Sense8

This is one of those “Oh! I just watched this incredible thing and I gotta tell you about it!” posts. If you’re feeling a bit media-saturated and would rather just wait until the female Doctor is unveiled in the next Christmas special, I’ll understand if you want to skip this post.

So:

Sense8 is the series that I just watched and I gotta tell you about, mainly because I don’t think it’s received the attention it deserves. I think the reason folks have not gotten into it is that, as reported by almost everyone who’s reviewed Sense8, the first three episodes are slow-moving. We know the premise already, let’s get into it! But by the fourth episode the potentials begin to gel, and it becomes a compelling story.

That central premise is an old one in SF, but has never been presented visually in this form before: A group of eight people (the sensates) become telepathically linked with each other. At first it’s a matter of them seeing and talking with one another, then they learn they can share each other’s skills.

The mythology surrounding this idea is also fairly conventional: They are not the only sensate cluster. There’s a shadowy organization bent on controlling or eradicating the sensates. Some clusters are in hiding, others are collaborating with the enemy.

If Sense8 can be described in such conventional terms within the genre, why is worth watching?

  • The series was created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the sibling team responsible for the film The Matrix, and J. Michael Straczynski, best known the TV series Babylon 5. They bring their full stylistic talents to this series. The action sequences sparkle in a way that I can’t bring myself to spoil, except to say that they adopt a visual language to show how the different sensates’ skills blend together.
  • I’ve watched enough media to know when I’m being emotionally manipulated. However, the Watchowskis and Straczynski know how to sell those moments. The first major sequence in the series is a group karaoke shared among the sensates in the fourth episode. They don’t entirely understand their connection yet, but you become immersed in their shared joy. If your heartstrings aren’t pulled by that when you watch it, then Sense8 is not for you.
  • Speaking of shared emotional sequences: The telepathically-linked group orgies. Nope, don’t watch the series for that if you can’t take the karaoke. Really. No orgy without karaoke.
  • Speaking of orgy sequences: The frank handling of gender and sexuality. One of the sensates is a trans woman; another is a closet gay actor. Their feelings and identities are treated just as seriously as any male-female relationships depicted in the show.
  • Did you get my reference to Doctor Who in the first paragraph of this post? Then you might like to know that Freema Agyeman, who played Martha Jones in the 10th Doctor era, plays the girlfriend of one of the sensates; Sylvester McCoy, the 7th Doctor, shows up the second season. The show definitely has Doctor Who street cred.
  • For even more genre cred, Jamie Clayton, who plays one of the sensates, supplies the voice of the character Jien Garson in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Bae Doona, another sensate, was in Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. Let’s not forget Darryl Hannah, from the films Splash, Attack of the 50 ft. Woman, and My Favorite Martian. Now that I search through Wikipedia entries, I see that Tuppence Middleton was also in Jupiter Ascending. So let’s just say: plenty of cred!
  • There’s more: the quality of the cinematography, the use of world-wide locations, the acting talent.

Both seasons of Sense8 are available on Netflix. Unfortunately, Netflix cancelled the show after the second season, probably because the cost of the series (on the order of $9.5 million per episode for the second season) was too high given the viewership. However, due to fan demand, there will be a two-hour series wrap-up in 2018. And there’s still a possibility that, if viewership increases, Netflix will consider extending the series… hence this blog post.

There’s an interesting wrinkle to the renewal story: The porn site xHamster wrote to the Watchowskis suggesting that they’d be willing to continue Sense8. It’s probably just a publicity stunt. In general, though, it’s an intriguing idea. There are some SF stories, such as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, that might be (ahem) too visually challenging outside of a porn site. But, as I understand it, xHamster would not be an appropriate venue given their pejorative stance towards transgendered people.

Bottom line: See Sense8. Even if it remains forever incomplete, it’s still compelling viewing.

Eclipse trip – 2017

On the day I’m writing this, it’s the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. North America is experiencing three hurricanes in a row. There are many who are dealing with events far more worthy of attention than my eclipse trip.

