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Sunday, June 28, 2015

GSE2 - All These Worlds are Yours

What a week it's been! I've added fourteen new star systems to my video catalog and that's only about half of the systems I visited. When I got to within a few hundred light years of my target system, I just had to get there. I knew I wouldn't be the first. It's that sort of system. But I had to see it for myself, so to quote an ancient saying I put the pedal to the metal.

Of all these systems three stand out in my mind, and they aren't the systems where I found life. Those two systems are BLEAE THUA OQ-P C5-0 and BLEAE THUA TQ-W B15-2. Both have life-bearing gas giants, one harboring water-based life and the other ammonia-based algae. It's getting to be a week doesn't go by where I don't find life. That's reassuring in the same way a thousand years ago people understood radically increasing the carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere would be bad for humanity, but life would go on no matter how bad it got. Life finds a way even when mankind can't.

No, the most interesting places this week were all high metal content systems. It surprised me to find so much metal being way out between galactic arms as I am. I thought metal would become more rare, having been attracted and bound to the spiral arms by the Milky Way's magnetic field. Though it is true stars have become rarefied, they still seem to shepherd the normal amount of metal containing worlds.

The first system I encountered this week with lots of lovely high metal content worlds was BLEAE THUA NG-Y D45. It is an A type hot white star with six beautiful nuggets. One of these was so blue I thought for certain it'd be a terraforming candidate. At only -45 degrees Celsius it wouldn't be too cold, and it had a mass about equivalent to Mars. It even has a large moon like Earth. But alas, the surface scanner said no way. It must be all that nitrogen it has as an atmosphere.

[gallery type="rectangular" columns="2" size="medium" ids="5314,5313,5312,5311,5310,5309"]

The next system rich with metal was the binary system BLEAE THUA BO-R B18-2. It also has six planets; all of them high metal content worlds. When I took my first look at these worlds before getting close enough for a surface scan I was convinced none of them would be terraforming candidates. But the surface scanner once again rubbed my nose in it. The fifth planet, which is even smaller and colder than the one I thought would be a candidate in BLEAE THUA NG-Y D45, can be terraformed. Sometimes I wonder if my surface scanner is smoking. That world has 1.0% sulphur dioxide in its atmosphere. The smell would be intolerable!

[gallery type="rectangular" columns="2" size="medium" ids="5319,5318,5317,5316"]

The last heavy metal system contains five stars and seven noteworthy planets. All seven of them orbit the main K type star of this Evans third hierarchy system. None of the other stars have planets of their own, not even the other K type star. The cream of the crop in this system is BLEAE THUA IG-F C11-10 A 1. It's a rare metal rich planet that should be worth a very nice finders fee when I get back. The fact I was the first human to ever lay a surface scanner on it is just icing on the cake.

[gallery type="rectangular" columns="2" size="medium" ids="5327,5326,5325,5324,5323,5322,5321"]

Now I sit one system out from my first goal. It'll take a long time to survey it. I'll have to survey with a few things I've never dealt with before. It'll be interesting, and probably dangerous. I'm going to get a really good night's rest before I jump into it. As I said, I know I won't be the first surveyor to visit, but I still have no idea what to expect aside what's been known about the system for the last millennium. But before I go, I'll leave you with the rest of the interesting planets from the last notable fourteen star systems - all 21 of them. Enjoy the pictures, and if you'd like to see them dynamically you can always check them out in my video catalog. I'm up to 75 notable star systems and I'm adding more every week. So, until next week, fly careful.

[gallery type="rectangular" columns="2" size="medium" ids="5350,5349,5348,5347,5346,5345,5344,5343,5342,5341,5340,5339,5338,5337,5336,5335,5334,5333,5332,5331,5330"]

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

I Need a Revolution in Gaming

The Steam summer sale is over. I bought nothing, even though there are games on my wish list. I just wasn't enticed enough to throw down some money. I've been quite content playing Elite: Dangerous (a non-steam game,) and while my X52 Pro throttle was out of commission Kerbal Space Program (KSP, a Steam purchase.)

Evidently I was not the only one suffering from this lack of enthusiasm. I was reading through my blog roll on Monday and came across GW2 and Heart of Thorns: Has Steam Devaluation Finally Hit MMOs? by Herding Cats and Steam, What Have You Wrought? by The Ancient Gaming Noob (TAGN.) They too saw the Steam summer sale come and go and noted there was a difference this year. As TAGN put it,

So I ended up here, at the end of the sale, having purchased nothing. Which is fine… I hardly needed any more unplayed games in my library. But it is amusing to consider how things have changed, how the Steam Summer Sale used to be such a big deal and how I would buy things just because they were priced so damn attractively. Steam has trained me over the years to hold off and only buy things that I am sure I will play.

Herding Cats had a slightly different take on the lack of enthusiasm, but likewise spent less than in previous years. Here's what Herding Cats had to say,

It’s a problem that I can sympathize with, although I too am part of the plague of deal-seeking buyers. The Steam Summer Sale just ended, and I spent less than I have in years. In past sales I’ve felt frustrated by a lack of fresh, new games to buy, but that wasn’t the problem this time. This year, I just can’t make myself pay more than $9.99 for a game.

