Thursday, March 25, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Mythology gag

Amanda Waller as depicted in Justice League Un...Image via Wikipedia
Mythology gag (n.) - Any subtle reference to the larger continuity of a TV show, movie, or book -- especially if it's the kind of namecheck that only devoted fans would pick up on. The 2009 film reboot of Star Trek got most of its comedy from well played mythology gags, and the TV series Smallville seems to stay on the air simply so it can perpetuate as many DC Comics mythology gags as humanly possible (quality optional).

I bring it up because: Apparently mythology gags are now so pervasive and expected that fans feel entitled to get upset about how they are presented. Case in point, fanboys getting bent out of shape that Angela Bassett is playing Amanda Waller in the Green Lantern movie. Waller, nicknamed "The Wall," is portrayed in comics as having roughly the same build as a starting NFL nose guard. Thus, having the slim and trim Bassett portray her is viewed by some diehards as a kind of fan betrayal. The outrage, by the by, has nothing to do with Hollywood once again skinnying up a curvy character for the mainstream; the fanboys are raging because Bassett as Waller is inaccurate. Nevermind that Waller is tangential as best to the Green Lantern mythos -- she has had almost no major encounters with the Green Lantern characters in comic book continuity -- and that including her in the movie at all is simply a gift to knowing comic book fans. There was a time when simply having any version of Waller in a Green Lantern film would have been a grin-inducing gift to comic readers. Today, we not only expect six dozen mythology gags in the trailer alone, but we want them on our terms. Oh, how fanboy entitlement hath grown.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Truly Trivial: What famous physics phenomenon did Einstein refuse to believe was possible?

A simulated Black Hole of ten solar masses as ...Image via Wikipedia
Ninety-four years ago this week, Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity -- for which he would not win the Nobel Prize in Physics. This is not to say Einstein never won a Nobel -- he did, in 1921 -- but it wasn't his work in relativity that earned him the most respected accolade in science. Einstein won his Nobel for his work on the photoelectric effect, rather than relativity. Basically, what made Einstein famous isn't what earned him praise from his scientific peers -- at least not initially.

Indeed, Einstein's work on relativity put him at odds with some of the most imminent minds in the history of physics, including Neils Bohr (with whom Einstein waged a series of friendly if highly contest debates on quantum mechanics) and Karl Heisenberg. Often, Einstein proved his critics wrong, rewriting central theses of physics as he went. Still, Einstein was not infallible, and he not infrequently was proven wrong.

Ironically, one of Einstein's most famous missteps was a lifelong refusal to accept the possibility of a certain famous astrophysical phenomenon. Even more ironic, this theoretical basis of this phenomenon is based almost entirely on Einstein's own principles of relativity.

What famous astrophysical phenomenon -- proven possible by relativity -- did Einstein spent his career arguing against?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Bricked

IMG_4763Image by tinney via Flickr
Bricked (adj.) - Term for an electronic device that has been rendered nonfunctional by an internal kill switch, thereby making it as interactive as a brick. Bricked is most often applied to mobile phones that have been shut down by their carriers, typically in response to users trying to unlock or enhance the features of the phone (known as jailbreaking). Larger devices can also be bricked, but the term isn't often used to describe products that are actually bigger than a masonry brick.

I bring it up because of something that happened in Austin, Texas this week. No, not at South by Southwest, though there were surprisingly fewer quasi-bricked iPhones there this year thanks to AT&T getting their network off its ass for the festival. Nor does it involve the also brick-laden shooting prowess of the Texas Longhorns men's basketball squad, which managed to take a former #1 ranking and turn it into a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. No, in Austin this week, a disgruntled employee actually managed to brick 100 cars by hacking the theft-deterrence system of his employer, Texas Auto Center. Basically, a local version of OnStar turned on its human masters and rendered several dozen cars and trucks into multi-ton paperweights.
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Truly Trivial: Who owns the trademarks to "March Madness" and "Sweet Sixteen"? (Hint: It's not the NCAA)

ChargeImage by wblo via Flickr
My car is going in the shop and I'm behind on deadlines, so here's a NCAA Tourney-themed rehash from my Geek Trivia archives:
[I]t should come as little surprise that the March Madness, Final Four, and Sweet Sixteen appellations are trademarked terms. However, of the three signature phrases, Final Four is the only registered trademark held solely by the NCAA. ...  
[T]he NCAA is a legal licensee of Sweet Sixteen and March Madness, but it doesn't own the phrases. While the Sweet Sixteen trademark holder is rather conventional, the owner of March Madness owes its existence to a legal dispute over a video game.

