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,

Tuesday 1 December 2020

A Sting In The Tail

Events overtook me while writing this. I've kept the text as it was originally written, with italics for necessary interjections.

Now you see it, now you don't.

One of the quite rightly forgotten disasters of 2016 - for there were far too many - was a funding threat to Arecibo. By that point the telescope had already been in a state of horrendous management for many years, and this felt like it could be the beginning of the end. Who knows, perhaps it would have been. But things didn't work out in the way anyone expected.

Mismanagement took many forms, but from the perspective of a lowly postdoc, it primarily manifested itself as overworking the staff and under-exploiting the telescope. It felt at times as though there was a deliberate attempt to show that the telescope was just not worth the investment, a sort of delenda est Arecibo, rather than giving it the extremely modest increase that would have kept it highly competitive in the modern world for decades to come. And not only were the uppermost, distant echelons a problem : there were plenty of larger-than-life characters on-site who were, frankly, downright strange. It wasn't always a happy working environment, but since I've already recounted my personal experience of this, I'll not go over that again.

That's not to say there wasn't plenty of fun to be had, or that some of the staff weren't among the nicest, most decent and most welcoming people you could ever hope to meet. Everyone on site, I think without exception, wanted the Observatory to be a success. The disagreements were over how best to do this, who should do this, what exactly would constitute "success", etc. All that bullshit didn't detract from a fundamental desire to make things work. If maintenance ever suffered, there was no indication that this was anything more than an inconvenience rather than a danger.

Like, for instance, that time I didn't get to sail around in boat with the British ambassador when the dish flooded.

I was unfortunate enough to witness the first management change in the Observatory's ~50 year history. This was a somewhat surreal experience for a freshly-minted postdoc having no real clue what was going on or how things were supposed to work. It's weird to find everyone telling you how unusual the situation is when you've no clue what normal is even supposed to be. It was certainly educational, but not something I'd like to ever repeat.

Fortunately I didn't have to. I escaped left a few years before, unbelievably, a second management change swept through like the over-rated hurricanes that occasionally devastate the island. Practically everyone I knew there left shortly afterwards, and I'll leave you to draw your own conclusion about that.

It's safe to say I never, ever wanted to work there again. I hate the tropical climate, I despise being thousands of miles from home, and driving actually scares me. This was not a good combination. It's not that it was an awful place - not at all - it's that it was an awful place for me.

And that's not to say I wouldn't have ever visited again. Quite the opposite. Indeed, I rather took it for granted that at some point I almost certainly would, either for a conference or for observations. It's an entirely accurate cliché that though I wouldn't want to live there, it's a lovely place to visit. The island has some wonderful beaches... 

... and beautiful scenery :

Puerto Rico as a whole is a strange sort of little world. Food is perhaps a good example : it's either absolutely delicious or pretty bad, with not much middle ground. The touristy parts are generally very nice indeed, the heat and humidity notwithstanding, but at the same time it's very much a place where people live. It isn't, for instance, much like the centre of Prague, which has been virtually evacuated of residents so that they don't bother the all-important tourists  (or vice-versa). It was an interesting mixture of the mundane blended with the bizarre, where you could drive out of a pharmacy only to witness someone towing a horse. It was a powerful lesson that exotic really is a relative state.

And of course the telescope is a spectacular sight. You never really quite get used to it. I used to make sure I walked around the site quite frequently, just to make sure I availed myself of the opportunity. 

And I swam in the pool. I got blind drunk with the students. I went kayaking in the bioluminescent bay and watched boa constrictors try to catch bats swarming out of a cave. I tried to make the most of every opportunity that presented itself, not because of some foolhardy notion of carpe diem, or some hispster millennial idea of FOMO, but simply because for months at a time absolutely nothing happened.

