Martian Potato Moons

Image source with more information

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provides these two colour views of Mars' moons Phobos (above) and Deimos.

Phobos orbits Mars in a period shorter than a Martian day, so would appear to an observer on the surface to rise in the west and set in the east several times a day. Little Deimos is somewhat less interesting, but at least, unlike Phobos, it won't be smashing into its mother planet in about 100 million years.


Robot Story

No, not that Japanese robot.

Emily Lakdawalla reports that JAXA, the Japanese space agency, have released a strange and wonderful little CG movie telling the story of their Hayabusa probe. It's the tale of a lonely robot, tumbling through space after a difficult encounter with an asteroid, trying to remember how he got there, complete with a semi-original* jazz soundtrack and subtitles providing a bittersweet monologue from Hayabusa himself.

As Emily mentions, this is not something we could ever imagine being produced by the ESA or NASA. But you know what? I think it's great to see one of the space agencies promoting unmanned space exploration in artistic and emotional terms.

Watch or download the movie here.

*The music was composed for the mission, but before it launched. As such there's no, "I've damaged my fuel-lines and can't aim my antenna at home" tune.


Tentacle Girl

Tentacle girl...
She'll entangle you
In her tentacles...
Her tentacles
Of loooooooove



Yesterday I woke up at five in the morning and couldn't get back to sleep. I kept thinking that I wanted to work on my cowboy game. It's tantalisingly close to completion, though there's still a lot of work left to do, not to mention testing. I had to wait a while to start, though, because it was abso-freakin' freezing. My cat was hunched up between my feet, wrapped in a blanket with just his head poking out. I'd have taken a photo but the camera's batteries were dead and I didn't want to search for some more in such arctic conditions.

This morning I woke up at eleven in the morning, did a few things and thought, "No, I'm too weak to face life today. I want to go back to bed." Ever felt like that?

I'm going to work on some of the easier elements of my game, watch the Sunday repeat of Ugly Betty, read a book and entertain my cat -since he's currently alternating between staring at me and attacking the things around the room.

Happy Sunday, folks.

Or is it? o_O


Friday Interactive Fiction Blogging

Masquerade by Kathleen M. Fischer.

From the dark depths of the Space Year 2000 comes this nice demonstration of one way to create compelling, (mostly) puzzle-less IF: by placing the emphasis on making difficult decisions rather than on unlocking doors or navigating dialogue trees.


Birthday 24

It's my birthday. I am 24. I don't want to be 24. It is too old.



It is so cold that even extremely furry cats are wrapping themselves up warm. Or, more accurately, getting their opposable thumbed friends to wrap them up.

"Huh? What are you doing? I'm trying to sleep..."


Earth by Night

Image source with larger version

The image above was beamed back to Earth (as you can see, from not all that far away) some time last week, but I was too busy to post it at the time. This mysterious planet was photographed by our comet-chasing robot friend Rosetta, who was borrowing a tiny bit of momentum from it.

I recommend viewing the high resolution version to appreciate the full beauty of that thin crescent of daylight at the bottom of the image.


Getting There... Again

I shot the sheriff... and I also shot his deputies...

Back on planet Earth, I've been working on my mute cowboy game. I've done a lot of stuff, but there's still a lot more left. Mostly, though, what's left is decoration. In IF, unlike in static fiction, you can't just mention something tangential and then forget about it. You have to anticipate that the player may try and interact with that object in logical (and not-so logical) ways.

And IF isn't just implementation, it's writing as well, with its own unique challenges. When you have a program that spits out text, it can be hard to tell what sentence is going to end up next to what, so, for example, the code that produces the description of the saloon front ends up using the word 'sit' twice in succession (once for the tractor, once for the late deputy - I'm gonna have to change that) even though those two sentences are in completely different files on my hard drive (one for locations, one for characters). The text above should be considered a first draft of the text that'll make it into the final game.

Anyhoo, this is what I've been up to while I sent you lot off to Mars for the week. 'x' by the way, is shorthand for 'examine', if you didn't already know that.


