Running Out of Year

The year is almost over. It is a time to reflect, a time when we are more likely to notice that this day is one that was preceded by another one 365 days earlier, and then to obsess about what we did in the intervening period, and about what we hope to do in the next such period.

It is a bandwagon I would like to jump on, please. Here is some cool stuff I found in 2007. Much of it actually coming from other years (but not years in the future, as I am not a time traveller - or AM I?!) because I am always behind on everything and they have been making cool stuff for billions of years, so give me a break, okay?

---Of the movies I saw:

A Scanner Darkly
Funny, moving, strange and deeply human psychedelia.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: Solid State Society
Politically aware cyberpunk, demonstrates that Kenji Kamiyama can spin a decent yarn if you let him do it in a more cinematic format. Needs more colons.

The Host
Character-driven monster movie provides laughs, scares and tears.

---Of the books I read:

His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
Breathtaking imagination and heart.

A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick
Because my record got stuck.

Pushing Ice - Alistair Reynolds
All this is fleeting, the most solid buildings just motes of dust.

---Comics and manga:

Lost at Sea - Bryan Lee O'Malley
So adolescent angst can be evocative and touching. Now I shall have to eat my hat. Pass the pepper.

Death Note - Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata
Teenager becomes vengeful angel. World-class detective pursues! But I only read the first volume. Why? Because I got distracted. Thus forms my first new year's resolution.

One Piece - Eiichiro Oda
Why did I read so much of this stuff? And there are like a million volumes of it! My name is Pacian, and I am addicted to dumb stories about pirates.

---TV Shows

Battlerstar Galactica
Intelligent science fiction on television? Someone should have done this before!

It is better than Doctor Who. It is better than Doctor Who. It is better than- you get the idea.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: 2nd Gig
Didn't live up to its potential, but full of cool ideas, beautiful visuals and visceral action.


Nelly Cootalot
So... cute... can't breathe...

Art of Theft
Actually, I could probably have spent all those hours doing something much more productive.

Sam and Max
They're back! And some of it is excellent! And some of it is not so excellent, but we will ignore that because these two seemed to chime more with my personality than Lost Pig or Aquaria or other - arguably better - games. Tomorrow I am probably going to think of a really stonking game I played in 2007 and kick myself.


You, and you, and especially you. On which note, I wish you all a happy and creative New Year!


Potato Moons Too

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Image source with more information

What I like best about this Cassini image is that it's a rare example of one of Saturn's small, irregular moons coming to the visual party. Potato-like Hyperion is visible in the bottom left quadrant (click the image to enlarge), while the more spherical Tethys and Enceladus hang around by the rings.


Friday Aviatrix Blogging

Amelia Earhart.

Aviatrix is my new favourite word.


Ho Ho Ho

Well, I'm going to spend what's left of the year reading my way through the pile of books on my bedside table. It will be nice to take a break from working on whatever dumb project I have on my plate. Come January I'll see about getting my mute cowboy game out of the door...

Voting is open for Text the Halls - I've played all the games, and I think they all have something fun and/or interesting to offer. Voting closes in a week, and I'll post my thoughts on the other entrants then.

Hope you all had a nice Christmas. I will shortly resume whatever the hell it is I do on this blog.

Snowblind Aces

For the TIGSource Text the Halls competition...

Snowblind Aces
An adventure/romance by Pacian
Competition result: 1st Place

-Download .t3 file (600kb)
-Download zipped windows application (1Mb)

Features include:
  • TADS 3 game, interpreters available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
  • Windows executable version also available.
  • A short game with the emphasis on decisions rather than puzzles.
  • Adaptive hint system helps out if you get stuck.
  • State-of-the-art 'English words' graphics system, 100% future proof.
  • Yours for the rock bottom price of COMPLETELY FREE.
10% of all proceeds go to the Icekin Preservation Fund. Help protect our shared ecological heritage.


1. Download and Run the Game
-If you have Windows, you may prefer to download the zipped executable. Just click the link above, unzip the download (this step is probably not necessary) and double click the application.
-Alternatively, if you're a seasoned IF player, or you're using Linux or a Mac, download the .t3 version. Run the file with an interpreter from this page.

