A New Year

Less than four hours of 2006 left in this time zone. I feel like I should post something profound, but I don't really have anything to say.

Well, if you happen to be, like, my bank manager or something, let me apologise in advance for writing all my dates as 2006 for the next few days... or weeks...

Happy New Year!


Christmas Guest

Announced by the squeals of the bird she killed on Christmas Eve-Eve. I was slow to investigate, she flew off before I could get a picture. When she announced her presence again on Christmas Eve (in the same fashion), I ran to get the camera and snapped off as many pictures as I could. She was right in front of me, huge and powerful - probably the biggest bird this garden has seen since before it was a garden - but on the LCD screen she was a small grainy image, digitally enlarged and half-obscured by smears on the window. She looked around as the life left the bundle of black feathers in her talons, looked right at me a few times, quizzically, and then turned and swept herself away on wide wings.



It's Christmas Eve Eve - the day before Christmas Eve! I hope everyone is experiencing the proper levels of childish excitement. Two of my favourite Christmas movies are on TV today: A Muppet Christmas Carol and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, making it easy to get into the festive spirit.

I'm going to be busy having Christmas over the next couple of days, so let me just leave you with a little treat: fast-talking, bearded American Todd Barber, lead propulsion engineer for Cassini, has a holiday video message from Saturn here, complete with captions for the hard of hearing. It's a video message of alien mountains and organic dunes, which, after all, is what Christmas is all about.

I hope you all have a lovely, stress-free Christmas with much warmth, happiness and consumption of traditional foodstuffs. ¡Feliz navidad!



The holiday edition of New Scientist is out. The headline article is 'Party ferrets to the rescue', and there's a wealth of light-hearted, festive articles - one about kissing, another predicting that developments in recycling toilets will require men to sit down to pee in the near future. One article on bad internet habits is available online. This bit in particular leapt out at me:

According to Jeff Hancock, who specialises in computer-mediated communication at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, the way we act and emote online has implications for our offline selves. In a study to be published shortly, he and colleagues asked subjects to pretend to be extroverted either on a live blog or in a Microsoft Word document they knew would not be made public, and then ran the participants through a personality test. Hancock says the group that blogged emerged as more extroverted than the Word group. He says that acting out a particular personality online reinforces the behaviour, making it more likely to be followed in real life.

The article focuses on the possible negative aspects of this, quite rightly I suppose - but I can't help but wonder about the possible positive benefits as well. I certainly know many bloggers who feel that blogging has helped them to make positive changes in their lives and gain in confidence. Like most technologies, the internet can be used for good and ill.

Best out of the lot (not including the summary of the year in science) is an article on calendrics:

In 46BC, the "Year of Confusion", Caesar made the changes necessary to switch to a solar calendar. He added two temporary months and extended the length of the existing 12 to make that year 445 days long. The jubilant public believed that their lives had been extended by 90 days. More importantly, when 45BC arrived it was back in phase with the seasons.

My first brush with calendrics was reading Stephen Jay Gould's Questioning the Millennium. Interestingly, since Gould was chiefly concerned with the irrational importance with which we imbue the (arbitrary) specifics of dates, the New Scientist article is actually a more thorough explanation of the specifics of how we keep the date in tune with the seasons. Strikingly, we can now measure the length of the solar year with greater precision than the regularity of the Earth's orbit, with the result that almost every year 'leap seconds' are added to make up for the differences. This problem would dissolve, of course, if we were to eschew dates altogether and measure our passage through the year by the Earth's solar longitude.


Carl Sagan

Ten years after his death to the day (and almost 30 years after Sagan filmed this), much has changed. Some things are better, some worse, some just the same.

Sagan would certainly be glad to see that nuclear weapons are no longer a problem. At least, I assume so, otherwise we'd all be talking about them, wouldn't we?

December 20 is the 10th anniversary of the day we lost Carl Sagan. From its founding in 1980 until the day he died in 1996, Carl served as Chairman of the Board of The Planetary Society. The organization lost a brilliant and charismatic leader. I lost an inspirational boss and a good friend.

Louis D. Friedman writing at the Planetary Society Blog.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the day we lost Carl Sagan. He was a true skeptic; a man whose mind was open to possibilities, yet able to cut away the chaff of pseudoscience and blind alleys. Even when facing death — a slow, painful, wasting death — he was able to turn it into a series of lessons on science, medicine, and critical thinking. Many people, perhaps most people, would have clung to any idea, no matter how irrational, to make themselves feel better. Carl didn’t do that. He couldn’t. He not only relied on science, he reveled in it.

Phil Plait writing at Bad Astronomy.

The choice is stark and ironic. The same rocket boosters used to launch probes to the planets are poised to send nuclear warheads to the nations. The radioactive power sources on Viking and Voyager derive from the same technology that makes nuclear weapons. The radio and radar techniques employed to track and guide ballistic missiles and defend against attack are also used to monitor and command the spacecraft on the planets and to listen for signals from civilisations near other stars. If we use these technologies to destroy ourselves, we surely will venture no more to the planets and the stars. But the converse is also true. If we continue to the planets, and the stars, our chauvinisms will be shaken further. We will gain a cosmic perspective. We will recognise that our explorations can be carried out only on behalf of all the people of the planet Earth. We will invest our energies in an enterprise devoted not to death but to life: the expansion of our understanding of the Earth and its inhabitants and the search for life elsewhere.


For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars,; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

Carl Sagan, writing in the final chapter of Cosmos, a chapter entitled: Who speaks for Earth?


21st July 1969

This photo was taken by Michael Collins. Collins is the Apollo 11 astronaut whose name you can't remember because he wasn't the first man on the moon and he didn't have a cool nickname like 'Buzz'.

The Trouble with Rod Liddle

I watched Rod Liddle's The Trouble with Atheism last night. It makes me sorry that I missed Richard Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? as this show was clearly intended as a response to it. I caught the end of the first part of Root where, after a series of encounters with religious nutjobs, Dawkins explained he was going to speak to a more moderate religious voice: a Jewish Israeli who had converted to Islam, and who Dawkins expected to have a sensible insider's view of religious conflict. Instead, Dawkins found himself sitting across a table from the most memorable lunatic of that year in television, a man who responded to one of Dawkins' questions with one of his own: "Why don't you [in the west] sort out your women?"

Liddle's show was an attempt to show that faith is not a problem and that disbelief can be as dogmatic and dangerous as the religions it opposes. I think that Liddle's attempts in this regard can be left as they are. "Atheism is a peculiar thing," Liddle told us early on, "it's a belief in a negative." No, it's just not believing in any gods. It's not peculiar: it's the way you're born. What I really want to tackle here is the reason that I watched the show in the first place, Liddle's rather embarrassing argument against 'Darwinism'.

Thankfully, Liddle, while ignorant, is clearly not stupid. He didn't take a creationist stance at all, instead an eminently sensible (but shamefully ignorant) scientific view of things. Darwin's The Origin of Species is atheism's 'sacred text' Liddle told us. After explaining how Darwin's fantastic intuitive leap described the natural process that shapes the variety of life on Earth, Riddle then claimed that 'Darwinism' is the keystone of atheism - atheists using it as dogma rather than science.

This would come as a surprise to population geneticist George Price. An atheist, Price was one of the main scientists responsible for our understanding of the evolution of altruism. Price was so astounded to see that goodness arose from natural law that it convinced him of the existence of God and he became a devout Christian. It also comes as a surprise to me. I lost my shred of religion while reading Carl Sagan muse about why we felt the need to invent supernatural and mystical ideas with no evidence to support them when such beautiful natural phenomena exist right in front of us.

So why does Liddle assert that Darwinism is such a big part of atheism? The obvious answer is that Darwin showed how natural law could lead to the beauty of the world, without recourse to a creator. This much, I'll agree, is correct. But, before Darwin came along, the lack of evidence for natural processes wasn't evidence for gods. And if we take Price's tack, evidence for natural processes isn't evidence against gods either. Liddle went further, asserting that Darwinism is the 'only' such natural law, and therefore is of fundamental importance to atheism. But what about continental drift? It explains how breathtaking mountain ranges were created by natural processes. Does that mean that before we had evidence for continental drift, that was evidence that Thor chiselled out the Himalayas with his hammer? And does it mean that continental drift is now an important part of atheism?

