Saturn's Belt

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

As Saturn approaches equinox, the shadow cast by its rings becomes narrower and narrower. Cassini captures this beautiful image of the rings over the pastel clouds below.


No Winners Among Sisters

Credit: Tuan Cao (source)
Some rights reserved

I have a really uncanny knack for falling ill only at the weekend. I've spent the past couple of days shivering under a blanket - so no Sky Spiders today, I'm afraid. (I'm pretty sure it's not swine flu.)

I can, however, give you the results for EnvComp, as well as the judges' reviews. It does seem a bit unfair to be declared the winner of a competition whose only other entrant was its author's first game - and only written in a week to boot - so I think the real prize for me is that this event got me to write a little game that I'm rather pleased with.

I was only planning on releasing a post-competition version of Dead Like Ants in the case of significant bugs* or problems, and although I do have a fair few potential changes on my list, none of them are really critical. I think the game as it stands is small and self-contained. And also, at the moment I think that Snowblind Aces and Space Shot are far more obvious candidates for an update.

But some time soon(er or later) I may post a few of the copious notes and diary entries that hammered out the game's design.

*This is not a pun, since there are no bugs, taxonomically speaking, in Dead Like Ants.


Friday Sniper Blogging

Roza Shanina killed at least 54 German soldiers during the second world war, over a period of two years, before dying in combat herself.


Thursday Book

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master - so-called by his besotted and illicit lover Margarita - is a struggling writer in Stalin's Moscow. The novel he has slaved over obsessively relates the events of Pontius Pilate as he executes Yeshua Ha-Nozri - a peaceful philosopher whose every movement and word is commited (with questionable accuracy) to parchment by the former tax collector Matthew Levi. But Soviet critics tear his work to shreds, and the Master has a breakdown, disappearing completely from Margarita's life.

Fortunately, the Devil has just arrived in Moscow in the guise of a foreign magician, along with a retinue of supernatural oddballs including a talking cat and a naked, vampiric witch. They're certainly up to no good, but they also offer a ray of hope to Margarita: if she'll agree to be hostess for Satan's Ball on Walpurgis Night, perhaps she can restore the Master - and the manuscript he threw on the fire.

All this is related in a narrative voice that veers between prim documentarian and chatty pal, occasionally taking on a character of its own. Certainly, much of the first half of the book would probably be cut out by a modern editor, but once things got going, The Master and Margarita carried me away with its imaginative surrealism, its sly and provocative wit, and its tender moments of humanity.


Walking into work I counted every CCTV camera I could see, figuring that if I can see them, they'd potentially be able to see me. My final count was 32.

On the way home I saw some I think I missed.


Monday Movie: The Wave

Dennis Gansel's The Wave sees a non-comformist teacher at first disappointed to find himself teaching students about autocracy instead of anarchy - until he hits on a great classroom actitivity to bring the realities of a dictatorship home. In the process he unintentionally creates a quasi-fascist movement that begins to gain popularity throughout the school. But when confronted with the realisation that he's inspired a cult of personality with himself as its focus, can he really be trusted to do the right thing?

Inspired by real events in an American school in the sixties, The Wave, as well as being very well put together drama, also succeeds in getting across both the allure and danger of totalitarianism.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 40

Previously: “Five years ago, the Sky Spiders descended from space and wrought untold destruction and change on our world. Una and I, among others, set out from sanctuary to try to find out why. But all the answers we got seemed to point at a greater danger hiding close to home.”

Part 40: Home Sweet Home

And just as suddenly as we had found ourselves in Unity City, we were standing in Circhester. The transparent Sky Spider automaton removed its large, inhuman hands from our shoulders and faded away completely.

Una twisted her mouth thoughtfully. “And I remember being perturbed by my first ride on a dirigible.”

I looked around. We were standing on a cobbled road that twisted between an overgrown vineyard and several rows of dilapidated, empty-windowed cottages. The sea whispered at the edge of hearing, interrupted briefly by the distant rumble of artillery.

“Do you know where we are?” I asked Una.

She took my arm. “Of course. This is my back garden.”


She smiled and led me down the road. “You weren't under the impression my family estate was just a mansion and one stone wall, were you?”

“I honestly didn't think about it that much.”

As we moved past the tangled vines and tattered rooftops, the viscount's estate - Una's now - came into view, quite some distance away. The guards manning the machine gun nest that overlooked the gates seemed quite confused when they finally noticed us.


We were met in the courtyard by that weathered old soldier with the eye-patch that seemed to be in charge of the estate's security.

