Sunday, 2 December 2012

Some thoughts on The Wire

I had The Wire recommended to me by a couple of friends independently of each other, so I thought I'd take a look. One of them suggested that the appeal of the show might not become apparent until ten episodes in, so although the first couple of episodes didn't impress me, that's what I set out to watch.

It seems evident to me that show creator David Simon was aiming for a highly naturalistic depiction of police work, populated by psychologically credible characters with complex motivations. I think that The Wire succeeds on all these counts. If its depiction of police work is not accurate then it is at the very least convincing to a lay person like me. And most of the characters are well developed and at least somewhat three-dimensional.

However, ten episodes is all of this that I'm going to watch.

Ultimately, the show just never told a story that I was remotely interested in listening to.

While credible, I found the characters to be thoroughly and terminally boring. I never became invested to the point of caring about the fate of any of them. (Oh, OK, D'Angelo maybe). Put another way: I've just come away from watching one of the show's protagonists shot (and, I thought, killed) and it made zero impact on me.

Ultimately, The Wire is the story of a bunch of characters I never cared about, busy doing stuff I never cared about, set in what must be one of parts of planet Earth I find dullest and least appealing. There's no argument from me that it is skilfully put together, but neither is there any reason why I would be interested in seeing the outcome of that investment of skill. It's like seeing those people who build large and highly complex models out of toothpicks or matchsticks: the skill and intricacy is unmistakable, but the end result is almost never what I would consider to be a very good model.

I don't know whom I would recommend this to: probably only people who are interested in police work and who value highly naturalistic storytelling.

While fact-checking the above before hitting the Publish button, I have learned that I was mistaken about Simon's intentions for the show. He didn't see it only in terms of naturalistic police drama, but:
"really about the American city, and about how we live together. It's about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, all are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution they are committed to." (DVD Commentary track, quoted on Wikipedia)
Elsewhere, he says:
"It's masquerading as a cop show, but I hope it's going somewhere else," Simon said during a phone interview from Baltimore, where the series is set"
"This is a testament to middle management in an era where the stock price matters more than the product. Where an employee's loyalty or innate human value matters less than how (they) can be used or utilized." (San Francisco Chronicle)
I can clearly point to specific instances in the ten episodes I watched where this intention shows through, but they are so few and far between that I cannot regard them as meaningful. If that was indeed what he set out to do, then I think he failed. 
In my opinion. The Wire stands or falls as a cop show. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A TV test plan

Recently, I've become interested in trying out some TV shows that folks seem to talk about a lot, even if (especially if!) they wouldn't be the sort of thing I would usually be drawn to myself. (My list of things to sample is here)

The problem is: how to sample a new show? And if it's not the kind of thing you usually watch, how many hours and dollars do you invest to find out if you like it or not?
  • Plan one: read some "top ten" lists on line to find out the episodes that fans of the series regard most highly. Choose one at (semi) random and watch. This was my initial plan, but so many series these days rely on season-long and series-long arcs to propel them, that jumping into the middle of things might not be a good test. OK then, how about:
  • Plan two: watch the pilot episode (or first epsode, at any rate). Presumably, this is what sold the show to the studio and network, so the appeal should be evident, right? However, introductory episodes contain a lot of expository material and might not be really representative of the series as a whole. So...
  • Plan three: watch the pilot episode and a highly acclaimed episode from later in the series. However, when this plan still left me feeling that two very highly regarded shows have nothing at all in them that appeals to me (Breaking Bad and The Wire, FWIW) a friend suggested that these series rely so much on their buildup of characters and plot that they can only be appreciated by watching them in order from the start. In the case of The Wire, he suggested that it might take around eight ten hours for the appeal to become apparent. That seems like a big investment to me, but...
  • Plan four: out of curiosity, I'm giving it a go, and will watch one episode a week for the next six eight weeks (I watched episode 2 today).
(Movies are easier. If, an hour in, I'm asking myself "why am I still watching this?" I just turn it off.)

So my question: how do you assess a show that someone recommends to you? And how much of it do you watch before you give up?

Sunday, 7 October 2012

A new spin on "Breaking Bad"

Recently, I watched a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, since the show has gained such rave reviews. For whatever reason, the series left me cold—I just couldn't seem to care about the characters or their fates.