Liddle also asserted that atheists are taking Darwinism too far. He certainly got a few talking heads - philosophers and historians - to say that, yes, Darwinism is now being applied to things where it has no relevance. What exactly? Liddle gave us only one example: that Darwinism is being used to explain the existence of religions. Specifically, that religions are 'memes': viral ideas that propagate by a kind of 'survival of the catchiest'. Liddle rebutted this by speaking to a Christian immunologist who thought it was preposterous that religions were like 'viruses that infect you in your sleep'. While he was clearly being humorous here, it isn't much of an argument. If Liddle wanted to show that religion isn't viral he should perhaps have shown us how people choose religions by weighing up their pros and cons, rather than just being inculcated with the same one as their parents or culture. I wonder why he didn't? More seriously, he could have looked at the world's main religions and seen which one's have viral characteristics, for example which ones say that you'll go to Hell if you don't believe in them. I don't know, perhaps those ones are actually in the minority. I certainly didn't find out from Liddle.

Most embarrassing was Liddle's attempt to argue that Darwinism is dogma. It's '147 years old', Liddle tells us, implying that it hasn't changed in all that time. He failed to show us images of biologists in labs and jungles looking at nature, then consulting the Origin of Species and going, "Ah yes! It's really all in here!" Again, I wonder why.

It was when Liddle claimed that 'many scientists' believe that there are holes in Darwinism that I expected him to visit the Discovery Institute or something similar. Imagine my surprise when he spoke to an evolutionary biologist, and I realised that he was quite right. The problem is that he was also enormously ignorant. The biologist (who Liddle keenly told us was 'agnostic') argues that while Darwin explained how adaptions propagate, there is another (natural, genetic) explanation for where the adaptions come from. As near as I could tell, Liddle has been confused by one of the genuine controversies about evolution - the respective importance of natural selection and genetic drift. This scientist clearly felt that the latter was the more important - but did not dispute the fact of the former.

Liddle took the information that Darwin doesn't have the whole story as evidence of atheist dogma. Darwin will eventually be 'superseded' by a better understanding of evolution, Riddle asserts, as is the nifty way of science - thus flying in the face of atheists. And therein lies the spectacular ignorance - an ignorance whose perspective I've been writing from since the third paragraph. Liddle must be living in a cave, or have very, very old biology textbooks. 'Darwinism' has already been superseded by better science. In fact, our understanding of evolution is now properly called Neo-Darwinian evolution.

Lets go back to Dawkins. Dawkins acquitted himself very well in the show, but strangely didn't feature at all during Liddle's attack on Darwinism. Dawkins, when writing on evolution (he is an evolutionary biologist, lest you forget), asserts that, from the standpoint of evolution, all that matters are genes*. But hang on: Darwinism is 147 years old… and we've only known about genes for half a century or so! What's going on? Time travel? Perhaps Darwin wrote about genes, but no-one noticed it until recently? Or is Dawkins an anti-Darwinist himself? The fact is, Darwin didn't write about genes, because he didn't know about them. There were also things that he got wrong, and there are some aspects of evolution that Darwin proposed which are now under debate (such as sexual selection). The Origin of Species is not the holy book that Liddle would like us to believe. It's a scientific book, and as such has been tested, altered and expanded upon - by both atheist scientists and scientists of many different religions (although most scientists are atheists). No religion does this with their 'sacred text'.

To summarise:

Liddle says that Darwinism is a fundamental tenet of atheism.
-This is false. The only tenet of atheism is not believing in any gods.

Liddle implies that Darwinism is dogma.
-This is false. We have a much better and considerably different understanding of evolution than Darwin did.

Liddle says that Darwinism will be superseded by better science.
-This is sort of true and sort of false. It has already been superseded by better science.

What exactly was the point of that? I really don't understand what Liddle thought that this would achieve. I half believe that Liddle originally intended to launch a creationist assault on evolution, realised how stupid that would be and then tried to create a more nuanced, (mostly) scientific attack on 'Darwinism'. On the plus side, he may have given some religious crazies a mildly better understanding of biology. I can only hope that someone does the same for him.

*This is of course from the standpoint of evolution. From the standpoint of, say, everyday life, genes aren't important at all, instead things like kindness, sense of humour and taste in movies are what matters. In the same vein, from the standpoint of shampoo what matters is whether you're greasy, dry or frizzy, but this in no way implies that we should segregate people by their hair-type or something. More on this in my next post.


Sunday Scribblings: A Story about Anticipation

My problem has always been that I'm such a fucking optimist. Nothing good ever comes from it. This very short story was made possible by the music of U2 and Miles Davis. Blame them, not me. More scribbles on this theme here.

Five Twenty-Three

Almost six 'o'clock. The sun is low on the jagged mountaintops, deep orange and shrouded in thick grey clouds. The air is chilly, but heat rises from below, from somewhere deep beneath the rolling, ashen landscape of long-cooled primordial lava. A few metres ahead of me, warm water laps gently at the lake's edge. And the occasional splash heralds some lazy movement on the part of the creatures.

I sit on my coat watching the mirror-like surface of the water. It ripples hypnotically, amidst a landscape of rock-strewn waves that have been for frozen for aeons. The far side of the lake is halfway to the edge of the horizon. Between here and there, great herds of the creatures bob slowly on the water, like living sailboats with a coating of translucent green blubber.

Beside me she says, "That was amazing! They're such docile animals! I wouldn't have thought they were capable of doing something so… so… so amazing!" She wipes tears from the corners of her eyes with her thumb. "It was beautiful. And this is the only place left where you can still find them?"

I nod, reaching for my camera, turning it off and starting to fold the tripod.

She rests her head on her knees. "Humans must be stupid. That we'd not care about destroying something so beautiful."

A gust of wind ploughs in from one side, sending a cascade of small waves across the lake. The creatures turn languidly - some into the wind so that their crests of transparent membrane don't push them off course, others trying to catch more of the breeze to propel themselves across the surface of the water.

She turns to me and pulls on my sleeve. "How often do they do that?" she asks.

"Every day at five twenty-three," I tell her.

"So if I come here at that time tomorrow, I'll see it again? But does it get old the more you see it?"

I laugh and shake my head. "No, it's different every time."

"Wow," she says softly. "But always this beautiful?"

I dry my eyes on my handkerchief and blow my nose. "Always this beautiful."

"Will you be here tomorrow?" she asks.

I carefully slide my camera into its bag. "Of course. I always have to be here. Someone has to record all this before it's gone for good."

She stands, unsteadily, stretching her legs. "I have to go, I'm already late. Would you mind if I came here tomorrow?"

"Don't worry about me. You can do whatever you want, as long as you don't disturb them." I gesture to the nearest bobbing creature as it sifts the murky water with its soft tentacles.

She nods. "I can't wait. The day at work always seems to take so long. This'll only make it seem so much longer."

We exchange a little more small talk and then she leaves with a little smile. I hear her clambering over loose rocks behind me in her oversized Wellington boots. I watch the creatures as they slowly start to turn side-on to the setting sun, trying to catch the last warm rays of ruddy light. New behaviour, a response to the way the water's increasing pH breaks down the crest's thin membrane, makes it harder for them to cope with changes in temperature.

The days seem long to my new friend, but to me they go too quickly.


Weirdness O' Six

Via Roadchick:

Here are the rules: Each player of this game starts with the "6 Weird Things about You." People who get tagged need to write a blog of their own 6 weird things as well as state this rule clearly. In the end, you need to choose 6 people to be tagged and list their names. Don't forget to leave a comment that says 'you are tagged' in their comments and tell them to read your blog!"

Six Weird Things About Me:

I actually found this very hard to write. My weirdness is too diffuse and profound to narrow down like this.

1. I’m a mild hypochondriac. I expect to drop dead of twenty different things any day now.

2. When cats meow at me, I can’t help but meow back.

3. According to this ruler, my wrists are about 5cm wide at the narrowest point. That can’t be right!

4. I hated playing tag as a kid, because I always got tagged and then couldn’t tag anyone else.

5. I also hated making things from papier mache. It made me cry.

6. I am painfully shy and you scare me.

I have decided to tag... Um, well, I know that Diddums has already done this meme twice or more. In fact, I think that I am probably one of the last bloggers in the world to catch this meme. If there is anyone else out there who has missed it, I have six of them to send your way - but no more!



