Archive for December, 2011

First Class Prices on a Steerage Budget

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on December 28, 2011 by JonH

I love the idea of exposing people to science, but at $16.95 a pop maybe the Telus World of Science in Edmonton should consider exposing more than just the well to do ones to it. And, deal of deals, for a limited time, smack another seven bucks on top of that and you get to see a woefully sparse exhibit of Titanic artifacts (French or English audio tours are also available for only three bucks). Chuck another ten on top of that $26.95, and TWOS will throw in the Imax film. Despite the price, it sounded fun. We packed up the gang and off we went.

Unfortunately, my wife said we couldn’t afford first class treatment–we needed to feed the baby, so she cheaped out and went steerage. I didn’t want to break a twenty, so we skipped the audio and video components of the tour, packed baby Auggie into his wheels and rolled on in.

The exhibit started off with each person given a “boarding pass,” which outlined information particular to a specific passenger that had sailed aboard the Titanic on its fateful voyage.

At the end of the exhibit, we were told, we could find out “whether we lived or died.” This was followed by having our picture taken in front of a green screen, which would be later turned into a picture of the gang in front of the Titanic’s grand staircase (ours to keep for only ten bucks). The guy snapping our group’s shot was friendly enough, but had no interest in having his picture taken. After shifting us into the proper position he snapped the shot and ushered us into the first room.

This room, much as you’d expect, contained information on the ship itself, where it was built, some schematics, and information on the ship’s Captain Edward Smith. Most peculiar was how the captain was described as “quietly flamboyant” sparking speculation that he had a very keen fashion sense but kept it to himself.

The second room was arguably the most satisfying in that it had the largest collection of recovered pieces, including coins, bills, stamps, stone and glass ware, postcards, and fragments of the ship itself.

There were two halls leading to the final three rooms. The first depicted what the accommodations were like in steerage and the second featured a model of one of the automatic doors that would have been used to isolate that section of the ship should its structure be compromised.

The third room was perhaps the eeriest in appearance and mood. The room was dark and featured a rather large chunk of ice that people could reach out and touch. Against one wall were words emblazoned on a large vertical banner describing how following the post-collision inspection, the Titanic’s designer Thomas Andrews was reported to have said to Captain Smith that damage this extensive meant “sinking was now a mathematical certainty.”

The second last room featured general descriptions of the kind of men that ran the Titanic’s huge engines and displayed a few tools that they would have used. Closer to the exit of that room were a series of dishes and a large ship’s whistle accompanied by photographs of how these items were found. Considering the environment these artifacts were in prior to being recovered, it’s amazing to see their present condition.

The final room had a list of all the passengers that survived and of those who died. This was where you would find out the fate of the person whose name appears on your boarding pass. (Mine corresponded to a Mr. Francis Davis Millet.) In addition to this list, there were stories about some of the passengers who were supposed to be onboard but didn’t make it for one reason or another. This room also contained one of the most interesting artifacts contained in the exhibit: perfume bottles, which were reputed to still contain the scents that they encapsulated from decades before.

Before we knew it, the tour through the exhibit was over and we were shelling out more money for souvenirs (the aforementioned green screen photo not the official chunks of authentic Titanic coal.)

All in all, the Titanic exhibit was a bit disappointing in that it seemed too short, thinly populated in terms of artifacts and rather text heavy. More importantly, however, is the cost of the whole thing. At just under fifty bucks for two people, the Telus World of Science is charging first class prices and making it difficult for those of us on a steerage budget to attend.

The exhibit runs until February 20, 2012.

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They should take this on the Road (almost)

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , , , on December 21, 2011 by JonH

What would you get if you put former American President Jimmy Carter, a devout and unabashed evangelical Christian, in a room with comedian Penn Jillette, an equally devout and unabashed atheist?

I couldn’t tell you, but I bet it would be fun to listen to the results.

What I can tell you is that reading both Jillette’s book God, No and Jimmy Carter’s book Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis one after another provides a unique introspective opportunity.

With Jillette’s book I got exactly what I thought I was going to get: funny, often hilarious, observations about life (don’t miss the penis/blowdryer story) and a scathing, if not a bit hackneyed, criticism of religion. He also offers a variation on the Ten Commandments from the atheists perspective, all of which are not as irreverent as you’d think.

Words like “endangered” and “moral crisis” in the title of book can really set the stage for what’s coming. They’re powerful words, which need to be backed up with a powerful argument. And coming from a devoutly religious writer, the stereotypical arguments like how gay marriage is eroding family values, or blatant pro-life rhetoric just isn’t going to cut it. The argument needs to be something refreshing; something that comes from an unexpected source, and something that reveals a plot, equally as insidious (please note the sarcasm) as religious folk would have us believe the acceptance of gay marriage and abortion is. Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis does just that. It’s refreshing insight from an unexpected source that discusses how the religious “Right” is pushing its mandate on government and how government is embracing it.

