Archive for the ‘travel’ Category


Film review: “Interstellar”

November 19, 2014

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

This quote applies, of course, to any number of science fiction films over the last fifty years. But I’ve seen so many reactions on the interweebs to this movie that seemed to be so wrong headed that I wonder if maybe there are several different versions of the movie out there, and I happened to see the one that actually used an extrapolation of science.

Physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst started out, much like Kubrick and Clarke, to make a real science fiction movie that was based on fact, or at least logical extrapolations of what we know right now. After a bit, they attracted Steve Spielberg, who in turn suggested Jonathan Nolan to work with them on a screenplay. Ultimately Spielberg had to leave the project, and eventually Nolan got the script to his director brother Christopher Nolan. After some legal wrangling between Paramount and Warner Brothers, the film finally got started. Thorne had many discussions with the Nolans, the effects team, and cast members as the film progressed. For many members of the audience, it probably would not have been necessary to go this far – audiences today will suspend their disbelief for a lot of nonsensical pseudo-science. But the fact they did makes it that much richer for me, and hopefully for a lot of other folks as well. Thorne even wrote a book elaborating on the process, called The Science of Interstellar. I recommend it; not only does it give a good overview of the science used as a basis for the movie, but it also demonstrates how much hard work goes on behind the scenes in a film, sometimes for decades before the film comes out.

Let me say at the outset that I enjoyed the film a great deal. It’s long, at over 2 hours and 45 minutes, and early on it seems a little slow. However, I think that’s just the way I perceive it after all the cgi-laden action/adventure films that have come out over the past decade. This movie doesn’t start with a bang and then just keeps running along. It takes the time to build the relationships in Coop’s (Matthew McConaughey) family for us. However, it seems to take a much shorter time for Coop to be sold on the idea of what probably will be a one-way trip through the wormhole. But then, Michael Caine can be very persuasive, of course!

If you want a recap of the plot, you can always go here. Rather than that, I’d like to reflect on the main theme of the movie, which is, to me, “we can save ourselves with a little bit of time travel, just not the time travel you think.”

Nobody physically goes back in time. (In fact, Thorne is one of scientists best known for explaining why we won’t be able to do that.) However, that doesn’t mean that information can’t be sent back, in one way or another. All you need is a civilization sufficiently advanced to give a father a way to send some information to his daughter – if the father is in the right place, and if the daughter is the right daughter.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! I’ve read that some folks who have seen the movie took the bit of speculation about the nature of love as being a tangible, physical force that transcends time and space – presented by Anne Hathaway’s character – and ran with it. Sorry, y’all; you weren’t paying attention later on. It is made abundantly clear that the lines in the dust in Murph’s room were created by artificially-created gravity waves. No “Power of Love” here. I can understand some of the confusion, though: gravity is just as difficult to perceive, and no more easily controlled, at least by us. But not by the post-humans. (That’s what I call ’em. For a long time we are sort of led to believe they are some kind of super-beings just doing us a favor so we don’t die off. Coop makes the mental leap that they are our descendants, greatly evolved.) We never see them, and we only really see one effect of their presence. The “time lattice” Coop uses to communicate with Murph is apparently constructed by the post-humans only for that purpose, so he can give her the information she needs for a breakthrough that allows humanity to finally leave Earth, and apparently just in time.

In a way, this is the “transparent aluminum” storyline: In Star Trek IV, Scotty needs “transparent aluminum” to construct a tank for the whales. He gives the formula to a 20th century chemist/engineer so that he can create what Scotty needs. When asked by Dr. McCoy if this was messing with the timeline, Mr. Scott replies, “How do you know he didn’t invent the thing?”

I suppose transparent aluminum isn’t as big a thing in the 24th century as radio is for us. (Although if asked, most people would identify the inventor of radio as Marconi, if they had any idea at all. Grrr. Tesla, folks, Tesla. Look it up.) Still, Scotty wasn’t worried by bootstrapping materials science and creating the classic causality loop.

To make sure that humanity doesn’t die out by being stranded on Earth, the post-humans leave messages for Murph that subtly suggest to Coop that his trip through the wormhole might not be the sheer folly it seems. Therefore, he goes, lots of crazy stuff happens, and he in desperation makes the dive through the black hole’s event horizon. There they have set up the commo lattice – referred to in the film as a tesseract – for him to use to provide signals to Murph at various times of her life, including those that influenced him in deciding to go in the first place. He also can send the data the older version of Murph needs to make the breakthrough in mastering gravity so that we can get off this rock. He does this by manipulating the second hand on a watch through gravitational effects, sending a lot of data collected from inside the event horizon. It seems to take him only a short time to do this, but as we know, time inside a black hole’s event horizon is different from outside it.

