Caster's Corner - Livestreaming on Twitch

Thursday, April 28, 2016

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time - Turret Fighters

I'll (hopefully) pick up my Night Fighters series proper next week. This week, however, I'm going to focus on one of the weird sideshows from the beginning of WWII aviation, and an aircraft that was pressed into service as a night fighter for a while.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In the late 1930s, light- and medium-bombers were outpacing the late model biplane fighters of the day, and it was generally believed that speed, combined with massed turret fire, would allow bombers to attack enemy targets without need for fighter cover. Of course, this thought didn't stop British Fighter Command from asking something along the lines of "Well and good for the enemy, but we can't have our fighters getting shot to pieces. How are we going to intercept the enemy bombers?"

One of the answers went something along the lines of "Well, if turrets are good for bombers, then they'll be great on fighters! Do that!" And so, approximately, were born the Boulton Paul Defiant for the RAF, and Blackburn Roc for the Royal Navy.

Unlike the Defiant, the Roc also carried provision for
underwing weapons, and intended for ground-attack
duties as well.
Blackburn Roc. Ugly in a uniquely British way.
Still not a good fighter, but Merlin engines make everything
at least somewhat better.

Boulton-Paul Defiant

On the surface, it was a concept that solved a couple  of problems. The gunner freed up the pilot to focus on interception and flying duties, while the turret allowed for attacking enemy bombers from underneath, where fewer guns could be brought to bear.

Unfortunately, in actual combat, the turret fighter concept proved cripplingly vulnerable to single-seat enemy fighters. The extra weight of the turret and lack of forward armament put the turret fighters at a serious disadvantage against lighter, faster, more maneuverable opponents. Defiants did have some early success, primarily against German pilots who mistook them for Hawker Hurricanes and initiated attacks from the rear. Lessons subsequently learned, squadrons equipped with Defiants soon began suffering significant loses.

As a stop-gap measure until the Bristol Beaufighter became sufficiently operational, Defiants were re-assigned to night fighter duties. They saw some successes in this role, equipped with some of the early airborne radars, but were soon replaced by the Beaufighter, and eventually the Mosquito. Surviving Defiants were re-assigned to serve as trainers and target tugs,

Like any number of military innovations throughout history, the turret fighter was born from ideas that seemed good on paper, but failed in reality. The sole surviving Defiant is on display at the Royal Air Force Museum in London. No Rocs appear to have survived.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Rediscovering Simple Pleasures - Baseball Card Collecting

For my recent birthday, my wife allowed our kids to give their daddy a few packs of new 2016 Topps Series 1 baseball cards.

This may have been a mistake, as it re-ignited (with spousal permission), a collecting bug that has lain essentially dormant since our oldest son was born ten years ago. One trip to the local card shop later, and I was tearing into wax packs from a blaster box just like old times.

I should probably add here, that I've been playing with the Topps Bunt app on my phone since last September. It's pretty fun, but while I've fully embraced the power of digital gaming and e-books without much remorse, there's something about digital collectible cards that really doesn't scratch the itch. I like the Bunt app, don't get me wrong here, the daily contest elements in particular are great, but when I'm collecting something, I want to a tangible good. Especially for cards, tapping a button to watch an animation of a pack unwrapping is a poor facsimile of actually ripping open a pack for yourself and flipping through your new cards.

I also picked up a subscription to's card tracker and pricing service. Let's be honest here, one of the worst nightmares for any collector (of anything) is losing his or her collection and having to make an insurance claim. For me, aside from the main organizational value, there's a huge potential benefit there that if I ever have to make an insurance claim, having a full inventory of my collection will be a huge help. Having the collection live on Beckett's cloud is another benefit.

This of course, means I've also starting going through my old stuff that I never organized. Scratch that, I had organization. Twelve-year-old me organized his cards by team. Which is somewhat less helpful when attempting to inventory a set-based collection. No wonder I never had time to tackle this project before.

The finest cards of 1994, minus a few hundred still in pages
It feels good to be flipping through my old cards again. It's another project I never could have taken on with my old job and commute, but one that desperately needs doing. Since I'm doing most of my work at the kitchen table, it's also giving me some good interaction opportunities with my kids, both to share some of my old cards with them, and show them some newer stuff as well. 

