Movie Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu

So, what do you get if you mash together Pokémon, Dr. Dolittle, and a buddy cop film? You get what is probably one of the most ridiculous premises for a movie I’ve ever seen. (For a theatrical release, anyway; Syfy B-movies get way worse.) When I first saw the title, Detective Pikachu (or technically Pokémon Detective Pikachu; it’s an anime thing), I thought it was insane.

Then, I saw the trailer, and it actually looked good.

Of course, trailers lie all the time, and a good trailer can still mean a really bad movie.

But then the reviews were good, too.

I was never into Pokémon as a kid—didn’t play the game, didn’t trade the cards. I saw a few episodes of the cartoon in passing, but even then, most of my knowledge of the franchise comes from Generation I. I don’t play Pokémon Go, either. But this movie looked so crazy that I just had to see it, and…

It was decent. I had fun with it, but the biggest failing of this movie is that it took me at least halfway through to be sold on it. If it hadn’t, I would have rated it higher, but even so, it’s still worth seeing.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5.

So, what’s going on here? Tim Goodman is a small-town kid who is a failed Pokémon trainer (a social stigma in the Pokémon world). He learns that his father, Harry, a famous detective, has been killed in a car crash. So, he goes to his father’s apartment in Ryme City, where he meets a talking Pikachu (Pokémon are animals and are not supposed to be able to talk) who insists Harry is still alive despite not remembering what happened, and they head off to try to find him.

My first problem with the movie was that the first half hour felt too video gamey. By that I mean the pacing felt like video game-style exposition. I’m not sure if I can really define that. A little too clean-cut, maybe—jumping straight between conversations that are clearly meant to do nothing but establish the facts the viewer needs to know about the characters and the story. And I know that sounds like something good stories are supposed to do, and it is, but there was just something that felt perfunctory about it.

The movie picks up from there, though, even though it seems a little too easy for Tim and Pikachu to find out what they need to know. My biggest problem was that they didn’t explore the ideas at all as well as they could have. The Torterra garden, for example. They could have done a lot more with that. In fact, there should have been some more consequences to that scene, but they pretty much just sit there. They do one thing that’s important to the plot that could have been done more easily by the Greninja fight and would have left more time for sleuthing.

Basically, so-so screenwriting. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t live up to its zany premise. Tim couldn’t even talk to other Pokémon besides Pikachu, although this was already implied by the trailers and makes sense in retrospect. Maybe it’s because I’m not really a Pokémon fan, but that’s my take on it.

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The Phylogeny Explorer Project

I wrote before about Aron Ra because of his debate with Creationist Kent Hovind. Ra is well know in these admittedly limited circles as a militant atheist and a staunch defender of evolution, but perhaps less well-known is that he is also an amateur scientist. (And despite what Hovind would tell you, amateur does not imply a lack of credibility. He definitely knows what he’s talking about.)

Aron Ra’s main project is something called the Phylogeny Explorer Project. As he describes it, “it is an attempt to render the entire taxonomic tree of life as a navigable, online encyclopedia.” In other words, he wants to put the evolutionary tree of all known species on one easy-to-use website. That website recently went live at, and f you’re interested in biology or evolution or even just dinosaurs or something, you should really check it out.

So what am I talking about, exactly? Most explanations of evolution will usually go into this at least a little. Simply put, the tree of life is usually shown as something like an actual tree, like this:

And the idea goes all the way back to Darwin, who in 1837 sketched this representation:

But to meet Ra’s goal of including every species we know would mean a tree with literally millions of branches. How is he doing it? With a continuous, navigable tree that you can select any section of and how deep you want to go in it, and it looks like this:

This is the base tree for animals. It might not look like much, but when you navigate through it, you can see how much is going on here.

Ra has been working on this project for ten years. He began it when he discovered that there was no website of this type that really did it right. Other such projects exist, but many of them only include living species, not fossils. Many are unwieldy and hard to use or modify. Only one was scientifically peer-reviewed: the University of Arizona’s Tree of Life Web Project, but it ran out of funding ten years ago, and much of it badly outdated and doesn’t include modern genetic studies at all.

The Phylogeny Explorer Project is an attempt to fill this gap in the literature and media. It’s not peer-reviewed yet either, but it is based on scientific papers. And already, it is by far the most complete and the best-researched digital tree of life in the world, and it was designed specifically to be free and open, volunteer-run, and with enough funding and infrastructure to make it sustainable indefinitely. They’re still a ways from doing all of that, but they’ve already surpassed all other projects of this sort that have been attempted.

Ra has been working on this so hard because he believes that taxonomy—the study of evolutionary relationships and the evolutionary tree—is the best evidence for evolution because it lays it out so clearly. But he also believes that this is a valuable tool for scientists, educators, and laypeople alike, and I have to agree with him. I know I’ve wanted a tool like this since I was in elementary school, and I had to settle for encyclopedia articles, the Tree of Life Project, and later Wikipedia’s extensive, but contradictory cladograms. The Phylogeny Explorer Project is something that’s been needed for a long time, and I’m very excited to finally see it in action.

