Potato Shepherds

There are lots of potato-shaped objects in the solar system - small moons and asteroids with too little mass to be rounded out by gravity, or to hold onto the barest scrap of an atmosphere, or to experience the weakest quiver of geological activity. But the Saturnian system, with its myriad tenuous rings, is a place where a small, misshapen lump of rock can do beautiful things. Pandora (above) and its close companion Prometheus (the speck next to Saturn's disc, below), being fine examples.

Although their irregular bodies barely stretch past a hundred kilometres at their widest points, they have enough pull to affect the small particles that make up one of Saturn's outer rings, known as the F ring. Below, Prometheus can be seen drawing out a thread of dust from the F-ring.

Prometheus and Pandora (and other moons in a similar situation) are known as shepherd moons. The F-ring is extremely fine and narrow compared to the rest of Saturn's rings, and it seems that Prometheus and Pandora, which orbit close on either side of it, are keeping the ring 'on track', so to speak: preventing it from dispersing or widening.

But Prometheus and Pandora may well not be the whole story. Close-ups (of a stretch a mere kilometre across) of the F-ring show strange and elegant structures like this:

It seems that these small perturbances are created by even greater misfits than Prometheus and Pandora, tiny moonlets too small to see directly, but which we can detect by the ripples they leave in the F ring. It's odd to think that of the whole cast of characters, it is these invisible rocks that are the closest to everyday human scales. And yet, from a typical Cassini-eye view (below), Prometheus and Pandora, both much more massive than Mount Everest, are tiny motes either side of the F ring, seemingly dwarfed by their cousin Janus (not really that much larger), to the right.



My mother has recently been in contact with two organisations:

1. The local borough council.
2. The hearing aid department of the local hospital.

Bearing in mind that the second body is one we might expect to have dealings with deaf people on a daily basis, let's link those two organisations to the following two experiences:

A. Mum calls the readily available textphone number, which is promptly answered by a helpful, if inexperienced operator. She makes an appointment with ease. On attending this appointment, she finds that the people she deals with are well trained in speaking to those who need to lip-read, and she is easily able to understand them.

B. There is no textphone number that mum can find, so she calls the main number through TypeTalk (which I should mention is actually the general name for a service that has been re-branded as Text Direct). The operator reports that when he or she connected, a recorded message was playing, asking for a message. Mum tries contacting this number on five different occasions, on different days and at different times. Each time a recorded message seems to cut in suddenly. Mum becomes convinced that when they hear the recorded message (which is something like) 'This is a call from a deaf person using Text Direct, please hold while an operator connects.' they are turning on an answering machine because they do not want to deal with the call. In order to prove to my mother that this is baseless paranoia, I call the same number myself, shortly after her fifth attempt. And immediately get through to a human being. I make my mother's appointment for her, and then ask about the difficulties she had getting through. The woman on the other end seems familiar with the idea of TypeTalk, but doesn't seem to know that this is what Text Direct actually is, and claims that she has only just sat down to answer the phone - mine is the first call she has received. I don't want to antagonise her (and also, I don't think to mention) but this doesn't actually explain how my mum had so much trouble getting through at so many different times on different days. When my mother attends her appointment, she finds that the person she deals with speaks too quickly, and when told to speak more slowly gets annoyed. She seems to believe that simply facing a deaf person is enough to let them lip-read you (but nevertheless starts speaking more clearly).

Okay, write down your answers...

Ready? Good. Now, if you matched the local borough council with A and the hearing aid department with B, congratulations! You are now as confused as I am.


Sunday Scribblings: A Story about Simplicity

naïve: adj. artless, unaffected; amusingly simple.

Also cowboys. For some reason... cowboys.


"It's simple," he told me. "All I gotta do is draw faster than him and aim truer."

I shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. It didn't sound simple to me. But what did I know? I was a wide-eyed little girl in a creased, second-hand dress, and he was an unshaven cowboy, his leathers caked with dust, his hat and overcoat battered and torn by the harsh wasteland winds.

"You got something you wanna say?" he asked me, taking a sip from his gin.

