Tuesday, November 15, 2016

2016: A View from the Past

I was listening to a lecture on YouTube by a fellow named Tony Seba, who talks about major disruptions in society, and what happens to the market of what the disruptions displace.

He showed a picture of Easter Sunday, 1900 on Fifth Avenue in New York City. There are dozens, even hundreds of horse-drawn carriages parading up and down the street -- and in the middle of all these equine-powered vehicles, there's a solitary gasoline fueled automobile.

NYC-Easter Sunday 1900

Fast-forward a dozen or so years. Same street, another Easter Sunday, but now it's 1913. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of gasoline-powered automobiles fill the street. There is exactly one horse in this photo.

NYC - Easter Sunday 1913

It's likely that none of the people in the 1900 picture would guess what the ratio of horses to cars would be in the following decade, but I think it would be safe to assume they'd never think horses would become rarities.

Yes, there are still horses more than a century later in Manhattan, but they're remanded to pulling a few tourist carts through Central Park. They're novelties, not relied-upon forms of transportation.

Here in the 21st Century, we're at another disruption point: the end of the internal combustion engine. From the vantage point of when the essay you're reading was written (late fall of 2016), mostly it seems impossible. Right now there are 253 million cars on the road in the United States. Less than a half million are electric vehicles, and most of them cost in excess of $60,000.

All that's about to change in 2017  with the arrival of two major fleets: the Chevy Bolt, and the Tesla Model 3. Within the first year of production, nearly one million new electric vehicles are expected to wind up in the garages of the non-rich and non-famous. This surge of new cars not powered by gasoline is the first wave of what will be a fundamental overthrow of the reign of internal combustion.

If you've not experienced driving an electric vehicle, this disruption may seem impossible. There's an entire culture of internal combustion, firmly established in gas stations, Jiffy Lubes, service centers, and transmission shops. All these businesses will soon be as outmoded as typewriter repair stores and Blockbuster video rental centers. The change will be so elemental that it's difficult to picture what the new landscape of transportation will look like.

Imagine never needing to visit a gas station again. The "gas station" is now your own home, where you'll plug your car in at night pretty much the same way you plug in your smartphone to its charger. There will be no more oil changes, spark plug tune-ups, broken alternators, radiator flushes, muffler shops, replacement fuel pumps, blown head gaskets, or worries about what kind of octane gas to use. You won't have to pay for emissions testing because your car won't emit anything. Every morning, your car will have a "full tank" thanks to an overnight charge.

Moore's Law, the computer marketing concept that the density of memory storage increases while the price of memory decreases will have a codicil in battery power. We are currently capable of a 100 kWh battery, but that density will increase to 130 kWh within a year's time. As battery density increases, batteries to cover the same distance will decrease in size, allowing for weight savings in a car and further increasing range. The idea of having a 400-mile single charge car battery by 2020 isn't a fantasy - - it's a conservative estimate of the future.

This may sound unlikely, but I believe electric vehicles will comprise more than 90% of the country's active vehicle fleet by 2023. As adoption of electric cars becomes a standard, the pace of replacement will become as rapid as the replacement of CRTs with flat screen TVs was just a decade ago. Over 98% of electric production is produced from domestic sources, and the demand for gasoline will fade as suddenly as the demand for cassette tapes did 20 years ago. We will look back on 2016 as the end of a strange era, when people carted tanks of flammable fluid around in their vehicles just to propel themselves on the highways. Babies born this year will look at pictures from 2016 and think how strange the whole concept of running gas engines on wheels directly in front of the passenger compartment was. Since I've test driven an electric car, I can grasp that idea clearly - - it's like seeing pictures of steam engines chuffing into train stations half a century ago.

My advice? Don't buy a new car with an internal combustion engine. You'll regret it within the next 1000 days. I'm serious. Gasoline engines are going the way of DOS, floppy disks, ditto machines, and slide rules.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Cardboard World

Sorry for the pause of more than a dozen months. Overtaken by events, and all that.

I got back from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. It's an annual ComicCon of whiz-bang equipment being hawked to the credulous masses every January. Thanks to a good friend, I became a temporary "Exhibitor" and wandered the merchandise tables for several days.

