Thursday, October 29, 2015

Station Eleven and the Fate of the English Major When Society Collapses

Warning, this post contains very modest spoilers associated with the novel Station Eleven by Emily Mandel. They are not much of a spoiler, but you are warned.

One artifact of science fiction becoming mainstream is that one has to deal with reviewers and even readers who have not had the benefit of knowing the genre, those who have not submitted to the discipline required to truly understand faster than light travel, telepathy, multi dimensional time portals and a host of other topics.  These mainstream critics may thus not be qualified to understand the field and its conventions. It can lead to some unfortunate encounters such as when a fellow undergraduate at college once said "You should read Pynchon, he writes science fiction that is actually good" and I thought to myself, I will probably hate Pynchon.  Well, I did not hate Pynchon, nor do I hate Station Eleven by Mandel, but it is not great science fiction despite what the reviews say.   But Station Eleven did have an unexpected benefit.  Although it was not intentional on the part of the author it alerted me to a terrible danger facing this nation as it awaits the inevitable collapse of civilization.

Station 11 is the highly acclaimed fourth novel by Emily Mandel about the world after a pandemic. It has its moments. I might give it a sold B- or so, but never, ever the acclaim that it is getting. The point of this post is not to review the novel per se, but to report to you an unexpected weakness that could inhibit our recovery from the type of disaster the novel describes.

You see, one of the unintended subtexts of the novel is to reveal just how powerless and incompetent a bunch of liberal arts majors are without their internet. This was not an intentional theme of the author, rather it is an accident that is revealed by the author's (and the reviewer's) ignorance of what would be possible technologically even in the absence of electrical power, the internet, and high octane gasoline. This is apparently a disaster novel written by an English major. Very good at crafting paragraphs but not too bright when it comes to technology about which she clearly knows almost nothing.

So now two light spoilers although the first one isnlt much of a spoiler since you probably can not get through the first two pages without figuring it out.

Spoiler number one: Station 11 is set in a near future where 99.9 percent of humanity has died of a particularly infectious and fatal form of the flu. You can be infected by being around someone who already has it, no direct contact is necessary, and anyone who gets it is dead within a few days which is presumed to be long enough to infect everyone else. The end result is that within about a month pretty much everyone is dead. The people who do survive have to go out to the country to find food and create the setting for the rest of the novel.

In our second spoiler, we reveal that people are reduced to bows and arrows and it is a major plot point that some unknown people have actually recreated a small electricity grid. Technology you see has completely gone away and we are back to perhaps Late Antiquity or so. In other words, people know about horses, wheels, and plows, but can only dream of having a refrigerator or an electric light.

This is what comes of a deficient education system. This is what comes of having children raised on the Internet and reality television.

You see, seeing as how this is set in the near future, Toronto and the state of Illinois, where our plot mostly takes place, has something called a library. Probably every small town has one. And in this library are books. And down the street, now abandoned, are machine shops. And yes, while the rotary tools might very well be powered by electricity that is not immediately available, there are other ways to use those tools even without electrical power.

First, build one of these and use it to distill alcohol... 

Then go to your local abandoned hardware store and pick up one of these....

On top of that, it is not so hard to build a steam engine out of all the spare parts left around after everybody dies. One could easily build water driven devices and steam engines even without electricity or gasoline. A handy stream and some wood will do. And they can be rigged to drive a magnet with wire (which is lying around after the apocalypse in every building) and you have an electrical generator.

If you want to repurpose any of those millions of abandoned automobiles, where, you might wonder, would the gasoline come from since the story has established that gasoline went away through evaporation in a few years?

Well, not all engines run well on alcohol, but many can be tuned to run acceptably well.   Many engines such as one finds in things like portable power generators, available and in stock at your local hardware store, are made to run on a variety of fuels.  Even more useful, but more specialized and less immediately available, are belt driven generators which can use a variety of motive forces.  This is something that could be easily interfaced to a water wheel or wind mill.

