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.

Friday-free-for-all #55: Ideal pet, favorite brands, homeless, compliments

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 in the comments. And for some reason, this installment inadvertently wound up with a number of commercial plugs. Are you listening, potential sponsors?

If you could have any animal as a pet, what animal would you choose?

Well, this question is a no-brainer. A dog, period. There is no better pet than a dog, although I don’t think that “pet” is the right word. Companion, family member, protector, friend — I’ll take all of those words.

I’d also adjust the question to this one: “If you could accept any animal into your family, which one would it be?”

And the answer would still be “dog.”

What brand are you most loyal to?

Well, it depends on what product we’re talking about. For phones, smart and non, Samsung, period. They make good stuff, and I like it — and in a recent ranking battle of Samsung and Apple, Samsung won hands down.

Then again, Apple products are shit, and if you asked me which brand I hated the most, they’d win.

For computers, for ages it was Gateway or nothing, and I can’t count how many PCs and laptops I bought from them. Sadly, they are no more, but I’ll stick with Acer or Dell. Chips by Intel. And OS is always, always Microsoft.

Did. I mention “fuck Apple?” Because I should. Apple makes computers for computer users who do not understand computers at all. If an Apple/Mac crapbox breaks down, you’re screwed. If my PC craps out, I can fix it — and I have, many times over many boxes.

Mayo: Kraft rules, Best Foods drools.

Cars: This was a long-fought decision that spanned Datsun, Subaru, Honda, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Saturn, Toyota. And while the VW was fun to drive, the ultimate winner is… Toyota. As long as they keep making manual transmissions.

Supermarkets: Ralphs. As long as I don’t have to admit that Kroger exists.

Designer shit: Nautica, but only from Ross Dress for Less because, what? You think I want to pay that much for a pair of pants? Piss off.

What’s the first thing that you think when see a homeless person?

Why do we have to live in a society where this is even possible? Housing — like education and healthcare — should be a right, and at the very least there should be free government housing, no strings attached, for people who can’t afford more at the moment.

As it is right now, there is so much abandoned commercial and industrial property, that cities should just start moving in and converting places. You could house hundreds in abandoned malls, for examples, and give each of them their own space.

A typical department store is about 250,000 square feet. That’s 500 feet on a side, or any combination that multiplies to 250,000. You could fit several hundred 900 square foot apartments into that footprint, per floor.

Now remember that a typical suburban mall usually has anywhere from two to four anchor stores, so multiply those hundreds of units by that many, then add in all the other retail space, which is where you could put the two and three bedroom units.

There could be several different types of spaces, depending upon to whom they’d be open. One type would be for the truly homeless who have no job, no place to go, and tend to wind up living in tent cities or under freeway bridges. This would give them secure shelter, an address, and a chance to start over — a safe place to stay if, for whatever reason, they can’t go on back to make it in society.

Another type could be the sudden emergency shelter, designed for people who are being evicted but can’t find new housing right now, battered spouses with or without children who need to escape a bad situation, or those who have lost their homes to disasters natural or otherwise.

The final category would be twofold: One for students, as in those going to college, so that they could focus on studies and not worry about rent or having to work in addition to school in order to survive. The second would be for seniors on fixed incomes who don’t own property or have the means or income to maintain what they do own.

All of the shelters would also create jobs in various areas from management to maintenance, and by keeping some retail — like grocery and drug stores and limited food courts — they could provide people with affordable necessities right outside their door.

But, really, in a country like the U.S., there should not be a single homeless person. We need to take care of everyone.

What was your favorite restaurant when you were in university? How about when you were a child?

Well, part of that is a tricky question, isn’t it?

In university, I’ll ignore the great on-campus restaurant we did have which was not a part of our pre-paid food service, but which had amazing burgers, and was designed as the practicum for upper-level majors in the field of restaurant management and etc. I can’t remember whether it was called The Lair or the Lion’s Den, although either would have fit, since our team was the Lions. (To complicate matters, there was a bar off-campus in town which had whichever name that the dining hall didn’t.)

