What to Read to learn about Science

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This week’s topic from Long and Short Reviews is: What to Read to Learn About X. I choose science. (Tanith Davenport has some on The War of the Roses. Great for history buffs.)

I was a humanities person. I enjoyed the few science classes that I took in college well enough, but I was never particularly outstanding. My love of history and literature won out. And mathematics…my last venture in the world of math was calculus and the only proof I have of that is a door stopper textbook gathering dust in my parent’s house for the last 25 years. I’ve never looked at it sense, and I couldn’t begin to do any of it, even though, apparently at some point in my life I did.

But I love reading about science. Occasionally, I would read Scientific American or Wired just because it was around and I kind of wanted to know what was going on in the world that didn’t involve celebrities, make-up tips, or man-finding quests. I read a lot on my work lunch breaks. I was bored with my data entry job and for various reasons, not keen to have lunch with my colleagues. I learned a lot.

There are a few books that I have about science and scientists, most of which I re-read from time to time:

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The Code Book Simon Singh: a history of code-breaking and encryption. All the math you thought you’d never understand it explained in readable prose. It even makes solving equations sound fun.

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Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind  Yuval Noah Hariri: a historical overview of biology and history-showing our split form the other sapiens to be the only Homo sapiens.Whether or not you agree with his conclusions about where humanity is headed or why civilizations arise as they do, it is interesting.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Sklott: this is about Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells are now used for cancer research. It’s really a study about medical ethics-or lack thereof and how poverty and racism affects access to care and the uncomfortable history of racism in medical research.. It will make you angry, but it is a good book.

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Hidden Figures Margot Lee Shetterly: one of my favorite books which was made into one of my favorite movies.I even have a Katherine Johnson limited edition Barbie. The book covers more of the early years of NASA; many of the Black engineers and woman in early science. Very interesting and well researched.

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Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin Piers Bizony and Jamie Doran: April 12, 1961 Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first to leave the earth’s atmosphere and venture into space. This covers the events leading up to the historic trip; Gagarin’s early life (trust, we have it easy nowadays) and the turn his life took after the trip and the politics that entered the space race.

 

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SF Obscure: Flash Gordon (1980)

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For my next venture into B -movies and cult favorites, I decided to sit and watch Flash Gordon. I recently saw Bohemian Rhapsody. Clearly they couldn’t cover everything and purists felt as it there was much left out to protect Freddie Mercury’s image. I didn’t mind that actually. To often, I feel like all celeb movies do is try to show us everything that was wrong rather than let us enjoy what we love about things.

But, I must say, they make no mention of Queen’s contribution to Flash Gordon.

First, The Flash Gordon theme song is an ear worm that won’t go away for days. Second, I feel a lot more forgiving towards Battle Beyond the Stars now.

Flash Gordon was a comic strip created in 1934 and had all manner of serials, early movies, etc. There was a 1996 TV series I vaguely remember and a 2006 TV series which I do remember. It wasn’t terribly remarkable-but to be fair- I’m not a Flash Gordon fan. It’s never  been a character I followed much, so there wasn’t much emotional investment. I realize it’s place in pop culture but that’s about it.

Let’s get to the movie summary (which is apparently close to the original serial):

Space Supervillian Ming the Merciless is going to destroy earth by causing natural disasters. A football player named “Flash” Gordon is traveling on a plane with a travel agent named Dale Arden. The plane is hit by a meteorite, falling into the lab of Dr. Hans Zarkov who is building a spacecraft because he believes in a coming alien invasion. Through convenient plot devices, Flash Gordon and Dale Arden end up traveling another galaxy  with him. They are taken prisoner by Ming the Merciless and paraded in front of a group of colorfully dressed aliens with bizarre headpieces. Ming’s daughter Princess Aura decides she likes Flash, but has a thing going with Timothy Dalton aka Prince Barin. There is a lot of glitter and orange. Flash fights off a bunch of aliens with football moves, but is captured and sentenced to death. Dr. Zarkov is captured for mind experiements. Dale is dressed up in a tacky dress to join Ming’s harem. Flash is executed, but it is faked and Aura frees him.

This is where I got a bit confused. Aura is taking Flash to Prince Barin. Flash communicates telepathically with a machine on Aura’s spaceship to let Dale know he’s alive and will rescue her. Another group of people steal Zarkov’ s memories. Aura and Dale are chased by the Hawkmen (another group of aliens). The arrive at Prince Barin’s land, but then Flash and Barin fight each other. The Hawkmen capture all of them, but they escape. And there’s a lightning shield that does something but they have to destroy it. Then Barin and Aura will work with the Hawkmen to overthrow Ming the Merciless.