G[eorge]: This is where... This is where you're wrong, I, I don't know how to make this any clearer. Let's try this. Write down 1 cent. How do you write down 1 cent?

A[ndrea]: Point zero one.

G: How do you write down half a cent?

A: Uhhh, that would be point zero zero five of a cent.

G: Okay.

A: [laughing] I don't know, I'm not a mathematician. All I'm telling you is I can tell you that with the calculator...

G: Yep.

A: ...and we take the .002 as everybody has told you that you've called in and spoke to...

G: Yes, but...

A: ...and as our system bill accordingly, is correct.

G: But you said .002 *cents*. Why don't you just write it down on a piece of paper. You have .002 *cents* not dollars. .002 *cents*...

A: Right

G: ...times my 35,893. It's a number, but it's still in *cents*. If you quoted me .002 *dollars*, everything is correct. If you quoted me .002 dollars, which represents two tenths of one cent - per kilobyte, then everything is fine. But I wasn't quoted two tenths of one cent, I was quoted two one-thousandths of one cent. I was quoted .002 cents. It's a terminology problem. You guys are quoting .002 dollars as if it's cents, simply because there's a decimal point involved.

A: We're not quoting .002 dollars, we're quoting .002 *cents*

G: Ah, God.. Honestly.

A: I mean the computer is calculating the, the figure here...

G: I know it is, it's... it's a terminology issue...

A: ...and we are calculating the figure here, and we're all coming up with the same thing - except for you.

G: .002 cents is different than .002 dollars. I'm being charged .002 dollars per kilobyte. .002 dollars is one tenth of one... I mean, two tenths of one cent.

A: Okay, well, I mean it's obviously a difference of opinion...

G: It's not opinion! This is.. this is..

A: ...the amount that you're billed for the data usage is entirely correct.

G: [exasperated] Ah, God.. Okay, well, you know what, I'm gonna post this recording on my blog, and...

A: And that's, if that's what you want to do, that's fine.

And lo, he did.

Typepad Really Does Hate Me

I was always under the impression that Typepad was an excellent blog host, but I just keep encountering problems.
We're sorry...

Your comment has not been posted because we think it may be comment spam. We routinely monitor comment activity and block comments that exhibit patterns of abuse. We apologize if you believe you've reached this message in error.

Nous sommes désolés...

Votre commentaire n'a pas été posté car nous pensons qu'il puisse être du spam. Nous surveillons continuellement l'activité des commentaires et nous bloquons les commentaires qui nous semblent abusifs. Nous vous présentons nos excuses si vous pensez que vous avez atteint ce message par erreur.

Lo sentimos...

Su comentario no se ha publicado porque creemos que podría tratarse de spam. Monitorizamos la actividad de los comentarios de forma rutinaria para bloquear los comentarios que muestran signos de abuso. Lo sentimos si cree que ha llegado a este mensaje por error.

It seems that Typepad has banned one or more of the IP Addresses used by people with my dial-up ISP. I got this message when submitting a comment on one Typepad blog, disconnected, re-connected and then re-submitted the exact same comment - and it went through. Presumably because I had been assigned a different IP number. Then, after disconnecting and re-connecting again, I encountered the same problem on another blog.

And I have to love the way they tell me. First of all, no way to contact them and argue my case. Second of all, "We apologize if you believe you've reached this message in error." They apologise if I think it's an error, but of course, Typepad would never really make an error - I just think they have.

I can't even comment if I sign into my Typekey account.

Apparently Typepad has been having problems with spam lately. Well, whether they intended to or not, they've also put an end to their space cat 'problem'. Fuck off Typepad.

Update 13/12
I got a more informative and less rude comment from Typepad this time:

Your comment has not been posted because the computer you are using appears on a list of machines exploitable by spammers. You can fix the problem by consulting the following results:

sbl-xbl.spamhaus.org - http://www.spamhaus.org/query/bl?ip=[ip address deleted]

Not a spammer? You can post your comment by proving that you're a human below.

It's not 'my computer' though, it's one of many ip addresses used by people on my ISP. It seems that some of the people on my ISP are part of a botnet sending spam. This has had some of our collective ip addresses listed on CBL, which seems to be an automated means of tracking which ip addresses are used by spammers. However, as CBL themselves put it (emphasis added):

The CBL is specifically intended to be used to filter email coming into a mail server from the Internet.

In "tech-jargon", it's intended to be used on email going to your MX, NOT your user's "outbound SMTP server", nor for anything other than email.

As this is not a supported use of the CBL, please do not contact us about these problems (unless this is a static IP address that belongs to you only, in which case you should treat this is a virus/proxy infection - see: scanning your machine).

Instead, you should be contacting the provider of the service you're trying to use.

A.k.a. Typepad. The chief reason not to use this for anything other than email is, as CBL put it here, because if you have a dynamically allocated ip address (as I do), it's possible to avoid unwarranted CBL listings with emails - but not with, say, blog comments.

I am seriously, seriously annoyed at a service that would do this. I.P. banning is a notoriously useless and unfair means of controlling those who abuse the internet.


MGS Swan Song is Liquid Spurt

On seeing these images on the news last night, my first thought was that they were from shiny new toy Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. MRO has, however, been wiling away its time taking pictures of the robot party on Mars. The images above, which span a period of four years, are the work of Mars Global Surveyor. NASA lost contact with MGS over a month ago, around the same time as its 10th anniversary. The reason the pictures are so important is that they are the first compelling evidence that liquid water still occasionally flows on Mars. There is a sad, but still slightly hopeful article about MGS at its official site, here.


Dione, Shadows

It seems that some of Cassini's more striking images recently featured in National Geographic. Although none of them are new, this image of Dione against a ring-shadowed Saturn has particularly taken my fancy. If you think you have a handle on this whole 'big balls of rock and ice whizzing around in enormous elliptical paths' thing, please click this image and stare at it until you are suitably befuzzled by the strange and beautiful universe we live in.


A Story about Impersonators

I came up with the last two sentences of this story in a flash of inspiration, and wrote the rest to fit it.

The Impersonators

(An Homage to Lovecraft)

I check that the door is locked for the hundredth time this evening, and that my shotgun is loaded. The sun is low and bloody red, pushed down toward the desolate landscape by heavy black clouds. Wind rushes into the town from the mist-shrouded moors, rattling at broken, boarded-up windows.

I am the only one left in the town. It has stood here for well over a millennium, in various forms. Digging in the stultified soil, amidst the tangled roots of poison weeds and stinging nettles, one may find the decayed remnants of centuries old farming tools, of arrowheads or pots. It was never a successful town, too far removed from the world, too difficult to coax life to take root in its soil, but there were people here for that thousand years, and they were as happy as people are.

But then, almost thirty years ago, they began to come. They never spoke, made little impression with their sickly features and quiet murmurs. And yet, with their strange and hideous garb and their disturbing midnight gyrations, they unsettled the local population, striking some instinctual notion of wrongness and revulsion. As the extent of their profane practices came to light, people began to flee in horror. Gradually, the natives all moved away.

The newcomers kept coming, from all corners of the world. Mostly men, but women too. Crossing oceans and mountains to get here - no barrier too great. Sometimes, of a grey evening spent alone, I wonder if they are called here by the strange remnants of prehistoric stone circles that half-protrude from the sodden ground in the derelict town centre. The Romans tried in vain to destroy those structures, to dash them into rubble as best they could, but for what purpose, no-one can discern. Then again, perhaps the ancient people who built those strange altars, in that dark and primordial era when fire was a strange and dangerous technology, perhaps they were themselves called by something deeper and more intrinsic to this landscape. In my dreams I can see clearly that it is related profoundly to whatever twisted perversion of geologic forces led to the creation of the gnarled, black spire of Witchdeath Mountain, that blots out the morning sun 'til ten, and even then casts its shadow over those esoteric and archaic stone relics. But when I wake, the revelation fades and I lose my certainty.

I am an old man now. I saw the town falter then fail. But I will not leave as long as I have buckshot for my weapon and the strength to swing a bludgeon. I may be doomed to lose this battle, but I will not surrender. I cannot give in; I cannot remain true to myself as long as this blasphemy against human civilisation itself continues. And, as my vision and mind fade, and the life leaves me day by day, I realise that my belief in myself is the only thing I could possibly lose.

