Friday, May 29, 2009

Geek Lotto Dreams: A 'Serenity' Restaurant

Cover of "Serenity [Blu-ray]"Cover of Serenity [Blu-ray]

Adding to my increasingly unrealistic blogging workload, I am toying with another column called Geek Lotto Dreams, chronicling what geeky things I would do with an obscene nine-figure lottery payout. First up, I'd start a Serenity-themed restaurant.

I'd call it the Blue Sun Grill, after I'd paid Universal and Fox and Joss Whedon all the necessary royalties for this boondoggle of a saloon to do it up right.

Say what you will about the counter-factual probability of a U.S.-Chinese collaborative entity colonizing a retro-Western terraformed solar system, but an Asian-Western fusion steakhouse with Serenity's frontier-plus-high-tech design sensibility would be fun as all get out to eat at. Rustic decor, polished teak, mahogany, and butcher block tables (some with bench seating, perhaps) surrounded by metal-and-wood walls adorned with flatscreen digital "paintings" and fictional 'Verse travel posters. Digital meets frontier, east meets west, subversive meets sublime.

Pepper the traditional steaks and stir-fry menu with experimental soy-and-gelatin experiments derived from the works of Homaru Cantu or Wylie Dufresne, just like colonists had to do with their multicolored protein rations. Every meal would be served with forks and chopsticks, and just for kicks, only sliced apples would be allowed inside the doors, lest they contain grenades. (The fact that said grenades are called Grizwalds is amusing, if only for the implied association with Clark W. Griswold of National Lampoon's Vacation fame. Perhaps a Grizwald Crumble would be a hard apple-cider cocktail.)

Dishes would be named for the planets upon which they "originated," and as those planets were all given symbolic or referential names in Firefly, the dishs would all be gastronomic entendres. The fact that Heinlein was a gas giant planet in the series is a joke not lost on many, so a Heinlein souffle would be no small or simple dish.

This isn't a Planet Hollywood amusement-park parody of Serenity we're talking about, but a serious bistro with legitimately complex and inspired fare and a sublimated snarkiness to its sci-fi verve. I'd wager lots of folk would eat there, not just the out-of-the-closet Browncoats. In fact, if the vision is executed correctly, non-fans won't even know this is a theme joint; it'll just be a somewhat off fusion restaurant. And if not, I'll be imaginarily rich, so I can keep it going as a vanity concern whether it's profitable or not.

That's one Geek Lotto Dream. What's yours?

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Light cone

Light cone (n.) - A simplified diagram for explaining causality, brought to us from relativistic physics. The diagram on the left (blatantly stolen from Wikipedia) is a light cone based on Minkowski spacetime, which is a fancy term for a uber-simplified diagram of the universe as a flat, two-dimensional plane; no Einsteinian curving to confuse us. Time is the vertical axis, so everything below the center is the past and everything above it is the future. At the very center is an event--typically, a flash of light, which gives us the term light cone. The lower cone represents all the possible events that could have caused the flash of light to happen at the exact time and place it actually occurred. The upper cone is all the events that could be influenced by the flash of light after it happened.

As you get closer to the event in time, fewer and fewer other events could have caused it, as the particular circumstances surrounding the event get more specific. For example, if the flash of light is caused by an LED in my office, any LED that existed in the world a year ago could go on to create the flash of light, so long as in the intervening year any of those LEDs found their way to my office. As we approach the time of the event, the vast majority of those LEDs are ruled out, as they are destroyed or simply stationed too far away to reach my office in time to emit the flash, even if they move there at the fastest possible speed. Finally, only one LED is in the exact right place at the exact right time to emit the flash--the one at the center of the light cone.

At the moment of the flash, I may be the only person in my office, so for simplicty's sake, I am the only observer of the flash (though in reality the exact electrons used to generate the flash, the heat produced, the bacteria incinerated or mutated, and so on all are influenced by the flash in some fashion). I note the flash, and remember it. For every subsequent moment of my life, I could potentially mention the flash of light to someone else, thus passing on the flash's influence. Each person I mention it to could mention it to someone else, and every one they tell could mention the flash to someone else, and so on exponentially until the end of time. Thus, the flash's light cone--its potential realm of influence--expands as we move forward in time.

