Seven Wonders Squared, Minus Seven

Rum and coffee are about all I brought back from Jamaica. Oh and shark teeth. Like, in bracelets and necklaces, one for each of us in my family. We just bought them, which in my mind is the second-best way to procure tooth of shark. The best way, of course, is to find them on the beach. (And the worst way is to find them in your . . . arm . . . after you were bitten by one.)

When I was a kid I read some book, probably about sharks or maybe dangerous animals in general, that said sharks were constantly losing teeth and growing new ones. They lost so many, this book implied, that you could hardly walk down any beach in the world without stumbling over one. Ever since then, and this must be around thirty years now, whenever I find myself on the beach, my eyes are pointed straight down so I can find one of these teeth.

Haven't found one yet.

I file away these kinds of facts. Things that amaze me. I suppose if you live near an ocean there is nothing inherently amazing about washed-up sharks' teeth, but to this landlubber, that's fantastic. I'm like a kid when it comes to this stuff, and now that I have kids, I get to try to instill in them a similar sense of wonder.

One evening I was driving Pallas home from swim lessons or something and I pointed out Venus and Mars to her in the night sky. She said, pretty much in allcaps, "You can see other planets from here????" The astonishment she expressed, even after I showed her how the planets are just brighter, untwinkling stars to the naked eye, warmed my heart and made me so proud. I took her to the observatory at the local university so she could see the moon and Jupiter and Saturn through the telescope.

There's a lot of things I want to teach my kids, and a sense of wonder is high on that list. But can it be taught? Or does it have to be (sorry to use the Self-helpspeak) caught? Doing my best to model it, anyway. Here then is a list of amazing wonders, guaranteed to cause you to go "wow" at least once, hopefully many times as you read. Mostly pulled from the top of my head, and fact-checked where the details seemed hazy or too unbelievable. If some are erroneous, that is entirely my fault though no deception is intended.

Here we go!

 

1.You can find shark's teeth on a beach. Any beach!

2. There was such a shark as Megalodon. I had to delete a "fact" that unfossilized Megalodon teeth have been found since it turns out that is either myth or hoax. Still. Carcharodon megalodon existed!

3. You can see other planets from here.

4. Just the other day a spaceship from Earth zoomed past Pluto!

5. And a few days later astronomers announced the discovery of Kepler-452b, the most Earthish planet yet discovered.

6. Birds are really dinosaurs.

7. Dolphins have unique signature whistles which they use to identify each other, like names.

8. Apes can be taught to use American Sign Language.

9. Not that long ago, geologically speaking, there were at least four different species of humans inhabiting Earth at the same time (Us, Neanderthals, the Flores hobbits and the Denisovans.)

10. The asteroid Ceres has two bright spots on it. Likely ice, but until it's confirmed I choose to believe it is an alien base.

11. Astrophysicists have theorized the existence of Thorne-Zytkow Objects- a neutron star inside of a red giant.

12. Yeti crabs.

13. Carnivorous plants!

14. Out of 40,000 species of spiders, only one is vegetarian. (Bagheera kiplingi)

15. Giant pandas are "set up" to be carnivores but about 4.5 million years ago something caused them to shift to a strictly bamboo diet. To this day they can't really digest bamboo very well at all.

16. Mars has a couple of robots living on it right now.

17. Mars has a naturally occurring laser.

18. Jupiter's moon Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system, bigger even than Mercury.

19. Saturn's moon Titan is the second largest moon, also bigger than Mercury.

20. Ganymede and two other moons, Europa and Enceladus, have liquid water.

21. This liquid water comes in the form of oceans beneath the surfaces, which are ice.

22. Titan has a dense atmosphere of hydrocarbons and lakes made of methane.

23. Your brain has at least 100 trillion synapses (connections between neurons).

24. There are species of whales that we have never seen in the wild, and only know they exist from their washed-up remains (spade-toothed beaked whale). Until recently there were several such species but slowly we have seen them alive. Also giant squids were only finally seen alive in 2004.

25. Grizzly bears on the ABC Islands (Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof) are more closely related genetically to polar bears than to mainland grizzlies.

26. Woolly mammoths survived on Wrangel Island until 3500 years ago.

27. Woolly mammoths are more closely related to Asian elephants than Asian elephants are related to African elephants.

28. Muskoxen are woolly ox left over from the ice age! Woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos didn't make it, sadly.

29. The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is a giant storm that has been raging for centuries.

30. Two Earths could fit in the Great Red Spot.

31. There are naturally occurring lasers on Mars and Venus. 10 micron CO2 lasers, in fact.

32. Water is the only substance in the known universe that expands when frozen, rather than contracts. You may have read a recent article about opinions that stated that no one knows why this is the case but it's due to H2O's mickey-mouse-like shape. And vibrations.

