Fireball XL5

Fireball XL5

XL5 Rail Launch
XL5 Rail Launch

Over the past few weeks I have been quietly reliving part of my childhood.  I have thirty of the thirty-nine episodes of Fireball XL5, a sci-fi marionette show for kids, and am busy “acquiring” the final nine eps.  For those of you not familiar with XL5—and I’d wager that’s pretty much all of you—the premise is that Colonel Steve Zodiac and his crew patrol space to protect Earth from native and alien villains.

Fireball XL5 was created in 1962 by Gerry Anderson who also created Thunderbirds (1965),  Space 1999 (1975) and several other shows.  Thunderbirds was remade in 2004 as a full-length feature movie based on Anderson’s series.  There is a simplicity to XL5 that only a child can appreciate.  To move about in outer space requires only a thruster pack and some oxygen pills.  (No worries about extreme temperatures or that whole vacuum thing.)  The same mental abilities that allow a 5 year-old to turn a cardboard box into a medieval castle automatically edits the clearly visible strings and renders the jerky movements of the marionettes into something completely believable.  Colonel Zodiac was aided in his missions by Venus, the ship’s doctor, Robert the (transparent) Robot and Professor Matthew Matic who designed the Fireball series spaceship.

There were some pretty interesting technologies in Fireball XL5.  The ship was launched with the aid of a rocket pack that boosted the XL5 down a mile-long rail, as in the image above.  The ship’s main thrusters fired only at the end of the rail, which culminated in a 40-degree incline.  The nose section, dubbed Fireball Junior, was detachable and capable of landing in areas where Zodiac didn’t want to risk the ship.  (Note the blister just behind Junior where the rest of the ship could be piloted when the nose section was separated.)  At the beginning of every episode Steve Zodiac and Venus could be seen riding hover scooters along the top of XL5 from back to front, then they would descend though an open hatch into the rear compartment of the nose section.

Like any “B” movie and TV show created in the 50’s and 60’s, Fireball XL5 was rife with “space” jargon.  The spaceship was part of the World Space Patrol, headquartered in Space City.  The ship could travel at Space Velocity 7 and was frequently used to thwart space spies.  (Yes, they actually called them space spies.)

Still and all, I wish this show could be taken out of the world of children’s programs and updated for the 21st Century.  Not as corny as the Thunderbirds movie, but not as dramatic as Battlestar Galactica either.  Maybe something in the “gritty adventure” genre like Firefly/Serenity.

Edit: 10 May 2009, I have all 39 episodes on my computer and my iPod.  I know you can’t see me smiling but trust me, I am.

Marvin

And in this dream I had a dream…

It is a crisp, clean and warm Spring day.  No clouds mar the amazingly blue East Texas sky.  Marvin and I are wearing t-shirts and shorts because we can; in another month the heat and humidity will demand it.

We have left his house and are now driving down a quiet, country road in his rather large convertible.  Rich, a friend of his, is working outside his house as we pass and Marvin calls to him, though not stopping.  Thirty seconds or so later I interrupt the still talking Marvin to ask him why he is, in fact, still talking.  It is obvious Rich can no longer hear him.

In an instant I know the reality of my situation.  I know I am dreaming and that knowledge alone should have awakened me, yet I am still in the dream.  So I ask him.  A little angry and more than a little sad, I ask him why he chose to leave his wife and one month-old son for a useless trip to Louisiana.  I ask him why he chose not to stay overnight and come back in the morning.

I ask him why he died that night twenty-three years ago.

That, at least, is what I intended to ask Marvin, my best friend from high school.  But I was so overcome with emotion that I only managed a single “why” before the dream fragmented and was gone.  I awoke with lingering sadness and sense of loss not only for my friend, but I felt I had missed an opportunity for discovery, or maybe closure.

It would be a while before I realized I was still dreaming.

My spam is boring

Sad, but true.  Every time I check my junk mail folder to see if any “real” mail fell through the filters I am disappointed by what I find.  Where have all the good spammers gone?

In the beginning there was no spam and it was good.  Then some entrepreneurial nerd with way too much time on his hands invented a new way to break an old law and it was not good.  Not every Thomas, Richard and Harold could afford a personal computer in those days so the spammer’s sales pitch had to be believable, or at least inventive.  The major spam-fighting tool was, and still is, common sense.  If someone you’ve never heard of tries to sell you something you weren’t in the market for in a way you cannot verify, take a pass.