Streaming Schedule This Week:
Youtube: TIE Fighter finally hits the campaign. Missions 1-5 of Campaign 1, Aftermath of Hoth, will be going up this week.

Twitch: Quantum (won't) Break me with this last boss battle. I'm going to finish this game, and then start checking out ChromaGun. I should be back to my regular-ish 9:45-10:15pm Power Half-Hour weeknight stream, plus the longer weekend runs.

Right Here: On Thursday we'll continue our series on Night Fighters.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Night Fighter History - World War I

It's so dark out over the countryside. The stars and a waning half moon provide the only illumination as the pilot strains his eyes to pick out familiar features. He's cold, even with the thick layers wrapped around him. Scattered clouds skud by below his fragile B.E.2c, reflecting moonlight back at him, and threatening to obscure what little reference points he has. 
There! He finally sees it, a series of canvas squares and circles laid out in a pre-arranged pattern that every member of the night fliers must have memorized. He can't quite make it out yet, but hopes that it tells him simply to keep patrolling, that the coast listeners haven't heard one of the Hun's lethal silver airships trying to slip by onto English soil. 
AIRSHIP SPOTTED, PATROL TOWARDS LONDON! The pattern reads. As the pilot turns his plane towards the English capital, he pulls his biplane into a climb. German Zepplins fly high, and his B.E.2c, with it's 90hp V-8, will need all the altitude he can get from it should he be fortunate enough to spot the German airship. 
Around London, searchlights snap on, probing the sky like blind fingers, searching the night for danger. They find nothing. The pilot gives them plenty of room, knowing that to be illuminated by them will destroy his night vision for much too long, and perhaps even worse, some of the gunners on the ground are none too choosy about their targets. How a tiny B.E.2c, or any single-engined aircraft, really, could be mistaken for one of the huge German airships was a question he couldn't imagine an answer to, and yet both he and several of his fellow pilots had come back from sorties with holes in their aircraft whose only possible explanation was friendly fire. 
The searchlights continue their hunt for a time, as does the pilot, but no cigar-shaped menace ever appears. Perhaps it was blown off course and aborted its mission, or perhaps the coastal listening posts made a mistake. The pilot will never know, nor does he particularly care. His supply of petrol is almost burned, and he must try to find his way back to his home airfield, lest he be forced to land in an unfamiliar spot, in the dark, with no way of knowing how well he has selected a landing field until his wheels touch the ground. 
He should be near the airfield by know, he knows it. The stopwatch and compass he rely on agree, but he can see nothing down below. Is his navigation wrong? No, there, almost directly off his left wing, the aerodrome crews are finally setting alight the barrels that outline a rough J pattern for a runway. 
He lines his aircraft up with the open end of the 'J', reduces power, and pulls a string in the cockpit. Near the tailskid, a flare burns to life, gradually illuminating the ground rising slowly towards him. The flare burns out, and he lights another one, night vision no longer mattering nearly so much as simply getting safely back on the ground. 
A solid thump rattles him in his seat as the B.E.2c's main wheels hit the ground. The tailskid follows quickly, the dying light of the flare becoming lost as the aircraft settles back to earth. He follows the line of flaming barrels back to the aircraft line and shuts down the engine. Ground personnel rush over to help him out of the cockpit, one handing him a small flask of brandy to help warm up again. 

Last week, I said I might start a series about Night Fighters, inspired by my feelings that they're a seriously under-recognized part of military aviation history. This week, I'm starting that series at the beginning, with the night fighters of World War I. 
Much as they would be in twenty-five years later, World War I night fighters were born primarily to serve a defensive role. As German airships menaced the British homeland, demands were made for an aerial defense. The aircraft of the day were severely underpowered, navigation aids were non-existent, and weapons that could damage the enemy airships were sorely lacking. 
Still, valiant efforts were made, efforts which unfortunately proved far more costly to the men making them than to the German airship crews. Aircraft were lost. To friendly fire, to disorientation and crashes, and most commonly of all, on landing. 
Eventually, solutions to most of these problems were found. The motley collection of aircraft used at the start were replaced, first by the B.E.2c armed with a Lewis gun loaded with incendiary ammunition, and aimed to fire at an upwards 45° angle; and later by modified Sopwith Camels mounting two over-wing Lewis guns and with the pilot's cockpit moved rearward twelve inches to allow for easier reloading. 
Landings were improved both by the marking of landing zones with burning barrels or fires lit by ground personnel when aircraft neared, and by the development of the Holt flare. Carried under the wings or near the tail, Holt flares helped the pilot illuminate the ground as he got closer, giving him a good idea of when to flare and land. 
Germany too, began using fighters to intercept the night-time bombing raids coming at the end of the war. A few attempts at night attacks, particularly over No Man's Land were also made, with limited success. 
At the end of the war, military interest in night fighting decreased significantly. While major advances in instrument flying, blind navigation, and other useful innovations were developed, scant attention would be paid to their application for nighttime fighting until nearly the next war. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Meeting the Black Widow

