Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why is Marvin Lewis Still the Bengals' Head Coach?

I understand that Lewis, in getting his contract extension on January 4th, got a huge assist from the at-that-time-impending NFL lockout. Keeping your eight-year veteran head coach and assuring yourself some organizational stability in the face of a possibly shortened offseason must've looked much better to owner Mike Brown than hiring a new guy at the wrong time. But why have the Bengals kept a guy who's never been that successful?

Here are the records from Marvin Lewis's eight seasons as Bengals head coach, in chronological order: 8-8, 8-8, 11-5, 8-8, 7-9, 4-11-1, 10-6, 4-12. He's 0-2 in the playoffs. Total record is 60-69-1, counting playoffs.

In addition, the Bengals have been sort of a perennial joke for three reasons: their players' willingness to mouth off to the media, the team's willingness to pick up 'troubled but talented' players who've had run-ins with the law (example: Tank Johnson, Terrell Owens, Pacman Jones, Cedric Benson), and the Bengals' own arrest record. They apparently lead the NFL in arrests during the 2010 season, including 22 during Lewis's tenure.
Also, snake wrangling.
So I'm kind of wondering, why exactly do the Bengals keep Lewis around? Why have they been satisfied with two winning records in nine years? I'm speaking as a Packers fan, and we generally have high expectations for our head coaches (the '70s and '80s notwithstanding). When Ray Rhodes posted an 8-8 record in his first year, 1999, he was fired the next year. When Mike Sherman's team crashed into 4-12 after four straight years of 10+ win seasons and playoff appearances, he was fired instantly. Lewis has hung around for eight years despite everything I mentioned above. So what's the deal here?

My best guess, and I swear I'm trying not to sound like an ass here, is that the Bengals don't have the history or standards that Green Bay does. Seriously. Cincinnati has never won a Super Bowl (they went in '81 and '88, and got killed by Joe Montana both times), and they have a 285-373-2 all-time regular season record. In addition, before Lewis's squad went to the playoffs in 2005, they hadn't been to the playoffs in 15 years. My guess is that occasional division championships are better than no division championships at all, at least in Paul Brown's thinking. The arrests, Chad Ochocinco's mouthing off in the media, etc. are just part of the culture there. That's my best explanation, anyway, for keeping a coach with a pretty mediocre record around as long as they have without much success.

Bonus Black Hole Note! The Enterprise Was Never In Any Danger!

At the end of Star Trek, the Enterprise is caught in the gravitational well of the black hole, seemingly inescapably so, and escapes only by ejecting what's basically a huge bomb into the black hole and riding the blast wave out (undamaged). SPOILERS.


If warp speed is faster than lightspeed (which it is), the Enterprise should be able to escape the black hole without all the histrionics, like firing the warp core (which apparently isn’t strictly needed for the ship to go into warp) into the black hole FOR INSTANCE.

Here’s how. The Schwartzchild radius defines the area within which you would need to exceed the speed of light to escape, and so constitutes the effective boundary of a black hole (since we can’t see anything inside because light cannot escape). The Enterprise isn't within the Schwartzchild radius. We know this because nothing can escape once it's inside the event horizon (same thing, but sounds cooler) of a black hole, yet even when his ship has almost been swallowed, Nero is able to send transmissions to the Enterprise. Thus, the event horizon is the actual black border that we see on screen, and anything forward of that can still escape, and the Enterprise never crosses that line.* Therefore, the escape velocity that the Enterprise needs to attain should be less than the speed of light. Therefore, since warp speed exceeds lightspeed, the Enterprise should be fine,** and no huge goddamn bomb is necessary!****

Hooray! Now Kirk can go contract more alien STDs!
*Supplementary reasons: We (the camera) can see the Enterprise, so it hasn't passed the event horizon because the light reflected off of it can bounce back to us. Also, the accretion disk of the black hole helps define its boundary, which the Enterprise doesn't cross. What was it formed out of? I have no idea, since there was no matter around at the time other than Nero’s dead ship (which went straight in) and the Enterprise itself. Regardless, it’s there, and that provides a crude way of telling at least where the Schwartzchild radius isn’t. The disk will be outside the radius, and the Enterprise is outside the disk.

**Not to mention, since warp speed exceeds lightspeed, the Enterprise could theoretically be within the Schwartzchild radius and still be able to use its normal warp engines to escape. It's a question of how far they would be able to go into the black hole.***

***The movie ignores the "spaghettification" thing--the thing where the pull of gravity on the part of the ship closest to the black hole will be stronger than the pull of gravity on the farthest-away part, so the Enterprise will start to stretch out like a strand of spaghetti as it gets closer to the black hole--so I see no reason why I shouldn't ignore it as well. Phooey on you, spaghettification.

****One more thing: They hurled the huge bomb into the black hole, into the event horizon itself! Nothing can fucking escape the event horizon unless it has a magical warp-drive, and no matter what radiation the explosion generated, its maximum speed would still be the speed of light! Thus, it couldn't escape! Thus, that entire explosion in space is a crock of shit!*****

*****Done now, but there's another one coming. Hold onto your helmets. Also, celebratory penguins again!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Red Matter: Trying to Explain Black Holes in Star Trek

Preface: I KNOW that Star Trek (2009) played merry hell with all sorts of physics. I'm not trying to explain how contrary they run to regular, ordinary physics; that's just too damn easy. What I'm going to try to do is explore their black hole physics, and see what the implications are when you bring them into line with the parts of black hole physics that they didn't explicitly rewrite. It's... oh, forget it. Just read on. Or don't. Whatever makes you happy.

