Monday, September 22, 2014

Christopher H Bidmead on How Numbers Define Reality

An early "Digital Computer," built by the Burroughs Corporation
to track rocket and missiles' 
radar and trajectories
in the United States.

In "Logopolis," a Doctor Who story written by Christopher H Bidmead, the Doctor's concern for his aging TARDIS takes him to the planet Logopolis. This planet is populated by mathematicians who live like monks, and the numbers they manipulate hold real power. No computer could process their equations, as the numbers they compute create a physical reality. So the Doctor and his companion Adric give the mathematical monks the measurements they recorded, which attempt to describe the time machine in all thirty-seven dimensions. (Remember, the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than on the outside). Then the monks retire to their alcoves, and each chants his portion of the computations, a type of math the monks of Logopolis call Block Transfer Computation. 

Through their efforts, the Doctor hopes he can restore his TARDIS to operational proficiency. Instead, he discovers that the sluggish performance of his TARDIS is due to the machinations of his archenemy the Master. The Doctor also learns that the universe has long passed the point of breaking down, and only the mathematicians' ongoing efforts have prevented everything--all matter, everywhere--from dissolving. When the Master's schemes to destroy the Doctor, and harness the efforts of the Logopolitans go awry, entropy sweeps through the universe, wiping out planets and solar systems. Entropy even overtakes Logopolis, erasing the monks from existence. So it's up to the Doctor to find a way of stopping the Master, and preventing the complete destruction of the universe.

On the DVD commentary, Christopher H Bidmead explained that the inspiration for how the mathematicians on Logopolis worked out their equations came from Slide Rule, an autobiography by Nevil Shute, in which he recounted the method of three-dimensional stress calculations involved in mid-twentieth century airship design. The conversation about the story's overall theme of entropy then evolved (or devolved?) into a discussion about fellow actors' hair falling out, and I learned that Anthony Ainley, who always sported a full head of hair as the Master, was in fact wearing a wig. Christopher H Bidmead is also losing his hair, so he's entropy in that aspect of his life. But Tom Baker contributed the best story of all, about an actor who was so concerned that others didn't notice he wore a toupee, that every time he went to the bathroom, he sprinkled salt on his shoulders, then emerged complaining about the inadequacy of his anti-dandruff shampoo. "Oh, who will deliver me from this terrible dandruff?"

Mostly though, the two stories reminded me of how terribly important numbers are to us, and how much they define our lives. The automated systems that allow planes to arrive and depart safely, and transfer money all over the world. The software code that runs our computers, tablets, and cellphones, which we couldn't do without in the modern world. The hours of the day that we mark out, that we plan our activities around. They're just numbers, arranged in a circle on the face of our watches, with a dial that spins around, yet they place us under so much pressure and stress. The dates on the calendar, and the passing of the years, and how we fear getting older. How we reassess our lives every 365 days, as well as when we begin a new decade of our lives. 

And then there are the rises and falls in temperature, marked out in Fahrenheit and Celsius degrees. "Oh, the mid-80s aren't hot," my friends who live and work more inland tell me, where they regularly experience triple digit temperatures. "I guess you're right," I respond, my body bathed in sweat.

Best of all are the ratings systems we ascribe to works of art and fiction. Stories interact with us all in completely different ways. Yet we attempt to give them an objective reality by assigning numbers to an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journey. "Oh, that's only a two-and-a-half star movie, it can't be worth watching," we reason. Or: "Oh, that's a five-star book: I'm sure to enjoy that one!" Numbers, glorious, wonderful numbers.

Dragon Dave

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Dalek Twinkie Challenge

Spider-Dalek: Okay, I'm here. Why have I been summoned?
Artist: You're here to declare that the best Twinkies have blue filling.
Rusty: How dare you put words in his mouth! The best Twinkies are clearly red inside.
Spider-Dalek: So this is what all the fuss is about?
Denim: It's an important determination. After all, part of my job is to assist Pocket in putting together meals and desserts for Master and Mistress. While I'm completely unbiased, it seems to me that the superior Twinkie must have blue filling.
Captain Scarlet: As I'm the only commissioned officer currently serving in the Dalek military, I order you all to accept that the best Twinkies are red inside! Red! Red! Red!
Rex: Blue! Blue! Blue!
Spider-Dalek: Oh, very well. As I have a stake in both arguments, I suppose I should serve as a mediator in this dispute. Pinky, as you're our gentlest, classiest Dalek, perhaps you could state your side's position.

