Game Review: Leaving Earth

For my birthday Edmund gave me the game Leaving Earth, published by Lumenaris.

This is an attractive game of space exploration published by a local family-owned company. Design, art, layout are all the work of a single person, Joseph Fatula. The art is beautiful, the theme richly conveyed in every component, and the hand-made wooden pieces in the shapes of various spacecraft made me squee with delight. Even the box looks lovely, and it was hard to bring myself to cut the seal to open it.

Leaving Earth: the contents

The object of the game is to gather a certain number of points by accomplishing randomly drawn missions, all within 21 rounds representing the years 1956 to 1976. You can play it competitively, cooperatively, or solitaire. The basics are the same in all three modes: Continue reading “Game Review: Leaving Earth”

The Martian: Spoiler-Free Mini-Review

martianWe saw The Martian and found it as advertised. We liked it, it was a good choice for thrills, fear, humour, and hope.

  • Visuals and special effects: 5. It feels real through and through. I don’t recall a single moment when effects made me disconnect, and the motion shots in low gravity are very nice.
  • Soundtrack: 4. Orchestral stuff is appropriate and works fine; plus they found a way to add some songs I hate and make me like them. For a bit. In context.
  • Writing: 4. This made me want to read Andy Weir’s book, which had not made my list. It’s got vibes of Apollo 13 and Castaway, of course, and The Lonely Astronaut. It also resists the temptation to create villains when none are needed; the opposition of an uncaring universe is faceless. As a bonus, homages and Easter eggs are buried throughout for viewers to measure their nerd cred. (This is where it’s hardest to resist spoilers, when I feel like comparing notes!)
  • Casting: 4. Good choices, and I thought some of the actors might feel pleased to get some roles so different from what they often play.  Lots of familiar faces and great actors.
  • Direction: 4.5. Like in (nonfiction) Apollo 13 before, the movie steers clear of one of Hollywood’s favourite tropes, the Great Man or supergenius who single-handedly makes everything all right.  The central character of Mark Watney is obviously extremely smart, resourceful and tough, but you soon realize that he’s pictured that way not because he is supposed to be the Chosen One but because of the selection and training process that brought him to Mars.  It’s necessary that he be an exceptional individual but so are all involved, and they are all needed.  As a bonus, the right touch of humour (which I understand is in the novel) is preserved.
  • Editing: 4. Tight. The passage of time is handled pretty well; good and relatively sparing use of techniques like montages and voice-overs.
  • Science: 4.5. The most hand-wavey portions happen in the opening scenes; the reason protagonist Mark Watney is left on Mars is out of whack with what we know of the planet.  Amusingly, some of the criticism levelled at the science in some later scenes seemed to me to show the commenters’ lack of grasp of the context.
  • Diversity: 4. Some excellent choices, reflecting a good deal of real-world racial and gender diversity.  Bonus points for international cooperation.  Still centers on a white man, of course, but strong, significant roles to non-white and/or non-male people. Alas, I noticed no hint of disabled, non-hetero, or non-cisgendered characters. Only one non-white woman, with no lines in English.
  • Feminism: 4.5. It passes the Bechdel test within minutes, as well as the Strong Female Protagonist benchmark. Lead female character makes life-and-death decisions and they are respected.
  • The Bart Sibrel Award for Verisimilitude goes to Ridley Scott, Arthur Max, and Dariusz Wolski. We’ve finally reach the point where we can make really good hoax expeditions, as long as no one on the filming crew, post-production, and support team of hundreds talks, and no one notices the large mobilizations to Hungary and Jordan.

Thanks to Ridley Scott’s own Alien movie and its, ahem, progeny, we’ve had a lot of space horror movies in the last three or four decades.  But in the end, the thing that should really scare us is that the universe doesn’t give a damn.  If we are to survive, we need each other. That’s the message I took from this movie, anyway.

I will leave you with two images I really like: the cast poster, and the good ship Hermes (my new screen background).

the_martian_47_a

martian-hermes

Advent Day 25: Light

Nebula 2, by Sophie Lagacé

Today’s theme for the final day of the little advent exercise is “Light.”

We now know that  what we call light is just one part of the range of radiating energy, and that energy and “matter” are facets of the same thing. We also know that the atoms of our matter, the vast majority of what we touch, see, smell around us every day, was forged in the heart of stars; for us to exist, earlier generations of stars had to be born, live, age, and die. Here is how Carl Sagan put it:

Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.
The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Carl Sagan, 1973

Although Sagan was not the first one to point this out nor to use the now-famous expression, he was largely the one to popularize it as he continued using it in articles and presentations, and particularly in the excellent 1980 PBS television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

So that’s my final thought for the season: we are born from the collapsed heart of ancient stars. If that is not awe-inspiring, I don’t know what is.

