Special effects in 1937

Not bad actually:

How did they do this? “Graduated red-to-blue camera filters and red makeup.” (Source)

The movie is the 1937 comedy-mystery Sh! The Octopus.

Practical effects in movies, if done well, are always, always better than computer-generated imagery. Every time. Even more than 80 years later, I was floored by the realism of this scene and wondering how they did it. CGI is and always will be fake, whereas practical effects (special effects produced physically) will always look real because they literally are real. You are looking at real physical things captured on film.

Luna incognita

Far side of moon China

A glimpse of the far side

We have a touchdown:

China successfully landed the Chang’e 4 spacecraft on the far side of the moon on Thursday morning, Beijing time, according to state news agency Xinhua, becoming the first in history to touch the lunar surface unseen by those on Earth.

The Chang’e 4 mission launched in early December. It took the spacecraft three days to travel to the moon, where it spent the last few weeks in orbit preparing for touch down on the Von Karman crater. The crater is a relatively flat spot on the moon’s far side.

“China’s Chang’e-4 probe softlands on Moon’s far side,” the state news agency tweeted on Thursday.

[…]

Landing on the far side is a technical challenge, as there is no direct way to communicate with the spacecraft as it nears its target. China put a relay satellite in orbit around the moon in May to overcome that communication challenge.

The far side of the moon has been seen and mapped before, even by astronauts of the Apollo missions. But the successful landing of Chang’e 4 represents the first time any spacecraft has touched down on the moon’s far side.

Most impressive.

Full steam ahead

China bullet train countryside

This is what a serious country looks like:

China plans to build 3,200 km of new high-speed railways in 2019, with the total length expected to exceed 30,000 km, the country’s top railway operator said Wednesday.

For all the ‘Muricans reading this, that’s nearly 2,000 miles of new track – roughly the distance from Philadelphia to Phoenix – with a total of more than 18,600 miles. Incidentally, the peak year for US rail-building was 1887, when more than 13,000 miles of track were laid down.

The 3,000-plus km of high-speed railways are part of the planned development of 6,800 km of new railways for the new year as the country will keep fixed-asset investment on railway on a large scale, Lu Dongfu, general manager of the China Railway (CR), told a work conference.

6,800 km = 4,225 mi

The country saw an expanding high-speed railway network over the years, with a total length of 29,000 km by the end of 2018, accounting for more than two-thirds of the total high-speed railway in the world. China aims to build 30,000 km of high-speed railways by 2020.

China’s railways are expected to transport 3.54 billion passengers and 3.37 billion tonnes of goods this year, the general manager said.

[…]

Lu said the CR would facilitate the investigation and research of Sichuan-Tibet railway and try to start construction by the end of the third-quarter of 2019.

Never let it be said that China isn’t ambitious. I’d love to have me some high-speed rail on the Acela corridor (Boston to DC, with stops at New York and Philly) and – what the hell, as long as we’re dreaming – between New York and Los Angeles.

Imagine if the US were an advanced country and had the wherewithal to build a high-speed superconducting maglev train that could rocket people between New York and LA in under seven hours, following in the footsteps of China, Japan, and South Korea, which all operate similar systems on a much smaller scale.

Here’s my account of taking the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing back in 2013.

English royal swears off tea

This official position of this blog is that there is no form of peer pressure more obnoxious than that which attempts to make people eat or drink certain things. As such, I do not judge Prince Harry for his rather un-English acquiescence to his wife’s demand that he abstain from tea, among other beverages. It’s still funny though:

THE royal family is said to be “amazed” at the difference in Prince Harry, as he celebrated his first dry New Year without even tea or coffee to get him through.

Meghan Markle is said to have banned her husband from drinking the hot drinks and he has replaced alcohol with mineral water, in support of her pregnancy.

Former party-lover Prince Harry looked leaner and bright-eyed at Sandringham at Christmas – and the royal family is said to have noted the change.

Interesting choice of words:

Another allegedly said: “Now his regime doesn’t make him the most entertaining party guest in the world, but he’s definitely more chilled and relaxed.”

Sounds like a broken man.

Year of the drone

Drone attack Venezuela

This year there were two major and ominous drone-related incidents. One was the attack on Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro by a pair of exploding DJI drones in August:

However, in this attack, it is not the drones as such that should be getting the attention. Instead, the interesting part is that it was flown by a non-state group (reportedly the ‘T-Shirt Soldiers’) and that this attack happened in a civilian context, rather than in a conflict zone. It is this aspect that makes the Caracas event a departure from what we have seen before. But it had been a long time coming.

For decades, drones have been used by militaries around the world, with approximately 90 countries using military drones of some kind today. Civilian drones, by contrast, are much younger. But even though the commercial drone market is still in its infancy, millions of hobbyist drones have been sold around the world. Of course, this did not go unnoticed by non-state actors such as terror groups.

Note that the drones used in the Caracas attack retail for about $5,000.

The article reports this amazing fact:

In response, anti-drone technology has boomed: a 2016 Goldman Sachs Investment report estimated that almost 10 percent of US defense research and development funds goes into financing counter-drone systems.

The second was the shutdown of England’s Gatwick Airport for nearly two days in the week before Christmas, grounding 1,000 flights and affecting some 140,000 travelers, due to an alleged drone sighting:

But just how many drones caused this massive disruption, who was operating them and, most importantly, why? Over a week and a half later, there are still no answers, no culprits, and no drones recovered. The best British authorities can offer is that they are “absolutely certain” there was at least one drone.

