Friday, May 29, 2009

Astronomically good stuff, cheap!

I am an astronomy buff.  And as many of you know, 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. Yay

So you can imagine my joy in learning of the initiative put forth by a group called This group is producing replicas of the telescope Galileo used to survey the heavens over 400 years ago. These telescopes, while by no means top of the line, will easily allow you to get a good look at the craters on the moon, Jupiter and its 4 largest moons, and the rings of Saturn. And the most amazing thing about them is the price: $15.00!  

I've read some comments on other blogs about the shipping costs being high, and some concern about their capabilities and how long it might take to get them. But for $15.00??? I'll take a shot. I bought 2: one for my (soon to be) 8 year old daughter, and one to donate to her school.

I urge any of you who have children and want a decent starter telescope at a ridiculously low cost to pick one of these up, and maybe get one to donate to your local school.

Courtesy of the one and only Bad Astronomer .

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I can turn myself invisible! But only when no-one's looking.

As a skeptic, it never surprises me to learn that the people who claim to have "special abilities" or psychic powers turn out to be either insane, fraudulent, or self-deluded.  But the cognitive dissonance displayed by some people never ceases to amaze me.

To wit:  please regard one Patricia Putt, who signed up to take the James Randi Foundation "million dollar challenge" to prove the existence of psychic or other-worldly abilities.  The test parameters are pretty clearly defined and agreed to by both parties ahead of time, but when Mrs. Putt failed the test disastrously, she of course claimed that the test was never fair and she in fact was able to prove her abilities.  It's really quite silly and fairly amusing.  Some people want so much to not be ordinary that they will delude themselves into truly believing that they have special powers... even when it is shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that they in fact do not.

She's not as bad as some of the others out there, though.  Charlatans who knowingly bilk innocent people out of money by proclaiming to have psychic abilities... those types are the worst.  Patricia Putt is merely self-deluded, I think.  These other types are truly despicable.  You know who you are... you don't have to go cross country to figure it out.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Movie Review: Star Trek - Part 2

For part one of this review, please scroll down to the previous entry.

When word started to come out that the latest in the Star Trek line of movies was going to be a redux of the original crew, re-cast with up and coming young actors, I have to admit I was both intrigued and skeptical.  This was a clear gamble by Paramount... as I discussed in my prior post, breathing new life into the original series crew and the stories that surround them had unlimited potential.  On the flip side, a poorly written plot, or poor casting could doom the franchise permanently. The casting part in particular was crucial.  This isn't your run-of-the-mill re-make... this is Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scott, Bones... these are cultural icons and larger than life personalities. Leonard Nimoy became so synonymous with his Spock character that he found it nearly impossible to find work as an actor outside of that role, and had an identity crisis that stayed with him most of his life, to the point that he wrote a best-selling book about it.  Getting the characters for the original crew cast properly was critical. And to their credit, J.J Abrams and his crew did an outstanding job of casting the roles.  

Eschewing larger name actors for the major roles, Abrams pegged the young and fairly unknown Chris Pine for the role of Kirk, while casting 'Heroes' uber-villain Zachary Quinto as a convincing Spock. In what may have been the most controversial casting move, Abrams picked the super-sexy Zoe Saldana, another relative unknown, for the part of Uhura, and then gave that character a more interesting and dynamic role than I think anyone would have imagined.

Warning!  From this point, there may be some spoilers... not so much on the plot or the film's conclusion, but on some of the more important plot points of the movie and character interactions.  

The movie starts out jumping right into the plot, with Jim Kirk's father, George, serving aboard the USS Kelvin.  The plot immediately deviates from the traditional "Trek" lore when George is killed during an attack on the Kelvin.  It is during this attack James T. Kirk is born (and we also learn the origin of his middle name, 'Tiberius') as his mother is ushered off of the badly damaged Kelvin.  This initial scene, and how it deviates from the original 'Star Trek' lore concerning Jim Kirk's father, is actually critical to the plot as the movie develops.  In fact, while it is not immediately clear to the movie-goer at the time, this one encounter is a space-time event, and completely re-shapes the lives of the original Enterprise crew, and from that point forward, all original 'Trek' lore is completely wiped away as a new 'Trek' universe is created.

