"I can too read!"

He's starting with the picture books, one notes.


A Box of Space Snakes

You are a space snake. You live in a box in space. If you are pushed out of the box, you will explode. If you use your gun to push other snakes out of the box, your tail will grow and you will score points. The longer your tail is, the bigger your scores will be, but you will also be an easier target.


My current high score: 258510

The trick, I think, is knowing when to cut your tail off. And also being able to quickly disentangle yourself from it. As in life, so too in games, it seems. When you are reincarnated as a space snake, you will thank me.


Mars out the Window

Stunning image taken by the CIVA imaging instrument on Rosetta's Philae lander just 4 minutes before closest approach at a distance of some 1000 km from Mars.

A portion of the spacecraft and one of its solar arrays are visible in nice detail. Beneath, an area close to the Syrtis region is visible on the planet’s disk.

Credits: CIVA / Philae / ESA Rosetta

News item at the ESA here.

The Rosetta Homepage can be found here. Rosetta is a mission to, among other things, put a lander on the surface of a comet. It was actually the lander that took this image.

Emily Lakdawalla writes about the coolness of this image here.

5 Filmmakers

Five filmmakers I love. Not a comprehensive list - there are many others - but these are the ones I feel reasonably confident talking about. They are also people who seem to be on roughly the same wavelength as me. There may be others who make 'better' films, but these guys make stuff that I like.

Each image is of a selected film for each director. Mouse-over to see the title.

5. Wong Kar Wai

Wong Kar Wai pretty much flies in the face of mainstream cinema - making films without a script; shooting two films at the same time; throwing in sad endings along with the bittersweet and ambiguous. You can never tell what he's working on, or what's going to be next. But you do know that when he makes it, it will be bold, beautiful and undiluted.

4. Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a director that makes weird-looking films full of weird-looking actors getting into weird situations. And yet, what makes Jeunet stand out so much is that he is not a self-consciously weird or 'zany' director - instead he draws out what is peculiar about everyday life in a way that is striking, familiar and believable.

Jeunet also makes very sensitive films: we are not presented with all this strangeness to laugh at it or be shocked (well, not entirely), but instead in the hopes that we may recognise ourselves.

3. Tim Burton

Tim Burton is the quintessential outcast filmmaker, making films almost exclusively about oddballs struggling against arbitrary social standards. Given that this subject is arguably one that underpins a huge portion of human suffering and conflict, it's a relief to see Burton handle this theme with equal dollops of black humour and compassion - not to mention his unique and powerful visual style.

2. Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki's films perhaps embody all the various qualities that fawning Hollywood stars like to imagine you can find in those films that win Oscars. Well, one of his films did win an Oscar. But all that nonsense about making you feel a broad range of emotions - excitement, fear, hope, laughter - and taking you to strange new places in space and time, making you believe in magic...

Yes, Miyazaki's films have all of that. But more importantly, as well as producing aching moments of emotion, they are also largely subtle and understated. As well as featuring sweeping vistas and thrilling action, they have quiet, simple moments of touching humanity. Miyazaki's favourite themes of environmentalism, pacifism, and humanism are strengthened by a frank understanding of the difficulties of those paths. His dramatically strange new worlds are fleshed out with the plain, the ordinary and the everyday.

I think it's this combination of incredible vision and simple heart that makes Miyazaki so revered by all who come into contact with his work.

1. Buster Keaton

The films of Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton Jr. are great evidence that cinema was pretty much born fully formed. Working without CGI, stunt men, ninety years of accumulated cinematic craft, or, for that matter, sound, Keaton was still able to produce films that seem startlingly comparable in technical quality to modern fare. And when you take into account the content of the films, Keaton easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the great filmmakers of any later period.

Like his contemporary (and one-time collaborator) Charles Chaplin, Keaton had his own visually distinctive cinematic personality: a clumsy, unsmiling fellow in a flat hat who, though repeatedly at the butt-end of the Universe's jokes, still dusts himself off to save the day from stampeding cows, improbable storms and hungry cannibals. Probably the chief appeal of this character, even today, is that he doesn't look like a man who should really be starring in a film. Short, expressionless, slightly embarrassed to be in this situation, would clearly much prefer it if no-one looked, uncertain what to do, but trying his best - every one of us has been this character ourselves at some point (some of us more often than others).

