Sunday, May 3, 2015

Avengers Disassemble!

     I regard Marvel Comics and Stan Lee as one of the greatest multimedia giants of this century as well as the last.   Incredible to think he has been creating comic characters professionally since 1941 and he is still at it.   So of course you must see the latest masterpiece in the Marvel Universe, Avengers Age of Ultron.  Or is it Iltron?  Oltron?   No matter.

    Marvel is great because they are willing to still do original things and take chances, unlike the sorry franchises from movies like Batman (Bruce Wayne's parents killed at least 10 times) and Star Trek (re-running characters from the 1960s with ho-hum plot twists and echoed dialogue).  The natural tendency with big budget movies is to copy methods that have worked well in the past and not tinker with a successful formula---precisely the opposite of the requirements for creativity.  So if Marvel tries a few things that bomb, I'm not that upset.  I am more concerned if they become boring and predictable.  

    I don't want to give away any plot spoilers, but let's just say that Avengers pick very odd times for romance, drinking parties as well as vacation time.  Hey, the world is being destroyed, Avengers! What will you do about it?   I dunno, let's spend some time in the country thinking about life and reflecting about country values.  Our maybe let's have a little us if anything happens, ok?  

    Thor turns out to be a party animal, and wins a lot of money on the "pick up the magical hammer" game as shown in the movie trailers.   There is a lot of funny dialogue.  Natasha Romanova and Tony Starks are witty as well, although Tony is sometimes nerdy.   

     Marvel has done a great job of creating original bad guys. Until now.  Iltron, I mean Ultron, is a really lame villain.  It seems that someone left an alien floppy disk with a copy of Windows for Aliens Operating System on it, and that led to the creation of a really crabby android named Ultron.   It takes him only a few minutes to turn really bad, get superhuman powers (though we're not sure what they are) and decide to destroy the earth.  I had the same experience with Windows 8, so this part of the plot seems realistic although a bit lame.  

 This is everything you need to know about the character of Oltron, I mean Ultron.   Same-o, same-o, same-o.   He's just a crabby alien intelligence who wants to blow up the earth.  

We also don't know much about his plan to blow up the earth but it involves anti gravity and dropping large rocks on the earth.  Not sure why that results in the destruction of the earth, maybe a tsunami or something, but ok I am willing to be terrified that Eltron, I mean Ultron, will do something bad.  

     Another android, known as the Vision, was created under conditions that I at least found confusing. As far as I can tell, though,  Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Thor seemed to have collaborated on an update to the Windows for Aliens Operating System, and then some red android showed up.   But no one in my family could remember who he was, what his powers were or what happened to him at the end of the movie.  I will have to see it again to keep track of the guy and figure out why (or if) he was important to the movie.  Just because the plot is more complicated, does not mean it is better.  

Who is this guy?  What is his name?  How did he get here?  What happens to him at the end of the movie?  Nobody in my family could remember much about him, though we kind of think he was some sort of key character.

We also are introduced to new characters Scarlet Witch and her brother Quicksilver.  Are they good or are they bad?   Does anyone care?  Answer: no.

The Scarlet Witch was really sexy in the comic books, but toned down for the movie.   Is she going to fight?   And on whose side?   Again, we are not sure why we should care.  Her powers were never well defined, though she could zap people or else make them have delusions.   That was cool for a while, but she got a headache and had to stop.  "Not tonight, I have a headache!"  

Stan Lee is old enough to remember Errol Flynn, the original Superhero in Robin Hood (1939).   They've been trying to find another Errol Flynn for 76 years, but neither Hawkeye or his DC cousin Green Arrow have been able to live up to Robin Hood's legacy.  Face it, Hawkeye is boring and doesn't make any sense in a world that uses AK-47s.   

      The Hulk is probably the most compelling character, though his rampages are so out of control that there must certainly be an unacceptable level of civilian casualties.   Still, if they enforce the no-killing rule then the movie wouldn't work, so I guess we just have to suspend our disbelief.

     Something needs to be done about minor armies. Last movie they had hordes of naughty elves, and this time it is naughty robots. Suffice it to say that each Avenger can just wade into them and pretty much clean their clocks, and the naughty robots get weaker and more easily defeated later in the movie.   In short they are boring.   

Hint:  Don't use karate chops, just send in the Hulk to clarify all this mess.  

   In summary, the Age Of Ultrun, er, Ultron, is a fun spectacle with great special effects, well worth watching.  The writing has definitely taken a step backwards over the first Avengers movie, however.  I hope they won't get too conservative, but will improve the writing for the next movie.  


