I really do not like astrology. I've mentioned it before as a pet peeve of mine, and I'm afraid that I can't help but rise to the bait with this week's prompt at Sunday Scribblings. In the first part of this post, I'm going to lay out why I dislike it so much. But if you love astrology, be sure to stick around for the second half, where I help you to find out what your sign is. No, those dates are wrong. Sorry.

"Astrology is an Aesthetic Affront"

Dione and Saturn
Over the past two thousand years, we have learned a staggering amount about the Universe around us. We've found it to be more beautiful, more mystifying and far grander than we ever imagined. My chief complaint with astrology is simply that it ignores all of that.

Thousands of years ago, with no telescopes, space probes or Mars rovers, the planets were just points of light in the sky. 'What are they?', people wondered. Could their arcane movements be a kind of writing on the celestial sphere? The stargazers of that era weren't wrong to wonder, but we now know that Mars is not a symbol. It's another world, just like the Earth (only somewhat chillier). Despite being named after the Roman god of war, it's actually the most hospitable planet we know of apart from the Earth (Venus vies with Io for least pleasant). You could go and stand on Mars, and to you the Earth would be a blue star in the sky. Clouds would pass overhead (as would two moons), a feeble wind would push against you, your feet would sink into a magnetic soil with the texture of wet sand.

Astrology presents itself as a means to achieving awareness of the Universe, but in fact it teaches nothing that is supported by evidence, and instead reduces glorious, complex, mysterious worlds to nothing more than symbols. I can't help but see it as something sinister, a spectre seeking out people who look at the night sky and wonder, and palming them off with a cheap, two-dimensional forgery.

My Sign is Ophiuchus, the Snake Handler

Well, no, it isn't. But it would have been if I'd been born a couple of weeks later. One of those things that we've learned about the Universe in the last two thousand years is that we are not at the centre of it. This certainly hints that the Heavens are not merely a blanket of symbols there for our edification – that in fact, most of the Universe has nothing to do with us. It also leads to understanding a few things which directly affect the way astrology is (or should be, rather) practised.

As the Earth moves around the sun, the axis on which it rotates is at an angle to the plane that the Earth moves through (known as the ecliptic). This angle is the cause of the Earth's seasons. Due to a number of factors (the rotation of the sun on its own axis, the pull of the moon) the Earth's rotational axis also moves in a circle. This is known as precession, and it was probably first figured out by an ancient Greek guy called Hipparchus. Ptolemy is another ancient Greek guy, perhaps best known for coming up with (at the time, quite compelling) reasons supporting the idea that the Earth did not move around the sun, and for coming up with the (much too small) estimate of the Earth's circumference used by Columbus when he planned to sail right round it. Despite that, he was actually a very proficient astronomer, being aware of all sorts of aspects of the Heavens that are ignored by modern astrologers – one obvious example being the precession of the Earth's axis (Ptolemy would have considered it to be a precession of the celestial sphere), as noted above.

Because of this precession, the signs that the sun passes through steadily change over thousands of years. And, of course, the dates for your sign as given in the newspaper horoscope are those for two thousand years ago. Presumably astrologers had a real blow-out party back then and insist on partying like it's 99AD – or 140AD, more precisely, as it is poor Ptolemy's table of dates that astrologers use.

So, if I had been born on the 21st of November 140, I would be a Scorpio. However, I was in fact born on the 21st November 1983, and so am a Libra. Here's the actual table of dates for the 21st Century. If you really, really feel that your (old) sign fits you perfectly, you may be a little disturbed to discover how well you have fooled yourself. Please don't shoot the messenger.

Pisces March 14 - April 19
Aries April 20 - May 15
Taurus May 16 - June 21
Gemini June 22 - July 21
Cancer July 22 - August 10
Leo August 11 - September 17
Virgo September 18 - October 31
Libra November 1 - November 24
Scorpius November 25 - November 30
Ophiuchus December 1 - December 18
Sagittarius December 19 - January 20
Capricornus January 21 - February 16
Aquarius February 17 - March 13

Also, if you're Ophiuchus, consider yourself so very, very lucky! Now every time someone asks you what your sign is, you can let them in on a little piece of the Universe's beauty. The Earth moves - and the way it moves, moves as well!

What is your sign, really.
Bad Astronomy: Astrology


Is Brown the New Blairck?

Did you see what I did there? I should be writing the headlines.

