Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Alien in the Comic Book Store

You'd be surprised how difficult it can be to identify an alien. They don't simply trot out before you in their natural form, green, three-fingered, and slimy, with heads measuring at least as tall as their trunks. Last week, for instance, I saw one in a comic book store and he totally looked human. Average height. Sandy, messy hair. Wire-rim glasses. White. Early twenties.

So how did I know he was from another planet? He was moving around a little oddly, stopping and pretending to stare with interest at various items, but none of these behaviors really raised an alarm. Then he walked to the register with a box set DVD collection of the once popular television series Friends. That's when I knew.

Why would a fairly normal-looking young man buy the entire run of Friends? And why now, so long after its cultural moment has passed? Because he's an alien. And I can even tell you where he's from.

Last week, scientists also announced that they'd discovered the two closest habitable planets on record. A habitable planet is one that appears to have a reasonably friendly environment. So, for instance, Venus doesn't count. We'd burn if we tried to hang out there. And it wouldn't be terribly fun to breathe the air. These new planets, on the other hand, appear to be a little more human friendly. And they are roughly thirteen light years away. Which, as you know, is the distance covered by a beam of light traveling for thirteen years.

So here's what I think happened. Right around 2001, or the peak years of Friends, some of the NBC broadcast leaked out into space, racing right along at the speed of light. Thirteen years later, these broadcast waves struck the just discovered twin planets. The aliens, using inconceivably advanced technology, decoded the signals and converted them back into a view-able format. I don't know if they caught an entire episode, a whole season, or just a particularly moving or hilarious scene. My guess, though, is that the entire civilization was mesmerized. Immediately they needed to know what happened to Ross and Rachel, the former stars of the show. So they chose one brave explorer, programmed their wormhole for Earth, and tossed him inside. A few seconds or perhaps even days later I saw him, disguised as a young man, in the comic store. Disoriented, maybe. But focused. He did not wait long to grab that box set.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Han Shot First...From a Certain Point of View

Vader with his allies
Star Wars has struck my house. I'm to blame, of course, but I never thought it would become this intense. We've been playing with the action figures for a while now and I'm particularly fond of Han Solo because of his versatility. If you're short a villain, for example, you could always have your existing team of bad guys, like the Joker and Storm Shadow, approach Han with an offer. Because I think we all know that Han would switch sides for the right price. He's a smuggler. Despite what George Lucas wants us all to believe, Han blasted Greedo in that Mos Eisley bar before the alien got the jump on him. Han shot first, and no amount of CGI editing will convince me otherwise.

After the toys came the movies. Episode IV first, then the prequels, because that's good parenting. Those first three are pretty funny as an adult. My favorite scene now is when Obi-Wan tries to worm his way out of his past lies to Luke. The young Skywalker confronts him in Return of the Jedi, pointing out that Obi-Wan said his father was dead. The old Jedi kind of sighs and goes into this rambling discourse, admitting that he was lying without actually owning up to it, and finishing with, "So what I told you was true...from a certain point of view."

Mind tricks aside, that scene kind of got me thinking that Jedis would make good lawyers. Imagine Obi-Wan going up against Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men? He would have smoked him.

The one big disappointment of this whole Star Wars obsession is the books. Much of the stuff that's out there for early readers right now is TERRIBLE. The early DK Readers are really abysmal. I can't believe that Lucasfilm let them produce those things. They don't read as though they were written for first graders. They read as though they were written by first graders. And the real tragedy is that these books are popular. Immensely popular. You see them everywhere, and it would have been so easy for Lucasfilm to collaborate with real writers capable of turning out out good books.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Swell Way to Keep From Working

This past Tuesday, on my way to a microbiology conference, I spotted a man on the train wearing a t-shirt with the word “mentor” printed in large letters across the back. His pants had fallen down below his waist. The view was unpleasant, and I felt sad for his mentee.

Some takeaways from the conference: harmful bacteria can hang around on airplane tray tables, arm rests, and window shades for days; despite early evidence to the contrary, the microscopic bugs that can cause Legionnaire’s disease survive in windshield wiper fluid; we all need to open our windows more; there’s no difference in the fungal population of men’s vs. women’s public restrooms; never schedule phone interviews about quantum computing during microbiology meetings.

These past few weeks I’ve been interviewing experts on wearable medical technology, smart cars, snakes, and urban sensors, and mostly writing fiction. Here are a few recent articles:

An interview with Brett Doar, who builds Rube Goldberg machines for a living.

A story about a group of young engineers who built a more practical robotic arm.

This is an older one, about a Dalek builder, that I never got around to posting. My favorite anecdote, which did not fit in the final article: At meetings, Dalek builders sometimes sit inside their creations, drive around, and mingle with each other as alien robots. They even speak in Dalek screech.  

And a father and his giant Transformer costume.  

In between the writing and the talking, I helped my kids put together a pretty sick ninja turtle zip line in the backyard. Then we got to show it off to a friend of mine who was visiting Boston for the night on business. He was impressed, I think. My mental or intellectual relationship with this individual is kind of strange. When I lift my car keys to a subway turnstile or try to swipe a card to enter my house, I think of him. And when I write to him about one of these incidents, and the fact that he popped into my head after it happened, he agrees that he was the right person to tell.

