Monday, June 27, 2011

Relationships, Time and Space, and Why Firefly Was Unique

Nine years after Firefly went off the air, online groups still maintain petitions for the series to be reinstated. Nathan Fillion even said that, given $300 million from FOX, he would buy the show himself and start producing episodes again. That wouldn't work.

I’d love to see Firefly complete its planned seven-season run as much as anyone else, but if Nathan Fillion bought the franchise tomorrow and was producing episodes by this Friday, what we’d get wouldn’t be the original Firefly. It would be different in a dozen subtle ways. It would not be the same.

A piece of artwork, like Firefly, is a unique snapshot of time and space. We may assume that there was only one chance for us to get Firefly, just as there was only one chance for any piece of literature or culture. Scientific discoveries build on previous discoveries in such a manner as to seem inevitable, but there was nothing predetermined about Shakespeare’s plays. If he hadn’t written them when he did, they would not exist as we know them. They capture a moment in the writer’s life, in his culture, in the lives of the people around him and of a dozen other factors of which we know nothing.

In much the same way, the existence and details of Firefly depended on thousands of different factors. The actors were each at a specific place in their acting careers, and were directed to act in a specific way. The writer was at a point where he wrote the dialogue a specific way. The creation of the show came from an idea that Joss Whedon had, which might not have occurred at any other time. CGI had advanced enough that good-quality images could be produced for the show. The show was influenced by outside factors; for example, FOX reportedly inserted the mysterious “two by two, hands of blue” men into the show to create a conspiratorial vibe. It’s topical and timely; the idea of Westerners and the Chinese going into space together and forming a joint civilization might not have happened fifty years ago. It’s timely in a greater cultural sense; the main characters largely disdain religion, casual sex is acceptable, violence is common and profit is king.

 The point of all this is, without all of these factors working in concert (many of which everyone was unaware of), Firefly would not be the Firefly we know. And if it was produced again today, many of these factors would come into play. The actors are at different places in their careers; they are physically older, they have matured, or they have gone in different directions career-wise. The writers’ style of writing has no doubt evolved. The distinctive look of the show would be difficult to reproduce. It wouldn’t be the same.

Like a piece of artwork, relationships are also unique in time and space. They happen when two (or more) people come together at a specific time in their lives, wanting specific things and being specific people. And while they last, they can be absolutely wonderful. But when they’re over, trying to recapture them can be like trying to travel back in time, trying to recapture old feelings and lost possibilities.

Sometimes, you have to let those feelings go, and trust that maybe one day when the stars cross again, the two of you can make it work again. You (singular) look back on that time for what it was and for what you (plural) had, but you can’t remake Firefly this minute. Perhaps, one day, you can make something new, but for now you have to let it go. There's nothing wrong with looking back fondly, but you shouldn't try to shape the future in the image of the past.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Yucca Mountain Is A Bad Idea (Redux)

Hello, everyone. The last time I tried to write about this topic, I waxed way verbose (you would, too, if you'd written a 44-page paper on it). So I'm going to try and write, in as few words as possible, why long-term deep geological disposal of nuclear waste is a bad idea and what we should do instead.

Why Not?

1. Yucca Mountain, even if completed to specifications, can only hold a certain tonnage of nuclear waste (63,000 metric tons according to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982). The present stockpiles of nuclear waste, plus the expected rate of waste production (approximately 2,000 metric tons/year), mean that sometime in the mid-2010s we will exceed the storage capacity of Yucca Mountain. This necessitates the search for a second long-term geological repository, which means we'd have to start the whole dreary 30-year, $9 billion+ search over again.

2. Yucca Mountain is a bad place to store waste in the longest terms (planners envision the waste being stored there for up to 1,000,000 years in the future). It is riddled with cracks, more full of water than the desert around it would suggest, and is difficult to access with trucks and heavy equipment. This is a big deal, because...

3. Establishing one national repository means that the waste from 104+ separate sites around the U.S. would have to be relocated there, a task that would require hundreds of separate trips by truck (with the waste encased in specially made containers). Furthermore, since our road system is designed to connect population centers, it's likely that most (if not all) shipments would run through one or more major metropolitan areas. The casks do not leak 'casual' radiation in harmful amounts, but if an accident were to happen, it could result in massive radioactive contamination of an American city.

