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Star Trek, Space Travel, and the Cloud May 20, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Science Fiction, Space Travel, Star Trek, Uncategorized.
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Every week, the Memorable Entertainment channel (MeTV) runs a Saturday night episode of the original Star Trek, which I record and watch while I read the Sunday morning paper. Today’s rerun was “The Changeling.” An ancient (i.e., 21st-century) space probe from Earth, the Nomad, collides with an alien space probe called Tan-Ru. The two damaged machines managed to magically repair themselves and merge into a new, hyperintelligent machine that considers its mission to be to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to destroy these “biological infestations.” This episode was recycled for the first Star Trek movie, and Nomad became V’ger.

What always interests me in watching ancient science fiction is the contrast between today’s world and what the mid-20th century thought today’s world and the farther future would be like. In many ways, we haven’t made anywhere near the progress they thought we’d make in the 1960s. For example, genetic superman Khan Noonian Singh did not lead a crowd of genetic superpeople to power in the 1980s, leading to the Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, leading to the space-exile of the U.S.S. Botany Bay in the late 1990s. We didn’t even map the gene code until a few years ago, and genetic superhumans won’t be a 1950s emergence, but more like 2050s — assuming no one raises the obvious ethical questions.

On the other hand, at a pivotal moment in the episode (more on this later), Nomad zaps Scotty with a super-taser bolt and kills him, and no one on the bridge, especially Dr. McCoy, thinks of doing CPR — largely because the scriptwriter didn’t know that CPR had been invented. (In the 1968 episode where Kirk gets amnesia, joins a tribe of Native Americans, and saves the life of a drowned child, Kirk uses a version of artificial respiration that was taught to countless Boy Scouts until the late 1950s. CPR was invented in 1960, but obviously had not yet made its way to 1967-68 Los Angeles.)

And yet, computing and the Internet are ridiculously farther advanced than Star Trek thought they’d be in the 23rd century. In deep space, Nomad opens fire on the Enterprise. Kirk returns fire, then ceases fire and orders that the enemy be hailed. Nomad inexpicably also ceases fire, and uses the hail to magically teach itself 23th-century English, including plausible intonation and inflection. (Nothing like, “I aim gnome-AD,” for example.)

The Enterprise beams Nomad aboard, then inexplicably leaves Nomad virtually unattended. Nomad finds its way to the bridge. The device is attracted by Uhura’s singing but unsatisfied by her explanation. The machine’s response is to download the contents of Uhura’s cerebral cortex, which for some unknown reason entails wiping her “hard drive” of all data. (But don’t worry! It takes only a week to reeducate her the old-fashioned way to college level, or roughly ten days before she can return to duty.)

Alarmed by what Nomad is doing to Uhura, Scotty attempts to rescue her, and Nomad kills him with a super-taser zap. Nomad offers to “repair” Scotty, and our heroes accept the offer.

KIRK: All right, Nomad. Repair the [Scotty] unit.

NOMAD: I require tapes on the [Scotty] structure.

MCCOY: Well, [Nomad]’ll need tapes on general anatomy, the central nervous system, and then one on the physiological structure of the brain. We’d better give it all the neurological studies we have, as well as tracings of Scotty’s hyperencephalogram.

(Spock loads up the data.)
SPOCK: Nomad, I have arranged the tapes for flash feed at the top speed of the computer. Please do not draw the information faster than the machine’s capacity.

Yes, dear reader: do not download files from the Internet too fast, for fear of crashing it.

Meanwhile, for the last several minutes of “The Changeling,” I as a viewer, watching while reading the op-eds, am thinking, “For goodness sakes, don’t let Nomad jack into the ship’s Intranet!”

This distracted me from the silliness of 1967 to thinking about the future of space travel. I can no longer get along without the Cloud in my life. I have many gigs’ worth of files stored in Dropbox, so I never again have to worry about losing files that are important to me. There’s a search engine called Goodsearch that offers to pay the charity of your choice one penny per search, and I have given my charity several hundred dollars. (I use Goodsearch even when I know exactly where I want to go; a typical Goodsearch might be something like “imdb star trek changeling plot synopsis.”) Research, reading, shopping, online communities like Twitter and Facebook: I’ve grown to positively need the Cloud.

