Thursday, March 5, 2015

So That's How Those Things Work

If you've got a few (dozen) spare hours, you too could design a set-up of dominos that looked and worked like the old Etch-A-Sketch toys.

Or if you haven't got the patience for that (like me) you could watch this:

From FlippyCat.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tried and True Strategy

Dr. Ben Carson, having failed to learn from the example of Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Newt Gigrich and others, has decided to take the more expensive route to not being elected President of the United States by forming an exploratory committee to investigate running but then clearly reminding people he has little idea what kinds of things the president really does or needs to be concerned about.

Or of not getting sidetracked onto Democratic red meat issues that would offer blue-state opponents in 2016 more material for campaign ads than they would know what to do with. Whether Dr. Carson is serious about running is for him to know. Whether he should be seriously considered for the job is not an open question, and the answer is, "No." Our nation does not need to expand eight years of the joy of a president almost entirely unready for the job in both temperament and experience into twelve.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Tweaking History

"Alternate history," or better grammatically, "alternative history," takes some event of the past, changes it in some way and then spins a story of the new world the author thinks would have developed in the new timeline. The American Civil War and World War II are two of the favorite playgrounds of allohistorical writings, and these three novels tweak the latter for their different tales.

Science fiction writer Allen Steele submitted the story that would become 2014's V-S Day to a science-fiction magazine in the late 1980s and later expanded it from a proposed movie treatment into the current novel. He supposes that Nazi Germany researched and built a suborbital rocket bomber called Silbervogel and that the United States recruited Robert Goddard to lead a team that developed a counter-attack.V-S Day (the title refers to a "Victory-Space" day like the Victory-Europe [V-E] or Victory-Japan [V-J] days) describes the parallel research programs, largely through the eyes of Werner Von Braun and Goddard. Neither man wanted space as a theater of war, but Nazi battle plans made it one and they each find themselves sacrificing parts of their dreams on the altar of necessity.

Day is mostly a kind of techno-thriller race against the clock sort of story. Von Braun must convince the Nazi leaders that a rocket ship is a practical program and survive Allied attempts to destroy it. Goddard and his team must battle government myopia and the untested nature of their research to complete their own ship. There's some characterization, but not much, given the rather large cast. Given Steele's pretty thorough research, the novel doesn't feel all that "alternative" historically. After all, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a rocket-powered aircraft barely four years after Steele sets his flights, so what he describes is not particularly outlandish.

That said, V-S Day is still a good-quality yarn that doesn't waste your time and gives some neat insight into how researchers went about developing real rocket-planes a few years later.
C.J. Sansom asks what the opening stages of World War II might have been like if Winston Churchill had been simply a member of the War Cabinet in England in 1940 instead of Prime Minister. Sansom supposes Lord Halifax, as Prime Minister, would have led England to sign a peace treaty with Germany after military losses in Norway and gradually adopted more and more of that nation's fascist and totalitarian ways. An isolationist U.S. would probably have been seen as less of a threat by Imperial Japan, who would not have attacked in 1941, leaving the main theater of fighting Nazi Germany's endless campaign against the U.S.S.R. That sets the stage for his 2012 novel Dominion.

In 1952, civil service functionary David Fitzgerald is a secret member of the Resistance, a group of English citizens and others trying to counter both their own growingly authoritarian government and its Nazi puppet-masters. When the movement learns that the brother of a scientist working on secret research in America is in an asylum, sought for questioning by government agents and the SS, it enlists David to see what can be learned about what the man knows. But the secrecy that his espionage has required has already driven David apart from his wife Sarah, and what's being asked of him now might be a final wedge.

Sansom focuses on how the slowly-growing power of the state has been sapping the life from the people of London, and how different agencies have been taking advantage of their expanded power to seize more as well as to hide their work from an increasingly frightened and cowed populace. Much of his novel seems have an instructive purpose: "To those who think, 'That couldn't happen here' about abrogation of civil rights and support for fascist and even Nazi ideals, here's how it might have happened here." He's also concerned with what he sees as the corrosive effects of extreme nationalism, figuring that Nazi Germany's success might spawn similar movements in other countries. In case you don't get that from the several speeches different characters give, Sansom spells it out more clearly in a concluding essay.

