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200 mph is the easy part

Posted in American, Just for Fun, Sports, Television by Alex L. on June 28, 2012

Photo from IndyCar.comAs a kid, strong and shining institutions seem immutable: they arise from a misty golden past and will continue even stronger into the future. To see them decline instead of increase is something of a shock and (to me at least) a rallying cry to take up their cause.

I have always loved the instruments of accelerating human movement: automobiles, airplanes, and ships. In the ’90s, IndyCar racing was enjoying a wave of popularity in America: it was our homegrown open-wheel racing series. Not so anymore. On YouTube, which usually squelches unauthorized uploads of sports broadcasts with a silicon fist, videos of full races generously posted by the IndyCar authorities barely manage to scratch together a couple thousand views.

But I’ve a soft spot for lost causes and have been following every race of IndyCar this season. And the drama is truly exciting. During the first couple of races, the series and drivers were still recovering from the death of Dan Wheldon, the winner of the 2011 Indy 500, on the track last year. The cars were redesigned to improve safety (but also reduced speed and style).

IndyCar has also taken cues from the vastly more popular (in Europe, that is) Formula 1 series. They have resolved a long-standing dispute in the series by combining two competing organizations into one. They have been racing on street courses — not just the traditional ovals — for the past several years. In 2012, IndyCar introduced technological diversity to the cars by allowing teams to choose engine and chassis manufacturers. Currently, Chevy and Lotus have jumped into the game in addition to the incumbent Honda (although it’s both comical and sad to see Lotus cars break down so early in each race — their engines need more development). (more…)

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Manhattan first impressions

Posted in Cities, Just for Fun by Alex L. on January 11, 2012

Image courtesy of Ed Yourdon and accessed on WikipediaFAIRWAY MARKET on the Upper West Side is like an open-air market trapped under a roof. Located on a busy commercial street, the entrance to the store is flanked by open fruit and vegetable stands over a large faded awning which reminded me of street vendors in Thailand.

Inside, there is a scramble of activity. A general checkout line stretches from the cashier stands far back into the dairy products aisle. Lines are everywhere—to the seafood stand, the deli, the aisle with the cooking oils—but they are all rapidly moving forward.

Men in suits coming back from work squeeze through the narrow space between shelves to get around other shoppers: young women with strollers, older ladies in puffy black coats with fur collars, hipsters sampling different flavors of olive oil, a gray-browed man pounding an air piano with one hand as he listens to an iPod.

Two employees hidden in a nook are busy servicing a separate line of customers wanting to get coffee. They take orders, scoop pungent black beans from barrels, sprinkle them into grinding machines, pack the resulting powder into paper packets, and give it to the customers. The nook is heavy with the sweaty scent of crushed beans. Ahead of them is an even larger nook whose three walls are resplendent with fine cheeses.

Two men—one on a ladder—empty a wooden cart onto an unreachably tall pyramid of oranges. It has a sculpted shape formed by perfect layers—like bricks—of fruit, but I notice that the men aren’t forming the newly-plumped oranges into the pyramid themselves. Does this mass of fruit just take on its own shape? (more…)

Driving at the speed of flight

Posted in Blogs, European, Just for Fun, Technology by Alex L. on November 4, 2011

Instrument panel for Jay Leno's 1915 Hispano-Suiza Aero Engine CarI can’t say I enjoy Jay Leno’s jokes as much as I do the work of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and David Letterman. But man does the guy have an awesome car collection.

I know next to nothing about vintage car restoration, but I can appreciate a sleek-looking and rumble-producing automobile. When I came across Jay Leno’s video of his 1915 Hispano-Suiza Aero Engine Car restoration (see part 1, part 2 and part 3), though, I almost started drooling. The reason is because the restored car combines in an engaging package some things that, well, just make me salivate like a dog sensing dinner: aviation, World War I history, craftsmanship, and speed.

The 1915 machine is no ordinary automobile. It’s fitted with an engine taken from a World War I fighter airplane. As Wikipedia informed me, after the First World War ended, surplus airplane engines were relatively cheap and vastly more powerful than what cars were then using. Some auto engineers decided not to let this opportunity pass and created cars with automobile chassis and airplane engines. Such aero-engined cars were a brief trend in auto racing during the inter-war period.

