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Aliens: Covenant. Je ne sais pas

What was it that made Alien more gripping, more terrifying, less …known than Covenant?

Was it character development?

Perhaps something about the grit of the Nostromo?

Maybe working with a much more limited budget spurred creativity in response to necessity.

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from Benjamin F. Jones “AGE AND GREAT INVENTION” The Review of Economics and Statistics,
February 2010, 92(1): 1–14

Or maybe it’s just that we do our most creative works when we’re young?

 

Quite simply, at least in the sciences, if you haven’t contributed a great work to society by age 40, the likelihood of doing so is about to quickly drop. By 60, it’s vanishingly small (first figure).

There’s some adjustment allowed for those who have earned their terminal degree later in life, possibly accounting for many of the late achievers above (second figure).

 

Artists and writers reach their peaks at about the same time in their lives according to an article by Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post.

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Benjamin F. Jones and
Bruce A. Weinberg
Age dynamics in scientific creativity PNAS 2011 108 (47) 18910-18914; published ahead of print November 7, 2011

Sir Ridley Scott fits the pattern perfectly. Born in 1937, he was 42 when he made the original Alien in 1979.  Three years later he released his other opus, Blade Runner, and although he continued to make greatly successful films throughout his long career, few have been as widely regarded as groundbreaking.

Screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon was 33 when he wrote the script for Alien; H.R. Giger was also 40 at the time he was producing the art design for the film. For completeness sake, Philip K Dick was 40 when he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel that later became Blade Runner.

So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Scott’s return (now at 79 years old) to the franchise with Prometheus in 2012 and Covenant in 2017 was unlikely to achieve the success of the original.

Prometheus and Covenant represent prequels meant to explore the origins of the aliens – and – why not explore the origins of all humanoid life? They also continue the cautionary tale of AI being the end of us which started in the original, took a break in the first sequel (apparently, James Cameron doesn’t share Scott’s feelings about technology) only to return with Fassbender’s David & Walter.

Prometheus begins with allusions to a prior race seeding the galaxy (?) with its DNA – a difficult pill to swallow as it suggests an origin of humanity unique from the other life on Earth. This may be fascinating as a science fiction premise, but completely absurd biologically. Nevertheless, the connection to Prometheus, the rogue Titan, makes sense thematically.

Similarly, Covenant begins with speculation about creation as the android, David, awakens to the world in a room that makes the monolith room from 2001 look cluttered with junk. “So, you made me. But who made you?” Deep thoughts, David. Already, David moved from infant to irritating college freshman just out of the first class of intro to philosophy. You can see Weyland already annoyed by his creation, “Play the Piano, David.”

David doesn’t appear scarred in the moment, but obviously, it’s had some effect. Many years later David’s still hung up on being creative and has filled his whole playhouse with sculptures, sketches all over the walls of his creations like a psychotic Leonardo DaVinci, and undoubtedly some angst-ridden poetry amongst his piles of scrolls.

But this is ultimately a film about these two androids – ‘artificial persons,’ as Bishop, the artificial person from Aliens, prefers.

David, the original, is all too human: creative, self-serving, and cruel. Walter, the modern model, is none of these. Walter tells us that David’s individualism scared the humans in charge and they made modifications to prevent these characteristics from emerging in newer models.

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 1.36.53 PM“You have symphonies inside you,” David tells Walter while teaching him to play a flute. He can play, but not compose. The whole scene reminds us of Scott’s other masterpiece, BladeRunner, as Rutger Hauer telling Harrison Ford of seeing “… things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Here we have the director’s real passion. The nature of life. The futility of mortality. We’re even given a recitation of Shelley’s Ozymandias. Only Gather Ye Rosebuds could be plainer in giving us insight into Sir Scott’s mind. After all, are we not looking out over a plain that could easily be the crumbled remains of the King of Kings’ empire? Could it be that Scott is recognizing his age and taking time to reflect on the meaning of it all? Or, is this just an eternal question that he has pondered all his life? The Ozymandias scene is one of the best in the film, despite the similarity to his other work.

“We are food for worms, lads.”

Another improvement is that Walter can heal himself immediately, while David either cannot, or heals slowly, like the humans he is designed to replicate. We’re shown this ability early and it’s obvious later, when it should be much subtler.

As a fan of the franchise, I was going to see this film no matter what, but I also had to come home and watch Alien and Aliens over the next two nights to remember why.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

By any other Name …

In January 2017, the SciFlix film was John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’. I considered using this film to discuss questions of exobiology, but decided that a more terrestrial topic was a propos. That evening we invited the regional director of NOAA, a scientist who did her PhD work in Antarctica, and a state legislator to talk about arctic science, climate science, and how policy is influenced (or not) by science.

Antarctica

The lands of Antarctica were first charted in 1820 by Captain Thaddeus

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Bellingshausen. Over the following decades, the continent was aggressively explored, including the first landing on the continent by Capt. John Davis in the Cecilia at Hughes Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. Sir James Clark Ross’ expedition aboard the ships Erebus and Terror occurred in the early 1840s.

