As the Olympic torch is a symbol of peace and harmony, so too should it be a beacon of protest against the violence and repression of the Chinese government - and our own governments for their complicity.


A Brief History of Enceladus

The Enceladus Voyeurs

William Herschel

Italy, 1610. The x-ray glasses that Galileo Galilei ordered from the Netherlands have in fact turned out to be a peculiar device for enlarging that which is distant. Turning his telescope towards Jupiter, Galileo observes its four moons, the first objects in the celestial sphere to conclusively be shown to be revolving around something other than the Earth. Some time later, he briefly takes a peak at Saturn, but - confused by its rings - he decides he'd probably be better off observing those burly men rapidly approaching from the direction of the Vatican.

England, 1789. Filled with pride at his discovery of Uranus (though he would fortunately die before it was finally named), William Herschel aims the world's largest telescope at Saturn and discovers two new moons, later named Mimas and Enceladus respectively. Enceladus, at this point, and for the next couple of hundred years, was known as nothing more than a white dot. Some further study revealed that it was, in fact, a very white dot. Strangely, the human race remained unmoved.

Robot Visitors

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the great robot exodus began: metal creatures leaving the Earth in droves in the hopes of discovering better working conditions. Voyagers 1 and 2, soliciting employment among the rings of Saturn, took the first close-up photos of Enceladus. Postcards revealed a mysteriously smooth, white world, that was also conspicuously embedded in a diffuse and newly discovered ring.

Could this frigid little ice-ball be geologically active? Is it shooting great gusts of snow into space? How else would its surface be so smooth and crater-free, and where else might this ring come from?

Wish you were here,
Voyager 2

PS. Voyager 1 sends its love.

A Moon's Best Friend

EnceladusCredit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

As the twentieth century drew to a close, hardier robots with a stronger sense of commitment were sent into space. Rovers crawled over Mars until their wheels fell off, space telescopes went round and round the Earth until they threw up, and one very plucky 'bot was even bashed around by material ejected from Halley's Comet. Chief among these dedicated pioneers was Cassini, a robotic Flash Gordon complete with lantern jaw and Italian-American pizzazz.

Cassini showed that Enceladus was indeed geologically active, shooting plumes of water ice into space from its south pole. If the complicated mathematics wasn't enough to convince everyone, the photos were. If Enceladus was perfectly snow white, it was because it was coated in perfectly white snow.

What Lies Beneath?


Attempts to explain such activity on a small, cold moon were now a popular topic in planetary science circles. Was this the result of dry, otherworldly chemistry - or was was it due to more familiar mechanisms involving liquid water? One, clearly over-optimistic model suggested that Enceladus might even have warm, sub-surface liquid water, rich in nourishing organic chemicals.

And then, very recently, Cassini dive-bombed the strange tiger-stripe ice formations on Enceladus' south pole, sucking greedily at the rising icy plumes. It sent whispered word back to its friends on Earth, and just this week we learned that the geysers on Enceladus are rich in complex organic chemicals, and the weather among the tiger-stripes is fine (well, relatively speaking, for a world so far from the sun). The question of whether the processes creating these strange geysers is dry or wet remains a mystery, however - and who knows what further mysteries await around the corner from that one?

This is just one of the countless interesting true stories that took place (and continue to take place) out of this world. We notice it especially because it hints at somewhere we might hope to find alien life, and because it is recent. But it's important not to forget the other stories too. When Cassini, Herschel and I get together for drinks, we find it strange that they aren't more widely known.


A Warm Enceladus Brew

Image source with larger version

NASA's Cassini spacecraft tasted and sampled a surprising organic brew erupting in geyser-like fashion from Saturn's moon Enceladus during a close flyby on March 12. Scientists are amazed that this tiny moon is so active, "hot" and brimming with water vapor and organic chemicals.


"Enceladus has got warmth, water and organic chemicals, some of the essential building blocks needed for life," said Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We have quite a recipe for life on our hands, but we have yet to find the final ingredient, liquid water[.]"

Read the rest.



The Video Game Name Generator Competition has drawn to a close over at TIGSource. I'm kind of glad that I decided not to throw together a last minute entry: there seems to be a high degree of quality and quantity on show.

Also check out TIGdb, a database of indie games courtesy of the TIGteam.


Varied Moon Crowd

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

Quite an anarchic little portrait here of large, ringed Saturn, small orange Titan and smaller grey Tethys.


Titan Underground News

I'm sure you've already heard about the evidence for a sub-surface ocean on Titan but here is the Cassini news item and here is a nice article on it at the Planetary Society.