4. Yucca Mountain was conceived as a "fire-and-forget" facility, which we (read: humanity) can dump the waste into and then forget about forever. However, the expectation is that we can build a facility which will remain secure for one million years in the future. For comparison, one of the oldest confirmed man-made structures on Earth, the Great Pyramid at Giza, is a mere 4,571 years old. Yucca Mountain would have to not only survive, but remain absolutely sealed and not release radiation, for 218 times longer than that. It would have to outlive the lifespan (to date) of the country that created it by 4,255 times. I respectfully submit that if humanity cannot forecast tomorrow's weather with certainty, how can we hope to predict local conditions (no volcanic activity, not much erosion, etc.) a million years in the future?

5. How exactly do you tell people, a mere 10,000 years in the future, to stay away from a given place? How can you communicate with them, knowing that the language future denizens of what is now Nevada will speak will be massively different from modern languages?

In short, Yucca Mountain is not a viable place to store nuclear waste, either in the short (next 30 years) or long (10,000 years) or longest (500,000 years) terms.

So... What Do We Do Instead?

Finding another repository site is out of the question. Yucca is the best site that the U.S. has for a geological repository, in terms of its isolated location, its (predicted) geological stability and its political defenses (Senator Harry Reid being one). If Yucca is inadequate after thirty years of study, it's likely that any other site would eventually be found inadequate as well.

We need a two-part solution.

However inadequately, Yucca would at least be able to fix two real problems by consolidating the spent nuclear fuel. The Yucca plan reduces the risk of both a terrorist attack and an accidental spill or leakage by consolidating the waste in one location. I don't disagree with this, but with the dangers of moving the waste by transport all the way to Nevada, I suggest a different solution. Set up regional waste collection centers at points throughout the U.S. where there's a high concentration of nuclear plants. The waste from Georgian plants can be moved to a center in the Southeast, the waste from Wisconsin's plants goes to a Midwest center, and so on. By doing this, we can reduce (though not eradicate) the risks associated with transporting the waste.

The thing about regional centers is that, unlike Yucca, they would not have to store the waste for a ludicrous target of one million years. Seventy years would more than suffice. The centers can simply be extremely large, well-guarded, well-sealed-off warehouses; they don't have to be mountains. Above all, they would allow us to eventually retake and reuse the waste, instead of throwing it into a mountain forever.

Wait... Reuse?

The second part solves both the issue of nuclear waste and the U.S.'s dependence on freshly mined uranium. Waste reprocessing plants can refine the nuclear waste, remove the material (lots of U-238, some smaller amounts of U-235 and Pu-239) that can be reused, and sell it back to commercial plants. Furthermore, the introduction of fast breeder reactors could allow the U.S. to adopt a closed nuclear fuel cycle, where our plants run on plutonium (which works just as well) and there is no need for new fuel, as it is created by the reactors. 

If I were Energy Secretary David Chu, that is what I would recommend. Create regional waste collection centers, repeal the parts of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act that require the repository at Yucca Mountain to be opened, start construction of reprocessing plants (or incentives for their commercial construction) and start research into and development of fast breeder reactors, with the intention of creating a closed nuclear fuel cycle within 50 years or so. 

The downside is the initial cost of closing Yucca, of building reprocessing plants and breeder reactors, is considerable. However, this will pay for itself in savings on new uranium once the closed fuel cycle is adapted, and in the removal of nuclear waste from the vicinities of dozens of American cities. Currently, the closing of Yucca has been blocked by lawsuits from Washington and several other states; however, they are motivated by a desire to prevent any eventual repository from being placed in their state (a site in Washington was a top contender after Yucca). I am positive that a commitment to regional centers and reprocessing plants would end their desire to block the closing of Yucca. 


Yucca Mountain should be closed permanently, regional collection centers should be constructed and waste transported to them as soon as possible, and reprocessing plants and breeder reactors constructed as soon as funding can be found for them. If successful, this program will minimize the risks of transporting nuclear waste, and eventually eliminate our current stockpiles of waste entirely. It will also protect domestic nuclear power against future scarcity of uranium (current reserves are predicted to last about 100 years, and Fukushima notwithstanding, there is still something of a nuclear boom taking place worldwide), in the event of the adoption of a closed fuel cycle. In addition, it will eventually lower costs for the ratepayers who consume electricity generated by the breeder reactors, and allow the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to focus its energies on strengthening our nuclear fleet instead of dealing with the waste. The only drawback is the initial cost, and the only obstacle is political will.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ex Uno Fonte, Part III: Faith in Science

XKCD says, "Science doesn't ask for your faith, it just asks for your eyes". Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy exults in scientists' fact- and experiment-based approach to life. The popular image of science is of something that's based firmly in fact, that doesn't require faith to see the objective state of the world.

