Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Miscasting Lord of the Rings : A Fun Game for 1 or More Nerds

Nicholas Cage is rumoured to have been in the running for the part of Aragorn. Mercifully that didn't happen, but imagine if it did... such is the basis for the simple game of recasting Lord of the Rings with innappropriate, yet strangely applicable, Hollywood A-listers. Here's my take on things.

Features :
Samwise DeVito
Brian "Blessed" Gimli
Alan Saruman
Theoden Connerry
Sarah Michelle Eowyn
Aragon Cage
Frodo Cruise
Arwen Liu
Keanu Legolas
Bilbo Meaney
Boromir Russell
Captain Jean-Luc Elrond

Monday, 27 September 2010

Review : Windoze 7

So that y'all know where I'm coming from here, let me begin by stating my opinion on previous OS's :

DOS : Hah !
Windows 3.11 : Happy times. Ran for 7 years on a 486 and was so stable that it wouldn't get angry even if you insulted its parentage and called it fat.
Windows XP : Less happy times. Had to reinstall the thing twice in 6 months, losing everything... later, didn't like having a CD writer installed at all, and died soon after. Second computer was OK for a while, then slowly degenerated, like the Black Knight in Monty Python having his limbs cut off one at a time. By the end, there was no taskbar and the search function simply didn't work.

XP : Almost unkillable, but ultimately doomed
Windows Vista : O Happy Day ! Like XP, but prettier, more stable, yet in defiance of all the odds considerably more annoying. Much like Myleene Klass compared to David Mellor (who is a worthless human being and not even a good DJ yet somehow manages to be marginally less boring than Mrs Klass). Yes, that's right, I'm comparing Classic FM DJ's to Microsoft Windows. OH GOD WHY !

Radio : The Great Equaliser
 Linux : Don't be silly.

So then, 7. Well it follows the long tradition of ever-increasing shininess. Although the new taskbar by default is as ugly as the rotting carcass of a pregnant beluga whale that died from Ebola, thankfully you can make it look just like Vista's very easily. And the Peek function, letting you quickly look at individual windows via the taskbar, is at least vaguely useful.

The new "Themes" feature is lovely, giving you an automatically varying desktop if you so wish. And it comes with some nice images, although the default so disgusting it'll make you vomit with rage before gouging out your own eyes with your toenails. Moreover, the shuffle feature isn't particularly good, often repeating some pictures at the expense of others.

Anything but the Windows 7 default wallpaper !

Moving on, there have been two huge criticisms of Vista :
1) It has more security alerts than Heathrow
2) It uses so many system resources than it takes the entire power of Canada to open Notepad

Well, (2) is just a lie. Since I spend terrifying amounts of time rendering 3D graphics that max out my system, I can attest to this. Sure, Vista wouldn't be able to cope with 128MB RAM or a poor graphics card as XP can. But come now, it's time to say fare thee well to the Stone Age and move into a realm where we've all gotten over how neat digital watches are. So far as I can tell, 7 is at least slightly better than Vista. Closing down a memory-hogging program is now almost instant, compared with Vista which required at least 6 months notice and a letter tattooed on your own scalp delivered to the head of the World Bank.

(1) however, is massively improved. Although they are still numerous, no longer is it necessary for Windoze to force you to drop whatever else you're doing to press "Yes" 19 thousand times in order to close Paint. Gone is the bizarre, hugely retarded screen dimming that stopped you from clicking anything other than yes or no. At last Microsoft have realised that in the worst-case scenario, your computer might catch a nasty virus but it isn't likely to go running amok on a killing spree. Unless you see the following :

It's OK Bill ! It was just a movie !

What else ? Well, gadgets are a lot more stable than in Vista, which had the peculiar habit of re-arranging them very badly and at random intervals. You can also see the progress of downloads in the taskbar directly, rather than needing to open the window, which is nice. Also, you can access some program options directly from the Start Menu (such as, ooh I don't know, starting I.E. in InPrivate mode, although I've yet to find a use for this myself, you understand).  And it shuts down in 15 seconds.

That's the good stuff. But, inevitably, Microsoft is not all "smiles und sunshine". Possibly the biggest annoyance is its use of Libraries. These are just folders with built-in links to other folders, so you don't have to have all your sound files in one place. Now that's actually quite a neat idea, and if you've saving in a Library folder then the default puts it in a sensible place so you can easily find it through the file browser. But it would have been nice to have the option to go straight to the default folder - you're somewhat forced to use the library system.

