Monday, October 29, 2018

THIS is the Han Solo You Were Looking For

Since it's Halloween week, it seemed like a great time to do a fun post that looks at both state of the art trickery and role-playing. It seems there's been some really interesting developments and discussion related to the Star Wars franchise. :)

First of all, there was a recent buzz on the io9 site about the "remake" of Solo: A Star Wars Story created by someone with a handle of "derpfakes" (which, apparently, means "deep fakes") using Deep Learning AI to insert Harrison Ford's face into the actual footage.

Check out the clip:

Somewhat convincing, if you ask me, though the voice still needs some work in a few of these scenes. If this technique has a future in Hollywood, it could lead to some fascinating possibilities. But there's a bit of a spin to the story...

Commenters on the article had some gripes. They basically said better casting might have been the key to a more believable young Solo in the first place. They recommended actor Anthony Ingruber as a better fit than the actual man cast in the role, Alden Ehrenreich.

After viewing the example -- no offense to Ehrenreich, who is a fine actor -- but I have to agree. The casting for this particular role was not what it could have been. Not only is Ingruber's appearance much more what I'd expect for a young Han Solo, but his voice and inflections are dead on!

Your mileage may vary.

Watch this clip from Age of Adaline and you be the judge. Please let me know what you think. (Sorry for any ads that might mar the experience. Can't avoid them these days. :( )

[This video link was apparently disabled after I composed the post, but you can click here to see it on YouTube: Anthony Ingruber in Age of Adaline. And again, sorry for the ads.]

The looks, the gestures, the voice... Yes!

After watching the clip, I read several comments that Anthony Ingruber actually auditioned for the role of young Han Solo in the movie, but didn't get it! Some theorized this happened because his competition "had a better agent."

Very sad, if true, because I feel it was a missed opportunity for the film's connection. Although Solo was full of action and an entertaining enough movie, one of the things that really marred the viewing experience for me was that I had a hard time reconciling the young Han Solo portrayed in the film with the character I knew and loved so well. I didn't feel like I was actually seeing a younger Han, but some stranger I couldn't connect with at anywhere near the same level.

But back to the derpfakes/deep fakes subject. Here's one more offering. A very quick glimpse of another re-creation from the closing scene of Rogue One.

Watch closely. The original CGI recreation of Carrie Fisher is in the top pane, and the Deep Fakes version -- which reportedly wasn't high res and was created on a desktop computer -- is at the bottom.

Will the real Princess Leia please stand up?

I'm seeing some real promise for future franchises that do prequels and sequels 40 years (or heck, 20) after the original film.

Can you imagine a new Firefly series or motion picture--with the Deep Learning AI technology used for actors who have aged beyond their roles? (Though certainly not Nathan Fillion, if you've seen him in clips for his latest series, The Rookie. He could still totally play Captain Mal Reynolds. He looks younger now than he did when he played Castle!)

Of course, this and other evolving technology might not be all fun and games. It could also lead to some applications that might bring scarier results--like placing people at scenes where they've never actually been, or depicting words coming out of people's mouths that they never actually said, or people doing things they've never actually done. 

Hmmm... A bit chilling, yes? If you have time to spare, you can view this YouTube video on some of the more dubious uses of this new technology.

Have a great week and enjoy your tricks and treats.

HaPpY HaLlOwEeN WeEk

Friday, October 26, 2018


I used to pride myself on my knowledge of trivia. I was particularly good at the minutiae of early rock’n’roll—song titles, singers, lyrics, dates—and the movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I ruled Trivial Pursuit’s Entertainment and History categories; I could hold my own in Science and Literature. At one time, I even dreamed of an appearance on Jeopardy! since I usually had all the answers playing along at home.

But my skills are sadly diminishing lately, and not just due to the ravages of age. Yes, as I get older, it is harder to match an actor’s name with his face or to remember just when that particular movie came out. After all, every year there are more movies, more songs, more events, more people and just plain more bits of information to stuff into my poor old less-elastic brain than the year before.

