30.4.07

Sunday Scribblings: A Story about Wings

I am really struggling at the moment. I feel awful and I keep making mistakes, which makes me feel worse. I would like to dig a hole and bury myself, but I suppose it would be better to grow wings and fly away.

Read whatever allegories you want into this story.

Falling

Atalie's balcony was kind of like being in Heaven, except instead of fluffy white clouds, we were surrounded by a yellow haze of petrochemical smog that glittered with a million dead nanomachines.

I flexed my wings uncertainly, looking at the street below, small and distant, littered with motes of garbage. The hushed sound of traffic rose from the city, police sirens like discordant birdsong.

Atalie stood behind me, her hands on my waist. "Jump," she said, pushing on me lightly.

I resisted, pushing back against her. She got these wings mail-order from the East, the very latest wetware plug-ins. Intricate down to the nanoscale, they moved and felt alive, like the wings of an enormous white swan. Except, at the joint between them: a grotesque knot of dense muscle, all the power needed to lift a human into the air on wings, leeching off nutrients from my blood, like some manmade parasite - well, symbiont, I guess.

Atalie ran her hands along the tops of my wings, brushing her thumbs through the feathers. No, her wings, financially. But I could feel her touch against them perfectly, feel each feather as the wind rustled them out of place. I could move them like a second set of arms, long-fingered and sluggish with latent strength.

The manual was as thick as a telephone directory, poorly translated from Japanese to Mandarin to English. Half its bulk was medical disclaimers, warning about the dangers of flight, of pulmonary and neurological damage, go immediately to hospital if you experience any of the following and then a list of every sensation you have ever experienced or heard of.

And at the front it said to just let the wings install themselves, to trust them to push polymer connections into your spine and hoses to your heart, to glue itself to your back and become a part of your body. But for fuck's sake scan for software updates first.

Yeah, right. Atalie was a dab hand at this stuff. Where she got the money for wings in the first place. She was the proverbial one-eyed king, a degree in nano-engineering, hands-on experience, but made redundant, cast off in the land of the nanotech-poor; fixing our meagre, antiquated goo-and-paste systems and making a minor mint from what money we could spare.

Atalie would never trust a machine to know what it was doing in her body, would always want to oversee it herself. That's where she got the horns and tail. Just needed a mirror for the horns, though I had to help with the other. Wings were too hard though, like nothing she'd ever done. She needed to see how they worked on another person, a willing guinea pig, only then could she trust them on herself. That's where I came in. I was never able to say no to her.

I liked the idea of having wings, aesthetically. She stripped me to the waist and stuck a dozen monitors around me; heart rate, blood pressure, EEG and more. Lay me on my front and set the wings on my back. She let them work slowly, pushing into me on the molecular scale, clean and sterile, no blood. I could feel the connections and wires a certain distance inside me, and then just something weird going on deeper. Worst was when it anchored on my skeleton, feeling my spine bend and flex under its direct manipulation, out of my control. Atalie held my hand and soothed me. It was over quite quickly, though Atalie took it slower than she could have done.

I stood and flexed my wings. It felt natural, of course, the software came as standard, now plugged in to my brain. They were huge, bigger than they seemed when folded up. I stretched them wide and touched opposite walls with my wingtips.

By the way, Atalie had said, you realise they're fully functional? You can fly.

I jumped up and down a few times, spreading my wings to slow my descent, angling them to glide across the room.

Come on, Atalie said, taking my hand. Let's try taking you a little further.

And so I was on her balcony, halfway up an empty, lightning burned tower, looking down at the world. It was cold, just in my jeans, but that wasn't why I trembled.

"Jump," Atalie said again. "You'll glide down just like before, just a little further. Maybe try and flap, see if you can gain height."

I shook my head. "What if I hit something? What if the wind flings me against the building?"

She wrapped her arms around me, rested her cheek on the back of my neck. "Trust me," she whispered. Slowly, she drew her hands back around my waist, caressing around and up to my shoulder blades, either side of the knot of muscle on my back. She rested there for a moment, her breath warm on my back.

And then she shoved me hard.

*

"You're making this harder than you need to," Atalie said, as I tried to scramble back up. I clung onto the balcony railing, my wings folded up to stop them catching the fierce wind, stronger even than I had feared.

She leant over me, placed both of her hands over one of mine. "Just let go and spread your wings."

"I changed my mind," I shouted. "I don't want to. Help me up."

She placed both thumbs under my fingers and lifted. I managed to hold on for about a minute, begged and pleaded, but she won, sending me swinging hard into the wall. I hung from just one hand.

This time I held on with all my desperation. She tried as hard as she could, screwing up her face with effort, and then had to stop, panting for breath. She got down on her knees, face level with my remaining hand. She looked at me through the bars of the railing.

It felt like a fight to the death. She was my mortal enemy now. I had nothing to say to her, just struggled vainly to lift myself up with one arm.

