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July 27, 2004

Bad Cousin Aaron

I have a short tale of a summer vacation gone awry in The Morning News.

Rabid 'Bout Reading

Waiting for a bus in downtown Seattle, I see a disheveled and possibly deranged man with an enormous duffle bag sidling down the sidewalk, stopping to bellow "Are you going to the library?!" at each and every person in turn. Most ignore him until he moves on, but some -- out of compulsive politeness, or because they have somehow mistaken this raving for a sincere query -- begin to reply "No, I'm waiting for my --" at which point the man cuts them short with an impassioned and spittle-intensive "GO TO THE LIBRARY!!!"

I dunno. Call me cynical, but I just don't think Seattle's literacy program is all that effective.

July 19, 2004

Week Off

I'm taking a few days off to prepare for a trip to D.C., but will be posting next week while in the nation's capitol.

[ link | dy]

July 16, 2004

Proposed Names For The Impending Plague
  • Sirius the Virus
  • Influenza Xtreme
  • The Sputum Jamboree
  • Shatner's Folly
  • Ol' Scratch 'n Hack
  • Smallpox II: Electric Boogaloo
  • The Wiggles
  • Supergout!
  • Windows Longhorn
  • The Ragin' Contagion
  • Bank of America's Magenta Fever
July 15, 2004

Research Day: The Pioneer 10 Plaque

Last week I went to Seattle's new Science Fiction Museum because, you know, paying thirteen bucks to see Paul Allen's dogeared copy of Starship Troopers seemed like a good idea at the time.

Honestly, the Museum was better than I expected (and I'll write about it soon, either here or at The Morning News). Most of the exhibits were devoted to the various subgenres in the field -- time travel, mars, robotics, etc. -- along with prominent books on the subject and props from corresponding movies. They even had a few real (as opposed to fictional) artifacts on display. Tucked away in a display about communication, for instance, was a copy of the plaque that was affixed to the Pioneer 10 probe.

Click here to see a gi-normous version of the plaque. I'm not kidding, it's huge.

The text accompanying the plaque said the densely illustrated message was designed to communicate to any aliens that might encounter the probe. What it failed to explain was how a venusian cephalopod was going to make sense of all the information presented when an average homo sapiens like me couldn't make heads or tails of it.

So I decided to look it up. And the key to success, my research has uncovered, is for the aliens to be way, way smarter than I'll ever be.

Here are the individual components on the plaque, and what they mean:

At the top of the plaque we have two hydrogen atoms, engaged in some activity called "hyperfine transition." Why the word "hyperfine" never caught on as a superlative amongst teens is beyond me. As near as I can tell, this refers to the fact that hydrogen have two hyperfine states: either the magnetic field of the outermost electron points in the same direction as the magnetic field of the nucleus (i.e., they are "parallel"), or it points in the opposite direction ("antiparallel"). When a hydrogen atom flips from one state to another it is called the hyperfine transition, and the phenomenon releases a photon with a wavelength of 21 centimeters and a frequency of 1420 MHz.

Notice that, in the diagram, the hydrogen atom on the left has the electron (on the line bisecting top of the circle) pointing towards the nucleus (i.e, antiparallel), while the one on the right has the electron pointing away from the nucleus (parallel). The line between the two represents the transition, and the hash mark below symbolizes the change, both in terms of distance (21 centimeters) and time (1420 MHz). This hash mark is the standard unit of measurement -- both for distance and time -- used for the other elements on the plaque.

This is not an explosion, and we can only hope that our alien brethren do not interpret it as meaning "we're gonna find you and blow you up real good." This is, in fact, a map of 14 pulsars, with the length of each line showing the relative distance of each pulsar to our sun in the middle.

Now pulsars, you no doubt recall from 8th grade shop class, are "rapidly rotating neutron stars, whose electromagnetic radiation is observed in regularly spaced interval." These regularly spaced intervals (a.k.a. "periods") vary from pulsar to pulsar, giving each a distinct fingerprint. And the periods of the fourteen pulsars are therefore encoded on the map as binary numbers (which is why the rays emanating from the sun look like this: "--||-|----|-|-|||--" -- that's binary, dude!). The alien need only figure out the binary number and then times it by 1420 MHz (the hyperfine whatever frequency, remember?) to calculate the period of each pulsars. Between the unique fingerprints of the pulsars and their relative distances from us, the critters should be able to triangulate the position of our sun. Could it be any more obvious? The only thing it's missing is the phrase "Wish you were here!" emblazoned across it.

But once they get here, how will they know which planet to visit? That brings us to:

Hey, I know this one! It's, like, the social system, right? With Saturn and Pluto and Dagobah and all the rest?

Yes. And what are those crazy "-||-|" things above each planet? Right again: binary numbers. Now the aliens can figure out how far each world is from the sun, by multiplying the binary number by the aforementioned 21 cm. So, for instance, Earth is ||-|- = 11010 = 26 * 21 cm = 546 cm. from the sun. Jesus, no wonder it's been so freakin' hot this summer.