The plot device J.J. Abrams came up with in the film is called "red matter", which is apparently different than any other matter that reflects red light.

This isn't a wayward red blood cell, it's black hole fuel!
The basic idea seems to be that when the red matter is released into something, it creates a black hole. But there are conditions under which it won't; you can keep it suspended in a tank, even poke it with a needle and take some of it out, and it's stable. It only turns into a black hole if you provoke it, much like your adorable cat, who will only turn into a hissing, spitting ball of painful death if you step on his tail. Otherwise, he will be calm, serene, and float peacefully in midair (as many cats do).

The trigger for red matter seems to be making it interact with a massive body, such as a ship or a planet. You can't just set a trigger on it and tell it to become a black hole, it has to actually hit the massive object. Moreover, I think it is best used at the spot in the object where matter is most compressed by its own gravity. Namely, the center. This is why Nero used his giant drill to bore down to the center of Vulcan, as opposed to just hurling the red matter at the planet's surface.

Here's where it gets interesting, though. The black hole that's produced has no correlation to the amount of red matter that's used. For example, observe this photo of the planet Vulcan collapsing into the black hole at its core.

Here it is again, a second later. You can see the last remnants of the planet at the center, and then the patch of darkness in the center of the frame that defines the Schwartzchild radius (effectively, the boundary of a black hole).

So the black hole that's produced, by a tiny drop of red matter, is approximately planet-sized. Compare that to the black hole produced when the entire huge case of red matter impacts Nero's ship:

The black hole formed in the middle of Nero's ship; that's why it's on both sides.
Sure, it looks big, but that ship is at best comparable to a big asteroid. Certainly not moon-sized, or planet-sized. The black hole produced from all that red matter was only about the size of the ship!

This leads me to believe that the amount of red matter is irrelevant. What matters is the thing the red matter is used on, and how much mass it has.

Now, this presents a bit of a problem. The black hole produced is not directly correlated to the amount of mass the object has.

Let's assume Vulcan, shown collapsing above, is about the size of Earth (for convenience's sake). If Earth collapsed into a black hole, the black hole produced would be smaller than a grape. A stellar-mass black hole--a black hole with the approximate mass of our sun--comes from the collapse of a star with 25+ solar masses. Yet the red matter made Vulcan collapse into a planet-mass black hole! Thus, red matter must work, not by collapsing the mass already present to its natural Schwartzchild radius (all masses have it; it's theoretical in nature, kinda), but by acting as a multiplier for the mass that's already there. It multiplies the mass of the object it's used on until the radius of the black hole that'll be produced is equal to the radius of the original object.

We can even work out what the multiplier is, within reason. Here's how I did it:

The Schwartzchild radius of an object (what it would be, with its mass, if it were to become a black hole) is about three kilometers multiplied by its mass. Now, the radius of the Vulcan black hole (if Vulcan is Earth-sized) is about 6384 kilometers, since that's the radius of Earth. Divided by 3, that means that you would have to have 2128 solar masses to create a black hole that size!

Earth's mass, obviously, isn't anything even close to a stellar mass. According to Wikipedia, it's about 332,950 times less than the sun. So if we multiply 332950 by 2128, we get 708,517,600. That's the multiplier of the "red matter", if my theory is correct. When the red matter hits a massive object (planet, ship, whatever), it multiplies the mass by 708,517,600 times, causing it to collapse into a  black hole that has a Schwartzchild radius precisely equal to the original object's actual radius.

This is how red matter works. Thank you and good night.

Here's some celebratory penguins!
(Obviously I've had to make some assumptions; Vulcan is supposed to have a stronger surface gravity than Earth, for example, so it's reasonable to assume that it's heavier. However, fuck it, I didn't exactly have precise numbers to work with. And whether the red matter number is the exact multiplier or not, the important thing is I've got a good idea of how the mechanism works and what the multiplier is within experimental error. That's a decent starting point.)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Babylon 5 Eye Rant

Okay. Minor spoilers that come in Season 2, Episode 16: One of the major characters on this show has a pair of black "shadows" following him around that are alien beings. They can be seen only if you look at them in ultraviolet or infrared light (the show isn't clear on which). Until the Captain (who is human) employs special scanning equipment to view the other character and his attachés, nobody on Babylon 5 has seen them.

This is bullshit. Bogus. Bad storytelling. Why?

First of all, there were plenty of opportunities for the creatures to be seen (the character doesn't shun public places) and we're told that the creatures never leave his side, so it's clear that they could've been seen. We're also told that these creatures are hugely distinctive and feared, so there would've been some noticeable reaction if they were seen.

The second reason has to do with the other aliens on this show. This is a Star Trek-type universe where most of the aliens walk on two feet, have two tool-using hands, speak English with only a mild accent and the biggest apparent difference is some makeup on their faces or heads. And that's perfectly fine, even if it's wildly implausible. The thing that allows me, the viewer, to pretend that they are alien--even when they all look basically human--is our lack of knowledge about them. Why do the Centauri have oversized hairpieces? What is the function of the ring of bone on the M'bari's heads? Is there a pattern in the Narns' spots, and what purpose might it have originally served, evolutionarily speaking?

