Archive for July, 2013

Choose Your Own Adventure 60: Information Exchange

2013/07/31 5 comments

The last post in this sequence is here.

The coin flip on this one goes to option 60 — trying for an exchange of information, and keeping your memory problems quiet.

Part 60

Evading the first question, you answer, “It’s a spellbook which the Emperor tasked me to obtain for him.”  While she is staring at you with a mix of disbelief and concern, you say, “A question for a question.”

“Really?  You want to play that game, now?”

You shrug.  “We could just stare at each other, but I want to know what’s going on as much as you do.”

She gives you a long look.  “I may not answer some questions.  But if you want to play — ask.”

“What were your orders regarding me?”

“Kill or capture, at my discretion.”  She emphasizes the last word by tapping her sword.  “Why did you betray the Emperor?”

“Because he is preparing to betray the Empire.”  You’re not completely sure about that statement, but it sounds right.  Beleyev’s face is as still as stone.  “What happened to Alek Grescher?”

“Your confederate?  He was killed while trying to flee.  What do you claim the Emperor was trying to do, exactly?”

“Grescher wasn’t my confederate.  He also realized that the contents of that book did not bode well, and decided not to finish the last step in casting the spell.  The Emperor had ordered him to complete it.  It’s clear enough that, once cast, it would cause some kind of disaster, but-”

“I don’t believe this,” she says, turning away.  When she faces you again, she has the book under one elbow, and one hand raised in spellcasting.  You recognize the spell as she finishes it — it’s a truth-checking spell.  Simple, but not wholly reliable.

“I haven’t been lying to you.”

Beleyev lowers her hand, with a vaguely disturbed look at the result.

You explain briefly about Oblivion Canyon, and how you were intended to die there, and trigger the spell.

“I still don’t believe this.”  She glances at the guards, then says with a tight smile, “But it’s your turn to ask.”

“What am I accused of?  In detail, not just the labels.”

Beleyev’s gaze hardens.  “High treason, for threatening the Emperor and stealing information critical to the Empire’s safety.  Murder and arson are the lesser charges.”  Her eyes narrow slightly, and she asks, “What evidence do you have for your claims?”

“That I could not cast the spell myself, but I am one of the targets.  You’ll have your evidence if you find the person who wasn’t set up to be killed.  If you’ve read that book, you know how to see the runes that were placed.”

Beleyev apparently anticipated this, and opens it to a marked page.  She casts it, with sharp precision.  As before, the runes glow a gray, misty color on your skin.

“Interesting,” she says in a flat tone as she waves the symbols back into invisibility.  “But it could be merely an impressive cosmetic effect.  Or you could have been working with Grescher all along.”

“My question.”


“Did the Emperor tell you what information I stole?”

Beleyev doesn’t answer, but the slight wince before she blanks her face tells you that the answer is “no.”  When she does speak, she says, “Enough of this game.  I’ll think about how much of what you said is pure fantasy.”  She turns and starts to walk away.  Then she adds, “One last question.  What would you do, if I were to let you go?”

The Choices

Option 62:  “Assassinate the Emperor.  He’s clearly gone too far to be an effective ruler.”

Option 63:  “Confront the Emperor and his supporters directly, demonstrating the dangers of whatever it is he is planning.”

Option 64:  “Find an expert wizard in Alederik to disentangle the details of what the disturbing spell will do.  Confrontation of the Emperor is an option thereafter.”

Option 65:  “Flee the Empire.  I may not know the details, but it’s clear enough that if I’m not killed, the spell can’t be  completed or recast on anyone else.”


Fantasy Round 21: Monsters University

2013/07/26 Leave a comment

This movie was fun.

But it was by Pixar, so that (almost) goes without saying.

These characters were, in fact, all in the movie.  Including the purple guy clinging to the pole.  He's Art.  And hilarious.

These characters were, in fact, all in the movie. Including the purple guy clinging to the pole. He’s Art. And he’s hilarious.

The College Scene

The general setting isn’t bad.  The exaggeration of college life, good and bad, is something of par for the course.  At least they were reasonable, and didn’t have the students partying all the time.  Or studying all the time, for that matter.

One thing I did love was the references to the rivalry between Fear Tech and Monsters University.  That sort of thing… totally happens.

The other tidbit that makes me really happy is that Sulley, the monster who thinks he’s already an awesome scarer and college is pretty much a formality (and for partying), doesn’t put a lot of effort in despite his natural talent, and gets poor grades, whereas Mike, a scaring major who… isn’t that scary, knows all the theory by heart, and aces everything.