I've written it off now as "not for me", but I did find myself wondering what the show needed to get me in. I tried to think of twenty different takes on the show that might have got me interested, and ended up with twenty-two. That's two extra story ideas for you! Absolutely free!

I make no claim of originality :) Many of these are ideas that have been explored elsewhere, and some readers will be able to identify the origin of some specific ideas from some of my favourite shows :) Some of the ideas are quite similar to others on the list.

Which one do you like the best? What do you think would be the worthiest repositioning of Breaking Bad? I've created a survey on SurveyMonkey: if I get more than ten responses within the next two weeks, I'll publish the outcome!

1. While scouting out a potential location for a new meth lab in the desert, Walt and Jesse witness the test of a secret hypersonic hunter-killer drone. It isn't long before they're pursued by both the CIA and Lockheed-Martin's own corporate security. They are sheltered and hidden by a group of anarchist hackers devoted to exposing the drone's existence.

2. Walt creates a new, well received, and profitable meth recipe that sells extremely well. Not long after, repeated users begin to suffer from nightmares so terrible that eventually they cannot sleep at all. Death soon follows, with all victims exhibiting the same unusual physical trauma: a small puncture wound in the back of the neck that extends right into the brain stem. Walt is abducted by a strange cult that forces him to continue producing this recipe. As the stars reach a particular alignment in the heavens, the cultists are distributing the drug to humanity, in order to offer the people of earth as a sacrifice to their strange, alien god!

3. Walt stumbles across a completely new drug which even in small doses produces intense euphoria in its users, without any side effects or physical addiction. Moreoever, it can be produced easily and cheaply using home ingredients. Despite his best efforts, the recipe gets out and soon millions of people around the world are spending each hour of the day completely blissed out. As society begins to crumble, Walt searches for a way to block the drug's effects.

4. Driven into hiding in the desert, Walt and Jesse are awakened early one morning by a loud bang. At dawn, scouting for the source of the noise, they find what appears to be a crashed aircraft of unusual design. Searching the wreck for survivors, they find the bodies of creatures of clearly extraterrestrial origin. One of the aliens is still alive but apparently wounded. Despite Jesse's misgivings, Walt decides to take the alien back to their hideout and there nurses it back to health, trying to learn to communicate with it in the universal language of chemistry. Walt helps the alien contact its own kind. When the rescue ship arrives, the aliens offer to repair Walt's body, which he accepts. They also offer to take him with them on their exploration of the galaxy, which he also accepts. Jesse goes along to, against his better judgement, to offer the aliens a contrasting view of humanity.

5. Starts out as above, but this time there is no rescue ship, and the crash has not gone unnoticed. The skies are soon humming with black, unmarked helicopters. Walt and Jesse are now on the run from the US government's alien hunters, while their new friend is still injured from the crash!

6. While exploring some caves in the desert to use as a storage depot, Walt and Jesse stumble upon a scantily dressed woman lying unconscious. They give her water and revive her. They discover that she doesn't seem to speak any English, but using his knowledge of chemistry, Walt recognises some of her words as Greek. They follow her tracks back into one of the caves. As they delve deeper and deeper, they become aware of a strange glow up ahead. They emerge into broad daylight from a cave mouth in the side of a mountain and see a Greek-looking city sprawled out beneath them. They soon learn that they are inside the earth, and this is where the Atlanteans fled! The series depicts Walt's and Jesse's adventures exploring Atlantean society and in aiding the Atlanteans in their struggle against the lizardpeople with whom they share the Earth's core!

7. All over New Mexico, the bodies of young, recently dead people are returning to life: awakening with a terrifying hunger for human flesh! The only link between them? These young folk had all used meth from one of Walt's recent batches: and this was a big batch! Jesse discovers that only total incineration can stop the undead and Walt gets to work on producing napalm for the flame throwers with which he and Jesse will roam the state, cleansing it of the menace.

8. People who had used meth from one of Walt's recent batches report disturbing hallucinations. A dissatisfied dealer tracks down Walt and forces him to take a dose himself. Walt sees shadowy, flickering figures around him and realises that these are not hallucinations, but ghosts. Soon demand for this recipe skyrockets, because even people who wouldn't normally use meth buy it to try to make contact with loved ones who have passed on. However, Walt is soon visited by vengeful spirits who don't want to be found. He must balance making customers (and therefore) dealers happy and defending himself against the angry ghosts.