2. How to Play
Snowblind Aces is a simple IF - or 'interactive fiction' - game. Interact with your environment by typing phrases like 'examine me' (or just 'x me'), 'go north' (or just 'n'), 'shoot the bad guy' (or just 'shoot guy') and so on.
-A more comprehensive guide can be found here.
-Alternatively, type 'instructions' during play.


Latest version: 5
-Fixed a couple of errors in the text.

Previous version: 4
-A few small changes to the dialogue web.
-Fixed a stonking great typo right at the beginning.

Previous version: 3
-Fixed a few typos and a broken hyperlink
-The hint system was misfiring in the forest clearing
-The fire-making bit had a small bug and didn't account for an important possibility


All bug reports and suggestions are welcome. An email address for me appears as a hyperlink in the game (type 'credits'), or you can comment on this blog post.



Well, I'm about to sign off for Christmas. As you may be aware, I love Christmas hugely, Christmas Eve as much as the day itself. I'd have disappeared from the internets sooner, but I had to put some finishing touches to Snowblind Aces, which you can now consider your Christmas present from me.

The most portable, but least user-friendly option for playing is to download the .t3 file from here and then find an interpreter to run it from this page. This is kind of like how you need a word processor to run a file containing static fiction. Interpreters are available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

If you're running windows, you may prefer to download a zipped executable from here - just download, unzip and double click.

After Christmas I'll put up a more comprehensive post, but for now, if you're new to interactive fiction, go here or here to learn a little more about how to play.

Have fun, and happy holidays from me and my cat. ;-)


Tiny Robo Tim

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Image source with more information

Mars takes over twice as long to orbit the sun as the Earth, and its southern hemisphere is on the verge of winter. Poor dust-caked Spirit (compare the image above to this one) looked to be in dire straits with respect to its need for nourishing sunlight, however NASA have finally succeeded in perching it on a northern-facing slope so it can maximise its energy intake.

Also of interest, Mars will be in opposition, as viewed from the Earth, tomorrow on Christmas Eve.


Snowblind Aces: Let's Beta

The End

Snowblind Aces is now essentially finished. I need to write the rest of the built-in hints, and I want to add some garnish to the interactivity, but everything important is there.

Now, this is a relatively complicated game that I've written in less than two weeks, so I expect there to be all sorts of bugs unintended behaviour and typos non-conventional spellings. If you'd be able to beta test* the game before Christmas Eve (because it's not like you have more important things to do at this time of year ^_^;) please PM me at the TIGSource forums or leave a comment below.

(I don't think I have any lurkers, but I'm afraid I'll only consider letting you on as a tester if I already 'know' you to some extent).

*Which basically involves playing through the game and making notes of what goes wrong for you.

Commenting for All

I complained enough about Blogger removing the 'other' commenting option, so I think it's only fair that I thank them for listening to their users and reimplementing it (specifically, the 'nickname' option now allows you to enter a URL).

Not that they'll read this, but still.


Future events such as these will affect you, in the future...

Well, that's all my stresses out of the way, and my Christmas tree up. Snowblind Aces needs to be done for the Text the Halls deadline of Christmas Eve, and I've surprised myself by getting a lot done today. It's now possible to reach the ending, although a lot of text is missing, and one very important point out of the maximum possible score of seven is currently sitting in the unimplemented depths of my dialogue web. Still, I'm feeling pretty confident.

Best case scenario: beta release on Saturday.
Worst case scenario: game released on Christmas Eve with no testing...
Really worst case scenario: game release prevented by zombie apocalypse.


Christmas Decoration

It's Jack!

Foreshortened Jack, that is. He is remarkably spindly.



It's good to talk.

I have little left to do before the end of the week except stress out over what I've got left to do, but I've been trying to relax by working on Snowblind Aces. I've implemented about a third of my big dialogue web, and it's now possible to acquire a score of 5. I also have a long list of little niggles I need to iron over, some of which I am probably going to forget to do.


Dialogue... Um, Web

Well, since the lead character of Snowblind Aces isn't mute, I've had to get to grips with the TADS 3 dialogue system-a-ma-jig. And yeah, okay, I'll admit that it definitely has nift (ie. it is nifty). One thing that's great about it is how easy it makes it to create conversations that flow from one topic to another. It's also great for creating characters that are as interested in talking to you as you are to them.

