Friday, 31 December 2010

A bit of New Year's advice

How to open a bottle of Champgne with a sabre.

Personally, I'm sticking to the old standby of bashing the neck on the mantlepiece.

Interstellar future past

Centauri Dreams looks back at Leslie Shepherd’s "Interstellar Flight," which appeared in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society  (1952).   It's an interesting bit of retrospective on an early, serious look at interstellar flight, though he actually means to be reassuring when he compares the crew of a generation ship to Kamikaze pilots.  Somehow I think that people who dream of such things spend more time on the engineering than on the morality of their plans.

Actually, the engineering doesn't bear very close looking into either.  A few years ago, Charles Stross crunched the numbers and concluded that getting to Fairyland is a more practical goal.

ZAP cane

A walking stick with a built-in torch–and a 1 million volt stun stick.

I really must invest in one for my old age.  The cat won't know what hit it.


A robot that uses a hacked Kinect to act as a telepresence control that mimics the movements of the operator.

It's okay, but what I really want to see is a video of the robot when the operator is attacked by a wasp.

The Ascent of Man Part 4: The Hidden Structure

Thursday, 30 December 2010

US vs Red China: predictions

Trying to avoid this.
Popular Science looks at a RAND Corporation study about a future war between the United States and Red China and concludes that if Beijing made a grab for Taiwan, the American fleet would be on the bottom of the East China Sea on Day One while the People's Liberation Army marches into Taipei without a firing a shot.

Actually, it isn't that simple.  That's just the RAND Corporation's scenario if the America's stick to old Cold War tactics.  If they adopt to 21st century conditions, the Chinese get their heads handed to them.  Of course, Popular Science keeps mum about this until they've frightened the reader half to death. 

I'm a bit sanguine about the idea of the US going to war with China.  My opinion is that the Chinese aren't nearly as formidable as many people imagine and that while it's dangerous to underestimate your enemy, it's equally as dangerous to overestimate him.  Hitler would have been a weird footnote in history if Britain and France had called his bluff over the Rhineland.  In fact, the Wehrmacht was so weak then that the French could have sent a policeman to arrest them.  The same goes for the Communists.  It amazes me with what we know now that the Soviets were often so weak that there were times when we could have shattered the Warsaw Pact like an old Coke bottle.  In both cases, it was our overestimates that kept the monsters in power.  And then there's Saddam Hussein whose mighty Republican Guard went to pieces so fast that people kept getting hit by the shrapnel.  Red China?  They're ambitious and talk a lot about what they want and what they're going to do, but talking and doing are two different things.

As for the scenario of the US Fleet getting pounded by ASBMs?  My call is that by the time the PLA develop that capability, Day One will less likely see the USS Abraham Lincoln capsizing in flames than it will some Chinese general gaping in bewilderment at the hole in the ground where his missile launcher was before the Rods From God attack.

A metaphor for the nanny state

From Charlotte Hays on the nanny state:
It can order us to do anything, but it can’t take care of the basic obligations of government.

That pretty much sums up what I find wrong (among many other things) with Socialism.  The would-be commissars keep telling me that I have to give up my liberty in order to have pie, but it turns out after it's too late that there was never any pie and my lunch stops showing up, too.

Derbyshire on START

John Derbyshire looks at the Munich Agreement new START treaty and gives his thoughts on what the aims of a properly written arms control agreement should be.

There's some good points there, but I can't say that I entirely agree with Mr Derbyshire.  For me, the best arms control agreement is one that takes away nuclear weapons from all the tyrants down to the last ounce of yellowcake while leaving the civilised countries of the world (Ideally, just the United States and Great Britain, but if Israel, France and maybe India want to stay in the club, we can discuss it) with massive nuclear arsenals backed by state-of-the-art missile defences and armed to the teeth with enough conventional firepower and special forces capability and the clear message that we intend to use them that any potential enemy spends most of his time having brown-trousers moments.

I like simple equations.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A peek into the crystal ball

IBM looks five years into the future. It comes across as both impressive and extremely annoying.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Radio Shackski

And now,Soviet-era consumer goods courtesy of the People's We Don't Give A Toss Design Bureau.

Via Retro Thing.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Drunkard's Progress and Mr Orwell

The Blemont Club looks at the immoral moralisers:
The hard part of living under the new morality is understanding what the rules actually are. Is it uncool to steal classified documents which may result in the death of hundreds of Afghans who’ve cooperated with NATO? Apparently not. Is it OK for Julian Assange to use his status as a “fugitive” to become a “babe magnet”? Why of course. Who ever said that being a fugitive meant not telling people who you were? You can be a fugitive only for public purposes and not to actually conceal your whereabouts. But it is apparently not ok not to use a condom in Sweden. This point of punctilo is apparently inviolable, and if it is not clear why to all of us, it is nevertheless evident to members of the relevant set.

