Friday, May 10, 2013

Links 10/05/13

Downer: Toxic perchlorate and gypsum dust may prevent human settlement of Mars.

Meanwhile, here are some moths driving a tiny robot car.

"He concedes that the freezing of his grandfather was ‘a bit of an experiment.'" Very good longform piece on the practical problems of cryonics, and its historical precedents.

Electric sails, a new form of interplanetary (and possibly interstellar) propulsion.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has found the building blocks for Earth-sized planets in an unlikely place-- the atmospheres of a pair of burned-out stars called white dwarfs.These dead stars are located 150 light-years from Earth in a relatively young star cluster, Hyades, in the constellation Taurus. The star cluster is only 625 million years old. The white dwarfs are being polluted by asteroid-like debris falling onto them.

Finally, in 1968 the Howard Johnsons restaurant chain presented its interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Monday, May 06, 2013

An Education

Hari was schooled in every aspect of the family trade by Agrata and his two brothers, received a patchwork education in philosophical truths and methods from his father and various travelling scholars, and played with the children of passengers and specialists in the many disused volumes of his family’s ship. It was a ring ship, Pabuji’s Gift, a broad ribbon caught in a circle five hundred metres across, with a twist that turned it into the single continuous surface of a Möbius strip. The ship’s motor hung from a web of tethers and spars at the centre of the ring; its hull was studded with the cubes and domes that contained workshops, utility bays, power units, an industrial maker, and the giant centrifuges, light chromatographs, and cultures of half-life nematodes and tailored bacteria; its interior was partitioned into cargo holds, garages for gigs and the big machines used in salvage work, and the lifesystem. Much of this space was unused.  The ship could support more than a thousand people, but even when Hari’s father had been alive it had never carried more than a tenth of that number.

Hari and the children of passengers and specialist crews had the run of the empty cargo holds, habitats and modules, the mazes of ducts and serviceways. A world parallel to the world of the adults, with a social structure equally complicated, possessing its own traditions and myths, rivalries and challenges, fads and fashions. Endless games of tig on one voyage; hide-and-seek on another. One year, Hari organised flyball matches inside a cylinder turfed with halflife grass; when interest in that began to wane, he divided the children into troops that fought each other for possession of tagged locations scattered through the ship.

He was fifteen, then. Tall and slender, glossy black hair done up in corn rows woven with glass beads. Even though every adult – everyone over the age of twenty – still seemed impossibly old, adulthood was no longer mysterious and unattainable, but a condition he was advancing towards day by day. He knew that he would soon have to give up childish games and shoulder his share of the family’s work. He was beginning to understand the limits of his life, beginning to realise how small his world really was, how little it counted in the grand scheme of things.

From Evening's Empires

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Into The Dark

In the first film of the regooded Star Trek franchise, director JJ Abrams not only rebooted the series but also rebooted the universe, diverting younger versions of the crew of the starship Enterprise into an alternate history that was a clever blend of the familiar and the unexpected.  In the second film, Star Trek: Into Darkness, that sideways jog is used to deliver a new twist on an old episode in the Enterprise's storied history, darkening it with current fears of terrorism and its challenge to liberal democracy.

Superhumanly strong and capable secret agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, dressed in black and mixing Sherlock Holmes's arrogant superiority with Shakespearean villainy) blows up a Federation records archive in 23rd Century London, then (borrowing a move from The Godfather, Part 3) attacks top-ranking officers when they gather to discuss the incident, killing James Kirk's mentor Christopher Pike.  Kirk (Chris Pine, who has really grown into his role, and looks extraordinarily like the young William Shatner) accepts a mission from Machievellian admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to chase Harrison to his hiding place in Klingon territory: an action that might precipitate war and alter the very nature of the peaceful Federation.  But neither Kirk's mission nor his quarry are what they seem...

To say much more would be to enter spoiler territory.  It's a fast-paced old-fashioned space-opera adventure that contrasts Kirk's impetuosity with Spock's (Zachary Quinto) rigorous control (once again, their friendship is tested by Spock's insistence on following regulations to the letter), and the similarities and differences between Kirk's and Harrison's thirst for revenge.  As with the first film, the narrative is salted with references to the original series, and the franchise's version of physics is warped and upgraded to suit the plot.  (Like that of the Looney Tunes cartoons, Star Trek's physics deliberately rewrites or ignores actual physics - complaining that spaceships don't fall out of orbit when they lose power is like complaining that gravity isn't dependent on perception, and people can't run beyond the edge of a cliff as long as they don't realise they've done it.)  Transporters can now zap people from planet to planet, although no one but the villain makes use of that ability; at one point Kirk, bucketing along at warp speed in the Enterprise, phones Scotty, dozens of light years away in a nightclub back on Earth, to impart crucial information.  But although it's an efficient blockbuster thrill ride in which Abrams once again demonstrates his skill at choreographing complex action sequences, and regular characters are each given a crucial part in the unfolding action, the hectic pace and the narrative clockwork that drives the story from set piece to set piece is exhaustingly relentless.  Decisions are made on the fly; Spock and Uhura must work out a kink in their relationship while flying in a shuttle craft towards a Klingon outpost; Leonard Nimoy literally phones in his performance; there's no attempt to show us what a warlike Federation would be like, how bad, how different, it would be from the current model.  Like Wile E. Coyote running past a cliff edge, the story survives by momentum alone - when it stops, and you are finally able to think about it, it falls down.

And yet, despite the soundless fury of spaceship battles and the chaos of collapsing cities, the film never quite loses sight of the franchise's strongest virtues.  Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an imposing performance as the superhumanly brilliant and ruthless villain, but at the centre of the film, as in the original series, is the relationship between Kirk and Spock, a sparring match between heart and head grumpily refereed by Dr McCoy.  Kirk grows from headstrong, irresponsible adventurer to a leader capable of inspiring and drawing on the abilities of his comrades, and deepens and cements his relationship with Spock, and at the end we are returned to the beginning.  And given that we've been shown how this new history can play intricate variations on old stories, we're prepared to sign up for the duration - in the hope, next time, of something a little less frantic, a little more substantial.
Newer Posts Older Posts