Pinky: Thanks for the complement, dear. Our position is simple. Our Twinkies have a mild and gentle flavor that remind one of the original Twinkie, yet have a flavor all their own. And let's face it: many people don't like the more tart varieties of berries, but everyone likes strawberries.
Red: Yeah, right! And I must add, after a long, hard afternoon assembling Lego kits, strawberries make the perfect afternoon treat.
Spider-Dalek: Well stated, Pinky. And yes, Red, thank you for that too. Blueberry, as you're named after an actual berry, perhaps you should summarize your colleagues' position.

Blueberry: Ah, ahem, thank you for asking my opinion. I must say that you've always struck me as a very astute Dalek. While I would agree with our dear Pinky that the Blue Raspberry filling has a stronger flavor, I must point out that even strawberries can be tart if they're picked too soon. This blue flavor is in no way tart or disagreeable. If anything, it's more of a good thing in each bite.
Blue: Yeah, rock on, Blueberry!
Spider-Dalek: Yes, well…as I found both positions persuasive, I suppose I must now take on the solemn duties of a judge, and examine each side's evidence.

Spider-Dalek: The blue and pink fillings both look and smell wonderful. I think I'll have to sample both, so I can rule on the flavor of each. Hmm. It could take some time for me to reach a determination. It's possible I may even need to taste both halves of each Twinkie.
Blueberry: Uh, excuse me, did you say both halves of each Twinkie?
Pinky: Don't you think that's going a bit far, dear?
Spider-Dalek: Well, you do want me to make an informed decision, and such such important matters should never be rushed, or investigated by half-measures.

Pocket: Hmm, aside from a few cake crumbs, there's no sign of whatever stirred up such a ruckus earlier. Whatever it was, it couldn't have been that important, certainly not in comparison with what Master & Mistress just brought home. I'm looking forward to tasting these new chocolate-covered Twinkies. I'll bet they're the best Twinkies ever!

Spider-Dalek, Pocket, and the red and blue Twinkie-loving Daleks

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Christopher H Bidmead on Entropy & Rebirth

The Doctor and Adric stand on a dock
on a cold winter day on the River Thames,
while the iconic smokestacks of Battersea Power Station
puff along in the background.

In the Doctor Who story "Logopolis," written by Christopher H Bidmead, the Doctor grows convinced that the TARDIS isn't operating properly. Like many of us with our cars, he's taken his time machine all over time and space, and rarely stopped to perform preventative maintenance. Suddenly, he's worried that his trusty old TARDIS is breaking down. At one point, he even asks his companion Adric to help him measure it, as he wonders if it might be shrinking. 

Logopolis is an interesting story for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was Tom Baker's final story playing the Doctor. While the Doctor is concerned that the systems on his TARDIS are breaking down, Tom Baker was contemplating a major life change. After being a national celebrity in England, he was stepping out of the limelight to take on other roles. After seven years of constant employment, it was back to the hustle of auditioning again, and wondering what roles he might be offered. And then there were the worries: he might have gotten tired of playing the Doctor, but he had nearly given up on acting before he got the role. Nothing in life is certain, and for all he knew, he might end up working on a construction crew again. At least that's where he had been working, when Barry Letts, the then-producer of Doctor Who, asked him to audition for the role. Now, several producers later, he was working with John Nathan Turner, and the two weren't getting along. As if all that weren't enough, he was contemplating marrying actress Lalla Ward, who had portrayed his former companion Romana. Lalla was a beautiful, dynamic woman, much younger than Tom. Although they were very much in love, the two continually quarreled during their time in the TARDIS, often to the point where Tom Baker refused to look at her when they were filming a scene together. So it's understandable that the Doctor looks so introspective in this episode, more like an absent-minded professor than the take-charge man he usually is.

