Of flights to Mars and Irish folklore

This week, we’re at the last of the Seanchai Library SL gatherings for 2013 – and the first for 2014! So why not warm-up for New Year’s celebrations by dropping-in to the library on Monday December 30th, or have your day-after-the-night-before headaches soothed away with a tale or two on Thursday January 2nd?

As always, the programmes at Seanchai Library this week commence at 19:00 SLT, and will be held on the Seanchai Library’s home on Imagination Island.

Monday, December 30th, 19:00: A Martian Odyssey

Challenged to provide a story about each of the planets in the solar system, Gyro has come-up with a classic tale from the 1930s centred on my favourite world beyond ours – Mars.

Written by Stanley G. Weinbaum and first appearing in wonder Stories in 1934, A Martian Odyssey takes place in the early years of the 21st century, just (according to the story) a decade after the first lunar landing, and some 20 years after the invention of nuclear power.

In it, a four-man crew arrive on Mars in the first human mission to that planet. Not long after their arrival, one of the crew – Jarvis – sets off on a solo mission aboard an auxiliary rocket craft, only to experience a malfunction which forces him to crash-land many hundreds of miles from base. Rather than await rescue, Jarvis decides to walk back to the mothership.

Not long after he sets out on his journey, Jarvis comes to the aid of a birdlike creature, which decides to travel with him. While he can understand nothing of the creature’s language, Tweel – as the creature calls itself – manages to learn some English, allowing them to communicate. Thus is the start of a unique friendship as the two companions travel together, encountering other strange and exotic Martian lifeforms as they slowly make their way back Jarvis’ mothership, Ares.

A Martian Odyssey is in fact the first part of a 2-part story involving Jarvis, his crewmates and Tweel. With the follow-up Valley of Dreams picking-up the story a short while after Jarvis has rejoined his fellow humans aboard Ares.Both tales are interesting for some of the concepts they introduce, which resonate somewhat with later thinking and controversies concerning Mars as the emerging space programme meant humans could explore the Red Planet for real.

Pyramids feature in the stories, for example, and pyramids became the subject of much debate and conspiracy theories in the 1970s following the Mariner 9 and Viking missions. Also in A Martian Odyssey, Jarvis and Tweel encounter a creature which is possibly silicone-based – and even in the late 1960s, NASA hadn’t ruled out the possibility that Mars, despite its tenuous, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, might still harbour hardly lifeforms predominantly based on – silicone.

In the follow-up Valley of Dreams – Weinbaum even managed to wrap some Earth-based mythology into the tale, beating the likes of von Däniken to the idea of gods being ancient astronauts by a good few decades – and providing the idea in a much more enjoyable way!

A Martian Odyssey is perhaps the first modern science-fiction story to present a sympathetic but non-human alien as a protagonist, and is regarded by many as one of only three stories ever written that changed the way all subsequent ones in the science fiction genre were written.

While Weinbaum’s life was cut tragically short, preventing him from truly reaching the heights of recognition enjoyed by his peers such as Lester del Ray, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury or Arthur C. Clarke, his work is nevertheless as important, and in many respects as epic, as many of the works by those peers. His Planetary series, for example, weaves a series of consistent tales about the solar system as it was understood by in the 1930s, presenting a series of individual stories which are interlinked and consistent with one another to offer a cohesive whole.

Thursday January 2nd, 19:00: The Early Adventures of Finn McCool

Finn McCool  – Fionn mac Cumhaill – is a mythical hunter / warrior who appears in folklore spanning Ireland, the Isle of Man and parts of Scotland, as well as sharing some links with Welsh mythology.

finn McCoolAlso known as the “Green Hero”, Finn McCool draws his name “Finn” or “Fionn”, meaning “blond”, “fair”, “white”, or “bright”, from the fact that his hair turned prematurely white. According to legend, he was born of Cumhall – leader of the Fianna (small, semi-independent warrior bands found in both Irish and Scottish mythology) and Muirne, daughter of the druid Tadg mac Nuadat.

Raised in secret, Fionn, who was originally called Deimne, became a skilled hunter and warrior, serving several local kings, albeit incognito, due to the events surrounding his mother and father – and the latter’s death.

