Sunday, July 29, 2007

Frontier Finale

In which we celebrate the birth of one pioneer and mourn the passing of three others

This month, July, marks what would have been the 100th birthday of science fiction giant, Robert A. Heinlein. Last week, the week of July 22nd, was one of the worst for manned space exploration since the Columbia disaster of 2003, which killed seven brave astronauts.

Heinlein, an irascible libertarian and rugged individualist, wrote of space travel as a great adventure to be undertaken by bold hearts. His early works, like Rocketship Galileo, are my favorites. In Rocketship (1947), for example, some savvy teenage boys, lead by an older scientist, build a spaceship and fly to the moon. Unfortunately they found that the moon had already been claimed—by the Nazis. Trouble ensues.

Heinlein's work influenced thousands. It's safe to say that he acted as muse not only to a legion of spotty, fantasizing teenagers, but also to a hard core of dedicated eggheads—boys a girls whose math skills far exceed my own—who made manned space flight happen. They're the people who put people on the moon.

Heinlein envisioned travel to the moon and the planets as largely a private enterprise embarked upon by Neitzchean supermen (and super-teens). He was somewhat wrong in that. Rather, it was a (very expensive) public-private partnership, spurred on by the threat of Soviet communism, which eventually won us the moon back in 1969.

NASA, of course, has had its ups and downs. But recently it has had mostly downs. Earlier this year, an astronaut was caught in some kind of mysterious (and possibly murderous) love triangle. Then the Mars Rovers, which have lasted far beyond their projected life-spans, have been inundated by a major Martian dust storm that threatens to destroy them. Then, just last week, some cracker working Kennedy apparently sabotaged and important bit of computing equipment that could have endangered the launch of the Shuttle Endeavor, scheduled for August 7. On top of all that came the report, which I think is probably blown out of all proportion, that some astronauts may have been a bit tipsy before blast-off.

Enter Burt Rutan, aerospace pioneer and entrepreneur—Heinlein's kind of man. Rutan's experiemental SpaceShipOne, you will recall, won the $10 million X-Prize a few years ago, becoming the first re-usable, private, non-military, non-government-funded spacecraft to make it into space.

I was there at Mojave Spaceport to observe that morning. It was fucking magnificent. Heinlein would have reveled in it.

To the unschooled observer, it might seem like Rutan's achievement wasn't all that. After all, NASA had sent a man into space all the way back in the 1960s and the Russians did the same before that, right? In fact, SpaceShipOne proved several concepts, including:

  • A new, hybrid and highly controllable and predictable nitrous oxide propulsion system
  • A new, lightweight composite fuselage
  • That a craft launched from a conventional jet aircraft could make it into space
  • A unique folding wing design that brought the craft through reentry
  • That launching a man into space could be cheap—a lot cheaper than NASA's $5,000 - $10,000 per pound

After the X-Prize, Virgin billionaire, Richard Branson, invested millions in Rutan's project and founded Virgin Galactic, a space tourism outfit that would depend on Rutan's rocketships.

It all seemed to be going so well. Then, last week, disaster struck at Mojave Spaceport. A tank full of nitrous oxide exploded during a cold fire test. Three men have died and three others remain seriously injured. The three are:

Eric Blackwell, 38, of Randsburg, CA

Charles Glenn May, 45, of Mojave, CA

Todd Ivens, 33, of Tahachapi, CA

I see these men as pioneers of space, sacrifices along the long and dangerous road of space exploration. They're the latest in a long line of glorious dead. I think Heinlein would say the same.

I hope, however, they don't become martyrs to the cause. My greatest fear at this point is that government do-gooders will step with their regulatory sticks and, meaning to do good, stifle the nascent space tourism industry and all the serendipitous advancement that is likely to come out of it.

Joke's on Me

In which we have good news and bad news and stuff

The old joke starts, "I've got good news and I've got bad news... "

Do people still do good news-bad news jokes? Or do they just email shaggy dog tales to one another? Anyway, my favorite good news-bad news joke has always been:

The slave master aboard a Spanish Galleon comes down into the hold where the slaves are rowing the oars -- stroke, stroke, stroke... He says,"Listen up everyone! I've got good news and I've got bad news. The good news is, everyone gets a double ration!" The slaves cheer. "The bad news is... the captain wants to go water skiing."

Anyaway, that's all a round about way of saying I cycled to Griffith Park -- the largest urban park and wilderness in the world --- this morning to see if I could hike one of my favorite trails, which has been closed since the Great Griffith Fire of '07. The good news is... Wait, there is no good news. The trail is closed for the forseeable future. I supposed it's just as well, because the entire hillside is blackened and close-up it still smells of soot. All the best parts of the park are devasted. It will be years and years before it is recovered. All that's left are the grassy areas where poor families with too many children picnic and play awful music.

And yet the morning has not been a complete loss. There was a big horsey do at the Equestrian Center in the Rancho. Horses always manage to make me happy. So I guess that's the good news.

Another favorite joke: Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, "Why the long face?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Loving Hollywood

In which we begin to appreciate where we live

I get a printed schedule in the mail for the Egyptian Theatre. In the golden days of the talkies, and before, the Egyptian was one of the places to see a movie. Recently, it has been renovated to accommodate a number of venues, but the movie theater is still its main attraction.

I opened the schedule recently and my eye alighted on a screening of the film "First Men in the Moon." This H.G. Wells story was one of my favorite science fiction films when I was a kid. It would sometimes play on the weekday "One O'Clock Movie" on channel 40 back up in Davis—that was back in the days before infomercials. When it did, I'd feign sickness to get out of going to school to watch it, I loved it that much.