I shook my head. "No sir." But I never could keep my mouth shut, especially not around the cowboys. My mother often exclaimed – in jest, I only realised when I reached adulthood – that I wouldn't be happy until one of them threw me over his shoulder and abducted me, whisking me off to a life of wrangling renegade machines in the dead cities. And that was just fine with me, sounded a whole lot more exciting than waiting tables in this dingy saloon. So I contradicted myself with the naïve slyness of childhood, by adding, "It's just..."

"Just what?" the cowboy asked, looking at me with dry blue eyes.

"Why you gotta go and try to shoot him anyway?"

He laughed. It didn't seem very funny to me, two men going to try and blow one another's brains out at high noon, but I was under his spell, so I smiled along with him, if a little uncertainly. "Well, sweetheart," he said, "it's kinda complicated. See, I said something, after I been drinking a little too much, I'm sure you know how it is."

I nodded, keen to demonstrate my maturity in that one unfortunate respect.

"Something that no man who hears it can keep his temper. He's gotta get satisfaction – revenge, you see. He's gotta shoot me dead to make things right. And since I don't want to be shot dead, I gotta try and shoot him dead first. And so that neither of us does anything underhanded or dirty, we set a time when we'll both stand in front of one another and try to shoot the other. That way, the best man wins. I win my life, or he wins his honour."

"That is complicated," I agreed.

He shrugged and took another sip from his gin. I watched carefully so I could offer him a refill as soon as he finished.

"But..." I said.

He waited a moment and then said, "Zeus, girl. Talking to you's like pulling teeth. You ever finish what you're sayin'?"

"Well," I stammered, blushing, "I was only wondering why you don't just apologise to him."

"It ain't that simple."

"Why not?"

"It just ain't." He swallowed the last few mouthfuls of his drink and handed me the glass. "Now close your pretty mouth, girl, and get me some more of this stuff."

I took the glass, but didn't budge from where I stood. I put one hand on my hip, a pose of authority my mother used, and addressed the cowboy sternly. "You got a whole lotta things backward if you think apologising to a man is more complicated than shooting him before he shoots you."

"Just get me my drink," he said curtly. He wasn't talking to me as an equal anymore, but as a cowboy addressing a helpless little girl. "And ask your mother for what price she'd be willing to entertain a man who's counting his hours."

I half-turned and raised my nose in the air. "Mister, I may be a kid, but I ain't stupid, and this is a re-spect-able e-stablish-ment."

It was a moment that would linger and have a strong effect on me as I grew up. The moment that I, a little girl, stared down a gun-slinging cowboy. He looked almost ashamed, and, I suddenly noticed, a lot more soaked through with gin than I had realised. I kept my eyes on his down-turned face, determined not to let him know that I only half understood what we were talking about.

"Simple things," he said softly. "Fighting and... Those are the simple things in life, girl. You find your ox, your rat, your scorpion, and those two things are the most difficult things they can do. Apologies, forgivin', talkin', those are complicated. You remember that, little girl. And I hope to Zeus you don't never have to find it out for yourself."

He stood up, the chair scraping loudly. He checked his gun was still in its holster, straightened his hat and coat, and nodded to me politely. "Ma'am," he said, making me blush again.

And then he turned and left.

Come noon, I went to the window, looking out onto the uneven, dust-covered street, littered with the rusted skeletons of ancient automobiles, hoping to see the two men fight. My mother made me jump when she put her hand on my shoulder. She stood over me, tall and golden haired. Like any rebellious little girl, I both hated her and aspired to be just like her.

"I don't know where they're doing it," she said firmly, "but you ain't gonna see anyway."

"But mom..." I whined.

"No buts. It's not for children. There are some things you don't yet need to know or see, and believe me you don't want to. Now there's dishes need cleaning, and they ain't gonna do it themselves."

I dragged my feet all the way to the kitchen and did such a half-assed job I knew I'd have to do it a second time. Sullenly I listened out, keen to hear the report of a gunshot, a yell of triumph, a scream of pain - not really, it must be said, understanding what they would mean.


Otherworldly Coastline

It could be a satellite-eye view of a shoreline on Earth, but this radar image is from Cassini's 31st flyby of Saturn's moon Titan. Showing a stretch of Titan's surface 160km by 270km, this is the latest in a series of strong hints that the moon's thick clouds hide not just lakes of liquid ethane and methane, but also whole seas of the stuff.


