"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Saturday, March 30, 2013

When Worlds Collide ...

... coming soon to the Apocalypse Channel (aka The Weather Channel) .

You know; that place you go to check out what the weather's gonna do.

Where, before (maybe) getting that info, you have to sit through endless replays of "Storm Stories", "It could happen tomorrow" (or maybe not), and, so help me, "Iceberg Hunters" ...
Aim between the eyes, son.  It might charge if it's only wounded.

(Ok. I know! I Know!!! They're shooting off chunks to be recovered and used  for extra pure bottled water.  But, honestly, could you have resisted? :-)

They have a new series, "Forecasting the End!" and it's to include a piece on rogue planets, probably on the scenario envisioned by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer in their 1933 novel, "When Worlds Collide"...

While not the first to venture into this territory (H. G. Wells short story "The Star" (1897) touched on the effects of a close passage), it's easily the most famous (having been adapted into George Pal's 1951 movie).

In 1964, Fritz Leiber published "The Wanderer", also dealing with such a visitor (but he took an approach more metaphysical than scientific. It's been a looong time since I read it, so I could be wrong, but I believe this wandering planet was guided here, in contrast to the random potshots by the others, in which case it's irrelevant to this post.

You see, what I'm concerned with here is the likelihood of such an event involving planetary or stellar size masses colliding or having near misses.

When I was much younger, with much better distance vision, I could take a rifle and put most of my shots (all, if firing from prone or a bench rest) within a 6" (15 cm) bulls eye at 100 yards (or 100 meters), using iron sights. Many people can do better, but that bulls eye is a mighty small target at that range.

It's hard enough to hit with careful aim. If I was to just causally fire the rifle in the general direction, there is an enormous amount of surrounding space into which the bullet is most likely to go. If that bulls eye had thoughts and feelings, I'm sure it would feel pretty safe.

So, just how threatened should a sugar grain (at maybe 0.5 mm diameter) feel about another sugar grain roaming around about 9 miles (15 km) away?

That is the kind of space we are talking about in space.

Trying to get a handle on just how immense the Universe is ain't easy.

The first good attempt I ever came across was ...
Published in 1957, it has been out of print for ages, and the author is no longer with us, so I hold little hope of it ever coming back into print (though it really deserves to be).

It is available for viewing online, at  http://www.vendian.org/mncharity/cosmicview/ and at Caltech.
 ( http://nedwww.ipac.caltech.edu/level5/Boeke/frames.html )

The first has larger pictures, but both are only pale shadows of the original. I hope someone with influence sees this and tries to get this wonderful book back in print.

In 1977, the team of Charles and Ray Eames made a short film ...
... that did a wonderful job of presenting it.

Powers of Ten (1977) is available from sellers at Amazon.com (They give a 1968 date, but I believe that is for the initial prototype of the film that was made in 1977) at  http://www.amazon.com/The-Films-Charles-Ray-Eames/dp/6305943877/

In one book about creating the movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey", I read that they originally considered a prologue with interviews of various scientists and having a similar "powers of ten" instruction film.  But, they decided it was better to just get straight into the story instead.

One of my all time favorite movies Contact (1997) ...
... opened with a jaw-dropping sequence, right after the title, looking back at our world while accelerating away through our solar system, through the galaxy and beyond to the ends of creation. If you can watch that without being moved, then I don't know what to do with you except perhaps notify the police that "this guy's DEAD!" :(

From here, I'm gonna take my shot at giving perspective to the universe, using grains of sugar.

First ...
From windows2universe.org

That picture should get you started on that perspective (we'll get to the sugar in a bit).

The Sun is not a large star, nor is it very hot. But it is hot with reference to men, hot enough to strike them down dead if they are careless about tropic noonday ninety-two million miles away from it, hot enough that we who are reared under its rays nevertheless dare not look directly at it.
 ~Robert A. Heinlein, "Methuselah's Children" (1958 -- or 1941 if that passage is also in the original shorter story from which the novel was later evolved).

