Another Day, Another Blog

June 27, 2007

The Lady cried, for she longed for a castle beside her tear-drop pool

Filed under: in for a penny, sci-fi — iamza @ 1:25 pm

I finally got around to watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the superintendent and general handyman for The Cove, an apartment building complex populated by some interesting people. One night, Cleveland falls into the pool, and stumbles across Story, a water sprite/narf on a mission to offer enlightenment to one man before flying home by way of a giant eagle escapee from one of the Lord of the Rings films. Unfortunately, Story’s nemesis, a giant grass-covered hyena, has also travelled to The Cove, and he’s determined to make Story miss her flight (rather like the train driver on my last trip to London Heathrow, when I think about it).

I think I’m growing away from M. Night Shyamalan’s stories. I loved The Sixth Sense, because I saw it early enough that I hadn’t been warned there was a twist at the end. I enjoyed Signs because I wasn’t expecting the water glasses to play such an important role. I thought Unbreakable was all right, and quite liked the idea of a supervillain struggling to find a superhero worthy of his attention. I hated The Village and, aside from Cleveland Heep, I didn’t really care about any of the characters in Lady in the Water.

Also watched Howl’s Moving Castle, directed by Hayao Miwazaki of Spirited Away fame. Hatmaker Sophie is cursed by the Wicked Witch of the West (I think), and transformed from her youthful self into a ninety-year-old woman. Terrified of what her mother will think, Sophie runs away from home, and finds a new life for herself in the magical moving castle of master magician, Howl. Along the way, Sophie collects some interesting companions, including: a bouncing scarecrow with an attitude problem; the fire demon, Calcifer, with whom Sophie strikes a deal; a shaggy dog with very short legs; and, of course, Howl, who is battling a curse of his own.

I loved Howl’s Moving Castle, though, as with most Japanese animated films, I walked away at the end wondering just how much of the film I’d missed. Japanese films and comics seem to me to rely on the reader/viewer grasping subtle complexities, and understanding what I regard as non-intuitive leaps in storytelling; I’m pretty sure I miss out on an awful lot.

Still, if you choose to watch one fairy-tale this week, I know which of the two I’d recommend…


June 26, 2007

Excuse me, Sir, but your dark matter just ate my moon!

Filed under: curiosities, sci-fi, when natures strikes back — iamza @ 3:51 pm

Why is the science in made-for-TV movies often so laughably bad? Not that Hollywood blockbusters are all that much better, but at least the blockbusters have bigger budgets, giving them sparkly special effects and other assorted eye candy.

In Dark Storm, a bunch of scientists come up with a way to super-charge dark matter, and transform it so that it disintegrates matter. Of course, one of the scientists decides super-charged dark matter would make a really handy weapon of mass (literally!) destruction, and sets in motion an evil scheme which puts the fate of the world in jeopardy. Also, Stephen Baldwin gets infected with dark matter and becomes a lightning mage. Stephen Baldwin’s movie wife is less than enthusiastic about the new spark this introduces into their relationship. Oh, and the Smoking Man from X-Files makes an appearance — he’s now General Smoking Man.

I think my favourite moments in the movie were when the super-charged dark matter made tornadoes that ate famous landmarks. Lesson learned from disaster movies: Never buy a house near by a famous landmark. You’re just asking for trouble…

Someone in Sci-Fi UK’s  programming department has a wicked sense of humour. No sooner was Dark Storm complete than Stephen Baldwin returned to the screen in another disaster flick, titled Earthstorm. A massive asteroid impact knocks the moon from its orbit, and sends debris raining down on Earth. Tides and weather are affected by the changed lunar orbit, but, more critically, the asteroid impact has cracked the moon, and it is slowly coming apart. It is up to a demolitions expert (Stephen Baldwin) and crackpot scientist to save the planet…but first they must overcome the resistance of egomaniac and sceptic Dirk Benedict.

Biggest pet peeves: (1) The ease with which the shuttle became available for launch to the Moon — with turbo-boost nuclear pulse engines, to boot! (2) As far as I know, the crew aboard a shuttle in high Earth orbit is weightless. (3) Sealing the crack, if it’s even possible, would do nothing to stabilize the lunar orbit. “Too bad, so sad” for the Earth on that score.

