Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Back to nature at Big Bear Lake

Visited Big Bear Lake for the first time on Tuesday. It's really a beautiful place, and the weather was perfect: slightly cool but sunny all day. The highlight was when I saw a pelican just as he was catching a fish.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bad science: Prometheus (SPOILERS!)

Like a lot of science fiction fans, Alien and Blade Runner are two of my favorite movies of all time.  The wonderful atmosphere, the deep characters, the timeless themes, they are head and shoulders above most movies in the genre.

So naturally, I was looking forward to Ridley Scott's third science fiction film:  Prometheus, a prequel to Alien.  What I was not expecting was some of the worst science fiction that I have ever seen.  There are major plot holes in character development and motivation, but even worse for me was the incredible disregard for basic science.

I'm the kind of guy who goes out of his way to give folks the benefit of the doubt.  But it is clear that whoever wrote this dreck would not have passed high school science.


Here I'll list a few of the reasons why I think this movie is an affront to physics, medicine, computer science, biology, and cartography.

1) Astronomy/Archeology:  At the beginning of the movie, we are treated to a wonderful scene of a single member of the species later referred to as "The Engineers" putting his DNA into the water supply.  Cut to modern times, where our hero archaeologist couple finds a cave painting of a giant being pointing to five stars.

Where to start?  First, why would this alien being give us a direct clue about where he/she came from?  Second, memory isn't passed through DNA, so how would anyone know to draw this?  Third, if ancient peoples had the memory passed through the magic DNA, why would no one now have it?  I never thought I would utter these words:  How they found the pyramid in Alien v. Predator was more realistic than how they found the pyramid in this film. (Shudder.)

2) Biology:  The biologist refers to evolutionary theory as "Darwinism", a term used almost exclusively today by creationists trying to paint evolution as a faith rather than science, and rarely used by real scientists.  Moreover, he says "300 years of Darwinism" a mere 230 years after the publication of "The Origin of Species".

3) Biology:  The DNA of the Engineers is a match with human DNA.  This simply makes no sense from a biological perspective.  A few million years of evolution and our DNA will be very different simply through random drift and mutation than that of the Engineers.  And if the Engineer DNA dump happened more recently, then why do we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees again?

4) Linguistics:  David speaks the Alien language by studying all of Earth's languages.  Again, memory isn't passed through DNA.  Moreover, he reads and writes it as well.  Now, in the opening scene we do see writing on the lid of the container the Engineer opens at the beginning.  But even if someone stumbled across this *single lid in the entire world*, why would that person think that represented writing *before writing was invented*.  Any human writing would be independently created, as would our speech.  Again, this is just bad writing by someone who wants to ignore what we do know about the evolution of human language.

5) Cartography:  The only character who gets lost in the entire film is *the geologist who is specifically mapping the cave system*.  He's leading the group in the first part of the story!  Heck, I can read an automap, and I don't exactly have a PhD in cartography.

6) Biology:  I’ve got a drop of unknown alien substance. Do I a) put it on a slide and stick it under the microscope? b) infect one of the many lab animals brought along for the purpose of testing biological material, c) put it in a Petri dish with Agar nutrient d) attempt to infect one of the two “leaders” of the expedition by *dipping the material first in alcohol* and then tricking the hapless test subject into drinking it, after which lose interest and do not observe the person for the next twelve hours.

7) Medicine:  The magic medical machine is a wonderful advance of future technology.  It is also utterly ridiculous.  Once you have the hardware to preform automated surgery, the rest is simple software.  But when Shaw tries to use the machine for an abortion, she is coldly informed that the machine is only set up for male patients.  What?  My camera card has a 128 gig card in it, and this giant machine only has the procedures for the menfolk downloaded?  (This scene was intended as foreshadowing for the return of a character that only people who don't know who Guy Pearce is thought was dead, but it comes across as a pointless restriction on future tech.)

8) Medicine:  The self automated surgery is the coolest scene in the film.  It is also an affront to human physiology.  It occurs too early in the film.  After a cut across the abdomen of that length (about 15 inches from what I saw), Shaw could not even stand up without "passing out" levels of pain.  But not only does she stand, she walks, and she outruns CGI explosions!

9) Physics:  The Engineers space ship is heading away from the pyramid.  The Prometheus is heading away from the pyramid.  So when they collide, why does the Engineers ship drop straight down right on top of the landing site.  Conservation of momentum?  Not on this planet!

10) Cybernetics:  It's 2012, and we're still not past this "robots have no souls" nonsense.  I would think after Bishop, T2, Data, and Scott's own Blade Runner, we'd have moved past this crazy notion that robots can't be moral.  (See also, everything Asimov ever wrote about robots.)  David is a sentient being who passes the Turing test with flying colors.  He's also an amoral jackass.  Being a robot doesn't excuse that.

