A bird’s eye (ok, back) view of flight

Ride onboard a peregrine falcon and a goshawk. One is the fastest animal on the planet, the other is one of the most maneuverable. I’m not sure you can watch this and not say, “Man I wish I could do that.” Unless you have vertigo or get motion sick, that is.

One of the questions that people always seem to ask during group building activities is always, “What’s your favorite animal?” or “What animal do you wish you could be?” My answer has been the peregrine falcon more often than not. Now I had a chance to ride along with one, which is quite awesome.

Using HTML 5 to recreate an illusion

One of the people I follow on twitter linked to this visual trick. It’s a classic illusion that I’ve seen plenty of times before, but the first thing that went through my mind was, “Hey! I can probably create that in HTML 5!” To make sure I hadn’t been trumped in that, I checked out the page’s source and saw that it simply used used a repeating background image.

So I said “Great! This will give me a quick lesson in the HTML 5 canvas tag!”

I haven’t done much playing with HTML 5 as of yet. Mostly I’ve been trying to learn all the new tricks of CSS3. So this was all new to me. But the canvas tag is pretty simple. The HTML itself is actually almost non-existent:

<body onLoad=draw_sc() onResize=draw_sc()>
<canvas id="scintillation"></canvas>

draw_sc() is the javascript function where all the magic happens. Using canvas, you have to getElementByID and then define the canvas context using getContext("2d"). Apparently there are some browsers working on 3D contexts, but for the time being, 2D is what you’ve got. The canvas tag only has width and height properties, so I set those to the window size and added an onResize call to body, just to make things easier so you don’t have to refresh the page.

Once you have the context defined, it’s just a simple set of loops which use the fillRect function which takes the upper left and lower right corner coordinates and the fillStyle attribute to define the color of the rectangle to define the black squares and the grey cross hatches. I could have just painted the background grey, but since I was practicing new stuff, I figured I’d go with the slightly more complicated process for the experience. The white circles are where it gets kind of interesting.

There is no circle method, so instead you use arc. An arc is just a section of a circle, so if you just make it cover the full circumference, then you have a circle. arc requires coordinates for the center of the circle, the radius, the starting and end positions of the arc in radians (for a full circle, that’s 0 and 2*pi, respectively), and the direction of the line (false = counter-clockwise, true = clockwise).

But that just defines the “path” that will be drawn. After that, you have to give the path a color using the strokeStyle attribute, and then telling the canvas to stroke() the path. And then, you define the fillStyle and tell it to fill(). Tuck all of that into nested loops to work your way across the grid and you’re good to go.

Here’s the final result. You can check out the source for the full script.

Why the zombielike affection for zombies?

Over the last ten years or so, the popularity of zombies in modern American culture has increased noticeably. As you can see in the Google search timeline, there were a few spikes throughout the last 100 years (1932 was the year of the release of White Zombie, which was perhaps the first zombie movie; 1943 was the remake of I Walked With a Zombie; 1968 and 78 were Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead), but the slow climb increased significantly starting in the early 2000s. And I’m curious as to why that is.
googlesearch timeline of zombies

Zombies are an interesting blend of two types of speculative fiction — monster stories and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic stories. Vampires are probably the single most frequent example of the former, and the latter is generally split between human caused and naturally caused apocalypses. However, there are two other significant ways that the two kinds of stories are blended as well — robots and aliens.

Apocalyptic stories first. One of the immediate draws of apocalyptic fiction is that people try to imagine themselves in the stories. They wonder how well they would deal with the situations the characters are facing. The reality often is that they would likely be part of the vast majority that doesn’t survive. But no one really wants to accept that reality any more than they want to accept that an apocalyptic event of any kind is going to happen.

For about 50 years, the reality of a potential apocalypse was much more real for many people, for one simple reason. Nuclear weapons. And while we still have nuclear weapons, the global political situation is such that the possibility of a complete nuclear holocaust is much less likely. Nuclear weapons are perhaps the most obvious example of human caused apocalypses. And they dominated science fiction stories for most of the mid to late 20th century. But since the 1980s, an apocalypse caused by nuclear weapons is a rare thing indeed.

Other than nuclear weapons, no human caused apocalyptic events seen quite as imminent. Global warming is occasionally used to create an apocalypse, but it is a relatively slow process and even the scientific community is divided on just what the long term effects are going to be. Biological and chemical weapons have the same realistic imminent threat quality as nuclear weapons, but visually, they don’t have the same sort of effect as a thermonuclear mushroom cloud. And most books and movies that use them as the cause for the apocalypse create a hybridized zombie story. A lot of people don’t regard those sorts of “infected” humans, with their ability to run and not necessarily being dead, as real zombies. More on that later.

