Friday, November 07, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar

Let's get the bad news out of the way for those of you who don't have the patience to read an entire review: I really wanted to like Interstellar, but it just didn't move, entrance, or excite me like I thought it would. I give it three stars. Those of you with short attention spans may now move along to other parts of the internet. If you'd like to know why I gave the film this rating, feel free to keep reading.

Obviously I wanted to like Interstellar because I'm a space geek and because it's been quite a while since I saw an upbeat vision of space exploration depicted on film. And let me be fair here: that is what Interstellar provides. And the stakes are high: astronauts heading off to the far reaches of space--via a black hole, no less--to save the Earth. So you've got the broad tapestry we expect from space operas, as depicted by SF Grand Master Brian Aldiss:

Ideally, the Earth must be in peril, there must be a quest and a man to match the mighty hour. That man must confront aliens and exotic creatures. Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher. Blood must run down the palace steps, and Ships launch out into the louring dark. There must be a woman fairer than the skies and a villain darker than the Black Hole. And all must come right in the end.

Without giving too much away, I would say, again, that Interstellar includes most of these ingredients. Plus, as an extra bonus, the director got scientific input from an actual astrophysicist. Also on the positive side, the visuals of entering the black hole are amazing and worth seeing on the big screen. The space hardware, too, is believable. In fact, the spacecraft look very much like NASA hardware (which, in fact, they're depicted to be). Though truth be told, my favorite bits of screen eye candy are the closeups of the planet Saturn. And on the human interest side of things, we have people who are stock characters to serious SF fans: we have our plucky astronauts doing what they can for their own disparate reasons--the hot pilot (Matthew McConnaughey) flying off to live his dream and save his family; the scientist's daughter, out for reasons of her own and following in her father's footsteps; the robot with a sense of humor; and a range of characters who are either worth knowing or easily disposable.

So why does this film disappoint?

Let's start with the exposition--the "world building," as SF writers call it. We've got a future Earth that is dying from some sort of blight that is killing crops, eroding the oxygen in the atmosphere, and shrinking the world's population. The most obvious signs of this negative future are massive dust storms, which call to mind the nuclear winter parts of The Day After. In fact, a few aspects of Interstellar reminded me of The Day After, including the corn-country setting, the blowing dust, the air of despair, and the presence of John Lithgow, who in this film portrays a crusty grandfather instead of the scientific genius (that role is played by Michael Caine, who does much less crying in this film than the last Christopher Nolan Batman film). But the last thing that reminded me of that "epic" made-for-TV movie was the bad acting. Honestly, I can't recall the last movie I saw where I felt the actors just phoned it in, but this film had an abundance of it, including bad acting by a couple of famous actors whom I figured would know better. The best explanation I have for this bad acting is an unfamiliarity with science fiction and its unavoidable technobabble.

Next thing? The buildup. Interstellar suffers from pacing problems and is therefore too long, by about 40 minutes. There would be no shame in curtailing the exposition to get McConnaughey's pilot into space, but Christopher Nolan felt otherwise.

I was going to say nice things about the soundtrack, which has touches of classical Earth themes that will definitely remind audiences of 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is good and bad. 2001 definitely has grandeur, and the Interstellar soundtrack manages to evoke that grandeur in some cases. However, there are a couple places in the film where the soundtrack overwhelms the actors' voices. At the time, I was frustrated because I couldn't understand what the actors were saying. Only later, like this morning, did I realize that the sound problems had been on purpose, which somehow made it worse. A little reminder to Hollywood directors: don't make your game-playing so obvious. As with good written material, you don't want to disrupt the audience's willing suspension of disbelief. If the reader or movie-going audience is made aware of the artifice of what's going on, they are no longer paying attention to the story but are instead paying attention to the storytelling.

Lastly, there is the plot, which is convoluted in places, messy in others, and in some places outright unbelievable. It takes too many steps to get from Earth to the heart of the plot (the "MacGuffin," which was also the name of the bar where I bought a bourbon before entering the theater). And when I got to the MacGuffin, I found that...well, I just didn't buy it. It was like a "high concept" for a science fiction film written by someone who doesn't read a lot of SF but thinks, "Hey, if we do this, it'll be really cool and deep," but it's not.