On the other hand, I wonder about the message regarding Mike’s career aspiration.  He really, really, really wants to be a scarer.  And he’s done all the hard work to be a good one.  Except… well, he’s an eyeball with arms and legs.  Supposedly, the fact that he is small and bowling-ball shaped means that he’s not scary.  So, my first point is that yes, actually, Mike should be able to be very effectively creepy.  The “Mike is not scary” bit would make more sense if he was pink and bunny-shaped.

Second… well, it’s an odd message.  He can try as hard as he likes, but in this setting, he’s just not going to make it.  He’s really good at coaching other monsters at scaring, though.  Perhaps they’re trying to hit some sort of “if one thing doesn’t work out, you have other strengths and options,” kind of angle.

A Little Retcon

There was a small, deliberate retcon on the part of the writers.  Mike and Sulley meet for the first time at Monsters University.  The writers had thought about including a scene showing them meeting in elementary for the first time, referencing Mike’s statement about envying Sulley’s looks “since fourth grade.”

But they chose to drop that.  Explanations:  They did meet, at least briefly, but it wasn’t shown, and they didn’t really remember each other.  Or, “envy since fourth grade” is a monster-universe idiom for “since pretty much forever.”  Or something like that.  I can understand the choice on the part of the writers in this case, though — an extra early years scene probably would have felt forced, and seeing the two guys meet as freshman was interesting.

Where Did You Get Your Data?

One thing that I’m wondering, both for this film and Monsters Inc., is how the whole scream-extraction thing got started.  Who made the first doors?  Who goes in to determine that little Suzy is afraid of lions and thunder before the official scarer goes in?  How do the monsters learn about human culture?  Very mysterious.

Randall, the Bad Guy

Randall, the villain from the first movie, shows up again.  But, he starts out as the roommate and friend of Mike.  Then he does the typical thing of falling in with the bad and popular crowd of “cool kids” and, well, that goes about as well as it usually does.

What I wonder is just how realistic this is.  I know that we are influenced by the people we choose to associate with; but how many people go to college, join a stuck-up fraternity, and come out of it self-centered jerks?

Adult Screams Work Too

Revelation:  It’s not just human kids whose screams provide power.  It’s humans in general.  Kids are just safer to scare, since the parents won’t believe that there’s a real monster in their closet…

Of course, Mike and Sulley get into a pickle where they have to scare a bunch of adult humans without getting caught by them.  They succeed, and escape back to the monster world.

… so, if that’s true, why not build a side-door to a horror movie theater?  I’d assume there’d be lots of good screams there.  And given that, why not tell the humans what you’re doing?

That, and, well… since laughter is so much more effective, and scaring has been happening so long, you’d think that they would have figured out the laughter thing earlier.  But that’s more a Monsters Inc question than something specific to Monster’s University.


For their crazy hijinks, Sulley and Mike are expelled.

For reals.

They don’t get an exception for being awesome, or because the dean likes them at the end.  They’re done.

I approve.  This tends to be one of the things that bothers me most about high school or college films — the heroes can get away with just about anything short of murder.  Except this time, they don’t.  They’re expelled, and have to deal with the consequences.  There’s a nice montage at the end about how they work themselves up to being Scarers, and it clearly takes them quite a bit of time and drudgery.

Stay in school, kids.  And don’t go through door portals to freak out the adult humans without permission.

Choose Your Own Adventure 57: Armor-Piercing Question

2013/07/21 5 comments

The last post in this series is here.  (Also, the title references this trope.  That link leads into The TVTropes Vortex.  You have been warned.)

Your decision from last time was to try to talk it out — ideally by throwing Beleyev’s question back at her.

Part 57

You raise your hands away from your weapons, and hold them steady.  The crossbows twitch when you make the two simple gestures that end both your invisibility and your silence.  “Fine.  I surrender.”

“Good.  Dismount.  And keep your hands where we can see them.”

You comply.  “Do you know what I’m accused of?”

When you turn back towards Beleyev, her face is still as stone.  “I think burning a village to the ground and theft of information critical to the Empire is sufficient cause for a charge of treason.”  She gestures, and a few of her subordinates dismount, walking cautiously towards you.

You look her in the eye.  “I was following orders.”

Beleyev meets your gaze.  “You know how it works.  If we must go down to preserve the Empire, we must do so.  You have betrayed that principle as well.”  She pauses, then adds, “Search her for other weapons, then bind her hands.  Resistance would be unwise.”