Okay enough ranting.  Go see Prometheus for the spectacle of Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron having a contest to see who can act more inhuman, but when they try to do science, please, don't let your children watch.

Prometheus:  2 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 2, 2012

Gallifrey One

Last weekend was this year's Gallifrey One, the fan run Doctor Who convention in LA.  This year I was delighted to see one of my favorite actors, Mark Sheppard, was attending.  He blew me away as the lawyer in Romo Lampkin in Battlestar Galactica, and that's when I realized I'd actually seen him quite a lot in earlier roles.  X-Files, Invisible Man, Firefly--he'd made all the rounds of sci-fi in small but memorable roles.  And then he got the role of Crowley on Supernatural and just took it to the next level.

This latest season of Doctor Who he starred in the first two episodes which meant that he was fair game for an invite to a Doctor Who convention.  The favorite part of the convention for me was the live commentary that he did with the director (Toby Haynes.)  I did not like everything about that episode, but Sheppard and Haynes' commentary was great--highlighting things I hadn't noticed and giving a unique perspective on the action.  

It wasn't until I saw that episode of Doctor Who that I realized that W. Morgan Sheppard and Mark Sheppard were related--father and son.  The elder Sheppard is another great character actor who has swept through some great sci-fi.  It's irrational, but you always hope that the actors you love to watch are actually as great in person as the characters they play.  A wonderful day!

Mark Sheppard and W. Morgan Sheppard answer audience questions at Gallifrey One

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular

I've been an audience participant at a lot of shows in Orlando but in fifteen years I've never been able to crack the big one:  The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular.

Until now.

This past Christmas Eve, I was with my parents celebrating the Disney way, and as evening approached, we wandered on in to the Indy show.  The show does three of the most famous scenes from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Being Christmas Eve, the theater was packed to the gills, it probably holds several thousand people.

That's what makes volunteering for this show so hard!  They pick a dozen folks out of a couple thousand, and so you have to bring your A game to be a volunteer.  I did my best, wearing a bright red Disneyland shirt, screaming joyfully when he asked for volunteers, and finally got it!  And not just any spot, but the coveted "last pick", where you get to let out a primal scream for the crowd.  Thanks to my Mom and her trusty Powershot, you can see for yourself!

It was great fun!  After the introduction you see above we got our requisite turbans and robes for the Cairo market scene, and got a front row view of the action as the stunt performers worked all around us.  Afterwards we received our final parting gift, yes, an official Disneyland cup of water!
Official Disney World paper cup

After being a volunteer, we got to return to our seats in time to see the great finale with the out of control airplane and the cool explosions.  At that point I was glad that the sun had gone down, fire looks so much cooler at night!
Boom goes the fuel dump

One more surprise came later.  During the Christmas Break, a student of mine from Calculus last year wrote me an email to ask if that was really me volunteering at the Indy show.  If it was not me, she said "I'm just giving you a heads up that you have a doppelgänger in Claremont."  First, major props for use of the word doppelgänger!  Second, that's just crazy amazing that one of my students happened to be in the audience.    It's a small world after all.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Cranial Activity

This past summer was a good one for seeing cranes! Back in May I visited the International Crane Foundation for the first time. They are one of the few zoos that has all fifteen species of cranes on display. Also, they do a lot of great work getting Whooping Crane population numbers back up. Here's a picture of their enclosure for the Whooping Cranes where one crane was always on the nest while the other was looking for food.

Later that summer I was in Montana. While walking in a field near Anaconda with some family, we disturbed three cranes who immediately took flight. The red heads, black wing tips, and white bodies indicated that these were three more Whooping Cranes! The only thing I can't figure out is the brown splotches on the back since adult Whooping Cranes are pure white. So I believe that these are young cranes, still with some of the brown coloring from their younger days. Any crane experts out there?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Birds do it

One of my grandmother's great joys in her last few years was watching her hummingbird feeder.  They still keep it well fed up at the farm, and the birds still love it.

Most of the pictures I took of the Red Ruby Hummingbirds were on continuous shooting mode, which captures about five shots per second.  Of course, what goes in must eventually come out.  The following frame captures a quick event, a Hummingbird lightening its load.  This did not appear in either the preceding or successive frames, so I now know that a Hummingbird can do it's business in under 0.4 seconds!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ken and Jean's Wedding

The month of May was full of travel for me!  Right after I had submitted my grades, I flew up to Wisconsin to see my uncle Ken get married.  Jean is a wonderful woman, and I wish them both all the happiness in the world. The wedding was held at St. Mary's Church in Briggsville.

After the wedding, everyone headed over to Maggie Mae's Barn for some great food. Maggie Mae and her band provided the entertainment at the reception.

Weddings are an excellent way to reconnect with family that you haven't seen for a while, and this was no exception.  In fact, I met and got to chat with folks and relatives whom I hadn't seen in decades.   Perhaps the highlight, though, was the wedding cake: a miniature replica of Clover View Farms.