Archive for October, 2010

Whistle while you work

Sunday, 24 October, 2010

Most of the people I work with use headphones to listen to music while they work. At least the engineers, coders, and researchers do – I suspect the admin departments don’t so much. I’m the rare exception who doesn’t generally have headphones on while busy.

Occasionally though I will take in my iPod and headphones – usually when I have a deadline looming and need to work solidly on something without being interrupted. Because normally I don’t have headphones on, I can hear everything that happens around me, so it’s fairly easy to overhear something and get distracted. That’s what I try to tune out by using some music so I can concentrate more solidly on my work.

But, doing this the past couple of weeks while working on some end-of-year reports, I notice that listening to music doesn’t really help me much. I find it distracting. I’ve never really used music consistently while I’ve worked on anything. I didn’t use music while doing school homework or studying or writing essays or any of that.

I brought my iPod into work because I figured it would cut out external distractions, but I find the music at least as distracting. I can’t help singing along (silently), or humming the tune in my head, and once I notice what I’m doing, my attention is fully on the music and not on my work.

Music has never been something I have filling the void of silence in the background while I’m doing other stuff. I like silence while I’m concentrating on stuff. I absolutely cannot read a book, for example, with music on. Music, to me, is something you pay attention to. Something you put on when you have time to sit on the lounge and do nothing else but listen. Or jump around the house like a rock star singing along to all the lyrics.

I like music, I really love some of it. But I seldom listen to it, because I find it so attention-grabbing. I think I’ve always been this way, but I only really noticed it in the past week while trying to work on that report at work, and finding myself distracted by the music. Despite deliberately bringing in an iPod to use while working, I found myself only turning it on for an hour or two a day, and getting more work done when it’s off.

I don’t know what it is. Music pierces my consciousness. I like it so much, but I can’t have it around when I need to concentrate on other things.

Star Trek 1.18: Arena

Friday, 22 October, 2010

ArenaArena“! One of the all-time classic episodes, this one is highly memorable for the one-on-one duel between Kirk and the reptilian Gorn captain.

Well, I thought I knew what this episode was when I began watching it, but it quickly became clear that I didn’t remember how it began. In fact for about the first 10 minutes I was doubting that this was the “Gorn” episode at all. It begins with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and some assorted hangers-on beaming down to an Earth outpost on Cestus III at the invitation of the commander there. McCoy expresses delight at finally being able to taste a “non-reconstituted meal”. So everyone on the Enterprise lives on reconstituted food? Hmmm.

The name Cestus III is an obvious reference to the ancient Greek and Roman cestus – a glove designed to increase the damage done by bare-fisted fighting. An apt reference to make in this episode, hinging as it does on lust for warfare and gladiatorial combat. On the planet, the landing party find the smoking ruins of the outpost, obviously a victim of an attack. Apparently the attack was powerful enough to convert solid masonry into chunks of half-melted styrofoam.

McCoy beams up with a lone survivor, but the others are stranded when the Enterprise is attacked and Sulu reports they had to raise “screens” to prevent attack – these obviously haven’t been christened “shields” yet. They also handily prevent beaming the rest of the landing party up – another example of the writers having to disable the transporters to prevent them being used to rescue people from trouble. Sulu also reports that, although they are exchanging fire with the enemy vessel, it is “too far away” for visual contact. This is a bizarre piece of unphysical weirdness – they’re close enough to shoot at but not to see? Okay,they have other sensors that might be able to detect things at extreme ranges, but light has a pretty good range too, and they’re firing phasers – if they can expect to hit a target with a beam weapon, how can they be too far away to see it?

Meanwhile, on Cestus III, the landing party comes under attack from an unseen enemy, bombarding them from a nearby hill. Red-shirted Ensign O’Herlihy gets summarily disintegrated in the first two seconds of the attack, and Lieutenant Commander Lang doesn’t last much longer. Kirk wards off the attack with a strong case of foreshadowing by using a mortar to fire an explosive device towards the hill. The enemy vessel races off, the Enterprise picks up the landing party survivors and gives chase.

Kirk displays another bout of Ahab-like obsession with punishment in the name of justice, pushing the Enterprise to warp factor 8, a speed so great that it causes Scotty, Spock, and Sulu to appear in rapid-fire close-ups looking at Kirk with incredulity. When Kirk asks Spock for any information on aliens in the current sector, Spock replies that there is no hard information, there are only rumours and “space legends“.

The chase takes them past an unexplored planet, which is the home of the Metrons, yet another nigh omnipotent race of aliens, who espouse peace and decide to settle the differences of the Enterprise and the still-unseen aliens by placing the captain of each ship on a world specially prepared with the raw materials to make weapons, and letting them duke it out to the death. The winner gets to not have his ship and crew destroyed.

