Archive for November, 2008

Terminator: Microchip Mayhem

By Stephen Cass | November 27, 2008 1:37 am

Screenshot from Terminator:On Monday night’s Terminator, part of the plot revolved around a new microprocessor that promised to work at the “12-nanometer node.”

The Connor clan became very interested in this chip, since it’s exactly the kind of technology that might enable a cyborg to have an artificial intelligence system powerful enough to make it a lethal killing machine and deliver clever quips.

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MORE ABOUT: Moore's Law, Terminator

5 Offbeat Ideas For The Next Doctor Who

By Stephen Cass | November 25, 2008 6:29 pm

doctor-and-dalek.jpgWith the announcement that David Tennant is leaving the title role on Doctor Who after 2009, the producers will have to find a replacement. The rebooted Doctor Who has already shown a willingness to include much more diversity in the race and sexual orientation, etc., in the show’s supporting roles–why not extend that diversity to the casting of the Doctor himself? Here are five totally unsolicited ideas for the Eleventh Doctor.

  1. Up until now, The Doctor has been played by characters on the thin side, from William Hartnell as the spry First Doctor to the angular Tennant as today’s Tenth Doctor. Why not go large? Possibilities – Robbie Coltrane, Matt Lucas, Mark Addy.
  2. We’ve seen female Time Lords before, so why not a Lady Doctor? A female doctor also opens up the door for the return of the long-term male companion.  Possibilities – Samantha Morton, Helen Mirren.
  3. If America can elect a black President, then the BBC can cast a black Doctor. Possibilities – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Don Cheadle (reprising his British accent from Ocean’s 11)
  4. Why does the Doctor always have to be British? The BBC could sell out to world’s most lucrative TV market by going American.  Possibilities – Jason Bateman, Neil Patrick Harris
  5. And why must a regenerated Doctor always mean a brand new actor? With the loss of Tennant in these uncertain and anxious times, the BBC could reassure us by returning to the other Greatest Doctor Of All Time: Tom Baker.
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Time Travel, TV, Utter Nerd
MORE ABOUT: Doctor Who

Stargate Atlantis: Herding Physicists

By Stephen Cass | November 24, 2008 5:57 pm

Screenshot from Stargate AtlantisFriday night’s episode of Stargate Atlantis featured the show’s resident genius physicist, Rodney McKay, making a visit to an elaborate scientific presentation conducted by an old rival. Because McKay is, well, McKay, he thinks this is the ideal setting for a first date with Atlantis’s doctor Jennifer Keller (Firefly fans will recognize Jewel Staite in the role). McKay runs into a whole bunch of frenemies at the presentation, including hilarious cameos by the American Museum of Natural History’s Neil de Grasse Tyson (who has been name checked before on Atlantis) and Bill “The Science Guy” Nye.

Things take a turn for the worse when McKay’s rival (played by Kids in the Hall alum Dave Foley) demonstrates his latest invention, a machine intended to solve global warming by sucking heat through a transdimensional bridge to another universe. Of course, Things Go Wrong, and the entire facility and everyone in it is threatened with death by freezing. But hey, we’ve got a room full of top scientists! They’ll put their heads together and figure it out, right?

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Eleventh Hour: Super Soldiers and Beyond

By Eric Wolff | November 22, 2008 12:18 am

The military’s most farseeing agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, required the services of Eleventh Hour‘s Jacob Hood in last night’s episode to figure who violently killed some test-chimps and a veterinarian in the agency’s super soldier program. It seems a mad scientist had found some way to increase the size of a human amygdala, which led the soldier to have extreme, and unthinking, fight-or-flight reactions. Whenever someone approached this super soldier in a threatening way, he reacted with extreme prejudice.  Naturally, the mad scientist wasn’t supposed to be testing on people, which is why by the end of the show he was off to prison.

But DARPA is pretty serious about improving the, ahem, human component of soldiering. After decades of focusing on machines (like unmanned flying drones, GPS, and Internet), DARPA decided toward the end of the 1990s to focus on improving the actual biology of the soldiers. Contrary to the show, the goal is not extremely obedient killers. The modern military is focused on small teams functioning independently, far from base and reinforcements of any kind. To succeed in this kind of environment, they want to actually increase the ability of soldiers to think creatively, to stay awake longer, and to be physically active longer without becoming tired.

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Knight Rider: Electromagnetic Pulses

By Eric Wolff | November 20, 2008 7:03 pm

Screenshot from Knight RiderI can’t decide if electromagnetic pulses are scary. I mean, if Dark Angel was to be believed, a high-altitude electronic pulse could end civilization as we know it. If I put my trust in Ocean’s Eleven, then an EMP can be used to disrupt the entire power supply of an entire city. And in last night’s episode of Knight Rider, KITT used an EMP to knock out power to a casino. A weapon that can knock out an electronic grid could certainly do extraordinary damage to our infrastructure, on the one hand, but on the other, it doesn’t kill people directly or destroy buildings. And really, should we be trusting Hollywood on this subject in the first place?

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MORE ABOUT: EMP, Knight Rider

Lostronaut: Plants. In. Spaaaaaaaaace!

By Eric Wolff | November 19, 2008 12:45 pm

Microgravity plant bedJonathan Lethem might prefer to think that his short story Lostronaut, in the most recent New Yorker, was a reflection on absence, love, memory, and death, but you, know the heck with artsy authors and their high-falutin’ themes (though his Fortress of Solitude is a bit of a nod to comics nerds). This story focuses on one member an international crew of astronauts trapped on their low-earth-orbit space station. The Chinese have launched a series of space-mines that prevent the crew from using their re-entry pods to get back to earth, so all they can do is send messages home as their space station slowly runs out of energy. We’re told almost immediately that the station’s air supply is provided by plants kept in a  special greenhouse, but that the facility was damaged in an accident. As the plants die, the ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen gets steadily but slowly worse, leaving the station inhabitants with plenty of time to ponder life and death.

