Monthly Archives: January 2012

Liza Loves Animals On the Internet

Misty has been haunting Pinterest ever since she discovered that it would serve her a never-ending stream of Doctor Who-related content. A while back she thought, what if I showed our animal-obsessed daughter the Pinterest board that has nothing but animals on it?

The answer: Liza becomes so enamored of Pinterest that her gasps of excitement suck all of the oxygen out of the room.

The best part is that I shot this video some twenty minutes after Liza first started looking at animals on Pinterest. This is her after she’s calmed down.

Have a Powerful Day!

Yesterday I tweeted a link to Rhett Allain’s fun article comparing name-brand batteries to dollar-store batteries. Rhett covers numerically approximating integrals, energy, energy density, and cost per joule of energy. As a bonus, his commenters taught me about eneloop batteries. My take-away from his article: if you’re going to use disposable batteries and you’re buying from a local store rather than Amazon, it’s worth buying the name-brand ones to minimize waste since all of the batteries he tested had roughly the same cost per joule1.

(Added later: it turns out Rhett was comparing name-brand alkaline batteries to dollar store “heavy duty” zinc chloride batteries. That doesn’t invalidate the results, but it doesn’t answer whether or not the dollar store alkalines would be better or worse than name brand ones.)

Shortly after I tweeted the link, I got a reply from the Rayovac twitter account.

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This amused me to no end: I’d posted a link to a nice analysis of battery lifetimes, complete with data and plots, and the Rayovac twitter account’s reply claimed their batteries’ awesomeness (without any data) and linked to coupons. A friend of mine and I laughed about this spamming on Twitter. Big mistake: Rayovac wasn’t about to let that stand.

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Well. I’ve learned my lesson. Links to coupons and unsubstantiated claims of battery lifetime in response to an article with actual battery lifetime data is absolutely not spam.

Also, “Have a Powerful day!” is how I’m going to say goodbye from now on.

1There are a number of possible refinements to Rhett’s quick-and-dirty Mythbusters-level analysis, including measuring a ton of batteries’ characteristics to get a better average measurement, that might alter the final result, but that’s just me being nit-picky. And physicists are never nit-picky.

Three New Space Quest Fan Games

Growing up, I loved the Sierra On-Line video games. They were the first adventure games I played that had graphics. Oh, the graphics they had! Sixteen colors! (Assuming you had an IBM PCjr or a Tandy 1000, like me.) And the music! Blippy bloopy music! Plus instant-death and read-the-designer’s-mind puzzles!

Look, it was the ’80s. We took what we could get.

They had several series, but my favorite by far was Space Quest. The early games had a serious science fiction setting contrasted with a bumbling protagonist named Roger Wilco who, like Inspector Clouseau, managed to succeed despite himself. If you want an idea of what the early Space Quest games were like, read through this “Let’s Play” transcript from Space Quest I.

Space Quest 1 and the washing machine puzzleI blazed through Space Quest I…until I snuck on board the evil Sariens’ spaceship. I hit a point where I was skulking in a laundry room when a Sarien came in and shot me. I hid in the washing machine, only to have the Sarien turn on the washing machine. I assumed that that killed me, since the game was as full of instant-death moments as a deep-fried turducken is of cholesterol, so I reloaded and tried to find another solution.

I failed. I failed so hard that I scraped together my allowance and bought the hint book. Imagine my surprise when I read the clues for this puzzle to find out that hiding in the washing machine didn’t kill me, it magically dressed me in a Sarien uniform.

Even today I remember how stupid I felt.

Despite that moment of dumbness, I kept going and ended up being a fan of the Space Quest series. Now, nearly two decades since the last Space Quest game was released, there is not one, not two, but three fan-made sequels. In one month. This is akin to finding a twenty-dollar bill in the couch and pulling it out to find two thousand-dollar bills taped to the twenty.

Space Quest 2: Vohaul's Revenge Remake screenshotThe first is a remake of Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge. The creators have replaced the original game’s text parser (which was fiddly at the best of times) with the icon-based interface Sierra used in its later adventures, updated the graphics, and added voice acting. I loved SQ2 when I was wee, which means that it’s probably a terrible game that you should never play. Nevertheless, if you play only one SQ2, this remake should be it.

Space Quest: Vohaul Strikes Back screenshotThe second is Vohaul Strikes Back. It’s an entirely new game in the Space Quest universe that’s set after the official series ended. By all accounts it’s somewhat self-referential but still playable even if you’re not already a fan of the series, and has a lot of the humor you’d expect from a Space Quest sequel.

Space Quest: Incinerations screenshotThe final one is Space Quest: Incinerations. This is the one that I find the most intriguing. For one, all of the graphics look like rotoscoped CG characters. For another, the scope of the game is much larger and more epic than the others — it’s Space Quest on a more truly interstellar scale. It also appears to fit tightly into the Space Quest universe, with many plot elements from earlier games making an appearance.

Richard Cobbett reviewed all three games for Rock, Paper Shotgun if you’d like to learn more — and I know you do. Me? I’m going to be playing Incinerations this weekend.

This SOPA/PIPA Protest Thing is Way Overrated

If you paid attention to the internet at all yesterday, you probably saw people complaining about the proposed US bills SOPA and PIPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act are designed to help content creators fight piracy.

Oh, sure, there’s been a lot of whining from the usual suspects about how it will stifle free speech and be used as a club by the entertainment industry. Sure, the bills are worded so broadly that they could be used for all kinds of nasty things. And perhaps content creators from Hollywood editors to authors have said that SOPA and PIPA are like fighting piracy by burning all of your boats.

That’s all balderdash, as my Disasterpiece Theatre co-hosts and I are here to show you. While you were doing silly protests and calling congresspersons and writing letters, we recorded an episode that demonstrated how SOPA and PIPA have no effect on content creators.

So there.

Three Very Small Exoplanets

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which is looking for planets outside our solar system, has found three of the smallest exoplanets yet. They’re all smaller than Earth — their radii are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times that of Earth’s — and the smallest is about the size of Mars.

Kepler Tiny Exoplanet Artist's RenditionThey’re very close to their star, too close to be good candidates for life because liquid water can’t exist on them, and their star is a red dwarf. But what makes them special is that they are so small.

The techniques we use for finding exoplanets work best with large, massive planets, as I’ve mentioned before. It’s only been recently that we’ve been able to find planets of around Earth’s size, and especially those that are likely to be rocky, terrestrial planets like Earth. The three that Kepler’s found fall into that small-rocky territory. That’s crucial — we’ve mainly found gas giants, which made astronomers wonder if our solar system was an unusual one because it has so many rocky planets in it. As we find more rocky planets, we learn more about how solar systems form and help us understand if life here on Earth is a fluke or likely to be repeated across the galaxy.

Scientific America has a good discussion of why Kepler was able to find these three planets, if you’d like to know more. What’s really exciting is that Kepler may be able to discover planets as small as our Moon, and given the firehose of data coming out of Kepler, there are likely many more discoveries where these three came from.