Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Top Books of 2014

I made a list of my top books of the year on New Year's Eve 2013 so I figured I should do the same this year too. So here it is.

I keep track of my books over on Goodreads and according to what's there I read just 18 books this year, which I suppose isn't too bad, but it really doesn't feel like nearly enough to me.

This year I read science fiction and what I might categorize as technological non-fiction. The latter includes one astronaut biography (Falling to Earth by Apollo astronaut Al Worden), two space histories (In the Shadow of The Moon and Into That Silent Sea) and a history of electric lighting in the U.S. (The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America). None of these were published in 2014, but all were good reads.
The space books are great, but I especially recommend The Age of Edison for anyone interested in light pollution and the history (good, bad & ugly) of artificial lighting here in the U.S.
These Are the Voyages TOS Season One made my list of top books last year and I also recommend Season Two for anyone interested in the creation of the original Star Trek series. Yeah, I realize that this is non-fiction, but I didn't think it belonged with the other non-fiction titles.

Season Three has already been published and will be one of my reads for 2015. Also recently arrived to my doorstep is Return to Tomorrow, a book about the creation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It looks to be a great book.

Highlights from my science fiction reads include three volumes of Kevin J. Anderson's Saga of The Seven Suns series. They are pure space opera and I'm looking forward to reading the final two books in the series.

For science fiction actually published in 2014 I enjoyed Cibola Burn, the fourth novel in the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey and Coming Home by Jack McDevitt but there were two books that stood out above them.
John Scalzi made my list last year with The Human Division, but this year's book Lock In is even better. It's a unique and important work in science fiction. I wont spoil the book here, but it is a mystery that takes place in a not too distant future after a disease has left large large segments of the population literally locked into their minds (hence the title) with no ability to move or otherwise communicate. An Apollo-style project has provided a technological way for those locked in to communicate and live their lives. The book looks at how this has changed society and follows its central character who has just become an FBI agent. I can't think of any book even remotely like it.

By the way, Lock In has been optioned for a TV series, so if you are too lazy to read it . . . . nah, you should read it. 
My other pick for top science fiction novel of 2014 is The Martian by Andy Weir. Imagine being accidentally marooned on Mars, that's the story behind The Martian and it works wonderfully well.  There's a lot of science that went in to this tale as it takes a realistic, but very exciting, look at what it would take to survive on and get rescued from the Red Planet. Mars is cold, nearly airless and wants to kill you. All this makes for a very good read.

Plans are underway to make The Martian into a movie, but you should really read the novel.

I was about 2/3 of the way through The Martian when I accidentally left it in the middle of nowhere South Korea. I wasn't going to let that stop me from finishing it. I certainly can't say that for everything else that I read.

As we head into 2015 I am feeling rich. Why? Have a look at my To Read pile:
 Yeah, it looks like it will be a good year. 

Sunrise at Year's End

There's a storm on the way which may obscure tonight's final sunset of the year but it didn't block out this morning's sunrise, the last of 2014:

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Three Balloon Morning

Last night was clear and cold -- the coldest night of the season with temperatures in the desert dipping well below freezing and into the 20s. This morning dawned clear and cold with almost no wind making it a good morning for hot air ballooning.
As evidence of that I present that we had three hot air balloons in the sky this morning. It is not unusual to see more than one in the sky here, but I rarely get to capture multiple balloons in one shot.
Alas, only two of them drifted closer toward my back yard. The one on the right has made many close appearances, but the yellow one is new to me.
Morning sunlight glinting off of the balloon's metal parts above.
It looks like siesta time, though I don't recommend leaning against a saguaro.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Star Trek: The Trouble With Tribbles

I haven't had much time for blogging lately and it's been since mid October since I've posted anything on my slow journey through the original Star Trek series. The next episode up is a good one, maybe even worth the wait:
The Trouble With Tribbles doesn't take itself too seriously, so it is hard to directly compare it to other classics like The City on the Edge of Forever, Devil in the Dark or The Doomsday Machine. Yet it is top notch Trek - a story of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and possible ecological disaster through rapid population growth.
Soon after the episode begins, the Enterprise receives a priority one disaster call from Deep Space Station K7. They rush to the scene only to find that there isn't a disaster or much of any emergency.
Left photo: Nilz Baris (left) and his assistant Arne Darvin Right: Station Manager Lurry gives Kirk some grain

They've been called to the station by Nilz Baris, the Federation's Agricultural Affairs Undersecretary (So how come people complain that the Phantom Menace is supposedly about taxation of trade routes, but no one complains that Tribbles is about agricultural affairs?). Nearby Sherman's Planet has been claimed by both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The group that can best develop the planet gets to claim it. The Federation's hopes lie in storage on K7, a cache of the only Earth grain that grows on Sherman's Planet -- Quadrotriticale. In case you are wondering quadrotriticale, a four-lobed hybrid of wheat and rye, is a GMO. Yeah, there are GMOs in the 23rd Century. Deal with it.