I say otherwise. Here's three quick areas where, to believe in science's conclusions, the ordinary person has to have faith:

Faith In That Which Is Beyond Me 
I have no choice, if I want to believe in science, than to believe in a body of knowledge that I will probably never see and couldn’t understand even if I did. I take it on faith that Stephen Hawking wrote a paper somewhere sometime that says black holes exist. If you actually asked me to read it and understand his arguments, I wouldn’t be able to. Faith is required. This holds for scientists, too, in different disciplines; a marine biologist probably can't explain astrophysics, and vice versa. Be you a scientist or a lay person, you rely to some extent on the conclusions of others in understanding the universe, which means that you have to have faith in their honesty, transparency and reasoning abilities.

Faith In That Which We Have Already Discovered
There has to be faith that our universal laws will hold anywhere. Bill Anderegg, who I interviewed for a global warming note awhile back, explained it to me this way: We could argue forever over whether the data indisputably, beyond the slightest particle of doubt, show the planet to be warming up. But at some point when there’s a reasonable level of consensus, we have to be able to look at our results and say “Okay, we think this is good. Now we can extrapolate from these results and build on what we’ve found.” We have to have a certain amount of faith in what we’ve already discovered, be it universal laws or the pattern of spots on the bellies of East African toads, so we can build on that data and move onto the next thing. That’s faith, faith in our own discoveries, faith that they hold everywhere and all the time. If we didn’t believe that the luminosity of a star is proportional to the (temperature to the fourth power) times the (radius squared), every single place in the universe, we wouldn’t be able to draw any kind of conclusion from the stars. As it said in my physics textbook, we have to take it as a given that the laws of physics hold everyplace, and that, too, requires faith.

Faith In You, Me and All Of Us Together
You may have seen where I’m going with this third one based on the second one, as the second one is really a consequence of the third one, but whatever, it sounds better if I put this one last. The last thing we have to do is to believe in ourselves. That’s the biggest difference between religion and science. Religion asks us to believe in some external entity. I’m speaking from a predominantly Jewish background, and my culture is speaking from the Abrahamic tradition through me, but it doesn’t take a rabbi or a Thai monk to realize that all religions around the world believe in some higher power than humanity (with the possible exception of Animism). Whether it’s God, Jehovah, ancestral spirits, the spirit world or what, religion looks to the heavens for guidance and trusts that, by that guidance, the world will make sense.

But here’s why if I had to choose I’d go with science over religion: science asks us to believe in us. We’re supposed to believe that we—little dumb hairless apes that we are--have the capability and capacity to understand the world and the laws that make it up. We have the temerity to say that we can understand this huge, implacable, incredible, beautiful universe. And you know what science says to that? “Fuck yeah, we can.” Science tells us to believe in ourselves and in the whole human race, and in our ability to make the world make sense. And I believe the shit out of that philosophy.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Memory of Kim Tunnicliff

According to an email sent out by President Cornwall of the College of Wooster, Kim Tunnicliff was killed in a head-on collision at about 12:30 AM, Eastern time, or around eighteen hours ago. He was the director of off-campus studies at my college, and I will miss him greatly. The chair fell out from under me when I saw the email, about three hours ago. I'd like to say a few words in his memory, since I couldn't attend the on-campus gathering that took place earlier today.

I first met Kim in late January, after a semester spent in Washington D.C., when I needed to straighten out some issues with my transcript and transferring credit for my classes. When I walked into his office (slightly freaking out), without an appointment or anything like that, he immediately dropped what he was working on and gave me all the help I needed. He calmed me down, told me what I should do and whom I should speak to and what forms I should get, and showed me exactly how to get rid of my problem. He was kind, matter-of-fact and he helped me out immensely.

I would come back several times during the semester, either for some problem with one form or another, or to offer to speak at a gathering for future off-campus students he was organizing. Each time, Kim struck me as helpful, as very down-to-earth, and as a really comforting person. He had a way of making the labyrinth of paperwork and permissions that comprises off-campus study seem simple and manageable, and he made you feel good while he was doing it. I always left his office thinking more or less the same thing: "Here is a guy who genuinely wants to help me out and make my life easier. I couldn't ask for more." And even when I didn't need his immediate help, I enjoyed just sitting in his office and talking to him. He seemed like a great guy and a really approachable person, and I'm sad that I didn't get to know him better. He means a lot to me, and I'm sure that all the people he helped could say the same.

