Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Moments You Wish Could Stay

If you also follow me on Facebook, you might recognize the little passage below. I originally posted it over there about this same time last year, after a midnight drive down Provo Canyon. I’d been in Heber, a small town in the mountains above Provo, Utah, for an annual car show my parents attend there. It’s become a bit of a tradition for Anne and me to spend the day with them, but last year, for some reason that now escapes me, I’d gone alone and stayed quite late, and my mental gears started to turn during the trip home, resulting in this little exercise in scene-painting. Not to toot my own horn, but I really like the mood I captured in this post, and I received a lot of nice feedback on it, mostly variations on “why aren’t you writing a book?” (A question, by the way, for which I have no good answer, or even a good excuse.)

Well, this past weekend was the Heber show again, and that got me thinking about what I wrote last year, and how one of the most frustrating things about Facebook for me is the inability to easily access old posts. They’re still there, if you care to scroll back through your Timeline, but there is no search feature or other convenient method to quickly recall your good stuff. Fortunately, I saved a screenshot of the post — as I said, I was proud of this little chunk of writing, and frankly, I thought I could use it and the supportive comments as an ego-booster on those occasions when I start doubting my abilities — so I have a local copy available. And now I’ve decided to post a copy of it here as well…

Coming around the back side of Deer Creek [reservoir], the surrounding hills black shadows in the night. Alone except for a monstrous full moon hovering just behind my left shoulder; it fills the car with silvery light almost bright enough to read by. The top’s down, of course, and the heater struggles against wind that flirts on the edge between “chilly” and “downright cold,” while Springsteen sings about girls in their summer clothes.


These are the moments you wish could stay…


If you’re curious, the Springsteen song I referenced is “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” a lovely, somewhat melancholy tune from his 2007 album Magic. Listen here, if you’ve a mind to.


Alternate Universe TV Title Sequence: Game of Thrones

So, one of the hottest things running right now is the HBO television series Game of Thrones, based on a series of massively popular (and just plain massive) novels by George R.R. Martin. If you don’t know, it’s an epic fantasy set in the imaginary world of Westeros. The focus is on the intrigues of several noble families all jockeying for political power, while, in the background, is the ominous approach of a decades-long winter… and with it, mythical monsters who aren’t so mythical, and aren’t at all friendly. The series is handsomely produced, well written and acted, and it stars a number of actors whose work I really enjoy, notably Sean Bean and the amazingly charismatic Peter Dinklage. Sounds like it ought to be right up my alley, doesn’t it? And yet, in spite of all that, I really don’t care for it much.

Like so much of the dramatic television that everyone has gushed about in recent years — The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, the Battlestar Galactica remake — its tone is just too damn bleak for my tastes. It is, as our colleague Jaquandor has said, a show about awful people doing awful things (or something like that… my apologies if I’m not quoting him accurately), up to and including the murder of a child after he discovers a brother and sister making the beast with two backs. No matter how fine the quality of a TV series, regardless of how many awards it’s won or rave reviews it’s received, I just don’t enjoy the Grim ‘n’ Gritty™ enough to invest a large chunk of my life in it. Yes, Shakespeare wrote about rape, incest, corruption, and murder, too… but Hamlet is only three hours long, whereas Game of Thrones has aired 40 hours’ worth of episodes with two more 10-episode seasons in the works. It’s just too much time spent in the company of people I don’t like and an atmosphere I find revolting.

But it occurs to me that perhaps it isn’t the story being told so much as the idiom in which it is told. In other words, I don’t care for the modern trend toward Grim ‘n’ Gritty™ storytelling… but what if Game of Thrones had been told in a different way… perhaps… the way stories used to be told on television?

Behold the following video clip, which apparently comes from an ancient VHS tape that somehow fell through a wormhole into our world… the opening credits of a Game of Thrones series that was produced in the 1980s of a parallel dimension:

Now that’s a Game of Thrones I could get into!