Here is an article on converting your car to run on alcohol and how to distill your own by Mr. Keat Drane. See  This article is filled with interesting information about the history of fuels to power engines, and how to distill your own fuel.

The great American philosopher, Clint Eastwood, said that “A man has got to know his limitations” (1) and very clearly Ms. Mandel does not know what she does not know.

But Mandel has done us a favor and just in the nick of time. She has alerted us to the complete ignorance so many of our citizens have about how the basic things in their life work.  We can not choose who will survive the inevitable destruction of civilization, and if they are all English majors then we would have a second disaster on our hands. 

I hope you will join me in petitioning our public servants to create remedial education programs, programs which must be made mandatory for all English majors, to correct this dangerous knowledge gap before it is too late.

Station Eleven by Emily Mandel on


1. This is from Magnum Force, and Mr. Eastwood was being sarcastic.

The Journalism of Runaway Blimps

Is it too much to ask journalists to spend five minutes trying to understand what they are writing about, or is it just hopeless.  In particular I am tired of journalists fucking up when it comes to writing about defense or intelligence matters as these areas are so expensive and important that we should stop being ignorant about them.

Misinformation is a problem.

For example, lets review the case of the runaway blimp in Pennsylvania. Its a medium sized blimp, that is or was normally tethered to the ground.  It apparently broke away from its mooring because of the weather although that is not entirely clear.   Like all modern lighter-than-air craft, it is filled with helium.

See, for example, the Guardian's discussion of the rogue blimp.

Its a big helium balloon.  It is not clear whether it caused the power failures in PA.   Maybe it did, and maybe it didnt.  But the balloon did not cost 2.8 billion.  The moron journalist could read about the JLENS project here had he wanted to.

Its not a space shuttle. It is part of a program that over the last 10 years or so probably did cost that much money because it is part of an effort to create an over-the-horizon radar for air defense, and radar, which is usually very exotic, weird electronics, can be very expensive.

But the blimp, oh I dont know, maybe a million or two.

Get a grip guys. Make a phone call. Use the internet and read up on the program. Yes, even you, the jounalist, should be able to figure it out with a minute or two of thought.

I know you can do it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

R Stockton Gaines in Memoriam


One of my favorite people from the RAND Corporation and its no long existent Information Sciences Department has passed away.

R. Stockton Gaines was a PhD from Princeton, a longtime editor of the ACM for Operating Systems and a pioneer of secure computing.

There is a memorial service coming up this weekend.

This has been a very bad year for this sort of thing.

This post will be updated with more information later.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Clarifications about Unity 5


There is some misunderstandings about Unity 5 out there, so here are the facts as I know them:

1. There are three scripting languages, but one of them is not Javascript. There is a “javascript-like” language but it is not Javascript.

2. It is said that Unity has its own IDE, but it seems to use MS Visual Studio for C#

3. C# seems to be standard but of course there is no .NET, there is an equivalent to it however.

4. I was advised not to try and read data files from Unity but in fact it works very well.

5. Unity does seem to support GLSL shaders for standalone systems (e.g. desktop Mac, Windows, etc) Documentation for this can be found here.

I have mixed feelings about this.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

When Neil deGrasse Tyson Spoke at the Virginia Military Institute

Recent events have conspired, one more time, to paint the Southern United States in a bad light. People are so negative and instead of lauding the fabulous cuisine (grits, cornbread, Smithfield ham), for example, they always emphasize the same old negative stuff. You know, racism, slavery, segregation, separate but unequal schools, that sort of thing.

So much for tolerance of cultural diversity.

But I am here to testify to you that at least parts of the South has changed in recent years and I have an example that is pretty amazing, and very specific to Virginia.

A few days ago, while throwing away my life while surfing the Internet, I came across an article on the AAAS website (American Association for the Advancement of Science) about science education that featured Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson who was a speaker at a conference on the subject. You can find this article at the following URL and I have provided some screengrabs of it at the end of the post.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, of course, the very eloquent spokesperson for Astrophysics at the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History. A PhD in astrophysics, a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, an author of many books, the star of the recent Cosmos reboot, and so forth, Neil is very entertaining and is very well known in the New York area and now because of Cosmos is also well known nationally.  I worked with Neil for a few years as a consultant on the Hayden Planetarium rebuild and the NASA Digital Galaxy project and Neil was very entertaining even when he was not in public.  He is also, apparently, a nice guy.  Or at least he was with me.

