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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Playing Asteroids for Real

Depending on who you believe, the earth faces one of the following two possibilities:

1. The earth is in for a near miss in 2036 from a 900-foot long asteroid named Apophis
2. We're doomed! DOOMED I tell you!!

The first viewpoint is held by NASA. A few years ago they declared that the Earth was in serious risk of colliding with the asteroid in 2029. (This experience was reportedly the basis for the famous Bud Light commercial - though in real life they downed a whole bunch of Stella Artois and brie cheese.) However, after recalculating, getting their metric and standard people on one measurement system, and double-checking their U.S. Government surplus tape measure for warping, they changed their minds and declared that everything's cool. As far as NASA is concerned, Apophis is like the average hitchhiker on an interstate exit ramp: grubby, frightening, but passing out of sight as quickly as it comes into view.

Meanwhile, the second, "doomed" viewpoint is held be Russian scientists, who think there is a very good chance Apophis will hit a "gravitational keyhole*" in 2029, which will put the asteroid on a collision course with the earth in 2036. When asked where the asteroid would hit the earth, Russian scientists replied that considering current global trends and the odds, the consensus was on Detroit, Michigan.

NASA replied that the Russian scientists were exaggerating the chances of a collision, most likely as a prank to convince President Putin to leave the planet. NASA claims there is only a 1 in 250,000 chance that the collision scenario will happen. When asked for a real world example of those kinds of odds, a NASA spokesperson replied, "Oh, you know, about the chance that New Orleans will win the Super Bowl, the Boston Red Sox will win the World Series twice, and that the U.S. would have an African-American President all in the same decade." After a highly professional spit-take, she admitted those calculations were based on a 2003 research paper, commissioned by then Senator Joe Biden.

Regardless of who's right**, what is clear is that the earth needs a plan for defense. We can't just sit back and let any little punk asteroid who gets his hands on a gravitational keyhole crash his way into the Motor City, regardless of whether or not people would classify the results as "urban inprovement."

NASA and others are considering this very matter and devising what they call "earth protection strategies." Now, I know this sounds like a new kind of Geico policy, or a service your local mobsters offer ("Awfully nice planet you got there. It'd be a shame if anything happened to it.") In reality, it is actually a selection of tactics designed to redirect asteroids and other heavenly bodies to the shabbier, unpopulated parts of the solar system.

Most of these strategies are all very complex and subtle efforts to make minute but meaningful changes in the asteroid's trajectory. Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that instead of subtle, "reasonable" approaches, we need a real world version of the game Asteroids. You're thinking NASA needs to build a giant rotating spaceship with a massive cannon that can blast asteroids into a thousand pieces. You're even thinking that the cannon should make that "PWWW" sound when it fires.

I had that very same thought, and wasted half an hour making the "PWWW" noise while shooting imaginary space rocks with my finger. The only thing this accomplished was to highly agitate our dog.

Well, unfortunately, a giant space cannon can't make that "PWWW" noise, because there's no noise in space. The other main problem with this strategy is that, just as in the video game, when you start blowing up asteroids into bunches of pieces, those pieces fly around and create all kinds of havoc. By "havoc" I mean blowing up the giant space cannon and everyone sitting in it going "PWWW!" Remember what a pain that was in the game?

Also, flying saucers might show up and start shooting at the ship. Those guys have superior technology. Let's not piss them off until we get our overall weapons systems up to say, Star Trek levels.

No, the subtle methods are best, as boring and explosion-free as they are. However, the methods that scientists are currently proposing strike me as a whole lot of investment for uncertain results. Gravity, photon pressure, and playful nudges with a spacecraft all sound highly rational and make for terrific conversation around the geekier water coolers at Cape Kennedy, but asteroids are tricky, unreliable, rock-headed little jerks. We need methods that take their obvious character flaws into account.

Plus, what happens if our efforts only succeed in diverting the asteroid right into that gravitational keyhole***? It'd be just like a cosmic episode of I Love Lucy.

So allow me to conclude this post with my own modest contribution to the effort to save our planet.The good people at NASA can feel free to call me about these, if they need help with the details, or if they want an autographed copy.

Earl Fando's strategies for diverting an asteroid.

1. Large "Detour" sign in Esperanto
2. Launch Chuck Norris into space to take the asteroid out permanently
3. Giant ACME magnet
4. Point out how lovely Mars is and wouldn't you like to collide with it instead?
5. Confuse asteroid with David Blaine's card tricks and creepy personality
6. Work out a deal with the flying saucer aliens and have them take out the asteroid and deal with the rubble blowback
7. Position Major League batting champs on the International Space Station with really, REALLY big bats
8. Block it with the Moon (Sorry, Moon!)
9. Auto-tune the asteroid into a different key (isn't that how auto-tune works? It must have some useful purpose!)
10. Launch the Cookie Monster into space to eat the asteroid
11. Taze the asteroid into submission
12. Have David Beckham bend a few free kicks at the asteroid
13. Apply mathematics from national debt calculations to create a space-time wormhole, and push the asteroid through it
14. Scare off asteroid with a giant picture of a skunk
15. Scare off asteroid with a giant picture of a skank
16. Scare off asteroid with a giant picture of a skink (I can keep up this sort of thing all day.)
17. Create a massive gravitational disturbance in the asteroid's path by launching Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's assets into space
18. Lure the asteroid with $5 foot-long specials at new Subway on Pluto
19. Giant "Game Over" sign that will cause the asteroid to disappear

* Not a euphemism, surprisingly
** And, as David Letterman used to say, "It's not a competition, so no wagering."
*** I admit it. I like the expression "gravitational keyhole." It's a lot of fun to write and say. Try working it into your own personal conversations!