IF someone invents faster-than-light travel, and IF the Republicans can be persuaded that investing in the future is better than pocketing someone else’s money in the present (ha!), and IF we resurrect a space program worthy of the name — all of which I sincerely doubt could ever come to pass — the first explorers would carry with them a supply of “space buoys” so that they would never lose touch with the Cloud. Star Trek called these buoys “relay stations,” but they appear to have been only used for “subspace radio.” I would use it to connect the neighborhood to the Cloud, so that I as a spacefarer would never be too far from my Dropbox collection of family photos from my childhood, my PDFs, my love letters, whatever, whether I was orbiting Proxima Centauri, Tau Ceti 4, or Vulcan.

After FTL travel, the second-most-important invention would have to be “subspace radio,” because if the information in the Cloud were limited to the speed of light, Skyping Mom from Alpha Centauri would mean a time lag of about ten years from your saying “Hi, Mom” to you hearing her say, “Hello, kiddo.” If I want to download a book from Project Gutenberg to pass the lonely hours in deep space, I really don’t want to waste 10 years, or 200, between the time I click on the request to the time the download is complete.

But here’s the thing: physicists have discovered something called quantum entanglement, in which information passes between paired photons not just faster than light, but instantaneously. (If you’re interested, this 2008 article from Nature, the weekly science journal, summarizes what we know.) Quantum entanglement, in turn, suggests that Alfred Bester got it right in The Stars My Destination. This 1956 novel suggests that to teleport yourself faster than light, all you have to do is (a) know where you are and (b) visualize a location you have been to before and want to return to now. The only absolute rule is that no one can “jaunte” through outer space — until the book’s hero invents a way to jaunt both through outer space and through time. Says Wikipedia,

At this point he realizes the key to space-jaunting. It is faith: not the certainty of an answer, but the conviction that somewhere an answer exists. He then jauntes from one nearby star to another. In the course of his star-hopping, Foyle locates the answer for the future: new worlds suitable for colonization reachable only if he can share the gift of space-jaunting. Finally he comes to rest in the locker on Nomad, where he spent his time before being reborn the first time. The Scientific People now see him as a holy man, and take up vigil to await his revelation.

Quantum entanglement proves to us that the impossible distances of outer space are a chimera; not faster-than-light but instantaneous travel is theoretically possible. If we can figure out how photons do it, we can figure out how to do it with atoms, molecules, and eventually vast collections of molecules. We will be able to jaunte. Imagine the possibilities!

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Koch Brothers Products to Avoid March 11, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
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The cheerful news is that Alter.Net says Wisconsin firefighters managed to shut down the bank that was one of Scott Walker’s largest sources of funding. (And a bank, incidentally, that funded Walker to show its gratitude for the $1.7 billion it got in TARP bailout money.)

But then I saw this graphic, and now I’m bummed out:

My husband and I used to like many of these products. Now we have to find others. Damn and blast! — but I WILL NOT, not ever again, spend one dime that might end up as profit to the Koch brothers.

Treehugger (a Discovery company) has a complete list of of products to boycott because they profit the Koch oliGOParchy; click here to get started. It’s exhaustive; it’s exhausting. I don’t care. There isn’t much that you and I, the “little people,” can do to fight back against the GOP’s kleptocracy, the oliGOParchy, but this we CAN do. Little drops of water. . . .

Who is the Holy Ghost? February 18, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
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At a new (or newish) web site called Quora, someone asked, “Who is the Holy Ghost, as in ‘the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’??” My answer at Quora, which is an earlier version of what you’ll read below, can also be found here.

The Christian answer depends on understanding the difference between “ghost” and “spirit,” and understanding that the Christian Testament says “spirit.” Today you and I see little or no distinction between the two words; we think of both words as referring to the part of human consciousness that survives physical death.