Kirk appears on the planet and we finally get our first look at the Gorn captain, in a supreme moment of dramatic revelation. Even now, when the costume looks incredibly hokey, it still has an impact to see that Kirk is up against a huge, muscular, lizard man! What follows is one of the most iconic fights in Star Trek, as Kirk struggles through an attempted fist fight, then races off to find a way to defeat the stronger Gorn. We see the usual Star Trek rocks that we’ve already seen in “Shore Leave”, and again there are obvious multiple shadows as Kirk races through the beams of light reflectors – this time the reflected light visibly moves across the rocks even.

Back on the Enterprise, the Metrons give the crew a video feed of the battle. Kirk stops near some white powdery stuff, and Spock recognises it immediately as potassium nitrate. Despite the fact that it looks exactly like any of dozens of other random white crystalline salts, or even sugar. See, this is why Spock is the science officer – he can recognise potassium nitrate by sight! Kirk has already passed a sulphur deposit, and a bunch of enormous diamonds just lying around. Spock points out that if he can find charcoal, or even just coal, he can make gunpowder. Kirk does so, and packs it into a crude mortar (foreshadowed!) made from a fat chunk of bamboo or something, and loads it up with diamond shot. This is amazingly effective, and blasts the Gorn captain to near-death.

But Kirk shows mercy and doesn’t finish him off, which proves to the Metrons that humans are worthy to live after all. A Metron reveals himself, wearing a toga. The moral, as Kirk realises, is that the Gorn weren’t attacking Cestus III out of sheer hostility, but because Cestus III was within their territory and they felt threatened, giving Kirk a “we were the bad guys” moment. The Metron spares the Gorn at Kirk’s request and decides humans aren’t that bad after all.

Still an iconic episode after all these years. Despite the poor special effects and sloppy fight choreography, you can’t help getting immersed and feeling that this is a great fight between Kirk and a physically superior opponent. A winner.

Body count: Entire population of Cestus III outpost except one survivor (off-screen), Ensign O’Herlihy, Lieutenant Commander Lang.
Tropes: Red Shirt, Foreshadowing, Pay Evil Unto Evil, Eye Take, Space X, Sufficiently Advanced Alien, Involuntary Battle To The Death, People In Rubber Suits, Lizard Folk, Kirk’s Rock, Styrofoam Rocks, MacGyvering, Bamboo Technology, Humanity On Trial, Crystal Spires And Togas, Heel Realisation.
(Image © 1966 Paramount Studios, used under Fair Use.)

Star Trek 1.17: The Squire of Gothos

Tuesday, 19 October, 2010

The Squire of GothosWell, it had to happen eventually. “The Squire of Gothos” is not a great episode. It might have sounded like an interesting idea at the time, but the story has become clichéd to the point where it’s trite.

I didn’t make many notes on this one as I was kind of cringing at the character of Trelane, who is played as over-the-top flamboyant by guest star William Campbell. Well, okay, the script calls for that, but it gets tiring quickly, especially when one knows the ending. Trelane is playful, irrational, and apparently all-powerful, much like Q in the later Star Trek series. There’s a recipe for an annoying character right there.

The Enterprise is basically trapped near Trelane’s planet and Kirk and Sulu vanish from the bridge mysteriously. A rescue party beams down to find them, assuming they’re on the planet, and comes across a castle of all things. Inside the castle they see a taxidermied figure which is clearly the salt vampire from “The Man Trap“. At least that’s an interesting point of note. There’s also a mounted crocodile head, of all things, above the fireplace.

Trelane captures the landing party and treats them to a meal, but the food has no taste. He magics a ball gown on to Yeoman of the Week Teresa Ross. Kirk eventually decides Trelane isn’t all-powerful, but that the mirror he stays near is his source of magical mojo. So he provokes a duel, and then takes the gun and shoots the mirror. I was amazed to hear the destruction accompanied by distinct “boing!” sound effects, like some sort of cartoon.

A failed escape results in Kirk being put on trial by Trelane and sentenced to hang. Kirk talks his way out, offering to let Trelane hunt him for sport. A fight ensues, with some awful swordplay, before the deus ex machina ending, in which Trelane’s parents – a pair of mysterious sufficiently advanced energy beingsscold Trelane for being a naughty child and drag him off for punishment.

Blah, what an ending. If you didn’t know it was coming, you could be left wondering how Kirk is going to engineer an escape from this one. There would be a certain amount of suspense mixed in with the cringing at Trelane’s antics. But in the end Kirk does nothing and is saved by pure dumb luck and even more powerful aliens. All rather unsatisfying.