The bigger reason, however, is the ubiquitous presence of the Ultimate Authority in any dispute over some irrelevant factoid: the Internet. Watching an old movie on TV and can’t quite recall where you’ve seen that actor before? Check out Arguing with friends at a bar about the exact dates of the Spanish-American War? Google it on your phone. The date a certain song came out and who sang it first? It’s all there at your fingertips. On your computer, your iPad, your smartphone. Argument settled. 

What fun is it to have a brain for irrelevant facts when you can’t win arguments with it? In this day and age, no one gets to be king or queen of trivial knowledge when the minute a dispute arises everyone reaches for their phones. In the end, you stop trying to remember anything and just look it up. Then, when you want to remember, you can’t.

I had a little glimpse of this in the theater the other day. I saw the allegorical crime thriller BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, starring Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm and Chris Hemsworth. A soulful R&B score sets the tone for the film, starting with the opening scene, which is accompanied by a catchy tune called “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” by the Four Preps. Now, I instantly knew the title, and was pretty sure of the artist (after all, oldies are my jam), but I couldn’t quite remember the exact year the song came out. Was it 1957? 1958? I didn’t think it was as late as 1960. But it was important, because the rest of the movie starts with the scene card “Ten Years Later.”

Arrgghh! A jukebox in the motel of the film’s title (which straddles the Nevada/California state line and may or may not be Purgatory) provides the soundtrack of the rest of the movie—classic R&B hits like the Four Tops’ “Bernadette,” the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine,”—but is little help in determining the year in which the film is actually set. “Bernadette” hit the charts in 1967; “This Old Heart of Mine” twice, in 1966 and 1968. 

I was going crazy until characters in the movie find an incriminating 8-mm film of a certain senator who’d had connections with Sinatra and the Rat Pack—a senator who was no longer alive. If that senator was Kennedy, then the movie had to have been set after June, 1968. Ah-ha! At least I could relax and watch the rest of the film in peace.
Chris Hemsworth as a Manson-like bad guy.
It turns out “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” indeed came out in 1958; BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is set in 1968, with all the great music of that time, and a lot of the strange hippies-gone-bad vibe of that era, too. (Hemsworth plays the Charles Manson-like villain with relish!) Going in, I anticipated a lot of Quentin Tarantino-ish gore and black humor, but director Drew Godard (CABIN IN THE WOODS) gave the film more heart than I expected. Veteran actor Jeff Bridges and the voice of heroine Cynthia Erivo elevated the film beyond the ordinary, too.

I just wish I hadn’t had to rush home to my computer to look up the details on that soundtrack. Hey, Siri—why don’t you just take a hike?

Cheers, Donna

Thursday, October 25, 2018

I'm going to do NaNoWriMo

Goodness me, hasn't the year flown by? It's nearly November and I haven't written a word of fiction all year. Okay, I've accepted I'm not going to be the next JK Rowling, but writing is still a good way for me to keep my brain active, so I'm going to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It's held every November and I've discovered I actually signed up once, way back when I still had a Yahoo email account. Since 2013 my statistics are very even – I achieved exactly zero words every year.

Why have I decided to have a go this year, for real? Because I need the motivation and the discipline. NaNo might help. It might not, too, in which case I've lost nothing.

I had three choices for a suitable project:

  • ·         Morgan's Misfits 3, the next story in the Morgan Selwood universe
  • ·         Puss in Space 2, carrying on with Brett, Tian and Puss in the Dryden Universe
  • ·         Something completely different, with no associated baggage.

I've decided on Misfits 3. I've written up to 10k words on this book in the past, and stalled - more than once. I couldn't get past that point because I ran out of plot. It's time to consign the previous attempts to history and start again. I'm a cross between a plotter and a pantser - I do think even make-it-up-as-you-go types like me need to have at least a route map before writing starts, and I hadn't done that. But this time, I think I've come up with a reasonable plot with plenty of room for disasters and re-starts (AKA plot twists). This description isn't exactly a blurb, and I hope it works as a starting point.