33. Dark matter and dark energy combined make up 95% of the universe. And for real, no one knows what they are exactly. Neutrinos, probably, and who knows what else.

34. Eyes have evolved independently at least 50 times.

35. Trilobite eyes were some of the earliest complex eyes to evolve. Their lenses were made of calcite.

36. Our best estimate so far for the number of cells in your body is around 37 trillion. It's a bit tough to count them all to know for sure.

37. For the same reason we don't know exactly how many bacterial cells live in your body but a rough guess is ten times as many, so 370 trillion.

38. You might know that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a fairly average spiral galaxy, with around 200 billion stars. There are spherical galaxies with 50 trillion stars! Trillion!

39. Supernovas (or more properly, supernovae) are so powerful that they give off as much energy in their first few seconds as ten billion suns.

40. After they're done blowing up, some supernovae collapse into neutron stars, which are small enough to sit comfortably in a city with plenty of room to spare, but dense enough that they can have more than twice the mass of our sun.

41. If our sun were old enough and massive enough to go supernova (it isn't) we would all die horribly. But as it is we are relatively safe from being supernovaed to death, even from more distant stars. There is roughly one supernova within 33 light years of us every 240 million years.

42. There was a dinosaur with a mouth that looked kind of like a vacuum cleaner Nigersaurus taqueti had 500 teeth, and had replacement rows just like a shark. Probably they washed ashore and could be found on beaches from time to time!

- Nathan Waddell

 

Pick of the Week – July 27-August 2, 2015

I am continuing the series of board and card game Picks that I began a couple of weeks ago.  Again, I discovered all of these thanks to Tabletop, the web series hosted by Wil Wheaton in which he and his guests each episode play a different game (or games in some cases).  As viewers, we get to learn the rules, see gameplay, and enjoy the banter.

For this week’s Pick, I’m shifting from board games to a card game.  Munchkin is a competitive card game with some cooperative elements in which players try to be the first to advance from Level One to Level Ten Munchkins.  It is, in many ways, a parody of Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy role-playing games; although, Munchkin has many MANY varieties.

Each player in Munchkin starts out at Level One.  The players are exploring a dungeon and must defeat monsters in order to advance a level (For the most part.  There are exceptions.).  Players have a hand of cards divided between Door and Treasure cards.  Door cards may contain character modifiers, monsters, curses, or a variety of other types.  Treasure cards are generally items or cards that have other special effects in the game.  At the start of their turn, players kick down the door of the next room of the dungeon, which means they draw a Door card.  If they draw a monster, they can fight it.  Each monster has a level.  If the player’s level, including all items and other bonuses, is higher than the monster’s, she wins and goes up a level as well as gaining the number of treasures indicated on the monster’s card.  If she can’t defeat the monster on her own, she can ask another player for help (This is the cooperative part).  They negotiate terms (usually a share of the treasure) and their combined levels are then used to defeat the monster.

Players can also advance levels through “Go Up A Level” cards, which usually say things like “Bribe the GM” or “Whine at the GM.”  This is a role-playing game parody after all.  But Level 10 can only be obtained through defeating the monster, and you may find that the other players have something to say about it.  They may have cards to help the monster or harm you.  At this point, things can get a bit intense, and players who haven’t been all that nice through the rest of the game (*cough*my son*cough*) can wind up thwarted by players who do not want to see them win.

The game is fun all on its own, but the cards are also quite entertaining.  You could end up battling a Wannabe Vampire, a Male Chauvinist Pig, 3872 Orcs, or even a Gazebo.  You could be in possession of Boots of Butt-Kicking, the Rapier of Unfairness, or the Chainsaw of Bloody Dismemberment.  Also, watch out or you may be cursed by the Duck of Doom.

HERE is the Tabletop episode dedicated to Munchkin, which I can tell you is a lot less cutthroat than the games that are played in my house.  Did I mention that my son is vicious?

I stated earlier that there are many varieties of Munchkin.  Aside core fantasy-themed game and its numerous expansion packs, there are also Munchkin games set in space (Star Munchkin), the Old West (The Good, The Bad, and The Munchkin), and during the zombie apocalypse (Munchkin Zombies) as well as Munchkin Conan, Munchkin Adventure Time (Yes, based on the TV show), and Super Munchkin among many others.  Each of these is a complete game.  Additionally, there are smaller expansion packs of cards based on everything from Felicia Day’s webseries, The Guild, to the Penny Arcade web comic, to various holidays.  All of these can also be combined into a single game.  Go nuts.

-Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter

Down in the Third

There are a couple of obvious critical moments in the life of any television series.  First, the pitch has to get a network interested enough to order a pilot.  Then the pilot has to be good enough to convince the network to order the whole series.  That same pilot then has to draw in viewers, and the first couple of episodes after that has to keep them coming back for more.  As the recently-departed A to Z showed, a good pilot is meaningless if the subsequent episodes are crap.

I have determined, though, that there is another critical point in the life of a series, and that’s the third season.  That seems to be the point when I decide that I’m giving up on a series or that I’m with it until the end.  And the reasons for that, I believe, are rooted in the early days of the show’s creation.

Think about a movie compared to a television series.  In a movie, you have two hours to tell a complete story about a character or small group of characters.  Stuff happens, and the characters live or die or fall in love, etc. The end.  A television show, by its nature, is more open ended.  Creators develop a concept and characters designed to propel the series through (they hope) multiple seasons of stories.

It doesn’t always work.  Sometimes it’s just a character that isn’t working, as I discussed in THIS POST.   Other times, though, the problem is more deeply rooted.

Going back to that show that’s trying to get on the air.  The creators have a concept, characters, and a pilot.  From there, they have to prove to the network that the show can drive a full season and more of stories.  In order to do that, the creators have most likely mapped out the first season pretty thoroughly leading up to a slam-bang season finale that will launch them into season two, which they probably have some really solid ideas for.

But then what?  Well, very likely, things get a bit hazier from there.  They have some ideas, but they’re far from fully developed. 

So they sell the show, start production, and they run headlong into an old adage: no plan survives contact with the enemy.  In this case, there are multiple enemies.  The studio may want things to go a different way, viewers may respond to something that they didn’t plan on, characters may not work out, they could find themselves blowing through plot developments faster than expected, or the process of writing and creating may take them in completely unexpected direction.

By the time season three rolls around, the show could be in a very different place than the creators thought it would be when they were tossing ideas back in the pilot days.  Or, more frighteningly, they may have already blown thrown their season three plans and be completely out of narrative steam.

Ideally, though, the opposite happens.  By the time they hit season three, the creators and writing staff have really honed in on what the show is and who the characters are.  The show has found itself and is ready to move forward confidently through several more years.

There are a few classic examples of this.  Star Trek: The Next Generation had a rocky first season followed by a second season marred by a writer’s strike.  Season Two ended with what is generally considered to be the worst episode of the series, “Shades of Gray,” a clip show.  Season Three, however, is when TNG hit its stride, with episodes like “The Offspring,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and the iconic cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another such series.  The first two seasons were a mixed bag, but, as Season Two entered its second half, the show moved to another level.  Season Three is thought to be one of the show’s best years, if not THE best, with the Mayor and Faith plotlines and several excellent episodes including “Lover’s Walk,” “The Wish, “Doppelgangland,” and the “Graduation Day” two-parter.

On the other side, though, there are series that have not been able to get over that third season hump.  I mentioned one a couple of weeks ago in my post wrapping up the TV season.  Orphan Black felt to me like it was losing its narrative momentum in season two, and the first couple of episodes of season three just confirmed it.  The show’s central mystery felt like it was going nowhere, and many of the characters seemed to have run their course.  Glee ran into the same problem for me.  By the third season, the storyline potential seemed to have been drained from the show, and the characters were acting less and less like themselves just to give the writer’s something to work from.  During Season Three of Dexter, I got the feeling that I had seen every variation of events that were possible with the show’s set-up.  Also, the characters didn’t seem to be growing at all.

If I knew for certain what made one show sustain its storytelling momentum while another falters, I might be able to make a mint as a consultant in Hollywood.  I don’t, but I do have some ideas.  Really, it all comes down to the concept.  And by that I don’t mean whether you have a cop show or a doctor show.  I mean is your show telling a story or setting up a situation?  

On the surface, telling a story seems like the right answer.  I don’t think that it is, though.  If your show sets out to tell a singular story, such as something like The Event from several years ago, your series is limited by the focus on that singular story.  Most of shows based on a central mystery have this issue.  Maybe they can get a solid season or two, but the longer the mystery drags out, the harder it is for the show to maintain its momentum and the interest of its audience.  There are obvious exceptions, such as Game of Thrones, but in that instance the showrunners are working from a story that has been previously plotted out by the novels’ author, George R.R. Martin.

A situation, however, gives you a basic platform from which to launch several story ideas.  This isn’t exactly news.  Sitcom is short for Situation Comedy.  A group of people work the evening shift at the New York City court.  A bunch of people hang out in a Boston bar.  There’s no central storyline happening there, but the writers of Night Court and Cheers were able to keep those shows humming along for years.

