Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar is better than no tar at all

I'm still trying to decide if I liked Avatar or not. Almost every review I've read has made the same points: stunning visuals, weak story.

And they're right. Looking at Avatar was looking at art. I haven't been so caught up in the visual effects of a movie since What Dreams May Come. Even The Lord of the Rings movies, as beautiful as they are, never wrested my attention from the characters. Especially when Eowyn was on the screen. Rowr.

I'm over here, darlin'

For the visuals alone, this movie is worth a look on the big screen. That might be the first time I've ever said that.

As for the story, the common comparison is with Dances with Wolves, and I can see why. I have also seen it referred to as the Anti-Matrix and Independence Day from the aliens' point of view. The Dances with Smurfs line from South Park isn't as clever as it thinks it is -- the Na'vi are blue, but they are nothing like the Smurfs. Dances with Hypothermic Thundercats maybe?

But Dances with Wolves was a good movie. At the time, we were all generally fond of Kevin Costner, remember? He had done The Untouchables and No Way Out and Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. We liked the guy! It wasn't until after Dances that we got hit with Robin Hood and JFK and The Bodyguard and Fishtar (sorry -- I mean Waterworld). Dances with Wolves also brought Mary McDonnell to our attention. All of us Battlestar fans owe Dances some thanks.

Dances with Wolves was a beautifully shot epic with a moving story, reminiscent of Gandhi and Lawrence of Arabia. Yet Avatar is no Dances with Wolves. There are just too many things that make you wonder what director James Cameron is thinking.

Unobtainium. Give me a frakkin' break. I understand this might be some Hollywood inside joke, but please treat us (and your characters) like adults. For those who haven't seen it, unobtainium is the name of some hard-to-extract substance vitally needed by the Earth corporation sponsoring the excursion. Maria and I have been joking about this for a week. "It's a rare isotope of allovertheplacium," and "Can we just use the lookhereisalotium?" and "I think it's underneath the hipdeepinthisshitium." Maybe if they figured out why they needed it (other than "it's a vital plot contrivance to give us motivation to remain on a dangerous planet and menace the indigenous population"), they could think of something that already existed. They could have just said they'd found oil.

Cameron's soldiers are sociopathic idiots. You'd think that a man like James Cameron has had the opportunity to meet some military personnel who are not slack-jawed xenophobes with twitchy trigger fingers and anger management issues. These characters aren't even humans; they are bad G.I. Joe stereotypes barking cliches through clenched teeth. The head military guy is so comically over-the-top that you expect him to be a double-agent for the other side (maybe he was suffering the side-effects of unobtanium deficiency). His rush to blow stuff up before diplomacy could work might have been part of the reason there weren't any armed forces recruiting stations set up in the theater lobby.

Cameron's politics are getting in the way of his plots. I remember an article on WingNutDaily after his last film (Titanic, if you recall) claiming it was a piece of liberal propaganda designed to make wealthy people look self-absorbed and evil. That article was difficult to believe, since Cameron isn't known for his vast poverty. But Avatar didn't have any problems with cribbing from modern events, and didn't waste time on subtlety. One character referred to an impending unprovoked air assault as "shock and awe." Another scene was so reminiscent of 9/11 that I was a little creeped out. Several references to terrorism too. While I don't object to sci-fi films using current affairs for its themes, I get bored and irritated when I'm hit over the head with a stick labeled THIS IS THE MESSAGE SO PAY ATTENTION.

"I think he means us!"

Common responses to reviews like mine say things like "you don't go to a film like this for the plot."

Why? Why do we have to chose between visual effects and an engaging story? This movie cost $300 million to make -- they couldn't spare a couple hundred thousand to lure a top-notch screenwriter? The visuals wouldn't have been impacted, and there might have been an emotional connection to a broader audience. With each new Pixar film, I am impressed by how stunning it all looks, yet there is always more to it than that. The beginning of Up was the most moving moment I had in the movies all year. (And yes, I saw New Moon.)

It must be possible to make a film that reaches across the normal demographic lines and pulls in a wide audience -- one that doesn't say "this one is for the nerds, and they don't care about touchy-feely crap like plot or relationships." Cameron himself has done it before. I've met people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds that loved Aliens. Doing that more often can't be covered in that much unobtainium, can it?

But Cameron made his 10-year passion project and 20th Century Fox is raking in the coin and the computer people got to play with fancy new toys and I guess I'm the only one who's not happy.

I know this sounds like a negative review, but I truly am torn about this film. It is astonishing to see, and it has its moments. The problems I have with it are not insurmountable (which I guess is a bigger pity). I hope now that Cameron has this out of his system, he can go back to whatever he did when he gave us the first Terminator. If I want to see a movie with good SFX and a boring story, I always have George Lucas.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A face for radio, and a voice for the written word

If you guys aren't listening to the wholly excellent and mostly sodium-free Amateur Scientist Podcast, you should be. I mean, really. What the hell is wrong with you? It now has 15% fewer calls to violent revolution!

This week
, in an effort to sex the podcast up, I explain what's going on with the so-called ClimateGate, dazzle with a wide range of realistic accents, and stress why you should keep a handful of silver bullets when you go to astronomy conferences. All in five minutes! You should not miss it!

Also, Brian Thompson contributes some information, I don't recall what. A breakdown of Heidi Klum's shoes during the most recent Project Runway season, most likely. I tend to replay Dido songs in my head during his segments.

So give it a listen. Subscribe today. Make it a part of your ritual -- it's probably time to update whatever your ritual is anyhow.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When does the fabulous weath arrive?

Woo hoo!

I remember a time, back before I was a novelist. Some of you may recall. We weren't sure if 2012 would be the worst thing in the history of the world, or only the worst thing for about a week before New Moon arrived. No one thought it was possible to just stroll into a White House dinner and shake hands with the president and make Joe Biden fall for the "pull my finger" trick eight times in a row. The forces of goodness and righteousness still held out hope that Auburn would beat Alabama. No one but climatologists and conspiracy theorists knew what "CRU" was. We were all so young.

That's my way of saying I hit my target on NaNoWriMo. 50,045!

The book isn't finished. I'm guessing it's about 15,000 words away. My fault -- if I thought of a scene that would be funny, I'd put it in at the cost of advancing the plot more quickly. I hope to have it available for anyone who's interested by Christmas.

I highly recommend NaNoWriMo. It was a lot of fun, and a huge rush to finish (in more ways than one - on Thanksgiving I was at 32k. If any of you tried to talk to me over the weekend, please try again). In April, there's something similar with scriptwriting.

But now it's done, and I can turn my attention back to what's important: the War on Christmas. Happy Holidays, all!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Week Off for Pop Culture Cred

I recently took a long-awaited mental vacation. I am happy with my standards of quality entertainment, but they are getting tougher to maintain. It's good to relax them once in awhile, because you come back more invigorated.

The preceding was a flimsy justification for watching 2012 and reading the latest Dan Brown book.

If you have to see 2012 -- and if you really do have to, I can only assume you have made poor life choices so far -- you really must see it with as many science nerds as you can. The riffing that occurs is actually educational. I expected a lot to happen during that film, but "learning stuff" was not on the list.

If you need to borrow some science nerds, I recommend my friend Nicole. You may have to sweeten the pot to get her to sit through that movie again, but it's well worth it. If you need her address, let me know! (Hmmm... I don't recall... NoisyAstronomer doesn't read this blog, does she?)

It started innocently enough. I would be passing near her town on my way to visit my sister, so I asked if she'd like to join me for some Roland Emmerich-spawned disaster porn? Most of you, be you man, woman, child, or fetus, would react to that question by launching yourself at me and trying to beat me into unconsciousness, then phoning the authorities. And you would be right to do it. But Nicole has a trusting nature, so she went for it. (Rather, she HAD a trusting nature. I think the last of that burned away at the beginning of Hour Two.)

2012 begins by ignoring the myriad of doomsday scenarios attached to the end of the Mayan calendar, and creating a phenomenon even dumber. Here is a non-verbatim-but-representative discussion by some scientists near the beginning.