Natural apocalypse stories generally use comets or asteroids or massive solar flares or other astronomical or geologically catastrophes. Often they feature a last ditch effort by a small group of people to avert the disaster. It is very rare for them to then consider how the world fares following the event. They are often less apocalyptic stories than they are failed hero stories, meant to put humanity in its place in the universe. That makes them significantly different, beyond the cause of the apocalypse, from human caused disasters in which the characters are people who are trying to survive during and after the event, but rarely trying to stop the event entirely and to save the world.

Monster movies are, generally, much smaller scale than apocalyptic movies. They tend to focus on an individual monster or a specific location — mummies, sharks, sharktopus, Godzilla, etc. But some of them present a more encompassing concept — werewolves and vampires being the two most popular. Of the various monster types, vampires are the most similar to zombies in terms of modern popularity, but for completely unrelated reasons. And the average monster just doesn’t have the world-spanning impact to really latch into a person’s mind. Dealing with an individual monster is a localized, and therefore, someone else’s problem

Vampires play on romanticism and sexuality, and blend into the every day world. The present a very minor change to reality and they are generally not interested in making things any different. As undead, vampires have their full cognitive powers. Like humans they are essentially rational actors. And, for the most part, they have no desire to significantly change the status quo. They use humans as a food source, and like humans try to avoid overfeeding on their food sources, vampires don’t want to run out of humans. In a few versions of the stories, they set up factories and farms in which to subjugate humanity, but more often they limit their population size due to the nature of their hierarchal society and concerns for purity of bloodlines.

That brings us to the crossovers: aliens and robots and zombies. Robot (and other Artificial Intelligence) caused apocalypses have been pretty significant in the history of science fiction, though the stories have been more common in the last 20-30 years than early in the 20th century, no doubt due to the rate of technological progression in computers. As human constructed entities, AI have a disturbing predilection for deciding that humans don’t deserve to live, and they are pretty darned good at proving to us that we are much squishier than them. In fact, every major story that I can think of involving AI taking over the world — The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, Terminator — the AI have already won and humans are simply trying to survive. This makes AI obsession less appealing, because it suggests that humanity is actually doomed and there isn’t anything we can do about it.

In contrast, every time we face up against aliens (monsters who bring non-human caused apocalypses), it is a fight to the finish. And they often involve some sort of lucky discovery or last minute deus ex machina. It is very rare for the stories to be examining how humans survive after the aliens win. (The only such that comes to mind is The Day of the Triffids, in which the aliens are seemingly mindless killer plants, and have more in common with zombies than more directly hostile aliens.) Which is how aliens are very much in the same category of story as earth killing asteroids. Alien stories are about reminding of about our place in the universe. Which, while nice, is a much harder thing for people to cling to as something to obsess over.

Now zombies. Some stories posit that they are caused by humanity — governments testing biological and chemical weapons. Others claim it’s a naturally occurring “disease”. The earliest zombie stories made them localized problems, which is great for a short term scare, but a localized problem isn’t something that the average person worries about. When zombies went national and international, that’s when they really started to catch in the public consciousness.

A true zombie is a slow zombie. Reanimated bodies of the recently deceased. There are plenty of plot holes about how an outbreak starts, but pretty much every zombie story agrees that if zombie blood, saliva or flesh is taken into a human body, then when that person dies, they’ll become reanimated as well. Most frequently it happens when someone is bitten, but doesn’t get completely eaten or torn apart by the zombies. It is their very slowness that allows this to happen. A person can escape a slow moving zombie after being bitten. Not so much from something that is moving just as fast as them and isn’t hampered by injury. And so they escape, possibly find more living humans, die and have the chance to spread the disease.

The slow zombie is a symbol of the inexorable. It doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t feel pain, and often, it has friends. Without some way to fight, or somewhere to hide, it will catch you and you will die. They are “living”, moving symbols of death. And because they aren’t immediate destruction like nuclear weapons or asteroids, they can be fought. So you have stories in which people are fighting against the coming apocalypse, and in those stories they have a chance to win without the need for a deus ex machina. But if they don’t win, then we have the post-apocalyptic story in which small bands of survivors are trying to find some way to continue to live. Zombies provide the best of both possible worlds in that regard. They are a multipurpose trope.

But the true attraction of zombies is simple. They are us. But, unlike vampires and werewolves who are also us, they are us destroyed. Our lives are gone, our will is gone, and yet, we see our bodies moving and killing. We see the bodies of our friends and loved ones, dead, but still moving and now, trying to kill us. It is this idea that who we are becomes completely meaningless when we die that terrifies people. And that is a fear that people have even before the idea that the body keeps on “living”, without us inside it.