Tenderly, she kissed each of my bone-white knuckles in turn. And then I felt her teeth against the back of my hand.

I let go before she could bite down.

I fell, terrified, the wind ripping through my hair and feathers. Above I heard her scream at the top of her voice: "Flap your wings!"

*

The ground was far below, but approaching too quickly. I started to tumble, became confused. The murky grey-yellow expanse of the sky seemed more frightening than the solid ground below. Which way was I falling? How could I stop?

There was a skyscraper, maybe two, walls marked with grime and decay. Would I hit one of them? Was I being blown by the wind as I fell?

I flung my arms out above my head, tried to stretch out my wings but couldn't tell how much I succeeded. My legs seemed to kick out violently of their own accord. As I stretched out my wings feebly, they were buffeted back by the wind. Was I trying as hard as I could? I was going to fall to my death. I was sure.

No conscious thought anymore, can't think in a situation like this. Instinct took over. I screwed up my eyes, probably screamed, fought with all my strength - all that knotted ball of strength between my shoulder blades, to spread my wings out wide.

They flew open, powerful and sudden, as if spring-loaded.

They caught air like a pair of enormous hands grabbing onto something tangible, yanked back on me, the change of direction like a punch in the stomach.

I opened my eyes just in time to see the side of the building I was about to fly into, angled my wings to change direction, but too late. I stuck out my knee to cushion the impact, saw stars as the collision connected hard, and then fell a little further, my wings knocked too far forward.

I spun out of control, panicking, until I seemed to wrestle out of it - finally hung suspended from my second pair of arms, my legs dangling over the street far below. I looked up. I must have fallen about half the way down from Atalie's balcony. I couldn't even make it out. Then, disoriented, I wondered if I was even looking at the right building.

The wind pushed against me quite hard, then, but I turned into it, swooping down, pushing through the current. Maybe this flying stuff wasn't so hard after all. I was drifting down slowly. There was no reason, I didn't think, that I would be unable to glide down all the way. Perhaps a good hundred metres still to go.

Experimentally, I pushed down with my wings. With a sharp rush, I gained height. How much, I wasn't sure - but, that was it, I was really flying. I beat down a few more times, faster and harder. I soared up, into the air, looking down at the city streets to reorient myself, heart pounding in my chest.

*

Landing was easier than I expected. The wings probably gave me a lot of help with that - safe landings were the first thing the manufacturers wanted to put in the software, I bet. I touched down birdlike on the balcony railing and hopped in through the open French windows. Inside, I could hear a phone ringing.

My mobile was sitting on a coffee table, vibrating back and forth. Atalie was nowhere to be seen. Picking it up, I found that she was the one calling. I answered.

"Where are you?" she asked, timidly.

"I'm in your apartment, where I left my mobile."

"Oh, right. Oops. You should have, like, a million missed calls from me. I've been looking everywhere for you. I'm sorry about the whole pushing you thing. Are you mad at me?"

"I'm not sure."

"Stay where you are, I'm coming back up."

"Wait, are you in the street? I'll come down. It'll be quicker."

She laughed - relieved I think. "I'm in the main square. I look forward to seeing you in the air."

"I don't think I'm going to give you these things back, you know."

"Oh, go on. I can order another pair, but I want to try it out myself before then. You'll have to be the one pushing me off the skyscraper."

"I'll think about it," I said, walking out onto the balcony. My feathers rustled in the breeze, and I spread my wings.

29.4.07

Dione, Angular Rings


One of my favourite of this year's Cassini images.

28.4.07

Space Monkey Shimmy


Knytt is a freeware platformer chill-out-em-up, in which you control a nimble monkey-like creature (the Knytt of the title). The focus of the game is on exploration and ambience, as the little Knytt must explore an expansive and strange world to find parts to repair a crashed flying saucer.

25.4.07

Discovery

Scientists at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), using the highly successful HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity for Planetary Searcher) spectrograph, have found a planet orbiting the red dwarf Gliese 581. Extrasolar planets (ie. those orbiting stars other than the sun) are discovered with great frequency these days, but this one, called Gliese 581 c, is special.

The most reliable method for finding extrasolar planets relies on trying to spot a star 'wobbling' as an orbiting planet exerts a gravitational pull on it. This method is heavily biased towards finding planets that are both extremely large and extremely close to their parent star, and a good chunk of those extrasolar planets we've found so far have fallen into this category. Gliese 581 c, on the other hand, is a mere five times the Earth's mass, and 1.5 times the Earth's diameter - the smallest extrasolar planet we've yet been able to detect. Even more striking, it is the right distance from its parent star for liquid water to exist on its surface.

Although there is a lot about Gliese 581 c that we don't yet know, this is the first planet we have ever discovered that is 'like' Earth. Just how much like Earth, I imagine will be the focus of much research over the coming years.