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Super Bowl Party to End All Super Bowl Parties

I can't stop remembering the glorious experience that was Super Bowl XLV. So many bright lights, so many bone-crunching moments, the screams, the popcorn, the explosions, the field goals. I wake up in the middle of the morning with terrible, half-formed dream images of shoulder pads smacking into faces and femurs snapping like old brittle plastic straws.

I put seventeen dollars on the game. Sadly, I lost it all. Betting on the Steelers, you suppose? Nay! I bet on the possibility that the Cowboys would rush the field and try to take back their stadium from the carpetbaggers. I know it's an unlikely scenario, but it would have paid out a thousand and six to one if it had happened. Sadly--some might say, tragically--that did not happen. Instead, we had a regular old football game, and the Packers stabbed their way to glory.

It's okay, though. I'm not upset anymore about the lost money. I had the time of my life at Ethel Pewpsley's Super Bowl party. Ethel is my cousin's step-grandmother twice removed. She lives at the other end of the cul-de-sac in the split level, ranch-style home with the tree stump out front that she carved into the shape of an exploding cow's head using only a chisel, bent spoon and some hydrochloric acid.

It was a phenomenal party. Tony was there, Frank, John Mustard, Ardmore Annis, Jason Perry. There might have been a couple of those rascally Ghirardelli twins. I glimpsed Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers and quite possibly a Gary Coleman look-alike in a red wig and sunglasses (I didn't get a good look at him. He spent most of the evening hiding behind the divan, eating chips). Also, a very small chimpanzee was set loose in the den and kicked a bunch of people with his stumpy chimp feet.

Ethel had a flat screen TV in every single room of the house, the bathrooms, the garage, out in the backyard, in the alcove behind the copper statue of Larry David, and every single set was tuned to the game (except the alcove TV which was showing old episodes of Lancelot Link Secret Chimp. I assume that was for the chimp in the den, but he was too busy kicking people in the head/neck).

The buffet was spread out on card tables in the hallway. Oh, the food. Thank you, food. I recall the gravies, the heaping hot platters of boiled and buttered peas, the vast aluminum trays full of smoked meats and gristles, the ginormous pyrex dishes filled with multi-layered casseroles and various bean dips, the fried items wrapped in tin foil, the baked stuff hidden under Tupperware lids, the savory substances that sizzled when you thought about them. I recall piling my plate high with taters steeped in seven fluids, vegetable medleys soaked in brine and sea foam. I enjoyed a delicate chalice of bacon squeezings and lime. I ate until I forgot my own name.

And, of course, we watched the game. In between sessions of bloated belly aches, I saw the Packers do the impossible: succeed. They spiked footballs into the face parts of the other team, danced over people like vapors swirling up from subway grates. They flew on wings like pegasuseses. It was a glorious evening.

In the end, however, the danged chimpanzee sent us all to the local clinic, where they treated our various bruises, scrapes, broken bones, chipped teeth and toenail slashes. Next year, let's not invite the chimpanzee.

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Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Mother of All Super Bowl Commercials

It's Super Bowl time again, and soon people will be huddled around their big screen, high-definition televisions, eagerly watching the dazzling footwork and skill of talented performers who are at the peak of their careers.

That's right, they'll be watching Super Bowl ads! Every year the big game plays second banana to the big-budget television commercials that pay the bills for the NFL and whatever network is covering the game. (Next year, I hear it's HGTV's turn - bet the field will look nice!) These commercials are sometimes entertaining, sometimes amusing, and frequently neither. However, they still manage to distract people from the most important part of the event, the Super Bowl halftime show.

Also, there is the game, of course.

Instead of constantly being distracted by the subtle ploys of market research, advertisers should just get together and come up with one commercial, a mega commercial, a commercial to end all commercials, a super Super Bowl commercial.

I wonder what that would be like...


[EXT. DAY. Mid morning. An open field in the prairie. Two laconic cowboys are leaning up against fence, watching two powerful looking groups of Budweiser horses run onto the field.]

COWBOY 1: Well, looks like the game's fixin' to start.

COWBOY 2: Yup.

[On the sidelines, a group of Victoria's Secret models, dressed in skimpy lingerie, are cheer-leading. The head cheerleader is Danica Patrick, completely naked except for a sandwich board that covers her front and back and reads "Who's Your Go Daddy?"]

COWBOY 1: Hot Cheerleaders.

COWBOY 2: Yup.