In Jesus’s time, however, a spirit was something different, more like a nonhuman entity that infuses you the way a few drops of blue food coloring turns a glass of milk blue. The glass of milk is now “possessed” by the spirit of blueness. Similarly, you might be “possessed by a spirit” of anger, lying, perversity, jealousy, fear, bondage, divination, whoredoms, etc. In Jesus’s time, the spirit was the main way you could tell the difference between life and death. In other words, when Mark 3 and Matthew 12 talk about the only unforgivable sin being blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a modern-English translation might be something like, “How can you be forgiven by a God you don’t even believe exists in the first place?”

Another way of looking at the Christian answer is to remember that there is only one God in all the Universe, but that since there are almost 7 billion humans alive on the planet today, there are almost 7 billion ways of perceiving God. In that sense, God is a little like a Transformer toy, so that you might see God as a dinosaur and I might see God as a robot and they might see God as a truck, but it’s always the same God. You have probably already thought of the old story about the blind people who described an elephant as a snake, a tree trunk, a wall, a flag, or a rope, depending on what part they were touching.

Yet a third way of looking at the Christian answer is that the one God has three essential “components.” A computer consists of hardware (the physical machine), software (the operating system and the various programs), and electricity (the “spirit” that makes the difference between the computer being “alive” and being a really big paperweight). Christians frequently distinguish between the God who creates (the “Father”), the God who loves and rescues (the “Son”), and the God who sustains (the Holy Spirit, who is the “electricity” keeping you and me and every other living thing alive).

Finally, there’s the NON-Christian answer, which is that Christianity grew out of Judaism, and like Judaism proclaims that there is only one God in all the Universe: monotheism. But the earliest followers of the Jesus Movement lived in a culture where polytheists were all around them, worshiping Zeus and Aphrodite and Baal and Asherah and dozens of other gods and goddesses, and the earliest Christians wanted to worship Jesus as if he were just as divine as God is. In other words, NON-Christians say that the Trinity is the way that Christians practice polytheism while pretending to themselves that they’re monotheists.

Progress Marches On July 21, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
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Today’s post is a guessing game. Can you guess what this image is of? Hint: The photo was taken in 1956.

This gigantic gizmo is the world’s first hard drive. It was invented as part of the world’s first supercomputer, the IBM 305 RAMAC, and it held a big old 5 megabytes of data . . . which in 1956 was pretty darn impressive!

In 1974, the computer that I first learned BASIC to use was a 16K machine — yes, you read that right, 16 kilobytes of RAM — that lined the walls of a room that was approximately 20 feet square. I had to enter my code on punch cards, and one typographical error, or one card out of its proper order, and I was frakked.

Now I have an 8GB flash drive that’s smaller than a cigarette lighter, smaller than a tube of lipstick. One of today’s musical greeting cards, the kind that plays a little tune when you open it, contains more computing power than there was in the entire world in 1960. And I feel so old. . . .

Gulf Walrus July 15, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
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Were you as appalled as I was to hear that the Big Oil companies endangering the world with deep-sea drilling (not just BP, but ExxonMobil, Shell, and almost all of the others) all took walruses into account in their “oil spill regional response plans” for the Gulf of Mexico? For goodness sakes, when was the last time there were walruses in the Gulf of Mexico? (Answer: three million years ago.) How did you like BP’s plan listing the name of a marine biologist who they said would answer the phone in case of emergency despite having died in 2005? How cynical, callous, and amorally ready to endanger the public safety not just BP but ALL the Big Oil companies were!

This unique design comes on a wide variety of T-shirts, sweatshirts, cards, stickers, and other goodies. If you’d like a version that comes with the caption “Gulf Walrus” or “Revenge of the Gulf Walrus,” drop me an e-mail or send me a tweet (I’m @MWM4444).

The Earth Weeps Over the Oil Disaster July 14, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
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The Earth weeps....

I haven’t written much about the catastrophe that BP unleashed upon the world on April 20 because I’m desperately afraid we’ve finally gone too far, and the Earth won’t be able to recover from humanity’s selfishness: the poison that will move from the Gulf to the Caribbean to the Atlantic. Global warming. The disappearance of the bees. Mutant frogs. The vanishing rainforests. . . .

