Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tips for When You're a Kid Sleuth (Part 1)

Scooby-Doo: Watch out! It's another ironic internet guide!

So you’ve got yourself a notepad, a comically large magnifying glass, and maybe even a dog with unusual intelligence. You think you’re ready to be a kid sleuth?

Think again, maggot.

You are not a detective. You’re filth. You’re less than filth. You’re nothing. You couldn’t sleuth your way out of a piss-soaked paper bag if you had a trail of footprints to show the way. I bet you’re the kind of sleuth who would investigate a villain in the spooky woods and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a chiding speech.

That changes today. If you finish this article, if you survive sleuth training, you will be a weapon. You will be a master of snooping, praying for mystery. You will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. I am hard but I am fair. There is no genre bigotry here. I do not look down on bookworms, adventurers, tech geeks, or the extremely nearsighted. To me, you are all equally worthless.

Let’s begin with knots...


Learn how to tie good ones, because slipped knots are the number one cause of death for kid detectives. If you can’t tie a villain up nice and tight, you might as well hand them your magnifying glass right then and there.

And learn to tie bad knots convincingly, too. You have no idea how often you’ll need the villain to think they’ve escaped on their own, when actually it was your plan all along. But if you accidentally tie a knot they can't get out of, you're screwed.

Oh, and learn how to untie common knots with your teeth. Seriously, this will come up about three times a week.

Don’t Flounce the Landing

Do you have a warrant for this snooping, Nancy Drew?
"Do you have a warrant for this snooping, Ms. Drew?"

How many times has this happened to you? You’ve just unmasked the bad guy. Snared in his own web of deceit, he goes into a rambling, unprompted monologue in which he ruefully confesses every detail of his crime. But then he gets a lawyer, pleads not guilty at trial, your testimony about his confession is declared inadmissible hearsay, and the case is summarily dismissed.

Don’t be embarrassed. This has happened to every kid sleuth from time to time. In fact, anytime you hear a sleuthing story that ends abruptly at, “and we got him to confess,” you can bet the bad guy either got off entirely or pleaded down to time served and 500 hours of community service. He’s probably out there right now, on the side of the highway in an orange vest, imagining a kid sleuth’s face on every Big Mac wrapper he skewers.

So how do we avoid this?

For one, tape the confession, starting from the moment you pull off the villain's mask. Juries love a good dis-masking, and the perp will find it hard to change his tune when the prosecution has the first verse on tape.

Ernesto Miranda was a Secret Yeti

But even a taped confession may be ruled inadmissible, on the grounds that the villain wasn’t aware of his or her Miranda rights. This one’s easy. Write them down and read them to the villain, before they start spilling their guts.

Carmen Too, I Think

Even if the tape is played for the jury, and especially in light of the fantastic knots you surely used to tie up the villain, the judge—wary of false confessions—may require corroborating evidence. It’s a legal principle called “corpus delecti” or “tasty dead body,” due to its origins in zombie caselaw. Because, seriously, try getting a fair trial when you’re a zombie.

Also, to be admissible, a confession must typically be made voluntarily. This has several implications where kid sleuths are concerned. First of all, while tying the villain up is permissible, you cannot hurt or coerce them in any way while getting their confession. This shouldn’t be a problem, because the villains you’ll run into are strangely eager to detail their crimes once exposed, but too many kid sleuths try to show off by making threats, and thereby ruin their confessions. Don’t fall into this trap.

The second major issue with voluntary confessions is that they must be given while of sound and rational mind. This is the thorniest problem you’ll face as a kid sleuth, because it’s hard to establish rationality when the defendant was apprehended while wearing a fluorescent ghost-pirate costume.

You can never really be rid of this problem, but you can minimize it. When you ask questions, make sure to emphasize the goals of their wicked plan, and not the individual components. Judges can find sound minded rationality in an intricate real estate scam involving straw buyers and stock manipulation through poisoned investor expectations. Not so much when we’re talking about chasing people around in a ghost costume and projecting a sea monster onto a fog bank.

I Got a Message From Johnny Tightlips. Actually, No I Don’t.

Confession App: Your sins have been erased

Above all, never count on a confession.

In the United States, and even in many lesser countries, the accused are not required to testify against themselves, let alone provide a detailed confession. The villain you just caught is entirely within his rights to say nothing at all. Even if you lay his entire plan out in front of him, he can just shrug and ask for a lawyer.

