Archive for November 2016

by Morgen Jahnke

More than many other pop culture phenomena, Star Trek seems to inspire the most extreme displays of fan commitment. From Star Trek conventions, to the perennial popularity of Trek movies and TV series, on through the huge success of Star Trek: The Experience in Las Vegas (a town with no shortage of other entertainment options), Trek fans have an intense interest in replicating (so to speak) the world of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and all the other distinguished members of Starfleet.

A sociologist might find it interesting to study this devotion; what is it about the Star Trek universe that compels ordinary people to live large parts of their non-virtual lives in its sway? Paradoxically more adult and yet less dangerous than the Star Wars universe, one answer may be that Star Trek predicts a future that seems to make sense, with science and reason in ascendancy.

And yet, this even-keeled vision of what the future may look like is at odds with the sometimes obsessive response from its fans. As the documentaries Trekkies and Trekkies 2 amply illustrate, Star Trek fans have incorporated this TV and movie franchise into their lives in surprising and sometimes disturbing ways. From the woman who refused to remove her “Starfleet” uniform when reporting for jury duty to various people who have converted homes and offices into exact replicas of portions of the USS Enterprise, there seems to be an extreme literalism at work. Instead of merely making the positive aspects of the shows and movies part of their lives, these fans work instead to make their lives as much like the shows and movies as possible.

While this trend is perplexing, the vast majority of fans can tell the difference between a TV show and real life, and pursue their interest in Star Trek purely for their enjoyment and entertainment. In that spirit, the residents of a fortuitously named town in the Canadian province of Alberta have capitalized on this interest by creating a bastion of Star Trek fandom amidst the rolling wheat fields of the Canadian prairie.

Going Towards the Grain
The town of Vulcan, Alberta first came into being with the expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) into the area in 1910. Vulcan grew up around the grain elevator built to store local farmers’ crops until the train came through to collect and then transport them on to other markets. At one point, the town had nine elevators, known as “Nine in a Line,” that collectively had the largest storage capacity in the country (750,000 bushels of grain) before the elevators were destroyed by fire in 1971. While the town started small, with 28 residents and 14 businesses, it has now grown to a population of 1,700.

Vulcan was given its name by a surveyor for the CPR; since at that time the town sat at the highest elevation of the railroad in the prairies, he wanted to name it after one of the Greek gods from Mount Olympus. However, Vulcan is actually the Roman god of fire and volcanoes, said to live beneath Mount Etna in Sicily or under the island of Vulcano.

Live Long and Prosper
While the CPR surveyor got his ancient gods confused, his error has worked to the town’s great advantage in recent years. Looking for a way to boost tourism, in 1995 the residents of Vulcan decided to capitalize on their town’s link to the Star Trek franchise. In the Star Trek movies and shows, Vulcan is used as the name of both a planet and the race of people who developed there. The best-known member of this race in the shows and movies is Mr. Spock, portrayed by Leonard Nimoy.

The town of Vulcan pursued two strategies for drawing tourists to the area: the creation of structures related to Star Trek and the organization of events with a Star Trek theme. The first thing to be built was a large replica of the USS Enterprise, named the Starship Enterprise FX6-1995-A, based on the airport code for Vulcan (FX6) and the year it was created (1995). Measuring 31 feet (9.5m) in length and weighing five tons, the starship sits at the entrance to the town and has a plaque on its base welcoming visitors in the English, Vulcan, and Klingon languages.

The second major construction project was a visitors’ centre built in the shape of a landing spaceship. The Vulcan Tourism and Trek Station opened to the public in October 1998, and provides brochures and information to visitors, as well as offering Star Trek-related souvenirs.

Vulcan hosts two annual events with a Star Trek theme: GalaxyFest (formerly known as Vul-Con) and Spock Days. In 2006 these events were combined into a single long weekend of Star Trek entertainment, and featured appearances by cast members from Star Trek shows, as well as a costume contest, a Klingon Fear Factor competition, and a Galaxy Awards Banquet.

All of these elements combined have made the town of Vulcan a tourist destination for avid Star Trek fans. According to a plaque greeting visitors to Vulcan, that destination is “Third Planet from the Sun, North American Continent, Province of Alberta, County of Vulcan.” Star Trek has put Vulcan on the map, so to speak, and the town has taken to heart the Vulcan mantra to “live long and prosper.” —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about Vulcan, Alberta…

The official site of the town of Vulcan has photos and information about the attractions and events on offer.

The Canadian Web site Deep Space 93 has a good entry on the town of Vulcan.