Marisa, last mistress of Governor Soldar, manages to escape alive, if battered and bruised, from an attempt to kill her. She's found wandering dazed and feverish by Toreni, Chet, and Jirra. They recognise her and take her off to their ship. A ship delivering a consignment of X-stream, a new power supplement which will multiply the speed and efficiency of existing engines, has disappeared in transit to the Union's capital planet. Admiral Ravindra suspects a leak in Fleet's security service has led to the disappearance, so he hands the task of finding the missing vessel and its cargo to Morgan's Misfits. Governor Soldar, dictator of Shar Burk space station, is at the top of the list of Ravindra's suspects. If he receives the X-stream the worst pirate fleets in controlled space will be super charged. Marisa may well be useful to the ladies, providing them with information about Soldar that on-one else would know.

While the ladies are chasing a missing ship, that bounty hunter who has been after Jirra since she refused to marry the man her father picked for her has reappeared. I'll bring that situation to a close in this book.

By the way, parts of the writing I did before will show up in the story - just not in the form it was in when I wrote it.

I'll let you know how I progress. You'll find me at the NanoWriMo site as GretavdR.

Monday, October 22, 2018

60 Years in Space: NASA Celebrates First 6 Decades

Though it may have been lost in the shuffle of political debate and controversy these last few weeks, I think it's important to note a major milestone in space exploration history that may have slipped by us:

NASA officially celebrated its 
60th Anniversary on October 1, 2018!

Check out the special Anniversary Logo unveiled by Space.Com on Twitter

On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed NASA’s founding legislation, the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act. The agency, however, considers October 1, 1958 to be its official birthday, because the agency actually opened for business on this day. Being a former military budget director, I can tell you this is because October 1st is when the new federal fiscal year actually begins and funding becomes available. And opening the doors of such an agency only a little over two months after the legislation authorizing it was approved is nothing short of a herculean feat!
First Space Walk: Photo Credit NASA

But it wouldn't be NASA's last herculean feat. I'll touch on some of those early highlights below.

As an author of Science Fiction Romance, I owe a great debt of gratitude to NASA. The agency continues to push the envelope of the exploration of our own solar system with both manned missions and unmanned probes, and these new discoveries often fuel the fires of our ideas and imagination. I often study these real life missions for inspiration for my novels.

To really appreciate the obstacles NASA faced and overcame in its early years, here are just a few eye-opening accomplishments:
-- On May 5, 1961, Lieutenant Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. of the US Navy was the first American in space in a suborbital Mercury Program flight aboard Freedom 7, but he wasn't the first in space. His historic flight was preceded by a Russian dog, an American chimp and a Russian cosmonaut in an automated craft. NASA was scrambling to catch up, and after several tension-filled delays, Shepard demanded of Mission Control, "Let's light this candle!" They did, and he reached an altitude of 116 miles on a flight that lasted 20 minutes. Over 45 million Americans watched. Shepard's flight answered critical questions about if humans would be able to breathe or swallow and perform basic tasks in space. No one knew the answer until he and NASA proved it could be done.

-- In a speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy set a goal to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. At this point in time, NASA had the sum total of 20 minutes of spaceflight experience! In just eight short years, NASA not only accomplished this impossible dream, but even more monumentally, they did it without a single loss of life in space.

-- After the Mercury Program, NASA forged ahead with the Gemini Program, a mission to build a craft that would put a pair of men in space. But there's a problem. A more powerful rocket is needed to launch a two-man capsule. The Air Force was developing the new Titan missiles but had difficulties adapting missile rockets to the manned Gemini vehicle. The Titans are initially a disaster: One out of every five fails catastrophically. Astronauts watch as the rockets explode again and again, knowing their odds aren't good. Engineers attacked the problems and created safeguards and backup systems to make the rockets safer. Finally, NASA launched two rockets in a row that didn't explode with the unmanned Gemini 1 and Gemini 2 capsules. John Young and Gus Grissom ride the next into space aboard Gemini 3. Their primary goal? Test the brand new rocket and capsule and return...alive. If anything goes seriously wrong with the launch, Young and Grissom will be killed on live television with millions watching. In a moment of optimism, Grissom names the Gemini 3 capsule The Molly Brown after the Broadway hit "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." The Molly Brown is the last NASA vehicle to be named by an astronaut. On March 23, 1965, the launch aboard the converted ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) goes flawlessly. The rocket stages fall away and the Gemini 3 capsule reaches orbit. Grissom and Young become the first Americans to fly together in space. They make three successful orbits of the Earth testing important maneuvers and altitude changes that are essential first steps in reaching the Moon.

