Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Now That's What I Call Entertainment

I have recently viewed the 1958/59 six part series "Quatermass and The Pit" and have to say that despite the degraded monochrome picture it stands the test of time.

With this last installment of the Quatermass trilogy we get some insight as to how the BBC earned a reputation for cutting-edge science fiction in those dawn of the Space Age days, and well deserved it was to judge by this work.

The story differs in small detail from the later movie version (sometimes titled "Quatermass and the Pit", sometimes "Five Million Years to Earth") and the special effects are rather less impressive in a couple of places (but not so many as one might expect; the BBC splurged seventeen thousand five hundred pounds on this effort, a fortune in those days).

But it is the scope of the ideas aired that really make the production a winner. I'm quite well read in Golden Age through Cold War SF and I don't recall either of the two major ideas in this production being explored before (though I'm willing to be proven wrong). I'm not going to spoil here because the revelation of those ideas is a big part of the reason for watching in the first place.

Do yourself a favour and try and see this for yourself. I rather think the six-part show wins over the movie in a couple of areas, but the movie has obvious strong points where it supersedes the serial in quality so either version is a winner.

Do yourself a bigger favour and don't read the plot summary first.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Vacation Log III - An Interlude With Helicopters

I had thought for some while that it was time that Bil-the-Canadian and the Steviedad had other things to do than get sozzled, zoned, blitzed, deranged and disabled by alcohol together.

Not that I don't think Bil-the-Canadian earns his drink when he gets it. The Steviesis makes his life a constant blur of activity on the spacious, tree-and-bear infested grounds of the Parental Manse, and the Steviedad enjoys kicking back with Bil-the-Canadian after the latter has spent all day putting in a deck or fighting dead trees and live bears with a weedwhacker fitted with a brush-cutting blade or re-roofing the garage or whatever the Steviesis has demanded as tribute this time. But the Steviedad and Bil-the-Canadian have both been told to cut down on the weedwhacking so I sought for and found an excuse for them to enjoy each other's company without danger to life and limb.

I found it in the shape of the minature helicopters I discovered when Mrs Stevie gave me one at Xmas.

These things, specifically the Syma model 107G, are ready-to-fly after 40 minutes or so charging, and are so user-friendly that almost from the first flight they provide ten minutes of enjoyable Big Kid fun. They are miracles of technical innovation, using tiny brushless motors to power the contra-rotating twin co-axial rotors and the tail rotor. Really clever design too.

A traditional full-sized helicopter usually has one rotor for vertical lift and directional thrust and a smaller tail rotor mounted on a boom to fight the tendency of the whole craft to spin in the opposite direction to the main rotor1. You rotate left or right ("yaw") by increasing or decreasing the pitch on the tail rotor (or if you are in a Chinook you increase the pitch on the rear rotor I guess), until you are pointing the way you want to go, and you do this with foot pedals usually. You get lift by increasing the so-called "collective pitch" of the main rotor - the angle at which the blades meet the air in other words - usually by pulling on a handbrake-like affair and at the same time twisting the handle to increase the motor power because, just like dropping a clutch in a car, as the blade digs into the air it needs more power to turn it.

You go backwards, forwards or any-way-you-like-wards by making the pitch of the main rotor change, biting more air on the side opposite the direction of travel, using the cyclic stick - what most people would mis-label a joystick. The rotor disc3 then swings freely to tilt in the direction of travel and the helicopter moves. The whole business requires constant correction by the pilot as the helicopter will tend to swing to line up with the rotor disc and the blades will lose lift on one side as forward speed picks up and gain it on the other and all sorts of other real-world silliness gets in the way of the exhilaration.

Models of this arrangement are available and have been since the early seventies4, but they were hard to fly until the advent of on-board gyroscopic servo motors to correct small fluctuations in behaviour. Such models tend to be large, several feet long, and powered by small glowplug engines. Not suitable for indoor use unless the operator is suicidally5 brave or stupid.

The miniature helicopters such as the Syma 107G are electrically powered and use a rather different arrangement.

For a start, there are two main rotors, mounted co-axially 6 one above the other, each driven in opposite direction to the other by a dedicated electric motor through a ferocious overdrive7 gear train.

This means that when you power up the helicopter it will lift vertically with no tendency to spin, because the torque-cancellation is a mechanical by-product of spinning the rotors in different directions.

You turn the helicopter to point in different directions by slightly reducing the speed of one or the other rotors, producing a net differential torque which turns the little machine eerily smoothly in the air. The effect is robotic and hypnotic.

