Monday, May 25, 2015

Star Trek: The Gamesters of Triskelion

I've been amazingly busy and kind of putting this one off, but, finally, here is another Star Trek review for the blog. Today I bring you:
Yes, it's The Gamesters of Triskelion, or as I like to call it Romancing the Thrall. The episode begins with Kirk, Uhura and Chekov beaming down to Gamma II, an uninhabited planetoid, to check on the automated equipment there.
Except just prior to their beamdown they vanish from the transporter pad and find themselves on Triskelion, a planet nearly a dozen light years away. There they are to become Thralls--slaves who have no purpose other than to fight each other for the amusement of their owners, who gamble on the games.
Aboard the Enterprise, Spock eventually determines that the landing party is not on Gamma II & decides to take the ship away to find them. Naturally, McCoy is not happy about that: "You're going to leave here without them and run off on some wild goose chase halfway across the galaxy just because you found a discrepancy in a hydrogen cloud?" Yeah, that's the plan. Deal with it.
Back on Triskelion, Kirk has begun romancing Shahna, his drill Thrall. She doesn't know the meaning of the word "beautiful," so Kirk shows her her own reflection. She seems unimpressed.
To keep those new Thralls in line, Galt, the Master Thrall lets loose with the collars of obedience.  Eventually, after some fighting & training we hear the voices of the Providers who bid on the new Thralls--Kirk, Uhura and Chekov. Provider One wins the action, getting all three for the low, low price of just two thousand quatloos. The other Providers offer wagers that the newcomers are untrainable and will have to be destroyed. Hmmm...maybe they're on to something.
During a training session Kirk tells Shahna about the lights in the sky and love. "Love is the most important thing on Earth. Especially to a man and a woman."
Soon after, Kirk shows Shahna just how much he loves her as he uses the Kiss-Punch Maneuver to try to affect an escape. Alas, Galt puts an end to their breakout. 

Soon the Enterprise arrives and the Providers allow Spock and Kirk to communicate. Kirk explains the situation, telling Spock that "these Providers haven't the courage to show themselves."
With that, the Providers transport Kirk into their underground lair. The Providers are disembodied brains that have evolved beyond the need for physical bodies. By the way, that background should look familiar. It's the same matte painting that was used as the pergium mining/processing facility in The Devil in The Dark.

While talking to the Providers Kirk offers them a bet they can't refuse, "I wager that with weapons of your own choice, right here and now, my people can overcome an equal number of thralls set against us." When they take the bait, betting quatloos Kirk ups the stakes: "If we win, the Enterprise and its crew leaves here in safety. Further more, all the thralls on the planet must be freed." And if they lose? "We will remain here, the entire crew of the Enterprise. The most stubborn, determined competitors in the universe. We'll become Thralls, enter your games, obey your orders without rebellion. You'll be assured of generations of the most exciting wagering you've ever had."

The Providers accept the wager on the condition that Kirk alone fight three Thralls of their own choosing. The whole wager, with Kirk fighting for himself and the lives of his crew kind of feels like it was borrowed from The Squire of Gothos.
Thankfully, the crew of the Enterprise gets to watch the action, just like they did on Arena.
The final Thrall in the battle is Shahna. She's likely still pissed about that kiss-punch, but Kirk still manages to win. He spares her life--the other Thralls in the fight weren't as lucky. As promised, the Providers free the Thralls and say that they will train them.
"Goodbye, Jim Kirk. I will learn, and watch the lights in the sky, and remember."
With the collars of obedience off, Kirk, and the landing party make a hasty exit. I can't help feeling that life for the Thralls isn't likely to get any better. Maybe the Providers are going to train them to live on their own and maybe not. So, for me, the ending leaves me cold, much like the rest of the episode.

