Statistics Saturday: The Star Trek Movies Ordered By Length Of Their Wikipedia Talk Pages


Movie Length (in words)
Star Trek: First Contact 193
Star Trek Beyond 454
Star Trek Generations 1327
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier 1776
Star Trek Into Darkness 1927
Star Trek: The Motion Picture 1940
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan 2087
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country 2344
Star Trek (2013) 3137
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock 3904
Star Trek: Insurrection 5019
Star Trek: Nemesis 6256
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home 8287

Based on their talk pages as of the 2nd of July, 2016, in case that matters. No, I have no idea what the deal is with First Contact having nothing considering how much there is to dispute about the movie.

Not Explaining The Convention We Didn’t Go To


My love and I were wondering last weekend when MediaWest*Con might be. This is a small but ancient science fiction/TV/movies/et cetera convention that’s been held in Lansing for the past Like 37 years [1]. We had no idea. We only found out about it last year because a friend was going to it and asked if we wanted to meet up for dinner during a slow stretch. It turned out the convention was being held just that weekend, right as we were wondering when it might be.

We couldn’t go. They only sell 700 attending memberships and were sold out. But we found this magnificent question and answer on their web site:

3. Why do you have Apocryphal memberships and allow pets?

We found some people were buying full memberships for their stuffed critters, so we started offering Apocryphal memberships for stuffed or live critters and for alternate identities so as not to take up already limited regular memberships.

As for pets, we had started bringing our dogs to the con so we didn’t have to board them, which cleared the way for others to bring their pets, as long as they get along with the other animals and members (which goes for the humans as well!). Some people miss their pets too much, and some pets don’t do well without their people.

This is my favorite sort of explanation. It’s clear, concise, and doesn’t explain a thing. That thing: wait, there were so many people buying memberships for their stuffed dolls that it was creating resentment in the standby list? How many people was that? Surely not one, because who’d notice that? Ten? Again, nobody would notice ten people not there because toys were instead. 680? That’s more plausible. It suggests there a time in Like 1994[2], when the convention was twenty people and hundreds upon hundreds of plush dolls dressed in Star Trek, Blake’s 7, and Bruce Campbell costumes. All staring at the people who couldn’t get in. And someone declared, “there must be something we can do! And I know what it is!” And that lone person was a stuffed Vulcan-eared teddy bear dressed up like George Francisco from Alien Nation, and was the voice of reason.

Also I like how pets are allowed because hey, pets.


[1] 35 or 38 years depending on how you count some stuff.

[2] For example 1993, 1995, or possibly 1994.

Starry-Eyed Punching


First, I did another comic strips thing on my mathematics blog. Yes, there’s Jumble in it, don’t worry.

Now, something I realized recently about the mirror-universe episode of the original Star Trek. You know, it’s the one everybody does evil-twin universe episodes about. It’s a subtle thing. The episode starts with Kirk meeting the leaders of the Planet of the Week, right before it Ion Rains. Later, Kirk in the Mirror-Universe hails the Weekian leader. And it’s a small thing but the Weekian leader’s disheveled, and he’s got black eyes. He’s been roughed up. Presumably, by Mirror-Universe Kirk.

The Weekian leader on the Mirror Viewscreen, where he's looked better.
I know, I couldn’t find a screen capture that made his black eyes more obvious. I might punch my DVD.

It’s one of those little things you can watch the episode a dozen times before noticing. It’s a great little touch showing how brutal the Mirror Universe is.

And then what I finally realized: wait, so the Empire is diddling around sending starships all over the Mirror Galaxy to non-compliant planets so Mirror Kirk can beam down and punch people until they behave? That seems like a poor use of resources. But then I also realized: that’s pretty much what the Federation and the good-universe Star Trek is about too. It’s mostly Kirk punching the Weekian leaders until they stop screwing up their planets. The Good Universe Kirk is mostly fighting for the dignity of individuals, but that does come down to a lot of fist fights.

They did other kinds of episodes, so it’s not like I’m saying the show should be renamed Space Punching. But I have got to re-watch the show with this insight in mind.

Pinky-Swearing In Time


I was looking up the plot to the gratuitously stupid movie The Butterfly Effect, because I was thinking of the gratuitously stupid movie A Sound Of Thunder instead. This happens. It led me to discover there was a Butterfly Effect 2 and even a Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations (“Death Repeats Itself”) for some reason. And then in its Wikipedia page plot description we get this sentence:

Sam complains he is now `too stupid’ to fix things; Jenna pinky-swears him to not time-travel anymore.

That’s not really a sentence. It’s a pile-up of a couple sentences. Also it’s about pinky-swearing to not time travel. And despite the power of pinky-swearing and the Wikipedia page about that, Sam breaks his promise before the paragraph is even out. What is the point of pinky-swearing if you’re just going to warp the fabric of history anyway? I guess he might set it so he didn’t ever pinky-swear but that still sounds like cheating to me.

From this I learn that there isn’t a Wikipedia category for “films including broken pinky-swear promises”. Also that when the page was created, in August 2008, the movie’s title was given as Butterfly Effect: Revlelation.

Statistics Saturday: Episodes Where Captain Kirk Gets His Shirt Torn Or Taken Off, By Season


5 torn shirts the first season, 2 in the second, none in the third or the movies. 4 shirtless moments in the first season, 5 in the second, 4 in the third, and none in the movies either.
You can positively see the budget getting tighter!
First season totals include the pilot episode when they could throw some more money around.

There is a third-season episode where Kirk’s pants get torn. It’s the one where rock monster aliens pretend to be Abraham Lincoln so they can learn a little something about humanity. The pants-tearing probably wasn’t on purpose.

Does This Actually Clear Up The Issue?


So Comics Kingdom has been running the Flash Gordon comics from 1961. In these stories, set in the far-distant future world of 1971, life is very different. There’s human colonies on all the good planets of the solar system. And on the moon, a guy’s homemade robot duplicate has swiped a flying saucer and he’s cleaning up on the quiz programs. And that’s not even the stuff I’m making up.

The space parking lot sign warns, 'NO PARKING AFTER MIDNIGHT (EARTH TIME)'
Also, never, ever get your spaceships wet.

So here’s a panel from the strip from Saturday, the 22nd of April, 1961. This ran ten days after Yuri Gagarin’s flight. And now … just … “No Parking After Midnight (Earth Time)”. Does the qualifier “(EARTH TIME)” simplify matters any? And if so, how?

Some guys in a flying saucer are amused by a robot who's cleaning up on the quiz programs.
Dan Barry’s Flash Gordon for the 22nd of April, 1961. It’s uncanny how perfectly they foresaw 1971.

If that’s not enough to think over, well, why not look over some mathematically-themed comic strips on my other blog? Also why not read the Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z glossary that I’ve been building? I’ve gotten to write about stuff I sometimes even understand.

Statistics Saturday: Big Surprises You’re In For If You Own A Home In Michigan


It's a really big home that I'll bet isn't even in Michigan.
Also, no, that’s not the Grand Hotel at Mackinac Island, but you probably knew that already or are just nodding and moving on without thinking about it.
  1. You forgot to put the recycling out!
  2. If you’re on the landing exactly at midnight New Year’s Eve you can get into the secret extra floor there.
  3. There’s somebody, anybody, back east who knows you’re in the Eastern Time Zone.
  4. That shield bug in the bathroom that’s been motionless and on its back for two weeks? It’s not dead yet somehow.
  5. There’s still a Radio Shack in town.
  6. You will never be perfectly confident that the faucets are turning off correctly.
  7. Tucked inside the wall you can never get a picture nail to stick in? That’s the canvases of 19th century moving-panorama showman John Banvard’s famous half-mile long painting of the Mississippi River, once the toast of American and European theatrical performances, and thought to be completely lost.
  8. Oh, the basement, let’s not even.
  9. The button you never use on the dishwasher is for its twelve-minute Licking Cycle.
  10. That’s no home, that’s some 60s black-and-white French science fiction movie in which people grunt about how the essence of mankind is love and faith, courage and tenderness, and then getting shot until they fall into swimming pools at the direction of the all-powerful computer god, which is played by a heat lamp behind a box fan.