[The horses line up for the kickoff.  They rush forward as the ball flies into the air. Suddenly the football game is interrupted by cargo planes and parachuting Chick Fil-A cows. As the cows descend, they throw down backpacks that explode as they strike the ground. Thousands of Doritos fly out of the exploding backpacks.
Some of the Doritos hit the cowboys in the face.]

COWBOY 1: (Chewing on a Dorito) Chicken-flavored Doritos.

COWBOY 2: (Spitting out a mouthful of Doritos) Yup.

[The game resumes with one of the horses snapping the ball to Betty White, who is riding another horse. She quickly devours a Snickers bar and uses the energy to leap on to the back of a rushing stallion. She then ties a Bud Light to the football and throws it down field. Cedric the Entertainer is lackadaisically running a route down the sideline when he spies the Bud Light. He breaks into a remarkable sprint, diving for the catch, when suddenly he is knocked out of the way by a speeding Toyota Prius. On the back of the Prius, the Geico Gecko is in the middle of a light saber duel with Yoda from Star Wars.]

COWBOY 1: Didn't see that one comin'.

COWBOY 2: Nope.

[Back on the Prius, The Gecko and Yoda continue their duel, mixing back flips with insurance advice. Around them are several unnecessary explosions.]

YODA: Silly your commercials are! Nothing have I learned about insurance policies!

[Suddenly, The Most Interesting Man in the World jumps a motorcycle through three rings of fire. As he passes, the Geico Gecko back flips onto his motorcycle.]

GEICO GECKO: (Shouting) Have you forgotten about Geico's motorcycle insurance?

[The Old Spice Guy rides by on a souped up Segway, and Yoda jumps on. They pursue the motorcycle with the Most Interesting Man in the World and the Geico Gecko. In the background are several dinosaurs and a tornado.]

YODA: Nothing about rates you have said! Discounts I am interested in!

[Cut to The Progressive Insurance warehouse store. Flo, the insurance spokeswoman, is facing the camera and smiling.]

FLO: Are you a Jedi master? Discount! (Chime sound)

[Suddenly, the Burger King runs up, wearing nothing but Speedos and black socks. He stuffs Flo into a gunney sack and runs off with her.]

FLO: (Muffled from inside bag) Creepy kidnapper. Discount! (Muffled chime sound)

[Cut back to the cowboys.]

COWBOY 1: That was kinda surreal.

COWBOY 2: Yup.

[Cut back to the speeding motorcycle and Segway. The motorcycle crashes through a store display of Coke. The Segway smashes through a similar display of Pepsi. Both displays explode behind the speeding vehicles.]

MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD: (Sipping a Coke while driving the motorcycle) Now, when I'm not drinking beer, this is usually what I'm having!

YODA: (Sips a Pepsi) MMMMMMMM-MMM-MMM-MMM!!!!!!!! 

[Suddenly, a green Volkswagen Beetle drives by and the Gecko and Yoda back-flip on to it. A nuclear explosion is in the background.]

COWBOY 1: (Punching COWBOY 2 on the arm) Green one.

COWBOY 2: (Casually glancing at his arm)Yup.

[The Gecko and Yoda continue their battle when suddenly Yoda looks through the sun roof of the VW and realizes, to his horror, that the car is being driven by the "mayhem" guy from the Allstate commercials. The Mayhem guy looks up at Yoda and smiles a terrible smile. He is smoking a large cigar.]

YODA: In for it, we are!

ALLSTATE MAYHEM GUY: I'm your private driver, but what you don't know is that I'm also obsessed with Bigfoot.

[Cut to a shot of Bigfoot, sitting in the end zone, eating a bag of Jack's Links Beef Jerky.]

ALLSTATE MAYHEM GUY: So, when I see a Sasquatch sitting in the middle of an open field. I can't help but head right for him. (Switches gears and floors it)

GEICO GECKO: I've got a bad feeling about this.

[The car crashes into Bigfoot like he was a brick wall. The Gecko and Yoda are hurtled through the air to a hard landing on the ground. The VW Bug explodes. The football with the Bud Light lands in Yoda's hands.]

YODA: Down-touch made have I!

[Cut to Betty White kissing her bicep.]

[Cut to Danica Patrick peeling off her sandwich board covering, revealing a smaller sandwich board underneath that reads "To be continued online, suckers!"]

[Cut to the Chick-Fil-A cows, line dancing with the Budweiser horses.]

[Cut to The Most Interesting Man in the World, the Old Spice Guy, and Flo, sharing an elaborate cocktail with three straws. The Burger King is stuffed in a garbage can in the background.]

[Cut to William Shatner, against an obvious green screen background containing an image of shirtless football fans. Shatner is doing karate chops as the "Priceline Negotiator."]

[Cut to Yoda with the football and Bud Light, suddenly being tackled by an enraged Cedric the Entertainer. Cedric grabs the Bud Light, rips the cap off, and downs it.]

[Cut back to the cowboys, watching it all.]

COWBOY 1: Happens every year.

COWBOY 2: (Pause) I gotta go pee.

COWBOY 1: Better hurry. The commercial's almost over.

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