The main problem is that libraries are regenerated practically every time you open one. And with 800 tracks (which isn't even that many), this takes an annoyingly long time. This is daft. It shouldn't take a computer any time at all to deal with organizing a mere few hundred files. What are quad cores for ? Surely it should really store the library index as a file somewhere that becomes updated periodically, like when people add or change a file in one of its directories, or if a refresh is requested manually. Then there'd be no waiting at all. If you do take the trouble to navigate to the folder directly, you'll find it's very much faster.

A similar problem affects Windows Live Mail, at least if you're using it with gmail. It's nice that what you do to your Live Mail controls your actual gmail account. It's less nice that this can take a life-age of the Earth to accomplish.

Microsoft libraries just can't compete with the Dewy Decimal System*

* Why are all these blog entries becoming so gratuitously exploitative ? I promise there'll be no more of this in the next post.**

** I'm probably lying.

Then there are the small but weird features. Sound Recorder can't play back recordings; you have to open them in something else (???). The wi-fi strength shown in the taskbar can differ considerably from what it may indicate in the full window, which is just odd. Minimising WMP12 doesn't give you the same nice functionality in the taskbar that WMP11 did, a foolish oversight.

Two final points. Live Search. Can we please stop this madness now before it's too late ? Stop bloody searching before I've finished typing ! It feels like I'm being interrupted. It's downright rude ! It always leaves me with the distinct impression that if I stop or delete anything it's just going to ignore me. I hate it. Bring back XP's search assistants - they might have been daft, but, like Roger Moore's James Bond, they got the job done.

Secondly, I want multiple workstations. This is Linux's sole good trick, but it's a very good one. And since Linux is open source, just copy the stoopid code already. Who's gonna sue ? The OS community wouldn't last 20 minutes against Microsoft's highly skilled hordes of Barbarian Attack Lawyers.

So that's basically that. It is, quite simply, better than other versions of Windows. Really the only reason not to get it is if your computer is struggling to keep up with an abacus. Of course, no-one can yet attest to its long-term stability, but if it's as nice as Vista then things are promising. The real question is : if it were a Classic FM DJ, who would it be ?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

I Love My Crap

The time of leaving is nearly upon me. The dread hand of Time marches ever-less asymptotically onwards toward the inexact point of my semi-terminal departure from this dear country I call home,  which means I have to clean out my room. This is no small task. I've lived in this same room for nearly 20 years and only decorated once. And though I'm fortunately adverse to spending money, that's still ample time to accumulate a load of utter crap.

Now since I'm planning on returning, I don't need to clear out everything. Mercifully, this means my ~500 books can stay safely where they are. But my parents are going to decorate a new room for me and move my stuff, so I do have to bury my collection of pornography. Or I would if I had one. In fact some of the stuff I've got is, if not as interesting, then at least more unusual.

This includes, for example, some rocks. They're not interesting rocks. Why do I have them ? No idea. I also have boxes of Lego Technic without any Lego in them, a half-disintegrated peacock's feather, a dried reed, some ancient paper aeroplanes, a completely unofficial "Aliens" inflatable punch bag, and a bag of coal, innumerable heaphone adapaters, at least 3 climbing robots - and that's not even the half of it. I've got a complete collection of The War Illustrated and the 10-volume, highly racist Children's Encyclopedia from 1922. HOW ? I'm only 26 ! But I just can't bring myself to throw out anything from 1922, even if it does think that anyone from outside the Empire is a black, murderous cannibal in need of some good civilisin'. Including the French.

Nor can I bear to throw out my rather puny collection of the Official Star Trek Fact Files, even though there's only the first 20 of 300 issues and I could get the whole set at a modest price very easily. But... it's got schematics of the ships ! The Picard Maneuver illustrated ! How could I abandon this thing I haven't read in over 10 years and can't possibly take with me ? I'd feel like a traitor. All the other nerds would laugh in my face. It's already depressing enough that I'm so nerdy I have a collection of Star Trek magazines and no pornography (and let's face it... no-one would ever lie about that).

This is NOT the Picard Maneuver, but it should be

On the other hand, there's some cool stuff in there. Apart from the 48K ZX Spectrum that doesn't work, there's a 128K ZX Spectrum with a light gun that probably does... if I could find the power supply and TV cable. I've even got a cassette tape of "Space Raiders". Not Invaders... Raiders. And John Smith's Extra Smooth Bath Foam and socks. Best of all, a Fish Fingers pencil case. I can't even find an online image of such a thing, so I took this photo to prove that it really does exist.