That said, there were innumerable objects in the past that could never have emitted the flash of light no matter how their circumstances progress, and there are incalculable persons, places, things and events in the future that can never be influenced by the flash of light, if only because all the non-causers and the un-effectables exist so distantly in the universe that they could neither reach my office at any point in the universe's past, nor could lightspeed information from my office reach them before the heat death of the universe. All of these events and objects outside the flash of light's realm of influence exist outside its light cone. Sci-fi writers occasionally invoke the light cone when discussing time-travel and its myriad consequences.

I bring it up because: Because, quoth Wikipedia, 90 years ago tomorrow (May 29, 1919), "Einstein's theory of general relativity is tested (later confirmed) by Arthur Eddington's observation of a total solar eclipse in Principe and by Andrew Crommelin in Sobral, Ceará, Brazil." Any excuse to discuss spacetime relativity and its sci-fi applications is a good one.

Further reading: Author Charles Stross makes light cones somewhat central to the plot in his Timelike Diplomacy series, Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise. In the series, there is a godlike artificial intelligence called the Eschaton that forbids any time travel that intersects with its own light cone because it doesn't want humans erasing it from history. This leads to a great deal of political and technical intrigue when humans tried to use time travel to conduct interstellar war. Fun stuff.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Nerd Word of the Day: Canon

"Holmes' belongings" including a mag...Image via Wikipedia

Canon (adj.) - Describes the accepted, official, sanctioned events and elements of a fictional universe, as opposed to all the stuff that fans and tie-in works have made up. For example, persons, places, things and occurrences that appeared on the actual Star Trek television series are considered canon; stuff from Star Trek tie-in novels, comic books, video games? Not so much. (Though the new movie may have reset Trek canon; that's a discussion for future nerd words.)

I bring it up because: May 22, 2009 would have been Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 150th birthday, and Doyle pretty much made the study of fictional canon necessary. Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, whom everyone knows wore a deerstalker cap and often prefaced his famous modus ponens deductions with the catchphrase "elementary, my dear Watson." Except that Doyle never described Holmes as wearing a deerstalker cap or saying "elementary, my dear Watson" in any Holmes work he wrote; those aspects of the character are assumed parts of Holmes' description based on popular illustrations and derivative literary, stage, film, and television adaptationsbut are non-canon. There are actually more non-canon Holmes works than canonical ones, so it's easy to see how the popular conception of the character has been stretched beyond its original canon. And the new Sherlock Holmes movie is going to stretch it even further.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Nerd Word of the Day: Mechanical Turk

Alan Turing MemorialImage by Bernt Rostad via Flickr

Mechanical Turk (n.) - A geek term for any "fake" artificial intelligence, as in an intellect that is presented as artificial but is in fact operated by a human being, or other conventional intelligence. Anyone or anything that cheats on the Turing Test is a Mechnical Turk. The term is a reference for "The Turk," a chess-playing robot that was exhibited in Europe for over 80 years starting in the 1770s--defeating both Ben Franklin and Napolean--until it was revealed to be operated by a human chessmaster hiding inside. In some tech circles, the term Mechanical Turk refers specifically to a service offered by, which quickly answers user information requests by routing them to human researchers.

I bring it up because: Terminator: Salvation opens today, and that's always a good excuse to discuss artificial intelligence, especially those that are clearly fake. More appropriately, a prototype artificial intelligence that precedes SkyNet in The Sarah Connor Chronicles was called The Turk, referencing the same 18th-century hoax chess-bot. Above all, concepts like the Mechanical Turk are abuzz in AI circles and tech message boards thanks to Wolfram Alpha, a so-called "computational engine" that seeks to analyze text questions and research its own answers to them, effectively automating the human process that is at the heart of Amazon's Mechanical Turk. So far, the Amazon fleshlings are much more effective than the Wolfram proto-AI--which means the deathbot rebellion isn't likely this week, no matter how much McG's new Terminator flick may scare you into thinking so.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Nerd Word of the Day: Retcon

Summer Glau as a Terminator on a promotional p...Image via Wikipedia
Retcon (v.) - Short for "retroactive continuity," it is the geek-slang term for the rewriting of backstory or fictional history to accommodate a new chapter in an ongoing franchise. This is a pretty common practice in comic books (and, quite frankly, soap operas) where characters are revealed to have very different pasts than previously assumed. For example, at various points Spider-man was said to have received his powers from either a radioactive spider-bite, because he was a totem warrior of a spider-god, or because he was a clone of the original Spider-man. (Currently, I think we've doubled back to option 1, radioactive spider-bite, but don't quote me.) Of late, George Lucas has cornered the market on cinematic retcons with all his Star Wars prequel nonsense rewriting Jedi history.

