Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hanging on the Hornet with Hyneman

Chuck, Jamie and me.

Saturday was a special day for me, as I had the honor and pleasure of moderating a discussion of STEM (science technology engineering math) education at the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum with docent Chuck Myers and TV Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman.

Jamie's been doing some prototyping for the U.S. Navy aboard the Hornet, in exchange for which they asked him to make an appearance.The opportunity to moderate came to me because the Hornet's STEM coordinator just had surgery and couldn't do it, the Hornet folks thought of me from other events I've done there, and maybe a bit because my daughter Laura is the museum's exhibition designer (although as I understand it, they approached her rather than the other way around).

Jamie, me, Chuck, and Laura before the event.

Me showing Jamie the venue and set-up. With its folding chairs, shared microphones and little projector screen, I think he thought it was cute.

Jamie, Chuck, the Hornet staff and I exchanged e-mails for weeks in advance of the event, figuring out what it would be. The idea was "STEM to Stern: How an Aircraft Carrier Works," and we settled on taking broad scientific concepts like transforming potential energy to kinetic energy, asking Jamie about his real-world experience air-dropping dummies and crashing trucks, and explaining how the concepts applied on the Hornet, e.g., catapulting airplanes off the flight deck. I prepared about three times as much material as I knew we'd use, Chuck prepared about five times as much, and Jamie showed up and told great stories. 

Did you know that a TA-4J Skyhawk (which was not coincidentally parked next to our talk) weighing 24,500 pounds landing on a carrier at 135 knots has about the same kinetic energy as a fully loaded 18-wheel semi truck weighing 80,000 pounds going 85 miles per hour (about 26 million joules)? I do, because I did the math on that. Imagine a semi going from 85 mph to a complete stop in 2 seconds, which is what those planes did. Lots of cool accelerations and forces involved.

My view from the podium, with the Skyhawk behind. Chuck brought a table full of equipment and props, most of which we didn't get around to talking about but a lot of people looked at afterward. Leaning against the flag behind Chuck is a giant flat Fresnel lens I brought from home (because the Hornet used Fresnel lenses to guide aircraft coming in for a landing), which we didn't get around to discussing either.

Jamie turned out to be pretty much the guy you see on TV. I was afraid he'd be very taciturn, answering with "yup" and "nope," but he's chatty and articulate when aimed at a topic he's passionate about. He was downright eloquent talking about the importance of learning by doing and "getting your hands dirty." I said how much I admired the Mythbusters motto "Failure is always an option" and Jamie explained how the program evolved from being about demonstration to experimentation as they found that the best material often happened when things went wrong. Over lunch before the talk, he told a small group of us a terrific story about riding out a Caribbean hurricane in his sailboat. 

Jamie was very pleasant and professional throughout, but the most engaged I saw him was before the talk, when we snuck him into an employee lounge as a makeshift green room, only to find a half dozen aircraft restorers eating lunch. Jamie immediately opened a 10-minute discussion with them about the challenges of painting steel, as if that were the first question that had popped into his head when he woke up that morning. It was neat.

Of course Jamie went home with copies of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow and Mom's Cancer.

Jamie's given hundreds of talks like this. While he seemed very willing to roll with whatever we had in mind, he also had clear opinions about what would work best. We did whatever he said. It worked best.

I asked him privately if he missed Mythbusters. "No." He's very busy doing work he loves out of the public eye.

In all the focus on Jamie, I don't want to shortchange Chuck, who has been a docent on the Hornet for seven years and served as a bridge officer on her identical sister ship, the USS Yorktown. He's the best. Chuck really knows his ship, but more important for our purposes, has a talent for explaining what he knows without bogging down in mind-numbing detail. Chuck prepared more than 30 slides and we ended up using seven or eight of them, and I just wish we'd had another hour to really dive into some of the material he'd come ready to talk about.

The view from the back of the room. Deck. Whatever.

But Chuck and I both understood what we signed up for. My idea as moderator was to come prepared but flexible enough to let the conversation follow its own course. I didn't have a checklist of points I had to hit, but if the talk wandered to thermodynamics, I was ready to discuss steam turbines and exploding water heaters. People came to see Jamie; my job was to keep the ride between the ditches and otherwise stay out of the way.