In 1853, the first documented landing on the vast East Antarctica was at Victoria Land by the American sealer Mercator Cooper on 26 January 1853. (Antarctic Circle—Antarctic First. Antarctic-circle.org)

Everest

In a similar spirit of adventure, Radhanath Sikdar was the first to identify Mt. Everest as the world’s highest peak in 1852.

Prior to 1852, what mountain was the world’s highest?

Questions like these are designed to fool the hasty who will rack their brain for some other highest mountain. Perhaps Denali in Alaska; Aconcagua in the Andes; Matterhorn in Switzerland?

Of course, the answer is …

Everest.

Reality didn’t change, only our awareness and acceptance of it.

 

Similarly, the reality of the world’s climate doesn’t change simply because we don’t make ourselves aware of the best data describing it. The March for Science, no matter what you think of it, is a response to the science community’s feeling that policy maker no longer concern themselves with evidence when making decisions that affect us all.

The 2016 NOAA report card for Arctic contains the most reliable data for knowing what is really happening at the Earth’s poles. And Frankly, it’s startling.

Included are a few highlights from the Executive Summary:

The mean annual surface air temperature (SAT) anomaly (+2.0° C relative to the 1981-2010 mean value) for October 2015-September 2016 for land stations north of 60° N is the highest value in the record starting in 1900. These data show the artic temperature change as even more drastic than the global averages, which are also increasing over the same period. (Changes of ~1.5 degrees C globally vs 3.5 degrees in the arctic)

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Atmospheric Carbon

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University of Washington – Department of Atmospheric Sciences – Dennis L. Hartmann

 

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Data for the recent era post industrial revolution

Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center

 

These are not political postures, they are data collected around the world and presented in good faith to represent the best picture of reality that we can assemble. They don’t tell us why things are the way they are, but they do paint a reasonably clear picture.

A worst case scenario would place a planet at risk of a runaway greenhouse effect similar to what has happened on Venus, although this is unlikely to happen given the Earth’s position relative to the sun and its current brightness – something we can rely on for about another billion years.

Images of the Venus surface, temperature a balmy 462 degrees C collected by the Soviet Union’s Venera missions, which remain the only missions to ever land on Venus.

A different question that may be more important to us in the short term (only hundreds or thousands of years) is what will the changes in climate mean for farming and its support of a rather large global population. Of value in learning to take control of a changing climate is understanding what contributes to it, and presently the best models are that we are doing this through the release of fossil CO2 into the atmosphere.

Everest was the Earth’s highest peak, even prior to 1852. We’re pumping a lot of CO2  from the ground into the air and the climate is changing.

So, what do we do about it?

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Some notes from the panel discussion at SciFlix: The Imitation Game

During the Panel Discussion for The Imitation Game SciFlix Event, panelist Dr. Hossein Saiedian presented some ideas on how to generate passwords that were not easy to guess, yet complicated enough to foil a brute force, dictionary attack.

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Image 1

 

He also listed some good practices and things to avoid. Because I don’t expect many attendees came armed with their note pads, I wanted to post some excerpts from that presentation.

By the way, can you identify the two photos in image 1 & 2  and explain their relevance and origins?

 

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Image 2

 

Key/password selection

  • ‘Key’ to good encryption: a good password (or key)
  • Passwords (pass phrases) are used for encryption and authentication
  • Key to maintaining security, privacy, and preventing identity theft
  • Objective: avoiding guessable passwords while selecting passwords that are strong and memorable

 

Common recommendations

    • 12 characters or longer
    • A combination of lowercase and uppercase letters, digits and special symbols
    • Formed from characters from an obscure phrase
    • Easily remembered by you but difficult for others to guess
    • Monitor for possible eavesdroppers during password entry

Things to avoid

  • Reusing passwords
  • Recording (writing down) passwords
  • Using the same password on two or more systems/contexts

Bad password practices facilitate two common password vulnerabilities: dictionary attacks and social engineering

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Posting passwords to Twitter accounts with 1.7M followers

Some short phrase ideas

  • Phrase association: Icw82Cmd!

    I can’t wait to see my dog!

  • Letter/number combination: Mocbd=0520

    My older child’s birthday = May 20

  • Letter/number sequence association especially when you are requested to change password at intervals: 89-93GhwB(41)

   Pres from 89-93:George Herbert Walker Bush (41st)

 

Some Free Encryption Tools

Personally, I (Jack), have used Dashlane as a password manager and generator since its inception. I’m not certain what my panelists would think of this, but I invite them to post their opinion here.

 

If you don’t know the images identified above, go here to learn about Image 1. For Image 2, you may need to think a while. In the meantime…

Shall we play a game?

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

SciFlix Movie of the Month: Soylent Green

SciFlix Movie of the Month: Soylent Green

Relax. It’s just people.

This month’s film will be the 1973 adaptation of Harry Harrison’s novel, Make Room! Make Room! Charleton Heston plays a 21st-century police detective working the massively overpopulated New York City. A murder sparks an investigation that cuts to the heart of the world’s population problem: How to feed it?

The Soylent Corporation just released its new product, a plankton-based biscuit made from a harvest from the world’s oceans, Soylent Green. Nutritious! Delicious! Friday, February 10th is Soylent Green Day.