(Here’s the actual series opener, just for reference. Thanks to my friend James Cole for finding the “pre-imagined” version.)


Friday Evening Videos: “Lick It Up”

In the early ’80s, right around the time MTV was reaching its full ascendancy, the band KISS decided to abandon their trademark make-up and fantastic costumes. I suppose you can’t blame them. After a decade of performing in that stuff and never letting anyone see their true faces, the gimmick was probably feeling pretty stale. Also, it seems reasonable to imagine they might have had concerns about wanting to be taken seriously, and that the make-up might have seemed like a barrier to that. Or perhaps the “unmasking” was a gimmick in itself, just a stunt to draw attention back to themselves and boost sagging record sales. Whatever the reasoning behind it, it must’ve been a huge risk for them. Essentially, they chose to become less visually distinctive just as the visual was becoming enormously important to the music industry.

Whether or not they hurt themselves either commercially or artistically with this “unmasking” is a question for genuine connoisseurs, rather than a greatest-hits dilettante like myself. But I do know that KISS continued recording hit singles for many years after they revealed their faces, including one I was hoping to hear at the concert the other night, the title track from their 1983 album Lick It Up. Alas, it wasn’t part of the setlist. So I’m going to play it for you here instead:

This is admittedly a stupid video. Skanky women squatting in what is presumably supposed to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland but looks more like the back alley behind Safeway… the interminable shots of the band’s crotches as they, um, walk… a couple of little plastic skulls laying in the road, trying hard to look ominous… everyone eating cake and frosting or something squirted out of mustard bottles (yeah, I know, phallic imagery was never subtle or especially clever in heavy-metal videos, but this was just dumb)… seriously, what the hell, man? Things improve somewhat when we cut to just the band playing in the burning ruins, but all the scenes that take place in daylight… oy. Even Gene Simmons looks embarrassed, and that takes something. It’s hard to imagine how a band that had always been so conscious of the power of visual imagery could have been so out of their depth on this one.

So yeah, not a fan of this video… but I do like the song. It’s catchy, and there’s that cool little guitar thing just before the second verse. And I’ve got to be honest, I enjoy a good innuendo. Although this song is blunt enough that I’m not sure it even qualifies as innuendo. It’s just plain suggestive. But that, of course, was irresistible to a naughty boy growing up in the buckled-down atmosphere of small-town Utah in 1983…


Well, I Can Cross That Off the Bucket List…

KISS_in_SLCI cannot recall a world without the rock band KISS in it.


By the time I started becoming aware of popular culture as this big swirling thing that existed out there in the world — this would’ve been the early to mid 1970s — KISS was already there, looming over the landscape in those monstrous platform boots of theirs, casting shadows that reached even as far as my small-town home of Riverton, Utah. Everybody in my elementary school knew who they were. Their fearsome black-and-white visages were as familiar to us as those of Bert and Ernie. They were on lunchboxes and in comic books. They were on television, too, appearing in the infamous Paul Lynde Halloween Special (if you haven’t seen this little piece of disco-era variety-show insanity, you really ought to; just make sure you’ve got something really strong in your glass before you press “play”) and their own made-for-TV movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. It seems like they were making guest appearances on shows like Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk, although my memory may be fooling me about that and I’m too lazy to Google it. They even haunted our playground mythology, in the form of lurid stories whispered by the older kids, who no doubt got their dubious intelligence from their teenaged siblings (you knew the letters of the band’s name stood for “Knights in Satan’s Service,” right?).

KISS was so ubiquitous, in fact, that it didn’t seem to matter if you knew their music or not (which I really did not back then, even though they performed their hits of the day in those TV shows I mentioned; hey, I was a kid… I wasn’t paying that much attention). But that’s kind of always been the point of KISS, hasn’t it? Their image selling the band more than their music? I don’t mean to be snide. I’m merely acknowledging my suspicion that many more people could probably identify the band from a photograph than from any of their songs.