To learn more about Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, or to find out (much) more than you ever wanted to know about Vulcans on Star Trek, visit Wikipedia.

Star Trek: The Experience is located in the Las Vegas Hilton.

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Trekkies and Trekkies 2 are available from

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Like many authors, I have a “vanity shelf” in my home, with copies of all the books I’ve written (or contributed to). Well, at least it contains copies of all the printed books I’ve written—a lot of what I’ve done in recent years has been in the form of ebooks and magazine articles. Among the 11 titles currently on that shelf are several recent books about Mac software, a bound copy of my Master’s thesis, and even—no kidding—a copy of Arnold and Sam, the Two Dragons, which I wrote in October 1974 at age 7. This 12-page book was my first work of fiction, and it was as bad as you might imagine, but I was understandably proud of it at the time. My mother typed it up, my dad photocopied it, and my elementary school library even kept a copy on its shelves, with cover art hand-drawn by the author. By the time I left that school a few years later, it had been checked out nine times, only a few of which were by me.

In November 2005, I made my second attempt at writing fiction. I participated in National Novel Writing Month, which has been held annually since 1999. Along with more than 59,000 other aspiring novelists, I attempted to write 50,000 words of fiction between November 1 and November 30. I was one of almost 10,000 participants who reached that goal. However, what I wrote during that month is not sitting on my vanity shelf. I’ve declined requests to read it even by close friends and family members, who will love me regardless of how bad my writing is. In fact, I haven’t even looked at it myself since then. It’s so bad that it makes Arnold and Sam look like literary genius. And I don’t merely mean that it needs a few rewrites and a thorough going-over by a good editor. It is profoundly, utterly, and irredeemably awful. Humanity will be better off if no one ever sets eyes on that manuscript again.

Novel Ideas
And yet, say the organizers of of National Novel Writing Month—or NaNoWriMo, as it is known among its participants—I did exactly the right thing: I sacrificed quality for quantity. If you’re going to write a novel in 30 days, something has to give. But even if your novel is terrible, you can call yourself a novelist. The following year, you can breezily mention that you’re working on your second novel. And you can hold your head up high as you hobnob with other novelists, having accomplished a truly remarkable task—even if you accomplished it rather poorly. After all, so did most everyone else. The important thing is that you got it done, proving to yourself that you can make it through a process that has stymied and frustrated countless authors in the past.

NaNoWriMo began in the summer of 1999 when Chris Baty, a freelance writer living in Oakland, California, decided for no particular reason that he needed to write a novel in a month and invited a group of friends to do so too. That July, 21 people set out to write novels, and six, including Baty, finished. By “finish,” I mean they wrote 50,000 words of fiction. Baty had decided on that figure after picking up the shortest novel on his shelf—Brave New World—and doing a rough word count. Most novels, to be sure, are considerably longer, but 50,000 words, or about 175 pages, seemed to be just long enough while being achievable for the average writer in 30 days.

The following year, the event moved to November and, thanks to word of mouth, attracted 140 participants. But in 2001, after newspaper articles and bloggers started covering NaNoWriMo, participation ballooned to 5,000. The number of novelists has continued to rise each year; people from all over the world write novels, in a variety of languages, each November. The experience is oddly addictive, too; a sizable majority of participants from any given year repeat the undertaking again and again.

NaNoWriMo is about much more than simply sitting at your computer in a quiet corner somewhere and typing out 50,000 words; it’s about being part of a huge number of people doing something challenging. In order to connect all the participants to each other, keep track of how many people are writing, and confirm reaching that magical word count, every novelist is asked to sign up (at no cost) on the Web site. In hundreds of cities around the globe, novelists schedule regular write-ins at cafés and bars to encourage each other as they write. In addition, online forums are abuzz all during the month as the writers seek and give advice, brag or complain about their word counts, and try to maintain enough collective enthusiasm to get everyone through the month. There are also numerous kick-off (and “Thank God It’s Over”) parties, and in some places, even weekend novel-writing retreats.

When you’re finished with your novel—or at any point in the process—you can upload your text to the NaNoWriMo servers for a single purpose: to use its automated word count validator. You can, if you choose, post a short excerpt from your novel on the site, but no one on the NaNoWriMo staff actually reads your work. (In fact, they go to great lengths to assure your privacy.)

