom of the night, Watch Commander Sir Samuel Vimes finds that the truth might not be out there at all.

    It may be in amongst the words in the head.

    A chilling tale of poison and pottery.

So, let's see now... in Thud! there's a historical battle and a murdered dwarf and the threat of war and the following dark (whatever that is!), while in Feet of Clay there are murdered old men and a mysterious poisoner and an invisible killer stalking the streets while clay golems commit suicide. Oh yes, I can see that they're "exactly the same": both have a murderer in them.

Sheesh. Sometimes fans simply don't deserve the stories they get.


All joking aside, the photos and descriptions of lutefisk on Wikipedia make it seem actually appetizing. I'll eat olives prepared in lye, bitter greens and cheese so mouldy it practically bites back (sometimes in one meal!), so how bad could lutefisk be?

Friday, July 27, 2007

To the guy getting off the train

To the guy getting off the train this morning, complaining (with many a four-letter world) about having "dressed up" in a "shirt" all special-like, only for the weather to go cold... dude, that was no shirt, it was a tee-shirt. Shirts have buttons and a collar.

Monday, July 23, 2007

There are no stars!!!

Oh noes!!! There is no stars, the moon landing must have been faked on a sound stage!!1

Moon soundstage

Heh heh heh.

For the real reason there are no stars, see Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy site.

False awakenings

I'm interested in the various tricks our brain plays on us while we sleep. Actually, "tricks" is not the best description -- I think a better description for such things as sleep paralysis and night terrors would be "bugs", as in software bugs.

I've never experienced either of those, but I have -- once -- experienced false awakening. I awoke in my bed early one morning. Although my bedroom seemed completely normal, exactly the way it should, there was something wrong: a subtle, uncanny, terrifying sense of wrongness. Nothing that I could see, or hear, but I knew, I just knew with every fibre of my being, that there was something dreadfully wrong and terrifying. The feeling grew and grew until I felt that my heart would explode, and then I woke up, in my bed again.

Except, there was something wrong, and again I was flooded by an overwhelming sense of dread -- until I woke again, in my bed.

This happened no less than six times, and each time I was lucid enough to realise that the previous time must have been a dream, but never enough to realise I was still dreaming. Only after I woke for the sixth time did I actually wake and realise the entire experience was a dream.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli
The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781. See also here and here.

Sicko - Moore versus the media

Mike Moore's new movie, Sicko, takes aim at the American healthcare system, and by the look of it, the entire corporate media is closing ranks to defend the rotten system. Not just the conservative wingnuts who would argue if Moore said water was wet, but the (supposedly) liberal media like CNN. And Mike is taking aim right back at them.

PZ Myers points out that the supposed "facts" argued by CNN's hired-gun doctor differed from Moore's only by trivial amounts: e.g. the claim that Moore was wrong to say that Cuba spends $251 per person per year on health care when the "correct" figure is $229.

Now, honestly, figures like $251 and $229 have utterly spurious accuracy: it is beyond credibility that the government of Cuba, or any other country, knows medical spending down to the closest dollar. (The medical budget and the actual spending are only approximately the same.) Mathematically, I'd be surprised if we could do any better than round both of them to "about $240", give or take twenty dollars.

But that's not the most important point.

The important point is that even if CNN's hired gun was right, even if Moore's figures were wrong and his were correct, the US would be spending $6000 per year per person on health care to get results barely better than Cuba was for their $230. The US rates #37 in the world for the quality of health care, compared to Cuba #39. That's the scandal, and supposedly liberal CNN is trying to whitewash that by pedantically nit-picking on a few allegedly wrong numbers, as if a difference of a few dollars was really significant.

One of the comments on PZ's blog describes Mike Moore as "a propagandist, muck raker, and rabble rouser". I knew I liked the man. When society is broken, it takes a muck raker and rabble rouser to drag the sickness into the light. Another comment pointed out that one half of the one million bankruptcies in the US in 2000 were because people couldn't pay their medical bills. I expect the figure is even higher now.

