A Tempest in a Pepsi Can

July 22nd, 2010

Science Blogs is “the largest online community dedicated to science.” Created by the Seed Media Group, it serves as the host for dozens of quality blogs dedicated to science and related topics. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula and Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars, especially.

Recently, Seed attempted to welcome a new member to the Science Blogs family, as they were to become the new home of PepsiCo’s Food Frontiers blog. Personally, I thought it was a great idea. I’ve recently become interested in Food Science, since my girlfriend is currently working towards her PhD in the field. I also thought it would be interesting to hear from scientists who are actually working in private industry; most writers on Science Blogs work in academia, which is perfectly fine, but wouldn’t it be nice to add a different kind of voice to the conversation?

Pepsi

Apparently, it wouldn’t, at least not according to a surprising number of Science Bloggers who jumped ship immediately after the announcement was made, concerned that Science Blogs was selling out to a greedy, faceless corporation. Bora Zivkovic, one of the most popular writers on the site, hastily departed, as did Peter A. Lipson, “Abel Pharmboy,” Suzanne E. Franks, Mike Dunford, “GrrlScientist,” and others. “Orac,” another of the site’s most popular writers, is currently “dithering over [his] future” at Science Blogs, while the aforementioned P.Z. Myers is on strike.

Is it just me, or is this a huge overreaction on the part of the Science Blogs community? The plan was for PepsiCo to sponsor Science Blogs in exchange for the hosting, and I understand the concern about allowing corporate interests overtake pure science, but Food Frontiers was pulled from Science Blogs before a single real post was made (an introductory “hey, we’re happy to be here at Science Blogs” message was the only thing that got posted), and looking at the existing Food Frontiers blog, one is struck by just how innocuous their posts actually are. Yes, there’s a fair bit of self-congratulatory, PR-heavy corporate-speak, but there are also substantive posts about science and nutrition, which I believe would have added real value to Science Blogs.

Hans Schantz has a great response to the whole kerfuffle, which I recommend reading. I agree with him wholeheartedly, particularly his lamentation of “the obvious and utter contempt that some of the ScienceBlog bloggers have for scientists employed in industry.”

Bullshit! Bullshit

June 9th, 2010

I’ve gushed about comedian-magician duo Penn & Teller before. And I usually list atheism, libertarianism, and skepticism as my three primary interests. So it’s no surprise that one of my favorite televisions shows is the one Penn & Teller host that’s about atheism, libertarianism, and skepticism: Penn & Teller: Bullshit! It’s a documentary series championing freedom, liberty, science, and rationality in a fun, light-hearted fashion It’s that focus on freedom and liberty that makes all the more disappointing the recent DVD release of the show’s seventh season, which is missing a controversial episode.

The episode in question is “The Vatican,” the season finale in which Penn & Teller berate the Catholic Church for its anti-homosexuality activism, condemnation of condom use, and cover-up of the priest sex abuse scandal. It also highlights Sabina Guzzanti, a comedian who was threatened with criminal charges for criticizing the Pope. It tackles some important issues, and it’s one of the series’ better episodes.

The Vatican

Unfortunately, no longer can viewers see that for themselves, as the episode has not appeared in Apple’s iTunes store (all other episodes are available), and is omitted from last month’s DVD release. In fact, the episode is no longer listed on Showtime’s official Bullshit! website. To be fair, the DVD’s packaging notes that the episode is not included (it’s also advertised as containing “The Seventh Season,” rather than as “The Complete Seventh Season,” as it was referred to in an earlier version of the packaging), and the remaining episodes retain their original opening titles, which list on-screen the subjects covered during the season, including “The Vatican.” So it’s not as if Showtime is trying to completely erase all evidence that the episode ever existed. Nevertheless, it’s extremely disappointing that the episode is unavailable.

Penn & Teller:  Bullshit!  Season Seven DVD

What’s especially bothersome is that, as far as I can tell, nobody actually knows why the episode is unavailable in the first place! The popular assumption seems to be that Showtime or Paramount (who distributes Bullshit! on DVD) caved to pressure from the Catholic Church. That’s quite cowardly of them, if true, and especially ironic considering how strongly the show champions free speech (it even touts “The Right to Free Speech” right there on the DVD cover!). But no one affiliated with the show has actually commented on the issue. I even posed the question to executive producer Star Price via Twitter, to no avail (he’d previously answered a different question I’d asked about the series, so he’s at least willing to respond to fans online). Without any answers about the episode’s omission, I’m reluctant to call anyone out for it. A lot of fans have been quick to trash Penn & Teller themselves over the issue, but it’s not like Penn & Teller personally authored the DVDs—I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t even know that the episode was omitted. And even if they did know, we still don’t know the reason for the omission; it could even be that Penn & Teller were dissatisfied with the episode in some way and didn’t feel it worthy of inclusion alongside the others. That seems unlikely, I admit, but the point is that without knowing why the episode was omitted, I don’t feel comfortable chiding anyone for the omission. And yet, it’s frustrating to have no answers after the DVD has been out for a month. I wish someone would give viewers an explanation. Even if that explanation was just, “Yeah, the Church pressured us to remove the episode and we complied,” then we’d at least have the comfort of knowing.

Surely someone out there must have some information about the missing “Vatican” episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!?

Secret Messages in The Boy Detective Fails

May 26th, 2010

Though I enjoy reading, I don’t typically make a point of keeping up with the latest releases in fiction. That’s why I only just got around to reading Joe Meno’s 2006 novel The Boy Detective Fails, a grown-up take on the “child sleuth” subgenre of detective fiction. I grew up reading the Encyclopedia Brown books, so I am rather familiar with the genre and appreciate the spin Meno gives it. The Boy Detective Fails is a good read, and it has something to say. I liked it and recommend it.