I'd like to spend a moment talking about that aspect of the movie.  There are several aspects of this movie that are what I would consider HUGE gambles for the 'Trek' franchise.  But from my vantage-point, I consider them all brilliant moves.  First off, killing off Kirk's father early in the movie (an even that never took place in the original 'Trek' lore) adds an entirely new element to Kirk's personality and motivation.  This is a theme that is touched upon several times in the movie.  In fact, in one of the best lines of the movie, Captain Pike (who served with Kirk's father aboard the Kelvin) reminds Kirk that his father "served as Captain for exactly 12 minutes, and saved 800 lives... I dare you to do better".  So again, here we have an entirely new aspect to Kirk's psyche to explore that did not exist in the prior Trek world.

In another stunning plot twist, as a result of the same "space-time" event that destroys the Kelvin, the entire planet Vulcan is destroyed... turned into a quantum singularity (one of Star Trek's favorite plot devices over the years) by something called "Red matter".  Only a small fragment of the Vulcan population survives.  Later it is revealed that the person, however indirectly, responsible for all the chaos is none other than a much older Spock (reprised, of course, by Leonard Nimoy) in a time several hundred years into the future.  

At this point it is clear that what the writers are doing here is not only creating an exciting and interesting set of plot devices, but in doing so, completely wiping the slate clean on the entire Star Trek universe.  This, I imagine, is done with the foresight of introducing a new series or movie sequels, using the original crew, but unbound by any of the lore or story-lines of the prior series.  In essence, the original crew of the Enterprise is re-born, and is starting over from day one.  

This concept is the essential launching point for the rest of the movie.  The events that lead up to the 'alternate' universe for Kirk and the rest of the crew, and the events that follow during the movie, almost feel secondary to the characters and their interactions in this new world.  And I think this is a good thing.  It's not that the story is all that terrible, it's just not all that important once the major plot points are laid out early on. As a Trek fan and a viewer, I was far more drawn in by the back stories surrounding the crew members... especially Kirk and Spock.  In fact, I could have watched, with great interest, an entire movie devoted to Kirk's character and his development, with more focus on his time at Star Fleet Academy.  And similarly, I would loved to have spent two hours with Spock's character and his development.

And it's at this point that I think the movie hits a home run:  the interplay between Kirk and Spock.  One of the things that I never liked about the original series was that Kirk and Spock were such complete polar opposites, yet had such admiration and respect for each other and were ultimately the best of friends.  I know, I know... that was supposed to be the juxtaposition, but the fact is that even if they ended up as friends, they NEVER would have started out that way.  In fact, they likely would have started out hating each other.  And in this film, that's exactly the dynamic that Abrams explores. Kirk and Spock spend most of the film as direct, fierce adversaries, and it is in this dynamic that we learn the most about their respective characters. Those two should have hated one another, especially in their youthful, developmental days. Kirk and Spock share a contempt for each of the other's reputed strongest qualities: Spock finds Kirk's impulsiveness and neglect of basic protocol wreckless and dangerous, and Kirk finds Spock's adherence to regulation and logic cold and calculating. This leads to a palpable tension between the two, and a clear dislike. In one rare adherence to 'Trek' lore we are shown Kirk's solution to the 'Kobayashi Maru' (no-win scenario) test at Starfleet Academy.  This event really did have to be explored in this film, as it is a central construct to Kirk's personality (he famously declares 'I don't believe in no-win scenarios').  However, the writers put an interesting spin on the incident, making Spock the person who programmed the test, as well as the primary accuser during Kirk's hearing on the incident.  Thus the initial animosity is born.

Speaking of Spock, I really thought Abrams and his writers did a great job of putting more focus on Spock's youthful character, and highlighting how it would have differed from the Spock he would become later in his life as part of the original crew in the original series.  Being half-human, no doubt the young Spock would have been filled with conflict regarding his place, and would have struggled restraining his more 'human' impulses.  Abrams explores these aspects wonderfully, albeit briefly.  This lends Spock's character, in this movie, to be far more flawed than ever would have been allowed with the original Spock character.  Additionally, it allowed the writers to introduce another key element that would serve to heighten the tension between Spock and Kirk:  Spock's intimate relationship with Uhura (again, a plot twist that never would have been accepted with the original characters, but within the constructs of this movie, it is perfectly acceptable), whom Kirk has been hitting on since early in the movie.

