Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

I think we’ve heard enough fake cries of “fake news” over things that are true, but here are five times in the past that people just made things up and pawned them off as real.

The Mechanical Turk

In 1769, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungray, invited her trusted servant, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to a magic show. Von Kempelen knew his physics, mechanics, and hydraulics. The empress wanted to see what he’d make of a stage illusionist.

In short, he was not impressed, and said so in front of the court, claiming that he could create a better illusion. The empress accepted his offer and gave him six months off to try.

In 1770, he returned with his results: An automaton that played chess. It was in the form of a wooden figure seated behind a cabinet with three doors in front and a drawer in the bottom. In presenting it, von Kempelen would open the left door to show the complicated clockwork inside, then open a back door and shine a lantern through it to show that there was nothing else there.

When he opened the other two doors, it revealed an almost empty compartment with a velvet pillow in it. This he placed under the automaton’s left arm. The chess board and pieces came out of the drawer, and once a challenger stepped forward, von Kempelen turned a crank on the side to start it up, and the game was afoot.

Called the Mechanical Turk, it was good, and regularly defeated human opponents, including Benjamin Franklin.  and Napoleon Bonaparte — although Napoleon is reported to have tried to cheat, to which the Turk did not respond well.

Neither its creator nor second owner and promoter revealed its secrets during the machine’s lifetime, and it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Although many people assumed that it was actually operated by a human and was not a machine, playing against it did inspire Charles Babbage to begin work on his difference engine, the mechanical precursor to the modern computer.

In the present day, a designer and builder of stage illusions built a replica of the Turk based on the original plans, and watching it in action is definitely uncanny.

Moon-bats and Martians!

This is actually a twofer. First, in August 1835, the New York Sun ran a six part series on discoveries made by the astronomer John Herschel on the Moon. The problem: The press flat out made it all up, reporting all kinds of fantastical creatures Herschel had allegedly seen and written about, including everything from unicorns to flying bat-people, all thanks to the marvel of the fabulous new telescope he had created. When Herschel found out about it, he was not pleased.

The flipside of this came sixty years later in 1895, when the astronomer Percival Lowell first published about the “canals of Mars,” which were believed to be channels of water that ran into the many oceans on the planet.

In reality, they were just an optical illusion created by the lack of power of telescopes of the time. This didn’t stop Lowell, though, and he went on in the early 19th century to write books that postulated the existence of life on Mars.

Of course, Lowell was not trying to perpetrate a fraud. He just had the habit of seeing what he wanted to see, so it was more self-delusion than anything else.

The Cardiff Giant

This would be Cardiff. The one in New York, not the capital of Wales. The year is 1869. The “giant” was a petrified 10-foot-tall man that had been dug up on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell. People came from all around to see it, and that did not stop when Newell started charging fifty cents a head to have a look. That’s the equivalent of about ten bucks today.

The statue was actually created by George Hull, who was a cousin of Newell’s. An atheist, Hull had gotten into an argument with a Methodist minister who said that everything in the Bible had to be taken literally. Since the Bible said that there had been giants in those days, Hull decided to give him one, and expose the gullibility of religious types at the same time.

Cardiff, after all, wasn’t very far from where Joseph Smith had first started the Mormon religion, and that sort of thing was not at all uncommon in the area during the so-called Second Great Awakening.

Although a huge hit with the public to the point that P.T. Barnum created his own fake giant, the Chicago Tribune eventually published an exposé with confessions from the stonemasons. That didn’t seem to make one bit of difference to the public, who still flocked to see the statues. Hull and his investors made a fortune off of the whole adventure.

Piltdown Man

Less innocuous was a hoax that actually sent a couple of generations of anthropologists and evolutionists down the wrong path in tracing the ancestry of humans. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown human species in Piltdown, Sussex, England.

The key part was that while the skull had a human-like cranium, it had an ape-like mandible, or lower jaw. In other words, having traits of both species, it could easily have been the long-sought “missing link,” a transitional form that provides the evolutionary bridge between two species.

The first so-called missing link, Java Man, had been discovered twenty years prior to Dawson’s. Unlike Dawson’s Piltdown Man, Java Man, now known as homo erectus, has been accepted as a legitimate transitional form between ape and man.