The Boy Detective Fails

Meno does one thing in the novel that is especially interesting: several times throughout the story, protagonist Billy Argo receives notes containing mysterious coded messages, which the reader is invited to “help Billy solve” using the “Boy Detective Decoder Ring” included on the inside flap of the book’s back cover. It’s a fun, novel idea, and it can help draw the reader into the world of the Boy Detective. However, it can also be an annoyance to have to go through the hassle of decoding parts of the book letter-by-letter when one just wants to get on with the story, so I simply searched online for the solutions to these messages. I was surprised to discover that, even after the book’s been available for four years, it appears that no enterprising reader has shared its secrets. The closest thing I was able to find is a page of hints from Fuzzy Gerdes. So, late though it may be, I’m happy to provide the solutions for anyone who is reading the book, and wants the contents of the messages but not the tedium of decoding them.

The three notes that Billy receives are on pages 113, 202, and 265 (at least in the edition that I have). The messages on those pages decrypt to:

  • “Billy, why have you forgotten me?”
  • “Billy, please, I need your help.”
  • “Billy, Abracadabra!”

There’s also a series of diary entries that Billy reads; on pages 306-307 he discovers a hidden message in one by reading the first letter of every other line. Messages are hidden the same way in the previous diary entries on pages 19, 59, and 185. The four messages are:

  • “Abracadabra”
  • “Hi, Billy”
  • “I found Daisy”
  • “Miller’s Cave”

Joe Meno

Another coded message appears throughout the book, each word printed at the bottom of a page. This message uses a simple ROT-13 cipher, and it decodes to:

Derek’s secret adventure

Through the cloudy ends of his binoculars, Midshipman Derek Argo, on watch, caught sight of a shape amidst the unchanging spectacle of the high sea. A ghost ship! With its grinning Jolly Roger and its main sail flapping like a howl, Derek quickly signaled the call to alarm. But in a flash, the glowing vessel had already drawn aft and inhuman hands were upon him quick. Before Derek could warn his shipmates, he was bound to the invisible main mast of the dastardly vessel, kidnapped! The ghouls gathered around, ready to plunder the unsuspecting ship, their sabers and gold teeth looking fearsome. Derek, brave and true, closed his eyes and began to whistle a daring melody, which broke the curse of each of their ghostly imprisoned hearts. The pirates, now like doves, fell to their knees, and together, with Derek happy at the helm, the ship disappeared into the charming fog of the sea. And thus ends our hidden adventure—astute reader, if you have made it this far, please send an e-mail to derek@punkplanetbooks.com for a secret surprise!

Sadly, the e-mail address listed no longer exists; I received a “delivery failed” message when I tried sending a message to it. In fact, it looks like the Punk Planet Books website no longer exists at the punkplanetbooks.com domain, which appears to have been taken over by a cybersquatter.

Fortunately, Gerdes was able to furnish the response he got when he tried the address back in 2006:

Ahoy, friend!

To ensure secrecy, I have encoded the following message. It may aide you to remember where my brother is living.

Yours,

Derek

*****

Sekx, Bvjnkp Akdyhpyscyp!

Akjlpsrtfsrnkjq kj qkfunjl ix mtzzfy. Gkp xktp espd vkpc, n vktfd fncy rk qyjd xkt s qisff lngr—s rkcyj kg ix fsqrnjl smmpyansrnkj gkp xktp yggkprq. Nj kpdyp rk dk qk, n jyyd xktp sddpyqq! Mfysqy gtpjnqe nr mkqr-esqry, qk n asj esuy s cnjd mkqrsf yimfkxyy hpnjl ix lngr rk xkt.

Qyy xkt kj rey qysq,

Xktp gpnyjd,

Dypyc Splk

As you can see, the reply contains another coded message, this one encrypted with a substitution cipher (not the simple Caesar cipher of the other messages). I’ve worked out the solution, and (after correcting a typo) the message is:

Ahoy, Junior Codebreaker!

Congratulations on solving my puzzle. For your hard work, I would like to send you a small gift—a token of my lasting appreciation for your efforts. In order to do so, I need your address! Please furnish it post-haste, so I can have a kind postal employee bring my gift to you.

See you on the seas,

Your friend,

Derek Argo

Gerdes reports that he supplied his mailing address, and received “a couple of Punk Planet Books stickers and an owl button” (in the novel, Billy wears an owl tie).

Owl

Finally, The Boy Detective Fails ends with a series of puzzles and games, such as a connect-the-dots activity, and a word-search puzzle. The word-search puzzle has one final secret message in it, which the unused letters spell out after all the words have been found. The message is, “believe in mystery.”

Lost, Finished

May 24th, 2010

Last night, ABC aired the much-hyped final episode of its hit series Lost, which I’ve followed since the first season in 2004-2005. The finale had some pretty overt religious themes, and though I consider myself a man of science, not a man of faith, I think they worked within the context of the show. Unlike some viewers, I don’t have any serious issues with the way Lost wrapped up last night.

Lost, Season 6

However, I am pessimistic about how the series will come to be viewed as a whole. Television series today, much more so than before the days of the Internet and the DVD box set, are judged as a whole. And while there were a lot of great individual episodes of Lost (“The Constant” and “Ab Aeterno” in particular), the series overall seems disjointed to me.

During the early episodes of the show, the writers seemed to be spinning their wheels a lot. There was an early first-season which ends with a character discovering a mysterious hatch buried in the ground. I was pretty excited to see the next episode and discover the contents of said hatch. But the mystery of the hatch was dragged out for more than a dozen episodes, and its contents weren’t revealed until the second-season premier. Many plot points followed the same model, being introduced as intriguing mysteries, then left unresolved for many episodes or even seasons. It was kind of frustrating, but I ultimately came to accept it as simply the way Lost was made.

Lost, Season 1

More recently, though, the show began to wind down, and I presume the writers realized they had to actually wrap up the myriad loose ends they’d been creating, because things moved at an appreciably quicker pace during the last season or two. Plot elements were introduced in the last few episodes which, had they been part of the first season, would surely have spanned the better part of an entire season, but which now had to be resolved in only two or three episodes. I appreciated that Lost was finally being more forthcoming in answering the questions it posed, but it didn’t really feel like the same show I’d been watching back in 2004 and 2005.