To move laterally you start the tail rotor, powered by a third motor and pointing not sideways as in a traditional helicopter, but up8. This produces a force either up or down on the tail which tilts the helicopter and the rotors in the direction you want it to go and the resulting thrust makes the helicopter move that way.

To stop the helicopter falling out of the air the upper rotor has a rather brilliant centrifugally-controlled mechanism that alters the variable pitch of the blades to counter the tilt and keep it pointing more or less at the ground and thereby provide vertical thrust. This self-correcting device is so clever I can hardly speak about it, and the upshot is the tiny helicopter is very stable in the air and very responsive to the commends it gets from the twin-stick control box. The left stick controls yaw direction when moved side-to-side and lateral movement when pushed forward or pulled back. This isn't like a cyclic stick at all. The right stick controls lift.

I had so much fun with mine that I thought I would give the Steviedad and Bil-the-Canadian one apiece. Not only would they get to fly them together, the Parental Manse features a huge airspace living room in which the machines could really show their stuff.

Mrs Stevie got into the spirit of things by obtaining a rather nice black helicopter c/w spycam and switchable lights for him, but I vetoed this on the grounds it was too hard to fly and the flight time was too short and I wasn't giving it back. No, the Syma 107G would be the helicopter I took to Canada when I went, and I purchased a blue one for Bil-the-Canadian and a yellow one for the Steviedad, which I flight tested, obtained a replacement for the yellow one on the grounds the flight time was very short9 and declared a new era in VTOL fun and games. Well, there was a problem to be solved, but a New Era was just around the corner.

The problem was that the controllers supplied with the helicopters did not feature the spring-loaded vertical lift stick, a feature I deemed essential for quick assimilation of the piloting technique and a positive safeguard in the event of a crash. About the only way you can damage these machines without a hammer is to keep the power on after they crash. With a spring-loaded lift control, all you need learn is to take your thumb off the stick when crashing. Easy.

So I located and bough two replacement controllers, thereby solving nothing because they were clearly rebuilt units and had nasty scuffs and scratches all over them.

So I stripped them down and took the circuit board and sticks from the replacements and put hem in the case with the trimmings from the original controllers. Which required I do a bit of cutting and filing down of internal lugs because the case in the old unit would not accommodate the stick mechanism from the new unit.

By the time I had two working, spring-loaded controllers in my lap10 I was not so sure this plan was as brilliant as I had at first believed it to be.

Next, I discovered that the boxes for the helicopters would not fit into my carry-on luggage, and that because they featured permanently-mounted batteries I couldn't put them in checked baggage, so it was off to the workshop to fabricate boxes from pink insulation foam. The plan was looking more and more like I should've ditched it from the get-go.

Eventually it was done and everything was packed.

Once in Canada I presented the Steviedad and Bil-the-Cabnadian with their prizes to general puzzlement. Oh well.

The Steviedad eventually tried his out a few days later after I took my little Chinook11 for a trip round their living room (no-one can watch one of these in the air without being fascinated by the sight) and he was astounded by the ease with which he could fly it once he actually tried. He did crash it into his head he first time which caused mockery from the assembled womenfolk, but I understood that it was because he, chartered engineer that he is, wanted to get a close look at the whirling gubbins in action and then got an attack of "mirror control panic"12.

He was nervous about crashing but I assured him before I turned in that night that it was almost impossible to break them and I had taken the precaution of including a kit of replacement parts for those bits most likely to get damaged in a truly impressive crash. All he had to do was avoid the old noggin and he couldn't, I told him condescendingly, break it

The next day he asked me if I could fix it because he had broken it.

I don't know how, but one of the gears had slipped out of alignment inside the body and one of the vertical lift rotors wouldn't turn as a result. I quickly discovered the problem (the machines are so simple inside it is easy to diagnose any problems that arise) but it required me to fully dismantle the machine to fix it. To this day I have no idea how that gear, which was snug on its axle, could have slipped the quarter of an inch it needed to move to disengage from the rest of the cogs. I suspect the Steviedad did it to be annoying.

Luckily the Steviedad has a tool supply second only to my own and in a trice I had the little yellow helicopter zooming above their terrified cats - I never saw such scaredy-cat cats in my life as these moggies.

And the New Era was once again dawning for all to see, with the possible exception of the cats who ceded the field and left for the safety of the recreation room and kitchen.