It's this combination of simple, unflinching humanity and Keaton's own cinematic innovation - conjuring up images that are more convincing than some of today's dodgy CGI - that allows Buster to live on today like no other filmmaker of his era.


Mimas in Shadows

Mimas, photographed by Cassini against a striking backdrop: blue clouds on Saturn's northern hemisphere, the rings casting dark bands of shadow.

(In other words: don't have enough time to blog fully today, so pretty picture instead!)


Banks: See Hear

After this incident Mum drew my attention to this:

Thursday 15 February - Programme Information - See Hear, Saturday 17th February, BBC2 @ 12pm.

In this week's programme, presented by Memnos Costi and Elizabeth Young, we look at the problems facing deaf people trying to access banks and building societies.

The item looks at how banks and building societies deal with issues such as contact via third parties; TypeTalk and textphones; lost or stolen cards and the provision of interepreters. Underpinning many of the stories featured in the film is the conflict that arises between banks and their deaf customers over what 'reasonable adjustment' to goods and services, as laid down in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), actually means.

That final sentence sums up the message they tried to shoehorn in - a nice balanced message - explicitly stating that banks are trying hard to cater to deaf people but are being held back by concerns about confidentiality and security. And yet the segment seemed to show that that's far from the truth. After trying over two days to contact ten leading banks by textphone, they got only two to answer - on the second day. Although the talking head for banks assured us that banks are happy to accept typetalk calls, it wasn't much work to find someone who had had their typetalk call refused. Similarly, the talking head told us that banks are happy for a third party to be used to inform them that a card has been stolen. Except that the same person had been refused in this respect as well. To me, this looks like not even trying at all.

Certainly, the segment did make the argument that banks are interpreting the clause 'reasonable adjustment' to do as little as they can. For one thing, it doesn't seem like an unreasonable adjustment just to answer your fucking textphones. For another, most of the 'reasonable adjustments' quoted were with respect to internet banking, which isn't being created with deaf customers in mind. When it comes to making adjustments solely for deaf customers, the banks simply aren't doing it. This isn't a conflict of opinions. It's clear evidence that the DDA is failing.


Thought of the Day

Freedom of speech is exactly the opposite of freedom from criticism.

It is spectacularly hypocritical to claim that someone who criticises your views should shut up because they're infringing on your right to freedom of speech. You have a right to espouse whatever offensive, racist, misogynistic, homophobic or merely incorrect crap you want - and others have a right to call you out on it.


Minutes from the End of Civilisation

I like to make crazy shit up when I write stories, except when it's science fiction.

The five NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states have failed in their obligation to make serious strides toward disarmament--most notably, the United States and Russia, which still possess 26,000 of the 27,000 nuclear warheads in the world. By far the greatest potential for calamity lies in the readiness of forces in the United States and Russia to fight an all-out nuclear war. Whether by accident or by unauthorized launch, these two countries are able to initiate major strikes in a matter of minutes. Each warhead has the potential destructive force of 8 to 40 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. In that relatively small nuclear explosion, 100,000 people were killed and a city destroyed; 50 of today’s nuclear weapons could kill 200 million people.

While the possibility of launching these powerful weapons may seem remote, experts in Russia and the United States are concerned about command and control systems that depend on complex electronic communications and information. Past incidents suggest that technical failures, misperception, and miscommunication happen in even the best-maintained systems. Such errors could lead to an accidental launch already programmed in the event of attack. Experts have documented four nuclear false alarms--in 1979, 1980, 1983, and 1995--where either the United States or Soviet/Russian forces were placed on the highest alert and missile launch crews were given preliminary launch warnings.

Sixteen years after the end of the Cold War, following substantial reductions in nuclear weapons by the United States and Russia, the two major powers have now stalled in their progress toward deeper reductions in their arsenals. Equally worrisome, the United States, in its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, declared that nuclear weapons “provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats,” including chemical and biological weapons, as well as “surprising military developments.” In early 2004, this new concept, which espouses the quick use of even nuclear weapons to destroy “time urgent targets,” was put into operation. That the United States--a nation with unmatched superiority in conventional weapons--would place renewed emphasis on the need for nuclear weapons suggests to other nations that such arsenals are necessary to their security.

