Crossover Idea: Band of Brothers and Avatar: The Last Airbender

Epistemic status: Almost certainly a terrible idea.

For a while now, I’ve had the idea for a crossover series between Avatar and Band of Brothers. It seems like a natural enough idea. A sequel series is supposed to be somewhat darker and more serious (but not too much). It would require kind of a reboot, but ever since season 2 of Korra that’s probably necessary anyway.

The basic idea is a steampunk Avatar universe WW2 show. The countries are a fantasy-world version of the way they were in the real WW2, and each country has all kinds of benders. The American armed forces are divided by bending ability – earthbenders in the army, waterbenders in the navy, airbenders in the air force and firebenders in the marines. The forces are segergated by bending style for the same reason as the actual military was segregated by race: In this universe, racial issues divided around bending ability instead of skin colour, and society is just on the edge of desegregating.

Instead of the following the new airborne units like Band of Brothers, the show follows one of these desegregation initiatives, an experimental mixed-bender force. The unit is composed of nine people: two benders of each type, and the nonbending Badass Normal commander. Their mission is to infiltrate Germany to look for the Avatar, who should be about twelve now (nobody knows who he is, but there are rumors he’s in Germany), and kill him to stop him winning the war for the Germans.

However, as they infiltrate Germany, they start finding out about the holocaust. The squad gradually decides to abandon the mission and rescue people from concentration camps instead, which becomes the main focus of the show (as well as the inter-character relationships).

One of the kids they rescue early on becomes a recurring minor character, as they struggle to get the people they rescue to safety. He’s shy and doesn’t talk much, but bonds with several of the squad members as they take to him. Over the later episodes, several of the squad members (of different bending abilities) teach him a little of their bending skills (though none of them is aware of any of the other conversations).

In the semi-last episode, the captain talks to a couple of his men and puts things together, realizing the kid must have been the Avatar. He decides not to tell anyone and send the kid to safety in America, since the kid’s been through enough, and never explicitly mentions this to anyone except in one last I-know-you-know-I-know conversation with the kid where neither of them says anything explicitly.

In the last episode, they storm either Auschwitz or The Eagle’s Nest where Hitler and the high command are hiding. Drama and explosions abound.


Poetry Translation – I’m a Guitar (Benny Amdursky)

Lyrics to the original (Hebrew). And here’s a video of the original song, for the tune.

I’m a guitar, the blowing wind is playing me
Under the changing moons
I’m a guitar, and somebody is strumming me,
Along the winding tunes

If I flirt with some brunette
I burst out in a duet
If it’s a trio or quartet
That’s not a problem

A picnic blanket, white and red
A bunch of grapes, a loaf of bread
And pears and apples in a spread
And wine in autumn

I’m a guitar…

I’m a witness, I’m a sign
I’ve been lonely, I’ve been fine
I’ve walked with friends along the line
We’ve come so far

On wild adventures here and there
In ships and planes flying through the air
And wandering rambles everywhere
Where e’er we are…

I’m a guitar…

About the girls, here’s how I feel
There’s an understanding, there’s a deal
I’ve no complaints, she’s what she will
None I remember

I don’t give up, I always say
What didn’t happen yet in May
With God’s help will come someday
By mid-september…

I’m a guitar, I guess I used to be a tree
And in my soundbox hull
I remember everyone who played on me
And I thank you all.

Translation of Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan (Hebrew)

ניסיתי לשנות ת’מערכת
עשרים שנה לבד היה הדין
עכשיו תורי, הגיע זמן ללכת
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין

מדריך אותי הסמל ברקיע
ואור בוער פנימי אותי מכווין
מנחה אותי יופיו של הקליע,
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין

הייתי מת לחיות ביחד, מותק
כל רגע שאני איתך אני נדהם
אבל רואה שם את ההמון המשותק?
אמרתי לך כבר פעם, הייתי אז כמותם

אהבת אותי כלוזר, עכשיו את לא יודעת
עכשיו אני נלחם עם גליצרין
את יודעת לעצור אותי, רק אין לך ת’משמעת
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין

אני לא אוהב איך שהכל תעשייתי
את הצ’ייסרים ואת ההירואין
אני לא אוהב מה שקרה לאחותי
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין

הייתי מת לחיות ביחד, מותק…

אני מודה על כל מה ששלחתי לי
על הכינור והבובה של הדולפין
אני נגן די טוב עכשיו, נראה לי…
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין.

מדריך אותי הסמל ברקיע…

זוכרת כשחייתי בשביל המוסיקה
נתת לי תקליטים להאזין
עכשיו כל צליל נשמע כמו חריקה
ניקח כבר את מנהטן, אחר כך את ברלין.

Science Fiction from the satallite-eye view

The John Glenn post got me thinking how I’d approach writing hard(ish) SF. I wouldn’t want it to be too realistic, since that would be boring and wouldn’t include space travel. And there’s the issue of AI, which can break an SF story pretty easily, and you want to leave the possibility of interplanetary trade/warfare, but no story-breaking teleportation.