Note: The image above is not a photograph of any real star formation in our night sky, it’s a digital painting I made for the love of it. I hope the picture comes out properly, I understand that a previous version came out way too dark on some computer monitors. I tinkered with it, and I hope it  is fixed now.

Image by Sophie Lagacé 2010-2013, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Not Fade Away

Sparth's concept art for Blindsight's French editionWe’re coming up on the end of the month, so time to produce my essay for the book club reading.  This month, it was Peter Watts’ Blindsight, a hard SF tale of first contact asking us to question our assumptions on sentience, self-awareness, and consciousness.  I’m afraid my essay goes a little long this time.

Not Fade Away

Blindsight asks: “What if consciousness was not nearly as important as we think it is — was just a blip, a temporary artefact in our evolution?”  While it is a useful exercise, I contend that it remains a thought exercise.

1. The shifts toward consciousness and self-awareness happens relatively far back in our ancestry, at least as far as mammals’ branching out from the family tree of life on Earth.  We’re quite familiar with the fact that mammals (and even birds, reptiles and fish in a more limited way) exhibit individual personality and rudimentary partitioning of me/not me.

2. Self-awareness could conceivably be a by-product in evolution, but it would only evolve out if it was a detrimental trait in propagating genetic material.  The fact that it has survived and developed suggests that it was at least neutral but closely correlated with a beneficial feature, and more likely a beneficial feature in itself.

3. To evolve out of a species like ours, self-awareness would also have to overcome culture, since at this point culture has modified our response to environmental pressure.

4. In a species without self-awareness, it’s not clear what would be the drive to technology and space travel.  Or would the concept require “self” as a necessary but temporary phase?

5. There is little evidence so far of a long-term move away from self or from self-awareness in human evolution or culture.  In fact, the pressure toward conformity to group norms and identity seems in many ways to decrease in modern societies, with a greater range of individual behaviours and expressions gaining acceptance.

Readings

Dawkins, Richard. 2009.  The Greatest Show on Earth.

Downey, Greg.  2013.  Becoming Human: How Evolution Made Us.

Harris, Sam. 2012. Free Will.

— . 2010. The Moral Landscape.


Illustration: Concept art by Sparth (Nicolas Bouvier) for the French edition of Blindsight (published by Univers Poche).)

Pop Culture Blindsight

Sparth's cover for the French edition of BlindsightContinuing with notes and resources for this month’s book club reading, Peter Watts’ Blindsight, here are some fun links to explore.

First, readers should explore Peter Watts’ own Website and the supplemental material he posted.  Not only are the endnotes from the book expanded there (“for extra credit”), but he provides microfiction in the form of “primary” documents on the Firefall event, Theseus, Burns-Caulfield, Rorschach, vampires, etc.  He also provides alternate jacket covers that use the original art proposed for the book, not the one that was unfortunately altered for the first edition; and art from the various editions of all his books, including foreign editions of Blindsight.

Next, there are a number of exciting tools online for exploring the Solar System.

On the future of space exploration and “realistic” spaceships:

On the novel Blindsight itself (these links contain spoilers, of course!):


Illustration: Concept art by Sparth (Nicolas Bouvier) for the French edition of Blindsight (published by Univers Poche).)

Lingo: Peter Watt’s “Blindsight”

Blindsight - alternate coverThis month, we’re reading Peter Watts’ Blindsight in my SF/F book club.  As pointed out by reviewer mattastrophic, “Watts seems to adhere at least somewhat to a writing dictum of John W. Campbell (intentionally or not): treat the advanced technology just like the people in your story would, like it’s just an everyday thing.”

It helps reduce the amount of text dedicated to exposition, and it provides immersion, but it can also leave the reader exhausted, even annoyed, at having to figure out so much without help.  So here is my attempt at providing a glossary of sorts!  Most of this is current-day technospeak, but it’s handy to have all in one place.

If you have additional entries to request or improvements to suggest, please leave a comment below and I’ll see what I can do!   Continue reading “Lingo: Peter Watt’s “Blindsight””

Life-long Learning

My science fiction and fantasy class ends this week.  Even though I had accumulated the grades to earn the certificate three weeks ago, I did all ten weeks of readings, essays, and peer reviews because, after all, learning itself is more real than certificates.  I’ve registered for a number of additional online classes throughout the year, since there are so many interesting and free choices.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been sprouting everywhere in the past year or so, but the logistics and economics of getting them to a point where they can start bringing in revenue to pay for themselves are problematic.  Open Culture had an interesting article on the topic a few days ago, The Big Problem for MOOCs Visualized.  In the mean time, I’m enjoying as many free classes as I can; who knows how long the experiment will last.  Anyone want to join me on any of these?