And that’s really the goal.  For the most part, a television show isn’t a singular story; it’s a storytelling machine that has a central situation and characters that can sustain its operation for years and years to come.  An alien and his companion have a machine that allows them to go anywhere in time and space.  The crew of a spaceship explore the galaxy.  The staff at a city hospital deal with patients and each other.  From there, it’s still up to the writers and actors to give us stories and characters that we want to follow week after week.  But they need the right initial set-up to even get that opportunity.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter

Nathan's Laserium: The Sea Serpent

Back from Jamaica! We had a really great time. Lots of relaxing and lots of oceaning. Which brings me to this early-era poem I started in 2000 and only finished when I was scared Finding Nemo would use all the same jokes. Turns out I was safe, Finding Nemo didn’t have any jokes.

Enjoy!
 

I met a sea serpent who lived in a tree

I said, "You shouldn't be there, you belong in the sea!"

"I know," said the serpent, "It's really not fair

"I was born in the sea but I hate it down there

"It's cold and it's dark and salty and wet

"And I ran up a very large gambling debt

"I only went one time to the race track

"But I bet all I had on a sea-horse named Jack

"Jack lost the race and I couldn't pay

"So I borrowed some cash for a few days

"But those loan sharks wouldn't leave me alone

"I have no knees they can break so they want my backbone

"That's when I did a very dumb thing

"I formed a counterfeit sand-dollar ring

"And paid the sharks off with the fake clams

"So they put a hit on me and I went on the lam

"Killer whales were hired and were right on my tail

"I turned myself in and the cops put me in jail

"But the mob is an octopus, arms everywhere

"They have informants and agents all over down there

"The scum of the sea, full of jelly and slime

"Smoking their seaweed and doing their time

"Moray eels, manta rays and my old enemy

"That squirmy, no good no-faced sea anemone

"I wasn't safe there with a price on my head

"If I turned my back for a second I'd be dead

"So I bribed the guards to let me go free

"I gave them solid goldfish as part of their fee

"The first chance I got I dropped out of my school

"And fled to this forest where it's dry and it's cool."

So that's why the sea serpent lives in a tree

Sounds kinda fishy if you ask me!



(May 29, 2003)

 

- Nathan Waddell

(Editor's Note: Welcome back, Nathan! We missed you!)

Pick of the Week – July 20-26, 2015

I am continuing the series of board and card game Picks that I began a couple of weeks ago.  Again, I discovered all of these thanks to Tabletop, the web series hosted by Wil Wheaton in which he and his guests each episode play a different game (or games in some cases).  As viewers, we get to learn the rules, see gameplay, and enjoy the banter.

This week’s Pick is perhaps the most famous of the more modern board games: The Settlers of Catan (Sometimes known simply as Catan).  This game is set on an island (Called Catan, shockingly enough).  The island is made up of multiple tiles, each of which provides a different resource.  These resources (Lumber, Brick, Ore, Grain, and Wool) are the currency of the game and are required in various combinations in order to accomplish just about anything.

The players start out with two settlements, each of which is located at a corner where tiles meet, giving players access to the resources in those adjoining tiles.  The tiles are also each assigned a number.  On a player’s turn, he rolls the dice, the players with settlements touching the tiles with the matching numbers receive the resources from those tiles, and then the player can set to work trading resources with other players or trading in his gathered resources for roads, a new settlement, or an upgrade of his settlement to a city.

The overall goal of the game is to have 10 Victory Points.  These can be gained through settlements and cities and also through Development Cards.  Development Cards, which can be purchased with resources, can grant Victory Points or give the player knights or other abilities.  The players also get Victory Points for having the largest army (most knight cards) or the longest road.

While the players are both competing and in some cases cooperating with each other for resources, there is one other force working against them.  If a player rolls a 7 on her turn, that activates the robber.  That player can choose to put the robber on any tile.  Once the robber is there, that tile no longer produces resources if its number is rolled.  That remains true until the robber moves off of that tile.  We do not like the robber.  The robber is a pain in the ass, but he is a good way to prevent a rival from gathering resources.

HERE is the Tabletop episode dedicated to The Settlers of Catan.  The basic game can have up to 4 players, but there are expansions allowing for more players and other game mechanics.

There is also a Star Trek-themed Catan game.  Tabletop, including guest Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager) played Star Trek Catan in THIS EPISODE.  The gameplay is basically the same, but it adds a new mechanics with Enterprise officer cards.  Each Enterprise officer, such as Kirk or Spock, gives the player a different ability.  These can be exceptionally handy. 

And if you’re looking for something for younger players, there’s Catan Junior designed for kids ages 6-9.  Wil Wheaton played it on Tabletop against a group of kids HERE (SPOILER ALERT: He lost). 

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter