Monthly Archives: January 2015

I Suddenly Want To Learn Archery

This is absolutely insane.  This dude Lars studied how archers of old shot bows and arrows and then replicated it.  It is moar awesomer than anything you can possibly imagine.

Phun With Photons

During Neil deGrasse Tyson’s talk on Tuesday, he talked about firing photons one at a time to produce a result.  During almost any talk about physics experiments you will eventually hear about physicists shooting individual photons.  Despite its near ubiquity and my hundreds of hours of physics classes I’ve never really heard an explanation of how physicists manage to produce a single photon.  None of my friends had either.  So I decided to hit the interwebs and find an answer.  It is so simple, I am almost ashamed that I didn’t come up with an explanation on my own.  More proof that my brain is slowly turning to mush from lack of exercise.

Think about a flashlight.  Turn it on and light goes beaming out.  That light is composed of untold schmillions of photons.  Electricity is running through the filament causing the (usually) tungsten filament to heat up and produce light.  The electrons passing through the tungsten will collide with an individual atom temporarily causing the individual atom’s outer shell electron to jump to a higher energy level.  This is an unstable condition for the atom so the electron will eventually fall back down and photons will be produced.

“But that doesn’t help us, we still have multiple photons being produced!”, you might exclaim.  And you’d be right.  Here’s where a little ingenuity is involved.  We need a source which produces a known number of photons at known wavelengths.  Enter the spectrometer!  Thanks to that lovely invention, we know the wavelengths of the photons produced for just about everything.  Prior to that, I assume it was mostly trial and error.

Now it’s just a matter of choosing a substance, isolating it, and running just enough electricity through it to produce a reaction on a single atom.  But what shall we choose?  It turns out there are plenty, but the easiest example I could find is sodium.  A single sodium atom produces two distinct wavelengths of light at 588.9950 nm and 589.5924 nm.  Oops, but that’s still two photons, what do we do now?  Filters!  We just place a filter across the path of the photons that blocks one of the wavelengths and voila, a single photon source!

Obviously, creating a device capable of firing a controlled amount of electricity across a controlled number of atoms is non-trivial, but that’s the basic concept.  You just take your basic light source and winnow it down to its atomic level.

This Is Why You Can’t Yell “Fire!” In A Crowded Theater

I went to see science rockstar Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Auditorium Theater last night with some friends.  And it was AWESOME!  Yeah, you’re jealous.  Allow me to bask in your jealousy for a moment…  Ok, done.  Our seats were less than stellar.  (Ha!  See what I did there?  I’m funny.)  We were on the sixth floor in the third from last row.  There was no elevator.  Past the fourth floor, the theater can only be described as purposely death-trapish.  The lighting is dim.  The stairs are black.  The railings are the same color black and groin level.  And when you get to the seats, the stairs are small, steep, and tilted forward towards the abyss.  The rows are cramped and the seats are tiny.  There was just enough room to fit my smaller than average frame and my back is still hurting from the experience.

There was an older gentleman who sat behind me.  He was overweight, had to walk with a cane, and was near death from exhaustion and likely fear by the time he got to his seat.  The poor guy ended up having to sit on the stairs because the seat was so uncomfortable for him.  He was far from the only one having issues.  If there was an actual emergency in that theater, I do not know how much of my level would make it out alive.  If one of those bigger guys goes down, which they invariably would, they’d block the exit for everyone in that section and it would be almost impossible for them to get back up given the conditions.

It’s because of places like the Auditorium Theater that we have building codes.  Governmental regulations aren’t made in a vacuum.  They are usually preceded by a tragedy, but experience and forethought have given us the ability to predict problems and regulate against them before they happen.  Yes, I’m sure some regulations are stupid and/or out of date, but most are not.  They are there to protect us whether you can understand them or not.  So the next time you want to complain about governmental overregulation, take a trip to the sixth floor of the Auditorium Theater and get back to me.

Movie Review: The Interview

Jean-Pau’s rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Takes a while to get going, but fun when it hits its stride.  Worth seeing just for the completely unnecessary controversy it caused, but a comedy that can be viewed multiple times this is not.

I don’t normally do reviews on movies I see in the comfort of my own home, but if ever there were a reason to make an exception, the fooferaw surrounding “The Inteview” is it.  For the sake of posterity, since this movie will likely be quickly forgotten, “The Interview” was supposed to be released around Christmas 2014, but hackers broke through Sony’s defenses and stole a whole gob of data including emails where executives insult A-list stars, scripts, complete unreleased movies, etc. and then released the lot to the masses.  Those that care about such things got a good chuckle at how vain Hollywood can be.  It is widely accepted that North Korea was responsible for the hack, but there is not much actual evidence of that.  Then came the bomb threats and threats of general mayhem if the movie was released and Sony cancelled the release.  A few art houses here and there still went through with showing the movie, but mostly it went straight to pay-per-view and quickly to Netflix a month later.

