All posts for the month August, 2012

Back in ’69, Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the Moon to the applause of the world and the relief of NASA. The race to the Moon had lasted nearly a decade and was an non-violent outpouring for all the aggression and tension between the USA and the USSR. Many people lost their lives in accidents on both sides, and the total cost for the two nations was between 27 and 33 billion dollars (roughly 132 to 161 billion in 2012 dollars). Despite the race lasting as long as it did and the huge number of people involved, many people believe the entire spectacle was a hoax. While the Moon landing did happen, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a conspiracy: it lasted less than a week and was perpetrated by the USSR.

First a little history: the year is 1961 and the USSR has successfully launched Sputnik in 1957 and launched Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12th of this year. The space race, insofar as it is a race to space, has been won and John F. Kennedy doesn’t want to admit defeat. Instead, he consults with NASA Administrator James Webb and other officials and learns that the US might be able to beat the USSR to the Moon, though it will take about a decade to do so. He announces this intention to Congress on May 25th of the same year, before telling the world that the USA chooses to go to the Moon in his famous speech more than a year later.

To make the Moon mission a reality, NASA reveals the Gemini program which would serve as an intermediary step before the Apollo missions. The USSR has ambitious plans to go to Mars by 1970, but their technology is behind their reach. With the Gemini announcement, they quickly turn to achieving as many firsts in space as they can while simultaneously trying to design a spacecraft that could go to the Moon, all with 20%-44% of NASA’s budget. As recounted on Wikipedia, they cut corners to reach goals such as the first multi-person spacecraft and shirt-sleeve flight, both of which were accomplished on the same flight by not giving the cosmonauts spacesuits and thus posing a significant risk to them if something went wrong. Their other tactic was achieving relatively easy goals like the first woman and civilian in space, a feat that was only done for the propaganda value.

Jumping ahead to 1968, the space race was tight with the USA slightly ahead. The USA was on track to land on the Moon before the decade was out while the USSR had a setback in its heavy lifting rocket, meaning that they could launch something into the Moon’s orbit, but nothing heavy enough to land on the Moon and take off again. Knowing that the US was planning on launching a manned mission to orbit the Moon in January 1969, and that they would only win the race if the USA faltered, the USSR came up with a plan.

On September 15, 1968, the USSR launched Zond 5 which took off, communicated back to the ground, traveled to the Moon over three days, orbited it on the 18th, and successfully splashed down on September 22nd with all inhabitants successfully recovered. This greatly panicked everyone at NASA because they weren’t ready for such a flight for at least three months, putting the USSR squarely in the lead in the space race. However, they slowly realized something was amiss when they noticed that transmissions between the spacecraft and the ground only happened on the way to the Moon and not on the return voyage. It turned out that the flight was automated and the primary creatures aboard the ship were two Russian tortoises pictured above.

In the end, the USSR was unable to get their rocket to work, Apollo 8 successfully orbited the Moon on December 24, 1968 with a crew of three, and the USA was the first nation to land on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Today’s Tangent: What’s the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? They both have a similar evolutionary history, but tortoises live on the land and turtles live in the water. Turtles have webbed feet and long claws which they use for swimming and digging out holes to lay eggs, while tortoises have shorter and sturdier legs. The other main difference is their shells, with turtles have light-weight and flatter shells while tortoises have rounded and heavier shells, often with bumps on top.

Imagine this for a teaser for CSI: The camera opens on a lake with a single party boat on the warm, summer waters. The fifty people on board are having a good time, drinks are being poured, and then a fight breaks out. Everyone gathers around as two guys trade blows while a girl begs them to stop. Suddenly, both the guys start gasping for air, then everyone else starts feeling lightheaded. Before too long, all the party-goers have suffocated. Slowly, the camera zooms out to show how isolated the boat is, the only one on the lake, and then the theme song kicks in.

Think it’s just TV? Think again. On August 21, 1986, approximately 1700 people died in a similar manner.

