Thursday, November 13, 2014

Another link. Funny precsion marching

OK, OK, I've been checking out fun stuff on UTOOB. I liked this one. ;-)

HDPE as a raw material.

If you're into crafts you may need a new material to work with. You can use High Density Polyethylene, aka HDPE, or recycling plastic #2. Shred it, melt it, compress it, and use the cooled block as a source of stuff to carve, cut, turn on a lathe, and so on. I found this video on Boing Boing. Enjoy! Best aspect: you can get neat multicolour marble effects.

A comet's song.

The comet is singing! Well, not really. Rosetta detected variations in the comet's magnetic field, at a very low frequency. The signals had to be raised in frequency to where we humans can hear them, so that many minutes of magnetic field variations around the comet have been compressed to 87 seconds. Listen here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembrance Day

     Today we remember those whom we sent into war on our behalf, and who gave everything they had. They gave their lives. I want to think about that sacrifice, and what our remembering should inspire us to do. For it does no good to feel sad about those who died in war if our remembrance ends with those feelings. Our duty is not only to remember what the fallen soldiers have done for us, but also to act so that their deaths will have meaning.
     I am old enough to remember the last year of the war and its aftermath. When someone of my age refers to The War, it means the Second World War, the one that started on the German-Polish border in September 1939 and ended in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945. Just how many people died in that war will never be known for sure. The best estimates average out at about 23 million soldiers and 45 million civilians. That's more than twice today's population of Canada.
     But those are mere statistics. If you want to know what war is like, talk with those who lived through it. Soldiers who saw combat very rarely talk about it. But you can see how their memories affect them when you watch their faces as they stand at attention at the Cenotaph during the Remembrance Day ceremonies. My father talked about it once only, when he thought the time was ripe for his grandchildren to learn something of what to them was only history in books.
     Those who didn't see combat are more likely to tell stories, but they too avoid talking about the fighting that they knew indirectly, through the death and wounding of their friends. The civilians who endured bombing, flight from the front, refugee camps, starvation, invasion and counter invasion, the oppression of occupation and foreign rule, they sometimes talk about it. But they leave out a lot.
     I don't remember much. We lived in a small town by a lake, far from the battle fronts. Bombers flew over on their way to bomb the cities and the railway yards. The sun glinted on them, they were like little silver fish high up in the blue air. The sound of their engines came from everywhere, from one side of the sky to the other. When the bombs fell on the railway yards ten kilometres away, we felt it in our bellies and the soles of our feet. A few times I saw black mushrooms grow on the horizon. Most of the time, the air-raid sirens chased us into the cellar, where we were dressed in several layers of clothing. It was a guarantee that we would have something to wear if the house was destroyed. The woolly underwear itched. There was a candle lit, and others ready to be lit if the power went out. When the bombs fell, we heard a dull thump, very far away, and dust trickled down from the ceiling. We crowded close to Mummy, and felt safe.
     I hate war. I can't tell you how much I hate it. And yet I know that war will come again. It will come because we fear those who are different, and that gives an opening to those who want to exploit that fear for their own ends. It will come because those who have power and wealth want to wage war for their own purposes. It will come because we leave too much up to the politicians that we elect to do the boring business of government for us. It will come because as long as we have something like a good life, we leave things up to the experts. It’s too much bother to take time to understand the problems that face us, let alone make an effort to participate in solving them.
     It's not pleasant to think about these things.
     It's not pleasant to think about war, or the poor, or the damage we're doing to our planet.
     It's not pleasant because it reminds us that we, each of us and all together, have a responsibility.
     But today, on Remembrance Day, we have before us the example of those whom we sent to war, who placed their bodies between us and the enemy, who gave everything they had. I know and you know that they had many different reasons for putting on the uniform. But whatever their reasons, they went.
     And too many of them died.
     We owe them.
     The last stanza of In Flanders Fields calls us to this duty:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

     The foe is not the enemy soldier. He died as our soldiers died, his family grieved as our families grieved. Those who survived suffered the rest of their lives. The memories of war cannot be erased.
     No, the foe is us. We are the ones who wage war. The soldier is merely an instrument of war. He's just another weapon that we, the wagers of war, use to fight our battles.
     We must change our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts. We must replace fear with hope, hate with love, indifference with caring. It sounds like tall order, but it can be done.
     If you look at the advice that the religious leaders have given us, one thing stands out: they don't talk about systems. They don't talk about governments, or politics, or businesses, or enterprises, or organisations. They don't talk about methods or processes or procedures. They don't talk about checklists, or seven habits of successful people, or how to make every minute count.
     They talk about forgiveness. They talk about faith. They talk about love.
     By what rule should we live our lives? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The most ancient religious texts give us this rule. It’s the rule given by Jesus, by the Buddha, by Confucius, by Muhammad. Jesus expands on it: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and your neighbour as yourself.
     In short, we must change. We must change the way we think, the way we feel, the way we act. We must think of all humans as being People Like Us. We must feel that every person we meet is a member of our family. We must do whatever we can to make life better for other people, just as we do whatever we can to make life better for ourselves.
     A tall order indeed. It means giving up the notion that we are the centre of the universe. It means giving up what makes us comfortable. It means giving up our lives in service. It means sacrifice. The kind of sacrifice that we remember today.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Boswell Taylor, ed. Ships: Picture Teach Yourself (1977)