Dawson’s downfall came after the discovery of more transitional forms and improved testing methods that authenticated many of these. When researchers finally turned their attention back to the original Piltdown Man fossils, they determined that the skull was only about 500 years old, the jaw, only a few decades. Both had been stained to simulate age.

In 1953, they published their findings, which were reported in Time magazine, but the damage had been done, setting back anthropological studies, because more recent, legitimate discoveries were doubted because they conflicted with the fake evidence.

It seems likely that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. What was his motive? Most likely, he wanted to be nominated to the archaeological Royal Society, but hadn’t yet because of a lack of significant findings.

In 1913, he was nominated because of Piltdown, proving yet again that it’s possible for a fraud to profit — if they’re white and connected.

Vaccines and autism

We’re still feeling the repercussions of this fraud, which was first perpetrated in 1998 by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield. This was when he published results of studies he carried out which, he said, showed an undeniable link between childhood vaccinations, particularly measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.

In Wakefield’s world, “undeniable link” meant “cause and effect,” and a whole bunch of parents proceeded to lose their minds over the whole thing. We’re still dealing with the fallout from it today, with diseases like measles and whopping cough — which should have been eradicated — suddenly causing mini-epidemics.

Eventually, when they could not be replicated, it came out that Wakefield had flat-out falsified his results, and his papers and findings were withdrawn and repudiated by medical journals.

What was his motive for falsifying information without any regard for the lives he endangered? Oh, the usual motive. Money. He had failed to disclose that his studies “had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.”

But, as with Piltdown Man, we’re still seeing the effects and feeling the damage a generation later, especially during COVID. This is why now, more than ever, we need to rely on actual scientific findings that have been replicated through peer review instead of rumors, myths, or memes.

Friday Free-for-All #71: Colony, nuke, roommate

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What should the first colony on another planet be called?

First, I would say that it shouldn’t be called a colony at all, because that concept has become so loaded with negative connotations that we need to jettison it. Colonialism is what allowed European culture to seep into other parts of the world and destroy indigenous cultures by valuing them as “less than.”

The Americas, Africa, Oceania, and parts of Asia and Southeast Asia all suffered from Western Imperial colonization and its self-righteous air of superiority. We do not need to take that into space with us, which is why the round of “Billionaire Blast-offs” we’re currently seeing is such a bad idea that’s not going to end until they experience their own personal Apollo 1.

So let’s call it a settlement, or outpost, or station. Or, even better, experimental expeditionary base. Yes, it’s true that we’re most likely to start by setting up on Mars, which may or may not harbor life, although as far as we can tell, it’s nothing that’s advanced to a very complex stage yet.

But… our approach has to be that we are visitors, and we have to follow the Scouting rule: Leave the campsite in better condition than it was when you found it.

Ah. There’s the term. “Mars Camp 1” as a scientific designation. But we also need a reminder of how it works once we get there, so it should not be named after any human, country, state, city, or indeed anything tied to any existing division on the planet.

So, let’s call it “Mars Camp 1: Equitopia.” Each successive one can spell out another ideal of exploration and of realizing that we all come from one planet and are all descended from the same two proto-human ancestors we call Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosomal Adam.

The former is the direct matrilineal descendent of everyone’s mother, and mother’s mother, and so on. The latter is the direct ancestor of every man’s father’s father’s father, etc. The exclusivity there is pure biology. Generally, but not always, people identified as female at birth do not have a Y chromosome.

But the buck stops at them, and my father’s father’s father’s ancestor traced back multiple tens of thousands of years was an early hominid living near the central east coast of Africa, around what eventually became Ethiopia.

Shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that’s the point.

So what we name the next camps is up for debate by the Human Next Step Committee, but things like Unitaria, Humanitas, and even terms in other languages would fit the bill nicely.

But FFS, the first person who suggests calling it “New Earth” gets shot out the airlock.

Has the invention of the atomic bomb made the world a more peaceful place?

Only indirectly. What did the U.S. do after their first successful test of the A-Bomb? That’s right… they dropped the next two on civilian populations, making WW II the first and, to date, only nuclear war.

Repeat that to yourselves a few times if it sounds weird. WW II was the first and only nuclear war.

And then they went on to develop more powerful weapons even as the USSR managed to obtain the secrets to the American bomb, and even as the first hydrogen bomb — which used fusion instead of fission — was successfully tested, other countries started to join the nuclear club, with the UK being next in 1952.

