Hatak! Hatak! D

Frozen chocolate and Doctor Who are a dangerous mix!

So, there I was settling down to watch Doctor Who last night. The lights were down, the phone was off the hook (look, I really enjoy the show and on more occasions than I care to remember people have called me right in the middle of it, so these days I don’t take chances OK?) and I had a nice big chunk of chocolate to nibble on. This chocolate had (of course) spent the previous few days in the freezer – since the only really civilised way to enjoy chocolate is frozen solid.

So, there I was happily crunching away on a piece of chocolate – one with malt chips to be precise since the supermarket was out of cashew nut – when I suddenly hit a really crunchy bit. Really crunchy. “That’s odd” I thought, and continued chewing. Then I hit another bit. “Right” I thought “I’d better check this out”, thoughts of food contamination and the possibility of monetary or chocoloform compensation floating through my head. I continued to chew very carefully, and when I shortly his another cruchy bit I isolated it and spat it out. To my suprise it didn’t look like glass or grit, it actually resembled a small shard of white china…

“Oh no..” I though and started poking around with my tongue – sure enough it wasn’t china. It was tooth!! One of my teeth!! My first molar, lower jaw, right hand side had spontaneously shed about a quarter of it’s mass, leaving a big, gaping, sharp edged cavity! And since there was no sign of the missing piece (short of the tiny shard in my hand) I’d apparently managed to chew it up and swallow it!! A sonde ka!

Needless to say I didn’t enjoy Doctor Who as much as I’d anticipated.

So that’s the bad news. The good news I suppose is that it could have been worse. Most of the tooth is still intact and it doesn’t hurt – apart from when exposed to particularly hot or cold foods. This is a good thing because the earliest I’ll even be able to make a dentist’s appointment is Monday morning. Hopefully they’ll be able to fit me in and get something done about it ASAP. In the meantime it’s all I can do to keep myself from continually poking at it with my tongue, which can’t be good for it šŸ™

I was going to write a bit about the revised Planet definition (“cleared its local area”? what the heck does that mean?) but the hole is in such a position that my tongue continually presses against it. As its edge is rather sharp this is very uncomfortable – so I’m not in the mood for writing or even being civil to other human beings at the moment >:|

I’ll go now and wallow in self-pity.

PS: What does Hatak! Hatak! D

Spnews! (Space News)

Mars growing to the size of the full moon, and Stargate shrinking to a tiny cultural blip.

Continuing on from my astronomy related ranting from the other day, there’s apparently some emails floating around saying that on the 27th (this coming Sunday) Mars is going to be visible in the night sky at “the size of the full moon“. The fact that people would not only believe this but email it on to their friends with nary a logical thought about the matter only re-enforces my point about the absolutely woeful state of astronomical knowledge in the general community.

Mars is not going to be the size of the full moon on Sunday night. In fact Mars is hardly going to be visible at all on Sunday night, since it’s on the other side of the sun at the moment. If Mars ever was the size of the full moon as seen from Earth, then keeping an eye out for it on Sunday night would be the least of our concerns – we’d be too busy dealing with the earthquakes, tsunamis and tidal surges resultant from such a Velikovskian re-ordering of the solar system.

What’s even sillier about the idea is the implication that Mars would be this size for One Night Only! That’s right, just for Sunday night the entire planet would swoop billions of miles across the solar system to give us a show, then fly back into place before sundown on Monday. If Mars was going to be that big on Sunday it would have been getting steadily bigger over the last four or five years at least – it’d already be pretty much the size of the full moon now people.

The confusion has arisen from some badly formatted information about the close approach of Mars back in August 1993. Someone wrote an article saying that when viewed through 75x magnification the planet would be the size of the full moon. Unfortunately someone stuck a paragraph break after the magnification bit, and so the story was born. What’s really annoying is that this misinformation has been trotted out every August since.

It’s a real shame the public seem to lack the ability to think before hitting “forward” on their email programs. *sigh*

In other news it appears that Stargate-SG1 has been axed. This is sad, but probably a long time coming. Most of the original cast are gone, and (not having seen it it several years admittedly) I believe the plot has been floundering around distractedly for quite some time. In its heydey SG1 was smart, groundbreaking Science Fiction, but those days are gone now and it’s finally time to say farewell to our old friend. Vale Stargate! We’ll miss you and what you used to be.

(I’m at work, writing in my lunchbreak so my time is limited. I may get around to writing a proper Eulogy for SG1 at some point over the next few days. Maybe)

Feet First into the 21st Century

My very first podcast.

