Archive for March, 2011


E.T. is back…to save Earth!

March 19, 2011

Review of “Battle Los Angeles”

March 19, 2011

Duck! Incoming!

My son and I went to see “Battle: Los Angeles” this afternoon. It’s no longer the biggest movie out there, so even though it was a Saturday afternoon we had the VIP theater at Muvico Rosemont to ourselves. Pretty dang good home theater, folks!

My son had seen it last week, so he had a couple of things he told me to forewarn me about the movie. He told me it wasn’t a typical alien invasion movie, and he was completely correct. In fact, there was almost no backstory on the aliens – why they were here, how their civilization was organized, where they were from – nothing.

And it didn’t matter. With a 24-hour flashback at the beginning to set up the backstory for Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhardt), the remainder of the two hours is a nonstop battle. It focuses on a small group of Marines at first tasked with infiltrating past a line held by the alien enemy to rescue some civilians at an abandoned police station. The Marines end up doing much more – at least those who survive.

The movie focuses on the small group of Marines  and civilians (and one Air Force info specialist) in a small area almost exclusively. It could have been a battle film from any of many military actions. I’ve read that it has been compared to “Blackhawk Down.” I’ve still not seen that movie, but I can believe it. There is a lot of this film that is independent of the fact that the enemy is from another planet.

Aaron Eckhardt

It’s a pretty good ensemble cast, too. No single cast member has to carry anything big except Eckhardt, and he does a fine job. All the cast members contribute well to the tone of the film as well as the plot, and, as per Roger Ebert’s rule of thumb, you do care about them by the end of the film – even those that are killed off early on.

CGI is good but not the driving force of the film, which is kind of nice. It’s probably overall a bigger part of the movie than in “District 9,” but not much. Much of the EFX work is practical – explosions, guns firing, stuff falling and flying around. Nothing otherworldly or particularly deus ex machina about the plot. (Well, a bit at the end, but it doesn’t feel forced.)

The eeeeevil aliens!

There is one bit that is forced. The aliens, according to CNN, are here to take our water. Huh? According to the news report on the TV in the background, the aliens need water in a liquid state, not frozen. Really? They have interstellar travel, but they can’t mine comets for ice? They have high-tech weapons but don’t know how to melt ice? If you can travel in space, there are all kinds of places in a solar system where water is easier to come by that by attacking an inhabited planet. That’s wasteful of resources.

When I’m it a science fiction movie situation like this, I just sing the lyrics from “Mystery Science 3000”:

If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes
And other science fact,
Just repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show,
I should really just relax,”

(By the way, that was the motivation for the Visitors in the old “V” series. I know, not very clever, even for back in the day.)

Anyway, you don’t have to like military SF to like this film. It’s a military movie, yes, but very much about the trials of a small group, not an “Independence Day” style epic. I recommend it. It was well done.


Still no reason for panic over nuclear meltdown

March 18, 2011

I’ve found a site maintained by the students of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT that seems to give good information about the Fukushima Nuclear Plant situation in Japan. it’s at Besides explanations about terms used in the nuclear industry, it maintains updates about the situation in Japan free of purple prose.

As of this morning the spent fuel rod pools were being sprayed using army firetrucks. A power line had been laid from a main power line a kilometer and a half from the facility so there will be power soon to the emergency cooling systems. Backup diesel generators are running to cool the spent fuel rod pools at Units 5 and 6, and the temperatures are down to the mid 60s Celsius.

I’ve not seen anything that says any of the steel primary pressure vessels have been breached on any of the reactors, or that any have reached a high enough temperature to melt the intermal machinery. Most of the problems seem to be focused on the pools where the spent fuel rods are stored, not on the reactors themselves.

There will be a high price to cleanup of the site, and perhaps none of the reactors can be saved; I doubt that, though. I’ll bet that at least some of them will eventually be running again. What is really unfortunate is that this is taking center stage while so many thousands are still missing, presumed dead. The iPad newspaper The Daily had some before and after photos of areas that were destroyed by the tsunami, and it was horrible. Entire towns were just scoured off the map like they never existed.


Springtime on Titan

March 18, 2011

Composite view of Titan taken by Cassini

The Cassini Saturn probe just keeps tickin’ along, coming up with new stuff all the time. It’s “springtime” on Saturn, in that Saturn experienced equinox in August 2009, and with a year of almost 30 Earth years, it’s still spring. Now Cassini has seen evidence of methane rain falling in the more arid regions around the equator. Methane takes the place of water in the weather cycle on Titan, where it is too cold for liquid water – as in about 290 degrees below zero F.

Most of the atmosphere of Titan is nitrogen, but it also seems to contain several per cent methane (more than the amount of water in Earth’s atmosphere), and it’s very thick; at ground level the air pressure is about half again that of Earth’s. The atmosphere contains a bunch of other stuff as well that apparently is similar to smog on Earth. The atmospheric chemistry of Titan must be pretty interesting, with so many complex chemical reactions going on with so little heat to drive them.