The Hispano-Suiza engine is the motor that was used to power the S.E.5, a British fighter plane during World War I. This was the primary aircraft of No. 56 Squadron RFC (Royal Flying Corps), the famous unit of expert flyers and warriors—such as James McCudden, Albert Ball, and Cecil Lewis (the last of whom wrote a now-rare but fascinating and honest memoir of his war years, titled Sagittarius Rising)—who helped defeat the imperial German air force. (more…)

Tribal mind

Posted in Culture, Just for Fun, Prehistory, Stories by Alex L. on February 13, 2011

Close-up of "Hunters in the Snow" by Pieter BruegelWhen dinosaurs roamed the earth, chewing the leafy treetops with the aid of their towering necks and soaring above the rivers teeming with life on their reptilian wings, was when the plankton and algae that now power my car swam in the oceans. Dying by the generations, the tiny bodies of these organisms floated down to the ocean floor and collected and compressed over time. Given enough time (millions of years) this biomass under pressure turned into what we now call crude oil.

I sometimes get grief from my friends for driving an old car. My propulsive method of choice is an automobile manufactured by the venerable Ford Motor Company, the make being Escort Sports Wagon, the vintage 1995. The sands of public opinion have shifted and my auto is not in 2011 the strapping beast that it used to be in its heyday, but I still find something odd about this criticism lodged by some at my noble steed. For in the grand scheme of things, the automobile itself is such a curious contraption that my particular specimen of it is not nearly as interesting as the species as a whole.

The Chicago Auto Show came to the vaunted convention halls of our city this weekend and displayed its lovely stock of new machines. Sparkling under electric lamps like a river does under the sun, the parade of autos flaunted the latest fashion in sculpted forms and boasted too of new feats of agility, power, navigation, and cabin architecture. Machinery so alive with centuries of cumulative human inventiveness that it would make even the most proud and accomplished cavalryman blush in shame and hide his mare behind the nearest tree.

Why is it that we find the newest cars so attractive? Perhaps it is a kind of survival instinct: we are used to our tribe striving to acquire the fastest and healthiest herd of horses in the valley. When horses were first domesticated thousands of years ago, the armies of  humans that rode them must have become mighty in their lands, killing from their chariots and saddles the bands of other humans who couldn’t figure out the mount. The genes of those not inclined to the equine arts would have found their eternal end in the blood spilled upon the sands and the steppe. (more…)

Building aircraft out of ash wood and Irish linen

Posted in European, Just for Fun, Websites by Alex L. on January 9, 2011

SE.5a under construction at the Vintage Aviator shop. Image courtesy of The Vintage Aviator: http://thevintageaviator.co.nz/node/2784

If left to my own devices, without the influence of classes or teachers or scholarly communities, my interests will naturally gravitate and oscillate between two subjects: submarines and airplanes. It has been like this since I was in middle school, except now instead of scouring books for colorful pictures and playing computer simulations, I read memoirs and secondary sources about air wars and naval battles of the 20th century.

After a visitation from the Muse of U.S. Submarine Operations in the Second World War (which compelled me to dive deep into my long-shelved copy of Clay Blair’s classic, Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan) my tastes were swung upwards and backwards to the heights of the air war during World War I. What did it this time was a documentary I watched on YouTube one night about the British aces James McCudden and Edward Mannock, which described their struggles with the stresses of primitive air combat and their untimely deaths.

This led me to embark on an unsystematic perambulation through the history of air combat during World War I. Curse Amazon and their “1-Click Ordering”, but I impulsively bought James McCudden’s memoir, Flying Fury: Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps, for my Kindle and received instant gratification reading it at a local Starbucks. I am still working through it, but have also gone on to watch other documentaries freely accessed on YouTube on the subject (such as this hidden gem: “Aces: A Story of the First Air War”, the probably-fictional story of a Canadian pilot in the RFC as narrated to his grandson).