Scientist 1: "Look at all those neutrinos coming out of the sun!"
Scientist 2: "Is that bad? Neutrinos don't really interact with normal matter."
1: "These are Super Neutrinos."
2: "Oh!"
Scientists in the Audience: *spitting out popcorn* "HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! SUPER NEUTRINOS!"

These Super Neutrinos are turning the core of the planet into a liquid, see. Which means the Earth's crust will be floating on a lot of magma, totally unlike what it's doing now, and the whole place is about to be in a right dreadful state.

That setup took about 10 minutes, and we spend the rest of the movie fretting about whether John Cusack's ex-wife Amanda Peet will fall in love with him again before they all die, and whether he will give her the sandwich she so desperately needs. (If you strip out the End of the Earth stuff, Cusack has made this movie at least a dozen times already. Somewhere in all this, an iPod with "In Your Eyes" playing must have slid under the lava.)

Of course, there is a happy ending as about 500,000 people are saved (roughly 0.008% of the present population - party time!), and it turns out that Africa wasn't destroyed, even by the waves that washed over the Himalayas. I bet those people feel stupid for loading all those giraffes and elephants on the arks. You are going to miss those yaks, people.

Oh, I forgot. There were a bunch of arks.

It was a long way to drive to see this movie. I spent the time softening my brain for it by listening to an audio version of Dan Brown's book, The Lost Symbol. Let's spin the Secret Society Wheel and see who we get! ... Spinning ... Spinning ... No Whammies! ... Whew! We don't want a book about the Boy Scouts ... and the winner is... the FREEMASONS! YAAAY!

Dan Brown is one of those authors that millions of people read, but no one admits to reading. For good reason: he's a terrible writer. The frustrating thing about him is that his Robert Langdon books have a hint of a good story under them, but they are buried in howlingly awful dialog, ridiculous plot devices, and so much exposition that it seems he's writing for Clive Wearing.

Brown doesn't give us credit for basic observation either. Here is another sample paraphrased from this latest book. It's Langdon's inner monologue after he discovers a human hand lying on the floor of the U.S. Capitol, right under the dome.

The hand lay still, thumb and forefinger extended towards the top of the dome. I could tell from the large ring with the Freemason crest that this hand belonged to a freemason. I was worried for my friend Peter, the freemason, who had gone missing. Peter would also occasionally extend his index finger and thumb out like this, as though he was pointing, though I had never seen him do it towards the top of the U.S. Capitol's dome. Odd how the stranger on the phone had said that the hand would lead the way. I assume he meant this hand, the one on the floor here with the extended index finger and thumb. I do not see any other hands around here, except for those attached to the arms of the tourists. This was going to be a long night. Above my head, the top of the U.S. Capitol dome remained unmoving, as it had for many years, since it was first installed on this building, although not always above the hand of a freemason with the index finger and thumb extended upward like this...

Evetually, it occurs to Langdon to look where the fingers are pointing (i.e., "up" or "towards the dome") where he is reminded of some other piece of arcane knowledge that he explains in excruciating detail. Also, those of you who have read The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons might be interested to know that there is a mysterious stranger (with a dark past and a secret he wants to keep) working against Langdon, who is aided by a beautiful woman that also happens to be a leading expert in a ridiculously obscure science... a science that will come in very handy before the end.

After these twin experiences, my brain is relaxed and as razor sharp as ever. I am ready for some deep thoughts and highbrow entertainment!

Who wants to come see New Moon with me this weekend?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Must... keep... writing...

So I've been awful about posting lately. I feel terrible about it. I am very fond of all six of my regular readers, and I don't want them to abandon me for Phil's blog. (Don't do it, Artful Dodger! It will only encourage him!)

Unfortunately, it's probably going to keep up at least through Thanksgiving, because I find myself wrapped up in NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. The thousands of us doing this are supposed to complete a 50,000-word novel by the end of November -- roughly the equivalent of 175 pages in a real book.

Edited to add: If you're also doing NaNoWriMo, please add me as a writing buddy. My nick there, like most everywhere else, is "phlebas."

I started writing on Nov. 2, and after four days I'm just over 13,000 words, so it's moving along better than I expected. I believe it is already the third longest work of pornography featuring ocelots, horny priests, and a traveling production of Oliver! If I get to 50,000, it'll be the second longest. I cannot compete with the seminal (ha ha!) work in the genre: Saint Humberto the Sniffly wrote his eight-volume masterpiece Eu Estou Revendo a Situação Santamente do Ocelot (or I Am Reviewing the Holy Ocelot Situation) in 1963.

But 13,000 is respectable for less than a week. Good thing, too. I'll lose about four days at Thanksgiving for l-tryptophan poisoning and the Alabama/Auburn game. I think we should move this to March when there's nothing going on but St. Patrick's Day, hockey, and frakkin' basketball.

It's a great deal of fun, too. I've learned that not all of the novelists in the world are schizophrenic nutjobs when talking about their own works. For example, fiction writers often say things like "I had no idea my character was going to do that! I am as surprised as you are! I thought this one thing was going to happen, and this other person just strolled in and did this!" To most of the non-novelist world, this sounds fatuous, at best. (Insane, at worst.) Especially if that writer uses so many impersonal pronouns.

But I get it now. If you have your characters fully realized, at least in your head, and you drop them in a situation, you might intend to get to a specific outcome. But sometimes if you stay true to your characters, you can't get them there. You either have to change the initial situation or roll with the new outcome. Or you could completely insult your readers and not worry about it, but I can't imagine selling millions of copies of a book that awful.

This happened to me just yesterday. I got to the end of the scene, thinking "what the hell am I going to do now?" This particular scene would change my protagonist's motivation completely. See, when a priest loves an ocelot very much, he sometimes dresses as Fagin and [SPOILER ALERT]. I'm keeping the new scene, because I like this set of motives better, but I'll pay for it with some tricky emotional scenes down the line.

I am enjoying this, but I understand why some people write science books with plenty of pictures. (In an unrelated question, do all of you have a copy of Death from the Skies! yet?)

Stay tuned! I'll be back!

P.S. In CPAP news: I hate my damn CPAP. I have yet to get a full night's sleep, and I've had the stupid thing for almost a month. I had to take a few days off from it because I needed the rest, and then I had a head cold. Sneezing in a mask would be like a SCUBA diver barfing into his respirator. I've got another week, and maybe I can ditch it.

This has been this week's edition of Sinus Digest.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I need Sigourney Weaver ASAP

Check out my new face hugger.

Looks sort of like a Muppet, doesn't it? A Muppet down whose mouth I stick my nose, and whose eyes I press against my forehead. It's my new CPAP!

I talked about CPAPs before. "CPAP" stands for "Completely Prevents Any Peace" and it blows air into your nose while you sleep. That gray hose you see at the bottom attaches to a machine about the size of a shoebox, and it makes a noise THEY claim is a gentle puff of air. To me it sounds like Darth Vader trying to say something in Parseltongue.

I wanted the surgery. I don't want sleep apnea and I don't want to be tethered to some iron lung wannabe every night for the rest of my life. Jesus H, it's hard enough to fit everything in one suitcase when I travel. But the insurance people weighed in, and said they wanted me to do a CPAP for a month before they pay for the surgery.

What they did not tell me is how they'll decide at the end of that month whether I get the surgery.

Agent: It's been a month. Did your like it?
Me: No. It was like having an air compressor blow-drying my sinuses.
Agent: Did your snoring stop?
Me: Yes. I haven't slept in 31 days.
Agent: So your snoring did stop?
Me: It has, as have many of my normal brain functions and sensory perceptions. Just this morning I was having a conversation with former president Warren Gamaliel Harding about whether the Kansas City Chiefs would win the Americas Cup. One more night with the CPAP and I will either kill myself or start a cult. Does that window open onto the street?
Agent: Did you know it also came in red?

Not that the surgery is a pleasure. It's another overnight stay in the hospital (with all the attendant Crocodile Dundee issues) and you feel like you have gravel in your nose for about two weeks. But then you're DONE. No more sleep apnea, no snoring, and no inflating my sinuses to 44psi.

Something just seems wrong with the CPAP notion. My problem comes from a partially blocked nasal passage after a broken nose when I was a kid. "Solving" it by just blowing air through it harder seems less like sound medical advice and more like something physicists would try on a bet.

