Tuesday, 31 March 2015

SPACE AGE ARCHAEOLOGY: Dr Space Junk's Guide to Voting For Names of Surfa...

SPACE AGE ARCHAEOLOGY: Dr Space Junk's Guide to Voting For Names of Surfa...: When the New Horizons mission reaches Pluto and its moons in July 2015, there'll be hundreds of surface features that have never been ...


I'm getting ready to go to EasterCon, which this year is called Dysprosium (the 66th EasterCon, named after the 66th element in the Periodic Table - science!).
So, I've looked at the programme online, and noted down the interesting looking panels, and the latest progress report to find out about getting to the hotel, and food and all the essential things that will make the con run smoothly for us.
WorldCon last year was awesome, and we're hoping this will be similar - and this year we're at the hotel, not travelling in. It'll be like going back in time to the Star Trek Cons of the 1980s (I went to a lot of those!).
I don't think we'll get much sleep!

Monday, 30 March 2015

Earlier Versions of Captain America (Spoilers Abound)

My Young Man brought a copy of The Winter Soldier to watch - which was very good indeed - and while shopping in HMV in Hereford he came across a triple bill of earlier Captain America films for a ridiculously low price, so we had a look to compare.

The first one we watched was Captain America (the Original Avenger) from 1990. However, I watched it under the impression that it had been made in the 1970s, which kind of coloured my judgement (mostly to judge it less harshly).
It would have helped if Steve Rogers could act. But it wouldn't have helped much, because the storyline didn't really resemble anything from the comics, and was pretty convoluted anyway.
The first part of the film was basically the story of the more recent, Chris Evans, Captain America film, from Steve becoming Captain America to crashing into the snows of Alaska. Trouble is, they didn't take the time to show Steve, a civilian with a limp due to childhood polio, getting any training at all. They just slapped a parachute on his back and a shield in his hand and threw him out of a plane.
Over Italy.
Because the Red Skull was now an Italian piano prodigy kidnapped by Mussolini to be injected with his super-soldier serum - the lady scientist having changed sides to give the same stuff to Steve, in a secret base under a diner. Bill Mumy, very smart in uniform, appeared for about five seconds here.
So Steve is thawed out, and the kid who saw him save the White House in 1942 is now the President, and the kid's best friend is now a newspaper editor, and Steve is pursued through the woods of Canada by hot Italian babes on motorbikes....
They actually went to Italy for location work for the end of the film, and the locations were lovely.

So then we watched the one that really was from 1979, Captain America (Sentinel of Liberty). It helped that this Steve Rogers could act, but it didn't help much. This one has a cut-price Oscar Goldman (who looks as though he would have been played by Henry Darrow if they'd had a bigger budget) trying to recruit Steve for the FLAG project (their name for the super-soldier serum). Very sensibly, Steve says no - he wants to go off touring America in his van with a motorbike in the back, to work on his art. He ends up being injected anyway, after mysterious bad guys try to kill him, and the serum, of course, is the only thing that will save his life. Also, his father (according to cut-price Oscar Goldman) was the original Captain America, and an all round good guy, and doesn't Steve want to be like his dad?
Thanks, but no thanks, says Steve - but he still ends up riding a souped up motorbike around, with the shield as a detachable windscreen, and foiling the bad guys' plans to blow up a gold depository with a neutron bomb. And all without killing anyone, because this was clearly a pilot episode for a TV series aimed at kids.
They didn't get a TV series, possibly because Captain America wasn't doing anything that the Six Million Dollar Man couldn't do, but there was enough interest in the project for it to get a second film.

We haven't seen that one yet. We've seen quite enough riding around the California countryside on a motorbike already.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Women Warriors - the 1077th Anti-aircraft regiment

Here's another story of tenacious Soviet women in the Second World War. This time it's the women of the 1077th anti-aircraft regiment during the Siege of Stalingrad.
They were being attacked by the 16th Panzer Division, so they lowered their anti-aircraft guns to their lowest elevation and fought off the tanks for two days. All 37 gun emplacements were destroyed, but the women of the regiment destroyed or damaged 83 tanks and 15 other vehicles carrying infantry, destroyed or dispersed more than three battalions of assault infantry and shot down 14 aircraft.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Women Warriors: "William Brown", sailor in the Royal Navy

Her real name isn't known, but she went by the name of William Brown when she signed on the HMS Queen Charlotte in 1815. She was 21, black, and had supposedly had a quarrel with her husband which caused her to leave him and join the Royal Navy at Grenada.
The Annual Register for that year records her as an experienced sailor, and captain of the fore-top - though the muster lists for the HMS Queen Charlotte record only a "landsman", the least experienced grade of sailor, who was put ashore for "being a female".

