Category Archives: Philosillyphizing

Pursuing the never ending quest for knowledge.

Easter Eggs

So, I love the show Heroes, as any red-blooded American geek should.  And I recently listened to the episode of Mur Lafferty’s podcast I Should Be Writing, where she interviewed Paul Malmont, author of the Chinatown Death Cloud Peril (and Paul Malmont is on my list of "good guys" because, although I haven’t read his novel, he didn’t start writing novels until he was roughly my age, which makes me feel better about that whippersnapper who wrote, in an issue of Writers’ Digest a couple of years ago, that 32 was "a bit old" to start writing).

What these two items have in common is "Easter eggs".  Heroes is full of them, from Stan Lee as the bus driver a couple of episodes back to Hiro’s dad’s license plate ("NCC-1701"); you know, little inside jokes and bits of humor that writers and producers put into the show as nods to the people who are really looking for such things (of course, there are such "Easter eggs" in video games and DVD menus as well, but I’m not counting those because I’ve never been clever enough to find any of those).  Lost is full of this kind of thing as well: little tiny clues that may or may not offer just a tad more insight into what’s going on, or at least a little more amusement or intrigue for sharp-eyed viewers.  And in his interview, Malmont said that he’s put a few little Easter eggs like that into his novel.  As I said, I haven’t read the novel, so I’m not privy to any of those little gems, but I’m sure they’re there and I’m sure they’re clever.

And naturally, because I am a narcissist, I began to think about my own writing.  I’ve thrown a few little Easter eggs into Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster; not to be pretentious or anything, just because I thought it was fun to have the cat be named Banzai, or have Jenny Grist imprisoned in Cell 37 of Doctor Nefario’s prison.  These don’t really mean anything; they’re just symptoms and signs of the overly narcissistic and perhaps fatally self-referential culture in which we live.

Then there’s my Mollyverse stories, which are sort of turning into one huge Easter egg hunt, if you will, what with all the little references to one another that I’m deliberately putting in.  The challenge with that — and the reason I’ve stalled so long with The Winds of Patwin County — is putting in these references in such a way so that each story can be read and enjoyed on its own, but all of the Easter eggs, when taken together, create an additional layer of narrative which gives deeper insight into the stories.

Man, I like saying shit like that.  "Create an additional layer of narrative."  Makes me sound smart, like my five years of college working for that philosophy degree weren’t wasted after all.

What about you?  Have you written any Easter eggs or inside jokes into any of your stories?  What are some of your favorite examples, both in your own writing or in others’?

Pale Blue Dot

Phil Plait, over at Bad Astronomy, says that Carl Sagan’s essay, "Reflections on a Mote of Dust" (collected in Pale Blue Dot) ought to be required reading for every human being on the planet.  I agree, and add that this video, which combines Sagan’s beautiful essay with music and imagery, ought to be required viewing for all of us.

The video’s beneath the fold. Enjoy. Continue reading Pale Blue Dot

To hack or not to hack

I was thinking about the word “hacking” recently; not the word as it is traditionally misused in the media (they mean “crackers”), but the word as it traditionally means, as explained in the First Thesis of Geek Activism:

Reclaim the term ‘hacker’. If you tinker with electronics, you are a hacker. If you use things in more ways than intended by the manufacturer, you are a hacker. If you build things out of strange, unexpected parts, you are a hacker. Reclaim the term.

At work, I regularly produce hacks in Moodle to change Moodle’s operational model to match our own business logic. It’s fun and not too unlike those guys in the 50’s and 60’s who would mess with radios and other gadgets to produce toys and gizmos that did far more than the manufacturer intended.

Then I started wondering about other things that can be hacked. If a piece of software can be hacked to do something other than it was intended to, and a programming language can be hacked to introduce expanded functionality, then what other tools and even means of communication can be hacked to expand their usefulness or aesthetic appeal? Can we think of the great jazz improvisationalists as musical hackers? How about J. S. Bach? I, personally, have found fascinating similarities between Bach’s concertos, the piano ragtimes of Scott Joplin, and the hardcore punk sound of Flogging Molly (well, I think they’re fascinating, even though I’m not a music critic or professional by any stretch of the imagination).