9. Walt learns about a new rocketry competition with a million-dollar prize. The competition puts a cap on the cost of materials used to build the rocket, and Walt realises that the way to coax more performance out of the vehicle is to focus on propellants. He stops cooking meth and begins researching hypergolic fuels instead. He must keep unhappy meth dealers at bay while developing the ultimate liquid-fuel propellant!

10. Walt's cancer progresses and he realises time is short. He is presented with an unusual opportunity when it turns out that one of the end users of his meth is an illicit cybernetic research lab, which has been using the drug on its test subjects. Walt takes up the lab owner's offer to transplant his brain into a crude but fully cybernetic body (think something like the robot from the old Lost in Space series). The operation is successful and Walt can continue his work, but as time goes by, begins to feel his empathy for other humans slipping further and further away.

11. NASA announces the discovery of a large asteroid that will strike the earth in four months with cataclysmic results. There is no reasonable hope of destroying it, diverting it, or mitigating its likely effects. Suddenly the whole earth is walking in Walt's shoes: sentenced to certain death within months. Walt uses the insights he has gleaned about living with a terminal condition to comfort others as civilisation collapses around them.

12. The earth is visited and almost immediately overrun by alien invaders who turn humanity into a slave species as they strip-mine our planet for valuable minerals. The alien technology and physiology makes most of our traditional weapons useless against them, and all organised resistance is crushed immediately anyway. The aliens have one weakness though: their weakness for meth! The drug is even more effective on them than on humans, and more addictive too; however, more than a few uses prove quickly fatal for them. Walt has to balance his desire to see the earth free against his qualms about committing murder on a mass scale. All the while, the alien overlords are hunting for the source of this threat.

13. The series continues in its present format, but introduces surreal elements, such as unexpected vistas or personages behind doors or peeking out of scenery. Imagine a tense scene between Walt and a powerful drug lord. Now imagine the same scene with a samurai picking out children's nursery rhyme tunes on a harpsichord in the background. Imagine that Jesse opens the back of a van to discover a giant, hot-pink praying mantis within. He closes the van and opens it again to find that the mantis is gone! No reference is ever made to these occurrences in dialogue. Each episode is introduced and concluded by a different fruit or vegetable "speaking" (via a voiceover) in heroic couplets. One episode could feature a stick of celery, the next episode an aubergine etc etc.

14. While Walt is cooking, a reactor vessel explodes and he is overcome by noxious fumes. He comes to lying in a temperate forest and hears hoofbeats in the distance. As he gets to his feet, he is confronted by a knight on horseback who Walt initially takes to be a ren faire re-enactor until the knight takes him prisoner and drags him back to his castle. Walt remains in the mediaeval period for two days and subject to court intrigue before returning to our own time. He is able to recreate the circumstances of the accident, and this time finds himself at the siege of Tenochtitlan in 16th century Mexico! Again, he remains for two days before returning home. Walt works on perfecting time travel and visits an amazing range of exciting moments in history!

15. Jesse is shot during a deal gone sour. Both he and Walt are amazed to find no bleeding from the wound, but a hole neatly punched through circuit boards and hydraulic tubes. They realise that Jesse must have been replaced by an android double some time within the last season or so. Amazingly, the robot is not only physically indistinguishable from Jesse, but apparently has all of Jesse's memories intact as well! They locate the real Jesse and rescue him from the lab where he was duplicated. But now the two Jesses must determine whether either is more real than the other and whether authenticity of identity is in any way meaningful.

16. Civilization is destroyed by an atomic holocaust and Walt must use his knowledge of chemistry to keep himself and Jesse alive. Gradually, they gather a small group of other survivors around themselves, all of whom come to rely on these skills for survival itself!

17. Walt and Jesse have a tense meeting with a drug lord in the desert. The drug lord fires a bullet into the ground to show that he means business. However, the bullet from the large-calibre handgun strikes an ancient creature that has been slumbering beneath the earth for millennia! It lashes out and devours the drug lord and nearly gets Walt and Jesse too before they flee to safety! Soon, the monster is preying on livestock and humans around New Mexico. Walt feels responsible and has to devise a way to track and kill it.