“It's a pleasant surprise to see you, milady,” he said. “Things weren't the same without you or your uncle around. I'm afraid I had to let a few of the staff go when they tried to take advantage.”

Una seemed pleased. “I can always trust you to keep things from going to pot, sergeant-major.”

He looked at me with his one tired but kindly eye. “Shall I have them prepare a room for the doctor?”

Una squeezed my arm. “Quite unnecessary. The doctor and I will be living in sin.”

“Very good, milady,” he said with a nod, and turned to leave us.

“Has anyone ever told you,” I asked Una, “that you're very direct?”

She ignored my question completely and led me through the doors of her ancestral home. “The last time we were here, someone tried to kill us with the most advanced military automata human civilisation has ever produced.”

“More advanced,” I said, “than either of us thought it actually had produced.”

“And possibly with hired killers of the human variety as well, or machines with some level of ability at posing as human.”

“The Academy for Machine Intelligence seems like the obvious candidate,” I suggested. “But then, I passed through Smogton. I don't think any of the old institutions from there are likely to be left.”

Una stopped at the foot of the mansion's impressive staircase. “I think Remus was telling the truth when he said that the problems of Fortress City have their root in Fortress City. And as anyone will tell you, everything in Fortress City revolves around one person.”

I thought of the man with the golden mask. “John Kirkham.”

“I'm sure he'll want to speak to us anyway,” Una said. She looked down at the stairs and sighed. “If Kirkham's civilisation was everything it was cracked up to be, I'd have been able to install an elevator by now.”

“We should probably pay him a visit before the killing machines get to us.”

Una started to climb the stairs, pulling on my arm. “Of course. But let's get changed and take a moment to settle in first. There'll be plenty of time for being killed later.”


Next week: John Kirkham: man of mystery and power! Is he friend or foe? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Friday Guy on the Moon Blogging

Credit: NASA

Harrison Schmitt standing by a big rock. I bet he was thinking something like, "Hey, this is a big rock!"


Cratered Crescent

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

There's something about a very high phase image of a world - especially an airless one - that lends it a real solidity. Perhaps it's because, in looking at this thin sliver, we're better reminded that it's ground we could be standing upon.

See also this image of Enceladus.



Terry Cavanagh and Stephen Lavelle's Judith is a small, simple game with a creepy and melancholy atmosphere. It gave me chills and a half.

Download it here.


Monday Movie: Sherlock Jr

Sherlock Jr sees director and star Buster Keaton as a cinema projectionist who'd sooner be a private investigator. But when he finds himself framed for stealing from his sweetheart's father, he escapes into a fanciful dream: through the silver screen and into the shoes of the world's greatest detective and crime-fighter, Sherlock Jr. Cue incredible stunts and surreal cinematic trickery.

Final Stretch

I am not sure what Una and Peregrine did immediately after that. You will have to use your imagination.

I always intended Sky Spiders to be about fifty parts long, mostly because I wanted to try and reach the NaNoWriMo goal of fifty thousand words (40,100 so far, including recaps and teasers).

Of course, I also always intended it to be driven by a barrage of escalating cliffhanger action. Exactly why the first of those goals seems to be coming to fruition, while the other degenerated into a meandering mess, is something to ponder.

In any case, this is now the longest anything that I've ever written, so I would say that my goal of making myself write something regularly has been achieved. Just a matter of pride now to actually reach some kind of coherent 'THE END'.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 39

Previously: “Five years ago, the Sky Spiders descended from space and wrought untold destruction and change on our world. Una and I, among others, set out from sanctuary to try to find answers with the EON thinking machines that had interfaced with Sky Spider technology. We discovered the paradoxically benevolent intentions of the invaders, and were offered - by the successors to the human race - life, knowledge and happiness.”

Part 39: Further Revelations

I closed the door carefully behind me.

Una sat on a chair beside a simple, white sheeted bed. “What did you see?”

“Oh, you know,” I answered. “Fantastic visions of space. Otherworldly cities both immense and ancient. Sky Spiders. About what you'd expect.”

“You didn't look did you?”


She sighed and stood up. “Somehow all your few acts of stupidity seem to revolve around me. I'm not sure whether I should be flattered.”

I shrugged. “Remus said that you rarely have much of a sense of time in the panopticon. I didn't want you to leave without me.”

She closed her gloved hands around mine. “I understand what it means to you, Peregrine. I'm a scientist too. I'm curious. I want to see the mysteries of the Universe. Please, please don't deny yourself that because of me.”

“Then stay here a little longer. Look into the panopticon yourself.”

