domingo, fevereiro 25, 2018

Cool Dude: Chewbacca

(The last addition to the family)

Chewie is cool dude. I always think of him as a bit of a stoner surfer dude type, flying around in the Falcon with his mate. One of my fave bits in Star Wars in case anyone thinks he's not a real character is the bit in Empire where Leia wants to go back to Cloud City after just escaped to get Luke, and without real words Chewie barks and mumbles about it not being a good idea with them being chased by TIE fighters, Leia: "Chewie just do it", at which point many shades of grey character Lando who only moments ago betrayed them all pipes up "What about those fighters?", to whom Chewie tells him to "shut the hell up and get out of the way, they are going back, Lando has no right to have an opinion" in one wonderful Wookie angry howl, Lando: "Alright, alright alright".

I'm not sure I'll get Luke. Why? Nobody wants to be Luke; destined to live the life of a monk, only girl he ever kissed turned out to be his sister, endless freaky nightmares, itchy robotic hand, best friend is a sentient dustbin, terrible haircut (in "Return of the Jedi" at least)...

Yep, I am old enough to know better, but back in the day I watched those movies way too often...

sábado, fevereiro 24, 2018

Mushroom Ghosts: "Star Trek: Discovery" by Bryan Fuller, Alex Kurtzman

The Star Trek universe was built on an optimistic/naive/hippieish vision of the future. There's no hunger, there's no money, there's no religion (imagine...), and the Earth is a member of a galactic version of United Nations. It's all a benign version of communism. All the main characters are unambiguously good people, conflicts are a result of cultural misunderstandings, and even most baddies are just fighting their corner and can be redeemed. Classically, the stories were mostly episodic with a bit of long-term story developing in the background. Each series was a mixture of episodes concentrating either on an ethical question, or on adventure, or on humour. The story was told mostly in words i.e. dialogues, action sequences were just for illustration and could've been completely dropped without losing the essence of the story. It was all laid back and didn't take itself too seriously.

“Star Trek Discovery” is nothing like what I described above. It's a completely different thing, not Star Trek at all. It's a little wonder that it's being praised by people who say that they never liked Star Trek (including critics), while actual Star Trek fans are turning to “The Orville”. I think that the biggest inspiration for the series was clearly “Game Of Thrones”. Viewers like surprises? We'll surprise them! Viewers like main characters killed off? Well, we can't afford that, but we'll kill a few off, and then bring most of them back as their alternate universe alter egos, or mushroom ghosts. GoT had an after show? We'll have an after show! And we'll have a gritty, dark side to it, somewhat literally. One can suspect how the series was pitched to the money folk.

The theme (though much done) of exploring consequences of choices could be interesting, as could some of the other themes dabbled in (a Star Trek crew bypassing some of the moral boundaries set by the first series, somewhat sanctioned apparently by Starfleet, or the Klingon pride movement). But the frenetic nature doesn't ground the series enough, quite for us to care about the characters. GoT did that pretty well within the first series, before throwing Bran out the window, killing Sansa's wolf, and nicking Ned's head off. I keep having the suspicion with DIS (like that) that each following week the show could become a cook off reality show, or a nature show on penguins. Who knew?! The show runners could surprise me! I always in constant fear that Lorca would return as a mushroom ghost. (But he appeared to be in shooting for something else, so maybe not). His was an interesting character, in part because he was only partly likable. As an ethereal Obi Wan Kenobi presence..."Michael, use the mushroom force!"...I'm not so sure though, even if it's Sarek mystically talking into one ear of Michael and Lorca into the other. But maybe I'm off on a completely different track (dog training show?) so who knows. 

Jokes aside, I started off less that enthusiastic after the opening couple of episodes put me right off Burnham and established a ship and captain that didn't last. A few episodes later with it establishing itself as its own thing and giving some time to the various crew members I started to like it a bit more. Burnham's got better, but they could still do with dropping that Vulcan stuff. She's not Vulcan and the bond with Sarek has been distracting and annoying. Still, she's much improved now she's got the rest of the crew to interact with. I like Lorca a lot. Jason Isaacs is brilliant as always and I've liked the contrast between his methods and the ideals of Starfleet. He's hugely different to other Star Trek captains but he reminds me of Sisko and that's a good thing. Fingers crossed he's not killed off at some point so that somebody else can take the captain's chair. I'm starting to like the rest of the crew, but each of them need a bit more focus. That'll come with more episodes. My favourite episode so far was the one with Mudd and the resetting time loop, mostly because I got to see the crew enjoying themselves in their downtime.

