Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Top Books of 2013

Alas, I didn't get to read as much as I wanted to in 2013. (Although, now that I think about it, it is possible that I might make this statement every year.) Still, there were some books published this year that I enjoyed very much, so much so, that wanted to list my favorite ones here.

In the category of non-fiction I have three titles to recommend that couldn't be more different from each other. First off is, The End of Night: Searching for Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard.
The End of Night is an in-depth, thought-provoking, personal look at the problems of light pollution. Author Paul Bogard explores just about every angle of the issue in an engaging, thoughtful way. You can hear Paul read a bit from the book by clicking on this link (it was from his appearance last November at the Annual General Meeting of the International Dark-Sky Association). I highly recommend this book for everyone interested in learning more about light pollution.

Another non-fiction title to make my list is These Are the Voyages TOS Season One by Marc Cushman. It is the authoritative look at the creation of the Star Trek television series.
These Are The Voyages masterfully explores, in vivid detail, the genesis of the series and each episode of the first season of Trek. There have been many behind-the-scenes books written about Trek, but none of them had access to so much original source material. From script drafts to production memos, it's all here. I should note that there have already been two versions of the book. The first edition got out the door with some uncorrected errors (mostly typos) and then some new source material was brought to light, making the Expanded and Revised Edition the one to get. I should note that there remains an error about the music in The City on the Edge of Forever, but it is easily overlooked as the book is a must read for all fans of Star Trek.  

I should also mention An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield even though I am not quite done reading it (I just started it yesterday).
While in space, Commander Hadfield owned social media, well, at least the portion of social media that appeals to space geeks. The video of his cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity has had nearly 20 million views on YouTube, while the trailer for his book has had over 1.1 million views, which isn't bad either. The book is an engaging, inside look at the life of an astronaut. It not only chronicles his career (with some amazing, jaw dropping stories) but gives some life lessons for all of us. It is a fun read that I recommend for anyone even casually interested in space travel.

In the world of fiction, I have two books to recommend. The first is The Human Division by John Scalzi.
The Human Division is just plain fun. The book is a series of science fiction short stories (which were originally sold separately) that together form a cohesive tale. It is set in the same universe as his Old Man's War series, but no prior knowledge of that series is really needed. If you enjoy space opera science fiction and don't mind actually having fun while reading, you can't go wrong here.

I don't read much fantasy. I'm pretty much limited to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen R. Donaldson (and I guess J.K. Rowling too). As far as I am concerned, Tolkien pretty much invented fantasy and Donaldson perfected it. Donaldson's latest work is The Last Dark. It is the final book in a series of 10 books known as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.
Donaldson's work is epic. The first book in the series, Lord Foul's Bane was published in 1977 (after the author had 47 rejections!) and followed soon by two more books that completed the tale. Donaldson returned in the 1980 with a second trilogy and 2004 saw the first in a four-book set (over 2,200 pages!) that, with The Last Dark, completes The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I wont give away any story elements here other than to to say that the works are richly detailed works of fantasy that will enthrall and frustrate the reader. Donaldson's writing is very, very good. If you've not read any of his fantasy and are looking to try something shorter first, consider picking up The Mirror of Her Dreams.

I am sure I missed a lot of good titles this year. I haven't yet had the chance to read Jack McDevitt's latest, Starhawk (it will be next), but feel free to recommend anything in the comments that you enjoyed.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sunrise. Sunset.

Earlier this week we had an amazing run of absolutely beautiful sunrises and sunsets. I wasn't able to capture them all, but I did manage to get a few shots which I thought I would share here.
Sunset December 16, 2013
Sunrise December 17, 2013
Another shot of the December 17 sunrise
Sunrise December 18, 2013
Another shot of the December 18 sunrise
The photos don't really do justice to what Nature had to show off this week.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Star Trek: Catspaw

Star Trek Season Two begins with a Halloween episode:
Catspaw was the first episode produced in the second season of Star Trek. While this one certainly will not make my top ten list, there are a few fun things about it even though it doesn't really make much sense. 
Unlike in Season One, DeForest Kelly now gets billing in the show's opening credits. So, kudos to Dr. McCoy.

The episode begins with the Enterprise in orbit about planet Pyris VII. They've lost contact with the landing party when one of them, crewman Jackson, requests to beam up.
Immediately upon beam up, he collapses and McCoy pronounces him dead. Yet his mouth opens and without it moving we hear:

"Captain Kirk, can you hear me? There is a curse on your ship. Leave this place or you will all die."

