Sunday, March 22, 2015

Moon & Venus: Together Again

The moon and Venus certainly made for a lovely pair this afternoon & evening.
Can you spot Venus in the daytime shot above? It's the dot over in the clear area on the right.
Once it started to get dark, the two put on a nice show, even through the cirrus clouds.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kilauea - The Fire Within

Check out this amazing time-lapse movie of Hawai'i's Kilauea Volcano. It makes me want to return to the Big Island to see it in person again.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Star Trek: A Private Little War

It's somewhat ironic that just after the passing of Leonard Nimoy I am getting around to posting my next look at a Star Trek episode and it is the one where Nimoy's character Spock has the least to do. Yup, it's the strange episode known as:
I've gotta say, this one ranks pretty low for me. It's certainly my least favorite of the Season Two episodes that I've covered so far (though there are some turkeys on the horizon).

The story is supposed to be a Cold War analog that teaches us about the balance of power, but it really doesn't make sense. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are on a planetary survey mission. Kirk is surprised to see that some of the inhabitants have flintlock rifles, as they had only advanced to the level of the bow and arrow when he led the first survey there 13 years ago.
Before the opening credits roll, the landing party is spotted and Spock is shot, pretty much ending his role in the episode. Before the landing party was discovered, the bad guys (wearing black wigs) were intending to shoot the good guys (wearing gray wigs). In the gray wig group is Kirk's friend, Tyree.

We never see their starship, but the Klingons are in orbit and Kirk suspects that they're the ones responsible for arming the black-wig-wearing natives.

How does arming some natives help the Klingons? Kirk says that by breaking the treaty the Klingons are risking interstellar war. Why would they do this? There's no reason that makes any sense. I mean none, other than maybe they got the thought, "Let's f*ck with some humaniods by giving some of them weapons and see what happens."

For anyone that doesn't get the parable they are spinning, Kirk later asks Bones if he remembers "the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent?" Explaining, "Two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither side felt they could pull out..... The only solution is what happened back then. Balance of power." Kirk is just as crazy as the Klingons and feels that the Graywigs need guns too to balance out what the Klingons are giving to the Blackwigs and Kirk's the one to give them what they need.

Anyway, the Enterprise has to go runoff and hide from the Klingons (like they did in Friday's Child). Kirk and McCoy darn native clothing and beam back down only to be attacked by the most ridiculous monster in all of Star Trek, the Mugato.
When I was a kid I thought that the Mugato was pretty cool. Now? Not so much. 
The surprised Mugato is zapped by the phaser-weilding McCoy, but not before the beast manages to land a poisonous bite on Kirk.
We soon meet Kirk's friend Tyree, of the Graywig people, and his saucy and ambitious wife, the witch doctor Nona. Theirs is a mixed marriage as she comes from the Blackwig tribe. They take Kirk and McCoy to their village, a collection of tents next to a cave.
Kirk (under the pile of furs) is taken into the cave, while McCoy phasers some rocks to heat up the place, not realizing that Nona is looking on.
Back aboard the Enterprise, Spock is being treated by the awesome Dr. M'Benga. The dude interned on Vulcan and obviously learned much during his time there. As he explained, "If he's going to live, his Vulcan physiology will have to do it for him." Yeah, so he's no help at all, is he?

But he does explain to Nurse Christine Chapel that Spock is in "a form of self-induced hypnosis." She asks him, "You mean he's conscious?" and M'Benga replies, "Well, in a sense. He knows we're here and what we're saying, but he can't afford to take his mind from the tissue he's fighting to heal."
This is all very interesting, because a short while later Spock asks Christine to hit him, saying that "The pain will help me to consciousness." When she refuses he says, "Blast you, strike me! If I don't regain consciousness soon, it may be too late. Hit me. Harder!.... Again. Continue. The pain will help me to consciousness." Yeah, that's Nimoy's "big scene" for the episode. It's okay folks, they can't all be good.

I still don't understand the Spock consciousness thing though. M'Benga said Spock was conscious (but focused inward) then Spock talks, replies, makes requests and interacts with Christine, and then says that he's not conscious. I thought that having a conversation and asking for things was pretty much a sign that you were conscious. Whatever.
Back on the planet Nona is doing her witch doctor thing in healing Kirk. Afterwards she says, "Our souls have been together. He is mine now." That could be trouble.
Speaking of trouble, the Kingons (well, one of them anyway) are here and are giving firearms to the Blackwigs.
Kirk's response is to arm and train the Graywigs. Even Tyree, their pacifistic leader, gets into the act, though his heart isn't into it.
Nona puts the moves on Kirk when another Muguto shows up. Kirk dispatches it with a phaser, giving Nona another glimpse of the power she desires and, since she can't get Tyree interested in being much of a man, she decides to take action for herself. Nona conks Kirk on the head with a rock,  steals his phaser and takes it to the Blackwigs.
This doesn't exactly go as she planned though. They jump her, the Graywigs catch wind of this and a scuffle ensues. Alas, Nona is killed and Tyree is now ready to be armed and make war with the Blackwigs--giving us the opposite of a happy ending. Bah.