Having watched the show week-by-week over the course of six years, it’s hard to say whether that perceived change is due to a real shift in the show itself, or simply a change in the way I’ve come to view it. With the last season still fresh in my mind, it’s difficult to judge it in the same way I do the earlier seasons, with which I’m much more familiar. Now that Lost is a completed work, I’d like to get the whole series on Blu-ray and revisit it in a few years with a fresh perspective. I wonder how it will play out as a whole—will it be a satisfyingly cohesive, or will it be flawed and disjointed?

Science and Religion Are Not Compatible

May 14th, 2010

In a recent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mano Singham discusses “The New War Between Science and Religion.” The article is well written, and worth reading, not least of all because Singham takes a position all too rare among the mainstream media, and one with which I whole-heartedly agree: that science and religion are not compatible.

There are certain areas in which the conflict between science and religion is especially visible, such as the Creation/Evolution debate. Frequently, people attempt to resolve these differences by asserting that there is no conflict, because science and religion address fundamentally different issues. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould famously described this principle as “non-overlapping magisteria.” Science answers questions about the physical, observable world, proponents of this view assert, while religion answers questions about spirituality and morality.

Stephen Jay Gould

This view is naïve. Worse, it’s incorrect in practice. Like it or not, religions do make claims about the physical world. The three Abrahamic religions, for example, assert that God exists, that he responds to prayers, and that he sometimes intervenes in human affairs. This is a scientific claim! We can investigate it, compare it to our actual observations of the workings of the world, and determine how well it reflects reality. And unfortunately for religious adherents, claims based on religious texts, except when they’re so vague as to be virtually meaningless, are virtually always not borne out by the evidence. Consider Biblical claims about the age of the Earth and its place in the Universe.

I am a firm believer in the freedom of individuals to practice any religion they like. But I also care greatly about knowledge and truth, and I don’t believe that religion deserves a privileged position such that its claims are somehow above the inquiries we make with regard to any similar but non-religious claim. If someone claims that the all life on Earth was created more-or-less in its present form within the last 10,000 years, or that all life except for eight people and two of each animal was wiped out in a worldwide flood, why shouldn’t we compare these claims against the physical and historic evidence to determine whether or not they’re true? Truth is important.

Of course, most religious adherents aren’t fundamentalists, and don’t believe every story of their holy text to be literally true, so they don’t have beliefs that are so obviously disconnected from reality. This makes it easy for apologists to cite the myriad examples of scientists who are religion as evidence of the mutual compatibility of science and religion. This is a silly argument that Singham ably dismantles. I like this quote he borrows from Jerry Coyne: “this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.” I am also fond of P.Z. Myers’ stock retort to this like of thinking; he invokes Dennis Rader, the “BTK killer,” a serial killer who was also a Lutheran Deacon. Does this mean that Christianity and serial murder are compatible?

Ultimately, science and religion are not compatible because they represent two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. Science asserts that we can discern facts by empirically studying the world around us. Religion makes assertions which aren’t backed by any such evidence (in fact, are frequently in conflict with the evidence). Since we are always making new discoveries and learning new things about our world, science is ever-changing, always bringing our understanding ever-closer to the reality. Religion, in contrast, believes that it already has the answers; it provides no incentive to learn anything new, and has nothing worthwhile to contribute to our understanding of the Universe or our place in it.

The Dirty Jobs DVD Buying Guide

May 12th, 2010

I previously explained how frustratingly difficult it is to collect the entire Mythbusters series on DVD. There’s another Discovery Channel series that I enjoy almost as much as Mythbusters, and whose DVD release strategy is almost as confusing: Dirty Jobs.

Like Mythbusters, the most widely-available commercial DVD releases of Dirty Jobs are individual “best of” collections. Like Mythbusters, season sets are available exclusively through the Discovery Channel Store. And like Mythbusters, many episodes are inexplicably missing from those seasons sets.

As of this writing, four season sets are available, as are a whole bunch of individual one- and two-episode DVD releases of early episodes of the show. Curiously, it looks like the season one DVD is actually just a repackaging of the first five two-episode DVDs, as it’s the only season set with such a low episode-per-disc count, and it doesn’t even actually say “season one” anywhere on the discs or the packaging (but it is advertised that way by Discovery). And since, by most accounts (again like Mythbusters, there doesn’t appear to be any consistent way of grouping Dirty Jobs episodes into seasons), the first season had only nine episodes (including three pilots from 2003), the season one DVD also includes the first episode of season two.

Dirty Jobs Season One DVD

The oddest thing, though, is the huge block of episodes that aired between those included on the first- and second-season DVD sets. There are 31 such episodes, of which six are themed specials highlighting dirty jobs from previous episodes. We’ll come back to those specials; meanwhile, you’ll have to purchase 14 of the individual-episode DVDs to get the 25 remaining episodes:

  • “Ostrich Farmer” / “Cheese Maker” *
  • “Shrimper” / “Bio-Diesel Man” *
  • “Micro-Algae Man” / “Chimney Sweeper” *
  • “Avian Vomitologist” / “Turkey Farmer”
  • “Alligator Farmer”
  • “Mushroom Farmer” / “Plumber”
  • “Termite Controller” / “Casino Food Recycler”
  • “Rose Parade Float Dismantler” / “Garbage Pit Technician”
  • “Skull Cleaner” / “Coal Miner”
  • “Geoduck Farmer” / “Fuel Tank Cleaner”
  • “Jobs That Bite” / “Jobs That Bite…Harder” *
  • “Hoof Cleaner” *
  • “Alpaca Shearer” / “Monkey Caretaker”
  • “100th Dirty Job Special”

Unfortunately, only five of these 14 DVDs, marked with an asterisk (*) above, are currently available at the Discovery Channel Store. The rest you’ll likely have to pick up second-hand. Several are available used through Amazon, and there are usually a few for sale on eBay, often several in a single auction. Also note that eight of these episodes (plus two first-season episodes) are available on the Collection 1 “best of” release. However, except for “Alpaca Shearer,” “Monkey Caretaker” and “100th Dirty Job Special,” the individual release of each pairs it with an episode which isn’t on Collection 1, so if you plan to get all the episodes, you’ll have to buy those individual releases anyway, duplicating many of the Collection 1 episodes. There have also been four subsequent Collection releases, but none include any episodes that aren’t on the regular season sets.

