Saturday, April 30, 2011

Video Game Review: Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars

Our family has a Nintendo Wii, but I rarely play it. The biggest exception is when my wife and I buy a Lego game, which I can play for hours (I still haven't played Lego Harry Potter, though). After Cartoon Network started airing Star Wars: The Clone Wars, it became obvious that the show had introduced so many new characters, vehicles, and plot lines that they were bound to make a Lego Clone Wars. Since both the Lego and Star Wars franchises are still profitable, they did indeed release Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars. We bought it shortly after it was released and, after hours of playing it, I finally completed it on Saturday afternoon.

The gameplay is very similar to previous Lego games, although they've added some new features. In the previous Star Wars games, the Force performed predetermined actions, lightly pushed droids away, and could kill other characters (if one were playing a Dark Side character). In The Clone Wars the Force is a lot more flexible and allows you to throw droids and other objects at enemies. Jedi can also throw their lightsabers in the same way that the batarang was thrown in Lego Batman. The space combat levels in Lego Star Wars III are similar to those found in the first two Star Wars games, but also include portions where the player lands his or her ship to accomplish tasks or search for canisters. The Clone Wars also includes battlefield levels in which you can build up your own bases with cannons, shields, barracks, and vehicle landing zones while attempting to take over enemy bases. Other changes include the addition of golden objects (these can only be destroyed by characters with rapid fire weapons), sniper characters, and making it possible to construct playable characters from the rest of the Star Wars universe by collecting the ten canisters found in each level (Vader's Secret Apprentice is my favorite). These changes are welcome since the similarity between Lego games has threatened to make each subsequent release seem like more of the same.

The Lego designers also decided to change the level access hub. Although they avoided using the simple level access hub found in the prior Lego Star Wars games, the first Lego Indiana Jones, or Lego Batman, they also chose not to use the extensive (and occasionally confusing) hub style found in Lego Indiana Jones 2 or Lego Harry Potter. The hub in The Clone Wars consists of a Republic Star Destroyer and a Separatist warship. Like Lego Star Wars II and Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, red bricks provide the player with a variety of extras. However, the red bricks are now hidden in the hub rather than in the levels. Thankfully, The Clone Wars doesn't have the huge number of pointless extras found in the previous Star Wars games; they're mostly limited to useful items. A variety of buyable characters can also be found wandering throughout the ships; the number of characters increases as they are unlocked in the levels. The player can fly from one ship to the next while the flight in between allows the player to complete more missions. The actual levels are accessed by holographic consoles found on either ship.

As usual the Lego designers have filled the game with clever references to both Star Wars as well as to some of their other game titles. For example, one canister is hidden behind a bookcase where you can also find Indiana and Henry Jones. A couple vehicles used in the levels appear to have come from Lego Batman. However, the funniest homage I found wasn't Star Wars-based at all. Sharp-eyed gamers will notice that one of the miscellaneous ground vehicles that shows up closely resembles the power loader used by Ellen Ripley to fight the alien queen in Aliens. This is particularly appropriate given that the "walker suit" is found in the level where the player must defeat the Geonosian queen.

Having played nearly all the Lego games, I was originally afraid that I would be bored with The Clone Wars. However, the game was kept interesting with its wide variety of characters, special abilities, and levels, as well as the way in which the game designers faithfully recreated the highlights of the first two seasons of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. However, like all other Lego games, The Clone Wars has an anticlimactic ending (no special cut scenes or fantastic final battles; you simply receive an unsatisfying "100%" completion rating). Additionally, the battlefield conquest levels, in which the player must conquer a series of planets, can get pretty tedious. The fact that you have to conquer all the planets for one side and then reconquer them for the other doesn't help matters. Finally, The Clone Wars suffers from glitches that occasionally cause the game to freeze up (I think I had four or five separate crashes over the course of the game). While the glitches aren't nearly as bad as those in the first Lego Indiana Jones, the game isn't quite as stable as Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga or Lego Batman.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Gas Prices and the Obama Administration

As gas prices skyrocket throughout the United States and the Obama Administration looks for a scapegoat, this article reminds us that this is exactly what key members of the Administration wanted. Obama has surrounded himself with advisers and cabinet secretaries that have stated that they would like to see gas prices go up.

"Thanks to my policies, Americans will enjoy ever higher gas prices."

While he was a senator from Colorado, current secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, who's responsible for leasing out federal lands for oil exploration and drilling, implied in 2008 that he would rather see $10 a gallon gas than to actually allow more drilling in American territory:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a measure to open up off-shore areas to new oil and natural gas drilling when the price of gas reached $4.50-per-gallon. Salazar objected. So McConnell changed it to $5-per-gallon. Salazar still objected.

And so on and so on it went until McConnell said $10-per-gallon.
Between 2007 and 2008, during discussions about global warming, Steven Chu (the current secretary of energy) said, "Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe." At the rate we're going, it looks like you could get your wish, Steve.