So what about language? Can English (or any language, of course, but since English is what I speak, that’s the example I’ll use) be hacked? If so, what does the notion suggest? Are poets and novelists hackers? How would we compare the output of a truly great language hacker as opposed to that of a poor or mediocre one?

Ruminations on a Zeppo

The cold I picked up in Ireland appears to have mutated into some sort of annoying permanent viral respiratory infection which has knocked me on my ass for the past couple of weeks. I’m extremely fortunate in that I can work from home while sick, which means I can stay close to my nebulizer and all my other medicines, and also be close to my doctor just in case I need to see him at some point. I’d rather be in the office, because sitting at home tends to make me kind of stir crazy.

I have been using the opportunity these past two weeks, though, to catch up on a bunch of DVD’s that my parents gave to me for Christmas. Among these films is a collection of ultra-cheap discs including some Flash Gordon, some Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, and a disc full of giant lizard action (the silent version of The Lost World, The Giant Gila Monster, and a Superman cartoon featuring the Man of Steel fighting a Tyrannosaurus pulled from the Arctic ice). It’s been fun watching these old shows, comparing the narrative style of, say, Flash Gordon, to more modern stories. Make no mistake; these stories are more sophisticated than the modern viewer typically assumes. At least, it’s a way to keep my mind off my lungs.

Also among the DVD’s in my collection is the Silver Screen collection of five Marx Brothers films. This collection includes Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Animal Crackers, and The Cocoanuts. A few months ago I watched Duck Soup and resisted the urge to compare the governorship of Rufus T. Firefly with the presidency of George Bush (I find it much easier to take Groucho seriously as a national leader than George Bush); the other day, I watched Horse Feathers. Right now I’m watching Monkey Business to lubricate my brain as I try to install PHP OCI8 extensions on our server.

Zeppo MarxOne thing that has struck me in particular about these films is the role of Zeppo. Traditionally Zeppo is considered a minor player in the Marx Brothers movies (this is so much the conventional wisdom that an episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, featuring Xander and exploring his less than central role in the stories, was called “The Zeppo”). It seems to me, though, that Zeppo has a comic persona just as developed, though more subtle, as those of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. Groucho’s the wisecracking smart-alec, Chico’s the crazed Italian, Harpo’s the — well, he’s the Harpo. But what is Zeppo? Who is he supposed to be?

Zeppo, with his clean cut looks and tidy suit, appears to be a straight man; and he plays his roles mostly as a straight man. And yet there’s a certain insanity in Zeppo that isn’t hard to see; from the opening moments of Monkey Business, when he emerges from the barrel with that crazed yet moronic grin, he comes across as almost a surreal parody of the typical guy on the street. His mundane interactions with the women passengers on the ship are quite funny. There’s that scene where he promises, “Mary, I’ll never leave you”, whereupon he jumps up and runs off stage at top speed as the ship’s officers approach.

So, watching Zeppo, it’s easy to forget that he can be just as crazed as Groucho; it’s just that he’s far more subtle about it.  He’s the crazed straight man, the guy on the street who looks perfectly normal but who has those eyes that dart back and forth, looking for a barrell to duck into — or to put over your head.
I recently learned that Zeppo also acted as an understudy to his brothers; rumor has it that he played Groucho even better than Groucho did.   More evidence of Zeppo’s comic abilities.  It’s a shame that he chose later on to leave show business and become a talent agent.  He was even given a larger role in the film Horse Feathers (which he did brilliantly) in the hopes that he would change his mind.  He didn’t.
Perhaps when Joss Whedon equated Xander to Zeppo in that episode, it was a deeper commentary on Xander’s role than it would seem superficially. I wouldn’t put that past Whedon, after all. He’s pretty clever that way.

I dunno. Maybe I’m just ruminating over a subject which has been beaten to death already in academia. Maybe there’s a pile of feathers where once a horse had been flogged to death. Or maybe the asthma is impacting my ability to think straight or write coherently.  But I think it’s an interesting question.