The first episode really wasn't very good - particularly the awful exposition that's meant to introduce us to the characters but makes absolutely no sense when these characters are meant to have known one another for years. It does get a marginally better by around episode 4 though. The attempt to flip gender expectations is the clunkiest part of the show - female badass leads are ten a penny these days (I wanted more Michelle Yeoh personally) but they've gone further with a male damsel in distress love interest. Clem Fandango with his pitiful puppy dog eyes is their solution. It'll be interesting to see where the writers can take it but it's already stretching the limits of credulity to believe that Michael's still interested in him.

Michael's about as interesting as a Tim Henman tea towel but the rest of crew are really good with the two outstanding characters of the season being Mud (the Q of the series thus far) and Tilly. The Captain is cool, the tall speedy dude reminds me a bit of Otto from DS9 in a good way, and I like the grumpy engineer and his doc soulmate. The new Klingons look better than the angry deep fried mars bars of old but I'm glad they still roar the same monosyllabic spittle at each other. The F word threw me but only because nobody had (or has) sworn. It would be good to hear the captain shout "get that motherfucker off my bridge!" once in a while. What about the Klingon language? It doesn't even sound right to me: too slow, wet and nasally. Or something. 

Let's be honest here. By the time Enterprise was canceled and Star Trek: Nemesis had been released, the franchise had run out of steam. Even the opportunity for a "reboot" of sorts with Enterprise had slowly faltered, the opportunity squandered. The reboot films, while not perfect, have at least tried to bring some energy to the franchise, but Discovery has been a unique opportunity to try to do what Enterprise tried and failed to do; tell an origin story, but in a way updated to modern tastes and sensibilities.

The best and most overlooked incarnation of Star Trek is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Best written, best acted, best use of secondary characters. Sure it had some dire episodes but overall it was thoughtful & at times confrontational. It will always be my favourite.

As much as I enjoy the earlier series (especially TNG) television has moved on and DIS has to pull in new viewers who have never seen the 'old' shows (crikey, Enterprise was cancelled twelve years ago).

NB: I'm just happy to have some Trek again, especially as it looks like the Abramsverse is dead following Beyond's box office performance.

domingo, fevereiro 18, 2018

Tickboxing Screen SF: "Altered Carbon" by Laeta Kalogridis

It's a shame they've spent so much money on it as it isn't anything new, the only thing that is new is that you see a couple of willies (even though the willie count is going up generally, we always get an almost embarrassed shot which says look there's a willie in this but lets move back along to the tits, phew) along with the many, many boobs, bums and really as you get closer to the end, stomach churning sexual violence. There is a line spoken by one young actress which made me think that the thirteen year olds watching it (and there will be) will be off kilter for days if not months or years. And of course the scene where one actress fights naked. She seems to be fighting naked because she is a new clone and if she had been born from a vacuum pack I'd have gone with it, but she'd been reclining on a nice comfy chair which could have gone with some nice comfy sci-fi- sweatpants or even a slinky pair of pjs...but no she's naked. Some of the totemic cliches of the first two episodes are part info dump but are mostly faithful to the book. And unless I'm remembering the novel incorrectly, there's at least one Chekov's Gun lying in plain view that had to be there. There is a degree of lingering soft porn that's been overdone (e.g., the Bancroft clone vault scene), and the screenplay and acting are awkward against the expense and complexity of the effects. But I'm four episodes in and so far it's not even close to my expectations. Richard Morgan's novels are heavily invested in violence and sex. They do contrast the violent, casual decadence and immorality of the Meth's vs the street. It's the dark side to privilege that, say, Bank's Culture didn't always address with the same visceral ugliness.