You're all soooo jealous right now....

And that's only scratching the surface. Never mind my almost complete set of Focus magazines, hundreds of model dinosaurs, complete set of university and A-level notes, and Lord only knows what else. How can people cope with so-called minimalist living, where they have little else besides a computer ? I live on my computer. But I want that computer to be located in the office of the I.T. crowd.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Truth Behind Battlestar Galactica (contains spoilers)

Battlestar Galactica is now very much over, though its prequel Caprica continues like a sort of reverse ghost. And long may it continue. But it appears that it's not going to ever address many questions that its progenitor raised. Among which - what's with all the ancient Greek gods ? At the end of the show it's strongly implied that our very own society will eventually found the 12 colonies, which makes one wonder why our religions are going to regress at least 2,000 years.

But fear not, I can offer an explanation for this. The clue lies in Lucy Lawless' character, the Cylon who starts to deviate from their accepted pattern of behaviour. She remains, however, far better known for playing the butt-kicking Xena, the warrior barmaid* fond of breathing fire on her enemies and throwing an angle grinder at them. Curiously enough, Xena is from ancient Greece. Coincidence ? I think not.

*She's not a princess. Her mother tends bar in a small village. Her father is slightly more mysterious.

Xena has many skills

Now one of the joys of Xena (besides the judicious use of a Wonderbra) was its crazed take on physics. In this show, backflipping 50 feet straight up is routine. Xena herself is able to catch (in her bare hands) a metal chakram so sharp it can destroy whole armies with a single throw, a feat not even Odd Job could match. The explanation is obvious - she's a robot. That's how she's insanely strong, accurate and why her boobs are so incredibly well-supported... much like the rather more psychopathic Caprica Six.

Ahh.... feminism.

Ahem. Now, as I was saying, clearly a robot. How, then, did she come to be in ancient Greece ? Is she one of the D'annas from the future hurled backwards in time ? No. Far more likely, given the religious overtones of both shows, is that she was actually created by the Gods for their own reasons. At some point, a terrible accident hurls her into the future. Quantum Leap teaches that this invariably results in partial amnesia - hence she goes slightly mad and calls herself "D'anna" rather than "Diana", a name which which sounds like she was aiming for Diana but missed.

Now the future history of B.G. is complicated indeed, but no more so than in Xena (a show in which she fights at Troy and meets Julius Caesar - which is a bit like fighting at the Battle of Hastings one week and interviewing Neil Armstrong the next). In fact, only a very little more time travel will also explain the presence of Edward James Olmos, who previously played Gaff in Blade Runner - which was, let's face it, exactly the same as B.G (the only difference was the hat). Clearly the replicants he hunted down were actually some of the first generation of Cylons who would overrun Earth soon after the events in the movie, an event described in later episodes of B.G.

This is strangely unappealing compared to the last picture

Returning to Quantum Leap for a moment, who should we find there but Dean Motherfrakking Stockwell ! A time-traveller (of sorts) aided by a sophisticated artifical intelligence ? Come now, Ronald D. Moore, surely you do not expect me to let that one pass. I mean, good grief, he even wears a hat in both shows ! What more proof of a link is needed ? What seems by far the most likely connection is that shortly after the events of Q.L., Al had Ziggy cybernetically implanted into his brain and went on his own time-travelling mission to rescue Sam. But something went horribly wrong and he got hurled into the future and became evil.

If in doubt, wear a hat
 Hell, we can also explain Mary McDonnell, who played a dying leader('s wife) in Independence Day. The way I see it, she was probably rescued by a time-travelling Xena who managed to resuscitate her (she has, after all, many skills). And probably at this point humans stole the FTL drive from the aliens just before most of the alien tech was destroyed (thus also explaining why in Caprica humans can go faster than light but still drive petrol-powered cars).

All this has happened before....

Ergo, all these shows are actually part of an epic, perfectly consistent timeline thanks to some unexpected twists in the Trousers of Time. So forget Battlestar Galactica. Instead enjoy Xena : Independence Quantum Battlestar Runner. Either that or accept gratuitous typecasting throughout.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Grand Theft Awesome

I completed GTA IV ! It only took me about a year, so you'll have to forgive my self-indulgence of writing a review. Now since it's insanely unlikely that any readers won't have heard of (and have probably played) GTA IV anyway, I'm not going to bother explaining it at all, or tiptoe around possible spoilers. You have been warned.