Did they all just have a horribly bad application of suntan lotion?
The point is, what we're seeing may not be what the aliens are exactly, and that helps preserve some of their intrinsic alien-ness. But the business with all of these alien species--over 20, we're told--being unable to see the creatures is frankly just bad storytelling.

Hands I can accept. English I can accept. But there's absolutely no reason why every one of these species should see in the same range as humans! The visual spectrum, colors red through indigo, is totally arbitrary; it's just how our eyes are adapted! There are plenty of creatures, even on Earth, that see in the ultraviolet or infrared ranges, or even beyond, and that has to do with how they've had to adapt. Is it plausible to imagine other races on other planets growing up in different environments than us, under probably different starlight, and having the exact same eyes that humans do?

I don't think it's a huge deal, and we may very well find out that the Shadows cast some sort of distortion field, or protective camouflage for whoever looks at them, or something of that nature that would explain the lack of alien eye diversity. But for now, it just feels like Babylon 5 is getting kind of sloppy.

(P.S. Space was at such a premium that they were charging the officers money for their own quarters a few episodes back, but B5 has room for an entire baseball field?)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Alternate Material for "How To Train Your Dragon"

How to Train Your Dragon is a filmic bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story for an outcast boy who, instead of being changed by an authoritarian society, manages to change it instead. Similar stories are all over Hollywood, but this one stands out because of the setting, the graphics and the music. I have, however, a few (rather dark) ideas for how it could stand out even more (this is incredibly cynical):

Possible Scenario I: 
Upon first encountering the downed Nightfury, squeamish protagonist Hiccup overcomes his misgivings and stabs Toothless (the dragon) in the neck. A dizzy mixture of sick and satisfied, he brings his father Stoic out to look at the corpse, and instantly gains acceptance into the Viking clan. Downing the Nightfury, which has never before been seen, much less killed, earns Hiccup enormous prestige in the village. Queries about how he did it soon turn to praise for his dragon-capturing device, and Hiccup's considerable mechanical talents are directed towards forging new weapons of war.

The village is able to drive the lesser dragons away and attain a stalemate with them; the other dragons compensate for the decline in sheep (which they feed to a giant dragon overlord) by catching more dolphins, sharks, swordfish, etc. to feed to the overlord dragon instead. This results in a boom in the oceangoing predators' prey fish populations, making the village prosperous for the first time in years. Meanwhile, Hiccup remains deeply troubled over the death of the Nightfury, but his quiet suggestion that the dragons might be more than just monsters goes unheeded. Forced to keep on killing the creatures he secretly loves, Hiccup eventually commits "suicide by dragon" and allows himself to be burned to ash during a dragon attack.

Possible Scenario II: 
Stoic's ship never returns from his attempt to find the dragon's nest. A grieving Hiccup saddles Toothless and goes out to search for his father, but is unsuccessful. Astrid sees Hiccup leaving on Toothless's back, and spreads the word in the village that Hiccup is riding a dragon. When he returns empty-handed, the Vikings conclude that he's in league with the dragons, and that he told them how to find and sink the Viking ships. Hiccup is forced to flee the village with Toothless and carve out a new life for himself on a neighboring island.

Hiccup and Toothless are being forced to leave their loved ones behind, forever. That is why they are scowling.
Possible Scenario III:
The movie ends as it does on screen, with Vikings and dragons living in harmony, and the credits roll. Five or ten years down the line, the Vikings (who have been fighting the dragons for generations, and now have no enemies) get restless. Their warrior-based culture begins to come apart. A young, charismatic leader plays on these feelings, and pointing out that the Vikings are now experienced dragon riders, calls for a campaign of conquest against all nearby settlements, using the dragons as weapons of war. Hiccup frantically tries to stop the crusade, but is powerless to do so, and can only watch as the pets he knows and loves slaughter thousands of people in other, nearby settlements (and eventually all the way to Britain).

Ain't it fun??

(Bonus scenario, if this movie was made in a culture with different values: Hiccup learns to accept that while he may not like his father's path, it is the one he is obligated to follow, and eventually becomes a productive, reasonably normal member of Viking society. Instead of setting out to change his home culture, he bows to it.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why Game of Thrones is So Damn Good

For the first time since Lost and 24 went off the air, I'm hooked on a TV show that's currently being televised, and I thought I'd take a second to talk about what makes it so good (for me). It's not the characters, it's not the epic fantasy setting or the big budget or the excellent adult acting or the snappy writing or the complex plot or the music or the surprisingly-good child acting (I grade child actors on a massive curve because children, including me, are idiots; still, this series relies on them quite a lot, and they don't disappoint). No, the biggest positive quality for me is the fact that this series is airing on HBO, and everything that that allows the show to do. It is an entirely different kind of television program than 24, or Lost, or Criminal Minds, or anything else that airs on public TV. This is my first exposure to it, and I very much like what a good show can do with the format.

The biggest thing is that when HBO puts a show in an hour-long time slot, you get an hour-long piece of television. There are no commercial breaks, and thus, no need to have a minor cliffhanger at the end of every segment so the audience waits through the commercials instead of flipping channels. The episode can flow exactly the way the director wants it to flow, building tension where he wants instead of where he has to put it. I never realized how much of a handicap that could be, and seeing a show without it is like watching someone who's just shed his training weights from ankles and wrists move around. It's so casually good.