Terrifying. Well, not so much.
Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to investigate and surprisingly encounter surface fog and then three witches who tell them to remember the curse before they recite this:

"Wind shall rise. And fog descend. So leave here, all, or meet your end."
Which leads to this exchange from Kirk and Spock:
Kirk: Spock. Comment?
Spock: Very bad poetry, Captain.
Kirk: A more useful comment, Mister Spock.
Spock: What we've just seen is not real.
Kirk: That's useful.
Bones meets bones.
Unfortunately from here the episode rapidly goes downhill. They unexpectedly find and enter a castle and become prisoners.
Back on the ship, Lt. DeSalle is in command and we meet Mr. Chekov, who desperately needs a haircut.

It has been said that the introduction of Chekov to the show was a response to the popularity of The Monkees TV series. Here's what Snopes has to say about that. I am curious to read what Marc Cushman says about it when These Are The Voyages TOS Season Two comes out, hopefully early next year. No matter why Chekov was added to the show, he certainly added much to the series.
Back on the planet, our heroes are brought to meet Korob and, eventually, Sylvia, who's wig is worse than Chekov's.

There's a lot of talk here and there about Halloween, familiars, the racial subconscious and other 'spooky' stuff. Korob attempts to bribe them into leaving with a fancy meal and then plates filled with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. When they decline to be bought, Korob announces that they, "have passed the tests" and, "you were warned to stay away and yet you came to save your comrades. That proves loyalty. Your bravery was tested and you did not frighten. And despite my failure with these bright baubles, I perceive that you cannot be bribed. In many ways you are quite admirable." 

Okay, then. This should mean the story is moving along, yes? Unfortunately, no. Sylvia wants to get information from Kirk, but we never learn what that is. When Kirk grabs a phaser and tries to save the day she shows him a cool little Enterprise on a chain, explains her voodoo and dangles it over a candle flame.

Kirk is allowed to call up to the ship and Chekov says that the temperature is "up sixty degrees in the past thirty seconds. We're burning up, sir."
Kirk backs down and then Sylvia then wants to know about feelings, power, and these new sensations she is now feeling. Kirk plays along until she realizes that his heart isn't in it. So, back to the dungeon he goes. Korob rescues them explaining that Sylvia is "irrational. The strain of adopting to your form, the insatiable desire for sensation and experience. She's a great danger and it was not necessary. We could have entered your galaxy in peace."

They make their escape only to encounter Sylvia in giant cat form. This 'special effect' is mostly done with the actors reacting to shadows of a cat on a wall and shots of a cat through a miniature hallway like the one seen in the episode. It looks pretty cheesy, unconvincing and goes on for far too long.

There's just one effect shot of the live actors with the menacing, giant cat:
I suppose these kind of shots were just too expensive back in the day, but some more of them might have added a bit more punch to the episode. Of course a better script would have done far more.
Finally, Sylvia confronts Kirk in human form. Thankfully Kirk ends it all by smashing their magic wand (the transmuter) on the table. The castle and everything created by the transmuter vanishes.
The crew then looks down on Korob (wait, didn't Korob die then the giant cat knocked the door down on him?) and Sylvia in their real form as they gradually disintegrate. Alas, the creature effects here were created with puppets and their strings are very obvious.

It is followed by the best shot of the episode, the Enterprise leaving the planet - thereby indicating that the story is thankfully over:
For me, the only real highlight of the episode was the musical score provided by Gerald Fried. It runs just over 32 and a half minutes. All of it is available on the fabulous collection of music from the original Star Trek series from La-La Land Records. You can hear a sample of one track from Catspaw here. It's good stuff. Much of this music was used again for later episodes too (The Changeling comes to mind).

After scoring season one's Shore Leave, Fried returned to score Catspaw and two more episodes in Trek's second season (Friday's Child and the breakout episode Amok Time) and one in season three (The Paradise Syndrome). Fried composed some of Trek's most iconic action music.

Next up, Metamorphosis.

Balloon at Zenith

I'll admit it, for some reason I am compelled to take photos of hot air balloons. Fortunately, my home is located in a good place for that, as most mornings from October through March one or more hot air balloons are visible from my yard.