There's no way that's not awesome

First off, I did not spend an entire year glued to my keyboard. At least, not playing GTA IV. In fact it took me 40 hours to reach 80% completeness. I didn't bother killing all the pigeons (why would I want to ? I like pigeons, they make pleasant soothing noises) or finding all the stunt jumps. Nor did I feel compelled to encourage Niko to do any more dating than the game requires. What's the point ? Dating aside, every 5 minutes I seem to get a call asking me if I want to go bowling/playing darts/go to an art class/do some embroidery. And what with all the morally ambiguous serial killing, there's not much time left for poor old Niko to just be his sweet self. Not to mention that Kate McReary does nothing but flirt with Niko, only to insult his thousand-dollar suit and refuse to sleep with him.

The reason it took me a year is because of one of the game's biggest and stupidest flaws - the lack of an in-mission checkpoint system. Some missions do simply require blind luck. First time round, I got hopelessly stuck robbing the Bank of Liberty. Even the first time round I was able to get through to the subway system with full health and some armour left, only to get run over by a train. This happened again. And again. And again and again and again - literally. After the 6th attempt I gave up and went and completed Fallout 3 and all its 5 expansions, Oblivion and its 2 expansions, the whole 5 games in the Orange Box, and oh yes, let's not forget finishing the whole "PhD" thing.

On my return, I got stuck on a racing mission for a man named Brucie - one I completed, originally, on my second attempt. You're given a sports car so overpowered it's incapable of going in a straight line, and aren't allowed to attack your opponents. This time it took until the 8th attempt before everything worked out fine for no particular reason.

Then we have to address the central storyline. You play a basically evil character doing basically evil things, who's idea of a moral act seems to be killing drug dealers and taking brutal revenge on people he disapproves of. Often revenge involves grenades, rocket launchers, attack helicopters and the mass murder of dozens of police officers. Claims that this encourages violent behaviour are ill-founded. It would be a bit like putting up a message at the start of The Dambusters : WARNING ! DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. BLOWING UP DAMS CAN RESULT IN INJURY OR DEATH AND MAY RESULT IN A PRISON SENTENCE. Basically, if you have access to machine guns, rocket launchers and attack helicopters, I submit that you're probably quite likely to go on a killing spree regardless.

Despite their not being a single character who elicited an iota of empathy for me, the story is nonetheless very good for game standards. It could almost be a movie... in fact, sometimes it's far too much like a movie. I speak of the other great flaw : the scripted nature of most missions. Usually, you can kill whoever you like and go wherever you will by whatever means you prefer. Occasionally, however, certain characters are deemed invulnerable until you reach a certain stage and you have to use specified vehicles. By far the worst example occurs in the final mission : Out of Commission.

In this case, the rather minor character Pegorino has gunned down Niko's date, the ever-petulant Kate McReary, because Niko previously refused a major drugs deal. As I played it, Niko has seen this woman not more than 4 times in his life and all she does is insult his dress sense and choice of cars. But, bless him, our hero feels it's time for a mission of epic revenge, Slavic style. This involves an extremely long, slow and pointlessly easy car chase, followed by a fairly standard (though fun) kill-lots-of-enemies mission. Once you reach Pegorino, he becomes INVINCEEBLE and makes his escape in a rocket-proof speedboat. Your only option is to jump on a nearby bike and follow the coastline. Fortunately, Pegorino is apparently too stupid to realise that boats can travel out to sea, but motorbikes can only travel on land.

Spend more than about 2 seconds getting on the bike and the mission is ended. "Pegorino got away." No he didn't. He's right there ! I can still see him ! But if this happens, you've no option but to do the whole sorry thing again because of the lack of checkpoints. You may have killed a horde of enemies and still have full health and armour, but can't kill your apparent nemesis because you didn't quite hit F fast enough.

The frustration doesn't quite end there. Assuming you survive the dash along the beach - one tiny mistake and it's game over, again, you have to jump the bike across a ramp to get into a helicopter. That's fairly epic, I guess, but get the ramp very slightly wrong and yet again it's back to square one. Helicopters apparently aren't capable of landing : access is by motorbike only. Once you're in, you follow Pegorino, dodging his RPGs. Your 'copter has miniguns, but it seems Pegorino is still indestructible, so they're useless. Eventually, one of his RPGs hits the chopper (no matter how high you are or how good your dodging skills - it seems he has a long-range homing missile) but Niko lands it without incident.