Here's another huge advantage: Instead of 42 minutes in the hour, the director gets 57 or 60. That gives time for more plot twists and introductions and the like, but we also get more character development than you could ever pack into a network show. We get these wonderful, Stanley Kubrick-esque conversations where the characters can talk about nothing at all, reminisce over war stories or tell dirty jokes for awhile, and the audience can just sit back and watch as we wind around to the point of the conversation. There's nothing in this show that seems forced or too fast. Every conversation doesn't have to be filled with plot-specific stuff (stuff that isn't plot-specific yet, anyway), and every character doesn't have to talk at once. It makes world-building that much easier.

You know what else helps with world-building? Here's a sampler: Shit, fuck, boobs, sex, gore, and a heaping helping of REALISM.The camera doesn't shy away from gore, or nudity, or cursing. None of those would be possible on network television. But all of them are there, in abundance, in an HBO show. And far from being something to titter at (snork), they're actually a vital part of making Game of Thrones believable. This show portrays medieval life, in all its glory and all its filth. And by not shrinking from the more brutal or nasty or whorish parts of medieval life, Game of Thrones becomes intensely believable without even trying. It says "Here! Here is the world we are building. We won't sugar-coat it for you and we won't turn away. It's up to you to watch it grow. Or don't. Either way, here it is."

A lot of that spirit comes from the final piece of what makes the show so good. It's the directors who can take all those advantages I talked about up above and make them into something amazing. So let's take a minute to appreciate the directors, Tim Van Patten (Eps. 1-2) and Brian Kirk (3-5).* Here's some contrast: Remember the wiggling, jiggling camera of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Identity? Remember the frantic close-ups and all the other camera tricks that're supposed to make you feel like you're right there on the scene? I think that's the shittiest kind of directing possible. That's just called getting in the way of the story. Let the story tell itself, I say, and have the director get out of the way. Patten and Kirk have done that to perfection. They're letting the writing and the set design speak for itself, and letting the actors speak for themselves. They're just holding back and letting them act.

Here is one of my favorite scenes from this series. All the parts of this note-character building, good directing, extra time for conversations and all that-come together in scenes like this. Scenes like this are why Game of Thrones is so bloody good. (Sampler.)

It's just... I have rarely, if ever, seen anything like that scene on a network show. Game of Thrones tosses scenes like these off without trying.

Here's one more, my favorite thus far, and then I swear I'm done. Enjoy if it suits you. Myself, I highly recommend both the scene and the show.

*Daniel Minahan directed the sixth episode, which I haven't seen as of this writing.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What We Should Do About Yucca Mountain

The last time I checked, there was no funding for the continued development, study of and construction of nuclear waste storage facilities at the much-debated Yucca Mountain in President Obama's fiscal year 2011 budget. The Department of Energy has chosen to try and shut down the site altogether, but as of this writing, it's being blocked in court by lawsuits from the states who would probably be next in line to have the nuclear waste repository in their territory if Yucca falls through.

The idea of a permanent nuclear waste repository is not only a bad one, it is something that humanity is fundamentally unable to build. Instead of trying to determine whether Yucca Mountain will be able to safely store nuclear waste for the next million years, we should be putting the time and money earmarked for Yucca into research into spent nuclear fuel (SNF) reprocessing technologies.

Here's my train of thought on the subject:

1. The U.S. government has spent north of $9 billion, as well as over three decades' worth of scientific reports and research, on studying Yucca Mountain and trying to determine whether it will be safe to store nuclear waste there for up to a million years in the future. Yucca was originally selected from a list of the nine most promising sites in the continental U.S., using the criteria of long-term tectonic stability, distance from major population centers, and political will. We have spent an amazing amount of time and money to learn as much as we can about Yucca Mountain, and we have found that it is probably unsuitable for the requirements we've asked of it (for example, the mountain is supposed to be dry and solid, but geologists' boreholes found it to be full of water and honeycombed with cracks). After $9 billion and 33 years of study on the best candidate for long-term storage, if this place isn't suitable for a repository, it's reasonable to ask if anywhere is.

2. Nowhere is. It is a crazy thing to think that we can build a facility that will last for a million years. The hubris of it is staggering.

We simply don't know how to build for that length of time. Most consumer goods aren't supposed to last more than five years. Buildings, levees, bridges and so forth rust, rot and decay within a hundred or so years. Even dams and seawalls will eventually break down if untended in, say, the 235 years that the U.S. has been a country.

Let me say this plainly: the idea that we can design something that will still exist and perform its original function 1,000,000 years in the future--4,255 times the lifespan to date of the nation that created it--is sheer folly. We just don't know how to compensate for a million years of erosion.

How exactly do you design for the Colorado River?
3. That's the thing about Yucca. It's not that it's unsuitable for so-called short-term storage (say, a mere fifty or a hundred or a thousand years). The plan for Yucca Mountain has always been what I like to call a fire-and-forget storage facility. We throw the waste in here and then we never have to worry about it ever again. It's the political and scientific equivalent of lifting up a carpet and sweeping the mess underneath. Oh, you've invested trillions of dollars in a form of electric power that produces an unavoidable and dangerously lethal by-product? Never mind. We can just dump it in this mountain and forget about it.

Also, be sure not to think about the fact that existing plants have produced enough waste since they came online in the 1950s and '60s to fill up the not-yet-built repository by 2014. The politicians who came up with the idea for the repository seem to be thinking in the longest term possible, but ironically, they're not thinking about what happens a mere fifty years in the future. What happens to the waste that's produced after Yucca is full? Do we go through this whole weary mess again, research and design and wrangle over and finally build another repository, or do we simply throw up our hands, cry "Fuck this!" and launch it into the sun?

