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2.25.2009

It's getting a little dusty in here 



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2.24.2009

My content. Not yours 

Facebook users probably are familiar with the whole kerfluffle surrounding the company's attempt to update its terms of use. For whatever reasons, they decided that they wanted to retain legal rights over all content posted on their site, then were forced to back down.

Recently, I noticed that FB's notes-importing utility (which I use with this blog) stopped including external links to the original source; surely this was related to FB's desire to own all content on its site. Pretty lame. Some other annoyed FB bloggers slapped together a kludge using Yahoo Pipes that more or less does what I want. It's kind of inelegant, but it's the best solution I can find.

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2.23.2009

Is That All? A review of U2, "No Line On The Horizon" 



U2 is back with its first album in five years, "No Line On The Horizon". It seems to be receiving nearly universal acclaim in the music press, and I'm not quite sure why. It certainly sounds like nothing they've ever recorded before, but I count four or five tracks that are really worth coming back to. The rest of the record mostly consists of these remote, spaced-out, languid pseudo-meditations that also happen to feature some of Bono's most embarrassing writing to date.

The album starts off with two roof-busting anthems in the title track and "Magnificent". Both tracks are certain to become radio hits, but the more muscular guitars and tighter rhythm grooves distinguish them from U2's Joshua Tree-era tracks.

So far, so good. U2 then proceed to crush the momentum of the album by launching into "Moment of Surrender", a seven-minute long reflection that really belongs at the end of the album, the way "40", "Grace" and "Yahweh" closed out previous albums. Next up are "Unknown Caller", a rumination on the pervasiveness of modern technology by a wandering soul that is broken up by rhythmic chants, and "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight", a more melodic ballad. Unfortunately, both of the previous tracks feature some of the most cringe-worthy lyrics I've ever seen: "Restart and reboot yourself/You're free to go/Shout for joy if you get the chance/Password you enter here right now." "Is it true that perfect love drives out all fear/The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear."

Fortunately for the listener, the album picks up with the disjointed yet irresistible single "Get On Your Boots" and continues with "Stand Up Comedy", a neat little track that layers classic chimey Edge tracks upon a Hendrix-inspired groove. Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. contribute some of their best work here.

Next up are "FEZ-Being Born", which is kind of hard to describe here. The lyrics are brief and elusive, buried under layers and layers of percussive synthesizer lines. It's certainly an intriguing listen. This is followed by "White As Snow", a heavy minor-key lamentation full of Biblical imagery. The album then ends with a thud as Bono channels his inner Bob Dylan free-verse poet in "Breathe" and "Cedars Of Lebanon", neither attempt at which is particularly successful.

Well, there you go. There are a few obvious hits on the album, but large chunks of the rest of the album simply don't move me at all, making it hard to listen to the whole thing in one shot and placing it firmly below U2's two other albums of the decade.

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2.17.2009

When is a metaphor no longer a metaphor? 

Apparently the head of the South Korean soccer federation felt insulted by a comment the AFC chair made a while back. As is somewhat typical of Korean culture, the Korean chief is taking things just a smidge too personally:


The Korean Football Association (KFA) said it "strongly denounced" Bin Hammam's comments in Arabic about its president Cho Chung-yun, which they said translated as a threat to cut off his head.

Bin Hammam said the comment was a metaphor that had been poorly translated.

"He must offer an open apology for his remarks," KFA spokesman Yoo Young-cheol was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency.

"The KFA strongly denounces (him) for making unutterable and improper remarks (against South Korean officials) in media interviews," he said, adding that the KFA would draft a petition against the president if he failed to retract the comment.


Then again, given some recent events and the general state of relations between the Middle East and the rest of the world, perhaps these Arabic-speaking types might consider laying off that particular idiom in mixed company for a while.

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2.12.2009

Dos a cero 

The gift that keeps on giving.

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Goodbye, sweet goofbags: A detailed review of Futurama, "Into The Wild Green Yonder" 

(SPOILERS aplenty, so don't bother reading if you don't want to be spoiled.)
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If "Into The Wild Green Yonder" is indeed the final installment of Futurama, the series ends on a positive note. Although the epic sci-fi plot has some systemic flaws, on the whole the movie is an uplifting final journey through the lives of Fry, Leela, Bender and company and the fantastic world in which they live.