I bring it up because: The summer movie season has a lot of retcons going for it, either from Wolverine's rewriting of X-men movie history to Terminator: Salvation's resetting the date of Judgement Day--again--and ignoring pretty much everything that happened in The Sarah Connor Chronicles (which was just cancelled). Retcons should not be confused with reboots, which is when a franchise just chucks everything and starts over, much like Batman Begins basically ignored the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher lineage of batfilms. Thankfully.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nerd Word of the Day: Jonbar Hinge

Fringe (TV series)Image via Wikipedia

Jonbar Hinge (n.) - An event in history with two (or more) distinct possible outcomes, one of which leads to our familiar present, and the other which leads to an appreciably different world. A Jonbar Hinge is usually (though not always) small and unappreciated at the time, and its consequences are usually only felt in the distant, subsequent future. The term comes from the Jack Williamson short story "John Barr," wherein the protagonist's choice to pick up either a magnet or a pebble ultimately leads to either a utopian future, or global tyranny. And you thought the soup versus salad option at dinner was irelevant.

I bring it up because: JJ Abrams keeps using Jonbar Hinges to tell stories, either in the new Star Trek movie, the Fringe season finale or pretty much all of LOST, though we didn't know it until recently. Dude, seriously, you do good work but get a new schtick, preferably before the Star trek sequel.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Nerd Word of the Day: Fanboy

Fanboys 'n Da Hood album coverImage via Wikipedia

Fanboy (n.) - Quoth Merriam-Webster, "a boy who is an enthusiastic devotee (as of comics or movies)." Once upon a time this was perjorative within geek circles, describing fans who had lost objectivity about the subject of their passions (like, say, people who can't admit that recent Star Wars movies are pale imitations of original Star Wars movies). Female fanboys are called fangirls. The term has of late been reclaimed by by geeks as a self-described badge of honor, denoting "true" geekdom as opposed to the passing contemporary coolness of being called a "geek." Bottom line, if I call myself a fanboy--as I do in the right column of this blog--it's okay. If you call me a fanboy, it's usually an insult.

I bring it up because: The movie Fanboys, about a group of guys trying to break into Skywalker Ranch in 1997 to see Star Wars, Episode I before its release, comes out on DVD tomorrow. Also, because of the recent backlash against the I am a Geek campaign, which conflates using a computer (or, more specifically, Twitter) with actual social geekdom. The term fanboy has some nuances that both these memes highlight, to varying degrees. Discuss.

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Armchair Screenwriter: How I'd pitch the Star Trek sequel

Despite some rather glaring plot holes, I very much enjoyed the Trek reboot and have seen it twice. A sequel has already been greenlit, and the good folks at SFSignal wasted no time asking what the first Trek reboot sequel should be about. Here's what I suggest.
What I'd really like to see (barring the possibility of an ongoing TV series with the current cast) is an actual, ethical/moral dilemma, which is what Trek has always been about. Moreover, I think you can get that done based on what happened in this film.
We know that the Federation has lost a founding member in Vulcan, that Starfleet has basically lost an entire Academy class and a half-dozen ships to Nero, and that the Klingons lost an entire fleet to the rogue Romulan. Everyone in the galaxy knows that A) there's something called Red Matter that can make black holes, which is every bit as dangerous as the Genesis Device ever hoped to be, and B) that in a little over a century, Romulus is going to get obliterated by a supernova.
Basically, Romulus has the motive and the opportunity to finish what Nero started and take out both the Klingons and the Federation. They don't have the luxury of waiting this out, both because someone else might develop Red Matter before they do, and because unless they have an invincible position in 129 years they'll be at the impotent mercy of their enemies.
You could do a great non-proliferation allegory as the Enterprise has to forestall all-out war with the Romulans and Klingons and prevent anyone or everyone from getting their hands on Red Matter, possibly by kidnapping Spock (who, one assumes, can make it if his future self figured out how) or tracking down the new, presumably hidden Vulcan survivor colony where future Spock is hanging out.
You can some of those great Kirk/Spock/McCoy ethical debates about whether what the Romulans are doing is moral, whether now would be a good time for a preemptive strike against the weakened Klingons (and if such a thing is ethically defensible), if the Federation should compel future and/or present Spock to create Red Matter as a deterrent--all while enjoying some great space battles and chase scenes as the Enterprise stands alone between the entire Romulan Empire, a bloodied and enraged Klingon Empire, and all-out, galaxy-consuming war.
Just my wish list, anyway.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Introducing the Nerd Word of the Day