No, seriously. That's one idea that Congress considered before Yucca was authorized.

4. Fine, a permanent repository isn't the answer. So what should we do?

My answer is twofold. First, instead of one centralized repository for all the waste in the U.S., build several regional storage facilities around the country. This would minimize the distance that the waste travels (since there are very real risks in transporting waste any distance) and, by moving the waste from 104+ separate sites to, say, 10 facilities, it would make the waste that much more secure against theft or terrorism. These facilities don't have to be inside mountains, for their purpose is not to store the waste indefinitely. Rather, they would store the waste until we have the technology to recycle it and turn it into power.

Sound fanciful? We could do it today if the proper facilities were set up. Reprocessed waste can yield up to 25% of the energy of the original fuel, through recycling of unused uranium-235 and plutonium-239 in an ordinary nuclear reactor (not to mention the U-238). This greatly reduces the volume of waste, leaving behind only volatile fission by-products. Even those could potentially be reused with the adoption of a closed nuclear fuel cycle.

So if it's that easy to reprocess waste, why haven't we done it? There are three main reasons. The first is President Carter's policy decision in the 1970s to curtail reprocessing technology in the U.S., in an effort to convince the world to do the same (which did not work). Every succeeding President has followed this policy. They did this because of the second reason; P-239, produced as a by-product in nuclear plants, can be used in nuclear weapons. However, inside the U.S., the risk of this is extremely low.

Reason III is good old economics. Right now, it is much cheaper to mine natural uranium than to reuse SNF, so there has been no real civilian push to build domestic reprocessing plants (although many foreign ones exist). But remember that $9 billion we've already spent on Yucca Mountain? The U.S. government has been willing to spend taxpayers' dollars to try and find a solution for the problem of nuclear waste. Let's start spending that money where it will do the most good: in further research of reprocessing technology and construction of reprocessing facilities. We can remove an environmental and national security threat by reprocessing the waste, we can generate power while we're doing it, and we can help find a permanent solution to the problem of waste. It's a win-win-win for everyone involved.

And the U.S. map can stop being pockmarked with nuclear zits.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Greatest Regret

I just had occasion to come across a particular video on the Youwebs, a video in which an aspiring filmmaker set up a camera on an Irish street and asked passerby to share with him their greatest regrets.

Naturally, after learning the question (it takes about two and a half minutes of pussyfooting around before the audience hears what he's asking), I wondered what my answer would be if asked that by a random film crew. Or anyone in general, I suppose.

The answer is, I guess, nothing.

I mean, it's not like I haven't screwed up. I completely have. I regret the time I spent in high school mooning after a girl I had no chance with; I regret not putting more effort into my college applications, and I regret that I didn't find a journalism internship at American U. I've got plenty of things that I did wrong, but all of them go into who I am today.

A woman that I love dearly used to ask me, if I could do one thing over from my college career to date, what would I choose? I was never able to come up with a satisfactory answer, but I think this concept was what I was trying to spit out:

I am the sum of my successes and my failures, and the person I am today would never have come about if I hadn't screwed up sometime in the past (in a dozen different ways). Did I make mistakes? Sure. But those are an integral part of who I am. I learned from them, I grew because of them, and in my own way I'm proud of them. I don't regret that.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reaction to Babylon 5 Season 1 Finale: "Chrysalis".

 I Have Taken a Solemn Vow to Never Again Get Into a Currently Airing TV Series. Hence...

My conclusion, based on limited information, is that the President was assassinated by the Home Guard.

Here's a list of the usual suspects:

-Home Guard
-Earthforce Military

None of the alien powers had a motive to assassinate the Earth President. Narn and Centauri were squabbling over Sector 37, the M'bari seem to like the humans and the Vorlons have no motive whatsoever. (Also, the Vorlon response when they see something they don't like is to obliterate it with overwhelming force, not to stage an explosion. See: Deathwalker. See also: series premiere.)

Earthforce Military: It doesn't seem like their style. The off-station Earthforce personnel we've met have individually been jerks (the captain of the cruiser in "A Voice in the Wilderness", the girl with a grudge against Garibaldi, the guy who assumed control of Babylon 5), but collectively, they haven't seemed evil in any serious way. And they, too, have no motive to do the assassination. Meanwhile, we've heard some talk about PsyCorps controlling the government behind the scenes, but if they control the government, why assassinate the head of it? It doesn't make sense, and we don't really know enough about those claims to be sure of anything.

The Home Guard are the only people who have a distinct motive. In "Chrysalis", the newscaster said that the President was due to give a speech on human-alien policy for the rest of his term. The Home Guard movement grew up in the first place because people thought he was giving aliens too much freedom. Now, he's dead and the more conservative Vice President is in charge. The VP's first speech as President was very pro-human and anti-alien. Thus, the Home Guard movement had a motive to kill off the alien-friendly President and put him in charge. We saw their means (the crates of equipment) and we know that they have recruited people in Earthforce, which could've been how they did the dirty deed.

There's a conjectural argument in favor of the Home Guard as well. We learned during the episode that crates of the equipment used to kill the President--frequency jammers and things like that--came through Babylon 5. There was no obvious motive given in the episode for this. We don't know where the equipment was being shipped from or why it had to stop at B5, but on the surface, there doesn't appear to be a reason why the conspirators had to risk discovery with an unnecessary stop.