What I have done, however, is create a new design for my shop at Café Press, the Earth weeping one teardrop of oil. This design is available on a wide variety of goodies, including T-shirts, sweatshirts, buttons, stickers, and much more. I’ve bought a tote bag for myself for our weekly trip to the grocery store! If you’re interested, click here.

The Ultimate Drawbridge July 4, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
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These photos are too good NOT to share! There’s a historic drawbridge in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Liteny Bridge. It’s a bascule bridge, a kind of drawbridge where one part goes down as the other side rises (“bascule” is French for “seesaw”).

On June 14, 2010 (Che Guevara’s birthday), forty artists, working together so swiftly the job was done in “23 seconds flat,” painted an image on the drawbridge. An hour or two later, the city sent two firefighter brigades to remove the image from the bridge, so the image you see below is one of the few photos proving the incident actually happened.

This drawbridge is directly across from the FSB offices, today's version of the KGB.

The group of artists behind the prank calls itself Voina, the Russian for “war.” Voina has been known for its X-rated pranks for the sake of political dissent: anti-Medvedev orgies, anti-homophobic faux-lynchings, throwing stray cats into swanky restaurants, and similar pranks. Their protests are directed at exposing the corruption of the Russian government, and the drawbridge was intended to annoy the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, the modern incarnation of the KGB.

The president of Voina, who goes by “Bucket Man,” was the only member of Voina who was caught. Bucket Man was roughed up by soldiers who had been guarding the bridge (don’t ask me why, the article didn’t say, but hey, it’s Russia) and jailed for a to-me-unknown length of time. Only after Bucket Man was released did Voina issue their “hilarious, culturally untranslatable” statement as to why they had performed their prank; it appears to have been meant as a literal “f*ck you” to the FSB (KGB). I hope it was worth it to them; I know it was sure worth it for me!

The “Giant Galactic Space Dick” was 213 feet tall, 89 feet wide, and best seen when the bridge was fully open, at 67 degrees from the horizontal. Other photos are available at BroBible.com.

Lovers couldn't resist posing with the bridge.

Source: Why Russian Art Group Voina “Dicked” the Bridge

Funny Old Print Ads June 25, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
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In the “times HAVE changed” department, some genuine old display ads that made me laugh out loud.

Notice that correct grammar would say "easily. . ."

It's too coy to say so, but this is an ad for condoms — which, in the
ad's era, were usually called "French letters."

Lard, for those of you who are too young to remember it, is pig fat, either rendered (purified) or not. Think of it as high-cholesterol Crisco.

Oh, absolutely! Colas are SO good for babies! The fine print of the ad
tells us that if you start feeding your baby colas now, she'll have a much
better chance of "gaining acceptance" and "fitting in" during those
awkward childhood and teen years.

Lose weight by deliberately swallowing a tapeworm!

Yes, children, this ad is actually recommending tapeworms for weight loss.

Incredibly, this ad is actually urging women to douche with Lysol!

In 1965, the National Geographic Society actually installed a picture-phone setup like the one in this ad between its Washington, DC headquarters and its Chicago printing plant. While it was way too expensive to allow a small child to talk on it, I DID have the opportunity to see on a monitor what I would have looked like to the VIPs in Chicago!

"The year’s most exciting fashion news! Real Hawaiian Muu Muu!" This ad
dates from approximately the year of President Obama’s birth. Why
ever did the muu muu fall out of high fashion? In the president’s honor,
let’s bring back the muu muu!

You may not have seen ads like this yourself, but it's all of a piece with the "doctors smoking" scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and similar movies.

Yes, you too can attract the love of a good woman
by blowing smoke in her face. . . .

Back in the olden days, when "The Flintstones" sang "We'll have a gay old time," they meant "happy." A "faggot" was a stick of wood, and a "fag" was a cigarette.

Yes, children, you too should smoke cigarettes, just like Santa!

Still haven’t had enough? Follow this link for More Funny Old Print Ads.

