Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Brief History Of Time

The Halmanator is proud to announce that he has crossed yet another title off his Bucket Reading List.  The Bucket Reading List is a list of books that I've decided that I want to read sometime between when I officially conceived of the list and when I die.  Regular readers of this blog may recall that two of the titles that I've previously crossed off the list (because I read them, not because I changed my mind and gave up) were Moby Dick by Herman Melville and War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy.  Now, added to this illustrious (albeit short) list of titles is A Brief History of Time, by Professor Stephen Hawking.

Again, this may somewhat surprise regular readers, who may recall an earlier post that was somewhat critical of Professor Hawking, but The Halmanator believes that it is possible to disagree with or criticize someone and yet still respect that person.  I further believe that one cannot properly criticize another's views if one has not given those views a fair hearing and understands them in their proper context.  If only our politicians were half so enlightened!

My main reason for adding Professor Hawking's book to my Bucket Reading List, beyond mere curiosity, involved wondering if my mind could even begin to understand the complex and abstract ideas that must surely emanate from the brain of such a widely-recognized mental giant.  Having read the book, I'm pleased to say that I was able to follow at least the basic concepts although, if I were one of Professor Hawking's actual students, I wouldn't count on passing the exam.

A Brief History of Time is considerably shorter than the first two books that I finished, which is good because I had to read it much more slowly.  Some parts, I had to read over two or three times before I felt as though I had any kind of grasp on what Hawking was talking about.  The book seeks nothing less than to explain the universe; how it began, how it works and what its eventual destiny might be.  In fact, had Hawking consulted me (and I state for the record that he most certainly did not), I might have suggested that A Brief History of The Universe might be a more appropriate title, or even Life, The Universe and Everything.  (No, wait, that's been taken).

To be sure, during the course of his dissertations, Hawking does discuss time; what it is, how it relates to space and whether it might be possible to make it go backward instead of forward, but this is just one subject in a larger discussion that covers the properties of light, the theory of relativity, gravity, dark matter, elementary particles and the forces of nature, the uncertainty principle, string theory, black holes, the big bang theory (no, not the sit-com) and quantum physics.  The underlying theme that seems to run throughout the book is the attempt to reconcile the fundamental differences between the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics in order to find a single, unified theory of the universe. 

To his credit, Hawking stays away from technicalities and complex mathematical equations which would surely leave the layman floundering.  Instead, he sticks to the concepts and offers analogies that the rest of us can understand as illustrations.  This is probably why the book has become such a big seller, despite its somewhat esoteric subject matter.

Hawking also occasionally breathes life into otherwise potentially dry subjects with the help of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that some might find surprising coming from such an academic as he.  He apparently likes a good wager, as he relates several bets that he's made with colleagues, such as the bet that he made with Kip Thorne and John Preskill of the California Institute of Technology, in which he took the position that there were no solutions for the equations of general relativity which would allow for naked singularities (black holes with no event horizon) that could actually be observed because they would be too unstable.  Later, when solutions were worked out that would indeed allow for observable naked singularities, albeit only ones a very long distance away, Hawking made good on the wager by "clothing Thorne and Preskill's nakedness".  Although he chooses not to elaborate on exactly what that entailed, I'm sure that it had to do with buying his colleagues new suits or jackets or maybe "I Pwned Stephen Hawking" tee-shirts, making it not nearly as compromising as it might sound.

One of my favorite bets that Hawking lost is yet another made with Kip Thorne that the star Cygnus X-1 would turn out not to be a black hole.  In fact, it turned out to be one, so Hawking's payment was a year's subscription to Penthouse magazine for Kip.  I so wish that I could go through the rest of my life telling people that Stephen Hawking clothed my nakedness and then bought me a year's subscription to Penthouse.  I could die happy.  There'd really be nothing left to accomplish!  I mean, how do you top that?

In case you're thinking that, in spite of his genius, Hawking doesn't learn from his mistakes (such as betting against Kip Thorne), you have to realize that Hawking actually very much wanted to believe that Cygnus X-1 was a black hole, and bet against that fact mainly as a hedge.  Having lost, at least he has the satisfaction of knowing that Cygnus X-1 turned out to be what he had hoped it would be.  If he'd won, he would have gotten a four-year subscription to Private Eye magazine, apparently one of his favorite publications.  (I'm now forming an amusing mental image of Hawking in a worn-out beige trench coat and deerstalker hat).  In a sense, he couldn't lose either way.