First of all, there’s Athena, the one superintelligence humanity has managed to built. She is (also uniquely) a quantum gravity computer, and can use closed timelike curves for computation1.

Athena2 was created as part of a project to allow interstellar travel. The concept of interstellar travel works like this: The topology of the universe has a dense subset of microscopic “wormholes”, that is, random pairs of points that are identified with each other. When asked, Athena can take advantage of these holes to find two coherent sets of holes in different solar systems, and transport an object instantly from one to the other. While this could, in principle, allow time travel (which Athena, as a QG computer, already takes advantage of), in practice Athena artificially maintains causality by using an internal universal clock: If one ship is transported from system A to system B, and then an hour later (in system A time) another ship is transported the same route, the second ship will be transferred to System B at the point in time one hour after the first ship arrived.

The other primary purpose of Athena is to prevent humanity from creating other AI. Nobody is quite sure how she does this, since she never interferes with humanity in any visible way, aside from occasionally answering questions. These answers are always true, informative, and helpful, and (aside from the teleportation, which is entirely predetermined) are Athena’s only interaction with humanity. The one degree of freedom Athena has is which questions she chooses to answer. For a superintelligence effectively capable of time travel, this is more than enough.

There are many things about how Athena was created that no one is quite sure of. It’s unknown if she was created as a superintelligence who quickly used her superintelligence to develop QG and teleportation abilities, or if she was originally created as a teleportation device whose QG abilities let self-hijack into superintelligence. Nobody’s sure who created her – whoever it was, the first thing he used Athena for was to destroy all traceable records of himself. Being the one person with the ability to mess with Athena’s priorities, he has, in effect, godlike power.

Actually, these questions are a lot more fun once you remove causality, which we are totally allowed to do once we have time travel. Which direction was Athena created? Doesn’t matter! In the interests of minimizing the complexity of a world in which QG computing is possible, there must exist exactly one QG computer whose primary job is, in effect, to minimize use of time travel. Is the creator a human who got godlike power, or a god who came to humanity, engineered a QG computer, and disappeared? Again, from the non-causality viewpoint, it doesn’t matter – there must exist a unique creator of a QG computer, who for all practical purposes is effectively a higher power (but would inevitably have some human quirks, which make for a good story and also kind of explain why the biblical God is so humanistically capricious. This also explains why humanity hasn’t met aliens.)

Meanwhile, interplanetary politics rely heavily on trade. Earth technology is heavily dependent on all sorts of minerals and resources that are bizarrely common on Earth (in particular, only Earth has fossil fuels, since only earth has fossils). Therefore there needs to be a lot of trade for all the resources needed to sustain advanced technology, especially the rocketry needed for interplanetary travel (While interstellar travel is handled by Athena, the error in teleportation is large enough that ships need a travel range on the order of a hundred million miles). The rich and powerful worlds are those who are either old enough to have developed technology more reliant on their particular mix of available resources, or those within reach of enough planets and asteroids to supply themselves with a wide range of resources. Warfare and piracy of (or between) the second type is reasonably common. Different planetary systems can thus allowed to have many types of communities and governments.

The actual story, on the other hand, needs to be told from a ground-level perspective. The first arc is fairly fairy-taleish: A small-town guy in an obscure (but fairly old, and thus mostly self-reliant due to idiosyncratic technology) world goes on a quest – let’s say, to save the local princess. On the way he enlists the help of the cranky old mathematician3, who lives as a hermit on a hill in the nearby forest and can figure out spaceflight. They find the princess somehow, but this raises new and troubling questions. (I have a mental image of her turning into a piranha plant and attacking them; this is probably a metaphor).

The second arc starts off with the mathematician’s philosophical exposition. He’s been wondering about Athena’s creator for years, and the troubling issues raised in the first arc (I really need to think of some appropriate issues) inspired him to look deeper into the question through them. He drags the rest along in what is, in effect, a quest to find a god.

The finale involves somehow meeting the creator, who scattered the breadcrumbs that led to them taking the quest (and the self-discovery involved) in the first place. They (and the reader) are left to wonder at his motivations – was he just having fun with them? Was this quest unique for them, or does everyone eventually get a secret voyage of self-realization which gives their lives meaning?

The characters (except maybe a younger one they meet at the end, who is inspired to start his own quest over an important issue that was somehow never resolved) have become philosophically satisfied, and retire to a life of peaceful farming.

1. I really hope I got the physics and computability theory here at least mostly right. Whatever mistakes are here, I’m chalking up to poetic license.

2. Athena was originally named on the fun coincidence of being both the goddess of wisdom and the younger sister of Apollo, since I like the idea that the last project to allow interstellar travel was the younger twin of the project to reach the moon. This was ruined when I remembered that Apollo’s sister is Artemis, not Athena.

1. We really need more fictional mathematicians. The only two I remember off the top of my head are Hari Seldon and Nicolas Bourbaki.

