A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Upside-Down World

Last week I rented Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius via Netflix. It turned out to be surprisingly fun. I recommmend watching it if you get the chance.

Earlier today I caught an episode of the Jimmy Neutron cartoon on Nickelodeon. In it, Jimmy had brought Thomas Edison to the present, and the longer Edison was away from his own time, more and more electrically-operated machines either disappeared or stopped working. Jimmy's two friends were riding a roller coaster when the whole thing spontaneously lost power, and their car was stuck upside down (and when the power returned later, their car resumed its travel).

This threw me a bit, because roller coaster cars don't run on electricity; they mostly run on inertia. Cars are pulled to the top of certain hills by motors, but then gravity and momentum do the rest. There's no reason for the car to stop due to a lack of electricity, particularly not upside-down.

Sure, this is a cartoon about a time-travelling Thomas Edison and vanishing jukeboxes. Malfunctioning roller coasters are its least absurd element. But 'electricity is disappearing' was the conceit that was introduced, and then executed poorly. I remember Mark Waid doing a similar thing in his "Tower of Babel" arc in JLA. Ra's al Ghul had rendered the people of the world illiterate, which is certain to create some havoc. But one of the dangers shown was somebody jumping on the subway tracks when they couldn't read the "Danger: Third Rail is Deadly" sign. As if Ra's had made people not only illiterate, but forgetful and stupid. The sample scenario just didn't jive with the fantastic conceit.

On a related note, every so often one hears about a roller coaster getting stuck upside down. What *can* go wrong on a coaster to make that happen? This one apparently had a broken wheel assembly, but what other mechanical snafus that can cause such a problem?

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Astro City Justice

This past week, Kurt Busiek's Astro City: The Dark Age maxi-series began. The first issue has certainly whetted my appetite for the next fifteen, and judging by the last page, it looks like we'll get a little courtroom action in the coming months to boot.

But I have no worries, because Kurt has already proven himself more than capable of writing a good legal yarn. I'm speaking specifically of the last two issues of the last Astro City mini-series, Local Heroes #4-5. In that story, we're told the story of Vince Oleck, an Astro City defense attorney who first used a superhuman defense strategy in 1974. As he tells the jury, sure the evidence at the crime scene points to his client, but in a world with shapeshifters and evil Earth-2 counterparts, that still leaves room for doubt.

Overall, Kurt does a good job with both the law and the story. His lawyers talk and act like real lawyers for the most part. The courtroom action is as accurate as I've seen in a superhero comic. At first glance it might seem that he messed up by having the prosecution question three witnesses and the defense cross-examine the same three on the next page (instead of direct, cross, direct, cross, etc). But a careful reading shows that even that is just the story jumping back and forth in time for dramatic effect, and the panels are not strictly consecutive in time.

In fact, only two things actually caught my eye as potential errors, and both were mere comments in captions. Early on, Oleck thinks about calling some witnesses who will lie on the stand to give the defendant an alibi. It's an ethical violation for an attorney to put forth evidence that he knows or should know is false. However, that's today's rule, and this story was set in 1974, so I'm not certain whether this is accurate for the time or not. Fortunately, Vince never called these witnesses, so it's a moot issue for him.

When Vince suggests to the court that shapeshifters might have committed the crime, he thinks to himself "They could have gotten a court order that night, pumped [the defendant's] stomach, got his dinner." The Supreme Court had an infamous 1952 case that threw out evidence of a warrantless stomach-pumping, but it's a different matter when a court order is involved. Would a court order have been approved under these circumstances? I gotta admit, I don't know.

See, that's how good Kurt is; even the stuff that made me pull out a textbook turned out to be probably forgivable. And the defense strategy in general was a good take on the quirks of law in a superhero world, far better than some other interpretations I've seen.

I do have one nitpick on The Dark Age #1. The text on the last page reads "The Silver Agent...has been arrested, and CHANGED with the murder of a foreign head of state." No biggie, but it ought to be fixed for the inevitable tpb.

Finally, if you haven't already, I highly recommend reading Astro City #1/2. It's a free read online, and it's arguably one of the best and most touching superhero stories ever.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Batman Begins

I just got back from seeing Batman Begins, and it's just as excellent as everyone has said. I saw Tim Burton's first film in the college theater last year, and his second on cable just the other week, but Nolan and Goyer put both to shame.

