Saturday, April 7

From The Culture

I'm worried. In the last eighteen hours, there have been only eight messages sent to the Culture list. On a normal day, you'd be expecting somewhere like twenty times that amount. My suspicions include:

1) Enemy action
2) Independent Singularities forming in the Australasian Pigeon Directorate and the East Anglia Autonomous Region
3) Trebuchets
4) Flaming ass filth (don't ask - if I told you, I wouldn't have to kill you. You'd die anyway.)

Expect more coverage on this incredible silence tomorrow, when I'll be reporting from the heart of the East Anglia Autonomous Region Collective (that's Cambridge University to me and you; I'm going back to college tomorrow).

>> Movie Reviews from Outer Space!

Following on from yesterday's announcement that I'll be looking at the International Space State Expedition One Crew Logs, today we'll consider the astronauts movie schedule for November 2000. The first log entry begins on the 9th November. Predictably, for the first ten days they're relatively busy with getting the space station ship-shape (I'm sure that didn't make any sense, but what the hell) and it isn't until 19th November that they watched The Sixth Sense.

In the IMDB ratings, the The Sixth Sense clocks in at an impressive 36th place on their all time hits. However, apparently 'nobody liked it' on the Expedition One Crew. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Yuri Gidzenko picked the movie because he thought it was the sequel to The Fifth Element. An easy mistake to make, I should think.

Clearly Expedition One's taste for movies was whetted since they proceed to watch LA Confidential on the next day (20th November) pronouncing that '[they] may have to watch this one several more times.' Having not personally seen this movie, I can't comment although I have heard it has a particularly weird plot (and Russel Crowe is in it. That about sums up the total of my knowledge on the movie).

No more movies until the 25th November - obviously a busy few intervening days. Excerpted from the logs:

Watched disk 1 of "Apocalypse Now". Shep tried to explain why Robert Duvall is always wearing the black cavalry hat, but being a Navy guy, he's not sure he understands it either.
There is an ongoing theme of the Expedition One Crew Commander, William Shephard (an ex-Navy guy, as you might have guessed) trying to explain strange military procedures depicted in movies to the Russians. Interesting to note that this movie is 49th in IMDB's charts - the guy choosing the DVDs has good taste.

28th November - they watch Pulp Fiction (18th in IMDB charts). Strange choice for people living on a space station, but I guess that Apocalypse Now isn't exactly what you'd imagine either. Actually, NASA psychologists recommend movies, usually science fiction, where the team bonds together and beats the aliens/the asteroid/the hell out of each other and wins the day. Stuff like Armageddon. This is true.

And that's it for the movies for ISS Expedition One in November 2000! (at least, the ones that they bothered mentioning in their logs). Tomorrow we'll have a look at December 2000; my bet is that they'll have settled into the ISS by now, put up a few couches, ordered the popcorn and are ready to kick back, relax and watch a marathon of chick-flicks and bad sci-fi movies. Until then... Vavatch Orbital, signing out.

(nope, I didn't know what that was about either)

7:00 PM | permalink | discuss

Photos from last night are now online - they're probably not of that much interest to people who don't know me or my friends personally but as always they have huge amounts of commentary and digressions for everyone else. You know it's been a good night out when you initially aim to go to Laserquest, then go to a Mexican bar, McDonalds and proceed to the 24 hours Sainsbury's for hijinks with a digital camera.

11:34 AM | permalink | discuss

Friday, April 6

No doubt this is old news in some circles, but the Crew Logs of the Expedition One International Space Station mission are online and make for some fairly interesting reading. Particularly noteworthy is the sheer amount of films they watch - it must be at least one a day! Consequently I'm going to have an ongoing feature on Vavatch for the next few days where I collate all the films that Expedition One watched, and also their comments and mini-reviews. That is, unless it starts to get boring.

7:34 PM | permalink | discuss

While reading all these stories about how various record companies are forming their own subscription download services and Napsters overrated demise, I can't help reflecting that none of this has actually impacted on my Napster usage. Why? Because out of the last ten songs I've downloaded, not a single one is less than three years old.

Okay, I'll admit that I do download new-ish songs every once in a while but from the view of the record companies, do they really care if people are downloading stuff by BB King or Simple Minds? Not particularly. And even with some of the more well known songs (e.g. U2 'Walk On') I didn't have any problems downloading them.

There might have been a point or moral to what I've just said (maybe something to do with the value of older music) but it escapes me at the moment.

An interesting exchange I saw on the Culture yesterday:

>Roxanne Dunning wrote:
>> >Gryffyd
>> >xROU Prodigal Grandson Gets Evil Eye
>> *********
>> Does it fit?
>It's not quite my style.