As I read each post though, what I saw between the lines, and what I feel in my own heart, is it's not really a cost issue or a Steam devaluation issue. Herding cats gives an impressive list of purchased expansions costing a minimum of $40. I myself gladly shoveled out $50 to buy Elite: Dangerous (E:D,) and I still pay CCP $15 a month to keep my EVE Online account active. I don't think money is the real issue here, at least for me.

What I see going on here is, to put it simply, boredom. I personally have this intense feeling of "been there, done that" whenever I see a new title come out. About the only thing that has me spending my money right now are state of the art graphics and, to a lesser degree, curiosity about the reboots of some of my old favorites. Those are exactly why I purchased E:D and Mortal Kombat X (MKX.) They are amazingly beautiful in their own rights, and I wanted to see what the game looked like brought into the 21st century.

But guess what? I haven't picked up my controller for MKX in over a month now. When my HOTAS went down I switched to the newly released version of KSP to pass the hours. Fight games are fine, but there are only so many times you can press the same buttons at insane speed before my hand and brain get tired of it.

I feel the same way about first person shooters (FPS.) When Doom first released I played the hell out of it. And I will buy the reboot when it releases. But make no mistake, I'll be buying it for the awesome modern graphics where no two chainsaw cuts are the same. And I can almost guarantee you I'll put the controller down after a month and become a very infrequent visitor thereafter.

The only thing I can think of that might make me hang with it more than a month is if the Oculus Rift is released by then. I do intend to purchase one unless they are stupid expensive. I like 3D a lot, but two of my three regular movie partners can't do it so I'm going to have to get my 3D fix somehow else. If the new Doom is fully 3D, which I'm certain it will be, the experience will be different enough to increase the length of my play time. But sooner rather than later, I will put Doom down because I'll run out of things to do and the thrill will evaporate.

And that, that right there, is what I think the real underlying issue is with the Steam summer sale and the general apathy that's been pointed out. But if the thrill is gone, why is it gone? This is something that's haunted the back of my mind for a couple of years now. I'm finding the time I'm playing games dwindling. I used to spend hours upon hours playing each day. Now I play a couple of hours every other day or so. I am generally not excited to log in. I used to have this great anticipation about getting home so I could fire up my latest adventure and continue the saga. Now there is a lot of meh in me, even for Elite: Dangerous.

After giving it careful consideration, I know what the problem is. Back when I bought KSP years ago, it was new. I'd not played a game like it before. I sank 300+ hours into it in much less than a year. KSP excited me because it was not the evolution of an old title but something entirely different. It was science (a passion of mine) meets gaming (another passion of mine.) It was personally new and exciting because it combined two things I love and they were from the opposite side of the fence to some ways for thinking. My real world knowledge of physics met my avatar and I was thrilled!

But today all we seem to get are reboots and they are not KSP. The gaming industry seems to be caught in the same rut as the movie industry. Just look at the title of the most popular release last month: Grand Theft Auto (GTA) V. There is no revolution there, only an evolution and a minor one at that. Elite: Dangerous is in the same position, though it's a larger evolutionary jump from the original than GTA V is from even GTA I. Still, it is only an evolution. It does nothing all that different from the original, or any other game of its genre. It's Internet spaceships but without the player politics.

Even the long-awaited and highly ambitious plans for Star Citizen can't be called revolutionary. It'll simply be a FPS/MMORPG/Internet spaceship game. There's nothing revolutionary in any of that, and tying them together in one universe isn't even evolutionary as far as game design goes. It's merely ambitious. It speaks more to the power of modern computing than it does to the merits of the game design. Yes, it is something players of Internet spaceships have wanted for years, but it is not revolutionary.

Yeah, I hear you. You want to know what is revolutionary if a game like Star Citizen, which I have supported BTW, isn't. FFS people, if I knew that I'd be working on the game and doing everything I could to keep it secret. I sure as hell wouldn't blog about it. But I'm not a game designer, I'm a game player. Sure, I've got some ideas but they could be half-baked for all I really know. But I do have a vision in my mind of something that would be revolutionary to my way of thinking.

I reviewed a book some months ago called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. You can click the link to read that review. In this book was the O.A.S.I.S., short for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. If you took the Internet and slaved it to a 3D system complete with haptic feedback suits, and allowed people to do anything while logged in short of eating and defecating, you would have the O.A.S.I.S. That would be a revolution.

But it doesn't have to be completely immersive. There are people earning a living as game players/broadcasters. Markiplier isn't so popular because he's a great game player. It's because he's entertaining. I don't consider what he does as revolutionary. It's really just an evolution of broadcast media. But if there was a way where others could interact with his gameplay directly, helping or hindering as it happened, and earn prestige/loot/earn a living themselves - well, that might just be revolutionary too.

