Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Texas Towers – off-shore radar stations

NPR’s news blog reported that President Obama gave official recognition to “the 28 men who died when a massive radar tower collapsed in the North Atlantic 50 years ago.”  The radar tower was one of five that sat out in the Atlantic ocean off the north-eastern coast of the USA.  They were a hybrid of a radar station and an offshore oil-rig, which gave them the nickname “Texas Towers”.

Texas Tower 4.  Photo from the office of Sen John Kerry.

The radar stations were needed to extend the warning time that the USA would have in the event that Soviet bombers flew across the Atlantic towards them.  These early-warning stations would give the mainland an extra 30 minutes to respond to an attack.  Improvements in radar technology and the change from bombers to (much faster) ICBMs made the stations obsolete.  Texas Tower 4, however, suffered a disaster prior to this.  In 1960 it was damaged by Hurricane Donna and it collapsed during a winter storm the following year.

This tower had already shown several problems: it was built in much deeper water than the others (180ft deep, where the others were 50-80ft) which meant it needed longer legs, and it’s foundations were in sand rather than rock.  Now it lies below the waves, acting as an artificial reef for scuba divers.

I love the pictures of the old radar tower, with the domes standing over the (rather tall) base.  It sounds like a good starting point for a game - a radar tower out in the ocean, largely cut-off from the rest of the nation, even though they may only be a hundred kilometres away.  Doesn’t this look like it should be visited by Avrocars?  Or that it should be en-route to Camp Century?  Or was there something important left behind on a now collapsed tower?  Could they have detected something out in the sky or sea?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

From Blackfriars to booksellers

With Bookhounds of London going to print right about now, it’s rather timely to see this story of a bookstore built in a 750 year old Dominican church.

From the store’s Flickr stream.

Whether you’re religious or not, this old Dominican church will certainly bring you the enlightenment you’ve been seeking. After months of renovation this magnificent structure originally constructed in 1294 has opened its doors to the public as a “brand new” bookstore in the heart of Maastricht. …

Dating back to the 13th century, the structure was a Dominican church until Maastricht was invaded by Napoleon in 1794 and the group was forced out of the country. Since that point it has been briefly used as a parish, then a warehouse, then an archive, then a giant parking lot for bicycles (not such a terrible idea) and finally made over into a bookstore.

One thing that strikes me as slightly odd is that while the whole design looks really classy, the crucifix shaped reading table in the nave seems a bit kitsch.

From Crossroads magazine.

Aside from this rather marvellous bookstore, what other things might be put in a disused church?  As the article mentions, this church has also been a warehouse and bike parking-lot, and there are many other churches that have become nightclubs (so many that it’s something of a cliché).  Might a church have become a hostel, a hospital, or even a home?  Might it be a factory, a restaurant, or a school?  Or perhaps one of those discount stores that seem to pop-up in malls to fill empty store-fronts.  And wouldn’t it surprise the new tenants to learn that the treasure of Abbot Thomas was still hidden there?

Reburying the dead

[Via BLDGBLOG]  The British government has given their archaeologists a very difficult condition to work with: all human remains must be reburied within 2 years of being excavated:

The dispute centres on legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008 which requires all human remains excavated at digs in England and Wales to be reburied within two years, regardless of their age. The decision, which amounts to a reinterpretation of law previously administered by the Home Office, means scientists have too little time to study bones and other human remains of national and cultural significance, the academics say.

The ruling applies to any pieces of bone uncovered at around 400 dig sites, including the remains of 60 or so bodies found at Stonehenge in 2008 that date back to 3,000BC. Archaeologists have been granted a temporary extension to give them more time, but ultimately the bones will have to be returned to the ground.

[from The Guardian]

No doubt the government has reasons for this imposition that they aren’t prepared to reveal!  Is it that they want to restrict how long the scientists may study these early remains so that they cannot learn some shocking truth (such as that they are really white apes)?  Or is it that the bodies must be returned to the earth to prevent something from happening?  Or even that someone with influence over the government requires the bodies to return to Stonehenge soon so that some ritual may be completed?

And the law covers all digs in England and Wales, but not Scotland.  What’s going on there – are they trying to encourage more activity in the north?  Could there be something that someone wants uncovered that isn’t getting sufficient attention?

Another thought occurs to me, it would be an interesting purpose in life for a priestly character in a fantasy game not just to be a foe of the undead, but to give these misused corpses a proper burial.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Carnivorous furniture

Rather like the vermin accessories, here’s another strange meeting of design and dead animals.  This time it’s furniture – furniture that draws power out of dead insects or animals.  The devices capture insects or mice and deposit them in a fuel cell that uses bacteria and enzymes to generate electricity from their corpses.  All of these machines are very simple, but there is mention of a robot that can be powered by dead flies.