These days, I do know and like a number of their best-known songs… maybe enough to fill out a complete CD. Probably not enough to really call myself a fan. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling a certain affection for this kitschy, long-lived circus act, precisely because they’ve been around for so very long. They’re a part of my happy junk-food childhood memories, right up there with The Fonz and candy cigarettes and collecting Looney Tunes glasses from Taco Time. A few years ago, I started thinking that it might be fun to actually go to a KISS concert sometime, even though I’m not a fan, purely for the experience. When I heard they were touring this summer with Def Leppard, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I figured even if KISS didn’t measure up to their reputation, I’d at least enjoy Leppard, a band I’d already seen twice before.

I shouldn’t have worried about it. I was entertained before the show (which was this past Monday night) even got underway, simply by watching the gathering crowd. Given the — ahem — increasing maturity of the musicians I tend to like, I long ago became accustomed to the idea of multi-generational rock concerts, but there’s still something incredibly endearing about the sight of a pot-bellied fiftysomething hard-rock fan walking hand-in-hand with a ten-year-old boy, both of them in full KISS make-up.

Def Leppard took the west-facing outdoor stage following an opening act that so failed to impress me, I can’t even recall their name. Wearing sunglasses against a setting sun that painted them in shades of gold and washed out most of their video and light effects, the five-member ’80s megaband played for just over an hour. Their setlist was heavily weighted with material from their 1987 smash album Hysteria, while the two big hits from the previous record Pyromania — “Rock of Ages” and “Photograph” — were kept in reserve for a brief encore that left the crowd fired up and ready for more. In other words, they played essentially the same setlist this band always plays. Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily. As I said, I enjoy seeing these guys, even though I know what to expect. But whether it was due to this show being the opening night for the tour, the record-breaking attendance of over 20,000 people (both Leppard and KISS seemed a bit awed by that little factoid!), or being paired with a legendary band that the boys in Leppard probably listened to when they were growing up, they played with an energy I’ve not previously seen from them. They turned in a great performance, possibly the best of the now-three times I’ve seen them.

Then it was KISS’ turn.

Wow. I mean, Wow.

Those guys put on one hell of a show. From the moment a giant black curtain emblazoned with the KISS logo was whisked away to reveal the band descending to the stage on the back of a giant steel-frame spider, to the thundering finale when there was so much confetti flying that it looked like a white-out blizzard on a summer night, the only word that applied was spectacle. There were fireworks and fire-jets. There were lots and lots and lots of flashing lights. Gene Simmons spat fire and drooled blood and levitated on a wire harness. Lead singer Paul Stanley rode a zipline out over the audience to play one song from a little satellite stage, and later smashed a guitar to pieces, Who-style. The drum kit rose about 30 feet on a scissorlift contraption. And that silly steel spider was constantly flexing its legs. It was all perfectly ridiculous — more than once, I thought we were about to witness a malfunction straight out of This Is Spinal Tap!, and Gene’s face during the blood gag was less that of a contemptuous demon mocking the peasants than of a 64-year-old man wondering why the hell he was still doing this silly stuff at his age — but good lord, it was fun. Oh, sure, the actual music wasn’t so great. I didn’t recognize much of what they played, and honestly, Def Leppard’s lead guitarist Phil Collen could play any of the KISS guys into the ground (not to mention my man Rick Springfield… no, really!), but their showmanship is something else entirely. KISS has been at this for a very long time — this tour is being billed as their 40th anniversary, in fact — and they’ve become very good at what they do. And I was completely, willingly, happily swept away by it. By the time the band wrapped up with its signature “Rock and Roll All Nite,” I was throwing the goat horns, waving my fist in the air, stomping my feet, and singing along with the drunken middle-aged dude behind me. I was snatching bits of swirling confetti out of the air and handing them to Anne to keep as souvenirs (I’m not sure, but the individual pieces looked a lot like wrapping papers to me… appropriate, given how many whiffs of grass I caught during that song). And when the band took their final bows and the floodlights came on to guide the enormous mob back to the parking area, I was sweaty and grinning. It was a summer night, a work night no less, but I wasn’t tired at all. I had my girl at my side and a tender, cooling breeze in my face. Somebody standing in the bed of a pickup was belting “Shout It Out Loud” like the anthem it was meant to be, the Harleys were rumbling freely between the long lines of idling cars, a drunken blond sprawled across the hood of our car before her friend dragged her away, and somewhere I could hear young girls laughing. I was energized, ready to go out and do… well, more. And while I didn’t feel like I did at 17, exactly, that ineffable state of untested bravado and fragile optimism felt like it wasn’t so very far away for a change.