However, I promised myself that I would write the story of my trip to see the total eclipse of the sun on 21-Aug-2017. I’m planning more intensive writing projects than a blog post in the future, and one of the first rules of writing is “Write!” So I’m writing the post as I originally planned, but with a link to GlobalGiving to ease my conscience.

This trip was important to me, and not just because of a rare astronomical event. The last time I’d taken a plane trip was in 2012. As a result of that trip, I lost vision in one eye. The story is not quite that simple, and a lot of things went wrong at once (and many other things subsequently went right). Still, I’d been reluctant to travel by air since then. This trip was a threshold-crossing for me.

The trip to Greenville in South Carolina was uneventful. From the plane, I could see a lot of new construction going on near the city; it looks like it’s in the middle of financial boom. The Greenville airport, though smaller than Newark Airport from which I left, is far nicer.

I was met at the airport by M. I had come dressed in my usual NY summer garb: t-shirt and jeans. She warned me that the South Carolina weather was warmer than I’m used to, and I might want to wear shorts to the solar-eclipse picnic the next day. I had no shorts, but M was kind enough to drive me to a tall-mens shop where I could pick up a couple.

M had also warned me before the trip that while Greenville was cosmopolitan (which I can confirm), it was also quite conservative. She advised against wearing pagan/Wiccan jewelry; I interpreted that as a caution not to wear my usual tie-dye t-shirts either. I can attest to the cosmopolitan feel of the city; since I obeyed M’s warning, I can’t confirm the conservative nature of the town based on personal experience. I noted that both M and her boyfriend N were wary of saying the word “Wicca” in public, and I heard a reference to Asheville NC as filled with hippy liberal types.

On the other hand, at the time I visited Greenville the news was filled with discussion of taking down Confederate statues. The only statue I saw in Greenville was one devoted to Black Pride. M told me there was a Confederacy museum not far away, but I did not investigate.

Greenville is certainly not immune to the lure of opportunity. Normally bags of ice in the local grocery store cost $5/bag; on the day of the eclipse they were $10/bag. A parking lot that normally charged $5 for a parking space was charging $50 that day.

Both M and N had to work the next day, so I hung around M’s apartment for several hours. About 2.5 hours before my flight was scheduled to leave, I took an Uber ride to the Greenville airport; there was nothing more for me to do in that apartment and I figured I’d get all the pre-flight TSA shenanigans out of the way. It was the first time I ever used Uber, but there were no problems and my driver was a nice fellow.

At the airport I learned that my tickets had been issued with “TSA Pre-check”. I had seen that on my tickets, but I thought it was an ad for a service I could spend extra money on. I later learned that this was a feature that United sometimes randomly gave away to convince customers that this was a convenience worth paying for. In my case, since I knew my belt and cell phone clip and wallet would set off the metal detectors, the only practical difference was that I didn’t have to take off my shoes — which use Velcro in any case.

It wasn’t until I got to the gate that I learned that my flight, scheduled to leave at 4:25PM, had been delayed to a 9:10PM departure. The problem was due to back-ups at Newark airport.

M warned me that this might happen. The last time she traveled from Greenville to Newark, there was a similar delay. Being a more experienced traveler, she investigated other options and was able to get a flight out of the Asheville NC airport. I couldn’t switch as easily, since I had checked my luggage. (As an inexperienced traveler with two pairs of binoculars to pack, I was not able to condense my life into an overhead bin.)

So I waited in the Greenville airport. I ate lunch. I ate dinner. I read my Kindle. We got lucky and my flight was given an 8:30 departure time.

An hour and half later, we finally landed… and the pilot told us we were in Philadelphia. There was a storm over Newark and they weren’t permitting any flights to land. We had to wait in Philly until Newark gave us clearance and our flight was refueled.

Then the same storm hit the Philadelphia airport. They couldn’t move the fuel truck in the rain, so we had to wait until the storm was over.

