Monthly Archives: January 2011

The lolz of Sci-Fi Terminology

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BS sci-fi is funny. Need to make a black hole to suck up your excess garbage? Use red matter! How about the ability to run super fast? Harvest and activate a metagene! Need to go back in time? Well, if you run fast enough…

When it comes to the BS science canon of sci-fi universes, its adjoining terminology can become… hilarious, to say the least. In some stories, it comprises half the entertainment value. Just take a look at the following list, which includes little jargony treasures from Asimov to Zoids:

Jupiter brain, positronic brain, hyperdrive, plasma rifle, phased polaron cannon, phased plasma torpedo, transphasic torpedo, magnetometric guided charges, metreon cascade, tachyonic antitelephone, suspensor, disruptor, replicator, transporter, tricorder, Fuzor, axial compressor, universal constructor, oscillation overthruster, Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser, Ixian damper, Andromeda Ascendant, Dyson sphere, Tipler cylinder, Holtzman drive, Quantum Eisengate Device, MSN-001A1 Delta Plus, Gundarium Gamma alloy, super-mecha, Centauri Superweapon, Technodrome, orgasmatron, Cybertron, Megatron, Tron…

Just adorable, no?

The form of these neologisms and terms tends to find inspiration in popular science; the “positronic brain”, for instance, is the 1930’s brainchild of Asimov with deference to the then popularly publicized positron. There are other guidelines, too–many of which are rooted in the basics of ordinary science terminology. The Greek alphabet is slave to the jargon of many disciplines: organic chemists use it to distuinguish isomers, neuroscientists to categorize the frequency of brain waves, nuclear physicists to designate different forms of particle emission, etc. In fact, when it comes to scientific and sci-fi terms, anything Greek in nature is good, be it the alphabet, mythology, or just the Greek roots for common scientific prefixes and suffixes. It’s surprising Star Trek technologies don’t include a “feta impulse cannon”.

As to prefixes and suffixes for fictional nomenclature, Transformers really takes the initiative in being transparent. “Cybertron” and “Megatron” are excellent examples, containing no traditional core roots and pre/suffixes only. Breaking these words down etymologically, they just mean “computer device” and “great device”. And then, of course, there’s Tron. “Device”. Brilliant. Succinctness is good.

Evidently, something about the Greek suffix “-tron” really has an appeal for sci-fi; naturally, this comes from the word “electron” (along with others like “neutron”, “cosmotron”, and “cyclotron”–those last two almost sound fictional, don’t they?) and the subsequent “electronics”, the latter of which tends to be at the core of many sci-fi technologies. Suggesting functionality is also a quintessential facet of sci-fi suffixes; everything is an “ator” or “ater” of some kind. Clearly, in the future, all objects will perform single functions and will be accordingly named. Violins will be a brand of “musicotron” and violinists a type of “musicator”.

Things like “cyber-“, “mecha-“, and “techno-” are all obvious prefixes for sci-fi; they mean “computer”, “machine”, and “technology”, respectively (what a surprise). Others, like “hyper-“, “mega-“, and “super-” are obvious because of the classically exaggerated nature of sci-fi technology; it’s harder, better, faster, stronger, and all that. Throw the word “quantum” or a fictional scientist’s name which sounds like Einstein in front of your prefixed+suffixed word and you’ve got yourself the seeds of a winner.

Here are some other hints: toss in a random amalgam of letters (X, Y, and Z are especially recommended) and numbers in front of everything to make it seem like an item in a series. If it’s been improved repeatedly, it’s clearly ingrained in the technological history of a given sci-fi canon. 3-dimensional shapes add flair too; a “protoplasmic laser sphere” has way more gravitas than a “protoplasmic laser circle”.

Bearing in mind these traits of sci-fi terminology, I’ve invented something for you. It’s called the:

X800-Omega Cassiopeia quantum hypersuperluminotronic Eisenbeam technobooster megacybermechyone pyramid drive

If you can guess what it is, you get one absolutely FREE.

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And on that note, thanks for reading.


Conventional Misconceptions: Logic vs. Emotion

Not only is the logic vs. emotion contention one of the most overplayed themes in Hollywood: logic and emotion aren’t even at odds to begin with.