Sunday Scribblings: A Story about a Mask

A short one this week. Wear what masks you want to yourself, but don't force them on others.


He is handsome in his own way. Not a conventional way, I must admit - he'd never make a model or an actor. But his kindness is evident in his features, in the way he moves and talks. I get on well with him and we chat often, and I feel a giddy storm of butterflies in my stomach when I make him smile.

But yes, I know that this is wrong.

Today in history we learned about the Age of Perversion, when Satan's liberals took sway over the media with their Gay Agenda. We learned about the sin of homosexuality, and the evil deeds of its slimy practitioners. In groups, we discussed what we would do if confronted with one of these perverts, how we would convince them to change their awful ways. And inevitably, in my group of half a dozen guys, we talked about how much we were disgusted by the very idea, how dark a period of history this was, compared to our own enlightened times, government restructured around God.

I went further than the others in my condemnation, in making clear my repulsion at the way they flaunted their wickedness. I think I surprised even myself at the depth of vitriol I had for those historical deviants. Self-hatred, obviously.

I hate myself for loving him.

And I hate myself for wanting to ask why love should be a sin at all.


No Fucking Way

Starcraft 2
I'd start spawning more overlords right now, so you can be ahead by the time the game is released. Not that I expect my computer's integrated graphics card to be able to play the thing. *sigh*

(PS: click the picture, it is a link.)



Sunday Scribblings: A Story about a Second Chance

I was having trouble coming up with a story for Sunday Scribblings this weekend, but then I saw an advert where some pirates were making a guy walk the plank, and I thought, "Hey! They should give that guy a second chance!"

Second Chance

As both moons shone down from above, I drew my hood down lower and stepped quietly across the street, keeping to the shadows as much as I could. Waves breathed in the distance, and the masts of tall sailing ships stood beyond the jagged, rickety rooftops.

The sun had long since set, but activity continued at the port. Clockwork drudges clacked and whirred as they drew covered carts, wooden wheels clattering against wet cobblestones. I stepped into the tavern, keeping my head down.

Orban was there – an old man now, scraggly white beard and prominent bald patch. He sat in one corner, both hands wrapped around a tankard of beer. Younger men and women surrounded him, hanging on his every word, it seemed.

"Tell us about Scapegrace," someone said.

"That's all he ever talks about," another said, with a sigh.

"It's the only story he has that's worth hearing," the first voice replied.

Orban waited patiently through all this, looking small, old and weary. He seemed almost honoured to be a small diversion for some insolent youngsters. I wondered just what his life was like these days. The gold must have run out. Gambled away, I expected.

"I don't mind telling it over and over," he said. "It plays on my mind a lot. Annabel Scapegrace was the best captain I ever served under, until she got those funny ideas in her head. Sometimes I wonder if she might even have been right."

"Don't get ahead of yourself," one of the young men laughed. "Tell it properly!"

"Okay, okay," Orban said, with an almost toothless grin, "now many years ago, I was boatswain on the Blue Cuttlefish – an honest trading vessel, sailing the harsh route between here and the New World. Long, dangerous journeys on turbulent seas. You were as likely to be pitched overboard by a huge wave as you were to survive to collect your handsome pay.

"On my fifth trip across we got a new first mate, name of Annabel Scapegrace. She was fair, and friendly enough, until you broke the rules, and then she'd make damn sure you never did it a second time. I always worked hard and never made any trouble, so I had little to do with her. I did once see one of the crew draw a knife on her. She didn't even blink, just pulled out her pistol and shot him straight through the heart. Bang!"

Orban aimed his finger at the bosom of the nearest young woman, who raised an eyebrow.

"It was a normal enough voyage out, but when we got to the port in the New World, we were warned by the settlers there that they'd seen a ship flying the skull and crossbones. A huge galleon, loaded with cannon. But by the time they warned us, it was too late. The pirate ship rounded the rocky coast, and the Cuttlefish was too close to the shore to manoeuvre properly. We were a light trading ship, with only a few token guns to protect ourselves. What could we do?"

Orban looked around at the youngsters.

"Fight anyway!" one of them suggested.

"I'm sure they would have turned tail at the mere sight of you, Orban," one of the girls added, slyly.

