8 ago. 2015

Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

Growing up reading Isaac Asimov, one of my dreams was to become a successful science fiction author. However, actually figuring out how to write good science fiction is very complicated and requires a lot of work and patience to get the science right and the writing perfect.

Zach Weinersmith wrote that reality has two dimensions of time: proper time and remembered time. Proper time is the one we store in watches (for example: August 8, 2015 at 3:32 p.m.) while remembered time is stored in our neurons (for example: the time I visited Costa Rica).

Because remembered time will only remember the things that I liked (and those memories will be further reinforced because I will talk about them and think about them often) humans tend to idealize the past and associate the past with a better state of things. This is what we call nostalgia.

But if our brains aren’t very good at remembering things, they are pretty amazing at making connections (even when they aren’t there). That is the reason for this list of parallels between the lives of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln and it is also how I feel about Ernest Cline (author of Ready Player One) and Andy Weir (author of The Martian).

You see: both authors were born in the US in 1972, both authors published their first book in 2011, the plot of both books relies on nostalgia and both books didn’t do amazingly well on release but are now considered classics of modern science fiction.

And this brings me back to my original point. Becoming a science fiction writer must be a matter of finding a magical formula that anybody can copy and then just writing lots of words. In order to find this magic formula, I will analyze these two books.

I will start by looking at Andy Weir’s book. The Martian was painstakingly researched in order to have correct science, which required lots of complicated mathematics to get right. It creates rich characters with feelings and limitations, characters who are afraid of losing and uses nostalgic elements to tie them up to Earth and make you identify with them. So, obviously, that is too much work. Moving on!

Ready Player One is far simpler. The basic idea is to throw as many nostalgic references as possible in the hopes that someone will say “hey! I know that one thing!”. The first element of nostalgia appears all the way in page number 2: an Atari 2600. After that references show up every couple paragraphs (always presented in a list of items because that makes it even more annoying to read). We will read lists of consoles (Apple IIe, a Commodore 64, an Atari 800 XL, TRS-80), games (Galaga, Defender, Asteroids), comics (Spider-Man, X-Men, Green Lantern), refuges (Batcave, Fortress of Solitude), fictional worlds (Middle Earth, Vulcan, Pern, Arrakis, Magrathea,Discworld, Mid-World, Riverworld, Ringworld), spacecraft (UFOs, TIE fighters, old NASA space shuttles, Vipers), etc.

Additionally, the book treats the reader like an idiot. Every single joke is explained, and then if people are too dense to get it, it is explained again. Every term that isn’t completely obvious is expanded upon. Don’t know what an NPC is? Can’t be bothered to Google it? Don’t worry, the book says they are “non-player characters” – still don’t get it? No problem, the next paragraph will explain – “computer-controlled humans, animals, monsters, aliens and androids.”

So, insulting my readers and listing things? I can totally do that!!

And so I present to you the first paragraph of my science fiction masterpiece:
"thanks Obama!" – He said sarcastically while rolling his eyes. Some members of the audience were still not getting it – "I was being sarcastic" – he further explained, explainingly (sarcasm is the use of irony to mock or convey contempt) – "in this case I am not really thanking Obama, I just say 'thanks Obama' in an ironic way" -- he added expositionally [1]. 
Footnotes:
[1] Expositionally is the adverb form the word exposition. Adverbs are words or phrases that qualify adjectives, verbs or other adverbs. Some of the possible categorizations of adverbs include: Genitive, Conjunctive, Flat, Locative, Interrogative, Collateral, Prepositional, Pronominal and Relative

Some attentive readers might notice that collateral is really a form of adjective, to which I reply: who cares? Determining the correct list would require work and by that point my target audience will be thinking: "ohh!! Look, locative adverbs, I remember those from school!! This book is super cool!!"

5 jul. 2015

Fourth of July

The United States are widely known for adopting other cultures and celebrating them, for example in Cinco de Mayo, where they celebrate by putting on sombreros, drinking tequila and listening to Latin American music (to which they refer by the common national name of "Mexican"). It is in this spirit that, during my trip to Mexico, we decided to celebrate Fourth of July (pronounced Fort of Hoolie).

We began our celebration with a typical steak and eggs breakfast. To prepare this breakfast you have to sun-dry the steak, pound it and heat it in a pan. After the meat is brown you add tomatoes, onions, serrano chile and eggs.