As part of this binge of media consumption, I stumbled upon (though not through StumbleUpon, which I tried as a novel way to browse the web but with which I was slightly disappointed) a site called The Vintage Aviator, which is the actual topic of this post. (more…)

I’m posting every week in 2011!

Posted in Blogs, Just for Fun by Alex L. on January 7, 2011

Image of soldiers doing push-upsI read about WordPress’s PostAWeek Challenge for 2011 today, and it made me think about how I have more articles sitting in my “Drafts” folder from the past six months than those that have actually been published. I think I have been leaning too heavily on the side of “literary-like” writing lately (and hence killing drafts with an overly-zealous editing standard) and less on the more informal style which is the hallmark of blogging.

So, at the risk of this blog degenerating into a collection of YouTube videos about my hauls, I will publish an article every week on this blog in 2011. The sample post suggested by WordPress, with such phrases as “[relying on] the community of other bloggers” and “asking for help when I need it” makes this challenge sound almost like a substance-abused support group. I guess one can “abuse” the instinct to edit to the point of crippling the writing process altogether. I’ve also been coming around to the realization that online communities are a legitimate way to connect with people (strangely enough, an article titled “Why I Hate Social Media” and its related commentary sparked this realization – perhaps more on this later), so WordPress may have a point there.

Since one of the reasons for this blog has been to train myself to write better (hence the push-ups image, in case you were wondering) and since that can’t be accomplished without me actually writing once in a while, look for at least a post a week on this blog in 2011 (I’m thinking Sundays).

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Turtle on the road

Posted in Just for Fun, Stories by Alex L. on May 28, 2010

On my way home from work yesterday, I ran into a turtle. Well, I didn’t hit him, I just passed him standing on the side of the road. I wouldn’t have noticed the turtle, would have thought he was perhaps a chunk of busted tire, had he not craned his head high, watchfully, scanning the cars roaring by him. Ah, that’s a turtle!

I was driving in the corporate park where I work. If I was on the highway, I would have let him take his chances – too inconvenient for me. But I knew this place, turning around would be easy, and there was parking nearby. I U-turned and drove back to help, thinking, though, that this was pretty childish of me. I don’t even pull over to help people with flat tires.

Picking up a turtle is harder that one would imagine. They run fast and on their claws, shell half an inch above the ground, like a reptilian hovercraft. He panicked when he saw me and made a dash for it. (more…)

Computer games, Divine Liturgy, and imitating greatness

Posted in Christianity, Culture, Just for Fun by Alex L. on March 14, 2010

I grew up in the video game generation. The public discussion about video games for the past decade, I have noticed, has been about whether violent video games encourage violent behavior in real life – parents worrying about children growing bloodthirsty. More recently, some research has attracted attention that suggests that video games may develop logical thinking and hand-eye coordination. Xbox may not be so different from chess and baseball after all. But to me and perhaps others in my generation, video games mean a bit more than that.

If I were to be brutally honest, I would have to admit that my interest in history has a bit (or a lot) to do with me playing the computer game Civilization II as a young boy. Sure, my grandpa read to me – to my great delight – when I was even younger from a children’s book about how man made fire by rubbing sticks and crafted the first primitive tools. But that did not capture my imagination as much as building an empire while playing as the ancient Egyptians in Civilization II or amassing an armada of ships that terrorized the high seas while commanding the Spanish. I piloted an aircraft in the game Aces Over Europe (like my granpda, who flew in real planes in World War II) and won glory for my country as a skilled warrior. I was a hero, like my forebearers. Or, I practiced to become one.

Games are more than about shooting people and destroying things. They are even more than about cognitive and reflexive development. For a child, especially in America where communities lack other rituals for developing self-identity, such games allow you to imitate the greatness of your ancestors. In Plato’s terms, by imitating great deeds (such as defending one’s country as a fighter pilot in World War II) a child may take part in the Forms of Courage, Duty, and Camaraderie. In such a way, he fosters a sense of belonging and duty to his community.

