Twelve Doctors of Christmas

tardis_by_homemadezombieFlashback time! This was first posted in 2014, and is being re-posted in keeping with the holiday season.

On the twelfth day of Christmas the Doctor gave to me:

  • D12-Capaldi Twelve dramatic poses,
  • Eleven bow ties,
  • Ten cans of hair gel,
  • Nine leather jackets,
  • Eight pairs of shoes,
  • Seven hook umbrellas,
  • Six crazy coats,
  • Five cricket balls,
  • _479268_tom_baker Four long scarfs,
  • Three opera capes,
  • Two wood recorders,
  • And a lecture on courtesy!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

And a Happy New year!


The images featured are linked in from sites all over the place!

Unexpected Danger

Who knew a new friendship could be so dangerous?

Looking for peace and quiet, Margaret Taylor moves to a small Oxfordshire village to write about the Great War. She believes the idyllic countryside and picturesque hamlet would be the perfect contrast to the noise and distractions of Jazz-age London. Then one afternoon, she receives an unexpected invitation from a mysterious nobleman.

Christopher Tobias, forty-fifth Earl of Yawron, hasn’t left the grounds of his family’s estate since an accident that left him disfigured many years ago. Cloistered behind the protective walls that shield him from the outside world, he speaks to no one but his servants. Everything changes when he notices a young woman standing outside his gates staring curiously at his mansion. Intrigued, he takes a chance he never thought he would.

Margaret and Christopher must face decisions that will change their lives forever. As their relationship grows, Christopher’s past casts a dark shadow. Will Margaret’s future survive the demons of his past?

This is Lisa’s first published novel. The book is available as an ebook, and as a print on demand paperback. It’s a yarn of suspense and intrigue set in what seems to be a sleepy, English country village.

This jazz-age tale also sports an interesting spin on a classic fairy tale. I won’t say which one, though, because that would be a spoiler. I wanted to list my cast suggestions for a film based on this story, just for fun, but I didn’t want to plant preset images in people’s heads. So go to the links on the book’s main page, and check it out for yourself!

The politics of symbolism

Symbols (noun): seemingly inanimate objects, or vague ideas, that acquire considerable personal significance or meaning.

There has been a lot of talk about symbols recently. The flag of the Confederate States of America has been one, as have some other symbols and icons of the Civil War era of American history. A lot of people love and cherish these symbols. The reasons vary from one individual to the next, and some of those reasons make sense. Others reasons make no sense at all, at least not to me. But regardless, for every person who loves and cherishes these symbols, there is at least one person somewhere who abhors them and would like to see them vanish from the collective memory. Sooner or later, there is going to be a conflict of interest. Where do I stand on this? Well, in order to answer that, I need to draw a parallel. (Come on, you didn’t really expect me to give a short and sweet answer, did you?)

Consider this symbol:

I suspect the first thing that came to your mind was Nazi Germany, with it’s legacy of racism, hate, and mass murder. Considering the stain on human history created by that regime, you would be perfectly justified in doing so.

But you know what? That’s not a Nazi swastika (sometimes called a hakenkreuz). It’s a swastika, yes, but it’s an ancient Sanskrit one, often called a gammadion cross. It figures in the religious writings and illustrations of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The symbol represents the cyclical nature of life and the universe, and was generally used to represent good luck and prosperity. In many parts of south Asia, it still does. In the West, the swastika was a largely benign, or at least neutral symbol, until the rise of Nazi Germany. The generally positive concepts related to the Sanskrit swastika were known to the Judaeo-Christian traditions, and were generally taken at face value.

Nazi Germany changed that. The totalitarian nature of the Nazi regime, and the devastation it caused, are well documented. When the Nazi’s came to power, Wiemar Germany was a mess. One of the reasons they came to power was their promise to “make Germany great again,” and the average German citizen was desperate enough, or despondent enough, to believe them. I personally believe that the Nazi’s chose the swastika because of it’s associations with good luck and prosperity. The only real change they made to the symbol was reverse the direction of the arms, so that the symbol appears to be rotating in a clockwise direction as opposed to counter-clockwise. I suspect that change was just a Western convention. Things rotating in a clockwise direction just “look right” to a Western audience.

But regardless of the changes, and their reasons for selecting it, the ancient Sanskrit symbol for good luck and prosperity, the swastika, was co-opted by an evil regime. And today, at least in the West, the symbol is inexorably linked to the Nazis. So much so that even if someone displays the gammodion cross within it’s original context, they are likely to be labeled a Nazi, or at least some form of racial supremacist. So deep is this reaction, that there are theologians and anthropologists who wonder if the ancient symbol will ever be acceptable again.