The meal card cafeteria for students, BTW, was named after the food service contractor that ran it, SAGA — which, as we always pointed out, was just “A GAS” backwards. Many a “freshman fifteen” was born in that place.

But, having been a theatre minor, the hands-down favorite university restaurant answer is… Denny’s. and for four simple reasons…

  • They were open 24 hours, meaning that we could go there after the end of a show any night of the week, or especially after tech day hell.
  • They had comfort food for days, and that’s all that we wanted — plus breakfast at any hour.
  • They were cheap as fuck, meaning they fit a college budget. Plus free refills.
  • Chances were that we knew our server from school, so we could stay extra-long, got treated really well, and also got a bit generous in tipping.

Now, the second part of the question is trickier because I had no choice in restaurants as a kid. But I do remember two. Well, one by name very well, the other as a life-long mystery.

The one I remember well is the International House of Pancakes, aka IHOP, and my parents would take me there now and again and it was awesome. There were pancakes. And other breakfast stuff. And all kinds of syrup. And the roofs of the buildings were really cool — two steep blue A-frames that crossed each other.

The one I don’t remember as well, we only went to a few times, and this was when my parents took me on a drive-up vacation to San Francisco when I was about four, meaning “Brain still in mushy stage when memories don’t stick yet.”

My perception was that every night we stayed there for about a week, we went to some drive-in/sit-down combo restaurant in a big, round, probably Googie style building, where I’d have the

most amazing chocolate shake, served in a metal cup.

I don’t remember whether we drove there or walked, or whether we ate in the drive-through or went inside. For all I know, it could have actually been the diner attached to the motel we stayed at (TraveLodge) or a stand-alone restaurant across the street.

I just remember it being on top of a hill, it was always after dark, and the inside was brightly lit but the walls were all glass. I have more vivid memories of the coldness and the taste of the shake.

The only things I clearly remember from that trip, sort of, are these: First, a toy my parents bought me in Chinatown with a box and sliding lid — slide the lid open and a dragon popped up.

Second, a tour through the city on the upper deck of a converted London-style bus.

Third, how we missed being trapped in an elevator by seconds after a blackout on Fisherman’s Wharf when an underground transformer blew up — we heard the bang and saw black smoke coming up from a street maintenance cover.

Finally, I remember how we drove home with half a dozen loaves of sourdough bread warming in the back window of our car all the way down.

What was a random compliment that someone gave you that really stuck in your memory?

This one comes from the before times, the long ago, when we were not quarantined or isolated, and I was still doing improv and working box office at the theatre way back when, and one of the company members from the Sunday Team, who shall remain nameless, flat out told me, “I appreciate you.” And that was a total warm fuzzy.

I mean, it’s just such a simple statement, but it comes with so much good will and gratitude, and I recommend trying it yourself. People really seem to appreciate being appreciated, and it really does endow a sense of value.

Sunday Nibble #53: If only we treated ourselves like our cars

Happy Daylight Savings Time (DST)! Once again, Congress is trying to make the spring ahead part of it permanent with a bipartisan bill. Maybe this time it will stick. Changing the clocks twice a year out of antiquated ideas that we don’t want farmers getting up in the dark or whatever the hell justification we had for it does not need to continue into the 21st century.

We’ve kept DST year-round before. For example, from January 6, 1974 to April 27, 1975, DST didn’t end, largely due to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, which is why Arabs became film villains for a decade, but then somehow didn’t after 9/11 or Jamal Khashoggi.

The beginning and ending dates of DST have been extended multiple times, to the point now where we go back to standard time for barely four months, which makes the whole exercise futile.

DST briefly began in the U.S. in 1918, after World War I, but Congress quickly dumped it as a national standard, over the objections of the well-known racist former president Thomas Woodrow Wilson.

There wasn’t nationwide DST again until World War II, when the country went onto permanent DST from February 9, 1942 until September 30, 1945. Instead of DST, though, it was aptly dubbed “War Time.”

There was no federal law on DST after that until 1966, during which time states adopted their own standards haphazardly. In some states, there was no time standard at all, so that different municipalities picked their own local time. (This was one year after Medicare went into law, by the way, the reason for mention of which will become clear shortly.)