Those dark blotches on the Sun are sunspots, storms on the surface that are dark only by comparison with the rest of the surface by being cooler. Actually, they would be blindingly bright, so you can guess what the rest of that surface is really like. They are also large enough to swallow the entire Earth as you can see by the small dot representing us.

Note also, the Lord of our Solar System, Jupiter. Of the approximately 457 Earth-masses of material making up the planets, moons, asteroids, etc., about 318 make up Jupiter and another 100 or so are in Saturn. Isaac Asimov once noted that, to an impartial observer from out there, "our Solar System would consist of Jupiter plus debris".

Now, on to Paul's Sugar Grain Scale of the Universe ...
(NOTE: In the figures below, while I try to give SI (metric) equivalents), I'm following our practice of using the comma to break up large numbers.  I am not using it as a decimal marker, as many countries do.)

A long time ago, I came upon a factoid that a pound (454 grams) of table sugar contains around 2,260,000 grains.

Now, the specific gravity of sugar ranges from 0.68 (bagged raw sugar) to 1.5862 (sucrose crystal). (From http://www.sugartech.co.za/density/index.php ).

For our purposes, I'm using bagged table sugar (as it's the most likely type you'll have at home) at 0.7 specific gravity, which works out to 43.7 lbs/cubic foot ( 700 kg/cubic meter). Say, 98,762,000 grains per cubic foot ( 3.488 billion grains/cubic meter)

0.5 mm (500 microns) is a ballpark figure for the average diameter of grain of table sugar. Having this represent our Sun gives us a scale of about 2.782 x 10 to the 12th (or 2.782 trillion) to one.

Diameter of Sun - approx 864,327 miles (1,391,000 kilometers)
Diameter of Earth - approx 7,918 miles (12,742 km)
Earth to Sun - approx 92,960,000 miles (149,600,000 km)

Shrink our Sun to a sugar grain, and the Earth becomes a bacterium about 4.8 microns in diameter (literally microscopic), orbiting about 53.8 mm (about 2.1 inches away).

On this scale, a light year works out to 2.11 miles ( 3.4 km).

Distance to Alpha Centauri = 4.367 light years.  The nearest known star (other than the Sun), Proxima Centauri, is about 4.22 light-years away.

So, on this scale, the nearest other sugar grain we might have to worry about a collision with would be about 8.9 miles or 14.32 km away from us. And here, we are speaking of things much larger than planets, making bigger targets.

So, with all due respect to the Global Warming/Climate Change Propaganda Channel (the Weather Channel), of all the things I may lose sleep over, rogue planets just ain't among them.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Bottled Water

-- A Vent.

In my wonderful part-time job as a grocery cashier, I often ring up carts loaded with bottled water, sometimes cases (plastic shrink-wrapped around 24 plastic bottles) of it, in the endless quest for the purest of drinking water.

Never mind that most city tap water is actually just fine, and doesn't result in landfills full of eternal plastic.

I'm old enough to remember a southern comedian (David Gardner) who, as "Brother Dave Gardner", did comedy routines (around 1960 or so) in the style of an evangelical preacher just telling a story.  On one of the LP's he made ("Rejoice, Dear Hearts", I think), he told this aside to the audience between a couple of his routines ...

"I was in Hot Springs [Arkansas] the other day, watching those stu--pid, ig--no --rant, southerners selling water to them brilliant yankees."

A couple of years ago, I recall a commercial for something (I've forgotten what) in which this bubble-headed blonde was laughing nervously at some remark, and then going completely blank, and continuing, "I don't get it!".

I'll venture that we now have an entire generation of bottled water fanatics who would have precisely that reaction to Brother Dave's comment. :(

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Never ascribe to malice ...

... that which is adequately explained by incompetence."
 ~Napoleon Bonaparte

23 Mar 2013 - Updated at end.

Caught Emperor (2012) Saturday night at the River Oaks theater and was surprised to find a packed auditorium for an independent film with almost no advertising. Admittedly, it's a pretty small auditorium, being one of two that the original balcony was divided up as, after being walled up from the main auditorium below. But, still ...
Matthew Fox (left) & Tommy Lee Jones (center) as General Bonner Fellers
and General Douglas MacArthur respectively.    From mysanantonio.com

24 Mar 2013 - A commenter noted "By the way, that is NOT Matthew Fox in the picture above!". He's right. See correction below.