Now those opportunities are ended. In August there was some serious damage inflicted to the dish by a snapped cable :

But this photo shows the damage in the worst possible light - other images showed that this catastrophic damage was relatively localised. And the dish, being made of lightweight aluminium panels and easily accessible, is relatively easy to repair*. What worried me more was the statement in the press that this failure actually moved the platform. This huge structure is what contains all the instruments, and at 900 tonnes any kind of accidental movement is something to be deeply concerned about. Still, the telescope wouldn't have lasted half a century and several hurricanes without some significant redundancy. So it looked like this would be a serious but survivable problem. Unless another hurricane happened to strike at the wrong moment, in a year it would be back to what passed for normal for a gigantic telescope lurking in the middle of the jungle.

*One idea floating around was to turn disused panels into coasters and sell them at the visitor centre, and I really wish this had happened so I still had a piece of the dish.

Such hopes were cruelly slashed by another cable failure. I could paint a narrative of shoddy management leading to collapse, but it wouldn't be accurate. However improbable it might be, all indications are that the telescope suffered two unexpected and unavoidable failures. Both cables seem to have had undetectable faults, with the second failing at just 60% of its design tolerance. And you just can't plan for those kinds of failures. With other cables showing signs of damage, it really is game over. Even deconstruction, the manner of which has yet to be determined, is going to be a dangerous business. Hell, even getting people to inspect the site is risky. At some point, one way or another, it's coming down.

It, has in fact, now collapsed. Any speculation about saving it by some last-minute miracle is over.

As I write this I'm in the process of backing up my 560 GB of data that I still have on my old account, which I use from time to time. Though I left in 2013, the most recent observing I did was in May of this year : we were about a week away from finishing a field when the hurricane hit. It's strange indeed that the collapsing structure potentially poses a risk to my data - the thought that the telescope will soon cease to exist is positively hard to grasp. Hearing the news was like taking a punch to the gut. It's the sort of thing you know could happen, but you never really expect to actually occur. 

I completed my data download a few days ago, honestly expecting that it would be demolished before it collapsed. Thankfully the observatory computers can still be remotely accessed, so it looks as if no-one need be concerned that their data was lost due to the collapse.

Other people seem horrified by the prospect but personally I hope they use explosives, as long as it can be done safely. Don't make me watch some long, drawn-out disassembly. Don't make me watch it being torn apart piece by piece. Such an awesome facility deserves a far better finale. Give it a good send-off and end it swiftly and in style. After all, if you're gonna fail, fail spectacularly. Failure is, perhaps, something like dancing : do it with great enthusiasm or great skill but not both. Let the end be magnificent, not pathetic; a bang, not a whimper.

I suppose my wish was granted, after a fashion. The accidental collapse doesn't appear to have injured anyone and it was mercifully quick. It still feels absolutely awful though, as it was always going to.

I should also say a few words about Arecibo's legacy, though doubtless you'll find better reports elsewhere. Arecibo's most prestigious discovery was the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar, of which observations showed were perfectly consistent with the emission of gravitational waves (later leading to a Nobel prize). Arecibo had a bright future in gravitational wave research through pulsar timing arrays, and for a brief moment it was possible it might beat the laser interferometers to the first direct detection. And it measured the rotation of Mercury for the first time, discovered the first exoplanet, and detected tens of thousands of galaxies through their hydrogen gas emission. It found a weird ring of gas in our own cosmic backyard, enormous gaseous bridges, gave insight into some of the most important problems in cosmology, and helped defend us from nearby asteroids. It was a wholly remarkable device.

What made Arecibo truly unique was its combination of capabilities. It could hunt for pulsars at low frequencies or search for spectral lines in distant galaxies at high frequencies, or zap Saturn with its superlatively powerful radar or study our own atmosphere. No other facility comes close to doing all of this at once. It was astronomy's Swiss army knife and everything it did it did well.

This raises the question of a replacement*. There are other facilities that can pick up in most of these areas, but not all. For example, there's only one other planetary radar instrument in the world and it's very much smaller than Arecibo. And while plenty of new telescopes are being constructed to survey extragalactic hydrogen, none of them will have the sensitivity of Arecibo. For some things a whopping great single dish can massively out-perform an array of smaller telescopes (I describe this more in this recent podcast, and in this earlier blog post). While FAST is slowly coming online, it'll be years before this takes over from where Arecibo left off - and just how well this will work in practise, or what the data access policies will be, remains to be seen.