Walking Through Novel-Writing Some More


Welcome back everyone. Hope you had a good week writing and are ready to resume walking through this novel-writing experience. Before I start, though, ClashOSymbols had his good post for the month, “Facts: Never Your Friends”. Read it wisely.

Now we left off last time here, our heroes wondering about the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics. But they don’t know it enough to say anything meaningful, so they can’t be wrong. See ClashOSymbols above. You can’t break a suspension of disbelief if there’s nothing to disbelieve. That’s the first reason they have to talk about stuff they don’t really understand.

Something else you get from this. Now, this part doesn’t matter if all you want is a book, but a career walkthrough’ll tell you this. Characters talk about quantum mechanics, you have a science fiction book. You want to start out writing genre, because if genre readers to start reading you they’ll never stop. Doesn’t matter what genre. Science fiction, mystery, western, romance, military, anything at all. But then you have to pivot to literary fiction. Your genre readers will keep reading, and they’ve talked about you enough to their normal friends that you get those readers too. All your books get reissued with boring but uniform covers and your back catalogue sells all over again. Your genre readers will complain about you selling out, but they’ll keep buying and new people will follow them. Always in your career: start genre, then pivot to lit.

But here’s the thing. The harder you start in genre, the tougher the pivot to lit. Start your career with books about Earth pacified by giant memory-wiping kangaroo robot detectives, your pivot is going to have to be like five novels where a sulky old guy reviews badly-named bands for a minor-league city’s failing alt weekly while nothing happens. So doable but soooooooo boring. If you start instead with something so softly genre it could get filed by accident with the grown-up books, you can pivot without doing anything more than picking duller titles.

So. They talk quantum mechanics many-worlds stuff, they don’t know enough to say anything right or wrong or anything. Science fiction fans’ll eat it up, real people will think you’re doing that Bridging The Two Cultures stuff. The novel’s got a good start and I’m already setting up for the pivot.

Now — oh, phoo, what did they go down there for? OK, they just got off the subway and went down the wrong street. I could just go back and restart from the subway and go the right way but you’re going to have to deal with accidents like this and you should see how to recover. Why is a wrong street dangerous? Because if you’re set in a real place, you might say something about the place that a reader can check and find is wrong. That can wipe out all the score you get from the whole chapter. Even if you’re doing the little-chapter strategy, which I say is gaming the rules and won’t do because I have integrity, this dings you. Remember, facts are just stuff you can get wrong. So, have the characters observe something non-committal and non-falsifiable and then they can say they’re on the wrong street. Hey, they’re rattled from that knifeketeer/magician thing, anyone would understand.

Or you can martingale it. Double down, pick something about the setting and just go wild describing it. Extra hard, yes. It’s almost irresistible to put bunches of facts about the place in. And facts aren’t your friends. But pull it off and you can get so many bonus points. We’ll talk about that a little next time.

For now, though, let me point out the Comment of the Week. That’s from FanatsyOfFlight back on Monday with her great Fan Theory: All Fan Theories Are The Same Fan Theory. If you missed it, you’re probably thinking fan theories are a weak target for satire. Maybe they are, but they’re so well-eviscerated.


About The Author: For two years as a reporter on the student newspaper Joseph Nebus attended all the student government meetings for four of the Rutgers University undergraduate colleges. The most challenging was the University College Governing Association, because as adult commuting students they could afford to cater their meetings with way too much pizza to eat and had the pull to reserve the warm conference room with the plush chairs.

Walking Through Novel-Writing


Hi, okay, welcome to this walkthrough of writing a novel. I know we’ve got a lot of new viewers this month because they want to do their NaNoWriMo stuff right. Don’t worry, you should be able to hop right on into this. You all see my novel like it is right now, so let me explain where I’m going.

First, though. Viewpoint. I’m doing third-person omniscient. I mention for the new viewers. I explained why third-person omni like, was it three? episodes ago. Go to that if you want the whole spiel but, in brief: I like it. It’s cozy. I’ve got all my writing macros set up for it. It lets me drop in cynical observations without any characters having to be snarky, which is off-putting when you do it as much as I do. You want to limit readers’ reasons to dislike your characters to the ones that you want, so much as possible. Third person limited is okay. It’s a harder level for getting dramatic irony but sometimes you want the challenge. First person is the easy mode for suspense, the extra-hard mode for dramatic irony. Figure how hard you want to write your stuff. Also you think you get away with any continuity errors by playing the ‘unreliable narrator’ card. Everybody knows that trick so they don’t fall for it. Neutral there.

ClashOSymbols, I see you already rushing to the comments section and you’re wrong. Second person is not happening, and you’re not gonna make it happen. Everything you do in second-person reads like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. By the third time anyone reads a Choose Your Own Adventure, all they’re doing is reverse-engineering the Happy Ending. Do it in a straight novel and you hit the Choose-Your-Own problem, where ‘you’ get told you’re doing or thinking something you would never do. Yes, shut up, a reader who pretends enough will go along with you. But every line you get wrong is fighting the suspension-of-disbelief and a whole novel of that doesn’t work. You’ve got better fights to pick with your readers than what they think they’d do in your scenario.

Also no it’s not second-person if the setup is the person who did the thing telling it to ‘you’. You are so wrong. New viewers, meet ClashOSymbols. That first impression you’ve got of him? You have him pegged. Short-short version, I’m right, he’s wrong, we’re just delaying his inevitable admission. And yeah, interests of fairness, read his walkthrough yourself for the wrong side of things.

Back to the writing. Up here, that’s the Meet Cute. This isn’t a romance, but my leads didn’t know each other before the book starts. They have to have some reason to stick together. They aren’t in a spot they can be ordered to stick together, and it’s so hard having an emotion about a new person. They gotta be shoved together and that’s why it’s a Meet Cute.

So. New York subway scene. Protagonist rescues the guy from the manic guy stabbing the air with a knife, other guy says it was a magician and shows his cell phone photo to prove it. That works. Readers can imagine knifeketeers on the New York subway. They maybe heard from someone how there was a magician performing on a car or in a station on a big city subway. Readers’ll buy it. And the characters have some reason to keep talking because one has the photo of the knifeketeer, the other the magician. All that doesn’t make sense.

So here you see they try guessing about some quantum mechanics multi-world thing. Neither of them knows enough quantum mechanics to figure how that makes sense. That’s fine, it doesn’t make sense. But they can make wild guesses that maybe explain it, and I don’t have to commit to anything. This is important. Everything you write as a fact in your book is something you can get wrong. Every statement is a chance to break the reader’s suspension-of-disbelief. If you want to do science fiction don’t ever explain how something works in enough detail that any reader can check the numbers. They’ll never ever work. Stay vague and you can insist you’re really writing “hard” science-respecting science fiction. Plus you can boast you spared the readers the boring calculations that would prove it.

This does something else important too. But I’m about out of time for this installment. Hope you learned something useful for your novel-writing. Catch you next week with some more walking through. And, yeah, ClashOSymbols, as always, commenter of the week for that killer pumpkin snark. Congratulations. Folks should check what he has to say out. He can write so brilliant an argument you almost forget he’s wrong. Catch you later.


About the Author: Joseph Nebus has an unpublished Star Trek: The Next Generation novel from back when he was a teenager that dear Lord you will never ever EVER SEE YOU CANNOT IMAGINE HOW WELCOME YOU ARE. He is currently working on an ambitious project of grousing about others’ success.

Nothing Is Happening In Apartment 3-G: Where Did My Spring Go?


Sorry to stand in the way of Apartment 3-G but I do have a mathematics blog to support. I’ve had things to say about the integers — the counting numbers — some of which may surprise you. And though I don’t figure to have another installment until tomorrow, I do regularly review the comic strips that mention mathematical topics. It’s my chance to talk about several of my favorite subjects together.


So, I have heard nothing in the past week to suggest that Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G is not doomed. (Their official blog has nothing to say, of course.) I would not be surprised if James Allen of Mark Trail was pushing to get King Features Syndicate to change its mind. It seems a long shot, but the syndicate does obviously make some of its decisions sentimentally. They run Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, after all.