Body count: None.
Tropes: Large Ham, Aliens Steal Cable, Great Gazoo, Immortal Immaturity, Psychopathic Manchild, Magic Mirror, Stock Sound Effects, Kangaroo Court, Scheherazade Gambit, Hunting The Most Dangerous Game, Flynning, Sufficiently Advanced Alien, Energy Beings, Parent Ex Machina.
(Image © 1966 Paramount Studios, used under Fair Use.)

Star Trek 1.16: The Galileo Seven

Monday, 18 October, 2010

The Galileo SevenThe Galileo Seven” is an episode I remember well, because it was one of the ones I had as a Bantam Fotonovel way back in the day when I was a kid. I think of it as a strong and dramatic episode, though perhaps that might be tinged with nostalgia.

The first thing to notice about this episode is that the Enterprise is investigating the Murasaki 312 quasar. Now, having studied quasars for my Ph.D., I know quasars are enormous and enormously powerful phenomena generated by supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies. They are not something the size of roughly a solar system that you can fly up to and inside and take scientific readings of with a starship of the range of the Enterprise. Of course, nobody knew that back in 1966 when this episode was made, so that’s forgivable. In fact the idea that they were relatively small, close objects similar to what we see in this episode was still scientifically supportable at the time. So no real criticism, but it is odd to see.

Immediately following this plot revelation, we are treated to our first view of one of the Enterprise shuttlecraft, the Galileo, leaving the hangar bay in a majestic scene (albeit a majestic 1960s special effects scene). On board are seven crew members: Spock, Scotty, token Yeoman Mears, Lieutenants Latimer, Gaetano, and Boma, and Dr McCoy. Wait… what? What is Dr McCoy doing on an expedition to scout an astronomical phenomenon? I guess he’s there in case the shuttlecraft shakes from side to side and someone bruises an arm. In plot terms, he’s there to be a foil for Spock’s wrestling with the difficulties of his first command, by arguing for human emotion over Vulcan logic, but that’s hardly a mission role.

The “quasar” produces an ion storm that prompts Sulu to declare, “These readings make no sense!” The Galileo loses contact and is set adrift in the heart of the “quasar”, in what was meant to be a three hour tour

And this is all before the opening credits!

Anyway, the Galileo ends up stranded on a desert island planet in the middle of Murasaki 312, which conveniently blinds the Enterprise‘s sensors so that they can’t find them. What’s more, they’re on a clock, because they have to deliver a shipment of plague-curing drugs to Makus III before a deadline when they’ll be sent on to a plague-ridden colony, as Kirk is constantly reminded by Commissioner Ferris, who may be the single most smarmy and annoying character in the entire series. Frankly, I’d have paid good money to see Kirk rip his shirt and take Ferris in a fist fight right there on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Things are grim on the planet, with only enough energy to take off with 4 people on board. Spock says the decision of who to leave behind will be his. He then orders the expendable Latimer and Gaetano to scout the area, staying in visual contact with the shuttlecraft. They immediately wander off past some rocks that block their line of sight and encounter an eerie fog. Latimer gets skewered by a positively enormous spear with a stone head – the stone spear point alone was about the size of a large turkey. Investigating, Spock remarks that the spear point is similar to the Folsom points of Earth, although to me it looks much more like a Clovis point. Spock orders the ever more expendable Gaetano to remain on guard near the spot where Latimer got spiked.

Back in orbit, we see a shot of stars streaking past the Enterprise, despite the fact that it’s in orbit about a planet, so stars shouldn’t be going anywhere with respect to it.

Meanwhile, back on the Planet of Doom, Gaetano is approached by a giant hairy ape-man in classic zombie arms-out-in-front pose. Sorry, the poor late Gaetano. Scotty has been working full steam on reconfoogling the Galileo to run on the power from the phasers, while Yeoman Mears has been doing nothing but appearing in soft focus shots and being terrified.

There’s some drama involving Boma being insubordinate to Spock behind his back, to the approving nods of McCoy, over Spock’s use of logic treating people as mere objects. Before lifting off, Spock allows 10 minutes to bury Gaetano (and presumably Latimer) – I’d like to see any gravedigger work that fast – if the hostile natives will allow it. Eventually they take off, with all five remaining passengers thanks to lightening the shuttlecraft, with just enough fuel to make one orbit. Although by this time Commissioner Ferris (booo!) has ordered the Enterprise to depart for Makus III.

Spock’s “illogical” reaction is to dump and ignite the fuel, producing a flare that the Enterprise can see. But without fuel their orbit decays and the Galileo begins to burn up on re-entry – though why it didn’t burn up the first time it entered the planet’s atmosphere without any power is unexplained. Yeoman Mears finally provides a reason for her to be in this episode, with the observation that “It’s getting so hot!” But the Enterprise is on hand and beams the survivors on board just before the Galileo becomes slag.

