Tuesday, October 28, 2008

BSG, Wicked, Iron Man, and Vote Pushing Daisies!

Well, the weather is finally starting to act like fall where I am; I broke out the fleece jacket this morning. The wind and chill only heighten already high tensions, with the roller coaster stock market, impending election, and the World Series delayed by the rain! Really, I couldn't care less about the World Series, but it is in my interest to make sure the folks at FOX are happy rather than worried about how the delayed games could potentially disrupt their schedule, since stressed executives could make rash decisions they'll later regret to ax weak sci-fi performers off their Monday schedules... Anyway, here are my thoughts on a number of entertainment-related news items.

Big news first: We have a date.
10 pm on Friday, January 16, 2009
The second half of the final season of Battlestar Galactica will finally premiere, with the series finale likely falling on March 20 (Ausiello files). They sure know how to make a cliff hanger at BSG, more than basically any other show I know (The island moved? So what?), so I cannot wait for it to come back. Seriously, though, this show kind of stresses me out, so while I love it dearly and will be devastated when it comes to a close, I think in some ways it'll be a relief when the final episode is over. If you're not watching it, you should be (Catch up with the DVDs--you have two and a half months. Go!). It doesn't matter if you hate spaceships on principle (well, it does matter to me... I'm not sure we can be friends... What's wrong with space travel?), since I can personally confirm that there are people who are not sci-fi fans who still love this show. Battlestar Galactica is simply one of the most, if not the most, intense, harrowing, personal, and profound dramas on TV. Yeah, it's that good.

I'd like to give a shout out to Wicked, one of my absolute favorite musicals. Universal recently reported that Wicked's worldwide grosses have reached $1.2 billion, putting it in the ranks of top-grossing feature films, a practically unheard of feat for a stage show (Variety). I was lucky enough to see Wicked on Broadway when Tony winner Idina Menzel was still playing the (not really so) Wicked Witch of the West, though sadly Kristin Chenoweth had already left. (As a side note, Tom Cruise was in the audience with us, and as much as I'd like to think I'm a practical person who understands that famous people are still just humans, I was totally excited, particularly because this was before his summer of couch-jumping and anti-depressant-bashing bad publicity and subsequent popularity drop). Wicked is a great show, with humor, spectacular scenes and scenery, a wonderful score, quirky characters, and a touching story. It lost the best musical Tony, though, to Avenue Q, which really did deserve it just as much. I maintain that if Wicked had only come out the following year, it would have easily trumped Spamalot for the Tony (sorry Monty Python, but Wicked was just better). I wonder if they'll ever try to make a movie version of Wicked (making it perhaps the first movie based on a musical based on a book based on a movie based on a book). I'm not sure it would be a great idea; movie adaptations of stage musicals have had some great successes (Hairspray) but also some notable disappointments (The Producers). But if they are going to do it, they'd better get a move on it, or as Kristin Chenoweth said, she'll be playing Madame Morrible. I mean, original Broadway cast members returning 10 years later to movie roles that they are now really too old for? Idina Menzel's been there, done that (see: Rent). But anyway, Wicked's worldwide success makes me very happy.

The wildly popular Jonas Brothers have signed on to star in a 20th Century Fox feature entitled
"Walter the Farting Dog"
(Variety) Need I say more? Probably not, but I'll keep talking anyway. I don't really understand the appeal of the Jonas Brothers. Maybe if I were ten years younger I would, though it's unlikely, since I never was one to obsess over singers or bands. But still, I thought these guys were successful and wholesome. I would not have expected them to attach themselves to a movie about a farting dog. I wouldn't have expected there to be a movie about a farting dog at all (though the rumor that the Farrelly brothers may direct surprises me less). Maybe this movie will somehow turn out to be a clever, humorous, deep, and heart-warming story for the whole family, but... no, I don't think so. Talk about people being put off by the word "porno" in upcoming Zack and Miri Make a Porno--I am disgusted by the idea that "farting" would be important enough to a storyline to feature it in the title. But maybe I'm just becoming an old fart.