One thing preventing this sort of online interaction is we spend so much of our time worrying about our privacy. Will such interaction compromise it? Really, we never had any privacy to begin with; it's just faster to get your information now or easier to peak over the fence with a Go-Pro on a selfie-stick (drones anyone?) than it was 20 years ago. Still, people are very uncomfortable with a world like Ready Player One, where half the world's population earns a living in a virtual job and everyone is online. There is a huge loss of control when your world extends beyond your fingertips, and humans have always feared that loss of control. But I think what I'm waiting for is that world. So much of my job is done via remote access now, taking the additional step to provide virtual interaction wouldn't really affect it. It would actually put a friendly avatar face on the line. A presence more than a disembodied voice coming out of the phone.

And when are game companies going to realize that awarding RL loot to those who pay to play, like some giant lottery, is a win-win proposition. I'm not talking about awarding virtual items. That already happens and it isn't enough to be revolutionary. I'm talking about a chance to win a flat screen television, or a gourmet BBQ grill, or a Tesla X for being a paid up member of the Frontier Pilot's Association! Would you buy into a game developer subscription program that gave you real world rewards for playing? Would you pay $50 a month if you had it for the chance to win a Tesla X? Why not? I would. I'm going to probably play the game regardless, but without such rewards I will certainly be curtailing how much I spend. Linking on going real rewards to the game might just be the ticket to reignite enthusiasm. If it's run properly it'd be profitable. Just look at how many people buy Powerball tickets, and how that number sky rockets when the payout is 300 million dollars.

In the end, I think I can sum up how I'm feeling by stating I yearn for a game that mixes my real life with my virtual life in a more meaningful way. Some people will think I need my head examined for having such thoughts. They may be correct. But without that very personal connection, I can see a day coming when I just won't log in any more. The people who want me to see a shrink now will no doubt say that is for the best. That I should do "real" things and not "virtual" things. They don't understand that anything I do is real to me, whether it's online in a game or on the line I've dropped from a charter boat. It's time to stop pretending otherwise - or go back to the table top.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

GSE2 - Ammonia Avenue

Is there no sign of light as we stand in the darkness?
Watching the sun arise
Is there no sign of life as we gaze at the waters?
Into the strangers eyes

And who are we to criticize or scorn the things that they do?
For we shall seek and we shall find Ammonia Avenue

1 It was a good week of exploration and survey work for me. Though there were a fair share of M class dwarfs with nothing but ice balls orbiting them, there were just as many K and G type systems full of good worlds and even a few surprises.

The first system I came across on my route was a simple M type red dwarf with a single planet, but what a planet PRU EUQ HO-L B49-0 1 is. It's a Neptune type ice giant with just a hint more lavender in than blue. It's atmosphere seemed every bit as violent and energetic as Neptune's though.

[caption id="attachment_5247" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]PRU EUQ HO-L B49-0 1 PRU EUQ HO-L B49-0 1[/caption]

The next system I surveyed, PRU EUQ TU-E C25-2, is almost a Sol system analog. It has a single G type main star with eight planetary bodies orbiting it. They are dominantly high metal content worlds and gas giants. There are no terrestrial worlds or terraform candidates so the analog pretty much ends there. There are also 3 gas giants rather than the two Sol has, and no ice giants at all. These planets are all cash makers. The fifth planet is especially interesting to me. It is partially molten which is very odd for a planet so far out in the orbital scheme of its system. Normally the molten planets are very close to their star, where the tidal forces and intense output of the star keeps the planet in flux just as Jupiter does with Io in the Sol system. In this case, I'd say the tidal forces exerted on the planet by its somewhat large moon is responsible, but there could also be an abnormally high level of radioactivity in the planet's core. Further deep surface scans will be necessary to determine if that is the case, once those types of scanners become available on the market.

[gallery type="square" columns="2" size="medium" ids="5256,5255,5254,5253,5252,5251,5250,5249"]

The next three systems I surveyed were old, cold red dwarf systems with nothing but ice planets orbiting them. They won't pay very much, but the surveys will at least keep others from wasting further time on them.

PRU EUQ GU-A B55-3 was the fourth of these old and cold systems I surveyed, and I frankly didn't expect much better from it. It's a trinary system with a M type red dwarf main star and distant binary companions: L type and T type dwarfs. Fortunately I was mistaken and three valuable planets orbit the red dwarf. All of these high metal content planets have significant atmospheres with lots of water in them. They are not terraforming candidates, but the abundance of water will make them excellent refining colonies.

[gallery type="rectangular" columns="2" size="medium" ids="5260,5259,5258"]

There are two more systems I managed to survey this week, but I'm going to skip the next one to report on it at greater length. The last system I surveyed was PRU EUQ PT-Z D13-72, another G type star with two gas giants just like Sol. One of them even looks a fair amount like Jupiter though it's in the sixth orbital ring. There are also four metal rich inner planets, just like Sol. However, this system has no ice giants.

[gallery type="square" columns="2" size="medium" ids="5267,5266,5265,5264,5268,5263"]

The second to the last system I surveyed, PRU EUQ FN-Z C27-10, is unlike anything I've encountered yet. It is a single K type star with seven valuable planets. Three of the planets are extremely valuable: a terraform candidate water world, a terrestrial water world and a unbelieveable ammonia terrestrial planet that is so beautiful it took my breath away when I saw it.

