Monthly Archives: December 2010

Book Review: Packing for Mars (Roach)

I got Mary Roach’s most recent book for Christmas from my parents, alongside Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (which I just started reading today). This was the first time I’ve read one of her books, although a friend of mine did read Bonk and really enjoyed it, plus I’ve only heard praise for her writing. It just came as a bonus that she released one centered on space flight, and I started reading the book midday on Christmas. Spoiler alert: I really enjoyed it!

==================================================
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Like in the Void by Mary Roach (2010)
Purchase it on Amazon.com

Initial Thoughts: Like I already mentioned, this was my first time reading one of Roach’s books, but based on what I knew of her and her work, I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the book or that she would do a poor job covering the era of human (and monkey and dog and mice…) activity in space. I took the book up to my room, lied down on my bed, and cracked open the cover, eager to start reading.

Like most things, I avoid reviews of books or movies, favoring instead what my friends and family think about it. That’s part of the reason why I write these anyway, to give a different perspective on the work as opposed to the newspaper reviewers who almost definitely do not share my tastes. I mean, Tron: Legacy was rated pretty low, but it’s one of my favorite movies (expect a review for that at some point as well)! Anyway, back to the book…

The Premise: This book covers space flight in a way that usually isn’t encountered. Instead of focusing on launches and missions and extraordinary events, Roach instead looks at the behind-the-scenes aspects, the things that you either wouldn’t immediately think about when someone mentions “space travel,” or things that you’d never think of, like paying people to stay in bed for months to simulate the deterioration of bone mass during an extended stay aboard the ISS or a future long-duration mission to Mars or a nearby asteroid.

In saying that, there are still the aspects usually associated with more standard books on the topic: quotes from Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell, visits to Johnson Space Center in Houston, discussions about Mir while in Russia, etc. There’s also a unique insight into things that we know happen, like the astronaut selection process (JAXA, the Japanese equivalent to NASA, documents the dinner containers of their astronaut hopefuls–locked within an isolation chamber–after the meal, but they don’t tell the candidates this beforehand). As someone who knows a fair bit about space, it was great seeing another side to my childhood (and present-day) heroes as well as getting the additional information that comes from her research.

Of course, like her other books, this isn’t a dry science tome meant to bore you. Mary Roach is hilarious! It first hit me on the first page of the book, in the forward/introduction section aptly titled “Countdown” when she discusses the problem with astronauts when compared to machinery:

A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander.

Even the sentence right before it is golden, juxtaposing irradiated beef tacos with fuel consumption of launching rockets. That sense of humor is present on every page, even in a subdued manner in the more serious or somber sections of the book, like when she meets the widowed husband of one of the astronauts killed during the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The book’s short 300-some pages are packed with information, with something new on every page, and Roach’s humor causes you to blow through the pages like nothing. The first break I took was around page 80, with my stomach telling me it needed food, and loudly. I very easily could have read the book in a single sitting, and I’d enjoy it!

Final Thoughts: With the end of the book came the last solidification that Roach is a great author. While only one of her other three books really interests me (yep, the one about sex), I will probably end up reading all of them, just to learn something new and read more of her hilarious writing. Plus, I’d be learning something new, which is always high on my priority list, and truly enjoying it. Likewise, even if you don’t have an interest in space travel (and if you don’t, you’ve been following the wrong blog!), I suggest you pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed in the slightest!

Advertisements

Transformers: Dark of the Moon [Trailer Review]

If you haven’t yet seen the trailer, watch it HERE. It’s essential if you want to know what I’m talking about.

Let me first admit that, after the first Transformers, I wasn’t really interested in the story line anymore. Part of it was that, having vanquished their foe, I felt that any sequel would just be to rake in some more cash. Part of it was the fact that everyone suddenly was in love with Megan Fox, especially the adolescent boys that I watched over at camp. Part of it was this parody from Robot Chicken (slightly NSFW at beginning an the end). Yes, I did see the second one once it came out on DVD, and it was a pretty cool story, but nothing more. I don’t plan on seeing the third any time soon, even before watching the trailer.