Serenity Crew and PassengersImage by Dunechaser via Flickr

In what can only be categorized as an act of insane hubris, I've decided that the Written Weird is going to in fact host a follow-up to my late, lamented Geek Trivia column called the Nerd Word of the Day. It will be a small hybird of my previous trivia work and my glossary of science fiction words.

My initial goal is to make these entries brief, timely, snarky--and to do them every weekday. Whether I can pull that off remains to be seen, but if ever I was to do a sequel to Geek Trivia, this would be it. It should start tomorrow, so stay tuned.
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Friday, May 15, 2009

On the impossibility of reading enough books

Cover of "Fathom"Cover of Fathom

Because you're all just dying to know, I'm already behind on my resolution to read 25 books this year. To date, I have polished off the following in 2009:
I also read about a quarter of Hal Duncan's Vellum before bailing out. Suffice it to say, I'm reading at about half the necessary pace. Somebody needs to cure this pesky need for sleep.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

The new Star Trek movie is the best possible Trek film--which is why they shouldn't make another one.

Zachary Quinto as Spock in the 2009 Star Trek filmImage via WikipediaYes, I saw the Trek reboot on Saturday. Yes I liked it. No, it wasn't perfect, but that's not just me being a fanboy or an impossible-to-please critic (though I am both of those things). The movie had flaws, but they were outweighed by one inimitable factor that the film had in spades--and which almost every other Trek movie in the last 20 years has lacked--fun.

The new Star Trek is fun. It's funny. It has action. The characters are designed to be likable and interesting, not just allegories for whatever social group or psychological foil was necessary to drive the plot. There was no larger message about tolerance or human potential, it was just about the popcorn and the whiz-bang spectacle.

That, quite frankly, is the best we can hope for from a mainstream Star Trek movie. It's also why no mainstream movie can ever do justice to Star Trek.

I'm not talking about the bad science or the bad tactics or the plot holes (and more and more plot holes) you could fly a Klingon warbird through--those have been staples of all versions of Trek and, to a larger extent, nearly all filmic science fiction since day one. I'm also not talking about the inevitable (or imagined) knee-jerk fan backlash against anyone new taking on the classic Trek roles. I'm talking about what Star Trek stands for, and what is missing from this Trek movie--a moral.

Star Trek has always been a morality play dressed in sci-fi drag. The lessons were sometimes ham-fisted or cloying or maudlin, but there were lessons. Even as bad as Voyager and Enterprise got--and they got really bad--they still fumbled towards a moral or a theme in almost every episode (the dreadful series finales notwithstanding).

In the new Star Trek, the closest we get to a moral or a comment on the human condition is Spock's outrage at how racist the "logical" Vulcan leadership seems to be against humans and halfbreeds, or the notion that Kirk shouldn't let his father's death be an excuse for wasting his potential. These appear more as character inflections than social commentary.

Put more damningly, the new Star Trek is of closer kin to Independence Day than to "City on the Edge of Forever." That makes a real gee-whiz fun action ride, but nothing really approaching art. Many, many Trek episodes stand as some of the finest hours of television ever produced. No one would ever make the same claim about a Trek movie, except perhaps Wrath of Khan, which is really just a tightly scripted Moby Dick pastiche.

In fact, I'd argued that making Trek serve a mainstream cinematic audience is what killed it (and it certainly killed the Borg). Trek is at its best when it isn't trying to please such a wide swath of the viewing public, and is content--or, rather, not content unless--to tackle why and how the extraordinary artifice of science fiction can illuminate and instruct our own contemporary experience. That's the job of a television series, which has 20 or so hours every year to tell a succession of small or large stories focusing on one or more characters, as each best befits the moral and artistic goals of the show.