Mike Rowe

After this block of inexplicably-omitted episodes, the season sets include almost every episode aired as of February, 2010. The chief exceptions are various “special” episodes. Most of these episodes take the form of “clip shows,” in which segments from previous episodes are re-purposed. I suppose they were omitted from the season sets because the producer’s didn’t want to include segments twice on a single release, but many of them also include new introductory footage with host Mike Rowe, and some of them include additional footage originally cut from the segments themselves, so it’s disappointing that they weren’t included in spite of the redundant material.

Additionally, a couple of the specials, like “Mike’s Day Off” and “Crew Unemployment,” aren’t just clip shows, so it’s not clear why they’re not included on the DVD sets. I guess “special” episodes don’t count as part of the series proper, but since they haven’t been released on DVD individually, it would be nice for them to have been included. Whatever the reason, here’s the list of episodes you can’t get on DVD:

  • “Dirtiest Animals”
  • “Dirtiest Water Jobs”
  • “Creepy Critters”
  • “Dirtiest Tools & Machines”
  • “Super Dirty”
  • “Viewer’s Choice”
  • “Really Dirty Animals”
  • “Dirtiest Machines on the Planet”
  • “Crew’s Cruise”
  • “Creepy, Slimy and Just Plain Weird”
  • “Dirty Innovators”
  • “Tight Spaces”
  • “Brown Plate Special”
  • “Animal Barber”
  • “Brown Before Green”
  • “Dirty Presidents”
  • “Brown Before Green 2”
  • “Mike’s Day Off”
  • “Safety Third”
  • “Tight Spaces 2”
  • “Crew Unemployment”

There might be one exception to this list, though. It’s my understanding that “Mike’s Day Off” was originally not aired on the Discovery Channel, and instead issued exclusively on a promotional DVD (which also included the “Skull Cleaner” episode). Though the episode eventually aired during the fourth season, again, it’s not included on the season four DVD set. I’ve scoured Amazon, eBay, and all the usual sources of second-hand DVDs, but have been unable to find a copy of the “Mike’s Day Off” DVD.

Ignoring that special episode, though, owning the most complete Dirty Jobs DVD collection entails purchasing the four season sets, plus the 14 individual releases listed above. That’ll net you every episode aired so far except the 21 specials, which will have to suffice until the Discovery Channel sees fit to release its series on DVD in the sensible manner adopted by practically every other studio.

E-mail: Let's Keep the Hyphen

May 11th, 2010

I’m distraught that the word “e-mail” is losing its hyphen. The “email” form appears to be increasing in popularity. Even the web design company (actually a “full-service interactive agency”) I work for consistently spells it without the hyphen on sites we create (although I’m not sure that we’ve bothered to adopt an official policy on the matter).

Even renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth, whom I greatly respect, favors the sans-hyphen form. However, he’s a computer scientist, not a linguist, and I take issue with his reasoning. He claims, rightly, that “newly coined nonce words of English are often spelled with a hyphen, but the hyphen disappears when the words become widely used.” He cites the words “nonzero” and “software” as examples of words that have lost their hyphens. But the word “e-mail” differs in several ways. For example, while “nonzero” and “software” are pronounced roughly the same way with or without a hyphen, the standard pronunciation of “e-mail” is not apparent from the non-hyphenated spelling, in which the “e” would naturally take on the schwa sound.

Donald Knuth

More compellingly, the hyphen in “e-mail” connects a single letter to an entire word. Consider similar constructs, like “I-beam” or “X-ray”; would they be written without they hyphen? Would they look natural and be easy to pronounce? What about “A-bomb,” “B-ball,” “C-section,” “D-Day,” “f-stop,” “G-Spot,” “S-curve,” “T-square,” and “U-turn”? Has any English-language word of this form ever lost its hyphen?

Button Configuration

May 10th, 2010

Last month, Capcom released via Xbox Live Arcade Final Fight: Double Impact, a two-fer that includes the classic arcade games Final Fight and Magic Sword. I was especially excited to play Final Fight, a personal favorite, using the Hori Real Arcade Pro EX Joystick that I bought when Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix was released. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I discovered that Final Fight included no button-configuration option, and the default configuration, while perfectly sensible for the standard Xbox game pad, is virtually unplayable on the HRAP EX’s button layout.

Final Fight:  Double Impact

It’s extremely frustrating and downright bizarre how many recent games would be perfect for playing on an arcade stick like the HRAP EX, yet don’t include a button configuration option allowing the player to easily do so. Among Xbox Live Arcade releases, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled are two of the more egregious examples. Like Final Fight, they were originally released as arcade titles, yet can’t be played on the Xbox using an arcade-style joystick unless the player is willing to abide unnatural, counter-intuitive button layouts that render them all but unplayable.

Other notable offenders include the Gamecube version of Megaman Anniversary Collection, which uses only two action buttons—fire and jump—and yet manages to screw up the controls by reversing their functions as compared to pretty much every 2D action platform game ever created, and the U.S. version of Resident Evil 5, which reverted to the control scheme of the original Japanese version after using a modified control scheme for every previous Resident Evil game. I kind of like the idea that we’re finally getting the game as it was made by its original creators, but I found it extremely difficult to get used to after 13 years of playing Resident Evil games with the U.S. control scheme, and frequently found myself wasting valuable ammunition when I meant to run.

Megaman Anniversary Collection

What’s most frustrating about this phenomenon is that there’s simply no reason for it to be, as it’s trivially easy to add a button-configuration option to any game (at least, it is if the game is competently programmed). Adding such an option costs the game developer virtually nothing, yet provides great value to the consumer and makes the game much more accessible.

For this reason, in spite of all the glowing reviews it’s accumulated (and rightly so with respect to its gameplay), I can’t recommend Final Fight: Double Impact. In spite of the great gameplay it contains, it gets wrong one of the most fundamental elements of game design. How could I support a game that doesn’t even get the basics right?

The Mythbusters DVD Buying Guide

April 26th, 2010

As a fan of science and skeptical thinking, I consider Mythbusters one of the best shows on television right now. And as an anal-retentive collector, I want to get the whole series on DVD. Most current shows are available in complete-season box sets, making this endeavor easy. Unfortunately, the Discovery Channel has made things a little more complicated for their flagship series.