Some exciting new news: Robert Downey Jr. has signed on with Marvel to star in Iron Man 3 as well as Iron Man 2 (for which director Jon Favreau has been confirmed as well), and also in The Avengers (Variety). The Avengers is expected to be released in July 2011 and will feature Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk along with Iron Man. I loved the Iron Man movie, particularly Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Iron Man was overshadowed by the success of The Dark Knight, but it was very different--brighter, shinier, funnier, and Marveler--and holds its own in the world of superhero movies. I'm looking forward to future Iron Man features, as long as they are careful not to go the way of Spider-Man 3.

And lastly, I'd like to discuss an issue of actual, real-world importance. Very soon, citizens across America will have to make a choice between Obama and... Pushing Daisies! Three of the four major networks--CBS, NBC, and FOX--will be airing a half hour Obama special on Wednesday (10/29) night at 8. ABC, on the other hand, will be airing its regular new episode of Pushing Daisies (Variety). Hopefully this will give my favorite ratings-challenged show a boost as the only major network non-infomercial at that time. So don't watch Obama. You don't need to. Are any of the candidates really going to say anything new at this point? And who hasn't made up their minds already? Seriously. After all, the biggest danger facing our country right now is the very real possibility of Pushing Daisies getting canceled. It doesn't matter who wins the election if Pushing Daisies is gone (*wipes tear of fervor*). So on Wednesday,
Vote Daisies!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Working Tolkien into my college papers - Part 2

Sophomore year, as a Civil and Environmental Engineering major, I was forced to take a course called "The Mechanics of Solids." I know: boring! I was not pleased about being required to take such a dull-sounding class, especially after a fun-filled semester of Merlin and Magic. But much to my surprise, I really loved this course. The big deal in the class was the daunting Term Project, where students pair themselves off and, following the professor's approval of their proposal, conduct a rigorous (well, rigorous for a sophomore) analysis of a structure of their choice and write what becomes an approximately 20-page paper on the structure. Most students end up analyzing things like their loft bed, the bookshelf in their dorm room, an erg machine, or a local bridge. Again, boring! The paper my partner and I wrote was titled

The Bridge of Khazad-dûm:
A structural analysis of a bridge of Dwarven engineering*

I don't know which is more impressive--that an Ivy League professor actually approved the project proposal or that I found someone in the class who was willing to go along with my wacky idea. As I recall, the professor was game from the start. I consulted her at office hours before writing the proposal, since I wanted at least some assurance that the proposal had a hope of being approved, and she was enthusiastic about the idea (my good grades in the class up to that point may have helped convince her that I could pull it off). My friend in the class who had originally agreed to be my partner, and who liked the LotR movies and was initially excited about my idea, backed out before the proposal was due saying, "I want to do this project on something that I can tell an interviewer about down the road--you know?--impress them, saying, 'I analyzed this important structure' or something." When she suggested a traffic light support structure, it was clear our partnering for this project was not going to work out. Luckily, I managed to find another acquaintance in the class who said, yes, she's a big fan of the LotR movies and is still looking for a partner. I owe her a lot, for keeping my dream alive. In reality, she got a good deal; we scored an A+ on the paper. And we had some fun, watched Fellowship of the Ring as "research", and came away with a good story to tell.

So how does one make an engineering term paper out of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm? We started by estimating the dimensions of the bridge. Tolkien, being the thorough author he is, specifically says that the bridge is 50 feet long. However, knowing that we had more to go on overall (curvature, width, depth, material) with the bridge depicted in the movie, we decided to defer to the film and based all our estimates on the bridge's appearance in the movie. The beauty of this project being on an imaginary bridge, of course, was that our estimates only had to be just that--our professor wasn't going to take off points because the Bridge of Khazad-dûm was actually one foot wider than we thought. Anyway, approximating Gandalf's height and shoulder width and using those as units of measurement, we estimated that the bridge was 80 feet long, 3.5 feet wide, and 6 feet thick in the center and 10 feet thick at its supports. With these dimensions, we constructed equations for the top and bottom edge of the bridge, assuming a slight parabolic curvature.
Top edge: y = -0.00125(x - 40)^2 + 12
Bottom edge: y = -0.00375(x - 40)^2 + 6
(x goes from 0 to 80 ft)

Next, we had to make an educated guess of the material used to make the bridge. This involved some awkward questioning. I consulted a geologist and a geological engineer (I still remember the subject of the email I sent to this professor I'd never met: "An odd question...") as well as did a little reading on my own. Given the bridge's location in a mountain mine and considering what types of rock would be appropriate for a stable bridge, I concluded that the bridge was made of a rock with properties similar to quartzite. And thus we used the density and maximum compressive, tensile, and shear stress strength of quartzite for our calculations. With the material and dimensions determined, we provided a delightful analysis of the self-weight of the bridge. I won't bore you with the details, but in summary, the bridge was structurally very sound (the Dwarves obviously knew what they were doing).