Peering at Rocks

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Image source with more information

As it finished its second Martian year on Mars, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit was beginning to examine a group of angular rocks given informal names corresponding to peaks in the Colorado Rockies. A Martian year -- the amount of time it takes Mars to complete one orbit around the sun -- lasts for 687 Earth days. Spirit completed its second Martian year on the rover's 1,338th Martian day, or sol, corresponding to Oct. 8, 2007.

Exploring Mars on the most human scales yet: the Mars rovers are still going strong. NASA recently (hopefully not too optimistically) extended their mission into 2009.

You can read the Planetary Society's latest update on the rovers here.


What happened here?

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Image source with more information

From orbit, the latest addition to the robot party at the Red Planet, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, gawps voyeuristically into Martian nooks and crannies with its powerful High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. Here it snaps a photo of a feature with the characteristics of water-carved channels, further evidence supporting a wet past for Mars.


Giant Flat Mountain from Orbit

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

Olympus Mons is a mountain of mystery. Taller than three Mount Everests and about as wide as the entire Hawaiian Island chain, this giant volcano is nearly as flat as a pancake. That is, its flanks typically only slope 2° to 5°.

Another image here from the late Mars Global Surveyor.


The Grandest Canyon

From the Viking mission of the 1970s comes this staggering image of Valles Marineris: the largest canyon in the Solar System at over 3000 km long and up to 8 km deep.

The other notable canyon of immense size - that we know of - is, of course, Ithaca Chasma on Saturn's moon Tethys, at 2000km long and 3 to 5 km deep. Earth, by comparison, only sports a small crack of 446 km in length somewhere on its northern hemisphere.


Mars from Orbit

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

With the advent of space travel, our picture of Mars radically changed. No longer were the most memorable features of the planet bright or dark patches like Syrtis Major, but actual geological formations such as Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris.

This particular picture of Mars is from Mars Global Surveyor, which sadly passed into Robot Heaven about this time last year.


Red Pearl

Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Acknowledgment: J. Bell (Cornell U.), P. James (U. Toledo),
M. Wolff (Space Science Institute), A. Lubenow (STScI),
J. Neubert (MIT/Cornell)
Image source with more information

Moving further from Mars, but looking at it with more powerful eyes (the Hubble Space Telescope to be exact), we see a world of ruddy plains, dusty skies and bright polar caps.

You know, I wonder how many people actually have a map of Mars to hand when they need one? I do, anyway, so I can tell you that the bright region is Arabia Terra, while the dark nubbin on the right side is Syrtis Major.


Mars from 80 Million Km

Credit: ESA / MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / RSSD / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA
Image source with larger version

The Cassini Imaging Team make it easy to fall in love with Saturn, but let's not forget that Mars has almost half a dozen robots studying it at the moment. I think we're going to have a bit of a Mars Week on Space Cat Rocket Ship, to try and give the little red planet a chance to catch up with the big ringed one.

This particular image was taken almost a year ago by the ESA probe Rosetta. I posted an image from Rosetta's closest approach here, but this is an equally stunning view from 80,000 times further away (I'm using the distance quoted in this post at the Planetary Society Blog). Mars is the big red blob, slightly fuzzed-up by overexposure.

Rosetta was only using Mars for a gravity assist, of course, and its ultimate goal is to place a lander on the surface of a comet. I'll post some images from less fickle robots over the next few days.


Friday Buster Keaton Blogging

Buster looks through the wrong window in The Goat and winds up in the mugshot of a notorious criminal. This 27-minute 1921 film is out of copyright and available for download here.

For those of you in the UK with TVs, Paul Merton's documentary on Buster is showing on BBC2, tomorrow (Saturday 10th), 6.30pm-ish.

Update: Having now seen Merton's documentary, I can heartily recommend it. I should add that the last half hour consists of a Buster Keaton short in full - its title: The Goat. Huh.