One million bankruptcies per year is a frighteningly high figure, and one which casts a completely different light on the American Dream. That's a proportion of about one bankruptcy per 300 people. By comparison, Australia's bankruptcy rate is the highest since records began, at one per 800 people.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Plagiarism redux

Some time ago, I wrote about the ever-increasing extension of the term "plagiarism" to cover more and more behaviour, at least in the academic world. I just came across another example of this. Victoria University advises its English Lit students what to do if they discover that somebody else has already written about an idea they've had:

Your approach will never be precisely the same as the writer who has so irritatingly come up with the same idea, so you can stress the differences and acknowledge the other writer appropriately in your citations. Failure to do so constitutes a form of plagiarism, even if you honestly arrived at your conclusions independently.

No longer is plagiarism the deliberate attempt to pass off another person's work as your own. Now, according to macademia ("May Contain Nuts"), plagiarism can be the failure to cite works which had no influence on you because you didn't learn about them until after you developed your ideas.

In my opinion, the academic rules against plagiarism are less about preventing fraud and more about creating an insular in-group with rules of behaviour that outsiders simply don't understand. To outsiders, fraud has to be fraudulent to be fraud, and failing to say "by the way, this other guy had a similar idea, but it's different from mine" might be impolite and even incautious (in case others discover that work and wrongly imagine you copied it), but it isn't fraud in and of itself. But to macademics, such a failure to mention an irrelevancy is itself fraud.

If your mind boggles, its supposed to. It is no surprise that it is liberal arts departments that are prone to "scope-creep" of plagiarism and the application of other arbitrary rules. Like the rituals and secret handshakes of Freemasons, such practices are there to separate those who have passed the initiation from those who are merely smart and educated.

Friday, July 20, 2007

38 years ago today

On this day in 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin landed on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility to become the first human beings to walk on another astronomical body.

Apollo 11 East Crater

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Salad dressing at the airport

This is comedy gold: guy has a bottle of salad dressing confiscated at the airport, and he calmly retrieves it from the trash and carries it onto the plane:

Now, keep in mind this was a trash barrel full of highly dangerous liquids and gels! More than three ounces of this stuff could take down an entire plane, and I was standing next to gallons of it!

Questions about the deadly liquids flooded my mind: why would these be dropped into an ordinary trash barrel, and not a special explosion-proof containment unit? Why would they combine the hazardous liquids so carelessly? Most importantly, why would they leave a barrel of liquid dynamite right next to innocent American air travelers?

Monday, July 16, 2007

So fuzzy and cute

If all moths looked like this, they would be my favourite insects.

Fuzzy moth

Stencil graffiti

Stormtrooper stencil graffiti

Hamas in its own words

3quarksdaily quotes from a Hamas spokesman after they rescued kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston:

We did not deliver up Alan Johnston as some obsequious boon to Western powers.

It was done as part of our effort to secure Gaza from the lawlessness of militias and violence, no matter what the source. Gaza will be calm and under the rule of law — a place where all journalists, foreigners and guests of the Palestinian people will be treated with dignity. Hamas has never supported attacks on Westerners, as even our harshest critics will concede; [...]

Yet our movement is continually linked by President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to ideologies that they know full well we do not follow, such as the agenda of Al Qaeda and its adherents. But we are not part of a broader war. Our resistance struggle is no one's proxy, although we welcome the support of people everywhere for justice in Palestine.

Gay Marriage and the War on Terror

Thanks to that reasonable conservative, Jon Swift, two articles of the utmost importance:

  1. How the scourge of gay marriage has caused New York Mayor and Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani to cheat on his wife, and Louisiana Senator David Vitter to seek the services of "DC Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey:
    Rated 100% by the Christian Coalition for his pro-family voting record and his support of such issues as abstinence-only sex education, Vitter first went to Congress in 1999 when he was elected to fill the seat vacated by Speaker of the House Robert Livingston after it was revealed that Livingston, who had attacked Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky affair, had himself had extramarital affairs.