Smokestacks_3958I’m half-way through Property and Liability: An Introduction to Law and Economics, given by Dr. Richard Adelstein of Wesleyan University. It doesn’t make for great blog posts because the homework consists of online quizzes, and I’m too new at the topic to feel brash enough to ad-lib on the lectures.  However, the course is excellent and very well presented; I highly recommend it and will be looking out for more opportunities to hear Dr. Adelstein speak.

9_becoming_human_BIn a couple of weeks, the anthropology class Becoming Human begins, with Dr. Greg Downey of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  It sounds fascinating and only lasts four weeks, with assignments consisting once again of online quizzes.

immigration-nologo-2A week later starts a class I registered for in order to get an update on official policies, Citizenship and U.S. Immigration.  The course is hosted by Dr. Polly J. Price of Emory University and lasts five weeks; I expect it’s going to be another relying on online quizzes.  I’m particularly interested in learning about recent, planned, and hoped-for immigration reform.

art10_logoA class I’m greatly looking forward to, yet dread a little, starts in late May: Introduction to Art: Concepts & Techniques, with Professor Anna Divinsky of PennState.  This one actually requires that we create art pieces and upload scans or photos to the class Website, to be critiqued and discussed; media used will include graphite pencils, charcoal, pastels, ink, watercolour, acrylic paint, and collage.  So for seven weeks, this will probably be the activity I’m most interested in and talk about all the time.

Flag-raising-on-Iwo-JimaIn June starts another class I’m eagerly awaiting, The Camera Never Lies with Dr. Emmett Sullivan of the University of London International Programmes.  This six-weeks course is an introduction to use of photographs as historical evidence in the twentieth century, issues of authenticity and manipulation, and the place of film and historical adoptions as public history.

fury_millsFinally, in October I’ll be taking Live!: A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers with Dr. Jeannene Przyblyski of the California Institute of the Arts: “Explore art history from the artist’s perspective. Learn how contemporary artists, animators and gamers work from the art of the past as part of their creative process, while building your own skills in visual analysis and creative and critical thinking.”  Assessment will be a combination of peer-reviewed sketchbook exercises and online quizzes.

My new holiday: Kepler’s Day

1859 engraving of Johannes KeplerI am so very tired of anti-reason, anti-science, anti-logic, anti-reality attitudes that I need to treat myself to a bit of celebrating of the very opposite.  I’m sick and tired of people who form a world view and then cherry pick and distort everything they hear and see to support that world view.

These people can be recognized by the fact that there is nothing that we can do or say, no amount of evidence that can suffice to convince them to alter their opinion.  They may change their soda preference or opt for a different vacation spot next year and hold that as proof that they do change and can be open-minded, but they never, ever actually change their mind in regard to their cherished beliefs.

Continue reading “My new holiday: Kepler’s Day”

My Favourite Things

classroomAntibiotics and prescription glasses
Polio vaccines and food for the masses
Indoor plumbing and reading and writing
These are a few of my favourite things

Free education and books by the dozen
Women’s right to choose whether to have children
Emancipation of human beings
These are a few of my favourite things

Microwave ovens and soft toilet paper
Freedom of creed and a chance to discover
Black holes, galaxies, charmed quarks and superstrings
These are a few of my favourite things

When a fool brays
When TV sings
Of past golden days
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Stick to the program!

I cannot understand why so many people, especially in the U.S., insist that religion has to take on the role of explaining the physical world and its workings. We have a much better, very successful methodology for this: it’s called science. It’s self-correcting and it provides verifiable results that have measurably improved our quality of life.

Even though I don’t necessarily agree with the results for certain creeds, I can well understand religion as a means of establishing a moral code, a set of precepts and values to live by, and a metaphysical explanation for our purpose that takes us beyond the confines of our basic survival, wants, and needs. In fact, I think it’s good for everyone to reflect on these matters. Why not stick to what religion can do and leave it out of what it’s not good at?

Because religion is not, in fact, good at explaining the material world. There isn’t a single disease we have eradicated religions’ explanations for the material world, not a single labour-saving device we invented, nary a space mission we have launched.

People who take religion to arenas where it’s not successful are forced to become anti-science, anti-rationalist, and ultimately anti-reality in order to contort their minds to a bizarre shape. They do the greater public a grave disservice and set their children, their communities, and their country back far more than they are able to comprehend thanks to their willful ignorance.