Gaining wisdom as a result of burning his thumb while cooking a very special meal in a story with strong resonances of Welsh mythology, Fionn sets out on a life of adventure, love and legend, which ends perhaps not with his death, but in the fact that he lies sleeping with the rest of the Fianna under the hills of Ireland.

In this story, read by Seanchai Shandon Loring and written by Bernard Evslin, are woven the deeds and adventures of a young Fionn in the times before he became a great Irish folk hero.

Special Note

There are no planned readings at the Seanchai Library SL on either Tuesday December 31st or Wednesday January 1st, 2014. However, there might be a short-notice event taking place on the latter – so keep an eye on the Seanchai Library blog for updates!

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Please check with the Seanchai Library SL’s blog for updates and for additions or changes to the week’s schedule. The featured charity for November and December is Reading is Fundamental.

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Celebrating the metaverse: AvaCon greet 2014 with a new website and more

Acon-logoAvaCon, former organisers of the now defunct Second Life Community Convention, and co-organisers of the OpenSimulator Community Conference, have launched their completely revamped website ahead of what looks like being a very busy year for the team.

The new website is a crisp, clean, easy-to-navigate blog-style environment (the engine driving the site is WordPress.org with a professional theme courtesy of Kriesi Art). This is perhaps a long-overdue overhaul to AvaCon’s web presence, and it certainly gives a whole new look and feel – and vibrancy – to the site.

Part of the revamped AvaCon website
Part of the revamped AvaCon website

OSCC

In 2013, AvaCon co-organised and hosted the first Annual OpenSimulator Community Conference, (OSCC) which I previewed in these pages (and was booked-in to attend before RL got in the way). The event itself was a great success for both AvaCon and the Overte Foundation, and they’re now planning the 2014 event.

Those wishing to help with the 2014 conference are invited to e-mail AvaCon to volunteer their services. In the meantime, videos from the 2013 conference are available on YouTube for those wishing to catch-up on events, and AvaCon have provided a link to a fascinating visualisation video by Nebadon25 showing the OpenSimulator code commits by core developers, charting the growth of the project.

Metaverse Cultural Series

In 2013, AvaCon also launched the Metaverse Cultural Series, a set of events which featured performances and lectures highlighting unique aspects of metaverse culture, and which took place in multiple virtual world spaces. The inaugural series showcased innovative artists, thinkers, performers, and academics whose work is on the forefront of exploring what it means to work, play, and live in the emerging metaverse.

In 2014, AvaCon plan to expand the series, and will be issuing a call-for-proposals in January, 2014. Successful presenters and venue hosts will receive a $50 USD honorarium for accepted presentations, and I’ll be endeavouring to bring news on things once the call goes out publicly.

All-in-all, 2014 looks to be an exciting year for AvaCon, and I’d like to extend my congratulations to the team on their successes in 2013 and my best wishes for 2014.

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I’m in Prim Perfect!

Sorry, but I’m a-tooting my little horn here.

Back in June, Saffia Widdershins tackled me to the ground and persuaded me to attempt an interview with Rod Humble.

While I dithered a bit with the result that the interview didn’t entirely go as planned (although it did eventually appear in issue #49, the delay no fault of Saffia’s or mine), Saffia was nevertheless undeterred by my fiddle-farting, and asked me if I’d consider helping-out with the Christmas issue of the magazine, and provide a piece about Calas Galadhon, selected as Prim Perfect’s Region of the month. Given she did ask so nicely, and the subject-matter of the article is so close to my heart, how could I refuse? 🙂

Prim Perfect #50 - December 2013
Prim Perfect #50 – December 2013

Issue #50 of Prim Perfect is now out, so if you’re so minded, you can read my thoughts on Calas for yourself there. More to the point, you can find out lots more as well, particularly if you’re in a post-Christmas / pre-New Year mood for Doing Things. So why not grab a copy on-line or from an in-world vendor and:

  • Join Honour McMillan in discovering 11 amazing regions to visit
  • Read about Eliza Wierwight’s moving campaign to help 35 elephants
  • Immerse yourself in the wonderful world of Jenne Dibou (just like Honour has!)
  • Catch-up with Designing World’s year
  • and more!