[gallery type="rectangular" columns="2" size="medium" ids="5277,5276,5275,5274,5273,5272,5271"]

PRU EUQ FN-Z C27-10 6 is a terrestrial world with ammonia-carbon based life, ammonia-oxygen atmosphere and, I will go out on a limb and predict this, ammonia oceans. It is a gorgeous red-brown greenish tinged planet with a small ice cap and fluffy ammonia clouds. I've never surveyed anything like it. It is true that I've discovered ammonia-carbon based life living in the atmosphere of gas giants, but this is no gas giant world. It is just less than half the size of earth with just over twice the atmospheric pressure. It's a cold world; a Breen world, if you're familiar with that old 20th century entertainment vid.

This star system is rife with ammonia. The second planet also has an ammonia rich atmosphere with significant amounts of nitrogen and water vapor. That makes it slightly acidic, probably why it's not a terraforming candidate, but it's a nice world nonetheless. The terraforming candidate is actually a terrestrial water world but has an ammonia atmosphere making it unsuitable for carbon-water based land life. But it could be. It does have an active water-carbon lifecycle in its water ocean showing its acidity is not too high for life such as us. It is a very hot world with an average temperature of 400 kelvin, 127 degrees celsius, but it's doable.

As for planet six, I wouldn't change a thing about it. It is too acidic to attempt terraforming anyway, and such an attempt would destroy the life already firmly established on it. It's a world I would love to land and walk upon, even though it is so cold and crushing. One day it'll be possible, but not this day. I have to move on, but I will remember this world for a long time to come. And one day, I know will return to walk upon its surface.

  1. Ammonia Avenue by Alan Parson's Project. Writer(s): Eric Woolfson, Alan Parsons; Copyright: Woolfsongs Ltd., Universal Music 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Acceptance (Southern Reach #3) by Jeff VanderMeer

[caption id="attachment_5227" align="alignleft" width="150"]Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer - ISBN 1483016013 (ISBN13: 9781483016016) Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer - ISBN 1483016013 (ISBN13: 9781483016016)[/caption]

"Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim lit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been."

I have finished the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. As I suspected, to really understand what is going on in Area X you have to read all three books. The first book, Annihilation, which won the 2014 Nebula Award, stood on its own. However, Southern Reach #2 and Southern Reach #3 are very much tied together, with Acceptance being a direct continuation of Authority. I reviewed Annihilation here and Authority here. I'll review Acceptance in this post, and then sum up my thoughts on the entire trilogy. But first, the publisher's summary of Acceptance.

It is winter in Area X. A new team embarks across the border on a mission to find a member of a previous expedition who may have been left behind. As they press deeper into the unknown navigating new terrain and new challenges the threat to the outside world becomes only more daunting.

In the final installment of the Southern Reach Trilogy, the mysteries of Area X may have been solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound or terrifying.

This summary is a little misleading. There are no new major characters introduced in Acceptance. However, certain characters from the first two books are revisited in detail. This is necessary to allow the reader to really understand what happened, is happening, in Area X; and why it is so damn strange and deadly.

Acceptance begins a few days after Authority ends. It picks up with the same two characters with whom the previous book ended, namely Ghost Bird and John Rodriguez aka Control. This is a small spoiler, but they are back in Area X, and they are looking for answers. Their search for answers is a third of the book.

The author also introduces you to Sal Evans, the lighthouse keeper. You've heard about him in Annihilation and also in Authority, but only as someone from long ago directly connected to the lighthouse when Area X first came to be. He and the lighthouse seem to be one of the focal points of Area X, and it is important for everyone to know what happened there. That includes the reader. A third of this book is his story from his own flawed point of view.

You are also introduced to the previous director of the Southern Reach, Cynthia. You know her already, as well as anyone else in fact, but that's her secret to tell you, not mine. She is as inextricably tied to Area X as Sal Evans. Her story is another full third of Acceptance, perhaps even more.

Through the eyes of these four characters you will learn many of the secrets only hinted at in Annihilation and Authority. And just like you, all these characters want answers. Answers are what Acceptance is all about. And like these characters, you'll get few of them, but they will be important answers. Nevertheless, the answers you get you might not understand. I know I'm still sorting through some of them. And for every answer you get, you'll have two more questions to ask. You won't get answers to those questions. You'll just have to accept the answers you do get. But that's the way life is, isn't it?

What isn't necessarily how life works is that sometimes you'll actually get more than one answer to a given question, and they could all be correct. Separate correct answers could happen for a variety of reasons. I think all the causes can be summed up by stating an answer evolves along with the object of the original question. To quote another book, "Life is change."

In the end, Acceptance is not just a story about the present, but also about the past. Through the magnifying lens of the lives these characters live and have lived, Jeff VanderMeer paints a picture of a world devastated by abuse but still ripe with potential. I wondered last review if there was a meta comment being made by him in this trilogy, and I believe there is.