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Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame

Eleven years. Twenty-two movies. Forty-eight hours of films alone, plus TV and online series. And it all ends with the three-hour epic conclusion of the Avengers Saga, Avengers: Endgame. (At least until Phase Four starts.)

You know what, I’m going to say it right now. This was the best Marvel movie ever. Any series. And maybe that’s because it’s standing on the shoulders of the emotional weight of Infinity War and even the entire MCU. It doesn’t matter. This was the best.

My rating: 5 out of 5, And for once, I wish the scale went higher.

Oh, and I’ll save you the trouble: there is no extra scene during or after the credits. Though stick around if you want to hear the audience gasp in incredulity.

So, this is without a doubt the movie event of the year—nay, of the past four years. I think the only more highly anticipated movies of this decade were Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. For all the hype that Infinity War had, and deservedly so, Avengers: Endgame has it beat. Early estimates said it could become the highest-grossing film of all time, beating out Avatar. (That’s right. No Marvel movie including Infinity War has beat out Avatar or even Titanic yet. It’s time to unseat James Cameron from the top two spots.)

Alright, now for the serious stuff. If you’ll recall, in Infinity War, Thanos straight-up won, wiping out half the sentient beings in the universe because apparently no one told him demographic transitions are a thing. Doctor Strange said that this was this only way to beat him in the end, but even Iron Man didn’t know how to do it. Plus, Iron Man was stranded on a dead planet, and over half of the Avengers are dead. Ant-Man is trapped in the Quantum Realm, and Nick Fury called Captain Marvel before he disintegrated, but even with them, it’s going to be hard to beat the man with the fully-powered Infinity Gauntlet.

But Spider-Man has another movie coming up in three months, and Black Panther is far too lucrative to stay dead, so they’re going to have to pull it off somehow, or Marvel is sunk. Yeah, I think this story deserves three hours to tell it.

I think there are three particular reasons why this movie is the best though…

 MASSIVE spoilers below! You have been warned!

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The Evolution Debate: What is Evolution?

Previous post in this series: Why are there still monkeys?

I wrote before about one of the problems with the creation v. evolution debate being PRATTs, or “Points Refuted a Thousand Times.” In that post, I explained why “If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” is fallacious in a different way than you’ll usually hear, exploring in-depth exactly what different “kinds” of animals (including monkeys) means. I wanted to continue that discussion with some other common PRATTs. This time, I want to address the following:

“Evolution says we came from nothing.” OR “Evolution says we came from a rock.” Or for that matter, “Evolution says [anything that is not related to biology.]”

I want to get this one out of the way first because it’s another matter of definitions. It’s not exactly a PRATT—a purported argument against evolution that is easily refuted. It’s more of an argument from incredulity. (“This seems unbelievable; therefore it is false.”) In practice, it seems to be used more as a rhetorical device to ridicule evolutionists for believing supposedly ridiculous things, than it is for actual evidence, but the idea is the same.

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What Should Happen in Star Wars Episode IX?

Well, the first teaser trailer has dropped for Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.

I can react a little to the trailer itself, but we don’t really know much yet. (That’s kind of the point of a teaser.) It looks like Rey is fighting Kylo Ren, Lando is back, and they’re going to visit the wreck of one of the Death Stars, but that’s about it. The big question is, “Who or what is Skywalker?” If Rey a Skywalker after all? Will Kylo take on the mantle Skywalker? Will Luke become the Ghost King of the Galaxy? I feel like maybe it was originally meant to be Leia, but without Carrie Fisher, that wouldn’t work so well.

One popular theory is that Rey will officially end the Jedi order and start a new Skywalker Order that will hopefully have some more sense than the Jedi. Personally, I hope this is what they do. You may disagree with me, but I liked the way they wrote off Rey’s family and made the Force more inclusive in The Last Jedi, and this would be a fitting continuation of that. (For the record, I do not approve of Snoke being a nobody. Totally different situation.) And if they hadn’t switched directors and been under a lot of pressure to backtrack from The Last Jedi, I’d believe it, but…I have a bad feel about this. With J. J. Abrams (whom I generally like) back in the driver’s seat, I have a feeling it’s going to be a more traditional Chosen One thing.

And also, what’s with the Emperor cackling at the end? Are we going to be stuck fighting a Ghost Emperor? Or…they are going to visit the Death Star, and oh no, we never actually saw a body, did we? This is the same comic booky nonsense that made the old Expanded Universe (now called Legends) so unwieldy. (In fact, they actually did clone the Emperor in literal comic books.) If the Emperor comes back, I’m with Rian Johnson on this one: “Let the past die.”

And that brings me to what I really wanted to talk about. What do I think should happen in Episode IX? Or rather, what would be best for the franchise as a whole? My opinion is that even if Episode IX “fixes” Star Wars in the eyes of the fans, I’m not so sure it would be the best thing for it.

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A Photo of a Black Hole: What’s Next?