Right. I understand. [calls in balletic paramedic and
stethoscopocist] [watches as they peform brilliant pasdedeux with a
variety of lifts and triple toe loops and bunnyhops leading with the
left foot] [and viola - the stringed instrument's beautiful music
causes the Evil Eye to weep copious tears and in doing so, it melts
away like so much icecream on a hot day, leaving grandson washed,
cleansed, soothed, and repaired.]

6:07 PM | permalink | discuss

The Venturestar Group have produced a very nice farewell website for their project to create NASA's next-generation Single Stage To Orbit spacecraft. While I know that the Venturestar was a hugely expensive pork-barrel of a project that tried to achieve far too much, you can't discount the efforts of all the people who worked on it.

12:23 PM | permalink | discuss

In the absence of any original content here so far today, I've gone and updated the Best of Vavatch page with a few of the posts I've made over the last two months. It's worth checking out if you think you might have missed a few days here.

9:56 AM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, April 4

I used to love watching The Outer Limits but now it saddens me to say that its present iteration is a pale shadow of its former (yet still technically second-generation, as in 'colour') self.

[pulls up chair and lights pipe, and puffs thoughtfully]

Why, it was so long ago that I can't remember now... six or seven years, maybe! That's over two thousand of your days, I'll have you know. Anyhoo, back in those days I could remember watching the Outer Limits and every episode - every episode, mark my words! - had a depressing ending. If there was an episode with a happy ending, you could be sure you wouldn't see another one for at least a year.


There isn't a day that goes by without me thinking of the classic episode where the main character is holed up in an alien prison with a girl (and by that I mean a chronologically young girl, not merely a female), and he tells her of how Earth is failing against its battle against these aliens. But right at the end, in order to give her hope, he reveals that Earth has amassed a huge battle fleet behind the sun for one last strike against their enemy. And then... [sob] then the girl was shown to be a spy for the aliens. It was a gut wrenchingly depressing ending. It's on par with the ending where some unfortunate crewmember on a spaceship ends up being confused by the enemy and releases a planetbuster weapon right on top of Earth.

[rocks back in chair, shaking head sorrowfully]

Aye, and to think of the Outer Limits episodes we see now. [snort] Practically every other episode has a happy ending now! I tell you, it's just not done, having happy endings. 'Snot as if they've got any excuse - their budget and their actors are better than ever. They had Michael Dorn (the guy who played Worf in Star Trek, y'know, the Klingon thingummy) in the episode I watched today. And they had some godawful plot premise that had no suspense, no twist and no damned depressing ending - sure, I bet some of you young 'uns would think that the hero dying is a depressing ending. What do I say to that?

I say, 'Pshaw!'

I say that even if everyone in the entire show is killed, as long as the bad guy is killed or foiled, it's a happy ending! I say that unless an entire planet is wiped out, it's a happy ending! And even then they should be doing more depressing episodes!

[grumbles, stands up, grumbles a bit more and wanders off mumbling to self about there being no good TV any more these day, not that these young 'uns would ever understand what good TV is, why, I could tell you a few things about...]

11:01 PM | permalink | discuss

A not particularly representative but nonetheless extremely amusing article by the Guardian about the 'great divide' between Europe and America. An excerpt:


The European view: Expensive, time-consuming, intimidating system allowing rich people to stop everyone else from saying nasty things about them.

The US view: Popular recreational sport, like baseball, allowing Americans to generate a useful second income from spilling coffee on themselves.

6:42 PM | permalink | discuss

Been out for a walk today along the coast, and I've put up some photos along with a fair bit of commentary (both real and imagined) as well as copious amounts of random information and digression.

6:10 PM | permalink | discuss

So I had my interview with Wired Magazine for an article about Mars yesterday; it was quite a pleasant affair and done over the phone for about half an hour. I have to say that I'm pleased the interviewer didn't just ask me what I was doing with regards to education and outreach, but also about my views and opinions on a whole range of Mars topics such as terraformation, colonization, robotic vs. human missions and the possibility of private funding.

>> Terraformation

Basically, this would be the process of converting Mars into a surface-habitable planet through any number of methods including the pumping of greenhouse gases, introduction of genetically engineering micro-organisms and deployment of solar mirrors to increase insolation. My take was that terraformation, while obviously being a huge project, does not pose an insurmountable obstacle. As such, when we finally get humans living permanently on the surface and people on Earth see this, the frontier mentality will kick in; you'll have millions of people willing to risk a lot and pay large amounts just to get shipped over to an uninhabitable planet (crazy, eh?). And when they get there they'll find out that they can't go out on the surface for much time at all because they'll get fried by radiation and develop cancers.

Why do they get fried by radiation? Principally because Mars has no atmosphere and so doesn't have anything to stop the various bits of radiation (UV, cosmic rays, etc) from hitting the surface. What's the solution? Introduce an atmosphere.