I enjoyed walking along the River Thames last November, and touring the nearby Battersea Park. Sure, it would have been nice to have seen the plants and the trees in spring, when everything was in bloom and bursting with vitality, but change is an inevitable part of life. Everything has its proper time and place, and all things in life go in cycles. A few years ago, author (and SFWA Grand Master) Robert Silverberg told a crowd at Condor that he had stopped attending science fiction conventions for several years in the 1970s, when fans lost interest in discussing ideas, science, and literature, and conventions became more about games, dressing up, and media fiction. Recently, I've learned that Condor, which formerly styled itself as a literary convention, is deemphasizing the science and literature to concentrate more on what the fans seem to want, which is Cosplay (dressing up as comic book or movie characters, and acting out those roles), Steampunk (which is dressing up in Victorian-styled costumes, and having tea parties), and Sci-fi and Fantasy movies and TV shows. So, we move with the times, and change with the cycles. We die to one thing, and are reborn to another. When Entropy comes, what had cared about and loved no longer seems important, so we gravitate to what works for us now. Or at least, what we feel we need.

Of course, it's unfair to dismiss Cosplay, Steampunk, and Media Sci-Fi, as if they are inferior creations to literature. All are deeply rooted in literature, and merely finding expression in a new medium. (I should point out that, while I'm writing this blog about a climate shift within popular culture, I am in fact writing about a Sci-fi TV show, and not a book). Still, a few years from now, fans in San Diego may be looking back, and wondering why they're not discussing SF literature any more. Say, whatever happened to all those authors that used to attend science fiction conventions?

It's kind of like Tom Baker and Lalla Ward's marriage. It didn't last for very long, certainly not as long as either would have liked, but then they recognized they weren't right for each other, and parted on amicable terms. Five years later, he was to marry former Doctor Who assistant editor Sue Jerrard, and this marriage would be one that would endure. 

The Doctor and Adric no longer stand on that dock,
but it still serves passengers and ships along the River Thames.

I enjoyed my visit to Battersea Park last November, and seeing the little dock on which the TARDIS landed in "Logopolis." It may have been cold, and the pathways littered with leaves, but Fall possesses its own radiant beauty. Now we're enduring the heat of summer, but soon it will be Fall again, with declining temperatures and falling leaves. Now I'm sweating, but all too soon I'll be shivering again, and looking forward to summer. Oh yes, and wishing once again that, this year, I had finally gotten around to installing insulation in my house. 

Yeah, that would have been smart.

How are the forces of entropy currently affecting your life? What changes are you most looking forward to, and how are you preparing to harness them?

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 15, 2014

Doctor Who on The Weather

Tegan helps her aunt fix a flat tire
beside an English road during winter.

Right now, San Diego is undergoing a heat wave. Temperatures along the coast are expected to rise into the mid-to-high '80s, with temperatures inland rising into triple digits. Our house doesn't have air conditioning. Nor, as it's along the coast, do we even have insulation. So it grows hotter during the day each summer, and retains that heat in the evenings. We've taken measures, like opening the windows at 6 a.m., and turning on the fans, then closing up the windows around midmorning, and then opening them back up again in the late afternoon. During the afternoon, I have to shut the computer and do something else, as my little laptop computer generates enough additional heat to make me sweat. This weekend, we spent much of each day in stores, restaurants, and the cinema, in part to enjoy cooler temperatures. This kept our spirits merry, but gave us headaches from exchanging long periods of air conditioning with the temperature outside.

On the commentary for the Doctor Who story "Logopolis," one of the topics discussed is the weather. Janet Fielding, who played aspiring airline stewardess Tegan, remarks on how bitterly cold she found filming this story. She had recently emigrated from Queensland, Australia, which she described as a tropical climate in comparison to England in winter. You can see the fog streaming out of the actors' mouths when they breathe and speak. Christopher H Bidmead, who wrote the story, contended that she was pretty well covered-up in the scene. Janet Fielding suggested that, next winter, he should dress up as an airline stewardess, with a short skirt and nothing but stockings to cover her legs, and then tell her how warm he was.