Yeah, actually not as bad an episode as I make it sound. It has drama and tension and shows Spock in a new light. It’s really the first Spock episode, with Kirk having relatively little to do. If only he’d punched Ferris’s lights out it would have been a great episode.

Body count: Latimer, Gaetano, landing search party member O’Neill (killed off-screen).
Tropes: Science Marches On, Negative Space Wedgie, Readings Are Off The Scale, Cold Equation, Ominous Fog, Streaming Stars, Zombie Gait, Gaussian Girl, No One Gets Left Behind, Captain Obvious, Everybody Laughs Ending.
(Image © 1966 Paramount Studios, used under Fair Use.)

Wine Tasting: Part 2

Sunday, 17 October, 2010

Decanting procedureLast night we held the wine tasting night which I described a few days ago.

We had a total of 12 people participating, and six white wines to taste. Veronica got the job of decanting the wines into the set of identical decanters we bought. We labelled the decanters with letters (A through F) using Post-it notes. Veronica was sequestered in a room with a green filter placed over the light so she couldn’t distinguish the colours of the wines as she was pouring them. She wrote down a mapping from the wines to the letters, and kept this secret from everyone else.

Veronica then left the secret room and Steven went in. He wrote down a shuffled mapping from letters (A to F) to numbers (1 to 6). He then replaced the letters on the decanters with the corresponding numbers and kept his piece of paper with the mapping secret. Then we brought the decanters out to the dining table, where everyone had six wine glasses of their own (brought from home).

More glass labellingMeanwhile, we’d all labelled our glasses with Post-its or stickers, numbered 1 to 6 to match the decanters. And while doing all this we were snacking on cheese and crackers. There was a King Island brie, some sort of soft, mild blue cheese, and a matured cheddar. The crackers were intended to be useful during the tasting, to cleanse palates in between sips of the various different wines.

We passed the decanters around the table so everyone could pour a sample of each wine into their own matching numbered glass. Once that was done, I (having bought the wines) announced to everyone what the six different types of wine were. And then we began tasting.

We have a mixed amount of experience with wine. David Mc’s uncle owns a winery in the Hunter Valley, and he probably knows more about wine than any of the rest of us, though he’d admit he’s no expert. I’ve been trying to learn, but less than a year of experience is not a lot when it comes to the complexity of what lay before us. The list of wines again, for reference:
Double blind wine decanters

  • Wither Hills 2009 Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc
  • Brokenwood 2008 Hunter Valley Semillon
  • Wynns 2008 Connawarra Estate Riesling
  • Gramp’s 2006 Barossa Chardonnay
  • Brown Brothers 2009 King Valley Pinot Grigio
  • Pewsey Vale 2008 Eden Valley Gewürtztraminer

The goal was not to be competitive and try to identify the wines, but simply to discuss our impressions of them and see if we could get most people agreeing on various characteristics and descriptors, helping the less experienced people to find the right vocabulary to describe the aromas and tastes. And of course for everyone to actually have six different wines in front of them to assist in making immediate comparisons and get a handle on the variety of flavours that are possible.

Roast pork with vegetables and spiced apple sauceOf course this didn’t stop some of us from trying to identify the wines. This resulted in some hilarity later on when we revealed what the wines were, but more about that in a minute. The first thing that was agreed on by those with some wine experience was that Wine #1 was the Chardonnay. The oaky, woody flavour stood out, and even the people with little experience agreed it was very different from all the rest of the wines.

I actually started tasting from #6, since M. was sharing our glasses and started at the other end. A sniff of #6 brought to mind the distinctive piercing, minerally small of Riesling. A sip confirmed this in my mind, and I locked that in as an identification. This turned out to be a critical error. Working my way backwards, I found #5 to be very acidic and lemony. I thought I could detect the grassy, herbaceous qualities of Sauvignon blanc, and wrote that down. But #4 made me doubt that identification, as it turned out to be very similar at first taste. There was a bit of discussion about how similar #4 and #5 were, and Tina came up with the observation that while they were both citrusy, #4 had a slightly bitter citrus peel aftertaste, that #5 lacked.

Chocolate tart and fruit platterWorking may way back through the numbers, #3 had me baffled. By now my confidence in identifying at least 2 or 3 of the wines was being eroded. I think I wrote a tentative Semillon for #3, mainly because I have very little experience with Semillon. #2 seemed to have a very floral aroma, which I associate with Gewürztraminer. Others agreed in discussion. I then tasted it, looking for the spiciness that I expected, and found a hint of it – probably more through expectation than anything else – so I wrote down another identification.

The discussion was lively, with everyone throwing in opinions and flavour words like “peachy”, “lychees”, and so on, as well as quite a bit of, “Oh, this has a distinctive smell… what is it?” The main observation about the colours of the wines was that #6 was much more pink than any of the others, but this bit of information didn’t illuminate anything for us.