Until recently Obama himself has seemed unconcerned about gas prices and has tried to blame a caricature of the average American for the problem. The President seems to believe that we're driving around in eight mile per gallon vehicles that need tune-ups. Recently Obama told the father of a large family in a townhall meeting, "If you’re complaining about the price of gas and you’re only getting eight miles a gallon, you know, you might want to think about a trade-in." A quick check on the Internet will show that even a huge Ford F-250 with a gasoline engine (which is less fuel efficient than a Diesel) tends to get better than 10 miles per gallon. Even a passenger van, which is the kind of vehicle many families with more than two kids are forced to drive, will get around 16 mpg in city driving and about 24 mpg on the freeway. Sedans can do even better. However, even those who drive the hybrids that Obama loves so much are suffering; not only are they paying higher gas prices as well, but they're also paying more for all the goods and services that are affected by higher gas prices.

In 2008, Obama actually said, "we could save all the oil that they’re talking about getting off drilling, if everybody was just inflating their tires and getting regular tune-ups. You could actually save just as much." Does anybody actually believe that we waste as much oil as could be extracted from American land by not inflating our tires and tuning up our cars? Many modern cars actually display a warning light if your tires drop below a certain pressure and internal combustion engines have become so optimized that tuneups are rarely necessary. So, what other sage advice does the man who travels on the taxpayers' dollar have to give us?

Now that Obama and co. seem to be getting what they wanted, why are they making a fuss over our current gas prices? Oh, that's right, it's hurting him politically among average Americans, despite the media's and the Administration's best efforts to place the blame somewhere else. Do we all remember when gas went up this high under Bush and the media rushed to blame his policies and his connections with oil companies? Now that the media's guy is in the White House (a man whose cabinet and policies seem to have been deliberately chosen to encourage high gas prices), the media is trying to blame anyone but Obama. This article has an interesting analysis of the media's bias.

Has any other administration been so nakedly hypocritical and been allowed to get away with it by its media lapdogs?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Green Lantern Toy Review

Not too long ago I mentioned that I was going to give the upcoming Green Lantern movie a chance, even though I'm usually a Marvel Comics fan. Well, this longer trailer shown at Wondercon actually got me excited for the film:

Of course, in conjunction with the release of this film they're also making a series of Green Lantern-themed toys. My wife, who participates in what you could call "Internet-Age Advertising", applies to receive various free items in exchange for creating a buzz for them through blogging, house parties, etc. Knowing how much I like comic books and that I collect toys, she told me about the Mattel Green Lantern blog tour being hosted by Dad Central Consulting. I applied for the promotion, although I thought it was a long shot since they were mostly looking for dads with sons between 3 and 11 and I had stated that I only have girls around those ages. Perhaps they were swayed by the fact that I collect toys for myself. Anyway, I was sent two Green Lantern toys to review and will receive an Amazon gift code as a small added incentive to review them (the exciting legalese can be found at the end of this post!). Don't tell Dad Central Consulting, but I would have done it just for the free toys.

A Green Lantern figure (Hal Jordan in this picture) and the Colossal Cannon

Green Lantern Figure
But, it's not a collectible if
it's taken out of the box!
As shown in the trailer, the Green Lanterns are an intergalactic brotherhood of peacekeepers. Each has a ring that gives him or her various powers, including the ability to give physical form to the ring holder's thoughts. So many Green Lanterns, so many characters to make into action figures! Dad Central sent me the Abin Sur figure (the dying purple alien from the trailer that's played by Temuera Morrison; a.k.a. Jango Fett!), who comes with a removable mace.

"In brightest day, in blackest night..."
The packaging is pretty clever; the Green Lantern Oath made famous by the comics and found in the movie encircles the figure. Unfortunately, reviewing this figure required me to remove it from the packaging and actually let my daughter play with it, which was very difficult for me to do. Along with the mental construct, the figure comes with a fairly movie-accurate power ring. It's too small for my fat fingers, and a bit too big for my my oldest daughter's fingers (she's 8), but it would probably fit a 10 year old boy (the target demographic, although my tomboyish daughter thinks the ring and the figure are "cool"). And yes, like the geeks on the Big Bang Theory, I want a power ring for myself. Of course their $395 model also came with a lantern.

Disclaimer: Power ring does
not give user superpowers
As you can see from the photo below, the action figure is a little bit bigger than a typical Star Wars toy (this is my daughter's since mine are still in their packaging). Abin Sur has fewer points of articulation than a Star Wars figure (the head turns, the arms rotate up, down, and out, the legs move at the hips, and he turns at the waist) but the lack of joints actually produces a nicer looking figure that stands on its own more easily. And when you have a bunch of boys playing with superhero figures, the fact that you have less joints to break is a plus. The figure is highly detailed and has been given a decent paint job. He even has a noticeable power ring on his right hand.

Padmé Amidala versus Abin Sur: who will win?

I liked the action figure enough that my wife is keeping an eye out for when the figures from Green Lantern hit the local Walmart. I would like a Hal Jordan (i.e., the human Green Lantern) to go with Abin Sur, and a few of the other figures like Isamot Kol look pretty nifty, too.