18. Walt gains a mysterious new buyer who doesn't want meth but a strange new drug for which he provides the formula. Walt eventually learns that the drug is actually a food source for aliens captured by the US Air Force and held captive at a secret base in the New Mexico desert! Walt tries to figure out how to free the aliens while not arousing the suspicion of the air force.

19. Walt and Jesse are captured by members of a Colombian drug cartel and are being flown to that country for some "special treatment". However, the light plane makes a forced landing into the Amazon rainforest during a storm. Walt, Jesse, and the pilot survive. The pilot is injured, but as he is also a certified airframe and powerplant mechanic, he instructs Jesse how to make makeshift repairs on the aircraft. Meanwhile, since they lost almost all their fuel when the wing was punctured in the crash, Walt has to figure out how to synthesise enough ethanol to power the aircraft out of the jungle and to civilization. All the while, all three of them must contend with the perils of the rainforest!

20. While Walt is cooking, a reactor vessel explodes and he is overcome by noxious fumes. When he comes to, the world seems to have completely stopped around him. He soon determines that he has been shifted into an accelerated time stream where he is moving so fast that he appears to vanish from the outside world. Conversely, the world seems to stop for him. He is now effectively invisible and can move at infinite speed relative to the frame of reference inhabited by the rest of humanity. The effect only lasts a few hours (Walt time). Walt begins by stealing ever-increasing amounts of cash from his former business associates but then gets tempted into other crime as well as delivering his own brand of vigilante justice to the world. Absolute power begins to corrupt Walt absolutely.

10% More Ideas! Absolutely Free!

21. Walt is forced to sample his own wares by a dissatisfied customer and finds himself in a strange alien city, inhabited by impossibly beautiful and mostly naked people. Walt soon learns that he already knows their names -- names like Athena, Thor, Isis, and Quetzalcoatl! He is in a place where the ancient gods play with the fate of humanity even to this day. Thor wants to kill him on the spot for his intrusion, but Isis thinks it will be more amusing to work him into their games and use him to walk among humanity, forced to do their will! Walt is returned to Earth with divine mischief to make, and in full awareness of what he is doing -- who would believe him if he told them anyway? He learns that to defy the gods is to invite intensely painful punishment. Now he is forced to work as an unwilling puppet, a catalyst for their caprices and occasional malevolence. Can he outwit the gods themselves?

22. Walt gains an extremely wealthy customer who buys in vast quantities and pays generously -- but in gold bars. Not long after, he is abducted with a bag placed over his head. When the bag is removed, he finds himself in a subterranean cavern, surrounded by weird creatures. He is told he stands before the throne of the Goblin King who demands to know why Walt has been poisoning his subjects! When the King is finally convinced that Walt was not intentionally getting the goblins hooked on meth, he presses Walt into his service, carrying out missions both upon the earth and below it, to make amends for the harm he has done.

That's it! Congratulations if you read this far, and remember that survey!

Saturday, 8 September 2012

How big should the Lego Death Star be?

A friend is currently building the Lego Death Star (set 10188)—a seriously impressive model with nearly 4,000 pieces that builds up to a sphere 40 cm in diameter.

Image copyright LEGO Group, used under terms of their Fair Play licence

I think I love it all the more because its “cutaway” design reminds me of the Palitoy Death Star playset from a long time ago:

Image copyright SpeedBreaker from the ToyArk forums, used by permission

(You can see more of it in this Toyark post and this guided tour on Star Wars New Zealand. And yes, I still have most of it... around here... somewhere).

But this got me thinking: obviously both the Lego playset and its Palitoy antecedent are way out-of-scale and depict the Death Star in a purely figurative sense. So, how big should the Lego Death Star be, to be in scale with the supplied figurines (minifigs, in Lego parlance)?

We need to know two things:
  • the size of the “real” Death Star
  • the scale of a minifig
Neither answer is completely straightforward.