No, no. Actually, the unit to multiply by is not 21 cm., but rather 1/10 of Mercury's orbit. How they are going to know that is beyond me, but, remember: we are presupposing sooper dooper smart aliens. In any case, even without knowing the secret unit, they will at least know the distances of the planets to the sun relative to each other. They will also, from the depiction of the Pioneer probe fligh path, know on which planet we reside, so they can stop by for XBox and crumpets.

Okay, here we go: porn. Finally something I can comprehend.

In the background is a silhouette of the pioneer probe: in the foreground are some streakers. You'll notice that there are height ticks at the top and the bottom of the woman, along with the (vertical) binary number |---. |--- equals 8, which, when the aliens multiply it by 21 cm., will tell them that the woman is roughly 168 cm. (about 5 ft. 6 in.) in height. Either that or they'll multiply 8 by 1/10 of Mercury's orbit, conclude that we're 4,632,8000 km tall, and decide to stay the fuck out of our neck of the woods.

Notice also that the man is making the universal sign for "stop by for some nude high-fiving."

I was kinda of surprised to see how average the man and woman looked on the plaque. What, were Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch unavailable for modelling that week? As it turns out, the figures on the plaque are literally average: or, at least, as near as the human average that computer simulations could determine.

And frankly, I kinda like the fact that the guy on the plaque looks a little, you know, flabby. As I age and get more and more out of shape, it's nice to know I can always say "hey, at least I don't look any worse than the guy in the Pioneer 10 Plaque!"

Research Day Bonus: By the way, guess who designed the plaque. That's right: world famous cosmologist and legendary pothead Carl Sagan, which no doubt explains why the first draft of the plaque also included the Grateful Dead "Dancing Bears."

July 14, 2004

Kerry: Beer Begins At Fermentation

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry rekindled a contentious election-year debate today, saying that he believes that beer begins at fermentation. The statement stands in stark contrast to the White House assertion that beer does not technically begin until its "born on" date.

The Bush campaign was quick to seize on the controversy, calling it the latest in a series of Kerry misstatements and reversals. "The senator from Massachusetts may be confused by the so-called 'beer' he prefers: imported, foreign brew, possibly even that nasty Belgian stuff with the yeast at the bottom," spectulated Bush campaign spokesman Simon Wiley. "But here in America, it ain't beer until it's been bottled -- preferably somewhere in the heartland of Milwaukee."

Kerry has been dogged by allegations of "flip-flopping" on the subject of the world's greatest beverage since earlier this year, when he made his infamous and improbable claim that Miller Lite "is less filling, but also tastes great."

[ link | News]

In Case You Missed It The First Time ...

... my comments on Amazon plogs.

[ link | dy]

July 13, 2004

Three Items That Have Pretty Much Nothing In Common
  1. Seattleites! Here's a Excel spreadsheet listing Happy Hours of local watering holes. Don't say I never gave you nuthin'.
  2. New fathers! Whoa, Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook For New Fathers is a great, great book. When I saw it at the library I almost left it behind because it looked too jokey, but it actually turns out to one of the most useful new parent guides I've read thus far. New papas: read it; new mamas: pick it up for the spouse. For more info check out this review from Daddy Types.
  3. People who have just taken drugs! This is perhaps the most mesmerizing animated gif of all time.

July 12, 2004

Let Me Get This Straight

Fearing that terrorists might attack in an attempt to disrupt the US elections, we're proposing to enshrine into law a mechanism that would automatically disrupt the US elections in the case of a terrorist attack?

Head ... hurts ...

July 09, 2004

Twinkle Twinkle Toys R Us
Hush little baby, don't say a word
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird don't sing
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring.
And if that diamond ring turns brass
Mama's gonna buy you a looking glass...
Jesus Christ, who wrote this song? The WTO? It's like a primer on consumerism. Nothing like exposing kids to positive, empowering messages like "Keep screaming and I'll buy you crap."

After I sing this song to The Squirrelly, I like to sit him down and explain how we do things different in the Baldwin household. For example: we don't care if your mockingbird gets eaten by effin' coyotes, you ain't gettin' no diamond ring. Also: (a) under no circumstances are we buying a billy goat, (2) we're not going to spring for a horse and cart when you already got a perfectly good cart with that bull we purchased earlier, and (3) if your dog named Rover don't bark ... well, we'll chalk that up as a bonus.

Honestly, I surprised advertisers haven't exploited this valuable real estate and inserted their own company's names into the song. "And if that looking glass gets broke, mama's gonna buy you Vanilla Coke ..."

In fact, if there's any marketing weasels reading this: for a modest fee I'll promise to sing a modified version of this lullaby that includes the name of your product to my child at least once a night until he's four. Drop me a line, we'll negotiate.

Meanwhile, in other, terrifying news:

It's like Rosemary's Baby for the 21st century.

The Bad Review Revue

Sleepover: "The only thing that could redeem this sour patch of candy-coated crud would be a final shot of Earth exploding." -- Scott Brown, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

Around the World in 80 Days: "An exceedingly lame vehicle for an increasingly tired-looking Jackie Chan - might as well be called Around the World in 80 Yawns." -- Lou Lumenick, NEW YORK POST.