Astronomers Find First Earth-like Planet in Habitable Zone - Read the press release on the ESO homepage.

Most Earth-Like Planet Discovered Orbiting Nearby Star - an excellent article on the discovery at the Planetary Society, including a discussion of how astronomers were able to detect this planet.

HUGE NEWS: first possibly Earthlike extrasolar planet found! - Phil Plait has a nice discussion of this discovery, and the possibilities it embodies, at Bad Astronomy.

24.4.07

Sunday Scribblings: A Story about Roots

Well, this response to the Sunday Scribblings prompt rooted was intended first and foremost just to squeeze some fiction out of me, at a time when my creative energy is being eaten up by my troubles. As such, it's hardly the most succinct or focused story you'll come across, but it exists, and that's enough for me.

Rooted

"Ow! What idiot made the ceiling this low?"

I pressed my hands to the ceiling, either side of the strip lights, as I walked beside her. Walking at eighth g had become second nature over the past couple of years - but then someone sticks a low ceiling over your head and you feel like a clumsy toddler again. "Where're your velcro soles?" I asked her.

She looked down at her stripy socks. "They don't fit anymore. My ankles are swelling."

"You're imagining it."

"How, exactly, could I imagine my shoes getting smaller?"

"You've been complaining that they're too small since we first got here. Now all of a sudden they're the right size and it's your feet that are too big. Just get some new shoes and be done with it. Besides, it's only been a week."

"It's more complicated than that. It's all dates and mathematics." She held up a load of fingers to emphasise the point. "And it's all your fault anyway."

"You absolved me of responsibility the moment you uttered the syllable, 'Oops!'"

We stopped by a small doorway, hands pressed to the ceiling. I rapped on the door a few times and it immediately flew open.

"About time!" Matveyev blundered out into the corridor, pulling on a heavy jacket. "I've been sending reports to you people for a week."

"We have a backlog so long you wouldn't believe it," Dawn answered in a low monotone, then with more enthusiasm: "Is this where you live?"

He closed and locked the door, turning his broad back to us. "Yes, this is my room, right here."

"Couldn't you find somewhere with a higher ceiling?" Dawn asked. "Don't you hit your head on it? You're tall."

"I only hit my head when the ceiling is too high. And I can't stand the humming sound on the upper levels."

"What humming sound?"

"You know," I said, "the ventilation."

"Oh yeah," Dawn said, as if remembering a profound but hidden memory. "How long have you been here for?"

"Two months," Matveyev replied.

"You get used to it. You're but a wee babe as far as Callisto is concerned."

"Well, we'll see. But for now, this is where I live. And it's been driving me crazy this past week. Flickering lights, the computers constantly resetting, strange smells…"

Dawn looked at me and bit her lip. "Oh no! It's haunted!"

Matveyev sighed. "If it is, you'd damn well better perform an exorcism. I just want some little cranny to call my own. But everywhere you go there's some niggling little thing driving you nuts!"

"You get used to it," Dawn repeated, with a crooked smile. "Living here is hardly an exact science."

"Ha!" Matveyev barked, humourlessly.

"Look," I said, "you're probably not experiencing anything the rest of us don't normally. But down here, out of the way, it probably just bugs you more. I mean-"

The lights went out. Absolute pitch darkness.

"Spooky," Dawn said.

"Dawn, where's your torch?"

A plastic rustling sound. "You see?" Dawn said. "You upset the ghosts."

"What are you even doing? Where's your torch?" I reached out blindly, finding her waist with my hands.

"That tickles! Just be patient."

I found the small torch on her belt and yanked it away. I pressed the 'on' switch, illuminating Dawn in the act of opening a bag of dried apricots. "You drive me nuts," I told her firmly.

Matveyev reached out and grabbed the bag. "This is contraband!"

Dawn snatched it back. "Not quite: it's my contraband, thank you very much."

"I'm not kidding," Matveyev growled. "Food like that keeps ending up in the hands of the orbital crews - you wouldn't believe the mess it makes in microgravity. Tell me who you got it from, I'll have them snapped in two!"

"We're sick of eating paste," Dawn said disinterestedly. "I'm not in microgravity anymore. Excuse me for having a stomach. And what are you up to?"

"Well, my job?" I suggested. "You know, figuring out why the lights are out." I held a little LCD screen in my hand, waving it around slowly. "You can never get a signal down here. Here we go. Well, that's strange. Maybe it really is ghosts."

"What is it?" Dawn asked, her mouth full of dried apricots.

"Someone has pulled the plug."

"Or something," Dawn added.

Matveyev frowned. "There's a plug?"

"Each section is self-contained, right? So there's one point where this section picks up its power. And the whole place was thrown together like Lego, so it's just a big-arse plug connected to an outside… power… thing."