I get the sense that the source material may have been chosen in part because of the way it weaves an appealing character and novel cultural mechanic with settings and tropes that are familiar and popular. I wonder if Netflix see this as a gateway drug to get the “Game of Thrones” audience onto SF/Cyberpunkish stuff. The boob count certainly suggests so (although fringe benefit, pubic hair, is going to make a comeback in the future). The prime reason it felt a little strung out is that they'd (perhaps through necessity for a TV adaptation) expanded the roles of a number of characters that don't feature quite so prominently in the book. Reileen is barely in it, Ortega doesn't have anywhere near as much focus and certainly doesn't spend time with her family, Quell only appears in the form of quotes from her battle diaries and has no connection to Kovacs at all, The Hendrix (Poe) is a lesser character, Vernon Elliott is not a sidekick and Lizzie Elliott has one short scene. For me, the idea that you "shouldn't believe anything you see", or whatever way they put it, is a cop-out. It's lazy writing and has the potential to provide for an easy out for some awkward storyline akin to Bobby popping up in the shower in Dallas. Also, I found the over-use and stagedness of smoking cynical.

I think having read so much written SF over the years my expectations of its being brought to life on screen were very high. Perhaps I'm just a boring old fart who can't be the young twenty year old falling in love with “Blade Runner” years ago and boring everyone senseless over it. I would like to see someone throw money at Marge Piercy's “Body of Glass” or “Woman on The Edge of Time” though (or at “The Player of Games” or at “Consider Phlebas”), and maybe create a new equation of less sexual violence and boobs but more willies and pubic hair...

All that being said, I am finding it extremely frustrating, that people keep either comparing it to “Blade Runner”, which it is not even remotely similar too, or complaining that it is whitewashing because Kovacs is a white actor instead of Asian, which is exactly as it is in the book. Having said that, I was really looking forward to seeing this, but kind of disconnected during the fourth episode. The luscious visuals are just not enough to keep you interested, as there's bad acting, bad and increasingly fabricated plot, and cliche loaded elements that feel like randomly stolen from the modern history of written and screen SF. I guess with “Altered Carbon” most people fall for the great CGI, something that regularly makes me enjoy second class movies if they at least look great, but this was just getting more boring and sterile as it went along.

Coming back to Iain Banks, “Consider Phlebas” is the obvious one for a great adaptation, as it's a very "cinematic" story with a linear narrative focalised through one character's perspective and contains some absolutely massive action set pieces. The main problem is squeezing everything into a film's running length. The later Culture novels become progressively more ambitious in scope and setting. “Use Of Weapons” would be very difficult to do on screen due to the endless changes of place and time. I also don't see how you could preserve the vital twist ending in a visual representation of the characters.

It's a strange one isn't it? I guess the question really is: should we judge a TV show/movie/book on its value as 'art' (high brow/low brow whatever) or should we judge a TB show/movie/book on how much money it makes. I wonder how much money Moby Dick made (first example to pop into my head). And then of course the worry that if a trend comes out of this, it could mean that only works that have a money value start to be produced, which means we lose a great deal of potential art from a lot of artists, as they simply aren't recognised, and the only things that are then produced always fit a formula, one that has been shown to make money, which is what I personally feel has been happening for many years in Hollywood - though there are some notable outliers. It is another example of the 'echo-chamber' effect in some ways I guess. I do wonder if a Brave New World awaits if we continue down this path... everything fits in box A, B or C.

This series is what Stranger Things is to 80's Spielbergian flicks; it does the same to 90's Cyber Films and B Movie Fare like “Demolition Man”, “Johnny Mnemonic”, “Strange Days”, and even “The Matrix”, etc. Even has some pseudo Industrial Rock songs that smack of 90's nostalgia. I also found some references to Video Games like Bioshock (the Raven Hotel just reminded me of some of the beginning stages) and Final Fantasy 7.  “Altered Carbon” lacks invention and understanding of what constitutes reality. Yes, we know life on Earth is likely to be a replay of previous life. That much is obvious to anybody whose mind is agile enough to detect the nuances that life brings about. What this series needs is someone with inside knowledge of the complexity of life whilst bringing out the pain and joy in ways that are subtle and not overplayed or overstated. Too many series are lazy is this respect, they have lost the art of developing the narrative and building up the story. Showing full nudity is a cheap way of gaining stiction and is a clear sign that the director has nothing much to say.

“Breaking Bad” showed us what good screen writing and storytelling is about. Netflix should develop groundbreaking shows like that, rather than spending on CGI blade runner adaptions.