Green Lantern Colossal Cannon
My girls started fighting over this one before I even got it out of the packaging. It's a cannon that's apparently meant to emulate this scene from the movie:

I bet a power ring-spawned minigun never runs out of ammo

Do all little girls like guns as much as mine?
Like any of the Green Lantern power ring constructs, the cannon is mostly a translucent green. A stylized hand wearing a power ring is mounted on the underside. When the user pulls a large trigger mounted inside the center of the barrel, the barrel rotates, portions of the gun and the power ring glow, the cannon makes a satisfying firing noise (although the sound can be turned off in deference to mom's sanity), and a disc is launched. The discs spin like a Frisbee when they leave the barrel, which gives them a good range without having too high an exit velocity. I was able to launch a disc an impressive 25 feet.

I didn't realize that the power ring
lights up until she shot me with it
I had a pretty good time chasing down my daughters with the cannon, and our gun-loving 6 year old daughter (she loves our Star Wars E-11 blaster) quickly emptied the 10 disc reservoir on her sisters. This episode revealed the only problem with the Colossal Cannon; the discs are a light translucent green and are easily lost if you don't pay attention to where they end up. I hope Mattel will be selling replacement disc packs. And since the kids will almost certainly be fighting over it, you'd probably have to buy more than one.

Unfortunately for the one with the E-11, the blaster only makes noise

"Let you have it? Oh, I'll let you have it, all right."

My wife's scared that I'm going to start another collecting binge.

Now behold! The promised disclosure statement:
I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour by Dad Central Consulting on behalf of Mattel and received Green Lantern toys to facilitate my review and a gift code to thank me for taking the time to participate.

Monday, April 18, 2011


On Competence
When did mere competence become the new excellence? I was recently thanked by my manager for doing a relatively simple task on time and without being reminded. I told him that I was simply doing my job, which actually flustered him a little. His response was, "well, thank you for doing your job, then." Has our society sunk so low that a demonstration of basic proficiency and the initiative to fulfill one's tasks without managerial oversight have become praiseworthy?

Do I really need a reason to include a picture of the Hulk?

On Real Value
Hobbies, pastimes, and entertainment should be the spice of life, not the purpose of it. Too often we fill our time with, and spend our money on, things that are of little lasting value. TVs, cars, toys, politics, etc., while fine in and of themselves, are unlikely to bring a person genuine happiness. On a completely unrelated note, this past Saturday I spent fourteen hours playing Lego Star Wars III.

And Speaking of Toys...
The state of the economy is being lamented nationwide, yet the release of each new video game system, iPhone, iPad, or whatnot is met with long lines and record sales. Big screen 3D TVs are selling pretty well and big budget movies are still making huge amounts of money even though theater tickets cost as much nowadays as DVDs did just a few years ago. Is the economy not really as lousy as some make it out to be or are Americans just that bad with controlling their spending habits and prioritizing their finances? I assume it's the latter.

On Video Game Music
When did video game music become as good as the music you find in movies? Not long ago I found out that big name movie score composers like Hans Zimmer and Steve Jablonsky were writing video game music on the side. It turns out that many video game companies don't skimp on their scores; many are every bit as good as you would expect from a big budget film. It also turns out that some of the newer film score composers like Jablonsky (Transformers (2007)) and Michael Giacchino (Star Trek (2009)) actually got their start writing video game music. Having discovered how good game scores have gotten, I've since bought the scores for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Gears of War 2, and a few others.

On Public Memorials
Can anyone tell me what this is supposed to be?

This is a memorial?

Yes, I know it's the Pentagon's September 11th memorial, but what is it supposed to be? Why must today's memorials be exercises in the pointless field of modern art? The proposed Ground Zero and Flight 93 memorials are further examples of meaninglessness. I know that the "artists" claim that they mean something, but if the hacks have to explain what it is then it's a failure as a memorial. I'm sure there are still some real artists available; maybe our public officials could hire them.

This is a memorial

Friday, April 15, 2011

Book Review: A Patriot's History of the United States

A Patriot's History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen

I think it's fair to say that U.S. history as taught to my grandparents was at least somewhat whitewashed. The Founding Fathers were granted demigod status and America was perpetually the land of the free and the home of the brave. Some have called this the "My Country, Right or Wrong" approach. By the 1960s, however, the attitude towards American history underwent a complete revolution. Unfortunately, this new approach didn't offer a more accurate or balanced view; it was just as dogmatic as the old one (maybe even more so) but it reversed the narrative. Instead of the nation that could do no wrong, America could do no right. The Founding Fathers became hypocritical opportunists whose efforts at nation-building were motivated by the desire to benefit their social and economic class. They were branded as racists; intolerant and oppressive of the (invariably) peaceful Native Americans and all other races. Even those founding fathers who were anti-slavery were condemned as sellouts for tabling the issue at the Philadelphia Convention and signing a constitution that acknowledged the continued existence of slavery. This is the "My Country, Always Wrong" approach.