You then run around on a small island until you find Pegorino and shoot him until he's dead. And that's it. Story over. The game effectively ends on an epic mission of badly-scripted revenge against a minor character who killed a casual acquaintance and relies on magic to make himself invulnerable. Oh.

Remarkably poor final mission leaves Niko confused

And yet... I love this game. The world is so incredibly realised - it feels like a real city is size, scope, and behaviour of its inhabitants. Random pedestrians walk by having conversations on their phones. Hold up other traffic and drivers will shout at you. Commit crimes and some residents flee in terror while others fight back with gusto. You can pick up hookers and rob people at cashpoints, if you like. And - by and large - you're free to do whatever you want. I just wish there was more stuff outside missions that you're actually free to do. Maybe Niko needs a day job... fireman, maybe. Or better yet, tour guide.

Overall, 9/10. It's stunning. It just needs a bit less scripting, a checkpoint system and a more epic finale.

Monday, 13 September 2010

On Visas

Getting a visa surely has to be one of the most pointless, bureaucracy-ridden activities ever devised. First, you have to fill in the diabolic DS-160 form online - a straightforward if time-consuming activity needlessly derailed by random connection timeout problems (which they claim to have fixed, but haven't). Having survived this, a trip to the embassy is in order. That's in London, 132 miles away from me or 2 train-hours.

Fine. But of course no-one can come into the embassy with you, nor can you take in any electronic devices whatsoever (including keyrings with LEDs). Which is slightly baffling considering that you can take laptops, mp3 players, phones, and all the LEDs you can carry onto planes. So you're stuck in a room for 2-4 hours with no form of entertainment other than reading. There's a snack bar, but when I was there it closed for lunch and didn't re-open (yes, that's right, a snack bar that closes for lunch). And at short random intervals a voice announces the number of the next person to proceed to the much-vaunted "interview", making reading rather difficult. Soon you begin to miss the simple pleasures of a flashing LED.

Pretty quickly, however, you approach the first desk. There you hand in forms and have fingerprints taken. This takes about 2 minutes... but there's more. You go back and wait. And wait. And wait some more. Fortunately, they've given you a nice blue form to fill in to pass the time. On this you must write your name and address and that's it. Even though by this stage you've given them your name and address a dozen times. Three hours later, you have a 5-minute chat with someone that goes like this :
"So you like science, eh ?"
"Yes actually, I think it's rather fun."
"That's nice. Will you be doing science in America ?"
"Gosh ! How did you know that ? That's extraordinary !"
"Ah well, can't tell you, state secret. But don't worry. Everything's fine. You'll get your visa soon. Be a good boy and run along now !"
Worryingly this little vignette may in fact be longer than the real "interview"....

The words "anti-climactic" spring to mind... as do, "What the hell am I doing in London ?". During those 3 hours, they'd better have done a background check so thorough as to be able to create a perfect clone of myself and everyone I've ever met. If they don't know what my entire family ate for breakfast on the night of April 12th, 1986 I shall want to know why. Though I'd settle for knowing why the thing requires a high-security London embassy.

In short, it takes about 7 hours to complete a maximum of 5 minutes of actually doing anything. There'll be some kind of prize for anyone who can think of an activity with a higher wait/activity ratio.

UPDATE : I got my visa, it arrived by overnight delivery 2 days later. And while that's good, I'm left wondering as to why I had to pay £14 for this when they could have just handed it to me on the day.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Project Orion : How To Nuke A Spaceship Without Killing Anyone

See more here and a spin-off here.

As the creator of the "Project Orion" video that's floating around the internet, I thought it was about time to clear up some misconceptions that have been circulating. And give, hopefully, a basic introduction to Orion - though there are many more detailed articles easily found through Google. But mine has pictures ! And some shiny new video clips  For those who have wandered in from cyberspace, the video to which I refer can be viewed here (a specially uploaded higher-quality version than the standard YouTube video) :

(I'm also not going to respond to critiques of the animation itself  because the project is now a scary 7 years old)

The basic idea is to propel a spaceship forwards by detonating nukes ~100 metres behind it. The bombs are shot into position from the ship by a powerful gas cannon (they have to be detonated about once per second, too fast to simply drop them into position). A huge, ~800 tonne plate (usually called the pusher plate), is between the bomb and the ship proper, which are joined together by gigantic pistons. As the pusher moves upward from the impact of the explosion, gas in the cylinders compresses and momentum is transferred relatively slowly from the pusher to the vehicle. The pusher is actually two plates separated by giant gas bags - these absorb the initial massive wallop of acceleration (hundreds of g or more) on the plate, while the pistons slow things down to human-survivable levels. Actually accelerations can be surprisingly modest in the ship, as low as 1-2g.

