Monday, August 13, 2012

Star Talk II: The Commentary Track Strikes Back

(Listen to Part I of the Star Talk podcast here, and check out the first commentary track! When you're all caught up, join me, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Eugene Mirman for sandwiches...)

We took a lunch break after taping the first half of the podcast, and everyone headed into the breakroom for grub. I'd never been at Google/YouTube's offices, and in addition to all the other benefits of working there, the employees have an incredible selection of gratis snacks. I've seen game studios' version of this, which translates to "candy bars and eight types of Doritos." Not here: other than sodas, just about everything available was good-for-you food.

One of the tech guys has some impressive tattoos: Neil admitted he didn't have any. Which led to the question: if you had to get one, what would it be? A favorite constellation? The Hubble? Nope. "Manhattangate," he said, explaining that just as Stonehenge was set up to frame the sun during the solstices and equinoxes, there are a few days where if you stand at the right place the sun rises and sets exactly in line with the NYC streets, sailing above the skyscrapers like the Human Torch from afar.

I made the mistake of drinking a Diet Coke with lunch, which meant that I was hydrated for the next round under the lights. And I sweated like Nixon under a fry lamp for an hour. A poor tech member kept blotting my forehead between takes. You'll have the pleasure of soon watching my sweaty, Nixonian form once the video of it's posted on the Nerdist in a little bit: for now you'll have to imagine the sweat in your mind.

Back to the show...

0:13: Blatant plug: one of the audiobooks you can get on is Super Mario.

1:15: Do I have to tell anyone that was the theme song for the Mortal Kombat movie?

1:55: Eugene's joke about Nintendo not being as popular as it was before is, of course, a huge gigantic deal for Nintendo, but I didn't want to right off the bat plunge the discussion off the deathcliff of boring and chat about valuations of Nintendo's stock price over the last fiscal year.

3:13: "Xbox. That sounds different from the word 'Nintendo.'" I hope you could hear that line of dialogue over the sounds of me being raked over the coals.

3:28: The return of computing power! It is Neil's job to bring things back to science.

3:42: Mental thought: "Did he just say Mighty Joe Young? The Bill Paxton movie? What the hell is going on? What does this have to do with video games?"

3:50: Mental thought: "Ooooh, got it, rendering hair." Trivia I didn't get to add: about a tenth of the budget for the 2001 Final Fantasy film went to animating the lead character's hair.

Time-unspecific note: The only time Neil was anything other than perfectly genial was when Eugene and I would have a little downtime conversation about games. "Hey, save it for the show," he'd warn. Which makes sense: you don't want the guests to be all tired out from the preshow discussion to actually have the show discussion.

5:50: SimAnt once again! Star Talk drinking game: down a shot for each SimAnt reference.

7:04: "A bunch of mice that will eat...heat...bad example." My job right now is basically to listen and laugh. I'm good at my job.

7:26: Mars Curiosity fans: please tell me if you spot any pawprints from the extinct Martian heat-eating mice.

8:15: It's right here, when I interrupt a talk about the Gaia hypothetic to talk about Doom, that Neil and the producer share "I-told-you-we-should-have-asked-someone-else" looks.

8:18: The disappointed exhalation of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, ladies and gentlemen.

8:39: This back-and-forth is rapidly turning into the "When will then be now?"/"SOON!" conversation from Spaceballs.

11:05: By mentioning "angstrom," I believe I have returned to Neil's good graces.

11:14: I really did learn the word "angstrom" from MTV.

11:40: I'm pretty sure they cut out a boo-boo of mine, where I used the word "omniverse" instead of "universe." I actually know what a universe it, thank you. Omniverse is a SF word for all the different alternate realities of all the universes out there.

12:30: Talking about intelligent designers is okay on Star Talk...when you're talking about people making video games.

13:20: My mind is regularly exploding over what Will Wright is talking about. Wright is the week's expert guest. I am this week's whatever-they-call-the-stuff-in-hot-dogs-that's-not-meat.

14:39: For those not in the know, "To Serve Man" is one of the all-time stone classic episodes of The Twilight Zone.

15:23: That sentence sounded bad as I was saying it, and it sounds just as bad now. From Scranton, Pennsylvania someone is yelling "That's what she said!"

15:35: I chimed in with "trees!" not because I am an idiot, but because "whales" is usually a trick answer. There are groves of trees that have been found to link their roots together, essentially becoming just one tree, and that tree's biomass far exceeds even a blue whales. (Unless the blue whale has Voltronned itself to five other blue whales, in which point: touche.)