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Is Apple Losing Its Way?

  Frankly, I am mind-boggled at the news that Apple Computer is buying some 800 million dollars worth of solar energy.  Apple cites the need to reduce consumption of fossil fuels in the name of planetary ecology.  And they are right that large companies need to lead the industry in creating environmental policies, rather than being behind the curve and having to retrofit later on.  

    On the other hand if I were a shareholder of Apple (I'm not) I would be aghast that they have some 800 million dollars to invest in something other than a consumer electronic gadget. 

     Will solar power actually save money?   I doubt it.  Photovoltaics are still expensive.  The numbers I see are still around $0.30 per kwH, and higher if you want to use batteries for power at night or on cloudy days.   Natural gas plants are more in the range of $0.05 per kilowatt hour.  So I can't understand why Apple thinks its a good idea to pay like six times the amount that everyone else pays for electricity. Is their real goal to invest in real estate that supports all these photovoltaic panels?  Maybe if they are getting some help from the government to buy land for this photovoltaic enterprise, that might be the real money maker.  

     The use of more expensive energy is a classic case for government involvement, if that is what the people really want.  I always thought it would be very hard for industry to voluntarily select a more expensive energy source (environmentally conservative, financially wasteful).  Hence this apparent decision by Apple is amazing and riveting. Now it is not just a consumer electronics company, it seeks to make money by consumer electronics as well as energy trend setting by promoting photovoltaic energy.  

    It doesn't stop with photovoltaics.  Apple also seeks to start building automobiles, as early as 2020.  Apple has great expertise in batteries for consumer electronics. Does that mean that they are also experts in automotive batteries?   And what about the rest of the car?   This is an amazing leap from cell phones and computers to cars and photovoltaic power systems.  

Apple figures that it is so smart it can challenge Tesla for leadership in electric car production.  But I think their money has finally exceeded their good sense.  

     Perhaps Apple will continue to be darlings on Wall Street and lead the United States and the world into a new way of life, with environmental responsibility and electric cars.  Or perhaps they are creating billion dollar financial messes.  I fear that it may be closer to the latter.  


Friday, August 22, 2014

Is Global Warming Energy Stored in the Deep Ocean?

This is starting to sound like science. For a long time, climate conservatives and climate liberals had great difficulty talking to each other. The fundamental problem is that there is a very good model to describe global climate, but the data does not all agree with the model.

But I continue to believe that the scientific method will eventually prevail.

Global warming is real, and the earth really did warm up a lot from about 1976 to 2002, and also from 1908 to 1945. But there was a hiatus from 1946 to 1976 and from 2002 till the present, during which time the earth's average temperature (as estimated by the National Climatic Data Center) did not increase. 

I was heartened to see articles such as a recent study by 
Xianyao Chen  of the University of Washington, and  Ka-Kit Tung of the Laboratory of Physical Oceanography, Ocean University of China, Qingdao, China publishing in Science (vol 22 August 2014: Vol. 345 no. 6199 pp. 897-903).  Their research suggest that changes in the earth's circulating oceans allow global warming to slow down temporarily, or to speed up temporarily.  This could cause the global average surface temperature to change by a few tenths of a degree, perhaps.   This might explain why global warming has taken an apparent hiatus after a rapid rise in the late 20th Century.   

I don't know whether it is right or not, but I do take it as a positive that they are trying to model the actual data, including the thirty year hiatus of the early to mid 20th century and our current hiatus of a dozen years or so.  Maybe they are on the right track. We shall see.

To sum up, some amount of global warming has to occur because the absorption of infrared energy increases in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide increases.  But the pause in global warming of the past twelve years is real, and so is the 30 year pause from about 1945 to 1975.  These features should be obvious, but historically conservatives fail to observe warming trends and liberals have failed to note the pauses in global temperature rise.   The oceans may act to produce temporary (but real) warming and cooling signals, which may confuse the climatologists.   Most importantly, the Scientific Method cares not a whit about politics and the answers will ultimately be made clear.      

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy is great!

(disclaimer:  I try not to give away any major plot twists or punch lines in this review, and instead concentrate on the characters, actors and viewability).
   Peter Quill (Chris Pratt),  Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) are the Guardians of the Galaxy. 