The rest of the characters are well cast by Abrams. 'Bones' McCoy is played admirably, if not a little over the top, by action movie regular Karl Urban (of Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Riddick fame).  Anton Yelchin takes on the role of Chekov, and does a pretty good job, despite the over-play of the humor in his Russian accent.  The 'Asian ubiquitous' John Cho plays an excellent Sulu, and Scottish comedian Simon Pegg reprises the role of Scottie with great humor, along with a much more believable Scottish accent and mannerisms.  In an interesting twist, the more famous actors that appear in this film play more bit roles, with the exception of Eric Bana, who makes a wonderfully understated primary villain.  Other big names making bit appearances:  Winona Ryder as Spock's mother, Ben Cross as Spock's father, Jennifer Morrison (House's Dr. Cameron) as Kirk's mother, and of course Nimoy as the "future Spock".

As I said, the most engaging aspects of this film have little to do with the plot.  The plot is there to set up the bigger parts of the story, and then to sort of act as an agent to force the interaction of the primary characters, and not get in the way... and in this way it works wonderfully.  Some would call the plot weak and contrived.  I'm not sure about contrived, but it might be a little weak.  However I see this as a good thing in this case.  A half-hour into the film, I couldn't care less about Nero and the Narada and who they were going to attack next... I wanted to see Kirk and Spock interact... I wanted to see Uhura and Spock explore their relationship... I wanted to see the integration of the other characters, and enjoy the interplay off of one another, and I got that in spades.  

As with most 'Trek' movies and many episodes, the whole 'space-time' rip meme gets old and confusing, and while I understand why it was needed to set up the events that would define the movie, I still hate it.  It's never well explained, you are always just supposed to 'accept it' without question. And for the sake of the rest of the movie, I will... but I'm warning you, 'Trek' producers, we're all getting sick of how easy it is to screw with space-time.  It's just too convenient and easy a plot device to do whatever you want.  Just ask the audience of "Generations".  

Beyond that minor nit-pick, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  It gave me everything I wanted as a 'Trek' fan, while inserting elements I never expected, and can't wait to explore further.  As I said above, the whole film feels like a set-up for more movies or even a series.  If it is written and acted as well as this movie, it can't come soon enough.

Grade: A

Movie Review: Star Trek - PART 1

This is going to be a bit of a long post, so I'm going to break it into two parts.  The first will be a reflection of Star Trek over the years leading up to the release of the latest Star Trek production, and the second will be a review of the movie itself... Enjoy!

OK... I admit it... I'm a Trek fan.  I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a "Trekkie", as I've never attended a Trek convention or dressed up in any Trek costumes, but I started watching the
show regularly when "The Next Generation" came out in the 80's and I was hooked.  After that I went back and caught all the old episodes from the original series.  Campy, cheesy, sci-fi goodness.  The Trek universe evolved, and we were given "Deep Space 9", which, while not as acclaimed as either the original or 'TNG', was under-rated.  DS9 allowed for deeper character development and a more meaningful ongoing plot as opposed to the episode-by-episode plots that had to exist by the very nature of the "explorer starship" theme.  

Things began to go a little south for the Trek productions after the final episode of 'TNG' was aired.It was clear the Trek world had more to offer, and fans were clamoring for more. But production executives worried that the 'Enterprise' label was getting stale. So 
instead of re-treading the Enterprise for 
more exploratory voyages in the section of the galaxy Trek fans were already familiar with, they instead came up with the concept of a completely new ship getting accidentally flung to the farthest quadrant of the Milky Way galaxy, and thus was born "Voyager".  Voyager had many issues that turned core Trek fans off.  First, I always felt the
 casting was weak.  Second, they spent far too many episodes on story lines that revolved around the ship perhaps finding a
 shortcut home.  Well, viewers all knew before the episode was 10 minutes old that this wasn't going to happen or the show would be done.  It was sort of like Gilligan's island in that way.  
Not that 'Voyager' was all bad.  It had its moments, but overall it did not have the hook that the prior Trek series' had.  It often seemed stale and contrived, and the regular influx of new species and cultures was difficult to keep up with.