I just had a horrible thought. What if I get a stuffy nose? Happens all the time when you get a simple cold. With that thing on my face, I won't have time to get a tissue. The pressure will just increase until the blockage clears. That's no way to cure snoring -- that's a way to kill zombies.

Off to bed! If my new Muppet doesn't smother me in the night, I'll be back to tell you all about TAM London!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I miss the ol' drought...

Well that was fun.

The last few days have easily dumped more rain on Atlanta since we were not affected at all by hurricane Katrina in 2004. We don't have any levees to break or anything, so talking about Atlanta flooding to a New Orleansianite is sort of like bitching about the cold to someone in North Dakota.

Still... what a mess.

This is the fancy Canoe Restaurant on the west side of town. If they reopen, they might want to change their name to something less nautical. Care for a bite at Towels Under the Door?

The rains have made many locals recall when our Idiot Governor Sonny Perdue prayed for rain back in the clutches of the drought two years ago. I'm sure he's counting this as a win, but he might want to not say that near the friends and family of the nine people that drowned.

And I blame Sonny as well. He should have known what he was stepping in. Responding to a rain prayer by extending the drought another 18 months and then washing the whole state into the Gulf of Mexico is normal behavior from God. You have to be very specific what you're asking for with him.

"Lord, we beseech thee for rain to ease our suffering and refill our reservoirs, but for that rain to not exceed five inches in any 10-day period and at no time should the volume of water exceed our drainage system's ability to absorb it, in thy mercy."

Personally, I'm thankful we didn't have a vicious cold snap long enough to get Sonny back on his knees. The last thing we need is for the whole state to catch fire.

But at least the drought is over. We have a lot of water thundering down the Chattahootchie River to Florida. If you're in Florida, be careful -- we had some treatment plants get overtopped and knocked offline, so some of that is pure, all-natural sewage! Enjoy!

Out in our area, things weren't so bad. We live on a slope, so we had a couple of new fast-moving rivers on the property that could have swept away a smallish rabbit. The creek the runs past the house, which is normally a placid three-foot-wide by six-inches-deep affair became a roiling whitewater some 30 feet across and 8 feet deep. THAT could have caused problems if anyone had been stupid enough to step in it.

Our more impressive creek

Our new river behind the yard

Our fence's new waterfall

Apart from Monday's traffic snarls, the most obnoxious part was trying to get the dogs to stay out long enough to do what they needed to do. We went through a lot of rubdowns, and there were still a couple of atypical indoor accidents.

So we're fine, but at least nine people are dead and a whole lot of others are displaced. If you want to help, it looks like most of the relief work is being taken on by the Red Cross, although there are spots available for volunteers. Of course, donations always welcome.

As I write this, the National Weather Service is predicting more rain in the area in the coming days. If you will excuse me, I'm going to head downtown and shove a wet, mildewed sock in Sonny's mouth.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Physics of Costco

I've been in Costco twice in the last couple of days to get supplies for the Star Party. Everyone who comes gets a free five-gallon jug of mayonnaise and we're raffling off a case of 800 mini-quiches.

Not really. It's just for soft drinks. You guys can get your own eight-pack of hair gel.

But I love going into those places, just to watch. Because everything is in bulk, people shove these giant overstuffed carts around. The backstories you can build by watching a 5'2", 95-lb elderly woman balance a month's worth of bacon and 200 yards of garden hose on a 52" plasma TV will keep you in giggles all the way home. Try it.

Still, today wasn't about stories. Today was a harsh lesson in basic physics.

There was a standard shopping cart filled to overflowing. I didn't inventory what was in there, but what I noticed was meat-based. The 20-something woman pushing it was a little heavyset, but nowhere near the equivalent of the cart. She was clearly frustrated in dealing with this quivering food mass.

She starts pushing, and it moves. She keeps pushing, and it moves faster. Faster. Faster. She was a woman possessed. Got the thing up to about a slow jog or medium mall-walk.

I'm no physicist, but I do have a minor in physics and a passable amount of familiarity with how inertia works. There are a lot of ways this cart can stop, almost all of them hilarious.

She had aimed well, but apparently forgot that she has to stop so the Costcestapo can check her receipt. (My least favorite part about Costco. How am I going to fit a 55-gallon drum of milk in my jacket anyway? Where's the trust?)

The poor girl tried to stop. She could have done it with a little more of two things: friction and upper-body strength. She actually slid for a couple of feet before the cart tore loose from her hands. Then everything else froze as the cart trundled out the door and into a concrete column. The top 20% of the contents slid to the sidewalk.

It was hard not to laugh. At least, I think it was hard not to laugh. I didn't try. But it could have been tragic -- that cart could have hit a child or someone in a wheelchair. Or my car.

Okay, the wheelchair would have been kind of funny.

All was well. When I walked out, she was trying to rebalance everything in her cart as the CostCop ticked things off her receipt. No lasting harm done, and she learned a basic principle of the universe that she should have picked up in high school -- and she wasn't the first: that was a well-scuffed column. Some people just have to see things in action.

I hope all of you reading this can take a little something from this. Always be aware of your surroundings at Costco. Being mowed down by 450 pounds of yogurt cups and dishwashing soap would be a hila-- horrible way to die.

Friday, August 21, 2009

You Don't Know Jack

Sad news. A few days ago, my mom had to make The Long Drive to the vet with her 12.5-year-old dog Jack (a Jack Russell terrier). The poor guy had bone cancer in one of his legs, and it had gotten to the point where he couldn't breathe and was in pain pretty much all the time. Knowing its really the right decision doesn't seem to make it easier, though I imagine the local chipmunks are having a block party.

Jack had a tough early life. He spent his first four years with my uncle Charles, who either didn't know much about taking care of dogs or wasn't interested. You can't really leave a Jack Russell outside all the time, even in a climate as mild as north Alabama's. At his chunkiest, Jack couldn't have topped 10 pounds, and didn't have much hair.

In Charles' defense, he was also fighting with cancer (a fight he would eventually lose). During that fight, my mom would visit, and that's when she met Jack. One day Mom was out there, and noticed that Jack had been "skunked." When she left, she scooped up Jack and drove back home. Jack got a bath, went on his very first vet trip ever, and never went back because Charles passed away a couple days later.

Being adopted by my mother is the dog equivalent of winning the lottery. Food and shelter become last on your list of worries, replaced by finding the right spot on the couch to nap between chasing chipmunks in the back yard.

The last thing many chipmunks saw

Jack was a horror of Biblical proportions to chipmunks. Everything else out back -- squirrels, rabbits, etc -- were perfectly safe from the Tiny Ferocity, but chipmunks and mice? Doomed, unless they could climb a minimum of two feet up a tree.

To everyone else, he was friendly and cuddly. When you walked into Mom's house, he spent about 30 seconds making noises like a handgun being fired into a frying pan. If you withstood such an onslaught, you were okay by him and he would totally sit in your lap the minute you sat down. (Unless my mom was also sitting down. That was a dog that never forgot where his bread was buttered.) He was also one of the most well-traveled dogs I knew. Mom used to make the occasional business trip to Denver, CO, and she would drive it with Jack in a dog bed on the passenger seat.

Jack never really shook off his hard youth. When Mom got him, he was riddled with heartworms. After they were gone, he had a slight wheeze in his breath, and we always sort of suspected he would go early. That he made it to 12.5 and died from something else is a testament to Mom's Extreme Pampering Skilz.

So, it's a little quieter at Mom's these days, although not by a whole bunch. Mom also pampers a chihuahua named Chico and a Schnauzer named Beardo. (Also good dogs, but didn't have Jack's humble beginnings, the ungrateful brats.) As for Jack: when your story starts out hard, you can do a lot worse than to have a comfy and loving middle and a merciful end.

Goodbye, Jack. If you're anywhere right now, I hope the pillows are fluffy and the chipmunks are fat.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sexy time!

Lots of discussion these days about sexism among the skeptical movement. It's very depressing to read, both because I don't see a solution, and (or maybe "therefore") I'm not sure I can see the problem.