Next, we delved into the bridge's critical moment** in the story: Gandalf's confrontation with the Balrog. The first question we had to ask for this was How much does a Balrog weigh? By judging the Balrog to have the approximate proportions of a 30-foot gorilla and the density of basalt, I estimated the weight of the Balrog to be around 185,000 pounds (seven times the weight of the largest elephant on record--it is made of rock, remember). Though the Balrog was clearly very hot, considering that the heat did not harm the fellowship members in close proximity and that the bridge was composed of heat-resistant rock, we judged the thermal effects of the Balrog to be negligible.

Armed with the weight of the Balrog and the self-weight and structural properties of the bridge, we went about solving what exactly it was that Gandalf's spell did to the bridge to make it break under the Balrog's weight. Our calculations showed that the bridge would have been able to hold the weight of the Balrog on its own (it would have been sort of amusing if we had found that the bridge was going to break under the Balrog anyway, without Gandalf casting any spell). So what kind of failure did the bridge experience after Gandalf cast his spell? A stone bridge could easily suffer a tensile failure. Picture a heavy rock on a flimsy shelf: the shelf bends downwards, squeezing the top surface of the shelf (compressive stress) while stretching the bottom surface of the shelf (tensile stress). The same happens when a load is placed on a stone beam, though the bending may not be visible, and while stone can take a lot of compression, it is not strong against tension. However, this type of failure would have been more likely to lead to a total collapse of the bridge and threaten Gandalf's footing as well as the Balrog's. What appeared to happen in the movie was a shear break--a section of rock cleanly breaking and sliding straight down from the adjacent rock. So Gandalf must have wisely chosen to weaken the shear strength of the rock. To make a long story short, we found that Gandalf's spell could have lowered the maximum allowable shear stress of the quartzite directly in front of him to under 65 pounds per square inch, causing a shear collapse under the Balrog when it stepped forward on the bridge. You... shall not... pass!!!

We concluded our paper with an analysis of the cantilevered remains of the broken bridge (it would still stand) and a summary of our findings.

And there you have it--more than you ever wanted to know about the structure of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. In later years, when I'd become a disillusioned engineering upperclassman bitter about my choice of major (I switched into engineering? What was I thinking?!), I could always look back fondly on this class and this project and remember, Oh yeah, that's why I chose this major. I have no regrets about that class. And to the friend that dumped me as a partner because she wanted a project she could boast about to interviewers: In an interview for the job that lead me to my current career, when the interviewer asked me, "Can you give me an example of something unique and creative you've done, or a problem you've solved in a particularly creative way?" I proudly answered, "In my core engineering class on the Mechanics of Solids, I wrote a paper on the bridge in The Lord of the Rings!"

*The subtitle kind of cracks me up (I think my partner may have come up with it). It's so plain and straightforward and dull, but at the same time totally absurd.
**Sort of an engineering pun!! (and not one I'd originally intended.) Yeah, I'm a total nerd.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Working Tolkien into my college papers - Part 1

I have already described my year-long Lord of the Rings-related high school project in my post on Quenya. In that post, I made reference to a paper I wrote in college on the story of Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion but said that it was a story for another day. Well, that day has come.

It is a wonderful thing, working your geeky obsessions into school papers. It makes the project that much more fun, and it is always easier to devote time to produce a good paper when it is fun to work on. It's not that hard to work your fandom into projects in elementary and middle school; I can't remember how many book reports I did on Redwall in grade school, and I actually was introduced to the Shannara series when it was on our suggested reading list one summer. But such opportunities diminish once you get further along in your education and learning becomes more serious. Teachers try very hard to make school fun for kids, but as you approach college, you're on your own--you have to find your own motivation. My Quenya project was a rare opportunity to do something somewhat... frivolous?... for a twelfth-grade project, mainly because the whole "Hero's Journey" project idea was, frankly, a little frivolous for a twelfth-grade curriculum. But what happens when you go off to a highly esteemed Ivy League school (or any respected institution of higher learning), where your parents aren't paying $40,000+ a year for you to learn to speak Elvish? The fun and games are over. That is, unless you find the right classes, or are creative, possibly devious, and always unapologetic of your geekiness.