But you’re not going to panic, are you? You’re ready for this, because you documented the physical evidence, wrote down all the clues, and you're ready to make a compelling narrative of events which tells the story almost as well as the perp himself could.

The most important thing to remember is that you could be called to the stand, so make sure you and your dog get your stories straight before testifying.

The Thin Blue Strike Zone at the Idiot-Ball Batting Cage

Always remember that professional investigators will be stunningly unprepared to help with any investigation you find yourself in. No one knows why the real detectives in your home town are so incompetent, or how they manage to keep their jobs when no one can remember them ever actually solving a case. And yet, if you ever point this out while trying to get them to listen to you, it’ll be you that’s the asshole.

Yeah, life isn’t fair.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview with Ron Jockman

Ron Jockman. He’s a writer, painter, genius, and 20/20 visionary.

I recently visited Ron in the Southeast African home he built with his own hands and filled with his own watercolor landscape paintings, and asked him a few questions about the Rockman Chronicles.

ROBYN: First of all, Ron, thank you for allowing me to visit you in your Southeast African home that you built with your own hands and filled with your own watercolor landscape paintings, and thank you for letting me ask you a few questions about the Rockman Chronicles.

JOCKMAN: It’s my pleasure.

ROBYN: The first book in the Rockman Chronicles is clearly the finest work in English literature. The second book is tied for finest, but it’s also the book with the most heart. What does its heart look like?

JOCKMAN: I’ve been asked this one a lot. I always tell people it would be an exact replica of a Tyrannosaurus heart. Those animals are fierce mothers, and like the Tyrannosaurus, I’m very protective of my babies — my books.

ROBYN: Are any of your characters based on people you know? For example, I’ve always wondered if John Rockman is based on your mother.

JOCKMAN: Imagine if my mother and I had a baby; I think that would be pretty close to John Rockman’s epicenter. My mother has done a lot to raise me into a good human. Of course as I spread my metaphorical wings, I take what I’ve learned and apply it to my work. As it stands currently, I embody all that John Rockman stands for. It’s so easy to write for a character like that, because it’s not a far stretch. A character like Maria, for instance, was a little more of a challenge. I haven’t had much contact with women outside of my mother, which is very insightful in itself. I’ve done research at the public library, and I have developed a sixth sense about the female brain. I feel like, as I write more of females in my books, I fulfill any annoying human need to procreate. My mom sometimes says Maria’s my girlfriend. [chuckles] I don’t know about that...

ROBYN: Just how frustrating is it, to be infinitely smarter and more competent than those around you?

JOCKMAN: I find that it’s not really frustrating at all. For instance, I know that, just by looking at you, I’m much smarter than you. I’m the one that’s going to sleep easy tonight. You’re the one that has to live with that, you know?

ROBYN: We see a more vulnerable, damaged, man-kissing side of John Rockman in Cosmic Brain. Did you have to practice being vulnerable, damaged, and man-kissy as research for the book?

JOCKMAN: I am a staunch supporter of equal rights in sexual preference. That being said, I would never, ever kiss a man. I do like to raise awareness of sexually transmitted diseases and their effects on society in my work. You’ll see that in The Cosmic Brain of Corruption. It’s literally oozing out of every orifice, burning with meaning and thought provoking secretion.

ROBYN: Who will play John Rockman in the inevitable movie version of the Rockman chronicles?

JOCKMAN: As I’m sure you’re well aware, Robyn, I create ‘Mind Movie Masterpieces,’ as I call them. There is nothing more powerful than the imagination of a creative person. Unfortunately, not all my readers are creative types, which is fine. It’s my job as the creator to paint a scene, a character, a story so well, that my readers can see a glimpse of what I experience every day. You can’t create a big Hollywood movie that will paint a better masterpiece than that. There is no budget out there that can remotely come close to the scale and intricacy of The Rockman Chronicles. There are no actors alive or dead that could be John Rockman, to the extent that I would believe it. Probably Jon Hamm.

ROBYN: I noticed, reading John Rockman and the Cosmic Brain of Corruption, that many supposedly great writers have stolen your ideas before you even published them. Just thinking about it makes me red with sympathy rage. How are you planning to take your revenge?

JOCKMAN: I often say, ‘revenge is a dish best served warm’. I can tell you don’t understand... let me explain. By dish, I don’t mean just a plate — I mean the dish has food on it and the food is warm. Good food. Who wants to eat a cold meal on a plate? No one. Not even my enemies. That way they eat the poison I put in it. Next question.

