October 31, 2009

Francis Bacon And The Sorceror's Stone

One of the hottest pop culture trends is the mashup. You take two or more disparate ideas, creative works, images or DNA sequences, and you combine them into a cohesive whole capable of generating offspring.

My friend Ben is a big fan of Girl Talk. The musician takes hundreds of soundbytes from various songs and blends them into one track. Ben is a pretty popular guy, so I assume that his likes and dislikes are representative of all Westerners. Girl Talk must be awesome.

Another example are the novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. These take the classic Jane Austen tales and complement them with scenes of monstrous mayhem.

Unfortunately, I have no musical talent, so song mashups are out. And even if half the novel is already written for you, it's not like I have the time to write half a novel. I am a busy guy, and time doesn't grow on trees.

So I am left with trying to figure out a way to mashup my blog. A blog mashup might look something like this:

Wizards of Waverly Place is an Emmy Award-winning live-action Disney Channel Original Series which stars Selena Gomez, David Henrie and Jake T. Austin, as three siblings with magical abilities.

The show centers on the Bacon family, which includes Alex, her older brother Justin, and their younger brother Max; Alex's best friend Harper is also part of the storyline. The three Russo siblings are wizards and live with their father Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban KC, an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and a former wizard.

Bacon served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England. Although his political career ended in disgrace, he remained extremely influential through his works, especially as philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific revolution. He is also a former wizard, who chose to give up his powers to marry his wife Theresa, a mortal, due to a rule forbidding wizards to marry mortals.

Bacon's works established and popularized an inductive methodology for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method or simply, the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today. He is proud of his magical ancestry and teaches his children about the proper uses of magic in "Wizard Training Class."

The children are not allowed to use magic without supervision, and only one of the three will keep their magic abilities once they are adults; this will be determined by a magic competition. Alex often gets into trouble for using magic unsupervised. Justin always makes sure Alex does not get into any more trouble than she's already in. Along the way, all of the kids learn moral lessons relating to friends, family, and school.

The Bacon family owns a sub-sandwich shop on Waverly Place.

October 28, 2009

A Great Companion For Long Road Trips

Science made a new announcement today. Apparently, cockroaches do not have to urinate in order to survive. They recycle all of their own waste and turn it back into usable materials. Roaches really are the pinnacle of evolution.

The ability to reuse their own waste originates from their symbiotic relationship with an unusual microbe known as Blattabacterium. According to Science, this microbe breaks down waste uric acid and turns it into ammonia and urea, which it then uses to construct amino acids and repair cell membranes.

Because it reuses the normally toxic uric acid rather than expelling it, cockroaches need far less water than most species. This microbe, therefore, is one of the keys to the cockroach's extreme durability.

Now that Science has discovered how cockroaches are such perfect little recycling machines, the path forward is clear: Voluntary Human Extinction. When faced with such an optimum example of life, we must do what Kasparov did against Deep Blue, and knock over our own king.

Long live the roaches.

October 19, 2009

The Great Dan Brown Experiment

We interrupt our regular scheduled blogging for two important announcements.

First, Dance With Sunflowers will soon migrate to a new location, at entropy2.com. The process of starting up the new website and switching over will take another month or two, and in the meantime I will continue posting here. The new site will include several new blogs and other exciting endeavors I will tell you about later. Be on the look out.

Second, as part of the new website, I will be conducting my first live blogging event. I will be reading Dan Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol, over the course of 24 hours, with a running journal of my reactions. Join me as I experience the best selling book (2 million copies sold in the first week) for the first time, with immediate feedback on what will surely go down as a modern classic.

Of course, being invested in the novel might influence my impartiality. So I am looking for someone who will lone it to me in the next few weeks. Please do not buy it with the specific intention of giving it to me, as that will defeat the purpose. But if you already have it, I will be happy to take it off your hands.

When I have a date for the Live Blogging session, as well as the debut of the new website, I will let everyone know.

To whet your appetite, here are some facts about Dan Brown's previous novel, The Da Vinci Code:
  • According to Wikipedia, it has sold more than 80 million copies to date.
  • 80 MILLION! That equals The Catcher In The Rye, and easily surpasses Charlotte's Web, To Kill A Mockingbird, or Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
  • That's right, more than the dictionary
  • In fact, the only novels to have sold more books in the history of humankind are: Le Petit Prince, She, Dream Of Red Chambers, The Hobbit, And Then There Were None, The Lord Of The Rings, and A Tale Of Two Cities. That's it. The entire list. The Da Vinci Code is already the 8th best selling novel of all time
  • It is almost entirely based on the Umberto Eco novel, Foucault's Pendulum, which predates it by more than a decade.