I like Zippy, and I understand why it would make sense to have tried it out a generation ago. But have you ever seen it on an actual newspaper’s comics page, and if so, does it make sense existing even in the same medium as Over The Hedge or JumpStart? Yet it’s still running. That fact is logical only when you consider that reality has merged with Zippy the Pinhead. As the character said long ago, life is just a blur of Republicans and meat.

As a more obvious triumph of sentiment over economics, the syndicate still has Hy Eisman draw new installments of The Katzenjammer Kids. That can only make sense as a point of pride. I accept that the economics of Apartment 3-G are marginal. I would nevertheless like to try “good art, strong stories” a try. If nothing else, it would be happy if the strip were to close out on an improving year.

As for what the heck happened this week. I suspect the Just End The Story Already Fairies have gotten a deadline for when everything has to be wrapped up. And lacking other tools, they’ve used the climax of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and are tearing apart the very idea of perception. The backgrounds have gotten to be so generic that it’s really not possible to say they’re insides or outsides or wrong or anything, and by Friday they weren’t even there.

The Thursday and Friday installments suggest we are actually literally going to have an “it was all a dream” resolution. After the exhausting nothingness of this year’s non-story I’m willing to accept this. I haven’t been so willing to accept an “it was all a dream” resolution since I was three-quarters of the way through Stephen Baxter’s god-awful novel Titan. (Spoiler: the book was bad enough that it wasn’t even all a dream.)

'Margo, it's me, Greg. I told you I'd be back. We'll get through this and when ...' And then Margo opens her eyes and demands, 'Where did he go, Tommie?' 'Where did who go, Margo?'
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 29th of October, 2015. Greg who is not Eric is, possibly, the witness to Margo waking out of her coma. If Greg exists. Margo seems remarkably well-dressed as she demands to know where “he” went of Tommie, portrayed in the second panel by Penny Marshall immediately after being hit in the face with a football.

Dead fiancée Eric has most recently appeared on Monday, ordered by Tommie to go get some sleep. Tuesday saw the arrival of Greg, a bundle of strange backstory for Margo. While Margo was working as a publicist, Greg was her boyfriend and an actor who landed the part of James Bond. We’re to take it to be that James Bond. Margo and Greg broke up for the reason of there was some reason, probably. On Thursday Margo suddenly opened her eyes and demanded to know where “he” had gone. Friday Margo demanded to know where “the man who loved me” had gone. I would have thought Shulock would know better by this point than to use any pronouns. On the other hand, names don’t help much either because there is literally no guessing who Bolle is going to draw into any scene. Is she talking with Tommie? Eric? Greg? Why not Dost Mohammad Khan, founder of the modern Afghan state, at this point?

Margo demands 'the man who loves me, where is he, Tommie?' of Greg, while Margo insists she means 'the other one'.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 30th of October, 2015. Margo addresses Greg or possibly Eric as “Tommie”. Perhaps she is hallucinating, since she is wearing a stylish blazer while in her hospital bed. Unless the hospital bed was part of the hallucination and nothing happened the whole past year because it was all a dream.

The action this week reminds me of some single-season sitcom that blew my young mind. The last episode had the male lead going off to Other Land Somewhere, with a teary farewell scene at the airport, and he exits. Then the guy came back on camera and said he wasn’t going, because “it was cancelled”. “The flight?” “No, the series,” and the actors turn to the camera and wave bye. At that age I didn’t know you could do that, at least not outside shows that were built around talking to the audience, like Rocky and Bullwinkle. Maybe we are building up to the whole roster of jilted, abandoned, separated, and deceased boyfriends popping back in and saying their goodbyes in front of a blank wall. I hope it will be better than that.

Failing that, well, let’s just have the whole cast on stage to sing the Kinks’ “Where Did My Spring Go?” and call that an end.

Cyborg Kangaroo Voyager Dreams


I spent a considerable part of that dream trying to work out exactly which crazypants episode of Star Trek: Voyager it was. It was yet another episode where Tuvok comes down with temporary insanity. This time I’m pretty certain it was meant to teach an endearingly sincere but klunky message about toleration. It just did it in the form of Tuvok being caught in a quasi-hallucinatory state where he shifts between the starship and being maybe in the past, maybe shifting back to Actual Planet Vulcan where he’s gradually realizing he’s too enthusiastic about hunting down the packs of cyborg Vulcan kangaroos rampaging through the endless desert. I think the cyborg Vulcan kangaroos might have had antennas, which suggests they might be an invasive species, possibly from the Andorian worlds. No, they didn’t display any ice powers.

Anyway, the cinematography on this was just fantastic. I mean, this was clearly the episode of the year where they were trying, with a deliberate color design and on-location shooting with deep focus so you can do stunts like have the attention on some tiny thing in the distance and have someone walk in the near foreground, crisp and sharp. I think they might’ve been using 70mm film for some of it. So I’m a little disappointed I didn’t see how it all turned out, but I’m going to go ahead and suppose that Tuvok came to decide he didn’t want to be prejudiced, but rather wanted to come to hate people individually and for his own reasons, not those he picked up from society.

I think it was an episode from before Seven of Nine joined the show. I’m pretty sure they rescued Neelix from the cyborg Vulcan(?) kangaroo mob, unless it turns out that he only died in a hallucination or something like that. That’s to be expected I guess.

Bob and Ray: They Went To Venus, You Know


A lot of life is hanging out without anything particular going on. That’s generally omitted in dramas, of course. Just hanging out might establish the tone of normality before the Crisis comes in and disrupts things. Even comedies don’t much depict “nothing particular going on”; even genial hangout comedy usually gets some possibly slender activity going on. If nothing really is going on, you’re either watching Waiting For Godot or in the parts of a paranoia-suspense thriller where “nothing to talk about” becomes sinister.

One of the running Bob and Ray characters was Lawrence Fechtenberg, Interstellar Officer Candidate. Here you know the genre of show they’re spoofing. What might startle is how precisely they parody the tone and the production of the radio version of space-cadet and space-captain programs. (I’m still stunned by one show that briefly stranded the cast on Saturn, the solar system’s junkyard world.) Science fiction, or space opera, or similar shows are even less prone to showing the “nothing particular going on” than regular shows are. Futurama has a few episodes like that, but mostly even they had stories to get to.

Lawrence Fechtenberg, though, he had a lot of time fumbling around without getting to anything particular. If the tension created by mixing the signals of high drama and the fact of incredible slightness amuses you, then his holding forth on the topic of “what the food was like on Venus” will just keep getting more maddeningly funny.
I’m attempting again to embed it, but if that doesn’t work, just download the MP3 file. This is tagged as “600330LawrenceFechtenbergInterstellar” on archive.org.

That’s the center piece, yes, though not the whole of this 15-minute show. Most of the last five minutes is spend attempting to get a report from Washington. Like many Bob and Ray pieces, the central observation here is that it’s really hard to do anything quite exactly right. We all fumble about at our jobs, whether radio journalists or space navy officer candidates or meteorologists. These are universal moments that few people pay attention to.

Statistics Saturday: How Many Good Episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation I Figured There Were Versus Time


More good episodes, especially around the Borg episode, and then gradually declines as episodes like the one where Data trains his cat came on.
There was a lot of time spent the first two seasons saying, “No, really, this is at least as good as the space hippies episode of the Original Series, right? Please, I need this to be a better episode than this actually is.”

Not depicted: that day in 1997 when the Internet noticed the episode where Dr Crusher has sex with her grandmother’s candle-ghost; and that day in 2000 when I noticed the Federation kicked the Cardassians out of alliance with them and into the Dominion’s arms. So, good job, warhawks, in making things worse, as ever.

The Story Of Anyone’s Life


It’s a good time to write a biography, in case you’re thinking of doing such a thing. There are more people who’ve been alive now than there ever have been before. And that’s a trend that just isn’t going to change anytime soon. There’s already more than eight people ready to be biographied for every person able to write one. Or you can just write about Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Edison, or Abraham Lincoln again because you thought of some more stuff about him.