A couple of things I've made design choices on: one seriously nifty feature is that it's so easy to make topics different depending on what you've already talked about. So if you ask Alice about her husband, you could get a different answer from her depending on whether or not she's told you about his affair. I have, however, elected to use this feature only sparingly in Snowblind Aces (ie. where it would be inappropriate not to). I want Snowblind to be a really replayable game, and while I think that organic games are great and all, there's nothing more annoying than making a character say or do something cool and then having no idea what combination of topics and actions made them say it. It might be okay for something like Galatea, where the whole idea of the game is to investigate whether the player character can believe that Galatea is a real person, but for an adventure-romance where players are likely to be looking to get a certain ending... it would probably be a new kind of annoying.

Also, for my sins, I'm going to be using the conversation system in a similar-ish way to the Poizoned Mind one. TADS 3 has an optional 'topic inventory', which I'm going to be using. Topics won't stay in the inventory after you use them, but they may reappear if they change or if they take on a new relevance. Also, since - as I suspect a lot of people do - I tend to just type 'topics' over and over to see what I have left to say, I'm making hyperlinks of all the topics mentioned in dialogue. This may shoot me in the foot if it means that people end up accidentally asking (what they don't realise are) the same questions over and over again, so I'll have to be careful.

Anyway, I'm still really stressed (it doesn't take much), but hopefully my schedule is clearing up and I can start turning that complicated mass of doodles above into a complicated mass of TADS 3 code...

Blogger Eats Humble Pie

Then says: Actually, I don't like the taste, I think I'll stick to my do-what-I-say sandwich.

Right now, the only way to add a URL to your name when commenting is to sign your comment with OpenID. We apologize for removing the URL field from the comments form prematurely two weeks ago. That was a mistake on our part that came from launching OpenID support on Blogger in draft.

Ironically, our testing of OpenID, a feature that lets you use accounts from all over the web to comment on Blogger, made it appear that we were trying to force you into getting a Google Account. We regret this appearance, since we're strong supporters of OpenID and open web standards in general.

If you haven't set up OpenID, you can still link to your blog - or any webpage, for that matter - by using the standard [a] tag inside the comment form.

Because adding hurdles to commenting isn't a problem. Just expect your commenters to jump over them.


The Plot Thickens

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Colorado
Image source with more information

Larry Esposito, principal investigator for Cassini's Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said data from NASA's Voyager spacecraft in the 1970s, and later from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, led scientists to believe Saturn's rings were relatively youthful and likely created by a comet that shattered a large moon, perhaps 100 million years ago.

But ring features seen by instruments on Cassini -- which arrived at Saturn in 2004 -- indicate the rings were not formed by a single cataclysmic event. The ages of the different rings appear to vary significantly, and the ring material is continually being recycled, Esposito said.

"The evidence is consistent with the picture that Saturn has had rings all through its history," said Esposito of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. "We see extensive, rapid recycling of ring material, in which moons are continually shattered into ring particles, which then gather together and re-form moons."

Read the rest.

Also, dig this:

The team tagged the clumpy moonlets with cat names like "Mittens" and "Fluffy" because they appear to come and go unexpectedly over time and have multiple lives[.]


Game-Start: Announce

Snowblind Aces:

Snowblind Aces
Competition deadline: Christmas Eve.

No, I don't know how I'm going to finish it in time. Yes, this is putting testing of my mute cowboy game back.



Apologies, fellow mutineers, but posting is likely to continue to be sparse for the next week or so. I am but a delicate flower, and the mild-to-moderate stresses I'm currently experiencing are leaving me a little drained and wilted.

Update: Uh-oh. Looks like a busy month for me...



Ponder Ring Origin

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This natural colour image of Tethys and Saturn's rings makes me dizzy. We're looking towards the unilluminated side of the rings - or to put it another way, the sun is shining on the other side of the rings from the side we see here. The thick black strip within the rings is not a gap, but the opaque B ring, which isn't letting any light through.

It's also worth checking out this short article. The Cassini imaging team have pieced together a likely history for Saturn's smaller moons (Pan, Atlas, Prometheus, Janus and others), a history which also provides further hints for the origin of the dazzling rings themselves. In short, Saturn's smaller moons seem to have formed from dense cores which have accumulated ring material into a somewhat larger light-and-frothy moon. The interesting question now is where those original dense cores came from. One obvious possibility is that they were the fragmentary remnants of larger moons that were shattered by impacts - part of one of the favourite hypotheses for the formation of Saturn's rings.