It honestly makes no difference if we leave things on DST or standard time because we’re not really losing anything anyway, other than the one hour we’d leap ahead and not pull back — although maybe they can slip in a “leap hour” during the holidays to make up for it that does not result in advancing or retracting the actual time.

On the surface, it would seem like the way to do it would be like how leap years work. Add that extra day to February every four years to make up for the quarter-day short our calendar is from actual time. But the problem is that days don’t quite work like that.

Sure, each sidereal day lags a solar day by 4.07 minutes, which means you need to adjust the former in order to create a true “noon to noon” local day — but in that case, to adjust things properly, then you would need to add 14 minutes and 45 seconds to every day for two weeks, but only do it once, and then not count that time on any clock at all.

Or maybe not. The important thing to remember is that our timekeeping is entirely arbitrary beyond the Big One, which is how long it takes our planet to make one lap around the Sun. Oh — and axial tilt making seasons. And the approximate number of Moon phases in a year.

But other than that, there is absolutely no reason we carved our day into twenty-four hours of sixty minutes each, with each minute being sixty seconds, other than those Whacky Babylonians. But what the hell did they know?

What I do know is that staying on DST does make a bit more sense, because if anything it will end our sunsets being so ridiculously early in winter at the very least. And it will be less confusing to our dogs, who will stop wondering why walkies and food are suddenly coming later or earlier than they should.

Once Congress tackles DST — and presumably comes up with the right solution — then maybe they can tackle health care. I was reminded today of the enormous difference between how auto insurance works fairly well in this country, while health care is… bumpier. Pun intended for reasons you’ll see in a moment.

Well, it can be. Funny thing was that when I had employer covered health insurance with a gold-tier plan — which means that it has the lowest copays and deductibles and all that — I survived congestive heart failure, a day in the ER, three nights and four days in the hospital, and a ton of tests, both diagnostic while I was in there and blood draws for months after I was out, not to mention three meds for a couple of years.

Other than the maybe $90 a month that was deducted out of my paycheck (employer paid the rest) I think that my total out-of-pocket expenses for that whole experience never exceeded $800.

But that’s when insurance works. On my current plan, which is silver-tier, I have higher copays and deductibles, and although Covered California subsidizes some of that, my monthly premium is about four times what I had to pay previously, again for much shitter and more expensive coverage.

BTW, if you say “Covered California” really fast, it unfortunately sounds just like “COVID California.”

Stilll… that premium would skyrocket to probably costing per month what that one weekend adventure in the hospital cost me in total, except that at the end of April, I’ll be going back to group coverage through work, and they’ll be paying 90% of my premium, so it’ll be back to a reasonable amount again and, I’m sure, gold-tier coverage.

But I bring this up because last night, after a day working at home, and after I hadn’t been outside to get in my car since nine p.m. the night before, I had to make an emergency run to Staples because my old mouse died.

I walked out to my car, which I’ve been parking on the street ever since they jammed a fancy underground parking structure into my complex because my spot was three levels down, with only six half-flights of stairs or a tiny elevator to access it, and it opened in late May 2020.

Yeah, not a great idea during COVID. Besides, the street is closer to my back door than the garage. But there are risks, and when I got to the car at 6:30 p.m. last night, I found this:

Yes, basically somebody had decided to hit my car, either coming or going, crunch in and fold out the corner of the front bumper, while displacing and damaging my headlight. It was truly a WTF moment, but the most surprising part, really, was that the person actually left a note with her phone number.

I called and left a message, then did some internet ninja moves and determined that she did, in fact, live in the building right across from where my car got hit. I left a message with her but despite not hearing back, I phoned in the claim that evening and started the process with a very nice customer service rep going by the name of Saul.

He was probably in a call center who knew where — it was after business hours on the west coast —but he was incredibly professional and nice. I gave him all the information I had, got a claim number, and found out that I qualified for something called “estimate by photo.”

That is, they’d send me a website link, and I could use that to follow instructions and upload photos of my car and the damage for the appraisers to take a look at. I’d have to wait for the next day and better lighting to take those photos. In the meantime, the claims adjuster called me the next morning, and we got the ball rolling.