  2. According to conservative pundits, what the USA needs, more than anything else, is a really big, successful terrorist attack:
    According to Fumento all of those liberal New Yorkers who screamed when the World Trade Center collapsed were actually screaming with laughter. Who knew?

    In contrast to liberals' glee over the prospect of terrorist attacks in their hometowns, conservatives are all torn up about it, the way we are about wars that kill a lot of civilians and torture and other regrettable necessities. Unfortunately, there seems to be no other way of convincing people how wrong they were to vote for the Democrats and what a disaster it would be to leave Iraq.

White girl in the promised land

Elatia Harris, writing on 3quarksdaily, talks about her life as a white girl before the Civil Rights Movement, about being mistaken for a black child, and the latest attempt by the activist judges of the Bush Supreme Court to roll back the clock to a time where black children can be legally denied an education.

“You look like a sweet little girl,” she said to me. “But I need to know – are you a white girl?”

The sound I had been waiting for, my mother’s wheels crushing the gravel of the driveway, delivered me from any necessity to reply. Too bad the lady couldn’t get a good look at Mother, I remember thinking -- Mother, who was tall, blue-eyed, almost blonde, and beautiful enough that she commanded deference. I knew what would have happened to me, had I lacked the right answer in this country club where people like me -- my people -- never even wanted to belong: I would have been directed to wait outside, almost certainly at the back entrance, in the 100-degree heat that covered the city like a tight lid. I would not have had the same right to tolerable shelter that a white girl had, and no blue-eyed avenger would have come early or late for me.

As may be imagined, over the years I have considered this occasion differently. How complicit with the club lady was I? Would I -- who was plenty mouthy -- have found my tongue, if my mother had come later still? As I write this, I understand yet one more thing that was hidden from me then. The way the club lady fidgeted and flexed and left her office to look at me many times – until now, I have recalled that as guilty behavior: the lady had something ugly to say to me, and she didn’t want to do it. It is far more likely, however, that she was showing herself to me so that I’d be gone at the very sight of her, as a black child would have been cued to be gone. Important to her, too, would have been that club members coming and going would have seen not just me – a non-member to say the very least – but the brass, vigilant and battle-ready to shoo me. The lady was intimidating me; white beneath my tan, I had no reason to know it.

Geller versus YouTube

Second-rate magician and first-rate fraudulant psychic, Uri Geller, has been using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to censor skeptics who have been showing videos of his tricks on YouTube.

Clips censored by Geller include a slow-motion clip of him palming a magnet just before making a compass needle move, and his famous flop on the Johnny Carson Show when he was unable to perform when Carson provided his own spoons instead of Gellar's pre-prepared ones. (That's why I call him a second-rate magician -- a first-rate magician would have ad-libbed and done something.)

The DMCA is ripe for abuse, and leaves service providers like YouTube in the unfortunate position of being "copyright cops", removing material on no more basis than the say-so of somebody claiming to be the copyright owner.

Al Qaeda regrouping while clowns sing and dance

Some people simply don't care about the harm and suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people in the name of "helping them". Fair enough -- there are overlapping circles of care, and some people's circles don't extend out that far.

But even ignoring the harm to Iraq, one thing is absolutely certain: President Bush's unprovoked war on Iraq has harmed the West, directly, by allowing our real enemies the time and space to regroup, to recruit, to train, to learn new ways of attacking us.

While we're busy in Iraq, stuck in a completely unnecessary quagmire of our own making, the clowns supposed to be in charge of Homeland Security are trying to distract us from their incompetence with "gut feelings" of terrorist attacks.

As Les writes:

Could it be that we’re still vulnerable because we’re wasting time and money confiscating any bottle of liquid larger than 3oz at the airport while letting the bomb sitting next to it slip right on through? Could it be that we’re spread too thin fighting an illegitimate war in Iraq that we’ve allowed Al Qaeda to recuperate to almost full strength? You know, the group of people who are directly responsible for the destruction of the Twin Towers? How many of you remember how on December 14th of 2001 our so-called Commander and Chief vowed to bring in Bin Laden, dead or alive? It’s been almost 6 years since that vow, he only has about a year and a half left before he’s out on his ass. When does he plan to honor that vow? It’s the one promise he’s made that I’d really love to see him keep.