In our need to feel safe, we attempt to control those around us, to modify their behavior to be more compatible with our sense of security. The outcome is predictable: resentment, rebellion, refusal. Control eventually requires repression, which leads to authoritarianism. Eventually everyone who doesn't comply is a suspected anarchist, and every thirteenth citizen is actively working for the Stasi.

What's worse, how we treat each other directly translates to how we treat the world. Our tendency to try to control everything so we never feel threatened by anything is at odds with life's basic precept of adapt or die. I don't think it's an accident Area X is described as a "pristine wilderness," and the main character is simply called The Biologist. We never learn he name, but her nickname is Ghost Bird, and that's a message too.

And when environments, interpersonal or biological, eventually deteriorate from the abuse heaped upon them, as they inevitably must, we reject the circumstances of the situation with which we are uncomfortable. But circumstance is reality, no matter we may wish otherwise. Sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and bad things happen. Sometimes decisions are made in good faith but are tragically wrongheaded; with unpleasant and possibly fatal repercussions to follow. We can't change those bad outcomes, those past decisions. Yet we attempt to obscure their reality, to change others perceptions of them, in order to hide from a truth we find unpleasant. In so doing, we blind ourselves to answers that could save us. In the end we destroy ourselves.

Through all of this, there's a choice to be made. The title of book three sums it up neatly. At some point, acceptance is the only real choice left to make. Failing to accept a reality, no matter how at odds it is with our wishes, will only be our undoing. Acceptance is the first step to correction, and that's the only road to salvation.

It's a powerful meta. One applicable the women and men of the Southern Reach. One germane to life in Area X. One relevant to life on planet Earth today, and for the next hundred years.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

GSE2 - A Field of Gas Giants

I'm back in the saddle. It turns out I was correct about the throttle assembly and Thursday I received a replacement. I spent Friday night reprogramming the X52 Pro HOTAS back to its original settings, but I didn't get a chance to fly. Yesterday I was able to invest about two hours towards my first goal, but I progressed less than 50 light years.

It's interesting how you can drop out of hyperspace and find a system that has nothing but a star in it, and the very next jump you land in a system with 64 celestial bodies other than the main star. It takes a long time to survey a system like that. That system is PRU EUQ QO-G C24-0. The system has two K type stars and an M type star orbiting in an Evan's hierarchy 2c arrangement. The primary K type and the M type dwarf comprise the binary pair which the second K type orbits approximately 50,000 light seconds out.

Around those three stars orbit a multitude of huge asteroid belts, three high metal content planets and five ringed gas giants as well as the average assortment of ice balls and Kuiper objects. Here's are the catalog stills from my survey.

[gallery columns="2" size="medium" type="rectangular" ids="5213,5212,5211,5210,5209,5208,5207,5206"]

PRU EUQ QO-G C24-0 C 2 is a water-based life-bearing world thus defying traditional classification and making this an inhabited system. Of the other four gas giants in this system, AB 1 and AB 4 are Class III gas giants while AB 2 and C 3 are Class I gas giants.

But that sort of begs a question. The detailed surface scanner returns these classification results but what do they really mean? I did a little research and it turns out they refer to Sudarsky's gas giant classification system proposed by David Sudarsky and colleagues Adam Burrows and Philip Pinto in the early years of the 21st century. It is an attempt to predict a gas giant's appearance based on its atmospheric composition. Here is an excerpt of their first paper on the subject.

We generate theoretical albedo and reflection spectra for a full range of extrasolar giant planet (EGP) models, from Jovian to 51 Pegasi class objects. Our albedo modeling utilizes the latest atomic and molecular cross sections, Mie theory treatment of scattering and absorption by condensates, a variety of particle size distributions, and an extension of the Feautrier technique, which allows for a general treatment of the scattering phase function. We find that, because of qualitative similarities in the compositions and spectra of objects within each of five broad effective temperature ranges, it is natural to establish five representative EGP albedo classes.

This was all done long before we had direct observation of gas giants beyond the Sol system, so it isn't 100% accurate when it comes to predicting what individual planets look like 1 .

However, it is a solid classification system for atmospheric composition and thus Cartographics continues to use it. Here are the five categories by atmosphere:

  • Class I - Ammonia Clouds

  • Class II - Water Clouds

  • Class III - Cloudless

  • Class IV - Alkali Metals

  • Class V - Silicate Clouds

In the Sol system, both Jupiter and Saturn are Class I gas giants. They both have ammonia based atmospheres. Uranus and Neptune are too small for classification as gas giants and are thus considered ice worlds. Therefore, beyond Class I gas giants people of the 21st century really didn't know what these planets would look like - with one recent exception.

Early in the second decade of the 21st century, scientists determined the color of an exoplanet for the first time. By measuring HD 189733b's (HD 189733 A 2 in our terms) visible light using polarimetry, and subsequently measuring the planet's albedo, they saw a predominance of blue spectrum wavelengths. They attributed this shift toward the blue end of the spectrum to Rayleigh scattering, the same phenomena that gives Earth's sky its blue color. Further observations confirmed this result and thus HD 189733 A 2 became the first extra-solar gas giant with a known color.