I don’t know that I’ll ever go to another KISS concert… but I’m very glad I went to this one. It was exactly what I’d always imagined. It was an experience

Photo source:


Movie Review: Godzilla (2014)

 godzilla-2014_chinatownI’m not a Godzilla fan the way some people are Godzilla fans. I can’t discuss the three eras of Godzilla filmmaking with any degree of expertise (although I suppose the fact that I know there have been three distinct eras in the history of this long-lived franchise says something about me, doesn’t it?). I don’t know the names of all the Big Guy’s adversaries and allies. And I can’t even keep the titles of all the individual movies straight in my head; the ones I have seen out of the 30 or so produced since the character’s first appearance in 1954 all blend together into a big kaiju-shaped blob in my mind. (Hell, I didn’t even know the term “kaiju” until I saw Pacific Rim last year.)

Nevertheless, Japan’s favorite movie monster occupies a warm place in my heart. I have fond boyhood memories of staying up way too late to watch his adventures on Nightmare Theater, Salt Lake’s local creature-feature show. Later, when the start-up channel KSTU launched its Saturday-afternoon Sci-Fi Theater with a seemingly endless package of cheap Japanese imports, I whiled away a lot of happy hours when I should’ve been outside playing in the sunshine. One of my favorite sweatshirts for a time featured an image of old Gojira (his original Japanese name) in a tuxedo shirt and tailed coat, with a tophat perched on his scaly cranium and a diamond-topped walking stick in his hand, er, claw, all summed up with the caption “Dressed to Kill.” And I’ve had a tiny articulated action figure version him (complete with roar!) sitting on my desk for something like 20 years now. Yes, the G-man and I have a history together.

Which is probably why I approached his latest feature-film adventure with a fair amount of trepidation. The last time an American production company got its hands on this property, we ended up with that god-awful 1998 train wreck that starred Matthew Broderick. Title aside, there was very little in that movie that resembled the Godzilla I know. Not the creature’s appearance, not its behavior or origin, not the rhythms of the story (the formula, if you will)… nothing. And that includes the sheer entertainment factor. Whatever else you may say about the old zipper-up-the-back Godzilla flicks, they were fun. The ’98 movie, on the other hand, was a complete slog. So I was concerned about another American attempt to reinvent this quintessential Japanese character. Would this one understand who Godzilla is and what he’s about? Even more of a worry: given the current popularity of grim, brooding storylines, would this one be any damn fun to watch? It was difficult to tell from the trailers

Well, I’m happy to report that this long-time casual Godzilla fan, at least, was completely and thoroughly pleased by this movie. This is my Godzilla, no question.The protagonists are American, the battlegrounds are on American soil instead of Tokyo, and the special effects are stunningly realistic… but this is recognizably the same creature who stands watch over my keyboard even as I type this.

The storyline will be familiar to fans of the series: a Japanese nuclear plant experiences an accidental meltdown that’s later revealed to have been caused by a gigantic creature of some kind taking up residence in the reactor. Fifteen years later, the creature emerges from its chrysalis and begins journeying across the world to meet up with a mate, leaving devastation in its wake. Human military might and scientific knowledge isn’t enough to stop them. Enter a third giant creature, the “alpha predator” Godzilla, who is hot on the trail of the other two kaiju. The three of them, along with the U.S. military and our various human protagonists, are on a collision course for an epic smackdown in the middle of downtown San Francisco. But is Godzilla on our side, or his own? Is there even a difference?

