Archive for the ‘Science!’ Category


Results from the Page 17 test

April 7, 2009

As you may recall, I recently decided to do a test on a claim made by a screenwriter.  The man was writer-director Nathan Marshall, and these were his exact words:

Next time you watch a DVD, pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust me—any film. What’s happening at that point in the story? Most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out.

This sounded like a really cool thing.  Go to the 16:00 marker in any movie, press PLAY, and watch the conflict established itself?  Cooool.  So, in the interest of great lulz, I selected twenty different DVDs, put them in the player, forwarded to “Page 17”, and recorded my results.

And here they go:

1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Right off the bat, I noticed that something was amiss.  There was no setup happening at all during Page 17.  The only thing that happened was that the previous scene, an action sequence, built to a climax and the main characters escaped.  Part of the character conflict – Indiana and the Russians – had been established much earlier, around the 5:00 mark.  The rest – Indiana, Marion, and Mutt – would not be established until much later.

Verdict: There was a plot point – the climax of the escape-from-the-warehouse scene – but it established nothing for the story to come.  Fail.

2. Left Behind II: Tribulation Force

Much better performance on the second go.  When we enter the scene at 16:00, we come into a discussion between two of the main characters.  It seems that Buck has just decided to meet with the Big Bad of the story.  Bruce tries to talk him out of it, but Buck is adamant.

Verdict: Not only does the scene climax, but a portion of the story is established.  Buck’s decision to meet with Carpathia will lead to a job offer, which will get him into several pivotal locations later in the story.  Pass.

3. The Day After Tomorrow

Page 17 puts us in space, where a group of astronauts in the orbiting space station look down on Earth.  They see, for the first time, the immense storms that have been building.  Cut to an airplane, which is beginning to experience turbulence.  The main character mentions his fear of flying.

Verdict: No character setup, but this is nonetheless a pivotal point of the film: the main antagonist (the storm) is introduced in full.  Pass.

(Incidentally, when the rating page for the movie came up, it read PG-13, for sequences of peril.  I misread it as “sequences of fail”.  Realistically, movies that fail as hard as The Day After Tomorrow should be given a warning.)

4. Dinotopia

This was to be my first length test.  Being a Hallmark miniseries, it runs somewhere around four hours long, and therefore wouldn’t have to conform to the rule.

Yet it did so, and effectively: Page 17 brings us to the main characters, two brothers, introducing themselves to an important female character.  The exchange that occurs hints at the rivalry between the two brothers, setting the stage for the heavy competition that will occur over the female character.

Verdict: While I wouldn’t say that the movie is about David and Karl’s competition over Marion, it is nonetheless a plot thread that will be revisited many times.  Pass.

5. National Treasure

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

When they said that, they were clearly talking about this movie.  When I hit PLAY at 16:00, it launched straight into Ben Gates’ big epiphany: that the map, which they would be following throughout the rest of the movie, was hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence.  You could not pick a more pivotal scene if you tried.

Verdict: While it didn’t establish any character conflict, it was THE turning point in the film.  Pass.

6. The Spy Who Loved Me

I will admit straight off that I haven’t seen this movie, so I was a little fuzzy as to what was actually going on, but the scene looked pretty good.  It opened up to the Big Bad talking to a couple of his associates, and revealing that one of his employees had betrayed him.  He then fed her to the sharks.

Verdict: For a series notorious for its vapid and superficial plots, the movie nonetheless delivered a scene which helped to establish one of its major characters.  Pass.

7. Peter Pan (Live-Action Version)

Wendy offers to sew Peter’s shadow back to his foot.  She spends the remainder of the minute completing this task.

Verdict: The infamous foot-sewing scene is a huge turning point in Wendy and Peter’s relationship, earning Peter’s respect for Wendy and inspiring his offer to take her to Neverland.  Pass with flying colors.

8. The Cat From Outer Space

Wouldn’t you know it – even old movies seem to follow this.  Page 17 of The Cat From Outer Space has the cat entering the main character’s laboratory, getting noticed by said character, and getting a name.

Verdict: Well, it didn’t introduce any conflict, but it brought the two characters together, which was pretty darned important.  Pass.