Satellite Canyons

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

Dione's bright canyons lend it a beautifully scarred appearance in this recent Cassini image.

Also: read this.


Aristotle's Incline

Trying to understand how to make a plot.


Abe Lincoln Must Die

Episode 4 of the first season of Sam and Max is now available for free. Go download it if you don't already know why a dog in a hat is the greatest thing ever to happen to the world. Or just mess about with Sybil's matchmaking questionnaire. "An elbow that can connect to the internet!"

And now I feel really guilty for not having finished episodes 5 and 6 yet. Something else I'm supposed to be doing.

Via: this piece of garden furniture.


DVD Review: Russian Ark

Sergei Dontsov as a mysterious Frenchman
In the 18th century, Catherine the Great purchased a considerable collection of Western European artwork, the act that would lead to the creation of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg. One of the largest museums in the world, it centres on the Winter Palace, the historical home of the Russian tsars.

What am I going on about? Well, imagine someone said, “Hey, let's make the State Hermitage Museum into a movie!” Huh? Make a museum into a movie? Books, yes, plays, TV series, comics, radio shows, poems, historical events, even (no, please don't) computer games – but a museum? And yet, that is perhaps the best way to explain Russian Ark: that it is the cinematic adaptation of a museum: its history, its exhibits, its atmosphere, its purpose. Hollywood did something like that, and it was a trite kids' film starring Adam Sandler and Robin Williams. Russians did it, and it was visual poetry.

Following an accident, a contemporary Russian finds himself adrift in time and space. Outside the Hermitage in the 18th century, he wanders inside, finding each part of the museum at a different period of history. A ghostlike presence in these events, his only constant companion is a cynical marquis from Western Europe (Sergei Dontsov). Refined and reserved, the marquis is quick to put down Russian culture and its unrequited obsession with Europe, but he is also a deeply sensual man, unable to resist the delights of high culture.

Tsar Nicolas II and heirs
Russian Ark takes the form of a continuous point-of-view shot from the, well, point-of-view of this drifting Russian, as he follows the marquis through three-hundred years of history, moving from the private moments of royals, to the silence of a communist museum, to opulent balls, to the Siege of Stalingrad. On the way, we pause to look at the paintings and sculptures, suffer the marquis' frequent distraction by 'unescorted' women, and get thrown out of a historical ceremony. I say 'we' because, although this lost (probably either dreaming or dead) Russian often shares his thoughts with us and the marquis, the style of the film unequivocally puts the audience into his shoes. I said this was a continuous POV, and boy did I mean it. Russian Ark was filmed in a single unedited take on a digital Steadicam. At no point do we cut away, spoiling the illusion of our guided tour through the history of the Hermitage Museum. As a result, a cast of two-thousand costumed actors and three live orchestras must perform perfectly, and an unfortunate German Steadicam operator (Tilman B├╝ttner, responsible for the iconic shots of Lola running in Run, Lola, Run) is half-killed by having to lug his equipment on a journey of almost one and a half kilometres.

A young Russian pulls a face at the marquis.
Russian Ark has no real story, plot or drama. It really is as if someone decided to make a film adaptation of a historical museum. The pleasure in watching, assuming you can do without the aforementioned story, plot or drama, comes from experiencing the history of the Hermitage: discussing paintings with the marquis, chasing Catherine the Great through the snow, watching an officer try to steal a dancing partner at a Winter Palace ball. Russian Ark feels as real as any dream - compelling, surreal and evocative.


Squirrels I Have Known

Found on Flickr, I swear this is the same squirrel that once harassed me as I sat in that very park reading a paper and eating lunch. He came and stood on my shoe at one point, and then followed close after me when I fled in terror.

If pigeons are rats with wings, squirrels are wingless pigeons.



Well, it's November. Good luck to all you NaNoWriMo-ers out there.

I'm going to try and make sure I get my mute cowboy game into beta this month. It's, ooooh, I dunno, about half done? The skeleton is there, but it needs a few more bones and a whole lot of flesh.