Book recommendo! - Blood Music, by Greg Bear.

Today we bring you that most occasional of things to be found on P.A.G!, a book recommendation. Those looking for a few decent jokes are encouraged to read a different blog entirely, but we should have a few snotty one liners for you on Monday.

Good "hard sci-fi" draws the reader in with its realism. Often, the whole story hinges upon just one (hopefully minor) suspension of disbelief, and the excitement spins out from there, based on likely consequences. In simpler terms, it all starts with one "what if?", and then the reader watches the fun events arising from it.

Virgil Ulum, a biotechnologist working at a private research facility, works on his own pet projects after hours. The lab is trying to develop "biochips", but Virgil sees their research as going down the wrong path. His own ideas lead him to use "junk DNA" in lymphocytes extracted from his own blood to rapidly and easily code for data storage. This makes them, essentially, microscopic logic circuits, with each cell having the rough intelligence of a dog, and the ability to alter their own genetic code to store and process data. The lymphocytes display cooperative behavior, working together in clusters, and before long, their intelligence is hovering somewhere around the level of chimpanzees.

Once the bosses find out about his extracurricular experiments, Virgil is fired, and ordered to destroy his samples. But, like any good marginalized genius, Virgil views the cells as his "children", and, determined to continue his work at a later date, smuggles the lymphocytes out of the lab by.... wait for it.... injecting them into his own body. Wheeeeeee!!!!! That there is your "what if".

Naturally, we can assume that once intelligent microbes are colonizing Virgil's body, everything is hunky dory and nothing gets weird, right? Not right. Initially, he feels like a hundred bucks. He no longer needs glasses, and his chronic back pain goes away. It turns out, his spine has been not just repaired, but redesigned, with triangular sections of interlocking bone structures like a box girder bridge or a crane. Before long, the "noocytes" cross the blood-brain barrier and become self-aware. It takes the colony three days to figure out language, and after that, it's game on. They start talking to Virgil, and asking him adorable questions.

Going from being a tiny speck in an infinite universe to essentially becoming a universe unto yourself will tend to have an effect on one's mind. "Interospection" stops being just an occasional distraction and before long, Virgil becomes a little grandiose. One day after talking with a doctor friend of his, the noocytes ask Virgil who he was talking to. "Other. Body shape. Talk. Like self?" and he has to explain to them the concepts of empty space and "other people". Following this exchange, Virgil hears from the noocytes what the author describes as a "long, profound silence".

That's less than halfway through the book, so there's plenty of room for more freaky consequences. The weirdness is just picking up speed, and it doesn't end "right back where we started" like a sitcom.

Greg Bear, like always, gets the science underneath his science fiction right enough that my B.S. detector never makes a peep, which is increasingly rare in the post-Michael Bay era in which you are quickly shouted down for questioning why robots from space are shaped like Earth cars. Granted, my advanced degree in biology is not only rusty, but also slightly nonexistent, but it's fair to say the science dialogue in the book doesn't sound dumbed down. There's no substance in Blood Music with names like "unobtanium", for example. Making a story smart does not make it worse, nor any less of a roller coaster ride of eye-popping weirdness. So, your time spent reading Blood Music won't be wasted with unnecessary eye-rolling.

Blood Music's drama forms a very linear progression that starts quiet and moves in a straight line towards freaky-deaky stuff that makes it really hard to put down. I read the paper version in college and have listened to the audio version about three times since then. This is about as strong a recommendation as I can manage.

 Here's a link to Asthmazon, which has pretty much any version you could want. Papery-flexybook, papery-stiffbook, talky-book, and electro-book. Apparently, there's some other novel with the same title, by a Somebody Hunter. That's not this book. You want the Greg Bear one.


If anybody does read Blood Music, feel free to leave a note in the comments.


Neighbors and Helpers - Turkeys

Today we bring you a pair of bone-chilling tales of adventure and peril, wherein we learn that, when you're afraid of something, the best strategy is to provoke it until it tries to kill you, thereby verifying your initial assumption and sparing you the psychological trauma of possibly being wrong. These macabre stories come to us from the ancient pages of Neighbors and Helpers, the 1939 schoolbook that has taught us so much about the world that brought us World War II.

And now the part where we find out that Billy is a piece of shit...


Dania's Billboard - Aaaarg, such a sale!

Have you seen the billboards advertising Dania Furniture's sale? They seem pretty excited about it, and they seem to want us to be really excited about it. In fact, their ads imply that we will love their sale so much that we may suffer a case of spontaneous cherubism and go full Robert Zdar. See?

It's great that cherubism sufferers can still have careers in modeling, but Dania seems to imply that we might contract the disorder via huge savings. This is untrue. Cherubism is inherited genetically, and cannot be transmitted through amazing bargains. If one or both of your parents are an amazing bargain, well, chances are higher that you'll develop it.