I wrote papers based on the world of J.R.R. Tolkien in two of my classes in college. One of these classes was innately conducive to Tolkien papers--hence my enrollment in said class--while the other was a class where my Tolkien-related project was a little far from the beaten path. That paper deserves its own post, so I'm breaking this into two parts--one for each of the classes I just described.

Heart of the City comic by Mark Tatulli, 4-5-03

Freshman seminars are great. Professors like them because they allow them to teach a small class on whatever narrow subject they dream up, and students like them because the professors can be very good at dreaming up cool subjects and are likely to be nice to a class of freshmen who want to take a course on their favorite topic. I remember as an upperclassman being totally jealous of freshmen for their freshman seminars, but it's not like I had my time. I was lucky enough to take a freshman seminar, taught by an English professor who actually specialized in Beowulf, entitled "Merlin and Magic." When I saw The Hobbit on the sample reading list, I just had to apply. The required reading included a good bit of Sir Thomas Mallory, some Tennyson, versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo translated by Tolkien himself, as well as The Once and Future King, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and, yes, The Hobbit. Not a bad reading list, indeed.

For one of the papers in the course, we were directed to write a comparative paper. One of the stories for the comparison had to be a work we had read for class, while the other could be of our own choosing. As I mentioned above, the class had read Sir Orfeo, the cheerier medieval adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (Orfeo only has to confront the Faerie King, not Hades himself, and there's a happy ending). I noticed that the story had strong similarities to the story of Beren and Lúthien--Tolkien's story was likely influenced by the famous myth--and so marched myself over to the bookstore to buy a copy of The Silmarillion and got to writing my paper.

The crucial similarity between the two tales is this: Orfeo is the most gifted harpist in all the lands; everyone upon hearing his music believed that "to joy of Paradise [they] had strayed." When his love is stolen away by the Faerie King, he travels to the Faerie Kingdom to confront him. When the Faerie King, furious at Orfeo's uninvited appearance, angrily asks him why he has invaded his halls, Orfeo says he is "but a wandering minstrel poor" come to offer his minstrelsy, and he begins playing on his harp. The music is so beautiful, the Faerie King offers Orfeo anything he wishes. Naturally, he wishes for his wife. She is returned to him, and they leave the Faerie Kingdom and live happily ever after. In The Silmarillion, Lúthien is the most beautiful singer in all the lands; "Keen, heart-piercing was her song.... The song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed." When her love Beren is taken prisoner by Sauron, she and Beren use song to find each other. But in more a striking similarity to Orfeo's story, when Lúthien confronts Morgoth to retrieve one of the Silmarils, she offers "her service to sing before him, after the manner of a minstrel." She is able to charm Morgoth with the hypnotizing power of her song, providing her with the opportunity to escape with one of the Silmarils. Both Orfeo and Lúthien, when confronting a threatening and powerful ruler holding something they wanted, offered their service as a minstrel and through the power of their music were able to obtain that which they desired.

Looking back at my paper, entitled "Music as Magic", I think I got a little carried away with my interpretation of the use of music as magic in literature as a reflection of our perceptions of music in the real world. I suppose my writing seminar freshman year had taught me to be ambitious with any paper and to reach beyond the apparent confines of a simple assignment (such as "comparison paper"). But the professor gave me an A on "Music as Magic", so it's all good.

As part of the final exam for the class, I wrote an essay on Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" essay, in which he criticizes those who dislike and discredit Fantasy for its "arresting strangeness." In my short essay, I take up Tolkien's fight, expanding on some of his arguments (and providing examples from the texts we read) in an attempt to defend the literary value of the Fantasy genre from those who compare it to dreams or delusions and say it is only appropriate for children because its unreal material does not affect our real lives and thus does not matter. Essentially, what I argue is that Fantasy should not be disparaged by likening it to mere dreams or delusions because of two critical differences. First, while the rules of Fantasy may not correspond to the rules of the real world (or as Tolkien calls it, the "Primary World"), worlds of Fantasy do operate according to rules that make sense within the boundaries of the Fantasy worlds. In contrast, because of their lack of rules and control, dreams may appear to make sense at the time but will not make sense upon waking, and delusions may never have made any sense at all. Second, the suspension of disbelief required when reading Fantasy literature is both conscious and willing, unlike with dreams or delusions, and therefore the meaning found in Fantasy does not dissolve when one steps away from it back to the Primary World.