The film works in large part because of director Gareth Edwards’ skill at building suspense. Even though the story largely adheres to an old formula, he generates a genuine sense of curiosity and dread about what’s happening and where it’s all leading. He also cleverly keeps his titular monster/hero mostly hidden for the first two-thirds of the film, showing only glimpses of his body until a final reveal — complete with a theater-rattling updated version of his signature roar — that frankly brought tears to my eyes because it was just so right.

I’ve read some complaints that the characters are one-dimensional and the human drama is thinly sketched, that in the end this is just another big, stupid, special-effects-driven blockbuster with no heart or brain underneath the pretty wrapping. Personally, I disagree with all of that and wonder if these critics saw the same movie I did, but hey, let’s be honest: this is a Godzilla flick. What did those people expect? What I expected — or at least hoped for — was a fun time at the movies watching some giant monsters duke it out. And I got it. At the film’s climatic moment, when, in true Godzilla fashion, the Big G has finally had enough of getting kicked around and his fins start to glow in preparation for his unstoppable hold-out weapon, the atomic fire breath, I let out an involuntarily “YEAH!,” even as my inner twelve-year-old squealed with delight. And for the record, so did my lovely girlfriend Anne, who has no particular knowledge of or affection for Godzilla beyond this movie. For whatever that’s worth.

That’s what movies like this are really about. Not characterization or dialog, not finely nuanced explorations of the human condition, but simply making us feel for a few fleeting moments like the little kids we used to be, sitting on our knees in front of our giant console televisions on sunny Saturday afternoons, completely absorbed in a story about good guys and bad guys that leaves us breathless and happy. One of the early ad campaigns for Star Wars, way back in the ’70s, used the tagline “It’ll make you feel like a kid again.” And that was seen as a good thing. Somewhere along the line, we’ve become way too serious for our own good.

Bottom line: Godzilla effectively captured the spirit of the classic Japanese series and wedded that to cutting-edge special effects and an American sensibility. It appealed to the kid in me and made me happy. I walked out of the theater feeling completely energized and ready to go on the ride again. Highly recommended.


Quotables: The Stories Only You Can Tell

From one of those lists of quotes by famous writers that go around every so often, which usually comprise a smidgeon of generic inspiration with some pat condescension and a whole lot of discouragement (at least that’s how I tend to experience them), here’s one I thought was actually pretty helpful:

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.

― Neil Gaiman

(Gaiman is, of course, the best-selling fantasy novelist who created The Sandman, one of the most sublime comic-books-for-grownups ever written… just in case you didn’t know… )


How Can I Live Up to This?

A few days ago, I came upon my white-haired father muscling a squat metal cube about the size of a picnic cooler onto the concrete apron near his shop. The object was mounted on wheels, but they weren’t turning much, and when one of them did break free and rotate a quarter-turn or so, it only happened with the agonized squeal of metal long-frozen by rust; Dad was dragging the object more than he was wheeling it.

I trotted over to give him a hand — he’s been pridefully ignoring the problem, but his back isn’t what it was — and also to get a better look at this… whatever-it-was. The fabulous Bennion Compound holds a lot of mysterious artifacts I cannot identify, but I at least recognize them as part of the collection. I couldn’t recall ever seeing this one, though, so I asked the natural question: “What the hell is this thing?”

“It’s a gas-powered welder,” Dad replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“Oh,” I said, still not really understanding what I was looking at.

Dad elaborated. “It’s an arc welder with its own generator, so you can weld out in the field where there isn’t any electricity.” Ah. Now I got it. Now I could see that the unit was actually two machines in one, an engine on one side and a boxy appliance festooned with electrical hook-ups and outlets on the other.

“Where’d it come from?” I asked.