I think it all went great! We had a couple hundred people turn out, which helped raise money for the Hornet's STEM program. All in all, the day was a real life and career highlight for me. I appreciate the Hornet crew giving me a chance to do it.

And I was glad I asked for this photo with my daughters Laura, the Hornet exhibitions designer, and Robin the archaeologist. They took most of the above photos for me and turned out to be excellent celebrity wranglers, escorting Jamie through the maze below decks. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Last Mechanical Monster Lands at GoComics.com


One week from today, May 22, my Eisner-nominated webcomic The Last Mechanical Monster will begin appearing three days a week at GoComics.com.

I think that's pretty great.

I began posting the comic myself in 2013 and, 170 pages later, finished it in 2015. I was upfront about The Last Mechanical Monster being a "work in progress"--it said so right in each page's header--which in practice meant it was almost all black-and-white art. I also used the opportunity to solicit readers' suggestions and feedback, and used some of it.

Since then, I've colored the entire thing, and was honestly stunned by what a big difference it made. It really reads to me like a whole new story.


Now GoComics.com will offer it to a potentially much larger audience than I ever reached on my own.

GoComics is the online arm of Andrews McMeel Universal, which syndicates most of the biggest and best comic strips and newspaper features in the world. Peanuts, Doonesbury, Garfield, Pearls Before Swine, and Dear Abby are all theirs. To be clear, Last Mechanical Monster will not be in newspapers, only online. That still means thousands of potential new eyeballs. CoComics readers can subscribe to a personalized list of comics via either a free or premium membership. I might even earn a few bucks if I get a lot of subscribers, and it's easy to sign up for a free account (*ahem*). If it does really well . . . who knows?

GoComics readers familiar with my original story will notice one change right away. My first version made no secret that it was a sequel to the great 1941 Fleischer Studios "Superman" cartoon titled "The Mechanical Monsters." Those shorts have long been in the public domain, so while I obviously couldn't use Superman in my new material, I felt legally and ethically free to retell the old cartoon's story in an opening preface. Well, my editor at Andrews McMeel Universal was understandably leery of that, so the comic starts with a new two-page preface scrubbed of anything Super. Honestly? I think it works better than the original.


A few things about doing The Last Mechanical Monster surprised me. I set out thinking of it as a palate-cleanser--a light little story about an old man and his giant robot that didn't demand of me the angst of Mom's Cancer or even the prodigious research of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? I did it because it was an idea I'd kicked around for a long time that sounded like fun, and I needed to remind myself that comics could--and often should--be fun.

And it was! Once I got on the right track (I've explained before how I spent many months writing and penciling more than 100 pages before realizing I wasn't telling the story I wanted to tell and started over from scratch, literally on the backs of the pages I'd already drawn), The Last Mechanical Monster was a hoot!

But y'know, that thing happened where the characters became kind of real to me, I felt bad when I made bad things happen to them, and sometimes they told me themselves what they wanted to do next. I found deeper themes about loss and legacy that struck a chord with me. When I finished the last page, a genuine sadness settled over me for days because I wouldn't be spending any more time with Sparky, Lillian, Helen, Chip and Ted. I missed them.

Another surprise was how deeply some readers got involved with and even moved by the story. That comes with the territory when you do comics about illness or even Space Age history, but I honestly didn't expect anybody to really care about my giant robot comic. Yet some did. I had a wonderful correspondence with a man whose father had fallen into depression when his wife died, and my comic helped him climb out of it. The father sent me a song he composed, accompanying himself on the accordion, that makes me smile every time it comes around on my playlist.

Who knew?

So this is a cool deal. Thanks to Shena Wolf and John Glynn at Andrews McMeel Universal. I hope you'll check it out.

In a stroke of good timing, a guy named David Ely is trying to splice together the definitive versions of the Fleischer "Superman" cartoons. They've been in bad shape for decades; Warners did a terrific digital restoration a few years ago but inexplicably introduced some errors. By combining the best of several different versions, David's trying to do the ultimate restoration. Here's his take on "The Mechanical Monsters," some of the most gorgeous animation ever done in the history of the medium, which has nothing whatsoever to do with my "Last Mechanical Monster." Enjoy it.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Enter the THIRD Dimension-n-n-n-n-n!



