Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Fail Whale

Twitter Fail Whale is backImage by playerx via Flickr
Fail Whale (n.) - Nickname for the custom 404 error page for the Twitter microblogging service. Also a geek-slang curse invoked whenever something goes wrong, especially if that something is Internet-related. The Fail Whale Twitter page depicts a flock of the Twitter mascot birds attempting to hoist a cartoon whale into the air, and includes the phrase "Twitter is over capacity." The Twitter Fail Whale usually appears when the Twitter servers are overloaded, typically as a function of the service's burgeoning popularity. Thus, the Fail Whale often shows up just when the most Twitter users are paying attention. The Fail Whale has become both a beloved and a reviled symbol for Twitter and for the growing-pain-ridden universe of social networking Web applications. You can now buy Fail Whale merchandise and join the Fail Whale fan club.

I bring it up because: 40 years ago today, the ancient Internet ancestor of the Fail Whale was born -- on the same day as the Internet. On Oct. 29, 1969, the first router-linked communication between two ARPANET-linked computers occurred when the SDS Sigma 7 Host and UCLA sent the following message to the SRI SDS 940 Host at Stanford: "lo." That's the letters L and O, transmitted in lowercase. No, that isn't the earliest l33t-speak version of hello ever recorded. UCLA was trying to send the login command to the Stanford system but the ARPANET link failed two letters in. Sort of like when your Twitter post times out and the page refreshes to a cartoon rendering of several painfully peppy songbirds trying to hoist and equally over-happy humpback into the sky. In other words, on the day we invented the Internet, we also invented the Fail Whale.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Truly Trivial: Who is the only Simpsons Treehouse of Horror writer to be honored by the Mystery Writers of America?

Bart and Lisa tell scary stories to each other...Image via Wikipedia
One would be tempted to describe the annual "Treehouse of Horror" episode of The Simpsons as one of the most revered annual Halloween specials in the history of television -- except that half of the Treehouses of Horror have failed to air in time for Halloween. This year's episode, "Treehouse of Horror XX," aired on Oct. 18, breaking a nine-year streak of post-Halloween airdates. That's because halfway through the series' run, Fox television became a broadcaster of Major League Baseball, including the MLB playoffs and World Series, which has pushed the Treehouse air dates into early November. That's just one of the quirks of this 20-year tradition from TV's most distinguished animated sitcom.

So far as the distinction goes, The Simpsons was the first animated series to win a Peabody Award, which serves as the sweet, sweet icing on the series' 25-Primetime-Emmys cake. Despite this strong record of success, the Treehouse of Horror has been a subject of regular Emmy disappointment for the Simpsons production staff.

Most years, the alternate version of the Simpsons theme created for the Treehouse of Horror special is submitted for the Outstanding Musical Performance Emmy, but to date no Treehouse tune has taken home the statuette, nor has any other Simpsons musical number. Call it the Treehouse musical curse.

In fact, despite the fact that The Simpsons has garnered over 100 individual television awards in its history, only three Treehouse of Horror episodes have won awards of any kind. "Treehouse of Horror VIII" won the Golden Reel award for sound mixing, "Treehouse of Horror X" won the CINE Golden Eagle Award, and the 3D animated sequence from "Treehouse of Horror VI" won the Ottawa International Animation Festival grand prize. Not exactly the equivalent of the Golden Globe Awards, let alone the Emmys.

While the critics remain unimpressed by the Treehouse of Horror lineup, fans love the quasi-Halloween annual. Much of this adoration is due to the creative license given to Simpsons writers when preparing Treehouse stories. Series continuity is abandoned, as is subtlety and restraint. Writers are free to openly and explicitly parody any cultural topic, film, play, novel or TV show. Moreover, excessive violence is not only possible, it's encouraged, with Simpsons producers often intentionally ratcheting up the goofball gore in early Treehouse episodes just to tweak the television censors. Former Simpsons executive producer David Mirkin often strove to make the Treehouse of Horror specials funny and scary, which leads us to a unique distinction amongst the long and legendary list of Simpsons writers.

For an early Treehouse of Horror episode, the Simpsons brought in a guest writer who appeared in the credits of only one episode in the entire series' history. This writer's work, a portion of which was featured in this Treehouse script, earned him honors from the Mystery Writers of America -- the only Simpsons writer to ever attain such an award.

Who is the only Simpsons Treehouse of Horror writer to be honored by the Mystery Writers of America?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Setting reasonable expectations in Social Media

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...Image via CrunchBase
Tuesday night, I gave a presentation for the October Social Media Club Louisville meeting, called Setting (Reasonable) Expectations in Social Media.