Yeah, so it wasn't really the greatest paper, but did I mention that it was timed? (I probably had an hour and a half for this part of the exam.) Anyway, I think I got an A on the exam, so again, it sufficed. The best part is that I took this exam in the engineering library, and as I paused to look around at all the other engineering students working away, I thought smugly, I'm writing about Fantasy and Tolkien--what are you working on right now?

Well, that's the scoop on the Tolkien papers I wrote for my Merlin and Magic freshman seminar. Not bad for school work, huh? In my next post on Wednesday, I will describe in detail my term paper for a class called The Mechanics of Solids. Can't wait, can you?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Iron Man 2, Bourne 4, and Homer in Space!

First I'd like to share a personal update. My job is essentially a dead-end job. It is great experience and a strong resume-builder, but the only way to move up in the field is to go to grad school. So the whole past year, when people have asked me what my long-term plans are, I've responded that I'm considering going to grad school next year, i.e. fall 2009. Just a couple weeks ago now, it finally dawned on me that, if I actually do want to apply to grad school for next year, now is the time to apply. Panic! This reality check has sent me into a flurry of stressful school- (as well as soul-) searching, trying to figure out what to study, where to study, and with whom to study next year. And then there's the GRE that I'm signed up to take at the end of the month which I'm trying my darnedest to motivate myself to study for (a difficult task, indeed). So I haven't been posting as frequently as I was before I realized I have to apply to grad school. So yeah, there's my excuse. And on another note, the well that supplies my building is still testing positive for coliforms, so now it's over two weeks without full use of the water. I have no words of poetry left for the situation.

Anyway, on to the entertainment news that has caught my eye this past week.

Don Cheadle is set to replace Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes in Iron Man 2 (Variety, IMDb). After saying "Next time, baby" to the extra suit in the first movie, it turns out Howard won't be around next time when the character gets to don the suit as War Machine. I can't really imagine what would make Howard want to back out of the sequel (IMDb blames it on a salary dispute, but the media always blames it on salary, so I always take such reports with a grain of salt). The first movie was thoroughly entertaining and, well, pretty awesome, and in a summer dominated by The Dark Knight, it managed to hold its own (it did, of course, come out before Dark Knight). Anyway, I'm expecting great things from the sequel, and I am slightly saddened that the entire cast will not remain intact. That said, Cheadle is great, if very different from Howard, and as long as it's Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr., the rest don't matter so much. So what's in store for Cheadle's Rhodes? Variety suggests "the sequel will see him become War Machine, Iron Man's nemesis." Hmm. I can see a plot where Stark would have to do battle with War Machine, but putting "Iron Man's nemesis" as an appositive for "War Machine" seems to suggest that War Machine is a permanent villain. I'm no Iron Man expert, but what I know of Iron Man tells me that's wrong. Hopefully it's just a misleading, uninformed turn of phrase. The sequel is scheduled to be out in 2010. Looking forward to it.

> Update 10/20/08: Terrence Howard claims that reports he turned down the Rhodes role in the Iron Man sequel over a salary dispute are totally fabricated (IMDb). He insists instead that he was snubbed mid-negotiations in spite of an existing contract. Ah, the intrigue! What will happen next?
> Update 10/31/08: Apparently, the story is that Howard, the highest paid actor on the first Iron Man film (!), was offered a dramatic pay cut for the sequel when the writers found he wasn't going to have a very large role. His agents were not pleased. It wasn't clear who walked away first, but Marvel quickly secured Cheadle for the role (EW).
> Update 2/6/09: The confusion continues. Though last year on NPR, Howard had called it the "surprise of a lifetime" when he found out that Cheadle had taken the role of Rhodes, and expressed his disappointment at the broken contract, he recently told Ebony magazine that he walked away from the role following the advice of Will Smith (IMDb). Will we ever know what really transpired?