One particular comment should be specially addressed : "No ofense ment, but that? roket looks rediculis." Ah, well, it isn't a rocket. If anything it's the opposite, having stuff thrown AT it to make it go, not thrown AWAY like a rocket. Incidentally the designs are based very closely on those in Dyson's book - probably too closely. I doubt there's any need for it to be quite so streamlined.

When the pistons compress enough, their internal gas pressure is enough to drive the plate backward. The next bomb prevents the plate from continuing backward off into space. Bombs are either delivered through a hole in the center of the plate, or even around the side (which is just too wacky for me). And make no mistake - the thing is bloomin' massive. Almost as big as Liechtenstein.

Here we come to the first big question - won't a bomb just vapourise or blast apart the ship ? The answer is a resounding "no" to vapourisation, but still a very big "maybe" to blasting it apart. Vapourisation can be dismissed thanks to test such as Lew Allen's balls (insert joke here), in which two graphite-coated spheres survived a close-proximity (of order meters) nuclear explosion. Some of the early nuclear tests involved the bomb at the top of a tall metal tower, which was not vapourised but was blown to smithereens (fragments of the towers being found after the test).

Answering whether the pusher can survive the blast is - in my opinion - the big unknown. The original engineers thought that it could, but never got an actual nuclear test to prove it. The bombs aren't island-smashing H-bombs or even city-killing Hiroshima yield devices, they're much smaller - except when out of the atmosphere. But even here the massive shockwave from compressed air is absent, considerably reducing the impact force (in fact some propellant mass has to be added to the bombs). Still, assuming the explosion doesn't smash the plate to bits, the hot plasma might still severely ablate the pusher.

One of the weirder possibilities for protecting the plate was to have it sprayed with oil between each blast. The bomb's plasma is only in contact with the plate for a microsecond, so it simply doesn't have enough time to impart much heat. The oil is used to absorb that heat, evaporating away before any damage can be done. Again, no-one really knows if this will work. Certainly it can't guard against any failed bombs, which could send horrible fragments at high speed into the plate doing untold damage. Here's a clip from another (stalled) project.


If you doubt that bombs can be stable enough for any kind of useful propulsion, you have but to look at the videos of the "hot rod" the team built to prove just that. I think this is quite wonderful. It's one of those moments where all your assumptions are dispelled and all you can do is look back and say, "Oh." Of course, whether you could be confident that the debris from the nuke wouldn't be so unbalanced as to twist the shock absorbers is another matter (not one that seems often addressed - either it's a non-issue for some reason or no-one wants to know).

At this point I should respond to comments that in my video you can see most of the plasma moving toward the pusher. While you might expect a spherical blast - particularly in space - this is not quite true. A substantial amount of propellant is contained within the bomb in a flat disc facing toward the ship (as I mentioned, in space there's no air so you need some extra mass within the bomb). According to Dyson, this gets reshaped by the explosion into a cylinder which impacts the pusher. I wanted the video to convey this, albeit at the expense photorealism - plasma moving very much faster than in the video. What you'd actually see, apparently, is the blinding flash of the explosion and then almost simultaneously a glow on the pusher as the plasma compresses and heats up - but not much more (at least in space). Here's another clip.

So let's assume then that the idea is sound in principle. Personally, my first three thoughts on the project were : 1) It'll just blow up 2) If it doesn't, it will be wildly unstable 3) Fallout will be horrific. (1) now seems unlikely, but with a big if, (2) I think is also debatable, and then we come to the far more emotionally charged (3). Before addressing this, I want to clear up a few more video-specific points.

Firstly, the rocket boosters (based on the Shuttle's existing SRB's) are NOT used to get the thing into orbit, only to ~100 km altitude (i.e. above the atmosphere, for reasons which will become clear). Lifting things to this height and orbiting them at this height are massively different prospects. To lift something that high you have to get it to a speed of ~1400 m/s (it will then immediately begin to fall back), whereas to orbit you need speeds more like ~8,000 m/s. That's why the X-prize was won with a much smaller budget than NASA's. It's also why I show the SRB's detaching at a high altitude. It coasts upwards for many kilometers until the bombs kick in.