Basically, I trashed the default stats attached to the Forrester Social Technographics Ladder because they include the likes of Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube, which collectively represent about ten percent of the page views on the entire Internet. Call it a classic case of outliers skewing the average. Forrester is trying to sell people on the need for dealing with social media -- which I agree with, folks should be dealing with and embracing social media -- but as a side effect they are making it sound like social media success is an inevitability. It ain't.

Here's the slideshow:

The above was basically an expanded version of a similar presentation I gave to a marketing class at the University of Louisville last month, which was designed to ground the budding marketers who will be asked to work miracles in social media once they're hired in a year or two. Surprisingly, many of the IT and social media pros in the room on Tuesday seemed a bit floored by some of the stats I threw at them. Basically, my premise is that if you want serious user interaction, you need a large audience size, because only a small percentage of any audience is going to give you the kind of user-generated content people seem to want (for free). That means you won't get decent user-submitted videos the day you launch your site, and you shouldn't launch a site on the premise of receiving user-generated videos.

Today I'm giving two more presentations to local business owners --Twitter for Businesses and Blogging for Businesses. Let's see if these topics generate as many jaw-drops and eye-pops as my last one.

Nerd Word of the Week: Monomyth

YODA_MediumImage by Michael Heilemann via Flickr
Monomyth (n.) - A term for the common structure of heroic stories, particularly in mythology. Also known as the hero's journey, the term monomyth was popularized by Joseph Campbell in his seminal comparative mythology treatise The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell broke down dozens of epic tales from major mythological traditions and identified 17 common stages of any hero's story -- effectively writing the outline of seemingly every successful adventure story subsequently published.

George Lucas openly consulted with Campbell in writing the first Star Wars scripts, and thus the original Star Wars movie is held up as a paramount example of the cinematic monomyth in action. Naturally, this has led to some backlash. Novelist David Brin has cited the monomyth as a tool of despots used to justify their favored status. John Scalzi argues that Lucas's obsession with the monomyth contributed to the failure of the Star Wars prequels.

I bring it up because: Joseph Campbell killed genre fiction, or so some have argued. This is not news, as there have been several YouTube videos mocking the monomyth parallels between sci-fi franchises, but the subject got goosed last week when Ron Moore explained how Star Trek: The Next Generation writers incorporated science into their scripts. (To quote sci-fi editor John Joseph Adams's response to the interview: "Every time Ron Moore speaks about writing an angel kills itself.")

The geek blogosphere was ablaze after Moore's comments, hitting apogee when Charles Stross explained why he hates Star Trek -- because it sublimates ideas to story, effectively using the structure of the monomyth and dressing it up in technobabble drag. Thus we re-open up the can of worms as to why TV genre fiction seems so formulaic and facile when compared to prose genre fiction. Because, ultimately, we're a prisoner of the monomyth and use Joseph Campbell shorthand as the basis, rather than the framework, of the story. There are worse guides, but its hard to be taken seriously when everything looks and reads and sounds the same. Who says cloning is a future technology?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Truly Trivial: How did Wernher von Braun try to jumpstart a US space program a decade before NASA?

Dr. von Braun Standing by Five F-1 Engines A p...Image via Wikipedia
If one were to construct a Mt. Rushmore of rocket scientists, almost any quartet of visionaries enshrined there would have to include Wernher von Braun, architect of the early American manned spaceflight program. (For this geek's money, von Braun would be joined by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth, though you could also make a good case for Sergei Korolev as first alternate.) Fifty-one years ago tomorrow, President Eisenhower transferred von Braun and his team of engineers from the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) -- where he built the famous Redstone rockets -- to the newly formed NASA, where von Braun would create the launch vehicles for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

All of that, however, very nearly never came to be.

Wernher von Braun was the leader of a handful of German scientists that developed the infamous V-2 rockets that the Nazis used to bombard London during World War II. As Germany began to fall at the end of the war, various factions were vying to capture von Braun and his compatriots in order to secure the German rocket expertise for themselves. Moreover, von Braun rightfully suspected that the German SS had orders to execute the rocket scientists should it become likely that they would fall into enemy hands. Thus, von Braun and his team decided they should actively surrender to Allied forces before they could be killed; the only question was to which Allied nation?