“Which part of the oath takes precedence, the part to the Empire or to the Emperor?”

She freezes at those words.  You aren’t sure from this distance, but you think some of the color may have faded from her face.

“Karet… the Emperor is not the Empire.”

The second sentence seems to jolt her from wherever her thoughts went.  “Gag her as well.  We can’t have her spellcasting her way out of this.”

“You have to — mmph!”

That could have gone better.


The search was quite thorough.  They even found the knives you had hidden in your boots.  Having taken your weapons, and confiscated the spellbook, they put you back on your horse.  The entire group then acts as a guard, taking you in the direction of Alederik.

It’s just as well that you didn’t try to flee.  Only a few minutes later, you meet and join the other half of the troop further down the road.  More than thirty soldiers accompany you and the commander under the uncomfortably warm sun.

They’re obviously interesting in keeping you alive — physical necessities are managed, but under guard.  If the gag is removed so you can drink some water or eat a bit of the worst of their rations, it is with men standing by with bows should you utter a single word.  Thorough, as Beleyev always was.  You remember that, but not the details of your training, or what she did afterwards.

When the group camps, you are placed near the center — but not too near the fire, in case you try to burn your ropes off.  After the sun has gone down, and everyone except the sentries and the guards watching you are asleep, Commander Beleyev approaches.  She’s carrying the spellbook in one hand, and while she has removed the heavier parts of her armor, she is still wearing her sword.

She nods to the guards, then said, “I’m going to have a private word with the prisoner.  No lip-reading.  If it looks like she’s attacking me, feel free to just shoot her.”  Then she steps forward between them, standing over the rough blanket where you are seated.  First, she casts a spell you recognize — one of silence, which will not permit your conversation to travel even so far as the guards a step or two further away.  She does not unbind your hands, but she does pull the gag loose.

After you manage to get some saliva back into your mouth, you manage to say, “Karet?  What-“

“Hells, Severel.  You were the most devoted and loyal Hand I’ve ever worked with.  What happened?”  Then she waves the book at you.  “And what is this monstrosity?”

The Choices

Option 59:  Perhaps honesty is the best policy here.  Explain everything you know of the current state of things, including the spellbook and the fact that there are still holes in your memory.

Option 60:  Try to figure out what Karet Beleyev knows before you share your part.  Explain only what you must — mostly about the spellbook’s dire nature and that your orders were from the Emperor personally — and keep your own limitations quiet.

Option 61:  Refuse to explain.  Let Beleyev figure out the spellbook for herself.  Demand to see the Emperor before you state your case.

Science Fiction Round 23: Independence Day Is Fail

2013/07/20 2 comments

I actually watched Independence Day, back around July 4th.  It was made in 1996, but I still hadn’t actually seen it.  I’d just heard about the flying saucers.

It was a mildly entertaining, and occasionally uproariously hilarious parody of the alien invasion story.  In fact, it went far enough as…

Wait, what’s that?  You mean, it wasn’t a parody?  It was supposed to be serious?  And believable?


You'd think this poster was exaggerating the size of the flying saucer... for dramatic effect.  Except... it's not.  Um.

You’d think this poster was exaggerating the size of the flying saucer… for dramatic effect. Except… it’s not. Um.

Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale

While I’m sure there are other movies that are worse… there aren’t that many.  And there are so many things, I’m going to have to break it into smaller bits.

Invisible Flying Saucers

As happens in other movies, the aliens pretty much pop out of nowhere.  People on Earth first notice them when they catch some of their radio transmission, while they’re still about as far away as the Moon.


Thermal and visual detectors would pick them up much further out than that.  I mean, we can see asteroids that are only tens of meters across at much larger distances from Earth.  The big mothership is 500 km across; that’s a little bit smaller than Vesta, a main-belt asteroid so large that it was discovered in 1807.

Plus, assuming they’re coming in from outside the solar system at some large fraction of the speed of light, they’ll have to be firing some kind of thrusters, or otherwise expending a lot of energy to slow down.  Which will make them very, very bright.

There’s no good reason to not see them coming.  Unless they can teleport, which introduces all kinds of other issues.

Saucers and Satellites

There’s this interesting scene where an uncaring flying saucer runs into a much tinier satellite, destroying it.  The problem?  Actual orbital speeds are fast, typically around a few km/s, so there should be a similar difference in velocity between these two objects.

Not km/h.  That’s kilometers per second.  Around 3600 km/h, or 2200 mph.  That satellite should have been in the frame and then smacked in a fraction of a second.  Boom.  But slow is more dramatic, I guess.

Intangible Flying Saucers

Aaaaaand they have antigravity.  Or at least, something that magically allows a 15-km-wide flying saucer to hover over New York without squashing it flat.  Which is really quite odd, since any normal means of propulsion would have to exert a downward force on something to hold it there.  Like, say, the air.  Which would then also push downward.  (This isn’t so much a problem for, say, airplanes, since that force is very broadly distributed by the time it gets to the ground.  But the turbulence caused by flight is just one reason why planes don’t fly too close to each other.)  Ground effect is a related phenomenon, where aircraft get more lift when close to the ground because the air gets compressed, and that extra pressure pushes the plane up… but also pushes down on the ground.

And let’s not even get into the shields.  Or the laser beams.

Immensely Massive Mothership

So… the mothership is about 500 km across, and has a mass about a quarter that of the Moon.

Think about that for a minute.  Now remember that the moon has a radius of about 1740 km.  It has a density of about 3.3 g/cm^3, typical of rocky solar system bodies.  The Earth’s density is a bit higher, at 5.5 cm^3, typical of planetary bodies that are a mixture of rock and metal, like Earth’s nickle-iron core, and are big enough for pressure to compress things a bit.

Assuming that the mothership is actually a solid sphere 500 km in diameter (larger than its stated size, which isn’t spherical, plus we’re shown that it’s quite hollow for all the aliens to live in there), then we get a density of about 1000 g/cm^3.  The densest normal element listed on Wikipedia is Osmium, at just under 23 g/cm^3.  Now, at 1000 g/cm^3 this isn’t quite as dense as the material in a white dwarf star or that most absurdly dense of materials, neutronium, but more dense than the core of the sun.  It’s nuts for some future-tech alloy to be more than 50 times denser than any ordinary metal.

Remember Vesta, the asteroid that’s about the same size, in terms of diameter?  It has <1% of the Moon’s mass.

But hey, at least they got the distance from Earth to the Moon right.

Alien Antivirus Software

So you’ve got your space ships, your frickin’ laser beams, and your massively superior technology.  So, clearly, you make your computer system so user-friendly that a bunch of the people whose you’re invading can take a crashed ship, reverse-engineer it, fly it into your mothership, hack all your systems, shut down your shields, and set off a nuke.

What.  Come on, guys, they have super-shields and super-tech; why don’t they have super-cryptography as well?  And that’s even overlooking the fact that it’s hard enough to figure out computer programs and systems made by other humans, much less aliens systems with different designs written in

Seriously, this is about as bad as the biological virus that kills the aliens in War of the Worlds (in all its versions).

You Just Walked Into Another Cliché

Skipping over all the references to Roswell and Area 51…

… there’s another cliché (or two) that really just bugs me.

They manage to catch a live alien, and lug it to Area 51 for study.  The scientist and medical-ish support think it may have died, since it hasn’t moved for several hours prior to coming in.

And there are no guards in the room when they start to take off the alien’s biological armor.

The instant I saw there were no guards, I thought, “These people are all going to be killed by the alien.”

And then they were.  Too easy.

For bonus points, based on the bodies recovered from the original Roswell crash, the aliens have ears but no vocal cords.  The immediate inference is that, obviously, they use telepathy.  Which, of course, they do have, which leads me to a problems.

Why is telepathy the first guess?  Real telepathy has never been demonstrated, and there are other possibilities.  Maybe they use some other organ to make sound to talk.  Maybe they use sign language/clapping/snapping/strategic joint-cracking, what-have-you.  It’d make more sense.  Yeesh.  Why are the aliens always telepaths?

Instant Pilot, Just Add Coffee

Because that’s all that’s needed to turn a drunk washed-up former pilot of decades ago into a competent fighter pilot on modern aircraft.

Practice time, simulator hours?  Nah.

… this would not work in real life.  It seems like a piloting equivalent of the omnidisciplinary scientist.

Penicillin Is Not A Panacea

A kid who is sick with a mystery illness doesn’t have his meds due to the invading alien crisis.  He develops a fever.  The stop-gap solution?  Penicillin.  Because “it’ll bring the fever down.”

No.  No, it won’t.  Penicillin is an antibiotic, for killing bacteria, not some kind of fever-reducing drug, called an antipyretic.  Like, say, some other fairly easily recognizable drugs.  Like Tylenol.  Getting this right would have been so easy that I wouldn’t have even mentioned it in a review.  But… they didn’t.