I became very, very glad that I had spent the extra $25 for an Economy Plus seat. I’d flown out in a regular Economy seat: I’m 6’3″ and have a 50-inch waist; it was not a comfortable flight. Lesson learned: some things are worth the extra few bucks.

They would not let us exit the plane in Philadelphia, so there wasn’t much to do but wait. I read more on my Kindle. It occurred to me (and my fellow passengers) that, given this delay, they could have bused us from Philly to Newark in less time. (Yes, I know this wasn’t possible due to flight regulations and insurance and other factors.)

After two hours, we finally left Philadelphia, arriving in Newark at 2:30AM. I didn’t get home until 4AM. Again, I realized that if I’d driven from Greenville to my home in New York, it might have taken less time than the plane trip. On the other hand, I later learned from friends who traveled by car that while the trip south had no delays, the trip back was jammed and took 16 hours.

In summary:
– Be prepared.
– Travel into Newark takes longer than you think.
– TSA Pre-check isn’t worth it.
– Extra leg-room is always worth it.
– Make sure your electronic devices are fully charged before you go to an airport, and/or carry your charging cables.

Was it worth it? For the eclipse, absolutely yes. Will I travel by air again? Maybe. I certainly wouldn’t travel any place were there wasn’t some kind of friendly physical support for me at the destination.

Eclipse report – 21-Aug-2017

Watching this total eclipse was better than losing my virginity.

(My apologies to the lady in question, but this is a technical post and I feel I must be completely accurate. Besides, at 2m 11s, the total eclipse lasted longer.)

I traveled to Greenville SC to see the eclipse. (There will be a separate blog post about the trip.) I was nervous that I might miss it, since weather reports were “iffy” and there were some cumulonimbus clouds drifting by as the eclipse approached totality. Fortunately, at the time of the eclipse the sky was clear.

My host for the trip was M and her boyfriend N. (I’m keeping them anonymous because not everyone in South Carolina wants to be associated with us hippy-dippy Wiccan types.) We watched the eclipse in Greenville’s Cleveland Park. It’s a small park but very pleasant, with workout stations, a zoo, and bicycle rentals. We set up a picnic at about 10AM, and relaxed, munched, and socialized until the eclipse at 2:38PM.

Our observing tools were some eclipse glasses I’d purchased a couple of months prior:

IMG_5510

I also brought two binoculars: one regular, and one coated for solar observing. It was a bit of pain to travel with them, but I’m very glad I did; they greatly enhanced the experience. I knew how to work with binoculars, and I went over the procedure with M and N; totality would only be for a couple of minutes and you don’t want to be fiddling with focusing knobs in the middle of it.

Another observing tool was the app Solar Eclipse Timer. It computed the exact times associated with the eclipse (first contact, start and end of totality, last contact) based on the exact GPS coordinates of where we were. It counted down to each time and gave warnings (“Glasses on!”) so we were aware of each transition.

I did not try to take pictures of the eclipse. I knew I would not be able to do it with equipment I could pack in a single suitcase, and I also knew that I did not have the experience needed to take pictures of this sort. Also, I wanted to enjoy the eclipse, and not get bogged down in technical details. There are plenty of professionals out there who took pictures of the eclipse, so the only people I disappointed are those relatives who don’t understand astrophotography.

I did take pictures of the eclipse images taken by the “pinhole cameras” formed by the tree leaves:

IMG_5517

Getting a bit ahead of the story, here’s the a picture taken after totality. Note that the crescents are now pointed in the opposite direction:

IMG_5526

After totality, I saw people making “pinhole cameras” with their hands. Here’s my attempt:

IMG_5530

If you’re thinking “The crescent shape in the middle of Bill’s fist is coming from the way he’s holding his fingers” I could show you a series of pictures I took as I rotated my fist; the crescent image does not rotate with my hand.

About five minutes before totality, the ambient light became noticeably dimmer. The street lights turned on. It began to feel more like dusk even with the sun high in the sky. The temperature, which had hovered in the 90s, dropped several degrees; it felt cool and comfortable. After totality, it took just a few minutes for the temperature to get hot enough that we started sweating again. It was a practical lesson on how the heat energy from the sun affects conditions from moment to moment.