October 16, 2009

Monkey Economics, Or The Evolution Of A Patriot

The newest trend in academics is trying to find evolutionary connections between humans and other species. It has been established with parrots. It has been done with dolphins. But the surest way to send creationists into a tizzy is to mention the behaviors we share with monkeys and apes.

That's what makes the concept of monkey economics so gratifying. Researchers around the world are finding that the ability to understand and practice commerce is not limited to the human species. Dr. Laurie Santos has conducted experiments that show capuchin monkeys can learn how to operate in a market environment.

The monkeys are taught that a token can be exchanged for food. When given the choice of whether to trade for apple slices or jello-cubes, they in general trade for each about 50% of the time. But when one of the sellers decides that he will sell jello-cubes two for one, they stop buying apple slices and spend most of their money on jello.

But when the experiment is shifted, the monkeys' behavior adapts in a significant way. The two sellers begin to both offer apple slices, but the first appears to offer one slice for one token, but upon receiving the payment, actually gives two. The second presents three apples, but takes one apple away after receiving the token. When presented with this scenario, the monkeys overwhelmingly buy apples from the first seller, even though statistically, they are getting the same deal, two slices for one token. This type of behavior is known as loss aversion.

Interestingly enough, when humans are subjected to similar experiments, the results are nearly identical to those with monkeys. Both monkeys and humans seem to care as much about a sense of fairness as they do with their own economic gain.

Keith Chen has taken the experiments even further. He has discovered that not only do the monkeys have a thorough understanding of the value of the money, they have taken to stealing it. One day, when a monkey was brought out of his living area into the adjacent testing area, as soon as the door was open, the subject charged at the tray of tokens and flung it behind him, sending the other monkeys into fever as they rushed to get the pilfered booty.

Even more remarkably, as Chen was trying to restore order and get the tokens back, he observed a male monkey take a token and offer it to one of the females in exchange for sex. After getting her payment, she promptly took the token and offered it to one of the scientists in return for a grape.

Yes, this is a true story!

I would like nothing more than to have Chen lock some capitalist monkeys in a room with a group of intelligent design supporters and see what transpires. It must be hard for religious right wingers to read about these results. On the one hand, here is further proof of the evolutionary link between humans and primates. But on the other hand, it is also provides evidence that these monkeys are proud supporters of capitalism.

October 14, 2009

The Life And Times Of Baron Manfred von Richthofen

Contrary to popular belief, the Red Baron was not a Robber Baron. It is a common mistake, since they have the same surname. The Red Baron was a famous World War I fighter pilot. He was very successful at his job, but he did not have a monopoly on aircraft, nor did he become a millionaire. He did however go on to star in the comic strip, Peanuts.

The Red Baron's real name was Manfred von Richthofen. No wonder he changed his name to the Red Baron. His name looks German. Since he fought in the World War on the side of the Germans, we can safely conclude that he was indeed German himself.

The Robber Barons were not German. They were American entrepreneurs. They could not fly airplanes because airplanes had not been invented yet.

Some people surmise that the Red Baron was descended from the Robber Barons. This is stupid. Obviously, once it is realized that the Red Baron is German, and the Robber Barons were American, this does not make sense. If you read this on Wikipedia, you will regret not paying for a membership at Encyclopedia Britannica.

The German word for Baron is Freiherr. It means Free Lord. How ironic! If the Robber Barons had been Free Lords, they never would have become so rich. They made all of their money by selling the products they had monopolies on. This is how an economy works. Look it up with your new Encyclopedia Britannica membership.

They do share one thing in common. They are both wicked cool. The Red Baron shot down 80 planes during World War I. If he had been in Top Gun, he would have had one of the really good nicknames, like Ice Man, not something stupid like Goose. The Robber Barons, specifically Andrew Mellon (who according to Wikipedia had a fruit monopoly), created supply side economics.

Sometimes I wish the Red Baron were descended from the Robber Barons. My life would be much simpler then.

Lyric Of The Day:

Come on, come on let's have a song
the morning sun is soon to come
we don't have time to linger on

There comes a time, there comes a
time to make it right when I was wrong
and someday girl we'll get along.