Shown above via Wikipedia, Lake Nyos is a crater lake in Cameroon, Central Africa. It’s located on the flank of an inactive volcano and below it lies a pocket of magma. This magma continuously leaks carbon dioxide that then dissolves in the lake, creating carbonic acid. The lake serves as a reservoir for the carbon dioxide and also mediates the carbon dioxide’s release, letting it out in a fairly even stream. On that fateful night in 1986, probably because of a landslide, that stream became a torrent.

A CO2 bubble formed in the south of the lake, rising rapidly from the bottom to the top before being expelled at 100 km per hour. The ensuing turbulence around the burst would have destabilized the rest of the lake, thereby releasing most of the stored gas. This runaway reaction released around 1 cubic kilometre of carbon dioxide (1 trillion litres or four hundred thousand Olympic swimming pools), and as CO2 is heavier than air, it flowed across the land and settled in nearby valleys. Unfortunately, many of these valleys contained villages.

How did people react? The rapid escape of CO2 probably started around 9:30 at night, so most people were asleep at the time and died without trauma. For those that were awake, they would have heard something like thunder in the distance when the landslide occurred, and then very little else. Carbon dioxide is colourless and odourless, though other gases released by the magma, such as hydrogen sulfide (the smell of rotten eggs) are not. This means they probably smelt the hydrogen sulfide as their breathing became worse and they gasped for air. One survivor, Joseph Nkwain recounts his experience:

I could not speak. I became unconscious. I could not open my mouth because then I smelled something terrible . . . I heard my daughter snoring in a terrible way, very abnormal . . . When crossing to my daughter’s bed . . . I collapsed and fell. I was there till nine o’clock in the (Friday) morning . . . until a friend of mine came and knocked at my door . . . I was surprised to see that my trousers were red, had some stains like honey. I saw some . . . starchy mess on my body. My arms had some wounds . . . I didn’t really know how I got these wounds . . .I opened the door . . . I wanted to speak, my breath would not come out . . . My daughter was already dead . . . I went into my daughter’s bed, thinking that she was still sleeping. I slept till it was 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon . . . on Friday. (Then) I managed to go over to my neighbors’ houses. They were all dead . . . I decided to leave . . . . (because) most of my family was in Wum . . . I got my motorcycle . . . A friend whose father had died left with me (for) Wum . . . As I rode . . . through Nyos I didn’t see any sign of any living thing . . . (When I got to Wum), I was unable to walk, even to talk . . . my body was completely weak.

To stop anything like this from happening again, a floating platform has been placed in the lake with a pipe extending downwards. The platform then pumps the water from the bottom of the lake (which has more dissolved CO2) to the surface where it’s sprayed out and the gas is released. This continual degassing of the lake should prevent any further tragedies.

Today’s Tangent: It’s not just carbonated lakes that can kill you; at least eight people were killed by a flood of beer. On October 17, 1814, a huge vat ruptured at the Meux and Company Brewery in St. Giles, London, England. The wave of beer that was released ruptured more tanks until they were all broken, unleashing around 1.5 million litres of beer upon the town. Nearby basements quickly flooded and many people were shoved against walls or buried under debris, leading to at least eight deaths.

Most people, while hitting the snooze button for the third time, wonder why they only get nine minutes of shut-eye instead of ten. Or eleven. Or why we even need alarms in the first place when the afternoon is a perfectly good time for breakfast.

Alarm clocks have been around for millennia, since time keeping devices of various sorts have been around for that long. Want to turn a sundial into an alarm clock at noon? Cut a slit at noon and put another circle with a similar slit below it, thus ensuring that light only gets through close to noon, then put a lens below this slit and a string below that. When noon comes around, the string will burn and snap, allowing numerous noise making devices to work, such a mallet hitting a gong. (Note that while no known alarm clocks of this sort exist, sundials we used before 1000 BC and a rudimentary lens has been found from 750 BC.)