In a sci-fi setting this would add a macabre edge to things.  After all, by harvesting electricity out of human brains, the machines in The Matrix were essentially treating people as a fuel cell, why not just go the extra mile?

Alternatively, in a fantasy setting there may be machines that are artifacts of some ancient culture.  Devices that now require sacrifices to generate their power – something like Blackrazor only it devours flesh rather than souls.

Dad’s Army – the last line of defence

The early 1970s were still a prime era for WWII nostalgia, and at that time the BBC produced one of my favourite TV series – Dad’s Army.  Set in the early years of the war, it follows a Home Guard unit in the fictional coastal town of Walmington-On-Sea.

Captain Mainwaring presents his troops.  From the BBC archive.

The Home Guard (originally called the Local Defence Volunteers, or LDV) were civilian units formed out of volunteers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to serve: some too young, too old, or medically unfit.  As supplying equipment to the fighting troops was the primary concern in the early war, initially the LDV units had no more uniform than an armband and no weapons at all.  Instead they had to improvise weapons out of what they had at hand.  It was hard to say what they would actually be capable of doing: their name LDV was said to stand for “Look, duck, vanish”.

Eventually they were given uniforms and issued with rifles (albeit a mix of types), and their role was redefined from observing for German paratroopers to a more active kind of service.  Now their purpose would be to harry and obstruct an invading German force (although it’s hard to see how much obstruction they would have actually presented).  Once there was no threat of invasion, the Home Guard remained in service to man guard stations and free up the regular army from those duties.

Hiding from a runaway ancient Chinese rocket launcher (requisitioned from a museum).  Note the armbands in lieu of uniforms, and their improvised petrol bombs.  From the BBC archive.

Dad’s Army touches on many different aspects of Britain at the time, and of the Home Guard in particular.  The men of Walmington-on-sea are a rag-tag lot: 70 year old Lance-corporal Jones served under General Kitchener in the Sudan, Pike is too young (a 17 year old who acts like a 12 year old), and Joe Walker was discharged from regular service due to an allergy to corned beef.  They don’t have uniforms or weapons for most of the first season, parading and marching around town in work-clothes carrying fence-railings or golf-clubs in place of rifles.  Later they must deal with various unwanted weapons from the army -- such as sticky bombs or a Panjandrum rocket-cart -- or inventions of their own -- using the butcher’s delivery van as an armoured personnel carrier.

This is a Britain that is still living on the past glories of the now disappearing empire, that still has a sense of “British specialness” and that Britons by nature have some special reserves of ingenuity or resolve that will overcome all obstacles.  They are very class conscious even while it shows those class rules changing: middle-class Mainwaring leads the unit rather than upper-class Wilson, and having a butcher and a black-marketeer in the group keeps them in “essential supplies” when the home-office fails.  And there are the petty rivalries between Mainwaring and the air-raid patrol warden Hodges, each of whom let their imagined authority go to their heads.

There have been a few games that have gone for a “weird world war” setting – Weird War, The Day After Ragnarok, and some Delta Green materials.  That seems like a distraction: do we really need to make WWII more horrific?  I fancy tempering it with some of the nostalgic humour of Dad’s Army.   An assortment of unlikely war heroes are patrolling their town when they see something strange at the vicarage.  Their calls for assistance from the regular army get no response as they had their own problems to deal with.  Forced to rely on their “can do” attitude and good old British ingenuity, can they keep the world safe from this unknown threat?

Toasting “To Britain’s Home Guard” at the end of the final episode.  From the BBC archive.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cleveland’s frozen lighthouse

In December last year, freezing winds turned Cleveland’s West Pierhead lighthouse into a giant ice sculpture.  The wind drove waves against the lighthouse, covering it in spray which was then frozen in the intense cold.

Image from Albino ©'s Flickr stream.

Image from Albino ©'s Flickr stream.

Image from Albino ©'s Flickr stream.

Imagine a tower frozen like this as the result of some magic or magical creatures.  Was someone casting a great spell that had the unexpected side-effect of freezing the tower (perhaps with them in it)?  Was it frozen from outside to seal something within?

How might you safely enter such a place?  Are those icicles waiting like spears to fall on people?  Is it also frozen within the building, with treacherous icy floors?  Has the freezing caused the stone itself to become brittle, so that removing the ice too quickly (with intense heat or smashing it off) makes the structure even more fragile?