And there are Lizard Men because there must be in any B-grade SF movie.

Battle Beyond the Stars did have a clear narrative. It may have been clumsy in its delivery but I could watch the movie in one sitting because I felt like it was going somewhere. Flash Gordon was filled with running and yelling and bright colors and weapons and no real direction. I got impatient and had to stop midway and pick it up later. I think they film makers were trying for a parody of SF or some comedy, but it never quite fit. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was watching. If I had to choose, I’d rather watch Battle again.

If you have any good cult or B-movie suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I think Krull might be up soon:)

Favorite Movies of All Time

wednesdaybloggingchallenge-copyThis week’s blogging challenge is Favorite Movies or All Time and Why. This challenge is organized by Long and Short Reviews.

I’ve watched a lot of movies, particularly SF movies and animation. I took a lot of film studies courses. My list of favorites would be really long, or many reasons, so I just picked a few movies that I watch whenever I need inspiration or an emotional lift.

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Star Trek: First Contact (1996): This is the movie I watch whenever I feel down. Not only is it one of my favorite Trek films, with characters that I love, but I also love it because of it’s hopeful message. That humanity has a great destiny and things work out through cooperation and a willingness to better ourselves. The Trekkiest of Trek movies.

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The Birds (1963): I like Hitchcock and it’s hard to pick one, but The Birds is my favorite. It’s the kind of horror that I like-psychological. There is never a good reason given for why the birds act the way they do, but it’s terrifying to watch. The performances are great as the sea side residents struggle with a horror they can’t comprehend or understand. It has none of the big budget effects of many modern movies, but the director, actors, camera effects still make it chilling.

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Marty (1955): This 1955 film starring Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair has always been one of my favorites. It’s essentially about an awkward butcher who lives with his widowed mother who meets a plain looking schoolteacher. She’s been dumped by her date for not being pretty enough and they hit it off at a dance. I like it because both of these people don’t have celebrity looks and they are just regular people. But they fall in love. It’s a simple story with a simple script, and what true love is all about.

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Hairspray(2007): This is another movie that I watch whenever I feel down. I have the soundtrack and I love to sing the songs. That’s it, really. It’s just a lot of fun. As you can guess,  like movies where the underdogs win.

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Inception (2010): This Christopher Nolan film looks goods, and it’s got great actors, and really good ideas about dreams and perception and the ‘inception’ of an idea. The soundtrack is great too. Interstellar is also a good one. And even Nolan’s historical film, Dunkirk. I am a history buff and I thought Dunkirk was very well done.

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The Age of Innocence (1993): I love this movie, even if I always feel sad in the end. It’s a historical drama with beautiful costumes, great script, and great acting. You get to see a view of upper class people trapped in their own opulence and over-bearing social order they’ve created for themselves.

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The Magnificent Seven(2016) : I really love this remake of the Magnificent Seven (a real remake, not the B-movie fest of my last post)  and I really don’t think it gets the credit it deserves. Denzel Washington should be in every western as far as I’m concerned. Vincent D’Onofrio is amazing. I felt like I hadn’t seen Ethan Hawke in forever, and he was good. Chris Pratt was too. Lee Bunyung-hun was good too. I also associate him with overwrought  Korean dramas but he’s great in this.

AND THE GREATEST OF THE ALL…ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL

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The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: It’s just great from start to finish. It looks great, the characters are heroic. Bravery, loyalty, and all that good stuff. Elves. Wizards. The Riders of Rohan. I rewatch the trilogy for New Year’s every year.

SF Obscure Movie: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

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This is a 1980 film which was billed as The Magnificent Seven in space; which is The Seven Samurai in a western setting. This film stars Richard Thomas (The Waltons)  and featured the late George Peppard (The A-Team) and the late, great Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven, The Man from U.N.C.L.E) The music was done by James Horner and features James Cameron’s earlier SF effects work.

Summary: The planet of Akir (one of those one culture, one town planets) is threatened by a psycho warlord named Sador of the Mamori  and his mutant army, who will destroy the planet. Since the people of Akir follow the “teachings of the Varda”- they are committed to non-violence. Basically, no one knows how to fight. And Sador has a secret planet destroying weapon. (Yep. They were trying to capitalize on a certain other franchise) One young man Shad, is sent to go and find mercenaries to fight Sador. He has a ship with an AI named Nell- who is probably more interesting than a lot of the characters. His first stop is a space station to find Doctor Hephaestus, who was an old friend of an Akir leader. The only people on the station are  Doctor Hephaestus  and his daughter Nanelia and a host of androids. The Doctor has become a cyborg due to life extension and is stuck in a giant container. So, not much help. Nanelia eventually agrees to help Shad and escapes.