Film Starts at 6:30pm

Regnier Auditorium

12610 Quivira Rd., Overland Park, KS 66213

Discussion to follow – What is the role of the government in providing food safety and biosecurity to a growing population? And what ethics govern a runaway population? Come hear Professors from KU and K-State discuss these questions and answer your questions.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2017 in Education, tv, Uncategorized

 

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The Great American Melting Pot

After searching for the Schoolhouse Rock episode on base-12 mentioned in the previous post, I was reminded of this other episode that still resonates today.

Music & lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Vocals by Lori Lieberman. ABC-TV, 1977

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Hey Little 12 Toes

12-numberI was recently reminded of a schoolhouse rock episode about a base 12 numbering system. It wasn’t an episode that caught on, but it made a mark on me throughout my school years. Specifically with respect to how arbitrary any base numbering system was. Of course, this doesn’t mean that our use of base 10 is arbitrary – but that our having five fingers and five toes on each limb is arbitrary. And if we had more or less, that our numbering system would reflect it.

What made me think of schoolhouse rock was a short discussion of base-12 numbering (a dozenal, or duodecimal system) by James Grimes. (I apologize for including a video with such restless camerawork that you may need a Dramamine to watch. However, Dr. Grimes does an excellent job explaining what can be a confusing topic.)

The video from my childhood that this reminded me of is ‘Little 12 Toes.’

The music accompanying this video holds up extraordinarily well and adds something trippy to the lesson.

Another appeal for a base 12 system comes from ParchitaFM, who apparently is mostly into music – and base 12…? That’s interesting.

Lastly, check out the Dozenal Society of America to see more from people who would like to adopt this system universally. I would remind the DSA that people have been trying to promote adoption of the metric system in the USA for at least 40 years. A change to the metric system faces far fewer barriers to acceptance than a base 12 system would, yet we remain (along with what, Somalia and Burma?), as one of the last countries clinging to the unwieldy imperial system.

No – I just looked it up. Somalia is metric – Liberia is not. Burma, I was right about.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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“Many Bothans died” – no wait, this is Death Star I …

How to discuss this without giving anything away?

The family and I saw Rogue One tonight at 7 pm. It’s a small victory of mine that I’ve managed to get my wife to accept that this is something that I really can’t let pass without seeing the first available time of premier night. So that’s a good start right there.

This evening went without the fanfare that would have come had we gone to a larger theater or seen it on IMAX in 3D while drinking a film-based beverage and wearing our galaxy premier sweatshirts. (That was The Force Awakens at Cinetopia last year) Instead, we were in the small theater right down the road from our house and only one person was wearing anything approaching cosplay. I admit that I wish we had done the big theater thing again, but I was a day late getting tickets and we had to go where we could to get a 7 pm showtime.

78c208f13001c91231299bd2eb476c19What was important? … The fact that I still got goosebumps when the lights went down. And for a moment, I was in the aisle seat in the back of one of the Chestnut Hill twin theaters with my grandmother in 1977.

Did it last? Not entirely. There wasn’t a screen crawl (something that had gotten to be painfully de rigueur for Star Wars films), the music was noticably different, and I was thrown a bit off by the quick changes from one planet to another as the various pieces were laid out chaotically like a myopic view of a skein of multicolored yarn. I was tempted to despair.

Luckily, this was short-lived. As the film progressed, some ancillary characters and cities were culled revealing how the many parts came together into a meaningful story arc. And despite the pace picking up, some character development brought you into the protagonist’s lives enough to care about them.

The droid we learn to love this time is K-2SO, a reprogrammed imperial unit with a drollness that reminded me (but only slightly) of the original C3PO  – as opposed to the buffoon he / its become. K2 was the show stealer whose personality was possibly the most fleshed out of all the characters onscreen.

tarkinThere were also familiar faces. Odd familiar faces. Grand Moff Tarkin, for instance, who looked as if Peter Cushing might have spent time with Joan Rivers’ plastic surgeon who did one hell of a job making him not only young again, but much less dead. On the one hand, the CGI that made this possible was pretty amazing. On the other, we were still caught in the upward slope of the uncanny valley.

The same can be said for Leia, who we (thankfully) only see for a very short time, but in such a well lit close up that they are daring you to look – and you do.

Red and Gold Leaders are also brought back for a space fight over an imperial base. But rather than recreate them on top of other actors, they were simply cut into their  scenes – rather effectively, I have to admit.

Lastly, Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba (who both have way too much backstory on Wookipedia), the toughs from the cantina on Tatooine, get a quick cameo appearance in a  street shot. These guys just can’t stand not being in a fight, but manage to rein themselves in a little quicker this time.

Overall, I think I may like this even more than I liked The Force Awakens, which was the film that gave us all a new hope after Lucas was bought out. The Force Awakens was a lot of fun and took the theater’s breath away when the Millenium Falcon revealed herself. Rogue One, on the other hand, took a small piece from the original Star Wars and delivered a beautifully tragic exegesis. Clear, well-defined, and raw.

I’m looking forward to another viewing soon. Thumbs up.

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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