In the absence of genuine content, here's a text dump of meme questions via Diddums. Feel free to pilfer and/or purloin.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To be loved and appreciated, to be able to create, to feel safe and secure.

2. What is your greatest fear?
Dying horribly in some fashion.

3. Which living person do you most admire?
Aung San Suu Kyi leaps to mind. Most of my biggest heroes seem to be dead.

4. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
It would be a very long list.

5. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Lack of empathy, impatience.

6. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

7. On what occasion do you lie?
When I want to hide something about myself.

8. What do you dislike most about your appearance?
My hair, I suppose.

9. What is your greatest regret?
Being so sucky.

10. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
A little robot called Cassini.

11. Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to write publishable novels.

12. What is your current state of mind?
Surprisingly positive.

13. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I'd be more outgoing and confident.

14. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Placing 9th in the TIGSource B-Game competition. Also, I got a degree of some sort or something.

15. If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
What do I think it would be (as opposed to, in question 35, what I would like it to be)? Something on another planet. A Lovecraftian fungus, drifting in the clouds of a gas giant, contemplating the strange, the beautiful and the horrifying.

16. What is your most treasured possession?
My books and DVDs, I suppose. Or my computer.

17. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Udge had a quote on his sidebar a while back about how there's no worse feeling than the realisation that you are the cause of all your own problems. That sounds about right. And dying a slow, lingering, painful, scary death would be probably be pretty bad too.

18. Where would you like to live?
In a nearby town, which shall remain nameless. It has a castle.

19. What is your most marked characteristic?
Personally, probably diffidence. In conversation or writing, I guess it's, um, I don't know?

20. Who are your favourite writers?
Virginia Woolf, Steph Swainston, Alistair Reynolds, William Gibson, Haruki Murakami, Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka. If you can see a pattern here, let me know...

21. Who is your favourite hero of fiction?
Oh man, tough one. Exactly how heroic do they have to be? Oh wait, Nausicaa from Hayao Miyazaki's comic book epic Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. A great portrait of a strong and compassionate heroine striving to do what's right in a complicated and strange fantasy world.

22. Who are your heroes in real life?
Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Mahatma Ghandi and Aung San Suu Kyi.

23. What is it that you most dislike?
A large umbrella of habits and behaviours that I like to think of as 'lack of imagination'.

24. What is your motto?
You know, I should really get a motto. Okay, Asimov once said something like, “I'll believe anything, however crazy, as long as there's evidence for it.” That'll do.

25. Favourite journey?
Train from here, heading away from London.

26. What do you value most in your friends?
Their tolerance of my many negative qualities.

27. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
'Seem'. Whenever I write anything, fiction or non-fiction, I have to go back and delete about a million 'seems', 'seemed', 'seemingly' and other variations. It obviously stems from a lack of confidence - I can't just say, “This is so.” but have to phrase it, “This seems so.” It's a great quality for a scientist, but not so useful in a writer.

28. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Jesus. No, wait, Adolf Hitler. Oh, I can't decide, there are so many. Actually, I've always been surprised by how similar a life H.P. Lovecraft lead to mine. When I die unrecognised and poor, it will be in the certainty that my fiction will go on to just as great a posthumous legacy.

29. What is your greatest extravagance?
I can't believe how much money I've spent on the DVDs of the various incarnations of Ghost in the Shell. I guess I'm also an extravagant time waster.

30. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I'd make them both exceedingly rich and exceedingly generous.

31. What is your favourite occupation?
Being creative.

32. What is the quality you most like in a man?
Sensitivity, kindness, understanding.

33. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Sensitivity, kindness, understanding, glasses.

34. How would you like to die?
Old and happy.

35. If you could chose what to come back as, what would it be?
Someone just like me, only better.


Ring Angle

Image source with more information
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This image is, I am narcissistically going to declare, my birthday present from Cassini, appearing on the internet, as it did, on the 21st November. It's a rather nifty shot of Saturn, it's rings and a few of it's smaller moons.