Please keep the family and friends of Kim Tunnicliff in your thoughts and prayers, as they will be in mine. I know I speak for everyone at COW when I say that he will be missed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Ex Uno Fonte", Part II: A Common Search For Understanding

The motto of my school, the College of Wooster, is the following Latin phrase: "Scientia et religio ex uno fonte". Literally translated, it goes something like "Science and religion from one source". I've been saying since last year's History of Life class, if not before, that I know the name of the source. If you'll permit me a somewhat secularized look at religion (and if you won't, fuck you, I'm going anyway), the source is simply the human drive to understand the universe. It's not just curiosity, although our apelike brains do help us out by driving us to see what that thing means. It's not just intelligence, which gives us the ability to wonder "What's that?" and actually search for the answers. No, the source of these two disciplines started so long ago that, today, we've forgotten what it's all about. It is a combination of fear and awe.

We, humans, like to understand things. More than that: we can't not understand things. It drives us nuts. We can assume that this has been a constant desire for all of human history, right? Well, picture yourself as a pre-agricultural hunter/gatherer/all-out wanderer. Picture yourself as a Roman, or as a Knight Templar, or as a Chinese sage. The world around you is absolutely loaded with things you don't understand. Forces of nature! Lightning! What's that? Thunder! Volcanoes! What are those? The whims of rain and cloud, the beasts around you that hunt you and are hunted in turn, why one plant is safe to eat and another turns your guts inside out. Why is the world the way it is? It can't just be arbitrary, oh, no. We won't accept it. There has to be a will, a plan, a divine plan. Ah-HAH! NOW you've got it! A divine plan! Beings older and wiser than our meager human selves have created the world in this, that, the other way. They made the world the way it was because of such-and-such a reason. It may sound arbitrary, but never mind, they're gods! They're capricious and beyond our understanding! There it is. Now we understand the world.

But it's not just limited to religion! That's science, too! We--scientists, even though I'm not remotely close to one, we're the same kind of Homo sapiens sapiens so I'll just insert a 'we'--are going after the world and trying to understand it too, just in a different way! What's the difference between a universal law--to pick a now-banal example, e = mc^2--and a God that says nothing in the universe can exceed the speed of light? What's the difference between a Higgs boson and an angel that weighs down each and every particle and gives it mass? Absolutely nothing! Sure, you can test for one and believe in the other, but at heart they're still explanations for the same basic phenomena! (Well, not basic, it took tens of thousands of years for us to work out the speed of light. But never mind.)

Science and religion are humanity's two great efforts to understand the world around us. They differ only in their methods and their conclusions; the underlying spirit is the same. We want to explain what we see, understand what we feel and why we feel it. We don't see them that way because they're so often in conflict, because the conclusions they draw are so very different. But that's fine! That's brilliant! It's the best thing that could possibly happen, because it brings us closer to a true understanding of the universe! When the theories come in contact and conflict, people's beliefs change. We're forced to ask the hard questions about what it all means, how one theory fits in with the other, how--and if--they can be compatible. We're forced to keep on looking for the one true answer, the answer that will reconcile the two systems and create our final understanding of the universe.

I know that this all sounds kind of nebulous (hee hee!). I know that words like 'understanding' and 'universe' are vague and all-encompassing. They're meant to be. They describe everything that we, as a people and as a species, want to achieve. Look, in physics right now there are two great theories: general relativity, which describes gravity, and quantum physics, which describes the three other forces. Unifying those two will produce what physicists hope will be a complete understanding of the universe. The parallel between that idea and what I am saying is nontrivial (as a statistician might say). Sooner or later, science and religion will begin to work together on a grand scale to meet the ultimate goal. And you and I might just live to see it.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, June 10, 2011

If The X-Men Were Really Interested In Helping Humanity

What They Could Do:

Professor X/Jean Grey/Emma Frost: Psychology, treatment of mental disorders, healing the mind

Cyclops: Boring tunnels, digging, carving trenches, all sorts of construction equipment

Beast: Solving/curing every disease ever

Wolverine: Donating cells for medical research (well, this applies to all the X-Men), allowing his healing factor to be adapted into universal cures for all diseases

The Multiple Man: ending world hunger

Iceman: unparalleled advancements in refrigeration technology, improving our ability to transport The Multiple Man's infinite food worldwide

Shadowcat/Nightcrawler: Rescuing trapped people after natural disasters

Storm: Saving countless lives by diverting/ending hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tennessee's Hurt Feelings Law: Where's the First Amendment?

Here's a scenario: Suppose I go to a party in Tennessee, and because I'm an ass, I'm taking pictures of drunken partygoers. While I'm there, I happen to snap a photo of Girl A making out with Boy B. I upload the image to Facebook, along with the rest of my party photos, and the next thing I know there's a police officer knocking at my door. Yes, I've just broken the newest Tennessee law: "Protection Against Embarrassment And Hurt Feelings".