Keep it next to your copy of
the Communist Manifesto!
Although these attitudes have crept into a significant portion of the literature and text books on American history, the writings of Howard Zinn (who was outed as a communist shortly after his death) are among the most widely read. His most popular book, A People's History of the United States, is often used as a text book or is assigned reading in college American history classes. For those who are reasonably well versed in politics and history, the use of the term "people's" in the title of Zinn's book will immediately indicate that the text will have a certain lean to it ("people's" is often used in the names of communist nations or organizations; e.g., "People's Republic of China", China's "People's Liberation Army", the communist "People's Republic of Hungary" or the "People's Republic of Poland").

This brings us to A Patriot's History of the United States by historians Schweikart and Allen. The book is intended to be a remedy to the "My Country, Always Wrong" mentality while also trying to avoid the opposite extreme. The authors say this about their book:
[W]e reject "My Country, Right or Wrong," but we equally reject "My Country, Always Wrong." I think you'll find us quite critical of such aspects of our past — such as the Founders' unwillingness to actually act on slavery on at least three separate occasions; or about Teddy Roosevelt's paternalistic regulations and his anti-business policies. On the other hand, as conservatives, we nevertheless destroy the myth that FDR "knew" about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance. Instead, we try to always put the past in the context of the time — why did people act then as they did, and was that typical?
It is the authors' belief that "if the story of America's past is told fairly, the result cannot be anything but a deepened patriotism, a sense of awe at the obstacles overcome, the passion invested, the blood and tears spilled, and the nation that was built." In short, the authors are trying to counter what they see as leftist distortions of the history of the United States while telling a more balanced story of the nation.

Although the authors strive for balance, I believe that the philosophy that it impossible for an historian to be unbiased can clearly be seen in A Patriot's History. The mere act of determining what material will be included in an history, of deciding from what angle to approach the subject, or of selecting among contradicting historical accounts will always reflect the opinions or biases of the historian. In the case of Schweikart's and Allen's book, there tends to be an emphasize on the benefits of small government, the general virtue of the nation (while admitting that there are many flaws), and the beneficial effects of the free market. For example, in their discussion of the Trail of Tears (in which the Cherokee were forcibly driven out of Georgia and into Oklahoma), the authors point out that the Cherokee were evicted from their lands because President Andrew Jackson exceeded his Constitutional authority. Congress had not granted Jackson the right to displace the Cherokee while the Supreme Court had explicitly ruled in Worcester v. Georgia that the Cherokee's land rights could not be legally violated. The authors emphasize that a) the Cherokee's rights were violated by a president who repeatedly expanded executive authority and b) that the tribe's land rights were affirmed by the Supreme Court, which obviously didn't hold the Cherokee's race against them.

While the authors generally defend America, they have little compunction in pointing out where America has fallen short of its promise or ideals, particularly with regards to slavery or racism. The most interesting idea presented in the book echoes a statement made by John Adams: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Adams firmly believed that a free society of limited government couldn't exist unless its citizens practiced self-restraint. The authors suggest that the growth of the federal government and the associated reductions in personal liberty were often the result of the moral failings of the American people:
As with much of the history of slavery and racism in America, the desegregation of schools ultimately had required a perversion of the apparatus of the state in order to get people to act responsibly and justly. The Founders never imagined in their wildest dreams that federal courts would be determining the makeup of student bodies in a local high school, yet the utter collapse of the state legislative process to act morally — or at the very least, even effectively — pushed the courts into action. It was a cautionary tale. At every point in the past, the continued refusal of any group to abide by a modicum of decency and tolerance inevitably brought change, but also brought vast expansions of federal power that afflicted all, including the groups that initially benefited from the needed change.
A Patriot's History of the United States is an excellent resource for anyone who is looking for a response to leftist depictions of America's past or who simply wants a general overview of U.S. history. Since the authors didn't set out to write a text book, A Patriot's History doesn't read like one; it is much more engaging than most books one may have read in an American history class. I have but one minor complaint; the text seems to be a bit too informal in places, which can make it harder to take the authors seriously.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The GOP's Path to Prosperity

As our national debt spirals out of control, there seems to be very few in our Federal Government who are willing to take responsibility for it. The debt has gotten so bad that I don't think there's anyone in the government who would argue that it doesn't need to be addressed. Unfortunately, as demonstrated during the recent debates that nearly shut down the government, the Democrats in Congress aren't serious about cutting the deficit. The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D., Nev) is probably the worst of the lot. Reid is so clueless that he thinks Federal dollars should be spent on things like cowboy poetry festivals and that Social Security doesn't need to be addressed for another 20 years. The video below, which specifically discusses Obamacare, may give a better idea about the effect that entitlement spending (e.g., Social Security, Medicare) will have on our budget within significantly less than 20 years:

Reid and his ilk are behaving like spoiled children who don't seem to fully understand that their toys and activities cost money that mommy and daddy just don't have anymore (cowboy poetry festivals?). And yes, I am including the Bush-era Republicans that started the current spending spree in my blanket condemnation (although they were frugal compared to the Obama-era Congress). The current crop of Democrats seems to understand that they can't spend money like this forever, but they a) don't have the guts to actually do the cutting and to potentially anger the equally spendthrift special interest groups that helped to elect them in the first place (how angry will they be when there's simply no money?) and b) their financial policies are so wrong-headed (e.g., the Stimulus) that it's obvious that many in Congress don't actually know how economics work. Keynesian economic theory, wherein the Federal Government attempts to stimulate the economy through massive deficit spending, has never worked. Supply-side economics, on the other hand, have worked brilliantly under both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan (see Larry Schweikart's and Michael Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States). However, supply-side economics are disdained by the Left because they require that tax cuts be extended to corporations and the wealthy (i.e., those who actually produce jobs and economic growth), which is contrary to the Left's dogma of fomenting class-envy.

Fortunately, there are a few adults in Congress; Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), the chairman of the House Committee on the Budget, has proposed the Path to Prosperity. The plan is an attempt to rein in Federal spending and to put America back on a sound financial footing. Ryan knows exactly where the blame for the deficit belongs:
The U.S. government is not running sustained deficits because Americans are taxed too little. The government is running deficits because it spends too much.
Since the Path to Prosperity would actually change the way the Federal Government does business, the party of the status quo (i.e., the Democrats) have done nothing but villify the GOP in general and Ryan in particular (see here and here). Democrats shriek that Ryan's plan would "end Medicare as we know it" (Medicare? You mean the program that's headed towards bankruptcy if it isn't altered?) and that it would "literally be a death trap for seniors" (if implemented the plan wouldn't affect the benefits of those over age 55, plus Social Security is in the same leaky boat as Medicare). They complain that it would be "a road to riches for big oil" (are Congressional Democrats even capable of making an argument that isn't based on class-envy?). Other than increase oil drilling (and thus reduce our dependence on foreign oil), oil companies would only benefit as much as every other company since Ryan's plan would lower the industrial world's highest corporate tax rate.

So, other than vilifying those who are actually working on a way to save our children and grandchildren from monstrous debt, what is the Congressional Democrats' plan to address the deficit? Well, they don't actually have one. The closest thing they've got is a vague notion to increase taxes, especially on those eeeeevil rich people who have the nerve to create jobs and pay most of the taxes (yet another plan based on class-envy; does the Left have any imagination?). Yes, the Democrats actually think that a nation can tax itself into prosperity; I dare anybody to show me a time when this has actually worked. Of course, when you tax the people and companies that make jobs, you decrease the number of jobs they can make and you create disincentives for them to create economic growth, thus decreasing the amount of money you can squeeze out of them. This is a perfect example of the Law of Unintended Consequences; a principal which the Democrats in Congress refuse to understand.

Unfortunately, given that the Democrats cry over cutting a miniscule percentage of the budget, it's unlikely that Ryan's proposal will be written into law anytime soon. I have to agree with Ryan's statement:
[N]early every fiscal expert and advisor in Washington has warned that a major debt crisis is inevitable if the U.S. government remains on its current unsustainable path. The government’s failure to prevent this completely preventable crisis would rank among history’s most infamous episodes of political malpractice.
I recommend that everyone read Ryan's Path to Prosperity and that they encourage their political leaders to seriously consider its proposals. Certain political leaders, such as Harry Reid, may have to be "encouraged" by replacing them with those who are more serious about America's future.

Friday, April 8, 2011

To My Motorcycle-Riding Neighbor

Dear Neighbor,

     Once again we find ourselves entering springtime. Although we've had some light snow recently, most of the winter snow is gone and the ice on the street has finally melted. While I'm certainly going to miss the winter season, I think most people in the neighborhood are looking forward to warmer weather. I believe I heard you celebrating the change of the seasons Wednesday night between 11:30PM and 12:00AM when you spent ten straight minutes revving your @#$%^*! motorcycle, roared down your street, and then returned twenty minutes later to rev your engine some more.

     Now, I know that you're not my only motorcycle-loving neighbor. Since I hate noise, I don't like it when they ride their over-loud toys around either. However, when the other neighbors ride their bikes after work on a weekday or during daylight hours on the weekend, I know that my noise-aversion is my own idiosyncrasy and is not the fault of my neighbors.

     Here's the difference between you and them; they do it during the day, and you do it after 11:00PM on a weekday. I'm sure you know that many of your neighbors work at the national laboratory about 60 miles out of town and have to wake up around 4:30AM in order to get dressed and catch an early morning bus. As it is, I typically get about 6 hours of sleep. This past Wednesday, thanks to your joyriding, I slept for only 4 hours. I hope you can see why your motorcycle has become a source of irritation.

     Between last year's evening rides and this past Wednesday, I've noticed that you endlessly rev your engine whether your bike has been sitting all winter or for a single day. I can't imagine that this is necessary for the proper operation of your motorcycle and can only believe that you do this at 11:30PM on a weekday because you like to. I'm afraid that the degree of thoughtlessness and discourtesy you've shown toward your neighbors has made you my implacable nemesis. I therefore must warn you that, when exposure to gamma radiation finally gives me the telekinetic superpowers that I've wanted for so long, I'm going to blow up your motorcycle with my mind.