One interesting thing to note is that Mimas is almost directly to the left of its shadow on Saturn's northern hemisphere, meaning, if you think about where the sun must be, that this photo accurately portrays Saturn's tilt relative to the ecliptic.

Probably. My brain isn't working so well right now.


High Score

The End

Work on my mute cowboy game has now officially advanced from 'implementing things' to 'ironing out niggles'. I'll iron out as many as I can over the next week or so (depending on how many I find) and then it's onward to beta testing, if I can find any schmucks to inflict my game on.

Working title thus far has been High Noon on Radiation Plains, but I should maybe change that. I haven't been able to come up with anything better, though, except perhaps Gun Mute, or is that even more rubbish?

Distractions and worries are on the horizon for the next fortnight. I'll also have to change my ISP as my sweet dial-up service is being discontinued and I've now realised that most people are paying twice as much as I am for dial-up and slightly more than twice as much for broadband. On the plus side, I will be getting a faster connection. On the down side, if there are any problems I will be muchly without internet access and will probably die of withdrawal.


Blogger have now changed so that commenters from other blog hosts can no longer leave a URL, something I consider to be pretty basic functionality. Coupled with their simply broken support for .gif and .png images, the only reason I'm still with Blogger at the moment is because of their huge image allowance (of which I am using only 1%) and because I'm a stubborn bastard.

Until Google reinstate the 'other' commenter option (don't hold your breath, they're Google, they don't have to listen to anyone), please feel free to sign off your comments with something like:



Martian Potato Moons

Image source with more information

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provides these two colour views of Mars' moons Phobos (above) and Deimos.

Phobos orbits Mars in a period shorter than a Martian day, so would appear to an observer on the surface to rise in the west and set in the east several times a day. Little Deimos is somewhat less interesting, but at least, unlike Phobos, it won't be smashing into its mother planet in about 100 million years.


Robot Story

No, not that Japanese robot.

Emily Lakdawalla reports that JAXA, the Japanese space agency, have released a strange and wonderful little CG movie telling the story of their Hayabusa probe. It's the tale of a lonely robot, tumbling through space after a difficult encounter with an asteroid, trying to remember how he got there, complete with a semi-original* jazz soundtrack and subtitles providing a bittersweet monologue from Hayabusa himself.

As Emily mentions, this is not something we could ever imagine being produced by the ESA or NASA. But you know what? I think it's great to see one of the space agencies promoting unmanned space exploration in artistic and emotional terms.

Watch or download the movie here.

*The music was composed for the mission, but before it launched. As such there's no, "I've damaged my fuel-lines and can't aim my antenna at home" tune.


Tentacle Girl

Tentacle girl...
She'll entangle you
In her tentacles...
Her tentacles
Of loooooooove



Yesterday I woke up at five in the morning and couldn't get back to sleep. I kept thinking that I wanted to work on my cowboy game. It's tantalisingly close to completion, though there's still a lot of work left to do, not to mention testing. I had to wait a while to start, though, because it was abso-freakin' freezing. My cat was hunched up between my feet, wrapped in a blanket with just his head poking out. I'd have taken a photo but the camera's batteries were dead and I didn't want to search for some more in such arctic conditions.

This morning I woke up at eleven in the morning, did a few things and thought, "No, I'm too weak to face life today. I want to go back to bed." Ever felt like that?

I'm going to work on some of the easier elements of my game, watch the Sunday repeat of Ugly Betty, read a book and entertain my cat -since he's currently alternating between staring at me and attacking the things around the room.

Happy Sunday, folks.

Or is it? o_O


Friday Interactive Fiction Blogging

Masquerade by Kathleen M. Fischer.

From the dark depths of the Space Year 2000 comes this nice demonstration of one way to create compelling, (mostly) puzzle-less IF: by placing the emphasis on making difficult decisions rather than on unlocking doors or navigating dialogue trees.


Birthday 24

It's my birthday. I am 24. I don't want to be 24. It is too old.



It is so cold that even extremely furry cats are wrapping themselves up warm. Or, more accurately, getting their opposable thumbed friends to wrap them up.

"Huh? What are you doing? I'm trying to sleep..."


Earth by Night

Image source with larger version

The image above was beamed back to Earth (as you can see, from not all that far away) some time last week, but I was too busy to post it at the time. This mysterious planet was photographed by our comet-chasing robot friend Rosetta, who was borrowing a tiny bit of momentum from it.