My notes on totality:

– I saw no shadow bands either before or after the eclipse. Other observers saw them, so shadow bands must be a function of local conditions:

– In the seconds before totality, I watched through the solar binoculars for Bailey’s Beads and the Diamond Ring. I did not see them. It was just a thinning crescent until totality.

– Just after totality, I saw a “gap” in the thin crescent that might have been a single lunar mountain peak at the edge creating a single “bead”. Or it might have been an Earth-based atmospheric effect.

– We were in a park with lots of birds and a zoo nearby. During the eclipse there was no evident increase in bird sounds, nor any special reaction I could hear from animals in the zoo. The crickets seemed to chirp more loudly, but this might have been my own reaction to the experience.

– During totality I could see Venus, and through the binoculars I could see Regulus right next to the sun. In theory I should have been able to see Jupiter, but it would have been behind the trees lining the field. No sign of Mars or Mercury or any stars visible to the naked eye (even the Sun was blocked!).

– The horizon was blocked by the park’s trees, so I couldn’t see the effect of “moon shadow.”

– I did not see any prominences during the eclipse, though I did see the sunspots on the Sun through the solar binoculars before the eclipse.

Most of the points above are framed in the negative. Remember, I’m a scientist, and a negative observation is still an observation.

As for the eclipse itself:

No pictures, no words, can convey seeing what it was like. The image of the corona blazing in the sky is beyond description. I was profoundly moved. I was “high” for hours afterward. I recall that high typing these words now.

I now know why dedicated eclipse watchers travel to remote corners of the world, even Antarctica, to experience a total eclipse that lasts less than a minute. There’s simply nothing like it. It’s a union of vision and mind and planning and spirit.

It’s why I became a scientist.

A choice of steel

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post on removing plastic jewelry from my Kickin’ Wiccan shop on Shapeways. My thoughts on plastic back then were:

  • Photos of plastic jewelry can look cheap.
  • It was not worth customizing jewelry (such as rings) in plastic because I wouldn’t make enough money for the time I spent adjusting the design; if I charged more for my time, the price difference between plastic and steel became insignificant.
  • My skill in 3D design is sufficient that I don’t have to make test prints in plastic anymore.

I’m beginning to think that the same logic may apply to steel as well.

All of the above points on plastic can apply to steel to some degree, though price is a lesser issue. But a new one comes up: customers have different expectations for items printed in a material named “stainless steel.”

Plastic is plastic, and if a potential customer orders an item in, e.g., “green polished strong and flexible plastic” they’ll get what they expect. When customers see the words “stainless steel,” I find they expect a surface that looks like stainless steel cutlery, even if I include a picture of my jewelry in stainless steel.

Let’s take a look. Here is a picture of my large pentacle ring in stainless steel:

Bronze-infused steel cropped

It looks exactly as Shapeways describes on its steel materials page: rough with visible print lines, infused with bronze from the printing process. Here’s a video that demonstrates how Shapeways prints its steel items:

I’d wear it, if I wasn’t already wearing a version of the same ring in brass. But even with the picture, I had a customer complain to me that the ring wasn’t stainless steel and the surface wasn’t smooth. I had little choice but to refund his money.

Shapeways offers a variety of coatings and polishes for steel items. Here’s the ring printed in “matte gold steel”:

Matte Gold Steel cropped

And here it is in “polished gold steel”:

Polished Gold Steel cropped

The color is consistent, and the polished version is smoother, but they certainly don’t look like cutlery. What the customers probably expect is something like looks like the “raw brass” version:

3D pentacle raw brass black felt cropped

I try to temper the customers’ expectations on my Etsy shop by calling the material “bronze-infused steel” instead of “stainless steel.” I also describe the material in detail the FAQ section of the stop, but Etsy places that near the bottom of the page so it’s easy for the customers to overlook.