For starters, the most widely-available Mythbusters DVDs are the much-maligned “best of” collections or themed sets. These are of little interest to the completist, who’d prefer more logically-organized complete releases over cherry-picked episodes. Fortunately, season-by-season box sets of Mythbusters, up to season six, are available exclusively through the Discovery Channel Store. Unfortunately, the organization of the episodes on these sets leaves a lot to be desired, and many episodes are not included.

The first problem is that there doesn’t appear to be any consistent way of organizing Mythbusters episodes into seasons. Every episode list I’ve found breaks them up in different ways. The official Mythbusters site foregoes organizing its list by season altogether, instead grouping episodes by calendar year. One would expect the DVD releases to be the definitive word on the subject, but in some cases, episodes that originally aired on consecutive weeks are included on two different DVD season sets. There’s even one instance in which the first episode included on one season set aired before the final episode of the previous season set!

The other major issue is the handling of the episodes that have been designated “specials.” These special episodes aired during the show’s regular time-slot, and are mostly of normal length (although there are a couple of double-length specials), so it isn’t exactly clear what differentiates them from “regular” episodes (they generally cover a number of myths connected by a common theme, but then so do several episodes that aren’t considered specials). There are over a dozen specials among Mythbusters’ first six seasons, and most of them are absent from the DVD season sets. Some, but not all, of the missing specials are available on individual DVD releases through the Discovery Channel Store. Strangely, the season five DVD set includes all of the specials from that season except one, and the season six DVD set includes some, but not all of the season-six specials. No logic or consistency seems to have gone into the determination of which episodes would be included and which would be omitted.

Mythbusters

Frustrated by the Discovery Channel’s DVD release strategy for Mythbusters, I finally just took a complete list of Mythbusters episodes organized by airdate, and compared it, episode-by-episode, to the list of episodes included in each season DVD box set to come up with a list of the missing episodes, and on which individual DVD releases, if any, they could be found. I know that other fans of the show are similarly frustrated, so I hope that they might find this research useful. If you purchase the six seasons sets that Discovery offers, you’ll get all of the episodes that aired through November 18, 2009 except for the following:

  • “Jet-Assisted Chevy”
  • “Biscuit Bazooka”
  • “Poppy-Seed Drug Test”
  • “Best Animals Myths”
  • “Best Electric Myths”
  • “Best Explosions”
  • “Christmas Special”
  • “Buster Special”
  • “Ultimate Mythbuster”
  • “MythBusters Outtakes”
  • “Shop ‘til You Drop”
  • “Mythbusters Revealed”
  • “Hollywood on Trial”
  • “Jaws Special”
  • “Mega Movie Myths”
  • “Supersized Myths”
  • “Young Scientist Special”
  • “Shark Week Special”
  • “Alcohol Myths”
  • “Demolition Derby”

The first three episodes on this list (“Jet-Assisted Chevy,” “Biscuit Bazooka,” and “Poppy-Seed Drug Test”) are the show’s three pilot episodes that originally aired in early 2003. All of them are available on the The Pilots DVD release. The next three episodes (“Best Animals Myths,” “Best Electric Myths,” and “Best Explosions”) are essentially clip shows—they highlight themed myths from previous episodes, and include no new footage. None of them appears to be available on DVD, but since they contain no original content, I’m not going to worry about them. Heck, the official Mythbusters episode list doesn’t even include these three “best-of” shows.

“Buster Special,” “Shop ‘til You Drop,” “Hollywood on Trial,” “Jaws Special,” and “Mega Movie Myths” are all available on individual DVD releases. As of this writing, the Discovery Channel Store carries all except “Buster Special.” That DVD appears to be out of print, so you’ll probably have to hunt down a used copy; after a bit of searching, I found one on eBay. Note that “Shop ‘til You Drop” and “Hollywood on Trial” (and “Mythbusters Revealed,” but more on that in a moment) are also available on the four-disc Mythbusters Collection 1 DVD set. You’ll get another 10 regular episodes that are duplicated in the season sets, but for under ten bucks at Amazon, the collection is still a better deal than the Discovery Channel’s individual releases, which are priced rather exorbitantly for single-episode DVDs. Three other Collection releases exist, but none contains any episodes that are missing from the season sets.

There is also an individual DVD release of “Mythbusters Revealed,” but that episode is additionally included alongside “Mythbusters Outtakes” on the two-episode Mythbusters DVD in the Discovery Channel Best Of Collection, Volume 4 DVD box set. Since “Mythbusters Outtakes” isn’t available on any other release, that’s the one you’ll want to pick up. It might seem a bit extreme to purchase a five-disc box set for just two episodes, but you ought to be able to find a pretty good deal on a used set; I actually found the set’s Mythbusters DVD for sale individually on eBay.

Mythbusters DVDs

That leaves “Christmas Special,” “Ultimate Mythbuster,” “Supersized Myths,” “Young Scientist Special,” “Shark Week Special,” “Alcohol Myths,” and “Demolition Derby.” None of them appears to be available on any U.S. DVD release. However, there are Australian releases of “Christmas Special” and “Ultimate Mythbuster”. Both are region-locked PAL releases, so they won’t play in a standard U.S. DVD player. But they are available to anyone determined enough to procure a region-free, PAL-compatible DVD player. “Christmas Special” is pretty easy to find; its DVD release is called Mythbusters Christmas Special, Volume 1 (there was a second Christmas-themed episode, available as Volume 2, but it’s included on season five DVD set), and there always seems to be a few copies available on eBay Australia.