There's a voice in my head that says "stay out of this," and "no happiness lies at the end of this road," and "seriously, stay the hell out of this and keep your stupid mouth closed." But where would I be if I listened to advice like that, besides thin and rich? I'm going to wade in anyway, mostly to organize my own thoughts. Should they occur.

I think I just exist with a neutral zone around my head on this issue. Maybe I am just so damn male that I'm blind to sexism. I'm sure that's part of it. But it's scary too, because I would be horrified if everyone thought I was a sexist. How would I get my feet rubbed? Tim might be my Hetero Life Mate but I don't want his fingers on my plantar fascia any more than he does. (Before you write your "What's the Harm in The Man Version?" SkeptiSlashFic, look up what the plantar fascia is, please.)

Why aren't women better represented in skepticism?

I've tried to noodle this out, oblivious as I am. It's tough, because I don't think we know a cause. Some possibles have floated by:

Skepticism is still a Good Ol' Boys Club.

There are undoubtedly pockets where this is true, but I think it fails as a cause for two reasons: 1) No one has pointed to any instances of actual repression of women by the hoary old men, and 2) accusing a group of nameless men someplace of being unable to accept women in their groups strikes me as... well... sexist.

From what I've heard of the latest discussion, no one is really accusing anyone of intentionally shunning the ladies. We're probably guilty of some mannerisms and telling some stupid jokes that can be offensive, but that's hardly unique to skepticism. Nor is it a one-way street.

Until we can get more women really active in the sciences and in science advocacy, I think the women we have need to do some grass-roots stuff. It's thanks to grass-roots skepticism that most of us have heard of HLM Tim Farley, or Robert Lancaster. Or Rebecca Watson.
Which brings us to...

There aren't as many women in the sciences.

This has certainly been traditionally true, although I hope the numbers are getting better. (I could tell you for sure, but that would require research I would frankly rather not do.) Is there still a stigma about women going into science and math? Is there some cultural facet that keeps the ladies out of theoretical physics classes but tuned into Oprah? I don't know -- which is just as well, because if there is, I don't have a clue how to fix it.

Oh, Oprah. Is there anything you can't make worse?

Skeptical gatherings aren't family friendly.

Since I don't have kids, this idea didn't occur to me until my friend Lisa mentioned it in a comment on Skepchick. Almost every local skeptic group I've heard of meets in bars. The Amazing Meeting is held in Las Vegas (which hardly anyone confuses with Disneyworld, except when Disney is covered in sand, filled with hookers, and baked at 350 degrees) and is one long drunken debauchery broken up by guest speakers. If any of that sounds like family entertainment, your kids may end up being taken away. Or lost in a blackjack game.

As a life-long teetotaler, I admit I've been frustrated that every skeptical gathering of more than two people has to be around alcohol. It must be worse for parents who would like to be more involved but can't just leave Junior alone with a box of diapers, 20 tins of tuna, and a can opener while Mom and Dad go to a five-day frat party. (I don't have a solution here, either. Getting skeptics out of a bar is probably harder than getting an Oprah fan to be an astrophysicist.)

So what do we do?

I am not going to presume to lecture the women who are discussing this issue on Skepchick and other forums. They are all way smarter than me, and I've already admitted a blind spot.

I don't know how to get young girls interested in science across the board. For science to become "cool," something bigger than this blog (!) has to happen with our culture. Broader space exploration might help recapture the days of the Apollo missions. Or space tourism, if that ever becomes safe and affordable. All that seems like a long way off when we're actually arguing about whether the U.S. President wants send senior citizens to their deaths. (Doesn't that sound like a certain radio talk-show host got baked on oxycodone and watched Logan's Run over and over? And aren't we due for a Logan's Run remake? And is Logan's Run available on Netflix? I should go loo--.... sorry.)

Until then, any science interest must be planted and fostered at home. So we have to get moms and dads interested in science. Grrrr... I blame Oprah again. Maybe the best investment for all this stimulus money is to make jobs in science for attractive financially.

As for the family friendly thing...

I'm not just kissing up to Lisa (although doing so has always been a good policy), but the more I think about this, the more I see how this can be a barrier. It sucks, because my experience with people in the skeptical movement has been entirely positive. I've never met more caring, friendly, and interesting people, and there's not a group I'm prouder to be associated with. Even the more bizarre members are very kind. Except for that one guy. You all know who I mean, right? That dude is a tool.

I hate to think that others who want to be with us cannot because they're having the kids that we so desperately want to become scientists. Maybe it's time for skeptic gatherings to evolve beyond the floating kegger stage. We're smart people - I'm sure we can figure out a kid-enabled alternative that wouldn't ruin the dynamic that we currently have. I *like* Las Vegas, but maybe it's costing us in ways we can't feel in the pocketbook.

(In fact, I know we can make these things kid-friendly, and we're going to prove it once again at Dragon*Con. If they get bored by skeptic speakers, the children are never more than a few feet away from someone in an Iron Man outfit.)

Like everyone else, I don't have answers. (But I do have access! I can get right to the top of the JREF with a simple phone call! I just have to say "Maria, next time you talk to Phil, tell him I said hi!" I am so in.) We're smart folks, we skeptics. We can think through this if we can define the problem. I don't think we've quite taken that step yet.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Star Party Org Stuff

To My Astronomer Volunteers:

If you're planning on submitting a video for the Star Party, please let me know. A couple of you have contacted me, and a few more have hinted at it. Who knew astronomers were such teases? (Wait... I guess we all did. Or at least we hoped.)

Anyhow, you don't have to have the completed videos ready, although the clock is tickin'. We're just trying to get the agenda for the night ironed out.

So far we have the food and mingling, then the talk with Phil and Pamela, assuming we can extract Pamela from Rio. Then the gazing, then the Running of the Biologists*. Place your bets early!

(* The name is sort of an anachronism. We don't actually make any biologists run. It's just a catch-all name for the traditional sacrifice of a life sciences or social sciences student.)

Anyway -- please let me know if you're doing one so we have an idea of how long it'll take.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Belated RIPs

After I got that fruit out of my system, I looked up some info for the Star Party, and noticed that Jeff Medkeff died exactly one year ago yesterday. Doesn't seem that long ago, but it reminded me that I let another important death pass without comment.

Actually, I let several slip by.
  • David Carradine: No! Bad Grasshopper! Bad! What a way to allegedly go. Bad enough dying by asphyxiation; gotta be even worse to feel your spine curve and hair grow on your palms right before the end.
  • Ed McMahon: Always liked Ed, but my fondness for him was mostly because of his association with someone more famous. (Not that I can relate to that.) He had it rough at the end with his health and his finances (I think the last time we saw him was on a Cash4Gold ad during the Superbowl), but he knew how to work that giant novelty check.
  • Farrah Fawcett: Like most guys my age, I felt Farrah's greatest work was the red swimsuit poster from 1976. Her right nipple sent more boys into, through, out of, and back into puberty than all the 20-something third grade homeroom teachers in America put together. Now, every memory I have about her last days and death are tainted because I just read that Ryan O'Neal hit on his daughter Tatum at Farrah's funeral. Uncool. You gotta give your daughter at least a month to mourn her stepmother's death before you try to have sex with her.
  • Gidget the Chihuahua: Got a national commercial campaign and did two movies with Reese Witherspoon. Good gig for an animal bred to either shake or pee at all times. I've got a soft spot for chihuahuas, but 15 is ancient.
  • Walter Cronkite: Now I'm depressed. When he told us something, we believed it until he told us differently. We don't give that trust to, say, Katie Couric or Geraldo. For good reason, too. But Cronkite was, what, 92? That was a big life.
Seems like I'm forgetting someone...

Oh right! Michael Jackson. I was never a fan of his music, to be honest. He had one great song (of course I mean Blame it on the Boogie) and one good move (making Jay Leno stop telling jokes about his child molestation trial). Every mention of his name during the last 20 years was followed by a slow head-shake and a chill up the spine. He sustained the careers of many mediocre comedians and all late-night talk show hosts for more than a decade -- he was the airline seat belt lecture of pop music.

But the one I want to mention is a man who had a subtle but major impact on me: David Eddings, died two months ago.

Eddings was a decent-not-great epic fantasy author. He had basically one plot idea which he and his wife stretched into two five-book series and two trilogies. And that plot idea was suspiciously similar to Lord of the Rings.