Well, after taking a break from studying for finals, I left my room to see my two roommates watching the first Transformers, so I sat down and watching the ending fight sequence (I came in pretty late into that, so it was really just the last five minutes of the movie). After, I decided to finally watch the trailer for the upcoming se-sequel, Dark of the Moon, just to see what it was all about.

As a space, and science, fanatic, I couldn’t have been more appalled. Just look at the screen capture which shows the Command and Service Module Columbia on the way to the Moon (about 0:08). Notice that it’s just the CSM, no Lunar Module Eagle, no S-IVB third stage for trans-lunar injection. One of those needs to be shown for it to remain factually accurate: either the LEM is still inside the third stage of the Saturn V (which of course would require them to be slightly closer to the Earth, but prospective’s tough), or the CSM/LEM should be separated and heading to the Moon on their own. Seconds later (0:10, the absolute next scene), the missing LEM is magically shown docked with the CSM, in orbit around the Moon. I mean, I know that the general public is pretty stupid, but even they should be able to notice a missing spacecraft magically appear from one scene to the next. If I actually cared about seeing the movie, I’d hope they change that, or have a smoother transition when showing that part of the story.

The other gripe comes when the astronauts are on the Moon, after they’ve landed and uttered those famous phrases (and at this point, I’m getting pretty happy, since they’re using some of the actual footage from the mission, as well as the actual transmissions between the spacecraft, astronauts, and Mission Control back on Earth). I’ll ignore fake-Neil Armstrong’s really giant leap (0:32), where he leaps from the bottom rung onto the lunar surface, instead of first standing down on the footpad and placing his foot into the regolith, since it was obviously chosen for the “one giant leap” message in Armstrong’s famous words and, again, the general public doesn’t really know about it.

No, the somewhat larger gripe I have with the trailer, past the magic LEM, is when NASA decides to cut transmissions to the Earth to perform their “secret mission on the surface” (starting around 0:44). First, I laughed a little at having Tom Virtue, the Dad from Even Stevens, an old Disney show I watched that also starred Shia LeBeouf, working in Mission Control. Then I tried to figure out what was happening when they fed through the “loss of signal” report from Walter Cronkite (0:54), since they were already on the Moon and that transmission came when the CSM/LEM first passed behind the Moon while both were still in orbit. Then I realized the stunt they were trying to pull.

Most people who look at the Moon know that the same side always faces us. I mean, you can just tell by looking up and comparing the dark mare to what you remember of it as a full moon and determine that it’s not really rotating (Well, it is rotating, but since it is tidally locked with the Earth, it doesn’t appear to be rotating from our perspective. If you do a coordinate transformation to a rotating reference frame centered on the Earth, the only “rotational” motion of the Moon comes from its libration, but we can effectively ignore that). In doing so, if the astronauts landed on the near side, which they did, their transmissions would not be cut out until they launched from the surface to rendezvous with the orbiting CSM. That means that their transmissions could not be cut while still on the surface, not while the astronauts are still picking up rocks. It also means that the twenty-one minutes quoted makes even less sense, since the physical moon would have to be rotating around for that to happen at the same (more or less) speed that the CSM is orbiting. This also means that the shadows on the Moon should be swaying and moving, which is not so.

So, to recap: We have a complete disregard for the orbital mechanics of the Moon, which most people are intuitively away of; a disregard for the actual equipment required to get to the Moon, which is only slightly less unforgivable; a slight change in one of the greatest moments in human history, which is understandable for dramatic purposes; and the smearing of a historical event.

Honestly, if the lunar landings need to be messed with for the purpose of the story (unless it’s alternate history, where you have to mess with the past), you’re reaching too hard without knowing where your hand will fall. Good bye, Transformers, and good riddance.

NaNoWriMo 2010 | Looking Back

Well, it being a few days into December, I finally feel like I have the time to discuss what happened or didn’t happen during my first National Novel Writing Month endeavor. It was a long month, especially with all of my schoolwork included in my workload, but at the same time it seemed to fly by so quickly, probably also due to the schoolwork that was taking up time, the holidays, and Harry Potter.