You see, this town is where Elvis impersonators come to die. The trouble is... they don't stay dead.

Space Cat Laundry Basket

"Unfortunately my mission to Pluto had to be postponed when I was unable to find the 'on' button."

"This image was taken by a paparazzo shortly before I attacked him and stole his camera, which is why I am able to post the picture here."

"Apparently I am gorgeous."


Impulse Buy: Part Deux

It's an ornament for fishtanks. Hopefully, keeping it on my book shelves will not break the Universe or something.


Courtesy of Diddums: a meme of five. Five what? I dunno. Make it up.

So, here are five computer game heroes with dry, gravelly voices and a cynical, wisecracking outlook. Quotes have been provided. Please say them aloud in a suitably Clint Eastwood-esque fashion, and try not to laugh.
  1. Master Chief - "I need a weapon."
  2. Garrett - "Bafford, like most of his kind, probably keeps his treasures on the top floor of the place. Close to his heart...and far from his servants."
  3. Solid Snake - "Liar! I know that Metal Gear is nothing but a nuclear-equipped walking death-mobile!"
  4. JC Denton - "When due process fails us, we really do live in a world of terror."
  5. Any of Bruce Campbell's handful of roles. Eg. - "Next time you pass by and drop in, keep passing by until you get to the river... and then drop in."
Master Chief is the most famous - at least to Western gamers - and, apparently, the least witty. That really was the best quote I could find. Solid Snake wins the award for being the most unintentionally funny. What else can you do but laugh when faced with a line like this, delivered with absolute gravity:

They call mercenaries like us "Dogs of War." It's true; we're all for sale at some price or another. But you're different. Untamed, solitary. You're no dog. You're a wolf.

JC Denton deserves an award of a higher calibre - for what, I don't know. Being able to discuss in-depth philosophical and political points in such a deadpan monotone is definitely a skill in itself, but when that same voice also pulls out lines like this, you realise that Denton is in a class of his own:

Walton Simons: "You take another step forward and here I am again, like your own reflection in a hall of mirrors."
JC Denton: "That makes me one ugly son of a bitch."


O Typepad, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? et al.

Typepad seems to have decided it hates me all of a sudden. On the rare occasion that the comments box actually loads, it then times out when I try to submit it. I get the same thing happening when I try to comment with my old computer so it must either be a problem with Typepad or my ISP. Given that other people are clearly able to comment on the same blogs that I'm trying to, I strongly suspect that Typepad really must hate me all of a sudden. I wonder what I did?

Perhaps I should try and email some flowers to the Typepad server?

EDIT: As mysteriously as the problem began, it has now ended.


Friday Cowboy Blogging

There was something very peculiar about Doc [Holliday]. He was gentlemanly, a good dentist, a friendly man and yet, outside of us boys, I don't think he had a friend in the Territory. Tales were told that he had murdered men in different parts of the country; that he had robbed and committed all manner of crimes, and yet, when persons were asked how they knew it, they could only admit it was hearsay, and that nothing of the kind could really be traced to Doc's account. He was a slender, sickly fellow, but whenever a stage was robbed or a row started, and help was needed, Doc was one of the first to saddle his horse and report for duty.
Virgil Earp


Apologies if I am slack on the posting and commenting at the moment, but I am experiencing something of a low ebb.

In the meantime, read Beaver and Steve.



It's my birthday!
Happy birthday! (To me!)
(This is my brithday song.)

I was a bit grumpy when I woke up today, but I got some nice presents, including, from my lovely mother, a whopping great big Atlas of the Universe - a dense tome of knowledge and imagery amalgamated by the sizeable brain of living legend Sir Patrick Moore. My favourite political dissident bought me the first season of American Dad, which I haven't seen, and which fleshes out the meagre selection of American animation in my DVD collection. Bringer-of-Joy-in-Chief Emily, occasional commenter, also got me the lovely QI book. I love that show, not to mention Stephen Fry. Other dividends included a little Patrick Star beanie and some humorous cards that did split my sides asunder. Seriously.

Mood improved, my reward for surviving for twenty-three orbits of the blue orb is to lock myself away and write feverishly, while my conscience cracks its whip low over my head. You lucky folks may, instead, gaze upon this lovely Cassini portrait of Saturn:



Via Zhoen of One Word.

You can only answer one word. No explanations.
1. Yourself
2. Your spouse
3. Your hair
4. Your mother
5. Your Father
6. Your Favorite Item
7. Your dream last night:
8. Your Favourite drink
9. Your Dream Car
10. The room you are in
11. Your Ex
12. Your fear
13. What you want to be in 10 years
14. Who you hung out with last night
15. What You're Not
16. Muffins
17: One of Your Wish List Items
18: Time
19. The Last Thing You Did
20. What You Are Wearing
21. Your Favorite Weather
22. Your Favorite Book
23. The Last Thing You Ate
24. Your Life
25. Your Mood
26. Your best friend
27. What you're thinking about right now
28. Your car
29. What you are doing at the moment
30. Your summer
31. Your relationship status
32. What is on your tv
33. What is the weather like
34. When is the last time you laughed


NYT: Iraqis too Stupid and Violent for America's Valiant Atempt to Instill Democracy

I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate the New York Times. Did I mention that my feelings towards that particular paper are less than positive? Well they are.

There's an NYT article published on 12th Nov with the ominous heading of "Stability vs. Democracy". lenin-with-a-little-l does a good job of dissecting the underlying creepiness here. It seems that after the mid-terms there's a new impetus towards criticism of the war in Iraq, but no new understanding of how to do so. Based on this article and a couple of questions by American reporters heard elsewhere, I am going to jump to the conclusion that the US media is now trying to oppose the occupation of Iraq in exactly the same racist, imperialistic and jingoistic terms that it once supported it - probably the only terms it knows.

What I'd like to discuss about this article is the way it casually rewrites history, starting with its header. The article implies explicitly states that, after Saddam was deposed, America immediately set about building a nice shiny democracy, but now, in the face of all those disgruntled natives, they may have to give up and choose a stable country over a free one. For the moment, let's assume that an undemocratic Iraq would be more stable, and would not encourage even more people to pick up arms. This is what America originally wanted.

The elections of June 2004 were originally the time at which America was going to install an unelected 'provisional government' which would rule the country until it was deemed fit for democracy. As the situation in the country worsened, the number of years that the provisional government was expected to rule for was extended. Some powerful Americans started to wonder if perhaps they should just leave it that way, and never hold elections. However, the Americans in Iraq were crestfallen to discover that they were not the ones in charge of the Iraqi people. By and large it was Ayatollah Ali Sistani. And this religious nutcase, from the intrisically-incompatible-with-democracy religion of Islam, was adamant that the ones in charge of the Iraqi people should be the Iraqi people themselves. These Iraqis sure do have a different set of cultural standards to us, don't they! No wonder it was all doomed to failure!

Thanks to the Ayatollah's sway over the Shia people in Iraq and his dogged determination that Iraq should be a democracy, in June 2004, instead of installing an unelected government, Iraq held democratic elections. The US acted like this was what they had planned all along, and most of the media happily reported it this way.

Now that things haven't worked out so well, coincidentally after little matters like America policing the country with guided missiles, we are now being presented with this idea as if it were an uncomfortable but possibly necessary solution to a difficult problem, rather than what they actually wanted to do all along.

Fuck off The New York Times.


Dedicated to our American Betters

Sometimes I get the impression that apparently cash-saving DVD collections are just dumping grounds for discs that can’t be sold individually.* Take this three disc collection of Mad Max films, that just can’t seem to get any cheaper. On the second price drop, I had to pick it up.

But the movies are all in their Americanised Americanized versions for some reason. Hopefully, as far as I can tell, the most damage done to the actual movies is that Mad Max 2 is now ‘THE ROAD WARRIOR’ complete with swooshing metallic sound effect. When it comes to the first film, the movie seems fine, but there is something very unusual about the default settings of the disc. I post the following screen cap without further comment.

*EDIT: Actually, on further investigation, it seems the movies are still in these versions when you buy the DVDs separately.



Celebrating its tenth anniversary, it seems that the Mars Global Surveyor may have hit a snag. Ten years is a pretty good running in my book, but I really hope they sort it out. When it comes to robots on Mars, the more the merrier, I say.