Your Sleep-deprived Neighbor

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More Baseless Nuclear Panic

Thanks to the Fukushima accident, my coworkers and I have found ourselves fielding questions from friends and family because the media has been too busy sensationalizing and ax-grinding to do some basic research. I've tried to summarize the relevant information on this page. Unfortunately, there seems to be more panic among Americans than among the much more stalwart Japanese.

The latest unfounded fears I've come across are coming out of Boise, Idaho. Due to the Fukushima accident, elevated levels of the radioactive isotope iodine-131 were found in Boise's rainfall and drinking water. Of course, this has some people panicking. "Anonymous Coward" posted this on one forum:
We are going to get a very concentrated dose of radioactive materials tomorrow in Boise, Idaho PLUS a 90% chance of rain. Cesium 137 was detected here by air filter and rainwater. The next three days if not longer are going to be bad but it looks like only tomorrow will be raining.

Should I keep my child home from school tomorrow? Am I overreacting? Wwyd? P.S. Yesterday I felt fine, today I have feelings in my throat and a weird headache and it's raining.
Others in the forum advised the poster to keep her child out of the rain due to "high levels of iodine 131", to treat her drinking water with various "detoxification" substances, or to allow her child out in the rain to build up a tolerance because "she has many years of exposure to come." How can we have nearly all of mankind's knowledge at our fingertips thanks to the Internet and yet keep finding absurd advice like this?

It doesn't take a whole lot of research to show that Anonymous Coward's throat problems and "weird headache" are psychosomatic and not the result of radiation sickness. First of all, let's review the actual report that has some people scared. Here's the EPA's statement on precipitation from April 4, 2011:
[P]recipitation data collected in several states show elevated levels of radiation in recent precipitation events. In all cases these are levels above the normal background levels historically reported in these areas. While short-term elevations such as these do not raise public health concerns – and the levels seen in rainwater are expected to be relatively short in duration – the U.S. EPA has taken steps to increase the level of monitoring of precipitation, drinking water, and other potential exposure routes to continue to verify that. (emphasis mine)
Despite the EPA's statement that there is no public health concern, many people seem to have focused on the report's table stating that 242 pCi/L was measured in the local precipitation on March 22 (the level of cesium-137 was about 20 times lower). My coworkers and I have had a good laugh that this number has caused an uproar among some people. The pCi (pronounced "picocurie", meaning 1/1,000,000,000,000 of a curie) is an extremely small quantity of radioactivity, especially when diluted in a liter (L) of water. When we talk about contaminated water at work, we use units of µCi/mL (1/1,000,000 of a curie in 1 milliliter of water) because a pCi/L is such a small amount (1 µCi/mL is a billion times more than 1 pCi/L).

Not understanding what a small amount of radioactivity 242 pCi/L is, someone took that number, divided it by the EPA drinking water limit of 3 pCi/L for iodine-131, and then declared that "Boise rainwater has highest levels of radioactive material… 80 times amount of I-131 allowed in drinking water." Once again, someone has either failed to do their research or is deliberately trying to scare people.

Drinking Water versus Precipitation
Notice that the above calculation confuses precipitation with drinking water. The rain that has fallen since the Fukushima incident makes up only a small percentage of Boise's drinking water. So how much radioactive iodine has actually been found in the drinking water? From the EPA's April 4, 2011 statement on drinking water:
Drinking water samples from two locations, Boise, Idaho and Richland, Washington, showed trace amounts of Iodine-131 – about 0.2 picocuries per liter in each case. Even an infant would have to drink almost 7,000 liters of this water to receive a radiation dose equivalent to a day’s worth of the natural background radiation exposure we experience continuously from natural sources of radioactivity in our environment. (emphasis mine)
Even after the "very concentrated dose" of radioactivity in the rainwater on March 22, the drinking water in Boise contained a paltry 0.20 pCi/L on March 28. This isn't 80 times greater than the allowed EPA limit, it's 15 times less than the limit. And since iodine-131 has a half-life of about 8 days, the quantity of radioactive iodine will significantly decline over the coming weeks and months.

Conservatism of the EPA Limit
It's unfortunate that the unit of measurement used throughout the Fukushima crisis has been 'X times (normal levels, regulatory limits, etc.)'. I understand that this is an attempt to give people a sense of scale, but since most don't actually know the levels at which radiation or radioactivity become dangerous (and the media doesn't seem to be in a hurry to tell them) you end up with people who are in possession of the facts but don't know what they mean. For example, ten times the normal radiation levels sounds scary until you realize that normal radiation levels are nearly 100,000 times lower than the levels at which the signs of acute radiation sickness appear (the average American receives about 1 millirem (0.001 rem) per day from normal background radiation, while radiation sickness generally occurs after receiving about 100 rem).