Nevertheless, this still did not tell them how the atmosphere looked. The didn't know if there was banding, or storms, or if it was a uniform color like Uranus. Since it orbits HD 189733 A closer than Mercury orbits Sol, they imagined it could also be a roiling cauldron of 1100 kelvin gas, for such is the temperature of HD 189733 A 2. Such knowledge would not come for centuries, and is still being fleshed out today by explorers like me.

Damn. Now this entire log entry seems to be one long self-congratulatory pat on the back. That's not my intent. It's just that we've been investigating these worlds through observation and visitation for a millennium, and we still have billions (trillions?) of worlds left to investigate - many more than we already have in fact. It's seems like it's a job with no end. Well, at least I know what I'll be doing the rest of my life. I suppose there's comfort in that. Fly careful.

  1. Or Elite: Dangerous has deviated from the classification system when it comes to planet rendering. If you want to see what certain extra-solar gas giants are predicted to look like according to Sudarsky's system, you can download the NASA sponsored program Celestia for Windows, Linux or OS X at You can also see the five representative types at's_gas_giant_classification

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Authority (Southern Reach #2) by Jeff VanderMeer

[caption id="attachment_5193" align="alignleft" width="100"]Authority (Southern Reach #2) by Jeff VanderMeer Authority (Southern Reach #2) by Jeff VanderMeer[/caption]

Last weekend was the Nebula Awards ceremony in Chicago. For those that have not yet heard, the Nebula Award for best Novel went to Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. Though this was not my pick, I have no issues with the award. I picked The Three Body Problem because it was, to me, classic science fiction. I have a bias toward classic science fiction. The Area X trilogy, of which Annihilation is the first book, is New Weird. It is a fusion of fantasy and horror. It's not my typical cup of tea. But Annihilation was extremely well written and deserving of recognition. But the same is true of all the nominees this year. I think we as readers sometimes take for granted what an excellent time for science fiction and fantasy we live in. You can read my review of Annihilation if you'd like to know more of my thoughts on the 2014 Nebula Award winner for best novel.

That said, did I mention Jeff VanderMeer wrote a trilogy? And lucky me, I bought the entire set when I had the chance back in March. Yesterday I finished listening to the second book of the trilogy, Authority. Wow. Let me correct one thing from my review of Annihilation right now. In that review I called the characters archetypical and not very well-developed. I stand by that assessment, but now know it was done on purpose. Before I get into that a little more, here's the publisher's summary of book two.

For thirty years, a secret agency called the Southern Reach has monitored expeditions into Area X—a remote and lush terrain mysteriously sequestered from civilization. After the twelfth expedition, the Southern Reach is in disarray, and John Rodriguez (aka “Control”) is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and more than two hundred hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve.

I love to the point summaries that don't tell the story to explain the purpose of the book. The paragraph above is indeed what Authority is about. It takes up where Annihilation left off. We leave Area X proper and take up residence at Southern Reach headquarters, with the people responsible for sending in the expeditions. It is a place both familiar and alien at the same time. It is a government agency suffering for lack of attention and funding as so many do. The best and brightest minds have left for better assignments, and the people who remain are insular, eclectic and down right odd. I soon realized when it comes to interpersonal interactions there is little more than just a border separating Area X from the Southern Reach. The new protagonist, John Rodriquez, is thrown into the Southern Reach with little idea what he's getting into, or the fate that awaits him.

It is during the second book I came to realize the shallow character development of the first book was done purposefully. Without an omniscient narrator, and with the available narrator being unreliable, there was no way to inform the reader what happened to bring about the twelfth expedition into Area X. But in Authority, the files are open and the clues are available to anyone who has the time to read them; the intelligence to puzzle out those clues notwithstanding. It quickly becomes a first-rate mystery where everyone seems to have a past and most don't want it known. Secrets abound. Everyone has a motive, some obvious and some not, and people are played like pawns on a chessboard. The real question quickly becomes, who is moving the pieces?

This is business as usual when your bosses all work for Central, the country's domestic spy agency. Every day seems loaded with secrets, intrigue and mysteries. Things John Rodriquez as Control has to uncover if he's to get to the bottom of the mystery that is Area X. But John is not sent to the Southern Reach by mistake. It's his last chance to succeed, because like everyone else at the Southern Reach he is damaged goods. While there, he must contend with his own feelings of failure and inadequacy, and that doesn't make his job any easier.

Authority is told exclusively by John from his point of view. He's not necessarily unreliable, but he certainly hasn't been told everything. I often found myself caught up in John's issues as much as what was going on at Southern Reach. That's actually one of the things I most liked about this trilogy. They are very personal, with the biologist in the first book and not with John. It's like peeking in on other people's lives and realizing they're more screwed up than you are. It's almost like Schadenfreude. It makes you feel like your problems aren't so bad.