Or, if you prefer, and as a special treat for the cold winter nights, grab a mug of hot chocolate and huddle down somewhere cosy to read a series of special seasonal stories penned by some of SL’s top writers.

All-in-all a great read!

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The Drax Files 15: This otter be good – it’s Scottius Polke!

The latest episode of The Drax Files turns to the prolific and ingenious Scottius Polke, aka artist Scott Rolfe.

Tall and blond in real life, Scott presents himself as a two-foot-tall gregarious, sunglass wearing, fedora-hatted otter in Second Life, where he is known – as in real life – for producing incredible works of art.

Joining SL in early 2008, he was also quick to release the potential of the platform not only as a means of artistic expression, collaboration and social engagement, but also as a means of counterpointing elements of his own real life personality and giving creative freedom to aspects of himself which might otherwise not always be so obvious to those meeting him.

A man and his inner otter: Scott Rofle (courtesy of sofle.com) and Scottius Polke (courtesy of Cat Broccacio)
A man and his inner otter: Scott Rofle (courtesy of srofle.com) and Scottius Polke (courtesy of Cat Boccaccio)

“I am a Tiny otter,” he says of his SL persona. “Well, otters have kind of carefree spirit, they enjoy fun and I was hoping it would balance-off some of my more rigid personality; I’m more introverted in person and the otter is bombastic and out of control!”

He also notes that while a digital creation, Scottius nevertheless has an energy of his own, one which Scott likes to associate with, and which appears to feed into and connect with his more conscious creativity, allowing his real and virtual lives to complement one another, adding depth to his work in both.

The fisherman's hut from The Docks, referred to in episode 15 of the Drax Files (image courtesy of Dividni Shostakovich )
The fisherman’s hut from The Docks, referred to in episode 15 of the Drax Files (image courtesy of Dividni Shostakovich)

He’s also a first-rate ambassador, as the film reveals, quick to engage others on the subject of Second Life, demonstrate it, and draw them into the world which has captivated him and show them that it is a place of enormous potential  – and fun. In this, he’s very quick to turn the widespread perception many people have about Second Life being a place for those “without a life” completely on its head.

“It seems that … there is very much a detachment from everyone else in the public sphere,” he says in reference to real life while discussing things for the episode, “[In] coffee shops here, you don’t go and suddenly there’s a big gathering of people. No. You go to your table and you might be with one other person, or with your laptop, and it’s almost completely quiet. Second Life is the opposite of the perceptions that a lot of the public hold. It’s not a place where lonely people ignore each other; it’s a place where minds connect!”

Real life can be isolating in other ways as well, and often and not Second Life really can counter it and open the doors to many rich and diverse means of genuine and positive interaction, as Scott again points out during the pre-production conversation.

“There are issues [as an artist] of putting your work out there and not getting any feedback or knowing what people are thinking about it,” he says of real life. “And you know, we don’t live in a vacuum. and an essential part of art is sharing it with other people; and for the longest time, all it seemed I was doing was storing my art in my house and in my closet, and that’s killing the purpose of art.”

With Second Life, the interaction and feedback is there and it is immediate, from peers and friends alike, and it fuels the creative and collaborative processes, something with Scott likens it directly to the vibrant and positive atmosphere he was immersed in when studying art in college which served to further fuel his creative desires; something that he admits he’d never really felt in the time between leaving college and discovering SL.

Carival Discarida funhouse, recreated in SL for the collaborative LEA installation "Rafts"
Carnival Discardia fun house, recreated in SL for the collaborative LEA installation “Rafts

This is another fascinating insight into the way in which Second Life have captivated someone and enabled them to find further means of expression and creativity and release. Scott’s experiences and his sheer enthusiasm for the platform offer another visual and positive means of presenting Second Life to those who have not experienced it for themselves.  The breadth and depth of topics covered here once again raise the bar in terms of the reach of this series. This is not an episode to miss.

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I regret, no conversation with Drax this time; real life and family matters didn’t offer sufficient time.