The EPA's limit for iodine-131 in the drinking water is an average annual level of 3 pCi/L "so the public radiation dose will not exceed 4 millirem". The limit was chosen as one that was so low that a person could ingest it every day from infancy to old age with no statistically detectable ill effects. Like so many other EPA limits, this number is relatively arbitrary. Although levels vary, the Department of Energy has estimated that the average American receives 360 millirem/year due to background radiation (some have estimated even higher levels due to the increased use of certain medical technologies). The 4 millirem that one could get from drinking water containing the EPA limit of iodine-131 would therefore account for a mere 1% of the radiation a person would normally receive. Even if the scary '80 times the EPA limits for drinking water' were accurate, and if it were assumed (unrealistically) that levels in the water would remain elevated for a whole year, people in Boise would only receive an extra 320 millirem per year (4 millirem times 80) from the contaminated water. Compare that to the 5,000 millirem per year that nuclear workers are allowed to receive per Federal law. Also per Federal law, a pregnant nuclear worker is allowed to receive 500 millirem for the duration of the pregnancy. These Federal limits are what workers may receive beyond normal background exposure. In short, even in an unrealistic worse case scenario, the people of Boise would receive lower radiation doses than have been shown to be safe for unborn children (320 millirem versus 500 millirem).

A brief review of the data shows that the 242 pCi/L of iodine-131 found in Boise's rainwater are less than the levels found after the Chernobyl accident in 1986. On May 8, 1986, 460 pCi/L were found in the rainwater in Portland, Oregon. On May 10, 530 pCi/L were found in Las Vegas, Nevada and 270 pCi/L were found in Olympia, Washington. In Ottawa, Canada even higher levels were found; samples taken on May 7, 1986 found 1,647 pCi/L in the rainwater. These levels were all higher than those found in the United States following the Fukushima accident, yet there were no cases of radiation sickness nor was there a noticeable increase in cancer rates in North America. According to the EPA, such levels are low enough that they "pose no threat to human health or the environment."

Even the contamination spread by the Chernobyl disaster is dwarfed by the amount of radioactive fallout produced by years of nuclear testing between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. The United States alone performed 331 nuclear weapons tests above ground (and even more underground). Many of these tests were conducted in Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, while the largest tests were performed in the Pacific. The Soviet Union conducted 715 tests, often without regard for the health of those living nearby. One Soviet test involved the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated (50 megatons versus the 15 megatons of America's Castle Bravo test). Each of these above ground tests blasted huge quantities of radioactive materials into the stratosphere. Since humanity somehow managed to survive almost twenty years of fallout resulting from the nuclear arms race, I think it's safe to say that Anonymous Coward of Boise, Idaho and her child will tolerate the radioactivity spread by the Fukushima accident just fine (I'm not sure how well she'll handle the psychosomatic effects, though).

Castle Romeo vs. Fukushima: which do you think caused more fallout?

In conclusion, as I've said before (here and here), the levels of contamination reaching the United States are very low and present a negligible risk to human health. Unfortunately, members of the American public who have little to no knowledge of nuclear power (e.g., Anonymous Coward) have latched onto numbers that seem large and have started to panic. This hasn't been helped by those who have taken a single day's measurement of radioactivity in rainfall (which yielded a number with units that they don't understand) and have compared it to a regulatory limit for drinking water (without understanding the origin of the limit or how that limit compares to actual biological effects). Rather than try to confirm or correct their perceptions using the power of the Internet, these people gather on various forums to scare each other instead. I find myself wondering how many of these people drive without wearing a seatbelt.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book Review: Kite

Kite by Bill Shears

Sometime in the mid- to late 22nd century, the spaceship Kite is the last of the Earth Orbital Maintenance (EOM) sky sweepers. Piloted in shifts by two EOM employees, Dash and Christine, Kite's massive nets gather debris from the high-traffic Orbit #1. The ship processes the debris and casts the resulting lumps into Earth's atmosphere to burn up. The increasingly rare larger objects are sliced to pieces by high-powered lasers prior to processing. Although sky sweeping lacks the glory of early space travel, it's vitally important to prevent potentially lethal collisions between space trash and spacecraft (orbiting debris are a serious concern even in our sparsely populated early-21st century skies).

Since Kite is mostly automated, Dash typically sleeps through his three month shifts. However, the end of one shift proves to be unusually eventful when he discovers that the long-abandoned International Space Station II (ISS II) has been illegally re-occupied. It turns out that Dash is being kept in the dark by his own organization; Christine and Dash's boss, Martin, are part of a conspiracy involving the old station. In fact, the four intruders on the ISS II (Mona, Ling, Lumumba, and Trevor) were smuggled into orbit by Christine herself during shift changeovers.

A space shuttle radiator damaged by space debris

Back on Earth, Dash begins to research the ISS II and develops a plan to flush the trespassers out and to determine their intentions (he believes them to be terrorists). In this he is aided by his virtual guide, Sheila. Starting out her existence as a simple commercial program intended for entertainment, Sheila has since been modified by Janet, genius programmer and Dash's wife, into a continuously evolving artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, a more Darwinian form of evolution has taken place in Kite's long-neglected computer system. Due to exposure to various stimuli during their decades in orbit, and influenced by interaction with human pilots, the various functions, modules, and processes have begun to take on human-like traits and to resemble a human society. One particular bit of code that originally controlled a handful of icons begins to consume other programs and to usurp ever higher levels of computer control, eventually challenging Kite's Main Process itself.

Three months later, Dash returns to orbit despite Christine's and Martin's attempts to delay the beginning of his shift. Hoping to help in Dash's plan, Sheila downloads herself onto Kite's computer. She immediately attracts the rogue program's attention (which, being inspired by the name "Sheila", decides to name itself "He_Ra"). By the story's climax He_Ra finds that his rise to power has made him unpopular with the other computer entities on Kite, the purpose of the four trespassers is revealed, and a significant difference between the goals of the conspirators on the ground and the goals of those in orbit becomes apparent. Oh, and there's a space alien (no, this is not a spoiler).

Shears' first novel gets several things right. First of all, in an era when movies with an hour and a half of plot run for over two hours and books with 200 pages of story run for 400, Kite has an efficient length of just over 200 pages and manages to be a quick read. This is aided by the tongue-in-cheek tone of the novel; it's somewhat reminiscent of Douglas Adams' writing, but without the surrealism. Thankfully, the author avoids leaning on the thesaurus like so many of the less experienced franchise sci-fi authors (I'm currently reading an otherwise excellent Star Trek novel that actually uses the word "mellifluous"). Also to the author's credit is the fact that he isn't so enamored of his imaginary world that he feels the need to give us a hyper-detailed description of the sky sweeper or an excessive amount of back story or exposition (I've complained about this before). Like Dan Simmons, Shears maintains a good balance of worldbuilding, plot, and character development. This is an impressive accomplishment given that many first-time sci-fi or fantasy authors are tempted to focus almost exclusively on the gimmick of their story or imaginary world to the detriment of story and characters. Finally, the novel has a satisfying and logical conclusion, a disgustingly described alien (always a plus), and a couple explosions (you can't go wrong with a good explosion).

Earth from orbit

Of course, this being a first novel, Kite can be expected to stumble in a few places. None of the shortcomings ruin the overall plot or are fundamental flaws, but they do detract from the story. Plot-wise, the biggest misstep may be the early introduction of the alien, Troy, and the revelation of his intentions. By prematurely bringing the alien into the story and giving us an indication of his designs for Earth, much of the mystery and suspense that the author develops early on (and which are among the novel's strengths) as well as the impact of the finale are lessened. Given that Troy has little to do until the final 30 or so pages, it would have been more effective for the author to gradually introduce the alien's involvement near the mid-point of the plot and to save the amount of detail we're given in the beginning of the story for the final few chapters.

As for the narration, the story could benefit from expressing only one character's point of view (e.g., their internal thoughts and feelings) at a time. Kite has the disconcerting habit of giving us the viewpoint of two or more characters in the same paragraph. Although this approach has the virtue of letting the reader into the mind of all the characters all the time, it also lacks the intimacy of a limited point of view and prevents the reader from relating to any particular character. Compare this to Dan Simmons' technique: in Hyperion the reader is not initially allowed to see the point of view of private detective Brawne Lamia, who comes across as a gruff, ill-tempered, and vaguely dangerous person. However, when her story is told and we see the world through her experiences, the reader begins to see her as one of the most sympathetic characters in the series. In fact, my attitude towards several characters in Hyperion changed completely as Simmons gradually revealed the thoughts and feelings of each over the course of the novel. The sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, similarly limits itself to expressing only one character's point of view at a time, usually switching the viewpoint character from one chapter to the next. By the end of the two books, the reader feels like he or she knows each of the major characters intimately.

A couple more minor comments: Various characters, especially Dash, use slang that would seem dated in the 21st century (e.g., "see ya in the funny pages"); I can't imagine these would be used in the late 22nd century. I guess I'm being hypocritical here since I enjoy using archaic phrases myself ("huzzah" really is a word that should be used more often). There are also several instances in which the author forgets that the distances involved should result in most objects appearing very small (Star Trek often neglected this principle for dramatic reasons). At one point Christine is able to look out one of Kite's viewports and see people through a window of the ISS II. Since the side-mounted sweeper nets of Kite seem to be about a mile in width, this would mean that the pilot was somehow able to see people in a darkened window over a mile away. This is a minor detail that even well-experienced authors might overlook, but for the obsessive compulsive among us (and sci-fi seems to have more than its fair share of obsessive compulsive readers) it tends to stretch the reader's suspension of disbelief.

See what I mean?

Despite a few minor issues, overall, Kite is an entertaining story with an interesting setting, likable characters, and several good ideas. And in the end, that's essentially what I look for in a science fiction novel.

(Full disclosure: in return for an agreement to review it, I received an autographed copy of this book. A free book in exchange for a review, which I enjoy writing anyway, seemed like a pretty good deal to me.)


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