UHDTV seems to have reached the tipping point for home purchases. With 50" screens selling for under $500, I think this is the year they'll start appearing on people's living room walls. In about three years, this little essay will seem quaintly naive, but 4K television is quite an amazing advance for the movie-watching public. Sony has a 4K projector about the size of an old cassette tape that can beam an eight-foot-wide screen onto a wall. I think hardware TVs may be replaced by these little doodads, as it's much easier to ship and hang a fist-sized box on the ceiling than it is to mount a picture window-sized monitor on the wall.

My favorite two bits of hardware from the show, though, were involved with building Virtual Reality (VR) spaces.
Ricoh Theta S
One item was the Ricoh Theta, a slim plastic stick about as tall as an iPhone with two fisheye lens at opposing sides of the stick. The device records 360° still and video images and broadcasts same to nearby Bluetooth devices. The clarity is astounding. The accompanying software allows for editing and timelapse photography. Its ability to capture an entire sphere of any location in high-definition makes the Theta a game changer for tourist imagery. As it's a mere $346 list price, I think it's going to be a big seller in the coming year.

Way down the price pyramid, but just as much the game changer is the Google Cardboard viewer. Vendors were handing out version of the viewer for free as tschotskes, and the supported base of media available for the device is expanding exponentially by the day.

Briefly, Google Cardboard is a View-Master like device to see 3D images through a stereoscopic pair of lenses. The reason it's called "Cardboard" is that the viewer is typically a carefully folded cardboard box, with appropriate slots and pieces of Velcro used to hold the thing together. By dropping an iPhone or Android into one side of the box, the viewer can be used as a simple VR device. Google has quite a few example programs on their site, and many YouTube videos support the Google Cardboard VR standard.
Google Cardboard

The Cardboard viewer is ingenious and amazing - - I put one together in about three minutes, slipped my iPhone into the far end of the box, and had the device calibrated and ready to go in less than another minute. The iPhone's accelerometer passed axis changes on to the software, and the video screen updated my views immediately.

In one example tour, I walked by the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Venice. I hovered over a baby gorilla in a jungle, and even stood atop the Spirit rover on the surface of Mars.

The technology isn't quite ready for prime time but it's easy to see how ubiquitous this device and others of its kind will become. I want to learn more about VR technology, so I've ordered a Ricoh Theta to explore the matter in more detail. Expect many experiment posts shortly.


Ricoh Theta S

Google Cardboard

CES 2016

Friday, January 24, 2014

Clip Show

Most people know John Williams as the film composer - - the fellow who wrote the Star Wars theme and the Jurassic Park and the Harry Potter soundtracks.

Not too long before he wrote his Jaws soundtrack, Mr. Williams went by the professional name of "Johnny Williams," writer of TV themes. He worked on end credits music for shows like Alcoa Theater and the Bob Hope specials. Much of his work was incidental music, and went uncredited in quite a few series.

One of his most frequent gigs was to write for action/adventure shows produced by Irwin Allen. Although he didn't write the theme to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, he penned many title tracks for Allen, in shows such as The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, and Land of the Giants.

Irwin Allen constantly tinkered with shows to maintain his ratings and dazzle his audiences (albeit with a limited budget). An unusual technique that Allen relied on to pep things up was to have Johnny Williams completely rewrite the theme music after a few seasons. One of the most obvious examples is Lost in Space, where Williams had originally crafted an eerie, ominous and echoing theme for the initial two seasons, filled with trumpets, cellos, and piccolos :

By the third season Irwin Allen figured he wanted to stress the action and adventure angle and downplay the alien-ness of outer space. So, he had Johnny dump the old theme and create a more driven,  French horn-stuffed roller coaster of a theme. The new opener threw audiences into the middle of a fast countdown every week, paced by ticking rimshots and  hyped-up trombone arpeggios. It was definitely a new look-and-feel for the established series.

Something I didn't realize until recently was that Allen used a similar approach with his 1968-70 series, Land of the Giants. In the show's initial outing, Williams built the theme to underline the ponderous size of the titled Giants on their home world, and the threat they posed to the puny Earth men who had crashed their ship on the Giants' planet.

By the second year of the show, the ratings were dropping, so Allen brought Johnny Williams back to the composing studio to crank out a peppier theme. The new opening would be at a much faster pace, with clashing French horns and bass guitars and syncopated glockenspiels.

The trick worked, and Giants continued for another two years. It's not easy to say that Johnny's new theme "saved" the show, but it certainly didn't hurt the ratings.