Here is a picture of Neil.

I don't know if you noticed, but Neil seems to be an African American. Well I am not sure what the whole story is, but no doubt Neil is definitely a person of color, we might say. Or maybe a scientist of color. I dont know, whatever.

Now we get to the point. I can prove to you that Virginia, at least, has come a long, long way since the war, even if it may still have a long way to go.

The conference on science education (STEM) where Neil was a speaker was held at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, VA.

(pause for reaction)

Well, I can tell that you are not from Virginia, because if you had been from Virginia and I had just told you that Dr. Tyson had spoken at VMI and your jaw did not drop, or your eyes bug out, or you fell out of your chair, then that is a pretty clear indication that indeed you are not from the Old Dominion.

Its a long story but it goes something like this. VMI is considered to be a bastion of Virginian aristocracy. It was said for many years that if you wanted to become Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, that it was helpful to have attended VMI. Many famous people have been alumni of VMI including Gen. George Marshall who was the Chief of Staff of the US Army during WW 2, George Patton's grandfather, who died in the War Between the States defending liberty and grandson, the third George Patton, and the one they made the movie about, attended VMI before he left to go to West Point.

There are many other colorful stories one might tell about VMI that would help to illustrate how tightly VMI is tied into the self-image of Virginians. Here is the well-known story behind a famous Southern nickname, not of a student, but of one of the early VMI professors. It seems this professor of Philosophy from VMI got his nickname during the very first battle of that destructive and stupid war between the states when he refused to retreat from the field and the commander of a Texas regiment, exhorting his troops, said “There stands Jackson like a stone wall”, although some people think he was saying that Prof. Jackson was dumb as a rock.

In other words, no less than the Country Club of Virginia, and maybe even more so, VMI is a part of the established order of the very aristocratic would-be aristocracy of Virginia who are still pissed off about the whole slavery thing.

That a black man, however famous, spoke at VMI is not to be sniffed at.

At the very least it surprised me and I grew up there.

Should I want you to conclude that there is racism in Virginia? Of course there is racism in Virginia and I wish it would go away. But things do change slowly for the better. A few years ago there was actually a black governor of Virginia which is a pretty amazing situation right there.

At least many Virginians realize there is racism present which is more than I can say about most of my friends in Southern and Northern California who seem to be in complete denial of the racism in their own communities.

Here are some scans of the article and quotes from Neil that prompted this post.

Virginia Military Institute

Cosmos (2014) on IMDB

Bronx High School of Science

Stonewall Jackson on Wikipedia

Stonewall Brigade on Wikipedia

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Jim Shaw at the New Museum

        This world is mine, in time. You best of all of us, Gabriel, should understand ambition.

                                                                              Lucifer/Satan from Constantine (2005)

I am happy to report that an alumnus of degraf/Wahrman (dWi), Jim Shaw, is having a retrospective of his work exhibited at the New Museum in New York (see link below).

I have not one, not two, but at least five friends from the early days of computer animation who are recognized as successful contemporary fine artists to varying degrees. But all of the others are involved in the digital arts in one way or another.  Jim is the only one I know who has achieved his success through what we might call "old media", you know, painting and drawing, with no computers involved.

Of course there were many “artists” who helped found computer animation in the 1970s and 1980s and “art” is one of those culturally laden terms that mean different things to different communities.  Hollywood is particularly fond of giving its own meaning to the term "artist" as is discussed in this post:   What is Meant When it is Said Hollywood Needs Artists    Other types of artists in this world might include production designers, fashion designers, commercial art directors, graphic designers, visual effects supervisors, and so forth.

