Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Movie Review: Beowulf & Grendel

Well, we watched Beowulf & Grendel last night, and I was not impressed. It didn’t completely suck, but it was neither “authentic” nor terribly clever.

A better title might have been the “The Vengeance of Poor Misunderstood Grendel Upon the Redneck Danes”. Seriously, the Danes and Geats act like a bunch of rednecks constantly dropping the F-word in Scottish accents. At least the rednecks are smart enough to wear their helmets when they go into a fight.

Grendel is vaguely like an adolescent taking revenge for a legitimate wrong. He lacks the supernatural invulnerability that helped define Grendel in the poem. He's just big, strong, and cunning in a neanderthalish kind of way. He's obviously meant to be a sympathetic character, and quite frankly kicks the butts of Beowulf and everyone else he fights. He pwnez Beowulf and company so bad that he actually has to cut his own arm off so it can get nailed to the wall.

And then there’s the witch Selma, played by Sarah Polley, who helps the story by dropping hints about her friend Grendel’s motivations in an undisguised American accent.

Add in a disposable subplot involving a Christian missionary and a gratuitous visit from Grendel's mother, and you've got something resembling a story that doesn't very much resemble the classic Beowulf.

I’d give this two out of five stars, I guess. Don’t rush to the video store.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Random Musings

Home refurbishing is finally nearing completion. Every piece of tile for the floor has been cut, only about six need to be actually laid in place, and at least half of the floor is already grouted. The final steps should be done in the next couple of days. I’m looking forward to having nights and weekends again.

Speaking of weekends, our annual Halloween party is coming up. I will try to remember to take more pictures this year. Owing to the gratuitous emptiness of the house (due to the floor replacement), we should have plenty of room to bring the festivities indoors for the most part.

Beowulf & Grendel has finally come out on DVD in this country. I’ve been waiting for this release for a while; I really, really hope it doesn’t suck. We may watch it tonight, so I may write a review in the next couple of days.

We’ve also managed to become addicted to Heroes over the last few weeks. Don’t let my skeptical writings fool you; I love this kind of stuff.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More Hollywood Antiscience

I don't want to harp too much on Hollywood's screenwriters; it's not like they have degrees in astrophysics or anything. They just want interesting plot devices for their stories, and they usually don't have the time or inclination to consult a qualified expert, even if they knew one, to see if their ideas are scientifically plausible. Consequently, they write scientifically preposterous plot devices that require great acts of suspension of disbelief from anyone with a scientific background. Now, I'm not saying that gross misrepresentations well-established laws of physics should keep you from enjoying the programs; I enjoy watching them myself. Just don't be fooled into thinking that there's a scientific clue being exercised in the writing studio, even if the show claims to be a "hard science fiction show". All that said, let's look at a couple of repetitive anti-science cliches that have come out of the TV industry.

Time Stopping

This is the supernatural ability of the character Hiro in the NBC series Heroes, as well as a plot point in Star Trek episodes like "Wink of an Eye" from the original series and "Timescape" from The Next Generation.

The plot gimmick in these shows is that time somehow stops or gets slowed tremendously for some characters while continuing normally for others. This means that you have some characters walking around and interacting normally with the environment while the rest are "frozen" by comparison.

Unfortunately, Hollywood writers never consider the consequences of someone experiencing time at a rate hundreds or thousands of times greater than others. As Mike Wong has pointed out on his website in relation to Star Trek, all kinds of things are time dependent that science fiction TV writers don't think about.

For example, the light by which we see is actually time dependent. A 100-watt lightbulb, for instance, is defined by the fact that it converts 100 joules of energy from electrical current into heat and light every second. If a hero alters time so that he's moving 1000 times faster than everyone else, then all the 100-watt bulbs he might be using to see become -- from his point of view -- 0.1-watt lightbulbs, and he's suddenly wandering about in the dark.