Someone who "transmits or displays an image in a manner in which there is a reasonable expectation that the image will be viewed by the victim without legitimate purpose... with the malicious intent to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress; or in a manner the defendant knows, or reasonably should know (italics mine) would frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities; and as a result of the communication, the person is frightened, intimidated or emotionally distressed" is a criminal.

Normally I'd put an image here, but apparently THAT COULD HURT SOMEBODY'S FEELINGS

Presumably, this is intended to combat Internet harassment. The law previously contained the language "communicates with another person", but the law has now been broadened to also include images. So if either Girl A or Boy B was in any way embarrassed by my taking pictures, I could be convicted under this law. It's set up to fight stalkers, but it also is a massive infringement upon my First Amendment right to say and do what I please. Under this law, I don't have to be trying to hurt anyone; all that has to happen is for the 'victim' to view the image. Malicious intent isn't required. It could be on this blog, on my Facebook page, in an email that I sent. It could be an off-color joke that I sent, and whoa, suddenly it caused offense.

If I send someone a link to a shock site, or invite them to view "Two Girls, One Cup"*, and they're offended, I could go to jail for a year. Hell, if I recommend 4Chan to anyone, I'm going away for life! 

If I contradict you in an argument, and that causes you emotional distress, under the "communication" part of the law, that's punishable by jail as well. I'm not usually one to throw insults around, but for the Tennessee legislature, I cannot believe how stupid this is. If you want to arrest me for that, go right ahead.

Oh, yeah: I'm in Wisconsin. How would that work, exactly? The Internet has no physical location, so presumably the crime is committed where the victim is. Do you have to be physically in Tennessee to break this law?

Here's another scenario that should make your hair stand on end: A sex scandal breaks, and CNN shows viewers embarrassing pictures of a lawmaker fooling around with his colleague's wife. Under this law, the lawmaker can go after CNN for causing him emotional distress! There's no protection for journalists in the .pdf file, either; the law protects content providers ("the offense... shall not apply to an entity providing an electronic communications service to the public acting in the normal course of providing that service") but not necessarily one-way communication, like journalists -> the public.

Laws that protect us from physical harm are necessary, but laws that seek to protect our delicate feelings are just stupid. I hope this statute goes to court soon, and I hope it's overturned on the idiocy test as soon as it gets there.

*According to the full text, "'Image' includes, but is not limited to, a visual depiction, video clip or photograph of another person".

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

God As Father, Not As Lord

The traditional view of the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an has been to believe that they are sets of heavenly laws, handed down by God to man to show us the proper way to behave. This corresponds to the Old Testament-style God of rewards and punishments, and accords with God’s revealed word in the Qur’an. God is the Lord, and we are His subjects. It is because of this mindset that religious fundamentalists (of whatever stripe) seek to follow every command of their respective religious texts with as much narrow-minded zeal as they can muster, and to convince others to do the same.

But there are many names that we ascribe to the Judeo-Christian God. One of those names is Father. A stern Father, at times, yes; perhaps God is a former drill sergeant, who expects his offspring to snap to and salute before saying grace at the family dinner table. But a father nonetheless. If we start to think of God in this way, and take His commands as “more like guidelines than actual rules” (to quote Pirates of the Caribbean) we come up with some interesting ideas.

When a child is young, his father or her father does not tell the child everything about the adult world. How could he? The child is not ready; he is too young for certain topics. He is too young to know how babies are made, or about the smoky mysteries of drugs and alcohol. On a more social level, the child does not yet know how to act around other human beings. He is not ready. So the father does not tell his child everything, but he tells the child what not to do, to keep him safe. Do not play in the street. Don’t touch hot objects, don’t do this, that or the other action that might hurt you. He doesn’t always tell the child why it should avoid these things, only the prohibitions. Of course, the child will sometimes do these things anyway, and come away with bruises and scars. But with those injuries will come lessons. And when it is time for the child to become an adult, the father will begin to tell him—as he has been doing, by example, for years—what it means to be an adult. The child will begin to understand why the father told him not to do things, and learn to avoid them or to make them safer on his own.

"Do not touch!"
Why, for example, did God tell us to abstain from premarital sex? Someone who believes in the Lord might answer, “Who cares why? It is forbidden, and that is enough!” But someone who believes in the Father might say, “God told us not to have sex before marriage because, in the time and place when He gave that command, unwed mothers were scorned and looked down upon. Worse, in God’s view, it was bad for the community as a whole. So God warned us against premarital sex, not because it is intrinsically bad, but because it can have a bad result. But now we have condoms, we have IUDs, we have the pill and we have vasectomies. We are old enough to understand how we work, and we’ve figured out how to avoid getting pregnant. Because it is not wrong in and of itself, it is not a sin.”  In other words, God isn’t concerned with some higher right or wrong. God is not Law. God wants what is best for His children, and in that particular place at that particular time, that command was what was best. Now, we’re old enough—in a species- and technological sense—to know and avert some of the risks.