Nothing so demonstrates plebeianism as the inability not to even know the rules. The real hallmark of membership in the new aristocracy is knowing all the etiquette without even having to ask — easy enough because they make the rules. What’s right is what Keith Olbermann and Lady Gaga say. Why? Well if you have to ask then  you must be immoral.  The new morality is above all the art of speaking in code and part of the power of political correctness springs precisely from its vagueness. The art of correct behavior today consists largely in sensing the prevailing fashion. It is a survival skill the Old Bolsheviks knew well. The important thing was to always to have opinions, but never to have opinions that were out of date.
None of this surprises me in the least.  Political Correctness was never about avoiding offence or increasing freedoms.  It was and is about nothing more or less than conformity and control.  We live in a world of busybodies and would-be totalitarians who dream of controlling our every utterance, thought, and feeling in the name of "tolerance".  We have inverted the concept of morality so that now the immoral (or at least the faddish) preach to the moral–or at least, those aspiring to some standard of morality beyond the fashions of the moment.  It is a world where human rights has ceased to be about protecting the individual from the state and is now about encouraging the state to curtail individual liberty.

What I want to make clear is not what is preached as the new morality is the necessarily the problem, but its basis is the problem. This that or the other cause is irrelevant in the PC world.  They are merely troops to be employed or disposed of  as needed by those with power in the fight for more power.  This is fast becoming a world of false aristocracy where proxy minorities dictate to the majority and public morality is not based upon adherence to a recognised standard, but through the exercise of power. It is capricious and even mischievous. This is very unfortunate, because it makes even the winners vulnerable as fashion changes.  Like the ways things are at this moment?  Don't get too comfortable.  In a world that demands conformity rather than consensus and where who hold the power makes the rules rather than abides by them, then be prepared to get ground under as the wheel turns tomorrow and the public morals change again.

The truly odd thing here is not the wild contradictions, hypocrisy, inversion, nor the Mrs Grnudyish scolding, but how Orwellian the whole mess is.  Nobody knows the rules unless they are already part of the Inner Party.  That's the definition of membership–that and the tendency of ending up on the outside at the drop of a stiletto.  It's a situation where nothing is forbidden except that which is and you won't know what is forbidden until you've been arrested for doing it.

Talleyrand would feel most at home today.

Theatre of the Future

Hugo Gernsback's theatre... of the Future.  It not only boasts a super-giant, fully-integrated television production/projection system, but also includes, at no extra charge, Smell-o-Vision.

Productions of Animal Farm are prohibited.

Paper phonograph

Hmm... It looks like an ancestor of the Speaking Clock.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Happy Christmas

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest,and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Smithsonian spacesuits

This never caught on.
The New York Times looks at the Smithsonian Institute's spacesuit collection and answers your questions about history's most expensive long johns


Apparently, you can put up your Christmas light just the once and then use this to deploy them during the season.

If they had a way of doing so by an electrical switch inside the house, I'd be interested.

Now pay attention, 007

USB flash drive cuff links.  They're $195 a pair, but they do have 4 GB of memory, go well with evening dress, and are just the thing for smuggling the computer virus into Scaramanga's HQ.

Why the other queue goes faster

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Fitting the crime

A Muslim "student" in Spain takes his teacher to court for talking about ham.

Not only should the little oik's case be thrown out, but he should be required to sit through a detailed five-hour lecture on the process of curing Parma hams.

Curse you, Perry the Platypus!

Dark Roasted Blend looks at everyone's second favourite animal, the platypus.

Another English robot pilot

I love how they have to point out the robot

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Review: The Proud Robot

Anew Quill & The Keyboard post is up.

Potholing department

Son Doong cave in Vietnam is reportedly the world's largest cavern and the National Geographic Society is following an expedition to explore it.

This never ends well.


Before it crawled into the dustbin of history, the Soviets developed a tank wielding a dirty big laser.

And the selfish buggers never told anybody.

The Tron Holiday Special

It still beats Tron Legacy by a mile.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Winter in Spokane

Review: Tron Legacy

Why do people go to see films that they know they're not going to like?  Why do they go to ones that they know will be loud, overlong, inane, and flat-out boring?  More important, why do they do so by shelling out a premium price for a 3D Imax show just so they can pay for the privilege of wearing silly glasses and getting sick headaches? The only greater mystery is why studios insist on dropping a fortune on overblown remakes to films that were fairly dreadful the first time around.