Sorry Les, didn't you get the news? Dubyah no longer cares about bin Laden, and hasn't for years.

"I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority." -- G.W. Bush, 13/03/2002

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Telling lies with statistics

    There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.
    -- attributed to Benjamin Disraeli.

I'm a great fan of Darrell Huff's perennially[1] best-selling How To Lie With Statistics. The title is deliberately ironic, as the book is really about how not to be be misled by the misuse of statistics.

One of the most egregious examples of seductively bad reasoning in economics is the Laffer curve, particularly as the central plank of Reagonomics and supply-side voodoonomics. Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal loves it (they know their audience...), as PZ Myers describes.

See also Brad DeLong, and Crooked Timber on throwing out outliers like Norway.

[1] Amusingly, this too is an example of lying with statistics. Back

Something to think about

(My first ever YouTube clip. Thanks to Les the Stupid Evil Bastard.)

PTerry and the baby mammoth

Is Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld fantasy novels, moonlighting as a biologist for the Russian universities? Judge for yourself:

Baby mammoth and Terry Pratchett
On the left, a Mystery Man inspects the well-preserved baby mammoth found frozen in the Russian permafrost. On the right, Terry Pratchett.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Doctors

Following up from the Doctor's girls and the Doctor's boys, mimi-na has given us all ten Doctors in one long image. Please visit her page to see the original, or go direct to the picture.

Or enjoy this remixed animated GIF:

Well, that bites. Blogger, it seems, deletes all the layers in animated GIFs except for the first. Boo hiss to them. Looks like I'll be looking for a image-or-file hosting service...

Update, 15/07/2007: And here's the animated GIF, thanks to free hosting by File Den. (Their Account Registration page sucks, but so far the rest of the service seems reasonable.)

The Doctors animated
Click for larger version; if the picture isn't animated, you'll need to tell your browser to allow animated images.

Update, 2007-11-12: oops, had a broken link there. Now fixed.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Doctor's night out with the boys

mimi-na from Deviantart, the artist responsible for the Doctor's Girls, has now got the Doctor and the boys down at the pub enjoying a few drinks:

Doctor's boys

(Click image for full view.)

From left to right:
  • Adric

  • Dr Harry Sullivan, Doctor 10 and Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart

  • Jamie McCrimmon, Captain Jack Harkness and Vislor Turlough

  • Ben Jackson, Ian Chesterton and Steven Taylor

  • The two tin dogs: K9 and Mickey Smith

Go to mimi-na's page to see the original in context, or straight to the full sized image.

By popular request, mimi-na has put up LJ icons of unobscured Ben, and what a young Doctor (before "borrowing" the TARDIS and running off to Earth) might have looked like.

Deleting items from the Firefox address bar

I just discovered a neat trick in Firefox: you can delete items from the address bar without messing about with about:config or editing the history.dat file.

John Bokma's blog has the details. I couldn't get it to work just by pressing Delete, but Shift-Delete works fine for me. Possibly it is a minor difference due to version numbers or one of Firefox's bazillions of configuration settings.

Zombie food pyramid

zombie food pyramid

It's important for zombies to eat a good balance of organ meats to remain in good health.

(Link to original source here. Well, when I say 'original', I mean original to me. You know what the Internet is like.)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Security in the Green Zone

Professor Juan Cole reports on the terrible security situation of the American Green Zone in Baghdad:

The Green Zone was originally supposed to be the safe place in Iraq, with the area outside it (everything else) called the "Red Zone." The US Embassy in Baghdad appears to have forgotten what the phrase "Green Zone" means, since a spokesman there told the LAT, "There's fire into the Green Zone virtually every day, so I can't draw any conclusions about the security situation based on that . . ."