Spam filtering has evolved to the point where not a single piece of junk mail has found its way into my inbox over a period of years.  On the other hand, spammers have devolved into special education “script kiddies” whose efforts are pathetic.  They do not try to be creative in the least, dispensing several times a day their offers of…

  • Swiss watches – Over a million had been sold by December 14th, but that number was down to 600,000 on the 15th.  (400,000 returns?)
  • Erectile dysfunction medication – For the record, I don’t need it.  But if I did I would get it from someone who could spell the name correctly.
  • College diplomas – I can just imagine the job interview: “Yeah, I got me a Masteer degree, so when do I gotta start?”

…and a special shout out to all those ladies who found my ad on “that dating site”.  Sorry, girls, but the idea of unprotected cyber sex doesn’t appeal to me.

That is the extent of my spam entertainment.  The fact that I get each one several times a day is completely irrelevant.  They are all dumped into the junk mail folder and I never have to look at them.  They’re even deleted automatically after a given period of time.  That said, today will most likely be the last time that folder is ever opened.  Today’s spammers are almost too pitiful for words and I will not allow them to continue to disappoint me.

Perspective No. 2

Seating capacity of:

  • FedEx Field (Washington Redskins) – 91,704
  • Reliant Stadium (Houston Texans) – 71,500
  • M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore Ravens) – 71,008
  • Texas Stadium (Dallas Cowboys) – 65,675

Population of Lufkin, Texas (my hometown) – 36,830

No insights.  I just find it extraordinary that every citizen of Lufkin can fit into the smallest stadium with almost 29,000 seats left empty.

Chiefly British

It never fails.  I will be otherwise occupied when a question occurs to me and I’m not in a position to research an answer.  Then, just as silently as it rose to the surface of my waking thoughts, it sinks again—waiting.  Today’s topic was just such an anomaly, but now I have time on my hands.

I believe the prototype America—the one the American Revolutionary War would forge into a proper United States—required three main ingredients for it to succeed: new ideologies for government, literal and figurative fertile soil for them to thrive, and British citizens.  We forget that, in the beginning, we were all subjects of King George III.

Given that the United States was birthed from primarily British stock, when and why did differences in spelling occur? For example, the chiefly British theatre became the American theater.  Centre became center, litre/liter, sabre/saber and fibre/fiber.  And those are just of few of the “re/er” words.  We cannot ignore the “our/or” words, such as honour/honor or colour/color, or those annoying “ce/se” ones like defence/defense.  The answer turns out to be more complex than I could have, but probably should have imagined.

English is a robust, living language, and the language of any dynamic society will change as that society changes.  It is inevitable.  Many of the differences between British and American English can be traced to a Viking leader named Rollo.  In 911, Charles the Simple of France granted Rollo and his group of Vikings, whom he had defeated in battle, permission to settle along the northern coast of France.  It was Charles’s intention that these Vikings would ward off further Viking attacks upon his domain.  It was a successful venture and Rollo’s Vikings adapted themselves to the culture of northern France, becoming known as Northmen from which Normandy is derived.[1]  Setting aside the alliances, arranged marriages and buckets of blood that followed, in 1072 England found herself ruled by a Norman king—a French king.  As a direct result, Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French, displaced Old English and became the language of the English aristocracy.[2]  Though England has long since reverted to an English sovereign, the effects of Anglo-Norman are obvious in today’s Modern English.  This is the origin of the “-re”, “-our”, etc. words mentioned earlier.

How did we Americans come by our spellings of those Anglo-Norman words?  Noah Webster.

Okay, not entirely Noah Webster.  Many spellings happen as a result of the dynamic evolution of language.  Technology gave us Internet, hypertext, et alAspirin was originally a German trademark for A(cetyl)+SPIR(säure)+IN.  (Spirsäure is the German name of the meadowsweet plant from which salicylic acid could be derived.)  The name of my home state of Texas is alleged to be the result of a Spanish misspelling of the Caddoan word for “friends”.[3]  Back to Mr. Webster.

Noah Webster’s time at Yale College was interrupted by the American Revolutionary War, when he served with the Connecticut Militia.  One cannot discount the influence this must have had when, in the 1780’s, Mr. Webster began a concerted effort to “rescue ‘our native tongue’ from ‘the clamor of pedantry’ that surrounded English grammar and punctuation.”[4]  His three volume publication, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, consisted of a speller, a grammar and a reader (published in 1783, 1784 and 1785, respectively).  In 1806, Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and set about the following year creating The American Dictionary of the English Language, a task that would take another 27 years to complete.

“Slowly, he changed the spelling of words, such that they became ‘Americanized’. He chose s over c in words like defense; he changed the re to er in words like center; he dropped one of the Ls in traveller; at first, he kept the u in words like colour or favour, but he dropped it in later editions.”[4]

May all your simple questions have simple answers.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_conquest#Origins

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_conquest#Language

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_Webster

Reading the entire Wikipedia entry will provide a more complete picture of the effects of the Norman Conquest of England.