So at the end of it all, no aliens – but something that started out as humanity has to help get its ancestors off the planet, or they won’t exist, and they placed the wormhole in orbit around Saturn just for that purpose. Seems like a long shot, but if they had the history of what had happened at that time, all they had to do is make sure the history had a little help to play out correctly.

Those of you who are believers in the “Many Universes” hypothesis probably won’t buy into this as much. In another universe, no wormhole; in yet another, no Coop to save them, etc. If that interpretation could be brought into the plot, the tesseract would have shown Murph in her room in many, many more versions of the situations that first and last provided communication with her. But the film stays firmly rooted in a traditional causality.

It’s not a new idea, but it certainly is played out in a refreshing fashion. I was happy to see a plot that took that much of the audience’s attention to follow in a big mainstream movie.

There are the nitpicks. First, Coop’s training sucks. They pretty much throw him into the ship with three other people, and away they go. That is necessary so that he can be the space cowboy he needs to be, flying the Ranger by hand at several key points in the movie.

Questions have been raised about the Ranger. Why did it need a big chemical-powered, multistage booster to get off Earth, yet takes off and lands under its own power on several other planets, including one with a surface gravity of 1.3 G? I have a possible answer, though it isn’t covered in the movie: antimatter.

The ships are a combination of tech we have now (Rangers are covered with shuttle-like protective tiles, for example) and very high tech (robots with advanced AI.) We know that making antimatter, at least the way we know we can do it right now, is very slow, requires very large equipment, and is very power-hungry. Maybe the Ranger could have taken off on its own, but say it uses 25% of its available fuel to do so. No more fuel after that. Let’s save some by using a sort of pseudo Saturn V that we had laying around. We may have fueled it with the last antimatter we could produce.

The Ranger has little room for fuel stores, so fuel has to be something very energetic, like antimatter, but it can’t take up a lot of space. Maybe a couple of tanks of reaction mass to interact with the antimatter can be squeezed in. Hydrogen is the best choice if the antimatter is really anti hydrogen, but it isn’t very dense so the tanks have to be insulated like crazy and be larger than LOX or H2O tanks would be.

The other nitpick is tidal effects. On the first planet the explorers are confronted with a tidal wave 4000 feet tall. The planet is too close to the black hole – close enough that time slows down a lot, and tidal effects on the ocean are enormous. The same tidal effects should affect everything on the planet, so it eventually will be torn apart. That to me means it isn’t a good candidate for a new home for mankind.

Also, apparently the light from the black hole (huh?) is bright enough to provide light bright as day – at least, a cloudy day in Iceland. Where is that light coming from, really? You would need it to grow crops. None of these planets sounds particularly pleasant or survivable in the long term!

My major gripe about the film is the score. Hans Zimmer was apparently asked by Christopher Nolan to do something unique. He’s done that if unique means boring, loud and simplistic. Sometimes it was so loud it covered important dialog. The score lent more of a feeling of slowness to the movie as it slogged along, repeating the same phrases over and over again. Did Zimmer listen to too much Philip Glass? I would have thought a score like Alan Silvestri’s for The Abyss would have been appropriate, instead. I think this movie would have been a complete knockout, Oscar-worthy, if the score wasn’t so annoying and boring.

Nolan likes using IMAX cameras, he likes using real film over digital recording, and he likes using practical EFX over CGI when possible. All are great, but remember, far more viewings of this movie will be on TV screens than in the theater. Until we all have our 85 inch 4K HDTVs that extra quality won’t be noticed…but a bad score will be.

In summary, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the landmark film some people have said it is, but it’s very good, and I highly recommend it to you.


Maybe this one is THE one…

October 21, 2013


This pretty little thing is called the Aeromobil, and it was designed by two Slovakian gentlemen. This is supposed to be version 3.0, and the current flying version is 2.5. You can see it flying at this link.

Is it cooler-looking than the Terrafugia? Yeah. Than the next iteration the Terrafugia folks want to build, by 2020? Yeah, probably so. But not by much:

tfx v03 cityliftoff-WM


And this one will be an electric hybrid, and will pretty much fly itself. We’ll see how things shake out. At least the technology has progressed to a point where a “roadable aircraft” can really be built…



Sayin’ something nice…about the Jawbone ICON + Nerd

February 19, 2013



This little tiny thing is the Jawbone ICON HD + The NERD.