At the end of the month, what you do with your novel is up to you. Needless to say, even highly experienced writers are unlikely to churn out anything more than a first draft in a month; further work on the novels, at one’s own leisure, is encouraged. In some past years, March has been designated National Novel Editing Month, or NaNoEdMo, and thanks to the work of another group, December is now National Novel Finishing Month, or NaNoFiMo—for those writers who get on a roll and simply aren’t ready to stop on November 30. In one way or another, a number of NaNoWriMo participants have gone on to hone their works and get them published; many, however, have no aspirations to be professional novelists and do the writing just for the experience of it.

Light Reading
Given the tens of thousands of annual participants, NaNoWriMo has evolved from an informal project managed by a few friends in their spare time to a full-blown nonprofit corporation called The Office of Letters and Light, complete with a paid staff and an actual office. The organization is funded through voluntary donations by participants; 50% of any amount over their break-even point is donated to build children’s libraries in southeast Asia. In 2005, for example, the program raised $14,000 for new libraries in Laos and Cambodia. The Office of Letters and Light is even expanding into new programs, such as Script Frenzy! (a project in which participants write a screenplay in a month).

Chris Baty’s motivational book about novel-writing, No Plot? No Problem!, is popular among NaNoWriMo participants, stressing as it does the importance of getting through the process without worrying about whether the writing is any good. Speaking for myself, not having any notion of a plot my first time around actually was a problem. Not only did it mean I ended up with something that—let me repeat—must never again be read by anyone, but it meant that as I was writing, I found it hard to generate much enthusiasm; I simply didn’t care enough about the story I was writing for it to be an interesting process for me. However, that experience also taught me some valuable lessons, and I fully expect that, armed with a clearer notion of what kind of story I want to tell, I’ll participate again. And if, some day in the distant future, I’m better known as a novelist than as a technical writer, I’ll have NaNoWriMo to thank for it. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about National Novel Writing Month…

To learn more about National Novel Writing Month or sign up as an author, visit the Web site. The NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month) Web site has been inoperative for several years, and I don’t know if or when it will return. The NaNoFiMo (National Novel Finishing Month) site, however, is in full swing. Script Frenzy! will happen for the first time in June 2007.

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If you’re thinking about taking part in National Novel Writing Month, you’ll benefit from reading No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. You might also want to pick up a copy of The No Plot? No Problem! Novel-Writing Kit.

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by Morgen Jahnke

While some companies are moving toward greater transparency regarding the ingredients of their products (to allay fears about trans fats, for instance), in some cases the secret of a product’s makeup is not only closely guarded, but promoted as a key part of its allure. Mysteries can be a great advertising gimmick.

The proprietors of Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans were clearly operating from this idea when they created their famous recipe for Oysters Rockefeller; although it has been widely speculated upon, this recipe has remained a secret since it was first developed in 1899. Having sampled Oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s, I would say that I greatly enjoyed their taste, but I got more enjoyment out of trying to guess the elements of the recipe.

This same type of marketing is at work in the promotion of Dr Pepper soda. The only information given by the manufacturer is that it contains 23 flavors; it’s up to customers to draw their own conclusions about what those flavors are. Ditto for Coca Cola’s secret recipe and the “11 herbs and spices” in Kentucky Fried Chicken. In a similar vein, the makers of one of Italy’s best-known liqueurs, Fernet-Branca, prefer to keep the composition of their product top secret, but rumors about what it may contain are certainly tantalizing.

Saffron So Good
Fernet-Branca is a type of bitters, a spirit made from different herbs, plants, and roots that supposedly aids digestion and stimulates the appetite. Other types of bitters include Campari, Angostura bitters, and orange bitters. While the complete list of 40 herbs and spices that go into Fernet-Branca has never been made public, some of its ingredients are common knowledge, and include myrrh, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and saffron, as well as its base component of grape alcohol.

Saffron in particular seems to be an important ingredient; this rare spice, harvested from the saffron crocus flower, is the world’s most expensive spice by weight. According to an article about Fernet-Branca that appeared in a San Francisco newspaper, the company that produces Fernet-Branca, Fratelli Branca, is the largest consumer of saffron in the world, claiming 75 percent of worldwide output.

As far as the other ingredients are concerned, there is wide speculation about what these may be. A few of the rumored mystery elements include: rhubarb, cinchona bark from South America (known for its anti-malarial properties), gentian root (a powerful medicinal herb), wormwood (once used in absinthe), bay leaves, sage, peppermint oil, and the ginger-like spices galanga and zedoary.