When we’d had enough discussion, Andrew S. grabbed the wine bottles and read out the descriptions on the back labels. They included the usual references to various fruits and so on, and some people made notes and tried to adjust their guesses of which wine might be which based on this new information. My list looked like this:

  1. Chardonnay
  2. Gewürztraminer?
  3. Semillon??
  4. Pinot grigio?
  5. Sauvignon Blanc?
  6. Riesling

I was positive I’d got the Chardonnay and Riesling right, and moderately sure about the Sauvignon blanc and Gewürztraminer. The Pinot grigio I’d assigned based on nothing other than David Mc’s telling me a few weeks ago that it was a bit like Sauvignon blanc – I’d never tried this grape myself yet. The wine label reading didn’t really illuminate anything new for me.

Six White WinesThen came the moment of truth. Veronica and Steven colluded and came up with the mapping from numbers back via letters to the wines. Here is what they were (also see the photo, where the bottles are shown in order, left to right):

  1. Chardonnay
  2. Sauvignon Blanc
  3. Gewürztraminer
  4. Riesling
  5. Semillon
  6. Pinot grigio

Yeah, I got a measly one right. David Mc got the Chardonnay and the Semillon – he’d pointed out that a young Semillon is very citrusy and acidic, with hints of buttery and nutty flavours underneath that come out with age as the acidity dies away. His experience there was a big advantage. Steven, who went in claiming to know virtually nothing about wines, had based his guesses entirely on the wine label reading stage compared to the notes he’d made – and he scored 6 out of 6, much better than anyone else! In hindsight, my big mistake was nailing down the Riesling at the first taste of #6, which blinded me to the fact that #4 also displayed the distinctive Riesling notes. Basically, as far as my identifying skills go, this was pretty much a debacle! I’ll have to be more circumspect and careful next time, when we attempt red wine varietals.

After the tasting, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner together, with a fantastic pork roast by Tina, spinach and pine nut pasta by Andrew S, chili chicken wings by Andrew C, lasagne by David K and Christine, followed by a chocolate tart by M. and me, with fresh fruit brought by Loki and Rach. All together it was a great evening. I think we all learnt a lot about our experience with the wines, some of us learning we knew less than we thought we did, and others getting more up to speed with tasting and terminology. A resounding success!

Star Trek 1.15: Shore Leave

Friday, 15 October, 2010

Shore LeaveShore Leave” is an episode I remember vividly – for being a bit silly. It’s certainly more whimsical and lighter in tone than many other episodes, but watching it again now I found that it wasn’t quite as ridiculous as I remembered.

It does begin oddly, with McCoy and Sulu amongst a landing party on a new planet, apparently covered in idyllic vegetation but with no animal life whatsoever. When Sulu goes off to take some botanical examples (showing again an apparent interest in botany which I’d never noticed before this rewatching of the series), McCoy spots a giant white rabbit complaining that it’s late, followed by an obvious Alice in a blue pinafore dress. Has McCoy been fiddling with his medicinal drugs, you may ask.

The planet they’re on is another ugly and unrealistic looking thing from the orbital view, this time a bright lime green. On the bridge, Kirk apparently has a new Yeoman, replacing the unfortunately lamented Janice Rand. We later learn this Yeoman’s name is Barrows, as she plays an important role as a romantic interest for McCoy.

Kirk joins McCoy on the planet, convinced the doctor’s report of a white rabbit is some sort of joke. They hear a gunshot and run to find Sulu practising with a revolver, which he says he found just lying on the ground. He says it’s a vintage weapon, which would make a good addition to his collection (another case of Sulu having some random hobby for one episode), and has to explain to Kirk and McCoy how it works. This raises the question of how or indeed if Kirk and McCoy recognised the noise of the gunshot that brought them running.

Things get even more mysterious, with a first-person POV shot of some sort of antenna tracking the landing party as they walk across the terrain. Yeoman Barrows suffers clothing damage in an encounter with Don Juan, prompting McCoy to gallantly escort her. Meanwhile Kirk bumps into Finnegan, an old rival from his Academy days, and then Ruth, an old flame. Sulu encounters a samurai warrior, who attacks him with a sword. Also on the planet are extras Lieutenant Rodriguez and Angela Martine (who was the unhappy bride-to-be in “Balance of Terror“). They encounter a tiger, then Angela does one better than getting her fiancé killed in the previous episode, and is strafed to death by a mysterious fighter plane.