Had some fun yesterday helping Ryan set up a test podcast. He’s been wanting to do one for ages and has finally come up with a decent premise (to do with an environmental project he’s involved with), so we recorded some test “shows” and hooked them up with a test website I threw together. It works beautifuly – I was able to subscribe to it through Juice, and when he got back to his place Ryan was able to subscribe through iTunes – so once he arranges proper hosting (it’s parasiting off Wyrmworld at the moment) and records some proper shows it’s all systems go.

Now at this point you’re probably expecting a link to the podcast. This is not going to happen. Firstly the location is very temporary, so you’d have to re-subscribe from the correct location once it goes live for real. Secondly there are only two “shows”, neither is longer than 90 seconds, and the second one features some questionable content about prostitutes and syphilis (in a suitably 19th century context I hasten to add). Oh, and one of them claims Coca-Cola as a sponsor, which is the kind of thing that could get us locked up. So no podcast for you!.

I’ll provide a link to the real thing once they get up it and running.

In other extremely geeky news my Dad discovered a huge pile of White Dwarfs from the mid 90’s in a local charity shop and grabbed them for me. They’re all in excellent condition and buried in the middle were several Necromunda rule and source books, a game I’ve been meaning to check out for years. 48 magazines/books in total – not bad for $40.

Right, better go now. People to email, podcasts to catch up on, magazines to read…

Welcome Back Ceres

Celestial bodies and ugly heads

Wow, not only has Howard had his ‘border-protection’ bill defeated in the Senate, he’s decided to allow a conscience vote on stem cell research. And Attorney General Ruddock has said that if the Americans don’t charge David Hicks soon he’ll get him sent home. I’m not complaining, but who are these people and what have they done with the Government?

Anyway, lots of news this week about the proposed re-definition (well really just definition, since there hasn’t been one previously) of planet. If accepted, this will upgrade Charon, Ceres and “Xena” to planets immediately – giving us 12 planets in the solar system – and stick a bunch more on a watch list for later inclusion if they match the criteria.

A lot of people seem rather upset about this, but I for one welcome our new celestial companions! To my mind the criteria are (if you’ll pardon my French) bloody sensible – they’re short, easy to understand and consistant. There’s a few minor bugs to be worked out (like what about brown dwarfs?) but apart from that they’re pretty much the criteria I would have devised (which is, of course, high praise indeed ;D)

I think most of the uproar over the proposal is being caused by people with basically nil knowledge of astronomy. They learned the nine planets by rote in primary/elementary school, and now find that sacred knowledge threatened by meddling scientists. “Why can’t they leave things alone?!” they wail. They probably imagine that the solar system is a clean, pristene place with the nine planets floating around in serene majesty, and that now these scientists have invented things like “Ceres” and “Charon” just to mess things up. Well, I mean frankly, if you’ve never heard of Ceres then what use are you?

People are also complaining that under this proposal we could end up with dozens of planets. Well yes, and your point is? There are probably about 60 round things in orbit around the sun. What? Are we supposed to ignore the ones we don’t like? They’re there people! Accept it and deal. No one will be expecting little Timmy to memorise all of them for his science test, so grow up and stop whinging!

(Oh, I just thought, there’s probably people out there who are complaining because the new planets will mess up their horoscopes. Given that astrology is either a: a highly intuitive system of knowledge that uses the planets as a convenient source of random data for interpretation, or b: a load of complete bollocks – this can only be a good thing).

Anyway if this proposal goes through (and we all pray it will) “Xena” will become the 12th planet (although with the eccentric orbits of plutons such exact numbering might be tricky). I say “Xena” of course because “Xena” is just an unofficial nickname – it hasn’t got a real name yet. So we’ll need to come up with one. Now, as good as Lucy Lawless was in that episode of Battlestar Galactica, naming a planet after her might be a bit excessive – we’ll probably want to go back to classical mythology. With this in mind I think the best suggestion is Persephone.

Persephone was the wife of Hades (the Greek name for Pluto). She spent six months a year with him, and six months with her mother Demeter, causing the cycle of the seasons (Demeter was a nature goddess, and got too depressed to do her job when Persephone was away – hence winter). Given that “Xena” is so similar to Pluto, and spends roughly half it’s orbit close to Pluto and half away (or so I’ve read) this would be an ideal name.