Dominion is a long novel and often seems longer. It begins with some seriously leisurely character introductions that slow themselves down even more by flashing back, and then when it begins its action portion it's an extended series of cliffhangers in a long chase scene. Think what an old Republic serial might be like if each 12-15 minute episode was stretched out to the running time of the full story. It won the World Science Fiction Convention's 2013 "Sidewise Award" for best long-form alternative history work printed in 2012, but considering that one of the other finalists was a silly story of "Christian theocrats" piloting airliners into the "Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers" in Baghdad and the resulting war and events, it could hardly do otherwise.
Len Deighton did not mess around with a Nazi plot to damage the U.S. or a British peace treaty with Germany -- he posited a successful German invasion of Great Britain that resulted in complete surrender and occupation in 1941. The Nazis work in Whitehall, King George is locked away and Winston Churchill has been executed. But there are still crimes in London, and there is still Scotland Yard around to solve them, in spy novelist Len Deighton's 1978 SS-GB.

Douglas Archer is one of the Yard's keenest minds, but even he is unsure about a man murdered in a London flat which is obviously not his own. There is no identification on the man and there are no clues about his death, but even so the new German masters of the Yard seem very interested in the case. That could make Archer's work easier, or more difficult, depending on what he finds. And depending on whether other interested parties let him live long enough to find anything at all.

SS-GB is as much a mystery thriller as anything else. Different details about how Archer has to go about his business in a bombed and occupied London, and about what underground resistance fighters are trying to do give the book its other-history character, but the core is how Archer finds himself manipulated by people playing a much larger game than he realizes. This is often a theme for Deighton, who sees espionage as a matter in which those in the front are often working for people they don't know who have agendas they would never dream of. They will be the ones who risk everything, even though the cause for which they do so might turn out to be less of a truth than they realize.

Some of SS-GB runs improbably quickly, such as Archer's love interest and his own connection to the underground resistance, and some of the rest is sketched out less thoroughly than is best for the story. Deighton's never been one for bloat, but SS-GB could have used a sandwich or two to help its appearance It's still a great read and a testament to Deighton's grasp of the ins and outs of espionage and the bureaucratic mess that often lies behind the cloak and dagger in the field.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Chilled Out

Among the things that the weather nitwits on television (but I repeat myself) like to highlight are how cold or how hot it "feels like" based on heat indices and wind chills, rather than the actual air temperature.

Now, of course wind feels colder that still air, and humid heat feels hotter that dry air. The idea that they can be quantified, let alone to the exact, er, degree claimed by the Meteorological Muppets on the air, though, is not entirely justified. The original experiment to measure how much colder it is when the wind blows was done in Antarctica in 1945. It consisted of measuring how quickly a container of water froze when it was exposed to wind than when it was not.

Things cool not by gaining cold but by losing heat. That heat often "hovers" near the object which has recently lost it and slows the rate at which surrounding cold air continues to absorb it. But wind moves the warmed air along and exposes the object to the cold more directly. The original experiments were not the best measures of the actual rate of cooling, though, so others were done and from them we gain all of the "feels like" language, which is a silly standard by which to judge. Some people "feel like" a room is "freezing" when it's 65 degrees. Plus, the difference between, say, zero degrees and minus 15 degrees is technically known as "too frickin' cold either way so who cares," so who cares?

But it gives the channel chatterers another reason to say that you should remember to bring a coat with you if you leave the house. As if the single digit temperature and your mom weren't already telling you that same thing.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Well-Told Tale

Blogger Ana Marie Cox, who founded the snarky political blog Wonkette, published an essay in The Daily Beast about why she has publicly acknowledged herself a Christian. It is wonderfully written and is an excellent confession of how one may come to affirm Christ as savior, and how that affirmation alone is the core of beginning a life following him.

Her words are cause for rejoicing, and so I do.

Note: Wonkette is a political and media commentary blog. In 2004 it revealed the identity of the blogger behind Washingtonienne, another blog in which a congressional staffer claimed to have had sex for money. The writer of that blog is not Cox, but a woman named Jessica Cutler. I write this because it seems like some of the commentary on the matter does not recognize the difference between the two blogs and that they were written and managed by two different women.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

If Getting It Wrong Is Wrong, I Don't Want to Be Right

Scientists often get things wrong, at least if they're doing their jobs. That's because they're investigating things they don't understand, and in so doing they have to try out different answers. Many answers may be partially right, or perhaps a given matter may have more than one completely right answer. But there are at least an equal number of answers that are flat-out wrong.

This is OK, because each wrong answer is a possibility crossed off the list and one step closer to the right answer. The wrong answer may rule out a whole area of possible answers, too, taking the search several steps ahead.