Bottom-line: Gave up after four episodes. Despite the lavish budget it came across like one of those tacky Charles Band knock offs like "Trancers." I know. It's not easy to adapt books like "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" by Phil Dick. But it´s possible...

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sábado, fevereiro 17, 2018

The Endless Loops of Space Opera: "The Last Jedi" by Rian Johnson

I'm a Star Wars fan and I hate this movie: "Star Wars - The Last Jedi" by Rian Johnson.

What follows are the ramblings of a deranged mind after having watched this…

My feelings before the movie:

Yeeeeeeeehhhhaaaaaaaa! Tickets booked!!!!
Groaners can groan, moaners can moan,
Carpers can carp, and stay bloody home!
Jeeves! To the pictures! And don't spare the horses!!!

For some reason I continue to follow the endless loops of this space opera, despite having to endure long passages of painful boredom watching interminable fight sequences and passages of cheesy dialogue and chases down spaceship corridors pursued by ineffectual stooge soldiers wearing white plastic armour. People speak of episodes one to three as a low point in the series, but in a curious way they are representative of the many low points in much better received episodes. So why continue to watch it, even to the point of paying 10 euros for an IMAX cinema seat? Perhaps because it functions in its clumsy way as a ring cycle for our times, reverberating in some strange way with the sinister zeitgeist of the period between the fall of the Russian empire and the ascent of Trump. Or maybe it is because I like science fiction, even when it seems determined to bore me to tears.

I liked Palpatine in the prequels. The whole manipulating the entire galaxy into beating the shit out of itself was a good concept...Unfortunately they let Lucas write dialogue so we got... complaints about sand, and Ewan McGregor desperately trying to salvage something from Hayden Christiansen (who I blame less and less as the years go on - he did okay given the dialogue he had to work with). So yeah, what could've been an excellent piece of villainy over 3 films, manufacturing a galactic civil war whilst also successfully turning force-Jesus into force-Satan by playing off the inherent flaws of an ancient religious order (which was unable to look inward and understand why their centuries old dogma needed to change or they would inevitably face destruction) against the expectations of a young lad who's literally been told he was the chosen one by his mentor. A lot...So yeah, I like Palpatine in the prequels. I also fix the prequels a lot in my head. Part of the problem for me is that the villains since Darth Vader have not been scary in the slightest. I mean Anakin Skywalker going over to the dark side because he had nightmares or some such bollocks was really pretty unimaginative and drab fare. When I have loads of money, I'm going to buy a really big window, just so I can stare out of it and look all moody and vaguely sinister. Even the original one is pretty goofy (and Mark Hamill is incredibly whiny). The series probably peaked with Empire Strikes Back. So, while overhype is all-but-certain for this one, it looks pretty good for Star Wars Move #8. You'll forget about global warming, North Korean nukes, and Trump tweets for two hours. About all you should expect, really.

My main issue with it was the confusing sides. Why are the good guys always referred to as the 'resistance' here when the rebels won? Shouldn't they be like... the army? The naming conventions of the sides in this conflict are not well set out, and “The Force Awakens” does an absolutely terrible job of setting the broader political scene.

My understanding: the First Order is effectively a splinter group that's risen up from surviving elements of the Galactic Empire, hence the Stormtroopers, tie fighters, and I suppose, the liking for ridiculous giant battle stations. The New Republic, which I assume was established in the aftermath of the Empire's fall, for some reason, doesn't seem to want to combat the First Order. Perhaps hoping to simply co-exist and reduce their sphere of influence. The Resistance is then formed from parts of the New Republic out of those who believe the First Order is a threat and should thus be dealt with directly. I think there was some insinuation that they were funded in parts by the New Republic but covertly to prevent 'outright war' or whatnot. To be honest it makes no sense why the New Republic wouldn't want to combat the First Order, but I imagine it was a decision made to make the good guys appear to still be 'plucky underdogs'. Yeah, that doesn't work for me. The "Rebels" won in Jedi, they are the establishment now, yet they are skulking around like some sort of guerrilla army. Surely they have access to the entire Empire's military power and could/should be able to obliterate Kylo Ren's mob with ease. If they are so incompetent in power that they couldn't prevent the rise of the First Order then perhaps they have no business being in power.

