Archive for category Nerd Stuff

We all live in a Russian submarine

Delta IV-class SSBNI love nuclear submarines, and I always thought that was a bit weird. Apparently not.

The Cold War-era nuclear submarine, Soviet or American, has become a trope of popular culture. It’s been the setting of movies like The Hunt for Red October, K-19 and the upcoming Phantom. A Soviet sub was even the setting for a recent episode of Doctor Who, appropriately titled “Cold War.”

Why have writers sent everyone from Sean Connery to Harrison Ford to Matt Smith to the depths of the oceans?

It’s certainly not for romance. Submarine service is one of the most arduous forms of duty in any military. Nuclear subs are sent on patrol for as long as six months at a time, and the crews rarely see sunlight. Just like on the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701D), interior lights are the only way crews can differentiate night and day.

It’s cramped, too. Enlisted crew share shelf-like bunks, each man (during the Cold War crews were all male in both the American and Soviet navies) sleeping while the other is on duty. It’s called “hot bunking.”

But what the submarine loses in comparisons with Paris in springtime it makes up for in drama. Submariners are literally under pressure: at the depths they operate, submarines have to withstand many atmospheres of pressure, which threatens to crush a boat that dives too deep.

Hunt for Red October posterOf course, there was plenty of mental pressure as well.

Nuclear ballistic missile submarines or “boomers,” like the Typhoon-class Red October from the eponymous film, or the Ohio-class USS Alabama from Crimson Tide, patrolled (and continue to patrol) the oceans loaded with more destructive power than all of the weapons detonated in World War II.

During the Cold War, submarines were an insurance policy for both sides. The United States and the Soviet Union relied on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the certainty that if one side fired a volley of nukes, the other would answer it, to avert an apocalyptic global war.

Submarines were an especially good way to maintain MAD, because they are virtually impossible to detect. They run too deep for anything but below-surface sonar to be effective, and having two-thirds of the Earth’s surface to hide in definitely gives the boomer captain the advantage. That’s why the U.S. Navy calls its submarine fleet the “Silent Service.”

World War III could have easily started hundreds of feet below the surface of the sea. In addition to being perfect fodder for military drama, that scenario also ties submarines to the Cold War in the public imagination.

Doctor Who Cold WarWhich brings us back to Doctor Who. He can travel anywhere in time and space, surely Earth’s Cold War is a less interesting background than an alien hot war.

In the episode, where the Doctor and companion Clara are accidentally dumped on a sinking Russian sub with a frozen (and belligerent) Martian, the sub serves as the quintessential 1980s backdrop.

“Hair, shoulder pads, nukes. It’s the ‘80s. Everything’s bigger,” the Doctor declares while trying to acclimate Clara. He’s simultaneously doing the same for an audience twenty-plus years removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So the submarine has gone from harbinger of doom to ‘80s set piece. There’s even a Russian professor who’s obsessed with Duran Duran.

With so much resonance, the Cold War submarine might just be one of the most under-appreciated pop culture tropes around, which is fairly appropriate for a Silent Service.

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Five things that make Star Trek better than reality

Star Trek TOS castFor those of you who don’t live in an imaginary universe, today is First Contact Day. In the Star Trek mythos, Humans and Vulcans first met on April 5, 2063, after the inaugural warp flight of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix caught the attention of a Vulcan survey ship.

In honor of First Contact Day, I’d like to (try) to explain what I love about Star Trek the most. It’s not the aliens or the reliable sound effects, it’s that Star Trek depicts an ideal society that we should all work to make real. Here are five things that make living in the Star Trek universe better than living in reality.

Klingon replicator1) No Money

Obviously, this is a good thing. Money might make the world go ‘round in 2013, but it would be pretty sweet to live in a world without poverty in 2213. Also, because it will never have to worry about paying bills again, humanity can become more goal-oriented.  How many investors do you think would be interested in financing construction of a massive starship just so William Shatner can cruise around the galaxy in it?

Granted, this isn’t something that can be realistically achieved without a massive technological breakthrough. Star Trek’s money-less society relies on matter replicators, which can easily make all of the necessities of life like food, clothing, and even large machines. Since most commodities are infinitely replicable, there’s no point in charging money for them.

So far, we’re not even close to building replicators (3D printers don’t count).

USS Enterprise refit engineering2) Machines that help Humans instead of replacing them

I read a lot about how robots and computers will eventually replace the human worker, thanks to their efficiency and the fact that they never ask for raises. Star Trek shows us an ideal human-machine relationship and, while the machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, humans are still doing the work.

Every Trekkie recognizes the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, because she’s the audio talent behind every starship computer. These computers do plenty of things: they operate systems, run diagnostics, and conduct database searches. But they don’t do that on their own: Starfleet officers are always telling the computers what to do, and analyzing the information they provide.