But those were the first books I read that built a world from scratch (this was before I read LotR). Eddings had created separate cultures and histories and mythologies and tied them together in one complex story with clunky dialog. I'm sure this outs me as a Righteous Nerd to the one or two people there who hadn't guessed it already.

So be it, but losing myself in epic fantasy books kept me sane through high school, college, and every long plane ride since. It opened me up to grander works such as Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series and Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos books.

Eddings wrote his last book in 2006, not long before Leigh died.

It's hard for me to argue that he deserved more press coverage than anyone else mentioned here (except maybe Gidget, but we are nuts for our puppies -- ya hear that, Michael Vick, you stupid bastard?). Yet his work opened up some doors for me that have stayed open since. I'm sorry he's gone, and I'll remember him fondly. Might even reread his books. RIP Mr. Eddings.

Maudlin Postscript: August 5, 2009 is the 60th Anniversary of the Mann Gulch fire. I'm working on a talk about that event, the ignorance and poor communication that caused it, and the science that spawned from it. If you're local to Atlanta, stay tuned!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Fruit

This is me in the video, but it's an idea I stole from Hetero Life Partner Tim (HLPTim). It's a little dated, since the Ray Comfort thing has been around awhile.

Still, it's a confluence of events:
  • Wife out of town
  • I had nothing to do
  • I had fruit

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Posting Star Party videos

I've set up an ftp account for Star Party videos. If you need it, please drop me an email!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Paparazzi are Out of Control

I can't believe I forgot to tell you the weirdest part of my whole deviated septum experience!

I got my first endoscopy. An endoscopy is a medical term for shoving a camera into an orifice and displaying the results to someone who doesn't want to see it. The word comes from the Latin endo ("viewing") and scopus ("where the sun don't shine").

The tools required for this are a gullible, trusting patient and an endoscope. An endoscope is a thankfully tiny camera with a light at the end of a disturbingly long fiber-optic cable. The doctor feeds the cable into the orifice of choice until he encounters resistance or lawsuits. Everyone in the room gets to watch the whole thing on a high-def LCD screen. The picture quality was stunning.

In my case, it went up my nose, but with that much cable he could have gone in anywhere. In college, I once sat across a cafeteria table from a guy who shoved a piece of spaghetti up his nose, snorted, and pulled one end out of his mouth. He moved it back and forth like he was flossing his sinuses. You can't beat a solid education at a top university.

The results of my personal endoscopy aren't available yet, but I expect you can pick them up on blu-ray by the fall. I did find an image online that looked fairly representative.

The callouts are of course added later, though having an internal pop-up video would be an interesting evolutionary trait.

So it goes up my nose and down the back of my mouth until I'm getting a look at my own vocal chords from an unusual top-down angle. Very sexy. The doctor would say things like "try not to swallow," which is tougher than it sounds when you're trying not to barf.

What I learned was:

  1. Once you get inside, the view from any of your body openings is pretty much the same: pink, pulpy flesh. It's when something else shows up (for example, a rivet) that you have to start worrying.

  2. There is an AMA requirement that all humiliating or disgusting procedures are carried out with an attractive young intern in the room. Mine was named Jenny, and she was very nice even if she wouldn't make eye contact after the endoscopy.

  3. Always blow your nose, clean your ears, floss, and whatever other orifice maintenance you can think of before going to any doctor, just in case they have a new endoscope they want to try.

  4. I didn't see them clean the endoscope either before or after my procedure. I'm sure they got to it before the next person with a nose came along.

And this wraps up another exciting installment of Oversharing Medically. Stay tuned tomorrow for the results from my thyroid checkup!

Monday, July 20, 2009

I think I'll just go Full Bionic

Check this out:

(Click to enlargenate.)

It's the CT scan of my skull. I know you can't tell at this resolution, and also because you don't know how to read the thing either, but what you're looking at, apart from a massive brain cavity, is a deviated septum.

You guys remember my sleep study and CT scan. And now the verdict is in: deviated septum, most likely from my ice skating accident, although I guess it could have been a bike wreck I had on my ninth birthday. (That was epic. Biking down the biggest hill in my neighborhood as fast as possible, then dragging my feet to burn the rubber off my sneakers. I had just learned about friction and wanted to see it in action. I lost control, nearly concussed my fool self, and had some dental damage I'll be carrying with me forever.)

After my doctor visit this morning to look at my scans, I know a lot more about how all this works. The process goes like this:

  • My deviated septum blocks about 80% of the airflow in my right nostril.
  • To compensate, I breathe more heavily through my mouth when sleeping.
  • The air dries out my mouth instead of flooding into my nice mucousy sinuses.
  • My throat compensates by gradually creating more saliva glands. (That explains why I had to constantly clear my spit valve in my marching band days)
  • To make room, my soft palate grows.
  • The larger soft palate flops back when I'm lying down, and rattles as the airflow through my mouth goes by. That rattling comes out as some impressive snoring.

The part that's more serious than getting elbowed into silence at night is that all this blockage drops my blood oxygen level to about 84%. That's not too bad, but they don't like it to get below 90%, and this issue has a tendency to get worse with age. A lack of oxygen in your blood can lead to legions of other problems (including heart attacks and strokes).

So it looks like there's more surgery in my future. The doctor will straighten my septum and cut away the floppy part of my palate. I won't be able to snore if I wanted to. Not sure when yet. Either as soon as I can arrange it or after Dragon*Con.

Or maybe, as Skepchick Elyse Anders said, this is all a ploy to keep my hetero life partner Tim Farley interested. But Tim stood me up for dinner last night and is now considered a fickle bitch.

But just in case I have the option, I need advice in picking the next model nose. I'm considering something sporty, like the 2002 Punky Brewster. I am sick of the 1984 Steve Perry I've been driving. Or maybe a classic model, like the '62 Peck (Special Mockingbird Edition).

So I'm looking forward now to the Fall Procedure. I'm going to guess appendicitis. Anyone know where I can get some liquid adamantium and a big syringe?

More on the Star Party Videos

I've gotten some great response so far in both the comments on my
original post and in email.

Since I'm here in the doctor's office with no one to talk to but my
iPhone, I thought I would clarfiy some questions.

Format: I'm good with any common format. Basically if it'll work on
YouTube it'll work for me. However, I can't be sure we'll have net
access, so it can't exist solely on YouTube. I need source files.

Web cams: if you have a better option than a web cam, by all means
feel free to send something with higher production values. I just
mentioned web cams because they seem to be everywhere these days, and
this can be something that doesn't take a lot of work to do. It's the
enthusiasm I'm after, not the high-def THX theater experience :)

If you have an idea, jump right in! If you want to bounce some off me,
email me at Christian [at]

Thanks all. This is going to be great.

(edited to add link to previous post)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Attention Astronomers & Astronomy Students, and Star Buffs

[EDIT: Also see my follow-up post.]

I need your help!

I want to know if this is a good time to rebuild my back deck. I'm an Aries.

HA! Kidding. Don't summon down meteors on me.

Some of you may have heard about the Star Party we're doing the night before Dragon*Con starts. In addition to raising money for the American Cancer Society, we are trying to build up enthusiasm for astronomy itself. (Personally, I can't remember not being excited about astronomy, and I've spent the last 20 years kicking myself for not studying it. Arieses are like that.)

If you're not coming to the Star Party, and you're working in the field, or studying it, or are a space alien, this is what I need:

Get in front of a web cam somehow, introduce yourself, and spend about 5 minutes telling us something about your experience with The Black. It can be something you're passionate about, something that moves you, something that surprised you, something that scared the CRAP out of you, anything like that. I'll take these videos and we'll show them during the event to the people there. (I'll also put them online afterwards.)

So, if you're interested in doing this, I am interested in getting it :) Please record something and get it to me by 8/28, so I have time to set it all up. I have an FTP site available where you can upload them (contact me for details).

Thanks all!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rebecca and Sid get Married!

I know by now many of you have seen this video. Hell, many of you were there in person. But my video here offers something that other "high-quality" or "professional" or "watchable" videos do not: I am sitting slightly to the right.