Robert Zdar, Yes, that's his real face.
Dania has showrooms across the country, but they seem especially thick on the ground here in Chicago.  If you think you may accidentally shop there, feel free to save as much as you want. There is little to no risk that you'll become Robert Zdar.

If Dania wants to avoid confusion, they'll re-design their ad. Here, let me get that for you. This one's on the house...


Fiberglass Ice - An idea whose time had went.

Building materials. How to build them, right? In 1960, Professor W. David Kingery, who seems like one of those pretentious people who goes by their middle name and reduces their first name to an initial, was working on ways to use ice as a building material: some good, some bad. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe his first name was "Wabbajack". Hence, its demotion to an initial. Wait. What's that? I've just been told his first name was William. Well, he's not leaving us much choice. Pretention it is. Sorry, W. David. We don't make the rules.

As you can see in the article below, one of the reinforcing materials W. David found to mix into ice was sawdust. Neato! Even "better" than sawdust was fiberglass. Since this was the swinging we'll-worry-about-that-later Sixties, there's no mention of how you would clean up all the fiberglass floating around the polar ice caps once your art projects are all dismantled or melted. It's possible that was the very reason they didn't move forward with the idea. Let's hope so. Can you imagine the environmental mess we'd have now if they'd built entire military bases out of fiberglass ice? Melting ice caps are bad enough. Think of all the penguins and polar bears with chronically itchy skin.


Four Roses and the Holy Hand Grenade

Hey Pointy Tree Day shoppers! There's only 255 shopping days left till Annual Seasonal Ordeal of Fake Merriment! Shop shop shop! Four Roses makes a fine Way Too Early For Christmas Gift to yourself!

Well, probably. I've never had the stuff, but if it showed up on the doorstep in a basket, wrapped in swaddling clothes, I would definitely adopt the hell out of it. Well, my belly would adopt the hell out of it... after the results came back from the lab, verifying that it hadn't been cut with Drano or, god forbid, Red Bull.

Whiskey is a - Hey, what the eff is that round doohickey in the picture? It looks like that thing in all the old paintings of royal fancy guys in leotards looking very nonchalant that their clothes are made out of curtains.

NOT King Charles. His Majesty Lord King Superfancy Tin Pants, the Fancy.

Yeah, that thing. Okay, they're not the same. The thing in the ad is probably some kind of old-timey  Pointy Tree Day ornament, made of cigar boxes and Jolly Ranchers. Note to self: have an intern make a note to use Jolly Ranchers as pretend gems on some kind of holiday festoonery this year.

Okay. So now, what the eff is the wind-up baseball in all the old royal paintings? Phil Are GO! research and Googling Squad... ACTIVATE! PKSHEEOW!

Apparently the pointless geegaw is The Sovereign's Orb, created in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II (not pictured at left), and it cost the equivalent of 142 thousand pounds, or, translated into money, $207,438.57. Wowzers. I'm sure the British Kingdom was doing really well in 1661 and could totally afford a useless symbol like that.

Wait. It gets better. The Soveriegn's Orb's design is called a "globus cruciger", meaning "ball with cross stuck on it". It's is supposed to symbolize Christ's dominance over the world, held in the hand of an Earthly ruler. Fuck. You. Aah yes. The separation of Church and state: a crucial pillar of any civilized system of government... or, as the Church of England in 1661 and the American conservative movement of the year 2015 call it, "The blah de blah blah of blah de blah."

Religions and nations just love love luuuuuuv symbols. They're an excellent way to A) piss away massive amounts of money for nothing and/or B) create an excuse to commit indescribable crimes against humanity for nothing. This particular symbol calls for some right-on satirization, but please remain seated. Monty Python beat us to it, way back in 1975 in their movie about the Holy grail. Arthur and his knights find themselves at the mouth of the Cave of Caerbannog, and do battle with the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog (natch). To defeat the rabbit, they bring out the Holy Hand Grenade, which looks exactly like the globus cruciger.

First, the scripture as read from the Book of Armaments, chapter 2, verses 9 to 21:

And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O LORD, bless this Thy hand grenade that with it Thou mayest blow Thine enemies to tiny bits, in Thy mercy." And the LORD did grin and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats and large chu.... And the LORD spake, saying, "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.

Also, it shall be written that the chant "pie jesu domine, dona eis requiem" translates as "Oh Lord, let them rest." Thank you, the Pythons.


V8 Vegetable Juice - Vee eight modurr!

You coulda had a V8! That was a TV ad campaign for this stuff back in, I dunno, The Eighties or maybe The Seventies. I coulda had a V8 lots of times, but I choose not to. Dad loved the stuff, though.

Of course, I haven't tried V8 in decades, I was so turned off by the stuff when I tried it as a kid. I wish I did like it. It's supposed to be really good for you. I'll just eat a carrot, thanks.