Sometimes, Hawking is unintentionally amusing.  I offer, as an example, his discussion of string theory or, rather, M-theory, which is a sort of extension of string theory.  Here's a very simplified explanation.  There are particles.  We all know what those are.  Then there are strings.  Those are like particles that have another dimension; length (hence the "string" analogy").  Well, M-theory posits the existence of another basic building block of the universe known as a membrane, or "brane".  That's like a string with yet another dimension, making it more like a sheet (or membrane).  These are referred to as "P-branes" (not Hawking's idea, as far as I know), with "P" being the number of dimensions in which the membrane exists. 

The number of dimensions in which the membrane exists?  Concepts like that make me feel like a "P-brane" myself.  It happens a lot while reading Hawking's book.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

To All The Cars I've Loved Before

I think it fair to say that, in general, men are much more emotionally attached to their cars than women are.  This brings to mind a verse from the lyrics of Shania Twain's song, "That don't Impress Me Much"...

You're one of those guys who likes to shine his machine
You make me take off my shoes before you let me get in
I can't believe you kiss your car good night
C'mon baby tell me-you must be jokin', right!

Clearly, women just don't understand the male attachment to motorized transportation.  I suppose this might serve as evidence that women are much more practical than men ... if you dismiss the stereotypical female who can't seem to stop shopping for shoes, even though she already owns a hundred pair for every conceivable occasion, including (but not limited to) solar eclipses that occur precisely at the vernal equinox.

But I digress (as usual).  There's no denying that cars tend to be more important to men than they are to women.  The cars we drive become part of who we are.  To some extent, people judge us by our cars, and this includes women.  Momma always said there's an awful lot you could tell about a person by their car. Where they're going. Where they've been. I haven't actually owned all that many cars for a guy of my age.  I'll be fifty next month (but don't let it get around) and I've owned exactly five cars since I learned to drive at sixteen, and only two of those were purchased new.   I bet if I think about it real hard I could remember my first car (this is where the picture gets all wavy and blurry and we fade to the flashback scene).

Of course I can remember my first car.  A guy's first car is like a woman's first love.  We never forget them.  No matter how many cars come afterward, that first one always holds a special place in our hearts.  Mine was a 1974 Dodge Dart, although I didn't become its owner until 1980.  Before that, it was the family car and belonged to my dad, who handed it down to me when he finally bought a new car; a 1980 Chevy Malibu (dad always had a flair for picking cool, "babe magnet" cars like that). 

Since the Dart was a hand-me-down from dad, it was the four-door family sedan variant; somewhat boxy and nondescript in appearance.  Naturally, I would have preferred something a little sportier, like a Porsche Carrera or, failing that, at least the two-door Dart Swinger variant, but I was not one of these spoiled teens who gets to be choosy about his first ride.  I had to take what I could get. 

Ironically, Chrysler re-introduced a new Dodge Dart this year after having put the model on ice for several decades.  The new Dart is much sportier than its predecessor, being based on Europe's Alfa Romeo Giulietta design.  Why couldn't my Dart look like that?

Still, I grew to love that car.  It wasn't flashy, but it was a tank!  It had to be in order to suffer the neglect with which I treated it, yet still keep rolling.  I had to run it without oil twice before I finally managed to kill it!  After the first time, it just made loud, rattling noises whenever it ran but, like a faithful dog that licks the hand of the master who just beat it, it forgave me and continued to serve me faithfully.  Besides, the rattle was useful in its way.  I still had the car during my first year of college, where I befriended a blind classmate who declared that mine was the only car that he could recognize whenever I rolled into the school parking lot in the morning.

That car and I went everywhere together.  It would take me on scenic suburban cruises on Sunday mornings when I was supposed to be in church.  It got me out of several speeding tickets.

Policeman:  I clocked you at sixty-five.
Me: That's impossible officer.  This car can't do over fifty.
Policeman (looking that Dart over):  My mistake, son.  Move along.