The balloons generally pass westward of our home. Occasionally they are quite close. Yesterday morning was cool, clear and apparently a good morning for ballooning as there were four of them in the sky at once. Yeah, I know, it's not exactly the kind of numbers seen at the Albuquerque Balloon Festival, but it's enough to brighten my morning. 
One of the four was on the right trajectory to bring it very nearly directly overhead from my vantage point giving me a nice perspective on it:
Here's a close-up look into the heart of the balloon:

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Star Trek: Season One Redux

I'm not sure if I have any regular readers or not or if anyone is even enjoying my look back at the original Star Trek series. I have enjoyed doing these and I guess that's what counts. If anybody else does too, then so much the better.

I began back in mid December last year with The Cage and just 11 months later I finished the last episode of Season 1, Operation: Annihilate!
I briefly thought of ranking all the episodes in the season but instead decided to give you my top ten. Ask me on a different day and I might give you a different list, but for now here it is:
#10 - Dagger of the Mind - An escaped inmate leads Kirk and Dr. Helen Noel to a deadly discovery in the Tantalus Colony. Favorite line: "To all mankind. May we never find space so vast, planets so cold, hearts and minds so empty that, that we cannot fill them with love and warmth."
#9 - Space Seed - The Enterprise encounters a derelict ship with a cargo of super humans in suspended animation who are revived and take over. Favorite line: "Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!" "Well, either choke me or cut my throat. Make up your mind."
#8 - Where No Man Has Gone Before - Trek's second pilot takes them to the edge of the galaxy and through its energy barrier. In the process Gary Mitchell develops super powers.  Favorite line: "Because she feels. I don't. All I know is logic."
#7 - Arena - To save his ship, Kirk must fight an alien lizard-like creature, the Gorn, which he defeats with a home-made canon. Favorite line: "I shall be merciful and quick."
#6 - Errand of Mercy - The Federation and the Klingon Empire are headed to war until the Organians interfere. Favorite line: "Do you always betray your friends?"
#5 - Balance of Terror - A submarine-like face off against the Romulans, with a comet. Favorite line: "Behold, a marvel in the darkness."
#4 - The Devil in the Dark - Red Shirts and miners fall victim to a deadly monster who turns out to be a mother protecting her young. Favorite line: "No Kill I."
#3 - The Corbomite Maneuver  - A first contact mission gone wrong turns into a deadly game of poker. Favorite line: "What am I, a doctor or a moon-shuttle conductor?"
#2 - The Naked Time - A disease ravages the crew of the Enterprise who accidentally travels back in time to escape crashing into a dying planet. Favorite line: "No beach to walk on."
#1. The City On The Edge of Forever - McCoy travels back in time an somehow changes all of history. Kik and Spock follow him back to the 1930s in an attempt to set things right. Favorite line: "I am endeavoring, ma'am, to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins."

There you have it. Others such as The Menagerie, The Galileo Seven, A Taste of Armageddon and The Return of the Archons nearly cracked the top ten.

Look for Catspaw, my first Season Two episode to be here on the blog very soon. Remember, I am covering these in production order.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday Balloon

Here is this morning's Black Friday hot air balloon:
I am sure that they had a better time soaring than anyone had shopping.

A Visit to Chaco Culture International Dark Sky Park

Recently I had the opportunity to visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Chaco has the distinction of being the world's newest International Dark Sky Park. Alas, it was full moon which is not really the best time to visit a Dark Sky Park, but the sky was clear and the park was magnificent.

Here's the view I had from the one evening I was there:
The landform is Fajada Butte (where the famous "Sun Dagger" is located). In the photo Fajada Butte is joined by Venus, which in turn is nestled in the teapot of Sagittarius. Moonlight is illuminating the butte. That's not light pollution in the sky (you'll find very little of it in the park), but rather the glow of the evening twilight sky.

The park is home to extensive ancient ruins which are the focus of many studies in archaeoastronomy but it also has a night sky program with numerous telescopes, including a wonderful 25-inch Obsession in a dome.
The nighttime programs are not offered all the time, so check with the park for their availability.

The daytime stars of the park are its archaeological treasures. Here are two photos looking down on Pueblo Bonito:
It is difficult to get a sense of scale in the photos above but the big wall of Pueblo Bonito (above, left) is some four stories high and it may have been higher in the past. Pueblo Bonito was the the largest structure ever built in North America until the advent of modern highrise buildings. It was occupied for over 300 years.

There are many archeological sites in the park. Here's the view looking down on another site, Kin Kletso ("Yellow House"):
Not surprisingly, the different structures clearly made use of different techniques and materials in construction, which you can easily see in these detail shots of some of the stone walls: 
Perhaps sometime I'll get the chance to make an extended visit. If so, I hope to have the chance to visit the famed petrograph that might depict the 1054 A.D. supernova.