Science Fiction Double Feature

My father was a sci-fi fan of the old school.  The man had the entire original Star Trek series on VHS, commercial free, and an Enterprise technical manual.  So in his honor, a little late for Father’s Day, we go back in time to look to the future as we dive into the wormhole of classic sci-fi.

As the spike in sales of neckties and golf-themed tchotchkes tells us, last Sunday was Father’s Day, and no, it’s not the day that sees the most collect calls all year. For one thing, it’s not 1987; who still makes collect calls? Where do you even find a payphone? My own father, who’s gone on before, was a sci-fi fan of the old school, bred to the bone. My mother would buy him grocery bags of pulp paperbacks as gifts. The man had the entire original Star Trek series on VHS, commercial free, and an Enterprise technical manual. [nerd!] So in his honor, today’s episode goes back in time to look to the future as we dive into the wormhole of classic sci-fi. My name’s Moxie and this is your brain on facts.

First off, and this is often a point of contention, we need to establish what we’re talking about when we say “sci-fi.” We’re not going to haul out the Merriam-Webster for this. There is some wiggle room and a fair amount of contention here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a list of top however-many sci-fi whatevers only to kvetch out-loud, “That’s barely even fantasy, let alone sci-fi” or “Just because it’s set in the future doesn’t make it sci-fi. Philistines.” Whether a work draws on existing science and technology to extrapolate what we might see in future generations, what is known as ‘hard sci-fi,’ or the author goes ‘laser guns, pew pew,” [sfx] a key requirement for science fiction is that it be speculative. If it’s worth its salt, its focus will be how we as humans will interact with and react to this proposed environment, its trappings and its other occupants. Even though there’s a lot of overlap in the fan bases and, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” we’re going to eschew the sword & sorcery genre of fantasy and even science-fantasy for right now. Likewise, we probably won’t get into more recent sub-genres like cyberpunk and slip-stream today. We’ve also going to skip over some of the better-known authors because they’re, well, better-known. But that’s okay, because we have a LOT of talk about.
Continue reading

Like Butter in the Bank

A strategic reserve is a commodity held back by governments to stabilize prices or protect against shortage. Your mind may go immediately to the 35 million barrels or so of crude oil that the US has in storage, but there are all kinds of strategic reserves around the world. From cotton in China, to butter and wine in the EU, to the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, we talk about strange stockpiles (mostly food) and their effect on producers and consumers.

Buried beneath the earth in central Russia, squirreled away in former mine tunnels, sits a top-secret cache of cereals, sugar, canned meat, and other food staples. The site is considered a state secret; even the exact location isn’t known by anyone who doesn’t need to know it. We do know that the complex is vast, climate controlled, airtight, and nuke-proof. The facility also includes a laboratory, so that the food can be tested against the government’s nutritional standards, and the inventory is rotated on the regular, to ensure that none of it goes bad. Today, we’ll be focusing on stockpiles of sustenance, collections of commestibles, these funds of foodstuffs. My name’s Moxie and this is your brain on facts.

A strategic reserve is the reserve of a commodity or items that is held back from normal use by governments, organisations, or businesses in pursuance of a particular strategy or to cope with unexpected events. Your mind may go immediately to the 35 million barrels or so of crude oil that the US has in storage, but there are all kinds of strategic reserves, sometimes called stockpiles, throughout the world.

The rationing, deprivation, and economic collapse that were part and parcel to WWII affected the lives of Europeans so profoundly that the European Economic Community, a precursor to the European Union, began subsidizing farmers. Farmers have never been raking in the big bucks, even when the are outstanding in their field [rimshot], but they were no longer able to rely on it to support their families, especially on land pock-marked with those pesky bomb craters. Under-production was endemic to the 1950’s.

Continue reading

The Role of a Lifetime

Some actors fall victim to typecasting, but others have a single character they can’t disassociate themselves from.  Sometimes that means always being cast as a character similar to the one they made famous or that made them famous, or not really being cast at all.

A boy’s best friend is his mother. Anthony Perkins had established himself as a respected actor of stage and screen with skillful portrayals noted for their sensitivity and genuineness. But no one wants to play the sensitive guy forever. Perkins took the role as Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho to show audiences and directors alike that he was good at being bad too. Unfortunately for Perkins, he did his job so well that became known for Norman Bates and seemingly Norman Bates alone.

There are worse roles one can be remembered for than the Man of Steel, but once you’ve worn the cape and the big red S, it’s hard to get people to see you without it. In Christopher Reeve’s case, much of the problem stemmed from being a virtual unknown when he scored the break of a lifetime. Despite great acting (see: “Remains of the Day), nothing could supplant Superman in people’s minds.

Even before the new sequels brought his character back, Luke Skywalker was an ever-present part of Mark Hamill’s life. Unlike a lot of thespians on our list, Hamill regards the role fondly, saying that even if he weren’t recognized by millions as Luke Skywalker, he would still be “the hugest fan” of the epic film franchise, maybe even doing cosplay.