The interesting thing about Carter is that despite being an evangelical˗˗people I normally find to be overbearing and domineering in their beliefs and their desire to proselytize˗˗is remarkably grounded, respectful in his approach to a number of issues, and has a healthy level of skepticism when it comes to government and even when it comes to what his church is telling him. (It could be argued that skepticism implies a renunciation of “faith” and that because of that Carter is exemplifying something borderline hypocritical, but that would need a bit . . . or a lot of fleshing out.)

Jillette, on the other hand, is overbearing and domineering in his beliefs and his desire to proselytize. In addition, I get the sense that he would say he’s not remarkably well grounded (all you have to do is imagine him floating naked in a simulated zero g environment, and then read about it, to realize it’s not just a pun) and that respect for some things (i.e. religion) isn’t at the top of his list. Jillette’s skepticism, unfortunately like that of a lot of other self-proclaimed atheists, comes across as cynicism. He is funny, though.

While the reversal of attitudes between these two men is not staggering, it is intriguing. In the end, both books served a purpose: Jillette’s entertained me, and Carter’s opened my eyes. Both are worth the read, but do yourself a favour, and read them one after another.

Art Clarke’s Unceremonious End to Childhood

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , on December 9, 2011 by JonH

Be forewarned: what you’re about to read contains spoilers, but will make you want to read this book.

You know Arthur C. Clarke might be venturing into murky waters when he starts a novel with the epigraph, “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.”

Despite this declaration, which I’ll get to later, the themes Clarke explores in the novel Childhood’s End can be arguably thought of as his fantastic fictional response to the seemingly insane age the book came out of.

Written in 1953, it’s difficult to read Childhood’s End without thinking of the Cold War. I can only imagine that for people living in the fifties the threat of nuclear annihilation was a very real thing. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had occurred only eight years earlier and the effects would have been fresh in most people’s minds. Just how top of mind it was, I can’t say; but, with footage of those old timey nuclear detonations, it’s easy to imagine that the threat was seemingly ever present. The idea of something coming from elsewhere to rescue us from ourselves was an escapist fantasy that would have resonated in the world of fiction.

Childhood’s End starts with two men on either side of the Iron Curtain hurrying to outdistance one another in a race to develop the first space bound rocket. In the end, neither succeeds as their attempts are overwhelmingly overshadowed by the arrival of giant silver ships which descend into the atmosphere above many of the Earth’s major cities. The Overlords have arrived, and nothing will ever be the same again.

They quickly and effectively abolish war, famine, disease and Spanish bull fighting (No joke. They loathe animal cruelty.) They provide humanity with everything it needs to live long and prosper. Trouble is without any hardships our creative instinct and desire for progress apparently begins to wane. Like our aforementioned rocket builders, you can’t help but think what’s left to do? These guys have done it all. Existential crisis? I’ll say. That’s the downside to having all of your problems solved.

Since their arrival, the Overlords have remained squirreled away in their ships, functioning as benign and indirect rulers of the earth talking only with one man, Rikki Stormgren, a high ranking official from the United Nations. The self-proclaimed supervisor of Earth, an Overlord named Karellen, tells Stormgren that humanity is not ready to see the Overlords but that they will introduce themselves in fifty years time when mankind has become sufficiently used to their new lives.

As the novel progresses we discover that part of what the Overlords are interested in is telekinesis and that they themselves are part of a larger plan involving a much more powerful entity called the Overmind. The Overmind uses the Overlords to protect mankind from itself, and as midwives, of sorts, to usher in the evolution of Homo sapiens. Our evolution is, however, into something completely unrecognizable.

Even though there are no main characters in Childhood’s End, there is one in particular that plays a critical role and that’s Jan Rodricks. Thanks to the effects of special relativity, Rodricks finds himself back on Earth 80 years in the future after having stowed himself away onboard an Overlord spacecraft, traveling to their home world and back again. Nothing is the same when he returns. The discussion of Rodricks’ experiences is remarkably poignant in its brevity and this is what makes the character so memorable for me; it’s the end of mankind and Clarke gets right to the point and doesn’t mince words. This could be construed as a detraction, but I have to say given the fact that I now have a three month old son in addition to an 18 year old, how everything unfolds in such a cold and detached manner evoke seriously morose feelings. I like it when a book can do something like that.

Clarke, one of the big three of science fiction at the time (the other two were Asimov and Heinlein) didn’t often delve into areas of pseudoscience or stray too far from hard sci-fi, but A.C does in Childhood’s End, and this is murky territory for him. Despite his desire to make clear his incredulity regarding telekinesis at the outset of the book–this is what the epigraph underscores–telekinesis functions as an effective catalyst for the transition and evolution of the children of the human race. They are evolving from physical beings into pure mental energy, and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. This, in my mind, provides the fantasy nature of the novel—the part that seeks to provide an escape to the concerns of nuclear annihilation. Maybe it was this opinion, rather than the use of telekinesis, that Clarke sought to distance himself from.

Childhood’s End is an ambitious novel, well-worth the read.