Stark Moon, Strange Horizon

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Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Here's a rather stark monochrome image of Saturn's second largest moon Rhea against the western edge of its mother world. A peculiar and evocative portrait, methinks.


"I am a misunderstood robot"

Cynicism is the lingua franca of the modern videogame industry and it is also a heavy albatross weighing down on everyone trying to push the industry forward. [Independent game developer Jonathan] Mak’s demonstration at [the Games Developers Conference] today is, in my mind, the most audacious thing anyone has done at a platform that large, and, if there is any justice in the universe, it will be a historic event. We’ve become obsessed with technology and hyper-classification as the games industry settles fatly into a console-centric medium. In two minutes Mak reinforced everything that is powerful and beautiful about games, in a way that was more immediate and meaningful than a million cutscenes or a thousand parallel processors crunching a trillion polygons each.

Just what did Jonathan Mak do that was so amazing? Find out here.

Hat tip: TIGSource


Invisible Cloud Features

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I've mentioned that Venus, with its obscuring sepia clouds, is one of the most boring worlds you'll ever see from space. That is, unless you're looking in the ultraviolet, in which case the dazzling complexity of its noxious, high-pressure, thoroughly greenhouse effected atmosphere is plain to see. Read more here.


DVD Review: The Science of Sleep

Michel Gondry, who mastered surreal psychology in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind returns with this tenderly constructed portrait of an over-sensitive dreamer. Mexican Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) has moved to France, tempted by his Gallic mother's offer of a supposedly creative job at a calendar company. Staying in his childhood bedroom, he falls in love with his adorable neighbour Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsborough) – but not before casting a pall over their relationship with a mistake he makes due to his tendency to confuse imagination and reality.

The first thing that struck me about The Science of Sleep was its immediacy. Hand-held cameras and natural sound make reality seem just like reality – while steadicams, cardboard buildings and stop-motion animation denote the world of Stéphane's dreams. There's a glorious hand-made feel to these latter sequences, as if each car, cloud and building was created by Stéphane himself from loo rolls, cellophane and glue. If nothing else, it's nice to see some real craftsmanship in a contemporary movie, in the place of the often soulless barage of CGI.

As in Eternal Sunshine, Gondry shows a keen, almost painful ability to convey the ups and downs of love, from moments of energetic creative connection, to depressive, drunken jealousy. As an added dimension, flowing from that comes a perfect depiction of dream logic – barely coherent declarations of love, peculiar causes and effects, arguments based on semantics rather than actualities. At the collision of these two planes is Stéphane, able to imagine his hopes and fears with equal vividness, self-centred, self-defeating and moody – a lot like a certain blogging space cat you may know.

The Science of Sleep had me alternating between being on the verge of tears during Stéphane's painful waking moments of heartbreak, and laughing at the sheer brilliance of his imagination. In places these dream sequences betray Gondry's background as a music video director – but so what? If destroying the world with an enormous plasticine volcano isn't sufficient cause for a rock anthem, I don't think anything is.

Given that the back of the DVD case promises a film about 'imagination vs logic' it's refreshing to see the film take an entirely positive approach to science – musing pseudo-scientifically on black holes and brain chemistry. You have to understand how things work, be able to appreciate the peculiar and surprising before you can create; have to understand a little chaos theory and electronics to make a tiny robot horse – though whether Stéphane actually does make a tiny robot horse is debatable. Stéphane's inability to distinguish reality from dreams overflows into the film itself, especially where he sucks Stéphanie into his flights of fancy – making cotton wool clouds float in the air with a resonant note played on the piano.

With its combination of everyday ambience and out-of-this-world imagination, The Science of Sleep is perhaps the film for the hopeless dreamers among us. While it may not efface Eternal Sunshine in the eyes of many, I found it to be one of the most touching films I can name.


"The Usual Suspects."

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Credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / Emily Lakdawalla

Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society Blog assembled this awesome montage of Saturn's eight largest moons, all to scale. Titan, the big blob in the upper right (larger than Mercury, you recall) is a kind of orangey brown, but other than that, most of Saturn's moons are pretty much identical in monochrome to how they are in colour.

An intangible reward will go to the first commenter to identify each moon - you should know them all by now!

You might also like to check out this article on the Cassini homepage about the 'ecology' of Saturn's moons.

"Ecology is about your entire environment -- not just one body, but how they all interact," said [Cassini scientist Bonnie] Buratti. "The Saturn system is really interesting, and if you look at the surfaces of the moons, they seem to be altered in ways that aren't intrinsic to them. There seems to be some transport in this system."


Across the Martian Canyon

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Credit: ESA/ DLR/ FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Europe's Mars Express captured the original version of this image of Candor Chasma, one small branch of the enormous Valles Marineris, with its High Resolution Stereo Camera. A stereoscopic image contains the necessary information to simulate an entirely different perspective, as above. You can see a number of different views of Candor Chasma here.


What R-Type of Manly-Man are You?

A scan from the R-Type Gameboy manual
In ripping off H.R Giger's art style, does R-Type end up depicting a Freudian nightmare of homophobia and misogyny? Game Cabaret argue that yes, yes it does.