Find out who owns March Madness here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: YARM

YARM (n.) - Acronym for Yet Another Remake, typically used to describe the remake of a classic film or television program that is expected to be at best unnecessary and at worst grossly disrespectful to the original source material.

I bring it up because: Hollywood is determined to make me scream YARM!!! at the top of my lungs on at least a weekly basis. And no, I'm not talking about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which is just the bajillionth take on that hey-it's-in-the-public-domain concept. Though, frankly, I'm more interested in the new takes on Red Riding Hood starring Amanda Seyfried and Felicia Day, respectively. No, the YARM-spree is far more sinister than remixed fairy tales. There are plans to remake the arch-camp 1980s vampire classic Fright Night, as well as other beloved (or, at least, ironically referenced) staples of the Reagan era Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Tom Hanks's Big. You want to update The Crazies?  I can live with that. But touching the Ray Harryhausen masterpiece Clash of the Titans? You deserve to be impaled on a giant scorpion. I love me some Jackie Chan, but he's got no business trying to pave over Pat Morita's timeless Mr. Miyagi in a remade Karate Kid. And if I hear one more rumor about a prequel to The Thing I'm going to personally drown every major studio head in a bloody antarctic waterfall. Seriously.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

More than meets the Ides: How many named days are there in the Roman calendar

Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar in the National Ar...Image via Wikipedia
I'm doing business travel this week, so I'm using that as a flimsy excuse to invoke some Shakespeare-inspired trivia from my past writing life:
This week marks the day that Shakespearean scholars, practitioners of precognition, and ancient-Republic-abolishing Roman dictators fear and revere with equal abandon: The Ides of March. On March 15 in 44 B.C., conspirators stabbed Julius Caesar to death on the floor of the Roman Senate. ...

The Ides did arguably gain their contemporary notoriety due to [Shakespeare], who included the famous line "Beware the Ides of March" in his play Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, line 33. ... And by doing so, The Bard ensured that the Ides of March would become one of the most literarily notorious dates in history — even if most folks who observe the Ides don't know that the Romans recognized Ides in months besides March or that Ides were one of three categories of days observed in the ancient Roman calendar.

Get the answer here.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Moron in a hurry

A question mark with the copyright symbol.Image via Wikipedia
Moron in a hurry (n.) - Legal concept for the dumbest possible person in any given situation. The proverbial "moron in a hurry" is used as a test for certain legal assumptions, especially in the case of trademark and copyright law. If a moron in a hurry could not tell the difference between two very similar logos or musical pieces, then for legal purposes the items might be considered identical. Thus, one of those logos or songs might be infringing on the other's trademark or copyright.

I bring it up because: There seems to be an epidemic of intellectual property lawsuits these days that are using the moron in a hurry concept as a legal bludgeon, with almost Streisand Effect-level stupidity. Monster energy drink versus Vermonster beer, for example, or Help A Reporter Out vs. PR Manna. Lake Mary High School vs. the Chrysler corporation -- Chrysler definitely has a case here, but is it worth making if a victory just renders the Dodge brand a jerk in the eyes of the public? In the old days, the hypothetical "reasonable person" was used to test such cases, but given our cultural and societal trajectory of late, the moron in a hurry may seem a more apt descriptor of the average consumer. For my money, the morons in a hurry are usually the plaintiffs in these ridiculous lawsuits.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Armchair screenwriter: How I'd cast a Star Wars reboot

Opening logo to the Star Wars filmsImage via Wikipedia
George Lucas has gone slowly mad with power and is more than willing to overmilk the franchise simply for the sake of earning a few extra billion dollars. Thus, can you really say Darth Georgy wouldn't agree to a complete reboot of the franchise, especially if it meant he could foist some new and expensive cinema tech into the market?

If, by some miracle, Lucas did greenlight a remake/restart/resurrection of Star Wars, we'd have to cast our favorite New Hope roles with contemporary thespians, ones that would breathe new life into the roles, conform to the demands of the modern marketplace (be affordable for a three picture deal and be willing to get tied to the role; think Zachary Quinto for the new Spock), and also not totally suck (looking at you, Hayden Christensen).

So here we go:

Luke Skywalker: Untapped potential is the key theme here, as all Luke needed was a little confidence and some opportunity to leave the farm behind. Plus, we now know going in that he's Darth Vader's kid, so there should be a little more obvious strength here than before. I go with Michael Terry, best known as intern Wendell Bray from Bones. He can do the lacking-in-confidence farmboy pretty well, but we've seen him man up and be a bit intimidating where necessary. Plus, he's a recognizable face that isn't typecast or priced beyond reason yet. You can build a franchise around this guy.