A couple of posts ago, I concluded my Rhine River Cruise trip report with a three-dimensional photo of the Strasbourg Cathedral (above). I shot more photo sequences on that trip intending to make 3D pics ("anaglyphs") out of them, and put a few together this morning. You'll need old-school red-blue 3-D glasses to see them.

In theory, making 3D pics like this is easy. You need two views of the same scene taken from slightly different vantage points, in the same way your eyes provide depth perception by seeing the world from two slightly different angles a few inches apart. So what I do is snap a photo, take one step to the right or left, and snap the exact same view. To cover my bases, I sometimes took four or five shots in a row like that: shoot, scootch, shoot, scootch, etc.

You can do the same thing if you're in a vehicle moving horizontally past a scene--for instance, on a boat on a river! Take a shot, wait a second for the boat to move, take another shot: two views of the same scene from slightly different vantage points. (That's how NASA produces 3D photos of asteroids, comets, moons, and a lot of other space objects: take the first shot, fly by for a few more seconds or minutes, and take the second shot.)

Then in Photoshop ("duotone") you turn the right image transparent red, the left image transparent green-blue, overlap them, and faster than you can say "Holy House of Wax!" you've got a 3D photo.

In practice, I've found there's a lot of art involved in getting the angles, colors, and alignment just right to get a good 3D effect. Some of these work better than others.

There are many other approaches to making 3D pics. You can make stereoscopic images, like the old Viewmaters slides, which let you use full color. In theory, you could also make full-color red-blue anaglyphs by deleting all the non-red out of one picture, all the non-blue out of the other picture, and overlapping them like I do here. I haven't had much success with that unless the original colors are balanced just right, which most of the real world isn't.

Marksburg Castle. This is one of my less successful anaglyphs because I think there's too big a difference between the angles. Also, I shot them from the boat that was moving away from the castle in addition to past it, so there's some unwanted movement involved. Still, I think the 3D works. 

A town along the Middle Rhine. There's also a big difference between these two angles, which gives the town a "cardboard cut-out" feel. But I like it. 

A statue in the Cologne Cathedral. The upward angle gives it a nice depth of field, I think.
Cathedral in Colmar. Notice how the lady walking by appears twice (by the lamp post and by the corner at center-right), as her position changed in the time it took me to shoot two pictures.

Finally, try this. It works by a technique called "free fusion" that was also used in those "Magic Eye" posters that were popular 20 years ago. Stare at the picture and relax your eyes--don't cross them--as if you're looking through your monitor. The left and right images may merge into a center one that pops into 3D. Some folks can do it and some can't (my wife Karen is convinced the Magic Eye posters were just a joke people played along with to make other people look foolish). With a bit of practice/exercise it gets easy. 


Friday, April 7, 2017

A Matter of Perspective

Three-point perspective I did for "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?"

I see a lot of artists complain that drawing in perspective is hard. I don't understand that. It's one of the first things they teach in middle school art class, and mastering it should be as fundamental to any artist as using a hammer is to a carpenter. Whenever a drawing isn't "working" for me, it's often because I haven't thought through its perspective; once I do that, the composition fixes itself.

Granting that different brains work in different ways, if you can draw a straight "horizon line" across the page and set up one, two or three "vanishing points," depending on the effect you want, the rest is drawing simple straight lines. There are a lot of lessons online and elsewhere about how to do that, and this isn't one of them.

Instead, this is a tip to share something I did today that, it occurred to me, might not be common knowledge.

The standard technique for drawing perspective is to establish a horizon line and vanishing point:


The horizon line is literally that: the line that divides earth from sky. Then, assuming other figures are the same height as the first, fitting them within those perspective lines will make them all look the same size.


The same technique works for telephone poles, railroad ties, whatever you've got. But this morning I did something I often do but haven't seen written up in the usual tutorials. I do it backwards.

Let's say that, for whatever reason--maybe there's a caption box in the way, maybe you just like the composition--you want to arrange the figures in some arbitrary way:


To complete the drawing so that those figures make sense--to make it clear that neither is a giant or a dwarf--I want to find the horizon line. No problem. The key is this: assuming your figures are the same height, the horizon line hits at whatever parts of their bodies are level with each other.