I had never seen this film on the big screen. So when I saw the listing, I set my Yahoo! calendar to alert me automagically so that I wouldn't miss it. I was not disappointed.

What I didn't realize is that this wasn't just a scratchy screening in a repertory movie house but a whole Ray Harryhausen program, featuring old Ray himself. Ray, you may or not remember, was the stop-motion animation genius responsible for sci-fi and fantasy films like "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," "It Came from Beneath the Sea," "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad," "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" and "Clash of the Titans."

Harryhausen, now 87, spoke a few words, talking about how seeing "King Kong" as a child had set him on the stop-motion train and about the importance of music in creating the mood in such fantasies as his. Then, they showed a reel of Harryhausen highlights, followed by "First Men in the Moon."

I won't say too much about the film, save to say that the kind of semi-scientific, neo-victorian atmosphere expressed in films like "First Men in the Moon" (along with others like "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "At the Earth's Core") greatly influenced my thinking and personal style for many years. In fact it still does. (I've wanted Edward Judd's green velvet smoking jacket as long as I've been old enough to want a green velvet smoking jacket, which for me started at about age seven.)

But the reason this entry is dubbed "Loving Hollywood" is because little events like these make you realize that Hollywood is not all shitheels barking into cell phones in blinged-up Bentleys with spinners. In fact, Hollywood is run by nerds and eccentrics. Specifically, nerd-aesthete-eccentrics that desire above all else to realize an aesthetic vision. Harryhausen is one of these, as were, I think, the great majority of the people in the small audience there to see him in person and enjoy his vision.


In which we get back in touch with with our inner barnyard animal enthusiast

So I like goats. So sue me.

At the top on Runyon Canyon there is a most incongruous little horse ranchette...

Wait, back up. For my northern reader(s) unfamiliar with Runyon Canyon, this is a large urban park on the northern edge of Hollywood, a few blocks north and west of Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame. The Canyon winds up into the Hollywood hills where in abuts Mulholland Drive. On Sundays I often walk up to Mulholland from the Studio City side (the other side of the hills), down to the foot of Runyon and back, a distance of some six miles with a vertical rise of about 800 feet.

Yes, I'm very hearty.

It's a place frequented by dog-walkers and joggers and people out to get a little exercise and enjoy the view. Reports have it that it was once a part of Errol Flynn's estate. Indeed, just off of Mulholland there is a Flynn Place.

Anyway... Where was I?... at the top on Runyon Canyon there is a most incongruous little horse ranchette. It clings to the terraced hillside, a red wooden ranch house, stable and paddock on about an acre of land that overlooks the L.A. basin with a magnificent I-can-see-my-house-from-here view. There are two white horses and two kids—baby goats, that is.

It's a sight that cheers nearly everyone who comes across it. Here, in the midst of this sprawling asphalt and concrete environment is this little patch of barnyard happiness.

I took these snaps with my new Canon PowerShot. Thanks, dad!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Where the Boys Are

In which a new book helps us discover that boys will be boys, but only if they get outside where they belong and off the God damned Ritalin

Boys aren't girls. They're genetically different, and need to be treated differently and raised differently. Boys like bugs and dirt clods and farts, but they also need tales of loyalty and courage and honor and adventure and, yes, violence. They compete, and physically. They like to blow shit up. They like systems that are clear and cut-and-dried. They like straightforward thinking. That's why they invented math and science and railroads and stuff.

"The Dangerous Book for Boys," which recalls the boys' how-to manuals of the early 20th century, is a shameless -- what's to be ashamed of, after all? -- celebration of boyness. Among the gems boys will find here:
  • Every boy needs a Swiss army knife, matches and a magnifying glass
  • How to shoot, skin, cook and eat a rabbit and tan its skin

  • What maritime signal flags mean

  • A chapter on artillery

  • Famous battles and the strategies that won them

  • How to treat girls

  • First aid tips

  • Identifying cloud formations

  • How a sailboat sails against the wind

  • How to make a battery out a roll of quarters

  • How to skip stones across a pond

  • Lessons in Navajo code-talking

  • Good grammar

Fifty years of feminization -- notice I didn't say feminism, which in its finest form is quite a different thing that simply seeks to redress a few ancient wrongs and assure women enjoy the same rights as men -- have attempted to strip boys of their essential boyness, and with disastrous effect. It's no wonder that losing wars is now considered acceptable, even inevitable when we live in a culture that insists that every kid on a bike has got to wear a helmet, of all things, and that rambunctious boys are put on drugs to "help" them "manage" their emotions (and in classrooms where kids get only a few minutes of recess a day, for crying out loud); where TV is used as a surrogate for parenthood and computer games act as stand-ins for real, hands-on learning.

We've become a civilization of pussies and cowards, ruled and coddled by an elite of limp-minded "effeminazis" of both genders.

That's what makes "The Dangerous Book for Boys" so refreshing. While aimed at boys, it's really a book about manhood and about what kind of men we want to be. It's not the slobbering, pizza-stuffing, slobovian "manliness" of the sort exhibited on "The Man Show" and in ads for cheap beer. It's the old fashioned type of manhood; the type the prizes actions with honor and adventure tempered by discipline -- all done with great style, a lot of laughter and a few nasty scrapes along the way. And it's a damned fine book, one you'll enjoy whether you're a boy or a tom-boy or a just a girl who likes real boys.