Saturday, 21 March 2015


We got something over 80% of an eclipse here - the day dimmed and the shadows darkened, and it seemed stiller than normal. I went out into the back garden, but I hadn't got it together to have any equipment to view the actual eclipse as it happened.
Many people were out taking photos, though, including this lucky shot from a school in Ireland (the photographer's teacher confirms that this wasn't photoshopped - the rook really did fly across at just the right moment!).

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Women Warriors - Lilian Bader of the WAAF

The i newspaper published the obituary of a woman who had served in the wartime WAAF yesterday. There were lots of women in the WAAF, of course, but this one was unusual because she was black. Lilian Bader started off at the beginning of the Second World War by joining the NAAFI in Catterick.
They asked her to leave when they realised her father was from the West Indies (she was born in Toxteth, Liverpool, and her mother was British-born of Irish parents). Feeling guilty that she wasn't doing anything to help the war effort, she then joined the WAAF, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, and rose to the rank of Acting Corporal. She met a black tank driver with the Royal Artillery, Ramsey Bader, and they married. When she became pregnant, she had to leave the WAAF, shortly before Ramsey took part in the D-Day landings. He survived, and they had two sons together.
She said that, when she joined the WAAF, she was "the only coloured person in this sea of white faces", but "somebody told me I looked smart in my uniform, which cheered me up no end." And she does look very smart in the picture with the obituary.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The House of Wisdom

I was reading tor.com today, and came across a piece about a comic called The 99, about a group of Muslim superheroes each of whom embodies the attributes of one of the 99 Names of Allah - and about the creator of the comic, Naif Al-Mutawa, who is at present on trial for heresy in Saudi Arabia.
Describing the background to the story in the comic, Naif Al-Mutawa talked about the Siege of Baghdad in 1258, by the Mongols, and the destruction of the Grand Library, or House of Wisdom. They said that so many books were thrown into the Tigris that it ran black with the ink, and red with the blood of the philosophers and scientists who were slaughtered.

Why had I never heard of this before?
Just about everybody (in the West, anyway) who loves books knows about the destruction of the Library at Alexandria, but this destruction seems to be on a similar scale and I'd never heard of it. Naif Al-Mutawa said that it was a well-known story to generations of Arabs, and a natural place for his story to start.

By the second half of the ninth century, according to Wikipedia, this Library had become one of the greatest hubs of intellectual activity in the Middle Ages, and the great scholars who were attracted to it established Baghdad as a major seat of learning. It was also linked to astronomical observatories and was a centre of translation of academic and scientific works, including many Ancient Greek texts. Mathemeticians there also developed algebra, and introduced the Hindu numerical system that we use today to the Western world.
Despite the great destruction of 1258 about 400,000 manuscripts were saved, by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, and taken to Maragheh - but Baghdad, and Islamic scholarship and science, never really recovered.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Women Warriors - Hazel Ying Lee

She started off as an elevator operator in a department store in Portland, Oregon, until she discovered flying, saving all the money she could to take flying lessons.
In 1932, she became one of the first Chinese-American women to gain a pilot's license.
When China and Japan went to war against each other, she travelled to China to volunteer for the Chinese Air Force. Because she was female, she was given a desk job, and only managed to fly occasionally, for a commercial company working out of Nanjing.
She spent nearly a year as a refugee in Hong Kong, but returned to the United States in 1938.
In 1943 she joined the Women's Airforce Service Pilots as their first Chinese-American pilot. The women pilots ferried planes from the factories to airfields across North America. On one occasion she had to make a forced landing in a farmer's field, and was chased with a pitchfork as he mistook her for an invading Japanese pilot!
She trained to fly all the US Air Force single engine planes, and it was while landing a P-63 that she crashed, as two planes tried to land on the same runway at the same time. She got the radio message to pull up and try again, the other pilot didn't due to a faulty radio, and they collided in mid-air. Hazel Lee died of her injuries a few days later. She was 33.
Despite flying for the military, the women of WASP were classed as civilians, and were not allowed military funerals.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Housing Problems 1935