I could tell a million stories, but I'll limit myself to the time that I decided to drive the car down a narrow, gravel lane that ran through an area that was otherwise overgrown with brambles and high grass.  The lane was just barely wide enough to fit the car, which was precisely the reason why I chose to drive down it; just to see whether it would fit.  Unfortunately, the lane turned out to be more of a bike path and, as such, I encountered a couple of cyclists coming at me in the other direction before reaching the far end.  What with the narrowness of the lane and the fact that it was overgrown on both sides, I could hardly turn around and, my Dart being the bigger, heavier vehicle, it was the cyclists that finally had to leave the path and relinquish the right of way to me. 

The skull grinning out at them from the top of my dashboard may have helped to intimidate them as well.  You see, I had made a ceramic skull in my high school art class (I called it Yorick) and, not having any better uses for it, I decided that it would make a nice dashboard ornament for my car.

After I finally managed to drive the Dodge Dart into the proverbial ground, there came a car-free period as I was still a college student with a part-time job who apparently couldn't even afford oil for his old car, much less a new one.  As such, I didn't get my next car until after I had finished school, landed my first "real" job and had, in fact, been working at it for over a year.  On the other hand, my next car was my first new car, and it was another Dodge; a 1984 Dodge Omni.

Although it was purchased new, I didn't exactly pick the Omni myself.  My dad sort of picked it for me.  See, I had never purchased a car before, having only ever owned the hand-me-down Dart and I didn't really understand standard financing practices, what things to look for in a vehicle and possible pitfalls to avoid, so my dad took it upon himself to help me find something practical and in my price range.  As it turned out, "help me find" turned into more of a "choose for me" situation, but I never resented it.  He had my best interests at heart and, I must admit, the Omni was a pretty good fit for me at the time.

Like the Dart, the Omni was a fairly nondescript car (another example of dad's keen eye for style), but it had the advantage of being bright red and therefore just a touch sportier in appearance.  Still, I couldn't help feeling just a bit emasculated when I opened up the newspaper one day to see a car dealership advertising the Omni and pushing it as "The ideal second car for the lady of the house". 

I bought the Omni about a week before my first date with my wife who, unlike the Omni, is still with me to this day. I correctly surmised that any girl willing to be seen in that car might not be overly choosy about potential romantic partners.

As I was somewhat older and my wild oats had been well sewn (and had, fortunately, not borne too much evil fruit) the Omni and I didn't have near as many misadventures as did the Dart and I.  Being a four-door hatchback it was, once again, very much a family vehicle and proved a faithful, if somewhat sickly, work horse over the eight years that I owned it. 

It must have been one of those notorious "Friday" vehicles (you know, a vehicle that came off the assembly line on a Friday, when the factory workers' minds were already more on their weekend than on the task of assembling an automobile) because it seemed that things were constantly breaking and/or falling off that car.  Usually, it was little things like a dash light going out or a side-view mirror seizing up.  It went through more headlamps than Bugs Bunny went through carrots, which turned out to be a symptom of a larger problem with the voltage regulator. 

I'll never forget the day when, driving home from work, I noticed all the cars behind me leaving a large, respectful distance between themselves and me.  I discovered the reason for this when I parked in my driveway and got out of the car, to find my rear bumper literally hanging by a thread!  Of course I had heard the noise it made dragging along the road behind me, but the Omni always sounded like that, so I thought nothing of it.

The Omni was the car in which I had my one and only collision that was serious enough to leave the car in an undrivable state.  In fact, my insurance adjustor reported that it was a coin toss as to whether or not to simply write the car off, but it must have came up "heads" because the insurance company ended up paying for repairs.  Needless to say, the car only became even wheezier and more finicky after that.

In a way, it was the car's tendency to have weird things go wrong with it that caused the accident in the first place.  You see, it had rained the night before and water had somehow gotten into the car even though all the windows were up.  In retrospect, I can only speculate that it somehow leaked in through the open dashboard air vents.  Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed the water when I first got into the car, as it had pooled mostly on the floor of the front passenger side, and there was no-one in the car with me to complain about wet feet.  As I approached an intersection, I suddenly heard a strange sloshing sound, which finally alerted me to the puddle on the passenger side floor.  That distracted me enough that I didn't notice that the light at the intersection had changed to red and... well, it got ugly after that.