But we are not talking about that kind of artist, as difficult and competitive as some of those fields are. What we are talking about here is the varsity squad, an artist of the sense of museums, collectors, galleries in NY and London and notices in certain elite magazines.  This is what we might call the :"real" world of fine art.

What you may not be aware of is that this is the dream of so many artists, or at least of people who went to art school, and it is far from easy to achieve. Of 100 talented people who attend art school, how many become recognized artists? Of the people who attend film school, how many become noted directors of film?

But the really disturbing thing is not just that my friend, Jim Shaw, is successful at pretty much exactly what he wanted to achieve back when I knew him in 1980, the really disturbing thing is that he is to have a retrospective one person show.  Retrospective?  I just exchanged email with Jim and he is as always creating new pieces right and left.  Perhaps I am giving too much emphasis  to one meaning of the term "retrospective".

There is much more I could say about Jim Shaw, but I will just mention a few of them here. First, he never secretly aspired to be a commercial art director, or a visual effects supervisor, or anything else but what he did. Second, as long as I have known him, from when I believe he was an assistant art director at Robert Abel & Associates, he was producing his own work every day. Publishing his own books of his artwork. Putting on a Thrift Store Art exhibition. Third, and finally, we hired him at deGraf/Wahrman as an art director for various reasons, but the most important one to me was that it would help him make a living while he was building his career as a fine artist.

I haven't talked to him for about 20 years but I recently exchanged email with him courtesy of John Nelson (I had had trouble tracking Jim down).   Not only is he doing well, but he has a life, apparently, and has been married for over 20 years.  Amazing.

Information about his show in New York is at

His public statement from the Thrift Store Art exhibit is here:

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Russian Pageview Anomaly on Global Wahrman

Something rather odd has happened to the Global Wahrman pageview statistics over the last few days. Although these events are as yet unexplained, no reasonable person could look at them and not see the influence of some covert menace, a menace that may even at this moment be conspiring against the Free World and Democracy.   

Although I try not to obsess about my audience, like any writer I am gratified to have an audience at all. Google/Blogspot provides several mechanisms to track one's readership and from the very beginning I noticed a certain underlying activity, a murmur if you will from such places as Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Armenia, China, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Pakistan and of course Russia.

But as time went by and as I presumably built up a readership, this poking and occasional comment spam reduced until I barely noticed it.

Well in the last three days, someone in Russia seems to have become very, very interested in Global Wahrman, to the point where it far overshadows my normal readership. In fact it overwhelms the exceptional readership that happens from time to time (such as when someone in France seemed to notice my post about SIGGRAPH (see here) and my pageviews from the country that invented Semiotics skyrocketed for a week or so which makes a certain sense to me, somehow.

But Russia all of a sudden can't seem to get enough of Global Wahrman. Could this be Putin interested in the history of Computer Animation?  Perhaps they are interested in my analysis of secret aerospace programs? Or on the archaeology of the Cold War?  Am I being recruited by Russian Secret Intelligence?

Should I mysteriously disappear or hang myself in my cell, please notify the appropriate authorities that I may be a victim of some sort of Russian conspiracy.

[10/12/2015 The interest in Global Wahrman from Russia is continuing.  I wonder why?]

Is that you, Vladimir, reading my blog?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Communication & Anecdotes About Early Computer Animation

Dear Friends,

Some of you have noticed that it is hard to reach me on the phone.  That is correct it is, and it will continue to be so for a while.

One of the fun manifestations of being abused by the medical community is the difficulty in getting the medication necessary to process stress, where stress may include such things as going to the grocery store or starting thermonuclear war.

Therefore in order to prevent you from experiencing thermonuclear war, I constrict most communication to such things as email and text messages, with no guarantee for a prompt response to either.   Its for your own good, trust me.

Now on other news, we are collecting anecdotes on how you first did computer animation.  I had to walk through the snow for five miles each day, for example. Someone else had to type up vector lists on punched cards.  Still a third took a course in programming a plotter in Fortran from Nelson Max in 1975.  Please send me your stories.

You suffered and now you should get some recognition for your suffering.