* There's a petition to save it here. I've not signed it though, and I'm not going to until people can convince me it can be done safely. Look, my own fucking data comes from that telescope, so I think I'm qualified to say : yeah, it's important, but come on, it's not worth anyone's life, for heaven's sake. Clearly I was right, the attempt to do this would have been foolish in the extreme.

Could it be replaced ? Sure. Should it ? I honestly don't know. Hard questions need to be asked about whether smaller, faster, cheaper, more specialised instruments might not be better overall, or if the unique abilities of a giant single dish are sufficient compensation. The use of Arecibo for the wider benefit of Puerto Rico needs to be taken into account; science does not exist outside of society. Most of all, the NSF should not be involved with any of this in any way whatsoever, having demonstrated repeatedly that they just don't get it.

As for me, I've got enough data to keep me going for many years. The last paper I published exploited the very first observations I took, so Arecibo's legacy is not done yet - not by a long shot. By the time we've squeezed all we can from Arecibo's vast depth of accumulated data, perhaps we can dare to hope something comparable will rise again. That'd be nice. But I doubt it.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

Four All Things There Is A Season

A week is a "long time" in politics ? More like a bloody agony. It's been God-knows how long since I did a politics-as-movie-analogy post, but it's high time to resurrect this important form of super-serious socio-political commentary.

First, the mood right now is very much out of Star Wars :

Specifically it's like the very end of Return of the Jedi after the destruction of the second Death Star and the whole galaxy bursts into cheers :

Finally the citizens of the Empire can wake up knowing that they don't have to listen to endless Twitter rants about that "even bigger, so beautiful" Death Star for another four years.

Hell, if it wasn't for the pandemic, we'd all be entitled to a full-on global orgy right now. A literal, actual orgy the like of which even PornHub would disavow in disgust. For the moment  - just for the moment - we can leave any cautionary points aside : the myth of right-wing populist invincibility has been shattered.

Star Wars also works very well in terms of Trump as un even uglier version of Palpatine, using his opponent's hatred as Nzeitchean monster.  

He even looks a bit like Palpatine, but not nearly as much as the last pope.

Trouble is that none of the other characters or storyline really fit. Joe Biden as Luke, a forgotten and under-rated candidate living in the political wilderness ? Meh -  sort-of... nah, not really. There isn't really a good equivalent of Vader either, unless Mike Pence suddenly decides to turn away from the dark side*. I suppose Bernie Sanders might be Yoda and AOC could be Leia, with Nancy Pelosi as "many Bothans died" woman (and Obama as Lando Calrissian ?), but the story just doesn't fit.

* Technically there's still time for this to happen.

Though I think Bernie does also look a bit like Admiral Ackbar. 

To be honest, a few days ago I was thinking that Batman Begins would have been a better choice : not as an analogy exactly, but with the League of Shadows as the good guys.

Though if you want an analogy, I suppose you could cast Vladimir Putin as Ra's Al Ghul, and substitute "misinformation" for "economics". Trump works pretty well in the role of head mobster Flacone...

It may be terrible photoshopping, but on the upside I've somehow made him look like Prince Charles.

... but then we'd have to have Joe Biden as Batman, and that's just weird.

Some astute observer noted that Batman's actual mask is exactly the wrong way to stop the virus.

Any anyway, this is all missing the point : which is that I thought Liam Neeson might have been right. A society so corrupt as to vote for an insane fascist deserves to be burned to the ground, because it's the only way it'll learn. Just ask the nice people of Europe, where this actually fucking happened.

But now, a week later, and the League seem like the bad guys again. Order is restored ! Hooray !

No, the best analogy I've found is Gladiator. I watched in on Saturday, when things were looking good for Biden but it wasn't called yet. I wasn't ready to celebrate but I was ready to watch a movie about the fall of a horrible dictator. And it's way more topical than I thought.