For the drawing above, their shoulders are at the same level, so that's where I put the horizon line.


Find a vanishing point by drawing a line from the tops of their heads through the horizon line, and carry on from there. In particular, other figures that are the same height will fit within the same perspective lines, and all their shoulders will hit the horizon line, too!


This may not seem very useful. How often would you want to draw a column of people lined up like telephone poles? Ah! Once you've figured out how large the figures look at different distances, then all figures at that distance (again, assuming they're supposed to be the same height) will be that size. Here I've drawn orange lines marking the height of the orange-coated figure, and purple lines marking the height of the purple-coated figure.


Once you know your horizon line and vanishing point(s), you can put your people anywhere, then create a world of railroad ties, telephone poles, buildings, trees, roads, earth and sky for them to live in. (And look at how all their shoulders line up with the horizon!)


Tuck that away, maybe my back-asswards perspective cheat will be useful someday.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Untravelogue



Karen and I just returned from ten days in Europe, including an eight-day Viking Cruise up the Rhine River, and I'm not going to tell you all about it.

It's hard to report on your international travels without being obnoxious. Bragging is kind of built in. Not everyone can do it (or wants to), and we're grateful we have the resources to take a trip like that. I also know that spending one day somewhere doesn't make me an expert on it, so I'm not inclined to deliver a travel lecture.

Still, I noticed what I noticed. A few observations:

Our voyage began in Amsterdam. We arrived a couple of days early to enjoy the city on our own, then cruised upstream with stops in Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and various German and French landmarks as we made our way south. It rained our first day in Amsterdam; after that, the weather couldn't have been better.

Just another perfect day in Amsterdam.

I liked Viking and its river "longship" (sized just right to fit through the Rhine's network of locks) very much. That said, it wouldn't be for everyone. The entire ship consisted of cabins, restaurant, lounge and sundeck. That's it. If your ideal cruise experience includes a casino, Broadway-style entertainment and water slides, you'd be disappointed and bored. I found the scale just right. On the other hand, if your ideal tour experience leans more toward do-it-yourself backpacks and hostels, Viking would be too structured and touristy. We basically looked at it as a mobile hotel so we didn't have to schlep our stuff around.

Our ship, the "Idi," docked on the bank of the Rhine.

The smartest advertising campaign of the decade was Viking sponsoring "Downton Abbey" on PBS.

Around the towns, Karen and I noticed a distinct lack of accommodation for the disabled--treacherous stairs, steps, thresholds, curbs and cobblestones that would never fly in the States. On the other hand, governments appear to trust adults to behave like adults and not do stupid things to hurt themselves. People seem to respond in kind.

On the left, an Amsterdam canal. On the right, a row of parked cars. There's no rail or curb between them. In the United States they'd be fishing a hundred cars a day out of the water.

I could have taken a thousand photos of nothing but cockeyed 500-year-old brick buildings leaning precariously into the street.

We walked past, but did not stand in a long line to tour, Anne Frank's house. I was still moved. It's hard to describe, but one of the great benefits I get out of travel is remapping my mental geography. Like, the first time I visited Manhattan, I knew about the Empire State Building and the New York Public Library and Times Square and all the other famous landmarks, but didn't know how they fit together until I walked them. Same with Anne Frank. Until I visited, I couldn't imagine Nazis dragging a girl out of this house overlooking this lovely canal down this street I was walking on. It became real. Stunning.



For a people who appear to subsist on pickled herring, brown gravy, cheese and cigarettes, Amsterdamers look remarkably fit.

There are a lot of very tall women in the Netherlands.

After decades living in a dry land of low-flow plumbing, it's wonderful to be in a country whose very existence is defined by having too much water. Amsterdam gave me the best shower I've had in years, with enough pressure to generate a kilowatt of electricity if I'd blasted it through a generator.

We saw many "coffee houses" that served more pot than coffee and a bit of Amsterdam's legal red-light district. Neither were intrusive. The working ladies in the windows just looked sad; also, all the women we saw were black, which raised many red flags about who's exploiting whom for what. There was nothing sexy about it.