If it were any other way, there would be no point in sending the Enterprise on a five-year mission of exploration; a robotic probe would be much cheaper. Starfleet even has an android officer, Data, but all he wants is to be human. That’s the right attitude.

The Federation doesn’t just explore space to gather data, it explores to give people the opportunity to see new things. That’s why the Enterprise’s helmsman puts the ship into Warp 9, even if a computer is actually firing up the engines.

Data playing guitar3) People who do what they love

The result of a money-less society and healthy amounts of automation is that people are able to do things because they want to. No one in Star Trek takes a job because they need health insurance, and they have plenty of free time to enrich themselves.

It’s amazing how many people on every incarnation of the Enterprise are musicians, artists, or actors. It’s also cool to think about how wonderful life would be if everyone had time to pursue things like that.

A hobby is a great way to take one’s mind of the drudgery of everyday life, and it’s even more enjoyable when there is time to devote to it. Today, it’s hard to conduct recreational pursuits for their own sake because our time is so valuable, but in a future where income and manual labor don’t exist, that won’t be the case.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701A4) Spaceships

Of course, people will need something more substantial to do. Humanity requires more substantial tasks than cottage industry (sorry, Etsy and Kickstarter) and space exploration is a very substantial task.

Spacecraft are cool in their own right, but their most important role in Star Trek is keeping people productive. If we no longer need to work for a living, and if we’re displaced from today’s jobs by machines, we can’t just sit around all day posting photos to Instagram.

Luckily, Starfleet is very labor-intensive. The original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) had a crew of 432, while the Next Generation-era Enterprise (NCC-1701D) had about 1,000 souls aboard (including civilians). There’s also the armies of people needed to build these things, plus command staff, diplomats, designers, and other Starfleet personnel.

Most importantly, Starfleet gives people a chance to go to new places and experience new things, which brings us to the best thing about Star Trek

Starfleet5) Imagination

Something I find very annoying about life in 2013 is that we constantly talk about how high-tech our society is, but can never find any good uses for that technology. Facebook is fun, but whatever happened to going to the moon, or curing diseases? What we have is a lack of imagination.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t lacking in imagination. He imagined how technology could solve humanity’s greatest problems, and enable its greatest achievements. It wasn’t a realistic vision, but at least it gave us something to shoot for.

Restricting ourselves to only thinking of new ways to use existing technology will never advance anything, because its doesn’t give people a reason to. That’s how technological advances happen: people think of something that doesn’t exist, and try to create it.

Constantly recycling today’s digital tech won’t do that. Yes, we could have “smart” toothbrushes that play our Pandora stations, but if our predecessors had the same attitude we’d still be riding stagecoaches.

No cleverly named app will unite the world, but a ship that can travel faster than the speed of light just might. Maybe we’ll find out in 50 years.

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Book review: “Superman is Jewish?” by Harry Brod

It’s common knowledge that most of the world’s greatest superheroes were created by Jews. The list of famous Jewish comics creators includes Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as well as Stan Lee, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman. These Jews created comic books, but what, if anything, about those books is specifically Jewish? That’s what Harry Brod tries to find out in Superman is Jewish?

Brod, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, sets up a surprisingly sprawling narrative in just 194 pages. He links comics to a greater tradition of Jewish storytelling, including the golem and El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya, which Brod nominates as a sort of prototype graphic novel.

Of course, most attention is paid to what modern readers would readily recognize as comics. Superman gets his own chapter, where everything from the Hebraic origin of the name Kal-El to Clark Kent’s characterization as a nebbish is parsed out.

A lot of this has been explored before, particularly in Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. Brod’s Jewish lens does add a new perspective, though. He describes Superman’s postwar transformation from sadistic street fighter to big blue Boy Scout as a “whitewashing” of his ethnicity.

The section on Marvel is a little less strong. There is little explicit evidence of Jewish themes in Marvel comics (with the exception of Ben Grimm, a.k.a. The Thing, and a few other Jewish characters), so a lot of this is based on conjecture and interpretation of tropes like Spider-Man’s snarky humor and the general liberal tone of the 1960s stories.

What really makes this book worth reading is Brod’s description of Jewish comics creators deploying all of their talents to tell Jewish stories. He makes a convincing argument not just for the literary merit of Will Eisner’s Fagin the Jew or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but also describes the importance of the graphic novel medium to the structure of those works.

Superman is Jewish? tries to be more than just a list of outed Jewish comic book creators and characters, and it largely succeeds. Brod treats a subject that is still largely viewed as a closed-off nerdscape with seriousness, and tries to link it to a larger Jewish cultural tradition. That requires some chutzpah.