(Edit: I see that the video is too wide for the text column. I don't care. I'm totally rad like that. You got a problem with my skinny column? HUH?)

As you can see, the autofocus was not my friend, but things eventually got under control. And I could NOT find Rebecca's family when they were coming up. Not until they showed up on stage

Also, notice how George Hrab just sort of materializes on stage? That's not because I'm pointing the camera the other way when he walks out. He really did just appear. George is that cool.

Thanks to the limitations of YouTube, the video cuts out before the cake, before the dancing, and before the Skepchicks all switch dresses. It's just as well, because my lens fogged up anyway -- it was an amazing cake.

(Rebecca, I'll get the full version to you later.)

Congrats again on the wedding, guys! I was honored to be a part of it, even if my task was just "drive and don't drop wreck the damn cake."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fear and Speaking in Las Vegas

(This is a long review of my trip to Vegas last week. This TAM was a little different from the others I'd been to, because of the increased opportunities to make a fool out of myself.)

It seemed like a good idea at first. My hetero life partner Tim Farley (owner of What's The Harm?) and I would unleash our massive brains at The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas. During the paper presentations, we were going to combine our expertises (?) and tell everyone how to attract and keep readers at their web sites. It would be 20 minutes of inspirational bliss, ending in a swirl of thrown thongs. It would just be us on a bright Sunday morning with no more than 1,000 of our closest friends (beating my old record for crowd size by about 970). What could go wrong?

For starters, I could crap my pants. But I don't want to spoil the ending.

Tim was also giving a two-hour workshop, which sort of gripped his mind. And I was putting in a lot of hours at work and had just come off a long weekend in Minneapolis. We had our information together but arrived in Vegas without having rehearsed a word. No problem, because we had three days to kill.

Except Day 1 was Tim's workshop. But also, I was living with all the Skepchicks.

Honest. There were eight of the Skepchicks, either two or three Skepchick Spouses (depending on which day you meant), and either one or zero Skepchick Boyfriends (also depending on what day you meant) living in a rented villa. This is a group of some seriously awesome women, and I was but one of their cabana boys -- and I was the only cabana boy with a car. I had to run Skepchick Errands, and thanked them for the opportunity.

These errands mostly centered around the secret wedding of Head Skepchick and Girl Overlord Rebecca Watson to Unworthy Supplicant and Lucky Primate Sid Rodrigues. This wedding was happening on Day 3. Day 1 was spent retrieving Skepchicks from the airport, taking Rebecca and Sid to get a marriage license -- turns out you do need one in Vegas -- and then pitching a small Bridal Shower/Bachelor Party for those who knew (which was pretty much just the people in the villa and a couple of others). Male stripper and everything.

No problem. We have Day 2, right?

Except Day 2 was the official beginning of TAM, so we were in a conference room all day. That night, there was a performance of the Nigerian Spam Scam Scam, which was one of the funniest things ever, and a short concert by George Hrab, who has redefined the word "cool" to mean "exhibiting qualities similar to those of George Hrab." Then straight to bed, because we had to start prepping at about 7am the next day for The Secret Removing Rebecca From The Market ceremony.

Day 3. It's just over 24 hours before my paper. The Skepchicks and I have to smuggle in flowers and a three-tiered cake with no one catching on to what we were doing. It was touch'n'go.

"What are you doing with those flowers, Christian?"
"Ummm.... these roses are flatlining! I need a botanist STAT!"

The plan was to kick this off during a live recording of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast, which includes Rebecca. During the Q&A session, Sid would step to the mike and ask Rebecca to marry him. Then on their queues, Rebecca's family would come up, and a minister (Skepchick A Kovacs had been ordained and got certified to marry people in Nevada), the bridesmaids (all the other Skepchicks) and groomsmen (the other Skeptics Guide members), and music (George Hrab). The rings were provided by Mythbusters' Adam Savage, and everyone in the room got a "You Have Been Forcibly Included Against Your Will" wedding invitation.

I got the whole thing on video. I'll post it here after I convert it.

The a post-wedding brunch at the Peppermill where we were required to eat omelets as big as our thighs.

Tim and I finally did get some rehearsal time that afternoon before the Skepchick Party and Alcohol Poisoning Test Lab.

I had a crucial but ancillary role in the Party: I drove the shuttle bus. The villa was more than 2 miles from the TAM hotel, which was a little far to walk. At night, there's a hot breeze that blows through which feels like Satan is farting in your face.

I volunteered for bus duty because:

  • I don't drink
  • I'm useless at loud parties since I normally can't hear a damn thing being said to me
  • It would have been a pretty pathetic party with no one there
  • Driving the van would make Rebecca happy
  • Making Rebecca happy would keep the other Skepchicks happy with me
  • When I have the general approval of the Skepchicks, life is easier on about eight levels

The surprising thing is that it was a lot of fun. Every vanload of people was different. It was like speed dating, but with a group. Each trip took about 6 minutes, then the conversation changed. Sometimes I'd be included, sometimes I'd eavesdrop on a conversation that began before I showed up.

Another thing that surprised me was that I drove that route back and forth for almost six hours. The hot blast from Satan's backside had cooled to the upper 80s by the time I stopped... at 3:30am. Sat around with the Chicks dissing about the party until 5am... 6 hours before Tim and I were due onstage. Tim, of course, had fled the party long ago.


Up by 8am, right into the shower. Then, still damp, a hurried rehearsal of my part of the talk and some scribbled notes. The paper presentations started around 8, but we're the last one, at 11:15am. Into the van at 9:30 and meeting up with Tim for a couple more tries before it's time to go. I have had a total of 10 hours sleep since I arrived in Vegas, and was currently running on half a blueberry muffin and a Diet Pepsi. That was deliberate, because the Pants Crapping Hypothesis was about to get field tested. I'm going to do the intro, then Tim will do his section, then I'll do mine, and then Tim will wrap up while I find a bathroom and a hose.

It doesn't look like the full 1,000 people are there. Maybe 700-800. Great.


"Good morning, everyone."

The mike is off. I lean closer and raise my voice in case it's just not sensitive enough. At the same time, unknown to me, the sound guy turns it on.


I'm too close. The hard "T" sound come out as though I'm spitting into the mike. I'm completely thrown off before I say my first dozen words. I hope the elastic on my underwear can absorb the shock.

I find the right distance and volume and limp through the intro. It's only about a minute long, and Tim will be talking for the next 10 minutes. That will give me time to either regain my composure or stab myself to death with the laser pointer.

I've heard Tim's part maybe six times. The lights are bright and right in my eyes. It's very warm on stage. I've had very little sleep. I'm still in front of several hundred people...

I feel a huge yawn coming on.

I don't hear the last half of Tim's talk because my teeth are clamped shut harder than my dog's jaws on a dropped piece of chicken. I wonder if my eardrums will go before my eyes pop out or vice versa. Then I wonder if the charley horse cramp in my jaw will relax.

"...and here's Christian."

Bastard must have skipped some slides without telling me. Fortunately, my first few lines are written out verbatim, and the slide changes are clearly marked. I'm trying to keep eye contact but I still feel like I'm hitting my notes too hard. I find myself scanning the front of the room for celebrities I know to be around: James Randi, of course. Adam Savage. Penn Jillette. Nothing.

I make a lame joke about Iran. My next line would be drowned out by crickets if they lived in environments made entirely of molten rock. I think it's my imagination, but I'm pretty sure I see Michael Shermer and Brian Dunning in the back holding up a sign that says MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN. (Shermer is standing on a stepladder.) I resolve to have them beaten.

I'm done! I step back to let Tim wrap up. Question time! Only two questions, both for Tim. Was I remarkably clear in my talk, or did I suck so bad they don't know what I'm talking about? I will never know.

Not one thong. Just some ratty boxer shorts with an unidentifiable stain.

As I leave the conference room, I stuff my notes into a trashcan for safe-keeping. My pants lived to fight another day.

The rest of the day is spent surrendering my Skepchicks to the airlines before heading to a seafood buffet and the Penn & Teller show. The seafood was good, but I fell asleep for a bit during P&T. (It's not like Penn watched my show earlier, the big goon.)

So there it is. TAM, Skepchicks, and butt-puckering nervousness about making an ass out of myself in front of hundreds of people who know my name. Like high school.