There are a couple of small continuity/production errors. The appearance of fictional characters and other people and animals on a planet scanned to be devoid of animal life is explicable as part of the plot. But in a couple of scenes we also clearly see insects buzzing around – a fly and a butterfly – which are not obviously related to the eventual explanation of the other stuff. Presumably these were just random inclusions of insects in camera shot during the filming that they never removed. Also, when Sulu runs along a shaded section of a small gully, you can see him generating three sharp shadows, obviously from film lighting.

Yeoman Barrows fantasises about a beautiful fairy-tale princess dress to replace her ripped uniform, and lo, one appears. She changes into it as McCoy half-averts his eyes. The pair are then attacked by a black knight on horseback, with a lance. McCoy states that “these things are not real; hallucinations cannot hurt me” and stands his ground. Clearly he believes they are merely hallucinating all of these weird people and objects – which raises an interesting question about what he thinks Barrows is really wearing now. The black knight runs McCoy down and kills him!

Kirk encounters Finnegan again and bests him in an inevitable fist fight, magically suffering major shirt damage in the cut between two directly adjacent scenes. He goes down wearing an undamaged uniform, and in the very next shot is shown lying on the ground with his short half torn off! After Finnegan is beaten, Spock appears, beaming down to inform Kirk that the transporters no longer work (after his last risky use of them). This begins the long tradition, seen throughout Star Trek, of the transporters being such a powerful plot device that to enable any sort of story where crew are trapped somewhere, they first have to have the transporters suffer some sort of malfunction or be mysteriously jammed by alien influences.

Spock conjectures that the planet is somehow producing the people and animals in response to the landing party’s thoughts – citing the example of Rodriguez thinking of a tiger just before seeing one. Except at this point they haven’t found Rodriguez again and there’s no feasible way Spock could know that Rodriguez had even encountered a tiger, let alone been thinking of one beforehand! A benign advanced alien then appears and explains that this is a pleasure planet for his race, designed to manufacture anyone’s desires, and that Angela and McCoy have been “repaired” and are now alive again. McCoy shows up in the arms of two fur bikini-clad girls, demonstrating that this is indeed a pleasure planet, to the jealous dismay of Barrows. All is well again!

Except I’ve always found this “resurrection” of McCoy to be a bit creepy, ever since the first time I saw this episode. Apparently all the constructed people are made of plant matter, and as we see in the case of the Black Knight, appear to be plastic dummies on close inspection. McCoy was, for all intents and purposes, really dead at one point, and was somehow brought back to life by being patched up with this same plant material. I’ve always had a hard time seeing this patched-up, revivified version as the real McCoy (so to speak). Lurking in the back of my mind there’s always the fear that from now on the Enterprise‘s medical officer is actually some sort of Stepford clone…

A final point on this episode is that it shows just how amazingly inadequate the Enterprise scanners are. A fantastically powerful and technological construction lurks just under the ground of this entire planet, yet the scans showed nothing – no technology, no refined metals, at all. I guess if you want to hide totally from Starfleet, all you need to do is live in a cellar. We saw this before on Talos IV in “The Menagerie“, in fact – scans showed no technology on the planet, yet there was an entire underground alien civilisation. Maybe they should invest in some ground-penetrating radar.

Body count: Angela Martine, Dr McCoy – both brought back to life by the planet’s manufacturing abilities.
Tropes: Fleeting Passionate Hobbies, Uncanny Village, Standard Hollywood Strafing Procedure, Lying In The Dirt Together, I Wish It Were Real, Your Mind Makes It Real, Amusement Park Of Doom, Pleasure Planet, I Got Better, A Lady On Each Arm, Fur Bikini, Everybody Laughs Ending.
(Image © 1966 Paramount Studios, used under Fair Use.)

Wine Tasting

Friday, 15 October, 2010

You probably know I’m in the process of trying to increase my knowledge and experience of wine. As it turns out, a bunch of my friends would also like to do this. So we are holding a wine tasting evening tomorrow night!

Being the irrepressible geeks that we are, we have worked out something moderately close to a double-blind wine tasting protocol, which goes roughly as follows:

  1. Decide on a set of wines to try and buy the bottles.
  2. Assemble for the tasting.
  3. Take the wines into a secret room, with an equal number of decanters.
  4. Under coloured light (to conceal the colour of the wines), one person pours each bottle into a decanter, and labels the wines and decanters with matching letters.
  5. A second person writes down a mapping from letters to numbers, and replace the letters on the decanters with numbers based on the mapping.
  6. The decanters now contain numbers that can be mapped back to the wine bottles, but no person knows the mapping! Bring them out to the common room.
  7. Pour and taste the wines, making and comparing notes amongst the participants. Each person will have six wine glasses so they can have a sample of every wine in front of them at once. The idea here is that this will help us pick up some of the differences between the wines, and the less experienced tasters can learn how to describe them from the more experienced tasters.
  8. Reveal the wines in each decanter, so we can learn what aromas and flavours are associated with which styles.