The Lego Death Star is actually a mix of features of two different Death Stars, as featured in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi respectively. The second was supposedly larger—according to most sources much larger—than the first. The figures vary between references, but Wookiepedia favours a 160-km diameter for the the first, and a 900-km diameter for the second. For the purpose of this exercise, I will assume that:
  • the Lego set depicts the first Death Star (really, only the Emperor’s throne room is definitively a second Death Star feature) 
  • the first Death Star had a diameter of 160 kilometres.
The scale of a minifig is also problematic, because a minifig is not proportioned like a normal human:

Human figures are a work of NASA in the public domain; minifig created from the LDraw Parts Library and used under the terms of their licence

By comparison, the minifig is proportionally much wider than a human of the same height. Let’s ignore that and look only at height. Minifigs stand 4 cm tall. If an average human is around 170 cm tall, then the minifig represents a human at roughly 1:43 scale, close to the 0 scale used in model railways or the 1:48 scale (“quarter scale”) popular in the scale modelling of aircraft.

With these assumptions in place, the maths is now quite simple: 160 km divided by 43:

3.7 km! 

Yep; a Lego death Star in proportion to the minifigs would be nearly 4 kilometres across!

Just for fun, I thought I'd superimpose that over a map of Brisbane:

Brisbane photo copyright NearMap, used under the terms of their community licence

I know this won’t be very meaningful to anyone who’s never lived here. If that’s you, maybe you’d like to do the same with a map of your own city. It’s truly surprising how big a properly scaled Lego Death Star would need to be!

While looking for pictures of the old Palitoy Death Star playset, I found that Eric Druon of France has created his own Lego interpretation of it:

Copyright Eric Druon, used by permission of the creator

Visit Eric’s site for more pictures of this amazing creation. He also has original Lego creations for various other popular media franchises there—well worth a look! :) 

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Essential Doctor Who — the classic series

Ever since I wrote my newcomers’ introduction to Star Trek, I felt I really should do the same for Doctor Who.

I came to the new, 21st century version of the show as a long-standing fan of the classic 1963–1989 series, but it’s clear that the new series has many viewers who aren’t that familiar with show’s previous incarnation. If you’re among them, and you’re curious, it’s principally to you that I offer this suggested viewing list.

I have selected:
  • one story from each of the first eight Doctors (in the new series, Christopher Eccleston was the ninth, David Tennant the tenth, and Matt Smith the eleventh Doctors). 
  • stories that pair each of those Doctors with the companions with whom they’re most closely remembered.
  • stories that reflect the typical length of four 25-minute segments (I made one exception).
  • stories that showcase some of the series’ recurring villains, although none more than once each (again,I made one exception).
Note that the structure of the classic series was significantly different from that of the new one. Although the exact figures changed over the years, for much of the show’s history, a typical season consisted of around five or six individual storylines, each told in around four to six 25-minute episodes. Each episode (up to the last) within a storyline would conclude with a cliffhanger intended to bring the audience back next week. Early seasons of the show included considerably more stories and more individual episodes; later seasons considerably fewer of both.

Watching these stories now, with the individual episodes back-to-back often seems to produce a little awkwardness; the pacing of the storylines is a little off-kilter. All we can do today to mitigate that is to remind ourselves that they were not constructed to be watched this way, and to extend a little understanding to the show’s writers and producers.

My recommendations then:

  1. “The Aztecs”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, black & white, season 1, 1964, with William Hartnell as the first Doctor)
  2. “The Tomb of the Cybermen”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, black & white, season 5, 1967, with Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor)
  3. “The Claws of Axos”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, colour, season 8, 1971, with Jon Pertwee as the third Doctor)
  4. “Genesis of the Daleks”
    (6 × 25-minute segments, colour, season 12, 1975, with Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor) 
  5. “Kinda”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, colour, season 19, 1982, with Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor)
  6. “Vengeance on Varos”
    (2 × 45-minute segments, colour, season 22, 1985, with Colin Baker as the sixth Doctor)
  7. “The Curse of Fenric”
    (4 × 25-minute segments, colour, season 26, 1989, with Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor)
  8. “Doctor Who”
    (90-minute TV movie, colour, 1996, with Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor)

As with my previous Star Trek article, I’d love feedback from anyone who follows this recommendation.

Update 30 March 2013: Today, The Guardian published an excellent infographic today as a one-page summary of the show’s 50-year history (classic and new eras)—well worth a look.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

What should ebooks cost?