Let me draw the conclusion. If you've got fire into the friggin' Green Zone every day, then we can draw the conclusion that the security situation in Baghdad sucks big time. When you've got people killed and a large number of people wounded in the one place in Iraq that was supposed to have a "permissive" security environment, then security in general is the pits.

(Emphasis in original.)

Mortar fire into the Green Zone is bad enough, but even worse is the fact that the Iraqi Police Colonel Mahmoud Muhyi Hussein, director of security in the Green Zone, was kidnapped. That requires significant insider knowledge.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Milk folklore

One of the more interesting pieces of folklore about cows milk is that skim milk is more fattening than regular, full-fat milk.

I've heard two different versions of this. The first doesn't try to explain how it is possible for milk minus the fat to be more fattening than milk including fat at all. There is no reason, skim milk "just is" more fattening. The so-called proof, to use the term laughingly, is that "farmers feed skim milk to pigs to fatten them". More likely they feed skim milk to pigs because (1) it is rich in vitamins and protein, and (2) it is cheap.

The second version seems a little more plausible. Skim milk is more fattening because it has added sugar to make it more palatable.

But is it true? To find out, I recorded the energy values, amounts of fat and sugar from four different brands of milk: Pauls full-fat milk, Woolworths "Lite" milk, Rev, and Farmdale UHT skim milk.

Energy value of milk
TypeEnergy/100mL (kJ)Total : Saturated fat (g)Sugars (g)
Full fat2713.6 : 2.34.8
"Lite"1931.4 : 0.95
Rev1911.3 : 0.84.9
Skim1500.1 : <0.15.3

As the above table shows, it simply isn't true that full-fat milk is more fattening than skim milk. Skim milk has just 55 percent of the calories of full-fat milk. It is true that it has a tad more sugars (10 percent more), but that is well and truly made up for by the drop in fat content.

(It isn't necessarily the case that the extra sugar has been added to the skim milk. It may be that the process of making skim milk has a side-effect of concentrating the milk sugars. Either way, the extra calories from the milk sugars are dwarfed by the calories removed by discarding the fat.)

Now, I suppose it is just barely possible that all the milk sellers are lying when they list the nutritional analysis of their products. A grand conspiracy of thousands of dairy farmers and milk boards and scientists, all over the world, just so they can fool people into thinking that taking the fat out of milk makes it more fattening.

Nah, I don't think so.

Where does folklore like this come from? As you can see, there is a tiny, almost microscopic kernel of, not truth but plausibility to the story. Skim milk has a smidgen more sugar than regular milk. Has the myth come about from mere confusion over this factoid? I don't think so.

Even now, long after skim milk has become respectable, it still has the tiniest little shadow of weenie, hippy-dippy effeminacy. Real Men don't drink "double-decaff skinny vanilla latte with a sprinkle of cinnamon". I don't think it is a coincidence I've only heard this myth from men, none of whom are the slightest bit concerned about counting calories. Nevertheless, they justify their unwillingness to drink skim milk or low-fat milk on the grounds that fat-free milk is more fattening.

This is conjecture, of course -- who knows why people believe the things they believe? -- but I strongly suspect that the myth allows them to justify an unconscious feeling that "only girls drink skim" as being health-consciousness (thank you Herr Doktor Freud). Or perhaps they just prefer the taste of regular milk, but feel that "fat" milk is too sinful, unless it is actually better for you. Or maybe they simply like the idea of being one of the Chosen Few who are smart enough to see through all the wicked advertising that fools everybody else.

If I knew why people believed things, I could put memetics on a solid scientific grounding.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Biology and science fiction

When it comes to science fiction, I try not to let shoddy science get in the way of enjoying a good story. Sometimes, though, the suspenders of disbelief are stretched past all credibility. But even if they don't quite snap, why have a good story with bad science if you can have a good story with good (or at least good-ish) science?

Biologist PZ Myer has a lament about physics snobbery, especially as it relates to science fiction. I feel his pain -- biology is much more complicated than physics. Rocket science? Bah! Getting a rocket to fly is easy compared to growing a kidney. So why do physicists and engineers treat biology as the soft option?