After the tasting, we will be having dinner and playing games and stuff. And we’ll have spittoons for the tasting. We don’t want anyone driving home intoxicated.

Here’s the list for the first tasting event: White grape varietals:

  • Wither Hills 2009 Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc
  • Brokenwood 2008 Hunter Valley Semillon
  • Wynns 2008 Connawarra Estate Riesling
  • Gramp’s 2006 Barossa Chardonnay
  • Brown Brothers 2009 King Valley Pinot Grigio
  • Pewsey Vale 2008 Eden Valley Gewürtztraminer

We’re sticking with Australian and New Zealand wines for the first few events. Next time we’ll do red varietals, and then we can move on to international varieties, or perhaps try tasting a set of different vineyards, vintages, and prices for one style.

Should be fun! I’ll report on anything interesting we learn from the experience.

Star Trek 1.14: Balance of Terror

Thursday, 7 October, 2010

Balance of TerrorNow this is a good episode. “Balance of Terror” is the tale of the Enterprise‘s first encounter with a Romulan vessel. Before this encounter, as we learn, no human or Romulan had ever seen each other. The two races had fought a war with primitive “atomic weapons” (so primitive they weren’t even called “nuclear”), and established a treaty along a Neutral Zone buffer between their regions of influence. So much of the well-known Star Trek mythology is established in this episode for the first time, it would be difficult for it not to be a classic episode.

The story opens in a wedding ceremony, with Kirk stating his happy position of having the authority to marry couples as the ship’s captain. An odd thing is that everyone at the ceremony is in Starfleet uniform. Including the bride, Angela Martine, whose only concession to tradition is some white feathers arranged in her hair. She is being given away by Scotty, for a reason never explained. Alas, the ceremony is interrupted by a red alert and battle stations, with the news that the nearby Earth Outpost 4 has been attacked. Angela and her fiancé Robert Tomlinson return to their posts in the weapons control room.

Spock shows a map of the Outposts and the Neutral Zone – a two-dimensional map showing a linear border with 8 human outpost stations along it. Of course this is a simplification for television, as a space border must be a surface, and would be considerably more penetrable than a linear boundary on a 2D map. We learn that Kirk’s orders with regards to the Neutral Zone are “inviolable”: he must not enter it under any circumstances; the Enterprise and all the Outposts are to be regarded as expendable, rather than risk any incursion into the Zone. Of course, Kirk later ignores this and chases the Romulan war craft into the Zone.

We meet Lieutenant Stiles, serving as navigator in this episode. He hates the Romulans, because they killed some of his family. He makes the odd statement that there may be Romulan spies on board the Enterprise – rather a big reach given there’s no evidence presented at any stage that any Romulans have ever breached the Neutral Zone before the present warship.

The ship destroys Outpost 4 and turns on the Enterprise, and we hear the evocative Romulan/Klingon attack music for the first time in the series. The ship becomes invisible, “deflecting light rays around itself”, but Spock can somehow track it on his sensors. This physics-bending state of affairs is never explained. One would expect a cloaking device for a spaceship to concentrate on deceiving electronic sensing, not eyeballing, or rather to achieve both or be essentially useless. Spock gets a view on to the bridge of the Romulan vessel, revealing its commander is… his father!!

Wait no, that’s Mark Lenard, who would later go on to play Spock’s father, playing the Romulan commander, who is never named. We learn the Romulans resemble Vulcans, which primes Stiles to insinuate that Spock may be a Romulan spy. We later see several scenes on board the Romulan vessel (that the Enterprise crew don’t see), during which it becomes clear that the Romulan Empire is essentially Ancient Rome in Space, with a Praetor back home, and a Centurion as second-in-command on board the ship. And of course there’s the classical allusion to Romulus, founder of Rome.

What follows is, essentially, a game of World War II submarine cat-and-mouse. There’s a tactical briefing during which Kirk pushes around a huge, black, leather-bound book on a table for no apparent reason. There are some shots traded and damage taken. And there’s even a silent running stand-off, waiting for the other ship to make a mistake. They even whisper during this phase, apparently to avoid making any sounds that the other ship, across the vacuum of space, could pick up…

The Romulans flee to a comet tail, which obscures vision and sensors. That’s one unrealistically dense comet tail. The Enterprise fires a bunch of “phasers”, but these actually look like depth charges photon torpedoes. The stand-off is broken when Spock accidentally touches an alarm button, causing Stiles to go ballistic with unconcealed bigotry. Shots are exchanged and damage occurs, with Yeoman Rand making what must be her last appearance grabbing Kirk for comfort in the face of death. Stiles leaves to help in the weapons room, and Uhura takes his place at the bridge navigation/weapons console – she has shown a lot of skills already! When more damage is sustained, Stiles gets in trouble and Spock rescues him, removing Stiles’ bigotry. The Romulans are defeated and self-destruct rather than surrender. The only casualty on board the Enterprise is, inevitably, Tomlinson. Angela is stoic in her mourning and Kirk is left to ponder the horrors of submarine interstellar warfare.