You do have to pick some subject, though. You can get a ways into the book without having one in mind, if you focus your efforts on the preface. There you can point out how you’re interested in getting at the truth, and that you’ve been hard at work examining original documents. And that you’re grateful for the assistance of a long list of people with three names each. Maybe thank a university press while you’re at it. They need the support and almost nobody visits them just to hug. But a good preface can only go as long as 58 pages before even the people who’re looking to see if their names get thanked get rebellious and try to take over the book.

Once you’ve picked a subject you can fill out the first chapter, in which you describe the subject’s death. This is an important scene for any biographer because it assures the reader that at some point the subject dies and the book will end. Oh, electronic books have made it theoretically possible to keep on writing more book before anybody can finish reading it. But there are practical objections. People can skim faster than you can write, for example. If you want to keep ahead of them you’re going to have to start describing how the subject read other biographies. Then include those. It helps you out doing this trick if you remember there’s more biographies now than there ever were before. And that’s another trend that’s going to keep going. But at some point even electronic books are going to run out of storage space and you might have to end mid-word. This could embarrass someone who might even be you.

If your subject hasn’t died, you have to be more careful writing the funeral scene. Since it’ll be in the future, your description of the details of what the day will be like and what people will be doing will be kind of science fiction. This should date your book hilariously by the time the predicted date comes to pass or else you’re doing it wrong. That could be an opportunity, admittedly. If you can be really extremely dated at least people will go looking up the funniest bits about what you wrote. But they’ll only quote the funniest parts and not think to laugh at the rest of your biography.

A danger in writing biographies is you can come out thinking worse of your subject. That’s all right if you go in writing a biography of someone you don’t like. Critics might ask why you’re doing a biography of someone you don’t like. “Why hate-biography,” they’d ask, “when there’ve been more likable people now than ever before?” You can answer, “Shouldn’t we know everything possible about the person who single-handedly fed the moon to Truman Capote?” If you can’t get away while they’re working that question out you aren’t trying hard enough. Maybe you need advice from a professional biographers’ association. Maybe you need better sneakers.

But there’s still hazards even if you still mostly like the subject by the end. For example you figure on how Thomas Edison was a bright, perceptive man with a keen sense for what was possible and desirable. Then you remember he spent seven years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to make dolls stuffed full of record players. Maybe you can get back your esteem for him from that. If you forget that he went from the record-player-doll project to stomping around New Jersey rock quarries shouting “MORE MAGNETS!” at any ore that would listen. And you just know some of that rock was magnesiochromite.

Well. Sometimes you have to take the risk, and biography someone who turns out to be a drip. It’s an important lesson and a turning point in the biography someone’s writing about you. Good luck.

Things I Learned From 1950s Science Fiction


If I’ve learned anything from 1950s science fiction it was entirely my own doing. Back then science fiction was a literature of ideas, not this wishy-washy learning stuff. There’s no place in learning for ideas, and who wants to come out of a story having figured out something about people or situations or stuff like that? I don’t mean to sound defensive here, I just want to warn serious science fiction fans that I know this is all on me, not on the genre. By “serious science fiction fans” I mean “people who know Robert Heinlein’s middle name and will work it in at least once out of every four times they try to complete a sentence”.

Anyway, I like the science fiction of the 1950s for its many charms, such as that bunches of it got turned into radio shows you can listen to without the inconvenience of reading.

The most important is about plotting. If I’m ever stuck for getting a story started, now I know what to do. Start out with a stuffy scientist type. Then introduce the kind of character that gets called a tough. He should sound kind of like what you get from listening to a radio show adaptation of a Damon Runyon story. The tough can then talk slang in front of the professor. The professor will put that as talking “slang” in front of him. And the scenes just write themselves. The professor type can view the “slang” in the same way he might examine an exotic insect that turned up in his lunch. His lunch comprises 375 grams of iceberg lettuce pressed flat and cut into regular hexagons, and a dessert of melting ice served with vitamin pills, surely sufficient for all nutritional demands. As a bonus the story can end when the tough or the scientist double-crosses the other and then finds out he’s helpless, which is a good punchy conclusion.

Then there’s characters. Interstellar spaceship crews on voyages of discovery are a neat bunch, since they’re all grumbling and surly and none of them want to know a thing about where they’re going. Get one out in front of a wonder of the universe and they’ll only look up if it’s got that hook you use to pry open a beer. They’ll do their best exploratory work around a hotel room’s bathroom sink.

Computers make for good characters. They’re surly genies who don’t bother talking down to you because that might break their uniform line reads. I like to think in text this means they write in all-caps. Maybe the newer, more human, ones just capitalize the start of every word. (At the risk of peeking ahead: in the 60s they become relentlessly chipper, helpful genies. In the 70s they become mopey and introspective genies, while in the 80s they split between being comic pals and Seven of Nine.)

The tough and the scientist are good to have around, of course. A woman can be a nice character in 50s science fiction, although if she already knows things that’s because she’s waiting for a man to be submissive to. I guess she might get through the whole story knowing stuff as long as there’s the promise she’s going to find one soon. It’s great to have an advertising executive and a tycoon around, because they can yell into telephones and demand that money be put into stuff without having to think about where it comes from or why. Advertising executives are really good to have because they’ll never ever wonder why they’re taking the “alien invasion of Earth” contract.

Then there’s some things about scenarios. For example, if you’ve got a time machine cluttering up your story you might be worried about the contingencies of the universe and whether your grandfather has enough existence insurance. Turns out there’s no time-travel method known that can alter the course of history. This is because of a rule put in place by the people who’re on top of history and don’t see any reason that needs to change.

Wherever a character is and whatever he’s doing, if he needs a weapon, he just needs to reach into any drawer anywhere to pull out a loaded revolver. I don’t know who’s putting them there. The evidence suggests the Space Gideons have gone somewhat awry.

Every rocket, including the little bitty one used to ferry people from Jersey City to the Port Authority in Manhattan, has enough fuel to break the speed of light and go rocketing past the universe if someone just accidentally leaves their foot on the accelerator pedal.

If you’re part of a colonial force there might be natives on the planet and the characters are expected to be total jerkfaces to them. That’s all right. The natives have ways of turning the characters into space cows, so it all balances out.

It turns out there’s no problem a man can have — poor job prospects caused by the aliens’ invasion ad campaign, an annoying mother-in-law, getting stuck on an interplanetary spaceship in a different century — that can’t be solved by the man standing up to his wife. If he doesn’t have a wife he should go looking for the nearest woman who knows stuff. She’ll be about ready to be stood up to.

People say “robot” any way except correctly.

I’m sure I learned other things, but I forgot to jot down just what.

Tourism Ends At Home


Recently my love was talking about some regular local event we’d never gotten to. Over bagels my love drew the analogy, “It’s like they say. You live in New York, but you never go to the E — ” and here tripped a little on lunch, to resume with “to the Eiffel tower.” This quite normal tongue-slipping inspired in me an oppressive series of follow-ups. Some of them include: “You know, you live in Tokyo, but do you ever see the Great Pyramid of Giza?” “You live in Paris, but how often do you go to the Golden Gate Bridge?” “Sure you’re from Boston, but do you ever visit Angor Wat?” And then there was “Yeah, you live in the 1960s, but do you ever stop in on V-E Day except when company’s visiting?” My love has accepted this in good stead and I’m working on turning that last joke into a Nebula-award-winning short story and disappointing movie starring several of Hollywood’s leading explosions.

But this does look like a real problem. It’s not an urgent one, like potholes or the disappearance of the cheap water crackers from the supermarket. Still it feels like something that needs explanation, and solution. Every place has stuff: museums, festivals, parks, novel concepts in restaurant experiences, ridiculous home-grown sporting contests. When we go anywhere by choice we spend the whole time running around them. This even though we could have done the same stuff while staying at home. You know home. It’s where we don’t have to find the cable TV channels and the bed isn’t next to a giant wedge of hotel art. What goes on here?