9. Logan’s Run

The main characters meet in the male character’s house.  He learns her name and that she is unhappy about her friend’s death on Carousel.  It seems largely unimportant now, but once he starts his mission he uses this information to find her and get help.  Pass.

10. The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns

Second length test, another Hallmark miniseries approximately four hours in length.  On page 17, one of the main characters is hanging out with his friends when a strange character appears.  They talk, and the characters (and audience) learn that the Grand Banshee has forbidden fighting between the faeries and leprechauns.  At the end of the minute, the characters have their first run-in with the MC’s arch-enemy.

Verdict: Not only did we introduce a huge plot point, but they even fit in an important antagonist.  Pass.

11. Westworld

Page 17: The main antagonist, who before now had been standing quietly at the bar, begins insulting the main character, looking to pick a fight.

Verdict: The antagonist has been introduced, and now we learn enough about his character to figure out what he’ll be doing for the remainder of the film.  Pass.

2. A Bug’s Life

When we cut to 16:00, we find that the ant council is in session, discussing what to do about the grasshopper problem.  The main character interrupts and proposes his idea, to which the council agrees.

Verdict: In only one minute, the remaining plot (aside from twists, of course) has been outlined and set into motion.  Pass.

13. The Munsters’ Revenge

Page 17 finds one of the main characters on a raging rampage throughout a police station, aggravated by a bug that crawled up his sleeve somewhat earlier.  He storms about, breaking furniture, for almost the entire minute before being pinned by police.  Shortly after the minute, he and the other main character are arrested.

Verdict: The remainder of the movie centers around the characters breaking out of jail and trying to clear their names.  Pass.

14. Ice Age

The sabretooths are in the midst of attacking the human village.  A human woman flees with her baby; one of the sabretooths chases after her.  He runs her to the edge of a cliff.  Seeing no other option, she jumps off; the baby will later be washed up and found by the main characters.  The sabretooth returns and reports that the baby has escaped; he will be assigned to retrieve it.

Verdict:  And that’s the plot of your movie right there.  Pass.

15. Batman & Robin

This is the movie that I just pulled off the top of the dresser and popped in.  The random selection did not go unrewarded: page 17 is utterly dull, following the female antagonist as she stalks about her laboratory talking into a recorder, then breaks into the laboratory of her rival scientist who is demonstrating his latest whackjob experiment.

Verdict: We already knew that these scientists were at odds, and Page 17 doesn’t do anything to expound on the matter.  Besides, only one of them will make it out alive.  Fail.

16. Arsenic and Old Lace

A really old one this time, just to see how far back the “rule” runs.  On Page 17 (assuming that page number was concurrent with time back then), the main character sends his new wife into her house to pack, then rushes to his own home to share the good news with his aunts.

Verdict: It could have been the body in the window seat.  It could have been the guy telling his wife he was going to be a bit longer than expected.  Instead, it was a small, lighthearted and ultimately trivial domestic matter.  Fail.

17. The Court Jester

And, putting the nail in the coffin for old movies, we have The Court Jester.  Page 17 puts us in the middle of a confrontation between the main character and a few minor antagonists.  The confrontation is resolved and the characters go on their way.

Verdict: The two set-up pieces – the guards meeting the MC for the first time, and the MC chatting with his love interest – happen before and after this point, respectively.  Nothing interesting occurs at 16:00.  Fail.

18. The Phantom of the Opera

And back to new movies.  At minute 16, we see the opera managers receiving their first message from the main antagonist, then learning the name of the protagonist.

Verdict: Two characters are made relevant in one minute.  Pass.

19: Lady and the Tramp

For the lulz, I dredged out an old animated classic.  And it performed pretty much as expected: at 16:00, we find the male protagonist seeking out lunch.  He finds it, takes it away to eat, and is interrupted by a dog-catcher’s van.

Verdict: It isn’t until 17:00 that the audience learns what the situation is, and it’s a minute too late.  Fail.

20: CSI, Episode “To Halve and to Hold”

I didn’t really think this one would work, but he did say every film, so I decided to be thorough about it.  Even knowing full well that the setup for these episodes happens before the credits, I went to Page 17 to check it out.  We have two of the main characters talking about some cells they’ve just discovered, then going to question the guest characters for the episode.  The guest characters bicker a bit when questioned.