When Tony Blair became Prime Minister, he was surrounded by labour party members waving placards and pretending to be exuberant members of the public. It's a breath of fresh air to see Gordon Brown just give a speech, pose awkwardly on the doorstep of Number 10 with his wife, and then go inside.

Still, I have my reservations. To start with, the part of me that shrivelled up and died during the Blair years whispers to me in a hoarse voice, saying that Brown's brazen lack of care for image is in fact a calculated image in itself - the image of caring about substance more than presentation. And in any case, even if Brown does dismantle the Blair spin machine, it may only be a matter of time before David Cameron steps into Number 10 as an even more vacuous, even more right-wing 'Tory Blair'.

Even with positive changes on the horizon, such as the restoration of the right to protest outside parliament, it's tempting to fall into another trap. Why should we credit those we give power to for not abusing us? It should be the minimum we expect. It's bad enough that we can't seem to punish them when they do abuse us. Tony Blair's 'punishment' for supporting the deaths and torture of thousands of Arabs and Muslims (to say nothing of what he's done to the people who elected him), is to be made a peace envoy to the Middle East.

It's like sentencing an armed robber to become a bank manager.


DVD Review: The Prestige

Hugh Jackman as Angier
Beneath the stage of a great magic act, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is trapped, drowning in a tank full of water. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, affecting a convincing working class English accent) apparently stumbles onto the scene, only to end up accused of Angier's murder. While in prison, Borden receives Angier's journal and reads about his trip to Colorado to visit Nikola Tesla (a nice turn by David Bowie). And, while he was there, Angier was also decoding Borden's own encrypted notebook. So begins the multi-layered narrative of Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, replete with untrustworthy narrators and complicated trickery.

Christian Bale as Borden
Although I may have knocked Nolan's action scenes in Batman Begins, I do love that film, considering it to have one of the best edited, fast-paced storylines I can think of. Still, I must admit that I was glad to see Nolan returning to more familiar territory with The Prestige, covering typically Nolan-esque themes of motive, illusion and delusion. Driving the film forward is the rivalry between Angier and Borden, two magicians divided by a deadly incident. They steal one another's acts, interfere with their shows and engage in more straightforward acts of violence. In particular, Angier is obsessed with discovering the secret behind Borden's 'Transported Man' act, which he comes to believe Tesla has had a hand in designing.

Michael Caine as Cutter
Nolan continues to draw first rate actors to him. Michael Caine gives us a typically engaging performance as the man who designs Angier's acts, Scarlet Johansson is the beautiful assistant caught between the two rivals, and Andy 'Gollum' Serkis is Tesla's assistant. And as usual, it's not solely intellectual themes and dense plotting: Nolan expertly imbues scenes with atmosphere, and takes full advantage of his outstanding cast. Unsurprising really, as it's the fallibility of humanity, and our weak link to the Universe around us, that seems to fascinate Nolan most of all.

Hugh Jackman and David Bowie's ear
There is, of course, a trick to this film. But Nolan has also clearly learned something from the world of magic: misdirection. What seems like it is going to be the film's chief surprise – I won't even allude to it – is actually quite easy to figure out. In fact, I think that in the lead up to the revelation, the film is pretty much acting as if the audience already knows. But of course, there is another surprise as well, of the typically mind-blowing, plot-falling-into-place-all-of-a-sudden kind that we expect from Nolan, a revelation that a day later still has me exclaiming, “Oh, of course! Because of that, then also...” and “Oh! No wonder they kept going back to that! What could be better symbolism for...”

I'm going to go out on a limb here. Having only seen the film once, I feel a strong urge to proclaim that Nolan has here made another Memento, only in a completely different fashion, and with a completely different feel. Whether or not I'll feel the same way after I've seen The Prestige half a dozen times, I don't know. But the thing is, I probably am going to watch it half a dozen times either way.


Sunday Scribblings: I Have a Secret

I always wanted to make one of these. Click the image to view it in its full ransom-notey glory. This is the result of a pair of scissors, some glue, and a movie magazine I had lying around. It was great not only to find a picture of Cloud from Advent Children, but also to realise that it actually looks quite sinister in this context. And here it is under construction:

No, Jeff Bridges didn't make the cut.

As for your secret, well, you can trust me with it, of course. Because I can trust you with mine, right?