Interacting with the environment doesn't stop with sight, either. If you're going 1000 times faster than everyone else, you experience 1000 times as much air resistance as everyone else. From your perspective, the air might feel as thick as water (or worse). Even if your time-bending ability allowed you to move through the air normally, the friction created by your passing would create a super-heated shockwave wherever you went that would blast everyone you walked by (and you, too, when you allowed yourself to return to "normal" speed). If you exert five pounds of force to move an object, that object will actually experience five thousand pounds of force in normal time (which would be sufficient to damage many things you might want to move).

And finally, if you literally "stop time" for everything else, you can't do anything. You can't see, because no light is reaching your eyes. You can't move, because the immobile air is an impenetrable barrier. Actually stopping time would just be an exercise in sensory deprivation (until you suffocate from lack of oxygen, that is).

Sudden Evolution

Offenders in this category include the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Transfigurations", the Babylon 5 episode "Mind War", and the B5 TV movie River of Souls. These shows all describe an "evolutionary" change in which living beings of some alien race of the week transform in a bright flash from ordinary flesh-and-blood humanoids into "pure energy" beings who fly away into space (or do other things that only pure-energy beings could do).

To put it bluntly, such a transformation is not "evolutionary". In fact, it's the total opposite of evolution. If the general public got their understanding of the Theory of Evolution from shows like this, it's no wonder that they don't take the theory seriously. Evolution is about tiny variations that accumulate over the course of many generations, not dramatic changes in living examples of a species.

Moral of the Story

If you go to Hollywood for scientific understanding, you become the blind following the blind.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Rapier Drill: Blade Control

You get a surprising amount of touches in SCA fencing by wrestling about your opponents blade to get your point on target while keeping your opponent's point at bay. Of course, in SCA fencing, you can't actually grab your opponent, only his or her weapon. Practicing at this sort of blade control is quite useful, and you should practice against various different opponents as the opportunity arises.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Rapier Drill: Three Step Drill

This is a drill that originated early in my days of learning SCA fencing. Lord Edmund and Lord Ivan started me on it, and I perpetuate it. The objective is to use three standard Capo Ferro parries to deflect attacks, while using good footwork to move forward and backward.

As noted, the attacker makes a middle thrust, a low thrust, and a high thrust, advancing a step with each attack. The defender uses Capo Ferro parries four, two, and five (by our numbering system) to deflect the attacks while stepping back each time. The fencers reverse roles after each series.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Rapier Drill: Hand Parries

I've described this drill before. It's not all that unusual to find yourself fighting with a rapier in one hand and nothing in the other, and the purpose of this drill is to help you defend yourself in this situation, especially if you've been unfortunate enough to have your opponent trap your blade so you're left with nothing but your empty hand to defend yourself.

As I noted before, these are Jeet Kune Do parries applied to fencing. The actual hand motion that you use may vary.

Note that when I miss a parry, Ysabel stabs me in the throat. That's how a drill should work: if you don't execute your maneuver properly, you take a hit. The person making the thrusts should be on target every time. Incidentally, that's also why you need to have full gear to do this drill.

More to come...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Rapier Drill: Footwork

Thanks to Rhys, we have video of drills performed at the last Glaedenfeld fencing practice that I actually managed to attend. I'll dole these out one at a time, to pad out my posting for the week.

First up, a very basic drill for new fencers, how to move around. These are the basic movements for moving forward, left, right, and backwards. The actual drill involves moving in a square: forward three steps, right three, back three, and left three. Note that the foot in the direction you're going (lead foot if moving forward, right foot if moving right, etc.) goes first. Passage steps are a separate drill.

Dammit, I need to lose some weight.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Experimenting with Reiki

No, I'm not actually going to conduct an experiment to determine whether Reiki actually works. I am, however, going to propose an experiment that might show whether there's something to the whole Reiki concept.

According to The International Center for Reiki Training's FAQ, "Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing." More specifically, Reiki is "spiritually guided life force energy" that reduces stress, relaxes, and promotes healing.

We'll not dispute the potential to reduce stress and relax; evidence has shown that many phenomena can have these effects via the placebo effect. If someone believes in a treatment, then receiving the treatment will likely relieve stress and relax them whether there's anything to it or not.

Healing promotion should be testable, but it would require a double-blind, placebo-controlled study that's well beyond the scope of me or most of my humble readers (you are humble, aren't you?).