From the end of WW II throughout the 1950s, the nuclear club countries were testing nukes left and right, general in above-ground or air-burst tests. A lot of it was just a giant pissing contest between the U.S. and USSR, but then a funny thing happened.

The countries, led by the U.S., started to look at what these tests were doing to their own people and, in fact, kids were turning up with radioactive baby teeth. One immediate result of this was to lead to treaties that limited tests to underground explosions only. But, at the same time, a really scary political policy emerged.

The concept was called MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction, most likely spurred on by the U.S. and USSR coming within a few bad decisions of nuking each other during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with public awareness being raised by the (now largely forgotten) dramatic film Fail Safe and the (revered classic) black comedy/satire Dr. Strangelove or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. They both came out in the same year, right after the missile crisis, and basically told the same story.

The U.S. accidentally drops a nuke on the USSR, and the only way to avoid nuclear apocalypse is to let the USSR fire back — although the Dr. Strangelove version of the same involves a weapon that wipes out all life on the planet. Because, black comedy.

But this fear is what led to the concept of MAD which, perversely, also led to a massive arms race until the 1970s, the idea seemingly being that if you had enough bombs to kill everyone on their side 20 times over and they had enough times to kill everyone on your side 25 times over, then no one would ever be stupid enough to call for a launch.

Decades later, John Woo would turn this into his favorite trope: Two dudes holding a gun in each other’s faces. I think, in some places, they call it a Mexican stand-off.

Then, eventually, the Cold War ended. So to answer the original question… did the invention of the atomic bomb make the world a safer place? Oh, fuck no. It almost immediately killed several hundred thousand people. And, for a while, especially after it led to the development of the hydrogen bomb, it didn’t help either because it irradiated people far away from testing sites. But, eventually, it led to weapons so scary that, in fact, it did ultimately lead to a safer planet because everyone realized that if anyone ever fired any of them off in an aggressive act, the response would end life on the planet.

Oh. The question was “is it a more peaceful place?”

Of course not. Earth has always been a violent place. But I guess we wouldn’t be human if it didn’t happen otherwise, right? Because we’re just assholes descended from monkeys. Just not far enough.

Sigh.

Which protagonist from a book or movie would make the worst roommate?

Holden Goddamn Caulfield, especially since he’d be about the right age to get hooked up with as a college freshman roommate. For one, he’s an insufferable, whiny, self-centered little asshole who thinks he’s above everyone else. And I don’t give a damn what trauma he’s suffered in his life if he isn’t going to talk about it.

As soon as he decided he only wanted to communicate with me via little passive aggressive notes, that’s it. I’m asking Resident Housing for a swap. But I probably would have before that, because the useless little failure of a adouchebag also smokes. And screw that.

Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

I think we’ve heard enough fake cries of “fake news” over things that are true, but here are five times in the past that people just made things up and pawned them off as real.

The Mechanical Turk

In 1769, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungray, invited her trusted servant, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to a magic show. Von Kempelen knew his physics, mechanics, and hydraulics. The empress wanted to see what he’d make of a stage illusionist.

In short, he was not impressed, and said so in front of the court, claiming that he could create a better illusion. The empress accepted his offer and gave him six months off to try.

In 1770, he returned with his results: An automaton that played chess. It was in the form of a wooden figure seated behind a cabinet with three doors in front and a drawer in the bottom. In presenting it, von Kempelen would open the left door to show the complicated clockwork inside, then open a back door and shine a lantern through it to show that there was nothing else there.

When he opened the other two doors, it revealed an almost empty compartment with a velvet pillow in it. This he placed under the automaton’s left arm. The chess board and pieces came out of the drawer, and once a challenger stepped forward, von Kempelen turned a crank on the side to start it up, and the game was afoot.

Called the Mechanical Turk, it was good, and regularly defeated human opponents, including Benjamin Franklin.  and Napoleon Bonaparte — although Napoleon is reported to have tried to cheat, to which the Turk did not respond well.

Neither its creator nor second owner and promoter revealed its secrets during the machine’s lifetime, and it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Although many people assumed that it was actually operated by a human and was not a machine, playing against it did inspire Charles Babbage to begin work on his difference engine, the mechanical precursor to the modern computer.

In the present day, a designer and builder of stage illusions built a replica of the Turk based on the original plans, and watching it in action is definitely uncanny.

Moon-bats and Martians!