I’m quite intrigued by the idea of using an electromagnetic bomb to collapse the chasm walls of the Moon in towards one another. I don’t know how the bomb would work — how does it impart a sufficiently large charge to one wall of the chasm without similarly charging the other wall? How magnetically susceptible are Moon rocks, anyway? 

I started off scoffing at the notion of a satellite-cracking asteroid impact. But the leading hypothesis for moon formation suggests that the Moon formed when a Mars sized body collided with Earth, knocking out a huge chunk of the planet. That debris later acreted to form the Moon.

Funnily enough, one of the strongest  arguments in favour of the impact origin for the Moon is the lack of a significant iron-rich core — results from the Lunar Propector experiment back in 1999 suggest that the lunar core makes up maybe 3% of the Moon’s mass. In contrast, the Earth’s core accounts for roughly 30% of the planet’s mass.   

Images of the Moon’s magnetic field are fascinating. Unlike the Earth, the Moon does not currently have a global dipolar magnetic field. This does not negate the possibility that, in the past, there was a functioning geodynamo on the Moon, but, given the small size of the lunar core, any such geodynamo was likely short-lived. The magnetic anomalies observed on the Moon are isolated and, on average, have an amplitude less than a hundredth of those observed on the Earth. Given their spatial correlation with significant craters (the strongest anomalies are located on the opposite side of the Moon from the youngest and largest impact craters), it is possible that the magnetic anomalies we observe today on the Moon were created by transient magnetic anomalies during impact

If nothing else, Earthstorm succeeded in one respect: it piqued my interest sufficiently that I found myself googling the Moon’s magnetic field. It’s a pity the same cannot be said for dark matter and Dark Storm.

June 14, 2007

Summer days

Filed under: the joy of life — iamza @ 1:39 pm

One of the best things about moving further away from the equator is discovering just how long days can last during the summer. During a visit to Faro in the Yukon a few years back, we were still trying to outrun our shadows at half past ten at night. By half past eleven, the sky overhead was dark enough that we could finally make out the wispy green trails of the Aurora Borealis, but the black mountains on the western horizon were capped by a surprisingly bright sky. 

The downside, of course, is that, come winter, the days seem impossibly short and gloomy.

June 13, 2007

Happy Pun-day!

Filed under: humour — iamza @ 11:46 am

Brain leaps

June 11, 2007

Not quite Lawrence of Arabia…

Filed under: ficlet — iamza @ 9:10 pm

Jude had been about to admit the camels were maybe a bad idea, but Toy’s skyward glance and sulky pout had made Jude’s mouth snap shut. It had been like this from the start of the expedition — Jude’s suggestions were greeted with heavy sighs, and Toy’s best martyred expression until Jude backed down.

Well, not this time! The camels were staying, and Toy would just have to learn to live with the spit and the smell and the never-ending noise of jangly bells and huffing.

The camel herder was delighted. “They are good beasts!” he said through a giant smile, head bobbing up and down and eyes glued to the enormous stack of bills he cradled in his hands. “They will give you many years of service.”

From the crest of the dune, the sand stretched for miles. A dry and dusty golden ocean in constant motion, and capped by a sky bleached by the heat of the sun. They’d been travelling south for just under two days, and they were surrounded by desert. The city they’d left behind, with its red sandstone temples and yellow pillars, could have been on the moon for all the traces they could see of it out here. 

Toy wasn’t happy. His camel, he insisted, was staging a coup. He could see an evil twinkle in its eye. It had already passed along its fleas to his blanket, and now it was deliberately mistiming its step so that Toy was almost thrown from the saddle at unpredictable intervals. Also, it stank.

Jude couldn’t argue with the last. All the camels had a distinctive, and rather off-putting, odour. Still, they’d only had the camels for a few days. Perhaps they just needed a bit more time to get used to the smell.


Hmm. Maybe worth a part two?

June 8, 2007

Melvyn goes to the moon

Filed under: elsewhere, ficlet — iamza @ 1:54 pm

Melvyn arrived at Tranquility Base at 14h17 EST. 399 minutes later, he was dead.

The journey there was long and uncomfortable for everyone. Buzz tried to get a conversation started, but it quickly devolved into a tourist-like monologue involving lots of hand-waving and finger-pointing. Michael was occupied with the disengagement routines, and Neil was too busy steering to really take note of their surroundings.