“Ultimate Mythbuster” is a bit harder to get hold of. An individual DVD release of this episode (dubbed Mythbusters: Ultimate) was included as a freebie with an issue of the men’s magazine FHM in Australia a couple of years ago. That DVD is rather hard to come by now, but if you keep an eye out on eBay Australia, one’s bound to turn up eventually; that’s how I scored my copy. This episode is apparently also included in the Australian DVD release of season two; it should be easier to get it this way, since it’s a currently-available commercial release, but more expensive to do so since you’ll have to purchase a whole season set for just one episode. Of course, you could just go exclusively with the Australian DVD releases, since they contain at least some of the specials absent from the U.S. season sets, but they organize the episodes in yet another way, which matches neither the U.S. DVDs nor any episode list I’ve seen, and I’m not about to try comprehensively cataloguing the Australian releases, too. I believe that early episodes of the show also had Robert Lee’s voice-over narration replaced with the voice of an Australian-accented narrator (nothing against Australian accents; I’d just prefer to hear the standard U.S. narration that I’ve become accustomed to), though this practice was obviously dropped by the time they got to “Christmas Special” and “Ultimate Mythbuster,” the Australian DVD releases of which include Lee’s narration.

Having said that, one episode, the “Supersized Myths” special, appears to be availably only as part of an Australian season set—season four, to be specific. Again, the viewer will have to decide whether it’s worth buying an entire season set for a single episode, or consider just buying the Australian sets instead of the U.S. ones in the first place.

Unfortunately, it seems that “Young Scientist Special,” “Shark Week Special,” “Alcohol Myths,” and “Demolition Derby” haven’t been released on DVD anywhere in the world. They all aired during season six, the one most recently released on DVD, so I’m still hopeful that Discovery will put out individual releases of them at some point.

Mythbusters cast

In the meantime, here’s the complete list of DVDs you’ll have to acquire to get the first six seasons of Mythbusters—every episode through November 18, 2009—except for those three “best-of” episodes and the four aforementioned specials. Releases marked with an asterisk (*) contain episodes that are also included on the Collection 1 release, which, again, is the better deal.

  • Season 1
  • Season 2
  • Season 3
  • Season 4
  • Season 5
  • Season 6
  • The Pilots
  • Mythbusters Christmas Special, Volume 1 Australian release
  • Buster Special
  • Mythbusters: Ultimate Australian release or Season 4 Australian release
  • Outtakes and Revealed from the Discovery Channel Best Of Collection, Volume 4
  • Shop ‘til You Drop *
  • Hollywood on Trial *
  • Jaws Special
  • Mega Movie Myths
  • Season 4 Australian release

Toy Story 3 “Cliffhanger Edition”

April 22nd, 2010

Last night, I had the great pleasure of seeing a special screening of Pixar’s upcoming film Toy Story 3. It was a “cliffhanger edition,” comprising only the first 65 minutes of the movie. I believe it may have been an unfinished version of those 65 minutes, but there was no obvious indication that it was incomplete, no “placeholder graphics” as you might see in a work-in-progress or anything like that.

Toy Story 3

I am a great fan of Pixar’s work in general, and of the Toy Story films in particular, so I am pleased to report that Toy Story 3—at least the part I saw—lives up to its predecessors completely. It’s funny, charming, and even a little bit creepy.

The plot sees Buzz, Woody, and the rest of the toys donated to the Sunnyside day-care center as their owner Andy, now 17, prepares to leave for college. This is a natural extension of the previous films’ stories, and allows for the introduction of many interesting new characters (including Totoro!), all of whom are a perfect fit for the Toy Story universe.

The movie has just the right atmosphere, with several appropriately dark sequences to balance the film’s overall lightheartedness. The dark corridors of Sunnyside at night are unsettling and foreboding, and I especially enjoyed a slightly twisted flashback scene explaining how a certain character came to be at Sunnyside. I was also mildly surprised to see a scene involving a character speaking a foreign language with English subtitles (I was going to say that this was a first for Pixar, but didn’t The Incredibles feature a brief sequence with a French-speaking supervillain?).

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is very funny, and much of its humor lies in throwbacks to its predecessors; this is both good and bad. The opening sequence is an updated take on the first film’s introductory scene, and seems likely to delight fans. However, it does grow a bit tiring to watch Buzz as the oblivious space ranger for the third time, and the elaborate planning-and-escape sequence in the middle of the film is lifted shamelessly from the original Toy Story. I would have said the same about the many gags involving Mr. Potato Head losing his parts or getting them all mixed up, but Pixar finally managed to make that bit fresh again with a brilliant sequence (you’ll know it when you see it) that had the audience roaring with laughter, so I feel they’ve earned a pass on that one. In any event, the film being perhaps just a bit too derivative of its predecessors is really the only fault I can find with it.

I don’t think I know anybody who doesn’t already love the first two Toy Story films, so I doubt anyone needs convincing to see Toy Story 3. But just for the record, its first hour alone was one of the best things I’ve seen in a theater in some time (probably since Pixar’s previous film, Up), and I’m quite looking forward to seeing how it ends when it’s officially released on June 18.

A Brief History of Widescreen, Part 3: Super 35

April 20th, 2010

I’ve previously described a couple of different ways that widescreen films are shot on standard 4:3 film stock, as well as the historical reasons for doing so. Films with an 1.85:1 aspect ratio are typically shot “soft-matte” such that additional picture information is captured above and below the widescreen image as composed by the director or cinematographer, while those with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio are shot with a special “anamorphic” lens such that no extraneous imagery is photographed.

Another commonly-used technique for filming 2.39:1 films is called “Super 35.” The Super 35 technique uses standard camera lenses, and captures an image in much the same way that a standard soft-matte production does, framing the 2.39:1 shot within the larger frame of film (the standard film size is 35mm, hence the “35” in “Super 35”). The difference is that when shooting Super 35, the area of the film normally reserved for the analog sound track is instead used as part of the image area. This provides a 32% increase in image area—enough resolution to produce an acceptable quality image, even considering the unused areas of the frame. As with films shot soft-matte, this unused are can be utilized in creating a “full-screen” version for home video (though, due to the wider aspect ratio of Super 35 films, the creation of the full-screen version usually involves a bit of cropping on the sides of the image, as well as opening up the mattes on the top and bottom).

The Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring, widescreen

The Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring, full screen

A number of popular films have been shot in Super 35. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies were all shot Super 35. It was notably employed in filming Top Gun because Super 35 uses smaller lenses than anamorphic photography, allowing the cameras to better fit into the small space of a fighter plane’s cockpit. Director James Cameron, though he more recently adopted digital photography for Avatar, has famously championed the Super 35 format, going so far as to endorse the release of the full-screen version of The Abyss on Laserdisc, stating that he believed it “to be superior in many ways to the letterbox, due to the poor resolving power of NTSC video.”