Universal has found a writer, George Nolfi, for the fourth Bourne film (Variety). Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass are already signed up for the fourth installment. They'd originally only planned on the trilogy, but who can resist all that potential money? The Bourne trilogy was pretty rare in that none of the three movies were stinkers. In fact, they were all pretty great. Hopefully, they'll be able to keep it up with the fourth. After last year's Summer of the Threequel, let's see if we can get a Summer of the Fourquel in a couple years. Shrek and Spider-Man are already gearing up for their respective number fours, though the release dates are not likely to be close. They should work on that. Frankly, though, I'm much more excited about Bourne 4 than the other two.

Brad Pitt has signed on for Warner Bros. project "The Odyssey" (Variety). Pitt will probably star in it, and George Miller who is also attached to the project will probably direct (it's all the early stages here, so little is certain). If this sounds like a sequel to 2004's Troy (which would be a bad idea, and besides, Brad Pitt's Achilles--spoiler!--died at the end), think again. Variety reports that they plan on creating a futuristic version of Homer's epic, with the tale set in outer space. Yes. A literal space odyssey. I'm not sure how Odysseus will prove his identity by stringing a laser gun (or if he actually deserves his faithful wife Penelope after all he does on his journey, without ancient standards of morality). I've been surprised before, and heaven knows I like sci-fi, even sometimes when it's bad, but this just seems like a misguided concept. Homer... IN SPACE!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Alas! When will our well again be well?

Come gather 'round, if ye be brave of heart,
A tale of dreadful woe have I to tell:
On Thursday morn my tragic tale did start,
When coliforms were found inside our well.
They may have been there months, admittedly--
What that entails I feel no need to spell.
But so they stopped our well immediately
Bacteria from the water to expel.
Yet Tuesday, and again on Friday morn
We heard that still our water was unwell.
A three-fold plague have we, so I must warn
That drought can cause a people to rebel.
Oh fie, oh spite! There will be hell to pay
Unless that cursed well gets well, I say.

There are very few things that have ever inspired me to write a sonnet, since I have no talent as a poet and thus generally the world is better off if I don't attempt such a feat (my last sonnet was for a dumb AP U.S. History project where we had to write a Valentine to an American historical figure of our choosing; a sonnet was certainly not required, but once the line Shall I compare thee to Calhoun or Clay? drifted into my little brain, I had to see it through and write an entire love sonnet to Daniel Webster). Anyway, the building that I live in has been without full use of water for over a week now since testing positive for coliform bacteria last Thursday (not fecal coliform, for those who know the difference; for those who don't, fecal coliform bacteria are generally from human waste and accompanied by other fecal stuff that's gross and makes you sick, whereas non-fecal coliform bacteria are just, well, bacteria, a fact which is supposed to be reassuring). They've chlorinated the well three times now, and hopefully we'll find over the weekend that the third time's the charm. The second time the well tested positive for the bacteria, I sent an email to the other residents of the building with a mere Oh fie, oh spite, oh hell! Is it too much/ To ask that our poor well again be well? But the third time the test came back positive, I felt an entire sonnet was in order to express my full frustration. Hence the sorry excuse for a sonnet you see above.

The water situation is a little case of "You don't know what you got 'til it's gone." I mean, I already knew that I use water a lot, but washing dishes and my face with bottled water is getting really old, as is trekking to another building to take a shower. We were told we couldn't even flush toilets during the 24-hour chlorination process so as not to disturb the system. This third chlorination had better work. I've already written a sonnet; I don't know where to go from there if we get a fourth positive coliform reading. Epic poetry?

> Update 10/24/08:
Rejoice, dear friends, rejoice! Go forth and tell
The news that once again our well is well.
> Update 11/4/08: Our well has tested positive for bacteria, yet again. They may need to dig a new well or something serious. All I have left to say is
> Update 11/18/08:
Well, the well has tested negative again. And this time it's going to work. Really.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Mysterious Messages from Another Time

Life at the lab is generally pretty low key, same old-same old, but I had a little bit of excitement in the office yesterday. First, a little (not particularly essential) back story: I worked at the lab at which I currently work two summers ago as a (paid) REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) intern. Now I'm back, but there was significant time in between when I worked as an intern and when I got my current job here.