Melvyn, tired of dodging Neil’s elbows and Buzz’s fingers, had quickly retired to the back of the space-craft. The back wall was covered in pipes and wires, but there was an empty space on the floor that was just big enough to accommodate Melvyn’s tiny form, and he strapped himself to it with gratitude.

Melvyn could feel the skin of the craft vibrating beneath him as powerful rockets pushed them further and further out into space, towards a place they knew only through myth and lore.

Luna, land of the crazy and the strange. A magical realm of shadows and secrets, she also offered a promise of hope; surely, once their historic journey was complete, once they’d showed others that it could be done, their people would spread out amongst the stars, and discover the universe in all its glory?

It took three days for their ship to fly from the Earth to Luna. Three days of pre-packaged food that tasted like cardboard. Three days of fluids settling in all the wrong places once gravity relinquished her hold. Three days of endless waiting and little sleep.

Three days of air that smelled of old socks and unwashed laundry, of sweat and grime and damp and piss. Three days of never quite knowing which way was up, or what your foot would hit next.

Three days to travel a distance of nearly 250,000 miles into the galactic wilderness, knowing that there was no way out if things went wrong.

Three days of longing and imagining and dreaming of being the first to touch the surface of a new world.

They landed, and Houston told them to rest and recover from the journey down. Melvyn swore, practically vibrating with impatience, and Neil and Buzz weren’t much better. They locked down the communications, gingerly strapped themselves to eggshell-thin gold foil walls, and pretended to sleep.

At 14h00, Melvyn couldn’t pretend anymore. He got up, and checked his gear, and Neil and Buzz quickly followed suit, and by 14h55, the door was open and they were unfolding the ladder. 

Melvyn went first. He touched the ground, and his feet sank into soft brown dust, and he felt almost normal for the first time in days. There was an up and a down again, and the sky above was black, and the ground below was soft and full of dust and rocks, and he was alone. He took a step, misjudged it, and almost fell; the gravity was so low, he felt like he could fly.

Neil came down the ladder next, carefully putting one foot after the other. At the bottom, he turned, and the wonder on Neil’s face was framed in the visor of his helmet. 

Melvyn smiled. It was beautiful here. He turned away from Neil, and looked at the horizon whose amplified curve reinforced the alien nature of this new world they’d discovered.

Neil took a step. “That’s one small step for a man,” he said, as his foot came down, and he took another, larger, step, “And one giant leap for mankind.” 

Then Neil landed on Melvyn, and antkind’s visit to the moon was over almost before it had begun.

Moral of the story: “Dead ant, dead ant, dead ant dead ant dead ant dead ant…”  

June 6, 2007

Excuse me, have you seen my mind?

Filed under: books, random, the joy of life — iamza @ 4:20 pm

Ever have one of those days where you’re convinced it’s another day of the week? Today, for me, feels like Friday. It is maddening to realize there are still another two days remaining in the work week.

On the whole, I think I prefer days when I think Thursday is Tuesday. At least then, Friday’s there before you know it.

The other thing slowly eating away at the few brain cells I still retain is waking up each morning at 4 a.m. For some reason, my internal alarm clock has gotten all screwed up. Alas, I have yet to find a reset button for the brain which does not involve medical intervention in the form of a resuscitation room, an electric current and some paddles… 

On the plus side, I am really enjoying Frank Schatzing’s novel, The Swarm, an eco-thriller in which the marine world suddenly goes crazy, making for all sorts of mayhem for us poor terrestrial folk. Reading this novel makes me wish I’d paid more attention in university when such interesting topics as methane hydrates were raised. But then, in my defence, I don’t think we ever discussed in class how methane hydrates might cause tsunamis…

Other sparkly moments in life recently: the discovery of Michael Buble (thanks, Claire!) and mint Aero bubbles, a working gate for my new fence, flowering lavender shrubs, the death of the evil thistle that was lording it over the pond, and finding that my eight goldfish are still alive despite being accidentally sprayed with weedkiller.