Looking back more than four decades at all the work Irwin Allen piled on John(ny) Williams's plate, it's amazing to think about how prolific Williams was beyond his epic movie soundtracks. I can't imagine any current TV theme writers jotting down so many disparate themes and variations for the same shows in the same time frame. Okay, maybe Michael Giacchino - - but is he still doing TV shows after LOST?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

And at Last I See the Light

I promised myself that in 2014 I'd write a lot more about less "significant" things and focus more on simple things that flabbergast me. Of course, the flabbergasting began immediately.

Disney movies are eminently rewatchable. The songs, the characters, the settings, and the plot lines are usually compelling, and the animators typically hide details that are often overlooked, even after repeated viewings.

I was watching Disney's Tangled -- the Rapunzel story, last week, and spotted something I've never noticed before this thirty-eighth playback of the film. In the story, baby Princess Rapunzel is kidnapped from her castle by an evil sorceress. The sorceress hides Rapunzel in a tower for eighteen years. Over the ensuing years, Rapunzel's mother and father (the king and queen) hold a memorial service for Rapunzel by lighting floating lanterns in honor of their lost daughter. At age 18, Rapunzel escapes from the sorceress's tower and attends one of these ceremonies by sitting in a boat, watching the subjects of the kingdom launch the floating lanterns into the night sky on her birthday.

The memorial service begins with the King and Queen lifting a single decorated lantern up from the rooftop of their castle.

The townspeople follow by launching thousands of their own, undecorated lamps. Soon, the sky is full of the bobbing lanterns. 

Rapunzel sings her song about "seeing the light." While she's singing, her parents' decorated lantern swoops down to the surface of the bay. Rapunzel reaches out and lofts it back up into the sky.

Only the audience (if they're clever enough to spot it) knows Rapunzel touched the very same lantern her parents lit that night.

I swear I've watched this movie several dozen times and never noticed that tidbit until last week. Hopefully I'm not the only clueless member of the audience.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Joy of Man's Desire

I write a lot of stuff about the history of flight and the United States Air Force, but something I never get to write about is the United States Air Force Band and their vocal accompanists, the Singing Sargeants.

Back in the 1970's I used to live near Ridgefield, Connecticut, which had the nickname of "BandTown, USA" Ridgefield had an amazing music program in its school system, and produced an unimaginable number of talented musicians who went on to professional success. One of their most prolific paths into adult musicianship were their Junior ROTC programs. So many alumni headed into the US military bands, the bands themselves came to town and performed on stage at the high school every year. Even Professor Harold Hill would be impressed.

Due to the town's proximity, I had the chance to hear every United States military band in my high school years. My favorite was, and remains, the Air Force Band. Although all the bands are the cream of the nation's band talent, the Air Force Band was the most wide-ranging in its musical presentations. Everything from John Phillip Sousa to the Bee Gees was fair game, and the talent displayed in performances was a complete knockout. Their vocal troupe, the Singing Sargeants (as the name implies, every member is an OR-5 or greater) could do everything from Gregorian chants to a capella bebop tunes. I think if they handed out application forms at the end of performances, they could sign up the entire audience for basic training the next week.

Seeing the Air Force Band in any location is impressive, but seeing them combined with Air Force history is an inspiring match. What better place could they sing but in a place such as, oh, the Milestones of Flight Hall in the National Air & Space Museum in Washington?

So of course, they did just that.

The US Air Force Band is going to be playing at the NASM through much of December. If you're in the DC area, it's an event not to be missed. Check it out - you don't often get to hear an orchestra performing under an X-15.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A JFK Story

My grandfather-in-law, Chris Elson, knew Jack Ruby. Chris was the owner-operator of the Kings Club, the restaurant in Dallas's Adolphus Hotel. As a restauranteur, he knew everyone that served food and hired waitresses in Dallas. Ruby ran the Carousel Club, a burlesque bar across the street from the Adolphus.

On the 20th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I asked Chris what he thought of Jack Ruby, when he knew him back in the day.
Jack Ruby, who shot Oswald, who shot JFK.

"He was a pimp," said Chris. "He hired a lot of girls who had money problems, drug problems, and pimped them out at his bar." Chris didn't like him at all.

Chris was interviewed by the Warren Commission about any discussions or sightings of Jack Ruby's roommate, George Senator,  after the JFK assassination. Here's the only thing he mentioned to the Commission:

CHRIS ELSON, owner and operator of the Kings Club and the Burgurdy Room, Adolphus hotel, advised the Burgundy Room located on the lobby floor and the Kings club located on the sixth floor of the Adolphus Hotel are owned and operated by him.  Neither of the clubs opens until noon. ELSON advised that immediately after the assassination of President KENNEDY on November 22, 1963, he contacted the manager of the Adolphus Hotel and found that the Century Room would not open on November 22 and 23, 1963, and he immediately contacted all of his employees who work in the Burgundy Room and Kings Club and advised them that neither would be opened until Monday, November 25, 1963.