Giant Robots

Phoenix is the next Mars rover lander to be launched (in August, I believe), but after that (at the end of 2009) we have Mars Science Laboratory. Now, if I already knew that the reason these two landers aren't touching down the same way the current two Mars rovers did* is because they are too large, I never took on board just how bloody enormous MSL is going to be. Take a look at Emily Lakdawalla's post on the Planetary Society blog here, including images and video of the MSL 'mobility model'.

This is how The Terminator gets started, I'm sure.

*A barmy method by which they fell out of the sky surrounded by airbags before bouncing to a halt.


DVD Review: Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

Cloud and his sword.
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is a computer animated action-fantasy film based on a popular video game. Those three different elements (action, CGI, game adaptation) often lure me in with such promise, only to fall away at the last moment and drop me into the pit of so-bad-it's-good, or even the dreaded chasm of so-bad-it's-just-bad. Thank fuck, then, that Advent Children actually comes through, showing everyone else how it's done.

When it comes to making a video game adaptation, the brains behind Final Fantasy have obviously discovered the best route to take: don't. Advent Children is instead a cinematic sequel to a video game, bypassing all the problems of translating the story of a game to screen – the kind of mutilation that makes adapting a novel look like remaking another movie. Computer games have the potential to span simply enormous stories, wandering all over the place. While in a novel this might distract from the central premise, the central premise of a game involves user interaction. Exploration, both physically and through the plot, can be a huge part of the fun. The Final Fantasy games are profound examples of this, a typical instalment requiring a good forty or so hours to play from start to finish, often fleshing out an entire world in the process. It's a stroke of minor genius to take that as the first step, and then use it as a setting for a relatively very simple story.

This is also exactly the kind of interaction between the video game and movie industries that I can approve of. It's not a license being sold to a studio, but a group of people who, from the games they've made, have extensive experience in producing exhilarating, achingly beautiful computer animation, and want to put it on the silver screen. Of course, their first attempt, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, did away with much of what made the games so brilliant – for example, rather than a unique, highly imaginative fantasy world, the movie was set in a futuristic America. It felt like the Final Fantasy 'feel' was diluted to try and give it mass appeal (and instead was extinguished in the process). With Advent Children, it's clear that lessons have been learned. This movie is obviously intended for consumption by existing fans rather than as a means of extending the games' market, and it feels like something made by people who love the ideas they're expressing as much the people they're making it for.

Maybe I should mention that I haven't actually played Final Fantasy 7, although I am a huge fan of several other of the FF games, and like any gamer, I know little bits about it – for example how Sepiroth is carefully built up into one of the most memorable video game villains of all time, and how (most prolific spoiler on the Internet:) Aeries dies. So the simple story for Advent Children is doubly effective. We don't need to know the ins and outs of the whole FF7 world (and if the FF games I've played are any indication, there's likely to be ins and outs up the wazoo) to understand that stopping Sepiroth from coming back is probably a good idea, and maybe our hero needs to come to terms with Aeris being dead. And that's the plot. Oh but, how does it all play out? Well...

Sword fights on motorcycles.
Advent Children has helped me to finally make peace with CGI. I've long been wondering just what the purpose of computer animation is, looking to see it do something different, that no other medium could quite get right. Looking at some computer animations, with their awkward-moving, weightless characters, bereft of personality, I can't help but think they would have been better off getting some artists to draw them by hand in each frame. (This isn't a blanket accusation, Toy Story 2 always, always makes me cry, and Brad Bird's The Incredibles is visually brilliant). But now, with Advent Children, I have finally seen what that something different is. It is sword fights on motorcycles.

In no other medium could you make a high-speed motorcycle chase that was also a sword fight. At least, not as convincingly and dynamically as the one in Advent Children. Yes, I called Advent Children an action-fantasy film above, because action is definitely what drives it forward. And not just any action: flawlessly choreographed, lightning fast, gravity defying, out-of-this-world action.

Tifa on a wall.
A lot of the time these days, I have trouble forcing myself to watch action films. Every director in the world seems to have gone down with Action-Scene Over-Direction Syndrome (ASODS for short). Christopher Nolan, I'm looking at you: an epilepsy-inducing barrage of close-ups is not exciting; it just leaves the audience with no idea of what's going on. So refreshing then, to see rapidly edited fight scenes where you can actually make out what's happening. And what's happening are things that make the most dynamic parts of the Matrix Trilogy look like pro-wrestling. 'Anything goes', was apparently director Tetsuya Nomura's motto for Advent Children. Don't worry about whether it looks realistic, worry about whether it looks cool. And it works extremely well. The images may be completely unrealistic, but they are also completely convincing. The characters have weight and substance to them, even as they leap up into the scaffold of an unfinished skyscraper, or get sent flying by a single blow.