June 5, 2007

Five lessons I learned from Desmond Bagley novels

Filed under: books, the joy of life, when natures strikes back — iamza @ 12:08 pm

1) Landslide left me with the indelible impression that earth scientists live exciting lives, full of adventure. They spend most of their lives outside in an ever-changing laboratory. Duties include such ardous chores as camping in the wilderness for days at a time, and consuming large amounts of beer.

Downsides to pursuing a career as an earth scientist: occasionally, their work makes them extremely unpopular, and they get shot at.

2) Wyatt’s Hurricane made me long to be a meteorologist, if only because then I’d have an excuse to move to the Caribbean, or Far East. It’s not like we get many hurricanes here in England.

This book was my first introduction to the cloud seeding experiments of the sixties. It finished on a surprisingly optimistic note, with Wyatt eventually devising a means of controlling hurricanes. Sadly, weather modification in reality has turned out to be a much trickier proposition than this novel suggests. That, or possibly thanks to an over-abundance of caution and paperwork, we modern scientists lack the boundless optimism and enthusiasm of our sixties predecessors.  We dare not attempt experiments that could potentially put thousands of lives at risk without first going through every health and safety check ever devised. All things considered, this is probably a good thing — especially for anyone living in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

Other lessons from this novel: never trust an Ernest Hemingway wannabe, or a revolutionary.

3) I was a first year geology student when I read Night of Error, and learned of manganese nodules on the seafloor. In the seventies, all sorts of folks were throwing away money in an attempt to find an economically feasible way to mine the nodules. By the nineties, they’d pretty much given up.

I figure in about fifty years, someone is going to take the set from James Cameron’s The Abyss, and make a submarine mobile manganese nodule mining platform. Possibly, they’ll even find a giant squid, or three. 

Also, Electrolux and Dyson will fight it out, each trying to outdo the other when it comes to developing giant environmentally friendly vaccuum cleaners for the seafloor. Think about it: Spring cleaning for the Earth! Get rid of all that pesky seabed sedimentary gunk, and free up the seafloor basalts for proper scientific study. 

4) Running Blind introduced me to the joys of intelligence work and geyser avoidance. Really, don’t all spies spend their days dodging geysers and bullets in Iceland? And, hey, when they’re on vacation, the spies could potentially get together, and make up a volunteer volcano watch/fire service.

5) The Snow Tiger remains my favourite of all of Bagley’s books. An investigation into a disastrous avalanche in New Zealand reveals that the avalanche may have been deliberately triggered. From this, I learned that if you want to live in a house in mountains where snow falls in winter, make sure the hillside above has not been deforested. Better yet, buy a house in the Caribbean instead. Also, never date a girl with over-protective brothers who (a) are bigger and/or meaner than yours, and (b) outnumber you.

June 4, 2007

Drive-by letters

Filed under: the joy of life, what not to say — iamza @ 2:06 pm

Dear Lady in the snazzy new mini behind me,

Your car may indeed be bright and shiny and red, but this does not make it a fire engine. I do not have to get out of your way, and I will not drive more quickly just because your bumper is practically touching my rear number plate.

No love, etc.

Dear Fiat,

Thank you kindly for the recall notice on my Fiat Panda. As you can imagine, I was somewhat disconcerted to learn that the car I have been driving for these past ten months has a problem that could cause the engine to catch fire. If you’ll excuse me now, I feel I should probably give your service centre a call, before my car explodes! 

With thanks, etc.

June 3, 2007

Because even spiders like to fly

Filed under: ficlet — iamza @ 3:50 pm

“Why do I do this?” mimicked Peter as he pulled on his webbing, testing its strength. He shook his head in disgust. “How are you even supposed to answer a question like that?” The web-line was solid, and he grabbed at it with both hands, then launched himself into the night sky. Overhead, the blanket of clouds had been set alight by the yellow-orange of the sodium streetlights below.

He could hear the sirens wailing as they wend their way through boulevards and avenues, and looked down. The cars below crawled like bugs trapped in a glass-and-concrete canyon, headlight antennae feeling out the path ahead, searching for an escape.

A gust of wind grabbed greedily at Peter, and lifted him roughly. It whistled and roared as it tossed him about like a log in a landslide. Peter whooped. He loved moments like this; moments of unfettered freedom when gravity no longer existed and the world fell away, and it was just Peter adrift in an ocean of air. 

Moments when even the wingless could fly.

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