Lest this note begin to sound like I’m merely defending teenage licentiousness, you can apply this sort of thinking to dozens of commands. Why shouldn’t you lie with a man as you would with a woman? God might say, “If you do not procreate, your community will die out and that will be the end of you.” This is another danger we are no longer in. Why shouldn’t we drink alcohol? God might say, “In a desert environment, can you really afford to dehydrate yourself?” Why should we go forth and preach the gospel to nonbelievers? “To spread the word of our religion,” God might say, “for the more ears you reach, the less chance you will die out.” Why did God give us all these laws anyway? “To unite your people under one set of rules and help bind your community together.”

If we assign pragmatic motivations to each individual command, if we assume that his commands are paternally intended for the good of the community, we find that many still apply-the Ten Commandments, for example-and many are no longer necessary.

I know that assigning motivations to God is the height of arrogance. But in my view, the choice is between believing that God gave His commands just because, and we should follow them just because… or that God gave His commands to protect us, and we should follow the ones we need to follow and discard the ones we no longer need. Not because something is intrinsically right or intrinsically wrong, but because it’s a good idea or a terrible idea, like adultery. God gave us brains with which to think, and He gave us maturity so that we may think critically about the world. I believe that He wanted us to decide, in time, which of His commands we should follow… just as a parent eventually allows their child to see the world for themselves, and decide for themselves what to make of it.*

*I’m a pragmatist, and this is generally how I see the world. Instead of judging, I ask “Does it work?”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I Am An Incurable Optimist

I used to think of myself as a cynical, pessimistic sort, but apparently somewhere along the line I morphed into a jackassedly persistent optimist. Example: it's apparently 96 degrees in Milwaukee today, and when you step outside it feels like you're in God's kitchen and He's baking a huge thing of cookies. First thing that pops out of my mouth: "Good thing it's not humid!" Friggin' bright-siding...

Also, I saw a family of Orthodox Jews and couldn't help but feel sorry for them. Wearing a full suit in this heat is bad, but at least they get a wide-brimmed hat to keep off the sun. The kids all had their yarmulkes on, which must be like wearing a heating pad on your head when you're outdoors. Yeesh. Thank God for Reformism, or I'd be stuck there too.

I don't even wanna contemplate the hats in the back.

Monday, June 6, 2011

CLASSIFIED: New England Patriots HQ to Special Agent Josh McDaniels

(Preface: Through diligent intelligence work and sheer luck, we here at Tisdel's Tirades have managed to locate a digital copy of the top-secret orders issued to Josh McDaniels before the 2009 football season, by Head Coach Bill Belichick. We must remind our readers that this document has yet to be substantiated by the parties in question, who have publically denied the existence of all evidence presented herein. As such, we advise readers to proceed with caution.)

SUBJECT: Operation Dead Horse

DATE: 1/05/2010

FROM the Office of Grand Lord Wizard Belichick

Your Final Marching Orders


TO: Special Agent Josh McDaniels

I must congratulate you on the successful fulfillment of Phase I of our grand Anti-Bronco design. For many years, I have harbored a deep and lasting hatred of the Denver Broncos, and it gladdens my crusty heart to see our plot to destroy the team, and the Broncos' credibility, finally coming to fruition. 

As you may recall, my faithful disciple, Phase I of our plot involved setting you up as an offensive mastermind, while at the same time ensuring (through a variety of clandestine methods) that the Broncos' offense would absolutely stink for the past few years. Through these efforts, we were finally able to depose my arch-rival, the evil and devious Mike Shanahan. But even more importantly, my fellow schemer, we ensured that the Broncos would come knocking on your door after they fired the old bat! You played your part perfectly, my dear Josh, and as I type these words, your commission as Head Coach of the hated Broncos is a certainty. (I cannot express how important it is to me, that you were able to overcome your personal repugnance for all things Bronco for the Cause. Such loyalty and devotion brings tears to my crinkled eyes.)

As soon as the offseason begins, you are ordered to commence Phase II of our grand design: dismantling the core of young, talented skill players that the Broncos have assembled over the past few years, and simultaneously creating the biggest media shitstorm since Brett Favre's unretirement. 