Occasionally, people remark that it would be better to just build the thing in space using conventional rockets. No. That is wasting the benefit of the vast energies available from A-bombs, which give you an incomparable heavy-lift capability. And although space-borne Orions still perform very well indeed, if space is ever really going to matter to people we need to send up more than a few dozen elite astronauts.

(but for God's sake don't think I'm suggesting that Orion is the way to do this)

Another point of confusion is the deployment of structures attached to the ship on long tethers. These are to serve as habitat modules. Rotation of the ship provides ~1g at distance ~300m without causing nausea. These are only intended as representations; I did no calculations to determine how massive/large the habitats could safely be. Here's an earlier concept image I did where the tethers also serve as supports for solar panels. Then I realised that these would be nearly pointless since the ship could have a nuclear reactor onboard.

A few people have said that I "skipped over the landing sequence", which confuses me because I didn't think I did. Still, I certainly don't know if landing the thing is at all feasible. Whether aerobraking would have any useful effect on several thousand tonnes of steel in the thin Martian atmosphere... hmm. To say nothing of the difficulties of landing with a giant flat plate on rocky terrain (but maybe there are more suitable areas of Mars), let alone taking off again.... The ship might not necessarily need to land safely, of course... it could just be transporting resources / heavily protected bulk equipment to a colony, with astronauts landing in a more controlled fashion. So even if it's a 1-way trip, that's not necessarily a show-stopper.

And so we come to fallout. I've no idea how dangerous radiation actually is, but it seems to be intensely controversial. Pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear complainers will bandy about completely different numbers. As a moderately pro-nuclear but cautious observer, it's very difficult for me to judge who's right. So I'm going to largely ignore things like total yield or number of bombs detonated. All I'll say is that in the animation, all of the bombs are detonated outside the atmosphere where they can't irradiate ground dust - for which there seems to be a consensus as the major source of fallout.

However, I WILL get on my hobby-horse about one unfortunate statistic - the idea that each launch would kill about 10 people. This was calculated by the original team, assuming bombs were being detonated in the atmosphere. However, not only is it the worst marketing ever, it's a self-evidently flawed statistic. About 7.5 million people die of cancer worldwide every year. You couldn't even measure a change of 10 ! There'd be absolutely no way you could attribute a single case to an Orion launch - natural variation in the death rate is vastly higher.

Moreover, it should not be shocking that a method of transport causes casualties. Car-crash casualties are about 42,000 per year for the US alone. And don't bother saying that you can avoid this by not getting in a car - nearly 5,000 of those killed are pedestrians, to say nothing of cyclists and motorcyclists. It also seems quite inconceivable to me that the inventors of the motor-car could have been so naive as to envisage their invention would never kill anyone, but that didn't stop the car becoming rather popular. However, if they'd pulled out a PowerPoint presentation demonstrating that the wonderful new invention would, over about a century, kill tens of millions of people, one suspects they would not be held in particularly high regard.

If that still all sounds a bit harsh - no rational person, after all, wants to kill anyone at all - let's put that into perspective and play a little game. View the photos below and order them by number of yearly casualties.

The answer (from highest to lowest) is :
H) Cars
E) Lightning
G) Stairs
I) Lions
F) Dogs

With A,B,C,D all about the same. Cars kill about 1.2 million per year worldwide, lightning (surprisingly) about 10,000. Stairs are death traps, killing over 1,000 people in the UK alone every year. Data for animal attacks is, admittedly, more iffy, but people do get trampled by cows and savaged by dogs every year.

Now, fair enough, relatively few people are at risk from crocodiles or sharks, but pretty much everyone is at risk from dogs, lightning, and stairs. And that's the point, of course, Orion causes a marginal extra risk. Just like putting more cars on the road, it is NOT the same as lining up 10 people for a firing squad. So let's stop worrying about fallout from a successful launch - I'd be far more concerned about what would happen if a bomb detonated while still inside the ship.

Which about rounds up this little tirade. It remains only for me to say that there's no point getting all misty-eyed about Orion, as it remains a madcap, entirely untested and unproven technology. For all we know, the pusher plate might survive but buckle horribly under the stress of the first explosion. In any case, if it had gone ahead in the 1960's... well, launching giant nuclear spaceships at the height of the cold war doesn't spell missed-opportunity-for-utopia to me. Nevertheless, its potential is too high to dismiss out of hand - but I suspect it probably will be.