Body count: Entire personnel of Earth Outposts 2, 3, 4, and 8, including Commander Hansen of outpost 4; entire crew of Romulan Bird of Prey, including commander and centurion; Lieutenant Tomlinson.
Tropes: Wedding Smashers, 2-D Space, Space Cold War, Almost Dead Guy, Invisibility Cloak, Space Romans, Screw The Rules, I’m Doing What’s Right, Space Is An Ocean, Sub Story, Silent Running Mode, Space Does Not Work That Way, Worthy Opponent, It Has Been An Honor, Not So Different
(Image © 1966 Paramount Studios, used under Fair Use.)

Now that’s a game

Tuesday, 5 October, 2010

I love October.

One reason is the Major League Baseball season is coming to a climax. I don’t get to see as many games as I’d like to, but I did get to watch one of the last Giants games for the season, and look forward to following them in the playoffs.

And here, the weather is warming up, the days are getting longer, and the cold, grey days of football give way to the crack of leather on willow. The domestic cricket season begins in October, and this year we have the bonus of Australia touring India before the home international season begins. India currently boast a batting line-up that would make any team quiver in their boots. Gambhir. Sehwag. Dravid. Tendulkar. Laxman. Dhoni.

And, well, the opening Test match of the series was a demonstration of just how good a game of cricket can be. It swung through many moods, with Australia in trouble, then recovering, then India dominating until they collapsed suddenly on the third day, ending up with a first innings deficit of 22 runs. Hardly a hair between these two teams. After three days of intense competition, there was basically nothing separating them. And we feared the game might meander to a dull draw.

But the fourth day saw action aplenty, with India surging into a strong position, but then falling away again when they began chasing the victory target. And then there was today. How can you give justice in words to a game which builds slowly in tension over five days, until on the last day you have a surging crowd of spectators in the stadium, accompanied by hundreds of millions of people glued to TVs and radios and the Internet, maintained hanging on the edge of their seats for over three hours?

This is a game where Ishant Sharma, India’s second-worst batsman, stayed out there for over an hour, making his career best score, and supporting VVS Laxman to approach an impossible winning goal still 70-odd runs away, with Australia breathing down their necks. And then Sharma got a bad umpiring decision and was ruled out, exposing the inexperienced and very poor batsman Pragyan Ojha as the last man in. Only he stood between Australia and victory. And for the last 20 minutes, as India edged excruciatingly closer to the target, one run at a time, all Australia needed was to get one man out. Laxman was batting with a runner, and requiring treatment on his sore back during the breaks in play, yet refused to give in.

And in the end India prevailed in a miracle victory, by the narrowest of possible margins, and a billion Indians went wild. Cricket can be a bit dull at times, but games like this are why it shows itself time and again to be such a marvellous sport.

Cooking Types

Saturday, 2 October, 2010

I’ve started reading the copy of Cooking for Geeks I ordered from Amazon. It includes a bunch of interviews with various foodies and food-oriented geeks. The first is with one Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University who studies people’s interactions with food.

He says at least 80% of cooks can be described in one of these five categories:

  • Giving cooks: See food as an extension of love. They tend to make great bakers, stick to trusted traditional recipes, and everyone loves their home-style cooking.
  • Healthy cooks: Cook because eating pre-prepared food isn’t as healthy. Tend to use lots of fresh produce and seafood, may have their own vegetable garden.
  • Methodical cooks: Can cook anything, but will do so with a recipe in front of them the whole time. And when they’re finished, the result will look exactly like it does in the cookbook.
  • Innovative cooks: Cook by intuition. If they use a cookbook at all, it’s merely to glance at the picture, say, “I can do that,” and then go try doing it. It may not turn out right, but that’s okay, they just go, “No biggie, I’ll do it differently next time.”
  • Competitive cooks: Cook to impress. Try weird stuff in an effort to make people go, “Wow! I’ve never had anything like that before.”

As much as I dislike pigeonholing, this breakdown (and the fact that Wansink says only about 80% of cooks fall neatly into one of the categories) sounds pretty close to my experience with the cooking of myself and other people. My wife is the methodical sort. I’m always exhorting her not to bother measuring stuff – just chuck in as much as looks right – but she insists on carefully using the measuring cups and scales that I never bother with.

Interestingly, I pegged myself as an innovative type, but when I read the categories out to her she immediately said the competitive category fit me perfectly. Hmmm.