  1. There are twin rotor helicopters like the Chinook which don't need a tail rotor because they spin the front rotor the opposite way to the rear one2 and other types that get the counter-torque thrust by shaping the boom like a wing so the downwash pulls the tail against the direction of torque, or ducting air from the rotor through it, and there are a number of increasingly bizarre set-ups using twin rotors that interleave or are mounted on the same spindle but rotate in opposite directions, but they are rare because they are complicated and hard to maintain
  2. Though there must be stress in the airframe at the midpoint as the rotors are attempting to spin the helicopter in different directions from their individual ends
  3. The blurry thing you see instead of the blades when they are turning and a useful concept to use when discussing helicopter physics
  4. Graupner made a fixed pitch rotor model in 1974 and a year later had a full collective pitch model if memory serves
  5. Literally, given the combustion by-products of these engines in a confined space
  6. They share the same axis or spindle. actually they don't because one spindle is inside the other otherwise the whole thing wouldn't work at all
  7. Go-faster gubbins
  8. Some people swear that if you modify the helicopter so the tail rotor points down it produces a higher forward speed but I have not experimented with this configuration myself
  9. Quality control can sometimes be hit-and-miss in this sort of stupidly cheap technology toy
  10. And a carpetful of little screws and sundry other small parts
  11. The 107G was so much fun I bought a miniature Chinook made by the same company, which is essentially two 107G main rotor mechanisms mounted in one model
  12. A term I use for the problem everyone experiences at least once when a braincell misfires when the model, be it car boat or aircraft, is coming toward you and you steer it from your point of view rather than the models's so it does everything in the reverse sense for a fraction of a moment until your brain turns the picture around again

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Vacation Log II

It is time to speak more of the Canadian Vacation.

I had intended to post each imposition, each mounting level of irritation visited upon me daily from the scene of the crime, but the truth is (and I can barely bring myself to say it) that the entire vacation was annoyingly free of annoyance in general and I was far too busy waiting for the shoe to drop1 to write about it.

I was in a constant state of heightened awareness and observation which, naturally, was very tiring and required me to take power naps for my own good lest I fall prey to hallucinations due to sleep deprivation.

One of the non-nap-related activities that The Steviesis and BiL-the-Canadian3 had planned for us was a trip to Pipestone Creek, a few Kilometers (which are Canadian Miles and are shorter than American Miles unless you are walking) from Grande Prairie, home of the Stevieparents, where so many dinosaurs had been dug up that they were trying to fund a real museum to compliment the Big Shed O' Bones that serves the purpose today.

There were, they said, tours around the proposed site where if stories cold be believed dead macrofauna leered from the ground at every turn. Why every footstep could unearth a rare and never-before-seen genus of dinosauria, it was said, and one would be foolish not to go take a gander before it was all covered in buildings and archeologists with paintbrushes and pointing trowels.

In vain I pled for the sweet embrace of a sofa from which to observe the perfidious universe as it tried some nefarious ambush on my poor battered body and Mrs Stevie put her foot down (on a particularly tender part of my body) and ordered me into the Truck of Merriment for one (1) trip to Pipestone Creek.

"I've seen it already!" I whined, clutching the sofa desperately.

"Idiot! That was twenty years ago, just before The Canoe Trip4..." her voice trailed off and a look of pure horror crossed her face at the memory of that other Canadian Expedition taken in our youth

"Argh!" I screamed reflexively.

"There won't be any canoes. We'll be inland and off-river the entire time." Her words did not carry the conviction they normally do though. With a shake, she rallied. "I'm going to get some clean underwear and when I come back you'd better be ready to go and see some Dinosaurs in-situ".

"Oh alright then!" I snarled and went to get clean underwear of my own.

We all piled into BiL-the-Candian's monstroso truck, a Ford F-something-or-other, an apposite vehicle for seeking the remains of animals so large they fire the imagination of everyone who sees them. As indeed they fired the engine of the truck itself. I gave myself a headache thinking about the recursive nature of our trip, but at least it took my mind away from thoughts of that other trip so very long ago, yet so close it only takes a word to bring back every detail in terrible, er, detail5.

BiL-the-Candian got lost, but got us found again in a maddeningly short time and thus it was that in a trice we were in front of the well-remembered Big Shed O' Bones.

Canadians are so laid back in general that they actually made a small museum of the local finds and put it all in an unattended wooden building open to the unattended public. Somehow this doesn't feel wrong. In America it would be the height of naive stupidity to do such a thing. Within five minutes the exhibits would be stolen or smashed and the shed a smoking ruin, but not in Canada. Maybe it's the threat of the legendary Royal Canadian Mounted Police6, maybe it's just too much effort to come all the way out here just to screw around with the infrastructure, maybe Canadian Yoof has enough to do without pointless vandalism. I dunno. The rioting in Edmonton would suggest otherwise, but even so.