In the face of the major powers’ continued reliance on nuclear weapons, other nations are following suit. Since the end of the Cold War, three countries have announced the possession of nuclear weapons--India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Israel possesses weapons but chooses not to declare them. The director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, believes up to 30 countries have the capacity, and increasingly the motivation, to develop nuclear weapons in a very short time span.

Read the rest at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


A Story About Goodbye

This week's prompt at Sunday Scribblings is Goodbyes. It chimed with various things I've been thinking about, in particular, at the forefront of my mind was a colourised version of this image, as presented in Olivier de Goursac's Visions of Mars (although this particular image is a vision of Earth). To see the colours of a Martian sunset, look at this image.

Evening Star

The sky is a murky, ruddy pink and the sun sits on the horizon: small and blue. Descending with it, imperceptibly, down beneath the world, is the bright evening star.

"Does it look any different?" a voice asks softly.

I stop looking over my shoulder, turn from the small window to the dim, electric-lit room around me. "I woke up sitting here," I say. "It wasn't a dream, was it?"

Yelena shakes her head and slams the door closed, checking that it seals properly. Now more than ever, it feels like we live in a soap bubble. Bulging with air and ready to pop.

The television, fixed to the paint-scabbed metal wall, shows nothing but static.

Yelena sits next to me on the couch and picks up the remote.

"Don't," I say suddenly. "Turn it off. I've had enough of it."

She nods and stabs the remote with her thumb. The screen blinks to black. "Is he okay?"

I look at Michael. Sitting on the couch opposite, head thrown back, staring at the low, domed ceiling. He lifts his head, looks first at Yelena, then at me. "I'm fine," he says flatly.

"Does it look any different?" Yelena asks me again.

"Does what look any different?"

She gestures out the window, at the setting sun and the evening star. "Earth," she says.

"It looks about the same. How's Abel?"

"Sedated. Chen is staying with him."

Like a powerful magnet is pulling on me, my head turns until I'm looking back out of the window. "I thought it might get less blue," I say. "If the ocean's are getting covered with dust and smoke."

"Maybe it will," Yelena says matter-of-factly. You can't really be anything but matter-of-fact in this kind of situation.

"We don't know that it was nukes," Michael chips in.

Yelena shakes her head unenthusiastically. "What else would it be?"

"Bio-terrorism," Michael says, slowly, if parcelling out its import into more manageable monosyllables. "Some lethal disease cooked up in a terrorist's basement. I bet it spread across the world in less than a day, on airliners."

"You're an American," I tell him. "Someone sneezes and you see bio-terrorism."

"Well, yeah. You say that, but I bet they were sneezing."

"It wasn't bio-terrorism or bio-anything else," Yelena says firmly. "We'd have heard something about people getting ill. And look at the logs: we lost Baikonur, Kennedy and Jiuquan within minutes of one another. A virus wouldn't do that."

"Al Jazeera's still broadcasting every hour," I chip in. "They were talking about mushroom clouds and radiation sickness. It's pretty unequivocal."

Michael grimaces, as if literally having difficulty swallowing the idea. "But who would nuke us?"

I laugh mirthlessly. We three are all wearing the same uniform but for the flags on the sleeves. "What makes you so sure that 'we' didn't nuke anyone ourselves? If not to start with, then in retaliation?"

"But why did it start?" Michael asks.

Yelena sighs. "I doubt anyone actually wanted it to happen. It probably started as a mistake, but once it got underway, they were fighting for their lives. No-one would stop."

"That's bullshit," I snapped. "You're saying that because they started killing everyone they had to keep going, or else - or else what? The other side would kill everyone instead? It's bullshit."

"It's those Russian missiles," Michael muses. "A wire sparked or a program crashed or something and the missile was launched. No offence, Yelena."

"Check your own house is in order before you start throwing accusations like that around. You've got that nuclear place in America that's always catching fire and worse."

"That's not a nuclear facility."