Characterization has been a consistent strength of the entire Futurama series, but seemed to suffer in some of the earlier movies ("The Beast With A Billion Backs" in particular). In that respect, "Into The Wild Green Yonder" is a return to form. Placed in stressful, uncertain circumstances and pitted against each other for large portions of the movie, our heroes remain true to themselves and, in the end, to each other.

On the surface Philip J. Fry appears to be a childlike, slow-witted fellow, but deep within lies a sensitive, courageous soul and a heart of gold. Once again the fates call upon the superhero within -- Fry finds himself thrust in the middle of an epic struggle for the future of all life and must craft a plan with very little information at hand, his allies assist him and his closest friends opposing him. In the end Fry guesses wrong and gets lucky, but this child of destiny has never survived by his wits alone.

Initially cast as the responsible, no-nonsense, butt-kicking Captain of the Planet Express ship, Leela's personality changed subtly but significantly over the course of the series. On the one hand, she became a more independent-minded personality whose passions and temper sometimes landed her in trouble. On the other hand, as details of her troubled past as an cyclopean orphan emerged, some deep-seated personal insecurities began to come to the fore. In this movie, the rebellious Leela takes center stage -- she has the option of serving a token jail sentence for her first crime, but instead opts to become a fugitive in order to stop Leo Wong's entertainment empire and save the environment. After many twists and turns in and out of the clutches of the authorities, she finally manages to fulfill her mission, only to turn it over to Fry the "villain". Why? Fry can't say, he can only plead with Leela to trust him.

Ever since Fry formally professed his feelings for Leela at the beginning of season 3, their relationship started bouncing all over the place. Though he went to extraordinary lengths to express his love, made significant sacrifices for her well-being and helped her overcome some of the demons of her past, he certainly had far more than his share of slip-ups during the interim. Leela, for her part, occasionally returned Fry's affections. However, she constantly found herself caught between this boyish addlepate who truly loved her for who she was and her romantic ideal of a man.

Though it is never explained in the movie, it is clear that at the beginning of "Into The Wild Green Yonder" Fry and Leela are on very close terms; after Fry unexpectedly offers his support for Leela's eco-vandalism mission, she says "goodbye, sweet goofbag". Aww. Of course, circumstances place Fry on the opposite side put a severe strain on their relationship, but in the end Leela's heart and the weight of their shared lives win out. The blessing Fry offers to Leela as she begins life as a fugitive -- "You're you; that's all I need to know" and that Leela repeats to Fry at the implosion ceremony is kind of clunky, but Leela's final words to Fry -- "Maybe I waited too long to tell you this, but...I love you too" -- are a simple redemption of the feelings of frustration and longing that Fry had harbored in his heart for years. Given the drama of their relationship up to this point, I was very surprised and pleased that the writers tied things up in a gentle, graceful manner.

Bender's motivations for betraying and later rescuing Leela make no sense to a human, but he has of course never been constrained by human principles of morality. To him, accumulating a long resume of felonies is just as worthy a goal as cheating on the Donbot's wife or winning a poker tournament. Fortunately for our Planet Express crew, they rate pretty high on his list of priorities as well.

Amy and Prof. Farnsworth are both relatively minor characters in the plot, and as such their characters and motivations aren't filled out very much at all in the movie. The combination of her parents' greed and patronizing attitude finally give Amy the impetus she needs to break away, while Farnsworth makes a rather abrupt 180 from a corrupt quack to the concerned scientist he's supposed to be. Farnsworth is, of course, pretty notorious for his comical lapses of ethics throughout the series. To see him treated as a blatantly corrupt and unsympathetic stooge throughout most of the movie is rather disappointing, perhaps the only real failure of characterization throughout the movie.