Moon Geography

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Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This image of Tethys shows us its three most notable features. Top left is the Odysseus impact basin - chief reason why, to my great shame, I often have difficulty distinguishing Tethys from Mimas. Bottom right is Ithaca Chasma, the second largest canyon in the solar system after Valles Marineris. Finally, there's a subtle dark band in the middle, like a dirty thumbprint, as yet unnamed.

In other news, rumours are circulating that the American government suspects Titan of harbouring weapons of mass destruction...


Lunokhod Style

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Image credit: NASA or Soviet Union

A post on the planetary society links to this very cool article. Many of my generation may have assumed that the dinky little Pathfinder rover was the first remote vehicle to wander the surface of another world - but in fact the Soviets got there first.

The USSR placed two rovers, or Lunokhods on the surface of Earth's moon early in the seventies. It was also revealed in the 1990s that they even landed a pair of ill-fated rovers on Mars in the seventies - one of which expired after mere seconds, while the other was destroyed in what you might call a 'descent of unplanned rapidity' (or 'crash').

On the one hand, the lunokhods are very cool - not just a milestone in the history of space exploration, but a damn cool piece of retro chic. On the other hand, the Soviet Mars rovers are emblematic of the whole Soviet Mars program: cool ideas that failed spectacularly, seemingly through nothing but bad luck.


Atomic April: A Couplet

Atomic April keeps her brain behind glass.
If you think that's silly, she'll kick your arse...

(May require an English accent to get that to rhyme.)


The Little Snowball that Could

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Few people had probably even heard of it before Cassini arrived, but small, icy Enceladus is now easily one of the most interesting and mysterious worlds in the Solar System. Two new articles on Enceladus now grace the Cassini homepage, and I heartily recommend reading them both. The first concerns the question of why exactly this little moon's south pole is shooting jets of ice and water vapour into space. A subsurface body of relatively warm liquid water seems like quite a good suspect so far, but I wouldn't discount other contending hypotheses just yet.

The second article explains how tiny Enceladus, just 500km across, has an effect on the whole Saturnian system. The ice it ejects weighs down Saturn's magnetic field by creating a "plasma donut" that is then absorbed by the A ring.

"This is an example of how Saturn's rings mitigate the overall radiation environment around the planet, sponging up low- and high-energy particles," says [William] Farrell [of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center]. By contrast, Jupiter has no dense rings to soak up high-energy particles, so that planet's extremely high radiation environment persists.

Cassini will be flying past Enceladus at a minimum altitude of 50km - an astronomical hairbreadth - sometime in March.


DVD Review: The Man with the Screaming Brain

Bruce Campbell is America's most famous jobbing actor. George Clooney regularly spends his millions on developing worthy but unprofitable films. Brad Pitt sunk the relatively low-budget Fight Club by demanding a huge pay cheque. But most actors can't choose projects they like, or make demands. They take small roles in shit films, because they need to put food on the table. Although he may be something of a household name, Campbell identifies strongly with these actors, still belongs among them in many ways. He's also written, in his autobiography If Chins Could Kill, about the importance of actors understanding what happens behind the camera as well. It's no good giving the performance of your life, he argues, if you're not even in the frame.

Reflecting on this, it's hard not to have relatively high hopes for The Man with the Screaming Brain, Campbell's directorial début. The results, however, while they hint at better things to come, are not so great that I could happily recommend this film to anyone but ardent Campbellites.

In interviews, Campbell has shown a far better grasp of plot and character than your typical A-list Hollywood screenwriter, so it comes as a surprise to be faced with the peculiar lack of tension and motivation to Screaming Brain. I think figuring out why might be clearer when you consider that after years of trying to crack the mainstream, Campbell only seems to have recently noticed that he's an icon among alternative and indie film fans. Screaming Brain seems like an attempt to emulate indie films that focus on character and ambience more than plot and special effects, but by someone not all that familiar with how such movies actually work. The situations depicted may be well devised, but all too often the result is more made-for-TV than made-for-Sundance.

The film certainly doesn't work as a whole, nor in most scenes, but it still has moments – often moments that rely either on Campbell's skills as an actor or as a physical comedian. A scene in which his character – a ruthless industrialist who has the brain of a former KGB agent grafted onto his – orders at a restaurant while arguing with the voice in his head and confusing the waitress is particularly well done. Another sequence, which simply involves Campbell staggering through Bulgarian landmarks like a possessed maniac, also displays some rather striking cinematography. Other than that, things hang together pretty poorly, with no real flow to proceedings, either in plot or in tone – a problem exacerbated by the odd bit of sloppy editing.

I like the idea of The Man with the Screaming Brain, and it certainly gets an A+ for effort. I'll be back for Campbell's next effort as actor-director, but I don't expect to pass many people back-tracking to his début while on my way there.

And finally, for once I will actually review the DVD disc in question. Importantly for me, there were no subtitles, whether for the hard of hearing or otherwise. Meanwhile, lurking in the extras is a nice little feature about how Campbell and his co-writer raised the money for the film – a straightforward short that I found more entertaining than the feature itself.



Credit: NASA
Image source

I don't often post images from manned missions - purely because unmanned missions pay greater dividends (and for a smaller outlay to boot). But this image of astronaut Joseph Tanner orbiting the Earth (way back in 1997) is undeniably sublime.


Friday Humorist Blogging

The Indie will never be the same again.