She looked down at her hoop skirt. “I can't. For five years I've... Peregrine, look.”

She let go of one of my hands and brought her fingers to her mouth, tugging the tip of the glove with her teeth until she had pulled it off completely. When she took my hand again, it was with fingers of articulated metal.

“This is what my hands look like, Peregrine. They're the hands of an EON unit. I could still play the piano, if I'd ever learned, or chess. But I can't paint. I can't uncork a wine bottle. The Sky Spiders did this to me. Whatever noble goals they may have had, this is what they mean to me. They mean that I can't even feel the warmth of your hands. Whatever fantastic, amazing things they may have to offer me, I want nothing of it. They can't buy off five years of pain.”

I squeezed her hands gently. Warmth or not, she felt that, her fingers curling in response. “Remus isn't the Sky Spiders,” I said. “I believe that.”

“Me too. But the panopticon is.”

“Fair enough. But Remus offered to help you. To help to end your... discomfort. Doesn't that count as making amends in some way?”

She pulled her hands away from me and folded her arms. “I just want to leave. I'm used to the physical pain by now. I hardly notice it. But it hurts me in a whole different way to be staying here. When Remus wants to end the suffering of everyone in Fortress City, then I'll be front of the queue, okay?”

“And if Remus is to be trusted, that might not be too far-fetched a scenario. If we can find out what the deal is with Fortress City.”

Una smiled. “Right. So I leave in the morning. We leave, I mean, if you insist on being a fool.”

“We leave.”

She turned to face away from me and straightened her back. “Help me undress. The trouble with these fabulous old dresses is that as much as they keep from getting caught in your treads, they were all made for women who were attended to by legions of servants. Getting in and out of the things is a bit of a logic puzzle when you're by yourself.”

I undid the top button of the dress - a tiny, delicate fastening, almost invisible from a distance. Her high neckline loosened, a little patch of pale white skin was exposed, just below her hair.

And unfastening the next button revealed the metal staples holding that skin in place over the steel armour below, and the thin plastic tubes that supplied it with blood.

“You may find some gruesome things beneath this dress,” Una said. “But you might as well learn what your heart has got you into.”

Placing my hands on her shoulders, I brought my mouth to that patch of skin and kissed it. “Are my lips warm? Can you feel that?”

She reached back to untie her hair, letting it uncoil fluidly from its bun. It was longer than I'd expected, and she gathered it up in her hands, pulling it forwards over her shoulder, keeping the back of her dress exposed.

Una said, “Undo the rest of the buttons.”


Next week: Back to Fortress City! But if Remus and the Sky Spiders are so pleasantly disposed towards it, why is it in so much danger? And while we're on the subject, who was that trying to kill the Five the last time they visited? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


DVD Review: Waltz with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir has one of cinema's more memorable openings, as we follow a ferocious pack of dogs tearing through a city at night-time. Although they terrify everyone they pass, they're single-minded in their objective: seeking out one window to gather beneath and bark.

This is Boaz's dream: that the twenty-six dogs he killed in the 1982 Lebanon war seek him out for revenge. He's relating it to Ari Folman, the director and main 'character' of this animated documentary, a film that perhaps takes a leaf from Richard Linklater's Waking Life. Folman, it transpires, twenty years after serving in the war, had difficulty remembering any of his experiences from that time, and Waltz with Bashir depicts his attempts to discern why.

I generally have a real issue with dramatised documentaries. The drama all too often results in the sacrifice of factual content by depicting events inaccurately and taking up too much time. But in animating Waltz with Bashir, Folman has made a bold statement: both an acknowledgement that, as we're told early on in the film, memories are highly interpretative, and a way of depicting the physical and emotional experiences of the people he interviews with equal weighting.

The style of animation - though gorgeous and very much inspired by modern graphic novels - can be quite stilted in places, with something of the appearance of shadow puppets. And yet, this strangely dream-like motion is entirely appropriate. Coupled with an intense musical score, the strong images, while as inaccurate as any live-action re-enactment, manage to inspire perhaps the shadowed, empathic equivalents of the life-changing emotions that Folman and these other soldiers experienced at the time.

The one part of the war that Folman experienced but is ultimately unable to recollect is the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Philangists, an event that seems to be deeply tied to why Folman experienced amnesia in the first place. This necessarily becomes the focus of the film's last act, as Folman shows us the experiences of an Israeli soldier on the periphery of the camps, and a reporter who ventured within to see the aftermath. Considering the film as a whole, I found this to be the tiniest of missteps.