My theory is that the crate of parts Garibaldi found was left behind apurpose. I think they were meant to be found after the assassination (which is why the man shot Garibaldi; he found them too soon and could have prevented the assassination if he'd gotten word out). The conspirators made the extra stop and left the parts behind because they wanted a trail leading to B5. Why? If it's the Home Guard, they would want to give the new President a mandate to throw suspicion on or take action against the major alien powers. So they left the crates on B5, the one place where almost every type of alien species congregates, with the idea that when they were found, suspicion would fall on the aliens. This theory allows for the new President being a part of the HG (to give him an excuse to take action) or being innocent (to push him into action).

Other Business: Londo's 'Good Fortune'

So, the mysterious Helper Man returns again, and this time he destroys an entire Narn military base to help out Londo. This is done, as revealed by the conversation at the end of the episode, to help put Londo in a position of greater power so that the Mysterious Black Spiky Guys can call on him when the time is right. (Why would a species design their ships in their own image? Does the Space Shuttle look like John F. Kennedy and I just didn't notice?) Technology-wise, these guys are clearly in a different league than everyone else (except possibly the Vorlons and the Guy on the Planet Below). They have cloaking devices and energy beams, as opposed to firing shots of energy; they are the New England Patriots to everyone else's Wisconsin Badgers at this point.

The M'bari have some idea who they are; Dillenne recognized Helper Man when he called on her before. The Vorlons know who they are, because the guy didn't go see Ambassador Koch, and the Vorlons know everything. It's not unlikely that the huge threat that each of those two races has been warning about starts with the MBSGs. What they want is unclear, except that it involves the Centauri. Maybe they're the threat that future-Sinclair needed B4 as a base to fight, maybe they're the unseen threat that Garibaldi fought in the flash-forward, maybe they're the reason the Centauri seer saw Babylon 5 possibly exploding in the future. At this point, all of this is guesswork, because we know nothing about who they are and what they might want.

I'm not sure why Garibaldi's acting was so wooden in this episode, why they threw in the random marriage between Sinclair and whatshername, or why Garibaldi was left with "50-50 odds of survival" when we have a flash-forward that shows him alive and fighting in the future.

There's also the business of the Chrysalis, and the first real M'bari-Vorlon connection.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sci-Fi Drinking Game(s) [IN PROGRESS]

Widely Applicable Rules (Mostly for TV Shows):

Drink every time an alien, or a human, delivers a stirring polemic on the potential of the human race.
Drink every time somebody distressedly points out the flaws that could lead humanity to destruction.
Take a big drink every time an alien species is created with a distinctively un-human trait for purposes of providing a contrast with humans (ex: an emotionless species, a hive mind, etc.) Take a shot of vodka if one of the characters ham-handedly points out the difference within the show. Finish the bottle if this leads to a stirring polemic.

Every time someone utters the phrase “We’ve never seen anything like it” or says that something is “off the charts” or “off the scale”. (If it's a major character instead of a throwaway character, drink twice.)

Whenever someone says, during a firefight, “[Hull integrity/shields/deflector screens] down [XX] percent!  The [shields, ship, station, hull, etc.] can’t take another hit like that or we’re done for!”

[Mostly for '90s sci-fi:] Drink every time we meet an alien species that is humanoid, has a face and hands, and basically is human except for a little makeup or horns or something. (Warning: Blackouts possible when playing this rule with Babylon 5 or Star Trek.)

I am not fucking around with this warning, man. (Screenshot: Babylon 5.)
Drink whenever an alien species magically has the lips, teeth and tongue to speak virtually flawless English. (Start a Waterfall if the aliens in question have an accent that's meant to convey the difference between Them and Us.)

Drink every time someone provides an alien-y explanation for some person, event or structure from Earth's history. Examples: ancient Egypt/the Pyramids (I'm looking at you, Stargate), the Tunguska meteorite, Jack the Ripper, etc.

Take a drink whenever basic physics are violated. You can play this the "forgiving" way, i.e. drinking whenever there's gravity in space, whenever laser weapons travel slower than light, misuse of black holes, when spaceships ignore kinetic energy and so forth... or, you can play the "unforgiving" version. In "unforgiving", drink for wormholes, FTL travel, transporter beams, time travel, artificial gravity, food replicators, tractor beams, telepathy and "Eject the warp core and shoot it into the black hole so that we may escape certain death!" sort of deals. (DO NOT play this game with the new Star Trek movie. YOU MAY DIE.)

(In fact, looking back at this list, almost all of these apply to the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek. I wouldn't go there, but if you do, I'm not responsible for what happens.)

Optional rule: knock yourself out with a fifth of vodka whenever robots enslave, subjugate or wipe out humanity. 

Like I said in the title, the game is still in progress, so suggestions for new rules are welcome! (So are beta testers who are brave enough to try this with me. Show of hands!)

Friday, May 13, 2011

"In The Temple And Marketplace"

Atheism doesn’t bother me, in and of itself. It’s a weird world, and occasionally a cruel one, and I guess I can understand how one can look at it and conclude, coldly and rationally, that there isn’t a God up above. The multitude of gods that we as people are privileged, for the first time, with easy access to must seem a bit like a cosmic buffet to the discerning atheist. The hubbub in heaven and the crowds in Paradise, the wealth of a dozen dozen omnipotent entities stretching across the skies, leaves me feeling rather disillusioned when I think about it. As a culture, we are dealing for the first time with the idea of living in a global community, where everyone’s beliefs are thrust nakedly into the public sphere for all to see and gawk at. I can’t say that I would malign anyone for choosing, in such a crowded marketplace, not to buy into anything at all.