Steak and Eggs

Once the steak and eggs are done, you put them as a topping in a traditional American pizza:

A typical American breakfast

Once we were done with breakfast we engaged in the characteristic ritual of shopping, from the French word chopîn which means: buying things I don't have money for. During this shopping spree, we bought a plush dinosaur, hamburgers, coffee and horchata among other things.

Once we came back home, we dressed in typical American formal wear.

An American Cowboy and the customary American hat.

Before the meal we had some American hors d'oeuvres.

A map of the United States; we put the flag in the capital: Washington D.C.

We also learned a bit about the history and culture of the United States. The Fourth of July is the celebration of the day when the Native American Indians taught the Americans to make hamburgers after the famous battle of Waterloo. Ever since, in order to commemorate this event, Americans make hamburgers and hot dogs.

Almost as good as McDonald's

Little known fact: hot dogs are shaped after American submarines, which is why they are sometimes called subs.

An American sub.

We wanted to celebrate American culture fully, so we even bought a soap dispenser shaped like the American national bird: the bald owl.

You can tell he is bald because he is wearing a pilgrim hat.

Unfortunately we could not find Bud Light so we had to substitute using good beer.

6 jun. 2015

Boldly Running

Lincoln Chafee announced he wanted to run for the Democratic bid under a platform of "bold ideas" including the idea of switching to using the metric system.

While discussing this at work someone mentioned that the idea of using standardized units would not be well received by the general American population, to the point where that single idea could have cost him the nomination.

I am hoping that some Republican candidate realizes that the issue is polarizing and decides to run under a platform of "bold ideas", including the idea of switching to units which are even further away from the metric system.

To help that hypothetical Republican candidate in his nomination I want to submit a proposal to change the unit of energy from Calories to horsepower per hour (or horses for short).

This has many benefits; for example: horsepower per hour is a bigger unit than calories, so instead of eating hundreds of calories we will be eating only half a horse (note: call this a pony). I am sure this will boost morale and have a positive effect on people who overeat.

And so that people get accustomed to the change, some meals in horses:

  • Bruléed French Toast from Cheesecake Factory -- 4.33 horses 
  • Big Hook Up from Joe-s Crab Shack -- 5.11 horses 
  • New York Steak "Contadina style" from Maggiano's  -- 3.77 horses.
  • Deep Dish Chicken Bacon Ranch Pizza from BJ's -- 3.36 horses
  • Large Chocolate Oreo Shake from Baskin-Robbins -- 4.05 horses

24 mar. 2015

Chicago Bullies

Chicago Bulls fans who watch their team in the United Center receive coupons for a free Big Mac if their team wins and scores at least 100 points.

This has lead to some mathematically-challenged fans who will boo the players when they do not score at least 100 points, because they do not understand that 99 < 100 and the players just saved them from having a dinner which, nutritionally speaking, compares slightly disfavorably to cheap car oil and doesn't taste much better than it either.

This has also lead some of my more sophisticated readers to wonder: "well, but why is McDonald's torturing Bulls fans by forcing them to consume their burgers?" and I would like to remind them that this is America; we do not condone torture. Giving out free Big Macs is only part of the CIA's enhanced celebration techniques.

11 mar. 2015

The Diversity of Sand-grains

Today I read an article by Susana Polo in which she discusses the news that DC Comics is scrapping the New 52 in favor of a more diverse, character driven series of comics.

This is all great for DC. Diversity in media is definitely a good thing. It is realistic because the world we live in is diverse and it gives us different points of view and better characters and interactions.

From the article we can see that DC is attempting to steal some of Marvel's market with their more diverse super heroes, led by the new Ms. Marvel, who is a young Muslim woman. Polo continues to congratulate Marvel on the great work they are doing for diversity saying that "[Marvel] has shown other commitments to diversity on the page [...] with all-female Avengers and X-Men teams".

She is using "diversity", of course, in the less well-known form where it means: "not differing from one another, not containing people of different genders".

14 nov. 2014

Dear ACL

Rebekah Gregory DiMartino's life changed drastically after she attended the Boston Marathon in 2013. She was standing next to one of the bombs placed during the attack, which left her with an injured leg that doctors have fought for months to save. Unfortunately, the leg couldn't be saved and Rebekah finally decided to have it removed but this has not made her lose her positive attitude.