“Oh, Jack Smith gave it to me at some point. It’s been out in the barn underneath a bunch of stuff.”

Jack was our next-door neighbor as I was growing up, a kindly if sometimes exasperating old guy who sort of resembled Fred Scuttle, a moon-faced, mischievous character from the old Benny HIll Show. At one time, Jack had been a welder at the famous Kennecott open-pit copper mine that has eaten away a good chunk of the mountains on the west side of the valley. He’s also been dead for nearly 20 years, which meant this welder had probably been tucked away for 30 or 35 years.

“I used to have another one,” Dad continued, “but I got rid of it a while back. I remembered this one and thought I’d see if I could get it going.”

It seemed like a dubious prospect to me. The machine was ancient — the ghost of a logo I could see on the side looked to my eye like a 1960s font — and the whole surface of it was reddish-brown and scaly with corrosion. But I’ve seen Dad accomplish miracles with less, so I didn’t doubt too much.

“I just hope it hasn’t had gas in it all this time,” Dad said, reaching for the screw-cap on top of the engine. Like the wheels, it was frozen by the passage of time, and Dad had to wrap a rag around it and bear down hard to get it to move. When it finally broke loose, it spun nearly all the way off, releasing a puff of foul-smelling air. If you’ve never smelled gasoline that’s turned to varnish, trust me: there are few stinks on this planet that are worse. Maybe that weird flower that smells like rotting corpses. Or whale farts. But that’s about it. Seriously, it’s bad.

The smell of old gas is a satanic layercake of sickly sweet tones and acrid highlights. And an engine that’s full of that stuff may as well be packed with chewed bubblegum, because it has approximately the same effect. I knew Dad would be at this for a while, so I wished him luck and went about my business for the rest of the day.

Later that evening, I checked in with him again and asked how it was going with his new/old toy. His face broke into a grin and he motioned me over to the antiquated box. He wound a starter cord around the pulley — yes, this thing was so old, it didn’t even have an automatic recoil on the pull cord like every small-engine machine built since, oh, the Korean War or thereabouts — and gave it a tug. The ancient motor turned over once or twice, coughed, hesitated for a long enough beat I thought it had frozen again, then abruptly broke into a steady rumble. Dad pushed the throttle linkage a couple times and the engine obediently revved up and down. When Dad pressed the kill button after a few more seconds, the motor at first refused to die, as if it was reluctant to return to its decades-long dormancy. Not only did he get it running, I mused, he got it so running, it won’t stop.

“So how’d you do it?” I asked. Dad proceeded to tell me how he’d poured lacquer thinner into the gas tank to break up the varnish, and then crafted a new fuel line out of a piece of small-gauge copper tubing he’d found, because the old rubber line had dried up and cracked with age. There were probably other things as well, but to be honest, I stopped listening at some point. I was too busy thinking how amazing my old man is in the way he can take a rusty old hunk of inert metal that I would’ve hauled to the dump and breathe life into it, like Victor von Frankenstein and his accursed monster. Moreover he does it just for fun. Just to see if he can. I, on the other hand, can barely change my own oil.

I’m ashamed to admit there was a time in my life when I didn’t appreciate his gift, and truthfully, I doubt if he himself appreciates it to this day. He doesn’t even see his skills as a gift. They’re just what he does. Me, I can look around and see all the instances of misused apostrophes on signs and menus (dear god, why don’t people understand it’s versus its?). But so what? Nobody wants to listen to a scold and there’s always another typo to be found. Dad, on the other hand… he can work a genuine form of magic on the real world, the practical world, the world of moving parts and hand tools. He can rebuild a car or rewire a house. He knows plumbing and carpentry. He can estimate distances accurately with his eye alone. He understands how things fit together and what needs to happen to achieve a certain physical effect. He can make things. He is a man in an old-fashioned sense of that word. He is, in fact, the manliest man I’ve ever known. I don’t begin to measure up to his example.