Goodbye to all your plans
you can listen to me now
your head is bent out of shape
but your feet are on the ground
but all in all, the ceiling's coming down

I take my time to face the day
it's good to hear you talk this way
so we'll keep this up as friends
this time, nothing's wrong
I'll stand up as I'll shake your hand,
we'll be alright

Then I'll do it all again

"Bows + Arrows"
-The Walkmen

October 10, 2009

Don't Let All These Facts About Robber Barons Bore You. They Are True!

You know the movie Citizen Kane? The one based on William Randolph Heast? Orson Welles plays Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper magnate and robber baron. He jealously guards his paper kingdom, hoarding all the nation's periodicals for his own personal profit while secretly pining for his long lost teddy bear, Rosebud.

These are facts.

The Robber Barons ruled the 1800's with their long names and pointed baron hats, robbing from the poor and filling their own coffers. They founded universities and built museums. They owned everything, including the government.

That all ended with the Clayton Anti-Trust Act in 1914. Congress broke up the monopolies and took away their baron hats.

Our list today does not celebrate the greatest captains of industry, but the monopolies themselves. The most famous of the Robber Barons did not necessarily have the best monopolies. Who wants to sit on a huge pile of oil? Or a giant heap of iron ore? These are the guys who, when they took you to check out their garage, really had something to brag about:

#6 James Lewis Kraft

Kraft invented the first processed cheese in 1912. By 1916, he had sold more than 6 million pounds of the very orange, but not very delicious, food like substance. His genius lay not only in the revolutionary industrial process, which allowed his cheese to be canned almost indefinitely, but in the fact that he convinced America that it was actually edible.

The purveyors of traditional cheese found themselves pushed out of the market by Kraft, whom they accused of fraud. They asked the government to regulate his products, and federal guidelines ultimately ruled that the fat and moisture content of pasteurized process cheese must match that of natural cheese. Since Kraft's invention, per capita cheese consumption in the United States has risen from 3 pounds a year to 30. And despite what your senses are telling you, the law says that it is actually cheese.

#5 Benjamin Franklin

When Franklin invented electricity, not only did he usher in a new era of science and technology, he also became insanely wealthy. Even cooler, he wielded his lightning rod like an Olympian God, using it to defeat the British and give birth to the United States of America.

His son, William, not realizing its value, eventually sold his electricity patent to Thomas Edison, allowing the inventor to finally find some value in such devices as the light bulb and the electric toaster.

#4 Cornelius Vanderbilt

Everyone loves the board game Monopoly right? Or at least the idea of the game, because it turns out that actually playing Monopoly is inordinately boring. Well, no robber baron quite captures the flavor of the old board game like Vanderbilt. I mean, he owned all the railroads. Wasn't that the best thing in the game? All four railroads?

Other awesome facts about Vanderbilt: Before he bought all the railroads, he had a monopoly on steam ships. This guy really knew how to get around. In today's dollars, Vanderbilt was the second wealthiest American in history.

To top it off, Vanderbilt's nickname was the Commodore. How cool is that? From now on, everyone has to call me the Commodore.

#3 Burgess Charles Montgomery

Before Mr. Burns became a fixture on American television, Montgomery was the quintessential corporate scoundrel. Because of the dangers inherent in nuclear technology, the US government initially allowed him a monopoly to insure the communists did not get the secret.

Montgomery for a short time had a monopoly on atoms themselves. Of course, the government soon wised up, and the monopoly was revoked. Montgomery secretly sold his atomic secrets to the Russians, for which he eventually went to jail. A very, very rich jail. A jail made of solid gold.

#2 Frederick August Otto Schwarz

Toys. One man owned all the toys in the world. He became rich, and therefore became jaded. He forgot what it meant to be a child. All joy passed from his life. His toys lost their appeal.

Until one day, an orphan boy showed up on the man's door step. The young rapscallion reminded Schwarz of his own childhood. Together they made toys that every boy and girl could love. And Schwarz became even more rich and powerful.

He still lives today, his brain mechanically fused to a toy steam engine, insuring him of eternal life. A life of endless circles and tiny pine trees.

#1 Milton Snavely Hershey

His parents gave him the middle name Snavely. Of course he went on to become a twisted, evil candy magnate. But who cares? He literally lived in the Land of Chocolate, with rivers of chocolate, and chocolate dogs you could eat out of your hands.

Yes, Milton S. Hershey was the greatest Robber Baron in history, wearing his little chocolate hat to steal the candy from babies.

Lyric Of The Day:

Who can take a sunrise
Sprinkle it in dew
Cover it in chocolate
and a miracle or two?

