Friday, January 30, 2009

Honda Insight specs underwhelming

The Seattle Times ran a
piece today comparing the 2010 Honda Insight hybrid to the Toyota Prius. I've been following the Insight for a while, but hadn't seen the specs before today. The official specs are now available here.

It's tough to make a full comparison yet because Honda has not yet announced its price point for the Insight, and Toyota has not released the specs or price for the 2010 Prius. It seems likely though that the 2010 Prius will get better gas mileage, and that Honda will have to price significantly lower to compete.

The EPA combined mileage for the Insight is 41 MPG, compared to 45 for the 2009 Prius. One reason for the difference may be that the electric motor of the Insight is rated at only 13 HP, compared to 67 HP for the 2009 Prius. That seems underpowered, barely a hybrid at all. On the other hand, the Times article says the Insight will run on the electric motor up to 30 MPH. I doubt that it could get up the hills around Seattle without kicking in the gas engine.

Clearly Honda is trying to carve out space between the full-featured Prius and the smaller gasoline cars like the Toyota Yaris or Honda Fit. The price will determine if they can pull that off.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

NASA struts stuff at inauguration

NASA showed off some new prototypes in front of President Obama at the inauguration parade, including the new Lunar Electric Rover vehicle, and new spacesuits for lunar exploration. Check out the BBC video here. Look Mom, no parallel parking!

NASA has a rover interactive feature and photos. Very cool stuff. I especially love the walk-in space suits.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hidden history

For most of my life I have wanted to write a novel. I have started many times, doing research, writing notes, even maps. Yet I have never gotten close to finishing a book. There are many reasons for this, but one reason is that my interests have changed a lot over the years.

One subject that continues to draw my interest is ancient history. I have often wondered how our modern world might have evolved differently if small changes were made in the history of the distant past. I am not interested so much in the history of kings, emperors, or battles, as in the struggle of intelligent and good people trying to cope and create lives of meaning in a sometimes insane world.

Writing alternate history seems like a difficult project, almost as difficult as building a complete fantasy world or science fiction future. I'm not sure I have the energy to start that kind of a project at my age with a full time job and a family. It also misses the deeper point of what I would like my writing to say to the world. I don't want to write about what could have been, but about what has been going on all the time but overlooked, what could be called “hidden history” or “subhistory”.

By “subhistory” what I mean is simply anything people could have done in historical times which is not supported by written records or physical artifacts but also not ruled out by them. That includes most of the history of ordinary people as well as of cultures without written records or before written records. It could also include cultures whose histories were destroyed or distorted by their enemies.

That brings me to the subject of my novel. Carthage was a city-state in north Africa near modern Tunis, which at its height was home to more than a half million residents. The Carthaginians are best known for their wars with the early Roman Republic, and for their general Hannibal Barca who marched his army with elephants over the Alps in 218 B.C. to invade Italy, dealing the Romans a series of crushing defeats but ultimately losing the war. Many questions remain, because the Romans sacked Carthage in 146 B.C., killing most of the inhabitants. Most of the Carthaginian records were lost, and the remaining histories were written by their enemies.

The Carthaginians were great mariners who controlled access to the Straits of Gibraltar and had a monopoly on the Atlantic sea trade. They are believed to have sent expeditions as far north as Britain to trade for tin and as far south as Senegal to trade for gold. I wonder if some of them survived the sack of Carthage, perhaps making it to some of the lands they know about from their trading expeditions to get well out of reach of the Roman armies. There is no evidence to support such an idea, but one thing we do know about the Carthaginians is that they were very good at keeping secrets.