This is actually a twofer. First, in August 1835, the New York Sun ran a six part series on discoveries made by the astronomer John Herschel on the Moon. The problem: The press flat out made it all up, reporting all kinds of fantastical creatures Herschel had allegedly seen and written about, including everything from unicorns to flying bat-people, all thanks to the marvel of the fabulous new telescope he had created. When Herschel found out about it, he was not pleased.

The flipside of this came sixty years later in 1895, when the astronomer Percival Lowell first published about the “canals of Mars,” which were believed to be channels of water that ran into the many oceans on the planet.

In reality, they were just an optical illusion created by the lack of power of telescopes of the time. This didn’t stop Lowell, though, and he went on in the early 19th century to write books that postulated the existence of life on Mars.

Of course, Lowell was not trying to perpetrate a fraud. He just had the habit of seeing what he wanted to see, so it was more self-delusion than anything else.

The Cardiff Giant

This would be Cardiff. The one in New York, not the capital of Wales. The year is 1869. The “giant” was a petrified 10-foot-tall man that had been dug up on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell. People came from all around to see it, and that did not stop when Newell started charging fifty cents a head to have a look. That’s the equivalent of about ten bucks today.

The statue was actually created by George Hull, who was a cousin of Newell’s. An atheist, Hull had gotten into an argument with a Methodist minister who said that everything in the Bible had to be taken literally. Since the Bible said that there had been giants in those days, Hull decided to give him one, and expose the gullibility of religious types at the same time.

Cardiff, after all, wasn’t very far from where Joseph Smith had first started the Mormon religion, and that sort of thing was not at all uncommon in the area during the so-called Second Great Awakening.

Although a huge hit with the public to the point that P.T. Barnum created his own fake giant, the Chicago Tribune eventually published an exposé with confessions from the stonemasons. That didn’t seem to make one bit of difference to the public, who still flocked to see the statues. Hull and his investors made a fortune off of the whole adventure.

Piltdown Man

Less innocuous was a hoax that actually sent a couple of generations of anthropologists and evolutionists down the wrong path in tracing the ancestry of humans. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown human species in Piltdown, Sussex, England.

The key part was that while the skull had a human-like cranium, it had an ape-like mandible, or lower jaw. In other words, having traits of both species, it could easily have been the long-sought “missing link,” a transitional form that provides the evolutionary bridge between two species.

The first so-called missing link, Java Man, had been discovered twenty years prior to Dawson’s. Unlike Dawson’s Piltdown Man, Java Man, now known as homo erectus, has been accepted as a legitimate transitional form between ape and man.

Dawson’s downfall came after the discovery of more transitional forms and improved testing methods that authenticated many of these. When researchers finally turned their attention back to the original Piltdown Man fossils, they determined that the skull was only about 500 years old, the jaw, only a few decades. Both had been stained to simulate age.

In 1953, they published their findings, which were reported in Time magazine, but the damage had been done, setting back anthropological studies, because more recent, legitimate discoveries were doubted because they conflicted with the fake evidence.

It seems likely that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. What was his motive? Most likely, he wanted to be nominated to the archaeological Royal Society, but hadn’t yet because of a lack of significant findings.

In 1913, he was nominated because of Piltdown, proving yet again that it’s possible for a fraud to profit — if they’re white and connected.

Vaccines and autism

We’re still feeling the repercussions of this fraud, which was first perpetrated in 1998 by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield. This was when he published results of studies he carried out which, he said, showed an undeniable link between childhood vaccinations, particularly measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.

In Wakefield’s world, “undeniable link” meant “cause and effect,” and a whole bunch of parents proceeded to lose their minds over the whole thing. We’re still dealing with the fallout from it today, with diseases like measles and whopping cough — which should have been eradicated — suddenly causing mini-epidemics.

Eventually, when they could not be replicated, it came out that Wakefield had flat-out falsified his results, and his papers and findings were withdrawn and repudiated by medical journals.

What was his motive for falsifying information without any regard for the lives he endangered? Oh, the usual motive. Money. He had failed to disclose that his studies “had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.”

But, as with Piltdown Man, we’re still seeing the effects and feeling the damage a generation later. This is why now, more than ever, we need to rely on actual scientific findings that have been replicated through peer review instead of rumors, myths, or memes.

Sunday Nibble #72: Keep it varied!