Unlike the Dart, which was towed away by a scrap dealer, I actually managed to trade the Omni in to a dealer for a surprising $1,500 discount on my next vehicle; which was a 1992 Chevrolet Lumina minivan (also purchased new).  By then, I was a family man with one child confined to a wheelchair, so I needed a minivan, but I was getting tired of driving these mild-mannered, unassuming family vehicles all the time, so I at least chose a minivan with a little style to it.  I loved the aerodynamic, wedge-shaped appearance of the Lumina.

Ironically, it was this same aerodynamic, wedge-shaped appearance that apparently put a lot of other potential buyers off.  People used to worry that it would be difficult to park because the slope of the front end made it impossible to see where the nose ended from the driver's seat.  While this was true, it was never a problem for me.  I recall reading a review of the vehicle which declared that "...the large, sloping windshield was meant to whisper 'panorama' but, instead, screams 'parking nightmare'!"

Equally ironically, while I chose a minivan partially because of my disabled son, a sales rep for a company that converted vehicles for handicapped access later told me that he would not have recommended the Lumina because the shape and size of the sliding side door made it impossible to install an electric wheelchair lift.  While this was, again, true I didn't want one anyway.  I had purchased a couple of simple telescopic metal ramps which I placed up against the side entrance and along which I simply pushed the wheelchair.  Actually, truth be told, I often dispensed with even the ramps and simply lifted the wheelchair into and out of the minivan manually.  My son's small, light build made this possible but, should any ladies reading this feel impressed at my apparent herculean strength, please feel free to swoon.

I might mention, in passing, that the Lumina is the other car which was involved in a collision, but that was more of a "fender bender" and I was able to drive away from that situation.

While I owned the minivan, I also came into possession of a Ford Tempo.  I say "came into possession of" as opposed to "bought" because I inherited it from one of my wife's uncles after he passed away.  As such, I wasn't even sure of its exact model year (circa 1993).  This was the only time at which our family owned more than one vehicle (my wife doesn't drive).  I drove the Tempo when I didn't need the minivan (mainly to and from work) because it used less gas.

Much as I hate to denigrate the Ford Motor Company or, at least, its products, the Tempo was the least impressive of all the vehicles that I owned.  To this day, I'm not certain whether my wife's deceased uncle had bequeathed it to me because I had incurred his favor or his wrath.  It didn't exhibit the weird component failures that the Omni did, but the body and the underside literally corroded away around me.  I only had it for about 3 years.  I bought the Lumina before getting the Tempo and I still had the Lumina for another four years after I finally sold the Tempo for $200 which I used to buy a pair of bookcase speakers, which I considered to be a trade up. 

Of all the cars pictured here, the Tempo is the only one that isn't the actual car that I owned (although it is the exact same colour and style).  That's because I have no pictures of my Tempo; not a one.  It wasn't a car that we "did" things in as a family (we used the Lumina for that).  It was just something that took me to work and back and, truth be told, in my heart of hearts, I never really adopted it as my own.  You might say that the Tempo was the bastard child that I never loved.  In that regard, it stands in stark contrast to my PT Cruiser.

When Chrysler introduced the PT Cruiser in 2000, I was smitten!  I so wanted one of those.  It was just something about the retro styling that attracted me. 

I'm apparently not alone in this.  Just Google 'PT Cruiser' and you'll find all kinds of PT fan boy sites full of examples of customized and embellished PT's.  I haven't known many cars to have such an apparent cult following as the PT Cruiser has.  There are even two songs about the car that I'm aware of; one by the Beach Boys (or, at least, a good sound-alike group) and one by Sha Na Na).  They seem to sell well too, because you see them all over.  It baffles me why Chrysler decided to stop building them.

Sadly, I had to admire the PT from afar for several years as my budget wouldn't allow the purchase of a new vehicle and they were impractical for wheelchair transportation in any case.  But my son passed away in 2005 and the thirteen-year-old Lumina was showing its age.  It was time for a new vehicle and I no longer really needed a minivan, so I consoled myself by at least buying the car which had so attracted my wandering eye those past few years.