I'll leave it to greater minds than mine to determine whether Trek succeeding is good for science fiction as as a whole, but I will say that this Trek succeeding on the big screen could have disastrous consequences for the Trek franchise itself. It could turn Trek into solely a movie phenomenon, and widescreen is often a shallow medium. It seems financially unlikely that Paramount could afford to cast the current movie versions of Kirk, Spock et al as TV stars in a new Trek series, which is a loss. Trek belongs on television. (I'd argue the reverse is true of Star Wars; it functions best as a mainstream widescreen thrillride, and crumbles when stretched to navel-gaze at its own origins with prequels or TV series.)

The new Star Trek cast is fantastic, and the public's newfound demand for their takes on the characters will likely preclude an new Trek on TV. That means the look and feel and faces of the old Star Trek weren't the only casualties of this fun-and-fizzy new Trek reboot--so was Star Trek's heart. And that is a loss indeed.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Onion: Trekkies bash new Star Trek film as 'fun, watchable'

I have seen the future of my Star Trek premiere pre-party this weekend, and this is it.

There are days I'm convinced that The Onion is written by half-stoned journalism drop-outs from the future, and there are days I think it's written by my own subconscious. This is both of those days.

But hey, even if you are a Trek-basher who doubts the powers of J.J. Abrams or the premise of an Academy-era prequel--I'm looking at you, Stephen Colbert--just remember, it could always be worse. How worse? This worse.

(Hat tip to SFSignal, Wil Wheaton and Chris Roberson for collectively pointing this out to me.)

Monday, May 04, 2009

Showdown: Star Trek alien or gourmet cheese?

This is your captain speaking...Image by williac via Flickr

It's time for another geek showdown, where I list off 20 or so unlikely terms and you guess which of two antithetical but bizarrely similar categories each entry belongs to. This week, just in time for the new Star Trek flick, we give you a matchup of Trek alien races and real-world gourmet cheeses. The descriptions for each are in "invisible" text after each entry, just highlight the area to figure out which is cheese, and which is just a cheesy use of make-up.
  1. Bolian - The blue-skinned dudes with a single ridge running down their faces; played waiters and barbers on NextGen.
  2. Caprino - Italian goat cheese.
  3. Quark- Russian version of ricotta cheese.
  4. Breen - Evil race that team up with Cardassia and the Dominion during DS9's Dominion War seasons. Helmets kinda look like the one Princess Leia wore when she pretended to be a bounty hunder in Return of the Jedi.
  5. Sbrinz - Swiss version of Parmesan cheese.
  6. Gorn - Slow-moving lizard dudes that Captain Kirk beat by building a homemade cannon out of rocks and sticks.
  7. Sakura - Japan's only famous cheese, made using cherry leaves.
  8. Nausicaan - Predator-faced mercenaries famous for stabbing Capt. Picard in the heart when he was just out of Starfleet Academy.
  9. Briori- Alien race from Voyager that famously kidnapped Amelia Earhart.
  10. Benzite- Grey-faced aliens from NextGen that have smoky little humidifiers sticking out from their chests, and made a habit of befriending Wesley Crusher.
  11. Tyrolean Grey - Famously stinky Austrian cheese with sticky grey or black centers.
  12. Brunali - Remember that baby Borg, Icheb, that Seven of Nine saved and adopted and made into Wesley Crusher 2.0 on Voyager? He was Brunali.
  13. Rokpol - Polish blue cheese.
  14. Caitian - Feline species made famous by the hottie Uhura-wannabe M'Ress from the original Trek animated series.
  15. Edo - Remember the planet of half-naked hotties that wanted to execute Wesley Crusher for stepping on a garden? They were Edo.
  16. Kobali- Alien race from Voyager that reproduces by reanimating corpses from other species.
  17. Valdeon - Spanish blue cheese.
  18. Menk - Neanderthal-esque race from the episode of Enterprise where Dr. Phlox sort of invented the Prime Directive--by letting another race die of plague.
  19. Coon - Australian Cheddar.
  20. Tamarian - The race that spoke only in metaphors from NextGen, and gave us the nerd catchphrases "Darmok at Tanagra" and "Shaka, when the walls fell."
Note: Bonus points if you notice the Prime Directive joke hidden in the cheese-versus-aliens pattern.

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