Alexa, open the pod bay doors; or how I learned to stop worrying and hack the wiretap in my home.

Confession: I have an Amazon Echo. I really like Amazon Echo. I use Amazon Echo almost every day.

Everything about the Amazon Echo is great, except for the primary feature of the Amazon Echo: it is always listening. When I received the Echo nearly five years ago, as a gift, Amazon was not quite the Surveillance Capitalism behemoth that it is now. They packaged their new smart speaker with lots of information about privacy and what Echo can and can’t and won’t do.

Of course, none of that turned out to be true. In just the last year, Echos have been turned into permanent recording devices, listened to a couple’s conversations and then inexplicably sent those conversations to the husband’s employer, and sent 1,700 voice recordings to a totally random stranger. Amazon hasn’t exactly done much to help the image of Echos as Bradburian household horrors, unveiling an Echo Dot for Kids, filling patents for true always-on recording, releasing recordings to outside contractors, and, perhaps most egregious of all, embedding Alexa into a Big Mouth Billy Bass.

It’s reached the point where no one should feel comfortable having an always-on speaker in their home, but damn if these little things aren’t just so convenient. On top of being useful for quick searches, playing Baby Shark on repeat 40 times, checking the weather, and dozens of other little things, the original Echo was a really good speaker. It seems a waste to throw the whole thing away just because one feature is unacceptable.

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The Science of Aquaman: The Complete Anthology

We have written a lot about Aquaman over the last 10 years. With our favorite ocean master is finally getting his big screen debut, we’ve collected everything Aquaman and Southern Fried Science in one place. Enjoy!

It’s the Aquaman Trailer!

First, the brutal takedown that started it all and its follow-ups:

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Shark Week 2018 overall thoughts and episode reviews

The 30th anniversary of Shark Week was the biggest ever, with 22 episodes. It was, as usual, a bit of a mixed bag, though nothing was anywhere near as bad as the bad old days of Megalodon, and there was some pretty good stuff. As has become tradition here at Southern Fried Science, here are some overall thoughts on this year’s Shark Week, as well as reviews for each episode (not counting the clip shows, which I didn’t watch- even I have limits).

Overall thoughts:

  • I heard more references to shark conservation this year, though almost exclusively offhand references to how the Bahamas is a Shark Sanctuary (there was one mention of shark fin trade bans in the Shark Tank show).
  • There were more women scientists and non-white scientists than I can remember, but still some major issues with diversity of scientists. (The white male scientists were still treated differently, including being given their full titles, and in one case a white male with a Masters was called Dr. while a woman with a Ph.D. was not called Dr.).
  • 22 shows is too many shows. I may be the only one in the world who actually tried to watch them all and I had to skip the clip shows because even I have limits.

Rather than organizing episode reviews in chronological order or air date, this year I’m going to organize them by theme.

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Everything you need to know about conservation you can learn from Alien(s)

As a provider of advice on how to do effective conservation, Southern Fried Science has previously looked to such as The Game of Thrones for inspiration. Today we look at another famous source of conservation tips: Alien (and Aliens)…

A single charismatic animal can be a great motivator for action.

Jones the cat

Scientists sometimes have self interests that can derail a project.

Science officer Ash

Just when you think everything is going ok a crisis hits…

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A scene-by-scene breakdown of the first trailer of “The Meg”

Yesterday, the trailer for “the Meg” was released online.  This movie is based on a popular book series that claims that megalodon is actually not extinct, just hiding. (I’m in the 4th book).

I have a love-hate relationship with movies like this, by which I mean that I love them and I hate myself for loving them. While movies like “Jaws” had a measurable negative effect on public perception of sharks, I don’t believe that more obviously ridiculous movies like SharkNado have a similar effect.  Jason Statham playing a marine biologist in a movie that includes Rainn Wilson? Sign me up.

If not for the people who believe that these movies are real and therefore decide to yell at marine biologists on twitter about it, I’d be all for this.  Let’s be totally clear here- Carcharocles megalodon is extinct, and here’s how we know. Shark Week lied to you about it. Actresses from this movie asking about it are not experts. This movie is completely fictional. You can certainly watch it and enjoy it, but please don’t cite it as evidence that a 50 foot long whale-eating shark that used to live in shallow coastal waters near what are now populated areas is not extinct.

Anyway, here is a scene-by scene breakdown of what’s in the first trailer. From it, we can tell that this is an action-packed movie with a great cast that does not stick too closely to the books, and is also not particularly interested in scientific accuracy even with respect to issues unrelated to the “giant extinct animals are actually not extinct”central conceit.

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Seven ways the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could stop runaway climate change.