So zombie stories have the general appeal of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. The reader or viewer can imagine that they are one of the ones who will survive. Zombie stories don’t rely on outside forces or cheap tricks to save humanity — enough people with guns and strong defenses can mount a counter attack and wipe them out easily enough. They present an enemy that is steady and implacable and intends nothing but our complete eradication, unlike AI and vampires and like aliens. But unlike aliens, they do not take the frame of reference away from the individual. And they face us with not just death, but the complete loss of self. There are certainly problems with the way zombies are presented in many stories, but the story that zombies provide is much deeper, more complex, and more challenging than any other form of apocalyptic or monster stories.

Deaf? But if they can’t see, how do they…

Over Labor Day weekend, a friend of mine came back to town and she and her old roommates had a barbeque. Nothing unusual there, but my friend is a sign language interpreter and about half of the crowd were deaf and several others were more or less fluent in sign language. I’m not, but I’m rather used to it. Some of the folks I talked with said it was one of the quietest parties they’d ever been to, but it was perhaps the most visually distracting as you see hands fluttering around out of the corner of your eyes.

I happen to live quite close the Galludet University, a college which is primarily for deaf students. A couple of days after the barbeque, I was driving past the university and noted, as I usually do, the signs which warn drivers of deaf pedestrians. And I guess because of the party, I was reminded of an incident in which I confused deaf and blind.

Just writing that sentence is odd. I mean, how can you possibly confuse not being able to see with not being able to hear? But, last week, I read something, which, while written as humor, I don’t doubt is rooted in truth: An Open Letter to People Who, When I Tell Them I Am an American Sign Language Interpreter, Tell Me How Difficult They Imagine Braille is to Learn/Read Books With.

When I was thinking about it in the car, I thought I had figured out why I might have made that mistake. And realizing that it’s possibly a not uncommon occurrence, I thought it might be worth mentioning. I am willing to bet that the average person is much more likely to knowingly encounter someone who is blind than they are to run into someone who is deaf. Especially if the person is not suffering from age-related hearing loss. Fewer than 1 in 1000 people in the US are deaf before the age of 18, and half of the 9 to 22 in 1000 who are significantly hearing impaired reported the hearing loss after the age of 64. In contrast, about 2% of the world’s population suffers from low vision/blindness.

Beyond that, there are many more cues in the world to remind you of blind people — braille on signs, audible cross-walk signals and talking elevators, and, of course, a blind person with a dog or a cane — than there are things which remind you of deaf people. Other than being close enough to see a person’s hearing aide, or seeing people using sign language, I can’t really think of anything that says “deaf” to me. Even closed captioning on television is more likely to make me think of a restaurant/bar where it’s too loud to hear the tv or they have multiple tvs showing different things.

So, even when they are completely aware of the difference between being deaf and blind, if the average person is like me, they are likely cognitively lumping the two disabilities together. Thus, when confronted with a deaf person, or when discussing the disability, they are likely to slip up and conflate the two.

The Blitz

September 8, 1940, was the first full day of a new strategy by the Luftwaffe as part of Nazi Germany’s plan to invade Great Britain. Starting at tea time on September 7 and lasting until May 10, 1941, German bombers specifically targeted major British civilian and industrial centers. London was attacked for 76 consecutive nights and over 43,000 civilians were killed across the country.

The Blitz originally began as part of the Battle of Britain which lasted from July until October 1940. In July, the Luftwaffe targeted shipping centers and fleets but by August they had shifted their focus to RAF airfields and later the industrial centers producing planes and parts for the RAF. The Battle of Britain was the first all-aircraft battle in history and is generally seen as one of the decisive battles in WW2 as the German failure to obtain air superiority effectively prevented any possibility of invasion of the Home Islands. And it was a stunning victory for the British. Outnumbered, the British employed various tactical advantages to make up for their deficiencies — the small area which they had to defend, the establishment of overlapping radar detection stations all along the coastline, and the recruitment of experienced pilots from other nations.

You might recall that last week, I mentioned that a significant number of Polish soldiers and pilots escaped to Britain. Over 35,000 in total, around 8,500 of whom were airmen. However, only 145 of them served as fighter pilots in the RAF (along with over 400 other non-British pilots — New Zealand and Canada also had over 100 pilots in the RAF each) during the Battle of Britain. The Polish pilots were notable for their experience, most having already fought in the September Campaign, and several in the Battle of France. The first two fully Polish squadrons, the 301 and 303, went into action in August 1940. The 303 was known as the Kościuszko Squadron, after a Polish patriot (who also served with distinction with the American colonial forces during the American Revolution), and despite entering the battle on August 30, claimed 126 kills, the highest of any single squadron during the war. And their losses were 70 percent less than other RAF squadrons.