I mentioned at the beginning of the year that I never really know what to do about blogging about science news. I don’t really know what to say that hasn’t already been in all the news articles. This week’s first ever photo of a black hole has been a perfect example of that. It’s been really big news for a science story, which I find very encouraging. But that also means it’s that much harder to figure out what to say that isn’t in the news articles. Worse yet, I haven’t actually been paying attention to the news articles because I watched the science press conference on Wednesday, which covered it better. And finally, I’m discovering with this story that I often don’t have time to move quickly enough to put out a blog post in the current news cycle.

So basically, I’m still trying to find my niche with this stuff. I’m not sure where that’s going in general, but I had an idea for this particular story. I want to pivot away from the big news of the first photo of a black hole because if you’re interested enough to be reading this, you probably know all about it already. Instead, I want to turn to something you might not have heard about: what’s coming next. (Some articles have addressed this too, but I think I have more to say on this point.) Because even though they took this photo with a virtual radio telescope as big as the Earth, there’s still room to improve it.

There are actually four different ways to improve upon the technique used to take this image, all of which NASA scientists are planning on using. This means that in a year or two, we could have a significantly better picture of a black hole, and a few years after that, we could have a much better one. Let’s go through them.

1. Observe at a shorter wavelength.

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which took the photo, is a super-array of eight radio telescope arrays in six locations that create a virtual mirror across the Earth. Each of these telescopes can observe at a wide range of wavelengths. The M87 black hole was specifically imaged in extremely high frequency radio waves with a wavelength of 1.3 millimeters. (That’s about 231 GHz.) Now that they know it works, the researchers want to observe at a shorter wavelength of 0.87 millimeters. The sharpness of the image is inversely proportional to the wavelength, so this would make it 50% sharper. That’s a pretty good improvement by itself.

2. Build more radio telescopes.

The EHT has already added another telescope to its network, in Greenland, which will produce an even longer baseline (the maximum distance between telescopes) and give them an even larger virtual mirror. It’s only about 10%, but for interferometry techniques like this, it’s not just size that matters. The fidelity of the image—the accuracy and suppression of distortion—increases with the number of observing sites squared. Increasing from their previous six observing sites to seven means a 36% increase in image fidelity.

3. Put a radio telescope in spaaaace!

Need a bigger virtual mirror, but you’re all out of room on Earth? Just put a telescope in orbit. Not only would a space telescope give you a longer baseline for higher image resolution, but it could observe over its entire orbit, sweeping out a much bigger section of the virtual mirror and giving much higher image fidelity. And I don’t just mean low Earth orbit, either. Putting a telescope in a geostationary orbit would be four times better.

4. Look at other black holes.

Okay, this won’t exactly give us a better picture, but we might by chance find one that’s more photogenic. There are other black holes that the EHT can observe. The black hole in the center of our own galaxy, Sagittarius A*, is much smaller than M87, but it’s also much closer (by about the same amount, in fact), so it should look a little bigger. The EHT has already looked at Sgr A*, but unfortunately, being smaller means it also changes faster, making it harder to get a clear picture, because they take a long time to make. Still, expect to see this one in the next couple years.

Are there other black holes to look at? Well, M87 and Sgr A* are by far the best, but check out this paper, which lists nearby black holes by their apparent size in the sky. M87 is 42 microarcseconds wide, somewhat larger than expected, but Sgr A* is bigger still, at 53 microarcseconds. The next biggest black hole is the one in the Andromeda Galaxy at 19 microarcseconds. The Event Horizon telescope should just barely be able to manage that, but with that space-based telescope I mentioned, it’ll be easy, and there should be half a dozen more black holes that are observable. With a sample size of nine instead of one or two, we should be able to learn a lot more about black holes and the environments around them.

All of these developments are definitely or probably coming in the next few years, so I’m excited to see what new things we learn about the universe from them.

Posted in astronomy, Current events, Space | Tagged , , ,

Movie Review: Shazam!

This week, we saw the big screen debut of one of the less famous heroes in the comic book pantheon…Captain Marvel.

Wait, what? Well, okay, the name of the movie is Shazam! (exclamation point included), and Shazam is also the name of the comic book character, although it’s only vaguely referred to as such in the movie. However, the original name of the character, before Marvel Comics even existed, was Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel was the headline superhero of Fawcett Comics in the 1940s and at the time was even more popular than Superman. (Times sure have changed, haven’t they?) But DC Comics sued Fawcett over Captain Marvel being too similar to Superman, and the series was cancelled in 1953. DC later bought Fawcett and resurrected the character, but by then, Marvel Comics was around with their own Captain Marvel (who was also kind of a Superman knock-off), and they sued DC, forcing DC to change the title of the series to the word Billy Batson shouts to turn into Captain Marvel: “Shazam!” (The character’s name was changed too in 2011.)

I personally vaguely remembered Shazam as a short-lived 80s cartoon that I saw in reruns once in a while as a kid. But now, as part of DC’s push to compete with Marvel, he’s been updated for the big screen, and for once, they nailed it. Shazam! is easily as good as Wonder Woman, if not better.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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