Unfortunately there’s already an asteroid called Persephone. I propose we rename it. We can call it “Persephonis” or “Persephonae” or “Persephony” or something. Hell, we can even call it “Xena” if necessary. This would neatly free up the name, and set a very useful precedent for any other Kuiper Belt Objects we need titles for šŸ˜‰

(The fact that there’s a planet named Persephone in Firefly has nothing to do with my preference at all. Honestly. Anyway we’ve already got moons named Ariel and Miranda so the solar system is pretty shiny as is šŸ™‚

OK, so the 12th planet is now called Persephone. So what to call it’s moon? (yes, it has a moon). This is currently – for obvious reasons – nicknamed “Gabrielle”. Now if we’re not naming planets after Lucy Lawless we can hardly name them after Renee O’Connor so the name has to change. And I reckon we can be really clever with this one, and rename it “Gabriel”. This is suitably mythic sounding and goes nicely with the moons of Uranus, Ariel and Umbriel.

So, that’s the deal with planets. I have spoken! ;D

On a completely different subject, Channel Ten premiered David Tench Tonight this week, which is a half hour of celebrities being interviewed by a giant, computer generated head (which from certain angles happens to bear a startling resemblance to my friend Ryan). Judging by the huge amount of advertising they’ve been running for it they’re trying to make it a flagship program, which just goes to show how idiotic TV execs can be.

Based on Thursday’s episode, the show has absolutely nothing going for it. The interviews were dull, the jokes were extremely lame, and the only thing that made it even worth looking at was the novelty value of seeing people talking to a large computer generated head. Unless the quality improves sharply it’s going to sink like a depth-charged u-boat. And I don’t see how it can really improve.

You see it’s an interview show, and interview shows are only good when you’ve got a good interviewer. Someone who asks good questions, encourages the interviewee’s answers and make them feel comfortable. Andrew Denton (ironically one of the people behind Tench) and Michael Parkinson are good examples. David Tench is not a good interviewer. He doesn’t exist. He’s a model inside a computer and a guy making lame jokes in a funny voice. The interviews are carried out by someone making exagerated gestures in a video capture suit, with the interviewees having to pretend they’re talking and reacting to the computer generated grotesquerie that gets added in the video mixer – there’s no way anyone could feel comfortable and relaxed enough to give a good interview in those circumstances. The concept of interviews conducted by a non-existant interviewer is one that’s doomed right from the start – just because we now have the computing power to do it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

The novelty value will keep the show running for a little while, and convincing some big names to take part will eke things out a little further (although they seem to have run out of big names on the first night – no offense to Ella Hooper but she’s B-list at best) but it’s a losing proposition. Ten should cut their loses and run (either that or marry Tench off to Yasmin and be done with it šŸ˜‰

Once again I have spoken! ;D

PS: The video clip for the Scissor Sisters’ latest, I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ is brilliantly silly. And it’s not a bad song either.

That’s a bad day, even for a horse!

Ill directed ramblings

Well how about that, Howard’s actually had a defeat in the Senate. Maybe there’s hope for civilisation yet.

Anyway I’m going through various personal crises (dagnabit, is that the plural of crisis? That’s what I mean anyway) which is why there haven’t been a whole load of updates recently. But I thought I’d better keep the side up a bit with a few observations.

Like Helen’s birthday for instance. Happy birthday! šŸ™‚ We had a fairly shambolic webcam conference for her party yesterday – apparently the technology isn’t quite reliable yet. But at least I was able to watch her brother John eat an apple. That sounds ridiculous but think about it. Twenty years ago if you said you’d be able to use a common household appliance to watch someone on the other side of the planet eat an apple in real time they’d think you were crazy, wouldn’t they?

Or the Killers. The boys from Vegas have released a single from their upcoming second album called When You Were Young. This is not in itself a great song, but it punches well above its weight with absolutely spectacular construction. There’s a driving beat, a catchy riff, synth strings, female backing vocalists, a quiet bit in the middle and the lyrics mention both Jesus and the Devil – and they’re all put together with esquisite timing. It’s the best pop-rock song I’ve heard in years – I could easily listen to it at least five times in a row without getting sick of it at all šŸ™‚

In other music news I never realised what a (OK, hideously unfashionable opinion coming up here šŸ™‚ fantastic song Moonlight Shadow by Mike Oldfield and Maggy Reilly is. Again it’s really well constructed and there’s a fair bit of Dire Straits style guitar work going on so I was pretty much guaranteed to like it anyway.