One of the big ironies of superhero comics and movies is that these beings of immense power, though committed to saving the world, do so by punching things pretty hard. Even when far more obvious solutions to world shaking challenges are presented, the question is not “what will do the most good for the most people” but “can I punch at it really, really hard?” Superman could have done far more for his adoptive home world if he used his limitless strength to turn a crank on an alternator.

Weinersmith knows what’s up.

Heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe don’t fair much better. While off avenging, sorcering, and civil warring, they’ve managed to overlook some fairly self-evident solutions to the most pressing global crisis of our time. So how could Earth’s Mightiest Heroes bring an end to runaway climate change?

1. Tony Stark creates unlimited free energy.

We can get the obvious one out of the way, first. Stark’s Arc Reactor is, for all intents and purposes, a free energy machine. Miniaturization means Arc Reactors could be used to power anything, from cars to aircraft carriers to entire cities. Switching the world’s power grid and transportation network to Arc tech would result in an immediate reduction in CO2 emissions and halt the accumulating damage of continuous energy growth as demand for technology increases around the world.

Ok, that’s the obvious one that has to be mentioned in order to avoid insufferable Twitter comments. Now on the the good stuff.

2. Use Pym Particles to sequester CO2 in the Quantum Realm. 

Pym Particles are particles that “shrink the spaces between atoms” allowing an object bombarded with these particles to shrink continuously while maintaining its mass, unless it’s a tank on a key-chain, for some reason. Comic books are ridiculous, ok?

Unfortunately, the shrinking power of Pym Particles is limitless, and once an object shrinks to the point where it’s smaller than an atom, somehow, it enters the Quantum Realm, where the laws of Newtonian physics no longer apply, time is meaningless, and you can never escape (except when you can). Shrink into the Quantum Realm and you shrink forever. That really seems like the ideal place to sequester CO2 , doesn’t it?

The big problem with carbon sequestration is that it’s not always a permanent solution. Sequestered CO2 in trees is only sequestered so long as no one cuts those trees down and burns them. The carbon is still out there in the world, waiting to be re-mobilized into the environment. But! If we could sequester carbon by bombarding it with Pym Particles and sending it to the Quantum Realm, it would shrink forever, permanently locked away in a world of very poorly interpreted quantum physics. That seems safe.

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Shiver me whiskers! What would it cost to fund the Octonauts’ undersea adventures?

Octonauts live in the sea. Hardware’s their specialty. While ocean grants are a struggle… their source of funding, it really is a puzzle!

Explore! Rescue! Protect! The Octonauts have an ambitious undersea mission and an equally ambitious fleet of marine vehicles. How they pay for it is a mystery. Are they backed by the federal government? The UN? Is Professor Inkling financing this venture by selling genetically engineered vegetable-fish hybrids? Is a billionaire film-maker backing the venture? One thing’s for certain, an Octonaut-level research program does not come cheap. So how much does this operation actually cost?

Actuaries! To your stations!

The Octopod

With 4 housing/laboratory units and a central command bay, the Octopod would be the largest and most sophisticated underwater research station ever operated. There’s nothing in the marine research world the even comes close. Aquarius Reef Base is currently the only working undersea research laboratory. I can’t find the initial budget to build and install Reef Base, but a modern (albeit unrealized) aquatic residential habitat comes with a $10 million startup costs. Reef Base itself has a wildly variable annual budget, with a baseline around $1 million per year. The Octopod, on the other hand, has four Octo… Pods? each of which is similar in function to Reef Base (though the whole structure more closely resembles the extremely French Galathée Underwater Laboratory).

Galathée Underwater Laboratory

Galathée Underwater Laboratory

The central command bay is both the core of the Octopod and its power supply. Not much is known about where the Octopod gets its seemingly limitless power, but if the Octonauts are anything like the US Navy, there’s a nuclear reactor in the, somewhere. Meet Nerwin. NR-1 was the USA’s only nuclear-powered, deep-diving research submarine. With room for 16 crew and scientists and a multi-month endurance, Nerwin could hand both covert and scientific missions. The NR-1 was equipped with a wheeled base, allowing it to roll across the sea floor. Unfortunately, NR-1 was a strictly off-book asset for most of its life, so we don’t really know what it cost, but the initial build estimate was $58.3 million. As the military is not often known for bringing projects in under budget, that seems like a reasonable baseline. For annual operating costs, we might as well assume the upper end of Reef Base at $3 million to start. It’s almost certainly much *much* higher.

Cost to build: $98.3 million.

Annual operating cost: $7 million.

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The importance of being Aquaman, or how to save the Atlantean from his briny fate

This is an update and repost of our follow-up article on the science of Aquaman, revised and expanded. 