This week, a major publisher released a new novel by a popular and acclaimed science-fiction writer. Although the author is one I admire, and the book is one that I’m certain that I’ll eventually read, the aspect of the release that I found most interesting was the commentary it sparked on social media about the price of its ebook edition. It’s left me with some questions about how people perceive the price of ebooks. I’ll also confine these comments and questions to books as texts, rather than books as collectibles, because I think these are completely different markets. (And yes, I’m a book collector too).

I’m not going to refer to the book in question specifically, because it’s really not important. What’s important here is the price, which was set the same by both Amazon and Barnes & Noble:

hardback (full list price):$25.99
hardback (discount price):$15.63
ebook (for Kindle or Nook):$12.99? $18.14?

There was some uncertainty about the actual price of the Kindle edition, which seemed to display differently to different people on different pages on Amazon. That doesn’t matter. For now, let’s accept that the ebook cost $18.14—that is, $2.51 more expensive than the heavily discounted hardback edition (sans postage, but let’s ignore that too for now).

Two generally supported beliefs seemed to emerge in response to this:
  • $18.00 is unreasonably expensive for an ebook
  • ebooks should never cost more than their equivalent paper editions
Each of these opinions surprised me.

Here in Australia, new-release paperback fiction titles typically retail at between $20 and $30. Clearly, people buy books at these prices (although I don’t know whether anyone participating in the social media discussions is among them). This made me wonder whether there’s something about ebooks specifically that makes them less valuable to some people than paper books.

To me, the reverse is true. An e-ink screen is now my preferred medium for consuming narrative text, and a hard drive is my preferred medium for storing it long-term. So, to me, the ebook is actually more valuable than the paper edition of the book; which in turn means that I’m prepared to pay the same for the ebook, and if anything, even more. 

What I’d like to know:

  • If you think that $18 is too expensive for an ebook, would you pay that amount for the paper edition of the same title? 
  • If so: what’s the biggest gap that you would tolerate between the ebook and paper book? 
  • And what makes the paper edition more valuable to you than the ebook edition?
I suspect that these opinions must be, to some extent, based on the belief that the ebook must cost considerably less to produce and that the publisher is somehow obliged to pass these savings on to the consumer. However, the best figures I’ve been able to find so far suggest that for an American hardback with a list price of around $30, printing, binding and distribution costs account for only something like $3.50.1 In other words, the ebook is only slightly cheaper to produce and distribute, and with gross retail margins in the vicinity of 50%, a hardcover discounted by Amazon from $25.99 to $15.63 looks like a loss leader to me. Is the price structure for this title so surprising then?

Finally, the most disquieting thing about the discussion of this book’s price were the various suggestions that the perceived high price somehow made pirating the title acceptable if you wanted to read it.  

Really? I get that if someone is selling something—anything—at a price greater than you’re willing or able to pay for it, you’re going to walk away and not buy that thing. What I don’t get is how it then becomes acceptable to just help yourself to something to which you’re in no way entitled. Maybe someone can explain that to me.

Comments on any or all of the above are most welcome.

1Levine, Robert. (2011). Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. New York; Doubleday. p.166. I also found a secondary reference to an article in Money magazine from around March 2009 with a breakdown of the publishing costs of a then-current bestseller, with figures that agree well with Levine’s. I haven’t succeeded in tracking down the original article though, so I can't be sure that the sources are independent of each other.

    Saturday, 5 May 2012

    Jupiter-ho! explore strange, new worlds; to seek out new life...

    I think that the most exciting news of this week was the European Space Agency (ESA) announcing a new robotic mission to explore three of Jupiter’s largest moons: Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa. Named JUICE (for Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer), the probe is scheduled to launch in 2022, and after a 7½-year journey, will spend 3½ years studying these distant worlds.

    Artist’s impression of JUICE.
    The design of the probe is not
    yet finalised.
    Image copyright: ESA, used
    here for educational and
    informational purposes, in
    agreement with their terms.

    In particular, JUICE will examine Jupiter’s moons from the perspective of determining whether such worlds are capable of supporting life—or perhaps already do. Data returned by previous space probes that visited Jupiter (the two Voyager probes, and Galileo) suggests that these moons have large amounts of liquid water under their frozen surfaces: vast subterranean oceans. Although they are far from the Sun’s light and heat, Jupiter’s immense gravity and radiation belts provide energy for these worldlets.