He laughed. "Perhaps they would have. Fortunately, we didn't have to do anything. Their fire-power was their own undoing. Laden with heavy cannon, the pirate ship scraped its bottom on the shallow water, and ran aground. Before we could get out of range, though, she loosed quite a few volleys at us, taking down our sails and tearing gaping holes in us below the waterline. We limped a short way around the coast, and then had to beach the Cuttlefish itself.

"Now we were in real trouble. The hold took a direct hit, and what little of our supplies had survived were floating out into the sea. That was our food and that we were bringing to the port. There wasn't enough to go around, we realised that pretty quickly. The captain, he was a company man, and his solution was to wait months and months for the next supply ship to arrive. Then we'd get food, and could send word back home about our plight.

"But Scapegrace wasn't happy with this. Right in front of the rest of the crew she asked the captain, 'But how many of us will starve before the next supply ship arrives? What if they don't make it – if they sink on the way here? And what about when high tide comes? What if the pirates get afloat again? Then they'll worry not just us, but any supply ships that make it to us.'

"The captain was stunned. His mouth flapped open and closed uselessly, and then he just said, 'You be very careful Scapegrace. I won't tolerate the merest whiff of mutiny – not even from you.'

"When he said the dreaded 'm' word, absolute silence fell. I didn't even dare breath. And everyone looked at Scapegrace. She gritted her teeth, pulled out her pistol, and shot him in the chest. Bang!"

Orban aimed his finger at another one of the youths.

"He wasn't dead right away, managed to pull out his own pistol, but Scapegrace was on him like a shot. She stamped on his hand to make him drop the gun and turned to look at the sailors around her. She pointed at the captain and said, 'Put this overboard.' And who were we to disobey?

"Scapegrace had a whole different plan from the captain's, and we had to put it into action real quick-like. Before high tide came along and maybe dislodged the pirate ship, we'd row over in our boats and board her. We were going to take the pirate ship from the pirates, and sail back home in their spacious galleon, probably loaded with gold and plunder as well as guns.

"Well, I've never been much of a fighter. I was there, and I cut a few people, but I don't think I did quite as much as I could have. But Scapegrace, I think, felt she had something to prove. She put herself right in the thick of it, and took a jagged wound right across here."

Orban slowly ran his forefinger diagonally across his face. "She always had a scar there, and it made her look like a right pirate. Speaking of which, of course, once we had our pirate vessel, and a few left-over pirates, and a desperate need for food, well, we soon discovered the lure of the trade – if you'll allow the term - ourselves.

"Scapegrace made an excellent pirate. Just like when she was first mate, she was firm but fair. She wouldn't kill anyone who would cooperate, and she made sure that when we stole food, we left enough for the plundered crew to survive on. We also helped to lighten the load of their ships by removing items unnecessary for survival in the harsh New World – gold, jewels and other useless trinkets. Still, if anyone gave her trouble, even if it was a captain who refused to believe she wouldn't harm her prisoners, she was quick to put it down. She cut right through nonsense with her cutlass – and the person producing it as well, you see. And it wasn't just with the people we preyed on, either. If anyone in the crew stepped out of line, she'd hammer them back into it, just like when we were on the Cuttlefish.

"I only tried my luck once," Orban said, holding up his hand, "with one little misdemeanour."

There were quite coos from the listeners as they took in the empty space where Orban's little finger might have been expected to be.

He made sure everyone got a good look, and then resumed his story. "With the pirates that survived our theft of the vessel, we learned how to survive as outlaws in the New World, often mixing with the natives – savages who scraped out a life in the crumbling stone ruins of some ancient civilisation. They were a strange lot, even for foreigners, but the trouble was that the cap'n lapped up their crazy ideas.

"Now, they thought that what made these ruins weren't men or women, but creatures of some kind. They'd show you these crazy figures etched into the wall and claim that was what they looked like, though I could never make head nor tail of it – if they even had heads or tails, who knows. And of course, there was treasure of a sort. Some ancient god that could grant immortality if you pleased it, or dash your civilisation into rubble if you pissed it off.

"Scapegrace liked the idea of this immortality stuff, and, just as we were getting into the swing of the whole piracy lark, she kept taking us off course to look for this monster, this 'Troth' thing, a god of the sea or some mumbo-jumbo like that. It lived, according to the natives, in some deep undersea crevice, and so Scapegrace was always dropping lines over the side to try and map the ocean floor. What a waste of time, we all thought – time that could be better spent 'accumulating financial capital', as you might call it!