Verdict: In a show where every other scene is some kind of brilliant revelation, this minute somehow failed to deliver any new information.  Fail.

In conclusion, it would appear that Marshall’s statement, while valid, was a bit hasty.  Older movies don’t experience this effect at all, and even newer productions have exceptions.  Page 17, while a popular turning point, is far from a magic number.


An interesting factoid about kittens…

April 6, 2009

(Oy!  This was supposed to be published days ago.  I have no idea why it didn’t, but here it goes now.)

Well, I had a good bit of fun yesterday.  The computer, lurching under the weight of two or three trojans, was on its last leg.  It crashed every 5-10 minutes, kept throwing random pop-up ads, and had decided that it could no longer read flash drives.

So I formatted the beastie.  It’s better now.

Another thing I did yesterday was hold one of the soft, fuzzy, adorable kittens that one of our cats has so generously bequeathed upon us.  They’re somewhere between a week and two weeks old, so naturally they are irresistible to humans.

Unfortunately, they are also cranky little fuzzbutts.  They all have a canary fit when you try to pick them up.  Two or three of them will continue to have said canary fit as long as you’re holding them, and will not shut up until you put them back in their box.

Fortunately for me, I managed to devise a solution.  I hit upon it rather by accident, really.  I was holding one of the kittens, stroking it, talking softly to it, trying to get the little cuss to quit meowing, at least for a few minutes.  I even tried imitating its mother – no dice.  (My momcat impression is terrible; this may have factored into it.)

So I tried singing.  Not any uber-fantabulous singing, mind – more like extended, quiet hooting.  Cooing, you might say.  The kind of thing that drives any human in a ten-foot radius absolutely bonkers.

And whaddya know?  The kitten shut up.

Not only did it stop crying, but the little fuzzball quit trying to escape.  Where before I had been dealing with a wigglewort kitten who probably would have jumped off my shoulder if I let it, now I had a quiet, complacent kitten snuggled into my arm, happy as a clam.  And it stayed there, as long as I kept singing.  Once I stopped it would get fussy again.

I have no idea why the kitten would respond to this.  I certainly didn’t sound anything like a mother cat.  I suspect vibrations had something to do with it; the kitten seemed to prefer when I hummed at a lower pitch.  Perhaps the longer wavelength was close enough to its mother’s purring that it soothed the little beastie.

Either way, it seems that kittens are much easier to please than infected computers.


Investigating the “Page 17” rule

April 4, 2009

While perusing the “cameos” (advice from screenplay writers) on Script Frenzy, I came across an interesting piece of information.  According to Nathan Marshall, you can pause any DVD at the Page 17 mark – roughly sixteen minutes into the film – and something important will be happening.  You will find yourself witnessing a great turning point that will set the stage for the rest of the movie.

Well, it’s not that I don’t trust Mr. Marshall – as he is a screenwriter and I am not, I am sure he knows what he’s talking about – but in the interest of exploring this idea, I decided to test some of the DVD’s around the house.

So I grabbed a random selection.  First I rifled through the drawers where we keep the movies, picking on a whim and grabbing whatever popped up.  Then I stacked them on the dresser, discovered that there was another movie beneath the stack, and grabbed that one.  Then, since I discovered I had left a couple of demographics out, I grabbed another two movies, then one more for good measure.  I ended up with fifteen different titles, as follows:

  1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  2. Left Behind II: Tribulation Force
  3. The Day After Tomorrow
  4. Dinotopia (to see if length affects the phenomenon)
  5. National Treasure
  6. The Spy Who Loved Me (had to include Bond, for fairness)
  7. Peter Pan (newer, live-action version)
  8. The Cat from Outer Space
  9. Logan’s Run
  10. The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns (another length test)
  11. Westworld
  12. A Bug’s Life (gratuitous Pixar inclusion)
  13. The Munsters’ Revenge
  14. Ice Age
  15. Batman & Robin
  16. Arsenic and Old Lace
  17. The Court Jester
  18. The Phantom of the Opera

I was still missing a couple of demographics, so I threw in 19. Lady and the Tramp and 20. Random episode of CSI, to be determined later.