But enough of relevance. Know what else rhymes with V8? It's Vee eight!

Top Gear, Season 20, episode 7. "The Worst Car in the History of the World". James and Jeremy scour the world for the most crap car. In my favorite segment, they test a couple of mid-Seventies American barges for speed and agility. At the start of that bit, they're comparing notes on the cars they chose, and Jeremy proudly indicated the size of his car's engine in a parody of an American accent. "Seven liter vee-eight modurr!" It's magically funny. Rent or buy the episode. Here's what you definitely won't say, two hours later: "I never smiled or laughed once. That was a total waste of two dollars." You can get it on Amazon or Hulu.

He's right, of course. We yanks have slurred many of our T's into D's, while the English still pronounce it "MOW-tah", something like fifteen hundred years after the language was invented. It makes me want to revert to the more accurate English way of talking, but that would make me a massive wanker. However, "banana" NEVER has an "R" on the end of it. Come, on, guys. Geddit right.


Automotive Design Trends - Big pretend grille awards!

Hey, car spotters! In case you hadn't noticed, there's a huge trend in automotive styling towards big fake grilles. We've noted some of the most notable examples and handed out some awards, so that you will also note them. Let's see what they won!

First, some explanation. There are people at every car company whose job it is to work out the styling of the car. This may sound like fun, but there are a few things that drain every stylist's will to live. First, there's the sheer volume of government-mandated safety regulations. Then there's the giant committee of auto executives that love the idea of "fresh new designs" while simultaneously hating anything that's actually different from what they've seen before. There's also the huge amount of money at stake if the model is a consumer failure. So combine massive pressure, design constraints like handcuffs, and mico-managing oversight from terrified bosses, and you have an environment for designing the perfect stupid-looking car.

Every country has crash-safety regulations, and the U.S.A. standards are pretty strict, requiring large rubber-baby-buggy-bumpers of identical height on all vehicles. You often hear about differences between the Euro-spec bumper on a given model and the dorky, bulbous U.S-spec version that completely wrecks the look of the car. Designers would love to abandon the idea of bumpers. They hate them. They're big and lumpy and they make it hard to design a cool-looking car.

In the past, the bumper was a big chrome metal thing. If you liked chrome, it wasn't a bad compromise. Might as well glam up the bumper with some shiny chrome, right? But in recent years, designers have been trying like hell to absorb the bumper into the silhouette of the car's body, enveloping it within the body panels, and as a result, concealing it. This is an expensive game, since the body panels (which are ...protecting the bumper?) will suffer visible damage after even the gentlest of fender benders. Still, everyone loves a sleek shape, so, this is the way the wind is blowing. Have a look at the AMC Matador in the picture. That's about as safe as a bumper can get: a spring-loaded bash guard way out in front of the vehicle. Imagine how much nicer the car would look if we just deleted the bumper? Can't.

So, this is the dream of the automotive stylist: no more bumpers, But, it can never be. Instead, they're trying to pretend it doesn't exist.

Along with the no-bumpers wish, there's a strong desire to have a car with a gigantic grille. Maybe this implies that the motor is massive and needs loads of air. Why? Dump trucks have huge grilles, and they're slow as hell. No matter! People are basically huge children, and fads defy reason. To the six-year-old brain inside your average adult, a huge grille means POWAH! Better still if your giant grille is all frowny and angry-looking, because you're a child whose afraid of the world and you want to scare off the bigger kids that may pick on you. If you're a stylist and want that child's money, you'd better have a big angry grille. So what do you do when you're told to follow the massive grille fad while hiding your bumper shame?

Let's explore some great examples of Big Pretend Grille Syndrome!

Ford Focus
Here is the front end of a 2012 Ford Focus and a 2015 Ford Focus RS. We didn't get the fast RS version of the 2012 Focus here in the states - maybe because Ford thought it would eat into sales of the Mustang? I dunno. Anyway, look at that huge Grille! It must need a lot of air!

Here's the 2012 Focus. The pink area on the left shows us what Ford wants you to think is a big, manly intake. The green area on the right shows us the actual open area of the fake grill that lets in air. They've pretty much painted on a big shouty mouth using black plastic. Why didn't they also add a mustache and goatee?  What about some glasses around the headlights? Missed opportunity, if you ask me.

Here's the 2015 Focus RS. It's a desirable, fast car with a hatchback - eminently justifiable as a daily driver. Check out the huge pink pretend grille! The last time I saw a mouth like that it had a hook in it. Hey, good crowd! The actual grille is marked out in green on the right. Did you notice the bumper? Probably not, since Ford wrapped it in black plastic, making it totally invisible, right? When I look at this I see the following, in this order... A) Ford's shame that their car has to have a dorky bumper. B) Ford's lack of ideas how to hide it. C) Ford hoping I'm dumb enough to think that their huge pretend grill is real. So, both of these masterful designs earn Ford our Good For The Kids Award, for designing a front end to make an eight-year-old boy open his check book. Well done, Ford. Now how about a Focus for grownups? It might as well have plastic Nerf machine guns stuck on the fenders.