The candyman
The candyman can
The candyman can cause he mixes it with love
and makes the world taste good

Who can take a rainbow
Wrap it in a sigh
Soak it in the sun
and make a strawberry lemon pie?

The candyman?

The candyman
The candyman can
The candyman can cause he mixes it with love
and makes the world taste good

"The Candy Man Can"
-Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

October 7, 2009

He Even Has A Monopoly On The Letter B

It is that time again. The weekly mail blog. Let's see what our readers have to say this week:

Dear DWS,

I have to plan out my next three months of vacation days for work. Is there any way you can give us a sneak preview of what we can expect from Dance With Sunflowers during that time so I can make some decisions?

Spencer Ross
State College, PA

Dear SR,

We at DWS like to think of ourselves as forward thinkers. Anyone can tell you what was cool yesterday (Fondue, Burt Reynolds, wood paneling on station wagons) and what is cool today (Vampires, zombies, tablet computers). But what our readers really want to know is what will be cool tomorrow.

A peak ahead at our upcoming blogs can inform us of exactly that. Rather than reacting to what is already out there in the blogosphere, we are highlighting the issues, themes and action figures that all the geeks will be obsessing about, and all the t-shirt companies will be designing for in the days ahead.

Here is what you can expect:
  1. The Robber Barons
  2. The Aeniad
  3. Vitamins
  4. The Letter B
  5. The Wizards of Waverly Place
  6. Non-Invasive Surgeries
  7. The Speed Limit
  8. Chuck Woolery
  9. Really High Levels of Magnification
Thanks for the email SR, and I hope that this will help you plan your outfit for Halloween. This year AND next.

When you begin to notice Henry Flick leaving the History Channel and popping up on MTV, and you hear American Idols singing about Andrew Carnegie, you won't be surprised. You will know that the mad splash of industrialists across our pop culture itinerary was inevitable. Welcome to Robber Baron Week!

Next Issue: Our Favorite Captains of Industry

Lyric Of The Day:

"We men are only lusty boys,
Though snowy be our locks,
So Skibo's master still enjoys
To sit and play with blocks."

-Origin Unknown

October 3, 2009

Up Next: The Phantom Menace On Broadway

Aesop wrote:
A Wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs. But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep. The Lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the Wolf was wearing, began to follow the Wolf in the Sheep's clothing; so, leading the Lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal off her, and for some time he succeeded in deceiving the sheep, and enjoying hearty meals.
Appearances are deceptive.
I was reminded of that story during a recent viewing of Watchmen. Appearances are indeed deceptive.

On the surface, Watchmen was everything fanboys and comic geeks could have hoped for. After the triple disasters of previous Alan Moore related projects (V for Vendetta, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), it was widely feared the movie version of Watchmen would bastardize the story. As it turns out however, Zack Snyder goes out of his way to faithfully reproduce the source material. Visually, they are virtually identical. Certainly, parts of the story had to be trimmed, even at three hours, but he still managed to keep nearly all the major story lines, maintain the same narration and pacing, and even exactly match many of the comic's scene compositions.

Yet, for all that, I was strangely disturbed as I watched. Something just felt wrong.

You remember watching The Phantom Menace for the first time? In pretty much every quantifiable way, it was a Star Wars movie. The opening music. The crawl. The swipes. The sound effects and John Williams score. Yet the further in you got, the more your heart sank.

It was a Star Wars movie, yes, but slowly there was the horrible realization that this movie just was not very good. In fact, the prequels are not really movies at all, but elaborate video games. What else to call them? The pod racing or R2-D2 and C-3PO on the assembly line are not really cinema. George Lucas grafted together some of his old characters and some potential new toy lines onto a two hour X-Box session.

And it is the same feeling I get watching the string of musical biopics that have appeared recently. Movies like Ray and Walk The Line feature fantastic performances and classic music, but they fail as movies. Rather than tell a great story, they get stuck trying to cram in all the important events in a person's life. Real life does not in general make a great movie. Contrast them with I'm Not There, a biography that uses a person's life as a starting point and crafts an interesting, groundbreaking movie.

Watchmen, for all its visual glory, has made the same mistake. The first hour of the movie lacks any real tension, because they are too busy using the comic book as a story board. Rather than try to make a trailblazing movie to match the original's legacy, the filmmakers just regurgitated the graphic novel. That story is meant to be read, it does not work as well as a movie without some serious refashioning.

It does not help that the performances are almost universally atrocious. But even if the casting director had done a better job, it would not have prevented Watchmen from being unmasked as a wolf in sheep's clothing.