Was SETI Ever In NM at the VLA?

This film makes it look like the SETI Institute runs the Very Large Array (VLA, a large radio telescope array), located in New Mexico.

SETI is actually located in Mountain View, CA.

And, although some SETI-related work has happened there, VLA is actually run by the NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory).

And so far as I know, this was the case even in the distant year of 1996.

Oh, About That Thing You Blew Up…

So, you destroyed something in Earth orbit, which had a quarter of the mass of the Moon.  At the end of the film, we get to see a few bits coming down and burning up in the atmosphere, as “fireworks” for Independence Day.  Except… that’s a lot of mass coming in, guys.  We don’t see it, but the incoming pieces are probably dense enough to not burn up completely, and big enough, to, well, cause problems similar to having a lot of large asteroid impacts.  Oops.

I am not impressed.  I think the filmmakers started to do the research, and then got bored and decided to just make up the rest.

Choose Your Own Adventure 53: Taking The Bull By The Horns

2013/07/15 3 comments

The last point in this sequence in here.

Your choice — book it to Alederik, and finally get to the bottom of this problem that won’t leave you alone.

Part 53

While your patient and his friends are distracted, you move towards the back of the building.  The rear exit, on the far side from the dirt road.

Before you step out, you make a small ward with a bit of chalk.  Then you cloak yourself in magic and silence your footsteps.  You break the ward, its purpose — hiding your spellcasting — completed.

Focused on Alederik, you remember your training — open the door, while invisible, but step aside from the opening.  Let it drift.  Wait to see if anyone notices before stepping through.  That was a wise decision, as Commander Beleyev is clearly following the usual protocol.  There are sentries around the town.  One uniformed young man steps toward the door, hand on the hilt of his sword.  You swiftly step around him, and bash his face against the wall before he notices your presence.

He will be missed, or seen, in fairly short order.  You dash to the shelter where you have been sleeping, which is luckily on this side of the main road.  You take care not to step in puddles or dusty areas.  A mysteriously appearing footprint would give you away.

You gather your pack.  You always keep a few supplies in a bag, just in case.  Just in case.  Including the problematic spellbook.  You retrieve your stolen sword from under the firewood where you hid it, making sure no one watches as you do so, and add each item to your invisibility as you go.  Then you take a horse, and flee unseen and unheard.


You are further in luck, as the road south to Alederik is not significantly guarded.  They were expecting you to flee from the capital, as in your recent movements, not towards it.  You have a little time to yourself as you run as fast to the south as your horse can carry you.  But it’s still possible that they may realize where you have gone.  Beleyev isn’t stupid.  Therefore, you take precautions.  You prepare spells for great speed and for the deflection of weapons, both of which you can cast at a moment’s notice, but neither of which will last for more than a few minutes.

They catch up to you at sunset.  They must have had extra horses that you didn’t see.  They were either well-prepared, or knew you were here.  With your vague recollection of Beleyev, either is possible.

Your first move is to hold stock-still, by the side of the road.  With you invisible, they may just pass you by.  In fact, they are uncomfortably close when a man wearing thick spectacles shouts and points in your direction.  Beleyev, riding a black horse in front, raises a hand.  She is the same as what you remember, although there are premature grey streaks in her black hair.

You can easily hear the sound of half a dozen crossbows being lifted.  And that dry, raspy voice says, “Severel, surrender.  It’s better that way than if we have to turn you into a pincushion.”

A fragment of memory flickers across your mind.  You and Karet Beleyev, taking a break after training, drinking the clear water drawn from the Derinin River that flows through the city.  The woman in memory wears a philosophical look, not the hard and angry one you see now.  “Don’t spread this around, I don’t want trouble — but I’ve been wondering.  Which part of the oath takes precedence, the part to the Empire or to the Emperor, if there is a conflict between the good of one and the other?”

“There can be no such conflict.  The Emperor is the Empire.”  Those were your words at the time.  The correct answer.  One that still gnaws at you in a way you can’t quite pin down.

But first, the problem at hand.

The Choices

Option 56:  You’re outnumbered, but not surrounded.  Time to run, until you’re in a more favorable position.

Option 57:  You know the commander, and she didn’t shoot you immediately.  Maybe you can talk your way out of this.

Option 58:  You’ve recovered quite a bit from your ordeal, physically and mentally.  If you’re careful and clever, you can probably take them in a fight.  Which will go better if you surprise them when starting it.