Which brings me back to my original three-star rating. I applaud Christopher Nolan for making a space opera with a positive view of science, technology, and the human future. And he delivers that...BUT: I didn't care about the characters. The story is too long. The central "high concepts" that resolve the plot make no sense or are muddled. So Interstellar gets three stars from me. Your mileage could vary.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Future of Electricity

I probably wrote too much on this subject in Facebook, so I'm moving my thoughts here. What started this discussion was a Popular Science story on how all those solar panels people put up to reduce strain on "the grid" actually aren't as helpful as they could be. My friend Angela referred me to a somewhat longer piece by the New York Times on the same subject. Here follows my response, with a couple extra links/comments:

Okay, so I went back and read the NYT piece. I don't know how various systems ARE handling electrical power, but here's my slightly more-informed take on the issue:
1) A useful electrical grid should be focused on demand, not efficiency, even if that
means redundancy. The general public is concerned with two primary issues when it comes to electricity: price and availability. I could be wrong, but my guess is that we're willing to pay slightly more for 100% availability.
2) The grid also should provide overlapping/surge capabilities to meet demand as required (e.g., regular business hours, the hottest part of summer days so people don't die of heatstroke, or during the coldest part of a winter night up north when temps drop to Antarctic levels).
3) Future solar panels can be built/added to the west sides of people's roofs/yards. If the government is serious about maintaining/improving electrical power during peak loads, they can offer incentives to help people pay to move their solar panels.
4) Another useful thing that could be done with roofs
(for addressing climate change) is to paint them white or reflectively to increase the amount of sunlight being reflected into space instead of being absorbed by the ground.
5) If individuals have the wherewithal to provide themselves with electrical power through solar, generators, etc., they should be allowed to opt out of the grid. If there's a major disaster, such as a hurricane, the individual would have an equal or better chance of having power.
6) Consistent-output power systems (nuclear, natural gas, coal), should continue to provide base-load power. Solar and wind are just too fickle to depend upon for base power. The sun might be shining just brilliantly or the wind blowing like crazy during a peak-load time--in which case everyone wins. If there's a peak load and a cloudy, windless day or night, all those solar panels don't matter much.
7) Capacitor technologies are improving, as are other energy storage technologies (e.g. flywheels). If those can be made to harness the energy collected by solar/wind as generated and dispensed as needed, I can see a better system evolving--one that keeps environmentalists reasonably happy while continuing to allow our high-tech civilization to function and prosper.

My $.04.

An Open Letter to Microsoft

[This message was also sent via the "Feedback" option in Outlook. The Feedback box had a character limit, so I'm completing my thoughts here. I am nothing if not persistent.]

Dear Microsoft:

In the past two months, your spam filter has turned from relatively reliable to nearly worthless. I now have 500(!!) word-search junk filters set up, and that is still not enough. I wrote to you because 500 filters is your "legal limit," and the garbage keeps coming in. I am not going out to a lot of websites to get my name put on special lists just so I can enjoy the attention of the world's online entrepreneurs. My name and email are in the public domain, so I am just getting bombarded. Your spam filter appears to have given up the ghost unless a junk message runs afoul of a rule that I set up for it. I am an independent contractor, and new business can come in from unknown sources, so I can't just block everyone who's not on my contact list and call it done.

Also, because I have my Outlook tied to my iPhone, I must ask: does the junk filter even work on iPhone? I ask because if a junk mail message hits my iPhone first (as opposed to the webpage), more often than not the message will go to my inbox, not the Junk folder. If the message gets to the website first, it's a tossup as to whether the message will go to Junk or the Inbox.

I am not happy with this situation. I have been using Hotmail for 17 years because the service has been worthwhile. I might stop now.

Bart Leahy
Heroic Technical Writing
Orlando, FL

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Do It for the Children

Start by reading this article. Go ahead, I'll wait...

If you're not interested in reading about standard deviations and the like, the chart is pretty clear:

Per-pupil public spending on education has increased dramatically while test scores have remained essentially flat. I'm not saying stop education spending. Clearly we need an educated population. I am suggesting a little more rigor when someone argues that "We need to spend more! It's for the children!" Rather than just have a knee-jerk reaction and give in to avoid being seen as "anti-education," it might be more constructive to ask how much more someone wants to spend, and on what?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Generation Huh?