Tom Baker, who played the Doctor in this story, enjoyed a much warmer costume, with his long, thick coat and even longer scarf. He, like many older British actors, had since moved to France to escape the English winters. But after living there for a few years, he complained that he had gotten tired of all the heat, and was buying a house in Royal Tunbridge Wells, and looking forward to returning to the cooler temperatures of England.

Last October, when my wife and I attended the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, a storm blew in along the coast, bringing with it rain, fog, and wind. We'd step outside, get wet, hurled about, and have to watch our feet to keep from getting wet or muddy. After that, we spent a week in London. During the first few days, we toured the museums, but even they were cold inside. So we spent the rest of our days outside, enjoying the parks, and other historical sites. After a few hours of shivering, we climbed onto a bus to get out of the wind, or ducked into a store for awhile to escape the wind, or decided to sit down for awhile and enjoy a cup of hot tea and watch the rain pour down outside. Whenever my wife looks back on that trip, she feels kind of sad, as we are always bundled up in our coats and hats in our photos. But at the time we didnt let it get us down, and forced ourselves to get out and enjoy our vacation as much as we could.

Last night, we found an automated call from the power company on our answering machine, asking us to conserve electricity today, especially between the hours of 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Schools are operating on a reduced schedule throughout San Diego, especially those without air conditioning. As for me, I'll be closing up the windows, and keeping the appliances off. Instead of working on the computer, I'll probably be working with pen and paper this afternoon. If the heat exhausts me, then I'll read a book: a real book that is, not an ebook off my laptop. Above all, I'll be thinking of how cold it was in England last October and November. I might have gotten a head cold during that trip, but hey, at least I wasn't sweating, right?

It's interesting how fickle we can be at times, isn't it? But hey, I'm hot

Dragon Dave

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hulk Like Smashburgers

Hulk: Smashburger? Hulk like name of restaurant. Hulk look forward to dinner!

Hulk like philosophy of restaurant. Smashing is better! But Smashfact wrong: Hulk no need sidekick. Hulk smash well on his own!

Hulk: Oh, you again. Hello, Bug Dalek. What you here for?
Spider-Dalek: That's Spider-Dalek, and I thought I'd tag along. You know, be your zany sidekick for the evening.
Hulk: This not your kind of restaurant. Bug Dalek should go home. Not safe for you: might get smashed accidentally.

Spider-Dalek: Again, it's Spider-Dalek, not Bug Dalek. And you don't need to worry about me. I may be zany, and fast with the odd quip, but I can take care of myself. Besides, these fries remind me of swish-swish…you know, what I do.
Hulk: Hulk no understand swish swish, but he no want Bug Dalek to do it near food.
Spider-Dalek: No, that's Spider… Anyway, I'm talkin' about my web shooters, man! You may smash criminals, but with my grace and √©lan, I just go swish swish with my gun, and gift wrap the criminals in my clingy webs, ready for the police to pick up.
Hulk: Hulk say no swish swish around food!
Spider-Dalek: Yeesh! Okay!

Spider-Dalek: Well, that was one great dinner. I must say, I think I did better on my end of the tray. Look at all the fries I'm taking home.
Hulk: Bug Dalek wrong. Hulk like burger so much he demolish it in one sitting. Nothing left to take home.
Spider-Dalek: Hulk, what's wrong? You just said three complete sentences without "smash" in them.
Hulk: Hulk smart. Consult thesaurus. Hulk like to read, maybe write his stories some day. 
Spider-Dalek: I'm impressed. I never guessed at your literary aspirations. That's great! Maybe you could start off with short stories. You know, the kind Master reads. Who knows? You might be the next Robert Silverberg, or Roger Zelazny.
Hulk: Hulk not sure, but think Bug Dalek being complimentary. That good. Hulk sated, not feel like smashing Bug Dalek tonight.

Hulk & Spider-Dalek