Dawn handed me her bag of apricots and rolled up her sleeves. "Right, I'll deal with this. Don't let him near my real food. And shine the light on me. Or where I'm looking, I mean. Ouch!"

"Don't forget the low ceiling."

"Yeah, thanks for that."

With Matveyev and me in tow, Dawn fumbled her way along the ceiling, back to the elevator we rode in on. She pushed up with her legs, lifting the ceiling panel at an angle so it tumbled slowly back down, bouncing onto the velcro floor with a soft, scratchy sound. I shone the torch up into the black hole above.

"Freaky," Dawn said. "Maybe it is ghosts."

"There's a letter up there saying, Dear The Living, I have unplugged your infernal lights, as they are too bright for my empty, sunken eye sockets, signed, A Ghost?"

She grabbed onto the edge of the hole and hoisted herself up so her head disappeared inside. "There certainly is. But also, the cable's just disconnected, like someone pulled it out. I can't see any reason why it's not plugged in."

I turned to Matveyev. "Are you the only person living down here?"

He shrugged. "As far as I know."

Dawn looked over her shoulder at me. "Lift me up, I'll plug it back in."

I handed the light to Matveyev and put the bag of apricots in my jacket pocket. Then I wrapped my arms around Dawn's calves and lifted her up. "You're getting heavier," I told her.

She reached up with hands and fumbled in the darkness as Matveyev tried to keep the light steady. "Fuck off, I'm not even eight kilos."

"Kilograms are the SI unit of mass, not weight," I corrected her. "Your mass is always the same on any world."

She ignored me. "Damn it, the cable is catching on something. I'm gonna have to give it a good yank."

"After you plug it back in," I asked, "then what?"

"Call a psychic hotline on the company bill?"

"Interplanetary rates. Nice. Ask them about my love life while you're at it."

A solid clunk sounded from above, and the lights flickered back on. I let Dawn float back down on her own. She landed expertly and dusted her hands. "Problem solved. For-"

With a loud crash, several ceiling panels shattered inwards, further down the corridor, spilling loops of cabling and wires into the passageway.

The three of us stood in silence for a moment.

"I was just about to say, 'for now'," Dawn said.

"You did this," I told her, "you're fixing it."

She grabbed my wrist and pulled me along after her. Closer up, the damage only seemed worse. "Oh, for fuck's sake," Dawn whined. "What a mess."

I peered closer at the knotted bundle of detritus that hung from the ceiling. "What's that brown stuff?"

Dawn pulled a pair of tweezers from her jacket and plucked at the wiring. "Good question. It looks like…"

"Is it a plant?"

"Roots, I think."

"I see," I said. "So it wasn't ghosts, but aliens."

Dawn nodded. "Yep. First come the roots. Then the pods. And then the pod people. We're doomed."

"It was nice knowing you."

"Give me back my apricots. I want to die with a full stomach."

Matveyev was not amused. "You two do realise that we're directly under the arboretum?"

Dawn threw a dried apricot into her mouth. "Really? What a headache that's going to be for whoever's got to fix it. These sections are supposed to be self-contained, didn't someone say that earlier?"

I stared at the tangled mess of roots, strangling the wiring. "It's wet. No wonder there have been having so many problems down here." I sighed. "Yeah, what a headache."

Matveyev shook his head. "Not my headache, I'm glad to say. Just get it fixed. I have a meeting to get to, so…"

He turned towards the elevator.

"Thanks so much," Dawn said, her mouth full.

Matveyev turned back to us. "Oh, and when I find out who's responsible for smuggling that stuff, I'm going to throw them out of the fucking airlock. I'm not kidding."

He stomped off down the corridor.

"I kind of hope he was kidding," I said to Dawn.

"I dunno," she mumbled. "I keep telling you that I want to spend more time outside."

*

The ceiling was high overhead, with a round skylight set into it. Jupiter peered down from above, a thin, sepia crescent. Plants and trees coiled into the air around us, and the soft grass felt strange beneath our feet.

"Knock knock," Dawn called. "Anyone home?"

"Haven't seen you two in a while," a woman's voice replied. "Are you off-duty?"

"We're never off-duty," I said. "Trouble never sleeps. Where are you?"

Tess stood up from behind a big, spiky green bush, short and slightly out of proportion with herself, a trowel in one hand. "I'm here. There's no trouble in my arboretum, I hope?"

"If only there wasn't," Dawn muttered.

"Your plants have been up to no good," I said.

Tess pulled off her gardening gloves and tucked them into one pocket of her grubby trousers. "Really? I shouldn't be surprised."

"Oh no," I said. "Plants are always wandering around, sticking their roots where they're not wanted."

She laughed and beckoned us closer. Dawn gently pushed off from the ground with one foot and reached her in one bound. I followed suit.

"These plants are the only living creatures here apart from humans," Tess said. "We shouldn't expect them to follow our orders."