    I love this movie, even though I have never read one of the comic books.  The great thing about Marvel movies is that you never know what is going to happen next.  And you also will meet totally unique characters.  Marvel seems to always be striving to be original, rather than relying on recycled superheroes and bad guys from previous movies.    The movie works because the cast did a great job of pulling this off and making their characters both interesting and believable. 

     First of all, there are no good guys in the movie. None whatsoever, only different levels of bad.  The Guardians are an unruly, uncivilized group of talented misfits who would rather steal a bunch of money, but who instead find themselves forced to save the Galaxy.  Peter Quill is a con man and hi-tech thief.  Drax the Destroyer is a killing machine seeking to avenge the death of his family at the hands of Ronan the Accuser.  

My kids liked Rocket Raccoon, a smart-talking genius who inhabits the body of a raccoon.  He is furry and cuddly and will blow you away at the slightest provocation.  

Gamora is a true babe, even if she is green.  The character didn't make great sense, but I didn't mind.  

Groot is a tree creature who doesn't talk much, but has amazing tree powers.   He seemed to become (surprisingly) more interesting as the movie progressed.   

Ronan (Lee Pace) definitely suffers from "Shakespearian Overacting Disease").  

Ronan is definitely a bad guy and has awesome super powers.  He better, because he is also super dumb. Consider this question from Bad Guy 101:

Bad Guy 101 Test Question:

When you have the opportunity to steal the most powerful weapon in the universe, you:

     a.  Send your entire army to go get it.

    b.  Send yourself to get it with your awesome superpowers. 

     c.  Send one person to steal it.
Well, our boy Ronan picks option c, of course.  That's rather dumb right there, but okay. So, who do you suppose Ronan sends?  

     a.  Send a super powered bad guy.

     b.  Send somebody whose loyalty is unquestioned because you are holding their parents hostage or something.

      c.  Send your cutest employee.

    Yup, old Ronan isn't very bright, and once again he goes for option c.  Oh well.  That was the option that made the director happy, I guess.  Despite those mental lapses and a tendency to overact, Ronan is a formidable bad guy.   

     On the other hand, we can't be certain that the good guys are truly all on the same side, and indeed they all have their own agendas and tend to work at cross purposes.  That indeed makes them interesting.

      Definitely this movie is worth seeing, though not necessarily as good as the Avengers movie which came out earlier this year.  My kids  (age 12 and 9) seemed to like it, although some of the violent scenes were a bit much, especially for the younger one. If they liked Avengers and X-Men they will be okay with this one, I believe.  

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Loki Versus the Hulk Rematch for a Future Thor Movie

   My colleague Loren and I should definitely be plot consultants for superhero movies.  At lunch we broke down the Thor movies, and came up with our version for the plot for the next one. 

In our opinion, Loki needs to have a better motivation than sibling rivalry and a desire to take over the world.  Ho hum.

   The basic problem with Thor movies is that despite having a brilliant cast with excellent special effects and great directing, we don't really identify with Thor's home of Asgard, which is kind of a drinking establishment for super-powered aliens.  Why is it a cause for worry if Loki takes over the place or leaves it for old geezer Odin?  The traditional cliché bad guy motive of wanting to take over the world (either Earth or Asgard) doesn't seem to fit Loki.
      Here's what Loren and I came up with for the next Thor movie:

       Loki was badly humiliated after having been beat up by the human Bruce Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk.  The whole thing was witnessed and recorded by Heimdall, keeper of the Rainbow Bridge, so other Gods laugh their asses off when they see it on Asgard youtube. 

     He resolves that this will never happen again, and decides that he must find a way to infuse himself with the same gamma ray energy that transformed Bruce Banner into the Hulk. 

     Loki also despises Thor for being too obedient and too boring.  Chaos, he reasons, is the only hope for the Asgardians to save themselves from stagnation and eventual oblivion. This is another reason why he needs the Hulk.  Loki worships chaos, and believes that life is not worth living unless there is a certain amount of chaos present. The orderly path selected by Odin and his straight arrow son Thor leads to stagnation and spiritual emptiness and ultimately death. Yet Loki realizes that the Hulk seems to love chaos almost as much as Loki.  

    Thus Loki decides that, having been rejected by the Asgardians,  he will create a new race of DemiHulks on Earth.  He will use his godlike intelligence with the help of earth scientists to create a hybrid Asgardian and human race, and to reproduce and refine the gamma rays that changed the Hulk (talk about GMOs!).   He chooses earth subjects and modifies their DNA with Asgardian gene sequences.  For his friends, he wants other chaos worshippers:   Mixed Martial Arts fighters, athletes, drug addicts,  Hollywood sex symbols, musicians....anyone who has thoroughly indulged the sensual chaotic side of life.  Loki realizes that the genetically modified race he is creating might eventually exceed his own power, but he doesn't care.  Better to create a world in which chaos is present to drive change rather than be the ruler of a sterile and deadly boring universe. 