The movie follows the story of a childish dictator with some serious daddy issues :

Obviously though, Fred Trump doesn't hold a candle to snuggly emperor Marcus Aurelius.

He's also a draft dodger, preferring opulence and luxury to chilly battlefields and hard work. 

He even deliberately makes an enemy of a war hero.

At least Commodus had a modicum of eloquence.

It gets better : he has disturbing incestuous tendencies.

And from the word go it's obvious to everyone that he has no political skill whatsoever. He vows to "bleed the Senate" and rid Rome of the corrupt politicians :

One of these is more articulate than the other.

On entering Rome itself he's greeted with cries of "usurper !" and "you'll never rule us Commodus !". Definitely a #NotMyEmperor moment. And he appeals firmly to idiotic populist tendencies, giving Rome an extended series of games as a distraction. "Fear and wonder... a powerful combination. He'll give them death - and they'll love him for it", says Derek Jacobi.

Eventually, after a battle that's closer than anyone expected, he gets stabbed with a big sword and democracy is restored.

It's an extremely satisfying moment, and it's interesting to reinterpret classic movies in a changing world. And it really does feel like there's been a paradigm shift. Suddenly we don't have to deal with all that bullshit any more ! I turned on the news today and was greeted by stories about a successful vaccine and a helicopter crash in which nobody died ! Amazeballs.

Except... the Trump era didn't much end like Gladiator : it was altogether stranger.

Yes, we genuinely had Trump's legal advisors protesting from a car park of the Four Seasons gardening centre. Four All Things There Is A Season... and one of those Things is to be bloody confused, and that Season is Right Now.

I just can't think of any good analogies to this one. In no standard narrative does the evil dictator's reign end in a gardening centre. The only vaguely-similar thing I can think of is that rubbish bit* at the end of The Lord of the Rings novel in which Saurman is reduced to pestering the Hobbits. Basically he goes around tearing up allotments out of spite, which is an ignominious end but an absolutely ridiculous way to end an epic story.

* You can argue all you want how important it is, but I'm firmly of the opinion that that section is just bad writing.

Rudolph Giuliani as a mad wizard ? You know it makes sense. What's really strange is that his nose is identical to Christopher Lee's.

The Serious Bit

But... what do we do next ? Trump didn't get stabbed and Republicanism hasn't gone away - far from it. Is it a time to kill or a time to heal ? Life isn't a movie or mythology.

I have to say I'm extremely conflicted about this. My first instinct is that those calling for naked injustice are people you fight, not appease. But what's the goal here : straightforward punishment and retribution, or building a society where fascism cannot flourish ? The two countervailing arguments are that those endorsing racism, fascism and entrenched inequality deserve to suffer the consequences of their actions or nothing will ever change, that opening the hand of friendship will simply embolden them; yet simultaneously, treating people like dirt is exactly the best way to make them fight back all the harder.

I'm really struggling here. On the one hand, basic justice demands that you stand up to bullies. On the other, you only make peace with your enemies, not your friends. And you simply cannot afford to have seventy million enemies - even if it feels good to have enemies.

 Please do watch this video before proceeding.

There is of course no symmetry between someone calling for the fascist suppression of minorities and someone calling for the suppression of fascists. These things are not the same. And certainly for the instigators and ringleaders I don't think there's any hope : being nice to Trump or Barr is as effective and morally stupid as appeasing any dictator. Even punishment won't help, because psychopaths simply don't work like that. Better by far to remove them from society completely. Imprison them, ignore them, whatever. I don't care. Just don't give them a platform to stand on. Shut them down utterly and completely.