Medicinal Compound
With all these medicinal ingredients, it is not surprising that Fernet-Branca was first developed as a health elixir. The creator of the formula, Bernardino Branca, was a self-taught apothecary in Milan, who first offered Fernet-Branca to the public in 1845. Marketing his product as a tonic to cure many kinds of illness, Branca even persuaded the director of a local hospital of its curative benefits.

Even today, Fernet-Branca is known for its ability to calm upset stomachs and soothe hangover misery. If other accounts are to be believed, it can also cure cholera and ease menstrual cramp pain. The health-enhancing nature of this spirit proved handy during Prohibition in the United States. Since it was considered a medicinal product, pharmacies could import and sell Fernet-Branca without interference from the government.

Where Everybody Knows Its Name
Although Fernet-Branca is made by an Italian company, Italy is not the largest consumer of this liqueur. In fact, there are two other places in the world known for their prodigious consumption of the bitter quaff. These two places are San Francisco, California, and the country of Argentina.

San Francisco is the biggest consumer of Fernet-Branca in the United States, and has the highest per capita consumption of it in the world. Its popularity in the city may be partially attributed to San Francisco’s large Italian-American community, centered around the commercial district of North Beach. Whatever the reason, San Franciscans drink Fernet-Branca in large quantities, usually followed by a chaser of ginger ale.

Argentina also has a large Italian population and a similar thirst for Fernet-Branca. There is even a popular song that celebrates the joys of “Fernet Con Coca,” or Fernet mixed with cola, the usual way it is prepared in Argentina.

A Matter of Taste
Being a long-time resident of San Francisco, and feeling ashamed that I had never enjoyed this quintessential San Francisco experience, I tried my first shot of Fernet-Branca not too long ago. Unsure of what to expect, and slightly put off by the strong pine scent I registered, I closed my eyes and gulped it down.

The intense menthol-like sensation caused me to cough, and I didn’t enjoy the bitter aftertaste the drink created, but soon after finishing it, I began to feel a bit better. I can’t say whether or not I gained any health benefits from drinking the Fernet-Branca, but the next time I experience an upset stomach I will have to try another shot of it, for purely medicinal purposes of course. —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about Fernet-Branca…

To learn more about the history of Fernet-Branca and the company that produces it, visit the Fernet-Branca Web site.

Nate Cavalieri’s in-depth look at the Fernet-Branca phenomenon in San Francisco, “The Myth of Fernet,”, which was referenced in the article above, ran in the December 7, 2005 issue of SF Weekly.

For more Fernet-Branca drink recipes, check out The WebTender and Kaiser Penguin.

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James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel Cooking with Fernet Branca, a humorous look at life in Tuscany, was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize.

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Week 7 let’s go deep again.

Most of you have seen the Matrix (at least 1 of them) or The Truman show, doesn’t a little voice at the back of your head just wonder if they’re true?


Now while myself I’m agnostic and believe in a science / engineering based explanation for everything and I don’t believe in a Traditional God per say there is always the niggling doubt that maybe something is controlling destiny, the way certain things just seem to happen at the right time just when you think they won’t.

Could the solar system be a small plaything of an alien race, is it just an experiment on a giant game of celestial chess?

Why every time to we beat a disease / famine disaster does another one replace it, is this an external driven population control?

Are people who can see the future just people who saw glitches in the matrix?

Are we fully in the matrix and everything is just a computer simulation, when the world ends it just resets and starts again at level 3 with a new set of inhabitants? (Level 1 being the dinosaurs of course)

How did Nostradamus draw a light bulb 100’s of years before electricity, or the occupations and date of the Challenger Disaster?

How did the Simpsons predict Donald Trump for president, closely followed by Lisa Simpson who looks like Hilary Clinton?

If you take a minute and step back and say there is no freedom of choice, it’s already written and no matter what you do the outcome is what was going to happen anyway, it could explain these, but it’s a scary thought to have no control over destiny.

Maybe I’ve just played far too much Civilisation / Populous / Sim City growing up 🙂

If this is all one big TV show though I just hope its Morgan Freeman or David Attenborough doing the voice over.

Have a good weekend, see you all next week

(Unless the overlords read this and take me out of the Matrix!!)



Link to all Friday Thoughts


We’re well into the 21st century, and one of the big things on the minds of the world’s technologists is improving propulsion. Cars, trucks, and buses are moving from conventional gasoline-powered internal combustion engines to hybrid engines, diesel engines running on vegetable oil, and fuel cells. Airplane manufacturers are designing better and more powerful jet engines. Submarines are being built with engines that require no moving parts. And rocket scientists are trying to figure out the best means of propulsion to use for sending spacecraft to Mars and beyond. High-tech solutions to get from point A to point B with greater efficiency and lower cost are appearing constantly.