Von Braun's group surrendered to the Americans, with von Braun's brother Magnus literally flagging down a U.S. infantryman riding a bicycle and shouting: "My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender." Von Braun noted that they chose the Americans in part from fear of how they would be treated as POWs by the Soviets, who were also advancing on the position where the German rocketeers surrendered. Still, had von Braun's team been sequestered elsewhere (as nearly happened) or been forced to abandon their research and take up arms in defense of Germany (as other scientists were forced to do), he may never had made his way to NASA.

Once captured, the U.S. military had to "bleach" von Braun's record in order to clear him for service, as President Truman stipulated that no German war criminals could work for the United States. Wernher von Braun was an SS officer, and his V-2 rocket program employed slave labor, though von Braun himself claimed both actions were forced on him the Nazi power structure. After he was "cleared" to design rockets for the U.S., the military assigned him to build missiles, rather than space vehicles -- despite the fact the von Braun actively campaigned for a manned spaceflight program.

Thus, von Braun resorted to a rather unusual public relations maneuver in an attempt to "jumpstart" public demand for manned spaceflight in 1949 -- nine years before NASA existed.

How did Wernher von Braun try to jumpstart a US space program a decade before NASA?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Hoopy frood

Hoopy Froods eat at Pizza PizzaImage by sarkasmo via Flickr
Hoopy frood (n.) - A particularly capable and impressive individual. Specifically, a savvy and successful interstellar hitchhiker. The phrase originates from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series, wherein Zaphod Beeblebrox remarks: "Hey you, sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is!" The shortened form hoopy frood is used by sci-fi fans, and H2G2 fans especially, to describe persons with similar abilities as Ford Prefect, who somehow survives the destruction of planets and the ire of villainous aliens with surprising aplomb.

The phrase knows where his towel is is roughly equivalent to hoopy frood, but the towel reference is far more well known and commonly used. Thus, hoopy frood is also a loaded slang term for Hitchhikers Guide devotees. The regular geeks -- even the ones that haven't read the entire Hitchhikers Guide series -- know the towel reference, but only hoopy froods know and use the phrase hoopy frood.

I bring it up because: This week And Another Thing..., the final Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy novel, went on sale. While it may be the last chapter of H2G2 universe, And Another Thing... is also the first Hitchhiker's Guide novel not authored by the late Douglas Adams. Thus, all the hoopy froods are trying to sass the new author, Artemis Fowl creator Eoin Colfer, to see if he really knows where his towel is, prose-wise. Here's hoping he can bring the funny, and that And Another Thing... isn't the prose equivalent of Vogon poetry.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Truly Trivial: Which famous computer was Douglas Adams the first Briton to own?

“And Another Thing” UK book coverImage by markbult via Flickr
Today we come to honor the legacy of one of the late twentieth century's true Renaissance men. He was a multitalented author, playwright, musician and scholar. He contributed to some of the most beloved and well recognized media works of our time, and his wit and humor have been celebrated by -- and have greatly influenced -- some of the foremost thinkers of the age. We speak, of course, of Douglas Adams, and while geeks need little prompting to speak of him, we are moved to again revisit this icon of the nerd underverse on the occasion of his most famous franchise's final chapter.

And Another Thing..., the last novel in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, goes on sale this week. It's also the first, last, and only Hitchhiker's Guide novel that isn't authored by Adams himself. Eoin Colfer, the originator of the Artemis Fowl series (which might be described as Harry Potter by way of Dirk Gently), was bestowed the honor and the challenge of completing the Hitchhiker's Guide story by Adams' wife and daughter.

There are those who are rightfully leery of anyone besides Adams attempting to continue the Hitchhiker's Guide universe. After all, Adams' creation spanned the media landscape, finding its way into novels, radio, television, movies, and video games. Moreover, the Hitchhikers Guide series has influenced everything from basic text editors to chess supercomputers to Google's built-in calculator.

Yet for all that the Hitchhikers Guide has meant to us, Douglas Adams himself meant more. He wasn't just the creator of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, and Zaphod Beeblebrox. Adams occasionally jammed with Pink Floyd and picked the title for the group's final album, The Division Bell. Adams was one of only two non-Pythonites to write for Monty Python's Flying Circus. Oh, and he wrote a couple of Doctor Who serials, where he met Lalla Ward -- who played Romana -- and eventually introduced her to her present husband, noted zoologist and religious critic Richard Dawkins.

To say Adams was a man of many talents is an absurdly extreme understatement. And we haven't even begun to discuss his charity work or his technology advocacy. In fact, buried within the mountain of Adams-related trivia is the fact that he was an early adopter of one of the most well known consumer computers ever released. In fact, he was the first Englishman to own one.