The lesson learned so far: You can show the customers a picture of what they’re going to get, and they still might not believe what they see!

For now, I’m leaving the steel versions of my jewelry on my shop pages; it’s a sturdy material and I personally like the rough texture effect. I’m getting test prints done of more of the items I sell so I can put up pictures of the steel versions.

I’ll see if this is enough to keep my customers aware of what they’re getting.

Economix

When I discuss the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with folks, I usually point them to the following three on-line comics:

These three comics go over the details of health insurance in the US, the problems that Obamacare was supposed to solve, how well it solved them, where there was room for improvement, and the Republican response.

Of the three, the last is the most outdated even though it’s the most recent, since it doesn’t include the multiple proposals that were voted down after the American Health Care Act (Trumpcare) failed to pass.

You don’t have to agree with the author of those comics, Michael Goodwin; no one is obligated to agree with anyone’s perspectives, much less those expressed using illustrations (by Dan E. Burr). I refer to them because they’re easy to understand and offer some common ground on which to come up with new ideas.

Michael Goodwin is the author of the graphic “novel” Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work), in Words and Pictures. (I put “novel” in quotes because it’s not intended as a work of fiction. Perhaps “graphic book” would be better.) It goes over the history of economics, from the theories to practice, defining terms along the ways.

I learned quite a bit from Economix. Here are three highlights:

  • the difference between socialism and communism
  • the economic justification for fascism (basically it puts a country on a permanent war economy)
  • that many current economic ideas used to shape current policy are based on models that even their creators insisted were crude approximations

The book was published in 2012 and its description of the national and global economy stops in 2011. It’s still an invaluable perspective on “how the heck did we get here?”

Again, I don’t expect everyone to agree with what Michael Goodwin says. In particular, he does not spare criticism of Ronald Reagan (though he’s no big fan of the economic policies of every president since Nixon). I suggest the book because it breaks down complex topics into easy-to-understand pictures, and offers a common reference for discussion.

In short, if you don’t know economics, I strongly recommend you read this book. I certainly wish I had it by my side as I struggled with (and failed) my Economics 101 course back in 1976.

Westworld

This past weekend I turned on my HBO subscription in order to watch Game of Thrones. It gave me the opportunity to binge-watch another HBO series, Westworld.

I have mixed feelings about the series. As I’d heard, the show has a narrative complexity and messes around with the viewers’ perceptions in an intriguing way. This sustained the show all the way until the ending of the final episode of the first (and so-far-only season), where it dropped the ball and became annoyingly conventional.

I’ll eventually watch another season of Westworld if they make another one, but I’m not going to activate an HBO subscription just to watch it.

A Story of 3D Printing

I like to print test samples of the items in my Kickin’ Wiccan shop on Shapeways. I realized recently that I’d printed in enough materials that I could share a visual story of how a polished-metal item is printed by Shapeways.

The process begins with a model created in 3D software. Here’s how my large pentacle ring looks to me in my 3D program, Cheetah3D:

Computer image

I sent this computer model to Shapeways. Their first step on the road to a polished-metal version of the model is to 3D-print the model in castable wax:

Castable Wax cropped

The next step after the wax print is to make a mold from the print and use it to cast the metal. Shapeways has a video of the process:

The result is a mechanically polished version of the piece. Here’s that version of the ring, in what Shapeways calls “raw brass”:

3D pentacle raw brass black felt cropped

Next comes the hand polishing. Here’s the ring after that step. This material is called “polished brass”:

3D pentacle polished brass black felt cropped

Shapeways offers a variety of materials to plate over the polished brass. For my test prints, I like to get rhodium plating: its color is distinct from polished brass; gold plating looks similar to polished brass. Also, rhodium is shinier than silver and creates nice reflection effects as I photograph the jewelry for my shop.

3D pentacle rhodium paper cropped

That’s the story of how polished-metal items are printed. Like all good stories, I hope this one ends: And they all lived happily ever after.

Evolution cropped