Ruminations on a Vampire Slayer

Over the past month or so, I’ve been sick with a persistent URI (though my doctor and I are working on a different theory now — more on that some other time), and I’ve been taking advantage of the situation to rewatch all seven seasons of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Of course I’m working while doing this; the DVD’s play on my laptop computer next to my desktop computer, unless my desktop is disabled for some reason (see below).
Right now, I’m just over halfway through season six of Buffy. It is certainly different and darker than earlier seasons. I can see why many fans didn’t care for this season very much, but I like it just as much as, say, first or third seasons. The demons are more representative of the dark side of reality, I think, and the metaphors are more explicit. I also like the deepened characterizations and the darkened themes. Life is hard at times, and everyone knows this. We all go through periods like this when we’re adolescents, times when we feel like our friends are deserting us, when we aren’t sure what’s the right thing to do, when we have to take crap jobs just to keep our heads above water, and so on.

Currently, I’m watching the episode called “Normal Again”, in which Buffy is infected by a demon’s venom which makes her believe she’s in a mental hospital, and the whole Sunnydale experience has been an hallucination. One of the most telling scenes, I think, which encapsulates the entire season in a few brilliant seconds, is when Buffy has the chance to drink the antidote, but after a chewing out by Spike, she just dumps the antidote into a nearby trash can. During those dark times of our lives, we all probably entertain the happy idea that everything we’re going through is just a dream or a mind trip; I know that there have certainly have been times when I’ve wished that everything that’s happened to me since 7th grade was just a dream. This one scene represents a moment when Buffy chooses the fantasy over the painful reality, even if the fantasy itself is painful. The reality of her situation, of the poverty, of the wage slave job, of the friendships imploding, of her relationship with Spike, all of that is just too painful; she chooses to believe instead that everything she’s experienced has just been a dream in a psych ward. One of the most poignant scenes in this episode is a flashback to the mental hospital when Joyce, Buffy’s dead mother, tells her that “the world looks like a hard place”, giving her a pep talk to bring her back to “reality”. They are the words of a loving mother. And then Buffy chooses the Sunnydale life again over the mental ward. She affirms reality and her role in it, affirming herself. I think this really marks the beginning of Buffy’s recovery from the trauma of being brought back to life at the beginning of the season; and this recovery of her confidence and her self affirmation are essential to setting up the final season of the series.

Of course, there’s also that little scene at the end of the episode back in the mental hospital with the catatonic Buffy and the doctor saying, “I’m afraid we’ve lost her.” It’s a nifty little mindfuck, and I’m always up for one of those. But it also reasserts the episode’s theme, and, I think, one of the central themes of the entire season (and possibly the series): coming to terms with yourself, even if the alternative seems more pleasant. As we’ve seen throughout the entire series, Buffy’s always wanted to be just a normal girl, and not have the duties and responsibilities of being the Slayer; yet, when given the opportunity, she chooses Slayer-hood over a potentially different existence which seemed, at least for just a moment, more pleasant.

So, yeah, this season isn’t as purely entertaining in a “gosh wow yippee ha ha ha” sort of way as the earlier seasons were. But for me, the deeper characterizations and explorations of darker themes makes it more enjoyable for me.

This is a controversial position, I know. But then I also really enjoyed the season finale of BSG, and I thought the series finale for Angel was brilliant.

In other news: I’ve been busy with work, and with personal IT projects. I got it into my head to upgrade my desktop workstation to the latest beta release of Kubuntu, otherwise known as “Dapper Drake”. I upgraded to “Flight 5”, which is still a beta release, and thus inherently unstable. This required two reinstalls, since the first time I made a critical error which resulted in the removal of nearly two dozen key libraries, making KDE — and X, really — unusable. I learned my lesson there. But after two days of tinkering and messing around I’ve got my system back to a stable place, though I’m still not happy with how some GTK applications, like Firefox, are presented in KDE. And Konqueror is a touch unstable still. And I haven’t been successful in setting up file associations to launch the proper applications when I click on a link to a file on my desktop. Kind of annoying. Oh, and setting up udev so that newly connected USB devices work properly took a few hours of tinkering and research, and I almost gave up and reverted when I just couldn’t get MP3’s to play. Turns out the new core system along with the latest beta release of Amarok required eight new libraries to decode MP3’s, instead of the two that were required before.