Writing about this in the Planetary Society Blog, Emily Lakdawalla notes that this is actually a strange anniversary to celebrate for MGS. Tenth anniversary, meaning ten complete orbits of the Earth, while MGS orbits a certain other planet. As an aside, she links to this page, explaining the Martian calendar, such as it is.

Solar longitude, eh? Nicely heliocentric. Time to bring our own calendar into the post-Copernican age perhaps?

Here's an image taken by Mars Global Surveyor (of Mars, funnily enough). Visible are Valles Marineris (the ruddy great big canyon) and Olympus Mons (the ruddy great big mountain).
Image source


Two Thoughts on War

A poppy growing in High Wood war cemetery, France.

You were between the devil and the deep blue sea. If you go forward, you'll likely be shot, if you go back you'll be court martialled and shot, so what the hell do you do? What can you do? You just go forward, because that's the only bloke you can take your knife in, that's the bloke you're facing.

We were sent in to High Wood in broad daylight in the face of heavy machine-gun fire and shell fire, and everywhere there was dead bodies all over the place where previous battalions and regiments had taken part in their previous attacks. We went in there and C Company got a terrible bashing there. It was criminal to send men in broad daylight, into machine-gun fire, without any cover of any sort whatsoever. There was no need for it; they could have hung on and made an attack on the flanks somewhere or other, but we had to carry out our orders.

But there was one particular place just before we got to High Wood which was a crossroads, and it was really hell there, they shelled it like anything, you couldn't get past it, it was impossible. There were men everywhere, heaps of men, not one or two men, but heaps of men everywhere, all dead. Then afterwards, when our battle was all over, after our attack on High Wood, there was other battalions went up and they got the same! They went on and on. They just seemed to be pushing men in to be killed and no reason. There didn't seem to be any reason. They couldn't possibly take the position, not on a frontal attack. Not at High Wood.

Most of the chaps, actually, they were afraid to go in because they knew it was death. Before we went in, we knew what would happen, some of the blokes that had survived from previous attacks knew what they'd been through. It was hell; it was impossible, utterly impossible. The only possible way to take High Wood was if the Germans ran short of ammunition, they might be able to take it then. They couldn't take it against machine-guns, just ridiculous. It was absolute slaughter. We always blamed the people above. We had a saying in the Army, 'The higher, the fewer.' They meant the higher the rank, the fewer the brains.

W. Hay, Private*

There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on.

G. W. Bush, Commander in Chief

*Source: 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War, Lyn Macdonald


Sam and Max are back!

When I was a kid, I loved The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police beyond words. Of course, the cartoon show was only the tip of an iceberg comprising indie comics and a Lucasarts adventure game. However, the game is difficult to find in the UK, and the complete collection of their comics is now fetching 175 quid in the Amazon marketplace. What joy, then, to find that the much hoped-for Sam and Max sequel is finally abroad, and creator Steve Purcell is (very slowly) posting new comics to the web. Click the image above to see, or click here if moving your mouse that distance is too much effort.


Thank Fuck for Oni Press

Whenever you're looking for western comics that aren't about superheroes or gangsters, and things seem their bleakest... there is Oni Press, arriving on the scene in its reassuringly normal car, with no rocket boosters or bulletproof windows, full of flawed human beings, imaginary horses, strange monsters and pirates!


Five Horror Films

LISTS! Expect me to be posting a few of these on Space Cat Rocket Ship throughout November - aka NaNoWriMo month. These lists are likely to be personal and possibly obscure and even boring. I find it interesting to compile them and try and figure out my opinions. You may not find it interesting to read them. Anyhoo, here goes: in time for Halloween, five horror films. I don't recommend that you actually watch any of these films unless you have a good idea what you're letting yourself in for, by the way.

5. Perfect Blue

Not a film that I can readily recommend you watch, as it is genuinely disturbing throughout, but I am a fan of director Satoshi Kon, so it made my list in fifth place. I can't say that I'm in a hurry to watch it for a second time: Perfect Blue excels at maintaining an intense and palpable sense of threat throughout - not just a threat to your physical and emotional well-being, but also to your identity and your sense of existence within a coherent reality.

4. The Thing

I only saw this for the first time quite recently. I'd been interested in it for a while, because it seems to be the kind of thi- uh, movie that I'd either really like, or really freak out at. And, happily, it fell into the first category. The Thing is a movie about an isolated group of men, some of whom are not what they seem. So far, so unoriginal, but what sets The Thing apart is the nature of the shape-changing menace and the grotesque forms it takes. The incredible imagination shown by the guy in charge of effects (who was admitted to hospital with nervous exhaustion late during filming) resulted in a warped visual aesthetic that no contemporary movie could equal, stranded as we are between real and computer generated effects.

3. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn

The first Evil Dead film was much too nasty, the third way too silly, but in Evil Dead 2 Sam Raimi managed to create the perfect blend of sheer terror and hysterical comedy. The laughs and scares feed perfectly off one another as, for example, beleaguered hero Ash fights his own demonically possessed hand in a slapstick homage to the Three Stooges, before severing it with a chainsaw.

2. Shaun of the Dead

Two of the coolest things in the world, as least as far as I'm concerned, are George A. Romero's Living Dead films and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's sitcom Spaced. Imagine my quasi-religious ecstasy, then, when Pegg and Wright went and made this fantastic half-horror half-comedy tribute to Romero; defying all previous measures of coolness and setting a new standard for contemporary British movies (it was actually possible for them to be good).

1. Dawn of the Dead

How many times has the word 'dead' appeared in this post? In George A. Romero's anti-capitalist horror, four survivors in a post apocalyptic America find that they have the whole mall to themselves. Cue decadence and callousness as they steadily lose sight of their humanity. On top of that, the dead are returning to life and they only have two things on their mind: eating the flesh of the living… and browsing aimlessly at the shops.


McMurdo Panorama

Spirit, the less healthy of the two Mars Rovers, spent the last southern Martian winter hunkered down on a small hill, its solar panels aimed square at the dwindling sunlight. It wasn't just sitting on its arse and doing nothing, though: it was compiling the most detailed panorama of Mars so far.

This panorama has finally been released, to mark Spirit's 1000th Martian day on the red planet. It was expected to last for 90 Martian days.

Follow these links to read about the story in more detail and find higher resolution images. The biggest image is about 90Mb in size. O_O

Pink Moon

So I'm finally changing from the default templates towards something a little more personal. My webcomics links have taken a bit of a beating - I'll sort them out later. I'm sure you all recognise the world in the header image - it's certainly one of my own favourite moons. If I've never blogged about it before, it's simply because no-one has been there in about 17 years.

Triton is Neptune's largest moon - the third body in the solar system discovered to be volcanically active (after Earth and Io), and the second moon (after Titan) discovered to have an atmosphere (albeit a very thin one). One of the really intriguing things about Triton (aside from the fact that it's pink) is that it's very clear that it didn't form in its present neighbourhood, but instead was captured by Neptune after they had both formed. Add to that the fact that Triton seems very similar to Pluto (taking into account that we know relatively very little about Pluto at the moment) and that Pluto's eccentric orbit crosses Neptune's, and you have two worlds that are apparently siblings somehow.

Triton is the larger of the two, by the way. Just sayin'.

It may turn out, once we know more (for example, after New Horizons reaches Pluto), that Triton was the first Kuiper Belt Object we ever got a good look at. If you're interested in getting a good look at it yourself, the full version of the image I used can be found here.



There's a lot left to do. I want to change the template a little - I think I'll need to, actually, to get some of these nifty new features to work. I also need to do a lot of work on categories. As it is, the two main focuses of this blog fall into the categories: Stories and Space.

There doesn't seem to be any real navigation within the categories - it just lumps everything on the same page, so I'll have to try and come up with some suitable sub-categories. I've already got a category for Saturn and its moons, for example.

Finally, my NaNoWriMo blog is up:

The Skeleton God in Oil Paint

There's not really anything there yet, and I need to work on the template for that as well. Good thing I abound with energy!

I'm going to take a nap now.


I'm well Beta Bloggered up, it would seem.

Taking the Plunge Shortly

I'm about to upgrade to Beta Blogger. If you don't hear from me again, or if this site disappears or becomes unreadable (I'm not sure what might happen), you may find me ranting and raving at:


I think that Wordpress isn't as good as Beta Blogger potentially is. How the reality of them both measures up, I shall soon find out.