Aquaman has an unpleasant lunch. From New 52 Aquaman #1

Aquaman has an unpleasant lunch. From New 52 Aquaman #1 DC Comics.

Yesterday, I challenged you to consider how the greatest hero in the DC Universe would fair if forced to survive in the real world. The result was a hypothermic, brain-dead lump of jerky with brittle bones, forced to suffer through constant screams of agony even as he consumes sea life at a rate that would impress Galactus. In short, the ocean is a rough place, even for Aquaman.

But this is Southern Fried Science, and we’re not here to trash the greatest comic book hero of all time without offering some solutions, too. I went back to my comic books and my textbooks to assemble an Aquaman with a suite of evolutionary adaptations that would allow a largely humanoid organism to rule the waves, trident triumphantly raised.

Essential assumptions

Many people commented that Aquaman is not human, he is Atlantean, and thus is not bound by human limitations. This is wrong on at least two counts. First, in most iterations, Aquaman is half-human, which means that Atlanteans must be similar enough to humans, both physiologically and evolutionarily, to produce a viable hybrid. While there may be some minor differences between us and the children of Atlantis, functionally speaking, we’re the same. Second, these are not issues that plague only humans. Whales get the bends, amphibians freeze to death, fish need to regulate their internal osmolality. These are the problems inherent in being alive in the ocean, Atlantean or otherwise.

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The horrifying physiological and psychological consequences of being Aquaman

This is an update and repost of our seminal article on the science of Aquaman, revised and expanded. 

Aquaman. DC Comics.

Aquaman. DC Comics. A rational response to seal poaching is to lob a polar bear at the aggressors.

Aquaman may not be everybody’s favorite superhero, but since his creation in 1941, he has been among DC’s most enduring icons. During the Golden Age of comics, he held his own against Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Silver Age Aquaman was a founding member and eventually leader of the Justice League. His powers, tied to the ocean, forced writers to create a compelling, complex hero with explicit limitations. In the early days, when Superman’s strength was practically infinite, and Batman’s brilliance was unmatched, Aquaman had to become more than just a superhero, he had to be a person.

If Superman existed to show us how high the human spirit could fly, and Batman to show us the darkness within even our most noble, Aquaman is here to show us the world that triumphs in our absence. The ocean is not ours, and no matter how great our technology, we will never master it as we have mastered land. Aquaman has. Through this lonely ocean wanderer, we can experience a world that we can never truly command. In many ways, Aquaman was stronger than the Man of Steel and darker than the Dark Knight. He knew loneliness that the orphan and the alien exile never could.

Even though Aquaman had to fight harder, endure the jokes of other, less interesting heroes, and find relevance in an ecosystem hostile to the humans that had to empathize with him, Aquaman was never forced to confront the truly horrifying consequences of life in the ocean.

The penetrating cold

Aquaman is, for all intents and purposes, a marine mammal. With the exception of a healthy mane in later incarnations, he is effectively hairless. As a human, we would expect his internal body temperature to hover around 99°F, or about 37°C. Even at its warmest points, the surface temperature of the ocean around the equator is only about 80°F/27°C. At the poles, ocean temperature can actually drop a few degrees below freezing. In the deep sea, ambient temperature levels out around 2 to 4°C. The ocean is cold, and water is a much better thermal conductor than air. Warm blooded species have evolved many different systems to manage these gradients, including countercurrent heat exchangers, insulating fur, and heavy layers of blubber. This is what a marine mammal that can handle cold waters look like:

Elephant Seal. NSF, photo by Mike Usher

Aquaman is not just a human, he is an atypically uninsulated human. If the man has more than 2% body fat, I’d be shocked. In contrast, warm-water bottlenose dolphins have at least 18 to 20% body fat. Anyone who SCUBA dives knows that, even with a 12 millimeter neoprene wet suit, after a few hours in 80°F water, you get cold. Aquaman, lacking any visible insulation, should have slipped into hypothermia sometime early in More Fun Comics #73. He is built for the beach rather than the frigid deep.

Jason Momoa is not a man blessed with an over-abundance of “bioprene”.

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Desert island discs – the marine conservation edition

In the UK, there is a famous and long-running radio show called Desert Island Discs. On this show celebrities are asked to imagine that they are marooned on a desert island, but they have rescued 10 discs (mp3s I suppose these days…) of songs that they have rescued from their sinking ship to keep them company on the desert island.

clipart credit:

My chum – marine mammal scientist and general ocean hero – Asha De Vos recently asked for a list of key papers in marine conservation that she could pass onto students working on marine conservation issues in Sri Lanka. So I decided to write up my top ten “desert island” marine conservation papers that I think have been influential, and that all marine conservation students should read.

So after much pondering, this is my list:

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