I’ve not had good luck with hands-free audio for driving. I have a Plantronics Voyager Pro that works passably with my iPhone 4S until I put the phone in my pocket and start walking. Then it cuts in and out, every time. It doesn’t fit in my ear very comfortably and the sound is so-so.

I have a set of Motorola S305 stereo headphones that provide reasonable sound for headphones of their size, but I can’t wear them in the car. (They also have pretty good range away from the phone.)

I’m doing a lot of long-distance driving, five hours or so at a clip, and I needed something better. I broke down and spent over a hundred bucks at Amazon on the Jawbone. And dammit, it was money well spent!

The thing has “HD” sound – I don’t know what that means for a monophonic, one-ear headphone, but it so far is way better than any other phone headset I’ve ever used. My wife says call quality on the other end is good, too, although I haven’t tested it on the road in my noisy Chevy Equinox.I wouldn’t want to listen to music with it all day, but I could listen to audiobooks with it for a couple of hours at a time, I think.

The NERD is the little USB dongle, obviously. While it is a Bluetooth dongle, it is a dedicated one – once you pair the Jawbone to it you can use it on any computer and it will still know to stay linked. And it can stream audio from the computer while you are waiting for a call on the iPhone, then it will switch to the iPhone when needed. That is way cool! The dongle does use up a USB port, but that’s OK with me because I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time I want to connect it to the laptop.

So far, I recommend it. We’ll see after I have it a while. I don’t know about battery life. The button layout seems smart and I can switch it from one ear to the other without too much trouble and without changing anything. I think it will make those long drives a bit easier.


Travel by asteroid

November 15, 2012

David Hardy painting of an asteroid-based spaceship

For a long time scientists and science fiction writers have postulated using an asteroid as either an orbital base or a non-FTL starship. Books like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow use spacefaring asteroid ships because it appears to be a monumental problem to lift enough material out of Earth’s gravity well to build a starship from scratch. John Ringo’s Troy Rising series uses an asteroid, melted and inflated, as a fortress to defend Earth from aliens entering through a hyperspace gate.

SPOILER AHEAD! In fact, Ringo goes farther and, using an Orion-style nuclear bomb drive, turns his fortress into a mobile battle platform, taking it through the gate and to the battle.

I just finished Dr. Travis Taylor’s new book, A New American Space Plan, and I was struck by something that I never really considered much before. Maybe we can get to Mars using current, or near-future technology. NASA is now setting its sights on a mission to a Near-Earth Asteroid. (Or it was last I looked. NASA plans change every day.) Beyond that – let’s say we want to go to Jupiter – it’s going to be orders of magnitude more difficult. When the AE-35 antenna pointing unit failed in “2001” – OK, Hal did it, but still – they happened to have the parts or whatever to fix it. They didn’t have to, but were prepared to.

So let’s say we’ve got a Discovery-class ship, three crew in suspended animation, two minding the store on the Long Trip Out. Something breaks, or the classic Dramatic Meteor Impact happens and breaks something – something that is not available on the ship. We’re basically screwed. Don’t tell me 3D printing technology will save us. It won’t build a microchip for a really, really, long time. And a whole antenna, say 20 feet in diameter? Probably not. We don’t have Ringo’s fabbers, and if we have to wait for those, we won’t go to Jupiter for a long while.

We could do it by what Robert Zubrin, author of the “Mars Direct” concepts, derisively called the “Battlestar Galactica” approach: a gigantic fleet of ships, traveling together for mutual aid and protection. But if lifting one ship’s parts out of the gravity well is hard, lifting 20 is a lot harder.

So let’s see…maybe we can grab a Near-Earth Asteroid, bolt a bunch of stuff on it, drill it out or blow it out with nukes, and build a habitat inside. Maybe not for hundreds of people – let’s say, 50 or so. That’s a lot of lifting but not as much as the other alternatives. Ion drive, solar sail, Orion or Orion-derived nuclear pulse drive – any of them would probably work. It would just take a while to go someplace.

Look at it as if you are driving your motor home cross country and have to take your machine shop along because nobody stocks parts for your vehicle. The bigger the vehicle, and the more people, the more likely it is you can fabricate what you need. And most of the mass is nickel-iron asteroid, which is also providing a lot of radiation shielding. Instead of thinking of a trip to Jupiter as taking a few years, maybe you’ll take decades. Running a closed environmental system like that isn’t easy, but it’s easier than a lot of the alternatives. Eventually we’ll have some better drives, and we can get around the system faster.

Has anyone ever calculated how much toilet paper is needed for a five-year trip?

I don’t see this happening in the next 10 years, but it could be done a lot sooner than most every other idea I’ve heard for deep space interplanetary travel as long as we lack a superdrive. Those are based mostly on magic and good intentions right now.