Like book one, there is an ending to this book, but not a conclusion. It's become obvious to me these three books are carefully intertwined. The events in each book stand alone, but the events are only a part of the whole story. It's like looking through a key hole. You know there's an entire room on the other side, but you only get to see a small section of the far wall, or the chair positioned in front of the door. It's hard to tell the color of anything without the lights on. That's what the first two books are: key holes looking into a dark room. And to make matters worse, we don't get to look through the keyhole ourselves. Someone else looks and describes what they see. If we are lucky, we might eventually get a vague idea of what the room is like, but the entire house remains a mystery, and in this case wrapped in an enigma.

Lastly, it's become apparent in Authority there are things... meta... on which the author is commenting. I'll hold off on saying anything more about those until I finish the trilogy, which should be in the next week. I started the third book last night. The last Hugo nominee will just have to wait. I've got to know what the hell is going on in Area X, and I want to find out what happens to these wonderfully broken people who've managed to drag me into their world gone insane.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Kobra Mark III

I've run into a problem preventing me from continuing Galactic Survey Expedition 2. My throttle has failed. I've placed the details below. So I've gone a week without being able to fly my Cobra Mark III. It's been hard. The withdrawal symptoms were really getting to me. Fortunately there is an alternative.

Here is the pictorial record of the history making maiden flight of the Kobra Mark III flown by Jebediah and Bill Kerman. Click on the first picture to follow the mission step by step using the Kerbal's advanced album technology. ;)

[gallery columns="2" size="medium" ids="5178,5180,5177,5176,5175,5174,5173,5172,5171,5170,5169,5168,5167,5166,5165,5164,5163,5162,5161,5160,5159,5158,5157,5156,5155,5154"]

Now, about the throttle, remember when I mentioned a few weeks past I'd had an encounter with a dark object and it'd knocked me out of super cruise? Well, the fact of the matter was I'd had my super cruise mapped to the slider on my throttle assembly and when I'd engage the throttle the slider also engaged. As I sped up and slowed down while surveying the throttle managed to actuate the slider twice for an emergency drop from super cruise. This behavior only got worse as the weeks progressed. Here's a short video I made on what it was doing.


Needless to say that was quite annoying. For a week I flew with nothing mapped to the throttle except acceleration and attempted to remedy the problem by driver update, reinstall and reconfiguration. You know the shtick: all those things technical support is going to have you do anyway? As I do IT for a living, I did it several times and went so far as to open up the registry and manually delete any key associated with the Saitek X52 Pro software. As I have a Mad Catz V.7 keyboard this was a bit harrowing. At one point I had to pull out an old Dell keyboard I keep around as a spare in order to continue. In other words, I was thorough. My 20+ years experience told me it was not a software problem. So I contacted Saitek support.

It took them two days to respond. That did not make me happy. The response I received was to uninstall and reinstall the drivers. That made me even less happy as I'd supplied the above video to them and quite clearly explained how I'd already uninstalled and reinstalled the software several times. But I did as asked anyway (not the registry purge - gah!) and responded I had done as requested and the throttle was still malfunctioning. Two more days later I get a response and he says my driver and software versions were not the latest and to use the latest drivers, versions provided. The thing is, the versions provided were older than the versions I'd downloaded from Saitek the day I opened the ticket. And no one had yet even looked at the video I provided. It was obvious to me the drone was responding from a checklist that would string this out for quite some time. I'd already went weeks with a bad throttle and I'd had enough.

I sort of went nuclear on him. I got my RMA the very next email, but of course it was to only send the throttle in and "they'd repair it as soon as possible." I don't expect it back any time this month. Damn it! I'm not buying another one of their HOTAS so long as they have a two-year warranty. They need to do right by this and I am deeply dissatisfied with their response so far. I suppose I'm cutting my nose off to spite my face. I thought Saitek was better than this. They've dug a deep, deep hole with me by not looking at the evidence I presented and by not sending a replacement outright. Saitek as a company really has slipped. It makes me wish someone made a HOTAS as good who also puts the customer first. Anyone else have stories to share concerning Saitek technical and warranty support?

Edit 6/8/15: Vindication

Ticket Details
Ticket ID: 180377
Department: US Warranty 
Type: Issue
Status: RMA Un-Repairable and Replaced
Priority: Normal

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files, Book 15 by Jim Butcher

[caption id="attachment_5135" align="alignleft" width="137"]Skin Game by Jim Butcher Skin Game by Jim Butcher[/caption]

For those who have not heard, the Hugo Award nominations this year were gamed by a group calling themselves Sad Puppies. They were abetted in this endeavor by another group already active in the Gamergate turmoil who call themselves Rabid Puppies. My sense is these are frustrated young (ish) males who are upset the world doesn't revolve around their wants and desires. Frankly I don't give a rats ass about them. They are just a bunch of puerile loud-mouths shouting "pay attention to me" into the electronic byways of the Internet. But they do have the ability, and willingness, to organize themselves and exert their will. As far as I'm concerned this is no huge talent, but it did allow them to have an undue influence on the Hugo Award nominations this year. You can now see the ballot summaries for yourself on the main Hugo Award page. It's not so hard to have an effect when only 1827 ballots were cast for best novel and no one nominee got more than 387 votes. As you can see, it really was no great feat, but it did happen.