We clambered out of the truck and into the Big Shed O' Bones, and it was exactly how it was ten years before. Big herbivore skull: Check. Small herbivore parts: Check. Mrs Stevie glaring and tapping her foot: Check.

We decided on not much evidence at all that The Trail That Led To Dinosaur Bluffs7 must be that way and so we descended precipitous drops and navigated thorn bushes and poisoned ivy patches until we emerged on the boulder-strewn floodplain of Pipestone Creek, a place of notable stark beauty and even more turned ankles.

"Hey look!" said BiL-the-Candian. "Someone made an Inukshuk!"

"That's not an Inukshuk" I opined. "An Innukshuck needs to be at least nominally man-shaped8. That is more accurately described as a pile of rocks."

BiL-the-Candian decided to go look for Dinosaurs and while The Stevieling and Mrs Stevie hunted in the boulder field for whatever women look for in such plains of random white dots9 I spoke with the Steviesis of our parents, kids, spouses and other annoyances.

The Steviesis is also Kung-Fu expert I should add, having mastered many forms of the martial art with names like Crane-Style, Dragon-Style, Punch-Up-The-Throat style and so on. So it was understandable that I interpreted her sudden leaps, pirouettes, vigorous swatting motions and squeaks as an impromptu demonstration of her skills. I was on the point of applauding when I realized she was trying to avoid the attentions of a brightly coloured but otherwise harmless flying insect about the size of a small World War I aeroplane.

"Harharhar!" I commiserated, then had to duck as she executed a near-perfect spin-swivel kick to the windpipe which would have connected if not for the WW I insect which chose that moment to perform an Immelman turn into the path of her attack, causing her to convert the energy into an impressive back somersault into a patch of stickburs. Then I was treated to a truly impressive display of Canadian Kung-Fu invective.

At that point BiL-The-Canadian re-entered theater and announced he'd found out where the dinosaur trail really was, and led us from the river, back through the poison ivy, thornapple bushes and hornet nests to the truck.

"The Ranger says we have to drive about three hundred meters up the road and then we have to walk about three kilometers" he said. At least, I assume it was he. His voice was actually coming from a dense cloud of mosquitoes that obscured his head entirely, though years in the Canadian Outdoors have tanned his hide to the point that I doubt any of the bugs were getting a decent meal.

So we drove what turned out to be fifty meters (Canadian yards) to a gate and started walking.


I hate starting a hike with a downhill section because that means that later, when my legs feel like sandbags filled with lead shot, I'll be walking uphill. But was this the spirit that made Britain great? I dunno, but after all this messing around plus having to dodge my own sister's homicidal attack I was getting bloody-minded about it and so we set off down the trail for the promised three Kilometer walk. Which was about three quarters of a kilometer.

On the way we passed a sign "[This way to the] River of Death", which seemed a tad insipid to me, and in my humble opinion would have been improved immeasurably by the addition of the word "Certain" between "of" and "Death". We also passed a group of kids on their way back who assured us that the trip to this watery hazard to life and limb would be worthwhile.

Little bastards.

When we finally arrived at the watercourse, gasping and wheezing and begging for the mercy of a bullet10 it turned out that the River of Death where so much herbivorous megafauna had met a watery demise people were spending money trying to get a museum built around it was now The Wadi of Disappointment and Recrimination.

There was a small frame surrounding what had been a display of bones in situ, but it had been vandalized and boarded up in the name of Archeological Peace-of-Mind. So that was that then.

BiL-the-Canadian was disappointed and showed us a fine display of stoic sarcasm at the quality of the display, wondering what the once-a-week tour revealed when it was running, and postulating that all the fossils were over a really big hill, which made the Steviesis swear at him. We held a council of war and resolved that a) all kids were lying gits 2) Dinosaurs were boring, especially dinosaurs so stupid they drowned in that joke of a river and þ) We should immediately abandon this foolish quest for dinosaur viewing and instead instigate a new plan involving going swimming in the new Health Multiplex.

Now those readers who have ascertained a certain lassitude in my stance on life at this time might wonder at my eager agreement to this watery plan, especially as it was in this very town that, during a trip to a swimming pool, I contracted the most virulent and treatment-resistant strain of athlete's foot that occasionally flares up ten years and more later. Well, this wasn't so much a swimming pool as an indoor water park, and I have experience of such things in Canada that have convinced me that water parks are something one should always try in the Land o' Beavers11. The one in the West Edmonton Mall has the most violent and determined wave pool I've ever personally been pounded almost into insensibility in.