But what of the followers, the armchair bigots who at most showed up to vote or maybe attend a rally ? This depends heavily on how deluded they actually are : if they were from a cult, no-one would have any hesitation in sending them for deprogramming. No-one would debate that they needed someone to reach out to them. But is this really an appropriate analogy ? A mass cultural brainwashing (which is entirely possible) is certainly an appealing explanation, but a more disturbing possibility altogether is that these people have looked at the evidence and thought, consciously or not, "nope, I'll stick with hurting the minorities, thanks." We have yet to solve this dilemma

One of the hardest aspects of the problem is that polarisation is so easily self-driving. Five years ago I wrote this little piece about the problem of uncompromising men and their ideals. Trump is, after all, a lot like Palpatine (and thoroughly deserving of similar treatment) : he thrives on hatred and creating a bias spiral, where the hatred he instills in his opponents is used to convince his followers that anyone against him is evil. That's the difficulty : hating those who support evil is by definition justified, but expressing that contempt is the very worst way to win them over. 

And yet... if you can turn a society from marauding Vikings to marauding Ikea salesmen, then perhaps Trump supporters too, in principle, can be saved. Even if they are a bunch of contemptible fuckwits.

(This post is not intended to actually persuade them, obviously. I'm in no mood to do that right now. This is only speculation of long-term strategy, nothing more. Obviously, it would be madness to expect immediate forgiveness from anyone - and I'm certainly hypocritical in that I block Trump activists on social media on sight.)

What might be going on with them ? All forms of extremism come with something positive : the problem is that they demand an incredibly high price in return. The last time the fascists were in power they offered a genuine concern for worker's rights. Nationalism, and other cults, do have some sort of (at least superficially) positive benefits for their supporters, but at the expense of everyone else. Trump supporters, presumably, at least think Trump is acting to their benefit, even if his real goal is nothing more than sheer megalomaniac powermongering. 

So if Trumpists follow the pattern, it follows that they too are in some way suffering, and those concerns should be addressed. Maybe it's poverty, maybe it's privilege - both are problematic, but need to be addressed in quite different ways. The overly-privileged need a slap in the face, the poor need more traditional forms of help. Whether economic or informatic, whatever sickness has infected these people, whatever's driving them to ally with such a figure of pure hate, needs to be expunged. If not, all that work in overthrowing a tyrant will have been for nothing. True they've done, or at least endorsed, despicable things, but if you go on hating them forever - if you refuse to figure out the structural problems that have led them down this path, all you'll have is more hate. With seventy million of the buggers, you can't fight them all. You have to reintegrate most of them.

You don't have to tolerate the intolerant. But you do have to distinguish the people from ideas, to recognise that most people are at least as much products of the system as they are the result of their own choices : there but for the grace of God... Given the right circumstances, ordinary people can turn villainous remarkably quickly, but so too can hatred be overcome

Ultimately, forgiving your friends is easy and generally unnecessary. Forgiving your enemies, acknowledging the harm done and accepting it, is far more challenging. So what's more important : to keep hating them, or stop them from being hateful ?

Two positive notes to end on. First, some regimes do fall peacefully and adherents and revolutionaries can peacefully co-exist afterwards. Forgiveness, sometimes, can be a powerful weapon. Second, Trumpism itself isn't an ideology, it's a movement for the glorification of one sad, pathetic little man, feeding parasitically off existing far-right ideologies. Without him driving it, as his loans are called in and he faces a barrage of lawsuits without Presidential protection, it's lost its driving force - Trump is not just a consequence but also a direct cause of the far right bullshit that characterises modern politics.

But alas, clearly not the only or even the main cause. And figuring out how to deal with that is far more challenging. I don't know what the answer will be, whether to punish or assist, but I strongly suspect it's some combination of both. Don't forgive Palpatine - but don't assume every minor technician who worked on the Death Star is equally guilty either.

Saturday 24 October 2020

Sci-fi Versus Fantasy

I was walking around the other day, an unusual activity in these troubled times, when for no particular reason a half-read Quora answer popped into my head. It was something about whether Game of Thrones is high fantasy or not. The answer mentioned that the amount of magic has nothing to do with it, which I thought was a bit odd and I hadn't bothered to read any further.

Call me crazy, but I'd say the presence of magical dragons is a dead giveaway. J. K. Rowling disagrees.