Titan weather photo

I’m amazed by the fact that through all this crud in the air on Titan Cassini can still see weather patterns – as little as five or six years ago we didn’t even know what kind of surface the moon had because of the murk. Researching this post I found that it’s now known that Titan is not the largest moon in the solar system, as long thought. The honor goes to Ganymede, which is 62 miles in diameter larger.

Cassini was launched in 1997. Technology fifteen years old is providing this information, folks! On those days when you think maybe our lasting impact on civilization will be the cellular phone, or worse, the video game, remember that people are building machines that travel hundreds of millions of miles, through intense cold, sailing through the black for years, and still function perfectly. That makes me feel pretty good about human beings…at least for today!

Not that cats couldn’t have done it better, of course…

From, of course!


Well, I went and done it…

March 16, 2011

I filled out the online application with the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System today. That’s the last big step in retiring from teaching. It feels weird.

That’s why I thought the picture above was appropriate. Then I found this one – maybe it was more apt:

Naw, too dismal for no reason. OK, I hunted around some more. I found this:

Yeah, that’s more like it!


What if we were two years into a McCain Presidency?

March 16, 2011

Senator John McCain of Arizona

Mark Whittington wrote a great piece today on where we might be if John McCain had been elected President in 2008.

You should take the link and read the whole piece – it’s not long. A few of the highlights, though:

* no “stimulus” package

* no health care package

* no cap-and-trade

* more oil drilling here and offshore (Whittington makes the point that McCain was not for drilling in ANWR; his Vice President was, however. Sarah is a force to be reckoned with.)

* our relationships with Iran, North Korea, and Libya would be much different.

• most likely, he would have supported the continuation of the Constellation manned space program

You see where this is going. Whittington didn’t even really talk about tax cuts. At the very least, McCain would gridlock a Democratic Congress and keep them from passing all this crazy legislation.

But…there would then be no corresponding growth of the Tea Party movement. There would be no Republican landslide in 2010. In the long view, will the replacement of congressional Republicans with Tea Party conservatives prove to be a bigger benefit for the country than avoiding a couple of years of Obama blunders?


More on heavy-lift launch vehicles

March 16, 2011

The Ares I and Ares V planned launch vehicles

A couple of posts back I was growling about how NASA, according to Director Charles Bolden, can no longer build a heavy-lift launch vehicle. This is, of course. complete nonsense. We did it before, with 1960s technology, in 7 years, including all research and development, and  built a rocket with a 100 per cent success rate.

Above are the Ares V (left) and Ares I (the “Stick,” right) as they were designed as part of the Constellation program.A  sort-of boilerplate version of the Ares I was launched some months ago using a 4-segment solid rocket first stage, using components from one of the shuttle SRBs, to validate some of the original calculations.

The Ares V is based on the shuttle external tank and the shuttle main engines. This version shows three SSMEs (space shuttle main engines), although there were some discussions about building one with five. This is essentially the heavy-lift design that was killed off by Obama.

Heavy-lift, loosely defined as something around the payload of the Saturn V and above, has been investigated since just about the time the Saturn V was being designed. There are several early designs from the 1960s that were pretty bold. Here’s one from Martin Marietta:

Nova designs

Some of these are freaking gigantic…where do you launch from? It might be that a Nova would have to be launched from a remote island someplace.

The Chrysler SERV

This squat, ugly thing was a heavy-lift design from Chrysler that was also single-stage-to-orbit. It had jet engines as well as rocket engines! It would take off and land vertically. Actually, in the 1960s there were several similar designs from other companies. It would have been interesting if any had even gotten to the the prototype stage.

Saturn V follow-on designs

Wernher von Braun, considered the “father” of the Saturn V, was a great believer in upgrading anything that was already proven. The Jupiter-C, which put the first US satellite in to orbit, was really a modified Redstone missile von Braun’s design team built for the Army. The Saturn IB, used in Earth-orbit tests for Apollo and later for Skylab, had a first stage that was really a Jupiter missile in the center with a cluster of Redstones around it. It was therefore no no surprise that there were studies done to upscale the Saturn V.

Shuttle-derived launcher

In the 80s there were a number of studies tossed around using shuttle components. Some looked like a cargo version of the shuttle with no wings (above), some had the SSMEs on the bottom of the external tank and none on the cargo pod. The idea popped up again a few years ago. The problem with the design is that it’s pretty much completely a throwaway – three SSMEs are left in orbit with the cargo pod. The pod is much lighter than a shuttle (no heat-resistant structure, no wings, no life support system, etc.) so it can carry a lot of cargo, and it can probably bring the external tank into orbit with it. The ET would be an asset as well if it can be turned into living space.

An early external tank habitat concept

A model of a two-tank habitat:

Two-tank habitat model

Now we’ve thrown away over a hundred of these tanks…that’s a lot of heavy-lift that we could have been using, virtually for free. Think of the size of the ISS if even a half-dozen of those tanks were used for living space!