Such is the case of Tron: Legacy, which I saw the other night.  In my defence, I must point out that I didn't go voluntarily.  I wasn't kidnapped at gunpoint, dumped into the boot of a large American sedan and forced into the cinema.  No, I was there because it was the centrepiece of a Christmas party with some friends and I got voted down on my idea of popping in a DVD of Die Hard.  Instead, I found myself not just at a screening of Tron: Legacy, not only a 3D screening, but a 3D Imax screening, which I presumed would involve a man in the corner throwing oranges at me.

 The original Tron in 1982 wasn't that great a movie.  In fact, it was pretty dreadful.  I was in postgraduate school then where I spent some of my time learning such stone age programming languages as BASIC and FORTRAN.  Tron with its story about a man trapped inside a computer was hard enough for a layman to understand, but if you had any knowledge about how computers actually operate, it was downright confusing.  Granted, it did boast some cutting-edge computer animation, but it hardly made up for the appalling dialogue, the Star Wars-derived plot, and the late-disco colour scheme.  On the plus side, it took its fantasy world seriously enough to remain consistent, but it never took the whole enterprise at all seriously, so I never felt like taking a critical hammer to it. It was '80s fluff and that was that.

Jump to 2010 and we have a belated sequel that is so predictable that five minutes in I knew the entire plot.  It was also so padded and ran so long that the boredom of knowing what was going to happen five minutes ahead of time was now 20 minutes ahead.

The plot?  It hardly bears relating.  Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), our hero from the first film, mysteriously disappears in 1989, leaving his company to his seven-year old son Sam.  Twenty years later, Sam is a poor rich kid who fills his evening dramatically breaking into his own company headquarters and stealing the firm's new operating system so he can post it on the Internet instead of letting his evil executives evilly sell it for evil profits.  Why he doesn't just walk in and ask them to hand over the file instead of base jumping off of his own skyscraper is never explained.

Anyway, the elder Flynn's best friend played by Bruce Boxleitner gets a page from the abandoned video arcade that Flynn used to run.  In a secret office in the arcade Flynn secondus finds a computer that when he boots it up shoots a dirty big laser at his back and blasts a hole in his chest.  I wish.  No, it transports him to the Grid, a virtual computer world that looked as if Flynn primus spent too much time watching Bladerunner on HBO.  There young Flynn discovers that the Grid is ruled by a computer avatar of his father that is bent on world conquest and so Flynn must find his father with the aid of a mysterious beautiful girl who... I can't  go on.  It's a plot that I'd call boilerplate except that's an insult to the creativity of boilerplate writing.

The special effects are very impressive, yes.  They are, however, utterly ineffective.  Scenes that impress for thirty seconds go on for ten minutes and the fact that all of them are just bigger, louder versions of scenes from the first film doesn't help.  Disc battle with glowing rings becomes disc battle with jangly fragments.  Light cycle races become jumping light cycle races. Flying gossamer thingies become flying gossamer thingies.  Big U-shaped things become big U-shaped things with jets.  Wow.

As to characters, I have rarely seen such a waste of space.  Our hero played by Garrett Hedlund is so flat, so lacking in any real motivation that you forget he's there even when he's the only one on screen.  Olivia Wilde is very pretty to look at, but her Chosen One/apprentice/love interest character is so muddled that she comes across as a Goth Princess Leia.  And poor Jeff Bridges, who plays both a surfer Obi Wan and a CGI Darth Vader, is lumbered with a raft of exposition so large that one of our party went to the gents, came back, and hadn't noticed he'd missed a second of the film.  I won't even go into the details of the "Stare in awe at my 'pull my finger!'" moment.

The only bright spot was Michael Sheen playing Joel Gray playing Sidney Greenstreet.  He at least injects some fun into his performance, but it goes on for far too long and in the end he's left with shameless scenery gnawing to kill time.

But the greatest sympathy is for Bruce Boxleitner as the voice of the title character Tron, who has been corrupted into becoming the villain's baddie enforcer in a jumpsuit and racing helmet that made me think, "All we know is, he's not the Stig, but he is the Stig's digital cousin!"  He has almost no lines, jumps about a lot, and has unexplained changes of character that only occur because "it's in the script."

In the end, it's too long, too loud, too slow, and pays too much solemn "homage" (gads, I loathe that world) to a fluffy film from a previous generation that neither asked for nor deserves such a dark, self-concious effort.

The sixpence version:  When a cameo by Daft Punk upstages everyone else, you're in real trouble.