I recommend viewing the high resolution version to appreciate the full beauty of that thin crescent of daylight at the bottom of the image.


Getting There... Again

I shot the sheriff... and I also shot his deputies...

Back on planet Earth, I've been working on my mute cowboy game. I've done a lot of stuff, but there's still a lot more left. Mostly, though, what's left is decoration. In IF, unlike in static fiction, you can't just mention something tangential and then forget about it. You have to anticipate that the player may try and interact with that object in logical (and not-so logical) ways.

And IF isn't just implementation, it's writing as well, with its own unique challenges. When you have a program that spits out text, it can be hard to tell what sentence is going to end up next to what, so, for example, the code that produces the description of the saloon front ends up using the word 'sit' twice in succession (once for the tractor, once for the late deputy - I'm gonna have to change that) even though those two sentences are in completely different files on my hard drive (one for locations, one for characters). The text above should be considered a first draft of the text that'll make it into the final game.

Anyhoo, this is what I've been up to while I sent you lot off to Mars for the week. 'x' by the way, is shorthand for 'examine', if you didn't already know that.


Peering at Rocks

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Image source with more information

As it finished its second Martian year on Mars, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit was beginning to examine a group of angular rocks given informal names corresponding to peaks in the Colorado Rockies. A Martian year -- the amount of time it takes Mars to complete one orbit around the sun -- lasts for 687 Earth days. Spirit completed its second Martian year on the rover's 1,338th Martian day, or sol, corresponding to Oct. 8, 2007.

Exploring Mars on the most human scales yet: the Mars rovers are still going strong. NASA recently (hopefully not too optimistically) extended their mission into 2009.

You can read the Planetary Society's latest update on the rovers here.


What happened here?

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Image source with more information

From orbit, the latest addition to the robot party at the Red Planet, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, gawps voyeuristically into Martian nooks and crannies with its powerful High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. Here it snaps a photo of a feature with the characteristics of water-carved channels, further evidence supporting a wet past for Mars.


Giant Flat Mountain from Orbit

Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems
Image source with more information

Olympus Mons is a mountain of mystery. Taller than three Mount Everests and about as wide as the entire Hawaiian Island chain, this giant volcano is nearly as flat as a pancake. That is, its flanks typically only slope 2° to 5°.

Another image here from the late Mars Global Surveyor.


The Grandest Canyon

From the Viking mission of the 1970s comes this staggering image of Valles Marineris: the largest canyon in the Solar System at over 3000 km long and up to 8 km deep.

The other notable canyon of immense size - that we know of - is, of course, Ithaca Chasma on Saturn's moon Tethys, at 2000km long and 3 to 5 km deep. Earth, by comparison, only sports a small crack of 446 km in length somewhere on its northern hemisphere.


Mars from Orbit

Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems
Image source with more information

With the advent of space travel, our picture of Mars radically changed. No longer were the most memorable features of the planet bright or dark patches like Syrtis Major, but actual geological formations such as Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris.

This particular picture of Mars is from Mars Global Surveyor, which sadly passed into Robot Heaven about this time last year.


Red Pearl

Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Acknowledgment: J. Bell (Cornell U.), P. James (U. Toledo),
M. Wolff (Space Science Institute), A. Lubenow (STScI),
J. Neubert (MIT/Cornell)
Image source with more information

Moving further from Mars, but looking at it with more powerful eyes (the Hubble Space Telescope to be exact), we see a world of ruddy plains, dusty skies and bright polar caps.

You know, I wonder how many people actually have a map of Mars to hand when they need one? I do, anyway, so I can tell you that the bright region is Arabia Terra, while the dark nubbin on the right side is Syrtis Major.


Mars from 80 Million Km

Credit: ESA / MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / RSSD / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA
Image source with larger version

The Cassini Imaging Team make it easy to fall in love with Saturn, but let's not forget that Mars has almost half a dozen robots studying it at the moment. I think we're going to have a bit of a Mars Week on Space Cat Rocket Ship, to try and give the little red planet a chance to catch up with the big ringed one.

This particular image was taken almost a year ago by the ESA probe Rosetta. I posted an image from Rosetta's closest approach here, but this is an equally stunning view from 80,000 times further away (I'm using the distance quoted in this post at the Planetary Society Blog). Mars is the big red blob, slightly fuzzed-up by overexposure.

