Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Brick Moon in the Age of the International Space Station

For those unaware, in 1869, Edward Everett Hale wrote "The Brick Moon", the first story to feature what we would now call a space station. Its shape and materials were obviously different from the current model, and nothing like the titular moon has ever gone into orbit, but speculative fiction starts somewhere.

For reference purposes, the International Space Station looks like this:




...whereas a brick moon looks like a giant ball of bricks, but here's a picture anyway:




A few fun observations from "The Brick Moon", with comparisons to the ISS or other ISS-era phenomena where enlightening: (All citations from this version, and no, I have not read the other stories therein)

  • Early in "The Brick Moon", it is noted that the bricks will cost sixty thousand dollars. (5) At today's purchasing power, that would be $1.08 million. By comparison, the ISS has cost $150 billion so far. This difference is at an order of magnitude of over 10^5. Suffice to say, had a brick moon been feasible, it would have been so affordable many private citizens could go to space. Finally, we could re-enact Space Jam.
  • Characters' "college bills" are unpaid. (5) This approaches a Looking Backward level of hyper-accurate eeriness in 2016.
  • A minor character is named Dr. Peabody. (6) In this era, that's adorable. (Hey, Mr. Peabody could totally have a doctorate.)
  • Napoleon III of France gets a brief mention. (9) Much like the 1949 classic movie The Third Man, which is set in post-WWII occupied Vienna, "The Brick Moon" takes place during a unique time. There was only a three-year span in which Canada was an independent country and Napoleon III was in charge of France. If only "The Brick Moon" had mentioned Canada...
  • People burn up while passing through the atmosphere. (17) Not a vessel - people. This is chilling yet realistic.
  • At one point, Hale opens a paragraph with "Now you know, dear reader..." (19) Ironically for a work meant to be futuristic, this sort of language was far more common in didactic 18th-century fiction.
  • The phrase "no matter why!" is used to explain why an observatory is "dormant". (20) This has to be one of the most egregious examples of handwaving I've ever seen.
  • The word "equinoctial" comes up. (26) I don't learn new words as often as I'd like, so I'll make sure to use this one in March.
  • This is actually a quotation, albeit from one of the characters rather than from Hale himself: "Of course the pendulum clocks all went wrong till the men got them overhauled, and I think watches and clocks both will soon go out of fashion." (31) I felt a certain je ne sais quoi while reading this line with multiple clocks in adjoining rooms, not to even begin on my girlfriend's Fitbit. Looking Backward this section is not.


"The Brick Moon" lacks compelling characters and settings, which is unfortunate given the potential it had. Who would go into space? What would the inside of a brick moon look like, in more detail than the letter-coded rooms? What would the moon's intended purpose be other than, as the story states early on, to measure longitude? I didn't get that exploration itch here. It's still an interesting read, if only to see, 147 years later, a theory that a space station could exist before the Wright Brothers flew. Huge respect to Hale for noting the atmosphere's ability to burn things.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

January's Book: Blue Latitudes

Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz
Journalism (2002 - 444 pp.)

In Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz recounts his retracing of some of Captain James Cook's most memorable steps in exploring much of the Pacific Ocean. Tied into the account is an overview of some of what Cook and his shipmates might have experienced, based largely on the works of John Beaglehole. As someone who has never read a comprehensive history of Cook, I had to fumble my way through the story without as much of an informed eye as I often take into historical journalism-type works.

Horwitz tells the story compellingly, making his personal anecdotes far more interesting than most writers' personal anecdotes. The first chapter discusses Horwitz more than Cook, specifically Horwitz's week-long voyage on a mock Endeavour. It is not until Horwitz leaves North America for the South Pacific that the book really takes off.