Of the Sun, Moon and songs of love in SL

SM-7I was led to Myhns Mayo’s Myhn’s Land by Ziki Questi, who blogged about Nexuno Thespian’s Sun to Moon:  Transmigration Between Day and Night, currently on display high over the region, back in November. However, real life around here has been such that it took me until mid-December to actually go see it for myself, and I’ve been unable to find the time to blog until now.

The inspiration for the piece, according to Nexuno, is Sun and Moon, a song from Miss Saigon, although he also reveals he has long been fascinated by folktales of the Sun and Moon and star-crossed lovers, and this has played a part in the installation.

The piece comprises three interconnected areas, the first being the arrival point. This provides the visitor with information on both the work and the artist, together with some gifts. Also to be found here are several interactive spots for dancing and posing. The dances, perhaps best suited to groups, seem to reflect the various cultural influences on Nexuno’s interest in the subject of the Sun and Moon in folklore and mythology.

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Sun to Moon: Transmigration Between Day and Night

A large three-dimensional mural  represents the two central figures of Miss Saigon, where she is literally the Moon and he the Sun. The song Sun and Moon plays around and over the piece (so make sure you have sounds enabled), and a series of stars on the floor offer visitors a range of poses they can adopt around the piece to complement it.

Follow the lightning from the arrival area, and you reach the heat of the Sun; a world tinted in red and orange and yellow; where the heads of great birdlike creatures look down upon you, and fiery figures dance and perform acrobatics like wisps of flame caught in the wind while interactive pieces float by, enticing you to touch them and ride them. A path leads through the various scenes, rising gently toward the Sun itself.

SM-3_001
Sun to Moon: Transmigration Between Day and Night

At the heart of the Sun lies a passageway which takes you to the third element on the piece: the world of the Moon.

Here everything is cooler, with blue being the predominant colour, although infused with red. Figures and trees seen in the world of the Sun are found here as well, as are other figures, suggesting a continuity of being and connection between the two sections – just as the characters from the musical are as much connected by all that surrounds them in their world as they are by their love. Figures glide through the landscape and birds circle overhead, while at the far end of the piece is a crescent Moon, complete with ruby lips, symbolising Kim.

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Sun to Moon: Transmigration Between Day and Night

The is a strongly symbolic build; while the central theme may well be drawn from Miss Saigon, many of the elements within it clearly have their roots in other folktales and mythologies. As such, this is an installation worth exploring carefully; not all may become apparent at first look.

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Of updates and wheel bashing

CuriosityNASA’s Curiosity rover Has completed a significant software upgrade, marking the third time the rover’s flight software has been updated since arriving on Mars in August 2012. The update was originally scheduled to take place over the course of a week in early November. However, during the course of the software upload, Curiosity unexpectedly committed a (non-threatening) software reboot (technically referred to as a “warm reset”), which eventually saw the software reverted to its original state.

Analysis of data received as a result of the reset revealed a catalogue file for the existing onboard software was triggered as a result of the newly uploaded flight software. As a result of this analysis the rover team were able to determine the steps required to ensure the correct software execution took place before allowing the rover to resume normal operations using the existing flight software (version 10).

A second attempt was then made up upload and execute the new flight software (version 11) over the course of a week earlier in December,   which saw the rover transition to the new software without incident.

The new software further expands the rover’s ability to deploy and use its robot arm and the turret-mounted science instruments and tools while the vehicle is operating on sloping surfaces – a vital requirement once Curiosity starts exploring the lower slopes of “Mount Sharp”. The software also further enhances the rover’s ability to safely store and retrieve navigational data, increasing its autonomous driving abilities even further.

Over the last several weeks, Curiosity has been driving over exceptionally rugged terrain while en route to a point where it can traverse a series of sand dunes lying between it and “Mount Sharp” and start its explorations there. As a result of this, concerns have been raised that the rover’s six aluminium wheels are perhaps suffering an accelerated wear.

While the wheels can sustain a significant amount of damage without impairing the rover’s driving abilities, the mission team have decided to locate and drive the rover to a relative smooth area of Gale Crater where the robot are can be deployed to use the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to inspect each wheel for holes and other signs of damage.