Which famous computer was Douglas Adams the first Briton to own?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Streisand Effect

Guilty album coverImage via Wikipedia
Streisand effect (n.) - A circumstance wherein attempting to forcibly suppress or censor a piece of information results in that same topic receiving extraordinary additional publicity. Sometimes also known as getting Steisanded. The Streisand effect is almost always used to describe the unintended and counter-productive negative online publicity resulting from attempting to remove information from the Internet.

The term comes from a civil action waged by celebrity Barbra Streisand, who once sued to keep a picture of her California beachfront mansion off the Web. (She failed, by the way, because you can still view the picture here.) The mansion was photographed as part of a pictorial series on California coastal erosion, and Streisand's $50 million legal action turned the same picture she was trying to suppress into the subject of legal debate, online discourse, and widespread news coverage, thereby popularizing it far more than the original erosion pictorial ever could have done. Moreover, her legal claims were spurious and reeked of presumed celebrity privilege, both of which are common factors in subsequent instances of the Streisand effect. Basically, anytime someone powerful and/or famous tries to control what is said about them online and uses ill-considered legal bullying to try to get their way, the Streisand effect is likely to ensue.

I bring it up because: None other than Ralph Lauren got totally Streisanded this week, when his lawyers demanded that BoingBoing (one of the five or so most popular blogs on the planet) take down a post that criticized an overly photoshopped hyper-anorexic model depicted in a Ralph Lauren ad. Now, BoingBoing certainly has a massive blog readership, but it's important to remember that its a massive blog readership and that 95 percent of the world has never heard of the site. Plus, BoingBoing does a dozen or so posts per day, and this was just one, so even the devotees of BoingBoing would have forgotten the Ralph Lauren potshot in a week at most. But when Lauren's legal goons made a ruckus -- and used an idiotically misapplied Digital Millennium Copyright Act clause to demand the post's removal -- they shone a huge, self-destructive and self-perpetuating spotlight on both the post and the subject of its criticism. (For the record, criticism and commentary fall squarely in fair use copyright exceptions, which was the content of the BoingBoing post.) That's a classic Streisand effect blowback if ever there was one.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Truly Trivial: How many extrasolar planets have official nicknames?

Quote from via Wikipedia
Today is a major anniversary in planet-hunting circles, as 14 years ago on this date scientists announced discovery of the first traditional planet orbiting a major star other than our own sun. That is to say, we found the first real alien planet.

On Oct. 6, 1995, scientists Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz announced they had observed a planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi, which is just over 15 parsecs from Earth (that's about 50 light years or 1.28 Han Solo Kessel Runs) in the middle of the constellation Pegasus. The planet is now called 51 Pegasi b, with the lowercase letter indicating that it was the first object found in the 51 Pegasi system besides the star itself. Thus was born the formal exoplanet naming convention which, like so many scientific traditions, starts out logical but can get really confusing.

The trouble with the International Astronomical Union's exoplanet naming conventions is twofold: They weren't honored for the first exoplanets discovered, and they get pretty screwy when applied to multi-exoplanet star systems. As noted above, 51 Pegasi b was the first "traditional" planet found orbiting a major star. That is to say, it was the first planetary body found orbiting a star not unlike our own sun. 51 Pegasi b was not, however, the first planet found outside our own solar system.

Planets PSR B1257+12B and PSR B1257+12C were found orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12 in 1992, three years before 51 Pegasi b. Note the uppercase designations of the planets, rather than the lowercase tradition started with 51 Pegasi b. Since the pulsar planets were the first discovered and because they orbit a pulsar rather than a regular star, their naming convention was largely ignored when "real" planetary discovery started. The original designations of the first planets were grandfathered into official IAU catalogs rather than retroactively changing their names. (When a third, more closely orbiting planet was found around PSR B1257+12, they called it PSR B1257+12A, just to keep the confusion going.)

As noted, the accepted IAU convention is to label planets in order of discovery, rather than in order of orbital distance from the star. Thus, 55 Cancri e is the innermost known planet in the 55 Cancri system, but has the later letter designation because it was the fourth planet discovered around that star. As more massive planets are easier to find, and more massive planets tend to orbit farther from parent stars than do less massive planets, this erratic lettering system will likely become more common.

Planetary naming issues are also more complicated in multi-star systems, as stars are designated with uppercase letters, and those designations are combined with lowercase planet labels. Thus the second planet around the second star in the 16 Cygni system is 16 Cygni Bb.