The Abyss

I won’t get into it now, but I think there’s an argument to be made on that point, about the importance of a film’s intended framing vs. the compromise necessary to present that framing on home video. Fortunately, the increasing ubiquity of 16:9 HDTVs means this is less of a concern than it was in the past, and that watching a movie at home replicates the theatrical experience better than ever, including framing and composition, exactly as the filmmakers intended, regardless of the technique they used to achieve it.

Abortion

January 25th, 2010

In May of last year, late-term abortion provider George Tiller was shot and killed at his Kansas church. Scott Roeder of Kansas City, Missouri, confessed to the killing, and was unapolagetic about his actions. In an interview with the Associated Press, Roeder explained: “Because of the fact preborn children’s lives were in imminent danger, this was the action I chose…Defending innocent life—that is what prompted me. I mean, it is pretty simple.”

George Tiller

I think it’s kind of surprising that incidents like this one don’t happen more often. There are a lot of people in the United States who believe that abortion is literally murder, no less horrible than the taking of any other human life. Figures on the percentage of people who hold this belief are surprisingly difficult to find. A Gallup poll conducted last May found that more than half of all Americans consider themselves “pro-life.” Many of those pro-lifers would probably not agree that abortion is exactly equivalent to murder, but at least some do, particularly among the far-right religious crazies.

Practically everyone agrees that it’s acceptable to take a person’s life in defense of one’s own or of someone else’s. Wouldn’t Roeder’s killing of Tiller fall under this category? If Roeder really considered the fetuses that Tiller aborted to be fully human individuals (which, again, is apparently a common, everyday belief), then thier lives really were in danger, and wasn’t Roeder perfectly justified in killing Tiller to protect them?

Scott Roeder

I am not against abortions; despite what the religious zealots would have you believe, fetuses really are just clumps of cells (to be fair, Tiller performed late-term abortions, where the person-or-not issue is less clear, but let’s ignore that special case for the sake of the current argument). I am, however, against hypocrisy, and it’s hypocritical to claim that abortion is murder, and yet respond to it with any less force than one would employ against any other act of murder.

I guess we should be thankful, then, that fundamentalist Christians are such hypocrites.

“Prove It!”

December 9th, 2009

The much-publicized United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 is currently being held in Copenhagen, Denmark. In the weeks leading up to the conference, The Science Museum in the U.K. opened an exhibit and accompanying website dubbed “Prove It!,” intended to impart to visitors the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the idea of anthropogenic climate change. Either at a computer terminal at the exhibit in the museum, or via the website, visitors could vote to register their agreement or disagreement with the following statement: “I’ve seen the evidence. And I want the government to prove they’re serious about climate change by negotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen.”

factories

More than 14,000 votes were collected. Popular science blogger P.Z. Myers even attempted to “Pharyngulate” the online poll by encouraging his readers to sign up and vote for the “agree” option. The results? After one month, 6,058 voters agreed, and 8,238 disagreed.

The Science Museum promptly closed the poll and issued a statement in which the museum director lamented that “more work needs to be done to convince people of the reality of human-induced climate change and of the urgency with which we must agree an international solution.” Writing for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones blamed the exhibit itself for the unexpected poll results, describing it as “patronising.” He explained, “the museum has produced a majority of nearly two to one against accepting the scientific reality of climate change.”

I don’t entirely agree with Jones’ assessment; I think that two issues are being conflated. Remember, the statement about which the poll asked wasn’t “I believe in the scientific evidence for climate change.” Rather, it said, “I want the government to prove they’re serious…by negotiating a strong, effective, fair deal at Copenhagen.” I wonder how many of the disagreeing voters were perfectly convinced of the science behind anthropogenic climate change, but alienated by the political rhetoric? As one reader remarked in response to Myers’ plea, “‘Strong, effective, fair’ to me translates as ‘bureaucratic, ambiguous and counterproductive.’”

factories

I’m no climatologist, but it seems to me that the science behind climate change is pretty solid. The earth is warming, and humans are responsible for a significant amount of that warming. Yes, there are “denialists” who claim that climate change is a leftist conspiracy, that the scientists whose work supports it are all part of some anti-corporate cabal. These people are wrong. But one doesn’t have to be a denialist to disagree that pushing for ineffectual, bureaucratic legislation is the right approach to the problem.

Seat Belts Save Lives

December 2nd, 2009

This past Saturday, after having spent Thanksgiving with her family, Mona Hines was driving to her Baton Rouge apartment to pack up her belongings in preparation for an upcoming move. In the van with Hines were her sister, Stacey, and thirteen relatives of theirs, all of them children between six months and fourteen years of age.

As Hines was driving west on Interstate 10, the front driver’s side tire blew out. The van hit a truck, crossed the median, flipped several times, and finally came to rest upright in the eastbound lanes. Hines died immediately. All thirteen children, none of whom was wearing a seat belt, were thrown from the van. Four of them died before they could be treated by paramedics. A sixth victim, another of the children, died from her injuries Monday at Baton Rouge’s Our Lady of the Lake Hospital.

It goes without saying that this was a horrific tragedy. I don’t even want to think about what it must feel like to bury six family members at the same time.

Edward Barnes III

Most regrettable is the fact that this suffering could have been largely avoided. Simply wearing seat belts would have prevented the children from being ejected from the vehicle. Of course, that would have been difficult, since the thirteen of them were crammed into an area of the van designed to carry six. Obviously, the adults exercised extremely poor judgment by putting the children in a very risky situation.