Another couple of recent musical discoverys are A New England by Billy Bragg and Another Sunny Day by Belle and Sebastian. The former has some really clever lyrics, my favourite being “it’s wrong to wish on space hardware”. The second sounds really happy and catchy, but is actually rather melancholy – I listened to it too much over the weekend and ended up rather depressed, so be warned šŸ™‚

Oh, that’s right, Channel Ten’s fantastic new reality show Yasmine’s Getting Married lasted all of four episodes before getting axed (ha!). But what’s better is they’ve replaced it with Futurama! That’s right! Futurama in prime time! It’s a miracle! Of course it’ll only last until they get the next season of The Biggest Loser or something together, but we can enjoy it in the meantime.

OK, that’s all rather incoherant isn’t it? I’d probably better go to bed before it gets worse šŸ™‚

Ontological Neologisms

A modest proposal for a new word

OK, a few weeks ago I commented on wanting to write something about time-travel generated paradoxical information loops. So I figured I’d probably better follow through before the Hounds of Tindalos track me down (OK, I’ve been doing way too much Lovecraft recently šŸ™‚

In Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency it becomes critical for the existance of humanity that the ‘second half’ of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kublah Khan is never written. To this end the characters travel back in time, and Dirk himself goes knocking on the door of Coleridge’s cottage just as he’s writing the poem (which he composed in a laudanum dream) down. Dirk keeps him talking for about half an hour, at the end of which he is unable to remember the rest of it.

(This is all based on fact – Coleridge was feverishly writing down the poem when someone – the infamous ‘Person from Porlock’ – came knocking on his door and distracted him, resulting in the poem remaining forever incomplete)

The important part of this for our purposes is Dirk’s description of his coversation with Coleridge…

“…I asked him at the end about the albatross and he said what albatross? So I said, oh it wasn’t important. The albtross did not signify. He said what albatross did not signify, and I said never mind the albatross, it didn’t matter. And he said it did matter – someone comes to his house in the middle of the night raving about albatrosses, he wanted to know why. I said blast the bloody albatross and he said he had a good mind to and he wasn’t certain that that didn’t give him an idea for a poem he was working on. Much better, he said, than being hit by an asteroid, which he thought was stretching credulity a bit…”

The albatross in question of course is from Coleridge’s other famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which it plays a major part.

Now, according to Adams’ story Dirk knows about the albatross because he’s familiar with the poem. However, Coleridge only put the albatross in the poem because Dirk told him about it. So where did the concept of the albatross come from? Because of the way the information loop is set up there is no actual origin for the albatross information – and yet it exists. Moreso you can point to a time when the information didn’t exist, and then to a moment when it did. But there’s no actual moment of creation. It’s an ontological paradox.

There are plenty of other examples from science fiction. The skynet chip in the Terminator series. The song Johny B. Goode in Back to the Future. Transparent Aluminium in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I could probably list them all day (but why bother when Wikipedia does such a good job?). But that’s not what I’m writing this for. I’m writing this to propose a name for such information. I suggest that a unit of information that (due to an ontological paradox) has no point of origin should be called a cjelli – pronounced “suh-jelly” (this of course comes from one of Dirk Gently’s several names Svlad Cjelli).

So, that’s my neologism for the week!

Let’s Go Literary! (watch out for the shoggoths)

In Antarctica the Elder Things, An eldritch city did decree,Where great and loathly shoggoths played,Through caverns carved and strangely made,Down to a sunless sea…

To continue on from my Lovecraftian ramblings of yesterday – am I the only person in the world to notice certain similarities between Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan?

I first got into Coleridge when I read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by the sadly missed Douglas Adams (the same book also got me into Bach). KK is one of the story’s major plot elements (with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner showing its face from time to time) and the somewhat mysterious reference to the poem’s “second, stranger half” motivated me to actually get a hold of a copy and read it (I was somewhat dissapointed to discover that the “second half” doesn’t actually exist – which shows that I kind of missed the point the first time I read the book). In any case I was soon hooked on Coleridge who remains my favourite poet to this day (I still can’t hear someone talk about atheism without thinking of owletts).

(Hmmm, this talk of Dirk Gently reminds me of another piece I’ve been meaning to write about paradoxial information loops in time travel – like the albatross. I propose we call such things cjellis – but back to the matter at hand…)

So, when I cam to read At the Mountains of Madness some years later I was quite familiar with KK, and noticed a number of conceptual similarities between the poem and the novel which led me to wonder if Lovecraft drew some inspiration from Coleridge. Some brief poking around on the net has failed to turn up any discussion of this subject, so I’ve decided to go all literary and write about it here.

Probably the best way to illustrate my thesis is to run through the text of KK inserting my observations as we go. So strap yourself in kids, it’s poetry time!