No wonder 51 Pegasi b is referred by many scientists by its common name, Bellerophon, rather than by its formal IAU designation. We all grew up calling Spock's home planet Vulcan, rather than 40 Eridani Ac. It's a wonder more planets haven't been given common names.

In fact, how many extrasolar planets have been given official IAU-approved common names?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Help some starving artists realize their movie dreams

My old buddy (and budding screenwriter) Brian Kelly is a finalist for the $10 million screenplay prize. The final step for him and his partner is to win the voting in the MovieHatch final contest round. I've posted his message in its entirety below.
I’m competing in a contest called the Makin’ Movies Feature Film Competition on
By going to this link: , you can vote on a movie trailer that represents a sci-fi thriller screenplay that I’ve written called BURN. I already have a leg up in the competition for 2 reasons: I was approached by a studio executive to enter the contest after they’d read my script and loved it, and because out of 500+ entries, I was chosen as one of only 25 featured pitches.
Voting lasts from October 1 to October 31. When casting your (hopefully 5 star ;)) vote, you will be prompted to enter your name and email address. You must then check your email and click on a link sent to you by to confirm your vote. I know entering your email may discourage some of you, but this is the only way the vote will be counted. The link will take you to a registration page, but it is not necessary to register for the site in order to make your vote count. Once you’ve clicked the link in your email, you’re done.
The site was created by established screenwriters and filmmakers to help discover unknown talent in the Hollywood film industry.  Their partners include the people behind major motion pictures such as Gladiator, X-Men, Legally Blonde, Meet the Parents and Final Destination as well as more recent movies like The Ugly Truth, 500 Days of Summer and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. So they are legit and I’m incredibly lucky to even be considered.
I need your help in forwarding this on to everyone you know, or at least anyone you think might be interested. Put it on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace... anywhere you want! Help a guy reach a dream he’s been pursuing for years!
Thanks to everyone!
I've voted already. I hope I can count on (all five) of my readers to do the same.
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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Sensawunda

Artist's impression of an Orbital from the &qu...
Sensawunda (n.) - Sci-fi slang term for sense of wonder, used to describe emotionally stirring or intellectually stimulating concepts depicted within speculative fiction. Golden Age science fiction is often lauded for its surplus sensawunda, with point-of-view characters constantly amazed at the scope, scale, and strangeness of creatures, locales, and technologies featured in these sci-fi stories. A.E. Van Vogt's Empire of Isher series is often cited as a classic example of a sensawunda tale, as are the various Heinlein juveniles like Rocket Ship Galileo and Farmer in the Sky. To this day, the original Star Wars is held up as the paramount cinematic example of sensawunda, even if its various prequels utterly failed to live up to this standard.

Contemporary science fiction is often criticized for lacking sensawunda, especially as concerns fashionably cynical or jaded protagonists who are never amazed or inspired by their objectively fantastic and extraordinary experiences. Many critics have cited this sensawunda deficit as the reason why fantasy has overtaken science fiction in mainstream literary success, with the Harry Potter phenomenon --  and its willing embrace of sensawunda -- serving as exhibit A. Moreover, many modern characters are meta-aware, often acting as if they know they are in a fictional setting and using their knowledge of standard spec-fic tropes to navigate and outsmart the challenges of their own stories. This has the effect of being alternately hilarious (in the case of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series) or diminishing of the story; if the main character does not take it seriously, how can the reader? Iain Banks and John Varley have consciously tried to recapture the sensawunda flair of these classic sci-fi tales, with Varley explicitly channeling Heinlein juveniles in his Red Thunder and its sequels, and Banks engaging in gleeful Golden Age romanticism in his novel Feersum Endjinn.

I bring it up because: Today is the 51st anniversary of the incorporation of NASA, and if ever a real-world entity attained and then lost a sensawunda, it's the American space agency. While NASA is objectively doing faster, better, cheaper space exploration today with its advanced satellites, deep-space probes and robot rovers, it has lost the pioneer flare (and bottomless Cold War budget) that captured the imagination during the heady days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. The upcoming Project Constellation and its Ares V rockets and Altair and Orion spacecraft harken back to the golden age of manned spaceflight, but no one is certain they will ever actually get built and, if they do, whether they'll feel just like a remake of a classic tale that has, sadly, loss it originality and sensawunda. Let's hope the critics are wrong, because the world is a brighter place when our reach exceeds our grasp, and the sky is filled with manned rockets daring for the stars.

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