The original Star Trek series hinges on the logic vs. emotion card, as do most stories centered on conflict between man and machine. Let’s consider I, Robot as an example. The protagonist, Detective Spooner, hates robots because one saved his life in in place of a child’s (only one person could be saved, and Spooner had a greater probability of survival). This was the logical choice within the framework of the Three Laws since the First Law mandates that no robot may allow a human to come to harm through inaction. Spooner finds “doing the math” according to the Three Laws to be cold, heartless, etc., and assigns the word “logical” as a pejorative to describe such computation. However, what he fails to recognize is that his so-called “illogical” or emotional response to the situation also follows the guidelines of a logical framework. His bias is simply against the limitations caused by the Three Laws, not logic itself.

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Let’s discuss this notion of a logical framework for emotions a little more, just so it’s clear. The emotions poised in stories as opposites to the rigid nuts and bolts that comprise logic tend to be compassion, hope, love– the goopy, fluffy stuff that we as a species exult even if it doesn’t make sense when examined through a traditionally “logical” lens. Compassionate self-sacrifice is deemed illogical (though commendable). Hope in the face of adverse likelihood, too, is filed under illogical. When a man’s spouse raves that his long nights at the office must be symptoms of some lewd affair despite lack of any evidence, he dubs her frenzied, love-borne behavior illogical. These assessments, however, are the illogical ones in this fray; emotional behaviors possess both evolutionary and physiological logic.

As to evolutionary logic: species acquire adaptations that promote survival. Thus, emotions emerge down the line to help ensure survival. Compassionate self-sacrifice helps ensure the survival of fellow species members, and therefore the group as a whole–not just the individual. On a physiological level, this entails the development of instinctual motivation for compassionate behavior (activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex while performing altruistic acts is a prominent example). Already, we can glimpse a set of precepts for humans:

1. Natural selection demands adaptation.

2. Emotions are logical adaptations for motivating bonding, which encourages procreation and group survival for social animals.

3. As social animals, it is logical that humans must abide evolutionarily-selected emotional phenotypes varying in expression along a standard normal curve.

4. Emotions are mediated via a combination of neural and endocrine systems which respond to stimuli in a logical, albeit complex, manner.

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Within this model, compassion, hope, love, and their less-admired opposites are all perfectly logical. If emotions weren’t logical, they’d manifest randomly and be of no adaptive use whatsoever. This is a core assumption in establishing locus of control in psychotherapy; instead of allowing people to feel governed by tyrannically unpredictable emotional flights, they are encouraged to trace the origins of said emotions to help manage anger and so on. So the next time you watch some Terminator-esque film where the villains are villains because they’re logical and the heroes are heroes because they “think with their hearts”, just remember: the villains are actually villains because they adhere to a logical framework that produces actions audiences disapprove of.

A related sidenote:

Chant the tabloid-reading mouth breathers: “What about serial killers? They’re purely logical, remorseless, cold, machine-like pseudo-people with no emotions at all!” Wrong. Humanity’s collective fascination (be it abhorrent or titillated) with sociopathy stems from our favorable bias towards the cherished emotions mentioned earlier: compassion, hope, love, and so on. Most of us experience these emotions in some measure, but sociopaths strangely lack them. But that’s all it is: statistical strangeness. They exists on one end of the normal curve of emotional phenotypes and possess neural differences from the general public that explain their behavior logically. Sociopaths do experience other feelings–anger, sadness, joy, etc.–and are thus not emotionless, simply empathically deficient.

Musical Numbers You Can’t Count On

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Sometimes, musicals are weird.

The idea behind musicals is great. Use song and dance to:

Musical Do’s:

1. Engagingly and rapidly present story elements like expository information, characters, setting, etc.

2. Externalize unstated character conditions, motivations, intra/interpersonal mood, subtextual stuff

3. Streamline pacing for situations involving change, like mounting conflict or montages

4. Include fun, catchy, and/or evocative (perhaps melodically beautiful) musical content that audiences can associate with story as a whole

When musical numbers don’t solidly perform one or more of these four functions, that doesn’t necessarily make them bad. It does, however, make them musical numbers for the sake of musical numbers; they don’t enrich the story in any way besides their intrusion-by-existence. Your story is moving along smoothly or unsmoothly or what have you and SUDDENLY there’s this extraneous and unremarkable musical number that just appears, almost as if it wants to waste time. So here’s a second list containing faux pas musical number functions:

Musical Don’t’s

1. Needlessly reiterate already obvious story elements, character conditions, etc.

2. Act as filler to artificially extend play time

3. Exist as a musical number simply for the sake of being a musical number

These are fuzzy rules, so here’s an example that touts them left and right. The Scrubs musical episode already wades into #3 simply by existing; it is a pointed musical episode in a show that contains no other musical episodes, written obviously to satisfy the writers’ collective thirst for a musical episode. Right from the get-go, the very first two musical numbers display the device responsible for everyone’s apparent singing (a patient with a brain injury), which is a waste of time because a musical number should not have to explain why it exists UNLESS it contributes to the story in an embedded fashion.