It all started with my grandfather. He had taken over pastoral duties at the church which was part of a local retirement community. One Sunday evening, he introduced me to a member of his congregation – a WWII veteran who had flown night fighters for the Army Air Force.

It would be a gross understatement to say that I was awestruck. Even as a kind of obnoxious young teenager, meeting an actual WWII fighter pilot was a huge honor for me. I wish I could remember what I asked him, but I guess I made a reasonably good impression, because for the next couple of years my grandfather played middleman, conveying a few neat aviation pictures and books from Mr. Stewart to me.

The pictures depicted aircraft from WWII, but not the familiar Mustangs, Spitfires, Corsairs, Hellcats, and Lightnings. Not even the dreaded enemy BF-109s, FW-190s, or Zeros were seen. Instead these aircraft were the bulky Tigershark, sleek Mosquito, oddly proportioned Beaufighter, and the sinister Black Widow.
My personal copy of Symphony In Black, SN #79/100. Signed by the artist, Dan Kelly, and Bill Stewart, Al Lockard, Ray Mann, Alvin E. "Bud" Anderson, and Lee Kendall

Three of the four aircraft in Gary Olson's Night Fighters series. From Left to Right is the DeHavilland Mosquito, Bristol Beaufighter, and Northrup P-61B. Not shown is the Douglas P-70.

I was hooked. I knew very little about night fighters, a side of the WWII air war that is rarely written about, but was no less important. More than that, staring at these pictures made me want to see one of these aircraft in person – the P-61 Black Widow, the same aircraft that Bill Stewart flew.

Now in the 1990s, if you wanted to see an intact P-61, there were exactly two places in the world you could go: the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, USA; or the Beijing Air and Space Museum in Beijing, China. For me, both those destinations were equally unobtainable. Oh, the National Air and Space Museum had a Black Widow as well, but it was tucked away in one of their storage facilities, another artifact they had no room to display.

Those pictures travelled with me. I grew up, got married, and Symphony in Black went up in our first apartment. We bought our first condo, and Symphony in Black went up office (and eventual nursery) while the India Ink drawings split their locations between the living room and office.

Time passed, and with the opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles, the ranks of intact, viewable P-61s grew to three. Still, as a resident of the West Coast, Washington D.C. wasn’t any more convenient than Dayton or Beijing. And that’s how it remained, until an interview brought me out to Washington D.C. in July of last year, with enough time in my schedule after arrival to spend a few hours at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

Seeing the aircraft I’d dreamed about for so many years in person was, to be honest, a bit overwhelming. Sitting in the museum, surrounded by other aircraft of the era, gave a real scale of just how big the P-61 was compared to its contemporaries.

NASM's P-61C-1NO on display. In the post-war era, this aircraft had its weapons removed and was used for swept wing research by NACA. When it was restored and put on display, the decision was made to show it in research, rather than wartime, configuration. Thus the weapons were not replaced for display.

Longer shot to show the scale of the P-61. It dwarfs the single-engine fighters of the same era displayed near it, and really is only outshone by the B-29 Enola Gaybehind it.
I saw a lot of amazing, one of a kind aircraft that day. But when closing time came, the P-61 was the one I came back to for one last look.

I’d also like to note that the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum has a fourth P-61, which they’ve been slowly restoring to flight status since 1991. Assuming they eventually get it completed, I fully intend to be there, to see and hear one of these amazing aircraft fly again!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Weekly Preview - April 10-17, 2016

This week, I'm pretty excited about the stuff that I'll be doing.