One of the big fails of modern science fiction films comes down to world-building — literally. It’s pretty much this: For whatever reason, most planets wind up with a one-world biome.

It’s a desert planet, or a snow planet, or a forest planet, or a volcano planet, and that’s it.

Now, I can see how our own solar system might have propagated this idea because, well, honestly, other than the Earth and Mars, look at Mercury, Venus, Neptune, and Uranus, and they really do seem to be mostly the same globally.

Mercury is a rock — but if you compare the temperature on the side that always faces the Sun and the side that does not, you’ll find a ridiculous extreme because it has both the hottest and coldest places in our solar system if you don’t count the atmosphere of the Sun itself.

So scratch Mercury off the list, because it has climate extremes as well. And if it had any kind of atmosphere (which it can’t), it would have incredibly violent storms along its terminator, which in this case would be a line circling its poles, with total sunshine on one side and total dark on the other.

Meanwhile… Venus is a hellhole with no variation, so it totally fits the science fiction planet stereotype. Way to go Venus!

Earth… I’ll get back to us in a minute.

Mars… it may look like it’s just a little off-orange dust-ball with easily revealed gray streaks, but that’s not really true. While it doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere to speak of, it does actually have seasons, and the climate, such as it is, in the polar zones and at the equator do vary.

Let’s jump over Jupiter and Saturn and take a look at Neptune and Uranus.

These last two are, in fact, the epitome of mono-biome worlds, as far as we can tell. They are just spinning globes of liquid methane and ammonia at really low temperatures, they lack surface features, and are pretty reminiscent of a planet like Giedi Prime from Dune, which was basically made of fossil fuels.

The only fail in those books was the idea that the planet could actually be habitable by any kind of hominid life-form. Nope. It would have been, at best, the equivalent of a distant oil field, exploited by pipeline or robot rigging crew, with the actual product shipped to a real home world to be exploited.

The real action on varied biomes this far out in our solar system probably comes among the many moons, of which Uranus and Neptune have a lot, and Saturn and Jupiter have many more — but let us get back to the king of planets, and the father of the king, by whom he was eaten.

Look it up, people.

While both places may look like they are just whirling balls of gas as well, one glance at them tells us that no, they are not. And while you have to go really far down in hopes of finding any kind of solid surface, a look at the top of their atmospheres says, “Wow. They have climates.”

And boy, do they.

Jupiter is famous for its storms, the most well-known of which is the Great Red Spot, which is pretty much a hurricane just south of the equator that has spun in roughly the same place for centuries. There are indications that it’s finally breaking up, but others are forming in a storm train that’s familiar to any Earthling who watches news of our own Atlantic hurricanes.

Jupiter’s storms are just bigger, nastier, and they last (figuratively) forever. Meanwhile, the dynamics of the rest of the atmosphere are incredible, with visible bands of clouds and gases violently interacting in a dance of fluid dynamics driven by the incredibly rapid revolution of the planet.

Jupiter’s circumference is roughly eleven times the Earth’s, but one revolution on Jupiter, aka one day, takes only 9 hours and 56 minutes. Meanwhile, one revolution on Earth takes 24 hours and 15 minutes.

The net result is that the velocity of any point on the Earth’s equator around its axis at around sea level is 1,307 mph (1,669 kph). At the top of Jupiter’s atmosphere, it’s 27,478 mph (44,222 kph), which is 26.5 times faster.

So storms are much more intense, winds are faster, and atmospheric friction makes it pretty hot along the Jovian equator.

It’s probably not that much different on Saturn, with the composition of gases in the atmosphere changing by latitude — and that’s exactly what happens on Earth, for different reasons.

Back to the biome. Earth in particular is defined by its climate zones, which were mapped and named by humans centuries ago.

The defining two lines are the equator, at 0° latitude, and the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5°N and the Tropic of Capricorn 23.44°S. What they basically define are the zones in which the Sun does its maximal and minimal height at noon thing as the seasons pass.

They’re named for the astrological signs that marked the passing of the solstice — traditionally, the Sun enters Cancer on June 21, which is more or less the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Sun enters Capricorn around about December 22, which is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Swap results and seasons if you swap hemispheres.

Anything north or south of these Tropics (which basically means “cut-off”) up until the corresponding polar circle is considered a temperate zone. Well, was, until climate changed started to fuck it up.

As for the polar zones, these are the areas that either receive sunlight nearly 24/7 during summer or darkness nearly 24/7 during winter.