What struck me was that it might be exactly wrong. If we invert this, we might get a useful definition of what science fiction and fantasy is all at the same time. And surely we ought to be able to do better than Arthur C. Clarke's (or was it Asimov ?) "I know it when I see it". Because, given the current crises, it's very important indeed to think about things which are of no importance whatsoever. Otherwise we'll all go Stark (see what I did there ?) raving mad.

Here's my suggestion. Both sci-fi and fantasy are speculative fiction, where something about reality is fundamentally different to our own. If it's a plausible difference then it's science fiction. If it's not, then it's fantasy.

Perhaps "plausibility" is too limiting though. I'd say that things based on essentially sound scientific principles, albeit often with exaggeration, or exploring concepts which are scientific in nature, are generally sci-fi, not fantasy. This even extends to postulating deliberately fictional science : what if the Planck number was much bigger, what if gravity could be controlled, what if we could warp space with unobtainium, etc. It doesn't necessarily mean that the science has to be accurate (although that always helps), just that the modification has to be about science.

Fantasy is when the modification is about something actually incompatible with science. A story about the Sun going nova is definitely science fiction even though we know that's impossible, because it's still about science, but a story in which the Sun is actually a fire pushed across the sky by a surprisingly fire-retardant scarab beetle is fantasy. Science fiction generally requires altering the laws of physics, fantasy requires we do away with them. That's what I mean by "plausible".

One of these is not 100% accurate based on our current knowledge. The other is absolutely 100% impossible.

Judging whether something is hard sci-fi or space opera, high fantasy or escapism, is easier. It's not exactly "how much magic there is", but neither does it have anything to do with anything as mundane as the location of the events (as is the usual definition of "high fantasy"). Instead, I suggest it's about how important the speculative aspect is to the story. Could just be one crucial difference, could be lots of little things - importance neatly subsumes all that ugly mess into one nice happy parameter.

So : if a story is fundamentally driven even by a single but absolutely essential difference to reality, then it's deep in the genre of speculative fiction. If it's of only a minor element, and actually most of the story is about character interaction (whether on a spaceship or in pseudo-medieval Europe), then it isn't. This, I think, is much more consistent than the usual definition that "high fantasy is not set on Earth". And everyone loves consistency, apart from Michael Bay fans and Trump supporters, of course.

Lets explore this with a handy four-way chart :

Now obviously there are grey areas and lots of subjectivity here. After all, most sci-fi doesn't try to get everything right, and most fantasy contains at least a few aspects of reality : very few novels feature humans which are two hundred feet tall and made of socks, for example.

It's usually easy to see if the modification was about a scientific concept or not. Deciding how crucial that is to the story is much more difficult. In principle, for instance, one could have the story of St. George and the Big Crocodile*, but this would hardly have the same mythological overtones. The change would matter, but in a way that's very hard to define. Even in really deep stuff, one can always argue that it's really about characters and their interactions, that some more plausible substitute could be devised to tell the same tale**. So yes, there's a good deal of subjectivity here, but you can't replace everything. Sometimes the speculative element is absolutely crucial.

* Or St George and the Surprisingly Small Lizard in the case of the Czech Republic.
** A friend of mine was once asked to say what "Aliens" was about. She said "motherhood".

It's probably time to go through the different quadrants of the chart.

Proper sci-fi

From back in my CGI hobbyist days of my long-lost youth.

This is when the speculative element is definitely scientific, basically plausible (in the sense discussed earlier), and dominates the plot line. Only very realistic works in which the science is absolutely integral to the plot deserve the label of hard sci-fi though : basically anything by Clarke, Baxter and Asimov (among many others). 

Hard sci-fi is a wonderful mechanism for exploring how humanity would change if given access to radically different technologies and/or knowledge. The science may matter more than individual characters, but this doesn't prohibit such works from examining entire societies. For example The Time Machine, : never mind the time travel, the story is driven by the principles of evolution creating two human species, along with a stonkingly good social commentary.