Dawn was unimpressed. "They would if they knew what's good for them. Biting the hand that waters them."

"Speaking of hands," Tess said, offering her hand to Dawn, "I hear that congratulations are in order."

Dawn folded her arms and grinned. "No they're not. I'm in denial."

Tess looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "Well, okay, sure. Let's step into my office."

*

Tess' office, at least unofficially, was a dark wooden bench overlooking the centre of the arboretum. We sat three in a row, with Dawn in the middle.

"Your plants' roots have broken through the air-tight floor," Dawn said, "and are causing mischief on the level below."

Tess sighed. "Well, I did say that they don't follow my orders."

"I don't think they follow anyone's orders anymore," Dawn said. "I think they've decided that the age of humans is over and it's time to make their move."

"Right," Tess said.

"In the short term," I said, "we just need to fix the ceiling downstairs and make sure that they don't do it again."

"In the long term," Dawn added, "we have no hope of beating them."

"I'm not so sure," I said. "They're just plants."

"That," Dawn said, shooting me a condescending look, "is exactly the kind of complacent thinking that will let them win."

"Yes," Tess added. "I wouldn't underestimate the plants."

"Especially not after Tess has been messing with their genes and otherwise faking them up."

"Faking them up?" Tess repeated.

"Yes," I explained, "Dawn feels that you are failing in your duty to cultivate a convincing simulacrum of Earth by selfishly breeding your own new plants - her words, not mine, I hasten to add."

"I see," Tess said slowly.

Dawn seemed strangely satisfied with that response. "I think that's a confession," she said.

"Well," Tess went on, "I don't see that it's my duty to recreate Earth at all."

Dawn looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "A criminal mind, indeed."

"Seriously. Why recreate Earth? What are we doing here anyway?"

"We find trouble and shoot it," I said.

"We make trouble and it shoots us," Dawn corrected.

"If you like Earth so much, why not do it there?"

"Oh there's much more trouble out here," Dawn said. "Even the plants are stirring it up."

"Be serious for five seconds, Dawn. You're having a baby."

"Yes," Dawn said, "you're clearly growing grapevine here now."

"There are less than two hundred people here. None of us have any secrets," Tess said. And then she looked at me and winked.

I snorted. "I don't know why everyone assumes that I had anything to do with it."

"In fact," Dawn said, leaning back and looking up at the crescent above, "it was Jupiter, the king of the gods himself. I've been here for two years now, and we've become quite friendly. I finally decided to seduce him, and he came to me as a shower of gold…"

"Seduce is a delicate word for it," I interrupted.

She folded her arms and took an angry breath. "Okay, so maybe I was talking with Jupiter one day and I kissed him by accident."

"By accident?" Tess asked.

I nodded. "And don't forget the part where you exclaimed, 'Oops!'"

"How do you kiss someone by accident?" Tess persisted.

"The important thing is that we both wanted to kiss in general - of course, how could any mere god resist me? It's just that I was the only one who thought we both wanted to kiss at that specific moment in time."

"Aw, Dawn," Tess cooed, "I find it so hard to think of you as being so coy and clumsy."

Dawn continued, a little impatiently, "In any case, end result: I'm going to have a baby in about seven months or so. But I'm not actually going to be pregnant in the intervening time period, because I'm in denial. Speaking of which, why are we even talking about this right now?"

"Because," Tess said, "I'm trying to show you that you're setting down roots here, on Callisto. And that you'll probably never go back to Earth."

"I don't know about that. I might go back for a short holiday - go for a swim, eat apricots, jump for very short distances. All that stuff you can only do on Earth."

Tess looked at me with some concern. "She does know, doesn't she?"

Before I could say anything, Dawn answered herself: "Of course she knows."

"A child born at one eighth g would probably never be able to go to Earth," Tess said sternly. "Only if he or she was prepared to endure considerable discomfort."

"Yes," Dawn said, "she knew that."

"Your child is one of the first of a strange and wonderful generation. A generation of, well, aliens."

"Amazing. And you know what? If it'd like to be born from a pod instead of all this palaver with my uterus, I'd be more than happy."

"Anyway, my point is that I think creating a replica of Earth here would go completely against the spirit of the whole endeavour. Nominally this may be about scientific studies and Helium 3, but whether we like it or not, we're setting down roots."

"These roots are pesky things," Dawn concluded.

"Quite."

Dawn sighed theatrically. "I think we may have to dig a hole."

"Excuse me?"

"We have to find out how the plants are getting through to the level below. Worst case scenario is we find that the plants are pushing their roots through the floor itself. And then we'll have to reinforce it - from above or below, whichever is easiest."

"If from above," Tess said thoughtfully, "then that would mean uprooting all my plants, wouldn't it?"

Dawn sat up and put her hands on her knees. "I'm sure they'd be fine. Like you said, we've all been uprooted from the Earth, and we've all turned out okay, haven't we?"