Anyway, Baris is concerned that the Klingons will tamper with the grain and wants Kirk to put up guards to protect it, which he begrudgingly does even though there are no Klingons on the station (yet). 
All is fine until Cyrano Jones and the Tribbles enter the picture. Jones was wonderfully portrayed by Stanley Adams, an actor who was a guest star on a lot of TV shows in the 60s. He later co-wrote a third season Trek episode, The Mark of Gideon
Jones gives a Tribble to Uhura, we see it eating some of that GMO Quadrotriticale grain and the population explosion begins. 
McCoy and Tribbles. I hope he doesn't inject any with Khan's blood.
Meanwhile a Klingon warship has arrived and their commander is visiting with Station manager Lurry. The Klingons should look familiar as that's William Campbell playing Captain Koloth. He did a fine job here but may be better known in the Trek universe for playing Trelane in The Squire of Gothos.

Behind him is Michael Pataki playing Korax. Korax gets all the best material in this episode.
 I gotta tell you that for years I thought that he was the same actor who played Lazarus in The Alternative Factor, but they are different guys. Somewhere along the line they both should have played David Hasselhoff, don't you think?

Soon we learn that Klingons and Tribbles don't get along. After that there's an awesome brawl in a bar on K7 between the Klingons and some of the Enterprise crew. What made it awesome was the wonderful lead up to the fight and the great scene afterwards.
In the build up to the fight, Korax is loudly insulting Kirk. So much so that Chekov wants to fight him. Scotty holds him back until Korax starts insulting the Enterprise. That's too much for Scotty to take and the brawl begins.
 Afterwards Kirk is chewing out everyone who was involved. He confines them all to quarters, except Scotty, who when confronted spills the beans. He tells Kirk how the Kingons insulted him, but ...
Scotty: And I didn't see that it was worth fighting about. After all, we're big enough to take a few insults. Aren't we?
Kirk: What was it they said that started the fight?
Scotty: They called the Enterprise a garbage scow, sir.
Kirk: I see. And that's when you hit the Klingons?
Scotty: Yes, sir.
Kirk: You hit the Klingons because they insulted the Enterprise, not because they-
Scotty: Well, sir, this was a matter of pride.
I just love it. It may have been Scotty's best scene in the entire series. It is nicely accompanied by Jerry Fielding's music for the scene ("A Matter of Pride") which would later double in the series effectively as Scotty's Theme.

The producers did a great job portraying the Tribbles' take over of the Enterprise as we go from the one Tribble given to Uhura all the way to their infiltration into pretty much everything. 
Soon the Tribble population explosion is in full swing. Kirk doesn't notice that they are all over the Enterprise bridge until he sits on one in his Captain's chair.
Afterwards Kirk and Spock hit the rec hall for a meal when they discover that the Tribbles have infiltrated in to the food processors. For some reason Scotty brings an armful of into the rec hall. Maybe he's storing them there. They quickly surmise that if they got into through the air vents on the Enterprise, they might have done the same thing over on the space station, getting into the grain.
Yeah, the Tribbles got into the grain and they all came crashing down on Kirk when the storage compartment was opened.  It turns out that this is a good thing as many of the Tribbles are dead, having eaten poisoned grain. Okay, that's not necessarily good for the Tribbles, but it's pretty wonderful for any colonists who might have ended up eating the grain.

McCoy explains that the grain was impregnated with a virus. Presumably that would have carried through to whatever would have been harvested after they planted the grain on Sherman's Planet.
While signs point to Cyrano Jones, it turns out that the grain was poisoned by Barris's assistant, Arne Darvin.  It was the Tribbles who led to the discovery that Darvin was a Klingon agent in disguise. This events of this episode and an older Arne Darvin, would return in an episode of Deep Space 9 called Trials and Tribble-ations.
Finally, all that's left to do is get rid of all the Tribbles. Jones is assigned the task of, in lieu of prison time,  clearing them off of the station. I love the look on his face (above, left) as he realizes the enormity of the task, which Spock estimates will take 17.9 years. At the very end we are left with a pun as we learn that Scotty has beamed the Tribbles off of the Enterprise and into the Klingon's engine room - surely an inhumane fate for the Tribbles and the Klingons.  

Still, it's all good stuff and one of the best Trek episodes around. So much so that in addition to the DS9 episode mentioned earlier, Tribbles would come back for an episode in the animated series too.

Next up is a definite step down, Bread and Circuses.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Parhelia and Solstice Sunrise

Last Monday we had cirrus clouds that produced some wonderful sun dogs.
You can see them in the photo above. The sun is behind the palm tree and there's a rainbow of color with a bright light extending out was from the sun on either side.
Here's a closeup shot of the one on the right.
As the clouds changed the show evolved into a full 22 degree halo.
 Finally, we has a beautiful sunrise this morning. Not a bad way to mark today's winter solstice.