Because of the RAF’s outstanding efforts and the continuing increase in British industrial production, the Luftwaffe was never able to obtain air superiority, so in September, they shifted their attacks to general industrial targets and civilian centers to attempt to reduce the British morale. But because of the lack of air superiority, bombing attempts were mostly limited to night time when fighter planes were less effective — in the days before on-board radar and other targeting systems, fighter pilots had to be able to see what they were shooting at. The early part of the Blitz focused almost entirely on London, with targets spreading to other industrial cities and ports from November 1940 to February 1941 and then shifting almost exclusively to ports from February until May to assist the German Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic.

By May, the increasingly heavy air and ground defenses began to take a significant toll on the Luftwaffe, and the Germans decided to cease the bombings as being ineffective and began shifting their bomber units to the Eastern Front to support the attack on the Soviet Union. The Blitz is perhaps the most significant part of the war in the British collective consciousness. It has been depicted in numerous movies and books even in stories produced recently. As much as we owe to the soldiers and sailors and pilots who fought in WW2 (“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” — Winston Churchill), we also owe a great deal to the civilians who resisted the psychological warfare and organized and defended their homes, and today we should remember them and those who lost their homes and lives during the Blitz. And let them know that it was indeed Britain’s finest hour.

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us now. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ — Winston Churchill, Speech to the House of Commons, June 18, 1940

Burning the Quran supports terrorism

So, by now you’ve probably heard about the church in Florida which is planning on holding a party on September 11 where they intend to burn large numbers of Qurans. Clearly, like Fox News’ attacking the guy funding the “Ground Zero Mosque” who also happens to be a primary stock holder in Fox News’ parent company, these folks really haven’t thought this out. Because, as my title suggests, burning the Quran supports terrorism.

As the people who are participating in this literary roast are pious and good Christians, I’m certain that they don’t have a vast multitude of copies of the Quran laying around. This means that they will be purchasing most of the books they will be burning. So, they will be paying bookstores for these books. To get the books, the bookstores will be paying the publishers who printed the books. In that legitimate copies of the Quran have to be attested as correct printings and translations, most such publishers are likely to be Islamic organizations. As such, it is entirely possible that there will be some wealthy Muslim backers for these organizations and some of those backers and organizations will likely have possible connections to the extreme factions of Islam and might even directly support the spread of Sharia Law. That means that some of those organizations must be partially funding and supporting terrorist activities.

So clearly, paying money to bookstores for copies of the Quran means that those bookstores are paying publishers, some of whom are Islamic and some of whom have contributed money or other support to terrorists. Clearly buying copies of the Quran to burn them is supporting terrorism! And that’s even before the action promotes violence against America and it’s troops.

Darwin’s other “secret”: terraforming Terra

Imagine you’re exploring the remote islands documenting aspects of the various ecologies you encounter. One of these islands is used as a waystation by the British Navy, but due to its volcanic history and remoteness is woefully lacking in significant vegetation and wildlife. What do you do?

If you are Charles Darwin, you encourage a friend of yours, who you know will be visiting the same island, to establish a series of shipments of trees, grasses and bushes and other forms of flora from botanical gardens from all across Europe to be planted on the island to flesh out the ecosystem on the island.

Why would you do that? To increase local water supplies. The trees and other plants capture rain and reduce evaporation, even with the dry prevailing winds in that area of the ocean. Over time, the plants turn the volcanic rocks into extremely rich soils. Now, the island is a cloud trap and home to a full-fledged forest, albeit one unlike any other on the planet — playing home to eucalyptus, pine, bamboo and banana trees and many others.

And why is this significant? One of the biggest problems with human exploration of the other planets in the solar system is that they aren’t “habitable” — they lack liquid water and breathable atmospheres. The science fiction and science of changing those worlds is “terraforming”: “making like Terra”. But it is rare for scientists to have real world examples of how terraforming can work. The island of Ascension is one of those examples. While it isn’t a completely isolated system the way that Mars is, there are significant ideas that can be applied to the concept of terraforming Mars.

The more we learn about Mars, the more we learn that it is potentially terraformable. But it will likely take more than the few generations. We can’t start with trees, ecologies are much too complex and trees have too many large requirements. We’d have to start with extremophile bacteria and other simple life forms such as lichen to begin creating usable soils and adjusting the atmosphere and then working our way up. One of the better looks at the process in science fiction is Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars.

Until we get to Mars though, we can continue to be amazed at the wonders of nature of planet Earth.

This was done with a slide rule

This. So hard, this.

Though I have to admit I was quite bad about doing my homework. But I learned HOW to do the math anyway. If and when I have kids, I’m going to be teaching them basic math outside of school, because I don’t want them to be stuck using crutches to solve simple problems.