Monthly Archives: January 2011

Super Awesome Robot Action Sequence Go!

Are you ready to have your skull opened up, your brains scooped out, and your cranial cavity filled with awesome? Then take a look at the following collection of the most awesome action sequences involving a robot ever committed to film.

Those are scenes from Enthiran, a 2010 Tamil SF movie about a robot who, of course, malfunctions. There is more to the movie than what’s shown above. For instance, the compilation leaves out the part where the robot and the leading actress sing heavily Auto-Tuned songs to each other while what look like Cylons dance around them.

Have I mentioned that I love the future? Because I do.

Evaluating Scientific Claims

On Twitter today, Joe asked me whether two Italian scientists’ claim to have demonstrated working cold fusion was real or not. I took two minutes, did some Googling, and told him that their cold fusion device may turn out to be really producing cold fusion, but that there are too many red flags for me to accept it now. Those red flags aren’t necessarily obvious if you’re not familiar with how science works, but knowing them can help you decide how much trust to put into a scientist’s claims and make you a better-informed person. You don’t even have to know any actual science to see them. Here’s your field guide to some of these red flags, as demonstrated by this cold fusion claim.

According to the write-up on PhysOrg, Italian scientists Andrea Rossi and Sergio Focardi of the University of Bologna held a press conference to announce that they had created a low-energy nuclear reactor (similar to a cold fusion reactor) that could turn 400 W of input power into 12,400 W of heat. Their paper on the reactor’s process was rejected by peer-reviewed journals, instead appearing on a blog, Journal of Nuclear Physics, that the two researchers created. The reactor is generating heat through some mechanism that the two researchers say they don’t have a theory for, and if it’s doing so, it runs counter to earlier theoretical work on these low-energy nuclear reactions.

You don’t have to know anything about the science to be skeptical about their results: their paper didn’t appear in a peer-reviewed journal, they announced their scientific discovery at a press conference, and their discovery contradicts current theory. None of these are slam-dunk reasons for why their claims can’t be true, but taken together they make it far more unlikely that their results are real.

No peer-reviewed paper. Peer review as a system has its flaws, sometimes rejecting good papers or accepting bad ones, but it gives other researchers a chance to evaluate your work. Rossi and Focardi claim it wasn’t published because they don’t have a theory about how the reaction works. That doesn’t ring true, since experimental papers are often published ahead of the theory to explain them. I’d guess that they didn’t describe in detail how they performed their experiments or what is really inside their reactor, preventing other researchers from duplicating their efforts. As corroborating evidence, their patent was rejected for a lack of detail.

Announcing scientific results at a press conference. If they’ve truly discovered new science that they want evaluated, scientists will need to take a look at it, not the media. It’s possible that they’ve had to go straight to the media because they aren’t getting attention inside the scientific community, but it’s much more likely that they’re having to go this route because their work won’t withstand scientific scrutiny.

Overturning currently-established theories. Theories can, and are, overturned with regularity in science. Scientists eat their own young, devouring old theories as new evidence comes to light. But the stronger your claim to have disproved a previous and tested theory, the stronger your evidence has to be. In this case, Rossi and Focardi have demonstrated a device but provided no evidence about what’s inside that box, nor have they given enough information to let others reproduce their results. What they’ve done isn’t falsifiable at this point. Their scientific evidence is weak at best.

If you look at scientists pushing theories and experiments outside the boundaries of accepted science, you’ll see these warning signs repeated time and time again. Any one of them by themselves isn’t a death knell to a scientist’s claims, but as they add up I become extremely skeptical, and so should you. It’s possible that Rossi and Focardi have discovered cold fusion, and I’d love to be proven wrong. But with this many red flags, I doubt it.

Photo Shoot

I’m a bit obsessed right now with keeping my page updated with photos of the work I’ve done. This is my Granny Square Shrug I re-finished this weekend. (I finished it the first time over Thanksgiving but it was WAY too big.) So I had to take it apart and make it a bit smaller and then sew the parts back together. While Stephen was taking my photo this morning before church, Liza had to get in on the action.

Shrug pattern by Kirsty.

Attack of the Brain Slugs

When I asked for Eli to pose for this photo, I asked him to look sad. He replied that he wanted to be happy. We got kinda bogged down in the discussion after that when I was explaining to him that when the brain slug is on your head you are most definitely not happy.

Brain Slug pattern by Alicia Ramirez.

Today You Should Go Play FRACT

FRACT is a first-person adventure game, similar in gameplay to puzzle games like Myst, set in a strange, abstract world filled with TRON-like structures that are in part reified electronica sounds. I cannot tell you how in my wheelhouse this game is. Here, take a look at what the game looks and sounds like.

It’s a finalist in the Student Showcase part of the 13th Annual Independent Games Festival, with reason. If you like awesome things that are awesome and have a PC or a Mac, you should give FRACT a try.

What a Fiasco!

Fiasco bills itself as “A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control”. It’s a one-shot role-playing game that helps three to five players tell a neo-noir story along the lines of the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo, Jackie Brown, Bad Santa, and Out of Sight. It requires no game master, takes about three hours to play to completion, and is a tremendous amount of fun.

You start with a playset, a list of relationships, locations, needs, and objects. The playsets evoke a particular feel, such as a small southern town or mobster London, and are the Lego blocks out of which you will build a story of messed-up people doing terrible things. You roll a bunch of dice and use them to choose elements from the playset to create the story. Everyone has a relationship with the players to either side of them. They range from family relationships (siblings, parent and child) to romantic ones (current spouses, former lovers) to criminal ones (gambler and bookie, embezzler and accountant, drug supplier and dealer). Each relationship gets an additional detail like an object (“photographs, possibly incriminating”), a location (“the ball field”), or a need (“to get rich through the death of an elderly person”).