I’ve also been working on a web-based submissions tracker for my writing. That’s been fun.

And, of course, I’ve been sick, and I’ve also been really busy with work. Hence my non-communicativeness over the past couple of weeks.

All of this, of course, is basically a way of saying that I’ve been avoiding revising Fred, Again.

Supraluminal

I just think that the word “supraluminal” — which means “faster than light” — is cool. Isn’t it? It’s actually a really pretty word. Something you’d name your daughter, right?

The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, more or less. Nothing in our universe can travel faster than that, not if they want to remain, you know, real. It’s not just a matter of not knowing how to do it (we once didn’t know how to travel faster than sound, and thought it was impossible); it’s a matter of the entire infrastructure of modern physics breaking down utterly if it were possible for something to travel faster than the speed of light. When you hit that speed, time stops, your mass increases to infinity, and you effectively become a point in space, as I understand it. Photons, having no mass, can travel at the speed of light without becoming black holes, but nothing else can.

In a way, it’s depressing for those of us who like science fiction and the possibilities of intergalactic stories. The distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is so great that it takes light four years to reach us from there; we say it’s four light years away. Any engine that we human beings come up with for space ships is not likely to even reach a respectable percentage of the speed of light, so a journey of one of our space ships to Proxima Centauri is likely to take hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But this past week, two German scientists came up with a paper theorizing a way to send ships to distances in space in much less time. The Moon could only be a couple of hours away, Mars a three-day ride, and Alpha Centauri no more than eighty days. This means faster than light travel. Which is impossible. According to Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy, the paper relies on the existence of several new particles that we haven’t yet observed, on parallel space (something else we’ve never observed), and incredibly complicated mathematics which I doubt I’ll ever even come close to understanding.

But it really sounds like bunk to me. Cool as interstellar supraluminal travel would be, I think that these two German scientists are either working with bad data or are trying to fool everyone. I don’t know the science involved at all, but it just sounds too good to be true. And some reports suggest that a working prototype of an engine based on these principles could be around in just five years, which is also too wonderful to believe.

On the other hand, maybe they are on to something. Once upon a time, Cold Fusion was considered impossible; now, two decades after a pair of scientists falsely announced that they had come across it, others are beginning to wonder if it might be possible after all. So maybe this German supraluminal drive just might be possible.

But I doubt it.

Premature thoughts for 2006

  • New Scientist magazine on 13 Things that Do Not Make Sense.  This is a fascinating article compiling a list of thirteen apparent anomalies in our understanding of physics, chemistry, and cosmology.  The author does a good job, I think, of reporting the anomalies without much editorializing, and certainly with no fanciful forays into non-scientific speculation.  The most important thing to take away from this article, I think, is the fact that even though science has come a very long way in the past century, there’s still a lot that we just don’t understand.
  • Pure Energy Systems News on Milestones and Trends in Renewable Energy — 2005 and 2006.  Again, fairly interesting stuff to consider.  We’ve got a ways to go before any of the renewable energy systems proposed form a truly viable alternative to the systems we have in place now (if only because fossil fuel energy production systems are so deeply entrenched in our economy), but there are certainly some very promising ideas out there.

One thing I found really interesting was the fact that cold fusion is mentioned in each article.  Despite the dubious results from Fleischmann and Pons sixteen years ago and the the near unanimous declaration that cold fusion was just “bad science” and probably impossible according to the laws of physics, there appears to be some serious academic interest in it again: enough so that MIT allowed a cold fusion colloquium to take place in its buildings.  I don’t know enough about the physics involved to declare myself whether cold fusion is or is not possible, but the idea and its implications are certainly exciting.