Playing computer games, seen from this perspective, is not much different than taking part in the Divine Liturgy in church. The Liturgy is a play similar to ancient Greek drama: the congregation, an adaptation of the Greek chorus, re-enacts the story of Christ every Sunday and takes part as participants on the stage. After all, is not theater just a type of game, where the actors and audience suspend their sense of disbelief at their imitation of reality just as gamers do? For the sake of something greater, every person is willing to suspend their sense of disbelief.

These are just some cursory and perhaps simplistic observations. I thought I may post this because I have been thinking that this pull towards imitating greatness – either through games or theater or rituals – remains with people (or at least has with me) even into adulthood. I read about the Battle of Britain and I still want to strap into a virtual cockpit. I watch an episode of The Pacific on HBO and I feel the urge to play Call of Duty: World at War. I feel the lack of adventure in my life, and I play The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel. Or I read literature, for it too is an escape (or transcendence) of reality.

We all played games when we were children, but we also all persist in other forms of imitation as adults. Why? And to what end? Maybe if we can answer these questions, we could clear up a lot of others about the purpose  in contemporary life of religion, art, and – not to forget – even video games.

Stephen Colbert is greater than Achilles

Posted in American, Greek, Just for Fun, Television by Alex L. on May 21, 2009

Stephen Colbert portrait

A while ago, I was reading Stephen Colbert’s biography on Wikipedia and was impressed by why he decided to become an actor. The article states, “After two years [at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia], he transferred to Northwestern University’s School of Communication to study performance, emboldened by the realization that he loved performing even when no one was coming to shows.” What a way to live and work! Although Stephen Colbert’s career as a comedian and social commentator is presently monumental, it did not seem to be heading that way when he first started acting. But, choosing to pursue work whose excellent completion was its own reward (detached from other incentives such as money or praise), Colbert truly has lived the good life.

Thoreau, in Walden, writes, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?” Most people work not to perfect their chosen art but rather to fulfill other desires – for money, women or reputation. The classic example of living in this sort of way is the hero Achilles from the Iliad. His greatness is completely a function of the honor ascribed to him by others. He kills to acquire others’ wealth. He possesses women for the same reason. He amasses this plunder to build his reputation, exhibiting his power before others. He is not self-sufficient in his greatness; he requires others to perceive him as great. To be fair, many people labor for personal motives, such as supporting their family, even though they may not care for the work they do itself. That, too, is noble. But in so much as Stephen Colbert’s work is self-sufficient and done for the love of its own perfection, he is greater than Achilles.

Best world war flight sims

Posted in European, Just for Fun by Alex L. on April 1, 2009

Ever since I was little, I have admired the courage of combat aviators in both of the world wars. While aircraft in the First World War buzzed inconsequentially above the front lines where the decisive battles were fought, the pilots who confronted one another – without parachutes, in open-cockpit aircraft that resembled kites more than jets – must have had some large cojones. In the Second World War, a couple of thousand Spitfire and Hurricane pilots (“The Few” as Churchill called them) staved off the conquest of an entire nation in the Battle of Britain.

While my days of hours spent waxing heroic in the online skies of such flight simulators as WarBirds are long behind me, I have caved in to curiosity and decided to research which is the best flight sim for the world wars. The winner for the Second World War category is Battle of Britain II: Wings of Victory. While other sims like IL-2: Sturmovik and Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 3 are more popular due to their multiplayer option, Battle of Britain II is the most realistic (notice how closely the gameplay mimics real guncams from World War II in this beautiful YouTube clip). This game alone also features air battles with up to 200 planes, truly approximating the sorties in the real Battle of Britain. There is a devoted Battle of Britain II online community, where there has recently been talk of adding multiplayer to the game.

The best World War I flight sim is First Eagles: Gold, which simulates air combat in the latter years of the war. Games of this era have never been as popular as World War II flight sims, so I can’t imagine the multiplayer community for First Eagles is very strong. Nevertheless, this is the most recent incarnation of the genre and the gameplay looks decent (see this YouTube video of a Sopwith Camel dogfighting with a Fokker Dr. I). While combat flight sims have declined in popularity since the 1990s and early 2000s when it seemed that every year competing companies were releasing a new hit (Battle of Britain II was released in 2005 and First Eagles in 2006), the genre seems to have at least reached a high plateau with its leading exemplars.