List of examples of nominative determinism

This post gathers examples of nominative determinism I run into. Expected to expand with time. (Sources include SSC commentators, Wikipedia, and Facebook groups).

Wikipedia has a whole list here, of which my favourite are Thomas Crapper (inventor of the modern toilet), Jules Angst, a psychiatrist studying anxiety, and, of course, Anthony Wiener.

Loving v. Virginia, legalizing interracial marriage.

Singing Fish research by professor Bass

Teva factory on Trufa Street in Netanya (Hebrew for medicine).

Food journalist Tom Philpott

A study on predicting number of sexual partners by a Dr. Beaver.

A professor named Azrael who studies deaths by gun violence.

Dr. Ken Caldeira studies volcanic eruptions.

Usain Bolt, famous fast person.

Philander Rodman had between 29 and 47 kids.

Robin G. Mahfood, President/CEO of Food For The Poor.

The Barbary Pirates, a fleet of barbarian pirates.

1980s-90s NASCAR driver Lake Speed.

Early 20th century judge and judicial scholar Learned Hand.

2000s Cleveland Indians all-star outfielder Grady Sizemore, who stood 6’2″ tall and weighed 205 lbs.

Lord Judge was the head of the judiciary in England and Wales.

The philosopher John Wisdom.

Mark Fishman is a big name in the Zebrafish research community.

William Shockley was an electronics pioneer.

The Lumiere brothers first captured light as motion pictures.

Bernhard Reddemann, firefighter and flamethrower developer.

Larry Page invented the PageRank algorithm, for ranking web pages.

Bernie Madoff with the money.

Guy Standing, a guy standing.

Dr. Good, who was the first to warn about intelligence explosions risks, and also fought Nazis with math.

Dr. Bill Karp, research director for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

Representative David Lust opposes bill to ban representatives from sexual contact with their interns.

Gary Oldman is almost sixty.

Hugh Jackman is a Huge Jacked Man.

Noted sexual harasser Bob Packawood.

Annual Birthday Post

It’s my birthday. I’ve had friends of all sorts talk to me today, from people I talk to every day, to people fulfilling their social obligation to send birthday greetings, to people who were happy for the chance to talk to me. I think I value the third group the most, today.

To be honest, it’s not enough. I’m still sad. I miss… not my exes, exactly, but the set of people I could really talk to. which is close to the set of people I’ve dated, in both the set-theoretic and the metric senses, but not quite it. And, unfortunately, pretty much entirely contained in the set of people I don’t talk to anymore.

I’m trying not to mope too much about it. As much as I feel like my life will never change, it’ll change pretty seriously soon enough. I’ll have a new job, in a new city, with a new community, all of which should be radically different than the ones I have now, and all of which have a reputation for being pretty nice, even for people like me. Hell, maybe I’ll even manage to have a new me.

There’s the blessing we say every year. Next Year in Jerusalem! And they do say these days that San Francisco is supposed to be the Jerusalem of nerds. It’s where Neil Armstrong descended out of Heaven as the Right Hand of God. So I guess I’ll see if it lives up to it’s promise.

Whichever way it goes, next year I’ll probably look back at that and laugh, but whether it’ll be because I’m laughing at how naive I was, or because I’m cheerful, remains to be seen.

The kaballah of my name

The overt meaning of “Shaked” is “Almond Tree”.

The kabbalistic meaning is “One who makes divine puns.” This we derive from Jeremiah 1:11-12, which says:

11 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied.

12 The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am working to see that my word is fulfilled.”

This verse requires explanation.

The prophet Jeremiah, like all biblical prophets, is reluctant to do God’s bidding. This is understandable, as God’s bidding to prophets is usually to go visit a city full of evil people, berate them for their sinful ways, and tell them about all the terrible punishments God has in store for them. People who are evil and sinful by biblical standards (which accept Lot offering his daughters to be raped by the mob, or David killing two hundred philistines for their foreskins, as perfectly normal and acceptable) tend not to appreciate this.

God, however, has to convince Jeremiah to go through with this as quickly as possible, and decides to use the ole’ “make a pun off a random object” method of persuasion1. When Jeremiah points out a random almond tree (“Shaked” in Hebrew), God answers that he is “Working” (the other meaning of the word “Shaked”) to see that his word (in this case, “don’t worry, it’ll be fine) is fullfilled.

The prophet Jeremiah, reassured by this divine mastery of puns, happily goes forwards on his quest2.

The English meaning of “shake” can also be derived from God using an almond tree to shake Jeremiah up. This is not a coincidence, because nothing is ever a coincidence.

1. The other person famous for doing this is Ben Johnson, who claimed he could make a pun on any subject. When someone asked for a pun about the Queen, Johnson protested: “But the Queen is not a subject”.

2. Contrary to God’s reassurances, Jeremiah later proceeds to spend most of the book agonizing over the failure of his mission, consumed by bitterness at those who oppose or ignore him, and accusing God of betraying him.