She grabbed my hand and stood. "Come on," she said. "You've got a lot of digging to do."

"Me? What about you?"

Tess rolled her eyes and started to walk away. "I'll get some spades."

Dawn paid no attention to her, just made puppy-dog eyes at me and said, "But I'm pregnant."

I feigned shock. "I didn't think you wanted anyone to give you special treatment."

"I didn't mean you. Besides, you're supposed to give me special treatment anyway, because you love me."

"Why don't you do the digging because you love me? And, " I added, sotto voce, "because it was your 'superior' black market condom."

"Fine," she said, looking down at my feet and nudging me in the ribs. "I guess we'll both have to dig. Happy now?"

I looked up at Jupiter, then back at Dawn. I smiled. "Yes," I said. "Very happy."

She rolled her eyes. "I didn't mean it so seriously."

"You never mean anything seriously."

"I mean this very seriously," she said, then leant forward to kiss me lightly on the cheek.

I pushed her away playfully. "Oh, how cute!"

"Dig a hole for me?" she asked demurely.

"No," I said. "Dig it together."

She smiled back at me, and I squeezed her hand.

23.4.07

Snapshot


Due to various distractions, I've been having a little trouble being creative these past few... well, months, as evidenced by the almost complete lack of fiction on this blog for 2007. To try and get back on the wagon (the wagon of story writing, that is) I decided I would force myself to write a story for this (now last) week's Sunday Scribblings, and I have mostly come up with something. It is not very good, and I am still going to bludgeon some of its more rubbish parts into slightly better shape before I post it, but it is definitely oozing slowly down the pipeline.

In the meantime, here is a little snapshot of the inside of my 'faces' directory for TBTBSG. (Try spotting the odd one out!)

22.4.07

Lungs


Miles Davis. Footprints.

19.4.07

More Memage from the Meme Soup

(Via)

1. My 'ex' is still - emailing me from time to time.

2. I am listening to - cars drive past.

3. Maybe I should - finish this letter I'm writing.

4. I love - gals who wear glasses.

Jemima continues her moth-eaten meme trend. Question 5 is lost in transit.

6. I don't understand - how some people can be so unkind, can seem to lack the smallest shred of empathy.

7. I lost my respect for - myself, years ago.

8. I last ate - a twix.

9. The meaning of my display name is - 'man of peace'.

10. Love is - all you need?

11. Someday - I will be okay, I hope.

12. I will always - be a daydreamer.

13. I never ever want to lose - my few redeeming qualities.

14. When I woke up this morning - I stopped being asleep.

15. I get annoyed at - arrogance.

16. Parties - are fun, full of drunken hugs.

17. My pet - is better than you.

18. Kisses - are like butterflies.

19. Today I - muddled through.

20. I wish - I could cope with things.

21. I really want - contentment.

18.4.07

Preconceptions Challenged

One thing you'll see from time to time on the Innernats, is someone waving their IQ around to try and impress people. Now, if your IQ is high enough that you want to tell people about it, then you're probably not stupid, but you are ignorant. Mensa are people who know a thing or two about IQ tests, and as they put it:

As different IQ tests were developed, each was given its own scoring system. Therefore, an IQ of 150 is a meaningless claim unless you know the actual test which was used.

Better to quote where your score came relative to the rest of the population. This also reduces the scorn I will feel for you.

It's also not uncommon to hear uninformed people discussing biology and using terms like 'more evolved' - often to mean 'more human like'. This little piece of hubris has perhaps received it's final nail in the coffin. As New Scientist reports, chimps are 'more evolved' than humans:

Zhang's team found that 233 chimp genes, compared with only 154 human ones, have been changed by selection since chimps and humans split from their common ancestor about 6 million years ago.

This result makes sense to biologists. The human population has been quite small compared to that of chimps until somewhat recently (in evolutionary terms), and we would expect genetic drift to have had more of an effect.

16.4.07

It is too Warm


It was just fine a few days ago, but now it is a bit much. Some of us have lots of fur, and would prefer it if the weather was toned down a bit.

15.4.07

Mercury

Sketch of MercuryImage by ME.

I think I have now completed the main bulk of TBTBSG's battle section. There are still two or three big additions I need to make (including the ability to actually win a mission), which hopefully won't prove to be too much of a headache. Other than that, as far as the program goes, what's left are menus and such-like, which I am hoping to create as a kind of (hopefully intuitive) map of whatever location your character is in, á la Wing Commander. The real hard stuff begins when I have to actually create a coherent, flowing story mode - which must not be easy and boring, or hard and frustrating (and boring) - coupled to a story which I want to edge towards low-key epic, without crossing the line into 'too pretentious for a low-tech retro game'.