    Could life exist in such places? Might it already? A better understanding of these three moons will help us answer these questions: questions that are more compelling today than ever, for two reasons.

    First, the discovery of deep-sea ecosystems in 1977 has forced us to think more broadly about what conditions might support life. Clustered around volcanic vents on the ocean floor, intricate communities of life forms exist in a completely sunless realm. It turns out that forms of energy other than sunlight can power even complex organisms.

    Second, in 1988, the only planets that we knew to exist were those of our own solar system. Since then, nearly 800 worlds have been discovered around other stars, many of them “gas giants” like Jupiter. So far, we know for absolutely certain that life might exist on rocky worlds with large amounts of liquid water on their surfaces. Knowing whether the conditions are right for life on Jupiter’s icy moons would provide us with another environment in which to search for life around other stars.

    If the recent probe into Lake Vostok—3.7 km under Antarctica—reveals life there too, the questions become more compelling still. Lake Vostok is perhaps the environment on Earth most like these moons of Jupiter.

    When the Voyager probes departed, the existence of deep-sea ecologies was brand-new knowledge. When Galileo departed, the existence of planets around other stars was brand-new knowledge. Human understanding of life is deepening and broadening significantly, even within our own lifetimes. Learning is building on learning.

    In the meantime, science-fiction authors have wasted no time in speculating about what kinds of life might inhabit these moons. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two portrays primitive life on Europa, and I recently enjoyed a novella called “The Frozen Sky” by Jeff Carlson with quite a different portrayal. Such tales only make me more excited to learn what the truth might eventually be determined to be.

    Wonder awaits us!

    Author’s note:
    I wrote this piece in part as a reply to a comment I read on Twitter this week:
    The European Space Agency has approved a mission to Jupiter's moons to check for fish there. Which will give us something else to kill.
    I find this kind of cynicism and pessimism really disappointing and frustrating. We are living in one of the most exciting periods of human history: the generation in which we have learned that our solar system is far from unique in the cosmos. The best is truly yet to come, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

    If you feel the same way, you might enjoy Annalee Newitz’s article about Neal Stephenson’s Heiroglyph project, “Dear Science Fiction Writers: Stop Being So Pessimistic!” in the April 2012 edition of the Smithsonian magazine. 

    Sunday, 26 February 2012

    Essential Star Trek — the original series

    From time to time, people who know me as a devoted Star Trek fan ask me to put together a viewing list to help newcomers get a taste of the series. I’ve always found such requests really difficult, because different people like different things in a TV show. Furthermore, my own lists of what I consider to be the “best” and the “most significant” episodes of the series don’t entirely overlap, so I’m faced with the problem of which of those to privilege. And attempts I’ve made to list every episode that I consider a “must-see” end up being nearly half the series. ;)

    Presented with another such request recently, I’ve decided to make a somewhat different recommendation: if you’re interested in delving into the original Star Trek and getting an insight into what has kept some of us addicted for decades to these 80 episodes of late-1960s programming, I suggest watching a run of six consecutive episodes from close to the end of the first season. Before I list them, though, a couple of things to note:

    • Episodes of Star Trek are almost entirely “stand-alone”. Twenty-first century television is dominated by season-long and series-long story arcs. Outside the soap opera genre, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Star Trek, like most of its contemporaries, is almost purely episodic. The total number of times that any episode refers back to anything else that has occurred previously in the series can be counted on your fingers. The upshot is: don't worry about diving straight into the middle of a season, or watching an episode that someone recommends to you. There’s no back story that you need to have already absorbed.
    • The series was remastered in HD with new special effects between 2006 and 2008. Star Trek’s effects were state-of-the-art for its time, but of course appear very crude and stagey by today’s standards. Unless you’re already quite sure that the antiquated effects won’t bother you, I strongly recommend that you find and view the remastered versions of the episodes rather than the originals.
    With those things in mind, I suggest that the newcomer to Star Trek find and watch:

    1. “A Taste of Armageddon”
    2. “Space Seed”
    3. “This Side of Paradise”
    4. “The Devil in the Dark”
    5. “Errand of Mercy”
    6. “The City on the Edge of Forever”
    I think these episodes are a good showcase for the series’ idealism and thoughtfulness, include strong material for the main characters, and explore the setting. I also consider most of them to be excellent TV storytelling.