There was no new music written for this episode and that's okay as it probably wasn't worth the effort.

Next up, is The Gamesters of Triskelion. I can hardly wait. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Encounters With Greatness

Another cast member of the original Star Trek series has passed into the great beyond. News of Leonard Nimoy's death hit me pretty hard, for someone that I didn't actually know. I'm sure I can't add much to the Internet's many tributes to the man who brought Spock to life, other than to say the obvious. Nimoy's portrayal of Mr. Spock has made, and continues to make, my life fuller. The misfit character who wasn't quite Vulcan nor Human taught us much about ourselves. Star Trek wouldn't have been Star Trek without his thoughtful performances.

I never had the chance to meet Mr. Nimoy, but I did have one close encounter with him. I was one of the guests present at the 2006 re-dedication of Griffith Observatory. I was there because I had given some help to their California Astronomy exhibit. Nimoy was there because he had given them piles of money. If you go, be sure to check out the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater. That's two shots I took of Nimoy (along with his wife) being interviewed the evening of the dedication.

Aside from Nimoy, I've only seen one other member of the original Star Trek cast in person. The other happened years earlier when I attended the amazing 1977 Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy World Exposition.
James Doohan, Trek's Mr. Scott, was one of the guests. That's a scan of the pic I took of him at the event. I don't remember much about his presentation other than he was very warm and entertaining.

By the way, the Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy World Exposition was seriously awesome. In addition to Doohan, I saw Robert Heinlein, astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad and Carl Sagan. That was a pretty impressive line up for my then 14-year old self. Now that I think of it, that's an impressive and inspirational group of people to encounter at any age.

Of course, they're all gone now. The world was a better place for the real life explorations of Conrad and Sagan and for the fictional ones of Heinlein, Doohan and Nimoy too. They are all missed.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Venus and Mars Are Alright Tonight

Venus and Mars have been putting on a fine show in the western sky after sunset. Last night the moon joined the planetary duo in, from the photos I've seen, a beautiful gathering. Alas, it was cloudy here in Tucson.

Tonight the moon had moved on but Venus and Mars were super close, just 0.4 of a degree apart in the sky. Alas, we had clouds again, but not quite enough to completely foil the view.
The Moon made its appearance first, largely hidden by the veil of the clouds. 
Occasionally, the clouds parted enough to let me almost get a clear shot at the moon. 
 For most of the evening Venus and Mars were completely obscured by the clouds, but as they got lower in the sky, they dropped below the cloud deck and popped into view. That's Venus on the left and much fainter Mars to the right. Venus is almost 100 times brighter than Mars. 

Why so bright? Three reasons - Venus is closer, larger and more reflective (it's surrounded by white clouds). 

You might wonder how and inner planet (Venus) and an outer planet (Mars) could be so close together in the sky. At first thought it feels like one should look in different directions to see them, but that obviously wasn't the case tonight.
A screen grab (above) from the SkySafari app shows how this can be (I added the red line). Looking inward from Earth you can tell that, even though Mars is an outer planet, it is in essentially the same direction as Venus. Earth, Venus and Mars make a straight line. So, when we look from Earth, we see Venus and Mars close together. As the nights move on, they'll gradually move apart in the sky, with Mars gradually sinking lower into the west each night until it is eventually lost from view.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Star Trek: Journey to Babel

It is time for another episode of Star Trek, today I bring you my comments on:
The crew of the Enterprise is carrying a shipload of ambassadors to the "neutral planetoid code-named Babel." Issues to be discussed are contentious. The story is complicated by the presence of Spock's parents, murder and a hostile alien vessel that's likely to cause mayhem.
Spock's parents, Amanda (played by Jane Wyatt) and Ambassador Sarek (played by Mark Lenard) arrive and Sarek wants to have nothing to do with Spock. Lenard and Wyatt bring a lot to their roles, both of which would later reprise them in some of the Trek movies. This episode does more than any other episode in giving the audience elements of Spock's back story. It's good stuff.
Kirk tries to give Spock a moment or two to shine in front of his parents, but Sarek shoots down every opportunity. As we learn, the big wedge between them is that Spock chose Starfleet over the Vulcan Science Academy. When will parents learn to let go and let their kids be what they want to be? Apparently in the 23rd Century this is still a thing.