Just finished reading an essay in The Weekly Standard on Millennials, that wild, wacky, much larger generation after mine (GenX). The basic point of the article being that so-called scholarly articles making generalizations about generations are often a bunch of balderdash, poppycock, pick your standard term for bunk.

I guess I'd have to agree. Reporting from the anecdotal field of the real world, here are my own observations of Generation X:
  • Most of my peers are or have been married at least once.
  • Most of us have jobs.
  • Many of us have kids or, if not kids, pets.
  • We have a low tolerance for the foolishness imposed on us by Baby Boomer bosses.
Beyond that? Honestly, my observations become nearly useless because our friendships and work acquaintances are self-selecting. I've worked at Disney, which attracts one demographic. I've worked for the Department of Defense, which will bring in a slightly different demographic. I've worked for NASA and the aerospace community, which truly has a niche set of social attributes. In fact, the space community has been so monochromatic that I wrote a master's thesis on marketing approaches to bring in more women and minorities. Regardless, I have been drawn to and worked in environments that have very strong, very recognizable cultures. Disney is all about entertainment, perkiness, neatness, and guest-focused customer service. The military culture is predominantly male, top-down, honor-focused, and has a tendency to break things and kill people on behalf of our national defense. The space community is almost a mix of the two: very upbeat ("visionary"), top-down, and WASP male, with a few more hopeful women than the military and a lot fewer minorities.

I suppose it's instructive, then, to talk about Facebook and my 20th high school reunion, both of which provided me the opportunity to see how "normal people" in my generation have done. (Point of reference: I got a paper award for "Most Unusual Job" at the reunion.) My high school, situated in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, produced a lot of people with what my folks used to call "straight jobs": doctors, lawyers, contractors, nurses, teachers, what have you. As a writer for NASA (and now a freelance writer working for aerospace and non-aerospace clients), I do not quite fit that label.

In other ways, I'm right in line with the tastes of middle-class white males of my age and background: I watch the NFL; I listen to classic rock and pop music from my high school days; I drive a Honda sedan; I get annoyed by the foolishness of both major political parties (the left more than the right) and recently registered as "unaffiliated" in Florida as a mild protest. I'll probably vote libertarian in coming years.

The Generation X (born 1961-1975) peers I interact with most often are scientists, engineers, or technology-focused in some way. They're some of the best and brightest people I've ever met, and they give me hope that this nation can continue to do great things. While all high-achieving, very few of these folks to share common ideas about the future--they range from loud libertarians to confident conservatives to passionate progressives. The political battles we inherited from our parents will continue.

My peers who have become parents also have a wide range of beliefs and attitudes about the world; however, being parents, they have that common traditional streak that wants to see their children grow up well-behaved, mature, and capable of getting a job. Again, it might be a self-selecting reflection on my friends, but none of them has the attitude that their kids can't or shouldn't try to do better or that they should expect a check from the government to live.

Undoubtedly I'm not seeing the whole picture of "my generation." I heard a lot when I was in college for my B.A. and afterward about how expectations were being lowered for us because many of us graduated in the middle of the Gulf War recession. I heard similar things about the Millennials in 2002 when I got my M.A. and we were going through the second Gulf War recession. (Note to self--no more schooling: I keep graduating just after war-induced recessions.) The "low expectations" line is media BS. We work, we pay our bills, we'd like to have more money. How is that any different from the Baby Boomers? Who are the exemplars of Generation X--Elon Musk, President Obama, Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bezos, Darlene Cavalier? Or are they Marilyn Manson, Timothy McVeigh, Len Bias, and Pink? (Okay, you have your lists, I have mine.) History will be the judge of our deeds.

In the end, about all you can say about a "generation" is that we had a similar set of world events happen around us and we all found ways (some better than others) of surviving them. The only advantage we have over previous generations is that we get to see a bit more of the future than they do. What we do with the knowledge and experience is, of course, up to us.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Setting Our Sights Lower

First, read this so you understand the context of my next rant. Go ahead, I'll wait...