In contrast the bulk of more popular sci-fi doesn't have such-far reaching epic consequences. Stargate has a thoroughly sci-fi device but keeps it secret, so that the consequences for humanity are never really exploited; the first Jurassic Park movie similarly places heavy restrictions on the impact of genetic engineering (though the book has somewhat broader, if subtler, comments). The science does matter in these stories : Jurassic Park is fundamentally about genetic engineering, not sexism in survival situations. But individual characters play a much greater role than in the hardcore stuff. The full implications of the speculative science are not fully played out, and its importance to the story diminished. You could change the xenomorph to a completely different monster without many serious changes to the story at all, although if you did that I would have to hurt you.

Weak sci-fi

Eraser has a cool gun, but other than that it's basically just another action flick.

A.k.a "space opera", though not all sci-fi is set in space. Soft sci-fi is probably a much better term, but too late did I realise this to alter anything.

The lower right section is especially sparsely populated : it's pretty rare, but it is possible to have realistic sci-fi elements in a story that don't actually contribute much. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica is a good example of this. Sure, it has sci-fi elements, some of which are crucial (especially later on), but the majority of it is contemporary American politics that's been shot back in time and into outer space. It's not that the science doesn't matter at all, just that it doesn't matter anywhere near as much as the characters, politics, presence of hot people, etc. depending on the story.

Some other media also features the occasional sci-fi element that can be vaguely plausible (i.e. not violating the laws of physics, but often breaking the laws of economics or psychology or just plain common sense) but is not really important to the story as a whole. Bond movies are generally action-driven, not science-driven, but they do feature occasional improbable but technically possible devices (space lasers, for example); Arnie movies and other action films tend to be similar.

High fantasy

The world of The NeverEnding Story works in a fundamentally different way to reality, even if the human psychology element doesn't.

Tolkien's world is undoubtedly the highest of high fantasy, especially the Silmarillion. The world fundamentally runs on magic - the plot could not be told without it, and the breaking of physical laws is used deliberately to that effect. The only thing that could exceed it is true mythology.

As with hard sci-fi, this label applies really only to the extremes. Other fantasy uses far more mundane settings with much more limited impacts of magical thinking : most of the characters in Dracula, for instance, are entirely non-magical. The story couldn't really be told without its supernatural elements, but they're far less important than in Middle Earth. Star Wars is undoubtedly a fairy tale in space - not quite as outright impossible as Middle Earth, but still heavily reliant on magic. Heck, it's full of space wizards with magic swords, for heaven's sake.

Dune is more difficult to place. Large aspects are plausible but speculative, but other key factors are entirely magical. And those factors are absolutely essential to the story : Paul's prophetic abilities may be intended as a metaphor, but they could not be easily replaced. 

Further down the quadrant we get Marvel. These are fantastically implausible. The speculative element is important in some ways, but the main feature is lots of hot people dealing out vast amounts of property damage with hilarious witticisms, none of which makes a lick of sense but is enormously entertaining.

Escapist fluff

Sometimes you need to stop caring. The Asylum movies are brilliant examples of this, being (deliberately) hilariously stupid. Few others go to such extremes, at least not on purpose, and if any section of the chart is biased towards bad content (or at least away from serious content) it's this one. When you don't care about plausibility or importance, you're less likely to care about anything else.

Of course, good and bad content can be found all over the chart. A hard sci-fi that's badly explained (e.g. The Expanse) is no use to anyone. A high fantasy that's based on defeating the Dark Lord by shoving an enchanted hamster up his backside would be unlikely to ever be taken seriously. But equally, just because something is intended as pure entertainment doesn't mean it isn't worth watching.


So, in much less time than usual, that's it. We haven't learned a damn thing of any use, except that now there's something to rant about that will irritate lots of people that doesn't involve talking about politics. And surely that alone makes it all worthwhile.

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Puppy Plague Prevents Pandemic Pessimism

Remember how this blog used to be full of wacky adventures and not long cynical rants ? Well today I've got the least cynical thing ever : a PUPPY !

This is Gilly, a.k.a. Gigi, a.k.a. GillyGiGi, a.k.a. Gilly GiGi Gizelle, a.k.a. Gouger, for reasons which will become clear later on.