The circle of life

Chuck Jones, call your service

From the BBC:
Coyote rescued from ice float on Lake Michigan
Authorities are still determining whether he was stranded due to the failure of his jetpack or the wings on his bat suit snapping.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Friday, 17 December 2010

Review: Black Destroyer

A new Quill & The Keyboard post is up.

Ghost cities

All built up and nobody home
Is this, as some pundits claim, Red China's century?  Are we living in the time when we see the Celestials inherit the Earth and the West fades to become one with Nineveh and Tyre?  Amazingly, every generation going back to Marco Polo manages to convince itself of exactly that and every time it turns out to be dead wrong. 

The Chinese economy is booming, but people forget that the other side of boom is bust and that China is ruled by those lovable Communists who never saw a nation that they couldn't run into the ground.  One symptom of what's to come are China's ghost cities; 64 million brand new homes scattered across the Empire without a soul living in them thanks to a insane property bubble.  And that's just the tip of the fortune cookie that's about to crumble

My advice:  Stand well clear.  Implosions tend to suck in bystanders.

Shelter mentality

Back from the past
Need a reset button, Barry?
For two years now Mr Barack Hussein Obama has accepted a Nobel Peace Prize for showing up for work, ran a reset button foreign policy, waffled on about a nuclear-free world while disarming no one except his own nation, all but abandoned missile defence, reached out his hand to the Mad Mullahs of Iran only to have it bitten, gave away the shop to Russia, apologised to the Chinese for American human rights, bowed to every emperor and autocrat on the planet, insulted America's closest allies, and treated the Jihadist War as something that would go away if he closed his eyes and wished really, really hard.

The result?  It looks as if Mr Soetoro is resigned to the Jihadists not only getting their hands on the bomb, but using it against the United States as well.  And his grand strategy for dealing with this?  To start a soft-pedal education program to tell the public how to survive after the inevitable (for him) A-bomb attack.  I guess Barry's learned that you can't stop nuclear explosions with lofty speeches.

Hows that for hope and change?

Update: Can't even get an invite to the party.

Nuclear pickles

1956:  New York University graduate students build a nuclear reactor in a pickle barrel.  They no doubt went on to sterling careers acting as design advisers at Chernobyl.

The Ascent of Man Part 2: Harvest of the Seasons

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Orson Welles meets H G Wells

A new Quill & The Keyboard post is up.


This would save many lives.

The incredible shrinking cubicle

Via Marsden
In the beginning, American office cubicles averaged 600 square feet.  Today, they're 200 feet.  By 2015, they'll be down to 50 feet.

This is why I have no sympathy for those who campaign against battery hens.  The poultry farmers are just ahead of the curve.

Haggis-flavoured crisps

Personally, I prefer the hedgehog-flavoured variety.

Worth crossing the road for.

So much for cricket

BBC headline:
Cricket may use lie detector tests to fight corruption
I knew it would come to no good when they started letting players and gentlemen use the same entrance.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The absurdist paradox

A new Quill & The Keyboard post is up.

How to fly a Harrier

Great.  Now they tell us!

Update: Farewell.

Electronic cigarettes are doubleplus ungood.

King County, Washington State moves to ban electronic cigarettes.

Since these nicotine delivery devices are odourless and harm no one even by the pseudoscientific standards of "secondhand smoke", we can only conclude that this is nothing less than a gleeful totalitarian exercise by a load of Comissars drunk on  their own petty power.

HMS Albion

Britain's new flagship is HMS Albion; an LPD.

You read it right.  It's an LPD.  There's no excuse for this.  We could have a Navy five times its current size including four nuclear carrier groups (I said groups) without breaking a sweat if Britain had a government that understood what its job is.  As it is, we have politicians instead of statesmen–and spineless ones at that.

An LPD!  I need to open a window.

Update:  Meanwhile the RAF may only have six fighter squadrons by the end of the decade.

Update:  And 93 magistrates' courts and 49 county courts are to be closed.  So when are those "green" energy subsidies going to be abolished?  Never? 

Meanwhile: "Cash-strapped local councils have pledged to identify the workers who are most useful and then sack them."  I'm not sure this is parody.  No wonder there are more Thacherites now than when Lady Thatcher was in power.

When the Coalition came in I lapsed into a brief fantasy that the so-called "Conservatives" might spend their time reversing the decades of idiotic decisions that brought us to this crossroads.  It looks more like they want to be a more efficient version of Labour.

Update:  And the hits keep on coming.  Cameron is going to do to the RN what the Kriegsmarine couldn't manage in six years of war.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Review: Business as Usual During Alterations

A new Quill & The Keyboard post is up.