Why would anyone be so upset over a movie to even bother going through the trouble of trying to get it shut down?  Well, people are stupid, but when your entire raison d’être is to be a living god to millions of North Koreans, I guess I can see getting a little upset when a movie comes out that tells the world that you have to pee and poo and can die.  That little stunt has probably quadrupled the number of people who have seen the movie.  Oops.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around celebrity news personality Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer, Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen).  Aaron is sick of doing celebrity puff pieces and wants to do serious journalism.  A piece of serious journalism sort of falls into his lap when he learns that Kim Jong-Un is a big fan of Skylark Tonight and they score the interview of the century with the president of North Korea.  When the CIA learns of the interview, they recruit Dave and Aaron to attempt to assassinate the young leader.  Hijinks ensues.

The movie itself isn’t good and isn’t bad.  It starts out a bit slow but picks up nicely after meeting Kim Jong-Un (Randall Park, who absolutely nails it).  Other than that, what you have is your standard Rogan/Franco buddy comedy without much to set it apart from every other film they’ve done together.  That said, this is a fun moment-in-time piece.  Its relevance to current events makes it a much more worth seeing film than it otherwise would be.  See it now because I’m guessing its relevance has a fairly short expiration date.

Movie Review: Mordecai

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: Moderately funny at times.  Has some charm.  Complex plots in a comedy are never a good idea.

And yet another movie that tries to get by on the premise of Johnny Depp playing a quirky fellow.  I assume Depp takes these roles not for the money but for the ability to show us his acting chops.  Though, I’m sure the money doesn’t hurt.  Mix a quirky Depp character with a good script and you are almost guaranteed to have an eventual hit on your hands even if it’s an after the fact cult hit.  Mix a quirky Depp character with a whole cast of quirky characters and a middling story and you get “Mordecai”.

Some of the humor in “Mordecai” hits the mark, but much of it is quite repetitive.  You can only laugh so many times at a man-servant being shot.  It is possible that this humor works better in book form and that pleasure can be derived from seeing the movie after reading the books the movie is based on.  Judging from the two women sitting behind me who thought the movie was hilarious, I can only assume they were book readers because what we were watching was not that funny.

There’s not much to say otherwise.  “Mordecai” tries very hard to be charming, but except for a few brief moments, mostly between Charlie Mordecai (Johnny Depp) and Johanna (Gwenneth Paltrow), it mostly fails.  Like the paintings in this movie, there may be a masterpiece hidden under the surface of this mostly unfunny convoluted plot of a movie, but it would take a master restorer to make a gem of this film.  Look elsewhere for your entertainment.

Movie Review: American Sniper

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Good look into the psychology of a soldier.  Very strange way to tell a story, but it works.  Not sure about the Oscar buzz surrounding the movie.

Here it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I’m reviewing a war movie.  Oh, the irony.  Good news is this is not a movie that glorifies war, though Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) certainly believes in his mission.  Chris Kyle was a real person and this movie was based on a book based on his life.  There are a lot of soldiers alive today because of his exploits with a sniper rifle.  The Navy SEALs trained him to be a killer and he excelled at it and, like so many veterans, he lost his humanity in the process.  That’s about as good a one sentence synopsis of the movie as I think you’ll find.

The story is told in jarring clips.  We flash from Chris about to make his first human kill to his childhood and killing his first deer.  He’s on the phone with his wife when a firefight breaks out then he’s suddenly home with her.  Such is the life of a soldier.  You hold on to the memories that allow you to keep going and everything else is background noise.  It is very strange to watch a movie unfold like this and it’s really only after thinking about it after the fact that I think it worked well.

I did not know going into the movie that this was a true story and knowing that certainly changes how I viewed the movie post-hoc.  If this were not a true story, I do not believe there would be any Oscar nominations in the offing.  It is still a decently told story and worth seeing, but knowing that there is a person who actually experienced this filters our perceptions immensely.  Add to this America’s glorification of the military and our wanting to do everything for our soldiers except give them the equipment they need and the care they deserve and you have yourselves an Oscar nomination or six.  It certainly deserves the lesser nominations for screenplay, editing, and mixing, but best picture or best actor?  Nah.  Bradley Cooper was very good at displaying no emotion whatsoever, but I’m not sure that actually takes much skill as an actor.  I see the nominations as more an homage to Chris Kyle’s life.