Despite the fanciful nature of my previous story, water clocks were used to make more useful alarm clocks (more useful because they could be started at any time, and hence set for any time with ease). Water clocks are not as old as sundials but date back to 1600 BC in some regions. As Wikipedia expounds, water clocks were used by Plato to signal the start of his classes back around 400 – 350 BC. But it’s not until 529 AD that we have historical mention of a mechanical clock with hourly alarms, thus starting us down the path to an answer.

Jumping much further ahead, we come to 1847 when French inventor Antoine Redier patented the first adjustable alarm clock. It didn’t have a snooze button, but it set the ground work for a future where mechanical alarm clocks had them, before the creation of the digital alarm clock. When the first “snoozable” mechanical alarm clocks were being created, the engineers decided that they wanted a snooze interval around ten minutes. However, they couldn’t get the gears to mesh if it was exactly ten minutes, so they had to choose between slightly under ten minutes or slightly over, and went with the first option. This gave those clocks a snooze time of nine minutes and change.

When clock makers went digital, they snooze feature did as well. General Instruments created a snooze chip (the MM5370) and set it with a time of nine minutes; this chip was then used and copied to other alarm clocks without modifying the nine minutes interval. Why nine minutes? It seems that in the transition from analog to digital, the clock makers just copied what their predecessors did and rounded down to nine minutes. And that’s the storied past of nine extra minutes of sleep.

Today’s Tangent: Why do we have 60 minutes and 60 seconds, but only 24 hours? This dates back to the Egyptians who counted in base 12, not our common base 10. They devised a time system involving 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night, giving us the 24 hours we have today. As for minutes, most people simply divided the hour into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, and even twelve sections. It wasn’t until mechanical clocks in the 16th century that minutes were commonly introduced, and they were 60 of them to fit with all the previous divisions. Since geography already had each line of latitude divided into 60 minutes, and each of those minutes divided into 60 seconds, it seemed logical to extend time in the same manner.

When an actor takes to the stage, you’re supposed to say “Break a leg!” It’s commonly held that this wish of bad luck is actually good luck, and that wishing someone well in the theatre is actually jinxing the event. While the performing arts are known for their superstitious nature, this may not be the whole truth. After all, it could be a linguistic misinterpretation, come from a different language, have to do with a one-legged actress, or even been a tribute to the memorable evening when President Lincoln was shot in a theatre.

One interpretation of the word break means “to deviate from a straight line”, which has a similar meaning to the word bend. In this way, “break a leg” could simply mean to bend your leg at the knee thereby breaking the straight line your leg was making. In essence, wishing this upon a performer was saying “I hope your performance is so great that you’ll have to bow at the end, thus bending your leg in acceptance of praise.”

Another theatre interpretation comes from the leg or wing curtains, those curtains off to the side when the main ones are drawn back. Coming from Vaudeville, an act wouldn’t make any money unless they made in on stage, hence breaking the audience’s line-of-sight with the leg curtain. A different interpretation involves understudies wishing ill on the main cast, such as breaking a leg, so they could get on stage and earn some money.

Of course the phrase might not be English to begin with. In Greece it was customary to stomp instead of applaud, so only the best performances would lead to someone breaking their leg in appreciation. In Elizabethan times, audience members were instead stomp their chairs and break those legs instead. In Ancient Rome, gladiators may have heard “break a leg” indicating that they shouldn’t kill their opponent but only maim them which was still a victory. Or the phrase could be of German origin, as fighter pilots in World War I were said to wish each other “Hals- und Beinbruch” or “neck and leg fractures” before each flight, perhaps in tune with “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” Yet that might be complete hogwash as the German phrase sounds similar to the Yiddish “Hatsloche un Broche” meaning “success and blessing”, perhaps accounting for the strange association between physical injury and good luck.