One of Cook's most famous discoveries* is New Zealand, and Horwitz does not waste time getting there. After a brief stopover in Tahiti, he and Australian friend Roger Williamson find themselves in the middle of a society in some ways defined by its history of British-Maori relations. These began with trade; Cook saw the Maori as "a people he could do business with". (117) Later legacies have led to everything from new words (like "rorohiko", or "brain lightning", for computer [119]) to unsubstantiated rumours of widespread Maori cannibalism and British sodomy (127-129) to a controversial mixed-race group called the Mongrel Mob that, of all things, identifies with Yale University due to its bulldog logo. (132) From a purely cultural studies perspective, the New Zealand chapter is the most interesting one in the book. New Zealand is a modern, industrialized country that owes a significant amount of its history to Cook and to the peoples he met upon landing there, which was not always the case elsewhere.**

For the little I knew of Cook going into this read, I never knew he almost went to Antarctica. The Endeavour reached a stunning 71 degrees South, which causes Horwitz to note with rightful incredulity, "Sailing blind, in a lone wooden ship, Cook had added ten degrees of latitude to the map. Almost another fifty years passed before another vessel so much as crossed the Antarctic Circle." (218) Only a retrospectively poor location prevented Cook from reaching one of Antarctica's many peninsulas, so he only reached ice, not land. Nonetheless, this was an unparalleled feat, so much so that Williamson, and not Horwitz, finally travelled there after the book's journey had ended. (442)

I had barely heard of Niue at all, so I could identify with Horwitz's statement that "It was oddly relaxing to set off on a trip for which you couldn't prepare." (223) I assumed going in that Niue would be warm year-round, given its equatorial location (and I was right), so my wool sweaters and winter boots could at least stay at home. Aside from that, though, and given the week Horwitz and Williamson were forced to stay there because of some bizarre plane scheduling, (222) I imagined hiking gear and books would be best. What struck me about Niue, but that makes perfect sense after only a few seconds of reflection, is that policing in Niue lacks the urgency it possesses in other places because no one can escape. As a result, car theft is solved politely the next day, when everyone involved has had the chance to sleep. (240) It borders on comical that this was the place Cook dubbed "Savage Island", but recall, sometimes words come from other languages. Niue seems "wild... and untamed" at times in Blue Latitudes, let alone in the 1700s.

Cook did not get to Alaska until his third and final voyage, when instead of seeking Terra Australis,^ he was instead tasked with finding the Northwest Passage. Alaska is not a pleasant place to travel by boat even now, as Horwitz and Williamson's captain relays: "What Cook did, it's hardly even comprehensible... This is a graveyard for ships. I wouldn't risk a day sail out here without all these instruments [such as radio and GPS]." (339) The rest of the Alaska chapter is the most entertaining part of the Horwitz-Williamson voyage, including seasickness and "an all-night drinking bout". (349) There is also a valuable lesson in how cultures hybridize, specifically the Russian-American experience of the Aleuts. (363) Unfortunately for Cook and his crew, Alaska was not the most momentous leg of their voyage - the Northwest Passage was finally discovered by Roald Amundsen in 1906.

Blue Latitudes ends where Cook does: in Hawaii. Horwitz finishes the trip by visiting Herb Kane, a local artist who "had drawn together the past and present, art and science, the English and native perspective." (426) I linked to his website there. His work is unsurprisingly quite good. This is a fitting end for a meandering trip around a significant portion of the Pacific.

Many places Cook went, nails were used as currency. They purchased food, sex and souvenirs. At times, sailors were so nail-hungry one of Cook's shipmates worried they might strip the entire boat. (391) However much of an exaggeration this may have been, sailors almost constantly tore nails from the ship. The Endeavour (first voyage) and Resolution (second and third voyages) were capable of holding livestock. How was it that not one sailor appears to have thought of packing a box of nails? This question plagued me throughout the book. I do not blame Horwitz for failing to find an answer.

Greedily, I wanted a final chapter on Horwitz and Williamson travelling to Petropavlovsk,^^ where the Resolution and Discovery went after Cook's death. Cook never actually saw the city, though, and it would have been a costly plane ticket. It may figure more prominently if a similar book is ever written about Vitus Bering, who visited the city more than once.