    I’d love to hear thoughts and reactions from any newcomer to the show who follows this recommendation.

    Update, 11 August 2012: I’ve just written a companion recommendation for the classic series of Doctor Who.

      Wednesday, 15 February 2012

      A computer game I actually liked!

      Screenshots in this article are copyright © 2011 Red Wasp Design Ltd and are used here for the purpose of review.

      Games have always been a big part of my life, but for whatever reason, I haven't generally warmed to computer games very often or very much. The last two that I really enjoyed both came out in 1994 — UFO: Enemy Unknown and Star Wars: TIE Fighter. These two games also typify the two game genres I like the most: turn-based strategy, and flight simulators. Unfortunately for me, neither of these genres have been in vogue for some time now.

      Last week, I was interested to learn that a British indie game studio, Red Wasp Design had released a game for iOS based on one of my favourite (table-top) role-playing games, Call of Cthulhu. My love of that game was itself enough reason to give the computer version of it—Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land—a try.

      I am very, very glad that I did! Not only was it a credible attempt to bring Call of Cthulhu to a new medium, but it was turn-based strategy! Hooray!

      There are, however, some important differences with the role-playing game. While the actual mechanics seem to be a largely faithful implementation of the RPG mechanics, giving and taking damage are vastly different. Within the group with which I've played Call of Cthulhu for the last twenty years or so, we have our three golden rules:
      1. Never split up the party
      2. Always carry a light
      3. If it comes to guns, you've done something wrong.
      This final point reflects the fact that the supernatural horrors that player characters investigate are routinely invulnerable to normal weapons. It usually takes some kind of magic to defeat these creatures. Conversely, guns are deadly when used on ordinary humans, like the player characters. Getting shot even once can easily put a character out of the story, and even if they survive, healing routinely takes weeks of in-game time.

      Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is set in the trenches of World War I. The characters that you control routinely shoot their way from one point in the story to the next, and all the monsters they encounter eventually go down when you pump enough gunfire into them. When the characters take damage, first-aid kits are available to boost them back to maximum hit points immediately. The ubiquity of guns as the solution to all problems is reflected in the unlimited ammunition the characters seem to carry.

      Enemy German soldiers: gun battles are to be expected.
      Call of Cthulhu's signature mechanic—sanity points—are handled similarly. These points represent the mental equivalent of hit points; confront enough horror and characters lose their ability to function, perhaps even becoming permanently insane. Recovering from these mental scars again takes weeks of in-game time. Characters in Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land lose sanity too, but a nearby character with a book on psychotherapy can restore sanity points to maximum in a single turn!

      Call of Cthulhu therefore differs from other role-playing games in that in other games, characters gain experience and become stronger, more capable, and more heroic. In Call of Cthulhu, characters are inexorably driven towards madness, incapacitation, and death. Red Wasp Design evidently decided that this concept doesn't lend itself especially well to computer games, and they're probably right.

      You knew that tentacles had to come into this eventually, right? Guns work fine here too though...

      Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land plays very much like UFO: Enemy Unknown, and I feel quite sure that Red Wasp referred to that earlier game. That said, a few very useful features of its interface are missing and kept me hunting for them! Each character has a certain number of points with which to perform actions during a turn, such as moving or firing a weapon. In UFO: Enemy Unknown, you can set aside points for combat while moving characters. Without being able to reserve points this way, moving characters while retaining enough points to perform useful actions with them becomes much more tedious. I also missed the ability to make characters kneel down for increased protection from enemy attacks. At the end of your turn in Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, characters are frequently left standing around unprotected when no terrain is available to hide in or behind.

      All up, however, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land was a very pleasing and addictive game. It plays out like a highly compressed role-playing campaign in which the monsters are unusually susceptible to lead poisoning :) It also helps that it's gorgeous to look at.

      My biggest grievance is that it was only too short! I sincerely hope that Red Wasp will publish further adventures for this game or release other Call of Cthulhu-based games in future.

      Incidentally, "Never split up the party" is sound advice in this game too!