No one could have imagined how big of a cult sensation “The Evil Dead” would become when it was made by a group of friends on a shoestring budget in 1981. While it served as a springboard for director Sam Raimi, late of the first Spiderman reboot, the film’s star, Bruce Campbell, was not as lucky. Campbell spent a lifetime trying to distance himself from the iconic role – so much so that he’s been known to sign autographs as Bruce “Don’t Call Me Ash” Campbell.

Playing a nerd is easy. Escaping that nerd is not. Don’t believe me, ask Jaleel White, aka Urkel. His lot is shared by Jon Heder, forever known to most as Napoleon Dynamite, star of the ‘little indie film that could.’ Heder wisely leveraged his 15 minutes of fame by booking as many gigs as possible over the next few years, including some high-profile films with Reese Witherspoon and Will Ferrell. Even with divergently different looks, it was nearly impossible for audiences not to see Napoleon.

The less said about Macauly Caulkin, the better. Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels didn’t have the chance to see if he would be cast again. He was put on a tortuously busy press circuit, allegedly doing sixty interviews in a single day, but that was nothing compared to the scornful hatred heaped on him by fans. Jack Gleeson, best known as Joffrey on Game of Thrones, saw the same path laid out for him. Joffrey epitomizes the villain you love to hate. After the first episode aired, author George R. R. Martin sent him a text saying, “Congratulations on your marvelous performance, everyone hates you.” Fans literally cheered when he finally died. Gleeson walked away from acting altogether.

Alfonso Ribeiro says he has been overshadowed by his 90’s alter-ego Carlton Banks. “I would like to try some stuff that is different from how the world sees me … But I doubt someone would automatically think of me when they go, ‘We need to cast a killer, let’s get the dude who played Carlton.'”

Though it premiered in 1966 and only ran for three years, Star Trek launched a franchise that left an indelible mark on popular culture, including the first widely-used nickname for a fan base. What it didn’t do was provide a lot of options for the cast afterwards. But as they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. William Shatner had the most successful career overall not from trying to outrun Captain Kirk, but by embracing the kitsch. Though having been a focal character in the ensemble cast didn’t hurt. His analog in The Next Generation, Sir Patrick Stewart faced the same love-hate relationship with his captain character.

Music by Kevin MacLeod and sound effects from freesound.org.

Copy-wrong

If a monkey takes a picture in the woods, can the monkey claim the copyright?  Trademark and copyright laws can get pretty sticky and not a little zany.  Stay tuned for a list of words and phrases that will cost you a lot of money if you use them.

Photographer David Slater argued that he held copyright since he’d engineered the entire situation. The Wikimedia Foundation, which had been hosting the photo in their image library despite Slater’s objections, maintained that the picture was public domain. The US Copyright Office stated that works created by a non-human, such as a photograph taken by a monkey, are not copyrightable. Trying to recoup lost income, Slater published a book of wildlife photography, including the monkey selfie. That’s where it should have ended. Then PETA decided to get involved.

You can’t copyright a word or phrase, but you could trademark it. The most famous case is sports announcer Michael Buffer, who currently makes more money from his phrase “Let’s get ready to rumble” than he does from actually announcing the matches. Dave Hester from A&E’s “reality” show Storage Wars not only has a trademark on the word “YUUUP!” but is actually involved in a bitter legal battle over it with rapper Trey Songz. A certain real estate developer turned TV personality wanted to trademark the phrase “you’re fired.” The application was denied for a few reasons, the least of which is that it was an established and commonly used phrase. A similar thing happened when carmaker Volvo unsuccessfully tried to trademark “Drive Safely.” The USPTO reasoned that the slogan was just a good suggestion that we should all follow.

Another phrase that sounds too common to trademark is “one more thing,” but that didn’t deter the Swatch watch company from applying for it or Apple from attempting to block them. Apple and Swatch would also find themselves in court when Swatch blocked Apple from trademarking “iWatch” as they already had an “iSwatch” product.

Imagine if Hugh Heffner had tried to forbid anyone from using the word “playboy” because it was the name of his magazine. That’s precisely what Tim Langdell of UK studio Edge Games tried to do. Langdell claimed he owned the rights to the word “edge” in anything pertaining to the video game industry. He managed to make some other developers knuckle under, such as the game that launched the Soulcaliber series. But he bit off more than he could chew when he took on the very big fish of Electronic Arts. The Banner Saga found their trademark application formally objected to by another developer. Was it the makers of another fantasy RPG? No, it was Candy Crush Saga, despite the fact that Banner had no candy and Candy Crush had no saga.

Have you ever noticed all the ads in late January talk about the “big game”? Why don’t they come out and say it? Because the NFL owns “Super Bowl.” “We take these issues very seriously and aren’t afraid to pursue infringements vigorously,” says Anastasia Danias, the NFL’s vp of intellectual property. It’s the same sort of scenario with the Olympics. The USOC owns the trademarks to Olympic, Go For The Gold, Tokyo 2020, Team USA, et al. You’ll get the same treatment from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science. You can’t say Oscar, Oscar Night, or Academy Awards, though you can say Awards of Merit, which is the actual name of the statues.