So this is why we have ice caps (sort of still) near the poles, pleasant weather for a zone between that and hot (until recently) and then a pretty warm climate spanning the equator in a pretty equal band.

Traditionally, that would give us snow, permafrost, deciduous forest, Mediterranean climate, rainforest, desert, then repeat in the other direction. Different climates depend upon where you are on the planet. So does the atmospheric composition, with some zones having more moisture and some less.

And yes, that’s all changing, but let’s get back to the point.

Where a lot of Science Fiction world-building has fallen down is in actually forgetting the lessons of our solar system, which are these. Which planets are naturally uninhabited and which ones aren’t?

Welp, Earth comes to mind as inhabited, with Mars a good candidate as former life host, along with various moons of Jupiter and Saturn as current hosts. The common thread, though, is that we’ve only found life on the planets with varied biomes — mainly, Earth.

And yet, science fiction planet designers insist on thinking that they can create planets that are all one thing — an ice world, a rain-forest planet, a volcanic world, a total desert, a salt flat with iron oxide deposits under it, a swamp world… whatever.

Here’s the problem: None of those mono-biome worlds are ever going to naturally support life. They might manage it with a lot of heavy infrastructure dropped onto them, but otherwise not. But for the ones that do happen to have varied biomes, seasons, maybe even a big moon to create tides, the sky is the limit.

And, to science fiction writers, if you want to create an inhabited planet, make damn sure that climate and terrain do change based on latitude, axial tilt, orbital period, and other realistic things. Otherwise, nobody is going to able to live on the “one terrain, one climate” space ball you’ve created.

To take just three examples, if you have a snowball world like Hoth, an ocean planet like Kamino, or a desert world like Tatooine, you’re going to have a damn hard time providing food and water for your inhabitants.

I’ll assume that, since most of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe we see are humanoid, that we’d need to support an Earth-like atmosphere and agriculture, and other typically human needs.

The obvious workaround, of course, is that these single biome worlds are stand-ins for similar places on Earth.

For example, Hoth is not really inhabited by any kind of advanced civilization, just the local beasties — mainly tauntuans and whatever it was that lost an arm to Luke. It’s only an outpost, and is most like an analogue of the few bases that humans have in Antarctica.

Kamino, the ocean planet, likewise doesn’t really have any civilization, just the resident Kaminoans who are cloners, and who are involved in a very secret project most likely commissioned by a Sith Lord. Think of them like oil platforms in any distant place, like the North Sea, or very remote oceanic research stations.

And then we come to Tatooine, which seems to have a thriving culture despite being a desert planet of the sandy variety. But, again, this one has an analogue on Earth and in the Star Wars universe and Tatooine itself was actually filmed not all that far from its terrestrial counterpart.

See, Tatooine is the Middle East, which provided a gateway and marketplace between Asian traders from the East and European traders from the West.

All this is well and good if you’re being symbolic, but if you want to write real science fiction, then make your civilized planets as complicated and varied as Earth.

Oh yeah — the one other thing that seems to happen a lot in science fiction films: Every inhabitant of a particular planet apparently has the same language, belief system, culture, and general appearance. There are exceptions (that are not accounted for by aliens) but they are far and few between.

You could try to write that off to the idea that a planet’s cultures cannot migrate into space until they become one, but I’d argue that we seem to be doing just fine right now while sending up astronauts and missions from multiple nations, and we even seem to have just reached the Christopher Columbus phase 52 years to the day after the first humans walked on the Moon.

That would be the “letting rich assholes go up there” phase, by the way.

Also, if it seems like I’m picking on Star Wars in particular in this piece, I’m not. It’s just that I’m slightly more into that fandom (slightly) than the other two I’ll call out now: Star Trek and Dune.

They all tell fantastic stories. And when it comes to terms of defining them as hardest to softest in terms of the science in the fiction, then the order is this: Star Trek — they at least try to come up with physical rules for shit; Dune — they at least come up with biological, genetic, and psychological rules for shit, but really, really cheat it with what mélange can do; and Star Wars —100% fantasy, but that’s okay.

Or, in other words, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Star Wars makes the mono biome mistake constantly. It should be really annoying that Star Trek and, to a certain extent, Dune both do.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to the upcoming Dune movie, which will just be the first half of the book. I am. It looks very, very good, whether it takes place on a totally desert planet or not.