This setup phase is a blast in and of itself, and starts setting up the dominoes that will fall one after the other as the game progresses. To give you a feel for how the setup helps guarantee mayhem, here are the relationships we had in our game:

  • Richard “Dick” Williamson and his wife Kiki, who have a secret side-business selling marital aids “for educational purposes” in their little Alabama town.
  • Kiki and her old friend Junior are secretly selling illicit Viagra from the back of Junior’s panel van he also uses as his mobile pawn shop.
  • Meanwhile, Junior is palling around with his drinking buddy and parole officer, Ronnie, who is a mall ninja with a penchant for saying, “Say, have I shown you my new baton?” He spends a lot of time telling Junior about how he wants to get laid by his childhood sweetheart (not played by a player) and not telling Junior that he has erectile dysfunction and has never had sex before.
  • Dick works for Mary Beth, owner of Vantage Services, a medical claims processor and the largest business in town. Dick’s had a crush on Mary Beth for the longest time.
  • Meanwhile Mary Beth and Ronnie are making extra money by processing fake medical claims for several of Ronnie’s parolees, who are in no position to argue with Ronnie. That’s slow money, though, and Mary Beth and Ronnie are looking to get rich faster. And wouldn’t you know, Ronnie knows a guy who’s dealing in illicit Viagra….

Right away we’ve got a love triangle, two sets of people competing for the same drugs, and a whole bunch of lies that need to be covered up. As you might imagine, it only got worse from there. As the game played out in two acts, including a twist in the middle (known as the Tilt) that made things go from worse to worst, everything snowballed to the point that Mary Beth and Ronnie planned to steal Viagra from Junior and Kiki to sell it at the local old folks’ home, not knowing that Junior had topped the Viagra off with similar-looking pills of rat poison. In the end Junior was dead, shot after accidentally hitting Ronnie with his panel van and interrupting Dick’s attempt to beat Ronnie to death with his own baton. Kiki ran off but was arrested for drunk driving, though in jail she met the real man of her dreams. And Mary Beth, master manipulator and schemer, got off scott free and was rewarded with a windfall of money.

You’ve probably noticed that the game, like the movies after which it is modeled, tends to be fairly unsavory. It lends itself to mordant humor, and its stories are set in a universe where the undeserving are often rewarded while everyone else’s lives are left in shambles. It’s also a more demanding game than some RPGs, requiring collaborative storytelling, free-wheeling improvisation, and a willingness to roll with the changing story. But the reward is great, as our game of Fiasco, like the others I’ve read about, was hilarious in all the wrong ways.

Bully Pulpit Games has released thirteen free playsets to keep the game interesting, and have provided a free sample of the book to give you an idea of what you’re in for. The PDF only costs $10, or for $25 you get the PDF and a printed book. Even if you don’t play Fiasco, the book is worth reading. If you do play Fiasco…well, I imagine you’re in for a wonderful time making your terrible characters meet horrible ends.

How to Make a Password Encryption Card in One Easy Step

A while back, when talking about password managers, I mentioned that I didn’t store any of my financial passwords in a password manager. Instead, I have a card that assigns three random characters per letter or number. For each bank, I use the first five letters of the bank’s name and then use the card to encrypt those letters. As an example, for “Acme Bank” I’d use “acmeb” and translate that into a fifteen-character-long password using my card.

The website that generated the card for me isn’t around any more, so I re-created the code for anyone who’d like to use a similar scheme.

GENERATE PASSWORD CARD with symbols or without symbols

When you click one of the above links, you’ll get a new webpage with three copies of your randomly-generated password card. Print out that page and cut it into three pieces. Laminate one and stick it in your wallet. Put one of the others in a safe place. The third is for back-up or if you have two people who need to have access to the password card.

Reading Negative Reviews Just Beacuase

There can be a joy in reading negative reviews where the reviewer appears to have seen some Earth-Two version of the novel, movie, or game in question. Charlie Stross recently revisited Amazon one-star reviews of classic books. One of my favorites is from Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons”:

It is long and boring. I was uninterested in reading this so called play as soon as I read the first page. It is lame and slow. I highly recomend discarding this play before you realize what I have realized…….it is not worth your time and effort!

Author John Scalzi went a step further, encouraging authors to own one-star reviews of their books. However, if we’re going to talk about negative reviews viewed as entertainment, nothing beats Dot Dot Dot, in which a badly-written negative review is read aloud and set to kinetic word art.

Now that is a negative review.

The Snow of Twenty Eleven

Snow day! You know what that means? It means we bundled the kids up in clothes until the excitement of going outside completely drained away.

Eli in his snow gearLiza in snow gear

We even joined in the non-fun!
Misty dressed in her snow gear

Eventually we made it outside and discovered that we’d gotten approximately two feet of snow.

My two feet in the snow.We had to make a snowman, which Liza spent some time peering at.

Liza looking at a lounging snowman

I made Eli pose with the snowman, by which I mean I pointed the camera at the snowman and Eli said, “Dad, take my picture too!”

Eli, Liza and the snowmanWe also had snow ice cream and snowball fights and walked around listening to the very silent city. We never get snow, not like this, so we’ve had a great time playing in it. Hey, people who live in snowier climes, is this what your life is like?