No, let's focus on the "Reiki is spiritually guided life force energy" part. After all, it's the part that could win a million bucks from James Randi (that could be used for charity, if you're too selfless to want it for yourself).

It seems reasonable that if this "spiritually-guided life force energy" exists, there should be some way to detect it. The spiritual sort of people who believe in Reiki will likely assert that technological efforts to detect this energy would be fruitless (since it's "spiritual"), but shouldn't competent Reiki practitioners be able to detect the energy they're "spiritually guiding".

So, what test scenarios might we devise to test whether Reiki practitioners can detect "life force energy".

Well, one possibility is to test whether they can detect a living creature inside a closed container. Place a test animal like a mouse inside a box that is made of thin material yet reasonably proof against transmitting sound or vibration. Have similar boxes that are empty. Reiki practitioners should presumably be able to identify the box containing a live animal with greater accuracy than individuals with no belief in Reiki, right?

Another possibility would be to test practitioners to determine whether they can tell if someone has recently experienced Reiki treatment. After all, someone who has recently received Reiki should be more relaxed and less stressed, and this should be evident in their "life force energy", shouldn't it? Recruit a "believer" willing to accept a Reiki treatment. At the beginning of an hour, the test Practitioner should examine the untreated patient to get a baseline feel for the patient's "life force energy". The test Practitioner will visit the patient after 15, 30, 45, and 60 minutes to determine if the patient has received treatment. A second Practitioner may actually perform a Reiki treatment on the patient during one of the intervals. The test Practitioner should be able to determine at what interval, if any, the patient received treatment, right? After all, the patient's "life force energy" will be changed by the treatment, won't it? If you can't detect such a change, how can you know that the patient needs treatment?

These are just a couple ideas that came to me pretty quickly. I'm sure that real Reiki practitioners who wanted to demonstrate just how effective and useful Reiki treatment is could come up with scenarios acceptable to the James Randi Educational Foundation and win a million dollars for themselves or their favorite charities.

What are you waiting for guys?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Uff Dah!

Everyone take a moment to remember Leif Eriksson, the first European known to have lead a successful expedition to the Americas. He reached modern Canada and named it Vinland around the year 1000. Today just happens to be Leif Eriksson Day.

Back from Vacation

Yes, the Saga has been silent for a week while my wife and I relaxed in sunny Orlando. We have returned, however, so I hope to resume my usual schedule of trying to post at least once a week.

We spent most of our week at Disney parks. We weren’t bothered much by the cost of admission; we knew about that expense up front and we knew what we’d be getting for it. The cost of finding something to eat in the parks, however, is a different matter. The cost of food in Disney parks seems to go up faster than inflation alone would explain, and it’s really starting to feel like gouging.

Case in point, the Biergarten in Epcot. It now costs well over $20 (US) per person to eat there, and that doesn’t include drinks (I think it’s just wrong to go to a German restaurant and not have a beer). What they serve hasn’t changed over the years, and for the first time, we didn’t feel like we got our money’s worth eating there. The same isn’t true for all Disney restaurants – we didn’t feel overcharged at Ohana, for instance, but that it’s no longer unusual. Our food highlight of the week wasn’t even at Disney; it was a Puerto Rican restaurant called La Garnita located at the corner of Sand Beach Road and Universal Drive in Orlando.

October is a good time to go to Disney for rides and such, though. The longest we waited to ride anything was 40 minutes for the Rock-n-Roller Coaster at MGM Studios, and that was at peak time. For most rides we waited less than 20 minutes. It’s also a good time to talk with people from around the world. I think all of Europe decided that early October was the time to go on vacation this year.

We also spent one day at Blizzard Beach, Disney’s newest water park. This was rated by the Travel Channel as the number 2 water park in the US, and it is a lot of fun. I only went down the Summit Plummet – the longest and steepest waterslide in the world (at present) – one time, though. It wasn’t bad dropping 90 feet at over 50 MPH (roughly 80 KPH), but the amount of water that went up my nose took some of the thrill out of it.

We are now officially Disneyed-out for a while, and have no long absences on our calendar until Gulf Wars XV.