"Naturally, we started to get a bit miffed. We tried talking to her. But she was convinced. All this time we was wasting, it was nothing compared to how much time we'd have when we found Troth and won its favour. Working with some copies of the etchings in the ruins and making guesses from her incomplete sea-map, she sailed us right into the worst, most turbulent seas I've ever known, in all my years – never before and never since. She had us dropping lines overboard, trying to figure out how deep it was, and we had to keep the same position as the wind buffeted us about, or the map would be wrong – good grief, what madness!

"So, well, we did the only thing we could, didn't we?" Orban stopped and looked around at the youngsters. The tavern was silent. Everyone seemed to be hanging on his every word, even the barmaid.

"You killed her?" someone suggested, timidly.

Orban ran his finger slowly across his throat. "In her sleep. She probably never knew what was happening. Then we tossed her overboard and resumed our criminal ways. At that point we found out that Scapegrace was known the world over and we had the whole Imperial Navy chasing after us. Those were some fun times, I'll tell you that! We was famous, and it was Scapegrace what done it. A lot of us were killed off, of course, and the rest were captured. I don't think nobody got away. We was real lucky with the war, what with them needing experienced sailors for the navy. I served my time on a warship, in a uniform, all proper-like. So now, if you see my name in the papers, I'm often double heroic – first as one of Scapegrace's pirates, and then as a war veteran."

"Wow," someone said, although I couldn't tell if they were humouring him.

Everyone laughed a little, Orban joining in, and then the kids started standing and stretching their legs, discussing quietly where they were going to go next to kill time. One by one, they drifted off, leaving Orban sipping his tankard of beer. He looked around. Just him left, the barmaid, and me. I got up and walked out myself, then, out the door and across the road. Into the chilly sea air, beneath the starry sky. I watched through the window as he had three more tankards, and then got unsteadily to his feet. From the back of his chair he pulled a coat over his shoulders, and from beneath the table produced a walking stick to lean on. With a toothless grin for the barmaid, he hobbled out and, shakily dismounted from the doorstep.

He started walking down the road, his footsteps echoing through a town now silent. I let him get a way ahead, and then followed after. At the sound of my footsteps, he stopped and turned around, taking in my hooded form.

"Oh," he said, clearly recognising me from the tavern. "It's you. Leave an old man in peace, will you?"

Without waiting for me to reply, he turned his back to me and resumed walking.

I followed at the same pace, stepping heavily onto the cobbles.

Orban turned around again, an uncertain look on his face, and I stopped, keeping the same distance from him.

"What do you want?" he demanded. "I know I play on my history for a bit of company, but if I've wronged you in the past, know that you have my most sincere apologies. Now let's be civil and head to bed, where all good citizens belong at this hour."

I raised my hand, and Orban watched with a frown on his face. Slowly, I drew a finger along the base of my little finger.

Orban took an unsteady step towards me. "What are you getting at?"

"Theft of vittles," I said, "one dry biscuit and associated weevils."

Orban turned white. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Show me your face."

"You don't want to see my face, Orban. It's not so pretty these days. A short stay on the bottom of the ocean will do that to you."

"Sc-Scapegrace? It is you, isn't it?" Orban's face rapidly went through a range of emotions, from horrified to panic-stricken, and then settled on a forced smile. "Well, that's wonderful! We have a lot of catching up to do!"

"Yeah," I said. "In fact, I've already 'caught up' with much of the rest of the crew – those not already dead."

I had been stepping closer to him as I spoke, watching his hands. Now he made his move, whipping out a dagger and plunging it through my shirt and between my ribs.

I laughed, and threw back my hood. Orban's eyes widened and he froze, his hand still on the dagger's hilt.

"My flesh rotted away long ago," I said softly. "Now all that's left is bone and seaweed. No heart for you to pierce, or throat for you to slit, Orban."

He stepped back, releasing the dagger, and I pulled it free of my ribs. I studied the blade in the moonlight. "This will come in handy in a moment," I said.

"Please, cap'n, you gotta understand, we didn't know! We thought you was crazy!"