Han Solo: The definition of charming rogue, you need someone who can pull off smarmy but capable, to the point you'll buy him as a general two movies later. Hugh Jackman is the obvious choice here, but you could never afford him. Nathan Fillion could be had for a decent price, but he's done this role (only better) as Mal Reynolds from Firefly. My choice? Shemar Moore from Criminal Minds. Don't let his stint on the horrendous Birds of Prey or Soul Train fool you, this dude is charming as all get-out but can do intense when the scene calls for it. And, yes, I think a black dude can play Han, no problem. In a galaxy filled with various alien races, it's entirely possible to have at least one human lead that isn't a white guy.

Princess Leia: Again, we've got Vader's strength at work here, in someone who is already a leader (rebel spy, Senator, royalty) at a very young age. We have to believe she could kick your ass, despite being a freshman in college. Me, I go with Emma Stone. Yes, she played the amazingly cool chubby-chaser in Superbad, and did time in The House Bunny, but here we have the height, the authoritative voice, the stare-you-down eyes and the on-screen gravitas to not be reduced to damsel in distress.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: You need charming, wisened, but someone who clearly could have been a soldier at one point. When he breaks bad, you need to believe it. And since this is a part that won't survive the first film, but will have cameos in most others, you can splurge a bit here on casting cost. The answer is House's Hugh Laurie, who is primed to remind the world that he isn't a misanthropic MD, but actually a charming Brit funnyman (Black Adder, anyone?). He could play the mentor figure with the appropriate avuncular strength, then break out the Greg House menace when the lightsaber is unsheathed. Also, his real Brit accent is enough of a separator from his signature role that folks won't so easily think "Why does House have a lightsaber?" when they see it.

Darth Vader: The guy in the suit, sad to say, really doesn't matter. This is a role that's all about voice, and the next-gen James Earl Jones I'd call up is Christopher Judge. Yes, you know him best as Teal'c from Stargate SG-1 but he was also the menacing voice of Magneto from X-men: Evolution, and that alone is evidence his got the voice chops for this role.

C-3PO: The man in the suit shouldn't even be a man, as I'd argue we need an all CGI Threepio akin to the androids from I, Robot (and, yes, that's all I'd crib from that trainwreck). Thus, this comes down to voice, and what you need here is a voice actor that can do mincing, officious, and snide without alienating the audience (this is harder than it seems). Alexis Denisoff, whom fans will remember fondly as Wesley from Buffy and Angel, can bring a great deal to the role, not the least of which is a sense that someone would actually use Threepio as a competent ambassadorial aide.

R2-D2: Nobody would play Artoo, because everybody would play Artoo. As John Scalzi once snarked, building androids that can't speak in an age of cheap, ubiquitous AI is just stupid. Thus, if Artoo can't talk, he can't talk -- period. Speaking binary is a lame copout for showcasing Ben Burtt's comedic audio effects. Clearly Artoo has a holo-emitter and external speaker -- and he's obviously quite clever -- so I'd have Artoo's lines hacked together from clips he's recorded of everyone else, like a less lame version of Bumblebee's radio-speak from Transformers. This make's Artoo's lines a treasure trove of Easter eggs, as obviously he'd have years of voiceclips to choose from, and we could sneak in some nods to previous versions of the Star Wars universe -- and other fanwanks -- thoughout his speech. And there's as much obvious but unforced comedic potential in this speech device than his chirps and twitters ever promised.

Chewbacca: So long as the dude is seven feet tall and comfy in the Wookiee suit, it doesn't matter. Therefore we give this part to Shaq.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Truly Trivial: Who does NASA's space sickness scale openly make fun of?

Astronauts acclimating themselves to space ada...Image via Wikipedia
Cosmonaut Gherman Titov owns a lot of records in the spaceflight history books: Youngest human to ever enter space (he was 25 during his Vostok 2 mission), first person to orbit the earth more than once (he did 17 orbits), and first person to vomit in outer space.

Most historians don't bring up that last bit, but it may be Titov's most important historical contribution. Titov's zero-g upchuck was the first documented case of space adaptation syndrome, known colloquially as space sickness. NASA records show that roughly 60 percent of all astronauts suffer from space sickness on their first flight. Symptoms include dizziness, disorientation, and the aforementioned vomiting, which can collectively render a space traveler useless or, worse, a danger to his vessel and his crewmates.

NASA actually has an informal scale for measuring the severity of any specific case of space sickness, one which is named in "honor" of a particularly ignominious victim of space adaptation syndrome. And no, it's not Gherman Titov.

Who does NASA's space sickness scale openly make fun of?