I won’t go through the whole list but Nanelia and Shad manage to recruit some other mercenaries: A guy who trades weapons, smokes cigars, and watches lots of westerns. (George Peppard right before the A-Team) A group of clones with a hive mind and very fake third eyes glued to their foreheads. Some lizard alien. A space Valkyrie. And a hired killer, played by Robert Vaughn, who is actually one of the better and far more convincing characters and you kind of wonder how and why he got roped into this film.

Actually, the concept isn’t a bad one. Battle Beyond the Stars does have its moments, but it is very much a B movie. And in light of 2019, a very, very B movie. Cheap special effects can be overlooked; but the costumes have a giggle factor difficult to ignore. Lots of robes. Glued on extra eyeballs. Stiff, plastic lizard head. The Valkyrie had on some type of breast baring halter top  and looks like an erotic amazon bird creature.

There are a few decent actors, but the script doesn’t give them much to work with. The supporting actors are not exactly top quality. Lots of stiff delivery and staring into…space? The camera? Cue cards? The aliens,-“forms”- as they are called all seem kind of slapdash. As if the writers took lots of old SF movie alien tropes and sort of threw it together. I think that’s part of what makes it so B-movie. There is no consistent look or style. Just lots of random names and goofy costumes.

The real problem, though, is the pacing. Or rather a lack of pacing. The hero meanders through space for a while, picking up aliens, but there is not sense of fear or danger. Even the climax doesn’t feel climatic. You just have background mood music and a hero who rarely changes his facial expressions.

And that’s what really does me in. You can have budget effects and costuming as long a you have top notch actors and a good script. This movie does not have those things.  But it does have a goofy charm; and hey, it did well on its release and clearly has its fans. As long as it makes someone happy, I guess it’s all worth it.

Characters I’d Name a baby after

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I’m joining in on Long and Short Reviews Wednesday blogging challenge with some other romance writers.  So here goes…

I had a neighbor who was a huge Star Wars fan who named his son after a character in a Star Wars Extended Universe novel. Now, I’m dedicated to my SF fandoms, but I never seriously considered naming my children after one. Well, not for long, although a few did cross my mind.

Uhura- Actually, her character was not even given a first name until later in several paperback novels. Nyota was the most common, and the one used as official canon in the 2009 movie.

Delenn- Babylon 5 was an incredibly good show, and Delenn was a well-drawn heroic character.

Sarek-I’ve always like the character of Sarek. I’m actually pleased with James Frain’s portrayal in Discovery. ( I enjoy Star Trek:Discovery). The truth is all the Vulcans have pretty good names. T’Pol and T’Pau. Maybe not as first names, but it would be kind of cool for a middle name.

I did name pets after characters. My beloved cats Legolas and Frodo.

 

Favorite things to do in winter

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I’m joining in on Long and Short Reviews Wednesday blogging challenge with some other romance writers.  So here goes…

Snow. I’ve spent most of my life in places with little snowfall. I love seeing photos and snapshots of wintery scenes-but perhaps I’m romanticizing things. I can look at movie or film with majestic winter settings within the comfort of a warm house. And shoveling snow which looks like an experience I can live without.  Occasionally, I get the opportunity to experience a dusting of snow and I always try to go out in it, just to feel the snowflakes hit my face. I might be imagining it but it seems as if the world gets quieter for the moments before a snowfall starts.

Cooking. I’m not an outstanding cook by any means, but in winter I don’t mind. I like the smell of food cooking and cold weather soups, stews, bread, and casseroles are comforting. And cookies. This is why I always gain weight over the winter.

Hot Chocolate.  I remember as a child my mother always bought those containers of Hershey’s cocoa powder.  I can still remember opening it up and smelling the chocolate. Of course, I was a fan of mini marshmallows Regular marshmallows were for making Rice Krispie treats and s’mores. I’m picky about my marshmallow rules. Every year, my family and I go to a night illumination show. Now, I love the exhibits, but I confess part of the reason I go is because of the more expensive custom made hot chocolate on sale. Godiva even lets you choose the amount of bitter in your chocolate.

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What do you think? Do you drink hot chocolate? With or without marshmallows?

What would I do with a million dollars?