As mentioned before, the core plot of the movie concerns this epic struggle for the future of biological life between the Dark Ones and the Encyclopods. Since the plot is almost entirely self-contained -- the only key callback from the series is Fry's immunity to mind-reading, a consequence of his missing delta brainwave -- all of the main players in the tale have to enter and exit in the space of 60 minutes. Unfortunately, the quick development and resolution of these massively important players leaves plot holes and dangling questions all over the place. How is it possible that the Dark Ones, allegedly the pinnacle of evolutionary success, are a nearly-extinct species of leeches living in a single mud puddle on Mars? Given their telepathic killing powers, how haven't they been able to coerce Leo or someone else into destroying the violet dwarf by now? After having reached the implosion ceremony, why wouldn't the Dark One have killed off Leela and others to make sure the implosion proceeded as planned? Are the Dark Ones innately evil, or is it a result of natural circumstance? (This ethical dilemma is squashed in favor of a cheap yuk when Zoidberg consumes the last remaining Dark One.) The plot does a good job of serving the principal characters, which is much better than the reverse, but on its own it is kind of sloppy.

Of course, no discussion of a Futurama episode would be complete without evaluating the humor in the script. The overarching comic absurdity in the movie is, of course, Leo's massive mini-golf course and his plot to blow up a precious ecosystem to create a black hole that can be used as a ball sink. Only in Futurama does something like this happen. The first 22 minutes of the movie are packed with funny cultural references and parodies, but once the main plot gets going, the movie tenses up noticeably and the breadth of the humor gradually peters out, with the running war-of-the-sexes gags becoming especially stale. (EDIT: After rewatching the movie, the second half of the movie doesn't feel quite as tense to me as before, perhaps because the anxiety and anticipation of the finale is gone. Thank God for Zapp Brannigan.) Another minor disappointment is the paucity of nerd jokes -- the vast majority of jokes in the movie are either character-specific or aimed at a general audience.

Although the final movie isn't constantly laugh-out-loud funny and is confusing at times, it's still faithful to the main theme of the series -- that our Planet Express crew are a bunch of oddballs with their own unique quirks, foibles, and personal issues, and that no matter what conflicts or absurdities the universe throws at them, they manage to stick together. In the end Fry gets to hear those three words from Leela he's longed to hear all his life, and our crew head off into an uncertain future, knowing that their shared experiences have forged bonds of friendship, loyalty and love that won't be broken.

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2.11.2009

Viva Mars Vegas: A quick review and plot summary of Futurama, "Into The Wild Green Yonder" 

(Note: this post has been edited several times. I don't think I'm erasing any truly important content though.)

Well, the last of the four feature-length Futurama episodes is currently circulating through unofficial channels. At the time of this post, future installments of the series still have not been commissioned, so "Into The Wild Green Yonder" has a huge task to accomplish; it needs to generate enough interest and profit from both fans and noobs to convince Fox or some other outlet to consider relaunching the television series, but needs to end in somewhat open-ended manner that still manages to ties up some loose ends in case this is the end (as seems pretty likely).

Among die-hard Futurama fans on various fanboards, "Into The Wild Green Yonder" seems to be receiving mixed reviews. I wouldn't rate it a rousing success, but it certainly produced enough laughs and poignant moments to satisfy me, and I'll certainly be purchasing the Blu-Ray version of the movie once it's released. I'll give a quick review first, then a plot synopsis and more detailed review below.

QUICK REVIEW

Very solid character interaction and development throughout the movie -- Fry, Leela and others act the way you would hope they would during some very tense and difficult situations. Non-stop laughs (both clever and crass) during the first quarter of the movie, but the movie becomes tense and the humor starts to dry up a bit once the main epic ecological plot of the movie begins (during the second half of the movie, I'd say that the majority of the jokes are running gags that have worn out). The plot itself is preachy, clumsily presented and motivated, with none of the subtleties of Futurama's previous eco-minded episdodes. In addition, it suffers from some outstanding holes and questions -- it serves the characters well (and sometimes seems as if it was written just for that purpose) but struggles to hold up on its own. The major outstanding thread of the series -- Fry and Leela's relationship -- is handled in a manner that is delicate, graceful and not overwrought, yet genuinely touching. The final scene of the movie is a cliffhanger that should satisfy fans if it is indeed the end, but will leave them hoping for more.