And yet, sometimes the best way forward is to go back. Steam power for cars is making a comeback, for example. What was thought to be a dead-end approach a century ago has turned out to have some redeeming qualities after all, now that technology, materials, and engineering methods have caught up with it. The latest blast from the past, though, really blows my mind. The brightest and best in the field of marine propulsion have come to the startling conclusion that if you want a reliable, inexpensive, and efficient way to move ships across the ocean, you might try…the wind.

The twist is that instead of using conventional masted sails, you can send the whole sail aloft, tethered to the ship by a rope—just like a kite. Using kites to pull vehicles along isn’t new; it’s been done for everything from surfboards, skis, and rollerblades to buggies and small boats. Such kites are known as power kites or traction kites. But multiply the size of these kites by ten or even a hundred times, add some sophisticated deployment and control mechanisms, and you have something else entirely: a kite sail, which can pull a large yacht or even a cargo ship.

Mastless Transit
My first thought on hearing about kite sails was that the idea was reasonable enough, but why not just use regular, masted sails—a tried and tested technology? That just goes to show you how little I know about ships and sailing. Masted sails, apart from being complex to build and operate, place a number of constraints on a vessel. It must have adequate ballast to offset the weight and pull of the masts and sails, for one thing. If carrying cargo, the masts and rigging can seriously complicate loading and unloading, not to mention reducing available storage space. And for vessels over a certain size, you run into problems of geometry and physics; sails would have to be unworkably huge to move the ship at all, and could never propel it at the speed of a petroleum-powered engine.

Kite sails, by contrast, take up almost no space. They attach to the deck, and the only real space required is for the deployment mechanism—typically a telescoping mast that lifts the kite up into the wind and later retrieves it. The whole process is automatic. Once flying on its own, the kite isn’t entirely at the mercy of the wind. It’s shaped like a parafoil and has numerous steerage lines connected to a control unit. By selectively shortening or lengthening the lines, the controller can alter the shape of the sail—and thus its direction and pull. And because the kite sail isn’t constrained by a mast, it can fly high enough to take advantage of winds that are often stronger and less turbulent than those closer to the water’s surface.

Of course, kite sails do require the wind to be blowing, and you’ll need a healthy breeze to move a ship of any serious size at a reasonable speed. The wind should also be blowing in approximately the right direction—the closer to your direction of travel that the kite sail is being pushed, the more efficient the power transfer will be. However, depending on conditions and the kite sail design, the direction of the kite’s motion can be as much as 130° off in either direction from the desired direction of travel. In other words, unless the wind is blowing almost exactly the wrong direction, you’ll get some benefit from it. Some kite sail installations use a computerized system to plot the best route for your ship based on the direction of the winds in the area, which might take you on a somewhat roundabout course but at least saves fuel.

On Sail
Kite sails are not intended to replace conventional engines, but to supplement them. So why would the owner of a ship spend hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, to retrofit an existing ship with a kite sail? Two words: oil prices. Manufacturers claim that kite sails can reduce fuel usage, and its associated costs, anywhere from 10 to 35 percent, and in ideal circumstances, by as much as 50 percent for a brief period of time. Given the rapidly rising cost of fuel and the attendant rise in shipping costs, that savings—if it proves to be real—would be enormous. But only time will tell. Although kite sails for large vessels have been successfully installed and tested, commercial deployment is still a couple of years in the future. Meanwhile, the technology is being put to good use on smaller craft, such as racing yachts, where it has been shown to be reasonably effective but where fuel savings are not at issue.

Needless to say, using less fuel will be better for the environment, too, though I doubt that greener shipping is foremost in the minds of those considering the use of kite sails. But it’s a case where economics and environmental considerations happen to coincide nicely. And a kite sail might even serve as an inexpensive backup engine, enabling a ship with mechanical problems to get to port. It’ll be interesting to see if the idea catches on. If it does, it’ll give a whole new meaning to the expression “Go fly a kite.” —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Kite Sails…

The two major companies working on kite sails for large yachts and cargo ships are KiteShip and SkySails. (SkySails has a great video of a kite sail being deployed, used, and recovered automatically on a large cargo ship.) KiteShip also has a site called KiteTugs, which describes the kite sails they build for racing yachts.

Additional resources:

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Kids from 10–99 can build and test their own miniature kite sail designs with the Kite Dynamics kit.

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