ROBYN: If you were to become a scientist, which field would your Nobel Prizes be in?

JOCKMAN: That’s a good question. What’s your next one?

ROBYN: Do you ever feel like you’ve gone too far, written something too amazing for today’s readers? If so, how do you deal with that?

JOCKMAN: Once I went too far. I was lost in my own head for days. The only way I got out of that cavernous expanse of wonder and danger was following the call of my mother’s voice. She called to me that dinner was ready and I finally snapped out of my mind-prison. I was on my floor, naked, cold, and shivering. Next to me was a single sheet of paper and written upon it was something so deep, so perceptive, so clever, that I had to destroy it and wipe my memory of its contents. Then I went downstairs and had mac’n’cheese.

ROBYN: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would write books that are printed on murdered trees?

JOCKMAN: I don’t believe in paper. That’s why I make eBooks. Trees are nature’s people and we need to respect them. Though, my books will be available in print edition soon, as per fan request.

ROBYN: These alleged twin brothers I’ve heard of, Justin and Mitchell Lucas, what is their pitiful role in the great Ron Jockman empire?

JOCKMAN: This interview is over.

*  *  *

Ron Jockman's latest book, John Rockman and the Cosmic Brain of Corruption, is available now from Amazon.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: John Rockman and the Cosmic Brain of Corruption

You may remember Ron Jockman (fictional) as the author of the outstanding (but also fictional) John Rockman and the Trials of Galactar. Ron is the creation of brothers Justin and Mitchell Lucas, who decided to one-up the entire parody genre by parodying not just bad books, but the bad authors who write them. In their words, Ron is, “socially inept, selfish, misogynistic, opinionated, and an awful writer.” His id is a tangled yarn-ball of insecurity and pretentiousness, forever pawed at by the drunken kitten of his ego.

And now he’s back with the second book in the Rockman trilogy, John Rockman and the Cosmic Brain of Corruption. But does Cosmic Brain match the awkward hilarity of Trials of Galactar?

In four words: yes it does… buddy. Cosmic Brain is a witty, observant parody, filled with the same brilliantly bad writing you loved in the previous book.

          Rockman was fifty percent resolve and fifty percent more resolve. He awaited some very personal information from his troubled companion. He was also ten percent sternness.

This time around, Rockman teams up with Niah, a brilliant cyborg cyberneticist whom Rockman is in no way sexually attracted to, even though Niah’s the exact sort of man Rockman would be attracted to, if he was attracted to men (which he certainly isn’t.)  Together, they battle space-chameleons, face their personal space-demons, and are forced—by circumstance alone—to space-kiss each other.

Working against them are a rogue’s gallery of roguish rogues, who do all kinds of roguish things to demonstrate how roguey and undefeatable they are. And then, of course, they get defeated by Rockman. There’s always a bigger fish, you see, and if Rockman was a fish, that fish would be Rockman.

          Rockman was right next to his ear. He whispered into that ear. “You were trained well, but your training is outdated. Always keep up on the things that interest you. Never stop learning.” With that, Rockman sliced Davitt into two equal pieces.

The Lucases’ love of science fiction is clear from their extensive knowledge of bad-author tropes, but Cosmic Brain is not an affectionate parody. Unlike typical science fiction parodies, most of which come from a place of love, Cosmic Brain comes from a place of unrepentant mockery, which I have named Mockghanistan.

If you remember, my one big complaint with Trials of Galactar was that it got a bit mired in Mockghanistan. I wouldn’t say the mire quagged, but there was indeed mire, if only because too much sarcasm becomes wearying. Cosmic Brain, on the other hand, is a much smoother read. I believe this is because Ron Jockman’s various authorial tics are blended and spaced more evenly in this book. Parts of Trials of Galactar felt like an unrelenting onslaught of goofy science, thesaurus-porn, or Rockman-worship. Cosmic Brain mixes up its comedic elements to better effect, giving the reader a rest from one while indulging another.

          Rockman felt like that hook right about then. He felt like a flimsy hook that couldn’t do its job. Rockman didn’t believe in himself anymore and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep himself and the General alive. Also, like these hooks, he was holding onto something heavy: guilt of so many dead lives he couldn’t save. It was pulling at him.
          “Well, there is another way to get back to Wret’s ship…” the General whispered. Rockman spun to General Steven. “What is it?! We need to hurry!” Just then a bang and a slam signified something big was heading down the hall towards the kitchen.
          Rockman was hooked on surviving, so since he was still holding the General by the sweaty-firm hand, he pulled him behind a cabinet that was next to a counter the entire time. He smirked at the hook pun a little bit, even though, overall, the hook analogy was more bad than good.