Book Review: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

I very quickly fell in love with “Walden” as I started to read it.  It has an allure to it that can suck you in.  Living on the outskirts of humanity, fending for yourself, answering to no one, it’s attractive.  Thoreau also peppers his accounts of his experiment in the woods with keen insights into humanity.  This makes him eminently quotable.  For instance: “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education:  they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.”  I think the reason why you don’t see his quotes more often is how verbose and descriptive he tends to be.  I chose that quote not because it is one of my favorites but because it is by far the shortest I had highlighted.  Quotes tend to be pithy.  Thoreau does not know the meaning of the word “pithy”.

I then very gradually fell out of love with “Walden”.  So much of the middle of the book is spent on simply describing Walden Pond and its environs, flora, fauna, visitors, oh, and what seemed like a billion pages on how deep Walden Pond is and talking about the ice that forms upon it.  Ugh.   I’ve never experienced such a reversal of my interest during my reading of a book before.

The final chapter picked back up the spirit of the first few chapters and things got interesting again as he delved into his politics.  Thoreau was a fascinating person.  Judging from his writing, if he were alive today, I think he’d be a Libertarian.  Much of what he has to say about people borders on condescending and much of what he has to say about politics smashes right through that border.

“Walden” is a slog to get through.  Whether it is worth it much depends on the reader.  If you often find yourself thinking about living a life of simplicity and solitude, there is much here for you.  If you enjoy the intricacies of the English language and teasing out meanings from complicated sentences, there is much here for you as well.  If you don’t find either of those appealing, you’d best look elsewhere for your entertainment.  I would recommend “Walden” to anyone and if they start out enjoying the first chapter, they should continue reading until they get bored and then just skip to the last chapter.  I am incapable of taking such advice, but others are not as completist as me either.

Give Me Land Lots Of Land Under Starry Skies Above

Interactive maps are one of the greatest advances that the interwebs have brought to the masses.  The maps themselves can tell a story and the story can be fleshed out by various links and addenda.  And this is how you do an interactive map right:

More of this, please.  The map shows all the takings of land from the Native Americans by the United States of America.  History is so depressing.  You can play the timeline to show year by year what portion of land was ceded to the U.S.  You can also click anywhere on the map and get a listing of all of the treaties and cessions that occurred for any piece of land.

Movie Review: Taken 3

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A mess of a movie, but enjoyable nonetheless.  Not as much Liam Neeson kick-assedry as I would have liked.  Don’t try to make sense of the plot.

There isn’t much that can said about “Taken 3”.  If you’ve seen the first two, you know what to expect.  If at all possible, the third in the trilogy has an even more absurd plot, but plots are secondary when you’re watching a movie like this.  This one, though, the absurdity of the plot gets in the way and, in some ways, enhances the enjoyment of the film.  This doesn’t put it in “so bad it’s good” territory, but it helps you keep a sense of humor about the movie you are watching.

One thing missing is an astronomical body count.  This is mostly because of the plot.  Much of ass-kickery in the movie is Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) escaping time and again from the police.  And if you’re a good guy, killing police is a big no-no unless said police are corrupt.  The police in the movie are shown as mostly bumbling incompetents except for Detective Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) who is mostly useless except for his OCD habits and providing multiple opportunities to tell us how Mills is too smart for them.  There is quite the body count tally at the end but it’s more of a spree killing than a sustained bad-assedness campaign.  Then there are your unnecessary explosions, which I admit are cool even as you’re rolling your eyes at the over-the-topedness of the amount of flame and damage caused by a rolling car.

“Taken 3” is a movie that makes fun of itself.  At least, I hope that’s what they were doing.  The ending suggests to me that they were making fun of themselves the entire time, but it is really hard to tell.  My suggestion is to go into the movie assuming it’s true and it will make the movie more enjoyable.

You Should Read The Weekly Sift

Perhaps my favorite blog out there right now is The Weekly Sift.  The gentleman who writes it is one of the most level-headed and insightful people writing on the interwebs these days.  He only posts on Mondays so there’s no garbage and everything is well researched and insightful.  I give a little squee of dorkish delight every Monday when his posts pop up as I’m scrolling through my RSS feed.  I want to be him when I grow up.

His latest is Am I Charlie? Should I Be?  It is pitch perfect and not only gets to the heart of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but drill into the soul of the Freedom of Speech debate.