Don’t try saying that we can’t have these kinds of experiences at home. Every place has museums. And the details are different, sure, but every museum is still a museum. It’s a string of white-walled rooms with uncomfortable benches in the center. Each room has just enough doors that you can’t be sure which way to go. Somewhere in the distance you hear an approaching gaggle of squealing kids. There’s a couple rooms with mannequins set up to reenact a scene that maybe never happened.

Or else you’re in one of those interactive experiential museums. There every room has TV screens and garish, underlit walls. They have theremins that might not be turned on. You can’t tell. You might just not be working them right. There’s blocks on wires that you can move along to model how nerves or the phosphorous cycle or TCP/IP packets work. There you can see the kids. They’re running between you and your blocks on wires over to the Hall of Optical Illusions. There they punch one another and get yelled at to be quiet. An audio recording someone started by pressing a button finishes eighty seconds after the audience left.

We’ve all been there, in every city we might visit. It’s a fine experience. I can’t get enough of it. But the only difference going to a famous museum in some other city is you might have heard of the thing you’re trying to look at. If you have heard of it, you know about what you should see from looking at it. If you haven’t heard of it, how would you know the difference?

And you can go to any festival or fair or sporting event or whatnot and have fun. You can have actual fun yourself or keep an ironic distance from all the people you assume are there having actual fun. And somewhere in your neighborhood is a restaurant where you have to sit through an explanation of their concept. Their concept is “restaurants made hard”. You don’t have to go to Chicago, if you’re not from Chicago, for that if you want.

But we don’t want. The point of going home is being where we don’t want to do anything. Home is a place for dressing so we won’t be seen, for slouching, eating processed foods that are neither the color nor flavor of anything found in nature, and for not being wanted by anybody for anything. Going out is for emotional and intellectual engagement. When we go home, it’s to be where we don’t have to put any energy into having an experience. Home is the place where, when you go there, nobody feels bad that you’re bored.

Your home town is an extension of this. It’s the place where you don’t have to feel anything about anything but when they’re going to fix the pothole on the offramp that messes up your drive every time. And when they do, it offends you because the street repairs mess up your drive in a different way. If you did all the stuff in your home town, where would you go to get out of the house and feel bored?

And only the rubes go to V-E Day anymore. It’s too full of people trying to turn it into something marketable. If you have to visit some era, pick something that’s still home, such as a week ago Tuesday. It may not be flashy. But you know where the gaggles of screaming kids don’t go. And the tourists haven’t found it yet.

Surrounded By Robert Benchley-Killers


When I happen to be in the bookstore I occasionally pick up the science fiction magazines, for the same reason all their buyers do: I have vague thoughts of someday being published in them and you’re supposed to scope out your target markets. Anyway, the cover story of Fantasy and Science Fiction for May/June was this piece by David Gerrold. A normal person hasn’t got the faintest idea who that is, but he’s the guy who wrote the Tribbles episode of Star Trek. He’s also the guy who figured that for Next Generation it’d be much more sensible if the show focused on Will Riker leading Away Teams instead of Picard giving speeches until the aliens surrendered, but I believe he changed his mind once the actors were cast.

Anyway, right next to this was the July issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and there there’s another cover story by David Gerrold, “The Great American Airship Mystery, Or, Why I Murdered Robert Benchley”. It’s a title meant to grab my attention, but why is David Gerrold surrounding me entirely in magazine covers? I didn’t think he even knew me.

Long story short, I scurried out without looking to see if he had also grabbed the cover of other magazines like Entertainment Weekly or People Fondling Motorbikes or Pictures Of Local Historic Stuff Bimonthly. If he’s doing something with more magazines I don’t want to know it.

Things To Stay Home From This Weekend


Weekend events to celebrate the Fourth of July:

Fireworks Spectacular. The attempt to confront Lisa with her self-centeredness sprawls out of control. Featured side-fights include arguments about who was driving who to that concert in 2005, every remaining issue from Junior Year in the Suites, a squabble that somehow compares Babylon 5 to Star Trek: Voyager, that dispute about the duck pond from two years back, and who told Terry’s mom about the tablecloth after all. Scheduled to begin Friday at 9 pm. Reverberations may last for months, or longer. It depends how long it takes people to start speaking to one another again.

Music Endurance. Once more challengers attempt to turn off Johnny Rivers’s Secret Agent Man instead of kind-of-grooving all the way through it. The last successful Secret Agent Man-stopper was in 2008, so, maybe we’re due? Friday at 10 pm.

Washington Crossing The Delaware Reenactment. The lawsuit about who owns the usufruct of the oars for the reenactment boat was finally settled. The estimated seven Revolutionary War Reenactment groups agreed to have the case mediated by a Court of Oyez and Terminer re-enactors. They’ve been waiting literally since the 1947 State Constitution. That’s the document that asked if we even had oyezes around anymore. They’re some of the more re-enactor-ish groups you can find. The court ruled in favor of hitting with an inflatable squeaky mallet the first person who said “usufruct”. This they revised to anyone saying “usufruct” who wasn’t in the Court re-enactors. Jeremy couldn’t stop giggling. Anyway, now they have all that sorted out and it’s only a little over six months late. Also moved to no river anywhere near the Delaware watershed because that was just too controversial too. Cancelled, due to bad weather.

Annual Doubleheader. Joining the regular debate between “semimonthly” and “bimonthly” is the traditional July treat of “biannual” versus “semiannual” versus “biennial”. Phyllis has promised this will be the first year she doesn’t get into a frothing, screaming fit where she cries out “what would you people make of `centannual’ anyway?” Organizers promise the event will be worth seeing anyway. We don’t buy it either. Punch and small, flavorless sandwiches to be served. Good chance someone will be punched, too, so there’s that. Saturday, 1 pm.

Marching Band. So, funny story. You remember how nobody remembered to arrange a Memorial Day parade until the last minute? And we had to lean on Jeanne to call in some debts with the high schools to put together a respectable marching band? And because of the texting mishaps they started out on Eight Street instead of on Eighth Street? And they started marching a half-hour before everyone else was ready to go? Well, they’ve been spotted on the outskirts of Edmonton. We’ve texted as many of them as we can to tell them to stop and we’re putting together a potluck to raise money to get them back home. Saturday, 7:30 pm. Bring your own sheet music.

Geography Bee. Identify the capitals, populations, economic bases, and interesting features of nations of the world. (This world.) Or try to come up with plausible-sounding alternatives. Championship rounds include making up plausible-sounding countries out of whole cloth. Championship awarded to the person who can compose the most plausible-sounding yet unrealistic continent which isn’t Australia. All are welcome. $4.65 entry fee because the Geography Club has too many 35-cent pieces hanging around. Cloth available $0.65 (city-states and small island countries) to $3.65 (regional powers). Eighth Not Eight Street High School. Sunday, 2 pm.

Grouse Hunt. Hourlong contest to celebrate the diverse set of things people can grumble impotently about. Celebrity categories to include: the roads, newspaper comics pages, piles of things in the corner, record stores, picking your seats when you buy movie tickets, newspapers, how many layers of packaging there are around bananas somehow, those cars where the dashboard instruments are in the center for some reason instead of in front of the steering wheel, and Freestyle. Pitchforks provided, although not the good kind they used to sell in hardware stores, back when the hardware stores were any good and they didn’t have metal detectors even on the entrance doors for some reason. Sunday, 5 pm.

To-Do: Check that this is all happening in the United States. Or the Philippines, we heard that was a thing once. Maybe Liberia? Some of them probably celebrate the fourth as something other than the fourth day of the month, right?

Awake In The Nick Of Time


I’d like to point out I realized it was just a school stress dream. It had that classic form where I remembered in the midst of helping somebody or other move somewhere or other that the professor said we didn’t have to turn anything in by any particular time. That’s plausible enough for grad school, since the only actual requirement of grad school is “eventually, you have to leave”. It’s the best. But in the dream I realized I had started thinking maybe the second week of class that I could do this stuff later, and now it was way later, and then I realized that of course I was just having a dream, luckily moments before the City Fathers — the giant vacuum-tube supercomputers running the space-travelling New York City in James Blish’s classic science fiction Cities In Flight series of novels — ordered my summary execution. Fortunately, imaginary computers have little power over people in dreams. Also classic science fiction mostly means “it’s probably better if you don’t go back and re-read it while paying attention”.