I can heartily recommend John Rockman and the Cosmic Brain of Corruption. If you enjoy a good parody, science fiction or otherwise, I think you’ll find it fresh and funny. Cosmic Brain follows the events of Trials of Galactar, but stands well enough on its own, so the books can be enjoyed out of order.

*  *  *

John Rockman and the Cosmic Brain of Corruption is available in e-book format from Amazon for $2.99. The first book of the trilogy, John Rockman and the Trials of Galactar, is also available from Amazon, at the same price. Sample chapters can be found at those links, and either book can be borrowed for free if you’re an Amazon Prime member.

As always, I receive no holo-commissions or space-kickbacks when you follow those links.

Tomorrow, I have a special treat for you. I’ll be interviewing Ron Jockman himself, live on this blog. Except that it won’t be live and he’s not a real person. Nevertheless, I’m as excited as a Worfen-Torf in Slorfing season.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Proterozoic Eon, Part 4

It's now 2.1 billion years ago, in the Rhyacian Period of the Proterozoic Eon, and the planet is finally thawing out from the 300 million year ice age triggered by those cyanobacterial bastards.

Things are getting back to normal, here in Toronto. I mean, the land is still a barren desert, devoid of life except for those desert crusts we saw earlier, but at least the coasts are regaining a bit of their sparkle. Let’s take a walk along the beach, shall we?

We can see that the algal mats are back, albeit as a cyanobacteria monoculture and not the beautiful, multicolored ecosystems we saw when we first got here. Ah, but what happens when we look at a water droplet under the cartoon microscope?

Eukaryotes vs Prokaryotes

With the cartoon microscope (which has lower resolution but better clarity than the regular microscope,) we can see that an incredible development has occurred, probably sometime within the past 400 million years. The cell on the right is a prokaryote. These have been around since before we got to the Proterozoic Eon. The cyanobacteria in those algal mats are all prokaryotes.

But the cell on the left is something new. It's a eukaryote, a more complex cell that's larger, with internal structures (called organelles) specialized to particular tasks. You may be tempted to think of them as more evolved than the prokaryotes, but that's your own eukaryotic biases talking. In this time, the eukaryote is nothing but a curious niche organism. Its complexity and size slows down its reproduction cycle, leaving it unable to keep up with the sleeker, more efficiently growing prokaryotes. And all those specialized organelles? No doubt they can be an advantage, but they're also something else that can go wrong. Consequently, these new eukaryotes are more sensitive to heat, cold, and dessication, meaning they can't live in many of the harsh environments that prokaryotes are fine with. So you won't be seeing any eukaryotes colonizing the land, like prokaryotes have. Not for a very long time.

It may seem strange that these, our ancestors, don't hold a special place on planet Earth, but that's just not how evolution works. Evolution isn't striving for complexity. Rather, complexity is more like a byproduct produced as life gropes into unfilled niches.

In the long, long history of life on Earth, complexity has been punished more often than it's been rewarded. Even in modern times, in the golden age of eukaryotes, simple prokaryotic life is far more prevalent than eukaryotes. Prokayrotes may not be as flashy as eukaryotes, but you don't have to go far to find them. Take a close look at your own body, and you'll find a hundred trillion bacteria living in and on it. That's ten times the number of your own eukaryotic cells. So, even inside our own skins, we're still a niche organism.

But these eukaryotes, back here in the Proterozoic? These eukaryotes are gonna make it. They're going to survive—somehow or other—and evolve into even more specialized forms, and their descendants will in turn branch out to become every plant, animal, and fungus on modern-day Earth.

As we place them back into the water—very, very carefully, mind you—we notice strange formations dotting the bacterial mat below the surface. What the hell are those things?

Possible Proterozoic multicellular life

No, they're not the rude artistic endeavors of the cyanobacteria, although that would fit right into the usual habits of those little bastards. These are collections of cells that seem to be forming a sort of multicellular structure. They may be prokaryote or eukaryote. We're not sure, and we can't check, because the cartoon microscope's batteries are dead.

Now, communal living isn't exactly unknown here. The bacterial mats are communities of cells. If not for those pesky eukaryote biases, we might even consider the mats a multicelluar organism. The bacteria in them do exhibit a kind of ad-hoc specialization, exchanging chemical signals and altering their habits to better support the mat. But they can't form the sort of complex structures that eukaryotic cells are uniquely capable of.