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum is truly one of the world's great museums, and our time spent with Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh was transcendent. Still, there comes a point when you feel like once you've seen 400 paintings of rosy-cheeked local politicians dressed in black satin suits with frilly lace collars, you've seen then all.

Me and this guy.
Also those guys.

The delicious cheese called Gouda is apparently pronounced "gow-da," not "goo-da." I've been doing it wrong. But if you can't trust a teenage girl earning minimum wage at the Cheese Museum, who can you?

Hot chocolate = tall mug of steamed milk + a little bowl of chocolate chips you melt into the hot milk. It works!

I think it's a universal law: wherever you go in the world--from the highest peak to the deepest jungle--you'll run into someone from home. When Karen and I travel, we tell people we're from California. If they want more, we say San Francisco. It's close enough and everyone's heard of it. We got to talking with another couple on the cruise and drilled down to discover we live about six miles from each other. It's a small big world.

There aren't many old, authentic windmills left anymore, but the Dutch cherish those that remain at Kinderdijk.

The floor of a building you walk into from the street is numbered "0." The floor above that is "1," and so on. There's a certain number-line logic to it, but the number of times I ended up on the wrong floor due to this convention was non-zero.

The exchange rate was good: 1.08 dollars per euro. Nothing seemed too expensive.

Most popular street food: french fries in a paper cone topped with one of various sauces, most of them mayonnaise-based. We put satay sauce on ours. Pretty good!

Queued up for fries. The chart at right lists the 20 or 30 sauces you can put on them.

I was delighted to exercise my two years of high school German on shopkeepers even when it wasn't necessary. Karen is skeptical, but I remembered more than I expected to and believe I could actually survive in Germany if I had to. "Ein Bier, bitte." I'm good.

That said, English is the lingua franca that worked everywhere.

Nearly everyone we encountered in the Netherlands was fully bilingual. What surprised me was how often English was their first go-to greeting rather than their follow-up, even to their fellow Dutch. I've been in parts of the United States (ahem Miami) where that's not true. Germans tended to try German first, then switch to English. The French knew English but didn't give a damn.

German villages on the Rhine look like model train layouts.

Toot toot.

More than one guide made a big deal of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church's corruption and greed without acknowledging that their jobs depended on giving tours of the architecture and art it produced. Not that they're wrong, but there's an irony there.

St. Peter's Cathedral in Cologne was breathtaking. Its twin spires rise up from the horizon miles away, and as impressive as it is in the 21st century, imagine how much moreso it must have been in the Middle Ages. Begun in 1248 and only completed in 1880, it's a Gothic wonder. Probably the single most spectacular, awesome thing I saw on the trip.



We lit a couple of candles to remember those to whom it would have meant a lot, including my Mom.

This may lose me some friends, but I wasn't impressed with German beer. I was really looking forward to sampling beers made under the country's centuries-old Reinheitsgebot purity laws, and asking for "something local and good" usually turns up some gems for me. Maybe I went to the wrong places, got the wrong stuff, or have had my palate ruined by hoppy West Coast brews, but to me it all seemed pale and bland, like people accuse American beers of being. Further research may be required.

In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain called Heidelberg Castle a perfect wreck, writing that "a ruin must be rightly situated to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods . . . and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reins."

"One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside . . . The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths." Mark Twain, 1880.

There's a lot of commercial river traffic on the Rhine. About half the barges have a single car on deck beside their cargo--I imagine so the owner can drive around once he gets to where he's going.

In my very limited experience, the best traveling companions are elderly Scots with endless reservoirs of great stories who can dance and drink you under the table.

For example, our friends Wilson and Iris. Wilson will kick your ass while Iris rolls her eyes at him.

Man, did we bomb the hell out of Germany during World War II. I'm not saying they didn't have it coming, but the history of every town we visited was told in two chapters: Before the War, and After the War.

For the village of Rüdesheim, that page turned on Saturday, November 25, 1944. Every significant building in town had a little plaque that read (in German) something like "Built 1362. Destroyed 25 November 1944. Rebuilt 1956."

