Science Fiction Fandom at a Brew Pub

Had a wonderfully exciting conversation last night at a brew pub with three incredible fans of Trek and Wars. We talked about how people like Trek for its trekkiness and Star Wars for its camp, and some people really screwed up when they tried to make Trek more like Wars. We talked about how the Enterprise, far more than even Kirk, is the face of Trek. The Enterprise is a character in the franchise that people love, and the first time it was destroyed on-screen, people cried. But it was a huge mistake to then destroy the ship in every subsequent film.
   Note to Directors: You have to let a character build a relationship with the audience before you kill it off for shock value. So put a moratorium on killing the Enterprise for a while.
   As a subset of this conversation, we talked about one of the major differences between Trek and Wars. I feel compelled to point out that nobody in the conversation ever once said that one is better than the other. We all like both Trek and Wars. (This is allowed. I checked.) But if you refuse to acknowledge the differences, then you’re missing the point.
   One such difference is how the two franchises treated the concept of fascism. The message from Wars: Fascism is bad, even if you have to fight it with religious fanaticism. We compared this to the TOS episode, Patterns of Force which discussed fascism not only in historical context but how it can come about even with the best of anti-fascist intentions.

How to find the last occurrence of a value in Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet

I know what you want to ask: Why are you using Numbers when Excel is so much better and more versatile? Excellent question! I ask myself that all the time.

There are many things you can do with Excel that can’t be done in Numbers, and it often seems like I find a new one every day. Let’s face it, Numbers isn’t intended for the same users as Excel.

That being said, I don’t like Excel and I don’t even have a good reason for it. Maybe it’s a natural aversion to monopolies or something. Maybe it’s dedication to a brand – I’ve been a loyal Apple user since the days of the Apple ][. Well, maybe not that loyal. I don’t like iPhones or iPads. But you should ask me about iGlasses sometime.

Regardless. I ran into a problem while creating a spreadsheet in Numbers. I was about to relent and create it in Excel when I ran into a similar problem.

How to Return the Last Occurrence of a Value from a List of Values. Here’s my problem in detail:

The Practice Items column is a list of the songs I’m currently practicing on the piano, and I want to keep track of how much time I spent practicing that piece and when I practiced it. The column in question is Last Practiced. I want a polite warning if I haven’t practiced a piece in a while.

The problem was getting that column to return the Last Time I Practiced It. For instance, I practiced Adele’s Someone Like You on April 4 and April 5, and I want April 5 to show up in the last column.

After messing around with Numbers for longer than I really should have, or longer than the problem really merited, I tried to do the same thing in Excel. To no avail. I was starting to feel really stupid.

So I googled the problem and found that different authors had presented three different ways to do it in Excel. And none of them will work in Numbers.

I was about to give up and use an Excel spreadsheet when my stubborn streak kicked in. There HAS to be a way to do this! So I made another pot of coffee and dug into it.

I used the template from the Excel solutions and modified the elements of the equation that returned errors in Numbers. My stubborn patience was rewarded.

If you came here looking for this solution, here it is: Ta da!

This is from the Someone Like You cell: IF(ISERROR(VLOOKUP(G4,Practice Item,1,0)),””,INDEX(Practice Item:Date,MATCH(G4,Practice Item,1),2))

The important part is INDEX(Practice Item:Date, Match(G4,Practice Item,1),2).

The if-iserror statement is simply so that it won’t put the last date on the list for items that I haven’t practiced.

I hope somebody finds this useful.

Coffee and The Age of Enlightenment.

It is not a coincidence that coffee arrived in Europe just as the Age of Enlightenment was getting started. While there are certainly a lot of other factors to consider, like humanism, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution, there is no doubt in this author’s/coffee drinker’s mind that given a choice between a table in a café and a table in a pub, you’re going to find more critical minds around the table in the Café.

My favorite mug

According to Hannah Meyers (2005), the first coffee house in Europe opened in Vienna in 1615. Coffee had become popular in Europe since its introduction in 1526. The first coffee house opened in London in 1651, which shows just how fast this drink conquered Europe.

Dates for the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment vary, with the earliest I’ve seen given as 1685, but generally, it’s listed as the 17th and 18th Centuries.