But that's not necessarily all bad news. The Hugo Awards have been gamed before for various reasons. It's one of those things that happens with a public ballot. You take the bad with the good. Also, one of the gripes these people have is that their science-fiction and fantasy tastes are not being duly represented in the awards year after year. For that I think they have no one to blame but themselves; a failure they obviously corrected this year, but their tastes are certainly reflected on the 2015 ballot and it is no fault of the author's nominated by said gaming of the system - at least in the best novel category, which is the only category I'm reviewing.

That was a two paragraph introduction to the review of "Skin Game" by Jim Butcher, for which I am somewhat sorry to inflict upon you, but felt compelled to clarify for them that know of the Hugo Award drama. There are strong feelings on all sides of this issue and some will feel like I have somehow betrayed them by listening to and reviewing this book. Poppycock. Jim Butcher is a New York times best-selling author. He didn't get there because of the Sad Puppies and he deserves a thoughtful and respectful review of his work just like I've done with all the other nominees so far (as part of my Nebula Nominee reviews.) Thinking otherwise is puerile behavior as bad as that exhibited by the Sad Puppies. I don't believe this applies to all authors and publishing houses on the ballot, for some of them were self-serving in the extreme, but it does apply to Jim Butcher and Tor Books, his publisher.

So, how about I get on to the review of "Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files, Book 15" by Jim Butcher? Great! Here's a non-spoiler version of the publisher's summary.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, is about to have a very bad day….

Because as Winter Knight to the Queen of Air and Darkness, Harry never knows what the scheming Mab might want him to do. Usually, it’s something awful.

He doesn’t know the half of it….

Mab has just traded Harry’s skills to pay off one of her debts. And now he must help a group of supernatural villains—led by one of Harry’s most dreaded and despised enemies, Nicodemus Archleone—to break into the highest-security vault in town so that they can then access the highest-security vault in the Nevernever.

Dresden’s always been tricky, but he’s going to have to up his backstabbing game to survive this mess—assuming his own allies don’t end up killing him before his enemies get the chance….

This was a tremendously fun book to listen too. I've not read nor listened to any Dresden Files books before, but I now feel like I've been missing out on a helluva lot of fun. Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the protagonist, is a snarky, cynical and deadly serious modern-day wizard. He started out as a supernatural private investigator and has since become... more. It's complicated. :) If you are into hardboiled detectives, you should enjoy Harry Dresden. He is a well filled out character with history and back story enough to slake any lore purist's thirst.

One of the aspects I particularly enjoyed about this book was the hardboiled aspect of the story telling. I've always been a fan of Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane; the first person introspective narration, the often gritty environment, the earthiness, if you would, of it all. Jim Butcher definitely knows the style, and parlays it into an urban fantasy that's believable and impossible at the same time. Perhaps that's because he's had 14 other attempts at getting it right, but the ease at which he pulls it off tells me otherwise.

And it's not just Harry Dresden who's a rounded character with history. Almost all of them, and especially Harry's friends, are fully realized people. they are real. Now, that part is because he's had 14 other stories over which to develop them, but that doesn't make it any less joyful when one of them does exactly what you knew they would do because that is who they are. Don't get me wrong. That doesn't mean they are predictable. The exact action they take almost never is. Only the overarching character traits, such as the fact that Michael Carpenter will always be good and oppose evil. It's not just his job, it's who he is.

The storytelling is also very much action oriented. I can see why movie and television have been very interested in these stories. This book is no different. It would adapt well to becoming an action movie with plenty of chase scenes and very intense character interactions. I mean, when the Genoskwa... oh wait, spoiler - sorry. And when Karrin drew Fidelacchius... wait, more spoilers. But the chase scene was awesome! Then there was what happened at the Carpenter's house the second time, which I'll not go into because - you guessed it - spoilers. But you grok what I mean. :D

And lastly, like any good series, Jim Butcher leaves plenty of clues on what might be the next book's plot arc, or even the next three books. I don't see an end coming any time soon for the adventures of Harry Dresden and company. And you know how long wizards live. ;)

The one negative thing I will say is the end of the heist relied on a tomato surprise to work. Don't get me wrong, in a lesser writer's hands it would have been awful, and this was not. But the story needed just a little more foreshadowing  of what happened and I don't mean the "remember when I did this" sort of reveal that explained away the sudden plot twist. It would have been easy to foreshadow this in the story IMO. It could have been done right at the beginning. And I don't mean move the entire explanation scene of how it came to be to the front of the story. All Jim Butcher had to do was mention it in passing, and right after Mab picks up Harry from Demonreach would have been a perfect place in the story. It would have been front loaded with plenty of opportunity to be overlooked. Then I would be saying, "I can't believe I missed that!" instead of, "Really, you're going to do it that way?" Fortunately that wasn't the climactic scene, which was every bit as nail biting and rewarding as one could hope.

But all in all the book was well worth the time it took me to listen to it. It isn't literary in the genre sense as I wrote about in my Nebula Nominee list final thoughts, but it is highly entertaining and all in all an excellent and world to lose oneself in when the mundane world gets too pushy.