Not everyone sees it that way, however. An article about the accident on NOLA.com drew reader comments that included the following:

  • “Sealtbelts can be good and they can work against you sometimes and have you trapped in a vehicle.”
  • “WHATEVER GODS WILL IS THATS WHAT IT IS. NO ONE CAN CHANGE WHAT HAPPENED…IT DOESNT MATTER IF THEY HAD A SEAT BELT ON OR NOT, BECAUSE THE DRIVER HAD ONE ON AND SHE STILL DIED SO IT WAS GODS WILL”
  • “they have a lot of recall on seat belts if they were safe why call back”
  • “Seatbelts…are not foolproof and even sometimes more harmful. So it’s really not fair to characterize this acciedent as avoidable. Tires blow out, it happens. And in light of the fact that a woman who WAS wearing a seatbelt was still killed, there is absolutely no way to predict whether or not seatbelts would have saved anymore lives.”
  • “…the article states that the driver WAS wearing a seatbelt…however, she still died. When it is time to go, not a seatbelt or anything will stop you from going.”

I think these remarks represent a very dangerous attitude. I concede that the blowout itself was probably unavoidable, but most of the injuries and fatalities were the result not of the accident itself, but of having thirteen children tossed out of a moving vehicle onto the pavement. Yes, people have died in traffic accidents while wearing seat belts; a seat belt is not a magical force field that completely protects its wearer from all harm. Nevertheless, it does make it much likely that the wearer will survive an otherwise fatal accident, and that he’ll suffer less extensive injuries than he otherwise would have. According to James Madison University, “motorists are 25 times are more likely to be killed or seriously injured when they are ‘thrown clear’ than when remain inside their vehicle.” And since most of the victims in this case were children, it’s especially relevant to note that “of every 100 children who die in motor vehicle crashes at least 80 would survive if they were properly secured in an approved child safety seat or safety belts.” Of the five children that died as a result of Saturday’s crash, we can expect at least four of them to have survived, had they been wearing seat belts.

Craig Williams

I understand and appreciate that, in situation like this, it’s natural to attempt to rationalize the attendant suffering. But posturing that wearing a seat belt “doesn’t matter” or that basic, everyday safety precautions are futile because everyone has a predestined “time to go” is just asking for something like this to happen again. It’s difficult to step back from a tragedy of this magnitude and assess it calmly and rationally, but I think it’s important to do exactly that, so that no one else has to suffer this kind of nightmare.

Please, always wear a seat belt.

I extend my condolences to the victims and their families.

“Impossible to Explain”

November 17th, 2009

I recently listened to a radio debate between P.Z. Myers, biology professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris and author of the popular blog Pharyngula, and Geoffrey Simmons, author of Billions of Missing Links and Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think-tank dedicated to “intelligent design,” a particularly sneaky form of creationism disguised as legitimate science. The subject of the debate was, “Are Darwin’s Theories Fact or Faith Issues?” Myers took the pro-evolution side and, naturally, he annihilated Simmons. The fossil record is replete with transitional forms, exactly as the theory of evolution by natural selection predicts, but you wouldn’t know that from Simmons’ Missing Links book, in which he falsely claims there to be a dearth of physical evidence documenting the evolution of modern animals from their prehistoric ancestors. Myers adroitly took Simmons to task for his ignorance.

I was especially shocked to hear Simmons pull out that old creationist canard, the assertion that “evolution is just a theory.” This particular dismissal of evolution has been so thoroughly debunked, it’s embarrasing to hear even the most ignorant creationists invoke it, let alone the author of two books on the subject. Yes, evolution is a “theory,” which is to say that it’s a theoretical framework that explains empirical observations and makes testable predictions. It is not a “theory” in the colloquial sense of the word, which means something more like a hunch or a guess. As scientific theories go, evolution is a particularly robust and elegant one. After that lame nonstarter, I half-expected Simmons to ask, “if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

But we’d be here all day if I just went point-by-point down the list of stupid creationist arguments that Simmons trotted out. Instead, I’d like to talk about a couple of strange things Simmons said towards the end of the program, in his closing remarks. I was kind of surprised that they went unchallenged by Myers, who was given the last word, but time was short and he did a fine job of hitting most of the important points.

At 36:27 in the recording, Simmons shares his rather negative opinion of the naturalist who first proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin: “He was bigoted, he had a lot of nasty things to say about women and blacks…and yet he’s revered as somebody significant.” This is patently false. Yes, Darwin’s name has become synonymous with the theory of evolution, but Darwin himself is emphatically not “revered” by the scientific community, who have come to accept evolution as a fact not out of any deference to the man who first suggested it, but because it is supported by a preponderance of evidence.

Charles Darwin

And so what if Darwin was a bigot? Darwin may have been a racist and misogynist (not that I’m conceding that he was—I know very little about the man himself), but that has absolutely no bearing on whether or not his ideas about evolution are true. Here, Simmons has stooped to an ad hominem argument. Whatever one thinks of the person making a claim, the claim itself should stand or fall on its own merit. As it happens, Darwin’s claims about common descent and evolution by natural selection have stood extraordinarily well for 150 years, and continue to do so today.

Just seconds after making those boneheaded comments, at 36:36, Simmons proffers another piece of “evidence” for intelligent design: the birthing process of monkeys. “It’s actually 180 degrees opposite of ours, headwise,” he describes, “and impossible to explain.” I think this is the most telling comment Simmons made in the whole debate, as it betrays the argument from ignorance upon which every creationist argument is necessarily based, because there is no positive evidence for creationism.

monkey birth

I don’t know the first thing about monkey births. For the sake of argument, I’ll take Simmons’ word for it that they’re the physical opposite of human births with respect to the orientation of the baby. For all I know, biologists really don’t know why that is. Maybe it is very difficult to explain. But how can Simmons claim that it’s impossible to explain? How does he know what biologists will learn about monkey births tomorrow, next year, or a hundred years from now?

Ultimately, every creationist argument reduces to this fallacy. “We don’t know how X happened; therefore, God did it.” Because the creationist is unable to find a scientific explanation for X, he hubristically assumes that one doesn’t exist. Cdesign proponentsists like to call their brand of creationism “science,” but in reality, their defeatist attitude stops all science in its tracks. Where would the state of human knowledge be if, every time we were confronted with an unknown phenomenon, we satified ourselves by concocting a fanciful, magical explanation (which actually explains nothing, of course), rather than actually engaging the unknown by using the tools of science and reason to investigate and, ultimately, to discover the real explanation?

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