The Final Fantasy games are part of something that is very important to me: what I often think of as 'true' fantasy – living up to the full promise of the word. Not orcs and castles and the same tired tropes, but anything you can conceive of, anything that will fit into the story. Finding a neatly crafted pearl of that stuff in Advent Children causes me to perhaps wax a bit too lyrical. Basically a soapy, slightly melodramatic story featuring prolonged and flamboyant action scenes, I'm sure that those who can't help but be cynical and/or refined will have a hard time swallowing Advent Children down. But those who are quite happy just to see sheer bravura of imagination will lap it up.


Cat and Mouse

A cat and a computer mouse.
My mouse went funny. Now I am having to get used to a mouse with a ball after years of optical mouse luxury. I will be making a trip to the mouse shop as soon as I can, as this will not do.


The Wheel Spins YOU

Marc D. Rayman, 'Project System Engineer' for Dawn, which should be launching next month, has a couple of posts on the Planetary Society Blog, here and here, in fact he has an online journal here. If, like me, you're interested in figuring out how these crazy space machines actually work, you'll want to give that a good look.

A while back I wrote about Robbert Goddard and his contribution to the modern rocket. While Dawn will certainly be launched into space on a liquid fuelled rocket of the same basic design as Goddard's, once there, it will rely on a nifty ion propulsion system. This uses the same basic idea as the rocket - that if you throw something out of a spaceship, the spaceship will experience an equal force pushing it in the opposite direction - but differs in what is thrown, and how. At this point I'll borrow a technical looking diagram from the page on ion propulsion at the Dawn homepage:

Image credit: NASA

Which looks pretty scary (it is rocket science!) but is really just showing us that what we throw out of an ion thruster (that appears to be the actual name for these things, however science fiction-y that may sound) are electrically charged atoms ('ions'), and we 'throw them' by taking advantage of the way that they will move away from 'like' charges and towards 'opposite' ones.

Star Wars fans will be disappointed to learn that the ion thrusters we can currently develop probably wouldn't serve you very well in a space battle. They are very much the tortoise compared to the chemical rocket's hare - giving off a very small amount of thrust over a very long time. To quote the Dawn ion propulsion page:

Dawn's engines have [...] a thrust of 90mN. While a chemical rocket on a spacecraft might have a thrust of up to 500 Newtons, Dawn's much smaller engine achieves an equivalent trajectory change by firing over a much longer period of time.

How much longer a period of time? Well, according to Rayman (now that's a name for a rocket scientist!) Dawn would have to fire its ion engine for five solid years to exhaust all its propellant.

But what's the deal with the title of this post? Well, reading this post on Rayman's journal, I spotted something I'd never heard of, a mention of 'reaction wheels'. You wouldn't think that wheels would be much use on a spacecraft, and yet, in microgravity and a vacuum, spinning wheels has an interesting effect. Because of conservation of angular momentum, as you exert a force to change the speed a wheel is spinning at, the wheel will exert a force to turn you in the opposite direction. If you happen to be floating in microgravity, then you won't be able to stop this from happening as you would on the surface of a planet (for example, by bracing yourself on the ground), and as you change the wheel's rate of rotation, it will change your rate of rotation. This means that by sticking wheels in spaceships, we have a way to make them spin (or stop spinning) without using any propellant. That definitely wins my 'cool idea of the day' award.

(There's a larger and more complicated version of this called a 'control moment gyroscope' used by, for example, Mir and the Internation Space Station.)


A Cat on the Floor

I could have rotated this for you, but I like the idea of you all looking at it with your heads to one side.



It seems that MESSENGER has successfully completed its gravity assist at (perhaps 'using' would be a better term) Venus. The mission homepage sums up the event nicely:

NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft swung by Venus for the second time early this evening [5th June] for a gravity assist that shrank the radius of its orbit around the Sun, pulling it closer to Mercury. At nearly 15,000 miles per hour, this change in MESSENGER’s velocity is the largest of the mission


According to APL’s Eric Finnegan, MESSENGER systems engineer, the spacecraft’s approach geometry is similar to that for the first Mercury flyby, allowing — for the first time in flight — the craft’s seven instruments to be turned on and operated collectively in science-observing mode, just as they will be for Mercury. “Gathering approximately six gigabits of data, the spacecraft will take more than 630 images, as well as make other scientific observations over the next few days,” Finnegan said.