If Triskelion is on TV, I'd likely skip it. Next up is something I like much more - Obsession.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Night Flights - Spring, 2015

In April, I flew to Newark, New Jersey to attend the Northeast Astronomy Expo (NEAF) and the annual board meeting of the Astronomy Foundation. As I got closer to my destination, darkness was falling and I took advantage of my window seat to take iPhone pics of the city lights below.
According to the location info that came with the pic, the shot above shows Solcum, Pennsylvania. It was taken in twilight, while it was still light enough to see the wing of the plane, the sky and the clouds illuminated naturally.
Above, the many lights of Hackensack, New Jersey.
On our approach to Newark, we passed almost directly above the Meadowlands Racetrack. As you can see, it is crazy bright. Which makes sense if, you know, you are racing at night. I didn't see any signs of activity though, which made me wonder why all the lights were turned on. The track is bright enough at night to be seen from space - more on that in a moment.
I also had a this great, but not especially close, view of the New York City skyline. That's the Empire State Building near the left lit up in green. My geography of Manhattan is a bit weak, so I leave the identification of the other tall buildings as an exercise to the reader.

While we're here, let's check out the last two scenes from space.
Credit: The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth
I used this pic in my Times Square from Space post from a few years ago, but it's worth seeing again. The photo was taken from the International Space Station & I've cropped it from the full frame and North is to the left (sorry). The Meadowlands Racetrack is easily visible as a bright oval in the lower left. Across the dark Hudson River lies the very brightest section of NYC and just to the left of that is the relatively dark rectangle of Central Park. The orange color that is virtually everywhere comes from high-pressure sodium streetlights. NYC is in the process of converting their lights from their existing orange lights to white LED. For good reasons not everybody is happy about it, and it will be interesting to see how the view from space changes as the conversion happens.

Earlier this week I had a window seat on a night flight from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport to San Diego's Lindbergh Field. Naturally, I grabbed my iPhone and took pics of the city lights on this flight too.
That's the Phoenix area above. Unlike many cities that grow around many geographic features, the "Valley of the Sun" is laid out in a vast, regular grid pattern that's easily seen here. The occasional bright, white splotches of light are sports fields which are illuminated at much higher levels than other parts of the community. Such sports fields often contain unshielded light and shine light directly upwards creating glare that can be seen from inside aircraft flying at night. Such upward shining light is wasteful and a source of light pollution.

Like NYC, Phoenix is about to undergo a conversion to LED streetlights. In a couple of years the city should look completely different at night. In spite of the claims that are made, LED streetlights are likely to create more light pollution than what is already in place.

While I enjoyed seeing Phoenix at night, I was more interested in seeing the U.S. - Mexico border.
I believe that the bottom of the photo shows Winterhaven, California - located just west of Yuma, Arizona. Notice that at the top of the pic there's a community that has a straight light of light that forms an unusual looking boundary. That's likely Los Algodones, Mexico lying just south of the illuminated international border. It is unusual to see a city just stop like that in a straight line.

Here's another example:
A short while later we flew even closer to the border and had this view of Mexicali, Mexico (top) and Caliexico, California (lower right). Again, here's a city that stops long the political line and physical fence that separates two countries.

Here's how it looks from the International Space Station:
Credit: The Gateway to  Astronaut Photography of Earth
When I was a kid, I imagined that the lines of geography that we find on maps and globes were real and that you could actually see them. It turns out that my imagination wasn't too far off. The line between Mexicali and Calexico is pretty obvious at night from above.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Baby Quail!

Yes, it is spring in the desert and the baby quail have begun to emerge. We've got a family with 15 babies that has just made their first appearance. Here are some pics taken yesterday.