Maybe the phrase has a real association with previous incidents. One story revolves around Sarah Bernhardt, a famous French actress who had her leg amputated in 1915. She continued performing afterwards, so this saying could be in memory of her. Or it could be in memory of David Richard Garrick who became famous during the 18th century for his performances of Shakespeare’s Richard III. On one such performance he supposedly suffered a fracture yet was so caught up in acting that he didn’t notice it until later.

Yet another story brings this phrase to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, when John Wilkes Booth shot the President, he then jumped onto the stage and broke his leg. This makes the phrase not one to incite killings, but wishing that the night be one worthy of remembrance.

All of these other stories smack of implausibility though. What do we know for certain? There is anecdotal evidence from memoirs and letters that the phrase was used in a theatre setting from as early as the 1920s, making the assassination story (occurring in  1865), gladiator tale, and Elizabethan origin all questionable. Tying it to theatre more directly doesn’t come until 1948 in The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays where author Bernard Sobel notes the phrase in its present day use. In 1921, an article on horse racing was published explaining that wishing someone luck was unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”

With all of these different theories we may never find the true origin. However, there is one final theory: the phrase means to put such energy into a performance that you might break your leg during it. So in honour of this, may you break your leg trying to find the origin of the phrase.

Today’s Tangent: Think “break a leg” is a little gruesome before going on stage? That’s nothing compared to professional dancers. They’ll often say “merde” (French for “shit”) before a performance, which has now lead to actors also shouting this before plays.

Glory Road is a fantasy novel written by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein and stands as his only full foray into the genre. This novel was written around the same time as A Stranger in a Strange Land and there is quite a bit of overlap between them in terms of philosophical views. The novel itself is well done overall and I could easily tell that it was written by the science fiction pioneer, though it doesn’t feel as completed as some of his other work. The copy I had was just under 300 pages and I enjoyed the first two-thirds, as they balanced the lecturing, adventure, and wonderful writing that I’ve come to enjoy from his books. But new readers to Heinlein need to understand that many of his novels don’t involve protagonists and great battles, so if you’re looking for an epic quest this isn’t it. In fact, I would say that the last third of the book is lacklustre and becomes more lecture than anything else, and an uninteresting one at that. I give the novel a 5 out of 10, losing large points for an ending that lacked the climax and resolution I desired.

General Information:

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The first third of the novel is interesting and diverse. First we meet the main character and learn about his exploits in a war he isn’t enjoying. This quickly leads to him recounting being wounded in battle and leaving the war as a veteran, with a trip through Europe planned. He catches a flight to Signapore where we learn that he can sense direction with ease and that he’s won a lot of Irish Sweepstakes tickets. However, we also discover that even though he’s a war veteran he won’t get any benefits for his service, and that his winning ticket is actually a fake. His plan turns to just surviving in France for a while when he spots a beautiful woman, they chat for hours, and then she leaves without him getting her name. (Fellow readers of Heinlein will quickly spot the similarities between this woman and many others he’s described in other novels.)

What comes next is a jump to the fantastic as he gets multiple notices of an ad in a newspaper for a job that fits him near perfectly. He attends and quickly passes the test put before him, landing him in front of the lovely lady he meet before who turns out to know medicine and gives him a thorough examination. The pair then transit to another world with a third individual tagging along. It’s here that they all gain their names for the rest of the novel: Oscar the soldier, Star the mage and physician, and Rufo the groom. We also learn that Oscar’s sense of direction also works flawlessly when transported somewhere else and he is unconscious; this really sets the stage for his ability and pushes it into the realm of fantasy.

A few things happen here that are important in hindsight. First, Oscar can use a bow incredibly well even though he said he was lousy at archery. Second, the entire situation fits exactly with standard fantasy fare: a female mage, a male knight, and a bumbling sidekick make for a delightful romantic romp. Third, we learn that they must deal with someone named Igli, there’s an egg to retrieve, and Oscar is the chosen one. All of these things seem to fall too perfectly into place, and there’s a good reason for that. However, I didn’t like how quickly Igli was defeated, nor how. We had a very nice build up for his directional powers, but his ability to suddenly warp space, time, and matter came out of nowhere and seem contrived. Despite this, I took that it might just be a literary misstep and only the first in a series of events.