There's a Festival of British Film on locally at the moment, as part of the Borderlines Film Festival, and I went to see Night Mail yesterday, because I'd only ever seen clips of it before.
It's only a short film, 24 minutes, so they had paired it with another short film, Housing Problems, from 1935. That was only 13 minutes long, but really fascinating, because they'd actually asked real people who lived in the houses for their opinions - "Let's see what Mrs So-and-so has to say...." and she would tell them about chasing a rat as big as a small dog around their crumbling, shored up slum.
Then they showed models of the sort of social housing projects that were planned to replace the Victorian slums, including Quarry Hill in Leeds, once a state of the art example of social housing, but pulled down in 1978, when it had become run down and full of the sort of social problems it had been built to alleviate.
It got me thinking - they talked about the bad conditions of the slums, but it seemed as if it had just sort of happened. No-one went and talked to the landlords who were happily collecting rent from the houses where there were rats as big as small dogs, and the ceilings shored up so they wouldn't fall down. "Visitors get sea sick going up our stairs," said one woman, "because there's not a straight line anywhere."
it reminded me, too, of some local history from Wrexham in North Wales. I used to go past one lonely house (surrounded by warehouses) on the way into town on the bus, and I discovered that, in the 1930s, there had been 35 houses there - and 34 of them had been pulled down as unfit for human habitation, though the landlord had been happily collecting rent from those 34 families.

So, in the 1930s, those in power had grand visions of building a better future for the nation by housing poor people in decent homes.
After the bombing raids of the Second World War, of course, they had no choice - they had to build hundreds of thousands of new houses and flats, quickly, to house all the people who had been bombed out, and at a time when the country was nearly bankrupted by the expense of the war.
And they started the NHS at the same time.

There used to be some tower blocks near where I lived as a child, which had been built on flat ground near the River Irwell in Salford to house people from the slum clearance areas of the Victorian back streets of Salford.
I was always against the slum clearance that had happened in the 1950s and 60s, and my ex-husband, who had grown up in a smaller Midlands town, couldn't understand why. Wasn't it a good thing that these people were getting better places to live in?
In one way, of course, it was - there's a webpage for people who used to live in the flats in Kersal, and some of them remember how wonderful it was to move from a back street to a place where you could look out in the morning on woodland, and see rabbits running around the grass.

But it was also a bad thing - whole communities were broken up. One of my schoolfriends lived in a block of flats, and had not seen any of her neighbours for the four years since she moved in. There was a time in Hulme, in Manchester, when one third of the entire population of the new estate were on tranquilisers because it was so awful to live there. That's all been flattened and rebuilt since, too. In the first round of demolition the pub where my gran lived, which was run by her aunt, was pulled down - there's only one photo of it left now to show it was ever there, taken shortly before it was demolished.
Then my ex-husband saw a programme made by Ian Nairn, about the slum clearances, and he saw what I had seen growing up - the acres of cleared ground, with a grid of cobbled streets across it - thousands of homes gone, and not all of them were slums. My gran remembered some people making those grim two up two down houses into "little palaces". She was one of them - the first thing she'd do when she moved to a new house was paint everything white! That's when he understood why I didn't like the idea.

There's also the matter of rootlessness.
I know people who grew up on farms, and though their families no longer own the farms, the buildings they knew as children are still there. They can still go back to see the villages, and the schools they went to, and the churches they attended.
A little while ago I tried tracking down some of the addresses around Manchester where my mum had lived. They're all gone (apart from one street which was used to film a documentary about Fred West, because they couldn't do it in Gloucester!). Even the secondary school I went to is now a housing estate, and the church where I was baptised was torn down in the 1970s.
Poor people can't go back to an ancestral home, or even to an ancestral area, when it's all been flattened and rebuilt - it's all transient, as if they don't belong anywhere properly.

So, in the 1930s, there was a vision of a better future with better housing for the poorest in society, and concrete plans to do something about it, however flawed those plans turned out to be.
There's a huge problem with homelessness and overcrowding now, but that grand vision isn't there. Instead of plans to provide better homes for poor people to live in, we have the Bedroom Tax, and enough buildings standing empty to house everyone that needed it if the political will was there.