Blue Latitudes could have been a little better edited and a little more cleanly written. For example, the phrase "begged the question" (78) is used where "raised the question" would have made more sense grammatically. Similarly, there is occasional purple prose throughout, such as alliterations that do not add to the book's message, poetic speculation on what Cook might have experienced, and so on. These passages take the reader out of Cook's voyage, where Horwitz presumably wants the reader to be. These are typically only minor issues in what is, overall, a well-written book.

Blue Latitudes fits nicely into a tradition of historical journalism by American writers. Unlike books like The Devil in the White City and Island of Vice, which conveniently take place in Chicago and New York City respectively, Horwitz writes about a Brit who travelled the world. Considering Cook's voyages occurred during the Revolutionary Era, or close enough to it (1768-1779), another author may have been tempted to write about George Washington instead. It certainly would have required less travel time. I applaud Horwitz for going so far out into the world and trying something new.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 6

NOTE: I would discuss Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Cook on the Endeavour and who advanced science a long way, but that would necessitate an entry of its own.

*I use the word "discovery" the way Cook may have used it, effectively to mean "cartography". Cook's map-making abilities far surpassed those of any of the peoples he encountered, as far as we know.

**For example, Tahiti became French, and much of Horwitz's trip to Australia concerned interactions between the Aborigines and later German Lutheran missionaries. Hawaii's lack of British heritage should speak for itself.

^Terra Australis was originally a widely speculated enormous southern continent. It lent its name to one continent and its geography to another.

^^In the book, this is referred to as "Peter and Paul", which is simply an English translation.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Why I Love the 2016 NFL Wildcard Movie Trailers

If you haven't seen them yet, the 2016 NFL Wildcard movie trailers are all extremely well done.

Chiefs @ Texans
Steelers @ Bengals
Seahawks @ Vikings
Packers @ Redskins

I love the NFL, and I'm a sucker for great ads. What gets me about each of these is:

  • The way they create hype about the games. J.J. Watt's vicious snarl and the Behind-the-Music-esque alternate view of "You Like That!" come to mind.
  • The combined eyeballs of J.J. Watt and Alex Smith, for lack of a better term.
  • The voice throughout "The Cincinnati Sequence". It sounded surreal the whole time. Here's hoping the NFL picks up on the creepy voice thing and has a Divisional Round movie trailer starring the Panthers as Jigsaw and their opponent as the person playing the game.
  • The graphics throughout, from the Xs and Os in the Packers-Redskins trailer to the blue logos in Steelers-Bengals.

Only tiny down point is the emphasis on certain teams over others. The Steelers and Vikings' D can't feel thrilled about this, but they also have great shots this weekend.

Regardless, we need more of these!

(For NBA.com, of the horrifically gaudy Flash display, this is optional.)

Monday, January 4, 2016

December 2015's Book: Tender Is the Night

Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Literature (1934 - 302 pp.)

Tender Is the Night is F. Scott Fitzgerald's last novel in his lifetime. It came nine years after The Great Gatsby, which I love in all its forms. Tender Is the Night lacked the commercial acclaim of its predecessor, which is saying something, and of his first novel (1920's This Side of Paradise). It also, unlike those novels, discussed the emigrĂ© community of Americans in Paris in the 1920s. Its setting, throughout the mid-1920s, is awkward in its being set in the past yet not far enough in the past to be a period piece. Usually, that would not matter. In this case, it might.

The very short synopsis is this: Dick and his wife Nicole are Americans living in Paris, and who also spend considerable time on the French Riviera and in Switzerland. Rosemary Hoyt is a young American actress who falls in love with Dick. You can imagine what ensues. Well, the duel among two of Dick's acquaintances surprised me.

The unfettered wealth Fitzgerald describes made sense in 1925, when The Great Gatsby was released to the Roaring Twenties. It is less likely Americans wanted to hear tales of people so rich they seemingly abandon their cars out of apathy (288) in light of the events of 1934. Although Tender Is the Night resembles an 18th-century travelogue in its tendency to zip its characters around Western Europe, Fitzgerald often fails to give much reason why the characters need to visit so many different exotic locales.