Of course, I kept ears tuned for potential subjects to mention here. And two caught my eye, one substantially more trivial than the other.

*spoiler warning* Nothing significant, but I thought it best to give notice.

First, and far less significant, is the reference during the chase scene to Interstate 17. Not surprisingly, this is a real highway...but it's in Arizona. Personally, I would have picked an interstate in New Jersey.

Second, when Bruce returns to Gotham for the parole hearing, Rachel Dawes is already an assistant district attorney for Gotham. The film's credits state that Bruce and Rachel were both 8 when the Waynes were murdered, and the hearing is fourteen years later (14 years, incidentally, is commonly the first parole opportunity for defendants sentenced to life in prison). This makes Rachel 22 at the time. That's the age most students finish undergraduate, and law school takes another three years. I, for instance, was almost 26 after going straight through seven years of higher education. Ms. Dawes, it would seem, was on a very accelerated track.

Now if only I could find a prosecutor's office so willing to hire a fresh graduate...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Happy Birthday to Me

I turn 27 today. Not much significance to the number, other than that it's three cubed. I won't reach the next cubed age until about the time I retire.

In other words, not exactly a red-letter birthday in the history of Loren. But hopefully it'll be the start of a good year.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Heavy Metal

During the opening minutes of Saturday's Justice League Unlimited episode "Hunter's Moon," J'onn takes a distress call regarding alien miners who uncovered some Nth Metal. Nth Metal, for those not in the know, is the anti-gravity fictional element used by Thanagarians to fly.

The information given is inconsistent, though, and not terribly realistic. Here's what was said:

- The words on the alien's transmission read "Atomic Weight, 08 FE676"
- J'onn says "It appears to be a simple hematite, but iron oxide isn't radioactive."
- The alien replies "Look at the atomic number. 676. It makes no sense."
- Shayera looks at the screen and says "It's tranuranic iron ore. Nth metal, like my mace but unrefined."

First, atomic number and atomic weight (also called atomic mass) are different things. The former is a count of an atom's protons, while the latter counts both its protons and neutrons. It's the atomic number that you see most prominently displayed on periodic charts. An theoretical atomic weight of 676 would equate to an atomic number of about 300 or so.

Either way, that's ridiculously high. Currently, the last element discovered, Ununhexium, has an atomic number of 116, and it has a half-life measured in milliseconds. So the alien is right to say that 676 makes no sense, and it doesn't matter whether he's talking number or weight.

Hematite is the mineral form of iron oxide, so J'onn's statement taken by itself makes sense. And the screen seems to have some bearing on this, since 08 is Oxygen's atomic number and Fe is the abbreviation for Iron. But iron oxide is a compound, not an element, so I don't know how atomic mass could apply.

Scott beat me to the next point. Transuranic refers to elements with more protons than Uranium (#92), which would describe either of the atomic numbers (300 or 676) suggested above. But it doesn't describe iron, which has an atomic number of 26. If an element is transuranic, it can't be iron. Plus, transuranic elements are all radioactive (which contradicts J'onn's assessment) and have only been produced artifically.

Apparently, DC writers in the past have occasionally treated Nth Metal as an alloy rather than an element. Arguably, that's a better approach. And this isn't the first time the DCU has played with real chemistry. John Byrne put Kryptonite at 126 on the Periodic Table. Sure that has its own flaws, but it's a better fit than what they said here about Nth metal.

(And while it's technically a fanfic explanation, CBR's Cei-U! had an intriguing take on Kryptonite. His explanation was that the rock is a compound that contains significant amounts of the element Krypton, and the rock and the planet were named by Earth scientists accordingly. Thus, 'Krypton' is the Earth name for the dead world, and not what Jor-El actually called his home planet.)

Monday, June 20, 2005

Sound Science

I hate to pick on The Batman in two consecutive posts, but my JLU analysis got unexpectedly snagged, so this'll have to do.

Saturday morning's new episode, "Pets," featured the return of Man-Bat. And during the course of the episode, he has a couple of run-ins with Batman. In one scene, Batman is hiding behind a water tower, but Man-Bat does his sonar thing and 'sees' Batman through the tower. In a subsequent chase scene, Batman escapes into a maze of metal shipping crates, and Man-Bat again employs his sonar to track Bats, as he's able to 'look' through the walls of those crates to see where Batman has run.