A great trip, though. Congrats to Rebecca and Sid!

Everyone come to TAM 8 next year. It'll be hard to top that wedding, but we're scheduled to have three births, a Bat Mitzvah, four exorcisms, a mass excommunication, and we're going to crown the new King of Angola.

And when you come, make sure you stay for the paper presentations -- those are always awesome.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Perchance to wake up screaming...

Getting a needle biopsy is a gateway drug to much more exotic medical treatments. I know that now.

Maria has told me I snore. I maintain that it's an excuse to elbow me in the ribs in the middle of the night, but she has convinced others to tell me the same thing, and she says it got worse since my thyroid surgery, but has gotten somewhat better since. This was troubling, because we were going to be sharing a hotel room last weekend with Head Skepchick Rebecca Watson, who is capable of summoning legions of followers to attack and have my head stuffed and mounted.

(I only survived through a cunning plan: get Rebecca so drunk that once she falls asleep, she wouldn't wake up if I stacked frying pans on her bed and pounded them flat with a sledgehammer. She was both willing and eager to join in this plan.)

But to appease Maria -- and to make sure I am not going to die from severe sleep apnea -- I had a sleep study. If you've never had a sleep study, I can't recommend it enough, or at all. They put you in a tiny bedroom deep inside a hospital, hook you up with enough equipment to make you look like an Eraserhead sequel, then they turn out the lights and tell you to go to sleep three hours before you're tired.

I did manage to sleep enough to give them results. No apnea, but a few instances of apnea's weaker cousin hypopnea. Verdict: I snore. I don't know how Maria got to them.

Back to my favorite doctor, Susan Boyle. I couldn't think of a non-lame joke about the suddenly famous frumpy Scottish singer Susan Boyle, and I want to keep this one on my side.

She looked at the report and talked about three options:

A Continuous Positive Airway Pressue (CPAP) machine.

Check this thing out:

I know it's more than breast pump hooked up to an air compressor, but not by much.

An Oral Appliance.

I actually tried one of these. I did the PureSleep thing. It's a retainer that pulls your lower jaw forward so you feel like you're doing a Basil Fawlty impersonation. I don't know if it helped or not, because I would spit the thing out every night. I woke up twice because I had rolled over on it, and it felt like someone was biting my head. Back to the manufacturer.

My doctor pointed out that I could always get one with a strap to go around my head and hold it in. Then she would help me with the paperwork to legally change my name to Poindexter Q. McWussypimple. I told her I'd do it if she put on a dress made from a curtain and sang I Dreamed a Dream for me.


Ugh. One common cause of all this is the soft palette in the back of the mouth flopping backwards when you're lying down, and partially obstructing your airway. The snoring is then similar to putting a piece of paper in a rotary fan. The idea is to tack that piece of tissue up a little so it doesn't get in the way. It's fairly minor out-patient stuff that hardly ever kills anyone.

There was a Super Secret Fourth Option: Tough It Out. Maria already sleeps with a sleep mask, and I doubt she'd go for ear plugs too. Might as well get her a sensory deprivation tank.

What to choose?

Before I did anything, I needed to see an Ear, Nose & Throat doctor, which Dr. Boyle recommended. She also recommended my first Evil Bastard Endocrinologist, so I did my homework on this guy. Seemed okay, and is actually the one the Atlanta Braves turn to when they.. ummm.... snore so much they lose games?

Two things came from that meeting:

  1. I should get a CAT scan of my sinus cavity to be sure there's nothing weird there.
  2. My nose looks broken, probably from when I was a kid.

That second one is interesting. When I was in sixth grade, I went with a church youth group to go ice skating. I'm as much a natural ice skater as anyone from Alabama. But the most fun we had was waiting for the Zamboni to clean the ice, then rushing out and skating as fast as we could while the ice was still wet. When we got up to speed, we would dive forward and slide the length of the ice on our stomachs.

Great fun.

But then I had my head down too far and landed on my nose. Lots of bleeding, and I think that was the first time anyone had tried to cure me by prayer. It worked, or maybe it was the tissue I was holding up to it.

Anyway, I spent the next month at school with people telling me my nose looked crooked. I still have a slight scar across the bridge, and this was about 30 years ago. But my mom was never convinced, so we didn't go to the doctor. Now, 30 years later, I have Guilt Trip Ammo. "Because of you, Maria has to elbow me in my sleep!"

I had the CAT scan yesterday, and I have the films, but I don't know what I'm looking at. The scan was interesting too -- you lie down in front of a giant upended toilet seat and they slide your head in. Once inside, there are things whirring around and you can easily get a feeling that you're in a washing machine spin cycle.

My Reading of the CAT Scan visit is in about two weeks, and then we'll know what's going to happen: breast pump, knife, or Nerd Gear. Can you stand the anticipation?

At least I have TAM to distract me. If my foolproof slots plan doesn't pan out, I'll see you when I get back!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

New Transformers Movie: This is Not a Drill

Heh. I just realized that "this is not a drill" could be a sleazy Transformer pickup line, if Michael Bay had ever decided to make some of them sexy. Instead he went with offensively, stereotypically ghetto.

I jotted down some thoughts during this thing. I would do a proper review, but I am strapped for time and am in no hurry to relive it anyway. So I thought I would just share my notes.

  • Opens w/ dialog. Who are they kidding?
  • Hasbro owns GMC?
  • Oh god no.
  • Dog fucking != funny.
  • Deceptichuckies!
  • Bay has never known love. Or black people.
  • America > World
  • BayU girls are sluts
  • Volvo = Evil robots
  • WTF? Are we on Saturn?
  • Astronomy class = hotty central
  • This audience is easily amused
  • Oh good. Fighting.
  • Metal punching metal in slo-mo. Rapture.
  • I think one of them died. Bad?
  • "Energon"? Are they shitting me?
  • That's real Turturro ass.
  • I am so lost.
  • Is it always sunny everywhere at once?
  • Thank god for Unhelpful Expositioning Gandalf bot.
  • Optimus Prime = Tinker Bell
  • Catch flies w/ honey, Megatron.
  • Megan = lousy human shield. Need Kevlar, not silicone.
  • Megan has Resurrection Boobs.
  • It's Optimus Prime the White!
  • I wish I was still lost.
  • Optimus Prime did NOT just say "let's roll."
  • I am deeply offended/gassy.
  • The audience envies the dead.
I know, sort of silly review. But not as silly as a smack-talking truck dying for our sins.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Useful Physics Trivia


...if you were standing on train tracks holding a single one-gram b.b. as a 2,000 metric ton train bore down on you at 100 km/h, you would have to throw that b.b. at 185.3 times the speed of light to stop that train dead in its tracks? That is 13.8 billion times faster than the average chicken can run!

Note to everyone who believes physics has no practical applications: your move.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Priest Marriage will ruin celibacy for everyone

So is a priest switching from Catholics to Episcopalians to be with his girlfriend the sectarian version of a gay man going to Hawaii to legally marry his boyfriend?

I love this story. Partly because it features a man named Cutie (but pronounced koo-tee-AY instead of KEW-tee), but also because the Episcopal Church was spun out of the Catholic Church in part to give Henry VIII a divorce. It amuses me that almost 500 years later, someone else is bailing from the Catholics because he wants to be with his gal. I hope Mrs. Cutie has a better end than the second Mrs. VIII did (Anne Boleyn). Or at least less behead-y.

In 2003, a man named Gene Robinson was selected as the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church. Then in 2007, the church successfully connected with its younger members with a controversial outreach program called "Pay Your Tizzle Fo Shizzle" -- a hip, modern take on the importance of tithing (available as a video podcast only on Zune and HD-DVD). Those Anglicans are taking pride in this Island of Misfit Toys thing.

Good luck, Cutie!

Voting Maybe, Kinda on Prop 8

As I was reading about the recent California Supreme Court decision to uphold Proposition 8, it reminded me of a line from one of my favorite films, A Man for All Seasons. This is a wonderful story about the life of Sir Thomas More, one-time friend of Henry VIII, eventually executed for treason.

More: After all... I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.

Wait... shit, sorry. Wrong movie.