A book like Tender Is the Night is, for all its taglines about its settings, light on setting description. At no point is the reader dragged into truly travelogue-style narrative, with, say, a three-page description of the Eiffel Tower. The result is that Tender Is the Night is made by its characters and plot. Unfortunately, although the characters and plot make sense, they never move me. Rosemary is so self-absorbed she laughs when a man is almost shot (55) and takes considerable time to realize she does not miss her mother, which alarms her more than the aforementioned gunfire. (81)

Dick takes up a significant portion of the book, including the flashbacks that make up some of the book's most interesting material. These consist of letters between Dick and Nicole that are divided into numbered sections, the only time in Tender Is the Night that Fitzgerald experiments with format. (125-129) The fight scene represents the one time I found myself hooked while reading. (224) Dick is ultimately flat enough, though, that the final chapter elucidating the details of his later life holds little interest. It is as though Fitzgerald, having finished the story he wanted to write, wanted to give the reader as much information about Dick as possible without explaining to the reader why. (302) That said, I always appreciate a good reference to Batavia, NY, where I was once stopped by immigration officials.

Although I wanted more,*** I knew from critical consensus what to expect. There is some beautiful writing here, such as the barbs between Dick and Nicole late in the book. (265) It just feels, at times, like Fitzgerald had a situation in mind, not much to say about the situation, and only the use of a few shockingly violent events to move the story.

Educational Content: 6
Ease of Reading: 7

*The title is Fitzgerald quoting Keats. That advertises all sorts of literariness.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Oil (Transportation) in the Great Lakes?!

I don't know what to make of this article but I think it's worth reposting.

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Business
What lurks beneath the Great Lakes? An oil pipeline that couldn’t get built today
Resize Text Print Article Comments 44


The Mississagi crosses underneath the Mackinac Bridge from Lake Michigan in September. The 620-foot-long freighter was launched in 1943. (Neil Blake/Grand Rapids Press via AP)
By Steve Friess January 2 at 10:15 AM
MACKINAW CITY, Mich. — Until a few years ago, Chris Shepler saw only beauty when he gazed out his office windows at the picturesque pier and the famed, majestic Mackinac Bridge looming in the distance. The Shepler name has adorned ferry boats crisscrossing those waters since 1945, and he was born perhaps 30 miles from this quay, so he figured he knew just about everything important there was to know about the Straits of Mackinac.

Now, though, it’s hard to look without imagining what, until 2011, he didn’t know lurked below: Two 62-year-old oil pipelines running parallel to the bridge for 4.5 miles across the Straits of Mackinac, the aquatic, turbulent seam where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. Each day, some 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and natural gas liquids roar through en route from the shale oil wells of Alberta to refineries in Detroit and Sarnia, Ontario.

The pipes, known as Line 5, are 20 inches in diameter, with one-inch-thick walls. On that line, they have never had a spill, a rupture or, to hear its Calgary, Alberta-based owner Enbridge tell it, even a repair. It also wasn’t a secret: The state of Michigan granted the underwater easement in 1953, and a few old-timers here even remember helping build and install it.

Nonetheless, Line 5’s existence was all but forgotten until another Enbridge pipe, Line 6B, burst open in July 2010 and over 18 hours spewed as much as 1.1 million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River near the central Michigan town of Marshall. In the wake of that — the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history — and with the fight raging over TransCanada’s proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline across the Great Plains, environmentalists looked around to see where else Enbridge was moving oil in the Wolverine State. To the surprise of many, they realized that it operated a major line through one of the world’s most sensitive freshwater areas.

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Make of it what you will. As someone originally from TO, who's got friends from Michigan, and who has lived across the continent... well, apparently, oil is a bigger deal in more areas than we thought. I don't know what to think of it. I imagine no one does.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A New Year's Resolution with Teeth

I've made New Year's resolutions before... but this one's better.

In 2016, including yesterday and today, I'm going to create original content every day! Not all of it will be on this blog, mind you. Look forward to:

  • More original fiction, both full-length and short, along with a serial
  • More blog posts just like this one
  • Hopefully a self-published short story for the first time since 2013
  • ...and other things too

(Yes, this blog entry counts. I may or may not log my experiences.)