"Well, patently I wasn't. When you threw my dead body overboard, I found something waiting for me at the bottom of the sea, something quite happy to give me a second chance."

"Troth, right?" Orban said with another forced grin, "and just think, if we hadn't mutinied, you might never have found it!"

I pointed the dagger at Orban. "I would've liked a little more time to try and find it my way. I could've used a second chance from you, Orban. From you and all your treacherous mates."

I stabbed the knife towards him, aiming for the heart. He must have known me too well, though. His other hand shot out, deflecting my blade with his walking stick. While I was unbalanced, he lashed out again, my head resounding with the sound of wood striking bone. I fell forward, onto my hands and knees, and as quickly as I got to my feet, Orban – hobbling at a comical pace – had rounded a corner into dark shadows.

I dusted myself off and pulled my hood back up. He wouldn't escape me for long, in all likelihood. And yet, I realised, I wasn't too bothered knowing that he had a slim chance of escape. Well, he knew the terms of the engagement now, and had a brief reprieve to make his own plans. I would seek him out, and who knew what might happen on our second encounter?

After that, more important errands called to me, a bass note rising from the ground, and up through my bones, like the whole ocean tolling as some vast creature's bell.


Alien Volcano

Hello. I am experiencing anxiety. I have been working on my story for Sunday Scribblings, but have yet to finish it. It will be worth the wait, though, as it features pirates! Yarr!

In the Universe at large, we find the first image from New Horizons with a real wow factor. It's not in colour, but it is animated: five consecutive frames of the eruption on Tvashtar. Watch it here.

Speaking of colour, that last image I liked so much is now available in an artistically colourised version here, next to an update on the mission from head honcho Alan Stern.


So Long, Thanks for All the Fallout

Mr Blair, soon to be former prime minister of the United Kingdom, thank you for your ten years of dedicated service to our nation. In particular, thank you for:

  • taking us into the quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • remaining passive while our 'closest ally' tortured our citizens.
  • talking big on climate change while our emissions rose.
  • overseeing unprecedented surveillance of your own citizens.
  • overturning our notions of freedom of speech and habeas corpus.
  • making us seem hypocrites when criticising repressive regimes.
  • making us the target of another group of terrorists, just as Northern Ireland struggles towards peace.
  • ignoring the measures of accountability necessary for democracy.
  • widening the gap between rich and poor, and reducing social mobility.
  • taking us still closer to an American-style healthcare system.
  • constantly saying one liberal, compassionate thing and doing exactly the conservative, selfish opposite.
  • espousing the ideals of democracy while ignoring your own people.

Goodbye, Mr Blair. You will be sorely missed.


Saturn Clouds

From Cassini comes this dreamy image of Saturn's pastel cloud-tops.



AstropodsImage credit: me.

These sprites are liable to change. In particular, looking at the fast version, it doesn't look as streamlined as I was going for - not that aerodynamics is important in space, I guess. I also have one or two ideas for additional creatures...



In this image, arguably the most beautiful yet from New Horizons, Europa rises over the cloudtops of Jupiter.

All the best images from New Horizons' Jupiter encounter so far seem to have been in black and white, which I think is a small shame, given how colourful the planet and its moons are. It's understandable, though, because Jupiter is a radically different environment from Pluto. As mentioned in the caption for this colour image of Io:

[The Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera] is designed for the very faint solar illumination at Pluto, and is too sensitive to image the brightly lit daysides of Jupiter's moons.

A quick bit of maths* suggests that the sunlight at Pluto is about 64 times dimmer than at Jupiter (and 1600 times dimmer than at Earth). Of course, any images of Pluto would be fantastic, compared to the meagre, pixellated offerings that are all we have at the moment, but I think that New Horizons' snapshots of Jupiter are only a hint of what it will have to offer us when it eventually reaches the tenth** planet/second dwarf planet/first Kuiper Belt Object/possibly second Kuiper Belt Object including Triton [delete as appropriate].

*Earth is 1 Astronomical Unit from the sun (by definition), Jupiter about 5 AU and Pluto 40 AU (with a lot of variation). Solar flux decreases proportional to the inverse square - ie. if you were twice as far from the sun, you would receive a quarter as much sunlight. There's a nice explanation of this here.
**Don't forget Ceres!