I see terraformation as an inevitability - the only thing that remains to be seen is how long, from first settlement, will it take for industrial-scale terraformation to begin. This is something that we can decide, and something that is vitally important. There's a lot of science to be done on Mars - it's a treasure trove of billion-year old rocks from all over the Solar System that can tell us about how planets form and also reveal information about comets and asteroids. By examining geological formations we can gain an insight into how Mars is similar, and different, from Earth - thus we can learn more about our own planet as well. And of course you have the possibility of finding life on Mars, a discovery which would have such incredible implications that I don't really know how to word them. So I won't.

Terraformation would destroy or alter a great deal of the Martian surface and so hinder scientific forays significantly; all of that information would be gone, forever. That's my case for delaying it.

>> Private funded missions

It's been a long standing hope of everyone in the space advocacy community that a 'Bill Gates' benefactor will come along and sweep us off our feet with the promise of, say, $10 billion in funding for a manned mission to Mars. Since this hasn't happened and there are no signs of it happening in the future, I don't really hold out much hope any more. However, it isn't inconceivable that private funding might be raised through commercial deals or contributions from members or various share-dealing shenanigans.

I was asked whether I thought the eventual humans to Mars mission would be a government or private funded mission; now, even if a private consortium raised all the money required to go to Mars (and I have to say that this is very unlikely without the promise of government funded money - which pretty much negates the entire 'private funded' aspect), they would still have to find the expertise, equipment and knowledge to do the mission. And where's the best place for that? NASA.

Any humans to Mars mission will involve NASA and it will also probably involve ESA and the Russians. It will be an international venture, with most of the money and knowledge coming from the Americans.

>> Discontent

The interviewer (a senior editor from Wired) remarked that my views seemed remarkably more conservative than the other Mars Society people he's talked to; I assume that he probably talked to some of the higher-up American scientists and chapter-heads (I'm still not sure how he got my name). They tend to be of the American gung-ho, 'let's terraform the hell out of Mars... blah blah... manifest destiny... blah blah... neocolonialism...' Clearly I don't like this attitude. And even though going to Mars isn't just about the science, in that by going there we have the opportunity to create a new type of society, the science part is still important. I think it's irresponsible to just rush ahead and start terraforming. We have all the time in two worlds; terraformation can wait.

So there you have part of it. We also talked about the preponderance of Americans in the Mars Society and my fear that Mars will end up as an American colony as well as educational ventures and so on. I think it was good to have been interviewed for the article, which is set to come out in June; it seems as if I was the only person who held the view that colonization and terraformation shouldn't be initiated immediately. The Mars movement needs to get the message across that we aren't just embarking on old-style colonialism here, we're trying to do something better than that.

10:51 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, April 3

I haven't finished reading The Martians (by Kim Stanley Robinson) yet, but that's not going to stop me from saying a few words about it here. The Martians is a collection of short stories, poems and semi-factual pieces by Robinson that serves as companion to his original Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy.

First off, it really is a book that you should only read if you have read and enjoyed his Mars Trilogy; over half of the stories refer one way or another to people or events that occurred in the 'main sequence' of the trilogy. I'm sure that some of the short stories would still be relatively good without a prior knowledge of the main sequence but some just wouldn't make any sense. I've read negative reviews from people complaining about this, but you can hardly blame Robinson; the back cover blurb does say that it is a companion to the series.

If you did enjoy the Mars Trilogy, as I did, then you'll definitely enjoy The Martians. It sheds a great deal of light on some of the events and relationships that were going on during the main sequence, but the stories that struck me most were those that were ever so slightly different from the 'true' events. Almost like an alternate history of a future history. At the risk of spoiling the first story for you, I have to admit that the ending really threw me - it wasn't anything that I was expecting.

In some ways, the alternate future histories in The Martians are even more... disturbing probably isn't the right word for it, but it'll have to do... than the alternate histories you generally see these days (Germany winning WW2 is a common alternate history premise); after reading the Mars Trilogy you feel that you really do know that characters and the place, and it's as if you have a omniscient perspective over Robinson's future history - nothing like the confused and badly recorded history that we have in reality. So it's all the more disconcerting to see things skewed just so.

Enough about that - there aren't that many alternate future histories in the collection anyway. A lot of the stories in the collection are simply 10 to 20 page long snippets written about the characters in the main sequence during events that we never really got to read about; with some of them you get the feeling that they were supposed to be in the trilogy but never made it. That doesn't detract from their general quality though. Perhaps the most interesting story is one that features two of the 'bad guys', I guess you'd call them, from the main sequence... they provide an interesting insight into how they felt they were justified in what they did.

A significant chunk of the collection is taken up by a completely new thread of short stories ('Exploring Fossil Canyon', 'Green Mars' and 'A Martian Romance') set on a Mars where the terraforming process has gone drastically wrong. Rather perversely I ended up reading the last story in this thread by mistake since it was included in another collection of short SF stories I've bought recently; however they are standalone so it probably doesn't matter too much. I haven't read the first two yet so I'll have to pass on commenting about them for now.