-- NASA's next question had to be answered: How will the human body react to free-floating in space traveling at 17,500 in Earth orbit? No one knew. Can a man mentally and physically function in zero gravity? No one knew that either. The astronaut's suit would be the difference between life and death in a place where the temperature can fluctuate from +250 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun to -250 degrees in the shade. The greatest concern of all was the vacuum of outer space. If a suit fails, rips or tears, the differences in pressure will kill an astronaut in seconds when liquids within his body vaporize. The EVA is originally planned for the Gemini 6 mission, but after Russia forges ahead, a decision is made for Gemini 4 to perform the EVA, and Ed White to be the astronaut to perform it. If White's EVA is successful, it will move the space program much closer to its goal of reaching the Moon and help the USA keep up with the Russians. The astronauts train for the EVA in secrecy, often at night and in isolated conditions. Only a handful of people realize what America is about to attempt. NASA announces the first space walk will be part of the mission just a few days before the launch. Many, including some of the astronauts, wonder if NASA is moving too fast and putting the astronauts lives in jeopardy. A problem during the EVA could set back the space program and end all chance at reaching the Moon before 1970. Gemini 4 becomes the longest spaceflight, and the June 3, 1965 EVA the most dangerous venture attempted by the space program, to date. It's a complete success.

-- In just a little over four years later, the first man stepped foot on the Moon--Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. Between 1968 and 1972, there were nine manned missions to the Moon or Moon orbit conducted by NASA as part of the Apollo program. Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to enter orbit in December 1968, and was followed by Apollo 10 in May 1969. Six missions landed men on the Moon, beginning with Apollo 11. Apollo 13 was intended to land, however it was restricted to a flyby due to an explosion aboard the spacecraft. All nine manned missions returned its astronauts safely back to Earth.

Footprint on the Moon: Photo Credit NASA

It's actually quite difficult to grasp the scope of all that NASA accomplished in those early days of the space program and in the six short decades since, when NASA began to turn its sites to more distant shores.

Pluto and Charon: New Horizons
Mission - Photo credit NASA
We now know more than we could have ever imagined about some of our systems' outlying worlds and our own resident star--the Sun. We've sent multiple rovers to Mars to explore the horizons of what can potentially become humankinds' second planetary residence, and we've sent probes to our other neighbor, the hellish nightmare world called Venus.

We've seen miraculous photos of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus...and even distant Pluto, with images of the far distant dwarf planet so stunning that they took our breath away.

We've explored the 120+ moons of the gas giants and found a high potential that liquid water exists on Europa, Enceladus and Ganymede, as well as the amazing vistas of very Earth-like landscapes that came into sharp focus on the once hazy moon of Saturn called Titan.

The Voyager probes were the first man-made vessels to venture outside of our little neighborhood of planets and into the great unknown of interstellar space. They've been outward bound for more than 40 years now.

Atlantis Lift Off: Photo Credit NASA
And, of course, NASA's remarkable Space Shuttle Program has come and gone in the decades since, but it did so much to enhance our understanding and further scientific and technological advancement. (See NASA Technologies Benefit Our Lives )

I am completely energized by the recent upsurge in interest and attention by the powers-that-be in Washington for our once-withering space program. I consider space exploration to be one of the most important things we can tackle as a species. The advances in science due to NASA and space exploration cover the spectrum in areas that benefit all people--health, medicine, food production, renewable energy, the environment--and include many products we use everyday.

But even with all those benefits, we must always keep in mind that the universe is a very volatile place and having all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, is an invitation to oblivion. I think Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield once summed it up best:

"The dinosaurs are extinct because they didn't have a space programme."

Congratulations, NASA, on six decades of spectacular achievement.

P.S. If you missed Donna Frelick's movie review of First Man (the just released motion picture of Neil Armstrong's historic Moon landing) be sure to check it out just below or by clicking the "First Man" link above.

Have a great week...and keep reaching for those distant stars!