16:40: This, believe it or not, is the actual origin of Tomb Raider.

17:05: This is a family broadcast, so none of the three of us make the jokes that everyone else in the world is making right now regarding what Lara Croft's "front" looks like.

18:05: I stop myself at five coming up with synonyms for the undead.

18:30: "How do they do that?" "Computers." That's the sort of expertise I'm bringing to the table.

19:05: If you're a fan of WarGames, definitely pick on a novel called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It's about a futuristic contest where the whole world is basically trying to one-up each other for 1980s nerd trivia, and in one level you have to act out the entirety of WarGames.

19:45: I am obscenely proud to end my little speech with a WOPR quote.

20:10: We couldn't talk video games during the downtime, but talking AI was okay. I don't think we touch on it while the mikes were rolling, but I mentioned the old Eliza computer program. "There's no way you're old enough to remember Eliza!" Neil said. I'm older than I look, though: I'm half McCloud on my mother's side.

21:50: Okay yeah, Will Wright is a limitless genius talking about the Turing test. But can he quote the WOPR?

23:00: ...add "neurology" to the list of things Will Wright can talk about with ease.

24:15: The first chess program that beat a grandmaster was Deep Blue, who trounced Garry Kasparov back in 1997. What Deep Blue did to win was headfake Kasparov, by purposefully picking a nonoptimal move in the endgame. Which Kasparov didn't know it was allowed to do, thus making Kasparov think that he has misread the board somehow, which threw him off his game enough to be defeated. Deep Blue psyched out his way to a win.

25:01: Ask 99 other gamers and they'd give different, more Mass Effect-y answers to this question, but I'm sticking with Starship Titanic.

26:18: Connections: Douglas Adams was friends with the Monty Python guys, and was a story editor on Dr. Who, which is where he got the idea for Hitchhiker's. Neil, BTW, came into the studio sporting a Dr. Who hat.

27:10: "much more?" Nah, really only about ten minutes' worth.

28:10: Eugene keeps revealing more geekier sides to him: here he's joking about Simlish, which Will Wright mentioned in the previous podcast.

28:25: I am not a World of Warcraft player, and I am scared of it the way a fourth grader is scared of drugs. I think I would excuse myself rom the room if I found out a computer in it has WoW installed. I am that scared.

29:20: Oh, the expounding I could do on the virtual economies of video games. I'm going to limit myself to two: first is mentioning that Cory Doctorow's book For the Win is all about young gold farmers in China and India teaming up to unionize. The other is Julian Dibbell's very fun book Play Money, where he quits his job and tries to see if he can survive for a year just on gold farming.

30:45: More reading recommendations: the book Game Boys by Michael Kane is all about competitive gamers playing Counter-Strike in tournaments

32:00: This is an ugly list, and it goes on for a long time. I think just about anything can be addicting, and games absolutely can be if you're of the right persuasion. Very thankful for Eugene to counter up these points with humor.

34:10: Whatever game you bring on a space mission, please don't let it be Left 4 Dead.

35:05: Neil's also a Super Mario Galaxy fan.

36:00: Humiliation story: an older relative who was obsessed with the Big Brain games gave me one, out of the blue, with no explanation, and said "go!" Five seconds later he said "Ha!" because I had popped a bubble in a minigame when I wasn't supposed to. See, I'm supposed to be an expert in games I've never played before.

36:29: I'm pointing to my shirt, which has a green pipe from the Mario games on it. Underneath it is written "Ceci n'est pas une pipe,"which is both a Mario joke AND a Rene Magritte joke.

38:00: I'm cribbing my answers here from yet another book, but I'm turning this commentary track into a bibliography. But here's the book.

38:40: Here I have the great joy of telling you that this entire conversation has been in the presence of a Virtual Boy, the Edsel of Nintendo consoles. Eugene kept fiddling with it, and I would tell him more and more about it. That it was a headset that was so heavy it needed a stand. That you had to hold it with your hand but then you needed two hands to use the controller. That it was really expensive, and only had about eight games for it ever, and was only in red. When I mentioned the crippling headaches it caused I believe he said this sounded like the worst consumer product of all time.

39:50: And that's all she wrote!

When it was over I met Kristal Schaal in the green room: she was the next cohost, for a special on the science of sex. I also ran into Dr. Ruth Westheimer there, who is very nice and who is about 90, and she took less time in the make-up chair than I did. So that felt great.