You will arrange for the trade of their little Pro Bowl quarterback, one Jay Cutler, to some unremarkable NFC team. Create as large and as public a feud with him as you can; anything that helps erode the Broncos' credibility will help in our grand design. You will also ship their star receiver, Brandon Marshall, and their skilled tight end Tony Scheffler, out of town as soon as possible. In addition to these changes, I command you to switch Denver to a 3-4 defense, knowing full well that they have shitty personnel to run it. This will create chaos and confusion on both sides of the ball. (If you think it appropriate, you may also create a videotaping scandal similar to the one we endured here, as well as whatever other evil plots are in your power to execute. I recommend signing a bunch of over-the-hill free agents to eat up Denver's cap room.)

Having dealt a crushing blow to the integrity and reputation of the Denver franchise, you will then proceed to crush the hopes and dreams of the Denver fan base. You will enter Phase III by going undefeated through at least the first five weeks of the season. You will even defeat the Mothership, in overtime if possible, and thereby bolster both your reputation and the hopes of the Denver fans. Then you shall fuck those hopes with a hedge-trimmer. You shall bolster your record to 8-4, and in so doing, give Denver a chance to grab their first playoff spot and division title in four years... and proceed to lose, excruciatingly, every single remaining game. The horror and confusion in Colorado shall be a glorious sight!

(Picture added by TT staff)
After that, Agent McDaniels, I give you free reign. Draft whomever you feel will be the most divisive player on the board, sign lousy free agents, lose games, do whatever you can to ruin their franchise. I will be watching from afar, and if all goes well, I shall be aglow with a secret pride. Do not disappoint me, Agent McDaniels, and one day you shall find your way back to the Patriot Mothership. 

In the name of all Bronco-crushing endeavors, and in the name of our Grand Design, I salute you. 

May the dark side of the Force be with you. 

---Grand Lord Wizard Bill Belichick

"I will do my utmost, Lord Belichick."

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Timeline: My First Shorewood Run in Friggin' Forever

00:00 Commence running endeavors. I feel invincible!

02:00 Oh, yeah, hills! I remember those (puff, pant)

06:08 Doctor Who theme song comes on. +10 energy boost.

09:24 "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" theme song comes on. Instead of changing it, sings along to half the words. (Gasps the rest.)

15:08 Reaches turnaround point. Takes a second to recover and stretch. Takes off shirt; blinds innocent passerby with sheer whiteness.

17:08 Entering Shorewood. Is too bushed to care. "Rods and Cones" by Blue Man Group gives strength.

26:58 Reaches Shorewood High School. Collapses on first concrete step (leaves sweat-mark).

28:00 Ambles around aimlessly, looking for a bubbler. All doors leading to bubblers are locked. Much invective shouted to the heavens.

30:02 Decide to stretch.

30:16 Ow ow OW blisters!

30:20 Cry like little girl.

30:40 Grit teeth and bear it, like He-Man!

31:38 Finish He-Man stretches. See massively muscular runner come charging up the school front lawn, on the last leg of his own run, and head for Fitness Center. Lose all pretensions to He-Man-ism.

33:00 Decide, reluctantly, to do "Six-Minute Ab" workout of death.

33:45 Sensory cortex malfunctioning. Visuals impaired. What was at first glance a tall white woman inexplicably becomes two black girls. Much confusion.

36:00 Profound hate of self and everything self stands for.

39:00 Equally profound hate, but at least NIGHTMARE IS OVER

40:15 Strech some more. Decides to walk home barefoot.

40:30 Sensory cortex mistakes fuse-box and power outlet for excited puppy. Sensory cortex also mistakes cruel, harsh world for kind, forgiving world...

40:31-41:10 Spend next 40 seconds reenacting "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" as "Jew on Flaming-Hot Blacktop of Doom"

41:11 YOWCH ow ow YIKES

50:12 Reach home.

50:15 Reach shower.

50:18 Convert to Showernitarianism as new religion. Swear to be devoted servant for life.

55:18 Massive check arrives from American Water & Power Corporation, congratulating me upon religion change.

55:19-......... Do nothing for rest of day

Noon tomorrow: "Hey, I should go running again!"

The Ancient Threat Returning: Trend Study

I'm a big fantasy reader, and one of the biggest plot devices used in sci-fi and fantasy works or series is the concept of a "returning evil". I've seen it in scads of different places, and probably, so have you. Here's a generic description:

Long ago, in the Before-time, a great evil walked the Earth/roamed among the stars. This evil was eventually defeated/sealed away/stopped in some other fashion, and it stayed that way for thousands/millions of years. But now, the great evil is returning. Our ancestors were awesome; now it's just us. We have to find some way to defeat/destroy/re-seal-up the evil with what we've got right now.