In the meantime, Paramount kept cranking out Trek movies with the 'TNG' cast, and they were all far more successful at the box office than the viewership of 'Voyager' would make one think.  And that was when producers realized that part of the appeal to the current generation of Trek fans was the familiarity with the original Trek world.  The original Trek world was well defined, with cultures that were well known and well liked.  Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans, Cardacians and the Borg.  It became clear to producers that what Trek fans really wanted was more of the original Trek world, and so they gave them 'Enterprise'.

'Enterprise' was a chance to build an entire new platform of stories in a completely different world than any other Trek series prior, while at the same time doing so within the already well known and well established Trek paradigm.  This was a really brilliant idea, and the show itself was excellent.  Well produced, written, and acted, the fatal flaw with 'Enterprise' was not with the show itself, but with the distribution and marketing.  By not marketing the show hard enough to one of the major networks (or frankly by not putting the show directly into syndication as was done with 'TNG' and 'DS9') and placing the show on UPN, with its small viewership, 'Enterprise' was doomed from the start.  The show was cancelled after 4 seasons.

However, on the big screen side of things, the 'TNG' crew had pretty much run its course.  "Generations", while it did well at the box office, was received fairly mildly by most fans.  In stark contrast, "First Contact" was hailed as  one of the best in the big screen Trek series.  It was followed up by the forgettable "Insurrection" and lastly by the nearly unwatchable "Nemesis".  It was pretty clear that ideas for the 'TNG' crew were pretty much run out.  "Nemesis" flopped badly, and it was thought that might be the death knell for the Trek series.

However, Trek producers knew they had stumbled on to something with 'Enterprise'... the premise of the show occurring before any of the other Trek series', but in the same familiar world, allowed for completely new plot devices to be constructed on already familiar stories.  What if, they asked, they could pull the same stunt with the original Star Trek crew in a time before fans got to know them?  When the original show aired, the characters and their relationships were already pretty well established.  The development of those relationships was secondary to the episode-to-episode plots.  

In recent years, going 'back to the beginning' has become a familiar plot device, especially in sci-fi.  For example, in the short-lived but highly acclaimed 'Firefly' series, the show starts out in the middle, where the characters already know one another well and inter-personal relationships have pretty much been long established.  However, one of the most beloved episodes in that series involves Capt. Reynolds reminiscing about how he first met each of the crew members. This same sort of thing could work for the crew of the Enterprise, surely!  And so the plot for the newest Star Trek movie was hatched.  And indeed, once details of the movie began to surface: that it would be a movie exploring the initial meetings and interactions of the original series crew, albeit with new cast members, the Trek world was abuzz.  It was a fresh start, a breath of new life into one of the most beloved sci-fi series of all time.  And I, for one, couldn't wait to see it.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dice-K back on the mound tonight for Sox

WARNING!  Shameless Red Sox post forthcoming!!

Daisuke Matsuzaka climbs back up on the hill tonight for the Sox against the Mets.  The Japanese right-hander has been on the disabled list since April 14th with a "tired shoulder".  This after pitching a ton of innings for team Japan in the World Baseball Classic (we'll tackle that sham of an exhibition in another post someday).  Dice-K is dazzling when he's right, but even then he throws a ton of pitches, and even if he comes out strong tonight, it's only May 22nd, and there's a long season still ahead.  If his shoulder went south after a month of WBC play and two major league starts, how long before the grind of the regular MLB season wears him down again?  I hope I'm wrong, but count me among the concerned in The Nation.

How bad journalism hurts science; the 'Darwinius Masillae' foofooraw

As you readers will come to find out, if you haven't figured it out already based on the description and first post of this blog, I am a proponent of reality.  I do not take comfort in abject devotion to imaginary sky fairies made up over 2ooo years ago by nomadic goat-herders from the middle-east. If those are your beliefs, so be it... more's the pity.  But I stopped believing in magic and fairy-tales when I was about 12.

So needless to say, I have a fairly obvious position in the debate over evolution vs. creationism.  Actually... as far as I'm concerned, there is no debate.  Evolution, as a scientific theory, has over 100 years of research and literally mountains of evidence supporting its premise.  It meets all the same criteria that any other widely accepted scientific theory, for example, Gravity, meets.  Creationism has no more supporting material than the Greek mythologies of the ancient world that we so easily dismiss now.  Yet somehow a large portion of the population still rejects evolution as an affront to their religious beliefs.  Someday we'll grow up as a race... but anyhow, I digress.  