Hyundai Genesis Coupe
The Hyundai Genesis Coupe is a quirky design that you either love or hate. I think they get a few points for being different. Some have mumbled that the car looks too much like an Aston martin, and this is shameful for what reason? A 305-hp sort of Aston-ish looking car for about twenty five kilobucks? Right on! The first generation of the car started out with an unfortunate amount of bogus black plastic polluting the nose, but it wasn't too offensive. Then, in 2013, Hyundai jumped on the idiot bandwagon and gave their car a big dump truck grille that looks like it's biting its tongue. For this uglification, Hyundai brings home the You're Not Helping Award. Gentlemen, it was better before you improved it.

Here's the 2010 Genesis Coupe. The mouth at the bottom is supposed to simulate, what? ...brake ducts? At least they had the good taste to cover  the bumper area with body color.
Here's the improved 2013 model. The big mouth puts the bumper on proud display, but don't worry. A little black plastic makes it disappear! It sort of looks like an angry teen wearing his retainer. Kid, you don't scare me. Go home. As a cool bonus, don't miss the fake nostrils on the hood that do nothing but make you impulsively buy Axe Body Spray.

Audi A4 (but really most Audis, really)
Audi has been loving the dump truck grille for a number of years now. Please fail to notice the bumper blocking about 30% of the pretend grille on their 2015 A4.
Audi wins our I Know Nutting Award in the Pretend Grillympics. The ratio of plastic fakeness to actual intakeness is laughable. But at least it has that dump truck racing cache' that's sweeping the nation. Once again, black ABS makes the bumper absolutely invisible. It's a Teutonic masterpiece in metal und shteel, but mostly schwarz plashtic.

Ford Fusion
"But," you say, "If you're so smart, show us what the front of a car should look like, clever trousers!" There are lots of less dopey-looking nosejobs than those displayed by the stars of today's awards. An easy example is the Ford Fusion. See? Ford's not completely clueless. Put this nose on the Focus RS and you'd have me up late trying to figure out how to afford one.
See? It CAN be done. Only the fake brake ducts are fake. The Ford Fusion gets our Ray Of Hope Award.

Toyota Corolla S
After the sixth generation Celica and before the Scion FR-S (a span of about 14 years), Toyota was the champion of beige, forgettable transportation appliances. Even now that they've started glancing in the direction of their customer base that still has a pulse by producing the FR-S coupe, they're still desperately trying to shake off the mantle of "grandma's sensible car". Their half-assed "S" version of the 2015 Corolla takes the beigemobile and makes it faster by adding a frowny face and by painting on a baffling mouth using the magical hue of "plastique nior". Toyota's "we're still hip.... pretty please" ad campaign uses fire imagery and lots of dancing teens to convince you this snowboarding granny is ready to pump out the jamz.

Please don't tell me the "S" is supposed to stand for "sport". Toyota's desperation makes us feel sorry for them. Their Corolla S gets the Participation Trophy that every kid gets, just for showing up. It's an award for taking up space. Well done, Corolla S.

Taking this trend to its logical conclusion, we have simulated an even faster version of the Corolla S. Everything forward of the front axles is covered in textured black plastic. Therefore, it's an air intake. Therefore, the car is more aggressive and also faster. You're welcome.
Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S is the first electric car that can be fun to drive and (mostly) nice to look at. It doesn't have an internal combustion engine, so it barely has any need at all for a grille, apart from cabin ventilation and maybe some light cooling of the batteries and electric motors. That said, why did Tesla feel obligated to basically put a picture of a grille on their flagship model? We're guessing it's because they felt customers would be turned off by a car that didn't look conventional enough.
This pretend grille is almost entirely pointless. It's a big black dot on the nose that serves little purpose other than possibly meeting the expectations of buyers weirded out by being too different. What a letdown. It sure doesn't look like an eighty-five-thousand dollar car. This silly black dot gets the Clown nose AwardIt's an electric car. It doesn't need as many holes as a piston engine car, so don't make fake holes.
Interestingly, Saleen, the guys you may know from their many years tuning Mustangs, has made available their better, faster, and MUCH PRETTIER version of the Model S. It's called the Tesla Saleen FourSixteen, and it not only fixes the goofy black dot problem, but it makes the whole car look like it's worth the price you paid for it. This pretty thing gets the Yes! Yes! Oh God YES! Award. Thank you, third party manufacturers, for showing the big companies how it's done. What are you doing after the show, gorgeous?