Thursday around noon I'm sitting at my desk minding my own business when one of my office-mates comes over from the printer (he's just printed out a few things himself) and hands me a sheet of paper, saying, "This just printed out--you don't want to lose it." It's a boarding pass with my name on it for a Southwest Airlines flight. The thing is, I'm not planning on any trips at this point--plane, train, or otherwise. I look at the time stamp at the bottom of the page: 8/12/2006 2:45 PM. *Cue Twilight Zone song.* It's the boarding pass for my flight home at the end of my REU. I remember the flight quite well. It was mere days after the London airport terrorism scare, before they decided on what new liquid regulations they would use for carry-ons, so for that flight we couldn't bring anything remotely liquidy. I remember discovering, while already on the plane, that I had a chocolate caramel (Hershey's Nugget) in my purse and fretting that if someone saw it, it could possibly get me thrown off the plane. I'm serious: they weren't allowing chapstick or deodorant, so a bit of caramel in the middle of a chocolate could have been fair game for an arrest.

But why did the printer decide to print this boarding pass just now? This printer has completed hundreds of jobs, printed out thousands of sheets in between when I told it to print the boarding pass and now. The website from which I printed the boarding pass is gone and the email account from which I would have accessed the boarding pass is even gone, so it must have been caught in the printer. For two years. It makes me wonder what else the printer is hiding in its little printer brain. And what was the meaning of this strange blast from the past?

The answer didn't come to me until this morning. It's so obvious! How could I be so dumb? The printer was caught in a time anomaly. While my 8/12/2006 self could send something to print out on 10/2/2008, maybe my 10/2/2008 self could send something to print out for my 8/12/2006 self! When I got to work, I quickly typed up a letter to my(2006)self:

Dear [Eleni],
I just got the boarding pass for your flight home from your REU summer internship (which you printed on 8/12/06). I remember that flight quite well. Some info and advice for you:

I then rattled off a list of advice for myself (-Don't wait to take the GRE; -Be very careful to observe all driving laws on October 30, 2006; -A close friend will ask you out this fall, so think of a tactful way to turn him down; etc.). I also tried to think of important events that it would be helpful to know about (bad things that I could possibly prevent, like Kyle Chandler on Early Edition). All that came to me at the time was: 1) The stock market crashing, 2) the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and 3) Heath Ledger's death. So, I wasn't going to spend that much time on the note because one, the time anomaly wouldn't last long--it could have already closed!--and two, I had a meeting with my PI* that morning and needed to get a bunch done before then. Still, it's kind of a sad, sparse little list I came up with.

What should have I included? What would you say if you could write a letter to yourself two years ago? Keep in mind that world-changing information is dangerous in time-bending circumstances (Peter Petrelli has beaten that message to death by now). Even little changes can make a big difference--perhaps by telling my(2006)self how to avoid a small driving infraction, I(2008) am leading my(2006)self to a huge deadly car crash down the road that my(original 2006) infraction helped me avoid. And that's not the only danger of sending this message back in time. How do I know I'd be the person to receive the letter? Assuming that the anomaly, as long as it is in existence, moves through time at the same rate that we move through time, I(2006) wouldn't have even been there a day later on the morning of 8/13/2006 to receive the letter that I(2008)'m sending to the printer on Friday morning, the day after receiving the boarding pass, since I(2006) would already be on my way to the airport. Even not assuming this anomaly-moving-through-time rule, I would still have no way to know who would receive my letter. It could fall into the wrong hands--I could have given an evil villain everything he needed to... well... not prevent a few bad things from happening? I guess he could pull out of the stock market before things get really bad and thus retain the funds he needs to pull off some nefarious plan. And all because of me.

In any case, when I hit print, the letter promptly printed out of the printer, in the 10/3/2008 present. Disappointingly, it seems I missed the time anomaly. Obviously I should have thought of this yesterday, immediately after I had received the boarding pass, when there was a better chance of the anomaly still being open. Though... that boarding pass did successfully print in 2006 (seeing as I was able to board my flight) as well as in 2008. While it is most likely that I tried to print it once and when it didn't work (until two years later) I tried to print it again and it printed immediately, it is possible that I only told it to print once and it printed the boarding pass in both 2006 and 2008, in which case it is also possible my(2008) letter printed in both 2008 and 2006. As far as I can tell, the outcome of the future (that is, the present) hasn't changed yet, but maybe any changes will be in an alternate dimension--an alternate version of 2008. One can always dream.