Lakdawalla Corrals Robot, Quilt

Emily Lakdawalla is back at the Planetary Society Blog. Apparently she left to make a quilt. She's hardly been back, and she's already drawn my attention to a robot that I've missed: the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.

Louis D. Friedman covers the Bush administration's revised space policy. It's not as bad as you may have heard, but it's still made it clear that the Bush administration's first priority is to kick ass and take names - even in a vacuum.

Finally, in the interest of appearing fair and balanced, Bill Nye (who is apparently some famous science guy), in the last blog before Emily returned, turned out to be the only guest blogger who supports Pluto's (and hence a lot of other objects') status as a planet. Read.

So What's Going On?

I have written a few things over the past couple of weeks, but nothing that I've finished. Hopefully this is because I've been thinking about bigger projects and not because what little ability I have has deserted me.

A couple of weeks ago I became eligible to cross to Beta Blogger - something with almost as many good features as horror stories.

As usual, Chuck is the font of knowledge:

The Real Blogger Status
The Real Blogger Status - Beta

I definitely want to be on Beta Blogger - I want to categorise my posts, mostly. Also, there are hints that eventually blogger will try and force everyone to make the switch. Which should be fun given the number of people who have sworn never to go over given the number of problems.

But my plan is to first establish a blog on another host. If Blogspot decides to eat Space Cat Rocket Ship or something, then hopefully you should still know where to find me.

Either way, over the next few days, I'll have a blog up for my impending NaNoWriMo, um... novel. Between now and November I'll post a back cover blurb of sorts, and a few pictures/diagrams.


Imitation; Flattery

Whenever I read the words of an American who needs medical treatment (perhaps even life-saving medical treatment) but has to pay for it, and is struggling to afford the cost (if they can afford it at all) it makes me so happy that the two main parties in the UK (the right-of-centre one and the far-right one) are doing all they can to change our out-dated public healthcare system to a more advanced, free-market model. That's what I call progress!


Retro Photo Quest: Space Year 2006

For various reasons, I've been looking at images from the 1920s at Wikimedia Commons. Here's something I found that I really like in and of itself:

Feeling down? Learn some science, foo'!

In context, given that this is a page from a 'sex hygiene manual' which includes other illustrations such as 'women love he-men', I believe that the 'natural laws' in question may actually be heteronormative standards. Which only makes my materialist perversion of this image all the sweeter, I think.

This is gorgeousness on a gold-plated stick:

A photograph illustrating the popular 'bob' hairstyle. No idea who she is, but she's certainly beautiful.

Are your children tired and cranky? Jayne's Vermifuge is the answer!

Click here to view this image. For some reason blogger decided to create a .png thumbnail with a huge filesize. I love blogger for giving us no control whatsoever over compression - especially because it always seems to do it way too much or way too little!

Look at these cuties:

Some teenage Minnesotans in 1924.

This one caught my eye, for obvious reasons:

Robert Goddard posing by his invention, the liquid-fuelled rocket. It'll never amount to anything, I tells ya!


Tennessee Cat Rocket Prize

Hooray! My fantabulous prize package is here, all the way from Nashville, Tennessee! Including a copy of The Independent Wife, so I can finally find out if human will triumph over tentacled sky-being!

There's also a sticker bearing the logo of something called Waylon Jennings, which I imagine is some relation or other of Waylon Smithers. I love sticking stuff on things, so I'll be sure to put that to good use.

Best of all though, is a Moleskine notebook. It's rather lovely, I have to say. I know it's just a notebook, but I'm reluctant to take it out of the packaging and do anything with it. I could only spoil it. O_O

Thank you, Roadchick. Your coolness tends towards positive infinity.


Edgar Wright + Simon Pegg = Happy Pacian

Hot Fuzz Teaser Trailers

Watch them both. That is all.

I :-) This Campaign

Banksy once expressed something about how big companies are allowed to cover the city in eye-catching images, but individual citizens are not. Here's an interesting way of bridging the gap, courtesy of the Wooster Collective: a campaign where people put stickers on advertising posters saying what they think about them. See some examples here.


LOLs of the OLiest Kind

On Friday Tinker asked us to make someone laugh. Unfortunately, through a freak of genetics, I was born without a sense of humour. I do, however, know someone who was born with a great sense of humour.

Five minutes from the finale of Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr, re-edited slightly to fit an Orbital remix of the Doctor Who theme:

And three minutes from the opening of Keaton's The Playhouse, set to Bentley Rhythm Ace:


Who's That?

It's been a while since I've drawn anything seriously, but yesterday I was suddenly struck by the desire to draw something for my NaNoWriMo story. It's not finished yet - I'm probably going to change the hair and the coat, and it needs to be shaded, and the bird needs another foot, but I thought I'd scan it before I accidentally ruined it somehow.

Who is it? Well, it's Cubi from my Story about a Mechanical Egg. That story is little more than 'plotless, phantasmagoric nonsense', and I did enjoy coming up with a whole world and then casually discarding it at the end of the story, but it does seem a shame to let the setting go to waste, so I will be using Cubi's world (slightly modified) for NaNoWriMo.

I have a little black book that I have been filling with notes on Cubi's world, starting with a little map. I've been trying to flesh out the different characters and cultures and come up with a feel for the story. I've also tried to come up with as many mysterious plot elements as I can so that I can claim suitable foreshadowing for any crazy plot twists or revelations that may necessitate themselves.

And who's the bird? Well, you'll have to read the story to find out. I'm not sure I know myself yet.


Cassini: Best Robot Ever?

Click it to view the big version and receive your daily monthly recommended dose of celestial gorgeousness. This is an image that the Cassini imaging team have apparently been assembling since Cassini was in Saturn's shadow. (Is this the first time I've ever linked to myself?) As the caption reads:

This marvelous panoramic view was created by combining a total of 165 images taken by the Cassini wide-angle camera over nearly three hours on Sept. 15, 2006. The full mosaic consists of three rows of nine wide-angle camera footprints; only a portion of the full mosaic is shown here. Color in the view was created by digitally compositing ultraviolet, infrared and clear filter images and was then adjusted to resemble natural color.

The mosaic images were acquired as the spacecraft drifted in the darkness of Saturn's shadow for about 12 hours, allowing a multitude of unique observations of the microscopic particles that compose Saturn's faint rings.

Earth is visible in the image, and, if you look at the huge version available at the relevant CICLOPS page, you can also make out cute little Enceladus.

The news release that originally pointed me to this image, also mentions that:

The latest Cassini findings are being presented today at the Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting of the American Astronomical Society held in Pasadena, Calif.

Today being yesterday, at least in this time zone. Presumably this means that the rest of us will soon be clued in on the 'intriguing' results of Cassini's Titan flyby on Monday - a flyby specifically looking for lakes. Although, the fact that the first teasing press release about this flyby was entitled: Cassini Flies by Land of Lakes , I don't think it's wild optimism to suspect that they weren't disappointed.


I Could Fool Columbo

I know what you're thinking: no-one could fool Columbo. And you're probably right. The title is just hyperbole designed to attract readers among the murderer demographic, which my statistics indicate I am failing to reach.

I have, however, noticed one mistake that the criminals always make with Columbo. For example, Columbo says to this one guy, isn't it funny that this man shot himself in the head, but there was a drop of blood beneath the gun when we picked it up? And the guy goes, well, maybe he held onto the gun for a while after he died, and then it fell from his fingers once his muscles started to relax.

And the murderers do it again and again. Columbo keeps coming up to them with things from the murder scene that he 'can't quite figure out' and they do gymnastics to try and explain it for him. Don't do that! When Columbo says he doesn't understand, but the car was in neutral, don't say, "I was afraid of this! I think he may have rolled his car off the cliff on purpose! He confessed suicidal feelings to me (and me alone)." No! Instead you say, "That's really interesting lieutenant. What do you think it means?" But they never do. And that's how he knows. Because if you're innocent, you wouldn't go to such lengths to try and explain every little thing away.

Perhaps that's Columbo's strength, though. Seeming simple enough that you don't think he really suspects you're the murderer, so you think, If I can just assuage this one little doubt he has about the case, maybe he'll buy it! And then he has you.


