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science, technology, and man’s feeble attempts to look itself in the mirror.


A massive, spinning, 3D envelope? I must have an electronic letter!

As of last year, the penetration rate of the internet for North America is nearly 75% (some of you may mistake the “penetration rate of the internet” to mean something else that, depending on who you ask, is also probably in the 75% ballpark). I also don’t think it’s too big of a jump to say that well beyond the majority of the folk plopping down seven bucks for popcorn and stuffing their asses into the seats for a thrilling summer blockbuster or two use the internet and email on a regular basis. Hell, you don’t have to look too hard to find an asshole checking it during the movie. So why is it that Hollywood continues to pretend that getting an email looks like opening the plans for the Death Star?

The movie industry has a long history of portraying computers as a tripped out light show of a visual metaphor. It’s as if studio execs, still working from a smoky room filled with mechanical adding machines, continue to insist that movie viewers will be bored to death by 10 seconds of a realistic computer. Instead, hacking still involves flying a spaceship through a rendered tunnel, and any time you get hacked you can mash your palm on the keyboard an pop open a world map on your nine filthy monitors and drool at your virtual opponent’s fiendishly mangled packet routing. I really wish I could contain this discussion to a couple famous offenders like Hackers or Wargames or The Net, but, let’s be honest here, I’m talking about EVERY GOD DAMN MOVIE THAT FEATURED A COMPUTER SINCE 1975!

That, of course is more or less when computers in film evolved from this to this.

I can’t decide if Mission Impossible is most dated by the 20 minutes of screen time Tom Cruise spends twirling a CD ROM caddy, or the fact that the entire plot hinges onĀ  Ethan Hunt lodging 3D envelopes to to the mysterious Job as she dials up through her 20 pound cell phone. Probably the former, because inexplicably, email still works like that.

Also, why is it, whenever a government agent goes to their FBI, NSA, or LAPD internal search engine, it’s always blank screen with nothing but a department seal and a giant green box with 200pt font? All they have to do is type “arson” or “strange happenings” and like seventy pop ups shit all over the screen listing exhaustive data on the inexplicably elusive culprit. I’m not sure what’s more impressive: the department’s apparent obsession with minimalist UI and impeccable search or their neglect to use this service until after the third body piles up.

I’d be at a loss if I didn’t mention this, but I’ll will sell you a kidney if you can teach me how to look at an image on my computer, security footage for instance, and utter aloud “enhance image!”, and in defiance of information theory, deconvolve the finite resolution image into a crisp sharp photo of a face or a license plate. If this technology didn’t work in the world of movies, there would be no new releases May through August.

However, to its credit, the 3D “UNIX system” from Jurassic Park, was an actual Silicon Graphics IRIX file manager.

Maybe we’re all just still trying to catch up to the movies after all.

Nobody does their math homework on a bathroom mirror

good-will-huntingThings discovered while staring at a mirror or window in movies and tv:

Things discovered while staring at a mirror or window in real life:

  • – important economic realities, like increasingly ineffectual Schick Quattro blades
  • – that the mysterious smells from downstairs are probably from a meth lab
  • – that a janitor is secretly stealing from the 7-11 across the street

Why No One Cares What Homology Is: The Importance of Naming Your Field Sexily

Did you ever stop to think about why in the hell Jurassic Park needed a mathematician to come be a consultant on their dinosaur island? It’s because Ian Malcolm wasn’t just a mathematician, he was a chaotician. He was a sexy man in a sexy field with a sexy god damn name. He wore a leather coat and sun glasses, and he had a lot more to say about divorces than nonlinear differential equations or bifurcations. This is because no one cared.

If you want people to give a clown’s ass about your field in the public eye, you need two things: lots of pretty pictures and a great name. Until the mid-seventies, you probably sported thick lenses and Pascal punch cards if you really cared at all about nonlinear dynamics or ergodic theory, but the advent of the phrase “Chaos Theory” got a lot more people to look up from Sports Illustrated and show a mild interest in having the work explained to them as an imprecise extended metaphor. The close ties to fractal geometry helped a lot, as it gave fringe amateur mathematicians something new to put under their black light. The long-term impact of its name is debatable, but I guarantee, if James Yorke hadn’t coined the term “chaos” in the seventies, the field would have a lot less money, interest, and dedicated researchers today.

And the real shit-kicker is many scientists have been dreadfully uninspired in naming new fields, theories, and discoveries. I have no idea how many people would care about black holes if they were still called “gravitationally completely collapsed stars.” Actually, John Wheeler’s term “black hole” was initially very controversial in France, where they thought it was too reminiscent of, well, you can imagine what French Physicists have on their mind.

I’m sure millions of people were greatly disappointed upon learning that game theory is more about payoff matrices and less about winning roulette or a dramatically fascinating struggle with mental illness.

If you are thinking about starting a new field of research, ask yourself whether you’re doing the marketing right. Is your name punchy and memorable? Does it mislead the casual scientist into fantastic misconceptions of its subject matter? Will it make for delightful book covers?

Here are some good examples,

…and some bad ones,

  • Stenography
  • Attachment Theory
  • Ontology

Actually that last one reminds me, as a rule, don’t end the name in -tology whatever you do. That’s just how you turn a field (Cosmology or Science or instance) into a shittier field (Cosmetology or Scientology). Or in the case of Scatology, it really was a shit field to begin with. If you are a scatologist, you should consider hitting up asap. Show a little self-respect.

Science is magic.

Welcome to Science Wand. We have a lot to say about the odd couple that is human natue and human ingenuity, and only so much interest in saying it. It’ll be a battle for the ages. Stay tuned.