It was once impossible for me to say this, for reasons I still don’t entirely comprehend, but it’s becoming easier for me to say this with every passing year: I am proud of my dad. I just wish I was more like him.

Happy Father’s Day, everyone.


Have You Seen the New Dragon in Town?

I’m now officially two weeks late in commenting on this topic, but that’s apparently going to be the new reality around this blog, so let’s just pretend for a minute that it’s two weeks ago, okay?

So, did y’all watch the big unveiling of the SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft that I pinged you about? Yeah, I didn’t either. I was getting ready to go camping that evening. If you’re interested, you can see a recording of the event here; if nothing else, it’s kind of entertaining to watch Elon Musk doing a giggly, somewhat awkward impression of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark from the Iron Man movies (i.e., gazillionaire boy wonder making a slick pitch for some new technological marvel). But hey, you’re probably too impatient for the video, so let’s cut to the chase. Here’s the new ship, with Musk standing to the right:

spacex_dragon-v2_unveiledMy first impression is, well, that kinda cool. But while a lot of other space bloggers have been gushing about how cool and futuristic it looks, I find there’s something… ungainly about its shape, at least to my eye. Still, if it works as Musk says it will, its appearance will be pretty irrelevant, and its function may well turn out to be revolutionary.

The vehicle is obviously derived from the cargo-only version that’s been delivering groceries to the International Space Station for a couple years now; the big difference I immediately noticed is that the V2 has three large windows instead of the single, hatch-mounted porthole of its predecessor, a dead giveaway that this machine is built to carry human beings who might want to see what’s outside. The V2 also has a sleeker hull, without as many exposed seams or technical systems as the version-1 Dragon. And of course, there are those stubby little landing legs.

Yes, the rumors are true. Instead of splashing down in the ocean like every other U.S. spacecraft to date except the winged space shuttles, the V2 is designed to land on terra firma, descending on rocket thrusters and touching down “with the accuracy of a helicopter,” according to Musk. (There will be parachutes in case the thruster system fails.) The video I linked a moment ago includes a brief animation at about the 4:00-minute mark, showing how this is supposed to work.

Another interesting innovation that stands out (especially after watching the animation) is the retractable nose cone that conceals an extendible docking ring. I’m not sure any previous spacecraft has had such a system, unless you count (again) the shuttles, which carried a docking rig in their payload bays once the ISS was under construction. And in an interesting bit of corporate synergy, the Dragon V2 will be controlled with the very same digital touchscreen technology used in the Tesla Model S electric cars built by Musk’s other technology venture. I’m not too keen on those, to be honest; touchscreens and I don’t get along. Think about that old Simpsons episode where Bart sells his soul for five bucks, and then finds that automatic doors will no longer open for him. That’s me and pretty much any smartphone or tablet I’ve ever played with. I much prefer the satisfyingly solid snap of a good old-fashioned toggle switch or push button. But then, how could I not? Like the tagline says, I’m an analog kind of guy.

Mild reservations about the styling aside, the Dragon V2 looks pretty impressive, and I’m looking forward to seeing it actually fly and, more exciting, land. Musk’s goal is for this vehicle to achieve what my beloved shuttles never quite pulled off: quick, simple and, most of all, relatively inexpensive reusability. Let’s hope the V2 meets the goal.

The Dragon V2 is not technically “human rated” yet — it still needs to jump through certain hoops for NASA to meet that definition — and its first test flight may come as early as next year. NASA wants a commercial spacecraft ready to carry astronauts by 2017, and although I know a couple other companies are working to meet that deadline with their respective vehicles, SpaceX will likely get there first.

If you’re interested in further reading, the Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has a few thoughts here, and Ars Technica had some good technical (but not too technical!) detail in their article.

Photo source: SpaceX official Twitter feed


It’s a DVD Miracle!


When I heard the news a couple weeks ago that Shout! Factory — a niche entertainment company that produces, among other things, DVDs of “orphaned” TV series whose owners abandoned them after releasing only one or two seasons — had licensed my beloved WKRP in Cincinnati, I crossed my fingers and hoped against hope that they were going to do this right.