The premise of my novel is that a small group of Carthaginians escape and establish a community in secret on one of the islands known to them in the Atlantic. How they survive in difficult conditions, learn to get along with their neighbors, and keep their culture and history alive for a time is what this story is about. Nothing to rewrite the history books, but hopefully an exciting and enjoyable read that will feed interest in history, and most importantly feed my need to write about this ancient culture that has fascinated me for years.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Fun revisited

Yesterday LeAnne and I watched Stargate: Continuum, the DVD movie based on the Stargate SG-1 TV series. We enjoyed SG-1 a lot, and own the first 8 seasons on DVD, so when I got it for Christmas I was excited. I haven't watched SG-1 in months, it was nice to step back into that world for a while. Continuum uses plot elements common in the SG-1 series, including time travel and over-the-top bad guys. The extras on the DVD were also fun, including a trip to the Arctic for filming.

Continuum is a treat for SG-1 fans, but might not be as enjoyable for a generic sci-fi fan who hasn't seen SG-1. I would steer those folks towards Serenity, a 2005 sci-fi film based on the Firefly TV series. I thought that Serenity stood pretty well on its own and didn't require one to have seen the Firefly series to enjoy the movie.

It's amazing to me sometimes that I enjoy the Stargate series at all. If there really were a secret government project that kept the people of the world in the dark about a global threat to humanity and committed us to secret alliances and secret wars, that would be quite outrageous. Oh, wait...

But I suppose that is part of the point, the characters of Stargate SG-1 find their situation absurd and outrageous too, part of them understands that everything will be revealed eventually, and it is only their sense of humanity and mission and adventure that keeps them going. Stargate Atlantis never gave me quite the same feeling, so I never became quite as attached to it. Yet, for me, Stargate SG-1 is a keeper and I am glad to have enjoyed it these past ten years.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Bidder 70

The last few weeks have been an extended holiday for me. The week before Christmas we were snowed in so I had to work from home, then I had the entire week of Christmas off as vacation and most of the week of New Years' as well.

The rest and relaxation have been great, but I don't normally find the holidays and new year to be an inspiring time. 2008 has been a tough year for our family in many ways. While there are many reasons to be hopeful for the new year, the transition feels like that moment when you are standing on the edge of the diving board, ready to step off but not actually moving yet.

But over the holidays one person didn't just stand at the edge. He acted, and his act has kicked me out of my own holiday doldrums.

On Dec 19, 2008, Tim DeChristopher, a student at the University of Utah, realized he had an opportunity to save a small part of our precious Earth, and that he if he did not act in that moment, no one else would. His act was to disrupt a BLM auction of oil and gas leases on public lands in southern Utah. Not by shouting or screaming or hurting anyone. But by bidding.

The auction was a blatant crime by the Bush administration, a takeaway from the American people and giveaway to its energy industry pals, a fire sale done in the eleventh hour expecting that such goodies will be a thing of the past under an Obama administration, but also unlikely to be reversed by the new administration either.

When Tim arrived at the auction, he found protesters outside. Rather than joining them, he walked past them, signed in, took a bidder paddle, started bidding to drive up the price of the leases, and even won a number of bids, knowing full well that he had no money to pay for anything, and that his act of civil disobedience could land him in jail for fraud.

Why do I find Tim DeChristopher's act of disruption so inspiring? It isn't because I have a personal connection to the lands he was trying to protect. I haven't actually been to southern Utah, though I have a friend who vacations there almost every year. I find it inspiring because it is an example of one person standing up and saying no, of refusing to play along, and of being willing to take the consequences for it. I also find it hilarious since it was only possible because of the corrupt and rushed nature of the auction itself, which did not allow time for proper vetting of the bidders. And maybe because he looks a little like a younger balder version of Matt Damon to me.

But is mostly because of the last sentence of his interview on Democracy Now.

Seeing the opportunity, I could not ethically justify not taking it.

What a challenging thought. It makes me wonder how many such opportunities to act ethically each of us fail to notice in our lives, or refuse to act upon because it is not convenient at the time, or because we hope someone else will step forward to do it.

Tim is now trying to raise money to legally place a hold on the lands he won in the auction. His goal as before is to block the illegal auction of these lands until the Obama administration can take power and hopefully put a more ethical leasing process in place that protects the lands and the interests of the American people.

Update: The new Interior Secretary of the Obama Administration, Ken Salazar, will cancel the drilling-lease sale, details here. Well done.