River Song and the Weeping Angels May 17, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
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(This blog entry is primarily for other fans of Doctor Who. If you’re not one, you’ll probably be bored. Sorry!)

“Blink” and the two-part “Silence in the Library,” both by Steven Moffat, are three of my all-time favorite Doctor Who episodes. So when I saw that Steven Moffat was the author of the two-part “The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone,” featuring both the Weeping Angels (“Blink”) and River Song (“Silence in the Library”), I suspended my doubts.

According to “Blink,” the Weeping Angels evolved near the beginning of the Universe. They are “quantum-locked,” which causes them to turn instantly into stone when observed by another life-form — even another Angel, which is why (in “Blink”) one saw only faces covered by hands unless the Angel was a split-second from striking, and why they are also known as the Lonely Assassins; they may not even look at each other. “Blink” never explained how or why a species would evolve to be unable to procreate except blindly.

In “Blink,” the Angels “eat” by touching their victim, which sends the victim back in both time and space; Kathy Nightingale was sent from London back 87 years to a moor in Hull, while the Doctor, Martha, and Billy Shipton were all sent back 38 years, Billy from indoors to outdoors. For some unknown reason, the Angels have evolved a mouthful of really frightening fangs.

In other words, the Angels “eat” by consuming the potential temporal energy the victim would have had if he/she had NOT been transported back in time. (This makes no sense to me, though I’d love to be able to live off of potential food. But never mind.) The Angels are, the Doctor says, the kindest of killers and psychopaths, since they do not kill, but allow their victims to “live to death.”

Other rules laid down in “Blink”: the Angels move both silently and amazingly fast when not observed, yards and yards in a fraction of a second. It is implied that they are stone only when observed.

“Angels/F&S” changes these rules. Now the Angels live off not merely temporal energy (uh-hunh), but also electricity, not to mention the various other forms of radiation emitted by a Galaxy-class Star Liner. Whoever looks into an Angel’s eyes becomes an Angel — even if she looks only into a video image of an Angel’s eyes. (Well, that’s one way to procreate, though it doesn’t sound like fun!) The Angels move significantly more slowly and noisily. They now murder their victims by snapping their necks. Although they crave the time-energy of the TARDIS, the pure time-energy emitted by the Crack will kill them. (Drowning in time itself, I suppose.) They no longer worry about covering their faces. At one point during “F&S,” we all observe the Angels moving. There are several scenes in “F&S” when no one is looking at the Angels, but the Angels continue to stand around inertly. Although a few Weeping Angels “ate” and converted thousands of two-headed natives after the crash, no one Angel-ized the commando-priests Christian, Angelo, and Bob.

Most startling, the Angels can now reanimate a dead brain, dead lungs, and a dead voicebox and use them to communicate. “Come look at this” is the most imaginative thing they can come up with to lure Christian and Angelo to their deaths, but they use poor “Angel Bob” to become almost chatty.

Okay. I can live with these changes in the rules, I suppose. But I’m not sure I understand the changes in River Song.

In “Silence in the Library,” River Song recognized the 10th Doctor as the Doctor at first glance, but had no idea that he was such an early incarnation that he hadn’t met her yet. She began by suggesting that they compare diaries, apparently not noticing that he had no diary and was bewildered by her familiarity with him.

Although we all gather that the Doctor and River will go on to have a diary-full of adventures together — including but not limited to the Bone Meadows, the picnic at Asgard, the opening of the Pandorica, a journey to the End of the Universe, and, just before their first/last meeting in the Library, a trip to hear the Singing Towers of Darillium. During most of “SitL,” River refrained from telling the Doctor more than she had to, to protect their future relationship from “spoilers,” but it is clear that she has been/will be much more to him than a mere Companion. For one thing, she knows the Doctor’s name, a secret so deep that she apologizes with urgent sincerity for whispering it into his ear.

For those who are doggedly reading along without being Doctor Who fans: At the end of “SitL,” River sacrifices her life to save the Doctor. She lives on today only as data in the Library’s CPU. Any River we audience members meet from now on is a younger woman than the one whose body died in the Library.