Kubla Khan, or A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment. By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan,
A stately pleasure-dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river ran,
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea,

(‘At the Mountains of Madness’ involves the discovery of the ruins of a gigantic alien city deep within Antarctica. From the description of this city “…One broad swath, extending from the plateau’s interior, to a cleft in the foothills about a mile to the left of the pass we had traversed, was wholly free from buildings. It probably represented, we concluded, the course of some great river which in Tertiary times – millions of years ago – had poured through the city and into some prodigious subterranean abyss of the great barrier range. Certainly, this was above all a region of caves, gulfs, and underground secrets beyond human penetration…”)

So twice five miles of fertile ground,
With walls and towers were girdled round,

(More about the city – “…I shuddered as the seething labyrinth of fabulous walls and towers and minarets loomed out of the troubled ice vapors above our head… there were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks… …there were composite cones and pyramids either alone or surmounting cylinders or cubes or flatter truncated cones and pyramids, and occasional needle-like spires in curious clusters of five… …fifty miles of flight in each direction showed no major change in the labyrinth of rock and masonry that clawed up corpselike through the eternal ice…”. )

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree,
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,

(Lovecraft mentions “luxuriant Tertiary vegetation” and “unknown jungles of Mesozoic tree ferns and fungi, and forests of Tertiary cycads, fan palms, and primitive angiosperms” surrounding the city)

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted,
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted,

(Lovecraft describes “…the canyon where that broad river had once pierced the foothills and approached its sinking place in the great range…” and later on “..It appeared that this general region was the most sacred spot of all, where reputedly the first Old Ones had settled on a primal sea bottom”)

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted,
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

(It’s a stretch I know, but these lines remind me of the wind “…through the desolate summits swept ranging, intermittent gusts of the terrible Antarctic wind; whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible…”)

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced,
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst,
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail,
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever,
It flung up momently the sacred river,

(“The vast dead megalopolis that yawned around us seemed to be the last general center of the race – built early in the Cretaceous Age after a titanic earth buckling had obliterated a still vaster predecessor not far distant”)

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion,
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean,

(To quote, “In the course of ages the caves had appeared… with the advance of still later epochs, all the limestone veins of the region were hollowed out by ground waters, so that the mountains, the foothills, and the plains below them were a veritable network of connected caverns and galleries… this vast nighted gulf had undoubtedly been worn by the great river which flowed down from the nameless and horrible westward mountains, and which had formerly turned at the base of the Old Ones’ range… little by little it had eaten away the limestone hill base at its turning, till at last its sapping currents reached the caverns of the ground waters and joined with them in digging a deeper abyss. Finally its whole bulk emptied into the hollow hills… [they] had carved into ornate pylons those headlands of the foothills where the great stream began its descent into eternal darkness…”)

And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far,
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

(The final war between the Elder Things and their shoggoth servants perhaps? This took place in the underground sea. Or just the echoing ‘Tekeli-li!’?)

The shadow of the dome of pleasure,
Floated midway on the waves,
Where was heard the mingled measure,
From the fountain and the caves,
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

(By the time of the novel the entire city is buried in the Antarctic ice cap – much of the story takes place in “caves of ice”)

A damsel with a dulcimer,
In a vision once I saw,
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora,
Could I revive within me,
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

(I could draw an analogy here between the author rebuilding the city after being charmed by music, and the shogoths building the city after being charmed by hypnosis – but that’s probably pushing it a bit isn’t it? šŸ™‚

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

(This could pass as a description of a shoggoth – “the nightmare, plastic column of fetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward… gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, rethickening cloud of the pallid abyss vapor… a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light…)

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,

(Suggesting that this is a reference to the Elder Sign would just be cheeky šŸ™‚

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise,

So there we go, some notable coincidences (and some not so notable). But probably the best evidence that Lovecraft was at least thinking of Kubla Khan in some capacity while writing At the Mountains of Madness is the following quote…

“Many graphic sculptures told of explorations deep underground, and of the final discovery of the Stygian sunless sea that lurked at earth’s bowels”

OK, it’s a stock phrase, but certainly Lovecraft would have known where it came from and must have considered the similarities between his narrative and the poem – at least in passing.

So yeah. Next week I’ll demonstrate how Dracula is based on Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud and the Matrix trilogy on Shelley’s Ozymandius šŸ˜‰

PS: Questions for the advanced student. Where exactly did Coleridge’s dream come from? And do we really want to know what might be living in Lake Vostok? šŸ™‚