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I’ve been AWOL for a while on the SF Obscure front. So I need to jumpstart my updating.

I’m joining in on Long and Short Reviews Wednesday blogging challenge with some other romance writers.  So here goes…

What would I do with a million dollars?

I thought of the usual things, such as paying off my mortgage, putting things in savings, making investments. And that is probably realistically what I would do. But there is a part of me that would love to reserve a seat on a space flight. I know it requires a lot of training and health tests, but being able to leave the planet would be worth the opportunity. If I am too old by the time it’s ready, I’m sure my daughter would be at the right age and ready for an adventure. Virgin Galactic is still taking reservations. Prices go for $250,000 (US.) That’s leaves some money left over, but I figure purchasing travel insurance may be fairly hefty.

With any remaining funds, I’d make a concerted effort to track down out of print SF books that I’d like to have.

Of course, I’m still holding out for a career in STARFLEET.

Classics: The Stone Tape

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I previously discussed Nigel Kneale’s Beasts. I watched The Stone Tape a few years ago-never wrote about it-but decided to watch it again mainly because I read on Mike Glyer’s File 770, a new audio version of Nigel Kneale’s lost play The Road is currently available online. 

The Stone Tape was a television play broadcast by the BBC in 1972.

The Stone Tape begins with a man named Peter who is head of a research team for an electronics company. Like many of the characters in Beasts, the protagonist is not a pleasant person. Peter Brock, though likely very skilled at his job, is arrogant, self-absorbed, sexist, and condescending. Whereas some of the sexism and the bigoted comments may be a representation of the realities of the the business world (and TV) at the time, you are clearly meant not to like Peter Brock as a person which only amps up the unease surrounding the main plot.

Peter and his research team set up shop in an old abandoned Victorian mansion which as been refurbished for their use. His team is working on creating a new recording device.  It’s all men except for Jill Greeley (played very well by Jane Asher) a computer programmer whom Peter seems to have more than a working interest in. (Whether there is actually an affair or just Peter’s sexism isn’t quite clear). In any event, Jill feels uneasy the moment she drives up to the mansion having strange blurry visions. As the story transpires, Jill hears the sound of a woman screaming and sees the ghostly vision of a women falling to her death in one of the rooms. 

At first, Jill is dismissed as being ‘oversensitive’. As the story progresses, it turns out that Jill is not the only one to be affected. Only Jill sees the full spectral images, but others hear the screams or pick up on the unease. A few, experience nothing at all. Peter decides to use the team’s research equipment to record the ghost. It’s not entirely altruistic-Peter is convinced that the stone walls act as a recording device of past events and wants to use it for possible research into a breakthrough recording device.

The playback of the recording is just static; although a few researchers swore they heard the screaming and Jill saw the  ghost. Another scientist tries to convince Jill to forget about it. He heard the screams too, but he worries that Jill will destroy herself and her career if see keeps pursuing the issue.  Jill investigates on her own and discovers that a priest was called in to perform an exorcism at the spot before the mansion was even built.  There is a malevolent power affecting the mansion and the grounds.

Jill comes to believe that the screaming woman was only the most recent victim of a deep rooted evil; and therefore her death was ‘recorded’ in the walls of the house. Peter Brock is dismissive of Jill’s claims and tells her she has to leave the work group. Jill returns to the haunted room; and is attacked by the dark force; and dies. 

Peter Brock tries to explain away Jill’s death as an accident; and paint her as mentally unstable. Her research is destroyed. In the final scene, Peter returns to the room-and hears Jill screaming his name as she dies.

I thought The Stone Tape was worth the watch. It’s a little dated so it may not be as terrifying as it would have been to its contemporary audience, but it’s still haunting. The characters are fully developed and well-acted.  With minimal special effects-and a truly disturbing scream-it manages to be unsettling. If you like classic horror or SF, this is a good one to add to the watchlist.

And check out The Road while it’s still online.

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October 1768 – a scientist and a philosopher clash whilst investigating a ghostly outbreak in the woods. Nigel Kneale’s legendary lost 1963 TV play, adapted by Toby Hadoke

 

SF Obscure: Nowhere Man

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Nowhere Man was a suspense series starring Bruce Greenwood as a man who finds his entire life erased. It aired on UPN from 1995-1996.