Then I sat down with my notebook and DVD and got crackin’.  Once I’ve compiled the results, I’ll return with a follow-up post.


iApprove: Evolution of the Eye.

March 2, 2009

Remember that article I did a bit back on how the eye could have evolved?  Well, I found a vide0 on PBS that demonstrates the theoretical process.  It even provides examples of animals today that have partial eyes which enable them to see, albeit poorly.

Learn some stuff.  Nao.


A Quick Apology

February 18, 2009

It turns out that I misunderstood the creationist argument about the human eye.  In doing so, I accidentally created a “straw man” – a figure that resembles their actual argument, but is infinitely stupider and easier to knock down.  Their actual reason given for the eye’s un-evolvability was that each part is not useful without the other; in other words, a partial eye is useless, not partial eyesight. I apologize for misrepresenting this hypothesis.

However, there is still a certain amount of invalidity to this claim.  While it is true that certain parts of the eye – the lens, the iris, the optic nerve, etc. serve no purpose without the rest of the eye to function, other parts – the light-sensing cells in particular – could have developed on their own, as described in my (rather anachronistic) theoretical story in the previous article.  As time goes on, that patch of light-sensing cells changes – it develops a lens to help focus light, a curve to help it determine the direction of light, and other useful features.  These do not spring out fully-formed the way they appear in modern animals.  Instead, the eye structure changes gradually, developing only partial (vestigal) versions of each feature which grow more refined as time goes on, eventually learning to interact with each other in such a way as to become almost entirely co-dependent, like the eye we see today.

Given what we know about primitive animals, it is likely that eyes developed very early in the evolutionary chain – after these creatures had diverged from things like jellyfish and sponge ancestors, but before they had branched into most other species, such as the earliest armored beasties, primitive fish, and early cephalopods.  Even then, eyes were still fairly primitive, and in each kind of animal ended up changing into something very distinctive – from complex human eyes to the dual system used by arthropods to the simple photoreceptors of the vampire squid (if that isn’t a partial eye, I don’t know what is).

TL;DR: Unfortunately, your actual argument is equally as falsifiable as the strawman.


The Human Eye: Perfect Design or Marvel of Evolution?

February 15, 2009

I’ve heard it said both ways.  Well, no, not really.  I’ve never actually heard someone come out and say that the eye was the pinnacle of evolutionary genius.  But I have heard the claim from creationists: that the eye is perfectly designed, and that since partial eyesight is not helpful there is no way that eyes could have evolved over time.

Well, first I’d like to thank the creationist who said that for remembering how evolution works.  Many of them can’t get past the “lightning hit a mud puddle and life happened” model, which is a huge strawman of the actual theory of evolution.  Indeed, according to the best scientific evidence, evolution happens when an animal develops a small trait that makes it superior to its ancestors, and its descendants continue to make improvements on that trait over a lengthy period of time.  Applied to the eye, this implies that life-forms spent a large portion of time with only a small amount of eyesight as rudimentary eyes rapidly grew in complexity.  So is it true that an eye that only enables you to see a little bit is no improvement over no eyes at all:

There’s a swift and obvious answer to this: No.  Just no.  Normally I’d show off the evidence and then let you decide for yourselves, but come on, this one is obvious.

Picture this: You’re a little cluster of cells floating about in the ocean; a rudimentary worm, if you will.  You probably already have a small patch of cells somewhere on your body that are sensitive to the chemicals in the water around you, enabling you to smell.  This neat feature has been in the family for a few generations; the sensitivity it lends you to the environment has enabled you to locate food and avoid predators better than your non-smelling relatives, so you’ve survived and reproduced very nicely.

But there’s one feature that separates you even from these advanced relatives.  Another patch of cells, not too far from the first one, has become sensitive to light.  It’s not much, just a tiny nodule that tells you whether or not it’s dark in your area; at this point you can’t even see the way most people are familiar with.  You may have noticed that it gets light and dark in succession — the day and night cycle.  But you’ve probably noticed something else, too – sometimes, when it grows dark very suddenly, you can pick up the scent of a predator.  You’ve come to realize that darkness can mean danger.  Other times, darkness can mean safety, as you dart into the safe recesses of a tiny cave.