Midpoint Discussion:

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The middle part of the novel was my favourite section. Oscar started integrating himself into a new society, learnt a new language, stumbled a bit with social mores, Heinlien got to explain his views of sexuality (I always enjoy his lecturing style), and there were a lot of clever solutions to battles. Oscar marries Star after fighting internally, the stakes get raised, there’s something hidden between the trio, and we get ever closer to the egg. All of this was a lot of fun and didn’t drag too much, propelling us forward to the tower containing the egg. They get in after fighting dragons, Oscar solves the riddle of the paths, and we get a beautiful sword fight and battle of tactics. They get the egg and… I’ll leave the rest for the third spoiler.

At this point I really liked the logic of the story. Too often I find that fantasy novels don’t have enough explanation about the rules behind the magic, but there was a beautiful balance here. Heinlein made most of the magic scientific by saying it was highly advanced technology. I was a little confused about firearms not working in the first world, but I enjoyed the idea of a set time limit in the tower due to the conditions of the world (though they’re left unstated, I assumed that it was radiation of a sort). I enjoyed the way the wards were set up, how they worked, that they didn’t deflect fire (and perhaps a reason for that), and especially the biology behind fire-breathing dragons. The gravity shifts on the tower world were just icing on the sci-fi/fantasy cake.

One part that was missing was how the map was created. Did these sixty-three men have some sort of GPS on them? They lost their lives, so surely they didn’t exit and explain their movements, and they were able to report their true positions which was something that Star and Rufo were unable to do. Further, how did they know where the egg was if there was such a man/beast guarding it? I’d like answers to these questions, but they’re minor overall and the story is good enough here that I didn’t dwell on them.

Final Thoughts:

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Here’s a summary of the last third: Star is “in charge” of twenty universes, the egg contains the knowledge of all the previous rulers so that the current ruler can learn from their mistakes, Oscar gets multiple marriage proposals, he doesn’t enjoy sitting around in the castle all day doing nothing, and then he realizes that he can’t stay with Star as a “gigolo” so he roams around trying to find himself before realizing that he’s a warrior and should go on another quest. My issue is the whole story built to getting the egg, and then Star’s true identity just tacked on another 100 pages that brought the pace to a crawl. Yes, Oscar needed to learn who he was but he had partly done that on the quest to find the egg. So why is this part here?

One reason is learning about the egg and getting Heinlein’s view on politics, something which I enjoyed reading. Yet it also comes with a lecture on sexuality again, this time done in small parts multiple times, but covering much of what we already heard at Jocko’s home, now with an “I’m married” twist. We learn about alien cultures but this is brief and merely serves to emphasize Oscar’s position, one he’s uncomfortable with. Luckily, we also hear why the quest itself was so contrived and fit so well with what we expected: Star designed it that way. And perhaps she even helped Oscar at archery.

The reason I felt so let down by Star’s position was because there was no follow up on the quest. These people spent all this time and effort to take the egg, yet they were just defeated afterwards? I wanted the palace to be found in ruins and the egg be used to restore order, or there be some additional quest followup to resolve. Could it have been done better? Yes! Give me all that revelation on Oscar’s part with a bit more action. Let him use his crazy time, space, matter warping skills more than once in the story, make Star use her egg knowledge to solve a tricky problem, and let Rufo help both of them deal with their future. As it is, Star doesn’t change much besides going through mood swings, and Oscar just mopes.

It’s this final third of the book that brings down the score so much. It was about a 7 before here and went downhill from there. Would I read it again? For the first 200 pages, sure, but I don’t think I’d touch the last hundred. For now I’m heading back to sci-fi; take me home Star.