The attack, if it even was that, succeeded spectacularly in sowing the chaos, confusion and systems disruption that are the hallmarks of fourth-generation warfare:

On Saturday (Dec. 29), in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today program, Sussex police chief constable Giles York revealed the latest on what the area’s police force had learned about the incident at Britain’s second-largest airport. He said there had been 115 reports of drone sightings to police, including 93 confirmed as coming from credible sources, such as law enforcement and air traffic employees.

But beyond those eyewitness accounts, things get rather muddy. A couple that had been arrested by police and held for 36 hours was released without charge, and said that they felt “violated” by their experience and the release of their identities. York also had to concede that it was possible that police drones launched to catch the perpetrator(s) during the ordeal caused “some level of confusion”—suggesting that some of the reported sightings could have been of drones operated by police. Additionally, York said that two drones found nearby were ruled out of being involved in the incident, and searches of 26 sites in the immediate area were not fruitful. Further complicating matters, last week a senior Sussex police officer was quoted saying there was a possibility there hadn’t ”been any genuine drone activity in the first place.” This was later called a misstatement, and blamed on poor communication.

Economic and psychological damage: enormous. Cost of attack: virtually nil. The math works!

This is not going to stop. To the contrary, the combination of ultra-low cost and the potential for massive, even cataclysmic disruption means that drone attacks could become increasingly common. One way or another, modern society needs to be comprehensively hardened against malicious drones or there won’t be a modern society anymore.

Arigato (2018 edition)

Thank you for coming our presure

Thanks to all of you who follow this humble blog. I appreciate your interest and hope you find The Greg Zone™ sufficiently edifying and amusing that you keep coming back for more. If you really like it, please consider signing up to receive a daily email update so you don’t miss out on the latest sardonic hot takes and worrying ruminations from our crack team of professional reality-curators. It’ll go well with your morning coffee.

You may have noticed that I’ve been ramping up my posting frequency in recent months, with the aim (not always achieved) of updating the blog at least once a day. We’re now up to more than 400 posts in total. Based on Google Analytics and WordPress data of dubious reliability, here are some of the most popular items I’ve posted over the last couple of years:

Enjoy, and see you in 2019!

World’s tallest statue

So huge, it’s scary:

Statue of Unity India

Statue of Unity

The new Statue of Unity, twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, is located in the middle of nowhere in the state of Gujarat, India. At 597 feet, it is the world’s tallest statue. The sculpture is of Indian independence leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

Quote from India’s prime minister:

“This statue is an answer to all those who question India’s power and might,” Modi said in his address, before heading to take part in religious rites to mark the unveiling.

And if that’s not enough, this should settle the matter:

Even as the wrangling over the Statue of Unity continues, a taller and possibly even more divisive sculpture is in the works off the coast of Mumbai. Scheduled for completion in 2021, it is of Chhatrapati Shivaji, a Hindu warrior king, revered for battling Muslim rulers.

Statue of Shivaji Mumbai

Statue of Shivaji

Once that monstrosity is topped off, I think India’s status as a global superpower will be firmly cemented.

Hypersonic race

Russia says it has conducted another successful test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile:

Moscow’s hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed Avangard, has been in development for three decades and can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or about one mile per second.

The weapon, which the U.S. is currently unable to defend against, is designed to sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. Once launched, it uses aerodynamic forces to sail on top of the atmosphere.

Sources familiar with U.S. intelligence reports assess that the Russian hypersonic glide vehicles are equipped with onboard countermeasures that are able to defeat even the most advanced missile-defense systems. The weapons are also highly maneuverable and, therefore, unpredictable, which makes them difficult to track.

The US appears concerned:

The Defense Department is looking to step up its development of hypersonic weapons — missiles that travel more than five times faster than the speed of sound — DOD leaders said at the National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored “Hypersonics Senior Executive Series” here today.

“In the last year, China has tested more hypersonics weapons than we have in a decade,” said Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. “We’ve got to fix that.”

Russia also is involved in hypersonics, Griffin said. “Hypersonics is a game changer,” he added.

If Russia were to invade Estonia or China were to attack Taiwan tomorrow, Griffin said, it would be difficult to defend against their strike assets. “It’s not a space we want to stay in,” he told the audience.

Let’s you and them fight

As usual in geopolitics, there is more going on behind the scenes than some of the more breathless news reports would suggest:

The Russian forces currently in Syria will take action to restrain Hezbollah and Iranian activity there, according to understandings reached by Israel, the United States, Jordan and Saudi Arabia with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Jordanian official confirmed to Israel Hayom.

The understandings are the product of behind-the-scenes diplomatic talks that were underway prior to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision this week to withdraw American forces from Syria.

According to the terms of the understanding, Russia will continue to give Israel the freedom to strike Hezbollah and Iranian targets and weaponry that threaten the “balance of power” in Syria. According to the Jordanian official, it was these understandings between Trump and Putin that paved the way for the U.S. decision to pull its forces from Syria.

Other high-ranking Jordanian officials have confirmed that Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia are working together to contain the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria. Several of them emphasized that U.S. officials had made it clear that U.S. intelligence agencies would increase cooperation with Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, particularly on sharing intelligence, in a joint attempt to counter Iran’s attempt to create a contiguous Shi’ite corridor from Tehran to Beirut.

It looks like the Middle East is increasingly going to have to sort itself out, with a little help from nearby Russia. The consequences are hard to predict, but the US withdrawal from Syria almost certainly reduces the risk of conflict between the US and Russia, as well as between the US and its NATO ally Turkey, which threatened earlier this month to launch an offensive against the US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.