Okay, so you had your own reaction to what you read: you shook your head in dismay, nodded in agreement, or shrugged and wondered, "So what?"

For those of you who didn't take the time to read the linked article, here's the author's general thesis:

Earth is getting too overpopulated, we're running out of resources, life is going to become a lot harder, and the concept of economic growth is outdated, unhelpful, and unlikely to continue. As a result, we might as well get used to it, make a virtue of necessity, and learn to live within our means because the future is not going to get any better. We need to share the wealth so that non-Western nations receive an equitable share of the world's wealth. Instead, we should establish a world that involves more local economies and that is less dependent upon international travel. We shouldn't focus so much on new technologies to save us and should learn to "do without" certain luxuries or technologies.

Did anyone just have a flashback to the 1970s? Are we in yet another era of doom and gloom and limited vision?

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
--Franklin Delano Roosevelt

"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
--John F. Kennedy

"There's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America."
--William J. B. Clinton

...and I haven't even quoted the Republicans yet.

The point is, America is a nation founded on a fundamental optimism that says if you give people freedom and a fighting chance, they'll find solutions to their own problems, with or despite the government's intervention. However, the author appears to have already pronounced sentence on the future: we're doomed, we'll never make it, the people are too stupid to solve their own problems, they can only be ruled for their own good and protection, based on a vision shared by the enlightened.

The problem is that "degrowth" is antithetical to the American experiment because of the implications of the author's ideas:
  • Who decides what's equitable? Not the people, obviously.
  • Who decides what we can "do without?" The diversity of our economy and technologies ensures that nearly anything and everything can be given a fighting chance to succeed, given enough hard work by the inventor. Who's to say what we can or should do without? And who is this author to say that we should dream smaller?
  • How would they enforce this "de-growth?" It brings up an interesting notion: do governments worldwide become enforcers of de-modernization of the world? Would they send in armed troops with magnets to destroy unwanted knowledge and explosives to destroy unneeded inventions like cyclotrons, nuclear reactors, CAT scans, or rocket ships?
  • Will Those Who Decide still have access to luxuries and world travel? Here's a hint: yes. I recall talking with Les Johnson about the anti-technology forces in our civilization. "They want to send us back to the caves," he said. I don't think so. They want to send us back to the manors and serfdom, where the majority remain ignorant and ruled while the wealthy elite continues to enjoy a high standard of living. The problem is, it won't happen that way; not by a long shot. Read on.
  • What happens if individuals or nations opt to stay pro-growth? We're seeing a variation of this with the Kyoto Protocol, which is supposed to curb greenhouse gases. America has the technology to become high-tech without petroleum eventually, I suppose, but China and India are not there yet and are unlikely to comply with Kyoto anyway. So say they stick with the large nation-state approaches to technology and economics. What happens to the hundreds of thousands of small nation-states elsewhere in the world? If human history is any guide, they will either reunite into coalitions and nations as well or get swallowed up one by one.
Decentralization and descoping of the world economy only works if everyone does it. Odds are, everyone won't, unless some external force requires all of them to act simultaneously.

More to the point, as a space and technology advocate I want to live in a future of abundance. I believe we can access the energy and materials of space, combined with nanotechnology and other clean high technology here on Earth to ensure a future where everyone has access to the goods of civilization. Degrowth is not the way to do it. Degrowth assumes a zero-sum game, where we'll never find additional resources, and therefore the only way to have any choices is to be one of those who decides how the pie is divided. That is a recipe for world conflict on a scale we haven't seen in 70 years, and it would include a lot more nuclear weapons.

No matter how politely or benignly worded, a philosophy of low expectations implies a political order where those expectations would be enforced, lest someone question the underlying assumptions. I'm more in line with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who want humanity to expand the scope of technology of civilization. Regardless of past errors or current problems, we certainly have enough pride and ambition to believe a better future is possible, don't we?

Jeez, I hope so.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

INFJs and the Elusive Difficulties of Simple Pleasures

This blog started with a Twitter exchange:

The basic problem seems to be that people of a certain temperament--say, INFJs--have a problem just letting things be and enjoying simple pleasures. Pick one: being with family, walking on the beach, having a quiet meal with friends. Are such things simple? It depends on how you look at them, and that's the point.