Anchorman: "It's unfair that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who wrote the Anchorman, didn't have to come up with any jokes, yet I'm expected to muster up the energy to invent something fresh, informative and entertaining to say about their so-called comedy." -- Karen Karbo, THE OREGONIAN

King Authur: "Bleak, remarkably turgid, tediously violent, devoid of drama, deprived of magic, stripped of romance and, except for one of the oddest boy-meets-girl scenes in movie history, a befuddled and befuddling excuse for entertainment." -- David Sterrit, WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Notebook: "There's no way to endure this movie without earplugs and a blindfold." -- Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE

July 08, 2004

Regrets, I've Had A Few

I get spam.

Date: Thu, 08 Jul 2004 19:04:31 +0400
From: alfernandezov@alderwild.com
Subject: These XXX pics are so hot you will regret not looking at them!!
Wow. I can only imagine.

Dr. Wallace: I believe we're ready, Dr. Yorn. Would you like to make the first incision?

Dr. Yorn: Hmm?

Doctor Wallace: The first incision, doctor?

Dr. Yorn: The -- oh, yes. Yes yes, right. Uh, let's see ... where's my scalpel? Oh, I'm holding it, hah hah.

Dr. Wallace: If you don't mind me saying so, your head doesn't really seem to be in the game today, Dr. Yorn. Are you okay?

Dr. Yorn: Oh, I'm fine, I guess. It's just ... I got an email this morning with some XXX pics, and, well, I deleted it unread. And now I kind of regret not looking at them, you know?

Dr. Wallace: The ones from alfernandezov at alderwild dot com?

Dr. Yorn: Yes, exactly!

Dr. Wallace: I got that email too. Oh man -- you missed out, bro. Those XXX pics were so hot.

Dr. Yorn: Damn it!

[ link | Spam]

July 07, 2004

Books: Choke

Say you arrived at work one morning to find a dead critter in the parking lot of the office building. A possum, let's stipulate -- one that had perished recently, but not too recently. Morbid curiosity might get the better of you, and you might stop for a moment to look at the corpse, maybe even going so far as to turn the thing over with your foot so as to see it from all vantages. But would you then go into the office and urge your friends and coworkers to go outside and check it out? Probably not.

Likewise, I find it difficult to recommend Choke by Chuck Palahniuk, one of the most aggressively unpleasant books I've read in a while. Seriously, portions of the book caused me to physically wince as I read them. It was one of those novels where, when I read it on the bus, I would turn the book so the spine pointed at the person sitting next to me for fear that they might glance over, inadvertently see the wrong passage, and quickly transfer to another seat, as far as way as possible. But despite (or, reluctant though I am to admit it, perhaps because of) this -- I plowed though the novel in record time, reading it at every available opportunity.

The story revolves around Victor Mancini, an unlikable loser who depends on the kindness of strangers; specifically, he pretends to choke to death in restaurants and allows people to "save his life." Afterwards his would-be rescuers feel personally responsible for Victor's life (such as it is) and often start sending him checks to make sure he's doing okay. Much of the money he makes from this scam he uses to keep his debacle of a mother in hospice care -- though, when someone at the hospital proposes a treatment that might extend his mother's life, he adamantly rules it out. In his spare time he frequence sex-addiction recovery groups in search of one-night stands, and hangs out with his pal Denny who has an unhealthy predilection for rocks.

All of this would be practically unreadable were it not for the author's ability to turn a phrase -- occasionally, while rooting around in the muck of Choke, you unexpectedly discover a jewel. While I'm not convinced that Palahniuk is a stellar writer, several portions of the book -- such as his description of prayer chains as "a spiritual pyramid scheme. As if you can gang up on God. Bully him around," and a revolting yet curiously inspiring bit about a man, a monkey, and some chestnuts -- made the whole thing worthwhile.

It even got me wanting to read some other stuff my the guy, though a friend of mine, who has read many of Palahniuk's works, told me not to bother. "They're all pretty much the same book," he said. Indeed, just having viewed the Fight Club movie, I could see how much Choke had in common with this earlier work, with self-help groups, railing against conformity, and the good vs. bad duality of the pro/an tagonist. But I may read Fight Club all the same, because it ooks like it shares a virtue with Choke -- they're both relatively short. And those snappy little soundbites Palahniuk employs are as addicting as potato chips.

July 06, 2004

Johns Across America

Hah hah! You've probably seen this already, but the New York Post completely blew the VP call this morning:

Boy, I bet they feel stupid!

Here are the actual candidates being asked to rate their charisma on a scale of 1 to 5:

Jeeze, I can't imagine why the DNC thought the campaign needed more energy. I mean, look at that thumbs up. That's nearly a full knuckle's worth of enthusaism, right there.

Overall I'm pleased that Edwards got the nod, although, truth be told, these guys would be my first choice if I could put any two Johns in the White House.

Kerry at a recent rally:

"Dude, I only asked for a flag this big."

July 01, 2004

Story Problems Are Hard

Woman on her cell phone:

"I picked up some tiki torches at the dollar store."


"A dollar. They were a dollar a piece, so I bought six."


"Six dollars."