I guess what I have a problem with is militant atheism, the sort of belief that seeks not only to repudiate all forms of faith in a higher power, organized or otherwise, from one’s own heart, but strives towards a larger goal. This sort of atheism, it seems to me, is dedicated to cutting away at and tearing down the sanctity and the holiness that generally goes along with religion, and stripping it of every veneration that it is possible to take away. It is a philosophy of unrelenting cynicism, not just about the present day and the value of religion in it, but about whether the institution of religion might ever have had value. You know these people, just as I do; those who mock Christians for venerating a man two thousand years dead, and those who cackle gleefully whenever a new religious scandal breaks, for whom it has become fashionable to scoff at God and those who pray to Him.

I sometimes wonder what our generation, of which I am indelibly a part, of pampered, disaffected, agnostically inclined middle-class American children will look like when middle age sets in. Will we have come around and reluctantly accepted the religions of our parents? Will we maintain our aggressive atheism, and eventually become the first generation to insist en masse that no crosses be raised over our headstones? Or will we create something entirely new out of this mishmash of beliefs we are confronted with?

It would be rather impolite of me, somewhere in all this polemicizing, to fail to mention my own beliefs. I am a Jew, and I am proud that I was raised as one, and there is very little about the holidays and the culture and the assorted mishegas of the most cantankerous religion of all that I do not hold close to my heart. At the same time, I don’t hold strictly to all of Jewish belief, and feel that it doesn’t violate the spirit of Judaism to accept and consider all other beliefs that I come across. Above all, I don’t believe that you have to accept a particular belief system, nor to conform to ideas that are thousands of years old, to call yourself a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew. Sticking to the basics of kindness and understanding towards the people you meet, I believe, is enough. The religion of today is individualistic, and the role of our spiritual leaders has changed from shepherd to wilderness guide. Instead of herding a passive group of souls to one particular vision of Paradise, I prefer to think of today’s rabbis and priests and imams as giving us the skills to find our way in the wilderness, and trusting that each of us will end up in time at the spot that is best for us.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jean Valjean is the Most Dumbfoundingly Lucky Character Ever (Also, 100th Post! Hooray!)

Hey! So, happy 100th post, all ye viewers! According to the Stats button on my page, people have looked at my disconcertingly incoherent ramblings just over 5,700 times since this thing went up, and for that I can only (humbly) say, thank you kindly for reading.

For today's topic, we have one of the downright coolest characters from the most popular musical on Wooster campus, behind Rent anyway: Jean Valjean! It occurred to me not too long ago, that if you set aside the nineteen years he spends off-screen in a French jail, he might just be the luckiest goddamn character I have ever seen.

Just so we're clear, I'm not discounting the "nineteen years a slave of the law", or the years and years offscreen where he's presumably looking over his shoulder every five minutes for Javert. I get that part, and I get that it stinks. But if you shave off the pre-play, what you find is a staggeringly lucky man.

Consider the following:


At the beginning of the play, Valjean is paroled from prison and struggles to find work. But just when he's most desperate, a kindly bishop takes him in, feeds him and gives him a place to sleep. Valjean repays him by robbing the joint and escaping. He's subsequently caught by the French police and dragged in front of the bishop, who's in every position to press charges... but the bishop not only lets Valjean go, he gives him the stolen goods outright, plus extra silver candlesticks. (And converts him to Christianity to boot.)

Several years later, we run into Valjean again, who is now a wealthy factory owner and mayor, living the good life under an assumed name. (Presumably, his opponent in the mayoral election didn't think to ask where the hell this guy came from.) He only has one nagging problem: he's still wanted for parole-breaking, and somewhere out there, police inspector Javert is hunting him down. Lo and behold, he runs into Javert, who... doesn't even recognize him. And as if that weren't enough to tell Valjean he's safe, Javert then tells him that they've already 'caught' Valjean and are putting him on trial. Putting a patsy in jail in Valjean's place would clear his name permanently. Fate has given him a literal get-out-of-jail-free card.

Of course, Valjean is a principled man and rejects the offer. Fair enough. So what happens? Does he go to court? To prison? Are there any consequences for him? Nope; he overpowers Javert and gets away scot-free.

Much later, we meet Valjean again in Paris, who has apparently retained his wealth and raised Cosette to adulthood (the fact that his social class doesn't change after he reveals his identity is why I don't have "losing the factory and the mayoralty" under the 'consequences' thing up there. Clearly, it didn't affect his wealth that much). He runs into Javert again, but escapes again. Later, a band of vandals plan to rob his house, but their plans are thwarted by other characters without Valjean ever lifting a hand.

Now here's where it gets really interesting. Through a complicated series of events, Valjean ends up joining the student resistance in the streets of Paris. For some reason, he decides to go up and talk to them while wearing a French army uniform. Unknown to Valjean, they've just captured Javert (who was working as a spy inside their ranks) and are thus not in the best of moods. And he's walking right up to the barricade, bold as brass and wearing a French Army Uniform.