Air need a bit of purifying?   Then you can either drop €149.00 on a special "space station" pod with a little fan to scientifically waft the bad air into the bio-environmental purification unit or you can just stick your aloe plant in a pot like everyone else.

Personally, I use old yogurt containers.  Or I would if I didn't despise yogurt.


Cyberticzoo looks at waldos; both fictional and actual.

They're actually kind of cool.  I got to muck about with a pair back at university and for some reason lab supervisors don't look kindly when you use them to make martinis.

World's oldest soup

From the BBC:
Chinese archaeologists have unearthed what they believe is a 2,400-year-old pot of soup, state media report.
Interesting, but no prizes.  The world's oldest soup was discovered by myself in a British Rail buffet at Crewe in 1983.

Lentil, I think.

Monday, 13 December 2010

When the going gets tough....

Too tough, Barry?
Remember when I said that Mr Barack Hussein Obama's tax cut compromise press conference was the low point of his presidency?

I was wrong.  Really, really wrong.

Planetary engineering

When bigger is better.  If only physics actually supported this sort of thing.  A pity about all that drifting into the sun, but still...

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Friday, 10 December 2010

Thursday, 9 December 2010


And now for something completely different:  A prosthetic arm concept that works like a tentacle.

The question remains:   Is this meant to enhance mobility or just to freak people out?

Dragon is go

The Falcon 9 booster successfully places the Dragon space capsule into orbit, which is then recovered after reentry.

I love private enterprise.  At this rate, it won't matter much what government space policy is if the private sector has its own manned flight capabilities.  Perhaps by the time the Chinese fulfill their ambition of getting to the Moon a half century after everyone else, there'll be a Starbucks waiting for them.

But can they prevent earthquakes?

"This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again how frogs' bladders may be employed to remove foreign objects."

Sign of the times

I want flying cars, I get “the electric bus of the future.” The future ain’t what it used to be.
Glenn Reynolds

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Poul Anderson interview

A new Quill & The Keyboard post is up.

The mask slips

Hostage takers?  Bomb throwers?  Endorsing a bill that you think is wrong?  Scolding your base for daring to criticise you?  This is the lowest point I've seen yet for Mr Barack Hussein Obama.

Own goal, Barry?
The once messiah who was going to stop the oceans rising and heal the planet (remember that he said that when he'd merely won the nomination!) is now forced to act like an ordinary mortal and deal in messy things like negotiations and compromises.  This "historic" figure must now face electoral catastrophe, criticism from both sides of the aisle, and discovering that running down his country has made foreign leaders regard only Mr Obama as unexceptional, not the United States.  No wonder he looks so drawn and acts so bad tempered and thin skinned at a press conference intended to improve his image.  As one pundit put it, it's like a press conference with Napoleon Bonaparte the day after Waterloo.

If Mr Soetoro doesn't learn some real political and diplomatic skills by New Year's, this is the start of a political death spiral that will make Gordon Brown's look like a graceful retirement.  Unless he changes (and fast), I lay even money that within a year we will see the President of the United States lose it on live television and shake his fist at the American people while declaring they're not worthy of him, or he'll make a bitter and most likely racist remark (I don't believe that he slept  through 20 years of Reverend Wright's sermons) in what he thinks is private, but isn't, that will drop his reputation to levels generally associated with coal mining.

Preserve the oath

From the BBC:
At question time on 7 December 2010, Lady Boothroyd referred to Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson's claim that he was "open to suggestions" from Sinn Fein on ways to vary the oath of allegiance taken by MPs. 
Gerry Adams can't take his seat because he refuses to swear loyalty to the Queen, so the oath has to be changed to square with his black little heart?   Good Lord!

It's times like this that I think that the world has gone mad.  Change to oath to accommodate a man who ordered the deaths and mutilations of thousands of people?  A terrorist commander?  A self-confessed traitor who worked hand in glove with the Soviets and Colonel Qadaffi?  Who made the Republican cause a by-word for murder and gangsterism?  A man who walks free solely because of the most sordid deal ever struck in British history?  The only accommodation Adams and his ilk deserves is asking him whether or not he wants a cigarette before they drop him through the trap at the end of a rope.

Rat curry

Students at Rajshahi University in western Bangladesh stage angry protests after finding rat meat in the cafeteria curry.

Luxury!  When I were a lad we used to dream of rat curry.   We had to make do with a plate of cockroaches boiled in wet sick. 

Tell that to young people today and they'd never believe you.

How much?

Wall St. 24/7 looks at the 25 most valuable blogs on the Web with Gawker clocking in at $240 million.

Ephemeral Isle was valued at 10/6d.   They didn't even bother to decimalise it.