The ability to distinguish between light and dark might not seem that useful compared to your rudimentary sense of smell, but it becomes useful later.  When you flee a predator in a panicked state, it may take you a while to analyze a smell and figure out what it means, but light and darkness are recognized almost immediately.

This model may not be entirely accurate; for example, plants have rudimentary light-sensing abilities and no sense of smell, so it’s possible that sight came first – in which case the creatures that could see would have a huge advantage over their nonsighted relatives.  As demonstrated above, even the ability to distinguish between light and darkness aids the rudimentary worm as it learns to associate darkness with different things.  At night, when there’s not enough light to distinguish between high and low levels, you’re back on the same footing as your sightless family, but during the day that simple ability enables you to avoid certain threats and find safety.

Still not convinced?

Take a look at plants.  Plants require sunlight to survive.  In order to help them to locate that sunlight, their cells have light-detecting abilities – the basis of sight – to enable them to locate and move toward the best supply.  The movement of plants is somewhat ineffectual compared to ours, in that they must grow to reach wherever they’re going, but the ability to find and put themselves in the best sources of light enables them to get the energy they need to survive.

Then there are arthropods – more commonly known as insects, arachnids, and crustaceans.  Most arthropods come equipped with two kinds of eyes: the well-known compound eyes, which serve to make out complex shapes, and the lesser-known ocelli, very simple eyes that specialize in detecting light levels.  In other words, either type of eye performs only partial vision.  And here’s a shocker: after some experimentation, it was discovered that an arthropod can get on quite well with only one of these types of eyes.

I hope that whoever made this rather outrageous claim to begin with wasn’t legally blind, because there are also significant numbers of humans with only partial eyesight who still benefit.  Although they may not be able to see much – men may resemble trees, for a Biblical example – the ability to make out basic shapes is enough to prevent them from walking into lampposts, cars, or other people.  It would also enable them, in the wild, to detect the swift motion of an oncoming predator and escape before they are killed.  An individual who was completely blind may be able to hear the oncoming predator, but would have a difficult time finding a place to hide with no eyesight.

This is all lovely evidence that the eye is not irreducably complex, but it still doesn’t prove that complex eyes arose from simple ones.  But really, if you’re a die-hard creationist, nothing is going to prove that.  I could provide all the transitional fossils that have been found between simple eyes and more complex eyes, just as people have provided what seem to be transitional forms between apes and humans, and you still probably wouldn’t believe it.  And since the idea of a Creator God is non-falsifiable, there’s no way I can prove that one wasn’t involved in the creation of Earth.  What I can provide – the only thing I can provide – is the evidence which suggests that his Creation is not nearly as perfect as we first thought.


Being Green: Green Stain Removal

February 6, 2009

I’m hitting a bit of a dead end here.  According to recent studies (aka State-the-Obvious fests), chlorine bleach is harmful to humans and should be avoided whenever possible.  And while I’m not going to jump the gun and ditch all bleach entirely, knowing as I do the things bleach can do to the human body, I thought it might be nice to find a safer alternative that I can use to cut nasty counter stains.

I have yet to find one.

I started my search today by trying four different remedies popular in the green-cleaning community: baking soda, vinegar/lemon juice, baking soda & vinegar/lemon juice together, and hydrogen peroxide.  In the best scientific method, I tested their stain-removing ability by staining separate sections of the counter with Kool-Aid, then covering the stains with the bleaching solution and allowing them to sit for a few minutes.

The results: Not good.

Baking soda’s true power is in scrubbing, not soaking.  Even then, it only lightened the stains.  Vinegar, lemon juice, and hydrogen peroxide were equally as effective.  The best method was to sprinkle baking soda on the stain and add vinegar or lemon juice, but even this left much more color than desirable.

It becomes apparent that while most things in your life can – and should – be made greener, some things are a little more difficult.  So for now I’ll be sticking to bleach for stain removal.  If you’re concerned about getting chlorine into your system, a quick baking-soda flush will remove the chemical from your counter, leaving it clean and food-grade.

And if anyone figures out a green stain remover that comes anywhere close to the effectiveness of chlorine bleach, please let me know straight away.