I felt some cognitive dissonance while listening to a guide describe how bullets gouged holes into a cathedral facade during the war when those holes were directly above a woman begging for coins.

You haven't really heard the songs "Margaritaville" or "Sweet Caroline" until you've heard them in the original German.



Karen showed previously untapped musical talent.



 Troupes of little streamer-twirling girls dancing in village spring festivals know "Let It Go" as well as little girls anywhere else.

When the sun comes out, Germans flock to the river by the thousands to sit and talk and play. Docked one afternoon, we saw a mob of people a quarter mile down the bank and walked over to see what was going on. Turned out it was called "Sunday."

In France, posted hours of operation seem to be more casual suggestions than reliable business commitments.

How one nation can support 837 patisseries per square block is beyond me, but all seem to survive. If France's incidence of celiac disease is lower than average, I suspect it's because all the delicious breads and pastries killed off anyone carrying the gluten-intolerance gene centuries ago.

However, macarons are gluten-free.

Karen and I discovered that we were unable to walk through a French town without singing the "Little town, it's a quiet village" song from "Beauty and the Beast," especially when there actually was a baker with his tray like always, the same old bread and rolls to sell. "Bonjour!" "Bonjour!" "Bonjour bonjour bonjour!"

Similarly, it turns out it's impossible for me to be on a ship passing through a lock without humming the music from this scene in my head, and sometimes aloud:



Nerd.

European cooks should probably not attempt to make fried chicken and waffles, a quintessentially American (and, more, a rural black American) dish. Our ship chef's version came off like someone trying to kiss a girl after only reading about it in books. It had no soul.

My great-grandmother came from Alsace-Lorraine. I didn't know her, she died when I was a baby, but I was touched to see the landscape where one-eighth of my DNA came from, and easily imagined her walking the ancient streets of Strasbourg or Colmar.

Speaking of Strasbourg:



Sat down on a patio in Strasbourg and ordered a tarte flambée with gruyere, onions and lardons, not really sure what to expect. Based on my zero understanding of French and the list of ingredients, I thought maybe something like a little quiche. Imagine my surprise and delight when a flatbread pizza showed up. Even better, it was one of the best I've ever had.



Random photos of things I found interesting:

Beautiful dial indicating wind direction at Amsterdam's central train station. I like that its southeast point reads "Oz" (because in Dutch east is "oosten" and south is "zuiden").

Official metric weights and measurement standards from 1820, at the Rijksmuseum. 
A very rich girl's giant dollhouse, followed below by a painting of that very same dollhouse done in 1710, at the Rijksmuseum.


The Tulip Museum next to the Cheese Museum, Amsterdam. 

Amsterdam is a cyclist's town. Didn't see very many nice bikes, mostly old, heavy clunkers that people left unlocked. Don't get in their way, they'll run you down.

At Kinderdijk.

Marksburg Castle . . .

. . . and the Rhine from Marksburg Castle, whose cannons could hit the far bank.

Medieval toilet at Marksburg Castle. The business end naturally opens onto a pathway below.

Coming from California's Wine Country, we were interested to see vineyards along the Rhine planted in rows that run up and down the hillsides, perpendicular to the way it's done back home. Don't know why.
Noah's ark, near Rotterdam. I have no idea.

We could get used to this lifestyle. Heidelberg.

Cool museum in Speyer, Germany, dedicated to transportation technologies, especially aircraft . . .

. . . including an actual 747, mounted on pillars, that visitors can walk through.

Half-timber construction from the 15th century in old Strasbourg.

A terrific astronomical clock in Strasbourg Cathedral that marks time, Moon phase, and positions of the planets.

In the Black Forest, which is not as foreboding as you might think. 

Storks nesting (at upper right) atop a cathedral in Colmar. We saw many stork nests bringing their hosts lots of good luck and fertility.

We were a few weeks early for prime tulip season but still caught them here and there.
And somewhere in there, we celebrated our anniversary, too.

We managed to cram a lot of action into a week and half, and came home pretty tired but refreshed, the way you're supposed to be.

Finally, pull out your red-blue 3-D glasses and enjoy this mind-blowing view of the soaring towers and flying buttresses of Strasbourg Cathedral. You're welcome.