Years before Star Wars gave us its alien-filled Cantina scene, Trek's Journey to Babel paved the way on a weekly TV series low budget with its own room filled with aliens.
Dudes in robes, gold-painted midgets wearing fezzes --it's all here.
Actually, the real time and effort went to the creation of aliens with speaking parts --the Tellarites (center & right) and the blue-skinned Andorians. Ambassadors Sarek and the Tellarite Gav (center) have met and debated before and it is clear that Gav has a bone to pick with Sarek. In a later scene Kirk has to break them up from fighting.
This naturally makes Sarek the prime suspect when Gav is found dead in the Jeffries Tube, having been killed by what looks like a Vulcan technique for neck-breaking called tal-shaya. 
Sarek's got an excuse though. He's sick with a malfunctioning heart valve and was incapacitated at the time of the murder. McCoy can maybe fix him, but only through open heart surgery and by getting a Vulcan blood donor to take an untried drug to boost blood production. Sarek's blood type is rare, so only Spock can be the donor. Even so, it's a risky prospect.
There are all kinds of problems here. First the drug. Spock has been poking around in the 23rd Century equivalent of Google Scholar and found a drug that can boost blood production in Rigelians, citing that their physiology is very similar to Vulcans. McCoy rightly says, "Similar is not good enough." and "It's still experimental." Good for him. The number of tests with this drug on Vulcans is precisely zero. Spock pushes and McCoy sticks to his guns saying, "It could damage you internally. It could kill you. I'm sorry, Spock. I can't sanction it."

Amanda agrees and says, "And I refuse to permit it. I won't risk both of you."

Oh, yeah there's also the fact that McCoy admits that he has never operated on a Vulcan before. "Oh, I've studied the anatomical types. I know where all the organs are. But that's a lot different from actual surgical experience. So if I don't kill him with the operation, the drug probably will."

So this is a bad idea and everyone should just face facts and say, "Well, Sarek has had a full life with honorable service to the Federation and Vulcan and if McCoy can't save him, maybe we should perhaps get him to a doctor who can." Nah.
All of this is set aside for the moment as Kirk gets jumped by an Andorian with a knife. Thankfully, Kirk's two-handed chop and other fighting moves prevail, but not before the Andorian manages to stab him.
Kirk will be fine in a few days, but the same can't be said for Sarek. McCoy has abruptly done an about face saying, "There's no longer a choice. I have to operate immediately." Wait. What?

McCoy wants Spock to get ready for the procedure and Spock rightly refuses - not because it's unsafe though. Spock considers the risks to be acceptable. Instead, Spock admits, "My first responsibility is to the ship. Our passengers' safety is by Starfleet order of first importance. We are being followed by an alien, possibly hostile, vessel. I cannot relinquish command under these circumstances." It just as he would later say in Wrath of Khan, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
Like McCoy, Amanda has changed her mind about the operation. She wants it to happen and tells Spock, "Nothing is as important as your father's life." That doesn't go over well with Spock, so she tries to appeal to his human side and tells him that if he lets his father die, she'll hate him for the rest of her life. Thanks, Mom.
Kirk is also willing to put all risks aside for his ship (!), his mission, Sarek and his first officer. So he lies to Spock, telling him that he's fine and that Spock should report to Sick Bay for surgery.
Kirk is planning on turning the ship over to Scotty (who sadly never makes an appearance in this episode), when the epic space battle takes place between the Enterprise and a little blob of light. (By the way, I never understood how they hit anything with those divergent phaser beams. Maybe there's a big convex lens out there somewhere.) Anyway, there's a pretty good battle that shows off how awesome Star Trek was at having dramatic action even when the effects weren't up to the task. They weren't needed.
Kirk naturally saves the ship while McCoy saves Spock and Sarek, so there's happy endings all around.

In spite of the fact that McCoy and Amanda do a 180-degree about face on the operation, I really like the episode. Mark Lenard and Jane Wyman are Sarek and Amanda. The interplay between Spock and his parents is good stuff and Kirk's handling of the battle is classic. Journey to Babel is good Trek.

There's no new music for this episode, but you'll hear a healthy dose of tracked selections from Amok Time, The Doomsday Machine and others.

Next up, is A Private Little War.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Awesome Sunset

Tonight's sunset was epic. I don't think words will do it justice, so I wont even try.