Definitely pick this up now if you're a fan. If you're not that familiar with Futurama, start with the original series or Bender's Big Score instead. As for the future of the show, hopefully it comes back as a proper TV series, as the heavier, slower story arcs of a feature-length production throw Futurama's balance of satire, sci-fi action and character development out of whack.

SYNOPSIS (SPOILERS BELOW)
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The movie opens with a shot of a black dwarf emitting some sort of green radiation field, followed by a shot of a mysterious violet dwarf orbited by a number of asteroids. After being irradiated, a bunch of molecules on one of the asteroids combine to form a familiar DNA helix...which promptly turns into a shot of a roller coaster ride in Mars Vegas, launching the opening Sinatra-styled number sung by Seth MacFarlane.

Of course, just as in the original Las Vegas during the last years of the second millennium, nothing lasts forever here, as we and the Planet Express crew see mega-tycoon Leo Wong implode the city to pave way for the creation of the New Mars Vegas, a new bastion of entertainment and excess. And do we ever mean excess -- Wong lays waste to all sorts of natural habitats and resources, drawing the ire of both Leela and a (weak, ineffective) eco-feminist collective led by Frida Waterfall. As Leo shoos away the protestors, a piece of Frida's jewelry lodges itself in Fry's brain, knocking him unconscious. Leo insists that he has conducted a proper environmental survey and received approval for his projects -- by buying off Prof. Hubert Farnsworth, as it turns out. Still, Leela manages to save the last Martian desert muck leech amid the destrucion. To compensate Fry for his accident, Leo gives Fry a free entry token to the Universal Poker Championship and the rest of the crew a free vacation at the Wong Hotel and Casino upon completion of the New Mars Vegas.

A short while later, our crew return to the completed New Mars Vegas. With the piece of jewelry lodged in his brain, Fry begins hearing voices in his head. He soon learns, thanks to a transient named Hutch, that they both have telepathic powers. However, Fry appears to be unique because his mind apparently cannot be read. Hutch advises Fry to wear a tinfoil hat to keep other people's thoughts out of his head, ominously warns him about "The Dark Ones" and admonishes him never to reveal his powers to anyone.

With his free token, Fry decides to enter the Universal Poker Championship and book an easy win. Meanwhile Bender checks out a "Circuit Du Soleil" show, falls in love with and begins an illicit affair with erotic dancer Fanny, the Mafia Donbot's wife. In order to impress Fanny, Bender enters the UPC as well; Fanny saws off her husband's "lucky foot" and gives it to Bender to assist him. The Donbot begins to suspect something is afoot when Bender luckboxes his way through the tournament; his suspicion is confirmed when Bender beats Fry heads-up for the prize. The Robot Mafia eventually abduct Bender and Fanny, shoot them and bury them in shallow graves; having been suitably warned, they break off the affair and Fanny returns to the Donbot.

Leo takes his daughter Amy, Fry and Leela to his ultra-exclusive mini-golf country club and proceeds to piss off the ladies by cheating, taking mulligans and berating their skills. He then reveals his future plans for the golf course -- to blow up 12 percent of the galaxy in order to build the biggest putt-putt course in the universe, all pending "proper" environmental clearance from the transparently corrupt Farnsworth.

Farnsworth and the crew take the Planet Express ship to conduct their survey and discover the asteroid from the violet dwarf system teeming with all sorts of prehistoric life forms. Unfortunately, the violet dwarf system sits at the end of Leo's proposed 18th hole; Leo plans to implode it and use the resulting black hole as a ball sink. Despite the crew's discovery, Farnsworth approves Leo's demolition project, angering both Leela and Fry.

While Earthican president Richard Nixon and Leo schmooze on the mini-golf course, Leela joins the eco-feminist collective in protesting the destruction of the violet dwarf system. In the resulting confrontation, the feminists accidentally mutilate vice-president Spiro Agnew's headless body with a golf cart, and they flee the scene. While hiding from the authorities, Leela convinces the feminists that they need to take more radical action. The feminists appoint Leela as their new leader and begin their campaign of eco-vandalism.

Still on the lam, Leela briefly returns to Planet Express to retrieve the Martian Leech for use as an unofficial mascot. As Leela leaves, she is surprised when Fry offers her his blessing. The two of them say a quick, tearful goodbye, not knowing if they'll see each other again.