     Boswell Taylor, ed. Ships: Picture Teach Yourself (1977) One of a series of “project books” intended to give primary and middle school students information on some subject. It was assembled at a time when giving students “projects” to do was the vogue, and no doubt many students picked up all kinds of oddments of knowledge and perhaps even general insights. Children of primary and middle school age love to accumulate facts, so this book no doubt found some happy readers.
     The book consists of many black and white illustrations of watercraft, many of them reproductions original sources such as stone carvings. The brief well-crafted captions waste no words. Reading it from beginning to end in one go will give you a pretty good overview of the development of watercraft and their uses in transport and trade. Nicely done, but sadly obsolescent if not obsolete when people believe that a few clicks will give them reliable information.
     It takes less than an hour to read and look at every item in this book; and exploring the questions it raises could prompt historical interests. It no doubt had just that effect on some of its readers. I liked it. **½

R. Buckminster Fuller. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1970)

     R. Buckminster Fuller. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1970) Fuller has a deserved reputation for inventing the geodesic dome, except for the fact that it’s devilishly difficult to make it leak proof. Reason: the differential expansion and contraction of the geodesic frame and the covering. It works best with membranes, and worst with sheet wood and sheet metal. I enjoyed the airy and open feel of the USA’s geodesic dome at Expo 67. I have no idea how it performed in the Montreal winters, though.
     Fuller in his day had a reputation as a visionary, and in one sense he was: he understood that the Earth is a system, and that making it habitable over the long haul, that is millennia, requires system thinking, which at the time he wrote the book was still an arcane ill-understood subject. This book was received as his Best Word on the subject, but rereading it forty-some years later it is depressing. Fuller loves portmanteau words, no doubt intended to express his vision of the allatonceness of the system he is trying to describe. But his vision is surprisingly narrow. He has no inkling of the complexity of biological systems. I mean, he can’t be faulted for not knowing what we now know, that the interconnections in an ecosystem are generally counterintuitive and surprising. But back then there was a lot of ecological knowledge out there already, yet Fuller blithely assumes that engineering will solve the problems. The metaphor of Earth as a spaceship indicates both the breadth of his vision and the narrowness of the knowledge base on which he builds it.
     Fuller does have the ability to pose serious questions. He notices that the economic system is not built to maximise wealth, but to maximise money, which is not at all the same thing. his solution is an economic system that will deprive the Great Pirates of their power. And that solution shows the problem with his solutions generally: he states them in terms of desired outcomes with hardly any indication of how to achieve them. Thus he gives us a vision of a prosperous peaceful Earth that will sustain humankind for ever, more or less, without much in the way of processes or methods to achieve it.
     Fuller helped spread the word on systems and how necessary it is to think about them. If for no other reason, this book is worth reading. But it gets tedious pretty quickly. I stopped halfway through. That’s all you need to get the thesis: that unless we create an economic system that respects Earth as a system, we will destroy it. **

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw

     Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw [D: Cedric Messina. John Gielgud, Sian Phillips, Barbara Murray. Daniel Massey et al] Bernard Shaw’s Play produced in 1977 for TV as “Play of the Week”. A nice example of why staging plays for the camera doesn’t work. The set is obviously a set, larger than one built for a theatre, but still a set. The acting is large as for for a theatre, and doesn’t work for the camera. The sound is inconsistent, and in places distracting: the stone steps are clearly wooden. Intercutting the stage action with black and white clips of Zeppelins attacking England doesn’t help. The blocking of the characters is clearly intended for a theatre audience, and doesn’t work for the camera. The director uses overhead shots, but all they do is emphasise the staginess. The absence of a laugh track hurts the production. In a theatre, the audience reacts, which energises the actors. Reactions by other members of the audience help one follow the performance, too. But for some probably purist intention, there is no laugh track, no musical score, just the silence of the sound stage.
     Shaw’s script doesn’t help, it’s one of his wordier plays. Of course all his plays are wordy, but the best ones have a narrative arc keeps the talk focussed. Here there are the usual Shavian witticisms and pseudo-paradoxes, but too often they distract rather than create character or illuminate relationships. I gather from various socio-political remarks that Shaw intended the play to critique the property-owning classes, and to riff (once again) on how the marriage market destroys romance. Or something like that.
     This effort is of historical interest: this is how culture was once done on TV. Nine years earlier, Zeffirelli made his Romeo and Juliet, showing how to translate Shakespeare’s scripts from stage to screen. He cut and paraphrased the dialogue, and frequently used the camera instead of words, thus paying Shakespeare the compliment of professional respect. But some critics panned the movie because Zeffirelli showed that Shakespeare’s scripts could make great movies. I think Shaw’s plays can make great movies, too. This Heartbreak House is merely a photographed play, and more’s the pity. *

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Sam J. Lundwall. Alice’s World (1971)

     Sam J. Lundwall. Alice’s World (1971) A Confederation mission to Earth 50,000 years after the Exodus finds a world in which people's hallucinations are real and fulfill their deepest desires. The Captain ends up the supreme commander of an invasion force engaged in and endless war. One of his crew members lives in a blissful liaison with her mate. This is Ray Bradbury country crossed with Lewis Carroll, where science and fantasy mix, where reality and dream are indistinguishable, where Alice creates and uncreates the world around her. Lundwall does a better than average job of conveying the experience of his characters, especially the irony that the Captain understands fully that the dreams of humankind have become real, yet is trapped by them as much as everyone else.
     Well done pulp fiction, the kind that in the 1960s prompted endless arguments about whether it’s Literature. Of course it is. Wikipedia has a good article on Lundwall at ***