As most everyone is aware, bats commonly use echolocation to navigate or track prey. But Man-Bat seems to have gone one step further, and evolved some sort of x-ray sonar that allows him to 'see' through solid metal, which is illustrated with images like this:

A sonar 'picture' of a Batman aura that shines through iron walls. Man-Bat's echolocation seems to have less in common with bats than with hospital ultrasound machines.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

"In Episode 2F09..."

Kids' WB repeated the Riddler episode of The Batman earlier today. It's the episode of the series I like the most so far, even though it has its share of plot holes. Robert Englund is surprisingly good as the Riddler, my favorite Bat-villain, even though I hate the character's visual with a vengeance.

Anyhow, in the episode, the Riddler has Detective Yin running around Gotham answering riddles so as to defuse bombs that he's set. Naturally, Batman is helping her. About halway through the episode, Yin is standing in front of an organ in a concert hall.

She plays a D, and a piano falls from the ceiling. Batman tells her "Your other left." She then plays a G (actually, it shows her playing an A, but the tone produced is a G) and the bomb is defused.

So what's the point of my rambling? We're never told what the riddle was. The right answer was either G or A (take your pick). Yin apparently thought D was a good answer, but "Your other left" was enough to help her pick the correct key (and a higher note, no less) on her next try.

Given that information, does anyone have an idea what the riddle could have been? Or is it more likely that the show has no actual riddle in mind at all, but just wanted a scene with a falling piano? I expect it's the latter, but I like my Riddler stories to have good, actual riddles, and I have a nagging hope that this was one.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Indian Reservations

I stumbled across this essay while doing some research online:

Wingfooting it with Wyatt

It's an look at the Fantastic Four's Native American sidekick, Wyatt Wingfoot, and the depiction of his fictional tribe, the Keewazi. How representative of real Indian culture are the Keewazi? What implicit inferences are carried by Marvel's recent portrayals (well, recent as of 2000) of Wyatt's people? Are they really as positive as Marvel would probably hope?

The author (who I assume is Indian himself, though his name is 'Schmidt') also draws some parallels to Marvel's treatment of Wakanda, which I think may be more on-point given recent retcons to Wakanda's history.

If you're familiar with Wyatt, do you agree with his assessment? Could Marvel do a better job? Or is he overthinking it?

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Slowest Man Alive

I'm a little short on material at the moment, but I've had this post languishing around for some time. Nothing great, as it's another analysis of comic book science from an unemployed lawyer, but it involves one of the pinnacles of lame Golden Age villainy: the Turtle.

The issue is The Flash #213. The new and improved version of Jay Garrick's arch-nemesis is no longer merely slow himself. Rather he is, in his own words, "a black hole for kinetic energy...I can steal speed too." (He would also seem to be a pervert and a child molester, but that's a subject for another time.)

The Turtle escapes from Iron Heights penitentiary, and shows off his new speed-stealing power. Everyone in the near vicinity is seemingly frozen in place (although he didn't steal the energy from the clocks, oddly enough). He even steals the Flash's speed, reducing Wally to normal movement. And at opportune times he returns speed to objects (particularly cars), allowing them to resume motion and run Wally down.

On about page 15, Turtle pulls the trick of freezing an asphalt truck in midair, upside down. (This isn't the first time he froze objects in the air; earlier in the issue he did the same with a balloon and some birds.) Wally maneuvers Turtle under the truck, and then when the Turtle starts getting distracted, the asphalt comes tumbling down on top of him, and everything returns to normal.

So what is there to talk about here? Speed force, stealing momentum...it's all pseudoscience, right? For the most part, yeah. But one thing jumped out at me while reading.

Turtle says that his power is stealing kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the energy of motion; to steal it is to steal an object's velocity or momentum. A thrown baseball would stop moving forward, for example.

But that doesn't mean the baseball would freeze in mid-air. That's because there's another kind of energy: potential energy. Potential energy exists because an object is affected by a force field, typically gravity. Imagine a dropped ball. The instant it is released, it has only potential energy, and no kinetic energy. Once it starts falling, the potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy and the speed of the falling ball increases until it hits the ground, at which instant it has only kinetic and no potential energy.