My writing break-down through November

I can break down my month of writing into four different sections, based on how much I wrote, when I wrote it, and what else was happening at the time, as detailed below.

Week 1 – Sprint
Going into the month, I already knew I had two exams a week after the start, so I planned on writing as much as I could before the weekend, which would be spent studying, so that I wouldn’t fall far behind. And that’s exactly what I did, writing a little over 17,000–a third of the novel–in five days, with over 16,000 of that coming in the first four. I was well ahead of the curve at that point, and would be even after taking a few days to study, which was exactly what I wanted.

Week 2 – Slow and Steady
Once I got past those two exams, I did still have two more to worry about, but since they were spread out, I didn’t completely stop my writing as much as I had previously. This week started with the first write-in at Wanderer’s Teahouse, a nice little new place on Grand River, which was organized by our fearless Municipal Liason and attended by a fair number of local writers. I took a couple days off from writing, mostly because of work or doing homework, but tried to write in smaller chunks over longer periods of time. I had figured out what was going on in the story, and at that point the characters that I had created were really carrying the story, with me just there to move my fingers.

Weeks 3 and 4 – There’s other days besides Mondays?
Since my first write-in was so successful, I decided that I would continue to go back every week to work there for a few hours, knocking out at least 5k in each session. I did, however, get really caught up in schoolwork, since I had somewhat ben neglecting it over the past two weeks, plus I was sort of running out of things to write that fit with the story. Not that I didn’t know what would happen next, but that I was having serious doubts that the story would be finished short of the target 50k. So, I took it much more slowly, giving my mind time away from writing just to think (or not think) about the story. I only spent two days during these two weeks writing, both at write-ins, which caused me to encounter my first dip below the “suggested word count” line.

November 29-30 – I need to finish!
I entered the last two days about 11,000 short of the finish, which meant that I would need to average a higher word count than I had during my first week sprints to get that last punctuation mark down before midnight. I went to Wanderer’s on Monday for the last write-in (which had somewhat fallen apart due to lack of attendance and reserved space), sat down and wrote, then moved to Holmes to pick up some snacks and write some more. When I finished that first day’s writing (at around 0130 on Tuesday…), I had pecked out 8,500 words. Still, that meant that I had three thousand to go, and my fears set in: my story was more or less finished. So, on Tuesday, after teaching my lab, I stayed in Holmes and wrote out a few closing chapters, bringing the saga to an emotional end (both happy and somewhat depressing) for the main characters that had remained alive, and by 2030 I had passed the 50k mark with a few hours to spare!

Closing Thoughts
First, what a rush! Looking back, I wrote a 50k-word novel in fourteen days (with some of my days spilling over into midnight on the next, but we’ll just count those as one), meaning I averaged around 3,500 per day. Of course, since I still took the full month to write it, the average is really half that, but that’s more a semantics argument than anything else. What this means is that, even with schoolwork, writing not every day, taking huge breaks, running out of story, and figuring it out as you go, you can still get a novel out of nothing, just with a few sore fingers, eyes, back, and a lack of sleep.

I met a few very interesting people while doing this, plus found out that two of my friends were doing the same thing at various points during the month (ignoring my roommate who I had started this journey with). Next year, if I plan on doing this around whatever I may be doing, my writing will definitely be a little more consistent, and I’ll probably spend October planning out what I’m writing (all I had done for this one was think, plus write down the names of two main characters, once of which was a computer), just so the end goes more smoothly and it feels like I’m taking things a little more seriously.

So, what next for the novel I named Evolution? Well, if I want to try to publish it, it will take a lot of work, especially in the closing quarter of it, the addition of a few scenes, and some more fleshing out of the characters. In other words, close to a full re-write, the plague of Moonshot and Moonshot: Origins (since I never really named that prequel officially…). I haven’t decided if that’s what I want to do, or scrap it and simply write a new story, so for now it will sit on my hard drive with those failed stories (totaling 101,000 words), right next to my only other finished work of longer fiction, No Exit (bring my total finished word count to 66,000), until I decide what to do.

But I’ll leave that decision for next year. For now, I’m taking a well-deserved break!