The swastika had been in use as a symbol of good luck for at least 2,000 years. But after a mere twelve years as the symbol of Nazi Germany, it became a symbol of racism and hatred. Symbols can be tricky things to work with, because perceptions can change or be changed. How does this relate to the various Confederate symbols that are currently under scrutiny?

For a long time, flags of the Confederate States of America have been used a symbols of southern pride, and are (at least theoretically) cultural symbols rather than political ones. The most common Confederate flag in use today is the “Navy Jack:”

This flag has often been called the “stars and bars” flag, and is assumed by many to be the official flag of the Confederacy. This is not the case. The national flag of the Confederacy actually changed three times during the Civil War, but the one that flew the longest was this one:

This flag has some nasty connotations with it, and even the Confederate Congress was unsure about it. According to an editorial by newspaper editor William Tappan Thompson, the white field was intended to symbolize the racial superiority of whites over all other races. As a result, this flag became nicknamed the “white man’s flag.” Needless to say, this one quickly became of flash point for controversy.

This flag was eventually phased out because it was often mistaken for a truce flag. The Navy Jack is the flag that most people associate with the Confederacy today, even though it was technically a battle flag. According to Snopes, the Navy Jack shouldn’t be a problem for this very reason, and as a symbol of southern culture it should be acceptable.

But it isn’t.

The Navy Jack, along with many other symbols related to the Confederacy, has acquired a very negative connotation, especially in the African-American community. The flag has been associated with various branches of the Ku Klux Klan and other racially motivated hate groups. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, it was associated with the “Dixiecrat” movement, which promoted racial segregation and several of the infamous “Jim Crow” laws. Today it is often associated with any number of white supremacist groups. So it doesn’t matter that the Navy Jack was a battle flag and didn’t stand for anything political. What does matter is that it is a flag associated with the Confederate States of America, and the social evils that it stood for. Sports journalist Steven A. Smith summed it up nicely when he said the Navy Jack has come to represent a dark and offensive period in American history.

For years historians of many persuasions have attested that the American Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but about Federal authority and state’s rights. For me, that never rang true, even when I was in primary school. I understood the words and I could see the logic, so I went along with it because I wanted a good grade on the final exam. But slavery was a fundamental and necessary characteristic of the Confederacy. It was so pervasive that it simply cannot be ignored. So when my teachers said that the Civil War wasn’t over slavery, I couldn’t accept it.

The Confederate States of America have been romanticized to the point of absurdity, especially in the southern states. It was essentially a feudal system, where manor lords exercised control over their lands, and where the national political structure was a strict hierarchical chain based on property ownership (which included slaves) and social standing. This type of political structure had fallen out of use almost three centuries earlier, at least in Europe, so attempting to implement it in 1860’s North America seems rather silly in hindsight. It was an anachronism from the very start. And for most people who actually lived in the Confederacy, it was probably a very harsh life. (Actually, in those days so was life in the North, but for different reasons.)

A very important point to remember is that feudal systems require some type of slave caste in order to function. There needs to be a very large population of people tied to specific plots of land for the feudal structure to exist. Without such people the Manor system can’t exist, and without the Manors, the political structure will implode. In Europe these imprisoned people were called serfs. In the Confederate States of America, the role of the serfs was played by African and African-American slaves. So like it or not, when you talk about the Confederate States of America, you’re talking about a political entity for which slavery was an essential characteristic.

So let’s get back to the symbols. The Confederate Navy Jack was a battle flag, and during the actual Civil War wasn’t very wide spread. It was the “Stainless Banner,” and later the “Red Stained Banner” that were the ones that stood for the political ideals of the Confederacy. For this reason, it’s just as well that the political flags of the Confederacy can only be seen in history books and museums. But the Navy Jack is still a common sight in many parts of the United States.

For many African Americans, the Navy Jack often triggers the very same level of hatred, fear and anger that the hakenkreuz does for modern Jews (especially in Europe). Flaunting the banners of the Confederacy – a nation that promoted white supremacy and defended the practice of slavery – is ultimately an insult to African Americans and many other ethnic groups. It can even be argued that it’s an insult to the United States in general. No matter how you look at it, the Confederacy doesn’t deserve the nostalgic, favorable view it currently enjoys.

The Confederate States of America are part of history, and cannot be forgotten. But history – as preserved in books and museums – is where that failed political experiment belongs. It no longer belongs on flag poles.


Statues of Confederate war heroes have also come under fire in recent months. That issue, while related, is different from the flags, so I’ll talk about that later.