ELSON advised that on November 28, 1963, GEORGE SENATOR contacted him personally at the Kings Club and stated he had a complaint to make against the piano player in the Burgundy Room. On the evening of November 28, 1963, the piano player allegedly made a remark about JACK RUBY and ELSON contacted all employees and it was determined  that none of the employees had seen JACK RUBY, RALPH PAUL, GEORGE SENATOR, or EVA GRANT from November 22 to November 28, 1963.

The employees of the Burgundy Room advised they were reading the headlines of a  newspaper regarding JACK RUBY and this was the basis for the complaint by GEORGE SENATOR.

Senator made a claim that he had met with associates of Jack Ruby at the Kings Club on the 23rd of November, but since Chris explained that the restaurant was closed, this meeting couldn't have happened there. Not a big deal, but it's a discrepancy in testimony that conspiracy theorists try to hang things on.

A Story about November 22nd

I asked Chris what he remembered about November 22nd. Did he see the motorcade? "Oh yes," said Chris, "it was right in front of the restaurant." Here's the memory he shared about that day:

"I never really liked Kennedy,"
he said. "Don't know why, I just didn't like him. We figured lunch would be late that day because everyone downtown would want to see the President, so we decided to hold off the restaurant opening until 12:30."

"Outside the hotel, we had an awning over the sidewalk that wrapped around the whole building. Some of the girls (waitresses) wanted to get a good look at Jackie, so they went upstairs to walk out on top of the awning. They said I should come and see the President, so I went, too."
The Adolphus Hotel today. Note the balcony awning.

"We climbed through the windows on the second floor and stepped out on the awning just as the motorcycles started coming down the street. The President's car was right up front and we saw him and Jackie and all the other people."

"Now, the President would do this thing where he'd point to a group of people on the sidewalk and they'd all wave and he'd wave back at them. And he kept doing this as their car drove down the street. And then he pointed up at the awning with all of us standing there, and we all started waving back at him. I was surprised I was waving, because I didn't really like the guy."

"So, then the cars all passed by and we started climbing back in the windows to go downstairs and open for lunch. So I'm the last one downstairs. As I'm walking down the stairs, I think to myself: why don't I like that guy? He seems like a nice man, he has a pretty wife, they both seem really happy. I could like that guy!"

"As I walk into the bar area, we had a TV on that was showing the parade. All of a sudden, the man on the TV said the President's been shot. And I think to myself: I really just got to like that guy, and now he's dead."

I've been writing articles and essays about the Kennedy assassination since I was twelve years old. There's a whole industry of conspiracy crazies who debate testimony and evidence Oswald acted alone. After decades of reading all the theories and seeing the places where events occurred, the only rational conclusion I think anyone can draw is that Oswald imagined himself to be a revolutionary and had the unfortunate luck of working in a tall building on a day when the President of the United States would be driving by his office. Fifty years of arguments hasn't made a compelling case against Oswald's guilt, and I've decided not to write about the subject any more.

As to the minutiae that people argue about: I think it's all based on the same thing Chris said: we all really just got to know the President, and now he's dead. It's therapy, not revelation.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Edith Keeler Must Die

Don't copy-paste legends
I saw the midnight premiere of Star Trek: Into Darkness early Thursday morning. The initial 2009 reboot of the franchise was an intriguing blend of classic Star Trek motifs through a 21st Century sensibility, so I thought I'd enjoy this continuation of the new films even more than the kickoff  movie.

 As I soon discovered, that idea was a colossal miscalculation.

Yes, it's obvious that the franchise needs to be geared toward a mass audience, and a market of Star Trek aficionados simply can't pay enough in ticket purchases to offset the costs incurred by Paramount every time the studio mounts one of these productions. The movies, therefore, have to follow a strict diet of predictable action, adventure, pretty people, and explodey stuff in order to maintain ticket sales and repeat business.
This is a mandatory, yet completely unessential, three-second scene that fulfilled
Paramount's requirements for "a sexy new Star Trek."