Sunday Scribblings: The Frog Notes Assignment Blues

This week's Sunday Scribblings is an assignment.

This is a proper assignment, you need to take this seriously.

As a character in an H.G. Wells story might put it: pshaw.


This is my notebook, in which I am supposed to note things, such as interesting people I see:

I must confess that I have been lax with my people watching of late. Perhaps it's because I've been in my home town, worrying about myself, that I haven't had much chance to pay attention to the familiar-seeming people who I walk past. Commuting to university was the best time to jot down notes about people, it seems. I always find travelling by public transport relaxing. You can sit back and daydream and look out the window, and it's not up to you if you're late or early. Except when you get bored waiting, walk to the next bus stop and miss your ride.

I have several pages in my frog notebook of brief descriptions of people I saw, trying to distil what it was about them that caught my eye into one fragmentary sentence. With some people it was easier than with others - they are interesting enough to recall in detail, only using my notes as a prompt. Meandering through the town centre one afternoon, for example, was a short, obviously mentally disabled man, the word 'police' written on the back of his grubby beige coat in blue biro. He walked slowly and authoritatively, hands clasped behind his back. When I first saw him, outside some busy shops, a real police officer in a fluorescent yellow jacket was watching from a short distance away. Later, while walking back to uni, I saw him just outside the town centre, surveying a bench and litter bin with paternal concern.

Then there was the Russian man whose phone call I was privy to one day on the train home. I have to say, I don't mind this sort of thing much. The only thing that annoys me is when the train moves through an area with bad reception and you have to listen to them saying 'Hello?' over and over until they get a signal back. My notes read: 'Blond mop of hair; shirt, tie and jeans, has accent - mentions Russian.' He was speaking to someone who was clearly associating with someone he thought was bad news. He was adamant that if his friend saw this person again they should say, 'You are registered for police!' and refuse to speak to them. He was quite resolute that the phrase 'You are registered for police' should be used.

Girls caught my eye, funnily enough, especially those who managed to stand out in some eccentric little way. It's easy to fall for someone you know nothing about and only see once, because you can make up everything about them except the way they acted and were dressed when you saw them. There was the artsy scruffiness of a willowy, caramel-toned girl, her messy hair tied up in a scarf, searching for a spot in the sun. Or the fashion-conscious nerdiness of a girl with knee-high stockings, black-rimmed glasses and a sky-blue coat, walking by a lake.

As well as people, I'd try to note down anything strikingly unusual I saw, especially things that didn't immediately leap out at you - such as the very un-CSI fashion in which a platform was cordoned off at one station I passed through, police tape tied to brooms sticking out of the tops of little 'Caution Slippery Floor' cones. And one day I decided that, rather than paying attention in a lecture, I would try to write in my notebook a comprehensive description of the lecture theatre in which the myriad little things on the ceiling were the true living creatures and the human beings were mere ambience. The lecturer for example: "A bass noise drones rhythmically, and a miasma of dry, factual information seeps through the air, both emanating from the same source." Interestingly, I got a mark of about 30% in that module, and it pulled my whole average down.

Looking over my notes, I can see a wealth of interesting little observations, many of which could happily be dropped into any story from a great height to produce a few pleasant ripples. Suddenly I feel a little guilty for neglecting my notes for the past little while. I wonder how many interesting people and things I've missed out on. The fact that my notes are actually spread out between two notebooks, neither one anywhere near full is also a cause for consternation. I shall have to copy them up from one to the other. And my frog will have to come out of the house much more often. I don't think he'd mind.


Underdog at 297 Kilometres

When trying to think of my personal favourite underdogs, it seems that the poor robots I give so much coverage to on this blog are such underdogs that I plain forgot about them!

Take Cassini for example, consistently returning gorgeous images and interesting finds, but seemingly quite obscure as far as most people are concerned. Spirit and Opportunity are an even worse case. After exceeding their life expectancy by a factor of ten and overcoming calamities and faults, they're still going strong and getting very little press for it.

Imagine my surprise, then, to see an image clearly from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (henceforth referred to as 'MRO') on Channel 5 news late last night. Here it is, Victoria Crater from an altitude of 297km:

What's especially nice about this image is that if you download the full version from the NASA Planetary Photojournal (the image source) and look at the ten 'o' clock part of the crater, you should be able to make out a little rectangular blob with a spiky shadow - our pal, Opportunity. Actually, downloading one of the bigger pictures is recommended; whenever I look at the smaller images my eyes seem to get tricked into seeing the crater 'sticking out' rather than 'going in'. But if I look at this close-up of the south edge of the crater, for example, I can see that this is just an illusion caused by sunlit, crumbly rocks:

And here's a closer view of the little trooper herself:

Again, you'll want to download a larger version to get a better look, or you can take a gander at Doug Ellison's post over at the Planetary Society blog which has some nice close-ups and diagrams.



I'm considering attempting NaNoWriMo this year. If I did, my novel would be something relatively pulpy and aimless. I have at least two three competing ideas for plots - some more well formed than others. The most well formed, I have actually fallen out of favour with. Or rather, it fell out of favour with me.

Still, I am wondering if I'd be better off focusing my energies on actually writing a novel seriously. Then again, I could think of this as a sort of trial run, to learn to focus on writing above any of my other interests and to see what mistakes I make. I'm not really sure, but I'm seriously tempted.

If I do write something for NaNoWriMo, I'll post it to the internet in a separate blogspot blog so that you can all see my shame.


Birthday Boy

Buster Keaton: 111 years old today, and still loved across the world.

(Image from Sherlock Jr)


Lakes, Armchairs, Gas Giants and Robots

After it's recent flyby of Titan, Cassini returns yet more radar images of lakes, including these two 'kissing lakes'.

The one on the right looks a bit like Homer Simpson to me. Not sure who he's kissing though. Is it that girl from the Snoopy cartoons?

Now, what is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter? Well, it's yet another one of our robot friends who we've sent to Mars, and it's just arrived and hung up its coat and hat. Apparently it's also 'the highest-resolution camera ever to orbit Mars', as evidenced by its first proper (greyscale) image:

Rocks and surface features as small as armchairs are revealed in the first image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter since the spacecraft maneuvered into its final, low-altitude orbital path. The imaging of the red planet at this resolution heralds a new era in Mars exploration.

Sadly a big ball of flaming gas is about to get in the way.

For most of October, Mars will be passing nearly behind the sun from Earth's perspective. Communication will be intermittent. Activities will be minimal for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and other spacecraft at Mars during this time, and they will resume in early November.

"Since the beginning of time man has yearned to destroy the sun!" And now I finally understand why.

In other news, New Horizons, on its way to Pluto, sights Jupiter.

And the Planetary Society have another one of their impressively comprehensive updates on the Mars Exploration Rovers.


Sunday Scribblings: A Story About Skin

And Sunday Scribblings did declare: skin.

We like to imagine that our skin is an impermeable barrier between 'us' and the world outside our bodies, that we are completely self-contained. Which is silly on so many levels.

Under Your Skin

I watch through the spy hole as the soldiers come back down. Pressed up against my door, cold wood against my cheek, for some reason I barely dare to breath. They're still wrapped up completely in black gas-masks and thick gloves, strange canisters strapped to their backs that seem to be part of some sort of spray. Pesticide perhaps. Maybe they've sprayed the flat and wiped out all the parasites. Perhaps there weren't any to start with. All I know is that some guy came running down the stairs this morning screaming that there were parasites in his flat. I grabbed my phone right away and dialled zero, zero, zero. The soldiers turned up, and now they're leaving. The stairs creak under their collective weight. Otherwise, everything is quiet.

I'm tempted to open the door and ask them what's going on. But something holds me back. Anyway, if something important was happening, if the building was being evacuated for example, they'd tell us. Instead they seem to just be leaving. Everything must be okay.

As the last soldier disappears down the stairs, I move to the window and wait. After a while I see them emerge onto the courtyard below, filing out in step, climbing back onto their truck and driving off. I look around to see if anything has changed outside. It hasn't. More accurately, it changes so slowly that I don't notice it. The grey building opposite was once bright white. The gardens flanking the street were once dominated by neat, colourful flowers rather than dull, unruly weeds. They didn't become that way overnight.