 

Thomas Veil (Bruce Greenwood) is an up and coming photojournalist on the verge of success with the help of his best friend and supportive spouse. After an exhibition of his work, Tom takes his wife out for a romantic dinner. He gets up to go to the men’s room-but when he returns his wife is not there. Tom sees another couple sitting at their table. He asks the host about his wife, but the host has no recollection of either of them. At first he thinks it a practical joke then get increasingly hostile and is ushered from the restaurant. When Tom Veil returns home, he finds his wife there-married to someone else, and having no idea who he is. Tom follows her by hiding in her car. She confesses that she does know him but must play along because ‘they’ are watching.

Thomas Veil’s life has been erased. His friends don’t know him and his identity seems to be erased from all record. He figures out that the people responsible for his erasure negatives of a photograph he took of rebels being hanged by  US soldiers in South America. Someone wants the negatives to erase all the evidence. Veil believes it’s part of a coverup of government activities.  He tries to identify the military unit involved using evidence from the photos, yet, each step takes him  deeper into a an ever, menacing conspiracy.  He follows a trail of clues with lead him to several other anomalies: one town controlled by  subliminal programming; another town in which people are being abducted by UFO’s;  yet another  town comprised entirely of people who’ve been erased like Tom.  Veil himself is often captured, tracked, and subject to further experiments.

It’s definitely a conspiracy theory show-not really SF but deals with many of the themes common in dark conspiracy TV. Brainwashing, subliminal messaging, government surveillance, government cover-ups. It’s a really good show with lots of action and plenty to think about. Bruce Greenwood is great and most of the guest cast and supporting actors do a good job. The strength of the show is that it gives away just enough information each episode to keep you interested, but always adds on new avenues for Thomas Veil to pursue. It’s engaging.

It was cancelled after one season. There is a conclusion of sorts, but I couldn’t help feeling like there was so much more to explore. Anyway, worth the watch.

SF Worth Watching: HUMANS

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Hi out there! So, this summer I took time to do quite a bit of reading, but I did watch a show or two here and there. Today I’m going to talk about HUMANS. It’s not an obscure show and still broadcasting, but it’s a gem of a show I hadn’t heard much about. My mother is a big fan and introduced me to it-so we indulged in a mother/daughter binge watch.

HUMANS is a UK science fiction television series that began in 2015. There are three series broadcast thus far. The theme revolves around a modern world in which anthropomorphic androids called ‘synths’ are part of daily life. Synths can be purchased for family/personal use but there are also synths contracted by companies and synths contracted by government health services. HUMANS is an SF drama show-the focus being on how the exists of synths explores human relationships to technology and each other.

There is a larger overarching plot-about the creations of the first conscious synths and their large purpose-but the power of the show is in the individual synths and their family dramas. The first synth whose life we follow is Anita. Anita is a synth purchased by the Hawkins family for domestic tasks. Laura, the wife is not to thrilled about a synth; but Joe feels the family needs the assistance.  The Hawkins family becomes center to the drama as their reactions to Anita reveal a lot of the complex issues surrounding human/synth relationships.  There is also Anita’s odd behavior which causes Laura want her returned and replaced. (There are other reasons also which you need to discover for yourself)  It turns out that Anita was purchased  as new but is actually a hacked synth whose old personality as Mia, has been submerged. Mia is one of a small group of conscious synths.

Without giving too much away (trust me you want all the surprises) the original creator of the synths created a group that were self-aware. They were on the run for some time, but Mia/Anita was captured and the group was scattered. Leo, the son of the creator, wants to get them back together and create a space for them. Niska, another synth, was forced to hide in a brothel. She kills a human to escape; tries to liberate synths forced to fight; and then is on the run. Niska’s murder of the client alerts the authorities to the possibility of a synth that can override its programming not to kill. There are other synths Max and Fred, both synths created as a brother to Leo.  There are other non-aware synths, such as Odi, and older model and other synths in hiding.

One of my initial concerns with Humans was my worry that it would be another Blade Runner rip off. I love Blade Runner. I love Blade Runner 2049. But I have seen too many movies and tv shows rip off the Blade Runner look and style. Thankfully, Humans does not. It does ask many of the same questions about what is sentience and what is means to be human but in a new way.  The synths look human have energy ports and have to be recharged like a smartphone. They are ethnically diverse as well as ‘older’ and ‘younger’ looking models with rather clever explanations as to why. It’s a fully developed world. HUMANS also explore the psychological effects on humans and their attachments to synths. (Letitia Wright of Black Panther fame, plays a teen desperate to be a synth.)

This is not the first version. HUMANS is based on an original Swedish show called REAL HUMANS. I would love to see this version. And there is apparently a plan for a Chinese version in the works.