Thus, if Turtle can steal only kinetic energy, the asphalt truck should resume falling after he does his thing. It'll just behave as if it had started falling at that height. But it won't freeze in the air.

One possible end-run around this is to say that the Turtle didn't merely steal kinetic energy at one point, but is actually doing it continuously. In a way, it suits the "black hole" comment. That way, every fraction of a second that that truck starts to fall, he steals its motion again. And again. And again. The truck is actually falling, just imperceptably slowly.

This would also explain why people are frozen in place. Steal a person's kinetic energy, and that would only stop him for a moment. To stop everything indefinitely, the Turtle must be sucking kinetic energy constantly. And the fact that he can do this without killing everyone he freezes (as would be expected if you stopped a person's breathing or their blood from flowing), suggests that he has an incredible level of control over his powers. Gives you a new respect for the Turtle, doesn't it? (That is, if he weren't a child-molesting pervert. That's just creepy.)

Friday, June 10, 2005

All Your Base Are Belong to Us

Here's an open question that I don't have the answer to. Perusing the list of upcoming Marvel trades, I noticed the title of one digest in particular:


"Hey," I thought, "base two!" (I'll admit it; I'm a math geek.) I grabbed a pen and paper and found that, in base ten, this translated to: "History 41."

41? At least to someone who hasn't been reading the series, that seems unusually random. "History 101" would seem to make more sense. In base two, that would translate to "History 1100101," only one digit longer.

Is 41 a number of significance in this series? Do those six digits mean anything particular in programming, perhaps? In either case, what does it have to do with 'History'? Or did someone at Marvel just slap some random ones and zeroes at the end of 'History 101' for the title?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Stars & Stripes Forever

I had planned to share a panel from The Truth today, but my scanner is on the fritz. So instead, here is part of page 23 of February's Black Panther #1 (illustrated by John Romita Jr.):

Can you spot what's wrong with this picture?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

"The Truth" About Sedition

Yesterday, I picked up a handful of copies of Marvel's mini-series The Truth, about the black soldiers who were part of the early Super-Soldier experiments. I recall there being some level of controversy over the realism of the men's treatment, but when reading #1, it was the second-to-last page that caught my eye.

Maurice Canfield is an affluent black socialist activist from Philadelphia. Earlier in the issue he was involved in unionizing dockworkers in Newark, but at issue's end he is in a Philly courtroom. The judge tells him:

"Demonstrating against the war effort is tantamount to sedition, for which the Court can sentence you to twenty years hard labor....You can do the time [ ] or you can enlist and serve your nation with honor. It's up to you."

Maurice, of course, chooses to enlist. It's interesting that the caption dates the trial as "January 1942," just a month after Pearl Harbor. He certainly wasted no time in protesting, and the government sure wasted no time in prosecuting him. But apparently, in their rush to trial, the feds failed to realize that Mr. Canfield hadn't broken any law.

The United States has a bit of a history with laws criminalizing criticism of the government. The U.S. wasn't even a decade old when the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were passed. They proved to be a political disaster, and by 1802 the law was gone. World War I brought with it the Sedition Act of 1918, which put a penalty of twenty years' imprisonment on the obstruction of the governemtn during wartime. Perhaps the most well-known target of that law was socialist leader Eugene Debs, who gave a speech praising socialism and condemning the Great War. Maurice's situation sounds similar to Debs', which may have been what the author was thinking of.

But the Sedition Act of 1918 was repealed in 1921, over twenty years before Maurice Canfield stood in a Philadelphia courtroom. This doesn't speak well for Maurice's attorney, frankly. It's usually a pretty good defense to show that the crime your client is charged with was eliminated when he was in pre-school. The fact that they don't appeal the judgment is equally foolish.

It's arguable that Maurice was charged under the Smith Act, since that law was used to target socialist activists. But it's not a terribly good fit, in my opinion. For starters, there was only one use of the Act prior to 1944. That incident was unrelated to WWII, and apparently didn't result in any sentences longer than 16 months. But more importantly, the judge here states that Maurice's crime was protesting the war, and that doesn't really sound much like the Smith Act (which dealt with endorsing the overthrow of the government).