4 Baby Quail
A close-up on one of the chicks.

It may be hard to tell, as they blend in well, but 12 of the 15 babies are in this shot.
Poppa Quail with one of the chicks.
Momma Quail with her babies.
Another close-up on one of the chicks.
Standing Watch.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Venus, the Seven Sisters and a Bright Iridium Flare

We've got beautiful spring weather and clear, moonless skies right now. The night sky always has something good to offer.
Right now brilliant Venus is the brightest thing in the western skies. It is currently making a close passage with the Pleiades star cluster (aka The Seven Sisters & M45) -- its the little group of stars to the upper right of Venus in the photo above.
This evening we also had a bright iridium flare visible, shining at magnitude -6.9. That's it above, gliding through the stars that make up the hindquarters of Leo, the lion.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter Sunset

Here's how Sunday's Easter sunset looked from my back yard.
Not bad. Yeah, I'm a few days late, but as they say, better late than never.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Lunar Eclipse

This morning was the third in a series of recent lunar eclipses visible from North America. The first was April 15, 2014 and the second October 8, 2014. I missed the first two completely. I was on travel for the first attending a sea turtle symposium in New Orleans where it was rainy and cloudy. I was home for the second one, but it was uncharacteristically cloudy in Tucson, so no eclipse.
Yesterday afternoon and evening I was pretty worried about this one as the skies were cloudy. It made for a nice sunset, but would they blot out the eclipse? Thankfully, no.
Canon T31, 250mm lens (cropped), 1.6 sec., f/4 ISO 3200
There were clouds, but not enough to eclipse the eclipse.

During a total lunar eclipse the moon moves into Earth's shadow. This particular eclipse was just barely total and it didn't look completely total, with there being a bright area visible the whole time.
Canon T31, 250mm lens (cropped), 2 sec., f/4 ISO 3200
Still, it was a nice show. If you missed it, there's one more total lunar eclipse in this series. It will be on September 27, 2015.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Batman Astronomy

I've been a fan of the 1960s Batman TV show since it first appeared when I was a wee, wee lad. I can't remember much about watching it back then other than the tremendous amount of excitement that I felt for the show.
Except for seeing the 1966 Batman movie, I've pretty much avoided the show as an adult, but now that the whole series is out on disc I'm watching it again.
With no superpowers, science and engineering were certainly important to Batman. Yes, the science and inventions were campy, but they were central to the story lines and Batman's ability to solve crimes. Even though science and engineering important to Gotham City's supervillains too, it was portrayed in a very positive way. I wonder how much of an influence the show had on me as a child in making science so important to me. Certainly, there were other influences too -- the space program, my supportive parents, Star Trek.
In my re-watch I was pleasantly surprised to find some astronomy in the show. Season One's Zelda the Great had Dick Grason and Bruce Wayne observing Saturn, giving us this exchange:
Dick: "Wow, the rings of Saturn. This is sure some fun, Bruce."

Bruce: "Astronomy is more than mere fun, Dick. . . It helps give us a sense of proportion. Reminds us how little we are really. People tend to forget that sometimes."
Indeed. Nicely said, Bruce.
Moments later they see the Batsignal shining up on the clouds, which should make the audience wonder how Bruce and Dick were able to see Saturn at all, but I digress.
In Season Two's Hot Off The Griddle Dick and Bruce are again at the telescope, this time to observe the Sun in preparation for a total solar eclipse that will occur the next day.
It is an interesting array of telescopes. At right is a tube for what looks like an unfiltered refractor. In the middle is another refractor telescope -- this one clearly has some something that looks like a solar filter on it. Take a look at the one at left, the telescope that Dick is looking through. That's a Newtonian reflecting telescope. Alas, it is currently pointed at Dick's left hand. Yeah, it is pointed the wrong way. Oh, well. They can't get them all right.

Interestingly enough, the total solar eclipse was a major plot point for this episode. At its conclusion Catwoman has captured Batman and Robin and put them in this, the most awesome device to kill the Dynamic Duo ever:
As the episode ends, Batman and Robin are about to be cooked (Catwoman even had them coated in butter!) by sunlight concentrated by two giant magnifying glasses. She was apparently unaware of the total solar eclipse, which reached totality just after she left. During that temporary blockage of sunlight, Batman and Robin were able to use their feet to carefully re-position the magnifying glasses so that when the sunlight returned it would burn through one of straps holding down their wrists.

Well done, Caped Crusaders! It's fun stuff.

So far, I'm only halfway through watching the series and can't wait to see what other fun it brings.