Since that last morsel was a mouthful, consider another example to illustrate. Buffy‘s “Once More With Feeling”, too, is a musical episode in a show otherwise bereft of musicals.  Prior to writing/filming OMWF, Joss Whedon had long wanted to do a musical episode. As with the Scrubs musical episode, this begins to stink of #3: musicals for the sake of themselves. There are even a couple songs (“I’ve Got a Theory” and “What You Feel”) that address the singing itself, a maneuver which stumbles into the realm of musical numbers explaining their own existence. However, in OMWF, the singing is a literal truth within the story, whereas in Scrubs it’s only perceptual. As such, in the former, we have singing addressing its own existence because it is actually happening and actually strange. In the latter, we have singing addressing its own existence because the writers have to explain what their excuse for having a musical episode is, even if no one is actually singing in the plot. See the difference?

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Let’s take the comparison further. OMWF is a critical episode in season 6 of Buffy; practically everyone’s secrets are revealed (#2 on the musical Do list) and seeds for change (Giles leaving Sunnydale and Tara leaving Willow) are sown (#3 on the Do list). The musical numbers are embedded in the story because their existence, albeit strange, catalyzes characters and events relevant to the story as a whole. In addition, on an artsy-fartsy note, the externalization of otherwise unstated character conditions (like Xander and Anya’s uncertainties about each other) being a literal truth within the season 6 story comments ironically on the brazenness of musical numbers and the vulnerability of private thoughts/feelings. The Scrubs musical episode, on the other hand, contributes to the story of season 6 Scrubs by… um… well, it’s the musical episode! And musicals are fun, right? Who cares if almost every song is simply a reiteration of content established in previous episodes (“Guy Love”, “Welcome to Sacred Heart”, “The Rant Song”: #1 on the Don’t list) or an explanation of the musical’s existence? Oh, oh– J.D. and Elliot stopped living together! That totally couldn’t have happened unless they were part of a perceived musical! Right? Right?

Bearing the discussion above in mind, this post was actually intended to address a certain superfluous track *cough* “Human Again” *cough* added to the 2002 special edition of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (sidetracked much?). In terms of critical reception, Beauty and the Beast is the crown jewel of the Disney Renaissance; it’s got great visuals, great writing, great characters, and–most important to this discourse–really great music. From the gorgeously haunting introduction (“Prologue”) to the titular musical number “Beauty and the Beast” and all the way through the closing piece (“Transformation”), Alan Menken composes up a storm of totally unforgettable, excellent scoring for this film. Anyone who has seen it can recognize the songs in a heartbeat. As such, #4 on the Do list is out of the ballpark for Beauty and the Beast.

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Other items on the Do list (tired of scrolling yet?) have representation in Beauty and the Beast as well; “Something There” melodiously narrates, in montage form, changes in Belle’s and the Beast’s feelings towards one another (#3). “The Mob Song”, too, connects scenes related to the mobilization of village people attacking the Beast. These are purposeful songs; not only do they guide events, but they also display internal feelings of the people involved in said events (#2 on the Do list). “Belle”, “Gaston”, and “Be Our Guest” fall into a category between #1 and #2; they establish motivation for Belle, Gaston, and the castle servants as well providing expository information about the social climate of Belle’s provincial life (they’re all quite memorable, to boot). The richness of content in these musical numbers sets a standard not to be taken lightly, but some people just have no sense.