Twitch - Monday - Thursday, I'll be continuing my playthrough of Quantum Break. So far so good.
To catch up on the playthrough so far, check out the Youtube playlist.

Youtube: Star Wars: TIE Fighter, TIE Defender training missions will be going live all through the week.

Here on the blog, I'm getting back to my aviation geek roots. Thursday's post will be about one of my favorite aircraft of all time, and a special trip that I tool last July.

It's going to be a fun week!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Hot-Crazy Job Matrix

By now, pretty much everyone has seen the Hot/Crazy Matrix video that came out last year. It posited that the decision to enter into a relationship with someone can largely be determined by a two axis plot of the potential partner’s attractiveness, graphed against their level of crazy.

If you've forgotten or never seen the video, here it is. I'll wait,

In the interest of equal time, here's a solid response matrix from the other perspective:

It was, depending on your viewpoint, hilarious/accurate/sexist/horrible, but the main point, that a relationship determination can, at least in part, be made via a data-driven formula, is not entirely inaccurate. It’s also a useful thing for determining whether to stay or leave one’s current job.

Now, I’m going to admit, this doesn’t apply to everyone. Changing jobs isn’t something to be done lightly, nor is it something that most people can simply up and do. But, let’s say you’ve hit the point in your career where if you were to go looking elsewhere, you’ve got a pretty good chance of landing something. Should you? In large part, you can map this decision to a two axis graph, where one axis is money, and the other is what I call Job Satisfaction.

Money is easy to explain. It’s what you get paid. Factor in your various benefits if you like, but the point is, it’s a lot easier to decide to stay in a job that you’re not thrilled about, but pays you an incredible amount of money, than it is to be dissatisfied in a job that pays you peanuts.

Job Satisfaction (JS) though, is a bit more difficult. I think of it as a combination of ((Coworker Quality + Satisfying Work) – (Management unpredictability + Commute Misery)). It’s the idea that how happy you are in your job is largely a combination of how much you enjoy your work plus how much you enjoy your coworkers, minus how much management potentially aggravates you combined with how much you hate your commute.

In this math, the Holy Grail of jobs would be one where you love your work, have fantastic coworkers, get along great with management (or you’re the CEO and get along great with the board and are universally beloved by your shareholders), and can make your commute in under five minutes while wearing your pajamas. You are also paid millions of dollars, and your company car is a Ferrari.

If anyone knows of a job like this, please let me know.

For the rest of us though, life is all about compromises. And when the JS score dips below the line of what you’re willing to put up with for what you’re getting paid, it’s time to move on. It doesn’t really matter why your JS dropped, just that it did. Start looking. Get out! Just remember to evaluate potential future jobs against the same matrix. You may be surprised and where you end up, and how much happier you’ll be.

Note: This post was not inspired by my current job. It was, however, inspired by a lot of thoughts I’ve had about why I left my previous job, state, and industry, to mostly start over. I’ve written about three different versions of “Why I left Game Development” over the past year, and they’ve been all over the map, from bitter, to angry, to sad. I’m not any of those things anymore, and I don’t really want to get into another deep dive of why I made the decision I did, other than to simply say that my JS had dropped well below the line, and it was time to move on. I now find myself in a much better mental place, with time to write, blog, stream silly things on Twitch, while still seeing my kids, bringing home a decent income, and doing some meaningful work.

Monday, April 4, 2016

New Book Incoming!

A long time ago (okay, it was last year) Janine Southard released a book called Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story. It was fun, witty, a love letter to 2013 Seattle, and a great read.

This year, she opened up her universe, and let a bunch of other writers play in the sandbox, submitting their own tales of the places where magic and technology converge in an anthology called Untethered: A Magic iPhone Anthology.

Among others, there's a story by me, exploring what a magic iPhone might have been, before there were iPhones for it to be.

You can pre-order the anthology now on Kickstarter!

Also, this week on around the 'net, you'll find me releasing Star Wars: TIE Fighter Assault Gunboat training mission walkthroughs on YouTube, having a MechWarrior Monday on Twitch, but the rest of the week, I'll be playing Quantum Break!

On Thursday, come back over here, as I explore the Hot-Crazy Matrix, as it relates to knowing when to find a new job.