While walking around, Fry again runs into Hutch, the transient telepath he met on Mars, and Hutch takes Fry to the secret lair of the Legion of Mad Fellows, led by the No. 9 man. No. 9 explains that the Legion are a society of tinfoil-hat-wearing telepaths who have been observing and tracking the behavior of the "Chi", a mysterious life force responsible for the proliferation of species of life across the universe. After ages of recession and the extinction of many species, they sense a resurgence of the Chi and believe that the violet dwarf star in Leo's putt-putt course holds the key to the reemergence of lost species and the dawn of a new Green Age. Fry is told that he is destined to keep the violet dwarf star safe from the Dark Ones, a mysterious race of enemies who can read all minds but his own. In order to protect the Legion from the Dark Ones, they swear Fry to complete secrecy. Fry then infiltrates Leo's empire by getting a job as a security guard, planning to stop the destruction of the violet dwarf system.

The eco-feminists come out of hiding to vandalize a gorilla-shaped structure on the 18th hole of Leo's golf course. On the news, Morbo denounces the vandalism, while the more sympathetic Linda broadcasts a message from Leela and the eco-feminist collective. Wary of the threat from the eco-feminists, Leo pulls a few strings with President Nixon and enlists the services of General Zapp Brannigan and Lt. Kif Kroker. Jealous of Leela's rapidly-growing rap sheet, the shamelessly treacherous Bender offers to help apprehend Leela and the eco-feminists. To track Leela down, Bender visits Fry at the golf course and plants a Rube Goldberg-esque wiretapping device on his cell phone. Things get tense when Amy sees Fry working for her father. Since Fry is unable to explain his true intentions to Amy, Amy denounces Fry as a traitor and disowns her father.

While leaving the mini-golf club, Fry runs into Frida. Desperate to explain his true intentions to Leela without blowing his cover, he instructs Frida to give Leela the message that "her sweet goofbag is working to save the violet dwarf star, just as she is." Unfortunately, while back at the hideout one of the Dark Ones reads Frida's mind and suspects that Fry may be a member of the Legion. The Dark One's unseen voice demands that Frida reveal Fry's identity. As Frida knows nothing more about him, the Dark One telepathically murders her; Frida cries out to her long-lost brother to avenge her death.

Leo contracts the remaining Planet Express employees (Farnsworth, Hermes and Zoidberg) to deliver a large security fence to keep protestors away from the violet dwarf star; they are captured by the eco-feminists (now joined by Amy, LaBarbara Conrad, Diane and others), who lock them up in a cage and commandeer the Planet Express ship. They return to their hideout to discover that Frida has been murdered. Amy suspects foul play on Fry's part; Leela decides to call Fry on his mobile phone in order to clear things up.

After another day at the golf club, Fry runs into Hutch again, who takes him to the Legion's new hideout on Mars. No. 9 tells Fry of the origins of the Dark Ones, who seek to destroy all species, and the Encyclopods, who seek to thwart the Dark Ones by befriending all species and preserving their DNA in order to recreate them. As the life-giving Chi faded, the Encyclopods went extinct, the violet dwarf star being the only remaining Encyclopod egg in the universe. With the present resurgence in the Chi, the revival of the Encyclopod species and of all other extinct species is at hand. Since the Dark Ones are able at close range to murder anyone who knows the secret of the egg, and since Fry alone is immune to the Dark Ones' attacks, he alone must save the egg. Unfortunately, due to eons of evolution they do not know what the current physical form of the Dark Ones is -- animal, alien or possibly humanoid.

Leela calls Fry in the middle of his discussion with the Legion. Fry asks if Leela got Frida's message, arousing Leela's suspicions. Fry realizes that the Dark Ones must have killed Frida and desperately arranges a secret rendezvous with Leela. Having tapped Fry's phone, Brannigan, Kif and Bender ambush Leela in the Starship Nimbus. Leela accuses Fry of treachery and is about to surrender, but is rescued by the eco-feminists and the Planet Express ship. As Leela escapes, she drags Fry with her and locks him up with the other Planet Express prisoners.