Can the Green Hulkster Gamma Energy change Loki and make him more powerful than Thor and the Hulk combined? 

     Soon Loki creates a gang and as a test kills some Asgardians he doesn't like and forces the rest to retreat from Asgard.  Others, including Thor's ex-girlfriend Sif (jilted in favor of wimpy human Jane Foster for reasons that never made sense), decide to join Loki.  Moreover, Sif wishes to kill Jane Foster as one side agenda. Now it is time to track down the Hulk.
   But while all this is going on, Thor and Jane Foster find out that something is up.  They try to join forces with the Hulk, who is very very angry.  So angry he goes in for a second dose of gamma radiation.  Thor and Jane are not convinced this is a great idea, but...

   You want a piece of HULK?  HULK SMASH!!

As for Jane Foster, the scientist also prepares a surprise for Loki and Sif. 

What kind of surprise?  Maybe something like this. 

   Now everyone is ready to do battle. Serious thunder, serious smashing.  Casualties on both sides. Intrigue as  Loki fools Thor by appearing to be Jane Foster, and then fools him again into thinking that the real Jane is Loki.  Thor might thus unknowingly injure or even kill Jane.  Oh dear, that is real mischief.  The angry Thor might find himself actually embracing chaos through his anger!

      Put it this way, Loki is in for more than a half minute pounding this time.  But who wins ultimately?   Stay tuned for Thor 4.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review of Star Trek Continues Episode 3: Fairest of Them All

       Episode 3 of  Star Trek Continues, Fairest of Them All, has been released.  I think it is by far the best of the  three, and much better than the multimillion dollar movies in the Star Trek series.

    Star Trek Continues is made on a shoestring rather than the multibazillion dollar movies from the parent franchise.  But what sets apart the show is the writing.  Kudos to James Kerwin and Vic Mignogna for this one.    This episode takes place just after Kirk, Scott, Uhuru and McCoy were displaced in an evil parallel universe (in the original show episode "Mirror Mirror").  In that 1967 episode, good Kirk suggests that evil Spock should realize that the Terran Empire (i.e., the evil Federation) is headed towards an inevitable end, and should do something about it.
     The new show follows evil Spock's dilemma to remain loyal to his evil Captain, while also recognizing the logic of good Kirk's admonition to resist.  

     It is a brilliant concept, and the script writing was excellent, avoiding some of the minor logical disconnects of the first two episodes. 

In the evil universe, Captain Kirk is an oversexed member of the futuristic Tea Party, whereas Mr. Spock is a closet Liberal, and perhaps the only Democrat in the universe.  How can Spock survive in a world in which the ruler of the Terran empire is a direct descendant of Sarah Palin?

     The cast has really jelled for this episode.  In particular, Todd Haberkorn gives an incredible performance as the evil Spock, while Vic Mignogna channels his evil Kirk side with equal intensity.  The chemistry (or clash) between Kirk and Spock is absolutely terrific and causes both actors to step it up from what we had seen previously. 

     This is the kind of experiment that the movie studio would be terrified to undertake.  Because the movies are now hundreds of millions of dollars, the studios abhor anything with an element of risk. Hence every Star Trek movie made in the future will have the same old bad guys, and the movie will end with a stock ending.  I about choked when in the rebooted movie, Kirk dropped a nuclear bomb into the heart of the Deathstar, stealing from Luke Skywalker.  Yech.  
    What's great about Star Trek Continues is that you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next!  You don't know what the bad guys are going to do, or even who's on who's side in this episode.    

In the evil universe, Lt Smith (Kipleigh Brown) operates the helm and is forced to wear scanty clothing to please the males (exactly as in the good universe of 1967).   