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Why a Nietzschean superman values humanity more than humans

Doctor ManhattanIt’s not often that a superior being reminds you about why it’s great to be human. As we wade through our daily lives, we tend to notice the negatives: confusion, irrationality, uncontrolled emotion, physical frailty, the list goes on.

That uniquely human trait known as “consciousness” might seem to override these foibles, but the rise of big data is making it seem like what Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan would call a “highly overrated phenomenon.” Luckily, the Doctor is in.

In Watchmen Manhattan, a super being with God-like control of matter, along with the ability to teleport, fly, and grow into a giant, hides out on Mars after being accused of giving his colleagues cancer. He teleports his former girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter, herself a superhero called the Silk Spector, to Mars to convince him to save humanity. In the end, he convinces himself.

Manhattan sees things on a big scale (he finds erosion entertaining), so he’s more aware than most people of the unlikelihood of a specific human individual coming into existence.

“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air into gold… That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle,” Manhattan says. It’s particularly true of Laurie, whose mother had sex with her (absent) father even after he tried to rape her.

The whole speech is very dramatic, and definitely worth a read, but what does this have to do with data?

Sometimes I wonder if people think they can override human uniqueness with data, that if they acquire a large enough sample size, they can accurately predict human behavior.

I made the mistake of going to a psychology lecture in college. The visiting professor, apparently a well-regarded expert in the field, said his experiments had determined the level of autonomy an individual exhibits in a given situation.

I’m not a psychologist, but that seemed a bit odd. Doesn’t extrapolating what people do under controlled circumstances run counter to the nature of, well, autonomy?

Some might point to the wealth of data from uncontrolled circumstances that is available to researchers. Data: A Love Story is about how an Internet trend analyst constructed the ideal online dating profile by data-mining sites, and found herself a fiancee by systematizing her dating preferences.

Since I’m not very good at math, I guess that means I’ll never find true love online. Or maybe the future isn’t that dismal.

It’s true that Netflix can make good movie recommendations, but can an algorithm really account for the infinite number of variables contained within each individual consciousness?

By definition, data tells us what people have already done. As long as they keep doing the same thing (which, admittedly, they probably will) that’s fine. But what happens if someone changes their behavior? Or everyone?

Humans are subject to physical needs and social stimuli, but they are not programmed to act a certain way. As Dr. Manhattan points out, each person is one of a nearly infinite amount of possible combinations. It’s important to remember that.

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Green Arrow loses his sense of humor

More Fun Comics 91Superheroes have conquered the silver screen, something that no one who saw the first Superman movie serials or Captain America starring Matt Salinger thought would ever happen. Joss Whedon and Chris Nolan are the masters of the universe, but where can superheroes go from there? Television of course!

I was very excited for Arrow because it would finally give Green Arrow a little recognition, and because if it turned out to be good, I wouldn’t have to wait two years for another fix. However, it seems like the producers of Arrow are paying too much attention to blockbuster superhero films.

Arrow is dark, literally. Most of the action takes place at night, and the moody lighting means it’s sometimes difficult to see which bad buy “The Hood” (this T.V. Green Arrow needs an image consultant) is pummeling.

It’s not to say that the fights aren’t bad or undramatic, they are just out of character. The comic book Green Arrow (at least the one I know) is a bit more jovial. He’s a peace-loving hippie who cracks jokes, annoys Green Lantern, and has a beard. What happened to that guy?

The new Oliver Queen is scarred (mentally and physically) from his time on a (mostly) deserted island, and is obsessed with a quest for vengeance and redemption.

The television show’s darker Green Arrow is probably the result of an identity crisis. Oliver Queen’s alter ego has always been a rip-off of two characters: Robin Hood and Batman. The Robin Hood parallel goes without saying, and Green Arrow is often described as “Batman with a bow and arrow” because, like Bruce Wayne, he’s a rich guy with no superpowers and a sense of justice.

Arrow’s Ollie tries really hard to be Bruce Wayne. He’s got a secret base in an old warehouse and, like Bruce, he feigns aloofness to distance himself from his alter ego. Ollie may have gone too far, though: Bruce maintained control of his company, giving him resources that could be used in his war on crime. Ollie abdicated in a public display of fake drunkenness.

It’s not surprising that the people writing Green Arrow want him to be more like Batman than Robin Hood; only one of them wears tights. The connection was also downplayed in Green Arrow: Year One, where the costume starts out as a mossy piece of sailcloth that a marooned Ollie wears as a babushka.

So the television Green Arrow is very different from the comic book one. Is he better? I think the change is a bit drastic. Batman works as a dark character because he has always been that way; Green Arrow hasn’t.