The strength of the earlier parts of the film lies in their personal and emotional nature. At this point, however, things become broader and more factual. But it is largely unavoidable, I think, and the main body of the movie could be seen as fostering the necessary engagement to make us really care about an atrocity that will typically be depicted as dry numbers and impersonal facts.

Waltz with Bashir is quite simply a striking film, documenting a more personal side of history - often ignored or sensationalised - with bold, affecting artistry. Seek it out at your first opportunity.


Lesser-Known Curio

I recently found myself compelled to try installing the PC version of Dino Crisis 2 on my Vista PC, and was pleasantly surprised to find it working nicely (I had less luck with Crimson Skies). It feels strange to admit it, but I've realised that I have a real soft spot for this game.

Dino Crisis 2 is perhaps best remembered as an evolutionary link in Capcom's survival horror games. The first Dino Crisis was notoriously just Resident Evil with velociraptors instead of zombies, and sparsely detailed three-dimensional backdrops instead of rich two-dimensional ones.

With the second game, however, things changed substantially – with a much stronger emphasis on arcade-style action. Suddenly series heroine Regina is running around with a machine pistol in each hand, slaughtering dinosaurs by the dozen and racking up combo multipliers for points that can be spent on weapons, ammo and upgrades. It's clearly a step beyond the later Resident Evil 4, and a step beyond anything that could be considered true horror. A step, in fact, into the realms of unrestrained action and (dare I say it) fun.

And that's part of the reason I like it.

One of the things that quickly becomes apparent about Dino Crisis 2 is that a fair bit of it has been lost in translation. The scrap of information above is a perfect example. It's supposed to convey the simple fact that our heroes and their ill-fated rescue party have arrived much too late. They're hoping to save survivors from a city that was accidentally catapulted through time into a jungle full of dinosaurs, but when time-travelling millions of years, a little inaccuracy can amount to a long period in human terms. This long-dead doctor was living alongside dinosaurs for at least ten years before they finally ate him.

Even given a proper translation, though, I think the story here would probably still be confused. I can believe that there was some coherent thinking behind the final plot-twist and reveal, but the basic narrative that you follow is illogical, coincidental and confusing. And bear with me, but we're starting to get at what I like about this game so much.

The setting of Dino Crisis 2 is desolate in a really singular way. In some respects, it's actually full of life: nimble dinosaurs attack you constantly from every direction, giant insects glide overhead, triceratops lumber in the background, and you're relentlessly stalked by a one-eyed Tyrannosaurus Rex. And yet the humans are all long dead, their buildings are overgrown and decayed, the thin threads of hope that they cling to in their diaries and notes are now all broken. And on top of that, they're writing in the unintentionally poetic fashion of someone who can neither translate from Japanese nor write in English with any great skill.

I've always thought that Dino Crisis 2 ends up conjuring a fantastically dream-like atmosphere (nightmarish, in some respects). The ordinary events might not make logical sense, but they feel right given the tone of the game - and the extraordinary events tie incoherently into our own oft-ignored fears about immense stretches of time and the fragility of all human existence.

Dino Crisis 2 made a really strong impressions on me with its surreal, bitter-sweet tone and bold, colourful backdrops. And it even manages to be great fun to play as well.

There's often a depressing unanimity of opinion and shortness of memory when it comes to video games. People's opinions tend towards the more recent and better known. So maybe I should start thinking of this game in the same terms as a lot of films I like. It may be a lesser-known curio, and it's probably not to everyone's taste, but it happens to be a personal favourite.


I think this blog probably has a few readers involved in education and academia, so you might be interested in my web-friend Tiki Martin's new blog Room 107, about her experiences providing 'alternative education' for those students that struggle to fit in with mainstream schooling.

That is all.


Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Catching up on our robot friends in space, we find that:

Cassini has switched to a back-up set of thrusters following somewhat understandable degradation of its main engines after eleven years of use.

Spirit and Opportunity are both engaged in long treks across the Martian wastes, although Spirit, dragging a useless wheel behind it, has just had to reconsider its route.

(Image above taken by Spirit. Clearly there are better places to be if you're a disabled robot that has trouble with steep inclines.)


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 38

Previously: “Offered the chance to meet EON-3, 'the Seer', it looked like I might finally be getting some answers to some big questions.”

Part 38: The Panopticon

The Seer's hall was tall and narrow, the ceiling high overhead textured like alabaster coral. At this time of night, its huge windows only served to reflect back its electric-lit interior.