The 2002 special edition of Beauty and the Beast has some nice revamps on visuals, but it also contains this awful musical outlier called “Human Again” in the otherwise quality-driven set of musical numbers. “Human Again” is effectively this: the Beast’s castle servants relish the notion of being human again (appropriately enough) while cleaning the castle in preparation for Belle and the Beast’s big dance date. They basically prepare the castle for a better musical number (“Beauty and the Beast”). Prior to this song, we already know that these characters are excited to be human again; otherwise, they wouldn’t be so hospitable and kind towards Belle (#1 on the Don’t list). Dialogue and visuals preceding and following “Human Again” also demonstrate that the castle has been cleaned, so the events shown during the musical number are both boring (it’s cleaning for goodness’s sake) and redundant, making it filler (#2 on the Don’t list). In addition, this was a song added to a re-release in order to boost sales; a bonus musical number is probably not adding anything special and exists primarily as “a bonus musical number!” and thus demonstrates even #3 on the Don’t list. Musically, the song is rather mediocre and can’t even salvage its reputation with #4 on the Do list. Honestly, “Human Again” is just utter rubbish and it’s a shame anyone felt it necessary to sully a stellar film with its complete uselessness.

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I have Venn diagrams, so this is totally legit.

“The” Olive Garden

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America loves Olive Garden, or The Olive Garden, as it’s often called. I suppose saying, “Let’s have dinner at The Olive Garden!” lends a sense that the restaurant is unique and classy, much in the way saying, “The Elton John” suggests fame more than just “Elton John”. You may as well call it “Its Esteemed Majesty Herr Doktor Doktor Olive Garden”. Gosh that sounds fancy.

But Olive Garden isn’t fancy. Their breadsticks are effectively doughy sticks of butter with bath salts glued to them and the complexity of the dishes hardly exceeds the culinary know-how of the average child (spaghetti with meatballs: gee, I wonder how you make that). And it isn’t in any way “The” Olive Garden: there are thousands of these restaurants, and they’re all equally awful. When you’re paying 14 dollars for a small bowl of chicken alfredo, you’ve really got to wonder what’s so special about this place.

It’s the image. People think Olive Garden’s a place to dress up for because it’s got vines around the name and it’s a “garden”, but it’s still got that delicious diabetes taste you’d expect from any other family-oriented chain, like Applebee’s. Plus, when you’re paying too much for your food, you naturally assume it’s because of the fancy factor (and that makes it somehow worth it?). You get familiar nutritional abominations for prices that make the food glimmer with the appeal of apparent aristocracy. So ruffle your petticoats, kids, we’re going to The Olive Garden tonight!

Adding up to ADD

In a stand-up routine, Lewis Black rails that the crawlers on news channels cause ADD. If, below news being read to us, something bombards us with fleeting, unrelated tidbits, of course we have ADD.

Good for chuckles, to be sure, but there’s also a valid point here. I remember reading somewhere that the average American 11 year-old has knows more information than did the average adult back in the Mayflower days (citation needed, I know). By extension, the average American 11 year-old recognizes thousands of musical tunes, whereas the average pilgrim probably knew fewer than 30 (if they were even permitted such an indulgence as music at all). If you think about it, the modern era is a battleground for information selection with copious sums of music, movies, television shows, YouTube videos, internet memes, and endless other media competing for our attention.

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With regard to ADD, we cannot assume that hyperstimulating environments cause increased births with insufficient attentional abilities. There simply have not been adequate generations to precipitate any such change in genomics. Clearly, if any variable ought to be examined, it’s nurture on a single generation basis (no need for an excessive evolutionary time course). Human beings presumably have had attentional capacities ranging along a standard normal curve for millenia. In environments containing regular levels of stimuli (relative to a natural environ typical of prehistoric human ancestors), people acclimate favorably to settings requiring focus; there’s no precedent for development as though there are too many stimuli to process. As such, fewer individuals stand out as having difficulty managing focused tasks. Without superfluous stimuli constantly flooding their senses, they develop into functional adults without obvious learning problems.

This creates a model of increased environmental attentional demands ~ increased probability of adaptation by limited attention. Only the truly worthy stimuli get focused on, and everything else can be rapidly flipped through like a paperback novel. In a climate of dense information maelstroms, this is adaptive. In the classroom, of course, it is a hindrance.

So ultimately, ADD may very well be this: some proportion of people have a propensity to adapt to growing stimulatory demands by their brain literally limiting their attentional capacity to accommodate for a more competitive information arena. They must be a) more selective and b) able to jump from stimulus to stimulus rapidly without getting too involved. Quick assessments must be made to maintain the economy of attentional energies when processing vast sums of data. Like stress-related ulcers, ADD disposition didn’t get agitated into a maladaptive state until vast industrialization occurred.

How to test this: ideally, you take identical twins and raise one in a simpler, less media-dominated environment. The other is raised in your average middle class setting with ample access to television, internet, and so on. Compare the onset or exhibition of attentional traits.