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Doctor Who: Season Four DVDs

By Stephen Cass | November 18, 2008 1:27 pm

Doctor Who Season Four DVD Box artThe rebooted Doctor Who just keeps going from strength to strength. (If you’ve managed to avoid seeing a single episode of Doctor Who since it started airing in 1963, the show features an enigmatic time traveller, the Doctor, who foils various nefarious schemes, usually with the aid of at least one companion.) Since being revived in 2005, the show has already cycled through a number of major cast changes, with two incarnations of the Doctor and three primary companions. Each combination of Doctor and companion usually produces a very different chemistry, and Season Four is no exception, with David Tennant playing the role of the Doctor and Catherine Tate playing Donna Noble.

Donna and the Doctor’s relationship is like that between adult siblings or very old friends, and it’s a nice change of pace from the romantic overtones that played out with the previous two companions. The dynamic is enhanced by the fact that Tate/Noble is older than the typical early-twenty-something female companion, and so perhaps a little less susceptible to looking at the adventurous Doctor with a starry-eyed gaze. Donna is perfectly willing cut the Doctor down to size if she thinks he’s getting a little too pleased with himself. This leads to some of the most memorable exchanges of the show to date, and Tate plays the part with impeccable comic timing and gusto. Tennant is, well, still the best Doctor ever (with Tom Baker in a more than honorable second place.)

The Doctor and Donna’s friendship plays out across a season of ambitious stories. The fall of Pompeii, a factory of alien slaves, a library the size of a planet that plays host to some of the scariest monsters ever, and the intensely claustrophobic confines of a damaged shuttle all form the background to some thrilling (and sometimes genuinely moving) plots. The season builds to a no-holds-barred climax which acts as a reunion show of sorts: A group of the Doctor’s former companions (including Torchwood’s Captain Jack and Sarah Jane Smith) band together to stop a dark threat from the past. Some Who watchers objected to the second half of the finale, feeling that the conclusion tried too hard to make fans happy in some respects. But I think the show stayed true to the darker and more ambiguous nature of the show, with an ending that really packed a punch.

The DVD’s also include the standalone 2006 Christmas Special, in which the Doctor teams up with Astrid Peth, played by none other than Kylie Minogue. (The real scene stealers are The Hosts, angelic robot concierges that go very, very bad.) There’s also a set of making-of features, one for each episode, deleted scenes (including a slightly, but significantly, alternate ending to the Season Four finale), and a bunch of other extras. If you decide to only ever own one season of Doctor Who, make it this one.


Stargate Atlantis: Colonizing The Galaxy

By Stephen Cass | November 17, 2008 5:08 pm

Stargate: Atlantis promotional artOn Friday night’s episode of Stargate Atlantis, the Atlantis expedition discover a small pod. The pod contains biological material that can be used to replicate a sentient life-form from scratch, should the pod find a planet with the right chemical makeup to provide the raw ingredients. It also contains a cultural and technical database to educate the “Children of the Pod,” and an advanced Artificial Intelligence responsible for guiding the pod to a suitable destination and “birthing” the first generation life-forms. In the real world, with its apparently iron-clad restriction on faster than light travel, this kind of approach is actually one of the leading contenders for how human beings might colonize the galaxy.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Robots, Space

Eleventh Hour: They Only Freeze the Heads!

By Eric Wolff | November 14, 2008 1:45 pm

frozen head 2Really! Most of us are familiar with the idea of cryogenically freezing recently dead people, right? Companies freeze the corpse shortly after death to very low temperatures, in the hopes of preserving the person until such time as scientists can reverse whatever it was that killed them. At the minimum we know that Ted Williams is chilling out somewhere in California at 77 Kelvin, waiting for science to come up with a way to give him a new body (Walt Disney, by the way, was cremated). But thanks to last night’s episode of The Eleventh Hour, I’ve now learned that some people choose to only have their heads frozen and not the rest of them. It sounds like that scene from Young Frankenstein, right?

A little research reveals that it’s basic economics: Head-only freezing can cost as little as $80,000, far better than the $150,000 whole-body freezing costs, based on the pricing at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a real life cold-storage non-profit. The theory behind cryonics is simple: The brain is the storage unit of everything that defines us: personality, memories, habits, etc. If the brain can be frozen without damage, then the person contained by the brain can live indefinitely until science is ready for them.

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Knight Rider: Teeny Tiny Cameras

By Eric Wolff | November 13, 2008 5:49 pm

Screenshot from Knight RiderLast night’s Sexual Tension episode of Knight Rider seemed to be all about spying: Computer techs Billy and Zoe spyied on Mike Traceur and Sarah Graiman while they were “sparring”, Sarah and Mike spied on the bad guys with tiny cameras, and of course, everyone spied on each other with sidelong, furtive looks. It was just that kind of episode.

But let’s focus (pun intended) on the tiny cameras. Sarah and Mike had a needle-in-a-haystack problem. The bad guys’ target was a factory that produces a key oil refining part. Our heroes had to locate the evil-doers on a production floor swarming with white coated technicians. They solved the problem with some of the snazziest ID badges ever created. Each badge held a tiny  camera, which then broadcast video in real time back to KITT. The super car’s more powerful computers separated the faces from the rest of the image and compared them to an NSA face database to locate the villains. The whole device is preposterous, right?

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