On another note, I have decided that this year I’m going to reduce my political commentary to an absolute minimum.  I’m not usually one for new year’s resolutions, but this one’s been coming for awile anyway.  What finally clinched it for me were Monty Python and the Marx Brothers.

Last year, my wife gave to me a DVD collection of the entire Monty Python’s Flying Circus television series.  I was watching some of the discs recently, and saw a sketch dating from 1971 about a group of little old ladies in London who had taken upon themselves the task of enforcing morality in Britain.  This they did by running around the streets and beating up with their purses anyone who was, in their view, immoral.  The “culture wars” which, some insist, are taking place in our society today, are really nothing new.  They’ve been going on since forever, and they’re not unique to American society.  I don’t see it changing anytime soon.  It’s not worth commenting on, therefore, and not worth getting myself upset about.  Sure, I think it’s tragic that conservative groups have managed to gather enough signatures to make a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Massachusetts.  And I find any group going on about “traditional family values” frankly ludicrous, worthy of mockery by Monty Python.  And I find it appalling that Pat Robertson and his “700 Club” are broadcast on the Family Channel (if anyone demonstrates the paucity of Christian charity in what passes for Christianity in popular culture these days, it is this man).  But these guys have been around forever.  They won’t go away.  The trick, then, is to not listen to them, and to not let them infect your own reasoning abilities.  I can’t afford to let them upset me.  That’s giving in.

The Marx Brothers are responsible for my increased cynicism regarding politics.  For Christmas this year, my parents gave me a collection of Marx Brothers movies, and last week I watched that timeless classic, Duck Soup.  It may be different, stylistically, from the comedy that we’re used to in our modern culture: instead of the ultra-paced bam-bam-bam comedy that we’re used to these days, Duck Soup was largely just Groucho Marx standing around making wisecracks at unwitting victims.  Brilliant wisecracks, filled with double entendre and other layers of meaning, of course, but the delivery is different.  You can’t help loving Groucho.

But anyway.  Duck Soup is essentially political satire, striking at the political leaders and forces that act arbitrarily, without reason or considered thought.  The message of that film is as timeless today as it was in 1933, if not more so.  The temptation to draw a comparison between George W. Bush and Rufus T. Firefly is almost overwhelming; however, that would mean I’d be comparing Groucho Marx to Bush — who has neither the wit, the intelligence, nor the panache that Marx had.

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is, as the great sage (whoever it was) once said, “At times like these it helps to remember that there have always been times like these”.  The same arbitrary and reactionary forces that were mocked by the Marx Brothers in 1933 and by Monty Python in 1971 are still with us today in 2006.  I wondered the other night whether there have been any honest and beneficial political innovations in the past two hundred years at all?

Looking at all this in context, though, I feel like there is actually good cause to be optimistic about our society’s future.  We’ve certainly become more tolerant of the cultural and religious diversity in our society over the past century, and despite the (somewhat successful) reactionary efforts of the so-called right, I don’t see this trend reversing itself.

But I digress.  the main thing I was trying to get across is that I’m planning on cutting back on my political rants, because I’m going to try to cut back on how upset I get about what happens in politics and our culture.  The reactionary and arbitrary forces that drive much of politics have been there forever and will be there forever.  So I’m planning to focus my news reading on the signs and forces that are moving our society forward, instead of holding us back.

It might work.  I dunno.  I guess the real test will be in November 2006, won’t it?

Some things are just wrong from the start

I already knew that Hollywood long ago ran out of anything even remotely resembling imagination and creativity (with a few rare notable exceptions, such as Serenity), but there really ought to be limits. They’re supposedly remaking Harvey, for example, with Tom Hanks in the lead role. Tom Hanks is a fine actor, but that film was really written for James Stewart, and not even Tom Hanks can take James Stewart’s place.