The official storyline ...
A story of love and understanding set amidst the tensions and uncertainties of the days immediately following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. On the staff of General Douglas MacArthur (Jones), the de facto ruler of Japan as Supreme Commander of the occupying forces, a leading Japanese expert, General Bonner Fellers (Fox) is charged with reaching a decision of historical importance: should Emperor Hirohito be tried and hanged as a war criminal? Interwoven is the story of Fellers' love affair with Aya, a Japanese exchange student he had met years previously in the U.S. Memories of Aya and his quest to find her in the ravaged post-war landscape help Fellers to discover both his wisdom and his humanity and enable him to come to the momentous decision that changed the course of history and the future of two nations.

Ok. When I heard that Tommy Lee Jones was playing Douglas MacArthur, I knew I had to check it out.

He does just fine; handling his Texas accent the same way Sean Connery handled his Scottish accent when playing a Lithuanian captain of a Soviet submarine in "The Hunt for Red October" and Arnold Schwarzenegger handles his Austrian accent when playing anything: with an attitude of "Accent? WHAT accent?!!!".

I really liked this movie; which the Philadelphia Inquirer dismissed as "an unsatisfying history lesson" (probably because of the interwoven love story which was used as a device for exploring the differences between Japanese culture and ours).

My biggest gripe (and the reason for the title of this post) comes during the end credits.  As with many historical dramas, they show pictures of the real people involved, with a short blurb about their fate.

In the case of General Bonner Fellers, the blurb notes that he was demoted to colonel by General Eisenhower, without a single word as to why, leaving you to wonder if Fellers screwed up or something.

I did a little research to confirm that what I thought may have happened was really the case.

What happened was that the war was over, and we no longer needed the huge army we had built up. The army doesn't hang on to officers unless there is something for them to command; a command appropriate to their rank.

Excess officers can either leave the army, or accept a lower rank for which more commands may be available. In October 1946, Fellers reverted to rank of colonel as part of a reduction in rank of 212 generals.

A total of about 16,000,000 Americans served in some branch of the armed forces during WWII. The U. S. Army had risen from a strength of just 190,000 soldiers in 1939 to a peak of 8,290,000 in March of 1945.

But, until the advent of the Korean War and the Cold War, the U.S. had a history (and a doctrine) of not maintaining a large standing army during peacetime. Thusly, by the end of 1948 that force had been reduced to 554,000, approximately one-sixteenth of its earlier size. Whole divisions and brigades ceased to exist except as placeholders in the organization structure (Order of Battle). Simply a case of "too many chiefs and not enough indians".

Fellers retired from the Army on November 30, 1946. In 1948, his retirement rank was reinstated as brigadier general.

I do not believe for a moment that the end credit slight was deliberate, but just a lack of thought by whoever worked up the end credits sequence. But if any of Bonner Fellers family is still with us, they deserve an apology.

Hence, the title of this post. :(

Update 1440 CDT 23 Mar 2013 - My site meter shows this modest little post getting lots of hits, from all over, by people who (like me) were curious about why Fellers was demoted and were sent here by google and other search engines.

I hope they are satisfied with the explanation I have offered, as I feel it is accurate. I place absolutely no credence on some rumors of bad feeling between Eisenhower and Fellers (they had both served under MacArthur) as the cause. If there's anyone for whom Ike may have had some animosity, it would have been MacArthur himself, having remarked once that he "had studied dramatics under MacArthur", probably considering him a self-promoting showboat.

Correction 1035 CDT 24 Mar 2013 - A commenter noted "By the way, that is NOT Matthew Fox in the picture above!". He's right. The source for the picture identified him as such (as did many other sources using that same picture).

BUT, while I thought it looked a bit like him, the problem is the insignia on his collar.