Monday, April 14, 2014

There Was Something He Felt Like Doing

A personal record last week: Ten separate talks, plus eight revision workshops, spread between seven different schools and the lovely Massachusetts Reading Association conference. At the latter I spoke about engaging boys as readers. One of the five or six tricks or techniques I discussed: Never ever, ever, ever talk about your feelings. If the narrator discusses matters of the heart too openly and frequently, the book risks losing the boys. Or most of them, anyway. 

I don't mean to imply that a great book for boys should be without heart or feeling. On the contrary. Any great book must have heart. But with boys I think it has to be subtle. 

For instance, here's a little passage from the wonderful Jerry Spinelli novel Maniac Magee:

"Maniac just stood there a minute.  There was something that he felt like doing, and maybe he would have, but the lady turned and went back inside her house and shut the door.  So he walked away.”
He wanted to thank her or hug her. But he'd never admit it. Oh no. And here's another, from Rodman Philbrick's classic, Freak the Mighty:

"It’s time to go home, Gram gets nervous if I’m not back before dark.  Everything seems really great, just like Gwen says, except when I lie down on my bed it hits me, boom, and I’m crying like a baby.  And the really weird thing is, I’m happy."

The emotion comes upon him inexplicably. As a reader, you've probably already guessed that he's happy, since he's made a new friend, but he sure doesn't know, or does not want to admit it, until he's forced to confess, since he's crying and all. 

Finally, I found the classic My Side of the Mountain in my father-in-law's collection. This novel follows a boy who runs away from his overcrowded NYC apartment to live in the woods of the Catskills. When the main character writes about his first night in the woods, he very reluctantly admits how he felt:

"So I sat tight, and shivered and shook - and now I am able to say - I cried a little bit."

Much later in the novel, at a happy moment, when the season changes, we get this:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

He Appeared to be a Lunatic

A nest for hibernating bears. Courtesy Tim Laske
Often I dream about being able to breathe underwater. It always comes to me as a kind of revelation, as if it’s actually really simple, and our whole inability to breathe underwater as humans has been a matter of just not doing it right. The trick is to just sip the air out of the water through pursed lips. That’s all.

Anyway, this breathing vision is common, for me, along with the dreams about clean, surfing-worthy waves breaking on the street outside my house, or an office building, but a new one has popped up recently as well. In this new scenario, besides the breathing, I can also see very clearly underwater, as if I’m wearing goggles, and all I have to do is just open my eyelids very slightly at first, to form a kind of air bubble, and then gradually open them wider so that this bubble spreads, forming a kind of natural lens of air over my eyes.

The dream is so vivid that I’ve tried it a few times in the pool. And no, it does not work. But I’ll probably keep trying.

Last week, I was deep into a conversation about computer simulations with a very smart German scientist when he unexpectedly paused. “Greg!” he said after a moment.

“Yes?” I replied. I was worried he’d caught me zoning out.

“Don’t worry, Greg!  This is very difficult!  Even many of my colleagues have trouble understanding this research!”

I thanked him; apparently he sensed my confusion, and I was very grateful.  Scientists aren’t always that patient or understanding when explaining the intricacies of their work.  He does some fascinating research, too, so I’m glad he took the time to explain it, and I’ll point to the story in a future post, after it has been published. In the past few weeks I also spoke with a few toxicologists, a sports scientist in Norway, an odd pair of inventive gentleman who conspired to build a very unusual car, and a brilliantly offbeat artist who designs crazy Rube Goldberg machines. I can’t really discuss all the stories until they’re published, but here are a few other recent ones:

Also, here’s an older one that I never linked to, and should have, since it does kind of pull together two of my passions, science and basketball. These scientists at Georgia Tech built a jumping robot and discovered that it’s more efficient for a robot to perform a short hop before a big jump. One of the engineers then noticed a video of the basketball star Kobe Bryant doing the same thing in a famous commercial. I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to reference the NBA in a science magazine before. So I was pretty excited.

This is even older, from earlier last year, but it was just so cool. The story is all about hibernation, but I was particularly excited about the bears. Apparently, they hibernate in giant nests. Yes, nests.

Imagine walking through the woods in the winter and stumbling across a massive pile of fur surrounded by a huge pile of brush and sticks? I’d probably start worrying that I’d stepped into an alternate universe and that some giant predatory bird was going to blame me for knocking its nest over and then come and pick me up and take me away. Of course, there’s always the chance that this bird would turn out to be friendly, and offer to give me rides to different places in exchanges for jokes or funny poems or beef jerky, in which case I would always try to keep one or a few of each on me at all times, so that if I was ever stuck, or just wanted to go somewhere nicer, or warmer, I could call my giant bird friends and get a ride.

Sorry...I thought I was writing about science. Now I’ve wandered into fiction again. So, while we’re here, or there, I’ve got a few great quotes from recent readings: