Updates from March, 2009 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Pat 5:35 pm on 31 March 2009 Permalink  

    The other Watchmen technology that I have trouble accepting is Rorschach’s mask. It’s made from what he describes as a “new Dr. Manhattan spin-off fabric. Viscous fluids between two layers latex, heat and pressure sensitive [ . . . ] Black and white moving. Changing shape . . . but not mixing. No gray.” Rorschach also relates that he learned how to cut the fabric using heated implements to reseal the latex.

    All of this is quite plausible to me except for two things:

    • A “fabric” such as Rorschach describes is achievable without any new Dr. Manhattan technologies. I’m not sure latex will work, but two layers of plastic (one white, one transparent) will do the job just fine. And having the black and white fluids move without mixing is simple; just use liquids that aren’t miscible. (For an example, see the nearest Lava Lamp, or any of those oil-and-water desk toys like this one.) But you don’t want to wear a mask made of that stuff over your face, because you won’t be able to breathe or see.
    • Viscous liquids between two layers of “latex” can produce moving patterns of black and white, but will those patterns be laterally symmetrical? The ones on Rorschach’s mask are, without exception.

    Rorschach’s mask is simply impossible to make with 1980s technology, and his reference to Dr. Manhattan doesn’t really explain how it could possibly work. However, it occurs to me that we are now just a few years away from being able to make it with 21st century technology.

    The key is e-paper of the sort used in the Amazon Kindle. Right now, that technology is under glass (or plastic, more likely), but one of the goals of that industry is to create flexible displays that can be rolled up or folded, like a sheet of paper with e-ink instead of actual pigment. Initially, this will probably be something like a shower curtain, but eventually it may be possible to map an e-ink display onto a fabric porous enough that you can actually breathe and see through it.

    You’ll need a microprocessor to manage the patterns being displayed — that’s how you keep them symmetrical. The processor is embedded in the collar of the mask, along with a small battery and a simple switch for turning the inkblot animation on and off. No fluids are required, and no help from Dr. Manhattan, either. I expect to see it at science fiction conventions by 2020.

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  • Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. 3:15 pm on 31 March 2009 Permalink  

    Apropos of nothing:

    • The singular “media” (as in “we have a liberal media”) has clearly become accepted usage; indeed, I’d wager it’s more common than the plural form.
    • The phrase “one of the only” has become an idiom, commonly accepted and understood even if it doesn’t make sense when parsed.

    And yet … I will never accept or use either construction. I’ll suppress my instinct to correct others, but I simply cannot adapt to these changes in the language. Does that mean I’m just old?

     
  • Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. 9:55 am on 31 March 2009 Permalink  

    Interesting. Subsidized computer purchases (in exchange for multiyear online-service contracts) have been around for a while, but there are a couple of new trends here.

    First, you’ve got the increasing power of mobile phones, along with the emergence of the netbook class of computers. These two kinds of devices are becoming essentially indistinguishable in terms of computing power.

    Second, there’s the growing ubiquity of cellular broadband access and cellular modems for netbooks, which make the two kinds of devices even more alike. For a wireless carrier to start selling netbooks just underscores this convergence.

    The one distinguishing attribute that cannot be ignored is form factor. I can’t imagine any device that is simultaneously small enough to be called a phone and large enough to be usable as a laptop computer. But it may soon be the case that form factor is the only thing that distinguishes the one from the other, and we’ll just be choosing from a spectrum of devices designed for different usage patterns.

     
  • Hober Short 8:31 pm on 30 March 2009 Permalink  

    And so it begins:

    Wireless carrier Verizon is branching out from offering just mobile phones. Last week, Reuters (and other news sites) had reported Verizon would start selling netbooks this year. . . . But many speculate the move would be similar to AT&T’s foray with RadioShack—an Acer Aspire One for $99 (instead of $300) with a two-year data plan.

    Such things are a dime a dozen on this here internet, but haven’t we been predicting this for months?

     
  • Pat 1:48 pm on 30 March 2009 Permalink  

    Watchmen includes a couple of technologies that don’t make sense to me. Maybe you guys can explain what I’m missing.

    One of them is Archie, Nite Owl’s airship. We see quite a few airships in the Watchmen comic book, but all the others are are basically balloons (such as the Gunga Diner advertising elephant-blimps). Archie clearly isn’t one of these; it’s too small, too fast and maneuverable, and when we see its interior, it’s all cockpit and engines — there’s no room for envelopes filled with gas. Archie is a heavier-than air vehicle that can launch straight up, hover, and operate in stealth mode (so it’s apparently very quiet). There’s no evidence of fuel tanks or air intakes for jet engines. The exhaust ports of two propulsion engines of some sort are visible at the rear of the ship, but none on the bottom, and of course there are no wings.

    The conclusion is inescapable: Archie’s lift comes not from lighter-than-air gas, not from wings, but from some kind of antigravity.

    But that raises a number of questions. Why is Archie the only airship we ever see that works that way? Where did this technology come from, and why is Dan Dreiberg the only person who has it? The obvious source for any new technologies is Dr. Manhattan (who can nullify gravity when it suits him), but that doesn’t explain why Archie is unique. Dreiberg is moderately wealthy, but not in the same league as Adrian Veidt, and Veidt doesn’t have this technology. (When Veidt arrives at his Antarctican retreat, he does so in a private VTOL jet plane — advanced, but conventional aircraft.) Neither does the U.S. government; the President is still flying around in a 747.

    So how do we account for Archie? Discuss.

    (I’ll address the other anomalous technology in a separate post.)

     
  • Pat 6:50 pm on 29 March 2009 Permalink  

    “But on the other hand, how do you account for pre-B5 primetime serials like Dallas?”

    It never even occurred to me to think of serials and soap operas as having a story arc in the sense that B5 does. Yes, they have an ongoing plot, but it’s a meandering, unplanned one that accumulates inconsistencies until they have to be corrected through retconning or a complete reboot (the infamous “Bobby in the shower” scene).

    There’s more to a story arc than just having a story that spans multiple episodes. The movie serials of the 1930s did that, but they didn’t resemble B5 in any meaningful way. They didn’t have B5’s dramatic structure; they were just a series of set pieces ending in cliffhangers.

    As for soap operas like Dallas, they have the make-it-up-as-you-go problem that was discussed earlier. A proper B5-style story arc requires that you have some idea where you are going. You don’t have to have the entire series planned out in advance, but you should certainly know how it’s going to end and approximately what path it will follow to get there. Soap operas never do this.

     
  • Hober Short 5:55 pm on 29 March 2009 Permalink  

    Lazy Sunday science: A cannonball in a pool of mercury

     
  • Hober Short 3:35 pm on 27 March 2009 Permalink  

    I think it’s okay that the producers don’t really have lots of big plans for the over-arching plotline and sort of write that way. But what I realize now is that it is the default, I daresay even expected, that a Science Fiction show of the caliber of BSG have a compelling overall plot.

    And it’s hard to chalk that expectation up to anything but B5.

     
  • Hober Short 3:32 pm on 27 March 2009 Permalink  

    Over at ESPN, some national coverage of a recently-founded NC State tradition:

    What he didn’t mention initially was the name of the race: the Krispy Kreme Challenge. Jammed (in retrospect, this is the appropriate word) between 2-mile legs of a race on the campus of North Carolina State University is the most daunting of athletic and gastronomic feats: Eating one dozen glazed doughnuts. On the clock. To successfully complete the challenge, runners must finish the race in under one hour — and maintain possession of all their doughnuts.

    This sounded like the horrifying intersection of competitive running and competitive eating. Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi meets Usain Bolt. The perfect event for a hungover college student. I mean, how do you officiate something like that?

    Something about the KKC always manages to stir up the slightest hint of actual school patriotism. It isn’t the football, it isn’t the basketball, it’s the idiots trying to make up their own biathlon with donuts instead of bullets.

     
  • Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. 3:10 pm on 27 March 2009 Permalink  

    Ben, I have the same feeling about BSG: many individual episodes have been brilliant, but the overall story arc is really just a premise for the show rather than a story in its own right. That’s borne out by Ron Moore’s podcast commentaries, which I’ve been listening to as I work my way through the series; it’s frequently evident that the writers sometimes introduce long-running plot threads with no clue where they will lead. Unlike JMS, I don’t think they had the answers in the back of the book.

    Sometimes that kind of “make it up as we go along” writing is a really bad idea. It was the fatal flaw of Twin Peaks, and I’ve heard suggestions (though I wouldn’t know) that Lost suffers from a similar directionlessness. But I think Ron Moore is too savvy a writer to fall into that trap, as evidenced by his willingness to wrap up the story after four seasons.

    Pat, as it happens, I was thinking about exactly that same subject (the influence of B5) just yesterday, after reading JMS’s 1999 column. I agree that (especially in SF) such storytelling is almost a requirement now, and that B5 must be largely responsible. But on the other hand, how do you account for pre-B5 primetime serials like Dallas?

     
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