Unlike the Omni and the Lumina, the PT Cruiser was not a new car, but it was almost new.  I bought it used from a Chrysler dealership.  It was a year old (the 2004 model year) and had 28,000 kilometers on it.  I had considered getting a new one but this one was the right colour (red is my favorite), it was several thousand dollars cheaper than a new one and it was in "like new" condition so, again, practicality trumped idealism and I settled for the used one.

I still own it to this day, and it's still going strong.  I don't mistreat it like I did my Dart and, unlike the Omni, things on it don't break or fall off every other week.  It seems that Chrysler and I have matured together.  Like all my other vehicles, it's not overly showy.  It isn't the turbo GT model (although I often wish that it were) so its acceleration and speed are somewhat underwhelming.  In the words of a review that I once read about the car, "It does what its name says it does best".  It doesn't have heated seats or individual climate control or even ABS for that matter (which even my Lumina had).  It's just your basic four-door family sedan with a bit of retro styling.  It does have a surprising amount of cargo room for its size.  It actually compares well with smaller minivans.

Like many guys, I do have a certain emotional attachment to my cars (except for the Ford).  It has a lot to do with the memories they evoke, both good and bad.  I think it also fair to say that, like pets, cars have a way of reflecting their owners' personalities.  In their way, the two cars that I chose for myself certainly reflect mine.  So here's a tip of my proverbial hat to all the cars I've loved before.  Thanks for the memories.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

There Will Never Be An Arrow

The Canadian Conservative government's decision to choose Grumman Northrop's F-35 joint strike fighter as the (recently reinstated as "Royal") Canadian Air Force's next-generation combat aircraft has been controversial, to say the least.  Many have criticized the aircraft as being too costly and, more importantly, unsuited to the Canadian air force's needs.  Combine that with the the ongoing technical problems that Northrop is having with the aircraft, it's apparent failure to meet projected performance specifications thus far and the fact that production and delivery are well behind schedule and there is arguably cause for concern.  So it didn't come as much of a surprise when I read in the news this past week that a Canadian group has suggested that an alternative aircraft should be considered.  What did come as a surprise is that the proposed alternative was the CF-105 Avro Arrow.

In case you're one of the approximately three people on the planet who have never heard of the Avro Arrow, I'll recap very briefly here by explaining that the Arrow was a next-generation long-range interceptor designed and built for the Royal Canadian Air Force by the now-defunct Avro Aircraft Company back in the nineteen-fifties.  It was generations ahead of its time and boasted performance not thought possible during that era so, after pouring millions of dollars into R&D and successfully building five viable, flying prototypes, the Conservative government of the day took the next logical step (in their minds, at least) and canceled the program entirely, masterfully decimating an industry, writing off all the money spent on the program to that date, to say nothing of the potential revenue from sales to foreign interests, destroying Avro Aircraft along with the jobs of all of its employees and opening the sluice gates for Canada's best and brightest engineers and technicians to be flushed southward across the Canadian/American border where they were immediately scooped up by American organizations such as Rockwell, Boeing and NASA.

All that notwithstanding, and as big an aviation buff and admirer of the Avro Arrow as I am, my initial reaction was still to chuckle when I first read the headline announcing the suggestion to reinstate it.  I mean, seriously?  Return to 1959 aviation technology?  Sure it was advanced for its time, but the electronics ran on vacuum tubes for crying out loud!  Surely this was the pipe dream of some Arrow fan-boy club.

As I read the article, I learned that my so-called "fan-boy club" included a company called Bourdeau Industries and the likes of retired Major General Lewis MacKenzie, one of Canada's top soldiers, and the group wasn't by any means suggesting that Canada rebuild the Arrow as it was (we couldn't anyway, since all plans, blueprints, drawings and technical documentation were destroyed along with the five aircraft that were built).  No, they were suggesting a new, modern aircraft, based on the Arrow design; a 21st-century Arrow, if you will.  As I read on, my chuckling stopped and gradually morphed into an unbroken chant of "DO-IT-DO-IT-DO-IT-DO-IT-DO-IT...." 