That's one thing the Prequels have over the new Sequels, is it at least they fleshed out the situation of the galaxy/universe better. Given the Empire was an evolution of the Old Republic, most of it should sort of fallen back into the New Republic after the Civil War, so how do the First Order still have access to high volume ship fabrication and defense manufactures, that the NR would now have oversight of. Too much overthinking obviously. It doesn’t matter that the rebels ‘won’ in ROTJ. Why would that mean that 30 years later everything is fine on the galaxy? Didn’t the Americans ‘win’ the Iraq war? Didn’t they overthrow Saddam Hussein? Did the Iraqis live happily ever after? Or did a bunch of crazy Jihadists take over a large chunk of the country and blow lots of things up? Surely the Americans could have easily crushed them!! This is the equivalent of the French resistance being in operation again with Hitler still enjoy a “creme brulee” for brunch with his Nazi buddies. The problem with this theory is that the film implies that we're supposed to side with the Rebels/Rebellion, that somehow they're going to make the galaxy a better place. However, as we know, they defeated the Empire and now they've either a) fucked it up and lost their power - in which case, why should we want them to win again when they were not good enough to maintain control the first time? - or b) they're still in power but facing a rebellion from the shell of the Empire that they defeated - in which case, aren't the First Order now the underdogs and the side we should empathise with? It's the Socialists vs Social Democrats (two political forces in Portugal; in England it be something like New Labour vs the Tories at the end of Blair's period in office - there are no good guys left and nobody really wants either to win given their track record).

One of the things I liked about Rogue One was that it showed that the Rebels were not all good guys - shit had to get real in order to progress their cause and innocents died in the process. With that in mind, the Rebels of the original trilogy are no different to the First Order of this trilogy. There is an actual Muppet in all of this. Star Wars was good because Lucas cobbled it together from the Hidden Fortress and Dambusters. Then the Muppet show. Then the one with the gold bikini, which was half good (gold bikini) and half rubbish (Ewoks). Three prequels, with the comedy gay Jamaican, Jewish slave trader and slitty eyed aliens threatening the Burmese queen in Japanese accents. Then a film with the utter cheek to have yet another death star and yet another unsuspecting teenager on another desert planet... although the crashed star destroyer and At-At gave it a nice sense of history at the start. Rogue One was pretty good because it mostly avoided the mystical nonsense and did Vietnam in space.

I make that two and a half good films out of eight so far. Yeah, as a franchise, it started eating itself almost immediately. Star Wars is like a black hole: created by sucking so many other things into itself, then sustaining itself that way across huge spans of time/space. Still, even a black hole shrinks over time, eventually fizzling out. In that extremely broad sense, sure, all pop culture is a long retread. But most of that stuff is not expected to keep animating a movie franchise (not sure I want one based on poetry), never mind keep animating it for ever and ever. Do they still sell those felt pillows? That may be why. (Milton squeezed 10-12 (depending on which version) 'episodes' (some better than others) out of “Paradise Lost”, then 4 more from “Paradise Regained”. And he had far less characters to play with than Star Wars. As if “Paradise Lost” wasn't a slog enough...)

Having said this, I am in the camp that says Star Wars ended with George Lucas leaving the series, so I see these new movies as fan fiction, which it is. It can be entertaining but for me Star Wars was Lucas' vision, and even if people didn't like the prequels, they were part of his world, and the Disney movies are just a step backwards. The Force Awakens reset the whole rebels Vs Empire thing, meaning the previous trilogy was inconsequential. They brought back the same iconography (Stormtroopers, Millennium Falcon, X-Wings, Death Star, a desert planet, the same freakin' story) from the very first film. That was to keep the brand familiar to audiences marketing purposes. They made Rogue One for the same reason, to evoke feelings of classic Star Wars and even brought Peter “Gushing” back from the dead for that purpose. I wish Disney had gone with the Lucas story treatments because this time he wouldn't have written the scripts and his versions may have been interesting, and would have aligned with what he started with the other films. He did polarise the fans, but at least the films would have gone in some weird direction.

Also, audiences are getting J. J. back for the next film - that is good as confirming the next films will be crap. The original Star Wars was wonderfully ingenuous, it had a great pace and an optimism that was infectious. Empire strikes back was just a wonderful movie, due mostly to Harrison ford. Return of the Jedi was the weakest of the 3; the ewoks didn't work and they relegated Harrison ford to comic relief.  The next 3 had great potential with Neeson and McGregor, who were both really good. But the kid playing Annakin, the crappy robots and daft comedy aliens badly compromised the movies. The last 2 have been formulaic and with little depth - but they've been really successful (like the makers have got a hold of the marvel universe playbook). I think we can expect more of the same.

Coming back to the “Last Jedi”, I wouldn't have thought any Star Wars fan would have been satisfied with plot. Every strand of story was just a pointless diversion to create an action set piece. And most of the characters were just there to pull a plot lever when required (Del Toro the worst offender - and how did he even know the information he betrayed? Finn & Rose didn't). Finn's storyline - pointless. Poe's story-line - pointless. Disappointed as both a Star Wars fan and a human being with half a brain cell.

My feelings after the movie:

Next flick in December 2018, if it's not by the Coen brothers (it won’t be; see above) I'm not going to bother. Mind you there's a great idea for a pitch - Coen Brothers "The Hudsucker Force Empire Lebowski Awakens Fargo" starring Clooney, Turturro, Hamill and Goodman as Chewbacca. It's a musical space opera based on Homer’s Iliad, but based in small town 1960's America and the hero is a lawyer specialising in divorce, who has a string of mistresses, but is also married to Princess Leia, who happens to be a serial killer.

I received the following leaflet as I was leaving the theatre after having watched the movie:

"After the failure of Lucas' prequels, we here at Disney Corp. decided to 'give back' to fans and provide them with exactly what they wanted: old faces in new costumes, lightsabres, big-dogs driving spaceships and all that Sci-Fi crap they love. After the roaring financial success of “The Force Awakens”, we knew we were onto a winner by following well-researched business models and marketing strategies, which would tick all the boxes for Star Wars fans old and new. The fans ate it up, and myself and all the other shareholders here at Disney Corp. had a wonderful Christmas. The enormous financial rewards from ticket sales and merchandising has allowed us to acquire more assets and rival studios, so as to reduce the competition from other distributors and film-makers, which could in anyway harm our product. In fact, our enormous power and wealth has allowed us to hire maverick, independent, American film-makers, such as Rian Johnson, with the lure of a vast salary and a side-order of blackmail, in order to make sure the latest product (TLJ) is directed to specification of our glorious leader Kathleen Kennedy. Fans will want to see this 10/10 masterpiece again and again, so we here at Disney Corp. have made sure that cinema chains will pay a large part of their revenue stream in order to screen The Last Jedi, so that other films don't get in our (your) way. Merry Christmas and do make sure to visit the gift shop after your fourth viewing!"

NB: I watched the movie in January.

quarta-feira, fevereiro 07, 2018

Don't Panic! Arthur Dent Will Travel: "Space Heavy" by SpaceX, Elon Musk

(snapshot from the Tesla Live Feed)

"For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do"

Space Oddity by David Bowie

The point of this launch was not to get a car into space, it was to flight-prove an interesting new rocket that should cut the cost of getting heavy cargo to LEO by 90%. That's why people are excited. What’s wrong with doing as much exploring, inventing and improving our lives while having a nerd’s heap of fun? It doesn’t get better than that. One day we all are going to die. Eventually, our species will become extinct, regardless of which planets we’re on. All species run out.

It's brilliant how a rich engineer with a vision can within 15 years create a Space company employing 6000 engineers, and create pioneering rockets that are reusable drastically cutting costs for governments & companies who want to put satellites into space (often ones you use every day). Then that same company has created a heavy lift vehicle that can one day return man to the moon and create enormous possibilities for scientific exploration of the solar system. The point of the roadster is actually pretty captures the imagination of a large number of people who love science but aren't scientists. For way too long, those engaged in scientific endeavors have focused on the nuts and bolts of exploration in medicine, engineering, physics, etc., and have ignored the art of all these activities. We graduate people who can do these wonderful activities but cannot talk about them. Hence, financial resources shrivel and disappear, and pure research is underfunded whereas applied research as it relates to corporate interest is the only game in town. If we want to go to Mars, we need to go together, and that will take funding, and that funding should come from the desire to do great things.