A brigadier general wears a single silver star there.  I couldn't get enough resolution on that picture to really make out the insignia, but it is definitely gold. I thought it might be the gold oak leaf of a major, but it appeared too wide for that. The best guess I can make is the "Rising Eagle" of a  warrant-officer.

Here's a picture that really is Fox (no longer "LOST") as Fellers ...
from facebook.com


Saturday, March 16, 2013

On Reading (Updated) ...

(Originally published 04 May 2010 - Updated below 16 Mar 2013)

I'll send out a bunch of emails about this post and, from experience, have a pretty good notion of the seven or eight who will actually take a look at it.

Many of those who wont bother will pass simply because they are busy with this thing called LIFE.  It's silly and selfish to want them to put "Read Paul's blog" at the top of their priorities list, and I'd have to be even more full of myself than I usually am to expect that.

I'll always remember an episode of Candice Bergen's "Murphy Brown" TV series in which she plays a TV news reporter showing up at a politician's office, starts telling the secretary who she is, only to have that secretary cut her off at the knees with, "I don't watch television; I have a LIFE!"

And, many of those to whom I send my "Look at me! Look at me!" messages are in that situation.

But, I suspect that for a few, the real reason is that reading is an ordeal for them.  I'm not the first to wonder that;  Isaac Asimov noted in an essay of his, probably before some of you were even born,  that reading (just like playing an instrument, sports, and many other skills) is something that some have a knack for, and others have to work like hell to accomplish.

I'm speaking now of extremely intelligent people who overcome that problem, through sheer will and discipline, by reading what they have to but take no real pleasure in it. If you find a profile they've put up anywhere, and there's a "Favorite Reading:" list on it, they're apt to put on it, "I don't like reading."

One of the luckiest things about my life is that I've always loved reading (almost anything), and that it's always been easy for me.

I had to drop out of school after the ninth grade (I did get a GED during a period of unemployment thirty years later), and have never had much study discipline (or any other kind of discipline, for that matter), but it's very hard to read as much as I have without some of it managing to stick. As a result, I tend to do very well on tests.

Such tests impressed the USAF enough that they sent this high-school dropout to Yale for a year (for language schooling) and this accomplishment helped my way into engineering and IT careers. And overall, I can't really complain about how my life has turned out.

But, for that, I have to credit loving reading and never having to struggle with it.  In my case, that was a knack that I had the sheer good luck to be born with.

(Originally published 5/4/10 11:14 PM)

Update - Sat, 16 Mar 2013 - I may have had some help with that "luck".
Today, I came across this post More on reading; a bit of the absurd by Dr. Jerry Pournelle. I sent an email to him, mentioning A Profound Sadness at the Polling Station (my thoughts on how vital mastery of English can be to making it here), and also the post you are now reading.

In Dr. Pournelle's post was an email from one of his readers noting ...

When our daughter was in kindergarten, she read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes, she understood it with the help of her Parental Dictionaries and a bit of phonetic guidance with things like wingardia leviosa. My sainted mother-in-law took the place of an English nanny.

This reminded me that some of my "luck" was certainly due to Mom and Dad. Both of them were voracious readers and kept plenty of material at hand.

By the time I was 7 or 8, I was devouring copies of Mechanix Illustrated left by my uncle (who was a subscriber and also read a lot. That magazine had many articles on just about everything besides the usual auto repair and furniture building you would expect (see The Year of the Jackpot).

Dad kept a large supply of Zane Grey and Max Brand paperback westerns I got hooked on.

I think it was about this time that Mom showed me a copy of Treasure Island, warned me that I shouldn't read it as it "might give me nightmares", and hid it away. Of course, I found it and devoured it. It didn't occur to me until much later that it wasn't all that difficult for me to find.

I'm pretty confident that I had been played. :-)

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The "Field of Dreams" Principle

-"If you build it, they will come."

(Nope! This post is not about that particular movie. But, ultimately, it is about a couple of other movies: one current, and the other ten years ago).