In the news article at the Planetary Society, here, we learn that, like New Horizons at Jupiter, MESSENGER is currently something of a fish out of water. Just as New Horizons was designed to operate on the inner fringe of the Kuiper Belt, where sunlight is a precious commodity, so MESSENGER is intended to orbit Mercury, bathed in intense radiation. Venus may be a little on the dark side as far as its cameras are concerned, so it remains to be seen how interesting any images MESSENGER returns from Venus will be, especially given that, with its dense, sepia clouds, Venus isn't exactly the most photogenic world in the first place.

Still, I'll be sure to let you know if any pretty pictures make their appearance...


Frost Fusion Backlight

In this sublime image, Cassini shows sunlit ice particles rising from the furrowed south pole of Enceladus.


Game Theory


With distractions aplenty, I haven't worked on TBTBSG (which now has a tentative title) for a good couple of weeks. But I have been thinking about it in the meantime – in particular about the plot/mission structure. One key element has changed. Originally I was intending to have 'you', the player, as the main character, but I've been thinking long and hard about that and different approaches to the player's involvement in the game. At this point I could probably write a lengthy essay on the matter, but there are plenty of other people more qualified than me to do that, so I'll try to keep this brief.

Given that user participation is what sets computer games apart from most other media (with the slight exception of pantomimes, I guess), I think it's natural to be tempted by the whole Only You Can Save Mankind idea (to borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett), but it actually has a lot of drawbacks to it in any game with significant story elements or character interaction. Foremost is that, ultimately, you will have to make decisions for the player, which may not be the ones that they would make.

Thinking about this, I was also surprised to reach a new understanding of how some of my favourite games have tackled this problem. Take the Half Life series, for example: first person shooters that put you in the HEV suit of perpetually silent Gordon Freeman. If he's silent so that I think he's me, I've often wondered, why is he Gordon Freeman, bearded white male physicist? His likeness doesn't appear anywhere in the game, so why not leave him a complete blank? But even if he wasn't defined as a bearded white male, he'd still be defined as a person who does a lot of other things – a person who takes orders from random scientists, who likes shooting people and hitting things with a crowbar, who generally comes up with specific solutions to specific problems (e.g. jump over that ramp in a car rather than find an alternate route). That's not necessarily who the player is. By keeping Gordon silent, I don't think the designers of the Half Life games are trying to make you believe that Gordon Freeman is you, but instead to remove the barriers preventing you from thinking of yourself as Gordon Freeman.

I think that when it comes to how much bang you get for your buck (or how powerful a storyline you get for the effort you put into coding the game), it's much more efficient to make the player identify with a strong main character than to try and put the player into your game. This character can play by your rules, whereas, well, who is the player? How can you be certain you won't make any assumptions that they will find frustrating (or offensive)?

That's not to say that you can't do story-driven games where the player is allowed to express their personality. Many interactive fiction games feature an 'everyman/woman' protagonist, who must solve practical problems to progress through the game, but is allowed to form their own moral and emotional reaction to events. Probably the best examples of going the whole slog of allowing the player to do whatever they want (with very few limitations) are world-building strategy games like Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, in which you can choose to create a repressive police state or a commune of tree-hugging hippies as you prefer. It's telling that this works well as a device for encouraging the player to be themselves, because whenever I start the game trying to create a police state, my conscience always chips away at me until my repressed drones are running free and barefoot in ecologically friendly gardens.

One last thing I want to mention: Super Robot Wars 3, which I may have mentioned has inspired the basic gameplay mechanics behind TBTBSG, has one of the weirdest approaches to player involvement that I've seen - in that it systematically effaces the player. First up, the game has a large cast of characters with no specific lead to identify with. And then, although it allows the player to make choices about how to progress through a branching storyline, as soon as the player has made that choice, the game then pretends that it was actually a decision made by one of the characters. Hey, I'm right here telling you all what to do! Don't ignore me! >:-\

Oops, that was a lot longer than I wanted it to be! The only thing you really need to know is that Mercury is now the game's main character. We now return to your regularly scheduled broadcast.


Friday Nudity Blogging

Tomboy Ann lets her hair down, while the main character keeps his hat on, in this steamy scene from classic SNES farmboy-em-up, Harvest Moon.

Ban this filth!