   Yet, there still has to be something of the heart of Star Trek-type stories to consider these films part of the Star Trek universe. Director J.J. Abrams doesn't seem to agree with this idea, as evidenced by the plot of the latest adventure of Captain Kirk & company.

Abrams famously stated he was never a Star Trek fan growing up, and really never watched much of the series until he was hired to direct the first reboot film. It's almost a matter of pride to him that he had no love for Trek as a child, and this lack of affection seems to percolate through the latest film.

Note: before I continue any further, I want to assure you that I do not want to spoil any plot elements for people who haven't seen the movie, so I'm going to talk in general terms about the problems in this film. My criticisms will probably make more sense after you've seen the movie, but I think it's important to view the film without having any plot surprises ruined for you.

The attitude of the script seems to be that it was written by someone who screened several key episodes of Star Trek and watched a few of the films, but had no idea about the personalities of the characters mentioned in the shows. It's as if they had watched "City on the Edge of Forever," and then decided to rewrite Edith Keeler as a Romulan spy. Sure, everyone in the film is saying  the same catchphrases that resonate from earlier episodes and films, but the screenwriter Damon Lindelof doesn't seem to understand why the characters say the things they do. The ignorance of the why part turns the phrases into gibberish, or worse, unintended comedy.
The Squire of Gothos? Cadet Finnegan? Sure, pick a TOS villain and cast Cumberbatch in the role.

You don't have to be a Trekkie to know the basic rules of Star Trek: Kirk makes bold decisions, Spock's favorite word is "logic," guys in red shirts don't live long. But the characters and their interactions were more complex than superficial features. Even the guest stars on the old TV show had backstories that explained their reasons for doing things: Commodore Decker was driven by guilt over the loss of his crew to attack the Planet Killer in a shuttlecraft; Khan Noonian Singh was the pride-drunk leader of a remnant of 20th Century supermen whose weakness was his arrogance; Commander Balok was a master of deception because his diminutive  race had previous run-ins with aggressive species. The aliens and opponents the crew of the Enterprise faced each week had motives and desires that made sense in the context of the plot of every show. 

May the Force be with you, Frodo. Epic misunderstanding of a franchise.
Star Trek Into Darkness? Not so much. The biggest failure of the film is the outright looting of previous Star Trek characters and situations in order to evoke audience nostalgia for those original TV and film moments. We're given a bad guy named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) who turns out to be a character from the TV show - - except this character doesn't act anything like the original character. When dialog from the original character's appearance is repeated in this film, then, it doesn't quite make sense with what we see on screen. Imagine, for example, having a Klingon suddenly appear on screen without introduction and shout "HARCOURT FENTON MUDD!" at Mr. Spock - - - it's almost at that level of incoherence.

The motivations of the villains are breathtakingly shallow. They are bad guys simply because the script needed bad guys at certain points in the film. New locations crop up only because the Enterprise crew required a new place for fight scenes scheduled at regular intervals in the movie, and the previous venues had been destroyed during earlier fights. Ships are destroyed, crash, and somehow fly again because they're needed for the next battle scene. In one particularly absurd moment, a starship, already blown up by six dozen photon torpedoes, reappears for another barrage of phaser fire.

Don't worry, it's only a scratch.
The biggest problem (and I'm going to be as vague as I can so as not to spoil anything) is the lack of loss in this film. Yes, there are deaths of characters, but the solutions to otherwise fatal situations are telegraphed so early and often in this film that the audience doesn't care when people fall off the roofs of speeding cars, or get shot, or have their ships blown up around them. There is no peril that can't be erased, and without the high stakes of life or death, character mortality is no more of a concern than losing a turn during a Super Mario Bros game.

I could continue with nitpicking the howling continuity errors, the usurption of the laws of physics, and the over-reliance of jam-packing every single scene with floating debris and shuddering camera angles, but those points don't begin to match the immensity of the ineptness of the script. This is a Star Trek film, mostly in the sense that Paramount owns the intellectual property and that the character names are the same as those used in the original Roddenberry series. It is not a Star Trek film, though, in any aspect where it's supposed to match the quality of the original series' story-telling, or show respect for the characters and their motivations. It's an auto-tuned version of Star Trek, replete with mandatory set pieces to please the ticket-buying audiences of the world. I'm not saying it wasn't a fun movie - - it's just not really about Star Trek anymore. If Edith Keeler must die, the reason shouldn't be so that there's a satisfying explosion at the end of the film.

Let's cram some more merchandise onboard, shall we?