Asia Demarcos plays Lt. Marlena Moreau.  In the evil universe, all beautiful women know how to navigate a Starship. Lt Moreau is also a Girlfriend for horny Kirk.  Come to think of it, good Kirk is also incredibly horny.  Maybe the two universes are closer than we think. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Tom Mahefkey

        Tom Mahefkey passed away a few days ago.      
     Tom was my boss when we both worked at Air Force Research Laboratories.   I hadn't seen Tom for a while, since he has been living in Georgia. But back in the day we worked on advanced nuclear power systems for the Air Force and for President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.  Tom was involved in thermal management, which is one of those technologies that nobody knows what it is good for.  What is it?  Well briefly you have to figure out how you are going to keep your spacecraft at the right temperature.  That is easy enough on earth, but in space you can not simply open a window or turn on an air conditioner.  So there are a number of high tech solutions to transfer heat to a radiator so it could be ultimately dissipated in space.  Another problem was the Air Force always wanting to fly too fast, and actually burning up due to friction.  In that case, you have to call Dr. Mahefkey and see if there is some way to keep things cool enough to survive.

     That is how we spent our youth, worrying about such things.   
    Tom loved the Air Force and was very good at bring good people into his group, in including Jerry Beam, Joe Gottschlich, Pon Ponnappon, Jill Johnson, Ram Ramalingam, B.H. Tsao, Brian Donovan, John Leland, and many others. Eventually we started working with Dick Verga and Len Caveny at the Strategic Defense Initiative Office.  Later that work took us to the Soviet Union as part of a government effort to convert some of the technology from military applications to space exploration.  Unfortunately, that was only partially successful, as too many of the oldsters frankly liked fighting the Cold War better than cooperation. Maybe the next generation will figure out that we are better off working together, but so far that concept is kind of on hold. 

Len Caveny, cut off on the left, Sergey Timashev, Tom Mahefkey, Bonnie Somerville, Alla Eden, Joyce Caveny and Elliot Kennel in Saint Petersburg.   We produced a translation of a book by Sergey on spacecraft nuclear power.  Thanks to Len for taking the pictures. 

We travelled by train with Sergey from St Petersburg to Moscow.  Here Sergey models a Space Shuttle tee shirt.   I remember getting very sick from eating pickled eel; however those who washed it down with vodka survived without incident.  Lesson learned:  vodka = antiseptic.

     One of the things we did was to start and support international conferences on energy conversion.  This led to us getting invited to Russia (or at that time the USSR) and achieving some minor notoriety.  One one occasion, we thought it would be nice to have a conference in Sukhumi Gruzhiya (Georgia).  Little did we know that there would be a rift between Russia and Georgia and so the conference was held in a makeshift dormitory normally used to train athletes.  It was kind of funny at the time, and we used to call ourselves the Survivors of Sukhumi.  Unfortunately, that beautiful country had a civil war, and the survival of the people there was a real issue and so it is not funny anymore.   Suffice it to say it is such a beautiful country, and we hope it will in time become peaceful and prosper again somehow.  

    Off-work, Tom was a regular guy, raising two great kids in Suzy and Tommy.  No question, Suzy and Tommy were his greatest joys in life. Tom was not the type to brag about his kids, but I knew he was very proud of them and would do anything for them.  
     Next to his kids and family, Tom was very close to the people he worked with.  He encouraged all of us to continue our education and to constantly strive to improve.  Tom taught classes at the University of Dayton, and was also close to the faculty at Wright State (the other local university near the Air Force Base).   
     Tom was also an ardent sportsman.  He played tennis with a passion.  Frankly, I was scared of him, as well as his cohorts Ram and Tsao.  Those guys were trained killers on the tennis court. Tom also coached baseball for his son Tommy's teams. Tom was from Pennsylvania, and grew up rooting for the Pirates and Steelers, although from living in Ohio so many years he started to like some of the Ohio teams as well, especially the Reds.   

   Tom also liked music and in particular liked Buddy Holly and some of those old time rockers. He also liked country western.  A few times we played songs together, like Peggy Sue, That'll be the Day, and stuff like that.  I wish we could have gotten together more recently, as my friends in West Virginia have gotten me trained up some, and I could probably keep up a little better now.

     Maybe the last thing we did together was to study thermionic energy one last time for the National Research Council.  It was a very complex issue, but in the end it did not go forward. Perhaps there were too many political forces pulling in different directions.  I think Tom felt discouraged, and maybe I let him down.  But in the end, I didn't feel that there was a cohesive consensus, at least in the US, to build nuclear reactors for spacecraft.   


I think this is from the National Research Council study on thermionic energy conversion.  From left to right (Unfortunately, I don't recognize the first two fellows on the left or the woman in front right), Doug Allen, Len Caveny,   George Hatsopolous, Elliot Kennel, Harry Finger,  Tom Hunt,  Dean Jacobsen, Tom Mahefkey, Judy Ambrus, Robert Pinkerton.