We already have one papillion, Lulu (a.k.a. Cthulhu), and some time ago we decided we wanted another. We made a preliminary visit to the breeder a month or so ago just to visit the horde of dogs, which was exactly as much furry chaos as you'd expect in a tiny two-room apartment filled with (I believe) a total of no less than eleven crazy little butterfly dogs. The breeder is a woman absolutely devoted to her dogs, which is probably why she produces such excellent little nutcases.

Little Lulu was not terribly happy about returning to the nest, but then, being mobbed by a bunch of tiny lunatics would be a distressing experience for anyone. Eventually she settled on keeping as far away as possible from the rest of them and occasionally venturing to inspect the puppies when the adults were out of range.

"But... I am the only papillon in the village !"

Not that the other papillons were at all keen to give her any personal space. Lulu's travel bag was particularly popular.

Lulu's dad Jeremy is an especially magnificently fluffy beastie.

The nightmare over, we returned some weeks later to retrieve her half-sister Gigi (we couldn't decide on a name, but the dog responds better to Gilly, so we're mostly going with that). It's always hard when a puppy leaves home, but she soon settled into her travel rucksack and slept pretty much the whole way back.

(Incidentally, we've made three trips during the pandemic - once to Germany when case numbers were near their lowest, and twice to Brno for puppy inspection/acquisition. Of those two trips one was by car and the second by train. Covid restrictions are limited to wearing masks, but there being only two or three other people in the compartment, this doesn't present a risk nearly as high as being in the crowds in Brno itself. But if I say any more on that I'll become cynical, which I've banned for the duration of this post.)

There being no real prospect of travelling outside the Czech Republic for the foreseeable future, we took two weeks of holiday for a staycation. During that time, we did exactly nothing except binge watch TV and play with the puppy. And there are far worse ways to spend a holiday. I think I'd probably do extremely well on a long-duration space mission : only give me my creature comforts (pun intended) and I'm happy indefinitely. The hard part would be persuading me to go in the first place, not dealing with the stresses of travel so long as there was sufficient Netflix and tiny doggies.

Anyway, it's already hard to believe just how small she was on that first day :

It took about a week for her to learn to hold both her ears up. Now she looks a lot like a bunny, especially when she goes hyperactive and charges around the garden at full speed.

Gilli treats other dogs with sensible caution, not running away from them but not getting too close either. Which is exactly what you want when they're a full thirty times heavier than you in some cases.

Getting Gilly used to Lu is easy. Getting Lu to accept Gilly was a longer processes but not all that bad in the end. Lulu is very particular about other dogs and especially doesn't like other dogs touching her, although she's generally more tolerant of tiny puppies. Still this meant a few massive over-reactions with Lu going into full-on explosive mode when Gilly got too close, but in a week this was over. In a week and a half they were playing and cuddling together. Lu has learned she just has to stare menacingly at Gilly when she wants her to back off, or maybe give a warning growl, and not turn into a fluffy hand grenade of death and destruction. We did this with a combination of shouting at Lu for misbehaviour and bribing her to come close to the puppy with treats and enormously exaggerated praise. And it worked perfectly.

But alas ! Poor Lulu is a victim of this success. One evening during puppy wrestling Lulu gave a rare yap, then carried on as normal until they both collapsed from exhaustion. The next day her eye was swollen and she looked like a pirate, but it seemed to be improving. The day after it got worse again so we took her to the vet, expecting she'd need eye drops...

... only to discover she needed eye surgery to save the damaged eye ! Fortunately they were able to do that the same day and it took less than two hours. She's now doing well, getting a bit more active each day, and is expected to fully recover with both eyes completely back to normal in a couple of weeks. She's starting to want to play again, though this is very difficult on account of the lampshade, and able to tolerate "Gouger" running underneath her (still being a tiny bunny, even if she is a bit bigger now). So all is well, and once again working from home has proven a godsend. The fluffy adventures shall continue.