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The Regis test: Pathological Technology (part one)

A while back, I read a fascinating book by Ed Regis called Monsters: the Hindenburg Disaster and the birth of pathological technology. The book caught my interest because it was about large dirigibles and the ill-fated Hindenburg, which has long been an interest of mine. I find dirigibles to be fascinating things. In fact, I’ve ridden on one! Actually that’s only partly true. What I rode was one of the Good Year blimps, probably a GZ-20 class, back in the 1970’s. They weren’t dirigibles, but blimps (semi-rigid balloons). But close enough.

I can’t remember the details of my blimp ride at all well, given my age at the time. But I’m pretty sure that the one I rode was the Mayflower, shown here. It used to visit Cortland, New York, once or twice a year, as a perk for people who worked for the Brockway Motor Company. I think most people got rides through some sort of lottery. I managed to get my ride because my father made a few strategically timed telephone calls to some friends, and one of the scheduled passengers didn’t show up that day.

Even though I’ve always liked large airships, I can’t ignore what the engineering and the math say: they are not practical. Count Ferdinand Zeppelin spent most of his life promoting these vessels as having all kinds of applications, both military and civil. But history proved that they aren’t suitable for most tasks. Airships are big, hard to handle, expensive to operate and maintain, and have a surprisingly small payload capacity for something so large.

Ultimately the airship proved to be a niche technology, but within that niche it has a good track record. In recent years airships have proven useful for aerial surveillance, search and rescue operations, and weather monitoring. They have also proven to be great for radio and television communication relay applications, such as news coverage after a major hurricane, and providing awesome television coverage of major sporting events. But for most applications that deal with actual transportation of goods and passengers, the airship isn’t a viable contender. In fact, according to Regis, it never was.

He called it a “pathological technology.” When he calls something a “pathological technology,” he’s essentially saying, in a polite way, that certain technologies are bat-shit crazy, and we as a species should have never seriously considered experimenting with them. Let alone try to implement or develop them! And if we foolishly have implemented them, then we should come to our senses and abandon the technology at the earliest possible opportunity

Regis gave four criteria for the dubious distinction as “pathological technology.” Roughly, they are:

  1. The technology usually embraces something exceedingly large, either in effect or in physical size.
  2. The technology creates a form of emotional fixation, bordering on hypnotic enthrallment, on its proponents.
  3. Proponents constantly ignore and downplay the risks, downsides, shortcomings, negative consequences, and outright dangers associated with using the technology.
  4. The benefits of the technology are ultimately dwarfed by the costs.

He is quick to point out that this isn’t a litmus test type of situation. One or more of these traits can be applied to almost every technology that has ever be used. These conditions exist on a continuum. It’s when a given technology falls into the extreme of all four characteristics that it can be considered pathological.

Anyway, Regis gives a case for why large airships, or zeppelins, were a pathological technology. He discusses the history leading up to it, and ultimately puts much of the “blame” for the technology on Count Zeppelin himself.

It should be noted that the Count did not hold the patent for rigid airships. That belonged to a Frenchmen, Joseph Spiess. Zeppelin did popularize and refine the technology, however.

There is a strong belief that much of Zeppelin’s motivation stemmed from the fact that a Frenchman made the first viable dirigible design, and the Count wasn’t going to be bested by a Frenchman. I’ll let psychohistorians deal with that question.

Count Zeppelin had a vision for the giant airships which was very different from what they became. He never imagined them as the flying luxury liners which became the claim to fame. Count Zeppelin saw the airship as a weapon of mass destruction. To him they were giant military leviathans, bristling with weapons, descending from the sky and leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. And when they were finished laying waste to the countryside before them, they would land, and up to 100 angry Prussian commandos would pour forth from the belly of the beast, to continue the carnage. The image sounds like something from a steampunk novel, and you have to admit it does sound cool. It was so cool, that enough people in 1890’s Germany agreed with the idea, and the Count received the venture capital he needed to develop his giant flying killing machine. According to Regis, this was a fatal mistake.

Sadly for the Count, physics agrees with Regis. When dealing with lighter than air aircraft, the ratio of cargo to lifting mass has always been top-heavy. Consider a hot-air balloon. In order to lift a payload of perhaps a half dozen people, you need a balloon the height of a five story building! What’s worse, this ratio doesn’t scale nicely. Increasing the payload mass increases the lifting mass requirement at an almost geometric rate.