Somehow, not only do the students not shoot him dead in the street, they give him a rifle and a chance to fight on the barricade. He does, doesn't get hurt, earns the trust of Enjolras in the process, and as a reward receives custody of Javert. Here is another time where Fate has given Valjean a huge opportunity that he's too principled to take; instead of offing Javert, he sets him free.

In another, later, fight on the barricade, literally everyone there is killed--except Valjean and the person there who is most important to him, namely Marius, who he saves. An uninjured Valjean escapes with Marius, encounters Javert in the sewers, and once again avoids arrest or really any penalty at all. Moreover, Javert kills himself soon afterwards, removing any danger of arrest (because Valjean basically became Javert's obsession, and it seems like nobody else in the French police really cared about one parole-breaker from two decades ago). Valjean himself dies of old age soon afterwards, with his daughter and her fiancé by his side, safe in bed, with the knowledge that his greatest fear (that his past will rise up and taint his daughter's life) will not come to pass.

 (And they get to sing this song.)

Sounds like a pretty charmed life, wouldn't you say? Especially when you consider how many other characters in this play meet their death by violence.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Totally Possible Planet

Hey! So, science fiction and astronomy just collided, and I thought you might find this interesting.

Ummm... So. I've been watching episodes of Dr. Who from seasons 2 and 3 to get my fix, as it were, and I just went back to "The Impossible Planet". Still one of my favorites, but as it turns out, it would be perfectly possible for the planet to be there even without a Satan gravity-field holding it there. Stars orbit around black holes all the time, the way anything else orbits around anything, and they don't fall in for the same reason the Earth doesn't fall into the Sun just offhand. The planet presumably has way less of a mass than any self-respecting star would, but all that means is that it 'd have to be farther out from the black hole than a star would.

Now, the planet is probably closer than it ought to be and the Satan-field is what's keeping it in place, so it's still shocking, but in principle stuff can totally orbit around a black hole and not fall in. That's how we know about them in the first place; indeed, the only way we can observe them directly is by the actions of stuff moving around them. But apparently if you're not within the Schwartzchild radius (point of no return) you won't get sucked in. Black holes don't intrinsically have more gravity than other objects; a black hole with the mass of three suns has the same gravitational attraction as a regular star with that mass, which blew my mind. It's only when you're inside that radius that you're absolutely screwed and cannot escape.

Also, see the way the matter just pours over the edge of the black hole? As it turns out, matter and energy swirl into a black hole like water down a drain. But if you get sucked in, you won't have a chance in hell of surviving anyway. What fun!

Monday, May 2, 2011

"But I Will Not Rejoice In The Death of One, Even An Enemy..."

It's been something of an experience to watch the reaction to Osama bin Laden's death, as it's been unfolding on Facebook in the past day or so. Last night, almost everything that came up on my news feed was a variation on "USA! USA! USA!" or "We did it!!!" or even "Goodbye bitch!!" Today, the dominant trend seems to be everyone pulling back a bit. I'm seeing quotes from Martin Luther King, the Bible and I think one from Gandhi, about not taking pleasure in the deaths of our enemies, not meeting hatred with hatred and so forth. I even saw one self-righteous commenter sniffling about how people were "afraid to say" this, but "someone had to" put forth the viewpoint that we shouldn't be cheering any death, no matter how evil the person who died.

I didn't cheer, or scream, or shout when the news flashed up on the TV in Mom's. I was disturbed when I heard President Obama talking about how "America can do whatever we set our mind to", and I thought, "Shouldn't that kind of language be reserved for when we build a thousand new homes for people on the streets? Or when we build, inspire, attempt, achieve something? Why are we dragging it out now, as if to say 'America can kill whoever we set our mind to killing?'" My mind defaulted to the kind of "somber reflection" that one 9/11 widow called for in the Huffington Post this afternoon.

But having reflected upon it, somberly, I choose to celebrate bin Laden's death.

The killing of Osama bin Laden isn't just meaningful because he was the architect of 9/11. It's not just important, as President Obama emphasized in his speech, because it brings a sense of closure to the families of 9/11 victims. It's important because last night, a terrorist organization had its head chopped off, and its potential victims around the world will be safer in the long run because of that. There will undoubtedly be counterattacks from Al-Qaeda, but the long-term ability of the organization to recruit new members, to plan attacks, to get financial backing and so forth has been immeasurably reduced. Al-Qaeda has been dealt a massive blow in its ability to cause death and destruction around the globe.

In other words, with bin Laden's death, there is a considerably smaller chance of another 9/11, or another Madrid, happening on American soil.

That's reason enough to cheer, I think.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What Do We Do With The Body?

Breaking news holds that Osama Bin Laden is dead.

Holy shit.

But CBS News is reporting now that his body is in US custody, which raises the interesting question: What do we do with it?

Bury him in Afghanistan and create a pilgrimage site for jihadists. Bury him in the US and create a public outcry. Cremate him and violate Muslim orthodoxy.

The most logical option seems to be giving him back to the Saudis, but even that has its problems. Given the unrest of the Arab Spring, who knows how burying him in Saudi Arabia--home of the holy city of Mecca--might be taken? Or whether the Saudis would even want him to bury?

Stay tuned.

***UPDATE***: POLITICO is reporting that Osama bin Laden's body has been buried at sea, which complies with Islamic custom requiring burial within 24 hours. They're also reporting that he was positively identified, both by eye and by facial recognition software, before the burial. 

One wonders what flag, if any, he was buried with (as is customary for at-sea burials).