“We want to take a full inventory of the condition of the wheels,” said Jim Erickson, project manager for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory Project. “Dents and holes were anticipated, but the amount of wear appears to have accelerated in the past month or so. We would like to understand the impact that this terrain type has on the wheels, to help with planning future drives.”

Depending upon the outcome of these checks, it may be that mission planners will opt to review the rover’s course to “Mount Sharp” and destinations along the way in order to try to reduce the amount of time spent traversing such rough terrain.

Curiosity’s left front wheel shows signs of accelerated wear as a result of travelling across terrain that is rough even by Martian standards. As a result of this, mission managers plan to have all six wheels checked-out for wear and tear in the near future. This image was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) mounted on the rover’s robot arm turret on Sol 469 (November 30th, 2013). Note, also, the heavy coating of dust and dirt on the wheel’s drive arm. At the time this image was captured, Curiosity had driven 4.47 kilometres (2.78 miles).

Almost Four Miles

On December 8th, 2013 – Sol 477 of the mission, Curiosity clocked-up  a distance of 4.61 kilometres  (3.86 miles), and the rover paused to take a series of images of its location using the mast-mounted monochrome Navcams, which were then put together to form a cylindrical mosaic (below).

Click to enlarge

In the image, north is at either end of the mosaic, and south in the centre . The black squares are areas outside of the visual range of individual images used to create the mosaic. The images were individually captured by the left and right Navcam systems, and the two sets of images combined to offer a stereo view of Curiosity’s surroundings which can be seen using red-blue glasses with the red lens on the left (below).

Click to enlarge

In my last MSL report, I referenced the research into the age of the rocks in Gale Crater and the effects of weathering and erosion. Understanding of both helps scientists learn about the processes at work close to the surface of Mars, infer whether features were predominantly formed by action of wind or water (or a combination of both, and where one took over from the other), and understand relative levels (in ages) different rock has been exposed to cosmic radiation. Further images used in that research have since been released.

Click to enlarge

The image above show a mosaic put together using pictures captured by Curiosity’s Mastcam system on Sol 188 (February 14th, 2013), while the rover was operating in the “Yellowknife Bay” area. Looking west-northwest, the scene shows the various levels of rock which have been exposed in a process known as wind-driven scarp retreat, which can be described as the sideways erosion of a vertical face.

In the lower left corner is the “Sheepbed” mudstone deposit, which contains the “Cumberland” rock formation from which Curiosity gathered drilling samples. Gas analysis of the samples (some of which were saved by the rover and further analysed during the long road trip towards “Mount Sharp”) suggest the rock has only been exposed for about 80 million years – which is a lot more recent an exposure than previous estimates of the overall exposure of the Martian surface to the rigours of cosmic and solar radiation had suggested.

The evidence for wind erosion being the primary cause of exposure is strongly suggested to the right of the image, where erosion of the mudstone is clearly undercutting the “Gillespie Lake” sandstone layers.  These layers were about 15.4 metres (50 feet) from the rover. The mid-image “Point Lake” layers are some 36 metres (118 feet) from the rover, while the rocky outcrop marked by the white “X” is around 240 metres (780 feet) away, and on an elevation about 13 metres (43 feet) higher than “Sheepbed” and “Gillespie”.

A key aspect of understanding how and when such exposure of previously hidden rock layers occurred is that it gives the rover team better insight for selecting future targets for drilling to investigate whether organic chemicals have been preserved in rocks.

This set of drawings depicts cross sections of the “Yellowknife Bay” area of Mars’ Gale Crater at three points in time going back more than 80 million years (>80 Ma). Analysis of samples indicate the “Cumberland” rock target has been exposed at the surface for about 80 million years. Longer ago than that, the drill site was covered with about 10 feet (3 meters) of rock, as depicted in the top panel. At about 80 million years (middle panel), “Cumberland” was exposed as the scarp retreated due to abrasion by windblown sand. The sideways erosion, or retreat, occurred at an average rate of about one metre (3 feet) per million years (click to enlarge)

Related Links

  • MSL reports in this blog

All images courtesy NASA / JPL

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