Once we know how to do that, we can build bigger ones and send people to the stars. By then we should have a pretty good idea which ones have planets we could live on.

I wasn’t a fan of the NASA asteroid mission scenario until now. Now I hope we can get there. We won’t just be learning how the solar system is put together, but how to build a better spaceship.

A pity, though. I kind of like the Blake’s 7 Liberator as a spaceship design. Of course, it was built by aliens…

Blake’s 7 “Liberator” – lots cooler than flying a hunk of rock!


The Apollo 11 lunar landing, in real time

August 27, 2012

Buzz Aldrin on the ladder

Paolo Attivissimo and a team of volunteers have taken the imagery from the 16mm film camera attached at the window of the lunar module Eagle, merged it with CGI of the LM’s orientation and intercuts of the Mission Control team, and synchronized the whole works so to show the last 16 minutes of Eagle’s descent, with all the radio exchanges by the crew and mission control, occurring in real time. They also subtitled it because some of the transmissions were not very clear.

Then went on to do the same with all the work on the surface, digitally restoring the camera work. The whole documentary may be found at and is broken into parts that are streamable through vimeo in 720p. It is stunning work.

The landing, which is all I have had a chance to watch all the way through, is a nail-biter even though you know they land successfully. From exchanges with Mission Control and Mike Collins in orbit about antenna problems to inquiries about warning lights, there is a drama here I never expected. Through it all Armstrong and Aldrin are amazing, as are the Mission Control folks. Steely-eyed missile men, indeed!

Through the window camera you can plainly see the craters Armstrong had to avoid in the last seconds before landing. It is pretty well-known that he landed almost bingo fuel, but he calmly maneuvered the LM around obstacles and put it down gently among the craters. Since all we had at the time was a very limited amount of data from the Surveyor unmanned probes, we didn’t even know if the surface would hold the Eagle. They could have landed in several feet of lunar dust…there were so many unknowns!

Whenever we go back to the Moon, we will of course have far more advanced communications links and automated landing systems. No one need ever land on the Moon manually again…but Neil Armstrong did it, with Buzz Aldrin handling most of the communications chores as well as a host of other things necessary by the state of the art of the time. Truly a triumph not just of American techology, but of Americans.

It has taken Mr. Attivissimo, an Italian, to remind us of this. Thank you sir, and thank you to all who assisted you!

This is the perfect time to watch this. And please, donate if you can.


Happy India Independence Day!

August 15, 2012

Kite flying on India Independence Day!

I looked at my stats for this blog from yesterday and saw that suddenly I had about 4 times the usual number of hits! I thought, “What the heck did I write that attracted so many people?”

Further investigation showed that most of the hits were on a post titled “It’s Independence Day, dammit!

I wrote it in July of 2011 about how we in the USA tend to refer to our Independence Day as “the Fourth of July.” Except for Cinco de Mayo, I don’t know of a country that just uses the date for a national holiday.

Essentially, my point was that we tend to forget the reason for the day and turn it into a recreational day with cookouts and fireworks. Neither are a bad thing, but we don’t stop to reflect on how important the Declaration of Independence was – not just to Americans, but to freedom-loving people all around the world.

But that wasn’t why that piece was suddenly so popular. For those of you not in the know, today (August 15) is India Independence Day. Apparently the search bots didn’t know about other countries.

So, people of India, sorry my piece wasn’t about that. However, I have placed links on this piece and the image above is of a favorite way of celebrating Independence Day there – flying kites!

So, to my friends in India, Happy Independence Day! I hope you have a great day and that the weather is good for flying kites! And if you want to shoot off some fireworks, well…you go – after all, India and the USA both gained their independence from Great Britain!


Happy Moon Day!

July 20, 2012

I almost forgot! Here’s some of the restored video of the Apollo 11 flight that put Neil and Buzz on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

I watched Armstrong’s first steps on a little black and white TV (not that it mattered), outside, at Farragut State Park in northern Idaho. I was a participant in the Boy Scout Jamboree that week. The whole thing was kind of surreal, somehow…knowing I was far from home, but these guys were…as alone as you could be. No, Mike Collins, in orbit, was as alone as could be. There has been a lot of talk about the close thing the landing actually was, before the LEM ran out of fuel, but what was it like to be in orbit in Columbia?

At the time I thought we were living in the future. Looking back, I am amazed at what was accomplished without all the high-tech enhancements we have today. Mini mp3 players have more computing power today than Apollo had!

Here’s to you, Neil, Buzz and Mike; and to everyone who was a part of that national dream given form.