Biology professor Michael LaBarbera has a look at the biology of some classic sci-fi B-movies, and explains why the best weapon against giant ants would be a strong throwing arm with a house-brick, and why the giant octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea was so lethargic and passive. He also explains that Stephen Spielberg did a remarkable job of getting the biology of E.T. and Jurassic Park believable.

Truly alien aliens would probably make for truly boring stories, but I don't think it is asking too much of writers that they treat biology with at least as much care and respect as they do physics. (By Wodan's one good eye, that's little enough!) I'm not asking for total scientific realism -- where would SF be without faster than light travel, time travel, aliens that look like humans, and other fantasy elements? But it would be nice to see a little bit of plausibility in SF biology from time to time.

Colour of Magic the movie

It looks like it is official: Terry Pratchett's first two novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic are being filmed as a two-in-one movie. Following the success of Hogfather, SKY Network has apparently doubled the budget, which is a good thing because Hogfather occasionally suffered for its low budget, and The Mob's Vadim Jean is again directing.

Both novels are extremely lightweight, so it shouldn't be hard to turn the two of them into a single screenplay. Obviously a lot of scenes and characters are going to have to be dropped, but I can live with that. I do hope they manage to keep Hrun's speaking sword.

Details at this time are very thin on the ground, although rumour has it that Sir David Jason is going to play Rincewind. Sir David is a fine actor, and can play many roles wonderfully, but having him play Rincewind would be the second-most egregious example of miscasting ever. So let's hope the rumours are mistaken.

The most egregious example of miscasting ever, surely, is the suggestion that The 40 Year Old Virgin star Steve Carell should play Twoflower.

Although... [grits teeth] ... Japanese tourists were very much a 1980s thing, but clueless, obnoxious American tourists are an eternal truth. Maybe that makes a kind of sense?

Nah. The important thing about Twoflower is his child-like innocence. Who else should play Twoflower but Masi Oka?

Hiro and Ando(Click for larger image.)

As for Rincewind, I give my vote for Pirates of the Caribbean actor Mackenzie Crook. The man was born to play cowardly, moth-eaten, skinny anti-hero Rinso the Wizzard.

Ragetti the pirate(Click for larger image.)

Paul Kidby writes in his blog that he will have a cameo in the film. (That story hasn't been archived yet, but when it is, it will probably end up in the archive for June.)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

This is how computers were meant to look

The steampunk desktop (sans mouse). So much better than beige plastic.

Steampunk desktop

Steampunk LCD monitor and keyboard

(Click images for larger view.)

Instructions for making the keyboard are here and for the LCD monitor here.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

SFX Best Ten SF movies - part 2

Continued from Part One:

#5 The Matrix might not have invented bullet-time, but it certainly popularized it, and rightly so. Unlike the sequels, The Matrix hadn't yet devolved into a computer game, nor was it drowning in Zen psycho-babble and Dickian mysteries, although the early warning signs of wankery were there. But it was visually impressive, had an exciting plot, and didn't let the Zen philosophy get in the way of a rollicking good story. My rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

#4 Planet of the Apes. I speak not of the recent remake, which was abominable and entirely without merit: the ridiculous interspecies marriages, the pointless and nonsensical "shock ending", the absurd battle scene where knuckle-walking gorillas out-raced horses. But the original was an entirely different thing. The shock ending of the original was, at the time, actually shocking and not just stupid. Viewed as a mere action SF movie, Planet of the Apes was quite good by the standards of the late sixties, and I believe it has held-up well even by today's standards. But it actually had something serious to say about humanity, self-destruction, and what it means to have the shoe on the other foot. Even after losing points for getting the psychology of the great apes so badly wrong (it should have been the chimpanzees who were the killers, and the gorillas the tree-hugging peace-nics) I give the movie a better-than-average rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