This amazing display of energy and positivism has really inspired me and has made me think: if she can milk her injury for all it's worth, why can't I get a little attention and money for mine? 

And so it is that I decided to write a letter to my ACL:

Hey ACL, it's me.

I know that some times you feel like I'm tearing you apart, but I want to tell you that my feelings are true and that I never wanted to hurt you. I'm not saying that this isn't hard for me and I understand that you want to leave me; however, I don't want this thing we have to come to an end. Every day that I spend without you is a day where I am unstable and I feel like I can trip and fall at any moment. I'm not sure I can reach my full potential if you are not here. I love you, I really do, and you are crucial to my happiness. Please come back (and bring your friends MCL and cartilage back too).

Wishing you the best,
Magus
I have also started posting corny puns in my Facebook:
ACLimatizing myself to living without you is hard.
After the previous pun I realized that it is really hard to make good puns with ACL so instead I decided to post some super positive images instead:

To fully appreciate the previous image watch it while listening to this.

And now that all of this is done I am just waiting for the money and interview requests to pour in.  

19 oct. 2014

We're All Gonna Die!!

Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are in the middle of what Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, named "the worst Ebola epidemic in history" and warns that "the world is losing the battle to contain it", Judge Jeaniné from Fox News says that "[the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention] don't know what the hell they are doing, they are lying to you or they are plain incompetent" and Dana Ford says that the "odds of survival are not good". So, should we be terrified or just really, really scared?

Lets look at the whole thing from a numbers perspective
  • As of October 14, 2014 there are 9,216 reported cases, of which 4,555 have died (49.4% death rate)
  • Most of the deaths have been people who have no access to health care and who, for religious reasons, are not able to dispose of the body in the ways required to avoid spreading the disease.
  • In countries with access to medicine the death rate is around 33%
At this point the part of our brain that tells us if something is bad is screaming "4,555 deaths! That's terrible!", but lets take a look at some of the other leading causes of death for this year: Just in the US, heart disease kills around 596,577 people every year and cancer kills another 576,691. We might think those aren't valid comparisons because cancer and heart disease aren't communicable diseases. In a year, the flu kills 53,826 people. Put another way: every single month, just in the US, influenza kills more people than the Ebola outbreak has killed in the whole world.

If you live in the US, in the past five years you have the same chance of dying of Ebola than you have of being stabbed by a rooster (I am doing my part by eating chicken wings in order to stop the stabbing chicken outbreak) or chocked to death by cockroaches. This year you are twice as likely to be killed by bears, than you are to be killed by Ebola.

But lets stop focusing on the US, and lets look a bit more closely at Liberia. So far in Liberia there have only been 2,484 reported deaths. Since Liberia has a population of 4,092,310 inhabitants it represents around 0.06% of the population. In comparison, the Black Death is said to have killed around half the population of the entire European continent. Joanne Liu and Dana Ford get away with the "worst Ebola outbreak" on the technicality that we don't really have any data for any other Ebola outbreak.

Not all is perfect; however, Wikipedia conveniently has a chart of the new cases contracted in Liberia day by day

What is the previous chart telling us? First it is telling us that the growth is exponential:


cases = 9.3249e0.0505days

Bad outbreaks generally tend to kill around 30% of the population in a country or region. If Liberia has 4,092,310 inhabitants we can solve for the number of days that it would take to have about 1,227,693 reported cases of Ebola:


The attentive reader will notice that my equation is only giving us reported cases, and not really deaths and that the number of deaths will only be half that because the mortality rate is 50%; however, it turns out to make little difference because the function is exponential and it would only take another 10 days or so for the number to double. 

That sounds bad, but for the equation to work two things must continue to be true: victims will continue to receive inadequate treatment and the number of cases will continue to grow exponentially (both of which are very unlikely). 

Places with health care have even less to worry about. The infection rate in the US seems to be pretty low; the family of the guy from Dallas will finish their quarantine in a couple hours (from the time of this writing) in what they are calling "a tremendous miracle" and of all the nurses and medical staff that treated the guy only two contracted the disease (even though the medical equipment they were using was insufficient).

Even if you do contract the disease, the death rate in places with health care seems to be much closer to 33%, and now that the whole world is aware of the outbreak it is very likely to go even further down. 

So, should we be terrified or just really, really scared? Neither just yet, but we should still be careful, because if we ignore the problem for a few months then we will really have something to be scared of.