Am I worried about being sued? Well, I wasn’t until you asked. Just kidding, I’m covered by the principle of “fair use,” which provides certain exceptions to copyright. Most fair use analysis falls into two categories: commentary and criticism or parody.

All of the music on my podcast comes either from the YouTube music library or the composer extraordinaire Kevin MacLeod at incompotech.com.

Mummy’s Day

We cover the way people in Victorian Europe used (and abused) Egyptian mummies, whether or not mummies were burned for fuel, Catholic saints who do not decay, natural mummies preserved in ice, moss, and salt, child mummies of the Andes, and Buddhist monk mummifying themselves.

We’ll be using the timing of this episode to talk about bandaged bodies, the preserved passed-on, those desiccated decedents, mummies. Ancient Egypt knew its business when it came to preserving their dead, there’s no two ways about it. By some estimates, over the course of three millennia, more than 70 million people and animals were mummified. While the earliest Egyptian specimen we’ve found dates to 3,000 BCE, the oldest anthropogenically modified mummy, that is a body that someone intentionally preserved through drying, dates back to approximately 5050 BCE, in the high, dry, cold mountains of South America. Even older still is a natural mummy found in the Atacama Desert in modern-day Chile; that person is believed to have died in the year 7020 BCE, over 9,000 years ago. The Atacama Desert is an ideal place for the creation of mummies, as it gets less than an inch of rain, annually.

Mummies were considered very Gothic. In the Victorian era, when Gothic equalled cool, unwrapping mummies became a must-have for any self-respecting party host. “Come to Lord Longsberry’s at 2 p.m., Piccadilly, for the unwrapping of a mummy from Thebes. Champagne and canapés to follow.”

Mummy, often sold as “mummia”, was applied to the skin or powdered and mixed into drinks as a treatment for bruising and other ailments. The belief may have come from ancients such as Pliny the Elder, who wrote that the bitumen used to embalm mummies offered healing powers. Adherents included the French King Francis I, who kept a pouch of powdered mummy on his belt and ate rhubarb and mummy powder every day — because he “thought it kept him strong and safe from assassins.”

Natural mummies are a widespread phenomenon, appearing all over the globe. You’re probably on a first-name basis with the best known, Otzi, the ice man. Also frozen in ice but much more elaborately tattooed is a mummy known as the Siberian ice princess. The remains of the immaculately dressed woman, approximately 25 of age and preserved for two and a half millennia in the Siberian permafrost were discovered in 1993. Where Otzi only had lines, the princess had both arms covered with tattoos of animals, in large, bold designs, which can still be seen as clear as day on her leathery skin.

One of the most heavily-relied-upon preservatives in the world, salt, has also given us natural mummies. Half a dozen mummies have been found in a salt mine in Iran. The first salt mummy, dated to 300 CE; the oldest is truly ancient and has been carbon dated to 9550 BCE.

No salt is needed in the high Andeas mountains and the Atacama desert that lies between them and the sea. The Children of Llullaillaco are three Inca child mummies rediscovered in 1999. Dryness and cold temperatures are both major reasons for the excellent preservation of the mummies for 500 years. Children were usually chosen from nobles families, but were picked primarily based on their “physical perfection”. The mummies have been the subject of controversy, especially with regards to indigenous rights, with their display called “a violation of our loved ones.”

Lunules and Tittles and Barms, Oh My!

From the skin between your thumb and forefinger to the stringy things you have to pick off bananas, today’s episode will teach you dozens of names for everyday items, even if you can’t tell your natiform from your weenus.

Here are your new vocab words, in order of appearance:
acnestis
niddick
feat
glabella
caruncula
philtrum
weenus
rasceta
pericule
lunules
Morton’s toe
minimus
Brannock device
hallux
throat
vamp
aglet
paresthesia
obdormition
dysania
armscyes
nurdle
wamble
borborygmus
crapulence
crepuscular rays
apricity
petrichor
chrysalism
pareidolia
natiform
phosphene
zarf
anecdoche
kenopsia
monachopsis
vellichor
joska
masticate
misophonia
vagitus
accumbation
scurryfunge
muntin
punt
agraffe
ulage
barm
cornicione
phloem bundle
druplets
anemoia
defenestrate
zugzwang
mondegreen
eggcorn
malaproprism
spoonerism
grawlix
agitron
octothorpe
intterobang
griffonage
jot
tittle
apthong
palindrome
semordnilap
contranym
lemniscate
obelus

Steal (pretty) Big

What we remember as the daring heist of one of the world’s most famous paintings was really neither of those. The theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa wasn’t even noticed when it happened.

That story, plus a stolen art technique that made a man world famous, credit stolen for one of the most important discoveries in biology, the man who was namesake the pyramid scheme, and a stolen film role that launched a career.

Thanks for bearing with me through the rough audio quality lately.  I’ve been studying and practicing and I think you’ll notice real improvement starting this week.

A Dish Best Served Loud

A microphone is a good enough platform for getting back at people, but an entire recording studio is even better. Popular music is littered with songs getting back at an ex lover, from Waylon Jennings to Taylor Swift, but a fair number of the tracks you know by heart are actually clap-backs to the people in the mixing booth or the record label offices.