I expected the images to be good, but not this good. They are overwhelming, as stunning as they are spooky. But how long with the live feed last? Will we ever see images of Mars from the car as big as those of the earth that it is seeing now? The Hohmann transfer orbit should reach the Mars orbit distance in 6 months. The best time to watch the live feed is now (picture above), because the earth is getting so much smaller by the day - remember how Apollo astronauts only needed 3-4 days to cruise to the moon? But if getting to the moon is like walking across your living room, then getting to Mars is like walking a mile down the road to the pub in relative terms. It is so relaxing to watch the car serenely turning in barbecue mode, the shadows and the glints of sunlight are different with each spin, it's rather like watching goldfish in a bowl. But how long will the cameras endure? How long will it take before the aggressive direct sunlight starts to blister the paint work and bleach the interior of the car? The car must have some kind of stabilisation system, but when will it run out of propellant? Are there any other secrets lurking in the car?And is the driver really a crash dummy, and not some kind of robot that might start surprising us with a few gestures? It is remarkable to think that a space suited living person strapped into the driver's seat would actually have survived the experience of the flight, and maybe also have lived on for a few weeks at the wheel, given enough water and oxygen under the bonnet and in the boot...

Having watched NASA utterly flounder around for decades with a constant stream of failed "post shuttle" projects, it's something of a relief to see some vim and vigour injected into human space. The obsession with SSTO (single stage to orbit) just ground project after project into the dust. 
X33 which died in 2001
DC X which was not a million miles from Falcon 9 but lumbered with the nonsense SSTO configuration.
X38 with virtually no real mission and cancelled when ISS went way over budget
X30 another bloody minded SSTO killed in 92
Orbital Space Plane although may have found some life as the mysterious X37
Crew Exploration Vehicle 
Project Constellation who just seemed to think that money would never be an object or objection
Space Exploration Initiative, another meandering megabucks project that seemed to have little idea what it was and dubbed "Battlestar Galactica" by the press.

There are bound to be a few more I have forgotten, I am sure there was one CIA\ USAF SSTO space plane I have forgotten. To actually have something that thinks "cost" first, that looks like it will attract paying customers and has a near ready to fly human vehicle, the first new one from the US since the horribly failed STS that seemed to think returning 20 tonnes from space would be worth a fortune and that there was no real cost in ground crew for refurbs of the fleet.

Sending the Tesla into space is just brilliant. Science and technology is supposed to be fun. These are not the days of the white shirt pocket protector engineers of the moon landing. Choosing the Tesla over a block of concrete for a payload as is usually done in test flights of prototype rockets is just plain…fun. This however was not done without thought. Tesla was named after the Nikola Tesla. Tesla was never given the acclaim for all of the technology he has given us. Kudos to Elon for making the name of Tesla known to most people on the planet. Elon also has said that the "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" series of books made a deep impression on him. This series of books blends great British humor with science fiction and are great fun. They have meant a lot to me as well, I still laugh whenever I think of them. One of the many notable phrases in the book is “Don’t Panic!”, which is displayed on the dashboard of the orbiting Tesla. As far as this being a publicity stunt for Tesla sales, Elon’s problems are not sales but production. This would be more aptly put into the category of “Honor your father and mother….”

SpaceX and Tesla, at least where the design engineers sit are located, in buildings next to each other. The engineers from both companies speak to each other. Another brilliant move from Elon. Having more people able to think and share problems is what is needed to develop technology quickly. It also may have been instrumental in the decision to use the Tesla as a payload. I don’t know where the Boring company engineers are but I would imagine they are also in Hawthorne California with the SpaceX and Tesla guys. Who knows maybe when SpaceX launches their BFR (Big F..king Rocket) they will put a boring machine as its payload. Not quite as fun though.

After everything is said and done the launch of the Falcon Heavy was inspirational. It may not have been the moon landing but we are starved for the technological leaps we had been anticipating since then. Viewing the simultaneous landing of the boosters did give me those feelings I had with the moon landing. The marvels of what we can do but more of what we will do. Elon has brought this emotion back. A radio show I was listening to had a caller say the Falcon Heavy launch has just created 30 new future astronauts. Viewing the shuttle in a space museum is nice but sad for a dream mothballed.