Sunday Nibble #50: American vs. British brands

Long-time readers know that I’m fascinated by the differences between American and British English, two languages that are so close and yet so far away.

In some cases, each language has a very different meaning for the same word — joint, rubber, trolley. In others, the two words for the same thing are very different — stove and cooker; pacifier and dummy; trunk and boot.

One dead giveaway to origin is the word that comes after “different” in making a comparison. In American English, we’d say that “X is different than Y.” In British English, it’s “X is different to Y,” and that sounds so wrong to me that I can’t even explain it.

Perhaps it’s because the preposition “than” indicates removing from something, which is what we’re doing in making a distinction, while the preposition “to” indicates motion toward, which is the exact opposite of what we’re saying.

Interestingly, exactly the same difference exists in Spanish in Latin American and Spain. Here, the pattern is the same as American English — “X es diferente que Y,” although the preposition is closer to that than “than.”

Meanwhile, in Spain, the phrase is “X es deferente a Y,” which is a word-for-word translation of the British version.

It gets really fascinating in the case of brand names, or even stores. For example, the British Equivalent of America’s Dollar Tree is called Poundland, which makes total sense given the currency in the UK. Still, I’m sure many an American tourist has seen the name and giggled at the thought that it’s actually some kind of brothel or budget motel.

More mysterious is the name change of the brand TJ Maxx. In the UK, it’s the same company, but known as TK Maxx for very vague reasons.

At least that one would probably also be obvious. But when it comes to other brands, you might be lost in the woods when trying to figure out the American equivalent without a primer.

Say you’re cleaning up that vacation rental in London and need some Lysol to do the job. You’re not going to find that anywhere. What you want instead is Dettol, which is really just the same thing under a different name.

You might even sometimes hear it used as a comedy punchline when a character runs across something or someone really disgusting. “Ewwww. Ma, fetch the Dettol!”

Say you want to write a note to someone and you’re in the stationers in Hull. You’re looking for a Bic, because it’s your favorite brand, but if you ask a Brit to loan you a Bic, you’re probably going to get a blank stare. Instead, if you want a ballpoint pen, you’d need to ask for a Biro.

Named for its Hungarian inventor Lazlo Biro, it debuted in 1938 and, ironically, was produced by BIC Manufacturing anyway. So, to be honest, Biro is the real name and Bic was how they chose to market it in the U.S.

But oh no! While you’re writing that letter, you make a mistake, and you can’t erase ink. What do you do? Why, you grab the Wite-Out, of course! And, surprise — it’s also a Bic product! But of course, what a perfect pair.

This is probably a pretty well-known story by now, but Liquid Paper, the major competitor to Wite-Out, was invented by one Bette Nesmith Graham, whose son went on to be a musician with the made-for-TV band The Monkees.

But you’re not going to find this in the UK, either. Instead, you need to look for the Tipp-Ex, which was originally a German invention but took Europe by storm in the late 1950s.

Well, that was a lot of work, so how about some snacks? You’d grab a bag of Lay’s potato chips, but they don’t seem to be anywhere. What you’re looking for as you stroll High Street in Chesterton, Cambridge would be a bag of Walkers. Same brand, different name and flavors.

If you’re not into salty, there’s always sweet, but there’s a bit of a trap here. If you want an American Three Musketeers bar, you’re not going to find it. Instead, what you want is a British Milky Way, which is different than (to?) an American Milky Way. If you want an American Milky Way, then ask for a Mars Bar.

Confused yet? Well, keeping to the space theme, if you’d like some cold goodness from a Dove bar of any sort, over there, you’d ask for Galaxy. Again, same brand, different name.

If Dove ice cream isn’t your thing, then go for a Good Humor bar, although anywhere in the UK, you’d have to ask for a Wall’s. (Note: if you’re in the U.S., that link may just redirect right back to Good Humor, proving that it is, indeed, the same brand.)

Finally, if ice cream is too cold, pop open a pack of Starburst. In the UK, you’ll have to ask for Opal Fruits, which was the original name before the product was rebranded in the U.S. Of course, it was rebranded for a while in the UK, too, before being relaunched under its original name.

Now, you may have learned some different brand names in this article, as did I — but the thing I really learned was that, damn, the Mars company seems to control just about every sweet snack on the planet, and that’s just a bit disconcerting.

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