HERE we go. This is a brief conversation between More and his future son-in-law about the rule of law:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of

More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's. And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

Tough words, and many scholars feel that More's belief in the law is what led to his downfall. Others think he was pissed because his daughter was in love with a man who looked like a cross between Prince Valiant and Jesus.

But the rule of law is why the California court decision was not the huge setback that it appeared to be at first, and why it might ultimately be a problem for Proposition 8 supporters.

For those of you who don't know me well, I am a huge advocate of gay rights. Proposition 8 is a terrible ruling, just like all the similar rulings that some states have adopted. (Really, Nevada? You legalize prostitution and gambling and Elvis impersonations, but think gay marriage is too much? Who has made more of a mockery of marriage: George Takei marrying his long-time partner in California, or Britney Spears getting married for a weekend in one of the drive-through wedding chapels in Las Vegas?)

But this ruling isn't really about that. All it said was that the vote last November to add Proposition 8 to the state constitution was legal and valid, and there was no cause to simply overturn it. While we might have hoped to hear differently -- it would have been awesome to learn that the Prop 8 backers had cheated and the whole thing tossed out -- I don't think anyone expected anything that simple. Indeed, if that had happened, it would have just started up again next election cycle.

Now the court has refreshed the lines on the playing field. Gay rights advocates know for sure what it'll take to undo Proposition 8, and when that happens, the anti-gay-rights bunch will not have a legal leg to stand on. It will be tossed away as legally as it was added in the first place.

Not that it makes the initial vote in November any less embarrassing. To me, on the other side of the country, it looks like the gay rights folks took California for granted. At some level, I think they forgot that California is more than the stretch of beach between San Francisco and San Diego. Cali has long been known as a bastion of the Loony Left, and everyone thought that would work in favor of Gay Rights when the voting came along. Certainly all the celebrities I follow on Twitter who live out there are shocked and appalled.

As an aside, isn't it odd that Californians can change their constituion with a simple majority vote? And they're only on Proposition 8? Is that 8 shorthand for 800,000? There are some real pieces of work out there, so you would expect to see Proposition 4752: Recognition of Vegetable Pain Act, demanding acknowledgement that your wheat grass smoothies audibly sob when they go in the blender. Or Proposition 577: Official Feng Shui Day. Proposition 1993: Gasoline is made illegal, and cars must be constructed to run on love.

Anyway. The courts didn't give a quick fix, but they showed they will obey the law as set down in the state constitution, or wherever California keeps their laws. Inside the Scientology HQ building, maybe, or deep inside Arnold Schwartzenegger. This is the same court that voted to make gay marriage legal in the first place. So we know they can be gay-friendly and that they'll play by the rules. In the long run, this is for the best.

And gay marriage will become legal in the next few years. The younger generations are much more comfortable with the idea than their parents and grandparents, and eventually they'll log off MySpace long enough to vote. (I kid the younger generation! If I had the same web apps when I was a teenager, I would have been no different.)

Cheer up! Regroup. Plan the next move. It'll be that much sweeter when it's granted in a way that can never be taken back.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Jenny McCarthy Song

My friend and patron-but-not-in-a-gay-Mozart-way Brian Thompson has written, performed, recorded, and posted a video about Jenny McCarthy's latest campaign: getting famous again.

Oh, wait. Sorry. Too "big picture." Jenny's campaigning to reduce the number of vaccines kids take. Jenny has problems with vaccines, because they don't have a vaccine to prevent lower back pain caused by hauling massive breast implants around. Also, she hates other people.

Anyway, Brian maintains The Amateur Scientist page and podcast (to which I am lucky enough to contribute). Pass the word about this video, so he can get rich and famous so that next time he comes to Atlanta, he doesn't have to sleep in a Quiznos dumpster with three tranny hobos and a sack of dead muskrats. (Yes, he failed to read the fine print on Priceline.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thus Spock Zarathustra

Okay, like everyone else, I saw the new Star Trek movie. Like everyone else, I loved it. Everyone else, that is, except George R. R. Martin. But to him, I say "shut up and get back to work, bitch."

Hard for me to admit that, because this film had time travel. I hate time travel stories.

Basically some Romulans going back in time to blow up Spock's planet. In the process, they kill Captain Kirk's father about 45 seconds after Baby Jim is born. Old Spock shows up later (time travel is the opposite of an exact science) and convinces Young Spock to give Jim a chance, and everything is fine. We'll get at least two more movies showing how these two are the best of friends like always. Meanwhile, Vulcan is destroyed and Old Spock goes off to live out his days with the survivors on a colony planet.

See? Time travel. Mostly evil.

Bear with me as I exorcise this: Spock... That is not the same Kirk you knew. I know you need K&S to be buddies, and might not even know about Kirk's dead dad at first. But the man whore/Priceline shill you knew grew up in a two-parent house. Not that someone from a one-parent household can't be a good person who is just as willing to have sex with other species and tell pre-Industrial cultures that their symbol tribal beliefs are horseshit. But having your father murdered by aliens? Might that be a destabilizing influence when you encounter other space-faring races?

Sulu: Captain, Klingon ship decloaking. Weapons powered down. Looks like they've taken damage.
Uhura: Captain, they are surrendering.
Kirk: Scotty, phasers at full power.
Scotty: Oh, hell yes.
Kirk: Open fire, Mr. Chekov.
Chekov: Hot damnski.
Kirk: Where's Yeoman Rand?

This Kirk has all the makings of a different Kirk. The one Old Spock knew became T.J. Hooker. This younger one has already been in a Lindsay Lohan movie. If you had sat through Just My Luck, you would wish you were on Vulcan when the Romulans turned it into a black hole.

On the plus side, now we have a backup Spock who knows a lot about what's coming up. He's getting kind of old, so he could write up some memoirs. Or, if he's worried about screwing up the timeline AGAIN, he could schedule some last-second messages.


To whichever Captain comes across the SS Botany Bay,

Do us all a favor and blow it up without boarding. If you can't bring yourself to do that, do not set the survivors down on Ceti Alpha 5. Seriously.

Live long and prosper,


P.S. Ceti Alpha 6 is going to explode in six months. Not normal for planets. Maybe have someone go figure out why?


Dear Captain, sorry, Commander Decker,

That giant cloud hides Voyager 6. It's back. Look up the cheat codes for its ground computer and send someone replaceable there to set it to broadcast. Do your best to ignore the drug trip on the way in. Bring a recorder. Good luck with baldy.




To Starfleet Command,

The M-5 multi-tronic unit is a piece of shit. That idiot Doctor Daystrom plugged in his own brain in. It would have worked if he had tracked down a Vulcan to help, but Daystrom is a megalomaniac with a chip on his shoulder and a loose grasp of morality. He's like a shark with an overbite that other sharks make fun of.

If you already signed a contract with Doctor Dickhead, then plug his murderous little toy into a shuttlecraft with no weapons or engines. I bet it's good at chess.


The Spocker



When you capture the space hippies, just take them to their stupid planet. All the grass is covered in acid and all the fruit is poisoned. Send webcam too, please?

Keep it logical, yo!



Dear younger me,

I don't know where the Uhura thing came from, but well done! If it doesn't pan out long term, that Nurse Chapel is going to be up in your space every chance she gets. I suggest giving her some thigh-cramping pon farr just to calm her down. Srsly, send her right up Mount Silea and back.

If she gets clingy, just invent some increasingly bizarre Vulcan rituals until she freaks right out. Won't take much. Take a look at the list I included from a Klingon you'll meet later.

Hang in there with Uhura, though. This is what you had to look forward to until Vulcan blew up:

Looks like fun, no? That's some white-knuckled pon farr right there. Where no man has gone before, my ass.

Live large and peace out,

Cool me


That'll be fun, if they follow through. And it seems like PineKirk is close enough to ShatKirk to occasionally save life as we know it and still have time to populate a small galaxy of people looking for cheap hotel prices. (Chris Pine might not be an ass to Wil Wheaton if they ever meet, though.)

Anyway, the movie is a lot of fun. I still don't like time travel, but I've seen it done worse (for example, every single time they've done it since Back to the Future). If that's what it takes to double up the Spock, then I'll cope.

When's the next one come out?