The purpose for that preface was to give some background for this post.  Recently, a significant fossil discovery was released:  Darwinius Marsillae.  See the image below:

As you can see it's a spectacular fossil... I'm not an expert, so I'll leave it to PZ at Pharyngula to give you more of the details as to why this particular discovery is important.

The problem is not so much with anything in the discovery.  It's an important and relevant find.  The problem came with the media circus that surrounded the find, and the backlash from the religious / Creationist community.  Some of what follows comes from a comment I made at Pharyngula, so I apologize if any of this seems familiar: When the discovery was announced, the media went hyperbolic, and claims of "the missing link" being found were tossed about.  This, of course, made the science community cringe, because as any real scientist knows, "missing link" is a completely useless phrase.  There is no missing link.  There never will be.  The fossil record is quite definitive in the lineage that leads to homo sapiens.  No missing link is required.  Also, many media outlets reported that this discovery "proves Darwin was correct", or "proves evolution".  This could not be more laughable.  We have over 100 years of evidence, fossil records that show quite thoroughly that evolution is correct.  This fossil does little more than adds another piece, albeit a spectacular and significant piece, to that growing mountain of evidence.  

What the over-hyping of this find does is actually puts undue significance on an otherwise important find for the wrong reasons. And this is dangerous for the credibility of the science in the eyes of the layperson public.

So, the find is announced, and it is beautiful and stunning in its preservation, especially considering its age... but a frenzy-driven, revenue-conscious media gets a hold of the story, and a fame-grabbing "scientist" unleashes undue hyperbole, and terms like "missing link" get thrown around. This grabs the attention of the general public, many of whom are fence-sitters on the whole "evolution vs. creation" debate, mostly because all they know they get through the mass media. Unfortunately, after the initial awe of the first reports wear off, you start to have reactions from all sides. And in this case, all sides are reacting to the initial report fairly negatively. Scientists are reacting to the fact that this find, while significant, is simply another piece in the mountain of evidence for evolution, and doesn't in any way represent any "missing link". Creationists react negatively, as expected, dismissing the find as meaningless and using the same tactics they've used to try and ignore and discredit other significant finds. So there are all sides of the issue, all reacting negatively to the find, and all the general public hears is "this is no missing link"... and as a result, for many, this equates to a negative perspective on evolution, and becomes an easy item they can point to and say "well, they thought that fossil they found back in '09 was the missing link and it turned out to be nothing". Which is a complete mis-representation of the facts. All sides have problems with the way the story was presented by the media, but for completely different reasons.

Had the story been reported accurately, and hailed for what it was: a significant find that adds another piece to the evidence in the fossil record; then the science community would have nothing to complain about, and the Creation community wouldn't be getting its public exposure, while all up in arms. And what we'd be left with is a beautiful specimen ripe for study and discovery, which is really all we should be looking to get from Ida.

New to you

As this is my first blog entry I feel a little like I'm talking to myself... but ahh, well.  Won't be the craziest thing I've done this week.

I won't go into an ego-driven lengthy descrption of who I am, my likes and dislike, blah, blah, blah, as I don't intend this to be a personal ad to 'pick up chicks' on teh intertubes.  So I'll just make a quick entry about the blog and why I've started it.

I'm a part time writer, and regular contributor to several other blogs across the webs, and thought I'd really like a forum to express my own opinions on the topics that matter to me.  So yeah, that makes me person number 1,356,247,212 to start a blog for the same reason.  Nonetheless, I will forge ahead to give you my thoughts on the topics I have listed in my blog description above.  

In doing so, I will state up front, for the record, that I am a liberal, an atheist, and a freethinker. And I have rather strong opinions on matters that touch these subjects.  So I will be speaking about them regularly.  I'm also a movie buff and music lover... so there will be plenty of my own reviews and thoughts on both.  OH... and if you don't already hate me based on my description, I'm also a huge Red Sox fan, so that should push any of you fence-sitters over the edge.

I hope you enjoy the blog, and I welcome your comments and feedback.  And speaking of which, I'm not one for censorship, so I won't just try to ditch comments I don't like or agree with... but I will toss out junk comments that are just "drive-by ad-homs" or basic stupidity for stupidity's sake.  There.  That should be about it.  Enjoy!