Something that will interest people who really are into the Mars exploration/advocacy scene is the full text of Robinson's Martian Constitution - it was talked over at the start of Blue Mars but never detailed in full. It makes a fair bit of sense but I'm not really an expert on these matters. However, I did very much appreciate the fact that rather than a set of cast-iron rules, never to be violated, it was instead supposed to serve as a structure for debate in the knowledge that as circumstances change, laws must also change. This is one of the things that irritates me about the American Constitution - yes, you can amend it but there's the overwhelming feeling that it Must Not Be Violated - I generally get this feeling when I listen to propaganda from opponents of gun-control.

In addition there's also a short commentary on the Martian Constitution by a minor character from the trilogy which raises a few intriguing points. It seems to me that Robinson's Martian Constitution could serve as a great point for discussion among space and Mars advocates on the Internet - not necessarily as a 'real' constitution but as something that might point the way forward for what want and hope to do in the future. Unfortunately there is no central point for informed discussion about Mars on the Internet and this is a great shame in my mind. I could go on about this at length but rest assured, steps are being taken to rectify this situation.

One of the very few true standalone stories in the collection is called 'Arthur Sternbach Brings The Curveball To Mars' - this is a nice, folksy feel-good tale about how baseball is introduced on Mars. Since the horizon on Mars is only three miles away and you can hit balls so far with the lower gravity, the baseball diamond ends up being as far as the eye can see. Really makes you appreciate how different Mars is. A rather different story is 'Purple Mars', the last piece in the collection. While not explicitly spelling it out, 'Purple Mars' is an autobiographical story set when Robinson had just finished his book. When reading this story, you get an incredible sense of wonder and you think, 'Is Kim Stanley Robinson really like this? It seems like he's on Mars already!'

He provides all sorts of interesting and amusing points in this last story and it brings the collection to a happy conclusion. It's very pleasing to see that Robinson himself was happy with the trilogy. Still, I hope that The Martians will be the last we see from him about his Mars Trilogy - Robinson has created a wonderfully rich future history of Mars that is unrivalled right now; three books and a collection of short stories is good enough and no-one should want him to keep on churning out more at the expense of quality (not that any great science fiction writers ever do that, of course...)

11:51 AM | permalink | discuss

Monday, April 2

I've just uploaded some very nice photos I took earlier today, including one of myself (sort of). The Culture list has been quite quiet today so there'll be no reporting on that front. I haven't been doing much myself either; tomorrow I should have a review of Kim Stanley Robinson's 'The Martians' and I'm also being interviewed by Wired Magazine about the Mars Society. Fun stuff.

9:29 PM | permalink | discuss

From The Culture

>> Not much really

I have to admit that I haven't been paying much attention to the List lately - much of it has been taken up with discussion of the whole Israel-Palestine conflict and while interesting I don't feel informed enough to comment on it properly. I'm sure things will perk up tomorrow though.

>> The Culture Ulterior

In other words, my own life. I've recently finished reading The Fives Ages of the Universe which is an excellent pop science introduction to astrophysics. Unfortunately, as such I've already heard of pretty much everything that they mention in it (but the information on degenerate matter was intriguing) it wasn't that educational. However, if you're looking for a good introduction that is easy to read, this book is a good place to start.

Something that I read recently struck me - it said that to help the environment, we should buy more things second-hand. This makes perfect sense to me and also has put my usage of eBay into perspective; I've used eBay to buy two PDAs and sell two PDAs in the last year or so. I've found that the people who I buy and sell these PDAs to are often swapping theirs around as well. So there's effectively a great food-chain of PDAs in the UK where people are constantly trading in their old models for newer ones and saving a significant amount of money, to boot (about 40% on RRP, on average). It makes me happy to see this in action.

Of course, there is a huge psychological hurdle in using something like eBay, in that you assume that everyone on the Internet is out there to rip you off. But this isn't true - most people on the Internet are just like you and me. And when you also have the various reputation systems that online auction sites use, it's not such a risky affair after all. My latest PDA selling auction had a winning bidder who paid within 30 minutes of placing the end bid - you couldn't ask for better service. The guy who I bought my new Visor Deluxe from shipped it via Royal Mail Special Delivery (at his own expense) so that it arrived within less than 24 hours.

People are fundamentally trustworthy. And if they aren't, then you can be sure they'll get a bastard of a reputation on eBay.

So. My new Visor Deluxe. It's a very nice little thing and has 8MB of memory, which equates to about 32MB of memory on a Windows CE machine due to the bloatedness of Windows software and document files. It cost very little, lasts forever on two AAA batteries, has a host of very useful applications and also provides me with news from a dozen online sources updated daily. I couldn't ask for more.

12:32 AM | permalink | discuss