It's also possible that the experiment which found the answer wasn't properly conducted. Human beings are the ones who do experiments, even with mechanical and computerized help, so their fallibility comes into play.

The only problem, the article notes, is when scientists act just like everyone else and won't admit they're wrong or that someone made a mistake somewhere. The dimensions of a person's head tell us nothing about that person's intelligence. The Earth and the other planets of the solar system orbit the sun, not the other way round. Light doesn't propagate via luminiferous aether. And yet, all of these ideas have been at one point or another in history been taken as accurate descriptions of things in the world around us by sober and sane people who relied on the best experimental knowledge they had.

If an experiment suggests a conclusion, but repeated experiments don't back it up, then something's obviously wrong. Yet some folks, even behind the rational armor of the white lab coat, won't admit that, the article says, and choose to select the result they prefer. That way, we have seen by experimentation aplenty throughout human history, lies madness.

Friday, February 27, 2015

From the Rental Vault: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The pattern of Star Trek movies to stink up odd-numbered films but do quite a bit better as even-numbered ones was only half-established when Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer created what would become Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Gene Roddenberry's 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture had taken care of the stinker half, but there was as yet no way to know what its sequel would create.

Paramount was happy with neither the performance of the first movie nor the tine-travel script series creator Roddenberry had produced for the sequel. Studio executives felt that the first film's plodding script and Roddenberry's own over-meddling as producer made the first big-screen voyage of the starship Enterprise a box-office and critical disappointment. So they promoted Roddenberry to "executive consultant," didn't consult him, brought in Bennett and Meyer and told them they had about a quarter of the first movie's budget to play with -- $11 million (It was actually about $8.5 million to start but the purse strings were loosened when execs saw and liked the initial work).

Both men approached the project like it was a movie to be made rather than an icon to be worshiped -- neither had ever watched the original TV show before working on Khan. The lack of deification helped produce one of the best of the Star Trek movies -- or, depending who you ask -- the best Star Trek movie.

Starfleet Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is traveling with the Enterprise, under command of his friend Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), on a training voyage for new cadets. The ship receives a distress call from the space station Regula 1 and investigates, only to find that the station was attached by Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetic superman who had tried to hijack the Enterprise in the television episode "Space Seed." Khan seeks access to the Genesis device, a terraforming system that can also be used as a weapon, in order to have his revenge on Kirk.

Meyer and Bennett worked the themes of aging and death into the storyline throughout, and not only in the well-discussed climax. The difference in tone from Roddenberry's optimistic viewpoint for his series, which was so upbeat it didn't allow for much thought about such things, was greeted at first with uncertainty by the cast. You could die at the drop of a hat -- especially if you wore a red shirt -- but you didn't do much reflecting on mortality. When they finally bought into it, though, they brought what were easily some of their best performances as the iconic characters. Shatner has his scenery-chomping ham blazes of glory, but some of his best moments come when he uses only his face to show his despair. DeForrest Kelley's Leonard McCoy, often the moral ballast of the show, brings that weight to his questions about the wisdom of unexamined technological advance. James Doohan's Montgomery Scott, too often relegated to almost comic technobabble laments, becomes a signal of the significant human cost of confronting evil. Montalban, so often reserved, debonair and urbane even when a villain, lets his freak flag fly as he portrays the ravaged, Ahab-like Khan, whose thirst for power has been replaced by an almost holy crusade for vengeance.

And Leonard Nimoy seems to have finally found peace with the character that defined him, showing the "emotionless Vulcan" of the television show comfortable enough in his own skin to crack jokes, poke fun at himself and indulge illogical human customs while remaining recognizable as the summer of 1982's favorite alien who didn't have a glowing fingertip. The presence of the earnest Kirstie Alley as the cadet Saavik, acting in many ways as the by-the-book Spock would have done in the past, gives him a good foil for all of these moves.

Khan didn't gross as much as the first movie did, but since it worked from a smaller budget it made Paramount much more money and has had much better staying power. Its success encouraged Paramount to continue the franchise and Nimoy enjoyed it so much he decided to participate in the series as it moved forward, as a star and a director. Although nothing was ever on record, the likelihood of a continuing franchise would not have been high if Khan had tanked the way The Motion Picture did. To say nothing of subsequent television spinoffs, a publishing empire and the current reboot. Nimoy's work in making Khan the success it was played a huge role in that future.

In a significant way, he really did save the ship. And he saved them all.

Fair solar winds, Mr. Spock, into the undiscovered country.