It turned out that my preferred body shop, the Toyota of North Hollywood Collision Center, is also an approved shop for my insurance company, Mercury, so it was like finding out that my favorite doctor is already part of the HMO for the insurance company I picked at random.

Well, my dad picked Mercury for whatever reason — probably golfed with the agent — and signed me up with them as a baby driver, and I never felt any incentive to switch. By this point, I don’t know how many generations down I am in the family agency I deal with.

But… I wound up with a claim number and an exact description of what was going to happen. I went off to take and submit the photos. An hour or two later, the claims adjuster, Linda, called me back. She’d spoken to the woman and had gotten all of her information. The best part: Since she said that it was 100% her fault, that put me on easy street.

Mercury waived my $500 deductible, the other insurance company is going to reimburse my rental expense — not that I really need one, since I’m working from home — and my body shop estimate and discount reservation number with Enterprise Rent-a-Car have been submitted as well.

Incidentally, my claims adjuster also told me that my car insurance transferred over fully to the rental, so there’s no need to buy any kind of gap insurance that they always try to upsell. Straight from the horse’s mouth! But that’s a concept a lot of people don’t seem to understand. Car insurance follows the insured when it comes to liability.

So I take my baby in for surgery and a hospital stay on Monday morning. This will actually be his second trip for essentially the same operation, although the last one was 100% my fault and cost me a couple grand. But how many cars can you truly say have had not one but two bumper transplant surgeries?

Oh yeah — this car is male because I alternate the genders, and he happens to be the seventh car I’ve ever owned, so I refer to him as Señor Siete. Interesting pattern there, too. Here are my first six cars: green (used Datsun) white (used Subaru) gray (new Honda); green (used VW), white (used Hyundai), gray (new Saturn.)

This one replaced the new gray Saturn after it basically died on the road, and is a gray, slightly used Toyota, in the sense that it was a dealer model for a year before I bought it, so not exactly consumer used, but still had about 16K on it.

And every single one of them has had a manual transmission because I wouldn’t have it any other way, although when I bought this one, the salesman told me that it would probably be the last manual transmission car I would ever buy.

Sigh. Work on that shit Elon. At least put a pacifier shifter in a Tesla or something. Asshole.

But back to the original point: Imagine if health insurance were this easy, and you could take care of it for a third party with a couple of phone calls. Report that you’re having issues to someone who starts the process and gets the patient in the system, use remote resources to transmit symptoms and the like for triage and diagnosis, deal with a knowledgeable case-worker to get pre-approval of all procedures to be done and covered, and then make one call to schedule a check-in time.

Any needs after that are already paid for, so you don’t have to worry about whether the patient will be in for a day, a weekend, a week, or a month. All you have to do is make the drop-in or check in yourself, sign a couple of things, and you’re on your way.

Oh… and make the premium a hundred bucks a month or less, like my car insurance is.

Or learn this lesson: In California and Los Angeles in particular, and the U.S. in general, we treat our cars way, way better than we treat our humans. And that’s backasswards.

I mean, over the years, I’ve paid so damn much to my car insurance company that to get that all back now would buy me a fucking Ferrari or something. And yet, there’s no way in hell I can pay back enough to any insurance company to buy back mom or dad or my brother or my grandparents.

But I and they should have been able to afford enough in the first place to not slip off this mortal coil due to lack of expenses. How goddamn hard is that to understand?

Piece of replaceable machinery suffers major random insult, nurses and doctors are on it in a heartbeat. And you can guarantee free ambulance transmission and/or emergency field surgery for about $50 a year via AAA.

Meanwhile, your human loved one collapses in a Kroger parking lot, and ambulance drivers demand to see proof of insurance and/or scan credit/debit cards for a couple grand before they’ll even load them up to go to the hospital.

Yeah. American priorities suck. You can replace a car. You cannot replace grandparent or parent or parentel sib or sibling or nibling or kid or cousin or SO or spouse or lover or friend.

Keep slamming Congress with this reality until we get Medicare for All and until it’s as easy to fix yourself as it is to fix your fucking car.