"It is a-"

"That's not a nuclear weapons facility," Michael interrupts, correcting himself.

"What does it matter?" I ask. "I don't care who started it. It happened. And Baikonur, Kennedy, Jiuquan: they're silent."

Michael rubs his unshaven chin. "Maybe they're still there."

Yelena stretches, creakily. I notice that her eyes are red. "Even if they are," she says, "you think they care about us right now? Not their families? The people dying right in front of them? You think they have enough food to stuff it into a rocket and send it to us?"

Michael clicks his tongue. "I guess the space programme's going to take a bit of a back seat over the next few years, huh?"

"Decades probably," Yelena says. "If human civilisation on Earth can even crawl back up from this."

I finally say what's been on my mind all this time: "We're pretty fucked."

Michael just shrugs.

Yelena turns to face me, fixes her eyes on mine. "We are not fucked. We're lucky. Would you rather be in London right now?"

"If it was a full nuclear exchange, I'd have died instantaneously last night."

"Right," she says, as if that settles it.

"But instead, we, Yelena, Michael - all of us - we are going to starve."

Yelena slides forward, to better face me. I think this is turning into another argument, and I'm not sure I can be bothered. "I don't think so," she says.

I shrug. "We eat more than we grow. Food is the problem. It's the only thing we can't get from Mars. I don't see how we can be more fucked than that."

"Food is the problem," Michael agrees.

"We would be more fucked if food wasn't the only thing we don't have here," Yelena says. "We have water from the ice, we have oxygen from the water, we have fifty years of power from the reactor - more than enough time to find more uranium, I might add - from the power we get heat, light-"

I look down at my crumpled uniform. "And yet, if we starve, all that oxygen and water and power and heat and light won't make us less dead."

Yelena shakes her head vehemently. "We're not going to starve any time soon. And in the meantime we can try to find ways to increase our food production. We've got the material to build more pressurised glass houses. Chen thinks we may even be able to use cling film, tent poles and old heaters, if we keep the partial pressure of nitrogen high and the overall pressure low. We got some Frankenstein seeds in the last supply, part of an experiment - they might grow in Martian soil, with a few added chemicals."

"None of us are old, Yelena. We could live another forty, fifty years. Do you honestly think we can consistently produce enough food in all that time, with cling film greenhouses? It's going to be a constant battle."

"I didn't say it would be easy. But we don't have any choice but to try. We've got better odds than certain death. We've got better odds than the people back home."

"In the short term, yes. But when the nuclear winter passes, those that survived - eating rat meat or one another, whatever - they'll still have a world with liquid water, one bar of air pressure and food."

"Contaminated food."

"As opposed to our sickly, half-starved crops. Chen's still finding those bloody aphids lurking around. Now he thinks they're adapting to the lower gravity."

Michael laughs unexpectedly. "Chen says they come to him in his dreams and taunt him in Mandarin."

I had something to say, something angry and powerful that would leave Yelena's argument shattered into pieces, but Michael's comment, his laughter more than anything, has interrupted my flow. Yelena just raises an eyebrow and ignores him. He covers his mouth with his hand to stop the incriminating sound: laughing while everyone is fucked.

Yelena sighs. "Look, we've been split in two. Pockets of people on Earth and one on Mars, we're all going to be struggling for the next few years, perhaps for the rest of our lives. I guess a lot of us won't make it. But we have to try."

"I'm not saying that we shouldn't. I agree with you, it's hard but we have to try. It's just…."

She leans forward, resting her elbow on the back of the couch. "What?"

I look out of the window. The sun has set, and the blue evening star is low on the rocky hilltops. Soon it will be gone too. "I just wish this hadn't happened. It's going to be really hard. We need the people at home."

Yelena reaches over to squeeze my shoulder. "I know," she says. "I feel the same way. There's nothing to say, except, I feel the same way."

The conversation has deflated. Michael gets up then, says he needs to check the pressure sensors. We're leaking again, he thinks, losing precious air from our little soap bubble. Yelena follows after him, squeezes my shoulder once more in parting.

I stay staring out the window until the evening star sets. Best to get back to work after this, I think. Back to the business of staying alive.

"Goodbye," I tell the little star, under my breath.