If you’ll remember, WKRP, which is possibly my all-time favorite television sitcom, is one of those shows that presents a huge challenge for home video, because it used so much actual music performed by original artists. If a scene called for “Old Time Rock and Roll” in the background, WKRP used Bob Seger’s version instead of a re-recorded soundalike. This added immensely to the verisimilitude of a series set in a radio station, but of course all of those songs need to be licensed from the record labels that own the copyrights on them in order to release the show on DVD, or even for syndication. And the cost of doing that adds up in a hurry. Practically from the moment ‘KRP entered syndication in the early ’80s, the music was a problem that the show’s owner “solved” by substituting low-cost generic stuff, or by trimming scenes that featured music. Often this created problems with the narrative because scenes and even entire episodes were written around specific songs, and to not have them there left a big hole… or, in the worst cases, made the story downright incomprehensible.

When Fox released Season One on DVD way back in 2007, the version they released was so heavily edited that many people — myself included — decided it was unacceptable and refused to buy it. Based on poor sales of that first set versus the prohibitive cost of music licensing, Fox decided not to pursue releasing the rest of the series. And so we fans of the show have just had to make due with bootlegs and the butchered syndicated versions for seven long years.

But now along comes Shout! Factory, which has announced plans to do a box set of the entire series. Could it really be that they’ve somehow worked out the licensing issue? Am I finally finally going to get the ‘KRP I remember watching instead of the ghost of itself it has become? Well, Shout! still hasn’t issued a definitive statement… but during a cast reunion at the Paley Center for Media on Wednesday night, Tim Reid — who played disc jockey Venus Flytrap  — reportedly said the box set will contain all the original rock music. A little subsequent googling turned up an interview with Hugh Wilson, ‘KRP‘s creator, who claims Shout! has successfully relicensed about 85% of the original music. There’s no release date on the Shout! set yet, so I think it’s probably safe to assume they’re still working on the problem…. which means we may end up with an even higher ratio than 85%.

I can’t tell you how over-the-moon thrilled I am about this. The acquisition of  WKRP, along with Time-Life/StarVista’s upcoming release of The Wonder Years — with all its original music intact too! — will basically complete my list of personal holy-grail DVDs, i.e., those movies and TV shows that I’ve wanted to own but thought would never be available in a high-quality digital format. I’ll have it all, except, of course, for sanctioned releases of those pesky pre-1997 versions of the original Star Wars trilogy. And now that Disney is calling the shots on that issue instead of Uncle George, I even have some hope for those…


70 Years Ago

world-war-ii_d-dayI tend to resist the term “greatest generation” and the simplistic idolatry it encourages, because the men and women who lived through the Depression and fought World War II were just that: ordinary men and women, and not the uniformly noble, steel-jawed icons we, their descendants, often imagine them to have been. Confronted with enormous and terrifying geopolitical events beyond their control, they responded with the same range of fears, doubts, and uncertainties — the same moral quandaries — that any people experience in wartime. I firmly believe it wasn’t the generation that was exceptional so much as the times in which they found themselves. And I believe many World War II vets would probably agree with that assessment, and say that they just did what they had to do.

Nevertheless, when I think about the D-Day landings — in particular, when I think about the poor bastards who were in the front row when those ramps dropped and the German machine guns opened up — it’s pretty hard not to shake my head in wonder at the immensity of what happened on the shores of France on this day in 1944, at the audacity of trying to retake an entire continent with little more than manpower and sheer determination. Or perhaps resignation would be a more appropriate word. With more landing craft coming in behind, there wasn’t any going back, so they had to move forward if they were going to survive, let alone succeed. It’s impossible to think of the scenario and not wonder how I — how anyone — would behave had we been there.

I hope with all my heart nobody ever has to find out again. And I wish I could shake the hand of every man who did.