Perhaps it is better to be un-sane and happy, than sane and un-happy. But it is the best of all to be sane and happy. Whether our descendants can achieve that goal will be the greatest challenge of the future. Indeed, it may well decide whether we have any future.

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Clarke said not that long ago that 2001: A Space Odyssey - oft cited as an over-optimistically named novel - really did come to pass, and to a far greater extent than he had expected. But because we used robots, instead of human beings, nobody noticed...


Honey Nut Loops

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

For some reason this image of a certain ringed planet's encircling detritus looks especially delicious.


Snowball Moon, Lit the Long Way Round

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

Emily Lakdawalla points out this gorgeous early image from Cassini's fly-by of Enceladus. One thing you'll notice immediately: stars*! Cassini was clearly using a much greater exposure than usual for this snap, but why?

It seems that Enceladus was in Saturn's shadow during much of the fly-by - in other words it was receiving no direct light from the sun. It was, however, receiving sunlight that had reflected off of Saturn's rings, off the surface of three other moons, and also light that reflected off the rings and then off Saturn's nocturnal cloud-tops. It's quite the ballet of ice and sunshine, when you think about it.

*At least, I assume they're stars. Interplanetary photography gets a bit complicated.


Shy Moon

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

As Cassini beams its latest data on Enceladus back to Earth, Saturn's other prominent moon, Titan, already shrouded in thick cloud, disappears behind its mother planet.


Gun Mute: Download Now

Gun Mute
A texty shoot-em-up.

As Mute Lawton, a quick-draw gunslinger in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it's up to you to shoot your way through the sheriff's posse of mutants and cyborgs until you reach the final showdown...

-Download .t3 file (600kb) [Random mirror]
-Download zipped windows application (1Mb)


-If you have Windows, you may prefer to download the zipped executable. Just click the link above, unzip the download and double click the application.
-Alternatively, if you're a seasoned IF player, or you're using Linux or a Mac, download the .t3 version. Run the file with an interpreter from this page.


You can find some extras (and some spoilers) here.


Dingy Backstreet Saloon
The air is thick with smoke and precious little light seeps in through the grimy windows. The tables are cracked and uneven - deserted, save one that seats an old, grubby storybot.

A cloaked form leans hunched over the bar, snoring quietly. The bartender, you presume.

>x storybot
A relic from ancient times – a plastic figure vaguely resembling a woman. Its clothes have long since degenerated into rags. You notice a slot in its upraised palm, just the right size to accept a coin. The storybot sits slumped back in its chair, eyes closed.

You are carrying a rusted six shooter and a handful of coins. You're wearing a heavy overcoat, a battered pair of jeans and some sturdy boots.

>put coin in slot
You sit opposite the storybot and slip a coin into its palm. It twitches a couple of times and then opens its eyes with a dry click. With the hiss of unhealthy hydraulics, it sits upright and meets your eye.

Its mouth drops open and a recorded voice emerges. "Hello. Would you like to hear a story?"

"Yeah," you drawl, curious, but not that enthusiastic.

The storybot's mouth flicks open again. "Perhaps you would like to hear the story of Mute Lawton? A quiet man with a passionate heart, he faced great odds with only a six shooter and a steady hand. An execution loomed over him like a black shadow, but his resolve was set."

You look at the storybot more carefully. Could this old contraption have something to share other than the usual fairy tales of the Old World? Did someone reprogram it, or, somehow, did it learn new stories itself? But its glassy eyes stare back at you stupidly. Just a machine. That's all.

>ask about mute lawton
"Yeah," you say, trying not to sound as interested as you really are, "tell me about that guy."

And then, to your great disappointment, the storybot starts to jerk epileptically, its head thrown back, its eyes flicking open and closed. "Error! Story not found. Please download TADS 3 game file or zipped Windows executable as required."

>hit storybot
You hit the storybot's plastic head with the palm of your hand. It ceases moving and slumps back into its chair. Damn it. That sounded like a half-interesting story. You quickly look over the storybot for a way to retrieve your coin, but it doesn't look like you'll be getting a refund. You still have enough change for a drink, though, and that is why you came here.

>give coin to bartender
Sighing, you stand up from your seat and walk over to the bar.

[Gun Mute: a TADS 3 shoot-em-up. Thank you for reading.]

Update: I'm surprised to realise that this game already seems to be all over the Internet. Read more at: Gnome's Lair, Indie Games: The Weblog, TIGSource, the IFDB, Jay is Games and Mobygames.