This is not to say that interesting things didn’t happen in Europe B.C. (Before Coffee.) After all, Copernicus published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543. I am in awe of his intellectual prowess because he was able to do it without coffee (said the woman whose coffee mug is never far from her right hand.)

And we shouldn’t forget the Chinese contribution to the era’s thinkers, and coffee did not reach China until the 19th Century (Roaster, n.d.).

Meyers, Hannah (7 March 2005). “‘Suave Molecules of Mocha’ – Coffee, Chemistry, and Civilization”. Archived from the original on 21 February 2007.

Roaster, H. C. (n.d.). China Coffee. Horsham Coffee Roaster. https://www.horshamcoffeeroaster.co.uk/pages/chinese-coffee

Where do the monsters come from?

I recently watched a movie that started off with a bang when a peaceful human village is attacked by a horde of large, orc-like monsters. Between the grisly, flesh rending scenes, I noticed many details about the monsters: (Let’s ignore that they were played by human actors, which dictated much of their form and just go with the direct observations. )

  • Though they had faces that “only a mother could love” there is evidence (torso structure and arm aticulation) that they were of hominin descent. This means that they use sexual reproduction, and some members of their society are probably dedicated to child-rearing. Monsters don’t just spring up like wildflowers.
  • They wore leather clothes and jewelry. This suggests that some members of this monster society are tanners and jewelers. It also gives us an indication that they have some concerns about personal grooming. 
  • They used distinct Iron Age weapons. They weren’t stolen, so they have some working knowledge of metallurgy. This is not insignificant.  Stupid beasts do not become blacksmiths.
    • How many of us were surprised that there are Klingons who are lawyers, scientists, and even bookkeepers? We shouldn’t have been.
  • They communicated and worked as a team. 
  • They are demonstrably carnivores who have a particular taste for human flesh. 
  • While the individuals shown on the screen were a fighting unit, they were not particularly effective as warriors. Though they outweigh a typical human by two or three times and clearly use this to be intimidating, they are easily outmatched by humans with even a modicum of martial ability. One monster was defeated by a woman who went all “momma bear” with a kitchen knife on his ass.

Now for some speculation:

  • Monsters probably don’t think of themselves as “Monsters” unless we include a Pixar series of cartoons. Bad Guys never think of themselves as the Bad Guys. Even Nazis didn’t think of themselves as the bad guys. So what is their motivation for attacking a peaceful human village? They could hunt other animals who don’t have sharp, pointy metal things to fight back with. Though the humans won the battle only with the intervention of magic, the monsters lost a good percentage of their group in standard melee battle against mostly untrained humans. Is it really worth the cost to hunt humans? Cows don’t fight back. 
  • Given the above speculation, I’m going to further speculate that they attacked the humans because:
    1. They were ordered to.
    2. They have the bigotry of religious zealots against humans.
    3. They thought they were defending their territory against the humans. This one’s a little difficult to sell considering the monsters had to march a great distance to find the humans. 

I suspect that the individual monsters really had no idea why they attacked the humans. In the movie, it turns out that the Arch-Bad Guy was looking for humans who would eventually challenge his Evil Empire, and was practicing a parched earth policy approach to the problem. 

I can imagine the pre-march speech made by the Arch-Bad Guy: “The humans eat your babies! They are forcing your children into slavery! They want to take away your swords! They worship false gods! You must be prepared to die for our holy war against the humans!”

Hey! Monsters have agency, too!

Traveling in the era of the ‘Rona.

We’ve had this trip to Europe planned since pre-pandemic days. Still, we were willing to post-pone it if that was necessary. For quite a while, we were certain that the U.S. wouldn’t let us out, and that the E.U. wouldn’t let us in. Still, we’ve been inoculated (I’m still not clear on the difference between inoculated and vaccinated is.) and we’ll have a booster before we leave. Also, even though the infection rates here in Oregon remain comparatively low, we’ve decided to limit outside contact during this next month just as an extra layer of precaution. 

Aside from all of the normal stuff one worries about pre-departure, we’ve also been jumping through all the health hoops. Everybody wants a copy of our vaccination cards. And by everybody I mean the travel agency and all the countries we plan to visit.