I hear something out on the landing and race back to the spy hole. A young woman is creeping up the stairs. She's small and pale, bespectacled and dowdily dressed. Her unwashed black hair is tied back in a loose ponytail. I've seen her around the building before, like a quiet ghost. I remember she smiled at me a few times.

She peers up the stairs cautiously.

After a moment's consideration, I unlock the door. She turns towards it and looks a little embarrassed. I undo the bolts and chain and peel away the duct tape covering the gaps between the door and the frame. As I open it I suddenly wonder what I look like. I try to always look presentable, even though this woman's is the first human face I have seen in weeks.

"They've gone," I say.

"Oh," she says. "Do you know what happened?"

I shake my head. "Some guy thought he had parasites in his flat. The soldiers came and went. Beyond that, I don't know."

She looks a little sheepish. She's extremely pale and she rubs her stomach absently.

"Are you okay?" I ask, wondering if she has parasites.

She nods. I start to close the door.

"I'm really hungry," she blurts out. "I have nothing to eat."

I freeze for a moment. Then I open the door wide again. "Come inside," I say.

She smiles apologetically and walks into my flat. I close the door behind her, lock it, close the bolts and chain and smooth the tape back down over the gaps. When I turn around she's examining my place. I can't even remember the last time someone other than me laid eyes on it.

"It's nothing special, but it's home," I say to her back. "I was still moving in when all this happened."

All I have are a few pieces of furniture, an old TV and a load of books. I've read most of them twice.

She looks at my computer - green screen flickering beneath a hood of shiny white plastic. "You work from home," she says.

"Who doesn't these days?"

"Me," she says quietly.

"No wonder you're hungry. You just have the emergency rations? Well, they always seem to give me too much. I've eaten already, but you can have some of my leftovers. I really wish I had something better to offer you than cold chicken."

She turns to face me. The left lens in her glasses is cracked; it casts rainbow patterns over her cheek. "No," she says, "that sounds lovely."

She eats on her lap in front of the television. I sit next to her, trying to remember how to behave with another person. To start with she's self-conscious. She offers me some, but I remind her that I've already eaten. As she starts to nibble at it, though, her appetite takes hold and she's soon gulping it down. I watch spellbound, barely paying attention to the babbling television. I eat three meals a day, so you'd think I'd be pretty used to it. But somehow, watching another person do it is fascinating.

Eventually the plate is empty. She mops up some butter with her finger and licks it clean. I'll hardly need to wash the plate up. She thanks me in the kindest terms and I leave the plate in the kitchen.

Now we're still sitting side by side on the sofa. We glance at one another awkwardly and then look at the television.

The vertical hold is going. I get to my feet to slap the side of the television and the picture steadies, still flickering at the edges. I sit back down, bouncing the cushion beneath the woman, whose name, I realise, I still do not know. From the television screen, a man is facing us. He must be a scientist, because he's wearing a white coat.

"Sometimes you may find that someone in your life, perhaps even a friend or relative who you care for deeply, is asking you questions that make you feel uncomfortable. These question may ask you to reveal parts of yourself that you would rather not share, or they may make you examine your personal values or certainties. Perhaps it feels somewhat like they are trying to get into your head, or to force a change in your opinions."

He walks over to a whiteboard covered in a dense scrawl of complicated equations. "Perhaps that's not actually far from the truth. Government projections indicate that five percent of the nation's population have been subverted by dangerous Zeta Parasites from the southern continent. If you find that someone can't seem to stop asking questions - perhaps even yourself - remember to report it immediately by dialling zero, zero, zero. Help is only a phone call away."

The man in the white coat is replaced by a woman in a bikini. She mops her brow and turns to the camera as if addressing a friend. "Every parent knows how difficult is it is to get enough vitamin Q into their kids-"

The vertical goes again and no amount of banging will bring it back. I turn the television off instead, a little embarrassed. "It's been on its last legs for a while now," I tell her.

"Well, there's nothing on anymore anyway," she says with a smile that seems forced. "It's all parasites and adverts."

"Oh, um, I'm Ashley, by the way."

"Rhea," she replies.

Somehow we end up shaking hands, rather limply. It's not like we met just this second. We start laughing.

"I can't remember the last time I laughed," Rhea says. "I think all this time alone has made me a little peculiar. It's been months since I last spoke to anyone. I'm surprised that I know how. Well, I suppose I have been speaking to myself. I know that you'd think that everyone does it, but I never used to. When I started I thought that maybe I'd finally gone crazy. But it made me feel a lot better. I try to keep as quiet as I can though. If you make too much noise someone ends up dialling zero, zero, zero. But listen to me, I can't shut up for five seconds, can I? Sorry."

"Keep talking. You're more interesting than the TV."

"Now that you put me on the spot, I don't know what to say."

"Will you stay for dinner?"



The vertical has really gone this time. I can't see anything, but I can hear what they're saying.

"So what should you do if a swarm of Zeta Parasites is trying to enter your home?"

"It's important to seal up all the little nooks and crannies that could serve as entry points. It's not enough to just lock your door - you have to block up any gaps around it. Preferably with strong adhesive tape, but failing that with towels or even clothing. That goes for your windows as well.

"If the Zeta Parasites get into your home they'll attempt to force their way into your cranial cavity, where they'll take over your brain and change things to their liking. The people that you love today, you might not love the next day. Your opinions and beliefs would be subverted. You might convert to a different religion. You might even find yourself voting for a different political party.

"If you believe that there are Zeta Parasites in your home it would be best to put an end to your own life, as well as that of anyone else under the same roof, including pets."

"But you do have one last piece of advice for us, don't you?"

"Absolutely. And that is to not be afraid. If we're afraid, then the Zeta Parasites have already won."

"Thank you very much."

"You're welcome."

"I should tell you," Rhea says over the phone, "sometimes I think that I'm a Zeta Parasite."

"How do you mean?" I ask. I can hear that she's watching the same show as me.

"Sometimes… I think that I'm a little worm or bug that burrowed into the real Rhea's ear and took over her brain. Up until that point, I was just a bug, so I didn't really know anything. But once I was in Rhea's head, once I'd destroyed her consciousness and taken on all her memories and personality traits, suddenly I had self-awareness. I looked around and thought: 'What happened? How did I end up here? Why am I trapped in this little flat by myself with nothing to do but read the same books over and over and watch horrible television shows? Why do I feel ill at the prospect of reading my favourite book for the umpteenth time? Why have all my habits and feelings changed? Why am I so frightened of everything?'"

She stops speaking and I gather my thoughts. The television tells me how to eliminate grey hairs, fast. "I think you just don't have anything to think about except things that don't matter. I'll lend you some more books."

"Thank you," she says shyly. "Oh, and, I was wondering if, maybe, you'd like to go on a picnic?"

I don't understand. "What do you mean?"


"I like to sneak up here sometimes. It makes me feel a little less crazy. Like I can really relax when I'm up here. But sometimes you see a helicopter and I think it's better to go inside then."

We're on the roof. The whole town is spread out around us: dirty, blocky buildings and empty, rubbish-strewn streets. Everything is silent. We move like we're in a holy place, whispering under our breath. The sky is a wet, light grey colour. We set down a blanket on the damp tarmac and start eating. It's cold. We keep our hands in our sleeves, holding our sandwiches with just the tips of our shivering fingers. We laugh at how silly we look.

"I'm so glad we started to talking to one another," Rhea says.

I nod and take another bite.

"But sometimes you make me feel bad about myself."

I swallow. "I do? I don't mean to."

She looks off into the sky. "No, I don't mean it's something you do, I mean, when I'm with you I think about all my bad habits, all my peculiarities and flaws. I pick my teeth when I eat, I pick my nose when no-one's looking, I shed hairs like a cat - I'll probably be bald in ten years, I'm selfish, I always have to get my own way and I'm a really jealous person."

"I don't think we'll have to worry about that last one."

She attempts a laugh and then shrugs it off. "I just know that, eventually, I'm going to end up getting under your skin. You seem to really like me now. But maybe tomorrow you'll notice what I'm really like, inside, and you'll start to find me annoying."

"I'd rather be annoyed than alone," I say, brushing her greasy hair back from her face.

She flinches as I touch her skin for the first time. Then she shrugs and smiles lopsidedly.

"I think it's starting to rain," I add.

"Let's stay out here a little longer," she says.

I nod, glad.