Now, as much as I would love to see the Arrow rise out of its own ashes, like the proverbial Phoenix, I know that it will never, ever happen in a million, billion years.  Why not?  One word; politics.  If Stephen Harper's Conservative government were to actually entertain the idea, it would be tantamount to simultaneously admitting that:

a) Their 1950's Conservative forefathers made a huge mistake in canceling the Arrow program, and...
b) Their support of the F-35 program has been so misguided that a cold war era design is a better fit.

Of course, they might have an interesting "out" if they were to point out that John Diefenbacher's Progressive Conservative party has no direct relationship to Canada's modern Conservative party (which is apparently no longer "progressive").  They could declare that that they, the "New Conservatives" are much more forward-thinking than the "Old Conservatives" and, as such, are bold enough to correct the mistakes of their misguided ancestors, but the Harper government has never been known for that kind of lateral thinking.  So it didn't surprise me at all that their response was that the proposal was "not a viable option" because, apparently, the Arrow wouldn't meet the technical specifications required by the RCAF.

Well, let's look at that claim a little more closely.  I was completely unable to find what the RCAF's technical specifications are (I suppose that the government could credibly offer national security concerns as a reason for not making such information public) so let's go with the next best thing and compare the known performance specs of the two aircraft, side-by-side. 

Avro Arrow
Grumman Northrop F-35
(Source: GlobalSecurity)
50 ft.35 ft.
85.5 ft.50.5 - 51 ft.
Weight (Empty)
43,960 lbs22,500 - 26,500 lbs.
Weight (Max. Take-off)
62,430 lbs.50,000 - 60,000 lbs.
2 Pratt & Whitney J-75
turbofans rated at 23,450 lbs.
thrust each

2 Orenda Iroquois PS.13
turbojets rated at 26,000 lbs.
1 F135 Pratt & Whitney turbofan  or
1 F136 GE turbofan
Both rated at 35,000 - 40,000 lbs
Cruising Speed
701 mph (mach 1.06)Unknown
Max. Speed
1,312 mph (mach 1.98)1,200 mph (mach 1.5 - 1.8)
Climbing Speed
(0 - 50,000 ft)
4 min., 24 sec.Unknown
Operational Ceiling

Those are the basics.  I could give a lot more technical details but I won't bore you with them.  The above comparison doesn't tell us much, especially since several of the F-35's specs are either classified or just undetermined.  The F-35 is a smaller and lighter aircraft than the Arrow, making it a smaller target for enemies, but then the Arrow wasn't designed to be a dogfighter; it was meant to intercept bombers.  Also, the Arrow's large size and weight can probably be mostly attributed to the lack of solid-state electronics in its time.  I'm sure a redesigned, modern Arrow could be significantly smaller and lighter.

Individually, the Arrow's engines put out less thrust than the F-35's, even if you compare the never-tried Orenda Iroquois engine.  However, the Arrow featured two engines whose combined thrust would exceed that of the F-35's single power plant, and that manifests itself in the Arrow's superior maximum speed, even using the inferior J-75 engines which were installed in the prototypes.  Also, it has long been argued that Canadian military aircraft need the security of a second engine in case one fails, due to the extreme conditions in the northern latitudes in which they are often required to operate.

In fairness, it should be noted that the F-35 is designed to be a stealth aircraft whereas the Arrow was decidedly not.  However, stealth properties are much more useful for attack aircraft which need to cross enemy borders without being detected and Canada has traditionally played the role of defender, not aggressor.  Again, the Arrow wasn't designed to go and bomb other nations; it was designed to keep them from bombing us.

None of the above addresses the additional prestige, jobs, talent and economic stimulus that would come from reviving a home-grown aircraft industry as opposed to buying something built outside of Canadian borders.

The Arrow program was canceled, ostensibly due to cost overruns, according to the federal government of the day, although there has been much speculation that this wasn't the true reason.  However, if we accept that at face value, our present-day Conservatives should be hard-pressed to support the F-35 purchase, given that both Canada's auditor general and parliamentary budget officer have projected the cost of that aircraft to be almost twice the original figure reported by the federal government.

In 1979, the CBC released a documentary film about the Avro Arrow and its eventual cancellation entitled, "There Never Was An Arrow".  Based on the Harper government's off-hand dismissal of the interesting proposal to revive the program, it's clear that there will never be an Arrow; not as long as Conservative politicians have any say in the matter, anyway.