(Finally, for some reason on YouTube there are a number of comments about wormholes as an alternative. GOOD BLOODY GRIEF ! WAKE UP PEOPLE ! You've all be watching too much Farscape ! Consider yourselves slapped very hard indeed for stupidity)

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Review : The Deep

BBC 1's latest prime-time drama "The Deep" has just finished. And "Deep" is just one thing it certainly wasn't. Other inapplicable adjectives include : "clever", "sharp", "tense", "entertaining" and "worth watching". This is also a show where the word "spoilers" really doesn't apply.

To be fair, for the first 3 episodes I was quite intrigued about what was going on. Sure, it was clunky, featuring an implausibly high number of ethnic minorities aboard a British (yellow) submarine which felt as though the Beeb's P.C. brigade was operating in full force. Not exactly because of their ethnicity... no, more because they couldn't act. Which also neatly explains the presence of James Nesbitt ["Can't act ? Won't act ? Doesn't matter at the BBC, we're an equal opportunities employer !"] Admittedly it doesn't explain the presence of Tobias Menzies, who proved in Rome that he most definitely can act - but not in this show.

Still, I was willing to overlook a bit of positive discrimination (which is at least better than negative discrimination after all) in light of the reasonably interesting plot. A high-tech sub searching for a missing expedition 2,000 ft below the north Polar ice cap suddenly encounters a massive submersible of unknown origin. Any number of things could happen next. Unfortunately, they do, and none of them are any good.

Nothing very much actually happened in episodes 2 or 3, except to reveal that the sub is Russian (it's never explained how they built a 160m long sub in total secrecy) and equipped with high-energy radar that has rather unfortunately killed virtually the entire crew. Sadly the few survivors (no plausible explanation is offered as to how anyone survived at all) are not mad or zombified, just slightly irate Russians who switch sides at random intervals without reason. And then James Nesbitt (whose character is called Clem, or is it Clam ?) discovers his wife, who disappeared in the area, is alive and well on this very sub after all. Hooray !

Naturally there's a pointless scene in which one luckless protagonist from the Yellow Submarine stops the Ruski ship from going nuclear by... dum dum dum... going into the reactor chamber ! Spock's death scene in Star Trek II it isn't. He then mopes around until episode 5, doing nothing useful to anyone.

Finally in episode 4, things are revealed. It turns out that Nesbitt's idiot wife (heartless b*tch would be more apt given her utter disregard for her child left back home) has discovered a new bacterium that can turn cellulose into hydrogen. Yes, it takes 4 hours to reveal that the reasons the Russians are slightly irate is because this new bacterium (which evolved to feed on plant matter 12,000 ft below the ice-covered North Pole - surely the darkest place on Earth) will cause trouble for the oil companies. The fact that they could make untold billions from clean fuel doesn't seem to have crossed their poor little minds. 4 bleedin' hours ! You know what would have been more interesting that clean bloody fuel ? ANYTHING. I wanted and was expecting a great big monster. Didn't get one. Booo.

At the end of episode 4, Nesbitt is trying to retrieve a fresh sample of the bacterium when his sub promptly implodes - or so we think. In fact he turns up in episode 5 on the Russian sub at a key moment to give some pesky Ruski's a damn good clobbering (including killing the one friendly Russian, for no real reason). It's never explained how he survived at all, but it doesn't really matter because then he gets shot, irradiated, and then nuked as the ship finally explodes. By which point the viewer is left thinking : Enough already, I get it, this time he's REALLY DEAD !

Alas, things are not over yet. The Yellow Submarine has been blasted by the radar which fried Nesbitt, though, for some reason, only one crew member is affected (and the ship is hunky-dory). She's unconscious and put on oxygen. Which is helpful because then the A.C. fails and everyone else falls over. However, all is not lost. The ghost of a former crew member induces an out-of-body experience and shows her exactly which button to press to save the ship (I'm not making this up). She then wakes up and does so, and all is well.

When they finally reach the surface, the whole thing is promptly covered up by the government who are in the thrall of the oil barons. Which government ? All of them, I think. Apparently a giant explosion irradiating the Arctic ocean is something that no-one will ever notice. It all ends happily with a married man eloping with a character he fancies, both of the idiots seemingly uncaring of the fact that most other characters have died very unpleasant deaths.

Rating : 3/10. Bad, but not as bad as the truly abominable Bonekickers.