At the time, the only way to make a flying machine was to make it lighter than air. Remember that the airplane didn’t show up until 1903, and it wasn’t taken seriously for another twenty years. The Count’s dream ship would have been beyond gigantic. Weapons are heavy, and so are fully equipped soldiers. Add the necessary crew for such a big ship, and the weight of the ship itself, and you have one honking big balloon! The payload of the Count’s machine would have to be equal to or greater than a modern jumbo jet. Note that the largest airship ever built, the Hindenburg, had a payload capacity only one quarter of what the Count envisioned. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Count Zeppelin’s airships were a problem from the get go. They had a tendency to weather-vane under the slightest of air currents. They were hard to handle in almost every weather condition. Their light metal frames tended to bend, buckle, and even snap if the ship wasn’t balanced right, and keeping those things balanced was a problem in itself. Changes in air pressure or temperature tended to change the craft’s buoyancy, so sometimes one end of the ship would go up while the other started to fall. And so on.

Oh yes, and there was one other big problem that supporters of the Zeppelin Company constantly glossed over or downplayed. The only lifting gas that was easily available and affordable at the time was hydrogen. Hydrogen, largely because of it’s low atomic weight, is very susceptible to changes in air conditions and temperature, which created the aforementioned problems with even buoyancy.

And I don’t think I need to mention hydrogen’s nasty property of catching fire for the smallest of causes! There was one case of a spark from two support cables rubbing against one another within the body of a zeppelin, ignited a small leak from one of the hydrogen cells. You can probably guess how that turned out.

The only other contender for a lifting gas was helium, which isn’t as fussy in terms of atmospheric conditions. But it doesn’t have as much lift, and until after World War I it was both formidably expensive, and very hard to acquire.

So, zeppelins were a technical problem, and no matter what anyone said at the time, they were inherently dangerous! But they still captured the imagination of the general public. The sight of those long, flying whales lazily floating across the sky was just too darn cool to ignore! So the quest for Count Zeppelin’s dream ship continued, far longer than it should have.

From 1900 until World War I, rigid airships emerged from Zeppelin’s facilities in Friedrichshafen with regularity. Most of them ended up getting torn apart by weather, going up in flames, or both. But the airship had captured the imagination and national pride of Germany, so they kept working on perfecting the design.

Count Zeppelin died in 1917, before the end of World War I. His airships were used during the war, mostly as bombers, but they never came close to the grand plans he had for them. In fact, World War I pretty much sent the notion of a flying military leviathan to a fiery grave. A new type of flying machine, the airplane, was showing far more promise as a military device than the airship ever could.

If airships are pathological, then why did they last so long?

One thing that Regis seems to have either overlooked or glossed over, is that when airships first appeared, they did provide something unique: they made it possible for people to fly. When they first appeared, there wasn’t another technology that could do that. The dangers of airships weren’t unknown by any means. But whenever one of them came to a tragic end, the general response was to try tweaking the technology so as to avoid a repeat of the problem. Also, a lot of people had invested considerable resources in making airships work, and a large number of people had jobs that depended on them. And again, without airships, it wasn’t possible for humans to fly.

The airplane changed the equation, but not right away. Airplanes have problems as well, and there were points in the development of the airplane where they were seen as equally bad-shit crazy as the hydrogen and helium filled leviathans. However, when airplane technology was tweaked to deal with a specific problem, viable solutions ultimately presented themselves. And gradually, the technology improved. The problems with airships generally stemmed from the lifting gases, of which there were still only two choices (one that easily caught fire, and one that was very expensive). And in order to lift anything off the ground, at least in a usable quantity, you need a very large quantity of lifting gas. The size requirement, and the unforgiving nature of physics and chemistry, made it impossible to change that. Airplanes gradually became safer, more efficient, and more versatile. Airships, by contrast, stagnated. So when the mighty Hindenburg met it’s fiery end on May 6, 1937, that was the end for airships. The risk/benefit ratio had ultimately resolved in favor of the airplane, and even the most hardened supporters of airships were forced to throw in the proverbial towel. The rest is aviation history.

But as for airships being a pathological technology, we can only say that in hindsight. During their heyday, airships were an accepted technology that fulfilled a specific need. They did demonstrate the potential of air travel, and for many years they were how it was done. It’s only when we look back through the lens of experience and history that we can see the design problems inherent with large airships.

Perhaps there should be a fifth condition to Regis’s test. Namely, if a technology meets a demonstrated need, and no viable alternative exists, it can’t be considered pathological.

Under this added condition, giant, rigid airships didn’t become a pathological technology until the airplane had advanced enough to replace them. That then begs a new question: was the giant airship a pathological technology from the start, or, is it just another technology that outlived it’s usefulness?

Later it the book, Regis talks about three other technologies that he considered pathological, and unlike airships, I tend to agree with him on those. I’ll be looking at these three monsters soon.


Citation:

Regis, Ed. Monsters: the Hindenburg disaster and the birth of pathological technology. New York: Basic Books, c2015.


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