Will no one take a more lighthearted Oliver Queen seriously? I don’t know, but not every superhero can be a brooding creature of the night, especially a guy who dresses up in bright green and hunts bad guys with a bow.

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Why stop at Seven Samurai?

So, rumors are going around that Zack Snyder (director of 300 and Watchmen) is working on a Star Wars version of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. I’m assuming that means seven warriors will band together to defend a small village, only this time they’ll have lightsabers.

Whether this actually happens or not, it shows the flexibility of Kurosawa’s original story. Seeven Samurai has already been adapted as Magnificent Seven and an anime called Samurai 7. Tropes from the original have also been recycled in countless actions films.

Which begs the question: What other sci-fi adaptations of Seven Samurai are possible?

Seven Gundams: I’m thinking specifically of Gundam Wing; they’re only two pilots short of a full contingent already. The plot would involve seven laconic teenagers and their mobile suits defending an unarmed space colony, with space rice as their only payment.

Seven Redshirts: A Federation starship is dispatched to defend a small outpost from the Romulans and/or Klingons. An away team is dispatched. Everyone dies.

Seven Klingons: Klingons consider a glorious death in battle as payment. Three survive (as in Seven Samurai) and their shame is passed down for three generations.

Seven Superheroes: Pretty much a standard Avengers (Marvel) or Justice League (DC) story, but substituting an impoverished village for New York/Metropolis.

Seven Transformers: Not that Optimus Prime would ever accept payment for defending humans against a Decepticon attack, but some Energon would sweeten the deal and give Megatron a reason to attack.

Seven Mandalorians: Factional differences lead to the destruction of all seven before the Hutts get to the village.

Seven Soul Reapers: A group of Soul Reapers has a dispute with the Soul Society (it happens all the time) and redeem themselves by entering the World of the Living to stop marauding Hollows.

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Other people’s starships: Oberth-class

USS Grissom bow viewWhy not start off the new year with a look into the future? Of course, even the utopian future of Star Trek has a few rough edges, and they will be the subject of this two-part series. While the myriad incarnations of the USS Enterprise were off exploring the galaxy, other ships held the line against Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengi, and random natural phenomena. These ships are the Red Shirts of the fleet.

Last week, the “bucket of bolts” Constellation-class got its time in the spotlight. This week, the focus is on the Oberth-class science ships.

As research vessels, ships of the Oberth-class were designed to deal with the unexpected. However, as seen in various episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the unexpected often caused serious misfortune for the people that manned them.

Named after German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth, the Oberth-class definitely has the Red Shirt spirit. With its unusual biplane hull design, this class was never going to look heroic on the screen. Instead, it looked like someone had tried to assemble a starship model kit without reading the instructions.

Starfleet may not have been too fond of the ships either: The Oberth-class is the only known starship type to be operated by both Starfleet and civilians.

Even if you do like the Oberths’ ungainly appearance, it’s hard to argue with the ships’ record. Nearly every Oberth that appeared in TNG suffered some misfortune. Here are a few highlights:

SS Tsiolkovsky (NCC-53911): In The Naked Now, the Tsiolkovsky’s crew is exposed to polywater intoxication. The crew of 80 is killed when drunken revelers tamper with the ship’s environmental controls, and the ship itself is destroyed by a fragment of a red giant star’s core, allowing the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) to escape.

SS Vico (NAR-18834): Destroyed by a “black cluster,” a gravitational phenomenon that reflected the ship’s shield output and essentially crushed the Vico with its own shields.

USS Yosemite (NCC-19002): Quasi-energy microbes caused a plasma explosion on board. Four survivors were trapped in a transporter beam as a result of the microbes’ interference, but were discovered by Lieutenant Reginald Barclay in the episode Realm of Fear.

USS Pegasus: (NCC-53847): It’s not surprising that Starfleet kept this a secret. The Pegasus was testing an illegal interphasic cloaking device, which overloaded the ship’s plasma relay system and caused an explosion.

Part of the ship’s crew mutinied, and Captain Eric Pressman, Ensign William Riker, and others abandoned ship. The Pegasus was seemingly destroyed by a second explosion, which was actually plasma from the relay venting into space.

The cloak allowed the Pegasus to phase through solid matter, and the ship drifted into an asteroid until its power systems shut down while it was half-buried. It was found fused with the asteroid by Pressman, Riker, and the Enterprise crew in an eponymous TNG episode.

USS Grissom aft three-quarterThis is far from an exhaustive list of every Oberth-class ship that appeared in Star Trek, but it definitely denotes a pattern. It does make sense, though: from a writing standpoint, it wouldn’t be very plausible to destroy a huge cruiser every few episodes, and the producers already had an Oberth model to reuse. Still, if you ever find yourself enlisting in Starfleet, try to avoid shipping out on an Oberth.

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