Monday, April 30, 2018

Your trip to Mars!

Alexander P. de Seversky was a Russian born in 1894. He became one of the first fighter pilots during World War I. He was shot down, lost a leg, then came back a year later and took up flying again. He was convinced that air superiority was the way to win a war. In 1927 he emigrated to the United States, where he had a long career, both as an author (Victory Through Air Power, turned into an animated feature by Disney), and as an airline executive. He died in 1964.

In 1952 he wrote an article for Pageant magazine called “Your Trip to Mars.” In the time after World War II there were a lot of articles about the world of technology to come. There were self-driving cars (now a reality), flying cars (never got off the ground — yuk, yuk), rocket ships (reality)...the list goes on. In retrospect, in 1952 trips to the moon were less than 20 years away, so de Seversky’s article reminds me more of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with TWA taking people to the moon.

In 1952 anything was possible in the future. This article treats a trip to Mars as being something like a cruise to the Caribbean. I was struck by the “barman unconcernedly mixing Martinis” as the spaceship attains a speed of 150,000 mph.

The closest I can come to de Seversky’s fantasy in today’s world is in the words of Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX) and his claim that 100 families will settle on Mars. That seems even more fantastic than de Seversky’s idea. Mars is a totally hostile place for humans. The infrastructure that would have to be ready to accommodate those pioneers seems prohibitively expensive. But dreams are free, aren’t they? Musk has succeeded in getting supplies to the International Space Station with his rockets. Unlike de Seversky, who lived to see the early stages of men in space but died five years before Apollo 11, Musk is still alive to guide his vision.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A tale of synchronicity and Charles Schulz

Recently I was reading the Abrams book, Only What’s Necessary, Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts, when I came across a scan of the original artwork for this 1954 Sunday page:

According to the book, the sequence, an experiment continued over four Sundays, was considered a failure by Schulz. It was never published in any of the subsequent paperback collections of the comic strip. Not until the Fantagraphics collections, The Complete Peanuts, that is, published by Fantagraphics after Schulz’s death.

Here is where synchronicity came in. A couple of days after seeing the page in the book, I was in an antiques mall in downtown Salt Lake City, and found a couple of issues of Tip Top Comics from the mid-fifties. I bought them and when I opened up issue #200, from 1956, I found the entire sequence, reprinted in a comic book format.

When you read the whole sequence you can see why Schulz considered it a failure. It introduced adults to Peanuts, and it seems completely wrong, based on what later became a major theme in the comic strip: the war between Charlie Brown and Lucy. Looking at this storyline, appearing within the first four years of what went on to be a 50-year run, is jarring. Charlie Brown supporting Lucy? Lucy as a golfer? Uh-uh. Better to think of it as a dream sequence, and be glad he didn’t consider it a success and change the interactions between the two characters. I cannot imagine Peanuts without Lucy jerking the football away from Charlie Brown, and so this was one of those moments in a lifetime of working on the strip when Schulz thought better of it.

All Peanuts Copyright © 1954, 1956, UFS

Monday, October 02, 2017

The unhit target

Today my wife and I made some home improvements purchases at Lowe’s, over $1000 worth. I was happy to get a 10% discount because I am a veteran, which saved me some money.

I had to show my DD214, and those of you who were in the military will recognize that as the discharge form. It proves I was in the U.S. Army for two years. It has been 49 years since they handed me that discharge, but by god, I still have it for the occasional benefit being a veteran brings to me.

Looking at the DD214 after many years in my files, something caught my eye, something long forgotten.

The box above shows my “medals” from the firing range. My last time shooting at a target to qualify with my weapon was about two months before my discharge. Former soldiers will remember the three degrees of shooting achievement: Expert, Sharpshooter, and Marksman. Even a lowly Marksman has to hit the target 23 out of 40 tries, so it is a passing grade. A Sharpshooter does a bit better, and the Expert best of all. I never got an Expert badge, but then I was the kind of guy who was satisfied with a passing grade.

Shooting the M-14 rifle earned me a Sharpshooter badge, but firing the .45 automatic pistol got me a Marksman. The odd thing is I am sure I missed the whole target when shooting the .45. I was unfamiliar with the pistol, had never fired it until someone handed it to me on the range and said, “Here, qualify with this.” As I recall I was humiliated when examining the target that I had “boloed” — a word that meant I had zero hits.

Imagine my surprise to see that whomever scored the targets for the purposes of the qualification saw fit to give me a rating as Marksman. Fortunately, that happened to me more than once on tests during my two-year Army career.Someone would give me a pass when I didn’t earn it. In retrospect I believe it had to do with orders coming down from the top: No one must fail on the firing range! It makes us look bad. So a bolo like mine would be changed to the minimum, yet still passing Marksman.

All these years later it doesn’t matter, but if someone looks at that part of my DD214 they will surmise, “That guy did okay, not great, with a rifle, but only the minimum shooting a .45.” That is, if anyone cares at all, and I am sure they don’t. I am just lucky I didn’t get sent to Vietnam, where I might have encountered an enemy running toward me shooting. If so, my name would be on that memorial wall, and I would not be telling you this story.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

As a matter of fact, the sky IS falling!

Cartoonist Walt Kelly was the man who came up with the slogan, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It is a pithy way of referring to people causing an ecological disaster, and trashing the planet. I don’t usually care much for bumper stickers as philosophy, but that one is an exception. He was correct, probably even beyond his wildest imaginings. He died in 1973, so he did not get to see what an enemy we really are to ourselves.

“Chicken Little” is a story Kelly did for a book, Uncle Pogo’s So-So Stories, in 1953. It is original to the book, and has all Kelly’s piquant humor. Kelly was just making a funny story out of an old tale. But to me, Chicken Little was right: the sky IS falling! Chicken Little just got off to a bad start with a false warning, and then his credibility was crushed. The sky is falling (metaphorically), because our continued disrespect and abuse of our planet has caused it to turn on us in ways the planet wind, flood and fire.

We have been hearing about climate change and global warming for several years now, and yet we have been slow to react. Some of it has to do with outright denial. Some influential people — whose fortunes were made on pumping stuff into the atmosphere that is causing us troubles now — continue to say that there is no problem; it is all just cyclical stuff, they say...Earth will make the necessary corrections and things will go back to the way they were, they say.

I’d say if there is even a 50-50 chance the top climatologists in the world are correct (and I believe the chance is actually 100%; after all, since they are the experts), then we should have been busy doing something about it for a long time, now. When the president of the United States, protecting his fellow million-and-billionaire buddies and their dirty industries says “It’s a hoax,” and 1/3 of the American population believe him, then he begins dismantling government agencies that have traditionally helped with efforts to take the crap out of the air, we know we are in serious trouble.

I scanned the story from a secondary source, from the humor anthology, Houseful of Laughter, edited by Bennett Cerf.

Copyright © 1963 by Random House.