#3 Blade Runner is a movie that polarises both SF fans and critics into those who love it and those who hate it. If all you've seen is the Director's Cut, I can understand you hating it: Ridley Scott managed to take a movie already easy to dislike, and make it more pretentious, unengaging and confusing. I often say that unless you've seen the original, you won't be able to make head or tail of the Director's Cut. But the original is a spaceship of a different engine: although it is slow-paced and quite dark, it also has a harsh, dystopian beauty, and explores a number of literary themes. Being based on a Philip K Dick story, naturally it questions what it means to be human, but in this case it does it well, unlike (for example) the awful Screamers. The sound track, by Vangelis, is hauntingly beautiful, and the rooftop death-scene of the Replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer), dying in the rain, is both haunting and wonderful. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

#2 Star Wars is one of the most loved and most viewed movies of all time, not just science fiction, but across all genres. It is a wonderful, innocent, rollicking good adventure -- more space opera than science fiction, but it did more than anything else before it to make science fiction acceptable to the mainstream. Yes, Star Trek may have paved the way, but Star Wars build an interstate superhighway. George Lucas virtually created modern special effects, and if some of the effects don't look quite so seamless in 2007 as they seemed in 1977 when we saw them for the first time, who cares? Star Wars was, when you get right down to it, merely Flash Gordon with state-of-the-art special effects and a marginally better script. The movie barely had an original line in it: Lucas copied, sometimes scene-for-scene and even word-for-word, from Japanese samurai movies, Flash Gordon serials, The Dam Busters, Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and even Nazi propaganda films. But it was done with such panache and style, and it contained so many memorable characters, that the movie goes beyond its origins as a homage to the Saturday afternoon serials. My rating: 4 1/2 out of 5.

#1 If Star Wars invented the "used future" SF movie, Serenity made it real: You Will Believe A Spaceship Can Fly. Far from space opera, Serenity combined characters you can believe in and care for with a fantastic story. It contains Joss Whedon's trademarked clever use of language, humour, tragedy and action. I don't always agree with Orson Scott Card, but on this, I agree one hundred percent: Serenity is a great movie. It explores questions of sin and belief, paternalistic government, and the freedom to make choices, whether good or bad -- and without the over-powering shadow of Uncle God that too often gives inane answers to these questions. My rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5.

Fantastic Four 2

Mrs Impala and I just saw Fantastic Four Two. Sorry to damn it with faint praise, but the best I can say for it is that it is not bad. Consider it an hour or so of moderately fun sci-fi comic book entertainment, and nothing more. The SFX for the the Silver Surfer were a huge win, but otherwise nothing really stood out as, um, outstanding.

However, I do wish to make a complaint. There are something like 6,300,000,000 people in the world who are not Americans (by which I mean people from the USA, my apologies to all you other Americans, like the Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians, etc.). Quite a few of us watch movies, and many of us are sick and tired of seeing American movie makers, even in comic book movies, treating the rest of the world as America's backyard.

Case in point: the UK government might have a "special relationship" with the USA, they might be allies, but even the British would feel rather miffed if the American military flew into the centre of London and started a military operation without mentioning it to the authorities. At least put a token British officer in the helicopter with the troops!

And again, what's with the American military base in Siberia? The same Siberia which is part of Russia, which has little friendship for the USA, especially after Bush Co essentially slapped Putin in the face after he put out the hand of friendship. Now, I personally think Putin is a murderous thug living up to his past as a KGB agent, but for good or bad he is President of a proud nation with great natural resources and a lot of nuclear weapons.

I'm not concerned that the Russians will take offence of a silly movie and start a war over it, or anything like that, but it is an example of cultural imperialism and the American arrogance and utter contempt for anything that isn't U-S-A. The movie makers could have been a secret military base in Alaska, or even in the Arctic. But Russia? That's like having a movie about a rock band where the lead guitarist plays the guitar by hitting the strings with drum sticks, and expecting the viewers not to notice. It isn't hard to get these things right, or at least "right enough". But the truly frightening thing is that, more likely than not, 90% of American audiences will not only have not noticed the problem, but wouldn't understand it if it was pointed out to them. When your country is the whole world, why shouldn't you have military bases anywhere you like?

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