The Health Multiplex water complex was, to put it mildly, impressive. Here in a town of about 60,000 people they've build a complex better than anything available in Metropolitan New York. Maybe Americans should shift their focus from Socialized Medicine12 to Socialized Wellness. All the taxpayers who helped build this one were feeling no pain, except possibly for the people who fell too hard while riding a wave on the indoor surfing machine. Contrast with the glum gloominess of the American Taxpayers, who usually get a poke in the eye for paying their taxes.

They had two tube slides, one for riding rubber tubes down, one for shooting down on your skin. They had three pools. They had the surfing machine. And - Yes! They had a lazy river! Only the best water ride ever invented!

While the others dithered I ripped off my clothes, donned trunks and raced through the shower, bound for a rubber tube which was calling to me siren-like.

I probably should have waited until we had finished buying the day-passes and had entered the changing rooms, but the security guards accepted my excuses of being driven mad by the happy splashing sounds and let me off with a stern warning. Then I rode a rubber tube down the slide three times before the other slugs showed up, which meant I had driven the course enough to have memorized the turns.

The Steviesis foolishly demanded we ride down the slide in a two-seater tube, apparently unaware that I like to enjoy waterslide tube rides "to the hilt", and she found my enhancing of the twisting turns by rocking from side to side to be perhaps a little too much to judge by her cries of "Stop that you bleeping idiot!" and "I'm gonna kill you when we get off this bleeping tube!"

I naturally took this for use of irony to urge me on to greater efforts and put my back into it.

When we crashed out of the end of the slide and were catapulted off the tube in a welter of water and truly impressive swear words that served to clear the area of kids the Steviesis pretended to attempt to strangle me but the whole thing fell flat when BiL-the-Canadian came ploughing out of the slide on a single-occupancy tube, crashed into our little tableau and scattered us like ninepins.

We decided to repair to the Lazy River, where I found that the daft Canadians had nerfed it by designing it for kids and only supplying flotation devices sized for them. A lazy river can only be properly experienced while floating on an adult-sized tube that doesn't capsize and dump you off every time a miniscule wavelet hits you.

As it was I was forced to use a noodle - a five-foot long, three-inch thick length of closed-cell foam - which was fine as far as it went. I particularly enjoyed the little oxbow lake they had made off to one side with a respectable whirlpool vortex in it. In one section there were the expected overhead shower heads, and in another there was a quite strong wave effect that would have been more enjoyable had I been on a large tube13. I would have ridden the lazy river for the rest of the day but on the third pass through the wave section I got seasick and had to get out and sit in one of the Jacuzzi to recover. I put down this uncharacteristic lack of manliness in the face of watery entertainments to jet lag, altitude sickness, undiagnosed bitter disappointment over the dinosaur fiasco and the fact I needed a power nap.

The Stevieling rode the surf machine and had great fun, though I was most unhappy about the numbers of young men willing to risk life and limb to "help" her. I would have said something but Mrs Stevie told me to shut up and stop making whining noises.

After this we all went to lunch where I had too much Strongbow Cider to drink and spoke knowledgeably and at length on several subjects about which I had little actual first-hand experience, after which I was returned to my folk's house so I could renew my vigilance from one of their sofas in peace.


  1. Or, as Mrs Stevie would have it, lying around like a slug on any unoccupied chair or sofa snoring fit to wake the dead2
  2. As if that vile harridan would allow me to sleep unmolested once her stumps were stirred into activity if there only hadn't been witnesses to her perfidy in every room
  3. Second husband, genuine nice chap, Ole-time Canadian Outdoorsman, Teacher and Black-Belt-with-Tassles Kung-Fu expert
  4. I'm still not ready to speak of The Canoe Trip in these pages
  5. Still not ready to talk about it though
  6. Who always get their man
  7. Not the real name of the site
  8. I was, of course, dead wrong about this, but I said it with conviction
  9. Several times that day I found myself inadvertently crossing my eyes in an attempt to resolve hidden 3D pictures from the field of rocks that occupied at least a third of my field of vision, which convinced the Steviesis I was having a stroke and made Mrs Stevie do the thin-lipped thing she does when she Doesn't Approve
  10. Well, I was begging etc. Mrs Stevie, The Steviesis and BiL-the-Canadian were pretending that they were having a good time
  11. Hur hur
  12. Urgh. Bad. Grunt.
  13. I was quite disappointed about the tube situation. I would have thought that a Lazy River in Canada would feature not only adult-sized tubes but each tube would come with a small cooler with a six-pack of beer in it. The country is definitely going to the dogs, and the problem is that these are daft ornamental dogs, not ragged-assed Canadian mutts that look like they just went three rounds with a bear and won the fight on a decision