Today, while putting together resources for my James Thurber reference page (just a vague collection of links for now), I discovered that someone has taken it into their head to remake The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. With Owen Wilson in the title role. Now, James Thurber hated the original film and reportedly offered MGM $10,000 not to make it, but I personally love it, and I love Danny Kaye‘s portrayal of Walter Mitty. Kaye was funny and witty and brought a charm to the role that I really thought was delightful. But I can’t imagine Owen Wilson bringing anything like that level of wit to the role. It just seems wrong to me.

But, then again, I was appalled when I heard that there was a “re-imagination” of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the works, but the 2005 version with Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka proved to be very good, even though I also enjoyed Gene Wilder’s version (even if Roald Dahl despised that version of the film). So perhaps this film will turn out to be pretty good.

But Hollywood’s batting record is pretty appalling so far. If The Secret Life of Walter Mitty turns out to be any good, I will be very surprised.

Perhaps I should change careers…

…and become an apocalyptic doomsayer. They’re all the rage right now, and, according to this article apparently now we’re in the highest state of “End Times Alert!” than ever before. Higher even than:

  • 1945, when World War II engulfed pretty much the entire globe, atomic bombs were being set off, half the world was in poverty, even the rich nations;
  • 1918 when Spanish influenze swept the world, Europe was engulfed in the worst war in its history, famine was rampant, and people everwhere were starting to come to terms with the Russian Revolution.
  • 1844, when apocalyptic thinking seems to have washed over the entire planet and people everywhere were selling all their belongings and moving to mountain tops;
  • 1450, when a third of Europe was dying of the Black Death, unusual weather patterns brought strange storms (the world was in the grip of a “mini ice age” at the time), wars were a constant of daily life for the elite and hunger and starvation were a constant of daily life for the poor; or, heck, even
  • ca. AD 30, when Christ was crucified, and his apostles were expecting His return at any minute.

I’ve railed against our apocalyptic culture before, and why it bugs me so much. I’ve discovered that there are, in fact, branches of Christianity — sadly, growing more popular — which believe that the worsening state of the world is God’s plan and that to try to make things better is against God’s plan; the sooner we can bring about universal poverty, hunger, war, and so on, the sooner the Rapture will come. This flies in the face of all of the commandments given to us by Christ.

And this sort of apocalyptic thinking is opposed to what we learn from the Bible about what Christ even said about the Second Coming; in short, he said that we simply won’t know, and we’ll all be taken by surprise. To try to set a specific date and claim that it is predicted in Scripture is just, well, wrong.

It just bugs me.

So, let’s all repeat it together, shall we?

  • 2005 is not the worst storm year on record (though, because of global warming, we’re likely to experience increasingly worse storms in years to come)
  • Far fewer people are dying in war this year than in WWI or WWII
  • The war in Iraq is not the worst conflict that region has seen (anyone remember the Ottoman Empire?)
  • All talk about a pandemic of H5N1 “Avian Flu” is hypothetical at best.

Of course, some people are making money off of current apocalyptic ramblings. That’s their own problem.

Milgram Lives

A hoax most cruel

Reading this article, I was reminded of The Milgram Experiment. It seems that people are willing to do horrific things to other people just because someone in authority — or someone they believed was in authority — told them to. Was this something that Orwell contemplated? Or Machiavelli?

If I’d been a participant in the Milgram Experiment, I would like to think that I’d stop administering the shocks very early on. I believe that I would. But I don’t know for sure, never having been in a situation even remotely like it.

Edited to add: I admit that I posted the link to this article before reading it even a third of the way through, so I didn’t know that the author had also referred to Milgram. I also agree with the FBI special agent who said that the duped restaurant managers were not necessarily stupid, they had just not been trained to use common sense. However, I also believe that this does not relieve them of the responsibility for what they’ve done.

This has gotten me thinking about False Authority Syndrome in general (Snopes.com has a good summary of FAS here), which may or may not be related to this sort of thing. When I worked at one particular department in a large public University back in 1997, I witnessed the entire division decide to shut down their e-mail servers because a vice dean had fallen for the “Good Times” hoax. I’ve fallen for this sort of thing myself; I once shut down a message board on a website I was running because I’d been duped into believing that the service that was providing it for free was going to start charging.