This scenario crops up everywhere. It's in Lord of the Rings (Sauron), The Wheel of Time (The Dark One), Game of Thrones (TBD), Harry Potter (Voldemort), Doctor Who (several uses; mostly Daleks), Babylon 5 (The Shadows), the Abhorsen trilogy (Orannis) and various H.P. Lovecraft works (notably referring to Cthulhu), among many others.

As it turns out, since the hive-mind at TVTropes is considerably smarter and more on top of things than I am, they have a whole page about this, called "Sealed Evil in a Can", and give a bunch of other examples. So the best I can do is give my small opinion about why it works so well in these particular genres.

-It instantly creates a sense of menace. Sauron may have an army of orcs, but he doesn't really do anything (in books or movies) other than send the orcs to attack things and gaze menacingly out of the Palantir at Pippin. He's not really all that scary. But if we learn that he once nearly destroyed the world, when he had the Ring... now he's a bit frightening. Likewise the Daleks. In the new series, when we meet them, they could be just the alien bad guy of the week (albeit an astonishingly deadly one). What makes "Dalek" the best episode of Season 1 is their history, and the Doctor's instinctive dread for them. Having what sticks in my mind as a "once and future evil" gives the evil in question instant badass credentials.

-It establishes the heroes' weakness and gives the viewer a sense of risk. Usually, the people who did the defeating/sealing away of the Great Evil were much more powerful than the present day; similarly, the Evil was usually much stronger too. If we know that our modern-day heroes aren't as good as the ones back then, we're less likely to expect them to win just because they're the good guys. We know they'll be overmatched.

Holy hell, I just got trapped in TVTropes for a solid hour. Where was I going with this?

I don't know. Will edit later if it comes back. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Final Black Hole Note: This Is Absurd

A couple of black hole notes ago, I was able to roughly deduce the size of the Vulcan black hole in Star Trek (2009) and take a stab at its mass. I'm decently confident in my conclusions to date, but it occurs to me that there must be some other mechanism at work when there's a great deal of red matter involved. I think the massive amounts of red matter used in the creation of the Final Black Hole somehow gave it more gravitational attraction, and perhaps more mass than it should reasonably have.

I conclude this because, as I noted last time, the Enterprise can travel faster than light, and should therefore have been able to pull away from the black hole without any trouble. In the quest to try and fit all of J.J. Abrams' nonsense into an astronomically coherent system, I'm going to see what it would take for the FBH to have the kind of gravitational attraction that it did.

At the end of the movie, before they blow up the black hole with antimatter, the Enterprise goes to full warp in order to escape from the FBH. I couldn't find an exact value in the Star Trek Wiki for how fast "maximum warp" is, in terms of kilometers per hour; it did say that Warp 1 equals light speed and that Starfleet ships could manage Warp 9 at best during this time period, but I don't know what scale they're using. Warp 9 could be 9x light speed, or it could be nine levels up on an exponential, logarathmic or just arbitrary scale. I don't know. Thus, I'm forced to try Plan B.

In the movie, the Enterprise travels from Earth to the Vulcan home world. Now, according to a canon reference in a Star Trek novelization book I happen to own, the Vulcan home planet orbits 40 Eridani A. This is a real star, located 16.45 light years from Earth. Now, here's where it gets slightly stupid: we see the Enterprise both entering and exiting warp in the movie. If we assume that the movie is taking place in real time (and there's compelling evidence to do so; Kirk's in a tearing hurry the whole time), we can know the time it takes for the Enterprise to travel that distance. In the film, that's five minutes and 17 seconds. Meanwhile, Wikipedia gives one light year as 9,460,730,472,580.8 km. That times 16.45 is 155629016273954.16 km. That divided by 317 seconds is 490,943,269,003.01 kilometers per second. Light travels at a geriatric 300,000 kilometers per second, so when the Enterprise is at warp, it is traveling at 1,636,477 times the speed of light. Which means that the gravitational pull of the black hole is 1,636,477 times the speed of light, plus more, since the Enterprise was slowly pulled in by the black hole. WHICH MEANS that as soon as the black hole was created, Kirk and Spock and everyone aboard both the Romulan ship and the Enterprise should've been pulled inside immediately (when they weren't at warp) and DIED.

In conclusion, J.J. Abrams has literally violated every single rule* of what we know about black holes. Fuck that noise.

*Multiplication of mass, abuse of the Schwartzchild radius, we can see the unseeable black hole on the screen, no red-shift in the communications from Nero's ship, evidence of an accretion disk where no matter exists to make one, more abuse of the Schwartzchild radius AND SO ON.