What I also need is more sketching. This is the first one I attempted, and also the one I'm happiest with - although it could still use a little work, and may be coloured depending on how much I overestimate my ability. This is 'Mercury' one of the two characters at the start of the game who'll give the player respect without making them earn it. The purpose of the other such character is to give you (the player) an honest and encouraging assessment of how well you're doing (in contrast to your direct superior who'll find fault with everything you do). Mercury on the other hand is your second in command. She exists to give you a strong unit early in the game, and to give you hints about how best to use your other, weaker (and in some cases quite peculiar) units.

Fractional screenshot.
In treading the fine line between allowing variation between characters and preventing needless complication, I've decided that each character is defined by four different numbers. All of Mercury's numbers are likely to change as I try to come up with a suitable level of challenge - except for her ludicrously high 'nerve' value. It's kind of what defines her for me. Although just what that means in terms of her abilities in the game and her personality in the story, I shall leave mysterious for a little longer.

(It is really late now, so I shall attempt to sleep, despite the cloying heat...)

13.4.07

Friday Teacher Blogging


Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, teacher of mathematics, deaf, father of spaceflight.

More on Tsiolkovsky here.

11.4.07

Venus Express, 1st Anniversary

Image source and description.
Credit: ESA/VIRTIS/INAF-IASF/Obs. de Paris-LESIA


I must admit, I had forgotten all about ESA mission Venus Express. Small wonder: they've released little information and only 8 images, the last four doled out to celebrate its first anniversary today: one Earth year orbiting Venus. Good thing then, that we have the Planetary Society Blog to draw our attention to it.

You can read the news item here at the Venus Express homepage, including some of the things we've learned about this cloudy, noxious world.

It's also well worth checking out Emily Lakdawalla's post on it at the Planetary Society Blog here. It seems that Venus may get a little interesting over the next couple of months, as MESSENGER will be using the planet for a gravity assist (in this case trying to lose momentum*), and there is going to be some co-ordinated science from the two probes.

*This is the momentum that the spacecraft starts with merely by virtue of being launched from the Earth, which is farther from the sun than Mercury. You can find a slightly more thorough description of this here. By the way, if you don't think reaching Mercury sounds very hard, take a look at the route MESSENGER will be taking. Basically - and this is nudging into territory that I always mean to learn more about but never get around to - it will have started out with an orbit around the sun pretty much the same as the Earth's, and the problem is shrinking that orbit down to reach Mercury's. (The most difficult part of spaceflight is that you can't reach anything by moving in a straight line.)

10.4.07

Soft Toys Against Nuclear Holocaust

Image stolen from this anarchist, specifically here.

8.4.07

Self-Perpetuating Genre Trappings

How many times have we seen this? At some point during a high speed chase or other action sequence, someone realises that their vehicle, spaceship or hovercraft is about to crash, throws up their hands, and screams. We then cut to an external view as they plough into the obstruction and inevitably explode.

The thing is, I often notice that the time period between exploding and throwing up of hands is sufficient that the character really should have had no problem steering around the object in question - if only they hadn't taken their hands off the wheel. In short, directors: to improve the quality of your movie, please minimise the amount of time between screaming and exploding.

That is all.

7.4.07

Death by Space Octopus


TBTBSG has now come far enough that I've had to implement game over. When all the player's units have been destroyed, the game now quits to the desktop. You know, instead of crashing to the desktop. When I get around to implementing it properly, the game will take you to a debriefing which will tell you how much you suck.

TBTBSG has come a long way this past week - in fact, I finally feel that it is earning the moniker TBTBSG. Not just tile-based - it is now also turn-based, and a game (which can be over!). Now all I need is some strategy.

The more I work on this project, the better I feel about it and, strangely, the more things I realise I have to do. I've been working on character sketches - some of which I'll post here at a time when there are a few less images on the main page. At the moment there's a cast of about a dozen named characters, not including generic characters and different varieties of space octopus, so I'll try to remember to pick up a pencil in idle moments.

Actually, I probably need to come up with a better name than 'space octopus'. Any suggestions?

6.4.07

4.4.07

My Head is Random

Wait, no, that should be my header is random. I now have randomised header images. (If they're not working for you, comment and let me know!)

Thanks go to here for the necessary code.

If you're interested, the images in question are:

Io and Jupiter
Original image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Martian Sunrise Sunset
Original Image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

Triton
Original Image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Rhea and Saturn
Original Image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Mimas and Saturn

Original image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Earthrise
Original Image. Image Credit: NASA.

Jupitershine


The latest image from the New Horizons Jupiter encounter is this, of volcanic Io and icy Europa. Europa, the crescent in this image, is actually smaller than Io, but appears larger because it's closer. Also, because of their different positions, Europa's night side is completely dark, while much of Io's is lit by sunlight reflected from the turbulent clouds of Jupiter.

3.4.07

DVD Review: The Host

A touching, unsentimental family drama...