Rosetta was only using Mars for a gravity assist, of course, and its ultimate goal is to place a lander on the surface of a comet. I'll post some images from less fickle robots over the next few days.


Friday Buster Keaton Blogging

Buster looks through the wrong window in The Goat and winds up in the mugshot of a notorious criminal. This 27-minute 1921 film is out of copyright and available for download here.

For those of you in the UK with TVs, Paul Merton's documentary on Buster is showing on BBC2, tomorrow (Saturday 10th), 6.30pm-ish.

Update: Having now seen Merton's documentary, I can heartily recommend it. I should add that the last half hour consists of a Buster Keaton short in full - its title: The Goat. Huh.


Satellite Canyons

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Image source with more information

Dione's bright canyons lend it a beautifully scarred appearance in this recent Cassini image.

Also: read this.


Aristotle's Incline

Trying to understand how to make a plot.


Abe Lincoln Must Die

Episode 4 of the first season of Sam and Max is now available for free. Go download it if you don't already know why a dog in a hat is the greatest thing ever to happen to the world. Or just mess about with Sybil's matchmaking questionnaire. "An elbow that can connect to the internet!"

And now I feel really guilty for not having finished episodes 5 and 6 yet. Something else I'm supposed to be doing.

Via: this piece of garden furniture.


DVD Review: Russian Ark

Sergei Dontsov as a mysterious Frenchman
In the 18th century, Catherine the Great purchased a considerable collection of Western European artwork, the act that would lead to the creation of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg. One of the largest museums in the world, it centres on the Winter Palace, the historical home of the Russian tsars.

What am I going on about? Well, imagine someone said, “Hey, let's make the State Hermitage Museum into a movie!” Huh? Make a museum into a movie? Books, yes, plays, TV series, comics, radio shows, poems, historical events, even (no, please don't) computer games – but a museum? And yet, that is perhaps the best way to explain Russian Ark: that it is the cinematic adaptation of a museum: its history, its exhibits, its atmosphere, its purpose. Hollywood did something like that, and it was a trite kids' film starring Adam Sandler and Robin Williams. Russians did it, and it was visual poetry.

Following an accident, a contemporary Russian finds himself adrift in time and space. Outside the Hermitage in the 18th century, he wanders inside, finding each part of the museum at a different period of history. A ghostlike presence in these events, his only constant companion is a cynical marquis from Western Europe (Sergei Dontsov). Refined and reserved, the marquis is quick to put down Russian culture and its unrequited obsession with Europe, but he is also a deeply sensual man, unable to resist the delights of high culture.

Tsar Nicolas II and heirs
Russian Ark takes the form of a continuous point-of-view shot from the, well, point-of-view of this drifting Russian, as he follows the marquis through three-hundred years of history, moving from the private moments of royals, to the silence of a communist museum, to opulent balls, to the Siege of Stalingrad. On the way, we pause to look at the paintings and sculptures, suffer the marquis' frequent distraction by 'unescorted' women, and get thrown out of a historical ceremony. I say 'we' because, although this lost (probably either dreaming or dead) Russian often shares his thoughts with us and the marquis, the style of the film unequivocally puts the audience into his shoes. I said this was a continuous POV, and boy did I mean it. Russian Ark was filmed in a single unedited take on a digital Steadicam. At no point do we cut away, spoiling the illusion of our guided tour through the history of the Hermitage Museum. As a result, a cast of two-thousand costumed actors and three live orchestras must perform perfectly, and an unfortunate German Steadicam operator (Tilman B├╝ttner, responsible for the iconic shots of Lola running in Run, Lola, Run) is half-killed by having to lug his equipment on a journey of almost one and a half kilometres.

A young Russian pulls a face at the marquis.
Russian Ark has no real story, plot or drama. It really is as if someone decided to make a film adaptation of a historical museum. The pleasure in watching, assuming you can do without the aforementioned story, plot or drama, comes from experiencing the history of the Hermitage: discussing paintings with the marquis, chasing Catherine the Great through the snow, watching an officer try to steal a dancing partner at a Winter Palace ball. Russian Ark feels as real as any dream - compelling, surreal and evocative.