Hungary insists on proof of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of entering their borders. Logistically, this has become a nightmare. We are leaving the US on Monday and will arrive in Budapest on Tuesday. The local places where we can get a PCR test here in Oregon are not open on Sundays, and so we’ll have to get the test as late as possible on Saturday in order to squeeze in under the wire in Budapest on Tuesday. If any of our flights are delayed, we’ll be screwed. Also, we’ll need something similar before we return. Our route ends in rural Sweden, where they charge about kr 1,000 (~US$116) for the test. I guess they are really proud of their PCR test. It’s going to be another game of getting the test and then sliding into customs in Dallas as the clock approaches the deadline.

For a while, the Travel Agency would not allow unescorted excursions through the target cities. (They call it “self exploration” but I call it “unescorted excursions.” Self exploration has other connotations, and I don’t want to give any false impressions about what I’m doing.) Don’t get me wrong: I understand why they did this, and I support the extra effort to ameliorate any impact tourists might have on public health, but we are spending way too much money on this trip to simply stand on a boat deck and watch Europe as we float by. We were ready to postpone or cancel the trip until the Travel Agency changed its policy. We can do whatever we want as long as we follow the rules of whichever country we’re in. The ship’s crew will also be keeping a close eye on our health. I think they feed you to the sharks if you return with a fever.

Another issue I’ll have is taking finals. The Winter term at OSU ends on December 10. I can take the tests remotely, but that means taking the test at the Hilton Budapest, or in a boat cabin.

Welcome to Capitalism.

Thirty-three days to go until our next European tour.

The last time we went to Europe, one of our cameras broke. When we pulled it out of baggage, we noticed the glass over the LCD screen on the back was cracked. It didn’t affect functionality, so it wasn’t a horrible thing. I’ve replaced that camera, and I’ve learned my lesson well: I bought a Pelican Box for it to travel and live in.

Replacing the camera was very annoying in that the Internet wanted to sell me a Canon. I have nothing against Canon cameras, but I already have a set of lenses for the Pentax, and I didn’t want to spend gobs of money on lenses.

“No! You must buy a Canon!” the Internet said.

I’m serious about this. I typed, “Pentax Cameras on sale” into Google, and it responded by directing me to Canon retailers.

“Give me a list of Pentax retailers, you little twit!” I told Google.

“No! If you buy a Pentax, I’ll be a failure!” it whined.

Even when I gave up and went to Amazon to shop (it’s a good place to find non-Amazon retailers), Amazon responded with several ads for Canon.

Dear Canon Cameras — You make a fine product, but your intrusive ads are very annoying. I’m putting you on my ‘Do Not Patronize’ list. At least until Pentax pulls the same shit.

Gender Genetics



Stop!

Before you give me your high school genetics explanation about how there are only two genders, here’s some stuff you probably didn’t learn in the 10th-grade biology class:

  • Mendel cooked his data.
  • There is evidence to support that eye color is determined by at least fifteen gene pairs. Let me know when you’ve worked out the Punnett squares for that.
  • Phenotypes do not always match genotypes.
  • Genetic cross-over happens a lot.
  • Humans are not peas.
  • Your HS biology teacher probably only had two weeks to teach a very complicated subject. A lot of corners were cut.

Consider that before attempting to explain gender genetics to me.

Review: The Pursuit of the Pankera: A Parallel Novel About Parallel Universes

I read Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast when it came out in 1980 because I was reading everything about Heinlein. Also, I had read the serialized teaser published in Omni Magazine in 1979.

One of the consistent criticisms of Heinlein’s work is that the middles of his books are always too long, and Beast was the epitome of this. The majority of the book is taken up by the four main characters arguing with each other over minutiae that does very little to progress the plot or the character arcs. The only good part about it are the many in-jokes aimed at his fans, but for my money, it was not enough to carry the middle.

In my career as a fan of science fiction, the only writer who gives Heinlein competition for middles that are way too long is Stephen King.

It was announced in 2019 that a “parallel” book to Beast, titled The Pursuit of the Pankera, would be published. The advance publicity for the book claimed, “…unknown to most fans, Heinlein had already written a ‘parallel’ novel about the four characters and parallel universes in 1977. He effectively wrote two parallel novels about parallel universes.”

I was unconvinced. It sounded too much like all of those Shakespeare plays that were ‘discovered’ long after his death and were later shown to be forgeries. Still, I would have to read it.