…that happens to revolve around a giant, carnivorous monster.


The Host was, from my perspective, one of the most hyped-up and positively received movies of the past year. But the question I had to ask myself was: Is it my kind of movie? I mean, come on: a monster movie? Even if it does completely reinvent the genre, even if Korea is supposedly where 'it' is at these days, even if everyone seems to love it to bits…

Then again, I thought, maybe I will check it out. And yes, okay, it is brilliant.

Now, one thing that annoys me beyond measure, and which I may write (read: rant) about in more depth in future, are those who look at the Hollywood mainstream and declare that no new ideas are possible. They've all been had already. It's not that the Hollywood mainstream has lost its courage for trying new things, no: there are no more new things. But you only have to look at the more creative fraction of the Hollywood mainstream itself to see that there are plenty of new ideas. Hell, coming up with new ideas is easy. Figuring out which new ideas are actually any good is the hard part, and also the part which those more concerned with profit than creativity are so reluctant to engage in.

So, although Hollywood now considers the monster movie ripe for nothing but parody (i.e. making fun of what all monster movies do the same), here we have a group of filmmakers elsewhere who have quite happily made their own, original and much lauded monster movie - completely free of tiresome clichés and self-perpetuating genre trappings.


In contrast to pretty much every other monster movie ever made, The Host avoids taking a grand and dehumanising perspective. The entire story focuses on a single family inadvertently caught up in events when the monster makes its appearance: causing mayhem and snatching the family's youngest member, Hyun-seo. In the face of obtuse authority figures, the dim-witted Gang-Du, his alcoholic, unemployed brother Nam-il, their father, and their archery bronze-medalist sister Nam-Joo all set out to confront the creature and save Hyun-seo. Throughout the film, we are deliberately denied the whole story - especially those parts of the plot that your typical monster movie might be expected to focus on, such as where the monster has come from, who is responsible, the full nature of the conspiracy behind it - because none of that matters. We are following events from the view of the Park family, and all they care about is getting Hyun-seo back. The rest is just academic.


This take on the monster movie is itself quite novel (and compelling), but it's the execution that really sets The Host apart. The tone segues perfectly between suspense and spectacle; tragedy and humour. Both the monster and action scenes are very well done. And, as I've come to expect from the latest and best movies from Korea, the film is quite simply visually perfect. On top of that are other unexpected treats - for example the tense, eerie side-story of how Hyun-seo survives in the monster's lair.

The Host has very pleasantly surprised me. The introduction of the monster, quite early in the film, was the first point at which I first realised that I was watching some very good stuff. As befits a film from the perspective of people caught up helplessly in a monster movie, the creature's appearance, although there is some build-up to it, is so blatant and sudden that I didn't even realise what I was looking at for a few seconds. I expect the same kind of "What am I looking at? Oh crap!" reaction probably occurs with everyone who sees this scene, and I'll avoid spoiling it with further discussion.

Although The Host has been generally very well received, I don't think it's a movie likely to be much enjoyed by those who scoff at anything that's the least bit unconventional. On the other hand, if you're looking for something strange and beautiful, you have my latest recommendation.

2.4.07

Radius

Something interesting to look at:

All (known) Bodies in the Solar System Larger than 200 Miles in Diameter

All shown to scale, in order of decreasing radius.

Interesting to note is that, ignoring the sun, eighth and ninth place go to the Solar System's two largest moons - Ganymede and Titan. Mercury follows in tenth place.

(Via)

1.4.07

I Blog Therefore I Am... Aren't I?

Hmm. I signed up to Technorati, assuming that the reason it doesn't show me as having any links or posts at all is because I wasn't a member. But it still claims I haven't updated in 345 days - which must be the entire age of my blog. And I notice that some bloggers I know who aren't members have up-to-date Technorati pages for their blogs.

Perhaps in posting this, Blogger will ping it properly and I will see a change...

EDIT: Nup. Support form it is. On the plus side, Space Cat Rocket Ship is not long from its first birthday!

EDITx2: Uh, but this obviously doesn't matter much anyway, since I will be shaving goats in Azerbaijan for the foreseeable future.

EDITx3: New header image - of Rhea and Saturn. Full version here. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Update: Technorati have resolved the issue in a timely manner. Thanks!

Totally Not an April Fools' Post


I am afraid that this is the end of Space Cat Rocket Ship. While experimenting in my laboratory yesterday, I stumbled upon a method of creating petroleum from goat fur, and I have now been press-ganged by the CIA’s black bag people. Starting tomorrow I am being shipped to Azerbaijan, where I will have to spend all my time shaving goats and perfecting my formulae. Internet access will be limited solely to receiving emails from the American president, telling me to work harder or I will have to watch the guards flush a copy of The Origin of Species down the loo.

You know, I wouldn’t mind so much, but I have just discovered that I am allergic to goats.