What does an introverted-intuitive-feeling-judging person do in times of quiet enjoyment? Absorb the moment. It's our default response. We don't say a lot. Instead, we observe what's going on around us, to differing degrees and with different emphases, depending on the individual. Some focus on remembering the details of faces, some of conversations, some of the thoughts or feelings or sensations we have while in the moment. For the INFJ, the details are part of the moment. We collect such complex "simple" pleasures because it's our nature to do so.

That's not to say we can't enjoy our quiet or simple moments; we just have a lot going on inside. If you see someone whose personality you know to be an INFJ and they have a quiet smile on their face, just let them enjoy. You might ask them, "What are you thinking?" but while their hard drive is crunching a lot of data at that moment, they might say something simple like, "I'm just happy."

Wednesday, August 06, 2014


Once a year I get seriously self-indulgent on this blog and reflect on where I am in my life. There are worse things I could do with my time.

So: 45 years old today. I guess one of my b-day cards got it right: you know you're getting old when you start getting old-age jokes on your birthday cards. The grey hair remains grey--though, remarkably, it hasn't retreated too far up the forehead yet. The weight is down through a random, solemn decision to eat and treat myself better. I'm avoiding fried foods as a lifestyle choice. I'm snacking on things that are recognizably natural foods. I walk more.

And my oh my, is my professional life different from where it was a year ago! This time last year, I was still in Huntsville, Alabama, gainfully employed with a space/technology-focused small business. This year, courtesy of some government budget-cutting, I now AM a small business, back in the city I love, Orlando, Florida. I struggle here and there with finding business and paying bills, but thanks to the kindness of friends, I've been able to house-sit in genteel poverty, an arrangement that will continue through early November. I've had the breathing space to find and build clientele, for which I'm duly grateful.

Having come close to the bottom of my reserves in late spring, I'm now on a path to steady bill paying and taking steps toward improving my ability to expand my line of work (taking a grant-writing class, getting help from a coach, getting in touch with local friends to find new opportunities). Progress!

And here's the thing about freelancing that I'm coming to realize: I have no problem supporting customers, it's bosses I don't deal with well. I'm always willing to help or answer to a customer. A customer has come to me voluntarily, seeking my services. A manager, however benevolent, is there to tell me what to do. I don't mind that most of the time, it's a fact of life; however, the fewer layers I have above me, usually the better I'm able to function. I'm picking the type of work I do, the workload, and my hours of operation. I probably could and should have gone freelance earlier in life, but better late than never, I suppose.


Do I have any deep, new wisdom at the ripe old age of 45? Just one thing: the most important thing I've learned to do this past year is be me happily, with all the good, bad, and weird that entails. I...
  • Wear Hawaiian shirts and shorts for my standard "work clothes."
  • Try to stick with aerospace work because that is what I love to do and am passionate about doing. 
  • Take a lot of the low-key, low-visibility jobs with the Science Cheerleaders because I'm not particularly gung-ho to get on stage. 
  • Can speak on stage (if I must) without much fear or trepidation. 
  • Am blatantly geeky about some things, blandly conformist or mainstream about others. 
  • Am mildly to terribly conceited, and a linguistic snob. 
  • Am back to being a libertarian (with a conservative flavor).
  • Have a taste for philosophy, science fiction, history, and terrible puns. 
  • Cannot shut up on Facebook. 
  • Walk around theme parks, play John Williams soundtracks, and light up aromatherapy candles to relax. 
  • Read self-help books because I want to make myself a better person. 
  • Live and travel alone because I recognize my social strengths and limitations. 
  • Am an introvert with extroverted moments. 
  • Have a list of things I want to do, and I take steps to make them happen. 
  • Am not in any big rush to change the world or to boss around others. 
  • Love Orlando's afternoon thunderstorms and lack of snow. 
  • Don't share secrets, am not particularly interested in learning the secrets of others, nor do I wish to share whatever secrets I have with everyone I know. 
It's not a perfect life, by any wild stretch, but I prefer the problems I have to any others. My willingness to be honest with myself about myself allows me to be honest with others--as much as I think they can stand--and that's not so bad for 45. I'm pretty happy being Bart.

Again, better late than never.