My best friend and former co-worker at a software company, at which I was a programmer for 12 years (1986-1998), thusly described the apparent operating philosophy of the owners of that company. We developed what may well have been the finest GIS (Geographic Information System) software used by (all too few) companies in the petroleum industry.

This was attested to by those users, and by observation of the competition at annual SEG (Society of Exploration Geophysicists) conventions. We had a foothold in Shell Oil and Fina Oil & Chemical (now part of Total), and a very good shot at a contract with Saudi Aramco. A good enough shot that I was one of those who had to get a passport in case I ever had to fly out there.

BUT, we spent very little on a sales force to go out and promote that product. When you are a small outfit (maybe a dozen and a half employees at most) and your chief competitor is a subsidiary of Schlumberger, well, you might well guess that "If you build it, they will come" just ain't how the world works. That contract never materialized and the big guy won. Our company closed it's Houston office in '98 and, instead of becoming fabulously wealthy (or at least very well to to) I was out of a job for a loooong time.

The Field of Dreams Principle seems to apply to the movie business as well.

For several months now, I've seen posters in movie theaters for ...
From beyondhollywood.com

Synopsis for Phantom (2013) ...
'Ed Harris' plays the captain of a Cold War Soviet missile submarine who has secretly been suffering from seizures that alter his perception of reality. Forced to leave his wife and daughter, he is rushed into a classified mission, where he is haunted by his past and challenged by a rogue KGB group (led by David Duchovny) bent on seizing control of the ship's nuclear missile. With the fate of humanity in his hands, Harris discovers he's been chosen for this mission in the belief he would fail. 'Phantom' is a suspense submarine thriller about extraordinary men facing impossible choices.

Ok. I kept an eye out for it, and when I got home from work Friday, saw in the IMDB showtimes that it had arrived. Cool!

Clicking on it showed that, out of 55 theaters within a 25 mile radius of my zip-code (with God only knows how many hundreds of screens), it was showing at precisely ONE, in the middle of the day at 11:30 AM and 2:20 PM, at the Star Cinema Grill (a very nice place) in Missouri City. nearly 20 miles away. As it was too late for me to go Friday, I went yesterday.

While waiting for it these past months, I never saw one preview for it, nor a single commercial. Predictably, when I reached the auditorium, I saw that a couple in the middle were the only ones there besides myself. I suppose the psychic powers of our population are just not enough to compensate for the total lack of promotion.

The technical term for this is "dumping". After spending millions to make the movie, they seem to find nothing in the budget for marketing and advertising for it, preferring to spend it on something they probably invested a lot more in and promising far greater returns. Sometimes, what happens is a change at the top when a rew CEO takes over the studio and promoting the efforts of his predecessor is not even on his "to-do" list, as he has his own mark to make on things.

"Phantom" is a damn fine movie, worthy of far better treatment than it's getting, but if I find it to be completely gone next weekend, it wouldn't surprise me a bit. If it's showing anywhere near you at the moment, keep that in mind. Otherwise, you'll have to wait several months for the DVD.

That DVD will be worth getting.

(Update - 1415 CDT 23 Mar 2013 - That "next weekend" (of Friday, 15 Mar 2013) has come and gone, as has the movie. Not really a great insight on my part;  it was (in the words of one of Robert A. Heinlein's characters in "Methuselah's Children") "like predicting an egg will break when you see it already on its way to the floor". The DVD will probably be released by (or shortly before) summer. I promise you, it's worth it.)

This is a case of history repeating itself.

In late 2002, I saw posters for Below (2002) ...
From impawards.com

... about a WWII submarine, supposedly haunted. Mostly a psychological thriller (it's left open as to whether anything supernatural is involved or maybe gas buildup from the batteries is causing hallucinations), this is another first-rate movie that had posters everywhere, no previews nor any  commercials and only appeared in a handful of multiplexes the first week, was down to one the second, and gone by the third. In 2002, you had to wait about nine months after theatrical release before the DVD came out.

That DVD is still available and I highly recommend it.

So!  If you build it, will they come?

Sadly, I kinda doubt it. :(


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