Back To The Enterprise


Everybody's just kind of standing around their Space Pool Mini-Table.
This is from the Enterprise episode Breaking The Ice, in which the ship has ventured dozens of light-years beyond human space so everybody can romp on a comet. Yes, there’s snowman-building included and I’m not even making that up.

It’s not until you look back on a TV show like a decade later that you realize: “so, in the 22nd century we’re going to spend a lot of time reenacting Wings’s Back To The Egg album, then?”


That’s just a passing thought, so, here’s some others. My mathematics blog had another roundup of comic strips that seemed enough on point for it. It also includes links to a grammar strip and to a general teaching strip. I hope you like.

MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 4 of 4


Part 1, introduction and John Glenn.

Part 2, German cows and procognition.

Part 3, how can a woman be right?

A bit about the actual history of thalidomide. Dr Frances Kelsey was neither acting arbitrarily nor capriciously when she refused to approve thalidomide. What she did was read the data which manufacturer Richardson Merrell had submitted to prove the drug’s safety and notice that it didn’t actually demonstrate that. She had also read in the medical literature the then-new discovery that drugs could pass through the placenta, from mother to fetus, and she requested evidence that thalidomide wasn’t doing that. And she had encountered a British study which found a nervous system side-effect from the drug and asked the maker to explain that. In short, she looked at the data, and where it was lacking, asked for more data; she read the medical literature and understood it; and she thought about consequences and asked about them. Thalidomide’s disastrous side was a horrible surprise. But it was a surprise that a curious and alert mind paying attention would catch.


>
> Test 1 is the animal test. Thalidomide proved
> completely harmless — in fact completely ineffective!
> — to the usual laboratory animals.

CROW: We’ve sent them a stern note about not being visibly harmed by drugs earlier and more clearly.

> (Since the blowup,
> it’s been found that enormous doses of thalidomide will
> not make a rabbit sleep

MIKE: But a cup of cocoa and a nice bit of reading will.

> . . . but will cause a pregnant
> rabbit to produce abnormal young.

TOM: So it would have passed animal testing as long as nobody noticed the deformed animals.

> Equally massive doses
> of barbiturates don’t do that; they kill the rabbit.

ALL: [ A few seconds of Elmer Fudd-style cackling before giving up with an ‘ugh’. ]

> It
> wouldn’t have indicated anything to the investigators
> except that thalidomide was safer than barbiturates!

CROW: And to be fair, who could foresee humans being pregnant just because rabbits can be?

> And
> it has now been discovered that, for reasons so far known
> only to God, thalidomide does make horses sleep! But who
> uses horses as “convenient laboratory animals for testing
> new drugs”?

MIKE: So how do we know thalidomide makes horses sleep?

TOM: Who looks at a drug that makes horribly deformed human babies and asks, ‘What will this do for horses?’

> And why should they; horses are herbivores,
> with a metabolism quite a long way from Man’s. Monkeys
> are expensive — and they don’t really match Man.)

CROW: Unlike mankind’s closest living relatives, rabbits.

>
> Test 2 — trying it on a small group of patients
> first.

MIKE: Is that a few patients or just on patients who are very tiny?

TOM: Picturing a study on human adults each eighteen inches tall?

MIKE: Pretty much.

>
> Now the first slight indication that thalidomide
> could have some bad side-effects was that neuritis
> business. It results from prolonged overuse of the drug.

TOM: Also the deformed babies, but that could just be the mothers’ fault.

>
> The doctors administering the first test-use of
> the new drug would, of course, regulate it carefully.

CROW: Unlike in the real world, where they gave out two and a half million tablets to a thousand doctors while waiting for the FDA to approve selling them.

> There would be no long-continued overuse under their
> administration — and therefore thalidomide wouldn’t
> have produced any neuritis.

TOM: As long as they didn’t do anything that produced any problems there’d never be any problems turning up.

>
> On that first, limited-sample test, there would
> be an inevitable, human tendency to avoid pregnant young
> women as test subjects for so experimental a drug.

CROW: Because it’s only a scientific test if you avoid real-world conditions that would be messy or hard to deal with.

>
> Result: thalidomide would have checked in as one
> hundred per cent safe and effective.

MIKE: Except for rabbits.

>
> The final two-year test was several thousand
> people. On this one we don’t have to guess; we’ve got the
> statistics.

TOM: Knowing the answers as we do, we can sound smarter than the people who were asking questions.

>
> During the time thalidomide was being considered
> by the Federal Drug Administration for licensing in this
> country, selected physicians in the United States were
> sent supplies of the drug for experimental use.

CROW: Under the ‘What the heck, like something could go wrong?’ program.

>
> Under this program, 15,904 people are known to
> have taken the pills.

MIKE: But we probably should’ve written down who they were, somewhere.

> Certainly that’s a good-sized
> second-level testing group for our proposed
> hyper-cautious test system.

TOM: I’d like to see it bigger and less cautious, of course, but we make do with what we have.

>
> Of those nearly 16,000 people, about 1 in 5 —
> 3,272 — were women of child-bearing age, and 207 of
> them were pregnant at the time.

CROW: 86 of those listened to and enjoyed The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. This is irrelevant to my point but is interesting nevertheless.

>
> There were no abnormal babies born, and no cases
> of polyneuritis reported.

TOM: And by ‘no’ I mean ‘seventeen’, but that’s close enough to ‘no’ for real science.

>
> Thalidomide passed the cautious tests with flying
> colors.

MIKE: Melting off the walls and pooling into a flavor of brick.

>
> Now the abnormalities that thalidomide does cause
> are some kind of misdirection of the normal growth-forces
> of the foetus.

TOM: But in the future we could have limitless abnormalities!

> The abnormalities are of a type that was
> well known to medicine long before thalidomide came along
> — abnormal babies have been produced for all the years
> the human race has existed, remember.

CROW: Heck, all things considered it’s the non-deformed babies that are the real sickos.

MIKE: Yeah, after this one I’m going to my bedroom and cry.

>
> Suppose that in our test, some women did bear
> abnormal babies. Say three of them were abnormal, and
> lived.

CROW: They can be an example to the rest of us!

> (A goodly number of the thalidomide-distorted
> babies died within hours.

MIKE: Technically everyone dies within hours if you count high enough.

> It doesn’t only affect arms and
> legs; thalidomide can mix up the internal organs as
> though they had been stirred with a spoon.)

TOM: Thanks, that detail doesn’t make me want to kill myself.

>
> So . . . ? So what? Aren’t a certain number of
> abnormal babies appearing all the time anyway?

TOM: Yeah! Well, one in four million, born like that.

> And with
> all this atomic-bomb testing going on . . . and this
> woman was examined repeatedly by X ray during pregnancy .

CROW: Really, with how complicated life is how can we ever really blame anything for anything?

> . . and remember that in the normal course of nine months
> of living, she will have taken dozens of other drugs,

MIKE: Because it’s the early 60s and we don’t want to think about what we’re pumping into our bodies.

> been exposed to uncountable other environmental
> influences, perhaps been in a minor automobile accident .
> . .

TOM: And you know how scaring the mother will leave a permanent mark on the children, right?

>
> Not until the drug is “tested” on literally
> millions of human beings will it be possible to get
> sufficiently numerous statistical samplings to be able to
> get significant results.

TOM: Slightly more, in Canada.

> Toss a coin three times, and it
> may come heads every time. This proves coins fall
> heads-up when tossed?

CROW: And even if it did, how would we know coin-tossing was causal and not merely correlated to coins coming up at all?

MIKE: It’s basic logic.

>
> Another drug was introduced for experimental
> testing some years ago.

TOM: Case closed.

> The physicians who got it were
> told to check their experimental patients carefully for
> possibilities of damage to liver, stomach and/or kidneys,

CROW: Also if the drug punched anyone in the face and ran off with their wallet.