But if these formations are made of eukaryotes, and if they're purposefully growing into those complex structure, that would make them the first organized multicellular structures to appear on Earth1. In the modern era, there's hot debate on the subject. We could have settled the matter right here and now, of course, if you'd only remembered to turn the lamp off on the cartoon microscope.

Nice one.

Well, that's the most interesting thing that’s going to happen around here for a while, so maybe we should get back to that Monopoly tournament.

Four monopoly boards

Okay, after four more games of Monopoly, we've wiled away 400 million years. It's now 1.9 to 1.8 billion years ago and something interesting is finally about to happen. You might want to cover your ears.

You hear that deafening shockwave, and feel that wave of superheated air that’s vaporizing your skin? Yeah, that’s the Sudbury Basin impact event. It’s a meteor that just hit Ontario, making an impact crater over a hundred and fifty miles across. That’s bigger than the crater made by the meteor that will finish off the dinosaurs in a couple billion years. The Sudbury impact rivals even the largest impact in the geological record, which occurred in what will become Africa while we were playing Monopoly. Remember the ash cloud that choked out the sun for a thousand years while you were busy buying up Baltic Avenue? Yeah, that was what that was.

So, yeah. You should definitely put some aloe on that.

This impact occurred so far back that we can't easily estimate the damage it caused to life on Earth, the way we can with later impacts. We don't know how many species it wiped out, and we're not likely to resolve the matter now, since our flesh has been incinerated and our bones buried beneath layers of ash, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say this impact was nasty. It probably killed the majority of organisms on Earth, and caused the extinction of uncountable species.

So, more Monopoly?

Over our next few games, the archipelagos in the Proterozoic sea are going to drift together. The tectonic plate that we’re buried in will run into a bunch of others, and they’ll fuse together along the margins to form one giant plate called Laurentia, or the North American plate. This isn’t just normal continental drift, mind you. Continental plates bounce off each other all the time. This is the formation of a new, much bigger plate, and it will stick together until the modern era. Most of the big continental plates we have today, in fact, will be fusing together from smaller plates within the next few hundred million years. Then all those plates will come together (without permanently fusing) to form a supercontinent called variously Columbia, Nuna, or Hudsonland.

You can watch it all happen here.

But, much like The Eagles, the supercontinent Columbia is going to split up again over our next few games of Monopoly.

Now it’s 1.2 billion years ago, and sex has just been invented.


Well, saying sex has just been invented is a little conceited. Bacteria have been having sex for a long time, probably from the very beginning. But they don’t do it the same way we do. They just kind of shoot genes at each other, and if they’re good genes, they tend to stick around. The kind of sex that involves gametes coming together to make a third distinct organism, the kind of sex you’re most likely to regret, is what’s just been invented.

Well, actually there’s a caveat there, too. Because we don’t know if they just now invented it, but this is the earliest we’ve noticed it in the fossil record. And here it is:

First Known Sex

Wait, I don’t think that’s right. Here are the actual pictures of the first known evidence of sex:

Sexy, Sexy Eukaryotes invent sex
From: Butterfield. Bangiomorpha pubescens n. gen., n. sp.: implications
for the evolution of sex, multicellularity, and the Mesoproterozoic/
Neoproterozoic radiation of eukaryotes. Paleobiology v. 26 no. 3 p. 386-404.

Wow, that’s hot. I’m surprised we didn’t have to blur those photographs of primordial sex organs.

Sex is a big deal. Without sex, even multicellular organisms can really only clone themselves, budding off little packets of cells to float away and form a genetically identical organism somewhere else. But with sex, you can blend your genes with someone else’s—preferably someone cool. No, really. That really is one of the primary advantages of sexual reproduction: you can pick someone with awesome genes, which will help carry the slack of your crappy genes. And, while these early multicelled eukaryotes couldn’t exactly pick and choose their partners—it was pretty much down to whoever’s gametes happened to float past—they at least got a partner who was a proven survivor.

Are proterozoic lifeforms ready for sex, though? Or will this entire eon turn into one big cautionary tale? We'll find out next time...


If you liked this article, check out the other Proterozoic and general science articles at our handy Archives.

Citations and References
  1. El Albani, et al. Large Colonial Organisms with Coordinated Growth in Oxygenated Environments 2.1 Gry ago. Nature 466, 100-104 (01 July 2010)