I am now convinced that Pankera is a genuine work of Heinlein. How am I sure? Because the middle is way too long, and is generally taken up by the four main characters bickering about nothing.

The first 100 pages or so are almost identical to Beast, and then the plot goes off at a 90° angle, which I’m sure is no coincidence.

Both Beast and Pankera are stories about four people who build a machine capable of transitioning between universes and attaching it to their airplane. The airplane’s autopilot, Gay Deceiver, becomes a fifth character in the story. You’ll no doubt recognize many of these universes as science fiction mainstays. This puts them on the spectrum between parody and homage of these other stories.

503 pages with only about 200 pages of actual story.

Publisher: CAEZIK SF & Fantasy

#bookreview #heinlein #thepursuitofthepankaera #thenumberofthebeast

German: Why do I do this to myself?

The short answer: It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Duolingo app, a quasi-free online tool for getting started in a foreign language, has been much in the news lately. The Duolingo team has been fairly successful in gamifying language learning by turning into a competition. How easily we are manipulated, right? This is what we do with kids — “Let’s play a game and see who can clean their room first!”

Well, it worked on me, which probably says volumes about my emotional maturity. I thought I would just take the app for a test drive to see what it was about, and picked German seemingly at random. The first few lessons taught me some basic vocabulary. Frau. Mann, Kind, Hund, Katze. Hallo. I thought, this isn’t so hard.

That was in 2015. Little did I know at the time that Duolingo is akin to a gateway drug. Today, I am taking classes at a local Deutsche Schule, have an online native speaking tutor, attending a local Stammtisch twice monthly, read novels in German, reading the news at Deutsche Welle, watching TV shows on Netflix with German language options selected, playing video games with German subtitles, and wondering how this all came to take up so much of my attention. It’s not like I ever had an urge to read Goethe or Nietzsche in the original.

There is a Facebook page for German learners using Duolingo. There are probably several. About once a week, a new member will ask, “How did y’all get started learning German?” The answers could probably be set up to be selected from a drop down menu:

  • I have a German lover.
  • I want to visit family in <German speaking country.>
  • Rammstein
  • My firm’s HQ is in Germany.
  • I want to live and work in Germany.
  • I’m studying philosophy, and I need to read Kant in the original. (I don’t buy this one. Being able to read Wilfrid Sellars in the original English certainly doesn’t help.)

None of these reasons apply to me. Instead of simply shrugging my shoulders and making vague hand-waving gestures, I made up a reason:

“I found this puzzle box on one of my recent campaigns. Solving the puzzle was difficult, and it contained a letter in German. Pre-reform German, with lots of references to arcane knowledge. I had to battle a dragon, three trolls, and a horde of undead in order to retrieve it, and I’m not about to let a language class stand between me and reading the damn thing.”

Nobody asks me why I study German anymore.

I was grossly misled by the early steep learning curve. I now appear to be eternally stuck somewhere in the pre-intermediate skill level, measured on how difficult the books are that I can read. I know I’m learning new words, but still struggle with prepositions.

And, as you all know, it’s much easier to read and understand the spoken language than it is to create new sentences from scratch. Friends at the Stammtisch have become accustomed to my silence, and show great patience when I do try to make a contribution to the dialogue. Sometimes, the whole table, including the native speakers, grows silent in anticipation while I navigate the grammatical minefield.

I need to schedule a trip to Bavaria for research for my next book. Never mind that the story takes place on other planets.

Corporate Catharsis, an Anthology

From the inside jacket of the book:

It’s a widely-held belief that writing is a form of catharsis — not only for the author, but often for the reader. It’s all about our author’s and the stories they want — and sometimes need — to tell.

Catharsis isn’t so much the airing of frustration,s as it is the process of letting those frustrations brew down and condense into the fuel that drives the creative spark; the fuel that leads you to reassert your imagination, your creativitiy, your humanity. It’s the reclamation of the possibility of a better world, a world that isn’t so extractive, and that retains the elements of the fantastic that we can visualize as being a part of it.

You hold in your hands twelve stories written by people who have passed through the corporate world with their creativity intact. Some are realistic; most are fantastic. We hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoyed gathering and bringing them to you.