> the expected possible undesirable side-effects of the
> drug. Practically no such damage was found — the drug
> was effective, and only in the very exceptional patient

TOM: The best kind! Everyone needs to be more like them.

> caused sufficient liver, stomach or kidney reaction to
> indicate it should be discontinued.
>
> Only it caused blindness.

MIKE: Well, what was it supposed to do?

CROW: Risk damaging the liver, stomach, and kidneys, apparently.

MIKE: Man, the eyes are nowhere near any of those, no wonder they didn’t approve it.

>

TOM: I hope they didn’t.

> The reaction was frequent and severe enough to
> make the drug absolutely impossible as a medicament —
> and was totally unexpected.

CROW: Nobody saw the blindness coming — oh, now I feel like going to my bedroom and weeping.

TOM: Yeah, this is a brutal one.

> It had not caused any such
> reaction in any of the experimental animals.

MIKE: In retrospect, testing exclusively on star-nosed moles may have been a mistake.

>
> No — the lesson of thalidomide is quite simple.

TOM: It’s ‘thalidomide’, not ‘thalidomine’, however much you think you remember it the other way.

MIKE: Hey, wait, it is, isn’t it?

>
> So long as human beings hope to make progress in
> control of disease and misery, some people will be lost
> in the exploration of the unknown.

CROW: Don’t go looking for them. There’s grues there.

>
> There is no way to prevent that. There is no
> possible system of tests that can avoid it — only
> minimize the risk.

TOM: By shoving unproved drugs down millions of people’s throats just in case one of them is good for something! The drugs, I mean, not the people.

>
> We could, of course, simply stop trying new drugs
> at all.

MIKE: Gotta say, it does sound like we’re not very good at making them.

> The animals never did try the pain and the risk
> of fire. They’re still animals, too.
>
> January 1963 John W Campbell

TOM: Who died of drinking DDT in a lead-lined glass while smoking an asbestos-filtered cigarette laced with cyclamates.

CROW: And saying none of it was statistically proven.

MIKE: John Glenn, everybody. John Glenn.

TOM: Let’s just get out of this popsicle stand.

[ ALL exit. ]

[ 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… ]

[ SATELLITE OF LOVE DESK. TOM SERVO, MIKE, and CROW are in a line. ]

MIKE: Well, Pearl, wherever you are … I hope you’re satisfied with this heap of misery you’ve inflicted on us.

TOM: I think the only thing that’ll rescue our mood is the lighthearted yet barbed whimsy of the Rankin/Bass universe.

CROW: Rudolph’s Shiny New Year is on.

MIKE: The one where our hero Rudolph is searching for the Baby New Year, which will make thousand-year-old Aeon die.

TOM: Oh good heavens.
[ CROW flops over, defeated. ]

MIKE: Happy new year, everyone, and to all … guh.



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Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the characters and situations therein are the property of Best Brains, Inc, so I’d appreciate if you didn’t tell them what I’ve been up to all these years. The essay ‘The Lesson Of Thalidomide’ by John W Campbell was originally published in Analog and appeared in the archive.org resource Collected Editorials From Analog, https://archive.org/details/collectededitori01camp where it and much other writing can be enjoyed at your leisure. Nothing untoward or mean is meant toward John W Campbell or anyone at Analog, and I’m not irritated with archive.org or anything either. If you’re feeling bad about all this, consider: the word ‘bunny’ seems to come from Gaelic ‘bun’, referring to their tails, and doesn’t that make you grin some?

> for all I can know, she may have perfect and
> reliable trans-temporal clairvoyance, so that, in 1960,
> she was reading the medical reports published in late
> 1961, and basing her decisions very logically on that
> trans-temporal data.

MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 3 of 4


Part 1, introduction and John Glenn.

Part 2, German cows and precognition.

John W Campbell’s gotten an enormous reputation in science fiction circles, and he deserves both sides of that. He did bring a remarkable professionalism to the field in the 1940s. But he was also a crank. He was one of the first enthusiasts of Dianetics, and a startling cross-section of writers in the 1950s wrote that, or mild variants of it, into their published stories. He was sure of the Dean Drive, a gadget that could move objects in defiance of the laws of conservation of momentum, of angular momentum, and of energy. He was so sure of the Heironymous Machine, a magic-energy machine, that their inventor, Thomas Galen Heironymous, thought Campbell was taking it too far. The time has largely faded when science fiction could include telepathy and psionics superpowers and such. But that there was a time when even “hard”, scientifically rigorous, science fiction could include such was largely Campbell’s doing. Also, yes, John W Campbell was quite sexist, but at least you aren’t hearing his views on the races.


>
> A German doctor was the first to suspect
> thalidomide of its actual disastrous characteristic —

CROW: Its spelling.

> and it was November 15, 1961 that he first warned the
> Grunenthal company that he suspected their thalidomide
> preparation of being responsible for the “seal-baby”
> epidemic then appearing in Germany.

CROW: To sold-out crowds!

MIKE: Well, I’m feeling worse about myself now.
Continue reading “MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 3 of 4”

MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 2 of 4


Part 1, introduction and John Glenn.

John W Campbell was, as you might’ve gathered, a wee bit cranky. By a wee bit I mean “almost cranky enough to be an old white guy in science fiction today”. When he started editing Astounding Science Fiction — the magazine which would become Analog and which is the best-read of the surviving science fiction magazines — he insisted on greater levels of competence and thoughtfulness than were common in the field before, though. And his attitude of challenging accepted wisdom is not a bad starting point for fiction writers. But he was also, as best I can tell, never plagued with doubts about his own wisdom. Someday I promise I will share the very funny thing he said about tungsten, and why it’s funny.


>
> Study the history of thalidomide briefly: It was
> synthesized first by a Swiss pharmaceutical firm.

MIKE: When you put it like that, it’s amazing anyone ever had questions about it.

> Tests
> of the new compound were made on animals, and it was
> found that thalidomide had no effects — either positive
> or negative.

CROW: Of course Switzerland would make a neutral drug.

TOM: Way to fight the stereotype, guys.

> It was an “inert ingredient” so far as the
> animals were concerned; the substance was abandoned in
> 1954.

MIKE: To be held in reserve in case we ever needed animals to feel more nothing particular.
Continue reading “MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 2 of 4”

MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 1 of 4


So I have a bit of a format-breaking thing this week. Among my pastimes is writing Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan fiction. Late last year I wrote this bit. It takes an early 60s editorial from John W Campbell, the Thomas Midgley Jr of Science Fiction, and tries to find the fun in it. The essay was long, and made longer by the process of adding commentary to it. This is why I’m breaking it up into briefer pieces. If WordPress is anything, it is “not a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan fiction site” and I wish to respect the audience I’ve got here.


[ OPENING CREDITS, SEASON TEN STYLE. ]

[ 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… ]

[ SATELLITE OF LOVE DESK. TOM SERVO, and CROW are hotly debating; MIKE is not particularly hotly listening. ]

TOM: So I know you’re wondering about the Rankin/Bass special Twas The Night Before Christmas, Mike.

MIKE: Pretty sure I’m not.

CROW: Obviously we all wonder how Albert Mouse could continue insisting Santa Claus doesn’t exist when Santa starts refusing all letters from Junctionville, New York, when refusing letters is a prima facie case that the intended recipient exists.

MIKE: You know Pearl’s scheduled a short for us to keep us busy while she screens a Magic Garden marathon, right?