Click here to read all my blog posts on Gun Mute. (Spoilers!)


Unsuitable Content

Well, I completed the main story of Resident Evil 4, still leaving a fistful of side stories and mini-games to master - and of course I want to play the whole thing a second time with my upgraded weapons. My completion time was 16 hours and 40 minutes (which probably corresponds pretty closely to the amount of free time I've had over the past week or so). I was expecting to get a poor rating, but, hey: no ratings! Which, personally, I think is great. It would be a shame to have such an intricate, expansive world and then encourage players to rush through it.

The, uh, 'not zombies' are fantastic. A heady mixture of 28 Days Later, The Thing and Deliverance - but also very original in their realisation. An intelligent enemy, driven by hatred and manipulated by religion, evoking the unwashed masses of unfamiliar lands, fond of chainsaws and pitchforks, eerily degenerated, prone to obscene transformation... Wish I'd come up with something like that myself.

I particularly love the way RE4 continues the Ada/Leon relationship from Resident Evil 2 (a game I've raved about before). And I liked all the 'good guys', even Princess Useless (or Ashley as she's also known) - although the bad guys were a bit too cookie-cutter for my liking - especially compared to previous Resi outings. Special mention to the two minor male characters: Luis Sera the 'mysterious Spaniard' and Mike the semi-anonymous helicopter pilot.

Like Half Life 2, RE4 also demonstrates once again that there is no excuse for games that repeat themselves (Halo, anyone?). One moment you're barricaded in a besieged house with Luis, the next you're riding a runaway mine cart, or trying to convince a huge monster to stand over the trap door to a molten-iron furnace. You get the impression that if Capcom excluded anything from their brainstorming sessions, they must have been the really out-of-this-world ideas.

The aesthetic is gorgeous - or horrible, rather, but in a good way. Muted palettes, leafless trees, ruin and piled garbage abound. Brilliant use, in places, of dark scenes lit primarily by lightning. The laboratory right at the end (there's always a laboratory at the end in Resident Evil) was nicely grimy, rusted and littered, like a former torture chamber that has since gone downhill.

The game's themes are interesting to boot, like you get the impression the Japanese developers were trying to recreate the neo-con versus Islamic fundamentalist conflict, without realising that neo-cons are mostly fundamentalist Christians themselves. Leon's quip that, "Faith and money will lead you nowhere!" is brilliant, but utterly unlike anything you'd expect to be coming from a clean-cut US agent (although Leon is arguably not so clean cut after his stay in Raccoon City).

Right at the end, though, the sequence after the credits... A game containing, as this does, decapitations, impalements, exploding heads, grotesque mutation and so on - that's all well and good. But right at the end, when Leon re-establishes contact with Hunnigan and tells her she looks cute without her glasses... Absolutely unconscionable. But the game's certainly good enough to overlook it.


Dispatches from the Ringed Planet

A couple of things really worth looking at on the Cassini homepage:

Does Rhea, Saturn's second largest moon, have rings of its own? Some Cassini scientists seem to think so.

And as we come up to Cassini's hairbreadth approach to Enceladus, a nice little video (with subtitles) summarises just why this tiny iceball of a moon is so interesting.


Friday Cast Blogging

The cast of Mission: Impossible (seasons 2-3).


Strange Blue Planet, 142 Million Kilometres

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

The view from Martian orbit: Earth and its companion as seen by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. A good subtitle might be: "We told you the HiRISE camera was powerful!"

Click for the full view. You know you want to.


Landslides on Mars

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

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter chanced upon this rare image of the Martian environment in motion.

Ingrid Daubar Spitale of the University of Arizona, Tucson, who works on targeting the camera and has studied hundreds of HiRISE images, was the first person to notice the avalanches. "It really surprised me," she said. "It's great to see something so dynamic on Mars. A lot of what we see there hasn't changed for millions of years."

The photo has significant implications for the study of Martian geology (perhaps more properly 'areology'), and is damn pretty to boot.


In Which I Join Contemporary Mainstream Gaming

I am now the proud owner of a bouncing baby Wii. Until now, as far as contemporary games go, I've been stuck playing PC games from before the advent of hardware transform and lighting - ie. the most recent games you can play with a typical home PC. I've played Half Life 2, of course, and Sam and Max (though that's edging back onto the indie scene), but it's nice just to have a piece of hardware that can run relatively modern (albeit not as nuclear-powered as those for the XBox 360 or PS3) commercial games without any fuss.

If I'm quiet over the next few days, it's because I'm busy gunning down feral villagers in Resident Evil 4...