In “SitL,” the older River does not realize that the 10th Doctor has not met her yet. In the just-aired “Angels/F&S,” a younger River recognizes the 11th Doctor, informing him that, apparently unlike her older self, she keeps “pictures” of all the Doctor’s incarnations. The younger River knows that she and the Doctor keep meeting each other out of sequence. Apparently they have so many adventures together in the Doctor’s future that the older River does not remember “Angels/F&S.”

The younger River is better at flying the TARDIS than the 11th Doctor is, and tells him she learned from the best, and it’s too bad the Doctor wasn’t around that day — implying that instead of only the Doctor being able to fly the TARDIS, at least three people can. The younger River has no trouble implying to Amy that she and the Doctor have a quasi-spousal relationship. The younger River is occasionally annoyingly smug.

Most puzzling of all, the older River recognized Donna Noble, who would go on to save the Universe as part of the DoctorDonna. But even though it is clear that Amy Pond is connected to the Crack in time in a way that will end up saving the Universe before she can retire and marry her Rory — i.e., just as important to the Doctor as Donna was —, the younger River appeared not to recognize her.

The theme song of the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000 commented, “If you wonder how they eat and breathe, and other science facts, / Repeat to yourself: ‘It’s just a show. I should really just relax.’ ” I realize that as a staunch Doctor Who-vian, I am required to believe in giant flying salt-and-pepper shakers, super-high-tech aliens whose spaceship-ambulances can’t tell the difference between animate tissue and artifact, monsters who suck faces off through TVs, and giant scarlet spiders who create vast criminal enterprises unnoticed.

But I still think that once a TV show has established an alternate reality, it ought to stick to its own rules. Either the Angels kill by sending you back in time OR they kill by snapping your neck. Either the Angels can’t communicate with you OR they can reanimate dead brains. Either River Song has never seen the 10th Doctor before OR she is totally blasé about meeting the 11th Doctor for the first time, the Doctor himself for the second time from his point of view.

I trust Steven Moffat. I do. I rank him in the same pantheon as Joss Whedon, Russell T. Davies, and Jane Espenson. (Moffat’s “Silence in the Library” was beaten for a Hugo Award by Joss Whedon’s “Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog” — by about 100 votes!)

The “Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone” two-parter gave us Bishop Octavian, whom I liked a lot, as well as important information about the Crack and important clues about the significance of Amy Pond. I think Moffat was right when he said Amy was the best Companion yet. I’ll watch reruns of this two-parter without much complaint.

I realize that each of my quibbles can be rationalized. The “new” Weeping Angels are so slow because they were dormant for so long. Unlike billions of generations before them, this generation has evolved a way to survive looking at each other. They’re so slow because they starved for so many centuries that their brains have been affected.

But did River Song have to be so annoyingly smug so often? And what was that Bushwah about being able to refuse a mental image by closing one’s eyes? I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m better at seeing mental images with my eyes closed! That whole business about a mental image needing to grow into a Weeping Angel that would eventually exit Amy through her irises OR complete her transformation was simply lame. If a growing mental image had that much power, Glenn Beck would be wearing a pink tutu as he cleaned the toilets in a maximum-security prison.

William Shakespeare, April 23 April 23, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
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mehitabel watching archy type

Today is April 23, the day Shakespeare died in 1616 and the day he was probably born in 1564 (he was baptized on April 26).

The following poem is by Don Marquis, writing in the guise of archy, a cockroach who communicated with Marquis by leaping from typewriter key to typewriter key — so of course he could type no capital letters. (I have no idea why archy couldn’t use the apostrophe, a lower-case character.)

I don’t know what “jacosity” means; I imagine that archy was going for “jocosity,” or being given making jokes.

archy confesses

coarse jacosity
catches the crowd
shakespeare and i
are often low browed

the fish wife curse
and the laugh of the horse
shakespeare and i
are frequently coarse

aesthetic excuses
in bill s behalf
are adduced to refine
big bill s coarse laugh

but bill he would chuckle
to hear such guff
he pulled rough stuff
and he liked rough stuff

hoping you are the same
archy