Brannigan immediately chases the eco-feministas through Leo's golf course. At the end of the 18th hole, the Planet Express ship flies by the asteroid in the violet dwarf system, now teeming with life. Clearly hurt by her dear friend's apparent betrayal, Leela again demands that Fry explain his intentions, but to no avail. Eventually Leela and the feminists are caught by Brannigan, Kif and (to everyone's immense shock) Bender and are sentenced to 50 years in prison.

With the eco-feminists out of the way, Leo completes his plan to implode the violet dwarf star. Fry consults the Legion again for advice, and No. 9 warns Fry that he also needs to worry about unmasking the identity of the Dark One who will try to stop him. No. 9 gives him the mysterious Omega device, able to disable the Dark One at point-blank range. For fear that the Dark One may destroy them, the rest of the Legion dare not give Fry any ideas about how to accomplish his mission, but Fry deduces that while he is at the implosion ceremony, he can scan the audience and search for an unreadable mind.

In prison, the unseen voice of the Dark One tells Leela that the feminists must break out of prison and get to the violet dwarf star. Leela pulls the Martian muck leech off her leg and attempts to use it to burrow out of prison, to no avail. Fortunately for the feminists, Bender arrives to bust them out of prison (all to boost his rap sheet ahead of Leela's, of course). However, only Bender, Leela, Amy and LaBarbara manage to escape; they are rescued by Hermes, Zoidberg, Scruffy and a repentant Farnsworth in the Planet Express ship.

In front of a crowd featuring almost every Futurama character, Leo and Fry prepare to implode the violet dwarf system. While Brannigan gives a blithering, long-winded speech, Fry unsuccessfully scans the audience for the unreadable mind of the Dark One, coming to the Minority Report-esque conclusion that he himself is the Dark One.

The Planet Express ship crashes the detonation ceremony, and Leela and the crew (dressed in eco-feminist garb) show up armed. After a brief struggle, Leela manages to wrest control of the detonator from Leo. However, as she is about to disable the detonator, Fry implores her to stop, still unable to explain his ultimate plan. Caught between her eyes and her heart, Leela gives the detonator to Fry. To her shock, Fry presses the plunger; the screen pans up and down to reveal that Fry has wired the detonator to the Omega device and is holding it against his heart in an effort to destroy himself.

Unexpectedly, the Omega device sprouts mechanical legs and arms, then erupts in a green flash enveloping both Fry and Leela but leaving them both unharmed. Leela's Martian muck leech reveals himself to be the lone surviving Dark One, then falls to the floor in agony. Suddenly the asteroid flies into the violet dwarf star, creating a fertilized Encyclopod egg which quickly develops into a fully developed Encyclopod (a flying manta ray-like creature carrying a biodome of extinct animals in its pouch). Hutch walks up to the podium to explain the origins of the Encyclopod to the crowd, but the Dark One latches onto Hutch's neck, killing him. As he lies dying, Hutch pulls his sister Frida's piece of jewelry out of Fry's head, and the Encyclopod incinerates the Dark One with a laser blast from its eye. A debate about whether to preserve the Dark One's DNA is quickly quashed when Zoidberg eats the Dark One's remains.

Zapp Brannigan, being the pompous fool that he is, attempts to round up the Planet Express crew and bring them to justice, but they (along with Kif) quickly manage to escape in the ship. Brannigan immediately pursues them in the Nimbus. Here's how the final scene unfolds:

[Hermes and LaBarbara hold hands, Kif and Amy embrace]
Fry (to Leela): Well, this is the end. There were so many things I wanted to say to you.
Leela: Like what?
Fry: Like, "this is not the end". But mostly just...I love you, Leela.
(ship is hit from behind)
Leela: Maybe I waited too long to say this, but...I love you too. (looks up) Wormhole!
Hermes: Sweet topology of cosmology! It's huge!
Farnsworth: If we fly into it, it could take us trillions of light years away! There's no knowing if we'll ever return!
Fry: Wh-what do we do? Should we go for it?
Bender: (pulls out a bottle of Olde Fortran malt liquor) Into the breach, meatbags. Or not. Eh, whatever.
All: Go! Go! Go!
[Leela and Fry kiss, and the ship disappears into the wormhole]

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