The Seer itself sat unmoving on some low steps, dressed in a loose dressing gown. Its cylindrical head lay open like a brass flower, accepting the intruding tendrils of bright Sky Spider machinery that descended from a dazzling nexus clinging to the highest arch of the ceiling.

“The panopticon,” Remus said. “A telescope of sorts. It can see through space and time, across the stars and into the past and present - within the boundaries of the finite speed of light, naturally.”

I waved a hand in front of the glass lens of the Seer's single round eye.

“It's rarely here,” Remus explained. “In mind that is. Its body is always here.”

Una sniffed. “Who wouldn't like to pretend to be elsewhere, given the choice?”

I reached out towards the thin fingers of the Sky Spider machine. It was transparent, glowing - almost as if made entirely of light.

Remus said sharply, “I wouldn't-”


The skies are dark. Thick black clouds drift across the dull blue face of the sun and its larger, fainter, redder companion. The clouds are so pervasive, they extend down to the ground, leaving a ghostly trail of dust as they pass.

The dust coats everything, from the petrified stalks of long dead plants to the ruins of shattered stone spires, to the rags draped over the backs of the nomads as they trudge through the desolation in long caravans. They scrape at the dead soil with long fingers marked with deep burns, searching for what subterranean scavengers and untainted roots they can find. Slime-focused eyes that might once have glimmered with keen intelligence are now dulled with the monotony of an existence on the brink of starvation.

When a nomad falters and collapses, its companions regard it not with remorse, but relief. Relief that its shrivelled flesh has been released to sustain those around it for perhaps one more orbit of the volcanic moon.


“-touch that if I were you.”

I looked down at my hand. Remus' delicate fingers had carefully pulled it away from the panopticon.

“Sky Spider technology doesn't respect boundaries in the same way as the machines you're used to,” Remus explained.

Una glided up to my side, carefully keeping her distance from the bright tendrils of light. “So it just sits here, EON-3, for years on end, wandering the Universe with its mind's eye?”

Remus smiled beautifully. “Endless wonder and beauty.”

“Misery too,” I suggested.

Remus released my hand. “Darkness is a concept that only has meaning given the existence of light.”

I stared into the Seer's eye with ill-concealed jealousy.

“The panopticon is flexible,” Remus said. “It can accept more than one... 'traveller' at a time. I extend you asylum of a quite different kind extended by the Sky Spiders to your colleagues in the Select Committee. I can't promise you that our human minds can understand the mysteries of the Universe. I'm not sure how much the Sky Spiders even understand themselves. But it's quite worth it just to look, don't you think?”

Una glanced from me to the Seer. “And what if you don't come back for years?”

I looked at Remus. Our host just shrugged. “Everyone has a different affinity for the panopticon. This mechanical man, created for the sole purpose of learning, certainly has a far greater affinity for it than any human, but some of my siblings have stared into it for weeks at a time.”

“I'm not touching that thing,” Una said. “And I'm not staying in Unity City sitting on my hands waiting for you, Peregrine. People are suffering out there, and the nicer it is here, the more guilty I feel for abandoning them.”

Remus sighed. “Human suffering should be reaching its twilight years.”

“Once we die off, you mean?” Una said curtly.

Remus grimaced. “The Sky Spiders would discourage your breeding to the great extent you have before, but there is no reason that you should be excluded. It's just...”

Remus bowed suddenly. “I am deeply sorry, but I cannot be indiscreet. I will simply reiterate that if you wish to help the people of Fortress City, then that is indeed where you should go.”

Una nodded. “I'll leave in the morning. I wish you every luck in building your own society, Remus, although I don't think I'd ever be able to accept it as the actual continuation of my own.”

She turned to me. “Look into the panopticon, Peregrine. We both know it's what you'd want more than anything. But if you look into it for longer than this night, I won't be here waiting for you.”

She leant over to kiss my lips, and then turned to glide away.


Next week: Does Peregrine look into the panopticon? For how long? Or does he have different priorities? And what's the deal with Fortress City? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Not Another April Fool's Post

I am aware that for the past two April Fool's days that this blog has seen, I have posted fabulous, obviously spurious claims about its imminent end.

I now find myself in the position of the boy who cried wolf, for this morning, in an event unprecedented throughout all suburbia, my home was swallowed whole by a giant land shark. (I suspect that it was a giant land basking shark, as it did not chew.)

As you might expect, web access inside a shark is severely limited, so I have saved this blog post onto a memory stick and am mailing it by carrier remora to the Internet's postal address.

I would like to take this last opportunity to thank you all and bid you a fond farewell.