The SpaceX guys are great. I think all of us, or at least, I am, just about envious of those who work for SpaceX. I live in Los Angeles and have seen the boys out on numerous occasions. I was at my favorite Pub at the beach in Venice when their crew rambled in one day in the late afternoon. They had been on a pub crawl since the wee hours after the first successful docking of the Dragon to the ISS. The enthusiasm and the dedication was just admirable. These guys ARE the new Skunk Works.

What about space littering? The car is a trivial object. It's just an art installation in space. It may not be art that conforms to our measure of ideological purity. Space Geeks knew that the chances of the Falcon Heavy making it into space was at best a 50-50 chance. Why risk any important payload of expensive equipment on those odds? Sure Musk turned the need for a dummy payload into a publicity stunt, but then what entrepreneur wouldn't? If nothing else it's got people chatting about space exploration again because thankfully not everyone is so fatalist about the future. As for the littering the galaxy, we shouldn't be preposterous. The entire mass of the Earth converted into pebbles wouldn't be enough to litter the solar system let alone the galaxy. There's trillions of tons of dangerous rocky flotsam out there in the solar neighbourhood as it is and unlike Musk's Tesla we've no idea where much of that is. Couldn't they have lured Trump into sitting in that car as the first man to ever drive a car in space and sent him on? What a missed opportunity! I am sure he would have loved the idea of going in the car thinking he'd return to the earth...

Getting a big load into space is the easy part of a Mars mission. Landing big loads on Mars is very difficult with a high failure rate. Once on Mars, humans have to be in a physical condition to do useful. long term International Space Station astronauts need weeks or months of intensive therapy to get back to fitness in Earth gravity. They would have to prevent themselves dying for long enough to do useful things. Exactly what kind of useful thing that is beyond the capability of robot explorers has yet to be explained. People can walk faster than a robot but need to breath, drink, eat, sleep, pee, poo. I wonder at the actual active Mars exploring time of an individual would be over three months. A team or swarm of robotic explorers could be self-rescuing and self-repairing and under the control of fat geologists safely on Earth, in no danger of running out of oxygen. A geologist might wander into a Martian valley, spot an unexpected, curious exposed rock strata in the corner of his eye, on his own initiative he can scramble up to the rock face, reach up with his hammer and hack out a small sample for return to the lab. That action is currently beyond all operational rovers. AI is still too primitive to be any use and remote controlling is still much too slow. Your robot swarm is pure science fiction. We're talking about what it's possible to do right now. I'm not convinced of the need for permanent residency on Mars, at least this early in our technological adolescence, but there would be genuine benefits to sending some researchers to visit. It is bloody expensive, but Musk might well be opening the pathway to doing it on a budget a fraction of the size the space agencies were anticipating. You can think of it as investing more money upfront for a quicker return payment in science. Of course it won't be Humans OR robots. It'll be both.

Cheers to Elon Musk, a man who really knows where his towel is (Read the "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy"). At first I thought it was a stupid thing to do, but I have grown to appreciate the absurdity of having a Tesla in Orbit. If nothing else, it makes a nice visual for all the "Flat Earth" morons, even though they probably are already claiming it's all CGI and "FAKE". Maybe we can convince Musk to use a few Flat Earthers as ballast for the next test. Give them some oxygen and a GoPro for their last post on YouTube. I thank Elon and SpaceX for the pride and inspiration they give all of us. I look forward to buying Elon and his crew a beer…on Mars.

Let’s leave as much of the other earthlings around as much as we can. Let’s go for our own outer limits, whatever that may be. When the sun blows, we’ll be the long gone crazies. What a trip!

NB: I really hoped to see Elon Musk running out onto the tarmac as the rocket took off, shouting "Stop. Stop. I left my fucking wallet in the car!".

quinta-feira, fevereiro 01, 2018

Star Wars Felt Figurines: Darth Vader and Stormtrooper

Darth Vader and Luke are having a row. All of a sudden Darth Vader hides behind a door and says "Luke! I know what you are getting for Christmas!"
Taken aback, Luke says "what do you mean?
Darth Vader says " I know what you are getting for Christmas!"
"How do you know that?" asks Luke.
" I felt your presents...."

May the farce be with you....