Continue reading “MiSTed: The Lesson of Thalidomide, Part 1 of 4”

2,038 Sentences With Numbers In Them


The Off The Leash blog recently mentioned how one of the top social media tips is using numbers in headlines. I could use some social media top … ish-ness, certainly, and since I’ve got a mathematical background I shouldn’t have any trouble including numbers in things. So here’s some sentences that have a number (2,038) put in them:

  • “This set of lectures and their subsequent study of the mockups and trainers gave the [ Apollo ] astronauts a better feel for the Soyuz flight control systems and onboard displays and the environmental controls for oxygen 2,038 generation, temperature levels, and food, water, and waste management. ”
    — originally from Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell’s The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, NASA SP-4209.
  • “If you think that nobody would know that a girl in the company had 2,038 married a baronet who was a member of parliament and expected to be in the Cabinet in a few years, you’re wronging him!”
    — originally from P G Wodehouse’s Jill The Reckless.
  • “Only the Neptunian’s grasp on the controls had kept the cylinder heading down through those currents, and now, as he leaped 2,038 away from the controls for the moment and drew his tube, those currently immediately seized upon the unguided cylinder and in the next moment had whirled it over and sidewise with immense speed and power!”
    — originally from Edmond Hamilton’s The Universe-Wreckers, as printed in the June 1930 Amazing Stories.
  • “I really tried, but every place I went they 2,038 slammed the door in my face!!”
    — originally from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip of the 26th of May, 1973.
  • “He [ Dutch writer Adrianus Romanus, in his 1593 text Ideae Mathematicae pars prima ] uses this notation in 2,038 writing his famous equation of the forty-fifth degree.”
    — originally from Florian Cajori’s A History Of Mathematical Notation and writing about unknown quantities being raised to powers.
  • “They might just as well have settled that he [ Saint Dunstan ] was a coach-horse, and could just 2,038 as easily have called him one.”
    — originally from Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England.
  • “During that beautiful eulogy seen where there about to launch Spock into the stars Kirk says `of all the souls I’ve encountered… this was the most … human‘, is this unintentionally insulting Spock 2,038, because in the series he repeatedly states that he is not human and one point states that he felt insulted by the implication of Doctor McCoy.”
    — originally from a TrekBBS discussion about The Wrath of Khan.

How’d I do?

Caption This: Getting 80% Of All Voyager Episodes Done


Janeway is leaning forward in front of her 24th-century lost-in-the-delta-quadrant couch.
A still from the Star Trek: Voyagers episode “Hunted”, which I never saw either. I think.

Janeway: “Blah, blah, something, something, coffee, blah blah, tachyon pulse something deflector array, reset button. Done. Next?”

Credits: Special thanks to Jason Brose who had the caption idea right.

And Commander Data Tries Out Something Else Wrong


Data holds Riker by the chin in the famous 'smooth as an android's bottom' scene that always gets on the Top 100 Moments From The Last Two Star Trek: The Next Generation Movies lists.
Both characters hope if they’re very quiet then Star Trek: Insurrection will get bored and go away and they can be in a more interesting movie. Unluckily, they got Nemesis instead.

Riker: “No, this isn’t how wrist puppets work, Data.”

Popeye: Close Encounters of the Third Spinach


Previously:


I’d wanted to continue my little thread of Popeye-In-Space cartoons, but couldn’t think of another Famous Studios or, better, Fleischer Studios cartoon where he went into space. But then I remembered Famous, Fleischer, and even King Features weren’t all the animators of Popeye.

From 1978 to 1983 Popeye was a Saturday morning cartoon, as the All-New Popeye Hour and then The Popeye and Olive Show (a half-hour). In my youth I trusted that this was just as the world should be: of course they were regularly making new Popeye cartoons. In hindsight I realize this was part of Popeye‘s recessional from pop culture; after this (and of course the Robert Altman movie), there just wasn’t much left. A series called Popeye and Son was made in the late 80s, but I never saw an episode, and only ever encountered it as a video CD in Singapore. The comic strip was very briefly controversial when Bobby London did a string of abortion-touching jokes that would have been a dull week in Doonesbury, and since then despite occasional noble or crazy attempts to bring it back, the franchise has been mostly something for comic strip collectors or T-shirts you get at the boardwalk.

I haven’t seen episodes of the show since, well, eating Popeye’s fried chicken while in Singapore — the Popeye’s in the airport was regularly showing episodes on the TV, so the kids had something to watch — or the early 80s and so none came to mind, but an episode guide identified one that had to be space-related, and thus, I went looking for “Close Encounters Of The Third Spinach”. The only version I could find of it is dubbed into Finnish because, of course. Why not? I’m including it anyway because I think there’s enough to watch in the animation itself that it’s not distracting to have to guess at what the characters are saying to one another.

As the title implies — and why not “Close Encounters Of The Spinach Kind”, anyway? — this cartoon is a parody of Star Wars. I still think that’s neat, though; in the past 35 years the parody or homage or imitation of Star Wars has practically become a genre in itself, and seeing how it was done before most of those parodies were is enlightening — for example, while the trash compactor scene makes the cut, there’s nothing even remotely near the trench run. I can’t imagine a cartoon making that decision about what to do and what not to today.

I also like the casting: Poopdeck Pappy makes a sensible Obi-Wan, and Wimpy in the Han Solo role is a good joke. Because of the dubbing I am not sure who’s cast as the robot. The obvious candidates would be Swee’pea and Eugene the Jeep, and while Eugene makes the more logical choice for the kind of magical otherworldly creature that the robot has to be, he’s not really one to deliver dialogue. On the other hand, that also makes Eugene an even more natural R2.

As for the animation, well, the character designs are good enough, and many of the settings, particularly the Bluto/Death Star, are amusing. But the animation is the routine circa-1980 Hanna-Barbera staging, competently done without ever really excelling. It’s not a disaster, but it is coasting on one’s built-up love for Popeye (and, I guess, Star Wars) for its appeal. Popeye In Space should be more inspired.

Groovy Caterpillar Aliens, Plus Math Comics


I didn’t read Mandrake the Magician in the 90s. For one, I still got most of my comics in the newspaper back then, and newspapers don’t run a lot of story strips because they’re pretty awful. Plus Mandrake’s pop cultural moment kind of came and went … I’m guessing sometime during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration? I don’t know. Anyway, I didn’t pay much attention to it until recent years when it got easy to see online every comic strip that is still running, like The Katzenjammer Kids Somehow, and Mandrake is among them.

Or it was, anyway. Last year in the midst of a meandering story the cartoonist had to stop, I believe it was due to health issues, and they reran cartoons from the 90s while King Features decided it didn’t really need to replace him after all. Since then they’ve stuck with mid-90s reruns and I get to see what I missed.

And for the most part it’s been really, embracingly, nutty, in that way a long-running legacy strip that no grownups are watching will get. The previous story — and I need to emphasize that I am not exaggerating or fibbing or intentionally misrepresenting the tale, just reporting what I remember the narrative being — featured Mandrake being abducted 50,000 years into the future, by the Lords of Earth. These Lords were three women, who’d divided the government of post-nuclear-war, paved-over Earth into three departments (Potholes, Time, and Other), brought him to a crystal-glazed replica of his 20th-century home and showed him domed undersea replicas of major cities. They also introduced him to robot duplicates of his friends (who, back in the 20th century, did a quick search of all Earth and couldn’t find him, so were stuck for ideas) and arch-nemesis, until he had enough of this and spanked them, which they found thrillingly novel so they sent him home. And that was it. That was the story.

Mandrake's father envisions alien centipedes grooving out on radio earphones.
Fred Fredricks’s Mandrake the Magician rerun the 23rd of December, 2014.

The current one is that Mandrake’s impossibly old father has come out of the Tibetan Or Whatever Mountains to poke around society, and that’s been mostly a tale of how he got past the customs guy by using his superlative powers of illusion. The past week he’s got into talking about he uses cosmic powers to travel the, er, cosmos, and I am wholly and unironically charmed by the “life unlike our own” shown in today’s strip, the long centipedes wearing the uncomfortable radio-equipped headphones we all used back in 1978. I don’t know where this is going — nowhere, is my guess — but at least it’s delightful along the way.


Of course the meandering and weird flights of fancy in story strips isn’t all I read comics for. I also read them to see what mathematical topics are discussed, and I found a bunch of them, so those are gathered up over on my mathematics blog and if you’d read them over there I’d be appreciative.

Meanwhile, On Deck Ten …


Riker's got this just *perfect* gaze of worry while looking out of camera frame.
While I’m not sure which episode this frame is from, that fact would not horrify the 15-year-old me, because when I was that old it hadn’t aired yet.

“Sooooo … the cybersecurity breach exposed everyone’s holodeck usage, you say?”