Really though, I'm quite sure that the time anomaly in the printer was open for only a brief period yesterday and was thus closed before I thought to print the letter to my 2006 self. Now the printer is back to printing only in the present. Anomaly closed. Chance missed. But I will save the boarding pass, and the letter, as mementos of this amusing technological, if not mystical temporal, anomaly.

*Principle Investigator (as in PhD-holding scientist leading a research group, the sort of friendlier term people use here for "boss"), not Private Investigator.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fleeting members, Graysons, Sonic, and Pushing Daisies

My thoughts on assorted news from this week in the entertainment industry:

I am not a fan of reality shows. Correction--I have an intense distaste for reality shows on principle. Some of them, such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, do great things, but I still think they exploit people's misfortunes and emotions. And I actually watched about half of one season of Beauty and the Geek because Dave the Larper and Jasmine the Babysitter were really adorable. But all other seasons of that show and every other reality show are pretty trashy TV. So the fact that Survivor: Gabon (Survivor is still on??) has experienced an unfortunate "wardrobe malfunction" and has gotten CBS into a little trouble does not particularly concern me. But I do give the show and this wardrobe situation credit for inspiring the following quote, brought to you by the Parents Television Council: "The number of 'fleeting' penises we expect to see on broadcast television is zero." (IMDb)

The CW has picked up a new DC-based series to be called "The Graysons" about the young Dick Grayson (and presumably his family) before he became the first of Batman's sidekicks known as Robin (Variety). It's basically supposed to be for Robin what Smallville is for Superman. My only question is, well... Clark Kent is (basically) the last of an alien race living on Earth with superpowers that he uses when he must to fight baddies without arousing suspicion. So while Smallville is about how Clark copes with life as a teenager/young adult with these secret abilities, The Graysons will be about Dick Grayson coping with life as... a normal kid? Or, at best, a kid growing up in the circus. A show about a kid in an acrobat family could work, but the point here is to make a show about Robin. The executive producers say they've come up with an original take on the character, so we'll see what they put together.
> Update 11/7/08: The CW has apparently scrapped plans for The Graysons (Variety)

I have just learned about the new Sonic the Hedgehog game for the Nintendo DS (Variety). It caught my attention because it's a BioWare game, and as I have made known through previous posts, most of my favorite games are by BioWare. But as for this Sonic game... I think I must be getting old. Firstly, I'm not going to play this game because I don't have a Nintendo DS and I don't expect ever to get one. I don't know what the deal is with that touch screen--why should any game need more than one screen? Does a person have two separate fields of vision? No. Secondly, hearing the phrase "Sonic on the Nintendo...", I just have to shake my head; it triggers in me almost the same reaction I would have seeing Iron Man in the Justice League (*shudders*). Back in the day, Sega was a top competitor of Nintendo--the day of the Genesis vs. the Super Nintendo. My family was in the Genesis party, and we had a lot of fun with it, but as later generations of consoles came out, the Saturn and Dreamcast disappeared under the N64 and PlayStation's success, thus leading to Sega's demise as a console-maker. But in the height of my console days, Sonic was for Sega and Mario was for Nintendo, and Sonic had not one but two TV shows. That sassy Sonic with his love for chili-dogs has been reduced to an adopted Nintendo tag-along makes me a little wistful. At least he's getting some BioWare respect.

Now here's the good news: Fringe has received a full season order from Fox (Variety). It had me worried after its not-weak-but-not-strong premiere, but when the following week it had ratings-champ House as a lead-in, its audience increased significantly and it has now been receiving fairly strong ratings, particularly compared to other new shows which have overall failed to impress audiences. Fringe can be a little icky (and I can put up with a lot of ick), but I'm looking forward to seeing where they take the show. The bad news: Pushing Daisies's season premiere on Wednesday ranked fourth in its hour with less than half the audience that tuned in for the series premiere last year, getting a sad 4.3/7 with 2.0/6 in the demo (Variety, IMDb). This was the show whose return I had been most anticipating, especially since there haven't been any new episodes since the winter because of the writers' strike. I guess for other people, the long hiatus just weaned them of the show. *Sniffle.* This is a wonderful, delightful, whimsical, quirky, hilarious, lovable show. Help save Pushing Daisies! Watch the show! ABC Wednesdays at 8/7c.